Thanks to Hazel Kohler – with some help from Mary J. Rudy – who had graciously offered to be my beta reader and had proof-read this story. This is this chapter revised version. C.B.)
Escorted by Symphony at the helm of Angel One, the Aero Special One had been in the air for about an hour when it came within view of the Rockies… where the storm Scarlet had so hoped to avoid was actually raging. Destiny brought the jet higher, in order to overfly the bad weather. It seemed like a good idea: the craft did hit a few raindrops, but visibility was fairly good.
Captain Scarlet, standing right behind Commander James Torey, who was acting as co-pilot to Destiny, had sent Symphony ahead to scout the flight path. He didn’t like the look of the storm and was sure the Passenger Jet would hit it very shortly, despite Destiny’s efforts to avoid it. He couldn’t shake the bad feeling he had that something would go wrong if they were to enter it. Torey noticed how worried the captain looked and shrugged the problem away, with a confident look.
“Don’t worry, Captain!” he told him. “This craft is a sturdy one. Even better than the SPJs Aero Engineering built for Spectrum!”
“Yes, well, if you don’t mind, I much prefer being inside a jet I know well than one that hasn’t proven its worth yet,” Scarlet murmured.
Ochre showed up behind Scarlet, coming from the passenger cabin. He snorted at that last remark. “What’s the matter, Scarlet? Are you losing your nerve?”
Scarlet shot him an angry look. Torey just smiled.
“This plane has proven itself during the initial tests, believe me.”
“She certainly has good manoeuvrability,” Destiny agreed with a nod. “Certainly, it is not an Angel Fighter, but…”
“Can you still see Angel One?” Scarlet asked her suddenly.
“Still just in front of us, Captain. Visibility is still very good, though I expect it to worsen gradually.”
“Keep in contact with her. If she hits bad weather, she’ll call us.”
“You think we will be able to avoid that storm?”
“I doubt it. What is the weather like down there?”
Destiny checked out the instruments and frowned. “Very bad. There’s a blizzard at ground level. We had better stay over those clouds if we don’t want to hit it.”
“Keep us up, then.” Scarlet looked up to Torey. “You have a lot of confidence in your Jet, Commander.”
“She’s my baby,” Torey told him with a quiet nod. “I worked on it for two years with engineers and designers. I know all there is to know about it.” He smiled. “There isn’t a safer plane in the whole world. Aside from all its usual security features, like in Spectrum’s own Passenger Jet, there’s the escape capsule…”
“How does it work?” Scarlet asked.
“First, we have to push this,” Torey explained, showing a big red button on the command board. “It opens the clamps which keep the capsule in place, and heats the capsule’s engine.” Torey then indicated a large red lever right next to the button. “That controls an explosive charge strategically placed to separate the capsule – composed of the cockpit and passenger cabin – from the rest of the fuselage. With it, the onboard computer transfers the controls of the jet to enable the pilot to fly the capsule only. It works on roughly the same principle as a glider, actually, as its weight doesn’t permit it to gain too much altitude… But there is a small emergency fuel tank in each fin. Not much, because of the excess weight it would add, but enough to allow the pilot to find a safe spot to land.”
“What about landing?” Scarlet asked. “Is there landing gear?”
“The hovers slow down the descent until touchdown. If that fails, the capsule can stand up to an emergency landing. The outer skin of the capsule is made of a very strong, flame retardant alloy. It’ll even withstand the friction of sliding on the ground. Actually, fire would burn on its skin for a long time, before actually reaching the inside of the capsule. Which should give enough time for its occupants to get out.”
“Provided smoke doesn’t kill them first,” Destiny remarked.
“And the fuel tanks?” Ochre added.
“The tanks for the capsule can be ejected, of course, just like the jet’s bigger ones,” Torey smiled again. “As you see, everything has been thought of… Including the smoke, miss. Like in any ordinary plane, respirators are available for all passengers and crew members.”
“Yes, it looks like everything has been taken care of,” Scarlet replied. “Too bad you won’t be able to demonstrate those features during the tests.”
“Don’t be so sure we won’t.”
Scarlet glanced at Torey oddly. “What do you mean?”
“We have equipped the prototype with a remote control,” Torey explained. “So the pilot performing the tests will actually be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of ejecting the cabin… while the main body of the Aero Special One will be brought down from the ground.”
“Wait a minute!” Scarlet said suddenly, “Destiny will be performing the flight tests. She’s not had any training for the ejection manoeuvre!”
“Don’t worry about that, Captain. As I told you, the entire manoeuvre is automatic. Your pilot will be perfectly safe, along with her passengers.”
“Passengers?” Destiny repeated, turning her head toward Torey.
“Passengers?” Ochre echoed.
“Why yes… Some prospective buyers of the Aero Special One want to take a ride and intend to try out the emergency ejection procedure.”
“Out of the question,” Scarlet said firmly.
“What?” Torey replied, opening his eyes wide.
“You heard the Mysterons’ threat, Commander Torey?”
“Yes, I told you so earlier… I heard it over the radio after landing on Cloudbase. But surely, with all the security Spectrum is providing at the show, you don’t think some terrorist group are going to succeed in sabotaging it!”
“The Mysterons are no typical terrorists, Jim,” Ochre remarked.
“And when they make a threat, they DO carry it out,” Scarlet added. “And I have no intention of giving them the opportunity of new victims by letting Destiny – or anybody else for that matter – try that ejection procedure.”
“That ‘procedure’, Captain, is the main reason people are contemplating buying that craft. If we don’t do it, there will be a lot of unhappy people… including my employers at UAE.”
Commander Torey’s tone was no less than threatening. Ochre and Destiny were keeping silent, wondering how Scarlet would react. Ochre noticed the twitch over his fellow officer’s brow. Exactly like the original one, he thought. That twitch was a good indication that he was angry and about to lose his patience. He turned an icy blue stare at Torey.
“Frankly, Commander,” he said with annoyance, “I don’t much care about hurt feelings. If I say this procedure won’t take place, you’d better believe it won’t!”
Torey bristled at the statement. “Who are you to make a decision like that?” he exploded. “You have no authority to tell UAE how to conduct this demonstration. Spectrum doesn’t own that craft yet!”
“Spectrum IS responsible for security at the air show, Commander,” Scarlet replied curtly. “And I AM in charge of it. Furthermore, one of Spectrum’s own pilots is conducting the tests… at your superiors’ request, if I remember rightly. I won’t risk her life as well as others needlessly.” His eyes glittered, looking straight into Torey’s. “And that’s my last word on the matter.”
“Colonel White will hear about this, Captain,” Torey replied dryly.
Scarlet shrugged. “Feel free to tell him whatever you want. I just remind you that HE put me in charge.”
For a few seconds, the two men stared at each other with anger in their eyes. Scarlet was the first to let go. He put a hand on Destiny’s shoulder, drawing her attention. “Keep an eye out for the weather. And notify me if Symphony calls. I’ll be in the passenger cabin for a while.”
“S.I.G., Captain,” the French pilot answered softly. She almost said “Thanks” for the obvious concern she had heard in his voice earlier about her safety, but caught herself in time before actually doing it. Scarlet nodded to Ochre and left the cockpit, under the watchful stare of his fellow officer and Commander Torey alike. The latter let out a sigh of annoyance.
“What’s eating him?” he asked, addressing Ochre and Destiny. “Power trip or something?”
“I don’t think so,” Destiny replied. “I think he simply doesn’t want to take too much risk.” She surprised herself. Is that ME, taking his defence now? she mused.
“I thought Englishmen were supposed to be cool headed,” Torey added mockingly.
Ochre snorted. “Let’s just say he’s not quite himself these days.”
Destiny glanced at him. Her curious – and angry – stare was enough to silence him. Clearing his throat, Ochre crouched between her and Torey, and looked at his old friend. “So, Jim… you gonna tell me now how you ended up working for Aero Engineering?”
* * *
Captain Scarlet was obviously upset as he stepped into the passenger cabin where Captain Grey, who was reading a magazine, raised his head to look at him with curiosity. Without saying anything, Scarlet sat down in the seat across from his colleague and took off his cap, putting it on his lap. He blew out a sigh of contempt.
“I heard the ruckus in the cockpit,” Grey told him quietly. “You took the right decision concerning that demonstration.”
Scarlet gazed at him tiredly. “I’m not about to let a bunch of heedless bureaucrats jeopardize security at the show.”
Grey looked thoughtfully at his friend. “You’re all right now, though?”
“My headache’s come back,” Scarlet muttered. “Do you know if there’s aspirin on board this damned plane?”
Grey nodded and got on his feet. He went to the last seat of the cabin and took out the first aid kit that was stashed in a cabinet, right behind it. Scarlet smiled slightly when his fellow officer produced a couple of headache tablets.
“Same place as in our own SPJs, eh?” the Brit remarked softly.
Grey answered with a grin. He poured some water from the cooler into a plastic glass and came back, handing the glass and the tablets to Scarlet. The later thanked him with a nod and swallowed the lot in one gulp. Grey sat back in front of him.
“Hope it will help,” he said, shaking his head.
“It can’t get worse, anyway.” Scarlet replied. He glanced toward the cockpit. “I hope everything will be all right at the airshow.”
“You say that, but you don’t really believe it.”
Scarlet thought about that for a second, then nodded his agreement. “You’re right, I don’t. I’ve got a bad feeling about all this.”
“Well, if anybody knows what the Mysterons can do, it’s certainly you, Paul.” Grey patted his friend’s knee in a comforting gesture. “Don’t worry, we’ll win.”
“I’d love to be so sure about that,” Scarlet grumbled.
“Oh, come on now, Scarlet! That’s defeatism. That’s not like you. You can’t be serious.”
“But I am serious.” Scarlet stared at the empty space, with a thoughtful, worried frown. “I’ve… encountered these monsters twice, Brad. And both times, I failed.” He turned his gaze back to Grey. “Is it any wonder I worry?”
“I’d hardly say you failed.”
Scarlet snorted. “During my first mission against the Mysterons, I DIED, Brad. Worse still, they took control over my mind and my body, making me do unspeakable things, and there was nothing I could do to stop them… or even myself, for that matter! Doesn’t that sound like failure to you?”
“You just said it. They took control of you. They used you. You weren’t responsible for your actions, then. Paul, no wonder you couldn’t do anything to resist their control: it took a bullet and an 800-foot drop to stop you! You think you failed? You shook off the Mysterons’ spell over you and regained control of yourself. Better yet: they killed you, but you actually overcame death itself and CAME BACK. That’s no small success.”
“Yes, well… I can’t take any credit for that.”
“Are you so sure about that?” Grey frowned. “I know you. You’re a fighter. And a survivor to boot. Don’t you think that might be THAT that brought you back to us?”
Scarlet kept silent a moment. He stared at his friend. “What about the Director-General? He and his staff fell victim to the Mysterons and I couldn’t do anything to stop it!”
“Yes, I know that’s eating at you.” Scarlet was still looking depressed. Grey shook his head. “You know, actually I know exactly how you feel.”
The statement seemed to startle Scarlet. He was now a bit embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I forgot you were there when the Asian Director died…”
“Well, yes, he WAS under MY protection… but I’m not talking about that.”
“No.” Grey sighed. “You know, I’ve had my share of failures, Paul. All of us have… We learn to live with them. After a while some don’t feel so bad, but others…” Grey shook his head, frowning. “…Others we can’t forget about.”
“I have a feeling you’re talking about one particular experience.”
“I’ve never told you about that accident that put me on a desk job, about a year before I joined Spectrum.”
Scarlet nodded. “The one where you hurt your back. No, you’ve never talked about that to ANYONE.” Scarlet thought about it for a second. “Actually, it was Captain Black who mentioned it, and only once, if I recall.”
“I was so angry at him for bringing it up,” Grey said. “And I was quick to point that out to him, the first chance I had. Poor Conrad really felt bad that he had ever mentioned it!”
“I remember him saying you saved a man’s life on that occasion,” Scarlet noted.
“Yes, I saved a man… but I lost one as well.” Scarlet stared as Grey let out a heavy sigh. “He was a young cadet fresh from the Naval Academy. A very talented diver and a wonderful swimmer… a real fish in the sea. We were testing the Stingray prototype and… Well, something went wrong. Afterward, it turned out it was sabotage.” Grey seemed lost in deep thought for a short moment. He cleared his throat and scratched his ear, apparently uneasy about telling the story. “I managed to save my hydrophone operator. As for Josh, he got himself to safety. But I was badly hit when the engine exploded… that’s when I got my back injury. I was caught under some rubble and was in such pain, I couldn’t move. I would surely have drowned there if the kid hadn’t come back for me. But while he succeeded in freeing me, HE got stuck and sank with the prototype. He drowned before my eyes, without me being able to help him.”
“He gave his life for yours,” Scarlet remarked softly, shaking his head. “He was a diver, Brad. It was his job. He knew the risks…”
“That didn’t make it any less hard,” Grey replied. “The kid wasn’t even twenty years old. The worst part was that I had to tell his older brother what had happened… and that, after I specifically told him I would take care of the kid.”
“You were friends with his brother?”
Grey looked Scarlet in the eye. “The kid’s name was Joshua Griffiths.”
It took some time for the name to actually sink into Scarlet’s mind. “Griffiths?” he said, frowning. “As in ‘Seymour Griffiths’? Wait a minute, are you telling me it was…”
Grey nodded. “Yes. Josh was Lieutenant Green’s brother.”
Scarlet shook his head sadly. “I knew you and Green knew each other… He was in charge of communications at Marineville, when the two of you worked for the WASP. And I certainly knew one of his brothers had joined the WASPs too, and died in an accident. But to actually think…”
“I know. That’s freaky, huh? Seymour had actually pulled some strings so his younger brother could join the Academy… and then be assigned to Marineville. I think he still blames himself today for what happened. I know I blame MYSELF…”
“You couldn’t do anything, Brad, you were injured.” Scarlet frowned again. “Did Green actually blame you for his brother’s death?”
“No. He never said a word about it. As far as I know, he’s always acted friendly toward me.”
“Because he knows you’re not to blame.”
“That doesn’t make it any easier… But then, I don’t have to tell you that, do I?”
Scarlet snorted. “What are you trying to do, anyway?”
“I’m trying to prove to you you’re not to blame for the Asian Director-General’s death. You tried your best. Nobody is asking the impossible from you. Although you nearly DID do the impossible. You risked your life trying to save him and his staff.”
“Stop it, Brad. You know it wasn’t really a risk for me.”
“Actually, at the time, I didn’t know it. And YOU, did you really know it?”
Grey looked at his friend. Was it really five days ago, he thought, that that incident occurred at the London International Airport? It seemed so odd to think back about it now. Captain Grey himself was in the front row when it all happened…
Grey had just delivered the Asian Director-General to his private jet and, at the last minute, was ordered to stay put at the Airport, while the jet was on its way to take off. Grey was watching from a small distance when he saw the DT19 jetliner coming from the embarkation deck and going straight at the private jet. Close behind the liner, there was a Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle, speeding to reach it. The Angels were flying over, bombarding the liner, trying to stop its advance, without any success. Grey was wondering why the SPV wasn’t firing at the liner’s landing gear when he saw a seat ejecting from it.
The rest seemed to come straight from a nightmare: while the Angels continued their attack, the SPV tried to ram the wheels of the liner… and actually succeeded in blowing out one of the tyres. But in trying to push the liner off-course, control over the SPV was lost, and the vehicle went crashing into a radar station nearby. The liner tipped to one side, fell and exploded. For a second there, Grey thought the Director-General had escaped the Mysterons’ vengeance… But the private plane, upon take off, wasn’t able to completely clear the wreckage blocking the runway. It collided with the tail of the liner and crashed down, in turn exploding in a ball of fire.
There could be no survivors, Grey thought, looking in horror at the inferno. And he himself, if he hadn’t received countermanding orders, would be dead too, along with all those people.
A beeping sound brought Grey out of his thoughts and he noticed his epaulettes flashing blue, announcing that Captain Blue was trying to reach him. He dropped the mic from his cap in order to answer his fellow officer. He heard Blue’s frantic voice ringing in his ears.
“…Grey, respond, please!”
“I’m here, Captain Blue,” Grey answered back.
“Thank God for that, I thought you were on that jet!” The voice paused. “Where are you?”
“I’m… looking at the wreckage. The Asian Director-General is dead… His staff with him.”
“Those poor people…”
“I saw it all, Blue. It was terrible! Where are you?”
“I’ve been ejected from the SPV…” Grey looked up in the direction where he had seen the seat thrown high in the air. Its parachute had opened and it was coming down slowly to the ground, the wind pushing it further away from the runway. Blue’s voice over the radio took an angry, yet still unnerved tone. “That damned, crazy, stubborn fool! How could he be so reckless, trying a desperate thing like that? I swear, I…”
“What are you talking about?” Grey suddenly interrupted his colleague.
“He tried to ram the liner’s wheels!” came the croaked answer.
“Yes, I saw that… Who…?
“That damn fool of a Brit, Scarlet!”
“Scarlet?” Grey looked over the SPV embedded in the radar station. His eyes opened with horror as a realisation came to his mind. “My God… He’s still inside that thing!” he murmured.
“I can’t reach him on the radio… Go check on him, Grey!” Blue’s voice was filled with fear and worry. “I’ll be with you as soon as this damned ’chute drops me!”
“S.I.G., Captain Blue. On my way…”
Grey wasn’t far from the station. A quick sprint and he was there in a few seconds. He halted beside it, not sure what to do next. Almost the entire concrete wall had fallen on the vehicle, which had already been badly damaged during the attempt to stop the DT19. The nose was completely crushed under the rubble. Despite Blue’s previous vain attempt, Grey tried to call Scarlet with his own radio cap. With no more success. Must be injured, he thought, and by the look of the SPV… it could be pretty bad.
Grey didn’t want to use the usual door to enter the vehicle. The seats were attached to them and would slide out with them as well. If he moved the seat Scarlet was actually occupying, he feared he could worsen some existing injury. The hatches of the ejector seats were the only sure way in. Grey climbed on the roof, pried open one of the hatches, already damaged, and dropped inside the SPV.
It was like stepping into a tomb, he realized. More so since, landing in the exact spot where Blue’s seat had been, he found himself right next to Captain Scarlet.
He was badly injured. The steering column was jammed into his chest, pinning him against his seat, where he was still strapped. His right arm, with blood dripping all the way down to his hand, was hanging loosely by his side, apparently broken, with an open fracture. He had an ugly head wound, his scalp and hair soaked with blood, which was running down his face. His eyes were closed, and for an awful moment, Grey thought his colleague was dead, until he heard a low moan coming from him. He knelt beside him and gently stroked his shoulder.
“Paul… Can you hear me?”
Another moan answered him and a surprised Grey saw the blue eyes opening tiredly, and bloodless lips moving, trying to say something; Scarlet coughed up some blood and Grey heard a louder moan. He cringed, hearing the rasping breathing, realizing instantly that his friend must have some serious internal injuries.
“Don’t try to speak. Help is on its way,” Grey told the injured man in a soothing voice. “Hang on, buddy.”
“The Director-General…” Scarlet’s voice was weak, and it seemed like a major effort for him to speak. “How… how is he?”
Grey shook his head in disbelief. This was the man who, a few weeks earlier, had tried to kidnap the World President and took several shots at Captain Blue? This was the man some were claiming was an impostor, even a traitor, and that he certainly was not worthy of trust? He was now dying and all he could think about was whether or not he had succeeded in saving his charge, another man’s life. Unfortunately, Grey did not have any good news to help soothe his obvious pain.
“It will be okay, Paul,” he said, simply.
Grey hesitated. The pain he heard in Paul’s voice was hard to bear. Still, he couldn’t lie to him. He nodded. “Yeah. He’s dead.”
“They’re all dead. I’m sorry, Paul.”
A sigh heaved at the wounded man’s chest. Grey saw the handsome face of the British officer crease in pain. “It was useless…” Grey heard him say in a croak. Scarlet moved his left hand, which was still clutching the steering control. He let out a pained grunt. “I’m stuck…”
“Don’t move, don’t speak,” Grey urged him. “We’ll get you out of here.”
There was another groan and Scarlet’s body seemed to relax. His breathing became more laboured; he was desperately trying to keep his eyes open. “Brad… tell… tell the Colonel… I really tried to make it count…”
“You’ll tell him yourself, my friend.”
There was no response. Instead, Scarlet let out a heavy sigh. His eyes closed, his head bowed lower on his chest and Grey heard nothing more from him.
Now he really had the impression of being inside a tomb. He blew out a sigh, looking at his now deceased friend. Sadness overcame him as he said a quick prayer for Scarlet’s resting soul. Then he turned away and opened the door.
He was tiredly stepping out of the SPV when he saw Captain Blue running toward him. Oh no! he thought. Blue was one of Scarlet’s closest friends. First to have been forced to shoot him down, nearly a month ago, and now this…
He grabbed Blue before he could enter the SPV.
“How is he?” the blond officer asked him frantically. “Is he badly hurt?”
“Blue, don’t go in there. It’s useless,” Grey responded softly.
“What do you mean, useless?” a puzzled Blue retorted. “We have to get him out of there…”
“He’s gone, Adam.”
Blue blanched, and stared at him incredulously. “Gone? You mean he’s dead?”
Grey nodded in silence. Blue protested vehemently: “But… that’s impossible! You know what Doctor Fawn said about him. He said…”
“Fawn must have been wrong, Blue,” Grey interrupted his compatriot. “Believe me, he is dead.”
Blue angrily tried to tear himself out of Grey’s helping hands. “That’s what you think!” he hissed between clenched teeth. “He was in pretty bad shape when I brought him to Cloudbase, after the Car-Vu incident. He pulled through.”
“Yes, Blue, but not this time.”
“I’ve got to see for myself.”
Grey shook his head and let his friend go. He looked sadly over his shoulder as Blue stepped into the SPV.
It was at about that moment Colonel White had succeeded in reaching him… Grey then left Blue to grieve over their fallen comrade, while he gave his report of the incident to their commander-in-chief…
* * *
“Would you mind telling me what you’re thinking about right now?”
Grey snapped out of his reverie to find Scarlet gazing at him directly and curiously. The American shrugged. “Sorry. I was miles away, I’m afraid.” He looked back at his fellow officer. “I was thinking about what happened last week, when you pulled that crazy stunt that apparently took your life… And how you scared the hell out of me when you ‘revived’ during the helicopter ride back to Cloudbase!”
“Oh!” A faint smile crossed Scarlet’s face. “Sorry about that.”
“And the man says ‘sorry’!” Grey sighed, looking upward. Look, it’s OK though… It’s just that there’s so much we don’t know about HOW those new recuperative powers of yours actually work…”
“There is so much we don’t know about the Mysterons, period.”
Grey looked curiously at Scarlet who shrugged. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just… well, frustrating, you know?”
“I can imagine,” Grey mused. “How’s your headache?”
“No better, I’m afraid. Why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering WHEN you’d get around to telling me the connexion between your apparent illness and the Mysterons.”
A shiver ran down Scarlet’s spine upon hearing those words. He turned a bewildered look toward Grey, who was waiting. Neither of the two Spectrum officers noticed Captain Ochre standing in the doorway to the cockpit; he was about to enter the passenger cabin when he heard Grey’s words. He quietly stepped out of view.
“How do you know it’s got anything to do with the Mysterons?” Scarlet asked, almost whispering.
“A wild guess,” Grey answered. “I didn’t really know. But you just confirmed it.”
“Oh, great!” Scarlet muttered. “I should have been more careful. Now, you keep quiet about this, will you? Colonel White doesn’t want anybody to know about it right now.”
“So, like Doctor Fawn, the Colonel knows too,” Grey said shaking his head. “What’s it about, Captain?”
“I’ve… had those spells for some time. Well, since I ‘came back’, actually. Nausea, headaches, vertigo… The whole box of tricks.”
“And that’s got to do with what the Mysterons did to you?”
“The first time it actually happened, it was at the Airport, just before the Mysterons’ attack on the Director-General.”
“It didn’t come back until today… just before we heard the Mysterons’ threat against the airshow.”
“And now you’ve got that headache…”
“…Which doesn’t seem to want to end anytime soon. And that worries me. A lot.”
“Scarlet, maybe I’m slow to understand, but I don’t see…”
“It’s Doctor Fawn’s prognosis about the dizzy spells that bothers me, Grey: he thinks the Mysterons may be trying to reach me.”
Silence followed. Grey, almost holding his breath, was now staring at his friend, who thought he saw a glimmer of worry – even horror – in his eyes. “I can see why Colonel White told you not to say anything to us,” Grey murmured. He frowned. “And he let you in on this mission, with the responsibility of field command?”
“Do you find it scary?”
“Scary isn’t the word. I would say odd. The old man’s decision surprises me.”
Scarlet shrugged. “He doesn’t believe in Fawn’s prognosis. Says it’s only a theory, that there could be other explanations for the attacks…”
“He has faith in you, that’s for sure!”
“I wonder if he would have assigned me if he knew of my problems with Ochre…”
“…And Destiny?” Grey added, seeing his fellow officer hesitate.
“You know about her?”
“A little Angel told me when she came to the gym looking for you. She stumbled on the scene between you and Ochre.”
“Rhapsody,” Scarlet remarked, frowning. “She shouldn’t have told you.”
“She was concerned about you,” Grey replied. “I tell you, Paul, if all your friends are as supportive as her, you don’t have to worry about the likes of Ochre and Destiny. She more than compensates for their behaviour.”
“I know. She’s quite the lady,” Scarlet agreed with a fond smile. “Although we find ourselves bickering frequently…”
“Ow! You love that, admit it!”
“Maybe… But don’t tell her that!”
“So… you haven’t told the old man about what happened with Ochre and Destiny… Why?”
“Why would I have done anything like that? The only thing that would have accomplished would have been getting Ochre and Destiny into trouble with the colonel.” Scarlet shrugged. “I don’t need that kind of complication on top of everything else.”
Grey sighed. “Well, it WOULD BE even more complicated if they found out what Fawn thinks about those spells of yours. Count on me, they won’t find out from me.”
Too late, a grim-looking Ochre thought from the doorway. I already know, for one. For a brief time, earlier in the cockpit, after seeing how Scarlet almost had a fit over the mere idea that Destiny would try the ejection manoeuvre – which he himself deemed pretty dangerous, under the circumstances – Ochre had thought he had been wrong in his suspicions of Scarlet. Now, after hearing that conversation, and learning about Scarlet’s spells and what their cause might be, he was more than ever convinced that he should keep an eye on the man. Maybe he wouldn’t truly be responsible for what might happen if the Mysterons actually regained control over him, but at least, Ochre would be ready to intervene if it should prove necessary. One thing was bothering him, though: how the Hell would he be able to control or stop a man who was supposed to be indestructible?
In the meantime, it’ll be better if I don’t let him guess what I know, Ochre noted to himself. He stepped inside the cabin and cleared his throat, willingly drawing attention to himself. “I thought you might want to know,” he said to Scarlet, “Symphony has just radioed us. She gave Destiny a new course, so we can avoid the storm.”
“Is it a long way round?” Scarlet asked him.
“Not really. But we will be one hour late on our E.T.A. in Los Angeles.”
“That’s not drastic. We better call Spectrum L.A. Headquarters to inform them, though.”
“Way ahead of you. Destiny was about to do it when I left the…”
A sudden jolt of the plane interrupted Ochre and he had to catch himself on the doorway so as not to fall to the floor. Scarlet and Grey each grabbed the arms of their respective seats in a reflexive movement. The three Spectrum officers stared at each other, frowning.
“What was that about?” Grey exclaimed. He got to his feet, and Scarlet did the same to enter the cockpit, almost running Ochre down as he passed him.
The British Spectrum captain found Destiny struggling with the control column. Beside her, in his co-pilot seat, Torey was doing his best to help her.
“What’s happening?” Scarlet asked impatiently. He saw a bolt of lightning cross the windshield of the canopy and understood the situation instantly. They were right inside that bad weather they had planned to avoid all this time!
“How could this have happened?” he asked Destiny, almost angrily. “What about Symphony’s report?”
“I don’t know how it happened!” the female pilot swiftly replied. “I was following Symphony’s instructions in order to avoid those clouds of bad weather… and suddenly, we were right in the middle of it!”
“Maybe your Angel pilot made a mistake giving us directions,” Torey noted dryly.
“That would surprise me very much!” Destiny retorted. “Maybe it’s the instruments of this jet which are not very reliable!”
“They are… normally.” Commander Torey tapped on the dashboard. Pointers and indicators were going wild. He shook his head. “Something is terribly wrong.” He looked up to Scarlet. “This plane has NEVER behaved like this…”
“We’re blind inside these clouds,” Destiny said, still battling against the controls. “I cannot lift the plane…”
“If we can’t go higher, how about lower?” Scarlet suggested.
“There’s a blizzard under those clouds!” Torey interjected.
“Would you rather stay inside and risk taking a bolt of lightning?” Grey replied.
“Which is bound to happen sooner or later,” Scarlet added. “Try to get us lower, Destiny.”
“The controls are rather hard to handle,” Destiny grumbled. She shrugged. “I will do my best.”
She was nervous, Scarlet noticed. Understandably. Without thinking, he put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure you will,” he told her. He was grateful she didn’t shy away from him this time.
“I’ll give you a hand,” Torey announced. He pushed the column at the same time as Destiny, and the plane tilted down. Scarlet dropped down his cap microphone, with the intention of calling Symphony Angel. He didn’t even have the time to use it: a loud burst of static came from the speakers.
“What the…” Scarlet frowned and turned to Ochre and Grey, who were just behind him. Both his fellow officers tried their radiocaps with the same result. Ochre even tried to call Cloudbase, but shook his head after three attempts. “Radio’s dead,” he reported.
Scarlet reached for the onboard transmitter and opened a channel. He called Angel One… the only response he got was a deafening, screeching sound that made everybody cringe. He cut the radio.
“We’re not only blind, we’re deaf and dumb,” he muttered, worriedly.
The craft had come out of the clouds; strong, snowy wind had replaced lightning bolts. Destiny and Torey pulled at the controls, trying to level the jet…
...which didn’t seem to respond.
“We’re still descending!” an unnerved Ochre cried out.
“Pull up, Destiny!” Scarlet told the pilot.
“I’m trying!” Destiny croaked. “She’s not responding…”
“It’s like we’re fighting against a force pulling on the controls,” Torey added.
“The Mysterons…” Scarlet murmured bleakly.
He checked out the instruments. They weren’t saying anything conclusive.
“What is our actual direction?” he asked Destiny.
“Last time I check, we were going full west,” she answered. She tapped the compass dial… The pivot and the edge were going crazy. “Now, I don’t know… I’m not even sure of our speed… and we keep descending. Slowly, but surely.”
“Those damned aliens have sure taken their time,” Ochre muttered. “We’re trapped and they know it.”
“Our level is good, that’s about all we can be sure of,” Torey remarked.
“Well, there is another thing we can be sure of,” Grey said with dry humour. “If we are over the Rockies, we’re bound to hit a mountain soon.”
“Did you open the flaps to slow us down?” Scarlet asked Destiny.
“I did.” Destiny pushed down the flap levels once again, then checked the indicators. She shook her head. “I don’t seem to receive any response… I don’t even know if the flaps are actually opened.”
“Oh, my Lord…” All heads turned to Torey who just had muttered those words. He pointed to the engine instruments. “According to this, our turbos are losing power. That means that even if we regain control of the craft…”
“…we’ll hit the ground like a brick,” Ochre finished dryly.
“A little more constructive thought here, please,” Scarlet said in response. “I’m not about to lie down and play dead.” He mused a second over what he had just said then shook his head. “No pun intended, folks.”
“I fail to see the joke here, Captain,” Torey grumbled.
“It’s between us Spectrum agents, Commander,” Grey said with a faint smile.
“Must be a good one…”
Scarlet was looking through the windshield, trying to see if there was any obstacle – such as a mountain – in front of them. “The way seems clear for now,” he muttered.
Destiny agreed. “Yes, the view is bad, but we can still see a little.”
“Do you still have enough control to avoid the top of a mountain, if necessary?”
Destiny grumbled. “Not by much, I’m afraid. And even then, it won’t be long before we’ll hit the ground.”
“And we’ll go up in flames since the fuel tanks are loaded,” Ochre remarked.
“Empty the tanks,” Scarlet ordered. “Now! If this jet hits, at least it won’t explode.”
“But we won’t have any more fuel, and we won’t be able to pull out if we regain control…”
“Commander Torey, by now you should have realized that we will never regain control of this plane.” Scarlet nodded toward Destiny. “Jettison the fuel. Now. Don’t wait.”
Destiny gave a nod of her own and pressed a button. A yellow indicator lit up. “At least, something is working on board this plane,” the female pilot murmured. “Ejection of the fuel proceeding, Captain…” A red indicator came on next to the yellow one. “Fuel tanks empty. We’re running on reserve now. For about ten minutes… if we don’t hit the ground before that.”
“And when we do, we’ll be in itsy bitsy pieces,” Ochre said.
“Have faith, Ochre,” Scarlet told him.
“Easy for you to say. You’re the only one who’s sure to come out of it alive.”
“How can you be so sure of that?” Torey asked with surprise.
“Nobody will die if I have any say in the matter,” Scarlet cut in abruptly. “Ochre, Grey, go strap yourselves down. Commander Torey… it seems you will have your ejection manoeuvre after all.”
“Here? Out in the wild?”
“Wasn’t the feature designed exactly for this?”
“Yes, but it hasn’t been tested yet under these conditions. Until now, the manoeuvre has only been done on runways, under simulated, but controlled conditions. There was nothing even resembling what you’re planning to try!”
“Destiny?” Scarlet asked the young French pilot. “Do you think you’re up to it?”
She shrugged, looking out of the windshield, trying to focus on the view… and on the job that was awaiting her. “I already flew gliders,” she said. “And I made my share of emergency landings… I shouldn’t have much difficulty getting the capsule down.”
“Are you insane?” Torey looked up angrily at Scarlet. “A few minutes ago, you said she didn’t have enough experience to take on the ejecting manoeuvre, even with remote control to back her up. And now, suddenly, she’s an expert?”
“The difference, sir, is that NOW we don’t have any choice but to try it,” Scarlet said coldly. “No matter how risky it seems…”
“Sounds like fun,” Grey sighed. “Come on, Ochre, we better get back there.”
“I hope we come out of this in one piece,” Ochre replied, following Grey into the passenger cabin, “because it really looks like the Mysterons are going to make toothpicks out of us and this plane…”
Scarlet motioned to Torey. “You too, Commander. Get back with them. I’m taking your place.”
“This plane is my responsibility, Captain.”
“Your life is mine.”
“You’ll need my help.”
“We’ll manage. Go on! Time’s running out!”
Torey unstrapped and extricated himself from the co-pilot’s seat. He disappeared into the cabin, while Captain Scarlet took his place next to Destiny. The young female pilot was concentrating on keeping the plane levelled and her eyes were fixed on the view dead ahead.
“Wish I knew if we’re approaching mountains,” Scarlet heard her mumbling as he buckled up.
“How are we doing on the reserve fuel?” the British officer asked.
Scarlet nodded and grabbed the control column. “Look, maybe you should go back with the others… I’ll handle the manoeuvre by myself.”
“I wouldn’t pass this chance up, Captain,” she replied.
“But I stand a better chance at surviving the shock of landing…”
“And WE ALL stand a better chance of surviving with me at the helm. I’m a better pilot than you are.”
“There’s no denying that,” Scarlet said with a faint smile.
“Thanks for asking, anyway.” Destiny hesitated before adding, almost in a murmur: “And sorry… about earlier.”
Scarlet shook his head. “No hard feelings. But we’ll talk about this later. Let’s land this bird.”
“S.I.G., Captain. Ready when you are.”
“Okay. Let’s try this. In three… two… one… zero.”
Scarlet pushed the button that Torey previously showed him on the control board. He felt a small jolt through the column and heard a dull sound, like air escaping from a valve. An indicator on the board announced that the clamps were about to release the capsule.
Then he saw a warning indicator beeping next to the button he had just pushed.
“Oh, damn it!” Scarlet unbuckled himself and got to his feet, going to the doorway accessing the cabin. He saw Ochre, Grey and Torey, seated and strapped down, all ready for the procedure. “The ejector control is jammed!” Scarlet barked, looking straight at Torey.
“What? That’s impossible!”
“Yes, it is! The clamps won’t release the capsule. Now, quickly! Is there another way to cut the capsule loose from the plane?”
Torey seemed to think it over. “There is a way, but it is rather dangerous…”
“We’re beyond that, Commander!”
“If the electric control is jammed… we can open the clamps by hand. There are two handles, in the lower hold. Right next to the duct conduit, next to the maintenance board. We can access it from the baggage hold, and then through a sealed hatch, near the tail.”
“What do these handles look like?”
“Big red hand levers, one on each side of the fuselage. They are activated by pushing them down one after the other. The left, then the right. The clamps then should open instantly.”
“Will the pilot know if the clamps are opened?”
“The green indicator on the control board will light up. But…”
“Right.” Scarlet turned to Destiny. “Keep the plane level. I’ll go and activate the clamps by hand. Keep your eyes peeled on that indicator. The second it lights up, begin the ejection procedure.”
“What about you?” Destiny protested. “If I understood clearly…”
“Don’t concern yourself about me. Worry about getting the capsule down!”
He left the female pilot and strode to the back of the passenger cabin. He opened the emergency cabinet and took an electric torch from it. The others unstrapped themselves to go join him as he crouched to open a small sealed hatch in the floor. That was the only onboard access to the baggage hold; there was just enough space to let him through.
“Are you crazy?” Ochre snapped angrily at him. “If Destiny begins the ejection process as soon as you open the clamps, you’ll be trapped in the plane!”
“Not exactly,” Torey replied, “he will have a thirty second delay to get back here, and close that hatch before the capsule is actually ejected.”
“Plenty of time,” Scarlet mused with a faint smile.
“There is a risk, anyway,” Grey said, shaking his head.
“Let me go, Captain,” Torey then said. “I know this craft. I stand a better chance at making it back in time…”
“Out of the question. I’m going, and that’s that.”
“You have to go and play hero again, don’t you?” Ochre remarked angrily.
“There’s no more time to argue,” Scarlet replied in the same tone. He lowered his body into the opening and glanced back at the three men who were looking anxiously at him. “One of you will guard that hatch, until twenty seconds after the clamps actually open,” he told them. “If you don’t see me coming back, close it, and get quickly to your seat.”
“I’ll do it,” Grey announced.
“And I’ll go help Destiny in the cockpit,” Ochre announced.
Scarlet hesitated, and then nodded his agreement. “Commander Torey, you’d better go strap yourself down. This may be a bumpy ride.”
He was about to disappear into the hole when Grey called to him: “Paul.”
Scarlet looked up at his friend who quickly nodded at him. “Good luck, sport.”
Scarlet nodded in turn. “We’ll all need it, Brad,” he stated.
Then he went through the hatch.