Captain Black barely registered Colonel White’s words as he stood facing him in the Control Room. White had just notified him that he was the World Government’s choice to lead the mission to Mars. The unexplained signals emanating from the red planet had been picked up by Spectrum in recent months, and suggested they were from a technologically capable intelligence. How this intelligence had remained hidden for so long from the curious ears and eyes of the Earth was another mystery that they hoped to solve with this expedition.
“You seem to have lost the power of speech, Conrad,” White added in a gentler tone.
“I'm still reeling from the shock,” Black said.
“Surely you were aware you were one of their top candidates?”
“I had heard I was in the running. But my first priority is to Spectrum – and to you.”
“Well, it looks like even in the face of your disinterest you're the one they want. You can’t be thinking of turning it down, surely?”
“I feel badly about leaving you, sir.”
“And the feeling is mutual. But I think this mission is of the utmost importance to the entire human race. We may be witnessing the dawn of a new era in mankind’s history; the possibility of first contact with intelligent life beyond our own planet. To be chosen to spearhead such an endeavour, well, it’s not the sort of life-changing event that comes along every day.”
Black cleared his throat and stared off into a point beyond White’s silver mane. “I know. It’s all I ever dreamed of when I was a boy. To go into space; to see what was ‘up there’.” His eyes snapped back into focus. “But I thought that career was finished, sir. In fact, I’d grown quite used to the idea.”
White raised a stately eyebrow. “Spectrum will still be here when you return. And if you still feel that it would offer you a challenge, assuming that another taste of space travel hasn’t changed your mind for good, for my part I will be only too glad to have you return to us.”
The lines on Black’s face creased in the beginnings of an answering smile, but he continued to remain silent.
“If you’re worried about me, then don’t be,” White continued, “We have a fine group of senior officers, thanks to your training, may I remind you. I know you sometimes look upon them as a somewhat disparate rabble, but they really are the best in their fields.”
“Even though some of them occasionally behave like children,” Black said, his forehead morphing into a frown.
White’s mouth twitched at the corners, and Black realised his statement probably sounded a little odd coming from someone who wasn’t a great deal older than the other senior officers. But in many ways he felt light-years of distance between them and himself.
“So, do you accept?” White said.
Black didn’t answer for a moment.
“You need time?”
“It’s – like you said – an important job. I want to make sure it’s the right thing for me to do.”
White’s eyes held a tinge of surprise, but he simply nodded with understanding.
Black left the control room, his mind a swirl of unused emotions. Wasn’t he too old to be a space jockey? He hadn’t really taken much note of the fact he was being considered, firstly, believing that he didn’t really stand a chance, and secondly, being preoccupied with Spectrum and all it entailed for his dream of a secure world. Now, he had twenty-four hours to make a decision. He wandered towards the staff canteen. Perhaps eating a delayed breakfast might settle the fluttering in his stomach and help him decide what to do about this bombshell in his life.
Harmony Angel sauntered gracefully into the staff canteen. It had been a long night, as she had doubled up on duty shifts as a favour to Symphony. Regulations forbade consumption of edibles in the supersonic jet, and she was ravenous. She trailed her eyes over the eclectic offerings on display, a nod to the various nationalities on board the massive airbase, and chose a bowl of rice to go with her eggs, together with a mug of jasmine tea.
She stifled a yawn, grabbed her tray, and turned quickly to go to the tables –
– and bumped straight into Captain Black.
Crockery and food vaulted off the tray and onto the floor, and some of the tea splashed onto Black’s boots.
“Captain, I am so very sorry,” the oriental girl said, feeling a flush of shame on her cheeks at such a blunder. She bent quickly down on one knee to pick up the broken items, as did Black. An orderly ran out from behind the counter with a vibro-cleaner that removed the offending materials in seconds. The two Spectrum officers stood up, and Black pulled down the edges of his tunic before looking at her.
“It was entirely my fault, Harmony, I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Nor I, it seems,” she replied.
Black’s eyes narrowed. “You look tired, have you just come off duty?”
“Then, allow me to buy you another meal.”
“That is not necessary –” Harmony began.
“I’m insisting on it.”
She finally assented with a bob of her dark head, and followed him with another tray to collect her breakfast for a second time. She glanced around the large utilitarian room, practically empty save for a group of interceptor technicians in one corner. Loud guffaws of laughter echoed across the room, and she suspected they were enjoying yet another one of their vast repertoire of risqué jokes.
For a moment she and Black stood awkwardly holding their trays,
“Captain, do not feel you have to –.”
“Nonsense, it would look rather odd if the only two senior officers sat apart from one another,” Black said, indicating a table. But as they sat down, Harmony had the fleeting impression that he really would have preferred to be alone.
As they sat down, she lowered her head slightly to eat her food, but she couldn’t help watching him through the veil of her lashes. Black removed his plate of eggs and sausage, followed by his whole-wheat toast and lastly his pot of tea from the tray, and put the latter to one side. He waited for a few seconds then opened the lid of the pot, swirled his spoon around the inside, and replaced the lid. He then poured a small amount of milk into his cup, she noticed it was a cup rather than a mug, and followed it with some of the tea from the pot. There was something in the way he did it like a ritual, with such absorbed attention, that was almost Oriental.
It was not in her nature to judge people by their outward appearance. Most certainly Captain Black gave the impression, with his brooding hawk-like gaze, that personal relationships did not interest him. She, like most of the other senior officers, knew little about his background, and, because nature abhorred a vacuum, rumour was the order of the day. Certainly, his taciturn demeanour and sharp remarks resulted in ‘repelling boarders’, as Captain Grey put it, amongst the senior staff. Of course, it was understandable that commanding officers needed to remain slightly aloof and detached from their subordinates; however, sometimes she felt that the some of the other captains’ comments bordered on the unkind.
A few more minutes passed while they both sat in mutual silence, then Black muttered, “Damned tea tastes like dish water.”
Harmony couldn’t help raising her head, and her eyes met his.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to blurt out what I was thinking.”
“Please, there is no need to apologise.”
“The bursar seems to have difficulty remembering my English Breakfast in his supply roster. You wouldn’t think it would be the most taxing thing in the world to figure out.”
Harmony wasn’t sure if she was expected to give a reply, so she decided the best course of action was to remain silent. She knew it was impossible to satisfy the exact requirements of every ethnic group on board Cloudbase, and so that usually meant that individuals asked their families to send food or drink items to the carrier; after they had been cleared by security. She herself often asked her mother to send a special green tea and miso soup. She felt a small pang of sympathy for the man sitting opposite her. He evidently had no such family to care for him, or friends for that matter.
“Look, Harmony, I’m not one for small talk, I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all, morning is my quiet time too.”
He nodded, as if well satisfied with this arrangement, and the two of them continued to eat. But Harmony couldn’t help stealing glances at her companion, and although she truly didn’t know him very well, there was something in his manner that suggested there was something bothering him. The way he stared at his cup with furrowed brow, she suspected it wasn’t entirely due to the tea. In fact, he seemed to have forgotten her presence altogether, until finally she saw him blink, as if his thoughts had discharged like lightning to earth.
He gave her a brief nod, grabbing his tray, brisk and business-like again. “Thank you for your company, Harmony, it was –” He seemed to struggle to finish the sentence.
“It was my pleasure,” she said, “I found it most relaxing, to have your company without the need for idle conversation. If you do not consider it an offence, I would say you are almost Japanese in that respect.”
“I’m not offended in the least.”
She was surprised by his smile, and in an instant, she felt the hand of fate gently push her into saying something she would later regret.
“I would consider it an honour to have your company again,” hoping that the words did not make her sound too forward, or even worse, too obtuse. The nuances of the English language still sometimes confused her, despite years of speaking it.
Black cleared his throat, as if suddenly embarrassed. “Well, I’ll have to be getting on with my duties.”
“Of course, please do not let me keep you any longer.”
As he left, Harmony remained at her seat, listening to the sounds of chatter from the technicians across the room.
There were several occupants in the Officers’ Lounge. Captain Grey was poring over his personal data-pad, deep in technical thought at the designs for his new type of aqualung gear. He hoped to have the prototype ready by the time he took his next furlough, for he couldn't wait to dive into the warm azure waters around the coast of Mexico to put it through its paces.
Captains Scarlet and Blue had finished a rather less technical, but no less satisfying game of racquetball in the gymnasium. The two men still sported flushed faces from their exertions and damp hair from the shower-room. Scarlet ambled across to the fridge in the small kitchen area and hunted around for something to quench his raging thirst.
“Well, who won?” asked Grey, looking up from his blueprints as Blue sat down heavily in one of the chairs opposite him.
“Guess,” Scarlet said as he stood up from the fridge. He threw a bottle of chilled water at Blue.
The Bostonian caught it in one hand, his rangy body barely moving from his chair, and said, “Me, I’m afraid.”
Grey shook his dark head with a wry smile. “Oh boy, Scarlet, that’s the third time this month Blue’s given you the run-around, huh? You’re going to have to do something about this; it's getting to be a habit.”
Scarlet took a long slug of water before replying. “Hmm, I might have to do something drastic, like getting an arm transplant. Another six inches might do the trick.”
“Go and ask Fawn, maybe he'd oblige,” Grey said with a chuckle.
Captain Ochre happened to enter the lounge and caught the end of the conversation. His mouth curved in a sardonic grin. “It sounds like Scarlet needs some help with his love life.”
There was a mutual groan.
“Rick, you've got sex on the brain,” said Grey. "Maybe you need a cold shower, or two.”
“Need something to eat first,” the Midwesterner replied, wandering over to his latest model; a perfect replica of one of the Viper aircraft that the Angel Interceptors had been based upon. He picked up a delicate piece of the wing, unable to resist adding it to the construction. As he did so, Captain Black entered the lounge. His dark eyes raked the room, and alighted, raptor-like, on Ochre.
“Where's that report I requested, Captain Ochre? It should have been in my log several hours ago.”
Ochre frowned. “Give me a break. I've been busting my ass for the last ten hours in the monitor room. I'll get it to you as soon as I've grabbed some food.”
Black’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Ochre’s model. “That doesn’t look like your top priority at this moment in time. May I remind you this is a top level security base, not a children's kindergarten? If you spent half as much time on your job as you do on your hobby, you'd be heading up Cloudbase. It makes me wonder how you ever got to where you did in the police force.”
Ochre's jaw tightened and his brows lowered dangerously. “You’ll have it, okay?”
“Just make sure that I do. Any more time-wasting, I'll consider it a breach of duty and send you to the brig.”
Ochre opened his mouth to reply but Black turned smartly on his heel and exited the lounge leaving the American fuming with embarrassment at being treated like some kid out of junior-high. “What’s eating that guy?” he muttered to no one in particular.
“Don’t be too hard on him,” Scarlet replied.
“Jeez, you Brits just have to stick together,” Ochre interrupted him sourly. “I bet you got your report in on time, huh, Scarlet?”
“Greenie let slip he got an offer to go to Mars,” Grey said, as if that in some way assuaged Black’s manner.
Ochre whistled in surprise. “Well, maybe he should concentrate on that instead of giving the rest of us a hard time,”
Blue stretched his long legs and took a long draught of water. "The only one who's getting a hard time seems to be you. Maybe that tells you something? Anyway, you have to admit you deserve it, after what you did to Symphony.”
“Yeah, and when I find out which smart-mouth told him –” he gave Blue a pointed stare.
“I wonder if he’ll go,” Scarlet said distractedly, breaking into their argument.
“Who knows,” Blue replied. “He’s not exactly an easy man to read at the best of times.”
Black made his way back to the monitor room on his continuing tour of duty. He didn’t feel any remorse at giving Ochre a verbal trouncing, but he realised he had felt a lack of control in baiting the American. He was letting the decision he had to make get to him.
His thoughts touched for a moment on the atmosphere of easy camaraderie that he had encountered in the Officers’ Lounge, and he felt a sudden spasm of envy. He damped down the emotion quickly. It was wasted effort. They could afford that sort of intimacy; in his position of command he couldn’t. He turned his thoughts instead to his impending decision. The clock was counting on whether he wanted to stay on Cloudbase or not.
In one respect the decision was easy. He hadn’t made any friends here; no one would miss him, apart from Colonel White of course. On the other hand… the thought of accepting this assignment, of the inevitable thrust of being flung back into the limelight, to the scrutiny of the world, filled him with nameless dread. He’d grown used to anonymity, and found solace and comfort in the relatively mind-numbing regimes of training and re-training the recruits for Spectrum. But was that what he wanted to spend the rest of his days doing? That, and waging war on a bunch of once-eastern-Europeans who couldn’t just knuckle down and join the world’s big happy family like everyone else?
He exhaled sharply. This wasn’t getting him anywhere, and he didn’t understand why he was having such a hard time making the choice. Maybe he should just toss a coin and be done with it. He thought about his pleasant breakfast with Harmony. He always had a lot of time for the young woman, but today was probably the first time he had sat alone with her, and discussed something other than work. He wondered if that was because, as she had so disarmingly put it, they were temperamentally similar. Like a lightning strike, a wild idea entered his head, that maybe he could discuss his dilemma with her, as if her slant on the subject might help him make a decision. He immediately dismissed the notion, realising she would consider that a sign of weakness. Not something to be encouraged if he did decide to remain with Spectrum.
“Have you heard the latest, girls?” Rhapsody Angel said to Harmony and Symphony as they alighted from the interceptor tube in the Amber Room.
“Shoot,” Symphony replied, shaking her long braid free of the restrictive flight helmet.
“Captain Black’s going to Mars!”
Harmony listened with sudden interest. “This is official, yes?” she asked Rhapsody.
“Well, no, not exactly.”
“So, it is people making an assumption.”
“What’s life without a bit of gossip, Chan?” Rhapsody said, giving the oriental girl a quizzical look.
Symphony flopped onto a couch. “He’s hardly likely to turn it down. Be crazy not to go. Heck, I’d give my right arm in his place.”
“I do not feel it is right to discuss it, not when he is still considering. It is – jumping the horse?”
“Gun, Chan,” Symphony replied, “jumping the gun. What’s with you? Never heard you take sides with ol’ misery guts before? Remember how he drove us nuts during our training?”
Rhapsody giggled. “Not to mention our dear captains. But I suppose he didn’t really do anything that awful to us.”
Symphony snorted. “Yeah, unlike someone I could mention. I’m not forgiving Ochre for oh-such a long time. It took me forever to wash that dye out.”
Harmony gave a little shrug at her fellow Angels’ banter, and turned her mind to the breakfast with Captain Black and the vibrations she had picked up from him. Perhaps the decision was not as simple for him to make as Symphony thought.
Black had little time to wrestle with his conundrum, as Cloudbase duties took precedence in the following hours and well into the afternoon. But he knew he was procrastinating. Colonel White hadn’t brought it up once, but time was running out. He was on his way back to his quarters when a soft voice stopped him in the corridor. He turned in surprise to see Harmony trying to catch up with him.
He stopped and waited for her. When she was almost abreast of him she gave him a nod of greeting. “Captain Black, please excuse me for interrupting you, but I wanted to offer you an invitation – to a tea ceremony.”
Black blinked. “Excuse me?”
“It is a Japanese custom.” She lowered her eyes a fraction. “I hope you do not think me presumptuous. We meet once a week, in my quarters, myself and several other Japanese personnel from Cloudbase. It is a small reminder of home.”
“I thought your family was from China?”
"Yes, on my father’s side. My mother is Japanese and I spent much time there.”
“Yes, of course, I forgot.”
“My mother's sister insisted that I knew how to perform the tea ceremony, otherwise I would not be a proper Japanese girl and never get a husband.”
She gave him a small smile and Black realised she was making a joke. He felt the shell of his armour crack, just a fraction, with the realisation that the young woman was sharing her not often disclosed sense of humour with him.
Then he frowned. “I wouldn’t be an appropriate guest.”
Harmony shook her dark head with a delicate movement. “All of us speak perfect English. This is not an issue. Please, we would be honoured by your presence, if it is not a trouble for you to attend.”
“It’s very kind of you to offer, but – I’m – I mean, I have a lot on my mind.”
“Of course, I understand perfectly. But sometimes it is better to pause and clear one’s mind from the noise outside, in order that we hear the small voice within. That is the purpose of the tea ceremony. To outsiders it looks merely pretty, but it is all about purifying the spirit within.”
Black felt an uncommon swirl of warmth in his guts as Harmony’s almond eyes locked with his, and her gaze remained resolute. He deduced that, in her enigmatic oriental way, she was offering to help him with his dilemma, yet doing it in a manner which precluded actually saying so. ‘Saving face’, was the Japanese expression for it, he recalled. And of course, it worked both ways.
“I’d be honoured to accept your kind invitation.”
She smiled and gave a little bow of her head. “Hai. We meet tonight at twenty-one hundred hours, and for only thirty minutes, so it should not take you away too long from your duties.”
“Very well, I’ll – look forward to it.”
Black arrived at Harmony's quarters two minutes before the agreed arrival time. He hesitated for a second before he tapped the access panel. Too late, the door slid open and any second thoughts he had about turning tail were dismissed.
He tried not to stare, for Harmony stood in the doorway; petite and exotic in a full-length, pale yellow silk kimono, her feet in the traditional wooden shoes, and her hair pinned with combs. She bowed briefly to him, her fingertips touching together, as if she was praying.
“Please, enter. You are exactly on time,”
He walked in to the small living area. His first impression was surprise, as it was uncluttered, free from the usual paraphernalia he usually associated with the female sex. There was a calligraphic scroll on the wall, and below it, on a small table, a simple flower arrangement of dried willow and cherry blossom. His nostrils were filled with a sweet burnt smell and he sniffed unconsciously.
“It is sandalwood incense,” Harmony said, noting his gesture
He nodded, grateful for her perception, and then his gaze alighted on the three other guests standing just beyond Harmony, beside a large, obviously non-regulation straw mat placed on the floor. He nodded awkwardly in greeting. They returned tentative smiles, obviously as self-conscious as he was.
“We would like to welcome our honoured guest, Captain Black,” she said to them.
The three Japanese bowed briefly in his direction. His mind did quick recall of their names: the two young men were Jiro Kitamura, codenamed Lieutenant Malachite, and Hiraku Sumimura, an aircraft technician. The young woman was Yuriko Mizumo, a monitor room operator.
Harmony handed each of them a small refresher wipe, and spoke for Black’s benefit: “Traditionally, the host would offer the guest a bowl of water to clean their hands, to purify themselves in preparation for the ceremony. But of course, here on Cloudbase, space is limited for a garden and teahouse.”
Black returned her small smile, as he wiped his hands with the moist towel.
“With this, we symbolize the leaving of the coarse physical world, and enter the spiritual world of tea: chanoyu,” she intoned with reverence.
Harmony gestured to the mat. “Please,” she said, indicating that they follow her. With utmost poise, she took tiny steps in her long kimono over to one edge of the mat. For the first time he noticed the exotic implements laid out in a geometric manner on a black lacquered tray: a highly polished ceramic bowl and a red lacquered jar; a scoop, ladle, and whisk made of gnarled wood, and a white silk cloth. Next to all of this, an ancient kettle simmered upon a twenty-first century heating tray.
Black took his cue from the others and knelt down beside Kitamura, facing the remaining two.
Lastly Harmony knelt down and intoned: “We are all equal in the tea ceremony, irrespective of status or social position. Here we may find the harmony and balance that we all seek. By attending to the details of the ceremony, it is a way for the participants to leave their worries and other worldly affairs aside. Afterwards, we have a clear mind to deal with these important things that require answers.”
With that she began to attend to the details of the ceremony. Black took his cue from the other Japanese and gave his entire attention to Harmony. He watched as she unfolded the silk cloth and wiped it gently around the bowl. This done, she placed the bowl precisely onto its original spot. She proceeded to repeat these actions for the ladle, whisk, and scoop in turn.
Black was drawn further into the mesmerising ritual, and watching her graceful movements, he felt every single hair on the back of his neck rise up, the sensation prickling along his forearms like a fine electric current.
After a long moment of contemplation, she removed the lid of the jar, and scooped out three portions of green powder into the bowl. She ladled in water from the kettle, and deftly whisked the powder into a thin paste. Finally she turned to Black, offering him the bowl with a deep bow.
“As our honoured guest, you will drink first. You may, of course, take your time to admire its beauty and simplicity beforehand.”
Black took it in his own two hands, raising it slightly above his head so that the light caught the raised concentric rings of dark green along the polished black surface. As he stared, the surface took on the aspect of a hologram, and he felt his mind being pulled into the swirling blackness, making him light-headed. He pulled his eyes away and brought the bowl to his lips. He took a tentative sip. The hot liquid was bitter, and yet oddly refreshing. He took another, longer draught, and then wiped the bowl with his hand, passing it to Kitamura on his left. The Japanese repeated Black’s gestures until all four of them had drunk from the bowl.
“Now,” Harmony said, “we take a little time for contemplation, in order that we may prepare ourselves for the return to the physical world.”
Black saw the heads bow, as if in silent communion with her words; and then she began to clean the soiled implements, every action as reverent as those preceding the preparation of the tea. Again, he found himself magnetically drawn to her movements, feeling a soft blanket of blissful lassitude steal over him. The whirling clutter in his mind drifted off, leaving behind a clear, clean serenity. He felt as if he was floating, and when he closed his eyes, he imagined himself transported high above the clouds, above the earth, blue and white; higher, and yet higher still, until he rested within the bosom of star-stamped indigo space.
When he opened his eyes, an eternity later, he saw that Harmony had completed her task, and waited in silence with her companions.
“I’m sorry. I – don’t know what came over me,” he said, feeling foolish at their quiet contemplation of him.
Harmony bobbed her head. “Please, you have entered the spirit of tea, and have lived in the moment. There is nothing to give an apology for. And now, the ceremony is complete, and we must all return to our duties.”
She rose from the mat, delicate as a yellow flower unfurling, he thought. The other Japanese followed her lead, and trotted out of her quarters, bowing their thanks to their host, until only Black was left.
Harmony raised her eyes to his. “I hope you enjoyed the ceremony. I am very glad you were able to join us.”
Black smiled, and this time it reached his eyes. “The feeling is mutual.” He took a deep breath, the tranquillity still floating within him. “I – don’t know how to say this, but there’s been a question I needed to find an answer for.”
“And have you found it?”
“Yes, yes I think I have.”
“Then, I am doubly pleased,” she said, without any further prying into what his question might have been. However, Black suspected she knew all along. He didn’t for one minute think that his potential posting had remained a secret for as long as it took an Interceptor to leave the flight-deck. He was only grateful she didn’t parade it in his face.
“Thank you, Harmony,” he said, finding an annoying obstruction in his throat. He turned to go before he made a complete fool of himself, but her voice stopped him again.
“Please, Captain, I hesitate to be presumptuous, but I wish to give you a token of the ceremony.” He watched as she removed the scroll from the wall and rolled it up very tightly, binding it closed with the red silken ribbon hanging from its end. She offered it to him.
“I couldn’t possibly, it’s far too exquisite.”
“Please, I insist.”
“What does it say?” he asked at last.
“It is a saying attributed to Buddha – ‘Find your own light’.”
He stood, stunned, and seconds passed; his heart beating before he could find his voice again.
“I – think I have, Harmony. Thank you again.”
“Goodnight, Captain,” she said, as her door slid shut.
As he stood alone in the corridor of the Angels’ quarters, a shiver ran through his body. He stood staring at the tightly bound scroll and wondered, and not for the first time, if the young oriental woman was prescient.
Six weeks later….
Harmony arrived at Colonel White’s desk in the Control Centre minutes after Lieutenant Green had summoned her there.
White looked grave; however, this was hardly surprising, given the events of the last few days. She still felt a chill when she recalled the final transmissions from the Martian Expedition, before the sudden radio silence that followed.
He raised his head as Harmony presented herself at the desk, and he handed her a tightly bound package.
“The Glenn Field Spaceport personnel searched the Martian Exploration Vehicle and found this,” he said, “Do you recognise it?”
“Ah, Buddha,” she said with a small sigh, as she unfurled the scroll.
For a brief second her universe stopped. She was plunged into the darkness of hell and an endless tortured scream echoed around and around her head.
She blinked, feeling her uniform clammy and restrictive against her skin, and saw White regarding her with a concerned gaze beneath his beetled brow.
“Are you all right, Harmony? You’ve turned as pale as your uniform.”
White pressed a button on his console and a stool rose from the floor in front of the desk. She sank down on it, grateful, and sought to gather her wits in front of her commanding officer. She had no idea what just happened to her. But it had thrown her badly.
“I – I invited Captain Black to a tea ceremony just before he –.” she faltered for a moment, as a hard lump suddenly constricted her throat. “I had no idea he had taken it with him to Mars,” she finished quietly.
White nodded and in an uncommonly softer voice, said, “You still look shaken, perhaps you should see Doctor Fawn.”
She continued to roll the red silken knot in her fingers. “I feel - responsible, sir,” she blurted out.
“Whatever for?” White’s eyebrows shot up.
She bit her lip suddenly, not knowing why she had said such a thing.
“Harmony, I think you should explain yourself,” White continued in a calm tone.
“Perhaps, if I had not pushed him into coming to the ceremony, he would have made a different decision.”
“You mean – not to go to Mars?”
She nodded desolately.
White came close to sighing himself. “I don’t think you can second-guess his decision. He may very well have come to the same conclusion for himself.”
“Perhaps,” she said, with a shiver, and tried to dispel the death-like chill that surrounded her like an invisible shroud. “Sir, I sense something tragic has happened to him – to Captain Black. When I touched the scroll, it was like –” Her voice broke and she bowed her head, closing her eyes. “I cannot explain.”
“We don’t know he’s dead, Harmony. Someone piloted the MEV back to Earth, and an eye-witness saw a man dressed in a black uniform leaving the Spaceport.”
“Then why has he not returned to Spectrum?”
For a moment, White didn’t reply, and when Harmony lifted her head to look at her commander she saw the new lines of strain that bracketed his craggy face, testament to the news from the ill-fated mission. Finally he said quietly, almost to himself. “I’ve been asking myself that very same question, over and over. Conra – Captain Black wasn’t the easiest man to know, but he was totally committed to his duty, and to Spectrum, and to the idea of a peaceful world. I cannot believe he has gone over to our enemies.”
White glanced at the chronometer on the wall and a shadow passed across his face. “You know, I almost forgot. Today is his birthday.”
Harmony felt a deep sadness well up inside her, and didn’t truly understand why she felt this sense of loss. She told herself she hardly knew Captain Black, and yet, that evening, when they had shared the Chanoyu ceremony, she had sensed the stirrings of a friendship between them.
“Then I shall say a prayer for his return to celebrate another,” she said quietly to herself.
“THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS. WE KNOW THAT YOU CAN HEAR US, EARTHMEN –”
As always, the characters from the TV series: “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”, are the property of the companies that own the rights to the series.
I’d like to thank Marion Woods for her insightful (as always,) comments, and to Hazel Kohler for beta-reading the story.