Twenty-first century Tokyo was bigger, dirtier, deeper and more magnificent than the city had ever been. Twenty million people made their homes in the urban jungle around Tokyo Bay, in the hundred story towers that reared among the monorails and criss-crossed intersecting roadways.
High on one such tower that rose in a spire of lights over the ocean of glitter that was the city by night, spotlights picked out the rainbow-S roundel of Spectrum. The headquarters of Spectrum Japan was a Maximum Security Building of forty stories, twin helicopter pads were awash with light, and deep in the foundation garages were the organisation’s rolling resources, the vehicles that carried the fight to the enemy.
Two miles away, on a windswept balcony, fieldglasses were lowered from dead, black eyes in a face bleached of colour. The noises of the street were a distant whisper and the cool night wind tugged cropped black hair around the collar of a worn leather jacket. The man was powerful, something in his manner brooked no nonsense; it seemed an aura of something dark, even evil, hovered about him.
The balcony was rough concrete, grafittied in the bizarre modern take on katakana script, in fluorescent dyes that glowed in pungent, sickly colours as the lights of aircabs swept by. The blues and greens made the man’s deathly pallor flush weirdly, all the more so as he seemed oblivious of it all.
For a long time his eyes never left the Spectrum building, but at last he turned from the windy precipice and stepped back through a vandalised hallway. A keycard swiped a lock and a paint-smeared door opened, then closed behind him.
The apartment was cheap, uncared for, there were no comforts, merely a crumpled bed and the remains of food on a table. The man stood for a time, staring blankly at a wall, then his eyes went to the packets. He shovelled in cold noodles and ate without expression, drank from a water bottle, then sank into a threadbare armchair and stared at the wall. The thud of Japanese technorock from a nearby apartment was the only sound, the beat of the base shaking the water in the bottle on the table, but he remained oblivious.
His eyes closed and he sat motionless, switching off like a servitor robot on recharge, and the ages could have unfolded around him for all he cared.
To the casual observer it would seem he was a statue, as an hour passed, then a second. The night went by in the rage and throb of a troubled century, and the dark man did not move, eyes closed, composed as if in meditation upon some terrible thing.
But as midnight came and went something seemed to change in him. The horrid pallor of his features softened, the etched lines relaxed and his breathing became fluid. A natural sleep seemed to replace his torpor, and he snored softly… Something had shifted in the world, a subtle but vitally important change that affected not only this tortured man, but the security of the entire human race…
Conrad Turner woke softly from what seemed a nightmare, a living, waking horror that had consumed his existence for years… A miasma of murder, fire and havoc, of force against his will, of terrible acts against every vow he had ever taken, and a remorse that went to his soul. And most of all, a unique awareness of something vast, alien and irresistible…
Where am I…? The first thought in his head was of disorientation, a wave of shivering helplessness that brought bile to his lips. He coughed, dark eyes searching the room, then memories flooded in on him. Memory of coming to Japan on a coastal freighter south from the marine farms in the rich, cold waters of the Kormandorski Islands, where he had … sabotaged the water filtration systems to infect the fish shoals with Vibrio cholera, and destroy biomass on which eastern Asia depended. Spectrum had been too late, the bacteria had swept the stocks like a haemorrhagic fever. A cold pleasure shimmered in his nerves, counterpointed at once with revulsion. That was not my pleasure, he realised, cold sweat at his brow. It was theirs.
The Mysterons. implacable alien foes of humankind. In a terrible spasm of memory, of truncating time, he remembered is if it were yesterday looking down from the ridge above the complex on Mars, the bizarre, glittering buildings framed in the flightdeck windows of the MEV; seeing the scanner rise from its housing, making the momentary snap judgement which, as a military man, he had been trained to. Pre-emptive strike, hit the enemy before it could hit them… Make an automatic assumption based on the internecine warfare of the human race.
The crowning irony. He could chuckle with the bitterness of it even as tears fought free of eyes that had not wept in many years. I did it. It was my mistake, and the whole human race is paying for it, and will go on paying for it to the bitter end.
He collapsed forward in the chair, buried his face in his hands for an awful moment of racking sobs, then was struck sober with the force of an epiphany.
The thought hammered through his mind and he looked around the squalid room in a sudden rush of adrenalin. The overwhelming compulsion of the alien overlords that held his mind in thrall had lifted, eased away, he could no longer hear their thoughts, he moved and thought of his own volition, instead of his consciousness confined, compressed into a tiny, dark place, a pit of helplessness, as his body acted out their will.
Abruptly he became aware of the overpowering stench of that body. It seemed he had not bathed in weeks, months even, and he rose, stumbled across the room in the light of the city beyond a grimy window, found a light switch and a tube blinked on in an equally insalubrious bathroom. The water was working, though, and in moments he had stripped out of shirt and jeans, and felt the hot spray on his skin with a sensation of never having known the tactile impact before. So long…
He leaned against the cracked tiles and listened to the beat of synthesizers from elsewhere in the block, luxuriated in the warmth and willed calm. Images of the things he had done under Mysteron control flooded through him, assassination, irradiation, sabotage, every act an enemy was capable of, and his heart beat wildly. He knew one clear fact, that he was the most wanted man on Earth, and Spectrum would have orders to kill on sight. Without Mysteron compulsion to keep him one step ahead of them, he may be finished quickly. One solid hit from an electrode weapon and, Mysteron or no, he was gone.
Perhaps that would be better, part of him thought bleakly. Cheat them while you’re at liberty to… The pessimistic part shrugged mentally, and could imagine no escape. The Mysterons surely would merely reanimate his dead flesh, reorganise his tissues to a living state as they did each time they teleported him from place to place. Perhaps there was no escape.
Hard lips smiled faintly and he turned his face to the spray. He may be their puppet but he knew a way to change the stakes of the game, and he dredged his memory. Codes changed over time but old codes were always held on record for cross checking, and his identity could be established in seconds.
All he need do was pick up a phone. Spectrum was not far away.
“Captains Scarlet and Blue, report to the Monitor Room immediately.” Lieutenant Green’s rich voice came over the address speakers in the standby lounge, and the captains were out of their seats in a moment. Blue lay aside an untouched cup of coffee and drew his uniform jacket on as they headed for the elevator, and Scarlet tidied his hair and drew on his cap. Before they could speak they felt inertia and steadied themselves with the elevator handrail, and a moment later Green’s voice was on the speakers again. “All sections secure for Cloudbase position change.”
Blue frowned as they felt the horizontal engines spool up and the carrier came about. “Whatever has happened, it’s major…”
Scarlet nodded with a pensive expression. “Something tells me we’re off somewhere in a hurry.”
“We’ll find out.”
When the elevator opened a few seconds later, two floors up in the Cloudbase command section, they stepped into the Monitor Room and found the screen behind the Colonel’s desk displaying a map of Tokyo. Without preamble, Colonel White beckoned them onto the circular dais and rotated his desk to face them.
“Gentlemen, this may be a turning point in the War of Nerves.” He let the point hang for a few seconds as they took seats before the desk. “We have just received a signal from the Spectrum Maximum Security Building in Tokyo. Captain Black has resurfaced.”
Scarlet sat forward at once. “Do we have a location?”
“More than that… He has asked for a meeting. Ostensibly, he wishes to give himself up.”
Now the captains exchanged a sharp glance. “It must be a trap,” Scarlet began.
“A fair assumption,” the colonel agreed with a shallow nod. “But whatever he’s up to, we must respond. He simply called the Tokyo command centre and provided them with a security clearance code. It’s old, but identifies as the verification sequence current at the time of the Zero-X mission.”
“So that would have been the last code he was familiar with before he was taken over by the Mysterons,” Blue said heavily. “That tallies…”
“The Mysterons would have access to whatever knowledge he possessed,” Scarlet said with an open hand. “They’ve bluffed us before, and our need to explore the possibility that they really wanted to negotiate almost resulted in them taking out Cloudbase.”
“We’re not forgetting that, Captain,” White added. “The investigation will take place in Tokyo. Agents are moving to make the rendezvous right now, and I want you two there to oversee all precautions and – assuming it is possible – handle the interrogation.” He looked over their heads to Green’s workstation at the long computer bank. “Lieutenant Green?”
“Hangers report aircraft ready for departure, Colonel.”
“Blue, Scarlet, I want you in Japan at the first possible moment. I’m turning over Angels 2 and 3 to you, Destiny Angel will escort you to Tokyo, and Harmony and Melody will follow on by SPJ to recover their aircraft at Tokyo Haneda. A Spectrum Helijet will meet you and, with luck, you can be coming to grips with our nemesis soon after.”
The captains rose with a tight expression and Green put up a chart of the Western Pacific. Cloudbase was in the star-shot sky over the Philippine Sea and had changed course for Japan at once. “You can be there forty minutes from launch,” Green said as the computer projected their heading.
Blue looked at the Colonel with a hard nod. “If it’s humanly possible, we’ll bring him in.” He failed to add that if it was not, they would execute Spectrum’s Standing Order Number 1: kill Black on sight.
The water had gone a long way to restoring life to a body that seemed half dead, and Turner had eaten ravenously, finishing whatever was left. He had no memory of buying food, could only guess that the mundane details of maintaining his body were too unimportant to the Mysterons for any information about it to ever register. Clearly he ate and drank and shaved, but he supposed the aliens were never very fastidious about it. He could not imagine what he had eaten in the years since they had taken him.
He was not even sure what year it was. 2067 was the last date he was certain of, and without the Mysteron control aspect he neither spoke nor read Japanese, so using the widescreen entertainment station that hung on one wall, dusty and antiquated as it was, seemed no option. He remembered encountering Spectrum many times, but whether a year had gone by or ten was an open question.
He pulled on the jacket over his sweater and jeans and looked at the mobile phone on the table. He had made the call a few minutes ago, and knew it was time to go. He pocketed the device and stepped out, drew the door shut behind him, then thumbed for an elevator. Surprisingly it was still working, and it took him down a great many floors. The foyer was equally vandalised and he heard voices in the shadows, homeless people who cowered away from his purposeful tread as if they had encountered him before. He walked with the solid step of an automaton, as if his body had been used to marching for years, and he let it carry him as it had learned. A hard hand thrust open a glass door; the warm night breeze off the sea met his face, tangy with the smell of exhaust.
This tower stood to one side of an elevated highway and adjoined an industrial area, a great truck park and container interchange where freight switched from air to road transport. A dark byway separated one complex from the other and he walked under the wash of streetlights and the glimmers of soaring towers toward the lake of light where the container terminal worked, a freighter airship settling toward the handling cranes to deposit its load of cargo.
Warehouses fronted the street and he was faintly aware of movement in the dark, of the furtive tread of persons unseen. Dark places were the natural home of those the light could not bear to see, but he knew no fear of them. They were about to be overmatched a thousandfold, and a few hundred yards from the accommodation block he took out his mobile, thumbed the code he had been given and stood in the middle of the road, the device raised.
Thirty seconds. Sixty, then the soft sound of tyres brought his attention to a crossing between buildings. At the far end he saw the hunched outline of an SPV and knew they were scanning him in infrared. Other faint sounds drew his acute senses and he knew another SPV was a hundred yards behind him. A saloon pulled from the shadows ahead. None showed lights.
A harsh whine of turboshaft engines built over the container yards and a moment later searchlights blinked on from a pair of SHJs, bathing him in a pool of white. A loudhailer roared from above, first in Japanese to scatter workers in the container yards, then in English. “Captain Black! Stand where you are! On your knees, hands on your head! You are covered by multiple weapons and we will open fire at the slightest provocation.”
He did not move, but shaded his eyes from the glare. The mobile chirped in his hand and he put it to his ear. “I am Captain Black of Spectrum,” he said in a voice he barely recognised, a human voice. “As I told you, I wish to surrender.”
“This is Captain Turquoise, commanding the Tokyo detachment. If you are sincere, you must comply with my instructions to the letter. On your knees, hands on your head.”
Very slowly, Black complied, and when he was down he heard a rise of engines. The SPVs closed in and a truck discharged Spectrum Police in the white-cap uniform of the non-shade branch. In moments they circled him, electrode pistols and rifles presented, and suddenly he felt shackles snap into place as his hands were seized behind his back. He heard a confusion of signals on radio channels in the air, an SPV rolled to a halt and the ram-door extended. When the seat came down a hard Japanese office in a Turquiose-blue jacket stepped forward and levelled an electrode pistol as he stared down into Black’s face.
“We don’t know what your game is,” Turquoise said quietly in English, “but we will. Cloudbase have the experts on the way, and for your sake this had better not be a deception.”
Hands dragged him to his feet and he was bundled into the truck, blindfolded and pinned into a seat with the feel of gun muzzles against his ribs. But he was not afraid of them. He feared only that his freedom would come to an end before he could execute his mission. His own mission: to damage the Mysterons badly, and perhaps make an instalment upon his soul.
Flight had rarely been so exhilarating for Scarlet and Blue. Fast as the SPJ was, it was crawling compared to the hypersonic Angel Interceptor. They had taken the place of the pilots for aircraft 2 and 3 on the launchers and Destiny, in the cockpit of the lead fighter on the central catapult, had walked them through the prelaunch checklist. The fighters were locked into autopilot-command environment, meaning that their computers would fly them in every way that mattered, the computers would not allow the pilots to make a mistake and all control inputs would be screened and approved by the CPU in realtime. Flying the fighters was nothing like flying the SPJ or SHJ, and it took an expert to even fly straight and level at Mach 6 without the computer interlock.
On the launch deck, in the clear starlight eight miles above the ocean, Scarlet had looked over at Blue and they had traded thumbs-ups, before Destiny had calmly requested clearance and her fighter had ripped free of the carrier before them. Then the launch cycle had begun, engines had run up to flight rating and the catapults had pitched them headlong into space.
G-force had pinned them into their seats as Cloudbase fell astern, and they had formed a loose arrowhead, formating on Destiny’s glowing exhaust manifold and her flickering formation lights. She had guided them with calm words as they built speed and lifted their altitude to 75, 000 feet. Up here it was as if they were in space, they towed a streak of compression flame across the sky and the stars all around them burned with an intensity never seen on the ground.
The cockpit VDUs showed a course of 035 true, they were listening for the beacon of Spectrum Tokyo and would be cleared automatically through the local military envelope. All they need do was ride the planes between the sea and the sky and ponder what lay ahead.
“Captain Scarlet,” came Destiny’s strong Cherbourg accent. “Is there anything you can tell me? Something important has happened, yes?”
“The Colonel will widen access to information when the time is right,” Scarlet said amiably, not correcting her but merely stating the facts. “First and foremost, we need to be sure there’s anything happening at all. If things look too good to be true, they usually are.”
“So something obviously looks good,” was the observation in reply.
“Destiny,” Blue offered softly, “there are no facts at this point, but it could be the most important thing that has happened since the Mysteron War began.”
The truck nosed down the ramp into the underbuilding parking, and Black felt the troopers withdraw, heard their boots hit the concrete over the tailgate. The vehicle paused, backed through a three-point turn and he heard the reversing warning blare for long moments. Then his acute senses caught the whine of servos and the whiff of metal and oil.
A rifle butt prodded him and he rose, waited as the blindfolding hood was removed and saw framed in the tailgate of the truck an open security hatch. Before it stood two top of the range combat droids, all armoured chassis and no-nonsense sensory systems. Their primary weapons were rotary canons, whose ammunition tanks rode their backs. The single trooper with him nodded to the droids. “Go with them. One false move and they will reduce you to vapour.”
Black held his eyes in an inscrutable gaze, then smiled, thin as a razor. “You have my cooperation, young man. But I understand your caution. I would expect nothing less.” He stepped off the tailgate and dropped to the concrete with a hard thud, rose between the droids and eyed them impassively. “Proceed.”
The machines were huge, they weighed a quarter of a ton each and the ground trembled at their step. They marched him through the hatch and along a concrete tunnel. He heard the hatch close, and when they passed other steel valves they also sealed behind them. The tunnel angled down and he knew he was being taken to a containment chamber, a wise precaution given the ability of the Mysterons to manipulate flesh and blood. The final door was a ponderous barrier eighteen inches thick, with the lugs and guides of a strongroom door. It eased into place with a hum of servos and hiss of pneumatics, and the lugs engaged their guides. The droids took him into a plain concrete room in which a single chair waited, and he sat without waiting for invitation. The machines took up stations sixty degrees of arc apart and levelled their Gatlings.
Black looked up at a sensory dome in the ceiling and waited. After ten seconds he coughed loudly. “Shall we get on with it?”
A filtered voice he recognised as Captain Turquoise came from hidden speakers. “Do you understand your situation, Captain Black?”
“My situation? I have surrendered to Spectrum, I am in a containment chamber beneath a Maximum Security Building, within steel and concrete walls that could withstand a blast of ten thousand pounds of TNT. I am under sentence of death and will be eliminated by these machines the moment they detect provocation by gesture, inflection, by electromagnetic or chemical signature. I understand that Spectrum’s anti-Mysteron measures have been stepped up consistently over the years. You can probably flood this chamber with an electron burst that would kill any Mysteron agent instantly, and you will be monitoring me with advanced detection systems.” He paused. “Have I missed anything?”
Turquoise was rising to no bate. “You approached us, Captain Black. Why would you do this?”
“Simple.” Now Black stared hard at the sensor dome above him. “Because in the last hour or so, the Mysterons have lost control of me.”
Tokyo Bay was an arc of light in the darkness, the city laid out twenty miles on every hand. The Angel fighters had slowed from their hypersonic cruise and circled over the city as they shed heat from their airframes. Haneda Airport, extending out on its great pilings in the bay beside the Tama River, was its endlessly busy self, but a security cordon had been provided for the incoming aircraft and Destiny guided them in to a smooth touchdown on the floodlit concrete. The three white jets shut down as Spectrum Police deployed around them; an SPV blocked the nearest taxiway, and boarding trestles were thrust up against their hulls as the canopies whined back and locked. Scarlet looked across at Blue through the heat haze rising from the hull, and neither could summon more than a grim smile.
An SHJ was waiting on the helipad nearby, and as the pilots deplaned it lifted off, drifted over a rooftop to the fighters and set down close by. With a wave to Destiny, Scarlet and Blue jogged through the downwash and climbed aboard at the hatch under the nose. As soon as they had strapped into the seats at the rear of the cockpit the pilot lifted them and sent them racing across Tokyo Bay toward the Spectrum building. The young woman offered no word, and the captains bided their time, though Blue, to fill the tense silence, dropped his cap mic and reported to Cloudbase that they had changed transport and would be on site in five minutes.
The Spectrum building detached from the golden sea of the city and the pilot lowered them to a textbook landing at the upper pad, high above the streets. When the night breeze met them they were taken into Reception, identified by retinal scan, palm print and Mysteron detector, and were at last passed into the building. A young officer in the white cap uniform, clearly hero-worshipping the shades that had dropped in from the sky, escorted them swiftly to an elevator that whisked them somewhere deep in the building, and turned them over to the Detachment Commander.
Captain Turquoise waited in an instrument-packed control centre where plotboards and holographic screens displayed data on everything from Spectrum network business to satellite tracking and intelligence updates. On a main screen was an image that froze Scarlet and Blue in their tracks. The face of Captain Black, staring straight at them, unblinking, but with something they had not seen from him in a long, long time: a spark of humanity.
No preamble was necessary and Scarlet dispensed with pleasantries. “Tell us,” he said flatly.
“Not much to tell,” Turquoise returned bluntly. “He called in, gave us his last recognition code and asked to turn himself in. We vectored on his mobile signal and he came quietly. Right now he’s in the containment vault.”
“He looks like he’s waiting for something,” Blue observed grimly.
“Whatever it is, our instruments detect nothing out of the ordinary.” Turquoise indicated a scrolling column of data. “Background radiation, EM field, chemical signatures, nothing above ambient.”
“The Mysterons would not sacrifice their most valuable agent just to take out a building,” Scarlet grunted, arms folded on his tunic. “When Captain Brown and I were Mysteronized, the game had just begun. They could afford to reorganise the chemistry of a living body into a high explosive in an attempt to kill the World President. Something tells me this building is in no danger. If we were to take him to Cloudbase, that would be another matter.”
“Has he said anything yet?” Blue asked.
“Not a word.”
Scarlet met Black’s eyes for a long moment, with the creepy feeling that Black knew he was on the other side of that video lens. Then Scarlet shook his head with a frustrated scowl. “All right, let’s get this done.”
In the vault, Black heard the soft hum of a servo and the wide, glistening surface of a video screen extruded from the ceiling. He waited impassively as the system warmed and lit, and he was unsurprised to find Scarlet framed in the feed against a dark, plain background.
“Young Metcalfe,” he grunted. “We meet again.”
“Captain Black,” Scarlet began grittily. “You are wanted for crimes against humanity, against the entire human race, treason such as has never been known before. What could you possibly have to say to us?”
The older agent shook his head faintly. “Captain Turquoise will have briefed you on my statement, unless procedure has changed radically in the last few years.”
“You claim to be free of Mysteron influence.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I state a fact. What do your instruments tell you?”
“Nothing useful,” Scarlet fired back without hesitation. “The scanners tell us the matter of which you are composed has been dematerialised and reassembled, all teleported matter carries that signature, and the Mysteron detectors show you to be composed of the same manipulated matter as myself. No more than that.”
For a long pause Black closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “When you first experienced independent retrometabolism, when you returned to life that first time… What did you feel?”
“I’ll ask the questions,” Scarlet returned, hard.
“I am cooperating, Captain,” Black said softly. “I don’t know how long Spectrum will hold the advantage, and the longer you mess around the greater the chance you’ll squander the greatest gift that has ever come your way.”
“And that would be…?”
“You have access to the corporate knowledge of one the Mysterons not merely duplicated, but held in thrall. They took me and held me, possessed me…” Now Black’s voice was a gravelling whisper and Scarlet saw the pain in the etched lines of his face. Against all professional imperatives he was conscious of a sudden twinge of empathy, the terrible feeling that Black’s lot might have been his own if circumstances had differed even a little.
The subtle softening of Scarlet’s tone was not wasted on Black. “Can you imagine being trapped at the bottom of a pit, a deep, dark hole filled with demons? To know that somewhere far above is a patch of light that is the outside world, but never be able to climb back to it?” He paused, as if fighting to make words, not quite meeting Scarlet’s eyes. “Demons all around you, crawling, whispering, ransacking your mind and taking from you every shred of humanity you ever had. Making you no more than a puppet to the jerk of their strings… That is a living hell, Scarlet, and I have suffered it, crammed into a tiny corner of my own mind, aware is if in a dream of the things they have made me do.”
Now he smiled, razor-thin, and tapped his temple. “But that awareness is more comprehensive than they imagined. I remember. Every last thing they have forced these hands to do. And more. Perhaps it was their arrogance, or a condescension for the human state, but when they were finished studying me, neurone by neurone, they failed to insulate themselves from me.”
Scarlet’s expression told those around him the gravity of the matter, and in the vault Black nodded. “Yes. For the first and perhaps only time, you have a pipeline directly into the heart of the Mysteron civilisation.” He sat forward. “What do you say?”
“I say, if you are telling the truth then this is the turning point of the war. If you are lying then this is the Mysterons’ greatest gambit.” Scarlet kept his face like granite and spread his hands. “What have we to lose? Tell us everything.”
“With pleasure.” Black looked around the stark chamber. “But since I am in my own mind and flesh in these moments, I will ask for something in return.”
“What?” Scarlet asked, immediately suspecting a ruse.
“Food and drink, a decent meal, and I don’t mean noodles. And turn up the warmth in this place.”
The early hours of the morning were dragging by. Black had been talking for an hour, pausing only when the vault’s access system had delivered a meal to him. One of the warborgs had moved from its statue-like position, to retrieve the trolley from the elevator and place it before Black, and the man had eaten ravenously, Western-style meat and veg likely to appeal to his palate. Scarlet had let him be for a few minutes, going over in his mind the things they had recorded. He had looked up at Blue with an expression that was plaintive, asking for input, but all Blue could do was spread his hands.
A printout of key elements was spread on a worktable and Blue and Turquoise between them were highlighting key phrases. Ancient civilization, deep in space, explorers of the galaxy, deeply principled… Observing the human race since ancient times, built their complex on Mars over a thousand years ago, departed Mars in 1901 due to internal problems of their own society causing withdrawal of galactic assets…
Black had catalogued many of the cases Spectrum was familiar with and Scarlet had found himself debriefing Black. He had indicated for an interface to be brought to him, a transparent touchscreen display on which he pulled up files from past actions and quizzed Black on the details. The man seemed beyond fatigue, and his natural speaking voice, different from the distorted thunder of the Voice of the Mysterons, was in itself nearly enough to convince them he was free.
When the meal was done with, Black had sat back and sighed, and Scarlet could not suppress his frustration. “What is it now? Cognac and a cigar?”
“Sarcasm does you no credit,” Black had returned with a soft belch. He had eyed the combat droid nearest and with a wave of his hand suggested the machine remove the trolley, which it did. “I assume you have a fresh list of questions?”
“Tell us about the assault on the desalination plant at Najama.”
With a shrug, Black had proceeded to tell them precisely where he had hidden the transmitter which had attracted the re-entering SKR-4 recovery craft. Question by question, the back and forth had continued until Scarlet’s epaulets had flashed and he had excused himself, stepping out of the dark video pickup of the security annex off the control room.
“This is Major Gold on Cloudbase. I have been working with Major Silver and Lieutenant Green and we have reason to believe Captain Black is telling the absolute truth.”
“How do you figure that?”
“He gave a time of about 1AM, Tokyo time, for the Mysteron control over him beginning to slip, and that correlates almost exactly with the onset of a coronal mass ejection from the sun. We’ve run the orbital dynamics, the data is on the beta channel, it should be with you right now.”
Scarlet snapped his fingers at Turquoise’s technicians for input and a moment later his screen changed to a graphic of the solar system. Blue hunched to study the image, eyebrows a hard line as he raced ahead and pre-guessed what the Spectrum scientists were about to say.
“We have it.”
“Note the relative orbital positions of Earth and Mars, Captain,” Gold went on. “Normally the occlusion of one from the other at orbital opposition does not weaken Mysteron influence, but this time we have an energetic field of matter emitted by the sun in the way as well, a plasma storm millions of miles deep, which has created an EM void in direct line with Mars.”
“He’s shielded…” Scarlet whispered, meeting Blue’s eyes for a short nod. “Major, how long can we expect this situation to continue?”
“Impossible to say. Coronal mass ejections last from hours to days.”
“That’s what he meant by time being of the essence.”
“Captain, I’m leaving Cloudbase with Dr Fawn, we’ll be in Tokyo in ninety minutes. If Black is still with you at that time, we may have some suggestions, but it’ll be no mean trick if we can keep the Mysterons from retaking him.”
“Understood. Of course, you do realise it could be a supreme bluff…”
“You mean a deception, timed to coincide with a natural phenomenon? We had considered it, Captain. That we cannot predict a CME does not mean the Mysterons can’t.”
“Is there any way to test this possibility?”
“Yes, but it won’t be easy.”
“We’ll be waiting for you,” Scarlet said, and flicked his com pickup back to his cap brim. He eyed Blue and sighed through flared nostrils, before whispering: “It’s either too good to be true, or the most important day since this war began.”
“Keep the faith,” was all Blue could whisper in return.
With a quirk of his eyebrows Scarlet turned back to the video pickup and thumped into the chair. “Well, Captain Black… You were saying?”
On the screen Black smiled faintly, folding his hands. “You were asking.”
“True.” Scarlet paused for a long moment. “Tell me your name.”
“Conrad Turner,” was the immediate grunt.
“Where were you were born?”
Now Black smiled grimly and fired the answer. His life history emerged in a staccato burst of information almost more rapidly than Scarlet could form the questions. At last Black sat back and waved a hand impatiently. “Don’t you think the Mysterons could supply all this if I was under their control?” He did not wait for an answer. “You need to make plans, young Captain. The moment they retake me, all these metres of concrete and steel will avail you nothing, I will be dangerous. These battle machines are meaningless, much as I know that grates on the human ego.”
“There are many Spectrum agents in this building and I assure you none of them have been idle.”
“Good,” Black said with a smile. “Perhaps you’ll do more than blunder in the dark this time.”
As if at an unseen signal, the warborgs turned and a new weapon deployed from each forearm, the unmistakable transmission antennae of electrode canons.
“You learn some grit at last,” was Black’s laconic, desperate, lost humour. “We shall see how fast these droids can react.”
“In the meantime, tell me what the Mysterons are planning for us next.”
“Tactical intelligence would be a nice thing to have, but it doesn’t work that way,” Black grunted. “They don’t confide the future in me, Scarlet, they don’t call me to briefings. When they’re ready to launch a new offensive, they deploy me, I am a tool not privy to the will of the controlling hand.”
“Then, all this background on our enemy notwithstanding, what use are you to us?”
“Think bigger, Scarlet. You now have baseline data on that which is invisible, and while it may take Spectrum’s scientists months to make any use of it in a strategic sense, you’re in a better position than ever before. I am singing like the proverbial canary and there is nothing the Mysterons can do to stop me.”
“Not until the coronal mass ejection is over.”
“Is that what it is? I guessed but couldn’t be sure.”
Now Scarlet frowned and sat forward stiffly. “Such a guess would have to be based on information coming to you via the Mysteron conduit. Tell me, if you perceived in the mind of the Mysterons their awareness of a problem that would lead to their loss of control, why did they not teleport you at once to some place of safe isolation until the circumstances had gone by?”
“The Mysterons are a race of grand strategy, Scarlet, they deal in epic gestures, and though they are capable of micro-controlling events across the reaches of space, they also believe in destiny.” His eyes narrowed, he knew he had to sell Scarlet this point clearly and firmly. “The greater their powers have become, the more pragmatic they are obliged to be. They know there is a fraction of a percent of any situation they can never control, that which is down to random chance, what to this day humans put down to the intervention of deity. The CME is such an event, and if it should tip the balance of the war then they accept that it is meant to do just that. If humans are smart enough to exploit it.” He smiled like a death’s head. “Over to you, Spectrum. Or should I say, us?”
“We’re on it,” Scarlet replied in a grim rasp. “Experts are running sims, but it may very well depend on how long the CME lasts as to whether we can prevent them from retaking you.”
“So you accept at last that this is me talking, not their greatest deception?” Black shrugged with an almost pathetic resignation. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll die soon, I know that.” His eyes flicked up to Scarlet’s. “After this, there is no way the Mysterons will leave my mind intact. Surely… They’ll burn it out, fragment it utterly, leave only the walking shell they need me to be.” He was whispering. “Which is why it is so important I give up every piece of information I can in the time we have. When this ejection is over, I’ll be gone. And the end comes as a friend.”
For a moment Scarlet could not make words, and when they came they were through his teeth. “Not if we can help it.”
An SPJ sped through the night toward Tokyo at 1200mph, leaving Cloudbase in its wake, cruising for the islands on the Pacific rim. In the passenger section, Major Gold sat among mobile terminals, sat-hitched back to the Cloudbase mainframes, and conferred in realtime with his colleagues. Dr Fawn could only watch him work, watch the time crawling by, and hope. Every screen now had a display in one corner showing the progress of the coronal mass ejection, relayed from the orbital observatory, and Spectrum physicists were monitoring for the first signs of collapse.
Gold, a hard-bitten Scot with grey hair under his uniform cap, was working with the most sophisticated computer modelling tools available, and Fawn knew he was basing his work on key elements of Cloudbase’s engineering. At times Gold would pause and rest his eyes, glance across at Fawn and shake his head. “It’s not knowing how long we have that makes it difficult,” he said softly. “I know we can build this machine, but do we have time?” Then his hands would move again, rearranging holographic shapes over the terminal’s projection surface, and he would shake his head as he sent the structural concepts on via the downlink to Spectrum Tokyo.
From his own perspective Fawn could only imagine what state Conrad Turner was in. He had viewed the video feed almost constantly over the last hours and had assured Colonel White they were in virgin territory. Hostage situations, Stockholm Syndrome and other explanatory constructs for assessment of the mind under the influence of others simply did not cover what Black had been through. That he was sane enough to recognise an opportunity and take it was either a miracle or a subtle indicator that he was not in control at all, which fuelled the rational, underlying doubt that he was free.
Fawn sat back and let his eyes go to his own display, where the feed from the vault in Tokyo was framed, and surrounded with monitoring tools. A realtime system monitored the stress levels of Black’s voice, and discrete sensors in the vault were measuring his temperature and pulse rate, degree of pupil dilation and the EM field of his body. All seemed to be within human parameters, but that did not necessarily mean anything.
Thirty minutes out from Tokyo, Gold shook his head and sat back. “We need a decision from higher up.” He dropped his cap mic and his epaulettes flashed white. “Colonel, requesting remote command conference, I require the following personnel…”
Black’s eyebrows had gone up with a wry smile as Scarlet had excused himself. “Take your time, it’s in the lap of the gods,” he had said easily, sitting back and sipping, with obvious relish, the coffee they had sent in.
Now Scarlet, Blue and Turquiose stood in the Synthetic Communication Annex, a darkened room where a holotransmission grid glowed softly, and they saw the relayed images of others around them. Major Gold and Dr. Fawn sat in SPJ passenger seats, and Colonel White stood with hands behind his back.
The Colonel looked around the group as the relay was established, bringing agents in three localities together. “Major Gold has requested this conference, so I assume it is of the utmost urgency. Gentlemen, let me take this opportunity to bring the Tokyo operation up to date on our intentions. We are proceeding on the assumption that the current coronal mass ejection event is interfering with Mysteron control of Captain Black. If this is the case, and I can only stress once again that it is an assumption, then we have the opportunity to take Captain Black away from the Mysterons by artificially reproducing the same conditions, to which end I ordered all Spectrum resources devoted. The implications are wider, however. By the same token, at this time it is doubtful the Mysterons have any influence on Earth at all, and that offers the possibility of shielding the whole planet from them. Yes, a CME is a megascale event and to reproduce the electromagnetic effects in any controllable way would be the greatest engineering project the world has ever undertaken, but it may be the key to ending the war. We would need to ameliorate the negative effects of a CME, of course, we have communication disruption, computers are vulnerable, electrical grids likewise. But all that is for the future, the situation is that Captain Black is available to us, including all he knows of the enemy, for an indeterminate period.” He nodded to Major Gold. “You have the floor, Major.”
“Thankyou, Colonel.” Gold manipulated the unseen computer before him and a set of glowing wireframe models appeared in the air at the centre of the group. “This is my specification for an EM field generator system which would create a localised jamming effect equivalent to the CME. If some of those parts look familiar, they should, they’re Cloudbase’s AG drive system.”
“Does that mean we have parts commonality?” White asked.
“No, sir. Those parts are an order of magnitude too large and not amenable to adjustment. But we already have well-understood hardware that will do the job, and that means minimal design effort is required. I’ve scaled the system down and integrated it with necessary control and monitoring units, and transmitted the package to the Maximum Security Building in Tokyo, where the robotised assembly system is building the field generator right now.” He spread his hands. “The problem is time.”
Scarlet and Blue shared a glance that spoke volumes. “How long to complete the system and activate it?” Blue asked bluntly.
“We’re estimating seven hours, not allowing for snags, malfunctions or the unforeseen,” Gold returned with equal gravity.
Turquoise nodded gravely. “The automated assembly system is running at 105% of rated capacity, my engineers and robots are servicing it constantly to head off problems. At present the target looks doable. But we have never pressed the system this hard, or on this scale.”
“And that’s not the chief concern,” Gold added softly. “It’s the CME.”
“Will it last seven hours?” White finished. “It might last three days, or it could collapse at any moment, there is no way to tell. Gentlemen, all we can do is our best, and if we are not in time then it cannot be helped.”
The heavy silence was difficult; Gold looked around the group with the air of dropping the proverbial blade. “There is an alternative, Colonel. But you won’t like it.”
“The Cloudbase AG generators can be modulated to vary the nature of the EM field they produce, and the precise characters of the CME are within that range. We can shield him right now, but to do so means taking Captain Black aboard Cloudbase.”
White’s head dropped involuntarily for a moment, and when it came up his expression was stony. “Invite him to ground zero. Escort him to the highest value target the Mysterons might ever aspire to destroy, and take it on faith that his apparent freedom from control and the CME actually have anything to do with each other. If this is in fact the ultimate Mysteron bluff, we may lose Cloudbase and a massive part of Spectrum’s effective capability.”
“Correct,” Gold whispered.
After a long pause, Colonel White turned to the medical man. “Dr Fawn, are you able to augment your assessment of Captain Black?”
“No, Colonel. Nothing about his physiology or behaviour suggests Mysteron control, and while in the past we would have taken these factors to indicate that the subject was not being manipulated, we find ourselves abruptly willing to set aside the criteria on which we have operated for the past two years. Perhaps it is the gravity of the situation that prompts additional caution, an unwillingness to be deceived, but the situation is one of triple-think perhaps as never before.”
“You’re saying that under any other circumstances, the decision would be clear-cut? But more rides on it now than ever before, and normal standards, however stringent, seem insufficient.” The Colonel folded his arms and seemed to think deeply. At last he looked up to Scarlet. “Captain, you’ve been with him one-on-one for hours. You knew him before the Mars mission. What does your gut tell you?”
For a moment Scarlet blinked, his mind racing – how was he expected to answer such a question? “He’s not the man I knew, but how could he be, after what he has suffered? First, to be the one to bring about the war by an error of judgement, to have to live forever with that knowledge… Then to become a living puppet to the Mysterons and helpless to affect matters, that would be enough to drive anyone insane. Is he insane?” Scarlet spread his hands. “Probably, deep down. If we were able to drag him back I doubt he would ever be fit for duty. Dr Fawn?”
“Agreed, Captain. After a long and gentle debriefing I would prescribe therapeutic rest and psychiatric care. In a real sense we would be on new ground all the way.”
Colonel White pondered their input for a while, they could see his mind working. “The question, then, is twofold. First, how much more is there for him to share with us of the Mysterons? And, if there is much more for us to learn, information that would benefit us in our struggle, is it valuable enough for us to risk the possibility of a deception by bringing him aboard Cloudbase to protect him at an earlier moment than the present preparations can guarantee?”
“One other factor may influence matters,” Turquoise added. “A CME does not collapse spontaneously, there is some small warning. If the warning was long enough, we may be able to transport Captain Black to Cloudbase at the last moment. That may defer the decision, pending any other information that may appear.”
“A good point,” White said with a slow nod. “Cloudbase is on its way to Japan, every moment the rendezvous time grows shorter. If Captain Black was merely brought within the field perimeter by aircraft, he would be shielded.” He looked around the others. “Captain Blue, set up provisions for this measure. Captain Turquiose, do all in your power to reduce construction time on the localised EM system; Major Gold, instruct the Cloudbase engineering division with regards to field modulations to be implemented, and Captain Scarlet… Continue to extract information from Captain Black.”
Blue looked down from the control room on the construction floor of the robotised facility deep in the Tokyo MSB. An inferno of heat, noise and vibration was screened by the inch-thick glass and he looked over the shoulders of technicians in plain grey uniforms as they supervised the programmed sequence. Computer-controlled machinery was a coordinated ballet of arms and rollers, hydraulic jigs and mandrels, sparking arc welders, scything lasers, drills, milling machines and lathes.
“Impressive,” Blue said softly.
“More than impressive, sir,” a young Japanese technician said, in barely-accented English, with a tight smile. “Supply this array with the raw materials and it can turn out a fresh SPV in 19 hours. The Synthetic Constructor can theoretically build anything, and prototyping is a breeze. No wonder we have them in all major facilities now.”
“Are we up to schedule?”
“About five minutes ahead, with three hours 26 minutes remaining.” A master clock over the windows was counting down to sequence completion. “Precisely half way. Of course, when it’s finished, it needs to be tested…”
Blue’s epaulettes flashed turquoise and his mic dropped into position. “Yes, Captain?”
“Aircraft are refuelled. We have a choice of SHJ ready on the upper pad, or SPJ at Haneda Airport. It is estimated we can move Captain Black to the former in four minutes, the latter in seven. Which we use will depend on how close Cloudbase is when the CME collapses.”
“Very good, Captain Turquoise, Scarlet and I will assume escort duties for the flight, if it comes to it.”
Blue was very much aware of time racing by, the minutes were being consumed and each time he looked at a screen his eyes went to the CME data. It was no good acknowledging that the computer would ring a warning the moment collapse parameters were detected, human minds worked in certain ways and the sight of the grossly elongated corona of the sun, bulging with the loss of matter, was the only reassurance they had.
The elevator deposited Blue back in the control centre and he checked the master time display, juggling numbers in his head. He had taken the SHJ on standby across the bay to the airport to collect Gold and Fawn two hours before, Major Gold was in the command centre liaising with his technical division on Cloudbase to refine the field dynamics for both the main generators and the new system under construction, while Dr Fawn had monitored Black in realtime as Scarlet continued to debrief him.
Scarlet was haggard and going on coffee, Black’s endurance had seemed inhuman for most of the night, but they were both now weary. “When are you going to let me out of this tank?” Black asked. “Every moment you leave me here confirms your ultimate lack of belief.”
“Not yet,” Scarlet grunted in return, taking a pull at a tall mug of strong brew. “See it from our perspective, Conrad. If you were me, would you trust you?”
“Maybe not… So what are you planning? I assume you have some strategy in play after all this time? It’ll be daylight any time now, what is it, 6am?”
Scarlet gave a hoarse laugh. “Don’t test me, Conrad, I’m not a cadet any more. Why would I tell you one thing we’re planning? If the Mysterons snatch back control of you before we can do anything about it, I’d have handed them intelligence.”
“No, you’re not a cadet any more,” Black allowed, and yawned prodigiously. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this. Without Mysteron control, I tire. Sooner or later I’ll need to sleep.”
“Let’s go over it again, first,” Scarlet said, sitting forward as much for his own concentration as to emphasise his words. “Tell me about the Mysterons one more time.”
“Ancient, a civilisation over a million years old. They are galactic explorers whose technology long ago superseded the crude requirements of the flesh. They are spread throughout the stars, and they are not the only race out there by any means. By their understanding, life is universal, the galaxy is filled with it, and maybe one percent of instances of the origin of life results in the rise of self-aware beings. The Mysterons long ago fused with the machine to create a composite lifeform, capable of thought at the speed of computers, with emotion balanced by logic and strict codes of ethical behaviour. They have fought other races more than once, and their war against the human race is a punitive, educational one in which they see their role as the stern parent assisting a recalcitrant youngster to grow up.”
“Hammering us is an act of kindness?”
“In some sense. You cannot preserve a million-year consciousness without taking on an arrogance.”
“Tell me again about the Consciousness.”
“They have a gestalt mind. While originally discrete organisms such as ourselves, their fusion with the machine created instantaneous communication which served to reduce and all but eliminate the space between minds, so that after many thousands of our lifetimes the gap was functionally nonexistent.”
“Are they immortal?”
“To answer that you would have to define mortality. The individual organism, supported by its mechanical interface, is undying by any natural means, if that is what you mean.”
“How old is the oldest Mysteron?” This was asked softly.
Black smiled and shrugged. “Even they do not know. But it was a life made before the first humans walked out of Africa.” Black raised a hand sharply. “They know they are not gods. They are neither omnipotent nor omniscient. And they have the capacity to be afraid. They see in us their own stirrings long ago, they know our potential for they have seen it all before. And we frighten them.”
“We are unpredictable, corrupt, foolish, brutal, and we have learned fundamental truths of the universe at a pace next to which our moral evolution is in paralysis. That’s why they established their complex on Mars, to watch us.”
Scarlet screwed up his face. “Robert Wise filmed this story in 1950.”
“Yes. Prophetic, wasn’t it?” Black slopped coffee as he thumped the arm of his chair with a balled fist. “For all my training, I reacted like a soldier in a situation which demanded I be a diplomat, and in my failure their worst fears came true.”
“So they reached out and snatched a representative for their grievance?”
“No!” Black’s voice dripped scorn. “They have no need for a Klaatu, Scarlet. I’m Gort. As you well know.” He brooded for a few moments. “They don’t come to warn, there are no ultimatums. They are here to excise, and in the misery they can deal this planet teach a lesson that will hopefully stimulate our positive evolution into a people fit to be members of a community of races.”
“The human race has proven remarkably resilient to lessons taught by force,” Scarlet whispered. “What if we decline to learn?”
For a long pause Black eyed him from narrowed slits. “What do you think?” He swirled his coffee dregs and slowly, symbolically, tipped them onto the cold concrete floor at his side. “I’ll tell you this. We’ll never be free of it. It’ll never be over. We either come up to scratch, as a species, by their standards, or the war goes on.”
Scarlet sat back and rubbed his face for a difficult moment, then nodded to a technician off camera. “All right. All right. We have measures in hand, I can only ask you to trust that we will do everything we can, but also to remember that our first obligation is to the world at large...” He let the last hang. “I’m sending in a cot for you. Get some sleep. I’ll call you if anything changes.”
An hour went by and Scarlet swallowed no-doze pills. He paced the command centre, his jaw dark with stubble, eating sweet food and watching the displays. Blue was at his side and Fawn stared at the monitors where remote sensor data on Black was displayed. At last the doctor thumped back in his chair and rubbed his face hard. “I wish I could be of some use to this situation,” he grunted. “We have no instrument that can tell us what we need to know.” He jabbed a hand at the screen angrily. “Physiologically, he’s as human as you, Scarlet, meaning his matter is tagged with an energy signature indicating it has been reconstructed. Big deal, that’s teleportation, which we know is the underlying technique of Mysterionisation. We can tell nothing about the functioning of his mind. To this day there are those neurophysicists who contend that mind and brain are the same thing, that there is nothing higher or other, though Conrad’s experiences as he relates them tend to make a mockery of that. But we cannot scan that which is not tangible, and his brain is functioning at the moment as the central processor of a very troubled human being.”
“Nothing we wouldn’t expect, then,” Blue said with the taciturnity of fatigue.
“Nothing. I can’t tell you if he’s telling the truth, but I can tell you that there is an absolute absence of physiological indicators that he’s consciously lying. There’s a subtle difference…”
Scarlet stood like a statue, rubbing gently at an aching lower back. “The Mysterons have learned a lot about us, they’ve watched us for centuries, in light of that we are at a hopeless disadvantage. By definition, they know what we want and need, and if this is a bluff, they have found a way to speak to us.”
“We’ve given them the opportunity to communicate more than once. We beamed an open message to Mars, they could have negotiated at any time…” Blue’s words were disgusted. “All this subterfuge is not necessary.”
“They would be handing us not only knowledge about them, but the chance to understand them,” Fawn mused softly. “Nothing Conrad has told us is of any tactical advantage whatsoever, have you noticed? It’s almost philosophical.”
Scarlet nodded. “And that puts a new complexion on it. We’ve been blinded by the fact he’s here and talking to us, but so far, strategically, all his revelations have not damaged the Mysterons in the slightest.”
“You think it’s a bluff?” Blue whispered.
Fawn grunted and shook his head. “If it is, Conrad is unaware of it. That much I’m sure of.”
“Puppet to the end…” Scarlet’s frustration made him want to strike out and he folded his arms hard. “If they know the CME will collapse before we can finish the generator system… They may be banking on us taking him aboard Cloudbase.”
Blue lifted a hand sharply. “They could beam him aboard at any point. They could take over anyone on board at any time. We have sensors that will alert us to a retrometabolism event instantly, and we can take out reconstructed matter with electrode weapons anywhere in the base in a matter of moments. The instant he stepped out of character we could take him out. So mere sabotage cannot be the object of getting Black aboard Cloudbase.”
“Then what?” Scarlet hissed the words.
After a difficult pause, Fawn spread his hands. “The explanation that makes best sense of it all is the simplest one.”
“That there is no deception,” Scarlet whispered.
All eyes went to the master time display again. 2:11 to completion of the system.
“Would we even believe it was true, if we got him into the protective field?” Scarlet mused, allowing himself to ease into a seat. “We could watch the CME collapse, monitor no changes in him, and continue to doubt.”
“Doubt is human,” Fawn offered at once. “We live in a security environment where verification is a way of life. But Conrad’s relationship to the Mysterons in this moment is something we cannot verify.”
“We’re not big on taking anything on faith,” Blue said bluntly, and to his surprise Scarlet smiled thinly.
“Maybe that’s what they’re waiting to see. How does the human mind deal with what it cannot compute? Is that a measure of humanity?” He smiled cynically. “But to see anything in this time they would have to operate through the CME, which makes nonsense of the whole affair.”
“But anything to which Conrad is privy they can read back from his memory as soon as they re-establish control,” Fawn added.
“It’s a perfect, self-supporting paradox,” Scarlet said, weary and letting the point go at last. “I wish the responsibility lay with someone else, because now I feel the way Conrad does. My choice represents the whole human race. If the CME goes into collapse in the next moment, what do I do? Assume it’s all a bluff and let them retake him, or order him moved to Cloudbase?” The silence was wicked. “Cynicism is safe and perpetuates the status quo. Humanity is potentially expensive.”
“Get some sleep,” Blue said to Scarlet. “I’ll call you before the deadline.”
“Thanks… But I already took the pills.” Scarlet rose and paced. “It’s going to be a long night.”
Colonel White called to conference with them an hour from the construction target and Turquoise could assure them his men were keeping to the schedule. Gold reported that Cloudbase’s massive gravity resist generators were programmed to create a protective field on call, but cautioned that systems interference was inevitable. “We’ll lose some operational flexibility, we’re not shielded against these harmonics as a matter of course. Protecting Captain Black aboard Cloudbase would be a temporary situation at best.”
“Understood,” the colonel said with a nod in the holo annex. “If we can use it in some sense as a bridge to the miniature system coming available, that will suffice. Longterm, we can explore shielding our systems against the effects of the anti-Mysteron field, if it works we will want it in permanent operation.”
“If it works, we’ll have developed our first really effective anti-Mysteron countermeasure,” Gold said with a nod. “Assuming we can overcome the problems involved, we can set up such fields around all sensitive targets, military, scientific, civil, we’ll have found a way to deny targets of opportunity to the enemy.”
“If it works,” Scarlet repeated softly. “The element of doubt remains. They may simply want us to think it works. We have only their active participation to test it against, and they are capable of deceiving us.”
“Then we must find a way to be certain,” Colonel White said simply, cutting through the despondency of tiredness. “New directions have appeared, gentlemen, and they will be carefully considered. For the moment, we can only assume that we are on the right track. The call to bring Captain Black aboard Cloudbase, however, is indeed subject to the element of trust. It will be my decision, and mine alone. Is that understood, Captain Scarlet?”
“Clearly, Colonel,” Scarlet replied, a faint inflection in his tone telling them he was very glad to relinquish that responsibility.
White looked around the holographic figures, Scarlet, Blue, Turquoise, Gold, Fawn. “The CME is still growing, so take heart, we have 57 minutes to the deadline. Major, how long to calibrate the system and bring it online?”
“Minutes, all parameters are preset, it only needs to warm up. It’ll draw a lot of power, it’ll take out half the rest of the MSB.”
“That in itself could be a security hazard,” Turquoise added quickly. “We’re preparing a list of sections which can be shut down safely to make current available.”
“Excellent. I want Captain Black moved into the field at the earliest opportunity. Major, I will be monitoring in fifty minutes.”
“We’ll do our very best, Colonel,” Blue said through the weight of fatigue.
Black jerked awake, itself a new and disturbing feeling, and squinted at the brilliance of the screen. Scarlet was framed in it and was calling him insistently. “Conrad, wake up!”
“What?” He rubbed his face, shoving himself up on one elbow.
“We’re moving you. You need to be on your feet right now. Go with the robots.”
“Where?” Black levered unsteadily to his feet as the warbogs came active and the thick door to the containment vault began to grind open on its massive hinges.
“Another chamber nearby. Go quickly.”
Black glanced back at the screen. “I’m trusting you.”
Scarlet could manage no reply but the set of his jaw told Turner the word had meant something. “Just go, quickly.”
The droids escorted him along the deep tunnel and another hatch stood open fifty yards away. They took him into a deep service area, a garage now vacant of the Spectrum rolling stock it usually held. In the centre of the wide, cold concrete expanse stood a ring of towering particle emitters and a wide circuit of hefty metal conduits that looked like part of a synchrotron. Inside the circuit were a few incongruous items, a bed, a chair, a com screen.
“My new home?” Black grunted as the droids lead him through the echoing space. Only when he was inside the circuit did the droids back away and once again level their rotary canons on him. A voice boomed over the chamber’s address system “Captain, this is Major Gold. There is nothing to be concerned about, we are going to establish an electromagnetic field which we hope will protect you from the Mysterons.”
“Ah.” Black hung his head for a moment. “The CME is collapsing. Well, I had a sleep for a while, and I’m glad of it, but I had hoped I would be gone before I woke.”
Scarlet’s voice came to him next as the com screen lit. “You’re not lost to us yet.”
“Thankyou for trying,” was all he could say. “Well, while you fiddle with this gadget, let me dredge my memory for any last thing that may be of use.”
There were no personnel in the chamber, all connections had been made and technicians withdrawn, no chances would be taken. Black sat on the cot and rubbed his hands slowly. He knew the blade was close to falling, and wished he could have convinced his own comrades more certainly of his veracity. The most terrible thing, from his standpoint, was that he could not refute their suspicion. He had no way to know if, free of influence as he was, he was no less executing a planned stratagem.
“Death take me,” he whispered, half a prayer.
In the command centre twenty floors above, Major Gold worked with a holographic interface to trim the field dynamics. Turquoise’s technicians who had overseen construction and installation of the system now worked with Gold, and reported system heat rising. The building was going dark section by section as power requirements were diverted, and the awesome connections to the machine carried megavolts. “System coming online,” Gold reported. “Two minutes to field initiation.”
On a screen, Colonel White looked on, while Scarlet, Blue and Turquoise monitored the shrinking window of opportunity. On parallel screens they watched the coronal mass ejection moving into its collapse phase, the supporting radiation eruption from the sun dying away so that the plasma cloud driven by it lost volume and momentum, while the field generator ran up to deliver a localised effect with the energetic properties of the cloud. The balance was very fine indeed, Gold was trying to create a tenuous forcefield in which was suspended raw plasma, and do it with enough delicacy to neither irradiate nor cook a living organism at its heart.
The video feed in and out of the chamber was a heavily insulated cable that would have to cross the forcefield, and the difficulties of working with these properties were evident. If it worked, they had to learn a new way of operating as the consequences of plasma shielding were havoc to everyday things like radio communication.
“CME is fading fast,” Blue said tightly, adrenalin driving fatigue away. “We have no way to know what the critical field density is.”
“The point at which they lose or regain control?” Turquoise asked, and nodded with a tight, fatalistic expression. “I think we’re about to find out precisely where that threshold lies.”
“Unless they deceive us by delaying to a lower density,” Scarlet added, with a dark smile that told them he was entirely aware of the irony of his own scepticism. “That may be tactically useful to them at a later date.”
Words were filling in seconds. A progress bar was building up on the system monitor, showing them 75 seconds to field initiation, while the orbital observatories were telling them the plasma field in deep space was cooling rapidly. Sixty seconds…
“One minute,” Gold reported. “Full power is available, emitters are charging. Captain Black, please remain at the centre of the field, that’s the red circle on the floor by your feet. The field is spherical, it extends through the ground under you.”
On a master screen they saw Black rise from the cot and stand in the circle, wearing a look of weary resignation. At last he looked up at the screen. “Scarlet?”
“I’m here,” Scarlet replied, mic by his lips, though he remained at the monitors, a pickup on the bank relaying him to the screen down in the bay.
“One last nugget, and this one is pure gold.”
“Go ahead,” was all Scarlet could say.
“Like I said, they are not omniscient. They cannot see into the future, and though their predictive capacity is brilliant they can still be taken by surprise. Spectrum has done it before and will again. In this much they are entirely mortal, and fallible. So do what you do best, and triple-think!”
“We always shall,” was Scarlet’s soft reply as the seconds built and vanished on the display.
Would it last? Would they make it…? Would Black survive another minute? The Captains in the command centre felt hands clawing at them from the dark, as if voices whispered to their subconscious, and their hope warred with their cynicism. The EM system was building toward discharge, a massive load of electrical energy set to energise the field within the relay boundaries, and Black stood like a statue at its heart, head bowed and fists clenched, visibly steeling himself for whatever came next. Scarlet knew he expected to die the moment the Mysterons touched him again.
Thirty seconds… Colonel White was watching from Cloudbase and his voice came through the open channel. “Captain Black, this is Colonel White.”
Black’s head came up and he squinted at the screen by his bunk. “Sir?”
“I wanted to tell you that Spectrum appreciates your devotion to duty. This is an experimental procedure and there are no guarantees, but, come what may of this, we will not forget that you honoured your loyalties in full measure at the earliest opportunity.”
“Thankyou, Colonel,” Black said grittily. “It was never my intention to do other.”
The terminal countdown flashed up on the main displays. Ten… Nine…
“System at capacity, relays heating,” Gold said tightly. At the master engineering control he had preset the sequence, there was no input required.
Energy danced around the emitters in a ring of fire and Black hunched his head as if in expectation of a blow.
Three… Two… One…
The system delivered in a river of lightening between the emitters that followed the circuit of the synchrotron loop, and a web of discharges built in the air, outlining a sphere some twenty feet in diameter.
“System power increasing,” Gold called out. “Plasma injectors online, beginning to trim field harmonics to appropriate resonance…”
Outlined in the purple-white fire of the raw field, Black raised a hand and brushed blue static fire from one palm to the other with a smile of curiosity, as if despite all he had seen and done he could still be surprised, even amused.
“Ramping up harmonics,” Gold reported. Plasma release in three… Two…”
Before the plasma could enter the chamber Captain Black was outlined in a sudden burst of lambent, sulphurous green light. He began to cry out, then all expression was stifled, replaced with a corpse-like withdrawal of humanity. He seemed to fold in on himself, becoming a statue of pale flesh, clad in black, and a razor-thin smile twisted his hard lips before he closed his eyes, put his head back and vanished in a shimmer of golden sparks.
“Well?” Colonel White’s hologram barked. “Could what we saw have possibly been the effect of the system? Was the energy field responsible for the disintegration of human tissue? Did it mimic an electrode discharge? Did we kill Captain Black in trying to save him?”
“Absolutely not,” Major Gold returned. “The plasma had not yet entered the field, if it had done so we would have reached a stable dynamic approximating the CME within thirty seconds. We’ve reviewed the visual recording and from his behaviour it is apparent the Mysterons re-established control. They teleported him out moments before the field would have taken effect and prevented them from doing so. Theoretically,” he added with a bleak expression, directed mostly at Scarlet.
The Colonel seemed to absorb the bluntness of the technical facts for a few moments, nodding slowly. “Very well. It tallies with sufficient accounts for us to be reasonably certain of that interpretation.” He sighed audibly. “The status quo has resumed, gentlemen, except for the weight of information Captain Black provided to us in the time he was able. Captain Turquoise, I would like a complete transcript at your earliest opportunity.”
“It will be with you momentarily, sir.”
“Captains Scarlet and Blue, continue tactical assimilation until you are confident the situation has resolved itself. Majors Gold and Fawn, you may report back to Cloudbase directly.”
They stepped out of the holo annex and looked at each other with an exhausted frustration. A hard night’s work, wishing, hoping, warring with themselves… And in the end, nothing to show for it but words they could choose to accept or reject.
“A fistful of smoke,” Scarlet said sourly. “If there is one factor in this war that dwarfs all others for sheer frustration, this is it.”
“Look on the bright side,” Blue said, almost out of patience with Scarlet’s negativity. “Maybe he was telling the truth.”
“I don’t see what good it does us, Adam.” They sank into seats in a lounge off one side of the command centre and Scarlet let his eyes close. “Okay, he was telling the absolute truth, the Mysterons are an elder race who think we’re undisciplined children and will not treat with us as equals until we evolve…” His next words were hard and cynical. “Evolution is a long time coming.”
“Maybe it needs to be hurried along.”
“That sounds like eugenics.”
“Or an appeal to common sense and humanity, which is what it sounds like they are asking of us.”
“Bottom line, what gives them the right to dictate to another species what our outlook on the universe aught to be?”
“Maybe simply because they can.” Blue unzipped his jacket with a jerk, a rasp of the slide. “We’re trying to understand an alien mind, and that is probably not possible. But they have used absolute force to prosecute their agenda on Earth for over three years now, ostensibly revenge, punishment, for an act of aggression against them. Now we have been offered a perspective on that, a new dimension to it, a reason why they should make a total response to an isolated event. It makes an ironic sense if they are cleaning the cosmic house of a potentially dangerous organism.”
“We detected their signals, we sought them out – we went gun in hand. Trust was nonexistent, and we applied our own standards to a first contact situation which, under other circumstances, might have been the human race’s gateway to willingly shared knowledge of the universe.”
“We blew it,” Scarlet said softly, staring at a coffee table before him. “We’ve always known that, and we apologised. What more can we do? Can a whole race be punished for the failure of one man?”
“Evidently, yes… The failure of the one deemed worthy to represent the rest. The Mysterons seem to believe in deeds, not words. They want us to show the promise they expect of fledgling races about to step out into the universe.”
For a long moment Scarlet could find no reply, but when he did his words were oddly hopeful. “In that case, I hope how we respond to them, day by day, is what they want and need to see.”
Blue glanced back into the command centre, where Turquoise’s technicians were now going about their daily tasks, the morning shift change due. “I have a feeling this isn’t over,” he said bluntly. “There’s been no warning, but then, this is a day of unprecedented things.”
A burst of sulphurous green energy lit a dingy tunnel of the undercity, where the night’s nefarious trade and traffic were barely done, and the poor and the criminals of Tokyo crept out of sight of the daylight, and the eyes of those who disapproved.
Captain Black shimmered into being and stood looking at his hands, where blue static fire had danced a moment earlier to his perception, as if expecting something more, or other, then looked around the squalid concrete and steel of the tunnel, a disused underpass perhaps. He could hear the distant sounds of traffic from somewhere above as a city that never slept gathered pace with the new day. His eyes were hooded, his back erect, he was the image of reserve and menace, but as a white face in an Asian slum he was also prey.
Shapes moved in the darkness and voices called in rapid-fire Japanese, the gutter dialects of the docks and airwharfs, and Black was distantly aware of their meaning, the instantaneous translation the Mysterons provided him. He was an invader in their space, a European in a place he should never have been, and his complete lack of concern as they called out to him, taunting, demanding, threatening, was pure provocation to them.
In moments a flurry of bodies detached from the gloom under the great pilings and Black was surrounded by youths in the warpaint and leather of 21st century Japan’s deep places. Surreal artwork adorned faces and bodies, guns rode open holsters at many hips, but this was, to them, an excising, a demonstration of power, and that meant swords. Blades gleamed in the dark and Black looked slowly upward to a ribbon of daylight where the underpass was open to the sky. He smiled faintly, and closed his eyes.
When they opened they were glowing with green balefire and the laugh that came from his chest was the deep sound of thunder from far away. The gang gave back for a moment, startled, as the laughter built into a brutal resonance. Perhaps a few of the lawless kids disappeared back into the shadows and ran for their lives, but the strongest among them knew no retreat, and it was their undoing.
Yelling faces, snarling hate, circled Black, swords were brandished, wheeling through katas with a singing of air on their razor-honed edges, and at last the leader of the gang went into a combat stance, eyes maddened; he drew back, bounded in and thrust with a cry of death-lust.
The sword went through Black, the tip a foot out of his back, and the gang seemed to freeze in their circling rage to take in the spectacle, but in a silence total and terrible they staggered back in shock as Black, unmoved, looked down at the blade in his chest. The gang leader looked up over his weapon into the blazing green eyes and released the hilt, jerking back with his hands wide in utter shock.
Black considered the blade for a moment as if curious, then took hold of the wicked metal with his bare hands and seemed to concentrate… The sword moved sideways through his flesh, his body flowing together in its wake as if made from a viscous liquid, clothes included. It appeared from his side and with a sound of settling oil his body closed over, undamaged and complete. He turned the weapon, inspected the blade, tested the edge with a thumb that produced a sound like the highest string of a harp, and smiled icily for a terrible moment.
When he came amongst them it was with a rage such as they had only imagined in their most fevered dreams. His speed was breathtaking, his technique disciplined and perfect, his dedication unflinching. Swords met in bursts of sparks, chiming in the morning air, and one by one the gang went down. Time was stretched cruelly in their death throes, in reality only a few seconds elapsed between Black taking the blade and the last of the youths collapsing in red ruin. The sword was red to the hilt, and Black stood in the midst of a butcher’s yard, to look at the carnage he had created. The blood staining his clothes dripped away as if repelled by their surface, not a mark remained moments later, and he stooped to wipe the blade on a boy’s shirt. He took the leader’s scabbard, sheathed the blade and tied it over his shoulder, samurai-fashion, turned and stalked into the darkness, unblinking.
He had a mission to complete. The annihilation of Spectrum’s Tokyo Maximum Security Building.
An hour after the shift change Scarlet sat in the command centre, shaved but haggard, unable to sleep, and his eyes roved the banks, he listened to the reports that flowed on the network, and was unable to shake the feeling that the matter was not resolved. He had asked Major Gold to dismantle the EM field system, and pack it for potential future deployment, it was a valuable new tool, potentially a weapon, if they could figure out how to use it properly, so the exercise was by no means a total loss.
His last conversation with Blue was haunting him and he went over it in his mind. Showing promise… Did the human race show promise? At any time, by alien standards? How were they to know what those standards were if they were not told? If he applied the Day the Earth Stood Still model, “promise” would equate to any moves which served to bring the human race closer together in amity, and to embrace a holistic and tolerant view of the universe. Militarism was an issue he could not resolve. Spectrum was an armed force, but it operated very differently to, for instance, the Frost Line Space Defence system. What must the Mysterons have made of the occasion when General Ward had targeted the full global barrage against Mars? No missiles had flown, but his conceit in assuming the threat of his missiles had forced a back-down was almost impossibly naïve.
That was a low point, but there were also highpoints in the last three years. Treaties, scientists and philosophers who had coaxed into law measures to preserve the natural world, to expand peacefully into space, to offer friendship and exchange with alien races… Now that it was demonstrated beyond dispute that sentient life existed elsewhere in space, the intelligentsia who had been brought into the strictly controlled circle of those aware of the ultimate facts had not been slow to put them in a cosmic perspective. It was far from impossible the Mysterons had enemies out there among the stars, and it was attractive to imagine enlisting the aid of such beings, but not very practical. For all reasonable purposes, humanity was quite alone, pressed from space on one hand and the oceans on the other. But that did not prevent the planning of probes to the stars to bear the felicitations of humankind.
Scarlet could not leave the idea alone, and invoked a search and matching routine at a free terminal. Defining the parameters took a while, but he categorised, with the precision of a diplomat, the nature of positive and negative actions according to his conception of what the Mysterons wanted of the human race, going by Black’s testimony. He matched the occurrence of such events in human dealings, drawn from the worldwide news archive and records of sensitive, official acts to which Spectrum was privy, to the central database’s record of Mysteron activity on Earth, then set the search to run and sat back to watch.
He was not even sure precisely what he was looking for, but as the global database was opened and run, graphs of comparative results built up gradually, and he frowned as he observed trends. When the run came right up to date he would see summary figures, but in the first two years of the war he saw cycles in the data which, if he allowed himself to interpret them that way, seemed to represent action and reaction.
Eventually, he stared at the finished charts and breathed shallowly, wondering if he had found substantiation for Black’s claims, claims that had almost sounded forced and trite in the dark hours. Perhaps he was imagining it, but Lieutenant Green could run the data far more objectively and tell them a more complete story. As it was, it appeared to Scarlet that when the human race did things which offended the Mysteron conception of progress, alien intervention became more frequent and targets more damaging. When human actions seemed to be moving in the right direction Mysteron action decreased in frequency and severity.
Blinking, Scarlet rubbed his eyes and saved the data. It would stand a lot more analysis, but on the face of it he had found a real-world, observable correlation that supported Black’s story – subtly enough to have easily gone undetected in the day to day dealings of the world. But, prompted to make the connection, it was only too obvious…
Maybe all they had to do was conquer human nature to end the war. The thought made Scarlet laugh under his breath with exhausted irony, because the very proposition set them at odds with sacred notions such as freedom of choice, belief and opinion, and he knew that before any global reformation could occur, global knowledge of the existence of the Mysteron threat would have to happen too, and that was a matter for policy makers at the highest level. From what he knew of human nature, too few would ever believe such a proposal for its implications to be carried into global policy.
And so we suffer, he thought harshly. How long would they have to? A hundred years? A species-wide refusal to evolve, to mature… It would have its price, and Scarlet’s personal nightmare was that his indestructibility would also mean life eternal, and thus leave him fighting the war, tied to the bloody-mindedness and hate of his fellow human being, functionally forever.
Scarlet had never given much thought to precognition, as a rational, left-brained man he had only minimal use for the philosophies, so the experience that swamped him in the next few moments left him sweating coldly, at a loss to understand what was happening.
The image that invaded his mind was disturbing because it was so real. Himself, alone, walking through an alien labyrinth, beholding things beyond his comprehension, but carrying a message for the Mysterons… Of peace, of destruction, or mediation, he had no idea. But he was there, far, far in the future, still carrying the flag when all he knew had long turned to dust.
“No,” he mouthed softly to himself, unable to grasp the message his subconscious was giving him, unable to interpret the imagery.
A moment later he was spared the necessity of trying, as a thunder he knew well issued from every speaker.
“This is the voice of the Mysterons. We know that you can hear us, Earthmen. You have squandered your momentary advantage and will pay dearly for your lack of faith. Prepare to lose the stakes you wagered.”
The alarm blared through the building and Scarlet was on his feet at once, mic dropping to his lips. “Scarlet to Cloudbase, we have a Mysteron threat, computers are crossmatching the cryptogrammatry.”
The reply was in a soft Canadian accent. “Captain, this is Major Silver, Colonel White is in the Room of Sleep. Lieutenant Indigo is also crossmatching.”
All over the world, wherever the threat was received as it manifested in the electronic systems of the organisation, computers ran the program that had been developed to interpret the Mysterons’ penchant for communicating in riddles and metaphors. Their results would be pooled in the main Cloudbase computer to refine the verdict, but this time Scarlet did not really need it: he knew the stakes they had wagered, and as Blue entered the command centre, face drawn from the strain of swiftly-broken sleep, buckling the belt of his tunic, Scarlet gestured with an open hand to the building around them.
“We wouldn’t take him aboard Cloudbase,” Blue said with a nod. “We wagered this facility.”
“He’s here,” Scarlet agreed with a hard expression. “And this time he’s come to take it out.”
Turquoise entered, running a hand through his black hair and barking for updates from his morning shift personnel. The building had gone automatically to yellow alert, as had the entire organisation the moment the threat was received, and now the base commander drew the Cloudbase men to the main status boards. “We’re showing no Mysteronised matter in the building at this time. The instant he enters, by whatever means, we will detect him. We have the option of going to lockdown mode.”
“Nothing in or out, nothing moving internally” Blue observed. “How many people do you have in the field?”
“A few technical personnel on liaison, a Spectrum Police detail at the Civic Proscenium.”
“If we go into lockdown, we’re inside a fortress, but we’re also immobile,” Scarlet said with narrowed eyes. It makes it harder for an insurgent to operate, but this one has benefit of teleportation, and we can’t walk through walls to stay with him.”
“Lockdown would be a liability,” Turquoise agreed.
“So roll with it,” Blue agreed. “Leave our options open.”
“Main projections of vulnerability?” Scarlet asked, and Turquoise adjusted the display. Areas of the building were shaded in different colours.
“Power systems, air filtration, arsenal,” Turquoise read off. “Full security measures are in place, every provision conceivable by human and cybernetic intelligence has been made. EM grids in every area of the building are primed to emit radiation to take out Mysteronised matter the moment it is detected.” He smiled thinly. “Yourself excluded, but god help you if the central computer ever fails to recognise you.”
Scarlet shook his head as if it was an old fear. “All we can do is monitor and wait for Black to make his move, whatever the Mysterons have in mind.”
The central armoury of the Tokyo Special Tactical Response Unit was a maximum security area, but it was not equipped to deal with Mysterons. The Japanese Federal Police was not an agency inside the circle of privileged knowledge, therefore no provisions had been made against other than mortal enemies.
The prospect of riots fielding firepower and the kind of maniacal hate Black had encountered in the undercity prompted the authorities to take the greatest pains, and no equipment was too complex or specialised to be committed to the public safety role. Though it may rarely ever be used, it was on call.
The armoury bunker was beneath a Police compound, secured by steel and concrete, identity checks and computer controlled doors, all of which meant precisely nothing to Captain Black as he materialised in the vault in a flurry of green flashes. Lights flickered on as sensors detected his presence, and central computers became aware of him, CCTV vectoring onto him at once. All of this he was aware of, as his dark, slitted eyes scanned the garage, his gaze sweeping over ranks of vehicles. High performance pursuit bikes, armoured cars, a helijet… His eyes stopped on an armoured Tactical Response truck and he smiled thinly. All the gear he would need was already aboard and the goliath was maintained in ready-to-roll condition.
He stretched out a hand and two rings of green light drifted over the dusty concrete, swept up over the vehicle and lingered on the cab. Electronic lockouts were swiftly circumvented and the engine barked to life, punishingly loud in the closed space. The green glow moved on as Black strode toward the truck and swung up into the equipment-packed rear container, the coded locks yielding to Mysteron influence readily. He knew security was moving toward him in force, and his focussed will set the truck in motion, pulling out of its bay and heading for closed steel doors. The doors responded the same way as any other device, ground upward to provide access to a tunnel that lead up toward the surface. The truck would functionally drive itself, and Black knew he had perhaps fifteen minutes to prepare. As the first small arms fire rattled on the hull and he felt it take the upper checkpoint in a sweeping turn for the exit, he stood among the weapons, flack jackets and grenades, terminals and com systems, and smiled up at the suit of tactical battle armour that rode in massive restraints. Humans had a way of always building precisely what their enemies needed, and Black smiled grimly as his hand hovered over a keypad, inputting information that freed the system and brought the giant online.
“Emergency on the Police band,” a technician reported and Turquoise scanned the report.
“Tactical Assault unit stolen out of the Police armoury…” Turquoise shared a quick glance with Scarlet and Blue. “Put up its GPS,” he ordered. A plotboard lit with a map of Tokyo and a flashing indicator showed the truck thundering along a main highway between the towers. “It’s heading this way,” Turquoise grunted. “What do they have on board?”
When a list of the tactical weaponry printed up over the map the Spectrum men nodded and Blue stabbed a finger at the displays. “That’s enough to take on the Underworld in spades, and even Spectrum isn’t going to take it lightly. ETA 11 minutes. Whatever we’re going to do, we better do it quick.”
“Building to red,” Turquoise snapped, and the MSB shifted to battle stations, going into external lockdown. “We have three SPVs on call, and two SHJs. We can request air cover but this is the heart of a city, gentlemen, the odds of a clear shot presenting itself in the midst of a civilian population are minimal at best.”
“Call Cloudbase for the Angels anyway,” Scarlet said, making the decision. “They’re close enough to be here in five minutes. I’ll take a Helijet. Blue?”
“I’ll put an SPV in its way; Turquoise, if you have good men to handle the other two..?”
“You have them. Lieutenants Viridian and Lilac.”
Resources were moving at once, elevators took officers in both directions through the tower as signals flashed through the ether, and Cloudbase launched its fighters into the morning sky. Armoured doors growled open from the underground garages and the long, sleek, savage shapes of three Pursuit Vehicles snarled up the ramp into the wan daylight of another polluted day. Far overhead, an SHJ lifted away from the lower pad and Scarlet sent it racing out over the city after the GPS tracer of the stolen truck.
He picked it up barely sixty seconds later and turned hard to overfly what had developed into a running fight as Police chase units hounded the big truck. It was built tough to survive assault and the electronic means by which the Police were trying to recover control were ineffective, the bottom line being that the truck continued to eat up the miles toward the MSB. Its run-flat tires were resisting gunfire, and sudden violent manoeuvres were shaking off police cars as catastrophic crashes developed in their wake. By the time the second major collision had blocked the freeway the word came down to abandon pursuit, they were costing lives the theft alone had not. The Watch Commander, already in touch with the MSB, called Turquoise to relinquish the matter, and not without a note of relief. Whatever ghost had passed their security, its business appeared to be with Spectrum, and they were welcome to it.
The traffic was thinning out as a roadblock ahead diverted vehicles from entering the freeway, and when the truck blasted onto a mile-long stretch without bystanders Scarlet flung the helijet into the attack, stooped like a hawk and the belly turret pumped shells in a stream of tracer. Explosions straddled the giant’s back, tore away external equipment and pounded the armoured body, and the Mysterons swerved the truck randomly back and forth. It had no mounted firepower with which they could respond, and so long as the civilian population was not exposed Scarlet had a free field of fire.
Backing throttle, Scarlet brought the SHJ down hard alongside the elevated highway, slewed the canon and hammered the truck’s running gear, the shaft of shells carving through more than one soaring light mast. Flashes of flame built around the underbody and first one tire, then another, blew out violently, beyond their self-repair capacity. The truck was a 22-wheel semitrailer, and a certain critical number was required to support it.
Violent manoeuvres saved enough of them for the truck to make another half mile before Scarlet was out of ammunition and the Angels arrived. The fighters streaked overhead and Rhapsody lead Symphony and Harmony into an attack run along the highway. Seconds were reeling in fast before the vehicle regained the cover of a forest of towers, and when their air to surface missiles flashed free they connected the fighters to the roadway on ruler-straight smoke trails, the truck bracketed by a terrific fireball. One round ploughed into the road to the right, blowing a crater clean through it, a second detonated on proximity fuse overhead, scattering the truck with shrapnel rods that tore away all external structures, but the third clipped the edge of the container and peeled it open like a tin can. The interior was filled with flame and pieces of shattered equipment rolled on the highway behind the careering monster as the planes went over.
Incredibly, it was still moving, the tractor mostly undamaged, and as the spur to the MSB came up ahead the three SPVs opened fire as one.
Blue was in an ideal ambush position, the blue tank backed in alongside another building, the exit ramp from the highway in his field of vision and covered. The forward hatch was open, canon extended, and the autoloader pumped rocket shells through one after another. The truck’s cab and container took multiple hits, the structure was torn open and ruined, and taking the turn at the bottom of the exit was its last act under control. The other two SPVs had also engaged and the tractor was haloed in flame, tires blowing out one after another. But so much momentum took a lot of stopping and the blazing beast careered across the security cordon area outside the wide reception level.
Gunning his engine, Blue gritted his teeth, felt acceleration press him forward in his harness, and the target grew in his monitor. “No you don’t!” he gritted through his teeth, held his course and felt his forward starboard flank crunch home against the tractor among the streaming flame and twisted metal. The truck screamed against concrete as it was physically bulldozed aside, and Blue broke free at the last moment as the goliath jack-knifed and rolled.
It went over in a terrific impact that spilled burning fuel and the streaks of ammunition still cooking off, and its turbine engine blew out in a savage ripping of metal from the underside, then the truck shivered to a final halt and lay burning in a lake of crackling blue jet fuel a hundred yards from its target.
Scarlet hovered overhead and heaved a long, shaky sigh. He yawed the helijet in signal to the Angels as the fighters peeled by the tower, whipping the smoke column of the explosion to shreds, and the three SPVs closed in around the wreck. “Careful, careful,” Scarlet warned. “City fire services will be here soon, but we need to know the wreck is both safe and inert.”
“Just covering it,” Blue said tightly. “Nothing gets in or out…”
Scarlet held his position off to one side, watching the conflagration, and it began to seem they had blunted the Mysteron assault. But if the war had taught him anything it was never to assume a fight was over too soon.
The pyre raged in the morning light as emergency vehicles appeared on the highway arc, police and fire services waiting on Spectrum’s okay to move in. Scarlet knew they were waiting for his call and he almost gave it, bit some sixth sense kept him watching…
It seemed the wreck shifted slightly, settling as its metal was blued and warped by the inferno bubbling from its belly, then a shape moved in the flames, massive, humanoid and malevolent. It rose up, stood in the conflagration, then vaulted free of the truck to land in the lake of burning fuel like a statue of heat-discoloured metal. Every lick of paint and insignia were gone, it was just a shell of titanium and tungsten alloys, but it was otherwise undamaged, and before Scarlet could gasp a warning the apparition half turned, crouched and flung up its left arm where a rotary cannon spun and screeched away shells at an incredible rate.
In the SPV Blue ducked involuntarily as the shaft of rounds hammered his panoramic video pickup and his driving monitor blanked. The rifle calibre shells had not breached the protective cover but the impact had thrown the system into reboot. “I’m blind,” he called desperately, “secondaries coming online, backup targeting system – but I may not have time…”
The metal giant was crouching by the truck’s corpse for cover from the other two SPVs, and a moment later it broke out in a long, lurching stride, a run that carried it across the forecourt of the MSB, trailing flame like a demon. Scarlet’s warning was a hoarse yell and Viridian and Lilac opened fire, an intersection of heavy shot that was poorly targeted and blew gaping chunks from nearby buildings.
Half way to the armoured shutters that had come down over the building entrance, a rocket projectile erupted from the giant’s hulking shoulders and the AP warhead blew in one of the steel panels in a cracking detonation. A moment later Black was at the defensive line and the suit’s arms tore the steel panel like paper. Before the SPVs could regain line of sight Black was inside.
Overhead Scarlet flung the SHJ for the lower pad on the tower, barking: “Scarlet to Turquoise, pull your men back, you have all kinds of hell coming at you! Give me a tactical assessment in the next 30 seconds!”
From the lower pad to the command centre was a short run and when Scarlet entered Turquoise jabbed a finger at the building graphic on the plotboard. “He’s tearing through the security doors one by one, heading into sub-level three. That’s the magazine and fuel stockpiles.”
With a sharp nod, Scarlet agreed. “Black knows how to hurt us. “Time estimate?”
“It’ll take him about ten to fifteen minutes to get through them. Our central computer is revising the coding in realtime to try to prevent the Mysterons taking direct control of the systems, and he’s using a combination of brute strength and explosives to get past each door. There are three between him and the stockpiles.”
Scarlet stood with fists on hips, adrenalin pounding in his veins, and his eyes seemed far away for a moment. Then he stabbed a finger at a storage chamber on sub-level 2. “I want that section cleared immediately. Use a bulldozer if need be!” Turquoise looked at him with a question in his face. “The last thing Conrad told me before they reclaimed him was that our best weapon was triple-think. Well, we’re in a position to know things Black does not, therefore the Mysterons do not. Use only face to face communication, nothing to monitor, but I have a plan. Tell your tech teams they need to work faster than they ever have in their lives before, because – ” He checked the time. “In seven minutes I’ll be at the junction to sub-corridor G12, and I’m going to draw Black away from his target.”
After outlining his plan Scarlet went down fast in the elevator and his cap mic flipped down as he passed the tenth floor, his epaulettes flashing blue. “Go ahead.”
“Paul, are you mad?” Blue’s lack of both procedure and preamble underlined his attitude. “I don’t know if you’ve taken a close look at the specs on that monster but our good friends at Japan’s military industrial laboratories incorporated an electrode canon among its arsenal. This time it really is your life on the line.”
“I know, Adam,” Scarlet said softly, and not one word more. He knew Blue would be on his way as fast as he could move, and face to face he would tell him the rest. The elevator deposited him in the interchange halls where the security checkpoints gave access to the guts of the building, and he was on his way through retinal scan and palm print when Blue appeared on the other side of the barrier from one of the garage pits. Scarlet put up a flat hand to stop him, and only when Blue fell into step beside him on the way to the armoury could he explain in a tight voice. “Yes. That’s what I’m banking on, that the Mysterons will consider the opportunity of actually taking me off the gameboard worth diverting Black from his objective.” He tapped the side of his nose. “And straight into a trap.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Blue returned after a moment, taciturn in his discomfort. “Is there a role for me in this great design?”
“Of course,” Scarlet managed with a flat grin. “I wouldn’t leave you out in the cold.” At the armoury they rescanned and were admitted to a vault containing enough weaponry to start and finish a small war. Through the floor beneath them they could feel a titanic pounding… Black, tearing and smashing at the mechanisms that secured the next door. Shatter them and he would be through.
“That armour is radiation shielded,” Blue said softly. “Our mounted electrode weapons are ineffective, it’s the only way a Mysteron could survive inside a Spectrum fortification. But by the same token, there’s nothing in this room that will more than annoy him. An explosion big enough to stun Black inside it would probably take out a thousand cubic metres of the structure as well.”
Scarlet chose a big-calibre assault rifle with a grenade launcher under the barrel, checked it and drew on a tactical load bearer vest with magazines and grenades, then pulled an environmental helmet from its shelf. “It’ll get toxic in there fast,” he explained, pressing his cap to Blue, along with a second identical kit. “I want you to drive him. I’m the carrot, you’re the stick, we keep him moving. If I can sting him to keep coming we only need to shift him a hundred yards from his objective and we’ve got him.” He checked the time. “I want him in Underpark 4 about six minutes from now, no sooner.” He smiled thinly. “We need to give them time…”
“Good plan,” Blue said, intuiting the details in a sudden rush, and smiling guardedly as he hung both their caps from a shelf and chambered a round. “Let’s go get him.”
When the second door yielded to Black, the suit’s lights picked out the tunnel stretching on to the vehicle pyrotechnics bay. On the other side of that last security door were the hoists to the deep bunkers where the missiles and canon rounds for the rolling stock were stored, and tens of thousands of gallons of fuel. One high-yield charge dropped into that vault and the Tokyo MSB would be a blazing memory.
The suit powered down the hall on long, rolling strides with the whine of its servos, but in the targeting scope in the faceplate a spark of infrared energy appeared at a cross juncture to another section of the Level 3 security ring. Black’s eyes flicked to the spot and it expanded into a telephoto image… Of Scarlet’s face as he looked carefully around the corner.
Black jolted to a halt and one arm began to come up, the electrode weapon deploying from its sheath as the target details were passed automatically. But in the same moment Scarlet twitched as he flung up a weapon concealed by his body, aimed from the shoulder and the IR system sheeted out into green overload with muzzle flash. The rounds impacted the helmet like hammers on a bell, 6, 8, 10 solid hits, each delivering up over 50, 000 foot-pounds, which tipped the suit backward faster than its autostabilisation system could keep it in balance. It went down on its back with a titanic crash, the electrode canon flashing high, and Scarlet emptied the rest of the magazine into weapons and sensors in the moment or two of shock following the collapse.
The Mysterons reacted very quickly, the monster was heaving itself over and up within three seconds, and Scarlet backed off fast, reloading, to sprint for the next cover point in the corridor, a structural stanchion cased in concrete. When the fighting suit came around the corner he knew the bait had been taken and this time he loosed off the grenade launcher. The 40mm AP projectile detonated on the suit’s chest plate and without the helmet Scarlet would have been deafened. The flash lit the tunnel as the blast took out overhead lighting systems and the fire suppression plumbing began to vent halon gas.
Again the suit was shoved off its feet, and in the moments it took Black to come doggedly back upright Scarlet ran for his life to an interconnecting door. He paused to hammer the hatch release and seal the fire door behind him, knowing it would be like a red rag to a bull, and was unsurprised that a few seconds later the door shuddered and crumpled as the suit’s monstrous arms did their work. Black tore the door apart and heaved it aside but as he stepped through, a second AP shell detonated on the armoured back of the suit, pushing him forward through the hatch. He caught himself on his arms, turned like a cat and a rotary cannon blazed back down the curving corridor, more defiance than attack as Blue had dodged back into cover as the shell struck.
Ahead, Scarlet had taken a cross juncture and chambered another AP. He backed into an alcove as the lights flickered and went down. The air was filled with smoke and halon fumes and the toxic residues of explosives, and in the dark he switched the helmet faceplate to infra-red. The suit’s flame-heated casing would shine like the sun and he would see it coming without difficulty.
The ogre was after him almost before he could react. This time Black came with triggers locked, twin rotary canons tearing the walls apart, flinging metal sheeting like leaves and gouging concrete in a storm of dust and grit. After a massive salvo he released the electrode canon into the corridor, a flash of electrical energy outlining piping and supports. Scarlet cringed from the energy, knowing it would be the end of him, one good hit and his matter would lose cohesion… The charge was poorly aimed, though, and he rode out the flash, to whirl and release the next shell from the grenade launcher. This time it struck the ceiling and a water pipe burst, dropping a heavy spray over the armoured suit that hissed and steamed violently.
Black strode through it with arms twitching, reaching, and Scarlet fell back again, knowing instinctively that Blue was only waiting for him to clear the area before attacking from behind. An entire clip of the heavy rounds hammered into the back of the suit’s head piece and Black steadied himself, a great mechanical hand against the wall, before whirling and throwing an HE grenade from a shoulder launcher back toward Blue. As the blast filled the tunnel with flame again, he pressed on after Scarlet with a flailing of massive limbs clearing wreckage.
There were no dramatics, no melodramatic dialogue. This was not Hollywood, it was a life or death clinch in which split-second timing counted, and the combat suit was the demon in Scarlet’s personal hell. He was trusting that Turquiose’s men had done their jobs in the short time he had given them: if they had not, he was probably dead, he could not stay ahead of this goliath for much longer.
Underpark 4 came up at the end of the next corridor. Black must not smell a rat, he must keep coming, and as Scarlet fell back again Blue added to the melee, a grenade detonating over Black’s head to drop a jumble of concrete and twisted metal over the suit. It was too much to hope that shards would jam in the joints and immobilise limbs, and the suit flailed free of the wreckage at once. Black did not waste a round at Blue, but triggered his electrode canon several times into the space ahead before coming on fast, crouching by the double doors and firing blind, streaks of tracer lighting the chamber and blowing parked Saloons to shreds.
In his targeting scope the rapid blinking of Scarlet’s muzzle flash gave away his prey’s location in the same moment the heavy shells hit home mercilessly, smearing on the armour or ricocheting off in blue sparks, and when the fusillade of the full clip was done Black twisted to present a shoulder launcher and spat a grenade. Scarlet had been on one knee behind the hood of a Saloon, and he flung himself down, diving into the lee of an MSV in the moment the grenade blew the Saloon to the roof girders. The shock stunned him, the assault rifle falling from his numb hands, and he staggered in a world of shock. He knew only one thing, he must keep going…
A yellow line on the garage floor had been marked with a spot of red from an aerosol, and only Scarlet knew what it meant. Ground zero. In the fierce heat of the wreck and the sudden slam of fire doors, the venting of halon gas, Scarlet staggered on, hugging the vehicle line, and he heard Black’s terrible metallic tread behind him. He risked a glance back and realised the suit was almost on top of him. Would Black rip him limb from limb at the finish? With his last breath before unconsciousness, Scarlet weaved out from the vehicles toward the red spot and collapsed unobtrusively two metres from it.
Goliath footsteps made the ground shake as the suit strode up and paused over him and Scarlet gritted his teeth as he seemed to swim in and out of consciousness. Now! he thought, now! But perhaps Turquoise’s men were not ready yet… For terrible moments he lay at the mercy of the monster, then great servos whined as a hand came down and took him around the waist, lifting him into the air. He found himself face to face with the black visage of the suit, then an external speaker came online. It was the Voice of the Mysterons.
“All things come to an end,” it said, the rumble reverberating in the chamber. “Your battle has been well-waged, Captain Scarlet, but in the end only the Mysterons can be victorious.”
The left arm came up, electrode cannon deployed, and Scarlet realised his life was over.
Blue-edged electrical discharges shimmered in the air all around them, building into a misty wall of energy between floor and ceiling, and the headpiece of the suit twitched as Black looked around. A flush of golden light shot through the EM field as plasma raced on the lines and nodes of force, and solidified into a tight web of amber energy. The head piece continued to scan around for some moments, then the left arm very slowly went down, weapons retracting.
With a clash of locking mechanisms, the upper body seemed to part above the chest plate and the helmet lifted back, revealing Black in the driver’s cocoon. His features were pallid but his expression was human, as were his eyes, and he set Scarlet down gently. Against the flicker of the smouldering cars, Black coughed on the halon fumes. Extractors were cleaning the air but it was still rank. He smiled and shook his head.
“It worked,” he said simply. “Good idea, Scarlet, get them so fixated on taking their nemesis out that they lose sight of their own objective. You just demonstrated their fallibility.” He laughed. “You see, the fight is winnable after all. Never give up.”
“Glad to have you back on the team,” Scarlet panted, shading his eyes from the suit’s floodlights. A fire door ground upward and Blue skirmished forward into the garage, weapon shouldered, but he lowered it as he realised the magic had been worked.
“I wish it was possible,” Black said softly. “But I can almost hear their minds working. I know what they are doing… You must understand, after all this time there is no way back, not for me. I know they are looking for a way to cut the power to the field generator. They’ll blow out a connection, open a master switch, and it won’t take them long. The fact is I only have moments to cheat them.”
“What…?” Scarlet looked at Blue, a note of foreboding in his voice, as if a precognition too awful to tolerate was making itself felt. “No… Come on, Conrad, give us a chance to work on this. It’s not perfect yet, of course not, but we can do this.”
“I’m sure you will, but it won’t help me. My seconds are running out, Paul. I’m sorry, you must believe that I know this. And I won’t let them take me back. Not again.”
The electrode cannon deployed and with a lazy action Black brought his arm up, hinged and trained the emitters squarely on himself.
“There is no option,” he said softly. He looked from Scarlet to Blue and back. “Give my regards to Colonel White and my respects to all of Spectrum. But let me go. You must let me go.”
The moment seemed stretched to eternity, awful seconds in which minds whirled and needs cried out, but in the end Scarlet and Blue could only stand by and nod gently.
“Go, my friend,” Scarlet whispered. “Be free.”
Black looked into the emitter and smiled, closed his eyes and lay his head back, and when he triggered the cannon the end came as a blessing. A wreath of greenish flame crackled about him and his retrometabolised matter seemed to shimmer before flying apart in a cloud of diffusing vapour. The suit stood solid and tall, deprived on its operator, a dumb titan awaiting direction, and Scarlet waved a hand at the nearest CCTV pickup in the ceiling of the garage, making a chopping motion across his throat, and a few moments later the field dissipated around him.
The garage was silent but for the hum of the suit’s systems and the drone of the extractor fans, and the captains broke the neck seals of their helmets in the suddenly chill air, to stare at each other, unable to find words.
Afternoon sun lit the Cloudbase Monitor Room, and Scarlet and Blue stood with Colonel White in the observation tube to look down on the expanse of the flight deck. An SPJ was awaiting clearance to depart for Taipei, Captains Grey and Brown inspecting potential weak points in global security.
The debriefing had taken two hours and all were tired from it, but in the aftermath more needed to be said than a breakdown of facts, opinions and statements. Captain Turquoise had accompanied them to Cloudbase to report on behalf of his division, and was waiting below to return to Tokyo.
The islands of Japan were a long haze along the horizon as Cloudbase overflew the indigo of the far western Pacific, ands Colonel White lead his Captains to a discrete distance from the nerve centre before he spoke.
“Our own technicians have reviewed the CCTV visual record of Captain Black’s last moments. There are certain similarities to a Mysteron beam-out event, but analysis of the air and surfaces of the chamber tally with results obtained from prior occasions when the electrode gun has been used. They confirm that Black’s body was in fact vaporised by the loss of cohesion within its molecular structure. To all intents and purposes, Captain Black is no more.”
Blue squinted at the tone in the Colonel’s voice. “Is there any reason to doubt, other than hope?”
“Hope?” White smiled, just for a moment. “As human beings we may hope that our friend and comrade has at last been freed from his intolerable servitude. As soldiers we may hope for the same, ending the slur and jeer of our own flesh and blood being turned against us. As pragmatists we may hope that the Mysterons have learned something of human nature in all this, and further, that every shred of information he gave us was true and accurate, and that it may be of use in future. As realists we may hope the Mysterons were not deceiving us by merely relinquishing control of Captain Black when the field was erected to convince us our assumptions were correct. As pessimists we might conclude that the exercise was one of futility as neither Black’s freedom nor information genuinely damaging to the Mysterons was forthcoming. As optimists…” Now he smiled. “Ah, but as optimists…”
Scarlet and Blue let him expand on his thoughts uninterrupted. They knew this was special, it was for their ears only.
“As optimists we might hope that the Mysterons have meticulously analysed both our actions and Captain Black’s during his time free of them. That they know we have been briefed on things perhaps we were not supposed to know… or perhaps we were. Has it occurred to anyone else that this situation may have been their way of presenting us with information without losing face or changing the footing of the war? This is not to imply deception, anything but. It implies a subtle negotiation, a concession to us. As Captain Scarlet’s lateral thinking supports… The main computing section will make an in-depth analysis of the frequency and severity of Mysteron attacks and plot them against world events, and if the theory holds good I am more than prepared to place the evidence before the World President. But that is where optimism ends, gentlemen. When human nature, credence and attitude come into focus it is hard to be other than pessimistic. Perhaps we defend Earth too well: the majority of its citizens are blissfully unaware of the alien threat. If they were aware of it, and of the underlying facts, maybe they would be frightened enough to do what they should not have to be forced to do in the first place.”
“Where do we go from here, sir?” Scarlet asked softly, watching as the SPJ was cleared through and launched away to his left.
“We resume our duties, Captains. The sun will rise tomorrow and the war will go on. We may have a potent new strategy in the plasma shield, and I have already ordered Major Gold to proceed with development of possible point-defence applications, as well as projecting means to insulate Cloudbase’s systems from field harmonic interference, but we cannot expect these measures for one, maybe two years. Can we shield the entire planet? Who knows, that is for the physicists to ponder. But this situation is far from a loss.”
Blue had been about to comment when an electric feeling in the air, a crawling of their skins, told them a Mysteron threat was about to be made. They turned for the Monitor Room but when the Voice of the Mysterons burst from the speakers the message was incongruous…
“This is the voice, not of the Mysterons, but of Captain Black, speaking on their behalf. This message is directed only to Cloudbase, and to Captain Scarlet and Colonel White.”
The officers shared a glance of bewilderment, there was no precedent for this.
“Know this. Death is an ephemeral state, and is without meaning to those who have learned to harness and control the elemental forces of the universe. It is neither a condemnation nor a refuge. It is irrelevant. The Mysterons will continue to exact their just vengeance upon the human race but acknowledge that you have been made privy to certain information which may, in the fullness of time, prove useful in ending this conflict. To Captain Scarlet, I say only this: I will be free on the day you are. You know what I mean by this. You know what you must do, as do I.”
The terrible voice faded in the air of the Monitor Room and the men looked at eachother, taking in Lieutenant Green’s expression. Colonel White breathed a deep sigh and nodded to the Lieutenant. “Tag that file maximum security, Lieutenant. My eyes only. If it went no further than this room, we’ll keep it that way.” He smiled tightly. “Oh, and rescind previous broadcast, Spectrum wide. Reports of Captain Black’s death have proven to be exaggerated. General Order 1 remains in force.” As he turned for his desk his expression told them his feelings, that the order was superfluous, and of value only to morale. He took his seat and traded a long glance with Scarlet and Blue, his right hands and most valued agents in the fight against the Mysterons.
“We discover that the effectiveness of our electrode weapons is limited to the Mysterons’ willingness to concede victory in a given situation. Black is clearly too valuable to them to relinquish, and we may grieve for all he suffers in their thrall.” He shook his a head faintly. “I suggest you get some rest, gentlemen. You’ve had a long and productive night, as has all of Spectrum.”
On the spire of the highest tower of Tokyo, a flurry of green energy shimmered into being, resolving quickly into the shape of a black-clad man, pale and corpse-like but nonetheless alive. The very mechanisms of teleportation and retrometabolism almost precluded death when matter dispersed could be reconstituted without difficulty and imbued with a recording of the energy patterns that constituted memory and personality. If this person was real, or otherwise, became a philosophic point, and as irrelevant as death itself to the alien puppetmasters.
Captain Black stood on a high ledge, looking down on the biggest city in the world, arms folded and eyes cold, awaiting the next offensive; like a gargoyle of centuries gone by he watched the coming and going of mere humans, and stood apart from them. But his eyes found the distant peak of the Spectrum MSB and he smiled coldly, for this game remained in play, and a tiny shard of his imprisoned personality took the greatest pleasure in the fact that it still stood.
And this time, the Mysterons appreciated the spark of human defiance, and perhaps understood it better than they had ever been able to before.
After many centuries they were still learning about human beings.
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