A 2003 Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons End-Credits-Pictures Challenge Story
by Tiger Jackson
As consciousness returned, Captain Scarlet swallowed hard and painfully. His throat ached, and he could feel deep bruises forming. A wave of dizziness washed over him. Eyes still shut, Scarlet tried to run a self-assessment. By the feel of things, he was sitting on the ground, leaning against a fragrant but rather lumpy tree. He tried moving and discovered his ankles were bound, as were his wrists, pulled painfully behind him. What had happened? How had he ended up here? Wherever here was.
He concentrated. Ah, he remembered. Spectrum Intelligence had learned of terrorist threats against the Ganges River in India, but the nature of the threats was unclear. Colonel White had dispatched him to Delhi where he was to rendezvous with the local agent, Captain Umber.
He’d arrived in Delhi and checked into the Imperial Hotel. The desk clerk had given him an envelope containing the directions to the meeting place. It was too far to walk, and Captain Scarlet was not anxious to manoeuvre the Spectrum saloon car through the unfamiliar streets again. It was easier to hire a rickshaw to take him to the address Umber had given him.
The ride was rather pleasant. The thick press of vehicles eased as the road widened and became tree-lined. The houses became palatial, with imposing gates and extensive gardens. The driver slowed, searching for numbers, and finally stopped. This was it. Scarlet checked the directions again. A portion of this house’s gardens was kept open for the public to visit. The entrance was a little further up the road; he could find it easily, so he paid the driver and sent him away.
The street was very quiet. No cars, no people. Nothing to disturb the tranquillity of the magnificent garden he found himself in. No one was there to meet him yet, but he was early. He’d been strolling past a wall when he was attacked from behind. Something long and narrow had whipped around his neck before he could react. Strong hands had pulled on the ends of the garrotte and a knee was thrust into his back, increasing the pressure on his throat. He’d tried to fight but his attacker was skilled; he’d been rendered senseless within seconds.
Captain Scarlet grimaced; it was out of character for him to let his guard down. At least he was still alive, that was something. And surprising. The attacker could have killed him, but he hadn’t. Why not?
Scarlet shifted his position slightly, trying to get comfortable. He opened his eyes a slit. Then he opened them wide as he saw something move out the corner of his eye. The hissing cobra that was swaying before his face opened its jaws.
The small, battered car paused before the Imperial Hotel long enough for the doorman’s glare to make its paint peel. As the desk clerk emerged and walked up to the car, the doorman growled something about having his ride meet him at the tradesmen’s entrance in future. The clerk climbed into the car and made a gesture that could be interpreted as either a farewell wave or a rude suggestion as the car pulled away from the kerb. “Everything is packed?”
“Of course, Daman,” snorted the front-seat passenger sarcastically. “You gave us plenty of time to do it. We brought the important things,” he continued, counting off on his fingers. “All the fireworks. Hiking boots. Some camping gear and supplies. We couldn’t fit everything in the boot. I just wish we’d had time to call Giriraj and tell him to come to Delhi or meet us in Gangotri so he could guide us into the mountains, instead of us having to rely on his map. But there’s no way he can get there before us now, not all the way from Calcutta.”
“What was all the rush about, Daman?” asked Balin, the driver, as he tried to peer around the vehicle in front of them.
“Captain Scarlet arrived today and collected that map I told you about. With a name like that, and an invitation to tour a garden, I expected a woman or maybe a retired military man. He turned out to be a young Spectrum officer.”
The third man, who was seated beside Daman, looked confused. “Spectrum? What’s that?”
“It’s a new world-security organization, Sudama. You’d know that if you hadn’t missed the last meeting.” He curled his lip as he glared at the feckless Sudama. “Somehow Spectrum must have learned about our plans. It’s the only reason I can think of for a Spectrum officer to suddenly turn up in Delhi and then go off to look at a garden. He must have planned to meet someone there for more reasons than looking at flowers.”
Narsimha, who was sitting beside the driver, turned and nodded. “So that’s why you ordered Anirvan to go there and kill him.”
Sudama shook his head. “I never would have thought of that.”
Daman sneered. “That’s why I’m a lieutenant in the Neo-Thuggee, Sudama, and you’re just a foot soldier.” He was pleased to see his victim cringe in humiliation.
“But if he’s dead, why do we have to rush to Gamukh? Why didn’t we just report about Spectrum and wait for orders?” asked Balin, as he swerved to avoid a bullock. “We could have used the time to get proper orders and a better plan from the commanders, and money to buy better explosives instead of taking what was on hand.”
“Because now is the best time for us to act! And the generals will be pleased with our initiative.” He waited for comments or objections, but none came. “Two good things about this war with China,” he continued. “The government’s too distracted to pay any attention to rumours about us. And the trails to the Gamukh Glacier are closed. That won’t stop us, but we won’t have to worry about meeting anybody out there.”
“Freeze!” yelled an unfamiliar voice. Hardly necessary to tell him that, thought Scarlet. He had no intention of moving.
Looking out the corner of his eye, Scarlet could see a dark-haired, copper-skinned man dressed in white slowly approaching the snake from behind. He stepped carefully with no wasted movement, concentrating on the cobra. Then he struck, seizing it tightly just below its head with one hand, lifting into the air, and, in the same smooth movement, grabbing the furious snake’s lashing tail. Quickly, he carried it away and dropped it behind a decorative wall, with an admonishment to go in peace.
The man returned to kneel by Captain Scarlet’s side, drawing a Swiss army knife from one pocket as he did so. Swiftly he cut through the bindings around Scarlet’s ankles. “Thanks,” rasped Scarlet painfully, as he rolled on his side to allow the rope around his wrists to be cut. “That was incredible, the way you handled that snake.”
The rescuer’s speech was cultured and educated. “Not at all. My parents were zoologists. They taught me to respect Indian wildlife. And how to handle it. Cobras are sacred to many people, so it is best to treat them with respect.”
Scarlet rubbed his wrists. “I’m lucky you came along.”
“Hardly luck, Captain. This is my garden. But I was expecting to meet you under better circumstances.”
The man grinned broadly and extended a hand. “Captain Umber. I gather you’ve had an adventure.”
Scarlet briefly described the attack on him before a scream broke the air. From behind the wall, a teenage boy scrambled out backwards before collapsing. He held up a bleeding arm as Umber and Scarlet dashed over.
“The cobra,” said Scarlet grimly.
Examining the wounds on the teenager’s arm, Umber agreed. “A spectacled cobra’s bite can kill in twenty minutes,” he added, sounding resigned. “That isn’t much time to prepare for your next life.” The youth’s eyes widened. Scarlet could see the pulse jumping in his neck above the yellow silk scarf he wore.
“What were you doing there?” he barked.
The boy gritted his teeth and didn’t answer. He tried to pull away, but Umber gripped his arm too firmly.
“Kali-Ma will not be pleased with your failure,” growled Umber. “She’s not going to free you from samsara and allow you to rest when you die.” The youth started and his eyes widened. Umber loomed over him and stared, unblinking, down into his face. “No, you’ve failed so badly, you haven’t got much hope of reincarnating as anything higher than an untouchable, either.”
Scarlet glanced at his watch. “Seventeen minutes.”
“I will get the reward I deserve! My karma is . . . is . . .” The teenager’s voice faltered. Sweat stood out on his face.
Umber shook his head. “So young. Such a pity. But you have disappointed us.”
“Sixteen minutes,” said Scarlet.
“But I did as I was ordered! I tried to kill him!” the youth shouted, pointing at Scarlet. “You stopped it!” Then his expression changed. “I was being tested?” Neither man answered. The youth’s knees began to tremble, then buckled; he sat abruptly down on the ground and began to cry. “I have failed! How did I fail?”
“Obviously you didn’t follow instructions,” snapped Scarlet. “Explain yourself. Start from the beginning.”
“What good is that now?” wailed the youth. “I’ve failed!”
“Recognizing your errors and sins may improve your karma,” declared Umber, who had not let go of the youth’s injured arm. “Perhaps that is why the sacred cobra attacked you after you failed to attack me.”
The youth gulped as he tried to speak and began coughing. Several more minutes passed before he recovered enough to speak rapidly in Mewati Hindi. Umber listened intently and occasionally rapped out a question, while Scarlet kept watch on the time.
The young man blanched and wept as he lay down and folded himself into a semi-foetal position. He nodded in response to one last question from Umber. “That’s all, then,” said the Indian captain. The youth spoke again, so softly that Umber had to bend over to hear him. “Yes, I think you’ll be all right now. I think your karma’s gotten much better. Your sins might be forgiven”
There was a sigh, and the youth closed his eyes. Captain Scarlet noted that his pulse and breathing had evened out and showed no signs of slowing. In fact, the boy appeared to be merely asleep. He raised an eyebrow at Captain Umber, who shrugged. “He’s only fainted. Too much terror, I suppose.”
“I’d be terrified if I was the one dying from a cobra’s bite.”
“He probably isn’t dying,” Umber said placidly. “What I said about the cobra’s bite was true. But,” he continued, “chances are the cobra’s bite was a dry one. And it’s rare for death to occur as rapidly as I said. Still, it seemed a shame to waste the opportunity to get information.”
“I gathered you were doing something of the sort. What did he tell you?”
“A most interesting story.” Umber frowned. “But first I need to make some phone calls. One to a contact who is watching the Thuggee and might be able to acquire some information for us. And another for an ambulance to collect our young acquaintance. Just in case.” He peered at Scarlet. “And you should have your own injuries seen to.”
After the ambulance had gone, and Captain Umber had changed into his Spectrum uniform, the men sat down to talk. Captain Scarlet had refused medical treatment, but though his throat was still painful, he found speaking less difficult than it had been. Umber poured two cups of hot, spicy tea.
“That yellow scarf with the knotted ends my attacker was wearing. He’s a neo-Thug, isn’t he?” asked Scarlet. Umber affirmed. “In my briefing on Cloudbase, I was told that a terrorist group has threatened an attack on the Ganges. Pardon,” he said, recalling the preferred Indian name, “Ganga River. I was told you would fill me in on the details. The attack on me suggests that the Neo-Thuggee are involved.”
Umber looked grave. “The Neo-Thuggee intend to destroy the Ganga River itself, at its source.” He laid out some photographs and unrolled a topographical map of India and the surrounding countries, and pointed to a spot in the Himalayas, just below the Chinese border. “The river rises here, from a cave beneath the Gamukh Glacier,” he explained. “There is very little development up there. Few villages. No roads. Just trails. The glacier can only be reached on foot.”
“That would limit the terrorists’ options,” observed Scarlet. “How do you think they plan to destroy the river?”
“They could poison it. The water would disperse the toxins, killing much of the wildlife and fauna, as well as many people, and ruining the land it irrigates.”
“But that would require massive amounts of chemicals, and many people to carry them.” Scarlet considered a moment. “Unless they could use a helicopter?”
Umber shook his head. “Not likely. That close to the border, either the Indian Air Force or the Chinese would probably attack it. And as you can see,” he handed Scarlet a picture, “the land there is very rocky. It would be difficult for even a skilled pilot to find a suitable place to land, and nowhere close to the cave.”
“So we can assume they’ll have to proceed on foot. And whatever they intend to use to destroy the river has to be both portable and effective.” Scarlet and Umber drank their tea in silence as they thought.
“To destroy a river,” mused Scarlet, “it has to be stopped. Or stopped up.” He sat up abruptly. “Damn the river!”
“I beg your pardon?” a startled and offended Umber snapped. He would not allow a curse on the sacred river to go unredressed.
“A dam! A dam would stop the river’s flow, or at least divert it.” He reached for a photograph. “Look at the mouth of the cave. There are plenty of boulders to climb on to reach up the sides of the inside cave. And the outside roof is very accessible. The Thuggee could easily create a dam by bringing down the roof and walls, thereby sealing the cave, with explosives!” Scarlet exclaimed.
Umber picked up the thread of logic. “And a relatively small number of people could carry in sufficient high-power explosives to bring down half a mountain if the charges are well-placed.”
“The undamaged part of the cave would confine the river.” Scarlet looked again at the photos of the glacier and the cave from which the Ganga River rose. “Unless it manages to burst through the dam, the water would back up beneath the glacier. Eventually it would undermine the glacier and cause the ice to move forward quite rapidly. And when the glacier moves, it will grind down everything in its path. Nothing can stop it.”
“It would melt some as it travelled, but the water would flood what the ice did not crush. If the military tries to break it up with bombs, they could create multiple smaller ice sheets. The path of destruction could be hundreds of kilometres wide.”
Both men sat in silent horror, staring at the map as they envisioned the potential extent of the disaster.
“We brought all the ‘fireworks’ that were available, and the ones that haven’t been processed yet. But the red sticks shouldn’t stand out too much, not enough to be recognised,” said Balin.
“It was wise of the leaders to have us disguise the sticks of dynamite.”
“They all would have been disguised if you’d worked faster, Sudama,” grumbled Narsimha.
“It didn’t seem right to glue that colourful, festive paper around them,” ventured Sudama meekly. “I didn’t understand what it was for. It made them so pretty, it’s a shame to blow them up.”
Narsimha rolled his eyes. “Do you think we could carry dynamite openly in the streets without anyone noticing? Fireworks are common enough that hardly anyone pays attention.”
“What worries me,” said Balin, “is, will the fireworks be powerful enough? They weren’t intended to destroy something as big as a cave, just smaller targets at the markets and around government offices.”
“They’ll work,” replied Daman confidently. He explained that Mata Ganga’s cave, out of which the river flowed, was not really a solid structure; the rock would have fissures to exploit, and they could use the sacred picks they always carried to make holes for planting dynamite as well. Kali would be pleased if the symbol of her sacred tooth was used to prick at Ganga, rather than her Lord Shiva. The other Thuggee laughed at the ribald imagery before Daman continued. The dynamite would be more powerful blown up in bundles than as individual sticks. Anyway, they would have more time and privacy to work on planting the explosives to do maximal damage than they would if the target was in the heart of Delhi.
The goddess Kali, claimed Daman as his companions listened in awe, had given him a clear choice by arranging for him to be on duty when that Spectrum captain had collected his messages: they could spend either time or money on destroying the Ganga. If they’d waited for more money and a contact to buy gelignite, the opportunity would have been lost. India and China might resolve their differences, and the borderlands would be reopened to pilgrims and tourists; then there would be many potential witnesses to deal with. And Spectrum was investigating something, possibly hunting the Thuggee. It might take them more time to plant a larger quantity of weaker explosives, but Kali would smile on their efforts and see that they were generously rewarded for their wisdom in seizing the ideal time to act as well as the act itself.
The phone rang. Umber answered it and remained on the line for some time. After hanging up, he left the room and returned with an armful of maps and photographs. “My contact says that a small party of Thuggee loaded a car with what they jokingly called ‘fireworks’ and have already left Delhi, heading east by car, towards the main highway north. Based on a few hints they dropped, he’s certain they’re going to the Gamukh Glacier.” He spread out a road map of northern India and studied it. “There are no roads to the glacier itself. But they can get to a village somewhere in its vicinity: my guess is either Gangotri or Kedarnath. Gangotri is the nearest that’s easily accessible by car, even though they’ll have to take some rural, mountain roads to reach it.”
Captain Scarlet looked where Umber was pointing, to a tiny village in the Himalayan Mountains, very near the border with Tibet. “My briefing included an update on the political situation between India and China. Tensions are escalating, aren’t they?”
“They are indeed.”
“I was stopped twice by routine road blocks on my way here from the airport.” Captain Scarlet smiled wryly. “The car and my uniform raised some questions. I got the impression that few people are aware of Spectrum.”
Captain Umber shook his head. “That’s true. You have to understand what is happening here, though; the government is trying to deal with both domestic terrorists and the threat of war from China. Traffic inspections are a key element in capturing terrorists and spies alike. Anything unusual must be questioned.”
“And Spectrum is such a new organization, its purpose is still not as well understood by national governments as we would like,” added Scarlet. “It doesn’t make our job any easier. But my point is, if I got stopped just coming to Delhi from the airport, how likely is it that the Thuggee will encounter road blocks and checkpoints on the way to Gangotri?”
“A certainty. There are radical elements, besides the Thuggee, who see opportunities for themselves if China prevails in a war, and seek to aid them. So security has become much tighter the further north one travels by road.”
“How do you rate the effectiveness of that security?”
“Variable. Permeable. The security forces were assembled and trained hastily. Some are over-dedicated, seeing a threat in every stranger, which is just about everyone. Others are more lax. There’s no telling what kinds they’ll encounter en route.”
“We’ll have the same problems if we try to go overland, even with an SPV. Maybe especially with an SPV; it’s so obviously military in design, we’d have to explain ourselves at length every place we stopped. And if we tried going off-road, we’d simply draw even more attention. We’ll have to use an alternative means of travel. What Spectrum aircraft are available?”
Umber shook his head. “All non-commercial and non-military aircraft have been grounded since this morning, Captain. The air force has standing orders to shoot down anything that looks suspicious. I doubt they’d make an exception for Spectrum craft, unless Cloudbase has raised our profile since you arrived today.”
Umber smiled. “Not a good idea. It could take even longer than the roads.”
“What about the river? Is it navigable up to Gangotri?”
“No. The Yamuna doesn’t go as far north as the Ganga does. And it bends in the wrong direction; we’d have to take the Ganga and debark as near to Gangotri as possible. From there, I know we’ll have to hike to reach the source of the Ganga, but I’m not familiar with the route. We’ll have to arrange for a guide. There are several Spectrum agents in that area who’ve been watching for signs of Neo-Thuggee activity; one of them may do.”
“Lieutenant Green can find out for us. Do we also have to arrange for a vessel of some sort or does Spectrum have one here?”
“I have a private motor boat moored in the Yamuna; I suggest we retrieve it and take it to the Ganga.”
Captain Scarlet nodded his agreement. “Pack what you’ll need as fast as you can. Could you lend me some essentials? I left my baggage at the hotel, but we can’t risk going back for it. Someone knew I was going to be in your garden, and that attack with the cobra had to be arranged quickly, so someone at the hotel must have informed the Thuggee. If I turn up there alive, they’ll know that much sooner that the attack failed.”
“You’ll need something to wear besides your Spectrum uniform, too. Given the approaching war, we are probably safer remaining in uniform while we travel north on the river. We’re less likely to be taken for spies or terrorists then, if only because neither spies nor terrorists would wear such conspicuous colours. But on the roads, we’ll have an advantage if we dress in plain clothes. We’re about the same size; fortunately. Come with me and we’ll both find something suitable.”
As the two men left the house a short while later, dressed in plain clothes and toting stylish, well-made canvas rucksacks, Umber paused a moment to look over the house and gardens. “My grandparents built this house. They worked many years to design and plant these gardens. My parents cared for them almost as tenderly as their children.” He paused a moment, reflecting. “When that young Thug recovers, he’ll tell his masters about me. I probably won’t be able to come back here, not anytime soon at any rate. I’m not sure who’ll take care of it after me.”
Umber shrugged. “I knew there would be sacrifices when I joined Spectrum. A house is not the greatest of them.”
Umber’s driver had brought a late-model Mercedes-Benz with a trailer hitch to the front gate. Umber dismissed him, saying he preferred to drive himself today. Apart from the mundane furies of Delhi traffic, which left Captain Scarlet white-knuckled but Captain Umber unfazed, they reached the river without incident, and found Umber’s boat already loaded on its trailer, waiting for them. Before hitching it up, the Spectrum officers examined it for signs of sabotage, but found nothing wrong.
Once they were clear of the city and on the highway towards Garhmuktesar, Captain Scarlet brought up the subject of the neo-Thuggee. “If your informant was correct and the Neo-Thugee are headed up to the source of the Ganga, it’s possible they’re travelling on this same road, somewhere ahead of us. If we could catch up —”
Captain Umber shook him off. “There are checkpoints on this road, just as there were from the airport. I doubt we’ll be delayed as long as they will, but it isn’t likely we’ll catch up to them. They have too good a head start on us.”
Captain Scarlet soon realized that Umber was quite right. Too frequently, they had to stop for roadblocks. As in most places, Scarlet noted, overt signs of wealth certainly made a good impression. Although both men were casually dressed, their clothes were obviously well cut and expensive. The boat they were towing was small, but sleek, and beautifully fitted with polished woods. In Urdu and Hindi, Umber introduced Scarlet as a British businessman whom he was entertaining before earnest negotiations for investment in a major industrial project. The Brit had expressed an interest in seeing the sights along the Ganga, sights best seen or visited by boat. The explanation was plausible, in keeping with their facade, and at every point, the police officers waved the Mercedes on without a search.
Between stops, the men talked. “That young Thug who tried to strangle me. I thought Hindu gods usually aren’t much interested in human affairs and don’t intervene to affect one’s afterlife or reincarnation.” The Indian captain acknowledged that that was so. “Why was he so anxious about his afterlife?”
“The neo-Thuggee are religious, or at least they’ve undergone spiritual indoctrination. Their training mixes selected aspects of Hinduism with elements from western belief systems, especially the concept of sin and the belief that the gods and goddesses can rain rewards or punishments before and after death for good deeds and sins. Your attacker truly believed that he would go to Hell or worse because he failed to kill you and didn’t attack me.”
“Another thing. He started talking without much more persuading. Why did he seem to think we were people of authority?”
“The Neo-Thuggee have a military structure with a shadowy top echelon. Discipline and obedience are drilled into the recruits. They’re impressed with the belief that the leaders know each and every one of them, and that the skill and loyalty of any of them might be tested at any time, although they aren’t told how or when that could be. But most of the lowest members have never seen the commanders, the ones who give the orders and make the plans. I presented myself as if I was one of those leaders, and the young Thug leaped to a conclusion.”
Scarlet narrowed his eyes. “But why did he regard me the same way? I’m obviously not Indian.”
“Don’t look at me so suspiciously, Captain. I am not a Thuggee!” Umber’s voice was level, but Scarlet understood his offence. “I have a contact in the Thuggee, a trustworthy young man who detests them, but hopes to be a Spectrum agent. He was told early on that at least a few of the people in charge of the organization are Europeans. It’s common knowledge among the Thuggee. And they know that quite a bit of money comes from those white leaders.”
Scarlet fingered the tender bruises on his neck. “That still doesn’t explain why he left me alive when he could have strangled me.”
“I told him to explain. He recited that a murder would attract attention. A murder by strangulation might be blamed on the Neo-Thuggee. But an accidental death? A man strolls about a garden, is bitten by a cobra, and, tragically, falls where he cannot be easily seen by other casual visitors or passers-by until it is too late.”
Captain Scarlet raised an eyebrow. “An accident? The ropes would have been a giveaway.”
“I asked him why he tied you up. It was the boy’s own idea. He was afraid you might regain consciousness and escape from the snake. He intended to remove the ropes and take them away before he left, so he had to stay and watch until you’d been bitten.”
“I suppose the symptoms of snakebite would be so overwhelming that a doctor might overlook other injuries,” he mused. “Even so it still seems too fantastic a plan to succeed. But then no one’s crediting the Neo-Thuggee with excess intelligence.”
“No,” agreed Umber. “But the attack on you failed only because I happened to arrive in time to stop it. And they have a fantastic plan to destroy the Ganga.”
“Which we have to arrive in time to stop,” Scarlet finished. They rode the rest of the way in contemplative silence.
Soon after they finally arrived in Garhmuktesar, they were heading north on the Ganga River. When the scenery on the banks finally gave way to cultivated farmland, the men changed into their Spectrum uniforms. There would be no read blocks or inspectors to explain themselves to on the river.
“There’s certainly no risk of being overheard out here,” commented Scarlet. “Tell me what else you know about the Neo-Thuggee cult.”
“It’s relatively small, but that’s not atypical for a terrorist organization. Its known members are mostly young, hotheaded, idealistic, fanatical without being above looking out for themselves, and not well educated. That’s typical, too. They’ve named themselves after the historic Thuggee cult, probably for the shock value, but they are more like the Pindhari, both in organization and goals.”
Captain Scarlet had heard of Thuggee, but not Pindhari. He listened with great interest as Umber continued.
“As you know, the Thuggee were a cult of religious murderers. The rumal, the yellow scarf, was the sacred tool they used to strangle their victims. These Neo-Thuggee, as they style themselves, not only use rumals but also wear them as symbols. Their predecessors never advertised their vocation, but,” Umber shrugged, letting his gesture speak. “The Thugs effectively controlled the roads throughout the country as they murdered and robbed in the name of the goddess of destruction, Kali. But they put aside a large portion of their ill-gotten wealth for Kali. The Pindhari were also predators, but they were more interested in personal gain. They were a body, more like an army, really, of armed gangsters available for hire to anyone who wanted them to terrorise enemies. They were organised like a military force, and they didn’t look to a god or goddess, just their commanders. All they cared about was being paid and paid well.”
“And like the Pindhari, the Neo-Thuggee terrorists have effectively been hired by the European leaders.”
“They are also organized on a military model; if there were more Thuggee, they could well become one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world.”
“You said that their leaders or controllers inculcate them with mongrel spiritual doctrines. That’s an effective way of controlling the rank-and-file through their fears and greed. But it also makes them vulnerable to outsiders, if we can find ways to exploit that weakness.”
“As with your would-be assassin.” They rode in silence for a time. “They are fools to believe they can seize control of India, even after precipitating a disaster,” Umber declared, with a contemptuous gesture. “But the Neo-Thuggee are as fanatical as their historical forebears. And they’ve been indoctrinated to sincerely believe that the goddess Kali will reward them for the destruction they wreak. More likely the reward will come from their backers.”
“Who are?” prompted Captain Scarlet.
Umber shrugged and made an exasperated sound. “I don’t know who they are. I do know that they devised the plot to attack the Ganga. But what will these backers gain from a disaster in India?”
“Could be several things. They must be spending a lot of money to build and support their terrorist network. They probably see opportunities to acquire even more wealth — perhaps in selling materials to rebuild the country or feed and shelter the homeless and prevent disease from spreading, or to snap up valuable possessions from refugees at bargain prices. They might capitalise on panic and put their Thugs to work looting priceless artefacts from museums scrambling to get treasures to safety before the ice or floods arrives; in those circumstances, who will be able to keep track of who moves an item or where it is moved to? It’s happened before.”
Captain Umber nodded. “They might want to do all that, and take over the country, too.” Umber’s face closed and his demeanour became stiff as he suppressed his anger. “There are rumours about a fanatical group in England that wants to restore British dominion over India and bring back the days of the Raj. It’s headed by one of the nation’s wealthiest eccentrics.”
Captain Scarlet did not shrug off the notion. He was well aware of what fanatics, especially well-financed fanatics such as the Fathers of the Rebirth of the Imperial Raj, could potentially achieve. If he and Umber failed to stop the terrorists at the Gamukh Glacier, India could soon be in chaos, caught between the imminent war with China and the advancing glacier. A group like the Fathers wouldn’t hesitate to seize the opportunity. Neither would China and possibly other neighbouring countries.
Captain Scarlet activated his radio cap and called Cloudbase. When Lieutenant Green answered, Scarlet informed him of the terrorists’ presumed plans, and that he and Umber were on the way to Gangotri.
“We’ll have to rendezvous there with an agent who can guide us to the Gamukh Glacier. We should arrive in Gangotri tonight. We’ll need an update on the situation along the Chinese border as well.”
“Understood, Captain Scarlet. I’ll report back to you shortly. Cloudbase out.”
Some long time passed before Scarlet’s epaulets flashed green.
“Go ahead, Lieutenant Green.”
“Lieutenant Ash is stationed in Gangotri right now. She’s familiar with different routes to the glacier, and says she’ll gather everything to need for the journey. She’s staying at the Garwhal Mandal Vikas Nigram guesthouse and will arrange rooms for you there. About the war, the latest reports are that the situation along the Chinese border is getting worse, sir. Talks have broken down. India has stationed some troops along the border, but there’s no specific information on types, numbers, or locations.”
“Keep us informed of any changes.”
“S.I.G., Captain Scarlet. Cloudbase out.” He turned to his colleague. “What else did your informant tell you about the Thugs we’re after? What about descriptions? What kind of explosives are they armed with?”
“He wasn’t able to tell me much. The men we’re after are about as ordinary looking as they could wish to be; no distinctive marks at all. He was able to describe the car.” Umber repeated what he had been told about it. “As for the explosives, they’re simply sticks of dynamite.”
“Dynamite? The first time their car is searched at a security checkpoint should be the last. The dimmest inspector should be able to recognize dynamite.”
“If it looked like ordinary dynamite. But there’s a chance it won’t be detected. The Thuggee have disguised them to look like Roman candles, so unless the sticks are closely inspected or a bomb-sniffing dog detects them, they might get through with them.”
“How likely is it that they would try to take back roads and avoid the highway check points altogether?”
“Possible, but not likely I think. They’d spend even more time trying to work their way north, and my informant seemed to think that time was of the essence to them. And when they reach the far north, they won’t have any choice but to stay on the main roads.”
They made steady progress up the river.
“The Gamukh Glacier is fairly close to the Chinese border. I wish Cloudbase could give us more information about the situation there. Some recent intelligence suggests that China intends to send a strike force over the Himalayas from Tibet. I know, Captain,” Umber nodded at the look of incredulity on Scarlet’s face, “it seems like an absurd thing to do strategically; a waste of military resources. But China has resources to spare, and a blow struck from an unlikely place, even a soft blow, would expose India’s vulnerability and demoralize the people.”
“If there’s any activity in the region, Lieutenant Ash will be aware of it and report to us when we meet her. How much further do we have to go?”
“We’re not far from Rishikesh now. From there, it’s about 250 kilometres to Gangotri. The Gamukh Glacier isn’t too far beyond that, but I’m not sure how far.”
If it had been a pleasure trip, Captain Scarlet would have been sorry they were near the end of this stage of their journey. The scenery along the river had been impressive; fields, towns, temples, the sacred bathing pools called ghats, even the ruins of old dam projects.
“Ah, now there’s a place I am familiar with! Over there, on the western bank, is the Bhagirathi Tiger Preserve. It was established only fifty years ago. My parents travelled there many, many times to study the tigers.”
It was not a jungle, and not at all like many people would imagine a tiger habitat to be. It was a forest of deciduous trees and brushy undergrowth of grasses, saplings, and other flora.
“I hear another motor. There must be another boat coming downriver. A fairly large one,” said the British captain.
A small Indian Navy gunboat rounded the bend. Captain Umber and Captain Scarlet could see a sailor point to them and shout.
Umber was frustrated. “They’re too far away. I can’t understand what he’s saying.”
“Whatever it is, it isn’t good!” replied Scarlet as an emergency klaxon aboard the other vessel sounded. He saw a sailor unlash a deck gun. “Get on the radio, tell them who we are.”
Umber did his best. The naval vessel’s radio operator had never heard of Spectrum and was reluctant to give a message to the ship’s captain. When they finally did speak to the captain, he, too, did not recognize Spectrum. Because the outbreak of war was imminent, he had standing orders to guard the river approach to the border and watch for suspicious vessels travelling between Garhmuktesar and the border. Especially boats that appeared to be carrying enemy spies or anyone who might aid the enemy. It was suspected that militant terrorists would use the river to evade roadblocks. The two men dressed in unfamiliar uniforms met those criteria.
“But we were in Garhmuktesar today! There was no warning!” Scarlet pointed out.
A short burst of Hindustani followed by a sharp click was his reply. Umber looked up. “Loosely translated, he said ‘tough.’”
A staccato stream of bullets chipped into their boat as the sailor began firing the deck gun. Captain Scarlet swung the boat towards the western shore and set its autopilot speed to keep the boat between himself and Captain Umber as they dived into the river. Bullets pocked the water near them as they swam for the shore, but neither man was hit before hauling himself out of the water and disappearing into the trees.
Even a few yards into the woods, it was surprisingly dark after the brilliant sunlight on the river. The flora seemed to delight in grabbing at anything passing by. They could not, however, do much to slow down the bullets that the gunboat continued to spray after the fleeing men. The noise lessened, but neither Umber nor Scarlet assumed that the gunboat had lost interest in them; its captain may have decided to land some of his men and begin searching.
A grateful Captain Scarlet recalled how West Point Cadet Paul Metcalfe had spent many hours training in forests, learning the tricks of running quietly and keeping low. He burst into a small clearing. It appeared to be muddy, probably from recent rains, but firm enough. He would be more exposed to pursuers for a few seconds, but he glimpsed a well-defined trail in the trees beyond. Deciding it would be worth the risk, Scarlet plunged into the open. Almost immediately, he realized that the ground was far softer than it had appeared. Unable to turn back, he trying leaping forward, but floundered as the unstable green-tinted earth gave way beneath him. It wasn’t ordinary mud. It was quicksand.
Not now, thought Umber fiercely as his epaulets flashed red. The tiger he was facing flicked its ears forward and lifted its head as if pondering the meaning of the flashing lights and teeping noises coming from the man.
As calmly as possible, Captain Scarlet studied his predicament. If Captain Umber didn’t respond soon, his chances of surviving were abysmal. The leafy muck had the consistency of porridge and he was sinking rapidly.
Silently, Umber thanked his parents for teaching him all about tiger behaviour. Even though he instinctively wanted to turn and run from the tiger, or at least climb a tree, he backed away very slowly, never taking his eyes off the big cat. It was wearing a radio collar, he noticed, but it was old; it had been designed to function for a limited period until the straps became worn, then loosened to allow the radio to fall off. Undoubtedly the tiger was not unfamiliar with humans, but it didn’t seem especially friendly either. It watched him warily, undecided about what it should do, the tip of its tail flicking to reflect its indecision. Umber thought it might soon be satisfied that he did not mean to harm it and leave. Or it might decide he was worth the trouble to kill. You could never be certain with a tiger.
Captain Scarlet’s second attempt to contact Captain Umber brought no response. Scarlet couldn’t wait any longer for help anyway. His best — his only — chance, he determined, would be to grab hold of something and try to pull himself out. But reaching for anything would cause him to sink even faster.
The tiger laid its ears back as Umber’s epaulets flashed and teeped again. It took a step forward, snarling. The man would have groaned if he’d dared. Many naturalists had observed the white marks on the backs of the tiger’s ears, but no one understood if the big cats communicated by flashing those marks. Umber felt he had just discovered for certain that they did. And the message the tiger read in his epaulets’ flashings wasn’t a polite one.
Captain Scarlet considered his next action carefully. A banyan tree leaned out over the edge of the quicksand pool. Its long, vine-like aerial roots were drooping, reaching for the ground so that they could burrow and eventually produce new banyan trees. The nearest roots were somewhat less than a meter above him. Normally, it would be well within his reach but the leafy muck he had fallen into would not forgive any sudden or violent movements. He stretched out an arm as slowly as possible, knowing that the effort was causing him to sink, but unless help came, he had no choice. He managed to just get his fingers around a root, and gripped it tight. It stretched itself out as he began pulling. There was no more time to evaluate risks. Captain Scarlet pulled his other arm up and grabbed the root as the quicksand sucked him down until he barely had his face left exposed. Slowly, he began to pull himself upward and out of the quicksand, hand over hand. It made a querulous sound, as if angry and reluctant to give up its victim. When, he freed his shoulders, he reached for and got hold of another root closer to what he hoped was solid ground. Laboriously, he pulled himself along until he was completely free of the quicksand. He lay panting, exhausted, for several minutes, until he was disturbed by the umber-coloured flashing of his epaulets and a deep growl.
Captain Scarlet looked up to see a tiger crouching perhaps twenty feet away from him. It was clearly agitated, flicking its ears flat and twitching its tail. It growled again, then roared, before charging towards him.
The car crept forward slowly, sandwiched in front and behind by a lorry and another car. Balin beat his fist on the steering wheel, wishing it was the horn. He’d bleated the horn at the first checkpoint they’d come to, and Daman had convinced him not to do it again. He shuddered as he remembered the feel of the rumal around his throat.
The inspectors at this checkpoint were being much more thorough than any they’d encountered further south. They spent more time talking to the people in the vehicles, and frequently looked under the tarps in truck beds and inside car boots. Daman, who was now sitting in the front seat beside Balin, cautioned his companions to stay silent unless directly questioned, and even then to say as little as possible.
The lies rolled out easily. Daman put on his most charming persona, the one he had honed as a hotel clerk, to tell the inspectors they were on their way to a cousin’s wedding, and exchanged lewd banter with the guards about the newlyweds’ activities after the festivities were done. Without hesitation, he told Balin to hand over the key to the boot so it could be opened and their luggage examined. Asked about the contents of the large, plain boxes, Daman smoothly explained that they were carrying fireworks to set off during the evening as part of the wedding celebration. When the inspectors opened the boxes, they found only a quantity of colourful Roman candles, as promised. They shut the boot again, and waved the Neo-Thuggee on.
Knowing he couldn’t get to his feet fast enough, Scarlet tried to roll out of the tiger’s way. It was impossible; he was caught among the gnarly roots and trunks of the banyan tree. He steeled himself for the attack when, to his surprise, the tiger suddenly disappeared.
A cloud of vapour rose from the ground where the big cat had vanished. A tiger trap! thought Scarlet, as he rose and carefully crept forward. The trap, he saw, was shallow, but the tiger was making no effort to escape. It yawned hugely, exposing its impressive teeth, grunted, then slowly collapsed.
“Hey!” shouted an unfamiliar voice. “Is there anyone out there?”
Scarlet could tell someone was pushing their way through the woods but he had no way of guessing who it might be. He began to unholster his gun as a precaution, only to discover that it, like the rest of him, was covered in leafy green muck. Well, there was no help for it now. He’d have to rely on his hand-to-hand combat skills.
“Captain Scarlet!” declared Captain Umber as he emerged from a clump of greenery. “Are you all right?”
Scarlet nodded. “I heard a strange voice shouting. Have you seen anyone else?” As he spoke, several people garbed in khakis stepped out from the brush behind Umber.
One stepped forward, hand extended. “Captain Scarlet, I presume?” The man grinned from ear to ear. “I’ve always wanted to do something like that!” he laughed. A woman next to him rolled her eyes.
“Kent, the tiger?” she said pointedly, as she looked down into the pit.
“Oh, yes, of course. Right you are, Sheila.” He flashed a beaming smile at Scarlet. “Did you meet up with Indira?”
Kent reached into the pit and stroked the tiger. “She’s quite a good girl, really.”
Umber shook his head at that, and turned to Captain Scarlet. “I couldn’t answer your call,” he said apologetically. “While running through the forest, I literally stumbled across Indira.” Umber explained how he and the tiger had faced off until, unexpectedly, they had both heard an explosive sneeze. The big cat had shot him a look he could only describe asspeaking “some sort of feline obscenity,” before trotting off. Hardly a minute later, a team of zoologists had appeared. They were employed by the preserve to perform periodic check-ups on the resident tigers. They had been tracking a different tiger when they heard the commotion out on the river. Suspecting poachers, or worse, they’d changed course and headed into Indira’s territory. To their surprise, they’d come across the thoroughly soaked Captain Umber. He hadn’t wasted time explaining who he was or how he got there, beyond tersely identifying himself as a Spectrum agent and telling them that he wasn’t alone, that his companion, Captain Scarlet, had radioed for help, and the tiger had run off in the direction Umber had last seen him running. The zoologists hesitated at first, but one of them had pointed at Umber, exclaiming in surprise, “I know him!” That was enough to spur the others to assist him.
“But for Indira, I would have come to help you when you first radioed,” Umber finished. “What happened to you?” Scarlet briefly described his experience in the quicksand and encounter with the tiger. Umber shook his head. “Mata Ganga herself must be watching over us.”
“Actually, you were just very lucky,” snapped the woman called Sheila. “We dug this pit only a week ago. Indira likes to take this path down to the river sometimes. She’s on our list for a check-up and a new collar.”
Kent didn’t look up as he spoke. “It’s lucky for you that you didn’t fall in yourself. We line the traps with capsules filled with quick-acting anaesthetic gas. When the tiger falls or steps on them, they break. It’s almost impossible to avoid immediately inhaling the gas, which puts it to sleep. The radio-collar’s transmitter contains a gas detector, and lets us know who’s ready for a check-up.”
Sheila glared at the two Spectrum officers. “We were on our way to see Ravi when we got distracted by you two. He’s a canny one, almost as hard to trick into a pit as Indira. It’s taken us months to finally trap him. We’ve wasted so much time already, Ravi will probably wake up and be gone before we can reach him. But since we’ve got Indira here, we can hardly skip her check-up.”
“Is it going to take long?” asked the British Spectrum officer. “We need to push on to our destination.” He tried to wipe the dripping muck off his vest and trousers. “And we’d like to find some dry clothes. We lost all our luggage with our boat.”
“It will take as long as it takes,” growled Sheila.
“Ignore her. Sheila’s being herself, lately.” The third zoologist grinned at the nonplussed Spectrum captains, casually introduced her fellows as “Sheila of the sweet temper” and Kent “our fearless leader,” and herself simply as Rajeev. “But you know that, of course,” she nodded to Captain Umber.
He returned her nod pleasantly, but a warning flashed in his eyes. He introduced Captain Scarlet, and fictitiously recalled the first time he met Rajeev. Rajeev picked up on the cues without missing a beat.
“Tell me, Captain Scarlet,” she asked, turning away from the Indian captain, “what are you doing out in the middle of a forest with Captain Umber? How did you get here?”
Scarlet curtly described their encounter with the patrol boat. Asked about their strange uniforms, he briefly outlined Spectrum’s purpose, again identified himself and Umber as agents, and added that they were on an urgent mission.
The zoologists looked sceptical, but Rajeev vouched for Captain Umber. “Well, you can hitch a ride with us to the Preserve’s lodge in Rishikesh and spend the night,” offered Kent. “There’s an indoor shower and a washing machine. There’s probably some dry clothes around, too, so you can wear something clean and tour the town.”
Their work finally done, the tiger team packed up and lead the way out of the forest. Captain Scarlet, to his chagrin, was forced to wrap himself in a tarp before Kent would allow him into the team’s jeep. After showering and changing into their borrowed clothes, the two Spectrum agents set out to explore their options for leaving. Rishikesh was a thriving town and normally a thriving transportation hub. But the coming war had resulted in the imposition of a curfew, and disrupted the public transportation system; schedules had become chaotic as routes were reduced and drivers refused to venture north. It didn’t take long to determine that there was no chance of leaving the city tonight by any means. Even if they could have, no traffic was allowed past the roadblocks after dark. They purchased new clothing and arranged to have their uniforms cleaned and delivered in the morning. While cleaning their weapons after returning to the lodge, Scarlet and Umber reviewed their options for reaching Gangotri.
“The pending war is affecting travel throughout this region, but especially to the north. There’s no public transportation scheduled to run from here to Gangotri, or anyplace else north, tomorrow. And no place that rents private vehicles. Seems a lot of people have been busy moving south. We can’t walk to Gangotri; it’s more than 200 kilometres from here,” said Umber.
“Perhaps we can persuade someone here to give us a lift.”
“All the way to Gangotri?”
“Either that, or we’ll have to hitchhike,” Scarlet said grimly.
Daman fought the urge to whip out his rumal and teach the mechanic a lesson in obedience.
The roadblocks had been intolerable. The trip north had taken twice as long as normal. The engine of the battered old car the Thuggee were riding in couldn’t withstand the long times spent idling followed by the reckless high-speed runs, dangerous weavings around slower traffic, and frequent hard brakings before coming into the view of roadblocks. At the checkpoint near Srinigar, steam began to pour from beneath the bonnet, accompanied by an evil hissing sound.
No one offered to help them as they sat on the roadside. A phone call to Srinigar revealed that no tow truck would come for them, so they were obliged to push the car over the long kilometres to the town, and to a mechanic’s shop.
En route, the car had cooled down enough to allow the mechanic to safely open the bonnet and make an inspection. He took his time about it, ignoring the impatient gestures and mutterings of the Thuggee. When Daman finally demanded to know how long he was going to keep them waiting, the mechanic was slow to answer.
Besides the overheating problem, the radiator apparently had at least one leak to be repaired. He could fix it, the mechanic told them, but not that day. He had other jobs to do first, and by then it would be near curfew time.
What curfew? the dismayed Daman demanded to know. A shrug was his answer. The curfew had been imposed only a few days before. Something to do with the war threats; the mechanic didn’t really know, or care, why it was imposed. He only knew that he had to get home before the street patrols started. He would fix their car in the morning, not before.
The mechanic advised the young men to collect whatever they would need from the car for an overnight stay and directed them to a guesthouse. It was a decent place, he promised; his cousin owned it and would give them a discounted price because they were stranded.
Daman seethed, but there was no help for it. He sent Balin to find the guesthouse and make arrangements while he and the others emptied the boot. Daman groaned as he looked at the haphazardly packed boot; they had left Delhi so quickly, that no attempt to prepare the backpacks had been made; there was only a disorganized mass of clothes, supplies, packs, and camping equipment. The “fireworks” still rested in open boxes, in plain sight. That was acceptable; the increasingly thorough inspectors they had encountered might have asked more questions and been more suspicious of hidden fireworks. But they would have to trust in Kali Ma’s protection now; there would be no time or place to prepare the backpacks when they reached Gangotri, so the fireworks would have to be packed in them tonight. He smiled. Perhaps Kali Ma had arranged for this delay, so that they could be ready to start hiking towards the Gamukh, carrying Ganga’s doom, as soon as they reached Gangotri tomorrow. He would not worry about inspectors anymore.
Though the rest was forced on him by the delay, Captain Scarlet slept well that night and awoke refreshed. He was pleased to find that the previous day’s swimming, running, climbing, etc. had not left him with any stiffness. Besides his bruised throat, which had made shaving a trial, he had only a few sore spots, minor enough to ignore. It was fortunate neither he nor Umber had been shot. He suspected that the patrol boat’s captain had known about the tiger preserve and, after assuring the boat would sink, merely wanted to drive the fleeing men deep into the forest, where, with luck, natural hazards would finish them off and saved him the trouble of collecting their bodies. As they couldn’t know where the gunboat moored at night, Captain Scarlet decided it would be wise if he and his companion continued to wear plain clothes instead of their distinctive Spectrum uniforms until they were well away from Rishikesh.
The others were apparently not early risers. Captains Scarlet and Umber took the opportunity to check and see if there might be a coach to Gangotri that day; there were none. As they walked back to the lodge, Scarlet asked about Rajeev. “She obviously knows you rather well.”
“Indeed. Our parents were good friends; we spent a lot of time together as children. Naturally, we became close as adults.” Umber looked wistful as he remembered. “At one point, we talked about marriage. But things happened and we drifted apart.” He sighed and shook his head. “We haven’t spoken in years. And where do we meet again?”
Scarlet laughed. “Not under the best circumstances! And with a disreputable-looking colleague in need of rescue to boot.”
“I was afraid Rajeev would blurt out my name. Fortunately, she’s as intelligent as she is beautiful. She understood that I didn’t want her to reveal the extent of our acquaintance.”
“It’s just as well we’re leaving as soon as possible. It will save you a lot of explaining.”
When he and Captain Umber joined the others at breakfast, Kent passed around a flyer. It had a picture of an Indian dancer, dressed in brilliant silks and classically posed. “I’ve heard of this Brihannala. She’s very controversial. They call her the Isadora Duncan of Indian dance.”
“It says she’s going to be in Gangotri until the 11th, ‘dancing for the gods’. Does that mean the public isn’t welcome?” asked a man Scarlet and Umber hadn’t met before.
“No, that’s the fundamental purpose of her dancing, but anyone can watch. Say, now that we’ve already seen Indira, and there’s no point digging another pit for Ravi just yet, why don’t we take a day off and go up to Gangotri?”
“No way, Kent!” interjected Sheila. “We have all those samples from Indira to examine.”
“Most of them have to incubate, and all of them will keep. I’m going,” said Rajeev firmly.
“Would you mind if we rode along? It sounds like it would be fun,” added Captain Scarlet.
It was the epitome of stealth technology. Since their invention more than one hundred fifty years ago, tanks had been as noisy as they were cumbersome, easily detected at great distances. But the Indian government had long ago employed the finest military and technical minds and set them to work on the problem. The result was a magnificent machine, a tank that performed as well as, if not better than, any standard tank, but ran so quietly it could creep up on an enemy position, undetectable except by direct visual means. And it was equipped with the best technology to detect approaching belligerents. When it worked properly. The commander grimaced as he scanned the horizon of the Mana Pass for any signs of invaders. There was a sort of black humour to being undetectable, yet unable to detect anything.
The tank driver peered at the screen as he tapped, then pounded on the keys. There was no doubt about it. The tank’s infrared, radar, heat detectors, and other sensors weren’t working and the problem was most likely in the computer. They couldn’t fix it out here. And he, for one, didn’t want to be taken by surprise by Chinese invaders. To his relief, the commander agreed. “Aggarwal, contact base and tell them it’s hopeless. If they’re not going to send us a technician, then come the morning we’re going back down the valley for repairs. Tell them that.”
The Thuggee had waited impatiently while their car was finally fixed, attempting to menace the mechanic until they realized that he worked slower when they did so. When they arrived in Gangotri, it was early afternoon. Daman didn’t want to leave the car in a car park, so Balin found a mechanic and arranged for minor engine work to be done; the car would be safely hidden inside the garage. Knowing they would have to subsist on trail fare for the next few days, the Thuggee next ate a hearty meal, then donned their backpacks. Uncertain where to start, they asked a street vendor for directions to the trail that lead to the Gamukh Glacier.
The old woman turned her head from side to side, and looked them up and down, as if trying to see around her cataracts. She told them that the trail had been closed to trekkers and pilgrims.
They were poor actors, but it hardly mattered that their faces did not match their words. The Thuggee expressed surprise and deep disappointment at being so near the end of their quest, to see the place where the sacred river emerged and brought life to India. Narsimha, in a respectful syrupy voice, told the old woman that it had been his life’s ambition to bathe in the waters at Gamukh, and how crushed he felt. Knowing he had captured her confidence, he addressed her as grandmother, and asked her if she thought there would be any trouble if he and his friends continued their journey? Would devout pilgrims really be forbidden from approaching the source of the Ganga?
Oh, quite possibly, she advised them. But if they used care, they might make it unmolested. She warned them to stay away from the villages, Chirbasa and Bhojbasa, because there were soldiers posted there who might arrest them and have no respect for their piety.
Narsimha thanked her, and asked her not to mention their meeting to anyone, for fear someone would tell the soldiers, and prevent them from completing their quest. The woman promised profusely, and told them the way to the ninety four steeply rising steps by the temple, the beginning of the pilgrim trail.
Laughing at the old woman behind their hands, the Thuggee set off, enthusiastically, intending to reach the glacier that day. But the demanding climb up the steps left them gasping for breath by the time they reached the top, and had forced them to use under-exercised leg muscles. They were all still tired from the hard work of pushing the car to Srinigar the day before. None of them was accustomed to carrying so much weight on their backs or walking in hiking boots. In the end, the going was slower than they’d expected. They had left the pilgrim road early, but Giriraj’s cross-country map was difficult to interpret. Their muscles began to ache and the beginnings of blisters threatened. They decided to make camp early, rest, and set out at sunrise for Gamukh. There would be much work to do when they arrived.
Despite their declared intention to take a holiday, the zoologists had a number of urgent tasks to carry out before they could leave Rishikesh, tasks that kept them busy until early afternoon. After passing through the inevitable roadblocks, the van carrying them and the two Spectrum agents finally arrived in Gangotri in the late afternoon. At the guesthouse, they found a message from Lieutenant Ash, promising to meet them in the common room an hour after sunset.
They found Gangotri crowded with casual visitors. There were plenty of strangers in the village, almost all of them come to see Brihannala dance. It was like hunting for needles in a haystack, thought Captain Scarlet, as he and Umber strolled along the streets. They checked the carparks and every vehicle they say, but none matched the description of the Thuggee’s car. They saw no one wearing a yellow scarf, nor had they really expected to; the Thuggee would not be so stupid if they thought they might be pursued. But they had no other prominent physical cues to look for and only vague descriptions of the men they sought.
Captain Umber had some difficulties making queries. He wasn’t fluent in the form of Hindi spoken locally, and stumbled repeatedly. But by presenting themselves as travel writers investigating the current climate for hikers and tourists and how the war had changed things, Captains Scarlet and Umber learned that there were no parties travelling to Gamukh; the borderland trails had been declared off-limits for security reasons. Nor had anyone they spoke to noticed anyone carrying packs, though several admitted that such a sight was normally so common in Gangotri, that they would not remember it.
Could the Thuggee have simply passed through Gangotri unnoticed? wondered Captain Scarlet. It was possible; none of the young men was remarkable in appearance. Nor was the vehicle they had been riding in particularly special. It was less likely that they had somehow bypassed the village, unless, as Umber was beginning to suspect, they had gone northeast from Delhi to Kedarnath instead of the more direct ¾ and obvious ¾route north and west to Gangotri. Or had the Thuggee been arrested at an inspection checkpoint on the road north?
At the guesthouse, Captain Scarlet surreptitiously radioed Cloudbase to inform Colonel White of his and Captain Umber’s status and the possible whereabouts of the Thuggee. The propaganda value of captured terrorists could not be underestimated; if the Neo-Thuggee had been caught in the vaunted security net, the government would have been quick to inform the public, and so reassure the people. No such report had been made, so it had to be presumed that the Neo-Thuggee had passed or evaded the inspections and reached the north. Wherever they were, they would eventually be at the Gamukh Glacier. With any luck, Captains Scarlet and Umber would be there to meet them. But until they met with Lieutenant Ash, they could not journey any farther.
Guests and residents alike in Gangotri had been warned to be prepared for imminent evacuation. That hadn’t discouraged the people who had come to see Brihannala dance. That evening as the sun set, Captain Scarlet and Captain Umber, still dressed in the plain clothes they had purchased in Rishikesh, joined the crowd gathered outside the temple, by the Bhagirath Shila, a large, empty stone slab, and waited. A simple curtain of unrelieved black had been strung across a rope and suspended in front of the temple wall to create a makeshift backdrop. As the sky darkened, torches set at the edges of the slab were lit. And still the people waited. A bell rang, announcing the recently imposed curfew; no one heeded it. No one seemed inclined to enforce it, either.
A slit in the curtain opened and a woman stepped through, lithe as a panther. Her skin was a dark, glowing honey colour, beautifully set off by the gold trim of her multi-coloured silks, draped and tied in southern Indian fashion. Her black hair hung loose, only partly concealed by the scarf draped over her head. Her huge dark eyes were rimmed with kohl and shone as brightly as the red bindi on her forehead. Delicately tinted red lips parted in a dazzling smile as she raised her hands to show the intricate henna tattoos and struck the opening pose for her first dance. The stage filled with her presence. This was Brihannala.
As the music began, she danced slowly, her stances and expressions carefully controlled, exquisitely timed, elegant, perfect. The crowd murmured appreciatively. Gradually, the tempo of the music increased, and the rhythms changed; Captain Scarlet recognized western elements. Brihannala’s dancing was no less fluid than before, but it became increasingly more improvised, less patterned, less formal than before, yet still suggested classical forms. As she danced, Brihannala cast off scarves, making them twirl and flap like fantastic silken birds as she released them. There were outraged mutterings, sighs of admiration and longing, applause, catcalls, and shouts of encouragement. Brihannala was not detached from her audience, she delighted in all the responses, whether disapproving or appreciative. And she deliberately provoked them; Scarlet did not see why, but he heard Umber gasp as Brihannala executed a series of rapid, flying steps with her arms held high, her skirts swirling, and scarves waving. When the performance ended, she came to a stop on her knees, her skirts and scarves fanned out around her like the petals of the gaudiest flower on earth, her smile lighting up the night as she welcomed the applause. She winked and blew kisses to some of the men in the audience including, to his embarrassment, Captain Scarlet. The crowd roared with laughter and approval. Brihannala disappeared behind the black curtain with a flourish. Despite their demands for another dance, she did not return, and the curtain fell to the stage, revealing no one behind it.
The amazing performance over, Captains Scarlet and Umber returned to their guesthouse, where Lieutenant Ash had promised to meet them in the common room. Scarlet looked around. “She doesn’t seem to be here. Perhaps we’re early?”
“I’m here, captain,” came a soft voice.
Both captains turned to see a young woman dressed in a Spectrum uniform, its vest a nondescript greyish colour. Like her uniform, the woman was mousy in appearance, her plain face free of makeup, her hair neatly bound up in a modest bun. She must have been sitting there the whole time, yet neither man had noticed her; Lieutenant Ash had simply blended into the background.
“A pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Ash. I’ve been receiving your reports about this region regularly in Delhi,” said Captain Umber.
The introductions completed, Ash lead her fellow Spectrum agents to a spot near the river where they could talk without being overhead or approached unseen. The men reviewed their day’s work, hunting for signs that the Thuggee were or had been in Gangotri, part of the crowd of strangers that had come to see Brihannala.
Ash told them of a conversation she had had the previous evening with a visitor. He had been preparing to leave the guesthouse in Srinigar, but was delayed. While waiting for his companion, he had talked with a small group of men who had just arrived and were planning to spend the night. They were carrying in boxes of fireworks, plus backpacks and camping equipment. He had commented on their odd luggage as he had heard that the hiking trails in the north were closed. They had declared that they were taking the fireworks to a wedding, and there were so many guests expected, that they had decided to be prepared to sleep rough. They had had a lot of fireworks with them, large, roman-candle style fireworks, he said. An awful lot So close to the border and with so many people afraid of a Chinese invasion, he thought the wedding guests were more likely to be terrified than entertained by explosions.”
Captain Scarlet was listening intently. “You’re sure he described them as Roman candles?” Ash nodded assertively. “Are fireworks a normal part of Indian wedding celebrations?”
“They’re not unusual,” provided Umber. “But it does sound suspicious.”
“Another thing: I hiked up near Chirbasa early today. On my way back late this afternoon, I spotted some people setting up a camp, about ten kilometres from here. I don’t think they’re ordinary trekkers, or experienced ones for that matter. Anyone with sense would have stopped in Gangotri. Or at least chosen a wiser place to set up camp; it’s an uncomfortable spot even though the soldiers stationed in Chirbasa probably won’t spot them. I had the feeling they didn’t want to be seen.”
“How many people did you see?” asked Umber.
“Four. There could be one or two more, but the tent was small for four men.”
“Could you tell if any of them were wearing yellow scarves?” put in Captain Scarlet.
Lieutenant Ash frowned and furrowed her brow as she thought. Finally, she said, “No. I don’t recall seeing anything that bright. But I wasn’t that close; I could have missed something as small as a scarf.”
“If those are the terrorists we’re after, they might decide to move on and head for the glacier tonight.”
Ash shook her head. “Even with torches, it would be too easy to get lost in the darkness. There’s no defined trail to the glacier, other than the pilgrim trail, which they’re plainly avoiding.”
Captain Scarlet frowned. “How long will it take to reach the glacier in daylight?”
“From here, if we avoid the pilgrim road, about eight to ten hours if we make steady progress.”
Captain Scarlet listened to the soft roar of the waters rushing below them, and felt its cool spray on his face. The river was a beautiful, natural thing that had been here long before people came. If he and his fellow agents failed in their mission, it would be gone, perhaps before the next sunset.
“Both of you be ready to leave as soon as there’s enough light to travel,” ordered Captain Scarlet. “It looks like we have a race to the glacier tomorrow.”
Sudama was whining again. It was so cold, he complained, and the fire wouldn’t stay built up, and the wood he had to carry was so heavy, and his arms and legs ached, and the ground was too rocky to lie on, and the air was thin, and he was hungry, and why couldn’t they stay in a guesthouse at Gangotri? Daman ignored him now, but had already decided that Sudama would not return with them after the Ganga’s mouth was sealed. Tomorrow, at Gamukh, he would arrange for Sudama’s death; an accidental death, so the others would not suspect.
As soon as the sun rose, the Spectrum agents set out from Gangotri with the packs of supplies and other equipment that Ash had prepared for their trek. All were dressed in their uniforms. Lieutenant Ash had asked if they shouldn’t wear less conspicuous clothing, but Umber had pointed out that they were in more danger of being taken for spies than they would be in uniforms, even unfamiliar uniforms.
They avoided the easily travelled, well-established trail to Chirbasa and Bhojbasa; Lieutenant Ash warned them that both villages, normally welcome rest and refreshment stops for trekkers, had been evacuated in anticipation of a Chinese invasion, and troops stationed there to intercept fools and traitors who might seek to reach the Chinese-Tibetan border. Instead, the Spectrum agents had to blaze their own trail across the raw country, guided by Ash’s knowledge of the terrain.
Trees gave way to brush, scrub, and then a desert of moraines and scree. They hiked and climbed up and down the valley walls to avoid any lookouts that might be posted in the villages. Each took a turn scouting ahead for signs of the Thuggee, signs that the Thuggee had likewise managed to pass the villages undetected, or been captured. Many of the signs were subtle: a scar on the earth left by recently disturbed scree, a mashed plant, and the like.
It was Captain Scarlet’s turn to leave his pack in Ash’s and Umber’s care and scout ahead. He scanned the face of the moraine to his left and right as he climbed, looking for signs that the scree had been disturbed recently. An enormous shadow made him look up in horror; a tank was looming over him as he neared the top. He had no time to marvel at its silence — it was about to descend on him. It was impossible to climb down; Scarlet knew he couldn’t make it before the tank crushed him. He pushed himself backwards, and leapt down and sideways, rolling as he landed, just clear of the tank. Pulling off his vest and crushing it into a ball, he tried to curl up into a black ball beside a boulder but he could not conceal all the scarlet of his boots.
From their more distant vantage point, Ash and Umber had seen the silent tank approaching moments before it reached Captain Scarlet, and taken cover behind some large boulders. Their uniform colours blended well with the landscape and if the tank’s crew hadn’t noted their movement, they were safe. They hadn’t dared shout or radio Scarlet to warn him to get out of the way; the crew of the mysteriously silent tank would have heard as well, and been alerted. But Captain Scarlet was still plainly visible to the tank’s crewmembers if one happened to look his way. The vivid red of Scarlet’s uniform stood out boldly against the brown and grey scree.
Ash quickly threw aside her pack, pulled off her vest, and bundled it into Umber’s arms. She had knocked off her radio cap, and ignored it as it bounced off a rock and rolled away. Her mane of black hair, released from its confinement, tumbled to her waist, and she tossed it impatiently as she plucked free the ends of the myriad colourful scarves she’d tucked into her waistband and tied shawl-like in multiple layers beneath her vest. Captain Umber was astonished by the speed with which the mousy Lieutenant Ash transformed into the flamboyant Brihannala. She hissed at him to remain out of sight and pranced out into the open, twirling, posing, stomping, and capering in patterns that were both ancient and modern. She held up two scarves, one brilliant magenta, the other electric blue, let them fill with the wind like sails, and then released them to fly across the plateau.
Umber watched as she danced her way into the path of the tank, shedding scarves as she went. The plateau was quickly adorned with bits of bright silk. Camouflage! thought Umber. If any of the tank crew notice the bit of bright red that’s Captain Scarlet, they might think he’s just one of the scarves.
The tank slowed as it neared Lieutenant Ash. She continued to dance as if she were alone. Several of the tank’s hatches opened, and crewmen stood up to watch her. They called to her and clapped their hands. “Brihannala! Brihannala!” they shouted. “Will you dance for us?”
Ash smiled at them and released two more scarves. “If Mata Ganga and Lord Shiva are pleased!” she called back.
The tank crewmen laughed. “Then give them your finest dance, beautiful Brihannala!” They waved before disappearing and closing the hatches as the tank continued down the slope.
Ash continued to dance until they were safely away. Captain Scarlet slowly got to his feet and picked up his radio cap. “Lieutenant Ash,” he declared, “you get top marks for the most brilliant diversion I’ve ever seen. What made you think to come prepared to impersonate Brihannala?”
“I am Brihannala!”
Lieutenant Ash, or Brihannala as she was now, laughed. Captain Scarlet found himself thinking that her animation and the bright colours worked a remarkable transformation, turning the mousy, nearly invisible Spectrum agent into a very beautiful young woman.
“I’ve made a habit of dancing for the gods up here for a long time. Many people have seen me up here, including the crews of the tanks that have been stationed far up the valleys. I thought that when we get near the Gamukh, if there’s anyone there before us, I could create a diversion by dancing for Mata Ganga.” Brihannala transformed back into Lieutenant Ash as she donned her vest and hid her hair beneath her cap.
Umber’s face darkened. “You knew there were tanks up here and you didn’t think to warn us?” he barked angrily. “Captain Scarlet could have been killed!”
Ash looked startled, then her face fell as she realized the enormity of her mistake. “They’re stationed far up the valley, away from the glacier. We won’t be anywhere near them. And none was due to be relieved for another week. That one shouldn’t have been here!”
“You should have anticipated that it might be. Are there any more possible surprises ahead?”
Ash shook her head. “No, sir,” she said miserably. “Sir, may I suggest we wear our capes to cover our uniforms so we’ll blend into the landscape better, just in case? I haven’t got enough scarves left to do that again.”
“We couldn’t let you, anyway. The diversion was effective enough for those soldiers, but it wouldn’t impress the terrorists. They’re devoted to Kali. They’d probably kill anyone like you who’s known for her piety toward other gods, especially Mata Ganga.” Umber glared at the young agent. “Your thinking is original, Lieutenant, but not thorough.”
Every one of the Thuggee had slept badly, despite the tiring hike of the day before. Daman had considered abandoning some of the nonessential gear that morning, but Sudama had complained so much about the work it would be to break camp, that Daman perversely decided to punish everyone by taking all the equipment with them. At any rate, they couldn’t hike all the way back to the car in a day, not with blistered feet and aching backs, so they would need the tent and food supplies anyway. And after they finished with the dynamite at Gamukh, their packs would be much lighter, he’d reasoned.
The packs felt heavier than on the day before, and the thinner air made it harder to breathe comfortably. Avoiding the villages on the pilgrim road had meant climbing down to the valley and up the mountainside and creeping along like mice when the cover was sparse. On top of everything, they had continued having difficulty interpreting the map and almost failed to adjust their course after passing Bhojbasa.
When the Thuggee finally reached their goal, they stood by the river, and looked up at the cave walls and roof. Only Daman felt elated. Their mission was almost accomplished! The others were tired and just wanted to get the job done.
Beside the river, they unpacked the explosives, bundled sticks of dynamite with twine and prepared the fuses, carefully measuring each one. Because they didn’t have an automatic detonator, it would be necessary to light the fuses by hand. Balin, Sudama, and Narsimha would each be responsible for lighting a set number of bundles on the cave roof while Daman lighted the ones he planted in the walls of the mouth. Daman had calculated that by making each fuse a little longer than the one before, it would be possible to light the longest one first, then, by the time the shortest one was lit, all the fuses would be the same length, and all the dynamite bundles would explode simultaneously. It was a simple plan, but it would work.
Even better, thought Daman, it would enable him to get rid of Sudama. Last night, he had secretly dipped one of the fuses in lamp oil until it was thoroughly soaked, then rubbed it with gunpowder. The treated fuse would burn much more rapidly than the ordinary fuses, too fast for the person holding the flame to that fuse to escape before the dynamite exploded. He intended to make sure that Sudama was the victim. The premature explosion would probably not affect the plan to dam the river. If it did, Daman wasn’t concerned. There were still some more sticks of dynamite in reserve to seal off the rest of the cave.
The bundling completed, Daman directed the others to start carrying them up onto the cave’s roof and hunt for crevices in the stone and ice in which to plant them, and to begin chipping holes with their pickaxes where no suitable places could be found. He made sure to give Sudama the dynamite bundles made up of only solid red sticks. “Because you said the others are too pretty to blow up.”
Sudama was pleased. Daman wasn’t often kind to him.
A few hours after their encounter with the tank, the Spectrum agents approached the cave beneath the glacier; the trio could see that people were already there. Three were on the roof of the cave; one was below them, near the mouth. There was no mistaking who the people at the cave were: even from a distance, the agents could see that they were all wearing yellow kerchiefs. There was not enough cover to allow them to approach any closer unseen.
Captain Scarlet had an idea. “Ash, do you still have some yellow scarves?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Ash. “But not enough to dance with.”
Ash zipped open her vest. “Two bright yellow, one saffron.” She handed them to Captain Scarlet.
He examined the scarves and nodded. “They’ll do. We just have to pass for Neo-Thuggee long enough to get closer.”
“I’ll wear this one, sir,” said Ash, taking the darkest scarf. “I can hold the neck of my cape close so that my hood will seem to cast a shadow. That will obscure the colour difference, at least for a short time.”
Captain Scarlet nodded and handed a bright yellow scarf to Captain Umber and the saffron scarf to Lieutenant Ash. “Tie small stones in opposing corners so they’ll look more like proper rumal.”
Scarves in place, they arranged the necks of the cloaks to make sure the yellow was easily visible, then adjusted the cloak hoods to cover their radiocaps.
“What about our boots?” asked Ash. “The cloaks are too short to cover them and we haven’t got any substitutes.” She pointed to Scarlet’s feet as she added, “Those red boots of yours are distinctive, even at a distance.”
“People usually don’t notice footwear. We’ll have to take our chances that these four aren’t any more observant than average. But your concern is noted, Lieutenant. I’ll stand behind rocks whenever possible.”
As Captain Scarlet ordered, none of the agents tried to approach stealthily. Instead, they hiked across the plain boldly, as if unconcerned to see other people already at the cave.
They managed to get quite close before one of the Thuggee on the cave’s rooftop noticed them. Narsimha was surprised. Hadn’t the old woman made it clear that the trail was closed and guarded? What were these people doing here? Then he saw the flashes of yellow clearly visible around each person’s neck. After a quick consultation with his fellows, he called out to them in Hindi. To Scarlet’s ears, his voice sounded cautious but questioning rather than threatening.
“It’s just a greeting. They’ve noted the scarves. I’m going to answer,” said Umber. He replied to the Thuggee in Hindi, then switched to English. He told them they were fortunate. “The white-skinned Lord Shiva the Destroyer has come to observe you carrying out your duty!” Umber laughed and added, “And to make sure his money is being well-spent!” Scarlet held his breath. Umber was taking a chance, assuming that these young men really did know that there were Europeans in the upper echelon, financing the Neo-Thuggee. He relaxed as three of the Thuggee also laughed, but noted that the fourth, who had emerged from the cave’s mouth, looked resentful.
Daman watched the trio in disgust and with suspicion. Until now, he had been wholly in command, the undisputed leader. He had never given his immediate superiors any cause to doubt his abilities, his loyalty. True, he hadn’t sought orders for this mission, but he had certainly shown initiative. The European would see how well he, Daman, had orchestrated the Ganga’s destruction. He would be liberal with his rewards.
But as much as he wanted to earn advancement through the Neo-Thuggee ranks, Daman mistrusted the unknown Europeans as much as he appreciated their open pockets. What, he had wondered many times, do they expect to get from India? And he wondered now, Why has this man come to see us for himself? Why here? Why now?
As the newcomers got closer and dropped the packs they’d been carrying, he noticed that one was much shorter and walked more lightly than the others. A boy? No, there was something odd about the way that one moved, he realised with surprise. “A woman!” he shouted. The other Thuggee tensed with suspicion. Even though she wore a dark yellow kerchief, they had never heard of a female Thuggee.
Ash’s face took on a ghastly expression as she fixed the Thuggee who had shouted with a piercing gaze. She assumed a surprisingly forceful stance, and commanded them to explain how they were performing their task. When Daman challenged her authority to command them, she verbally lashed him with a filthy epithet. “I am Kali-Ma’s face and voice on Earth! I am here with my Lord Shiva to see the destruction of Ganga! And you dare to ask if I may command you! Now speak as I have ordered!”
Scarlet turned his head just slightly to look at Ash as she spoke. He was astonished by her rapid transformation, how she had contorted her features and used the shadows of her hood to make her face look truly frightening. She seemed to have grown taller, imposing, intimidating. If he hadn’t known this was Lieutenant Ash, he could almost believe she was Kali.
Captain Umber and Lieutenant Ash began climbing up to the cave roof, as if intending to make an inspection, while Captain Scarlet waded into the river to examine the inside of the cave. The Thuggee on the roof began speaking rapidly and all at once, hoping to impress the visitors with their cleverness, pointing out where they had placed packs of dynamite so far, where they intended to place the rest, and how they had timed the fuses so that despite each one being lighted them by hand, the fuses would detonate the explosives almost simultaneously.
Feeling displaced and humiliated, Daman studied the newcomers’ faces beneath their hoods. He felt that there was something familiar about the woman and one of the men, but what? Had he seen any of them before? Where could he have seen them? The European turned his head and the sun shone in his face, illuminating his piercing blue eyes. Daman was sure he’d seen such eyes before. He looked the man up and down. Only then did he remember where and when he had seen him before. At the Imperial Hotel, this was the man who had collected the message and map. It had been a brief encounter, but he had noted the man’s eyes and his red uniform vest; now he recognized the man’s boots, that same intense red. He had hardly looked at them when he saw Captain Scarlet leave the hotel, but there could not be two blue-eyed Europeans wearing conspicuous red boots in all of India.
“It’s him!” Daman shouted in Hindi. “The Spectrum agent I gave the map to at the hotel in Delhi! Light the dynamite!”
Two of the Thuggee on the cave roof froze for a moment, glancing uncertainly between Daman and Captain Umber and Lieutenant Ash, who reassumed her Kali-Ma face and stance, and attempted to countermand Daman’s orders. But Sudama pulled out a cigarette lighter and began trying to light it.
“Hurry up, you fool!” Daman shouted at Sudama.
Narsimha and Balin lost their uncertainty and attacked the newcomers. The matches were uneven. Captain Umber struggled with the smaller but agile Balin while Lieutenant Ash unsuccessfully attempted to get past Narsimha and reach Sudama.
Although he didn’t understand Hindi, Captain Scarlet had heard the urgency in Daman’s voice and guessed at the meaning. He had to get to the cave roof.
Daman intercepted Scarlet and seized his cloak. Quickly, Scarlet shrugged out of it, keeping hold of one edge, then cracked the cloak like a whip. Daman went flying into the face of the cave’s outer wall.
Sudama flicked the lighter twice again. “Cheap trash!” he cursed under his breath, before a weak flame finally appeared. He lit the bundle of dynamite he was holding and threw it wildly down at the man in red, missing him by a long distance. Then he touched the flame to the fuse of the bundle he had just planted in the cave’s roof.
Captain Umber, Lieutenant Ash, and the Thuggee they were struggling with were knocked down by the force of the dynamite’s blast.
Daman had just begun to rise from where he had fallen when he heard the explosion and felt the wall behind him begin to disintegrate. His scream was cut off as a boulder shattered his head.
Scarlet barely saw the tumbling blue ice and rock before he turned to run. He made it only a few steps before he was hit by something and thrown to the ground. Lifting his head and shaking off the momentary daze, he saw that a bundle of dynamite, its fuse burning rapidly, was resting in front of him. He tried to rise, but discovered he was pinned from the waist down.
Despite the shock of seeing their colleagues die, the two remaining Thuggee seemed determined to complete their mission. It was slippery atop the glacial cave, and Ash missed her footing as she ducked to avoid the pickaxe Narsimha swung. He ignored her as she slid and tumbled helplessly, and fumbled for his own cigarette lighter. Captain Umber, still struggling with the remaining Thug, Balin, could only watch in horror as the free man began to light fuses.
There was a cry like a banshee’s scream. Lieutenant Ash had crept back up onto the roof and thrown herself at the fire-wielding Thug. He dropped the lighter and tried to grab up his pickaxe again. Ash hit him squarely and solidly with a shoulder, transferring all of her forward momentum into the Thug, and allowing her to drop flat onto the ice. The Thug shouted something vile at her as he fell backwards, a shout that turned into a shriek as he slid over the edge of the cave mouth and into the river below. Ash rose, panting.
“The fuses!” shouted Umber, as his man broke away, and ran further up the glacier. There was nowhere he could go, Umber knew; they could wait for him to return. Right now, they had to pluck fuses out of bundles of dynamite. But when the Indian captain glanced back over the glacier, the Thug was nowhere in sight.
The ice over the crevasse had once formed a natural bridge, but time had made it rotten although it still looked sound enough. The panicking Balin had taken only a few steps before he found himself falling inside a hypnotic tower of blue. He didn’t even scream during the long time it took to reach the bottom; the shock had struck him dumb.
Captain Scarlet could only just hear the shouting over the rushing river. Captain Umber and Lieutenant Ash were busy trying to stop the Thugs from lighting the rest of the charges. There was a bundle of dynamite lying in front of him, so tantalizingly close! He stretched as far as his arm would go. His fingertips brushed the bundle. He calculated quickly, then carefully clawed at the strings binding it together. The bundle shifted, rocked, and then rolled over, a bare fraction of a turn, but just enough to let him snag it with his fingers. Quickly, he pulled it back and saw that the fuse was almost gone. He plucked it out, burning his fingers before he could throw it aside. But the dynamite was harmless.
Now that the danger was past, Captain Scarlet became aware of the rock beneath him, squeezing the breath out of his chest, and the weight holding him down. With a sigh, he succumbed to pain and the thin air.
Something wet and very, very cold was falling on his face. It felt like rain. He groaned softly.
A splash of freezing water brought him to full consciousness, sputtering and gasping. Lieutenant Ash sighed with relief.
“Welcome back, Captain Scarlet,” said Umber. “How do you feel?”
“Like a mountain fell on me,” rasped Scarlet. “Could I have some water? To drink, I mean.”
Ash brought him a cupful, which he drank greedily.
Umber grunted. “You were very, very lucky. The Thug you fought with was buried beneath the slide. A slab of ice fell across you and created a table that held most of the rocks up and away from you. Once we cleared the boulders away from in front of you and beneath you, Ash and I managed to pull you free.”
“You have scrapes and you’ll certainly have lots of bruises, but no broken bones, sir,” added Ash.
Scarlet wanted to shake his head, but discovered that the rapid motion made him dizzy. “By rights, I should have been killed.”
“Perhaps Mata Ganga protected you. After all, you were acting to protect her.”
“He should have been killed before now, Lieutenant.” Umber gave her a synopsis of their adventure, beginning with the cobra in Delhi.
Ash was astounded. “You’ve faced so many deaths!” she exclaimed
Captain Scarlet hadn’t had time to think about how many narrow escapes he’d had in the last few days. “Captain Umber makes it sound heroic. But if I do get killed on duty, it will probably be in some mundane road accident,” he joked.
Captain Scarlet insisted on making his report to Cloudbase. The Thugs had failed, but only because they had acted in haste, without contacting their superiors, and apparently packing the only explosives that had been on hand. Given more time and another opportunity, the outcome would be different. Another attempt could not be ruled out. The Neo-Thuggee, while still a small organization, had proved itself to be extremely dangerous. The Indian government had to be informed and the search for the mysterious European backers, as well as the extent of the Thuggee network, begun immediately. Captain Umber, who knew more of the terrorists’ modern workings and historical inspirations than anyone else, was ordered to accompany Captain Scarlet to Cloudbase on special assignment. Colonel White was concerned to hear that Scarlet had been injured, despite assurances from the others that the injuries were relatively minor, and they could see him safely back to Gangotri. He would try to persuade the Indian prime minister to make an exception to the ban on non-military aircraft and approve air transport for Captains Scarlet and Umber when they returned to the village.
After Cloudbase signed off, Scarlet was willing to lie still and rest while Captain Umber and Lieutenant Ash worked to set up a camp, using the sturdy and lightweight gear that Ash had selected and packed. The Thuggee’s camping gear was useful for padding against the rock-covered ground, but little else. The two Indians quietly and efficiently pulled the last Thug’s body out of the water, dragged it as far from the river as they reasonably could, and built a cairn over it. As night fell, Ash lit a lightweight Chabe camping stove that provided heat, light, and a means to boil water for their dehydrated food supplies.
Ash had been very quiet since the excitement ended, and had worked beside Umber without unnecessary speech. When she finally spoke, it was with a catch in her voice. “Captain Scarlet, Captain Umber, I’m going to resign my commission.”
Both men looked at her with surprise. “I’m not a very good agent. I didn’t tell you about the tanks. I had a bad idea for a diversion. I wasn’t even a very good Kali Ma; if I’d been better, all the Thuggee would have hesitated long enough for us to prevent that blast. All I can really do well is dance. Spectrum doesn’t need that skill.”
“Spectrum can use it, though,” Captain Scarlet stated firmly. Now it was Ash’s turn to look surprised. “Perhaps not your dancing as such, but you as Brihannala. She can go places that others can’t, and I daresay people say things to Brihannala that they would never say to Lieutenant Ash.”
Ash nodded. “It was just after my dance the night before you came to Gangotri that I spoke with the visitor who told me about the young men with the backpacks and fireworks. I saw him again later that night at the guesthouse, after I’d changed into my Spectrum uniform. I said hello, but he didn’t even look at me.”
“Because Lieutenant Ash can make herself so invisible that she can observe and overhear things Brihannala might not be able to. You have a remarkable skill for transforming from one to the other. We saw you change into an imposing Kali, as well. You’ve shown that you have courage and daring, even if you’re a bit rough around the edges. And you’ve gathered information that Spectrum didn’t have, about the movement and placement of tanks in the valleys. With some special training, you might have the makings of an ideal undercover agent.” He smiled at the sparkle in Ash’s eyes. “Captain Umber?”
“In spite of your mistakes, I’ve found you to be a good agent, Lieutenant Ash. Your reports to me on possible terrorist activity and pictures of the Gamukh Glacier have been useful; they enabled us to determine quickly where the Neo-Thuggee would most likely strike and how. You’re also resourceful, creative, and more than a little brave. I’ll add my recommendation to Captain Scarlet’s when we meet with Colonel White on Cloudbase.”
Brihannala gathered the few scarves she had left and danced, not for the men’s entertainment but as an outlet for her joy, and to share it with the gods, especially Mata Ganga.
Captain Scarlet smiled as he tried to relax and fall asleep, then winced as a rock beneath him found another particularly painful bruise. It was going to be a long, slow trek back to Gangotri in the morning.
The places mentioned and described are, for the most part, real, except for the Bhagirathi Tiger Preserve. The characters and other people mentioned are all fictional, and not based on any real persons. Captain Umber and Lieutenant Ash/Brihannala are my creations, though Brihannala was inspired by a character in Hindu writings. The Chabe stove was invented by Ursula K. LeGuin in her novel The Left Hand of Darkness; although no such stove is available on Earth, I hope she doesn’t mind my borrowing it. Captain Scarlet, Colonel White, Lieutenant Green, and Cloudbase are the intellectual property of other people, used without express permission, but without intent to infringe. My only purpose is to entertain myself and friends. In other words, I don’t get any payment for this other than the satisfaction of meeting a fellow writer’s challenge to my imagination. And it’s been a mighty challenge.
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