By: CindyR

Chapter 1

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 his ear.

"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 building."

"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 exposed here."

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 ones.

At his shoulder, Harrison shifted to follow his line of sight. "My question exactly."

"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, can't you?"

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 seen!"

"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 lectures.

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 the sunlight.

"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. ***