Before the word "Spectrum" meant more than a rainbow, before it was even a gleam in the eyes of the World Government, the brave men and women of the World Army Air Force distinguished themselves in actions against terrorism all over the globe. This is the story of one unique young man, whose first WAAF mission detailed here made him an instant legend and one of the first to be selected for that elite security organization later that decade.
Seven years before he was given the name Captain Scarlet, and eight years before anyone had heard of the Mysterons, Paul Metcalfe suddenly found he had...
A Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons Short Story
by Mary J. Rudy
Tempers were short at a remote World Army Air Force base in early September 2060. Although the base was nicknamed "Club Med" due to its geographic and strategic position as headquarters for the WAAF's North African operations, the atmosphere was nowhere near that of the famed resort. The infant World Government's growing pains had once again concentrated on WAAF Sicily's area of operations, and once again the WAAF Special Forces were needed to do the job no other unit but the famed Red Berets could accomplish.
Colonel Andrew Tweed scanned the sheet in front of him and scowled at his aide in frustration. "This is all that Intelligence were able to come up with?" he bellowed in a thick Scottish brogue.
Captain William Jones nodded. "Yes, sir. Information's been hard to come by since they discovered our contact at the mosque."
"It's not enough, not for this. There are twenty lives at stake." He tossed it onto the desk in disgust. "What about the team? General Kórinek wants an answer within the hour."
"I'm working on it, sir, but we're shorthanded. The majority of our men won't get back to base in time." Jones handed his superior another sheet. "Here's who we have available."
The colonel continued his conversation as he read Jones' list. "I see you haven't found a replacement for Jubinski yet."
"There just aren't enough qualified men available, sir. Walsh is still in the hospital, otherwise he'd be my first choice."
"Why isn't Asher on this list? He's one of our best men."
"He broke his leg at PT this morning."
"Of all the luck. I was counting on him for this mission." Tweed sighed. "I'd better give the general the bad news, unless you have any suggestions."
"Actually I do, Colonel. We could always send out a trainee--"
"Trainee?!" Tweed snapped. "Have you gone mad? We need experienced soldiers for this mission, not trainees. It'd be like sending lambs to the slaughter!"
"Not on the strike team, sir, of course. I'd put him in the rear, to supervise communications, and I'd give Jubinski's position to Brumfield. All we need is one more man with knowledge of the electronic surveillance equipment to meet our minimum for this mission."
Tweed nodded slowly. "Now there's a possibility. Who would you recommend?"
"Metcalfe, sir. He's had some of the best scores throughout his training that I've ever seen, he's fully qualified on the communications equipment and he speaks the language."
"That's all well and good, Jones, but what will he do if something goes wrong and he's faced with a combat situation?"
"The kid's a natural soldier, Colonel. I have every confidence in him."
"I realize that, but lately we've had above-average casualties. Haven't we got enough on our plate besides the possibility of a green officer getting killed before he is even ready for active duty? Perhaps you'd like to write the letter to his father, but I'd rather not."
Jones inwardly cringed at the thought of addressing any letter to WAAF Major General Charles Metcalfe, much less a letter of condolence, but he remained adamant. "With all due respect, sir, he's got to go out sometime. I think putting him in the rear, where almost nothing can go wrong, will be good for his confidence and will give him experience. He really is the best we have to choose from."
Tweed reluctantly scrawled the name on the list. "Oh, very well, as if we've got a choice in this matter. Get cracking, Jones. The briefing will begin at 1930 promptly."
"Yes, sir." Jones came to attention before his superior, then scurried from the room.
Captain Jones had just finished gathering his maps when the door to the briefing room burst open. He looked up to find a fresh-faced second lieutenant in hardly-used black battledress, out of breath from running across the parade ground, standing before him expectantly.
Jones rolled his eyes. Another rookie, he thought. What did they call them at Fort Bragg, bullet-stoppers?
"Lieutenant Paul Metcalfe reporting as ordered, sir," the young man said in an eager yet clipped British-accented voice.
"At ease, Metcalfe," Jones said tiredly. "Have a seat. You've got a long night ahead of you--conserve some of that energy of yours."
"Yes, sir." He doffed his red beret and took a front-row seat.
"I'm glad you're here early," Jones said, forcing himself to take a soothing tone. He took a seat on the corner of the desk, then looked the younger man in the eye. "I won't kid you--you weren't our first choice for this job."
Metcalfe nodded. He'd suspected as much. Brand new second lieutenants weren't normally summoned to briefings for late-night Special Forces missions. "I understand, sir. My lack of practical experience makes me a risk. But I can assure you I'm more than ready for any task you'll assign."
"Confident. I like that. But this is not an expedition to Annapolis to kidnap a goat--"
"That was never proven," Metcalfe interrupted, more sharply than he intended. His single-handed goatnapping of the mascot from the U.S. Naval Academy the year before was the stuff of legend, but Metcalfe always denied that he had anything to do with the incident. Catching himself, he added with a bit more respect, "But you have to admit, sir, it would have been good training for a future Red Beret."
"Good point," Jones said, laughing, and returned to the matter at hand. "Let me tell you why you're here before the rest of the men come in."
Metcalfe tried to relax as Jones explained the reason for his selection, but it wasn't easy. He was too excited. This was what he dreamed of doing, ever since he told his father he wanted to go to West Point. Heaven knows, after the flak he took from Dad and the extra hazing all non-American cadets received from the upperclassmen, he'd earned this chance.
The other team members began drifting into the briefing room. Some of them were already dressed in black camouflage fatigues, others were checking map books, compasses, and weapons. None of them had their jaunty red berets with them. Metcalfe quickly stuffed his into his pocket, then tried to assume the nonchalant poses of the more experienced men he saw around him. He noticed several upraised eyebrows at his presence in the room.
"Boy, we must be hard up," one of them muttered. "Brand new butter-bar in the front row."
"I saw him," another whispered. "Hey, LT, does he know which way to point his weapon?"
Lieutenant Wismer turned to the pair of enlisted men making the wisecracks. "Shut up," he hissed. "Keep quiet and listen so you don't get yourselves killed."
The door opened. "Ten-hut!" barked Jones as Tweed entered the room. Jones noticed that his superior officer seemed to hesitate at the sight of Metcalfe in the front row.
"As you were," Tweed ordered. "Take your seats and let's get this started. We've got a lot of work ahead of us tonight." He looked down at his notes. "Lights, please."
The room immediately darkened as a film started to roll. "By now you all know about the hostage situation in Tunis. The British Embassy was overrun by the known French African terrorist Jean-Claude Uqdah and his followers three days ago. The World Government was able to get the Tunisian nationals released yesterday, but otherwise they haven't been able to make Uqdah budge."
"How many are left now, sir?" Wismer asked.
"The Ambassador and his chargé d'affaires, plus the rest of their staff--twenty men and women in all. Our last reliable intelligence report has them still in the embassy building, but as I'm sure you are aware, some of our intelligence platforms in the area have been compromised. We do know there's been a lot of anticipatory moves on their part lately. They may well have been moved by now."
Holland, the intelligence sergeant, shook his head. "Since it's the most easily guarded, I think we can safely assume they're still in there."
"It's hard to say how much Uqdah knows and how much is just being in the right place at the right time," Tweed continued. "But we do anticipate minor casualties."
A murmur went through the room as the lights went back on and the intelligence film ended. He quickly changed the subject. "Your assignment, gentlemen, is insertion and retrieval." He pulled down a map in front of the blackboard, then extended his telescoping pointer.
"This," he began, tapping the pointer on a map reference circled in red, "is your drop zone. Your gear and vehicles will be dropped ahead of you. Once you have assembled your teams, you will set up your base camp and proceed immediately to the embassy, here." Tweed pointed to a large red X. "Lieutenant Metcalfe and Sergeant Alston will remain at base camp to monitor satellite communications and warn you of any enemy mobilization."
Several of the men sighed with relief that the new lieutenant was not going with them into the thick of the action. Tweed ignored the sighs.
"You will neutralize any resistance you encounter and get the hostages to the roof. Two helicopters will be flying in--one for the hostages, one for the rest of you. Remember that Uqdah has anti-aircraft weapons at his disposal and is not afraid to use them. That's how he managed to gain control of so much of the country in the first place. These weapons must be taken out of action by 0430 so the helicopters can approach. Estimated pickup time is 0435 at the embassy, 0445 at the base camp. Our safe zone will rapidly collapse after that." He paused. "I will remind you that the success of this mission is crucial to our efforts to oust Uqdah and restore democracy to Tunisia. He is the last obstacle in the way of consolidating North Africa under World Government control and has been a thorn in our side since the coup last year, when the Tunisian government fell apart. But that does not mean any of you are to take foolish risks. Just do the jobs that you've been trained to do and get the hell out of there as soon as possible. I don't want any heroism. Understood?"
"Yes, sir!" Metcalfe answered shrilly before he noticed the other team members merely acknowledged with nods.
It took everything Tweed had not to laugh as the others around him did. "Very well, gentlemen. You will report to the airstrip at 2300 hours sharp. Good luck."
As the transport rumbled down the runway and lifted off, Paul Metcalfe sat nervously checking and rechecking his equipment in the dim red light of the cabin.
"I hate night flights," Simmons, the heavy weapons leader, noted.
"Why?" wisecracked another man. "Interfere with your social life?"
"At least I have a social life, Tate," countered Simmons.
Metcalfe, looking out the window at the clear night sky, wondered how they could act so casually. He began applying the black face paint to aid in concealment.
"Make sure you get your neck, Metcalfe," Jones reminded him. "Anything that's not covered by clothing had better be black."
"Now you know why I always have so much free time on these flights," Sergeant Brumfield, a good-natured black man from the southern United States, quipped.
Everybody chuckled. "One of these days, Broom, there's gonna be an alpine drop, and you're gonna be SOL," Wismer shot back. The laughs were louder this time.
"Oh, very funny, Whiz Kid," Brumfield groaned. "Can't you think up anything more original?"
"Does everyone here have a catchy nickname of some sort?" Metcalfe asked. "They called me ‘Big Red' at the Point."
Brumfield looked confused. "I thought you had to have red hair to be called that."
"Red was short for ‘Redcoat,' which is what the upperclassmen call every British West Pointer," he explained. "‘Big Red' came from being the top-ranking redcoat. You can call me that if you like--"
Simmons cut Metcalfe off with one disdainful look. "You get your nickname after you come back from your first mission, --Lieutenant."
"Oh, lighten up, Simmons," admonished Wismer. "I remember what you were like on your first mission."
"Yeah, Simmons, leave him alone or I'll tell him what they called you when you lost your cherry," retorted Brumfield.
Metcalfe grinned, his teeth dazzlingly white against his makeup. He returned to checking his equipment one last time.
"Metcalfe, you're making me nervous," Wismer groaned, elbowing him in the ribs. "We'll make sure you don't get killed on your first mission."
"Yeah," Brumfield added. "Nobody wants to write that letter to your daddy."
Jones nodded in silent agreement, harking back to Colonel Tweed's words earlier that day.
"Drop zone, sixty seconds," the pilot announced.
Jones picked up the intercom. "Open the rear doors, Captain."
The door at the rear of the huge aircraft swung open and filled the troop cabin with fresh, chilly night air.
"Drop equipment," Jones ordered. The transport pitched upward as that part of her payload was released. The captain checked that the heavy-duty parachutes opened before he turned on the amber warning light.
The mood turned decidedly somber as every man rose to his feet and shouldered his gear. Straps were tightened, chutes checked, and weapons secured. Metcalfe felt his heart beat a little faster than it had before.
The light turned green. "Go!" Jones shouted, waving the men out of the hatch. One by one, the commandos made their way rearward and jumped out.
Metcalfe leapt from the plane, fighting off the urge to shout some sort of battle cry as he began free-falling through the atmosphere. He ticked off the seconds in his head, then pulled his ripcord and felt his expanding chute jerk him upward.
The sensation was incredible. Nothing like the jump platform, nothing like the training missions. This was real. The night was spectacularly clear -- too clear, he realized. If they're watching, they'll be able to see the plane miles away--
At that moment, he heard the popping of small arms fire. The man next to him jerked spasmodically, then went limp and began drifting out of control.
They're shooting at us! his mind screamed. Quickly, he began trying to steer his parachute away from the drifting men who were being picked off like pheasants during hunting season--or, more accurately, he realized, like fish in a barrel. At least pheasants can fly away.
A bullet whizzed by his head, and another struck the radio pack on his back. Play dead, his instincts told him. Let go of the chute and play dead. He released the steering cords and went limp.
He felt several more bullets rattle the radio pack as he drifted dangerously close to a grove of palm trees. Metcalfe landed harshly atop one of them, tangling his chute amidst its leaves. A searing pain struck him in the midsection, and he bit his lip to avoid crying out.
Metcalfe did not move a muscle as he detected the horrible sounds below him: screams of mortally wounded comrades, seemingly endless small-arms fire, and the guttural argot of the Tunisian terrorists.
More screams. More shooting. More curses in two languages. Then, the sound of movement changed to the sound of vehicles speeding away.
He cautiously opened one eye and peered through the branches. Not a soul moved below him. And not a sound filled the air.
"Captain Jones?" he whispered. "Broom?" Then, more anxiously, "Anybody?"
Metcalfe hit the quick release on his chute, then painfully shinnied down the tree. He drew his weapon and looked around.
The smell of death nearly overcame him. The bodies of his comrades lay strewn in the sand all around. The equipment was either missing or destroyed.
Suddenly, Metcalfe realized that he was very alone.
For a long moment, he just looked around him in complete shock. Nothing he had trained for could have prepared him for this. Here he was, hours away from any possibility of rescue, in the middle of nowhere with only dead men for company, and four helicopter crewmen about to join their comrades if he didn't find some way of warning them--
"The radio!" he shouted triumphantly. "I can abort the mission!" He slung the radio off his back.
One look at it told him that aborting the mission was not an option. Bullets had torn apart the housing, and wires dangled from every opening. It had probably saved his life.
He threw it to the ground and cursed to himself, then went over the scenario. "OK, Lieutenant, stay calm. Consider your options. You can stay here and wait to be picked up, with the risk of being discovered by a patrol--"
He paused as he heard the baying of an animal in the distance, reminding him that the bodies would quickly attract visitors of another sort.
"--Or, you can make your own way to the city center. There's not much chance of getting on the helicopters, but maybe you can find some way to warn them off. At least it would be better than dying alone in this Godforsaken desert."
He checked his map, using his compass and the North Star to get his bearings, and headed off in the general direction of the city. He did not travel on the main road, where he would probably be discovered, but instead took a route through the desert parallel to it.
A few miles away, he came upon a small nomadic village, where the residents were sleeping peacefully in their tents. A cream-colored horse, munching on a desert plant, stood off to the side of the village.
Metcalfe got a running start and leapt onto the horse, grabbing its mane as he swung his leg over its back. He silently thanked Cadet Yellowbear for teaching him the move as he kicked the horse in the flanks. The beast and its commando rider sped off toward the capital.
British Ambassador Sir Percival Stanley paced worriedly across a room that used to be filled with the embassy's computer equipment. Something was wrong outside, very wrong. The terrorists were making more than their usual amount of noise. He heard the phrase "Victory over the oppressive imperialists" several times. What victory were they talking about? Had another diplomatic stronghold been attacked? Was an airliner hijacked?
Then he heard it. Stanley pressed his ear to the door and motioned for the others to be silent.
One of the men who had just returned to the embassy couldn't keep his elation in check. He bragged about shooting the infidels as they fell in their parachutes, as easily as if they had been standing still. The raid had been fruitful; they increased their weapons stores and the contents of their motor pool handsomely. They had neither casualties nor prisoners.
Stanley's heart sank. He turned his attention to his staff. "There was an attempt to rescue us tonight--"
Their excited whispering stopped abruptly when they saw his face. "It failed completely," he continued. "No survivors. One of the men mentioned a second attempt--but they'll have to regroup."
One female staffer choked back a sob. The ambassador put his arm around her shoulder, not knowing what else he could do.
Lieutenant Metcalfe pulled out a pair of wire cutters and approached the chain-link fence around the embassy. As he clipped his way through the fence, he heard voices coming from the roof. Metcalfe spoke fluent French and had also learned a bit of Arabic while at the Point, but he had to strain to make out the primitive dialect the two men were speaking:
"So, the infidels have failed yet again."
"Yes, apparently they did not take our threat very seriously."
"They are becoming more bold in their attempts. Uqdah is not pleased."
"Makes you wonder how much longer he will need the hostages."
"I overheard him saying the hostages are becoming a liability. Perhaps a few bodies thrown over the fence will demonstrate to the World Government we mean business."
Metcalfe's wire cutters came to a halt. They're going to kill them! New orders, Lieutenant. You're going to the roof. Take as many of them as you can with you.
Once inside the fence, he made his way from cover point to cover point until he reached the foundation of the building. Metcalfe found an opening in the wall and crawled into the basement.
He turned a corner of the basement, toward the stairwell, and quickly ducked behind a support pillar as he spotted a guard with his back to him, leaning against the concrete lazily. Metcalfe tensed automatically.
He heard the regular breathing of a sleeping man and relaxed. The guard was asleep at his post.
In one fluid movement, Metcalfe approached the terrorist from behind, covering the man's mouth as he twisted his neck. There was an audible snap as the body went limp. Once he realized the man was dead he shoved the body away in horror.
Trying not to think about the body, he bent over and took the man's weapon and ammo. You always wanted to fire one of these, he tried to remind himself, admiring the automatic's form, then slung it over his shoulder and entered the stairwell.
Two guards crossed his path on their routine patrol of the next floor. Metcalfe drew his knife and lay in wait for one of them to cross again.
Moments later, the other guard realized he'd not seen his companion in a while. He cocked his weapon but did not get a chance to use it as a black streak kicked it from his hands, then elbowed him in the head. A knife through his neck stifled any attempted cry for help.
Metcalfe, now carrying two automatics and a couple of grenades in addition to his own sidearm, stopped at a window and read his map by the moonlight. The hostages are supposed to be held in the communications office on the second floor. Let's hope Intelligence are right this time.
He slunk up the stairs, counted doors until he reached the right one, then cocked his weapon and kicked the door in.
But the noise had attracted attention. Two guards came running down the hall. Metcalfe drew into the room and waited, knowing there would probably be more where they came from.
He wasn't disappointed. Three more joined the first pair at the door, then rushed in. The lieutenant lobbed a grenade at them, then hurried out through the other door across the room. He had just barely made it out of the adjoining room and into the stairwell when the grenade exploded.
Realizing that he had been discovered, Metcalfe worked quickly. Ascending the stairs, he peeked through the window to the third floor. There were no guards, a giveaway that there was nothing on this floor worth investigating. He continued upward.
Two guards stood next to a door on the fourth floor. Metcalfe raised one of the automatics.
A burst of gunfire got the guards' attention as the door to the stairwell flew open. The pair lay dead before they could even unsling their weapons.
At the sound of the machine gun's report, the door opened and a guard peered cautiously around. Metcalfe ducked into the office adjacent to the room and waited for the terrorist to come all the way out. One more burst of fire and the corridor was clear.
Metcalfe sidestepped the bodies and rushed into the room. The civilians inside were huddled in the far corner, not knowing what was going on and hoping to God that this black-suited soldier wasn't going to machine-gun them where they sat.
The lieutenant recognized the terror in their faces and realized he hadn't identified himself. He tore a strip of black electrical tape from his sleeve, revealing the World Government flag. "Special Forces!" he barked, in an authoritative voice that startled even himself. "Let's get out of here!"
The oldest man in the room stepped forward. "I'm Ambassador Stanley," he began. "How did you get here? We heard you were all dead--"
"No time to explain, Ambassador. We've got less than ten minutes to get to the roof. Once we're in the helicopters you can ask me all the questions you want!" Metcalfe gestured with the automatic toward the stairwell.
The hostages moved slowly into the fire tower. "Come on, come on!" Metcalfe urged. "This isn't a sightseeing holiday! Get up those steps! We've got to get on the roof before they catch up to us!"
"What do you mean, ‘catch up to us'?" exclaimed Stanley. "Can't your men hold them?"
Metcalfe shook his head as he tried to think of an answer that wouldn't reveal the direness of the situation and thus throw the hostages into a panic. "No, Ambassador. Their strength was more than Intelligence estimated."
Ambassador Stanley nodded slowly, apparently satisfied with the commando's explanation.
The group eventually reached the door leading out to the roof. Metcalfe glanced at his watch. Less than five minutes before the helicopters were to arrive. He gestured for the hostages to wait below while he tried the door. As he expected, the door was locked from the outside.
Metcalfe pulled a grenade from his cargo pocket. "OK, I'm going to have to blow the door. Wait down there until I give you the signal." He tossed his pistol to the chargé d'affaires. "Sir, we're a bit shorthanded. I'll have to ask you to cover the rear."
The chargé looked at the gun, then at the commando. "What do I do with this?"
Oh, for pity's sake-- "Fire at anything that doesn't look British!" he snapped.
"Y-yes, sir," the chargé replied, cocking the pistol in an awkward, unaccustomed manner.
Metcalfe slammed a fresh clip into his automatic and wedged the grenade into the door handle. "Fire in the hole!" he shouted as he pulled the pin on the grenade and leapt behind a support pillar. The grenade exploded and the door fell outward.
Gunfire roared into the stairwell. Metcalfe waited for it to subside, then came out shooting, spraying bullets from guns in both hands as he ran straight for the rocket launchers on the corner of the roof. Two terrorists dropped immediately. The third tried to turn the rocket launcher toward Metcalfe, but the young officer cut him down with another salvo of machine gun fire.
The man fell over the mechanism, depressing the launcher toward the street below and arming the rocket. The rocket launcher fired, sending a projectile into a personnel carrier full of Uqdah's men that had just pulled up to the embassy gates.
Metcalfe stared in awe at the lucky shot, then popped a smoke canister and turned around. "Right, get up here now!"
Twenty men and women didn't have to be told twice.
Right on schedule, two helicopters swooped in toward the roof, one of them touching down and the other circling to provide cover. "Get in! Hurry!" Metcalfe ordered, gesturing them in like Jones had done to his men earlier that evening in the transport.
"Metcalfe, what are you doing here?" the helicopter copilot shouted from the side window of the craft.
"We were ambushed. I was the only one who made it here."
Stanley mouthed the words "only one?"
The copilot looked at Metcalfe in disbelief. "Are you saying that the others are--"
"Back at base camp, all dead. Now get us out of here before we join them!"
"You got it!" the copilot acknowledged as the last of the hostages boarded the helicopter. Metcalfe tossed his weapons aside and hauled himself tiredly through the hatch.
Once the helicopter was safely underway, the door gunners passed around blankets and hot coffee to the hostages. A medic began to treat their wounds, mostly cuts and bruises, when there was a thud from the other end of the craft.
Metcalfe had collapsed in the middle of the floor.
A member of the helicopter crew started to laugh, thinking the lieutenant had fainted, then noticed a trickle of blood coming from his mouth and called over the medic. One of the women gently put Metcalfe's head in her lap and wiped away the blood and camouflage paint from his face as the medic knelt beside him. He tore open the battledress garb, looking for a wound.
A large, ugly bruise spread up his right side. The medic palpated the wound. "Internal bleeding," he muttered, then shouted into his microphone to the pilot, "We got a medical emergency back here! Get us home as fast as you can!"
As the copter made a sharp banking turn and headed for World Government territory, Stanley cast a sympathetic glance at their savior. One look at the lieutenant's fair skin and youthful facial features and the ambassador swore under his breath. "My God, he's just a boy!"
A pleasant September morning was well underway at WAAF Winchester. The base in southern England was a bustling place, the headquarters of the WAAF western European command as well as a fully operational military installation.
Major General Charles Metcalfe, the officer in command of WAAF Europe West, was not in a good mood, for he had slept little the night before. A sharp stabbing pain in his side had jolted him out of his slumber during the night, then left him just as quickly. The pain came from nowhere; Charles was in excellent physical condition for a man of his age, and the pain had no lingering effects, but he wasn't worried about his own health. For some strange reason, all he could think about was his son.
At first Charles thought something had happened to Paul in Sicily. He was going through Special Forces training, the final step every West Point graduate went through before being assigned to a regular unit. But according to Charles' younger brother George, a Special Forces major who gave Charles periodic reports on Paul's progress, "advanced" training in this high-tech age meant intensive classroom education. He wasn't supposed to go back into the field for months.
General Metcalfe scrawled his signature on the last of the forms before him and sighed heavily. It was only 0745 and already Charles was longing for a nip at the Scotch bottle in his desk drawer. But some of Sergeant Wang's coffee, which was at least as strong, would suffice for now. He reached for the intercom button just as his secretary burst into the inner office.
The normally unflappable Wang did not make a habit of surprising his superior officer, and he stopped and snapped to attention at the sight of Metcalfe's expectant scowl. "General, have you heard?" the sergeant asked breathlessly.
"Heard what, Sergeant? Be a bit more specific!" bellowed the general.
"There's a rumor going round base that the Red Berets got the hostages out of Tunis, sir."
Metcalfe sighed and shook his head. "Wang, that rumor's been going round for the past two days. It is hardly news."
"Yes, sir, but this time something big is going on. The Supreme Commander has just called a video conference with his general officers. Captain Cameron's connecting your link now."
"A video conference?" Metcalfe groaned. "Sitting at attention and listening to the Supreme Commander's rhetoric is the last thing I want to do this morning. Why the devil couldn't we get a leader who wasn't so in love with the sound of his own voice--"
Just then Cameron, Metcalfe's aide, came on the intercom. "General, your video link to SHEF is established. Transmission in sixty seconds."
Metcalfe punched the button angrily as Wang scurried out of the office. "Right, Captain. I'm ready." He sat in his swivel chair and quickly checked his appearance with a small mirror he kept in his desk drawer.
The curtains on the far wall of Metcalfe's office parted and revealed a huge viewing screen. The screen was divided into many blocks, each one belonging to a specific World Government military command. One by one, the blocks came online and the faces of the regional commanders appeared.
The one larger screen flickered to life, and the Supreme Commander appeared. He seemed only slightly rumpled considering it was 0300 at his New York headquarters. The general officers on the various screens came to seated attention almost simultaneously.
"Good day, ladies and gentlemen," he began, his stentorian voice echoing through Metcalfe's office. "Supreme Headquarters Earth Forces just received the following report from World Army Air Force base Naples." He paused and picked up a printout.
Oh, for pity's sake, man, thought Charles, get on with it. We don't appreciate your flair for the dramatic at these things.
"At 0730 hours local time today," the Supreme Commander read, "two CH-98 ‘Clydesdale' rescue helicopters arrived at WAAF Naples carrying Sir Percival Stanley and nineteen British embassy staffers who had been held hostage in Tunis for the past four days."
The assembled generals broke out in spontaneous applause.
"In a daring nighttime raid," he continued without emotion, "members of the WAAF Special Forces swept in and rescued the hostages from the embassy roof. The strike force staged from WAAF Sicily on the order of General Kórinek." He looked up at one of the blocks. "Well done, Tom."
General Tomaš Kórinek, the commander of WAAF Europe Central who had ordered the mission, acknowledged the Supreme Commander as the others nodded in agreement.
The Supreme Commander's countenance then changed. "Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, we paid a hefty price for our success this time. Only one member of the insertion team made it back alive."
Several of the officers sighed and shook their heads. General Joseph Shane, head of WAAF USA and former Red Beret commandant, spoke next. "Only one? What happened?"
"I don't have all the details yet, but the team was ambushed at the drop zone and massacred. That one commando somehow survived, made his way to the embassy and completed the mission alone."
Shane's voice registered both sadness and pride. "Are you saying, Supreme Commander, that one commando rescued twenty men and women single-handedly?"
"That's right, Joe. He got them all safely aboard the helicopters before collapsing from his own injuries. The onboard medic determined that his wounds were too severe for WAAF Sicily's limited facilities, so the helicopters were ordered to fly directly to the nearest civilian trauma center."
"What's his name? I'd like to relay my congratulations to his family personally."
The Supreme Commander smiled. "You can do that right now, Joe. You see, the name of that commando in the hospital is Second Lieutenant Paul Metcalfe."
Charles' jaw dropped.
"Congratulations, Charles," said the Supreme Commander on behalf of all present. "Your boy's a hero. There's already talk of giving him a promotion, and maybe even the VC."
Metcalfe, still in shock, didn't hear him. "Where is he? How is he?!" he exclaimed.
"St. Francis Hospital, Palermo. He's in critical condition but they expect him to make it."
Metcalfe buzzed for his aide. "Have my car brought round, and tell the airstrip I'm en route." Then he interrupted the Supreme Commander, who was narrating some photos displayed on the video. "I hope you'll forgive me for leaving, sir."
"Of course. Give him my best when you get there, will you, Charles?"
There was no answer.
The Supreme Commander switched views back to the generals and laughed. An empty swivel chair was all that remained on WAAF Europe West's screen, still spinning from its owner's hasty departure.
Paul awoke slowly, fluttering his eyelids as he adjusted to the daylight. At first he thought it had all been a dream. As the anesthetic wore off and he came to his senses, he realized he was in a hospital recovery room. He attempted to sit up but found he was attached to all sorts of tubes and electrodes, with a breathing tube down his throat. All he could feel was a heavy, wet sensation in his chest where he had fallen into the treetop.
A young nurse raced to his side and murmured something soothing in Italian as she patted his hand. Their eyes met as she checked his vital signs, her beautiful face relaying her admiration without need for words. He smiled back at her with his piercing blue eyes. The nurse giggled as she left the room.
Shortly the nurse returned with a doctor and another nurse, then left to tend to her other patients. As the second nurse removed the sensors, the doctor read Metcalfe's chart and removed the breathing tube from his throat. Metcalfe gratefully downed the water the nurse offered him to stop his coughing reflex.
Both the doctor and the second nurse spoke some English, and between the three of them they managed a conversation.
"Where the devil am I?" Metcalfe croaked, his throat raw from the intubation.
"Palermo," answered the doctor. "In San Francesco Hospital."
"A civilian hospital?"
"You had very serious injuries. Without surgery you would have died."
Metcalfe reached down below the sheets.
"Don't worry, Tenente," the nurse said, smiling. "Everything important is still there." She added in response to his quizzical look, "All the men do that when they awaken from the anesthetic."
The lieutenant shook his head in embarrassment, then spoke again. "Will I be all right?"
"Yes, Dottore Forgione believes you will recover fully."
The nurse turned to the doctor, who had met the helicopter and thus was better able to answer. "They only left you here and flew away. No one else needed immediate attention."
"Thank God for that," Metcalfe sighed. "At least something went right."
"Che?" queried the nurse.
The doctor explained to her in Italian. When the doctor mentioned "Tenente Metcalfe," the nurse's eyes lit up.
"Ah! Then you are a hero!" she exclaimed.
Metcalfe sighed. "Right now, I'm just considering myself lucky to be alive."
"And so am I, son," said a booming voice from the doorway.
Paul looked up in shock as General Charles Metcalfe darted across the recovery room floor. His father's heartfelt embrace brought tears to his eyes, physically as well as emotionally.
A week later, the pages of TV21 bore a photo essay of the memorial service commemorating the ill-fated rescue mission. Off to one side on the front page, however, was the shot everyone spoke about for weeks afterward:
The still-recovering First Lieutenant Paul Metcalfe, who had dragged himself out of his hospital bed for the service, standing rigidly at attention and saluting with West Point precision. His dress black uniform was embellished with only a jaunty red beret on his head and a bronze cross on a crimson ribbon pinned to his chest. His boyish face bore the grief of a nation in its expression.
It was an image not soon forgotten.
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