—Your visitors have cleared the offshore security perimeter. E-T-A interior perimeter in five minutes.
Paul straightened up, daubed his face dry with a towel, then picked up the earpiece he’d placed near the washroom basin to answer his personal monitor, “Thank you, pSID. Please, don’t keep them waiting.” He then fully inserted the earpiece and exited the washroom.
For all practical purposes, Paul was already dressed for company. The most regulated part of the island within the climate dome that was also his habitat afforded him little reason to dress more formal. Sun-shirt, semi-shorts and sandals sufficed nearly year-round. He would don the sun hat if the visit involved a tour of the plantation outside the dome.
The ocean breeze that had already traveled some distance both from beyond and within the climate dome to reach the veranda was briefly bolstered with a gust from the Spectrum helicopter landing. Minutes later the rustling of tall grass heralded the visitors’ arrival. Paul figured they would stop a respectful distance from the veranda.
“Captain Scarlet?” Midlands, Paul thought, perhaps.
Paul answered, “Good morning.”
“Captain Emerald, Spectrum.”
A feminine voice followed: “Lieutenant Pearl, Spectrum Intelligence.” Youthful. American Upper Midwest.
“No need to show identification. pSID cleared you long ago.” Paul smiled and took a step backwards. “Please do come in.”
“Thank you,” Emerald responded. No doubt with his cap tucked beneath his left arm. The visitors’ boots tromped upon the steps and veranda deck, then stopped in unison. “After you,” said Paul, then all entered the living room and seated themselves without direction. Paul took the large wicker chair opposite where guests of some familiarity typically sat together.
“Coffee, tea, sparking water or still, on request,” Paul offered, “though you can tell from the surroundings that coffee is le choix des boissons.” Each ordered black coffee from the autotray that quietly fulfilled the service.
Paul sat back and could not resist smiling. There is of course more than just hospitality at stake. “I am glad you’re here. You’ve had a pleasant journey from Cloudbase?”
Emerald answered, “We’ve a long way before we can match only a fraction of the distance you’ve traveled, Captain.”
“I am duly flattered, Captain, as I am by all my visitors from Spectrum.”
“Even by the trainees?” Emerald asked.
“Especially by the trainees,” Paul answered. Emerald and Pearl was the second pair of visitors this year and it wasn’t yet midsummer. Two pairs typically visited each year over the past decade. Or so, Paul mused, though Spectrum knows well enough not to outstay its welcome. He faced Pearl. “And, Lieutenant, you too are allowed to ask whatever you like. As an intelligence officer, you may find that an incomparable luxury.”
“I do, Captain,” Pearl replied with no trace of surprise, pleasure, awkwardness — or emotion, Paul thought. She will do well.
Paul turned left to face Emerald. Paul asked, “I am curious, Captain Emerald, as to how the rank of captain in Spectrum rates trainee status.”
Emerald’s voice bore no trace of hesitation. “I arrived later on the scene than most, Captain.”
“I believe I am the first representative of SHADRAC you’ve met.”
Indeed, Paul thought. “During my final debriefings I was granted the glimpse of the plans for your — unit — but that glimpse was confined to a passing reference lifted from a view-screen. Even so, I infer your membership is quite select.”
“Our selection depends as much upon opportunity as proven experience.”
For the first time in a very long while Paul felt at a loss for words. With some caution he asked, “What were you before your selection?”
Emerald’s pause was nearly as long. “I was a test pilot for the World Air Force.”
“Nearly. That was the intended track.”
I’ve been granted another glimpse. “If I recall correctly,” Paul said slowly, “it’s Special Human Adaptation for Defense, Research and — I believe the rest purposely variable.”
Emerald laughed very gently. “Roughly half is variable, at least among my colleagues. For now let’s say Defense Research Applications and Counterinsurgency. And, no offense taken, Captain.”
“None intended, Captain. How many are you?”
“We are six. There will be more. When the lieutenant completes her requirements, she will be assigned to our unit as dedicated support.”
“You remain part of Spectrum?”
“Presently. That may change.”
“Are you — at liberty to disclose your,” careful again, Paul, “specialty?”
Emerald paused ever so briefly before answering. “In time, Captain. I don’t mean to sound mysterious. Your security rating remained in place after your release from active duty at Spectrum. I can tell you the lieutenant has the same rating. So there should practically be no secrets between the three of us. Though — the lieutenant and I are told you’d very nearly had your rating rescinded. I am effectively under direct order by the Executive to ask you about that.”
“Don’t let me stop you.”
Emerald laughed not so gently. “Again, Captain, in time. I would first like more of that splendid coffee.”
Paul gently placed his hands on his knees, leaned forward and said, “Then if you’re both like all the other trainees you brought your day kits. We can tour part of the plantation before lunch. I guarantee you will enjoy the coffee even more.”
Paul was certain they had spotted him.
Thrust-neutral, course steady, his probe drifted with its own inertia. Paul filtered all audio input in his helmet until the only sound outside of his breathing was the rhythmic radar ping as the Stalk drew near.
Though he knew the probe cabin had no interior illumination, Paul also knew that Earth below remained at night, pockmarked with evidence of its inhabitants and physically connected to his planned rendezvous point in low-Earth orbit by the stationary tether that was known by popular acclaim not as an elevator but as the Stalk.
A lower-octave chime sounded in Paul’s helmet. He gently squeezed the right joystick grip, and did not hear but felt the braking press him into his EVAx exoskeleton. The chime sounded again; he repeated the maneuver. More time before the third and final chime. A chirp, then Paul took his hand off the grip. The braking was constant but less discernible. A moment more and he knew the probe had stopped its approach to the Stalk before he heard the higher-tone chime’s confirmation.
No sound alerted Paul to the probe’s systems powering down. A voiced chronometer began a countdown from six hundred. Paul wiggled deeper into his EVAx, and inhaled slowly and deeply on each count of ten.
Paul did not need a chime to mark the countdown’s end. His torso pressed against his suit binder clasps, first in front, less so but gradually on his left, then more so in front. His physical training precluded sudden moves; the EVAx programming prevented overcompensation.
Paul’s choice while in the probe involved braking; outside the probe, forward motion. Paul figured his turn was complete when all pressure on his torso binders ceased. He toggled the left joystick grip with his thumb, slowly stretched his arms out in front of him.
He had hoped the simulator runs would have sufficiently prepared him, but sudden doubt made him gasp, though not enough to make him change his orientation or reach for either joystick grip.
Feedback circuits in Paul’s gloved hands applied enough pressure to firm his grasp on the Stalk’s smooth cylindrical surface. Even with the mass of his EVAx and the rest of his cargo, Paul’s acceleration had been gentle, yet so precisely regulated that he could bring himself to a complete stop merely by pushing with his arms, careful to maintain at least the sensation of his grip on the Stalk.
Paul knew well enough, sensed well enough, without any confirming audio alarms or the need to move further, that he was properly oriented in the utter darkness, hundreds of miles above Earth.
With the level of self-assurance that could satisfy only him, Paul laughed at the triumph of physical laws that precluded the irrational fear of his having caught onto the tail of a bullwhip in motion.
No flag, pennant, or otherwise adhesive proclamation of worldview, ideology, personal philosophy or commercial sponsorship would mark his arrival. And though Paul was fairly certain the probe’s approach had been monitored then dismissed after its straight-line avoidance of the Stalk from a tolerable distance, he was also certain someone observed his arrival from somewhere. Do they truly know I’m here? They should — no, they’ll have to know, before the next scheduled cargo upload. And they can broadcast all they want, but I can’t hear them. Better yet, I won’t hear them until they’re in radar range.
A pause, a very deep breath, one more of each, and the observation I’ve time enough. With that, Paul acted as he was accustomed after a long day’s travel, and fell asleep literally hugging the Stalk.
The greater part of pSID that was assigned to service and maintain the island along with the plantation had adjusted the climate dome coverage to suit the cloudless sky. Outside the dome — and pleasurably — that did not affect the ocean breeze which the island, nearly large enough to contain a valley at the center of which the plantation resided, had captured and channeled almost exclusively through the coffee groves.
Paul first escorted his now-casually attired visitors by autocart through a dome portal to a pagoda on the outermost section of the western grove. Coral trees shaded the coffee plants with occasional bursts of red and orange blossoms. The plants were in precise rows, some in terraces that ascended the gentle sloping terrain surrounding the groves.
All groves were effectively separated from the surrounding ocean first by a ring of giant bamboo that sufficiently challenged pSID to prevent “running”, then by hilltops that provided an occasional glimpse of flowering palm plants, then by black volcanic sand beaches. If the ocean could not be seen from the pagoda it could still be heard.
“I occasionally pack an extended kit and circumnavigate the island on foot,” Paul explained. “pSID is never out of reach — virtually if not physically — and I have learned much through dead reckoning, provided I keep the ocean on the same side. If you like I’ll show you a path from here to the ocean. It’s not quite a distance but more gradual than you may think.”
Emerald and Pearl agreed, and appeared willing as well to let Paul follow rather than lead. Paul had hoped they would not perceive that as a slight — that along with his sole use of a hiking staff. When they arrived on the beach at the end of the path, they perched near the edge of a volcanic outcropping with their backs turned to the near-noonday sun.
A complex offshore system of dams, sluices, louvers, and wave, tidal and underwater turbines embedded in an artificial shelf — also maintained by pSID — kept the rising ocean level distant with the illusion of a permanent low tide. Emerald observed, “I suppose a storm would be even more impressive, watching the waves mount and crash on something invisible and far from shore.”
“pSID tends to provide ample warning, transport and shelter to further deny me the pleasure of the view,” Paul explained. “I’m told that’s far easier than trying to control the weather, at least until pSID’s next heuristic upgrade — or so pSID consistently reminds me.”
Pearl sat nearest the edge of the outcropping. “I could sit here to moonrise,” she said, “and not say a word ‘til long past then.”
From someone who says very little to begin with, Paul mused, that’s quite the concession. “I directed pSID to return us in time for lunch. I can readily countermand.”
“I eat very little,” Emerald replied, “and I do believe the lieutenant will have the moon at her beck and call.”
Lunch became supper.
“It will be a memorable ride even for you,” the man seated across the wide table explained to Paul, “if only because I wouldn’t want you to feel it too similar to our previous missions.”
“As cargo,” Paul said, “I shouldn’t have the luxury of complaining about the accommodations.”
Paul had long accepted the mission co-coordinator’s passion for understatement, given the ‘two-cee’s’ repeatedly demonstrated passion for detail and — more than a passion? Paul thought — for secrecy. Paul added, “And I suppose I will need plenty of reading material between flights.” He expected at least a laugh from Twosie in return.
He did not get one. “You may need more for the return trip.”
Paul obliged himself by laughing aloud, then added, “Just as long as you get me near enough the top to matter.”
Twosie explained, “The shuttle manifest will simply call your probe a ‘long-duration materials test facility.’ The designation is technically accurate, for when you exit the probe it will seal itself, remain in orbit, and, yes, test materials for a long duration. The shuttle will shadow the probe for a full orbit, possibly two. It will shadow you for a full orbit, possibly less than that. The trajectory is mapped as close as we can without raising concerns.”
“Concerns will doubtless be raised when I make contact.”
“Perhaps not. We simply do not know that. We inquire but receive no answers. This is one way to find out, utilizing about as benign a method as —”
“Please don’t say, ‘as commercially reasonable.’ The methodology is not necessarily benign to me.”
“The mission sponsors have their reasons for testing the Stalk’s security in quite this fashion, and you, I suppose, have yours for consistently helping all of us at no small personal risk. If you are concerned, say so and we just send up the facility. I am certain the sponsors can resort to another methodology if they can’t find another subject with your qualifications.”
“No. I’m on, for the round-trip.”
Twosie sniffed. Paul slowly and quite unconsciously began swiveling his chair from left to right, then back and forth, then on both axes. This exercise coupled with a silence had the desired effect of provoking Twosie to say, “You are not asking me enough questions.”
Paul replied, “I already know the answers.”
“You most certainly do not.” Paul kept rocking in silence, but Twosie did not sound cross. In fact, Twosie did not sound anything but functional. “Our contract stipulates we have a final mission briefing. This is it. The contract briefly describes the purpose of the final briefing. Shall I quote that to you?”
“No need.” I’ve worked with him long enough, Paul thought. Why anger him unduly? “Very well, I have one question. What do I say when I’m found?”
A pause that Paul could not read before Twosie answered, quieter than Paul expected: “I had hoped you would have thought of that by now.”
“You don’t wish to put words in my mouth.”
“I’ve never had to. And I have no desire to record them. I purposely limit my role as a witness ‘in real-time’, while my partner-coordinator feels even stronger about her role. But I feel obliged to ask, so humor me in my asking. Why are you doing this, Paul?”
“Why am I doing the mission?”
Twosie sighed audibly. “Yes, Paul, the mission. This mission.”
I can’t tease him either. I shouldn’t tease him. “Let us set up a menu. The answer will depend upon how I am found.”
“That is not amusing.”
“Truly?” Paul stopped rocking and faced Twosie. “Scenario One. I slip and fall.” He held up a hand, then poked an index finger at the ceiling, but Twosie did not protest. “The EVAx beacon shouts, then your next shuttle locates and retrieves me. You will be first in queue to answer for this.”
Twosie replied, “After we receive all the commendations for a successful search-and-rescue mission. You will be first in queue to answer for yourself. And you will surely be recognized.”
Paul chuckled. “Indeed.” He held up his other hand and poked its index finger at the ceiling. “Scenario Two. An off-schedule upload hits me. I doubt recognition will play a role.”
“We won’t play one either. But that’s not the purpose of the mission. Is it?”
“Scenario Three.” Paul placed his hands on the chair armrests. “In my view the most likely. I land where I’m least expected.”
“And that can be just about anywhere,” Twosie replied. “We can watch and listen for you up to a point. We will track you as best we can. But you will truly be in the hands of others — and they won’t be ours.”
“As no doubt I have always been.”
“Paul. This is no game of chance.”
“But don’t tell me you haven’t grown used to playing it.”
Twosie paused. “Address the scenario you have not thought of.”
On which Paul paused, though for not as long. “It would make a poor movie plot. But, perhaps, a successful movie.”
Twosie responded without humor: “Not that one.”
“Then don’t give me enough time to think of one that suits.” And you know I will think of something.
The threesome followed their Ethiopian-style meal with fruit and coffee. “All grown here on the island,” Paul said, privately wincing in his recollection of a similar declaration made in his presence by a Lunar Controller. He could have added, “and untouched by human hands,” but he felt that unfair to pSID and the devices under his — its — stewardship.
“Occasionally,” Paul explained, “I have steaks flown in from the mainland. I save for guests what I don’t myself quickly dispense with. And I do cook, though not in front of my guests, especially those whom I wish would return.”
They now sat in separate chairs separated by a low table that was carved from an especially large piece of driftwood. Its center was a reflecting pool for the moon shining through the skylight overhead.
Paul said, “I gather you’re due back on Cloudbase by morning.”
Emerald replied, “I am instructed that can happen at our leisure as long as it’s by first night watch, which I am also told is substantially behind us. But ours is not a direct flight.”
“Call it extended shore leave,” Paul said, prompting an audible laugh from both visitors. “Your guestrooms are prepared.”
“And I think we need soon retire,” Emerald added, “to help ensure Cloudbase catches up with us.”
Pearl surprised Paul. “Captain Scarlet, I’d purposely refrained from asking this.” I’ll wager you have, Paul thought. “But as this is our personal introduction I need admit the one part of my briefing that I was not truly prepared to confirm.”
Paul presented his best half-smile. “And that is?”
“Your personnel file reference images are up to date.”
Paul laughed. “By that you mean I’ve visibly aged.”
“Barely, Captain. The images date from your induction into Spectrum. And I don’t tend towards flattery, not even when duty calls for it.”
Emerald added, “The lieutenant is quite correct, Captain. And to demonstrate that I’m even less idle a flatterer, I don’t think you’ve aged at all.”
They’re correct, Paul thought, it’s not flattery. They’re quite serious about this. He replied, “I’m older than I look but a great deal younger than I feel. Perhaps that was another reason for your visit, or in your case, Captain, another question the Executive effectively ordered you to ask.”
Emerald replied, “Truth to tell, Captain, it had occurred to both of us when we first saw you.”
“And, Captain,” Pearl added, “we of course assumed but were not directly told whether your power of retrometabolism remained intact.”
Paul paused with hopeful effect. “As you can see, it hasn’t, not entirely.”
Within the hour, the helmet chime awoke Paul. The rest break had invigorated him. He figured he could remain active for another four hours, five at most, before he continued his own planned regimen for rest and activity.
This will be easy. Paul released his right hand’s grip on the Stalk, slowly placed his right hand on top of his left hand, and pulled with both hands. In zero gravity, he did not have to shift his legs or hips, though the EVAx reminded him of the unusual mass, bulk and moment of inertia with which he also had to contend. In a lengthy matter of minutes, Paul had turned 180 degrees. He gripped the other side of the Stalk with his right hand to stop his turn.
After five minutes of controlled breathing, Paul placed the palms of his hands on the surface in front of him and very gently pushed away. He purposely avoided using any thrust from the EVAx, but his goal was not to push his entire mass away from the housing, only the upper body. His inner ear confirmed the progress of the standing back somersault in extreme slow motion. He counted to ten, then just as gently, toggled the EVAx thrust to help him stop.
By his reckoning, principally bolstered by the silence of his helmet chime, Paul now faced Earth, with the Stalk nearly a meter beneath his feet.
And this will be difficult. With care and methodical slowness, Paul brought both knees up to his chest pack, reached down with his hands and slowly removed the bindings of each boot from the EVAx, then straightened both legs. All the time I want. His upper body remained attached to the EVAx as he folded, then pivoted each leg brace to one side, then connected each end to his waist belt.
Paul’s helmet chime remained silent, but he had only the slightest doubt that was a malfunction. Silence indicates I’m within safety parameters — I would hope.
He pointed the toe of his right boot downwards, keeping careful to not move any other part of his body. There. He felt pressure on the sole of his foot as the boot contacted the Stalk. He did not move if only to confirm he had not imagined that contact. Soon the boot sole covered the cable’s width of the surface housing.
Paul chuckled as he pictured an astronaut standing on one foot with his back to the stars. Fine, but don’t laugh out loud or you’ll be nearer the stars for the pleasure. It was not as difficult as he had expected to place his left boot on top of his right, then just as slowly, carefully and methodically straighten and extend each of his arms to shoulder height.
(Twosie had waxed poetic: “When the sun’s out in full force, you’ll look like a bleached scarab, or perhaps a droplet of milk, caught on the strand of a spider’s web.” For what that’s worth to me, I’ll file that, but to the uninitiated I’ll doubtless look much funnier.)
Five minutes more of continued breathing. And now I don’t give one whit if anyone sees me. Paul pointed the toe of his left boot ahead and downward, felt the renewed contact with the Stalk, paused, placed the sole of his right boot on top of his left boot, and alternated, first with measured hesitation, but soon with greater confidence and rhythm, breathing in syncopation, I am marching to Tshwane — in as straight a line as I can possibly manage. It was slow, it was steady, and there was no race to be won until his helmet suddenly and repeatedly chimed in a jarringly high pitch—
Paul would recall as the most trenchant observation from the international press corps was his surprisingly clean-shaven appearance after the recovery team peeled the charred ablative material off the fully inflated EVAx housing.
He landed as he had expected, and surprisingly close to where he was expected, but not nearly when he was expected. He promised himself to clearly identify that unthought-of Scenario when he next met Twosie. The investigators know me, Paul mused, others quite higher up certainly know me, and for all I know Twosie may appear in newsvids of my prior missions. He must at heart be a practical joker, and he should by now recognize I am not. But he should also have no fear of my identifying him on sight.
Paul knew Twosie need not have asked Paul the reason behind the mission. And Paul was always ready to answer the two questions he could count on in being posed during his post-mission press conferences, invariably by those whom Paul felt could not fathom let alone guess at the answers.
He would plainly state that he had no doubt the view would have taken anyone’s breath away, then blithely explain that the view would still pale in comparison to what he had imagined every step of the way.
And, displaying a trait he felt he had had for as long as he could remember, he would add that he had always wanted to know what he had just barely missed.
“Can I say that I envy you, Captain Scarlet?”
“You may indeed, Captain Emerald. But I must point out you are the very first to utter those words in my presence. I’d like to think that reflects both your training and your chosen profession.” That had to have stung, Paul quickly thought, and I hadn’t intended that.
Pearl added, “You never said why you had lent yourself to these —demonstrations — after your release from active duty.”
“I felt then I didn’t have the need to explain,” Paul answered, “and I still don’t. After my encounter with the Stalk, Spectrum contacted me soon enough. I suppose a part of me very much wanted that. It would be charitable to say I was surprised at Spectrum’s offer that I personally oversee ‘a semi-autonomous agricultural experiment station’. The speed of my consent must have been as much of a surprise to Spectrum. But I can assure you I did not consent in haste, and dare say I felt the offer hadn’t been made in haste.”
“Captain Scarlet,” Pearl said quite gently and deliberately, “I recognize what I ask may involve a privileged communication between doctor and patient. Please consider if not appreciate the security rating each of us possesses. Captain Emerald was partly accurate, for he and I were asked — not briefed, and certainly not ordered — to ask your personal — viewpoint — on why everything except your vision remains functional if not in peak condition.”
Paul leaned back in his chair and craned his head back. He knew he faced the skylight and briefly wondered if they thought he could see it. They do need ask. But they will be judged not by what I say but by how they convey that. “Doctor Fawn told me his theory. He was as forthright a person as I had ever met or known, and he had both the wisdom and courage to not tell me what he himself did not know absolutely and could not prove conclusively. And he did me the first of countless favors by telling me at the start that I was virtually indestructible.”
Paul faced his visitors. “After one of my exceedingly thorough and regular medical examinations, I told the good doctor what I thought I knew and felt I didn’t have to prove. And he agreed with me. In fact, he said my theory was far better than his.
“My blindness was caused by trauma. You have the report concerning the medical reasons behind my release from active duty, and the events leading up to my release. You also have access to public records as there were many witnesses to those events —”
“Whose lives were saved by your action,” Emerald quickly added.
Paul continued, “High-voltage electricity killed Mysteron agents. So we had observed, concluded and implemented. And it’s no exaggeration to say my final action in the field gave me the shock of my life. But it merely blinded me.
“Doctor Fawn believed I was as much a Mysteron agent as the others. That’s where he and I parted conceptual company, for given my — singular viewpoint — I felt I was not the same as the other agents, regardless of when they had been — rendered into being.
“We as a species had to have been something new to the Mysterons to re-create. We still truly don’t know what happened to the Martian expedition that discovered the Mysteron complex.
“Captain Black alone returned to Earth. So witnesses attest. He disappeared soon after. We could not have then known he could do that quite literally.
“I felt the Captain Black we first knew and think we later observed never truly returned from Mars. His agent was no re-creation but literally an avatar, a shell for the Mysteron influence. We never found Black’s original body, and since the Deep Space Institute incident, then the Mysterons going — shall we say somnolent? — his agent has neither been seen nor heard from.
“Captain Brown was the Mysterons’ first attempt at a re-creation. His agent was — again, let’s say programmed — for a specific function. I felt that function wasn’t to assassinate the World President. After all, the re-created Brown followed his Spectrum orders to the letter and dutifully accompanied the World President to the subterranean keep.
“No, that agent’s programmed function was to explode on signal. Spectrum had wondered how Brown could have successfully secreted explosives on his person or triggered another, larger device. We later learned of the Mysterons’ capability for re-engineering, quite possibly at the subatomic level. Spectrum could not know his re-created body was itself the explosive.
“I was the Mysterons’ first attempt at a re-creation without a specific function. That function would be — and apparently was — later somehow communicated, transmitted, conveyed to me. For all anyone knows, I might just as well have been hypnotized. And I am consistently told I display no evidence of any depersonalization or dissociative disorder as a result of my ‘service’ to the Mysterons. In the strictest metaphorical sense I was a complete blank.
“Doctor Fawn said that while I ‘served’ the Mysterons, I had been a robot. I certainly couldn’t argue the point with him —then. No one witnessed how the Mysterons conveyed their ‘orders’ to any other agent let alone to me.
“But I’d come round to thinking that if I had not been programmed either upon or soon after my re-creation, I was still me. For how long before I fell under the Mysteron influence, indeterminable — but still me. And after the physical trauma of my fall from the London Car-Vu and my second revival, Doctor Fawn thought me an exact likeness that had also retained the power of retrometabolism. And I was still me.
“Was I a programming error? This may sound the grossest of analogies but after my ‘service’ to the Mysterons, they did not and perhaps could not ‘break the circuit’ on me. And you may guess that I was not inclined to let them at the expense of countless innocents.
“I believe the Mysterons addressed this and other programming errors in their later generation of agents. Among other things, Doctor Fawn also noticed the gradual disappearance of my ‘sixth sense’ that signaled the proximity of another Mysteron agent.
“And why would I have the power of retrometabolism? Whether the Mysterons rendered some ‘contra-thanatic’ change to me at the sub-cellular or even genetic level, or transmitted a replicate from some fantastic template, or fed me with energy from who-knows-where if not their Martian complex — or all of that — the Mysterons must have thought of re-using me as their agent.
“However, with — practice? — the Mysterons must also have concluded it was more efficient to re-create new victims than to re-re-create them. Their agents no longer had to be impervious. This might account for our gradual ability to ‘kill’ their agents without ‘the Mysteron gun’.
“Even with the Mysterons’ perceived powers, no copy can be perfect, and if the re-creation of a living being is obliterated, I doubt even the Mysterons could put it back together again.” Paul paused. “I’m the only former Mysteron agent I know. You might say I was luckier than the others for I full well knew I could still be destroyed in the line of duty.”
Pearl’s tone of voice did not change. “As for your blindness, Captain?”
Paul took a deep breath, then answered, “Degradation, of me, or the template, or the energy, or its carrier or transmitter, or any or all the foregoing.” Then he chuckled, adding, “I do hope I amount to more than a loss of signal.
“As the saying goes, if you take away the supernatural what you are left with is the unnatural — provided of course I can resist the temptation to believe in either possibility. Nothing lasts forever, or should be expected to.” He paused. “I am aging. We all age. Everything ages.
“I’ll concede that my loss of vision was unexpected but I’ll also concede the surprise was grounded in the necessity the ‘War of Nerves’ had imposed on all of us. As for other parts of me and quite possibly the whole, it may yet be only a matter of time, whether sudden or positively glacial. If it’s sudden, I doubt I’d want even pSID to witness —”
On this Paul stopped, for he had instantly recalled those among his earliest colleagues at Spectrum of whom he had been told or otherwise knew he had outlasted. Perhaps mercifully, he was not reminded of this by the visitors.
After what to them must have been an interminable duration he added without a change in tone, “And though my medical examinations remain regular but arguably less thorough, suffice it to say that I no longer feel compelled to experiment on myself to prove the point.
“And lest we forget that electricity travels. What you perceive as a solid but flickering bolt of lightning may be a series of exchanges that follow the same path between fields carrying opposite charges. Your average survivor of a lightning strike proudly displays where it entered and exited, possibly re-entered and re-exited.” Paul stopped, paused and chuckled quietly, then continued, “For the decidedly non-average recipient of a stroke of positive lightning, I was told I was very well grounded indeed.”
Without missing a beat Pearl followed through, “Doctor Fawn identified a more practical reason for not resorting to the standard surgical procedure for remedy.”
She is an excellent interrogator, Paul thought. “He was concerned the ocular implants would not take due to my retrometabolism, or quite possibly make matters far worse. For that same reason, he felt he could not say what else might or might not happen.” And Emerald restrains himself. I can feel that from where I sit. I would very much like to know why. “Doctor Fawn respected my theory, and I respected his judgment.”
Pearl reverted to the gentleness that surprised him more with time. “That must not have been easy for you.”
Paul smiled. “It still isn’t.” For at that moment so very long ago, I would see my colleagues only as I could then remember or later imagine them. “I recall laughing out loud after Fawn told me. I asked him if he thought the rest of me would still age gracefully if losing my sight was indicative. He said even the most educated guess might prove the cruelest jest. I thanked him for his indecision and told him time could only prove both of us right.”
—Paul, his bed pillow whispered.
“Yes, pSID,” Paul answered in kind.
—Captain Emerald left the house.
—West. He retraces your path from yesterday.
“Did he take the autocart?”
—No. He walks. Quickly.
Paul paused. “Is he well?”
—I believe so.
“Keep watch — and report when I ask.”
Breakfast was intentionally light but not hurried. Paul inferred from the sound of their boots on the hardwood floor that his visitors were properly attired for their return to Cloudbase.
Emerald then surprised Paul by asking if the two ranking officers could discuss something in private for a few minutes. Pearl dutifully thanked Paul for his hospitality and left to board the waiting autocart for their helicopter.
Paul asked, “Captain?”
“About last night…”
“Your line of questioning was not the least invasive,” Paul said. “I had grown accustomed to it.” Paul paused before adding, “I think I know why.”
Emerald paused. “I need also communicate to the Executive my understanding of the goal of this — training session.”
Paul replied, “ ‘I am always trying to forget what I know — and to find what I don’t know.’ ”
Emerald swiftly added, “Chesterton.”
“I’m impressed, Captain. And, the source title?” That sounded like an order. Perhaps it was.
“Did you read the book?”
“Of course I did.”
A very long pause followed before Emerald answered, “Yes. It’s somewhat laden with irony but the author is too good-natured to admit how much he himself appreciates that. He leaves that solely to the reader.”
Paul pondered his response. “I remain impressed. And I’d wager that part of your adaptation you just now demonstrated took the longest getting used to.”
Emerald was now as quiet and deliberate as Pearl the interrogator. “I like to think it compensation in part. Humor me, Captain, in my quoting to you something I’d read and took to heart long before my adaptation…
“Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?”
Paul smiled. “Tennyson, ‘Tithonus’, aussi.”
“We have more in common, Captain Scarlet. But it took my meeting you to learn that. I will recommend each of my colleagues meet with you. Present colleagues, and future.”
“They are welcome. And I’m Paul.”
“Daniel Shays.” They shook hands. For the briefest of moments, Paul did not know what to expect. Firm clasp, and constant. Warm, without perspiration. Smooth. Too smooth. Then Emerald left.
He will need someone to teach him to trust what he sees as I have had to learn to trust what I cannot see. “I’ve time enough for that too,” Paul said as the gust of the ocean breeze again reached the veranda.
This story was presented in 2011, for the Spectrum Headquarters website 10th anniversary.
This story was beta-read by members of the Beta-Readers Panel. Any remaining mistakes are the author's.
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