Even in wartime, Christmas still comes.
It had been an eventful year. Spectrum hadn’t even reached its first anniversary as an organization before Captain Black led the Zero X mission that discovered the Mysteron complex on Mars.
And then the world had suddenly turned upside down.
The Zero X crewmen had disappeared. Captain Black was in the hands of the Mysterons, and no one was sure whether it was by choice. Captains Brown, Scarlet, and Indigo had all been killed in the early days of the War of Nerves. So many endings in such a short time.
But life had to go on. The Mysterons could not be allowed to win so easily.
And so Christmas would come, as it always did.
When Rhapsody, carrying a large cardboard box, entered the Amber Room, she found three of the other Angels already there, watching and advising Captain Orange as he struggled to get the Christmas tree to stand up straight. It had been a wonderful surprise when Colonel White had allowed a small number of live Christmas trees to be brought to Cloudbase, including one for the Amber Room. But Captain Orange clearly wasn’t finding it so wonderful, judging by the soft mutterings coming from beneath the evergreen’s branches as he struggled to tighten the rods that would hold the tree firm in its base.
“It’s listing something awful, isn’t it?” commented Rhapsody, as she set her box down beside another one sitting on the coffee table.
“Hold it steady, Destiny. No, it’s tilting to the left now,” said Melody. “My left, not yours, Destiny!”
“Now it needs to be turned 90 degrees,” chimed Symphony. “It looks kind of flat on one side.”
Rhapsody knelt down by the orange-vested captain. “How much longer do you think this will take? We’d like to get on with the decorating before the shift change.”
Orange grunted and adjusted his grip on the base. “Some women would be grateful just to have a man under their Christmas tree,” grumbled the American.
Symphony laughed wickedly. “We slay our own dragons, Captain Orange! But it’s still nice to have a man around who can kill bugs and put up Christmas trees.”
An incoherent ranting issued from somewhere near the floor. In Orange’s mind, the tree was consciously resisting him. Why else would one branch keep hitting him in the face?
“Hold it there! It’s straight! Perfect!”
Orange rapidly tightened the bolts, giving each an extra twist to make its hold firm. Holding his breath, he backed out from beneath the tree. It swayed, then stabilised. The Angels cheered.
After thanking Orange for his help and sending him on his way, they got busy unpacking the lights, ornaments, and tinsel, and began decorating the tree.
“It’s too bad Harmony can’t join us. She’d really enjoy this,” commented Rhapsody.
“Maybe we could set aside some of the ornaments so when she comes down from Angel One she’ll have a little decorating to do,” said Symphony.
Outside the Amber Room’s open door, a group strolled by singing:
“Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath suffered long;
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.”
“It’s nice to have music to work by.”
“I hear the base carolling group tried to persuade Captain Blue to join.” Destiny smirked. “Until they heard him sing a few bars of ‘Silent Night’ flat and off-key!”
Rhapsody grimaced; she had been present at Blue’s impromptu audition. “They should ask Captain Ruddy to join them. She can sing two different parts.”
“Really? Two voices at once?” asked Destiny, astonished.
“No, of course not! But she can sing tenor and bass equally well. I’ve heard her alternating the parts in a one-woman duet.”
Symphony indicated the branches in front. “Which ornaments should we hang right there? They ought to be special ones since everyone who comes in can see them.”
“Captain Ochre gave me this for our tree,” said Destiny holding out a small, lumpy, tissue- wrapped parcel. “He said we’d each have one later but this one is for all of us now.”
“Well, open it, Grrl!” said Melody, excitement in her soft southern voice.
Destiny carefully unwrapped the little parcel, revealing a tiny, perfectly scaled and painted Angel Interceptor, complete with blonde-haired pilot. “Oh!” she gasped. “Isn’t it exquisite!”
Rhapsody took it and held it gently as she turned it round, looking at it from all angles. “He must have hand-built it from scratch!”
“It’s so thoughtful of him. Maybe we should get him some modelling supplies to thank him,” suggested Destiny.
“He might thank us, but a lot of other people won’t when he starts playing with them in the Officers’ Lounge!”
“So, what are you giving Captain Blue, Symphony?” Melody asked, as she stooped to drape a tinsel garland over the tree’s lowest branches.
“What?” the startled Angel replied.
“Oh come now, honey. We’ve all noticed how you react when his name is mentioned. You’re sweet on him!” Melody teased. Grinning, she glanced up at Symphony, who was blushing. Melody straightened in surprise. “You really are sweet on him!”
“I’m not! At least, I like him a lot, but I don’t know . . . I mean, I don’t know if he feels anything for me. Not romantic anyway. We’re just sort of good friends right now,” she stammered.
“Then you really should give him something for Christmas,” Destiny put in. “It doesn’t have to be anything lavish or expensive. Just a token of some sort. Something meaningful that tells him you care about him.”
“Or at least that you’re interested in getting to care about him!” Rhapsody ducked as Symphony tossed a handful of tinsel at her.
“Don’t be silly! I don’t know how he’d respond. What if I end up totally embarrassed?”
Destiny gave a Gallic shrug. “It takes courage. But you risk your life every day, do you not? So what is a little embarrassment? If there was a man who attracted me, I would risk feeling foolish and let him know.”
Symphony looked thoughtful. Finally she said, “The Colonel wouldn’t approve of a romance, you know.”
“We know. But Colonel White doesn’t have to,” Rhapsody pointed out. “No one outside the Amber Room has to know. Except Captain Blue, of course.”
“Just don’t ask him for a romantic serenade.”
Before long, almost every bit of the tree was decorated, except for the top. “Oh dear,” said Rhapsody, poking around in the storage boxes. “There isn’t a star or anything in here!”
“We could just leave it as it is,” Destiny suggested. “It’s very pretty.”
Symphony looked at the tree critically and sighed. “The tree’s just not complete without an angel or something.”
Melody grinned. “I think I know what to do! I’ll be right back.” She dashed out of the Amber Room, leaving the other three Angels looking at one another, perplexed. When she returned, she was holding something hidden under a towel.
“Merry Christmas, Y’all!” She whipped the towel aside with a flourish.
Lieutenant Amethyst, passing by on her way to the Seminar Room, wondered what was causing the gales of laughter in the Amber Room.
It was a teddy bear. A bear with gold wings, and a halo above its head. A bear wearing a white and gold flight suit, complete with little epaulet lights on its shoulders.
“An Angel for our tree!” announced Melody.
At Christmastime, there should be peace. But the world is at war.
THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS. WE KNOW YOU CAN HEAR US, EARTHMEN! WE DO NOT FORGET YOUR AGGRESSION FOR A PETTY HOLIDAY. THE HOLLY AND THE IVY WILL NOT GROW IN THE LAND OF WHITE RIVERS. WE WILL BE AVENGED!
Colonel White immediately put all the available senior captains to work deciphering the Mysteron threat.
“The land of white rivers?” puzzled Captain Grey.
Captain Ochre had entered “white rivers” into the search engine: it returned nearly one million hits in English. “There are hundreds of rivers with the name ‘white’ in them. And towns and businesses called ‘white rivers’, too.”
“But do evergreens, like holly and ivy, grow everywhere the towns or rivers are? That’s a key to narrowing them down.”
Ochre sighed. “We’d better add those criteria and sort the data into categories: rivers, towns, others.” He entered a few commands. “There. We should have the printouts shortly. They’re going to keep us busy for a while.”
The holiday season was well underway at Tarazed Castle. Many guests would not arrive until just before Christmas, but a larger number than usual had booked stays during Advent, perhaps drawn by the presence of Sinead Brennan, president of the European Union, and her family, who were enjoying an extended Yuletide holiday.
Reed Thompson, Tarazed’s manager, looked at the gauges on the oil-storage tanks and shook his head. On the one hand, he was glad for the fresh snowfalls and cold weather that were keeping the castle’s ski slopes and trails in good condition. But the cold also increased the guests’ demand for heat. And since there were more guests than usual . . . .
“You don’t have to say it, Marta,” snapped Thompson.
His companion looked miffed. “I wasn’t going to say anything.” The tone of her voice didn’t match her words.
Thompson smiled sardonically. “Part of being an assistant manager, Ms Caljane, means learning from your manager’s mistakes. And not hoping they’ll work to your benefit.” He ignored her scowl. “Durango Coal & Oil said they’d have a caterpillar truck ready for us later this week. We’ll have to radio and ask them if they can get it out today.”
Hours had passed.
Grey slammed down his coffee cup in frustration. “There are lots of places that have both evergreens and a river called white. But the Mysterons’ threat said rivers — plural. And none of these has more than one White River.”
“In the U.S.,” said Ochre, “there are plenty of towns called ‘White Rivers,’ but none of them appear to be particularly important. And they all have evergreens of one sort or another. How can we narrow it down? Should we look for holly and ivy specifically? Or do the Mysterons mean to attack all of them?”
Captain Blue leaned back and rubbed his eyes. “Are we sure they meant evergreens? They said ‘the holly and the ivy will not grow’.”
“Then we’ve been going at it all wrong,” groaned Ochre. “We might try eliminating the places where evergreens do grow and see how many hits we get.”
“We’d better try both. Look for white rivers where only holly and ivy can be found or else no evergreens at all,” suggested Captain Scarlet.
Shortly after the new search parameters were entered into the computer, Lieutenant Lake came in with another stack of printouts. She was humming a tune under her breath.
“You sound happy, Lieutenant,” observed Scarlet.
Lake looked sheepish. “I’m sorry, sir. I know the Mysterons are planning to attack and all, but it’s still Christmas, and it makes me feel better to hear my favourite carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, even if I have to sing it myself.” Lake’s voice trailed off uncertainly as the men sat bolt upright and stared at her.
“What did you say?”
“I’m sorry, sirs. I prattle when I’m nervous.”
Scarlet waved the apology away. “What did you say about holly and ivy?”
“That it’s my favourite Christmas song, sir,” Lake replied, puzzled. “It’s a medieval tune,” she added after several moments of uncomfortable silence.
Ochre looked at his fellow captains. “That could be what the Mysterons were referring to. It goes with the crack about ‘a petty holiday.’ But what’s the connection with the ‘land of white rivers’? Could there be a clue in the song itself?”
“You mean like ‘deck the halls with boughs of holly and ivy’?” suggested Grey.
“That’s probably stretching too much.”
“Maybe not, sir. Holly and ivy were used for Christmas decorating in medieval times, ” ventured the young lieutenant.
“They still are. My mother heaps holly and ivy on the mantelpiece every December,” recalled Scarlet. He suddenly had an idea. “Ochre, run another search for ‘white rivers’ but look for medieval connections.”
When the search results appeared, Ochre groaned. “There are medieval sites all over Europe and a good part of Asia, too.”
“It’s an English carol, sir. Perhaps you should limit the search to the British Isles?” Lake was surprised at her own boldness.
“Worth a try.” He keyed in the parameters; there were fewer hits, though still plenty to look at. “Lieutenant?”
“I’m on my way, Captain Ochre. More printouts coming up.”
In the late afternoon, when the sun had set, the guests would gather in Tarazed’s Great Hall for the for the daily Advent ritual. There would be a holiday story for the children and then the day’s “window,” actually a gigantic Christmas box with hinged walls, would be opened dramatically to reveal the surprise. Afterward, there would be a buffet supper for everyone, and then dancing and a late sit-down dinner for the adults after the children had been sent to bed.
Thompson and Caljane watched as workers prepared the stage.
“Reed, you haven’t said much about this one. What’s the surprise for today?” said Caljane.
“It’s a bonfire,” answered Thompson. “Not a painting either. It looks just like the real thing. The special effects are remarkable; you’d swear it could burn the place down.”
“Isn’t that a frightening thing to offer for Christmas?”
“You might think so, Marta. But it’s meant as a promise that there’ll be plenty of warmth during the season.”
“Ah,” Caljane shrugged. “Well, if that fuel gets here, that’s a promise that will be kept for sure.”
Manning groaned as the radio newscaster broke into his favourite song and reported that a snow slide on Highway 505 had temporarily closed the road. That explained why he’d seen so little traffic. And the weather forecaster had said earlier to brace for high winds as a cold front swept in from Canada. Manning hated the mountain winds, the way they seemed to grab at his caterpillar trailers and push his truck around. If really bad weather hit, he thought, it would be better if he was caught up at the castle and not somewhere on the road. He’d just have to hope. He radioed in to the fuel depot at Durango.
“Hey, Greg. Didn’t expect to hear from you until you got to Tarazed. Is everything all right?”
“Just heard on the radio that there’s a slide up ahead of me. Looks like I’m going to be sitting for a while.”
“Great,” said Darrell, sounding exasperated. “Just great. Well, nothing else you can do. Just drive careful, OK?”
“Right. I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up the radio with a sigh.
From nowhere, it seemed, a man in black appeared on the road ahead, waving his arms. Must be in trouble, thought Manning as he braked. But where’s his car? Looking at the man’s pale face, he realised there must have been an accident.
He got out of the truck and walked towards the man in black. “Hey, buddy! You been in an accident? What can I do to help you?”
“You can die, Earthman,” replied Captain Black, as he drew a pistol and fired.
Manning felt surprise but no pain before he fell. He didn’t see the pair of eerie green rings pass over his body, or, a moment later, his exact replica standing over him. Captain Black and the Mysteron clone disposed of the body by throwing it over the embankment; it bounced and rolled, before disappearing from sight. Captain Black nodded, satisfied.
Turning to the clone, Black handed him a bag and said, “You have your orders.”
“I know what to do.” The Mysteron Manning climbed into the truck’s cab and continued towards the castle.
Lieutenant Green had worked without eating or resting for hours, researching how “white rivers” might be expressed in languages other than English, and what other meanings “holly” and “ivy” could have. The young man started when Colonel White put a hand on his shoulder.
“Lieutenant, if you don’t take a break, you’re going to be too tired to function.”
“I’m all right, sir. Really. I’d like to keep on working. The captains — ”
“Have taken a little time out to eat and let their minds relax. You haven’t. I need you to be at your best. But you won’t be if you keep at this pace much longer.” The Colonel frowned. “Do I have to order you?”
“Then I’ll see you back here in two hours.”
Lieutenant Green couldn’t think what to do with himself at first. His mind was too full with figuring out the Mysterons’ riddle. The best way to chase it out would be with music. He could listen to some Christmas carols in his quarters, maybe practice a few songs on his guitar. Or he could open that package of CDs his younger brother in Colorado had sent a few weeks ago. Leon’s letter had said he’d found some interesting folk-music recordings and thought Seymour might like them for his collection.
The first one looked interesting. The cover showed an old ghost town, perhaps one of the old mining towns that once dotted the Colorado mountains. He flipped the CD over to examine the back. As he did so, his eye rapidly read and registered the title of the next CD: The Land of White Rivers.
Green froze. Could it possibly be . . .? He quickly cracked open the Land of White Rivers jewel case and read the liner notes. The album and song title referred to avalanches — called white rivers in southwestern Colorado.
He got on the comm link and called Captain Scarlet to explain what he’d discovered.
“So Colorado is the ‘land of white rivers’? It fits, but what’s the medieval connection? There were hardly any Europeans in Colorado before the 19th century,” said Captain Blue.
Ochre turned back to his computer and ran a search on Colorado, medieval, holly, and ivy. The engine returned only a few hundred hits.
Shortly after Lieutenant Lake deposited the printouts, Ochre shouted “I’ve got it!”
It was a commercial site for a place called Tarazed Castle, on top of Anvil Mountain above Silverton, Colorado. Built in the late 19th century by a wealthy silver magnate and named for his wife, Tara, the pseudo-English castle was now a very exclusive hotel. And for December it was offering an Advent “Countdown to Christmas” holiday package followed by a medieval-style 12 Days of Christmas celebration for discriminating guests. The pictures of the castle’s interior displayed the grand holiday decorations, including massive garlands of holly and ivy.
“’The holly and the ivy will not grow in the land of white rivers,’” quoted Scarlet. “Tarazed Castle’s destruction would fit that. It could be the target.”
“But why would the Mysterons want to destroy it?” Grey wondered. “It’s exclusive, sure, but so are lots of other places. Why is it so special?”
“There could be a VIP staying at the castle,” said Blue.
A little more research quickly turned up the information that the President of the European Union and her family were enjoying an extended holiday in Colorado. President Brennan would be an ideal target for the Mysterons. Although her exact whereabouts were supposed to be a secret, several papers reported that the president was enjoying a medieval Christmas atmosphere. There could be no more doubt. Tarazed Castle was in danger.
When he got the call from Spectrum, Thompson was incredulous. The guests were settled in and enjoying themselves. And a large number of them were Press. How could Spectrum expect him to evacuate the castle? And without a truly good reason? What would the journalists say if they were suddenly ordered to leave because of Mysterons? No one had ever even seen a Mysteron! And anyhow Tarazed was so remote, an attack was unlikely. Only one road led to the Anvil Mountain plateau. No large ground force could come over the snow-covered mountains. Even an approach from the air would be very difficult because of the unpredictable mountain winds. No, he couldn’t believe an attack was possible. And, no, he didn’t want Spectrum agents at the castle either. They’d attract too much attention and he didn’t want to deal with questions.
He was irritated, even angry, when his so-called assistant, who’d been listening to every word, sided with Spectrum. Caljane insisted that it would be better to have too much protection for President Brennan than too little, never mind the questions or doubtful publicity.
After a lot of arguing, with both Spectrum and Caljane, Thompson finally consented to allow Spectrum to send agents to the castle, as long as they didn’t cause any excitement.
Colonel White had ordered Captain Scarlet and Captain Blue to fly to Durango, Colorado, change into civilian clothes, and then drive to Tarazed Castle by unmarked car. They were to make a low-profile arrival. The SPJ was well on its way when Green contacted the castle again.
“Mr Thompson? This is Lieutenant Green of Spectrum. Captains Scarlet and Blue are on their way.”
“OK, we’ll be ready for them. You might tell them to be careful coming up the road to the castle. It’s long, twisty, and kind of narrow. The first owner had the road covered at intervals with tunnels. I guess he thought they’d be handy shelters in case of avalanches. But he didn’t imagine what kind of traffic would be going through them someday, so he only made them big enough for a couple of horse-drawn wagons abreast. People who come up in four-wheel drives complain about feeling claustrophobic in the tunnels. And I always hold my breath when an oil tanker has to come up and make a delivery. They’re so big, they practically scrape the walls. I’m waiting on one today. He’s overdue and I’m beginning to wonder if he could be stuck in a tunnel.”
“You’re waiting on an oil tanker?” repeated Green.
“Yeah, a caterpillar kind, with two sections, so it can bend around the mountain turns. We have to lay in a lot of fuel at one time in winter, in case the roads get cut off.”
The lieutenant turned to address his commanding officer. “Sir —”
“I heard, Lieutenant. I agree, it’s a likely weapon. Get the details from Mr Thompson and contact the firm that despatched the tanker.”
The Mysteronised Manning tapped the wheel fretfully, then rolled down the window and leaned out. “Hey! HEY!”
The snowplough paused, and its driver indicated he was listening.
“How much longer do you think this will take? I gotta get this stuff delivered before dark!”
“It’s gonna be a while yet, maybe a couple more hours. Just relax. We’ll get you through as fast as we can.”
Manning nodded, but he wasn’t pleased. His orders had been to unload the fuel and then set the plastic explosives that Captain Black had provided to him. The castle’s basement fuel-storage tanks were located directly under the Great Hall, and President Brennan and her family always attended the early evening Advent celebration there. He had to be at the castle in time to set the trap, so he could kill the European president, and destroy as much of the castle and as many other humans as possible. If he arrived too late, the president could be in a remote part of the castle, or even out skiing on a lighted slope, out of harm’s way.
His radio suddenly crackled to life. “This is Durango base. Greg, you there?”
The mysteronised Manning hesitated before answering, trying to draw on incomplete, fading memories of the dead man’s life. “Yeah, uh, Mike. I’m here.”
“This is Darrell, not Mike. Mike’s off today, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry. Uh, what did you want?”
“Just checking to see how you’re coming along. Where are you at?”
“I’m on my way to the castle.” He couldn’t say more than that; the name of the castle and the road he was on did not come to mind.
“I know that. How far away are you?”
He had no idea. “I’m stuck,” he finally said, evading the question. “There’s been a small avalanche. I’m just waiting on the ploughs to clean it up. Guy says it’ll be a few hours at least, Mi— uh, Darrell.”
“Yeah, you mentioned there was a slide when you called before. All right. If the castle calls again, I’ll tell ‘em you got held up but to keep an eye out for you. Talk to you later, Greg.”
The Mysteron hung up the radio with a feeling of relief. Everything would be fine now. His mission would not fail.
Allyn had wanted to get away from it all this year, away from the crowded ski slopes and cross-country trails, away from the people, away from all the intrusive aspects of civilisation. So he’d rented a snowmobile and ridden off into the woods alone. What could happen after all?
He could get lost. That’s what could happen. All he’d need to do now was to wreck the snowmobile by hitting a rock or something. Like that one up ahead. If he hadn’t been paying careful attention and driving slowly, trying to conserve his gas, he might have run right into it.
It was strangely shaped for a boulder. Maybe it was a fallen branch? He started to steer around it and took a good look as he got closer.
“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no no no no . . .”
Gasping, trying not to be sick, he fumbled for his cell phone and dialled 9-1-1, silently thanking the salesperson who had convinced him to spring for the built-in global-positioning-system transmitter. Help wouldn’t be long in coming.
“Talk to you later, Greg.” Darrell hung up the radio and turned his attention to some neglected paperwork. He’d only been working a few minutes when the radio crackled again.
“Durango Oil and Coal?”
He threw down his pen and cursed.
“Damn! It’s probably the castle again.” He picked up the microphone and nearly shouted into it. “Yeah, what do you want now!”
“This is Sergeant McCoy of the Colorado State Police.”
“Oh! Uh, I mean, yes, Darrell Walker speaking. What can I do for you?”
“Do you have a driver named Greg Manning?”
“Yeah, we do. What’s wrong, has he had an accident with the truck?”
There was a pregnant pause. “No, there’s no truck involved.”
“Colonel, the fuel depot in Durango has called back. They contacted their driver as we requested. Mr Walker says that he talked about being stopped at a snow slide across the highway, but he also seemed a little confused, not like his usual self. And a few minutes later the Colorado State Police reported that they found the driver, dead.”
“And the truck?”
“No sign of it, sir. There was no slide where they found the body.”
Colonel White nodded. “We must assume the Mysterons are now in control of the fuel tanker. Contact Captain Scarlet and Captain Blue, explain the situation, and tell them to collect an SPV in Durango.”
“Right away, Colonel. But they can’t possibly get to the castle before the Mysteron does. The drive from Durango to Anvil Mountain is hardly two hours. Even with the delay, the tanker has a big head start.”
“I know, Lieutenant. Can we despatch any other vehicles to assist them?”
Lieutenant Green tapped a few keys and shook his head as the information he wanted appeared on his screen. “Not ground equipment, sir. There’s only one highway leading to Anvil Mountain. The safest vehicle on that road would be another SPV and the nearest one north of there is in Grand Junction, more than 100 miles away.”
“What about aircraft?”
Green tapped a few more keys. “Yes, sir. Spectrum have a helicopter in Durango, Colorado. It might be able to head off the oil tanker if the SPV doesn’t catch up in time.”
“Arrange for the helicopter and stand by to launch Angel One.”
“It’s up to Captains Scarlet and Blue and Rhapsody Angel now. Somehow, they’ve got to stop that truck from reaching its destination.”
The helicopter was prepared and waiting before the Angel Interceptor touched down. Rhapsody shuffled down the wing and leaped to the ground without waiting for assistance. A ground crewman ran up alongside her, matching his stride to hers, and briefed her on the weather conditions, particularly the cold front sweeping in, and the SPV’s last reported position on Highway 505; it hadn’t spotted the tanker yet.
Learning that Rhapsody had never flown in the San Juan Mountains before, the crewman delivered a staccato lecture on typical conditions and air patterns there, especially where helicopters were concerned, and around Anvil Mountain in particular. Cold fronts there, he explained, always made flying much more difficult as they produced aggravated wind waves and severe down-draughts that could result in falls of 3000/feet per minute; he advised extreme caution. Even though Spectrum helicopters were designed to be less affected by turbulence, Rhapsody knew that no aircraft is immune. She was grateful to be forewarned.
Shortly, the helicopter was airborne and racing through the mountains towards Silverton and Tarazed Castle.
The guests were beginning to gather in Tarazed’s Great Hall for the daily Advent ritual. Anticipation was running high: the window was much, much larger than the ones of previous days and promised something exciting.
Thompson mingled with the guests, exchanging pleasantries, and fanning the excitement. He expected that the bonfire would be the most exciting thing to happen during Advent.
The mountain shadows had cast the road into an early darkness. Although Manning had finally reached the road up to Tarazed Castle, the slide had delayed him badly; he could not possibly off-load the fuel and set the explosives in time to be certain of assassinating President Brennan. He would have to race to the castle and — he laughed — gate-crash the festivities.
Minutes later, Captain Blue radioed Cloudbase: they’d sighted the tanker and were beginning the pursuit up the castle road. They would try to get ahead of the tanker and stop it from reaching the plateau.
The road to the castle was narrow, and the truck filled more than half of it. At intervals, the road was covered with tunnels, which were even narrower. And it twisted frequently, making it difficult for the SPV to keep directly behind the truck. Unfortunately, the road’s winding didn’t slow the truck much, thanks to its jointed design. And there was no chance it might accidentally overturn on a curve, as high, solid-looking retaining walls assured that a vehicle would not leave the road. The only unprotected spots were on the straightaways between the tunnels. Apparently the castle’s builder had chosen to take some risks and preserve glimpses of the magnificent scenery.
Blue’s epaulets flashed white tinged with gold: it was Rhapsody in the helicopter. She’d spotted the chase and was asking for instructions.
“Try to get ahead of the truck and stop it!” he told her.
Rhapsody manoeuvred closer to the mountainside, fighting the down-draughts and wind waves that tugged at her aircraft as she attempted to achieve the right altitude. Both vehicles had vanished into tunnels. Without warning, the helicopter hit an air pocket and dropped down violently. When she had regained control, Rhapsody looked up the mountainside and saw the SPV and truck well above her.
Her epaulets flashed blue. “Rhapsody! Where are you?”
“Trying to stay airborne! If all you guys would slow down, it would make a difference!”
“Sorry, Rhapsody! The tanker’s driver and Captain Scarlet are both determined to set the land-speed mountain-climbing record. You’ll just have to keep up with us.”
As quickly as she could manage, Rhapsody gained altitude and tried to position the helicopter ahead of the racing oil tanker. It was difficult: the nearer she came to the mountain’s face, the worse the turbulence became. Another down-draught caught the helicopter, allowing the SPV and truck to get away from her again. Rhapsody thought she had never flown under worse conditions. She turned back and climbed again, constantly fighting the wind.
She radioed the SPV. “I’m above and ahead of you now but I can’t block the truck’s path. There’s too much turbulence; I can’t get close enough.”
“S.I.G., Rhapsody,” replied Captain Scarlet. “Prepare to launch a rocket.”
“S.I.G.” But from her vantage point, Rhapsody could see what the drivers on the road below could not: snow lay heavily up the mountainside, looking as if it was propped up by the trees below it. She felt, rather than knew, that it was probably unstable. Rhapsody didn’t dare take a shot at the tanker. Whether she hit it or missed, the shock of the rocket’s explosion could start an avalanche that would destroy both the target and the SPV.
Captain Scarlet’s epaulets flashed white and gold. “Go ahead, Rhapsody.” He listened as she explained the situation. “I see. But we can’t let him reach the top. We’d endanger the castle if we fired at him then.”
“You’ll endanger yourselves if you fire now. You couldn’t avoid being caught in the explosion and even if you did, you might not get to a tunnel before an avalanche reached you. There’s nothing at the bottom of the mountain that could be harmed, though,” replied Rhapsody. “If you could force the truck over the embankment, you’ll have time to get under cover, so then even if it explodes, it won’t affect the SPV.”
“S.I.G., Rhapsody. Stand by.” He did not take his eyes off the road. “The only thing to do is ram the truck. It’s going to be tricky, trying to get it while it’s in the open and keep it from crashing into the next tunnel or a retaining wall. Or whipping round and taking the SPV with it. Captain Blue —”
“I know that tone, Captain Scarlet. I’ll see you later.” A moment later, Captain Scarlet had ejected him from the SPV. From the air, Blue could see that the panel above his seat had failed to slide back into place, leaving the SPV open to the sky.
The helicopter paused, searchlight on, to see Captain Blue land safely on the roadway before rejoining the chase.
Scarlet had no attention to spare for the malfunction. He calculated it would take Blue several minutes to reach safety in a tunnel. But he couldn’t wait long — he estimated they were above the 10,000-foot mark now and the plateau on which the castle sat was just above 12,000 feet. Time was running out.
Rhapsody watched as pursued and pursuer disappeared into yet another tunnel.
There wasn’t enough room anywhere for Scarlet to easily pull the SPV alongside the truck. He decided that once they were clear of the next tunnel, he would have to manoeuvre closer then angle the SPV up the slope, so it would act as a wedge between the truck and the mountainside. If he miscalculated and knocked only the rear wheels out from under the trailer, the whole truck could do a 360º skid and take the SPV over the embankment with it. He had to ram the truck sideways as near to its mid-section, where the two trailers connected, as possible. And he had to do it now.
As the SPV emerged from the tunnel, Captain Scarlet accelerated and brought it alongside the truck as he’d planned, then threw the SPV down and sideways. The trailers began to slide. The mysteronised driver fought to stop the skid and regain control. He succeeded. Briefly.
The cab suddenly jack-knifed and slammed through the mouth of the next tunnel, jamming itself and the first trailer at an angle inside against the walls. Intending to get clear of the falling truck, Scarlet had continued to accelerate towards the tunnel. Now, unable to stop, the SPV rammed the tanker at full speed, tearing it apart.
Horrified, Rhapsody could only hover at a safe distance and watch as first the leading then the trailing tanker exploded into flames.
Inside the SPV, Captain Scarlet lay unconscious, unaware that the SPV was engulfed in fire. Or that the flames, confined by the tunnel, had been forced downward through the SPV’s open hatch door.
Over the whine of her helicopter’s rotors, Rhapsody heard an ominous roar. As she had feared, the tremors caused by the explosion had rattled the snow shelf; part of it collapsed and raced down the mountainside, burying the road and the tunnel where the truck and SPV were burning.
She contacted Cloudbase and reported what had happened. She kept her voice professional, matter-of-fact, while her heart raced. She couldn’t afford to be distracted; mountain winds at this altitude were capricious and she might find her helicopter caught in an up-draught or down-draught again at any time. And Captain Blue needed to be picked up; there was no way he could get to the castle on foot and Rhapsody didn’t think one of those tunnels would be a comfortable shelter for a lone man waiting for help to arrive.
Blue had been ejected from the SPV several twists below the avalanche; he might have gotten to safety in a tunnel out of its path. Rhapsody turned on the searchlight and flew cautiously along the road, watching for any sign of him. It was hard work, maintaining her speed and level, and also watching for a patch of sky blue against the snow.
Not a trace, she thought, scanning the road and the slopes above and below it. She turned back into the wind for another pass. This time, she spotted movement: it was Captain Blue, waving two evergreen branches like semaphore flags; his blue coat was not conspicuous against the white drifts and blue shadows, Rhapsody noted.
With utmost care and consummate skill, Rhapsody landed the helicopter a safe distance from Captain Blue, who ran up and clambered onboard. “Captain Scarlet —?” he asked, once the helicopter was airborne.
“He stopped the attack. But there was an avalanche. The SPV is buried up ahead.” She manoeuvred the helicopter into a hover. “I’m pretty sure this is the spot. I think that’s the hump of the tunnel.”
Blue was silent for several seconds. “I heard an explosion. Do you think he survived?”
Blue heard the catch in her voice; he felt the same way. “It’s going to be hard for rescuers to find the right spot and dig him out. But he’s got to be taken to Cloudbase as soon as possible.”
“Then we’ve got to mark the spot so the rescuers can find it. Otherwise, they’ll be digging blind; it will be full dark soon.” Rhapsody studied the snow. “It’s going to be tricky landing on that stuff. If you’re willing to chance it, let’s do it now. Or I can fly you up the castle and then come back on my own.”
Blue shook his head. “He’s my best friend, Rhapsody.”
The winds pushed then pulled at the helicopter as it drifted down towards the snow, causing it to land rather more forcefully than Rhapsody had intended. “The down-draughts here are worse than any I’ve ever encountered!”
Blue searched for something to mark the SPV’s approximate burial spot. He pulled a large, partially buried branch out of the snow. “What do you think?”
Rhapsody considered. From the air, it would be difficult to distinguish from the many other pieces of shattered trees. And on the ground, it wasn’t much more visible. She shook her head. “We need to make it stand out somehow.”
Blue removed his heavy leather coat and draped it over the wood. Despite the winds, the coat flapped feebly. “I guess not. You had trouble seeing me on the snow, didn’t you?”
“Lots,” Rhapsody acknowledged.
Shivering, Blue wrapped himself in his coat again. “I really like blue and I was happy when it was assigned to me. But right now I wish I’d been given a brighter colour, something like red or orange. I could use my vest as a flag then.”
A bright colour and light enough to use as a flag? Rhapsody had a brainstorm. She shrugged off her white coat, trying hard to ignore how the sub-zero cold seemed to freeze and burn her body simultaneously, and began to unfasten her flight suit’s jacket. “Turn your back, Captain Blue.”
“Rhapsody! What on earth are you doing?” But he turned away, as she requested.
Behind him, he heard her exclaim at the cold through chattering teeth.
“Use this as a flag!”
She tossed him something brilliant red: it was a satin teddy that she had been wearing under her uniform. Quickly, Blue tied it to the branch; it filled with wind and flapped furiously. It might be small, but it’s the best we can do, he thought. Hang on, Paul. Help will be here soon. “Let’s get to the castle!”
In spite of the increasing winds, Rhapsody managed to get the helicopter airborne again. But as they reached the plateau on which the castle sat and began to descend, the winds suddenly changed. “Wind shear!” gasped Rhapsody. She fought for control but without lift beneath the rotor blades she could not stop the helicopter from falling the last fifty feet.
“Brace yourself!” she shouted at Blue, just before the ground rushed up at an angle and everything went dark.
Later, Rhapsody estimated that she had lost consciousness for only a few minutes. Her neck hurt, but otherwise she didn’t seem to be seriously injured, although from the unnatural tilt of the cockpit, she could guess that the machine must be badly damaged. “Captain Blue?” There was no answer. “Captain Blue!”
“Yes, Rhapsody. I’m alive. But I’m not feeling very well. Are we near the castle?”
“Close enough. The wind’s swept most of the snow off the plateau. I can go for help on foot. Will you be all right until I get back?”
“Yes. But my head hurts. And I’m getting sleepy.” Both of them knew that those were symptoms of hypothermia or concussion or both.
Up at the castle, Marta Caljane had opted not to attend the Advent festivities. She stood at a window, still watching anxiously for the fuel truck. Over the shriek of the winds around the castle, she thought she’d heard a sound like an explosion. Soon after, to her surprise, then horror, a huge helicopter had appeared over the plateau, then crashed to the ground. On her own initiative, and to avoid another argument with Thompson, she mobilized the castle’s rescue squad. Rhapsody met them as she struggled out of the wreckage.
“Down the road,” Rhapsody told them. “There was an accident. Avalanche. Our friend was buried. We marked the spot with a red flag. Contact Spectrum. They’ll send help.”
Two of the rescuers wrapped her in a blanket and escorted her to the castle; several more, armed with blankets and medical supplies, remained with the wrecked helicopter, carefully extricating Captain Blue. The remainder fetched snowmobiles, shovels, and the castle’s own specially trained rescue dogs, and set off down the mountainside to look for the makeshift red flag, and set up torches to guide the rescuers who followed. If the dogs could sniff out the victim, they would begin digging. There was no sense waiting for Spectrum if there was any chance of finding someone alive.
The castle’s rescuers had found the tunnel’s mouth by the time Spectrum rescuers arrived to join them.
Hours later, under the glare of powerful work lights, enough of the SPV had been uncovered to attempt opening the door. Captain Grey, who had taken charge of the rescue effort when he’d arrived, ordered the non-Spectrum personnel, especially the reporters who had come down from the castle, to stay well back. The reporters complained loudly about not being allowed to see what was happening, dismissing the explanation that the victim’s family was entitled to be notified first.
Ghouls, thought Grey angrily.
Using a remote control, he entered a code to open the SPV door. A white mass slid out the side; powdery snow from the avalanche had poured into the SPV through the open hatch. Grey knew that Captain Scarlet would not be alive. But when the body was uncovered, Grey was shocked by its condition.
A reporter who had slipped through the shadows beyond the work lights and cautiously sneaked round to a vantage point saw the body as well. He was disappointed that it had been so badly burned that he could not see what colour the vest or boots had been; unless they were black to begin with. The man was obviously dead; why, then, did the Spectrum rescuers work to transfer his body to the helicopter so quickly? The reporter mentally shrugged. Probably just part of the effort to keep his identity secret.
Shortly, journalists who had been discreetly covering the president’s Colorado holiday reported that in thwarting the Mysteron attack against the European Union’s president, Spectrum agents Captain Blue and Rhapsody Angel had been injured and an unnamed agent had died, adding that Spectrum refused to reveal even the agent’s code name, to protect the deceased’s family. President Brennan made a public expression of thanks to Spectrum, and extended her sympathy.
Captain Scarlet’s father, General Metcalfe, was worried. Paul often partnered Captain Blue. Could he be . . .? No word came from Spectrum, no dreaded “we regret to inform you . . . .” But there was no word from Paul, either. Not even in response to his parents’ birthday wishes.
Dr Fawn shook his head, impatiently. “I can’t say when he’ll recover, Colonel. I can’t say if he’ll recover. He’s never been — dead — this long before. And his condition. . . .”
Colonel White, his hands clasped behind him, gazed at the unchanging readings on the remote monitor for the Life Recovery Bed where Scarlet lay motionless.
“I’ll inform you the moment there’s any change in his condition, Colonel.” He turned as someone else entered his office. “That goes for you, too. I may just broadcast a general notice to the whole base, make sure I haven’t missed anyone.” He grinned at Blue to take the sting out of his words.
Blue smiled back, then winced. His head ached abominably. But he just couldn’t rest. He was too worried about his friend.
Dr Fawn groaned as Rhapsody, a white robe pulled tight around her, her hair loose and unbrushed, ambled in. It seemed none of his patients was inclined to obey his orders to rest.
Rhapsody stood silently for a moment. “Is he —?”
“Dr Fawn says we’ll be the first to know,” said Blue, cutting the physician’s exasperated sigh short. “Right now, all we can do is pray.”
Fawn nodded in approval and resignation. “We’ve done everything else we can for him.”
“It’s good to see you back on duty, Rhapsody. We were worried about you.”
“Thank you, Melody. I had a slight concussion, and some bumps and pulled muscles, but I’m all right now.”
“A slight concussion? Three days in Sickbay and one more resting?” scoffed the Angel.
“It would have been worse if I hadn’t had a helmet. Dr Fawn is keeping poor Captain Blue under observation for a few more days. He’s still complaining about a headachy feeling.”
Symphony descended from Angel One. “Rhapsody! Good to see you made it!”
“I’m looking forward to some peaceful star gazing.” They swiftly changed places. In less than a minute, Rhapsody was in the cockpit again. She sighed. It felt good to be on duty again.
It was a beautiful night. A full moon turned the sky into a silvery sea beneath a cobalt canopy sprinkled with fairy lights. It was the kind of night meant for thinking. Rhapsody found her thoughts were full of Captain Scarlet.
Along with the other Angels, she’d met him shortly after joining Spectrum. He had been visibly surprised to see Destiny, whom he already knew. Juliette was no less surprised to see him, but they were both pleased to meet again. Destiny herself told her fellow pilots about her history with Paul Metcalfe, that they had once been lovers, even talked of marriage, but mutually decided that they weren’t cut out to be lifemates. Although they had ended their intimate relationship, they had remained friends, sharing mutual affection and great respect.
As all the Angels did, Rhapsody liked and respected Captain Scarlet. On duty, he was reserved and completely dedicated to his duties. Off-duty, he was charming, fun loving, even mischievous. But in spite of what Destiny had told her, she wasn’t really sure what feelings there were between the former lovers. Still, she’d enjoyed Scarlet’s company at the Colonel’s Sunday teas, and in the Officers’ Lounge with the other Angels and captains, engaging in the playful flirting everyone sometimes indulged in. And she’d very much enjoyed the times when they talked together, just the two of them, and he’d revealed an unexpected openness and a breadth of interests.
She’d once remarked to Destiny that she was surprised Captain Scarlet was still single. “I am not surprised,” her fellow Angel had replied, “that Paul has not married. He needs a very special woman to match him. He is not an ordinary man.”
Destiny could not have known how prophetic her words were.
Rhapsody had been shocked, like everyone else, when Captain Scarlet died his first two deaths. And she hadn’t been sure what to think at first when he’d returned from the dead. What was he now? How should she interact with him? But she’d quickly come to value his company and friendship again, and more so because she’d nearly lost them for good. In every way that counted, he was still the man he had been before.
And it struck her: that was how she thought of him. Not as a Mysteron or a clone or, she admitted, only as her fellow Spectrum agent. She thought of him as a man. Her feelings for Paul Metcalfe had begun to go deeper than friendship.
Dear God. Am I falling in love with him?
But how did he feel about her? What if he respected her as a colleague and enjoyed her company as a fellow Brit but that was all? What if she began to reveal her heart and he didn’t reciprocate?
What if he didn’t recover from his injuries this time?
Rhapsody knew it was a possibility. But don’t let it be now. Not at Christmas. Gazing up into the sky, seeking out the brightest star, she made a Christmas wish.
Dr Fawn sat in the Officer’s Restaurant, his food forgotten. Despite the extent and variety of their combined training and experience, Dr Fawn and his staff had never treated a partially frozen burn victim. And Captain Scarlet had suffered extensive third-degree burns, something he hadn’t experienced before. Scarlet had had devastating injuries in the past, as when he fell from the London Car-Vu. Dr Fawn and his staff had done nothing that first time, hadn’t tried at first to set the broken bones, or repair the internal damage, since they hadn’t known they could or should. After all, he’d been dead. Yet Scarlet had revived despite the neglect. This time, they had tried to help the process, removing burnt clothing, bathing the wounds, applying dressings, and so on, before life signs reappeared. And nothing was happening. Had they made a mistake? Had they somehow disrupted the retrometabolic process? Or were Scarlet’s injuries simply too extensive for recovery, no matter what aid he was given? Fawn just didn’t know.
The sound of his name, a summons from Sickbay, broke Dr Fawn’s concentration. Reciting a prayer in his mind, he answered and held his breath.
The news was good: Captain Scarlet was beginning to show signs of life, though not consciousness. His retrometabolism was beginning the process of healing.
Rhapsody Angel, Captain Blue, and several others met with Dr Fawn, at his request.
“You’re all good friends of Captain Scarlet’s,” he began. “And you’ve all seen the condition he’s in. He’s beginning the recovery process but it’s going very slowly. He’s still unconscious.” Fawn paused to scan the concerned faces turned to him. “I know you’ve been anxious and wanting to help. I have something for you to do.”
“Name it, Doctor,” said Blue.
“I want people to visit with Scarlet at his bedside, and talk to him. I don’t know if he can hear anything that’s said to him, let alone understand. But if he does, it can only help.”
“What should we talk to him about?” asked Rhapsody.
“Anything at all. Read aloud. Recite something. It’s the sound of a friendly human voice that matters.” Fawn looked round at the group. “I’d like people to work in shifts. Not around the clock; Scarlet needs some quiet time, like anyone. But an hour or so each day would help; two or even three if you can manage it.”
It hadn’t taken long to organise a schedule. When Rhapsody arrived for her first hour, Dr Fawn was standing by Scarlet’s bedside, studying the monitors.
“Good evening, Rhapsody. No, no change,” he added, seeing the question in her eyes. “Captain Blue was here a while ago. Would you like to continue with the book he was reading?”
Rhapsody nodded. Finding the page Captain Blue had marked, she began to read aloud as Doctor Fawn left. Her first hour passed quickly, but she lingered until a nurse came to change Scarlet’s dressings and mark his progress.
When she returned a few hours later, she read for a short while, then put the book aside and sat quietly for a few minutes, wondering if Scarlet could feel or hear. She touched his bandaged hand as lightly as she could, and talked to him. She told him that he had succeeded in stopping the Mysteron, about how she had sacrificed her underclothing for a flag to mark where he was buried by an avalanche, how his friends were thinking of him, and about the day’s events on Cloudbase. It had been a routine day; nothing of any real interest had happened. But Rhapsody found that talking, rather than reading aloud, made her feel better as she kept her vigil. Her voice had covered the monotonous sounds of the monitors while reading. Perhaps she needed to speak, not only to give Captain Scarlet what comfort she could but to comfort herself.
When she arrived for her first hour the next day, Rhapsody found that most of the bandages were gone. Muscle and skin had almost completely regenerated. Captain Scarlet looked human again and almost, though not quite, well.
As on her previous visits, Rhapsody read aloud until the nurse finished examining his patient and checking the monitors, and left. Then she talked to Captain Scarlet.
She took his hand in hers, holding it and stroking it gently. “Paul, it’s me again. Dianne.” She told him about Sunday’s tea with Colonel White, how his absence had been keenly felt by everyone there. She told him that his parents had sent him birthday greetings. She would have brought them with her to read to him, but soon he would be well enough to read them himself. She stroked his cheek with her free hand; it felt like sandpaper. She commented on that and added, “I hope that’s a good sign, that you’ll be fully recovered soon. And I hope you’ll never grow a beard!” She almost laughed; she would have if he’d only been conscious to laugh with her. Or scowl at her. Or even walk away offended.
The next morning, Scarlet finally regained consciousness. He still wasn’t fully healed and was in some pain, which his retrometabolic system did not allow drugs to control.
But he was alive. And recovering rapidly. Fawn privately thought of it as a Christmas miracle.
A day later, after Captain Scarlet was released from Sickbay, he reported to Colonel White, who immediately told him to go home for Christmas. “Dr Fawn refuses to release you for active duty and recommends that you take some leave.” He raised a hand to stay Scarlet’s protest. “Your recovery this time was extraordinarily prolonged. I know you’re not entirely comfortable with your parents yet, but who knows when they might get to see you again? Go. My regards to them.”
Scarlet contacted his mother and father to tell them he was coming home for Christmas. They were both surprised and relieved to hear from him. They had heard of the incident in Colorado, that Captain Blue’s partner, an unnamed agent, had died. When they hadn’t been able to reach Paul on his birthday, they had feared the worst. Scarlet told them that he’d been on another assignment for the past few weeks and had just returned. He couldn’t get in touch with them sooner, although he’d appreciated their birthday greetings. And he was in fine health, he’d just been lucky enough to be granted a few days leave for Christmas.
“Erm, Mom? Have you decorated with holly and ivy this year?”
“I always do. Why?”
Scarlet smiled as a warm feeling swept through him. “I’m just looking forward to seeing it again.”
Four long hours had passed. When Rhapsody came down from Angel One, she and Melody made the switch to and from the cockpit seat with the ease of long practice. Harmony had another four hours on standby, and Symphony had just arrived to begin her shift.
Before heading for her quarters, Rhapsody paused to look at the Christmas tree, its lights twinkling merrily. She remembered the day she and all the other Angels had decorated the tree and encouraged Symphony to follow her heart and take a chance on Captain Blue.
It was so much easier to advise someone else than to follow that advice oneself.
“Did you hear the news?” asked Harmony.
Rhapsody raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t heard anything for the last four hours. What’s happened? Not another threat from the Mysterons?”
“No, something good for a change. Captain Scarlet’s been released from Sickbay. And he’s going home for Christmas!”
“Captain Blue will be flying him to London in the SPJ. He’s got leave, too,” added Symphony.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. You were looking forward to seeing him on Christmas Day.”
Symphony shrugged then grinned. “It’ll work out. I gave him his gift as soon as I found out he was going.” She didn’t say what had happened, but her smile spoke for her.
Rhapsody smiled back. “So when are Captain Blue and Captain Scarlet leaving Cloudbase?”
“Any time now,” said Harmony. “The Colonel told them to go today.”
Rhapsody’s heart was torn as she walked back to her quarters. So Captain Scarlet would be gone from Cloudbase for Christmas. She was relieved to know that he had recovered, or at least was recovering. She could still look forward to his company and friendship when he returned from his visit home.
And then? Did she want to settle for just companionship?
It was time to decide.
Just as he started up the SPJ’s gangway, Captain Blue heard footsteps running across the Flight Deck.
He turned. It was Rhapsody, still dressed in her flight suit, clutching a small parcel.
“Could you take this with you? I meant it to be delivered sooner, but —”
“No problem, Rhapsody. You’re not the first person to ask me today.”
“It’s going to someone in London and I’d like him to get it in time for Christmas. Could you deliver it personally? It won’t take you out of your way, I promise,” she added, as Blue raised an eyebrow, then accepted the parcel with a smile.
“Merry Christmas, Rhapsody.”
“Happy Christmas, Captain Blue!”
On board the SPJ, Blue mentioned Rhapsody’s request to Captain Scarlet.
“I can take care of it. Rhapsody has family in Chelsea. I can deliver the parcel to them and visit the shops there, find some gifts for my own family,” said Scarlet. He accepted the parcel from Blue and slipped it into his flight bag without looking at the address.
The flight was routine, the drive into central London uneventful, despite the heavy traffic. When they reached Scarlet’s chosen hotel, Blue pulled over to the kerb. “Here we are. How long are you planning to be here?”
“I’ll be staying here for the next few days, then drive down to Winchester on Christmas Eve.”
“Well, enjoy your visit with your folks, Paul. Merry Christmas!”
“Happy Christmas, Adam!”
Only after he’d changed into civilian clothes did Captain Scarlet remember his promise and retrieve Rhapsody’s package from his bag. There was no address on the outer wrapper, just a cryptic handwritten note: Address Inside. Beneath the wrapper he found only a plain cardboard box, so he opened that to find a gift tag: Happy Christmas, Paul Metcalfe! From Dianne Simms. Beneath it was something wrapped in silver paper and tied with a bright red ribbon. Curious, he cut the ribbon with his Swiss army knife and ripped off the paper. Inside was a gold tablet-shaped key fob inscribed, Never drive faster than your guardian Angel can fly. In one corner was a small heart with the initials R.A. inside. He stared at it for several moments. Then, laughing, he transferred his keys from the old fob to this new one and returned them to his pocket.
On Christmas Eve, a jet arrived on Cloudbase, carrying supplies, and last-minute mail and Christmas gifts from home. Rhapsody was surprised to hear that one package was for her. She had already received everything her family had told her to expect.
How odd, she thought. It was certainly addressed to her, at her home in Chelsea, but the plain wrapping and typewritten label gave her no clues to the sender’s identity. Perhaps one of her younger cousins had sent it as joke. She decided it would be wisest to open it in the privacy of her quarters, and minimize the mess it was sure to make.
Beneath the wrappings, nestled in a bed of excelsior was a small, oblong box. Rhapsody opened it cautiously, then gasped. Inside was a miniature scarlet rose, masterfully crafted of porcelain to look as if it was just opening. Beneath it was a card:
Thank you my Christmas Angel. For everything.
P.S. I will never grow a beard.
Even in wartime, Christmas still comes.
And Christmas is a time of beginnings.
The inspiration for the story came from the CD Lieutenant Green discovered. It really exists. The title, Land of White Rivers, is a dialectal synonym for parts of Colorado in which avalanches are called white rivers; the CD was recorded by Dan Render, Ray Liljegren, and Judy Fisher in 1995. Durango and Silverton, Colorado, the San Juan Mountains, even Anvil Mountain are real, but Tarazed Castle, named for a star not a person, is completely fictional. Dang it.
For those of you who, like me, aren’t Alan Titschmarsh, the rose I invented for Rhapsody was inspired by a real variety called, appropriately, Captain Scarlet.
Several real people are mentioned, make cameo appearances, or have supporting roles in this story, although the portrayals are completely fictional. So a tip of the kepi to Captain Orange, Captain Ruddy, Lieutenant Amethyst, and Lieutenant Lake. Christmas cheers to each of you!
And a special Christmas cheer to Gerry Anderson and Sylvia Anderson. Unlike many, the Andersons have always kept their garden open for writers to come into and play respectfully and affectionately with the Andersons’ creations. However old we may get, we are still children in our hearts, wanting to be a part of the action. They have graciously allowed us to live our dreams.
Except for my own original creations and the real places and people mentioned above, the characters, craft, etc. mentioned in this story are based on the intellectual properties of the Andersons. No copyright infringement is intended.