A Spectrum Story for the Site’s 10th Anniversary
by Caroline Smith
What strange creatures we are – chaplains in the military. We preach peace and the love of God, and yet most of our congregation bear arms and may have to kill with impunity in times of war. And yet, I didn’t see that role as being at odds with the calling. After all, in some ways, compared to our civilian brothers and sisters, we’re closer to the pain and suffering of those we serve than in any other mission, and consequently, have the opportunity to do the most good amongst them.
But perhaps I ought to introduce myself. I was once known as the Reverend Juno Munro, but when I took a commission with Spectrum I was given the code-name Counsellor Ebony. Father Ivory, my colleague in matters of spiritual nature, made a wry comment back then that someone in the personnel department obviously possessed a juvenile sense of humour. He’s a white man and I’m a black woman from Cape Town, South Africa.
I’ve learned to love being stationed in this behemoth of a battle-station hovering above the Earth at 40,000 feet, and it’s not just because I have a nice heated office for my work. When I was in the WAAF, as a chaplain to the ground forces, I had my share of make-do-and-mend, and it wasn’t every woman of the cloth who had to use a Land-Rover for an altar, camouflage-nets for a chapel, and sometimes, the sounds of gunfire as a musical accompaniment. Not that I’ve been at the front line very often in the last few years. Cloudbase is, in many ways, shielded from the horrors of the earthly battle-field, and the only fighting that tends to take place on board ship is on the squash court, the fencing booth, or in the canteen for the last cream cake when the supply freighter is overdue. Okay, I’m being flippant, but I long ago discovered that’s the only way to survive the long and grinding road.
I was full of myself in my early twenties, so sure of my place in this world as a beacon of hope and love to those I served. I didn’t really understand about grief, or the uncomprehending anger that follows personal tragedy. I mouthed platitudes, but failed to truly empathise. That all changed for me in the summer of 2059, when the aircraft my sister was flying in was blown apart over Russian air space by a terrorist’s bomb. For someone who was supposed to be up at the front when it comes to doling out forgiveness, I suddenly had a hell of a time dealing with it. A bout of depression resulted in a loss of faith in a God who could allow such a monstrous thing to happen, and, heaven help me, I lost my way.
I left the service and returned to university at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, hoping that the study of psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience would serve me better than theology and philosophy. I published several treatises on the subjects following my post-doctorates, and then suddenly found myself back in the WAAF, in a position of counsellor, and accompanied by a new awareness of myself. When Spectrum, the new supra-security operation designed with the sole aim of defeating the hydra of terrorism, came calling in 2065, I realised this was an opportunity to engage with the perpetrators of the violence that had taken my sibling from me.
As the senior-counsellor on Cloudbase, my job is simple, to offer guidance and provide a non-judgemental friendly ear for all the men and women on this base. To listen to their troubles, and help them work through any of the issues that confront them in their working, or even private, lives. I try to offer practical and, in some cases if they wish, spiritual support to resolve those issues.
But I’m boring you with my life story, when I ought to be telling you what’s happening around here. We’re on yellow alert at the moment, because we are approaching an anniversary.
To be precise - a ten year anniversary.
But we’ll have little in the way of celebration, for it’s been a decade since we lost communication with Captain Black and the Spectrum MEV on their ill-fated mission to Mars. A decade that we have spent fighting the dreaded foe that we still only know as ‘The Mysterons.”
Everything we knew was turned upside-down and inside-out as we realised that we were not alone in this universe after all, and yet, our ‘first contact’ turned out to be a disaster for our world. Somehow Black misunderstood their intentions and fired upon one of their complexes, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Mysterons retaliated immediately by taking the first casualties of the war, Captains Brown and Scarlet. Under their control, these two dedicated officers attempted to assassinate the incumbent World President, T.J Younger. We are still no clearer as to how it happened, but after falling from the Car-Vu, Scarlet survived, and was released from the Mysterons’ power. Since that fateful time we have been engaged in an incessant battle of wills with this enemy, a long-drawn out, desperate conflict for the fate of our planet.
Wartime sparks something spiritual within people, as they strive to come to terms with the loss of colleagues and loved ones. And this particular battle against these extra-terrestrial enemies brings a strange new dimension to the horrors of warfare. Their foot-soldiers are members of human-kind, individuals who have been murdered – sometimes brutally – so that they can be reanimated in complete likeness, save for one thing, they have no humanity and exist only to carry out the orders of their new masters, against the species they once belonged to.
Only Spectrum is still aware that the pallid-faced, unshaven creature that used to be Conrad Turner was once our top agent. He is the Mysterons’ conduit to Earth, sighted at countless incidents over the years. There’s a running argument as to whether Black is still human, his mind forced to bend to the Mysterons’ will, or whether he is simply a replicate, like all those who followed him. I find myself, in moments of introspection, praying that the latter is true – the alternative is too horrifying to contemplate.
It would so easy to fall prey to pessimism and despair. The Mysterons have forgone a swift, merciful dispatch for our people in revenge for our folly, and instead, wage a slow, relentless ‘war of nerves’, as they so aptly term it. And during these ten years, we’ve fought so many battles, and in many ways, lost so much more than we have gained. The fact that so many of those who joined Spectrum in its infancy are still here is testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. We refuse to bail out whilst this war is still being fought, no matter how much time has elapsed, or how futile it seems to continue battling on. I remind myself to be ever-vigilant for signs of self-negativity and hopelessness, since I’m supposed to be up there at the front, rallying the troops. In this war, every one of us has forged relationships that run deeper than mere friendship. When a man or woman is willing to lay down their life for another, or for an ideal, it changes those individuals profoundly in ways that are difficult to explain to a civilian.
But I’m digressing again. For those of us who are still fighting the good fight, there is much to feel hopeful about. In-between the threats, we attempt to live our daily lives as normally as possible, despite the shadow of death and destruction that constantly hangs over us and Planet Earth like the Sword of Damocles.
Perhaps you can accompany me, as I make my pastoral tour of this great air-borne marvel, and meet first-hand, the courageous men and women; agents, pilots, engineers and technicians - the beating heart, lungs and life-blood of this vessel that we call home.
It’s seven-thirty, so my first stop is for breakfast, in the huge base canteen. Napoleon declared that an ‘army marches on its stomach’, and ours is no different. The senior staff have a restaurant located in the Control Tower, which they use for convenience, privacy and when VIPs come to visit, but often, they like to mingle with the hoi-polloi and for some meals, as it were, we’re all in the same ‘mess’. The cavernous space is busy, at a shift change-over, people eating, drinking and talking in this windowless place - a sort of low-pitched hum interspersed with the clattering of cutlery and the punctuations of laughter.
I join the queue at the counter, and wave at Jim McWhirter, the chief cook, who is overseeing operations this morning. He stands red-faced from the heat and is forever barking orders at his staff in that broad Scots brogue of his. The roll call of food to be produced and served is prodigious: Twenty gallons of porridge, two hundred fried eggs, two hundred rashers of bacon, four hundred pieces of toast, six kilos of sticky rice, and four gallons of miso soup. In the self-service cabinets there are bowls of kimchi, blinis, and a scrumptious array of continental food, hams, cheeses, sausages, breads and pastries. We have people here from seventy-five countries, and their tastes and dietary requirements are very important. Anyone who thinks signing up on the other side of the counter is an easy job ought to do an four hour shift in the hot, cramped conditions of the galley, with a pack of hungry aircraft and maintenance technicians baying at your heels.
Several of the latter I recognise, and they nod a greeting. From the tiredness on their faces it’s obvious that they just want to eat and head for their bunks. That’s fine. They know where my office is if they need to talk in private.
I pick up my tray and wander across the large room. Most people on board recognise me, and I try to circulate around as many of the different teams when I have a meal here. I might be the equivalent of officer rank, but the cleaners and technicians, cooks and schedulers are every bit as essential to the safe and efficient operation of Cloudbase as any of the officers in their more lofty roles. Naturally, that doesn’t always work in reverse. People can’t help congregating in their own circles, where they feel most at ease. Certainly there is free mixing of the sexes, and nationalities, but groups tend to gather around a table by job-basis.
I can see the flight technicians in one area, the maintenance crews in another. A couple of the nurses from Sick-Bay wave and bid me a cheery “Good morning, Counsellor,” so I politely ask if I might join them. One of the senior med-techs, Ed Morelli, pulls out a chair and I sit next to him. I ask how his wife and new son are doing, so he grins and whips out a photo-pad, eagerly shows me a picture and immediately starts to give the occupants of our table a run-down of how amazing the little fellow is to the accompaniment of rolling eyes and knowing smiles from the others. They have obviously heard this all before.
It’s always been hard for servicemen and women to have partners, or wives, or husbands, and doubly hard when children come along. The long spells away from home, the worry that something might happen to Dad or Mum. Many elect not to put themselves through that particular wringer, but for some, the human need to love, be loved and to procreate is more than often far stronger than the fear of loss.
I chat some more. Nurse Maggie Avery asks me if there will be a Mysteron threat tonight, but I don’t have any more foresight about that than they do. I know what they’re thinking – that any one of their own family or friends might be caught up in a disaster perpetrated by this extra-terrestrial foe. At times I can hear myself spouting clichés and in this instance I find myself automatically doling out more of the same:
“You know the Colonel and our Spectrum agents will do everything in their power to prevent that happening. All we can do up here is our jobs, to the best of our ability, so that they can do theirs.”
They nod and smile, a little tightly, and I glance at the chronometer on the wall. Chairs squeak on the polymer floor as we stand up and place our trays in the racks for collection and cleaning.
I stay for a while and circulate amongst the tables, chatting with various occupants as they come and go, and it’s a good half-an-hour later before I finally make my way back to my office, located between the bursar and sick-bay, about as central as it can get for most of the crew on-board. I check mail, answer a few urgent queries and review case notes from the previous week.
I want to schedule another meeting with Ensign Carmine tomorrow and see how she’s doing after our discussion a couple of days ago. Just twenty-two, and a gung-ho career girl, an un-planned pregnancy has turned her carefully controlled world upside down. The father is in Spectrum too, but groundside, and she wants to stay on Cloudbase. Sadly, she is considering a termination. I suspect that the Padre Ebony I used to be, years ago, would have preached a solution, unable to truly understand the agony involved in making such a choice. Age has made me a little wiser, but I still don’t have all the answers. I only hope I have the understanding and empathy to help her work through this most difficult decision.
In Lieutenant Aqua’s case, I also need to weigh my options carefully. She’s only just been promoted to field work, and what was supposed to be a simple routine mission ended up anything but. That’s the Mysterons for you.
Aqua was never meant to have to operate the electron-gun, but necessity demanded it, and she’s haunted by what she had to do. Kill or be killed, that’s the unfortunate choice in war sometimes, but she’s no seasoned soldier, and she tells me the stench of death clings to her no matter how often she tries to wash it off.
I tell her the feelings of guilt are natural, and its probably better that she deals with the situation now, rather than bottling corrosive emotions inside. My position demands confidentiality between client and counsellor, otherwise no one would feel comfortable approaching me for help. However, I also have a duty to Spectrum and if at any point I feel that my confessors may have an issue that would threaten either their own safety or that of their fellow officers, I must take appropriate action. It’ll be something to chew over for the next week or so as I keep a subtle eye on Aqua.
Paperwork completed, I leave the office and take one of the numerous moving walkways towards the general crew accommodation on the far side of the lower deck. On any given day the maintenance and technician crews will be in one of three places: on duty, sleeping in their cramped bunks, or relaxing in the general mess-room. This is by far the largest of the recreation rooms on Cloudbase, used by all non-commissioned crew members. They’re designed in much the same fashion as the officers’ areas, with thankfully, rather less zeal for the multicoloured décor found in the Officers’ Lounge. There are comfortable couches and chairs, terminals for contacting family or loved-ones, a couple of pool-tables, and quiet areas for reading and listening to music.
I have a leisurely chat with several of the maintenance crew who didn’t appear at breakfast. I suspect the majority of the time they tolerate my presence with good-humoured amusement, but luckily I have a thick skin underneath this dark tunic or I wouldn’t be in this job.
It’s mid-morning, and time for a coffee break, so I think I’ll take the corridor all the way to the other side, as far as one can go before hitting the atmosphere, to the Amber Room. This is the ready-room where our brave Angel Pilots relax as they wait for that all-important call: ‘Launch Angel Flight!’
Occasionally, I envy those women. To soar into the troposphere cocooned within one of those supersonic craft, still the most effective airborne fighting weapon ever constructed, must be a marvellous thing, although I confess I’ve never plucked up the courage to find it out myself. Still, it’s exciting to watch from the Promenade Deck when an Interceptor is taking off below, shooting like a white arrow down the runway. I’ve watched it streak into a sky the colour of cornflowers, and I wonder what must go through the pilot’s head at that moment of flight. They find my romantic views amusing, I think, and they assure me that all they’re pre-occupied with are the systems checks and mission briefings and whether they’ll return to Cloudbase in one piece. Sorties are exhausting, mentally and physically, although, after so many years of combat experience, the Interceptors are practically an extension of the Angels’ minds and bodies.
I press the touch pad to announce my presence, and a second later, the inner security door slides past and I am able to step into the circular room. It’s filled with natural light in here; I can see the sky, almost cobalt through the silver-white filigree tracery of windows. No wonder I try to make an excuse to get the odd morning coffee from their pot!
“Hi, Counsellor.” Three voices hail me in unison. Symphony, Melody and Terpsichore are comfortably installed in various parts of the room. Symphony is reading, both feet tucked up under her bottom on the couch, Melody is sitting at the desk writing a report, and Terpsichore listens to music via headphones on the upper tier of couches. As usual, they all give the outward impression of calm, but theirs is the relaxation of a group of caged tigers. The second they hear that all-important signal to launch, they spring off those seats in seconds to head for the launch tube elevators.
“You want some coffee?” Melody asks me with that pleasant Southern drawl that I never tire of listening to.
“Am I that transparent?” I say with a wry smile.
She nods, impish still despite her years. “’Fraid so, honey.”
I chuckle, and wander across the carpet to the heater-unit on a low sideboard and help myself to a large cup from the glass pot.
“Who’s in Angel One this shift?” I ask.
“Destiny,” Symphony says, looking up from her book-pad.
“Everything OK?” I ask, nonchalantly.
“As OK as it can be,” she replies. Her tone is as casual as mine, but there’s a tightness around those hazel eyes of hers that speaks volumes to someone trained in reading non-verbal signals. I know she’s waiting for the sound of that bone-chilling voice echoing through the loudspeakers. She knows that then, she’ll be airborne, and so will her on-again, off-again lover, also playing the waiting game in another part of the base. He’ll wing his way on an SPJ to whatever part of the world is threatened next, where an unknowable fate always awaits him; that ever-present danger to any future they might want to contemplate together.
Everyone is jittery, it’s understandable. That’s why I’m here. Gauge the mood, talk to people if they need to, if they want to. I’m not expecting a confession from anyone, but I get impressions. I settle down in one of the comfortable couches, and sip my coffee. It’s a Columbian brew, one of Melody’s favourites.
I remember when I first met the original five Angels back at the short commissioning ceremony aboard Cloudbase. The huge hangar was filled with bodies; technicians, flight crews, medical staff, the majority of whom, even in this day and age, were of the male gender. Colonel White and Captain Black introduced the senior officers, who stood in a row of brilliant colour behind him, and then, in a theatrical flourish, quite unusual for our sober commander-in-chief, he announced the Angel Squadron.
When these five, undeniably attractive, young women strode confidently onto the deck, in their cream and gold uniforms, their helmets tucked under their arms, you could almost hear the collective sigh of male hormones issuing into that cavernous space. Those girls didn’t just reach the glass ceiling; they kicked it off and shattered it into the stratosphere.
I would be lying if I didn’t feel the teeniest twinge of envy when I make mental comparisons with them. I’ve always had a bit of difficulty with my weight, and the kindest thing you could say about my figure is that I’m ‘Rubenesque’. However, even way back then the Angels showed no sign of being a bunch of ‘prima donnas’, far from it, they were supportive of one another, and generally got on very well with their senior male counterparts.
I remember a lot of flirting taking place in the early days, during our training in Koala base, and those first few months on Cloudbase, after all, throwing some of the most virile and attractive members of the opposite sex together for months on end, cut off from family and previous friendships is a sure-fire recipe for entanglements. There might have been some crazy no-frat regulations in the early days, but that was more for commonsense than anything. A couple whose relationship fails badly can have a corrosive effect on their own morale and that of their peers, when you all have to live and work so closely together under pressure in a hot-house environment like Cloudbase.
In the beginning some initial relationships burned like Catherine wheels and fizzed out just as quickly, others quietly simmered beneath the surface, and some have lasted the course, to the point where no one, even Colonel White, bats an eye any more. As long as the twosomes don’t involve direct line supervision, the men and women of Cloudbase are free to have any level of ‘intercourse’ they want.
I’ve been proud to officiate at several on-base weddings, and like Med-Tech First Class Morelli, we’ve had some Cloudbase children, although children aren’t allowed to live here, naturally, as it’s considered a military complex.
For the senior staff, it’s not really unusual that they should seek intimacy amongst their peers. It’s hard to explain the level of stress and danger one experiences on a daily basis to someone completely unfamiliar with it. All the years of fighting together, watching friends and colleagues die in the line of duty, has instilled a sense of ‘live for today’ for these chosen few, for who knows, tomorrow they might be shot, stabbed, drowned or immolated in Earth’s defence against the Mysterons, so is there any wonder that they attempt to snatch some stolen moments of happiness amongst those who understand their needs most clearly?
As I drink my coffee I quietly study these tough women, whom I’m proud to call my colleagues. All five original Angels are still at the top of their game, and sitting here, you would scarcely believe that they are now in their early thirties, apart from a few tell-tale lines around the eyes and mouth. But ten years of flying have taken their toll, at least on their physical ability to recover from hurtling around at the edge of space for long periods of time.
Colonel White had gone cap in hand many times for additional Interceptor pilots to alleviate the burden of stress on his existing Angels, but his requests fell into a bureaucratic black-hole until two years ago, when a new Senator charged with over-seeing austerity measures to the armed forces mysteriously granted him approval. Spectrum’s interviewing team went into high gear immediately, and recruited five young top-gun women who now go by the code names of Antiphony, Calliope, Euterpe, Melpomene, and Terpsichore Angels.
I know that that Harmony and Calliope will be landing soon by SPJ, their groundside vacation cut short in the run-up to this anniversary. Colonel White intends to have a full complement on board to deal with anything that might transpire. He is aware that the Mysterons occasionally exhibit an almost human tendency to irony, and we are sure they are as well aware of the significance of today’s date. It may be too enticing for them to ignore it.
I’d like to stay here all day, getting my fill of that blue sky beyond the walls, but I’ve outstayed my welcome and I need to continue my rounds, so I place my cup in the vibro-cleaner and wave goodbye to the Angels.
From the Amber Room I walk briskly back towards the other side of the lower deck. To my left, there are signs for the auditorium, which has had its share of detractors, some of whom think it would be better utilised as additional space for crew quarters or gym facilities. I’m biased, being a lover of the arts amongst all these science-geeks, but I’m not alone in believing that using both hemispheres of the brain makes you a fully-functioning human being. Anyway, who doesn’t enjoy immersing themselves in a movie to slough away one’s daily cares? Captain Ochre, in addition to his long-time love of model-making, also takes it upon himself to occasionally organise a schedule of movies for Friday nights, with his partner-in-crime, Captain Magenta. Personally speaking, the fact that ‘Fright-Zone’, is one of the most popular attractions is altogether too disturbing – as if we don’t have enough mayhem and murder in our real lives. But then I really ought to know by now what a complex beast the human psyche is.
The auditorium is also home to the Cloudbase Amateur Dramatic Society, better known as CADS, a now venerable institution which was almost shoved through an airlock by several of the male captains when the idea was first promoted by Lieutenant Green. Performing a theatrical show brings its share of problems – as if we don’t have enough already with the Mysterons- but it’s fun and the camaraderie such a vehicle instils between all members of our little family - captains, cooks, technicians, cleaners - is priceless beyond compare.
Of course, artistic consistency is nigh impossible when most of the players aren’t available for rehearsal half the time due to missions and Mysteron activity, but somehow, over the years, Seymour’s dream has been realised in so many different small ways. It also highlighted some very surprising things: people with talent who had been hiding those lights under a bushel in favour of their more obvious military capabilities. Whoever would have known that Captain Grey had such a wonderful baritone? Or that Captain Blue was such an elegant dancer? In our lighter moments (of which there are fewer every year it seems) CADS continues to provide us with insights and surprises about our crew along the way.
We’re fortunate to have a plethora of recreational facilities on board. Exercise has long been known as a way of releasing stress, and especially so in our confined prison in the sky, where we can’t just nip out for a quick stroll in the sunshine. We have a gymnasium, physical training hall, squash and racquetball courts, and even a decent-sized swimming pool! What a marvel of 21st century technology that is. Cloudbase’s anti-gravity generator not only provides force-fields for the heat shielding around the carrier, but it also creates a force-field underneath the pool basin, minimising the weight of the water above it, and yet, amazingly enough, the field has no effect on the swimmers above.
Being one of life’s technophobes I had no great desire to be a guinea pig to prove this marvellous technology, and I was way at the back of the queue, but there are no prizes for guessing that the first one in was our resident dolphin, Captain Grey. Swimming (and the occasional R&R with Destiny, or so the rumour goes,) is what keeps that man sane, and despite the limp resultant from an injury, he still cuts a trim and muscular figure in the water as he laps constantly up and down in, what seems like, his natural element.
My tour takes me along the corridors to the infirmary complex, where Dr Fawn, our genial and workaholic Chief Medical Officer, holds sway. He tends to squirrel himself away in these confines, and the other officers have a devil of a time trying to drag him away for a meal in the officers’ restaurant, or to take a break in the lounge. Joking aside, Edward Wilkie’s devotion to his work and patients, in particular his number one inmate Captain Scarlet, is legendary.
The main reception area, which has unrestricted access, is busy as usual with crew members making or waiting for appointments with Dr Lime and his team, or heading for the dental clinic for a session in the chair to keep those teeth and gums nice and healthy, with Dr Rose and her assistants.
A little further down the corridor, the main infirmary unit is controlled and I have to palm-print my way through the outer security door. I almost collide with one of the good doctor’s robot nurses as I wander into the outer corridor, and am about to apologise when I realise stupidly that it isn’t likely to have been offended by my clumsiness. There are automatons all over Cloudbase, each with specified jobs, usually the most hazardous and dirty ones, such as maintenance and cleaning of the flight decks and air-locks, but the infirmary nurses are by far the most sophisticated.
In a side corridor I can see the sign on the door with the legend: Life Recovery Unit. This is where Captain Scarlet is placed when he sustains one of his life-threatening injuries. The room is sealed and restricted; the knowledge of Scarlet’s amazing retro-metabolism remains a defiantly-guarded secret from many of the personnel on this base, even ten years down the line, and although the existence of the Mysterons and their true nature finally seeped through the veils of security to plague a troubled world.
We have good reasons for keeping Scarlet’s strange circumstances private. Life is difficult enough for him as a seemingly indestructible human being, without being seen as a freak (and an alien one at that) by the world at large. The idea that someone may possess the DNA in their bodies to unlock the long sought-after Fountain of Youth is too impossible to resist. Imagine what power and wealth to the individual or corporation who succeeded in realising mankind’s greatest dream of immortality? Scarlet would be a hunted man, a prize sold to the highest bidder by any number of unscrupulous bounty hunters.
I worry for our Number One Agent sometimes. He isn’t one for introspection and navel-gazing, a trait he shares with his fellow captains, if truth be told. They have a tendency to place their faith in the sights of a finely-tuned pistol than the more esoteric sort to be found in my domain. But I simply can’t imagine, with all my knowledge and skills in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, just how Scarlet’s mind deals with his particular ‘situation’.
To die, sometimes in terrible agony, over and over again, and then to be reborn, with the certain knowledge that you will make that same sacrifice again - how can anyone have such force of will to willingly put themselves in that path of pain and suffering so that others might live? And yet, Scarlet still maintains a cheerful disposition after all he’s been through, with a sense of humour to match. He and Blue have become inseparable over the years, despite their innate personality differences. Theirs is a relationship forged in trust and death.
I don’t want to bother Fawn – despite my belief that he would benefit from a little social interaction - as it’s evident that he’s intensely occupied for the moment. His eyes are boring into one of his quantum-microscopes, and he’s no doubt still searching for that elusive Mysteron DNA. I worry about him too. This gentle but insistent man seems to have become ever more absorbed as the years have passed, filled with a quiet desperation to discover some chink in the Mysterons’ armour by way of Scarlet’s genetic codes, to help us finally turn the tables on our foes.
Instead, I check in with Senior-Nurse Judi Jackson, and chat with the thankfully, few patients residing under her tender care at the moment. At the moment, Captain Purple, our Cloudbase navigator, is recovering from an appendectomy; whilst one of the maintenance technicians, Jessica Alvarez, is propping up a sprained ankle acquired from slipping on a ladder as she was repairing a ceiling vent in the engine room, an incident which prompted Colonel White to demand an immediate review of our Health & Safety SOPs.
By the time I’m finished there, it’s almost 14.00 hours and I realise I’m starving. I join up with a couple of the other Med-techs who are heading off-duty, and we head off to the canteen for a sandwich.
The time is 15:00 hours and I would love to take you on a tour of the engine rooms, but they’re generally out-of-bounds to the casual observer, even to officers, unless we have a specific reason to be there. On those times when I’ve had the good fortune to visit, I can assure you that the experience is awe-inspiring. My impression of this room is of a great cathedral, the arching curves of the sixteen huge control panels rising from floor to ceiling, like great pillars, dwarfing each technician seated, like monks at an organ at the centre of each one, their fingers flashing over dials and touch screens made from light as pure as stained glass. Muted lighting, the quiet chatter of the controllers, and the low-pitched hum of the vast array of cahelium engines add to the atmosphere of serenity. You’ll have to forgive my perhaps over the top analogy; I suppose you can take the girl out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the girl.
There are more engineering marvels to be found on the same deck: the anti-gravity generators, one fixed, that powers the hover combines that keep Cloudbase aloft, and one variable, of which I’ve already spoken, that powers the force-fields. We also have fuel tanks, oxygen tanks, and the electric turbines powered by solar energy that provide all our heating and lighting and life-supports. Everywhere, horizontally, vertically, diagonally, there are miles and miles of piping. All of it is kept moving and operating as smoothly as it can by the diligent technicians and maintenance crews working like moles within their vast windowless chambers.
I know I probably shouldn’t say this, but despite my love for this base, it’s really starting to show its age. All of the pristine shiny surfaces aren’t quite as gleaming as in the first few years of commissioning, and these days, there are quite a few patches-upon-patches on non-essential areas and equipment.
There’s talk of the need to build a new Cloudbase, but in all honesty, I can’t see that happening any time soon. The far-seeing, strategic approach of the government overseen by President Nikita Bandranaik and his supporters is now being superseded by the short-termism prevalent in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Spectrum, as the nations of the world see it, is a gigantic money-pit, that has, in their eyes, stolen money from a world that it was fundamentally responsible for endangering.
During the inevitable post mortem of the disastrous MEV mission between Colonel White, President Younger, the Head of SHEF and Spectrum Intelligence, it was reluctantly agreed to withhold the extra-terrestrial origins of the Mysterons, at least at the outset, from the world at large. In addition, SI urged extreme caution about revealing Spectrum’s role in precipitating a hostile war with an alien force who commanded such obvious technological superiority, arguing that it was bound to cause panic and anger amongst the general populaces of the world. Far better to maintain the cover story (to everyone but those with the ‘need-to-know’) that the Mysterons were simply a well-organised human terrorist faction, whose aims were to destabilize the World Government.
Colonel White’s natural core of integrity railed against such blatant subterfuge, but he realised its logical necessity. Spectrum, despite being the trigger for the war, was still the Earth’s best chance of defending it against the Mysterons. If his remaining top agents were implicated in the Mars mission fiasco, it would make their jobs untenable. Spectrum Intelligence succeeded in persuading White that secrecy was for the ‘greater good’.
Unfortunately, over time and given enough rope, all fundamental untruths are revealed for what they are. With every threat and every mission it became more difficult to maintain the charade. Rumours of people killed, only to be sighted walking around like zombies, populated the more scurrilous magazines, with headlines such as ‘Body snatchers have Invaded Planet earth!’ and ‘War of the Worlds – its happening – right now!”
More than one zealous reporter cottoned on to the fact that the so-called terrorists referred to people as ‘Earthmen’. Stories grew, took root until it the rumours became too numerous to be ignored. Finally, the lower-ranking world senators demanded to know the truth on behalf of their nation-states, and under immense pressure, Roberts, as the head of the World Government, finally capitulated. There was outrage, perhaps unsurprisingly, which in the end, led to Robert’s resignation before his seven year tenure ended, despite the fact he was not responsible for the original decision.
Colonel White, thank heaven, was saved from the same fate, and a new WP was sworn in, with the pledge that Spectrum would resolve this menace from outer space once and for all, and without unlimited cash being thrown at the problem. Sabre rattling has become the norm, with many senators unwilling to be Earth-bound by this war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, paranoia, distrust, xenophobia, all the elements of business as usual that were so prevalent in the twilight years of the Twentieth Century have once more taken root in the late twenty-first.
My thoughts have put me in a sombre mood as I pass the vast Angel Interceptor hangar bay. I know that inside, despite all of the politicking and in-fighting taking place 40.000 feet below them, the flight techs will still be working hard at their jobs, to ensure that all six sleek aircraft remain at peak operating efficiency so that their pilots may fly in safety.
I glance at my watch, and realise that Destiny will have finished her shift and her position in the cockpit of Angel One will have been taken by another. The eldest of the Pack, and their acknowledged leader, I still find it incongruous how someone so feminine and charming off-duty, can be so single-mindedly ruthless at the controls of her Interceptor. She will shoot down an airborne enemy – or friend-turned-foe – with alacrity to defend Spectrum’s security, and that of the Earth. I can count the number of times I have personally seen Destiny lose that image of utter calm when on duty: when she identified the body of Captain Scarlet after he fell from the Car-Vu, when her sister Monique was captured by the Mysterons, and when Captain Grey was gravely injured in a botched Mysteron mission one year ago.
Realistically, given the dangers that our brave field agents face on a Mysteron mission, it’s a wonder that we’ve sustained so few casualties. That isn’t to diminish in any way the sacrifice made by those who died in the line of duty. We still grieve for our losses: Captains Black, Brown, Indigo, Zircon, Yellow, Madder, and Lieutenants Sepia, Maroon, Salmon, Jade, Sable, Gentian, not to mention so many more casualties within our junior ranks and ground forces in this battle with the Mysterons. We have our trump card, of course, but even Captain Scarlet can’t be everywhere, all of the time.
Grey’s physical trauma was bad enough, but the mental one, being left with a permanent limp in his left leg, could have been so much harder to deal with, given that it was the second time in his career that a physical injury had rendered Bradley Holden unfit for active duty as an agent. However, Captain Grey has always been calm in a crisis - despite being given to the odd moment of vanity - and I remember being very impressed with his fortitude during our counselling sessions (which White ordered him to attend, I must add) and I was of the opinion that a man of Grey’s talent and experience must not be lost to a disability pension. In the first couple of years it was an assumption that the automatic successor to the ‘hot-seat’ would be the handsome and urbane Captain Blue. Despite being noted for his patience, however, I remember that Blue’s first few outings in the Control Room made a rather large proportion of the Cloudbase crew lose theirs! On the other hand, when Grey took over the reins, it was less micro-manage and more ‘they-know-their-jobs-so-let-them-get-on-with-it’, a style that sat rather better with the jostling egos on board Cloudbase.
As the years have passed, Blue seems ever more loath to give up his role as Scarlet’s partner and confidante, Ochre still maintains his antipathy to a desk job, and Magenta has stayed quietly neutral on the subject. Perhaps he feels it would simply be impossible, even after all these years of devoted service to Spectrum, for people to willingly tolerate a former criminal as the head of a military organisation.
Despite approaching his sixty-first birthday, Colonel White, shows little sign of slowing down or being willing to relinquish his command. I sometimes think he feels like the King or Queen of England, and abdication-before he’s-carried-out-in-a-casket is unthinkable.
Goodness, I’m rambling on so much I’ve almost missed the escalator to the Control Tower. I step off the moving passageway, and take the entranceway into one of two diagonal spurs connecting the main body of Cloudbase with the nerve centre of operations. Outside, the approximate air temperature is minus fifty-five degrees centigrade, and if the skin of the tube were to be badly punctured, I’d have about fifteen seconds before suffering severe hypoxia. Luckily, there are breathing masks located on the walls every ten metres, but, even if the likelihood is extremely small, I still feel a little nervous every time I travel up or down inside them. I don’t suffer from vertigo, (otherwise I wouldn’t even be allowed ON Cloudbase) but it still takes my breath away when I realise these escalators make the ones on the ancient Northern Tube Line in London look like a children’s slide!
There are access doors from the elevators to both levels within the Control Tower, as well as elevators running between the two for maximum convenience. I alight at Level Two with the intention of dropping into the Officers’ Lounge. It’s a short walk to the room, and I once again press my palm print to the wall sensor, and the doors slide open in recognition of my security clearance.
The Lounge, like the Amber Room, has the advantage of some natural light from two large porthole windows on one wall. I’m not over-fond of the décor, being a riot of clashing primary and pastel colours, which do little, in my opinion to make the atmosphere a restful one.
At the moment, the room is occupied by all the colour captains, minus Grey, who is taking a spell in the Room of Sleep. One long couch is occupied by a napping Captain Magenta, his arms tucked behind his neck for support. He gives the impression of a man completely relaxed and without a care in the world. Captain Navy is occupied at the communications console at the far wall, with his back to the room, and Captains Scarlet, Blue and Ochre are sitting in a circle around the marble coffee table, drinking coffee and reading. Their brown, black and blond heads rise as I enter, their gazes ever vigilant, even here, in the security of this private enclave. Ochre’s face, often stern in repose, creases in a sudden grin, transforming those aquiline features of his.
“Watch out, guys, Ebony’s on the prowl again, better hide the coffee and make like we’re all happy or she’ll have us in a booth giving us the third degree.”
I roll my eyes. He still has this ‘return-to-kindergarten’ effect on people, does our incorrigible Captain Ochre, still forever ready with a teasing quip or acerbic remark, and age has not diminished this character trait in the slightest. I sometimes wonder if his clownish antics are a mask to disguise the inner man, for, occasionally, when he thinks no one is watching, he lets the jocular façade drop, and I glimpse a dark, secret pain behind those intelligent brown eyes. I know a little of the sharp end of police work, and there must have been things he has seen that would prey on one’s soul. As ship’s counsellor I have access to the psych profiles of all members on board Cloudbase, but there’s nothing in Ochre’s files that would insinuate anything troubling that might affect a career that up to now, has been stellar.
“Nothing quite so devious, Captain,” I reply with a tinge of caustic in my own tone, just to let him know I have his measure. “I’m on my rounds, but it’s time for dinner. I was wondering if any of you might want to accompany me to the restaurant.”
Blue and Scarlet simultaneously shake their heads and indicate the remains of an enormous tray of sandwiches on the round coffee table in front of them.
“We just ordered eat-in,” Scarlet says, “I didn’t fancy being half-way through a decent curry and having to abandon it for the Mysterons.”
“Totally understandable,” I reply, with a smile. Scarlet’s dry sense of humour, like Ochre’s, has thankfully remained intact despite everything that has happened to him.
Blue gives a sudden sharp yawn.
Ochre says laconically, “You ought to spend more time sleeping.”
Blue doesn’t even rise to the jibe. It’s an old game they play, and the rules haven’t changed much in ten years.
Blue hasn’t changed much either. There isn’t a hair out of place on that blond mane of his, and the body enclosed within that freshly-pressed uniform is as taut and rangy as that of a man in his twenties. He still surfs when he gets the chance, and Dr Fawn’s state-of-the-art fitness regimes certainly ensure that middle-age spread isn’t an affliction any of our good captains and senior Angels are prone to suffering from. Magenta shows no signs of stirring from his nap, unless he’s faking, but Navy turns at last in his chair, his personal task completed, and acknowledges my presence with the announcement that he’ll be happy to join me.
Just behind the lounge there’s an access corridor to the officers’ sleeping accommodation. The rooms are small, but cleverly lit and designed to maximise the available space. Automation controls the layout, moving beds into wall niches to free up living space when they’re not required. It’s fairly Spartan, but over the years, people have added small touches of their own to personalise things. On the opposite side of the tower, still on this level, we have the circular Conference Room, where Colonel White addresses his full complement of senior staff following a Mysteron threat, and which is also often used for official functions for VIP guests.
Navy and I take the elevator to the second level of the Tower to get to the officers’ restaurant, sandwiched (excuse the awful pun) between the Cloudbase Command Centre and the Promenade Deck. We chat whilst eating, and he seems jovially upbeat. It was a smart move promoting him to captain three years ago, he’s proven his worth on many a mission. We finish our meal, and he flashes me that dazzling Latino smile as we go our separate ways. I’m glad to be keeping on the move, for it means I have less time to contemplate on this tension-filled evening. Normally I’d be happy with my nose stuck in the pages of a book, but for some reason, I know that right now I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on a single word. This impending anniversary is affecting me more than I thought. Counsellor, heal thyself!
My next stop is the nerve centre of Cloudbase – the Control Room.
The security system accepts my palm-print and retina-code and the green door slides open to reveal the long walkway leading to Colonel White’s circular desk. At the moment, it’s empty, so I turn my attention to Captain Green, who sits at the long control console. The fifteen-foot long vertical glass screen is a mass of winking and flashing lights, digesting terabytes of information from all over the world, to process it in a fashion that the human brain can quickly assimilate.
Green glances up as I approach, that ever-youthful face belies a sharp intelligence and a consummate dedication to Spectrum. We’re good friends and share the same love of music. I play the sax, not very well, but we enjoy the odd jamming session when both of us have the time. He’s been the colonel’s right-hand man for longer than either of them would care to admit, and there is a comfortable symbiosis between the pair that sometimes borders on telepathy. It wasn’t always that way in the beginning, as the colonel’s reluctance to allow him to accompany the field officers on hazardous missions sometimes resulted in a bristling tension between the two men.
“Good afternoon, Captain.” I greet him as I step off the passageway. “How are things today?”
“Always the same, Counsellor,” he says, with a wry smile. We like to keep it professional when we’re on duty. “So far, I’ve got a small explosion on an oil rig off the Alaskan coast, a near-miss on the Morocco to Siberia trans-expressway, a land-slide in southern Italy, and a double murder of a family in San Antonio, Texas. Spectrum ground personnel are monitoring the situations but there are no indications so far that any of the incidents are attributable to the work of our alien friends.”
I wonder sometimes how he can deal with this, day in and day out, the constant first-hand knowledge of humanity’s failures and nature’s fury. It would test the most resilient mind, and however terrible the disaster, we cannot get directly involved unless there is proof that it has been initiated by the Mysterons.
“But you’re okay?” I ask. .
He nods. “I’m always fine, you know that.”
I squeeze his shoulder and he gives me a wry smile.
“Where’s the colonel?” I ask. “I thought I might have a word, if he’s free.”
“Go right ahead, he’s in one of the observation tubes, musing.”
I turn slightly, and look beyond the circular entrance to the long glass cylinder projecting out into nothingness. Colonel White stands at the furthest point, his back to us, staring out into a darkening blue sky that hails the approach of sunset.
For a moment I hesitate, wary of disturbing the Colonel’s reverie. It isn’t often he is away from his Control Desk, and there really isn’t anything to see at this altitude, save the odd cirrus cloud, but I know he finds it calming to stand alone, surrounded by nothing but sky when he needs ‘thinking’ time.
I feel a peculiar fondness for this man, who has borne the ultimate responsibility for Spectrum and its actions during this long fight with the Mysterons. No one ever imagined it would drag on for so long and yet, here we stand, ten years later, and I wonder if he’s facing the stark possibility that it could continue for yet another decade.
An onlooker, catching a glimpse of that craggy, implacable face, might deduce that there isn’t a shred of emotion present when White gives the order for an Angel to fire on an enemy, or when he sends his agents from Cloudbase on a mission that they might never return from.
But they’d be wrong. Oh yes, he has a gruff manner at the best of times, and exudes such magisterial presence, that even grown men tremble at the thought of standing in front of his desk, waiting for him to tear a strip off them for a screw up. But underneath, he cares. Cares deeply about those men and women under his charge who in some strange way, have come to represent the family he never had, the sons and daughters he can be proud of.
I really think he believes in the adage that the man in charge must be tough, aloof and untouchable, refusing to allow himself the luxury of showing any display of affection to the men and women under his command. Not for him the friendly slaps on the back between male comrades, or the hugs and brushed kisses between the male and female staff – a necessary touch that confirms their humanity against an enemy who is anything but. For his persona has to be maintained, whatever the personal cost, when you’re the man at the top, the lynchpin that keeps everything under control when all around everyone else can be excused for losing it.
After watching him for these ten years, through all manner of lows, highs, disappointments, false dawns and tragedies, I have the true measure of our commander-in-chief. He won’t allow himself to show any emotion, because that’s the way he is, the way he’s always been. And yet, inside that six-foot-one-inch man of indomitable will is a relentless burning star cleverly contained within a perilously thin coating of ice.
I move quietly away from the entrance, leaving him without intruding, and chat quietly for a few more minutes with Green. We make a promise, Mysteron threat notwithstanding, to get together next Friday night to pluck a few strings and make a few notes.
By now it’s 23.00 hours, and there still has been no threat. All personnel, whether working diligently at their stations or relaxing in the recreation areas, seem to give the outward impression of calm, but yet I can sense the palpable air of anxiety that pervades this entire base.
I ought to be able to play the waiting game better than anyone, and yet I feel it too, this sense of foreboding, as if these aliens are just waiting for the clock to strike midnight before they issue their latest threat to test our mettle.
And in all this time, there still remain more questions than answers.
Who are these Mysterons? Are they a faction of the original race of beings that inhabited Mars from some far-away galaxy, or are they, as the majority of our Spectrum scientists’ propose, the advanced computer systems that were left behind by their xenophobic masters, which had been initially programmed to ruthlessly defend the city in case of attack?
Captain Ochre made a flippant comment a few years ago, and he is a man familiar with such matters. His suggestion, that the Mysterons were playing some huge practical joke on Earth, struck a chord within me; after all, no one can come up with a logical explanation why the Mysterons sent out those original signals in the first place. With their supposedly superior intellect, they had to know full well that any species with the right level of technology would be bound to come looking for whoever created them. If they were so keen to welcome new space travellers with the same curiosity as theirs, why would they put up such a big keep-out-no-trespassing sign? It simply doesn’t make sense that a race so far technically advanced above ours would see the need for such protectionism.
Even if we accept some of the theories that the destruction of the complex had somehow corrupted the original defensive programming, how can anyone suggest that what are still, fundamentally, binary machines can evolve with the all too human failings of revenge and retribution? Is it in fact, conceivable that these Mysterons of Mars are in fact, real sentient beings, who have already passed among us? Are they the origins of the belief of the ancients in gods and goddesses, insanely powerful but flawed, using humanity as their pawns in a cosmic game of chess?
Such musings do nothing for my own battered belief in monotheism, but amongst all the theories and discussions, one irrefutable fact remains. The Mysteron race has developed the technology to manipulate the laws of physics in ways we are painfully and inadequately unable to grasp. Telekinesis, telepathy, the ability to recreate matter, to construct a perfect copy of an object or human being from the original, these things are far beyond mankind’s pitiful attempts at cloning and subjugating science to its will.
The World Senate is demanding that Spectrum has to change the way this war is being fought, to go on the offensive, and take it to the Mysterons’ front door – right back to Mars where it all started. Colonel White is naturally cautious about such a proposal; after all, our previous attempts to offer an olive branch have met with deception and near-disaster, but the World President is under tremendous pressure to deliver results, once and for all.
I ought to head for sleep, as I have another busy day of appointments tomorrow, but too many thoughts continue to swirl around my head, and I realise there’s no way I’ll be getting any shut-eye until the midnight hour has passed. Silly I know, but I’m only human after all.
So I’ll take a last stroll across the Control Tower, onto the Promenade Deck. The large room is dimly lit, practically in darkness, to take advantage of the vista beyond the panoramic windows - a vast, star-filled black sky that never fails to take my breath away as you’re forced to contemplate the insignificance of humanity within the cosmic immensity of the universe.
I’m not alone. The faint light glints off red hair, and Rhapsody Angel turns to me from one window, her flight helmet under one arm. She’s most likely just about to go on duty, and I wonder what’s she’s doing up here.
“Hello Juno,” she says at my approach, a faint smile hovering at the corners of her full-lipped mouth. “Can’t sleep?”
I shake my head in reply as I join her at the window, and for a few moments we stand in companionable silence, contemplating the majesty of the heavens beyond. Finally, she turns to me, and in her face I see the faint signs of a bone-deep weariness etched by years of displaced hope.
“When will this all end, Juno?” she says, and I realise the question is a rhetorical one. “I know this might sound crazy, but I sometimes find myself wondering if they’re right, the politicians and military ones who want to take this fight to the Mysterons. I mean, for years, we’ve been at a stalemate. We win some, we lose some, and neither side seemingly gains an advantage over the other. This could go on until we’re all cold in the ground.”
I nod grimly; her chess analogy is spot on.
“I’m no military strategist, Dianne; I’ve no idea if a full scale frontal attack on the city would be feasible or just plain suicide.”
“It doesn’t seem likely, does it, knowing what we do about their capabilities, but it’s just…I’ve been chatting with Paul…he thinks maybe…”
Her voice trails away and I don’t push for a response. Her body language tells me she’s perhaps said too much already,
I can’t help my sudden curiosity, wondering what they’ve discussed in private. Theirs is a long-standing relationship, spanning the years, steady, and quiet, unlike some other more volatile pairings that I can think of. I wonder if they’ve considered making their relationship formal, or whether they’ve contemplated having children. Advances in bio-technology are always improving, but age-related fertility is still an issue if a woman hasn’t already taken steps to pro-actively deal with it.
Something makes me reach for her hand, and I squeeze it gently. “Paul’s a brave man,” I say, “And you’re good for him. You’re his anchor; it’s what brings him back to us after he’s put his life on the line. But you need a shoulder to lean on too, so remember, if you need to talk about anything, in total confidence, I’m here for you.”
She smiles, gratefully, although the shadow of anxiety is still there within her deep-blue eyes. She straightens, marshalling her inner strength, ready to face whatever might transpire in the coming hours.
“I’d better be going, Ebony.”
“Of course.” Whatever dark thoughts she harbours must be left for discussing, if she wishes, another day.
We both turn away from the window just as the loudspeaker crackles into life….
“THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS; WE KNOW THAT YOU CAN HEAR US EARTHMEN….”
For this story I have drawn some elements from the original article ‘This Is Cloudbase’ printed in the 1967 annual (and reprised in the annual of 1993). I’m delighted to have the opportunity to add this story to the website in its 10th anniversary year, and hope that it will be followed by many more!
I’d like to thank:
Marion Woods for taking her valuable time to review and edit the story, and for allowing me to mention her creation, CADS, which first appeared in the super Halloween story: ‘A Charmed Life’.
Colonel Chris Bishop, without whom, none of us would get the chance to write and be (we hope) read! Happy 10th Anniversary, Chris!
Mary J Rudy, for the mention of her character Father Ivory, first introduced in her poignant story: ‘Room of Amber’
Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, for their wonderful creativity and inspiration – 40 years on.
This story used characters from TV series “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” ©, which is the creation of Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson, and the rights of the series belong to Carlton International. No profit was made from this story.
Any comments? Send an to the site