~ War Of The Worlds ~
by Jan Harley
Killing was sometimes necessary for a soldier. Getting killed was an occupational hazard too. Some soldiers killed because they liked to, wanted to, enjoyed it. To the rest it was just a question of duty and survival. Ironhorse fell into the latter category. He always had done so. Always, until now.
He had killed the aliens because he had to. It was a matter of survival and duty to his species. Personal feelings had never come into it. But now he wanted to kill Malzor, wanted to kill him very, very much for what he had just done.
He watched, infuriated with his own helplessness, as the first of the clones was raised. It was a shock to see yourself like that, but he steeled himself not to show any reaction to the vision. The agony as the material needed to grow the clones was stolen from him had provided more reaction than he was willing to give as it was. And the mind scan... he had no idea how he had reacted to that and it was not an experience that he chose to dwell on.
The clone was very weak, he could tell even from that distance. Soaking and shuddering, it could barely stand by itself. The female alien, Mara, barked an order and it was virtually carried away. He did not see it again.
The second clone looked a little stronger when they revealed it. They did not remove it from the pod they had grown it in, but left it shivering there. The third and final clone seemed to interest them more. It was far stronger than the others and sat up in its slimy cocoon without aid. The real Colonel watched as they questioned it and it answered them coldly and impassionately. It was not afraid of them like the first clone obviously had been, but stood its ground. They were nothing to it. These clones were not identical except in looks, he surmised, but the extent of their differences was not something he could discover from the small cage they had locked him in, as if he were some kind of animal. Perhaps, to them, he was.
He pushed at the sides of the cage again. The mesh was thick, made of something similar to steel that was not steel but an alien substance. It did not give at all, no matter how hard he tried to break free. Forced to squat uncomfortably inside it, pushing with any strength was hard in any case and even if he did get out the place was swarming with aliens and there was nowhere to run.
They seemed pleased with the third clone. That was worse than anything, worse than being captured, worse than mere imprisonment, worse even than the cloning experience itself, the simple fact that he had provided them with something that they could use. He would rather have found some way to die than given them this. It would know everything that he knew, the location of the Cottage, military secrets and passwords that he was sworn to keep unknown, everything. And there was nothing that he could do about it.
His inadvertent cry of anger and frustration attracted the attention of one of the aliens. It jabbered something to Malzor in their own tongue, then turned and aimed its gun directly at the captive. Ironhorse straightened as best he could in the confined space, and stiffly regarded his executor. He would not show weakness in the face of death, it was something he had been threatened with too many times to give them that satisfaction. Death was a grim fact, inevitable and unavoidable. But not this time.
Malzor's order was quick and harsh, and brooked no argument in any language. The alien lowered its gun, and the soldier released a breath he had not even been aware that he was holding. The reprieve looked as if it would be short, however, as Malzor was already on his way over, ordering his people around as he went. He stopped in front of the little prison and spoke in English to the man within.
"You will live for now, Earth creature. I have studied your past, there may be need for another cloning."
Ironhorse flinched slightly. He could not help it. And Malzor saw.
"Ah, that distresses you, does it? Yes, I've heard that the process can be unpleasant. But you are too valuable a prize to give up so easily. This first clone will wipe out your friends. The second, later cloning will destroy the Q'artons when they return to feed."
"Stupid Earthlings. You believed the one called Q'tara was your friend. She was a scout, sent by her people to assess Earth's value as provider of a food source. You and your people would be that food. We want the Earth for ourselves, her kind have no place here with us. She made contact with you, she will do so again when they return. And you will lead her directly to us."
"No. I'm not going to help you. She healed us. She isn't the enemy, it's you that's the enemy!"
"Believe what you will, it is of no consequence. You cannot stop us. There is nothing you can do to us, whilst we can clone you, and then make you do whatever we want you to."
It cut deep, as it was meant to. But he would not react and instead asked the question that was burning inside him; "Why three? Why make three clones when you only need one?"
Malzor looked at him as if he were completely stupid.
"Three is a pure number, the perfect formation of all things is to be three. We do not want a clone of you, with all your foolish beliefs and petty prejudices. The clone lying there," he indicated the remaining figure, still lying in its pod, "has all of those. He is you. Exactly. He believes that he is you, they all do. None of them realise yet that they are clones, although it will be necessary to brief the one we will use. He is not you, not as you are normally anyway. He carries all your darker traits, your id, if you like. No moral sense, he will do whatever we tell him, easily bought, bribed and coerced."
"And the other one? The first one you took away?"
"All your weakness, physical and mental. You see, it is necessary to make three in order to split you down the middle, to create what we need."
"I would never work for you! Not even the very worst in me could!" Ironhorse spat out at him defiantly.
"You forget," Malzor smiled. "It is only half a person. There is plenty of room to program in new values and ideals. That has been done, and worked well. You may leave now. I trust you will be happy in your new home."
The alien leader gestured to his minions and they lifted the cage from below, carrying it out past the remaining clone, totally oblivious to their captive’s loud and angry protests. Recognising this, as he passed the pod Ironhorse changed tack and shouted to the prostrate form below him:
"Hey! Hey, wake up! Wake up... Colonel! Colonel, that's an order! Colonel!"
The figure in the pod was out cold, and did not hear him. He could shout himself hoarse, and no-one would hear, ever. No-one who could help him, or stop the renegade clone at any rate. He smashed his fist furiously against the bars. Malzor laughed at him, amused.
Ironhorse definitely wanted to kill Malzor.
~ * ~
It was dark when he woke. Somewhere along the line they had drugged him and he had arrived here unconscious, wherever 'here' was. A hole in the ground, or a hold on some spaceship, there was no way of telling. It felt like a hole in the ground, though, and he could remember travelling in the back of a van for a long way until one of the aliens climbed into the back of the van with him and he recalled nothing more. Travelling in a van upon the earth, not in a rocket across a sky from a world he could never hope to return to. He told himself it was a hole in the Earth, and that he would escape from it.
The hole was a strange shape, as if someone had created it by blowing up a huge balloon inside it. The walls were coated with something hard and dark, like tarmac, that gave very slightly if you pressed at it enough. But apart from him it was completely empty, not even a door or a window to provide light. Air bled through in places, but it was generally stuffy and completely pitch-black inside. It would be very, very easy to get claustrophobia in there, but Ironhorse was made of stronger stuff than that. He would not let the dark get to him either. The dark that would not even allow him to see his hand in front of his face.
This was solitary confinement, one of the worst kinds at that. He had seen what this could do to people and he was determined that it would do nothing to him. Going around the cell, fingering every inch of the wall, he tried to find some break from the monotonous surface, a focal point. There was nothing, a continuous curve without break. Recognising defeat, he gave up and lay down on the slightly curving floor. Sleep did not come easily, but it came eventually. It was a relief when it did.
~ * ~
He dreamt that he was walking across a great high plain, in summer, alone. It was a familiar dream, and always ended in the same way, he would come to a cliff and look over the edge, start to fall, then wake up. Paul had been dreaming it whenever he was stressed in some way ever since he was a teenager. It never altered, never fluctuated even slightly. Nor did it here. He woke, sweating profusely, with a start.
They had fed him whilst he slept. He discovered the small box of food after stumbling over it trying to get up in the unrelenting blackness. He had no idea what it was, but he was hungry and reasoned that if they were going to kill him they could do so far more quickly and easily than with poison.
The contents of the bottle tasted like water and probably was, he decided. The food itself was less easy to categorise. Hard and chewy, it tasted of nothing in particular. Presumably it was something nutritious to keep him alive and healthy for the next cloning session, but they had taken no effort at all to make the meal interesting. Total sensory deprivation - no sight, no sound, no taste, no touch except the monotonous wall surface, no smell. Nothing.
The soldier wondered how long he would be able to stand it before he went crazy. There was no hope of rescue of course, no-one knew he was there. And why should anyone risk their lives for him when he had been stupid enough to let himself get caught, his men get killed?
He would escape. Next time they came to feed him he would be awake and waiting for them. Sitting cross-legged on the floor where the box had been, facing the direction he hoped they had brought it in from, he waited. He was military-trained. He could cope with this. They could throw whatever they wanted to at him, even the dark, lonely silence, and he would not break. Ever.
Time passed. No-one came.
Gradually he grew hungry again. Food, he realised, could become his clock. His stomach was very empty and growling at him, perhaps six or seven hours had passed. No food arrived. He was thirsty, too. The water had only been a small bottle, he would dehydrate quickly in the dry, warm cell if that was all they would give him. Still he stayed sitting, waiting. They would not come.
Gradually tiredness set in. His throat felt uncomfortably dry, and he was starting to feel rather hot. One of his legs was aching badly where it had taken a bullet years before, and he knew from experience that the only way to stop it was to get up and walk. He struggled to his feet, reluctantly.
Finding the first box as he got up was puzzling. Finding the second and third ones moments later was infuriating. The Morthren had got them into the cell in the blackness without him even noticing. Without even the tiniest chink of light getting through. Without a sound. Three boxes. Three deliveries. He had not noticed even one of them. With a cold rush of anger he realised that he must have sat there for an entire day, waiting. If they could see him the aliens must be very amused.
Furious, he went to throw the supplies against the wall in a rage, then realised that would entertain them still further. Besides, he was hungry and thirsty.
He ate. There was nothing else to do.
~ * ~
A week had passed. Ironhorse thought it was a week at any rate. There were twenty-one small empty food boxes littering his cell, and twenty-one small bottles inside them. They were not empty. Neither, for that matter, were some of the boxes. The sensory deprivation as far as smell was concerned had ended some days previously. He retained his anger over that, also. When the food came now, he smelt the waft of clean air, and knew.
The military drummed into you the need to be tidy, to be neat and fastidiously clean. Impeccable uniform at all times. A little difficult to maintain when it had been taken away from you and given to your cloned self to use as disguise. The t-shirt and slacks they had given him instead had been torn and filthy when he put them on. Being worn non-stop for an entire week had not improved them. Tears had a habit of growing larger. Not that it mattered, there was no-one to see.
He began his exercises. It was difficult in such a confined space but he managed. He needed to stay fit in order to escape when the chance came. He could run for miles, never leaving the spot he started from, running hard and fast until he could go no further. Push-ups were harder on the curved floor with its growing stack of cartons making the space more cramped each day, but he managed. He devised more and more intricate routines for himself and found time passed more quickly the more that he did. At least, the meals seemed to arrive faster and he supposed they were still coming at the same times. Still he saw no-one.
~ * ~
Another week had passed by his reckoning.
Another week in the dark, alone.
Another week in the silence.
Another week shut away from the sun.
When he was a boy Ironhorse had learnt about the sun, and the sky, and the land. Indian ways. His heritage. He thought he understood everything that his grandfather taught him then, but now knew that he had not. The earth breathed through her children, and in their turn her children breathed only through the earth. Even in the largest of cities you could still feel the sun on your face. You could still look up and over everything was the comfortingly reassuring blue dome of the sky sheltering the world. It sheltered urban and rural alike, a constant reminder wherever he was of where he came from, of what he was. It did not shelter him buried in a forgotten hole.
His parents had called him Paul, and sent him to school. But it was his grandfather who called him 'Littlehawk' and taught him the lessons that he really needed, if he had listened as closely as he should. His grandfather tried to teach him inner peace and serenity. If Blackwood had come up against Ironhorse's grandfather instead he would never have succeeded in getting him riled, as he regularly did with the youngest generation of the family. Grandfather would barely have turned a hair at even the most outlandish of suggestions, the most dangerous of plans, the most hare-brained of ideas. He would have shaken his head, acknowledging the hopelessness of the man, let him go, let him follow his own path and if it was wrong then it was wrong. Paul had not paid proper attention to that. he had lifted the old Indian weapons and wanted to learn how to use them, how to be a warrior. That had been his path and the elder Ironhorse had helped him to walk it. He had become a soldier, learnt the use of other weapons, and if he had never actually turned his back on the other things that his grandfather had tried to teach him, he had never embraced them either. Violence was not the only way to defeat your enemies, his grandfather had said. But when you were seven years old, the shortest in your class and the only Indian, violence was the only way that mattered. Paul learnt to defend himself and the bullies left him alone. His grandfather disapproved of street fighting. But then, his grandfather had been found dead in an alley with his throat cut and his wallet missing. The days of life on the prairies were over, no-one could return to them truly. You needed to be able to merge the two worlds together as best you could. The Indian world lost out every time, of course.
What would his grandfather have done there, in that hole, he wondered. He would not march up and down angrily battering at the walls in a fury at being trapped, that was certain. Nor would he rage at unseen foes who could not hear him until his throat was hoarse with shouting. No, he would sit and wait with infinite patience to be released, for someone to come. He would sit until he died if need be, never showing any anger, never feeling any. He would not lose his mind in there. Would not let them defeat him.
Neither would his grandson. Of that one immovable fact the captive Indian was certain. He would wait, patiently, working to make himself strong for when the time came, working to erase the effects of the chemicals they had used on him whilst cloning his body. That was his answer, his way of fighting this particular battle. The endless night would not overcome him. He was a soldier.
He was a soldier. He would fight. He was strong. He would not crack.
He was an Indian, too.
He craved the long grass and the sun on his back more than he ever imagined that he could.
He was strong.
He would not crack.
It was so very dark and silent...
~ * ~
Talking was a dilemma. Ironhorse could talk to himself, and then he would know he was going crazy, or he could remain silent and not even hear the reassuring sound of his own voice. Some days he talked. Others he remained obstinately silent. It depended on his mood.
His moods changed. They rarely had before, but they did now. It was difficult for them not to. Some days he could exercise from the moment he lay down to sleep. Other days it was more half- hearted. Then there would be the days when he would not move from the floor, not even to eat, lying there listening to the silence screaming at him. Those days were the worst, and they became more frequent as the weeks rolled on. It was a kind of depression like he had never known, not mere despondency but true depression. The soldier knew it was depression, and why it was called that. He could feel it pressing down on him like a great weight, crushing his spirit. He never felt like doing anything at all when he was like that. Even sleep was difficult. It was impossible to summon up the enthusiasm to actually exercise on those days. Once, tired of it all, he found himself trying to smash one of the bottles against the wall for a darker purpose. He did not succeed. Unbreakable to the aliens meant unbreakable, the bottle gave but never smashed.
The days crawled by. Little changed. His hair grew longer, gradually. His skin grew dirtier, imperceptibly. He cared nothing for that, wanting to be outside, walking under the blue dome of the sky, free as a bird.
Freedom meant something different to him now, shut away as he was. Before it had always been the American ideal of freedom drummed into him at West Point, freedom of speech, freedom from dictatorial regimes, freedom from Communism and the like. Now he could see those ideals for what they were, mere points of view, variations on the true theme. What was the point of being able to say whatever you wanted to if there was no-one to listen to you? Even the most oppressed countryman could leave his home and walk sometimes. That was all the freedom Ironhorse cared about now. Going where he wished, whenever he wanted to. Perhaps it was not enough for most people, but it would be enough for him after this.
Ironhorse was a soldier. Outside the small black hole which had become his world was another world, fighting for survival against the aliens. At first he had wondered constantly who was winning, straining his ears to the sound of imaginary blasts echoing through the disturbing silence. He did not hear blasts any more, or think that he did. The war, of necessity, grew less important to him. If the Morthren lost, he would be sealed up there forever, possibly with the food supply still arriving automatically, keeping him buried alive with no chance of catching a fatal disease or meeting with an accident. It had occurred to him more than once that perhaps this had already happened. Or perhaps the Morthren had won, and he was merely being kept alive to trap Q'tara's people when they returned, and would be summarily executed immediately afterwards, the last human being to die. He did not fear that. He had been in active service for too long not to have looked death in the eye more than once. It was a fact, he could deal with it. What he found it hard to deal with was this isolated waiting.
The hallucinations came, of course. At first he gathered together all his military training and fought it grimly, knowing the impossible visions for what they were. But as time went by he weakened, naturally, and allowed himself to watch the little pictures that his mind was creating for him. He would not allow himself to accept their reality, however. Once he did that, he knew, it would be the edge of the abyss that he was falling over, and there would be no going back.
So he ate his meals, and ran his solo marathons. He slept in silence, and talked to the walls when he was awake. He thought about the past and considered the future. But, above all, he was aware of the growing number of tricks that his senses were playing on him, especially the songs and voices he knew he could not really hear. And it was those that he feared.
Everyone was afraid of something, no matter how tough they thought they were. Ironhorse had seen the V.A. hospitals, seen their inhabitants. He did not want to exchange a dark cell for a padded one. He did not want them to pull him out of there drooling and screaming.
A woman's voice sang to him, soft and melodic, drawing him. The chasm opened wider in front of him.
He swayed, but did not fall.
~ * ~
There were five untouched food parcels in front of him. Another was just coming through the hole in the wall that would open for it then seal up instantly. It would not widen, or stay open. Ironhorse had come close to losing several fingers in making those discoveries. He would not eat from any of them. It was a calm, logical, military decision. It surprised him that it had taken so long for it to come to him. He would not help the aliens by surviving and being cloned again. He would not bring shame on himself and his rank by allowing his mind to go, allowing them to beat him that way. He would not give them the choice of when he should die by execution. He would give them nothing.
He would not eat. Nor drink. The cell was warm and dry. It would be slow, but it would be better than their way. He sat, and waited.
~ * ~
The voices sang louder to him now, ringing in his head like bells. Sometimes he thought he saw people in the cell with him. He told himself he was alone, knowing it was true. His body ached all over, and he was so dry that his throat felt as if it were cracking. It was the only thing that would crack, however, he was determined of that.
He lay quietly, still waiting.
~ * ~
Ironhorse had not expected it to be quite as grim as this. He had expected delirium by this time without water, not full consciousness most of the time. There were so many boxes in front of the little hole where the food was provided from that he could hear when something was being pushed through. Like now. Feeding time. But not for him.
It was not food. The gas was quick and painless, and in his emaciated condition he did not fight it. His last thought as he hit the floor was anger that they had been the ones to make the decision and had defeated him after all. Then even the singing stopped.
~ * ~
He was aware of the change subconsciously, even before he opened his eyes. Too long accustomed to the dark, he could not hold them open for long and they streamed constantly. He doubted that he had been out for very long from that reaction, unless they had transported him in darkness and his eyes were never given even the vaguest opportunity to readjust whilst he was asleep.
It was infuriating. He had waited so long to be able to see something, anything, and now that he had the opportunity he looked as if he were crying like a baby and could see nothing.
Wherever he was it was very noisy, he decided. It was still Morthren territory, he had not been rescued, he could hear them all talking to one another in their mother tongue. So many voices, all in one place... He stopped himself quickly, realising he would either grow to enjoy the novelty of company or become intimidated by it. Either way it would weaken him. He moved to wipe his face with his hand, but found himself strapped down. He could not see what to, but he could guess. Last time they had strapped him to some sort of trolley before wheeling him under the mind scanner. In his condition now that would certainly kill him, he knew. And then, straining against the bonds, eyes tightly shut, he realised the truth.
He should not be able to strain. His throat should be dry. His body should be weak and aching. He felt fine.
Ironhorse opened his eyes and forced himself to keep them open despite their streaming. Everything was very bright and hazy to him still, but he began to get outlines of objects and people. No, not people. Aliens. It was hard to keep that thought ahead of him. They looked so human, this second wave.
He turned his head to one side. It was not a flat surface that he was lying on, more like some kind of cot. Blinking back the tears, irritated by them, he looked again. It was wet and slimy, filled with some sort of green chemical. Suddenly he recognised it, and his heart leapt in shock. It was a cloning pod, like those he had seen his duplicates in before.
"No!" he found his voice rising up above the Morthren chatter. "I'm not helping you! Not again! Why am I in here this time..." He stopped as a horrible thought occurred to him. Of course, Ironhorse would not be in the cloning tank. He would be somewhere else. It was only a clone who would be here. Only a clone.
It was not an easy thing to take in. He felt exactly the same as he had before he went on his hunger strike, no different. He still believed he was the true Paul Ironhorse. Whatever had happened to his previous clones... Ironhorse's previous clones, they had believed they were the original as much as he did at this stage. It was only through seeing them that he knew differently. The other worrying thought was - which clone was he? Would he realise if he was evil? Or weak? He felt strong. The evil one had been strongest before. He wanted to sit up and look around, see the others, but his bonds prevented him.
His cries had alerted the aliens to his state of consciousness. Two appeared beside his latest little prison and looked down at him critically. He still found it very difficult to see much more than shapes and movement, but he soon satisfied himself that neither of them were Malzor. It was a relief to know that he still felt anger towards him, hatred even. Whichever clone he was, it was not the twisted one. Unless they had yet to program him. That thought filled him with brief panic, which he forced down as quickly as it rose. He would probably not even realise if they did program their own purpose into him, which was the worst thing of all.
Neither of the Morthren spoke to him. One appeared to be making notes whilst the other prodded and poked at their captive. He suffered it only because he had no other option. Strapped down naked in a pool of alien slime in the heart of their base, he was hardly in a position to demand that they stopped.
The Morthren left him in the pod for a week. During that time he was not fed, but did not ever feel hungry or thirsty. He supposed that being a clone he no longer needed nourishment. He had seen the genuine clone left like this the first time around, it merely confirmed his suspicions. He would lie there until one of the other clones died, and then he would die too. Of the real Ironhorse there was no sign, no way of telling whether he was still alive or had been executed straight after the cloning.
Death did not come.
Malzor, however, did.
Ironhorse felt the restraints slide away from him. He tried to sit up, intending to attack Malzor at the first possible moment, but after so long horizontal the change was too much and the room began to swim in front of him. Feeling rather sick and dizzy as his body fought to compensate for the sudden change he gripped the sides of the pod firmly to keep himself upright, determined not to show his weaknesses to the enemy. He could not quite control his shaking, however, and Malzor noticed.
"So, you survived all these months. Impressive, by human standards. Most are useless after a few weeks underground."
"How... long?" Ironhorse had to ask. Time was a familiar yardstick to measure the world by, something to cling to.
"Irrelevant. It appears we pulled you out just in time. You would be no use to us dead. As it is it took eight of your earth days to rehydrate and nourish you before we could put you in here. You cost us a lot of trouble. Still, when we clone you again it will be worth it. The Q'artons are on their way. Your clone will find a way onto their ship, as food if necessary, and self-destruct, taking the ship with him. There will be no witnesses. We can use you as many times as it takes, although I doubt they will attempt a second invasion after the first loss." The corners of his mouth turned up slightly. It could hardly be called a smile.
"To life immortal."
Ironhorse took a swing at Malzor, missed, and felt a wave of nausea wash over him. He grabbed the side of the cot again to steady himself. Reluctantly he allowed them to lift him out of it with little more than a token struggle, aware that he was in no state to take them on yet and would almost certainly only suffer the indignity of fainting if he moved around too quickly. Besides which, it was the first time that they had moved him whilst he was conscious in this part of the base. (Or was it a new base? He was not sure. Certainly none of it was familiar) Looking around as he was forced to walk, half-carried, by two rather burly Morthren, he could see no obvious exits or hiding places. The further from the pod-room they went, the more aliens there seemed to be, and the entire place was built like a rabbit warren. Any signs were Morthren, not to be quickly understood by a fleeing human.
They locked him in a cell without a word, and walked away. He was still wet with the slime from the chemicals in the pod, and they had not bothered to clothe him. Still, it was cleaner than he had been for a long time, and was infinitely preferable to being locked in the dark hole where he had spent the past few months. At least he could see. At least he was not a clone.
~ * ~
They cloned him the following day.
Experience did not make the process any easier, if anything anticipation of what was to come made it worse. The Morthren could heal the incisions they made in his skin as quickly and easily as they could cut into him, but although the physical pain was quickly gone the mental scars remained. It was the mind scanner that he could not bear, feeling it digging through every hidden secret in his head with claws of white hot steel, reliving every second of his life at hyperspeed with every nerve in his body on fire. It seemed to go on for eternity, and the very nature of what was being done meant that he remained fully conscious throughout the experience, long past the point where his body's natural defences would have shut down.
Finally it was over, and he was left lying shuddering in a pool of his own sweat. He barely registered his passage back to the cell, nor anything much at all for several hours besides the aftermath of the scanners progress, echoing inside his head.
"I think he's coming round at last."
The voice came at him through the constant waves of pain, both real and remembered - it was difficult to separate the two. It was a familiar, welcome voice, one he recognised gladly. Ironhorse opened his eyes a little, peering around at the two figures hovering over him.
They both shook their heads, and his sight cleared enough for him to see them a little better. Neither of them laughed at his mistake. The second figure spoke to him, very gently but in the same voice:
"Not father. Brother, perhaps. Or child."
The Indian finally saw them well enough to make out their features. He had seen them before, many times. In mirrors, usually. Struggling to sit up, he stared at them in horror.
"It's okay," the second clone spoke very gently still. "We're on your side, that's why they've locked us in here with you."
"They don't want us escaping," the first one added. "Seems my predecessor got rescued and screwed things up for them. They're taking no chances this time."
"So Blackwood and the others... they're still alive?"
"Could be. Something went wrong for the Morthren there, anyhow. Maybe they escaped? The Cottage'll be useless, the aliens know its location. They think you're dead, that's why no-one's come for you. It's weird. I know I'm a clone, but I feel like I'm you, like I've been cheated of my life in some way and been suddenly made less than human."
The second clone quickly gave his 'brother' a warm hug that obviously startled him. It startled the real Ironhorse too. The first clone pushed the offender away, uncomfortable.
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Affection is ridiculous, is it? You forget, I'm part of you. The repressed part." He looked up at his ancestor. "Part of you, too. Your path is different from his. You might have a future. Do you reject what I stand for too?"
"I'm... not sure."
"No. You understand... him, because he's you." He sighed, then his tone abruptly became more businesslike. "We'll have to give each other names, we can't all be Paul Ironhorse. No need for you to change, but we should. We could be here for days. It'll give you something to remember us by."
"We're him," the other clone snapped irritably. "He doesn't need to remember us!"
"We're not any more. I see things differently from either of you. From the moment we breathed our first breath we sensed things Paul never has, we became different. The longer we live, the more individual we become. Even you, Jem."
"Short for Gemini. Twin. That's what you are, isn't it? His twin."
"Stupid," Jem muttered, looking away in disgust. "And what are you?"
"He's Littlehawk," Paul told him quietly. "All that's left of him. Aren't you?"
The clone inclined his head in a slow, graceful nod of assent. "Perhaps not all. Perhaps I was wrong, maybe you could understand me in time also. In a different world, you would have been like me. Father would not have rejected the Indian ways. He would have been Shaman, and so in your turn would you."
"In a different world, perhaps." Ironhorse paused, remembering, then added; "Grandfather was Shaman, in the end it didn't help him much."
"In the end. If a stray bullet caught you in the head whilst you were fighting, being a soldier wouldn't help you much in the end. How you end isn't that important, it's how you live, how you grow. Do you really feel the military has helped you grow? Don't you ever feel like you've been cheated of some part of your inheritance?"
"No. I chose to join the army. I learnt Indian ways of fighting too. You know that."
"Ways of fighting. What about everything else? Is violence really all that matters to you?"
"Of course not. But sometimes it's necessary to make war in order to obtain peace. Like now. If we don't fight the Morthren they'll just take over. That's slavery, or slaughter."
"But if they weren't violent? If they just wanted to live here, what then?"
"That's irrelevant," Jem put in irritably. "This is worse than being locked up with Blackwood!"
"When the white men first came here, they only wanted to live on part of the land in peace. Look what happened, and they were humans like us," Paul answered rather more tactfully.
"True. But they did take the land from us. It's not ours any more. Why should you fight for it?"
"New alliances in a new world? You have to stand on one side or the other. If you sit in the middle you'll be cut down by both sides when they attack, every time."
"Or left alone. You can't be a soldier any more, not after this. They'll retire you off if you ever get out, worried about brainwashing and the like. Nice pension, of course, but that part of your life will be over. And how many more months can you sit in that dark hole waiting for the war to end? Once the Q'artons are dealt with you'll be back down there in no time."
"What are you suggesting?"
"I'm part of you. I have memories you've locked so far away that you've forgotten them. I could teach you how to sing to the spirits and touch the sky in even the darkest hole. In time you could learn to make your own spirit fly far from that place. This is a storm you're travelling through. The Oak is a strong tree, solid and immovable, like you. The Willow is thin and reedy, it blows this way and that in the breeze. But in the storms it's the Oak that gets blown over, not the little willow."
Paul's expression softened a little. "Grandfather told me that."
"You should have listened better. Sometimes it's better to give a little."
"Better for you!" Jem snapped. "Don't listen to him, you didn't see him when they brought him in here, he was shaking and crying with fear, weren't you? He's weak!"
Littlehawk nodded sadly. "This is true. I'm everything they don't want in their clone. But there are other ways of fighting than violence. The further you go in my direction, the harder it will be for them to create a negative clone who will be of use to them. Will you try it?"
Littlehawk was starting to give him a headache, or perhaps it was the aftermath of the cloning process still affecting him, Paul was not sure. A large part of him wanted to agree to what his clone suggested, the thought of going back down into that hole alone filled him with an overwhelming sense of dread, worse than staying up here and being cloned again. Cloning was only pain, pain was something he could cope with. The dreadful isolation of the dark prison was something else. Jem spoke for the part of him that wanted to hold back, though, and Ironhorse began to wonder if he really was a true clone as their views seemed to be differing.
"Don't listen to him. All that mumbo-jumbo's not for you. They'll lock you in the funny farm when you get out of here if you start on that sort of caper!"
"They probably will anyway."
Littlehawk looked hopeful. "So you'll do it?"
Paul shrugged his shoulders carelessly. "It can't hurt, can it?" He shuddered slightly, and rubbed at his cold arms. "Hey, do you think these spirits could see their way to getting us some clothes thrown in if we sing nicely enough?!"
In the corner, disgusted, Jem groaned loudly.
~ * ~
Several days passed. True to his word, Littlehawk recalled almost verbatim everything their grandfather had ever said to Paul as a child. He passed it all on now, and the two of them sat together on the floor of the cell trying to contact the spirits. It was difficult for them both, despite Littlehawk's memories he had no experience of actually attempting any of the rituals that he knew about. Paul found it hard to concentrate anywhere near as hard as the clone did, especially with Jem's negative attitude constantly distracting him.
Jem, for his part, stood by the cell door with his back to them in disgust, watching the Morthren. In his turn he was watched by the other two when their attempts proved fruitless. They called him over to them, but he would not come, preferring to keep to himself, brooding in the dark Morthren uniform they had all been given.
Jem's behaviour concerned Ironhorse. He knew that under Littlehawk's influence he himself was changing greatly, that he could never go back to quite the way he was before. But he also realised that something within Jem held him steady, unable to change rather than unwilling. Jem had been cloned to a particular mould, he was the soldier through and through. These two were the split in his personality, not the psychopathic, warped creature that had been sent after the Q'artons. True, Littlehawk often got panic-stricken and overly afraid whenever the Morthren came near, but aside from that he behaved little different from how Ironhorse himself did the majority of the time. Calmer and gentler, it was true, but not warped. His peacefulness rubbed off, and Paul began to enjoy his clone- brother's company. Littlehawk was so like his grandfather it was uncanny. Jem, on the other hand, reminded him somewhat of his father. He stared at him and eventually, aware of the scrutiny, Jem turned to look back with irritation.
Paul glanced at Littlehawk, saw he had worked himself into some kind of trance again, got up and went over to Jem. "Just thinking."
"Makes a change from that damn chanting! Do you realise I've had to spend nearly all of my life, such as it is, listening to you two?"
"Sorry." Paul leant against the bars and looked around at the Morthren beyond the barriers.
"Are you? Do you know what my life consists of? His too, for that matter. A handful of days, and someone else's memories." He sighed, then caught himself, straightened, and indicated the Morthren. "I've been watching them out there. Something's going on, they've been running round all morning. I think they're planning some new attack. Or maybe our non-brother has made it to Q'arton central?"
"I think we'd know."
"You would. Me and Littleindian down there wouldn't know a thing about it. We're not even real. I wonder how he reconciles himself to that fact, the fact his spirit won't float into an animal because it's not real, just a facet of yours?"
"Is that what bothers you about it?"
"Partly. But I was you. I was the identical clone. When we go, I'll die but he won't. He's altered you a little, made his mark. Part of what was me in you will shrivel a little, what was him will blossom and grow. He's not even a whole person, just part. I feel like I had a life, a real, full life, and it's suddenly been taken away from me." He hit the bars furiously with his hand, which made a lot of noise and probably hurt, but aside from that achieved nothing. "They took it from me!"
Angry, Jem began to walk the length of the bars at the front of their little prison and back again, still talking to Ironhorse, not even aware that he was pacing like a caged animal. "I wouldn't mind if it was a fair fight, but it's like nothing! I could keel over right now, dead, because that other clone blew himself up, with my whole life spent locked in here, no help in the war at all. Useless."
"That's not true."
"Isn't it? He and I aren't gonna see another night through, that's a fact."
"You can't know."
Jem stopped pacing, and looked him straight in the eye. "I know. Maybe it's intuition, maybe it's some kind of semi-telepathic link with the other clone, I don't know, but I'm telling you, he's on that ship right now. There's only one way we can stop him, and you have to do it. Littlehawk is too gentle, he wouldn't do it and I couldn't do it to him for just that reason. It'd be like slaughtering a lamb."
"Slaughtering?" Ironhorse took a step back, as if distance would lessen the inevitability of what he knew would come next.
"You have to kill me. Now, while he's on the ship, so the Q'artons know what he is, so they see the danger." Jem took Paul's hands and guided them to his own throat. "You're trained to kill. Do it quickly, before it's too late."
Paul stared at the clone in horror. Killing in self-defence was one thing, an execution in cold blood with his bare hands was quite another, especially on such a subject. Jem's dark eyes stared back at him impassively.
Ironhorse gritted his teeth and tried to make his fingers tighten around the clone's neck, but somehow they refused to respond. He let his hand drop to his sides, and half-turned away.
"I can't... I can't do it."
"I'm going to die anyway! Better this way, with a purpose, surely?"
"I know." Paul shook his head and would not look at Jem. "But theory and reality, they're two separate things. You can't kill Littlehawk, I can't kill you. We make up excuses, but the reasons are the same. Too much compassion. It's what makes us human, separates us from them. Both of us, Jem. You and me both. Human. Understand?" He looked his brother full in the face then, gripping him by the arms. "Not alien, not clone, not something made up. Human. Maybe, just maybe, I could stand to do it with a gun, cleanly, but not this way."
Jem glared at him at first, but as Paul continued speaking his expression softened, and eventually sank into despondency.
"Okay," he said, a little sadly. "I couldn't do it either. I just wanted a reason for this, that's all. Just one."
"Maybe there is. Maybe I'll get out of here, and you and Littlehawk saved my sanity by keeping me company these few days? Maybe he's right, and fighting isn't just violence and bloodshed? Maybe you battled here without even knowing it?"
"So there was a purpose after all?" Jem sounded plaintive, almost like Littlehawk in his hopefulness.
"I think so."
"So do I. I think..."
Paul never found out what Jem thought, as at that moment he slumped forwards in his arms. There was a thud behind them, and Paul did not need to look in order to know that Littlehawk had fallen also. He tried to accept their deaths as inevitable, but that was hard. Outside, the Morthren seemed busier than ever. One came and stood by the cell, but Paul ignored her. He dragged Jem across to lie beside Littlehawk. The Indian clone had never even woken from his trance.
Paul stood over them in silence for a few moments, trying to control the rage that he felt within him at their senseless deaths, at the probable deaths of many of the Q'artons. There were other channels for it, however, and eventually he raised his hands to the invisible sky and began the ritual death chant he had learnt many years before.
At the bars, the alien stood and watched him. She let him carry on for several minutes before she gassed him.
~ * ~
When Ironhorse awoke it was dark. He knew what that meant immediately.
It was not the same cell he had been imprisoned in before, or if it was then they had cleaned it during his absence. To him it seemed larger, although he acknowledged the possibility that without the mass of food boxes that he had built up before it was bound to appear that way. Feeling his way around, he found the first of the new boxes quickly, but nothing more. No sign of any doorway that they could possibly have brought him through. The food hole was far too small.
Ironhorse sat on the floor, cross-legged, with the box on his lap. He had two choices, very simple ones - life or death. Before, he had chosen death. It had been slow and unpleasant, and in the end he had failed anyway. If he tried it again there was no guarantee that he would be allowed to succeed. Then there was Jem and Littlehawk to consider. Their short lives had touched only his, they had expected him to somehow survive, eventually to get away from this place. He missed their company terribly already, and felt very strongly that he owed it to them to at least try to stay alive. On the other hand, he had a certain unpleasant obligation to his race to attempt suicide, countered by the equally strong obligation to survive and escape, and warn the world about the dangers of the cloning machine. Malzor had said it was rare to survive this prison, that meant there were others trapped who needed rescuing. He had no idea how he could achieve it, but he swore he would get them all out.
Life, then, was the only option worth considering.
Life with purpose. He ate.
~ * ~
Alone, down in the dark, Ironhorse had time to think on what Littlehawk had taught him. At the time it had been an interesting diversion, but now he attempted to call the spirits in deadly earnest, recognising that if he succeeded then it could help him in his escape attempt. He had never laughed at the idea of spirits, always believed in them, but never believed that they would speak to him as they had done his grandfather. Little had changed on that score, except that now, for the first time, he needed them to speak to him and would try with all his might to contact them. He sang, as he had with Littlehawk, until he was hoarse with trying. No answer came. Nothing happened.
A little disappointed, he went back to his exercises and did not try again for several hours. When he did there was still nothing.
Eventually, exhausted, he slept.
~ * ~
It was the plains dream again. He always felt as if he were floating slightly as he walked across the green land under the golden sun. It would unnerve him, and add to the feeling of falling later. On this occasion he felt a little more stable than usual, at least until he reached the edge of the cliff.
It was a sheer drop, the great river at the base apparently no more than a stream from the distance. Unable to stop himself, he stepped forward and off the edge. Naturally he began to fall, as he always did. This time, however, he did not wake up.
At first he hurtled towards the ground at an alarming speed, his earlier feeling of weightlessness gone completely, replaced with blind panic.
//You are mistaken, boy, you cannot fall.//
Even as he continued his rapid descent, Paul looked around desperately for the source of the voice. There was no-one there. It was wrong, of course, anyway.
//No. The ground gets no closer, does it? You cannot fall.//
"I am falling!" he roared back angrily at the nothing.
//Open your mind, child, you are not falling.//
"I'm not a child!"
// In our ways you are a mewling, helpless infant, struggling to find us. You have done so, but your mind is still very closed. Calm, now, and you will see.//
Ironhorse tried to achieve a calm mind. It was difficult when all of your senses told you that you were likely to be crashing into the earth at any second. He attempted deep breaths, and was surprised to find that he could manage them. His headlong flight slowed, then more or less stopped, leaving him hanging upside- down in mid-air.
//Better. Now orientate yourself.//
"How?" It was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain his calm, hanging like that.
//You can do it.//
It was a much younger voice that spoke this time, with a far more encouraging and less condescending tone. Paul recognised it with some shock.
//In a way, brother. Just think of how you want to be, and it'll happen.//
Paul glanced around. He could still see nothing but the ground far below him and the cliff face in front of him. It was a dream, of course, and anything was possible. He thought about swinging upright, and instantly did so.
//You see!// Littlehawk exclaimed, //You can do it!//
"I don't see you. Where are you? Where's Jem, is he here?"
//Jem is elsewhere// It was the older voice which spoke again. It did sound like his grandfather, but Paul was not sure. Something in the accent was not quite right.
//Things exist on this plane in ways you could not begin to comprehend. There are other ways of life, far removed from what you know. Littlehawk has joined us here because it was all he knew. He has learnt much, but like you he has much more to know.//
"You're the spirits? We tried to call to you."
//How can you say welcome when the door remains closed? Only in sleep does your mind awake to us even slightly. Many times those who care for you have tried to reach you this way. Until now your mind has always recoiled from them and they have failed. Now there is a change.//
Paul could see clearly around him now. Curiously the sunlight did not hurt his eyes at all, then he remembered that he was dreaming, and that it would not. It did not feel like a dream.
"Can I see you?" he asked.
//Not yet. In time you will grow more aware, and see many things.//
"At least you could tell me who you are. You're not my grandfather."
//True. My son tried to speak to you many times, and failed. Now, with your brother, I have succeeded. Littlehawk believed you would be Shaman in another world. He was mistaken. Our line produced many Shamen, it is true, but also many great braves. You cannot call the spirits because your mind has rejected them until now. Your children's minds will be similarly closed. But one of your grandsons is of the old line. He has the vision you all are lacking. You must survive, and set him on the path.//
"But I don't have any children."
//All things that have been, and are, and will be are here. In the now of your life, you are approaching freedom. You must never again forget where you came from in that liberty. Even the braves have a spirit animal. Littlehawk has been given the one we thought was meant for you, and you must find another. Without a guide all will be as it was, you will never find your true path.//
"You mean get married, take an office job and raise twenty kids! I'm not..."
//Your path will reveal itself to you in time. It will never be simple because of what you are, but if you turn into it then you will find it satisfying. It is inevitable and unavoidable once you start on it, written in the earth since the beginning of time, and always will be. Everyone's is.//
//Except mine!// Littlehawk joined in excitedly.//I'm the creation of beings not from this earth and I didn't figure in things till the moment I began to exist!//
//Do not confuse him.// The impassive voice sounded a little irritated, Paul thought, but it was serene when it spoke to him again.
//The world has changed again in your lifetime, warrior. Soon there will be no place for men like yourself, and you will need to alter. Your enemies are lessening, now they begin to come from the stars rather than the earth. Neither the Morthren nor the Q'artons will return, but there will be others, in other lifetimes. You must prepare the world for that.//
"The Q'artons were our friends!" Paul protested. "Q'tara healed us, she saved Suzanne's life!"
//True. But they were not your friends. In that alone the Morthren spoke the truth.//
The soldier shook his head slowly, trying to take it in. "I can't believe it. I really thought she was on our side."
//You have much to learn.//
"So it seems. And according to you my mind's too closed to learn it!"
//You do not understand. You would not be Shaman, that is true. But all of us can touch the spirits, speak with them, if we open our minds to them. Being Shaman is a level far above that. When your grandson is born you will see the difference//
"I'll be ancient! I probably won't be able to see anything!"
//Your life will be long. You will see everything. You must strengthen your body now, and wait for your freedom. You will not see the Morthren again.//
"And you? Will I talk to you again, great-grandfather?"
//When you are free. If that is the path you choose. Go back now. Littlehawk will guide you.//
Paul opened his mouth to protest, a thousand questions still burning in his mind, but abruptly found himself standing at the top of the cliff again, his back to the chasm. His great- grandfather, he knew, was gone.
"I'm here." And, suddenly, he was.
The Indian clone looked quite different to the appearance Paul had known. His own hair was almost touching his shoulder-blades now, but Littlehawk's reached his waist even tied back and braided as it was. He had abandoned the Morthren uniform for an Indian loincloth and little else. Even his feet, like Ironhorse's were bare.
"How come I can see you?" He did not question his return to the plateau.
Littlehawk shrugged in a rather non-Indian fashion. "Guess I'm just not as spiritual as the rest of them! Or maybe we have a closer bond, being what we are to each other."
"I see. Look, about these children I'm supposed to have. Who's the mother? Do I know her yet? It's kind of important I know, in case I let her go when the time comes, isn't it?"
Littlehawk smiled rather superiorly. Ironhorse was familiar with the expression, he used it himself on the rare occasions when he managed to get one over on Blackwood.
"I'm not telling. I can't. Actually, I'd love to, just to see the look on your face, but I can't. You're going to be very surprised though!"
"Fine." Ironhorse fumed silently for a few moments, then tried a new tack: "Look, you should tell me. You've messed things up for me be being here in the first place. I've got to go looking for a new spirit-animal because of you."
"No good. You never went out to search for him in the first place."
"Oh. What was it, anyway?"
"You know I can't tell you that. Come, I'm supposed to guide you back. You have to walk the way you came. It makes it easier to return next time."
"Next time!" Ironhorse followed the clone through the long grass. Later he would realise this was the scenario that he had been longing for in the dark, but at the time he was too busy trying to get information from Littlehawk. "So I'm coming back, then?"
"You realise this is all a dream and I don't believe any of it?"
Littlehawk stopped, turned, and smiled at him again. "I know exactly what you believe, brother. This is the place of parting. I will see you again in your future. Live well." He bowed deeply.
Ironhorse saw the plain waver and fade in front of him, giving way to a darkness that was more than just night.
Back in the prison much time appeared to have elapsed. Eight food boxes were piled in front of him. He did not feel as if he had slept so long, but unless something had gone wrong with the mechanics he must have done. Sitting up, he began to drink. He was heartily sick of water and whatever the food was. If freedom really was coming soon then the first thing he was going to do, after soaking for several hours in some very strong detergent, would be a long trip to the nearest 'Sizzlers' to give a whole new meaning to 'all you can eat'. The entire food bar would do, with a couple of steaks thrown in for good measure, thick, juicy steaks... his mouth started to water.
Of course, it was just a dream, the logical side of his nature told him, he would stay here forever. Not surprisingly, Ironhorse chose to believe differently. Hope was all that kept anyone going, really.
~ * ~
Several weeks passed, going by the number of food boxes which arrived for him. He had no more dreams, and any attempts he made to contact the spirits were not answered. Still he exercised harder than ever, choosing to take heed of his great- grandfather's advice on that matter. And then, quite without warning, it happened.
Ironhorse had been doing push-ups on the floor of his cell, always trying to add a few to the number, to beat his personal record which was quite impressive now. He had barely started this session when there was a gigantic explosion and the ground shook beneath him for a few moments. He froze, clinging to the floor until it stopped moving, then looked up. Normally there was nothing to see, but now, suddenly, he realised that there was a large gaping hole in the side of his cell where the food used to be pushed through. Beyond it there was the very minimum of light, not even enough to hurt his eyes, but enough for him to see by now that he was so used to the dark.
Gingerly he crawled forward, not willing to stand yet in case there was another explosion. The hole was not blown out, but the mechanics appeared to have jammed it open that far. The mystery of how the Morthren got him in and out of the cell was finally solved. Very, very carefully he looked out of his cell to the world beyond.
They had kept him in a hole in the ground, as he had guessed. In front of him was a drop, he did not want to know how far down it went. Far, far above him, at the end of a very long vertical tunnel, was light so bright that it had to be the sky. For a long moment, despite the way it hurt him, he gazed at it, drinking it in. It was a very long way up. This was why his great-grandfather had told him to make himself strong, to climb out.
The shaft was not empty by any means. In its centre was the tower of the elevator system used to bring him food and take him to and from the cell when need be. It had to be strong enough to take his weight, therefore, and looked fairly easy to climb. Getting to it meant stepping over the chasm, however, and that was no easy task. At one stage he found himself clinging to the outer wall of his cell whilst his legs straddled the wide gap. He had to push himself from the wall to the tower, almost losing his footing in the process, before he could bring his left leg to follow his right.
The relatively fresh air was a wonderful change, and he gulped it into his lungs gratefully as he began his ascent. Every few metres he passed open cells, however, and the air there was far from fresh. There were no signs of life from within any of them, though, so he continued on.
As he climbed higher, the number of open cells increased. From one he could hear the sounds of hysterical, insane laughter, from several others there were bursts of screaming that were painful to hear. Once he tried speaking to one of the occupants as he passed a cell, hearing them rocking themselves. There was no immediate reaction, then the inmate suddenly rushed out at him, wild-eyed and foaming at the mouth, quite oblivious to the chasm between them. As the man fell, laughing now, Ironhorse set his jaw and continued on, unwilling to speak to any of the other prisoners after that. However, some had heard him, and the noise grew louder. None of the voices he could hear now sounded remotely coherent, and the racket got on his nerves very quickly.
"Stay where you are!" he ordered, trying to sound as much like a Lieutenant-Colonel as possible. He thought that he detected a slight change, but it was hard to tell. "The aliens have been defeated! The army will come and get you all out as soon as possible but it is imperative that you stay exactly where you are. There is a large drop directly outside your cells which is very difficult to cross without help. Please remain calm and wait for assistance."
Ironhorse paused, listening to the unholy row still continuing around him. Hopefully anyone still sane in this madhouse would have heard him and been reassured, but he did not hold out much hope that any such person existed.
"Hey! Hey down there! Help!"
He looked up, and saw a figure leaning out over the edge of their cell, waving to him desperately. Quickly he climbed up to them.
"Don't lean out. I'm climbing up to get help."
The prisoner was a young woman. She was crying.
"Please take me up with you. I'll go crazy down here with this lot!"
"You'll slow me down."
"Just help me across, then, I'll follow you at my own pace."
"You might fall."
"Better than staying here. Will you help me or do I have to try to get across alone? I'll definitely fall then." There was a certain amount of determination in her voice, despite her tears, which he appreciated. He leant out across the chasm to her, wrapping his legs and right arm around the bars on the tower for support.
"Here. Take my arm. Hold tight and try to step across. Don't panic halfway or we'll both go down."
"Okay. Thank you."
"Just hurry up and do it."
He got a grip on her upper arm, and felt that she was shaking. It did not bode well, but she stepped out and allowed herself to be pulled over with only a small moment of panic when her foot slipped. Breathing heavily, she clung to the tower, sobbing in relief.
"Save your energy," he advised. "It's a long way up."
"I can do it. Go on, I'll see you up there."
In the dim light he could just make her out. She did not look very strong. He sighed. She would never make it alone.
"We can climb up together, there's no rush."
"What about saving everyone?"
"This lot are way beyond saving, I'm afraid. We should move though, I've no idea what time of day it is and I'd hate to climb this rickety thing in the dark!"
She gave a little laugh, and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. "I won't hold you back," she promised, taking hold of the first bar.
Ironhorse knew that she would, and she did. In fact, she was surprisingly strong and fit, and only needed to stop and rest briefly every fifty steps or so. This number lessened as their climb went on, and she grew increasingly weary. Ironhorse found himself chatting to her constantly, trying to keep her spirits up. It was this talking which caused their little party to expand to four eventually, two male prisoners hearing them as they made their way up. Their journey across to the tower gave the girl, whose name was Jo, a couple of much-needed rests from the exhausting climb. Both of the men tired far more quickly than she had, and even Ironhorse found his limbs screaming for rest long before he reached the top. Every muscle in his body ached, he did not like to think of how much pain the other three must be in. Al and Dave complained incessantly as they tired, whilst Jo climbed in silence, too exhausted to speak at all, the agony in her muscles written all over her face. When they stopped for a rest break, well within sight of the summit, Ironhorse tried to cheer her up. She was no longer crying, but her expression was bleak.
"Nearly there now. Twenty metres at most. You're doing fine, really good. Hang on tight, I know it hurts, my hands are covered in blisters too!"
She smiled wearily. "I'm one big blister! Don't talk, you have to save your energy, we still have to get out once we reach the top of this thing, remember?"
He nodded, and kept quiet. Above them the sky had turned to dusk, giving their eyes a chance to grow used to the light gradually. Still he wanted them out before nightfall. Al and Dave were still grumbling together beneath him, breathing heavily with the unaccustomed exertion. They had only been prisoners a short time, whilst Jo had been in her cell for a while and tried jogging on the spot to stay in shape, which helped her now. The two men would never have made it this far if they had started lower down in the shaft, he knew. As it was they were near total exhaustion, their mindless complaints a reflection of that.
Trying to ignore his torn and blistered hands and feet, Ironhorse took a deep breath and started the final leg of the climb. He kept pace with Jo, rather than the other way around, out of fairness to the girl who really was done in and keeping going on sheer willpower alone. She surprised him, he had expected to be carrying her by this stage.
Suddenly he reached for the next bar and found nothing there. Taking another step up he found he could see over the top of the shaft, to the world beyond. And what a world it was, swarming with the military. Some of them he even recognised.
"Tibbs! Tibbs! Over here! Quickly!"
The young soldier in question looked around, puzzled, saw who was calling him and shouted to his colleagues. Ironhorse did not find it particularly reassuring to see that Tibbs had drawn his gun.
"Tibbs, we're not Morthren! Get us out of here, quickly man!"
Tibbs was cautiously making his way towards the shaft, his gun still drawn, watching Ironhorse very suspiciously. Then, gradually, recognition set in, and his eyes widened in shock.
"Colonel?! Is that you?"
"What does it look like?! Just get us out of here, hurry!"
"HURRY UP, SERGEANT!!!"
Tibbs looked around nervously, holstered his gun, then ran forward to help. Ironhorse made the girl go first, then let Al and Dave follow her. Al was a shock to one of Tibbs’ colleagues.
"Major Davies! But we thought you died. I saw..."
"It was a clone," Ironhorse explained wearily as Tibbs finally helped him. "Whatever you thought happened to us, it was clones. There's others down there, a hell of a lot of them. Most are off their heads, but there might be some still trapped. We were in little cells, I don't think all of them opened after you blew this place up." He sank to the ground beside the others, thankfully.
"Hey, we didn't blow it up," Tibbs told him. "It was them, they did it."
Ironhorse looked around at the devastation. "We were lucky not to go up with it."
"We're just plain lucky!" Jo corrected, leaning against him. "Those poor people still down there... even if they get out okay they'll spend the rest of their lives in the nuthouse."
He nodded. "True. But we still have to live with it."
"Sir?" Tibbs crouched down in front of them. Out of the corner of his eye Ironhorse could see an armoured van approaching.
"Coming to lock us up again, Tibbs?"
"Well..." the blond sergeant looked uncomfortable. "You see, I don't know about the young lady and the other gentleman, but you and Major Davies definitely died. Taylor saw Major Davies die with his own eyes. I know that was a clone, but they were supposed to have rescued you already. You and the clone both died. There were witnesses."
"I know regulations. I assure you I'm the real thing though. The Morthren make three clones, the one that escaped was an exact copy of me. No-one would know the difference. Did the other one succeed in what he tried to?"
Tibbs shook his head. "I don't know details. The Cottage went up, I know that. I think he held a child hostage or something."
"Debi..." Ironhorse breathed. "Did he kill her?"
"I don't know exactly what happened. I'm sorry."
The Colonel sighed. "Never mind. I'll find out soon enough." The van stopped a few metres away. "I suppose you want us to get in that?"
Tibbs nodded. "Sorry."
"That's okay," Jo got to her feet with some difficulty. "Just as long as there's a long hot bath at the end of the journey, a complete change of clothes, and some real food, I'll go anywhere you want! Otherwise you can forget it!"
Paul stood up beside her. "That goes for me too!" He glanced down at Al and Dave. "You two agreed?" They nodded, grinning, and he turned back to Tibbs. "You'd better convey that through the proper channels P. D. Q.! Unless you're enjoying our unique aroma, that is!"
The Sergeant laughed. "Now that you mention it, it is pretty... unique! I'll put your request in. I doubt anyone's going to object!" He ran off quickly.
Ironhorse took Jo's arm, and helped her to the van. "Looks like we're back in prison again," she commented. "Hope this stay'll be shorter than the last one! My husband's probably run off with his secretary by now!"
"I doubt it. Don't worry, they'll want to question us and run tests to make sure we're who we say we are and not Morthren."
"I can understand that. If I never see another one ever again it'll be too soon!"
Ironhorse agreed, but as he helped her into the van he looked around him at the desolation and secretly thought that he would like to see one again. Malzor. With a gun in his own hand. That particular pleasure, it seemed, was to be denied him.
~ * ~
The military questioned him for three days solidly, broken up only by trips to their laboratory for a never-ending series of tests. At the end of the third day Ironhorse had been quizzed and examined more than enough to exhaust his patience, and when he returned to the rooms he had been given he did not welcome visitors. He especially did not welcome visitors who admitted themselves and waited in what was his living room, albeit temporarily. Irritated at what he assumed was yet another intrusion by military types he barely knew, he skulked in the hallway for a few minutes, set his expression to unfriendly, and stalked into the room.
"Do I get no privacy?" he began angrily, then stopped as he realised who his visitors were.
"Hi, Colonel!" Blackwood grinned at him, "Great to see you, too!"
Ironhorse just stared at him, amazed, and the doctor's smile faded, leaving him looking almost as uncomfortable as the other three. Debi, Ironhorse noticed with some relief, was there with them but had not stood up when he entered the room as the others had. She looked as if she had been crying, but at least she was safe. However, there was one absentee.
"Where's Norton?" he demanded. He did not miss the looks exchanged between Kincaid, Suzanne and Blackwood.
"Norton didn't make it," Blackwood told him carefully.
"Killed by my clone, right?"
"Killed by something that looked like you," Suzanne corrected.
"The rest of us were saved by someone who looked a lot more like you," Kincaid added. "Looks like we pulled the wrong guy out. Sorry, pal. But he was you."
"I know. They did it a second time and I met the identical clone."
"Still, we should have realised. They do everything in threes, why would they only do one clone?" Harrison shook his head, obviously furious with himself. "The one with us, he never said he was a clone."
"He didn't realise he was. They never told him. He thought he was me. Whatever he did was just what I would have done."
Ironhorse heard Suzanne mutter "Oh God," under her breath, and saw her turn her face away slightly, distressed.
"Well? What did he do? Harrison?"
Blackwood told him. As he did so, Ironhorse recalled Jem and could imagine the events unfolding exactly as they had done.
"And so we believed you were dead and never looked any further," the doctor finished. "If I'd had any idea you were still alive..."
"If any of us had," Kincaid put in. "You'd've been out long ago."
"You couldn't know." Ironhorse dismissed the subject and went over to Debi. He hunkered down beside her chair: "Did he hurt you?"
The girl shook her head. She still looked very tearful although she was not actually crying. Despite this, she did not seem quite the child he had known, something was seriously wrong. He looked up at Suzanne, questioning, mouthing a silent "Me?" at her. She indicated that was not the problem. Gently he put his fist under the girl's chin and lifted her face to look at him.
What's the matter, Debi?"
She would not answer, just shook her head again and looked away. He patted her shoulder reassuringly, and stood up to face the others who had gathered around him now. Suzanne reached up and hugged him, kissed him on the cheek, then hugged him again.
"I'm so glad you're safe."
Ironhorse smiled at her, then grinned wickedly at Harrison over her shoulder as she hugged him a third time. As always, it was virtually impossible to get one over on Harrison Blackwood, and a moment later he was following Suzanne to the letter, only pausing afterwards, when Ironhorse was already glaring at him, to tweak the Colonel's pony-tail playfully.
"Very trendy! Not quite army regulation though, is it Colonel?!"
Ironhorse smouldered. "At least I have an excuse. Is the beard some kind of attempt to scare away the Morthren?"
"Hey, don't pretend it's new. I grew this before you were captured."
"I know. I wondered then, too. I assumed it was some kind of wager."
Harrison stroked his beard, looking a little hurt. "It's a nice beard, makes me look distinguished, doesn't it Suzanne?"
"Well, seeing as you ask... it's one of the worst beards I've ever seen! You did ask."
"But all scientists have beards!"
"I don't," Suzanne told him very pointedly.
Blackwood glowered at them both. He did not bother asking Kincaid, knowing he would side with them. "You still need a haircut," he told Ironhorse. "The army won't let you keep that."
"The army hasn't decided what to do with me yet. I'll probably be retired off in case I'm a mental time-bomb waiting to go off. So I can keep it." He glared at Blackwood, daring him to object again.
"That's awful," Suzanne protested. "They can't do that to you."
"Yes they can," Kincaid corrected her. "And he's right, they probably will. National security and all that."
"Oh yeah?" Blackwood had apparently forgotten the insults to his beard for the moment. He had that particular gleam in his eye which Ironhorse had learnt to dread in the past. It did not particularly inspire him with confidence now. "We'll see about that!" He took hold of Suzanne's arm and began to propel her towards the door. "We'll be a little while, Colonel, you can stay and keep these two company!"
Ironhorse trotted straight after him. "Wait a minute, Blackwood. Where are you going?"
"Is that a need to know question, Colonel?!"
"Yes! I don't want you going begging on my behalf! I can take care of myself!"
"Begging?!" Harrison repeated incredulously, turning to Suzanne with a brief wink then back to the Colonel. "Did you say begging?! Me?! No no no no no, my dear Colonel, you don't realise how very important Dr McCullough and I are now."
Ironhorse glowered at him. Harrison was loving every moment of this. Why, he wondered, had he ever considered that he missed the man?"
"We're the experts on the Morthren. Now that they're no longer a threat we can study them. It'll probably turn out to be our life works! Our own secret government establishment to work in, scientific papers to write, presentations to present... we'll be famous!"
"How can you be secret and famous?"
"Ah, well, maybe not that secret now. But we still need top security, and the military's dealing with it..."
"No! Absolutely not!" Ironhorse abruptly saw what Blackwood had in mind. "Not again! I totally forbid you to go!"
"You can't!" Blackwood patted the soldier's cheek infuriatingly. "See you later, Colonel!"
She shrugged her shoulders helplessly, beamed at him, and let Blackwood hustle her out of the room. Ironhorse glared at Kincaid, who was smirking widely, daring him to say something, anything.
"Nothing, nothing," Kincaid took a quick step back. "Say," he stooped and picked something up that he had left on his chair. "You want your knife back? I sharpened it on plenty of aliens for you!"
Ironhorse took the proffered weapon, turned it over in his hands, then gave it back. "You keep it. Doesn't look like I'll get a chance to use it on the one I really wanted to know."
"No?" Kincaid sat back down again. "I think they took a few prisoner, if one of them was a real shit to you maybe we could do something about it?" He let the implication hang in the air.
Ironhorse settled on the arm of Debi's chair, between the two of them. "He cloned me. Twice. You can't possibly imagine what that was like."
"The clone we rescued told us it was bad. And I went down into those cages yesterday with one of the rescue teams." He shuddered; "How you could survive that, for so long..."
Ironhorse shot him a sharp look. "I wasn't going to let them defeat me. Why are the teams still going down? Haven't they pulled everyone out yet?"
"No... well, not exactly. They've opened all the cells now, but most of the inhabitants were either dead or insane. It was horrific." He paused, still affected by what he had seen. "They found the place where they think you started climbing, and where the girl joined you. The distance the two of you climbed was incredible."
"Yeah, I still ache from it a bit. Jo couldn't even stand the next day! You pulled more out, though? People who were okay?"
"Not me. But they got five more out when they opened up the cells. They're pulling the bodies out now."
"Damn Malzor! I'd like to see him cloned and shoved in one of his own holes to die!"
Debi suddenly shot up from her seat and ran out of the room before either of them could stop her. They heard the bathroom door slam, and Ironhorse looked at Kincaid in consternation.
"What? What did I say?"
"Malzor. She shot him."
"Debi killed Malzor?!"
Kincaid nodded seriously. "He shot her Morthren boyfriend."
"It's a long story. Ceeto wasn't the enemy, though. He helped us, that's why Malzor killed him. Poor kid's been like this ever since."
"Debi killed him?" Ironhorse found it difficult to take in. He knew he had been out of it for about six months, but this particular change was a little hard to take.
"We all have to grow up quickly in war, Colonel."
"But Debi..." He got up, shaking his head, trying to reconcile the cloying image he carried of her with her dolls and toys with the description Kincaid had just offered. He was right, of course. Debi was not a child any longer. Still shocked, he went out to the bathroom and rapped on the door.
"Debi? Debi, let me in."
There was no response, but he could hear the girl crying inside. Trying the handle, he found the door unlocked. He paused for a moment, then went inside. Debi was sitting on the edge of the bath, crying bitterly. He waited, but she did not run to him as she had done when she was younger.
"I hear you saved me a job," he stated gently, putting his hand on her shoulder. "Malzor was evil, you did the right thing. Don't blame yourself for it. Those people Kincaid was talking about, if you'd seen what he did to them seen what Kincaid saw, you'd be proud of what you did. It's wrong to kill without reason, but not to kill an enemy who wants to destroy your entire way of life and take away your freedom."
Debi did stand and hold him then, still crying bitterly. "He k-killed Ceeto," she sobbed. "And Norton, really. I thought h-he killed you, t-too."
"He tried, believe me." He held her tightly, and eventually the racking sobs eased. "Better now?"
She nodded. "I guess. He didn't need to kill Ceeto, did he?"
"It was cruel. That probably appealed to him. Ceeto would be proud of what you did. Be strong for him, Debi. Think you can do that?"
The girl nodded again.
"Good girl. Listen, I'm starving, how about you and me raiding the fridge before Blackwood gets back?"
"Okay." She quickly went to the sink and tried to cool her burning face, then returned to his side and they turned to leave. Kincaid was standing in the doorway, watching. He moved to let them pass, smiling at Debi, who almost managed to smile back.
"Nice job," he whispered to Ironhorse a moment later. "I thought it was another clone when I heard you say killing is wrong, though! Couldn't believe it!"
Ironhorse shot him a look that would have wilted a lesser man. "I learnt a few things about life inside. Maybe you should try it?"
"Wise move." He opened the fridge. Another couple of steaks had appeared during the day. He grinned at Debi, and asked innocently:
"Is Doctor Blackwood still a vegetarian?"
Ironhorse's grin widened, and he took out the steaks. Perhaps, he decided, he had missed Harrison after all.
~ * ~
Free again, Ironhorse's first few weeks passed in a blur of questions and reunions. No mention was ever made of his expected retirement, instead he was given two months leave of absence with orders to report for duty at the Blackwood-McCullough centre at the end of it, with a haircut. They were very firm on that last point. Well aware of what had been done, he made no argument, choosing to ignore it. Thanking Suzanne was one thing, but letting Harrison Blackwood know that he was grateful would never do. There were other debts and obligations he had to fulfil, however, and these would not wait. So it was that in early June, a fortnight before his extended leave came to an end, he found himself driving far out of state and into what was once the old Cherokee hunting grounds. It was a long drive, and took an entire day. It would have taken far less, but Debi had begged to be taken along, which resulted in an endless stream of reasons to keep stopping, and also the need to stop in a motel for the night instead of driving through. She slowed him down, but he was not quite ready to spend long periods alone just yet. Besides which, she needed the change and he had always found her very hard to say no to.
Ironhorse drove them way, way out into the countryside. Then he left her with the truck, its keys in case of trouble, and an endless supply of books and music, food and drink. He had explained to her where he was going, and why, and she had still chosen to come along. Now, however, she had to stay put.
Not entirely convinced that the girl would keep her promise, Ironhorse started out across the great plain. Never before had he been there, yet he knew it like the back of his hand. It was exactly as it was in his dream, but now he did not have the sensation that he was floating as he walked. He pulled his t-shirt off in the heat, and threw it aside.
There was no cliff. He had not really expected to find one. To walk in the long grass with the sun on his back was enough. Everything else was as it had been in his dream. He stood on the edge of where the cliff should have been, and gazed around him. It was summer, and the world was a very beautiful place. The incredible sense of calm that he had felt before only in his dreams of this place overcame him again, in reality this time. Time passed, but he did not notice it. He watched, absently, as a large Bald Eagle circled overhead, then landed in the grass right in front of him. It stalked around for a few moments, then flew away. Watching it fly into the distance, he dropped to his knees and began to chant, as he had done with Littlehawk in the cell, a world away now. And, finally, they were answered.
Ironhorse felt the air move about him, not the wind now, something more. He had done it, finally tapped the Indian side of his nature which until recently had been virtually abandoned. It made him feel whole, more at peace with himself than he ever had. Grandfather and Littlehawk had been right all along.
//You have fought a good battle, and chosen the better path. We are proud.//
"Thank you... Grandfather," He smiled at the faint vision of the beloved, weather-beaten old face he recalled so well, that warmed him to the core now. "I'm sorry I never listened before."
//You heard enough. Your eagle has waited many years for you. Guard it well.//
Looking down, Paul noticed two gleaming white bones in the grass in front of him that he was sure had not been there before. Scooping them up, he pocketed them. Not exactly the traditional pouch, but it would do for now. He was glad he had not had to kill the creature himself.
//Go now. Do not forget. Teach your children, and their children. Life will never be so hard, nor days so long. Walk in peace under the sun, Darkeagle.//
Ironhorse felt a vague flicker of uncertainty at the mention of children again. He bowed his head respectfully to his grandfather, and to the older figure behind him who was doubtless the great-grandfather whom he had spoken to before. As they faded he saw Littlehawk again, as he had been on the plain.
"Littlehawk! I have to know!"
The Indian laughed. Ironhorse could see him laughing, but not hear it.
//You don't stand a chance, brother. Not a chance! Enjoy your last few years!// He laughed again, teasingly, half-bowed, then faded away.
Ironhorse found himself kneeling alone on the plain, with the sun in his face. It had been on his back when he had arrived here. Slowly he got to his feet, still filled with the same sense of calm he had felt whilst speaking to his ancestors despite Littlehawk's strange sense of humour. Turning, he found Debi standing a little way off, watching him.
"I got bored," she explained. "I tried to be quiet. Did I disturb you?" She was carrying his discarded shirt.
"I told you..." he began, then gave up. There was little point in upsetting her. He took back the shirt, and pulled it over his head. "Let's go. You could have got lost out here."
"I didn't though!" the girl told him, then added curiously; "who was that man?"
"The Indian you spoke to. He was laughing."
Ironhorse stopped dead in his tracks, stunned. "You saw Littlehawk?!"
"Is that his name? What did he mean, about your last few years? Are you going to die?" She looked so concerned at the last question that he could not deceive her.
"No. Nothing like that. Not for a long time. He's a clone, off my Indian side. In a way we're brothers because of that. Did you see the others?"
"I only saw him." She thought about it for a moment, then added: "He's nice, I like him."
"Good. So do I. Come on, I'll race you back to the car. You've got a five minute start then I'm coming after you, okay?"
"Four minutes, fifty-nine seconds..." he started his watch.
Debi laughed. "I'm gone!" she assured him, and dashed off, surprising him a little by going the right way.
Ironhorse walked on alone, across the plain, watching the girl go. She was young, and she would probably get over her bad experiences in time, with help. For himself, the war was over and he had found another world to fill the void left in his life without the challenge of it.
The sun warmed his back as he walked towards the truck that would take him home. The girl was almost out of sight already, he would never catch her. He let her go, jogging gently through the long coarse grass, under the great blue dome of the sky.
Free as a bird.
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