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.)
Once inside the baggage hold, Scarlet looked at his watch; less than four minutes before the reserve fuel would be exhausted… provided the plane didn’t crash before that.
In the feeble light of the low-ceilinged compartment, Scarlet struggled between multiple equipment cases and pouches, pushing them aside to reach the back. He found the hatch Torey had described to him; it was even narrower than the one he just used to get inside the baggage hold. He opened it and slipped inside the new compartment, which was only four feet high.
It was in the lower part of the aircraft, inside which large fuel tanks were stored so the plane would have a longer range of flight. Scarlet was lying on one of those tanks, now actually empty. He switched on the torch, looked again at his watch.
Two minutes… Slow, too slow, he mused grimly. He had lost too much time struggling through the baggage hold. Then again, if he was sure of the deadline… He tried his radiocap transmitter to call Destiny, hoping she would give him some indication of what was actually going on in the cockpit; only loud static answered him. He winced grimly. Damned Mysteron tricks, which were about to plunge them all to their deaths and even prevented them from calling for help…
Forget the Mysterons, you fool. Concentrate on the job ahead. Four lives depend on you right now. Scarlet flashed the torch over the compartment’s walls, looking for the red handles Commander Torey had told him about.
There they were, a good ten feet ahead of him. Scarlet got to his feet. He had to walk in a crouching position to get to those handles. I’ve got to have a talk with the designers, he thought savagely. The idea of putting emergency levers in such a place…
He stopped in front of the levers. Number two, he read on the one on his right. There was an indicator just over it, flashing “Clamps not opened”.
“All right”, he muttered, “here we go now…”
He pushed down the number one lever, then number two.
A violent jolt almost knocked him flat on his back. He heard the hatch slam behind him, probably due to the violence of the shock. The two indicators over the levers lit up. “Clamps opened”. A grin crossed Captain Scarlet’s face. Now, he thought, less than thirty seconds to get back to the cabin.
He hurried toward the hatch and grasped the handle.
It refused to turn.
Scarlet blanched. The hatch was stuck!
And in less than twenty seconds, the capsule would eject, leaving him trapped inside the jet’s main body, plunging to the ground…
* * *
A few seconds after Scarlet had disappeared into the hatch, Captain Ochre entered the cockpit and strapped himself into the co-pilot’s seat. Destiny acknowledged his presence with a nod.
“He’s gone down?” she asked.
Ochre nodded in turn. “Hope he’ll succeed,” he muttered. “If I didn’t know better, I would be worried about his safety.”
“Would you really, now?”
There was some doubt in Destiny’s voice and Ochre noticed it. “You know about the problem there is between us?” he asked the young female pilot.
“No. I just noticed how you acted toward each other, that’s all.”
“What about you? Are you worried?”
“About him?” Destiny shrugged. “Yes, despite myself. But right now, I should not let that deter me…” She broke off suddenly and her eyes opened wide. “Mon Dieu! Look!”
Ochre looked up. With horror, he saw a white, sharp-edged ridge appearing through the snowy wind… and they were heading right toward it!
“Dear Lord!” he muttered. “We’ll crash into that mountain… Pull the nose up, girl!”
As the two of them were struggling against their respective control sticks, in the back, Commander James Torey, who had been sent to his seat, was unbuckling his seatbelt and getting to his feet. Crouched over the hatch, Captain Grey stared at him with concern. “What are you doing? Sit back right there, before the capsule ejects!”
“Sorry, Captain!” Torey replied, approaching the hatch. “I’ve got my orders concerning this plane…”
Grey jumped to his feet and strode toward him. “And I’ve got mine concerning you. You can’t help Scarlet… Get back in your seat, right now!”
He didn’t count on Torey smashing his fist into his face. Stunned, Grey fell on his back.
“Again, I’m sorry, Captain,” he heard Torey say to him. “This is something I must do.” Grey saw the commander lowering himself in the hole and then he disappeared from view…
In the cockpit, Destiny and Ochre had succeeded in avoiding collision with the spur… The bottom of the plane did brush the snow off its top, however, causing the entire plane to shake violently.
Once the aircraft had passed the mountain, Destiny and Ochre finally saw the ground… A series of peaks and crests, covered with snow, extended before them.
“We’re going to hit hard,” Destiny said, gritting her teeth. She then saw the green light on the board. “The clamps are opened!” she cried out. “Proceeding with ejection manoeuvre now!”
She pushed the ejector control. A counter appeared, marking thirty seconds.
“Hang on, back there!” Ochre shouted over his shoulder toward the passenger cabin. “We’re ejecting in twenty-five seconds!”
Grey looked over at the doorway to the cockpit, distraught. There was no time to go after Torey. “Hurry up, guys!” he barked down the hatch. “About fifteen seconds before ejection!”
There was no response. Wherever Torey and Scarlet were down there, they didn’t hear him – or wouldn’t acknowledge him.
“Ten seconds!” Grey heard Ochre calling out.
“Damn it!” Grey swore under his breath. Still no sign of the two missing men. Reluctantly following his orders, he closed and sealed the hatch. Sorry Scarlet… Sorry Torey. But there’s simply no choice. Having no time to get back to his seat, he stayed on his belly, kept his head down, and with hands and feet, hung on for dear life to a couple of chair legs.
In the cockpit, Destiny and Captain Ochre saw a snow covered pass coming quickly toward them. Ochre kept his eyes on the counter. His hand was on the red lever controlling the explosive charges. “Steady now… Three, two, one… ejection!”
He pushed the lever up. Explosions were heard from the lower part of the jet and the capsule shook violently. Destiny pressed down the green button that Torey had shown her earlier. To her relief, an indicator lit up before her eyes, with the indication “Command transfer to capsule. Immediate ejection.”
She pulled out the controls. A hissing sound of escaping air came to her ears. The capsule disengaged itself from the rest of the plane, like an arrow leaving a crossbow.
Destiny was amazed how smoothly the ejection procedure had gone. “The controls are responding well,” she announced to Ochre.
“Hovers are working… Pull up! Pick up some height or we’ll crash on that ridge anyway!”
The ground was dangerously close and Destiny lifted the nose of the capsule in one desperate attempt. She succeeded in changing direction… avoiding the ridge at the last possible second. She and Ochre saw the main fuselage of the jet crash right into the ridge, with an awful screeching sound. Snow, rocks, and metal pieces flew in all directions, as the plane disintegrated from the shock, sliding wildly over a long distance.
“Seigneur Dieu!” Destiny murmured, her eyes widening in horror.
“It didn’t explode, Destiny!” Ochre told her. “So Scarlet might have survived that… Keep concentrating on our situation.”
She nodded, her throat tightening under repressed feelings.
As well as the controls were responding, keeping the capsule in the air was a rather difficult task, due to the bad weather and geographic conditions. The ground was still too close for comfort and no matter how hard Destiny pulled on the column, the capsule didn’t seem to gain any height. She now remembered that Commander Torey had said that it COULD NOT gain any height. So there was no other way to go but down.
“Prepare for emergency landing!” she called out to Ochre.
“Destiny, there is a cliff coming up…”
“I know! But we have no choice!”
Ochre nodded. He pushed the button controlling the flaps, as Destiny pulled the control stick and, using the hovers, tried to slow down the capsule’s descent. The cliff was still closing dangerously fast.
The capsule brushed off the snow-covered ground before leaping from the cliff. Destiny had to struggle hard to keep the nose up. She succeeded, but the capsule kept falling, and suddenly landed flat on its belly, on the crest beyond the cliff. The shock ripped the hovers from the fuselage, and sent the capsule sliding down the slope.
There was no way to control the wild descent, so Destiny just hung on to the control column, while Captain Ochre desperately tried to do the same. The capsule tilted to one side, its fins broke like glass and it began spinning around and toppling over.
The last thing Destiny saw before crashing to the floor was the edge of another cliff approaching. Then her head hit something hard and she passed out…
* * *
Seconds before ejection, Captain Scarlet was still struggling against the hatch that had closed behind him, imprisoning him in the lower hold of the Passenger Jet. He was already well aware that he would probably not make it in time to join the others back in the capsule. That in itself would be alarming enough if he weren’t taking into account his own regenerating powers… But then again, it was all so new to him, he wasn’t even sure he could survive a violent plane crash.
Then, miraculously, the hatch opened. He crawled inside the other compartment. Pieces of luggage blocked his way. He hurriedly pushed them away and got to his feet. A look at the ceiling informed him the hatch accessing the passenger cabin had been sealed.
At that moment, he heard explosions. A violent jolt sent him against the facing wall. The capsule’s ejected, he thought. Good. The others should be okay. Now to find a way out of this flying coffin before it crashes. He had already thought of a way out. It was risky, for sure, but he had a chance to make it in one piece… providing the craft wasn’t going too fast. He had to jump from the baggage hold’s external hatch. He stumbled over to it. The hatch wasn’t really designed to open from the inside, but Scarlet destroyed the electro-magnetic lock with two bullets from his pistol. He then pushed the door outward. The sudden rush of cold wind caught him by surprise and he had to hold on to the doorway so he would not be thrown into empty space.
He looked down in horror. The ground was so near… a hundred feet or so. It wouldn’t be long before the craft crashed. He had to jump before contact, but the speed was still too high…
The shaken voice behind Scarlet startled him. Still clutching the sides of the doorway, he turned around. A few feet behind him, extricating himself from under a pile of luggage, which had obviously fallen onto him, Jim Torey appeared, looking pale and confused. Scarlet frowned. How the Hell had he got there?
A sudden shock interrupted Scarlet as he spoke. The jet had just made brutal contact with the snow-covered ground. Scarlet was thrown violently against the wall, and then lurched to the floor. Luggage seemed to attack him from all directions; he felt a heavy blow to his left arm, and it went suddenly numb. He succeeded in reaching the open door on his hands and knees and took a look back… The last he saw of Jim Torey was his body flung from one wall to another like a rag doll.
Then Captain Scarlet was thrown from the plane. He flew about fifty feet through the air before hitting the ground. The thick cover of snow wasn’t nearly enough to protect him against the brutal shock, and momentum sent him rolling some few feet more, while the plane continued its wild run.
Scarlet finally stopped rolling and fell face first into the snow, gasping for air. His body hurt all over, he had a few broken ribs, at least a fractured arm, his head felt like a hundred tons, and he could taste blood in his mouth. Yet, he was alive. Perhaps due to his incredible new powers of resistance, or simply by pure dumb luck, he had survived the crash, if only just.
He heard loud metallic screeching as the plane tore itself apart on the ground. Pieces of wreckage flew all around him, so he kept close to the ground, trying to protect his head with his good arm. Then, after what seemed to be an eternity, the noise stopped, as did the rain of metal, and Scarlet risked a look.
What was left of the Aero Special One was lying all over the place. The main fuselage had broken in two, and its belly had opened up like an over-ripe fruit. One of the wings was completely gone; the other was lying in three pieces, a hundred feet apart. As for the tail, what was left of it had folded on the side.
Scarlet stared at the wreckage in complete horror. There was no way a normal human being would have survived that, he realized. Torey was dead for sure. He wasn’t faring much better himself.
He tried to raise himself from where he was lying. Pain stabbed through him as he pushed himself up on his uninjured arm. He succeeded in getting onto his knees. Then the nausea hit him, and he nearly collapsed back into the snow. Raising his heavy head, he looked back at the wreckage…
And he SAW.
He saw two rings of eerie greenish light passing slowly over what was left of the Aero Special One. They seemed to come from nowhere, and there was an icy, alien feeling about them. Scarlet went cold inside and his heart started beating faster. He had an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu. Panic threatened to overcome him as he saw how closely those lights were approaching him. He drew back, desperately crawling away, almost forgetting about his aching body, and leaned against a large boulder of ice. He kept a close watch on the progress of those eerie lights, his throat tightened, his eyes filled with an unknown fear.
It was as if something evil was passing by, trying to steal his soul. But fear gradually went away when he realized that those things didn’t seem to have any interest in him. They simply ignored him and swept over the wreckage before fading away. His breathing returning to normal, Scarlet closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. He knew the origin of his inexplicable fear. Those lights came from the Mysterons. He could feel it in his bones, in his heart, in the very fibre of himself.
And he knew, almost by instinct, exactly what those rings were. That feeling was confirmed when he heard the roaring sound of turbo engines overhead. He raised his eyes and, in the blowing wind and snow, saw a plane flying low to the ground and gaining height. A silver jet, with some very distinctive wing and tail designs.
It was a perfect replica of the Aero Special One.
Captain Scarlet tried to get to his feet, keeping his eyes on the rapidly receding craft. He had just witnessed the Mysterons’ process of duplication. It was no wonder he had the feeling somebody was stepping on his grave. Now the Mysterons would use the plane for their own purposes, like they had used him.
The combined effect of that realization and the terrible pain in his body took its toll on Captain Scarlet and he fell back where he had lain before. His last thought, before he lost consciousness, was to wonder how he would be able to alert Spectrum to what had just happened.
* * *
Symphony Angel was worried.
It had been nearly an hour since she had lost sight of, and subsequently radio contact with, the Aero Special One. She had called it many times, and flown back and forth across the path it was supposed to have taken, but without success. She couldn’t raise the Passenger Jet’s onboard radio, nor the captains’ radio caps; her personal communicator was working just fine, for she had contacted Cloudbase to inform Colonel White of the craft’s disappearance. He had acted instantly by sending the two remaining Angels to join Symphony in her search. While waiting for their arrival, Symphony was to carry on, looking for clues of what might have happened to the Aero Special One.
“The weather’s pretty bad,” the young American pilot said to her commander. “Maybe they’ve run into some kind of mechanical trouble and were forced to land.”
“Without informing you, at least, of their last position?” the colonel replied sceptically.
Symphony sighed. “You’re right, sir. That’s pretty improbable. But there is some electrical interference around here and maybe it disrupted their communication system. Anyway, I’m going down. If they’ve landed, or crashed somewhere, I intend finding them.”
“Be careful in that weather, Symphony.”
“I will, sir. Don’t worry.”
Angel One turned around. Symphony was about to land when she saw the object of her search emerging from the clouds and coming her way. She heaved a sigh of relief and used her radio to try to call it.
“Angel One to Aero Special One. Can you hear me, Destiny?”
There was a short pause. Then Symphony heard Destiny Angel’s accented voice, responding to the call: “Aero Special One to Angel One. I can hear you fine.”
Symphony sighed a second time. Then she frowned in concern. “What happened, Destiny? I’ve been searching for you for nearly an hour. You didn’t respond to any of my calls. Did you run into some kind of trouble?”
Another pause, before Destiny replied: “Yes, we ran into trouble. Commander Torey had to cut most of the electricals to make some repairs. We’re fine, now. Everything is back to normal.”
Symphony was perplexed. There was something strange in Destiny’s voice. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was, but it bothered her. Like some kind of coldness she had never heard before.
“You’re sure everything is all right?” the American girl asked her friend insistently.
“Yes. The jet will fly without any problem now. Commander Torey says he will make some checks upon our arrival in Los Angeles.”
Symphony asked herself if they should continue toward their destination, or go back to Cloudbase. They were closer to L.A., now, and if the plane should encounter other problems on the way, it would be far better for it to land there. But still, she was unsure. There was still something nagging her about the whole situation.
“All right, let’s get going,” she said. “But let’s make it a little slower, shall we? Angels Two and Three are on their way to join us. I want to give them the chance to catch up before we actually arrive in L.A.”
“S.I.G., Angel One. Aero Special One out.”
Symphony did not even have the time to acknowledge the message before the radio went dead. Stranger and stranger, she thought. That was pretty rude, not at all like Destiny. And she didn’t even give her fellow pilot the chance to talk to Captain Scarlet, which would be normal, since he was field commander on this mission. Symphony tried to raise him through his radio cap, without any more success than before. All she could receive was static. Then it hit her. Problems that would have forced Commander Torey to cut the electrics aboard the craft? That shouldn’t bother the personal communicators of the Spectrum agents onboard. She tried to reach Aero Special One.
Nothing. Just like before.
“Am I stupid, or just paranoid?” she wondered.
There could have been a logical explanation for the radio communications not working properly, but the more she thought about it, the less it made sense. She contacted Cloudbase and informed Colonel White of the latest development. Her commander sounded preoccupied as he commented on her report. “You’re right, there might be an explanation for the radio trouble,” he said. “You did say there was an electrical storm around those parts…”
“Yes, sir,” Symphony agreed. “But I have a gut feeling something is wrong with that plane, and that it isn’t electrical.”
“You know what you’re implying, Symphony?”
Symphony knew, all right, and the mere thought was making her heart heavier than she would admit. “Yes, sir,” she sighed. “If I’m right, and there is still somebody in that plane, they’ll have to be considered hostile…” A thought crossed her mind. “What about Captain Scarlet, sir?”
“What about him?”
“Well, if Doctor Fawn’s report about him is true, and he can’t be killed… Wouldn’t he be somehow immune to any Mysterons’ attempt to… take control of him?”
There was a short silence over the radio. “I would tend to agree with you,” Symphony heard her commander say. “But we know so little yet of Scarlet’s condition… And as you say, we don’t even know if there is anyone in that plane, even if you heard Destiny’s voice. We know it’s one of the Mysterons’ vast powers to control an unmanned craft, and to make voices out of thin air…”
“Yes, sir,” the American pilot said grimly, “I know.” She was still remembering the report she had read of the DT19 the preceding week, at London Airport… And before that, there was that incident with the A42 Spectrum helicopter, at the Car-Vu… No pilot in either one of them. Yet, the Mysterons were controlling them, and disembodied voices responded to radio calls. “What are my orders, Colonel?” she asked.
“We don’t have conclusive evidence yet that this plane is indeed controlled by the Mysterons… But I’m not about to dismiss your ‘gut feeling’ about it. Keep escorting it and keep a close watch on it. Angels Two and Three will be with you shortly. On your arrival in Los Angeles, if the situation has not changed, make the jet land on a clear runway. Force it down if need be.”
“And if we can’t?”
A pause. Then the Colonel’s voice came out of the radio again, with a determined note to it. “You’ll do what is necessary. We have no other choice in the matter.”
Symphony’s heart sank even deeper as she gave the acknowledgement response. “S.I.G., Colonel White. Proceeding as ordered and escorting Aero Special One to destination.”
“Be careful, Symphony. If it turns out that plane is controlled by the Mysterons, it could be very dangerous. It may not be armed, but it could still ram your own jet.”
“S.I.G., sir. I’ll keep my distance. I’ll inform you of any new developments. Angel One out.”