a CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERONS story
by Mary J. Rudy
Captain Scarlet checked the time again. He had arrived for his duty watch ahead of schedule in order to work on the New York Times Sunday crossword in peace. But, it was nearly time to go on duty and his partner still had not shown up. This was unlike Captain Blue, he thought; often he was the early one. He tapped his pencil on the tabletop. The officers' lounge--that was where he had last seen him. Scarlet displayed that particular room on the monitor before him.
Sure enough, Blue was still there, playing apparently the same game of chess with Captain Magenta. Blue was a good player, almost as good as Scarlet, and could usually defeat Magenta with little trouble. But his opponent was giving him some stiff competition this time. Only a few pieces remained on the board, and Scarlet magnified the chessboard on the display for a closer look. Amazing how such an ancient game could still hold interest in the twenty-first century, what with all the games that had been produced since. There was, to be sure, a very popular three-dimensional version of chess, but the original was liked just as well.
No wonder Blue was still playing the same game. He was clearly at a disadvantage; Magenta could win with one simple move. Escaping checkmate was not impossible, but it would require both skill and luck, and there was no time for either. Scarlet snapped on the two-way microphone.
"Well, Captain Blue?"
Without looking up, he answered, "Well, what?"
"How are you going to get out of this spot?"
"Right now, I'm going to wait for my move."
Scarlet smiled. Captain Magenta obviously had not seen his advantage. Since Blue was due at his station, he thought it was all right to help out a little.
"In that case, Captain Magenta, I suggest you move your knight."
Magenta did as he was told, then blinked. "Checkmate!" he cried. "Thanks, Captain Scarlet!"
"Hey, no fair!" Blue looked up at the monitor. "Just because I beat you twice yesterday--"
"Oh, let the man win one for a change. Besides, you're due on watch."
"Sorry about that." As Captain Blue rose from his chair, there was a faint crackle of static from the loudspeakers. Expecting to hear next the stern voice of Colonel White reprimanding him for his lateness, Blue was surprised by silence. Then, the voice they all dreaded to hear, the unnaturally deep tones coming as if from the grave, boomed over the P.A. system:
"This is the voice of the Mysterons. We know that you can hear us, Earthmen. We will continue to wage our 'war of nerves' with the citizens of the Earth. Our next act of retaliation will be to obliterate the hope of the world. We will be avenged!"
Immediately after the unexpected message, Colonel White's voice was heard: "Cloudbase is now on yellow alert. Captain Scarlet, Captain Blue, report to the control room at once."
"I think we've got us a tough one," said Scarlet as Captain Blue headed for the door of the lounge.
Blue grinned. He remembered that Captain Scarlet had picked up a newspaper before leaving the lounge, and he had seen it on the monitor. The puzzle was gray and smeared from many pencil erasures. While Scarlet was an expert at the British cryptic style of crossword puzzle, he was no match for Captain Blue as far as the American version was concerned. "Hardly. Couldn't be any more difficult than doing the Times puzzle in ink."
Commander Robert Thomas was a U.S. naval officer of average looks and stature, but by no means was his mentality average. This was proven first at Annapolis, where he graduated with top honors majoring in nuclear physics. Then as a junior officer, he distinguished himself in combat and earned a chest full of decorations to prove it. Well, now you've got it all, he thought to himself as the black Corvette hugged a bend in the road. A wife and children, finally in a comfortable off-base home after years of making do with less than desirable quarters, and this wonderful piece of machinery he was driving. And now, literally, his ship had come in. He received his orders this morning, and he packed right away to accept his next commission. Imagine, chief engineer on the Navy's newest aircraft carrier! The U.S.S. John Barry was the largest carrier ever built, with a complement of planes, helicopters and crew that was the size of a small air station on the mainland. The engines could sustain a voyage twice as long as the last ship completed. The Barry was so large, in fact, that she was too broad to pass through the Panama Canal and needed a special drydock. One couldn't get a better assignment. The ship had already gone through her sea trials and passed with flying colors. Thomas had assisted in designing some of the electronic components of the reactor and was present for most of the tests, but he had missed the sea trials due to illness. The ship would make her maiden voyage as soon as possible, and what a show that would be! That first voyage would include participating in the largest naval exercise in history. She would really be able to show what she's made of!
Thomas shook his head. Daydreaming again, he thought. Gotta be careful at this speed. Cars today are great machines, especially this late-model Corvette, but they still don't drive themselves. It was time to slow down anyway, he thought as he saw a road sign. Only five miles to the base. He eased off the accelerator and merged into the right-hand lane. There was no other traffic on the road at this early hour, but Thomas knew that the highway would soon narrow and go back to a two-way road.
Then another car appeared from around a bend up ahead. Thomas saw it but paid no attention to it; it was just your average sedan heading the opposite way. Then it changed lanes and came at him head-on.
"Stupid drunk," Thomas muttered as he leaned on the horn and swerved into the left lane. Then Thomas couldn't believe his eyes--the car went back to the lane he had just entered! He tried again, but the sedan duplicated his move and was once again coming straight at him. This time it was too late to avoid accident. Thomas said a quick prayer and turned the wheel as far as it would go, but there was no room to maneuver and the Corvette collided with the sedan. The impact sent the two cars tumbling down an embankment where they burst into flames. The last thing Thomas saw, before the collision smashed him mercifully into unconsciousness, was the ashen death-mask face of Mysteron agent Captain Black.
Had there been any witnesses, they would have seen Captain Black and Commander Thomas, seemingly unharmed, observing the inferno from the roadbed. Little would these witnesses realize that Commander Robert Thomas had been Mysteronized.
Several hours and many cups of black coffee after reporting to Colonel White, Captain Blue pushed his chair away from the table and rubbed his temples. In another corner of the officers' workroom, Captain Scarlet was busy entering data into a computer terminal. He also was visibly drained. The sound of the chair made him jump.
"Sorry, Captain. Didn't mean to alarm you." Blue ran his fingers through his blond hair. "I just need to stretch a little."
"Must be too much coffee," Scarlet replied. "I can use a rest myself." He rose from the chair. He was a tall man, over six feet, with about the same build as Captain Blue. He had a thick head of hair, as black as his colleague's was blond. Scarlet looked several years younger than Captain Blue although there was hardly a year's difference in their ages. He always thought that strange--with all the hardships he had faced in his life, his friend the wealthy man's son looked worse. Must be that fast living, or maybe that Yank attitude of "keeping up with the Joneses," as the old saying went. He liked to tease Blue about that, at least when they were off duty together and less formal.
"Have you come up with any ideas?" asked Captain Blue.
"Nothing at all. We must have missed something. I know the Mysterons gave us a real riddle this time, but it usually doesn't take this long."
"Did you see anything unusual on the nomenclature run?"
"No, nothing. There's no famous person alive with either the first or last name of Hope. Now I'm checking the foreign translations of the word, although I doubt if the Mysterons'll try the same thing they did with General Tiempo."
Blue nodded in agreement. "We were only lucky that Captain Magenta picked up on that one, or we'd never have known what they meant by 'kill time.' I don't think they'll try that for quite a while."
"Well, anyway, it's got to be done. This is a good time to take a breather, because it'll take a few minutes for the program to run."
Blue refilled his cup and gestured with the coffee pot. "You want another?"
"Thank you, no. If I have any more coffee, I won't be able to sit still. I thought I'd go round to the galley and get something to eat. Can I bring anything back?"
"No, thanks. But before you go--I want to show you what I picked out for Symphony's birthday." He took a jewelry catalog from a stack of magazines on a nearby table and opened it.
"It's about time. You're only about three months late."
He ignored the comment. "Take a look at letter 'M.'"
"An angel pin! An excellent choice, Captain Blue." Scarlet looked up admiringly, but Blue was not looking at him. He was staring blankly at the next page. "Captain Blue?"
Still no response. I didn't think he was that much in love, he thought.
The use of his first name brought Captain Blue out of his trance. He blinked and shook his head slightly. He said quietly, to no one in particular, "I think I've got it."
"The Mysteron message! Look here, on the next page."
The next page displayed gold charms. Blue was pointing to a triple charm, that of a cross, an anchor and a heart.
"I still don't understand."
"That's a Biblical symbol. I'm sure you've heard the expression 'faith, hope and charity.' Well, the heart stands for charity, the cross for faith and--"
"And the anchor for hope," interrupted Scarlet. "So?"
"So, Captain Scarlet, the Mysterons threatened to destroy much of the 'hope' in the world. What does an anchor also represent?"
"Ships--" His voice trailed off. "Naval ships! By Jove, that could be it!" He darted back to the terminal, punching in data before he was even seated. "Let's see what's going on with the World Navy this week; that'll be a start."
"I knew you'd figure it out sooner or later. Sometimes you Limeys can be so slow." Blue smiled; ribbing Captain Scarlet about his heritage and/or clipped British accent, good-naturedly of course, was a good way to relieve the tension. But, sometimes it backfired:
"Must be that Yank education getting the better of me again." Captain Scarlet had received his military training at West Point, and he often used this for a comeback.
The screen flickered to life. "OK, here we are." When they saw it, both men froze.
"My God, Paul," murmured Captain Blue, dazed to the point of forgetting Spectrum protocol. "The largest war games in world history--a combined fleet exercise with amphibious landings! All those ships, all those lives--do you know what this means?"
"It means," said Scarlet, his brilliant blue eyes never leaving the screen, "that we notify Colonel White immediately." He pressed the radio button.
As always, the Mysterons had done a flawless job. Commander Thomas was perfect in every detail, from his physical features and mannerisms down to the orders he carried in his briefcase. He had no problems getting through security and made his way to the massive ship at her berth. Thomas had been familiar with the officer of the deck from a previous assignment and chatted with the young ensign for a few minutes before reporting to the bridge.
"Commander Robert Thomas reporting for duty, Captain."
"Good morning, Commander." Captain T. J. Hawkins returned the salute and offered his hand. "Glad to have you aboard. "How was your trip?"
"Not great, sir. A little car trouble." If only he knew... "It's a pleasure to serve under you again," he added.
"You were my first choice, Bob. The admiral wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for you. He figured it was the least he could do, knowing that the last ship you were assigned to was a bucket of bolts."
"Thanks, sir, I'm honored." Thomas was clearly embarrassed. "How long before we get under way?"
"About four hours. That will give you some time to get settled in and take a look around. Our first briefing will be at 1600, but it's not necessary for you if you're tied up. It's mostly to introduce the officers. The briefing for the exercises will be tomorrow at 0900."
"I definitely won't be there this afternoon, then. I want to run a few tests and make a few preparations on my own."
"Very well, Commander. I'll let you get right to work."
"Aye-aye, sir." He saluted and left.
Thomas proceeded to his quarters, shut the hatch and locked it. The room was larger than the average ship's engineer's quarters and equipped with a personal computer. A small portrait of Commodore John Barry, the "Father of the American Navy" for whom the ship was named, hung on one wall. Thomas hung his garment bag in the closet space and sat down at the computer. He began to write a long program, hammering the keys faster than any human could ever do. But then again, Thomas was not a human any longer. He was a perfect copy of one, a robot programmed to perform exactly like the original under normal circumstances. But when doing the Mysterons' bidding, he, like all the other copies before him, became a cold, calculating machine.
The program completed, Thomas cleared the screen and removed the disk. He then went to the main reactor room where he transferred the data from the disk into the reactor computer's memory. He was very furtive the whole time that he was standing there, looking constantly behind and around him for any crew member who should stumble upon his actions. When the transfer was finished, he took the disk back to the computer in his quarters and erased it, then filled it with normal information.
Since the Barry was the flagship of the war games, her shipboard systems were linked with those of the other vessels. The carrier could monitor the movements of all of the ships in the force, and she could also order deployments and change their positions herself if necessary. Thomas had become an expert computer programmer over the course of his Navy career, and the Mysterons used this to their advantage. What he had just done was program the main reactor to initiate a self-destruct sequence that the Navy had fitted while the ship was being built. Normally this command required authorization from three officers before it would activate, but he had bypassed these steps. All Thomas had to do was set the timer built into the program. While the Barry counted down her own self-destruct, every other nuclear-powered ship in the combined fleet would perform the same deadly task while moving into new positions. When they had been properly relocated, all of the fuel contained in each of these vessels would simultaneously detonate. The resulting chain reaction would obliterate the entire combined task force and every living soul unfortunate enough to be within a thousand miles.
For the time being, Thomas' Mysteron work was completed. He had to wait until after the next morning's briefing, when he would know the itinerary for the naval exercise, to set the timer. He had cleverly hidden the program, disguising it as a systems test, and even made it abort-proof in case anyone should discover it, which was highly unlikely. Thomas got his belongings squared away in his quarters and went about his normal shipboard duties. With such a huge ship, there was a lot of work to be done before the morning briefing.
Fleet Admiral Brian O'Hara peered at the model ships on the huge table before him. The ships were arranged in the current configuration of the exercise fleet. "So, Captains," he finally said, "you think my ships are in danger?"
Captain Blue nodded. "We're almost positive, sir."
The World Navy commander-in-chief shifted uneasily. "And just how did Spectrum make this determination?"
"Well, Admiral," began Captain Scarlet, "the Mysterons, in their threat, used the word 'hope.' When our computers gave us the data on World Navy activity, the name of the exercise--"
"Operation World Hope," murmured O'Hara.
"Precisely, sir," continued Scarlet. "The size of the exercise only serves to confirm our suspicions."
"Saints preserve us." The admiral removed his glasses. Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he began to polish the glasses thoughtfully. "And what is your theory of their plan of attack?"
"It's got to be nuclear, sir. That many ships could not be destroyed otherwise." Blue paused and looked at the map table. "It would have to be something big, perhaps involving the nuclear warships."
"Well," commented Admiral O'Hara, "it's nearly impossible for the atomic fuel on the ships to leak. There are so many safety devices built into ships these days that a nuclear accident can't develop unnoticed."
"Can a ship be destroyed from within, Admiral? I mean, can one man throw a switch and cause a ship to self-destruct? I seem to remember a newspaper article on that subject."
"I know what you're talking about, Captain Blue. There was an article just recently about the U.S.S. John Barry, an aircraft carrier on her maiden voyage in this task force. The self-destruct command was built into the systems during construction. The other ships have yet to be fitted."
"Then, Admiral, the Barry seems to be a likely choice. We'll concentrate on her. I'll need to sit down with an engineer or physicist who is familiar with her power plant."
"The best is right here in Washington, Captain. I'll make arrangements to have you meet Professor Goldstein this morning." O'Hara picked up the telephone.
"With your permission, sir," interrupted Scarlet, "I'd best be leaving. I'll need to check things out on the Barry in person."
"Of course, Captain. We've already made arrangements for you. My staff car is waiting outside. But I will ask you to do me a personal favor." He pulled an envelope from his briefcase. "Please deliver this letter to Rear Admiral Stankowski personally upon your arrival. I'd rather have it hand-delivered than put it in with the paperwork."
"No trouble at all, Admiral." As was British military etiquette, Scarlet did not salute without his headgear, but came to attention, turned and started out of the operations room.
"Notify me immediately if you find anything," called Captain Blue after him.
"S.I.G., Captain. Likewise."
"S.I.G.?" repeated the admiral.
"'Spectrum Is Green,'" Captain Blue explained. "It means 'everything is fine,' sort of like 'Roger.'" Let's hope it stays green for a while too, he thought.
The office of Dr. Phillip Goldstein was quite interesting if not large, thought Captain Blue as he waited. Art prints and movie posters covered one wall, comic strip drawings on the opposite one. Of course, there were reports and books on nuclear physics (several by the professor himself) and models of two nuclear warships, a submarine and an aircraft carrier, as well. Captain Blue noted the enormous pile of assorted paperwork on Dr. Goldstein's desk; he was sure that if he asked for a particular item from that disarray, it would be produced without difficulty. If a cluttered desk is a sign of genius, he chuckled to himself, then this guy is another Einstein.
"Sorry about that, Captain," a friendly voice said, but Blue was so deep in thought that it startled him. He spun around, his right hand going to the holster at his hip instinctively, all in one fluid movement. He stopped himself but not before the professor noticed his action.
"Whoa, pardner," he said, raising his hands in mock surrender. "I'm not going to slap leather with you."
Blue looked at him in embarrassment. "I'm sorry, Doctor. Reflex action."
"I see you've watched some westerns. That's a nice move."
The ice broken, Blue gave the professor a broad grin. "Well, I do like Gary Cooper movies." He added, a little apologetically, "This naval exercise is so big that I'm on edge about it."
"I can understand that, Captain. Well, anyway," Goldstein said, changing the subject, "I'm sure you're a very busy man, so let's see what questions I can answer for you." He gestured to a chair.
"Well, Doctor," began Captain Blue, "Spectrum feels that the nuclear ships are involved in the Mysterons' threat to destroy a good part of the World Navy. Specifically, the John Barry, being the largest and the newest and therefore being filled with fuel, would be the most likely starting point. Could an explosion on board the Barry cause a chain reaction with the other atomic ships?"
The professor stroked his gray beard thoughtfully. "It could, but the ships are placed far enough apart in the formation for that reason. There's really no fear of that any more, because the computers give warnings if the ships get too close to each other in dangerous situations." He paused, thinking, and then continued, "Perhaps the Mysterons only want to destroy one ship."
"No, our opinion is that they're after the whole navy. What if the impossible did occur, and there was such an explosion? Would it wipe out a fleet of this size?"
"Not only would it sink all of the ships and annihilate every person on board them, marine life in that area of ocean would cease to exist. I mean fish, shellfish, seaweed, everything. And both the air and water would become fatally contaminated."
"I think you get the picture."
Blue thought for a moment. "Admiral O'Hara mentioned a self-destruct mechanism on the Barry. What can you tell me about it?"
"The Barry can be scuttled, if captured by the enemy, with either a conventional or nuclear explosion. This can be done hours or even days after the crew leaves, by means of a special program in the ship's reactor computer. It's a complicated thing to do; it involves three or four officers. I don't really know that much about it except that it can be set like a time bomb for a certain time and day. This capability was built into the Barry when her systems were programmed, but I'm pretty sure that no other atomic-powered vessel has been programmed with it yet."
"Three or four officers, huh?"
"Yes, Captain. Safety precaution."
The conversation went on with Blue furiously scribbling notes. He had some knowledge in physics, but not enough to comprehend the situation fully. It soon became clear to him that if the Barry was destroyed, she was centrally located in the fleet and could "take out" a lot of the other ships with her. Still, with the Mysterons' penchant for wreaking havoc on a grand scale, he didn't think they would stop there. There must be some way, he thought, that more than one nuclear ship would be involved. Then--
"Don't forget to check the battle computer."
"What"? Blue looked up from his notepad.
The professor sat back, stroking his beard again. "You did say that the Barry is the flagship of the task force, didn't you?"
"Yes, Doctor, that's right."
"Are you aware that the entire battle plan would be entered into the flagship's main computer? All the movements of the other ships, aircraft deployments, the whole ball game?"
"No, we weren't, but Captain Scarlet is en route to the carrier right now. He's much better on computers than I am. He said he'd go over the computer system with the skipper when he's on board ship, probably to see if the battle plan has been altered."
"Make sure, Captain Blue, that he checks over the other ships' movements. The Barry can order them to move as well."
The other ships-- Blue sprang from the chair. "Thanks a lot, Dr. Goldstein," he said with a quick handshake. "I have to get back to Admiral O'Hara immediately. You've been a big help." Grabbing his notepad and uniform cap, he half-ran out of the office and down the hall.
"But what did I say?" called Dr. Goldstein, his hands in the air.
Blue called from the end of the corridor, "If you'll pardon the pun, you solved the theory of the big bang. I just hope you're right." He turned around and went out the door, leaving the physicist standing in front of his office with a puzzled look on his face.
On the way back to the Pentagon, Blue attempted to radio Captain Scarlet but he was too far away by this time. There was another way, however. The frame of his cap visor dropped down before his face and he spoke into the small microphone on the end of the wire.
"Captain Blue to Cloudbase."
"Lieutenant Green here, Captain."
"Please relay this message to Captain Scarlet. He is out of my radio range. Tell him to check positioning of other nuclear-powered warships in the exercise fleet, confirm and report any position changes. I will wait for acknowledgment."
"S.I.G., Captain Blue."
A long pause followed. Blue drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, wondering what was taking so long. As he steered the sleek red Spectrum patrol car around a curve, his epaulets flashed and the mike dropped again.
"Heavy radio interference in that area, Captain. Apparently a bad electrical storm. Message not received."
"Then relay message to the U.S.S. John Barry and Captain Scarlet will receive it when he arrives."
"I tried that too, sir. That was the reason for my delay. All radio traffic is breaking up in the storm. I'll keep trying."
S.I.G., Lieutenant Green. I am en route to the Pentagon, and after making my report I will fly out to the fleet myself. Try for another hour, and if you still can't get through, I should be within maximum radio range by that time."
"Understood, Captain Blue. Out."
Admiral O'Hara's arrangements called for Captain Scarlet to fly out to the carrier in the normal fashion, that being on a COD, or carrier onboard delivery aircraft. That was not to be, however, as the one at the naval air station was grounded for repairs. The only other craft that would make it through the vicious nor'easter between him and the fleet was an all-weather rescue helicopter. It would be a slow, bumpy trip, but it would get him there.
During the long and turbulent helicopter ride through the storm, Scarlet became increasingly glad Spectrum used the jets they did. Not only were their transports and Angel jets much faster, they afforded one a much smoother flight at a much higher altitude, therefore flying above the largest clouds with ease. He had actually flown the helicopter part of the way to help out the pilot who had become violently ill from the wild ride.
"Jeez, Captain, this is embarrassing," said the pilot as he closed another paper bag and wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. "I'm really giving the Navy a bad name." His face was very red, more from shame than vomiting, Scarlet figured.
"Nonsense. Look at the conditions under which you're flying. I think you're doing a smashing job, better than most Spectrum pilots."
"Thank you, sir, but I think you're just saying that."
"I mean it, Ensign. I don't lie."
"I can't help but notice that you're taking this very well."
"On the contrary, I may be sick yet if we don't get there soon. How much further?"
"We're about fifteen minutes out, Captain. The worst of the storm is behind us according to these weather instruments."
The weather did in fact improve as they approached the Barry. The ship certainly is big, thought Scarlet as he looked out the window. It'll be good to have something solid to stand on after this trip.
As the pilot guided the helicopter in to land, Scarlet noticed he was getting a headache. It seemed to get worse as they touched down on the deck. Perhaps it was from the nausea, but he often felt the same way whenever danger was near.
Bidding the ensign farewell, Scarlet stepped out of the helicopter onto the deck. A black officer with commander's insignia and an older chief petty officer were waiting there and both saluted; the commander then boarded the helicopter and it took off. The petty officer shook hands with Scarlet and introduced himself.
"I'm Chief Petty Officer Burton, Captain Scarlet," he shouted above the rotor noise. He had a very pronounced Southern drawl. "I've been ordered to get you whatever you need." The chief motioned toward the island. "Our first stop is the bridge. The admiral wanted to see you as soon as you arrived."
Although the Barry was a huge ship, Captain Scarlet could still feel the flight deck pitching and rolling. She was heading into the storm, and also into the wind at this moment because the last of her short-range aircraft were being retrieved. It had been an unseasonably warm early spring day, but the temperature had dropped rapidly with the wind and a chill rain began to fall. Even with his battery-heated coat, the Spectrum officer shivered in the cold and tried to think of the time that Captain Blue, some of the Angels and he had practiced takeoffs and landings on an aircraft carrier prior to being stationed on Cloudbase. The Spectrum headquarters was in effect also an aircraft carrier, only hovering in the sky instead of floating on the seas, and the effects of atmospheric turbulence were similar to those of ocean waves. The training exercise had been in the tropics in perfect weather, and he smiled to himself when he recalled that the other officers had teased them about having taken a paid holiday.... Suddenly, it began to rain much harder, and the two of them ran the last few yards to the island, with Chief Burton opening the hatch for him. The tropical memories would wait for another time. It was at this time that Scarlet realized his splitting headache had disappeared.
Things happened quickly in the first moments on the bridge. Within seconds, Captain Scarlet's soaked overcoat was removed and he was swathed in a blanket. One sailor gave him a towel to dry himself, and another handed him a steaming mug of coffee. Chief Burton in the meantime had removed his foul-weather gear, and Scarlet noted with surprise that the old salt was a small, slight man. Burton was speaking to Admiral Stankowski who good-naturedly scolded him for "not bringing the good Captain in from the rain." The chief introduced Captain Scarlet, who attempted to stand but was so thoroughly wrapped in the blanket that he could barely move.
"Don't get up, Captain," the admiral said quickly, smiling congenially. "My boys seem to be taking good care of you."
"Quite, sir. A little too well, actually." He struggled to his feet and rearranged the blanket so that he could move more freely. He then saluted crisply.
The admiral did not return the salute casually, as was the privilege of his rank, but snapped to attention and "presented arms" with Naval Academy precision. "It is I who should salute you, Captain Scarlet," he said, "since you are in essence taking command of my task force during this emergency. Your reputation has also preceded you here."
"Don't be modest, Captain. We've all seen the news and read the papers. It's said you don't know the meaning of the word 'fear.'" Scarlet's face reddened and he looked down into his coffee cup. "I know for a fact that Fleet Admiral O'Hara is one of your biggest admirers--"
"Oh, yes. Admiral O'Hara. I have a note to deliver to you from him." He fished the envelope from his vest pocket and handed it to the admiral.
Just then a sailor handed Scarlet a radio message. "This just came in for you, sir. From your headquarters."
Scarlet quickly scanned the sheet. "Admiral," he said, "Captain Blue may have found something. I'll need a printout of the complete plans for the exercises from the battle computer."
"That will take a long time, Captain."
Scarlet nodded and continued, "It must include all orders for ship movements issued recently. If any unauthorized position changes have been ordered, or if anything at all unusual turns up, let me know straight away."
"Yes, Captain. I'll get my men right on it. In the meantime, Chief Burton will show you to your quarters. You might as well get a chance to get cleaned up while that is printing. If we still have time, I hope you'll accept an invitation to have a quick dinner with me."
"It'd be an honor, Admiral." Scarlet saluted again and strode out the hatch behind Chief Burton.
Chief Petty Officer Terence M. Burton had been in the U.S. Navy just short of thirty years. During that time, he had accumulated the Navy Cross (twice), a number of campaign ribbons, a few tattoos, and more stories about Navy life both on board ship and in port than would fit into a book. He was a scrappy little fellow, a "redneck" from the South who once had hair the same color. He was one who was not afraid to speak his mind, and this often got him into trouble early in his Navy career. Later on, however, he grew to be respected for his candor and common sense suggestions. Although the "brass" refused to make him an officer, many officers afforded him the same courtesy as they did their peers. Consequently, over time he began to understand their way of thinking and could tell when something was amiss.
This was exactly what Burton noticed in Admiral William Stankowski after he returned from escorting Captain Scarlet to his quarters. He saw the admiral sitting at the map table poring over two sheets of paper, looking very troubled.
"Is anything wrong, Admiral?"
"I just can't believe it," Stankowski murmured.
"What is it, sir?"
The admiral looked up. "I just opened that letter from Admiral O'Hara. It was a letter of condolence. One of our officers is dead."
"I think you might know him. Our chief engineer, Commander Robert Thomas."
Burton's jaw dropped. "But--"
"Quite a shock, isn't it? Such a great man, Chief; even saved my butt once. He had a wonderful family too. It's a real shame."
"There must be some mistake, Admiral--"
"No mistake, Chief. I have the confirmation right here from Norfolk." He handed Burton a printout. "He was killed in a car wreck about five miles off base. The body was positively identified."
"But--" Burton tried to interrupt again.
"Probably driving that damn Corvette too fast again. And I have to be the one to break it to his wife--"
"Admiral, listen to me!" Burton shouted. "I've been trying to tell you that I just saw Commander Thomas leave on that chopper that brought Captain Scarlet!"
Stankowski sat up with a start. "Are you sure, Terry? I mean, with the storm and all--"
"I'm positive, Admiral. I was talking sports with him right before he left."
"You'd better get Captain Scarlet. He wanted to know if we found anything unusual. This certainly falls under that category."
Captain Scarlet stood before the mirror and spread shaving cream on his face slowly. At least I can take my time here, he thought. A shower on a naval ship, even in this modern age, left a lot to be desired. One still had to use the water supply sparingly, so long, soothing hot showers were out of the question.
Scarlet picked up the razor and shaved absentmindedly. He still wasn't completely positive that the Mysterons intended to use the Barry for carrying out their threat. The message relayed from Captain Blue was a big help, but they had no black and white proof yet, such as who or what had been Mysteronized. The Mysterons wouldn't wait forever, so the pieces had better fall into place soon. It was then that he heard the knock on the door.
"Admiral wants you on the bridge right away. He thinks we've found something."
"OK, on my way." He toweled off the remaining lather and threw on his clothes, fastening them as he went.
"I don't understand, Captain. Are you trying to tell me that Bob Thomas is a traitor?"
"Not at all, Admiral." Scarlet scratched at the stubble on the unshaven portion of his face. "Your friend was killed in the crash. He's dead."
"Then why do Captain Hawkins and Chief Burton each insist that they spoke to him on separate occasions if he's not alive? I'm sure that both of them weren't seeing things."
"The Commander Thomas they spoke to is an impostor. He is a Mysteron copy. Our experience has shown that this copy will walk, talk, and behave just like the original person except that it follows the Mysterons' instructions."
"Is there any way we can tell if he is a Mysteron? A physical examination or scientific analysis, perhaps?"
"Well--no." Scarlet hesitated, then gave his stock answer. "Nothing conclusive, anyway."
"What should we do then, Captain?"
"Well, we'll just have to keep searching what we have."
"I'll have the Marines search Thomas' quarters."
"He'll be on to us if he finds the Marines in there, Admiral. There'll be even bigger trouble."
Chief Burton chimed in, "Don't worry about that, Captain. He's off the ship."
"He left on that chopper that brought you, sir. That's when I ran into him."
Scarlet remembered the headache and that it had disappeared only after the helicopter took off.
"Did he say why he was leaving?"
"Just to pick up some computer equipment from the mainland, sir. He said he'd be back first thing tomorrow."
"Computers?!" Captain Scarlet's eyes widened.
"Yes, sir," continued the chief. "Commander Thomas is a whiz with them. He's created a lot of the Navy's engineering software, and also a lot of the new programs for the ship all by himself. Stuff like the new damage control system, the self-destruct mode--"
"Uh-oh," muttered Captain Hawkins. He checked the status of the self-destruct sequence, and the look he gave Admiral Stankowski said it all.
Scarlet looked at the screen. "Try to disable it and see what you get."
Hawkins tapped the keys. "Nothing at all, Captain."
"That means this is going to be a rough one. Get me the best programmer you have on the ship. I want a complete diagnostic check, and fast!" There was no need to give Chief Burton the order; he was on the telephone before Scarlet was finished the sentence.
"Captain," Scarlet continued, "I recommend that you give the order to abandon ship. We don't want to risk lives unnecessarily."
"Right away, Captain, but you'll need some of my people, at least to disable the computers."
"If Commander Thomas knows how to design programs, he probably has put in some safety so that we either won't find the program or that we won't be able to abort it. We may have to blow up the ship to stop it."
Scarlet nodded. "It's our only chance."
"You're the boss, Captain. I'll get you two groups of volunteers." He nodded to the executive officer, who proceeded to broadcast the message.
A sailor brought over a thick pile of computer paper and set it on the table. Admiral Stankowski and Captain Scarlet began to look through it. After a few pages, the admiral stopped and stared.
"Oh, my God." He pointed to the list of ships which had been ordered by the Barry to change course. "All these ships are atomic," he said slowly, running his finger down the column. "The letter 'N' in their pennant number stands for 'nuclear.'"
Stankowski turned to Captain Hawkins. "T.J., display both old and new ships' positions for me, will you please?" Seconds later, the map table showed how the nuclear vessels had moved according to the Barry's orders.
"There all heading this way!" exclaimed Chief Burton. "What does that mean?"
"They're closing the distance so that when this ship blows up, it will set them all off," explained Scarlet.
"And right now, there isn't a damn thing we can do about it," added Stankowski.
Some time later, Scarlet's cap microphone lowered and he heard Captain Blue's New England-accented voice. "I am now on the bridge of the U.S.S. Isaac Hull. What's the latest?"
"Mysteron agent has been identified as chief engineer of U.S.S. John Barry. The carrier has been programmed to self-destruct approximately 0600 hours."
"That doesn't give us much time." There was a short pause. "Captain Scarlet, Commodore Cox has just now informed me that the Hull has automatically changed course, based on headings transmitted by flagship's battle computer, and is now headed on a collision course with the Barry."
Chief Burton pointed to another aircraft carrier on the table, the closest nuclear ship to their own.
"S.I.G., Captain Blue," Scarlet replied. "This is part of the program that the Mysteron agent entered. All nuclear-powered ships are following similar instructions."
Now Blue's voice changed. His colleague noticed that it became more excited, more worried. "Is there any way you can stop the self-destruct sequence, Captain Scarlet?"
"We are attempting to shut down main computer system at this time. If that doesn't work, the alternative is to set conventional demolition charges and sink the ship. I have already ordered all non-essential personnel to abandon ship."
"S.I.G. Please advise if you need further assistance."
"Will do. Out."
Scarlet turned to the leader of the computer team, a tall red-haired youth with thick glasses. "Any new developments?"
"It's no good, Captain," replied the sailor as the screen flashed another error message. "After we found the actual program, it's been all uphill. These codes just can't be broken. I've tried every trick in the book, plus a couple that aren't in it, and nothing works." He pointed to the command he just entered. "This is our last chance. After that, there's a complete overhaul, but there's no way that we have enough time for that."
The same message flashed again. "Sorry, Captain."
"Don't worry about it, sailor," said Scarlet, putting his hand on the youth's shoulder. "After all, this program was devised by a non-human being. I'm sure you did all you could."
"Johnson did more than anyone else would have, Captain," interjected the admiral. "He's the second-best programmer in the Navy."
"The best being Thomas, I assume." Stankowski nodded.
Scarlet glanced at his watch. "Well, Admiral, I guess there's only one thing left to do. We'd best get cracking. The question is, will we have enough time?"
"We'll have enough time, Captain. I just hope it works."
It took several hours to set the explosives in strategic places around the ship, but the job went smoothly. By the time the last charge was placed, some of the men were ready to fall asleep standing up. It had been a long night.
As the first suggestion of daylight came creeping over the horizon, the men boarded the lifeboats. They waited while Admiral Stankowski and Chief Burton stood on the flight deck with Captain Scarlet. The sailors could not hear the conversation, but they could tell that the skipper was arguing with the Spectrum officer.
"If I can't stay, Captain Scarlet, I'd like to be the one to throw the switch."
"I understand your feelings, Admiral, but that's out of the question. It has to be a very short fuse in case Commander Thomas should return in time. I'll just be able to make it to the helicopter on the flight deck."
"Helicopter?!" exclaimed Burton. "A fighter's much faster."
"I know, but someone would have to work the catapult, wouldn't they, Chief?"
"I'll stay and work it, Captain--"
Stankowski interrupted, "Don't be a fool, Terry. If I'm not staying, I won't allow you to commit suicide. I've already got one letter to write."
Scarlet added, "I appreciate the offer, Chief, but the helicopter will probably be more controllable. It'll suffice."
"I think you're cutting it too close, Captain. Aren't you afraid of getting killed?"
Scarlet turned and looked the admiral right in the eye. "If I were, sir, I'd never have joined Spectrum."
Admiral Stankowski sighed heavily and held out his hand. "Very well, Captain, you win. Good luck, and I'll see you on the Hull in a short time."
Chief Burton stepped forward and shook hands as well. "If this works, Captain," he said, clapping him on the back, "I'll buy you a drink back on the mainland."
"What do you mean, if?" retorted Stankowski. The chief blanched at his slip of the tongue.
Scarlet smiled and replied, "I'll accept the offer, Chief, when I'm off duty. Now shove off, the lot of you."
"Aye-aye, Captain," said the admiral, and both Navy men saluted. As if on a hidden signal, all the sailors did the same. Scarlet returned their salutes and walked across the flight deck.
Two boats sped away from the carrier--the admiral's personal launch, which held him and most of the emergency crew, and a smaller boat holding Chief Burton and the rest of the sailors. The small boat was much faster than the launch and shot ahead.
About halfway between the Barry and the Hull, they saw another boat of the same size with one occupant sailing back toward their ship. The other men paid no attention, but Burton wondered what idiot was going back into the "danger zone" and looked back.
"Turn her about," he snapped.
"What?! Why?" The helmsman just stared at him.
"I said come about!" Burton shoved the sailor aside and steered the vessel into a tight 180-degree turn, nearly capsizing the tiny boat in her own wake. He pushed the throttle to full speed.
"Chief, what the hell's got into you?" asked the sailor he had nearly thrown overboard.
"We have to go back to the carrier!" he shouted over the motor. "When I get out, you take off like a bat!"
"Why? She's gonna blow any minute!"
"That was Commander Thomas on that boat. If somebody doesn't stop him, Captain Scarlet is dead and so is the rest of the fleet!"
Scarlet had instructed the demolition crew to hook up the detonator close to the outside hatch. When he set the charge, all he had to do was make a fast dash to the helicopter sitting on the flight deck. He climbed into the cockpit of the helicopter and started the engine. Might as well have it warmed up and turning over, he thought; then, all he'd have to do would be to start the rotor and hit the controls. He went back inside to connect a few wires to the detonator and set the fuse.
Then his head began to bother him again. Not now, please, he thought. He surmised that Thomas had returned to the ship to attend to unfinished business. I hope he tries the bridge first. Scarlet reached down to his holster and released the safety catch on his pistol. He connected the last wire, set the timer and was about to start it when he heard footsteps outside of the hatch. He started to pull the gun from the holster but only got it out halfway, for at that instant the Mysteronized Commander Thomas kicked the hatch open and shot Scarlet in the chest at point-blank range.
The bullet hit him in the left side a mere fraction of an inch from his heart. The shot dropped him to the deck and he lay there bleeding profusely, the blood dark compared to the vivid red of his Spectrum uniform vest. His gun clattered to the deck and he struggled to reach it as Thomas crossed the room toward the detonator. Thomas saw Scarlet's movements and aimed the gun at his head. Just then, a bullet cracked against the bulkhead inches away from Thomas, spoiling his aim so that his shot hit Captain Scarlet in the left shoulder.
Chief Burton had made it, but seconds too late.
Thomas spun around at the gunshot and fired at Burton, hitting him in the leg. This gave Scarlet the opportunity to get his own gun. He dropped Thomas with the first shot, even in his weakened condition. The effort was too much for him and he collapsed on the deck.
The old chief limped toward Scarlet and helped him to a sitting position gingerly, gritting his teeth against his own severe pain. The captain was weak from loss of blood but surprisingly was still coherent.
"Where in blazes did you come from, Chief?"
"I saw him coming, sir. I knew you'd need help."
"I've set the timer. Start it and go yourself; I can't make it."
"You can make it, Captain. We'll just help each other out. Remember, you're driving." He assisted the captain to his feet and helped him to the console.
Scarlet hit the "start" button. "Right. Let's go." They hobbled out to the helicopter. Burton helped Scarlet into the cockpit and then got himself in, buckling the safety harnesses while the captain took off. Scarlet shoved the throttle to maximum and pounded it with his fist to get even more speed. They were barely out of range when the charges went off.
A conventional explosion; the rest of the fleet was safe! Burton let out a loud whoop of triumph.
"We did it, Captain! And no one was killed!"
Then the shock wave of the explosion hit, slamming into the helicopter. They were thrown about violently, the helicopter threatening to turn upside down as pieces of debris flew about and battered the craft incessantly.
"Let's get to the Hull first," Scarlet murmured.
Captain Blue stood at the railing outside the bridge of the carrier Isaac Hull with Commodore James Cox and the ship's captain. He was not so much interested in the commodore's conversation as he was worried about his best friend. Even if everything went according to plan, there was still the possibility that Scarlet wouldn't make it off the ship in time. Not even Dr. Fawn knew if he could recover from fatal injuries if his body wasn't recovered intact, and that was one question Blue did not want to ponder. Sometimes he cuts things too close, he thought to himself--
"Captain Blue, I don't think you heard a word I said." The commodore was staring at him.
Blue turned away in embarrassment. "I'm so sorry, sir. I--"
"No need for that, son," said Commodore Cox. He was a stern-looking officer, with silver-gray hair and brown eyes. He turned those eyes to the horizon and Blue noticed the crows'-feet. The commodore had heavy ones, carved by years of searching the skies for planes and pilots that didn't always come back. "I was saying that it was too bad that we had to lose the Barry."
"Yes, Commodore, it is. But if everything goes according to plan and the ship is destroyed, the fleet will be safe. The mission will be a success."
"It won't be a complete success until our men come back unharmed, Captain. Destroying an atomic ship is a tricky matter."
A sailor appeared, came to attention and handed Cox a message. "Reconnaissance reports that the carrier Barry is going down, Commodore. Conventional explosion broke her back. At about the same time, our navigation computer stopped receiving course change instructions."
"Good, good. Any sign of the demolition party?"
"Admiral Stankowski's launch just came aside, sir. The other boat's just behind."
"And the helicopter?"
"Nothing yet, sir. Still out of range."
Blue frowned and looked at his watch. Captain Scarlet was overdue.
The commodore apparently shared his thoughts. "Sometimes, Captain, especially in bad weather areas like we just went through, long-range radar suffers from interference. If your friend is down close to the water, we may not spot him until he is a little closer."
Blue nodded, barely hearing. Scarlet had been in many of these situations before, but this time it felt different. Something was definitely wrong--
"Admiral on the bridge!" someone shouted, and everyone jumped to attention. Admiral Stankowski nodded at them to carry on and approached Captain Blue who saluted. The admiral returned it and shook hands. "I suppose congratulations are in order, Captain," he said. "You Spectrum people are very efficient."
"Thanks, Admiral. Sorry about the ship."
"Oh, the taxpayers'll buy another," he said jokingly. "I have to hand it to your Captain Scarlet. He was the one who figured out the whole thing. I hate to think what would have happened if we didn't identify Thomas as the Mysteron."
"Bob Thomas?" repeated Cox in disbelief.
"Yes, Jim, I'm afraid so. Then my chief--" He stopped and turned to the sailor from the Barry who had accompanied him as his aide. "Where's Burton? I thought he was on the second boat."
"He was, skipper, but we turned around and let him off back at the ship."
"Why? Your orders were--"
"But Admiral," the sailor interrupted, "Chief Burton saw Commander Thomas heading for the ship!"
"Thomas?!" Stankowski, Cox and Captain Blue said in unison.
"Yes, sir. Chief Burton said he had to stop him."
Stankowski slowly shook his head. So close to retirement and the old fool's still taking chances. "Well, let's hope both of them make it back," he said.
"Amen," agreed Captain Blue.
Scarlet was rapidly losing control of the battered helicopter. In addition to his own deteriorating physical condition, the shock wave had apparently damaged the control cables. He could not hold the helicopter on a steady course for more than a few seconds. They were also very close to the surface, even grazing the wave tops from time to time. The Isaac Hull finally appeared on the horizon and swelled in size.
"It's no good, Captain," said Chief Burton excitedly. With Scarlet rapidly weakening, he had learned quickly how to fly the helicopter, although he had never sat in the cockpit of one before. "We can't hold her up any longer. We'll have to ditch."
"We'll try to get closer, Chief. If we bail out now, we'll die of hypothermia before a lifeboat gets here. Raise the Hull and tell the captain we need assistance."
Burton attempted, but there was no response. "The radio's dead too, Captain."
Soon they were less than a mile from the carrier. "Well," sighed the old chief, "there's no other choice. Undo your seat belts and I'll help you out." He opened the side door.
Scarlet struggled frantically to get out of the harness. The release was stuck, jammed. The concussion of the shock wave had smashed some piece of equipment into it. Burton released his own belts and tried to extricate him, but his efforts were futile.
"I can't get out, Chief," Captain Scarlet said weakly. "Just save yourself and I'll try to make the deck."
"No, sir," said Burton emphatically. "If you go, I'm going with you." He reached for his belt to strap himself back into the seat.
Scarlet hauled the control stick over so that the helicopter tipped, spilling Chief Burton out the open door and into the ocean. "Sorry about that, Chief," he said behind him. "You'll have a better chance this way, and so will I. Lighter weight means more altitude."
The Hull's radar picked up the helicopter, much to Captain Blue's relief, a good distance away. It was a very erratic signal, which meant that the helicopter was maintaining an extremely low altitude. Soon it would come over the horizon, and Blue, Admiral Stankowski and Commodore Cox watched carefully from the bridge.
"There he is!" cried Blue, peering through high-powered binoculars. His enthusiasm quickly ebbed when he took a closer look at the machine. It was very badly damaged, with a tail section obviously bent out of shape even at this distance.
"Oh, my God," gasped Cox. "How the hell is he keeping that thing in the air?"
"I told you, the man is incredible," said Stankowski. Then, to a junior officer, "Get on the horn to that chopper. Tell Captain Scarlet to bail out into the drink and we'll pick him up."
"Sorry, Admiral," replied the lieutenant after several tries, "but we get no response. His radio must be dead."
"Send out a lifeboat so he will get the idea."
"Let's hope we can get to him in time."
"Them, Admiral." Blue squinted through the powerful lenses again. "There are two people aboard the helicopter. Looks like your chief made it also."
Suddenly the helicopter lurched and heaved over onto its side. The three officers saw a body fall into the water and come to the surface. A lifeboat picked up the swimmer within seconds.
"One down, one to go," said Commodore Cox. "But why isn't the other one jumping? That chopper could splash any minute!"
Stankowski was on the telephone and held up his hand at Cox's comment. "Thanks," he said into the phone and hung up. He turned to the other two.
"They just picked up Burton. He says that Captain Scarlet is badly wounded and can't release his safety belts."
Blue just stared at him.
The admiral continued, "He can't put down in the water because the chopper's full of holes and it will sink like a rock. He's going to try and land on the deck."
"He'll never make it!" exclaimed Cox.
Stankowski told him, "Jim, it's the only way. Clear the flight deck except for crash personnel. That helicopter could go in any direction." Cox nodded to the flight deck officer and alarms sounded.
"Is there anything I can do, sir?" asked Blue.
"No, Captain, I won't have you on deck. I'm not going to lose both of you. You'll just have to watch from here, I'm afraid."
Blue felt helpless just standing there, but he dared not disobey the admiral's order. His hands gripped the railing so tightly that his knuckles were white. The helicopter, now almost totally out of control, approached the carrier, weaving back and forth and very low. He couldn't help but think of those old World War II newsreels of the kamikaze planes dodging anti-aircraft fire while on their attack runs. Now Blue could see that the helicopter was definitely coming in too low. "Pull up, Paul; come on, pull up!" he found himself shouting. Many of the sailors from both the Hull and the Barry were watching also, some doing the same, a few shaking their fists.
Almost as if Scarlet heard them, the stricken helicopter rose within seconds of impact. Blue watched in horror as the edge of the deck sheared off the struts and the helicopter landed belly-up like a disabled airplane. It skidded crazily along the deck, seemingly in slow motion, screeching horribly and throwing off a huge trail of sparks. The mangled hulk tore effortlessly through the emergency net and finally came to a stop after slamming into a blast deflector, a shield raised behind launching aircraft, and bursting into flames. The emergency crew, however, was there at once, dousing the fire and wrenching open the cockpit.
Blue took off at a gallop for the stairs leading to the flight deck. A half-dozen steps from the deck, a fireman in a metallic suit stopped him. "He's alive, Captain, just barely. I don't know if he's going to pull through, because he's badly burned--"
Not waiting for the fireman to finish, Blue vaulted over the railing to the deck. He sprinted to the wreckage, where Scarlet was being placed gently on a stretcher. Luckily for him, he was unconscious. What was left of his uniform vest was soaked with blood. He was indeed severely burned, and Blue turned away at the horrible sight.
"We had to cut the belts to get him out, sir," said one of the medics. "He did the right thing by heading for the ship; he would have drowned trying to release his harness. Then again, maybe it would have been better for him; you know, his suffering would have been over fast."
"Thanks. Take good care of him, fellas," said Blue softly.
Chief Burton put down the magazine and reached automatically to scratch his right leg. The plaster wasn't even dry and already the dadburn thing was starting to itch. How was he going to put up with it for six weeks or more? He cursed to himself. He hadn't even known the impact of the water had broken his already-wounded leg until the ship's doctor told him. Now they had him in traction, his leg supported in midair by pulleys and ropes, reminding him of someone kicking a football. The pain was awful, even though he was receiving strong medication for it. Fortunately, he was assured, he'd be in this position only a short time. Oh well, he thought, as the old Navy saying goes, "A sailor ain't happy unless he's complaining." If that were the case, Burton was in heaven. He picked up the magazine again and tried to concentrate on the article he'd been reading.
Even with his shattered leg, Burton realized that this was only a scratch compared to what had happened to Captain Scarlet. He hadn't seen the crash, but they had all heard the terrible sound of the impact and the chopper sliding across the deck. The pharmacist's mate who wrapped his leg had described it to him, and it was unbelievable that the captain survived the crash at all. Scuttlebutt first was that he was already dead when the firemen got to him, but later word came down that he was in fact alive, though so badly burned that he probably wouldn't survive the trip back to Norfolk. All they could do was just make him comfortable. Were it not for Captain Scarlet dumping me out of the helicopter, he mused, I'd be in the same shape. Quit complaining, Burton. You're still here, aren't you?
A familiar voice asked, "When do I get to sign the cast, Chief?"
Burton looked up and smiled at Admiral Stankowski.
"As soon as it's dry, sir, you'll be the first."
"Actually, I just stopped in to see how you were getting along before I left."
"You're leaving, sir?"
"Yes, I have to turn in the logs, along with my report, to Spectrum. Since Admiral O'Hara canceled the exercise, there's no reason for me to stay."
"No, Admiral, just that I figured the report and logs would go back Stateside by courier."
"You could say I'm the courier. O'Hara's relieved me of command. He requested that I deliver the report and logs to Spectrum myself." He added, a little sarcastically, "He said they have 'a few questions' for me. If Spectrum is anything like us, I expect to be there all night."
"Makes you feel like a fish out of water, I reckon, losing your ship like that."
"That it does, Chief," Stankowski nodded sadly. "But at least we have the satisfaction of knowing that the old lady-- belay that, young lady -- died with her boots on."
"Will you put in a good word for me with Captain Hawkins, sir? You know I disobeyed orders by going back to the ship."
"You don't even have to ask. I'm sure the topic will come up with O'Hara. He already mentioned putting you in for a medal."
"I don't need a medal, Admiral--"
"You're a hero, Terry," Stankowski interrupted. "If it weren't for you, this whole fleet would be history!" He smiled at the chief. "I still don't understand why you went back."
"I don't know why either, Admiral. I just reacted." He added, "Don't forget Captain Scarlet when you talk to Admiral O'Hara, sir. He figured it all out. It's too bad I couldn't do more for him."
"Don't worry about it. You did everything you could. It's difficult just to believe he survived that landing."
"How is he, sir? I mean, does he have any chance of survival?"
"Dr. Katz's preliminary report wasn't promising, but he never got to make another one. You see, Captain Scarlet was taken off the ship."
"What?!" Burton sat up, forgetting about the leg in traction. He grunted in pain, flopping back onto the bed. He grabbed the aching thigh as he cursed under his breath. "You mean you let him travel? In that condition?" he said through clenched teeth.
"I'm not in charge any more, remember? Commodore Cox had no choice. Captain Blue commandeered a helicopter and took Scarlet off himself."
"He mentioned something about Captain Scarlet having a 'unique medical condition' that they're used to treating. He said that Spectrum HQ has one of the best medical facilities around -- I know that much is true, they've taken care of some of our people before."
"Didn't Captain Blue know that Scarlet was dying?"
"I'm sure he did, but what could I say about it, Terry? When Spectrum is involved, what they say goes, no questions asked."
Burton sighed. "Anyway, Admiral, Captain Scarlet is the one who should get a medal, not me. Even if it's posthumous."
"You both deserve World Navy recognition," Stankowski pointed out. "I'll see if O'Hara can pull a few strings to get Scarlet the credit he deserves." The admiral stood. "Well, I've got to go. Take care of yourself, Terry." He patted him on the shoulder.
"Have a good flight, Admiral."
As he waited for the door to open, Master Chief Burton stood and smoothed his dress uniform. For the tenth time, he checked his appearance. From his white hat to the tips of his shoes, everything looked perfect. Every uniform crease was razor-sharp, every piece of brass mirror-polished. Also for the tenth time, he approved and wished they would tell him what was going on.
He stroked the Medal of Honor hanging at his throat, the five-pointed star shining in the early-morning sun. He had grown to like the medal over the past couple of months, after first having been embarrassed at accepting it, just like he was with all the other honors long ago. But with the United States' highest honor came also a degree of respect and awe unlike anything else. He noticed, just as someone had told him he would, that everyone knowing the significance of this pointed piece of bronze acted differently around him. There was no concrete way to describe it; all he knew was that he liked it.
Perhaps what made him feel best was a rather small thing. Burton had been clumping along, still with his cast and crutches, down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington right after having received the Medal from President Roberts. Strolling the other way was a very old man, and Burton noticed that the man was staring at him. As they passed each other, he looked up at Burton with a tear running down his cheek, with that admiring look that the old salt had seen many times since. The old gent then startled Burton by snapping a salute at him, and without saying a word, continued on his way. That small gesture affected Burton more than all the pageantry that preceded or followed it.
It had been several months since the Barry had been sent to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Burton was finally out of the cast, but he was advised to use a cane for at least a few more weeks until he got the strength back in his leg. He leaned on the cane now as he thought of what had transpired in these months. He had testified at several boards of inquiry, always a frustrating and tedious affair. Now he had been brought to yet another Spectrum installation, as always not told where he was or why he was here. He assumed it was for yet more questions.
The door opened and a young black man, in a green and black uniform like what Captain Scarlet had worn, greeted him. "Welcome to Cloudbase, Master Chief. It's an honor to have you here." Burton noted, as usual, that gleaming Medal-of-Honor look in the man's eyes.
"Thank you, er-- Captain?" He didn't know how to address him, for he saw that this man's uniform, like Captain Scarlet's, bore no rank insignia.
"I'm Lieutenant Green, Chief, but thank you for the promotion," he said with a lilting West Indies accent, smiling. "Colonel White will see you now." He motioned through the doorway.
Burton entered the room behind the lieutenant. A short passageway led to what looked like a command console. The right side of the passageway was lined with every piece of up-to-date electronic equipment imaginable. The left side was a wall of windows with a view of the clouds -- hence the name of the base, apparently -- and the earth below.
The chief strode confidently toward the console, using his cane lightly. Lieutenant Green introduced him to a man who could only be Colonel White, then Green sat in a chair before the computers. A moving floor positioned his chair at the controls he needed.
Colonel White pressed a button on his console, and a stool rose from the floor. "Please have a seat, Master Chief Burton," he began. "You must be weary after your journey to our base." Burton sat down with a sigh. The colonel then nodded to the tall blond-haired man seated next to Burton and continued, "May I introduce Captain Blue. He was Captain Scarlet's partner during the Mysteron attack on your ship." They exchanged greetings.
So this is Captain Blue, thought Burton. Obviously. Like all the other Spectrum officers, Captain Blue wore a vest and high boots, in the color of his code name, over a dark shirt and trousers. He appeared to be a tough-looking officer, yet very intelligent. Just like Captain Scarlet, he mused, except that the latter had somewhat softer, more youthful features.
"It is my great pleasure, Master Chief," said White, "to welcome you officially to Spectrum's true headquarters. We thought a man willing to risk his own life for one of our officers should be permitted to visit our secret base."
The colonel went on to describe the capabilities of Cloudbase--that it hovered in mid-air at a high altitude in classified locations (currently 40,000 feet over the North Atlantic), that it could change position at any time and could reach any part of the world in a day or less, and so on. All of this information was interesting to Burton, but it could not possibly be the reason he was summoned to Cloudbase in his dress uniform. This seemed more like a social call. He sat and listened patiently, and soon he got his answer.
"I'm sure you're wondering by now why you are here, Master Chief."
Burton sat a little straighter. "The thought did cross my mind, Colonel. I was expecting another hearing, a board of inquiry."
"Not at all, my good man. As commanding officer of the Spectrum organization, I wish to extend my sincerest gratitude to you for your brave acts of three months ago. I have met with Admirals O'Hara and Stankowski and some of your shipmates on the John Barry, as well as medical personnel from the Isaac Hull, and my decision is to change Spectrum policy. Normally our highest decoration, the Spectrum Cross, is only awarded to our own members. Today, however, I have made an amendment to that."
White, Captain Blue, and Lieutenant Green all rose, and Burton did the same. The colonel produced a black velvet box with the Spectrum insignia on the lid from a compartment in the desk. Smiling, he opened the box but was startled.
The box was empty.
"Captain Blue, is this some sort of joke?!" the colonel snapped.
"Oh, I'm sorry, sir." Captain Blue blushed. "We forgot to tell you."
"We? What exactly do you mean by 'we'?"
"The lieutenant and I decided to make a slight change." Blue grinned broadly. "We felt that there was a more qualified person to pin it on."
"This had better be good, Captain."
He turned to the colonel's aide. "Is everything ready, Lieutenant Green?"
"Go ahead, then."
The lieutenant moved his chair to the other end of his console and pressed a button. The door on the side of the control room opened, and Captain Scarlet strode through the door and stood in front of the old salt.
Burton rubbed his eyes. Surely he was seeing things. The captain was in perfect health!
"I was very lucky, Master Chief," interrupted Scarlet.
"I'll say! The last time I heard, you were dying!"
"Well, thanks to medical science, I made it." And a little help from the Mysterons, Scarlet added to himself.
"I couldn't believe you survived that landing. From what I heard, you didn't have any room to spare. Another inch lower and I hate to think what would have happened."
"Now you know why I dumped you out of the helicopter. Not carrying your weight gave me those few inches I needed. I knew I had to reach the ship for any chance of survival, and I also saw the lifeboat which was waiting to pick you up."
"I guess I owe you my life, Captain."
Scarlet smiled. "I'll settle for that drink you promised me a while ago--"
Colonel White cleared his throat.
"--off duty, of course, sir."
Scarlet took out another black velvet box from his vest pocket. He opened the box and took out the medal. "The Spectrum Cross is hereby awarded to Master Chief Petty Officer Terence M. Burton, United States Navy, for bravery above and beyond the call of duty during the recent World Navy combined exercise 'Operation World Hope.' Congratulations, Master Chief."
Scarlet pinned a silver cross, with the Spectrum insignia in the center and hanging from a rainbow-colored ribbon, on Burton's chest and snapped to attention. They exchanged salutes and then handshakes, each clapping the other on the back.
The other three Spectrum officers then congratulated the old salt, each with a handshake and a few kind words. The last was Colonel White, who clasped Burton's hand and said, "You may turn in your application any time, Master Chief."
Any comments? Send a E-MAIL to the SPECTRUM HEADQUARTERS site