A “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” Story
by Lady Hawke
Copyright July 29, 2002, Revised 1/14/12
*This one is for all you adventurers out there who find surprises and unexpected turns during your vacation. Partly, this one was inspired by a recent trip to Washington State, USA.
Half the fun, they say, is getting there. Enjoy! Lady Hawke*
It wasn't often that Captains Blue and Scarlet had shared furloughs. It was even more seldom that they chose to share them together, but for the next week, Blue had his plans. "You're welcome to come with me," he offered his partner.
Within the social walls of Cloudbases's Officer's Lounge Captain Scarlet was seated at a computer terminal, busy perusing the monitor screen for the latest Mysteron activity updates. He was checking to see if perhaps there was any indication they might be called away to duty in the midst of their shore leave. Absently he glanced up at his hovering friend. "Hmm? Sorry, Blue. Where are you going again?"
"The states. I'm going to check out the Wyoming wilderness. You know, the American West. Rock climbing, dude ranch. That sort of thing. Want to come?"
Eyes again intent on the screen before him, Scarlet mumbled his reply. "Sounds sweaty to me."
Blue wasn't deterred from his reverie, however. "Come on," he urged spreading his arms wide in invitation. "Wilderness. Open spaces! Fresh air."
In response Scarlet pushed the laptop away from him and leaned back in his chair with a smirk. "If I want fresh air, I can step out onto the flight deck."
"And get swept away by the high altitude winds?" Now Blue was growing discouraged. He could take a hint. "Come on, Paul. You're not in the least bit interested in camping out? Waking with the sun? Black coffee? Hot dogs and beans?"
"The nightlife, I hear, is exciting too," Scarlet continued with a smug frown. "I'm sorry, Adam. But I have my own plans."
"No you don't," Blue countered with an accusatory chin nod. "Rhapsody's not scheduled for furlough until next month. Your parents are up to their eyeballs in wedding preparations for your cousin Derek. And that's not until next Saturday. What were you planning? Helping your Mom with the silk flower arrangements?"
Again that smug frown from his partner, this time deepening into annoyance. "My Mother has asked me to help supervise the grounds. Trees have to be trimmed and the lawn sculpted for the wedding reception. It wasn't my idea to have Derek's wedding at my parents' home. Aunt Marjorie happens to be my Mum's favorite sister."
"Now that sounds like sweaty work," Blue condemned. "You might as well come to Wyoming with me."
Scarlet smiled in response. "I promised Mum, I'd help since I have the time off."
"You'd rather climb a ladder and trim trees than climb a mountain and smell them in bloom. I see," Blue assessed with a wave of dismissal. He turned away from his partner and headed for the coffee maker. "Fine. If I fall into a crevasse, I'm sure a bear could lend a paw to save me."
"What do you want me to do, Adam?" Scarlet defended with spread arms. "Call my parents and tell them I'm going camping instead? It's not exactly my choice of pastimes, and they know it. They'd much sooner believe I'm going with you to Las Vegas."
"Then we'll make a detour there for a couple days," Blue offered, his hopeful smile creeping back across his lips as he set the coffee carafe down and raised a mug of the hot liquid to his lips. "I don't mind." After swallowing he ventured, "We'll take in a show, have a fine dinner. Light up the town for a night, then move on to Wyoming."
Now Blue saw his friend's dour visage soften. He no doubt wasn't looking forward to helping his parents prepare for Derek Evans' wedding day. "Have you ever done any rock climbing before, Adam?" the Brit asked instead.
"Not really," Blue admitted, for the moment stalled against his partner's intentions. "I've climbed mountains, hiked and biked, but not a vertical cliff face. I hear Jackson Hole, Wyoming has a mother of a sheer face that's quite a challenge."
"And you're going alone to do this."
"Yeah, well I was hoping maybe somebody at the ranch would come with. You know a fellow adventurer. Can't be sure there'd be any takers, though."
"So, what? I'd be your insurance policy?"
"Come on, Captain," Blue admonished. "Everyone knows you're my hero. You wouldn't let me go do something foolish on my own." He smiled charmingly from the rim of his coffee mug. It always worked with Symphony. Perhaps ...
"No," Scarlet agreed with a solemn head shake. "I suppose you'd want another fool to accompany you."
Blue swung a fist in triumphant camaraderie, nearly dousing himself with hot coffee. "That's the spirit, old buddy!" He recovered his sloshing mug and continued, "Just you and me, out in the wilds of Wyoming. No Mysterons to chase, just wildlife and bad weather. Pioneering adventurers together."
Scarlet's scowl remained skeptical. "My mother's ancestors fought for the Crown but stayed solidly on English soil, thank you. I have no pioneer spirit. Nor do I care for bad weather."
Now Blue's face collapsed like a card house. "You're really not interested? Even if we stop off at Las Vegas?"
"Sorry. No thank you, Captain," Scarlet replied with a reach again for his computer. "If the Mysterons threaten Earth again, I'll at least be close by and available when-"
"So, you admit it," Blue accused. "You're not excited about helping out at home." He was snatching at fairies now.
In response, Scarlet glowered at him, but admitted quietly, "All I remember of Derek as a child was his uncanny way of having me blamed for whatever mischief he got into. A precious China vase is still my downfall with Auntie Margie. Derek wanted to play football in the house. Snowballs in the face. Worms in my soup. He can get married for all I care. God bless the bride, I say. Just don't ask me to get involved."
"But you are," reminded Blue with a stab of his half empty mug.
"I'm helping my parents," the British captain corrected.
"Tell them, as a matter of principle; you need to help your friend fulfill a lifelong dream."
Now Scarlet's brow furrowed in open skepticism. "You don't have a lifelong dream, Adam," he accused.
"I do now. I'm rescuing you for a change." Blue sighed and set down his forgotten coffee. "Come on, old buddy. I'm offering you a chance to have some fun. I'll get you back in time for the wedding. I promise."
"Don't promise. What if you go and get yourself killed? Then I'll be attending a funeral."
"Come with me, then, and keep me from doing anything foolish," Blue insisted. This was his last chance.
"You're giving me another choice," Scarlet clarified.
"Of course," Blue answered with a stout nod.
"A rock and a hard place ..." Scarlet murmured. Blue grinned at the fitting analogy. "All right. I'll choose the rock."
"Yippee!" Blue exalted with a childish hop.
"On one condition."
"You come with me to Derek's wedding. I don't have a date."
"Me?" Blue's cheeks felt hot.
Scarlet shrugged. "It'll give me someone to talk to, and ..." The Briton's voice trailed off as if he were reluctant to admit awkwardness. Blue's intense stare pushed him to complete his sentence. "... and you can stop me from beating the tar out of the groom."
"What?" Blue guffawed. "Why?"
"Last time we saw each other, Derek managed to accidently dump a load of melted ice cream over my head."
Blue sputtered and slapped his hand against his mouth to quell the laughter. Forcing his levity in check he acknowledged, "Practical joker, huh? Never outgrew it, I gather."
"Rick could take lessons," Scarlet assured, deadpan. "I'm sure my cousin will have some new, extravagant accident planned. And since I was always his favorite fall guy, it'll be a bloody whopper!"
"At your house, in front of all your family," Blue surmised. He harrumphed. "Nice guy." Then with another thought he added, "So, Wyoming's looking better and better."
"Perhaps," Scarlet admitted. "Yet, I don't want to be deceitful. It's not in my character."
Blue had to admit, Scarlet was the most honorable person he knew. Paul Metcalfe wouldn't lie to a cockroach. "Well, if you tell them you're coming to help me prevent a major accident, you wouldn't be lying."
Scarlet shook his dark-haired head. "I'd still be manipulating the truth," he countered.
Someone cleared his throat. Neither of the Spectrum officers had noticed the hissing of the lounge door as it had opened. It seemed Colonel White had witnessed the last of their verbal exchanges. "Then might I suggest, Captain, that you go with Blue on my recommendations?" the older Briton offered, stepping down into the recessed center to head for the coffee dispenser at the rear of the lounge. There, laid out upon a rectangular table, was a continental breakfast of assorted bagels, pastries, scones, and biscuits with fruit and yogurt beside them. With his white-jacketed back to the now silent pair, the colonel busied himself with selecting a raisin tea biscuit and jam, fruit cup, and yogurt. As he placed these on a tray and gathered a handful of utensils he continued, "If Captain Blue were to injure himself whilst on vacation, he would suffer more than a few bumps and bruises, but a reprimand from me. Spectrum officers' well-being is worth more than their off-time pleasures. We pay out enough in health benefits to cover injuries acquired whilst on duty." White turned a critical eye upon his number one field agent. "As you show a deficit in that area, Captain Scarlet, I would feel it worth a plane ticket to have you accompany your partner to North America."
Blue grunted. He understood what the colonel meant. Though Scarlet seemed the maverick, prone to more injuries and feats of drastic heroics, the British captain seldom needed more than a few hours and bandages to heal from his wounds. His retained Mysteron retrometabolism took care of the rest. Many times Blue had wished for such a blessing. Captain Scarlet was Spectrum's number one field agent against the Mysterons because of that blessing, which, in retrospect, also made it his curse.
Scarlet finally spoke up. "Sir?"
White poured coffee into a mug before considering his perplexed officer. "Yes, Captain?" he inquired, taking a deep draught of the vitalizing brew.
"Colonel," Scarlet began, "I can't, much as I'd care to, relinquish my responsibilities. I've already agreed to assist with the wedding preparations." Blue watched his partner's fingers absently tap against the laptop's keyboard, though the man's eyes were glued to his commanding officer's.
"Honor has been a part of your family heritage for many generations, Captain," White agreed. "However, there is one honorable way out of this."
"Sir?" Now Scarlet rose from his seat, computer forgotten. The man's back was a plank of skepticism and resistance.
The colonel set his mug down beside his tray of chosen breakfast items. "If I'm not mistaken," he began, "you're currently looking over the mission briefs and international news reports, are you not?"
The British captain's stance was now just short of a full military salute. "Yes, Sir," he snapped.
"Is there any mention of a possible Mysteron threat to a certain mountain in the north west territory of the United States of America?"
Swallowing Scarlet admitted, "There have been rumors regarding a possible connection between recent volcanic activity at Mt. Rainier, and an artificial catalyst. Yes, Sir. But there is no obvious link between that and the Mysterons."
White was not deterred. "Do you agree that, as of late, the Mysterons have been- shall we say- reluctant to notify us of their full intentions?"
"Yes, Sir," cut in Captain Blue.
The colonel shot him a furrowed glare. "I didn't ask you, Blue."
"Sorry, Sir," Blue relinquished with slumping shoulders. He instead eyed his friend for the answer.
"Sir," Scarlet offered. "If you're requesting we two take an assignment to evaluate the situation, I'm not against the idea, of course. However, Captain Blue and I are officially on shore leave for the next week. Do you intend to revoke that shore leave?"
"Not at all," the colonel answered, plastering his open biscuit with raspberry jam. "On the contrary. I'm suggesting you two take your vacation, and while you're at it, spend a few days in Washington State asking questions. Think of it as a preliminary report."
"But ... but, Sir," Blue interrupted. "I have reservations at a dude ranch in Wyoming."
"Then change them, Captain."
"But ..." Blue sputtered. "I was-"
"If," White interrupted with a concise note of interrogative and a jab of the jelly spoon. "If you want Scarlet's company, you may accompany him on this working hiatus. However, Captain. I am sending your partner to Washington State. Any questions?"
Blue briefly considered asking for time-and-a-half pay to cover his time on duty while on vacation, but settled on an equitable compromise. "Sir, may I make the arrangements? I'll need a couple of hours. I'd like to see if there's a horse ranch near Mt. Rainier."
With a nod the colonel agreed. "I'll brief Scarlet meanwhile. Would you care to join me for breakfast, Captain?" White asked his British compatriot.
Though Scarlet was still rigidly at attention, he relaxed enough to nod and drop his shoulders into an easy bow. "Honored, Colonel."
Blue left them to settle in at a table while he rushed to the main computer center to reschedule his shore leave. No doubt his partner would fill him in later on the specifics of their mission. The possibilities nonetheless made Blue pause in his research. Was it possible the Mysterons were somehow manipulating tectonic plates beneath the Earth's surface? The west coast of North America was notorious for its variety of fault lines strident with the possibilities of not only volcanic activity, but also tremors and earthquakes. Many of the fault lines and subduction zones were also situated very near some of the most highly populated towns and cities in the western United States. A devastating eruption or earthquake could level an entire metropolis if the alien race had discovered a technique to actually trigger a tectonic shift.
As Captain Blue skimmed the various tourist sites listed on the Travel Agency Network (TAN), he came upon a horse ranch which suited their needs. Nestled in amongst the foothills of Mt. Rainier, just outside a town called Paradise, was Jodie Hanser's Dude Ranch. "Bingo!" Blue exalted with a grin. "Just what the doctor ordered." Swiftly he checked their accommodations, made the necessary reservations then swiped his credit disk into the accounts terminal. "Done," he quipped. "Now he owes me. Big time." The captain rose from his seat before the screen. "Better make sure Paul brings his long johns."
* * *
Within two hours the pair were packed for their junket and heading off for a public airport, via an SPJ. As they switched from their uniforms into civilian clothes at Lambert St. Louis International Airport's Spectrum terminal, Blue commented, "Now all you need is a hat." The blonde American was scrutinizing his partner's choice of denim jeans and cotton long-sleeved shirt and turtleneck. "Something else is missing," Blue ventured.
"Let me guess," Scarlet cut in dryly as he folded up his sleeves to his elbow. "Cowboy boots."
"No," Blue pondered, searching the air for the elusive detail. Then he snapped his fingers. "It's the accent. Not twangy enough." Blue beamed a challenge to his friend with a satisfied chin jerk.
"Speak for yourself, Captain," was Scarlet's desert reply.
"Hey, I'm from Boston," Blue defended with typical New England flair. "Took practice to hide that accent. Yet another poke at my dad for not approving of my choice in professions. To him the 'greater good of mankind' is a heftier profit margin." To this day, Svenson's family still didn't know the true nature of his occupation.
"We're even, then," Scarlet retorted regarding the accent. Once their Spectrum uniforms were safely stowed away in a locker, Scarlet leaned down to gather up his suitcase and travel kit. "Who's piloting?"
"I am," quipped Blue. "Oh, and call me Adam. We're officially on shore leave. Remember?"
Scarlet nodded then corrected, "We're on unofficial business while on shore leave, Captain."
In response Blue released an impatient sigh. "You Brits, always such sticklers for semantics. And I was looking forward to enjoying myself."
"Don't worry. You will. As Dr. Fawn would say, 'No worries, Mate'." With a smirk and a wave Scarlet allowed his friend to escort him past the locker room doors and out onto the airport's tarmac. As they considered their private four-seater jet, Scarlet offered, "She's all yours, partner." He stressed that last with his best attempt at a southern drawl. "I'll drive the hire car once we reach our destination."
"That's 'rental car'," Blue corrected as they strode to the sleek jet's lowered cockpit ladder. "Really, Paul. You must immerse yourself in the culture. You'll never pass as a native."
"This is your vacation," was the flat reply.
"Do I sense a bit of sarcasm and regret? You just said we'll have a great time," Blue argued pausing at the gantry. "Don't worry; this ranch sports all the amenities.” Rung by rung, Blue ascended into the aircraft. “It even has a hot tub for your sore, overworked muscles after a long day of riding."
Scarlet cracked a smirk as he followed Blue up into the plane. "You mean your sore, overworked muscles, right?"
After a long pause as Scarlet hauled up the ladder and sealed the cockpit hatch Adam Svenson agreed, "Uh, yeah." Without another word, the two strapped in to the pilot and co-pilot's seats. Adam slipped on his headset and requested permission to taxi out onto the runway for takeoff. Clearance was given from the tower and the two were soon airborne. Once final safety instructions were given and destination flight plans confirmed, he tugged off the device and considered his silent partner. "So," Adam asked as he pulled the steering column back to gain altitude and finalize their heading. "When are you going to fill me in on Colonel White's briefing?"
After a thoughtful moment, Captain Scarlet sucked in a deep breath and sighed. "I'm afraid it's my mission, Adam. You're simply my cover."
Mouth dropping Blue rechecked his heading before replying. "When were you going to tell me? What? I'm just your valet? Lapdog? Fiancé, for crying out loud?" Blue huffed. "The colonel had me change my plans for that?"
"It's not like that at all, Adam. I'm sorry, but you're on shore leave. And you're not my lapdog, for pity's sake," Scarlet defended with a calming hand toward him. "I talked the colonel out of expecting you to participate. I do need your help, though."
"As cover. Right," Blue stammered. "Well, then, what sort of cover?" Blue's throat was tight with uncertainty and hurt feelings. "You trust me for help, but not as your partner."
Scarlet's sympathetic blue eyes hardened to icy seriousness. "I'm to infiltrate a private scientific enclave in Seattle," he admitted. "It could be dangerous if the Mysterons have overrun the place. They might be able to recognize me, and I didn't want you to risk discovery too. It was my decision."
"And it's you I'm upset with," Blue accused. "If you didn't want me along to do my job, why have me come with you at all?"
Scarlet's lips pouted at the uncomfortable strife. "You asked me to come along first. Remember the mountain?"
"Oh," Blue expounded. "So you're keeping me on a short leash so you can save my neck and the world at the same time, huh?"
Scarlet raised a calming hand again. "It's not like that at all, Adam. Please. You have it wrong. I'm not Captain Scarlet, and you're not Captain Blue. We're geologists here studying Mt. Rainier's volcanic geology. We're undercover. Both of us. You're just going to stay at Rainier while I go on to Seattle."
"So, what exactly is my part in this, partner?" Blue's tone was still surprisingly confrontational, even to his own ears.
"I need you to be my link to Cloudbase. I'm going in without a net, no ID, save this." Scarlet pulled from his jeans pocket a bi-fold wallet. As he flipped it open Blue saw the photo and name printed there on an Identi-Card.
Squinting at it from his seat he said, "That's an old photo from when you were at Winchester University. No uniform. I didn't know you wore glasses."
"I didn't," Scarlet acknowledged closing the billfold and sliding it again into his trouser pocket. Taking a pair of dark rimmed spectacles from his shirt pocket, Scarlet slipped them on over his crystal blue eyes. "It's a digital forgery, made to recreate my looks now. A little older with glasses. Griff had a hand in it. Rather realistic, don't you think?"
From the pilot's seat Blue harrumphed. "Green's got a gift, what can I say? He's a Seymour of all trades. So, what's with the name? Dr. Jack Conagher?"
"Oh, he exists, but he's a recluse. It's a good bet the scientists at the Halpern Institute know him by reputation only."
"And me? Do I get a forged identity, too?" The plane was now at 28,000 feet and flying over the Utah desert.
With a quick nod Scarlet pulled out another billfold from his shirt. "No fancy title, I'm afraid, but this'll give you the credentials to snoop around Mt. Rainier without the Park Rangers getting in your way."
With a free hand Blue took the wallet and examined its photo ID and US Geological Survey notation. Then he shot his friend a suspicious scowl. "Snoop, you say. I thought I was on vacation."
In response Scarlet chuckled. "You are. You're supposed to be a curious tourist who also happens to be a survey geologist. The credentials will get you access to topography and seismology maps, so you can verify Rainier's recent volcanic activity."
"I see," Blue breathed then reloaded that skeptic glare. "Any other secrets?"
"Would you toss me out the airlock if I were to say yes?" was the reluctant answer from his British colleague.
"No, but my trust in you would be smashed."
"Now, Adam. This is for your own safety."
"You're leaving me behind, remember? How much safer can I be?" Blue challenged. "You're off into a possible bees’ hive of Mysterons without a keeper's suit, and I'm stuck reviewing geological survey maps? What about your vulnerability to Mysterons?"
At first Scarlet didn't acknowledge his friend's argument. Then he checked out the window of the plane. Below them, in the deserts of Nevada, was a little town where the lights never flickered out. "I suppose Las Vegas is out of the question too?"
"You tell me, partner," Blue contended without shifting his attention away from his instruments. "Las Vegas seems like as good a place as any to find the enemy to me."
"Come on, Adam," Scarlet soothed. "This is something Colonel White asked me to do. It's my responsibility. My risk. You're my anchor, here. Until we know for sure whether the Mysterons are involved, we can't afford to send in the troops. I'm asking for your help. Do I have it?"
Blue fumed in silence for a moment then relaxed his tightened knuckles on the jet's control column. "Do I have a choice? How could I let my partner down?"
"That's the spirit." Scarlet was smiling at him. "Your name is Myles Hunter. You're a field geologist for the Natural History Museum in Washington."
"That's Washington, D.C., partner. Don't get the two confused. You know. The capital? It's different from Washington, the state. Different ends of the continent."
"So, how will we keep in touch?"
"We work together. I'll need to check in with my man in the field from time-to-time. Understand?"
"Yes, Dr. Conagher. Cell-comm. units, then?"
With a nod Scarlet reached behind him for a briefcase. Plopping it onto his lap in the cramped space before the co-pilot's controls the Briton opened the satchel to reveal a collection of devices. "These were left for us by the colonel." As Blue switched his attentions between the briefcase and the plane's instrument panel his partner unpacked. "One each: cell-comm. units to be carried at all times. Locator chip to be injected under the skin." Scarlet poked his glasses back against his nose and held up two small hypodermic tubes for Blue's inspection. "A portable seismograph. And a mini-Mysteron detector for me."
"Really?" Blue gasped. "I thought it was still in the R&D stage." Blue considered the boxlike device on the end of a tethered loop. "Looks sort of like a camera."
"Rather bulky by camera standards," Scarlet admitted, "but it could pass for a scientific instrument, say a digital panoramic topography camera."
"Excellent," the American chimed in. "And it's been fully tested?"
Now Scarlet's handsome face betrayed his doubts. The man wouldn't meet his eyes. "That's what we're here to find out."
Blue's disapproving scowl returned. "Another secret, huh?" he challenged. "And you're the guinea pig."
"It does work," Scarlet defended, "but the results aren't always accurate. It can sometimes give false positives." Then after a brief pause, "Or false negatives."
"Wonderful! You mean it malfunctions. Something wrong with the film?"
"There is no film. The results show on a miniature screen set within my glasses." Scarlet shrugged. "Besides, I couldn't well go in with a Spectrum issue detector and electron gun, could I? This was the closest I could get to disguised equipment that might help."
"So the colonel really is relying on that sixth sense of yours to help identify the problem."
Again a shrug. "That hasn't always worked, either. You know that." Scarlet held up the camera-like detector. "Consider this a second insurance policy."
"I'll consider it a piece of junk until it saves our butts," Blue harangued, returning his eyes to the instrument panel. He checked their altitude, speed and heading once more. "What else can you tell me?"
"We'll get a car at the airport. We'll get checked in at the ranch you spoke of. Tomorrow afternoon, I'll return to Seattle and the Halpern Institute."
Blue's eyebrows drew a creased line of concern. "Then what? If you run into trouble, I'll be stuck at the ranch. How will I get to you?"
"You don't. You contact Cloudbase and get out of the danger zone. If I run into trouble, a good part of the west coast, from Baja California to Vancouver Island in Canada, may soon be underwater after that."
"Underwater?" Blue felt his skin drain of all warmth.
With dour seriousness Scarlet explained, "The colonel gave me an extended US Geological Survey report from the outlying geological monitoring sites. There's definitely been an increase, not only in volcanic activity, but also seismic activity along both the San Andreas Fault lines and the Cascadian subduction zone. These minor tremors have been more like growing pains. Extra high tides. Large wave activity. Not really alarming. But they could be a prelude to a much more massive series of earthquakes. Somewhere on the magnitude of a 9 or 10. If so," Scarlet cautioned, "it's a good possibility the western seaboard may shift and collapse into an inland sea. Los Angeles may become an inundated island. The Cascades may soon be beach front property."
"But the Mysterons? Why here?" Blue argued. "There are far more volatile fault lines on the globe, where casualties would be greater. South America. China. Japan. Nepal. Africa, for that matter."
"Perhaps North America had a ready-made infrastructure set up to monitor such activity. The United States has the wealth to invest in the latest equipment and monitoring technologies. The resident geological scientists were right there."
"Ready to be taken," Blue confirmed with finality.
"Yes." Scarlet's agreement was just as solemn.
When Blue checked their flight plan again, he saw that they were nearing their destination. On a northerly heading now, they should reach the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport within the half-hour. He slipped back on his headset and verified his position and approach vectors with the civilian aviation authorities. The remainder of the mission briefing would have to wait. Soon their target loomed out of a low-lying expanse of clouds. Mount Rainier in Washington State, a two hour's drive southeast of the airport. It's year round cap of 25 glaciers was misty white amidst the green of the coniferous forest encircling its summit like a Christmas wreath. The two Spectrum agents watched it pass to their starboard as they swung round for a southerly landing into Seattle. As they taxied to a private terminal Blue maneuvered the jet into a parking space then powered down the engines. "Well, Doctor Conagher. I believe we're here. Fun in the rain of the Pacific Northwest."
"Right, uh...Myles. Mr. Hunter," Scarlet corrected. "Let's get a hire car and we can continue our conversation." Exiting the tarmac, the two headed into the terminal building for the waiting car that would take them to Jodie Hanser's Dude Ranch. Within fifteen minutes their belongings and equipment were stowed in the vehicle's trunk. Scarlet slid behind the wheel and cranked over the engine.
"You're in America, Paul," Blue reminded. "Be sure to drive on the right side of the road."
"Right." Scarlet entered into heavy traffic and the two cruised south along Routes 5 and 7, then east on 706 toward Washington's Mt. Rainier National Park.
"So," Blue inquired from the passenger's seat. "What do we do until you abandon me tomorrow?"
"Reconnoiter the park," was Scarlet's distracted answer. "There have been some unusual happenings here. Besides some localized steam vents erupting, minor tremors and small pyroclastic mud slides, there've been some missing travelers. A rather perplexing problem for the park rangers."
As he drove on into the growing twilight and twisting mountain road, Scarlet relayed the remainder of Colonel White's briefing and subsequent reports. "It seems there may be local land owners involved, though there's been no hard evidence. The connections may not even exist."
"Between the missing persons and the geological activity?" Blue clarified. "If it's a local matter then why get Spectrum involved?"
"Because we're curious tourists out for a little research. That's why. We get nosey, and we may flush out a bigger tiger."
With a smirk Blue threw his arm over Scarlet's seat back and offered, "I didn't know there were tigers in these woods. Mountain lion, maybe ..."
"Be serious, Adam. I mean Myles."
"Fine. Then give me your arm." Scarlet offered his right arm. Blue tugged up the turtleneck sleeve to inject the tracker chip just below the skin of his friend's wrist. Then he repeated the procedure with his own arm. "Now Cloudbase can find us no matter what crevasse we fall into." The unspoken truth was that Spectrum wanted recovery of its officers, even if they were just dead bodies. Mysteronized Spectrum captains had caused chaos before. Colonel White was not taking any risks this time. As they grew silent once more, watching the forest-rimmed road roll by, Blue finally offered, "So local authorities haven't been able to link these occurrences. What makes you think they're connected?"
"Epicenter," was Scarlet's terse reply.
"You mean the disappearances of people and the localized seismic activity match? Haven't any bodies been found?"
Scarlet nodded his head, though his spectacled eyes never left the darkening road. "Oh, some have been found, all right. But it's very strange. Each death has been deemed a mysterious accident. But if, in fact, these people are being Mysteronized, a larger plan may be in play."
"Well, wouldn't the families of the missing not log a police report if they all returned home like nothing was wrong?"
"That's just it," Scarlet sighed. "They have filed reports."
"Then the victims aren't being Mysteronized. They're being murdered."
"Not necessarily. All the missing do have something in common. They were all strangers to the area, either on vacation or travelling through on business."
"Like us." Blue harrumphed. "Sounds like someone has access to these people's itineraries and has set some kind of baited trap. I wonder what that is."
"That's what we're here to find out." There was silence again between them as Blue pondered the shadowy woods. Scarlet drove on. The map indicated their destination just up the road on their left. Scarlet pulled the car in through the corral-styled gates and followed the dirt path in between the trees to an open meadow where an expanse of horse pastures and a ranch-styled log cabin and out-buildings sat squat below the towering, star-blotting bulk of Mt. Rainier.
Within minutes they were registered and striding to their rooms within an old, converted barn. With bags slung across their shoulders they stood in the doorway surveying their sleeping arrangements. Their 'room' was more like a cowhands' dormitory. Privacy consisted of old Navaho blankets hung between rows of cots and bunk beds. Communal wash basins and shower stalls were situated along a far wall of the singular open space. As Scarlet unlatched his petite satchel to remove a flannel-lined denim jacket he commented, "I thought you said this place had everything. You didn't mention there wouldn't be walls. How is a man expected to get any privacy around here?"
Blue, who had made the reservations through TAN, could only shrug. "They mentioned the hot tub in the E-brochure, but I don't remember anything about sleeping arrangements. I guess, in my haste, I neglected to read everything. Sorry. At least we seem to have this place to ourselves. It's still off season. Too cold." Blue paused and forced a cheery smile before continuing, "I do remember the rustic part though.” He quoted, “-nestled at the foot of majestic Mt. Rainier, you'll find a paradise of possibilities. Rustic yet accommodating, the brochure said."
Scarlet gazed around the converted barn and nodded. "Rustic is right. I think the original beams are still holding this place together. Better not encounter too strong a quake about here. This ranch of yours may just fall down on our heads."
With a twisted smirk Blue grumbled, "Now who's being the pessimist?" They unpacked their bags then strolled outside into the darkness to consider the tapestry of starlight above them. Craning his cool eyes upward, Blue sighed. "Ah, now isn't this wonderful? Look at them all, Paul. One hardly knows where to start counting."
"Be my guest, Myles," Scarlet replied emphasizing his partner's pseudonym. "I think I'll drive back to the park entrance and the ranger station. See where I might acquire some of those geology survey maps. It's still quite early and a lot can be completed before morning."
Blue wasn't so enticed. "See? Now there you go again. Talking shop on our vacation. Will I at least get a chance to relax on this trip?"
"Of course, Myles," Scarlet assured with a nod. "Just grab a pew and start your counting. I'll be back in a couple of hours. We'll go over the maps, then. In the morning we can conduct a survey of the area, find some of these hotspots for ourselves." Without another word the British agent zipped up his warm jacket and tugged the keys from his jeans pocket. Blue watched his friend go then shook his head. Must be all that military training coming out. No time for a proper breather.
* * *
Once Scarlet had returned, the two spent the evening perusing the geological survey maps and their corresponding trail maps. They compared the two and scrawled circles and pathways with a colored pencil until they had created a grid for Blue's investigations. By then it was nearly 2am, and Blue couldn't stop yawning. "We better call it a night, old buddy," he yowled at the completion of yet another yawn. "I'm still on Cloudbase time. Can't switch my internal clock gears like you seem to be able to do." With an extended grunt, Blue stretched his weary back against the hard, wooden chair.
With a confirming nod Scarlet placed his special glasses back before his eyes. "I'll walk the grounds a bit before turning in myself. We'll cadge a couple of horses in the morning and visit some of these sites. Perhaps we can confirm our suspicions."
Blue sleepily settled his head atop folded arms over the map-strewn table. "Hey, does that mean, if there's nothing amiss, I can relax and really start my vacation?"
"Good night, Myles," Scarlet said and slipped on his jacket again for a survey of the immediate grounds. Blue only shrugged his reply and peeled himself from the seat to flump his tired body onto the lower bunk bed. Let Scarlet climb the rickety ladder up to the top. At this rate, his partner would pace the property until sunrise. It was in the Brit's nature to be restless before a mission. Theirs had only passed the planning stage. Tomorrow afternoon, Paul would leave him to return to Seattle alone.
"Into the hornet's nest," Blue mumbled, and promptly drifted off dreaming of human-sized killer bees.
* * *
Amidst the open night air Captain Scarlet glanced up at the sky through his new personae’s glasses and smirked sardonically. Yes, the stars were glorious. There was even a hint of the Aurora Borealis shimmering about the twinkling starlight, a celestial dance solo for his eyes only. Just then, a strange thought occurred to him. Why hadn't he looked up when Blue had suggested it? Was he so caught up in the potential challenges of their current mission, that he couldn't stop for even a moment to appreciate what all Spectrum's hard work were trying to preserve?
Yes. The stars, the Earth, the moon were all here, in an expanse of black velvet. At this hour, he alone was viewing both the present and the beginnings of time. Shimmering celestial creations blinked at him, their light only now reaching his eyes over the great expanse of the universe. ... A universe shared by another race of intelligent life. A life force which wished the destruction of mankind and its beautiful blue-green home. The Mysterons. It always came back to them, he surmised with a scowl, the wonder of the night sky forgotten.
If what he had momentarily treasured was to survive, Captain Scarlet had to set aside his wonder and fight to save the universe and his home planet. With every ounce of cleverness and fortitude he held within himself, the Spectrum Captain avowed to that creed. The magic of the moment was gone. His mission was at hand. If he were fortunate, perhaps his trip into Seattle would prove a wasted journey. If the Mysterons were not involved in this geological disturbance, then just perhaps Captain Scarlet could share a few more precious moments contemplating the stars and his place among them.
He headed out to the stables, letting his booted feet announce his presence to the dozing horses, standing three-legged within their stalls. Some whinnied in alarm. Others snorted and tossed their heads. Scarlet only spoke softly intruding himself as no coyote or wolf. Then he silently lit a kerosene lantern and strolled among the stalls, carefully considering their choices of mounts. Captain Blue and he needed sturdy fare, horses with sure-footed and steadfast spirits. For himself he chose a young American Quarter Horse mare, a palomino. Two stalls down he found a big-boned gelding which only glared at him in the lantern light and puffed a disapproving snort. "Glad to meet you, too," Scarlet answered checking the nameplate nailed to the gelding's stall gate. "Groucho Marx." The British captain harrumphed. "Sounds fitting, Mr. Marx. I'll see you two in the morning. Rest well. We'll have a busy day up on the mountain."
Scarlet wandered about the stables a bit, checking out the selection of saddles, tack and other out-packing gear. If they were to trek the nine miles to their initial investigation site, they should take a pack horse and at least a minimum of survival gear with them. He, himself, was an experienced English rider, though he seldom had the chance to practice his skills. Captain Blue had pleasure ridden in the past, but an extended field ride might be a bit of a strain on the man's backside. All this would be complicated by rugged mountain terrain and possible rockslide-blocked trails. Anything could happen. It was up to Scarlet to prepare for those contingencies as best he could.
For the next hour Captain Scarlet gathered and packed a small collection of what survival and out-packing gear Mrs. Jodie Hanser had on hand in her storage shed. Ropes, pitons, climbing carabiners, even rain ponchos and candles were soon stowed away in a large canvas saddle pack. This he set aside next to the two saddles he had chosen for their mounts. Before breakfast Scarlet would bridle and saddle the horses so that they might get the earliest start possible for their day trek into Mount Rainier's wilderness of tall conifers, beeches, aspen, and glacial snow. He reminded himself to make sure Captain Blue wore several layers of clothing and insulating wool socks for the ride as well. Then, when he was too chilled and drowsy to think of any other precaution, Scarlet returned to their bunkhouse and the warmth of woolen blankets. Rustic, indeed. Their sleeping quarters came complete with a soundly snoring Blue sprawled out atop the lower bunk, his daytime clothes still enshrouding his wide-shouldered frame. Scarlet smirked at the sight and kicked off his own boots for bed. Sunrise would halt their slumber in a matter of a few short, restful hours.
* * *
The morning arose with drizzly rain and an engulfing blanket of mist. Blue frowned at the sky. "What happened? Last night there wasn't a moisture droplet about. We lost our mountain, too." Grumpily he stretched his stiff back and followed after his silent partner. Together they stepped into the main house for breakfast where their hostess, Jodie Hanser, had prepared a hearty meal of Canadian-style bacon, hash browns, and scrambled eggs with strong coffee and sliced baked apples. With his belly full Blue soon cheered up for the day's ride. "Will the weather clear up, Ma'am?" he asked the middle-aged woman with the sun-creased skin as he finished wiping his lips on a bandana-styled napkin and reached for the dregs of his third cup of strong coffee.
Jodie Hanser only shrugged her flannel-sleeved shoulders. "Hard to tell," she rasped, her voice harsh from many winters in the Pacific Cascades below the hulk of Rainier and its private weather system. "Mountain was out yesterday, but might not see her for a time, now. Rain's in season this time of year."
Blue shot a half-comprehensible brow toward his British companion, then set his empty mug down. I thought rain was in season, all three seasons here, he confirmed with that look. "Well," he said aloud. "I guess we just take what the mountain gives us, and head out for a ride in the drizzle."
"Right," Scarlet answered sipping at his coffee like a gentleman. Blue would have to remind the Briton that he was in America now, at the hardwood, rustic table of a woman who could no doubt capture a grizzly bear barehanded and have it strewn over an open pit for supper. There was no need for excessive politeness here. Blue also caught a hint of his companion's reluctance to face the chilly weather, though it was no doubt more hospitable than his own native England in early spring. "We'll take them north to the first pass we marked on the map last night. That's where there have been some recent disturbances."
Disturbances. That was Paul's, Dr. Conagher's, code word for geological phenomena. Between the two of them, Mrs. Hanser needn't know anything more about their stay beyond their adventurous curiosity.
"Goin' up to Traveler’s Pass?" she asked hovering beside the British captain with a full pot of coffee. Scarlet covered his cup with his hand and shook his head against a refill. "No, thank you, Madam." The man hesitated. Blue could see Scarlet was debating whether to admit their destination.
"What's at Traveler's Pass, Ma'am?" Blue inquired flipping his own mug over so it would not also be replenished with the potent brew. Even now, he could feel his nerves tensing for a long morning ride atop the gelding Scarlet said he had chosen for his mount.
In answer, Hanser tugged out a chair beside him and plopped her round bottom into its seat. "Well, young man. That's where we've had some people disappear lately. No explanations, just gone missing. Some were found later. Dead. Real mysterious. It's about a two hour ride from here on horseback. Back country. Can only get to it by way of the logging road, but it's a popular stop for weekenders. There're some impressive waterfalls up there and a few ravines and crevasses. Real dangerous, ya see. Real pretty this time of year, too, with the glacial melt water. I was just wondering where you two were headed, so I could warn you. Best to take some kind of communication equipment, in case you were to run into trouble."
"Ah," Blue acknowledged with a deep nod. "Thank you, but we're experienced geologists, Dr. Conagher and I. We've done some back-country packing before. We'll have the horses back well before sunset. Guaranteed. Can't wait to taste that stew I saw you preparing last night when we got here," he added with an inviting grin. In all honesty he was anticipating the meal. The smells of the slow-cooked beef had wafted from the main house and throughout the old barn all night.
The diversion seemed to have worked. Mrs. Hanser rose from her seat and wiped her hands atop her waist apron. "Well, now. I'll have two steaming bowls of it waitin' for you two young men at four-thirty sharp. Got to go down into town today. Pick up some supplies. Have any interest in some fresh blackberry pies?"
"Why, always, Ma'am. My mother used to make homemade strawberry-rhubarb pies when I was a kid," Blue admitted. "Just love the stuff."
"Good," the woman responded with a satisfied grunt. "My friend Betsy's quite a baker. Keeps me supplied with all the local specialties. You two have a good ride, now. And be sure to be careful. We got bear and cougar in them hills. Mt. Rainier ain't too kind neither, if you were to fall into the water. Have fun!" she barked cheerily and sidled off to her private domain in the kitchen.
Blue released a puff-cheeked sigh. "That was close," he said quietly as Scarlet finished his coffee. "I thought she was the nosey, persistent type."
"Be grateful for the warning," Scarlet advised. "What she called Traveler's Pass is our second stop."
"Oh, yeah. Right," Blue acknowledged remembering their outlined itinerary of destinations scrawled on the geological survey map. They would ride as swiftly as they could to these two hotspots, so that his partner could return in time to keep his appointment with the scientists at the Halpern Institute.
Scarlet set his mug down atop the table and wiped his lips with his unique napkin, then rose from his chair. "We better get started," he said plucking the denim jacket from the back of his seat.
"Yep," Blue drawled. "We're burnin' daylight." With a grin at his partner's disapproving frown, Myles Hunter grabbed for his own leather jacket and slipped it onto his broad shoulders. The horses waited outside, already saddled and packed with their maps, notebooks and cell-comms. The canvas pack with their emergency and climbing supplies was slung across the back of a sure-footed speckled pony. "Did you know what you were doing when you did this?" Blue asked when he saw the three steeds gnawing the sweet grass at their feet where they stood tethered inside the corral fence. "Did you even sleep last night?"
"I'm accustomed more to the English saddle, but your Yankee ways aren't totally alien to me," Scarlet defended as he checked his Palomino mare's bridle for comfort once more. "You'll need to adjust your stirrups for height, Myles," he said."I wasn't sure where you wanted them."
"Thanks, Frank," Blue quipped, continuing with the code-names and eyeing the distrustful glare his roan and black gelding was sending him over the rapidly disappearing greenery. The horse knew what was about to happen, and it didn't seem to want its tasty meal disturbed by a hefty, broad-shouldered Swedish American. "Well, hello there, fella," Blue greeted the big-boned mount. He tugged the horse's head up out of the grass by the reins. "We're going to get to know each other. I'm going to trust you, and you're going to have to trust me."
"What are you going on about?" Scarlet asked already atop his saddle, hiking boots slid forward into the suspended stirrups.
"I'm about to hand my life over to a half ton animal, Paul," Blue defended. "I think introductions are at least in order."
In response Scarlet smirked and gave his mare a heel. "Myles Hunter. Meet Groucho Marx. You can call him Grouchy."
Blue didn't share his partner's levity. "Great. You give me a depressed horse. I suppose yours is named Belle or something rather more benign."
As Scarlet walked out of the corral, guiding the pack horse by its lead rope, he reined in his mare to answer back, "Sheba, actually. A right proper woman. With just enough good sense and respect to keep me comfortably seated up here and not in the dirt on my posterior, thank you."
"And the reason you gave me a grouchy horse?" Blue demanded as he heaved himself up into the saddle.
"He was the only one big enough to keep up with me all day with you on his back."
"Very funny," Blue griped. "I'll have you know, I can last a lot longer than you if we meet up with a grizzly bear or cougar. And I've ridden horses a good part of my life, I'll have you know. I'm no green cowpoke."
"Is that why you climbed aboard on the right side?"
Blue knew, of course, that the left side was proper mounting etiquette, but the gelding was insistent upon the grass on the opposite side of the fence and had not offered his good side to the tall blond. "Let's just say my companion here got up on the wrong side of the stall this morning. I hope you're right. If Grouchy here gives me any problems, I'm taking them up with you personally."
"I'll remember that," Scarlet replied and gave Sheba another kick with his heels.
From behind the British captain Blue did the same, accompanied by a clicking of the tongue. "Come on, Boy. Be a good fellow, now," he said in reassurance more to himself than the reluctant gelding.
They soon left the ranch's open pastures and meadows behind and entered the sloping denseness of the subalpine woods. The established trails were easy to follow, having originally been wildlife paths through Rainier's green understory. The trails led past glacial runoff streams and creeks, gouges cut into the mountain by its 25 melting ice caps and innumerable shifting rock slides. Rainier was a volcano, periodically silent, though forever alive. Like nearby Mount St. Helens- which had violently erupted and spewed nearly a third of its bulk onto the surrounding wilderness back in the twentieth century- Rainier held the same destructive potential. The entire Cascadian subduction zone was a shaken soda bottle awaiting a sudden corkscrew release to explode. Millions of tons of granodiorite, andesite, and volcanic ash and pumice, formed at Earth's molten core and thrust up, layer by erupting layer, into these peaks, could one day bury the surrounding valleys and all its human and animal inhabitants. The people of the Cascades lived beneath a ticking time bomb named Rainier, tallest peak in the range, 14,411 feet in elevation and ten miles in diameter. The natives had called it Tacoma, "the Mountain that is God", for they too had witnessed its fury. Past eruptions had raised then lowered Rainier's summit, sent pyroclastic flows of steaming ash, melted glacial ice and engulfing hot gases and debris down its slopes to cover entire valleys in a new, thick layer of fertile soil, sterilizing the land for renewed growth.
Blue followed his partner up the steep slopes, back-tracking periodically to give the horses better footing as the more solid lava flows intermingled with looser pyroclastic deposits and the subalpine forests sprouting from it. The scenery was magical and serene. Trees were coated with a thick neon-green moss. Feeble sunlight tried to break in through the shifting cloud cover Mt. Rainier created from its higher altitude winds and updrafts. The day still held the potential for warmth and a pleasant ride, though their reason for being there was far more serious. Days here could be comfortable and even warm, while night temperatures could drop into the frigid zone, especially further upslope where snow lingered as late as early August. That was their destination: Traveler's Pass, where more than a dozen people had been reported missing within the last three years. No park ranger or local police officer had so far been able to explain the disappearances and subsequent deaths. Visitation to the park had slackened off accordingly, as news of the incidents had reached as far east as New Jersey. Local vacationers, mostly from the surrounding urban areas of Tacoma, Olympia and Seattle, too, had ceased to chance the mysterious forces which seemed to trap the unwary traveler. "Peculiar story," Blue ventured from his saddle.
As if waking from a dream Scarlet, in front, straightened suddenly and tilted his head back. "Pardon?"
"These disappearances," Blue clarified. "I wonder exactly what's going on. Do you think a rogue cougar is killing and dragging off the bodies to some kind of den or such?"
"Not likely," Scarlet called back over his shoulder. "A wild animal wouldn't be so selective. Also, a ranger would have been aware of the signs of an animal attack. This is too clean. No clothing shreds, no abandoned gear, just scratch marks in the trail, as if a switch had been used to clear away the evidence."
"Boy, you have done your homework, Captain," Blue acknowledged. "So, then. What do you think it is?"
Scarlet shrugged. "I don't want to make any decisions until after I've looked at the evidence myself."
Blue's lips twisted into a crooked grin, and he gave his meandering gelding another kick with his boot heels. "Figures," he mumbled to himself. Scarlet always was the statistician, never making conclusions without first gathering a mountain of evidence first-hand. That meant, of course, that Captain Scarlet would neither contemplate the possibilities, nor share his opinions with his partner until they had at least reached the site of the disappearances and taken a good look around. No point in making conversation, then. Scarlet was too busy keeping his eyes on the trail for small talk. Blue would have to settle for watching the scenery clomp by.
Beneath him Grouchy gave a deep-throated cough that lurched Blue upward in the saddle. The horse repeated its heaving several times, as if trying to unload his burden, both from down his throat and from off his back. "A little too much sweet grass, there, Grouchy?" Blue admonished. The horse chewed at a dislodged chunk of food and commenced reaching for more foodstuffs along the trail. "Ah, no you don't. You don't eat until we do," the American harangued. With a tug of the reins, Blue discouraged anymore trailside tidbits.
It wasn't for another half-hour that they reached their first investigation site. Scarlet had chosen a steep rock-fall near the southeastern side of a small mountain meadow bursting with purple, yellow and white wildflowers. With a tug of his reins, the British Captain was flipping his right leg over Sheba's back and lowering himself to the ground. Blue pulled up next to him and followed suit. "Looks dangerous to me," he offered. "I'm no geologist, and neither are you. What exactly are we looking for?"
"According to the geological reports, this is a recent rock-fall," Scarlet explained tucking his restricting spectacles away into a jacket pocket. "We're here to see if it's a natural one or not."
Blue sighed. "Let me guess. In order to do that, we'll need to scale this rockslide and take a closer look from up there. Am I right?"
Scarlet slid his scanning blue eyes away from the slide of rubble and considered his partner with an assured smirk. "Of course, but I'll go up. You're on vacation. Remember?"
"And if you fall?"
Again that self-assured smile. "You'll be down here to catch me."
Blue shook his head and dropped the reins to Grouchy's bridle. "Oh, no I won't. I'm not your nurse nor am I your maid. I'm the one supposed to do the rock climbing on this trip. That's what I planned on in the first place."
"Not this kind, Adam. Rockslides can be fatal. I'm the one for this job."
"Great," Blue grumbled. "I'll stay down here and have coffee and crumpets waiting for you when you come tumbling down. Just remember. If you get hurt, you're not going to make that appointment with the scientists at the Halpern Institute. Even with your miraculous abilities. We don't have time for foolish heroics here, Paul."
Scarlet nodded and glanced upslope again. "I'll be back in thirty minutes. Coffee sounds nice." With that his partner strode to the pack pony and yanked out a length of rope and several pitons, the hammer and carabiners. With the rope slung over one shoulder, and the pitons and carabiners clipped onto his climbing belt, Captain Scarlet strode to the base of the massive rock fall and surveyed the best route to its summit.
"Thirty minutes, my eye," Blue grumbled tossing Groucho Marx's reins over a low hanging tree limb at the edge of the meadow. He did the same with Scarlet's mount then promptly searched the pack horse's bag for the food stores. "What?" he spouted when he looked inside. Besides the rope and climbing gear his British counterpart had withdrawn, there were only first aid supplies and the odd piece of survival gear. "No coffee. No food. No anything," he told the pony. "Who does he think he is, Wonder Woodsman? We can't go all day without at least a supply of water." Blue dug deeper. There, at the bottom of the canvas pack, he found a collapsible canteen next to the petite case holding the seismograph. "Great. Now I'm the water boy, too." With the strap over his shoulder, Captain Blue listened for the flowing trickle of any stream or creek nearby which might afford him a cool glacial drink. He kept an eye on his friend while he searched. There was no need in wandering off into the woods and losing their temporary base camp. Scarlet might, indeed, need his assistance if he were to lose his footing either during his ascent or upon returning across the treacherous pile of loose rocks and collapsed trees. What exactly his companion was looking for, Blue wondered as he saw Scarlet circumvent a three foot diameter trunk in favor of a crumbling pile of dark rubble. As Blue watched he knelt to fill the canteen at a crystal stream just fifty feet into the trees. He glanced up in time to see his friend's foot slip out from under him in shifting debris. In a cloud of dust Scarlet toppled downhill several meters. His secured piton jerked him to a halt just short of disaster. "Captain Scarlet!" Blue called springing to his feet. He was too far away to help. Blue doubted Scarlet had even heard his cry of alarm. Dropping the canteen, Captain Blue sprinted from the forest and out into the drizzly mist of the meadow to see his partner regain his feet and dust off his powdered jeans. "Are you alright?" he called up.
"Fine!" Scarlet answered from above yanking at the now constricting harness about his waist. "Stupid mistake. Didn't check my footing first." With that Scarlet returned his attentions to the rockslide and the rerouting of his ascent. This time he tested his footing for stability before applying his full weight upon the vulnerable ground.
"Stupid mistake," Blue echoed and turned back to the trees and their abandoned canteen. It was more like fifty minutes before Scarlet was back on the solid floor of the flower strewn meadow. "Find anything?" Blue asked him, passing his partner a collapsible cup of mountain clear water.
Scarlet took the offering with a nod. He splashed the drink onto his face and wiped the dripping dust from his eyes. "No evidence of sabotage," he sputtered, accepting the second cup and gulping it gratefully. "No scorch marks, no blast patterns. Only shifted earth. The geologist report recorded some slight tremors, averaging about magnitude 1.7. Typical of the area, though more frequent than usual. I was hoping to find some clue as to an unnatural origin." Scarlet sighed heavily as if weary from climbing, though Blue was sure the exhale was laden with disappointment. "Perhaps the colonel sent the wrong person for the job."
"Nonsense," Blue countered. "If anyone were to kill himself trying to gather Mysteron intelligence, it's you, my friend."
Scarlet took the chiding as it was meant and smiled away his uncertainty. "Well, I suppose we'll find out for sure once I meet with the geologists at Halpern." The man sighed again and handed Blue back the cup. "Let's get on to Traveler's Pass, shall we? The Mysterons may or may not have a hand in this quandary as well." They gathered their few supplies, remounted their horses, and trudged on along the trail, this time with Blue leading the pack pony which had had time to refresh itself with a good roll in the sopping meadow grass. Another silent hour passed, and they had travelled about four miles deeper into the forest and further upslope when the little speckled pony stumbled on some loose rocks. Yanked from behind Blue tumbled from the saddle, his one foot still caught in the stirrup. With a yelp Blue released the lead rope to the pack horse and hit the moss-covered ground beside a glacial boulder. He grunted with the impact. "Adam!" Scarlet hollered, reining in his own horse and vaulting from the saddle to grab at Grounchy's bridle before the gelding could spook and trample the man still attached by the right stirrup. "What happened?" the Brit asked as he stepped around to release his partner's trapped foot.
Blue was conscious, and he knew he'd injured his ankle by the way it throbbed as Scarlet gently laid his foot down. “Damned pony must have stumbled," he groaned sitting up and leaning against the moss enshrouded boulder beside him. "Twisted my ankle. Bruises mostly. I'll be alright."
"The pack horse won't be," Scarlet assured his blue eyes considering the ground beyond the boulder.
Blue craned his head and throbbing body around to see what Scarlet was talking about. Just beyond the rear legs of Groucho Marx a rift in the under-foliage had opened to reveal a deep ravine not more than five feet wide. Fallen branches and moss had almost completely hidden the danger. There was no sign of the pony. "You mean the pack horse is-"
Scarlet nodded. "Down there. About twenty-three meters by the looks of it. Dead, of course." The Briton's eyes softened for a moment. Unlike himself, there would be no returning from death for the stout little animal. "We'll need to compensate Mrs. Hanser for her loss, but for now, we have a bigger problem."
Blue pulled himself further into a sit and reached for his tortured ankle with a painful grunt. "You mean besides the fact that all our climbing and survival gear is down there?" he grumbled. Their water canteen, too, had been strapped to the canvas pack saddle on the speckled pony. All they now had with them were their maps and cell-comms.
"Yes," Scarlet answered. "You're injured, and we're just down slope from our destination."
"Traveler's Pass," Blue acknowledged. "Are you suggesting that this might be just the kind of trap that has gotten these people missing? We're playing out the scenario ourselves?"
"I'm not going to hypothesize anything, Captain," Scarlet countered. He stood to his full height and considered the open crag in the earth. "I better go see what's down there, in case you're right. The cover here is recent, as if it'd been placed on purpose. It could be a trap. If so, we may find someone down there, injured or dead."
Blue smiled past his discomfort. "Always the hero. Don't you ever get tired of it? How are you going to get down there without your ropes and gear?" It was true. The pack pony had taken everything with it. The ravine was a sheer drop from his point of view, sitting on the ground just feet beside it.
Scarlet's reply was cautious but determined. "I suppose I'll be trying what you came here to do for fun. I'm a quick learner. Any tips before I descend?"
Blue nodded. "Yeah. Don't," he insisted. "It's too dangerous, and I can't go with you with this bum ankle. Just leave it, and we'll call for reinforcements. We have our locators and our cell-comms. Remember?" Scarlet was nodding, but his eyes were still craning down into the pit of rock. Below Blue could just make out the hissing rush of water. A heavy stream of glacial melt water had over the centuries carved this rift in the earth with the sheer power of water alone. If Scarlet were to fall to its bottom, he could be swept away, leaving Captain Blue to head back to the ranch alone with the remaining two horses and no conclusive answers. "It's not worth the risk, Paul. Stay here. We can still look around for the pass. For clues. The canteen's not that important. I'm sure we'll find another stream. And our horses can still take us back to the ranch in time for you to keep your appointment."
Without replying to Blue's suggestion, Scarlet slid his hand up to his waist. "I have another idea," he said. Slipping a Swiss Army Knife from his belt, the man held it in his left hand and opened the small blade. Scarlet then laid it against his right wrist.
"Wait!" Blue yelped. "What are you doing?"
"Leaving a calling card." With that the British officer slid the blade against his flesh, carving a line of blood across his wrist. "If we need to find this place again," he reasoned, "the locator chip will lead us right to it."
"That'll leave you vulnerable, though, Paul. We'll only have one locator chip between us now," Blue argued as Scarlet grimaced against his self-mutilation. He poked the knife point into his skin, probing around in the rising blood for the little crystal transmitter. "And we'll be separating this afternoon."
"You're already injured, Adam. I don't want to have to worry about losing you. This is my mission," he reminded plucking the chip into his bloodied hand. "The colonel put me in command."
"Yeah, but not of a suicide mission," Blue countered. The American watched silently as Scarlet leaned out over the rift and dropped the red-stained chip into the depths below. "I hope you know what you're doing."
"I usually do," his partner admitted, "or else, I've just had a long run of awfully good luck."
Blue fished for his own internal optimism. "Gee. Maybe we should have made that stop in Las Vegas, after all."
That did the trick. Captain Scarlet chuckled then stepped over to help his companion up off the ground. "Lean on me. I'll get you back onto Grouchy."
"Oh, joy." With a grunt and a heave, Blue was back on top of his mount. He took the reins and gingerly tried to flex his already swollen ankle. "I can ride," he answered his partner's questioning glare. "Better get away from this hole and up to Traveler's Pass before we both fall in."
"Right." Scarlet stepped over to his mare and swung easily up into the saddle. "This way," he said and guided them further upslope. They were nearly at six thousand feet when the confining trees and slushy snow opened up onto an old but maintained logging road. They had found the trail through the pass, the very one where several people had last been reported before they'd disappeared. "Well, we're here."
"I don't see anything," Blue offered, though the comment seemed trivial once spoken. "What are we supposed to be looking for?"
"Truthfully, I don't know," was his partner's reply. "Let's just follow it for a while and see, shall we?"
"Sure." Then Blue thought to ask, "By the way. Do you have a gun?"
Eyes intent on the markings of the rain-washed trail, Captain Scarlet replied, "We're scientists on vacation, Mr. Hunter. Why would we have guns?"
With a huff Blue muttered the obvious, "Because we're really Mysteron hunting. Aren't we?"
Scarlet straightened in the saddle and glanced back at his partner with a mischievous smirk. "We're in a national park, Myles. There's no hunting allowed." Then he turned serious and reached into his inside jacket pocket. "Of course I've-" Scarlet's brow creased. "No," he said.
"What is it?" Captain Blue demanded.
"My pistol. It's gone." Blue could see the man's eyes searching his recent memory. "Blasted," Scarlet cursed. "It must have fallen out when I took that tumble down the rockslide."
"We're very possibly in Mysteron territory, and you're unarmed? So much for your run of good luck, partner. What about that mini Mysteron detector?"
Again Scarlet's blue eyes were grim. "Bloody Hell. I knew I should have left it in the saloon for my trip to Seattle this afternoon."
"It's in the ravine, isn't it?" Blue groaned at the twist of events. "You were thinking of Mysterons up here, and thought to bring it along just in case you had a chance to test it out. So much for your preparedness, too, then," Blue harangued.
Scarlet scowled in his discomfort. "I'm sorry, Adam. I guess I didn't anticipate every contingency."
"Tell you what. Next time I plan the mission, and you make the vacation arrangements."
With a grim nod Scarlet agreed. "Do you want to head back? How's that ankle?"
"Oh, no you don't," Blue defended. "I'm no quitter. I'm not backing out now. And a challenge is what I came on vacation for. The mountain's still here, and we have a mystery to solve."
"Are you sure? You should head back to the ranch. Get that ankle attended to. I'll return to the ravine and retrieve the detector. Then I'll go on without you. This is my mission, Adam, not yours."
"And I'm your partner. There's no time for indecision, Captain. Or self-depredation. We go on."
After a moment's hesitation, Scarlet nodded. "All right, then. We follow the road." The pair proceeded on until they found the first of several cascades created by the glacial melt water of Mt. Rainier's late spring. "Beautiful," Scarlet murmured over the hissing flow. "Wait here. I'll take a look around."
"Be careful," Blue suggested, sighing at his inability to follow. His ankle, now swollen within his boot, was throbbing like an over-tightened drum with every heartbeat. Instead, he watched as his companion slid from his horse and wrapped his palomino's reins around a nearby bush. 'Dr. Conagher' then marched to the edge of the falls. "See anything?" Blue called to him over the rushing water. In response Scarlet kneeled and hopped down below the roadway, disappearing from Captain Blue's sight. "Paul!" he called again. His partner was gone for long, harrowing moments. Then the man's black-haired head popped back up along the roadside. "What did you see?"
Captain Scarlet clambered out of the ditch and swiped away the damp spray from his darkened trousers. "Nothing," he answered, stepping up to his horse. "I thought I saw something. Muddy footprints maybe, but I was wrong. We'll have to go on."
"All right. Two prospects down and how many to go?"
As Scarlet hauled himself again into the saddle he offered, "The map says there're several more cascades along this timber road. We'll have to check them all out. Are you up to it?"
Blue smiled cheerily over his pulsing injury. "Never better."
The next four milky glacial flows and their adjacent stretches of dirt pathway revealed nothing more pressing than the swift reforestation of the abandoned timber road. Here, nature was reclaiming its own. "You know," Blue offered the increasingly perplexed and dour Scarlet. "If there wasn't the possible threat of Mysteron intervention, I'd believe we were just out on a pleasant ride, looking for ghosts."
Scarlet's eyes narrowed upon the mud and snow speckled road ahead. He raised a pointed finger. "In that case, then, I found one."
Blue followed his partner's extended digit to a colorful pile of what looked like clothes upon the narrow path before them. "What's that?"
"Let's find out," was his partner's simple answer. With that Scarlet kicked his palomino into a trot. Blue followed. They reined in before the curled body of a young woman far too lightly dressed for the weather in only a cotton dress and shawl. Instantly Scarlet was off his horse and kneeling beside her. Feeling for the pulse at her throat, he offered, "She's alive."
"How'd she get here? And who is she?" Blue asked from atop Grouchy.
"I don't know, but we had better get her under cover. She's chilled, suffering from exposure." Scarlet began to remove his denim jacket.
"It is chilly up here. Wouldn't want to be stranded at this elevation. Hey," Blue suggested. "Maybe she knows something. Let's take her back to the ranch." As he finished his suggestion a dark figure stepped out from the trees, a rifle leveled at Scarlet's head. "Paul!"
"Don't move. I'll kill you where you are," the wide-shouldered stranger warned.
"She's hurt," Scarlet reasoned. Jacket poised in his hand, the British captain eyed the skulking man beneath the tall cedar. Blue saw that he was young, perhaps in his twenties, clothed in dirtied jeans and a heavy jacket. "We just found her like this. Do you know who she is?"
The rifle-toting man lowered the weapon's barrel enough to reveal more of his youthful face in the shadows beneath the forest cover. "She's my sister."
"Well, then," Blue interrupted. "Let's get her to shelter. We can help."
"You're the geologists?" the stranger inquired as if he hadn't heard Blue's plea.
"Yes," Scarlet answered laying his jacket down and raising his hands away from the downed woman. Slowly he ascended to his feet.
"Just what I wanted to hear. This way," the man ordered with a swipe of his rifle barrel further upslope.
With his hands still beside his head Captain Scarlet ventured, "We're here to help you. You don't need the gun. We've been sent to investi-"
"Go, I said!" the stranger barked. His dark eyes shifted to Captain Blue. "You. Down off your horse, or I'll shoot your friend here."
"He can't," Scarlet explained. "He's injured. Can't walk."
"Damn," the man rumbled. "This wasn't what I had planned. All right, then. Get on your horse," he told Scarlet. "Leave the reins and lay across the saddle."
"Why?" Blue demanded.
"Just do it, Dr. Conagher."
"You know my name," Scarlet confirmed. "Do you know his too?"
"Are you with the park service?" Blue inquired trying to gather intelligence even as he too came under the scrutiny of the rifle.
"Enough questions. Get on your horse, Doctor."
"Right." Scarlet back-stepped to Sheba's side and lifted his boot into the stirrup. With a shove he was standing in the stirrup before the mare's saddle. "Across the saddle, like this?" he asked bending forward and draping himself over the palomino's back.
"That's it. Now stay put."
"What do you want?" Blue asked, even as the man raised the gun to Scarlet's exposed back. "No!" A crack of pressurized air echoed amongst the trees. Whinnying at the noise, the horses tossed their heads, but stood their ground. A feathered dart protruded from Scarlet's cotton shirt and the Spectrum officer slumped heavily against the saddle. "You tranquilized him."
"Keeps him from doing something stupid," the strange intruder informed reaching into his coat pocket with his left hand. "Now this," he continued tugging out a pistol, "is a real gun with real bullets. This one's so you don't do anything stupid."
"What do you want from us?" Blue asked again even as the man slung the rifle strap over his shoulder and approached. He grabbed the reins of both horses.
"Amelia?" the man called ignoring the captain's question. From the dampened dirt, the crumpled woman stirred. "Get up. We're going home."
"A trap," Blue surmised as the young woman rose to her feet. She gathered Scarlet's abandoned jacket in her arms and brushed disheveled strands of muddied hair back from her flushed face. "We're scientists. We have nothing of value if you're planning on robbing us."
"Oh, don't worry. That's already been taken care of." The man guided both horses forward.
"Tank," the young woman inquired stepping up to flank her brother. She stole glances back at the horses' burdens as they proceeded along the roadway. "Do I set an extra two plates out for dinner?"
"No, Lia. They won't be staying long. I just have to question them."
"Are they going to help me too? Like the others?" she continued her inquiry, slipping the denim jacket onto her chilled, bare arms.
Tank shot another warning glare back at Blue who sat attentively atop Groucho Marx. The younger man still held the pistol at the ready. If only Captain Scarlet hadn't lost his weapon. "Yes. They're here to help you. By next week you'll be feeling much better. I promise."
"What's this all about?" Blue inquired in a calm, conversational tone.
Amelia turned back to glance up at him, her cherubic face glistening in the dampness, yet shadowed with debility. "You're here to save me."
"Don't talk to them, Amelia. They're not friends. They won't be staying."
"But we never get anybody to stay long. Don't they like our company? If I make them supper-"
"No, I said," Tank barked at her. "I'll need some time alone with these men when we get back to the house. You go to the shed and stay put. We'll send the horses back to Aunt Jodie in the morning."
"All right, Tank. I'll stay put." Conversation was absent for nearly the next hour as Blue and the slumped Scarlet were guided upslope along the half-disguised timber road. An even thinner trail led uphill through the trees, and Tank took that left. The enshrouding forest soon revealed a rustic cottage slowly being engulfed by the advancing foliage. The darkened and vine-covered foundation didn't look too stable.
"Is this your home, Amelia?" Blue inquired.
"Yes. It's all Daddy left us. Tank and I-"
"Amelia. I told you to leave us alone," her brother commanded. With an apologetic glance up to the blond-haired stranger, Amelia bowed slightly to her sibling. She bundled her new jacket about her chilled shoulders and dutifully tramped off through the snow to a tilted wooden shack fifteen yards behind the cottage.
"You treat your sister like dirt, Tank," Blue ventured with a glower.
The younger man spun on his captive and poked the gun barrel against Blue's knee. "I don't have to kill you yet, but I can sure make it unpleasant until then."
With cold steel digging against his flesh Blue was careful with his next words. "What's the matter with her? She's ill, isn't she?"
"She's simple. S'got the mind of a child. Also has a congenital defect. Been sickly most of her life. Needs real expensive meds, and me only a seasonal vet tech at a local clinic. No doctor can cure her. She's my curse. My only family."
"Except for your Aunt Jodie," Blue countered, remembering Tank's former comment. "Hanser, right?"
They had reached the slumping front porch to the house. Tank flipped the reins over the lichen and mold encrusted railing before turning his broad shoulders to the next task: yanking his captives down from their mounts. "She's not my aunt. She's just got a soft heart. Sends us food and gives us money. But she ain't our relative."
Now Blue risked real injury with his next question. "Does Mrs. Hanser know you're killing the people you kidnap and rob?"
"I'm helping Amelia. I ain't doing nothing wrong. Those folks don't need their money. They've got lots to spare. Amelia's never even seen a fifty-dollar bill."
"So, you're keeping all this from her too. What would she say if she knew? If she were made to understand?"
"Get down from there. You and Dr. Conagher are going to empty your pockets. Then we're going for a long walk."
"To the nearest ravine, I assume. Two more accidental deaths."
"Shut up!" Tank spat stomping around Blue's mount to grab Scarlet by the belt. With a vicious tug he dislodged the British captain from his saddle, sending him flumping toward the ground. The Spectrum officer, however, landed squarely on his feet, a fist balled and ready.
Scarlet sent his punch slamming into the younger man's jaw. "That’s for bad mouthing Amelia," he growled. With a groan Tank fell back onto the dirt. The gun was still gripped in his hand. With a snarl, the young man raised it to bear.
"Watch out!" Blue cried even as he threw himself backwards over Grouchy's rump to the safety of the hitched gelding's cover. Captain Blue rolled and landed roughly on both feet. His injured ankle collapsed under him. "About time, Partner," he grunted hitting mud. As an explosion popped into the alpine air the horses trumpeted their fear. A bullet whizzed by overhead. Grouchy's hooves and fidgeting legs prevented the American captain from seeing what was happening upon the ground. But the creaking of wet snow and grunting of combatants told him Scarlet and his assailant were tussling arm-in-arm. The horses bolted at the ruckus, finally breaking free from the crumbling railing and leaving the kneeling Blue exposed to the fight.
"Tank!" Amelia called careening around from the far corner of the house. The report of the pistol had no doubt brought her running from the shack. "Don't hurt him. He's my brother!" she demanded of Scarlet, even as the Spectrum officer landed another punch to the younger man's temple. "I said, get off him!" In the next moment, a coal shovel was in her slight grip. With a heavy swing it intercepted Scarlet on the side of his skull. With a grunt the man toppled over and collapsed in a heap upon the dirty snow. A trickle of blood oozed from Scarlet's scalp.
"Wait!" Blue hollered when it looked like she would strike again. "We're here to help you, Amelia. Your brother hasn't been telling you the truth."
Shaky and dazed from his tussle, the girl's brother nonetheless gathered his fallen gun and raised it in defense. "You just stop right there," he burbled over bleeding gums, "or I'll blow your head off." Tank rolled onto his knees and clambered to his feet. He swayed unsteadily there for a moment. "Get inside. Now."
"Why don't you let your sister watch while you rob us? Tell her the truth, Tank."
"What truth, Tank?" Amelia panted dropping the heavy shovel beside her and tugging at her brother's disheveled coat and hanging shirttail. "Why do you want to hurt him? He hasn't done anything to you."
"His friend tried to kill me."
"Why did you bring them here, Tank? How come the doctor doesn't come anymore?"
"Tell her, Tank," Blue tried again from his spot on the slushy ground. "Either that or kill me like you did the others, but this time right in front of her."
"No! I'm trying to protect her."
"Protect her from what? Don't tell me this was your father's dying wish?"
"The state wanted to send her away to a mental hospital. My father worked real hard to keep her here, with us. To keep this place."
"I don't want to go away," Amelia whined. "This is my home. Tank's my guardian angel. Daddy said so."
"Your 'angel' is killing people, Amelia. He's taking their money for your medicine, but he doesn't let them go back to their homes. They never get to go home."
"Don't they get homesick? Don't they get lonely?"
"They can't, Amelia. They're dead, just like your Daddy."
"No. No. That can't be true. Daddy's in heaven now. The doctors stopped coming, and now he's in heaven."
"You're not going away, Lia," Tank assured resting his free hand atop her shoulder. Even now Blue could see the young man was regaining his strength and wits. Time was running out.
"All right, Tank. I'm getting up." Blue raised his hands in appeasement. With a grimace he regained his feet. "But I've hurt my ankle. Could Amelia please help me inside? Then you can send her to the shed. You can still protect her."
The man hesitated in his response, uncertain whether to trust the stranger to whom he had already promised death. With a poke of the gun toward Blue, Tank commanded, "Help him, Amelia."
The young woman stepped forward and ducked her slight frame under Blue's arm to help support his injured leg. Together they limped to the stoop. "Thank you, Amelia," Blue said as they jerked up the two creaking steps to the sagging porch. Arm-in-arm they maneuvered inside and stopped before an ancient and threadbare couch. "You have a kind heart."
The young woman blushed a deeper red than even her feverish flush. "Daddy always said I was his Valentine."
"Let him go, Lia. Go to the shed and stay there until I come for you. I'll cook us dinner tonight."
"Oh, goody. I know what we're having, then. You make the best spaghetti, Terrence Stamphor."
"Go!" Tank commanded again. With a sheepish cringe, Amelia Stamphor obeyed. "Stupid," Terrence Stamphor continued when she'd disappeared out the front door. "You're trying to get between us. I won't let you break up this family."
Blue stumbled down onto a lumpy cushion. "I'm afraid you've already done that, yourself," he admitted with a heavy sigh. "Once you decided to permanently silence your victims, you became a criminal. The authorities will be looking for us. In another two hours, my partner out there will be late for an appointment. If we don't check in with our commanding officer, a search party will be here to find us and arrest you. Amelia will be taken away from here as well. It's obvious she needs care and guidance."
"I ... I didn't mean to hurt anyone," Tank asserted flumping himself into an old wooden rocker. "I was defending myself. The man had a gun. This gun," he said, holding up the weapon for Blue's inspection. "He told me, I would be taken away. Amelia, too. They'd lock us away forever if anyone were to find out we were stealing from tourists. Mrs. Hanser agreed to help, 'cause she needed money, too. She'll be selling your car and equipment for cash to a friend who can smuggle them into Canada for resale. No one will know. No one will ever know. Not now, because it's already too late. Lia needs her medicine or she'll die. I had to kill them."
"Don't you know there're people who could help you? They'll get Amelia the medicines she needs. There are agencies whose job it is to care for people who can't help themselves."
Tank nodded and leaned forward in the rocker for emphasis. "Those are the people who want to take us away from here. I can't lose this home. It's been in the family since the eruption of 1853. My Great-Great-Granddaddy Harcourt claimed this land. My father finally earned enough to purchase the deed for it. I can't let them down. I can't let Lia down. She's all I've got left. Her and this land."
"Captain Blue!" a British voice called from outside.
Springing to his feet, Tank held the gun at the ready. "Get up. You're coming too."
"It's just my partner. Uh, Dr. Conagher."
"Then Lia didn't hit him hard enough," Tank fumed with a determined snarl.
"Watch out, Paul!" Blue called in warning as Tank strode to the door, his stolen pistol firmly gripped in a resolute hand. Blue shoved himself out of the sagging couch and limped to the cracked window overlooking the rickety porch. Outside the dirtied snow showed the former struggle and the smears of frightened horse's hooves. Captain Scarlet was nowhere in sight, however. Terrence Stamphor marched down the bowing steps to the ground. The young man's eyes scanned the forest for his quarry. Leaning heavily upon the wall, Blue hobbled to the door and stumbled out onto the porch to assist where he could. Just then a horse and rider burst from the woods like a charging medieval knight. The heavy roan and black gelding clomped fiercely forward, its rider leaning defensively against its whithers. Captain Scarlet barreled down on the surprised homesteader, knocking him over with one swipe of an extended tree branch. "Good show, Captain and Grouchy!" Blue cheered with a triumphant fist.
"Tank!" Amelia cried. "How could you? You sent people to heaven. You sent them away, when they didn't want to go." She'd obviously been standing just beside the house, listening in on her brother's conversation. For once Amelia hadn't followed her sibling's orders. "How could you?" she accused again stepping forward as Scarlet reined in Groucho Marx and slipped from the saddle to cover his quarry before the younger man could reclaim his fallen gun.
"Stay where you are," Scarlet ordered retrieving the pistol from the snow. "You've killed your last tourist, Tank. Only we're not tourists. I'm afraid you have us confused with someone else."
"Right," Blue agreed as he hobbled down the steps to stand beside his partner. "This has all been a terrible case of mistaken identity."
Scarlet nodded. "Right. No Mysterons here, Captain Blue. But one mystery solved. One to go. I've still got an appointment with the Halpern Institute."
"I'm afraid you're going to be late. Our ranch hostess has ransacked our bunks and the car by now. Our belongings are already on their way to Canada."
"Not if I can help it." Scarlet handed the pistol to Blue. "Keep him covered, Captain. I need to make a phone call." The British officer strode to Grouchy's side and slipped a hand inside the petite saddle bag. Withdrawing a fist-sized cylinder, Scarlet flicked a switch and spoke into it. "Colonel White. Captain Scarlet, Sir. Requesting an airlift from this location. I've got an appointment I need to keep."
"What's going on there, Scarlet?" was the colonel's irritated reply. "No report for over seven hours? Did you find the cause of the geological disturbances?"
"No, Sir," the British officer admitted. "But we did solve one mystery: the cause of the missing people on Mt. Rainier."
"Glorious, Man. Happy to hear it." White's voice was anything but congratulatory. "What about the seismic events? I've received additional reports from the U.S. Geological Survey. There've been more localized quakes on and around a magnitude of 2.3. And they're growing stronger and more numerous."
"Sir," Scarlet began hesitantly. "We've not felt anything here. Truthfully, Colonel, I've been unable to monitor the ... Uh. Sir. We ... We lost the equipment into a ravine this morning."
"Well, of all the incompetent ..." White fumed through the device's tiny speaker. He sighed. "I'll have Green dispatch a chopper to you immediately. According to our monitors you've been stationary for over three hours. Captain Blue is shown at a higher altitude. When did you two become separated?"
Again an apologetic hesitation. "Sir, we didn't. I left my locator chip with the lost pack horse. Have Melody Angel zero in on Captain Blue's coordinates. We're in a small clearing just down-slope from Rainier's southwestern summit, approximately 6,800 feet above sea level."
There was a moment's pause on Cloudbase's end as Lieutenant Green no doubt triangulated and verified that data. "Confirmed, Captain Scarlet. We have you on satellite relay," Colonel White asserted. "A Spectrum helicopter should arrive within the hour. Stay put."
"SIG." Sliding the comm. unit into his front trouser pocket, Scarlet turned back to his colleague. "Care for an airlift out of here, Captain?"
"Sure," Blue agreed. "It'll be nice to sit down on a really comfortable seat. One that doesn't smell like horse. But we're taking these two with us."
Scarlet nodded. "We'll arrange for a police pickup." He moved forward to intercept the sitting Tank. "Until then, young man, I'll need to secure you so you don't sneak away on-" Beside him Amelia gave a little sigh and crumpled. In an instant Scarlet had snatched her up before she could collapse to the snow smeared ground.
"Hold it!" Blue barked to the tensed brother who had jerked toward his feet at the distraction. "Don't try anything or I'll wing you." He brandished the stolen pistol like a true gunslinger.
"This isn't a ploy, Adam," Scarlet informed from the ground where he had gently set the young woman down. "She's fainted. Her pulse-"
"She needs her medication. Her heart’s failing. Going into fibrillation," Tank warned. When Blue shot him a skeptical glare the young man added, "I'm not lying, Sir."
"All right," Scarlet agreed. "Where is her medication?"
"That's just it. We're out. You two were a Godsend. I figured you each had at least a hundred credits on you. Amelia's pills cost almost that much."
"How can we stabilize her until we can get her to a medical facility?"
"I ... we have a few nitroglycerine tablets left. In ... in the house. Bathroom cabinet."
"Get them," Scarlet ordered.
"Captain," Blue cautioned. "He's our prisoner. What if he-"
"He's done all this to save her, Captain," Scarlet cut in. "He'll be back in a flash." Again those hard blue eyes were upon the younger man. "Go, Tank."
Scrambling to his feet in the slippery mud Terrence Stamphor bolted up the steps and into their dilapidated home.
"I hope you're right. He could still slip away."
"I trust him," was Scarlet's murmured reply. His concerned eyes were on the flushed and trembling young woman in his arms.
Within a minute, Tank was clambering back outside, a tiny pill bottle in his fist. "Here," he panted. "Two under her tongue."
"Right." As Blue again covered the youth with his borrowed pistol, Captain Scarlet dumped two of the tiny yellow pills into his palm and carefully inserted them into Amelia's slack mouth. "Now all we can do is wait," he mumbled. That's when a faint vibration shook the ground beneath their feet.
"What the-?" Blue blurted snatching for a stabilizing porch post. Silent again he concentrated on the sensation. "It's an earthquake," he announced grimly.
* * *
From his place on the ground kneeling beside the still unconscious Amelia, Scarlet, too, had recognized the telltale signs of a seismic shock wave. "Quickly!" he ordered. "Get her onto the horse. We're leaving. Now."
"It's just a tremor," Blue reminded.
"It could be much more," Scarlet informed. "Ever heard of a pyroclastic flow? A lahar?"
"It's a sort of mudslide," Tank offered in translation.
"Travelling at fifty kilometers an hour, pushing deadly gases, trees and boulders in its wake," Scarlet confirmed sweeping Amelia into his arms. "Get onto the horse, Captain. I'll hand her up to you."
"But, Paul. We only have one horse. If you're right, nothing's going to be fast enough." Beneath their feet the trembling had become a rumbling. In the air the low roar of a freight train seemed to announce its arrival.
"Great Space, Man. Get on the horse!" With a painful grimace Blue heaved himself into Grouchy's saddle. "Here," Scarlet said handing the limp woman up to him. Together they laid her across Blue's lap, just behind the saddle horn. "Now, get out of here. As fast as you can ride, Adam. Go!" Not arguing with his friend Captain Blue jabbed his heels into Groucho Marx's flanks. The gelding lurched forward toward the trees and the narrow path to the road below. "God's speed, my friend," Scarlet wished aloud.
"What about us?" Tank spat, his anxious legs grinding trenches in the damp earth. "How're we going to get away? Where's the other horse?"
"I don't know, and we don't have time to look," was the Spectrum captain's reply. "If we're lucky Melody Angel will reach us before the lahar does."
"If we're lucky? It was a mudslide that started this farm two hundred years ago. Our farm," Tank argued.
"Mother earth always takes back her own," Scarlet countered with a grim smirk. "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes ..."
Seemingly in comprehension, Tank resigned to echoing the remainder of the quote from the English Prayer Book. "And dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life." With grim fortitude the two faced the mountain together. They stood their ground as the earth around them continued its quaking dance of death. Minutes ticked by before the roar became an approaching cloud barreling down on them from the thumb of Mt. Rainier. Nothing but the bellow of sheer mountain was their reality.
"Come on, Melody. Where are you?" Scarlet cursed into the noise. Tank was scuffling in place, ready to bolt down slope. The expanding pyroclastic cloud was looming on their limited, tree-obscured horizon. They had only moments left. In the clarity of their impending doom, Captain Scarlet suddenly realized their true peril. "Bloody Hell! The locator chip!" If indeed Melody was piloting the Spectrum helicopter on the chip's locater signal, she would pinpoint Captain Blue. At least one of them would get away unscathed. His own recovery might take some additional months, and a whole lot of digging. He was, after all, indestructible. Captain Scarlet, Paul Metcalfe, would ultimately survive. But what about the boy? As if by instinct Scarlet tugged out the comm. unit. He had one last hope. "Colonel White," he bellowed into the device over the howl of the charging lahar. "Have the helicopter dive in for a pickup at the before indicated meadow. Captain Blue and I have separated. We're under assault from the mountain. Lahar!" That was it. If Cloudbase had even received his transmission over the engulfing cloud of suffocating debris, they had this one last chance to live. Would there be time?
In the next moment a dark gray shape loomed overhead, its spinning rotors beating away the dust. Scarlet waved up at the pilot. "Grab a hold of the pontoon!" he ordered of the boy. Tank nodded his understanding and leaped for the descending appendage even as his taller companion did the same. "Take her up! Hurry!" Scarlet shouted over the chaos below. The lahar would soon overtake them, its violent winds swatting the aircraft like a wayward fly to its doom. With determination the British captain clung to the helicopter's landing gear even as he was yanked backward by the sudden G force of liftoff. Would the young Tank stay attached as well?
Once above the trees, Melody piloted the chopper southwestward, away from the deadly flow. Scarlet freed one hand to shove Tank's dangling legs up over the pontoon, so he could clamber aboard. The young man disappeared into the belly of the craft. Safe. "Melody!" he called over the chopper's thumping rotors. "Get down slope! Zero in on Captain Blue! We've got to find him before it's too late!" A hand stretched down to pull him aboard. "No, Tank. I'm needed here," he hollered, grimacing at the whipping winds battering him as the chopper sped away.
"Why?" asked a familiar voice. "You like the fresh air in your hair? Or is it the spectacular view?" Scarlet forced his eyes away from their terrestrial scanning. The extended hand was attached to a leather jacket. Above that grinned the ivory countenance of his American partner. "Now come on in, out of the cold, before you're swept off the hull."
With a satisfied smirk, Scarlet acknowledged, "With pleasure, Captain Blue." With a jerk he swung a hand up and allowed his stronger friend to yank him free of the pontoon. Once inside the cramped cockpit and away from the roaring lahar, Scarlet ventured, "I'm glad you're all right. How's Amelia?"
"Not good," was Tank's grim reply where he hovered over the unconscious young woman strapped into the safety of a passenger seat. "She needs a hospital."
"We're on our way," Blue informed. "Melody has a pack for you, Captain. I'll be staying behind with these two. She'll take you on ahead to the airport."
"Right," Scarlet agreed. "I'll pick up an unmarked car there, and drive to the Halpern Institute for my appointment." Gratefully he took the satchel Blue handed him. One look inside revealed its contents: a change of clothes, a new pistol, and most importantly, another miniaturized Mysteron detector. "Just what the doctor ordered. Thank you, Melody."
From her seat in the front the chocolate-skinned Angel tilted her head at him. "Thank the colonel," she said. "He told me to warn you, not to lose this one. He'll be deducting its replacement from your retirement fund."
With an ironic grin, Scarlet answered, "Fair enough."
"Look!" Blue called. Scarlet and Tank followed the blond captain's extended finger to the valley below. A massive slide of rubble and swift-flowing debris was rushing down the mountain, swallowing everything in its path. "There goes the ranch," he said. Jodie Hanser's quaint and rustic resort disappeared beneath Rainier's giant eraser. There was nothing left but a gray smear upon the earth.
"Ashes to ashes is right," Tank swore. "Hope she wasn't there when ..."
"I hope so, too." Scarlet agreed gravely when the younger man's voice caught in a hesitant choke. The flight to Seattle's medical center took only twenty minutes. The Spectrum aircraft sank smoothly onto an available helipad even as a team of doctors rushed out to greet them. As Blue helped young Tank gently lower his sister from the vehicle onto a stretcher, Captain Scarlet ventured, "Good luck, Mr. Stamphor." He slid the helicopter's hatch shut, and Melody powered up again for takeoff. With a wheelchair for the limping Captain Blue, Spectrum security met the three at the elevator to take them inside. It was the last the British agent saw of the young siblings. Duties were soon to preoccupy him once more. The brother would no doubt be facing criminal charges. Amelia would find a new home with some compassionate people who could care for her and love the courageous young woman for her true gifts.
Within the hour, Captain Scarlet was cleaned up, changed and rolling north on Interstate 5 toward The University of Washington and the Halpern Institute. He was to be alone for this last leg of the investigation. Blue would be flown back to Cloudbase for Dr. Fawn's inspection. Perhaps there was still time for his partner to relax and enjoy the last days of his vacation. Vacation. "If this is your idea of a vacation, I'll take work any day," Scarlet could hear his friend saying. The British captain smiled and slid the new detector glasses onto his eyes. After parking the rental car in a visitor's slot by the main entrance, Scarlet slung the camera-like Mysteron detector onto his shoulder. Climbing from the cab he paused for a moment to close his eyes. No. He couldn't sense anything wrong. There was no telltale headache or dizziness. So far so good.
Security met him at the door. Lieutenant Green's fabricated Identi-Card passed the computer's inspection, and he was allowed to proceed. Within the walls of the Halpern Institute of Geological Study, however, all was chaos. Scientists and personnel were rushing about gathering maps and shoving equipment carts before them. "What's going on?" Scarlet inquired of a flushed young man with an armload of survey maps tumbling from his grip.
"An eruption! Just an hour and a half ago. Pyroclastic nightmare. Buried eighteen square miles of Paradise and Ashford," the man panted. "Didn't you feel it?"
Scarlet could only nod as the man stumbled off to his meeting. "I felt it, all right," he murmured to himself. As no one seemed to have the time to escort him to his appointed meeting with the Geological Survey Team, Captain Scarlet wandered the halls of the institute, allowing his sixth sense to guide him. Occasionally he paused to take a wide angle shot of a room filled with scurrying personnel, but the digital readout flashing into view behind his dark glasses revealed nothing but spindly skeletons. Results all negative. Finally, he ducked into a secluded office and pulled out his cell-comm. "Cloudbase. This is Scarlet. Reporting no unusual Mysteron activity so far within the Halpern Institute. The place seems to be a-flurry with activity, however. The recent eruption has them all bolting like mice from a sinking ocean liner. How do you advise, Colonel?"
"Keep up with your survey, Captain. I've got a team of Spectrum geologists arriving at the Paradise Slide within the next few minutes. They'll be equipped with this new Mysteron device as well. The rats are indeed leaving the ship. I've received reports of four Halpern survey teams already at the scene, taking samples and measuring the flow. It seems, Captain, Mother Nature got the rush on us. Contact Cloudbase when you've finished your inspection of the institute itself."
"SIG, Colonel. By the way, Sir. How're Amelia and Captain Blue?"
There was a long pause in the colonel's answer. When he did reply, the commander's grim tone foretold everything. "I'm afraid the Stamphor girl didn't make it, Captain. She was too weak to survive the excellent treatment she received at the medical center. Captain Blue will soon arrive here on Cloudbase. He's to be evaluated by Dr. Fawn, but it doesn't look like his injuries are too severe. I'll be rescheduling his shore leave for later in the month."
"He's earned every minute of it, Colonel," Scarlet assured solemnly. "Please send him my regards."
"I'll do that, Captain. We'll be expecting another update from you within the hour. Please, do not keep us waiting this time?"
"Yes, Sir." Scarlet concealed his comm. unit and slid back out into the bustling corridor in time to collide with an older woman wearing a white lab coat and pony-tail tied back behind her studded ears. "Pardon me, Madam," he apologized. "I was looking for Dr. Charles Malone. My meeting with him seems to have been forgotten in the emergency."
"I'm Doctor Malone," the middle-aged woman answered extending her hand from beneath a loaded clipboard. "And it's Charlotte, not Charles."
The Spectrum captain felt his face flush with the mistake as he took her hand and gently shook it in greeting. "Forgive me, Doctor. I'm Dr. Conagher. My field assistant, Mr. Hunter, and I were supposed to meet with you and your team at four-thirty for a briefing on Mt. Rainier's recent seismic activity."
The woman smiled briefly, but her gray eyes betrayed their tension. "I'm afraid I must cancel that appointment, Dr. Conagher. I apologize, but Rainier had other plans. You are aware; we just recorded a substantial magnitude event?"
"Well, I'm due on a helicopter out to the site in fifteen minutes. You'll have to excuse me." Before Scarlet could protest she was trotting off to gather her supplies.
"Well, then," he ventured into the empty air. "I feel like a fifth wheel." Then a thought occurred to him, and Scarlet rushed off to rejoin Dr. Malone.
* * *
"Where is he, Sir?" Captain Blue inquired leaning away from his singular crutch and glaring out the pressurized window of Cloudbase’s Officer's Lounge to the vacant tarmac beyond. The airbase carrier had seemed extra quiet after the events of the last few days. Now things again were a-bustle, at least for the American officer.
Colonel White glanced up from his coffee and chessboard where he was winning to an increasingly perplexed Captain Ochre. "Calm down, Man," Blue's commanding officer advised. "You sound as if you're the one getting married."
"He said he'd be here in time to leave for Winchester. We'll miss the connecting flight at London International." Blue stole another glance out the portal. Still no arriving Spectrum jet. "I promised him I'd go. Now he's left me stilted at the altar."
"I think you look marvelous, Mon a mi," Destiny Angel offered from her stance at the billiard table.
Blue lifted his free hand to tug at his tan tuxedo's ruffled collar. "Ah, he owes me big time," he grumbled. "I was looking forward to meeting the bride and groom. But I'll find some way to get him back. You can bet on that."
"According to Scarlet's last report," Colonel White appeased, "he'd completed his survey of the Halpern Institute two days ago, and was finishing up with Dr. Malone and her team in the northern Paradise area just this morning. His jet to Cloudbase may have been delayed due to heavy air traffic detours around the lahar site."
"That's no excuse," Blue rumbled quietly to himself. "This was supposed to be my vacation. And he's the one left on the ground to enjoy the wilderness, while I limp around up here."
"You'll get your furlough, Captain," White assured, overhearing.
Blue took one last peek beyond the window before turning back to his chair and his unfinished glass of iced tea. Movement outside, however, caught his blue eyes, and he spun back to watch an SPJ glide in for a landing. "It's about time. This monkey suit's getting warm." It wasn't too many minutes before a scarlet-uniformed officer entered the Officer's Lounge, equipment bag in hand.
"Reporting in as ordered, Colonel," Captain Scarlet announced, stepping down to hand his superior the slightly weather-beaten bag. "I'm personally returning these to you. I believe I'll need every penny of my retirement fund to insure a far less exciting solitude in my older years."
"Ah, good," White acknowledged taking the satchel. "The miniature detector."
"Both of them, Sir," Scarlet informed with a half smirk of satisfaction.
"Both? Good God, Man. What did you do? Go dig up the first one you lost?"
Nodding Scarlet affirmed, "I was given the opportunity to work side-by-side with Dr. Malone and her team. I pinpointed the locator chip, and she agreed to lend me help in recovering it from the buried ravine. Scientific data were gathered in the process, Sir. The river at the base of the ravine was still flowing despite burial under twenty-two feet of lahar deposit." He pointed at the dented device as White withdrew it from the satchel. "I can't be sure, but the device seems to be fully functional. A rather sturdy little piece of equipment."
"Yes," the colonel ventured. "In part I'm disappointed we had no real chance to test its effectiveness. You've confirmed; there was no Mysteron involvement in this disaster?"
"None, Sir," Scarlet confirmed. "Mt. Rainier was just at her prime for a volcanic eruption. The area has proven far less active in the past several days. Growing pain alleviated. And at the death of only four lives, Colonel. Evacuations had begun before Captain Blue and I had even arrived on the scene."
Colonel White considered the battered camera-like box. "Good work, Captain Scarlet. Now, speaking of Captain Blue ..." The colonel's eyes rose to the man standing by the far wall leaning grumpily on a steel crutch.
"Yes, speaking of ..." Blue grumbled limping forward. "A certain partner of mine made me promise to accompany him to a certain cousin's wedding this evening, at that certain partner's parents' estate. You're late, Captain Scarlet."
The British officer blinked at his tuxedoed associate, but didn't apologize. "Ah, yes. I remember," he stated. "Give me a few minutes to slip into another monkey suit, and I'll join you, Captain Blue." He turned to leave, but paused for a moment by the door. Spinning back around Scarlet added, "Oh, and, as my best friend, if Derek tries anything, even one prank, I do hope I can count on you to whack him one with that steel club of yours."
Blue's mouth dropped as several of his fellow officers began to chuckle. "I wouldn't dream of it, partner," he finally recovered enough to blurt. "I'd sooner whack you one for ruining my vacation."
"Me?" Scarlet spouted from the now open doorway. "Going to climb a hazardous mountain was your idea. I just went there to do a little digging."
"That's it, Mister," Blue warned stomping across the lounge on his one good foot. "Get another 'date' for this wedding. I hope Derek dumps a pyroclastic deposit on your head this time."
"Gentlemen. Please," Colonel White calmed standing between them with upraised hands. "The bride and groom await. We all have our responsibilities. I believe, Captain Scarlet, you've been asked by your cousin, Derek Evans, to stand in as his best man. It seems Derek's brother, George, has fallen ill as of this morning. Your mother wanted to surprise you, but as you're leaving in a bit of a tither, I thought I'd surprise you with the good news myself. Ah, you'll be wearing black for the occasion. Mrs. Metcalfe will have your new tuxedo waiting for you. Dismissed, gentlemen."
Before everyone's eyes, Captain Scarlet grew a shade paler. He swallowed hard and shuffled his feet in the doorway as if ready to fight or flee. "I'm not going to survive this one, Colonel. Have my funeral rites prepared." Scarlet surveyed the gleeful room as another round of giggles fluttered about. "I'm nobody's best man. Derek must have me mistaken for someone else."
Leaning forward on his crutch Blue was grinning broadly above his fancy collar. "Another case of mistaken identity, old buddy? I don't think so. Derek and I both have the very best man for the job. Now I'm really looking forward to meeting this infamous cousin of yours."
Scarlet swallowed again, this time in blushing resignation. "All right, then. Let's get this over with. Red's my favorite color, after all." More giggles followed him and Blue out past the lounge door and down the corridor to the flight deck. Vacations always promised adventure. This one was guaranteed to provide Captain Scarlet with his fill.
Copyright July 29, 2002, Revised 1/14/12
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