Scent Of An Alien
Norton Drake paused as he reached for the permanently brewing coffee jug before sharply turning back towards his computer, which had suddenly burst into song. With a sinking feeling the handsome computer expert realised that the aliens had surfaced. The coffee - now a long-forgotten luxury - stood bubbling behind him as he pulled in the co-ordinates with one hand and reached over to alert the other members of the Blackwood team with the other.
It had been many months since the aliens had last made their presence known and Harrison Blackwood, the team leader, had begun to fear that they might have found a method of hiding from his small but highly-motivated team.
"What have you got?" Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse asked as the elevator doors opened, and both he and Harrison stormed into the underground laboratory.
"Alien signal coming in loud and clear." Norton paused, letting his fingers run over the keyboard with the skill of a blind piano player.
"Where?" Blackwood asked, leaning over his wheelchair-bound friend, giving a swift smile at Norton's frown of annoyance.
Norton pulled a face before turning back to his computer. "Just outside Gresham, Oregon."
"Oregon?" Ironhorse repeated, a frown marring his handsome face. "What the hell are they up to in Oregon?"
Blackwood spared Ironhorse a quick glance before asking, "Where's Suzanne?" He followed his question by turning to make sure that the beautiful microbiologist was not lurking over her microscope.
"She went into town with Debi," Ironhorse supplied. "Something to do with Debi's first date."
"Debi's got a date?" Norton asked, turning in his chair, a bright smile filtering across his face, all thought of the aliens forgotten.
"It's a junior prom at her school," Ironhorse replied, his face indicating just what he thought of that idea. "A boy asked her to go." The others continued to watch him until he finally admitted, "I've already vetted him and his family. I've also sent Stavrakos and Coleman with her," Ironhorse stated firmly, his face grim.
"You have no soul, Colonel," Blackwood added with a slight smile.
"It wasn't a requirement for getting into the army, gentlemen," Ironhorse shot back, the gleam in his eyes belying the upward tilt of his lips. "Now, do you think we could get back to business?"
"I'm checking for any local news that might tie in with our alien friends." Norton was again playing with the keyboard. "Give me a few moments, and if you're pouring coffee, Harrison, you know I like mine strong and black."
Blackwood took the request in good stead and willingly walked to the coffee machine to pour Norton his coffee. "Does anyone know what the weather's like in Gresham, Oregon, this time of year?"
Ironhorse didn't hide his sigh of frustration as he took in the frowning features of the project leader; it was amazing how the man could leap from deep depression at the thought of no alien contact to instant professor-type mindlessness once the contact had been established again. "It's only about fourteen hundred miles, Harrison."
"Better take a coat anyway," Blackwood said, his mind already on the trip up there.
"Norton?" Ironhorse asked, turning from the other man, the urge to hit him growing by the second. He might be a genius where the aliens were concerned, but he still had a lot to learn about humans... especially a certain Indian Lt. Col.
"Nothing yet... " reported Norton, "but that might only mean that whatever they were doing hasn't been reported yet."
Ironhorse moved over to a phone. After dialling a number, he spoke quietly for a few moments before replacing the handset. Seeing the look Harrison threw his way, he explained, "Coleman went with Suzanne and Debi; I've just asked Derriman to contact her. I'll arrange transport with Fort Streeter." Glancing at his watch, he continued, "We should be in the area by fifteen hundred hours."
"Bingo," Norton yelped as the computer burst into life and the screen in front of him began to fill with data. He spent a few moments digesting the information as it flashed before him, then swallowing hard he began to recite, "Two dead... small convenience store... owner and his wife..." He paused as he read more of the police report. "Looks like a classic alien attack: a good deal of mutilation, both found in the shop. Police are estimating late last night, but I would say from the alien activity that it was early this morning."
"Is there anything on the computer about the victims... why the aliens would be interested in them?" Harrison asked, returning to lean over Norton's shoulder.
"Not much. Harry and Jenny Simms; they ran a typical family store - open early, close real late." He paused, then added, "They've got a son, Charlie Simms - seventeen years old, goes to Baird College."
"Baird, New Hampshire?"
"Yeah, he must be pretty smart," Norton added.
"He's going to need to be. Now he's an orphan," Blackwood said slowly, the bitterness in his voice, causing the other two men to look at him. Harrison refused to meet their looks and, after a few moments, Norton turned back to his computer.
"The police notified his Principal, a Mr Trask."
"Great, that's all we need," Blackwood said, raising a hand and wiping at his brow. "I'd like to get a look at the bodies before the boy turns up. Can we put a clamp down on the scene?"
"You've got it," Ironhorse confirmed, remembering the extent of the mutilation the aliens were capable of and not wishing the boy's last memory of his parents to be of that.
The phone rang loudly in the room, causing all three to start. Ironhorse snatched up the receiver. "No, go straight to Fort Streeter... I'm leaving right now with Blackwood.... No, send Stavrakos with Suzanne; you can bring Debi back here." He listened for a few more moments before he added quietly, "Tell Debi I'm sorry." He paused, then agreed, "I'm sure she will, but tell her anyway."
"I've done a printout of the family, but I can see no reason why they would be of interest to the aliens," Norton said as the colonel replaced the receiver. "Maybe they surprised the aliens, who panicked and killed them."
Blackwood shook his head. "No... they've been very careful lately; too careful... they know we're watching out for them. If they broke cover it must have been important, and why didn't they take over the Simms?" He considered the matter for a few moments before shrugging. "I would guess that whatever they were after they didn't find and the Simms refused to tell them."
"That's assuming they even knew what the aliens were after," Norton added. "This is not your usual alien hit and run, that's for sure. According to the police report, the store was totally trashed."
"That means they're more than likely still in the area," Ironhorse stated, his lips thinning at the thought of activity after so many months of sitting watching the others work.
The phone rang again and he snatched it up. After listening for a few moments, he informed the others, "Derriman's got the unit ready. Fort Streeter has a helicopter ready and waiting." Even as he put the phone down he was heading towards the elevator, Blackwood fast on his heels.
"Keep us up to date with the police reports, Norton. Also if the aliens try to contact base again," Blackwood said just as the elevator doors closed.
"Don't I always?" Norton retorted to an empty room. Reaching over, he picked up his discarded cup of coffee, took a healthy swallow, then grimaced. "Hell, Harrison, even when I make the coffee, you manage to ruin it when you pour it out," he sniped as he put the cup back on the side.
The news came just before the 8am bell: Charlie Simms was called to Principal Trask's office. He waited outside the man's office and tried hard not to fidget. It had been several months since he had been called up in front of the entire college before the discipline committee to give evidence on a prank that he had witnessed against the Principal's new car, and he knew that Principal Trask had not really forgiven him or his friend Lt. Col. Slade for showing him up in front of the whole assembly.
The inner door opened and the elderly secretary indicated that he was to go in. He winced at the look of pity that she threw his way. Swallowing hard, he realised that he must be in serious trouble if she was displaying such feelings on his behalf.
Principal Trask stood upon Charlie's entrance and, moving out from behind his desk, he reached to grip Charlie's shoulder and led him to a chair.
"Charlie," Trask began, then he paused, searching for the right words. "Charlie... I'm afraid I've got some bad news.... The police called... your parents...."
"My mother?" Charlie repeated, standing up, his face losing colour.
"I'm sorry, Charlie... there was a robbery... at the store...." Principal Trask stopped and swallowed hard at the pain he saw reflected in the young man's eyes. "I'm so sorry, Charlie... they're both dead."
Charlie felt his knees go and he slumped back into the chair. The room dimmed and the next thing he knew Trask was kneeling beside him, holding a glass to his lips, urging him to drink. The shaken young man sipped, then coughed as the bitter taste of brandy burned down his throat.
"Sit still, Charlie," Trask ordered as he tried to rise. "You've had a shock... just give yourself a few minutes."
"Both..." Charlie struggled for the words. "Both dead, sir?" The room splintered as his eyes filled with tears. "How... I mean... I just saw them at Christmas... they can't be..." He swallowed against the burning lump in his throat and wanted to cough, but knew that if he did then he would be unable to stop the tears that were tearing at his chest for release.
"The police believe it was a robbery... either late last night or just after they opened this morning." Trask was still kneeling beside the chair, his own face twisting at the pain he knew the boy was feeling. Charlie Simms was a bright, intelligent boy who made people like him, despite his innocence. "I'm sorry, Charlie, there were no witnesses and..." he paused, reconsidering mentioning the mutilation the police had told him about. "Do you want me to arrange transport home...? Maybe there is someone in Gresham I can contact to meet you?" Again he paused; he knew from the boy's file that he had no other relatives. "Maybe I could contact Lt. Col. Slade for you?"
Charlie blinked a few times, hardly taking in the words that Principal Trask was telling him. He took another deep shuddering breath and said, "I've got to go, sir... my mother... she..." He stopped as he realised that he had been about to say that he had to call his mother. He lurched from the chair, causing Trask to fall backwards, then Charlie was out of the door and running down the corridor. He heard Trask calling after him, but the fear of his loss was giving him strength and he fled through the double doors and burst into sunlight. He ignored the yelp of protest from fellow students as he pushed roughly past them; his one thought was to get away... to get away from Trask and the knowledge that his mother and stepfather were no longer waiting for him at home. At home.... He paused and gulped in air as his lungs protested at the harsh treatment. Home.... not home... not now... to all intents and purposes he was now alone in the world.
The helicopter blades were beating at the air as Ironhorse and Blackwood pulled up in the Bronco. Suzanne was standing off to one side with Stavrakos. As they stopped, she began to move in their direction.
"We'll explain on the flight," Blackwood shouted over the noise of the helicopter. As he spoke, he moved to the back of the Bronco and began to pull vital equipment from its rear.
Ironhorse had moved away and was arranging his unit, who were clambering from the back of the van that had followed them to Fort Streeter. They were in full battle gear and now stood to attention in a straight line, before Ironhorse gave the order and they all began to enter the helicopter with military precision.
Leaving Derriman to see to his unit's safe storage, Ironhorse walked over and began to help Blackwood with the equipment. As he lifted a particularly heavy bag, he grunted and asked, "Kitchen sink, Blackwood?"
The man in question looked up, before pointing to another bag still sitting in the back of the Bronco. "No, that's the sink, so that must make that the bath."
"Feels like it, Blackwood... feels like it." Bending down, he scooped up another bag and slung it over his shoulder, saying in a rough military tone, "Move it up, people. We've got a tight schedule, so let's keep it moving."
The other two nodded and they were soon seated aboard the helicopter, watching Fort Streeter fade behind them. Suzanne sat back and began to read the printout that Blackwood had given her. She bit at her lip when she read about the mutilation of the bodies and the only son. Being a mother herself, this was the part of the war that hurt her the most. The wanton killing of the aliens did more damage than the mere taking of a life. She shot a sidelong glance at Blackwood and could tell from his expression that it was bringing back some memories of his own. Reaching out, she rested her hand over his. He turned his hand, palm upwards, and clasped hers tightly before giving her a tense smile. With an inward sigh, she went back to reading the report, turning the pages with difficulty as she now only had one hand.
Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, US Army - retired, reached over and switched the radio off. He had just finished listening to the world news. It seemed to him that the world had not really changed or learnt much since he had lost his sight. Reaching over, he fumbled for the ever-present bottle of Jack Daniel's and poured a healthy amount into his glass with ease born of practice.
Suddenly the kitchen door burst open and he leapt from his chair, ready to defend himself. "Who's there?" he demanded, his tone rock hard. The sound of heavy, almost hyperventilating breathing reached his ears. He tilted his head and sniffed at the air. "Charlie?" he questioned, his concern evident upon his features. "Charlie... what's wrong?" he asked again, moving towards his young friend.
In reply, Charlie threw himself into Slade's arms. The blind man caught him and they both crumpled to the ground; Charlie as his legs gave way from his long torturous run, and Frank from the weight of the boy in his arms.
"Charlie..." Frank snapped, this time his voice was edged with fear as he held the hysterically sobbing boy. "Damn it... what's wrong?" He got no answer beyond the racking sobs that the boy issued with such feeling, as if his very soul was breaking. Frank considered his options for a few more moments, then realising that he had none, he settled more comfortably upon the floor and held the lad tightly against his chest, rocking gently as he offered quiet words of reassurance, allowing the boy to cry his fill, knowing that he would get no sense from him until he had cried himself out.
The bodies had been removed from the small convenience store, but their positions at the time of their death could clearly be seen by the lines that were drawn upon the floor. The room was a mess: it looked like a fierce struggle had ensued before the death of the owners, but Blackwood knew that - against the aliens - any fight would have been useless.
He looked towards the door as Paul Ironhorse entered the store with Sheriff Drewman, the local law officer. They had called ahead with a story about the group of terrorists that they had been seeking, and Blackwood had been put forward as the army's forensic expert with Suzanne being his medical assistant.
"It's a damned shame," Drewman was saying around the matchstick that seemed to be a permanent feature of his mouth, as he twisted it from one side to the other. "Harry lived here all his life." The man paused at the realisation that he now had to use the past tense in connection with his childhood friend. He swallowed and coughed to cover his emotions. "Jenny came here about twelve years ago - they met in Portland, only holiday Harry ever took - it was a real quick romance. Married nine days later."
"They had a son?" Blackwood asked, standing and moving carefully across the room.
Sheriff Drewman removed the match from between his lips, saying, "Charlie, yeah... well, he's Jenny's son, Harry was his stepfather..." He paused again. "This is going to kill the kid." He put the matchstick back and continued, "He was up last Christmas, goes to a real fancy school across the country. Jenny was real proud of him."
"And he's been informed?" Ironhorse asked, glancing about the wrecked room and wondering what the aliens had been looking for. The destruction had been too intense for mere anger: the aliens were usually a lot neater when the killings were done for convenience sake.
The matchstick moved across the mouth again. "Yeah, called his college this morning. Reckon he'll be home late today. Man, this is going to destroy him. He's a real sensitive lad, Harry used to say." He paused, suddenly realising that he might be saying too much.
"Please go on... these terrorists must have had a reason for killing these people - anything you say might be of vital importance in finding them," Blackwood prompted.
"Well, Harry used to say that the lad was too naive for his own good, always saw the best in people no matter how bad they turned out." Drewman stopped again. "This is a bad business, a real bad business... I mean, terrorists and all."
"They are a particularly nasty group, and I would advise that nobody approaches them," Ironhorse said, turning his full attention back to the sheriff.
"I've already put out an APB, but with no witnesses I'm on the lookout for strangers..." He paused, then added, "Three, you say?"
"Yes," Paul confirmed. "This particular group likes to work in units of three, and they are very well-trained... if your people corner them, it could be very dangerous for them."
"Man, I know they can kill... I saw what the sons of bitches did to poor Harry and Jenny." He stopped again, remembering the sight of the mutilated bodies that had greeted his arrival early that morning. Pushing it to the back of his mind, he said, "You guys heard about this pretty damned fast." He motioned about the wrecked store.
Ironhorse put on his best army expression while he explained, "We've been after these particular people for a while now, and," he continued, pointing to the devastation in the room, "you can see why it's important we catch them before they kill anyone else."
"Your Dr McCullough was pretty eager to get a look at the bodies," Drewman said, remembering the way the woman had taken a quick look about the store then requested to see the bodies.
"She's the best in her field," Blackwood said, his tone casual as he picked his way about the room, stopping from time to time to take a better look at anything that caught his eye.
"Well, old Jimbo won't be too pleased if she messes with the bodies too much." Seeing the questioning look upon the others' faces, he explained, "Jimbo Sanders... he's our doctor-come-mortician; he performs the autopsies up here. Mind you, last one he did was back in sixty-nine - biker got himself knifed," he explained.
"Jimbo won't be doing the autopsy in this instance," Ironhorse stated firmly. "This is strictly US Army province now."
This seemed to surprise the sheriff as he stood up straighter and stammered, "Can you guys do that?"
"We just did," Blackwood stated, coming to stand beside Ironhorse. "I'd take a guess that they never found what they were looking for."
Ironhorse nodded, that had been his conclusion. "What now?" he asked, realising that the beginning of his headache was going to be the last of his worries.
"Did the Simms have any strange hobbies or pastimes, anything that might make them of interest to a group of, er... terrorists?" Blackwood suddenly asked Drewman, who snapped to attention; his own mind had drifted for a moment.
"Hobbies.... No, they never had time for hobbies; opened at 5am, shut at 1am... the only hobby they had was Charlie - their son."
"When did he leave to go to college?" Blackwood had moved back to stand beside the sheriff, an idea whispering about his mind, just out of reach.
"Last fall. He was home for Christmas, though."
"They must have worked pretty hard to get him into Baird; it's a fairly upmarket college," Harrison said, taking in the peeling paint and the old-fashioned shelving.
"Nah..." Drewman said, drawing himself up with pride as he stated, "real bright lad, won a scholarship and, what with student aid.... And the kid's no shirk about work, either; used to help them run the place whenever he was around."
"Do you know who his real father was?"
Drewman looked at Blackwood, then shot a glance towards Ironhorse. "Not really." He paused, this had been a local area of interest for some years.
"But?" Blackwood encouraged the man, knowing that there was more.
"Well, Jenny used to get pretty uptight whenever the subject was brought up. From what Milly... my wife... could work out, he up and left her before the boy was even born."
Blackwood let out a sigh; he had hoped for something more substantial, but Jenny looked like another young woman who had chosen to sleep with the wrong man.
"I think Harry had a tough time of it, sometimes," Drewman went on, then stopped again before deciding that - as he had started - he had better finish. "Well, he used to tell me that Jenny only married him because of the boy, she wanted a proper home for him. She was right pretty and Harry said she could have had anyone, but he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time."
"How old was Charlie when they came to live here?" Blackwood asked, his eyes half-closed as he let his mind soak in the information.
Drewman rubbed at his jaw before answering, "About five, maybe six... hard to tell with a kid that age."
Blackwood nodded and then, turning to Ironhorse, said, "I think that about covers it here. Maybe Suzanne has come up with something."
They followed the sheriff out and waited while he locked the front door. From the outside it was hard to tell that two gruesome murders had taken place inside just hours earlier.
As they walked towards the police car, Drewman commented, "You know, it's a funny thing, but Charlie's one of the healthiest children I've ever known."
"Pardon?" Blackwood asked, his head tilting back as he glanced at the sheriff.
"Well, you know how kids get sick and all, but not Charlie... he never missed a day of school the whole time he attended. I guess that's why he's so bright." With that passing comment, he raised his hand and took the matchstick from his mouth. Seeing the others look at it, he smiled sheepishly and confided, "Ever since I gave up smoking, can't seem to get out of the habit of chewing the damned thing. Milly said as long as I don't light it, I'm safe."
"She could have a point there," Blackwood answered as they wandered over to the police car.
As the car pulled away, Blackwood tilted his head back so that he could see the store fade into the distance. He was not able to shake the feeling that he had learned something important, but could not quite put his finger on what it might be.
"You alright, Harrison?" Ironhorse asked, concerned by his friend's silence.
"This is a hell of a business," Blackwood said, taking his glasses off and rubbing at the bridge of his nose.
Ironhorse saw the old pain reflected in his friend's eyes but said nothing. He knew that when Blackwood met Charlie Simms he would take it upon himself to absorb as much of the boy's pain as he could, even if it meant living through his own personal hell of losing his own parents.
Charlie lay asleep upon Frank's bed. An hour had passed since he had burst in upon his friend and he'd haltingly explained about his parents' death. Frank had given the boy a very large dose of Jack Daniel's, then helped him to stand and guided the emotionally exhausted young man to the bed, gently pulling the covers up over him. He sat beside the boy until the shock and alcohol had taken their toll and dragged the lad into a restless sleep.
Frank had then called Baird College and spoken to Principal Trask, who had explained the entire situation to him. Frank informed the principal that Charlie was staying with him and that they would be returning to Oregon for a few days. Trask was pleased that Charlie was with someone who would watch over him.
That done, Frank then called the airport and booked two seats for the next flight out to Portland, arranging to catch a smaller commuter flight out to the nearest town to Gresham that supported an airport. "More than likely a dirt track road," Slade mumbled under his breath as he waited for the car rental office to tell him if they had a car in that town for him to hire. That mission accomplished, he sat back and listened to the even breathing of his young friend.
He once again cursed his lack of sight. He knew that Charlie needed him to be strong now: Frank was well aware of how deep the bond between mother and son had been, even though they had not spoken of her much during their trip to New York. Frank only knew that Charlie's stepfather was an asshole, but the blind man reasoned that you didn't work your butt off for the airfare to go home for Christmas unless you had someone special waiting for you - and, from the way Charlie had spoken about home, he knew it was because of his mother.
Reaching out, Slade fumbled with his bottle of Jack Daniel's and poured himself a healthy dose. He had cut back on his drinking since his trip to New York - he had changed his life in quite a few ways since that fateful meeting with the young man now lying asleep upon his bed.
Frank Slade had been prepared to end his life after spending a few days in the city, saying goodbye to life with a fine meal, a good drink, dinner with his family, and spending some time with a beautiful woman. Frank smiled as he remembered the Ferrari ride that Charlie had given him. Yes sir, he was prepared to die then, but Charlie would not let him. His own problems had been an undercurrent during the whole weekend, and it had bitten deep into Frank's soul to think that the boy was going to suffer being expelled because his honour demanded that he didn't snitch on his fellow classmates. Charlie's quiet courage had restored Frank's faith and, in doing so, had kept him from pulling the trigger.
Now Frank had a better life with his family; his niece's children came to him willingly and would spend hours with him. He was semi-dating a teacher from Charlie's school; she was a very intelligent woman who would spend hours listening to him talk about his past and would always laugh in the right places. And he was even on better terms with his brother - via the phone that is.
He took another swallow of his drink and pretended that the lump in his throat was caused by the whiskey and not the knowledge that, while his life was opening up, Charlie's had been totally shattered. He had once asked the lad if he wanted Slade to adopt him, now the boy would have him as a makeshift father whether he wanted him or not, of that Slade was determined.
Charlie groaned deeply in his sleep and turned on his side. Frank sat still and tilted his head to one side, listening to see if the boy would awaken. They still had another hour before the taxi arrived to take them to the airport.
Frank closed his eyes; he felt tired himself - bone tired - but he would be strong enough for Charlie, of that he was resolved... and God help anyone who caused the boy more pain or got in Frank Slade's way.
Blackwood and Ironhorse entered the old funeral parlour that acted as the mortuary on the rare occasions that a suspicious death took place in the small community of Gresham. Suzanne was just coming out of the back room and smiled weakly at their approach. Her face showed signs of strain as she wiped her hands upon a cloth that she held too tightly in her hands.
"Suzanne?" Blackwood questioned, concerned by her pale features.
"I don't think I will ever get used to the violence of the aliens, the total disregard for life... the...." She stopped, visibly pulling herself together. Smiling weakly, she continued, "Sorry, it's not a pretty sight."
"Let's get out of here, then," Harrison said, slipping a hand about Suzanne's back for comfort and steering her from the building at the same time.
"I'll just arrange for a change of guard," Ironhorse said, moving towards the phone that stood off to one corner of the room, "then I'll meet you back at the hotel."
"No... make it the cafe; it's nearly lunch-time anyway," Harrison stated, glancing at his watch, "and I think we could all use a strong cup of coffee." He gave Suzanne an encouraging smile.
"Alright, but don't you order me any rabbit food, Blackwood," Ironhorse snapped. Although his tone was harsh, there was a smile hidden in his eyes and Blackwood knew that he was only trying to take Suzanne's mind off the autopsy that she had just performed.
"I'll try, Colonel, but the urge may become too much for me," Blackwood shot back, just before he left the room.
Fifteen minutes later they were all sitting in the virtually empty cafe that backed onto their small but comfortable hotel, nursing cups of coffee.
"They were tortured before they were killed; it must have taken hours for them to die," Suzanne continued, her voice catching with emotion. "But it wasn't the aliens' usual method of attack."
"What do you mean?" Harrison asked, sitting up straighter in his chair. He had had a feeling about this mission.
"I can't really say," Suzanne stated honestly, waiting while the helpful waitress refilled their coffee cups and then returned to the bar. "It's like they were after something... were desperate to get it, I would say from the state of the bodies. But what I can't understand is, why didn't they just take them over?" She paused, putting her thoughts in order. "You know, usually if they want information, they just take over the human body and absorb the memories of their victims, but this time..." She stopped again, searching for the words. "This time, it was... almost as if..." She sighed in frustration, unable to find the words to describe her feeling. "As if they couldn't do that for some reason... I just don't know," she finally admitted, worrying at her bottom lip.
Harrison rested his hand over hers. "Don't hurry it, Suzanne, it will come in time. Just relax and put it to the back of your mind."
Suzanne smiled weakly at Blackwood's words. "Next you'll be having me try yoga," she commented, taking a sip of her coffee.
"Not you, too," Ironhorse said. "He's been pushing that like he's got shares in the company." Then, turning serious again, he continued, "Maybe the son knows what they were after?"
"Charlie Simms," Blackwood said, squinting his eyes as he recalled the boy's details. "He's coming home today, isn't he? It can't hurt to question him. I wonder if Sheriff Drewman knows when he's due in?"
"I don't think it would be a good idea for him to see his parents, Harrison," Suzanne stated with a shudder. "It's pretty gruesome, and," she paused, shooting Blackwood a quick glance before she finished, "not a nice way to remember your parents."
Harrison felt the muscle in his jaw jump and stated firmly, "Then let's get to him before he gets here or the aliens get to him." As he spoke, he snatched up his coat and moved out of the booth, all action once more.
After paying their bill, they came out into the midday sun on Main Street. Blackwood spied the sheriff and two deputies getting into a police car further down the block. Breaking into a slow trot, he caught up with the man before he started the car. "Sheriff Drewman," he said, coming to stand by the open window of the man's vehicle.
"I'm in a hurry, Mr Blackwood," the man snapped without looking at him.
"Sorry, this won't take a minute," Blackwood said with a forced, bright smile, surprised at the Sheriff's sudden mood change.
The man said nothing, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead.
By this time, Paul and Suzanne had caught up with them and stood to one side, listening to Blackwood, who continued, "I was wondering if you could tell me when Charlie Simms is expected home?"
The man in the car stiffened slightly and replied in a clipped tone, "He's not coming home today, won't be in until tomorrow now. He was unable to get a flight."
"But I thought you said..." Blackwood began, but Drewman interrupted.
"Look, Blackwood, I've got other business besides worrying about the kid. Now, if you don't mind, I've got a call to attend." With that, he started the car, thrust it into gear and sped away, leaving Harrison coughing in a cloud of dust.
"What the hell's eating at him?" Ironhorse questioned as he came to stand by Blackwood, watching the car speed into the distance.
"He seemed fine this morning, over-friendly if anything," Suzanne said, a slight frown filtering across her pretty face.
"I suppose having a double murder on your doorstep gets to you after a while," Harrison said, swiping the dust from his clothes. "At least he's got rid of the matchstick." Even as he said it, Blackwood felt a ripple of shock travel up his spine. "Damn," he snarled under his breath as he headed towards the sheriff's office at a fast trot.
"Blackwood?" Ironhorse snapped as he chased after the astrophysicist. "What the hell's wrong?"
"He wasn't chewing a matchstick," Blackwood snapped back. "He always chews a matchstick, ever since he gave up smoking." As he finished speaking, he opened the door to the sheriff's office and bounded inside, Ironhorse close on his heels.
It looked like a typical small town sheriff's office, except that there was no-one manning the main desk or anyone in the adjoining rooms. Blackwood pushed past the low swinging doors that led to the back of the room, heading for the sheriff's office. As he reached the doorway, he stopped and swallowed hard, his face going pale.
Ironhorse followed him, already warned by Harrison's face of what he would find, but it didn't stop the ripple of shock that climbed up his back at the sight of the melted goo that met his eyes. The dissolved bodies had been dressed in local farming clothes; the blue jeans were in stark contrast to the yellow human-limbed mess that lay in the half-deliquesced substance.
Suzanne gasped and put her hand to her mouth. "Oh God," she said, her voice a rough whisper. "Does this mean that Sheriff Drewman is a...?" She stopped, unable to put her fears into words.
"They must be after the boy," Blackwood stated, his eyes going beyond the alien residue to scan the office, his mind leaping through their options as he looked. "We've got to find out which airport he's arriving at and get there before they do."
"That's a damned big area to cover, Harrison," Ironhorse said, rubbing at the bridge of his nose as he, too, contemplated their massive task. "There are at least two major airports the boy could come into from New Hampshire, and then God knows how many local flights; each one of those is a few hours' drive from here and..." He stopped as the implications struck him. "There must be at least a dozen roads he could take to get here."
"Damn it, we have to find out which one. Sheriff Drewman... I mean the aliens must know; they won't leave it to chance - this is obviously important to them." Seeing the others look at him in confusion, he explained, "They had a chance to nail the three of us out there, take out the opposition in one sweep..." He paused and added for effect, "All three of them had guns... and we know that they know about us," Blackwood confirmed as he began to frantically search the office, snatching up bits of paper, reading, then discarding them.
Suzanne watched him for a few seconds before she, too, began to check each desk and even the rubbish bins. Ironhorse, on the other hand, shot another glance towards the goo before he picked up the nearest phone. He spoke rapidly into the receiver and, disconnecting that call, he dialled another.
"Norton," he said, causing the other two to pause and listen. "We need to know where and what flight Charlie Simms is going to be on." A slight pause, then he continued, "Yes... the son... goes to Baird, New Hampshire, so he will need to come into a major airport first." Again he paused. "Portland, right... do you have a time?" Another pause... Ironhorse put his hand over the receiver as he explained, "He's checking the airport lists."
As he spoke, the front door opened to admit Derriman and two soldiers. Ironhorse waved them forward, saying, "In the back, looks like three bodies. I want them tagged and then sent back to the Cottage." As he spoke, he shot Suzanne a questioning look.
"I'll get my stuff from the hotel," she said, moving towards the door.
"You," Ironhorse snapped, pointing to one of the soldiers. "Go with her." The man in question saluted and followed the woman from the office. "We're looking for information," Ironhorse explained to the two remaining soldiers. "Notes, any scrap of paper that might have the details of the Simms' son Charlie's travel arrangements into Gresham," he finished hurriedly as Norton came back on the line. "Yes... I'm here," Ironhorse said, before he began to frantically search for pen and paper.
Blackwood was by his side, holding out a pen. "Portland, then a local flight back to Pendleton," Ironhorse said out loud as Harrison scribbled the details down. "Hired a car in the name of Frank Slade." Ironhorse paused, a frown slipping across his face. "Is that Lt. Col. Frank Slade?" Paul nodded a few times, his eyes glancing across the room to meet with Derriman's, who had stopped in his search. "No.... no, thank you, Norton, that will be all for now. Has there been any more alien activity?" Again Ironhorse listened intently to what Norton had to say before he thanked the man again and replaced the receiver.
"Well?" Blackwood asked, his look one of curiosity.
"According to Norton the aliens are acting like 'someone stirred up a hornet's nest; messages going over the wire, ready to burn them up'." He shot Harrison a look before he added, "Norton's words, not mine."
"What's all this about a Lt. Col. Frank Slade? Is another army unit involved?" Blackwood asked - he couldn't help but notice the reaction the name got from Ironhorse.
"Lt. Col. Frank Slade - retired. He was pensioned out after an... incident," Ironhorse stated, his mind not totally with the question that had been asked. "Knew him at Fort Benning. Damned fine officer."
"And he's bringing the boy home?" Blackwood asked, his tone showing that the curves in this mission were starting to get to him.
"Looks like it." Not totally happy with the situation himself, he explained in more detail, "Last I heard, he had lost his eyesight."
"Oh, that's just great," Blackwood said, leaning back against a desk, letting his frustration flow over his body. "Three aliens - who have already murdered the boy's parents - are now after him, and his only protection is a retired blind army officer."
"I wouldn't count Colonel Slade out that easily, sir," Derriman said from his position by the main desk. "He was the best; could wrap circles about most of us, even in the dark," he finished with a hint of pride.
Whatever reply Harrison was about to make was cut short as the front door opened and Suzanne came back in, dutifully followed by the solider who had been assigned to her. "What's happened?" she asked, sensing the atmosphere straight away.
"Charlie Simms had a flight into Portland, then he's on a local flight to Pendleton..." Ironhorse glanced at his watch, "...which should be landing about now, with a hired car waiting for him and a Lieutenant Colonel Slade."
"Lieutenant Colonel Slade?" she questioned, frowning at the two of them.
"It's a long story and I'd like to explain it in the car," Harrison said, seeing the same questions he had asked a few moments before upon her lips.
"Give me a few minutes to get my samples, then we can go," she stated, moving towards the back of the office with determination.
"Don't rush, Suzanne, we still don't know what route they plan to take once they leave Pendleton," Ironhorse said, his tone showing his frustration at the situation.
The next ten minutes were a hive of frustration as they searched. Suzanne got her samples and advised Stavrakos, who had appeared with another three soldiers, on the removal of the bodies.
"Here, sir," Derriman finally cried, holding up a piece of paper. "I found it on the floor, sir," he explained as he handed it over to his commanding officer.
"Highway 84, to 2103, then turning off towards Baker. Damn it, that's right through the Blue Mountains," Ironhorse snapped, checking the route on a local map that was hanging on the wall. "We can't even get a helicopter up there... nowhere to land."
"Then it will have to be by car. The aliens have a..." Blackwood checked his watch, "forty minute lead." He looked at the others. "If we really push it, we just might be able to intercept them. They'll want to take the boy alive, that might give us some time." He knew that their chances were slim; one of the aliens was now Sheriff Drewman, a man the boy was bound to know and respect.
"Derriman, get your unit and follow us; you know the route," Ironhorse snapped as they moved from the office. "Stavrakos, you're on clean up." The man in question saluted, but the colonel was already gone.
Lieutenant Colonel Slade turned his face toward his young companion, Charlie Simms. Although he was unable to see the expression on the boy's face, he could still feel the grief that radiated from the young man. "How much further?" he asked, more to break the long silence rather than an interest in how much farther they had to go.
Charlie started guiltily, one-handedly wiping at the tears that had been silently falling. He gulped in a steadying breath before he answered, annoyed at the quiver he detected in his voice, "About two... maybe three hours."
Slade fumbled for the button that would open his window and let the brisk fresh air invade the car. "God, smell that clean air," he said as he took a deep breath. "It must be very beautiful, if it smells this good," he continued, a slight smile in his tone.
Charlie didn't answer and, after a few moments of waiting, Slade settled back and closed his eyes, concentrating on the many fragrances that wafted in through the open window. He felt for his friend and wanted to make this difficult journey as easy as possible, but he knew from experience that this was one area where every man stood alone. Each person had their own way of dealing with grief, and Charlie would have to come to terms with his, but at least he would not be alone - of that, Slade was determined.
Suddenly Charlie gasped, before hissing loudly as he slammed on the brakes. Slade was thrown forward, but the seatbelt held and he only had to grit out a few curses by way of injury. "What the hell?" he snarled, lifting a hand and wiping his hair from his face.
"I'm sorry," Charlie stammered, reaching out a hand and touching Slade's arm, checking to see if he was hurt. "Are you alright?" he continued, his own voice still unsteady after his emergency stop.
"Yes, I'm fine," Frank snapped, slapping away the questing hand. "What the hell happened? A rabbit on the road trying to commit suicide, or what?" Slade demanded, not liking the feeling of danger that was starting to climb up his spine.
"No... no," Charlie mumbled. "It's Sheriff Drewman..." Seeing the frown of annoyance his apparent gibbering earned him, he hurried to continue, "Our... I mean Gresham's sheriff. His car just spun across the road in front of us and I had to brake... otherwise I would have hit him."
"What's happening Charlie?" Slade asked, his tone low and filled with warning.
Charlie licked his lips and shot Slade a quick, concerned glance; the other man's tone had caught at him - it was almost... almost predatory. "They're just sitting there, looking at us. Talking," he explained.
"How many?" Frank asked as he fumbled in the back seat of the car for his overnight bag. Pulling it through, he ripped it open and, keeping the bag below the dashboard, out of sight of the other car, he drew out his automatic.
"Colonel!" Charlie cried, seeing the weapon. He made a grab for it, but Slade slipped it out of his reach, checking the chamber as he did so.
"Charlie," Slade continued, his tone firm, the command clear even to the non-army boy who sat beside him. "Just answer the question now, son. How many?"
"Er... Sheriff Drewman and two deputies." Charlie squinted at the car that rested about fifteen yards from their own. "They're just sitting there, talking; they seem to be arguing." Suddenly the boy stiffened and reached for the door handle. "This is stupid, I'm going to see what they want."
Before he could open the door, Slade had reached over and pulled him roughly back towards him. "Never give the enemy the advantage, son - first rule of engagement." He heard the boy open his mouth to retort, but never gave him the chance. "Just let them come to us." Then he advised calmly, "Take a deep breath, Charlie, I can hear you gasping."
"Colonel," Charlie tried to reason, "you're considering... I mean, those are police officers out there... Sheriff Drewman... not some enemy."
"Fine... then let them come to us, okay Charlie?" The words were an order, not a suggestion.
Charlie considered arguing the point, but seeing Sheriff Drewman get out of the car he hissed instead, "He's coming; will you please get that gun out of sight?"
Slade smiled: it was pure predator. "Anything to oblige," he stated, lifting his coat and letting it rest over his arm and gun.
Charlie opened his window and smiled weakly at the approaching police officer. "Sheriff Drewman," he said by way of greeting as the man came to a stop beside the car.
"Charlie," the man said, his hat pulled low and sunglasses reflecting back an image of the boy. "Bad news about your parents," he continued harshly.
Charlie swallowed the sudden pain that caught at him and asked, "Did you catch the person who..."
Drewman interrupted, "They won't hurt anyone else, son." Then he turned his look upon Slade. "Who's your friend, Charlie?"
Charlie shot a look at Slade, who was frowning deeply. "Er... Lt. Col. Frank Slade - he's a friend." He never got any further, as Sheriff Drewman had gone for his gun. "Sheriff?" Charlie cried in shock as the man brought the weapon up and aimed at Slade. The next instant Charlie was deafened by the retort of a gun and Drewman was thrown back into the road.
"No!" Charlie cried as he watched in horror as the sheriff writhed upon the ground and then began to dissolve. "Oh God... oh God," he began to chant as he watched the body turn to liquid.
"What's happening, Charlie?" Slade snapped, opening his door and grabbing the half-hysterical boy from his seat and pulling him after him.
As he did so, the windscreen shattered and Charlie yelped as splinters bit into his neck. Without another thought, he scrambled after Slade. With a fear born of survival, he guided Slade over the rough terrain towards the shelter of some trees as more gunfire began to rain down on their location.
Once in the shelter of the trees, he began to shake as Slade fired his weapon. "Charlie," he called. "I need some co-ordinates here, son." Getting no answer, he felt about until he caught the boy's arms and, pulling Charlie towards him, he hit him sharply across the face. Then he gripped his arm tightly as he stated firmly, "Charlie, that was not Sheriff Drewman." He paused. "I don't know who or what it was, but it smelt too bad to be natural. Now, I need your help... so give me some damned directions or we're both dead."
Charlie's head was snapped back by the force of the blow, but it helped him get a grip on his rising hysteria because he took a steadying breath and looked over at the police car and the two deputies who were now using it as a shield. "About fifteen feet to your right. We're in a dip, so you'll have to aim slightly higher."
"Good boy," Slade said as he began to fire in the direction that Charlie had indicated. For a blind man, he was making some pretty impressive shots and the deputies were being kept pinned down behind their vehicle when Slade muttered a curse. "Damn."
"What?" Charlie asked, unable to hide the fear and shock from his tone.
"I left the clips in the car... my overnight bag..." Slade began, then felt a sudden movement beside him as the youth began to slip away. "No," Frank yelled as he made a frantic grab for where he believed the boy to be; he was too late and felt Charlie scramble away from him.
Slade spent a few anxious minutes waiting for Charlie to return. He kept up a covering fire, but gritted his teeth as he felt the last bullet leave the gun. Then Charlie was back, rolling into the blind man, who grabbed at him and steadied the panting boy.
"Here," Charlie hissed, pushing the overnight bag into the blind man's hands as he cried, "They're coming."
"Are you alright?" Frank asked, not liking the breathlessness of the boy's voice.
"Yes..." Charlie gritted his teeth and held his hand tightly over the bleeding wound in his upper arm. He had made it to the car unscathed, but had been caught as he made his way back.
Charlie turned to lay upon his back, looking up at the sky through the trees, wondering how he had got caught up in this nightmare. Maybe he'd wake up and find that it was all a bad dream, that he had overslept and was late for class.
Frank reloaded his gun with ease and began to lay down another hail of bullets that sent the two deputies, who had been making their way toward them, scurrying back to the protection of their car.
One of them did not make it. He arched up and grabbed uselessly at his back before he tipped to the ground and began to bubble, just as the sheriff had. "God, what is that smell?" Frank commented as he wiped a hand across his nose, as if he could shut the awful stench out.
"It's one of the deputies..." Charlie commented, struggling back up to see the battle zone before him. "He's melting," he stated matter-of-factly.
"He's what?" Frank exclaimed, turning to look blindly in the younger man's direction, wondering if the shock had been too much for him.
Charlie considered his words carefully then, realising that he could never really explain it, he shook his head. His arm was starting to hurt in earnest now. Weakly he said, "Doesn't matter... forget it."
Slade opened his mouth to demand what was wrong with the boy when another sound reached his ears. "Car coming; those bastards must have called for reinforcements," he snarled, still laying down the heavy fire.
"I don't think so," Charlie stated as the third deputy crawled into his bullet-ridden vehicle and, starting the engine, sped away. Frank fired shots after it, but it picked up speed and was soon lost from sight around a corner.
"Must be reinforcements for us, then," Frank surmised, but he didn't make any attempt to rise. "What was that about the man melting, Charlie?"
Charlie didn't answer, just closed his eyes as he leant back against a tree, now fighting the pain that radiated from his arm with gritted teeth. A large car skidded into sight and two men spilled out - one dressed in an army uniform, Charlie noted. Then another van pulled up and more army personnel jumped out and began to secure the area.
"Charlie Simms," the tall, lanky man called, raising his hands to show that he possessed no weapons.
"Who wants to know?" Slade shot back. "And before you take another step, it might interest you to know that we're armed," he continued.
Blackwood paused, considering the threat before he answered. "We're friends... heard the shots." He paused by the melted deputy's body. "Look, I know this must look strange, but you've got to believe that we mean you no harm."
"I don't have to believe a damned word you say, son," Slade retorted.
"Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade," Ironhorse shouted from his position slightly in front of Blackwood. His own gun had been replaced in its holster once he had realised that the threat of aliens was no longer present. "It's Paul Ironhorse, Colonel."
"Captain Ironhorse?" Slade tilted his head, listening to the voice and recognising it from his past.
"It's Lt. Col. Ironhorse, now," Paul shouted back, still advancing. Although his gun was holstered, he kept his hand near it, still ready to use in an instant if needed.
"So, you're a lieutenant colonel now, son?" Slade growled, standing up and slowly heading towards the voice he trusted. "Hoo-Aar, Custer would be proud of you, son," he continued, a slight smile filtering across his face as he felt his barb hit home.
Charlie scrambled to his feet with difficulty and slowly followed Slade from the protection of the trees. He felt odd, almost light-headed, but knew that it was just the shock of recent events that were catching up with him.
"You're still pretty good with a gun I see, Colonel," Ironhorse said, looking at the two puddles that littered the road.
"Don't you forget it," Slade retorted, his blinded eyes looking directly at Ironhorse, who felt a shiver go down his back. Then the look was gone and Frank was motioning for Charlie to come to his side. "This here is..."
Before he could answer, Blackwood supplied, "Charlie Simms." He smiled broadly at the boy, then frowned as he took in the too-pale features. Slowly his eyes travelled down from the face and came to rest upon the bloody hand that was gripping the wound in his arm. "And you've been wounded," he exclaimed in surprise.
"Charlie?" Slade cried as he spun towards his young friend. He should have realised that something was seriously wrong. Mentally he kicked himself.
"It's alright... I'm fine, really," Charlie began, wanting only to reassure his friend. "It's just a scratch," he continued, even as the world tilted and the light faded as his knees gave way.
Slade felt the boy begin to fall beside him and made a frantic effort to catch Charlie before he hit the ground. He let the other's weight carry him down, much the same way as he had the day before. "Have you got a medic?" he asked the men surrounding him, his tone expressing his raw fear.
"Jameson, get over here," Ironhorse called to the medic in his unit. The others had spread out at Derriman's orders and were now searching the area.
"Is he alright?" Suzanne asked with concern as she approached, after being firmly told to wait in the car until the area was safe.
"Arm wound," Ironhorse stated as he stepped aside so that his medic could get a closer look. The man nodded his thanks and began to open his kit as he worked on the wound.
Slade felt the woman's approach and took a deep breath. Pushing aside the stink of the dead men, he said in Suzanne's direction, "Fleur de fleur."
Suzanne shot Slade a quick, surprised glance. Liking what she saw, she smiled, "Yes, my daughter got it for me."
"Your daughter has excellent taste for one so young," Slade stated with charm, then stopped as Charlie groaned. "Charlie, you just lay still now, you hear me?" he ordered his young friend, resting a gentle hand upon the unwounded arm.
The medic glanced up at the man who had almost become a legend in the army and then shot a look at Ironhorse, who nodded, giving permission to talk in front of him. "He's still out of it, sir," he said to Slade, who was watching him work with sightless eyes: the young medic could almost feel them burning into his actions. Finally he finished and, kneeling back, informed the others, "The bullet's still in there; it must have been nearly spent because it lodged in muscle."
"Can he be moved?" Ironhorse asked, also kneeling beside Slade.
"He's going to have to be, sir." This earned him a hard glance from his commanding officer. He swallowed before continuing, "The dressing should hold the bleeding, but he needs immediate medical attention to remove that bullet, before infection sets in. I've given him a knock-out..." he paused, then explained his actions, "No sense in him suffering during the journey."
Ironhorse slowly stood and scanned the area, squinting in the late afternoon light. His men had slipped into a defensive position and he was silently pleased. "Derriman," he called, waiting as the sergeant trotted up. "Finish securing the region and do a clean up." He stopped while he considered his options. "The nearest hospital is..." He paused again while he tried to remember the layout of the area.
"There's a town about twenty-five miles away; Silverton, I think it's called," Blackwood said. "I remember Sheriff Drewman saying that the doctor there serviced the whole of this area."
"Okay, that's the nearest, so we'll go there." Ironhorse turned his glance towards the unconscious boy and the kneeling man. "Will you give me a hand, Harrison?" he asked as he bent to take the boy in his arms.
Suzanne reached down and helped Slade to stand, leading him towards the car. He kept his pace slow so that he was even with Ironhorse and Blackwood as they carried Charlie, then he climbed into the back of the car and allowed them to lay the boy across the back seat so that his head rested upon Frank's chest. Gently Slade reached out and wiped the boy's fringe from his face, feeling about the lax features with a gentleness that belied his recent ability with a deadly weapon.
Ironhorse closed the door and turned to look at both Suzanne and Harrison; there was not enough room in the front for them both. Dr McCullough, realising this, volunteered to stay behind. Both men were unwilling to allow her to do so at first, but she insisted, pointing out that most of the unit was remaining with her. Finally she stated, "I've got to get some samples from here, then we can join you at Silverton when we've finished.
"Alright, but make it quick," Blackwood said. "One of the aliens got away, so you can bet that he will be back with reinforcements."
Suzanne pulled a face at that thought as Harrison swiftly kissed her and jumped into the driver's seat. Seeing the surprised look she gave him, he explained, "He's got the gun and we might need it, so this time I think I'll drive." Slowly, he carefully turned the vehicle around and headed back in the direction that they had just come.
Five minutes into the journey, a voice from the back said, "Twenty-five miles; that's just enough time for you to tell me just what the hell is going on here." Slade's tone was tight with concern for his friend, and both men in the front realised that to lie to this man might just be more than their lives were worth.
"What do you know already?" Blackwood asked, trying to keep his voice light, after receiving Ironhorse's nod of agreement about telling him.
Frank Slade sat in silence for a few seconds before he stated, "They smell bad and they melt... not your average policemen... the melting part, that is."
Ironhorse smiled at Slade's biting words, knowing that he was going to enjoy the sparks that were going to fly between one Harrison Blackwood and Lt. Col. Frank Slade, US Army, retired.
"Well you see, Colonel," Blackwood began, "it's like this: back in 1953..."
Joe Morgan, the doctor of Silverton, was shocked to have his day disturbed by the three men who burst in upon him, one of whom was carrying a wounded youth in his arms. He took in the scene and noted the pale features of the unconscious boy, then acted instinctively, as he was used to handling emergencies such as this, having served his time with a mobile army hospital in the Korean war. Without a word he guided them into his surgery, calling for his wife, who acted as his nurse when the need arose.
As Dr Morgan began to remove the dressing that Jameson had applied, he spoke for the first time. "I'm going to have to ask you all to wait in the outer office." It was not a request.
Blackwood moved to Slade's side, taking the man's arm, ready to steer him from the room. The reaction he got was instantaneous and violent: he was grabbed, turned, and found himself looking up at the ex-army lieutenant colonel from the ground. "Don't ever, ever, lay your hands on me again," the man snarled, his blind eyes pinning Harrsion to the ground with their sightless look.
Blackwood swallowed hard and opened his mouth to comment, but all that came out was a very weak, "Sorry..." He stopped, at a loss to know what else to say.
Frank Slade stood silent for a few moments before he turned and made his way from the room. He retraced his path perfectly and Blackwood had to admire the man's ability and memory.
Ironhorse had spun from the surgery table in time to see Blackwood go tumbling to the ground. He had been prepared to intervene if Slade was intending to carry on the attack, but once it was obvious that Frank was just informing Harrison of his no-touch policy in his own style, Paul relaxed, letting a small smile filter across his face.
The doctor, on the other hand, was in no mood for such actions within his surgery and snarled at them, "I said get the hell out of here." He paused, then added, "If you want to fight, I've got a yard out back you can use."
"I'm sorry, Doctor, it won't happen again," Ironhorse said as he moved to Blackwood and held out his hand to assist him to his feet.
Harrison eyed Paul's raised eyebrow and commented drily, "You knew about that, didn't you?"
"I had heard about Colonel Slade's no-touch policy," was all he would say in his defence.
"No-touch policy..." Blackwood griped, rubbing at his bruised back as he led the way from the room. "Why the hell did they retire him? He seems more than capable of handling himself, even without his sight," he finished, remembering the two dissolved bodies upon the highway.
Paul gave Harrison a long look, obviously gauging whether to tell him about Slade's slide into drink and the bouts of temper that had made him more of a liability, even with his exceptional skills. In the end he just shook his head; if Slade had come to terms with those particular devils, then it wasn't for Paul Ironhorse to make them public. Instead he waved a hand, indicating the waiting area.
Slade had already taken a seat there, a frown of worry etched across his face. He had taken the knowledge that the earth was under attack from aliens very well, accepting Blackwood's words mainly because Paul Ironhorse was there to back them up.
"How did you know that Sheriff Drewman was not who he said he was?" Blackwood finally asked the blind man after twenty minutes of strained silence.
Slade considered the question before he answered; how could he explain that feeling of unease that had gripped at his stomach? The knowledge that all was not as it should be? Finally, he tried: "They skidded across the road in front of us, causing Charlie to brake hard." He pulled a slight face as he continued drily, "I assumed that that's not your usual police tactic in Oregon. Then, when the sheriff approached..." he paused, remembering. "It's not really easy to explain, but it didn't feel right and..." Again he stopped, then said with a hint of distaste, "Man, he smelt awful - I mean, a nine-day corpse left in the sun isn't as bad."
Blackwood leant forward, his face suddenly lit by expectation. "You could smell him?"
"Is it possible?" Ironhorse asked Blackwood before Slade could answer. "Could the aliens secrete a scent that we've not noticed before?"
"Well, this is really Suzanne's area," Blackwood said, not willing to commit himself without verifying it with the microbiologist first, "but it is possible that Colonel Slade's sense of smell is better than ours because of his disability."
Slade settled more comfortably in his chair as he agreed with feeling, "All I know is that the smell was not natural, and Charlie's reaction to the sheriff told me that something was wrong with the situation."
"Well," Blackwood agreed, "on that point you were right. If you hadn't reacted as you did, then you would be dead and Charlie...." He stopped, another thought catching up with him.
"What?" Ironhorse asked, knowing that when Blackwood got that look in his eyes it meant that he was off on a tangent, a pathway that usually led to more answers in their fight against the aliens.
"We've assumed that the aliens were after something that the Simms' had - hence the destruction at the store, but maybe...." He stopped as he tried to sort out his thoughts. "What if it was the boy they were after all along?"
"Charlie...?" Slade asked, his tone indicating that he didn't like that idea. "Why the hell would they want Charlie?"
Blackwood sat for a few moments, trying to answer that question himself. Finally he shrugged, his voice carrying a hint of disappointment. "I'm not sure. There's something missing, I can't put my finger on it." Again he shrugged. "Maybe Charlie can tell us."
Before Ironhorse or Slade could comment, the door to the surgery opened and Dr Morgan walked out. He was in the process of drying his hands as he came to a stop before the three men and gave them each a hard look. "Normally I would have insisted that you take him to the hospital at Pendleton, but seeing as that's over two hours away...." He stopped, letting his words hang. Not getting the explanation he hoped for, he sighed and continued, "I've removed the bullet; if there are no complications it should heal cleanly, but he has lost a fair amount of blood." Dr Morgan frowned as he continued, "I'm not able to give him a transfusion, mainly because I'm not set up for it. Like I said, the serious injuries go to the hospital, but also..." He stopped, unsure how to explain that, according to the boy's blood pressure reading, he should be dead.
"But?" Slade asked, his worry for his young friend evident in his voice.
Dr Morgan gave them each another hard look before he stated firmly, "Look, by law I've got to report this... I'm duty bound to report any shooting victim I get in here."
Ironhorse stood up and, fumbling in his jacket, he produced his identification, saying, "Lieutenant Colonel Paul Ironhorse, on assignment from Ft. Streeter. We're after a group of terrorists who attacked and murdered some people in Gresham."
"Gresham?" Morgan said, a ripple of shock filtering through him. "Sheriff Drewman is aware of this, then?"
Blackwood shot Slade a quick look, but the other man seemed content to let Ironhorse handle the situation.
Paul took a breath and explained, "Sheriff Drewman was killed by them, at the same time that Charlie Simms - the young man - was injured. My unit is taking care of that, but unfortunately the terrorists managed to slip away before we could apprehend them."
"What about the state police...?" Morgan began.
"This is strictly an army operation; Sheriff Drewman and two deputies died because they tried to take them on.... Also, this is strictly a need to know operation, and I would appreciate it if you could keep this quiet."
"You know I can't do that, Colonel," Morgan snapped, not liking the situation at all.
Paul looked at the elderly man who stood before him and considered the best approach. Finally he removed another card from his wallet and passed it across, saying, "You served in Korea, sir; I'm sure you realise how important the security of this country is. If this becomes public knowledge, it might affect that security. Please give General Wilson a call - that's his card - and I'm sure he will explain it more fully, but at the moment all I can say is that you are not to tell anyone about this incident."
Joe Morgan looked at the men who stood before him. He could tell from their serious expressions that they fully believed what they had told him, and - although he found it hard to believe that Drewman was now dead - he also knew that the identification Lt. Col. Ironhorse had produced was valid... and he was a loyal-enough citizen to want to help these men keep the security of his country safe. "Alright," he finally agreed, tapping the card within his fingers, "I'll give your General Wilson a call and then we'll see what happens."
"How soon before Charlie can be moved?" Blackwood asked, knowing that every moment they spent there would only endanger the people who lived in the small town of Silverton.
The doctor, remembering what he had been about to say before he got side-tracked, answered firmly, "He can't be moved."
"What?" Ironhorse said. "I thought you said the wound would heal and he was alright?"
"No, Colonel. While I said the wound would heal, I also said that he had lost a lot of blood, and...." Morgan paused, remembering the results of the blood pressure test. "Look, I don't really know what's going on here, but by the blood pressure readings I've been getting from that boy... he should be dead."
"Dead?" Blackwood said, his face losing some of its colour as the implications began to dawn upon him. "What do you mean?"
The doctor shrugged. "I've never seen anything like it before; I mean it's almost like the boy's got a... a...." He stopped, looking for the right words. "I assume that the injury only happened a few hours ago?" He looked towards Blackwood and got a nod of agreement.
"Well, the injury looked at least eight hours old when I treated it.... There is also an indication of infection, but his immunisation system is fighting back at an incredible rate. His blood pressure is 40/10, pulse reading of 90, and his haemoglobin is normal at 16.40, but his blood loss is evident and the white blood cells are sky high, along with his ESI. Now, put that all together and we're talking about a very healthy corpse... or something I've never seen before." Morgan stopped, letting his words sink in. "I would also have to say that - given the evidence of the way the lad's body is reacting to the threat of infection - that the boy has never had an illness since the day he was born."
"The sheriff said that Charlie never had a day off school sick in his life," Ironhorse said, remembering the conversation of that morning.
Dr Morgan shrugged. "I've read medical journals that covered the area of super-immunisation systems, but they mainly dealt with the topic as the next step of human evolution." Seeing the frowns this earned him, he hastened to explain, "You know... the more viruses and diseases that we have, the more the body has to change to battle them - hence the term super-immunisation. As the types of illness grow, so must the body's defence mechanism to battle them." He stopped again. "I only thought it was theory, but now...." Again he shrugged.
"Dr Morgan," Blackwood asked. "We've a biologist on our team; she should be here soon. Would it be possible for her to see your test results and maybe take some more blood from Charlie for further testing?"
"She's welcome to my results, but I'd rather you left the boy undisturbed. Even with the accelerated healing, he's still lost a dangerous amount of blood and he needs his rest." He thought again. "No, I would have to advise against it, at least until tomorrow."
"Can I sit with him?" Slade asked. Although he did not like the way the conversation had gone, his main concern was still Charlie. "I promise I won't disturb him."
Morgan looked at the blind man and could feel the genuine concern that he held for the youth. "Certainly... I moved him to a room at the back of the house; it's more comfortable than the surgery table," he finished with a slight smile. "I'll show you." He stopped and looked at the other two men. Seeing that they were prepared to wait where they were, he nodded and, allowing Slade to take his arm, he showed him out of the room.
"I've got to check on my people," Ironhorse said, motioning to his radio, "and I'll inform Suzanne of what's happened." He stopped and, rubbing at the bridge of his nose, he continued, "That's if I can understand it myself."
"I know what you mean," Blackwood agreed with a slight smile, before adding, "Ask her to get here as soon as possible. Also, we'll need to get Norton to do some more digging into Charlie Simms' background; the answer must lay there." He stopped again. "At least now we know why the aliens are after Charlie... if they can get their hands on his immunisation system and reproduce it...." He shuddered as he let his words hang. Both men were fully aware of what could happen if the aliens were able to survive the germs that had originally destroyed them.
"But surely the radiation would still kill off their host bodies after a while?" Ironhorse said by way of comfort.
Blackwood considered his friend's words before answering, his tone serious, "Not all of the aliens' drums were placed near radiation, Paul. Remember, some of them were buried, others just dumped in the water." He paused, remembering their trip up to Canada and the frightening sight of the aliens coming from the water before they had destroyed them by toppling an electric pylon into the lake, thereby electrifying the aliens as they lay in the water.
Ironhorse swallowed hard, only just realising the desperation that must be driving the aliens to capture this boy, and their chances of beating them on this occasion. "That means they're going to be back... and with reinforcements," he said coldly. "I'm getting Suzanne and the rest of the unit back here now."
"That might be a good idea; the sooner we're away from here the better," Blackwood said with some feeling as he watched Ironhorse move towards the door.
Blackwood stood in the silence for a few moments, letting the day's events sweep over him, putting each new piece of information into its own category and filing them in his mind for future contemplation. Their first concern had to be to get Charlie Simms out of the area and to safety, then they could find out the reason why he had such an unusual immunisation system.
With horror he stopped that train of thought... Charlie Simms was a human being, and here he was contemplating using the boy as a laboratory rat to experiment upon. He swallowed hard and pushed that thought aside... that was one avenue that he was not prepared to take. The boy's future was uncertain, that he knew, but he was determined that he was not going to end up in some government laboratory being checked over and treated as an experiment.
As he made his way to the back of the surgery in search of the doctor and Slade, he made a silent vow that the boy had suffered enough, and he would do everything in his power to assure that Charlie led as normal a life as possible... and, with Lieutenant Colonel Slade's help, he was sure that he could arrange it.
Charlie's mouth was dry... that was the first thought that invaded his sleepy mind. He licked his lips and groaned as he tried to move, feeling pain radiate through his arm and up his body.
"Charlie?" a familiar voice said from a distance away. "Charlie, can you hear me?"
He really wanted to answer, but couldn't seem to gather the strength. He licked his lips again and was grateful when someone raised his head and held a cup to his lips. He sipped at the liquid and then began to gulp as his thirst was quenched.
"Alright, Charlie," stated a voice he didn't recognise. "That's enough," it continued as the cup was removed.
Charlie opened his eyes to see where the cup had gone and had a few moments of disorientation as the room faded in and out of focus. Finally it settled and he found his bed surrounded by a group of strangers.
His eyes travelled the room and fastened upon his friend, Frank Slade. "Colonel," he said, then coughed as the words caught at his still-dry throat.
"You alright there, Charlie?" the blind colonel asked, a smile of relief crossing his features. "You had me worried for a while."
"Sorry, sir," the boy said, aware of how the other man would have worried. Then he asked, "Er... what happened?" He could feel the throbbing from his arm and knew that he had been shot; suddenly it all flooded back and he reacted by trying to sit up in bed.
Three pairs of hands reached out and pushed him back. "Take it easy," one of them said, his voice reassuring as he continued, "You're safe here, Charlie, and among friends."
"The sheriff..." the boy began, then stopped, remembering that Frank had shot the man. "The sheriff went for his gun first...." He stumbled over the words in his hurry to get them out. "Colonel Slade only acted to save our lives." He came to a stop as a wave of dizziness swept over him.
"It's alright, Charlie," Blackwood assured the pale-looking lad. "Colonel Slade has already explained what happened, and we know that he acted only to save your lives."
Charlie closed his eyes and swallowed hard at the bile that threatened to overcome him. Suzanne, seeing the boy's expression, turned to look at Dr Morgan, who nodded his head in silent agreement and said firmly, "That's enough, gentlemen; this lad needs his rest and I think right now he could use some privacy." Even as he spoke, Morgan reached for the small bowl that rested beside the bed and helped Charlie sit up so that he could empty the contents of his stomach into it. "Feel better?" he asked as he made Charlie more comfortable upon the pillows.
"No," the boy replied with feeling, looking as dejected as he felt.
Dr Morgan smiled and patted him gently upon his shoulder. "Don't worry, you'll feel better soon; it's just the shock that's making your stomach a bit uneasy. Look, there are some people who would like to talk to you for a short while - do you feel up to it?"
"Could Colonel Slade be present, please?" Charlie asked, his tone still slightly breathless.
"Yes, but if you get tired then you just tell Colonel Slade, alright?" the doctor advised, then paused at the look of fear that Charlie threw his way. "It's going to be alright... now, do you feel up to it?"
Charlie nodded, then regretted the action as the room spun. Swallowing hard, he answered instead, "I promise to rest afterwards."
The doctor left the room and, a few moments later, Frank Slade entered, followed by two men and a woman. "Charlie," Slade began, "this here is Dr Harrison Blackwood, Lt. Col. Ironhorse, and Dr Suzanne McCullough, and I think it's important that you listen to them and try to answer any questions that they might ask." Slade paused as he felt for and found the chair he had spent much of the night in. "Do you think you can do that, son?"
Charlie licked at his lips again and drunk in the sight of his friend. Now that his mother was dead, this was the one person he trusted more than anyone else on the planet. "Yes sir... I mean Colonel... sir," he finished weakly.
"Now, you're not going go to go simple on me, are you son?" Slade asked, a slight smile playing about his lips as he remembered their first encounter.
The boy upon the bed also smiled, remembering how Slade had called him a moron upon their first meeting. "No, Colonel," he said, the smile in his tone telling Frank that he was up to answering Blackwood's questions.
"Now, I'm going to stay right here, Charlie, and anytime you want to stop you just say so." Slade settled back more comfortably upon his seat, folded up his walking cane and rested it across his lap, waiting for Blackwood to begin.
The man in question paused for a few moments, pulling his thoughts together; they had waited most of the night for the boy to awaken. Suzanne had run her own tests and confirmed what the doctor had suspected, but she had not been able to answer the question of why Charlie Simms should have such special blood. Norton had not been able to supply much information either: Jenny Simms and her son's lives seemed to have started the day she met and married Harry Simms.
"Hello Charlie, my name - as Colonel Slade said - is Harrison Blackwood, and first off I have to say that we are your friends." He stopped and noted that Charlie was watching him intently, with the most vivid blue eyes that Harrison could ever recall. Blackwood got the feeling that it would not be easy lying to the lad, if one should choose to do so. "Firstly, I have to say how sorry I am about your parents' death."
The blue eyes misted, then closed, only to open clear once more. "Thank you," Charlie said, holding in the building pain of loss.
"Now, I want to tell you about some events that happened before you were born. I have to start there because, to fully understand what we are up against, you need to fully understand the situation." Blackwood paused, making sure that he had Charlie's full attention before he began, "It started back in 1953...."
When Blackwood had finished, he shot Slade a quick glance and could tell from his expression that he was aware of the shock that Charlie was feeling, as he had felt it only the day before.
Blackwood's attention was dragged back to the boy on the bed as he asked, "Why would these aliens kill my parents? And... and take over Sheriff Drewman? Why come after me... unless..." Charlie tried to sit up in bed again as the thought ripped through his mind, "the aliens killed them because of me." The full horror was now reflected upon his face and tears filled his eyes.
"Charlie," snapped Slade, standing and coming to the boy's side with an ease that belied his blindness. "We don't know that, and thinking that isn't going to help anyone." His tone was firm, and while Blackwood might have handled it another way, he had to admit that the voice caught and held back the tears of horror that he had seen building within the boy's face.
Charlie swallowed hard a few times before he continued, "So, what do we do now?"
"That's my boy, Charlie," Slade said, moving to sit upon the bed so that his nearness would reassure the lad.
"Now we need to get both of you to safety," Blackwood said, his voice edged with seriousness. Then he said, "Charlie, the doctor took your blood pressure, and he noticed that...." He stopped; was the boy even aware of his unusual blood? "He noticed that there was an unusual quality about it."
Charlie looked at the tall, handsome man who stood before him, not sure what he was trying to say.
Blackwood, realising that Charlie was in total ignorance, tried a different tack. "Can you remember where you and your mother lived before you moved to Gresham?"
"San Francisco," Charlie answered immediately.
Blackwood was taken aback with the speed with which he had answered. "Can you remember much about your life before you moved to Gresham, Charlie?" he asked, a hope growing in his heart.
"We moved about an awful lot... Mom used to worry about me going to school, but Dr Shermin said that..."
"Dr Mark Shermin?" Blackwood interrupted, his tone sharp. "He worked for SETI," he said by way of explanation to the others.
Ironhorse shot Suzanne a look of confusion; she nodded her understanding and gently held her finger to her lips, and he knew that she would explain as soon as they were free to talk.
"Yes, my mother and I travelled with him for quite a while... well, up until he died - he was hit by a car...."
"Yes, I remember. It was in San Francisco, about..." Blackwood closed his eyes, "about eleven - twelve years ago."
"Then we moved to Seattle; Mom was really shook up by his death and we moved about a lot more after that, until she met Harry and we moved to Gresham."
There was a knock at the door and Dr Morgan popped his head around it, saying, "That's enough; I said half an hour and I meant half an hour."
"Looks like we're being thrown out, Charlie," Slade said, reaching out and feeling up the boy's uninjured arm to squeeze his shoulder. "You try and get some rest; I'll be just outside the door if you need me." As he spoke, he opened his cane and began to tap his way from the room. Blackwood gave Charlie another reassuring smile before he stood and motioned the others out before him.
Charlie lay for a few moments, trying to take in all that Harrison had told him. Finally he let the sleep he could longer push aside wash over him; his last thought was of returning to Gresham and collecting the silver sphere that his mother had told him his father had left for him.
Harrison was forty minutes into his one hour sleep cycle when Ironhorse burst in upon him. "We've got to move it, people," the handsome Indian said, slapping at Blackwood's foot that rested upon a coffee table. "Suzanne," he continued, his tone softer as he awoke the team's microbiologist from her much-needed sleep upon the only sofa.
"What... Debi?" she began, confused, then wiping the sleep from her eyes she asked, her tone still slightly slurred, "What's happened?"
"According to Norton they're moving in, and moving in fast...." He didn't need to explain who 'they' were.
"How many?" Blackwood asked, already wide awake and raring to go.
Ironhorse threw him a look of disgust. "We've got about an hour to evacuate this place and set up a welcoming committee of our own." He paused, then added firmly, "I want you out of the area and in a safe haven before then."
"No way, Colonel," Blackwood began, his back straightening at the oncoming confrontation. Ironhorse was always trying to get him to a safe area whenever they encountered the aliens.
"Not this time, Harrison," Ironhorse snapped before he paused, took a breath and explained as slowly and as rationally as he could, "That boy's got to be moved to safety, and I want you with him... at least until we find out why the aliens want him so badly."
"I wouldn't let Colonel Slade hear you talking about Charlie that way," Suzanne warned, looking about for her other shoe that she seemed to have misplaced.
"Colonel Slade is with Dr Morgan, getting Charlie ready for the trip," Ironhorse replied. "Now, I'm going to send Derriman and a unit with you. You will head back towards Gresham - I've arranged an evac for you just outside the town. Derriman knows the landing site, and I'm arranging for another unit to meet you there, just in case."
"What about you?" Blackwood asked, watching Suzanne hunt for her shoe, his head tilted to one side as he scanned the room for the missing object.
"I've got a reception to set up here, with another four units just arriving from Pendleton." Ironhorse glanced at his watch. "I hope Norton's calculation for the aliens' arrival is accurate," he muttered under his breath.
"What else did Norton have to say?" Blackwood asked, as he too began to search in earnest for Suzanne's missing shoe.
"He's still trying to dig up any information on Shermin, but I told him you would contact him later - once you're in a safe place," Paul stressed, bending down and handing Suzanne her missing shoe.
She glared at the offending item before she thanked him absent-mindedly and hurried to put it on. "What about the people who live here?" she asked, pushing her hair from her face.
"They are already being moved out. Our cover story is that the terrorists have some very dangerous substance and are threatening to use it if we attempt to capture them."
"Nice cover story, but I prefer the one about the aliens," Harrison said with a slight smile. For some reason, he always felt better once he knew what the aliens were up to, and the months of silence had been wearing on him.
"I prefer the one about the nutty professor who only sleeps one hour in five, myself," Ironhorse shot back, holding open the door and ushering them out before him.
"Really," Blackwood said, passing him by. "I've not heard of that one."
"Believe me, Harrison," Ironhorse muttered, closing the door after them, "you won't like the ending the army colonel has planned for the nutty professor."
Charlie was sitting on his bed when Blackwood and Suzanne entered. Dr Morgan was going over some last minute instructions with Slade, who listened attentively and nodded in the appropriate places.
"Are you ready?" Ironhorse asked, coming to stand behind Blackwood who was blocking the doorway.
"Nearly," Dr Morgan said, then added, "I don't like this; he should not be moved yet."
"We don't really have a choice, Doctor - these people will stop at nothing," Ironhorse added for effect.
Suddenly Derriman was beside him. "The van's ready, sir." He shot a glance at Blackwood and the others. "Once everyone's on board we can go."
"Alright people, let's get this show on the road." Ironhorse began to round up his people. "Suzanne, could you assist Col. Slade, and Harrison and I will help Charlie." It was not a request, and nobody chose to argue the arrangements. "Dr Morgan," Ironhorse continued, "I think it would be wise if you left as well, now."
"This is preposterous; I've never had to leave my home before," the doctor protested.
"I'm sorry, sir, but it would be safer for your wife and yourself if you left with the others." Ironhorse glanced at his watch. "You should be back by nightfall, sir," he added as an apology.
The doctor sighed heavily and left nobody in any doubt as to his opinion of the situation. "If I must," he finally said, "then I guess I must."
"It's for the best, Doctor." Blackwood added his backing to Ironhorse's words. "These people are not to be trifled with."
Dr Morgan seemed to relent at that and, casting one last look at his very strange patient, he advised, "Keep him warm and still, if possible. I'm still concerned by his vital signs - not good at all," he added as he followed them from the room. "If he starts to bleed, you've got problems... so take it easy."
Charlie was bravely trying to walk between the two men who supported him, but couldn't seem to push past the fogginess that clouded his mind. "Where are we going?" he finally asked as he was moved out into the bright sunlight.
"Don't worry, son," Blackwood said, tightening his grip upon the boy. "Everything's going to be alright."
"I've got to go home," Charlie said, the fresh air helping to clear his mind somewhat.
"You're going somewhere safe," Ironhorse stated firmly as they helped him out to the van that had been prepared for him. A makeshift bed of a mattress and blankets awaited him.
"No," Charlie said, wishing his tongue didn't feel so thick in his mouth. "You don't understand, I've got to go home; my mother and then...." He paused, seeing the look that passed between the two men helping him. "No... it's not that...." Charlie stopped, knowing that he wasn't making any sense.
"Charlie, are you giving us a hard time?" Slade's voice came from the back of the van and the boy lifted his head up and smiled weakly at his friend, who was sitting next to the mattress.
He started to speak, then paused to lick at dry lips. "They don't understand," he insisted as he was lifted into the van and placed upon the bed.
Suzanne drew the blankets over the boy, pushing back a stray lock of hair as she advised, "Don't worry, everything's going to be alright."
Charlie took in a deep breath, shuddering at the pain that flared and tried again, "I've got to go to Gresham; it's important."
"Getting you to safety is the most important thing now, Charlie," Blackwood said, climbing into the passenger seat and buckling up.
Ironhorse was standing by the passengers' open window. "You know where the landing site is, Sergeant," he spoke across Blackwood to Derriman. "Once you leave here, I don't want you stopping for anything until you get there."
"Yes sir," the soldier snapped, his face showing his determination.
"Good, and don't let Blackwood offer up any side trips; I expect to hear you're on that chopper in..." he glanced at his watch, "fifty minutes."
"Don't you worry, sir," Derriman advised, giving Blackwood a smile that showed that he meant business, but Blackwood had other thoughts on his mind.
"You take care, Paul." His tone was serious, his face a study of concern.
Ironhorse paused, seeing the genuine apprehension for his welfare reflected in his friend's face. Reaching out, he patted Blackwood's arm. "I've got enough men here to take out anything the aliens might want to throw at us."
Blackwood pushed his words aside, saying instead, "Don't take chances, Paul."
Ironhorse opened his mouth to accuse Blackwood of stealing his lines, then realised that the van would never get away at that rate. He nodded his agreement, then clapped the side of the vehicle and watched as Derriman put it into gear and slowly pulled away.
Ironhorse stood for a few seconds watching the van and the two cars guarding it disappear from sight, then he turned back and began to shout orders. He paused and waved to Dr Morgan as he drove past, also heading towards Gresham; the doctor was the last resident to leave. Now all he had to do was prepare a proper welcome for the aliens that were - according to Norton - on their way to Silverton. Glancing at his watch once more, he was pleased to note the arrival of his other four units ahead of schedule.
The gentle swaying of the van began to intrude upon Charlie's restless dreams. The shooting of Sheriff Drewman and his subsequent melting played over and over again, amid the last moments he had had with his mother as she waved him goodbye after his visit home last Christmas.
"Charlie?" a familiar voice asked, at the same time as a hand rested upon his shoulder.
Charlie fought to open his eyes and looked directly into the sightless vision of his friend, Colonel Slade.
"Colonel," he said, licking at dry lips. "What's happening?" he continued, glancing about the interior of the darkened van.
"Just take it easy, Charlie, everything's going to be alright."
"Are we going to Gresham?" the boy asked, squinting at the other man.
"No son," Slade returned, reaching out and feeling his way across the makeshift bed, taking Charlie's uninjured arm in a reassuring grip. "It's best that we get you out of here."
"No." Charlie started to sit up, but was restrained by the hand upon his arm.
"Charlie," Slade said, his voice losing the soft tone, "don't argue with me on this. It's just too dangerous for you to go home."
Charlie subsided and shot a look at the woman who had been introduced to him as Dr McCullough. She gave him an encouraging smile, but he looked away, unable to return the gesture.
"When things are a bit more quiet," Blackwood said from the front, "we'll come back."
Charlie looked up at the other man as he leant over the front seat to address him. "It will be too late then" he stopped breathlessly before he gasped, I've got to get what my father left for me, you just don't understand" the boy said, his tone revealing how defeated he now felt.
"We're about two miles from Gresham," Derriman said to Blackwood, who shot him a quick look before he nodded in agreement.
"Where are we going?" Charlie asked, his tone stronger, suddenly more determined.
Slade tilted his head and frowned. "Charlie, are you up to something?"
The boy shot Slade a look of pure shock, then licked his lips again as he answered in a nervous tone, "No... I mean, what can I plan flat on my back in a moving van?"
Blackwood, seeing the look that passed over the young man's face, took pity on him and answered his question. "We're heading for the small airstrip about a mile outside Gresham. We've got a helicopter waiting to take us to Fort Streeter." He paused before continuing, "It's an army base near San Francisco."
"Army base?" Charlie repeated, shooting Slade another look. "Why are you taking us to an army base?"
"Don't you remember our talk in Silverton?" Blackwood asked, concerned that the boy had forgotten his explanation of the alien invasion.
Charlie Simms felt a cold fear creep through his body as he remembered the conversation. "I remember some of it," he lied, "but it's a bit hazy. Could I sit up? I'm feeling a bit sick," he said, lifting a hand up to wipe shakily at his mouth.
Suzanne was there instantly, saying, "It more then lightly a reaction to everything that's happened."
"Do you want me to stop?" Derriman asked, frowning as he looked in the rear view mirror. To stop would go against Colonel Ironhorse's orders, but Dr McCullough was in charge of the patient and he would have to take her advice.
Charlie was looking more and more distressed by the moment. "I think I'm going to be sick," he interrupted, swallowing hard several times for effect.
Suzanne shot Harrison a look, who just shrugged and pulled his lips down, firmly laying the decision in her lap. She reached over and brushed back the boy's fringe. "You'd better pull over," she informed Derriman as Charlie began to struggle into a sitting position.
As soon as the van had stopped, Charlie was fighting to get to the back doors. Blackwood was there and swinging them open, and he half-caught the young man as he slipped from Slade's protective embrace.
"Please," Charlie stated weakly as he tried to get his legs under him. Nodding, Blackwood helped him over to the side of the road and allowed him to lean against a tree as he threw up.
Suzanne and Slade had climbed from the van and were waiting a short distance away, ready to offer assistance if needed. Derriman was talking on the radio to the escort vehicles.
Blackwood glanced back at Suzanne and smiled reassuringly, then started as her expression of sympathy for the sick lad turned to one of total shock. Spinning about, Blackwood was just in time to see Charlie disappear further into the undergrowth.
"Charlie," Harrison yelled in anger before starting after the boy. He'd run a few hundred feet before he tripped over an old tree root and ended up lying flat along the hard ground. He groaned in pain and realised that it would be impossible to find the young man in the dense undergrowth unless he gave himself up. "Charlie, don't be stupid," he cried out as Suzanne reached his side and offered him a hand up.
"Where did he disappear to?" she asked, also looking into the rough terrain that lay before them. "I can't believe he would be so stupid." As she spoke, she looked toward Blackwood, who was brushing the dirt from his clothes.
"We'd better get back and organise a search," Harrison said, taking the woman by the arm and heading back towards the road. "I don't suppose that you fancy telling Ironhorse?" Blackwood asked casually as the road came into view, then seeing the look upon Suzanne's face he reconsidered and finally stated, "Derriman can tell him." So saying, he turned and made his way back to the van.
"What the hell happened?" Derriman demanded as they stepped back onto the road, his gun at the ready as he scanned the surrounding area.
"He's in there somewhere," Blackwood said, pointing back towards the trees that covered the side of the mountain. "God knows why he bolted."
"Oh, this is just great," Derriman said, looking as though he would have enjoyed throwing his cap to the ground and stamping on it. "Who's going to tell the colonel?" he asked, holding out the radio.
Blackwood considered his earlier idea, then, wilting, he took the radio from Derriman and said, "You'd better get your men out and looking." As the sergeant began to walk away, Harrison continued, "And get some of them back to the store. I would guess that's where he's heading."
"I'm going to kill that kid when I get my hands on him," Slade snarled, coming up to stand beside them.
"Let's hope you get the opportunity before the aliens get him," Suzanne said in a weary tone, as she shot Blackwood a look that was loaded with guilt.
"It'll be alright, Suzanne," Blackwood hastened to reassure before he placed the call to Lt. Col. Ironhorse.
"He's done what?" Ironhorse felt the casing of the radio creak under the pressure he was applying to it as his anger grew. "I thought the boy was wounded and unable to move very far?" he snarled at Blackwood.
"Join the club, Colonel," Blackwood shot back, his tone of annoyance carrying even over the air. "He threw up, and then took off."
Ironhorse cast a glance at his watch. He had just received a report that the aliens were on their way and would reach Silverton within a quarter of an hour. "I'm caught here for the time being," he said. "Tell Derriman to continue the search, and I want you to stay with the van until I get there."
"I think he's heading for Gresham. He seemed to think it was important that he went there," Blackwood said, also glancing at his watch.
"You just stay there, Blackwood, and don't move. Derriman and some men should remain with you." He paused while he considered his next step. "I'm going to send you another unit."
He stopped as Blackwood interrupted, "You'll need all the men you've got, Colonel."
"Don't tell me what I need, mister. If you'd kept an eye on the lad, he would be on that helicopter by now." Silence was his only answer to that comment, so he tried to explain calmly, "I'm going to get the soldiers at the helicopter site to come down and help you. As soon as I've finished here I'll join you, but I don't want you getting lost as well." He paused again. "Do I make myself clear?"
Blackwood shot the radio a look of pure dislike before he answered, "Yes sir, I promise not to go play in the woods, sir."
"Blackwood..." The unspoken threat was clear to all those who heard it.
"Alright, Paul," Blackwood finally conceded. "Suzanne and I will stay by the van." There was a pause before Blackwood stated, "You just take care with those aliens, Paul."
Ironhorse let the breath he had been holding out slowly; he had been sure that Blackwood would disobey him and go charging off into the woods to look for the boy himself. "Thank you, Harrison, and I always take care when dealing with the aliens... you should know that." With that, Ironhorse signed off and turned to Sergeant Stavrakos. "Take twelve men and get on the road to Gresham. I want you to set up a road block, just in case any of the aliens slip by us."
"Sir." Stavrakos saluted and, turning, made his way towards his vehicle, choosing his people as he went.
Ironhorse contacted the commander at the small airstrip just outside Gresham and gave him his orders to assist Sergeant Derriman in his search for the boy. Cutting the connection, Ironhorse glanced once more at his watch. Time was passing swiftly and soon the aliens would be upon them. Ironhorse knew from his lookouts that seven cars were heading into Silverton, and they had estimated about twenty-seven aliens.
Turning, he squinted up at the sun. In another few hours, darkness would be upon them; he only hoped that he would be alive to see another sunset. Shaking the morbid thoughts from his mind, he turned and gave his men a final check before the enemy arrived.
Charlie slipped down the slight embankment and gritted his teeth against crying out as pain ripped through his injured arm. Staggering up, he continued to plough through the foliage. He had grown up in this area and knew his way about the back woods that bordered the town of Gresham.
Hearing a noise in the distance behind him, he stopped and, gasping for breath, tried to gauge just how far back his pursuers were. He knew that when they caught up with him he was going to be in deep, deep shit. He leant back against the tree he was standing beside and, raising a shaking hand, he wiped it across his face.
He would not be able to explain to Colonel Slade or Blackwood his burning need to retrieve what his father had left for him. If he was honest, he didn't really understand all that had happened to him in the last forty-eight hours. He didn't understand his parents' senseless death, the sheriff of Gresham - a man he had known for most of his life - melting in the road before him, nor did he understand the fact that his planet was being invaded by aliens.
Closing his eyes, he fought the desire to just slip to the ground and stay in a huddled mass until the pain went away. He knew that if he just laid there long enough, then it would.
Gathering his failing strength, he forced his eyes open and looked about: he was about half a mile from town. He knew that there was only one place where they would have taken his mother's body - the old funeral parlour. He was fighting against the urge to see her for one last time or to go to Crystal Cave, where his mother had buried the box that contained information about his real father. He had never been allowed to hear the tape or read the journal that his mother had hidden in the waterproof box, just before she had buried it deep. He only knew that if anything happened to her, then he was to retrieve it and know about his father and what he had left for him. Feeling wetness running down his arm, he glanced at it and noticed that he was dripping blood onto the leaves that lay about him. Pushing himself from his resting place, he again began to stumble across the rough terrain. His decision made he knew that he had to reach the caves before dark; that one thought was beginning to take control of his movements, was giving him the strength to force one step in front of the other.
Norton hated being left behind when the others went off in pursuit of the aliens, but he realised that his contribution to the team came directly from his knowledge of computers and the information he could glean from them, and that was best supplied by his remaining at the Cottage as a central collection point and linking in with the others by radio contact.
He had spent the last fifteen minutes with the cold tentacles of fear creeping up his spine. As he began to recheck the information that was filtering into his console, if what he suspected was true then his friends in Oregon were in a lot of trouble. Five minutes later he was putting in an emergency alert call to Lt. Col. Ironhorse.
Ironhorse came on the line; his tone was sharp, unable to hide his annoyance at the call at such a critical time. "What's up, Norton. We're expecting the aliens at any moment."
"I'm afraid that they are not coming, Colonel," Norton said, licking his lips as he felt stunned silence from the other end of the radio.
"What do you mean?" Paul's voice had taken on the tight tone that showed that he was a man who didn't like surprises.
"I've checked and rechecked, Colonel, and from their present transmissions they've turned off and are no longer heading into Silverton."
"If they're not coming here... then where the hell are they going, Norton?" Ironhorse asked as he tried to mentally map the surrounding area.
"I'm not too sure," Norton finally admitted. "It looks as if they've spilt into three groups and are fanning out in your general area."
"That's just great," Ironhorse snarled. "Charlie Simms got away from Blackwood about a mile outside Gresham."
"Yeah, I know," Norton began. "I contacted Harrison a short while ago with that information on Mark Shermin."
"Mark Shermin?" Ironhorse asked, then he went offline for a few seconds. Drake didn't mind as he knew that Paul was giving new orders to his men. Then, just as suddenly, he was back. "Sorry about that, Norton. If the aliens are not coming here, then I want to get this place tightened down and get to Blackwood. If there are aliens wandering about out there, you can bet your last dollar that Blackwood is going to stumble across them."
Drake smiled tightly. Nodding his head in agreement, he said with feeling, "I'll back your bet on that one."
"So what information did you get on Dr Shermin?" Ironhorse asked, getting back to the original discussion.
"Well, he worked for SETI - that's the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Apparently he was involved in a supposed UFO crash in the seventies. It was said to have gone down in Northern Wisconsin, and was rumoured to have one survivor who they tracked across America to the Crater, west of Winslow, Arizona. The alien got away and the army wasn't too pleased - a Mr Fox, Director of SETI, seemed to blame Dr Shermin for the loss. Anyway, he applied pressure and got Dr Shermin kicked off the project and within a few months Shermin had disappeared. One interesting point to note was that the alien was said to have had the help of a woman, Jenny Hayden, during his escape. It was reported back to SETI, from an unknown source, that she had a baby about nine months after the incident, but she dropped out of sight about the same time that Shermin did."
"And Dr Shermin was with Charlie when he was a child?" Ironhorse said. "I bet Blackwood loved this when you told him, didn't he?"
"Blackwood seems to think that it would explain Charlie's... er..." Norton paused, not sure how to explain what they had told him of Charlie's unique medical ability. "...talent," he finally stated.
"So, Harrison now thinks that Charlie is an alien or half-alien?" Ironhorse said, biting back the real words he wanted to say, knowing that Norton was only the bearer of the news and not the originator. "Great," he muttered, just loud enough for Norton to hear. "How many are there out there, anyway?"
"I'm beginning to ask that question myself," Norton replied with feeling, then before he could go on Ironhorse interrupted.
"Hold on, Norton." Silence ruled for a few minutes, before the colonel came back online. "Norton, I'm about ready to roll here." Again silence before he came back on air. "I'm leaving a unit here, just in case, and taking the other two to continue the search for Charlie. If what you say is correct, then we have to get to that boy before the aliens do."
"Do you want me to contact Blackwood and let him know you're on your way?" Norton asked, flicking his fingers over the keyboard as further information flashed up on his screen.
"No... no, I'll do that once I'm underway. Can you get back on the aliens' transmissions and see if you can give us any idea of where they've got to, or a direction if possible? They have to be up to something out here besides chasing Charlie."
"Will do, big guy, but they've been playing possum for the last half an hour," Norton answered, wishing that he could say more and wanting to be with them rather than stuck in the basement of the Cottage.
"Keep on it, Norton." A slight pause before Ironhorse added, "Good work, Mr Drake." Then he was gone.
Norton looked from the phone to the computer screen and back again. He couldn't help but smile. Ironhorse was not free with praise and yet, when he did, it always made the computer expert feel as if he'd run the hundred meters and won.
"Anytime, big guy," he said before he turned back to the computer and the secrets that lay hidden within its depths.
Harrison cut the connection with Ironhorse and trotted over to Suzanne and Col. Slade. "Norton's just contacted Paul; the aliens are not going to Silverton. They've diverted and he can't pinpoint them," he continued, seeing the question rise to Suzanne's lips.
McCullough felt the news ripple though her body as she gasped, "What's going to happen now?" She could not help but cast a look about the surrounding area, as if expecting to see the aliens leap out and yell 'Surprise'.
Blackwood, seeing the look, gave her a slight smile and gently rested a hand upon her shoulder in reassurance. "Ironhorse is on his way here with another two units; we're going to intensify the search for Charlie."
"Charlie's not just wandering out there," Slade said, his sightless eyes seeming to take in so much more than those with vision. "He's going somewhere and he won't stop until he gets there."
"Or the aliens capture him," Blackwood stated, unable to hide the tinge of fear that echoed in his voice.
Frank Slade considered the other man's words for a few seconds before he answered with determination, "Then I suggest that we get going and find him fast."
"Well," Harrison said, coming to sit beside the other man, "I'm open to suggestions, Colonel?"
"Charlie grew up here, so - even wounded - you're not going to find him easily in this terrain," Slade stated firmly. "But he's heading somewhere, and that can only be Gresham - either the store or the place where you took his parents, or somewhere where he feels safe."
"We've got people covering the first two places," Suzanne said, also coming to sit beside them. "If he turns up at either of those places, then we've got him."
"Not if the aliens have taken them out," Slade answered firmly. "So far they've been pretty good at second-guessing you, and who's to say that the aliens who took over Drewman and his men were the only ones in Gresham?"
Blackwood felt his blood run cold and shot the pretty microbiologist a startled look; it was not a thought that they had considered. "I'm just going to have a word with Derriman," he said as he excused himself and trotted up to the sergeant who was on watch at the front of the van.
Blackwood was pacing impatiently along the side of the road when Ironhorse's vehicle pulled up beside the van where Suzanne and Colonel Slade sat.
"Still no sign of Charlie?" Harrison asked, moving swiftly up to stand beside his friend as Ironhorse climbed out of the van.
Ironhorse shot Blackwood a hard glance. "I've sent reinforcements to back up the soldiers at the store and funeral parlour, and I've also warned them to do a radiation check on the men before they relax their guard." Blackwood had called him en route to explain Slade's concerns to him, and he'd immediately taken action to remedy the possibility.
Blackwood smiled at Ironhorse's tone and clapped the man on the shoulder, relieved. "We couldn't fight this war without you," he informed him with feeling.
Ironhorse gave Harrison a deep, steady, angry look before he commented in a dry tone, "No, but you managed to lose a wounded boy in this terrain. Can't I leave you to do anything right, Blackwood?" he finished with a growl.
"That was partly my fault," Suzanne said swiftly, coming to Harrison's defence. "I told him to stop the van."
Ironhorse turned upon her and she wilted under his glare. "I thought I said no stops." He paused, then grated, "What part of 'no stops' didn't you two understand?"
Blackwood bit back on his growing anger and stated to Suzanne instead, "And I thought the prospect of killing a few aliens would have put him in a better mood."
"Having you obey one order would send me into euphoria, Blackwood," snapped back the Indian colonel.
"Lieutenant Colonel Ironhorse," came a deep voice from behind them. Turning, all three saw Colonel Slade standing before them, an imposing sight as his anger rippled in the air about him. "I was of the opinion that army officers didn't use civilians as scapegoats," he accused, his tone tight, "and no matter whose fault it was, the boy is still missing and this isn't helping."
Ironhorse's back snapped upright at the slight, and he gritted his teeth so hard that he thought they would crack. After a few moments of stunned silence, he spoke: "You're quite right, Colonel Slade, and I would like to thank you for reminding me of my duty." With that, he turned and brushed past the two shocked civilians.
"You know it wasn't Paul's fault, either," Blackwood said quietly to Slade as he watched Ironhorse come to a stop beside Derriman.
"I know that and you know that, but Ironhorse's too good an officer to believe that."
"So reminding him of it is your way of helping him?" Blackwood demanded, his tone showing his own anger at what he perceived to be a false accusation against his friend.
Slade said nothing for a few moments, then turning sightless eyes towards Blackwood he stated firmly, "Finding Charlie alive is Ironhorse's only concern now, and nothing you or I say is going to make him feel any better... and bawling you out will only make him feel worse later."
"Harrison," Suzanne said, resting a gentle hand upon the astrophysicist's arm, "Colonel Slade is right. Finding Charlie has to be our main priority now, not who was in the right or wrong or at fault."
Reaching up, the tall man wiped a hand across his tired face. "Don't you think I realise that, Suzanne?" he accused.
She bit at her bottom lip, but didn't answer. What could she say to make either of her two friends feel better about the situation? She had sat in the van watching Blackwood spend the last few hours wearing a hole in the road as he walked back and forth, agonising that his lack of attention had allowed Charlie to slip away from them. Again she patted his arm. "They'll find him, don't worry."
"Suzanne, he could be laying out there," Blackwood pointed into the dense foliage, "bleeding to death, if he's not dead already."
"Not my boy Charlie," Slade interrupted, his tone firm. "You don't know the lad like I do. He's a lot tougher than he looks," a slight frown filtered across Slade's rugged features, "and this must be very important to him... he's not the type to worry me needlessly."
Ironhorse walked back up to them, his expression one of total commitment. "We're going to head back to the store; Derriman just got a report from the funeral parlour and it's all clear."
"And you think that Charlie would head for the store?" Blackwood asked, eager to put their last hard words behind them.
"It's the only place that makes any sense," Ironhorse said. "Suzanne didn't find anything on the bodies, but I would assume that the aliens would have..." he paused, not sure how to word it. Finally he just said, "...er, looked anyway."
Suzanne grimaced and nodded in agreement. "The bodies were pretty badly abused, if anything was hidden... the aliens could have found it."
Ironhorse turned to Slade and asked, his tone very business-like, "Unless Charlie ever mentioned somewhere else to you, Colonel... somewhere where he would feel safe?"
Slade considered his answer for a few minutes, going back over his conversations with the boy and checking each one to see if anything important had been missed. "He didn't talk about home very often, just his mother and the store." He paused, a distant memory suddenly flickering within his mind's eye. "There was a place he mentioned once. He said..." he paused again, letting the memory focus, "he said I would have to visit it if ever I got out here."
"And that was?" Blackwood asked, his tone suddenly eager.
"It was a cave of some sort; er... some cave dwellers used to live there thousands of years ago. The tourists could only go into the first few caves, but Charlie and his mother used to go there and go into the back caves, the ones where the tourists weren't allowed. Charlie found an entrance to them when he was young."
Ironhorse slipped up to the front of the van and appeared a few seconds later with a map, beginning to read off the names of the local tourist sights. "Redman caves, Goldmine settlement...." He paused as Slade shook his head.
"No, it didn't have anything to do with mining; it was the cave dwelling that Charlie told me about - there are some drawings on the wall that are supposed to be over a thousand years old."
"Clay Pit Cave, Crystal Cave..." Ironhorse said, still looking at the map that he held in his hands.
"That's it," Slade said, reaching out in the Indian's direction. "Crystal Cave. He said that it's about two to three miles from Gresham."
Ironhorse worked out the distance and nodded his head, then - realising that Slade couldn't see him - he agreed. "Yes, about two, maybe three miles." Looking up, he added, "But why would he go there?"
"For something his father left him," Suzanne suddenly said. Seeing the blank looks this earned her, she continued, "In the van, he said that he had to get back and retrieve something that his father had left him. What if he wasn't talking about Harry Simms? You remember what Norton's told us about that UFO crash in the seventies and Jenny Hayden?"
Blackwood slapped his forehead in frustration and nodded eagerly. "Of course, Jenny was no fool; she'd been running from the government for too many years to have whatever it was in her own home."
"So they took it to the Crystal Cave... whatever it is," Suzanne said, then she frowned. "But the aliens won't know this, will they?" She gave both Blackwood and Ironhorse a worried glance.
"I don't know," Harrison said. "Not knowing what it is, I can't say - they might be able to track it, if it lets off a signal, or Jenny might have told them about the Crystal Cave before she died."
"And if that's where Charlie's heading, he could be walking right into their arms," Ironhorse said. Determinedly folding up the map, he continued, "Right, people, I suggest that we get a well-armed party out to the Crystal Caves and see exactly what's up there."
"I want to come," Slade said, standing and placing himself directly in front of the Indian.
"I'm sorry, sir, but speed is of the essence and you'll only hinder us."
"And Charlie trusts you as far as he can throw you," Slade snapped back. "And, son, with his bad arm that isn't too far just now."
Ironhorse opened his mouth to shoot back an answer when Blackwood hurried to intervene. "I think that Colonel Slade has a point there, Paul. If the boy sees us, he will disappear into the woods - but if he sees the colonel here, he might be prepared to listen to us."
"Harrison," Ironhorse growled, not liking the feeling of the two men ganging up on him. "I wasn't planning on taking you or Suzanne, either."
"The hell you weren't," Blackwood snapped back. "If Charlie's hurt, Suzanne might be able to help - and if you think I'm staying by this van for another minute, you can just think again."
"Paul," Suzanne said, before the other man could draw breath to speak. "To be honest, with Harrison's track record of attracting the aliens... do you really want to leave him here?"
Ironhorse opened his mouth to answer, but no sounds came out. He snapped it closed again before he stated firmly, "Alright, but you're going to do exactly what I tell you to do."
"Yes sir," Blackwood said, with a sloppy salute and a deep grin.
"Do you agree with that, Colonel Slade?" Ironhorse asked the blind man.
Slade snapped to attention and confirmed in a sharp, military tone, "If you say jump, I'll ask how high."
Ironhorse suddenly smiled; it cracked across his face and the whole mood seemed to suddenly lighten as he answered, "Did I really say that to you, Colonel?"
"No, Paul," Slade replied. "A very young, very green recruit said that to me, not you. Now, if we are going, it might be an idea to get there before the sun sets."
The other three looked towards the sky and saw that the sun was, indeed, slipping towards the horizon.
A few minutes later Ironhorse had assembled the small party of twenty soldiers and three civilians that were going to begin the three-mile trek to the Crystal Cave.
Charlie knew he was in serious trouble. He had made it to the edge of the rocks that held the Crystal Cave, but now he sat at their foot too drained to face the climb to the entrance.
He lifted his head to glance about. The sun would be setting shortly, and he had to get under cover before darkness came upon him and the night turned deathly cold.
He slowly began to take stock of his situation: his arm had stopped bleeding, but his clothes were soaked with blood; he was shivering, but felt uncomfortably warm; and his mouth felt like it hadn't tasted water in the last five years.
He closed his eyes and tried to rally some strength. As he did so, he saw the sight that would greet Slade if they ever found his body: his bones would be picked clean and gleaming white as they leant up against the rocks. The blind man would not actually see the sight, but to Charlie it was the one thought that pushed energy into his wasted muscles. He would not let Slade find him like that - he owed the man too much to disappoint him in that manner.
Slowly he climbed back to his feet, clutching at the rock as the world tilted dangerously to his left. He stood for a few moments hugging the cold face of the cliff, glad at the slight relief the cold gave his burning forehead. Then slowly, using the rocks as supports, he began to move toward the little trail that led up to the entrance to the cave.
He stopped as he heard a noise, frowning. The sound seemed to have come from above him, but that couldn't be right - there was no way that Slade and the others could have known that he would come here... was there?
He shot a look behind him and wondered if he could make his way back to the shelter of the trees, but before he could even complete the thought a hand came down hard upon his shoulder, the weight of it causing his weakened legs to collapse under him. Before he could grasp what was happening, those same hands pulled him up and half-lifted him from the ground.
"What...?" he gasped as he was pulled close to a sore-ridden face. Receiving no reply, he was slammed back against the rock face and the world flickered before him. When it stopped, he saw that the first pockmarked man had been joined by another. With a sinking feeling, he knew that he was facing the aliens that Blackwood had told him about.
"The Advocates will be pleased with us," the second alien stated, before he pointed at Charlie, continuing, "Bring him inside. We need to find the canister and he will know where it is."
As the second man finished speaking, the first pulled Charlie forward and grabbed at his arm. A wrenching pain tore through his injured body, and it proved too much for the wounded boy as he fainted into the arms of the alien who held him.
The two aliens looked with disinterest at the unconscious boy, then without further words they made their way back up to the cave where more aliens were busy digging holes, in search of the box that Jenny Simms had told them about, just before she had died.
Ironhorse heard Blackwood curse as he tripped over yet another tree root and suppressed the slight smile that rose to his face. "Keep it together, folks," he said instead, and totally ignored the glare this earned him from Blackwood.
Derriman was moving beside Slade. Since the start of the journey he had assigned himself as the blind man's guide, but Frank Slade seemed to be managing better than the others as he easily stepped over the tree root that had caused Blackwood's fall.
"How much further?" Harrison asked, frowning at Slade as the man eased along the tangled pathway as if he had walked it many times before.
Ironhorse shot a quick look down at the map that he was carrying and calculated the remaining distance to the cave. "About another mile or so. We're not making good time here," he added as an afterthought.
"How this place ever became a tourist attraction is totally beyond me," Suzanne said, wiping another small branch out of her hair.
"There's an easier path to the site, but we would have had to go back about fifteen miles to reach it, and that would have taken time - time we can ill-afford to lose," Ironhorse stated. "Besides, my people are quite capable of handing any terrain."
"I feel so much better, now that I know that we are capable of handling any terrain," Blackwood said, stepping over another root only to get caught by the one hidden beyond it.
"If we could have some silence from here on in?" Ironhorse asked, giving Blackwood a hard look. "After all, we don't want to let them know we're coming, do we?"
Harrison opened his mouth to reply, but closed it before answering stiffly, "The next sound you hear from me will be my ankle bone snapping."
"So long as you do it quietly, Harrison," Ironhorse shot back, "that's all I ask."
Silence descended upon the team as they continued their march towards Crystal Cave and what they hoped would be the aliens they had come to destroy.
Charlie groaned in pain and slowly twisted over, intending to be sick - but he had nothing else to bring up, so he lay there dry heaving until the world stopped spinning. Unfortunately, the stink within the cave did not go, and he finally had to open his eyes to see just what it was that smelt so bad.
As he did so, he groaned again, seeing a group of people digging up the floor of the cave. He swallowed as he realised that the smell actually originated from them. He was not a boy to read horror stories, but looking at the mix of men and women before him, he began to realise that the term un-dead was not such a far-flung idea after all.
"He's awake," one of them said, noticing Charlie's movements.
The tall alien who had carried Charlie into the cave stopped his digging and headed over towards him, where he proceeded to pull him roughly into the centre of the cave and the light. "Where is it?" the pockmarked man demanded, his eyes gleaming in the eerie light that spread about the cave.
Charlie licked dry, cracked lips and swallowed hard before he asked in a shaking tone, "Where's what?" He could feel his heart beating within his chest and felt sure that they could also hear the terror that rang in his voice.
"Not good enough," the alien hissed as he reached over and, grabbing at Charlie's hair, pulled him upright before he slapped him hard across the face.
Charlie cried out in pain and drew back as the alien let him go and threw him back to the cave floor. "Let's ask him the same way we asked his parents," the alien snarled, reaching into his coat and pulling out a wicked looking knife.
Charlie tried to scramble backward, but was unable to do any more than flop about the ground as his injured arm refused to obey him. With growing horror he saw the man begin to approach him.
"No," another alien snapped, coming to stand beside the knife-wielding man. Reaching out, he pushed the knife hand down. "They want him alive; he's useful to us alive."
"What do you want?" Charlie asked, watching as the others began to gather about him. "I won't tell you anything," he added bravely. He could see that most of them had blistering sores upon their faces and bodies, their clothes looked the worse for wear and they smelt awful. He swallowed back the bile that rose to his throat.
"Don't worry, lad, you're safe with us," the second alien said gently before he knelt down and reached out towards Charlie. The boy pulled back in fear. "We won't hurt you as long as you don't give us reason to."
"You killed my parents?" Charlie gasped as realisation of what was happening crashed in upon him. "You've no right to this planet," he accused them, his voice rippling with anger.
The knife-wielder laughed. "And you think that you have?" He tilted back his head and laughed again, before adding with confidence, "We are a superior race to yours... both of them."
Charlie felt a sudden rage rise within him and he struggled to gain his feet. Knife-wielder, seeing his feeble attempts, reached out and pulled him roughly up. "He can't even stand," he stated with contempt. "How is he going to help us?"
The second alien span around and pushed the one holding Charlie back a few steps, snarling, "It's not for us to question the Advocacy, now let's get back to digging. If this pup is here, then the others won't be far behind."
"He can tell us where it is," the first insisted, moving towards Charlie again. "I can make him tell us," he said, looking toward the one who seemed to be in charge.
The second alien considered his words, then turned to look at the many holes that dotted the cave floor. "Alright, but don't kill him." As he spoke, he turned and motioned for the others to resume their digging, which they did in an automated fashion.
The first alien looked over at Charlie and smiled, lifting his knife again. He advised with an almost loving tone, "You're going to tell me, or am I going to have to hurt you... hurt you bad." As he spoke, he moved forward and Charlie took corresponding steps back until he came up against the back of the cave.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he lied, when he had nowhere else to go.
The alien smiled deeply - even as a human he had enjoyed giving pain to others. "I was hoping that you'd say that. I enjoyed playing with your mother; do you know how many hours it took before she told us what we wanted to know?"
"You bastard," Charlie suddenly howled, throwing himself at his tormentor. The alien was thrown off balance, stumbling to the ground, his knife flying from his hand. Charlie followed the man and began to kick at his body, totally ignoring his own pain as he revelled in his attack.
Then he was running - more like scrambling - for the gap that he had once found at the back of the cave. It was a slim breach between the rocks that he found easy to slip through. Even as he reached the other side, he felt a hand making a grab for him. He yelled in fear and fell through.
He lay upon the ground, gasping in deep breaths. He could hear the aliens on the other side of the breach trying to get through, but he knew that he was safe - only he and his mother had ever been able to slip into the large cave that lay hidden by the front one... the aliens, he knew, were too big.
After a few minutes of rapid arguing in a language that he didn't understand, silence descended within the other cave, followed by a voice hissing through the gap, "Charlie... Charlie Simms, you can't stay in there forever - and when you come out, we will be waiting for you." A slight pause, then, "If you make us come after you, boy, you will be more than sorry."
Charlie closed his eyes, gritting his teeth against the fear that was biting at his body. He knew that the reprieve was only temporary, but he didn't concern himself about that, not now.
With a gasp of effort, he pushed himself up and felt for the edge of the wall. Steadying himself there for a few more minutes, he began to measure his way along step by step. He shook his head as the numbers inside his head began to get muddled. When his mother had brought him here to bury the container, they had carried a light and a small pile of rocks had been placed upon the burial site. Normally it would have been easy to find, and he had frequently come to the cave as a child just to sit and stare at the rocks, and to wonder what secrets the container held. Never once had he considered going against the promise he had given his mother to not open the box while she was alive.
He stumbled as he tripped over some rocks and fell heavily to the ground. He let out a deep groan of pain as the sharp rocks bit into his legs and jarred his injured arm. Pushing that agony aside, he began to shove the rocks away from him. Digging was difficult with one hand, but he scraped at the earth and was pleased to feel that it gave way easily.
He had been digging for a few minutes, pulling up the earth and pushing it to one side, when suddenly his hands hit the top of the metal box. With shaking fingers, he scraped around the canister until he could move it. With a groan of effort, he pulled it out of the hole and leant back against the cave wall, resting it upon his legs.
He could still hear the aliens moving about in the outer cave, but pushed that thought from his mind. His one regret was the lack of light; the gap between the caves was too narrow to allow much light in, and he would have to tell the contents of the box by touch alone.
He fumbled for a while with the rusted metal clasps until they finally gave way. As the lid creaked open, Charlie let out a sigh and, with a shaking hand, he reached inside. A sudden memory of a horror movie flashed into his mind and he wondered briefly if snakes could survive underground.
The first thing he touched was a book. It was about an inch thick and eight inches long. Feeling past that, he came across an audio, then a video tape. Charlie took the tapes out and felt about their edges as if this would allow the tapes to tell their story without the aid of a machine. Ultimately he dipped his hand back into the seemingly empty box and, with trembling fingers, he chased a marble-like sphere about the canister.
As he lifted it from the box, the sphere burst into life. A deep blue tinge filled the cave, casting an eerie light and giving the surrounding rocks a ghostlike appearance.
Then the heat hit him. Charlie automatically opened his hand to let the sphere drop from his grasp, but it seemed to have stuck to his palm. He opened his mouth to cry out, but could only gasp in wide-eyed surprise as his injuries began to heal. At first it was like a warm, burning sensation that crept up from his hand to cover his body, until he was glowing as much as the sphere.
Minutes passed, until slowly the brightness faded to a dim glow. Only then did the sphere slip from his downward-tilting hand. It thumped onto the floor and the light was gone, darkness once more settling about the cave.
Charlie lay there for a few minutes, gasping air into his lungs. The pain no longer bothered him and he knew that, if he was to inspect the injury to his arm, it would be healed.
Slowly, inch by inch, he frantically felt over the ground until his hand came into contact with the sphere once more. As he picked it up, the light pulsed again and he was able to make out quite clearly the discarded book and tapes. Reaching down, he gathered them up and placed them carefully back in the canister. He knew that he would not be able to escape with them, and no matter how much he wanted to take them with him, he was not about to chance losing them.
As he replaced the box in the hole and covered it up, he considered his options. Although he felt a lot better now that his wounds had healed, he was not sure that he would be able to confront the aliens that awaited him in the outer cave... and, to his knowledge, that was the only way out.
After he had finished, he took one last, careful look about the cave to get his bearings, then placed the sphere deep into his trousers pocket. As it left his hand, darkness descended upon the cave. Moving over to the gap in the wall, he stood for a few moments, listening. He could hear the aliens moving about and knew that they were either waiting for him to come out, or continuing in their search for the canister.
Suddenly a voice raised above the others caught his attention. "Humans are coming through the forest, there must be about twenty to twenty-five."
"How far?" demanded the voice Charlie recognised as the leader.
"About five... maybe eight minutes."
"We have to kill them," the leader stated. "They've got to cross the river; we could perch on the cliff above them and shoot them then."
The knife-wielding alien laughed as he agreed, "Get the guns; I fancy killing me some more humans."
"No," snapped the leader. "You stay here. You lost the boy, now you wait for him - he's got to come out sometime." There was some movement before the leader continued, "Don't kill him. The Advocates want to question him."
"As you wish," the knife-wielder agreed with less enthusiasm.
Charlie slumped back against the wall and considered his next move; he had to act fast and warn the others. He didn't know who they were, but if they were the enemy of those in the outer cave, then they had to be friends of his.
Standing, Charlie pushed his hand into his jeans pocket and gripped the silver sphere, seeking and finding reassurance. He was not sure what he was going to do, but he knew that the sphere seemed to give him some form of power. Taking one last deep, steadying breath, he slipped though the breach into the outer cave. As he entered, he spied a shovel leaning up against the wall near him. Silently he reached out and gripped the rough handle with two hands.
Knife-wielder was standing at the entrance of the cave, obviously watching the others make their way down the rocks. Hearing a noise behind him, he turned... just in time to catch a shovel in the face. He staggered back and hit the side wall of the cave.
Charlie lifted the shovel again, continuing to attack the alien, but this time knife-wielder was ready and rolled out of the way. Kicking out his legs, he brought the boy down hard upon the ground. Blood was streaming down the alien's face from his broken nose and the jagged rip that tore across his forehead, but he ignored it as he reached for his knife, grabbing one of Charlie's legs as the boy tried frantically to scramble away. The shovel had slipped from his fingers when Charlie had fallen and now lay across the cave, just out of reach.
"The Advocacy wants you alive," hissed the alien, dragging Charlie nearer inch by inch, "but I'm going to hurt you, boy."
Charlie was frantically struggling to get away from the alien, who now had a demented look in his eyes. As he kicked at the man with his one free leg, he pushed his hand into his pocket and brought out the sphere. The burst of bright light seemed to confuse the alien, because he let his grip upon the boy loosen and that was all that Charlie needed to escape. As he scrambled crab-like across the cave floor, he struggled to stand to confront the alien as he, too, clambered to his feet.
"Give that to me," the alien demanded, reaching out a bloodied hand.
"You want it... you've got it," cried Charlie, holding out his hand and wishing that the alien was dead. Even as the thought entered his mind, the sphere in his hand flared into life and the alien before him arched up and began to scream. It was a short-lived cry, as his face began to bubble and within seconds he was no more than a gooey mess upon the floor.
Charlie stood for a few seconds in total shock. The thought had entered his mind and the actions had followed so swiftly... with fear he looked at the still pulsing, glowing sphere he held within his hand and licked nervously at his dry lips. Was it possible that he had destroyed the alien with a thought?
With a shiver, he realised that five minutes must have passed and that the other aliens would now be lying in wait for the humans that were making their way toward the cave. Without a second thought, he rushed from the cave and, plunging down the rock face, he headed toward the narrow gap in the river that he had heard the aliens talk about. He knew the rocks where the aliens planned to set their ambush; he only hoped that he would be in time to prevent the massacre.
Ironhorse didn't like it: he couldn't explain it, but it was there, burning into his gut. He had called a halt near the narrow river and stood looking at the map again. As he did so, he crouched down and unconsciously put his hand in the water, as if testing its temperature.
"What's the problem?" Blackwood asked, moving up to stand beside his friend. As he spoke, he took out a handkerchief and wiped at the sweat that had gathered upon his brow.
"I don't know." Ironhorse shot a look over towards Slade who was making his way towards them, Derriman guiding him carefully over the scatter of rocks.
"I don't like it, Paul," Slade growled as he came up to them. "It's only a gut feeling, but it's there."
"I know what you mean," Ironhorse answered, wishing that he had more time to investigate the surrounding area. The scouts were out, but as yet they had nothing to report.
"I'd advise we stay put until the scouts get back," Slade said, as if reading his mind.
Ironhorse took a deep breath of the fresh, crisp air and considered his options. "That will take time," he finally stated, carefully folding up the map.
"And cost lives if we don't," Slade answered back, just as matter-of-factly.
Ironhorse paused and looked back at his men who were spread out behind him in the woods. He was pleased to note that they had taken up a defensive position. "And if Charlie is in that cave with the aliens?" he asked.
"Then us getting there a few minutes late isn't going to make a lot of difference, but us not getting there at all... might," Slade replied, crouching down beside the Indian.
Ironhorse considered his options again and decided to err on the side of caution. Standing, he turned, his decision made. Opening his mouth, he was about to issue orders when two things happened at once: first, a yell tried to warn them to take cover and, seconds later, a spray of bullets arced out from the rocks across the river. Ironhorse felt a bullet catch him high in the chest and sent him spinning into Blackwood. Both tumbled to the ground in a tangled mass of limbs.
Derriman threw himself towards Slade, intending to cover him, but the blind man was also caught in the first hail of bullets as he stood up, having heard Charlie's voice just before the attack, the force of the bullets pitching him backwards. Derriman instantly changed tactics; grabbing the injured man under the arms, he began to crawl backwards towards the safety of the trees.
The other soldiers responded swiftly and began to lay down a hail of covering fire towards the rocks where the attack was coming from. "Get the colonel further back," Derriman called across to the struggling Blackwood. Seeing the shocked look upon the astrophysicist's face, he shouted in his best parade ground voice, "Now."
Harrison was fast recovering from the shock of having Ironhorse's body thrown into his arms, and he too began to pull back towards the cover of the trees. He was frantically trying to see if the Indian was still breathing, but the bullets were still sputtering about them and he had to concentrate on getting them both to safety.
As he attained the edge of the trees, eager hands reached out and pulled them both to safety. Ironhorse groaned in pain as he was pulled about and reached up a hand to feebly swipe at the bleeding wound in his chest.
"How bad is it?" Blackwood asked, as Jameson knelt over the colonel. Stripping off his uniform jacket, he placed a pressure bandage on the gaping hole. "Hold this," Jameson snapped, before he made his way over to the gasping Slade.
"It's nothing, son, just a slight scratch. See to the colonel," Slade panted as he tried to slap the other man's hand away from his shirt.
"Sir," Jameson said, over the sound of gunfire, "let me do my job." The medic spoke calmly but with authority.
Slade took another shallow breath as pain ripped into his side. "Alright," he finally agreed, "but I'd react better if you had some Jack Daniel's in that medical bag."
"Sorry, sir," Jameson answered, ripping open Slade's shirt and wincing at the bloody wounds it revealed. "I drank the last of it yesterday." As he spoke, he worked and soon had Slade slipping into the semi-consciousness of morphine. Glancing up, the young medic caught Derriman's concerned look and slowly, almost guiltily, shook his head.
Sergeant Derriman sat back on his heels and blinked hard a few times. When he opened his eyes it was to meet an intense glare from Ironhorse. The man's face was deathly pale and his lips were one straight, bitter line across his face. "Get the men into an attack formation and take those bastards out," he gasped as his eyes flickered to the prone body of the man he had once considered a very close friend.
Charlie watched petrified as he saw the bullets rip across the river and into the bodies of his friend, Frank Slade, and Colonel Ironhorse. His next thought was forced from his mind as he spied two of the aliens heading up the cliff towards him: his cry of warning had been heard by more than the humans.
Without considering his own safety, he plunged down the rock face - away from the approaching aliens - determined to reach his friend, to see if Slade was alive or dead. He was banking on the fact that the aliens seemed to need him alive. What he forgot was that the humans were not bound by the same desire. It came home sharply as a bullet bit into the dirt beside him. He came crashing to a stop and leapt for cover.
"Don't shoot," he screamed over the noise of the bullets. "It's me... Charlie Simms." He considered showing his face, but wisely decided against it until he had reason to believe that they just might not shoot him.
The firefight was continuing about him as the soldiers laid down a covering fire. Gingerly Charlie eventually poked his head up. With a ripple of shock he saw some soldiers creeping towards him and swallowed hard - they were almost one with the earth as they slithered from rock to tree to boulder, and he was certain that the aliens could not see the advance from their clifftop positions, so effective was the covering fire keeping them back away from the edge.
Suddenly a heavyset soldier was bearing down on him, slipping into his own hiding place. He opened his mouth to cry out a warning that he was there, but a heavy hand clamped over his lips, preventing any sound from coming out.
"Keep... it... shut," Derriman hissed at the boy who now lay under him. Charlie nodded his head to show that he understood the command. Slowly Derriman loosened his hold, whispering, "We'll pass you back to the others; don't say a word, just do as we direct you."
Charlie again nodded, then asked as he was released, "How's Colonel Slade... I saw him..." the boy swallowed as he tried to get the words past the building edge of fear that grew within his chest, "...get shot?"
Derriman looked down into the fear-ridden eyes of the boy and crushed out his own emotions; he had an nest full of aliens to get rid off. "Get back there," he whispered harshly. As he spoke, he slipped off the boy and pushed him back towards the man just behind him. That motion kept on until the boy was at the edge of the trees.
Blackwood saw the men feeding the boy back and was waiting for him in the cover of the trees as he came into view, just behind the tall boulder that they were using as cover to cross the small river. Daring the spray of bullets, he rushed out and grabbed Charlie as he stumbled, pulling him back into the safety of the forest.
With a shock Blackwood realised that Charlie was looking healthier than he had a right to look. The last time the astrophysicist had seen the lad, he had been suffering from a serious bullet wound - now he was, beyond doubt, in the full flush of health.
"What happened?" Blackwood began, making another grab for the lad as he pushed past Harrison and bolted over to where Slade was lying. Both Colonel Ironhorse and Slade had been moved further back, behind the men now laying down the deadly covering fire at the aliens in the rocks.
"Colonel," Charlie choked, slipping to his knees beside the wounded man.
Slade, hearing the voice of his young friend, struggled against the pain and slowly opened his eyes. He felt a smile tug at his lips as he gasped, "Hoo-Aar, good to see you, Charlie." He stopped, panting for breath, feeling the iron taste of blood as it seeped into his mouth. He strongly resisted the urge to cough, knowing that it would only cause further damage.
"Colonel," Charlie repeated, raw emotions tearing at his throat. "Please don't..." he began, then stopped. He knew what he wanted to say, but the words didn't seem to want to come out, as if saying them would make them true. Finally he gasped, "Don't die, please don't." He stopped and bent his head down, unable to hide the tears that now flowed down his dirty face.
Slade wanted to look at the boy he had come to love as a son. He wanted to take away the pain and horror of being alone that he heard in the boy's voice. He took another shallow breath and gasped slowly, "Charlie... don't.... These people... will take... care.... of you.... Trust Ironhorse, son."
Charlie shot a look over at the other injured man, seeing both Suzanne and Harrison kneeling on either side of the unconscious Ironhorse. Both were watching him. He felt more tears well and then slip down his face. "Please fight it.... Just... hold on...." He knew even as he spoke that the man before him would not be able to keep that promise, even if he should be so rash as to make it. "Please..." he begged weakly.
"Son," Slade gasped feebly, Charlie's obvious pain hurting him as much as the bullet wounds, "I'll always... be... with you.... Every time... you think of me... I'll be there...." By the time he finished, he was exhausted and blood was dribbling from the side of his mouth.
"No," Charlie cried, leaning down and resting his forehead against that of his friend. "Not... you... too," he hiccuped as his tears dripped onto the face below him. Even as he wept, a splinter of hope began to build within his mind. Sitting up, he began to fumble for the sphere that he still had in his pocket. Swallowing hard, he tried to regain control of his raging emotions. Carefully he held the sphere within shaking hands and reached out so that it rested over the dying colonel's body. Closing his eyes, he wished with all his might that the man would be well.
He could tell from the warmth spreading out from his hands that the colonel's body was being enshrouded in the same blue haze that had engulfed him in the cave. Minutes seemed to slowly pass, until the warm pulse began to die and a hand reached up and gently clasped his, closing his fingers over the sphere.
Blackwood was unable to take his eyes off the boy as he leant over his dying friend. He could hear the words that passed between the two and unconsciously reached out a hand and rested it upon Ironhorse's arm. He knew that if the bullets had been a few inches to the left, it would be him having to say goodbye to his friend.
Charlie sat up suddenly and began to fumble within his pocket until he pulled out something that Blackwood could not see, then held it out over Slade's body. Harrison shot Suzanne a quick glance and she shrugged, having no idea what the boy was up to.
Suddenly they both gasped as a blue light seemed to burst from the boy's hands and spread slowly across Slade's body. The haze deepened when it came into contact with the gaping wounds and paused fractionally over the blind man's eyes. Then, just as suddenly, the light faded and Blackwood saw Slade open his eyes, blink a few times, amazement crossing his handsome features as he looked up at the boy who knelt over him.
Slowly Slade reached up and, clasping Charlie's hands, he slowly closed them over the sphere, before easing himself up and grabbing the boy into a deep, reassuring hug.
Charlie felt himself caught up in a hug and returned it just as fiercely. He had no way of knowing what power the sphere gave him, but he was certain that it was not evil - not if it had saved the life of his friend. He felt himself gently pushed away and a hand cup his face. "Charlie?" Slade said, in total wonderment.
The boy in question finally opened his eyes and looked straight into the brown, seeing eyes of his friend. "Oh God," Charlie breathed, just before he fainted.
Slade was able to catch the boy as he slumped to the ground. Without thinking, he caught up the silver sphere as it slipped from the limp hands of his charge.
"Here... let me help," Blackwood said, scrambling to the other's aid. He would not be able to explain what had just happened, and if he hadn't witnessed it with his own eyes he would not have believed it.
"What happened?" Slade asked, hovering over Suzanne as she too slipped over and began to examine the unconscious youth.
"That's what I'd like to know," Blackwood stated, then added, "May I?" He held out his hand and Slade looked down at the sphere he still held. With a slight shrug, he surrendered it.
Blackwood looked at the round, smooth object and weighed it in his hand. It was light, yet settled comfortably within his palm. He glanced over towards the unconscious body of Ironhorse, having been assured by Jameson that the wound was not too serious. He was for once glad that the colonel had not witnessed the apparent miracle. A fear had been growing at the back of Blackwood's mind: it had to do with rats caught in cages, and how man was going to react to the first friendly alien contact with his planet.
With a sigh of concern, he passed the sphere back to Slade and patted him reassuringly upon the shoulder before he turned and made his way back to Ironhorse's side. The man was becoming restless and would soon awake, demanding to know how the attack was going.
After reassuring herself that Charlie was not hurt, Suzanne left him in the capable care of Slade and came to sit beside Blackwood, her own face as pale as his. The battle, she could tell, was now in the last throes of a token resistance, with spasmodic shooting coming from the well-trained Omegans. "It sounds like we're winning," she commented, checking Ironhorse's bandage as she spoke.
"How's the boy?" Blackwood asked, not sure if he could ever really explain what he had just witnessed.
"Exhausted." She paused, then added, "Whatever it was he did, it took a lot out of him; some sleep should help." Again she stopped and, looking over at Blackwood, she asked, "Just what was it he did do, Harrison?"
Blackwood remembered the image of the blue haze that had covered Slade's body and the sight of the man as he looked about him for the first time in years, knowing that he had no explanation, so he answered instead, "A miracle?"
Suzanne gulped and squeaked, "You think they are going to accept that?"
Blackwood knew that the 'they' she referred to was the army. "Well, it's the best explanation I've got," he answered.
"Harrison, this could be the breakthrough we've been looking for," she contended.
"Or it might mean that boy spending the rest of his life in a laboratory, being prodded and probed until he goes mad."
Suzanne looked over at Harrison and saw that the man was deadly serious. She opened her mouth to answer, then snapped it closed as Ironhorse groaned and blinked his eyes as he tried to focus. "Blackwood," he gasped weakly, struggling to sit up.
Blackwood held him down easily and said, "Take it easy, Colonel. Your very well-trained soldiers are successfully taking out the enemy, so you just lay back and try not to start the bleeding again."
"How's Slade?" Ironhorse asked, blinking owlishly as his eyes refused to focus.
"A lot better than you are," Blackwood stated firmly, as he rested a hand upon the other's arm. "Now just stay still and rest."
Ironhorse wanted to argue, but he felt his mind begin to swirl again and knew that he was going to slip back under the influence of the drugs that his medic had pumped into him. "Damn, I hate it when I get shot," he complained as he slipped back into unconsciousness.
Blackwood readjusted the jackets that had been placed over his injured friend and agreed softly, "So do I, Paul... so do I."
Ironhorse sat up cautiously in the hospital bed and unconsciously picked at the bandage that was tightly wrapped about his upper chest. He had awoken in the hospital at Fort Streeter two days ago, and was already being driven to despair by the doctor's orders and Blackwood's insistence that he follow every one of them to the letter.
He knew that, although his wound had not been serious in his eyes, it had been enough to send the other members of his team - especially Blackwood - off into mother hen heaven.
As he sat there, he tried to piece together the events that had happened after he had got shot. They were understandably hazy, but Blackwood's attitude of 'you mustn't worry the colonel about that' told him that something very major had happened while he was out of it.
As if by mental command, the astrophysicist popped his head around the door. "Ah..." he said, a bright smile filtering across his face, "you're awake."
"Of course I'm awake," Ironhorse groused, again pulling at the bandage. "They woke me up at six this morning." Then he went on, as if explaining to a child, "It would seem to be hospital policy to wake you up at an unholy hour to make sure you sleep." Ironhorse's expression informed Blackwood just what he thought of that policy.
Deciding to change tack, Blackwood answered instead, "Leave that bandage alone, you know what the doctor said..." only to wilt under the glare that his comment earned him from the injured man.
"So, what has happened to Charlie Simms?" Ironhorse finally asked as the silence began to stretch to an uncomfortable limit. He had already had the report about the alien attack and subsequent annihilation by his unit, and knew from Norton that the remaining aliens had slunk back into radio silence. He'd also read in the report that Charlie had been found safe and had returned to the Cottage with Blackwood and the rest of the team.
Blackwood licked nervously at suddenly dry lips as he began to pace about the room... a sure sign to Ironhorse that Harrison was about to confess to some terrible sin.
He felt his temper begin to rise. "What the hell have you done now, Blackwood?" he snapped, fearing the worst and wondering how the hell he was going to explain it to General Wilson this time.
Harrison looked baffled for a few seconds, then as his face cleared, he confessed weakly, "I let them go."
"You what?" Ironhorse demanded, sitting up straighter in the bed. Then he was pulling back the covers and attempting to get out of bed, the drip into his arm swaying dangerously. Blackwood leapt forward, preventing the man from moving any further. He didn't have to exert too much pressure, as the wound made itself known and Ironhorse slumped back onto the bed with a slight groan. "Why did you let him go, Harrison?" Paul asked after he had got the pain back under control. "You know that the aliens were after the boy."
Blackwood stayed by Paul's side for a few more moments until it was obvious that his injured friend wasn't going to attempt to get up again. Glancing behind him, Blackwood slumped back into the chair where he had spent the long night waiting for Ironhorse to awake after his operation.
"Before I answer any of your questions, I want you to read this," Blackwood said, pulling a book out of his jacket pocket. It was one inch thick and about eight inches long. As he handed it across, he said, "Don't say anything, just read it first."
Ironhorse took the book and shook off the growing knot of apprehension that was building within him. He gave Blackwood a long hard look before he opened the worn cover and began to read the pages that had turned yellow with age.
Silence settled within the small hospital room as the Indian read the journal of Jenny Hayden. Blackwood watched, fascinated by the many different expressions that filtered across his friend's face as he read the book, until he finally, slowly, closed it and sat in silence for several minutes, contemplating what he had read. "You know I should report this," he finally stated, glancing at Blackwood from out of half-closed eyes.
Harrison suppressed a sigh before he answered, "Maybe you should, Paul, but you swore to protect and defend your country. Would putting that boy in an army laboratory really be protecting your country in the long run?" He paused as he remembered the many visions he had had of this conversation. He leant forward, eager to explain his feelings as he continued, "Charlie Simms could end up being the only chance we have against these aliens. Don't forget that there's another wave of them out there somewhere, and they're heading our way." He pointed towards the sky that showed outside the room's large windows. "Jenny Hayden said that Charlie would be a teacher - an ambassador for us when the time came for contact between his father's race and ours - but to do that, he'll have to learn to use and control the powers his father has given him... he can't do that in an army rat's maze."
"The army could protect him and teach him what he needs to know," Ironhorse stated firmly as he watched Blackwood's expressive face. He could tell from Harrison's expression just what the astrophysicist thought of that idea. Knowing that they would never agree on the army's role in this, Ironhorse decided to change tactics, asking instead, "So, was Charlie able to use the sphere to heal himself?" He remembered the words of the journal, and how the Starman had healed Jenny herself.
"Yes, he's learning more about his power every day," Blackwood began, wanting Ironhorse to see that Charlie was able to look after himself. Even as he spoke, he realised that nobody had told the wounded Indian about his friend. "And..." Harrison paused again, not quite sure how to explain about Slade. In the end he just took a deep breath and spoke clearly and concisely: "Charlie also regenerated Colonel Slade."
Ironhorse started at that, before he said quietly, "I remember Frank getting shot at the same time I did... I wondered why nobody..." He paused. "I thought he'd died."
"No," Blackwood hastened to reassure, kicking himself for not realising that that was what Ironhorse would have thought. "No... Charlie was able to heal him... even his sight."
"Frank can see again?" Paul felt a shiver travel down his spine. It took a few more minutes before Ironhorse was able to pull himself together enough to ask, "And just where exactly are they both now?"
Blackwood again pointed towards the window and the open skies. "Out there... somewhere."
"And the sphere?"
"Out there with them." Blackwood sat back in his chair and wiped a hand over his face; the last few days had aged him more than he liked to consider. "There was a tape and video to go with the book," Blackwood added. "Jenny explains a little bit more about the sphere on them. She said that..." Harrison stopped and took another breath before continuing, "She said that the spheres Starman had disappeared after they were used, but she thinks that - because Charlie's sphere is geared to training him - it won't disappear after being used... at least it hasn't, so far. Apparently he caused quite a few problems with it when he was very young, that's one of the reasons that she buried it. She didn't think he was quite ready for the knowledge that he was Starman's son."
"And he's ready now?" Ironhorse asked, surprise colouring his voice.
"He's got no choice now," Blackwood shot back, not liking the idea of the boy being out there with only Slade for protection any more than Ironhorse, but he realised that the training had to be without prejudice and to do that the boy had to learn alone.
Ironhorse again fell silent as he considered his options. Finally he said, "If this ever got out... or back to General Wilson...." He let his words hang, both fully aware of the danger.
Blackwood smiled with shocked surprise, realising that Ironhorse was agreeing to keep their secret. "Don't worry, Paul," he continued with enthusiasm, "you'll always have a place on my team."
Ironhorse raised an eyebrow and stated grimly, "And that's supposed to make me feel better?"
Blackwood shrugged, before he continued, "Maybe not, but you'll be pleased to know that Norton and I have rigged the reports so that nobody will be asking any difficult questions about Charlie Simms or Colonel Slade."
"I don't want to know about that, Blackwood," Ironhorse growled, knowing full well how effective Norton could be at blindsiding computers, and Blackwood's ability to confuse, baffle and perplex the army was nearly miraculous. "The more ignorant I am, the happier I am."
Blackwood said nothing. Ironhorse shot the astrophysicist a quick, suspicious glance before he burst out laughing at the expression that creased the other man's features. Blackwood refrained for a few milliseconds before he too joined in, commenting with feeling, "I'm glad you said that and not me."
Frank Slade shot Charlie a sidelong glance before returning his attention to the road. He was driving a newly purchased camper van and relishing the feel of the steering wheel under his hands as he twisted and turned to follow the curve of the road. "Hoo-Aar," he suddenly shouted with enthusiasm. "Smell that fresh sea air, Charlie."
The boy sitting next to him started out of his sombre thoughts and smiled weakly. "Sorry," he said, knowing that he had been caught once again dwelling too deep upon the past. "I'm just having trouble accepting all this," he continued, looking at the older man. "I mean, under a week ago I had a promising future and a family to come home to...." He stopped, swallowing hard, unable to go on.
Frank watched the young man for a few moments before he reached over and gently rested his hand upon the other's. His larger hand covered Charlie's with ease and he squeezed gently, offering reassurance. "A week ago I was blind with no hope of ever seeing again," he commented, knowing that no words he could say would take away the loss and pain of Charlie losing his mother.
"This is so unfair," Charlie stated angrily, looking as if he wanted to hit something and hit it hard. "Why did they have to kill her?"
"Charlie, the world isn't fair," Slade stated firmly. "I can cite you a hundred - a thousand - different cases where the world hasn't been fair, but that's not the way the game is played. Every day you'll learn how to cope with it just a little bit better, and every day you'll find something worth fighting for. It's that one thing that keeps you alive when all you want to do is lie down and let the horror of this place rush over you." Slade stopped for breath, realising that he was letting his own view of the injustice in the world colour his words. "I was prepared to die in the hotel suite in New York, but you wouldn't let me; you thought that I was worth saving." He paused again, knowing that he could never explain the debt of gratitude that he felt for the young man. "I'm sorry, Charlie, I'm not much better at understanding why this has all happened... I'm just trying to play with the cards that I've been dealt."
Charlie looked at the handsome man who sat beside him and wondered once more about how he had, without a second thought for himself, given up his own way of life, his friends and growing relationship with his family to travel with Charlie. There hadn't been a second's hesitation in Slade's agreement when Blackwood had suggested that Charlie would be better on the road, learning to understand and control his abilities there, rather than staying in one place where either the aliens or the army might capture him. Without a backward glance to his former life, Slade had agreed to go with the boy as guide and protector.
Therefore it was Slade who had made the arrangements, acquired the camper van and the money that allowed them to keep on the move, had arranged Charlie's parents burial and made sure that the boy was there to pay his last respects, even though it had been against Blackwood's advice - Frank had felt strongly enough about it to make sure that the funeral was conducted in such a manner that it was safe for Charlie to attend.
Now the ex-army colonel sat behind the steering wheel of that camper van, not really knowing where they were going or where it might end - all he knew was that they were going to learn about Charlie's new powers together, and that one thought gave the young man in question the knowledge that he could continue... that he had to, if for no other reason than that Colonel Frank Slade - retired - wanted to know where it might all lead.
"I'm glad you got the camper instead of a Ferrari," Charlie finally said after a long period of silence.
Frank shot the young man a questioning look. Charlie's tone had shown that he had passed a point of understanding, where he was putting his grief behind him and looking towards the future. "Well," Slade drawled, "if the trunk had been a bit bigger I would have seriously considered it."
Charlie looked at him and smiled; it was a standing joke between them. One of Slade's greatest wishes when he had been blind was to drive a Ferrari; Charlie had helped him fulfil that wish. "Do you think we'll see Blackwood and the others again?" Charlie suddenly asked as the thought came to him. "I know Harrison told us to keep in touch, but well...." He stopped, waiting for the older man to answer.
Slade considered the question for a few minutes before he stated firmly, "Charlie, there's one wild card in any pack you can count on seeing more than once in a game, and that is the joker..." He paused, before he finished with a slight grin, "And I get a strong feeling that Blackwood is Ironhorse's wild card in their particular game against the aliens. So, yeah - I reckon we will be seeing both him and his team again." He stopped as he slowed to go round another sharp bend. "In fact, I would say you could count on it."
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