STORY: Jack Heston
ART: Mike Adamson
This story first appeared in the SYNDICATED IMAGES Fanzine, Issue 5, September 1985, published by Mike Adamson for ‘The Entropy Express’, Australia. Text and pictures taken from the fanzine, with the approval of the author of the story and of Mr. Adamson. With all our thanks.
Paling in the blue of dawn, blazing white stars sank coldly toward the Mediterranean, the first rose of chill daylight touching the sky over the Sinai Desert. The bitter night would soon be replaced by the furnace heat of the Middle East, the sun burning down out of the cloudless heights.
Lights dimmed, two vehicles stood nose to tail on the iron-hard ground by the ribbon of bitumen that ran, ruler straight, across the parched emptiness. One was the imposing, blue, gracile yet brutish bulk of a Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle, squat, powerful, threatening even in immobility; the other was the much smaller, bright signal-flare red knife-like hull of a Spectrum Patrol Car, her fin and aerials catching the early sun.
The SPV's port side armour hatch was run out, the injector seat lowered, and two men stood by the SPC's hood, heavy parkas zipped against the cold, breath pluming in the air before them. In the utter silence of the desert they spoke in whispers, loath to interrupt the tranquillity of the hour.
Adam Svenson, blond, American, alias Captain Blue, poured steaming coffee into plastic cups and handed one to his friend, Paul Metcalfe, the unique young Captain coded Scarlet. Blowing on his fingers, Blue opened a paper sack that stood on the Patrol Car's hood. "What have we got?" he mused as Scarlet sipped the brew. A moment later Blue lifted a packet of sandwiches and frowned. "Stone-ground rye with avocado butter and matured goat-cheese..." Scarlet made an uncomplimentary noise and Blue added: "That's an Arabian delicacy, buddy."
"I passed an Arab up the road," Scarlet returned, avoiding the proffered packet. "He can have it."
With a deep laugh Blue shook his head. "We got cheese, peanut butter and chicken, all on white. I brought them from Cloudbase." Scarlet took the sandwiches with a playful growl of annoyance and set his cup down on the long, red hood.
The two men ate in silence as the stars faded, the highway empty and deserted. Time meant little to those who roamed the world by air or by road and only hours before Scarlet had been in Egypt, Blue in Syria. They had met on the Trans-Sinai highway in anticipation of orders they felt almost certain to come. "So, what do you make of this affair?" Scarlet said at last.
"It stinks of Mysteron involvement… Okay, the first time maybe not… The second almost certainly. That was-" He glanced at his watch- "Nearly two hours ago. It's damned irregular to receive the threat after the fact… But I don't see any other explanation."
Simultaneously, their epaulets flashed to signify incoming signals and their cap mics flipped down. A moment later the smooth, hard English voice of Colonel White drifted in the cool air of morning. "Captain Scarlet, Captain Blue. It is confirmed. We received the Mysteron threat four minutes ago and the World President has endorsed our immediate intervention. Proceed at once to Jerusalem, rendezvous with Captain Topaz at the Dyan Engineering plant. You know the gravity of this situation - speed is vital. There are thirty million people depending on the shipment and it is now Spectrum's responsibility to see that they are not… inconvenienced."
As the Colonel received acknowledgement and signed off, Scarlet dusted his hands and grinned. "He has a way of making things sound easy, doesn't he?" He tossed down the rest of the coffee and Blue slid the thermos back into a deep pocket in his heavy padded jacket.
"He has…" the American drawled, watching Scarlet's smile. "Let's go."
Scarlet slid into the Patrol Car and fired up the big engine, letting its warmth after the run from Egypt carry it as the demisters cleared the armour-glass windows, and Blue rode the seat up into the rolling fortress. In another moment the SPV grunted into exhaust-belching life and the two vehicles swung onto the black-top, headed north for the capital of Israel, cruising at a steady 120 mph, well above the national limit, both with spinners and sirens making it amply obvious that the world's security forces were moving on business; and Spectrum always meant business.
The Middle East had not changed physically in half a century. The cities were skyscraper-magnificence, the country remained the unbeatable sands that rolled wherever the wind sent them. Vast tracts had been environmentally adjusted, oases had become forests, farms transformed yellow to green; but still the desert clung to existence, ever ready to reclaim its lost territory, to bury man's masterworks grain by grain and year by year.
The two craft were reducing speed to enter the outskirts of Jerusalem in less than an hour, the sun already hot on their metal skins, and a Police cordon had cleared the area of Dyan Engineering, the huge construction plant that lay on the east side of the ancient city. A vast technical organization, Dyan supplied components and complete assemblies to almost every country in the world and it was their scientific brainchild that the Mysterons had seized upon to exploit in their punitive war against mankind.
Two days ago the Dyan Engineering AGM-91 Hydrojet Generator that supplied power to southern Burma from its installation at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River had turbine-tripped, almost an impossibility in the age, and it had been tied down to sabotage, agents of the sprawling Bereznik Alliance, the shadowy 'Other Side' of Central Asia, the principal suspects. The AGM-91 had shaken itself to pieces, would have blown the plant from the map but for the safeguards built into the system that shut down the titanic machine before the suddenly asymmetrically rotating turbo-impellers could shatter and cause the whole thing to detonate. That single unit had run for almost two years without a hitch, supplying constant, precise power flow to the consumers; and now they were without power, the nights dark, the days quiet. Looting and the more violent crimes were already in swing and unless the lights could be turned on once more the country would tear itself apart, Bereznik insurgents ready to act at once.
Immediately a replacement unit had left Israel aboard a giant World Army-Air Force transport jet and despite its fighter escort a Bereznik suicide raid from fighter bases in the mountains of Afghanistan had destroyed it over the Arabian Sea. A second unit had been placed aboard a ship at Eilat and had put out that very night for the Far East; it had not passed from the Gulf of Aden before Earth's silent, faceless enemies had rubbed their hands with glee and set about the next move in the colossal chess game of life, death and war. The freighter had blown apart and sunk 200 miles off South Yemen two hours before dawn touched Israel, and at last the cryptic threat had roared through the halls of Cloudbase as the headquarters of Spectrum sailed through the sky. They had sworn to prevent the 'power of the waters from reaching mankind,' and there was only one possible meaning.
Dyan Engineering had only one more AGM-91 in stock; it would take them almost two weeks to complete the next on the assembly line - it was an almost flawless mechanism, it was in limited production and once installed was supposed to last almost indefinitely. The secret of the device was that the impellers on the gigantic main shaft of what looked much like a turbojet engine were not run on lubricated bearings but were floating in a strong magnetic field and vacuum. The surfaces never touched so there could be no wear, and even heat could not transfer from part to part. The turbine could theoretically run infinitely fast for no wear and maintain zero degrees, and only very little water pressure was required to spin the unit and begin production of power; this meant that rivers need no longer be dammed, simply momentarily interrupted in their courses.
Even here in Israel the factory was within range of Bereznik strike fighters, and WAAF jets patrolled constantly on combat alert. The Alliance had been spoiling for some kind of limited war since the breakdown of the peace talks and it looked as if an excuse had been found. The accusation had been made that the generator facility in Burma was in fact a missile base with strategic range to reach the Asian capital, that the free world was simply biding its time.
In an odd way Scarlet could understand the Other Side's fears. All told, the nearest analogy he could think of to the AGM-91, packaged for transport, was a long range ballistic missile.
He and Blue pulled into the plant yards in the long sunlight of the early hour, a second SPV already standing guard, Spectrum officers throughout the plant plying the Mysteron detectors over the employees. It was a rough business to have to face a man and check him over, sure in the knowledge that if the detector defined him as an alien duplicate, an enemy agent, he must be shot dead instantly with a withering discharge from the electron pistol that every man carried night and day.
The plant was a blaze of neon lighting, the dispatch building an echoing cavern of steel girders and cranes. Backed into the hangar was a special road transport trailer, the only one in Eurasia, built specifically to take the AGM-91. The generator itself was close to ninety feet in length and weighed almost two hundred tons; in its shock-absorbent insulative steel shipping container, the trailer was carrying two hundred and twenty-seven tons on its sixty-odd wheels, the whole thing hauled by a 2500 horsepower tractor with a two man crew and fuel for three hundred miles. Scarlet and Blue stood in the cool air of the building as the overhead handling crane lowered the overwhelming jet-engine shape, with its security sealed intake, exhaust and external fittings, into the cylindrical case, twenty feet in diameter, the whole thing nearly thirty feet tall. Then, with the greatest of care, the crane lifted the lid of the cylinder on its hinges and swung it over, dropping it coffin-like over the unit. It closed with a dull, resounding thunk and technicians hammered home the bolts.
"Well, that's it," Blue said, with a pursing of his lips. "Now all we've got to do is get the damned thing there. It's only three and a half thousand miles. As the crow flies!"
"More than four by road," Scarlet nodded. They had studied the possible routes on their way to Jerusalem and already Spectrum's forces were swinging into action all across Asia to ease the passage of the goliath. "But one way or another -" He checked his watch. "That thing will be in Burma not much over forty hours from now."
All was haste, the controlled rush of professionals, and Captain Topaz and his non-shade partner Sergeant Keating, reported to the Cloudbase men. Topaz was a tall, sharp faced German, Keating an Englishman of smaller proportions. There was little time for greetings, a handshake and a hello was all it could amount to. There would be trouble on the road ahead, they knew it as an obvious fact, and they each trusted that Spectrum picked its agents with the greatest discrimination possible. If one wore the shades of Spectrum one was automatically dependable
"We'll have Helijet recon over every foot of the road," Scarlet explained by way of briefing to the drivers, relaying the measures promised by Cloudbase. "We'll have a clear run, local authorities in the countries ahead are in co-operation and will have closed the major highways we'll be using at least half an hour before we pass through. Fuel stops are being arranged, tankers waiting at various points. As we pass through Iraq, Iran and Pakistan we will have not only the WAAF combat air patrol but also the Angels. We'll be a sitting duck on some stretches so we're going to need all the help they can give us. Speed is crucial, the longer the run takes the greater the danger the load is in… So keep her nailed to the floorboards. Now, Captain Blue will take the point with SPV 89, of Lion Command, I will be trailing with the SPC and will be available, along with local forces, for scout and follow-up duties. It has to be over in two days’ time. We'll be averaging 150 mph night and day, so this is going to be a back-breaker." He paused to glare at the gigantic truck, and then glance at Blue. "Provisioned and fuelled in ten minutes?"
Blue nodded. "Lion Command are seeing to the vehicles now. The truck's ready, checked and serviced an hour ago."
The Dyan technicians cleared away the crane points and pulled back the service catwalks that clustered about the container on its multiple sets of wheels, and the Cloudbase men shook hands once more with the others. "Okay, then, gentlemen, in a little over forty hours, with luck, we'll be in Burma. But it's a race, with who or what we don't know but rest assured the Mysterons will make their move. They have sworn to keep anarchy in Asia. If we're ready, let's get on with it." They separated and jogged for their respective vehicles, the tractor wheezing into life when the injector seats had carried the men up into its aeroshell cabin, and Blue took the SPV onto the cleared roadway outside ahead of it as the truck's immense length fed out of the building. As Scarlet took up the rear point behind its battery of warning lights and chevrons he thought: goodbye Israel. Picking the channel and flipping down his cap mic he said: "Scarlet to Blue and Topaz. We're in convoy; lead on."
Forty sweating hours of speed and risks; it gave them a certain savage pride to know that they of all the world's people, of all the thousands in Spectrum, had been entrusted with the delivery of the gargantuan device. It also gave them pause to consider their vocation - did they really need that kind of pressure? Each of them answered the question to himself in his own way and came at last to the same conclusion. Of all the things in the world they could be doing they could think of nothing that could compete with the tasks they performed in Spectrum.
With his phenomenal powers of regeneration and concentration Scarlet ran alone but Blue picked up a young Spectrum Sergeant from the Middle East-Africa Regional Command, code-named 'Lion Command' and Sergeant Haroun would spell Blue during the gruelling days to come.
The convoy rumbled through the city of Jerusalem under police escort, threading out onto the eastward link of the highway that flung itself toward the rising sun across Jordan to Iraq, and once past the limits of human habitation Blue gave the word and they sent their engines into the power band. The truck took some minutes to ease its way up to 150 mph, gear after gear, but once that bulk was rolling there was very little that could stop it. The SPV and the Patrol Car had a quarter of their power left to give and could dance about the truck as the situation required.
A Spectrum Helijet of Lion Command, Spectrum Iraq, was overhead shortly, Lieutenant Tangerine reporting all clear on the highway eastward. At that blistering pace they ate up the miles, desert travellers warned off the road by heavy logistical communications handled from Cloudbase and the separate local authorities. Before 09:00 they crossed the border of Iraq and thirty miles further the first tanker was waiting, Tangerine's SHJ landed nearby. The truck decelerated from ten miles out and Scarlet put his foot down, going by the goliath and the SPV to race ahead and check the refuelling point to his own satisfaction.
He found a 4000 gallon tanker manned by non-shade officers, their uniforms in two-tone desert cammo, Lieutenant Tangerine greeting him in person. All were Arabs with dark skin and black hair, and he took the shade-man's hand, eyes screwed up against the glare. As a formality he scanned all present with the hand-held Mysteron detector; it was quite unnecessary - his own peculiar, built-in reaction to alien reconstructions never failed to alert him should a Mysteron approach him even distantly, but it was a customary security measure He did not seriously expect one of these men to have been Mysteronized and found them quite clean. In moments more the stirring of dust in the hot air proclaimed the arrival of the convoy and the truck wheezed to a halt with its aeroshell and huge tires already coated with red desert sand. The Spectrum vehicles were in similar condition, and Blue declined to debark the blue weapons-carrier, maintaining radar watch, cannon at the ready. The fuelling crew set to work and the pumps poured more than 500 gallons aboard the truck then topped up the SPV's and Patrol Car's long range tanks; finally, from separate tanks, refuelling the Helijet. At 09:28 exactly the convoy was on the move once more, making the most of the remaining flat desert as Tangerine flew far ahead. They would fuel again in Baghdad and from then on the going would be slowed considerably, the Zagros Mountains rearing across the Iranian frontier from the Caspian Sea to the Gulf of Persia.
Iron-hard tires scrabbling bitumen, hot engines singing, they raced on to the east, mile after sun-scorched mile, the white line a blur connecting the blue distance with the noses of their craft. The SPV continued to run on point, half a mile ahead of the truck, radar and detectors combing for hostiles, devastating war-load ready for momentary release. Scarlet ran a like distance astern, sensors hunting for signs of pursuit. They were alone but for civilian vehicles pulled off the road that they passed in extended gray blurs and for the SHJ that yet prowled in a spiral course, over the endless desert. Fifty thousand feet higher cruised WAAF fighters under the control of a giant Airborne Warning And Command transport, every instrument sniffing for Bereznik aggressors, their territory a scant thousand miles away, well within the range of surface to surface bombardment missiles.
Yet no attack was conjectured at this point, the chief danger was in southern Iran and Pakistan which was where they would be in closest proximity to the weapons of the other side and during that stretch they would be only too grateful for the close attention of the Angels.
No threat emerged from the blistering sky and by 11:00 they were met by a Spectrum tanker outside of Baghdad. It was here at the ancient city that the road met and joined with the longest road in the world, the Trans-Eurasian Highway. Four lanes of black bitumen swept down from Turkey after crossing the Bosporus from Europe. Now the convoy had room to manoeuvre as both the SPV and the truck needed the better part of two lanes to themselves. But just a hundred miles from Baghdad the farthest reaches of the Zagros Mountains rose imposingly over the bleak terrain and in another half hour they were reduced to a sedate pace, the truck labouring through gradients and turns, Blue's SPV ranging ahead through the passes and cuttings that had been hewn from the earth as the road raced about the foot of higher immoveable peaks. The highway curved south now toward the head of the Persian Gulf and the next hundred miles took almost three hours. It was a time of fantastic concentration for the truck drivers as they eased the ungainly monster through the turns, feeling the terrific weight of the load swinging back and forth on the suspension, and for Scarlet and Blue as they sought every possible channel of attack. There were literally thousands of ambush points in the mountains, invaders had known this of old, and the three-dimensional computer graphics barely compensated for their lack of knowledge. The tactical analysis computers showed them only so much and when all was said there remained only their in-born sixth sense, noses that could smell trouble. Natural suspicion and lack of trust were assets in their profession and that pertained also to reading the geographical likelihood of driving break-neck into a lethal trap. It was a thing of great simplicity to drop ten tons of rock down a mountainside onto passing vehicles and, as mechanized armies of the past had learned when fighting a guerrilla enemy, only helicopter gunships made a tangible difference. Tanks could be taken out with ease, only airborne mobility could yield victory.
Tangerine's SHJ was replaced by another, piloted by Lieutenant Olive, out of the oil city of Abadan, their next fuel stop. Time was rolling by at a ridiculous pace and they prayed for straight road. On some stretches they wound it up to the 100 mph mark for a few minutes at a time, but the mountains were their bane. With luck they would make up the time in a blistering run across the plains of northern India tomorrow, but the folds of the Earth between Abadan and Karachi would take a length of time to negotiate that was just not funny. As they rolled to the east they passed from zone to zone; already it was half an hour later in the day than their watches read and they moved them from Mediterranean Time to Persian Gulf Time.
It was not far short of 18:00, local time, when they pulled in at the Spectrum facility at Abadan, to slide out of the roasting vehicles and stretch, drink high-potency liquid foods and wipe the sweat from themselves. As the crews laboured to fuel the convoy Scarlet stripped off his jacket and tunic and tossed them into the SPC, to douse his head and shoulders in water, gargle and spit into the sand, his retrometabolic ability keeping him on his feet after eleven hours of race-speed driving over unfamiliar roads, calculating the odds at every turn. Haroun had spelled Blue three times, Keating spelling Topaz likewise. They envied Scarlet his stamina but not one of them really wished to obtain it for themselves; to endure what Scarlet bore with seeming cheer was inconceivable to one who had not known the cold grip of the Mysterons on his soul, shaken free of it and come back fighting. Scarlet was unique and they were prepared to let him be.
Stripped to the waist, Blue drank deeply of the Dextrose fluid as the hot afternoon struck gleams from their shining skins. "Better than 900 miles in 11 hours... Not bad, not bad. But not good enough." He spat thickly, shaking his head. “Long way to go. We're losing minutes, gentlemen," he added to the technical team. Only their terrifically high standard of physical fitness made it possible; ordinary human beings would have long since been exhausted and even these would tire soon: but they had that something that set apart the athlete, the trained thinker and doer, those with the ability to overcome hardship and see through anything they might begin with a dedication that went beyond duty. The fight for the freedom of the united world was a vocation, even more so now that Man was at odds with an alien something that he did not understand. It would have been easy to give in, to cry quits, to pass the buck to those with imagined broader shoulders; but they knew with a grim certainty that Spectrum was it, all there was and all there was ever going to be standing between a prosperous and peaceful world and the darkness of barbarism and unfeeling savagery. There could be no shirking, no matter the task.
The convoy paused in Abadan for all of twenty minutes, then they were rolling toward the darkening east. Ahead, the mountains folded and crumpled the earth all the way to India and the night would be hellish. National forces would be on the alert but their very proximity could be a danger; the Mysterons were in no way discriminating regarding their victims: one life was as good as another, one pair of hands as able as the next when under their remote manipulation.
There was no point attempting to conceal themselves; the Spectrum convoy rolled with all lights blazing, Olive's SHJ clattering overhead as World Army gunships rattled through the passes and Police cleared straight stretches for them to take best advantage. Without outside assistance it would have taken the better part of three days to complete the run; even so the initial estimate of forty hours was looking closer to forty-eight.
The great highway had been blasted and scoured from the earth and in places bridges spanned chasms and steep valleys. Sweeping curves, miles long, gave the sensation of flying as they blazed by at full throttle, superchargers roaring, the snow-capped heights seeming close at hand, green river valleys shockingly far below, over the edges of soaring suspension bridges.
The setting sun found them deep into the mountains, averaging 80 mph, a crawl on steep turns, full boost on the straights. It was nowhere near quick enough but all they could do was push to the limits. Technical needs could slow them down but the Spectrum vehicles were built with ultimate dependability in mind, they were meant to be driven hard for long hours and their trouble-shooting computers monitored their conditions ceaselessly. Should spares or other repairs be required they would be waiting at the next fuelling point, even replacement vehicles should major faults develop.
Less than optimum fuel economy could be achieved in the altitude and corner conditions and they were almost dry when they pulled from a military tanker outside the Iranian city of Shiraz, after 21:00, the sky darkened to narvik and the stars beginning their wheel over the snow caps, blue in the light from other worlds. Ravenously hungry, they took on supplies and mild concentration enhancing drugs, changing drivers once more. The relief would fight them down the highway as the relieved slept like a dead man, all but for Scarlet who, though he also was tired, could summon strengths none would have believed had they not seen it with their own eyes. At each fuel stop he would snatch twenty minutes of dreamless sleep, fill his belly with warm protein fluid and be ready for more. After this escapade he would sleep for twenty hours like the rest of them but while it lasted he neither wanted nor asked for assistance. He knew he was inhuman but he had had no choice but to come to terms with it. He was, however, not a freak. For him, indestructibility was perfectly normal.
Cloudbase's incredible bulk drifted with magnificent technological grace through the last rays of sunset, 40,000 feet above the parched wilderness of western Africa, the sparse cirrus clouds veils of ice against the growing night.
Below the flight deck in the Amber Room, the Angels' duty lounge, all five of the chief Spectrum strike pilots were at readiness, three of the knife-sleek white killers ranked on the launch and recovery deck, the two remaining aircraft ready to be lifted from the hangars and positioned as soon as the intercept flight was away. With a last glance at the wall chronometer Symphony, tonight's Leader, hefted her Perspex helmet and nodded at the injection seats. "Let's go." With her went Harmony and Destiny, three white-clad aces who settled into the angular shapes of the seats that nestled in the elevator chutes, and as they strapped in frosted Plexiglas doors sealed them from the Amber Room.
Above, in the last horizontal rays of the sun, connecting tubes extended from the deck to the under-fuselage hatches of the interceptors and breathing mix pressurized them, the elevators lifting the seats up through the flight deck and locking them into the cramped, instrument packed cockpits. Then the rams and tubes were withdrawing and the pilots ran through the cursory manual checkout of their devastating mounts.
Karen Wainwright, thirty years old, red-haired American, alias Symphony, lazed through the check, eyeing the main computer displays, preloaded from the Cloudbase cortex, as she slipped on skin-tight black leatherette gloves that gave her perfect grip in the cold, and reached to her belt to connect the twin umbilical of her under-uniform G-suit to the seat mechanism and she felt the slight tightening of her middle as warm water began to fill the suit. Under the G-loading they could pull in combat it was the only thing that kept a pilot alive; with their fractionally lower body mass women could stand an extra G or more over a man's black-out figure, and that alone made them invaluable. She checked the time display; five minutes to scheduled launch time. Looking over each shoulder in turn she traded waves with Angels 2 and 3, the French Juliette Pontoin and the Japanese Chan Kwan respectively, as they likewise eased through their pre-sortie checks. Each of them had flown the world over and over, even before their recruitment to Spectrum, and since had sent their hypersonic death-machines to every corner of the planet, hunting out the Mysteron threat and reducing it to so much smouldering junk.
The mission was laid out in detail, they had studied it as they had in the old days when war did not move so fast, when targets did not disappear. They would fly a standing patrol over the convoy during the night and early tomorrow, a long time in the air but nothing for veterans who had marathon solo'd in craft nowhere near as sophisticated. With launch time two minutes away they fired up the systems and the pumps hammered the ultra-high octane chemical fuel through to the turbo-ramjet engines, each aircraft belching a streamer of flame twice its own length as they ran their single engines to 50% thrust in static test before reducing to idling, barely a trickle of fuel, enough to keep the turbines revving. Launching from a platform almost eight miles up in the sky saved a vast quantity of fuel.
“Angels 1, 2 and 3,“ came the mellow Caribbean voice of Lieutenant Green from up in the Monitor Room. "Departure time. Your telemetry indicates full function; Angel Flight clear to depart Cloudbase. Angel Leader, immediate launch.”
Symphony opened her throttle to 10% as the catapult delivered and her G-suit flooded as the acceleration hit her hard between the shoulders, the red runway beacons that outlined the flight deck marching away against the narvik sky, streaming by on both sides, and then she was out over the freezing gulf and running at slow cruise, Cloudbase falling away astern against the orange-gold band of the horizon.
"Angels 2 and 3, immediate launch," Green's voice floated to their ears and the two fighters that stood side by side on the outboard catapults were spurting flame, racing along the flight deck staggered half a second apart, chasing their Leader eastward. Their nose struts folded neatly away and the trailing aircraft closed on Angel 1.
"Leader to Cloudbase; Angel Flight away."
"Confirming clearance. Tactical check in 15 minutes. Have a good flight; Cloudbase out."
The three fighters swung through a blazing arc in the night sky and separated to safe cruise formation, a loose Vic with 200 yard spacing, and locked the course into their navigation computers. This was one of the genuine perks, Karen Wainwright thought as she nudged the throttles open to 80% and the turbo-ramjet began to bellow. The power complex, certainly. To ride a savage metal bird through the sky had always been the consuming, driving obsession of every one of them, that was why they were here, and the thrill never wore off. Yet it was tempered with other, less dynamic pleasures. It took less than three minutes for the razor-like machines to slash their way to Mach 4 and then the throttles were balanced to maintain that speed, a free ride obtained from the tail winglets and the shockwave-configuration anhedral wings. They cruised at 60,000 feet through a blue-black sky, their engine manifolds glowing hotter than 1200 degrees shining in the blackness, their hulls shrugging aside the temperatures of furnaces, their metals and alloys so tough a welding torch could not even blur the finish.
Yet in the cockpits they each sat in a bubble of environment, a cocoon of cool, stable air, and watched the world flow by, clouds over the desert gleaming blue in the light of the summer constellations. From such altitudes one could see thousands of square miles, the horizon was an incredible distance away and stars shone above the rim of the world at an angle that posed the illusion that one floated amongst them. This was the other perk, one that those who had never flown could not properly appreciate. Up here was tranquillity, peace, the majesty of science in balance with the nature it had been created to understand and dominate.
But, on nights like this as they raced with consummate ease through the star-shot heights, the Angels could never resist glancing up to Polaris and searching through the great multicoloured stars that were draped about the bowl of night and seeking out the unobtrusive red point that was the planet Mars. Nothing compared to the glories of Venus, Saturn or Jupiter, yet it held their fascination because of its dark secrets. Up there in the craggy mountains and endless rolling plains of orange dust, where Rock Snakes slept away the millennia, the chemical fire in their bellies their shield against the cold of deep space, there was a plateau ringed with sway-backed hills, and on that depressed plain stood a city, ancient and alone, the only remainder of a race unimaginable to man, a race that had come and gone, leaving only perfect mechanization and the tools of retribution to guard a corner of their universe, they knew of man and made no overtures, but on that terrible day that man had learned of them, and made the wrong overtures, the worst possible in fact… it had all begun. That was three years ago and still Mars slept on below the ancient stars, swinging in its orbit, devoid of intelligent life but permeated with the awesome minds of those who had once walked the red sands and who now warred against mankind. And men who knew lamented the wearisome truth because the Mysterons had right on their side.
But not necessarily might. They were strong on their world, unapproachable in the sky, but here on Earth Spectrum fought for the lives of men who as yet did not even know what the war was all about. They could never be told the whole truth; mass hysteria, suicide and anarchy would follow release of such news and every member of Spectrum was sworn to total secrecy. But Spectrum held the aliens at stalemate and that was all that really mattered.
Sixty-five minutes after leaving Cloudbase the Angels had decelerated to Mach 1 and fallen in free-fall loops to connect with a WAAF strategic tanker over southern Egypt, drawing aboard full internal fuel loads before breaking free and climbing to economical thrust altitude. They would complete the last 1000 miles to southern Iran at the speed of sound; there was little hurry as, should a threat materialise even at this early moment, they could be over the convoy in 20 minutes.
East of Shiraz the Trans-Eurasian threaded through the passes and swept for long stretches across massive valleys, the road wide and clear and appreciably straight. The convoy wound it up to maximum boost, just under 160 mph for the truck, and they started to make up some lost time. To the tired men it seemed as if things were going right at last, their joy seeing the indicators above the 100 mph mark. They met a Spectrum tanker 300 miles east of Shiraz, moving their watches forward once more, at a local time of 00:15. Already they were an hour ahead of Israel and they still had so very far to go. It seemed it was taking forever to get through the mountainous reaches of Persia and they constantly expected to hear the jets overhead crackle out the warning of a new Bereznik offensive and go swirling into the attack. Blue and Haroun had rehearsed many times the AA defence of the convoy with the SPV cannon, adapting the text-book strategies to suit the terrain through which they passed.
Speed was everything. Speed and more speed. Only with the AGM-91 installed in Burma could they rest easy, and the minutes ticked by without care. Mile after mile, straight after straight, bend after bend. The road unfolded to the horizon with each crest, dancing away before them like a miracle. It would have been easy to become mesmerized, to have drifted away into boredom, complacency or sleep; but when every curve could hold a roadblock, every peak a sniper there was always the spectre of close death riding with them, quite apart from the danger of driving so far so fast. The craft were, to a certain extent, self-steering, avoiding obstacles by high-frequency radar, the truck having computers that monitored the G-stress and load-shift through turns, pulling the throttle back to control it should the strains go into the red. The tolerances, however, were fantastic and full speed could be maintained through the longer curves.
To stay sharp, awake and alert the Spectrum men talked via radio, swapping reports, stories, outrageous jokes; anything that would ease the strain. It would have been possible for the regional command structures to supply fresh crews every so many hundred miles but the more personnel involved the higher the risk went of Mysteron intervention. Every fuel stop was an exercise in security, the SPV usually covering Scarlet as he checked them over. Yet the fact remained that Paul Metcalfe would have felt that sickening moment of falling, that breakout of sweat if there had been an enemy agent present. It was infallible, an echo, a reaction between a replicant and his own sensitized body. At last it became a cursory formality to wave the detector over the crews as he looked forward to a few more minutes’ sleep. Lieutenant Olive was still with them, his SHJ fuelled for the umpteenth time continuing its tireless search sweep of every foot of highway ahead, and the shade-man's copilot handled the craft as Olive slept at his side under the dome canopy.
It was 00:30 or just after when Symphony called down to the convoy with greetings from the sky. Scarlet, Blue, Topaz and Olive managed a heart-felt hello, a measure of worry lifting from their minds. The Angel Interceptor was a development of the Viper jet, it was better in all departments, and more than a match for almost any aircraft in the world. With Angels overhead there was little that could get through to attack them; even bombardment rockets could be destroyed in flight by missile or cannon fire. Tankers would keep the Spectrum fighters fuelled as they orbited in a lazy, spiralling racetrack pattern far up in the cloudless Asian night, a thousand feet higher than the World Army-Air Force jets flying in relays from ground bases. It was a terrifically expensive exercise to keep combat jets on alert and airborne for so long but Unity City was treating the whole thing as a rehearsal for war, indeed the Asian theatre was on war alert, had been since the sabotage of Burma's power. If the Other Side was really spoiling then sooner or later the world must accommodate them. The peacetalks had been going well and it was conjectured that it was in fact the maniacally driven Lord Titan of the undersea realms who had spurred the breakdown in relations. If the six dry-earth states who had refused joint treaties with the rest of the world were to assume friendly relations it would put Titanica and her three offshoot sister colonies out on a limb, without even cursory support from ideologically opposed humans. Such was a fair assumption. Titan did not want peace with Man, his was as much a punitive war as was that of the Mysterons and it would be a betrayal of his own ideals and convictions for him to court peace. With this in mind the WASPs had also gone on full alert and the spectre of a Pacific exchange loomed heavily in the World Senate.
For the hours it would take to get the Hydrojet generator to Burma and install it, and the days that would follow, the world balanced uncertainly on the brink of wildfire conflict, the endless sniping and probing of opposing sides threatening to boil over into bare-fisted anger. The world could not survive a nuclear exchange; already far too many nuclear devices had been detonated on Earth and any such war was almost certain to be conventional in nature. Neither side wanted to inherit in victory a useless, dead world, Titan least of all, and the tightrope walked by the restless brooding powers who advocated war was the thinnest, slackest of all.
But to the Spectrum men in the convoy that sped on through that Asian night such thoughts were distant. For them there was only the road, the load and the destination.
Two hours before dawn they fuelled from a tanker at the eastern end of the valley of the Haliri River where the road ran straight and fast and they could pull full boost, and they moved it along quickly, pausing no more than twelve minutes this time. The danger point was arriving and they could almost taste the threat that hung in the air. From then on the Angels orbited closely, pulling a combat fuel load every thirty minutes from the tankers that flew in relays.
Bereznik fighter bases in the mountains of Afghanistan were the biggest danger and the WAAF control transport scanned hard for interdiction; and finally, with the convoy just 100 miles from the border of Pakistan, they found that for which they searched so thoroughly. The Airborne Warning controllers called out the sighting, sending fighters peeling northward in arcs of death, flame-belching afterburners racing like meteors through the night. Three flights were approaching, staggered at altitudes of 70,000, 30,000 and almost zero feet, each flight covering for the one below it. This was real war, not guerrilla tactics, not sniping, not the terror of The Bomb; this was pure, hypersonic death, the loving embrace of fighters, dancing like courting mantis. They needed each other; without the enemy neither had reason to exist: but, like unstable chemicals, once in close proximity to one another, there were often violent reactions resulting in the dissolution of one or both.
"Angel Leader to Air Force Combat Control," Symphony called, voice level but hinting at the excitement she held tightly in check. "That's our convoy down there. I'd appreciate taking the low group." The answer came back positive and she rolled the fighter over on its back, the others following a second later. In freefall the three girls let the planes plunge Earthward, their computers showing them in simulation the action commencing a hundred miles away where the Bereznik high group met the first WAAF missiles. At once the night was lit with baleful red flares and the colossal power of shredding engines, blowing fuel and the snap and roar of cannon and rocket.
The mid group engaged next, leading the fighters down into the tangle of brutal peaks that marched endlessly across the frontier and again the war hammers thundered on the sky. Minutes passed on dragging legs and Symphony passed on the data to the convoy. "Captain Blue, stand by for Anti-Aircraft defence, Lieutenant Olive, standby inboard gun for AA assistance. We have four marks contour-riding and they should be in your area in just over five minutes."
The Angels drifted at low thrust 10,000 feet above the peaks, cold, dim, the Bereznik machines slipping through gorges and chasms, following the courses of rivers to gain an unimpeded run against the convoy. These, unlike the others that hacked and brawled in the icy heavens, were bombed up for strike duties, wings laden with Aerial Rocket Artillery, freefall bombs and cylinders of super napalm. With a heavy warload they were slow and unmaneuverable, the fuel penalty in achieving speed putting high supersonic dash out of the question.
"Gently," Symphony whispered. "They can eject that load and turn fighter on us in half a second. If we play this right we can take them all in one pass. They'll be on the convoy in one minute. so it's now or never. As they turn into the next valley ... Attack!" Throttles ramming open, missile systems engaged, the three white death machines hurtled down at a steep angle, G-force squeezing the pilots until the veins stood out in their temples and they gasped for breath and then secure radar-locks triggered the release and a pair of rounds blasted from their nose blisters in lances of flame and they were pulling up over the enemy aircraft, wheeling at Mach 1 across the face of the mountains.
Behind them two of the Bereznik strike fighters blew apart with a roar that shook snow from the peaks and lit the valleys like day, an evil pall of eye-blinding chemical flame rushing across the sky. One aircraft ejected its warload and engaged afterburners, rising like a thunderbolt for the Spectrum machines as the last pushed fanatically on for its objective.
Missiles snaked from its wingroots and Harmony sent her plane into a three dimensional roll, out-turning the rounds as Destiny released chaff - aluminium foil to blind the enemy radar - from within her airbrakes, every spoiler open and throttle shut, to slide back and turn inside the other aircraft's radius; she slipped into the cone of attack and her turbo-ramjet thundered with exquisite power, driving her in fantastic spiralling turns after the enemy over the mountains until she thumbed the electron gun and the lightning bolt leaped across the sky to crackle the length of the other plane, shorting system after system, wiping the computers with electromagnetic pulse, stalling the engine. The Bereznik pilot could not even eject and the girl casually guided a missile dead centre into the engine, then rolled her wings brazenly by the vivid explosion.
Before Angels 2 and 3 had taken up the challenge Symphony had sent her mount searing after the last attacker. The first rays of dawn were reaching rosy fingers out of the east, the snow caps glowing with dim fire. The other aircraft leapt from side to side, shaking and shuddering with the forces the pilot loaded onto it, riding the contours of the stone hills in an insane bid to land his ordnance on the Spectrum convoy.
A matter of a few miles ahead the truck ran with all speed for the mouth of a gorge through which the road passed and Blue's SPV stood atop a shoulder by the road, radar tracking, watching for the target, the cannon ready to spew AA rockets skyward. The SPV itself was an almost untouchable fortress but the truck and the SPC could disappear in even the lightest of the death the enemy could rain down at them. The 1000 pound bombs could pick up the SPV and toss it about like a ball. A hit…
The red-haired fighter pilot bit her lip in concentration as she wound the Angel in after the Bereznik, cursing softly as chaff fluttered in clouds that shimmered in the fragile light of pre-dawn, hanging tight to the flaming engine manifold of the enemy as it raced in like a malevolent bird of prey, its hideous weapons clutched to its belly like monstrous offspring. By comparison the Angel had the beauty of the sword of justice, screaming in on target like the unerring hand of God the unquenchable pursuer.
The Bereznik pilot knew his life was over as he burst into the last valley and the road wound like a silver snail track by the feet of the Eternal Hills, and he keyed his weapons release. Just a few more seconds, just a few instants in the scheme of things... The truck, labouring like a cylindrical toy for the gorge to the east seemed fragile, impossibly tiny and ineffectual and the jet stooped like a hawk onto a rabbit.
With an almost indescribable explosion Symphony’s missiles seared home against the other and the fuel, missiles, rockets, bombs and napalm ripped in an outpouring of chemical fury that filled the sky over the road, a ballooning gush of fire that raced, streaming, through the peacock blue and rose between the peaks, and a thunderclap that re-echoed like the voice of the Djin, bellowing back and forth from peak to peak.
Scarlet's and Blue's hoarse cheers died on their lips as Symphony shot through the oily cloud of smoke that capped the blast, going into a climb, and whirling slivers of wreckage slammed like flack into her underside. At once the engine faltered and stalled, then refired, trailing a long streamer of yellow flame from the afterburner manifold.
"Mayday, mayday, hit and going in!" she called, voice ready to crack with strain but her sheer guts and professionalism guiding her hands as she dragged the stick back and fought the nose up, her residual momentum enough to send her up into the new daylight, 1000, 2000, 3000 feet in a lazy loop. “Scarlet or Olive, I'm coming down in this valley, try to pick me up if you can." Up near the height of the peaks the ailing, flame-gushing aircraft rolled over at the top of the loop. "Jettisoning canopy." She closed the release down by her left hip and with a crackle of pyros the armour-glass bubble lifted and was torn away by the windstream. “Ejecting now." She drew the faceshield bar down over her helmet, eyes closed against the wind. The last thing she saw was the instrument panel littered with red, the word EJECT flashing on the main CRT, the mountains upside down before her, the dim blue sky below her, then with a deafening roar the ejection charge fired the seat out of the dying aircraft and she was blasted through space, the cold wind flapping at her uniform and slapping her limbs with immaterial hands. Then came the instant of freefall as the burn ended and the drogue charge fired, towing out the main silk, and she decelerated sickeningly, coming upright, still strapped safely in the seat, to ride it to the Earth below. She raised the faceshield with the madness of the pro to catch the final instants of her aircraft as, towing a comet tail of fire, it plunged nose-first into the face of a crag and was gone in a rumbling orange blast.
Down in the thick shadows of the valley floor the truck had pulled to a halt at the gorge mouth and the Spectrum men stood to watch dazedly the ball of tangled, melting wreckage that had been an Angel as it tumbled, rolling down the face of the cliffs, pouring an unending geyser of bright flame.
Blue ran the armour ram out from the flank of the SPV and jumped the last few feet to the stony ground as Scarlet pulled up, window open, and they stared at the last vestiges of the initial explosion, its pall of greasy smoke now a smudge against the blue of dawn. Then Blue flung up an arm. "There!" He pointed up against the now glowing face of a distant peak and Scarlet made out the red dot of the Spectrum parachute. He took up binoculars for a moment to study the object beneath the silk then nodded his satisfaction.
“The wind will bring her this way. It’s too early for thermals. I'll go get her -" But Blue was staring back up the valley at something closer at hand than the descending Angel. "What?"
The blond man pointed slowly. "What is that?"
A deathly hand grabbed Scarlet's heart as he swung the glasses and focussed on the object that had caught Blue's eye and he drew a sharp breath. A white parachute array was tossed in the morning breeze a half mile away, a seat unit on its side, the occupant hanging in the straps. "My God, the Bereznik pilot..."
"I didn't see him eject," Blue growled softly. "There was no time for it, no time for anything... Do you think..?"
"I do indeed think," Scarlet returned just as quietly. At that moment the valley began to reverberate to the sound of turboshafts as Olive's Helijet appeared over the shoulder of a hill and another pair of SHJs winged in from the gorge.
"Captain Amber of Tiger Command," came the thick Indian voice. "You're on our doorstep, we thought we would come on ahead and give a hand. Is there anything we can do for you?"
Scarlet dropped his cap mic. "Glad to hear from you, Tiger Command. There is a little job… Half way up the valley there's an ejected Bereznik pilot - we have reason to believe he may be a Mysteron agent. We'd be obliged if you would do the honors."
"A pleasure, Captains." The two aircraft passed overhead and settled to the earth near the billowing 'chute as Scarlet refired his roasting engine and sent the Patrol Car racing back westward. Symphony was deep into the blue shadows and swinging earthward, the breeze keeping her well clear of the crags. She would land within a thousand yards of the road and he took the car over the broken ground, the suspension adjusted, the tyre pressure automatically increased. He maintained open loop to listen in on Amber's voice channel as he pulled to a halt and slid out.
The Angel came to earth with a gentle thump, guiding the 'chute with the bleed slats and setting the seat down almost at Scarlet's feet. As the canopy collapsed and rolled in the breeze she released the harness and G-suit umbilicals and stepped out of the only surviving part of her aircraft, to stand grinning at Scarlet. "What'll the taxpayers say?" She laughed finally. "That's three I've lost."
"Symphony, the enemy pilot," Scarlet said urgently. "Did you see him eject?"
"No way," She shook her head as she eased off the plexiglass dome. "Gone in a flash."
Scarlet touched his mic as he swung round to look back at the pair of landed helos. “Captain Amber, Symphony confirms negative ejection. That man is definitely a Mysteron."
Amber was playing it close to his chest. He and his co-pilot were advancing warily on the Slavic pilot, the crew of the other SHJ, Lieutenant Emerald and his co, boxing him in on the other side. They each carried electron pistols and Emerald held the Mysteron detector. The Bereznik shouted incoherently in his own tongue, hands on his head, trembling with a very real fear, and Scarlet and Symphony were pulling in by the first SHJ before Amber made any kind of move. As they strode up Scarlet whispered: "Blue, get in the seat, get your finger on the trigger. Standby, I don't know what for ... Just that gut feeling."
Emerald focussed the electronics package carefully, tuning the reception, and shook his head in the growing light. "I'm sorry, sir. Detector reads negative. This man is not a duplicate.”
The words galvanised Symphony and she squeezed Scarlet's hand hard, her other hand going to the electron gun that rode her left hip, complementing the conventional weapon to the right. Scarlet slacked his own beam weapon unobtrusively as he stepped up beside Amber, whom he now saw was a big Sikh, heavily bearded, turban wound in the colour of his uniform, as were most of his men. Abruptly a wave of hot nausea hit Scarlet and he clutched at the white-uniformed woman as his knees threatened to betray him, the bile rising in his throat, and as his vision cleared he hissed: "Liar!" The gun leapt into his fist and flamed brilliantly, the savage arc connecting with the Slavonic pilot who screamed thinly and jerked in the halo of blue sparks that earthed all about him. A moment later the man lay in a heap, fumes pouring from his shrivelling form, whole parts of him vaporizing and blowing away.
Regaining his composure, Scarlet stabbed a finger at Emerald. "Get that thing fixed!" He turned a wearied eye on Amber. "Tiger Command is better than this. What happened?" There was no answer, and he knew it. Amber could but spread his hands and frown. "Okay, okay." He strode over to the smoking remains and eyed them distastefully. "We’re losing minutes, gentleman. Let’s go." Yet even as he said it he felt that knot of apprehension in his guts that told him watch out! The Deceivers are still with you!
Without grumbling the men turned back for their respective machines and Amber approached Symphony, indicating his SHJ. "There is a Passenger Jet at Karachi Airport. Could Tiger Command offer you a lift back to Cloudbase, ma’am?"
Something unspoken, something in Scarlet's tense stance, the way he seemed like a coiled spring aching for release, held her acceptance. "Ah... No thanks, Captain. I think I'll ride with the convoy a way. We pass Karachi ... I may take you up then."
With a whine of turboshafts Emerald's Helijet started up and, blowing dust, heaved into the air, to swing about over their heads and move for the stationary truck and as Scarlet returned to the others the falling hit him again, strong, sickening, and Symphony and Amber caught him. He fought his head clear and forced his eyes to focus; suddenly, in his mind's clear vision, he could see how the trap was working. "Blue!" he gasped, fighting for breath. "Blue, the SHJ, knock it down, knock it down! Hurry!"
With a rolling crash the AA rockets spewed from the smooth-bore gun that jutted from the hatch in the SPV's foreplate and the Helijet blew apart in one more awful detonation like all the others, the burning bits raining to the rocks of the valley floor.
"Keep your eye on the debris," Scarlet added. "We don't need any duplicates behind our backs."
"How did you know?" Amber asked stonily. "They were two of my best men you ordered shot down. How?"
"I know when Mysterons are around," Scarlet said distantly. “As I'm sure you know. I was one, once... That gives me a kind of advantage, wouldn't you agree?" He shortened his temper somewhat. "Emerald was a Mysteron as well! That was why he gave a negative reading, there was nothing wrong with the detector. Two seconds more and he would have got the generator and it would have all been for nothing. The hell in Burma would have been two weeks away from over, not a day."
Amber could not fault the logic but like all men touched harshly by the war he was withdrawn, quiet. "Very well, Captain. I'll be overhead from now on all the way to the river facility. As you say, time is wasting."
Scarlet drove back up the valley to where Blue, Topaz and their co-drivers waited as Olive and Amber took to the air once more, the Lion Command officer almost at his turn-back point. Once they crossed into Pakistan they were in the territory of Tiger Command and would be for the remainder of the journey.
With a shrieking rumble of jets Harmony and Destiny passed over the valley, the sun striking flashes from their sharp, white hulls and Symphony called up to them, setting their fears for her safety at rest, then calling Cloudbase to check with Colonel White, informing him of her decision to cadge a lift as Scarlet's co-driver from here on, pending possible developments. The Colonel was not overly pleased having one of his best, irreplaceable pilots playing road games in the mountains of Asia but as Scarlet seconded her request he had more faith in his people's judgement than to recall her out of hand.
As Topaz and his co fired up the truck the Angel shook hands with Blue with a spark of warmth the others could not help noticing, and then she was unzipping her uniform to reach under her tunic and tear apart the Velcro that closed her G-suit. She let herself out with a grunt of relief and re-zipped her uniform. "I've been known to go dizzy," she added with a small smile.
"So have the men around," Scarlet said with a wink at the girl and a nod at Blue. "Let's go."
When Symphony slid into the Patrol Car she found the wheel before her and the red-clad man with the passenger seat right back. ''The Mysterons rarely ever pull two jokes in a row. I've had two hours sleep in the last thirty... She's all yours."
"Thanks a million," the girl drawled, starting the big engine and guiding the blood-red craft onto the highway, accelerating to catch the truck that was a half mile ahead, Blue and Haroun already back on point.
Scarlet stirred four hours later. Symphony yet guided the heavy car with ease, enjoying the power of a beast that could lay rubber up to 200 mph. As the retrometabolic process brought the man out of his sleep of regeneration she grinned broadly. "For you that must have been the sleep of the dead. You didn't stir through the last fuel stop. We're only fifty miles west of Karachi. Another hundred and we'll be on the plains and really cooking... There's a flask of protein broth in the chest." The man fell on the hot drink greedily and shook his head clear with a little effort. "Status is: all quiet. We're on schedule or so Adam tells me. The truck's behaving itself... Word from Cloudbase is that Burma is burning. The looting and vandalism, the killing, raping and out-and-out rebellion are incredible. There's a curfew in Rangoon and World Army troops are moving into the north near the China-India border. It looks like there's an insurgent force from Over The Line - mixed troops, Tong Vietkin and Kwang Xaviar, probably led by Bereznik advisers Battalion strength." She shook her head slowly. "Yanky Junglecats are on alert with the World Army and our own Black Lightning 'cats are gearing up for one hell of a fight. If the Mysterons start anything in the middle of that shindig we can kiss it goodbye 'cause we won't stand a chance."
"They don't do that," Scarlet said thinly. "They have never interfered with man's own wars, they have never attempted to destabilize our own power blocks. No, if this is war then it's the war Spectrum was created to fight instead of indulging in scientific joyrides to Mars. It's just the inevitable, catching up with us. And after the Mysterons I think the Bereznik Alliance won't have a great deal up its sleeve that can surprise us any more.”
Neither did his attitude surprise her; it was in an odd way how she felt herself. After an alien foe who could control matter, after matching wits and guts with such a thing, a merely human adversary seemed somehow less threatening.
Scarlet drifted back into exhausted sleep as they raced for Karachi, oblivious but cynically expecting of the world's troubles. They had a long way to go and time was growing shorter all the while; and the fire and pillage tearing Burma to pieces could only be alleviated by the restoration of full power to the grid. Only when the lights went on could the hell be stopped.
He slept through the next fuel stop also and Symphony let him be; there was plenty of muscle with the SPV to meet a threat in the time it would take her to wake him and she was confident that he would snap to wakefulness in the face of danger with amazing speed.
The Trans-Eurasian barrelled out straight as an arrow toward the Great Indian Desert that straddled the North West Frontier from the Arabian Sea all the way to Delhi, and with the Helijets rattling overhead and WAAF jets still circling in the stratosphere, the Spectrum convoy, fuelled in Karachi, ran at 160 mph, sirens and spinners braying their frantic message as they used up two lanes of the road, civilian cars and trucks pulling over in fear of the hurtling goliaths. Now was the time for them to make up the lost minutes and hours and they intended to cut the arrival time back if possible.
When Scarlet woke it was 11:00 local time and they were winding up the speed through long, built-up turns as the highway snaked through the dry Aravalli Ranges. These were about the last mountains to cross, as the road now curved in a thousand mile arc north of the Vindhya Mountains across the northern plains before following the course of the Ganges toward Bangladesh. As soon as his head cleared he knew something was wrong.
"I don't know for sure," Symphony said, eyes red with concentration. "It happened about an hour ago. Something began to wear in the rear end - I think the dif has just about had it. We could have taken a rock that cracked a seal or something. We can barely keep up. When we get out of these mountains they're going to start leaving us. Rear end temp is sky high and I think the fuel pump acting up too."
"Time for a change of wheels," Scarlet said, rubbing his eyes. "I think maybe something a little tougher just for good measure..." He put through the signal and when his cap mic had dropped he addressed Cloudbase. "Experiencing mechanical difficulties, requesting vehicle replacement. SPV if possible; our position is -" He read off a string of coordinates and a moment later Green's mellow voice came across the world to him.
"One moment, please..." A few seconds of silence. "Vehicle replacement; SPV available, SPV #136, collect from Tiger Command, Spectrum India. If you can make it another fifty miles or so it can be waiting for you, fuelled and prepped, at the highway juncture to Udaipur. Rendezvous with Sergeant Mauve."
" S.I.G., Cloudbase." Scarlet smiled as he cut off transmission. "I think somebody up there likes us."
They had fallen some miles behind the convoy, which had not slowed to accommodate them, by the time they were on the flat stretch east of the ranges, and the SPC was ailing badly, overheating and pouring smoke from the exhausts, and they pulled in by the gleaming, savage shape of a fresh SPV. They looked the worse for wear, tired, sweat-soaked, when they handed over the other craft to the young Sergeant, and Symphony caught up her helmet as she tossed Scarlet the keys. "You get to drive now, chief," she sang as they waved to Mauve and jogged for the armoured monster.
The portside ram was out and he dropped into the seat, closing the four-point racing harness, then with a sly grin slapped his knee. There was no other way up short of a ladder so the Angel relented and climbed onto his lap. "Hang on nice and tight,” the indestructible one chuckled as he hit the switch and slipped an arm around her waist, the girl putting her arms around his neck. "We have to stop meeting like this, cherie."
“Don't get any funny ideas," the girl laughed as she disentangled herself from him and took her own seat before the opposite control array, when the slab armour had slid flush with the hull, and Scarlet started her with a roar from the unbelievably powerful engine.
Smiling over at her Scarlet swung the craft onto the road and they were pressed forward in the harnesses by the acceleration, the bleak terrain cut by the four-lane blacktop racing at them on the panoramic screens. "Scarlet? Paul, old buddy, d'ye hear me out there?" Blue's voice was strained with fatigue but the fire was still there. "You rolling or what?"
“Just picked up a blue fortress, pal; we're coming like the wind. Anyway, never mind the CB jargon." His tone changed from gruff and regulation issue to a very bad Georgia accent that scraped the girl's nerves. "Jus' give me y' 20."
The request-for-location came through with a resounding laugh. "About 30 miles ahead of you."
"Not for long, my boy, not for long."
Far away on Cloudbase Green looked at Colonel White and the Old Man smiled with a shake of his silver head. Radio procedure had gone out of the window but these men had been on the road now for twenty-nine hours and had a long way still to go; they were allowed any leeway that would ease the trip and a blind eye turned to such slips of regulation cost little. Personally, White would not have cared if they had conversed in pig Latin provided they got the job done right the first time,
As good as his word, Scarlet made up the miles in minutes and the truck now had a Pursuit Vehicle fore and aft. On that incredible run across the shimmering plains of crowded, ancient India they raced about the truck with the cheek of gargantuan power, practising AA and ground defence, refuelling without fail every 295 miles. Tiger Command's logistical support was second to none.
Yet, as the day wore on in its heat and dust and they flew like demons across the vast land, Symphony could tell that something was gnawing at Scarlet. He was keeping it very tightly under control but it was threatening to get the better of him. At last the girl said quietly: "Paul, are you going to let it out or wait 'til you explode?”
“It’s that obvious, huh?" At her nod he went on: "Oh, hell… Look, Karen, I think… I think I may have made a mistake, a bad one. A killer. It only occurred to me a few hours back what was bothering me about the incident back in Iran. It was not cut-and-dried by any means. Okay, the Bereznik pilot was a Mysteron, there was no question about it. But the second time the sickness hit me…" He chewed his lip in open worry. "Look, Emerald had just taken off and was passing over us, I assumed he was the Mysteron agent because of the negative detector reading."
"But?" The girl pushed gently. "What's bothering you?"
"Maybe he was innocent; maybe the detector was faulty, though it's a long shot. I could have ordered him shot down for nothing. You see, I got sick as I walked past Amber." He shook his head in disgust.
"Oh." The Angel could see the point and she licked her lips. “That would mean that Emerald's and his Co's remains are in the wreckage and that the real agent was left to walk away untouched. But he's up there in the sky now - he could have attacked us at any time without the rousing of any suspicions until it was too late.”
"He could. Or he could play the game through 'til the generator is installed and we’ve all gone home, then sabotage it again.”
The scenario was a bad one and they knew once suspicions were held they could only confront him, detector in hand, gun at the ready. It would be a bad day for Spectrum if an enemy agent was free in the infrastructure, doing as he pleased, and while there was a flicker of doubt they must follow it to whatever conclusion occurred.
It looked as if they would get a smooth ride but they knew it was too good to last. It was just after midnight, local time, with just 500 miles to go, as they passed through the jungle hills of Misoram, west of the Burma border, that trouble struck with the force of a demolition hammer. After the endless, screaming run down the plains to Bangladesh, then back into India at Assam and south toward Burma, they had become concreted in the routine; and when the hills leapt suddenly into lurid flame they were taken off guard.
The insurgent forces were here and in a matter of moments three Tiger Command SHJ gunships were pounding home Aerial Rocket Artillery and depleted uranium cannon fire. Bloody explosions lit the jungle slopes as the convoy slowed, rockets hissing through the night to crash dirt from the roadsides and thunder against the SPV armour.
"Don't stop, don't stop," Blue roared, nailing the accelerator and triggering a terrific volley from the cannon that scythed down trees and flung bolts of molten explosive through the wet, green reaches. "Amber, give us close stuff. A cannon pass against the verges."
At the request Scarlet's mouth tightened. "I hope I'm wrong," he mouthed to Symphony, and then Amber's gunship was dipping over the trees, lines of red and white tracer stabbing from the rotary cannon in the belly turret, a crackling line of explosions tearing through the forest as the IR seekers pointed out gun and rocket positions and the Sikh poured it in, hot and fast. "All he has to do is slip his aim a few degrees…"
All about the battle raged as World Army troops were inserted by helo and a tank rumbled from a concealed blind. "They could have warned us we were driving into an ambush," Symphony cursed, hanging on for her life as the SPV shuddered, ringing like an awesome bell as an anti-tank round ricocheted from the flank and went in mid air.
"Maybe they didn't know it was a trap for sure and thought we had enough on our minds," Scarlet said thickly. "That would be bloody typical." The girl was handling the cannon for him and she sent the SPV's arsenal thundering home in the forest all about as they raced on. The truck had taken a few hits and rubber flapped messily here and there, the steel container smeared and smoking. If they wrecked the AGM-91 it was all for nothing.
Speed, as ever, was one of their greatest assets and Amber calculated that they would be out of the ambush stretch in just under two miles. They went for it full boost as flame raged over the forest and the loop crackled and hissed with the battle rhetoric. It seemed that the two sides had been moving cautiously about each other for some time, feinting, avoiding contact, and the arrival of the convoy was the trigger that abandoned discretion. But both the World Army and Spectrum were ready and their military overkill was all prepared, no force too great to employ.
With a shivering crash massive trees were blasted from the earth to fall in a hopeless confusion across the road 1000 yards ahead of the racing convoy and Blue gritted his teeth as he stabbed the trigger to send HE rounds scything through the night dead centre on the great trunk that blocked the two-lane. In a ball of dark flame the wood broke into uncountable splinters, the foliage roaring into a wall of licking redness. Hanging tight to the controls, he put the SPV through the attempted barricade at full power, bulldozing the fragments clear in shoving collisions that wreathed the craft in flame as rocket and cannon fire showered her, only her speed bringing her through without loss of the superheated tires. "We need aerial fire suppression up here for the truck," Blue growled, emerging from the ambush zone into the deceptive calm of night and swinging the SPV to a broadside halt and ramming his last rounds into the forest. "Topaz, bring her through full throttle - give them an instant and they'll have the rubber from under you."
SHJs beat up the rain forest to both sides of the road and the truck, bellowing at peak revs crashed through the burning remainders of the barricade, Scarlet's SPV right behind it, a last squirting of tracer leaping after them.
Chancing one glance back, Scarlet was struck speechless with the awful beauty of war. It seemed the whole sky was burning, the redness shot through with uncountable bolts of tracer, Spectrum gunships continuing to strafe with gun and rocket, trees burning for miles; and appearing from the eastern side of the engagement came the crowning horror, the evil silhouette of a Spectrum Type 2 Junglecat striding forth, arms waving fiendishly, knocking trees imperiously aside with single, lashing blows, its hull lit from end to end with sprinting detonations as every turret belched forth fire.
This was the war Spectrum was created to fight, but the inevitability of it did nothing to soften the grimness. The military was a necessary evil.
"Amber tore into them for us," Symphony said softly. The confrontation would be soon; as they raced onward, battered, low on ammunition, the end was now in sight and the night would draw to a close about the time the AGM-91 was no longer their responsibility. "He's acting like a man, not the distant invertedness of a Mysteron agent.”
"Granted," Scarlet nodded. "I'm not sure, I just have that feeling." He did not look at her as he spoke, but kept his eyes glued to the screen, the endless highway that snaked now down the coastward hills above the Bay of Bengal passing below their tyres. Blue's magazines were empty and he had requested Scarlet to take over the point right after the engagement. Amber was remaining with them to the last and ahead, a massive Army, Police and Spectrum combined operation had put an impenetrable ring about the power station ready for their arrival.
As the final hours slipped away Scarlet did not confide his suspicions to Blue, holding them radio-silent for what that was worth, and the Angel could see his resolve slowly growing. He had listened to his own supposedly infallible senses but had interpreted their warning incorrectly. He had never done it before and it was eating into him like a burn. He had murdered loyal officers and let the enemy walk free - he would rectify the matter at the first opportunity and neither of them was facing it with anything but dread.
It was 04:42 when the Spectrum convoy, blackened, the worse for wear, but mobile and victorious, pulled into the light of portable floods in the yard of the great power station that stood up-river of the Irrawadi Delta, where the river retained its full flow, and with almost infinite relief relinquished charge of the unit to the massive local security forces. A squad of Cloudbase agents were also on hand and when they had debarked the hot, stinking vehicles Scarlet, Blue, Symphony, Topaz, Haroun and Keating were surrounded by the back-slapping crowd, cheers and congratulations roaring in their ears. They had done what even the WAAF could not and got the unit here despite the best efforts of both Bereznik and the Mysterons.
But still Scarlet brooded blackly and Symphony knew it was about to come spilling out. She looked about for Amber and it came as no surprise when Scarlet asked his whereabouts.
"He flew on to the coast, sir," an officer answered. "An SHJ has crashed at the mouth of the delta and he's checking it out for possible -"
He didn't get a chance to say ‘Mysteron involvement’. Scarlet already knew. A Mysteronized SHJ was all they needed at this moment and Scarlet used it as his excuse to commandeer a Tiger Command aircraft and send it racing the last hundred miles for the Gulf of Matraban. Symphony stuck with him, unshakeable, and he was deeply grateful for her concern.
In the racing helo they said not a word, Scarlet grinding his teeth. Am I right? he thought over and over. Even if I'm wrong I can’t help but check it out. Oh, God, am I wrong? I just don’t know. They closed on the shores of the ocean over the sleeping villages and fields of the mighty delta as the flush of pink spread out of the east with the promise of the new day and in 20 minutes they saw the running lights of Amber's Helijet where it lay above the tide line forty yards from the burned out remains of another Spectrum machine. As they came in for a sand-scattering landing by the first craft the knot of apprehension tightened in Scarlet's stomach until he could stand it no longer. The wreck might not be fresh at all; it might in fact be the very machine that had guarded them all day and within its mangled cockpit might be the remains of Amber. The real Amber.
With short breath and racing hearts Scarlet and Symphony left their helo and stepped down the beach for the worklights that burned. Had Amber drawn them out? Was this to be it, the culmination of the whole affair? With blood rushing in his ears the indestructible man all but ran for the wreck, detector in hand, right finger tips brushing the butt of the electron gun he had slid away at his right hip. There could be no room for mistakes.
The tableau that met their eyes was baffling, inconsistent and terrifying, and they came to a halt, the ocean roaring at their right, the whole back-lit in the glow of predawn. Amber stood with his detector ten feet from another Spectrum officer, one neither recognised, his uniform of indefinite colour in the poor light. They stared at one another, frozen like statues, and Scarlet felt the bile rising as the world swam about him.
I was right! he thought savagely as he beat it down. But which? Who's mesmerizing who? "Which?" he growled in frustration. He could not - would not - repeat a mistake. "Which?!" For what seemed an eternity the pair held their deathly silence and then the stranger's eyes slid to Scarlet and he smiled like a grinning skull as his hand flicked to the electron gun at his side.
Scarlet was faster, his speed born of tortured nervous energy and the gun barked harshly in his fist in the blink of an eye, the blue arc searing across the gap to dance about the stranger and leap, painfully bright, to Amber. The incredible discharge earthed through them and with a cold, echoing death cry the Mysteron crumpled, falling apart before their eyes as Amber fell to the sand.
Shock held Scarlet rooted for several seconds before he dropped the gun and ran to Amber's side, kneeling by the Sikh and lifting his head to peer at the dark eyes. Was there anything left? A flicker of life yet beat in him and the eyes opened, pupils dilated, to stare into Scarlet's.
"Symphony, call the local base, blaster case, we'll be with them in 20 minutes," Scarlet snapped, voice rough, over his shoulder, before whispering to Amber: "I'm sorry. I didn't know. But I had to be sure. I had to."
"I know that," Amber murmured so quietly that his voice was almost lost in the waves. "I should have been quicker… Should have taken him first… I'd have done the same."
Whether the Indian would make it to the hospital they did not know but as the Angel lugged the stretcher from the helo and Scarlet knelt in the fine sand with him, the indestructible Captain knew in his own soul that he had been taught an ever-fresh lesson by circumstances. Trust your instincts. They've kept you alive, they always will. You were right. Stop doubting the instincts that retrometabolism gave you, they're the only weapon you've got left. But such thoughts could not take the anguish from him; for him and the others, their Road to Mandalay had been paved with sweat, fear and the blood of no few. The unit was here and with luck the skirmish would fade out to normal tension; despite all, the world went on. The pain of the individuals in it was a triviality.
And the dawn came up like thunder... Out of China, 'cross the way.
Any comments? Send an E-MAIL to the SPECTRUM HEADQUARTERS site