A “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” Story
By Lady Hawke
Copyright December 29, 2002, Revised 1/24/12
Dreams can sometimes be a great catalyst in creating stories. This tale is based on a dream sequence (dated 7/16/02) I experienced while on a recent trip to Mt. Rainier and the Pacific Northwest. During that two weeks' vacation, my mother and I drove through the Montana Rockies on our way east, then north into Alberta, Canada. While in Montana I discovered the perfect setting for such a subconsciously inspired adventure. All it needed was a little fleshing out, a touch of reality, a smattering of logic and some conscious inspiration.
Enjoy! Lady Hawke
The morning was drizzly and dark for late spring in the Arizona desert. The pair of Spectrum officers sprinted from their saloon, parked in the open lot, to dodge the dampness. Together they strode into the main lobby of New Apache's Timberland Power Complex. There, they were directed to their destination by the receptionist. Upon reaching the supervisor's office, Captain Ochre opened the door for his partner. With a nod of gratitude Captain Scarlet stepped past his friend and entered the plush space.
"Gentlemen," Supervisor Garrett addressed as he rose from behind his monstrous mahogany desk to shake their hands. "Welcome to my little corner of the North American universe. Please sit down."
"Thank you, Dr. Garrett," Scarlet answered. He settled into an over-stuffed leather arm chair and tugged his cap from his head. "Your facility is quite a universe in itself. We spotted it from the road some forty-three kilometers away. We've come as requested. What can we do for you?"
Garrett cleared his throat and brushed his flumping, gray-streaked bangs away from his high forehead. "I ... uh, I have a problem I think needs your attentions," he admitted. "It's one of my inspectors. According to my staff, he's been acting strangely and won't talk about it. He's denied the existence of some unusual events."
"Unusual events, Sir?" Ochre inquired. He slid a warning glance Scarlet's way.
"Yes," the older man elaborated. "I've been getting reports from my workers down on level three that equipment has been malfunctioning and some settings on the primary generator may have been tampered with. No one seems to know who's to blame, and my inspector denies anything unusual even happening."
"Sounds like an internal problem," Ochre surmised. "Why bring Spectrum into this?"
"Well," the supervisor ventured. "I've heard how you gentlemen, your organization, are in charge of these sorts of things. You know: mysterious character changes. It's not like Horatio to deny responsibility for his assignments. It's his job to ferret out any malfunctions and lapses in code procedures. I just don't understand his actions. I think he's a Mysteron."
"Sir," Scarlet began slowly, leaning forward in his chair to explain. "Do you know what a Mysteron is?"
Garrett blinked. "Of course I do, Captain. Doesn't everyone? Someone's hypnotized my on-site inspector. He's acting irrationally. Someone has him under a spell, some sort of mind-control. Horatio's become a puppet. A Mysteron, I tell you."
"Ah, I see," Scarlet answered leaning back again into his leather chair. "Dr. Garrett, we've not received any Mysteron threats regarding your Arizona facility. What you've just described is a person who either requires counseling or is suffering a severe mental impediment." He rose to his boots and tucked his cap under his arm. "I suggest you suspend this inspector pending a complete psychological profile and offer a leave of absence to recover. Spectrum has other duties more pressing than personal grievances, I'm afraid."
"No, wait, Captain Scarlet," Ochre interjected. "It wouldn't hurt to take a tour of the power plant while we're here, would it?" The slighter officer stood beside his partner and considered the worried brow of Garrett. "Sir, I'm sure you're in possession of a complete and itemized report on these discrepancies? We could take a look at them for any possible patterns," he suggested.
"Of course, Captain. Thank you!" The man climbed from his chair and plucked a thick folder of loose papers already perched upon one corner of his desk. "These are the inspection and log reports from the generator engineers. You'll notice the conflicts in them right away. I can't explain how Horatio could see nothing wrong when the engineers cautioned him on malfunctions warnings. According to these status reports, the system is due for a complete overhaul."
"Overhaul?" Scarlet echoed taking the folder from him. "You have a malfunctioning generator operating when it's in threat of a breakdown?"
"Of course not, Captain," Garrett defended. "I wouldn't gamble with my men's lives. I've ordered a temporary shut-down. The generator could blow if it were neglected. I've got it on stand-by, as a backup to our backup. Pending that complete overhaul. The problem is: I need a recommendation from my chief inspector to authorize that overhaul. Taking a generator completely off-line, especially the primary one, for a matter of three weeks or more is a major responsibility. We'll need to make other arrangements. Our backups aren't meant to run for that length of time. I need authorization, but Darling isn't going for it."
"Darling's your chief inspector?"
"No. That's just it. Horatio Darling is my second. My chief inspector is already on medical leave and out of the picture for another month. I'm relying on Darling's judgment to get this thing moving, and he's denying that there's even a problem. So, gentlemen. You see my quandary."
Scarlet was shaking his head. "I still don't see a need for our intervention, Doctor. Though I agree to the seriousness of your dilemma, this sort of incident just doesn't fall under Spectrum jurisdiction." Ochre cleared his throat suddenly and caught his partner's eye. With a slight jerk of his brown-haired head he asked for a moment in private. Scarlet took the hint. "If you'll excuse us a moment, Dr. Garrett." The two Spectrum captains stepped to the far side of the lavish office.
"Captain," Ochre began softly. "We're here. There may not be a Mysteron threat, but something's fishy. Can't we at least look into it? Be on the safe side before making our recommendations?"
Scarlet blinked. "I believe we already have."
"You have," Ochre corrected. "Listen, I know you'd rather be assigned the mission with Captain Blue testing out that new SPV remote device, but Colonel White assigned Magenta to that since his expertise is with electrical engineering. I'm the detective. We're here to solve a mystery. Let's do it."
With a tilt of one brow Scarlet reminded, "Technically I outrank you as field commander here."
"Yes, and if we were to have it your way, we'd be back on Cloudbase manning the radar room and data center. Drudgery if you ask me. This at least offers us a puzzle. Aren't you the slightest bit curious about the reason a trained professional isn't able to recognize his duty or even the truth of it?"
"Perhaps he's delusional," Scarlet quipped with a dry frown.
"Oh, come now. You'd rather do grunt work than let me play Sherlock Holmes?" Ochre challenged with an enticing grin.
With a relinquishing sigh, Scarlet shared his levity. "All right," he contended. "I'll contact Cloudbase with an update. You arrange for the tour of the generator in question and an interview with this schizophrenic inspector."
"SIG, Doctor Watson!" Ochre quipped with a sloppy salute. He spun away from his partner to consult with Garrett.
Within the quarter hour, the two Spectrum officers were being escorted to the plant's primary generator. Ochre carried a Mysteron detector slung over one arm. The man was taking no chances. Their guide, a certain Miss Chandler, was extolling the virtues of Timberland's state-of-the-art facilities. "The primary generator services the greater metropolitan area and its suburbs, with enough kilowatts to power a million homes in the dead of space. Our capacity hasn't yet been peaked. We're able to sell the surplus electricity to the outlying suburbs of Jasper, Benton, and Tucson."
"She sounds like your average walk-through tour guide," Ochre whispered through the corner of his mouth to his partner beside him.
"And we're walking," Scarlet whispered back with a smirk.
"Our facility is completely employer friendly," Chandler continued, innocent of the comments. "With a coffee and gift shop, a state-of-the-art cafeteria, fitness center and even a full-time day care center on the grounds."
In the next moment the British captain's words were serious once more. "Uh, Miss Chandler. Could we pause for a moment?" They were standing in a long hallway beyond which stood the massive double security doors to the primary generator for Arizona's main power facility. To her quizzical glare he elaborated, "You said if we had a question ..."
Her perplexity melted to a smile. "Of course, Captain Crimson."
"Yes," Scarlet answered with a frown. What professional tour guide was oblivious to the names of her guests? Even as Ochre chittered beside him, the correction wasn't worth the British captain's time. They would be returning to Cloudbase within the hour, after all. "How long has the primary generator been off-line?" he asked with a poke to the bulky folder cradled in one arm.
"Just since yesterday. The backup generator can partially compensate for the difference in output, but we're no longer generating any surplus."
"In other words," Ochre ventured. "You're losing money."
"Well, yes," Chandler agreed. "But the community's safety comes first."
"Glad to hear it, Miss Chandler," Scarlet answered. "Could we see the primary generator now? And we'll need to meet with the inspector as well."
"He's in his office, Captain. He's asked not to be disturbed."
"We're sorry, but we'll need to see him," Scarlet countered with a frown.
"I'll handle it, Captain," Ochre offered.
Plucking the security access card from Miss Chandler's hovering hand, Scarlet nodded and responded, "Good. Keep in touch. I'll meet you back here in twenty minutes. If there's a problem-"
"I'll be ready if he tries anything," Ochre assured with a chin tilt toward the detector. "Don't worry."
"I will, Captain. It's my job."
"SIG." The two split up: Scarlet following the hall to the generator room while Miss Chandler escorted Captain Ochre to Horatio Darling's private office off the main corridor.
Slipping the entry card along the security slot, Scarlet waited for a chime that announced his acceptance. He stepped inside. Amidst the rumbling hum of working backup motors, Scarlet entered the main generator chamber. The high arched ceiling was divided by heat expelling fans eight feet in diameter. Braces curved down to support the expansive walls which housed the plant's primary turbine generator. Its massive bulk squatted like a silver tiger, half-submerged in a swamp, stalking deer. The floor beneath it sank to cradle its cylindrical casing. Steel support beams impaled the beast on two sides. At the moment the mechanical creature sat silent, awaiting its next command to awaken. No one seemed to be present to answer his several questions, so Scarlet wandered toward the humming noise which indicated the backup generator's location. There he found four technicians stationed at a massive control center, monitoring output and heat levels.
"Excuse me," the British captain announced after clearing his throat. "If I might have some assistance here."
"You're from Spectrum, aren't you?" one of the men in the gray coveralls asked in a Texas drawl. "We heard you were coming."
"Yes. I'm Captain Scarlet. We're here to determine if the primary generator has been tampered with."
"Oh, yeah," said another tech stepping away from his control panel to nod Scarlet's way. "You're here to see if Darling's a Mysteron."
"Right," Scarlet agreed with a sour purse of his lips. Here we go again. "Could one of you explain what's been happening to the primary generator? Why did it need to be shut down?"
"Oh, it's not shut down," argued the first. "It's only on standby. One flick of a few switches and it'll be hummin' Dixie."
"Standby? You mean part of it is still active?"
"Sure. Its maintenance systems and diagnostic programs are still running. We're using them to pinpoint the gremlins."
Scarlet blinked at the two men. "Gremlins, eh? So what have you found out so far? I have Dr. Garrett's full report here." He indicated the portfolio beneath his arm.
"It's not complete. We're still looking into everything that seems to be wrong. We've already fixed some things, but other malfunctions don't seem to be software related. Dr. Garrett's told you about the planned overhaul, right?"
"Yes," Scarlet answered. "He's waiting for Mr. Darling's permission."
"Politics," the first technician sighed. "Come on. I'll show you what we've found out so far." The man led the Spectrum officer to his console and began a litany of strange events which, to this point, their inspector hadn't seemed to notice.
Captain Ochre knocked on Mr. Darling's office door. When there wasn't an answer Miss Chandler offered a sympathetic brow. "I told you he didn't want to be disturbed."
"We'll see about that," Ochre answered and tugged out his Spectrum-issue pistol. He knocked again. "Mr. Darling? This is Captain Ochre, of Spectrum. I wish to speak with you." Still no answer issued from the barrier. "Got another one of those access key cards?" he asked his guide. With a nod, Chandler plucked a second entry card from her jacket pocket and handed it over. Ochre holstered his gun. With the Mysteron detector in one hand, the man swiped the card through the security slot with the other. "Stand back," he advised the woman. The door unlatched with a little click and swung open. Inside was total chaos. Chandler, peeking past Ochre's shoulder, sucked in a gasp. Papers and files were scattered everywhere. The desk chair had toppled onto its side. A pair of legs protruded from the far side of the desk. "Darling?" Ochre inquired. He set the detector down atop a pile of disheveled work and knelt to inspect the man. One press to the victim's throat and a glance at the dark burned spot to his chest told all. "He's dead. Murdered."
"No!" Chandler gasped again. "What happened?"
Ochre's eyes were already scanning the office, his stint with the World Government Police Corp kicking in like a survival instinct. "Looks like an electrocution," he offered, spying the man's desktop computer. The device's wiring had been ripped from its base. The plugs were still securely attached to the wall socket. In Darling's clutched and blackened hand was gripped a length of the heavy cord. "Don't touch anything, Miss Chandler," Ochre advised. "I don't think the surge protector was functioning."
"Did he kill himself?" Chandler suggested.
"Not likely," Ochre ventured, seeing the puddle of cold coffee spread across the computer's keyboard and dripping onto Darling's body. A broken mug lay upon the floor beside the inspector. The man's jacket was stained with the still wet brew. "I think someone with insulated gloves may have taken advantage of an accidental spill. The computer lines were yanked out from the front of the desk. Darling's on the opposite side."
Chandler's eyes swept the chaos around her. "Someone was looking for something. All his reports are tossed about. The file cabinet's been dumped."
"What kinds of files would he have kept there?" Captain Ochre asked even as he caused his cap mike to slip before his lips.
"Everything pertaining to the maintenance of the generators. All his inspection reports, maintenance files, even the schematics for the control panels."
"Ochre to Scarlet," the Spectrum officer announced into the tiny microphone. "Inspector Darling's dead. We found his computer destroyed and he electrocuted in his office."
Scarlet's answer was grave through Ochre's built-in ear set. "Any idea why?"
"Someone murdered him for files on the power generator. Everything here is in shambles. There's no telling what was taken."
"Any clues it was the act of the Mysterons?"
"Not sure," was Ochre's reply as he regained his feet. "Electricity kills Mysterons. You usually don't flirt with your Achilles heel."
"SIG," Scarlet sighed in reply. "Gather what you can, Captain. Update Cloudbase. I'm staying to lock down the generator room. We may have a saboteur about."
"SIG, Captain Scarlet." Ochre grabbed Chandler's arm and squeezed. "I need you to go to Garrett's office," he insisted. The woman was nodding stiffly at him, as if she were still in shock. "Have him lock down the entire facility. We have a murderer loose, and we don't want him to get away."
Within minutes sirens blared and the security doors to all sections of the power complex were cycling closed. No one would be able to leave their section or exit to the outside. Even emergency fire exits were blocked by bars of steel-reinforced aluminum alloy which swung down from within the door jams and blocked all escape. Arizona's Timberland Power Complex had now become a tomb. Captain Ochre watched over the removal of Inspector Darling's body. Could a Mysteron duplicate now be roaming the grounds, perhaps trapped within the walls of a crucial section of the power plant's workings? "Don't be surprised, Dr. Garrett," Ochre warned, "if someone claims to see Darling about the plant. A Mysteron copy looks and acts just like the original. If he's planning something, he's no doubt already where he wants to be. Sabotage is his motive."
With a distrustful eye, Supervisor Garrett none-the-less agreed with a nod from the open doorway and announced, "I have security sweeping through the complex, section by section from my office back to the deepest storage closets and maintenance bays. Drills have had it done in five hours, but this might take a bit longer."
"Agreed," Ochre concurred. "How many sections will need to be cleared before we can get into the primary generator room?"
"Nine," was the answer. "I'm in communication with my engineers. They're safe for the moment, and the backup generator is operating at peak efficiency."
Ochre nodded. "Captain Scarlet's said the same." As if in telepathic contact, Ochre's shoulder epaulettes began to blink crimson. His cap mike descended to his pursed lips. "Yes, Captain," he answered.
"Tech Jeremy and I have finished a preliminary reconnaissance of the generator room. No sign of Darling's doppelganger. We may have to admit the Mysterons aren't even involved here."
With a shrug Ochre agreed, "You may be right, but we still have a mystery. One man is dead. Files are most probably missing, and the generator's definitely involved." He turned to the plant's supervisor. "Give it to us straight, Doc. What's the worst-case scenario here if sabotage is the plan?"
Garrett's dour frown spoke encyclopedic. "These generators create their output by using a process of nuclear hydrology. The fission of water molecules under high pressure and heat creates a by-product of ionized oxygen and leaves heavy hydrogen fuel to burn running the turbines to generate electricity."
"So, in a way, you're using hydro-electric power," Ochre surmised with a shared frown. "Plenty of flammable fuel, both in the pure oxygen and the heavy hydrogen." With a decisive sigh Ochre asked the question both he and the waiting Scarlet needed answered. "What sort of explosion are we talking about?"
"Great enough to leave us dust at the bottom of a chasm to rival Meteor Crater about 100 miles north of here."
"Great Space!" Ochre heard Scarlet exclaim into his headset.
The American captain had to agree. "We'll need to shut down the backup generator," he announced with grim certainty. "Expel the oxygen by-product and purge the hydrogen reserve to avoid such a tragedy. Is there another power plant which can provide energy to New Apache in the meantime?"
Garrett raised a finger in warning. "This facility was designed to monopolize the southern Arizona quadrant. We've already put the Roosevelt Dam complex out of business with this new technology. We have no other outlets, save perhaps Las Vegas's contract with Hoover Dam Power Delivery in Nevada. You're talking the total blackout of New Apache and its surrounding suburbs. That'd be hospitals, schools, government and emergency facilities relegated to emergency generators. We can't shut the grid down."
"Then you've got to get these blast doors open so we can scour the place for some type of detonator," Ochre insisted.
"But ... But you said worse-case scenario. That doesn't mean it'll come to pass."
Ochre's brown eyes narrowed in his frustration. "You plan on sitting around and gambling with the odds?"
Scarlet was speaking into his ear again. "Captain. We need to get the complex evacuated of all non-essential personnel. It's the first step."
"SIG, Captain. I'll forward the order to Supervisor Garrett right away." The cap mike flipped back to his visor. Turning back to the plant's head Ochre passed the buck. He was almost surprised when Garrett agreed without a protest.
"I'll get on the station-wide PA right away, Captain. We'll override the lock down to our emergency escape routes, and I'll post security along the way in case Darling does show up."
"Very good. Let's roll." In moments, the evacuation plan was implemented, and a channel of security doors was released from lock down to allow the personnel departure from the lower security areas of the power complex. Now in Garrett's security office, Captain Ochre overlooked the procedure, his eyes shifting between a bank of monitors fed by cameras installed throughout the facility. "How long will this take? I want the generator room opened up."
"You can't have it both ways, Captain," security chief Holland grumbled as he sat scanning the flicking TV screens as well. "A lock down is a lock down. Either you want to trap the rat or let it loose to call in its cousins."
"I want to get to where I can be of some use," Ochre countered from the chief's shoulder, one determined fist squeezing the back of the man's chair. "This evacuation is all well-orchestrated. Safe and standardized. The real action and danger is in that generator room with my partner. He could use my help."
"Don't toss your cap in the mud, Captain Umber," Holland advised. He threw a non-committed wave over his shoulder at the Spectrum officer. "Once everyone's out, we'll begin a systematic shut down of the security protocols."
"And how long will that take?" Ochre asked again, ignoring the misnomer.
"We should get to the primary generator room in a couple hours. Until then, I have a coffee pot over there," Holland announced with a flick of a finger to the far side of the security office. "It's fresh as of this morning."
"Terrific. Bad call, bad coffee." And Ochre could have been back, safe and quiet, on Cloudbase manning the radar screens. Instead, his brilliance had brought him to the brink of doom, watching a flood of maintenance staff, cafeteria workers and child care aides coursing down the exit channels like water from an opened spigot. With a futile sigh Ochre rumbled, "You got real cream?"
Captain Scarlet stood back and silently watched as the generator techs and maintenance engineers continued to scour the room for anything out of the ordinary. They spoke in tense whispers. Occasionally the words 'dead' and 'murdered' could be discerned. The plant's staff was wondering the reasons and motives behind Darling's demise. As the British captain stood by monitoring the temperature and pressure gauges for them, he eavesdropped on their conversations. The team of eight was concerned for their own safety. They had previously enlightened him on the specifics of their inspector's strange behavior.
Horatio Darling was a dedicated man, a father of two teenage boys. Divorced two years ago by his wife of nineteen years. He had been a quiet man, who rarely expressed his private challenges. Could he have been a prime candidate for a mental breakdown? As inspector, the responsibilities of work, added to the tragedies at home, could have been enough to send Darling over the edge.
When the conversation was interrupted by a base-wide announcement, Scarlet's curious eavesdropping turned to genuine concern. "Timberland staff. Please be advised. Total evacuation of non-essential personnel will be complete in twenty minutes. Please double-check your rosters that everyone has left the building. All active staff with orange or above clearance are to continue on lock down status until further notice. Security sweeps will begin on Level One and work their way down to Three, clearing the way of unauthorized staff as they go."
"I assume Darling had top clearance," Scarlet cut in, asking the nearest technician who was gently adjusting the flow rate of water into the fission reactor buried three quarters of a mile beneath their feet in the subterranean caverns of southern Arizona.
"He had access to everything, Captain Scarlet. He was our inspector. His and Chief Gerrand's files held everything about this place. Where things were stored. How things worked. Access codes into restricted areas with green-only clearance. Everything. A Mysteron agent could use that information to send this place the way of the dodo. We're one of a kind here. The first. State-of-the-art. And we're all about to be blown, ashes to ashes."
"Charming visuals," Scarlet quipped. "But I have faith in your team to find any booby traps. You know this place as well as he did, and there are eight of you." Then a thought to what the tech was doing made him question, "Could he have gotten into the fission reactor chamber itself?"
"What? You're joking, of course. There's enough pressure and heat down there to drain you of water."
"What about radiation?"
The tech nodded once. "There's some. We use certain isotopes to trigger the fission reaction in the hydrolytic chamber. But why go down there?"
"How do you monitor and maintain the fission chamber?"
The tech's face betrayed his discomfort. "Through our control panel here, and in person, in environmental suits. Exposure can only be tolerated for twenty minutes or so at a time. The maintenance staff travel in shifts to the caverns to monitor moisture levels, acid content of the springs, and-"
"Sure. We get our reactor water from the subterranean springs which flow through the cavern. The springs have a high mineral content. We have to use leaching filters to purify the water before we pump it into the reactor core. Otherwise the acids in the spring water would hinder a stable nuclear reaction. Destroy the holding tanks and even the core eventually."
"Acid," Scarlet repeated to himself. "It'd be a slow process, but none-the-less-effective."
"What's that?" the tech spat back, obviously stressed at the overly curious Spectrum agent.
"Nothing. How do you purge the acid? What do you do with it?"
The tech's finger pointed to the 20 inch diameter conduits along the floor. Scarlet followed the white piping with his eyes as it traveled along the length of the room, then up the wall to a junction pipe. This disappeared through the bulkhead to another room. "Holding tank outside," the man explained even as his own eyes were focused on his control panel. "Used for chemical cleaner. Another company's baby."
"Which company?" Scarlet asked.
Now the technician's reddened and strained face contorted into frustration. "Why do you even need to know? You're looking for a bomb here."
"Not necessarily," was the Spectrum agent's retort. "I'm trying to understand what I'm seeing here. I haven't noticed any malfunction or glitch in the generator monitors yet. Mr. Darling may have been partly telling the truth. Who is next in charge here, after the inspector?"
Again that pointed finger. This time toward a scowling older man attentive at a station near the far wall of the backup generator. "Him. Mr. Wonderful Copeland. He's our unit supervisor."
"You don't like him. Why?" The attitude was clear.
With an impatient sigh the tech spat, "He's a bully. Wants everything yesterday. Not the social type."
"I see. Would this Mr. Copeland have any reason to discredit Inspector Darling?"
"I suppose so," the technician answered eyeing his instrument panel. "They're brothers-in-law, you know. Copeland's been wanting a position as inspector for at least two years now. Ever since he got in under the wire with our hydro-nuclear union deal. Not many of the other Roosevelt Dam staff did when their hydro-electric plant closed down."
Scarlet scowled. "You're sure he wants Darling's job?"
"Of course. Ask any of the staff here. Mr. Wonderful's put in for a promotion five times in twice as many months. Since our chief inspector, Tom Gerrand, left for his medical leave."
"Yes, I heard about that. What happened to Mr. Gerrand?"
"Accident. An exhaust pipe gave way under pressure. He took acid burns to his lower extremities. Been out most of the year for recovery and therapy. He'll be back in another month or so. I hear he was in this morning for an unofficial visit."
Scarlet nodded. This, too, coincided with what Supervisor Garrett had said while he and Ochre were in the man's office. "Thank you, Mr.-"
"Timony, Sam Timony. Glad to help spread the gossip. Now, if you'll excuse me. I need to inject some fuel into the reactor. The turbines are in need of a boost."
"Of course, Mr. Timony. I appreciate your time." Captain Scarlet stepped away and lowered his cap mike to update his partner. "I've got some news which may be relevant," he told Ochre. "It seems the generator unit supervisor and our Mr. Darling are related. They're also in competition for a promotion."
"Man, I wish I were down there with you!" Ochre cursed. "You're in on all the good dirt. I'm stuck in the security center watching people exit the complex like rats from a sinking ship. Real exciting!"
"There apparently has been some strife between Darling and a Mr. Copeland ever since Copeland came to work here from the shut down Roosevelt plant. Please have the man's security files checked. I'm going to have a talk with him, myself."
"OK, but be careful," Ochre advised. "If he's our man, he's a murderer, and he may still be a Mysteron."
"My senses tell me otherwise, but I'll be cautious. Thanks." Scarlet's mike retracted. With an eye to the perpetually busy Timony, Captain Scarlet strode from the tech's company toward the far side of the room. He had some questions to ask Mr. Copeland. His intentions were to be interrupted yet again ...
Suddenly, an alarm announced another base-wide communication. "Timberland staff. Caution. We have an Amber alert. It has been brought to our attention that one of our day care students has not been accounted for. I say again: we have an Amber alert. Her name is Cheryl Adams, daughter to Tina, one of our data analysts. Cheryl was last seen playing with five other girls, approximately three quarters of an hour ago. Her location should be somewhere near sector 13. Keep abreast of this and report in as soon as you've found her. Her location and safety are top priority."
A new siren blared from inside the generator room. "What's that for?" Scarlet asked the man he was approaching. Technician Jeremy waved him away and blurted something about an override switch as he trotted by. Copeland, the unit supervisor, was standing at his station his dark eyes intent on the readings from the reactor core. "Mr. Copeland," Scarlet called the man. "Stop what you're doing." The other man's eyes were frantically scanning his readouts, fingers playing over his controls. "What are you doing?" Scarlet demanded as Copeland continued with his task, oblivious to the Spectrum officer's caution.
"Leave me alone, Captain. I have an unscheduled breach in the safety perimeter. Someone's down there who's not supposed to be. I may have just found our man."
Scarlet stood beside the reactor supervisor and considered the blinking red light at the mapped boundary of the reactor. "A saboteur?"
"Possibly," was the terse reply.
"I was coming over here to question you on that very account, Mr. Copeland. Are you aware your brother-in-law has been murdered?"
"That idiot? Of course, but he's not my brother-in-law. Geraldine and he have been divorced for two years. I've been Darling's G-damned gopher since Gerrand left for his medical leave. The sap."
"I warn you, Mr. Copeland. That kind of attitude makes you a prime suspect in Darling's murder."
"He's dead. What else can I say?" the generator supervisor spat, fingers still dancing across his panel. The man's eyes were intent upon his readouts which were showing video feed from the caverns housing the reactor core. "Tomorrow's another day. Or it might not be if I can't find this devil messing with our generators."
"Do you have someone in mind?"
Another high-pitched siren whistled its alarm. "Damn." Copeland glared past the Spectrum captain to his team stationed at the backup generator controls. "Shut it down, Timony! We've got an overload in the coils." From the far side of the room Sam Timony nodded and smacked his palm down on a fist-sized red button. The humming generator stationed at the far side of the room powered down moments later.
"What happened?" Captain Scarlet demanded.
"Tell ya when I got time," Copeland growled back. "Timony. Power up the primary generator. Hurry before we have an overload in the reactor. Power's building up to critical levels."
Just then, Scarlet's microphone dropped and his epaulettes blinked yellow. "What's going on down there, Captain?" Ochre demanded.
"I'll let you know as soon as I do."
"Garrett's cancelled the lock down. I'll be there in five minutes."
"No. It's too dangerous. We've got malfunctions and a saboteur loose in the reactor core. You're safer if you evacuate with the rest of the staff."
"No go, Partner. I'm part of the rescue team now. Looking for that
missing girl. Your section's next. Someone said the kids were playing hide and
seek. Little Cheryl could be down there or even in the reactor core chamber."
"But how? She wouldn't have the access codes-"
"Her mom lets her play at the data storage computers. Cheryl's a wiz kid with computer games."
"Then she could have inadvertently learned the codes," Scarlet surmised. "I'll get a suit on and go down there, myself. If the girl is there, she'll need protection from the core's heat and radiation. There's no time to lose!"
"Captain, what about the saboteur?" was Copeland's urgent reminder even as the Spectrum officer tugged an environmental suit from a wall hook.
"That's your job now," Scarlet assured. "I'm the only one to go down there. Understood? I'll not risk anyone else. Find that bomb, if it exists, Copeland. These are your people. Save their lives." As the British captain slid the protective helmet over his chin, he incited, "Be a hero."
With the help of Tech Jeremy, Captain Scarlet cycled through the safety lock and enclosed himself within the vertical shaft tube that would send him below. "The way is well marked with indicator lights. Take a map. They're in the wall pocket," Jeremy instructed with a pointing digit. "I'll guide you from up here, as soon as I get to the monitoring station."
Captain Scarlet nodded through his sealed helmet and poked his intercom button. "SIG. I'll find her." He sank into the floor a moment later. The elevator descended through layers of bedrock and deposited him nearly four thousand feet below the complex's Level Three. The door slid open to the high pitched hissing of escaping steam and the suffocating pressure and heat of a hydro-fission reactor. Scarlet stepped out into the chamber suddenly microscopic beside the actual reactor core. Another poke of the helmet control allowed his voice to transmit into that tortured space beyond the protection of his suit. "Cheryl? Cheryl Adams? Are you down here?" No answer. He hadn't really expected any.
Instead, Tech Jeremy announced into his helmet earpiece, "I have a life reading bearing 277 degrees, to your left, Captain Scarlet."
"Right. Heading that way," Scarlet agreed. He stepped heavily forward in his weighted and stiff suit. "No one in sight," he said. "It's rather noisy down here. She may not have heard my call." Scarlet poked his address button again. "Cheryl? Are you down here, darling?" He peaked around a mass of conduits and piping which were labeled: Danger: Contents Under High Pressure. "I've come to return you to your mum, Cheryl." There was still no answer. "Jeremy? Am I close to her? Can your monitors see anything?"
The response wasn't encouraging. "I'm not sure, Captain. The blip I'm getting shows a position, and you're in the general area. Could she be hiding?"
"There's nothing here, Mr. Jeremy, except high pressure pipes."
There was an unnerving pause on Jeremy's end. Then a hesitant reply. "I'm looking at the layout schematics. Those pipes are filled with the leached minerals from the spring. They're pumped up and out of the plant using high pressure to an outhouse storage tank up here. It'd be impossible for anyone to be hiding in there."
"Not even a Mysteron," Scarlet mumbled to himself. "What if you're getting a false reading?"
"Another malfunction? I suppose it's possible, but-"
"Wait! I heard something," Scarlet interrupted. "Cheryl?" he called again. "Come out from back there. The game's over. You won. But it's time to go home, now." Scarlet stepped up against the massive bank of polymer-composite piping. His cumbersome helmet not only protected him from the heat of the chamber, but it also prevented him from seeing around the congested conduits which followed the contours of the cavern and up through its roof. With a grim frown, he tugged the safety seal loose and yanked the helmet from his head. "Cheryl! It's very dangerous to be down here," he yelled into the noisy reactor room. "You've got to come out!"
Then, as the captain set his discarded headgear atop a conduit, a new voice from its inset earpiece urged, "Captain Scarlet! We have a build-up of pressure. You've got to get out of there!" It was Captain Ochre, now present in the main generator room thousands of feet above. "Captain? Can you hear me?"
There was, of course, no answer. Having ducked his head down into the shadowed mass of twisting pipes and seeing nothing, Scarlet knelt to clamber in amongst the tangle. "Cheryl, darling? Are you back here?" He knew the girl was being exposed to the pressure and heat of the nearby reactor core. Within twenty minutes the environment would become unbearable even to him. Yet the child was down here with no environmental suit. Perhaps the girl, somewhere enclosed within the conduit mass, was already unconscious or near death. He had to find her.
Despite the close quarters Captain Scarlet inched among the pipes letting his eyes wander the lengths of exhaust ducts. On his gloved hands he slid forward to a juncture where the conduits joined together and ducked into a composite channel which harbored them like a rain gutter up the reactor chamber wall and through the ceiling of the cavern to the facility above. As he scrambled forward to inspect the open-ended channel a voice stopped him.
"Captain Scarlet. Where are you?" It was Captain Ochre and he was close. Scarlet had heard him without the aid of his rejected helmet.
"I'm back here, amongst the conduit pipes" he answered his partner. "Get back to the surface, Rick. It's too dangerous down here."
Ochre's reply was disturbing. "You're telling me? The pressure in the exhaust pipes is building to a critical level. And the main generator's malfunctioning. They can't scram the reactor fast enough. We've got only minutes to evacuate. The core's going to blow."
"Go, then," Scarlet demanded from within his tight quarters. "I haven't found the child yet." Though his concern was for his partner, Scarlet's eyes were still busy searching the darkness of the channel pipe. Within its depths, there was just enough room for a child to crawl before the duct harboring the exhaust pipes turned vertical.
"I'm here to help you," came Ochre's stubborn response. "Keep talking and I'll find you."
"Rick, you idiot. I'll be fine. You're not the indestructible one, remember?" Scarlet harangued. "Get out of here before there's not two molecules of you left for Fawn to patch together."
"Not on your life. I'm here to save your obstinate skin. It's too late for the child. Get out of there. Now. That's an order, Captain."
With a grimace Scarlet had to admit his possible defeat. The potential to save one child's life was far less instrumental in the war against the Mysterons than even he wanted to admit. There were casualties in any war. He just didn't like to think that such a young life might have to be sacrificed for his continued existence. After all, a core breach might indeed be the permanent end of his partner and himself. As he made the decision to abandon his search, Captain Scarlet heard a small cough. "Cheryl?" he called again. Leaning down to ground level the British agent ducked his head inside the conduit channel. A dark mass was just visible at the terminus where the ductwork curved toward the ceiling. Squinting his watering eyes in the warmth and dampness of the reactor chamber Scarlet could discern the mass to be a curled figure wedged within the channel. "Cheryl. Can you hear me? Come to me, darling. Everything's going to be all right." With a grunt Scarlet shoved his arm in beside his head. In the cramped space, it was all that would fit. "Cheryl!" The curled up child did not respond but she did move within her hiding place. She was still alive.
"What's going on?" Ochre called.
"I found her!" Scarlet hollered back over his hunched shoulder. "But I can't reach her." The British officer made a hasty and desperate decision. In the cramped space of the exhaust conduits, Captain Scarlet unzipped his environmental suit and tugged its bulk from his shoulders. "I'm going in after her," he informed his partner. "How much time do we have?"
There was a slight pause in Ochre's answer. He was no doubt consulting with Tech Jeremy above. "Only minutes," was the disheartened reply. "We need time to get clear of the facility. There's an evacuation chopper waiting for the generator crew now. You've got to get to her quick, Paul, before they leave without us."
"Give me a countdown, then," Scarlet answered back, even as he kicked his boots free of the environmental suit. "I'm going in."
"Hurry!" was Ochre's urgent response. "Five minutes, forty-two seconds."
With a grim nod Scarlet slid down onto his belly and slipped his hands and arms into the open channel. "Come on, darling," he continued to entice. "Your Mummy's waiting for you. She wants to take you out for some nice cold ice cream. Now doesn't that sound wonderful right now?" Scarlet's own forehead was dripping with sweat, his back heaving with the effort to slide forward within the confined space. "Help me out here, Cheryl. I can't reach you. Give me your hand."
The curled body of the girl did not stir. The child had grown still. Only a moan escaped from her throat.
"Four minutes, twenty-five seconds," he heard Captain Ochre inform. "Hurry, Paul! Jeremy says the engineers are evacuating now. I don't know how long they'll wait for us."
Grunting, the Spectrum captain tried to reach further into the channel. The high pressure exhaust pipes answered him with a shared groan. "Cheryl. Please! Give me your hand. I can't reach you. Your mum's worried for you. You don't want to see your mummy cry do you?" It was obvious that the heat and confinement had taken their toll on the young girl. She was unresponsive to his urgings. He tried one last desperate shove forward into the channel. He stretched his fingers out, straining for contact with the child's reposed foot. The pipes above him creaked with the growing pressure of the malfunctioning pumps. Within minutes, the power plant was going to rupture like an over-inflated balloon.
Just as that unsettling image occurred to him, one of his fingers scraped against Cheryl's slack sneaker. He was almost there. With a desperate kick Scarlet nudged himself tighter into the opening and strained forward anew with one hand. "Come to-"
Something had a hold of his boot. Someone was tugging at his extremities. Wedged within the channel as he was now, Captain Scarlet could not hear past his own labored and gasping breathing. His fingers dug into the dust of the passageway. "No!" he bellowed. "I've almost got her!"
That's when the expanding pressure against the exhaust pipes won its battle against confinement. A pipe cracked. It spurted its hot contents into Scarlet's face. The heat was immediately felt, followed by the searing burn of mineral acids against flesh. The next sensations were the ear-shattering bellow of Scarlet's own agony, followed by the sudden jolt in his gut as Ochre gave a final, life-saving tug. He was yanked from his self-inflicted tomb. Captain Scarlet, born out onto the heated floor of the core chamber, was accompanied by a flood of stinging acid which flowed out with him like a deadly afterbirth. "Paul!" Captain Ochre yelped as gloved hands bore him up from the burning river. "My God!"
Unable to maneuver in the cramped space among the now popping pipes and his own torment, Captain Scarlet allowed his friend to drag him from the conduits. Ochre then hoisted him up onto his suited shoulders for the scramble back to the elevator shaft. Sometime during those first few moments of their ascent, the torment of Scarlet's injuries stole his consciousness from him and there was no more pain.
From within the safety of Timberland's emergency evacuation helicopter, Captain Ochre witnessed the violent demise of the power station. The Arizona desert rose like an enormous swollen pimple which burst forth in a brilliant cloud of expanding gases. The force of the explosion expelled earth and debris eight miles into the atmosphere and generated a seismic concussion which leveled the bluff on which the Timberland Power Complex had perched. Silently, Ochre thanked the stars that the closest human inhabitants were safely beyond the perimeter of the devastation. The isolation of the underground caverns and its surrounding wilderness had forced the power company to build its plant far from the populated centers of New Apache and its nearby suburbs. No doubt the surviving personnel were now grateful for their daily lengthy commutes to work. Their homes and families were safe. But their future employment was questionable.
As the chopper soared over the outskirts of New Apache, Ochre noticed the metropolis’ dreary darkness. It was as if the very city were in mourning, cloaked in the shadow of rain and obscuring cloud cover. Within the meteorological gloom, not a single street light was lit. The roadways were packed with bottle-necked traffic and stalled signals. As the aircraft descended toward Mercy Hospital's roof helipad, two more emergency helicopters rose into the mist. "Looks like your friend's going to have company," Tech Jeremy observed from the seat beside him. "Lots of traffic accidents, no doubt, with the power outage."
Ochre bit at his lip. He turned to consider the man lying supine on the chopper's stretcher, his Spectrum uniform dirtied and moth-eaten from the acid. Captain Scarlet's head and arms had been hastily treated with an alkaline spray and wrapped in sopping bandages to counteract the effects of the corrosive bath to which he'd been exposed. "We won't be staying, Mr. Jeremy," Ochre informed kicking at his discarded environmental suit, abandoned once his partner had been dragged onboard. "Captain Scarlet'll be receiving special attention from our staff physician back on Cloudbase. He'll get the best of care, be assured."
"Well, then," Jeremy answered as the Timberland helicopter settled onto the hospital's landing pad, "best of luck to you both. He'll need all of it if he's going to survive."
"Thank you." As the chopper was evacuated, nurses rushed the vehicle to attend to the wounded. Several of the plant's engineers had suffered minor burns, cuts and bruises during their hasty retreat from the critical generator room. One gurney slid to a stop beside Ochre and the slumped companion draped in his arms. "He'll be fine," the American captain informed waving the woman off with a flick of his chin. "Attend to the others. A Spectrum chopper's on its way here now to pick us up."
"But, Sir. We got word of a critically injured passenger onboard. Extensive acid burns. He needs immediate decontamination in order to save his life."
Ochre drew a tight frown and grumbled. "I'll handle it, Nurse. Now leave us."
The medic opened her mouth to protest but must have been intimidated by the man's fiery glare. "Yes, Captain." She hurried off with her gurney.
Within minutes Symphony arrived with Dr. Fawn and nurse Templeton aboard to assist the grim Ochre in loading their injured comrade onto the Spectrum helicopter. "Took a dose full in the face, Doc," Ochre informed. "It's not pretty."
"I believe you, Captain," was all Fawn blurted even as he began his ministries and the aircraft rose into the dreary sky. The flight to Cloudbase was swift but frustratingly silent for the medical team. Fawn forwarded his instructions to Dr. Topaz onboard the flying Spectrum carrier, and all was ready for Scarlet when Symphony landed some forty minutes later.
Ochre, after dutifully reporting to Colonel White the demolition of the Timberland plant, was soon in attendance outside one of Sickbay's recovery rooms. He would be the one to report the tragic news to his field partner. It was Ochre's right.
The information of Timberland's fate had to wait, however. Dr. Fawn forbade the man's entry. "He's resting, Captain Ochre. I don't want him disturbed."
"Scarlet ... Paul's recovering. Isn't he?" the American inquired. "His face. It was ... Well, it looked like it'd been melted away."
"The injuries to his face, head and upper torso were severe, but his healing abilities are tending to them now. It's his right eye I'm concerned with."
"His eye?" Ochre prompted.
Fawn shrugged. "As soon as I finish my report, I'll be sending it up to the colonel. As I'm sure you will be with yours." The doctor waved the captain off and returned his attentions to his medical clipboard. As Fawn scribbled something down he mumbled to himself, "Got to prep for surgery soon."
Ochre, forgotten, sought solace in the officer's lounge. There he found Captain Grey pondering a pile of data sheets. "Need some help, Brad?" he offered half-heartedly stepping down into the well at the room's center.
"What?" Grey glanced up from his seat with a twisted smile. "No jokes today, Richard?"
Ochre only shrugged and sank into another cushioned chair. "Too tired," was his answer in a loud exhale. "I saw death today, and I'm not in the mood for levity. Sorry. Catch me another time."
Grey set the paper in his hand down atop the pile. "Want to talk about it?"
"Yeah, but first to Paul. Looks like I owe him an apology." Ochre refrained from elaborating, so after a tense moment of silence his compatriot just nodded and lowered his eyes again to his research. It wasn't but mere minutes before Ochre bolted from the chair, too restless to relax. "Let's just say, it was all my idea to stay," he blurted, "and now there are people dead because of it. One of them a little girl."
Grey took the outburst as a confession worthy of some consoling. "You can't blame yourself for the explosion. From what I heard from Green, you rescued Captain Scarlet just in time. You're the hero this time, Rick. Let's celebrate."
"I prevented Paul from rescuing a trapped little girl who'd wandered into the reactor chamber. He was reaching for her when I pulled him away. I'm almost sure I heard him say he had her, but then ... Then I guess the pipe burst and he screamed. I had to get him out or we'd both be dead. He was risking my life and his. I ... I made a decision, and now the girl's dust. Hell, the whole place is dust. One big molten crater in the desert. You should have seen it, Brad." Ochre ballooned his arms up around his head. "Poof! And it was gone. Now there's an emergency blackout of over two hundred square miles. No electricity, no lights, no power, nothing, for who knows how long!"
"And you're blaming yourself for all of it?" the older Grey stammered climbing to his feet to confront his pacing friend. "Don't even start that, Fraser. It's not in your character to brood. That's Scarlet's department."
"Yeah, well he's going to blame me for some of it. Just wait. I stopped him from rescuing that girl. Now a young mother's lost her only child. My fault."
Grey shook his head. "Sorry. You're not getting my sympathy. The Mysterons aren't picky about their victims. To them she's just one less Earthchild."
"There weren't any Mysterons," Ochre growled with a swipe of his arm. "There was a mystery to be solved, and I made Paul stay so I could play detective."
Gray tilted his head into his friend’s drifting gaze. "And if you'd returned to Cloudbase, then what? Would the power plant still be there? Would the little girl still be alive?"
"I ... I don't know, Brad," Ochre sighed sinking again into the supporting hug of a chair. "I'm the one who ordered the pant lock down, got Garrett to initiate the evacuation. I guess I got the ball rolling for a facility-wide search. We were looking for a bomb, some sort of saboteur. We didn't find one. Instead ... Well, I'm not sure what happened. The place just started to fall apart. The backup generator seized, then the primary was brought back online. Then it malfunctioned, and the core began to overheat. Malfunction followed malfunction ..."
"Sounds like it was out of your hands, Rick," Grey admitted. "You did what you could. There were how many people in that facility? Three hundred? Four hundred?" When Ochre didn't answer Grey continued, "Of those, how many died?"
"Five," Ochre murmured from his slump. "Two security, two of the generator techs who couldn't abandon their stations 'til we got free of the reactor core, and the girl. It should have never happened."
"But it did." Captain Grey lowered a hand to rest atop his comrade's sagging shoulder. "You did your job. You saved people. You saved your partner."
"Yeah," Ochre agreed quietly. "Let's hope Scarlet sees it that way."
Dr. Fawn accepted the broadcasted information with a stoic nod and stomped from his office to the recovery room to witness the awakening. "Hold on there, Captain," he urged as he saw Scarlet struggling against his nurses to vault from the bed. "You haven't finished recovering yet. Settle down, there."
"Dr. Fawn," the British officer answered through the bandages which still covered his face and head. "I ... I can't see. I'm ... Suffocating."
"Back off, Templeton. Give him some room," the physician ordered his nurse as he himself shouldered his way to the bed. "Scarlet. You're all right. Just settle down or you'll injure yourself more. Don't make me have to sedate you." The Spectrum captain finally relaxed his struggles. "Good. Now lie back down and let me have a look." With a calming hand on the man's shoulder Fawn checked the tightness of the protective bandages which protected his healing hands and continued his soothing litany. "Now, you're going to have to trust me, Captain. You suffered severe injuries to your face and upper extremities. Do you remember what happened?"
"It was dark," the patient mumbled from within the facial wrappings. "Hot. I was reaching for a ... A child. A little girl," Scarlet recalled. His body tensed again beneath the doctor's capable hands. "Her name was Cheryl. Is she all right, Doctor?"
Though Scarlet couldn't see it, Fawn smiled soothingly and admitted, "Right now we're concerned with your recovery, Captain. Now, if you'll just relax we'll take off these bandages and have a look-see. Agreed?"
Scarlet's shoulders slumped back against the raised platform of the bed. In his silence there was compliance. "That's better." Dr. Fawn reached up to release the clip securing the lengthy swatch of medicine soaked bandage. "There was an accident," he explained. "The exhaust pipes for the power plant's reactor water went critical and hairline cracks must have burst under the pressure. The whole story isn't known yet. For the past three hours, scientists and crime scene investigators have been combing the site with their equipment. Gathering clues." The top of Scarlet's head revealed the re-growth of hair and healthy scalp where once the acid had dissolved it. "Looking good so far."
"What happened to the power plant, Doctor? Tell me," the patient insisted, his torso tensing again to sit up. Scarlet's bandaged hands fumbled to grip Fawn's arm.
"I'm getting to that, Captain. Physician's prerogative. All in due time." Scarlet's reluctance for patience was evident in his slow dip back to the pillow. "Captain Ochre was down in the reactor core chamber with you. I've been looking over his report and it seems he saved both your lives."
"Then the girl is OK," Scarlet surmised as Fawn peeled the wrapping from his forehead and ears. New skin glowed pink where once bone had gleamed.
"Ochre saved your and his own life, Captain. The girl and four others perished in the blast, I'm afraid."
"The blast?" Scarlet repeated jerking away from the doctor's ministries. In his frustration Scarlet clawed at the bandages himself. "The power plant-" He swiped the gauze from his eyes and opened them. The man blinked then grimaced at the brightness within Sickbay. Scarlet groaned. "I … Doctor. I still can't see. What's wrong?"
"It's only temporary, Captain," Fawn reassured as he eased the wrappings from the man's clutched fists. "The burst pipes contained not high pressured steam for the generators but exhaust acid. The acid was under high pressure, itself, when it contacted your skin. It destroyed your eyes, but they're re-growing as we speak. The right eye socket suffered the greatest damage. I had to remove the entire optic nerve in an emergency surgery some two hours ago. I must say, you're doing quite well for the extent of the damage."
"But what of the girl, Doctor Fawn?" Scarlet insisted as the discomfort of his hasty actions kicked in. One freed hand rose tentatively to caress the sunken socket where his right eyeball had once perched. Within his grimace he gasped, "Why couldn't I save her?"
In Scarlet's blindness, he couldn't see the reluctant shrug of Fawn. The captain could no doubt hear the physician's weary sigh, however. "There just wasn't time. The facility was on the brink of self-destruction. The acid carrying conduits gave way. Captain Ochre was just able to drag you from the backwash before your entire body was consumed. As it was, your epidermal layer has had to regenerate along your upper torso and arms. For some reason, you'd removed the only protection you had down there."
"The environmental suit," Scarlet recalled as he again elbowed himself back onto his pillow. It seemed he was starting to realize the latitude of recent events. "And the girl. Cheryl. She was inside that channel. She was alive when ..."
Fawn patted the injured captain on the arm. "I'm sorry, Paul. If she was alive when you tried to rescue her, she didn't survive long amidst that acid bath. The explosion of the plant sealed her fate and the fate of four others. Ochre barely got you and himself out in time to talk about it." The physician pressed a sedative sprayer against the man’s healing neck.
As Captain Scarlet released a weary, pain-wracked sigh he murmured, "If only ... I had had more time."
"That is the wish of millions who grieve the loss of another, Captain. Rest now. I'll look in on you later." As Fawn left the recovering captain, he shook his head. "Happens to the best of us feeling, caring humans." The doctor knew all too well the sinking sensation of losing someone. A physician couldn't afford to grow calloused or complacent. Lives were always worth the gamble. Captain Scarlet had experienced more than his share of tragedies. Sleep would do the man good.
Within the day, two more weary travelers were to return to Cloudbase. Captains Blue and Magenta reported the partial success of their SPV trials. As they sank on twin rising stools within the command center, Blue spoke up first. "Well, Colonel. We're off to a good start," he told his commanding officer. Colonel White accepted the assessment with a serious stare. "Spectrum's Technology Agency agrees. The remote control device needs quite a few modifications, but we feel it'll come in quite handy in the future."
"I see, gentlemen," White finally droned. "I'll be expecting your full reports by morning. Until then, if you'll excuse me. I have much work to attend to." The colonel's pale eyes again sank to the data readout set within his circular desk.
"Sir," Magenta spoke up, still seated. "Is there something wrong?"
In answer White raised a stern brow and rumbled, "A puzzle, Captain. One I'm still trying to piece together myself."
"Captain Ochre's good with puzzles, Colonel," Blue suggested standing beside his mission partner. "Have you asked him to help?"
White's brow furrowed into a scowl. "I'm afraid Captain Ochre is one of the puzzle pieces, Blue. The Timberland Power Complex was destroyed earlier this afternoon. Captains Ochre and Scarlet barely made it out alive. Yet there doesn't seem to be any Mysteron involvement. And so there lies the puzzle, gentlemen."
"Well, Sir," Magenta suggested rising from his stool as well. "I'm willing to help. Just fill us in on the details."
"Though I appreciate the offer, Captain, you two have your own mission briefs with which to contend. The ability to remote maneuver an SPV in an emergency may well prove a useful tactic in the future. You are to stay abreast of the research and development of this new device. Keep me informed."
"SIG," the two captains chimed accepting their dismissals and marching from the control center with just a perplexed glance Green's way. In answer, the lieutenant shrugged his shoulders. It was the younger man's signal of his current inability to inform them of what he knew. It would have to wait until Green was off duty. Blue nodded his understanding and shepherded his Irish-American partner out the exit. "We'll get to the bottom of this," the taller man assured into Magenta's ear.
"Yeah," Magenta responded with a nod. "Let's go find Rick. He'll give us the lowdown."
According to Destiny Angel and Captain Turquoise, playing poker in the lounge, Ochre was currently off duty and in his quarters. "Ah, the poor man," Destiny lilted. "He was so miserable and tired. There was just nothing more he could have done."
"Done? Done what?" Blue prompted with raised hands. "Come on, guys. Fill us in. We're clueless."
"Yeah. Just got back ourselves from a mission," Magenta chimed in beside him.
Turquoise shrugged his broad shoulders and explained, "Rick saved Scarlet's life this afternoon. Pulled him from an acid bath in an underground cavern. They just made it out alive before the whole place went kablooey!"
Blue stepped down into the lounge and sank onto a bench. "And I thought Pat and I had fun," he stammered. "Are they OK? Where's Paul?"
"Captain Scarlet is in Sickbay," Destiny informed as her poker partner slapped his winning hand down onto the table. "Ach, John Watie. You win again, eh?"
In that instant Blue was on his feet and heading for the door. "Then that's where I'm going."
"No, wait!" Turquoise warned scooping in his chips. "Dr. Fawn's forbidden anyone to see the captain until morning. Scarlet's still recovering. Not to be disturbed."
Blue paused by the exit, Magenta now at his shoulder. "Wait a minute. John, did you say an acid bath?"
Turquoise's dark features were shadowed by his concern. "I didn't see it myself, but I heard from Rick. Must have been pretty gruesome. If it had been any one of us, we'd be dead right now. Dead with no identity save our dental records."
Blue's thin lips flinched into a momentary grimace. "Thanks, John. But I am going to see Fawn about this." He turned to his mission partner. "Get working on that report for the colonel, Pat. I'll be with you as soon as I see Paul."
Magenta nodded his understanding and assured, "I'm sure Scarlet will be just fine. Good luck sweet-talking Fawn, though."
"Thanks." Captain Blue strode off into the bowels of Cloudbase, his long legs taking him swiftly to the doctor's domain. Once inside Sickbay, he found Dr. Topaz on duty, updating patient files and tending to the strained calf muscle of Captain Ebony. "Playing tennis like a man again, Rochelle?" Blue taunted with a sparkling smile that reached to his ears.
Ebony waved the American away. "Oh, get off me, Blue. I can beat you Seven-Love any day. Even with your manly man arms," she chided back in her rich Nigerian accent. "You can come kiss my racket tomorrow at fifteen hundred."
Blue chuckled. "I'll meet you there," he promised folding his arms over his light blue-clad chest. "Julia," he redirected at the attending physician. "I came to see how my partner's doing. Is he up to a late night visit? Pat and I just got back from the field. Long day."
"Captain Scarlet's has been longer, I'm afraid," Dr. Topaz testified in a serious tone. The woman finished wrapping Ebony's exposed calf with a supportive Ace bandage and advised, "Keep it elevated for a few hours, Rochelle. Hot and cold compresses every twenty minutes. Oh, and no tennis matches with this brute for at least three days. Understood?" Topaz shot a warning glance Blue's way. In response the man spread his arms innocently but didn't challenge the doctor's prescription.
"If you say so, Doctor," Ebony agreed sliding down from the exam table to land gingerly on her good leg. Topaz handed her a crutch. "You still owe me a match, Big Boy," the female captain assured as she limped past Blue and out the sickbay's door.
"Looking forward to it," Captain Blue called after her. Then he returned his attention to the on-duty physician. "So, may I?"
"May you what? See Captain Scarlet?" Even Topaz seemed to be in a teasing mood, though with far less humor in her dark green eyes.
"Are you going to make me beg, Miss O'Donnell of County Kerry, Ireland?" Blue chided in his best mimic of her deep accent. Then the mischievous glitter to his blue eyes was gone. "Come on. I know Dr. Fawn doesn't want him disturbed. If he's sleeping, I'll just poke my head in and be grateful he's still breathing." He had many times witnessed his partner in far more serious conditions.
After another teasing silence Topaz sighed her resignation. "All right. I'll let you poke your head in, but don't tell Fawn I let you."
In response, Blue zipped a finger across his closed wide lips. He followed Julia Shannon O'Donnell to one of the main recovery rooms. There, through the windowed door, she allowed Blue a peek at his partner. On the bed, Captain Scarlet lay sleeping peacefully, his hands and eyes again wrapped in bandages. "He suffered major damage to his epidermis. But because of his unique abilities, he'll be as good as original in a few days."
Blue blinked away from the sight of his friend. "Days? Not hours?"
"If you want to know the specifics, Captain, you'll have to ask Dr. Fawn." With a sympathetic smile she squeezed his arm. "Go on, now. I'm sure you have something more pressing than babysitting the good captain here. Get out of my Sickbay, Adam. I'll see you again in the morning."
Blue took the hint and nodded his good night. The American captain was to return promptly in the morning, however, just as promised. After a quick breakfast with Symphony and Grey, the trio headed down to visit their favorite indestructible comrade. Fawn met them at the door. With a raised hand he stopped them. "Not yet," the doctor advised. "I need to re-examine his injuries before I release him. I believe there's a staff meeting at oh-eight-hundred. We'll both meet you in the conference lounge then." Argument dropped. In Fawn's domain, he ruled supreme. Even the apologetic eye of Topaz did little to soften the words. Captain Scarlet would meet them in an hour.
"Have a seat, ladies and gentlemen," Colonel White directed as they gathered in the conference room on Cloudbase's command deck. Blue slid a seat out for Symphony as Grey did so for the crutch-toting Ebony. As Captain Ochre entered the room, all in attendance turned expectantly to greet him. "You slept well, I hope, Captain," White offered as the rest of the staff released their deflated greetings.
"Sorry I'm late, Colonel. I stopped by Sickbay to check on Captain Scarlet."
"I understand he'll be attending the meeting shortly. What we need to discuss involves him as well. Please, Captain." White waved him to a chair. Magenta nodded his greetings as Ochre slid into the seat beside him, opposite Harmony who, like Symphony, was not currently on standby in the Amber Room. "Spectrum staff," Colonel White announced. "I called you together to discuss a concern of mine. You're aware that we're currently experiencing a lull in Mysteron activity. As such, I'm sure we are all on edge awaiting their next threat. What it will be is anyone's guess. That it may arrive at any moment is a certainty. Therefore, I'm initiating ship-wide maintenance drills to deal with this lull effectively. My concern centers on some staff members who have grown ill-fatedly complacent of late, risking their safety and injury over clearly non-Spectrum issues. As a cohesive military organization, we must maintain order and discipline."
The expectant silence in the room could have shattered glass. Ebony swallowed loudly. Tennis wasn't normally a hazardous sport. Straining her calf muscle wasn't exactly risking life and limb either. "Sir?" she stammered from her seat.
"Yes, Captain," White allowed.
"Well, Sir. Symphony and I did get carried away with our competitiveness yesterday, but my injury should be fully healed in another couple of days. Colonel, I didn't mean to fall over my own feet going after Symphony's wicked slice."
Again that suspended air of uncertainty. Then Colonel White did something he rarely allowed his staff to see. He smiled. "Ebony," he admitted. "Your bout with a challenging tennis match isn't the carelessness to which I was speaking. I was referring to Captains Scarlet and Ochre's recent mission."
"Were you waiting for us, Colonel?" Dr. Fawn announced then from the open doorway. The entire assembly of Spectrum officers spun in their seats to smile at the return of their friend. Beside Fawn Captain Scarlet nodded his greetings to his colleagues. Dressed once more in his standard uniform and cap, he was again whole. The only outward sign of injury was the odd and out-of-place black patch the British officer wore over his right eye socket.
"Welcome back, Captain," White acknowledged from his seat. "The doctor has described your ordeal to me. I hope you're not in any great discomfort."
Scarlet cleared his throat and stepped up to the empty chair waiting for him. Everyone's gaze followed him as he gingerly settled into it. "The eye still pains me a bit, Colonel. But thank you, Sir. I'm glad to be back on duty."
"Light duty only, Colonel," Fawn corrected as he too took a chair. "Scarlet's missing eye is a temporary handicap. Until it's fully regenerated, he's still on medical leave."
"Of course, Doctor," White agreed. "Now, then. As we are all here, allow me to elaborate on our predicament." The colonel continued with his current point of argument. "As Spectrum personnel, we have a steadfast responsibility to the people of the Earth. We're an elite force against the Mysterons, our sworn enemy. Spectrum is the only organization to do this vital work, and as you are all highly trained professionals, we must keep our objectives in focus.
“Captain Scarlet. You were field commander on this most recent mission. As such, it was your responsibility to evaluate the situation, to determine whether the Timberland Complex was under Mysteron threat. I realize you have been recuperating, but you may now report your findings. Was there evidence of Mysteron involvement at the Timberland Power Plant?"
With his one still red and inflamed eye, Captain Scarlet glanced toward his mission partner before answering. "Sir. The plant's supervisor, a Dr. Garrett, had asked a Spectrum team to investigate the strange and self-defeating behavior of their inspector. The mission was assigned to Captain Ochre and me, as we were in the vicinity of the North American complex.
"After our meeting with Dr. Garrett, I had determined that the plant's inspector, a Horatio Darling, was perhaps suffering from a mental impediment. This was later confirmed as likely after speaking with his co-workers, Sir."
"So, your findings, Captain?" the colonel prompted.
Ochre's lowered head clearly showed his reluctance to hear the verdict. Any other officer might have spoken up and taken the blame or defended his actions. Richard Fraser chose to default to his friend's judgment. "Sir, once the crisis was upon us, we had no choice but to stay," Scarlet asserted. "Up until the reactor core became critical, Captain Ochre and I were fully involved in our investigation and a search and rescue operation."
"Yes," White confirmed with a scowl. "Captain Ochre mentioned that in his report. A missing child, it seems. The mother had allowed this child access to classified materials and the facility's security codes." The colonel consulted his own copy of Ochre's official report before continuing. "This child was involved in some game and got lost in, of all places, the plant's reactor core?"
"She'd been playing hide and seek, Sir," Ochre elaborated his brown eyes still lowered to his partner and colleagues. From across the circular table Grey considered his friend with a sympathetic expression. The fellow American had already experienced Ochre's regret.
"At what point did you even consider this mission none of Spectrum's business, Captain?" The colonel's question was directed toward Scarlet.
"Sir," the man began. "I was ready to dismiss Supervisor Garrett's request almost immediately and return to Cloudbase."
"What changed your mind?"
Again, the British officer considered his mission partner with his one strained eye before answering. "Captain Ochre, Colonel. He urged me to investigate further, in case there was indeed some Mysteron involvement."
"That's the truth, Captain Scarlet?" White demanded.
Now Scarlet's hesitation was longer than momentary. It was instead Ochre who answered. "No, Sir. I wanted to stay to solve the mystery of the inspector's behavior and the generator malfunctions. At the time, I was curious about solving a real life crime, whether or not Mysterons were involved. I was reluctant to return to station duty. That's what I put in my report, and that's the truth, Sir."
White didn't yet seem satisfied. The superior's steel eyes slid back to Scarlet. "Captain?"
"Colonel ... I agreed with Ochre's reasoning. There hasn't been a Mysteron threat in several weeks, and I too was ... Was itching to do something other than monitor a duty station here on Cloudbase. So I made the decision to stay and help with Garrett's dilemma. It ... It sounded like a good idea at the time."
"At the time," White grumbled. "We are not in the business of meddling in civilian affairs, Captain Scarlet. You and Ochre, despite your high and good intentions, risked your lives unnecessarily.” For one charged moment, the colonel hesitated. “Conversely, gentlemen, your interventions may very well have saved the lives of nearly all of Timberland's personnel. For that, you are to be commended. However, I cannot condone such a breach in Spectrum policy or discipline. From any of my officers, least of all my senior staff. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Sir," both Ochre and Scarlet echoed.
"Now, because of these recent failings, I'm considering you both for monitor duty during the upcoming maintenance drills," the colonel informed. Next, he considered the assembled staff. "Discipline and reason, people, are what keep Spectrum focused on our responsibilities. Never forget we are what stand between the Mysterons and the fate of Earth." There was a long moment of silence before White added, "That is all." Cloudbase's officers rose from their seats and quietly left for their duty stations. But as Ochre moved to flank Scarlet at the exit, Colonel White interrupted, "Captains. May I see you a moment in private?"
The hesitant blink of Captain Ochre was filled with trepidation. They'd both just been reprimanded before their colleagues. Now it seemed the colonel was readying for the second volley. The conference room door shut the two captains in with their superior. Lambs to the slaughter. "Can we help you with something, Colonel?" Ochre began. Scarlet harrumphed beside him. A typical Ochre misdirection strategy.
"Yes, Captain. You can." With a heavy sigh the colonel continued, "I'm curious why you didn't follow regulation procedures. It's beyond me why you two thought you could solve such a massive problem on your own. The Timberland facility was a two year-old, state-of-the-art complex. Surely it had contingencies for such troubles as they seemed to be experiencing. Were you not aware that no Mysteron threat had been announced regarding the station?"
"Sir," Scarlet began. "The Mysterons haven't always been honorable in their war of nerves with Earth. In the past their plans have many times been initiated prior to their broadcasted threats. Mysteron agents have been put in place to sabotage facilities long before Spectrum's been brought up to specs."
The colonel nodded. "Your point is well supported, Captain. Did you two enjoy your little jaunt into the civilian sector?"
Ochre swallowed and exchanged an uncertain glance to his partner at the sudden change of subject. "Sir?"
"I have another mission for you." Now Ochre's glance to Scarlet was a quizzical glare. In answer, White elaborated. "Captain Ochre. I'm assigning you civilian duty to the University of Criminal Technology in Montana, United States. There've been some rumors circulating that a certain professor there has developed a listening device which can infiltrate our secure transmissions."
"Someone's tapping into Spectrum's communications, Sir?"
"It would seem. I'm sending you and Lieutenant Green in to investigate. You'll be in civilian garb for your own security. I'll be assigning your undercover identities once we've gotten clearance from the university's own security chief."
"And me, Sir?" Scarlet asked his head tilted against his obstructive eye patch.
"I realize, Captain, that Dr. Fawn has you on restricted duty for the next two days, but I need you assigned to this mission as well. It seems the professor in question is a past graduate of West Point. A fellow colleague of yours. A certain Dr. Denver Castillo. Your job is to get close to him. Distract him away from university and determine whether he's a Mysteron agent or simply a pawn for their needs."
"KingSilver," Scarlet murmured, eye absently roving the conference table.
"Pardon?" White retorted. "This alleged listening device is called the KingSilver Scope. You're aware of its existence?"
Scarlet blinked from his private reverie. "No, Sir. Dr. Castillo. It was his nickname at West Point. Self-assigned if I recall." The captain raised a hand to his patch, his good eye creasing in discomfort. "I'm sorry, Colonel," he mumbled before lowering his hand and continuing. "He was fencing champion three years standing. Even after graduation KingSilver was occasionally challenged by undergrads." Scarlet straightened his strained shoulders. "He was never beaten."
"You knew him well, then. Will he remember you?"
"Assuredly, Sir. I was one of only two who nearly beat him at his own game." Scarlet instinctively rested his right palm over his gun handle. "He's a brilliant strategist, and a loose cannon, Sir. If he's a Mysteron or in league with them, then he's a real danger to Spectrum."
The colonel sat back in his chair and released a decisive sigh. "I see I've chosen the right man for the job. Captain. Are you up to the challenge?"
With a stiff nod the British agent assured, "I'd say I'm the only one. I won't let you down, Colonel."
Now it was White's turn to nod. "Very well. You'll leave immediately. Ochre and Green will follow you to Montana shortly."
"But, Colonel. What about our monitoring duty during the upcoming drills?" Ochre reminded.
With the hint of a smirk White rumbled, "Consider this assignment payment in full, Captains. Dismissed."
"SIG," the two snapped in response. "I'll contact Dr. Castillo immediately, Sir," Scarlet added.
As the two officers left their superior's company and strode toward their quarters to pack, Ochre spoke up first. "Paul," he stumbled. "I'm ... I'm sorry about the girl. I really am. I heard those pipes give way and I guess I panicked. I just grabbed you and pulled."
There was a long moment of silence with just the stomping of boot steps between them before Scarlet answered. "I'm sorry too." He had not turned to look at the man.
"I know you were close to reaching her. Time just ran out for us."
"Right," was the curt response.
With a heavy sigh Ochre grabbed his field partner's arm and halted his retreat. "Look, Scarlet. I know you're angry at me for all of this. And I'm grateful you wanted to soften the blow to the colonel, but I'm a big boy. I can take the responsibility for my actions. I screwed up. I know it. You didn't have to cover for me."
"No, Rick. I didn't." Scarlet's one eye glared at the American. "I was the field commander. It was my judgment that kept us there. I should have listened to my inner voice of reason. Colonel White was right. I risked both our lives."
"But you heard the colonel. Together we saved all those people. With the evacuation-"
"We didn't save everyone, Captain. I'll have to live with that inability for the rest of my life. I had her, you know." Scarlet held up his gripped fist to illustrate his conviction. "I had her at the tip of my fingers and you pulled me away. You blew it. Partner." Scarlet yanked his arm back and strode away.
"Not everybody's perfect, Blackbeard the Indisputable!" Ochre blurted as Scarlet disappeared down the hall. "I said I was sorry," he murmured after him. But his field comrade hadn't heard him. Instead, under the guise of an old invitation, Captain Scarlet solitarily left for Montana within the hour.
As he piloted his Spectrum jet away from Cloudbase and toward North America's western seaboard, Captain Scarlet swallowed his strife and thought to his present mission. He contemplated the last time he had been in the presence of Dr. Denver Castillo. Three years, two months, and several odd days ago, the communications specialist had bumped into the Spectrum captain while on vacation in Miami, Florida. The man had been thrilled to see his old fencing partner, and had even invited Metcalfe up to his new cattle ranch outside Butte, Montana. "Gets me away from the stuffy computers and out under some real clean air," Castillo had said. Though Paul Metcalfe had not accepted the invitation at the time, the British citizen had graciously thanked his former sparring companion for the offer.
Now, it seemed he was inadvertently taking the scientist up on his former overture of friendship. "Bloody Hell," Scarlet vowed. Gingerly he landed the SPJ at a North American military airfield. His singular perspective, he quickly realized, was a definite handicap. He nearly brushed wings with an Air Force fighter jet taxiing out to the runway on his way in to the terminal. Scarlet swore against his frailty. He didn't wish to deal with it at the moment. It was too much of a distraction.
Later, in the pilot's locker room Scarlet switched into his civilian garb and persona. With a duffle bag of belongings, Paul Metcalfe took one last look at himself in the mirror. "Captain Ochre's right. I do look like a pirate," Scarlet brooded rubbing at the regenerating eye beneath the patch. With a derisive stomp back out to the vehicle depot, he slid behind the wheels of a waiting Chevrolet convertible. Moments later, the British captain was speeding away from the airbase, heading for the highway.
Within three hours the Spectrum captain was turning onto County Route 15, driving past the old abandoned copper mine outside Butte's city limits. Atop the recycled mountain of debris, condominiums sparkled in the afternoon sun between the natural bluffs. Castillo's ranch was just 75 miles further north. The scientist's directions had put it on the outskirts of the mountain town of Helena, Montana. Scarlet would soon be in the presence of the self-famous "King of the Silver Blade".
His mission was a gamble. The British agent was going in with no comm. device save his intra-dermal locator implant. With it, Cloudbase would know his exact coordinates. But because of the risk of discovery, no other form of electronic device was dared. As it was, Scarlet's unique recuperative abilities would dissolve the tracking chip within the 48 hour timeslot for his objective, despite a thick Teflon coating Fawn had applied to curb his body's absorption.
He found Castillo's KingSilver Ranch set back nearly a mile in from the highway. Access was along a lonely dirt path bordered by alpine spruce nearly fifty feet tall. "His ego hasn't deflated any, I see," Scarlet murmured to himself as he drove up to the front gate and hacienda-styled estate. The three-story house was surrounded by miles of flat valley floor, spotted with mountain shrubs and grass and penned in by a series of barbed wire fences. Within these mile-wide enclosures was Castillo's collection of grazing cattle, a sturdy breed of red and white Longhorns. Beyond the home was a northern spur of the U.S. Rocky Mountains, an expanse the scientist had called the Big Belt Range. All this sat nestled within Montana's Helena National Forest. Scarlet overlooked the scene and smiled at the beauty of it. Each rocky shoulder was cloaked in thick greenery, its summit tipped in eternal snow. He remembered that, during their brief conversation, Castillo had told Scarlet the trout were running in the creek behind his home, and the deer were plentiful in the hilly lowlands surrounding Hauser Lake beyond his property. The weekend visit might even prove relaxing, with all the comforts of an eccentric bachelor's paradise.
As Scarlet pulled his rental car up to the hacienda's front entrance, a ruggedly bronzed man with slicked back blonde locks and designer sunglasses floated out from the massive doors to wave his hello. "Metcalfe, my boy. Welcome to my little domain. Glad to have you." The lilting richness of the man's continental accent was marred by the truth of his American heritage. Scarlet knew, Castillo had been born and raised in the south of Bronx. Years of practice and persistence couldn't completely disguise the nasal quality of a Hispanic-born New Yorker. The platinum dyed hair did little more than cap his cloak of royalty in a jester's crown. Scarlet rose from his car and nodded his greeting as Castillo waltzed over, despite his burly frame, to extend a hand. "Good of you to come, Metcalfe. I've always wanted to share my self-made wealth with my devoted friends from the old school. My, you look wonderful. Time has been kind. Except, I see, you've lost an eye to an unfortunate accident. Terrible, my friend. You must tell me all about it. Come inside, Paul. I have refreshments waiting for us on the back veranda. I've got a marvelous view of the deer meadow and the mountains. I can't wait for you to see it all."
"No doubt," Scarlet interjected snatching up his duffle before Castillo dragged him away from his vehicle. This was going to be a very interesting weekend.
Colonel White had just given clearance for Captain Ochre's jet to depart for Montana when Captain Magenta, seated at the comm. station, stammered, "Colonel! I've got a strong incoming transmission. I think it's-"
THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS. WE KNOW THAT YOU CAN HEAR US, EARTHMEN. WE HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN YOUR INDISCRIMINATE ATTACK ON OUR MARTIAN COMPLEX. THE MYSTERONS WILL NEXT DEAL AN ABSOLUTE BLOW TO THE MEMBERS OF SPECTRUM AND TO EARTH ITSELF. WITHIN THE NEXT 48 HOURS, YOUR GREAT KNIGHT WILL FALL TO A KING. BEWARE THESE WORDS, EARTHMEN. WHAT WAS OLD IS NEW AGAIN.
"I heard it," White grumbled. "Get Captain Blue up here immediately."
"Do you want me to recall Captain Ochre and Lieutenant Green, Sir?"
"No, but get them on the horn. I want their input."
"SIG." Magenta spun on his control panel to initiate his orders. As he did so, the Irish-American ventured, "Do you think the Mysterons mean to interfere with our mission to Montana's University of Criminal Technology?"
"I do indeed, Captain, and it looks like Captain Scarlet is the target yet again."
"Sir?" Magenta's fingers paused from their flight across his data readout.
"Our great knight."
"And a king... KingSilver!"
"Exactly. But we have the upper hand this time."
"How so, Sir?"
"This almost certainly confirms that Castillo is a Mysteron. We need only get word to Scarlet of the danger."
"But, Colonel. Remember. Captain Scarlet's devoid of all electronic devices. His precaution. He only has the locator chip. How do we contact him?"
"That's where Blue comes in, Captain Magenta. And time is of the essence." Within minutes Captain Blue trotted onto the command deck. "Ah, Blue," the colonel advised. "I have a very special assignment for you. You must save Captain Scarlet from an old enemy." Swiftly, the commander-in-chief of Spectrum outlined his instructions for his agent. "I'll be forwarding additional instructions to Ochre and Green. Your job is to monitor Scarlet's visit to Castillo's ranch."
"But, Colonel. Captain Scarlet's already been there for at least six hours."
"And he's no fool, Captain," White countered. "He knew of the danger. He's secretly armed. But be aware. You are not to make your presence known to Dr. Castillo. Is that clear?"
"Take an SPV and remain at a distance. Surveillance and stealth, Captain. If we play our enemy right, Captain Black himself may be enticed into the fold."
"What about the monitored communications, Sir? Isn't that what you said this mission is all about?" Blue inquired.
"Exactly. And we're going to keep the airwaves busy with updates every hour on the hour." The colonel's steely eyes rose to his comm. officer. "Captain Magenta. Do you have Captain Ochre yet?" When the captain nodded Colonel White addressed his field officers. "Captain Ochre. I have new orders for you ..."
Captain Blue arrived at a Montana military airbase where he picked up a Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle. As he buckled in and closed the hatch he poked the starter button. The pursuit vehicle roared to life. "Now. On to the KingSilver Ranch and Captain Scarlet," he announced to his transport. As an afterthought, Blue unzipped his breast pocket and fingered the electronic device nestled safely inside. Magenta had tossed the thumb-sized component to him before Blue had left Cloudbase.
"Here, Partner. This might just come in handy," Magenta had said. Captain Blue had gazed down at the capsule his compatriot pitched into his palm.
"Why, Patrick. You're still up to your old crimes, I see. How did you manage to smuggle this-"
"Shhhhh!" Magenta had silenced with a raised hand and a glance back through the open door to the command center. "It's one of the prototypes. They had over a dozen of the things. If we're lucky they won't notice this one's missing. Good luck, Adam. Keep our friend safe." Blue had then nodded his thanks and headed for the hangar bay beneath Cloudbase's open flight deck and his waiting SPJ there.
Now the SPV remote control unit was snuggled within his vest pocket, awaiting a chance to prove its worth. Blue smiled to himself. "This time, I get to be the hero." He barreled down the highway passing slower, more petite vehicles in his Spectrum armored tank. He had to get to Castillo's ranch before anything happened to Scarlet. Mysterons, after all, never made empty threats.
Within Castillo's rustic and weapon-studded dining hall statues of medieval knights stood sentinel at either end of a long, dark wood dining table. Setting down his napkin Captain Scarlet slid back further in his chair. "Wonderful, Dr. Castillo," he sighed. "I haven't had a genuine Longhorn steak in a long time."
"Please, Paul. Call me Denver. There're no titles between friends, are there?"
Now Scarlet sat up straighter in his seat, grilled dinner forgotten. "Now, that's the part that's puzzling me, Denver. To be honest, I never thought you considered us friends. I assumed you fancied me more a ... A fencing rival," he asserted with a slight wave to the menacing decor.
Castillo's dark eyes lit up with avarice. "Ah, my one true love." He cleared his throat. "Yes, my friend. I do fancy you a competitive rival, of sorts. Of the many cadets at West Point, you were one of only two who ever had any chance of beating me."
"That was several years ago, Denver," Scarlet reminded. "I haven't competitively fenced for nearly as long."
"Are you up for a rematch, then? Just a friendly bout between friends?"
"Friends?" Scarlet challenged. "You use the word like a leash, Doctor. I'm here on a previous invitation. To enjoy the peace and beauty of your hacienda during a brief hiatus. The idea of sporting a blade again seems almost a drudgery. I have enough of that at my place of employment."
"And what might that place be, I wonder?" Castillo inquired laying his refolded napkin down beside his empty plate. "You never did mention your vocation when I last saw you in ... Miami was it?" When Scarlet only offered a twisted half-smile of silence Castillo went on. "It must be a dangerous occupation. The loss of an eye. Surely that wasn't done pushing papers across an executive's desk."
Scarlet tilted his head away from the ranch owner. "It was during business hours that I fell to a certain mishap, that's true. But the wound is healing."
"Ah, a recent injury, then. Pity. Singular vision is quite a handicap when it comes to any hazardous profession. Take fencing for instance,” Castillo explained with a wrist flourish. “One eye deprives you of your depth perception. It's a wonder you can even drive a vehicle." Again the man's contention was answered by silence. He chuckled at the obstacle to his curiosity. "A man of few words. I remember that about you, Metcalfe. You were never one to dribble loquacious. Nor did you ever back down from a challenge, if I'm correct."
"I'm no coward," Scarlet defended. He twisted his one-eyed view to another angle. "But I'm sure, by morning, you could affect a satisfying challenge. Some quail hunting, perhaps? Out beyond this mountain refuge?"
"Hunting?" The word nearly spat from the self-made aristocrat's mouth. "Here you are, a fellow warrior of one of the most ancient of military arts, and you want to go quail hunting? Why, a much greater adversary lurks in another beast of two legs. One with far more intelligence and stealth." Castillo popped from his chair and smacked the table with an open palm. "A challenge, then. As a warrior, you would not refuse. I challenge you to a friendly duel of the blade, Mr. Metcalfe. Mano a mano. I will even give you first touch."
Now Scarlet rose from his chair and slid it forward against the dining table. "A challenge, you say. With my obvious handicap? How could I hope to win?" The Spectrum officer's repartee was as smooth and intricate as the damask tablecloth.
Castillo's eyes fell to his place setting. "True. It is an unfair contest. Perhaps you could think of some way to even the odds." His gaze rose as did the man's slick smile. "I'll let you sleep on it. Surely your long drive has left you weary. I've shown you all about my ranch this afternoon. Allow me to show you to your bed."
With a half bow to his host, Captain Scarlet swept his hand toward the dining hall's exit. Castillo snapped his boots together crisply and led the way to the entry hall and great room. There a grand staircase spiraled up to the hacienda's other floors. Beyond it, through many multi-storied glass panels, Castillo could admire his domain. The Spectrum agent now gazed out those panes to see the darkening azure to twilight. Anticipating the evening would afford a spectacular veil of stars, Scarlet shadowed his fellow West Point alumnus up the steps. On the third floor, at a carved oak door with wrought iron hinges and latch, Castillo stopped. "Here you are. The view from the balcony is glorious. Please indulge yourself before you settle in, my friend."
'Thank you," Scarlet murmured in reply. He reached for the heavy latch.
"Oh, and don't forget about our duel. We'll warm up a bit after breakfast. Work out the rust, so to speak." The man's reptilian charm was only rivaled by his devilish sarcasm. "Good night, then."
"Night," Metcalfe echoed and stepped into his room. Closing the door between them, Scarlet flicked a switch and marveled at the continued opulence of Castillo's castle in the Rockies. The spare bedroom was both spacious and abundant with the bulky trappings of wealth. From the antique four-posted canopy bed to the heavy Pendleton bedclothes, to the gold framed oil paintings upon the stucco walls, the room overflowed with Castillo's weighty egotism. "Great Scott. How does the floor uphold it all?" he wondered aloud. His duffle had already been placed upon the bed. Castillo had several servants working for him. So far they had been silent and discreet. Probably a coping mechanism to avoid their master's leering attentions. Swiftly, Scarlet routed through his bag. His standard-issue pistol was gone, of course. Castillo had probably ordered a servant to search the belongings for anything hazardous to the tranquility of the scientist's domain. If Scarlet was lucky, Castillo'd return the weapon upon his leave.
Meanwhile, the Spectrum captain needed to get to his rental car. Within it, beneath the passenger's seat, he had stowed a spare firearm. So, with the room lights dimmed for effect, Scarlet stepped out to the balcony to do a bit of star gazing and stealthy reconnaissance. Beneath those winking stars, he slipped his elasticized belt from his waist. He hooked the buckle over the wrought iron railing. Then, straddling the barrier Scarlet swung over the balcony, descending to the second floor stoop leading into the stairwell. With both feet planted, the Spectrum agent flicked the tiny grappling hook free of the bar and snatched the bungee strap back into a belt. It obediently retracted to its original length. Using it to return to his room would be a greater challenge, but Scarlet was focused on the present task at hand.
He remembered Castillo previously mentioning that his convertible had been garaged near the servants' outbuilding, on the north side of the main house. With that information, Scarlet leaped down to ground level. Giving the revealing windows a wide berth, he prowled forward, along the rear of the house and past the Olympic-sized swimming pool. On the far side of the ranch he could just make out the dim outlines of the petite huts the servants called home. Beyond them was a towering two-storied garage and storage loft. By avoiding the widely spaced luminaries upon the path, Scarlet was finally able to bolt to his target. Luckily, the building was not locked. The local wildlife, it seemed, had no interest in learning how to handle doorknobs. There was no one else about, except perhaps Castillo's staff, for miles in all directions.
With one last glance toward the shadowed hacienda, Captain Scarlet lifted the latch to the garage's side door and entered its dim interior. He found his Chevrolet. It was parked beside the curving silhouette of a vintage silver Aston Martin DB5. "This Yank thinks himself another James Bond, does he?" Scarlet murmured. "Typical." He lifted the handle to his car's passenger side then slunk down against the building's cold cement floor. Ducking his hand beneath the seat, Scarlet felt for his spare pistol. It wasn't there. "No," he grumbled and waggled his fingers under the seat once more. After a thorough search of his rental car, the Spectrum officer had come to one conclusion. Dr. Denver Castillo had ordered his valet to search the vehicle. The gun was gone. Captain Scarlet was now officially unarmed. "Bloody Hell."
"Do you need something, Sir?" a deep voice inquired.
Scarlet nearly jumped into his sports car. How could he have been so distracted that he'd allowed Castillo's valet to enter the garage without his knowing? "Sorry," he apologized. "I was looking for my ... My watch. It seems to be missing. I remember it last while motoring. I thought perhaps it'd slipped off and landed down along the floorboard of my car. Wanted to set the alarm for morning."
"Well," answered the servant tugging his coat closer against his chilled shoulders. "I can arrange for a wakeup call, whatever time you want, Sir. And I'll have a look myself in the daylight. Not to worry. We'll find your watch, Mr. Metcalfe. For now, you'd best get inside. Temperature drops rapidly in these parts once the sun goes down. I'll walk you back to the main house."
Scarlet stumbled over his excuse. After all, he hadn't exactly made a typical exit from the domicile. "No. Thank you. I think I'd like to look about a bit. The mountains are even more imposing in the evening. My. Don't they just black out the sky?"
"Yes, Sir. Shall I tell Master Castillo you're out here, Sir?"
"No. Please don't disturb him. I'll be coming back in shortly. I was hoping to hear a coyote's call. I hear they're about in these parts."
"Why certainly, but please don't stay out long. It can get down to freezing quickly." It was true. Even now, the Spectrum captain regretted slipping out in only his cotton shirt and denim jeans. A shiver racked his shoulders at the thought.
"Right," he answered with a nod. "Good night, then." The valet returned the sentiment and moved on. Scarlet was alone again. With a rub to his sleeves he followed the servant after a fashion and was again beneath the vault of stars. "What next, Captain?" he asked himself with a glance skyward and another shiver. Scarlet didn't really need much sleep since his fateful rebirth some four years earlier. If he simply waited for the remainder of the house staff and his host to retire for the night, he should be able to continue his silent reconnaissance. The Spectrum agent decided to return to his room. Question was: which method? Should he tramp to the front door and knock or attempt to rescale the back wall of the hacienda with the assistance of his petite and camouflaged climbing apparatus? With a sigh, Captain Scarlet retraced his footsteps and gazed up to his third floor balcony. "Bugger me," he gasped into the frosty night. A puff of heated air accompanied his words. This was the price he paid for going civilian. His uniform belt could be equipped with any number of devices, including a climbing grapnel and wire. But since all links to his Spectrum identity were to remain a secret, the undercover captain had to rely more on his wits than his absent trinkets.
With a forceful leap he was able to snatch at the bottom railing to the second floor patio. He hauled himself up with a grunt and strain of muscles. Finally throwing his leg over, he slipped down into the enclosed space. "One more to go," he gasped. Straightening he strained his one eye skyward for a glimpse of the third story railing. If he could swing his elasticized belt upward, he might just be able to snatch at the railing with the belt’s tiny hook. What were the odds of success with only one eye to gauge the distance? After two clanking unsuccessful tries, Scarlet opted for the more silent but energetic approach. If he could grab at the lower railing or perhaps a wrought iron support bar, Scarlet could repeat his performance onto the third floor and be snug in his bed for a few hours rest before continuing his self-guided tour.
Clambering up onto the patio railing, he calculated the distance and closest hand hold and leaped upward again. His probing fingers brushed against the cold of metal then slipped off. His balance sent him outward, beyond the second-story railing. The miscalculation ended in a spine jarring crash against the home's stone and cement patio. Hearing his skull whack like a bowling ball upon the ground Scarlet next felt the spinning sickness of its disorientation. "Damn," he grunted as his vision shrank to a white pinpoint. Suddenly, there was a howling in his ears. A blinding brightness assaulted his narrowed vision. Scarlet fought to stay conscious even as two of Castillo's staff hailed the perimeter alarm and rushed out with drawn guns to accost the intruder. "It's ... It's just me," he mumbled even as his senses left him.
He awoke in his temporary lodgings some time later, his head and back throbbing but otherwise with senses returned. "My God, Metcalfe, you gave us a scare!" he heard Denver Castillo spout. "How could you have enjoyed the scenery so much you wanted to fly out and join it?"
"Fly?" Scarlet grunted shuffling himself beneath the hefty covers to sit up. "I ..." His memory came rushing back. "I guess I was dizzy with admiration," he lied. "I didn't mean to lose my balance. Couldn't catch myself."
"Obviously, since you nearly cracked your skull open on the patio. I warned you about singular vision. Anyway, I'm glad to see you're all right." Castillo rose from the chair he'd slid beside the bed. "I'm heading off to bed now," he announced. "My nurse will stay to keep an eye on you. I canceled the emergency flight to the hospital when you mumbled something about being impossible to kill."
Scarlet swallowed. "I spoke in my sleep?"
"In your delirium, more likely," Castillo snorted. "Really, Metcalfe. You have an awfully high regard for yourself. Bit of a daredevil, I'd say. Just the sort of man I'd kill to have a spar against. But now that's impossible, it seems, since you've gone and knocked yourself insensible. Besides, there's a pressing matter at the university I've been called in to amend in the morning. Seems some journalist yahoos have been snooping around asking a lot of questions about my new project."
Scarlet's still swimming head cleared to Caribbean clarity. Ochre and Green. And it was his job to keep Castillo occupied and away from the university no matter what. He decided to misdirect the man. "Denver," he began rubbing at his still throbbing head. "I was hoping you'd stay and show me more of this wonderful place. You'd leave your guest to his own devices for the whole weekend? You saw what it got me tonight. A royal rap on the chump."
"Well, my boy. I'd take you with me, but you're in no condition to travel. The KingSilver Scope is quite a beautiful piece of communication technology. It can detect the spit of a fly on dung in Western Africa. With it, I can monitor every Earth and Moon transmission. I can even spy on that elitist fraternity of control freaks, Spectrum. And I'm about to expand that bubble to include the very Mysteron scum who have threatened our beloved planet."
Revealing no outward reaction to his host, Scarlet innocently asked, "This project of yours. You named it KingSilver?"
Castillo seemed surprised at the comment. "Well, of course. It's only the most powerful hunk of working steel in all the galaxy. It's my personal masterpiece."
"Are you required to attend to this 'masterpiece' first thing tomorrow?" Scarlet snatched the bandage from his head and crumpled it in his fist. "I'd love to see it. And perhaps I'd be up to the challenge of that duel after all, KingSilver, old boy. Truthfully, you've got me intrigued about your fencing skills. Surely you've lost your touch by now. You're a communications specialist, by Scott, not an expert duelist."
That doubt elicited the desired effect. Castillo puffed out his chest and lumbered up his spine. "A duel, then? You're feeling up to the challenge, eh? I can prove to you, I've lost none of my prowess. But, still, I'm afraid the contest is one-sided, or one eyed to be exact."
Ignoring the poke, Scarlet swung his legs from the bed and stood up before his opponent. "Then I have the solution," he stated. "We'll both be equally handicapped. You can wear an eye patch as well."
There was sinister glee in the man's rugged face. "By God, you do have a competitive spirit. Oh, I am going to enjoy this! We'll see how you are by morning, my friend. If you are well, then we'll have a bit of sport. After that, I'll take you to see my life's pride."
"Agreed," Scarlet said with an outstretched hand. Castillo gripped it like a vise and sealed the deal in a single downward thrust.
After a wide circumventing of the KingSilver Ranch, Captain Blue had set up his temporary camp atop a flattened spur of a nearby Montana peak. The climb up had been a challenge for the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle, but by extending the tank treads for extra traction, the SPV was capable of surmounting an almost vertical obstacle. The armored vehicle then squatted camouflaged among the gray granite of the Rockies. Silent and waiting.
With high powered night vision binoculars gazing west, Blue had lain flat atop his stony perch and witnessed his partner's mishap at the balcony. "Damn it, Paul," he had rumbled into the chilled night air. "Now you've gone and done it. He'll see how quickly you recover, and he'll get suspicious. If he's not already a Mysteron, that is," Blue contended. He peered through his binoculars once more. "I've got to warn you somehow, but I haven't figured out by what yet."
As another hour passed the sentinel American captain had watched Scarlet's removal to his bed and Castillo's walk out onto the balcony to overlook the scene. Blue observed with trepidation as Castillo spied the British agent's abandoned belt by the railing. "Now, that does it, Scarlet. You're toast." Then, as Blue continued his vigil: some hope. Colonel White had informed him of Castillo's love of a good challenge, especially in the art of fencing. Through his binoculars Captain Blue could just make out the happenings within Scarlet's bedroom. He witnessed his partner's rapid recovery. The scene ended on a handshake and a triumphant twirl of Castillo's sword hand. It was the classic signal of a challenge met. Captain Scarlet had just given himself a second chance. "If only I could hear what's being said," Blue grumbled, his warm breath wispy about his ears like a phantom Santa beard.
Vigilance mingled with patience and fatigue as the night wore on. Blue was grateful for the hour he had spent in the Room of Sleep back on Cloudbase. For now his muscles ached with the solid coldness beneath him. The mountain was no more accommodating than a mausoleum. Through his heavy jacket, Blue's elbows pounded with the torture of his weight against the rock face. Yet, he continued his surveillance. The lights in the hacienda were now all extinguished but a few. Soon, there was no movement within. Still, Blue kept watch. He hadn't been partnered with Scarlet for as long as he had and learned nothing of the man's character. "Come on, buddy. Where are you?" His quiet plea was answered by the ruffling of curtains. Captain Scarlet stepped out upon his darkened balcony once more and gazed out upon the expanse of rangeland. "Finally!" Blue quipped triumphantly. He had been waiting for this moment.
Scrambling to his vehicle, the American agent smacked the release button for the SPV's massive hatch to swing outward. He leaped inside and activated the tank's headlights. "Let's see if you remember your Morse Code, partner." With a series of taps to the control panel Captain Blue spelled out just three letters. S-I-R. That was all he was willing to risk. Swiftly, Blue shut down the lightshow and jumped from the SPV. He popped the binoculars again over his eyes. What he saw was encouraging. Upon the balcony Captain Scarlet nodded and gave a wave to the mountains before disappearing again inside. "Great! He got the message." Blue lowered his night scope and frowned at the implications. "Now, if only that bull-headed Brit will heed the warning." Blue had noticed that Scarlet was fully dressed for a nightly prowl about the hacienda. Atop the bluff Captain Blue sighed his resignation. The rest of the night for him was peaceful, interjected only by the occasional cry of a coyote.
Captain Ochre lounged upon the hotel bed reading a local newspaper for any hint that their day's folly had made an impact. "Look here, Griff. It says the university's considering postponing the launching of its new communications satellite, the KingSilver Scope."
Lieutenant Green poked his head out from the washroom towel poised upon his glistening head. "Bully for us, partner," he replied. "I guess you instilled some doubt into those operators after all."
Ochre was smiling proudly upon his propped pillows. "It's my devilish wit and charm, my boy. Never forget that." Then his face sank to seriousness. "I just hope Captain Scarlet can delay Castillo's arrival onto the scene 'til at least tomorrow afternoon. We'll need to sneak inside that place just before sunrise and dismantle that monster's receiver. It was pure luck we gained the unnerving trust of one of those impressionable university interns. Coulton was more than willing to allow us 'journalists' full access for our so called exclusive with Butte's Montana Post."
Now Green stepped out from the bathroom wrapped in a terrycloth robe and sporting the towel about his neck. "Luck and an old favor cashed in by me, you mean," he reminded. "Gwendolyn's my date after this is through. You can have your pick of the rest of her sorority house."
Ochre was grinning again. "Old girlfriends do make good bedfellows in the spy business, don't they?"
Green wagged a finger at him. "You, my friend, have been reading too many Ian Flemming novels. I'm no double O, and neither are you."
Ochre sat up atop his bunk and pouted. "I'll take that as an insult, Griff. I'm not asking you to risk your neck dodging security. You can stay here if you like. I'll go in myself. It's what I'm good at. You've finished your assignment, evaluating the threat of that thing. Spectrum'll need to recalibrate all its communications technologies to plug up that scope's sensitive ears."
"Microwaves be damned, Rick. I'm still pondering the problem myself," Green admitted as he moved his discarded camera to settle into a plush chair beside his bed. "Maybe we ought to blow it up. That'd be quick and painless. Less expensive and time consuming too."
"Nah," Ochre countered with a dismissing wave. "The colonel'd never go for it. There's a lot of worth in that device. As long as our communications are kept scrambled, the KingSilver Scope can go on eavesdropping to its transistor's content. In fact, Spectrum may have a vested interest. Did you hear that guy, Hammer? I overheard him say something about tests to be conducted once that thing's in space. They're going to probe the solar system for other transmissions. That can only mean one thing."
"Castillo and his gang want to listen in on the Mysterons?"
"Yeah, and if that's so, then Spectrum's likely to fund continued research for the thing. Castillo'd be a joint partner in Earth's defense."
"I don't know, Rick," Green countered standing and staring out the hotel's window. The starry night sky was shrouded in the lights from the parking lot below them. "Castillo doesn't seem like the sharing type. You heard Captain Scarlet. The man's a loose cannon."
"And brilliant and greedy. We wave enough dineros in front of him; he'll change his mind and sell us the damn monstrosity. You'll see." Ochre's voice deepened to seriousness once more. "Spectrum could use a new weapon in its arsenal about now." He rose from his bed and drew on his boots. "Anyway, enough of this lounging around. Time to get back to work. I'll need to review those facility schematics again before I can break in and throw my monkey wrench into the deal."
"I'm coming with you," Green assured as he pulled another outfit from his duffle bag. "If I don't, you're likely to snip the wrong wire and totally disable the device. We only want to stall their trials until the Mysteron threat is over and Spectrum can offload that device to a safer hidey hole."
Ochre nodded in understanding. "If the Mysterons get their grubby little whatever-they-haves on it, the Scope will be dust. Maybe we should forward our plan to tonight. The sooner the better. I'm not tired. What about you?"
"I'm not sure, Rick. The colonel said dawn. He's busy distracting the Mysterons and Castillo's crew with a gamut of false Spectrum reports. The colonel doesn't get out much. Let him have his fun. Chances are the Mysterons know about Castillo's toy by now, but they've decided to ignore it. Scarlet's the target, remember?"
In response, Ochre rolled his eyes. "How can I forget? He's a burr in my side at the moment. Right now I don't know whether to mount the cavalry to save his arrogant ass, or let that professional swordsman, Castillo, run him through just for good measure."
"Why?" Green stammered pausing in his dressing. "Did you two have words?"
Ochre sighed and slid into a chair at the desk. On it sat their fake journalist IDs and the day's winnings: a detailed map of the university's technology annex, press passes, and most importantly, Green's acquisition, the KingSilver Scope's blueprints. "He blames me for the death of that little girl at the Timberland Power Plant. I can't refute it, really. But he's so inflexible about it. I tried to apologize and he turned around and bit my head off."
Green smiled as he zipped up his tunic. "Your head looks fine to me, Rick."
"Well, the truth is, it was my suggestion to stay, and his prerogative to leave. We stayed and I prevented him from saving the girl. Period. End of story."
"Knowing Captain Scarlet, he probably blames himself, more than he does you," Green tried to reason.
"Still doesn't make it any easier, Griff." Ochre's dark eyes rose to meet the Trinidadian's. "I don't want to lose his friendship. Or his trust." The American captain shrugged and rose from the desk. "If he'd act more normal and less like an egotistical despot, I'd be able to forgive the both of us. Hell, we all make mistakes. I just can't measure up to Scarlet's. And truthfully, I'm glad I don't. I'm not indestructible. I have feelings too, and right now I don't feel so deserving."
"Sounds like sleep is just what you need to find your focus again, Captain," Green advised. "Going back to the university right now would be foolish. Let the colonel run things. We follow his orders."
Ochre harrumphed. "Orders. That's what got me into trouble in the first place." Then he fell silent poised between the desk with its paperwork and the soft hotel bed. "All right. There's no sense in wearing myself out and being useless again when things get tight. Thanks, Griff." Captain Ochre flopped down onto the bunk and kicked off his boots. "Just give me a couple hours. Then I'll be ready to tackle those schematics you bribed off of Coulton." The American was snoring within minutes. Green only smiled and shook his head before returning to the task at hand, preparing for stage two of their mission.
The first glow of sunrise filtering through the room's curtains found Captain Scarlet dressed and shaved. From the wall mirror over his private vanity the British agent was scrutinizing his healing eye. Beneath the patch the lens was now regenerated but still clouded. The best Scarlet could see was a thick haze like the condensation on a frosted windowpane. "Bugger me," he murmured again. "What's taking so long?" Reluctantly, he followed Dr. Fawn's precautions and replaced the protective patch over his still healing wound. Scarlet was still handicapped, ready or not.
During his nightly visitation to the recesses of the KingSilver Ranch, Captain Scarlet had found nothing unusual. His inner sixth sense had not alarmed him to Castillo's hidden identity. There was no indication that the man was either a Mysteron or a criminal. Dr. Castillo was admittedly rich. Far richer than the Spectrum agent was, having graduated from the same military academy. Yet Scarlet's instincts were still piqued. Something was about to go wrong. He just wasn't sure what. The Spectrum agent he had communicated with high on the mesa was most likely Captain Blue. He had tried to warn Scarlet of a threat to his life or to the mission. That much was clear. The Mysterons were most definitely involved. And for that one reason, Scarlet had not slept at all last night.
Once he was groomed to his satisfaction, the British captain strolled downstairs to the spacious great room. He looked back. Beyond the multi-storied window panes, the Rocky Mountains were silhouetted against a bright new day. Pausing to appreciate the view Scarlet was nonetheless aware of his host approaching from the dining hall. "Ah, my friend. And how are we feeling this morning? Rested and well, I hope."
"Well, thank you, Dr. Castillo."
The man held up his hand in protest. "Please, Paul. I told you to call me Denver. I trust your head is none the worse for wear. Swelling down?"
"I'm fine," Scarlet reiterated. Castillo was studying him with a critical eye. Scrutinizing his opponent for weaknesses, no doubt. At the moment Scarlet only suffered from one.
"Well, then. Won't you join me for a light breakfast? When I spar, I prefer a light meal to a heavy one. Certainly don't wish to be weighed down." He led the way into the dining room where Castillo's staff had set a table with fruit and light pastries. Scarlet accepted the seat offered him and settled the damask napkin upon his lap. "My nurse said you dismissed her just minutes after I left you last night. Said you insisted she go."
Scarlet again noticed his host's critical eye. "I was feeling much better. I ... I was uncomfortable keeping her up for my sake."
"That's her job," the ranch owner acknowledged as he forked some fruit onto his plate. "Please help yourself." Scarlet followed suit, selecting from the platter the servant held beside him. "I would not have wanted it on my conscience if you had slipped into a coma from your injuries. Surely you are too stiff and sore for our little match of skills this morning." Castillo was still testing him, Scarlet realized. For what purpose he could not tell. "Perhaps you were able to work out your stiffness last night while searching through my belongings, eh?"
Scarlet blinked, his hand poised above the fruit platter, a slice of cantaloupe dangling from his fork. He set it down to answer. "I did no such thing, Doctor. If your staff saw me wandering the grounds last night, then it is true. I was restless. Sleeping in a new environment is always a challenge."
"I see," Castillo replied. "And what of the belt I found dangling from the second story balcony?"
Again Scarlet blinked at the oversight. Yes. He had forgotten that bit of incriminating evidence. The outfit he presently wore came with its own matching leather belt. "Forgive me, Doctor. I ... I had-"
"Lost your watch. Yes. My valet reported the incident to me this morning. Strange of you to misplace a harmless watch while bringing far more lethal objects into my home." There was a spine riveting silence between them for a long moment. Scarlet let Castillo reveal his knowledge first. "Weapons, Mr. Metcalfe? Two handguns to be exact. Can you explain yourself, please? Tell me why you've come to collect on a three year invitation just as I prepare to open the hearts and minds of my fellow Americans?" Scarlet sipped stoically at his water glass and said nothing. "There is only one explanation." Castillo raised his arm and waved at the dining hall's entrance. Scarlet turned to watch as two heavy set men in uniforms stepped in. Their guns were drawn, but the Spectrum captain couldn't tell whether the safety latches were still engaged. Castillo rose from his seat, his hands atop the table to accuse, "You, sir, are a Mysteron spy."
Scarlet nearly choked on his water. Swiftly he swallowed and glanced between the hired musclemen and his host. To Castillo's obvious surprise, Captain Scarlet set his glass down and chuckled. "Good guess, Doctor. But you're way off." Scarlet rose from his seat as well, breakfast forgotten. "I am curious about this device you've created, however. I have a vested interest in its capabilities."
Castillo's dark eyes narrowed to lasers. "Who are you? Who do you work for?"
Straightening before his adversary Scarlet replied, "You know who I am. We attended West Point together. Who I work for isn't important right now. Suffice it to say, I'm a member of an organization intent on keeping Earth safe from brilliant financiers who would rule the world through their powerful machines." Pushing his chair forward against the table the British captain calmly touched napkin to lips before replacing the cloth beside his plate. "If you'll excuse my bluntness, Dr. Castillo, you're under arrest for unlawfully monitoring government and secret coded transmissions."
"You can't be serious, Metcalfe," Castillo exploded. "You're unarmed. You can't arrest me. I still don't know by what authority you claim to have that right." The ranch owner shoved his chair back and sneered. "Your arrogance has won you one chance, Metcalfe. I will go with you, speak with your superiors if, and only if, you prove to me you are the better man."
"A duel for your freedom? No deal, Doctor," Scarlet reprimanded.
There was a Mysteron quality to the ranch owner's smile when he assured, "You have no other choice." The uniformed men leveled their gun barrels on Scarlet's chest. When the captain didn't immediately protest, Castillo's smile softened. "Come, my friend. Let the game begin." He waved his opponent out toward the hacienda's entry hall. With stoic compliance Scarlet led the way. "We shall make it a fair fight," the ranch owner assured as they met in the spacious hall at the base of the massive spiral staircase. By the dining room doors Castillo's sentinels kept guard. Little did either know a pair of distant blue eyes also watched them through the wall of glass beyond the staircase. "I've chosen our weapons," the communications genius informed. With an upheld hand, two of his servants entered from another door, each carrying a scabbarded sword and silk sash draped over an arm. "We will match skills and courage. I will win."
Scarlet eyed the accouterments nearing him. "And how do you propose to even the odds, Doctor? Remember my handicap."
"Of course. Look. My assistant has brought me mine."
As the British captain waited, Castillo carefully fitted a jewel-studded patch over his left eye. "Sorry, old chap, but I didn't exactly have one to match yours."
"The jewels suit you, Denver," Scarlet conceded with a sarcastic pout. "I noticed; it's also over your weaker eye."
To this comment Castillo merely shrugged. "Didn't have one to fit my right eye, as yours. This'll have to do. Now to the sash." As Scarlet stood, his assistant wrapped the long silken sash about his waist. Castillo's did the same. "Now we look the part. Don't you think?"
"Is this some sick game to you, Castillo?" Scarlet accused spying for the first time the choice of weaponry. As the assistants drew the blades from their scabbards, it was apparent. Both epees were pointedly not fencing weapons. This pair was lethally gilded in fine edges. No protective buttons graced the tips. "You plan to play for blood."
Again that non-committed shrug. "I plan to win at any cost, my friend."
"I'm not your friend, Castillo. I'm simply a ... A policeman of sorts. I'm here on official business. This duel isn't necessary to prove my authority."
"Oh, but it is, Metcalfe. It is. You see, I have all the good intentions in the world. I'm an independent spirit, freed now from the rules of West Point's brainwashing. The world deserves to know the truth about hypocritical regimes and Spectrum's meddling. And yet, it was that delightful military academy which taught me the concepts of discipline and winning for winning's sake. May the better man be left standing, then," Castillo finished saluting his blade. Before formally presenting his sword to his opponent, however, he stabbed it toward the vaulted ceiling. "Forgive me. I forgot one important detail. As I am the owner of this abode, and therefore have the right to protect myself and my property, I feel it only necessary to add one more rule."
"What is that, Castillo?" Scarlet sighed as he tested the weight of his rapier, gripping the mounting with the clutching fingers of his right hand.
"You see, my boy. You threatened my life by bringing weapons into my home. Your intentions were stealth, dishonesty and entrapment." Castillo's blonde head tilted in irony. "Therefore, you forfeit one arm to the match."
"What-?" Scarlet's assistant snatched his left wrist from behind, then, and shoved it against his spine. Though the Spectrum captain struggled, the man's grip was fierce. Castillo's armed goons shuffled to cover him with their pistols.
"You will fence one-handed," his opponent explained as the servant wrapped Scarlet's wrist tightly within the belted sash.
Released, the captain tested his bonds. They were firm. His left arm was securely pinned behind him. "This is your sense of honor, Castillo?" Scarlet challenged. "You didn't learn this tactic from West Point Military Academy."
Castillo smiled. "No. I learned it along the back streets of New York," he attested breaking into his childhood accent. "You learn early how to survive amidst the gangs of your youth, Metcalfe. Oh, but I forget. Your upbringing was a bit more civilized." The man guffawed harshly and saluted his epee once more. Bending his knees and raising his left arm, Castillo took up the stance of a readied opponent. The scientist lowered his foil into the starting position. "En garde," he quipped.
Though Captain Scarlet was now triply handicapped, his muscles went into defensive mode as the ranch owner leaped forward for a vicious thrust. He was able to parry the attack and sidestep for a better angle of offense. The twin blades whizzed and whirled, contacting in metallic chimes of deadly accuracy. It seemed, at first, that the two competitors were evenly matched, despite Scarlet's deficit. The British captain overcompensated by pivoting from the waist, twisting his torso and bending his knees in unison with his opponent's moves. The combatants cavorted about their lethal ballet. Then came the first touch.
With a gasp, Scarlet received the graze to his shoulder. Blood trickled beneath his sliced sleeve. Grimacing with determination, the Spectrum agent doubled his guard and swung his saber within centimeters of Castillo's ear. "Very good, Metcalfe. I see pain fuels your fight. Keep it up. I've hardly broken a sweat." The man twisted his sword about for another parry, this time to Scarlet's blind side. Unable to focus properly on the approaching blade, the captain couldn't block the swing and flinched at the sting to his right rib. It was all Captain Scarlet could do to avoid the multitude of attacks Castillo threw at him. They spun about each other. Scarlet retreated as Castillo renewed his assault with an almost sadistic vigor. Suddenly the captain's boot kicked against an obstruction. He had backed up against the spiral staircase. "Ah!" his adversary exclaimed. "It's an Errol Flynn moment, Mr. Metcalfe. What are you going to do?"
Panting from the exertion, but still not bested, Scarlet smiled crookedly and spun to launch himself up the flight to the second floor landing. "I'll take the high road, if you don't mind," he asserted from his lofty perch. He was not surprised when Castillo growled and rushed after him. Scarlet was ready for the attack this time. With his strategic advantage he easily dodged his opponent's thrust and returned it with a forceful swing of his own. Castillo yelped, instinctively grabbing at his wounded thigh. Blood oozed from the gash in his pant leg. "Touche'," Scarlet hissed with a defiant smirk.
In his frustration and pain Castillo ripped off his eye patch and snarled. The man then shoved himself forward even as Scarlet galloped up the next flight of twirling stairs. "Damn, you, Metcalfe. Where did you learn to fence? The movie theatre?" Though the Spectrum captain knew his own unique endurance would outlast his adversary's, Scarlet's girded arm threw him severely off balance. Now, with Castillo free of his one handicap, the Spectrum officer was in even more dire straits. His only option was to outlast and out-maneuver his attacker. So much for detaining the man, he thought. Perhaps Ochre and Green were having better luck with their mission.
With a whispered call to his partner, Captain Ochre waved Green over. The younger man checked his clearance between the mass of computer banks before he skidded to a crouched stop beside the KingSilver Scope's huge telescoping base. "Almost there, Griff," Ochre attested as another volley of stun beams hissed past. The captain hunkered down further behind his hiding place.
"So much for staying invisible," Lieutenant Green panted from the protection of the towering device. Heavy footsteps were tramping their way. "Now what?"
In answer, Ochre tugged a pistol out from his camouflaged jacket. "Simple. I distract while you finish our mission." He ducked his left hand into another pocket and extracted the folded schematics of the scope's control panel. He handed them to Green. "Good luck, partner."
"Don't get caught, Mr. Bond," Green chimed back with an infectious smile. "And thanks for the fun. This is better than a workout at the gym any day."
Ochre winked at him. "Promised you excitement. Ready?" With a nod from his companion the Spectrum captain launched himself to his feet and squeezed off a few distracting shots before sprinting back between the machines scattered about the university's technology lab. Behind him, Green stood in the shadow of the telecommunication satellite’s superstructure. With a quick glance up at the folded wing-like receiving panels of the dormant machine, Green took his courage. He allowed his legs to propel him to the far side of the lab where stood the bank of controls which operated the device. Now all he had to do was remove the proper casing and duck inside amidst the electrified wires to the housing box which cradled the satellite's heart, its specially designed trans-receiver crystals. All this he had to do while a legion of campus security constricting on their location.
So far they had evaded the two brutes which had been dispatched to investigate the tripped silent alarm. Ochre had apologized profusely for getting the pair so far inside the university grounds only to have allowed a secondary security system to slip by his keen attentions. Now, they had separated, and it was Green's nimble fingers which pried the transistor housing from its respective cabinet. Gingerly he slipped inside the cramped casing and scrutinized its inner workings. Green was suddenly grateful for the time he had spent at their hotel studying the telecommunication device's control schematics. The satellite itself was equipped with a safety net of electrified panels. Far too dangerous a target for the two saboteurs. This was much easier and still produced the same end result: disabling the giant eavesdropping monstrosity.
"Hey!" a deep voice hollered. The sound of more gunfire echoed within the lieutenant's cramped space. Green was just extracting the twin receiver crystals from their berths when someone grabbed at his arm. He flinched. As the lieutenant clutched the crystals tight he was tugged free of the cabinet. Before he could swing his improvised weapons, however, recognition kicked in.
"Come on," Ochre urged releasing his grip of Green's arm. "We've outworn our welcome." Together they sprinted for the emergency exit. Ochre shoved the door open setting off yet another alarm. Green was right behind him. They paused upon the building's grassy courtyard with its gated generator shed. "Now what?"
"We're whisked away," Green offered pointing a free finger skyward. Descending from the blue was a WMRTV media helicopter. It landed just meters away on the open courtyard. "Our getaway car," the younger man quipped to his partner's puzzled brow. The rotor-generated wind kicked grass clippings and dirt into his toothy smile.
The helicopter's side door slid open and a hastily disguised Lieutenant Cobalt stuck her hooded head out. "You guys call a cab?" she yelled.
As a battalion of campus security bolted from several exits and hollered their protests, Ochre and Green rushed in through the helicopter's hatch and flopped into its extra seats. "Thanks for the speedy service," Ochre panted, relief evident on his ruggedly charming face.
From the cockpit section the pilot turned attentions on the sudden passengers even as the chopper again ascended into the clear morning sky. "It's a good thing Green had a backup plan in case you two got caught," she asserted with a southern drawl.
"Melody!" Ochre spouted. Then he sobered and cleared his throat. "Well, I always think a backup plan is a good investment. The lieutenant and I make a pretty good team, don't you think?" Beside him, Green nodded and handed the purloined communications crystals over to Cobalt who stowed them in a padded case.
Though her eyes were again on her piloting, Melody Angel nodded and answered over the roar of the helicopter's rotors. "Brawn and brain. Makes a whole team, to me." Understanding the references to each of the two mission agents, Lieutenant Cobalt giggled. She leaned forward to help Ochre buckle in.
Laughing without humor, Captain Ochre shooed the young woman's attentions away and snapped the belt himself. "That's two for two for me. But this time the place didn't explode, and no one died." The borrowed media chopper dove away from the scene. It headed back toward the city of Butte. "I hope we're not planning on sticking around to be on the evening news. Our counterfeited press passes won't flush under scrutiny. And camouflage doesn't go well with Spectrum regs." Even now the captain was stripping his dark jacket for the ochre vest Cobalt handed him. "Thanks." Beside him, Green was changing into his uniform as well. He'd already kicked off his dark shoes in exchange for his color-coded boots.
Melody shook her head. "Temporary trade. I've got a Spectrum helicopter waiting for us at the TV station. Better update Cloudbase, Captain," the Angel advised. Popping his regulation kepi atop his brown-haired head, Captain Ochre did just that.
Yawning atop his own lofty perch, Captain Blue pressed the binoculars, now set for daylight viewing, once more against his tired eyes. He knew he needed sleep, but his partner's life was far more important right now. He had already informed Cloudbase of the previous night's events. Now, as the sun had risen, Captain Blue awaited the next stage of Scarlet's peril.
With tense anticipation, the American captain had watched as Scarlet had descended the spiral stairs to the dining hall for breakfast. Blue assumed the duel would follow shortly afterward. What he hadn't anticipated, was the seriousness of the confrontation. As he gazed through his high-powered lenses into the hacienda's great room, Blue squinted past the spiral staircase to the two figures standing with gleaming blades between them. The magnification of his Spectrum binoculars couldn't make out the fine details of the duel. Captain Blue could, however, discern the severity. "Blazes," he cursed out loud. "They're not just sparring." As the duelists maneuvered between the windows the American gasped. Captain Scarlet's left arm was trussed like a Thanksgiving turkey. "Damn. Castillo's going for blood," Blue rumbled. "Or worse." With a twitch of his cheek the blonde captain's cap microphone was before his lips. "Captain Blue to Cloudbase. Colonel. Captain Scarlet's in trouble. Should I intervene?"
His superior's reply couldn't have been more auspicious. "You have a go, Captain Blue. Ochre just relayed his report. The KingSilver Scope is dead in the water. Move in and recover Captain Scarlet."
"SIG, Colonel." Blue cut his transmission short and scrambled to his feet. Once inside the SPV he tossed his discarded coat onto the copilot's seat and yanked the spare power pack from its storage closet. Swiftly he slid it into the frame of the vehicle's utility hover pack. Strapping himself into the contraption Blue exchanged his regulation blue cap for a matching colored helmet then stepped out through the SPV's open hatch. He hit the ignition button. With a jerk and a puff of displaced air, the hydrogenic fuel cell propelled the Spectrum agent into the sky. "Hold on, partner," he vowed. "I'm coming."
Scarlet found himself cornered between the glass plated window and corridor wall of Castillo's third floor guest quarters. His opponent's rapier was poised for another attack. "Give it up, man," the Spectrum agent reasoned bravely as he defensively swiped aside the lethal thrust. "You can't win."
This bold statement caused Castillo to stall his charge. He studied the sweaty features of his adversary. "How can you-" Then he paused, his jaw dropped. "You're hardly out of breath. How-"
"Sorry," Scarlet growled with a sword swing forward and a twist that broke him free of his trap. "But that's classified." Castillo gulped another breath and renewed his fury. The man's skill was formidable, that was certain. The Spectrum captain sustained two more hits to his shoulder and arm even as he backed up again toward the staircase. The last went deep into the muscle of his sword arm. Scarlet growled at the strike and lifted his rapier to intercept Castillo's next assault. The twin blades slid together up to their guards. The two men stood breath to agonized breath. "You can't win, Castillo," Scarlet reasserted into the man's twisted, glistening face. "You can't hurt me."
Instead of causing the confusion the Spectrum captain intended, Castillo roared in defiance and shoved his slighter opponent back against the staircase railing. In the same fateful movement, his saber came up with a ruthless swipe. The steel contacted flesh and bone, severing Scarlet's hand at the wrist. For a gruesome instant, the captain's weapon and still gripping digits were suspended in the air above the great room. Then they toppled to the floor below. Scarlet gasped at the sudden pain and surprise of the vicious attack. Instinctively he buckled against the agony. His tethered arm jerked to cover and protect the horrible injury, but the silken sash had not yet loosened through his continued struggles. As the captain half-crouched before his enemy, breath suspended, Castillo sneered back in triumph. "Who are you?" he demanded.
With a voice airy with anguish, the dark-haired agent rasped, "Captain Scarlet, Spectrum."
"Spectrum? Of course!" the man spouted. "Always the military man, Metcalfe. From a line of military men. The WAAF wasn't powerful enough for you? You had to go work for the elitists? And you're afraid my little satellite will bring down your organization when I reveal its secrets to the world." Castillo's mouth dropped into a haunting cackle. "You've just signed your death certificate, Captain." With that, Castillo drove forward thrusting his rapier deep inside Scarlet's vulnerable gut. With a violent crack, the impaled captain felt the weapon snap in two against the wrought iron railing behind him.
At the rear of the hacienda's immediate property, Captain Blue soared in over the extravagant gardens and in-ground pool. He was halted at the boundary of the plate glass windows. "Only one way in," he confirmed. Releasing the altitude control lever of his hover pack Blue slid his pistol from his hip. A single high powered explosive shot from the gun's barrel. Suddenly a booming concussion sent glass shattering inward to the marbled floor and staircase. The American agent shoved his directional toggle forward and swept in through the jagged opening. He leveled his gun on the combatants. "Hold it right there, Castillo. Captain Blue, Spectrum. That's my partner you have. Let him go."
The command did little good. With perhaps no regard for his own safety, Castillo swung burning eyes back to his gasping opponent. Scarlet hung, still crumpled against the broken sword. Castillo's free hand rose to wrench the patch from Scarlet's eye. Blue watched helplessly as the swordsman's dark glare of fury met with constricted blue. "You're free, Captain Scarlet." With an upward thrust, Castillo sliced through the captain's tunic to his sternum. "Good end, fair knight," he hissed. The momentum of the assault propelled Scarlet off his feet and backward over the railing.
"No! Paul!" Blue hollered as his friend toppled like a rag doll to the white marble floor twenty feet below. With a heavy thud Scarlet landed on his back, his body twisted unnaturally in a grotesque position. But as Blue was torn between retribution against Castillo and the rescue of his friend, a pair of security officers at the home's front doors covered their escape with a shower of bullets. Captain Blue grunted as one projectile found his helmet. Another slammed against the hover pack's altitude lever. Disabled, the contraption whirred to the floor. Blue was just able to catch his fall and return fire, but the hasty assailants had exited the scene, leaving the massive front doors swinging open.
"Come back!" Blue heard Castillo call after them as he unlatched and shrugged off his malfunctioning and sparking pack. The swordsman's desperate frustration and anger was suddenly redirected to the second Spectrum agent. "I won't allow you to arrest me either, Captain," he avowed. The ranch owner nearly skirted the stairs to the first floor in five awkward bounds. Blue watched as Castillo's broken sword flew from his hand and the man bolted to the nearest wall. There hung a display of medieval weapons. Castillo swiftly chose the sturdiness of a medieval broadsword and spun on his new adversary.
Dropping his helmet beside the useless hover pack Blue scrambled to the side of his fallen comrade. Scarlet, barely conscious, murmured through his pain, "Adam? I think ... my... my leg is broken." He was bent oddly upon the white marble floor, his left arm pinned beneath him. With his sliced wrist and abdomen bleeding profusely, Scarlet groaned and closed his weary eyes. Blue tore his concerned gaze away from his partner to see Scarlet's severed hand lying beside his shoulder. The limp fingers still loosely gripped the rapier's handle.
"Paul. Stay with me, buddy," Blue consoled, but the British captain's chest had stopped rising. Captain Blue had little time to contemplate his friend's passing, however. Castillo was limping toward the pair intent on inflicting more injury. "Stop right there, Castillo," Blue demanded raising his pistol to the advancing swordsman. "I know you're a Mysteron, and bullets won't kill you. But they will slow you down."
Castillo, sword at the ready, laughed. "What are you blathering about, Spectrum pawn? I'm no Mysteron. But you are a dead man for sure."
From his awkward stance upon the floor, Blue squeezed the gun's trigger. The shot missed by millimeters. Castillo rushed forward whipping the broadsword in a great arc. Blue gasped as his pistol went sailing across the great room to collide with a suit of armor standing beside the dining hall doorway. As Castillo pivoted for a second swing Captain Blue ducked with a grunt to snatch up Scarlet's dropped rapier. The American captain rolled away from the lethal swipe. Leaping to his feet Blue faced the swordsman in his own defense. He sucked in a decisive breath and blurted, "Sorry, buddy, but my partner isn't dying for you today."
Denver Castillo grinned at the taller man with the slender blade. "I'd gratefully take on a less competent opponent," he assured. "En Garde!" Castillo again rushed Blue who raised his weaker weapon to intercept the attack. The swords clanged together and Castillo withdrew with satisfaction. "Not bad for an amateur," he chided. He surged forward again. This time Blue awkwardly parried the blow with a twisted swing and a back step. This dangerous banter wasn't getting him anywhere. As Blue thought to make a run for his discarded pistol, Castillo took advantage of the opening. He plunged his wider blade through his opponent's uniform to inflict a painful wound to Blue's right shoulder. Gasping the captain snatched at the injury with his free hand. It came away bloodied. Blue's grip upon his weapon loosened as his right hand suddenly went numb. Captain Blue was losing the duel for his life. Stiffly he raised his rapier again, even as he dipped his bloodied left hand into his jacket pocket. Within that hidden space he pressed a button on the remote transmitter device. The cavalry was now on its way. Even as Blue barely fought off the next two attacks, he kept an eye toward the picture windows.
Then, within the span of minutes, Captain Blue had lost his weapon to Castillo's bulkier blade. The captain's back was against the wall adjacent to the entry hall. "You retreat," Castillo chided pausing to contemplate the Spectrum agent’s cowardice. "Is it from panic or perhaps defeat?" That last was offered as challengingly sharp as the man's sword.
Blue, watching past the professional swordsman, smiled and sighed his triumph. "No," he said. "Just getting out of the way of that." As Castillo stalled in his assault to translate the meaning of the comment, he followed Blue's eyes around to the partially demolished windows facing the eastern sun. Out beyond the pool and garden an armored pursuit vehicle rumbled along in multi-wheeled determination. With the distraction Blue leaned forward to poke the remote device down Castillo's ruffled shirt. "Touche'," he quipped then vaulted aside as the SPV crashed through the house. Glass, iron railings, and foundation stone blasted into the great room. Castillo screamed as the armored vehicle never slowed its pursuit, heading straight for him.
Captain Blue, his head sheltered beneath his scratched and bruised arms, didn't witness the man's demise as the SPV ran Castillo down. Instead he gasped a dusty breath in the aftermath of the crash then coughed. A rumbling vibration beneath him made Blue unshield his eyes, however. The American captain scanned the scene around him. The structure seemed to be crumbling. Dust and debris were raining down on his head. The high support beams were shifting, as if ready to swing loose like pendulums toward the floor. The whole place might collapse right on top of the wedged SPV. It was time to leave. Captain Blue clambered to his feet.
Then he remembered. "Paul!" Would Blue have the strength and time to rescue himself and his partner before the walls came down around them? Scarlet lay in his twisted heap upon the marble floor. Kneeling, Blue gingerly rolled his tortured friend over and untied the silken sash from around Scarlet's waist, freeing his trapped arm. Swiftly then, the American captain used it to secure his partner's stab wound, grimacing at the bloody hole in the dead man's abdomen. Next, Blue surveyed the area for something else to use as a bandage over Scarlet's still oozing stump. "The dining room," he grunted shoving himself again to his feet. Trotting into the adjoining room he returned with the damask tablecloth. "Spared no expense, buddy," Blue quipped. He ripped the cloth into large swatches of makeshift bandages. After attending to his friend's wrist, Blue gently wrapped the severed hand and tucked it into his own half-zipped Spectrum jacket. "Time to go, partner."
Blue stood and searched the ruined great hall for an exit. The nose of the idling SPV was wedged between the two walls of the entry foyer. Yet beyond that barrier the front doors still stood wide open. "Our chariot awaits," Blue grunted as he turned and gingerly lifted his partner up beside him. "Exit. Stage left." With a growl at his injured and bleeding right shoulder Blue dragged Scarlet's body to the main hatch of the SPV. "I know what you're thinking," he told his deceased friend. "Now that's the way to hire a hack." Blue shoved Scarlet forward propping him against the SPV's fender. Around them the walls creaked. "Sorry," Blue continued. "Didn't I tell you? The SRD we tested hasn't been perfected yet. It's really not supposed to rundown its driver." Suddenly, the nearby crippled staircase groaned, popped then twisted upon its axis. In a mangled heap it collapsed to the marble floor. Blue flinched at the concussion. "Definitely time to go," he gasped and palmed the recessed hatch release.
Nothing happened. "What the-?" Blue tried again. Still no response. "Damn it." With a tired fist the American agent pounded the obstinate armored door. Then one of the hacienda's support beams cracked loose and plummeted from the vaulted ceiling to impact the SPV's roof. “Whoa!” Blue ducked beneath the protection of the vehicle's wheel well. In a cloud of stucco dust, the bulky debris slid down the vehicle’s hood to effectively block their front exit. "That's it," he grumbled peeking out to check for other falling rubble. "We're leaving the hard way." Tapping the remainder of his strength Captain Blue hauled Scarlet back to his feet. He draped the Briton over his good shoulder. Then, limping with the effort, the American captain maneuvered his dead friend around the rubble of the collapsed staircase, the crashed back wall and through the shattered glass littering the floor. With a painful grunt Blue hefted Scarlet out into the brightness of a warming morning. Behind him, the house continued to shift and settle. By the time the Spectrum pair had reached the demolished sculpture garden beyond the in-ground pool a deep roar announced the demise of the KingSilver Ranch. Grimacing from beneath his burdened shoulder Blue watched the home crumble atop the trapped SPV. With a sigh he asked, "Now what do we do?"
He needed to get Scarlet back to Cloudbase. Dr. Fawn had to attend to the man's wounds. But then, how could he alert Cloudbase in the first place? Both his Spectrum cap and the damaged helmet were now buried beneath the bulk of the KingSilver Ranch. With a weary groan Blue had to admit, "Hindsight is twenty/twenty, my friend." He draped Scarlet upon an undamaged garden bench and sank upon the grass beside him to think. His shoulder hurt and Blue felt his strength failing. The loss of blood was making him woozy. Then a stabbing thought jolted him from his stupor. "The deadline." Swiping his dirtied sleeve aside Blue considered his watch. "Still over eight hours. Damn." The Mysteron threat to Captain Scarlet's life had not yet expired. He had to get the man to safety. But where?
Clambering back to his boots Blue surveyed the damage to the house. Timbers, stone and adobe had sealed their armored escape vehicle beneath tons of debris. He swung his gaze around to the only other large building left standing. "The garage!" Leaving his partner where he lay, Captain Blue sprinted off to the two-story construction. He swung the side door open and gasped. It was empty. All four of the bay doors had been retracted. "The servants," he realized aloud. They must have taken the vehicles in the rush to avoid being buried alongside their boss. Even Scarlet's rental car was nowhere to be seen. Blue returned to his charge.
"Sorry, Paul. Looks like we're stranded here until Ochre and Green come looking for us." The ascending sun was warming the dark earth around him. Blue could feel it sapping what little strength he had left. "Got to find us some shelter away from this house," he told his friend. "If the Mysterons bring back Castillo, we're in trouble. I've lost my gun and the SPV." What a vicious little fix he had gotten them both into. Then he recalled a geological feature he had observed through his binoculars while parked up on the ridge. He glanced up the inclined property, past the nearby scrub. "I think I just found our hidey hole, partner," he breathed and bent to gather Scarlet again in his arms.
It had been a grueling walk, but the cave Blue remembered seeing rose from the grazing land in a hump not a quarter mile from the razed hacienda. Its interior was narrow and only fifteen feet or so deep, but there was enough room for Blue to lay Scarlet out and straighten the man's twisted limbs. "Be right back, pal. Need to cover our trail," he gasped to his silent friend. With a dragging branch Blue swept away all evidence of his stumbling footprints nearest the grotto. Upon returning, Blue disguised the cave entrance with a few more branches. He then promptly collapsed in his discomfort and exhaustion just within the space’s opening. With a heavy sigh, Blue considered his motionless charge. His work was incomplete. In Blue's haste to conceal them from Castillo, he had not thought to check his comrade's wounds. Yet Blue was too tired to play doctor. Scarlet would heal within hours even if left alone. Still, there was the little bundle lying beside his partner's hip. With a grunt of resignation Blue rolled onto his knees and crawled to Scarlet's side. Unwrapping the parcel, Blue grimaced at the pale and cold hunk of flesh within. As he tried to reattach Scarlet's severed hand, he secured it with a bloodied strip of the tablecloth. "You know. I really wish you were alive to help me with this, old buddy," Blue ventured. "Hope I'm putting it on straight." The hand flopped loosely within its makeshift bandage. It was the best the exhausted American could do. Next, Blue re-inspected the bloody gash to Scarlet's abdomen. Unbuttoning the man's tunic he spread the sliced and bloodstained shirt. To Blue's astonishment, the skin beneath had begun to mend, the blood already dried within the fabric. Blue sighed and shook his head. "If only I could do that," he said wincing at his shoulder wound.
Sidling again to the cave entrance Blue made use of the remainder of the dusty tablecloth to bandage himself as best he could before collapsing in a heap. "Don't worry, partner," he murmured from his slumped sentinel stance beside the partly concealed opening. "I'll keep watch while you rest." One look back at his partner revealed that Scarlet was still not breathing. His friend was still dead. "For however long it takes," Blue assured. The American captain just needed to rest his eyes for a few minutes.
Sitting inside their Spectrum helicopter Ochre listened intently to Captain Magenta's worried words from Spectrum's command carrier. As his cap mike swung back to his visor Ochre relayed the problem to his companions. "Cloudbase has lost contact with Captain Blue at the KingSilver Ranch. He was sent in to rescue Scarlet. We're ordered to rendezvous there and find Blue's SPV."
"SIG," Melody Angel acknowledged and lifted the aircraft into the air above WMRTV's station building. From the rooftop helipad, Lieutenant Cobalt waved her farewells. Ochre waved back and watched her trot away to the station's stairwell down. Then, adjusting altitude and course, Melody piloted the chopper north toward Castillo's ranch. They'd arrive within the hour.
In the dimness of the rock cave, Captain Scarlet sucked in a life-returning breath. Blue roused from his faintly slumber by the door. Shivering in the chill of the afternoon's shadows he smiled at the familiar and encouraging sound. "Thatta Boy," Blue murmured. The American promptly faded back into his exhaustion. It would be another hour yet before the two friends would exchange words. Scarlet's wounds were still healing and both captains were in no shape to face danger once more. Peril would soon lurk not far from their cool shelter, however. Below their little hollow bluff, two eerie green circles hovered over the buried Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle. Though the armored tank was still intact and functional, its dinged fender glowed a ghostly pale. Then the stalled engine roared to life. The Mysterons had taken control ...
Lieutenant Green checked the scanning locator device he gripped in his palm as Melody hovered the chopper over the ruined ranch site. "I'm getting a reading, Captain," he told Ochre. "Captain Scarlet's below all right. He's nearby."
"Could he be trapped somewhere in that wreckage?" Ochre responded eyeing with trepidation the massive pile of smoking rubble beneath them.
Green only shrugged. "I'm not sure. We'll need to get down there to be certain."
Melody called over her shoulder, "What about Captain Blue? He could be injured or even ..." The Angel pilot never finished her sentence. The hacienda's carcass shifted and came to life as it birthed an armored Spectrum tank. "Look! The SPV!"
Green grinned joyfully. "They're all right!"
"Good for Blue," Ochre chimed in as he watched the SPV speed away along the ranch's front drive then make a steep turn onto the highway and roar north in a cloud of pursuing dust. "Hey, where are they going?" His cap mike swung down to his lips. "Captain Blue. Captain Scarlet. Come in." Only static answered his hail. As Ochre's microphone slipped back to its visor he added, "That's odd. Better follow them, Melody."
"SIG," the black woman acknowledged. The Spectrum helicopter dove out into the Montana afternoon to give chase.
It was only minutes later that Lieutenant Green happened to glance down at his locator device. "Wait, Captain!" he cautioned. "Captain Scarlet's locator chip says he's still back at the ranch. What do you think it means?"
Ochre bit his lip. "Either the ranch is a ploy or that SPV is." He made his gut decision. "Melody, take me back to Castillo’s residence. We're splitting up. Green, give me that locator device. You and Melody swing back and stay with the SPV. Continue to try and contact it. Understand?"
"But, Captain," Green protested as he handed his partner the scanning unit. "What if it's a trap?"
Frowning Ochre had to admit, "I let Scarlet down once. I'm not planning on doing it again. You two have your orders. Is that clear, Lieutenant?"
Downcast though his dark eyes were, Green answered, "SIG." The helicopter ascended into a wide curving arc that brought them back on course with the KingSilver Ranch. Swiftly Melody descended to within a few feet of the ground. "Be careful, Rick," Green called as Ochre leaped from the hovering craft onto the estate’s front yard. He spun and waved them away before considering the easiest way inside the collapsed house.
As soon as he'd ducked his head within the home's shredded and partially blocked front doors Ochre realized this was a job for the Spectrum rescue team. He called for reinforcements. "I'll need a crew of earth movers here," he said into his cap mike. "The place is a mess. Looks like the SPV drove right through the joint." He frowned at the interlocking puzzle of timbers and adobe bricks. "If they're trapped somewhere inside this, I just hope we can get to them in time." As he waited for the squad to arrive the captain used the locator tracker to pinpoint, as best he could, the internal location of Captain Scarlet. The device told him to look beyond the crumbled facade and deeper into the wreckage. Surveying the mess, Ochre decided to circumvent the house hoping for another way in.
At the rear of the collapsed hacienda Ochre was to receive the first of his two surprises.
It was an hour past his returning breath that Scarlet's eyes slid open. He stiffly sat up to evaluate his surroundings. Recalling his last conscious thoughts, the captain grimaced and checked his injuries. His almost completely mended hand and leg, his tender gut and healed eye. Lastly his gaze settled upon the slumped Captain Blue. "Thank you, Adam. You saved my life that time." With a grunt Scarlet slouched to his feet in the cramped space of the cave. Painfully, he stomped forward cradling his still healing abdomen and the organs within. The cave entrance was in shadow. Where was he? Had Blue taken him by hover pack somewhere secluded? And why weren't they on Cloudbase? The last thing Scarlet recalled was his partner's daring arrival through blasted windows and flying glass. Now, they were no longer within the hacienda.
Gingerly stepping over his slumbering friend, Captain Scarlet exited the cave to overlook their stance upon an east-facing hill. The Rockies were aglow in the full glory of afternoon. "Purple mountains, majesty," he murmured recalling the patriotic song of his partner's home nation. Scarlet then turned west and spied less grandeur. The hacienda was nearby, only about a quarter mile away, and in complete ruins. Its smoking hulk sprawled like an adobe tortoise baking in the sun. "Ouch," Scarlet acknowledged then scanned the site with hooded eyes.
What had happened after Castillo had stabbed him? He felt like an old shoe to which a terrier had taken a fancy. His left leg still ached, his right hand was numb and nearly useless, but he had survived permanent death yet again. Time and a good meal would handle the rest of his recovery. Until then, though, Scarlet would be weak. As he stood to survey the devastation below the British captain suddenly felt dizzy with fatigue and sank to the perch of a rocky outcrop beside the cave entrance.
He needed to know why they were still on the scene. Why hadn't Blue driven them to the nearest airport for a return trip to Cloudbase? Their mission had not yet been accomplished, it seemed. Perhaps Captain Ochre and Lieutenant Green had been unsuccessful in shutting down the KingSilver device. Captain Scarlet rubbed at his tired eyes, testing his vision for clarity. Yes, his eye was completely healed now. He had at least overcome that handicap. But where was Castillo? Beneath the rubble of his mansion? There was only one source for his answers. He needed to awaken Blue.
Unwillingly Captain Scarlet tramped back inside the cave, brushing aside the concealing branches to reveal his dozing partner. The American's face was pale. His right shoulder had been hastily bandaged with what looked like the remnant of a damask tablecloth. Remembering his own wrappings Scarlet smiled at his friend's resourcefulness within a no doubt perilous situation. Then serious concern returned to his gaze. His partner was injured. Blue had not the resources of his own retrometabolism to regenerate from his wound. Scarlet could not ask his friend to accompany him where only he could go. "Sorry, partner, but I'll just have to find the answers for myself." Re-covering the cave entrance for safety, Captain Scarlet headed down slope to the remnants of Castillo's empire in the Montana sun.
Captain Ochre swung his body forcefully east. "Now, what in the -?" The tracker device had told him that Scarlet was not within the ruins of the house after all, but farther east of its location. He glanced across the sculpture gardens with their wide tracks of trampled greenery to the grazing land beyond. Raising his voice he hollered, "Captain Scarlet!" Ochre listened for an answer. The sun, past its zenith, was glaringly vibrant upon the open brush and reddish soil. By sheltering his eyes beneath his hand, in the distance he spotted a figure striding his way. "Scarlet!" he called again. The man's light shirt was stained dark, and he seemed to walk with almost deathly determination. But the raised hand of acknowledgement had the air of a military man hard pressed to give up the fight. It was Captain Scarlet, all right.
Before Ochre could jaunt off to join him, a shifting of rubble caught his attention. He turned around to see a dusty figure in a swashbuckling sash climb from the ranch's wreckage. "Sir!" he called rushing back to the collapsed patio to assist. "Are you all right?" It was then that Ochre noticed the man's dangling hand with its gripped sword. This must be Castillo. "What happened here, Doctor?" the Spectrum captain asked.
"I'm ... I'm not sure," the man stammered weakly pressing free hand to head. "I was attacked."
"You all right, Sir? Here," Ochre advised holding out his open palm. "Let me take that sword from you. We'll find you a place to rest. I'll recall the chopper."
"No, no, Captain," Castillo assured stepping away from the officer's extended hand. "I'm fine. Just a little shaken." He raised dark eyes and smiled. "Looks like I'll be rebuilding my home from scratch."
Nodding Ochre watched the man straighten and recover. "It's amazing that you even survived, Sir." Then his hackles rose. Captain Scarlet hadn't been in the house. Blue was still nowhere to be seen. The hacienda was a twisted wreck. And Scarlet had a Mysteron death wish upon him. "How did you escape without harm?" Ochre inquired his eyes narrowing at the still dangling broadsword. His own hand ascended toward his holstered weapon.
From behind him he heard Captain Scarlet holler, "Rick! Look out!" The sword rose with lightning swiftness, but Ochre was ready, and dodged his torso away. As Castillo made another swing Ochre drew his pistol only to have it smashed from his hand by the clever swordsman. The captain bent against the blow, his hand jarred and numb from the impact. Castillo wasn't finished, however. The broadsword surged above Ochre's bowed head. A single swipe would have sealed the captain's fate. But then someone shoved Ochre aside. Scarlet rushed in to parry the thrust with a swing of a broken tree branch. Ochre watched as his friend held the combatant back with repeated swipes of his makeshift truncheon. He could also tell Scarlet wasn't winning the battle. Castillo was far more powerful in his attack, wielding his sturdier weapon with the grace of a champion. Woodchips flew from Scarlet's cudgel. The British captain could barely hold his ground or his improvised sword. The man's hands seemed weak.
Ochre tore his eyes away from the conflict to recover his lost pistol. It had slid to the edge of the in-ground pool. As it teetered toward the water, Ochre made a daring dive to the pavement to snatch the gun back before it tumbled into the deep end. He almost missed. His jarred hand was sluggish in its response to his commands. With a grunt Ochre climbed back to his feet and turned to see Castillo triumphantly thrust his sword deep into Scarlet's upper chest. "Paul!" he yelled. Ochre aimed the gun Castillo's way even as Scarlet buckled to the garden path. The swordsman raised his cutlass again into the air as if to behead his enemy. "Stop right there, Castillo." Ochre gripped his weapon and awkwardly squeezed the trigger. Though he was otherwise an excellent marksman, the captain's bullet went wide. It missed its target by several inches. Castillo, flinching from the sound, re-steadied his stalled arm for the hack downward. "No you don't." The second bullet found its mark, hitting the ranch owner in the thigh. Castillo's sword dropped to his side, but still the Mysteron clung to its handle. Ochre stomped closer using his left hand to steady his pistol's grip. "That's enough," he warned, ready to inflict yet another wound. Beneath Castillo's feet Scarlet lay on his side clutching at the wound to his pectoral muscle and the vulnerable lung beneath.
"Freeze, Earthman," Castillo rumbled threateningly. "Or I will kill him. And you."
"Not before I kill you," Ochre assured, though he could feel his injured hand tremble about his weapon's grip. There was no guarantee he'd hit his mark again. "We could call a truce," he suggested with a twisted smirk.
At Castillo's feet Scarlet tried to laugh then coughed at the blood filling his punctured lung. "You can't bargain with a Mysteron, Rick," he groaned. "Shoot him."
But as Ochre aimed his weapon Castillo laughed and settled his blade gently across Scarlet's throat. "You cannot kill me with that," the Mysteron assured.
The stalemate was obvious. What Ochre needed was a distraction. But Melody and Green were still out chasing after the fleeing SPV. Ochre was on his own. He lowered his pistol. "I'm sorry, partner. I want to save you. But do you remember Cheryl? Remember how I couldn't save her? Partner?"
From the dirt path Scarlet gasped, "But-" Then he must have perceived Ochre's ploy. With what strength he had remaining Captain Scarlet reached out and grabbed Castillo by the legs. One desperate yank and the man was hauled off his feet. The broadsword went spinning even as Ochre aimed and fired at the toppled swordsman. Several bullets to the Mysteronized Castillo's chest halted all protests. There was a pause between the survivors before Scarlet coughed again from the ground beside the fallen enemy. "Thanks, partner," he rasped.
"Yeah," a new voice announced from behind them. "Thanks, Rick." Captain Blue leaned against a tilted tree, panting. "Paul just can't seem to keep his butt out of trouble today." While both captains smiled at the new arrival, Blue considered his field partner. "And you ..." With a tired sigh he admitted, "Glad to see your hand's OK." He chuckled at the imaginary alternative. "I was afraid it'd be crooked. You'd have to do everything backwards from now on."
From the garden path Scarlet smiled and rolled onto his knees to stumble back to his feet. "I'm glad too," he grunted. "I think contrariness is what I've been up to lately."
Grinning from sideburn to sideburn, Ochre quipped, "Finally, I get to save the day." He exhaled a stress releasing sigh and re-holstered his pistol. Then he bolstered the swaggering Scarlet with a steadying hand. "You're welcome, by the way," he said. "You can thank me by offering me a genuine longhorn steak dinner."
"I'd oblige if I could hire us a hack to get us away from here," Scarlet responded harshly bracing his wound and coughing once again. "Perhaps," he gurgled with a grimace, "an ambulance would be more appropriate."
His own injured shoulder slumping from weariness, Captain Blue raised his hand and concurred. "I'll have one of those too."
Still smiling though his eyes were rimmed in concern for his comrades, Ochre bowed deeply and offered, "Your chariot awaits." His cap mike swung down to his mouth and he recalled Melody and Green. "Project KingSilver is a wrap, people," Ochre added to both of his audiences.
Melody soon confirmed that the escaping SPV had shown little regard for other traffic upon the highway, weaving in and out of cars at high velocity. Deemed a Mysteron red herring, the Angel pilot had forced it off the road and into a sandy ravine where the vehicle lay idle as if now disconnected from the Mysteron hive mind. It would no doubt be safe to recover later, once all threats to Captain Scarlet had expired.
Ochre checked his watch. "Just another few hours, my boy, and you'll be free and clear," he assured the now seated and slouching British officer.
The thrum of the approaching rescue chopper caused Scarlet to smile weakly. "A lot can happen in those few hours, Rick," he warned with another cough. This time blood trickled about the corner of his lips. "But I've got the two best men to protect me."
Both Blue and Ochre took the compliment with proud grins and straight backs. Together they helped their comrade onto the safety of the Spectrum helicopter. Meanwhile, Green swiftly dispatched the Mysteron Castillo with a blast from the onboard electron gun. They were all soon airborne for Cloudbase.
Within the safety of Cloudbase's infirmary, both Scarlet and Blue were allowed to heal from their battle wounds. When Ochre had finished presenting his report to Colonel White, he visited them with a cheery smile and a bottle of sparkling cider. "Here's to the resident heroes," he quipped triumphantly with a raised glass. With a trio of "Cheers!" all three partook of the bubbly, non-alcoholic beverage. As they sipped their congratulatory toasts, Ochre inquired about the Mysteron threat. "What do you think the Mysterons meant by 'what is old is new again'? Castillo? An old academy enemy, now new again?"
With great difficulty beneath Fawn's bandages, Captain Blue shrugged and offered, "Perhaps it was meant as a clue to how you were to die, Paul. By means of an old military weapon. The sword."
Scarlet, more contemplative, admitted, "Either way, our true enemy is the Mysterons." He shifted atop his hospital bunk, trying not to kick Ochre who had perched at its foot. "We'll have to take up the sword of struggle again, no doubt," he urged. "The battle will start anew soon, and I, for one, am very happy to be here to duel on."
Again their glasses were raised into the air. "Here, here," Ochre chimed in still smiling. "I suppose you've earned yourself a day off," he reminded. "What're you going to do with it? Brush up on your dueling skills?"
Scarlet chuckled, then winced at the memory and his still sore chest. "Not likely. No," he admitted. "I have somewhere I need to go. Another battle site." The man fell silent as he sipped the remainder of his cider, leaving his two friends wondering the meaning of his words.
Colonel White called a conference of his staff a few hours later to discuss Spectrum's most recent activity. As Scarlet sat between his two recent partners, he listened only absently to his superior's words. There was something more pressing on his mind. A loose end which needed tying.
"Thank you for coming, Gentlemen," White began. "As some of you may be aware, I sanctioned a small crew of investigators from SIA to check out the Timberland Power Plant site." Scarlet watched his superior focus cool eyes upon him and he straightened from his private reverie. "To be truthful, I was curious about the catastrophe." In his hand he held a thick report folder. "Here are the surprising discoveries, gentlemen. It seems corners were cut in the race to complete the plant for its April first deadline."
Ochre gasped at the irony of the information. "April first, Sir?"
"Quite," White answered. The significance was not lost on the older man either. He flipped open the folder and shared a data sheet with each of them. Taking his copy, Scarlet could see that the single paper held a list of faulty equipment and substandard installations which ultimately caused the demise of the two-year old facility. "As you will see," the colonel explained, "acquisition records show materials and equipment were purchased using the principle of the lowest bidder. Something which many times ends in such disasters." White’s eyes were grim with the consequences of this recent calamity. "It would seem substandard parts and labor were acceptable to heighten the profit margin on this plant's otherwise costly endeavor. It was meant to be a state-of-the-art facility."
"But it ended up being a ticking time bomb," Blue observed from beside Scarlet. "It's a miracle only five died."
"Yes," the colonel agreed morosely. "It seems we can thank Captains Scarlet and Ochre and their almost prophetic foresight for that." White continued with his report. "There were found to be microscopic fractures in the overheated polymers of the exhaust conduits. The material composition of the pipes was never rated for such extremes."
Ochre spoke up. "But, Sir. There was nothing but dust left of that plant. How could a structural analysis have even been made?"
Scarlet's mind had been mulling over the events at the plant since its destruction. "Mr. Gerrand," he explained for his recent partner. "Remember the chief inspector had been injured by the acid as well? Dr. Garrett, the supervisor, must have sent a piece of the piping out for analysis."
White was nodding. "Exactly so, Captain."
"The second inspector, Darling, must have wanted to spill the beans about the tests' findings," Ochre caught on. "Someone kept him quiet. But who?"
Scarlet thought out loud. "Who would have benefited if the truth had been kept under wraps, enough to risk murdering Darling?"
"Garrett?" Ochre offered. "But, then again. He's the one who wanted us to check out Darling. Thought he was a Mysteron."
"Copeland," Scarlet murmured. "He wanted Darling's job. He would have wanted Darling discredited."
"Would Copeland have known about the defective parts and the real reasons behind the problems?"
Colonel White smiled at the two captains. "Gentlemen. You forget the primary motivating factor here. Greed. Both Supervisor Garrett and Inspector Gerrand would have been involved with overseeing the construction of the plant. Both would have also held stock in the plant's success. According to employment records, they were planning to retire together in another year."
"They would have retired rich," Scarlet surmised, "had the faulty conduits and reactor core equipment held out that long."
Ochre wasn't satisfied. "But why risk such destruction and failure? It just doesn't make sense!"
"One thing more," White prompted. "Competition."
"That's right!" Ochre spat. "That tour guide. She said they were selling surplus electricity to neighboring suburbs. Garrett had said other power plants had shut down because of the competition. Who, then, Sir?"
Scarlet smiled as the realization hit him. There was only one other person. "It was the chief inspector. Gerrand. We had staff records pulled, Sir. He'd worked for the Roosevelt plant, too, before signing on as chief inspector for New Apache's Timberland facility. After he was hurt, he must have felt it necessary to sabotage Timberland by keeping the records hushed of the substandard construction."
"No, Captain Ochre," White clarified. "Retribution. His coworkers at the Theodore Roosevelt Dam were excluded from transferring to the Timberland staff after the Roosevelt plant had shut down. By then Timberland had created its own labor union, centered on the hydro-nuclear technology. Copied, I might add, after Spectrum's own designs for our power packs. This, gentleman, was an opportunity for the Mysterons to indirectly discredit Spectrum once again. Pitting our own human weaknesses against us."
"What is old is new again," Scarlet murmured. "North America will no doubt hesitate to build another such fuel-efficient and worthwhile power plant now. Not only was Timberland situated on a unique geological site. The hydro-nuclear fission technology, itself, has been discredited." Then his eyes brightened and Scarlet nearly popped from his chair. "Colonel! Gerrand was a Mysteron?"
In answer Colonel White shook his silver head. "No, Captain. We have, however, tracked him down. Gerrand's under arrest for the murder of Horatio Darling. Your being at that plant was nothing more than a coincidence, Scarlet." White's brow rose in irony. "It seems Gerrand had been there that very morning."
"He killed Darling," Ochre submitted. "Knew we were going to interrogate him. Find the truth in the inspection files."
"Gerrand also purged the computer," Scarlet realized. He looked at his mission partner. "You said so yourself. The killer had used the computer to electrocute Darling. All the data files would have been fried."
"One thing, Colonel," Ochre interrupted with a raised hand. "There was never a Mysteron threat against the Timberland plant. How is it that they could have even been involved?"
"Coincidence, my boy," White argued. "There was no-"
"Sir!" Green interrupted from his comm. station near the conference room door. "A report from Montana, Sir. The University of Criminal Technology has been bombed."
"The KingSilver device?" Scarlet alerted swiveling in his chair to glare at the lieutenant.
"The technology annex has been flattened by an explosion. The news media's blaming a pair of journalists who just yesterday were seen stealing the device's transmitter crystals."
Ochre smiled then and winked Green's way. "Looks like we're famous, Lieutenant."
"Captain, really," White admonished with a searing glower. The colonel's attention shifted again to his communication's officer. "Lieutenant, was anyone killed? Was the device totally lost?"
Green, his eyes unfocused as he continued to monitor the civilian channels, finally nodded. "The KingSilver Scope and all its data were stored in that building, Sir," he answered. "Three security officers and eight scientists were killed in the blast. Investigators are on hand to determine the cause."
"Mysterons, Sir?" Scarlet inquired. "Was that their target all along?"
"Perhaps, Captain," White contended thoughtfully. "We may never know for sure. Your death threat may have been another of their famous red herrings."
"The Mysterons must have found out Castillo planned on monitoring their transmissions next," Scarlet offered. "Saw that it was a threat, and destroyed it before we had a chance to remove the device to a Spectrum safe house."
White was nodding. "It would seem," he agreed. "Its loss will be a handicap. Castillo's communications expertise would have been an asset had he been more forthcoming and trusting in his research. The man would have been a benefit to the Spectrum team."
"But you said it yourself, Sir," Scarlet offered. "Greed. A human downfall. It's what stopped Castillo from sharing. He wanted the glory all to himself." The British captain exchanged glances with Ochre and Blue. "Dr. Castillo was on a path of self-destruction just as the Timberland plant was," he attested.
Colonel White nodded grimly. "Then we should leave both incidents as a lesson to the human failings of greed and ambition, gentlemen. I see nothing left for us to discuss here. You are all dismissed." As the team of Spectrum officers rose from their seats, White interrupted them once more. "Oh, and Captain Ochre. I have cleared an SPJ for you and Scarlet. I'll expect your return within the day."
Ochre straightened his back and nodded his gratitude even as Scarlet shot him a quizzical glance. "Thank you, Sir." Once the two were out in the corridor together, Ochre waved Blue a farewell and turned to his recent partner in explanation. "We figured out where you wanted to go on your respite. Come on. I'm driving." Without another exchange Scarlet followed the American to the hangar bay. Clearance was given and the blue and silver streaked jet was soon in the air. "I had a plaque made up for us," Ochre offered as he piloted the SPJ toward the North American continent. With a chin jerk into the passenger compartment he added, "I think it's befitting. Go have a look at it."
Scarlet rose from his seat and strode to the back where he found a marble and brass plaque cradled within a passenger seat. Silently he read the words. "Touché', Rick," the British officer finally answered. Ochre simply nodded and continued flying their jet toward the southwestern sector of North America. They'd be landing within the hour and switching to ground transportation there for their final destination.
Where once had stood a forested bluff, the Timberland site was now nothing more than a great steaming hole in the Arizona desert. Captains Scarlet and Ochre exited their Spectrum saloon and scaled the depression's rim to gaze down into the devastation. "Great Space," Scarlet murmured, surveying the geothermal crater with shadowed eyes.
"You can say that again," Ochre echoed. "You could play a score of soccer games within that hole." The American captain took a look around the raised perimeter of the crater and picked a scrubby site nearest the sun's last rays of evening. "There," he advised with a chin jerk. "It's as good a place as any."
Scarlet glanced toward his partner's chosen spot and nodded. "None better." Together they climbed back down to their car and removed both the hefty marker stone with its brass plaque and a small sapling the British captain had picked up at a local nursery just outside New Apache. In two scrambling trips upon the still loose strata the pair hefted the plaque and tree to the crater rim. With a utility shovel Captain Scarlet dug the berth for the sapling as Ochre watched. Next they gingerly slid the baby tree into its new home and Scarlet scooped and tamped the fresh soil around its trunk. Then, standing to consider his work, he murmured to himself, "From the ashes, new life."
"Amen, brother," Ochre agreed with a hand upon the man's shoulder. "May this site be remembered for its promise and its tragedy, so that none other can follow in the same vainglory."
From the dusty quiet of the memorial site a woman's lilting voice broke the silence. "Hello? Hello! You are the men who came to the plant?" From the makeshift dirt trail that led from the now destroyed and buried highway a convertible saloon came to rest. Both Spectrum captains turned to see the woman slide from her car and close the door. "I followed you from the last highway exit," she called up to them. "Recognized the Spectrum symbol on your vehicle."
Scarlet cleared his throat first. "Yes. We're from Spectrum." He and Ochre started down the crater slope to introduce themselves. A small dust cloud accompanied them. "I'm Captain Scarlet. This is Captain Ochre."
The woman, perhaps in her late twenties, eyed the pair in the glaring colors of the impending sunset. "You are the men who came to the plant at Supervisor Garrett's request?" she asked again.
Scarlet answered truthfully. "We were assigned to investigate a possible Mysteron threat here. There was none."
She stood her ground but did not accept either of the captains' hands to shake. Her dark eyes were shadowed against the setting sun. "But something awful did go wrong. Didn't it?"
"Yes, Miss," Ochre acknowledged. "The event is still under investigation, but it looks like it was an internal problem."
"Does that mean it wasn't Spectrum's fault? Your fault?"
Scarlet glanced sideways at his fellow companion then back at the woman. "It's a long story, Miss. Are you a news reporter? We're not here to discuss our involvement, I'm afraid."
"Well, then," the young woman offered her voice cracking with strain, "Could you tell me ... Tell me about my little girl? How... How did she die?"
Scarlet felt the blood drain from his face. His hands grew cold in the desert breeze. "You're Tina Adams? You're Cheryl's mother?" When she nodded and leaned back against the hood of her vehicle, the British captain reached out to intercept her fall. "I'm sorry." He only flinched slightly when her surprisingly solid hand swung up to smack him like a brick across the cheek.
"I was told you were gravely injured, Captain. That you almost died trying to save my daughter," Mrs. Adams hissed. "You look just fine to me. Coward."
"Now hold on there, please," Ochre cut in shoving himself between the two before she could assault Scarlet again. "We were here on another duty. We stayed to help and evacuate the plant when things started falling apart. We risked our lives to save everyone. We couldn't."
"But you were right there! You were where my baby was. How come you couldn't save her?"
It seemed Ochre wasn't done defending his partner's efforts. "How did she get into the reactor core in the first place, Ma'am? How could she have known the access codes? That reactor core was no place for a six year old child."
Now the woman's defiant face crumbled into a canyon of grief. "I keep asking myself that," she sobbed. "And I can only blame myself. I killed my little girl."
As Adams crumpled in on her sorrow Scarlet addressed the true guilt. "Carelessness killed Cheryl, Mrs. Adams. None of this should have happened. The plant was built on a pipedream, hastily constructed for the highest profit margin and by the lowest bidder. All things considered, a lot more people would have died."
"But almost everyone survived because the employees of the Timberland plant worked together to evacuate the people safely," Ochre contended.
"Not everyone survived, Mrs. Adams," Scarlet continued seeing the woman still needed soothing. "And that fact will haunt me for many nights, perhaps for many years. I tried to save Cheryl. I was so close. I didn't want to lose her, but ..."
"Captain Scarlet's not perfect, Ma'am," Ochre defended when his friend grew silent. "None of us are." Scarlet, beside him, had to nod at the reality. He would ultimately outlive many he tried to save. "No matter how hard he fights and how much he suffers to help make this world better, Captain Scarlet is just one man," Ochre asserted with conviction. Scarlet knew the entire truth. The Mysterons were more powerful than any one man. Even an indestructible one. That's why Spectrum had to work together, as a team, if any of them were to survive.
"I'm truly sorry for your loss, Ma'am," Scarlet said, tentatively reaching out to support her slumping shoulder. Adams did not pull away.
After a moment of somber silence, the woman dipped her head in agreement. "I guess we can't all be heroes every day. I'm sorry, Captain, for slapping you. My heart is aching too much right now. I guess I was looking for an enemy to punish, and I lashed out at you when you were just trying to help."
"It's quite all right, Mrs. Adams. I share your grief. My heart aches as well. Though none will see it, it's a scar I will carry with me always."
When silence strangled between them once more Ochre straightened and quipped, "We have something to show you, Mrs. Adams. Let me take your hand. The way up's a little tricky." With a stout nod the woman let Ochre guide her against still shifting soil to the crater summit. There in the vibrant shades of the fading sunset's spectrum, a sprawling little sapling clung to the earth, beginning its new life in the dirt of a previous tragedy. Beneath the scarlet maple Ochre adjusted the marble stone to its final resting spot before the trunk. Then, standing away from the marker he read the words engraved on the polished brass plaque: “To the memory of Cheryl Adams and her childhood dreams of peace and joy. May those dreams never die within the hearts of men.”
After a long moment, Adams murmured a "Thank you" then turned back to her convertible. Her feet were heavy as she tromped down the blast-created hillside. Ochre and Scarlet watched her glance their way once more before lifting a hand in farewell and sliding behind the wheel of her car.
As Cheryl's mother drove away Scarlet pondered, "You know, Rick. Technology is a fabulous thing. But its worth to humanity is dependent on how it's used and not exploited." With a grim glare toward the massive crater left by the Timberland Power Plant he attested, "We could destroy ourselves without the help of the Mysterons. We humans can be our own worst enemy sometimes."
"Just not today, partner," Ochre wished squeezing Scarlet's shoulder in emphasis. "Not today."
Copyright December 29, 2002, Revised 1/25/12
Hope you'll enjoy my next Captain Scarlet adventure, The Dungeon of Dragons.
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