A ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ story by Jack Heston
With illustrations by Mike Adamson
This story first appeared in the RED ALERT! Fanzine, December 1985, published by Mike Adamson for ‘The Entropy Express’, Australia. Text and pictures taken from the fanzine, with the approval of the author and of Mr. Adamson, who did the wonderful drawings. With all our thanks.
Colonel White had long since ceased to shudder when the voice of the Mysterons boomed through Cloudbase; it achieved nothing simply to fear it or loathe its coming and he had recognised the fact that the extraterrestrial foes of man played to a strict set of rules. They gave man fair, if usually cryptic warning, from which point on it was a battle of wits. Colonel White was one of the greatest chess players that the world had ever seen, and he and his organization had proven that man could hold his ground in the face of almost incomprehensible opposition. But beyond all else, Colonel White could not shake the memory of the fact that it had been man who had – inadvertently – started the war. At the initial contact point of two intelligent civilizations of separate galactic evolution, man had proven lacking. Thus it was that the voice of the Mysterons was less a death-threat than a challenge; a challenge to set to rights the relationship of the two races, and the Colonel was sure that some day it would be possible.
For an instant prior to the rumbling forth of the voice from the very air there was a sensation of unreality, of instability, a field washing over the mind, anxiety clawing at the heart, as if a door to cold, echoing outer worlds was, for a moment, forced open. It held all in its ghastly thrall; all listened, hearts racing, for the crumb of tantalizing data that the Mysterons would toss to their Earthly foes, almost as if playing with them.
“We, the Mysterons, shall turn the Great Arm of Spectrum back upon itself”
As the electric sensation faded with the voice Colonel White forced himself to breathe deeply. He had frozen in midstride as the guttural bass had formed the words, and he turned to Lieutenant Green who was already guiding his seat along the electronics panel to the utility terminal, entering the data and watching for the analog search system to file through the trillions of bytes in the memory in the Cloudbase central data processing system. A moment later the black man looked up at his Colonel. “We have an analog match. There is a seventy-four percent probability that they are referring to our own Armoured Assault Battalion.”
The elder Englishman nodded grimly. “That Battalion is strung from pole to pole, every unit guarding a specific point target. Can we discern nothing else in the warning?” Even as he asked he knew the answer would be in the negative. “Very well. Inform Major Gold, it’s his department. Advise maximum security check on all Black Lightning units.”
In the minutes that followed the Colonel did not deign to take his seat and stood stiffly, awaiting developments. Some minutes after the warning Lieutenant Green called out new data. “Spectrum Zaire reports an explosion at the Kwilu River Project. Captain Yellow is en route to investigate and Black Lightning is on Red Alert.” He could see his superior’s mind working at furious pace. Was the explosion in any way connected or was it coincidence? The Colonel licked suddenly dry lips, asking the whereabouts of Captains Scarlet and Blue. “Their Passenger Jet left Unity City ten minutes ago, on course for Caracas.”
“The Venezuela job is secondary. Divert them to Africa.” He glanced at his watch. It would take them the better part of five hours to reach Zaire; the white-haired Englishman was playing the odds, weighing them against his canny understanding of the Mysterons themselves. They had made no allusion to a target in the threat, unless Spectrum as a whole were construed to be such; that made little sense and it was typical that they should leave a clue of some sort, if not verbally then by action. The odds said that equatorial Africa would be the arena for the latest battle against the invisible enemies of Earth.
Scarlet and Blue touched down at Kinshasa one hour before dawn and picked up a helijet to head east toward the rising sun. The stars paled as they raced over the tropical rainforest, the sky glowing up from silver-blue gloom toward the yellow and rose of sunrise, and before the sun had crested the horizon the two men had received clearance and the SHJ sank down out of the powder-blue heavens into the glare of the floodlights of Spectrum Black Lightning Strike Base 28 that shone artificially from the impenetrable sea of trees that pressed all about it but for deliberately cleared tracts. This, after all, was the very Heart of Darkness of which Conrad had written so eloquently one hundred and sixty-eight years before. The men could feel the heavy, choking presence of the jungle, the vastness that was part of the unbroken tropical forest that belted the world in the latitudes of heat. The air was sticky and washed in on them like a wave as they debarked the big helo on the pad area, and Captain Blue passed a hand across his face. In the next hour the temperature would rise, without a doubt.
The base was commanded by Captain Orange, the only colour-coded officer present, and he met Scarlet and Blue in the wan light, the floodlights dousing with the retreat of night. Orange was a big, broad-shouldered African, one who knew the far-flung territories of his land well, their pitfalls and hidden terrors second nature to him. He was proud to be where he was, commanding the Black Lightning Strike Force of the Congo Basin; there were millions of people within his allotted area, realistically every one of them his responsibility. He offered his bone-crushing hand-shake and escorted the men into the air-conditioned comfort of the Ops Room, back from the pad. “Cloudbase Regulars,” he exclaimed in his rich bass as he waved them into seats. “Never pulled a tour on a Strike Base?”
“Never,” Scarlet nodded. “But then, we’re usually too far away and going too fast. The Mysterons give us no time for errors, you know that. What’s the situation here?”
Orange shrugged slightly as he took his seat. “Unclear. Yellow reported from the Kwilu Project – it’s a new hydrojet generator system incidentally – and the explosion might have been an accident. But there again, there is no way to tell if it was an accident or deliberate cause.” He smiled at the irony. “If there is Mysteron activity in Zaire, there are only one or two possible targets, and the Black Lightning units have them covered.” He glanced at his time piece. “We’re due out on patrol at one hour past dawn. Word from Cloudbase is that you should accompany us.” Now Orange really smiled. “Gentlemen, let me show you my pride and joy.”
The buildings clustered about one gigantic structure, a vast hangar with a hardened skin, all but impervious to anything short of nuclear attack; out of that hangar spilled a wash of white lightning that vied with the dawn for the observer’s attention. Orange led Scarlet and Blue through the muggy air as birdsong chorused from the jungle and they strolled onto the wide concrete apron before the hangar. Orange stood for a moment regarding the sight within, grinning at the Cloudbase men, before leading them forward. Scarlet and Blue knew all about the Black Lightning units but it never failed to send a thrill along their nerves when they came into contact with a major example of human engineering brilliance.
Spectrum’s newest acquisition was the formidable, terrifying Junglecat. It was four years since the United States Army had stunned the world with the introduction of the Sidewinder class Junglecat, the awesome walking fortress that could go places conventional vehicles could not and carry a fantastic offensive arsenal that could lay waste to the land, level cities or even, conceivably, repel the Mysterons. Spectrum’s Armoured Assault Battalion had been formed during the last twelve months, Major Gold being a rank created to command the unit. The Spectrum engineers had worked with the military scientists of the World Government to refine the machine and the craft that carried the Spectrum roundel was a second-generation vehicle. It was slightly smaller than the Army craft, less complicated in certain ways and had a much improved walk cycle. It packed no less than five electron batteries to supplement its conventional inventory and featured improved manipulators, now so delicate that they could lift a living creature without harming it yet remained so strong that they could tear a tree from the ground.
The United States Army Blue Lightning battle groups had been the logistical basis for the Spectrum division and veterans had trained the personnel on the new machines. The 1st AAB unit badge was a simple one; a shield, slashed across with a single black lightning bolt. It was carried on the forward hull near the Spectrum roundel and the Strike Group crest; the crest of the 10th was the black panther. Only one Junglecat was based at each facility and three bases comprised the group. Each base was an electronic exclusion zone patrolled by guards and robotised Self-Propelled electron artillery; to each base was allotted a pair of Helijets and an SPV to serve the security needs about the home and workshop that tended the mighty engine of destruction that could go forth into the tangled reaches of the jungle, clawing and blazing where man had never gained dominion over the wild. Held at a high state of readiness the Junglecat could be alerted and on its way in minutes, as much a Quick Reaction Alert as any airforce maintained.
Scarlet whistled thinly as they strode into the hangar. A Spectrum Patrol Car was parked by the Junglecat and it seemed like a toy. Technicians worked all about the huge hulk, inspecting, performing routine maintenance. In the shut-down mode the hydraulic pistons of the legs were empty, the vehicle sitting down close to the ground on stumpy-seeming members. The two gigantic arms which had earned it its vast repertoire of nicknames, including The Khaki Scorpion and The Iron Tarantula, were retracted, closed into a tight double curve below the broad bows. Still the craft towered forty feet above their heads and the enormous hull was in excess of two hundred feet long.
Captain Orange checked with security troops in the hangar and called via his cap mic to enquire the state of readiness of his crew. He himself was both commander and pilot of the vehicle during his duty period and he would take the craft out on patrol that morning.
It was unusual for a Mysteron threat to take so very long to emerge in its lethal, physical form and the agents were becoming worried. There were such units in South America, other parts of Africa, South East Asia and Australia, and the obvious sequential development, the Snowcat, was based in the northern lands about the Arctic Ocean and on the continent of Antarctica. Any one of those ‘Great Arm’ units could be utilised against its creators at any instant, and it was the uncertainty that chewed at them. Perhaps the Kwilu River explosion had been an un-associated event. Perhaps the new Mysteron strategy was one of psychological warfare, the issuing of threats with no effort to carry them out. But since that first, tragic day on Mars, such had not been the Mysteron way and neither Scarlet, Blue nor Orange believed otherwise. There would be an incident concerning the Junglecats somewhere, sometime; perhaps this unit, perhaps today. Those were the thoughts that crowded in on Scarlet as he stood below the awesome bulk of the machine in the fluorescence of the hangar, the dawn rising over the jungle that lay like a wet green blanket across the world. Turning away from the machine, he saw the lightening day, mist hanging in white layers amongst the gigantic trees and the colourful birds of the tropics fluttering into the new sunlight in great, squawking clouds. This place was as primeval as the world had been in the Age of Reptiles; it never had cause to alter the perfection of its savage machinery and those men who chose to live in the jungle bowed to the laws of nature.
Captain Scarlet, Paul Metcalfe, nodded slowly to himself. That was the truth of it; nothing ever changed, yet everything was in a state of continual change. The Darwin Paradox, someone had called it. He knew with a cynical calm that should even the terrific Junglecat break down beyond help it would be invaded, infested, overgrown, and vanish into the infrastructure of the green sea. Time was on the side of nature, one of its tools, and man was a transitory beast.
The sun rose over the Congo Basin at about 05:00 and by 05:30 the crew was boarding the Junglecat. As yet there had been no incident reported from the Black Lightning Battalion anywhere in the world, and nerves were on edge. It was six hours since the delivery of the threat and such an interval was extraordinary. Cloudbase continued to collate global data but the big computers could give no clearer picture of the situation.
Beneath the giant Junglecat Orange introduced Scarlet and Blue to his Command Crew, Lieutenant N’Guru, the Weapons Systems Officer, and Lieutenant Jarere, Electronics Warfare Officer. As non-shade officers their uniform jackets, caps and boots were in traditional military tropical four-tone leaf camouflage pattern. Just three men were all the machine required to operate as an effective weapons system and the level of computer sophistication was such that the craft, in fact, operated itself.
The five men were carried up into the beast by a hydraulic elevator platform and they found themselves within the great body, lit by white fluoros and cooled by quiet air-conditioning. They passed down a surprisingly long corridor and entered the cockpit, a broad-windowed room lined with instrument banks. It was a far cry from the control-room affair of the early Sidewinder, streamlined down to a two-place pilotal array with the bulk of the instruments grouped around the centre console which gave its operators a panoramic view from the machine’s lofty vantage. The third position was offset to starboard and featured a high-complexity battle computer terminal, this being the EWO’s station, the WSO sitting for’ard, to the right of the master pilot.
Secondary generators fed the beast power while it was technically in the shut-down mode, and the lights, air-conditioning, instrumentation and communications systems were operating. The Africans settled into their seats as Orange gestured to the Cloudbase men. “You’ll find a pair of fold-out seats behind the rear console lower panels. Might as well make yourselves comfortable.” Turning to his instruments, he began the safety-first manual checkout, a standard observance to make triply certain that the computer’s reading of one hundred percent readiness was accurate. Technical difficulties could not fail to arise in a system as complicated as the Junglecat and though they would perform a red-alert scramble on the computer’s okay alone, when on routine manoeuvres the tedious procedure was followed.
As the other men worked Scarlet’s epaulets flashed and his cap mic dropped into position. He heard the familiar tones of Lieutenant Green, replaced in a moment by Colonel White. “No definite data so far, Captain. The Kwilu River incident is the only occurrence in the vicinity of a Black Lightning unit.” The Englishman’s tone became thoughtful. “They referred to the ‘Great Arm’ of Spectrum, for which we assume they mean the Junglecats. But they say that they will ‘turn it back upon us.’ To do that they must gain control of one or more craft...” They heard him release his breath loudly in bafflement. “But we have no developments on or near any Strike Base in the world.”
“This is an unusual case, sir,” Scarlet agreed. “I think there must be a point target somewhere within Spectrum. Unless the Junglecats were simply to render themselves ineffective, self destruction of some sort, they could be utilised freely against any other part of the organization within reach.”
“A fairly obvious deduction, Captain,” White returned with the hint of sarcasm that was a privilege of rank. “All Black Lightning Squadrons are on yellow alert around the clock until further notice. There is nothing further that we can do; the next move, as ever, is up to the Mysterons. White out.”
Some minutes later Captain Orange nodded his satisfaction and added: “Gentlemen, shall we push rods?” He reached to the console mounted above the windows, the reactor control unit, and pushed the light switches in an offset pattern, each switch controlling one of the ten groups of fuel elements in the Junglecat’s simple fission pile, introducing the rods to the containment vessel to start the reaction, odd numbers first, followed by even. Perhaps one minute was required to start up the reactor, the secondary generators cutting out as they became superfluous, and the Captain and his co-pilot glanced at each other, confirming readiness. At the touch of a switch the immensely powerful hydraulic system began to build up pressure and the Junglecat lifted as its legs elongated, raising the cockpit to almost fifty feet above the ground. Adjusting the output controls, Captain Orange throttled up the pile. “Reactor at one hundred percent.”
At his side Lieutenant N’Guru checked analog displays tied to the servo control system. “All turbopumps at one hundred and ten percent overboost. Hydraulic system now at one hundred and thirty atmospheres.” He nodded. “Solid as a rock.”
Backing the reactor to fifty percent, Orange allowed the screaming, thundering machine to calm itself. “All pre-sortie tests complete.” He keyed the base security link and cleared the craft for departure, then glanced at the time display. “06:00. Let’s march.” He tapped the computer keyboard and the machine went into the active mode, obeying its helm through the autopilot-instruct system, and he took the controls, easing the central throttle from the stop. ‘The Junglecat responded smoothly, stepping forward with a muffled roar of hydraulics, and Scarlet and Blue took firm hold of their seats. The craft emerged from its hangar into the hard sunlight that was burning up the mist and crossed the apron before, almost elegantly, picking up its feet and stepping over the three-bale high razor wire fence that enclosed the compound. The base had an area of half a mile and beyond the wire was a cleared area, a mine field some two hundred yards deep, controlled electronically and deactivated by computer command for the Junglecat to pass. It stepped over the corresponding wire fence at the outer perimeter and the men knew that they had entered the jungle.
A cleared corridor ran away before them and Captain Orange called over his shoulder: “We opened out roads through the forest, they run all over the place and we use them as rapid-transit corridors. We can’t level the jungle – it would be a pointless and ludicrous exercise – but we have devised means by which we can cut the time factor.” To their surprise Scarlet and Blue found the motion of the hull on its suspension to be a gentle rolling, not unlike that of a large ship in a rhythmic groundswell, and they rose to stand behind the instrumented cockpit and view the dense, green ocean that swayed slowly by the windows. “Like any heavy armour,” continued Orange, “the main trouble with the Junglecat is that it is slow. We have a maximum speed on a level, firm surface comparable to that of a conventional armour-piece, about thirty-five miles per hour. We cruise at twenty, a figure achieved by virtue of the size of the machine – she has a stride of more than twenty yards. When she is at full throttle she can almost get all her feet clear of the floor simultaneously. Even through the gimbal seats it feels like you’re in a heavy sea.”
Blue shook his head and grinned at Scarlet. “Give me the SPV any day, pal. The SPV is a lady; she may break your back with G-force but she’ll never get you sea-sick.”
There was a general, appreciative chuckle and Orange returned: “Perhaps. It’s true that you have to be a good sailor to pilot a Junglecat. Still, though she may be slow, no rainforest on Earth can stop her. Yes,” he mused, sitting back from the controls, the autopilot fully engaged, “what a piece of machinery. She’s the single most powerful weapon in the entire Spectrum arsenal.” He glanced back at Blue. “I too love the SPV, but it has its role and the Junglecat has its own. In each respective area they are unexcelled and it would be unfair to draw comparisons regarding worth.”
“Do I detect a note of unit pride?” Scarlet smiled. “Or a sonata? Perhaps even a suggestion of chauvinism?”
“Oh, maybe, maybe... Still, for all the pluses of the Junglecat, the inflight service is terrible.” Orange laughed aloud. “The stewardesses are never to be found, there’s nowhere you can get a drink and you can never get your hands on a barf bag when you need one.” To that he added: “By the way, the Gents is through the back. You can’t miss it – it’s the locker marked ‘spare ammunition’.”
At that moment, at a point far removed from Strike Base 28, the Mysterons sensed their prey to be edging close to their web. Panther Three, out of Strike Base 30, some hundred and fifty miles to the north on the southern edge of the dense Congo jungle, the steaming wet lowlands that even in the Twenty-First Century were a barrier to all but the highest technology and the most persistent outsiders, met with the sort of alien influence that Spectrum found all but impossible to understand, let alone defy. Panther Three was a long way from home, her night patrol having taken her south through the broadleaf hills that rose above the morass of the basin, up toward the Kwilu River. Under the command of Captain Turquoise, the craft had made good time and was in the hills just ten miles north of the great sweep of the Kwilu, approaching the maximum extent of its patrol route when an emergency distress burst upon the ether, loud, clear and disturbing.
Panther Three responded, turning toward the source of the signal as a Helijet took wing from Strike Base 28, some forty miles away and Panther One accelerated to three-quarter speed. It appeared that a commercial airliner had suffered mechanical failure and was coming down hard. Even as the Spectrum forces hurried toward the projected crash zone their airsearch radars picked up the aircraft, losing height rapidly. It was going to go in, there was nothing its pilots could do to avert the event but it was retaining a fair glide ratio and there was the possibility that some would survive the catastrophic impact. Less than five minutes would go by before the liner, an aged Boeing 828, would impact with the rainforest but Panther Three was in direct voice contact with the crew and Captain Turquoise demonstrated one of the Junglecat’s most useful abilities. Taking advantage of the specific terrain and tree types so that the big arms would have as little work as possible to perform, the Junglecat reached the crash point some two minutes ahead of the airliner and Spectrum’s most powerful machine laid into the forest in accordance with the wind direction which dictated the crippled jet’s possible approach angles. With terrific, sweeping thrashes of the mighty thews the young trees were splintered and crushed and the forest giants were systematically uprooted and torn apart to create a ;softened’ landing strip; the 828 could set its hull into the mashed vegetation with some hope of lurching to a halt without burning, rather than slamming into upright spires of wood that would tear it apart in an instant.
The prospects were still less than good; they were awful, and the time factor was far too tight for the intervention of International Rescue. The passengers and crew would live or die as the cards fell and Captain Turquoise backed the Junglecat into the protective shade of towering trees to await the sickening plunge of the liner. The pilot was very, very good and deserved to get away with his life; they caught sight of the doomed aircraft a mile out, swaying about its long axis, fuel dumping in a long plume, flame streaming from one of its wing-mounted turbofans, and with appalling speed the aircraft was upon them, pancaking into the green sea as all remaining power was cut and the wings snapped away from the fuselage like rotten twigs, one exploding against a great trunk, the other fluttering high above the canopy for hundreds of yards before it came to earth; the fuselage fell into the yards-deep cushion of matted vegetation and rebounded, splitting at the wing juncture to fall in pieces that rolled and skated down the impromptu strip in their final death spasm.
That any could have lived through the terrific grinding, tearing contact and twisting, spinning rebound was practically impossible and the Spectrum men felt that there could be no survivors; yet when Panther Three eased from the cover of the jungle and swept the wreck with its scanners no less than thirty people were found to have lived through the crash, all in various states of injury and entrapment. Working quickly, the Junglecat cleared away an area of forest floor, heaping the major sections of wing and tail apart from the inhabited section as a report was transmitted to Cloudbase and Captain Orange, as Black Lightning, Zaire’s chief. Civil emergency medical helicopters were leaving Kinshasa and, somewhat further afield, Kananga. The medical facilities of Strike Base 28 were prepared and the SHJ would have the first load away before the Government ships arrived, as others were treated aboard the Junglecat itself, there always being at least one competent paramedic in the crew and the best of military battlefield medical supplies.
Spot fires smouldered, sending oily columns of black smoke into the cloudy blue of morning, and Panther Three thundered to a halt to lower its elevator platform, Captain Turquoise and his EWO, Lieutenant Ukerwe, rushing to the ragged sections amongst the tangled boughs, calling via their cap mics to the SHJ which was decelerating, one mile out. Its lower fuselage cargo bay could accommodate a dozen stretcher cases and, once they were sedated they could be at the base hospital in ten minutes.
To their profound surprise the Spectrum agents found that some of the survivors, while dazed, were physically unharmed, and it seemed miraculous; miracles were things that seemed in no way special when the other-world technologies of the Mysterons were at work and but for the general sense of shock, but for the numbing of the sensibilities that occurs naturally at the scene of great disaster, they may have drawn terrible conclusions all but immediately. As it happened, their failure to connect the crash with the warning issued many hours earlier was their undoing.
“Colonel, signal from Captain Turquoise, Black Lightning, Zaire.” Green’s deep voice broke the tense silence in the Cloudbase Monitor Room. White was at his side in several quick strides. “Air Uganda, commercial flight AU-672, Kampala to Luanda, developed engine trouble and has crashed east of the Kwilu River. They estimate some thirty survivors. Spectrum Zaire is in full co-operation with local authorities.”
“That’s a remote spot, thinly populated...” Colonel White was thinking out loud. “Advise Black Lightning, Zaire – exercise extreme caution, utilise Mysteron detector on all survivors, priority one. Report ETA Panther One.”
Some minutes later Green reported: “Captain Orange estimates rendezvous at crash site ETA ninety minutes. No further report from Panther Three.” They knew full well that it would be an inhuman task to face the crash victims, detector in one hand, electron pistol in the other; but knowing that should a red light gleam the victim must be shot down instantly helped assuage their consciences with regard to the point-blank confrontation of the innocent. However, as the minutes went by and the only report from the crash site was that the SHJ had lifted off with a load of casualties and that the Government craft were closing fast, the air aboard Cloudbase began steadily to darken. Green’s request for data was answered by a short: “Mysteron detector negative. Will contact soon – we’re pretty busy here.”
The words made sense but Colonel White could feel a certain foreboding and he contacted Scarlet and Blue. “Captains, extreme caution is to be observed upon reaching the site. The Mysterons may have shown their hand in an obscure way. Panther Three is still in attendance; investigate crew, under Captain Turquoise. I think you know what I mean, gentlemen.”
Aboard the lurching Junglecat Scarlet and Blue frowned at each other, nodding with a pursing of lips. “Yes, sir,” Blue responded. “I believe we understand. Is there any hard data?”
“Negative, Captain. Panther Leader is, as of now, on full War Alert. You are our only sure measure on the scene. Panther Three is to be be treated as potentially hostile until proven otherwise.”
“SIG,” Blue returned for them all and their mics flipped back up to their transparent cap peaks. “This one’s a mess, Paul.”
“For certain. If Turquoise and his crew have already been Mysteronized they could have shipped Mysteron agents to Strike Base 28. We may have no base to go back to.”
“Right,” Orange grunted, opening the base channel. “Panther Leader to Base 28. Code-Red-Red. Spectrum is Red. Utilise Mysteron detector on returning SHJ. Launch remaining SHJ to support us and deploy SPV for Anti-Aircraft duties.” He made a face as he released the transmit key. “When they drag civilians into it it becomes as difficult as all hell; they can gather large numbers of agents in one blow and our job grows more difficult as they disperse. If we miss just one he can go away, blow up a gas station or wreck a train and they can retrometabolise as many more as they need.” He shook his head. “This is where the job gets dirty, fighting mass-actions against people who were innocent bystanders only an hour ago and who knew practically nothing about the war in any case.”
“The Mysterons are selective,” Scarlet interjected. “They choose carefully. The civilians are not the target, it’s the Junglecat units that they will turn back on us and that seems to say that we could be in line for a very bad surprise when we arrive. The killing kind.”
“The Junglecat itself?” Blue wondered aloud.
“No,” Orange added. “Not the Junglecat, Captain. We would have heard the bang from here if it had gone up and been retrometabolised.”
“Right,” Scarlet attested. “Its crew, however, are a different matter. If they are now hostiles then we have an enemy unit with an arsenal equal to our own and prior knowledge of the situation – they can afford to shoot first, we can’t.”
Lieutenant N’Guru sat ready at the weapons controls, his steering array ignored; the conventional turrets and electron batteries were locked at quick-response positions and the Blindfire systems were engaged. Should the Mysteron detectors catch even the faintest trace of an enemy one or other of the big cannons would be pouring hard radiation into it. The effectiveness of the detectors, however, depended on the situation at the electronic level, the jamming and counter-jamming, the generation of false images, ‘ghosts’ that could even be programmed into an enemy’s battle computer by a skilled EWO to confuse and draw off electron bursts in the vital seconds required for the Mysteronized craft to strike and claim an ally. Jarere was a highly skilled Electronics Warfare Officer and he had programmed for the most acute detection parameters, sniffing for individuals resonating the pattern that indicated a certain atomic instability generated by the retrometabolic process, the drawing together of raw materials from the surrounding area, even from the original body and their arrangement in a matrix which exactly duplicated the physical structure of the deceased. This instability was difficult to detect and usually required close proximity.
Within ten minutes of Orange’s call to base the SHJ had returned and it proved, to their profound relief, to be clean. It carried the most critical stretcher cases, the broken limbs, internal damage and burns, and the crew of Panther Leader breathed a little easier. Orange issued instructions for the SHJ crew to refrain from using the Mysteron detector on their next cargo until they were outside the Junglecat’s fire envelope, and by that time the second SHJ was overhead, calling down high-altitude observations.
They followed a cleared trail to the banks of the Kwilu River, deep in a broad valley where the limpid flow oiled by, carrying its cargo of organic detritus, floating rafts of leaves and branches, down to the great Congo Basin to the north, and without hesitation Orange sent the Junglecat wading out into midstream, deploying a system which spread the articulated metal feet on their foot-thick titanium pivots and hydraulic pitchjacks, to enlarge the area carrying the beast’s weight, and a set of turbopumps blasted compressed air through culverts in the base of the feet, bubbles seething at every step keeping them from clogging with mud and silt. Turning south, they used the river as a road, striding along at half speed as crocodiles and great snakes surged away on all sides under the lowering jungle growths.
“Every animal in miles has long since left the area,” Orange commented. “The Junglecat is a very noisy piece of equipment; it advertises its presence in every way imaginable. It’s a good thing that it can take punishment as well as give it. These cabin walls are four inches of solid Cahelium. The windows are fused quartz, coated with Lexan, ten inches thick. The outer skin is tungsten-titanium alloy.” He laughed. “Now you know why one Junglecat costs more than a squadron of Angel jets and why the World Senate had kittens when Spectrum asked for them.”
“Can one Junglecat kill another?” Scarlet asked, point-blank.
Orange took his time answering. “There’s not much it can’t kill... Yes. Yes, it can. There are key points... A heavy cannon hit in the leg mechanism will cripple her – it’s a tricky shot but possible.”
“Are the Spectrum Junglecats nuclear equipped?” Scarlet pursued quietly, standing behind Orange’s seat, watching the green waters sliding below and the blast of spray with each footfall.
“Yes, we have nuclear artillery rounds for our 208mm top turrets. They are hypervelocity guns – range 21,000 yards with provision for either ballistic targeting or laser terminal guidance.”
“And do we have a defense against those shells?” Scarlet asked, just as quietly.
“Oh, yes,” Orange nodded. “We can track incoming out to 10,000 yards and our Hellcat missiles can stop them dead. It was a built-in failsafe in case... just such a situation arose.”
“Stalemate,” Blue breathed cynically, shaking his fair head. “I think we’ll be moving in to close quarters after all. When we get there we can’t give Turquoise and his men any clues – if they draw on us we have to draw quicker. If they are all off the Junglecat we can at least relax in as much as we’ll be fighting only the automatics.”
“I can handle them,” Jarere interjected. “I know computer infiltration and I can rig a feedback patch to Panther Three’s central processor; whatever orders are entered we can know ahead of time, before we get into range for a line-of-sight acquisition.”
“If Turquoise is Mysteronized he’ll know these things as a matter of course,” Scarlet nodded. “Better stand the Hellcat batteries to Blindfire alert and close-out the data link.”
“Already in hand, sir. The computers are quarantined from theirs. We’re a walking fortress with teeth to match the claws. If they shoot, they show their hand and everything Spectrum has will come down on them. But if they play innocent long enough to spin a web about us...”
“They have a good chance of acquiring a second ’cat,” Scarlet finished with a frown, teeth bared. “I would advise that radio traffic within their audible bands be kept innocuous, lull them, but not too much or they’ll know that we know. This situation is one of the worst Spectrum has ever faced. If we don’t stop them they could lay waste to every village and town in this land... Obliterate the capital. Anything. Increase their forces exponentially. It all hinges on our ability to stop them right here.” He fell silent; they all knew the facts, the terrible threat that could boil over into carnage and horror from moment to moment should Spectrum’s vigilance falter for so little as a second.
The WASPs held Titan at bay; International Rescue did its considerable best to preserve life in the world. The World Intelligence Network had taken over the role for which Spectrum had been created, the balancing and keeping in check of the Other Side, the uncooperative alliance of states in central Asia, whose influence reached across the free world like the encroachment of cancer, while Spectrum both caused and inherited the war which simmered below the level of public consciousness. Zaire was distant, invisible to the First World, and the targets reached by the Mysterons in the U.S., Europe, the East and Australia were often put down to simple, human crime. The general public did not know the whole truth regarding the War of Nerves but Spectrum knew that one day it must go public with the facts. Those facts were bad and no one expected the world to take them kindly. When it was learned that the Spectrum-crewed Zero-X sortie to Mars had sparked the whole thing there would be human mortification. It was an age of sadness for man, the animal who held himself in such high esteem but who had failed when it mattered the most that he succeed.
Limpid smoke smeared the blue over the airliner remains, a tall spire winding up into the intermittent clouds of morning like a marker, a headstone for the craft that was now so much wreckage. The Base 28 SHJ had shifted two more loads in the period since its warning that Mysteron agents may be included in the crash victims, and the fact that not one had so far been discovered served to both relieve and increase the tension that gripped the five men aboard Panther One. As the machine drew close, autopilot engaged as Orange guided the manipulators to clear a way for them, Jarere studied his instruments more closely, listening to the electronic activity of the other craft.
“Telemetry and code traffic appear normal,” he breathed. The air in the control cabin was heavy with anxiety; they may have to obliterate the Spectrum men, even crash victims remaining at the scene, to finally put them into the graves occupied by the human corpses of which they were simply shadows. “Radio traffic intermittent...”
“That doesn’t mean a lot,” Scarlet returned. “Our ETA is just five minutes. We’d better make contact, hadn’t we?”
“Of course,” Orange returned, hands locked about the analog grips which controlled the arms. He switched the link through. “Panther Leader to Panther Three. This is Orange to Turquoise, come in.”
There was a short pause and then the other’s voice came over the speakers. “Turquoise here. We have you on the scanners. Things are quieter now; most of the crash victims are at Base 28 or in Kinshasa and we have a sensor report on the remains of the aircraft. More to the point, we record no Mysteron activity at all.”
Scarlet and Blue exchanged knowing glances. The Mysterons would never pass up such an opportunity and Turquoise’s statement as good as condemned him. Orange and his crew were equally aware that their colleagues were dead in the jungle and that Doppelgangers were speaking for them. “Please confirm,” Orange said, voice held very steady. “Negative on Mysteron activity.”
“Confirmed.” The voice held a strange modulation and at its tone a chill raced down their spines. “This case is really one of the stranger ones,” Turquoise’s voice added. “There’s no figuring it out.”
There was no escaping the fact that the men ahead would have monitored Panther One’s own coded transmission to Cloudbase and, though no unit had access to the code system of any other unit – a provision vital in such a situation – they would know that suspicions would be high. As the last trees crashed to the ground and the last webs of vines and leaves were torn from the boughs, Panther Leader stepped out into the cleared area, finding its footing with gyroscopic delicacy. The other Junglecat stood two hundred yards ahead and they were approaching its starboard bow. They could see three Spectrum-uniformed men standing by a torn-open length of fuselage and one of them waved tiredly, the cynical humour reaching their ears: “Hi there. Come on down. The party’s over and the champagne is flat.”
Orange glanced over at Jarere as he eased the Junglecat to a halt and the other shook his head. “We’re not close enough to be sure, sir. The reading is negative, but... No battle commands yet; the other ’cat is quiet.”
“They will ‘turn the great arm of Spectrum back upon itself’,” Blue quoted, eyeing Scarlet. “We now have a face-off. If they have been Mysteronized, this is the threat realised and we, my friends, are the target.”
On Blue’s words Scarlet ran a hand across his face and checked his electron gun, loosening it in its holster. “Okay, I think we have the picture.” He saw N’Guru sitting tensely, hands on the controls that would send radiation blasting from the forward electron battery to mop up the men ahead. “I’ll go out first. I don’t have to tell you to keep me covered.”
Within the minute Paul Metcalfe was riding the elevator platform down through the hot, sticky air, the smell of chemical smoke an acridity that caught at the back of his throat. He stepped from the platform and found himself clambering across fallen trunks that had sunk into the sodden turf; the going was heavy, the obstacles significant to a man but meaningless when the climber was magnified to the size of the camo-painted colossi whose hydraulics yet moaned across the jungle. As he went, Scarlet became aware of an odd kind of foreboding. He would have to pass all but beneath the other Junglecat’s outstretched claws to reach the three exhausted, dirt-streaked men who now sat in the shade of the wreck. All three were out of the machine but he could not shake the tightness that made him glance repeatedly up at the huge bulk. He knew that Orange, Blue and the crew of Panther Leader would be watching his every move and should anything happen they would open fire instantly.
Scarlet watched the men closely, eyes glued to their electron pistols. If they drew on him he was as confident of his ability to draw faster as any gunfighter could be. When one’s best friend could abruptly become one’s gravest foe, sharpness of wit and ability were the only tools that counted. So intent was he upon the men whom he felt must be Mysterons that he was at first confused by Blue’s screamed warning and it was only when a shadow crossed the sun that he looked up to see one of Panther Three’s manipulators reaching down, its hydraulics suddenly thundering in his ears. There was nowhere that he could go and nothing that he could do to evade the monstrous metal claw that scooped him up and carried him high above the tangled jungle floor, in an embrace that was curiously gentle.
As he was lifted out of the line of fire N’Guru jabbed the trigger and a shaft of hard electrons speared into the three agents, setting crackling static fire to their limbs and arcing between them. They died in an instant and N’Guru swept the whole surrounding area with the shafts in the seconds that followed, a safety precaution learned from bitter experience. If no Mysterons were present the artificial lightning bolts would do no more harm than real ones and if there were enemies of man they would die as easily by random fire as by deliberate.
Scarlet’s gasp of pain as the metal claw tightened its grip was heard over the loop but he let it trail off as he was lifted up before the Junglecat’s windows and he caught sight of the one who handled the manipulators. A broad, humourless smile creased the face below the Spectrum roundel, the only brightly coloured part of the otherwise black and grey uniform. Captain Black was the man who had fired on the Mysteron city so long ago and it was somehow fitting that he should be their supreme instrument on Earth. “Yes, Earthman,” came the gravelling sound that was the Voice of the Mysterons. “Your supposition, as always, was correct. But it is you alone who are the target. Your death is critical to us and is the seal of death for your planet. I could tighten the grip and crush you to pulp but it would be a futile gesture. Instead… Come aboard.” The voice dripped menace and the arm lifted Scarlet up toward the casing where a hatchway would be opening even then.
Two hundred yards away Captain Blue had heard Black’s voice, relayed by the com system, as had the other men. They watched with incredulity as the claw dropped Scarlet onto the sloping frontal armour above the control cabin and a hatch mechanism slid open. “Paul!” Blue shouted. “Paul, what are you doing?” He knew as he asked that his friend would take any opportunity to deal final death to the one who epitomised the Earth’s agony and he ground his teeth as he saw Scarlet step down into the hatch. There was no way that they could use an electron cannon against the machine to kill Black without also taking Scarlet, the same pattern that the mortal members of Spectrum had faced time without number.
Scarlet descended the upper service elevator to the integration room, gun in hand, and gazed down the bridge access corridor. He could feel the hot dizziness that would always overtake him when in close proximity to a Mysteron agent, an echo from his own, somehow annulled, Mysteronization. It passed over swiftly and left but a feeling of indescribable evil, seeming to bathe the Junglecat and himself with an impalpable, insensate hatred. It was as if he stared into the jaws of hell itself, that long, dark corridor that ended in the green wash before the windows seeming miles in length. Heart racing painfully against his ribs, sweat streaming from him despite the controlled atmosphere, he licked dry lips and stepped forward.
“The electron discharge will earth back and destabilize your structure,” Black’s voice echoed, practically in his head. “You would fall apart and vanish in a shower of radiation, the end to which you have sent so many of our agents. They do not matter. Perhaps you would claim me.” Black stepped into view at the end of the corridor with startling abruptness. “And perhaps not.”
Freezing, Scarlet held the gun leveled at Black’s chest. One jerk of the trigger and Black’s reign of terror would end, yet the Mysteron’s words were nothing less than the truth. He would be killing himself here in this mostly metal craft as surely as if he took aim upon his own body. If his matrix were only partially lost he might hang in an agonizing limbo between life and death, his body spontaneously breaking up and reforming from second to second, never dying, never able to properly repair itself.
“You have died many times, Captain,” Black murmured, the bass growl taunting, echoing. “Come, now, do you not dare to take the final step? How strange it is that you alone of all mankind have made a habit of returning from the dead and yet you know nothing whatever of what death is.” Black seemed practically paternal, standing casually, thumbs hooked into his belt, unblinking eyes boring into Scarlet. “You are dedicated to the defense of your kind, are you not? You are an altruist of the finest sense, giving your life not once but many times, as many times as our process returns it to you, minus your present existence. Or are you but a soldier who throws his body before the gun simply as a tool, knowing he can never be harmed?” Black was now gently sardonic, evilly mocking. “Are you an altruist or a masochistic psychopath with the most noble of excuses? The saviour of mankind is allowed certain graces, eh?”
Unmoving, Scarlet held the gun on Black, fascinated in an awful way by what his arch enemy was saying. He had never had any doubts in his own heart that man was not seeking war and wished only to end it peacefully and with honour but he had never before studied his own role in it closely, or as closely as Black intimated he should.
“We are unique, young Scarlet,” Black went on. strolling slowly down the corridor. “Not only do we enjoy indestructibility but we are functionally immortal as a byproduct of our retrometabolism. If you fire you will be throwing away not simply life but life eternal. And you will make no impression upon the Mysteron campaign, for they will transfer their manipulation to some other Earthman’s form.” He smiled then. “You can’t win. You can hold us at stalemate while we play forever with equipment and agents drawn from Earth itself and you grow ever closer to economic collapse. When the economy is gone, Spectrum is gone. You can’t build your SPVs from hopes and wishes, can you? When the day comes that your civilization collapses our victory will already have been achieved. The destruction of your Global and Spatial power would seem a fair lesson to those who struck the first blow.”
“Then you know?!” Scarlet gasped, all but allowing his aim to waver. “You know that it was from fear that... You, Captain Black, fired upon the city on Mars. Fear, not malice! That it was a mistake?”
“Of course.” Black came to a halt some feet from Scarlet’s outstretched gun. “And it is fear that drives us to retaliate totally, for any race so undisciplined as to carry weapons to an uninhabited world is more dangerous than it is aware, even to itself. In addition to our justifiable anger, it is we who fear you.”
“Then you understand the mind of man better than man himself,” Scarlet countered, letting his gun drop until he held it at the waist. “What point is there in our continued aggression? Man as a race is ignorant of the truth and those who are aware are sorry. We don’t want war with anyone.”
“That would be why Spectrum was created, I suppose,” Black nodded cynically. “Why all the military establishments of Earth vie for supremacy. There is dissent in the ranks of the human species and there are other races beneath the waves. You are pressed from all sides; from yourselves, from the world of the sea and from our campaign of aggression... Yet still you stand firm...” Black seemed now to be brooding, his eyes sliding down to the gun. “Even I do not know what death is, Scarlet. Why not fire and we’ll find out together?”
There was a shocking sensation in Scarlet’s nervous system and he blinked in disbelief, all but pulling the trigger in reaction. Black’s voice was but a whisper and it held a timbre of an odd, dark longing, a hinted expression of a thing no Earthman would have credited, but which Scarlet seized upon in bewilderment, his heart torn by it.
There was a flaw in the retrometabolic process. Scarlet himself was the eternally living proof of the fact that the Mysterons could not always control the bodies which they reconstructed, and that the original mind was also recreated, or perhaps was never lost. His own Mysteronization was a vague memory, a dark pit of submission to something vast and alien, and he realised, there in the corridor of the Junglecat in the rainforest of central Africa that for just a moment the mind of Conrad Turner had emerged from beneath the Mysteron programming, the confusion written plainly in his face, his voice and manner. Captain Black had just asked, as good as begged, to die to be released from the mind-slavery of the implacable aliens of whom man knew not the slightest thing.
Then he was gone and the animated body was once again the very hand of the Mysterons, eyes snapping up to meet Scarlet’s. “Your sensibilities do you credit, Earthman, but they are without form and meaningless in proportion to the destinies of our two races. We swore to turn the Great Arm back upon Spectrum and we have done so. You are in our power and you will die!”
At that second the Junglecat rocked on its suspension and a sharp detonation echoed through the hallway. Taking advantage of the moment of surprise Scarlet swung his left fist with all his strength as he stepped forward, feeling bone beneath his knuckles as Black collapsed to the floor and he turned to run for the integration room. If Conrad Turner was still alive, his intellect suppressed, Scarlet could not, somehow, bring himself to take that life out of hand. Perhaps all Mysteron agents retained their original personalities, the Mysteron imperatives imprinted upon them; if such was the case then truly lives were the play-things of awful circumstance and he had no choice but to kill Black as he had killed so very many enemy agents.
From the interrogation room a service corridor ran back into the armoured body and the Spectrum agent sprinted for its far end. There must be other ways to leave the machine than by the main elevator and he searched for emergency egress chutes or ejection modules. As he went he heard a confusion of signals and knew that Black was jamming the transmissions of the other Junglecat and that it would be pointless responding. He felt more alone than at any other time in his life since the utter dislocation of Mysteronization. There was no one to whom he could even speak except an enemy about whom he had experienced second thoughts about killing but who was determined to eradicate him.
On a higher level a wide hole gaped in the armoured hull, punched in by a point-blank hypervelocity round, and Captain Blue stood in the compartment beyond, shrugging off his jetpack. He held grave fears for his friend as he heard the jamming; gun in hand, he fought his way through the maze of narrow service corridors toward the main thoroughfares and checked the cockpit. It was deserted and he turned for the main bulk, alert to every little sound, ready to shoot at the shadows chat crowded in uncomfortably close.
Holding his breath, finger on trigger, Scarlet stood in the lee of a broad metal lip beside a heavy equipment housing in the belly of the beast between the hydraulic systems that drove the legs. There was a hangar above for a small helijet and here was the garage and elevator platform for a light vehicle. Directly aft was the housing and internal armour of the reactor and its associated plumbing and wiring harness. He listened to his heart as the sound of a soft tread came to his ears and Black strode by his nook, pantherish in his movements, eyes gleaming darkly; he was intent upon a specific task and with foreboding of disaster spurring him Scarlet stepped from concealment and followed, keeping his footfalls silent. Black must know he was present... At the rear of the garage was a small workshop and equipment bay, tools and field service machinery locked down neatly with a floor hatch and winch. Black came to a halt and stood for some moments staring at the wall, then stepped over to it and jerked free an inspection hatch, tearing away the plastic facade that concealed a heavy insulated cable that entered a junction command computer. Black reached lazily to the computer’s digital panel and tapped in a long, coded sequence; the Junglecat responded turning into its self-made avenue for home.
With the deck swaying below their feet and the hammering of the vast hydraulic pistons all about them Black drew his gun and blasted into the cable, a sparking explosion glaring against the dimness of the garage and the cable seemed to leap from the bulkhead, writhing like a snake, a flare of electrical flame crackling and hissing from its ragged end, to dance across the floor plates. Black turned, smiling at Scarlet with the knowledge that the ace had been shown.
Scarlet was not waiting to see the hand. He drew his pistol and cracked a burst into the wall panel controlling the floor hatch and the armour plate whined back on its rollers. In the space of seconds several things happened. Black also evaded the thrashing cable as it swayed to the stride of the craft, and Scarlet snatched a roll of cable from a storage shelf, throwing a loop of it about the winch array and dropping the remainder through the hatch, to dive headlong, electron gun sheathed, from the Junglecat. Simultaneously Captain Blue entered the chamber and Black sensed that the situation was turning against him. To evade Blue he simply stepped out of the hatch and disappeared.
The line was not long enough to reach the ground and the walk cycle set it swaying through an arc of nearly forty feet. Scarlet had looped it across his body as he had learned to on freezing mountains, and set about judging the correct moment to release his grip and fall the remaining yards when he experienced a moment’s warning and glanced up. Black rocketed down the line, his boots crashing into Scarlet’s shoulder, and he locked his legs about the human in a vice-like grip. They flailed at each other, the line biting into Scarlet’s body with their double weight as he realised what Black was after: the electron gun. Here, outside of the metal environment, the one who held the gun and dropped from the craft first was the one who could trigger with surety of surviving the discharge. They both clawed for the same gun, chest to chest, sweating in the hot, wet jungle air, fists cracking at jaws and temples, at kidneys and ribs. Black was the larger, stronger of them and that physical strength was slowly prevailing as Scarlet’s tortured body absorbed the punishment but kept Black’s searching grasp off the hilt of the gun that could kill either or both of them. He dimly saw Blue high overhead in the hatch that lurched back and forth against the dark metal belly and he shouted hoarsely through swollen, bleeding lips: “Adam! Shoot, kill him. No choice! Kill him!”
“I can’t!” Blue shouted in return. “I can’t kill you, and I can’t kill Black without taking you!” Blue knew that there was nothing that he could do to aid his friend; he felt like an impotent non-entity, dancing out of the way of the snarling, snapping cable that made his eyes water with its ozone fumes as he watched the death struggle at the end of the taut line, swaying like an infernal pendulum against the dappled green of the rainforest.
Below, Scarlet could catch the occasional, wildly swaying glimpse of Panther Leader striding along in pursuit but he could not afford an instant to appreciate the view; keeping Black from the gun consumed his entire attention, a time in which his body would heal by the moment and Black’s heavy fists would thud home again and again. The two indestructible men were all but tireless in such mundane combative circumstances but fatigue would accumulate and the rope was a hot cutting knife that both distracted Scarlet and sharpened his perception by its pain.
As he fended the clawing hand for the hundredth time Scarlet felt the line above him jolt and snap like a bowstring, the edge of the hatch over which it was snagged having at last sawed through the nylon and he and Black fell through space, drifting apart in freefall before they thudded heavily into the spongy humus and giant ferns. Paul Metcalfe glimpsed in awful slow motion as he landed the gigantic right rear foot of the Junglecat as it was hoisted into the air, carried along and lowered to take the machine’s weight, the great metal appendage crashing to earth with destroying force; the walking fortress stepped with all its weight directly onto the prone shape of Captain Black, covering him from the waist down. In the instant before the foot came down an expression of resigned anger knitted the Mysteron agent’s brows in a furrowed line and his body shimmered, became transparent and was gone before the foot sank into the earth.
Panther Leader came to a deafening halt above the torn, bloodied shape of the indestructible Scarlet who reeled to his feet, registering that his wounds were closing and that the incident had, in all probability, concluded. The Mysterons had played their hand and the joker had made it all for nothing. Even the Mysterons had no control over fate.
In the minutes that followed Blue returned to the control cabin of Panther Three and reprogrammed the craft to interrupt its jamming and brought the throttle back to zero. The Junglecat came smoothly to a halt and stood patiently awaiting its next command. Blue knew better than to ask if Scarlet were okay; a fight, a simple fall, the damage caused by these things was quickly repaired by the retrometabolic process and Scarlet was aboard Panther Leader, his voice coming clearly to Blue. “I was the target, Adam,” he said. “Going by the pattern of all previous offensives I’d say that they’ve accepted a tie in this round.”
“You speak as if it were a game,” Blue returned.
“It is, in a way. It’s certainly got a rule book. There’s nothing in it that says they won’t make me a point target again... Still, it doesn’t matter. No job is an easy one, for them or us.”
Captain Orange shook his head slightly at the Cloudbase man. “I heard how you were indestructible but I never thought it would work so fast.” As soon as Blue had cleared the jamming he had called Base 30 and Panther Three’s relief crew was on its way by Helijet with an engineer to see to the ruptured cable. At the conclusion of an operation it was often the same, an uncertain feeling, an intangible atmosphere; there were sometimes few outward signs of victory and little way to tell if the alien attack was, in fact, over. Not until the next threat was issued would the case file officially be shut. That was one rule the Mysterons played by – there were no overlapping threats in the same time period. Such kept the Great Game within contestable limits. Vast as the power of the Mysterons was, it was not infinite.
Scarlet rode the platform to the green forest floor to meet Blue strolling back from the gigantic, insectoidal shape of the other machine and he called via his cap mic and the patch through the Junglecat antennae to Cloudbase. He gave the Colonel the bare bones of the event, ill at ease in the reality of reporting that the enemy had formally recognised him as a paramount threat and had mounted an offensive against him personally. Now he would never be able to delude himself into thinking that he was safe anywhere on Earth; he had never been safe, even Spectrum men were as vulnerable as civilians but it had been a comforting fantasy while it had lasted.
Earth was at war with an implacable foe and it was total war within its own strict confines. No man was safe, no man above or below the attention of the Mysterons if his manipulation could be beneficial to the alien puppet masters in their wave of terror.
Scarlet had always known the facts of the war but he had not thought of them in exacting detail, and that day, in the forest of Zaire, the last illusion was stripped away. All that were left for him, for Spectrum and for man as a race were the priceless gifts of intelligence and courage.
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