Title: "My Life for My Sheep"
Rating: K+, for some violence and a few swear words.
Characters: Paul Ironhorse, Debi, Suzanne McCullough, Harrison Blackwood
Summary: Ironhorse takes Debi on a camping trip that turns into a fight for survival.
Disclaimer: I do not own "War of the Worlds," the television series. No infringement of copyright is intended or should be inferred. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so please do not sue.
"Are you ready to go, Debi?" Ironhorse asked.
"Almost!" The young blonde girl, struggling to close her backpack, stopped momentarily and shot the colonel a look of alarm. "You won't leave without me, will you?"
Ironhorse smiled at her. "No, Debi, of course not. Do you need some help with that?"
She shook her head, looking determined. "No thanks. I can do it."
"Okay." Ironhorse picked up the sleeping bags and told her, "I'm going to take these outside. I'll wait for you in the Bronco." Debi flashed him a smile and nodded quickly.
Outside, the colonel saw Suzanne waiting alongside his vehicle. As he hefted the sleeping bags and slung them into the back of the Bronco along with the food supplies and other camping gear, he told her; "Debi's inside loading her backpack, Suzanne. She should be out any minute."
"I'm sure she'll hurry," Suzanne answered. "She's done nothing but talk about this trip ever since you offered to take her camping."
Ironhorse nodded. "I've reserved a campsite, and the weather for the next two nights is supposed to be perfect." He paused. "Also, there's been no sign of alien activity for some time now, so I think it's safe enough for me to take leave for a couple of days. You do have my beeper number, if it's necessary to contact me."
"Yes," Suzanne replied. For the first time, she noticed the weariness in the colonel's dark eyes. The Project was a strain on them all, but Ironhorse needed relaxation more than anyone. She thought; Thank God he and Debi will be leaving the aliens behind them for a few days. Aloud, she said; "I hope it won't be necessary."
"So do I." He started to get into the driver's seat, but stopped in mild surprise as Suzanne placed a hand on his arm.
"Paul." She spoke quietly, as if concerned that her daughter might overhear. "I appreciate this more than you may realize. Cash's canceling his visit over Christmas disappointed Debi terribly, and as far as her relationship with her father goes, I'm afraid it was only another disappointment out of many."
"I know, Suzanne." The colonel glanced back at the Cottage. "Debi has a difficult time here. She's isolated from the world, has no other kids to play with…except for Harrison, of course," he added with a touch of amusement.
"And a father who's a father to her only when it doesn't interfere with his personal schedule," Suzanne said in disgust.
"Well, if I can alleviate Debi's loneliness a little by taking her camping, I'm glad to do it." Abruptly, as if he had said more than he had intended, Ironhorse turned away and seated himself behind the wheel of the Bronco. His expression was carefully neutral.
Behind them, Debi exited the Cottage. Her face lit up when she saw Ironhorse waiting for her; she ran to the vehicle and quickly climbed in. As Suzanne crossed around to the passenger side to join her daughter, Debi said excitedly; "Let's go, Colonel!" Her youthful exuberance was contagious; the colonel's set features relaxed into an indulgent smile.
Suzanne reached out and gently smoothed back a wisp of blonde hair that had managed to escape from her daughter's ponytail. "Do as Colonel Ironhorse tells you, honey, and have a good time. I'll see you on Sunday."
"I will," Debi promised as Ironhorse started the Bronco. "Bye, Mom!"
Ironhorse turned the vehicle onto the road leading away from the Cottage and out of the security zone. As they drove away, Debi turned briefly in her seat to wave goodbye to her mother. Suzanne returned the wave and continued to watch them until they reached the gate. Initially she had considered accompanying them on their camping trip, but it just was not feasible. Not only had she never been camping in her life, but her research into alien physiology was a never-ending job. There was just too much work for her to do. Well, there was nothing to be concerned about anyway. Nothing would happen to her daughter as long as the child was with Ironhorse.
"Will we be there soon, Colonel?" Debi asked, after they had been driving for some hours.
"We don't have much further to go, Debi. Don't worry; we'll be there before it gets dark."
"I'm not afraid of the dark," she answered, rather scornfully.
Ironhorse smiled. "I'm sure you're not, but it's easier to set up camp while it's still daylight. No street lights out here, you know. It will also get cooler after the sun goes down." Much more relaxed now than he had been when they started their trip, he inhaled deeply, enjoying the scent and the peace of the forest. It was very different from the city. It also brought back memories: childhood teachings about the Way of the Cherokee, and recollections of a less hurried time.
Debi spoke up to ask, "Will we need to build a camp fire? Can I toast the marshmallows I brought with me?"
"Sure, if you want to."
"Neat!" Debi's blonde head bent over the map she held spread over her lap. They no longer really needed it because they had left the highway long before, but she still enjoyed the importance of consulting it occasionally. After a moment, she said: "Colonel?"
"What?" Ironhorse's attention was on his driving.
Debi lifted her head and regarded him. "What do you do at the Cottage?"
The Colonel did not answer immediately. When he did, his tone was strangely formal. "I'm in charge of security."
"Security of what? Why do we have to live in the Cottage? It isn't a cottage anyway—it's a mansion—with concrete walls and an electrified fence around it and guards and everything?"
"Because we work on a secret project, Debi. For the United States government."
"But what is it?" the girl persisted. "Why does it have to be secret?"
Ironhorse looked at her. "Have you asked your mother about this?"
"What did she say?"
Debi exhaled in a sharp, exasperated sigh. "She said it was work done on a project for the government, and that was all she could tell me."
"And I'm afraid that's all I can tell you, Debi."
"Okay," the girl muttered. She crossed her arms over her chest, slightly crumpling the road map.
Ironhorse glanced back at her again. He understood that being kept in the dark offended her, but he could think of nothing else to tell her. He could not give her any details about the Blackwood Project. "Debi—"
She sat up abruptly, staring at the road ahead of them. "Look, Colonel! There's a roadblock up ahead."
Startled, Ironhorse looked back at the road and realized the girl was correct. About twenty yards ahead were two parked state police cars. As his vehicle approached the roadblock, the doors of one of the cars opened and two state troopers started toward the Bronco. A third remained behind the wheel of the second car. The Colonel slowed his speed as the officer in the lead held up one hand.
Rolling down the window, Ironhorse called, "What's the trouble, Sergeant?"
"We need to see your identification. Step out of the car, please."
Ironhorse brought the Bronco to a full stop, opened the door, and got out. As he started to reach for his wallet, he noticed two things. In spite of the fact that it was late in the day and rather cloudy, both officers were wearing dark glasses. Far more ominous, both were haggard with skin lesions—to the extent that one trooper appeared to be in an advanced state of leprosy. Ironhorse's expression did not change, but his hand closed around the haft of his Battle Baton as he said softly; "Debi, duck down—fast."
The girl shot him a startled look, but she did as instructed without asking why. She slid down the front of the seat and crouched on the floor as the two troopers approached the Bronco.
"Your identification," the lead trooper repeated. He was now almost close enough to touch the Colonel.
"Right here," Ironhorse said, instantly pulling out the knife and driving it hard into the "trooper's" belly. The alien gurgled and collapsed as Ironhorse pulled the blade free. His partner said something unintelligible and grabbed for his sidearm. Ironhorse leaped back into the Bronco, jammed his foot down on the gas, and gave the wheel a savage turn, slamming the door and heading the Bronco back the way they had come. "Stay down!" he shouted at Debi.
Shots followed them, with a crash of broken glass as the taillight was shot out. Ironhorse, leaning over the steering wheel, risked a glance at Debi. The child was crying, but appeared unhurt. "Just hang on, honey," he told her.
"What—what's wrong? Why d-d-did you k-k-kill him?" she sobbed.
"I had to, Debi, or he would have killed us. He…he…" Desperate to give a convincing explanation that would not jeopardize the security of the Blackwood Project, he automatically fell back on their cover story—which was not so far from the truth, anyway. "That wasn't a real state policeman, Debi. That was a terrorist."
"H-how c-could you tell?"
"I—" Whatever possible explanation Ironhorse might have made was drowned by the sound of sirens. For several moments longer he continued to drive at the same breakneck speed, ignoring them, until a state police car shot out directly in the Bronco's path. Ironhorse attempted to swerve, only to find his passage back to the wilderness blocked by yet another state police car. The doors of these vehicles were flung open as the Colonel grabbed at his Battle Baton.
"FREEZE! State Police!" a trooper from the car before them roared. "Hands in the air and get out slowly!"
Ironhorse did as instructed, and Debi followed his example. Outwardly, the Colonel's face was set, but inwardly he was cursing; the two remaining "state policemen" who had been absorbed by aliens must have used their police radios to summon help.
"Put your hands on the hood and spread! NOW!" Ironhorse barely had time to obey before his arms were seized by the bull-voiced trooper, brutally jerked behind him, and his head slammed forward onto the hood of the Bronco.
"Stop it!" Debi screamed.
"Hey," said the bull-voiced trooper, staring at Debi as if noticing her for the first time, "this bastard has a kid with him. She doesn't look like she could be his daughter." His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Did this man offer you some candy or money to take a ride with him, kid?"
"He didn't offer me anything," Debi said angrily. "We were just going camping."
"Johnson, for Christ's sake, one thing at a time," the trooper's partner warned. "Get the cuffs on him, then read him his rights."
"Since when did you turn into the ACLU, Hendricks?" Johnson demanded, just as the other two "state policemen," the two surviving aliens, arrived in another police car, got out and advanced on them.
"1987 Bronco," Johnson observed, grabbing a handful of Ironhorse's dark hair and yanking the Colonel upright so the others could see his face. "This the guy who stabbed your partner?"
"Yes," said the "trooper," looking intently but expressionlessly at the Colonel. He still wore the dark glasses, but Ironhorse knew he was being regarded with the eyes of an alien. "Thanks for your trouble. You can turn the suspects over to us. We'll take it from here."
"Like hell," Johnson growled. "It may have been your partner he knifed, but we're the ones who caught him. We're not about to turn him over to you—"
"I think you will," the alien "trooper" said, and as he spoke, a three-digit appendage burst from its chest, enveloping Johnson's face. A horrified Hendricks grabbed frantically for his sidearm, but he was immediately seized in the same fashion by the second alien. Debi's scream of terror ripped the air.
"Debi, run!" Ironhorse shouted at her. "Into the woods!"
Debi immediately sprinted for the nearby trees. The Colonel did the same, shouting to her, "Don't stop! Keep running!" The alien process of absorption took several minutes, but no longer; Ironhorse knew that was all the time they would have to effect an escape.
Minutes later, the two aliens surveyed their new host bodies. "This entity was called 'Johnson,'" said the first.
"And mine was known as 'Hendricks,'" responded the second. "These bodies are strong and healthy. They should serve us well for a time."
"Should we attend to our fallen comrade, or pursue the escaped humans?"
"We must pursue the escaped humans," the new "Hendricks" said firmly. "They may contaminate the security of our project, and the orders of the Advocacy must be obeyed."
"We are nothing without their counsel," the pseudo-Johnson affirmed obsequiously. Together, they turned their gaze to the woods.
"Debi!" Ironhorse's voice broke through the child's panic. "Over here."
Debi slowed her blind crashing through the underbrush and turned in the direction of the Colonel's voice. After a moment she caught sight of him; he gestured quickly at her to come closer. She ran to him and threw her arms around him, needing the solidity of his presence, the assurance that they were both alive and unhurt. "Are…are they following us?" she asked tremulously.
"Not yet." Breathing hard and holding the girl tightly, he glanced back the way they had come. "They'll be after us soon enough, though, and the only weapon I have is my Battle Baton. Damn!"
"Colonel, what's going on?"
Ironhorse looked down at Debi. The child was shivering; there were tears in her eyes, and her face and hands were scratched from her frantic run through the underbrush. He spoke to her very gently. "Debi, you asked me earlier what kind of work your mother and I do, and the reason why we live at the Cottage. Do you remember?"
Tears running down her face, the child nodded.
"Those state troopers weren't really people. They were no longer human. They had been taken over by aliens from another planet."
"You mean—" She wiped away the tears with the back of her hand—"like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers?'"
Suddenly grateful for the existence of late-night horror movies, Ironhorse answered, "Yes, Debi, something like that. Earth has been invaded by these aliens, and they're trying to take over our planet. It's my job, and the job of your mother and Harrison and Norton, to make sure that they don't succeed. They take over people by absorbing their bodies. You saw that arm that burst out of the police officer's chest?" He spoke slowly, watching her face closely, wishing to reassure her but at the same time needing to pierce her shock and make her understand the danger of their situation.
Debi nodded. She had ceased crying, but her face was pale.
"Well, that's how they absorb humans. That's the research your mother does—finding out how they do it, and how to stop it." He glanced back again. "There's no time to explain more now. I've got to find someplace where you can be safe."
"I want to stay with you, Colonel."
"I won't be gone long, Debi." Ironhorse stepped near a massive, forked tree with heavy branches and leafy cover. Bending, he cupped his hands together and told her; "Step up and climb this tree." Seeing her hesitate, he added firmly, "You can do it. Pretend you're Harrison and you're trying to communicate with a monkey up there."
This remark elicited a startled giggle from her, and she followed his order with less difficulty than either of them had anticipated. "He thinks we should try to communicate with dolphins, Colonel."
Ironhorse grunted. "Well, when I'm talking to him, sometimes I have the feeling that I am communicating with a dolphin." He straightened and gazed up the tree after her as she pulled herself out onto one of the heavier branches. "That's good. Anybody looking for you would need to stand almost directly beneath this tree and look straight up in order to see you. Keep quiet and you should be safe enough until I get back."
"Where are you going?" Debi's worried voice drifted down to him.
"I'm going to circle around and head back to where those state troopers were."
"No, Colonel! They'll kill you!"
He spoke rapidly in answer. "Debi, either they're looking for us now and I would have to throw them off the trail anyway, or they're already gone, in which case I have nothing to worry about. Just stay here and be quiet, no matter what happens, until I get back." He smiled reassuringly up at her, hoping she could see his expression clearly in the gathering dusk. "I will be back, Debi. Just be absolutely quiet until I return."
"Okay, Colonel," she whispered.
Ironhorse moved away from the tree, being careful to avoid fallen and scattered twigs and branches in order to walk silently. He was not nearly as confident as he had sounded. The aliens might be stalking him at that very moment, although he tried to console himself with the thought that he had heard no sounds of approach. He doubled around and backtracked toward the road, taking care not to use the same direction by which they had come through the forest.
As he neared the edge of the forest, he crouched down and peered through the underbrush. For a split second, he could hardly believe his good fortune. The pseudo-Hendricks was standing less than two yards from Ironhorse's position, and at the moment his back was to the Colonel. The other alien was nowhere in sight.
Moving silently and swiftly, Ironhorse darted forward, clapped his left hand over the alien's mouth, simultaneously jerking its head back and slitting its throat with the Battle Baton. The alien collapsed with acidic hisses. Ironhorse spared the bubbling mass a single glance to make certain it was dead, then edged from the cover of the trees and made his way toward the Bronco.
He kept his knife ready, but it was not necessary. No one was inside. After making certain the Bronco was unoccupied, he jerked open the door and snatched up the cellular phone. Trying it, he grimaced as all he got was an earful of static. Tossing the phone aside, he jumped down from the Bronco and went to the nearest state police car. Opening the door on the driver's side, he picked up the police radio receiver. He could summon help—or at least get some attention—by using this.
All he heard was more static. What the hell's wrong? he wondered. It was possible that the mountains were interfering with the cell phone, but that should not affect the police radio. No matter, he decided, getting out of the car and hastening toward the forest, thinking; I'll collect Debi, we'll get the hell out of here in the Bronco, and I'll call Blackwood from the nearest pay phone.
He made his way through the trees in a very few minutes, stopping beneath the large tree where he had ensconced the child. Tucking the Baton behind his back, he lifted his arms and called out softly; "Come on down, Debi, we've got to get out of here—"
The girl was gone.
For a split second, Ironhorse's mind went blank before a horror he refused to contemplate. NO! Not Debi! It could not have taken her over! Suzanne had theorized that the aliens could not absorb human children because children lacked the necessary body mass. But under the circumstances, she would not have just wandered off, and that meant—
"HUMAN!" The bull-voice of the pseudo-Johnson, loud and challenging, came from a few dozen feet deeper in the woods. "Show yourself!"
Ironhorse melted away from the tree, moving rapidly but as silently as possible in the direction of the voice.
"Human!" the remaining alien shouted again. "The child is my prisoner! Reveal yourself, or she dies!"
In a small clearing a few dozen feet distant and several yards wide stood the alien "Johnson," his arm around Debi's neck. With the other hand, he pointed the trooper's gun at her head. Ironhorse stepped forward into the clearing, his hands slightly raised, and walked slowly but steadily towards the pair.
"I'm sorry, Colonel," Debi said tearfully.
"Don't be," the soldier said evenly, never taking his eyes off of the alien. "None of this is your fault, Debi."
"Stop!" the alien ordered. Ironhorse halted. Grinning viciously, the alien lifted the gun and pointed it directly at the colonel. At such a short distance, he could hardly miss.
As the alien took aim, his arm around Debi's neck loosened ever so slightly. She sank her teeth into it savagely.
The alien roared at the unexpected pain, and the gun discharged, the bullet flying past Ironhorse's ear by no more than an inch. Debi dove for the ground. The Colonel immediately whipped out his Battle Baton and hurled it at the alien, hearing a faint, sick thud as the blade buried itself in the alien's throat. Debi scrambled to her feet and ran to him. He caught her and hugged her close as she threw her arms around him, sobbing. "Is it dead, Colonel? Is it dead?"
"Yes, honey." Ironhorse held the child close, his gaze directed over her trembling shoulder at the frothing mass. "It can't hurt us now."
She took several deep, sobbing breaths, weeping and shivering in the Colonel's arms. Ironhorse said nothing, but continued to hold her, stroking her hair gently until her tears abated and she was calm again.
After several minutes, she drew back from him slightly, not to look at the dead alien, but in order to look up into the Colonel's face. "I was scared, but at the same time, I knew it was going to be all right," she said simply. "I knew you wouldn't let him hurt me."
Responsibility was nothing new to Ironhorse, but he was touched and staggered by the depth of trust in the child's statement. Using his thumb, he very gently wiped away Debi's few remaining tears as he said tenderly; "Come on, honey. We've got to get back to the Cottage."
When the phone rang, Ironhorse sprang to answer it.
"Down, Colonel," Blackwood said soothingly. "You know Norton will get it."
Ironhorse resumed pacing. "Omega Squad is due to report in at any time. I should have taken them out myself, instead of turning it over to Derriman."
"Haven't you had enough excitement for one day? You returned here at dawn after fighting aliens, rescuing Debi, driving all night, then sent out Omega Squad, and gave me a full report. You ought to try to get some sleep."
"Damn it, Harrison! Those aliens were out in those woods for a reason, and I can't relax until I know what it is!"
"Yes." Blackwood's expression turned serious; he swung his legs down from the desk where he had propped them. "Norton and I were discussing that, especially the part of your report about how the police radio did not function. That suggests the aliens are interfering with communications somehow, either deliberately, or as a by-product of something they're doing. We advocated a number of possibilities as suggested by the data, and the computer isolated two as the most likely."
The Colonel stopped in his tracks, hands folded behind his back, and stared at the astrophysicist. "Well, are you going to tell me, Mister, or are we going to play Twenty Questions?" he demanded.
"Temper, temper, Colonel," Blackwood said in an admonishing tone, lifting his index finger like a schoolteacher hushing an obstreperous child. "Tantrums are bad for your blood pressure. Now, the given data suggest that either an alien ship was somewhere in the area, or else—"
The phone rang again, and the Colonel snatched it up. "Ironhorse," he barked into the receiver.
"Derriman here, Colonel," the voice on the other end reported, tinny with distance and punctuated by occasional crackles of static. "We've detected massive radiation levels in the vicinity of Mammoth Caves. How should we proceed?"
"Contact Army Engineering Corps for radiation-protection suits and some skilled spelunkers, then proceed as directed," Ironhorse ordered. After issuing several more detailed commands, he hung up the phone, then froze at the sight of Blackwood's unusually grim expression. "What is it?"
"That was the second possibility, Colonel," the scientist said. He had dropped his usual bantering tone. "It appears as if you and Debi were only a few miles away from another hazardous waste location—an alien dump site—and you never knew it."
"You are certain of this?" the first Advocate demanded.
"Yes, Advocate," responded the gray-faced alien warrior. The belly wound he had received from Ironhorse had injured him severely, but not killed him. In order to survive, he should have absorbed a new human body, but having been ordered to report directly to the Advocacy, he had not had sufficient opportunity to find another human host. Now he was dying. A warrior's duty came before personal survival. "I saw it with my own eyes," he rasped. "The man was prepared to die for the child."
"Such self-sacrifice is illogical," another Advocate stated.
"How so, Comrade?" inquired the third. "Our warriors would die to protect our young."
"To preserve the Race, but not to preserve one life only. Humans breed like the vermin they are. They produce billions of offspring—the loss of one would make no difference. In the situation as our warrior describes it, the adult human should have realized that it would have been of far greater benefit to his kind to survive and warn others of his race. He should have abandoned the child to save himself."
"Yet he did not," the first Advocate said. "Interesting, Comrades. We must remember this human weakness. An opportunity may be found for exploiting it in the future. To Life Immortal!"
"To Life Immortal!" the others responded.