A “Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons” & “Stingray” Story
by Clya Brown
In the lobby of the Quinta do Estreito Hotel in Funchal, Madeira, a thickly-set bespectacled man in a business suit glanced up from his newspaper for the twentieth time as the rotating door heralded the arrival of yet another guest. Yes, this was the one, though the disguise was different from the last time they’d met, several years previously: slightly diminutive in stature, shifty eyes. Had there been no one else in the room, the watcher would probably have rolled his eyes to the sky in disgust - damn it, the man even looked like a second-rate secret agent. He observed closely as the new arrival made his way over to the reception desk, paying particular attention to his hands – or more specifically, his fingers. Yes – no question about it. He touched his face instinctively to verify that his own disguise was in place, got up and moved to intercept the new arrival, making no attempt to be circumspect. Had anyone been listening, they would have heard every word spoken. The man’s thick, guttural accent reverberated around the room, suggesting an Eastern European origin – somewhat at odds with the words themselves.
“Good morning, sir. I am Mr O’Donnell. I think you are the gentleman I have come to meet at your employer’s request. You are – now let me see – Mr, er…?”
The other almost physically recoiled with the shock of such a direct approach before recovering his composure. “Seagram. Thomas Seagram.” The voice was soft and silky; the vision of a reptile of indeterminate species sprang into his assailant’s head. It was due to more than the slight webbing of his fingers that had satisfied the other of his identity and persuaded him to descend upon him before anyone else in the lobby had a chance to spot it too.
“Mr Seagram – of course! Let us take a taxi, Mr Seagram. I am keen to inspect the new samples that your employer has described to me. They sound very interesting, to be sure.”
Putting his arm around the other’s shoulders, he propelled him out of the door towards the taxi rank. The first in the line drove forwards to meet them, and they clambered into the back seat. The driver looked around expectantly for instructions, and the thickly-set man looked down at his companion, who seemed temporarily unaware that they were both waiting for him to speak.
“So where are we going, Mr Seagram?”
“Oh! Sorry. The São Vicente Yachting Complex please.”
The journey took less than ten minutes, during which time neither man spoke. Upon their arrival, the larger one paid off the taxi, and again looked at the other expectantly. The little one glanced around furtively, and pointed towards a small concrete building at the back of the enclosure.
The two of them walked over to the door, and the one calling himself Seagram produced a key, which he inserted into the lock. Before turning it however, he reached over and placed his hand up against a small dark window to the right of the door. There was a barely perceptible flash from inside the hut, and the sound of a click emanated from the door. Only then did he turn the key, withdrawing it rapidly as the door slid to one side, and the two of them walked inside. The door closed behind them, and O’Donnell swiftly glanced around, taking in the surroundings. The little hut was sparsely furnished, containing little more than a table and chair to one side, a small pile of old electrical equipment and a discoloured rectangular plate in the middle of the floor, to which Seagram now pointed.
“Please stand just there, Mr O’Donnell.”
He followed his companion onto the plate, and reached out to a pocket calculator on the nearby desk to enter a six-digit code. Immediately the plate began to descend.
“How far down are we going, Mr Seagram?”
“Below the ocean floor. We have established a submarine base adjacent to the catacombs that lie beneath these islands. The Terraineans know nothing of them - you will be the first to walk these passages since the Cataclysm.”
O’Donnell laughed – a gusty, deep baritone laugh that echoed back from the increasingly damp and mildew-covered walls past which they now descended. It was the laugh of a man unconcerned for, and by implication satisfied of, his own personal safety. “Were I an archaeologist I might be excited by such a prospect!” The smile faded, to be replaced by a nondescript bland expression that had been cultivated to perfection over the years. “But I am interested in other things. Where is your master?”
“He is not far away, Mr O’Donnell.”
The elevator slowed to a stop, and they stepped off the platform at the bottom of the shaft. Immediately it began to rise again, vanishing silently up into the darkness above them once more. O’Donnell’s stocky, powerful frame was more than sufficient to protect him from the cold, though he noted in passing that his companion seemed far more comfortable away from the sunlight. A passageway extended away from their place of arrival, and the diminutive man led the way down it. After perhaps a kilometre, the carved rock walls ended abruptly, and the tunnel was transformed into a very much more recent construction: concrete covered both the floor and the walls, into which were embedded an array of state-of-the-art electronic circuitry. As he walked past one of the displays, O’Donnell was amused to recognise the readout of an operational projected energy weapon detector: the device had obviously just scanned him, and pronounced him clean. The smaller man noted his expression and misinterpreted it.
“The technology impresses you, Mr O’Donnell?”
His heavily-built companion continued to smile genially, as he instinctively totted up the value of the installation in his head. “Not particularly. I am familiar with its capabilities – and how it might be deceived. It failed to detect this, for example.”
He reached into his breast pocket and extracted a compact laser pistol, which he presented to his startled companion with ceremonial formality.
“If I wished your master harm, Mr Seagram, I would not need toys like this. Incidentally, if you would like to obtain an upgrade for your equipment which will extend its scanning capabilities to include this range of armaments, I can obtain them for you. Just let me know if you’re interested. However, my time is pressing. Where are these documents that your master has invited me to see?”
“This way, Mr O’Donnell. This way.”
The diminutive man gestured towards a narrow side-tunnel leading off from the instrumentation room, and O’Donnell strode into it. The tunnel dipped slightly as it twisted and turned, and the musty aroma of seaweed began to impinge on O’Donnell’s nostrils. One final turn of the rocky passageway, and the nature of the walls changed again: here and there were fragments of mosaics. A stylised face fashioned out of hundreds of coloured stones looked back at him as he peered into the gloom. Then another. Then a vase of flowers.
“Why have you not investigated this area before, Mr Seagram?”
“We have only recently started excavating this area of the base. We believe this room was once some form of library: the manuscripts are stored over here.”
He led the way to a vast stone chest in the corner of the room. Inside lay perhaps fifty scrolls, clearly extremely ancient, and made of a substance superficially resembling vellum. O’Donnell reached out and felt one in his fingers – it had a texture not unlike that of dried seaweed.
“I believe the process by which it is manufactured is unknown to Terraineans, Mr O’Donnell. It permits such documents as these to survive for untold millennia. This is the one that most interests us.”
The stocky man watched silently as his companion extracted a large roll of the vellum-like substance from the chest and laid it out on a makeshift table nearby. He stepped forward and bent down to inspect it, taking care to avoid giving away by any gesture or sound any indication of his own level of personal interest in the artefact. He nodded slowly, recognising sections of the narrative from the photographs already sent to him, and piecing them together in his mind in their correct chronology.
“Your master was correct. This is a history of the city before the Cataclysm. It tells of the coming of an object from space; of the great flood, and of the destruction of the city itself.”
“I never doubted that, Terrainean!”
Both men swung round to face the source of the sarcastic retort, and the smaller man bowed low.
“I have brought our contact to you, Mighty One!”
“Obviously! Leave us, X-20; I wish to speak with him alone.”
The diminutive man straightened up and hurried from the chamber. His powerfully built human companion made no move to ingratiate himself with the new arrival. On the contrary, he was finding it difficult not to laugh at the obvious megalomania of the man from the depths of the ocean: a weakness which would no doubt eventually be a major factor in his downfall. All in good time, however. He managed a respectful nod of his head, and chose his words carefully to appeal to the other’s all-too-obviously over-inflated ego.
“The mighty Titan is all-knowing and wise. If he is familiar with the coming of this object from space, and the consequences to the planet Earth of its arrival, how may I be of assistance to him?”
Oblivious to the other’s barely disguised sarcasm, Titan strode over to the manuscript and studied it for a few seconds. Looking up, he turned to face the other, looking directly into his eyes as if staring into his brain.
“The Cataclysm is a part of our legends, as it is in those of the Terraineans. It brought about the destruction of the ancient civilisation of which these islands are now all that remains. Until recently we viewed the events attributed to it much as the Terraineans do now: fairy tales; myths of no consequence. Then we began to extend our facilities here, and discovered these records among the ruins of the old city beneath the waves.”
He paused, gathering his thoughts whilst the other waited, watching him inscrutably.
“My scientists have inspected these documents. We believe they contain historical data concerning the events of the Cataclysm. We believe also that they provide evidence of remarkable properties of this object from space, which our legends call the Fallen Warrior. It may be that this object is real, and that it still exists. If it does, I wish to find it.”
“May I ask why the mighty Titan seeks this mythological object?”
“That is of no concern to Terraineans. Help me to find it, and I will reward you well.”
The other considered his options rapidly. He has as little interest in history as I do, he mused, save when it results in the acquisition of power – and I can understand that. In reality he had already decided to agree, on the basis solely of his own inspection of the photographs already transmitted to him, but there was nothing to be lost by giving his future partner the impression that his decision could go either way. It was also of course perfectly possible – likely, even - that Titan intended to have him killed at once if he refused. He decided to find out just how important it was to the other that he did agree.
“What reward will you offer me for my help?”
“I will give you riches and wealth in such abundance that no Terrainean may compare with you for power and glory.”
So - either it was of considerably greater value than that, or Titan intended to kill him once it was found anyway. Probably both. He must think me a fool…
“I will be honoured to help the mighty Titan in his quest.”
“Excellent! You will begin by compiling an accurate chronology of the Cataclysm. My scientists cannot decipher the notation relating to the movement of the stars in the sky, as we have no knowledge of this Terrainean science. We believe that the same notation records the passage of the Warrior through the sky immediately prior to the onset of the Cataclysm. Understanding this may enable us to determine where it fell.”
The Terrainean nodded slowly.
“This will unquestionably be a complex task. I myself possess much knowledge in these fields of science, but even I will need sophisticated computing and analytical facilities to undertake the work – and time to accomplish it.”
“My best scientists shall be placed at your command.”
The other shook his head. “As you yourself acknowledged a moment ago, Terrainean science is more advanced in these fields. We need the use of a land-based facility with geographical and meteorological data in abundance, and where an understanding of the science of navigation is second to none. I have an idea….” His voice trailed away.
“It shall be as you wish. But do not fail me.”
The other’s eyes glanced up from the ancient manuscript. For just a split-second a blazing fire burned deep within them, before their owner swiftly replaced it with the well-rehearsed genial smile. He replied softly, the tone of his voice betraying just a hint of the insult he felt to his own ego – which though better concealed was no less overblown than that of his interlocutor.
“I will not fail.”
“Very well.” Titan raised his voice to summon his minion, who scurried back into the room after a few seconds delay, bowing low as he did so.
“I return to Titanica within the hour. X-20 will supply you with duplicates of the manuscripts, and as much information as we have already gleaned from them. You will report your progress to me as we have communicated in the past: payment will be made upon delivery of results, as we have already discussed.”
Titan turned on his heel and strode away into the darkness, leaving the two of them alone. The surface agent set about the task of assembling a set of duplicates for his colleague, who stood silently contemplating the manuscript spread out in front of him. Unbeknown to either the recently departed underwater tyrant or his vassal, the human had already employed his very considerable knowledge of ancient scripts to translate in his head substantially more of the text than he had told either of them, and was currently musing on the meaning of the section containing the phrase “capable of bestowing powers beyond the comprehension of man”.
Atlanta Shore almost jumped out of her skin as, for the eighth time that morning, a cacophony of klaxons screamed out of the loudspeaker directly above the console where she was trying to work. She fought down the expletive with an effort and resumed restructuring the meteorological data that she had already spent the last two hours trying to get the WASP’s specialist software to recognise. She sighed, took another sip of coffee, almost spat it out in disgust and put it down again, then took a deep breath and loaded the data file into the editor yet again.
The microphone in front of her crackled, and she closed her eyes in frustration. Damn you, Troy, she thought to herself – why do you keep asking me for this? I’ll give it to you when I’ve got it, for heaven’s sake.
“Tower from Stingray! Tower from Stingray! Come in, Tower. You there, Atlanta?”
She opened her eyes slowly and switched on the mike, her voice upbeat and genial, in marked contrast to her mood.
“This is Marineville Tower, come in Stingray. Hi, Troy. Let me guess. You want to know if we’ve processed your Gulf Stream projections yet, is that it?”
“You got it, Atlanta.”
The geniality faded ever so slightly.
“No Troy - I haven’t got it. What I have got is the same software fault I told you about earlier, and I still need more time. What’s your ETA at the Marianas Trench?”
“Approximately forty minutes, Atlanta. Look, I know I’m not making your day any easier, but without those projections…”
“I know, Troy. I know. All I can say is that we’re on the problem, and I’ll relay it directly to you as soon as we’ve cracked it, okay?”
“Sure, honey - I’m not helping, I know. I’ll let you get on with it in peace.” Troy’s voice had changed its tone, and she could hear the apologetic smile in his words. As usual, she backed down.
“Thanks Troy. We’ll get it to you somehow – I promise. Tower out.” She cut the connection.
“Can I help, Atlanta?”
Atlanta jumped – she hadn’t heard Lieutenant Fisher walk up behind her. Partially recovering her composure, she gestured wildly at the monitor.
“It’s an embedded control code. I know it’s an embedded control code. It can’t be anything else, unless the whole damn file’s been downloaded from a Bereznik spy satellite by mistake. So why the hell can’t this godforsaken editor find it, Lieutenant?”
Fisher sat down at the console and ran the file through another package that she didn’t recognise. He inspected a list of summary statistics and frowned.
“Did this file originate from the World Navy ocean currents database in Murmansk?
He grinned and nodded.
“They’ve been appending an invisible check digit to all the separators in their files since the beginning of the month. You need to upgrade the editor: you can download one from WNOC Central.”
“So how in God’s name was I supposed to know that?”
He shrugged apologetically.
“You just have to keep your ears open, I’m afraid. The World Navy aren’t exactly renowned for passing on useful information to the WASPs. They probably forgot to tell us in retaliation for us not letting them know that we’ve changed the frequencies we use to control our Antarctic survey balloons.”
He returned to his console, leaving Atlanta to grind her teeth in frustration. Before she had time to download the upgrade however, the klaxons went off for the ninth time. Already half-expecting it, the effect on her was magnified: she physically jumped up in her chair, knocking the coffee cup over and sending the remainder of the tepid brew down the front of her uniform. It was too much: she screamed – long and loud. Loud enough to bring several people in from the meeting taking place in the adjoining office – including the base commander. She turned on him in undisguised fury.
“HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO WORK IN THIS, FATHER?”
“Damned if I know, honey. Damned if I know.”
Commander Shore swivelled his hover-chair to face the young man and woman in the uniforms of Spectrum lieutenants with whom he’d been in conference, his face as black as thunder.
“Two months ago you came here to supervise the installation of a security system in my control tower. I didn’t want it, and I said so. I was told I had to have it. I said that the cost of it wasn’t going to come out of my budget. I was told that it was. It’s supposed to make this base secure against Mysterons. It doesn’t. What it’s done so far is to tie up my entire computing resource solid since the day you arrived. Last week it put three of my personnel in sick bay when one of the detectors blew up in their faces. Yesterday it was activated twenty-three times – every time somebody used the main elevator. Today it’s gone off nine times so far since breakfast for no apparent reason at all. What it is doing now is preventing my staff from getting any work done whatsoever. If it isn’t working within the next five days I will personally tear it out with my bare hands. IS THAT CLEAR?”
In a certain darkened room on a certain airborne command station of the Spectrum organisation, a faint crackle from the intercom at the bedside heralded yet another base-wide announcement – the third within the last hour, and the second to interrupt the motions of the couple lying in each others’ arms on the bed; both of them instinctively freezing into immobility for a few moments to listen as Lieutenant Green’s melodic West Indian accent drifted into the room. As the reason for the announcement became clear the man swore under his breath and reached out for the intercom switch – only to have the girl’s hand slam down on his wrist with a furious screamed whisper.
“Not mine, you idiot! Use your cap, for heaven’s sake!”
He raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Does it matter, kitten? I’m sure they’ve got a pretty good idea of what happens when lady officers and gentleman officers spend a few free hours enjoying each other’s company.”
“I’m not bothered about them! I just don’t want her finding out, that’s all!”
He reached out, took the cap off the girl’s head, placed it on his own and acknowledged the summons, effortlessly telling the tale about forgetting to turn the communicator back on after the morning briefing. Remarkable how long he seemed to have got away with that one, he considered. He dressed as rapidly as he could while the girl stretched herself out on the bed and reached over to look at the clock on her bedside table - and winced as she screamed.
“SHIT! I’m supposed to be on the flight deck in three minutes!” She turned on her companion furiously. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me what the time was, damn you?”
The man spread his arms in a wide-eyed gesture of innocence. “Sorry, kitten – I guess I must have lost track. Not difficult when you’re having such a fabulous time.” He ducked as a book flew across the room at his head, and beat a hasty retreat through the door. Halfway down the corridor he realised that his cap was missing, and turned in time to see the door open just wide enough for it to be thrown after him, then slammed shut again. He grinned, retrieved the cap and put it on, then strode off in the direction of the nearest elevator.
In the control room overlooking the flight desk, Colonel White frowned as he worked his way through the catalogue of complaints for the fifth time. So engrossed was he that he failed to hear the quiet insistent buzzing emanating from his communication officer’s console a few metres away. Lieutenant Green, being considerably closer, did not fail to hear it. Noting his commanding officer’s concentration on the task in hand, he immediately silenced it, then looked down at the accompanying flashing light on his console, glanced up at the duty roster and raised an eyebrow. Opening a channel to the Amber Room, he reached for his microphone.
“Amber Room, this is Lieutenant Green. I have a red indication on my board - Angel One is unmanned. Please specify reas…”
A burst of static cut across his warning, and a calm authoritative female voice responded in confident tones.
“Apologies, Lieutenant: delay caused by programming error on scheduler. Am ascending into aircraft now.”
Lieutenant Green frowned. “Do you wish me to log a fault with software maintenance, Angel Leader?”
“Negative, Lieutenant – fault already rectified.”
“Acknowledged, Angel Leader. Commencement of shift logged at 1603; you will be relieved at 2000 hours. Green out.”
In the cockpit of Angel One, its occupant squirmed uncomfortably in her seat as she started to run through the pre-flight checks on the console at her fingertips. Shivering, she stabbed at a button to bring the fuel injection verification sequence to a temporary halt while she brought the cabin temperature control online, keyed in a password to override the automatic sensor and raised the default setting by five degrees. Waiting a few seconds for the change to take effect, she then returned to the task of confirming the status of the fuel tanks. She glanced at the chronometer. Three hours and fifty-two minutes to go. God help me, I’ll kill him, she thought. Unzipping her flying suit just enough for her to be able to reach down the back of her neck, she stretched behind to try to rub an itch that had magically manifested itself between her shoulder blades, just a fraction too far down to reach. Her manicured fingernails scratched across her bare flesh – her third reminder in as many minutes that underneath her uniform she was completely naked.
Colonel White put the file down, got up from his chair and walked over to the window, where he stood immobile for a few minutes with his hands behind his back, contemplating the cloud formations that covered the sky as far as the horizon. The motorised opening of the door at the far end of the control room brought his reverie to an end, and he turned slowly to walk back to his desk, where the object of his summons was standing waiting for him.
“Captain Grey. Lieutenant Green, would you join us also please? I would have wished Captain Scarlet to be here also, but he is presently representing Spectrum at the defence conference in Rio de Janeiro. That conference ends tomorrow, and I shall brief him immediately thereafter.
“Gentlemen, both of you were recruited into Spectrum from the World Aquanaut Security Patrol. Captain Grey, prior to joining us you were the skipper of the WASP’s primary offensive combat submarine Stingray. Lieutenant Green, in addition to your acknowledged status as an expert in computer technology, in your previous life you were the chief of Marineville’s communications division. It is largely on account of those accomplishments that I have asked you here.
“Two months ago, a team of electronics experts under Spectrum’s auspices was dispatched to Marineville with orders to install a comprehensive network of Mysteron detectors in and around the complex. Since then, a catalogue of errors, miscalculations and blunders has turned the entire project into a shambles. In a nutshell, the base commander is threatening to scuttle the project – something I believe he is actually capable of doing, given the sway that he can muster within the Admiralty. Commander Shore is known personally to me. He is a difficult man to work with at the best of times, as I’m sure both of you are aware, and persuading him to agree to our requests – even if they were somewhat forcibly stated requests - to have the system installed in the first place was something of a diplomatic triumph. That success has now turned sour, and Spectrum’s credibility is now on the line.
“Commander Shore has requested… no, let’s not hide behind euphemisms… has demanded - that the project will be fully functional within the next five days. It has taken several hours of intense effort on my part to get him to extend that deadline by a further five. If at the end of that time it is not, then I’ve no doubt that he will be as good as his word.
“Part of the deal is that you, Captain Grey and Lieutenant Green, will fly directly to Marineville and supervise operations there. Since Commander Shore was responsible for much of your training, knows both of you personally and holds you both in high regard, he is prepared to extend facilities to you and provide you with whatever assistance you require. He is not prepared to work directly with the current leaders of the team, Lieutenants Sable and Almond, and I have with the greatest reluctance had to assure him that they will be replaced in their capacities as supervisors of the project.
“Captain Scarlet will be dispatched directly from Rio to Marineville once the conference is ended. I want him on the team for three reasons. Firstly, he supervised the installation of the system that is currently in operation at Koala Base, the software for which was adapted for use in the Marineville project. Secondly because I am informed that his colleague Michael Conrad is currently conducting some research in Marineville, and is at Commander Shore’s invitation assisting in our efforts to sort this mess out – and I wish to be certain that he’s being more of a help than a hindrance to our team. Thirdly because we will necessarily need to test the system in situ as the various components are brought online – and unless we can persuade the Mysterons to provide us with one of their own constructs for the purpose, which under the circumstances seems less than likely, Scarlet is the obvious choice.
“I consider it essential that we are seen to be doing something at once. For that reason I am proposing to despatch both of you to Marineville by helijet within the next four hours. Allowing for the time difference, I anticipate that you will arrive mid-afternoon, local time. Scarlet will be flown directly from Rio to join you at dawn tomorrow.
“Are there any questions, gentlemen?”
“Not often you get an opportunity to get off the base, eh, Lieutenant?”
Lieutenant Green smiled as he finished packing a small case.
“True enough. It’ll be great to see the old place again.” The ghost of a frown flickered across his features. “At least I think it will.”
“I’d forgotten how difficult he can be. The briefing served to remind me that when you’ve moved on, you forget the hard things and only remember the good times. And there were a lot of both. You know, I’m genuinely flattered that the offer of my being on this team apparently helped Colonel White to get his way over this. When I was working down there I lost track of the number of times I got screamed at for doing something only 99.9% perfect.”
Grey laughed and clapped him on the back. “That’s what made you the best, Lieutenant. You know, there are just two ways to produce the crème de la crème. Both are practised in varying proportions during one’s early childhood, school, college and throughout your career. One is to stimulate your protégé by gentle persuasion and words of encouragement, bringing about in him a sense of motivation by engaging his natural sense of curiosity, wonder and fun. The other, of course, is to scare the crap out of him. By the way, who was that man the colonel mentioned earlier, Lieutenant?”
“Doctor Conrad? He’s a colleague of Captain Scarlet’s. He was one of our instructors when we were preparing for the Lunarville 7 expedition, and the captain was one of his escorts to the Lake Toma astrophysics conference about a year ago.”
“What - that time the Mysterons decided they could do a better job of flying the plane than the regular crew?”
“That’s the one. I’ve exchanged maybe twenty emails with him about various details of the Concordia project recently, now that the old K14 observatory’s functions have been successfully duplicated at the Space City complex. He asked us to confirm his Spectrum security clearance to visit the project’s database hosting facility in Marineville about three months ago, just before the Mysteron detector installation programme was agreed with Commander Shore – I remember sending it for him.”
“So why is he relevant to our current problem?”
Lieutenant Green grinned. “Apart from his expertise in astrophysics he’s also an electronics genius. From the correspondence that I’ve been handling over the last few days, I think the colonel is getting a little irritated at Commander Shore’s continual praising to the heavens of the unofficial help he’s been offering them. I suspect he wants the captain to keep a friendly eye on him to ensure that he’s not making us look even more ineffectual that we already do. Are you looking forward to seeing Marineville again, Captain?”
Grey’s eyes lost their sharpness for a second, and he gazed into the middle distance, remembering. Without realising it, his eyes sparkled. “Yes, Lieutenant, I think I am.”
The mid-afternoon haze beat down upon their heads as the captain and the lieutenant made their way across the tarmac of the heliport towards the arrivals lounge. No welcoming committee awaited their arrival, and they carried their own luggage: perhaps an indication of the regard in which Spectrum was held at present in this neck of the woods, wondered Captain Grey as they entered the building. But then again, perhaps not. Commander Shore had never been one for going out of his way to putting people at their ease, and this was not a ceremonial visit. They strode across to the security desk and presented their credentials; the young sergeant at the desk inspected them perfunctorily but without undue haste before flicking a switch and summoning an ensign to escort the visitors to the Tower. Had the sergeant recognised the more senior of the two new arrivals as the erstwhile skipper of Marineville’s most celebrated vessel the reception would no doubt have been smarter and brisker, but he did not. After our time, Grey realised. Such was fame in a previous life. He made no attempt to enlighten him. The ensign who arrived a few moments later to conduct them to the Tower was more cautious – or perhaps more au fait with Spectrum and the power it wielded in the world at large. He delivered a smart salute to the two men upon arrival.
“Captain Grey and Lieutenant Green? Welcome to Marineville, gentlemen: I’ve been instructed to escort you to the central command complex. Allow me to take your bags - would you come this way please? I have a car waiting for you outside.”
Having loaded their luggage into the back, he opened the doors for his guests and waited for them to climb inside.
“Our journey will take no more than ten minutes, gentlemen: the acting base commander is waiting for you in the Tower, which is the round building over there with the orange and grey crenulated exterior. The Tower itself is something of an engineering masterpiece: if the base ever finds itself under attack from the air, it can…”
“It can be lowered into an underground shelter and completely covered with concrete capable of withstanding a direct hit from a five-megaton hydromic missile. Yes, we know, thank you, Ensign.”
“Yes, sir – sorry, sir. You’ve been to Marineville before, sir?”
Lieutenant Green suppressed a smile. “The captain and I used to work here a few years back.”
“Oh! Begging your pardon, sir – I wasn’t informed. In that case, may I welcome you back, and hope you’ll have a pleasant stay. I’ve been instructed to deliver you to the Tower for the commander to welcome you, and then to convey both you and your luggage to the guest accommodation quarters.”
“Thank you, Ensign.” Grey looked around. “The old place doesn’t seem to have changed much since our time.”
“Ah, that’s probably deceptive, sir. We’re two-thirds of our way through an extensive modernisation programme at the moment, though most of it is taking place below ground. Marineville has some of the most advanced underground facil… begging your pardon, sir. The most far-reaching modifications are being conducted to the submarine pens beneath the Tower.”
“What sort of modifications, Ensign?”
“We’re aiming to cut our launch times by one-third, sir. We’re introducing a current into the launch tunnel that will work with the subs’ atomic motors to increase substantially the rate at which we can move our hardware from the pens to the ocean door.”
Grey raised an eyebrow. “Sounds rather dangerous to me.”
“Not at all, sir. The technology uses an array of cyclone generators located at strategic points within the tunnel to create a tornado effect which moves down the tunnel, effectively sweeping the sub along within its eye. Any deviation of the sub from that position is countered by the cyclonic forces acting towards the centre of the tunnel from the walls. The sub is held in a state of stable equilibrium until the ocean door is reached, at which point the sub is ejected into the sea. A by-product of the procedure is that no hostile vessel can enter the tunnel through the ocean door while we’re launching. The technology uses the same principles that hold Cloudbase aloft, sir.”
Grey leaned over and muttered in Lieutenant Green’s ear. “Nice to hear we’re doing something right.”
“Central Command Complex coming up on the left, sir. Would you like me to escort you up to the control room, sir?”
“No thank you, Ensign – we can find our own way.”
“Very good, sir. I’ll transport your luggage to the guest accommodation block, then return here to collect you.”
The ensign brought the car to a stop directly outside the main building, and Grey and Green alighted. Both stared up briefly at the massive cylindrical structure reaching into the sky in front of them, each casting his mind back several years, each recalling a pot pourri of personal memories – for each of them the intervening years had simply evaporated, and it was just yesterday.
“Shall we go in, Lieutenant Griffiths?”
“By all means, Captain Holden, sir – by all means.”
They both grinned, and walked through the door into the lobby.
“BRAD! I don’t believe it!”
Atlanta was bent halfway over her computer monitor rearranging the cabling when she looked up at the sound of the door’s hydraulic sliding mechanism, heralding the arrival of Grey and Green at the control room. It took her a full second to work out in which order to abandon the current task, kick the chair out of the way, sweep back her hair and cross the floor to greet the new arrivals, and she’d combined all of them into a single flurry of activity before recovering her composure by the time she’d reached them.
“Brad and Seymour! I had no idea - Father didn’t tell me you were the Spectrum officers arriving today! Hey, I like the pretty colours, guys!” She gestured vaguely at the uniforms, resisting the temptation to start fiddling with Captain Grey’s epaulettes. He managed to wrinkle his nose without breaking into a grin.
“Pretty colours, she says. If you think we’re colourful wait until Scarlet gets here – you’re going to need sunglasses. Oh well, it makes a change from the usual comments we get from the other services – particularly in relation to some of the pastel shades. Hello, ‘lanta. Great to see you again. I imagine the old man didn’t mention it because he wanted to get a full day’s work out of you before we arrived.”
Even before he opened his mouth he knew it wasn’t the right thing to say, but he hadn’t quite recovered his composure himself, and couldn’t dream up an alternative flippant reply fast enough. He also knew instantly that she’d realise that, and mentally cursed himself for giving away his own pleasure at seeing her again. Oh well – never mind: she’d have found out soon enough.
“We’re Lieutenant Green and Captain Grey these days, Atlanta. In deference to the high regard in which I continue to hold your intelligence, I shan’t bother to tell you which one of us is which.”
She bowed her head to hide the smirk that was trying to impose itself on her lips. “Thank you, Brad – I appreciate it.” She turned to Lieutenant Green. “How are they treating you up there in the sky, Seymour? If this guy’s making life difficult for you, let me know and I’ll personally thump him for you. He knows me too well not to believe me capable of it.”
Lieutenant Green grinned. “That won’t be necessary, Atlanta, thanks all the same. Actually, the captain will confirm that I’m the one who keeps them in order. If they step out of line I just turn my boss on them. How are you keeping?”
She gestured expansively around the control room with a careless air. “Not so bad. We cope. Most of our problems are of somebody else’s making, as Father will doubtless be telling you at length when he gets back. The rest of the time it’s Titan – he’s a far bigger pain in our collective backside than we’d like to confess to outsiders, but you two are family, so I don’t mind admitting it.”
Grey looked around the control room. “So where is the old man, anyway?”
She adopted a reproachful expression. “The commander is off the base at present. He’s returning from a conference with the World Navy top brass in Futura this evening, and is scheduled to fly in around midnight. I’m holding the fort until 1800 hours, after which Lieutenant Fisher’s in charge.”
Grey was far too old a hand at verbal sparring with her to miss the reason for her supplying that last unnecessary sentence. “So you’re free this evening, then?”
“I am. Can I show you guys the sights?”
Lieutenant Green held up his hands with a disarming smile and shook his head. “Thank you, not me. Actually I’d like to install my equipment before we begin in earnest tomorrow morning, and that’ll take several hours. May I set up in the Tower somewhere?”
“Sure thing, Seymour. Father briefed me on Spectrum’s likely requirements yesterday, so I’ve allocated Brad one of the conference rooms, and you the working area against the east window over there. It’s equipped with as many access points as you’re all likely to need.”
Green’s eyes brightened appreciatively. “That would be perfect – many thanks. May I start now?”
“Of course! If you’ll report to Security at the main entrance on the way back to the guest accommodation block they’ll allocate you a pass – after that you can come and go as you please. We had them prepared this morning.”
As soon as Green had left the room, Grey turned to Atlanta with a look of appreciation. “You’re really giving us the VIP treatment, ‘lanta – many thanks.”
She pulled a face. “Don’t be a simpleton, Brad. Father insisted on putting you all on this floor so he can keep an eye on you. And the passes are electronically tagged so he can track you around the base. You may be old friends, but you’re still Spectrum – and Spectrum is something of a dirty word around here right now. You’ll need to impress him pretty damned quick if you’re going to get any serious co-operation out of him.”
She sat down at her console, keyed in a password and spun the chair back round to look at him while the device logged itself onto the network.
“Now then – about this evening. As I said, I’m off-duty at 1830. What say I collect you from the guest quarters at 1900? That’ll give me time to change and freshen up, and I daresay you can put the time to good use too.”
He nodded. “We’ll need to hit the ground running tomorrow morning. That means that we’ll need to have finalised the action plan that we’ve been drafting out on the flight. It probably needs another couple of hours, so yes – Lieutenant Green and I can both put the time to good use.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Is that what you actually call Seymour these days?”
He grinned. “Yes, I know it sounds strange, but you’d be surprised how quickly you get used to it. It’s just one of the security measures that Spectrum insists upon to protect us and our families. We’re supposed to refer to each other solely by colour code designation whenever we’re on duty.”
“It sounds rather silly to me.”
He shrugged. “It’s really nothing more than a logical extension of the names the national espionage and counter-espionage services used to give their spies. And some of the names can be quite exotic. You wouldn’t believe the codenames we give the pilots of our aerial strike force. Much more interesting than their real ones. Anyway, as I was saying, yes, we can use the time. If you can show me where we’re supposed to be setting up our little headquarters, I’ll make a start on it. The sooner we begin, the sooner we’ll finish. And I wouldn’t want to finish late.”
She acknowledged the compliment with a grin, and led him over to one of the conference suites adjoining the control room.
“You’ll be in here. You’ve got access points to all the computer networks on the base, including direct links to the missile firing systems, the submarine launch control and the base perimeter security array. All of these have been interfaced at some time during the past three months to Spectrum’s Mysteron detection software subprocessors, though almost all of those are currently offline due to the problems we’ve been experiencing. The only exception is the scanning array on the launch tube network linking the standby lounge to the submarine pens, which appears to be functioning correctly. I don’t imagine the software will give you any problems: the operating system was upgraded the year before last, but we’ve retained the same user interface as the one you’re familiar with from way back. If you do have any problems however, just shout - I shan’t be far away. Drinks machines are where they always were – the only difference since your time is that you can now have oxtail soup if you want. Frankly, I don’t recommend it: it tastes like melted rubber, and has the texture of congealing slurry. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to talk to the skipper of the Marlin about a joint exercise with the World Navy off the Solomons.”
She gathered up her sheaf of notes, turned and took her leave. Grey watched her walking out of the room, knowing full well that she would know that he would. He smiled to himself - what a farcical little game men and women have been playing with each other since the dawn of time, he thought. To business, however. He sat down at the table, opened up his briefcase and laid out in chronological order the summary of Commander Shore’s complaints he’d brought with him from Cloudbase, and spent the next ten minutes studying them in detail. Lieutenant Green returned as he was finishing the last of them, carrying a precarious mountain of assorted disks and tapes wedged between his arms and his chin. He got them to the table with half a second to spare: as he lowered them onto the surface the entire pile disintegrated in an impressive cacophony of clatters. Grey pulled a face and clamped his hands over his ears, and Green grinned sheepishly as he started to recover them.
“Serves me right. I’ll get a trolley for the next load.”
Grey raised an eyebrow. “How much more is there to bring over here, Lieutenant?”
Green shrugged. “About another two trips to the guest quarters, I suppose.”
Grey gathered his notes into a pile and stood up. “Let’s try turning it into a single one, shall we? This could be the last piece of physical exercise I get on duty for some time – how the Colonel manages to tolerate being stuck behind that desk of his is beyond me. I suppose being able to rotate it occasionally helps to relieve the boredom.”
By 1830 the pair of them had five terminals up and running; one linked directly into the WASP master information network; two dedicated to running simulations of Spectrum’s detection system that was currently causing Marineville so much grief, and two general-purpose computing/communications systems. Lieutenant Green was already hunched motionless over one of the simulators, glaring at the screen as if daring it to misbehave, and muttering quietly to himself. Grey grinned, glanced at his watch and opened his mouth to speak. Green beat him to it.
“Why don’t you make your way back to the guest quarters, Captain? I’m going to be tied up here for ages yet, and you’ll need time to change.”
Grey looked at him in astonishment. “How did you know I was about to ask if you minded if I did precisely that?”
Green swivelled in his chair, mildly surprised at the question.
“I have a clock at the bottom of my screen, and I can see your reflection in my monitor. Not that I’d actually need either, you understand, since in addition to all my other skills, I am of course psychic: an exceptionally high esper rating is a mandatory requirement for the job of Head of Communications on Cloudbase. Go on – I’ve got more than enough to keep me busy here for the next couple of hours, and I want to get it finished by 2000, as I’ve also got some old friends to look up. So since I work faster when I’m left alone…”
He left the sentence unfinished, and Grey sniffed in a mock display of pique. “Well, if you put it that way, Lieutenant, I’ll be on my way. Preliminary briefing’s tomorrow morning at 0900, by which time Scarlet should have joined us. I’ll see you then.”
Green raised a hand. “Bye, Captain.”
He turned back to his monitor and was already once more engrossed in his earlier problem by the time Grey had left the room.
Emerging into the main control room, Captain Grey scanned the place for Atlanta, but she was nowhere to be seen. Guessing that she’d probably returned to her quarters to change, he set off for the guest accommodation block at a brisk walk, where he had a shower, then changed into the tee-shirt, brown jacket and jeans that he’d brought with him from Cloudbase. Scrabbling through his suitcase, he extracted a small personal radio, re-routed transmissions from his Spectrum cap to it, and slipped in into his pocket. He glanced at his watch – 1902. He quit the apartment and walked out into the open air – and there she was, car parked on the drive, where he had little doubt she’d been waiting for about three minutes, give or take thirty seconds.
Silently the passenger door rose into the air, and Atlanta’s face peered up at him. She crooked a finger at him and pointed down at the empty seat beside her.
“Hop in, Brad - we’re going somewhere special this evening.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Must be new. In my day there was nowhere to go around here. Other than The Blue Lagoon, that is – and during my time that hotspot was a distinctly lukewarmspot, if not a downright tepidspot.”
She activated the power and laughed. “Only a slight change there then, Brad - the last time I checked it was a subzerospot. And in any case, if you’re single and turn up at it with someone on your arm you’ll find twenty electronic flyers advertising bridal wear sitting in your mailbox by the time you get home at the end of the evening. No thank you – I prefer a little privacy when someone special comes to visit. And that means somewhere off the base.”
Grey looked at her quizzically, one eyebrow raised to an almost comical degree. “But we’re miles from anywhere, Atlanta – the risk to civilians of being hit in an attack and all that. You know as well as I do. There isn’t anywhere off the base!”
“Yes there is. I discovered it a couple of years ago - and nobody knows about it except me. That’s where we’re going.”
“All right - where is it then?”
“Secret. You’ll find out when we get there.”
The car moved gracefully down the drive. Grey wasn’t fooled: he hurriedly grabbed the window control with one hand and the arm rest with the other in preparation for the gut-wrenching surge of power that he knew would follow. He didn’t have long to wait: almost as soon as the car straightened out in the road Atlanta’s foot slammed down onto the floor, and the car leaped forward to the accompaniment of the sound of protesting tyres. Experimentally he smelt the air for the scent of hot rubber, but the car had already left the rising cloud of acrid smoke far behind. Some things never change, he thought.
“How often does this car need new tyres? I ask merely for information, you understand.”
She shrugged. “No idea. Troy sees to it for me.”
She slammed on the brakes at the checkpoint, even though the barrier was rising as they approached. Good job too, thought Grey – at least six years of practice and they still can’t raise the damn thing fast enough for her. The car shot through, and swerved onto the main road to the right.
“We’re driving out onto the peninsula?”
“That’s right. I said an evening on our own, and I meant it. I’d say hold on to your hat if you were still wearing it: it’s usually quite windy out there. I like that uniform of yours, by the way – it suits you. The cap’s half a size too big, mind you. The same for Seymour, come to think of it.”
He smiled – she wasn’t the first person to have made the observation. “They all look half a size too big – there’s a ton of electronics built into the things. The same goes for the tunic: you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that’s incorporated into it.”
He turned to look at her as she drove, allowing his eyes to flicker over her body, which by now was clad in a light brown loose-fitting jersey and a pair of slacks.
“Color combinations that worked well were always your thing, weren’t they? You should have been a fashion designer. Either that or a mixer in a paint shop.”
She threw him a black look. “You always did know how to say the nicest things, Brad. Or perhaps I should say you always had a way of saying things that I wouldn’t have particularly wanted to hear from anybody else.”
He grinned back. “And you always had a way of telling me things that everybody else was too polite to tell me. Whenever I wanted an honest opinion I always turned to you - did you know that?”
She snorted. “Of course! That’s what real friends are for. And we were friends long before…” She stopped in mid-sentence and slammed on the brakes as a sign proclaimed a side road joining the main one up ahead.
“Sorry about that – wasn’t paying attention. This is the turning we want. Hold on tight – this lane is about ten kilometres long, and there are more craters in the road than you’ll find on the moon.”
She turned on the headlights full beam, and began to weave the car in between the increasingly frequent holes in the tarmac. The lane became increasingly narrow, and the untended fields to either side began to give way first to clumps of waist-high marram grass, and then after a few more kilometres to stark, massive sand dunes standing out against the darkening sky. By now the tarmac had all but disappeared, and Grey found himself hanging on with both hands once more as the car swivelled and swerved between the dunes. She just doesn’t care, he thought. She knows she’s scaring the hell out of me and she just doesn’t care. The lane began to widen out slightly, and he relaxed his grip, only to grab frantically at his seat again as the car shot into and straight though a little stream of water flowing across the lane to a depth of about ten centimetres. The resulting inertia was sufficient to throw him violently forward in his seat; his safety belt being the only thing preventing him from being hurled through the windscreen.
She frowned. “Well! That wasn’t there last time I came this way! We must have almost arrived - tell me if you see the sea looming up in front of us, will you?”
“No problem! Would you like to try out the brakes before we get there?”
“Okay.” Without removing her right foot from the accelerator, she shifted her left off the clutch and gingerly planted it on the brake. The car slewed alarmingly, and she hurriedly removed it and put it back over the clutch. Peering into the gloom, Grey suddenly became aware that the headlights were no longer illuminating anything.
“I think we’ve arrived, ‘lanta!”
“Oh, good! I was beginning to think it might have been the wrong turning.”
She slammed her foot down on the brake, and the car skidded to a halt. She turned off the ignition, opened the door, got out and stretched, taking a long, deep breath. Grey scrambled gratefully out of the car, trying unsuccessfully not to adopt an attitude of undue haste. A movement on the ground made him start, and he jumped backwards just in time to avoid being splashed as the remnants of a wave swept across the sand towards his feet. He glanced back at the car.
“Don’t you think we ought to park it a little higher?”
She glanced at her watch and shook her head. “High tide was at 2034 - that’s ten minutes ago. It’ll be okay. Let’s go for a walk, shall we?”
She walked around the front of the car to join him, slightly to his side and close enough for him to realise that she was inviting him to put his arm around her. He stretched it out horizontally with a smile, and she slipped underneath it. They strolled away from the car and began to walk across the little bay. Perhaps a kilometre to either side in the distance he could make out rock formations stretching up into the sky; in between stretched a rocky shoreline, punctuated with a myriad of pools of varying sizes. They began to pick a path over the rocks, separating occasionally and reaching out to one another to negotiate the more difficult configurations. For perhaps a quarter of an hour they stumbled on in silence, before reaching the comparative safety of the cliff-face. He looked at her questioningly.
“Where to now?”
She pointed to a little crag slightly above eye-level.
“Up there. There’s a little ledge we can climb up to. It’s very comfortable – we can sit and watch the sunset. Come on – I’ll show you.”
She broke away from him and scrambled up a complicated array of makeshift footholds, then shuffled over to make space for him to follow. When he’d seated himself down beside her he again wrapped his arm around her, and she nestled her head on his shoulder. He let a couple of minutes pass in silence before venturing to speak, conscious that what he was going to say would break the mood, but conscious also that she was waiting for him to ask.
“You planned all of this, didn’t you? You decided earlier this afternoon that we would be here, at this time, looking at this view.”
“Brad – what a question! It’s a place I often come to do some landscape painting when the mood takes me, and I wanted to share it with you. It’s something I haven’t been able to do up until now. I discovered it just after you joined Spectrum, and I decided then that it would always be our place. Now it is. You could say that I’m fulfilling a promise to myself. Do you like it? I’m expecting the answer ‘Yes’, by the way.”
He grinned. “What else can I say? It’s a fabulous place – are you sure you don’t share it with half the personnel in Marineville during the summer?”
She shrugged. “As to whether anybody else has discovered it, I couldn’t say. I haven’t asked anyone – deliberately, of course – so I don’t know. But I’ve never come across anyone else on the base around here. And until I do, I’ll consider it to be my own personal bolt-hole. I come here when I want to get away from it all and think.”
He looked at her closely. “You’re sharing your own personal space with me, then. I’m flattered. Especially after – well, you know.”
She looked back at him equally seriously. “Especially after you left without properly saying goodbye. That hurt, you know.”
He looked away, then back directly into her eyes. “I didn’t know what to say. Especially since you were still so mad at me after our misunderstanding over that little tramp at Troy’s party. She meant nothing at all, you know.”
Her eyes flashed. “That wasn’t how it seemed at the time!”
He took a deep sigh. “I was young and stupid. When you started seeing Troy I thought it was over. And after that, I didn’t know how to say sorry. I figured you’d realise that.”
“Oh, I did. But it hurt all the same. Come on – let’s walk again. I need to talk, and to do that I have to walk around.”
They scrambled down from the ledge, and she led him towards the shoreline, which had receded markedly since their arrival. The still-wet sand recorded their footsteps as they strolled slowly forward, and she turned to face him.
“I came here with you because I wanted to know if we still had something to talk about, Brad. And I think we do.”
She gazed out to sea as the orange sun sank ever deeper in the sky, closer and closer to the horizon. The faint sound of the lapping of the waves on the rocks added to the sense of isolation, with only the occasional faint cry of a seagull to remind them of the presence of other creatures besides themselves in the lonely cove.
“I often come out here to watch the sunset these days, Brad. You know, sometimes I feel as if I’m a spectator at the end of the world - it’s as if I’m the last human being on Earth, watching the last sunset at the end of the final day. And afterwards… Then I wonder what will be afterwards. Eternal night. Forever.”
Her voice trailed away, and she glanced up at him and smiled a wistful smile, then walked back to the cliff face a few metres away and arched her back against the rocks as the final sliver of sunlight vanished below the horizon.
“I drive back to the base thinking ‘Why am I driving on the right-hand side of the road? I’m the last human being alive on the planet, aren’t I? Who’s going to crash into my car? Why don’t I just drive across the rocks instead? Why don’t I just drive the damn thing over the cliffs? I mean, what the hell is it all for anyway? Brad – what the hell is it all for? Brad! Tell me! What’s it all FOR?”
The pitch of her voice had been rising steadily as she lost herself in her tirade. She turned to him and threw herself sobbing into his arms, burying her face in his chest as he cradled her head in his arms, stroking her hair. He waited until she’d calmed down before lightly brushing away her tears with his fingers.
“Come and sit down, love. Come and tell me all about it.”
She allowed herself to be led over to a pile of rocks at the base of the cliff, where she quietly sat down and stared at the pebbles, deliberately avoiding his eye. He waited patiently: when she wanted to talk about it, she would. Not before. She ran her fingers over the rock she was sitting on and traced them around a piece of seaweed, then in a gesture of determination she tore it off and started massaging it in her hands.
“Why did you leave me, Brad?”
He shook his head, and looked her directly in the eyes. “I had to go, ‘lanta. You know I had to go.”
She looked down at her hands, and threw the seaweed away. “You didn’t! You didn’t have to go. You could have stayed – you know you could! Father would have sorted everything out – he would have done anything for you. He was proud of what you did to that murdering butcher – we all were. You had a future here. You had a future with me.”
“It wouldn’t have worked. In your heart you know it wouldn’t have worked. Every time they looked at me I know what they’d be thinking. ‘That’s the man’. Oh, they’d never talk about it, of course. But every time I’d know, and they’d know I knew. Spectrum offered me a fresh start, and I took it. There was nothing else I could do.”
“I loved you, Brad.” There was a pause, and she returned the direct stare into his eyes. “I still love you, damn it.”
“Then come with me! That last night before I left I asked you to marry me. I’m repeating that offer here and now. There’s no-one else, you know. There never has been. I haven’t got a ring with me, but…”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, talk sense Brad! It was impossible then, and it’s impossible now – you know it is.”
“Why? Why is it impossible, ‘lanta?”
“I can’t leave him, Brad. He needs me.”
“Then bring him too, for God’s sake! He must be close to retiring, surely? Atlanta, why not?”
“I can’t, Brad. The sea is his life. Without it he’d die. I have to look after him. I’m all he’s got.”
She was calmer now, though the tracks of her tears were still plainly visible on her cheeks. Something in his expression must have told her that she looked a mess: stooping, she dipped her hands in a small rock pool and washed her face, then pulled up her jersey to dry it. She forced a smile.
“Thank you. Thank you for being there when I needed you. I had to get that off my chest.”
She gazed out to sea again, contemplating the silhouette against the darkening skyline of a little island that lay perhaps two kilometres off shore.
“This is the end of the world - and that island’s beyond the end of the world. At least, that’s how I’ve always thought of it. It’s a funny place – there’s a little house on the cliff top, you know. Just up on the right there – you can see the outline of the gables if you look hard.”
Captain Grey squinted through the twilight gloom, looking for any signs of life, but seeing only the black edges of the roof against darkening sky. “Does anyone live there?”
Atlanta shook her head. “Not for ages, though it was inhabited about three years ago by a psychiatrist or something of the kind. Troy and Phones visited him there once - something to do with understanding hallucinations, I think it was – but there’s no-one there now.”
“How do you know?”
“The island’s covered by our tracking stations. Nothing’s visited it by sea or air for at least a couple of years – probably longer. God – drying my face on this jersey was a mistake: the water’s trickling down my legs.”
She looked speculatively at her companion for a second, then reached down, crossed her arms and peeled the jersey up over her head. “Fancy a swim over to the island?”
“You kidding? I haven’t brought a swimsuit with me.”
She looked at him as if he’d uttered a complete inanity.
“Neither have I, you idiot. Come on – we’ll make love in the moonlight when we get there.”
“You have a problem with your hearing, Brad?”
Grey shook his head in bewilderment. “I don’t believe this! Five minutes ago you were pouring out your heart to me, after which you turned down a perfectly sincere offer of marriage, as I recall. Now you’re inviting me to have sex? What the hell’s got into you?”
“What’s wrong? Don’t you want to make love?”
“Well… yes, I suppose so, but…”
Atlanta stopped undressing and turned to face him with her hands on her hips, an expression of condescension tinged with pique on her face as she rolled her eyes.
“Ye gods, you really know how to pay a girl a compliment, don’t you? How long do you need to think about it?”
“Actually, ‘lanta, I was thinking that you’re not quite the same girl that I left in Marineville three years ago. You used to be rather more… how can I put this delicately?... reticent, as I recall.”
She made a face. “I haven’t exactly been living like a nun since then, for heaven’s sake. You may be a pretty good lover, but you’re not the only fish in the sea. I’d given up hope of ever seeing you again, and after moping around the control tower for a few months trying not to think about you, I decided that I’d better get on with my life. And that includes a little carnality every now and then. Women need a lot of care and attention, you know, and whatever else I am, I am a woman.”
“Well, that’s a relief. Now then, I’m going for the swim anyway. You can come along too if you want. Unless you’re afraid of nasty things in the water, of course - we do get the occasional shark along this coast, if you haven’t forgotten.”
She stripped off the remainder of her garments and ran down the beach into the water. Grey sighed, tore off his own clothes as quickly as he could, and ran after her.
Silhouettes in the darkness, they walked arm in arm along the shoreline of the tiny island, the massive sheer cliffs to the right of them echoing the sound of the waves breaking on the beach to their left. He ran his fingers through her matted hair as she nestled her head against his neck, and he kissed her lightly on the tip of her nose. She grinned back at him and squeezed his arm.
“Pleased to see me again?”
He nodded. “It feels like I’ve never been away. Like Cloudbase is a phantom, and the Mysterons are nothing more than a fading nightmare. And I’m beginning to ask myself why they have to be my problem. There are countless millions of people out there who know nothing at all about the Mysterons, and care even less. I could just hand in my resignation, join them and spend the rest of my life having a good time. Talking about which... what about that making love in the moonlight thing, then, eh?”
Her eyes twinkled. “What – right here on the beach? No thanks – I’d prefer somewhere a little softer. Apart from anything else, the sand gets absolutely everywhere.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh yes?”
“Oh yes! Anyone who writes for the women’s romance paperback industry ought to try it before submitting their manuscripts to the publishers. It might add a bit of gritty realism to their dewy-eyed fantasies - literally.”
She looked out to sea, peering into the gloom towards the mainland and frowned.
“Could be. I can’t see the bay.”
He followed the direction of her stare, and grunted. A wide bank of clouds had built up over the mainland, reducing the moon to a fuzzy outline in the sky and completely obscuring the telltale skyline of the coast. He shrugged.
“Does it matter? We know pretty much where it is.”
She shook her head. “There are some quite nasty rocks to one side of it, and cliffs to the other. If we’re out by even a few hundred metres we could end up in the wrong place. I suppose I should have thought of that, but it’s never been a problem before – the night sky is usually clear as a bell around this time of year.”
He shrugged again. “Okay – we’ll stay the night and swim back at dawn tomorrow morning. It’s a warm night, and we’re not due in the Tower until 0900 – that’s plenty of time.”
“Hmm – maybe. But the temperature will drop quite a bit over the next few hours. We could do with some clothes.”
“Great idea – let’s take a stroll down to the nearest shopping mall and buy a new outfit each. Oh – I forgot. All my credit cards are still in your car.”
“Oh, shut up! Let’s go and explore. There’s a path over there – look, you can just make out the bottom of it in that crack in the cliffs. It must lead up to the house. What do you think we’ll find up there?”
“Atlanta! In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re both buck naked – suppose we meet somebody?”
“Anybody who might be here, for God’s sake! And that ought to be ‘whom’, by the way.”
“Pedant! And I told you – there isn’t anybody. Weren’t you listening?”
“Well, yes I know, but…”
“Look – either there is or there isn’t. And there isn’t. Right then - you coming?”
Grey shrugged, and started up the little path after her, wondering if the unthinkable happened and they did run into somebody, whether he could rely on the WASPs to hush it up before Spectrum got wind of it. He came to the conclusion that he probably could – if only because his equally naked companion was the commander’s daughter. The path began to wind upwards, and they found themselves beginning to walk more slowly to avoid the undergrowth that increasingly hampered their progress. Fortunately none of it contained any briars.
Climbing to the top of the cliff took a little over half an hour, Grey estimated as house solidified out of the darkness. Only the faintest of glows on the mainland’s skyline served to remind them that Marineville was only thirty kilometres away; but for that, they might have been the only humans between the island and the horizon in any direction, he reflected.
He once again scanned the house for any signs of habitation, and found none. Increasingly satisfied that he wouldn’t be needing to explain his lack of clothes to anyone tonight, he now found himself contemplating the question of how low the temperature could drop as the hours wore on. One glance at Atlanta was sufficient to tell him that she was thinking along similar lines.
“I think we’d better break in, don’t you?”
She nodded. He walked up to the door and rattled it: apart from a few flakes of paint that fell off it, there was no sign of it giving. He inspected the door handle, then the old deadlock at its side – a small but easily accessible keyhole that with the right tools he could trip with ease. He looked up.
“Not much point in asking if you’ve got a hairpin on you, I suppose?”
“Oh well – may as well move on to less subtle methods.” He picked up a hefty stone from the overgrown rockery that flanked the front door, and carried it to one of the chest-height windows adjacent to the door. Holding it at arm’s length he tapped the window with it with gradually increasing force until he heard it shatter. Then, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the path in search of shards, he tip-toed up to the window, put his hand slowly through the broken pane and released the latch. It swung open, and he carefully and slowly eased his way into the room, reaching as far with his legs as he could before lowering them to the floor. He then walked to the other window that faced onto the path and opened it to let Atlanta into the room.
Like her companion before her, she allowed her feet to touch the floor only after stretching her legs as far into the room as she could, and then as carefully as she could. For the next few minutes they stood quietly together, waiting for their eyes to grow accustomed to the dark.
“Can you see a light switch?”
“Probably near the door, but it’s hardly likely to work, is it? This place sure as hell won’t be on the mains – so it probably runs off a generator. That’ll have been shut down when the last occupant left.”
“Try it anyway – you never know.”
Grey tip-toed back to the front door and experimentally started feeling around the frame for a switch. He found one, and flicked it. Nothing. By now he could just make out some objects in the room, which was unusually spacious by modern standards – an enormous dining table complete with two sets of candlesticks, several paintings on the walls, at least half a dozen old armchairs, a sideboard with a pile of cutlery standing on it and some kitchen utensils hanging from the wall next to a sink. He returned to the girl, and pointed towards a staircase that was just visible in the corner of the room.
“Upstairs, don’t you think?”
“Any particular reason?”
“Two. This place may be abandoned but it’s still furnished – so there may be some beds here. Secondly there might be some clothes up there. Let’s see.”
They mounted the stairs, feeling their way around a sharp bend to the left halfway up. At the top they found a solitary door, which opened to the touch. A room lay beyond, and they slowly walked in. Grey gave a grunt of satisfaction.
“Bed. A bit small, but it’s a bed. Not only that, there’s a quilt on it. The clothes can wait until tomorrow – care to join me, ‘lanta?”
She stepped forward and locked her arms around his neck, while he reached out and wound the quilt around them both. Then slowly they fell together back onto the bed. The warmth of her body and the smell of her hair intoxicated him, and he rolled himself on top of her as she stretched out her arms above her head to grasp the two light fittings attached to the headboard. One of them twisted in her hand and she swore.
“One of the reading lamps – I felt it move. I think I’ve broken the damn thing. The owner isn’t going to be too pleased.”
“I don’t imagine the owner is going to be too pleased about the smashed window either. If you feel bad about it we’ll send him the money for it, okay?”
She stiffened. “Did you hear something?”
“What sort of something?”
“A faint whine – like a motor.”
He listened intently for a few seconds, but heard nothing. “No. Now - would you like to concentrate on the Earth moving instead?”
He took her head in his hands and pressed his lips to hers, feeling her body relaxing again beneath the weight of his own. For the next thirty minutes they lay locked in each other’s arms, swept up in a passion that three years apart had done nothing to diminish, and everything to enhance. Ten minutes after that they were both fast asleep.
In one of the apartments in Marineville’s lavish guest accommodation block, an insistent flashing light woke its sole occupant. Blinking rapidly, he shook his head to clear the sleep from his brain, then leaned over to pick up the small personal videophone that was the source of the midnight interruption. Hauling himself up into a sitting position, he held it out at arm’s length in front of him and activated it, his features deliberately respectful despite the intense irritation he felt at having been woken at such an ungodly hour: a wise course of action under the circumstances, born of much experience.
“Almighty Titan! How may I serve you, Great One?”
“By telling me how it is that you have been so careless as to allow your security measures to have been breached, X-20!”
The unfortunate wretch cringed. “I do not understand, Lord!”
“You have intruders, fool! Two Terraineans have broken into your house on the Island of Lemoy. Even as we speak they lie asleep in your bed. One of them has activated your video link to my throne room – whether by accident or design I do not know. I have spent the last half hour being subjected to the unpleasant spectacle of their mating. I assume you know nothing of this?”
The surface agent shook his head in terror. “No, Mighty One! The house has been locked up as you directed, and all communication equipment shut down. They can know nothing of how to activate it – it must be an accident! Have they seen the camera?”
Titan’s eyes narrowed. “I do not think so. The house is in darkness, and the scanner transmits using frequencies that are visible only to our eyes, not theirs. I suspect they cannot see it.”
Desperately trying to keep his features under control, Surface Agent X-20 took a deep breath. Perhaps the situation could be retrieved after all. He dared to frame the question that had been on his lips since the start of the interrogation.
“Are the Terraineans known to us, Lord?”
“How should I know, fool? They all look the same to me – but to your eyes, perhaps not. Watch the recording, and tell me if you recognise them.”
The screen flickered, and the image replaced by a replay of part of the scene that had so recently offended the Lord of Titanica. X-20 physically recoiled as he was able to discern the actions of the two lovers, instinctively holding his hands up to his eyes while they gasped their way to a climax on the screen in front of him. At the sound of the girl’s incoherent cries however, he dared a peek through his fingers – and uttered an involuntary gasp. The image vanished, to be replaced again by the face of his master.
“Well? Do you know them? Speak!”
“The man is unknown to me, master. But the girl…”
“The girl is the daughter of Commander Shore, Mighty One.”
The pupils of Titan’s eyes shrank to pinpricks. “Indeed? That is interesting. Perhaps this intelligence may be of value to us.”
“But how might we use this information, Lord? This revolting act that we have witnessed is often performed between Terraineans – I understand that it is not unusual. They use it to demonstrate their lustful feelings towards one another, and also to procreate.”
“Think, fool! Have you not told me that Shore’s daughter is romantically involved with Tempest?”
“Why, yes, Lord!”
“And obviously this man is not Tempest – even I can see that.”
X-20 shook his head slowly, his own eyes narrowing. “That is correct, Lord. It is not Tempest. Tempest is at present on patrol in Stingray. He will not return to Marineville for another two days.”
Titan settled himself back on his throne – a gesture that X-20 had come to recognise as meaning that he was satisfied the situation was under control.
“Then we have two days in which to consider our next move. I have deactivated the communications device in your house by remote control – the girl and her lover will not find it when the sun returns to the sky. I will however continue to monitor their conversation until they leave the house: we must be certain that they do not suspect that they have stumbled upon your base. You will maintain surveillance of Shore’s daughter when she returns to Marineville – and you will report to me as soon as you have identified the man.”
“I obey, Mighty One! Will you transmit the recording to Marineville when Stingray returns?”
Titan glared back at him furiously.
“Imbecile! If Shore’s daughter sees the recording and connects it with us, she will realise that the island is one of our bases!” His tantrum subsided and he became more pensive. “And yet it may still be of use – I shall consider the matter.”
“I understand, Mighty One. May I ask how the tests are proceeding?”
Titan nodded with a gesture of satisfaction.
“You will inform our friend that we have tested the weapons on the prisoners. Both were killed instantly: I am therefore satisfied of the efficacy of the technology. I can see no reason to delay the next phase of the operation – you will deliver the next consignment to my aquaphibians on schedule: they will be awaiting your arrival. Now go! I wish to consider the events of this night.”
The line went dead. X-20 deactivated the communicator and returned to his bed, but found it difficult to relax: the disgusting scenes he had just witnessed had affected him deeply, and he felt physically sick. For perhaps the first time since entering the service of his master, and to his own astonishment, he found himself thinking with some pride of the honour that he would feel by showing his arch-enemy at the helm of Stingray the despicable way in which he had been betrayed by his female companion. Still brooding on the irony of the situation, he fell into a deep sleep.
As the early morning light filtered through the filthy window, Grey awoke to the sound of running water. Looking through the door into a small bathroom beyond, he saw Atlanta treating herself to a cat-lick at the washbasin: she’d already rinsed her hair, and was now pouring small handfuls of water over herself, heedless of the puddles they were creating on the floor. He twisted himself off the bed and joined her in the bathroom, walking up behind her quietly and reaching underneath her arms to encircle her waist, simultaneously lowering his head to kiss the back of her neck. She jumped, and wrinkled her nose.
“Hey! You could do with a wash yourself - you’re as sticky and sweaty as I was ten minutes ago. There’s some soap over there: freshen yourself up while I see if I can find us something to wear. The water’s stone cold, by the way.”
She wriggled free of his embrace, and returned to the bedroom. Grey dipped his hands into the basin and threw a few handfuls of the freezing water over himself, then stopped, looking at the basin thoughtfully.
“How do you suppose the owner gets water into this house, ‘lanta?”
“What’s that?” The sound of rummaging in the next room continued unabated.
“We’re several hundred metres above sea level, on an island that’s a good couple of kilometres from the coast – and his power supply’s been turned off. So where’s his water coming from?”
Her head appeared in the doorway. “How should I know? Perhaps he’s got a pipeline to the mainland. Does it matter? This is obviously just the contents of his tank in the roof.”
He shook his head. “He can’t have a pipeline. The only place it could come from is Marineville itself, and that’s miles away – and anyway, this house predates the construction of the base by at least a century. He must have a generator to raise it from a well somewhere.”
“So did you ever hear of a freshwater well beneath the sea?”
“All right then, perhaps he’s got a compact desalination plant as well. People do, you know.”
Grey looked thoughtful. “Perhaps. It just seems to me that the idea of a desalination plant doesn’t quite square with the complete absence of mod-cons that we’ve seen in this place. I mean, there’s not even a bath or a shower in the place. What sort of person doesn’t need to take a bath?” He shrugged, and was about to return to his ablutions when he froze. “What time is it, ‘lanta?”
“No idea. Must be around seven, I suppose.”
“Hell! That’s going to cut getting back in time rather fine, isn’t it?”
She pulled a face. “Oh, what are you worried about, Brad? He’s my father – I’ll just spin him a story about the car breaking down. I’ve done it before when I didn’t want him asking embarrassing questions about where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing.”
He frowned. “That’s all very well for you, but I’d really prefer not to start this mission on a sour note. Let’s find some clothes quickly and get on down to the beach – it’ll be touch and go even then.”
A few moments later a shriek of delight from the bedroom made him jump out of his skin. Sticking his head around the door he found Atlanta dragging a pile of clothes down from a store cupboard.
“Look at this, Brad! There are all sorts here – men’s, mainly. There are some shapeless green and yellow dress-like things too, though I can’t imagine what woman would want to be seen in them – they’re appalling! Here, take a look through this lot: you’re bound to find something to fit – they’re all shapes and sizes.” She tossed him a pile of assorted menswear, and turned her attention to the other items.
Grey rapidly found himself a passable pair of trousers and a roll-neck sweater and put them. Having inspected himself in the filthy mirror, he turned to see how Atlanta was getting on – and stopped, speechless. She was standing in the light of the window, holding in front of her the most fabulous creation he’d ever seen.
“Brad! Look at this! Just look at it!”
He looked. The dress she was holding up was nothing short of spectacular. He reached out and touched it. It was woven from threads of a light green substance that all but melted through his fingers. Vague hints of shimmering lights seemed to emanate from its surface – lights that shifted and danced subtly on the extremity of his field of vision, and yet seemed to fade away when he turned his eyes to look at them directly. Experimentally, he lifted a sleeve. He might as well have been raising an empty hand – the sleeve had no weight at all. He shook his head in wonder, and turned to look at Atlanta, who was absently stroking the bodice. Her face had an ethereal quality that he’d never seen before – she was utterly awestruck.
The faint sound of an aircraft reached their ears, and they looked at each other questioningly. Dropping the sleeve, Grey strode over to the window and looked out into the early morning sky, out of which was flying a helijet. It was approaching out of the sun directly towards the mainland at a height of just a few hundred metres, and would fly directly over the island within a matter of minutes – the pilot was obviously using it as a landmark. He squinted at it and swore. “Jeez! That’s a Spectrum helijet! It must be Scarlet – quick ‘lanta! Get some clothes on as fast as you can – I’m going outside to see if I can wave him down: maybe we can get ourselves out of a mess here.”
Without waiting for a reply he grabbed a red shirt, ran out of the house onto the patio, and started waving the shirt frantically. The helijet passed over the island, slowed in the air and revolved before descending slowly onto the overgrown lawn at the side of the house. As it touched down a man jumped out of the passenger seat and dropped easily onto the grass, holding onto his cap with one hand to prevent it from being blown away by the slowing rotor blades. Grey ran to meet him, shouting out a greeting loud enough to be heard above the slowly fading roar.
“Scarlet! Great to see you again - glad you could drop in!”
“No doubt! What on earth are you doing here, Captain? We’re still at least thirty kilometres from Marineville – I thought you were supposed to be meeting us there!”
Grey grimaced. “I know – look, this is a bit embarrassing. Would you come over to the house for a few minutes? Ask Destiny to wait for us here, would you?”
Scarlet raised a quizzical eyebrow, then nodded, returned to the helijet, exchanged a few words with the Angel and returned. The two men walked quickly across the lawn, leaving her at the controls. As they approached the main door, Grey stopped and turned to face his friend.
Scarlet raised his eyes to the sky. “Oh no, not again. What is it this time, Brad? Woman trouble?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you only call me Paul on duty when it’s woman trouble. Come on – out with it. What is it this time?”
Grey raised his hands in surrender, and started talking rapidly and quietly.
“Look, I can explain everything if you really want to know, but I’d rather you didn’t ask, okay? I just need a lift – from here to that beach over there.”
He pointed to the cove two kilometres across the water, where Scarlet could just make out the car parked among the rocks.
“And that’s all you need, is it?”
Grey hesitated. “Well, not quite.”
“Somehow I didn’t think it would be.”
“I’ve got a friend who needs to make the trip to the mainland as well.”
“Uh-huh. Where is she?”
Grey nodded towards the house.
Scarlet’s face was impassive. “No problem.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Grey turned towards the door. “Atlanta?”
The door opened, and Atlanta slowly emerged, wrapped up in an enormous dark coat that reached almost to her ankles. Between its hem and her feet something green and flimsy fluttered in the early morning breeze. Without looking at either of the men, and pointedly disregarding the scrutinising gaze of the Angel in the cockpit, she strode over to the helijet and climbed up into the passenger compartment. Grey followed her up the ladder, and Scarlet brought up the rear. Dropping into the co-pilot’s seat, he leaned over and explained to Destiny about the change of destination; she nodded, propelled the helijet back into the air and sent it hurtling towards the cove. The journey took a matter of moments, and Grey and Atlanta jumped out as it touched down on the beach, Grey giving a cheery wave as it lifted once more into the sky.
Scarlet watched as the two hitch-hikers shrank to the size of specks beneath them, and then activated his microphone to talk to his companion.
“He’s got a new girlfriend, it seems.”
Destiny shook her head. “I think you are mistaken. I think he has an old girlfriend.”
“Why do you say that?”
She grinned at him with twinkling eyes. “It is the way she looks at him! I am watching her in the mirror as I take them to the shore - I think it is more than just passion. I think she is very much in love. Though I think also there was some passion last night, no?”
Scarlet nodded and smiled back. “Yes – I think there was some passion last night, as you put it.”
“Do you know who she is, this old girlfriend?”
“No idea. But I imagine I’ll have a rather better idea by the end of the day.” He shook his head. “I don’t know how he does it – I really don’t.”
Destiny looked up in surprise. “Vraiment? Then I tell you! Every girl he makes love with – when he is with her, she believes she is the most important woman in the world, yes? He is, er, very attentive to how she wants to make love – that is how he does it!”
“Is that so?”
“Mais oui! All my girlfriends tell me so.”
Scarlet found himself mentally counting Destiny’s girlfriends on his fingers. By the time he’d reached the ring finger of his right hand he’d worked his way through all the remaining Angels, three attractive female lieutenants of his acquaintance and two very good-looking civilian mutual friends. He contemplated the last remaining finger.
“So you’re basing that observation purely on hearsay, Destiny?”
The radio burst into life with a request for identification, which Destiny supplied. She turned to her passenger. “We are coming in to land, Capitaine. Do you need me to remain, or shall I return immediately to Cloudbase?”
“Would you like to take a rest before leaving?”
“Non merci – I would prefer to return at once. It is Harmony’s birthday, and I do not wish to miss the party, no?”
“Just drop me off then – wish her many happy ones from me, will you?”
“But of course, Capitaine – I wish her all the best from you.”
She manoeuvred the helijet directly above the centre of the landing pad, and took it down so gently that Scarlet didn’t feel the slightest bump as it touched the tarmac. Opening the door he climbed down the ladder, and waved as she piloted it back into the air as soon as he was clear. Returning the wave, she blew him a kiss as she threw the helijet into a steeply ascending spiral. In less than a minute the helijet was just a speck in the sky. Scarlet glanced down at the little finger on his right hand, grinned and strode off towards the control tower.
As with Grey and Green before him, Scarlet’s arrival was duly noted and logged, and an escort found to drive him. Unlike Grey and Green before him, he requested the ensign to take him to the accommodation block first, where he unpacked his luggage and freshened up to give Grey and his mystery friend an extra half hour in which to return to the base. He then radioed Lieutenant Green, who answered at once.
“Good morning, Captain! You’ve arrived?”
“Just a few moments ago, Lieutenant. Where are you right now?”
“In the Tower – sorry, that’s central command complex, Captain. I can’t seem to raise Captain Grey this morning: have you seen him yet?”
“Ah yes, Captain Grey. Yes, I’ve seen him, Lieutenant – don’t you worry about him. He’s been slightly delayed, but he’ll be joining us shortly. As soon as he’s ready we’ll walk over together. Should be about another half-hour, I’d guess.”
“Very good, Captain. Would you let him know that Commander Shore’s returned from his briefing in Futura and would like to hold a working breakfast with us in the Tower as soon as we’ve all arrived?”
“I’ll tell him, Lieutenant. Is the commander ready to commence that briefing yet?”
“No sir – he’s still awaiting one key member of his own staff, but he’ll be ready to start as soon as she arrives.”
“Understood, Lieutenant. Would you radio me if that member of staff turns up before we do? I don’t want to keep him waiting.”
As Scarlet’s mike ascended into its off position there was a tap at the open door, and Grey’s head popped through.
“Hi, Paul. Ten more minutes please? I just need to change.”
Scarlet nodded. “I’ll get Green to stall for us if necessary.”
By the time Grey emerged a few moments later there had been no word from the lieutenant, and the two of them set off at a brisk pace for the Tower, each carrying a small briefcase of documents under his arm. Missing the elevator by seconds as the doors closed in their faces, they were forced to wait the arrival of another one: as they ascended, Scarlet’s epaulettes flashed green.
“You asked me to let you know when the commander’s member of staff arrived, sir. She’s just this second walked in.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant – we’re literally on our way up now. We’ll be with you in under thirty seconds.”
Twenty seconds later they walked through the door of the main control room – to be met by the stony gaze of a man wearing the uniform of a WASP Commander, sitting in a hover-chair. He glared up at the two new arrivals in undisguised irritation.
“Forget to reset your watch when you entered our time zone, Holden?”
Captain Grey suppressed a smile – he hadn’t changed one jot. “My apologies, Commander: there was a line at the elevator. It’s good to see you again, sir. May I introduce my colleague, Captain Scarlet? Captain Scarlet, Commander Shore.”
“Damn silly names they give you all up there in the sky. Good morning, Captain.”
Scarlet stood to attention and delivered a perfunctory salute. “Commander.”
“The conference room’s this way, gentlemen. Atlanta, would you join us, honey? Captain Scarlet – may I introduce my daughter, Atlanta. Atlanta is in charge of communications and base security, and is my second-in-command.”
The young woman seated at the console facing the window arose from her chair, turned round and joined them, extending a hand to Scarlet with a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth smile.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Captain.”
He took the offered hand formally, resisting the impulse to kiss it.
“The pleasure is mine, Miss Shore.”
Not by one twitch of a muscle did Scarlet betray his recognition of the tousled girl in the outsized overcoat that he’d conveyed from the little island to the mainland just an hour and half previously. It had to be the boss’s daughter, he thought. I mean, with Brad involved, it really couldn’t be anybody else, could it? In truth, he’d been half-expecting it from the moment Green had inadvertently told him earlier that the base commander’s missing officer was female, though he hadn’t been previously aware that Marineville was being run as a family business. Oh well – at least we’ve got one ally on the inside, he realised.
The little party progressed through to the conference suite, where Lieutenant Green was already seated at a computer console. He stood up as they entered.
“Sit down, Griffiths, sit down. We’ll never get any work done if everybody’s hopping up and down like jack-in-a-boxes. Atlanta – can we organise some food and drink? I haven’t had any breakfast yet.”
“All arranged, Father. I’m having fruit and sandwiches brought up from the cafeteria on the third floor just as soon as they can make them. Should only be a few minutes.”
“Well done, honey. Don’t know what I’d do without you.”
He swivelled his chair to face the two captains, and the genial look on his face that he’d adopted when talking to his daughter vanished instantly.
“Now, gentlemen - you’re familiar with my complaints about this system of yours?” It was obviously a rhetorical question, and neither attempted to answer it, nor did he expect a reply.
“We’re having one devil of a time getting that equipment of yours to do anything at all, let alone the job we bought it for. All it’s done to date is to cause more disruption than an all-out attack on the base by our underwater friends in Titanica. I want to know when it’s going to be up and running.”
Scarlet leaned forward, his face a deliberate study in dedication. “We’re here to investigate and solve the problem, Commander. We start today.”
“Can’t be too soon for me. Get it working perfectly within the deadline I’ve given your colonel, and I’ll consider paying for it. Anything less and not only won’t you get a dime, but I’ll charge Spectrum rent for cluttering up my base with unwanted officers while you dismantle it. Those are my terms. I want to know that you’ve got a plan to sort it out, and then I want you to go and do it.”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow at Lieutenant Green, who promptly produced a folder and passed it across the table to him.
“This is our dossier on the problems that you’ve been experiencing, sir. It’s been split into fourteen sections, one section for each of the areas of application of the system. Section 1 relates to the operation of the system in this building; Section 2 concerns the interfacing of the alarms on the perimeter with the central processing facility; Sect…”
Commander Shore held out his arm for the file. Scarlet stopped in mid-sentence and handed it over to him. He thumbed through it far more rapidly than he could possibly have read it and handed it back.
“All right – you’ve got a plan of campaign. That’s all I want to know at this stage.”
There was a knock on the door, and a tray laden with food and assorted beverages was brought in. The commander turned his attention to the bowl of fruit and helped himself to an orange, which he started to peel. Looking up, he realised that nobody else had moved.
“Do help yourself to some breakfast, gentlemen. The prawn sandwiches are excellent, and since they also come out of my budget, I’d rather they were eaten than thrown away. Now then – I’ve asked Atlanta to supply you with facilities in the Tower here, adjacent to the control room. I don’t want you to feel that we’re doing anything to slow you down. Your passes allow you access to every area of the base for the same reason. If you need anything, Atlanta will sort you out.
“I’m going to want daily progress reports. Those reports will be delivered here in this conference room, at 0900 each morning, and will take the form of a one-page written summary accompanied by a verbal overview. I don’t want time wasted in assembling reams of waffle. I want to know what’s been fixed, what remains to be fixed, who is going to fix it and when. Clear, Holden?”
“PWOR, sir. Sorry sir.”
“Right, well, that’s about all I wanted to say. I’ve got work to be getting on with, and I’m sure you’re all eager to begin, so I won’t detain you further. Do stay and have another cup of coffee before you begin if you like – that is if you think you’ve got time to drink it. Atlanta – I need to talk to you.”
The commander reversed his chair away from the table and sent it trundling off through the doorway. Atlanta grinned at the three stone-faced Spectrum officers, then followed him out of the door.
Scarlet turned to Grey with a raised eyebrow. “PWOR? What’s that, Captain?”
Grey put down his sandwich. “It stands for ‘Proceeding With Orders Received’. It’s the WASP’s version of our SIG. Rather more logical, actually – I mean, whoever heard of a green spectrum?”
Scarlet snorted. “It would read like the sort of noise young men make when a pretty girl walks past them in the street. Anyway, never mind about that – is he always that blunt?”
Grey suppressed a grin. “That was a light-hearted exchange of views between friends, Captain. When he decides to start being blunt you’ll know.”
Captain Scarlet peered at Chapter 15 of the technical report in front of him through glazing eyes and seriously contemplated the possibility that it had grown longer and heavier since he first started trying to read it over an hour previously. The door opened and Captain Grey walked in carrying two cups of coffee. Scarlet reached out, took one thankfully and shook his head.
“You know, I’m sure I’ve read this section before. This bit about the isomorphic relationship between the Fourier periodogram and the spatiotemporal dimensional displacement of a Mysteron construct was all covered in Chapter 8, wasn’t it? I didn’t understand it there either.”
Captain Grey grinned. “You know, I’ve got this suspicion that documents like that are written entirely by computer, without any human intervention at all. It dives into its database and extracts paragraphs at random, and then strings them together in any order that takes its fancy – and then it scatters a few impressive-sounding headings here and there to give the impression that the whole thing actually means something. Just occasionally the same random number comes up, so the same paragraph goes in twice. Most of the time nobody notices. So, obviously you’re more wide awake than the average reader. Congratulations. Here, try something a little more manageable.”
He handed Scarlet a single sheet of paper containing a list of action points.
“These are the areas I think we need to have tackled by the end of the first briefing with the team. I’ve called a meeting of everyone at 1400 hours in the main conference room.”
Scarlet glanced over it and nodded.
“That looks okay to me. Have you got a set of their personnel files handy?”
Grey leaned over his desk, picked up the set of files and laid them out in front of him.
“We have a team of six. Four electronics experts working under the direction of Lieutenants Sable and Almond, who until our arrival were the only serving Spectrum officers on the team. The four are Doctors Philips, Kovac and Jenkinson and Professor Macready from the Nash Institute. Philips and Macready we’ve used before; Jenkinson was recommended by the security team at Koala; Kovac is here at Marineville’s request. Both of our lieutenants have degrees in both electronics and information technology. Lieutenant Almond also has a PhD in cryptography and speaks several languages; Lieutenant Sable is an expert in neural nets and pattern recognition, and is also a chess grand master.”
“Sounds like a pretty high-powered group to me.”
“Who are all probably seething right now at being made to look like a troupe of clowns. I suspect we may have to massage some egos during the course of this assignment – my experience of true professionals is that the one thing that really riles them is having their competence challenged.”
Scarlet nodded. “Listen – as far as the two lieutenants are concerned, I have a suggestion. You can shoot it down if you like.”
“What is it?”
“I suggest we ask Lieutenant Green to make a point of talking to both of them informally and at some length over the next day or so. He’s the same rank as they are; they may feel they can confide in him. I’m thinking that he may be able to elicit something about the running of the project from one of them that we wouldn’t.”
“Good idea. Will you do it or shall I?”
“I’ll brief him before the meeting.”
Grey shook his head.
“I’ve asked Commander Shore whether he wants to attend, but he says no. Well, what he actually said was that he’s got better things to do with his time, but the effect’s the same – he won’t be there. Atlanta’s not directly involved anyway, though she’s given me the extension number of the catering department if we want refreshments available. I think that’s about it – so now I’m going for a much-needed walk, if you’ll excuse me.”
Scarlet nodded, picked up the technical report again and wearily turned to Chapter 15 for the third time that morning.
There were seven of them seated around the table as he walked into the room with Captain Grey hard on his heels: Lieutenant Green had already joined the group shortly beforehand. The three uniformed lieutenants immediately stood to attention, and after a barely perceptible delay the other four members of the team began to rise out of their chairs also – just in time to be waved back into them again.
Scarlet scanned the little group rapidly, trying to think of a simple way to address them in a single sentence. Not ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ on this occasion – there was only one female present. Not ‘Members of Spectrum’ either – it sounded too much like Colonel White, and anyway, some of them weren’t. He gave up.
“Good afternoon, everyone – thank you for coming.”
He shot a glance around the table as if daring anybody to mutter something about not having a lot of choice in the matter, but nobody was either disrespectful or dumb enough to fall for that one.
“I’ve called this meeting to meet you all and to introduce Captain Grey and myself to you. You’ll also have noticed another new face among you at the table in the form of Lieutenant Green, who is our resident communications officer on Cloudbase.
“As you’ll all be aware, the project to equip Marineville with an automated Mysteron detection system has fallen behind schedule – and it’s with a view to recovering some of the time lost in its implementation that the decision has been taken to enlarge the number of personnel on the team by three: Lieutenant Green and the two of us. Our role will be to supervise the project until it is completed, liaise between the team and Marineville’s top brass, and to facilitate the introduction of any technology from either Spectrum or the World Aquanaut Security Patrol that might be needed to bring the project to a timely and successful conclusion. The project will be deemed to have been completed when all systems introduced as part of it by Spectrum are functioning correctly, and designated personnel here in Marineville have been fully trained in their use.”
He’d have preferred to skate over the obvious fact that the leadership of the project had just changed hands, but it couldn’t be done: the words he’d chosen were about as close to skating over the issue of the transfer of command as he could manage.
“We’ll all be working together closely over the coming days and weeks – though I’m sure you’ll agree there will hopefully not be too many of those weeks. Either Captain Grey or I will be talking to each of you personally at some time within the next 48 hours to acquaint ourselves with the workings of the project, and to determine how best we can assist in the completion of it. In the meantime, are there any questions?”
He waited longer than the few seconds of silence that followed: all of them clearly had something to say, and it was only a matter of who spoke first. In the event it was the young female lieutenant who opted to start the ball rolling.
“Lieutenant Almond, Captain. Am I correct in assuming that all further reporting of the progress of the project to Commander Shore will now be undertaken by Captain Grey and yourself?”
Direct and to the point, and delivered with a precision that’s distinctly Teutonic, thought Scarlet. He nodded.
“That’s correct, Lieutenant.”
“Then Lieutenant Sable and I are spared the requirement to submit daily written reports to the commander? This is good. These things take much time.”
The Germanic tone was clearly apparent now, though Scarlet could sense that the clarification she’d requested had been deliberately slightly flippant to break the ice. He acquiesced with a smile and a nod.
“Quite so, Lieutenant – though Captain Grey and I will ourselves need frequent progress reports. I propose however that we’ll do this from now on by means of a series of short meetings at the end of each working day, starting tomorrow. That should make the process less time-consuming, at least as far as you’re concerned.”
A hand went up from the far end of the table, and Scarlet raised an eyebrow by way of an acknowledgement.
“Ian Macready, Captain Scarlet. With the exception of the introduction of yourselves, will the reporting structure of the team remain the same?”
“Yes, Professor, unless you’ve any objections. Your role is essentially to facilitate the team’s access to technical assistance from Spectrum’s software developers, as I understand it, yes? Captain Grey and I have no wish to impose any additional layers of bureaucracy on the team – but you may find that we can shorten your response times. Please let us know if you need any strings pulled from Cloudbase to get the answers you need.”
Another hand went up, and a man sporting a pair of heavy spectacles and a shock of grey hair took the floor.
“Doctor Kovac, Captain. My own position here is that I’m acting as an informal consultant at the request of Commander Shore. Will you be changing any of the designated areas of operation of the team? My own expertise lies in high-speed imaging interphase technology, and I therefore believe I can be of greatest use in the submarine pens.”
Scarlet suppressed a grin at the scientist’s citing his title and credentials at the outset when the previous speaker, who evidently outranked him academically, had not bothered. Foreigners and their titles, he thought. Kovac’s accent was difficult to place, possessing a silky quality that seemed rather at odds with his unkempt appearance.
“No, Doctor – at least not in the short term, and in your case, not at all. As a Marineville-appointed advisor to the group, you are free to assist in any way you’re able, subject to Commander Shore’s approval. You’re working with Doctor Philips at the moment, I believe?”
A burly man with a florid face sitting on Kovac’s right stirred in his chair. American, thought Scarlet even before he’d opened his mouth.
“And an exceptionally productive arrangement right now it is too, if I may say so, Captain. The injector tube subsystem works like a dream, thanks to my colleague here.”
He slapped his companion on the back with a hearty gesture that was clearly not anticipated by Kovac, who was knocked forwards by the force of the blow. Recovering his balance, he attempted to recover his dignity also with a wan smile.
Scarlet raised an eyebrow.
“Do I understand that at least one component is now functioning correctly?”
“You bet it does! I guess we’ve all been wondering if this project is jinxed these last few weeks. I say we’ve just been unlucky, and that now it’s downhill all the way - where the injector tubes lead, the others follow; ain’t that right, Doc?”
“Oh, yes! Definitely, Doctor. Definitely.”
Scarlet watched the pair of them congratulating one another. Oh well, he thought, if they’re right we can hardly complain about their little mutual admiration society. Just as long as it produces results and doesn’t annoy the rest of them too much. He glanced at the other faces around the table, which were pointedly expressionless. Not too many successes from everybody else in the room, then. Never mind – perhaps the effect would be to spur them on. He decided to leave it there.
“If there are no further questions…?”
There were not, and he gathered up his notes while everyone filed out, noting approvingly that Green had already latched onto Lieutenant Almond and was talking with her animatedly about some obscure aspect of cryptography theory as they left the room. When the last of them had gone he turned to Captain Grey, who had been sitting quietly in the corner of the room throughout, watching the proceedings.
“How do you feel that went, Captain?”
“Pretty much as I expected… no, rather better than I expected, I think. I was anticipating some complaints about the complexity of the task, coupled with dark observations about Rome not being built in a day. They’re obviously aware that something unusual is happening here, and they can’t pin down the cause in their own minds – so they can’t put their frustration into words yet. That’s probably a good sign – I’ve found in the past that when scientists can pin down the cause of a problem, they spend more time justifying their inability to solve it than in trying to crack the problem itself.”
“I see Lieutenant Green has made a start already.”
“Yes! Interesting that he’s gone for Almond first – I’d say she’s going to be the more difficult of the two.”
Scarlet shook his head. “She’s the logical place to start. He needs a clear picture of the current state of affairs, and from what I’ve seen of her already she’s got the clarity of thought to provide him with that. Presumably he’s come to the same conclusion. We’ll see, anyway.”
In the lobby adjoining the dining area of the guest accommodation quarters, Lieutenant Green drained his glass of Jamaican rum and pushed it to one side. “Can I get you another of those, whatever it is, Lieutenant?”
She laughed. “I am out of uniform, Lieutenant – in mufti, as I believe the expression says. You will call me Rodica please.”
She gestured towards a pear-shaped glass bottle containing a colourless liquid on the corner of the bar a few metres away.
“That is polinka. I ask for it when I arrive, and they do not have it in stock, so they import it just for me. I think you have not drunk polinka before.”
“Can’t say that I have. What is it?”
“Polinka is Transylvanian national drink. Very healthy for Transylvanians. Not good for foreigners.”
Green raised an eyebrow. “I’m always interested in trying new exotic drinks. May I have one too?”
“You will regret it, I think.”
Lieutenant Green grinned, stood up and fetched the bottle. “During my days in the WASPs I was still knocking back rum when all my friends were unconscious under the table. I think I can handle your national tipple.” He glanced at her features while she poured out two glasses of the colourless liquid, noting the shoulder-length blonde hair and Aryan blue eyes. “Where exactly are you from, anyway? If you’ll pardon my saying so you look northern European, and it seems to me that you have something of a Viking outlook on life.”
Her eyes flashed in acknowledgement of what she evidently took to be a compliment.
“This is true. I am a Transylvanian Saxon. I am Romanian but my ancestors come from eastern Germany. My forefathers, they enlisted to fight the Turks for the mediaeval princes in Transylvania, and remained. We therefore live there still.”
Green raised an eyebrow. “Are there many Saxons living in Romania, then?”
“Indeed! Many tens of thousands. We are there because of the piper – you have heard of the legends of the children who never went home, yes?”
“What – you mean the Pied Piper of Hamelin?”
“Of course! The man in strange clothes who played a pipe and came to take all the young men away from Saxony. He was obviously a Transylvanian recruiting officer. You did not realise this, perhaps?”
She considered for a minute, and then laughed.
“I think Colonel White is the new Pied Piper. His men, they wear strange clothes with lots of colours, and they recruit many young people to fight enemies far away also.”
She reached for her glass and lifted it.
Winking at him, she raised it to her lips and drained it in a single shot. Green followed suit - and almost choked.
“My God! It tastes like cleaning fluid! What on earth is it?”
She grinned back at him. “Plum wine and laurel leaf brandy. I warn you, but you drink it anyway. Is much better with a plate of wild boar and hot oven brick baked bread, but these items do not appear on the menu of the cafeteria. I check.”
She pulled a face and poured herself another drink.
“Two years ago when I graduate I decide that I either join Spectrum or go to Harvard Business School. I am sure I have no problem finding wild boar and hot bread to eat at Harvard. Business people are more adventurous than are military personnel these days.”
Green looked closely at her. “Just why did you apply for a commission in Spectrum, Rodica?”
She grinned back at him. “The Transylvanian legends, Lieutenant! When I learn about the Mysterons and what they do, I know that my career is decided.”
Green raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”
“Why, the walking dead of course! The creatures who take on the forms of the living! Vampires! We fight them for centuries. Now I bring the fight into the modern world. When I find Captain Black I think I drive a stake through his heart.”
Lieutenant Green grinned. “We’ve never managed to get close enough to him to try that yet.” He glanced at his watch. “I’m afraid I have to go - the night shift awaits.”
“You have to work in the night-time?”
“Not have to – just do. Best time of the day. I can get more done in an hour when everybody else has left than during a whole morning.”
She cast a furtive glance around the room and lowered her voice. “I sleep in the night-time. Lock doors. Hang garlic outside.”
His eyebrows shot upwards. “You’re not serious are you, Rodica?”
She grinned. “No, I am of course not serious. But… I am tired now, and I expect tomorrow will be a long day, so I think I turn in shortly. I bid you goodnight, Lieutenant.”
“Very well – I bid you goodnight, Seymour.”
Lieutenant Green drained his glass of rum, reached for his file and set off back to the Tower, almost bumping into Doctor Kovac in the doorway. Under his arm he carried a thick file of notes which he almost dropped as the two men swerved to avoid one another. Almond looked up from her chair, smiled and waved him into the seat that Green had just vacated.
“Good evening, Doctor! You work late also, yes?”
“What? Oh yes, Lieutenant! I have a meeting with Doctor Conrad in a few minutes – there are some aspects of this afternoon’s briefing that I wish to discuss with him.”
“How long have you known Doctor Conrad, Doctor?”
Doctor Kovac peered at her through his pebble glasses, and Almond had to stop herself from breaking into an involuntary grin – the unusually thick lenses made his eyes appear much larger than they actually were, making him look every bit the popular vision of a mad scientist.
“We have known each other many years, Lieutenant. We have collaborated before on a number of projects. The people I work for hold him in very high regard.”
“As do we, Doctor. I did not see him at this afternoon’s briefing – was he not able to attend?”
“Doctor Conrad does not wish to impose himself upon a team of which he is not an official member. He feels that this would be contrary to protocol.”
“That is a great shame, I think. I shall ask Captains Grey and Scarlet to extend an invitation to him to contribute to the briefings.”
Doctor Kovac shook his head vigorously.
“Oh, no! Please do not do that, Lieutenant. He would be most embarrassed, and I know that he has a great deal of his own research to occupy his time. He has specifically asked me to keep him informed of progress so that if he is able to contribute, then I can pass on his suggestions to everyone.”
Almond looked skyward. “Of course – the doctor’s research. I forget! It shall be as he wishes. Would you care for a glass of polinka, Doctor?”
“Thank you, Lieutenant – I confess I am very thirsty. I will have just one, then I must go.”
She filled his glass and was in the process of topping up her own when she looked up to warn him of the strength of it, but she was too late – he’d already drunk it all, and was sniffing curiously at the empty glass.
“Hmm – a most interesting flavour. Thank you Lieutenant; now if you will please excuse me, Doctor Conrad does not like to be kept waiting.”
He got up and left the room as Lieutenant Almond watched him in bemusement. She downed her glass, glanced at her watch and set off for her room, four doors down the corridor from Conrad’s, where she caught a glimpse of Doctor Kovac vanishing inside as she turned the corner.
Ever since she was a young girl growing up with her mother and aunt in their crowded little apartment in the backstreets of Brasov, Rodica Mironescu had been a light sleeper, priding herself upon her ability to wake up instantly and in full knowledge of the cause of her awakening. Her joking about vampires notwithstanding, deep down she suspected that in reality it had been honed by the constant fear of the midnight knock on the door by the Bereznian secret police at a time when she was little more than a baby. The hated Bereznians had been ejected from the country by World Government forces when she was just three years old, but the gift remained - and so it was that as her eyes blinked awake in the early hours of the morning she was already struggling to make sense to the argument that had woken her as it unfolded a few doors away. Though the actual words eluded her, the deep, rasping sound of Doctor Conrad’s voice was unmistakable, and she struggled in vain to hear that of his companion.
She rolled over and looked at the display on the radio. 0300. Evidently Conrad went in for long meetings, assuming that Kovac was still there. Then a door opened, and she just managed to catch a phrase or two from Kovac – and also a few words spoken by a third voice, slightly filtered as if emanating from a radio. There was an edge to that voice. Harsh, she thought - harsh and cruel. She continued to listen for a few minutes longer, but the sounds had died away, and within thirty seconds she was drifting off to sleep again, trying in vain to picture in her mind the face behind that other voice.
On the fourth storey of the Tower, directly beneath the Control Room, Lieutenant Green sat immobile in front of one of the half dozen consoles that were working on different aspects of the same problem. He glanced up at the clock. 0300. He grimaced, not so much at the actual time now but at the thought of trying to present a coherent action plan at the briefing six hours hence. He shook his head and refocused on the screen in front of him. Why? Why was the injector tube scanning system working when an identical configuration in the standby lounge wasn’t? Compared them three times over already – no point in doing it again. Very well then. Turn it round. Forget the standby lounge. Concentrate on the injector tubes. Why are they working?
He crossed over to the console by the door, saved the program and loaded another. Start with the relays, then move on to the timing sequences. Three scanned images at fifty megapixels each would require… what? About 300 milliseconds each – no problem. Add the delay for routing the data via the pen depth compensator. Let’s say 135 milliseconds. But the pre-analysis sequence in the Tower commences exactly 400 milliseconds after the activation of the camera. So how the devil…?
Now very wide awake, he moved to the adjoining console, loaded a spreadsheet and started checking the timings. It took him a further half hour to work out why the whole thing worked – by which time he was not a happy bunny.
Captain Grey returned from the bathroom, still dripping with water from head to toe from an exhilarating ten minutes in the power shower. “You got a bathrobe, ‘lanta?”
“On the back of the door.”
He looked round and removed it from its hanger. He put it on. Perfect fit.
“Bit big for you, isn’t it?”
“It’s Troy’s, you clot.”
“I thought you said he was a perfect gentleman?”
“That’s right.” She rolled over and gazed at him with languid eyes. He knew that look - she’d had a pretty good time of it too.
While he dried himself off and dressed she took herself off into the bathroom, emerging fifteen minutes later in her WASP uniform, her cropped auburn hair wrapped in a large hand-towel fashioned into a turban. He took his time admiring the effect.
“I really can’t imagine you in anything other than that uniform, ‘lanta. It fits you like a glove. I’m quite convinced they designed it specifically to make you look good in it.”
She grinned and gave him a twirl. “Why do you think I’ve never thought of leaving the service? You’ll stay for breakfast, I take it?”
“If you’re offering.”
“I’m offering. I’ve got eggs, liver and bacon – will that do you?”
He smiled appreciatively. “You’ve got a good memory.”
And she’d obviously made a point of having all those items in the fridge before last night, he realised. He strolled over to the bedroom window and gazed out at the base as she walked through into the kitchen and set about cooking breakfast. Did he have any regrets about leaving? Only the one – but he realised with a guilty start how faint she’d grown in his memory since then. Seeing her again for the first time in three years had brought it all flooding back. And as to the night before last…
Had he been serious about that second marriage proposal? Immediately afterwards, he hadn’t been sure what had got into him, but with the hindsight of two remarkable nights… No, remarkable wasn’t the word. He put the whole question onto his mental “To Do” list with a high priority, and walked out to join her in the kitchen.
Sitting down at the table, he stopped stone dead, his face frozen in a caricature of disbelief.
“Atlanta – what is that?”
She glanced round from the cooker, identified the object of his gaze and returned to the task of frying the bacon.
“That, Brad, is a seal.”
Grey ground his teeth. “I know it’s a seal, Atlanta! What the hell is it doing on your breakfast table?”
She rolled her eyes and turned to face him with her hands on her hips.
“It’s having its breakfast, for heaven’s sake! What do you think it’s doing on the breakfast table?”
Captain Grey took a tentative step closer to the table and peered down at the little creature, which was nibbling away at a small plate of pilchards.
“Is it house-trained?”
“His name’s Oink. He’s Marina’s pet - I look after him when she’s out on patrol with Troy and Phones. He has a little pool out on the patio, and he’s got the run of the house. And he only poos in your corn flakes if he doesn’t like you – so be nice to him, okay?”
“Okay! Whatever you say, ‘lanta – whatever you say.”
He turned his attention to the steaming plate of eggs, liver and bacon that she put in front of him, glancing up occasionally to keep a wary eye on the little seal. Atlanta returned to the cooker, picked up the other plate of food and joined him at the table.
“Can I ask a question about current WASP procedures, ‘lanta?”
“Precisely why does Marina accompany Troy and Phones on patrol?”
“Father changed the rules when we realised what an asset she was. She’s a Pacifican. Her race has some quite remarkable abilities.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh yes?”
“I’m serious! She has a sort-of sixth sense when it comes to reacting to danger at the bottom of the ocean. She’s saved Stingray from destruction at least three times to my personal knowledge, and I know Troy considers her to be at least as useful to him as a state-of-the-art sonar array, holographic satellite guidance and sting missile arsenal rolled into one. She’s quite pretty too.”
“From what I’ve heard on the grapevine, that’s something of an understatement.”
“All right then, she’s a stunner.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting her.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
On the other side of the table, Oink polished off the final pilchard with a little slurp. Atlanta arose from her place, tore off a sheet of kitchen towel from the dispenser and wiped his mouth with it, then picked him up and deposited him on the floor, where he waddled off out onto the patio. Grey shook his head in wonder, then turned back to the liver and bacon. Halfway between the plate and his mouth, the fork stopped.
“About Marina. Is Troy availing himself of her services after hours, so to speak?”
She shrugged. “I guess it’s likely. I imagine Troy’s tried it on, but as to whether he’s succeeded…”
“You mean… you don’t know?”
“Since you come to mention it, actually no - I don’t.”
He raised his eyebrows in astonishment. “You serious? Do you mean you and she don’t talk about it? I thought women shared all their little secrets when the men aren’t around.”
She looked at him in astonishment, and then to his surprise burst out laughing.
“Of course! You don’t know, do you?”
“Don’t know what?”
“She can’t speak.”
“What – not at all?”
“No. She’s completely dumb – in the literal sense. We know that her race has certain telepathic abilities, and they use those to communicate between themselves, but those abilities aren’t shared with Terraineans.”
“But even so – surely you’ve got some idea? Female intuition and all that?”
“No – I really don’t. Sure, women usually have a pretty good idea of what their friends are getting up to between the sheets, but not in Marina’s case. The body language is completely different – I’ve got no idea what she’s thinking on any subject at all.”
He shook his head. “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Even if she can’t speak, you could still communicate in writing, couldn’t you?”
She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “So what do you expect me to do then? Pick up a piece of paper and write ‘Are you screwing Troy?’ on it? Get real, Brad – she’s my friend, for heaven’s sake. And in any case, no – it wouldn’t work. She has genuine dyslexia: the concept of the written word as we understand it is completely alien to her. We’ve tried to teach her several times, and she’s managed to master a few basic phrases, but it’s an uphill struggle. But going back to the earlier point, I’m not even sure she can.”
“You know. Do it.”
His eyes opened wide. “What – you mean…?”
“Yes – that.”
“Because she’s an amphibian, Brad! Her reproductive system is probably completely incompatible with ours. I’ve no idea whether she’s physically capable of making love as we understand the term, or whether she’d derive any pleasure from it if she is.”
“I am looking forward to meeting her!”
“Well, don’t start getting any ideas. Troy’s very protective towards her, and as I said, she’s my friend.”
Grey’s epaulettes flashed green. He looked at Atlanta, raised an eyebrow and he reached out for his cap, putting it on and activating the mike simultaneously.
“Good morning Lieutenant – what can I do for you?”
“Captain – can we meet up this morning?”
“Sure – the briefing starts at nine.”
“No – I mean before the briefing. I’ve already got Captain Scarlet with me. There are some… technical details that we need to discuss. I guess it’ll take about half an hour.”
“Sure, Lieutenant – I’ll come right over.”
“Actually, Captain, we thought perhaps we could talk over an early morning stroll. How about we meet you near the fountain in the plaza in say fifteen minutes?”
Grey considered rapidly. Something was up – that was obvious. Also it was clear that Green didn’t want to talk about it over an open channel. If Scarlet was there already it meant that Green had contacted him earlier - so he’d probably also tried to put a conventional call through to Grey’s suite and failed to find him there. That in turn meant that he knew Grey probably wasn’t alone - but even knowing that, he’d placed the call anyway - which meant that it was serious.
“No problem, Lieutenant.”
He looked up at Atlanta and smiled apologetically. “Duty calls, I’m afraid. Shall I see you at the briefing?”
She nodded. “I’ll be there. I can’t promise that Father will be any less antagonistic towards the project now than he’s been since the start of it, I’m afraid.”
He shrugged. “We’re not paid to have a nice time. Let’s just see how it goes, shall we?”
He gave her a wink and a smile, and walked out of the apartment in the direction of the plaza.
Captain Grey breathed in deeply at the scent of the early morning air. A raucous cawing high above his head caused him to look up into the sky; a seagull sailed over his head and swerved in the air to land gracefully on the roof of a nearby equipment store, where it perched and peered down at him disdainfully as he walked past. He found himself wondering briefly why the Mysterons had apparently never considered taking over wildlife in their continual battle with humanity: even one seagull could do a hell of a lot of damage if sufficiently motivated. Perhaps they feel that their war with us doesn’t concern any other species, he mused. Just as well too: the faint memory of an old black-and-white movie popped into his head, in which an isolated town fell prey to flocks of vicious birds. How old had he been when he saw that movie – seven or eight? Frightened the living daylights out of him, it had.
Turning the corner into the plaza, he spotted Scarlet and Green instantly: in a military village where every uniform was pretty much the colour of his own, if just a little lighter, the captain and lieutenant stood out like a pair of beacons. They spotted him in the same instant, and turned to walk towards him, Scarlet gesturing towards an unoccupied bench near the fountain. They arrived at the seat simultaneously, and sat down. Green turned to him immediately.
“It’s sabotage, Captain.”
“No doubt at all?”
Lieutenant Green shook his head. “None whatsoever. It’s quite a sophisticated little piece of work – set up by somebody who knows exactly what they’re doing. If it hadn’t been for the detail that the submarine pens have their own generator, I’d never have found it.”
“Can you elaborate?”
“Out of all the systems we’ve been trying to set up over the last two months, only one actually appears to work, namely the automatic sweep of the injector tubes. The idea is that each time the tubes are used to convey anyone from the Tower to the subs or vice versa, they are scanned with Mysteron detectors. The system is designed not only to deliver a readout before the personnel being conveyed arrive at their destination, but also clandestinely to prime a battery of automated countermeasures. To do that, the software we’ve written has to carry out some pretty fast processing, bearing in mind that the journey takes slightly less than three minutes.”
“I was asking myself last night how it was that the system scanning the standby lounge wasn’t functioning when the injector tubes system was. The two are identical, except for one small difference: the submarine pens use a different generator. It’s something that we built in to ensure that a missile attack on Marineville wouldn’t affect our ability to launch.”
Captain Grey nodded. “Yes, I remember that.”
“Well, the end result of that is that the analysis software is running on one system while the scanners in the pens are working on another. That introduces a small delay into the speed at which the system as a whole can deliver a result. That delay is greater than the time taken for the injector tubes to complete their journey.”
“But that means that the system shouldn’t actually be working, doesn’t it?”
“That’s right. We’ve got a genuine problem there which we have to solve. But the system is working. Or so we thought until this morning. Actually it isn’t. Somebody has isolated the scanner subsystem, and written a fake one which supplies a false set of images to the analyser. The software needed to do that is running on the analyser in the Tower – which is why the results are delivered faster than they should be. Those images are of normal humans viewed in X-ray, and are selected from an image database linked to Marineville’s personnel files. The system knows who is supposed to be using the tubes, so it substitutes the appropriate images. A Mysteronised reconstruction of anyone on the base wouldn’t be detected – effectively making the whole thing useless.”
“God Almighty! Yes, I can see why you wanted to talk about this before the briefing! Shore would probably accuse us of rigging the system to make it appear that we’d fixed it! But wait a minute - if we don’t tell him, we get no WASP co-operation in finding the real saboteur – and it seems to me that we’re going to need help on this.”
Captain Scarlet had been contemplating his shoes. “Assuming that the real saboteur isn’t one of us, of course.”
Grey looked up, shocked. “Are you serious, Scarlet?”
“I’m afraid I am. It wouldn’t be the first time that an otherwise honest man faked his results when placed under extreme pressure to deliver – and the pressure to deliver on this occasion is intense. Spectrum’s credibility is at stake on this - and you have to admit that our own team probably has more expertise to set up a scam like that than the WASPs. We’ve got six people working on this project, excluding ourselves. I think the first thing we’re going to have to do is to take a good hard look at each of them. And I also think we have to keep this to ourselves at least until we’ve satisfied ourselves that this isn’t a home-grown problem.” His eyes narrowed. “Do you think it could be an attempt by Commander Shore to discredit us?”
Grey shook his head vigorously. “Unthinkable. He may be a bit of a bear with a sore head, but he’s an honourable man with a distinguished service record. As I see it he’s the one person we can definitely rule out – not least because he’s got nothing to gain by it. I don’t think he’s got anything against Spectrum per se – he just wants us off his patch.”
Scarlet considered, then nodded.
“Accepted. Also, if he wanted to prevent this system going in he’d sabotage it so that it didn’t work, not so that it apparently did. The problem is that he’s sufficiently angry about the way the whole thing’s been handled so far I don’t feel we can trust him to side with us in a showdown over Lieutenant Green’s little discovery.”
“Could it actually be the Mysterons?”
“Perhaps. But as far as we know there are no Mysteron agents on the base – we’ve scanned everyone with hand-held detectors several times, much to Shore’s annoyance. And anyway, wouldn’t it be more like the Mysterons to pull one of those little tricks of theirs like changing the molecular structure of some component, or something like that? No, I feel this saboteur is rather closer to home.”
“How about Titan?”
Scarlet shrugged. “Why? What interest would he have in a system to detect Mysterons? I dare say he’d be pleased enough with the Mysterons if they blew up Marineville for him to consider sending them a Christmas card, but hardly sufficiently motivated actually to engage in sabotage on their behalf. Unless he’s working with them, I suppose. That doesn’t ring true though – the Mysterons have never shown any interest in acquiring allies.” He chuckled. “Unless they’ve Mysteronised him, of course.”
“Suppose they have?”
“Then we’d have heard a threat by now. They don’t Mysteronise just for the hell of it: they do it with a specific purpose in mind, and then they tell us what that purpose is – more often than not when their agent is already in place and ready to act. That’s why getting this programme of automated detectors up and running is so important.”
He glanced at his watch. “Time we were going, gentlemen. So – we keep this under wraps for now, agreed? Lieutenant: you will outline the plan of campaign as we discussed yesterday afternoon, placing particular emphasis on getting the standby lounge system operational as soon as possible. The second that’s up and running, we modify it to handle the injector tube problem, and substitute it for the booby-trapped one – but without telling anyone else. I think we should also re-route the main alarm so that it only tells the three of us of a positive identification. Then we wait and see what happens.”
Lieutenant Green frowned. “What are we waiting for, Captain?”
“For the alarm on the injector tube system to be triggered. If it isn’t one of our own team running scared – and I hope to God it isn’t - then presumably somebody somewhere on the base anticipates that it will fail to detect a Mysteron at some time in the not-too-distant future. And we have to be ready and waiting when it does.”
With the morning briefing out of the way, both captains made their way down to the cafeteria, ostensibly to take a little refreshment, but in reality to escape from the watchful eyes of Commander Shore for a few minutes. Already both of them had become accustomed to working under the assumption that their every move was being scrutinised, giving rise to an oppressive atmosphere throughout the control room. Lieutenant Green was already there, and Scarlet was grimly amused to observe his furtive glance around the room before making his way to their table.
“Captain Scarlet, Captain Grey - may I speak to you for a few moments?”
Grey smiled and pulled back a chair. “Of course, Lieutenant – what’s the problem?”
“It’s this business about not confiding in Commander Shore, sir. I’m concerned that we may not have sufficiently thought this through.”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow. “In what way, Lieutenant?”
“Well, it’s like this. We’re anticipating a Mysteron to attempt to be conveyed up into Marineville via the injector tubes from one of the submarine pens. And we know that the system was rigged to substitute an X-ray from Marineville’s own medical database. So the Mysteron is going to be someone on the base – that is, a member of the WASPs.”
“So when that alarm is triggered, we’re going to have only a few seconds to identify and eliminate the Mysteron when he arrives in the standby lounge. And our standard procedure for dealing with Mysteron constructs is to shoot them instantly with a Mysteron gun. We can’t deviate from that procedure because of the risk of the construct self-detonating like Captain Brown did during the attempt on President Younger’s life. But this time the construct is likely to be one of Commander Shore’s own officers – do you see the problem?”
“But Shore can hardly object to the elimination of a direct threat to his headquarters!”
“Strictly speaking, that’s true, of course – but he already objects to what he sees as our throwing our weight around. And the first he’ll know about this whole business is when one of us shoots down somebody who might have been one of his most trusted men. This is a military base where we have no real jurisdiction, and knowing him as I do, I’m afraid his first reaction is going to be to hit the roof.”
Scarlet and Grey looked at each other as the implications sank in. Scarlet spoke first.
“You’re right. You’re absolutely right, damn it - there’s no way out, is there? We’ve got to tell him.”
“As soon as we’ve satisfied ourselves that our own team is in the clear. I suggest we deal with that issue as quickly as possible.”
Grey glanced at his watch. “Let’s sort that out as soon as we go back to the control room, shall we?”
A movement out of the corner of his eye caused him to look up, and the expression on his face brightened instantly. Green noted the change, glanced up to take in the approaching newcomer, grinned and reached for his tray. “I’ll return now, if you’ll excuse me, gentlemen. There are a couple of things I’d prefer to check out on the WASP network while she’s not around to ask me how or why I’m doing them, and now looks like a good time. I’ll need about fifteen minutes, if you can keep her talking.”
Without waiting for a reply, he stood up with a charming smile as Atlanta reached the table with her tray, containing a solitary bread roll and a glass of mineral water.
“Atlanta - hi there! I’m just leaving actually – would you like to sit here?”
She returned the smile and flopped down into the chair. “Thanks, Seymour. Hi Brad, Captain Scarlet – how’s it going, guys? God, it’s good to be out of that control room for a few minutes, believe me! I’ve never known the atmosphere to be so oppressive before! Father’s really being difficult this morning. Everything everybody does is wrong – Lieutenant Fisher’s been barked at twice for no good reason that I can see, and even the tracking station operators are asking me what’s got into him.”
Grey passed her a pat of strawberry jam. “I imagine we’re the cause of that, Atlanta. Sorry.”
“Oh! I’m sure it’s noth… well, that is… but…” She took a bite out of the roll and gulped down a mouthful of the water. “Well, yes - it probably is, actually. Never mind. Don’t you worry about it - he’ll get better once you’ve started producing some results.”
She took another sip from the glass and settled back into her chair, visibly relaxing. “The problem is that he’s not in control of events. Things have been going wrong around him that he can’t sort out, and that frustrates him, you know? He needs to feel that he’s doing something – and that can be really hard work for the rest of us.”
Scarlet leaned forward in his chair. “Isn’t he overreacting a little, Miss Shore? The defective systems have been shut down - he doesn’t need to be concerned about the day-to-day operation of the base, if that’s what’s bothering him.”
She shook her head. “It’s not that. He’s actually well aware that the Mysteron threat is genuine, and that the base has to be secure against it. Because he can’t do that himself, he needs to feel that he’s got people around him on whom he can rely absolutely – and the awesome capabilities of the Mysterons deny him that assurance. The idea that someone he’s known for years could suddenly turn out to be an implacable enemy strikes right at the centre of his world. He desperately needs this system to work – but at the same time he’s intensely cynical of anyone who promises that this or that system will solve all his problems for him – which is exactly what Spectrum have tried to do and failed. His instinct is to throw you all out and rely on his own judgement as to who his friends and who his enemies are, but he knows he can’t do that in practice – so he has to move heaven and earth to get you to sort this mess out for him instead.”
She took another sip from her glass of water, put it down on the tray and shifted in her chair as if to stand up. Grey glanced at the clock – only ten minutes had passed since Lieutenant Green returned to the control room.
“Can you suggest any way that we can - how shall I put it? - oil the wheels a little so that we can enjoy a smoother working relationship with him?”
She shook her head. “Only by delivering what he wants – in full and on time. And even that may not be enough. His quarrel isn’t with you personally – it’s with the whole Spectrum organisation. Part of the reason for that is that his position on the JCS means that he’s one of the very few people who have actually seen the video of the destruction of the complex on Mars that started this war. He therefore knows of Captain Black’s role in that sequence of events – and Black was a serving Spectrum officer. Rightly or wrongly, he believes that the wrong man was chosen for the mission – and that calls into question the judgement of the Spectrum top brass. If you look at it from that angle he’s not being quite as irrational as he seems.”
She glanced at the clock on the wall and stood up to go. Scarlet began to rise also, then stopped suddenly, staring at another man who was sitting alone at a table on the other side of the room, eating a sandwich and reading through a sheaf of papers.
“Who is that man, Miss Shore?”
She followed the direction of his gaze.
“You mean you don’t you recognise him, Captain? That’s Doctor Conrad! You wrote to us about three months ago, vouching for his security rating when he requested access to our meteorological research facilities, remember?”
Scarlet shook his head, astonished at his own failure to place the other.
“Yes, of course it is! Amazing how difficult it can be to identify somebody in the wrong context, isn’t it? Would you excuse me, Miss Shore?”
He crossed the room at a brisk walk, leaving Grey to accompany Atlanta back to the control room and to stall her further should the need arise, though he noted that Lieutenant Green’s fifteen minutes had now expired, and he had no doubt that the lieutenant would have completed whatever nefarious activity he’d been engaged in by the time Atlanta returned.
“Doctor Conrad! We meet again! How are you?”
The other looked up in surprise as Scarlet approached his table, a genial smile spreading across his face as he rose out of his chair. Scarlet took the other’s offered hand, wincing slightly at the strength of the other’s handshake. Simultaneously, Conrad’s other hand went to his throat in an apologetic gesture.
“Best not to get too close, Captain! I seem to have got a nasty attack of laryngitis at the moment. How are you, anyway?”
He certainly has, thought Scarlet – the other’s words had come out as barely above a whisper. “I’m very well, thank you, Doctor. How are they looking after you here?”
Conrad made an expansive gesture that encompassed the view out of the window. “Marvellous! The facilities here could scarcely be better suited to my purpose. I feel as if I’ve been on vacation for the last two months.”
Scarlet grinned. “I suggest you don’t tell them that, Doctor – they’ll start charging you rent.”
Conrad shrugged. “I don’t think so – at the moment they seem to be making rather better use of me than I am of them. You’re here to investigate the problems they’ve been having with their new security system, I suppose?”
“That’s right. In what way are you helping them, Doctor?”
“I was here when the problems started. I spent quite a lot of time talking to the members of your team about the software incompatibilities that seem to be responsible for most of the problems – so much that my own work began to fall behind schedule, so in the end I suggested to the commander that a colleague of mine be brought in as an advisor. He’s been here for just over a month now, leaving me with a little free time to pursue my own research.”
“Very kind of you, Doctor – thank you. What exactly did you say you were researching here? I’m afraid my recollection of your request for a reference is a little hazy – not that I’d have understood the technical details anyway, you understand.”
Conrad nodded. “Long-term changes to the structure of the upper atmosphere brought about by near-Earth objects logged by the Concordia project. Marineville hosts the most comprehensive database of meteorological data in the world, and I have a number of theories about their effect on atmospheric ionisation that I wish to test. You are familiar with Concordia, Captain?”
“Only the name, and the fact that it’s logging a phenomenal amount of data – asteroid fragments, isn’t it? Lieutenant Green tells me that observing the Mysterons has become something of a sideshow for the Phobos lander, especially since they don’t seem to do very much down there on Mars from one month to the next.”
“That’s right! The database is overflowing with interesting astral data – a comprehensive analysis will take years.”
“Can’t you access it remotely?”
Conrad shook his head. “It’s not the same as being here – the personal contact with the team that runs it more than makes up for the inconvenience of being separated from my own facilities back at Space City. And anyway…” - he leaned over conspiratorially and lowered his strained half-whispers even further - “… as I said, I feel as if I’ve been on vacation for the last two months. Not something to complain about when NAAPA is footing the bill, eh?”
Scarlet grinned. “I take your point. A shame about your throat though.”
“What better place to effect a recovery! But I shall probably confine myself to my room for the next few days. In fact, I’m not really feeling too good right now – would you excuse me?”
“Of course, Doctor.”
Conrad rose out of his seat and made his way to the exit, while Scarlet returned to his table. Neither Grey nor Atlanta was still there however, and he made his way back to the control room, where Lieutenant Green gave him a cheery wave as he walked in. Scarlet looked meaningfully at him and nodded towards his office, into which he then walked. Green joined him a few seconds later, and quietly closed the door.
“Did you manage to get whatever it was you were after, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, Captain, thank you.”
“What was it, anyway?”
“Personnel records of everyone on the base, cross-referenced against their commanding officers’ appraisals of their strengths, weaknesses, potential for promotion, coping with stress, performance under fire and so on. I recommend that you review it on the screen in your own office only. Please don’t take a hard copy of any of it – the main printer is located right next to Commander Shore’s office.”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you were able to access this, Lieutenant.”
Green shrugged. “It wasn’t difficult with Atlanta out of the room – but it goes without saying that I’ve had to disregard a few rules here and there to do it.”
“You mean you’ve cracked Marineville’s security system six ways from Sunday?”
“Well… I suppose if you put it that way, yes.”
Scarlet suppressed a grin. “Your lack of principle and flagrant disregard for the security of highly confidential information profoundly disturbs me, Lieutenant.”
“Thank you, sir. Would you excuse me, Captain? I feel it’s not wise to spend too much time behind closed doors around here at present.”
“Agreed. I’ll catch up with you later, Lieutenant. Do you happen to know where Grey and Atlanta are at the moment, by the way?”
“Captain Grey asked Atlanta to give him a whistle-stop tour of the current scene of operations of the team, sir – he wanted to see where they all are and what they’re doing.” He glanced at his watch. “They should be back any time now.”
Lieutenant Green returned to his console in the main area of the control room. Scarlet shut the door, and spent the next half an hour reviewing the files that Green had downloaded for him – particularly those relating to personnel to whom he’d already been introduced. They made interesting reading, particularly the sections that were clearly of no relevance to the current problem, and he had to force himself to concentrate on those that did. There was nothing to ring any alarm bells however, and tiring of the task, he returned to the files relating to the team for which Grey and he had become responsible. He had just finished reading through the final one when the door opened and Captain Grey returned.
“You’ve been doing the rounds, I understand?”
Grey nodded. “That’s right – observing them in their natural habitat, as it were.”
Scarlet leaned back in his chair and looked up at his companion speculatively.
“So how are we going to play this, Captain?”
Grey took his time before replying.
“They’re a team of exceptionally highly-qualified and dedicated individuals who probably feel that they’re taking a lot of flak for something that isn’t directly their personal fault. At the same time, they obviously recognise that there’s something very strange going on here, and they understand that their own reputations are inextricably linked to the success or failure of the project as a whole. They won’t shirk taking responsibility for it – because as professionals they understand that they’ve no choice in the matter - but they aren’t going to appreciate being personally blamed for it either.”
Scarlet nodded slowly.
“Agreed. Though I can see them being quite guarded about volunteering any suspicions they might have. They’re going to be pretty wary of us, as I see it. They’re not going to be fooled by the ‘whose fault do you think it is?’ routine – each will be aware that he’s pinned to the same microscope slide as the rest of them. The problem I’ve got at the moment is Lieutenant Green’s little discovery. We’re going to have to keep quiet about that, it seems to me.”
It was Captain Grey’s turn to nod thoughtfully. “Yes. No way out of that. Let that cat out of the bag and the saboteur will know his game’s up. It’s not enough to put a stop to it – we’ve got to catch him and find out what the hell he’s up to. All right – the two lieutenants, then. If I do Sable, will you do Almond?”
Scarlet nodded. “Sure. See you back here at the end of the morning to compare notes – shall we say 1300 hours?”
“Do you always wear that colour, Lieutenant?”
Lieutenant Almond brushed a speck of dust off the cream-coloured overalls that she’d donned to protect her uniform from the grime in the ducting through which she’d been scrambling all morning, and met Scarlet’s eyes with a tinge of defiance.
“Whenever I can, Captain. For this reason I have chosen it as my designation. I think that had Almond not been available when I received my commission then I should have instantly resigned it. I turned down the offer of a business scholarship at Harvard to join Spectrum, and I have asked myself many times over the last few weeks whether that decision was correct. Almond matches the colour of my eyes, does it not? However, we are not here to talk about that, are we?”
It was not a question – more of a challenge, offering Scarlet the choice of opening move. He chose wisely, with an open smile and an apologetic gesture with his hands.
“We’re in a mess, Lieutenant. I’m not here to start finger-pointing. I’m simply here to make sure the whole thing works when we all leave – and the sooner we can all go home, the happier I shall be. I’ve read your file, and I’m familiar with your record. You are the best there is – if you can’t crack it then nobody can. So what’s going on here, please?”
She studied him for a long second, then inclined her head slightly.
“Actually I am not the best there is. I am the second-best there is - Doctor Conrad has a better understanding of the problem than I. Without him we would not have made even the limited progress that we have. I admit this. His experience in the field has been invaluable. However, even he is baffled.”
“And yet one system appears to be working properly, doesn’t it?”
She frowned. “The injector tubes are working, yes. Doctor Conrad says that this clearly demonstrates that we are making progress. I would like to agree with him, of course, but…”
“But we cannot take the credit for it. I am not prepared to accept that it works when other systems that should work perfectly do not. At college I learn that problems that go away by themselves can come back by themselves. I am suspicious.”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow in astonishment.
“You understand that that success is the only one the team has been accredited with so far – and you’re prepared to dismiss it as ‘suspicious’?”
She tossed her hair and glared back at him.
“Yes. Myself I consider the possibility that it has been interfered with to make it appear that it works when it does not. I check it over many times. I watch everyone like a hawk. I have seen nothing to make me concerned. And yet I am suspicious.”
Scarlet glanced at his watch. “I have another meeting in just under five minutes, Lieutenant. You’ve been very frank with me. I appreciate it.”
She inclined her head and stood up to leave. Thoughtfully, Scarlet watched her walk away. Either you’re as honest as the day is long or you’re the best actor ever to join Spectrum, he thought. Either way, you’re as sharp as anyone I’ve ever met.
Lieutenant Sable scowled.
“If I knew the answer to this you wouldn’t be here, sir. One thing I do know – it’s not trivial. This software…” He waved his hands around in the air, looking desperately for a suitably descriptive verb. “It’s as if it mutates. Oh, I know how ludicrous that sounds, but it’s the best I can manage by way of an explanation.”
Captain Grey frowned. “You mean it changes? But how can something you’ve written change into something else, Lieutenant?”
Sable shook his head. “That’s not quite what I mean. You have to understand that we don’t actually write the software directly – what we do is to define the parameters within which the neural infrastructure evolves. The software learns what we want to do, and structures itself in the most efficient way to achieve that objective. Nobody writes raw code these days. But anyway, what’s happening is that the synaptic matrix is misinterpreting our objectives. I don’t know how or why – but it is. That ridiculous problem we had just before you arrived, for example. When we finally managed to interpret the system’s reasoning process, it turned out that it had satisfied itself that a positive identification had taken place, but that because nobody had apprehended the Mysteron it was critically important to disable all the escape routes – and they happened to be the elevators.”
“Could it be a computer virus, perhaps?”
Sable shook his head decisively. “Not possible! One of the after-effects of the 2028 war was that every last scrap of computing equipment manufactured had virus detection and elimination routines built in as standard – not surprising in view of the almost unbelievable set of circumstances that caused the war in the first place. No, it’s not anything like that – the system is simply misunderstanding what we’re trying to do. I’ve spent countless hours with Rodica – sorry, Lieutenant Almond - and Doctor Conrad going through all this. They’ve been making phenomenal progress at identifying the reason for each mishap as it occurs, despite one or two misunderstandings on account of the Eastern European accent. Having said that, they’re still really attacking symptoms, I’m afraid – the root cause is still a mystery.”
“You rate Lieutenant Almond highly, then?
Lieutenant Sable took a deep breath and rolled his eyes.
“She’s incredible. The speed at which she thinks has to be experienced to be believed. Whatever she’s working on, she’s got to the solution while the rest of us are still trying to define the problem. Oh, she takes short cuts sometimes – rather like leaping over streams while we’re looking for the footbridges – but those short cuts are nearly always warranted. The end almost invariably does justify the means when your back’s against the wall – which is where we are right now.”
“I suppose… you’ve no concerns that anyone on the team might take a short cut or two when it comes to making systems look as if they work?”
Sable met Grey’s eyes with an expressionless face.
“You’re asking me if I think she might have tinkered with the scanning array on the injector tubes, which means you’re suspicious of the fact that it apparently works when every other damn thing around here doesn’t. I’m glad to hear that, because originally I was too. No, she hasn’t – and neither has anybody else. That possibility occurred to me a while back, and I’ve checked it thoroughly. There’s no way it could be done without modifying the system files – and the commander has never granted us access rights.”
Captain Grey nodded slowly without breaking eye contact. “Most people would have responded indignantly that none of their colleagues would ever do such a thing. Why didn’t you?”
Sable looked pained. “Because it’s such an idiotic thing to say! As you obviously know, sir, Spectrum’s selection process includes a series of aptitude tests. When I took those tests, I realised very quickly that some of them couldn’t be passed without breaking the rules. The question therefore became one of whether you could successfully break the rules – that is, break the rules without getting caught. Since then I’ve avoided presuming anything at all about what my colleagues might or might not be prepared to do. My assessment is based purely on the facts – and the facts indicate that there’s no way it could be done.”
Grey grinned. “As you say, Lieutenant.”
He got up. “Thank you for helping me with this. There’s another meeting I have to go into now – you’ll excuse me.”
“Of course, sir.”
He left the room and headed off back to his office in the Tower, where Scarlet and Lieutenant Green were waiting for him.
“Lieutenant Sable was apparently himself suspicious of the working system, but satisfied himself that it couldn’t be doctored without access to the system files in the control room, which nobody on the original team has. Is he correct, Lieutenant?”
Green considered. “Strictly speaking, yes he is. But if he’s sufficiently clever to break enough rules and get away with it, that problem could be overcome.”
Grey laughed. “That’s pretty much what he said! But I think he’s on the level – not least because he was perfectly open about accepting the possibility of sabotage, only dismissing it on the grounds that it couldn’t physically be done. What about Lieutenant Almond?”
Scarlet looked up from his half-finished report.
“She actually suggested the possibility to me, and admitted that she’d been watching out for any sign of foul play. With both of them aware of the possibility, and obviously keeping an eye on each other and everybody else in the team as well, I’d say we’ve got pretty good reasons to believe that it’s nobody on our side.”
“So now for Commander Shore.”
The commander leaned back in his wheelchair and peered back at the two captains through the haze of his cigar smoke, his face inscrutable.
“You’re telling me that we have a bad apple in the barrel, gentlemen. I’m not at all sure I wanted to hear that.”
“We understand that, sir. Nevertheless it’s clear that you need to know.”
“Damn right I do! Well now, gentlemen, that puts a rather different complexion on things, doesn’t it? Exactly what shade of complexion I couldn’t say.”
Scarlet raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Sir?”
“Is this bad apple in my section of the barrel or yours, Captain?”
“With respect, sir, does it matter? The security of the base…”
“Of COURSE it matters! If I find out that you’ve brought this problem with you I’ll order my hydromic missile crews to use Cloudbase for target practice! And as for you lot, by God, I’ll…”
Commander Shore checked himself with an obvious effort, stubbed out the remains of his cigar and reached for a glass of water while Scarlet and Grey waited silently. By the time he spoke again the tantrum had evaporated like the smoke cloud above his head.
“Well anyway. I think I can assume that you two gentlemen have formulated at least the outline of a plan of campaign to track this bad apple down. Perhaps you’d be so good as to tell me what it is.”
Captain Grey reached down and picked up the slim folder that he’d deposited on the floor earlier, opened it up and handed over a single sheet of paper.
“This is a summary of the actions we propose to take, sir. You’ll see that it includes maintaining a constant watch on the injector tubes, and ensuring that we can contact you immediately at all times in the event of the alarm being triggered. To that end, we will need our cap-based communication system interfaced directly to the WASP communications network. As a backup, Scarlet, Green and I would like personal transceivers that can reach you personally at any time of the day or night.”
“No problem - Atlanta can supply you with those. This buggy’s fully wired for such things, since the hydromics can’t be launched without my personal say-so. Anything else, gentlemen?”
“Very well. So… now we wait.”
Captain Scarlet had found himself dropping into the habits of the Tower remarkably quickly. Not previously someone to find himself in need of either elevenses in the middle of the morning or afternoon tea at 1600 hours – a practice introduced by Atlanta, who picked it up from her English mother - he found himself actively looking forward to the excuse to take a turn around the control room as the hands of the clock crept towards the designated break. There was, after all, a limit to the number of times one could ask how things were coming along.
“May I ask what this bank of equipment does, Miss Shore?”
She looked up at him from her chair with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Please call me Atlanta, Captain – and would I be right in thinking that your day’s beginning to drag a little?”
He looked back at her apologetically. “Just a little, yes. Is it that obvious?”
She inclined her head with a grin and a pensive air.
“You’re now an expert on the workings of the tracking relay, the hydromic missile sequencing array, the satellite navigation network and the hydraulic elevators beneath this building that lower it into the ground when we’re at Battle Stations – and those are just the ones I’ve explained to you! This one’s the launch control and ocean door activation console. Talking of which…”
Glancing at the insistent flashing light that had materialised on the far left-hand side of the schematic, she leaned over and reached for the microphone for what seemed like the twentieth time that morning.
“Tower to Power Plant! Tower to Power Plant – open ocean door please.”
Unlike a normal working day, this time the response was almost immediate. Evidently they hadn’t managed to find time to get the usual game of chess under way yet, she thought.
“Power Plant… opening ocean door. Would you like us to leave it open for the next one this time, Atlanta?”
She grinned back at Scarlet and rolled her eyes in mock disgust.
“No I wouldn’t, Power Plant - it’s far too draughty up here already! Shut the damn thing at once, will you – I’ll let you know if and when the next guest arrives to join the party. Tower out!”
Scarlet watched as yet another luminous blip made its way along the length of the schematic of the launch tunnel towards the base.
“I assume it’s not usually this busy, Miss Shore, is that right?”
She tossed her hair and shook her head with a smile.
“We’ve had so many comings and goings this morning that it’s a miracle we haven’t had a collision! Much more of this and we’re going to need a set of traffic lights at each end.”
“Maybe you ought to dig a second tunnel.”
She nodded. “It was actually considered when the base was built. The location of Marineville was chosen because of the exceptionally hard rock formations underneath the peninsula, which provided good natural protection for our missile banks. The base is better protected than Cheyenne Mountain when we’re under attack. But for the same reason the rock is incredibly hard to excavate.”
A sharp intake of breath from Lieutenant Green’s console made him look up.
“Captain Scarlet! Quickly!”
“What is it, Lieutenant?”
“Sir! The injector tube scanning system! The alarm on my board’s been triggered! There’s a Mysteron on his way up to the Tower!”
Scarlet swung round and banged on the window of the office that he and Grey shared, causing his companion to appear at the door within two seconds with a taut look on his face.
Grey’s cap mike snapped instantly into position. “Commander Shore - we’ve got a positive reading on the injectors. We need you in the standby lounge immediately, sir.”
“On my way, Holden – on my way. Which pen is it?”
Green glanced down at his screen. “Pen number three, sir”
Even across the room, Lieutenant Green heard the intake of breath from the small loudspeaker inside Grey’s cap.
“What? Captain – that’s Stingray! Troy, Phones and Marina are in those chairs! On no account whatsoever are you to fire on the occupants of the chairs, do you understand?”
“Are you DEAF, Captain? That’s a direct order – you will not open fire!”
Grey looked at Scarlet in bewilderment; the latter shook his head and set off for the standby lounge at a run, with Grey only a couple of steps behind him. Reaching the standby lounge together, each drew his Mysteron gun from its holster and trained it on the top of the shaft. Even as they aimed, the increasingly audible hydraulic whine of the injectors told them that chairs were seconds from rising into view.
“If either of you pulls the trigger, gentlemen, I’ll have you court-martialled. That is, if either of you is still alive.”
Commander Shore had appeared in the doorway of the lounge, accompanied by a WASP security guard with a drawn gun.
Neither captain lowered his aim. Grey spoke urgently.
“Sir – with respect, I don’t think you understand the situation. The Mysterons have the ability to turn their agents into living bombs at any time. They can destroy this command centre and everyone in it!”
“I understand that you are about to condemn one or more of my people to death on the strength of a possibly flawed detection system, Holden. Lower your weapons or I’ll order my guard to shoot you down.”
The two Spectrum captains glanced at one another, then slowly and reluctantly lowered the guns as the three chairs rose into view.
“What the hell is this?”
Commander Shore rolled his hover-chair forward.
“Sorry, Troy. You, Sheridan and Marina are under arrest. If you make any attempt to resist, my guard will shoot to kill.”
Troy and Phones both looked around the room in bewilderment. Troy made a move to leave his chair, then thought better of it as the guard’s gun moved to follow him.
“This sure is some reception committee you’ve arranged for us, Commander! Would you mind telling us what we’re supposed to have done?”
“I think perhaps you’d better ask these gentlemen, Captain.”
Troy turned to face the two Spectrum officers, then blinked in astonishment as he recognised the former captain of the vessel he’d just left.
“Brad? My God, it’s Brad Holden! Brad – what’s going on here?”
Captain Grey managed a tight smile. “We have reason to believe that one of you three is a Mysteron, Troy. I hope it’s not you, really I do.”
Behind him he heard the faint familiar whirr of a Mysteron detector. Glancing across the room he saw Lieutenant Green standing in the doorway, lowering the device. Phones likewise spotted him, his face breaking into a broad grin.
“Hey! It’s Seymour too! How you doing, Seymour?”
“Hi, Phones. Let you know in a minute, okay?”
He extracted the plate and glanced at it. “Captain Tempest is clear, Commander.” He raised the device a second time and pointed it at his friend at Troy’s side. Taking care to make no sudden movements, Troy rose out of his seat and stepped away from the top of the shaft.
“You want me to smile for the camera, buddy?”
Green suppressed a grin and pressed the button. It certainly sounded like the authentic Phones – but then, of course, it would. On the other side of the room, both Scarlet and Grey were watching all three members of the Stingray crew for any sign of an impending detonation: each had independently decided that if they saw the slightest indication of smoke they would take their chances with Shore’s guard and open fire. But there was nothing. Scarlet began to wonder what would happen if none of them gave a positive indication. Certainly the project would be finished – and quite possibly his own career with it.
Green watched intently as the detector yielded its second print. “Nothing. You’re human, Phones.”
“Sure glad to hear it.”
Lieutenant Sheridan followed his skipper into the lounge, joining him a few metres from the two Spectrum captains. Green raised the detector for the third time, and pointed it at the silent girl in the green dress sitting in the last of the three seats, between and behind the two now empty chairs. Grey took his first real look at her as he heard the click of the button. Atlanta’s right, he thought, I can’t read her at all. Her face had an ethereal quality, which betrayed no emotion as the group waited for the result of the final scan. If she’s the one, she’s one hell of a cool customer, he thought. Or perhaps she doesn’t know yet…
Scarlet was also contemplating the enigmatic girl. His eyes narrowed. She’s confused, he realised. Now apprehensive. She turned slightly to look at him - he studied her face: no aspect of her expression had changed, and yet... Now resigned. She knows she’s about to die. His hand tightened on the butt of the gun.
The detector whirred for a third time, and the print began to emerge. Grey felt his skin prickling: there was almost as much electricity in the air as in the Mysteron guns that Scarlet and he still held. Green looked down, then up again at the assembled group.
“Positive. She’s a Mysteron.”
Then everything happened at once. As if to an unspoken command, both Troy and Phones hurled themselves onto Scarlet and Grey, both of whom suddenly and belatedly realised that the two aquanauts had deliberately positioned themselves near enough to jump them. Thrown to the ground by Tempest, Grey felt the gun being snatched from him as out of the corner of his eye he saw his companion floored by Phones with a well-aimed punch to his jaw. Both Mysteron guns were thrown across the room and down the injector tube shaft: Grey heard them clattering away into the darkness as he struggled to regain his feet. Even before either of them had managed to steady himself, Marina had been snatched out of her chair by Tempest and physically dragged past Shore’s security guard out of the room. Attempting to run after them, Scarlet was brought down with a classic rugby tackle from Phones: the pair of them collapsed in a heap in the doorway, effectively preventing anyone else from following the fugitives. By the time Grey had managed to scramble over the bodies, Troy and Marina were nowhere to be seen. He swore, loudly and with much-felt invective. The man in the hover-chair regarded him stoically through cold eyes.
“So what did you expect, Holden?”
“I expected co-operation, Commander! Do you still not realise how serious this is?”
“I gave you my co-operation, Holden: you heard me tell them they were under arrest, and that they’d be shot if they resisted.”
“Words! They weren’t shot – they escaped, damn it!”
“My officers are well-trained. You and your friend should have been quicker.”
Grey pursed his lips. “We’re trying to make your base secure against a very real and present threat, Commander. I appreciate that Troy – damn his hide – and Phones over there are trying to protect a member of their crew. However, I have to remind you that we’ve now established beyond any doubt at all that the girl is a Mysteron agent. I formally request your co-operation now in ensuring that she is prevented from bringing about whatever act of sabotage she’s currently engaged in. And I have to tell you now that that will almost certainly result in her death. If you attempt to thwart us in this, we’ll go over your head and get an order from the World President – and believe me, we can do that.”
“You don’t need to try to threaten me, Holden. I’ve no doubt at all that you’re serious about this – however, I’m not the one you’re going to have to convince. She’s with Captain Tempest, and Troy will protect her with his life. You’re going to have to talk to him.”
“With respect, sir, that’s likely to be rather difficult unless you actively help us.”
“Very well, Captain. What do you want me to do?”
“Tell me where he’s likely to go.”
“I don’t know where he’s likely to go. As I said – he’s well trained, and that training includes being unpredictable when he’s in a tight spot.”
“Then we’ll have to do it another way.” He turned to Lieutenant Sheridan, who was still trapped in an arm-lock by Shore’s guard.
“Hi, Phones. Remember me from way back?”
“Sure, Cap’n. Sorry about the punch-up. Question of loyalty, y’understand.”
“Phones – we’ve got to find them. Do you know where he’s likely to have taken her?”
“Wouldn’t tell you if I did, Capt’n suh.”
Neither Phones’s expression nor his turn of phrase had lost anything of the genial Deep South folksiness that Grey remembered well from his own WASP days. There was no challenge, malice or implied threat in his words - he was simply stating a fact.
“Phones, please listen to me – she’s a Mysteron. She isn’t the person you think she is. The person you think she is died some time ago – I don’t know when. What’s walking out there is an automaton controlled by the Mysterons. She’s exceptionally dangerous – both to Troy and to every other person on this base.”
“I’ve only got your word for that, Cap’n. And I suspect you aren’t exactly thinking of lettin’ her prove her innocence before you shoot her, are you now?”
“No, I’m not. There’s nothing I can say to her that will establish that she’s anything other than what that scanner says she is, unless she chooses to confirm it by her own words – which I gather in her instance is highly unlikely, if not impossible.”
“Then it seems to me we’ve got somethin’ of a stalemate, Capt’n.”
Scarlet joined them. “Captain – I think I may be able to suggest a way out of this.” He reached into his pocket and extracted the small communicator that Shore had given him, and handed it to the lieutenant.
“Lieutenant, would you do something for us please? Take this to Troy, and ask him to contact us with it. He’ll know that if he uses Marineville’s land-based communications system it’ll be possible to track him. We need to talk to him urgently, and this is probably the best way we can do that.”
“What makes you think I’ll be able to find him?”
“You’ll find him.” He turned to the guard. “Would you release him please?”
The guard looked at Commander Shore, who nodded. He released his grip on the lieutenant, who arched his back and wriggled his shoulders, then straightened up and smiled.
“I’ll be seein’ you around in due course, gentlemen. By your leave, Commander?”
“Good luck, Phones.”
“Sir.” The lieutenant saluted smartly and was gone.
Grey turned to Scarlet. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Captain.”
“So do I, Captain Grey. So do I.”
Lieutenant Green added a large spoonful of sugar to his own coffee, picked up the tray and returned to the table with it, where Grey and Scarlet were reviewing the morning’s sequence of events. Commander Shore had already vetoed the precautionary evacuation of the Tower requested by Captain Grey, and since both Spectrum officers agreed that if the fugitive girl intended to self-destruct then she could presumably have done so at any time since her escape, there seemed little to be gained by pressing the point.
Scarlet picked up his cup from the tray, took a sip and grimaced.
“Ye gods, it’s even worse than ours.”
Grey raised an eyebrow. “Really? I thought it was the other way round. One of the unsung benefits of working in Marineville. What do you think, Lieutenant?”
Green considered. “It seems okay to me – but then, I take sugar. Masks the taste, you see. How long do you think it will take him to find them, Captain?”
Grey shook his head. “No idea. Marineville is a large base, with a massive underground complex in addition to all the buildings on the surface – several of which are empty or only partially occupied. And Troy is probably as familiar with the place as anyone alive. We could search for them for weeks and not find them: not least because Troy has a lot of friends here, and we haven’t. No, I think Scarlet here’s got it right: Phones knows how he thinks, so he’ll find them – all we can do is wait, and be ready for the call when it comes.” He looked thoughtful. “I wonder why she didn’t self-destruct.”
Scarlet leaned back in his chair, pondering. “There’s something we’re missing here. You know, when we were waiting for the output from the Mysteron detector, I’ll swear I could tell what she was thinking. It was as if she was resigned to her fate – I was as sure of it as if she’d spoken it out loud. And yet there was nothing in her expression to give it away. Did anyone else here feel it?”
Grey shook his head. “No. I didn’t sense anything at all – in fact I remember feeling surprised that I didn’t sense anything at all. The Mysteron agents we’ve faced in the past have been defiant to the point of fanaticism once they realise they’ve been identified, but not on this occasion. And Atlanta told me recently that she couldn’t normally tell what she was thinking. No doubt that’s because she’s a different species to us and all that. Could it be that you have some sort of telepathic affinity with her because of your Mysteron characteristics?”
Scarlet nodded slowly. “I was wondering about that. The funny thing is that whenever I’ve sensed a Mysteron presence in the past, it’s taken the form of a wave of nausea – rather like a migraine attack. There was nothing of the kind this time.”
A sharp buzzing emanated from Scarlet’s pocket. Scarlet looked at Grey and raised an eyebrow. Extracting the communicator from his pocket, he silently handed it over to Grey, who took it from him and after pausing for a couple of seconds, held it up to his mouth and activated it.
“Brad – it’s Troy. I’ve got Phones and Marina with me. I understand you want to talk.”
“Troy, Hi. Can we meet up? We’ve got a bit of an impasse here that we need to resolve.”
“No deal, buddy. You want to kill a member of my crew. I’m not going to let you.”
“She’s not a member of your crew, Troy. She’s a Mysteron agent, and she’s dangerous. The real Marina is dead – probably killed by the Mysterons themselves. The girl with you is a construct, made in Marina’s image. Amongst their other capabilities they can self-destruct, causing an explosion big enough to decimate this base. You have to give her up, Troy.”
“Sorry Brad – I quite simply don’t believe you. She’s with me now, and she’s frightened. You hurt her over my dead body.”
“It’s true, Troy. You attended the briefing we gave in Futura about a year back – I saw you there. The facts we gave you then were perfectly accurate – and since then the only revisions we’ve had to make have been in relation to additional capabilities that we’ve discovered since.”
“So why are we both still alive, then?”
“I’ve no idea, Troy! The Mysterons don’t explain their actions to us other than when they choose to. Their way of thinking is utterly alien to us. You have to believe me, Troy.”
“Not necessarily. By your own admission you don’t understand the Mysterons yet. And that means you could be making a mistake about this – which I think you are.”
Scarlet caught Grey’s eye, pointed silently to himself and held out his hand for the communicator. The other raised an eyebrow, paused, nodded and handed it over.
“Captain Tempest? It’s Scarlet here. Would you agree to meet one of us if we came unarmed to a place of your choosing?”
“With your trigger-happy companions bringing up the rear? No way.”
“You can supply directions to us only once we’re en route, and since you’ll be able to see us before we can see you, I’m sure you can verify that we’re unarmed before you reveal your location.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“It’s better that we sort this out sooner rather than later, Captain. At the moment there are only three Spectrum officers in Marineville, two of whom are personally known to you. Would you prefer to find yourself engaged in a fire fight with a squad of Spectrum security personnel?”
There was a pause. Scarlet looked at Grey, held up his hand and crossed his fingers.
“Okay. Brad only. Phones will return to the Tower. Before bringing Brad here he’ll verify that he’s unarmed and has no other means of communication. I am armed. Acceptable?”
“I’d prefer to come myself.”
“Because… because I have a better understanding of Mysterons. It’s a personal thing that I’d have difficulty explaining. Please believe me, it’s better this way.”
“Would you put Brad on, please?”
Scarlet handed over the communicator.
“Troy? It’s Brad again. Actually Scarlet’s correct – please trust him. If she’s not a Mysteron he may be able to tell. I guarantee that nobody else will make any attempt to follow him, or otherwise track him. If you like, I can get Shore to confirm that.”
“That won’t be necessary, Brad. Very well - other terms as previously stated. Phones is returning to the Tower. Tempest out.”
The line went dead.
Grey handed the device back to Scarlet, who pocketed it.
“Sounds hopeful, yes?”
Scarlet nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the only possibly way we’re going to resolve this without bloodshed. Plus the minor detail that I’m indestructible, and you’re not. If she does go up in smoke I’d probably survive, whereas you certainly wouldn’t. You realise I can’t offer him any guarantees about this, Captain? It may be the best we can manage is an agreement to place her in quarantine somewhere off the base. But that’s better than losing at least one good WASP officer and possibly half the base as well.”
Grey nodded. “I understand that – and I’m sure he does too.”
Scarlet swivelled in his chair and stood up. “Come on – we’d better tell the boss what’s going on before Phones gets back.”
By the time the captains returned from a ten-minute briefing with the commander, Phones had returned, and was waiting patiently for them in the control room. Grey raised an eyebrow. “Not far away then, eh?”
Scarlet nodded. “Somehow I had an idea he’d probably stay fairly close. More places to go, less likelihood of being cornered.”
“Shall we go, Capt’n?”
Scarlet nodded. “Lead on, Lieutenant.”
They exited the building and set off at a brisk pace down the base’s main boulevard. Scarlet noted with satisfaction that wherever he was headed, it would be sufficiently far from the command complex that the Tower would be undamaged if Tempest’s companion did self-detonate. But where they were actually headed he had no idea.
Their walk took them down a side-road off the main boulevard and through a small glade of trees, past an unmanned tracking station receiver and onto the outskirts of the residential quarter. Just as the possibility that his destination could be a populated zone occurred to him however, his companion turned off the other way and led him towards a small self-contained apartment in its own grounds. He suppressed a smile: it looked like the sort of place that a security patrol would need to obtain high-ranking authorisation to enter and search – and by the time that was granted, the occupants would have vanished down into the labyrinth of underground corridors and shelters that connected almost every installation in Marineville, including the Tower. Not Tempest’s own apartment obviously – but then whose?
The mystery was solved as Phones strode up to the front door, glanced around one last time, then rang the doorbell.
“Who’s there please?” I know that voice, mused Scarlet.
“Phones here, Atlanta. I’ve brought him.”
A barely perceptible sequence of electronic tones heralded the opening of the door, and they stepped inside. Scarlet was half expecting to have a pistol clapped to his head as he crossed the threshold, but no – they were met by Atlanta as cordially as if they’d been guests at a party.
“Hi, Phones. Hello, Captain Scarlet. Would you go through into the living room please?” She indicated the door on the right, and ushered them both through. Troy and Marina were sitting on the couch. Atlanta followed Scarlet and Phones into the room.
“I believe everybody knows everyone else here, even if the circumstances are a little unusual, so I don’t think there’s any need for introductions, is there?” She’s acting as if she’s about to serve cocktails, thought Scarlet. Aloud, he said:
“Captain Tempest? I’ve come unarmed as agreed. I’d like to discuss how we can bring this matter to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.”
Troy inclined his head. “Sure. What did you have in mind?”
“I suggest some form of isolation for Marina. Well away from the base. Somewhere where we can let things cool down, and consider where we go from here.”
Troy frowned. “I can’t see what that’s going to achieve. Brad told me earlier that you’ve no way of identifying a Mysteron other than by using that X-ray device of yours. Okay, so maybe Marina’s impervious to X-rays. Maybe that’s just a characteristic of her people. You’re going to have to do better than that to convince me that she’s anything other than what she appears to be.”
“What about the X-rays in her medical records from the base hospital?”
“Marina doesn’t have a medical file. She’s never submitted herself for a medical examination.”
“But surely everyone…”
“Marina’s a special case. Authorised by Commander Shore personally.”
Scarlet turned to contemplate Marina, who was looking at him through lugubrious green eyes. What the devil are we going to do with you? he thought.
“Allow me to return to my people. I am causing distress here, and this saddens me.”
He heard the voice in his head as clearly as if it had been spoken out loud, and almost jumped out of his skin. He looked around the room in astonishment.
“Did anybody else hear that?”
The puzzled looks on the faces around him sufficed to answer the question. Atlanta frowned. “Hear what, Captain?”
“I heard a female voice say that she was causing us distress, and that she wanted to go home to her people.”
Marina rose unsteadily from the couch and took a step towards Scarlet, a look of confusion tinged with hope in her eyes. He met her gaze.
“Was that you, Marina?”
She smiled an uncertain smile.
“Can this be true? I have never met a Terrainean capable of understanding my thoughts before.”
He nodded slowly. “It would appear that you have now.”
“I beg your pardon, Capt’n?” Phones was watching the one-sided conversation in amazement. Scarlet turned to him with an expression of incomprehension on his face.
“I think we may just possibly have solved the problem to everyone’s satisfaction, Lieutenant. It would appear that I can read Marina’s mind.”
“So that’s the essence of it, gentlemen. Marina and I appear to be able to communicate telepathically. I can hear her thoughts, and she’s beginning to be able to interpret mine, though she tells me it’s rather difficult because I have difficulty concentrating to the extent that’s apparently required. It seems you have to be very focussed, and she says I’m usually thinking about several things simultaneously – and the effect is like trying to conduct a conversation in a noisy room. But she has no difficulty with my speaking to communicate with her.”
Commander Shore shook his head.
“Well, I have to say this is remarkable, Captain. Marina’s been living with us in Marineville for almost five years now – and we’ve never encountered anyone else who’s been able to do anything like that. Do you know how you’re able to do it?”
Captain Grey leaned forward to take up the tale, knowing full well that his companion was tired of relating it.
“We think we just may be able to make an educated guess. There’s something about this that very few people know – which is that for several hours, just after the start of the Mysterons’ self-declared War of Nerves, Captain Scarlet was himself under the control of the Mysterons. Since that time, he’s retained some Mysteron characteristics – one of which is that he can on some occasions sense the presence of a Mysteron agent. That’s why we wanted to send him to talk to you, Troy, instead of me. Now then – Mysterons appear to communicate telepathically, which may be what Scarlet is sensing. In the case of Marina, however, he appears to do more than that: he can actually communicate with her.”
Commander Shore frowned. “But Marina isn’t a Mysteron. Her own thoughts prove that.”
Scarlet himself replied to that one. “That’s right – at least that appears to be right. I feel we should keep an open mind on the matter, though I have to say that the evidence does appear to be swaying against it, unless Marina is able to control her thoughts to an astonishing degree. The question we have to ask ourselves now, is, what exactly is Marina?”
Grey continued the thought.
“I think we have to answer rather more questions than that, I’m afraid. There’s still the matter of the sabotaged detector. Was it sabotaged because whoever fixed it knew that Marina would trigger it otherwise? Or was its being triggered by Marina an unhappy coincidence?”
The commander took a puff from his cigar. “To my knowledge, nobody in Marineville was aware that Marina is impervious to X-rays. As Troy told you, she’s never had a medical. I took the view that it would be (a) pointless, since our autopsies on the bodies of other undersea races indicate that their internal organs bear very little resemblance to our own, and (b) asking for trouble, since we’d have every medical academic in the world wanting to treat her like some kind of freak. She values her privacy, and I value her navigational skills – to say nothing of that strange brand of extra-sensory perception she exhibits when there’s trouble brewing. To me, that suggests that our saboteur comes from under the sea, and knows something of Marina’s physical make-up. The trouble with that inference is that it raises another question.”
“You mean, where the hell is he now?”
“Got it in one, Holden, got it in one. One thing I’ll say for Spectrum, you guys really carry trouble around with you, don’t you?”
Grey leaned forward. “Commander – we’ve now uncovered positive evidence of sabotage: something we hadn’t previously had any reason to suspect. If there is a saboteur on this base – and the evidence is pretty convincing – then it’s highly likely that most, if not all, of the problems we’ve been experiencing spring from that saboteur. And the presence of a saboteur can hardly be laid at Spectrum’s door.”
Shore shook his head. “This goes back further than the start of this project. I wasn’t exactly impressed when Spectrum recalled that consignment of defective Mysteron guns we were sent as an interim measure. Though they replaced them quickly enough, I’ll grant them that.”
Grey glanced at Lieutenant Green – the other raised an eyebrow in puzzlement.
“Wake up, Holden! I’m talking about the 500 guns that Spectrum supplied to Marineville while the team charged with installing the automated detection equipment was being assembled.”
Lieutenant Green turned slightly in his chair. “Commander – I certainly remember authorising the consignment – but I’ve no recollection of recalling or replacing it.”
“So? Obviously somebody else arranged it.”
Green shook his head. “No sir. All equipment requisitions are handled from my console in the control room of Cloudbase. Even if I’m not there personally, the transfer would be recorded in the log – and I check that at the start of every shift.”
“Sir – may I see the documentation concerning the recall?”
Commander Shore flicked a switch on his hover-chair. “Atlanta? Would you join us in the conference room, honey?” He turned back to the two captains. “All purchase requisitions are stored in Marineville’s central database, which is Atlanta’s baby.”
Atlanta’s head appeared in the doorway. “Father?”
“Come in and sit down, honey. We seem to have a bit of a mix-up over that consignment of Mysteron guns that we returned to Spectrum. Would you retrieve the relevant correspondence for us?”
She reached forward and pressed a button embedded in the rim of the conference table. At once a rectangular section of the table descended slightly, then slid back. A computer terminal rose silently from beneath the table to take its place. She rapidly keyed in a string of commands, then turned the monitor slightly so that it faced her father.
“This is the authorisation from Cloudbase releasing the guns into our custody.” She clicked once on the mouse. “This is the e-mail from us confirming receipt of the original consignment.” Another click. “This is the notification from Cloudbase that the consignment was suspected to include substandard hardware, and requesting that we have it replaced at once. And this…”
“Hold it! May I see that, please?”
Lieutenant Green rose from his chair and walked round the table to view the screen. He glanced at the Spectrum logo in the top-left hand corner, the text of the confirmation and at his own electronic signature at the bottom of the screen.
“This is a forgery, Commander.”
He shook his head. “I never sent that document.”
“Are you certain, Griffiths?”
“Absolutely. Something as serious as a consignment of faulty equipment would never have been dealt with as casually as this. A report would have been sent to Colonel White, and the matter handled personally by one of the captains. Would you check the timestamp of my electronic signature with that appended to the original authorisation?”
Atlanta turned back to the keyboard and punched in a couple of commands. Seconds later she looked up, her face grave.
Commander Shore looked thunderstruck. “But that’s impossible! We received a replacement consignment! The things are in sealed weapons cabinets all over the base!”
Grey looked thoughtful. “Where’s the nearest one, Commander?”
“Just over there! Would you open it up please, Atlanta?”
“Sure, Father.” She rose from her chair, walked over to a sealed cabinet built into the wall by the door and punched in a code. The cover slid back to reveal an array of weapons, from which she extracted one and brought it back to the table. Grey took it from her and checked over the power-pack, arming mechanism and muzzle in rapid succession. He checked the power pack a second time, then raised the gun, aimed it at a small vase of flowers on the other side of the room and fired. The familiar whine accompanied a faint illumination of the barrel, and the leaves of the flowers fluttered slightly. He put it down on the table and looked at it as if it were poisonous.
“At this range that vase should have disintegrated. It produces the right noise, emits a visible ray and projects a small electrical charge, but nothing like enough to do any serious damage. In short, it’s a harmless replica. And I imagine you’ll find that all the others are as well.”
“But how the devil…?”
Grey turned to face him. “Isn’t it obvious, sir? There’s been a substitution. The original consignment has been replaced by a set of fakes like this one – probably after somebody used one of the originals to get a set of copies manufactured. The notification of faulty equipment didn’t come from Cloudbase, and your acknowledgement of it was intercepted so that we never received it.”
“But the addresses are authentic!”
“Then somebody’s been tampering with your communications software - probably the same person who sabotaged the detection system, and by-passed the injector tube scanner.”
“So where’s the original consignment of guns now?”
“That, Commander, is what we now have to find out. I think we’d better start by taking a close look at who took receipt of the replacement consignment. Obviously you’ll have expected to take delivery of it – so it must have arrived using a conventional route. Spectrum would normally ship in something like that by helijet, but since the WASPs wouldn’t be expected to be familiar with our delivery procedures…”
Atlanta was already typing at the keyboard again. She looked up.
“The correspondence states that Spectrum told us the consignment would be delivered by helijet on the 17th of last month. We confirmed receipt of it on that day.” She typed rapidly for a few more moments. “The helijet was photographed as per standard procedure by one of our tracking stations – this is the picture. She again rotated the screen for everyone else to see.
Grey shook his head. “Not one of ours.”
She nodded. “I remember now – we were told by the recipient that it wouldn’t be. Something about the consignment being transferred to another aircraft in transit.”
“Who was the recipient?”
More typing at the keyboard. “Doctor Kovac took personal delivery of the consignment at 1525 on the afternoon of the 17th.”
Grey looked up. “Doctor Conrad’s colleague. Also the one person on the team not vetted by Spectrum – though Conrad himself has full security clearance with both Spectrum and the WASPs. Do you know anything about him other than what Doctor Conrad has told you, Captain?”
Scarlet shook his head. “No. I simply assumed that he’d been cleared by Marineville security.”
A faint motorised whine behind him made him jump – he’d not realised that Commander Shore’s wheelchair was so close.
“Which of course he was, Captain. Atlanta, honey – have you got Kovac’s clearance documents?”
“Right here, Father.” She walked over carrying a file, which she opened and placed in front of him. “It’s all in order. We e-mailed for clearance directly from Futura, and received this the same day.”
Lieutenant Green glanced up from his terminal. “Using the same cryptographic scrambler that was used to communicate with Cloudbase about the Mysteron guns, presumably?”
Silence. Captain Grey was the first to break it.
“Atlanta – presumably Doctor Kovac has been scanned with a Mysteron detector?”
“Of course! Probably fifty times – we’ve been subjecting the whole base to regular checks for weeks! Surely you don’t think…?”
“Bear with me please – are the results kept on the system?”
She nodded. “We’ve been using them to check out the image database linked to the detection software – but obviously they’re only ordinary X-ray shots. The only Mysteron images we’ve seen come from Captain Scarlet here, and a few fakes that we’ve generated ourselves from ordinary photographs.”
“Can you bring up an image of Kovac on the screen?”
“Sure.” She moved to the console and started punching keys. A few seconds later an X-ray image of a skull appeared. “That’s him. Nothing unusual there.”
“Do you have a full body shot?”
“This is part of one. Here’s the full image now.” She pulled down a menu and selected an item. The picture changed to show the complete skeleton, shrouded in ghostly shadows of the surrounding tissue.
Grey leaned over her shoulder and pointed at the skeleton’s chest. “What’s that?”
“You mean his heart?” She frowned. “No - wait a minute… that’s not his heart, is it? It can’t be his heart, because that’s his heart up there. Then what…?”
Grey sat down on the desk. “When I enlisted in the WASPs, I took a basic course in human anatomy. Now I’m no medical expert, but I think you’ll find that what we’re looking at isn’t a human skeleton.”
Commander Shore looked up at him with narrowed eyes. “You’re thinking he’s from one of the underwater races?”
“That’s what I’m thinking.”
Scarlet glanced up from the screen. “And the injector tube scanning system is compared automatically to the database in the medical facility, isn’t it? So presumably these images would be accessible by staff working in that facility, who, being medics….”
A sharp intake of breath from Atlanta interrupted him. “… would instantly realise that this one isn’t human! That’s why the injector tube system was sabotaged! But wait a minute – that would mean…”
Scarlet nodded. “It would mean that he’s been using the injector tubes. I wonder why.”
Commander Shore smiled grimly. “Perhaps we should ask him. Where is he, Atlanta?”
She punched up a schedule of current active work on her screen.
“Submarine pen three, Father. Stingray.”
“Is Troy down there at the moment?”
“No, Father – but I believe Phones and Marina could be. Phones told me this morning that Stingray was scheduled to have some modifications to its missile guidance systems implemented this afternoon to make them compatible with the detection system – which is why Kovac’s there.”
“Find Captain Tempest and get him here on the double. I want him to go down there with a squad of security guards to arrest this guy – but I want it done with the minimum of fuss. Got that?”
“We request permission to join the security detail, Commander.”
Shore shook his head. “This is a WASP matter, Captain – but I suggest you seal off his quarters in case he’s left anything incriminating there. Atlanta – would you go with them too please? They’ll need a high-ranking WASP officer to override the security seal on his apartment.”
“One more thing, gentlemen. Take care. If he is what we think he is, it’s not impossible that he’s left a surprise or two for uninvited guests.”
Grey managed a tight smile. “Yes, sir.”
The minute the door was closed behind them, he made a face. “That last was unnecessary. Does he think we’re a pair of amateurs?”
Atlanta shook her head. “He’s worried about me, that’s all. Don’t let it bother you. But there is something else that you might want to consider.”
“That’s the first time you’ve heard a good word from him since you arrived. He’s acknowledging that you’ve done something right for a change. You’re making progress.”
The door of the apartment slid silently open, and Scarlet and Grey entered, guns drawn and levelled. Verifying that the apartment was empty took a matter of seconds, and Atlanta closed the door behind them, placing an override seal on it to prevent their being taken by surprise. Scarlet extracted a small device from his pocket and started playing it around the walls; Grey did the same in the adjoining bathroom. Only when both of them had finished did anybody speak.
“Nothing. You tackle his wardrobe; I’ll take a look at his luggage.”
Scarlet nodded, and cautiously opened the wardrobe, while Grey pulled out a small suitcase from underneath the bed, and equally cautiously opened it. Seconds later he gave a low whistle.
“Yeah. He’s got quite a little ham actor’s toolkit in here. Take a look at this.”
Scarlet joined him at the bedside. Grey started fingering through a collection of bottles containing skin toner and eye shadow, a false beard and moustaches, several pairs of coloured contact lenses and a set of adhesive fingerprints.
“Not exactly very sophisticated. But also not the sort of thing you’d expect an accredited expert in information technology to be carrying around either.”
“Agreed. What about that stuff over there?” Scarlet pointed to a small open vanity case that lay beside the bed, in which two hairbrushes, several bottles of shower gel and three bars of soap could be seen.
“Fastidious, isn’t he? Atlanta – this isn’t part of the standard package you hand out to guests, is it?”
Atlanta shook her head. “No, it’s not. He’s brought it with him. Unusual – most men don’t even think to bring a toothbrush with them.” She stepped forward, picked up the hairbrush, held it up to the light and twisted it around in her fingers. “I wouldn’t mind one of these – it’s got an Art Deco feel to it. Look here – there’s a small container embedded in the back of it. You can just see the crack where it slides back.” She started fiddling with it in search of the hidden catch.
Grey turned to Scarlet. “Anything in the pockets of his coats?”
Scarlet shook his head. “Nothing. Almost as if he hasn’t worn them at all since he’s been here – they’re as clean and uncreased as if they’ve come straight from the cleaners. Perhaps we can find out if he’s sent anything to be cleaned since he’s been here.”
“Got it!” Atlanta peered curiously inside as the false back on the hairbrush slid aside to reveal a small video screen inside. It lit up as she watched, to reveal the image of a man with a green face glaring imperiously back at her. She uttered a tiny shriek.
“Well, X-20! What have you to rep…”
The screen flickered and faded.
“Atlanta! What was that?”
She shuddered. “Titan. That was Titan, Brad.” She sat down unsteadily on the bed and looked up at the two Spectrum captains. “We’ve got an agent of Titan’s on the base.”
Captain Grey’s microphone swung into position in front of his mouth. “Commander Shore? It’s Holden here, sir. We have good reason to believe that Kovac is one of Titan’s agents – would you pass that information on to Captain Tempest as a matter of urgency please?”
He listened for a few moments, acknowledged the reply, closed the channel and turned back to rejoin his companions.
“The commander is on the radio to Troy now. The security detail is descending to the pens in one of the elevators: it’s not as fast as the injector tubes, but they can’t risk panicking the guy. I understand it’s not possible to warn Phones and Marina without risking Kovac, or whatever his real name is, overhearing. It’s not ideal, but Phones is pretty fast on the uptake if things get unpleasant – we’ve seen that already. At least we’ve got him trapped – there’s no way out of there. All entrances to the pens are being sealed as we speak.”
Scarlet’s eyes narrowed. “Could he launch one of the subs and escape down the tunnel?”
Atlanta shook her head. “The ocean door is controlled directly from the Power Plant – and they can’t open it without a voice-authenticated signal either from the Tower or in an emergency from the cabin of one of the subs in our fleet. He’d have to blast his way out.”
“Could he do that?”
Again, she shook her head.
“Most unlikely. If he tried he’d probably bring the tunnel down on top of him. Troy’s biggest problem is likely to be that, as an amphibian, he’s likely to be able to breathe underwater – in which case he could simply jump over the side and disappear. It could take us weeks to find him if he did that – during which time our whole launch capability would be effectively inoperative. But Troy knows that – so he’ll be making a point of being stealthy about it.”
Grey’s epaulettes flashed, and his mike dropped to his mouth. He listened silently for a few seconds, and then swore and looked up.
“That was Commander Shore. There’s been a disturbance in Pen Three. A man with a gun’s locked himself in the pen’s radiation decontamination area with a female hostage. He’s demanding transport and a free passage off the base. If he doesn’t get it he says he’ll kill the hostage.”
Atlanta looked at him uncertainly. “The hostage…”
Commander Shore looked up at the people around him, his face grave.
“I’ve decided to accede to his demand. Three reasons. First, we’ve attached a homing device to the car, and can track him from the air. Second, if he’s one of Titan’s agents, he’ll probably be heading for the coast, where he’ll have a sub waiting. I’ve ordered Troy and Phones to launch at once in Stingray and wait offshore – if our man escapes without Marina, I’ll order them to blow him out of the water. Third, I can’t risk an incident with the Pacificans – their goodwill is too important to us. We have to get Marina back unharmed, even if we lose the man himself.”
“What happened, Commander?”
“It seems that Kovac suddenly went berserk. He produced a gun and started firing at Phones while backing himself into the pen’s decontamination unit with Marina. Troy and the security detail hadn’t arrived when all this happened, and when they did, he ordered them to return to the surface, then demanded that the elevator be sent back down for him and his hostage. They’re now locked in one of the unmanned generator buildings near the western perimeter.”
Grey scowled. “How the hell did he know that Troy was coming to take him?”
Shore leaned back in his chair and gazed at the ceiling. “We don’t think he did. We’re not sure, but I’ll guess it was that transmitter that Atlanta found in his quarters. I figure he had another one on him – in which case Titan must have warned him instantly that his cover was blown. But whatever the truth, it’s too late to kick ourselves about it now.”
Scarlet leaned forward urgently. “If he has got a transmitter, Commander, we have to assume that it’s still working – in which case Titan is probably formulating a rescue plan right now.”
Commander Shore nodded. “I thought of that – and it’s one of the reasons that I want Stingray seaborne throughout this operation. If any of Titan’s agents show themselves within twenty nautical miles of the coast they’ll be feeding plankton for the next fortnight.”
A buzzer sounded on the communicator on Atlanta’s belt. She picked it up and held it to her ear for a few seconds, then handed it to her father, who listened intently for a few moments before curtly acknowledging the call and returning it to her.
“He wants the car driven to him now. Usual string of threats if we don’t comply with his demands to the letter.”
Scarlet stood up. “I’d like to volunteer to be the driver of that car, sir. Captain Grey will vouch for my suitability in this.”
The commander nodded, unsurprised. “I take it that you are referring to your relative invulnerability, Captain - yes, I have read the file – and I accept the offer. Bear in mind however that they’re in a building with an electric generator which we can’t shut down from the outside.”
“Yes, sir – I’ll be careful.”
Shore glared at him. “It’s not you I’m worried about, Captain – as far as you’re concerned, risk goes with the territory! I want that girl back in one piece – and she’s every bit as susceptible to being electrocuted as you are. So don’t make any mistakes, right?”
“Yes sir. Sorry sir.”
Scarlet turned to Grey. “Captain, I’d like you to follow at a discreet distance – keep at least a kilometre behind. Commander – can the homing device be tracked from the other car?”
Shore nodded. “Atlanta – give Holden the tracker, will you?”
Atlanta shook her head. “I’m going with Brad, Father.”
“The HELL you are!”
“FATHER! I’m fully qualified in first aid, and I know all the roads within fifty kilometres of this base like the back of my hand. We’ve no idea what’s going to happen out there. Marina is my friend, and she may need me. I have to go!”
The commander’s face slowly began to return to its normal colour, as he recognised the look of determination on his daughter’s face, and realised – not for the first time – the futility of attempting to argue with her when she was in that mood. It was a lesson he’d first learnt when she was six years old.
“Okay, honey. Take care of her, Holden. If one hair of her head is hurt, I’ll personally tear you to pieces.”
Scarlet walked smartly out of the Tower to the car that was awaiting him in front of the main entrance, closely followed by Grey and Atlanta, who made their way to Atlanta’s car in the parking lot. Before they reached it, Grey’s epaulettes flashed red and his mike dropped into position.
“Problem, Captain Scarlet?”
“Not yet. I don’t know if I’ll be able to use the cap-based communicator again, so I’m going to leave Commander Shore’s pocket transceiver turned on in the back of this car. I suggest you listen in on that frequency in case our friend has anything useful to tell us. Keep well out of sight, please – I don’t want him catching a glimpse of you on his rear monitor.”
“I’m nearing the generator building now, and closing this channel. I’m also deactivating the cap for the time being so that he’s not startled into doing something stupid by an unexpected transmission from any other Spectrum officers. Scarlet out.”
Atlanta turned on her pocket transceiver and interfaced it to the car’s sound system. Together they listened in silence as the sound of the other car’s engine died. Presently they heard footsteps – the sound of Scarlet leaving the car and walking across the tarmac. Then faintly…
“Doctor Kovac? I’ve brought the car. If you release the girl now, nobody will prevent you from driving away.”
“Lead the way back to the car, Captain, and get back in the driving seat, please. We are all three of us going for a journey.”
The voice was clearly recognisable as Kovac’s, though the tone was silkier and slightly alien, with a distinctly reptilian quality. Atlanta realised with a shudder that what she had taken to be merely a foreign accept had been deliberately cultivated to mask the true intonation, which she’d heard before from the mouths of representatives of more than one of the underwater races.
“You have me as a hostage, Doctor. You don’t need the girl. Let her go.”
“No, Captain - I need you to drive this vehicle, and I can hardly convincingly threaten to kill you if you’re at the wheel, now can I? The slave Marina and I will sit in the back.”
“Where are we going, Kovac?”
“Home, Captain – I’m going home. Oh – and would you drop your cap behind you into the rear compartment, please? I know that it contains a communicator which is activated when the microphone drops, as I’ve seen Lieutenant Sable using it. The technology is most impressive, by the way – for Terraineans.”
Captain Grey raised an eyebrow and glanced at Atlanta. “Polite little weasel, isn’t he?”
Atlanta frowned, deep in thought. “Now that I listen to it properly, I realise I’ve heard that voice before, you know. Not just once either, but several times. I wish I could remember the circumstances. I’ve a feeling this may not be the first time he’s breached our security. It’s disturbing.”
“Any clue as to where he’s going yet?”
She shook her head. “He’s driving back towards the mainland. Could be any of a dozen places – the main road has turnoffs that are littered with old wharves and jetties that haven’t been used in half a century. Let’s go.”
She drove the car out of the lot and headed for the main gate at an unusually stately pace – for the first time in many years, Captain Grey felt no need to hang on for dear life as she swerved out of the gate and turned left onto the highway.
“Atlanta – why did he refer to Marina as ‘the slave’?”
She nodded. “I’ve been thinking about that. When we first encountered Titan, he was holding Marina as a hostage for the good behaviour of her race, the Pacificans. It’s no secret that Titan wants her back – which hopefully means that his agent in the car ahead is less likely to harm her.”
He frowned. “Isn’t it also possible that he may try to take her back to him?”
Again, she nodded, this time more grimly.
“Yes – it is. Perhaps we’d better get a little closer, though the road is very straight ahead, and we’ll be running the risk of being seen. Ah!” She glanced down at the tracker. “He’s turned off. That road is quite winding; there’s a jetty at the end of it, and the water is deep. He’s probably arranged to have a sub waiting for him beneath the waves. Time we closed this gap.”
Down went her foot, and the car leapt forward.
“We have arrived at our destination, Captain. Park the car over there, please.”
Scarlet glanced in the mirror for the one hundredth time, but the diminutive man had not once missed a trick – the gun was pointed directly at Marina’s head, and his arm was pressed comfortably against the rear back-rest, while his feet were firmly braced against the front passenger seat. There was no chance of attempting to slam on the brakes to dislodge him, and throwing the car into a tight turn would achieve precisely nothing. And now time had run out. He brought the car to a stop in the indicated spot, and deactivated the engine.
“Now get out of the car and walk over to the reeds at the edge of the parking area.”
Scarlet did as he was told, never taking his eyes off the man with the gun. Only when he was a good thirty paces away did the other open the back door and get out, his aim never dropping for an instant. Once out of the car, he motioned silently for Marina to get out also and walk ahead of him onto the jetty.
“Let her go now, Kovac!”
“My apologies, Captain! The slave Marina is to be returned to her master – if you attempt to stop us I will shoot you down! Dive into the water, girl, if you value your miserable life – your master has ordered me to kill you if I must!”
Even as he watched, Marina twisted in his arms and broke free. Running desperately towards Scarlet, she effectively blocked his aim on her captor, who, realising he had a few seconds’ grace, started to run out onto the jetty. Scarlet broke into a sprint towards the man, covering half the distance before the other realised that it would be touch and go whether he reached the relative safety of the water lapping against the rocks. He stopped and turned, raised the gun and emptied the entire clip into the fleeing Marina’s back before diving headlong over the wall of the jetty into the waves far below. The girl writhed in silent agony and instantly collapsed in a crumpled heap on the ground.
Instantly Scarlet abandoned the pursuit, running over to the fallen girl, now lying on her side, immobile on the sand, her open eyes blank and unseeing. Reaching her, he turned her over, desperately feeling for a pulse in either her wrist or neck. He found none, and swore loudly and repeatedly at the sky before sitting himself down by the girl’s body with his hands around his knees and his head buried in his chest. When he raised his head again his face was wet with tears.
The sound of an approaching engine brought Scarlet back to his senses, and he rose unsteadily from Marina’s body to wave down the car. A scream of anguish was torn from Atlanta’s throat as she saw the crumpled body of her friend lying on the sand, and she frantically scrambled out of the car to join Scarlet by the side of the body, sobbing hysterically. Grey joined them in their grief, gently placing his hands on Atlanta’s shoulders as she knelt at her friend’s side. She rose unsteadily, then collapsed in his arms, crying uncontrollably. He buried her head in his shoulder, staring silently out to sea for a few moments, then activated his cap mike, opening a channel to Commander Shore to tell him the news that his daughter’s best friend, one of the members of Stingray’s crew, was dead.
Not once since Scarlet had met him had Commander Shore smiled. And yet now it seemed to him as if a level of darkness had descended upon his countenance that made his previous grumping and growling seem positively light-hearted. Meeting his eyes directly, Scarlet could see no hint of humanity there whatsoever – the man was clearly utterly grief-stricken to the extent that he was having difficulty expressing any emotion at all. The only words that he could find were those that were dictated by military procedure, and he was taking temporary refuge in them while the rest of him was just beginning to come to terms with the loss.
“I require a written report from you detailing in full the sequence of events that transpired this afternoon, Captain. That report will be submitted to a joint inquiry by Spectrum and the World Aquanaut Security Patrol into the circumstances leading up to this tragedy.”
“Yes, sir.” Scarlet was standing to attention, his face impassive.
For his part, Shore had heard that tone many times before, and recognised it for what it was: the man standing in front of him blamed himself totally and irreconcilably for the disaster that he’d just euphemistically referred to as ‘this tragedy’, and no amount of haranguing or berating him would change that. Throughout his life Sam Shore had got his way by using such techniques on those in his charge – but he understood the futility of applying them after the event. Shore had been in Scarlet’s position more than once before now, and knew well that it never got any easier.
“Under the terms of the inauguration charter of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol, Section 11, Paragraph 4, I am required to inform you as a serving officer in the armed forces of the World Government that if evidence is found of wilful neglect…”
The loudspeaker on the control panel of Shore’s hover-chair crackled and burst into life, and Atlanta’s filtered voice cut across her father’s stark intoning of the possible consequences to Scarlet’s career of the death of her friend.
“Father! Are you there, Father? Father – answer please!” The tone was high-pitched and contained an element of hysteria. Shore heaved a sigh and raised the conical mike to his lips.
“Hi, Honey. What’s the matter?”
“Father! I’m outside the medical wing’s operating theatre – would you come down immediately please? It’s Marina - something incredible’s happening!”
Shore glanced up at Scarlet, raised an eyebrow and turned his attention back to the microphone.
“You wanna elaborate, Honey?”
“She’s alive, Father!”
“Honey – are you sure you’re okay? She took six slugs in the chest, two of them straight through the heart. There’s absolutely no...”
“She’s ALIVE, I tell you! She started breathing erratically a few moments ago, and seems to be improving all the time: the medical team are carrying out an emergency operation on her to remove the remaining bullets from her chest now. If you don’t believe me, just get over to the medical wing and see for yourself!” The line went dead.
Shore looked up at Scarlet incredulously. “Shall we go and see, Captain?”
Scarlet nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and the two of them headed for the elevator. Three floors down, the doors opened and they found themselves met by Captain Grey, a broad grin on his face.
“She’s going to be okay. She’s lost quite a lot of whatever she’s got that passes for blood inside her, but she’s getting stronger by the minute. The surgeons are utterly incredulous – they’ve never seen anything like it. It’s almost as if she’s healing herself.”
He led them up to the observation gallery overlooking the theatre, and gestured down to the operating table where Marina lay, surrounded by medics. The wounds in her chest were still clearly visible, but it was obvious that they were markedly smaller than they were immediately after having been inflicted, even despite having been enlarged to remove the bullets from her body. Even as they watched, her eyes opened, and seeing them looking down at her, she smiled.
Shore shook his head. “I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.”
Scarlet’s eyes narrowed. “I think I’m beginning to. And I suspect you are as well, Captain.”
Grey nodded. “It’s logical, isn’t it? We had all the clues. We just didn’t make the final connection, that’s all.”
“What the hell are you two talking about?”
Scarlet took a deep breath. “If Captain Grey and I are right, Commander, it’s more than just a question of Marina living a charmed life. Judging from what we’ve seen of her physiology to date, it’s highly likely that she’s virtually indestructible too.” He sat down in a chair beside the commander and started to explain.
Commander Shore surveyed the group of officers seated around the conference table.
“Atlanta, Troy, Brad, Captain Scarlet, Phones. I’ve called this meeting as a direct consequence of the extraordinary sequence of events that took place in Marineville the day before yesterday. We have seen the discovery of a saboteur in our midst. That saboteur is believed to have been one of Titan’s land-based agents, and he is believed to have been living and working amongst us since at least the start of the initiative by Spectrum to install an effective anti-Mysteron capability on this base. Despite an attempt to apprehend this agent, he escaped, killing Marina in the process. Marina has however, in defiance of every medical textbook ever written, made an apparently complete recovery in less than 24 hours, and is currently sitting up in bed in the medical centre with a drawing pad sketching the many bouquets of flowers which were delivered to her bedside first thing this morning.
“The purpose of this meeting is to consider the implications of these events, and to decide upon a course of action to pursue in the light of the uncovered operation of sabotage directed against us by Titan. To that end, I’ll ask Brad to review the situation from the point of view of Spectrum.”
Captain Grey stood to address the group.
“Thank you, Commander. It appears that we have here in Marineville an example of a member of one of the underwater races who displays several, if not all, of the physical characteristics of a Mysteronised construct. Marina is impervious to X-rays. She can communicate telepathically. She can recover from an injury that would be instantly fatal to humans. And yet she is not a Mysteronised construct. Or rather, she shows no sign of being in the control of the Mysterons – we ought to keep an open mind on the subject of her being a construct.
“In short, she appears to possess all of Captain Scarlet’s abilities, in addition to the amphibian characteristics peculiar to her race, including the ability to live and breathe both in air and water. Perhaps the question we should be asking now is this: is Marina only the second known example of the Mysterons recreating an original and then relinquishing their control of it, or are these characteristics innate to her species? Either way, the implications are profound.”
Troy leaned forward in his chair. “Would you expand on that, Brad?”
Grey nodded. “If she’s been recreated by the Mysterons then she could have been under their control for an extended period of time before gaining her freedom, so to speak. During that time, she could have performed any number of acts of sabotage herself without being aware of it. That would be of immediate concern both to the WASPs and to Spectrum.”
Troy made an impatient face. “Oh, come on, Brad – does she look like an enemy agent?”
“Take my word for it, Troy – it’s possible. Scarlet will bear me out on this one from personal experience. He was under Mysteron control for six hours, during which time he attempted to kidnap the World President – and almost succeeded. He remembers nothing of it. There’s no reason to suppose that Marina would be any different.”
“And if she’s not a construct?”
“Then it may be that her characteristics are natural to her race, the Pacificans. If so, then the Pacificans become of considerable interest to us. They could provide us with a far better understanding of the Mysterons than we have at present.”
Phones frowned. “Beggin’ your pardon, Capt’n, but I don’t think they’d be very interested in helping you out.”
Troy nodded. “I agree. They’re pacifists by nature, and very reticent when it comes to contact with strangers. Ever since we encountered them, we’ve treated their very existence as a closely-guarded secret at their own request. The location of their underwater city doesn’t appear on our charts, and even the World Navy doesn’t know about them.” The ghost of a smile flickered across his lips. “Especially the World Navy.”
Grey inclined his head. “Well, at the moment it’s a hypothetical question. It may be that a talk with Marina herself will throw some light on the situation. Commander, may I recommend that we interview Marina? We’ll need Captain Scarlet to translate for us, but apart from that we can include whichever personnel you wish.”
Shore took a puff from his cigar. “We’re a close-knit family here, Holden. I’d like Atlanta, Troy and Phones to accompany Scarlet and yourself, assuming she’s feeling well enough to receive you. Make it a bit of a party, why don’t you – she’ll like that. We could do with a few smiling faces around here for a change.” His tone changed. “What about Titan’s agent?”
Grey frowned. “Yes, well, we’ve got a lot of unanswered questions there. Why was he here at all? How did he gain access to the base? What damage has he done to the project? How much does Titan know about what we’re doing here? Why does it interest him? We need answers to all of these.”
Scarlet spoke for the first time. “As to how he got in, he’s here at Doctor Conrad’s recommendation. Doctor Conrad is still confined to his room on account of his throat condition, but I spoke to him on the videophone earlier. He’s completely mystified. He says that he and Kovac have been collaborating, mostly by email, for several years on a variety of scientific topics, and that the possibility of his being an agent of Titan’s had simply never entered his head.”
Grey leaned forward. “Presumably Marineville checked his security clearance before he was admitted to the base, Commander?”
Atlanta raised a piece of paper into the air.
“Got it right here. This was emailed from Futura the same day Doctor Conrad supplied us with his details. There’s nothing suspicious in it at all.”
Commander Shore nodded. “On the subject of what he was doing here, Atlanta has been looking into the question of his use of the injector tubes. Atlanta – would you like to fill us all in on what you’ve got so far?”
She rose out of her seat and handed a pile of duplicated notes to Captain Grey, who was sitting on her left.
“Yes, sir. Brad, would you take one of these and pass the rest around the table please?”
As the pile was being distributed she walked to the front of the room.
“The first sheet in the document in front of you contains a record of all the days and times that the ocean door has been activated over the last two months. The second is a printout of all the occasions on which the injector tubes have been operated over the same period. As you all know, we have a strict policy of not using the injector tubes for conveying personnel directly into the cabins of the subs other than when we’re at Launch Stations status or higher. However, as you’ve probably already noticed from the totals at the bottom of the sheet, there’s a discrepancy, in that the injector tubes have been activated 34 times more often than our records indicate they should have been. The third printout in your documents details the occasions we can’t account for. Doctor Kovac was known to be working in the standby lounge area during at least three-quarters of those occasions, and could have been in that vicinity during all of them. The inference is fairly obvious.”
Troy nodded. “He’s been treating himself to rather a lot of free rides on our little chairlift. Why? To sabotage the subs?”
“We’ve got security teams going over all the pens for the third time right now. There’s no indication that anything’s wrong anywhere. He could have been taking photographs of course, but we have another theory. Would you turn to the next page of your handouts, please?”
She waited for them all to turn over to the next sheet.
“The entrance to the Tower is constantly scanned by closed-circuit security cameras. These are a selection of CCTV shots of Kovac entering the Tower on the mornings of the days when we believe he used the injector tubes. You’ll note that in each instance he’s carrying three or sometimes four long containers. On the right you see the corresponding shots of him leaving the building at the end of the day – but in these shots he’s not carrying anything at all. Now we don’t know what those containers are, but…”
Captain Grey leaned forward in his chair with an intense expression on his face.
“…but they’re about the size and shape of Mysteron guns – that’s what you were about to say, isn’t it, Atlanta?”
She nodded. “That’s right. Our guess is that he’s been using the pens to smuggle them out of the base.”
Scarlet frowned. “I understood from the briefing during the hostage crisis that the ocean door can only be opened from the Power Plant.”
She nodded again. “That’s right, though we have emergency backup procedures. But… there’s nothing in theory to prevent someone from entering the tunnel from the sea while the door is open, and collecting something that had been left there by someone from the base.”
“You think that’s what he’s been doing?”
“That’s our guess. He could have taken the weapons down a few at a time and hidden them until he’d stockpiled enough to warrant the trip, then taken an aquasprite from one of the pens, shipped them all to the ocean door and left them there, and then returned. The round trip would take maybe three-quarters of an hour. The tunnel isn’t currently scanned, and neither are the pens: both are on the Mysteron priority list, but of course that system’s not yet operational.”
Nobody spoke. Troy reached over to pour himself a glass of water, and Atlanta returned to her chair. Grey leaned over to Scarlet and murmured in his ear. “Well, at least we’ve put a stop to whatever he was up to now.”
Scarlet returned a grim smile. “You mean we hope we have.”
Lieutenant Green glanced up at the clock on the wall, shook his head, returned his gaze to the monitor in front of him and started drumming his fingers on the desk. Eight minutes and forty seconds so far, and still not completed. Damn these WASP systems, he thought: Cloudbase would have run the entire check in less than five minutes. In fact, coming to think of it… hadn’t he run the same check last night – here – in something like that time? He loaded up the log, glanced down it and raised an eyebrow. Yes: there it was. Four minutes and six seconds, logged at 0137 the previous night. He leaned back in his chair, sipping his coffee thoughtfully. Two in the morning, and the same task is taking twice as long to complete. System backup, perhaps? He kicked his chair across to another terminal and logged into the system a second time. No – that wasn’t it: the backup didn’t start for another two hours. So why so slow? He leaned forward and brought a graphic of the processor usage up on the screen. 86%. He returned to his original display just as the task he’d left running completed, then returned once more to the graphic – and frowned. Usage only down to 72%?
He logged out, paused, then re-logged in as Atlanta, using the password he’d automatically noted her using the previous afternoon. Now armed with full administrator rights, he punched up a list of current users. Two. Atlanta and one other, name unspecified – “Guest”. He stood up and glanced around the control room. Nobody. He sat down again and keyed in a request for the other’s location, which turned out to the floor directly below the Tower. He raised an eyebrow and started typing an e-mail greeting to his fellow worker on the night shift, but thought better of it, and deleted the unfinished message.
So what the devil was a lone user getting up to at two in the morning? He considered for a minute or two, then keyed in a command to direct a copy of the display on the other’s monitor to his own. A title screen appeared, with a password box that the other was filling in – unusually the password was visible, and Green instinctively filed it away in his head. The title disappeared and a partitioned screen appeared, showing an image of the night sky of the southern hemisphere on one half, and a string of rapidly-typed commands in a mathematical language he didn’t recognise on the other. That the graphic was showing a considerably speeded-up chronological sequence was obvious: even as he watched, the stars wheeled in the sky, with the planets wending their erratic paths across the circling firmament even as he watched; weeks and months being compressed into seconds. Fascinated, he sat back in his chair to watch the show, automatically picking out Mars, just as he had watched the real thing from the control room on Cloudbase on countless clear nights.
The sequence slowed and stopped as he watched, freezing momentarily on the screen, and the time base was reset to zero. On a hunch, Green glanced up from his monitor and out of the window. Yes – it was the same sky. Presumably the other was calibrating his software, and Green grinned as he realised that he was probably staring out of the window just below him. He looked down again just as the display was thrown into an accelerated reverse, whilst a time base measure on the bottom of the screen flickered backwards. Faster and faster the heavens swirled on the screen; then suddenly much of the movement disappeared, and Green realised that the display had been changed to show a sequence of snapshots of the sky taken at the same time every night, eliminating the effect of the rotation of the Earth.
Now the whole sky began to rise and fall with the seasons, and he found himself counting the years as they passed, giving him in turn the means to understand the time base: one rise and fall of the sky; one year. With a start he realised that the ever more rapidly flickering display was showing him the configuration of the stars in the sky tens, then hundreds of years before the present day – and then thousands. Five thousand, six thousand, seven thousand…. How far back is this guy going? Nine thousand, ten thousand… The time base slowed down and stopped, leaving a stationary display on the screen. A little over eleven thousand years showed at the bottom of the screen. Intrigued, Green leaned over and clicked a button to print the display, then got out of his chair and stretched.
Time for a walk: he decided to go and introduce himself to his fellow worker on the night shift. He walked out through the doors and set off down the stairs to the floor below, peering around through the dimmed night-time lighting for any sign of his co-worker. And sure enough, there he was: a solitary figure sitting in the console room almost directly beneath Green’s own terminal on the floor above, with his back to the door, feverishly tapping away again at his keyboard, muttering abstractedly to himself. Green grinned: he was perfectly familiar with the eternal man versus machine mentality that produced that level of intense dedication.
“Hey, I see you’re still at it down here! Nice piece of software you’ve…”
Too late, Lieutenant Green realised that the stranger had been completely unaware of his presence, and that he’d taken the man completely by surprise. With a furious guttural curse the other swung round in his chair to face the new arrival. Green had just long enough to realise that the clothes and hair were those of Doctor Conrad – but the face was not…
And then the eyes lit up. Green was physically thrown backwards by the force of those eyes; the sensation of his crumpling backwards against the door was the last thing he was aware of before he blacked out.
“Seymour? SEYMOUR! Are you all right?” The voice was raised to a shout, and he winced. “Captain! He’s over here! I’ve found him!”
Lieutenant Green peered upwards through his eyelashes at the face above him, and tried to focus. It hurt…
From out of the depths of his consciousness he was aware of the sound of running feet, and a few seconds later, Scarlet’s voice.
“What happened, Lieutenant?”
Green tried to shake his head. “I… I don’t know! One minute I was standing… no, that’s not right – I was…”
“Take it easy, Lieutenant - you’ve got a nasty bump on your head. Atlanta, can you find him a cushion or something?”
“Of course, Captain.” She hurried away in search of something for him to rest his head on, and Scarlet continued to inspect the lieutenant for any other signs of the attack that he’d obviously suffered. Green tried once more to focus his eyes, this time with more success.
“It’s coming back, Captain. I’d come downstairs to see who was using the computer. It was… let me think… yes. It was about two in the morning, and I was still working. I realised that somebody else was using it too when a program of mine started running slow. I was monitoring him from upstairs in the control room for a while, then I came downstairs to say hello.” Green’s expression changed to one of confusion. “I thought it was Doctor Conrad sitting in the chair for a second, but then he turned round…”
“What happened then, Lieutenant?”
Green looked round at the sound of brisk footsteps coming from the direction of the elevator, to see both Atlanta and Captain Grey approaching. The former knelt down at his side and gently slipped a cushion under his head, and he smiled thankfully.
“Something strange happened. He was wearing Doctor Conrad’s clothes, but… it wasn’t him. He looked at me, and then…” He shook his head in evident frustration. “Nothing. I must have blacked out.”
“Did somebody hit you from behind, Lieutenant?”
Green frowned. “I don’t think so. It was very strange. There was a blinding light that seemed to come from him in some way, and then… wham! The next thing I knew you were standing over me.”
“Did he shoot you with some kind of …”
“His eyes! It was his eyes!” Green frowned, intently trying to recreate the sequence of events in his head.
“He did something with his eyes. I don’t know what it was, but it was the last thing I can remember.”
“Some kind of mesmerism, perhaps?”
“Maybe. Whatever it was, it must have had the effect of a bolt from a stun-gun if it’s time for you guys to start work – this happened around two in the morning. Hey – if it was Conrad, we’d better find him fast!”
Grey frowned. “He’s unlikely to have hung around, is he? Atlanta – can you check with the main gate to find out if he’s left the base?”
“Sure.” She nodded, and set off for the control room at a brisk pace. Grey turned back to his stricken companion, who was struggling to get into an upright position.
“Did you find out what he was doing here, Lieutenant?”
Green frowned in concentration, then looked up with a brightening face.
“Actually, yes! He was running an astronomical simulation of some kind. I was monitoring it from the control room for about ten minutes before I decided to go downstairs and say hello to him. He was looking at the configuration of the stars in the night sky about fourteen thousand years ago – I’ve no idea why. Wait a minute – we should be able to check his log.”
He struggled to his feet, swaying slightly; Atlanta moved forward to catch him if he fell, but he waved her away with a smile. “It’s okay – just a slight case of stitch. He was sitting over there, at that terminal.”
He moved forward to sit down in the chair, but Scarlet stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “One moment, Lieutenant. Whoever he really is, he’s had several hours to leave us a booby-trapped calling card, and if he hasn’t done that, we might get something useful from the keyboard: perhaps we ought to quarantine this room until we can get a forensics team up here. Can we access his files from the control room instead?”
Green nodded. “No problem – in fact, that’s effectively what I was doing last night.” He smiled a slightly embarrassed smile as the three of them started off down the corridor towards the stairs. “Actually, I’ve been rather a naughty boy: to monitor him I logged myself in as the system administrator with Atlanta’s password. She might have something to say about that.”
“How did you know what it was?”
Green shrugged. “Force of habit. I make a mental note of them almost without thinking – and I can read what someone’s typing on a keyboard at ten paces upside down if I can see it. Atlanta’s no less careless than everyone else I know when logging onto the network, and her choice of password is no less obvious.”
To spare Captain Grey’s blushes, he tactfully neglected to add what Atlanta’s password was.
The three of them entered the control room, where Atlanta was still talking on the intercom. She looked up with a concerned look on her face as they entered.
“Security says he hasn’t passed through the gate, and none of the fence alarms have been triggered. That ought to mean that he’s still on the base, though we’ve obviously checked his room in the guest accommodation block and put a guard on it. There’s nothing in it to indicate that he’s anyone other than who he said he was, but obviously he’s had several hours to remove anything incriminating.”
Scarlet looked up. “What about the submarine pens? Can he get out that way?”
She shook her head. “Nobody can get through the ocean door without authorisation from the Tower, and I’ve checked the log: there have been no launches since 2130 last night. I’ve already doubled the guard on the pens, ditto the missile silos.”
“That too – it’s secure. I’ve also issued orders for any unauthorised take-off to be shot down. And there’s no other way out – which…”
Grey nodded sombrely. “Which all adds up to the string likelihood that he’s still here. But where is he, and what’s he up to now?”
In a relatively luxurious private apartment, the man wearing Doctor Conrad’s face once more extracted a small personal transceiver from his pocket. Glancing around, he congratulated himself on his foresight – not only was there little chance of being disturbed here, but his hideaway was also particularly well suited to the purpose of facilitating his escape. He activated the transceiver and waited. The tiny screen glowed and cleared, revealing the glaring face of his business partner peering back at him.
“Well? What have you to report?”
“I have the co-ordinates of your extraterrestrial entity.”
“Transmit them to me!”
“Upon receipt of my payment.”
Titan turned slightly in his throne and nodded to someone off-screen.
“Five million has just been transferred to your account in Jakarta. No doubt you can verify this automatically from your communicator.”
Conrad’s face glared at him with undisguised irritation. “And the rest of it!”
“When I have received the co-ordinates, and received a favourable report from the agents that I will dispatch to verify your information.”
The human made a display of controlling himself with an effort. “We have engaged in many business ventures over the years, Almighty Titan. Trust on both sides has worked to our mutual advantage in the past. I see no reason now to change the basis on which our relationship is based.”
Titan leaned towards the monitor menacingly – his face beginning to turn an interesting shade of purple.
“Do you not, Terrainean? The stakes – and the price – have never been this high before! Do you think me completely lacking in prudence? Your price is already excessive, but mindful of our long-term acquaintance, and against my better judgement, I have acceded to it. Do not seek to anger me now!”
The implied threat could scarcely have been plainer, and the human raised his hands in a credible impersonation of someone wishing to lower the temperature of the argument. He changed his tone to one of persuasiveness, his thick, guttural accent taking on a silky air.
“All good businessmen understand the value of prudence, my friend. I seek merely to safeguard all the hard work I have carried out on your behalf, which has resulted in many unforeseen complications, which I have overcome at great risk to myself. Even now my personal safety is threatened, since your agent was forced to leave Marineville before arranging for my departure as we had originally agreed. Pay me an additional four million when you are in possession of the co-ordinates, and the rest when you have verified that my information is correct.”
“Three – no more!”
The human bowed his head graciously in a gesture of assent. He pressed a button on his transmitter, and watched closely as Titan inspected the display thousands of miles away.
“Hah! It is as I believed. The last link in the chain is complete - now we can begin!”
Conrad’s eyes narrowed. “You expected this?”
“Of course! In that place lies an underwater city. I have known ever since my agents electrocuted one of their ruler’s retinue some years ago that the inhabitants could not be killed any other way. Even now the fools believe I placed a curse upon them. When I learned of the importance of electricity in the Terraineans’ fight against their enemies in the sky I glimpsed the truth of the matter. Now I know.”
He settled back onto his throne, recovering his earlier pensive pose. “Pay him two million, X-20 – he’ll get the rest when every occupant of that accursed city is dead.”
The screen faded, cutting off his partner’s roar of invective at the blatant betrayal – which was a few seconds later transformed into a self-satisfied chuckle as soon as the anticipated increase in the balance of his account had been verified. It was a million more than he’d expected to squeeze out of the duplicitous old tyrant at the start of the conversation.
Of course, there was still the small matter of escaping from Marineville to be dealt with before he could start addressing the problem of how to spend it. Not only that, but there remained the question of how to remove a substantial cargo from the base at the same time – a complication that had been exacerbated by the WASP’s premature discovery of Titan’s bungling sidekick. No matter – his plans were well in hand. His calculating eyes swept over the apartment in search of a suitable hiding place.
“We’ve never had the slightest reason to suspect him, Captain. On the contrary, our understanding of the technology has progressed by leaps and bounds since he took an interest. His presence here has been exceptionally convenient.”
Scarlet smiled grimly. “Rather too convenient, it seems, Lieutenant Sable. According to this report, the first complications arose two days after his arrival, which was a full week before he wheedled Kovac in to add to the fun and games. I also note that his original period of stay was only supposed to be a fortnight – raising the possibility that this programme of sabotage was deliberately undertaken to give him an excuse to extend it. He’s got to be responsible, damn it – the only question is how he did it.”
Commander Shore looked up sharply. “Not the only question. We still don’t really know why.”
Captain Grey frowned. “Isn’t that obvious, sir? They’ve been stealing our equipment and funnelling it to Titan.”
Shore shook his head. “There’s more to it than that. Conrad’s security clearance to visit Marineville was requested before the Mysteron detection system installation was agreed. Also, he’s been buried in our geophysical and meteorological databases for most of the time: Atlanta tells me that his usage of the system has been nothing short of phenomenal. I think he came here for another reason, and only found out about our current operations when he got here. He saw an opportunity, manufactured an excuse to extend his stay and brought in an accomplice. It goes without saying that he faked Kovac’s security clearance the same way he faked the correspondence over the Mysteron gun consignment.”
Lieutenant Green leaned forward. “Then the key to this could lie in his usage of Marineville’s computing facilities – and we may have a lead there. I was monitoring him from the control room shortly before he knocked me out. I know what software he was running, and the password needed to get into it – he keyed it in as I was monitoring him from the control room. It was ‘Phobos#Deimos’ – which fits in with the identity he’s assumed, of course. Whoever he is, he seems to be very well informed about the real Doctor Conrad’s interests and abilities.”
Scarlet shrugged. “Is there anything else that we know about him, apart from that throat condition of his?”
Sable and Almond looked at each other in puzzlement, Sable voicing the thought first.
“What throat condition is that, Captain?”
“His laryngitis, Lieutenant! You can’t have missed it – the man could hardly…”
He stopped himself, and shook his head at his own slow-wittedness.
“Damn it! He never had a throat condition, did he? He just invented it the second he realised I knew the real Conrad so that I wouldn’t spot the change in his voice. And then afterwards he confined himself to his room to keep out of my way. One thing I’ll say for him – he certainly thinks fast.”
Sable nodded vigorously. “No question about that one, sir – it’s the reason he’s been so useful to us! But what about that heavy accent of his – any clues there?”
Captain Grey frowned. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant?”
“The accent I told you about it the other day, sir.”
The frown grew deeper. “I can’t say that I remember, Lieutenant. Remind me, would you?”
“I mentioned that Lieutenant Almond and Doctor Conrad had made a lot progress despite the occasional misunderstanding on account of the Eastern European accent.”
Grey’s eyes opened wide. “But - I thought you meant Lieuten…”
He checked himself and swore. “Ye gods – we have been slow, haven’t we?” He frowned. “Coming to think of it, that’s probably the reason he came to Marineville in the first place – after all, he could hardly pass himself off as the real Conrad in Space City, where everyone knows his voice. Lieutenant Almond – do you know what nationality he is?”
She shook her head. “He always was very vague about his fatherland, Captain. He said he has travelled a lot, but he never spoke any language other than English to me. I think Greek maybe, for I do not speak this language.”
“Well, I suppose it’s something – but I can’t see that it’s going to help us much, given that he’s been wearing a mask for as long as he’s been here. Let’s get back to the matter in hand. What about this computing project of his?”
“Wouldn’t he have wiped all his current work before decamping?”
Lieutenant Green shook his head. “Wouldn’t make any difference – the whole system is backed up every night. I never yet met anyone who changes their password on a daily basis, so even if he’s deleted it we’d still be able to recover the most recent backup from the archives. Ten to one we’ll manage it. May I suggest I get onto that immediately?”
Commander Shore nodded. “Okay, Griffiths – see what you can do. Also Lieutenants Almond and Sable, go with him and get onto the problem of finding out what the hell he’s been doing to the detection system for the last few weeks, would you?”
All three lieutenants rose from their seats and left the room, leaving the two captains and the base commander alone in the conference room.
Scarlet leaned forward. “All this raises a number of questions that we’ve yet to answer, Commander - not the least of which is where is the real Doctor Conrad. Is he dead? Or has Titan got him?”
Grey considered. “My money’s on Titan having kidnapped him.”
“Because producing credible facsimiles of those guns won’t have been a straightforward task. Titan could have been either drugging or torturing him to get him to do it for him.” He looked thoughtful. “Mind you, even with his own resident boffin to advise him, I’d have thought that Titan would have had serious problems taking on a task like that. It’s no mean feat.”
Commander Shore shook his head. “We’ve discovered a hell of a lot about Titan’s capabilities since we ran into him, Holden. Although he’s essentially a user of military hardware rather than an innovator he’s exceptionally well equipped, and he’s had help from above the waves in the past.”
Grey raised an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware of that! Do we know who?”
Shore inclined his head, an unreadable expression on his face. “Not exactly.”
“We both have triple-A clearance, Commander.”
Shore glared at him. “I know that, Holden – I checked on your security ratings before you arrived. Okay, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you not to repeat any of this - a lot of it goes back a long way, you understand, but it’s still classified. And I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that when the time comes for it to be declassified, some bungling bureaucrat in Futura will have accidentally lost the file.
“During the European war of 2028, the American third submarine fleet provided logistical support for the Scandinavian insurgence movement. The advance on Belgrade during the summer of ’31 would have been impossible without a supply chain that was created to ferry supplies from the Atlantic seaboard, beneath the polar ice cap to Bergen.”
Scarlet frowned. “Weren’t the Americans neutral in that conflict, sir?”
“Of course we were! Do you want to hear this or not?”
“As I was saying, a supply chain was set up. But that was an emergency measure. The original plan was to use a convoy of subs to ship supplies directly across the Atlantic to the FPLE resistance movement in southern Spain – but that plan was abandoned when five of them were mysteriously sunk without trace in rapid succession off the Azores. There’s no official record of the incident, of course, but unofficially we discovered that the sinkings were caused by an underwater race who objected to our drilling for mineral deposits in that area. They were known to us at the time as the Madeiran Hegemony.”
“So what happened next?”
Commander Shore gazed abstractedly out of the window, his mind going back to the events of his youth.
“The following spring, a series of unprovoked attacks on the underwater bases of the Madeirans almost wiped them out, eliminating their offensive capability. The submarine convoys were resumed along the original route, and the Spanish dictatorship was overthrown, leading the way to political settlements in both Portugal and France. The rest is history.”
“Who attacked the Madeirans? The American fleet?”
Shore shook his head. “Nothing to do with us – we weren’t even there, remember? No, the attacks were carried out by another underwater race that had been vying for supremacy with the Madeirans for decades. Got their hands on a hijacked consignment of short-range tactical hydromic missiles and did us a favour with them. A nasty aquaphibian species led by a vicious young tyrant with imperial ambitions.”
Captain Grey’s eyes opened wide, and he leaned forward across the table.
Shore nodded silently.
Scarlet straightened in his chair, his face tense. “Commander, are you telling us that we supplied Titan with the weaponry necessary to do our dirty work for us?”
“No, Captain – I’m not telling you that.”
Scarlet’s features relaxed for an instant, and then tightened again as the full import of Commander Shore’s precisely worded reply came home to him.
Shore reached into the innards of his hover-chair for a cigar, bit the end off it and held up a lighter to it.
“After that, Titan went on to consolidate his position as the scourge of the oceans. We knew what he was doing of course, but for the most part it didn’t impact on us – in fact on a number of occasions he saved us the bother of having to deal with other races on the seabed which were actively antagonistic towards us. What we didn’t foresee was that he would assimilate their technology – and some of that technology is pretty damned dangerous. What really brought home to us the magnitude of the potential menace was his attack on Pacifica – that’s the undersea home of Marina’s people – back in ‘63. A fleet of his terror fish blew it to pieces – the loss of life must have been truly appalling. I still don’t understand how they managed to recover from it in such a short amount of time.”
“Surely an all-out attack on Titanica would put an end to him once and for all?”
Shore nodded. “That’s my view. Stop him now before he develops weapons capable of seriously threatening the land masses – and I’ve argued that to the Admiralty in Futura until I’m blue in the face. They don’t want to know. Their view is that Titan has nothing to gain by instigating such an attack, and that a policy of containment is therefore appropriate. In short, make life as difficult for him as possible without actually starting an all-out war. And that, gentlemen, is the position we’ve been in for the last eight years.”
He leaned back in his chair and blew a cloud of smoke into the air.
“During that time, Titan has managed to get his hands on quite a little arsenal of our stuff. We don’t know how he gets it – but we have a suspicion that he’s been doing deals with the same intermediaries who supplied him with those hydromics. Arms dealing knows no political frontiers, gentlemen. If you’ve each got something the other one wants, it happens. That’s business.”
Scarlet shook his head. “But who on earth would be prepared to deal with Titan? What’s he got that he can sell?”
Shore smiled grimly. “That’s an easy one. Protection. He’s a master at it.”
“What - like mobsters threatening you if you don’t give them money?”
“What do you mean, like mobsters? He is a mobster! Deep-sea mineral exploration; oil; the kelp factory farms in the South Pacific; fishing fleets, you name it. The investment in both time and money by the land-based commercial conglomerates is phenomenal – what more natural and prudent than to slip a few little presents to Titan to guarantee yourself an easy time of it? It probably appears in the company accounts as ‘insurance’. Anyway, obviously Titan doesn’t want money. Somebody might just notice if he walked into Harrods waving a fistful of credit cards. So the tributes take the form of, er, how shall I put it? Gifts.”
“That’s what I said. Perhaps there’s something else I ought to tell you as well. Something that’s a little embarrassing for me to say, but I hope you’ll understand, and take it in the right spirit. About a month ago, Stingray intercepted a squadron of terror fish off the fishing grounds off the Great Barrier Reef. Perhaps somebody was a little late with the tribute, I don’t know. Anyway, upon Stingray’s arrival all but one of them turned and ran. The one that didn’t happened to be concealed by a massive underwater boulder when Troy arrived, and the aquaphibian pilots saw the opportunity to stage an ambush. In a nutshell, they botched it – even with a homing missile. Stingray outran the missile, then Troy led it a merry little dance round the reef and dragged it round in a wide circle before fooling it into impacting with the craft that launched it, destroying their engines. The crew abandoned ship and swam off.”
Captain Grey grinned. “Always said he was good.”
“There’s more. I told Troy to take a sea-bug over and inspect the wreckage afterwards. I’ve found from experience that it’s a good idea to take a look every now and then to see if Titan’s been making any design changes to his fleet. The terror fish was in relatively good condition, and the control cabin was almost completely undamaged. I wasn’t however prepared for what Troy brought back with him.”
“What was that?”
Commander Shore reached for his cigar and blew two perfect smoke rings in rapid succession into the air. They drifted slowly across the table towards the two captains.
“A Mysteron gun.”
“You heard. My immediate thought at the time was that Spectrum had simply been careless with its security procedures: as I said earlier, it wouldn’t be the first time that Titan’s got his hands on Terrainean hardware. Even some of our stuff has turned up on board his vessels in the past. But you’ll understand that it didn’t improve my opinion of Spectrum.”
Scarlet nodded sombrely. “No – it wouldn’t.” He looked up. “But wait a minute: given what we’ve just discovered, that gun…”
Shore finished the sentence for him. “…could have been – and probably was - part of the diverted consignment. All of which still leaves the question unanswered, gentlemen. What the hell does he want them for?”
“I think we may have an answer to the questions of what Doctor Conrad - or whatever his real name is - was doing here in the first place and why Titan might now be interested in the guns, Captain.”
Scarlet nodded, unsurprised. “Somehow I had a feeling the answers would start coming thick and fast once we got into his computer files.”
He got up and stood to address the little group of officers that had assembled in the Tower’s main conference room.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being able to attend this briefing at such short notice. As you all know, a second infiltrator has been unmasked within Marineville. At this time he is believed still to be at large within the base, and there are security patrols out looking for him now. Commander Shore has given the highest priority to ensuring that he is not hiding in any sensitive areas, including the Tower. In the meantime, Lieutenants Sable, Almond and Green have been investigating his recent work on Marineville’s central computer network. The short presentation that follows summarises the results of that investigation to date. Can we dim the lights please?”
The room darkened as a set of curtains slid into position across the windows and the artificial illumination faded and died, while simultaneously the wall-based monitor in front of them glowed into life, showing a schematic of the night sky. As they watched, the stars in the diagram began to move, and Lieutenant Green moved to the front of the room to stand beside the display.
“This is the graphical sequence that I was watching on my monitor in the Tower in the early hours of this morning, ladies and gentlemen. It begins with a representation of the current night sky above Marineville, and shows an inverted-time progression into the distant past – about eleven thousand years ago.”
“This is a mathematical model, then?”
Green nodded. “It is – but a very much more complicated model than a simple extrapolation of the Earth’s position in the heavens at any given point in history. If it were just that, he could have bought one in any educational software store. This model incorporates data from sources of acquisition that are state-of-the-art - some of which are still classified. He’s got inputs from databases that contain inferred fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field, Van Allen belt, core flux density, solar winds, you name it. And he’s used those to build what Lieutenant Sable tells me is called an inverted-temporal prediction system of almost unbelievable sophistication. I understand that once its operation is fully understood, we should be able to use the technology to give predictive computing its biggest kick forward since the invention of the neural inference array – in fact, Lieutenant Almond suspects that its capabilities could exceed even those of the hypothetical…”
Commander Shore shuffled in his hover-chair. “Do we know why he built it, Lieutenant?”
“Sorry, sir – yes, I believe we do. The inverted-time projection ends with the following sequence.”
He pressed a button on the remote control he was holding. The image dissolved in a swirl of flashing lights, then stabilised and froze. Lieutenant Green glanced down at his notes.
“According to the model, this is the night sky as it would have been seen from Marineville at midnight on January 1st, 9,336 BC. I’m now going to run the sequence forwards in steps of 24 hours at a rate of ten days per second.”
He pressed the control to start the animation, and waited for the reaction from the audience.
“What the HELL is that?”
Green froze the screen. Clearly visible in the top-left hand corner of it was a black object. A glowing tail emanated from it, flaring upwards into the sky.
“That is a piece of the third moon of Mars, ladies and gentlemen. Some of you may know that the existence of a third moon at some point in the past was deduced over a year ago from an analysis of asteroid paths in Mars’s orbit, using data sent back from our lander on Phobos. The body was named Concordia – posthumously, you might say – which is the Roman name of the mythological sister of Phobos and Deimos, the attendants of Mars. The data from the Concordia project is still being analysed by Spectrum scientists at Space City, but the central database is held here at Marineville, and has been accessed on almost a daily basis by the man masquerading as Doctor Conrad. The mathematical model he has assembled over the last three months is a masterpiece. It shows us that 194 years prior to the event that you can see being recreated on the screen, the third moon of Mars was destroyed in a collision with an asteroid. Much of the debris was hurled off into space; one piece collided with Mars; almost all of the rest fell into the sun. This piece did not. It collided with the Earth on…” He again glanced down at his notes. “… on June 17th, 9,336 BC, as I will now show you.”
He pressed another button on his remote, conscious of an expectant stillness in the room. As they watched, the object slowly grew in the sky, and then began to tumble earthwards, falling towards the horizon. As it impacted, Green once again froze the sequence.
“The object was approximately ellipsoidal, some 100 km long and 30 km in circumference at the narrowest point. The impact would have had repercussions all around the globe: there would have been earthquakes, tidal waves, tsunamis, hurricanes, you name it. Many islands would have been completely submerged, as would all low-lying land. The mammoths became extinct at around this time in our history – this event may well have been instrumental in their extinction. Many civilisations have legends of a great flood – such an occurrence as this could easily have given rise to those legends.”
“Do we know exactly where it impacted with the Earth, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, Atlanta, we do. It came down in Southwest Pacific Basin, 42°S by 135°W. I believe you might recognise those co-ordinates.”
“Good grief! But that’s Pacifica!”
“Correct. The home of Marina’s people is located on the seabed almost exactly on the spot where the Martian moon fragment struck – and where it presumably still lies. But if I haven’t mistaken the signs, Captain Scarlet would like to ask another question - Captain?”
“Do we know the impact co-ordinates of the fragment that struck Mars, Lieutenant?”
Lieutenant Green suppressed a self-satisfied smile. “I was anticipating that question. The program is far less precise on this point on account of the absence of Martian data to work with, but sufficiently accurate for an approximate fix. It came down in the Valles Marineris region.”
Scarlet nodded, strangely unsurprised. “The location of the Mysteron complex.”
“Again, correct. And I need hardly remind everybody in this room that we’ve discovered in just the last few days that Marina possesses a number of physical characteristics in common with Mysteronised constructs. In the light of what we’ve just learned, I’d say this is unlikely to be a coincidence.”
The faint whine of a motor heralded Commander Shore’s entry into the debate.
“Interesting as it may be, I feel we should belay discussion on that point for now, Lieutenant. Right now we’ve got a more immediate question to tackle. Have you got any leads on the sabotage of the detection system?”
“We have, sir. At this point, I’ll hand over to Lieutenant Almond, who’s spent the afternoon hacking into our mystery guest’s account.”
Green gathered his notes and yielded the floor to his colleague, pausing only to hand her the remote control as she walked past. Sitting down in the front row, he watched as, still walking towards the screen, she shut down his presentation, switched networks and activated her own with the thumb of her left hand on the remote without so much as glancing at it. She’s going to go places, he mused.
The young female lieutenant turned to face the audience, and surveyed them for a fraction of a second before starting to speak in a precise scientific style that Green found difficult to reconcile with the devil-may-care attitude of his drinking partner a few nights previously. Her Teutonic accent served only to increase his impression of her clarity of thought.
“You have heard my colleague describing Doctor Conrad’s usage of the inverted-time prediction system to infer a sequence of events that took place in Earth’s distant past, using observed changes in over fifty databases of recorded phenomena. The complexity of this undertaking serves to remind us that this man is unquestionably a genius. His systematic deception of us all during the period he works with us is a feat worthy of such a man.”
She thumbed a button on the remote, and the screen dissolved to reveal a schematic that Lieutenant Green instantly recognised as describing the basic processes of an interpretative neural array.
“The slide shows the sequence of events that is undertaken when a cognitive algorithm is presented with a set of directives by a human operator. The process is familiar to anyone working in the field of neural computing, and is universally accepted to be foolproof. We know this. Therefore when the system begins to fail, we do not know where to begin to solve the problem. So! How does he do the impossible? I show you.”
She touched a control, and the graphic began to shrink on the screen. As the size reduced, parts of a larger diagram began to appear around the edges. By the time the whole thing was visible, the original diagram had shrunk to a tenth of its original size – and yet the whole screen still looked surprisingly familiar.
“This is what Doctor Conrad has done. He knows that he cannot interfere with the cognitive processes of a neural array without leaving an audit trail. So he transfers its operation to the interior of a second neural array - which he has built himself and made to emulate the original in every superficial respect. Why has he done this? Every time we try to access the detection software, we are made to log into Doctor Conrad’s system instead. It is said that neural computing is like interrogating a brain that we have filled with data and then asking for its opinion – and so it is! Here we are indeed interrogating a brain – but it is a brain inside the wrong head. The brain is functioning correctly… but the head is mad. Doctor Conrad – whoever he really is - has made it so.”
Silence. Commander Shore was the first to break it.
“Can you bypass this ‘mad head’ as you put it, and access the real one, Lieutenant?”
“Doctor Conrad’s neural envelope has already been isolated and disabled, Commander. The real array has been in operation since just before we assemble for this meeting. Recalibrating the detection systems for the true synaptic matrix is the play of a child – we will now be fully operational in 24 hours.”
Again, nobody spoke. Still taking in both the sheer brilliance of the deception and the speed with which it had been countered and nullified, Captain Scarlet felt that a round of applause would have been more appropriate for the young woman standing at the front of the room than the eerie silence that filled the room – but he decided against trying to initiate one. It was two months too late, he reminded himself. Never mind – there would be many other occasions for her to accept the acclaim she’d earned. He walked to the front and turned to face the room as Lieutenant Almond returned to her seat.
“Lieutenants Almond and Green, thank you. I think it’s clear from the presentations we’ve heard that we still have work ahead of us – not only the physical task of making up for all the time that Doctor Conrad has lost for us during his stay here, but also the mental one of trying to assimilate what we’ve learned today. Are there any questions?”
Troy shuffled in his chair. “A lot, Captain – most of them related to the discovery that Marina’s people are apparently living on the crash site of this asteroid or whatever it was.”
Commander Shore nodded. “Agreed – there’s a lot we need to talk about on that subject, but we have other matters to attend to that are at least as pressing. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to have to prioritise our actions. Lieutenants Almond and Sable: I want you both back on the task of getting the detection systems up and running in the shortest possible time. I want that process started right now. Seymour and Atlanta, I want you both co-ordinating that process from the Tower. Second, I want a meeting in this room with Captains Tempest, Holden and Scarlet at 1600 hours. I also want Marina present at that meeting. If there are no other questions we’ll bring this discussion to a close. Oh, and…”
He rotated his chair and gestured towards the almost empty plate of refreshments in the centre of the table.
“… Lieutenants Almond and Griffiths can have the last two prawn sandwiches before they leave. I don’t want them collapsing from malnutrition before they’ve finished.”
Commander Shore was in an upbeat mood. Ample evidence of this abounded in the form of a new plate of refreshments having been brought to replace the old one, and his having turned up the air conditioning to extract the cigar smoke faster. The expression on his face as he poured out five glasses of water had however not changed one whit.
“As Troy indicated earlier, we have a number of threads here that need to be pulled together, gentlemen. Marina, I assume that Troy has filled you in on the discovery about the object that fell from the sky several thousand years ago in the location where the city of your people has since been built?”
“Were you previously aware of this?”
She shook her head, and turned to face Scarlet for a few seconds, after which he nodded and turned back to the assembled group.
“She says that there are legends among the underwater races of an object called the Fallen Warrior, which came to Earth in antiquity bringing death and destruction in its wake. There is however no knowledge of its whereabouts – it’s a myth, rather like the Great Flood or the kingdom of Atlantis.”
Troy nodded slowly. “Both of which could conceivably be connected to this event, for all we know. Thank you, Marina.”
He leaned forward with his elbows on the table, the palms of his hands together and his fingertips touching his nose.
“What I’m worried about is Titan’s involvement in all of this. He’s had two agents in the heart of Marineville for the last two months – one of them even longer – apparently working on at least two different tasks. One of those looks like a relatively straightforward matter of arms theft. Now that’s exactly the sort of thing that Titan excels at – it’s got his fingerprints all over it. The second is a high-powered scientific project whose implications are still only just sinking in – and that’s not Titan’s style at all. And yet I can’t believe they’re not connected.”
Commander Shore stirred. “And the third is the disruption of the Mysteron detection system – though I’m increasingly seeing that as nothing more than a mechanism for buying them time to complete the two operations you’ve just mentioned, Troy. One feature connects all three however – Mysterons. The detection system that was sabotaged is to catch Mysterons. The object that fell to Earth came from Mars – which is where you find Mysterons. And the guns that were stolen are the only things we know that can kill Mysterons. So the question has to be… why is Titan interested in Mysterons?”
Scarlet glanced at Marina, then looked up.
“There’s a fourth connection with Mysterons as well. We know that Titan has an interest in you, Marina. We’ve discovered some remarkable things about you in the last few days – things that we never knew before. Do you know if the rest of your people are like you?”
She looked at him with questioning eyes.
“I do not understand, Captain.”
“Well, for example, X-rays can’t pass through you – our Mysteron detectors use that fact to work. Are all your people like you in this respect?”
She shook her head. “I do not know, Captain Scarlet. My people know nothing of such things. Terraineans use their sciences in ways that we do not understand.”
He smiled his thanks and turned to Commander Shore.
“Marina doesn’t know what X-rays are, Commander.”
Shore grunted. “I’ll bet Titan does though. What about your apparent ability to recover from injuries that would be fatal to Terraineans, Marina?”
She nodded slowly, and turned to Scarlet once more.
“We do not die from injuries as the Terraineans do. Only when we offend one of the accursed great eels is a life taken from us before its time – but this has not happened even once during my lifetime.”
“Are you referring to electric eels, Marina?”
“That is what Terraineans call them. We fear them, and strive to pacify them when they pass within the limits of our city.”
“Marina says that her people can survive injuries that would kill us, but fear electric eels, Commander. It’s not difficult to imagine why.”
“You mean the vulnerability of Mysterons to electricity?”
Scarlet nodded. “That’s right. Now then, suppose Titan knows that already. Suppose also that he found out that a new projected energy weapon that discharges an electrical voltage strong enough to kill a Mysteron had been developed by the Terraineans – and that a batch of such weapons was about to be supplied to Marineville….”
Shore thumped the desk in front of him so hard that the glasses visibly bounced.
“That’s it! Damn it, I think you’ve got it, Captain! What would he do? He’d steal them, arm his aquaphibians with them and…”
“…and launch an assault on Pacifica. It all fits - we know that he has the weapons, and we’ve just learned that he’s made the connection between the Mysterons, the Concordia Project and Pacifica.”
Grey frowned. “We’re still missing something – and that’s the motive. Why would he want to attack the Pacificans? They’re no threat to anyone, least of all to him – they’re a peaceful people who…”
He stopped himself and slapped his forehead.
“… who are living over the Martian lunar fragment’s crash site! That’s it – he wants the site! He believes the occupiers of that region of the ocean floor will acquire the characteristics of the Pacificans, including telepathy and retrometabolism – both of which would dramatically enhance his capability for causing trouble to us. We have to warn them, Commander – and as quickly as possible. Can we contact them?”
Shore shook his head. “All our communications systems are based on electricity, Captain, which we know they don’t understand.”
Troy leaned forward, his face taut. “We have to go there at once, Commander.”
Shore smiled grimly.
“Slow down, Tempest – let’s think this through first. We’re almost certainly going to have to protect them, and we’ll probably need to arm them as well. Our first action after making contact with the Pacificans ought to be to establish an exclusion zone around the city – assuming that they agree, that is. Marina will be needed to explain the situation to her people and to act as a go-between with the WASPs, and she needs to be taken there as soon as possible. However we also need to get enough armaments to Pacifica to make Titan think twice before launching an attack. Stowing those armaments on board a craft will take time – and with the exception of yours, Troy, all my crews are out on patrol. I can’t assemble another in less than 24 hours.”
Captain Grey stirred. “Excuse me, but I beg to differ, Commander – provided you have a sub that’s seaworthy, that is.”
Shore turned his stony gaze upon him. “I suppose you’re about to tell me you think you can remember how to pilot one, Holden.”
“Yes sir, I am.”
“Very well – I accept the analysis, and I can’t see an alternative. The Dorado has almost completed a refit while its crew is on leave. I think I’m correct in saying that all that remains is to run a set of tests on her lower fins and landing skids, which I can have conducted immediately. We can have her ready to launch in four hours. She’s yours for the duration from that time if you can get her stocked with enough weaponry to arm the Pacificans by the time she’s seaworthy. You’ll need at least one more crewmember.”
“I already have one, sir. Captain Scarlet is trained to the standard needed to man the missile array and double up as hydrophones operator – all Spectrum captains are.”
“Very well, Holden – you’d better get started. Stingray will launch immediately for Pacifica with its regular crew on board. Upon arrival, Marina will remain with her people until the Dorado arrives, after which she will liaise with Holden and Scarlet over the defence of the city. Stingray will leave Pacifica when Marina has disembarked to begin a sweep of the ocean around the city until further notice. Any questions?”
Submarine Pen Five was a hive of activity within 45 minutes of the termination of the meeting, Captain Grey noted with satisfaction as he directed a team conveying a fifth case of heat-seeking hydromic shells to the rear of the craft. Over the side, a squadron of technicians were constantly diving and surfacing around the sub’s hull in a never-ending flurry of activity that reminded Grey of a dolphin display: all that was missing was a set of hoops for them to jump through, he thought with a wry smile. At present the only hoops for them to jump through were metaphorical ones, resulting from the unusually short timescale within which they were having to complete their tasks.
Sitting in his chair at the communications console sat Scarlet, headphones over his ears, busy familiarising himself with the WASP frequencies. Grey grinned broadly as a particularly vicious-sounding squawk that was audible even across the cabin caused him to jump half out of his chair and attempt to clap his hands to his ears in pain – the failure to manage which on account of the headphones doing nothing to soothe his deteriorating temper. Grey waved his hands to attract his attention and pointed furiously to an array of black buttons at the back of the console. Scarlet responded with a look of total confusion, an expression of dawning realisation and then a thumbs-up sign in rapid succession, immediately after which he leaned over the console and brought the automatic attenuators online – after which he visibly relaxed.
Grey had just returned to his task of checking items off the hastily-prepared inventory when the shout of his name from the exterior of the sub caused him to look up. Crossing to the hatch, he looked down at one of the divers in the water.
“Captain Holden, sir! There’s another vessel anchored directly underneath the Dorado at the bottom of the pen, sir! Am I right in thinking that you’re not aware of this, sir?”
Grey blinked, gestured to the man to wait a moment, then turned and re-entered the cabin to fetch Scarlet to the hatch. By the time the pair of them stepped out of the cabin onto the hull of the Dorado, the technician had pulled himself out of the water and was scrambling one-handed up the ladder towards them, removing his face mask with the other as he did so. By the time he reached the top he had removed enough of his equipment to be able to speak without difficulty.
“Lieutenant Krzanowski, sir – begging your pardon sir - we’ve found what appears to be a civilian mini-sub anchored beneath this vessel. My team has no record of such a vessel having authorisation to be anchored here – am I correct in assuming that you know nothing about it?”
Grey scowled. “Damn right you’re correct, Lieutenant. Is the Dorado capable of being moved out of this pen immediately?”
The lieutenant nodded. “Yes, sir – you can sail her out just as soon as my team is clear of the water. You’re thinking it could be…”
“No idea, Lieutenant. Get your men out of the pen as fast as you can, and tell the Tower to sound Battle Stations immediately. I want an underwater mine disposal squad down here at the double; in the meantime Captain Scarlet and I will pilot the Dorado out of here and into Pen Three, which is now vacant. Move, Lieutenant!”
Three minutes had elapsed before the final man was out of the water, during which time the familiar rapid drum roll that signified the base’s highest state of alert had begun to reverberate over loudspeakers throughout the submarine pens. Grey felt an electrical tingle running down his spine as he dropped into the skipper’s seat and activated the surface motion thrusters for the first time in over three years, and he grinned to himself: the sound of those drum rolls had never lost its ability to get his adrenalin moving, and the intervening period had done nothing to lessen the effect.
Slowly, the Dorado began to move away from the jetty towards the interconnecting waterways that linked the pens to the main launch tunnel. Out of the corner of his eye, Scarlet could see the first of the explosives teams arriving in the pen even as the Dorado passed through the archway into the tunnel, where under Grey’s control it slowed, turned and reversed its way back into the berth that Stingray had recently vacated.
As the clamps descended to lock the sub in position at the berth, Grey breathed a faint sigh of relief as he deactivated the controls, and then motioned for Scarlet to remove his headphones.
“The Dorado should now be safe from any explosion up to and including a force ten sting missile exploding in Pen Five. Have there been any developments yet, Captain?”
Monitoring the exchanges between the teams and the Tower, Scarlet had been listening intently while the reconnaissance team sent down a robot surveillance submersible to inspect the craft – a process that was now well under way, despite only a few minutes having passed since the start of the operation. He nodded.
“Reconnaissance cameras are in the water now. We should be able to tap the images from here if I can just remember… yes – that’s the one, isn’t it…”
A screen on the main helm console flickered into life, and they both leaned forward to watch as the camera panned over the submerged craft in the nearby pen.
Grey grunted and nodded appreciatively.
“The lieutenant was right. Civilian mini-sub – there’s quite a market for the things, even if they’d cost either of us about ten years’ salary. This one’s had a few modifications made to it too. That SVS system’s not standard, and neither are those ports to the left of the conning tower.”
He took a sharp intake of breath.
“Are those torpedo tubes there? You know, I do believe they are… Quite a potent little piece of kit he’s got there, isn’t it?”
Scarlet nodded. “I wouldn’t mind one for my birthday. You think this is how Titan’s agent conveyed his ill-gotten gains to the ocean door?”
“Could be. Look – the main viewing ports are coming into view now. Internal lighting’s on – we should be able to… What’s that?”
The image of a man lying motionless face-up on the floor of the little cabin had moved into view on the screen in front of them, and even as they watched, the remote-controlled camera began to zoom in on his face. Scarlet was the first to recognise the features.
“My God – that’s Doctor Conrad…!”
In the anteroom of the Intensive Care Unit, Commander Shore looked up as Scarlet entered and waved him into a chair.
“You’ll be glad to hear that he’s going to be okay, Captain. I have to say, though, that he’s lucky to be alive. There was less than thirty minutes of air in that sub when the security team broke open the hatch, and since it’s almost certain that he was imprisoned there by either Kovac or Conrad – the fake Conrad, I mean – it’s reasonable to assume that without either of them to attend to him he’d simply have suffocated.”
“Have the medics been able to establish how he got there, Commander?”
Commander Shore nodded, and glanced down at the hurriedly-compiled set of notes lying open on the top surface of his hover-chair.
“They’ve only managed to get a few details so far, as he’s slipping in and out of consciousness – but when he’s awake he’s very agitated, and has been trying to tell us what happened, despite the doctors trying to get him to rest. He’s not very coherent, but it’s not difficult to fill in the gaps.
“It seems that about three months ago, he was working as normal at the Space City complex when he had a visitor. Somehow that visitor made him request two weeks’ leave of absence to come here – to Marineville. He says that he didn’t want to do it, but there was something about the visitor that made him comply – almost as if he was hypnotised in some way. He knew what he was doing, and also that it was wrong, but he was unable to prevent himself.
“Since that time, his life has been one long blur. He appears to have been held in a chemically-induced coma for most of the time – we’ve found life-support equipment on board the sub that’s he’s clearly been plugged into to keep him under heavy sedation most of the time. Prior to that, he has a vague recollection of captivity in a vast underwater palace – I think we can assume that he was held in Titanica before being transferred here at some stage in the past few weeks. He’s aware that he was brought to Marineville on board the sub at some stage; that a green-faced man was piloting it at the time, and that they had to wait by the ocean door until the pilot received a signal from an accomplice which told him that one of our craft was about to enter the tunnel. The mini-sub then followed it in before the door closed. To his knowledge the sub has never surfaced, and he’s never been released from the life-support equipment – which fits in with the substantial supply of compressed air on board.”
“Heavy sedation or not, he’d still need to be attended to regularly, regardless of how sophisticated the equipment is for attending to his bodily functions. And anyway, surely it’s not possible to carry that much compressed air on board a mini-sub?”
“That’s right – it isn’t. We’ve got to assume that the sub was visited regularly. I guess we can assume that maintaining the life-support equipment and renewing the air supply would have been Kovac’s job – which we can add to his list of reasons for staying close to the submarine pens. After Kovac’s departure, the job must have been taken over by the fake Conrad.”
The commander looked down again at the notes.
“He’s said that several times he can remember looking up from his bunk and seen himself staring down at him – no prizes for guessing how that happened – and that he’s aware of having been interrogated for long periods of time, though he can’t remember what the subject of the interrogations was. It all sounds like a classic case of being kept in a drug-induced coma for a protracted period, being brought out of it only when the man masquerading as himself needed information of some kind.”
Scarlet frowned. “When he was discovered he was lying on the floor in the main cabin. Do we know how he got there?”
“We’ve got a pretty good idea. It looks like the effects of the drugs were wearing off – no doubt because it wasn’t possible for his captors to attend to him any more. He managed to free himself from the life-support machine, but in his severely weakened state he wasn’t able to either take control of the sub or escape through the hatch. That would have been a few hours before you found him.”
Scarlet nodded slowly.
“There’s not very much that we couldn’t have guessed. Has he said anything that could impact on the mission that we’re about to undertake? Captain Grey radioed me just before we started this meeting to say that the Dorado is now fully seaworthy: we’re therefore ready to depart.”
Commander Shore shook his head.
“I can see no reason to delay the launch. On the contrary, everything we learn about this business suggests that time’s pressing. I’ll tell Atlanta to sound Launch Stations, Captain – you’re welcome to use the injector tubes.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Scarlet stood up to go, saluted smartly and turned towards the door.
“By the way, Captain…”
“Lieutenant Sable told me earlier this afternoon that the Mysteron detector system on the tubes is now up and running. Don’t forget to turn the damn thing off again before you go down, will you?”
Captain Scarlet stood with his back to the cabin, gazing out of the front viewing window into the ocean depths beyond, as the Dorado’s intensely powerful searchlights probed the sea ahead. From the void beyond, shoals of fish were swept out of the darkness into their glare, only to be washed away at the last second, caught in the sub’s slipstream. He found himself almost unable to look away, utterly entranced by the beauty of the world through which he was now being steered.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?”
“What? I mean, I’m sorry, Captain – what did you say?”
Grey grinned. “Don’t apologise – it still gets me that way too. Sometimes I wonder why I gave it all up to join Spectrum.”
“That back injury of yours must have been quite a blow, yes?”
Grey frowned, confused, then his face cleared. “Ah, yes - the back injury. Well, you don’t want to believe everything you read in the files, Captain.”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow. “Not strictly true, eh?”
“It might have been exaggerated a little.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Grey shrugged. “Personal business and duty got a little mixed up. End result was that a man died in custody. Twenty years previously that man killed my father. The records show that he was killed trying to escape.”
“I’m not apologising. I’d have done it again – but my career was in a mess. The colonel offered me a way out. I took it, though it meant leaving some great people behind – as well as one very dear friend. Until a few days ago I’d forgotten how dear. Shut down automatic bosun and check trim, please.”
Scarlet turned and keyed in a sequence at the console to his right.
“Checking trim; automatic bosun is now offline; pressure compensators are operating at maximum.”
Grey placed his hands on the helm and explored it with his fingers, obviously savouring the moment.
“Never did like automatic bosuns – they take away the sense of being in control. This is where we deviate from the official maps. Since I’ve been here I’m realised that the WASPs have rather more secrets from the World Navy than you might think.”
Scarlet looked at him curiously. “The discovery of the underwater races took place after you joined Spectrum, didn’t it?”
Grey nodded thoughtfully. “An interesting question, that. When Troy took over as the skipper of Stingray their existence was little more than a rumour – at least that’s what we thought at the time. But after Commander Shore’s interesting admission the other day, I’m wondering just how much the upper echelons of the World Government actually knew about them already. Obviously it was enough to justify the creation of the WASPs in the first place – I mean, would you allocate the billions of dollars needed to build Marineville and its fleet of subs if you didn’t have a pretty good idea that a security patrol would be needed?”
Scarlet considered. “If you look at it that way, I suppose not. Mind you, you could apply the same argument to Spectrum, couldn’t you? And we sure as hell didn’t know anything about the Mysterons at that time.”
Grey shot a sideways glance at him. “You certain of that?”
“Of course! Well, that is… Yes! Of course I’m sure.”
“So how do you know?”
“It’s obvious! I mean, you couldn’t keep something as big as that quiet, could you?”
“Maybe not. Maybe yes. Suppose I were to tell you the Earth was engaged in a clandestine conflict lasting at least a decade with an extraterrestrial race almost a century ago?”
“I’d say you were hallucinating.”
Grey shook his head enigmatically. “Buried somewhere in the WASP archives in Marineville is a set of documents detailing the flight plans of an aerial interceptor capable of being launched from a submarine, and equipped with missiles to shoot down an alien spacecraft. The flights covered a period of about two decades from about 1978 onwards, during which time at least fifty successful strikes were recorded, and almost as many misses – evidently the technology was pretty crude at the time. Included in the same files are details of a lunar base which relayed the co-ordinates of the target to the interceptor via a satellite called ‘SID’ which from the context I’d guess probably stood for ‘Space Intruder Detector’. The flights were co-ordinated from a base located on the same site as a movie studio near Shepperton, England.”
Scarlet snorted. “You’re definitely hallucinating. Shepperton’s just around the corner from Windsor, where both my father and grandfather served in the Blues and Royals. Our family’s lived in that area for at least a century. If there’d been any other bases around there we’d have known about them. And anyway, flights to the moon weren’t restarted until well after the European war – 2048, I think it was. After the Space City complex was completed, anyway.”
“As I said before – are you sure?”
“All right then, where’s the evidence?”
“There isn’t any. Not any more. I was young and naïve then. I asked my commanding officer about it when I next saw him. He told me I’d made a mistake. I checked again the next day - the files had disappeared. I knew better than to ask him where they’d gone. But I know what I saw.”
“And you think the aliens could have been the Mysterons?”
Grey shrugged. “No idea. The Mysterons have never used a space vehicle as far as we know – but then, who’s to say what they were like before Captain Black destroyed their complex? Or maybe having encountered one race of aliens, the World Government decided we ought to be ready for the next bunch. Hey, we’re getting close – the city’s situated at the bottom of that trench that’s opening up ahead.”
He glanced down at the chronometer and grunted with satisfaction.
“We’ve made good time – that refit has almost made up for the delay in launching this tub. Stingray’s reactors need a few barnacles scraped off them. Are you still able to communicate with Marina?”
Scarlet closed his eyes and tried to focus his thoughts.
“Yes – she’s still there, but very faint. I’m getting the impression of a landing bay, with high, cream-coloured walls decorated with massive stylised shells. I’m sensing contentedness, tinged with anticipation. I think they’ve arrived, and she’s looking forward to seeing her father again.”
“Are you able to tell her that we’re about to arrive?”
“I think so.” Scarlet closed his eyes again and silently mouthed a couple of sentences to himself. A few seconds later he opened them again and nodded.
“She knows we’re here. She’s going to ask her people to open the main entrance hatch for us as we approach. We’re to sail straight in, and follow our noses.”
Grey pointed into the gloom. “There it is – down there.” He whistled. “Will you take a look at that!”
From out of the murky depths a shape was beginning to take form. At first resembling nothing more solid than a morass of fairy lights shimmering in the darkness, the Dorado’s intense searchlights began to pick out the edges of the structure as they approached.
Grey’s eyes shone. “Scarlet - I don’t believe it! It’s a seashell! It’s an enormous seashell!”
Scarlet shook his head in wonder at the sight, for once completely lost for words. It was indeed a shell in everything but size. And the size was beyond belief. As they approached it towered above them; storey upon story of the tiny lights glimmering through the haze. Grey counted at least fifty levels before giving up to concentrate on the task of navigating the Dorado through the hatch – itself fashioned in the shape of a shell - that even now was slowly beginning to open up before them. As the nose of the sub crossed the threshold, six straight lines of guiding lights in a hexagonal pattern illuminated in front of them. In the same instant, Grey felt a faint tremor pass through the sub. Experimentally he took his hands off the helm, and grinned as it began to turn of its own accord.
“Hey! Nice technology! Even we can’t do it this well. The Angels could use something like this to bring them down onto their launch stations, eh?”
Scarlet frowned at the silently turning wheel and the rudder controls, quietly rising and falling in sympathy with the helm to hold the Dorado directly at the centre of the hexagonal lighting pattern while the forward thrust control shifted slightly to increase velocity towards the end of the tunnel.
“Uncanny. It’s almost like…”
He stopped in mid-sentence, and looked up at the black shape visible through the forward viewing screen. “That’s Stingray’s hull, dead ahead and above us, isn’t it? Looks as if we’ve arrived – I suppose we may as well leave the Pacificans to moor her as well, eh?”
Grey grinned and shook his head. “Thanks, but I think I’d prefer to remain at the controls until we’ve come to a dead stop. I’d hate to have to explain to Commander Shore that we drove her straight through the back of the garage. He’d never let me live it down.”
He remained at the controls as the sub began to surface, coming to rest in a berth between Stingray, and another craft – a small one-man sub fashioned in the form of a sleek green and yellow fish. Crossing to the side window, he glanced down at the water separating the subs - the hulls were separated by less than five metres. He gave a low whistle. “Couldn’t be much closer, could it? Destiny could sure use one of these when she next goes shopping in Paris.”
“She’s that bad parking her car?”
They disembarked, climbing out onto the upper hull where a gantry had been extended to meet them, taking in the décor of lofty cream-coloured walls embossed with seashells arranged in a geometrical frieze. Instinctively Scarlet looked for the point at which the patterns began to repeat, but could see none, even though the designs were astonishingly simple. Stretching his legs, he gazed at his surroundings with a clearly-pronounced sensation of déjà vu which puzzled him until he realised that he was seeing with his own eyes the same scene that Marina had unwittingly projected into his mind just half an hour earlier.
As he contemplated this unexpected side-effect of his newly-discovered capability a door in the wall closest to him slid aside and Troy walked through, accompanied by a man with green hair. Scarlet had got as far as thinking that the old boy should know better than to try to emulate his teenage kids in fashion matters before realising with a start that the colour was natural. The man stepped to one side, indicating with a sweep of his arm that his guests were invited to pass through the doorway. Whilst Grey kept pace with their host, Scarlet dropped back slightly to murmur to Troy.
“Can any of them speak?”
“Actually, they all can, Captain – but they daren’t, Marina included. Apparently it’s got something to do with a curse placed on them by Titan many years ago.”
Scarlet looked at him in astonishment. “You’re kidding! Nobody believes in curses these days!”
Troy shook his head. “They do. They’re absolutely serious about it. They believe that if any of them ever speaks – even one word – then one of them will die. And that’s a risk that none of them is prepared to take. And bearing in mind that they’ve since discovered an alternative means of communication – one that’s probably more effective – they see no reason to put the matter to the test. Best bib and tucker when we arrive, by the way – we’re being met by the King of Pacifica. His name’s Aphony. He’s Marina’s father.”
Scarlet’s eyes widened for the umpteenth time that day. “She’s actually a princess?”
“Are we expected to bow when we enter the throne room?”
“No. They don’t go in for that sort of thing – and anyway, the WASPs are honoured guests here. Dates from the time we rescued Marina from Titanica – after the original Pacifica was destroyed, Titan took her as a slave. Her pad in Marineville may not exactly be a palace like this, but it’s certainly an improvement on her previous accommodation: she was cleaning Titan’s floors for him when we first met her. When he and his aquaphibian thugs weren’t using her for other things, I dare say.”
Scarlet flushed with a wave of anger. “You mean…?”
“Probably. Best not to dwell on it if she can read your mind - I guess she probably doesn’t want to think about it herself. Sorry I raised the subject.”
Scarlet straightened his cap as they approached the doors of the throne room. “Realising that somebody can hear your thoughts is quite an unnerving experience. It makes you realise that you can’t hide behind your face – and I’ve come to realise over the last couple of days just how much we use facial expressions to conceal what we’re really thinking. You actually have to control what’s going on in your mind – and from the limited tuition that Marina’s given me to date, I’ve found it extremely hard. Oh well – here we go.”
The doors began to slide apart, to reveal a group of three men approaching, all wearing robes of varying degrees of opulence. Two of them sported the same style of dress as the inhabitants of Pacifica that the captains had encountered already in the corridors. The taller of the two was instantly recognisable from his features as Marina’s father; the other was dressed in a similar manner to the first but slightly less regally: a senior advisor perhaps, thought Scarlet. A second later he felt a sense of confidence in his guess, and realised that Marina had heard his thoughts and confirmed them for him. This man is Aphony’s first minister, he realised.
The third member of the trio was plainly of a different species entirely, having not only green hair but green skin also. Seeing the group of Terraineans beyond, he seemed to shrink slightly into his attire as they walked towards the door before making what looked like a concentrated effort to increase his stature. Studying each member of his party fleetingly as they passed in the doorway, Scarlet noticed his eyes linger for an instant on Captain Grey, then narrow as if in recognition for an instant before transferring his gaze to Marina. She returned his stare impassively, and he looked away as his hosts accompanied him away from the throne room, avoiding eye contact with Troy and Phones completely.
Envoy from Titanica. The thought sprang unbidden into Scarlet’s mind, and he again recognised it for what it was – a communication from the girl standing a few metres away from him. He also caught the faintest hint of the emotions accompanying the thought, and recognised that she was trying to conceal them from him. He inwardly shuddered: they were not pleasant. Involuntarily he turned to look at the departing envoy as he passed through the door leading out into the city. Looking back, he noticed that Troy was also watching him speculatively, and their eyes met.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?”
Scarlet nodded grimly. “Oh, that’s him all right. I recognise the walk. Any chance of grabbing him before he leaves?”
Tempest shook his head with undisguised irritation. “When he’s on a diplomatic mission of some sort? Not a chance – we’d be putting Pacifica at risk of an immediate attack from Titan. We’re going to have to wait until another time. But I shan’t be forgetting how well he was disguised: complete change of facial features, skin tones, hair, colour of eyes, you name it. Oh well, never mind. We’ll get him one day.”
The door opened again, and Aphony and his minister returned to the anteroom, their guest having evidently taken his leave and returned to his craft. Their faces betrayed no emotion, but Scarlet sensed that no love was lost between either of them and the man recently departed. Not for the first time he congratulated himself on having not followed some of his relations into the diplomatic service. The requirement that the full complement of social airs and graces be maintained when eyeball to eyeball with your enemy over a dinner table wouldn’t have suited his temperament at all, and he knew it.
Both men perked up visibly as they returned. Aphony opened his arms to embrace his daughter, who stepped forward to meet him, her face a picture of happiness. He minister looked tactfully away, confining himself to the task of making his guests welcome by ushering them into the throne room. By the time the last of them had entered, Aphony and Marina had joined them, and Troy stepped forward to make introductions.
Safely back in the cabin of his craft, the envoy made no move to power up the engines. Instead, he leaned forward to activate a small monitor embedded in the control panel, adopting the customary pose of subservience required by his master. The screen cleared to reveal that master, glaring angrily back at him.
“They have refused, Almighty One.”
“Of course they have refused – I expected nothing else! Are the charges all planted?”
“Yes, Lord. I have primed all save the one to be situated in the docking bay, and that will be deposited and activated as I leave.”
“Excellent! Even now you may yet atone for your bungling of the Marineville operation! You will now return to the fleet and await further orders.”
“Lord, I have other news.”
“There are two craft of the WASP organisation in Pacifica, Lord. Both arrived while I was in conference with the city elders. One of them is Stingray.”
“What? Why are they there?”
“I do not know, Lord! They were waiting to speak with Aphony as I left. The slave Marina was amongst them – she is alive, just as you foretold. The man we observed mating with Commander Shore’s daughter was there also.”
“Pah! Never mind about them now! This cannot be a coincidence - the Terraineans must suspect something is amiss. Is Tempest there?”
“And your craft is in the same docking bay as those of the Terraineans?”
“It is, Lord.”
“Then you will leave them a little present or two, X-20! Swim out of your craft by the lower hatch and attach limpet mines to both Stingray and the other beneath the waterline before you take your leave. Maintain a watch on the city from a distance and detonate them remotely once the Terraineans have left the city and are clear of its sensors. I do not wish to alert the Pacificans to the danger to themselves until it is too late.”
“Would it not be more reliable to use timers, Mighty One?”
“Fool! You do not know when the Terraineans will return to their craft. Also the limpets are not sufficiently powerful to destroy the city – when the time comes to deal with Pacifica the destruction must be total. Do as I command!”
“Aphony, I would like to present two Terraineans, who have accompanied us in our visit to Pacifica. One is formerly a member of the WASPs, and used to command Stingray before he joined another security organisation under the auspices of the World Government of the land masses. His organisation uses code names to protect their identities. His code name is Captain Grey. My other companion works with him in the same organisation. He is called Captain Scarlet. I have brought them to Pacifica at their request. They are concerned for the safety of your city, and would like to speak with you. As Marina may have already explained to you, Captain Scarlet and she are able to communicate telepathically, in the same way that we understand Pacificans can. We have therefore brought Marina with us to help you to understand one another as well and as quickly as possible, as they fear that a disaster may be about to envelop your race.”
Aphony inclined his head in assent. I can read him too, realised Scarlet. He’s intelligent, open-minded and appreciative of our concern. A good man. Aloud he said:
“Aphony – my organisation is currently engaged in the installation of a security system in Marineville. During that operation we have discovered that the system reacts to the presence of not only the people that it was designed to detect, but also to Marina here – and by implication, any native of your race, the Pacificans. During that operation it has also come to our notice that a large consignment of guns has been stolen – almost certainly by Titan. These guns are of a very special kind, being designed to kill Mys… the same people whom the security system was created to detect. We suspect that if your people can be detected by our security system, they may also be particularly susceptible to this weapon’s firepower, and we therefore fear that Titan’s intention is to use these guns against your people. We have come here to warn you about these developments, and if you wish, to protect you if an attack is believed to be immanent. We will not place any pressure on you to accept our protection, but we do earnestly advise that you consider our offer very seriously.”
“Can you read my thoughts, Captain… Scarlet?”
“I thank you for your concern. My daughter has also been telling me of the incidents you describe, and I cannot doubt that you and your friends are sincere. But I would ask you – can the Terraineans protect us indefinitely, and without risk to yourselves?”
“I cannot promise that. Your people are not represented within the World Government, to whom we must answer for our actions. I can promise limited support because we consider ourselves at least partly responsible for the situation. We hope that once Titan is shown that we are prepared to deploy men and equipment in your service then he will abandon any plans that he has.”
“Titan has desired our elimination for many years. He has destroyed our city once. We rebuilt it. We cannot doubt that he will one day try again. If he does, then we will rebuild it yet again.”
Scarlet shook his head sadly. “We believe that the guns he now possesses will enable him to kill all of you. There will be nobody left to rebuild it.”
“We have survived before. We will survive again.”
“But you’ve probably never before been faced with weapons with the destructive power that these possess! You cannot stand against them – your civilisation may be wiped out.”
“I feel that it is otherwise. I cannot explain. But I am conscious that the Terraineans are themselves vulnerable to Titan’s firepower, and that if you intervene on our behalf there may be many casualties on your side. I would not wish to be responsible for that, for you are our friends. For this reason we cannot accept your offers of help. We will face Titan alone should the need arise. Do not fear for us.”
Scarlet opened his mouth to argue further, but shut it again as he heard the familiar female voice inside his head.
“Please, Captain – do not seek to persuade him to take a course other than the one he has chosen for our people. His mind is made up. To persist would merely trouble him. He understands – please trust me.”
“Then allow us to arm your city so that you can defend yourselves.”
“We are a peaceful people, Captain. We will not take the lives of others – even though they would destroy us. Once again, on behalf of my people, I thank you for your concern, but we must decline.”
Scarlet shook his head sadly: the potential for a scenario of genocide unfolding in front of him could scarcely be clearer, and he had no doubt that his own impressions could be sensed by both Aphony and his daughter – and yet all he could sense from Aphony was the certainty of the correctness of his stated position, and from Marina the absolute conviction that her father’s analysis of the situation was accurate. There was nothing more he could do or say.
“You are troubled, Captain. Come – let us offer you refreshment.”
Scarlet smiled. “Thank you.”
Scarcely had he spoken than the door opened and three Pacificans entered, each bearing an ornately decorated tray laden with food and drink. He blinked in surprise. How the devil…? Of course. It had been prepared in advance – probably for Aphony’s earlier visitor. They were simply waiting for Aphony’s telepathic command to bring it into the room. He smiled: this mind-reading skill had unexpected benefits. But about that earlier visitor…
“Aphony, may I ask a question?”
The old man smiled a gentle smile.
“You already have, Captain. And I see no reason to withhold knowledge from you. Titan wishes to extract minerals from the sea bed close to this city. His envoy has offered us payment of great riches for our agreement to this.”
“Are the terms he offers acceptable to you?”
“There are no terms he can offer that would be acceptable to us. We have refused.”
“May I ask why?”
“Because my people have lived in on the sea bed in this place since the dawn of time. This is our home. The rocks are sacred: they are a part of our lives. We cannot allow them to be taken from us. We have been entrusted with their care for all time, and in return for this care the spirits that reside within the rocks bring us life.”
“Have you considered that Titan may take what he wants, with or without your consent?”
“He will not take anything from this place. The life-giving spirits will not permit it. They will protect themselves – and if we remain true to them, they will protect us also.”
Scarlet found himself feeling intense disappointment: on the basis of the level of sophistication he’d already witnessed in the design, architecture and technology of Pacifica, he’d expected a more pragmatic approach to the dilemma faced by Aphony. He forced himself to put his feelings to one side, conscious that the old man could almost certainly sense them, and to concentrate solely on understanding the philosophy being expounded.
“How will the spirits do this, Aphony?”
“They will guide us if and when the time comes. I cannot explain, for you would not understand. Even we do not understand fully. But we have faith to guide us – and faith is all.”
“Do you know why the minerals in this area interest Titan?”
“We do not know. We can only speculate that he wishes to supplant us as the rightful protectors of the spirits that live within.”
“From what we’ve learned of Titan during the short time we’ve been stationed in Marineville, we’ve come to believe that he has a motive more closely related to increasing his own offensive capability.”
“You mean that he wishes to make himself more powerful? It may be so - we do not understand such motivations. My daughter, who has lived with Captain Tempest and his companions on the land for several years now, tells me that the wish to wage war is as alien to my people as the desire to grow fins or sing to dolphins might be to yours.”
Scarlet smiled at that, simultaneously recognising that the philosophical gulf between the Pacificans and every other species he knew or could imagine constituted a yawning chasm. Was the instinctive will to survive endemic to every race in the universe? Surely it had to be – any who did not possess it would not survive indefinitely – that much was obvious. But was aggression necessarily an integral component of that instinct? Throughout his life he’d always assumed that it was so, and yet here he was, talking to an alien man from beneath the waves of the oceans of his own planet who refuted the link out of hand.
Inevitably his thoughts strayed to the Mysterons – had they been like the Pacificans before Captain Black destroyed their city? He brought himself abruptly out of his reverie and turned his thoughts back to the matter in hand. Aphony glanced up as he did so, and Scarlet realised with a guilty start that the other had been following his train of thought. A split-second later he realised that that thought also had been heard; Aphony merely smiled gently and raised his hands in a gesture that conveyed the sentiment that embarrassment was quite unnecessary.
“I sense that we have said everything there is to be said, Captain, and my daughter informs me that one of your craft must depart shortly. I would however consider it an honour if those amongst you who are not bound by that requirement would remain as my guests for as long as you are able.”
Scarlet inclined his head with a smile, and briefly relayed Aphony’s observation and invitation to his companions. Troy nodded, grateful of the opportunity to move on from what for the remaining visitors had been a largely one-sided conversation, punctuated by Scarlet’s explanations: his own overriding sensation was one of standing around at a singularly uneventful party, and whilst all of them understood the reason for that, it was nevertheless difficult to shake off the feeling that they ought to get moving. He took Marina to one side.
“Marina – Phones and I have a limited amount of time allocated to this journey, and we need to get back on patrol very shortly. Would you like to stay here for a while, and return to Marineville later on board the Dorado with Scarlet and Brad?”
Her smile and eager nod answered the question without any need for Scarlet to act as interpreter, and Troy and Phones bade Aphony farewell, then made their exit. Scarlet turned back to the underwater ruler with another question that had just surfaced in his mind.
“Aphony, may I… ”
“Again, your thoughts precede your words, Captain. The answer is no – to our knowledge, none of us has never died as the result of an injury. Only when it is time for one of us to give up life do we die. Until we encountered other underwater races we had thought that it was so with all people. We know now that we were mistaken. We have also learned more recently that this is not the way with Terraineans.”
“Then when Titan attacked your city several years ago…?”
“No-one died, Captain. Many thousands were injured, but all recovered. The spirits in the rocks protected us, as they always have, and always will.”
“Yes – there is Titan’s curse. We fear it on account of the death of my first minister many years ago, immediately after Titan pronounced the curse. Other than when one of our number has offended the great eels, it was the only occasion that one of us has died before his time in our collective memory. It is for this reason alone that we fear it as we do. Terraineans could dismiss the death as a coincidence or a trick of Titan’s, but we cannot. It is because untimely death is so inexplicable to us that the incident brings such terror into our hearts.”
Grey’s epaulettes flashed rapidly, and he turned away to answer the call. Seconds later he interrupted the partially telepathic conference, his face grave and urgent.
“Captain, we have a problem. It looks as though our friend from Titanica left some of his hardware behind before leaving: Stingray submerged in readiness for departure a few moments ago, and Troy’s just spotted a limpet mine attached to the bottom of the Dorado’s hull. He wants to pilot the Dorado out of Pacifica, after which he’ll try to deactivate the damn thing, but he’s guessing that Stingray has probably been mined as well – in which case we need to get both subs out of the city as quickly as possible. He’s requesting that we return to the landing bay at once.”
Scarlet started to formulate a hasty valediction to Aphony, but the old man held up his hand. The expression on his face had not changed from the one of self-assured benevolence that he’d maintained ever since his guests’ arrival.
“Do not be concerned, Captain. We will remove this threat to your safety. Come with me, please.”
Feigning not to observe the exchanged worried glances between the two officers closely followed by a muttered request for Phones to stand by, he led the way out of the throne room into a small adjoining chamber; crossed over to the far wall and stretched out his hand. Immediately a section of the wall began to rotate, taking a corresponding hemispherical section of the floor with it. Within seconds the little waiting room had acquired a compact control console – the centrepiece of which was adorned with a brilliant crystal.
It was to the crystal that the old man now turned his attention whilst Scarlet and Grey watched, awestruck. Even as they watched, the jewel began to flash rhythmically as Aphony closed his eyes: it was obvious to both that he was communicating with it in some incomprehensible way. Scarlet tried to listen in on the telepathic conference but found himself baffled: there was evidently no language involved in this form of communication.
Instead, he glimpsed vague sensations of movement and forces; a second later he the realisation came upon him that the movements and forces were incredibly small. In his head, he found himself swept along in a slipstream of subatomic particles; chains of molecules flashed past him, and he struggled to keep himself from swaying this way and that to avoid them, conscious that all the time he had not moved physically from his place at Aphony’s side in the control room.
A massive black barrier loomed ahead of him, stretching into infinity in all directions; then it shattered and was gone as the raging torrent that carried him swept it aside. Another obstacle stood before him momentarily, then it too was no more; then another, and yet another. Faster and faster he was hurled through the maelstrom; he began to settle into the role that was being played in his mind, much as an unwilling rider experiencing his first ride on a terrifying roller coaster begins to calm down as the realisation slowly dawns that he isn’t going to die.
Then, abruptly it faded and was gone, and he was fully back in the control room again. He touched his face – it was cold and clammy. He glanced at the old man at his side, but he was apparently unmoved by the experience – assuming that he had been experiencing the same sensations. Aphony turned to face him, his benign face calm and collected.
“It is done. The devices attached to your vessels can no longer harm you.”
Grey’s epaulettes flashed a second time, and his microphone swung into position. Scarlet could hear the tone of bewilderment in Troy’s voice across the room, though only the occasional word was audible. They included ‘lights’, ‘alien’ and ‘rings’, and Scarlet suppressed a grim smile. He could imagine what was coming next.
Grey’s mike snapped back into its standby position, and he strode over to the two men standing at the console.
“Troy tells me that he’s just witnessed something completely bizarre. He says…”
Scarlet interrupted him. “Let me guess. He says he’s been watching two phosphorescent rings sweeping across the mines stuck to the Dorado’s hull, yes?”
“How the HELL did you…?”
“Never mind. You’d better get back on the line and tell him that the mines have been deactivated – also any that are stuck to Stingray. He doesn’t actually need to remove them now, but he probably ought to detach them in case a maintenance team back at Marineville comes across them by accident and has a collective heart attack.”
Grey stared back at him, his expression unreadable. “I’ll tell him.”
He stepped away to pass on the message, and Scarlet turned to the old man at his side.
“It is the least we can do, Captain.”
“The crystal was found amongst the rocks surrounding our city. Very few have been discovered since our ancestors built Pacifica – they are extremely rare, and sacred to my people. We call them ‘the Hearts of the Spirits’.”
Scarlet nodded sombrely. “We know them by a different name.”
“They are to be found above the waves also?”
“Not exactly. The one we had came from the moon. How it got there we don’t know – but we believe it originally came from Mars.”
“What is ‘Mars’?”
“One of the tiny lights in the sky, millions of kilometres from Earth.”
The old man smiled. “I have never seen the sky. My daughter is more adventurous than I – she has stood upon the land, and has looked up at the moon – she tells me it is very beautiful.”
“Yes, it is.”
Grey returned to rejoin the conversation, his mike flipping up to the deactivated position as he did so.
“Stingray is leaving Pacifica now: Troy’s going to check the hull for mines himself once they’re clear of the city, and ensure there aren’t any other little surprises that our underwater friend might have left behind. He sends his thanks to Aphony for whatever he did to deactivate them, and whilst he’s accepted his assurances that the wretched things are now harmless, he still wants them off his sub as soon as possible: an attitude with which I can empathise without any difficulty at all.”
Marina stepped forward. “Permit me to remove the mines from the Dorado, Captain. I can perform the task far more quickly than a Terrainean, as I have no need of breathing apparatus.”
Scarlet raised a quizzical eyebrow to Grey, who looked distinctly puzzled, and it took Scarlet another half-second to realise that only he had heard Marina’s offer. He grinned, and repeated it out loud for the benefit of his non-telepathic companion, who nodded his appreciation with a smile.
“By all means - thank you, Marina. Getting kitted up would take a good quarter of an hour, and scuba gear is quite cumbersome when you’re trying to perform delicate tasks.”
Marina and her father left the chamber, leaving the two captains to contemplate the mysterious equipment and its enigmatic crystal. Grey spoke first, with a statement of the obvious.
“So – now we discover that they’ve got a pulsator. Any idea where it came from?”
Scarlet blinked. “What? Oh, sorry – of course, you didn’t hear all that, did you. He says that they’re to be found amongst the rocks around this city, but they’re extremely rare. They call them the ‘Hearts of the Spirits’, apparently.”
“Didn’t you tell him that it’s kind of dangerous to keep these things in the house, so to speak?”
Scarlet shook his head. “They’ve had them around for as long as their civilisation can remember, so presumably these don’t explode. Actually I did warn him just by my thoughts the second we saw the pulsator, but his reaction was rather like that of a parent who’s just been warned by a child not to poke his fingers into a power socket. From what we’ve just seen happening, it’s my guess that the pulsator acts as a form of conduit for the mental powers of somebody who knows how to use it. These people are completely non-violent, so presumably it’s never been used to commit acts of violence – unlike the other two we’ve come across in the past.”
The door slid open, and Marina walked in, her hair only slightly damp despite having evidently just returned from a prolonged underwater swim. Her shimmering green dress was not wet at all – something to do with the material no doubt, mused Scarlet.
“The explosives have been removed, Captain. There were five of them.”
Scarlet smiled. “Thank you, Marina.” He turned to Grey. “Five.”
Grey nodded. “I’ll let Troy know – he’s probably got a similar number, unless Titan considers Stingray to be worth an extra couple for luck.”
He turned away as his cap mike snapped into position, and Scarlet turned back to the girl from beneath the waves.
“Marina – have you…”
“Yes, Captain – I have found two Hearts during my lifetime. One I found when I was a little girl playing amongst the coral reefs to the west of Pacifica, the other when I was helping recover the wounded after Titan’s attack upon our city. That one remains here in Pacifica, the other I carry with me always to protect me against bad things. Atlanta calls it a lucky charm, but it is more than that.”
“Can you do the things that your father can do with the Heart?”
She shook her head. “Only the Lord of Pacifica may seek the aid of the Spirits. The wisdom from the Ancient Time tells us that it is wrong for others to try, for they will be tempted to misuse the gifts that might be bestowed upon them.”
Logical enough, mused Scarlet – it wouldn’t be the first time that power in the hands of too many people resulted in the destruction of a civilisation. He glanced up as Grey rejoined them.
“I’ve just been talking to Phones, Captain. They’ve put Stingray down on the ocean floor about 20 nautical miles from here with her skids down, and Troy’s underneath her now. He’s found and removed four so far, and in view of our warning is looking for at least one more.”
Lieutenant George Lee Sheridan stretched his legs and rose out of his seat at the controls. Crossing to the skipper’s position, he removed his headphones and flicked the radio switch.
“How you gettin’ along, Troy?”
A piercing electrical squawk made him wince, followed by a crackle of static, and then the sound of laboured breathing. Sounds like he’s found another one, thought Phones.
“Hi, Phones. Four down, one being worked on at the moment. This one’s a tricky little devil. I think it’s the last one, but after I’ve removed it I’m going to keep looking for another fifteen minutes, just in case.”
“You sure you don’t want me to join you down there, Troy? Two pairs of eyes an’ all that?”
“No thanks, buddy - I’d prefer you to stay on the sonar. The sharks around here are pretty vicious blighters, though I guess the oxygen cylinders would give them a stomach ache they wouldn’t forget.”
Phones chuckled. “Bad attack of the wind, more like. Okay, Troy – tell you what - I’ll get Marina to brew up some cocoa… no, I won’t, will I, because she’s not here. I’ll do it myself.”
“Last time you tried making a hot drink you nearly poisoned me, buddy. Either you added salt instead of sugar, or you made it with seawater.”
The pitch of Phones’s voice rose indignantly. “That wasn’t my fault, skipper! Marina put the salt in the sugar dispenser - you know she has problems with character recognition, Troy! I mean, we’re damned lucky to be alive after she mistook that auto-repeating clip of Nitro-9 cartridges…”
“…for a pepper grinder, yes, I haven’t forgotten that one. Okay Phones, a mug of cocoa would be nice: 25% milk, boiling water from the dispenser, go easy on the salt please.”
“Right you are, skipper.”
Phones walked back to the tiny galley, tipped some cocoa powder into a couple of mugs, added some milk, put a jug of water in the microwave and activated it. He then returned to the cabin and sat down at the controls. The faintest of pinging sounds came from the headphones, and he froze: even at a distance of a couple of metres he had no difficulty recognising that sound. Snatching up the headphones and donning them, he swivelled in his chair and flicked the radio switch once more.
“Troy? You’d better get inside - we’ve got company. One of Titan’s patrols.”
“Yeah. At least two, possibly more. Wait… make that definitely more. Three… no, four. At least four.”
“Kill the lights, Phones – I’m coming back in.”
“Sure thing, skipper.”
Phones reached forward and deactivated the searchlights, followed by the interior illumination of the cabin. Moments later he heard a scuffling sound emanating from the rear hatch, and he hurried to help Tempest out of his swimgear, but Troy waved him away.
“Stay on the sonar, Phones – I’ll be with you in two shakes.”
Phones nodded silently and returned to the cabin; Tempest joined him less than thirty seconds later.
“How many now?”
“More than I can count, Troy. At least a dozen – the readings are going crazy. Moving slowly, just above us - less than five hundred metres and closing.”
“Any sign that they know we’re here?”
Phones shook his head. “I don’t think so. If they do, they’re not preparing for a missile attack – the change in their engine pitch when they’re activating the forward launch batteries is unmistakable.”
Troy considered. “Okay, let’s sit it out. Not that we’ve got much choice at this stage in the game – even we’d be lucky to escape in one piece against a flotilla this big. But let me know if any of those engines changes pitch by so much as a fraction – and keep your eyes peeled for depth charges. Aquaphibians aren’t exactly renowned for their subtlety of offensive tactics, but if the Kingfish himself is aboard one of them…”
He had no need to finish the sentence – Phones was well aware that whilst Titan’s crustacean minions probably lacked the intelligence to comprehend that the noise of their engines could be interpreted by the Terraineans and acted upon, Titan himself certainly did. And if he did know where Stingray was, a devastating bombardment as his fleet passed over it was the most likely course of action for him to take. Of course, that envoy of his had seen the WASP subs docked in Pacifica not three hours previously, and ought to believe them crippled or destroyed, but…
“Here they come, Troy.”
Troy’s right hand was hovering over the main atomic motor control as the first of the terror fish passed slowly overhead. A second one followed it… and then three more, and then another three. Phones gave a low whistle.
“I’ve counted twenty so far, Troy – and they’re still coming. There are at least another twenty behind them, and possibly more.”
The pair of them watched in silence as the fleet continued to pass over their heads. Several minutes passed before the final one joined its companions, and Troy’s hand visibly relaxed, though his expression did not.
“At least fifty. Just as well we didn’t try to make a run for it - we’d have been blown to atoms.”
Phones held up his hand. “Wait a minute, Troy - there’s one more. Smaller and sleeker than the others, also more powerful.”
The two aquanauts leaned forward to watch as the final craft swept over them, barely one hundred metres above their heads. Phones turned to Troy, his face grave.
“Wasn’t that the same craft that…?”
“Yeah – it was. And that means I’ve got a bad feeling that I know where they’re headed. Get Brad on the radio at once, Phones – I need to talk to him. Then plot us a course to follow that fleet just within sting missile range but as close to the ocean bed as possible. After that, I want to talk to Commander Shore urgently.”
Captain Grey’s mike snapped back into its standby position, and he walked smartly over to where Scarlet and Marina were standing.
“Trouble, Captain. Big trouble.”
Scarlet nodded sombrely. “I heard most of that. How long before they get here?”
“At their present speed, thirty minutes at most. Certainly not enough time to evacuate the city. We’re going to have to fight them off - Stingray is tracking them, and can launch an attack on their rear at any time, but there are far too many of them: probably two-thirds will get through. Many more if Stingray is destroyed. We’ll have to launch the Dorado and strike at their leading craft simultaneously: if we manage to attack with complete surprise I’d guess we stand a good chance of destroying about half of them - if we both survive.”
“Any chance of a pre-emptive missile attack on them from Marineville?”
Grey shook his head. “Troy’s talking to Shore about that now, but he believes they’re already so close to Pacifica that the risk of the resulting shockwave destroying the city is too great. And of course both Stingray and the Dorado would also be destroyed.”
“A tactical air strike?”
“Just possible: the WASPs almost certainly couldn’t get here in time, but the Angels might just manage it if Cloudbase is near enough. I’ve already told Troy to ask Lieutenant Green to contact Cloudbase directly and request an immediate Angel launch to Stingray’s current position. In the meantime we have to get the Dorado seaborne immediately: every second we delay brings that fleet closer. I’m going to need you on ops, Captain.”
“SIG. What about Marina?”
“I must remain with my people in their time of peril, Captain. They have little understanding of the need for haste – and though they will surely survive, the pain they will suffer…”
Scarlet looked up sharply. “Marina – this fleet is almost certainly armed with Mysteron guns. Titan probably intends to send raiding parties of aquaphibians into the ruins: hundreds of your people will die – possibly thousands. You have to get as many of them as you can out before the attack, and as far away from the city as possible!”
She bowed her head. “I will do as you say, Captain.”
“Take care, Marina. Shall we go, Brad?”
The two captains left the room at a brisk pace and headed for the docking bay, where the Dorado still lay. Dropping into the pilot’s seat, Grey’s fingers were flickering over the controls causing the sub to sink lower into the water even as Scarlet slid into the navigator’s position beside him. The surface rose steadily up the glass of the forward viewport as the Dorado began to back away from the berth, then executed a 180° turn in its own length before beginning to accelerate steadily down the tunnel towards the ocean door.
Scarlet glanced across at his companion, who grinned back at him.
“You’re actually enjoying this, aren’t you?”
Grey shrugged enigmatically. “Nothing like the promise of a good sea battle to get the adrenalin running. You know, sometimes I think I was born 400 years too late. When I was seven, my father bought me a book on 17th century sea battles between the Spanish imperial navy and the pirates of the Caribbean. I’ve still got that book.”
His expression changed. “It was the last present he gave me before he was killed. And the bastard that killed him was a pirate himself. Armed with Cahelium armour-piercing shells instead of a cutlass, and heat-seeking missiles instead of cannons, but a pirate nonetheless. Ever since that day, all I ever wanted to do was hunt down his kind. Which is what I did – until the day when… when I had to leave the sea behind. I think that might have been the day I finally grew up.”
He reached forward and activated the long-range scanners, then settled back into his seat, his eyes probing the murky depths through which they were speeding.
“Trouble with the Mysterons is that they’re too damned calculating. We ought to be launching a full-frontal assault on that complex of theirs on Mars – not sitting around in endless meetings trying to work out how to convince them of our honest and sincere desire to end this war. You know, the trouble with you, Scarlet, is that you’re essentially a pacifist.”
Scarlet snorted. “Rubbish. I’m a soldier; my father was a soldier, his father was a soldier, and his father was a soldier too. There were Metcalfes at Waterloo, Cawnpore, Rourke’s Drift, Passchendale, Anzio, Port Stanley, Basra, Islamabad and Czestochowa. We’ve collectively seen too much misery and suffering to be fooled into thinking that war is clever.”
Grey nodded. “Exactly my point. The whole thrust of military training is to avoid fighting wars: it’s just that instead of marching around in peace rallies, you take a more proactive approach to the problem, that is, you try to make sure the other guy is never in a position to start one. And you do all that simply because you object to fighting wars. You’re a peacenik.”
“Whereas you’re apparently determined to die in a blaze of glory. Just stop the sub by that reef over there, would you? I’d like to get off please.”
“Sorry Captain – this is the non-stop service to the front line. Any sign of the enemy yet?”
Scarlet turned up the volume on the headphones to maximum, then lowered it again and shook his head.
“Negative. Can’t be long now though.”
Grey nodded. “Time to get on the line to Phones: we’re going to have to co-ordinate this caper infernally well if we’re going to stand any chance of pulling it off.”
He leaned forward and disengaged the autopilot, then flicked the radio switch.
“Dorado to Stingray – come in, Stingray!”
“This is Stingray. That you, Capt’n Holden suh?”
“It is. We’re coming to join the party, Phones. You game for a little target practice?”
“Sure thing, Cap’n. Troy reckons that it’s a Yamashita – your reaction?”
“Agreed. We’re reading you as twenty nautical miles SSW on a bearing of 136 magnetic; we’re approaching you at rate six; your assessment of the enemy’s dispersion please?”
“Tight formation. They’re going to find it difficult to manoeuvre, and even more difficult to retaliate without succumbing to friendly fire. Unfortunately the risk of that sort of botch has never bothered them in the past. They’re more frightened of having to explain failure to Titan than dying - which is likely to work against us. Oh well. We estimate you’ll be appearing on their screens in three minutes. We therefore propose to engage them in… two minutes and thirty seconds… mark.”
“Confirmed. Tactical processors now online; we are downloading your projected firing sequences. Dorado out.”
Scarlet looked up quizzically. “Who’s Yamashita?”
Grey grinned. “He’s referring to a scenario called ‘Yamashita’s Hammer & Anvil’ - one from the textbook, except that I don’t think the guy who invented it ever actually expected it to be played out for real. Troy will launch an attack on their rear just seconds before that flotilla becomes aware of our presence. Our own attack will need to be delivered the minute we enter their sensor range, and has to take them completely by surprise, literally as they’re turning to retaliate against Stingray – which will then need to break through their ranks to join us in front of them, causing as much damage in the process as Troy is able to inflict.”
“And after that?”
“Both of us will then blast them with everything we’ve got, in the expectation that the survivors are panicked into withdrawing in the belief that they’re under attack from a superior force. We don’t have enough hardware between us to finish the job – and if the survivors have the wits to realise that while we’re still launching our last sting missiles with them, we’re going to have problems. And Phones has just told me that he and Troy are sceptical of their willingness to withdraw. The Yamashita scenario was devised with a Terrainean enemy in mind – not a bunch of stolidly stupid aquaphibians – however I don’t see an alternative to Troy’s assessment of the situation. That fleet can’t be allowed to reach Pacifica – it’s that simple.”
A red light on the missile control panel flashed on, accompanied by an urgent steady beeping, and Grey gave a tight smile.
“It’s started. Here we go.”
“Remote missile activation. This system was still in development when I left the WASPs. By the time we enter their sensor range we won’t have time to select targets before they become aware of our presence – so our first salvo is being triggered directly from Stingray. Hence the interfacing of the tactical arrays. After that, we’ll be on our own.”
A shudder passed through the sub, to the accompaniment of a burst of bubbles from both of the forward missile tubes as two sleek black darts streaked away into the darkness. Almost simultaneously a cacophony of echoes began to reverberate in Scarlet’s headphones, as the Dorado began to rise with a steady incline of the sea bed. Suddenly the ocean floor fell away beneath them, to reveal a vast flat plateau stretching away in all directions in front of them. And above the plateau…
Scarlet caught his breath at the sight that stretched out before the Dorado. Rank after rank of hideous massive mechanical fish sailed towards them: he counted twenty, thirty, forty… He shook his head in wonder, wondering whether to laugh or scream – were these insane underwater creations actually dangerous? The next instant, all idle speculation was swept from his brain as two of the foremost terror fish disintegrated in dazzling explosions as the Dorado’s remotely-launched sting missiles found their marks. In the distance, a third flash marked the destruction of another victim of Terrainean technology, and a crackle of the radio was instantly followed by the sound of Troy’s voice echoing around the cabin of the Dorado; his tone precise and taut.
“Initial strike successful, Dorado: four direct hits on rear of flotilla – three destroyed, one sinking. Six more have turned to engage us; remainder are still on course for Pacifica, including our friend the envoy, who is accelerating through the lines to the front. Phones is monitoring a lot of radio activity from that craft – we figure he’s directing operations, so make that a priority target, will you? We’re attempting to circle them to join you, but they’re anticipating us better than I expected: they’re better co-ordinated than usu...”
A warning shout sounded over the radio, followed by a muffled explosion: a colourful expletive burned Scarlet’s ears.
“Your status, Stingray?” There was a pause. “Sting…”
“Still here, Captain. Minor damage to ballast tank five – we can handle… enemy on starboard bow, Phones – acceleration rate six bearing 270!” The surge of power was audible over the radio; Scarlet listened for an explosion but heard none, and turned his attention to the wave of terror fish fast approaching the Dorado. Even as he watched, two of the hideous machines dropped their jaws in a movement reminiscent of a goldfish gobbling its lunch – except that a salvo of missiles shot out of the mouths and flared towards the Dorado. To his left, Grey wrenched at the helm and held on grimly as the sub darted upwards away from the ocean floor and over the heads of the first rank of terror fish. Out of the corner of his eye he was able to see the missiles streak on into the darkness as he dipped the nose slightly to target the second rank.
“Missile status, Captain?”
Scarlet swivelled in his chair and rapidly checked over the instrumentation.
“Targeting lock for two sting missiles now online; missiles three and four still calibrating.”
“Fire one, force five!”
“One away.” The sub shuddered faintly as a missile streaked from the port torpedo tube. Even as it vanished into the murky darkness ahead Grey realigned the sub to bear down on the next fish in the rank.
“Fire two, force ten!”
The second missile sped away in a streak of bubbles as the Dorado twisted upwards to escape another salvo of missiles from the third tier. Almost simultaneously the radio burst into life with a burst of crackles.
“Dorado – do not overfly the flotilla, repeat, do not overfly the flotilla – the rear ranks have anticipated you, and are waiting to fire into your path. Do you copy, Dorado?”
Grey grinned. “Thanks Troy. Basement next stop!”
Scarlet felt his stomach turning as the Dorado was thrown into a steep dive. By the time he’d caught up with it the swirling vegetation covering the ocean floor was looming up on the Dorado rapidly, and he instinctively grabbed hold of the armrests of his seat as the Dorado sank into the massive banks of weeds that provided it with temporary camouflage. As they sank from view the radio crackled again, though no voices were to be heard emanating from the speakers.
Grey glanced at Scarlet, leaned forward and activated his own mike.
“Troy! How you doing back there?”
Another few seconds of silence followed, after which it was Phones’s voice that replied.
“Things not looking so good, Capt’n. It’s getting hectic back here – they’ve realised you’re not coming, and have decided to try to deal with us instead. Our missile supply is low and we’ve gone to ground in the vegetation on the ocean floor. Could be me and the skipper’s going to be busy playin’ hide-and-seek with ‘em for a while.”
“Hang on in there a few more minutes - we’re coming back, Phones.”
“No, Capt’n! Troy says you better get the hell back to Pacifica and help Marina defend the city against the first wave. They’ve split their forces back here - the main body’s continuing their advance while the rear are preventin’ us chasin’ them! Seymour’s just confirmed that the Angels are still ten minutes away – we can hold ‘em till then, after which things are gonna get kinda messy around these parts. If you join the party back here, Pacifica’s dead – so you better get goin’, buddy!”
Grey shook his head furiously and grabbed the mike.
“Phones – listen to me! The pair of us are more than a match for a bunch of crustacean brutes with the half the wits of a shoal of…”
There was a scrabbling sound on the radio; when it cleared, it was Troy’s voice at the other end.
“No deal, Brad! If you don’t get clear now, the first wave will be blowing holes in Aphony’s front door before we’re finished here – and by that time they’ll be too close to the city for your girls to take them out. You have to go now – NOW, understand?”
Scarlet reached over and deactivated the mike.
“You know he’s right, Captain. We’re not going to be able to stop them from here with pure missile power – but Titan’s going to have to resort to using the Mysteron arms he stole from us if he wants to kill the inhabitants, and he’ll find that a lot easier if they’re still in the city than swimming around in the rubble of it. Chances are he’ll order his crews to disembark and invade through the main hatch with small arms once they arrive – and we’ve got an arsenal on board that should be able to hold them off for hours, if not days. By that time Marineville will have sent reinforcements. We must get there before that fleet!”
Grey took a deep breath, and stared at the ceiling for a full five seconds before replying.
“Agreed. Like I said, perhaps I’m in the wrong business here: too much planning and strategy for my taste. New course, Captain, 180° about, acceleration rate three; rate six as soon as we’re clear of the flotilla. You’d better let Marina know we’re returning – we’re not going to have much time to stand around ringing the front doorbell when we arrive.”
He threw the Dorado into a wide arc, sending a cloud of ooze blasting into the water behind the sub as it rose off the ocean floor and accelerated upwards out of the swaying reeds. Almost instantly a pair of missiles sped out of the gloom and plummeted into the morass of undersea vegetation that they’d just vacated, exploding in a spectacular but harmless display behind them.
Grey grinned. “Persistent blighters, aren’t they?”
Scarlet grinned back. “A characteristic that’s evidently inversely proportional to both their intelligence and their accu....”
The sentence was never finished – a massive explosion erupted to the rear of the Dorado, hurling both men out of their seats and causing all the lights in the cabin to go out. A second later the lights were back, but pitch of the whine of the motors had dropped markedly. Grey swore.
“All batteries to bear on that mechanical fish - now! The second they’re away, damage report!”
Scarlet was back in his seat with his fingers already on the firing board. Two sting missiles instantly spat from the forward torpedo tubes, wheeling upwards and round in two graceful arcs that terminated with a single coruscating explosion as they simultaneously tore into the engines of the mechanical fish that had been scanning the vegetation for them, and had struck lucky. Half a second later its hapless crew’s luck ran out as the entire fish erupted in a brilliant ball of flame.
Pausing a second to prime the next pair of missiles, Scarlet swung to face the console and began interrogating it at high speed, his fingertips flying over the board.
“Tanks three and five flooding; also minor damage to right rudder control. Reactor output automatically compensating for increasing mass; main thrusters stable at 70% output. Pressure compensators at maximum but holding; I’m shutting non-essential life support down to conserve power.”
Grey experimentally executed a few manoeuvres, and grunted.
“Could be worse. At least we’re still in one piece – but that 30% power loss is bad news.”
“Can they catch us?”
Grey shook his head. “No, at least not in the short term – we’re still more manoeuvrable than they are, especially around rock formations – but they’ll be snapping at our heels all the way back to Pacifica now. Tell Marina she’ll need to get that door shut behind us pretty damn quick as soon as we’re inside – and tell her also that we won’t be slowing down much as we enter the hatch. It’s going to be close…”
Phones winced as yet another explosion off the starboard side rocked Stingray’s hull.
“Sure is getting uncomfortable in this patch of weeds, skipper - we can’t take much more of this pasting!”
Tempest nodded sombrely. “Yeah, Phones. They know we’re in here somewhere, and what they’re missing in intelligence they’re making up for in doggedness. This carpet bombing is just a shade too methodical for my liking. Could be we’re going to have to make a run for it if they get any closer. What’s left in the fireworks box?”
“Two mines, Troy. It sure ain’t enough to get us out of here.”
Another massive explosion off the port side sent shockwaves through the hull, and Tempest’s face hardened.
“Looks like it’s going to have to be enough, Phones. We’re out of time – the next one’s going to be on top of us. Set a course of 135° at as steep an incline and with as much acceleration as we can muster the instant we’re off the ocean floor.”
“That’s gonna take us right into their sights, Troy!”
“I know, Phones. I’m just hoping we’ll be moving too fast for them to aim accurately as we cross their path. Release both mines as soon as we’re above them, and cross your fingers. Let’s go!”
“Right you are, skipper!”
Slowly the sub rose off the floor, then began to rise out of the swaying vegetation that had concealed it with steadily increasing velocity.
“Acceleration rate two, skipper. Now three. Approaching plane of the enemy in five seconds. Four, three, two…. incoming at 160°, skipper!”
With a gut-wrenching roll, Stingray swerved hard to starboard as two sleek missiles flitted beneath its hull and vanished into the darkness beyond.
“Release mines, Phones!”
“Mines away, Troy!”
Seconds later a massive flash shattered the darkness to Stingray’s rear as the leading terror fish sailed into one of the floating bombs so recently released by the fleeing sub.
“One down, Troy! Good timing!”
“Pure luck, Phones – can’t we get any more speed out of this tub?”
Phones shook his head. “No good, skipper. We’re pushing it at rate three.”
Tempest shook his head. “That’s not enough, Phones. Could be we’re not going to…”
The radio crackled, and a calm female voice with a lazy Southern drawl floated into the cabin.
“WASP vessel Stingray – this is Spectrum Angel leader - we will be overflying your current position in thirty seconds. Request details of your stat…”
Troy snatched the microphone. “Angel leader, this is WASP vessel Stingray – do you have a fix on us?”
“Affirmative, Stingray… we have you at 44.6°W by…”
“Okay – you can see us! Are you reading a fleet of other submarine vessels at this location?”
“I am reading ten vessels including yourselves, Sting…”
“Destroy them at once please, repeat, at once!”
“Unable to comply, Stingray – I cannot distingui…”
“We’ll take our chances, Angel leader! Launch that attack NOW! Phones – dive!”
“Dive, dive, dive!”
Stingray was hurled into a stomach-churning downward spiral as the explosions began – Troy had counted five brilliant detonations around them before the depths of the ocean separated them from the rain of destruction falling upon their pursuers from the sky above. Levelling the vessel out, he rapidly scanned the ocean around them for any signs of survivors of the devastation from which they had fled, but saw none.
“Stingray? This is Angel leader… come in Stingray! I am reading one remaining vessel on my screen: please respond Stingray…”
Troy grinned and picked up the mike.
“Angel leader - this is Stingray. We’re still in one piece here. Nice timing – and good shooting.”
“This is Angel leader; thank you Stingray. Has your vessel been damaged in the attack?”
Troy raised a questioning eyebrow towards Phones, who shook his head with a grin and took the mike.
“Angel leader, this is Lieutenant Lee Sheridan; checkin’ all systems as we speak. Looks like there ain’t nothin’ we can’t handle from here, though we’re gonna be somethin’ of a slow boat back to Marineville. Is that a Georgia accent I hear up there? I seem to remember you ladies always were pretty handy with your shotguns.”
“Georgia is it, Lieutenant. Kept it loaded under the sink – we couldn’t afford hydromic shells on MY cotton farm. My flight will continue scanning for any surviving vessels until you are clear of the area, Stingray.”
Troy motioned for the mike, and Phones turned back to complete his checks.
“Thank you, Angel leader – we are now proceeding to the underwater city of Pacifica, map reference 42°S by 135°W to assist in operations there – we request that you patrol that area until further notice. Please notify us of any vessels attempting to leave those coordinates.”
“SIG, Stingray. Angel leader out.”
Phones glanced up from his console with a quizzical air.
“What we gonna do when we get there, skipper? We can’t outrun ‘em, and we sure as hell can’t shoot ‘em.”
“Damned if I know, Phones – damned if I know. But I’ll try to think of something by the time we get there. Set course for Pacifica, acceleration rate… well, whatever we can get out of her. And try raising Brad – though I’ve a hunch he’s probably got his hands full right now.”
“Hold tight, Captain – this is going to be an interesting end to a thrill-packed ride!”
A clear 2000 metres separated the Dorado and Pacifica’s main hatch, which lay open invitingly in front of them. Behind them were arrayed twenty terror fish, just out of missile range but gaining by the second, now that the cover of the obstacles littering the sea bed lay behind them. Scarlet sat intently listening to the acoustic echo of the fleet, comparing the slowly increasing volume with the computer readouts in front of him.
“Range 1600 metres; closing at approximately 20 metres per second. I’m sure Phones could do better than that, but…”
Grey nodded grimly. “Phones could probably tell you what brand of fuel the damn things are using. It’s accurate enough – if that distance closes to 1000 metres we’ll be within their firing range. I estimate that the time before that happens is almost exactly the same as it’ll take us to reach the hatch. I was hoping to avoid giving them an easy target during the final few seconds – not the simplest of things to do when you’re trying to negotiate an airlock just twice the width of the sub.”
The radio crackled, heralding an incoming transmission, and he instantly shot out his arm to deactivate it with a curse.
“Later! How far behind now?”
“Twelve hundred metres and closing.”
“Distance to hatch?”
“Oh well - here we go!”
The hatch was now looming up on them rapidly, and he gave up trying to weave the Dorado, concentrating simply on holding her on an even keel as they raced the final few hundred metres towards the opening.
The echo on Scarlet’s hydrophones took on a different tone, and he swore, recognising simultaneously the change in engine pitch and the sudden appearance of a swarm of smaller objects approaching them from the rear.
“Missiles away – they’ve all fired! Impact…. Ten seconds!”
In the final few seconds before they sailed through the hatch it began to close once more. In the same instant Scarlet became aware of another consciousness touching his own, watching the scene as it unfolded in front of his eyes, and he suddenly realised that Marina was operating the hatch control, attempting to co-ordinate its closing with the Dorado’s entering the city to present a barrier to the pursuing fleet of terror fish. Her timing was good – just one missile shot through the closing gap to follow the sub inside, exploding behind them against the tunnel wall and sending a shuddering jolt through the Dorado but without causing any damage. Two seconds later twenty more missiles blew the hatch behind them to atoms.
Grey uttered a short sharp laugh.
“Idiots! They’ll have to wait until that debris clears before they can find their way inside. We’re earned ourselves a few minutes’ grace – should be just enough time to get ourselves set up in the landing bay with some small arms.” He frowned. “No sign of that automatic guidance system that brought us in last time yet. I wonder why not.”
A stark vision of destruction sprang unbidden into Scarlet’s head, and again he realised that he was sensing Marina’s thoughts. Closing his eyes to concentrate, he saw more – doors blown off their hinges, fallen pillars, a collapsed ceiling, a critically injured man half buried under a pile of rubble, his face hidden from view. He turned to Grey, his face grave.
“I think Pacifica may have had some problems already, Captain.”
“Marina’s telling you this?”
“Yes. We have to dock and get ourselves armed as quickly as possible – I feel the invasion may have already started.”
A scene of devastation met his eyes as the Dorado surfaced in the landing bay. Several small fires were burning uncontrolled around the dock, and a pall of thick black smoke hung in the air. Grey looked around him at the destruction, baffled.
“But how? How did they manage to do all this, Scarlet? They’re not even here yet!”
Scarlet closed his eyes again, one again seeing Marina’s memories of the recent past.
“Bombs! They’ve detonated several bombs between the landing bay and the throne room - probably planted by that so-called envoy of Titan’s during his visit. There’ve been several casualties…”
He stopped in his tracks as he suddenly realised who the man half-buried under the rubble was, cursed himself for a fool and set off down the corridor at a run, his companion in hot pursuit.
“It’s Aphony! Marina’s father’s been injured – that’s why the hatch control was erratic and why the automatic guidance wasn’t working. She’s trying to learn how to use the pulsator! We have to get to the throne room as quickly as possible – she needs help!”
“Scarlet – wait! Where’s that consignment we brought? We have to get the small arms broken out and distributed before the aquaphibians can swim up the launch tunnel.”
Scarlet stopped with an effort and closed his eyes once more. A second later he opened them again and nodded.
“They’re in the anteroom, piled up next to the pulsator console – Aphony had them transferred there immediately after we left. Come on!”
In the corridor just outside the throne room, staring upwards with unseeing eyes, they found Aphony lying with his head upon Marina’s lap as she tended him lovingly with tears in her eyes. Scarlet took one look at the pile of fallen masonry that had collapsed on top of him: it was obvious that a human could never have survived being crushed underneath it when it fell. And yet Scarlet had sufficient experience of Marina’s retrometabolic capabilities to know that in time he would effect a complete recovery – if the invading aquaphibians did not turn their Mysteron guns on him in the meantime. He scanned all the enclaves around the throne room in search of attendants to help, but saw none anywhere.
“What’s happening, Marina? We need your people to help us defend the city against Titan’s aquaphibians – where are they all?”
She shook her head slowly, and looked up into his eyes with sorrowful eyes.
“My people are frightened, Captain – they remember the last time Titan destroyed our city, and are fleeing from where the aquaphibians will land. They do not understand that the aquaphibians will hunt them down and kill them – it is beyond their comprehension.”
Grey took one look at the pile of arms, still boxed up, in the adjoining pulsator room and snorted angrily at the irony of the situation.
“Enough weapons here to equip an army; barely enough time to unpack them, and nobody to train in their use! Oh well – let’s get to it, Scarlet. It’s beginning to look as if this could be where we’re going to make our last stand, doesn’t it?”
The distant but unmistakable whine of a Mysteron gun reached their ears, and they looked at each other grimly.
“Sounds as though they’ve arrived, Captain.”
Scarlet nodded grimly and ran into the throne room, Grey and Marina at his heels. Entering the enclave containing the pulsator, he swiftly opened the nearest box of grenades and started priming them for use with one of the launchers that Grey was in the process of breaking out from another container. Marina meanwhile had hurried over to the pulsator console and was stretching over the gleaming jewel, experimentally running her fingers over it with an expression of intense concentration on her face. Grey shook his head in bewildered annoyance.
“Marina! We’re going to need you to man one of these launchers in a few minutes – would you come here and pay attention please?”
She appeared not to hear him, and Grey opened his mouth to repeat his request a lot more forcibly when a gasp from Scarlet made him turn.
“No! She’s trying to save us… We have to hold them off for as long as we can, Captain! If she can control the pulsator, she may just be able to stop this invasion in its tracks!”
A flash out of one of the windows caught his eye, and he turned to look at the mechanical fish in the ocean that were still discharging their cargoes of Titan’s crustacoid henchmen. The explosion had come from the control room of the fish, clearly visible through the viewing port, where its occupants were reeling in pain and confusion as the control panels exploded in rapid succession. Another flash out in the darkness told him that another fish had suffered the same fate – and then a third. He suppressed a grin and returned to the business of loading and priming the launcher, which he then swung round to cover the entrance to the throne room. Not a second too soon – a movement of dark green in the gloom beyond told him that the first of the invaders had arrived. He fired the grenade into the darkness instantly, where it exploded in a deafening blast, and the inhuman screech that followed told him that at least one of the enemy would not be firing back.
“Marina! How are you getting on over there?”
“I have destroyed the control panels of all the vessels in Titan’s fleet so that no more aquaphibians may leave by the hatches nor may they pilot their craft away, Captain – when our friends arrive from Marineville, they can deal with them as they will.”
“Can you disable the aquaphibians’ guns with that crystal?”
“I am trying, Captain, but I can sense them only singly, and there are many already within the city. Scarlet swore under his breath and turned to his companion, who was setting up a second launcher to cover the entrance from a different angle.
“It looks as though we’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way, Captain – it seems that she can’t neutralise them en masse.”
Grey nodded. “Shame. For a moment I thought… Look out, Scarlet!”
Scarlet threw himself to one side as another aquaphibian appeared in the doorway, brought his weapon to bear on him and fired. Instantly Grey shot him down – only to see him replaced at once by a second one who was training his Mysteron gun on the girl in the green dress with her hands on the pulsator, her eyes still closed in deep concentration. With no time to reload the launcher, he was too far away to act.
She hasn’t heard him, realised Scarlet wildly. Scrambling up off the floor, he hurled himself on top of the girl, desperately trying to shield her body from the blast of high-voltage electricity from the Mysteron gun, realising as he did so that it would probably be the last thing he ever did.
Scarlet looked up in surprise. He’d heard the electronic whine; he’d seen the illumination of the barrel; he’d felt a thoroughly unpleasant tingle reverberating through his body – and he was still alive. The aquaphibian remained standing in the doorway glaring down at its weapon in obvious bewilderment for another two seconds before it was floored by Grey with a well-aimed fist to the jaw, sending the weapon clattering to the floor. Pausing only to verify that the creature was unconscious, he stepped over the body and scooped up the Mysteron gun before hurrying over to Scarlet, who was attempting to extricate himself from the untidy pile of arms and legs on the floor into which he and Marina had tumbled.
“What happened, Brad?”
“No idea. I’ll see if I can find out while you get that mortar reloaded.”
With Scarlet covering the doorway once more with the launcher, Grey rapidly disassembled the Mysteron gun, bursting into a hearty chuckle a few moments later.
“Well, I’ll be damned!”
Scarlet looked up from the launcher with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s a replica! It’s from the fake consignment that Titan’s agent switched with the ones we sent to Marineville - that imbecile must have put this one in with the wrong batch! One thing I’ll say for you, Scarlet – when the Mysterons reconstructed you they must have thrown in a few charms for good measure.”
Scarlet had been watching the doorway intently for the previous few minutes. He now looked up and frowned.
“Perhaps. Have you noticed how quiet it’s gone out there?”
Grey nodded. “You’re right – shall we find out why?”
The two captains warily stepped through the rubble of the doorway into the corridor beyond, where they found Aphony, now returned to consciousness and attempting to struggle to his feet. Marina ran to him in delight and threw her arms around his neck; he smiled back at her, and then turned his attention to the Spectrum officers.
“Titan’s soldiers have left the city, Captain Scarlet. One of them tried to kill me with the strange weapon he was carrying, but still I live. The spirits have protected us, as they have since the Old Time.”
Grey caught Scarlet’s eye as they helped him to his feet.
“Looks like there was more than just one replica in the batch, Captain.”
Scarlet shook his head in bewilderment.
“It’s beginning to sound like it, isn’t it? But how the devil…?
Those remnants of the great armada that dared return to Titanica did so in ignominy, silently in twos and three, many terror fish that had been deserted by their crews being now piloted by lone aquaphibians of greater than average loyalty – or perhaps even greater stupidity. At the helm of his own sleek personal transport in their midst, Surface Agent X-20 contemplated his own fate with sober realism, deciding only to return to face his master’s wrath after concluding – probably correctly - that Titan would have him hunted down to the farthest depths of the oceans if he did not. Tales of the long arm of Titan’s vengeance were told wherever those who had had personal experience of him gathered, and there were many such tales.
His craft docked, he walked now through the bare hallways of his master’s stark citadel, his strides becoming slightly shorter and less sure-footed as he approached the throne room. Entering, he fell upon his knees, in full knowledge of the real possibility that he might not live to rise again to his feet.
“I have to report, oh Great One, that… that the expedition has failed to accomplish its objective.”
Titan looked down from his throne, contemplated the grovelling wretch and spoke in uncharacteristically quiet, measured and precise tones.
“I know this already. For the last two hours I have been looking out of my windows at the ocean, and I have seen part of my fleet returning. When they return in triumph they being me booty, slaves and great treasures taken from my enemies! Today I see no booty. No slaves. No treasures. Instead I see the remnants of a battle-scarred fleet bearing injured and dying aquaphibians. Tell me… why is this, my most trusted of surface agents?”
The silkiness of his voice had the effect of freezing the marrow in X-20’s bones to ice. His master’s rantings and ravings were to an extent manageable, but when he was in this mood…
“Almighty One, I come to offer you my humblest…”
“I SAID EXPLAIN!”
X-20 raised his head the merest fraction, desperately assembling his analysis of the battle as fast as the words could escape from his mouth.
“Almighty One, our fleet was attacked not by just one but two Terrainean vessels, of which Stingray was one! But even so we valiantly fought them off, suffering only the loss of fifteen of our own. Stingray was damaged – even now it lies on the ocean floor awaiting rescue – and the other turned tail and ran from our great fleet! We sailed on victoriously to Pacifica and our legions disembarked to take the city by storm as you ordered, but…”
“But the weapons that our Terrainean ally sold to us did not work, Oh Great One! The Pacificans were prepared – they resisted our attack, aided by the cowardly Terraineans who had retreated into the city, and by the treacherous slave Marina! There they unleashed a secret weapon which neutralised our guns and deactivated our great fleet! The casualties we sustained were grievous….”
“ENOUGH! I gave you fifty terror fish, you imbecile! How can it be that armed with this mighty fleet you cannot even prevail against a bunch of servile peasants and a paltry two Terrainean vessels? Fifteen of my finest craft destroyed for the loss of neither of these? ALMIGHTY TEUFEL! By what manner of ineffectual cretins am I served? My army devastated, my resources in ruins – X-20, you shall pay for this as shall the Terraineans who have defeated you! All Marineville shall know how Shore’s daughter behaves with her lover while Tempest sails the seas harassing me – it shall be done this very minute! Raise a channel to the Terraineans’ headquarters!”
X-20’s eyes opened wide in alarm.
“But Almighty One! You yourself said that when the Terraineans saw the recording they would realise…”
“Of what use is the base on Lemoy to me when I have such a poltroon as you installed in it? Raise the channel, you snivelling cur! It shall be the last act you perform in my service - and when you have done it, GET OUT!”
The mood in the Tower was exuberant, with almost as many tales of the recent spate of adventures doing the rounds as there were people in the control room – most of them being related simultaneously. Scarlet and Marina were engaged in a telepathic conference at the back of the room; Phones and Lieutenant Green were swapping stories about the Angels, in whom Phones had developed a keen interest on account of their speedy and flawless elimination of Titan’s hoards; Captains Grey and Tempest found themselves filling in both Commander Shore and each other with the sequence of events as witnessed by each of them separately, while Atlanta watched on in bemusement.
Grey accepted another glass of iced lemonade, downed it and held out the glass for a refill which Atlanta readily supplied.
“The thing that we still don’t understand is the appearance of those replica guns among Titan’s aquaphibians. Obviously Titan couldn’t have known they wouldn’t work, and I can’t believe his agents in Marineville would make such a stupid mistake, so what on earth happened? We’ve absolutely no idea – but whatever it was, it put the final nail in the coffin.”
Troy nodded with a grin.
“By the time Phones and I arrived, Commander, we didn’t even need to pretend to be armed! Titan’s invasion force took one look at us and fled – those of them that were swimming outside the city, that is. Several of the ones still trapped inside their mechanical fish smashed down the hatches and joined their friends in flight, and the rest of them just hid inside. Half the surviving fish were still floating aimlessly around Pacifica at the time we all left for home – Aphony was quite insistent that they were no longer a threat to his people, though we left him the arms consignment and a WASP frequency transmitter with a Morse signaller just in case.”
Atlanta refilled his glass and turned to Captain Grey.
“You know, I’d like to know a little more about these Angels of yours, Brad. Phones over there is obviously madly in love with the one who led the attack on the terror fish – and he hasn’t even met her yet! And just before you all got back here I spoke briefly to the one who’s coming to fly you guys back home tomorrow morning – very sexy, if I may say so. I thought you said life on Cloudbase was all sweat and toil, Brad.”
Captain Grey considered, and then shrugged.
“You think she’s sexy? Well, I suppose some people might think so – which one is it, anyway?”
“The French one – and since I now know there are five of them, and that you had to ask me which one I was referring to when I said she was sexy, I’m going to conclude that they’re all as sexy as she is! You’re a fraud, Brad Holden!”
An insistent buzzing on a nearby console caused her to frown.
“Incoming transmission for you, Father. High priority override from tracking station 17 – the Galapagos relay.”
Commander Shore’s mouth creased up in a broad grin for the first time since the Spectrum captains had seen him three weeks previously.
“You’re getting a little rusty with that communications array, honey. The Galapagos relay’s been running on automatic ever since the last overhaul eight months ago. There’s nobody there to activate the damn thing.”
“I know that, Father! But there’s definitely an emergency signal coming in from that location for your personal attention – look!”
She pointed to a flashing light in the middle of the schematic of the Pacific Ocean on the wall map.
Shore shook his head. “Maybe it’s a yachtsman who’s stopped off to ask directions. If it is I’ll charge him for the time it takes me to tell him which way west is – and my consultancy rates aren’t cheap! Okay honey, put him on the main viewer.”
Atlanta opened the channel and walked over to the screen to join her father and Captain Grey at the console; Marina and Captain Scarlet also brought their telepathic chat on the other side of the room to a close and wandered over to see what was going on. A stifled gasp from Atlanta caused them to look up sharply as the screen cleared.
The image of a strange man standing in front of a bank of electronic equipment had appeared on the monitor before them. A green man, clad in a similarly-coloured cloak, and sporting a peculiar triangular cap on his head that made him resemble an exceptionally repulsive gargoyle, glowering down at them from the monitor with rage blazing in his eyes.
“I shall speak with you, Commander!”
Unstable at the best of times, the commander’s volcanic temper instantly exploded in unadulterated fury.
“What the HELL do you want, you fetid puddle of octopus dung? Haven’t we given your murderous underlings enough of a pasting that you need to give me the excuse to exterminate some more? Get off my videophone – your revolting features are shortening the life of the screen!”
“I shall make your screen burn with shame, Terrainean! You have interfered in the internal affairs of my realm for the last time – I, Titan, swear it! Tempest’s head will adorn the entrance to my throne room even as I dismantle your flagship and give the pieces to my aquaphibians to scrape the barnacles off my garbage scows! But first you shall bear witness to the depravity to which your own corrupt and decadent society has sunk!”
A movement at his side caused Scarlet to glance at Marina, who had silently extracted a gleaming jewel on a silver chain from her bosom as the enraged underwater tyrant continued to vent his fury upon the gathering of WASP and Spectrum officers. Her eyes narrowed, she fingered the pulsing stone, her ethereal face now a study in absolute concentration as she fixed a steely gaze upon the screen in front of them. Turning his attention back to the monitor, Scarlet’s eyes widened as he alone among the astonished group of spectators spotted the faint outline of two ghostly green rings silently passing over the bank of equipment behind Titan’s head as he reached the end of his tirade.
“See now how your own kin and companions betray one another with lies, infidelity and deceit, Commander!”
Titan swung around and flicked a switch on the console behind him, illuminating a display showing the blurred outlines of a naked man and woman locked in an exceptionally intimate embrace. Then, just as the image began to solidify and sharpen there was a brilliant flash, accompanied by a deafening bang as the entire console erupted in a spectacular explosion. A howl of pain that could only have come from Titan himself echoed across the control room before being abruptly cut short as the communication link was severed by the blast.
A good ten seconds passed before anyone spoke, though the expressions on their faces spoke volumes: astonishment, shock, amusement and outrage were all present in roughly equal measure. It fell to Commander Shore to sum up the combined reaction of everyone in the room.
“Does anybody know what the hell that was all about?”
Captain Grey chuckled. “It looked to me as if Titan’s been subscribing to the porn channels, Commander. Hasn’t got a very good signal, has he?”
Atlanta grinned. “I’m surprised he can receive them that far down, unless he’s tapped one of the trans-Pacific cables! It doesn’t look as though he’s going to be doing much viewing in the immediate future though, does it?”
Standing at the back, Scarlet quietly turned to the green-haired girl at his side, and raised a questioning eyebrow.
“You did that, didn’t you, Marina?”
She returned his gaze without embarrassment.
“Yes. He has hurt me and my people many times. He was about to hurt my friends. I do not know how, but I know that I am right. I decided to stop him.”
She looked down at the pulsating jewel in her hand, and contemplated it.
“That is the first time I have ever called upon the spirits to aid me without the permission of my father. But I am not ashamed, and I shall not seek forgiveness, even though in so doing I have disobeyed the teachings of my people.”
“Presumably you will succeed him one day, Marina, am I right?”
“It is possible that one day I shall lead my people, Captain. Why do you ask?”
“Because everyone in authority that I’ve ever met has had to learn that doing what is right for those who are dependent on you can sometimes be a terrible burden to carry. But from what I’ve seen of you, I think you’d carry that burden well.”
Captain Grey groaned as ‘The Wasps’ jazz band launched into their signature tune for the third time that evening, and turned to Scarlet with a pained expression on his face.
“You know, Paul, when I first joined Spectrum I can remember thinking ‘That’s the last time I’m ever going to have to sit in The Blue Lagoon listening to that godforsaken number’. And here I am, three years later, sitting in The Blue Lagoon, listening to that godforsaken number.”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Really? I think it’s a great tune. Very catchy - I’m going to be humming it all day tomorrow. What did you say the name of it was?”
“It’s called ‘Blues Pacifica’. I’ve listened to it more times than I can count, and I never want to hear it again.”
Scarlet shrugged and reached for his glass of water.
“Each to his own. Rhapsody’s into jazz in a big way – I think I’ll buy her a copy of it during the interval.”
“You dare! If I hear it wafting out of the Amber Room when we get back I’ll resign, I swear it. Troy, has that band composed anything else at all in the last three years?”
Tempest shook his head. “Not a thing. But they can play it in several different styles if you ask them nicely. Marina’s very fond of the gothic arrangement, whereas Atlanta prefers a more staccato rendition. Phones has written an interpretation of it based around the acoustic signature of a pair of giant squid. It’s really very good – he has a superb ear for music. You should ask him to play it for you.”
“Another time, perhaps. Where is he anyway?”
“He’s taking Lieutenant Almond and Seymour to a Stravinsky recital at the theatre tonight. He sends his apologies, but he’s playing in the synthesiser section.”
“And the girls?”
Troy pulled a face. “Busy dressing up – what else? The commander’s escorting them over when they’re ready: Atlanta told me earlier that they’ve got a surprise for us.”
“What sort of surprise?”
“Wouldn’t say, but it’s usually got something to do with some new creations that one or other of them have bought for themselves.”
He glanced over towards the entrance and lowered his voice. “Ah, wait a minute - I think they’ve arrived. You can always tell when the commander comes in here – the noise level drops.”
The noise level certainly had dropped: there was virtual silence emanating from the direction of the entrance. Then gradually an excited murmuring began to build up – followed by a spontaneous burst of applause. The two men glanced at each other with raised eyebrows, and turned to face the door.
Into the room walked Marina – modestly, quietly and without ceremony - and yet her effect on the room was electric. She was wearing the dress that Grey recognised instantly as the one that Atlanta had removed from the little island off the peninsula two weeks previously. The fit was perfect; the colour complemented her green hair and eyes in a way that could not possibly have been predicted - and the combined impact was absolutely devastating. It could have been made for her, thought Grey, instinctively rising to his feet with his two companions as she approached the table. Being the nearest, Scarlet was a fraction of a second late in stepping forward and pulling back a chair from the table for her to sit down, and Grey noted wryly that he was clearly as entranced as Troy and himself. By the time she was seated, Commander Shore and Atlanta had joined them, having obviously delayed their entrance by a few moments to observe the effect.
“Well, guys – what do you think? Does she look fabulous or what?”
Grey shook his head in amazement. “It’s incredible! Fabulous isn’t the word for it – Atlanta, did you realise how good it would look on Marina when…”
“When she and I bought it on the mainland a few weeks ago? Well, sure we knew! You don’t go around buying dresses without trying them on, do you Marina?”
Her silent companion shook her head slowly, though it seemed to Grey that her expression was less than convincing – but he knew his manners, and bided his time. It was over an hour later, during which an absolutely first-class meal was ordered, served and eaten before an opportunity arose to follow up the mystery. He waited until Marina was deep in a telepathic exchange with Scarlet before seizing the opportunity to exchange a few muttered words over the table with the other half of the plot, who was obviously trying to avoid eye-contact with him.
“What are you playing at, ‘lanta? That’s the dress you filched from that house on the Island of Lemoy – don’t try and tell me it isn’t!”
She glared back at him and replied in whispers through clenched teeth.
“Keep the noise down, Brad! All right, I admit it, but the whole thing’s rather embarrassing, you know? We were looking for something to wear tonight in my apartment this morning. The dress was hung up in my wardrobe, and she spotted it there. Well anyway, to cut a long story short, she obviously fell in love with it at first sight. I’ve never seen her so captivated by a dress before – she couldn’t stop looking at it, touching it and so on. So obviously I had to let her try it on, which she did! You can see how well it suits her, so… well… I gave it to her.”
“But it isn’t yours, Atlanta!”
“For God’s sake, what else could I do, Brad? Tell her that I stole it, and she can’t have it because I’ve got to return it to its rightful owner? She’d never believe me! Now listen – you’re going to have to back me up on this, right? As far as she’s concerned, I bought it on a shopping trip while she was away. And as far as everybody else is concerned, she bought it – something that she’s in no position to deny! No woman ever buys a gown for another woman, and it’d be too demeaning to suggest that it’s a cast-off – even one as high quality as this one obviously is. I’ll swim over to Lemoy and leave some money for the damn thing on the dining room table when I’m next over in the bay doing some painting - now can we drop this subject please?”
He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, grinned at her and turned to Commander Shore.
“Captain Scarlet, Lieutenant Green and I will be returning to Cloudbase tomorrow morning, Commander. Atlanta tells me that all systems are now operational, though Almond and Sable are remaining for a few more days to iron out any glitches that might occur.”
Shore leaned back in his hover-chair, savouring his brandy.
“Then since I’ll be halfway to Futura by the time you get up tomorrow morning, I’d better wish you a pleasant journey back to that ridiculous aircraft carrier of yours in the sky now, Holden. You too, Scarlet. Make sure you keep it out of Marineville’s airspace – I don’t like the idea of somebody turning the power off when it’s over my control tower. Now why don’t one of you gentlemen take my daughter for a turn around the dance floor? She only ever dances with Troy over there, and his co-ordination’s so dreadful that she’s picking up bad habits.”
Atlanta cut short her conversation with Grey and glared back at him.
“Father! How could you! Just for that I’ll dance with Troy for the next two numbers. If he asks me, that is. If Captain Holden’s lucky I might be able to fit him in later.”
Tempest shook his head with a grin.
“I have an alternative suggestion. Brad can have the next dance with you, then I’ll take the final two of the evening. That way I get the honour of walking you home.”
“Agreed! Are you going to ask me to dance, Captain Holden?”
He grinned and led her onto the floor and took her waist for the Latin number that had just begin, noting with mild surprise that Scarlet and Marina had also joined them. First time Scarlet’s shown any interest in such frivolous pursuits for a long time, he thought. With his feet safely on automatic pilot, he found himself admiring the graceful movements of Scarlet’s partner as they encircled each other with effortless expertise. A forced female cough in his ear brought him back to more immediate concerns with a jolt.
“Hey! Remember me?”
“Whoops - sorry, ‘lanta! Did I tread on your toes?”
“No, you didn’t! Which incidentally raises the question of where the hell did you learn to dance properly, Brad? Another of those sweat and toil duties that Cloudbase imposes on you, I suppose?”
He tapped his nose knowingly and lowered his voice. “Ah well, you never know when one of us might be forced to seduce a Mysteron. It’s a tough life in Spectrum these days.”
She lowered her voice – and her eyes. “Could be this is the last time we’re going to see one another for quite a while, Brad. I just wanted you to know that… well, these last few weeks have been…”
“Hush, love – you don’t need to…”
“But I do, Brad! It’s as if I’ve been asleep for three years, and just woken up again… I don’t want you to go…”
“I know, love – I know. I’m feeling it too.”
She looked up directly into his eyes.
“I’ll be waiting for you, Brad. I want you to remember that - please promise me you’ll remember.”
She shook her head with a wistful smile.
“No. Don’t write - it’s not the same. If we write it’ll slowly die. Until we can be together I want to remember it as it is now. Just don’t forget – that’s all.”
The dance ended and they returned to the others at the table with claps and smiles, instantly picking up and responding to the barrage of facetious one-liners about the general quality of the dancing in which they’d participated. Scarlet and Marina joined them seconds later, to a round of appreciative applause from the little assembly. Atlanta rose to accept Troy’s hand and returned to the floor for the final two dances of the evening as the other two sat down. Commander Shore took another sip of his brandy and surveyed Stingray’s female crewmember with speculative eyes.
“Well, Marina. We’ve discovered quite a few things about you in the last few days that we didn’t know before - and I’m asking myself now if we’re making the best use of you. It must be quite something to discover that you’re indestructible - quite something. I was wondering if you’d be interested in being given special training. Training that would teach you how to use your powers to maximum advantage in the service of the WASPs…”
He stopped abruptly as Marina shook her head.
“No? Why’s that, Marina? I haven’t explained what sort of training I’m referring to yet…”
Scarlet looked up with an earnest look on his face.
“I beg your pardon sir, but I think I may be able to reply for Marina.
Shore’s eyes narrowed with mild irritation. “And just what makes you think that, Captain?”
“I can read her mind, sir.”
The irritated look evaporated. “Oh, yeah, well - I’d kinda forgotten that. Okay Captain, so what’s bothering her?”
Scarlet paused, taking his time before replying.
“Marina believes sincerely in the ways of peace, Commander. Her people have never initiated any form of offensive action against anyone, and despite the missions in which she’s been involved with the WASPs since her arrival, neither has she. Her years spent among Terraineans have taught her that action can be essential to counter other peoples’ offensive actions – her single-handed dealing with Titan’s armada is ample evidence of that – but only to the extent of countering a real threat to her own kind. She understands only too well that the training you’re considering would be likely to teach her how to initiate conflicts with a high probability of success because of her newly-found invulnerability – and that would bring her into conflict with her principles.”
“But everybody knows that pre-emptive action is sometimes necessary in the interests of maintaining peace!”
“No, sir – you and I accept that principle; Marina does not. Her philosophy can be summed up in the Biblical quotation ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, which she regards as axiomatic. She’s afraid that practical application of her capabilities – even with good intentions - could lead to that philosophy becoming twisted into ‘Do unto others as they would do unto you - but do it first’. She’s not prepared to run that risk. That’s right, isn’t it, Marina?”
She nodded with a smile.
Commander Shore frowned. “I’ll have to think about that one. Seems to me that Marina’s outlook on life strikes at the very foundations of everything the World Aquanaut Security Patrol and Spectrum stand for. And yet I can’t think of anybody I’d want to have around more in a crisis involving the underwater races.”
He glanced down at his empty brandy glass, and motioned to the waiter. “Can I get you another drink, Captain?”
“No thank you, sir.”
“How about you, Holden?”
“Thank you, Commander - I’ll have a glass of port please.”
While he was placing the order, Marina leaned over and caught Scarlet’s eye.
“It gives me great pleasure to know that you understand and can speak for me, Captain.”
He shot back a conspiratorial grin. “Maybe I don’t understand you as well as I thought, Marina. That little business with Titan on the videophone this afternoon strikes me as being rather closer to Terrainean-style pre-emptive action than you might like to acknowledge.”
She frowned, considering the point.
“Perhaps I have lived among the Terraineans for too long. And yet I know it was the right thing to do.”
“Maybe your philosophy is inaccurate – or perhaps incomplete.”
“Perhaps. And yet we have lived in peace for thousands of years, when Terraineans have been killing one another for just as long.”
“Your circumstances are different. Your people are more difficult to kill than mine, and I suspect your philosophy reflects that difference. It’s easy to be a dedicated pacifist when you yourself cannot be killed. With nothing to fear, why should you feel obliged to commit violent acts? It’s something I’ve often wondered about in the context of the Mysterons, since they also possess your invulnerability – and yet they’re violent to the point of fanaticism. Perhaps there really is a vulnerability there, and they’re terrified that we’ll discover it one day. Who knows?”
The return from the dance floor of Troy and Atlanta signalled the end of the discussion. And not a moment too soon, reflected Scarlet – they were getting into quite murky waters.
Atlanta collapsed into her seat and reached for her drink.
“Wow! I’m absolutely shattered. Would everybody mind if I make my way home now? I don’t want to break up the party, but if I don’t make a move now I’ll collapse at my desk tomorrow morning.”
The effect of the statement was remarkable: within the space of the next five seconds everyone around the table with the exception of Marina was stifling yawns, and Scarlet found himself wondering if she could yawn.
Commander Shore drained his glass, and glanced at his watch.
“Yeah, I guess we could all do with a good night’s sleep. I’ll need to be up first thing if I’m to be in Futura by 1100 hours, and you’re on patrol from 0700 aren’t you, Troy?”
“That’s right, Commander. I’ll get your coat, Atlanta. Brad – it’s been great to see you again, even if we did meet up under slightly unusual circumstances! Captain Scarlet, it’s a pleasure to have met you. Goodnight, everyone.”
Scarlet turned to his philosophical sparring partner, who was rising out of her seat. “May I escort you home, Marina?”
Underneath a clear starlit sky, couples drifted away from The Blue Lagoon and walked back to their quarters; many who had not seen the creation which caused so much admiration earlier stopped now to admire it as Scarlet and Marina walked past. No stranger himself to being the centre of attention on account of the brightness of his uniform, Scarlet nevertheless found the experience distinctly unsettling: the colour of his beautiful companion’s hair added to his impression that he was acting the part of an escort at an awards ceremony, and he didn’t care for it much. He could sense that Marina herself was completely unconcerned, which rather surprised him until it dawned on him that her flowing green locks were already familiar to everyone on the base: it was only the dress that was raising eyebrows.
“You’re certainly causing quite a sensation with that gown of yours tonight, Marina. I’m sure I’ve never seen anything like it before – would you mind if I asked where you bought it? I’ve at least five friends back on Cloudbase who would give a year’s salary to have something like it.”
“I did not buy it, Captain – though I know the place from whence it came. I am afraid no amount of money will buy such a dress for your friends. It is woven from a substance unknown to Terraineans.”
“But… I thought Atlanta said…”
Marina smiled a gentle smile.
“Atlanta is my dearest friend. She gave me the dress this morning, but did not wish to embarrass me by letting anyone know that I did not choose it myself.”
Her face clouded with confusion.
“But… I think there must be something that she has not told me. It is not an accident that the dress fits me as well as it does. You see, the dress is mine. It was designed for me by the court dressmaker in preparation for a grand ball, nine years ago. I was to be presented at that ball to my future husband – a prince of one of the other underwater cities. It should have been the happiest day of my life.”
“High-born representatives of all the underwater civilisations were to be there – including Titan. He swore a vow of peace with us, but he lied. That day, while the ball was at its height, his armies attacked and destroyed our city. My husband-to-be was killed.”
“I’m so sorry, Marina. I had no idea.”
“Please do not grieve, Captain. It was many years ago, and I have made a new life for myself, in which I have learned to find happiness one more. But I had never thought to see my betrothal gown again. The gown is far more to my people than a wedding dress is to yours - it embodies everything I am, and once worn can never be replaced. I believed it to have been destroyed – and now I have had it restored to me so unexpectedly. Even though I do not understand how or why it has been returned, I am happy now.”
They had reached the door of her apartment, where she looked up at it and smiled.
“This is my palace. I do not have to entertain diplomats here, like that unspeakable envoy of Titan’s. Instead, I can offer my friends coffee and biscuits. I think I am more fortunate than my father.”
She turned to face him with sparkling eyes that suddenly dimmed as her thoughts touched his mind.
“I should like to invite you in for coffee, but I sense that you do not care for Marineville coffee, Captain.”
Scarlet grinned – she’d not delved quite deep enough, and he realised she’d avoided doing so deliberately out of politeness. “Actually, it’s the coffee from the automatic dispensers that I dislike. But if you’re offering, Troy tells me you do an excellent cup of cocoa.”
She frowned. “I do not understand. I have not offered Troy a cup of cocoa since I mistakenly added salt to it. Salt is natural to my kind, and the writings of the Terraineans confuse me, so I did not realise I had done wrong.”
Studying her face, he realised that she was still genuinely distressed about the misunderstanding. He shook his head with a smile and took her hand, which she made no attempt to withdraw.
“Marina – he’s not upset or angry. He never was. It’s little things like that make you special to him. He cares for you very much, you know.”
She looked up at him, and he felt the lightest touch of her mind within his own as she verified the truth of his statement. Joy flooded her countenance for an instant, and then she looked down again in embarrassment as she realised that he’d sensed her reading his thoughts.
“I would die before causing him harm.”
“He understands that.”
Again the brush of her thoughts as she sensed the truth of his words, and again embarrassment.
“I had to know. Please forgive me.”
Scarlet shook his head and smiled. “There is nothing to forgive. Do you love him, Marina?”
She looked up at his face with tears in her eyes.
“I cannot. I would like to, but I cannot. He is not of my kind. For my people, love is a joining of thoughts as well as bodies – we cannot hide our feelings for one another, so when love comes, it is complete. For us, it cannot be less than this. Troy is a Terrainean – I cannot touch his mind. And yet Terraineans love one another, do they not? Oh, why cannot I be a Terrainean also? If I live among them for long enough, perhaps I shall become a Terrainean. I think I should like that.”
He shook his head sadly, thinking back to a fairytale he was told as a small child – and then smiled as he realised with a start just how accurately it described the enigmatic girl from the sea standing in front of him.
“I don’t think so, Marina.”
“Then my life is without meaning, for I am a woman who needs to love, and cannot.”
She lowered her eyes, and he realised that she had revealed more of her emotions to him than she had wished. A moment later, as if conscious of the silence she raised her eyes again to meet his own in a gesture that betrayed embarrassment tinged with defiance and… something else. Turning slightly, she passed her hand over the security seal, and the door slid silently aside to reveal a room dimly illuminated by the glow of lighting panels at their lowest setting. She turned back to face him with an unreadable expression on her face.
“Will you not enter, Captain? I will… make us both a cup of cocoa.”
His expression remained as unreadable as hers. “Do you know what a euphemism is, Marina?”
He looked deep into her eyes and saw uncertainty in them as her mind again touched his own.
“Your thoughts tell me that a cup of cocoa is a euphemism, Captain. I… do not understand.”
He returned the contact and realised that her confusion was feigned, concealing both a question and a desire. The lightest touch of her thoughts was enough, and he took her hand again, exploring it with his fingers.
“I sense that you understand perfectly what a euphemism is, Marina, though I also sense that there is no word for it in your language. Thank you - I will have the cocoa.”
The merest ghost of a smile flickered across her features, and she led the way into the apartment, making no move to raise the level of background lighting as she passed the control.
An insistent buzzing in his ears constituted Captain Grey’s early morning wake-up call on this, his last day in Marineville. Shaking his head to clear away the fogginess following an all-too-short sleep, he groaned and reached out for the intercom switch.
“Brad? Is that you, Brad?”
“Atlanta? Hi there ‘lanta – what’s the problem?”
“It’s Father, Brad! You know he was scheduled to fly out first thing this morning?”
“Er… yeah, sure! He told us over dinner last night - is something the matter?”
“He took off from the heliport an hour ago, Brad, but I can’t raise his aircraft on any of our frequencies, and he’s disappeared from our screens! I’m really worried, Brad - could you come to the Tower please?”
He was wide awake now, and already reaching for his uniform. “Be there in ten minutes, ‘lanta. Have you checked all your systems?”
“Of course I have! There’s no sign of his helijet on our scopes, and the tracking stations lost him forty minutes ago, just after he left territorial waters. Seymour’s checking our detection arrays at the moment, but there’s no sign of anything wrong there.”
“Ye gods – doesn’t that guy ever go to bed? Okay – I’ll be right there, ‘lanta.”
He hurriedly donned his uniform, threw two cupped handfuls of cold water over his face, strode out of the door and made for the Tower at a brisk trot, activating his cap radio as soon as he was out of the apartment to call up Scarlet, but without success. Still sound asleep, no doubt; unusual though. In less than ten minutes he was in the control room.
“What’s the nearest patrol vessel to the area his helijet was last seen?”
“Stingray! They launched at 0700 – I’ve already directed Troy to that grid reference, and he’s scanning the surface now for wreckage. So far there’s nothing.”
“Sounds like a case of no news is good news to me. It’s probably just a software fault.”
“Both radio and radar contact, Brad?”
“Freak atmospheric conditions then. What about satellite imaging of that area?”
“I’m trying to download images covering the last two hours now – should have something within the next twenty minutes, but there was 50% cloud cover projected for this morning, and I’m afraid that…”
Grey stiffened. “What’s that noise?”
“That noise! Can’t you hear it? A sort of scuffling – coming from the speakers. Have you got mice in this equipment, ‘lanta?”
“Don’t be facetious, damn you! Okay, so I can hear it too – what the hell is it?”
Lieutenant Green spun his chair round and propelled it across the room with his feet to the communications console, where he rapidly keyed in a string of commands. Seconds later he turned and shook his head.
“Not a malfunction. That’s an incoming transmission – from…”
He returned to the keyboard and entered another string of commands, glanced at the readout and turned to face the room once more, his face a study of astonishment.
“… from Commander Shore’s quarters.”
“This noise is coming from Commander Shore’s quarters. From his bedroom, to be precise.”
A full five seconds elapsed before anybody spoke; Atlanta was the first to regain her wits.
“Seymour, I need you to download those images the minute they’re online – would you mind manning the Tower until we’ve got them? Brad – you’re with me.”
The pair of them quit the command centre at a run, followed by an ungainly dash out of the front entrance towards the residential quarter. Upon arriving at her father’s quarters Atlanta immediately let herself in without bothering to ring the doorbell, and had run into the bedroom almost before her companion was over the threshold – but her scream brought him running.
A frightful sight met Captain Grey’s eyes as he entered the room. The commander had obviously been bound and gagged, and was now frantically trying to untangle himself up after having managed to activate the comms link to the Tower. He was clad in his dressing gown, and there was no sign of his hover-chair. He’d stopped struggling as soon as his daughter had entered the room, and was now concentrating on helping her to untie him. As soon as the gag was removed from his mouth he took several deep breaths and swore colourfully.
“Thanks, honey. Knew you’d get here sooner or later. Always knew I could rely on you. Sorry about the mess, Holden – you’re not seeing the place at its best.”
Grey shook his head in disbelief. “What happened, sir?”
Commander Shore opened his hands in a gesture of confusion.
“Damned if I know. There was a man in the apartment when I got back last night. He was waiting for me – God knows how he got in or how long he’d been here. He was looking out of the window when I came into the bedroom ready to go to bed. Then…”
He looked down and closed his eyes, trying to remember.
“He turned round, and then… everything just went blank! Must have passed out, I guess. Maybe he hit me – I just can’t remember. Next thing I know, I’m lying down here, gagged and trussed up like a turkey. I recovered consciousness maybe an hour ago. It’s taken me most of that time to wriggle over to the communicator – not the easiest of things to do in my condition, you understand - and turn it on. The rest you know.”
“Your hover-chair’s not here, Father. And I think your uniform’s missing too – could he have taken them?”
“How the devil should I know, honey? Maybe - but what for?”
Pennies dropped in both Atlanta’s and Grey’s heads simultaneously. They looked at each other in amazement.
“Atlanta - could he…?”
“Why not? He managed to pass himself off as Doctor Conrad for the best part of three months, didn’t he?”
She reached for the communicator and bent down to talk into it.
“Seymour! Can you hear me?”
No reply. Grey instantly activated his cap mike and called up the lieutenant on his personal communicator. This time the reply was immediate.
“Green here, Captain. The receiver in the comms link in Commander Shore’s quarters appears to be inoperative – I’ve been trying to talk to you on it, though I’ve heard most of what you’ve just been saying. You’ve got an emergency medical team making its way to you now – they should be with you any second.”
“I can hear them now, Lieutenant – thanks. Atlanta and I will stay here to oversee their taking care of the commander, then we’ll return to the Tower…”
Atlanta shook her head. “I’m staying with him, Brad. Seymour’s more than capable of running things up there until I get back.”
Commander Shore glared at his daughter. “I’ll be fine, honey. There’s absolutely no need…”
“I said I’m staying with you, Father!”
The glare slowly faded. “Okay, honey - whatever you say. But you’ll return to the Tower as soon as the medics have given me the once-over, you understand?”
Outside the apartment, the wailing siren faded and died. Atlanta directed the team inside, and while they began transferring the commander onto a stretcher she quietly took Captain Grey to one side.
“Like I said, Brad – he needs me. You’d better return to the Tower in the meantime – he’ll only fret if he feels the place is undermanned. I’ll catch up with you later, okay?”
He smiled and nodded, then walked out into the early morning sunshine, and taking a deep breath, set off at a brisk pace for the control room.
Dropping down into the nearest chair, Captain Grey peered at the steaming cup of coffee awaiting him upon his arrival.
“I guessed you’d probably like one, Captain. It’ll be the last you get before having to readjust to Cloudbase’s version.”
Grey looked up at Lieutenant Green and frowned. “You didn’t even know I was coming over, Lieutenant!”
Green shrugged. “I know when the medical team arrived at Commander Shore’s apartment, and I know how long it takes to walk from there to here. And it wasn’t difficult to guess that Atlanta would realise that the commander would worry about the control room being undermanned – am I right?”
Grey nodded slowly. “You are, Lieutenant – as always.” The frown deepened. “Lieutenant – this stranger. Does he sound like the same man who knocked you out?”
“I’d say it was highly likely, Captain. He’s obviously a master of disguise – and yes, I’d say that he probably could impersonate the commander. At least for long enough to get himself transferred to a helijet and off the base. Captain Scarlet’s over at the heliport now talking to the duty officer – I spoke to him a few minutes ago.”
“Scarlet? How the hell did he manage to get in on the act so quickly?”
“I contacted him as soon as I realised what was happening, Captain. Did I do something wrong?”
Grey chuckled in amazement at the lieutenant’s almost supernatural powers of deduction and anticipation. “No, Lieutenant – you did everything absolutely right. Tell me one thing though – how did you manage to find him? I tried to get hold of him when Atlanta first called me, but he didn’t reply.”
“Oh… I just guessed where he was - nothing clever at all. By the way, those satellite images should be with us in about five more minutes - but I wouldn’t hold your breath. My guess is that he’ll bring it down at the first available opportunity and transfer his cargo to another aircraft. Otherwise he risks getting shot down by WASP interceptors once the people here realise what’s happened.”
“What cargo is that, Lieutenant?”
“Oh! Sorry, sir – don’t you see what he’s done?”
“What are you talking about Lieutenant?”
“The Mysteron guns, sir! He’s been waiting for an opportunity to smuggle them off the base – that’s why he went to ground for so long. He needed to hijack a light aircraft with sufficient storage space to transport the whole consignment out in one batch, but with hardly any personnel on board that he’d need to incapacitate before stealing the plane. Commander Shore’s trip to Futura provided him with exactly the type of aircraft he needed to pull it off.”
Captain Grey shook his head in total confusion.
“Wait a minute, Lieutenant – he supplied those guns to Titan! All his aquaphibians in the attack on Pacifica were armed with them!”
“No sir – those guns were all replicas. Titan must be still scratching his head trying to work out why they didn’t work. Don’t you see, sir? Whoever he is, he’s tricked both the WASPs and Titan – to say nothing of us! He’s still got the originals that we supplied him with, and he’s probably trying to sell them to somebody else right now. Maybe the Mysterons themselves for all we know – I wouldn’t put it beyond him.”
There was silence for a full five seconds. Then…
“Lieutenant – just how long have you known all this?”
“About half an hour, sir. Since Captain Scarlet radioed me to say that Commander Shore had boarded his helijet with a substantial consignment of packing cases that he’d previously instructed his pilot to collect from the base’s stores. They’ve been boxed up there all the time, of course, obviously labelled as something else completely. Oh, by the way, you’ll be glad to hear that the pilot’s recovering well – they found him barely conscious in one of the nearby hangars, muttering something about a man with a guttural Eastern European accent and glowing eyes. Commander Shore’s hover-chair has been recovered from the same building, together with a mask that bears a remarkable resemblance to the commander’s face.”
Grey shook his head. This man with glowing eyes! Who the devil is this man with the glowing eyes…?
Far out to sea, a stolen helijet bearing the insignia of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol flew on towards the Asian coast, maintaining a steady altitude just twenty metres above the waves so as to keep the craft under the radar sweeps that its pilot knew would be searching for it. For the twentieth time since take-off he glanced over his shoulder at the pile of packing cases that filled the passenger compartment of the helijet behind him and chuckled quietly to himself. Then, reaching over the controls he activated the auto-pilot and settled back in the pilot’s chair and picked up a blank sheet of paper, contemplated it briefly, and then started scribbling names on it. General Tobolsk – Bereznian Secret Police. Should be good for ten million. General Ward – Frost Line Defence. No more than five million but less likelihood of being double-crossed. Colonel White – Spectrum. Now how much would he pay to avoid the scandal of being identified with the loss of half a ton of top secret armaments? Titan yet again? Could be tricky, that one…
The background to this one comes from a number of sources. Concordia was real enough – at least to the Romans and ancient Greeks (who knew her as Harmonia - see http://www.theoi.com/Olympioi/Ares.html then click on “Harmonia”). She was the daughter of the gods Mars (Ares) and Venus (Aphrodite), and therefore the sister of Phobos and Deimos, after whom the planet Mars’s two moons were named. There is however no evidence (at least to my knowledge) of the planet ever having had a third natural satellite – I invented that bit, using data logged by the Phobos lander from the story “Shadow of Fear”. Although as everyone knows the K14 observatory in the Himalayas was destroyed at the end of that story, the lander itself was still transmitting; Spectrum would therefore certainly have given a high priority to building replacement receivers to avail themselves of the information it was collecting.
I remember reading on Chris Bishop’s Spectrum Headquarters forum (http://www.spectrum-headquarters.com) a while back an observation about Marina being “a bit of a drip” – which seems a pretty accurate assessment to me. However, there’s a rather different slant on Marina to be found on the “Not TV21” website at http://www.geocities.com/nottv21/page1.htm, painting her as “the other woman” in the deliciously funny Marineville love-triangle sex scandal that’s reported there, where Atlanta also comes across as a much more interesting character than the original – and that set me thinking... The secluded bay near the Island of Lemoy to which she drove Captain Grey in this story is the same one that appeared in one of the early Stingray stories in TV21: anyone who has the original comics can find pictures of it in an adventure which featured a race of malevolent giant shrimps called the Crustavons in editions 14 onwards. Incidentally, edition 18 contains a remarkably sexually-charged picture of Atlanta pegged out on the sand by X-20 as bait for Troy, which I rather get the impression the artist had quite some fun drawing.
In Chris’s notes on the previous lives of the crew of Cloudbase, I discovered that not only was Captain Grey the original skipper of Stingray, but that Lieutenant Green’s previous job was communications officer in the WASPS (see http://www.spectrum-headquarters.com/page3.html). This was too good to miss. Wasn’t it obvious, I argued, that Atlanta would have known both Grey and Green in their previous lives? The circumstances of Captain Grey’s leaving the WASPs were sufficiently ambiguous that I felt justified in taking a different view of them, borrowing from the scenario described in Nigel Preece’s excellent short story “Shades of Grey” (http://www.spectrum-headquarters.com/shades_of_grey.htm). As to Grey himself, I gather that his physical features were modelled on those of the young Sean Connery in his James Bond era. Would it therefore be unreasonable to suppose that he might share some other characteristics with Bond, like a talent for – er, how shall I put it – making out with the ladies? And, rather like Bond in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, might there not have been just one true love in his past?
Poor old Lieutenant Green never seemed to get out away from that console of his in Cloudbase’s control room, except for that one time he accompanied Scarlet and Blue to the Moon (and I never really understood why he went on that trip). So this was a heaven-sent opportunity to allow him to show his true mettle – even though he never seemed to get more than a few feet away from a computer of some sort from one end of the story to the other. Personally I’ve always felt that Green is undervalued by Spectrum, and having finished writing this tale in which he plays a pivotal role, I’m now quite certain of it. Lieutenant Almond is based on two delightful young women I met on holiday in Transylvania last year, with a dash of Buffy the Vampire Slayer thrown in for good measure. Amazingly, I hadn’t realised who she really was at all until I tried to visualise her, when the image of Sarah Michelle Gellar in a Spectrum cap sprang into my head. That’s how I see her, anyway, and I’m going to see if I can write another story sometime in which she plays a major role.
The cyclone generators that I’ve envisaged being installed in the launch tunnel springs from an outline that Siobhan Zettler a.k.a. Doc Denim posted a while back on Chris’s forum on the subject of just what it is that keeps Cloudbase from falling out of the sky. The details are of course top secret, and all I’m at liberty to say on this subject is that if no less a prestigious organisation than the World Aquanaut Security Patrol is interested in adapting the technology to such a purpose as launching submarines, then obviously the theory works (which is just as well, really, bearing in mind the application to which Spectrum has put it).
Baddies? Well, there were three of those – the two Stingray regulars, and another whom Anderson fans of all ages will have had no difficulty at all recognising – but just in case there’s somebody who still hasn’t worked out who he is, just click on http://www.thunderbirdsonline.com/site/characterprofiles/profile_hood.html. He once used the alias “Harry O. O’Donnell” in one of the early TV21s, so I retained it in the opening chapter of this story. I confess I’d actually become rather fond of him by the time I’d written the final chapter – far more so than the predictable megalomaniac Titan and his sidekick Surface Agent X-20, though I’ve tried here to paint the latter as being rather more sinister than the comical bungler that he became in the TV series. I see Titan very much as a Century 21 version of Saddam Hussein, as will have been obvious from Commander Shore’s comments about his history and the World Government’s policy of containment of his regime being enacted at the time this story takes place. It’s interesting to speculate how long that policy of containment would continue if Commander Shore had concluded, rightly or wrongly, that Titan had been amassing an arsenal of WMDs.
© Clya Brown (14/05/2004)
Any comments? Send an E-MAIL to the SPECTRUM HEADQUARTERS site