Running on Empty by The Neon Gang
by The Neon Gang

Cell Seven - Alien Hunters AU

Follows A Warrior's Work is Never Done


0450 Hours

The members of Cell Seven gathered in the basement computer workstation, waiting silently while their resident hacker, JD Dunne, explained the reason for his early morning summons.

JD worked over his keyboard, his fingers flying across the keys, the soft clacking filling the otherwise silent space. The other six men found chairs, or furniture to lean against as they waited. The coffee pot had already been emptied once and was slowly filling again.

Finally, JD pushed back from his desk and looked around at the others. "My web-bots turned up something overnight that tripped an alarm. I've checked it out, and I think it might have something," he said. "I thought you'd better take a look."

Buck took a sip from his coffee cup and muttered, "This better be good, kid."

"My sentiments exactly," Ezra Standish concurred grumpily, then yawned.

"More coffee's almost ready," JD promised, returning to typing when his machine beeped.

Josiah grunted and walked over to the coffee maker, prepared to wait until the pot filled so he could pour himself a kick-start. Nathan trailed after him, eyes and shoulders drooping.

Vin Tanner watched the pair, then grinned at Larabee. "It's almost five o'clock," he chided the others, "time t' rise an' shine, boys."

"I rise and shine just fine," Josiah grumbled, adding, "at six-thirty."

Chris and Vin watched as Dunne's fifty-two-inch computer screen divided into eight screens, each with a scrolling report. JD typed some more and the text stopped scrolling.

"Well?" the blond asked. It was coming up on his run time and he didn't want to start the day late if he could avoid it.

"Okay," JD said, taking a deep breath so he could get the rest out in one breath, "my web-bots noticed that there have been several reports from watcher groups across the country about athletes disappearing during events in small and middle-sized cities."

"Athletes?" Larabee asked, his attention shifting from the screen to the computer expert. "What kind of athletes?"

"Not just any ol' run-of-the-mill jocks," JD told him. "Triathletes. All of them men, twenty to thirty-five years old, a mix of races and ethnic groups. I mean, that's weird, right?"

"It's awfully specific," Nathan said, frowning as he moved closer for a better look at the monitors, a cup of coffee now in his hand. "Age- and gender-wise at least."

"Tell me more," Larabee instructed JD, deciding his run could wait. It sounded like their hacker might be on to something.

"The oldest report I could find was from five months ago. Then there was about a three-week lull, and then a burst of nine reports over the past seven weeks."

"That fits with the schedule 'a events," Vin offered. "Competition season is peakin', so more events, more people disappearin'."

"There are twenty-three men who are currently missing," JD explained.

"Details, JD, give us more details," Josiah requested as he side-stepped to avoid Vin as the sniper moved back to the coffeemaker to pour himself a second cup.

The hacker leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. "Okay, here's what I have… During the various events where people disappeared – and they didn't disappear at all the events taking place in the timeframe, just some of them – between one and three athletes disappeared in the last leg of a race, and always in remote areas. So, no leads. And it was always the leaders of the pack; guys who would've come at least in the top five, some might've even won, if they'd made it to the end of the race. At least that's the guess made by the Free Press in each case when they reported on the disappearances." He turned slightly and looked from the coffee maker to Ezra. "Can you pour me a cup?"

"Yes, I suppose I can," Standish replied, then glanced at Larabee. "Would you like some as well?"

"Yeah, thanks," the leader of Cell Seven replied, handing Standish his empty cup.

"If you don't mind," Josiah said, holding out his already empty cup as well.

"I only have two hands," Standish replied dryly, then turned to pour cups for Dunne and Larabee.

Nathan's attention shifted back to the screen. "This does sound like Bug involvement."

"But what the hell would the Bugs want with triathletes?" Buck asked, passing JD his coffee from Standish.

"Healthy bodies?" Nathan offered.

"There would be easier ways of getting those than grabbing people from the middle of a race," Larabee countered, his forehead wrinkled in thought.

Nathan nodded his agreement with the comment.

Ezra carried two steaming cups over to the group, handing one to Larabee and one to Josiah before going back for another for himself. His duty done, he grabbed one of the empty chairs and sat.

"Are there any disappearances of other kinds 'a athletes?" Vin asked.

"My web-bots are combing the Resistance Web, and the dark net, looking for anything like that right now," JD explained, then took a sip of the hot coffee. He sighed contentedly. "They didn't find anything in the first pass, so I don't think so. Seems like the Bugs want some 'iron-men,'" he concluded, then chuckled at his own joke.

"But why?" Buck asked. "And, more importantly, why the hell are people still acting like normal?" he demanded. "There are aliens out there trying to make us slaves and we're acting like nothing is going on? Holding triathlons? I mean, what the fuck?"

"Some people need to believe things are normal, so they act like they are," Josiah told him. "It's easier to do it you're living in a small or mid-sized city where the Bugs don't have a real presence, or not much of one."

Buck snorted and shook his head. "Nothing's been normal since the damn Bugs got here."

Chris reached out and gave the ladies' man's shoulder a quick pat. They had both lost women they'd loved thanks to the Bugs, Buck more recently than Larabee.

The conversation shifted into a brainstorming session on what made triathletes different – diverse physical skills, peak physical condition, high endurance levels, outdoor competition – but nothing the cell members suggested made the athletes an obvious target for the Bugs. Not when high school and professional athletes had been left untouched in the same communities.

"This is getting us nowhere," Larabee interrupted after an hour of wide-ranging speculation.

"What do you suggest?" Ezra asked, leaning back against the workstation.

"Wait," Buck said, "we don't even know for sure that the Bugs are behind this; we should just wait—"

"Who else would it be?" Vin countered.

"Well, an illegal organ selling ring could be responsible for—" Ezra started to argue.

"That's it!"

The other cell members turned to stare at Nathan, who shoved himself off the workstation where he'd been leaning. "Don't you see?" he asked with renewed passion in his eyes, "organ thieves would take any athlete they could find, but the Bugs must be after something specific, something that only these particular athletes can give them."

"But we—" Chris started.

Josiah interrupted the blond. "Or give them enough of?" he asked as his own suddenly-rushing thoughts focused.

"And how do we know it's the Bugs?" Buck demanded.

"Because this is so specific," Nathan explained. "There has to be something particular about these athletes, something that they have to offer the aliens that no one else does, or who have enough of something, like Josiah was saying."

Larabee held up his hand to put a stop to Buck's argument. "Fine, we'll assume this is the Bugs." He pinned JD with a serious gaze. "Get me a list of upcoming triathlon events in the region."

"Will do, boss," the young man replied, turning back to his computer. His fingers were flying across the keyboard as the others filed from the basement room.

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

1837 Hours

As the sun set behind the Rockies, Larabee and the other members of Cell Seven sat on the outdoor patio of their headquarters, studying a list of triathlons coming up across the country.

Vin occasionally glanced up to appreciate the changing colors that streaked across the cloud-dappled sky, wondering what in the world the Bugs wanted with athletes; couldn't be anything good, he knew. He'd spent the better part of the day asking himself that same question, over and over, and he wasn't any closer to an answer than when he'd started.

Tanner was an athlete; they all were, really, but he'd competed in a few triathlons before the Bugs had come, and there was nothing special about the event, other than the fact that the competitors managed three different events in one day.

He grinned. When he'd competed in the "Damn Crazy Decathlon" he'd managed five events in one day, but that had been four years ago. Still, he was in excellent condition. He had no choice. None of them did. Being a member of the Resistance left no room for leisure.

He glanced over and met Chris' gaze. He knew the blond would be having similar thoughts.

Larabee gave Vin a slight nod and forced his attention back to the printout JD had given him. The closest event to them was in Portland, Oregon, but that was two months away. Another event was being held in Tucson, Arizona, and that one was three weeks away. Not as close, but close enough. And it was less of a wait if they wanted to see if the Bugs were actually involved.

"So, what's the plan?" Buck asked, flopping back on his lounge chair and running his hand over his unruly brown hair. The man had been letting his beard grow in, and he was looking decidedly scruffy these days.

"The list of triathlons planned for the next three months is longer than I expected," JD offered.

"Portland, Oregon is the closest," Nathan said.

"The one in Tucson is in three weeks, that's sooner," Josiah countered.

"That should give us enough time," Larabee said, nodding.

"Time?" Ezra repeated.

Vin didn't bother to look up as he said, "T' get ready, Ez."

Nathan sat up straighter and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I'm not following. Are we going to go to all of these events? There are other cells that would be closer – to Portland, anyway; there's a cell in Bend."

"Three weeks should be enough time for some of us to get ready to enter the Tucson event," Chris explained nonchalantly.

JD's eyes widened slightly and he nodded. "Great idea! Then we can watch and see if the Bugs take the bait."

Chris nodded, adding, "Which will be Vin."

"Vin?" Ezra questioned.

Vin met Larabee's gaze again. And here he'd thought he'd have to talk Larabee into it. The blond knew what he was asking Tanner to do. "The Bugs are takin' athletes who're winnin' the event," Tanner explained. "We have t' put someone in who's really runnin' the event t' win."

"And you think you can do that?" Josiah asked, looking a little worried.

"Y' think I can't?" Tanner challenged him.

Josiah held up his hands to fend off the mock anger he saw building up in the Texan's eyes like thunderheads. "That's not for me to say, Vin, but you're not getting any younger."

Vin laughed, the others joining in. Tanner was only a couple of years older than JD. A grin lifted the corners of his mouth as he said, "No, but I am gettin' better."

"We'll need two more competitors," Chris said.

"I'd like to give it a try," JD said excitedly.

Buck met Chris' gaze, giving the man a grin. "Guess I'll flip ya for the third spot, stud," the ladies' man told Larabee.

The blond chuckled. "As long as you're not using one of Ezra's coins."

"I'm hurt," Standish replied, then added, "that no one suggested I give this insane idea a go."

"And what event would you be competing in?" Nathan teased the man.

"Doesn't matter," Larabee interrupted. "Buck will be the third."

"But we didn't even flip!" the ladies' man argued, but he was grinning.

"We might as well use the trip as an opportunity to check in with the Nogales Cell as well," Josiah said. "And see if Tucson has been able to rebuild their cell."

Larabee nodded. "I was thinking the same thing. I'd like to talk to Dr. Morales, see how the genetic work is going."[1]

JD nodded. "I'll set it up for the day before or after the event."

"Two days before," Chris told him.

"In case—?" JD started.

"'Cause we're gonna be too sore an' tired afterwards," Vin interrupted, grinning.

"Yep," Chris agreed.

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


0823 Hours

The following morning found four members of Cell Seven sitting in the kitchen of their headquarters, each with cups of coffee and notepads.

"Okay," Larabee said, "there are three phases to this particular event, but it's not a traditional triathlon. It starts with a thirty-mile mountain bike ride, off road, then a twenty-mile endurance trail ride."

"On horseback?" JD asked. The youngest the three, JD still had plenty of experience on bikes and on horseback.

Larabee nodded. "And it ends with a 10K run."

"Intense," Buck said, shaking his head.

Vin flashed him a boyish grin as he said, "Hell, Buck, I thought it sounded like our daily grind 'round here."

JD grinned behind his coffee cup. "Yeah, it does, a little bit."

Chris just shook his head and let the comments slide.

"If there's gonna be someone in each phase besides me," Vin said, a slight frown on his face, "then we're gonna need one more man."

"I was planning to do the run," Larabee said. The athletes had all disappeared in the last leg of the events, so there was no way was he leaving Vin hanging out there without backup. "You'll have backup in each phase."

Vin nodded, seeing how Larabee had arranged it so he'd be the one really protecting his ass. "I'll have t' concentrate on the event if I'm gonna attract the Bugs' attention; ain't gonna be good backup for ya."

"I'll be fine," Larabee told him.

"Are you sure you'll be able to get their attention?" JD asked Vin.

"JD, I appreciate what you're gettin' at, but the victims have all been men in their 20s an' 30s, an'—"

"Leading the field," JD interjected, nodding.

"Yeah, they were," Vin agreed. "I checked all their times, an' I know what I can do. I'll be in the top five, y' can bank on that."

"Wow," JD breathed. He knew Vin was in great shape. Hell, they all were, although he spent the majority of his time sitting in front of a computer monitor, but he still worked out, ran, biked, and rode horses regularly.

Vin glanced over at Chris. "Y' got any concerns?"

Larabee flashed the man a smile. "Just about Buck and JD keepin' up with you."

"Oh, I'll keep up with this ground pounder, don't you worry about that," the ladies' man told him. "He's going to be lookin' at my horse's ass."

Tanner grinned. "Unless some little filly watchin' the race smiles at ya, y' mean, right?"

"Can't help my God-given animal magnetism, now can I?'

Vin just shook his head, then looked at JD. "How d' ya feel about the bike ride?"

JD grinned. "Feel fine. I might even beat you."

"In your dreams, kid," Vin told him. While the two men were the closest in age, where JD had lived a safe life until the Bugs had arrived, Vin's had been one bad situation after another. He had primarily escaped those situations through some kind of physical means and, as a result, Tanner knew his capabilities better than Dunne did.

Vin grinned at Buck. "Y' better get your butt-end reacquainted with a saddle," he said, knowing Buck had once co-owned a horse ranch with Chris, before the Bugs had arrived.

"Don't you worry about me, Junior, I'll be just fine," Buck said.

"Should 'a known y' planned t' do the run," Vin said, his gaze shifting to Larabee. He and the blond ran together almost every day. A 10K shouldn't be any problem for Chris, and he'd be fresh, so he'd be able to keep up with him without a problem, even if he was pushing hard to stay with the leaders.

"We start training tomorrow," Larabee told them. "JD, make up a schedule." He stood. "We have three weeks, people. Make it happen."

"Yes, sir," Vin and JD replied, standing and giving Larabee mock salutes.

Chris just shook his head. Youngsters. Buck stood and Chris put his hand on Buck's back, guiding him back to the house.

"Think he can do it?" JD asked once Chris and Buck were gone.

"Who, Chris or Buck?" Tanner asked him.

JD chuckled. "Both."

"Hell, Larabee runs all the time. He'll be fine."

"Yeah, and Buck rides a lot, too," JD said, then added, "but he's not really serious about it. I mean, he does it for fun."

Tanner grinned. "He'll ride even better three weeks from now."

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

A week later

While the four competitors had concentrated on their training, Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra continued to monitor for any more disappearances, finding nothing. Ezra had just typed in the command for another search parameter when Buck entered the basement through the annex door.

Standish grinned. "Looks like you just saw twenty miles of rough road, Mr. Wilmington."

"Close enough," the ladies' man groaned, walking slowly toward the coffee machine.

Ezra's smile widened and his eyebrows went up, silently asking the obvious question.

"Riding I can do," Buck said, shaking his head. "But this damned racing…" He trailed off as he reached gently for his aching backside and tenderly touched the bruised flesh. "I don't know how JD does it on that bike. My balls feel like they've been caught in a vice, and I was sitting on a saddle. Why the hell couldn't they do a swim?"

Josiah chuckled softly. "Probably because they're long on sand and short on water in Tucson."

"Poor excuse if you ask me," Buck muttered as he poured himself a cup of coffee, then shuffled to a padded chair and carefully eased himself down.

"Find a few muscles you forgot you had?" Nathan asked, grinning at the way the man was walking.

The ladies' man shot the physician a lethal glare. "Something like that, Doc."

"Not to mention bruises in places only your mother, wife, or girlfriend should know about," Josiah added.

"Tell me about it," Wilmington complained. "You guys find anything?"

"Absolutely nothing," Ezra said on a sigh.

"Maybe the bad guys got what they wanted and they've given up on exercise," JD said, bouncing into the room.

"Maybe," Nathan conceded. "But we have to assume they're still out there, waiting for their next opportunity to strike."

Ezra nodded, knowing Jackson was right. "So, Mr. Wilmington, will you be prepared in ten days?"

"Don't have a choice," Buck said as he slowly stood, then took his coffee and headed for the stairs. "I'm gonna go soak my balls and butt. If you see Chris, tell him I'd like a few minutes of his time."

"Will do, big guy," JD said, chuckling as the man left.

"You don't look any worse for wear," Ezra said, looking Dunne over. "How did Mr. Tanner do?"

JD's smile widened. "He did great! You should've seen it. Why do you think Buck's hurting so bad?"

Nathan looked confused.

JD laughed. "Buck pushed Vin pretty good on the ride, but he couldn't beat him. Chris kept up with Vin on the run, though."

"How about you?" Nathan asked.

JD nodded. "Oh, I pushed Vin real good; even made him eat my dust part of the way."

Ezra grinned. "Only part of the way? I'll have to adjust my odds."

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

Ten days later

The flight to Tucson was uneventful, and the drive from the airport to the hotel equally so. The city had once been home to a strong resistance movement, but Cell Ten had been wiped out almost six months earlier.[2] As a result, the majority of inhabitants of the city had ended up joining with Phoenix to welcome the Bugs as overseers. Phoenix was under reconstruction into a Bug city, but Tucson was still relatively untouched, although there was now a small Bug presence in the downtown area. Still, most of the city was able to continue life like nothing had changed, and that seemed to be what the residents wanted most.

Late spring in the desert meant pockets of green broke up the otherwise brown and gray landscape, and an occasional burst of wildflowers added a touch of color here and there. The hotel hosting the event was located slightly northwest of town and nestled in the cactus-covered foothills.

The members of Cell Seven climbed out of their spacious rental van under a large overhang that looked like the arch of a Spanish castle, and were immediately met by a smiling young man with blond hair and a very good tan.

"Welcome to the El Conquistador," he said. "If you'll give me your keys I'll see that your luggage is brought in and your van parked."

"Thank you," Josiah said, handing the keys over.

"You can check in directly ahead," the young man said, heading for a luggage cart.

The seven men entered the air-conditioned lobby of the resort and walked directly to the registration desk on a thick, southwestern-patterned carpet. An attractive, equally tanned and blonde woman looked up from her computer. "Hello, I'm Tiffany. Welcome to Tucson," she greeted. "Checking in?"

"We're here for the triathlon," Larabee explained. "Lawson party."

"Lawson… yes, here you are. Seven adults for the weekend. It looks like you'll be staying in our Pima Bungalow." She typed some more, then reached into a drawer and pulled out seven magnetic keys and proceeded to code them. That done, she pulled a map from a pile in a rectangular Gila Indian basket and circled the schematic of the lobby with her pen. "This is where you are now."

She drew a line out a side door, past the pool, and to a small, stand-alone building on the far side of the pool. "This is the Pima Bungalow. It has one of our best views. Please, let us know if we can get you anything – extra towels, food, drinks. Just give housekeeping or the kitchen a call. We hope you enjoy your stay here at the El Conquistador."

"Thank you, Tiffany," Buck said with a sensual smile.

"You're welcome," the young woman replied, looking up as a young Latino man entered with their luggage on a cart. "Pima Bungalow, Roberto."

"Got it," the young Hispanic man said, heading out without the cell members.

Following the map, the men noted the scenery as they passed three of the hotel's restaurants – a café, a Mexican place, and a steakhouse – a large outdoor pool, and a small cactus garden before reaching the bungalow, which looked more like a small adobe house sitting on the hotel grounds. There were others scattered about the grounds as well, but far enough away to provide a sense of privacy.

Buck used his key to unlock the door and led the way inside. Their luggage was already waiting for them, and no sign of Roberto. With four bedrooms, two and a half baths, a living room, and a full kitchen, the accommodations were large enough to comfortably house the seven men and gave them room to spread out their maps and security equipment.

A knock sounded at the door as they were unpacking. Nathan opened it and found the young man who had first greeted them.

"Hi, I'm Scott, and here are your van keys. It's parked on level three, stall seven."

"Three, seven," Nathan repeated. "Thank you."

"You're very welcome. Enjoy your stay."

Without waiting for a tip, the young man turned and headed off.

"They must pay these kids pretty good," Ezra commented. "Although I have to wonder if the Bugs aren't conducting cloning experiments on the staff."

Several of the men chuckled. "Certainly doing a good job of improving the scenery," Buck agreed, wagging his eyebrows.

"When d' we eat?" Vin asked.

Larabee checked his watch. It was just after noon. "Let's set up the passive security, then we'll grab lunch."

"Sounds good," Josiah agreed.

The men quickly shifted the luggage into the bedrooms – Josiah and Nathan in one, Buck and JD in another, Chris and Vin in a third, and Ezra had one all to himself, although he would also have to host all of their equipment. Once they were unpacked, and the bungalow swept for listening devices, they set up their own security, then headed to the Mexican restaurant for a meal.

Seeing the wait staff, Nathan frowned. "You might be right about the cloning experiment," he told Ezra.

"With the Bugs, you never can tell," JD said quietly. "But doesn't seem… wrong that these people are just acting…"

"Normal?" Nathan suggested.

JD nodded. "It just doesn't seem right," he said, shooting a look at Buck.

"What I keep saying, kid," the ladies' man replied.

"Every one of them lost someone in the Purge," Josiah said, referring to the biological attack by the Bugs that had killed two-thirds of the human population. "They're just doing what they have to in order to survive, not give in to despair."

"They should be fighting the damn Bugs," Buck grumbled. "That's what they should be doing."

"That little girl at the front desk?" Chris asked his oldest friend.

Buck huffed out a sigh. "No… Hell, Chris, you know what I'm saying."

"I do," Larabee replied. "But most people don't have any clue how to fight back. We do."

"So we will," Vin added.

"Amen, brother."

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

The next day

The next morning, after an early breakfast in the café, the four members of Cell Seven who would be competing drove the course as best they could, making notes on their maps and discussing the best methods of surveillance. The terrain was rough, rocky, and more open than Vin had hoped. But with a couple thousand spectators expected along the route, not to mention volunteers, competitors, press, and police, there would be plenty of opportunities for the other three members of Cell Seven to blend in as they monitored each leg of the race.

When they were done, Vin put in some practice miles on the bike, and ran a couple of miles on foot. JD joined him for the biking and Chris for the running. After lunch they picked up the horses Buck and Vin would be using.

They met again as a group for dinner in the steakhouse, taking a table in a corner for privacy. JD turned on an audio scrambler, just to be careful.

"Okay," Larabee said, checking the map. "Josiah, I want you to keep an eye on the bike leg, Nathan, the run, and Ezra, the horseback leg."

"How are the horses?" JD asked as he enjoyed another dinner roll.

"Good," Vin said. "They're settlin' in at the hotel's stables an' seem calm an' well rested."

"And the course?" Ezra asked.

"It's more open than we expected," Larabee admitted. "It'll be easy for the Bugs' allies to blend in, but it'll also be easy for us. The event coordinators are still looking for volunteers for time-check locations." He looked to JD. "Anything?"

Dunne shook his head. "The bad guys are lying low."

"Any ideas where they might strike during the run?" Nathan asked after a bit of his vegetarian tostada.

"There are two areas that match the past abductions," Larabee said, "both toward the end of the race, both isolated. One we can cover," he said, pointing to the location on a race map, but he added, "The second one we can't without tipping our hand."

"You mean Vin will really be vulnerable there?" JD asked, worried but obviously enjoying his black beans and rice.

Vin nodded. "Don't forget, I'll have at least one friend runnin' with me on each leg."

"But it might just be Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, looking decidedly unhappy with the news. "One man as backup isn't enough. There has to be a way to position one more—"

"Ezra, we looked," Larabee interrupted. "There's a small notch that the trail passes through, and there's a bend leading onto the notch. It's narrow and too close for another rest stop – if there was room for one – and a time-check wouldn't make sense there."

"I don't like it," Josiah said, shaking his head.

"It's a necessary risk," Vin countered. "I'll wear a tracker and comm unit in case there's trouble. Now, I'm not gonna let this get cold; I'm starvin'," and he dug into his chicken burrito, smothered in green chili sauce.

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

That night

Ezra rarely slept the night before an operation. Therefore, he had a lot of extra time on his hands, time he spent worrying about what could go wrong. He glanced at the clock on the wall in the bungalow living room – three o'clock in the morning. Vin would begin the race at seven.

He drew in a deep breath and held it for a count of three, then let it out, trying to force a calm to settle his thoughts. It didn't work.

Come on, he silently scolded himself. We've been in tighter situations than this…

After all, one of them would be positioned at each leg of the course, scanning everyone involved, looking for humans who were bugged by the aliens so they could be controlled; human avatars doing the business of the Bugs. And they would have access to all-terrain vehicles, ready to move in on a moment's notice when called. And Larabee, Wilmington, and Dunne would each be on the course itself, wired up for communication and keeping an eye on Vin.

So why am I feeling so… twitchy?

Something's going to happen. Something unexpected. Something, something, something! But what?

Ezra knew the Bugs were there, waiting, watching, planning how they could kidnap the leading athletes. Kidnap Vin. There was no doubt in the former con man's mind that Vin would be among the top five competitors. He would be, end of discussion.

Standish shook his head. Why was he tapped into the Bugs? And, if he was, why the hell didn't he know what they were planning so he could do something about it?

Ezra leaned back against the sofa, massaging his temples with his fingertips. It was probably due to the fact that he'd been prepped for bugging, but had been among a group Cell Seven had been able to rescue before the procedure could be performed. They had lost a man that day, and Ezra had ended up taking his place. The tests they had run on him after his rescue had seemed endless, but the Resistance was eventually confident that the Bugs couldn't use him to spy on them, but the procedure had left him connected in some way to the damn aliens. And, right now, he knew something was going to happen to Vin.

The Bugs were going to get Tanner. It was a fact, just like the sunrise. It was inevitable. The only question remaining was whether or not they could get to Vin in time. But in time for what?

Ezra glanced at the clock again. Three-fifteen. It was going to be a long, long day…

He knew he should get up and go tell Larabee what he knew to be true, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He didn't want them to know he was plugged into the invaders like that. He didn't want them to hand him over to the resistance to… what?


Use to spy on the Bugs?

It was true he worried about both, but mostly he just didn't want to upset the place he'd made among Cell Seven.

He didn't want Vin to die, either. He would just have to be extra vigilant.

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

The next day

Vin ignored the crowd that was slowly gathering along the road and up on the desert hills, and concentrated on stretching. He glanced skyward, noting that the early morning cloud cover appeared to be holding out and silently thanked whatever powers responsible for his good fortune. The longer the clouds stayed, the cooler the day would be, and the easier the first event would be.

Stretch finished, Vin double-checked his mountain bike, making sure everything was in perfect working order. All the equipment he might need – extra tubes, air pump, break cables, tools – rested in the pouch attached to the back of his seat, and two water bottles sat full in wire holders attached to the bike's frame. Everything was ready.

He pulled on finger-less gloves, then rolled his neck and shoulders before slipping on his sunglasses.

"Don't forget this," Nathan said, stepping up to pin Vin's official number – 107 – to his racing top. "Are you wearing sunscreen?"

"Yes, an' thanks, ma," he said, then glanced at JD. "All wired up?" he asked.

JD nodded. "They're picking me up loud and clear, and I can hear them just fine. You?"

"Vin's turn now," Josiah said.

Vin nodded and turned so the older man could use a pair of thin, long-nose tweezers to insert a small communication receiver in his ear canal. The mouthpiece was a thin plastic-encased wire that had been sewn into the crew-neck of Tanner's race top. JD, Buck, and Chris all had matching gear.

"Test, test" Tanner said.

"This is Runner-2," Larabee announced, walking up to join them. "Read you loud and clear."

"This is Rider-2," Buck said. "Reading you five-by-five."

The replies rolled in one after another. The system linked all the members of Cell Seven together just like they'd planned. So far, so good.

Next were external tracking devices that Josiah attached to Vin's shoes, waistband, and shirtsleeve.

"Tell me," Larabee said.

JD started the basic game plan. "Buck and Chris will head to their event staging areas. I stay with Vin. Josiah will be at the third time-check – one thumbs-up all clear, two, bad guys sighted. A wave, bad guys spotted, but not pinpointed."

"If they are sighted and identified," Buck picked up, "Ezra moves up to the last vet-check station while Josiah puts them under surveillance."

"Same for the last vet-check," Ezra stated, picking up the plan. "If the Bugs are located I will join Josiah in following them while Mr. Jackson moves to the last time-check just before the notch."

"If it stays clear, once Vin and Chris pass my location I'll move to the finish line," Nathan said.

Vin nodded. He'd be concentrating on the race itself, making sure that he stayed with the leaders so he'd be a tempting target later on. It was up to the others to scan for Bugs and bugged humans, and keep an eye on them once they were located. Not to mention keeping his ass safe and sound.

A man with a bullhorn announced: "Competitors, to the starting line. To the starting line, please!"

Vin gave Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra a last smile. "See y' at the first transition point," he said.

"Be careful," Ezra said. "I know they're here."

Vin nodded, taking the comment seriously. He pulled on his helmet and adjusted the strap under his chin while JD did the same thing.

"Good luck," Nathan said.

Vin gave the man a quick smile, then mounted his bike and followed JD to the starting line.

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

Maneuvering his way past the other bike riders, Vin settled in behind the three leaders and concentrated on keeping up with them. It was hard not to challenge the second and third men, but he wasn't there to compete and maybe win the event. He was there to act as bait, and that meant he had to stay as fresh as possible while still hanging with the top three competitors. And, he knew, it was either going to be much easier, or much harder, than he'd expected. It always worked that way.

The bike course was entirely off-road, but the mountain bikes were designed for the rough terrain that took them up, over, and through the Tucson foothills. He noted absently that the trail had been especially designed for the fat-tire bikes, widened and smoothed with man-made dips and hills evenly spaced for added excitement. Vin guessed that most weekends saw the trail traveled by teenagers.

The course was deceptively easy from a visual examination, like the one he'd conducted earlier. It wasn't until he was riding it that the twenty-plus inclines burned into his calves, reminding him that the course was designed to test the limits of the athletes there. Taking a deep breath, Vin stood on the pedals and pumped to keep up with the leaders. Behind him he could hear JD staying close behind him.

The scenery, beautiful in its own harsh way, was lost on the competitors, who concentrated on maneuvering the dusty path, avoiding rocks that had fallen onto the trail, and trying not to think about what a tumble off the trail and into the wild cactus would net them. Here and there Vin caught sight of Josiah and Ezra, but the radio link remained silent, and for that he was grateful.

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

The first 10K leg of the bike race was moderately difficult as the bikers moved from the flat of the desert floor and up into the rough, irregular hills. The cloud cover helped, keeping temperatures down. The second 10 K leg was easier, carrying the riders down the hillsides and allowing the competitors to jockey for better positions before going into the last 10K leg, which took them back up the next set of hills for 6K before they dropped down again for the end of that leg.

As Vin flew by the time-check he spotted Josiah, one thumb raised in a silent signal. No sign of bugged humans, or the Bugs themselves.

"One down, two to go," Vin muttered under his breath. No wonder the radio chatter had been nil. They hadn't spotted anything concrete, or even suspicious.

He'd hoped that they would've already spotted the aliens, or their avatars, but at least that made it easier on him.

But what if they didn't strike? What if they already had what they wanted?

What if, what if, what if…

He forced the thoughts away and concentrated on staying with the four bikers who now led the pack as they started toward the end of the bike race. The decline grew steeper, making the riders work harder. Vin puffed, making sure he drew in deep breaths, and tried to ignore the burning in his calves and the ache in his groin. He pushed past the fourth rider, then the third, and finally the second as they picked up speed.

"Heads up, I have a possible," Ezra's voice echoed in his ear.

They topped a small hill and Vin realized that he'd reached the end of the bike race sooner than he'd expected, having held onto the second position. Breaking to a stop at the bottom of the last small hill, he quickly moved the bike out of the way, then reached automatically for one of the large paper cups full of Gatorade. He downed the contents, then did the same with a second. He felt someone take the bike away and mechanically noted that it was Nathan.

Josiah appeared at his elbow, holding out a pair of old, loose jeans and his boots.

Vin unhooked his helmet and pulled it off, handing it to Sanchez. Josiah handed him the jeans and Tanner stepped into the loose pants, then leaned over freeing the velcro straps on his bike shoes and slipping them off. He handed them to the older man and took the boots he offered, pulling them on as he asked, "Anything?"

"Not yet," he said. "Ezra thought he'd picked up something, but—"

The comm-link interrupted. "The lead did not pan out. Repeat, we have a negative."

"Where's JD?" Tanner asked, glancing around as he accepted his baseball cap from Josiah. Using his fingers, he combed back his sweat-damp hair and pulled on the hat.

"He's already at the next transition point," he said. "He's monitoring the communications from the people in the crowd, tracking any possible sightings and looking for patterns."

"How'd he do?" Tanner asked.

"Fourth," Josiah told him with a grin.

Vin nodded, making his way over to the deep maroon horse trailer where two mounts stood, waiting. Buck was checking his saddle and Vin did the same to his English style variant. The light-weight saddle had wider panels, and wider tread on the stirrups.

After making sure the cinch was tight he checked the breast-collar. With that done, he scooped up a water bottle full of an orange-colored sports drink and sucked it down as his gaze swept over the Arabian-Friesian gelding. He was a handsome dark grey and looked ready to go.

He checked his watch. Five minutes before he was back on the clock.

Bending over, he quickly checked his mount's hooves. Finding them in good shape, he straightened and patted the animal's neck. The gelding tossed his head and swished his black tail, wanting to go. With nothing better to do, the horse rubbed the rope hackamore against Vin's shoulder, hoping to dislodge it.

"Oh no, y' don't," Tanner said, catching the animal's head and giving him a stern look. "Save that for the trail, we're gonna need it."

"He's ready to go?" Ezra said, walking over to join them, studying the gelding skeptically.

Vin flashed him a smile. "He's one of the best limited distance endurance horses in the west, 'a course he's ready t' go."

Josiah reached out to scratch the animal's forehead. "So he's sure-footed and has the endurance you'll need."

"Hope so," Vin said, swinging onto the saddle and working his feet into the stirrups. Attached to the back of the saddle were two small saddlebags, one with a spare hackamore and hoof-pick, the other with three bottles of the same orange-colored sports drink to help him replenish his fluids before the run.

"Me, too," Josiah said.

Reaching down, Vin grabbed the soft-rope reins of the hackamore and let Eddie know he was in command. The grey tossed his head, ready to race.

Vin reined the horse around and looked down at Buck. "Tell me."

"I'll keep your tail in sight," the ladies' man said. "At the vet check Ezra will let us know what the Bug status is."

Vin nodded as the P.A. squeaked. "Contestants to the starting line," a voice announced. "To the starting line, please."

The two riders moved past Josiah, Ezra already off to scan the crowds on the way to his position. Sanchez gave them a wave. "Good luck, boys; be careful!"

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

The terrain for the limited distance endurance ride was rougher than Vin had expected, but Eddie's pace never faltered, the grey hanging in with the two leaders, who were both riding mustangs, or mustang crossbreeds. Vin remained busy, scanning the trail directly ahead, but letting Eddie pick his own path over the broken rocks and cactus.

While the bike ride had taken less than seventy minutes, Tanner expected the endurance ride to take between five and six hours to cover the twenty-five miles of the course.

As it neared noon, the sun finally burned the cloud cover away and shone down on the desert, rapidly increasing the heat. Vin pulled his baseball cap lower, cutting off the glare. The sunglasses he wore turned the hills slightly yellow, but he was grateful he had them now.

Like the bike course, the horse trail started out with a ride up into the hills, then headed down, and finally back up again, but on a much more gradual incline.

As they neared the end of the ride Eddie stumbled, but the gelding recovered easily and pressed on, clearly disliking the view of two tails directly in front of him.

Tanner grinned. Eddie planned on winning this leg of the event, and, he admitted to himself, he was slipping into the spirit of the competition himself. After all, he had to be a competitor in order to be mistaken for a competitor.

"Heads up," Josiah announced in his ear. "We have a possible bogie."

Vin let Eddie push past the second horse, but pulled his head up before he could take a bite out of the lead horse's rump.

"Come on," he said softly, wanting to know if they'd finally located the Bugs.

"I'm sure we made contact, but we cannot locate them," Ezra said.

"I picked up a blip, too, but nothing concrete," JD added.

"Sounds like they're mobile," Chris' voice announced.

"Roger," Josiah replied. "I'm swinging in Vin's direction now."

"The possible contacts are moving toward the 10K course," JD announced.

"The course looks quiet here so far," Nathan added.

The comm-link chatter fell off and Vin concentrated on keeping Eddie on track as they passed the lead horse and moved into the lead. Once in front of the pack the grey dropped his head and picked up speed. Tanner reached back for the last bottle of sports drink and sucked it down, knowing the last leg of the race wasn't far off.

Returning the empty bottle to the saddlebags, he noted that Buck was in the third position, his appaloosa hanging in gamely.

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

The grueling ride came to an end just after two o'clock. As he slid off the grey Vin realized that he'd be running during the hottest part of the day. He'd tried to stay well-hydrated during the ride, but it was hard in the unforgiving sunlight.

Josiah stepped up and took Eddie's reins. Vin patted the horse on the shoulder as he walked past. "Good boy, Eddie, y' did good."

Nathan reached out and steadied him while Vin pulled off his boots and jeans, then accepted the fresh socks and running shoes the physician handed him.

"What's the status?" he asked, sitting down on a waiting bench to change socks, pull the shoes on, and tie the laces tight. With that done, he accepted a tube of sunscreen and slathered the cream over his exposed legs, arms, neck, hands, and face. He pushed his wet hair back and pulled the baseball cap back on.

"You're currently in second place," Nathan informed him with a smile. "Perfect bait."

Vin stood and walked to the long table, taking a paper cup full of Gatorade and draining it. He took a second from Nathan, finishing that one as well before he asked, "How 'bout our friends?"

"Just hints here and there, no concrete contact. Is your comm still working?"

Tanner nodded. "Get caught up in the race, have t' concentrate. Thought I might've missed somethin'."

Josiah shook his head. "We still don't know where they are, or what they have planned."

Chris walked up to join them. "Have the competitors been scanned?"

Josiah nodded. "And the volunteers, the crowd, and the press. Even the people who are dropping off drinks and water, whenever we can. There's too many people here to scan everyone."

They walked over to the same maroon horse trailer that JD had driven to the site. Vin gave Eddie a final pat on the neck, saying, "Y' really earned yer oats tonight, m' friend."

"He sure did," Buck commented as he led his horse over, a tired grin on his face. "This little girl, too."

"How'd y' do?" Vin asked the ladies' man.

"Fourth," he sighed, sounding a little disappointed.

Vin sighed, dropping into a stretch as a female voice announced over the P.A. system: "Runners will take their positions in ten minutes. Ten minutes to the gun."

Forcing his stiff leg muscles to stretch caused Vin's lip to curl and he hissed softly. "Damn."

"Sore?" Nathan asked.

"Hell, yes," was the blunt reply. "Get me another cup 'a Gatorade," he said, then called after Josiah, "Make it two!"

"Go easy, Vin," Nathan suggested. "They've got drinks set up every two kilometers, and in this heat too much'll give you cramps for sure."

Vin leveled an I-know-that look on the man. "Appreciate that, Doc. Tell me," he ordered, continuing to stretch.

"I'll run with the pack," JD said.

Vin looked up, his eyebrows raised in inquiry. That hadn't been part of the original plan.

"Ezra thought it would be a good way to re-check the competitors," Nathan explained.

"I'll stay with you at the head of the pack," Chris added. "If anything happens, I won't lose you."

Vin nodded. "But no contact?"

The four men shook their heads. "Ezra's trying to scan the reporters right now; they're the last obvious bunch," JD told him.

"I'll double-check the cops they have along the route. They've been out there a long time all by themselves," Josiah added, holding out two cups full of the pale green drink.

Vin downed both and handed back the empty cups.

"I've been studying the running course," Nathan said. "I think they'll hit you between kilometer seven and eight, if they do."

"What we figured," Tanner said, nodding as he kneaded his calves.

"It's the most remote point of the course; about the same spot they've struck before," Chris added. "Nathan will be at the time-check just before the notch. Buck, you and Ezra wait at the finish line."

The two men nodded and headed off.

"I better get going, too," Nathan said. "You two be careful."

"Always," Vin told him with a grin.

Jackson was mumbling to himself as he headed to the time-check.

"I'll find Ezra, see if we can't find a way to get close to that notch," Josiah said, adding, "He still has a bad feeling about this, so stay in contact."

Larabee nodded.

"I'm gonna be vulnerable, but there's nothing we can do about that," Vin said, still stretching until the public address system announced that the runners should take their positions.

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

Normally Vin could do a 10K in under thirty minutes, but not today. Running the first three kilometers through the desert had unlocked his stiff muscles and Vin felt himself pass into the familiar state of blissful oblivion as far as his searing muscles were concerned. He also felt his attention begin to focus, narrowing his field of vision to the section of the course right in front of him. Other distractions, and the occasional chatter on the comm-link, faded into background noise. The heat, however, could not be ignored.

As he reached the third kilometer marker, he grabbed a cup off the long folding table and chugged it down.

Entering kilo four, the soldier side of his brain announced as he continued on.

He groaned softly as the first hint of a cramp shot though his left calf. A 6.2 mile run wouldn't be a problem under normal circumstances, but add in the biking, riding, heat, and the necessity of staying with the front-runners, and the strain was starting to take its toll.

You're not as young as you used to be, he reminded himself. But I'm not that damned old, either.

He forced himself to pick up the pace, passing the fourth runner to take up his position. He was vaguely aware that Chris did the same, hanging just off Vin's left shoulder.

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

At the fifth kilo marker Vin grabbed two cups of Gatorade and downed them in two long gulps. Nathan stood at the end of the table. "Avatars in the area," he said into his comm-link. "Not identified. Be careful."

Great, Tanner hissed silently, suddenly taking Ezra's "bad feelings" even more seriously.

He returned his attention to the race, focusing on the need to keep his feet moving fast enough to stay with the two leaders.

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

Reaching the sixth kilo marker, Vin downed three cups of Gatorade and watched one of the lead runners go down. Two of the four medics stationed at each marker moved out to help. The heat was starting to take a real toll on the runners.

He reached for a fourth cup but changed his mind, moving with the lead runner as he returned to the trail that would take them through the desert for the next two kilometers. The terrain was so rugged that there would be no water-stop at kilo eight, the runners forced to make it two miles before they could get something to drink again.

"Avatars contacted. Repeat avatars pinged. Location unknown," JD's voice said.

Vin ground his teeth. Now he was getting a bad feeling about the race, too. Where the hell were they? In the crowd? Among the volunteers? The medics? The press? The police?

Any or all of them.

He forced himself on, entering the most rugged stretch of the race – the section that would take him the farthest away from the other cell members who monitored his progress. He glanced back. At least Chris was still there.

A slight tingle of fear raised the hairs on his arms and neck. They were going to strike, he could feel it. He pushed himself harder, moving up on the lead runner. The landscape slipped by, neglected by the sniper, whose attention was focused on the narrowing trail that would take them up through a tight notch between two hills, then back down to the desert floor before they hit kilo marker nine.

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

Vin glanced briefly to the rear, catching sight of Chris running in the third position. Behind the blond two other runners were pushing hard, the steep climb slowing even the front runners enough to let some of the others get closer to the leaders.

The five men would all be within twenty yards of each other when they headed for the turn that would take them around the first hill. It was the perfect location for an ambush.

Tanner's gaze scanned the hillside and the flat desert to the north, finding nothing. He adjusted his focus, concentrating on running and holding on to the second position.

They rounded the hill.

A bright flash of green light blinded Vin and the other runners. He opened his mouth to call for help, and heard Larabee's shortened cry of "Mayda—!" before he found himself falling into the hot dust, unable to move or speak.

Where the hell did they come from, he wondered as twilight settled on his consciousness. His last thought was, Damn, Ezra was right – again.

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

As soon as JD had scanned the competitors, he'd faked a cramp and dropped out of the 10K race, rejoining the other men at the finish line. Standing there with Josiah, Buck, and Ezra, he jumped when they heard Chris' half-strangled "Mayda—!"

Buck immediately barked, "Go! Go! Go!"

The men scattered, Buck and Ezra climbing into the waiting rental Jeep and starting off. Josiah and JD climbed into a Land Rover and headed back toward the start of the course.

Ezra reached out, bracing himself with his hands against the dashboard of the Jeep as Buck floored the accelerator. The rear tires spun in the loose desert dirt, throwing up a cloud of dust that drifted up into the still air as they pulled onto the paved road and rocketed toward the spot between the eighth and ninth kilo markers.

"Who are they?" JD asked over the comm-link, pulling out his computer and starting to type. "How'd they get past us?"

"Status?" Buck barked into the link.

The four waited.

"We saw a flash of green light in the direction of the runners," Nathan said. "We're moving in their direction, no bogies sighted. Repeat, no bogies."

"Wait," JD announced. "I'm in the hotel's computer system. They just issued a memo… Damn it! They're missing three hotel employees."

"There's a hotel van leaving the area now," Josiah said as they neared the outskirts of the hotel facility.

"We have people down on the trail. Repeat, we have people down," Nathan said over the comm-link.

"Chris and Vin?" Buck asked.

"I have Chris," Nathan said. "Vin and two competitors are missing."

"Hotel van," Josiah said. "We're going to follow; heading north."

"That's got to be them," Buck said.

"A lot of employees have access to hotel vehicles," JD countered. "How can we be sure?"

"Keep that van in sight," Buck ordered.

"Roger, will do," Josiah said.

"Can you cut the van off?" Ezra asked.

"Negative, moving in," Josiah replied, then cursed. "The van is taking a dirt road to the west. I can't stay with them without being obvious."

"Roger," Buck said. "Find some high ground, try to keep the van in sight."

"I'll see what we can do," Josiah assured him.

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

Consciousness returned in a debilitating flash of agony. Vin groaned, but the sound remained trapped in his throat, making it feel like he was going to choke. He tried to move, but the fuzzy green that surrounded him in a diaphanous field held him as securely as if it were steel bands. Damn it, he swore silently.

Lying on a padded bench in the back of a van, he listened to the comm-link chatter as others moved in on them, the only question being whether he'd still be alive and fully human when they finally arrived.

The van, traveling through the open, flat desert, was making it impossible for the other to reach him.

The misty field dissipated slightly and he watched what he guessed were three bugged humans maneuver the man who had been leading the event into a small chair. A thin metal circlet with wires attached to it was placed around the man's forehead, his arms strapped to the chair with Velcro restraints.

Vin wasn't sure why it was so easy to spot an avatar, but there was just something stilted about the way they moved and spoke when the Bugs were in control.

The bugged young, tanned, male hotel employee reached across to a tangled heap of wire and crystals, both set in a porous sponge-like material that was the same ugly green as the field surrounding Vin and the other kidnapped triathlete. The avatar dipped his hand into one of the larger pores and a scream tore out of the bound athlete's throat, raw and nerve-cutting.

"It's good," the young man stated flatly. "The levels are high. He'll be an asset."

A second avatar, an older male hotel employee, nodded and aimed an odd-looking wand-like device at the athlete. A flash of green light shot from the tip and the man was enveloped in the paralyzing mist again.

The third visible avatar, a burly Latino man, moved the athlete out of the chair and lifted the competitor who had been running third in the race into the empty space.

The circlet was placed on his head, the first avatar replacing his hand in the spongy material. A second tormented scream filled the van and Vin felt himself flinch internally. What the hell was that thing? What was it doing to them?

"His levels are lower, but within acceptable parameters," the second avatar stated. "Bring me the third."

After stunning the second man, the Latino avatar lifted the athlete out of the chair and laid him on the floor of the van alongside the triathlon leader. With that done, he moved to Vin and maneuvered him from the padded bench to the chair.

Vin fought wildly against the hazy mist, but his muscles remained locked against his control. He looked around the van, but Chris wasn't there. Was he okay?

Tanner hissed silently as the avatar moved his limbs like he was a child's doll, arranging him easily in the chair. He watched the older man slip the circlet onto his head, the metal cold against his forehead. With a start he realized that his heart was pounding and sweat still broke through his skin, running down his face in thin streams.

It was like he was suspended, caught in the physical moment of the race, but no longer moving. A moment later, suffering like nothing he had ever experienced in years of soldiering ripped through his body and Vin heard himself scream.

Despite the agony raging through his physical body, Vin's conscious mind watched from a detached position.

The younger avatar grinned. "His levels are the highest of the three. He will be a great asset to our cause."

The other two avatars grinned and nodded their agreement and Vin felt a wave of cold terror slide through his body on the wake of the searing pain.

The Latino leveled the wand on Vin's chest and he was immediately enveloped in the heavy green mist again, still unable to move. They lowered him to the floor with the other two athletes and he watched the three avatars. The two younger men returned to the front of the van where he could get occasional glimpses of a young woman, also a hotel employee, driving. The Latino man sat down in the chair, his dead expression fixed on the three athletes.

Where the hell are you guys, Vin wondered, knowing his team was out there, shadowing the van. They must still be on open, on flat terrain. That meant the valley side of the foothills. The city side. They were driving toward Tucson. But why? What the hell are they doin'?

The sound of Buck's voice on the ear mike interrupted his thoughts.

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

"Give me a status," Buck demanded as he drove, trying to forget the scream he had just heard.

"We still have the van in sight, but not for long," Josiah said. "They're moving toward Tucson, we're picking up traffic and closing."

"We're on the way," Buck said. "Nathan?"

"Chris and the others are… incapacitated. I'll tell you more when I know."

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

Vin listened as more reports followed, all with the same message; the cell members had the van in sight, but there was nowhere to actually stop the vehicle without giving the avatars plenty of time to kill the athletes. And thus far the avatars appeared to be unaware of the two vehicles that followed them into the city.

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

Ezra's forehead wrinkled. He didn't know why, but he knew Vin was in no danger, not yet anyway. Not until the avatars reached their destination, wherever that was.

"Let them go," he said quietly, but it was loud enough for both Buck and Josiah to hear.

"What?" they chorused.

"Let them go wherever it is they're going," Ezra said.

Buck shook his head. "But Vin—"

"He'll be fine until they reach their destination," Ezra assured them.

"How can you know that?" Buck demanded. "You can't know that, Ezra."

Standish turned in his seat, meeting Wilmington's angry, concerned gaze. "I don't know how I know," he admitted. "But I do know it's true. Vin will be fine until they get to where they're going. Then we'll have to move in quickly, or we will lose him."

Buck shook his head. "You're crazy," he snapped, but there was decided lack of force behind the comment. When it came to the Bugs, Ezra was seldom wrong.

"Maybe I am crazy," Standish admitted. "But that doesn't mean I'm wrong."

Buck sighed heavily. "I know. I know. I'm just worried about Chris and Vin."

"We all are," Josiah's voice added.

"Yep," JD added softly.

In the past the former con man's hunches had often proven to be correct, so maybe they still had a chance to get Vin out of this alive.

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

Laying on the floor of the van, Vin wished Nathan would report how Chris was doing. He was glad it sounded like they were waiting until the avatars got to wherever it was they were going. If they tried to stop the van on a regular street, there would be plenty of time for the burly man to get off several shots with the sidearm he was carrying.

Vin sighed and tried to relax, but the bumpy ride, and the locked position of his limbs made that impossible. It was a wait and see operation now, and Vin waited with nothing but a soft buzz echoing in his ear now, the other men having fell silent.

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

The members of Cell Seven trailed the van into the city of Tucson, heading east down Speedway – the community's main thoroughfare – to the far side of the sprawling city. Once Buck caught up to them, the two vehicles switched off, making it appear like they were just local residents, going who knew where.

At the eastern foothills the van turned south, heading toward the airport.

"Can you see anything that they're heading for?" Josiah asked.

"Negative," Buck replied.

"The street they're on will take them to the airport, past several industrial parks," JD added.

"Roger," Buck said. "Do you think they're going to fly them someplace?"

Ezra shook his head. "I don't think so."

"Ezra, if you've got a line to the ooga-booga side, let us in on whatever you're picking up," JD said.

Ezra allowed himself a slight smile. "No, nothing like that. It's just… a feeling."

"Working with Vin, you get used to following hunches," stated Chris' voice.

"Hey, stud, you okay?" Buck demanded.

"Been better, but I'm okay," Larabee said.

Buck was about to reply when the van he was following turned into an industrial park, proceeding to a stand-alone warehouse at the far end of the cluster of buildings. It parked alongside a garage-like door. The ladies' man followed, parking in the large lot as close to the van as he dared. Josiah pulled up and parked beside him a few moments later.

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

Vin's breath caught as the van turned, slowed, and came to a stop. They were still outside; he could tell that much from the level of sunlight streaming through the windshield. He heard the front doors open, some of the hotel employees climbing out. A moment later the sliding door opened and the officer stood, moving over to lift the leader out. The third man followed.

He waited while the big man climbed out, then reached back and hauled him out.

You guys better be out there, he thought.

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

The four members of Cell Seven sat, watching as three avatars climbed out of the van, then moved to the sliding side door. An older man pulled the door open and a burly Latino handed out one of the athletes. The young man and young woman took the first athlete and half-carried, half-dragged him to the door of the warehouse, which rose slowly. They carried the man inside, disappearing from view.

The older man took the second athlete, maneuvering him inside. The Latino climbed out of the van, then reached in and pulled Vin out and carried him inside.

Seeing Vin, JD stared to move, but Josiah reached out, stopping him. "Wait," he commanded.

"But—" the younger man started, but he was interrupted.

"We're on the way," Nathan said. "ETA four minutes."

"Make it three," Buck said.

"Done," was Nathan's reply.

When the last two members of Cell Seven arrived the men gathered at the rear of the vehicles. It was clear Chris wasn't doing as well as he'd like.

Buck took over, saying, "Josiah, east side. Ezra, south. JD, you're with me on the west. Nathan, north side."

Chris nodded, a slight grin on his face. It was the same deployment he would have used.

"You stay here—" Buck started to Larabee.

"I'll go in with Nathan," Chris interrupted. "No arguments, Buck."

Wilmington shot the blond a frustrated glare, but short of hog-tying the man in the Jeep there was no way he could stop him.

"Move," Larabee said.

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

Vin squinted as best he could, grateful that he had at least that much control over his rebellious muscles. He'd heard a few words crackle in over the comm-link and guessed the others must be moving in on the building. There was a good chance he might get out of this alive.

The green mist cleared slightly and he reconsidered that appraisal. Past the green haze was a scene right out of a very bad horror movie. Men sat on exercise bicycles, their legs pumping in macabre rhythm while avatars moved among the trapped men, checking on the headgear each wore – something that looked to Tanner like a combination football helmet and spaghetti strainer. Wires sprouted from the metal headgear at odd angles.

The expression on the men's faces sent a shiver down the sniper's back. They were blank, utterly and completely blank.

The lights are on, an' nobody's home.

He listened more intently, trying to gauge if his friends outside were getting closer.

The athlete who'd had the lowest whatever it was they were measuring was dragged forward first and pushed into a chair. Two women wearing t-shirts with an Ellen-Marie Cosmetics logo approached. One aimed another of the stubby wands at the man and the green mist disappeared. The man bolted out of his chair, but the light flashed again and he was frozen in place.

The two women arranged him in the wooden chair, then pointed the wand at him and the light green disappeared. The man struggled against his restraints. "What the hell are you doing? Who are you?" he demanded angrily.

The two women ignored him, one reaching for an instrument that looked a little like dousing wands, or a large metal wishbone. She stepped up to the man and placed the two ends against his temples. A scream erupted from the athlete's throat and Vin struggled uselessly against green haze.

When the woman removed the device the man slumped back in the chair. The pair released the man from his restraints and guided him to an empty bike and helped him on. With that done, they secured his feet to the pedals with duct tape, then placed one of the bizarre helmets on his head. The man straightened slightly, cried out, then fell to pedaling like the others.

The two women returned to the chair and signaled for the triathlon leader to be brought to them.

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

"What the hell are they doing?" Buck asked softly.

Nathan shook his head, unable to even venture a guess.

"We can't let them get Vin on a bike," Ezra said quietly.

The second kidnapped athlete screamed as he was shocked into submission.

"Okay, we move up, then hit them from all sides," Chris said. "First priority is keeping Vin safe, second is getting the others out."

The cell members nodded.

They moved slowly and carefully through the remainder of the dim warehouse, getting closer to the avatars, using stacks of boxes as cover. Two minutes later they were as close as they dared.

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

Vin watched as the second man was subdued.

The two saleswomen led the man to another empty bike and helped him on, securing him like they had the first. Another scream echoed through the warehouse, then the man started to pedal.

The women started back for Vin.

I'm next.

The burly Latino moved Tanner closer to the chair, the two women taking him and directing him to the seat. The two women arranged him in the chair.

Any time, boys, he silently commanded his friends.

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

Nathan leaned forward to see what the aliens were doing as they secured the second man to an exercise bicycle. Buck reached out, pulling him back behind the cover of the stacked boxes.

"I need to see what they're doing," Nathan argued softly.

"Not yet, Doc," Buck replied.

The two women were turning their attention to Vin.

"Get ready," Chris said. "On my three. One… two…"

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

One… Vin counted silently with Chris' voice as the two women secured his wrists to the chair arms. With that done, they both stepped back. One of the women raised the stubby wand and aimed it at him.



A flash of gray-white light blinded him momentarily, but Vin felt his muscles unlock, his fingers curling automatically as he tested the restraints. Too tight to escape.

The second woman stepped up, holding the wishbone-looking tool.


Now! Vin said in unison with Chris' order.

Gunfire erupted in the warehouse, Tanner realizing that there were more avatars present than he'd seen. One of the women screamed as she went down.

The second woman leaned forward, placing the device against Vin's temples, then stepped back, reaching for the switch.

"Stop them!" Ezra bellowed, pointing at the woman who moved to fix the alien device on Tanner's head.

Chris and Josiah swept out from behind boxes, opening fire. They both centered on the woman as her hand reached for the switch. They fired just before her fingers brushed the button, the force of the blast pressing her fingers against the switch.

Vin screamed and jerked in the chair.

Ignoring the danger, Nathan lunged forward, grabbing the device and pulling it off Vin's head. Tanner slumped forward, eyes shut and shoulders sagging.

Josiah kept them covered as Chris rushed to join Nathan. The doctor was checking for a pulse while Larabee freed Vin's wrists.

"Vin?" Nathan said, reaching out to press Tanner back in the chair.

Chris took a step back, waiting with Josiah and Ezra while Nathan worked. The older man reached out, slipping his arm around Ezra's shoulders and giving his arm a squeeze.

"He'll be all right," he assured quietly, hoping his own doubts didn't make it to his voice.

"I hope you're right," Ezra replied, glancing over at the other men, who still pedaled, oblivious to the events happening in front of them.

"We should take a look at them. Try to figure something out," Josiah suggested.

"But—" Ezra started.

"We're just in the way here and, like I said, he'll be all right. We should look, try to understand what the Bugs are doing." Josiah looked at the zombie-faced athletes. "Maybe we can find a way to help them, too."

Ezra nodded, but cast one more glance at Vin before allowing Josiah to guide him over to the athletes. Together they examined the macabre headgear, going carefully to ensure that they did not harm the men.

Once they were sure the building was secure, Buck and JD joined them.

"Oh my God," JD gasped a few minutes later. He took a step back.

"What?" Josiah asked, stepping over to join him.

"They've placed a probe in their brains," he said, swallowing hard. "But why? What in the world are they doing?"

Josiah shook his head, unable to fathom a reason.

"Vin?" they heard Chris call.

The four men left the athletes, returning to their teammates. They all smiled when they found Vin's eyes open, but their happiness quickly faded.

"What's wrong?" JD asked. "Is he awake?"

Nathan nodded. "He's conscious, but unresponsive. I think he took the equivalent of a heavy electroshock treatment."

"ECT?" Josiah echoed. "What was the setting?"

"I have no idea," Nathan admitted. "The dial isn't marked. Not in English, anyway."

"Great," Sanchez sighed.

"What does that mean?" Larabee demanded.

"Probably something to do with this," Buck said, holding up two clear glass bottles full of a milkish-colored liquid. "Me and JD found it when we swept the building."

"I'll have to take those back to the lab to determine what it is," Nathan said, reaching out to take one of the liter bottles from Buck and examining the fluid visually.

"Buck, JD, Ezra, sweep the warehouse again, look for any paperwork," Chris said. "These boxes all contain exercise equipment, but there's a group of offices."

The three headed off.

Larabee glanced at Vin, then at Nathan. "Maybe we should get him to a hospital."

Nathan shook his head. "Let's wait a little longer, see if he comes around. I'm monitoring his vitals; if there's a change we'll get him to a hospital."

Chris looked like he might argue, but then he looked to Josiah and asked, "What about the rest of these guys?"

He shook his head. "We're going to need help. The Bugs placed some kind of implant in these men's brains."

"I think you better come see this," Buck called to the others.

"Go," Chris said.

Nathan and Josiah walked to the far side of the exercise bicycles, stopping next to a large suction-driven pump attached to a larger glass bottle that was slowly filling with the same milky fluid.

"What do you think?" Buck asked.

Nathan felt the blood drain from his face and he sucked in a deep breath before he said, "I think that brain probe is extracting whatever this substance is." He knelt, staring at the thin trickle that dripped into the bottle. "It has to be some kind of cortical chemical or substance. Nothing else makes sense."

"I'll get the bottles out to the vehicles," JD assured.

Nathan nodded, then looked at the others. "Don't touch the equipment, or anything that's associated with the athletes. We need to get some doctors in here."

Nathan and Josiah walked carefully down a line of the still-peddling men, reaching Chris as he slipped his phone into his pocket. "I called in the Resistance in Nogalas, they're the closest. Maybe Dr. Morales can figure out what to do for these men," he said.

The two men nodded. "I'd like to stay," Josiah said, glancing at Vin, who still sat, staring glassy-eyed at some unseen point on the floor. "I might be able to help."

Chris nodded. "We'll take Vin and go back to the hotel."

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

Chris opened the bungalow door and entered first, making sure the building was secure before Nathan and Ezra helped Vin in. Buck and JD waited outside, making sure they were not followed.

Chris and Nathan lower Tanner onto the padded sofa.

While Chris made Vin comfortable, Nathan retrieved his medical bag, then returned to the sofa.

Waving Larabee back, Jackson set to work, checking Vin's pulse, respiration, blood pressure, pupils, and autonomic responses. With that done, he paused to jot down several lines of notes before starting on a series of more specific neurological tests.

"Well?" Ezra asked when Nathan finally stood and stretched, rubbing his lower back.

"He's doing fine, physically, as far as I can tell. I wish we were back in Colorado. I'd like run some more tests, take an MRI." He noted the concerned expressions. "It would help if we knew what level of shock he received."

A slight groan from the couch stopped the conversation. Nathan and Chris moved to Vin.

The younger man blinked, one hand rising slowly to his forehead. He rubbed. "Fuckin'-A," he muttered.

"Vin?" Chris said, squatting down to get eye-level with the man.

Tanner's eyes cracked open, then he blinked and looked at Larabee. "I've got the mother 'a all headaches. No interrogation, Larabee. An' keep yer voice down."

The hint of a grin passed Larabee's lips before he nodded somberly.

"Did we get 'em?"

"Yeah," Chris said. "The avatars are dead."

"The athletes?" Vin asked, rubbing his head again.

"We're not sure what they were doing to them. We called in Morales. Josiah's with them at the warehouse."

"I want to get Vin home," Nathan said.

"'M fine," Vin argued, glowering at the man.

"I'll be the judge of that," Jackson countered quietly. "After I get you home and do a full workup on you."

Vin peeked out between his fingers. The good doctor wasn't going to take no for an answer. "Aw, come on, Nate, y' know I'm as hard headed as they come."

"The understatement of the year," Ezra stated flatly.

Vin sighed. He was outnumbered and his head hurt too much to argue. "I ain't goin' nowhere, not 'til everybody's back," he growled.

"Fine," Nathan replied. "But you're gonna rest, or I'll sedate your stubborn ass."

"Sure thing, Dad."

Ezra smiled, his internal sense telling him Tanner was going to be fine. He was nowhere as sure about the other athletes.

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

A short while later

Chris sat in one of the recliners, pursuing a year-old issue of Natural Health while he waited for Josiah to return. He checked his watch – a little over five hours since they had brought Vin back to the hotel. Not that much time, really.

God, but he hated waiting.

He tossed the magazine back on the coffee table, then reached for his gun when Josiah entered, looking shaken and pale.

"You all right?" Nathan asked, pushing himself to his feet. He'd been dozing, sitting at the end of the sofa.

"No," the older man replied, heading directly to the empty sofa and sitting down.

"What is it?" Buck asked, getting up from the desk where he'd been sitting.

"We lost them."

"The athletes?" Nathan asked.

Sanchez nodded.

"All of them?" JD asked.

Another nod.

"How? Why? I mean—" Nathan started.

"Morales was looking for a way to remove the probes, get those men out of those damned machines—" He stopped, pressing his lips tightly together and looking away until he could get a rein on his emotions. "While he was working, one of the men died. The probe spontaneously retracted. To preserve the purity of the extract is my guess."

"And?" Chris prompted when he showed no inclination to continue.

"Morales decided to try simulating death, to see if he could get the probes to retract. When he injected one of the men—" He stopped, cleared his throat and forced himself to go on. "I think he tripped a failsafe of some kind. The probes exploded."

"Oh my God," Nathan said softly.

"Exploded?" JD echoed, looking slightly green.

Josiah nodded. "They were all killed. Instantly."

"Damn," Buck said quietly.

"Yeah," Josiah agreed, his face still grey. "How's Vin?"

"He'll be fine. I think," Nathan said. "He woke up, but I won't really know how he is until I can get him home and run more tests, just to be sure."

"Well, that's good news at least," Josiah said.

"Any idea what the Bugs were after?" Chris asked.

"Morales and his people are analyzing the contents of the bottles now. We should know why twenty-five men died by tomorrow morning."

"Twenty-five?" Nathan shook his head. "When is this going to end?"

"I don't know," Josiah replied. "But it better be soon, because the Bugs seem to be getting more and more sophisticated as we go."

"That's what scares me," Nathan relied, and the others nodded their agreement.

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

The next day

"Endorphins?" Ezra repeated, walking over and sitting down on the comfortable bungalow couch.

Nathan nodded. "That's what the machines were extracting from their brains, and it was incredibly pure. Why they're after endorphins we don't have a clue."

Buck puffed his cheeks. "But why triathletes? Why not marathon runners?"

"There are a lot more triathlons than marathons," JD said.

"The real question is: Why do they need human endorphins?" Josiah asked, walking in from the kitchen carrying a tray with five steaming cups of coffee.

"And are they going to try to get them some other way now," JD offered.

"I hope not," Nathan said, taking a cup off the tray. "As for why? I don't know. We know so damn little about Bug physiology…"

"I'll get the computer working on it," JD added.

"We'll need to reach out to the scientists who are helping the resistance. They'll know why endorphins," Josiah stated.

The men fell silent as they sipped on their coffee. Chris and Vin exiting the room they were sharing prompted JD to hurry into the kitchen to bring back two more cups of coffee.

The two men took a cup each and sat down on the sofa.

"How do you feel?" Nathan asked Vin.

"Like a pack 'a hippos are stompin' on m' brain," Vin said in a near whisper.

JD frowned. "I don't think hippos run in packs."

"We get the idea, JD," Buck scolded the hacker. "His head's killin' him."

"The local papers reported that you would've come in second if you'd finished the race," Ezra informed Vin, changing the topic before JD and Buck started to argue.

"Not first, huh?"

"No, not first," Ezra replied.

Vin shrugged. "Well, I wasn't there t' win."

Josiah saw the spark ignite between the two men and was grateful for the return to normalcy. He'd had more than enough nightmares for a while.

"Does that mean that you think you could've won?" Chris asked.


"Come now, Mr. Tanner," Standish said, leaning forward as he slipped into the spirit of the debate. "You can't really believe that you could've won this thing, do you?"

"Yeah, I do," Tanner half-growled, blue eyes narrowing.

Chris leaned back and shook his head.

"And I suppose y' don't think I could?"

"I didn't say that," Larabee countered.

"What exactly do y' mean, Larabee?"

Josiah grinned. Definitely back to normal… Thank God.


[1] See the first story in this AU, "A Warrior's Work is Never Done."

[2] Cells 1 and 2 are in CA (Santa Barbara (1) and Santa Rosa (2)), Cell 3 is in Bend, OR, 4 in Bellingham, WA, 5 in Butte, MT, 6 in Ely, NV, 7 west of Denver, 8 in Santa Fe, NM, 9 in Flagstaff, AZ and 10 in Tucson, but Cell Ten is in the process of being rebuilt after they were killed in a Resistance action.