by Jack Heston
"This is the voice of the Mysterons. We know you can hear us, Earthmen. Our war of revenge shall continue. Oil and water do not mix, despite the heat. Nor do politics and trusts betrayed."
"Child's play." Colonel White's face was drawn into a frown as he regarded Scarlet and Blue, seated opposite his desk. "They're making it easy for us — we're supposed to know what it means."
"If it's so easy, sir, couldn't the conclusion itself be ambiguous?" Blue asked.
"I wish it were, Captain, but the answer is all too plain." White swung his desk and called out: "General tactical of Egypt, Lieutenant." The map appeared on the big screen and White indicated the desert with a wave of the hand. "Oil, water and heat. The Middle East. The analog computers predict with a surety of 97% that the Mysterons are referring to Lake Anasta. Gentlemen, that is the highest certainty factor they have ever given us. But the warning this time is less a riddle than simply a description of the situation. Allow me to explain. Lake Anasta, placed as it is in the region of Lake Nasser, was flooded in recent times. But unlike Nasser, which is to this day a barely practical damming of the Nile, Anasta is fed by an underground spring, opened by earth movement on the line of the Rift. Since 2029 the waters have been utilised to supply the desert city of Al Qaras, via the Anasta pipeline, but in 2067 a deep oil seam was discovered. It is the remains of the El Kharga field, worked out in 2005 and abandoned. Utilising the improved enzymic liquefaction principle, this oil became accessible and the Egyptian Government exploited it." White swung his desk back to them. "But they did so in secret. Their reasons are varied, but it was principally to boost the apparent value of their legitimate oil cartel and increase their international credit. How did they get it out of the ground?"
Scarlet and Blue traded glances. Green sat quietly with hands folded; he knew the story by heart, he had accessed the secret data files personally ten minutes before. White continued: "Since the treasure-hunt expedition of '67, during which the sunken temple was mysteriously and tragically demolished, teams of archaeologists and engineers have been working to re-erect the temple. Funded by the Cairo Museum and Egyptology societies around the world, they've made fantastic strides in these three years; but they also received a large grant and government assistance — and engineers working under cover of the temple project and without the knowledge of the scientists were doing something very different.
"Anasta's north end is deep, it shelves away to almost nine hundred feet, and it was discovered that the oil seam is squeezed up between fracture plains. All it needed was a fairly shallow well, sunk in a matter of days by a mobile rig flown in by the Egyptian Air force, capped, and monitored electronically, and they could force down the enzymes that would liquefy the ooze and bring it up. Gentlemen, at the deepest part of Lake Anasta there is a small but highly efficient oil pumping station, powered by hidden solar collectors."
Scarlet coughed. "But how do they shift the oil without outside knowledge?"
Now White smiled. "Through the second pipeline, laid next to the first, ostensibly to increase the waterflow to Al Qaras. The city does receive more water. They simply raised the pressure in the first pipe. But this leaves up with a serious problem, gentlemen. The Mysterons have made it simple for us to deduce because the most serious consideration we face in this situation will come from our own kind. Spectrum is apolitical, and we must tread carefully. Anasta now forms 35% of Egypt's dwindling oil revenue, but the pollution of the lake would choke the hundreds of thousands dependant upon its waters. Spectrum must preserve the status quo without revealing Egypt's little... Economic misdemeanour?"
"Easier said than done," Scarlet scowled. Their SPJ raced high through the blue, Cloudbase was a thousand miles astern over the Indian Ocean and the aquamarine scatters of the Red Sea islands rolled by below. "Pollution of Lake Anasta would be simplicity itself. One bomb blast in the lakebed conduits and it would take a billion dollars to restore the natural balances. What irresponsibility!" He shook his head.
Thirty minutes later they set the jet down on the runway of the small field outside Aswan, below the ancient dam, and were met by a Spectrum MP who handed over a Patrol Car stocked with equipment drawn from military stores. A fifty mile run on graded roads saw them crest a tall dune and before them lay the rippling blue waters of Anasta. On the palm-fringed shore had been erected a control building to administrate the reconstruction work, and submersibles were tethered to a barge offshore.
They were met outside the admin building by the project director, who introduced himself as Professor Fahan of Cairo Museum, and explaining their presence was no easy task. There were those to whom the Mysteron War was a hazy thing, reported in the vaguest terms by well-leashed news services, and Spectrum's interaction with the public was most often clouded with Intelligence double-speak. "We've been assigned to make an underwater survey of the water pumping installation," he said. "Spectrum has reason to believe that terrorist action might occur in an attempt to pollute the lake."
The swarthy Arab scientist smiled genially and gestured to the lake. "It is a big lake, Captain. Help yourselves. We of the science mission are quarantined from the utility company, their offices are just to the north. We could make one of our submersibles available, if you wish, there is little for them to do at present."
"A very generous offer, sir," Blue smiled back. "We may need to go deeper than the range of our equipment."
The utility company, nationalised under the present government, lay half a mile along the lakeshore to the north, and they showed their ID to the pumphouse's sole controller. He was responsible for monitoring the equipment and had prior knowledge of their mission, though not of the oil terminal, briefed by his employers on advice from Cloudbase. He had observed nothing untoward and invited them to inspect the installation for themselves.
The Mysteron detector proved negative, every piece of crucial machinery in the plant was precisely as it should be, as was the operator, and Scarlet and Blue resorted to their initial aim. Outside, in the blistering heat of afternoon, Scarlet reported to Cloudbase. "Colonel, negative so far, nothing at the surface station. The seals on all pressure maintenance hatches are sound, nothing could have been introduced to the pipeline up here. The oil line is absolutely clean, not even a hairline fracture." He unzipped his jacket as he spoke. "We're going down to inspect the subsurface section now."
Blue threw up the tailgate of the SPC and drew out wetsuits and tanks. Trained in subaqua operations, they had the best in equipment, far superior to that available to the scientists at Anasta. "We have to be quick..." Blue mused, eyeing the display of the dive calculator he would wear at his wrist. "Visual inspection to three hundred feet, a heliox decomp of twenty minutes after ten minutes total bottom time... "
Electrically driven sleds were available for improved mobility and they splashed into the water to fin out beside the shining steel pipes that disappeared below the surface, then triggered the sleds and whirred down into the blue depths. The flare of the sun sent shafts of light marching down ahead of them and fish swirled in the warm upper layers. Slowly the light dimmed and they fell into darkness, their tanks feeding them air down to one hundred feet and helium-oxygen mix thereafter. Down, down into cold, blue nothingness. Cameras whirred and they heard each other's laboured breathing on the com channel.
"Two hundred feet, all clear," Scarlet said inside his mask. Even the algae that had coated the pipeline in the higher waters was now thinning away at their side. Below, they saw the lines diverge and they followed the one that arced northward, the other terminating a short way further in the gloom, drawing cold bottom water, devoid of life.
"Two fifty," Blue returned. "Standing by for scanner release."
The pressure on them was now close to ten atmospheres, and they checked their watches. Almost nine minutes. "Three hundred feet," Scarlet said a moment later. "The pipeline is clean. If there' a device down here it can only be at the wellhead. Releasing scanner now." A torpedo-shaped device dropped from his sled and sped into the darkness, a searchlight stabbing from its nose. They saw the cone of brilliance move away and fade into the background, and, relieved of the drone's weight, Scarlet turned for the surface. Blue rose with him and they each viewed the relayed TV image on screens at the rear of the sleds. Blue controlled the device, steering it down the pipeline toward the wellhead.
Five minutes later they were at one hundred feet, performing their first decompression stop, and as they hung in the warm blue water, visited by large, striped fish, they saw the station come into view on their screens. Blue guided the drone about it with nimble motions of the servos on the sled controls. "Nothing," he said quietly, almost disgustedly. "Not the slightest indication that anyone has ever been near it. I think we're looking in the wrong place, Scarlet, ol' buddy. However they intend to attack, it's not from below."
As the Spectrum men decompressed beneath the waves of Anasta, a mile back from the lake a dark shape moved on a dunetop. Captain Black lay still, sniper rifle in his hands, and stroked the trigger, taking up first pressure. The crosshairs of the powerful scope hovered on the chest of a dark Arab scientist who worked with a laser theodolight above the lake, aligned on a remote marker on a buoy offshore. Second pressure, and the silenced rifle punched against his shoulder. The man fell and the process of retrometabolism did the rest. With two rings of ghostly green light floating over his still form, an exact duplicate stood over him and stared back at Black before nodding slowly and moving to conceal the body, his 'matrix', and stride for his jeep. Professor Fahan now had work to do for the Mysterons.
Towelling dry in the brilliant sunlight, Scarlet and Blue dumped their gear back into the SPC and Scarlet noticed the speck of a helicopter rising from the hills above the track of the pipeline. "I didn't know they had aircraft here," he mused. It was a part of detective work that one should become chronically suspicious but as he reached for the new-model Mysteron detector and zoomed the special lens he felt it to be almost a laconic gesture.
The real-time image on the phosphor screen in the hood at the back shook him rigid. Transparent machine. Opaque pilot. "Blue, the pilot's a Mysteron!" He threw the detector back into the car and reached for the long case in which lay a high powered rifle, a heavy-calibre tool with tremendous force. The helo was swinging by the lake and the shot was almost reflexive. As Blue drew his pistol and pumped a clip at the machine, Scarlet balanced the rifle's bipod on the car's roof and collected first pressure as he stared up at the helo in the crosshairs. It was not armoured, a simple civil model, and he knew just where to strike... The shot cracked out, echoed over the lake, and a moment later the helo began to lay a trail of smoke that blossomed as the rotor transmission lubricant bled away.
"He's not got more than ten miles in that thing," Scarlet said as he pulled on his jacket and cap. "Where's the nearest SPV? Al Qaras? Take the station man's jeep and requisition it, I'm going after the Mysteron!" He leapt into the SPC as Blue slammed the tailgate and he sprayed gravel from the rear radials along the lakeshore. The tyre pressure and suspension were pre-adjusted for off-road running, and he nudged further them toward the soft end of the range as he hit sand. He would have preferred to tackle the alien doppelganger, with the armour and cannon of an SPV but until Blue could catch up to him he must make do. He nailed the accelerator on level ground and used binoculars one-handed to pick up the smoke trail in the sky. The Mysteron had opened a decent lead but could not maintain it. Scarlet closed the gap slowly, faster than the damaged aircraft, racing across the hard, stony ground that interspersed rolling dunes. The dunes were enough to drive him to distraction as he scrambled over their crests, fighting for the clearest run, but at last he saw from a dune top that the smoke trail had ceased. The helo and its Mysteron pilot were down.
Heart racing, he drew nearer and checked his pistol, thinking about the electron gun in the back of the SPC with the rest of the gear. Now they had a chance to corner and dispose of a Mysteron on their terms, not those of the game-playing extraterrestrial puppet-masters. He had taken the lives of alien recreations on many occasions but hardly ever employed the sophisticated device Spectrum had created for the purpose. In almost every instance the enemy had conceded humankind's 'point' and curtailed the offensive willingly. Perhaps not so this time, but Scarlet had one overriding imperative. He must learn the Mysteron's actions, force him to divulge the nature of the attack on the Anasta oil terminal. And that, he suspected grimly, could be almost impossible.
How does one kill that which is already dead?
Scarlet skidded the SPC in the rolling sand below a dune crest and flung open the long door. He took the detector and the old-model electrode gun and scrambled through the sand to the top, go down and crawl forward. In the trough below the helo sat on its landing gear, engine pouring fumes, ready to burn as the transmission seared its insulation. He swept the aircraft but the pilot was not within. For long moments he stared into the phosphor screen as he panned the device, then switched off and frowned. Through the optical magnification of the detector he could see no tracks leading away from the smouldering machine. He had reported to Cloudbase as he pulled up, and hesitated to update the Colonel so soon. He rose, left the detector but took the weapon.
Heart thumping steadily, adrenalin a tingle in his nerves, Scarlet approached the helo. The desert sun baked down on him, sweat itched under his cap band and he panted shallowly. Closer, closer to the machine, its blades stirring in the hot wind... Nothing, no one within, no one in sight... Mysterons were capable of vanishing into thin air, something Spectrum scientists were sure was associated with the retrometabolic process, a utilisation of the mechanism in reverse. Mysterons could also detonate with terrific force, self-destructing, having become walking timebombs, triggered by processes only guessed at. So what had become of this one?
The ground erupted by Scarlet's feet and a figure rose from the pit in which it had lain; Scarlet whirled, heart hammering crazily, and the gun released skyward as it was knocked from his hand. He lashed out with all his strength and tore goggles and scarf from the face of his attacker, to blink in amazement at features no Spectrum agent had laid eyes on in many months. "Black!" he exclaimed, as the other dived for the electrode gun. Rarely had Scarlet and the Mysterons' hand on Earth been so close, but it seemed their encounters were inevitably on the edge of lethality. As Black scooped up the weapon and turned to level it from the hip, Scarlet's hand flew faster than the eye could follow, drawing his pistol and double-actioning the trigger, point blank. Two slugs took Black in the chest and he fell to his knees, the electrode gun slipping from his fingers. In stunned hesitation, Scarlet saw agony contort the other man's face, then the dark eyes opened and that gravelling voice came to him, a flicker of a smile twisting the hard, slash-like mouth. "You're too late, Earthman. My task here is complete. Look elsewhere for your quarry." And with that Black shimmered, became transparent and was gone.
Two impact-deformed tuflex 9mm slugs fell to the sand where he had knelt.
Knees trembling with reaction to the adrenalin overload, Scarlet grabbed up the gun and turned to stagger back up the dune as, behind him, the helo blew with a dull rushing sound, a puffball of orange flame and oily smoke rising into the blue. "Scarlet to Blue," he panted as he strove on. "Report!"
"Seven minutes from turn-off point," Blue responded promptly. He was making excellent time, the blue goliath thundering down the A1 Qaras road beside the pipeline at well over a hundred miles per hour. "Can be at your location in seventeen minutes."
"Negative!" Scarlet grabbed the detector and almost fell down the dune for the Patrol Car. "Proceed directly to the lake. Mysteron agent was Captain Black, and they've reclaimed him. There must be a second agent or a device already planted somewhere."
"But the terminal is clear, we already checked," Blue countered. "Another agent is the only logical conclusion."
"Agreed. Best speed, Captain."
"SIG. ETA Anasta — five minutes." Blue punched in everything the SPV had left and raced on across the waste. Ahead was a mystery and they must unlock it at once. The environmental and social damage, to both Anasta and Egypt's standing in the World Government, should an oil spill, let alone fire, occur, would be catastrophic. Egypt must modify its position on this reserve, it had been exploited royally by the Enemy, and must not be allowed to remain a weakness.
The Anasta Science Expedition used explosives sparingly, shaped shot-charges mainly employed for demolition and cutting jobs; the aim of the expedition was not to destroy but to rebuild. In the darkness of the cooled explosives shed, Professor Fahan had worked quickly but carefully to piece together sufficient plastique to do the job, equipping it with a standard underwater detonator, programmed for a five-minute delay. All he needed to do was descend in a work submersible, plant the bomb with the manipulators, draw the arming wire and withdraw: in five minutes Lake Anasta would be home to a burning oil slick. A shadow fell across the door of the shed and a worker peered within. "Professor, you've been in here a long time. Can I help you?"
Fahan turned with a blank expression to deliver a terrific blow that stretched the man senseless. "Out of my way, Earthman," he growled, and took the package, placing it carefully in a marker float casing and leaving the shed. He walked with the mechanical gait of a zombie by men and women on his staff toward the jetty that ran out by the admin building, dropped into a launch and cast off. The subs were moored out at the barge and in minutes he would be aboard one and underwater.
Engines roaring, the SPV and SPC rendezvoused on the lakeshore, one from the road, the other from the north, and Blue panned the scan platform without leaving the SPV, searching through the buildings and vehicles. "Nothing," he whispered into the mic by his lips. "Nothing, he's not here."
Scarlet left the SPC and swung his hand detector, but from a small shed behind the station powerhouse came the figure of a man, stumbling, one hand at his dripping, broken nose.
"Fahan!" he shouted. "The Professor, he's gone crazy..." Scarlet ran to him, scanning him as he went. Negative. He caught the man before he could pass out, and shook him awake.
"Explosives, he had explosives..." The Arab collapsed as other scientists ran up and Scarlet passed him into their hands, to catch one by the arm and shout:
"Where's Professor Fahan?"
With an expression of surprise the Arab pointed out to the barge. "He went out on the lake. sir. He was behaving strangely, walked by me with a float —"
Scarlet spun, heart in his mouth. Time was running out, the countdown to disaster terribly swift. Sprinting for the blue monster, he snapped: "Open up, Blue, I'm coming aboard." The opposite slab hatch was out when he skated to a stop and he flung himself into the seat, closing the harness and willing the mechanism to work faster. "Out at the barge — it's Professor Fahan. If he submerges, we've had it. Punch it!"
The SPV roared with iron power, bucked on its suspension like a prancing horse as sand sprayed from the multiple drive wheels and Blue sent her nose first into the lake. She sank to the skirts and a white wake creamed back from her flanks as she hydroplaned hard. The barge was moored over the temple, four hundred yards out, and with the videcon scanner zoomed they saw a yellow submersible casting off, the barge crew glancing up at the Spectrum machine approaching so rapidly.
"We can't use the cannon," Blue said tightly. "He can submerge by the barge, we'd sink it into the bargain."
"No, he won't chance fouling in the derrick cables, he'll stand wide," Scarlet returned. "But we still can't fire. If we cut the cables they could do untold damage below. The bang'll be big enough as it is."
"Explosion?" Blue glanced at his friend. "You mean to ram him?"
"I can't think of anything else." On the driving screens they could see the yellow machine pulling away from the barge. In seconds it would be under. "Sorry, Adam," Scarlet said and reached for the ejection grip.
"Not this time!" Blue growled and reached above his head to insert an arm/disarm safety bolt. The ejection mechanism would now not function. With a tight smile he shook his head. "We're seeing it through together. This is an SPV, it's a match for any two-bit shaped charge."
"You could have a point," the Englishman returned with a sudden grin, and transferred his eyes to the screen. "Let's make it good, we'll only get one chance."
At full throttle the SPV crashed through the rippling waves, white nose buffer cresting the deep blue, peeling white froth in a V from the stern and sending waves racing for the shore; the gun hatch was resolutely shut, this operation was quite visible enough without the use of artillery. Fahan's sub was clear of the derricks and foam bubbled at its flanks as he flooded the buoyancy tanks to take her down. She slipped beneath the waves, the bomb held deftly in the manipulator claws, and as the last curve of the hull vanished the SPV struck home. The frontal plates rammed home with stupendous force, as if she were a ship striking rocks. For an instant the vehicle bucked in a wall of white water, then a colossal, cracking, chemical detonation blossomed beneath her, lifting her bodily from the lake. The twenty-ton beast was born up on a wave of pale chemical flame and she shot through a ballooning cloud of steam and smoke to nose dive and half submerge, then rise, flame scorched, shrugging a great weight of water from her casing.
Within, Scarlet and Blue shook their heads clear and scanned the instruments, and a moment later Blue smiled broadly. "What did I tell you? Nothing to it!"
Scarlet slacked off his harness and rubbed at his shoulders where the straps had bitten in, to shake his head in mock reproach. "You know, you take too many risks." He scanned the boiling lake on the screen as Blue turned them for shore, and he dropped his cap mic. "Scarlet and Blue to Cloudbase. Colonel, mission accomplished, Mysteron agent intercepted and terminated. Operation was unfortunately of high visibility nature. Anasta oil terminal security maintained, the only casualty was Professor Fahan of the Anasta Science Mission, body to be recovered if possible." He grinned at Blue as he formulated and delivered his next words. "However, I shall leave it to those more ... qualified... to decide what to tell the Cairo Museum..."
On Cloudbase, White put a hand to his brow and growled: "Oh, Scarlet..."
Lieutenant Green knew better than to enquire what the trouble might be.
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