It began as a routine mission -- routine after a year of practice, that is.
Alien transmissions had set off every alarm in the lab, sending the wheel-
chair bound computer expert Norton Drake flying from a late lunch to his
terminal. With painstaking labor and sandwich firmly in hand, he'd traced
and triangulated until he could pinpoint the source of the highly-focused
radio signal to within one square mile of its origin: the thickly wooded
forests of Westfield State Park, Oregon. Army Scouts masquerading as
forest rangers quietly cleared and evacuated innocent tourists; by Thursday
afternoon the alien campsite had been isolated. Now, three o'clock in the
afternoon -- precisely twenty-four hours after identifying the signal --
Omega Force lay to, ready to move in on a moment's notice, and Dr. Harrison
Blackwood and Lt. Colonel Paul Ironhorse went ahead to scout the terrain.
Actually, it was Harrison who had gone ahead to scout the terrain;
Ironhorse was only along because he hadn't been able to persuade, cajole or
threaten the physicist out of the plan. Ironhorse had protested the
additional danger to 'non-combat personnel,' insisting that another
reconnaissance was unnecessary -- Omega Force had more than enough
information to move in and secure the area as it was. Harrison, however,
had been adamant, referring to a report of unidentifiable electronic
equipment being assembled, and insisting on seeing it for himself before
Omega Force moved in and "blew it to atoms."
Ironhorse had bristled immediately. "Are you saying my men are
unnecessarily destructive?" he'd growled, taking up a stance approximately
two inches from Blackwood's nose.
Distinctly unimpressed, Blackwood had waved the challenge away with a
genial smile. "Not at all, Colonel," he'd returned breezily, minutely
adjusting the other's red beret for dramatic effect. "Let's just say that
their enthusiasm is noteworthy and leave it at that."
As there was very little to actually object to in that particular
statement, Ironhorse had allowed the subject to drop and now, against his
better judgment, found himself creeping quietly through the back brush
towards the alien camp, Harrison at his side.
To the casual observer, the camp looked much as any other -- a fire
crackled in the flame pit and a merrily bubbling pot filled the immediate
vicinity with a tantalizing aroma. Coffee, Ironhorse identified
immediately. He sniffed appreciatively. Fresh brewed and piping hot. His
stomach protested its empty state with a rumble at the second sniff. Duty
first, he reminded himself. Breakfast will have to wait until after the
primary objective has been secured.
From all outward appearances, the camp was peaceful. It was only on closer
examination that little anomalies could be discerned, discrepancies that
belied the facade of normalcy. Take the handgun, for example, casually
stuffed into the belt of the camp's lone occupant, an elderly hunter with a
limp. Then there were the expressionless eyes peering over the scruffy
beard, which could not quite conceal the radiation-induced cancer eating
away the left half of his face. Here and there lay scattered fragments of
unidentifiable electronic gear, further excuse for any reasoning person to
run not walk to the nearest refuge.
Ironhorse gripped his automatic a little tighter, comforted by the
Beretta's weight. The gun delivered stopping power to spare, and long
experience told him he'd need all he could get before the morning was out.
Fingers tangled in his camos made him pause then Harrison's breath tickled
"That's what I want," Harrison whispered, blue eyes twinkling with
excitement. "See that jumble back there?" He pointed toward a section of
the camp resembling nothing so much as an electronics yard sale. A
brightly lit panel identifiable -- barely -- as the dashboard from a Ford
truck, sat a few feet to the fore. "I've got to know what they're
"Are you crazy?" Ironhorse's voice was just as quiet. "It's right up
against the tents. There's no way to approach without being seen."
"Where there's a will, Colonel," Harrison whispered back cheerfully. He
punched Ironhorse's shoulder once before releasing him. "Wish me luck."
"Wait!" But Blackwood was already on the move, creeping closer to the
double set of tents in the clearing. Mutely cursing the scientist and his
curiosity, Ironhorse followed. They crept silently through the
undergrowth, stopping on the edge of the clearing as close to the slowly
blinking dashboard as possible.
"I can't see anything they're using for a power source." Harrison craned
to see over a low bush. Absently brushing aside more of the concealing
shrubbery, he crawled practically to the edge of the clearing, murmuring to
himself. "That looks like an Atari computer game and that's...."
"Psst. Come on, Blackwood." Moving more cautiously, Ironhorse caught up
to his partner, snagging an ankle before Harrison would have disclosed
himself. "We've got to fall back so I can call in Omega Force. We're too
Harrison raised a peremptory hand. "Just a minute, Colonel. Do you see
that unit over there?" He pointed to a square box standing slightly apart
from the rest and blinking serenely to itself. "Its design is appallingly
similar to one the Army gave Clayton Forrester to play with back when they
were still playing footsie. He theorized it was a cybernetic control
device for one of the alien weapons' systems. That looks like the same
design." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I'm going to need a closer
look to be sure."
"What would the aliens be doing building a weapon's system here in the
woods?" Ironhorse protested, black eyes narrowed. Unfortunately, he could
think of several reasons for the aliens' actions, none of them pleasant
At his shoulder, Harrison shifted to follow his line of sight. "My
"Wait!" Ironhorse grabbed an arm, yanking the scientist to a halt. His
fingers slipped on the camouflage jacket and he was forced to use two hands
to prevent the man from effecting an escape. "Omega Force can be here in
fifteen minutes," he growled, patience exhausted. "You can wait that long,
Harrison freed his arm with an effort, adopting that tranquilly long-
suffering smile that invariably made Ironhorse want to smack him. "Sorry,
Colonel. You know the aliens destroy the equipment as soon as an attack
begins. This may be my only chance." He jerked a dirty thumb toward the
far tent. "If I can work my way underneath the rear flap, I should be able
to get right up to the machine without being detected. It's standing only
a few feet from the entrance."
"You are crazy!" Ironhorse stared from man to alien mechanism with
something akin to horror, remarking to himself that the real panic was not
being able to tell which one was weirder. "There's a gap of at least six
feet to get across before you even reach the first tent! You're sure to be
"Not from the other side of the clearing," Harrison pointed out patiently.
He twisted, ducked and was gone, moving through the brush with that loose-
limbed grace with which he was blessed.
Ironhorse aborted anther snatch and rocked back on his heels, swearing
softly under his breath. Blast him! Wouldn't he ever learn to listen to
reason? They had seen one alien; it was conceivable -- no, probable --
that there were more around. So what does Harrison do? Goes traipsing
through the forest as if this were some kind of picnic! Muttering another
curse, Ironhorse picked his way in a rough circle, circumnavigating the
alien camp. He moved carefully, silent as a ghost, and indulging himself
with the plan to have Harrison sit through another lecture on survivalist
techniques -- and this time he'd make sure the scientist stayed awake
through the whole thing! That would come after the very long talk they
were going to have on the subject of following orders....
He stopped himself. Harrison Blackwood was a scientist, teammate and even
friend; he was also a certified lunatic. Convince him to follow orders?
He'd have better luck convincing the aliens!
Absently he brushed away a swarm of gnats, peering right and left into
green shadows. Where was he? He circled the camp cautiously, on the
lookout for his charge. He had to admit -- if only to himself -- that
Harrison was getting pretty good at this sort of thing. There was no sign
of the man at all. Maybe he didn't sleep through all those survivalist
Wait.... There -- a flash of color against the green. Was it ... yes,
Harrison! Now to collect the wayward doctor and....
It was instinct that alerted him rather than sight or even sound -- the
sense of a general wrongness about the forest itself. He narrowed his
eyes. Someone was approaching from directly behind, and thus invisible to
the engrossed scientist. A moment later and the foliage parted to reveal a
woman -- or what had once been a woman -- hair awry and make-up streaked
with mud. The alien hadn't seen Harrison yet, but discovery was inevitable
if either continued on their present course.
There was no decision necessary then; Harrison had to be protected at all
costs. And the woman was almost upon him! With great deliberation,
Ironhorse reached out and deliberately broke off a dried branch. In the
quiet surroundings the snap sounded loud as a gunshot.
With a satisfied smile, Ironhorse watched the alien swing about, seeking
the source of the sound, then move in his direction. One part of his
soldier's mind noted Blackwood, frozen still as a deer, absorbing the
situation and playing it correctly. Good -- maybe the guy wasn't so
hopeless after all. He waited, allowing the woman to move closer to him --
and farther from Harrison -- before attempting his own escape.
What happened next was more a matter of happenstance than anything. So
rapt had Ironhorse been in hi partner's dilemma that he failed to note the
warning jangle of his own battle-honed senses. The woman was close now,
almost upon him. Intending to slip away quietly, he turned, ... and ran
smack into another alien, a large male, whose ebony skin gleaming dully in
"Whoa!" he yelped, windmilling his arms in an attempt at changing
direction. The creature, however, was far too fast for Ironhorse to dodge.
Its first blow threw him backward into a large oak. Stunned, he barely
registered the second, a clumsy but efficient right cross. He was aware of
only a brilliant flash originating in the direction of his right jaw before
the merciful blackness closed in.