A Warrior's Work is Never Done by The Neon Gang
by The Neon Gang

Cell Seven - Alien Hunters AU

The alien commander and his primary scientist shuffled into the presence of the three Princes, their heads bowed, their six-digit hands held out in a show of supplication. They waited in silence while their three leaders finished their discussion, trying hard not to eavesdrop. The acoustics of the cavernous mothership made the task difficult, but not impossible.

"Speak, Commander," the eldest male finally said as an acknowledgement of their presence.

"We come before you to receive your council," he began, choosing his words with care. "My Princes, the scientist wishes to speak."

Three heads swiveled to look at the rather portly female alien who stood a step behind the military commander. She took another half-step back and supplicated herself on the cold metal floor. "Forgive me for the interruption, Princes," she pleaded, her skin turning a lighter shade of mottled blue as she tried to demonstrate her utter submission to the will of the Princes. The scientific class was not in favor at present, too many of its members having sided with the cause of the humans, and she knew she walked a fine line if she wanted to survive.

"Speak, scientist," the elder Prince commanded.

She forced herself to rise, but she was quaking. "My Princes, our latest experiments progress well ahead of schedule. If all goes well, we will have the final contagion prepared before the end of the cold season here." The ship the Princes resided on was in stationary orbit above the city the humans had once called New York.

"Excellent," the middle Prince rewarded her. "It seems that our decision to conduct these tests in the area the humans call 'Mexico' has resulted in a remarkable lack of interference for once."

"That is true, my Princes," the military commander stated, bowing lower as he did. "Our scientists and drones have been able to move about that area with impunity. It appears that the darker-pigmented humans found there are of less value than the pale ones farther north. There has been no particular attention paid to our activities in their press, nor in their governmental circles – such as they are."

"Then the moment of our ultimate victory over these vermin grows close," the youngest Prince crowed, clicking the barbels protruding from his upper lip with glee.

"Yes," the middle Prince concurred. "But it has taken far too long." He glowered at the scientist, his red eyes narrowing. She turned a pasty white. "However, the Assembly will be pleased. It was, after all, inevitable."

"Do not allow anything to interfere with our victory, Commander," the elder Prince ordered, addressing the military leader.

"Yes, my Prince."

"I am sure that any action the humans take now will already be too late," the scientist added nervously. "Many more of our drones have been revived, my Princes, just as you ordered, and they grow to maturity quickly."

"Have you determined what it is in this place that makes us so vulnerable?" the youngest Prince asked.

The scientist bowed her head so deeply she nearly toppled over. "No, my Prince, I have not. But these humans have poisoned their world in so many ways it will take us a considerable amount of time to find the exact cause. Once we are able to eliminate most of the humans who remain, we will be able to cleanse the environment, and then we will not be so easy to kill. We will not… decompose—" Her voice caught and she whispered, "As did our beloved King."

The Princes replied by grinding their barbels in agitation.

"So you say," the middle Prince replied. He was not at all upset that his father was dead, but he knew better than to show that to his brothers. "It is good to see one from the ranks of scientists so loyal."

"Yes, my Prince," the scientist stated, daring to lift her head ever so slightly.

"Excellent!" the elder Prince proclaimed. "Then we will leave our ships and colonize this planet. Once there are enough drones to work and serve, we will eradicate the humans once and for all."

"My Princes, I must return to my work," the scientist stated, already backing away, bowing repeatedly as she did. "Acquiring the minds of the CDC researchers has proven a great boon to our efforts, but we must hurry before they are used up."

The three Princes nodded as one.

"Leave, scientist, and do not fail," the middle Prince told her. "Or you will pay for your failure with your life."

The female continued to bow until she was out of the receiving hall.

The military commander stood, awaiting his orders.

"Commander," the elder Prince said, "how close is the completion of our new city in the place they call Boston?"

"The new city will be completed in three Earth months," the commander replied, bowing before his betters.

"Very well. You are released. Send in the next commander," the middle Prince instructed him.

"My will bends to yours, my Princes," the commander replied, then bowed lowly, straightened, and hurried out, sending in the next commander to face the three rulers.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Miguel Santo stepped into the ramshackle hovel that blended into the tumble of identical dwellings on the edge of Nogales, what had once been a thriving border community. He squinted into the dim shadows that filled the room like a pall of death. Three men sat hunched together on a narrow cot that served as the only bed for a family of nine.

They were small men, thin and nervous. Their dark brown skin allowed them to blend into the shadows, only the flash of white from their teeth and eyes marking their presence.

"Miguel, we thought you had been discovered," one of the waiting men whispered, seeming to pull farther into the blackness of the corner.

"No. I took a different route to get here. In case they are watching me."

"Did you speak to the Red-eyes?" another of the waiting men asked, daring to lean closer for the answer.

"Yes," Miguel said. "He said they are mixing chemicals – a way to kill the rest of us, he believes."

The three men all groaned in despair.

"I found the gringo, too, but his price is high – one million pits," Miguel told them, knowing they had little chance of securing so much alien money.

"One million—?"

"That is impossible!"

"Shh," the third silenced his companions. "Miguel, are you crazy? How can we hope to pay so much? We are poor men, slaves to these Red-eyes."

"We will find a way. We will steal it. It must be done. They are killing us, our families, our villages. There is nothing left for us to do. No one will listen. This is the only way. We will go to the mines and take what we must have."

"We cannot even steal that amount," the one hunched into the corner whined. "Either way, we are still dead."

Miguel took a step closer to the bed. "Then we will lie and kill the gringo when he has done what we ask. The world will know we have tried, they will see what we have done, and some will fight." He thought for a moment, coming to terms with what he was planning. "It is true, we will die one way or the other, but at least our children will have a chance at life. That is more than they have now."

The three men sat in silence, the truth stopping the words of protest and fear in their throats.

"We meet again, the day after tomorrow, across the border, in Tucson. I will find how many pits we can raise, and where we can steal more. There will be a way. God will show me."

Miguel waited for a reply, and when none came he strode to the bedside, his arms raised above his head. "Do you think the Red-eyes will go away?!" he barked at them. "We are nothing to them. Hands that toil, and that is all; if one of us dies, another takes his place. And so it will be until we are all dead. This is the only way our children can live."

One of the men stood. "We know, Miguel. It is the only way. But we are afraid. Even if we do this thing, why should it make a difference?"

Miguel's head shook as he tried to chase the depressing thought away. "It must. Someone must have compassion. Someone must care if the children live or die. The people in the United States are still fighting the Red-eyes. This will make them listen to us."

"They do not care!" one of the men said sadly. "They fight to save their own families, they do not care about ours."

"They fight for their own," came the retort from the corner. "They will not help us."

"Perhaps not, but we must try. It is our responsibility to see that our children live to grow up." Miguel turned, not waiting for their reply, and stalked out into the bright sunlight.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Chris," JD said as he leaned into the small room that served as Larabee's office, "I think you'd better get out here."

The blond looked up from his computer and frowned. "What's going on?"

"It's, uh, it's Mrs. Travis," JD explained.

Larabee frowned, but he stood and walked out into the large open space that made up the majority of the ground floor of their mountain hideout. Mary and her father-in-law were standing near the huge fireplace, arguing.

"This is an opportunity we cannot pass up!" the blonde woman stated emphatically. "We have to go."

"Go where?" Chris demanded, stalking over to join them.

Orin Travis looked at Larabee, relieved. "Chris, tell her this is ridiculous."

"What is?" Larabee asked, looking from Orin to Mary and back again.

"Tucson," Mary said.

"Tucson?" Larabee echoed. "What the hell for?"

She rolled her eyes. "I knew you'd side with him," she said, spinning and heading for the door, her heels ringing on the hardwood floors.

"Just a minute," Chris said, taking three long strides to catch her and keep her from walking away. "What're you talking about?"

"Going to Tucson," Mary stated.

"Why?" Larabee asked, suppressing his desire to throttle the woman. "What are you talking about?"

"I just told—"

"You haven't told me anything."

Mary huffed out a sigh. "All right, I'll start from the beginning," she said, slipping into her 'lecture' voice.

Green eyes narrowed. "Thank you," he ground out, and saw Orin's brief smile. The blonde could get on any man's nerves at times.

Mary, however, frowned. "There's a secret meeting being held in Tucson, a meeting of microbiologists, virologists, and communicable disease scientists from the US and Europe. They have been carefully working their way here for months ."

"And you need to go. Why?"

The excited sparkle rekindled in Mary's eyes. "Yes, I do."

"Why?" Chris asked again, reining in his rapidly-mounting anger.

"Why?" she echoed with a huff. "I told you they're scientists—"

"And you're a journalist," Orin reminded her.

Mary sucked in a deep breath and huffed again – louder. "Look, you know Nathan and Raine have been monitoring several outbreaks of what looks like a new strain of the Ebola virus in Northern Mexico, but it's not natural there. These scientists are meeting to address those outbreaks. I know you realize that it isn't that far from northern Mexico to the US."

"Granted, but how does that impact us?" Chris asked.

That stopped Mary for a moment. "Oh, for crying out loud!" she said. "The Bugs used a biological weapons on us! This could be the beginning of another attack!"

Travis sighed. "Why didn't you just tell me that to begin with?" he demanded.

Mary looked hurt. "I thought I did."

"No, you just told me that you were going to Tucson," he huffed. "And why are you going? Nathan and Raine I can understand."

Mary puffed up. "I need to hear what these scientists have to say if I'm going to disseminate it to the resistance."

Larabee looked at Travis. There was defeat in his eyes, and the older man finally nodded.

"Fine," Orin sighed, "I'll see what I can do."

"I knew we could work this out," Mary said, reaching out to take Travis' hand. "Will you and Evie look after Billy while I'm gone?"

"Of course we will," he replied, then glanced at Chris and said, "Can Cell Seven get them there and back?"

Larabee nodded. "I think so, but I'll need to do some checking. Shouldn't this be an operation for Cell One?"

"Half the members of that cell were injured or killed in a raid to slow the Phoenix re-build," Travis told him. "They won't be fully operational for several more weeks."

"Damn," Chris breathed. The resistance cells were spread thin, and losing one of them for that length of time was a problem.

"Do whatever you have to, and let me know," Travis instructed Chris. "And next time something like this happens in the SFT I damn well better hear about it first," he growled, heading off to contact the President and let her know what he thought of the situation.

"But this is a meeting for scientists only," Mary replied.

"I didn't say we were attending," Chris countered. "But we are going with you to ensure you get there and back in one piece. Besides, you aren't a scientist, either."

"No, but I have an invitation," she replied. "Have it your way, but don't forget to bring a book." She smiled and walked away.

JD, who had been listening close by stepped up, waiting until Mary was out of earshot before he said, "She's right. This might be the start of another push by the aliens to eradicate humanity with a new biological weapon."

"Might be," Chris agreed.

"I wish they'd done the damn meeting in Denver…"

Larabee nodded. "At least there haven't been any interruptions in the resistance travel routes the past few weeks."

Travis nodded, but he was clearly still worried.

"We'll make sure she's safe," Chris assured him.

"I know you will."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"All right, listen up!" The deep-throated voice boomed through the room, signaling instant, attentive silence.

The speaker was two inches over six feet tall, and 165 pounds of carefully-crafted muscle. His rusty red-brown hair was shot through with silver, and his pale grey-blue eyes looked like steel, and were just as cold; everything about the man commanded respect. "We've received the down payment. The mission is a go."

He watched heads nod and the excitement in the room climbed a notch. They were solid men, on the whole, some ex-military, a few ex-Special Forces, and fewer still ex-federal agents from a collection of countries spanning the globe. All of them had lost any scruples they might once have held before the Cleansing. Now they were looking for excitement, money, personal pleasures, and the chance to kill Bugs or humans, they no longer cared. But they were his men, and they were loyal to him, which was all that mattered.

"Initial recon of the meeting site will be conducted by oh-six-hundred, day after tomorrow. I want detailed photographs of all entrances and exits, maps of the local area, and back-up transportation. Halloran, you and Anderson find me a couple of countries we can use to lay low in for a couple of months once this is done."

The two men nodded.

"Jared, what's our final payoff?" one of the men asked him.

"One million bits from the locals," James Jared said, then smiled and added, "And an additional three million from the scientists' or their cells, families, or whatever, before it's over."

Heads nodded again, smiles spreading across the faces of the mercenaries.

"Any resistance?" one ex-SAS sergeant asked.

"Bugs, maybe, the UN won't have the balls to deploy special ops – they're too busy hiding from the Bugs – and the President has no balls."

That prompted a burst of laughter from the men.

"The best the locals could do is some former police and military, and they shouldn't pose any problems we can't handle. I doubt any SFT resistance cells will be able to reach Tucson before it's all over. Cell One got chewed up pretty badly, and they're the closest. Go get packed, boys."

James Jared watched his men file out into the small hanger they were using as a base of operations. This was going to be a cakewalk. The U.S. government had no real way to stop them; like other governments, they were in hiding, trying to stay alive. And the locals were inept in comparison to his own men. He had nothing to worry about.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Mary, Nathan, and Raine stepped into the underground location for the secret meeting. Long ago it had been a nuclear bomb shelter – back when the only major threat was believed to come from communism. Above them was one of the last Hotels still in operation in Tucson. The city had been one of Arizona's largest population centers, but following the Cleansing it had largely become a refuge for scavengers, or slaves who had managed to escape the Bugs in California and Mexico City.

"Wow," Nathan breathed, glancing around. It looked more like something from a third world country.

"Yeah," Raine concurred. "But I heard we're using the hotel for the actual meetings." She glanced around.

"I did as well," Mary agreed.

The couple nodded, remembering the poverty and wretched conditions they had seen as they had been driven through the city from the airport. "Someday we'll win this war and people can go back to rebuilding their lives. At least, I hope so," Raine whispered.

"Me, too," Nathan agreed as they reached a folding table.

A beautiful blonde woman greeted them with a smile. Her accent was vaguely South African. "May I help you?"

"We're here for the microbiology conference," Nathan said with an inviting smile. "I'm Nathan Jackson, and this is my wife, Raine."

The woman's well-manicured fingertips darted across the keyboard of her laptop computer. "Yes, I have you right here."

She reached for two metal keys that were among several still laying on the tabletop. She handed the keys to Nathan.

"You'll be staying in room 333. There will be a reception at five PM, in the Orchid room; that's on the seventh floor. Please remember to use the blackout curtains at all times after dark."

"We will, thank you," Nathan replied.

As they stepped away, Mary took their place, checking in as one of several journalists who had been allowed to cover the clandestine meeting.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Their room was modern, large, and comfortably furnished. A small bouquet of flowers rested on a table next to the bed. Raine dropped her briefcase on the bed and removed the small card sitting on a plastic stick like a placard.

Opening it, she read aloud: "Enjoy. See you both day after tomorrow. Chris."

Nathan nodded. "Glad they all made it down here safe."

Raine grinned. "You had any doubts?"

With a serious expression, Nathan nodded, saying, "In this crazy world? Yeah, I did."

After a moment, she nodded her agreement. "I wish the Bugs would just come out and say they want to kill us all off…"

"We know they do, once they don't need us for labor," he said, stepping over to wrap his arm around her shoulders.

"Do you think this is all related to another Bug bio-weapon?"

Nathan sighed sadly. "Yeah, I do. Seems like most everything bad that's happened since they got here has been just one more attempt to kill off humanity, and as long as some governments, and some people, are in the Bug's pockets, it's going to be hard to mount a good defense."

"We'll find a way," Raine said softly, then kissed his cheek.

Once they were settled in, the two doctors visited the dining room. The choices were limited, but the food was fresh and more than adequate.

Their meal finished, they headed for the Orchid room, where they were met by a petite Mexican woman.

"Nathan and Raine Jackson," Nathan said.

The young woman dug through a series of manila folders that filled two boxes on a table. "Ah, here we are... Doctors," she said, handing over a folder to Nathan.

"Thank you," Nathan said.

"And yours," she said, handing Raine her packet.

"Thank you."

"Are you part of the conference?"

"Yes," the young woman replied. "I am one of Dr. Castillo's graduate students."

"Ahhh," Raine said. She and Nathan knew about Castillo; he had been a world-class microbiologist, with a penchant for third world causes, before the Bugs had arrived. Now he was one of a handful of scientists working with the UN to find a way to defeat the Bugs.

"Our meetings will officially begin tomorrow morning, at ten, but there is an informal gathering this evening, in the atrium. That is on the first floor. We'll be serving wine and some snacks, starting at eight."

"Thank you, we'll be there," Nathan told her.

The young woman's head dipped slightly. "I look forward to seeing you. I will be there with Dr. Castillo, and several other students."

"Wonderful," Raine told her. "I hope you'll introduce us to Dr. Castillo, Miss…?"

"Jacqueline Castillo. I'm also Dr. Castillo's daughter, and I would be happy to introduce you."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


"I am here," he replied, stepping out of the shadows of the Hilton's rear receiving dock.

Jared stepped up to join the anxious man while his mercenaries, dressed like drivers and delivery people, went about unloading produce off several old pickups.

"Is everything ready?"

Miguel's gaze swept over the otherwise-empty ramps, and he whispered, "It is."

Jared nodded, studying the nervous man. Miguel Santo was scared. Not frightened, but terrified. And he should be, Jared decided. What they planned was tenuous at best; suicide if mistakes occurred. But he didn't make mistakes. He smiled to himself. It was a good thing Santo didn't know the additions Jared had made to the plans.

"You and your people should wait until we have the hotel, then you can make your statements," the mercenary stated.

Miguel's head bobbed in agreement, his throat too dry to speak.

"And you're sure our inside contact will have everyone in the Orchid room at ten tomorrow morning?"

"Yes, I am sure."

"Then give us an hour to secure the building. I'll see you tomorrow, at eleven."

"Eleven." Miguel watched the mercenary turn and grab a box of expensive fruit, carrying it into to the hotel. His eyes rolled upward until he was staring at the sky. "God protect us," he whispered and crossed himself.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Nathan left Raine talking to a biochemist and wandered off, hoping to find Dr. Castillo. He spotted the older man halfway across the room, standing with his daughter.

Estefan Castillo was everything Nathan had expected. Short, Indian-looking, with black hair well streaked with grey, and dark brown eyes. The man's long hair was held back by a leather thong, and instead of a suit or slacks, he wore old military fatigues and a T-shirt that proclaimed in blue tie-dyed letters: Earth Day, Every Day. A pair of Birkenstocks and silver jewelry – southwestern, Nathan guessed – completed the picture of the environmental and cultural activist.

Nathan helped himself to a glass of wine and headed over to meet the man he had admired for many years.

"Estefan," a handsome, if too thin middle-aged woman interrupted, stepping in front of Nathan and cutting him off. "It's so nice to see you," she said.

"Nikki, my dear," he replied smoothly. "I'm glad you decided to come. I heard you were busy with research in Toronto."

"I am, but the opportunity to discuss my findings with everyone… Well, it was simply too good to pass up."

"Dr. Castillo," Nathan said, stepping around Nikki and extending his hand.

"This is Dr. Nathan Jackson," Jacqueline supplied, "from the United States."

Castillo's eyes widened. "Ah, yes." He took Nathan's hand and shook it. "You are here with your wife?"

"Yes, but I'm afraid she's occupied at the moment. Dr. Hauss found her just after we arrived."

"I see. Well, I'm sure I will have plenty of opportunities to speak to her. And please, call me Estefan, Dr. Jackson."

"It's Nathan."

Castillo chuckled and nodded. "A kindred spirit, I see."

Nathan smiled. "I'd certainly like to think so."

Jacqueline stepped up to Nathan. "Why don't I introduce you to the others?"

"I'd like that," he replied, then looked to her father. "If you wouldn't mind?"

"Please. Tomorrow we will talk about issues that are too depressing to contemplate. Tonight is for enjoyment."

Nathan let Jacqueline lead him off, planning to take Dr. Castillo's advice. He had no idea when he might have another opportunity to speak to many of these scientists.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Nathan and Raine sat near the center of the conference room, surrounded by microbiologists, virologists, and infectious and tropical disease experts, all of whom looked as shocked as the pair felt. The statistics they had been able to put together were staggering – the total numbers killed in the Cleansing, increasing discoveries of new and mutated bacteria and viruses, increasing outbreaks of epidemics on all continents, increasing morbidity in all nations, and increasing resistance to known treatments. The picture Dr. Castillo painted was grim indeed, and they all knew that the Bugs were the ones responsible.

Nathan glanced toward the side of the room as two men entered with fresh pitchers of water, and several trays of finger-food. His brows pinched over the bridge of his nose. Why did they bother him?

They were white, for one. The majority of the hotel's employees – with the notable exception of the staff at the front desk – were all Mexicans. But it was something else, too…

Nathan's head cocked slightly to one side. They reminded him of the team.

The way they moved. The way their gazes flickered over the scientists. The way they seemed to be ready for something.

Nathan sat up straighter in his chair, then reached out to rest his hand on Raine's arm.

She leaned in closer to him. "What is it?" she asked softly as Dr. Castillo answered a question from a South African scientist.

"Those men," he whispered into her ear. "Something's not right… I think they're ex-military."

Raine glanced at the pair, then back at her husband. "They're just bringing food and water in."

"No, look at them," he instructed. "They're soldiers."

Raine's eyes widened, but she casually glanced back at the men, taking the time to really look at them this time. Muscular, short hair, they looked like they could be soldiers, but…

Before she could question Nathan about his hunch, several more men entered the room, fanning out along the edges in a swift choreography that left her breakfast resting heavily in the pit of her stomach. One of the men moved to the front of the room, joining Dr. Castillo at the podium. She guessed he was a couple of inches over six foot, and around 165 pounds of muscle. His rusty brown hair was shot through with silver, like Castillo's, but unlike the scientist's compassionate eyes, this man's were hard and cold.

With a graceful movement, the newcomer removed a hand-held semi-automatic weapon Raine thought she recognized as the same one favored by Chris' team. With a collective gasp, the scientists waited for a moment that dragged into an interminable future.

"Ladies and gentleman," the man finally said, "you are now the prisoners of the Guatemalan Liberation League. If you remain calm, and do as you're told, no one will be hurt." He smiled, but that did little to reassure Nathan or Raine.

Miguel stepped up to the podium, his face shiny with nervous sweat. His hands shook, and he forced himself to grip the smooth sides of the wood to still them. "I am sorry we had to do this," he said. "But there was no other way."

"Like hell you say," one of the scientists near the front growled.

"We tried other methods," Miguel snapped, "but no one listened. No one cared about poor Mexicans dying in the jungle."

"Tell us," Castillo suggested calmly from the chair he now occupied in the front row. "We are here for this very reason."

Miguel nodded, and started, his voice cracking with emotion. "Almost six months ago, there was a village in the jungle near Tikal. It is no longer there. The people are all gone – all dead. A sickness came and killed them all. That sickness has spread, killing many, many villages in the jungle. We asked the government for help, but they are all hiding. More people died. We asked missionaries for help. They came, but they refused to aid us. We turned to foreigners, but they refused to hear us, and more people died. And still the sickness spreads through the jungles, killing whole villages in a single night.

"Then the sickness crept from the jungle. My relatives in San Benito and San Ignacio began to get sick. More people from the jungle came. They told us of the death that awaited our children if we could not get help. We prayed and no one came to help us. We knew we had to help ourselves. You will cure this disease, or you will die."

"Tell us more about this sickness," a scientist demanded.

"It came from the jungle. The tribal men I spoke to said it was loosed from demons, evil spirits. Hideous monsters out to destroy the world," Miguel said. "They move through the jungle, conjuring death."

Nathan and Raine exchanged concerned looks. "That has to be Bugs," she whispered.

Nathan nodded. "Good thing Chris and the team is already on the way."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris and the rest of the team were in Nogales, hoping to find the cell who watched the border, when they received word that the microbiology conference had been taken over by local terrorists. Before they continued deeper into Mexico, he contacted Travis.

"I just heard as well, Chris," Travis told him.

"We'll get them back," he assured the man.

"What do you have in mind?"

Chris sat in his saddle, thinking for a moment. "It'll have to be a small force, to avoid being obvious… We'll just do it ourselves."

"I agree," Travis said.

"We'll need additional weapons."

"Any preferences?" Travis asked.

"Given the location, anything you can get us will be fine."

Travis sighed. "All right, I'll see what I can do. Bring the Jacksons and my daughter-in-law back alive."

"We will," Larabee promised quietly.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Squinting through the glare of the sunset, a lone Mexican man watched a small band of men ride over to the weathered hanger where he waited in the shadows. The six men maneuvered their horses into the structure before dismounting.

As the sun dipped below the hills and the evening grew darker, three others wrestled the hanger doors closed, shutting out the rising winds, dust, and any prying eyes.

The man walked over to the six men. They all had black duffel bags on their backs, and small cases secured to their saddles.

A man with dark blond hair and green eyes was the last to dismount. He grinned as he reached him. Dropping his duffel first, Larabee set his case down and extended his hand.

As soon as he took it, he tugged Larabee into a rib-cracking hug. "Chris, it is good to see you, amigo. I thought you had fallen off the edge of the planet."

Larabee chuckled, pushing back with a grin. "Something like that," he replied, pounding the man's back. "It's good to see you again, too, Raphael."

"I should have known you would end up working for the resistance."

"For Orin Travis."

The man whistled. "Then you are doing a hell of a job. I have the weapons you asked for."

"Appreciate it," Chris replied. "You don't happen to have a sniper rifle in there, do you?"

"I believe so," Raphael replied. "Let's step into the office," he suggested, leading the way. When Chris and his team settled on the furniture the Mexican resistance leader explained, "We have a conference of microbiologists being held hostage by an unknown group of terrorists. They're calling themselves the Guatemalan Liberation League, but that is not an organization anyone is familiar with."

"Any ideas on numbers?" Chris asked.

"I have a man conducting a sweep of the building now," Raphael stated. "We should have answers soon."

Chris nodded. There was nothing more he could add.

"Raphael," a young woman said, stepping into the room and closing the door behind her.

Chris and his men watched as the short, dark-haired woman walked over to the man and handed him a stack of photographs. He scanned the stack, then passed them on to Chris.

"Well?" Buck asked, craning his neck to get a look at the photos.

The woman leaned back against the desk that occupied the center of the room and folded her arms across her chest. "It is going to be tricky. The local police evacuated the buildings around the periphery of the hotel. They have a tight perimeter set up, so no one is getting in, or out. As for the hotel itself, there are two options for entry – the sewer or the old telecommunication tunnels. Neither is guarded at the off-site entrance, but I do not know about outlets in the hotel itself."

"I would strongly suggest the telecom tunnels," Ezra said. "After visiting the sewers in Sacramento, I know we don't want a repeat performance here."

Buck's and JD's head bobbed in agreement.

"They'll smell us coming," Buck added.

"What's the head count?" Josiah asked.

"From what we could determine from the surrounding rooftops, it looks like fifteen to twenty men," she replied. "We have pictures of as many of them as we could get. They are primarily White, so the Guatemalans must have hired mercenaries."

"Leadership?" Chris asked.

"I have no idea," she replied. "Nothing obvious, or the leader is being cautious."

"Is there any way we can get into the building to have a look around?" Buck asked.

The woman nodded. "The Guatemalan Liberation League is allowing a small group of journalists to enter. You could slip in with them, but they are not getting much of a tour from what I heard this morning."

"We'll give it a try," Larabee said and paused, then asked, "Any signs that the Bugs are involved?"

The woman shook her head.

"Well, that's something," Ezra replied dryly.

"One of our cell is getting the hotel's blueprints now," the woman added. "That might help you."

"Thank you," Chris told her and she nodded and left. He looked at Raphael. "Sounds like you have good people."

He nodded. "The Nogales Cell is the best in all of Mexico," he boasted, and the others laughed.

"That's what they all say," Chris told him with a grin.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The next morning found Vin and JD slithering through the ventilation ducts of the hotel. They inched along, using elbow pads and moccasin-clad toes. The men controlling the Hilton were guarding the sewer outlet, but not the old telecomm tunnels, which were harder to find, and considerably smaller. The tunnels did, however, give them access to the hotel's entire duct system.

Chris guessed that the mercenaries simply didn't have the manpower to cover every possible point of entry. So far, he appeared to be right.

They were, however, using electronic surveillance equipment to augment their protection. It was old, but still effective.

He and his people were experts on the same equipment, so it wasn't difficult for the two men to maneuver past what they found, leaving behind some of their own, or co-opting what they found for their own uses.

As they moved through the ducts they also took pictures through the vents, noting the times and places they found guards. From the buildings surrounding the hotel Josiah, Buck, and Ezra were also taking pictures, and an old satellite JD had hijacked a couple of years ago was keeping track of the men guarding the roof, revealing when they changed shifts, and where each man liked to spend his time.

In the early afternoon, distant, muffled voices directed Vin and JD's movement until they found a large room filled with the scientists, four Guatemalans, and five mercenaries, including the man Vin knew must be their leader. Former Major James Jared, United States Army, Special Forces.

Nathan and Raine were uninjured, and Mary seemed to be behaving herself. That was a plus. Mrs. Travis could be unpredictable, depending on the situation.

Vin and JD placed their own surveillance equipment, then eased out of the building undetected.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Orin Travis, dressed in a casual business suit and carrying a well-worn briefcase, walked into Tucson's second largest hotel and stalked up to the registration desk. In moments 'Mr. Hank Wilson' was on his way up to a private suite on the top floor. The bellman opened his room, then carried in his luggage, sitting it neatly at the foot of the bed.

Travis tipped the man and waited for him to leave, then he walked over to one of the bedroom doors and opened it. Chris and his team exited. The men made themselves comfortable in the small sitting area.

"It took some doing, but we have a go from the President," Travis stated. "What're we looking at?"

JD leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees as he explained, "The hotel is nine stories, a total of four hundred rooms – fifty on eight of the floors; two through nine. There are twenty suites – four on five floors; two through six. There are also two penthouses on the ninth floor, and ten conference rooms, two on the first floor and one on each floor of the hotel. There's also a restaurant, weight room, indoor pool and sauna, and an atrium on the first floor."

"Sounds very nice," Travis replied dryly.

"They allowed all the guests, except for the conference attendees, to leave," Ezra told him.

"That includes the entire hotel staff," Josiah added. "There are a total of one hundred and eighteen hostages, approximately twenty-five mercenaries, and the four members of the Guatemalan Liberation League, who seem to be behind this. They claim they're trying to force recognition of the plagues decimating people in the jungles of their country and get some kind of international response to help them."

Travis nodded. "The Free Press is being very supportive of their cause; the UN's taking some publicity blows."

"Raphael and two of his people are going in as journalists. The mercs let it be known this morning that while they support the GLL's claims, they want an additional three million in gold for the release of the hostages," Larabee added.

"They're using passive electronic security on floors two through nine, with live guards on one and seven – where the hostages are being held in the conference room," JD said, picking up the briefing.

"But they're rotatin' live guards in the stairwells on all floors," Vin added. "The elevators are shut down. Controls destroyed."

"So far," JD added, "the hostages have been kept in what's called the Orchid Room on the seventh floor during the day, and in rooms on the seventh floor at night. There are guards outside each room while they sleep."

"We'll have to move while they're all together," Chris explained.

"Which is all day, except for occasional john breaks," Buck added.

"What about the journalists?" Travis asked, obviously worried about Mary.

"Mary was one of the hostages who was released, but she went back in as a reporter with Raphael and his people. Reporters are only being allowed into the atrium on the first floor to talk to the members of the GLL and Dr. Castillo, the lead scientist at the conference," Josiah responded. "They've went in at 1000 hours, and again at 1600 yesterday and the day before. We're assuming the schedule will be the same tomorrow."

"The seventy-two hour deadline for the UN and the Guatemalan authorities to respond with a promise of aid will come up tomorrow morning, along with the mercenaries' deadline for an okay on the additional three million in gold," Ezra stated.

"The gold's out of the question," Travis said. "No one in the US or Guatemala could come up with that. However, the President is sympathetic to the plight of the Guatemalan people, or so she says. She's speaking to the UN high command, trying to get a commitment and resources from other nations, but it's going to take time for everyone to get their act together while avoiding the Bugs."

"We don't have that kind of time," Chris stated flatly. "Jared said they'd kill their first hostage tomorrow, at 1000 hours if they don't have a signed promise of help, and a promise to pay."

"I don't think the four GLL had a clue about Jared's additional demand," Josiah added.

"Any signs that Bugs are behind this?" Travis asked.

"Not yet, but we can't assume they aren't, either," Chris replied. "We're just going to have to go in and get our people out."

"With Jared that might not be easy," Vin said, remembering the man well.

"Jared..." Travis echoed. "The name sounds familiar."

"Major James Jared, Army special ops," Vin explained.

Travis nodded. "I thought I'd heard the name," he said. "I also thought he was dead."

"Evidently not," Chris replied. "But with luck he'll wish he was before this is over."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

0500. The sun, still two hours from rising, meant that the streets around the Hilton were black. The exterior of the hotel was bright with external lights, shining through the thick landscaping. Chris, Buck, and Vin scanned the outside of the building for guards. Four men moved through the first floor, occasionally emerging to check just outside the main doors.

"Well-trained little soldiers, aren't they?" Buck asked. "They've got a schedule, and they're sticking to it."

"Lucky for us," Chris muttered under his breath. "Guess if you can't buy talent, you buy loyalty to orders." Larabee tilted his night scope up, checking the windows of the hotel.

"Ol' Jared couldn't afford the very best," Buck said with a grin. "We're not for sale."

"It's a big buildin' for twenty-five men t' take an' hold," Vin commented.

"It's a big building for twenty-five men to keep," was Larabee's counter. "We just have to make sure we get them before they get us."

"Five to one odds," Buck stated. "I'd say they don't stand a chance."

Vin grinned. "You're right about that, Bucklin."

Chris completed his examination. "They don't look like they're varying their pattern. We'll go at 0700."

"Roger that," Vin said, disappearing into the dark.

The blond looked at Buck. "Think they'll mind if we show up without a reservation?"

"It's your party, stud," the ladies' man said, a predatory grin on his face. "You can make 'em cry if you want to."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

0600. Chris stood in front of his team, who watched him with their full attention. "All right," he began, "we have a go for a deliberate takedown of the hotel," he stated. "External security has been established with local police and the Nogales Cell. Recon of the building and intel from the monitors show that all the hostages have been moved into the Orchid room for the morning.

"According to the blueprints, that's a large conference hall. There are mobile wall partitions that can be used to create six smaller rooms out of the space. We haven't been able to determine the present configuration of the room, so we'll have to wing it."

Buck picked up for Chris. "We have a chopper on loan from Nogales Cell. Once the perimeter and the roof are secured, we'll meet up and redistribute before the final assault on the Orchid room."

"We'll work in pairs, and operate as assault teams – two from the ground floor up, and one from the top down. Take out as many of Jared's people as possible, but don't kill the Guatemalans," Larabee stated. "Our priority is getting Nathan, Raine, and Mary out of there safely, along with as many of the scientists as we can."

JD's hand went up.

"Yeah?" Chris acknowledged.

"How can we insert on the roof without tipping off the mission?"

"Thought we would capitalize on the infamous reputation of the press; we'll be going in on what looks like a Free Press chopper."

The others grinned.

"Free Press is already establishing our cover, calling Jared, trying to get a promise of an exclusive interview out of him," Travis explained from where he sat.

"We're assuming Jared will allow the chopper to land, and order the journalists be brought to him on the seventh floor, or escorted to the first. In either case, we're looking at five to seven minutes from the time the chopper lands to when we hit the seventh floor. The ground insertion teams will go in twenty minutes before the roof team to secure floors one through six," Chris explained, then added, "Okay, get your gear in order, we move at 0700."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Larabee watched the seconds tick down on his watch. 0700. The six men were on the move. He watched Buck and JD heading for the hotel's telecomm closets. They wore lightweight body armor designed to protect their throats and chest areas. They had opted to forgo the "armored shorts" that usually protected their vulnerable groin areas. In this case, a little added mobility might be more important. Besides their M9s, each man carried a 9 mm Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun, and full gear. They were old weapons, but they were effective.

He checked JD's laptop, seeing what the monitors the young man and Vin had laid the day before revealed. They still showed the hostages in the Orchid room.

So far so good.

Larabee's communications unit beeped, and he glanced down. Ezra and Josiah were prepping to meet the journalists at 1000. Everyone was right on track…

Glancing over at Vin, he gave the sniper a thumbs up and they headed inside.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Buck led the way through the telecommunications tunnels. At each door he checked the motion monitor JD and Vin had secured above the top corner of the doorjamb. The pin-point of light was green. He rapped once on the door. The light remained green. If there was someone on the other side of the door he was either sleeping, dead, or he had nerves of steel.

JD stepped forward and sprang the simple key lock with a pick.

Buck entered the next room first, sweeping it with his MP5. He motioned 'all clear,' and JD entered, moving forward and up the stairs to secure the stairwell.

One of the mercenaries, startled by the sudden arrival of the younger man, was too slow to save himself.

JD opened the door and peered down the hallway, then stated in clear, rapid tones into his lip-mike, "Number three, hallway clear."

Buck was immediately at his side, having followed JD up the stairs. He moved to the left as JD went right, both men blending into the darkened hallway. Both men's MP5s moved in measured arcs, ceiling to floor, left to right.

They moved down the hall to a specific door. Finding it unlocked, they entered the telephone closet. JD rapidly made the necessary changes to re-route all out-going calls to Travis. With that done, they headed into the lobby near the atrium.

Buck checked his watch. 0702. "Team Three, in place, one down."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris and Vin worked their way in toward the hotel's rear entrance. The dock area provided the men with ample cover, and the hazy light of predawn covered their progress. Reaching the delivery ramps, they scurried under one of the semi-trailers that had been abandoned when the delivery drivers had fled the hotel.

They waited silently for the two guards to pass by the open dock area, then moved out, sprinting up the delivery ramp. They entered the hotel, their MP5's spitting three-round bursts of instant death. Six men fell.

Larabee keyed his lip-mike. "Team Two, in place. Dock secured, six down. Begin sweep of the first floor now."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Four men moved through the hotel's first floor, checking rooms.

In the lead, JD signaled that he had movement in the small café. Buck pointed to JD's leg.

Reaching down along his left thigh, JD pulled a soda-can-sized flash/bang grenade from his leg pouch. Lifting it to his right hand, still gripping his MP5, he slid the grenade's pull-ring over his gloved thumb. Holding the safety spoon down, he pulled the ring free, then gently rolled the grenade into the room. He and Buck flattened themselves against the wall.

"Go!" Buck commanded before the nonlethal grenade had expended its package.

JD slid around the left side of the doorway as the room erupted in multiple flashes and explosions designed to disrupt, disorientate, and illuminate. Buck followed, sliding into the room along the doorway's right wall.

The two men carved up the room. Evidently the mercenaries were rotating breakfast. The men, seated at several tables were completely unprepared for the attack.

One wildly tried to bring his Polish-made AK-47 assault rifle to bear on the pair, but Buck squeezed off a three-round burst into his throat. The man slammed out of his chair, collapsing into a jerking heap on the floor. The other men opened fire.

When they were through, ten mercenaries were either dead or wounded.

Buck and JD moved forward, checking for weapons and vital signs.

Buck flipped a wounded man over, expertly pinning his wrists together with flex cuffs. Duct tape did an equally effective job on his ankles.

The room secured, they finished moving through the first floor before Buck reported, "First floor secure, seven down, three kicking in the restaurant. Moving up."

Larabee called for the Nogales Cell and local police to begin moving in, then he and Vin moved out, heading up the stairwells, ready for what they knew was waiting for them.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

When Chris and Vin reached the landing, one floor below the hostages, Buck called in again. "Secured, one through six, three down. On standby, waiting a go."

It was 0718.

Chris keyed his lip-mike. "Teams Two and Three in."

"Acknowledged," Travis replied. "Good luck, gentlemen."

The older man paced in his hotel suite nearby. What if Jared suspected something was wrong? What would he do then?

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The sound of a chopper broke the morning silence on the hotel roof. Normally a chopper assault team would repel, or fast-rope in, but Larabee hadn't wanted to take any chances of the roof guards tipping their hand too early.

With clockwork precision, the chopper appeared and headed directly for the roof at 0712.

"Hey, Jared, we have a chopper approaching," one of the roof guards reported over his radio.

"Damned reporters," the ex-operator hissed. "I told 'em no. Wave 'em off when they get there."

A few minutes later the guard tried, finally enlisting his three companions as well, but the pilot ignored them.

"He's not moving away," the guard stated, a hint of panic in his voice. "He's pointing. He wants to land. There's a passenger, too. I think it's that's reporter guy from TV."

"I told 'em no!"

"Should we fire?"

"No!" Jared snapped. "Let 'em land. We'll add 'em to the hostages."

"Roger that," the lead guard said, then returned his radio to its pouch on his belt. Dropping the muzzle of his Mossberg automatic shotgun, he gestured for the pilot to land.

The man maneuvered over the rooftop, flaring out level and steady. In the rear passenger section, behind heavily tinted windows, Josiah and Ezra exchanged looks. They were ready.

"Stand by…" Josiah said, waiting for the chopper's skids to touch the surface of the roof. As soon as he felt the contact, he barked, "Go!"

He and Ezra scrambled onto the roof, immediately fanning out. The four guards immediately moved forward, the muzzles of their weapons coming up, but Josiah and Ezra were faster. Between the whine of the chopper motor and the sound suppressor of the pair's MP5's no one heard the mercenaries' rapid deaths.

The roof secured, the two men attached their green climbing ropes – retrieved from the chopper – to anchor points, dropping them over the side of the building along predetermined entry sites. Attaching their snap-links to the rope, they knelt, waiting for the go to enter. Forty seconds had passed since they had landed.

"Team One, roof secure, four down," Josiah said over the communication system that linked the entire team.

"Go!" came Larabee's reply.

Josiah and Ezra stepped over the lip of the roof, repelling down to the ninth floor.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Team Two, on station," Buck stated into his lip-mike.

Moving up the stairs, Chris checked the link to the motion monitors. "Team Two, I show all clear. Hold for go."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Josiah and Ezra lowered themselves down onto a balcony landing and unhooked. Popping a sliding glass door off its track, they set it aside and entered the empty hotel room. With deadly precision they quickly checked the ninth floor, then the eighth.

When they were done, Josiah reported, "Team One, on final station, one down."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

0719. The twenty-five mercenaries identified by the Nogales Cell members had been eliminated, which meant their count was off. They didn't know how many more were with Jared and the hostages, or placed on the seventh floor for security.

At least the hotel was secured, except for the seventh floor.

Chris and Vin reached their final station. Larabee keyed his lip-mike. "Apple One, Apple Six, any word from Jared?"

"Negative," Travis replied.

It was a go.

"Prepare for entry," Chris announced over his lip-mike. "Go in one. Mark."

"Roger that," Buck replied, a predatory grin on his lips.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Jared paced in one corner of the conference room. He checked his watch, wondering what was holding Ratcliff up with the journalists. Idiots , he thought. They're probably trying to interview the man. Do they think I'm playing games here?

His gaze swept over the room. At least the scientists had proven easy enough to handle. Despite his rather cynical expectations, they had embraced the plight of the Guatemalans, and interrogated them endlessly for details of the symptoms, the pattern the infection, and the root of its origins.

Castillo was one reason it had been going so well. He had remained calm since the beginning. Of course, he had something precious to protect – his daughter. Jared's gaze rested on Jacqueline Castillo, wondering if her father knew she was the Guatemalans' inside agent. She moved through the crowd of scientists, listening for signs of resistance, ready to report it back to Miguel, but thus far no one had voiced any opposition.

He wondered how the scientists would react when he finally killed one of them as a demonstration of his resolve. The Guatemalans would be upset, but he was getting more out of this than a million. He had already selected a few of the journalists to witness the execution – two women and two men – which he was looking forward to carrying out.

Jared's gaze settled on the tall, African American scientist, his eyes narrowing. What was the man's name?

Jackson. Yes, Dr. Nathan Jackson, from the United States.

Jackson might become a problem once the killing began. He seemed to have spirit, and something else the mercenary couldn't quite put his finger on. Whatever it was, it left him feeling uncomfortable with the man.

Jared nodded to himself. He would remove the obstacle before Jackson had a chance to cause trouble; he would be the first to die.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris and Vin reached the stairwell on the seventh floor, eliminating one more of the mercenaries. Together they moved silently into the hallway and began checking rooms, finding two more of Jared's men sleeping in one of the rooms.

No more mercenaries were discovered before he and Vin reached the last hallway leading to the Orchid room.

It was 0722.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

0723. Jared grabbed his radio. "Ratcliff, get those damned reporters down here," he snarled.

Dead air was the reply.

"Ratcliff?" His brow furrowed. "Tabbin?"



Again, nothing.

Slamming the radio down on the table next to the podium, he reached for his Mossberg.

Nathan turned when he heard the crash, watching Jared intently. Something was happening. He didn't know what it was, but he hoped it was his six friends, coming to the rescue.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris and Vin crouched at the main door to the Orchid room. 0723.

Vin gave the blond a thumbs-up.

"Go, all go – now," Larabee said into his lip-mike.

They hit the doors as one.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Nathan watched the unfolding events like a slow-motion movie. The main doors to the room exploded inward. Jared's fingers curled around his weapon, his face exploding into pulp as he did.

The guards standing near the doors fell or lunged out of the way, but they did not get up again.

Nathan felt the smooth muscles of his heart constrict. An odd, almost tinkling sound, filled the room. The remaining guards scattered among the scientists began to fall, compliments of Raphael and the one other cell member who had been chosen among the journalists, a woman. Several of the scientists screamed or cried out.

The mercenary standing closest to Nathan jack-knifed over and collapsed, his neck blown away. The peculiar odor of blood and firearms filled the room.

He forced himself to turn, following what was going on. The terrorists did not scramble for cover, or return fire. They simply fell.

At quickly as it started, it appeared to be over. He was sure it had taken no more than five to ten seconds.

Then movement at one side of the room caught Nathan's attention. It was Vin.

One of their captors lunged toward the sniper, swinging his jammed or empty weapon like it was a baseball bat. Nathan heard himself suck in a sharp breath as Vin stepped closer to the attacker, jamming his forearms against the man's, following up with a quick knee kick to the man's mid-section.

The mercenary managed to force his blow through, landing it on Tanner's shoulder before he staggered back from the kick.

Nathan grinned as he heard Vin's growled comment: "Strike one, asshole."

Enraged or desperate, the man charged a second time, the rifle swinging up for a second blow. Tanner stepped up to meet the attack a second time, his left arm coming forward and down against the attacker's wrist while his right arm scissored up against the underside of the mercenary's upper arm.

The man kicked, then screamed as his elbow shattered.

"Strike two," Tanner hissed, absorbing the kick to his ribs.

With his good arm, the man scooped up the Mossberg from the floor, aiming the butt at Vin's face.

Tanner took two quick steps forward, deflecting the butt upward with his forearm. Following the motion, he grabbed the barrel and the stock as it continued up and back. Then, with a quick jerk, Vin pulled the weapon free, destroying the man's balance at the same time.

The mercenary stumbled forward. Vin spun, watching the man pass before thrusting the muzzle into the man's kidney region. The mercenary arched back in response to the blow, Tanner snapping off a roundhouse kick into the man's his abdomen.

The man lurched forward, Vin executing a snapping crescent kick, his boot-heel catching the back of the man's neck. The mercenary collapsed, his neck broken.

"Strike three, motherfucker," Vin said.

Nathan grinned as he grabbed the back of the chair in front of him, only to find his fingers slicked with the splattered blood of the dead man lying draped over the chairs next to him. His gaze locked on Raine's. She was pale, but still on her feet.

"Nice job," Nathan said.

"Thanks," Vin replied, returning the former Pararescue man's grin.

"I think I should faint now," Raine breathed.

"Bet I could beat you to the floor," was Mary's reply.

Near the front of the room, Buck and JD secured the four Guatemalans in flex-cuffs.

"Nathan, Raine, you all right? Mary?"

They turned to find a concerned Chris Larabee looking them over.

Mary blinked, time and circumstances failing to catch up with one another in her shock-fuddled mind. Her gaze flickered to the body of the man Vin had defeated. "He killed him," was all she could say.

Chris' lips folded down in a frown. "What was he supposed to do, shake his hand?"

Raine giggled, then covered her mouth with her hand. "Sorry," she apologized, "stress reaction."

Chris met her gaze, his lips starting to turn up. "It's all over," he told the two women. "You're safe."

With the news Rain sank down in a chair, her head tilting back, her eyes closing. "No," she breathed, "it's just starting. You have to hear what Miguel knows."

A moment later Raphael and his cell member join them. "She is right, amigo," Raphael told Chris. "Our work is not finished."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Larabee paced in Travis' hotel suite, stopping in front of the sofa where Nathan and Raine sat. "So you're telling us the Bugs are behind this plague?" he demanded.

"Yes," Raine replied, looking to Nathan for support.

Mary pressed back into the chair where she sat, an unreasonable wave of fear sweeping over her with Vin so close.

"Nothing else makes sense," Raine said from where she sat, perched on the edge of the sofa. "We have to check and see. If it is the Bugs, and they manage to perfect some kind of biological weapon out in the jungle…"

Travis nodded. "Then the rest of humanity might be killed off as well. I agree, Dr. Jackson. We will have to check and see—"

"It might already be too late," Nathan interrupted. "We have no idea how long they've been out there, what they're doing…"

Travis stepped away, pausing to stare out the window to the city below. "No," he said quietly, "if they had that kind of weapon, we'd have seen it used already, especially around the next tier of cities they want to control."

"We have to stop them before the weapon is ready," Raphael stated.

Larabee and his men nodded their agreement.

"But if you're exposed..." Mary said, trailing off.

"What choice do we have?" Chris said her. "We have to know what the hell they're doing. We have to know what we're up against this time."

"Be careful," Mary said to the cell members. "Maybe we can use some of our allies to find out."

"Too dangerous," Travis replied. "This is something we can check on. There's no reason to risk one of the scientists getting caught if we can do this ourselves."

"You're right," she said, defeated by the practical logic. She watched them leave, pondering the fact that any one of them could kill her, as easily as she passed her father-in-law a cup of coffee, even Nathan, who was a doctor, a healer. But then he'd been in the military as well.

It wasn't that she hadn't realized that fact before, but watching Vin take down that mercenary had reinforced the fact, foregrounding it in her mind. It was just going to take her some time to get past the fear the realization generated. The realization that they really were at war with an invading alien species, and men like Chris and the others were highly trained killers who were battling for humanity's sake. It made her feel small and insignificant, and she found she didn't appreciate the feeling very much.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Travis was the last to board the Hummer, taking a seat next to Mary, then he leaned around her to speak to Larabee. "I might have an additional piece of the puzzle. It seems the CDC is missing a team of four scientists – specialists on infectious viruses. They were in Guatemala doing follow-up work on earlier unknown outbreaks. No one has heard from them in sixteen days."

"That might be where they the Bugs got their experts," JD said, having overheard.

"What do you think they're working with?" Chris asked, looking to Nathan as he helped Raine into the vehicle.

Raine shook her head. "I have no idea. A team like that would be familiar with several of the exotics: Ebola, Lassa…"

"My God," Mary said. "You have to stop them. If even a fraction of what Miguel told us was true— If they loosed that kind of plague in the US— The panic—"

"It would be like the end of the world – again," Raine said, and no one accused her of overstating the situation.

Raphael stepped up. "They must go," he said, then closed the door and patted the side of the vehicle, signaling the driver to be on his way. "I will take you safely over the border."

"Thank you," Chris said.

"For you, amigo, anything," the man replied with a grin.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris and his team, as well as Raphael and his cell, moved through another deserted village like ghosts. Around them the smell of death clung to the huts and shelters. For three days they had searched through the Guatemalan jungle, finding nothing but abandoned homes and fresh graves. It was eerie, and it wore on them.

After two days of investigation, they established a pattern to the village desertions. And the third day they had moved out, tracking the communities first abandoned farther into the jungle…

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Movement , Vin signaled from his position as point man. He gestured the others into the trees and as one they disappeared.

Chris and Buck silently moved forward to join Vin.

In another tiny village, the Bugs went about their business, working along several rough-hewn tables littered with stacks of plants and bowls full of something unknown.

The men recognized the missing CDC scientists, but the expressionless looks on their faces hinted that they had been bugged and were no longer in control of their own minds.

"What do you think they're doing?" JD asked, but no one had an answer.

Larabee motioned for them to spread out and lay the explosives they carried around the village perimeter. The operators disappeared, carrying out the order with swift efficiency.

Fifteen minutes later they had all returned. "All set," Buck stated quietly.

Larabee gave his instruction, Raphael translating them into Spanish for his cell members who didn't speak English and they all nodded. Bodies disappeared into the foliage.

Chris checked his watch, then double clicked his communications unit, signaling the attack.

The village erupted in a frenzy of chaotic activity as soon as the explosives detonated. The members of both cells rushed in, their MP5's finding easy targets among the Bugs.

However, it was immediately obvious to Larabee that something was wrong. Some of the Bugs fell, decomposing into the familiar puff of black ash, but others absorbed the bullet fire, apparently uninjured. That was something completely new.

One of the CDC scientists screamed as two of the Bugs grabbed him, using him as a shield. Larabee riddled the aliens with fire, but there was no apparent effect.

Larabee fired again. He watched a Bug take six shots to the neck and face and still advance on him.

Chris made a quick decision. "Pull back! Pull back!" he announced into his lip-mike.

His men followed the blond out of the fray and back into the jungle.

"The big guns?" Buck asked as they ran.

"Roger that," was Larabee's instant reply.

As soon as they were outside the blast radius Buck detonated the modified liquid natural gas explosive. The blast was tremendous, the shock wave picking the operators up and slamming them into the ground. One of Raphael's team cried out as his leg was snapped by the force.

As soon as everyone was on their feet, and the wounded being tended to, the rest of the cell members returned to the village, which had been erased from existence. There were no survivors.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"They didn't turn to powder?" Travis demanded, pacing in the great room of their headquarters.

Nearby the rest of the team sat silently, cleaning and prepping their gear.

"No," Chris replied, shaking his head. "I saw one take six to the head and neck and still keep coming."

"How is that possible?" Raine asked from where she sat next to her husband, restocking medical kits.

"I have no fucking idea," Larabee replied.

"It's bad news, that much I know," Buck added.

"What do we do now?" Mary asked.

Chris shook his head. "Maybe we set them back when we wiped that village, but if they already passed on the information…"

"It could be the end of humanity," Mary finished for him.

"Our scientists are looking at all the material you brought back," Travis said. "With luck we'll be able to determine what was going on, how they were able to be so resistant to destruction."

"Better hope so," Vin replied.

"At least some of the Bugs died like they always have," Ezra said.

"They must have found something in the environment that stabilizes their cell structure," Raine speculated. "Something similar to their home world…" She blinked as the realization set in. "Oh my God… that must mean they're normally resilient. If they're able to pass that along to the rest of them…"

"We have a whole new war on our hands," Chris finished for her.

Travis nodded.

"Uh, everyone," Mary said, looking a little uncomfortable.

The men stopped to look up at her.

"What?" Larabee asked.

Mary glanced around at the men. "I, uh, I just wanted to say thank you."

"We were just doing our job, Mary," Larabee replied.

She nodded. "I know, but…" Her blue eyes flickered up just long enough to meet his green. "I appreciate the risks you took, all of you. But I have to tell you, you all scare the hell out of me."

Chris forced back a smile. "That's what we are, Mary – special ops."

"I know, but…"

"But it's shocking to see such efficient killing?" Raine asked.

She nodded again. "I know it had to be done, but…"

"But?" Travis asked.

"But they were human beings." Mary looked up, meeting Chris' gaze. "And I wanted them dead, don't misunderstand. But they were human."

Raine laughed. "I was pissed off they had the gall to kidnap people who are trying to save the planet."

Mary's eyes widened. "Yeah… Yes, that's exactly how I felt."

"Natural response," Josiah told them. "And it's never easy for us to kill another human being, especially now, but that's what we've all been trained to do."

"I know." Mary reached out, resting her hand on Chris' arm. "I just wanted to say thank you." Her gaze shot over to Vin, who nodded at her.

Larabee offered the woman a small smile. "Maybe next time you'll stay here?"

"Me?" She laughed. "Not likely."

Raine stood and gave Chris a hug. "You guys scared the crap out of me, too, but I was never happier to see someone in my entire life."

Nathan frowned and grunted. "I wouldn't have let them hurt you."

"I know, sweetheart," she said and leaned down and kissed his forehead.

Looking back at Chris she added, "You just be sure to bring back my man."

"We will," he promised. Nathan Jackson was really more important in his role as a doctor and a scientist, but he was special ops trained, and they needed his expertise on the team as well.

"Well, it's going to take a while before we can coordinate all the cells in Guatemala, see if the Bugs are active anywhere else," Travis said. "Raphael and Miguel will get back to us as soon as they know something."

"'Til then we wait," Josiah said.

"An' train," Vin added.

Ezra groaned.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The scientist and commander entered the receiving hall. The female was quivering with trepidation. The three Princes stood, waiting for them.

"Tell us how you managed to fail as we reached the moment of our final victory," the youngest Prince spat.

"My Princes," the commander stated, "our worksite was obliterated."

"How is this possible?" the middle prince demanded.

The scientist bent over as she said, "Some of the chemicals our scientists were using were volatile…"

"Then this approach is not one we shall pursue," the eldest Prince stated. It was a proclamation. The research would be dropped.

"But my Princes, we were so close to finding something to make us strong once more," the scientist said.

"The risk is too great," the eldest Prince declared. "Already the ranks of scientists has been thinned by this failure."

"By traitors and incompetents," the middle Prince grumbled under his breath, but his elder brother did not hear him.

"And the contagion?" the youngest Prince asked.

"The research was lost when the village was destroyed," the scientist told him. "We will have to begin again."

"Then begin," the eldest Prince snarled, waving his hand to dismiss the scientist, unable to stand the sight of the female a moment longer.

"We must have the tincture," the commander said. "We must insure our survival."

"And we will, but first we will rid this planet of humanity," the elder Prince said.

"I bend to your will, my Prince," the commander said.

"Another failure will be your last," the youngest Prince added.

The commander bowed lowly and left.

"Every time we near victory, our scientists or military fail," the youngest Prince lamented.

"Once we have eliminated these vermin who fight against us we can concentrate on the tincture, then we will be invulnerable," the middle Prince said. "Once we have rebuilt this planet we will not need the tincture."

The eldest Prince nodded. "It is just a matter of time."

"I hope you are right, Brother," the middle Prince replied. "But these humans are resilient, and persistent. And they have help from among the ranks of the scientists. I do not believe they will be as easy to destroy them as you suggest."

"We shall see," the eldest replied.

The middle and youngest Princes exchanged glances, knowing that their Brother would not live to see the final victory, not if they had their way…

Continues in Running on Empty