a CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERONS story
by Mary J. Rudy
Captain Scarlet entered the officers' lounge, then stopped suddenly. A sharp odor permeated his nostrils. He sniffed, furrowing his brow as he tried to determine its source. It was a vaguely familiar odor, not sickening but not entirely pleasant, either. Still, it was enough to warrant investigation. He was about to hit the alarm when he noticed the main table covered with newspapers. Walking over to it, he saw a plastic model airplane on the table top. The plane had been freshly painted, for its cockpit canopy was masked with tape and a small air compressor had been left on the floor. Scarlet immediately recognized the smell of paint thinner and relaxed. It would take but a few minutes for the lounge's ventilators to clear the air. There was no danger.
Knowing better than to touch the plane, Scarlet clasped his hands behind his back and bent down for a close look. It was a World War II American twin-engine fighter, with the fuselage stopping at the rear of the wing instead of continuing back and ending in a tail fin. Rather, the engines were at the front of two long structures, each with its own rudder and connected by a horizontal stabilizer. The nose of the plane bristled with four machine guns and a 20-millimeter cannon. He recalled from his history books that it was the P-38 Lightning, one of the best fighters of that war, the preference of the top aces of the Army Air Forces in the Pacific Theater.
More unusual than the design of the airplane, however, was its paint scheme. It was painted in the normal olive drab camouflage with gray undersides, but the plane was strangely marked. Beneath each of the large propellers a shark's mouth grinned evilly. It definitely was an American fighter, judging from the star-and-bar insignia, but unlike any other Lightning Captain Scarlet could remember. The final coat of flat lacquer was flawless, the visible detail outstanding. Scarlet straightened, nodding his head in admiration.
A friendly voice asked, "Well, what do you think, Captain Scarlet?"
He smiled at Captain Ochre, who was drying off an airbrush with a rag. Ochre had wisely rolled up his sleeves and covered his black uniform shirt and mustard-colored vest with a smock. His hands and bare forearms were coated with a fine mist of olive and gray paint.
"Marvelous. P-38 Lightning, correct?"
"Very good, Captain. The P-38 was always one of my personal favorites, along with the P-39 Airacobra--"
"That's the one the Soviets used as a tank buster?"
"Right again." Captain Ochre laid the airbrush carefully in its case, snapped the lid shut, then began to wind the air hose. He continued, "My other favorites are any 1950's and 1960's U.S. Navy carrier planes."
"I thought only the Flying Tigers had shark teeth. What made you decide to paint the P-38 with them?"
"This book." He handed Scarlet a magazine-sized publication. The same plane, down to the shark mouths, was illustrated on the cover. "It illustrates planes flown by aces in the South Pacific. One had his P-38 painted in this way, like the P-40 he flew before this one, to identify himself to the Japanese and intimidate them. Thought I'd see if I could do it."
"Looks like a success. I can't wait to see the interior," said Captain Scarlet, pointing to the masked-over cockpit.
"Well, I'm going to pull the mask off shortly, but the plane has to be covered right away to protect the lacquer from specks of dust. You can see it tomorrow."
"Great! Do you need help putting this lot away?"
"You can if you want; it's no big deal. I'll just put this in my quarters and I'll be right back." He picked up the newspaper under the model and balanced it gingerly, then carried both paper and model through the doorway. Scarlet was about to ask him how he could fit himself into his quarters, let alone another model airplane, when the public-address system crackled to life. Both men stiffened when they heard:
"This is the voice of the Mysterons…"
"Damn," muttered Captain Ochre, setting the model back on the table. The voice was deep and foreboding, almost as if it were coming from the bottom of a burial crypt. The words echoed dully throughout the halls of Cloudbase:
"…We know that you can hear us, Earthmen. The city of the American president is the site of our next objective. The black day in that area will be the day of the thunderbolt. We will be avenged!"
Immediately after the message, the sound of rustling paper caught Captain Scarlet's attention. He turned to see Ochre draping more newspapers over two piles of books on the table. Between the books was the finished model.
"There, that should keep the dust off." He scrawled "Please don't touch" on the newspaper in red paint.
"Are you just going to leave it that way?" asked Scarlet.
"Sure, I always do."
"Well, I hope the colonel doesn't see it, for your sake." Scarlet shrugged and started for the door. "By the way," he added, stopping in the doorway, "it might be a good idea not to spray-paint in this lounge again. The fumes, you know--"
"I checked first, believe me," interrupted Ochre, "but this was the second safest area on the base as far as ventilation. The first was the flight deck. Not a very practical solution at 40,000 feet, of course."
"Of course," agreed Scarlet. "But not a bad idea," he added half to himself. It was great that Captain Ochre had a hobby, but sometimes he could get carried away--
"What did you say?" asked Ochre as he peeked under the paper at his latest masterpiece.
"Never mind, just thinking aloud." He strode out the door before Captain Ochre could figure out what he had said.
"At ease, gentlemen." Colonel White pressed a button on his console and two seats rose from the floor. He continued in his distinguished British accent, "I'm sure you both heard the latest Mysteron threat."
Captain Blue spoke first after they sat. "Sounds like the Mysterons are planning something in Washington."
"I was hoping you could do a little better than that, Captain Blue. That part is fairly obvious."
"Sir," said Captain Scarlet, "do you think it has anything to do with the President himself? He is currently holding a summit conference with the World Armed Forces Chiefs of Staff."
"Possibly, Captain, but it was not specifically mentioned in their threat. You know how the Mysterons are--" The colonel stopped. "Sorry, bad choice of words. You know what I mean."
"No offense taken, Colonel." Scarlet was at one time a Mysteron agent, after being "killed" in a car wreck. Later, after an 800-foot fall, the Mysteron hold on him was partially broken. Although he was back on the side of Spectrum, he had retained the Mysteron power of "retro-metabolism" and become indestructible. He was given the most dangerous assignments because he could not be killed. It gave him the outward appearance of a daredevil, but those close to him knew better.
Meanwhile, the colonel's aide rose from his computer console and handed Captain Blue a printout. The blond American captain scanned the sheet as the aide sat back down. "Colonel, here's something. There is a convention of U.S. black civic leaders in Washington starting tomorrow. It's in commemoration of the anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Mysterons did say that it would be a black day in Washington."
White nodded. "I'd say that is the target. If a catastrophe occurred at this meeting, probably on the order of an explosion--"
"Do you think that's what was meant by thunderbolts?"
"Quite, Captain Blue. If a bomb were to go off at that conference, particularly by a mysteronized white radical, it could set race relations in the United States back at least fifty years. It could start riots again, much the same as those of 100 years ago when Dr. King was killed."
"Aren't you making a mountain out of a molehill, sir?" asked Captain Scarlet. "I doubt if the consequences would be as severe as in 1968. So many factors are different--for example, the economic disparity between whites and blacks now is almost nonexistent in the USA. Relations haven't been strained for decades. I feel that if the same thing happened at the conference of the Joint Chiefs, it could have international implications."
"Are you suggesting then, Captain, that we should forget about the black leaders' convention?"
"Not at all, Colonel. But I would assign another officer to safeguard the U.S. President should the convention threat prove to be a ruse. Don't forget, the term 'black' day may just mean a fateful day."
"I agree," said Colonel White. "Then it's settled. Captain Scarlet, Captain Blue--you are to proceed to Washington immediately, to the convention center." He nodded to his aide, and the young black man rose. "Lieutenant Green, you will accompany Captains Scarlet and Blue to Washington in the passenger jet. Then you are to proceed to the White House--"
Captain Blue interrupted, "If I may suggest, Colonel, it may be better for the lieutenant to be the second officer at the black leaders' convention. For obvious reasons." The Caribbean lieutenant smiled at him. "Just in case we need someone to go undercover. I'll go to the White House instead."
"All right, that sounds sensible. Gentlemen, you have your assignments. Your jet will be waiting on the flight deck. Dismissed."
There was a certain aura around Frank Stone that no one could actually describe. He had an air of confidence about him, almost bordering on cockiness. But it wasn't just that. There was a mysterious side as well. He was what one would call your typical fighter pilot--expensive sunglasses, suntanned face with crow's-feet going back to his ears, a very firm handshake from many hours gripping a control stick, and lightning-fast reflexes. Although well over 50 years of age, he could pass for a man of 25 based on physical condition alone. Only his rugged, weather-beaten appearance gave him away.
Stone, or "Blinder" as his friends called him, was also like a typical fighter jock in another, deeper respect--he was aloof, a loner. To those around him, he was an enigma. No one knew very much of his background except that he had indeed been an Air Force fighter pilot and was now a private pilot. He never spoke about family or old friends, and anyone who pressed him for information was usually told to mind his own business. The truth was that Francis J. Stone was truly alone in the world. Born to a poor family, he literally fought his way to adulthood, yet surprisingly never got into deep trouble with the law. Somehow, he managed to get a decent education as well, considering that he had been brought up in a bad neighborhood and worked to help support the family. His scholastic prowess earned him a two-year fully paid college scholarship, and after hearing from an Air Force recruiter that two years' college was the minimum requirement for pilots, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.
He breezed through both college and pilot training with no problem. In his service record, it was noted that he was a "natural" pilot. He did instinctively what the other cadets struggled to do--become part of the aircraft itself, not just sit in it and work the controls. He knew every inch of the planes he flew, fretted over the slightest change in engine noise, and helped his fellow pilots with the finer points of flying. His knack for leadership was observed, and he rose to the rank of major before the war broke out.
Tragedy struck twice, quickly and devastatingly. As the war began, Stone’s squadron was ordered to a base in the thick of the action. By a twist of fate, Stone had been rushed to the hospital to have his appendix removed before they left. He was lucky--an enemy raid destroyed the base the day after the unit got there. No one in his squadron survived the attack.
A short time later, when Stone was well enough to travel, he was reassigned to another squadron which was shipping out in a few days. The day before he was to leave was his birthday, and his family was flying up to throw him a going-away party. The plane crashed, killing his parents, his younger brother and his bride of six months. The autopsy revealed that his wife was pregnant with their first child. She had not yet told him. For the first time since childhood, Frank Stone actually cried.
As soon as all of the family's affairs had been settled, Stone was back on the flight line. It was at about this time that he received the nickname of "Blinder." People said that he lived his life as though he wore a set of horse blinders on the sides of his head. If it didn't involve flying, he wasn't interested. In reality, deep down Stone was afraid of striking up any more friendships. Everyone close to him so far, it seemed, had met with disaster. First the whole group with whom he had honed his flying skills, then his parents and brother, and his dear young wife with their baby, a child he hadn't even known about--the list grew during the course of time also. Stone was not generally superstitious, but he didn't want to jinx anyone else--
"Quit feeling sorry for yourself, Frank," he found himself saying aloud, grinning behind the oxygen mask. After all, he'd made it out of there alive, hadn't he? Even won the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Flying Cross after shooting down 35 enemy jets. Now he was settled down in a bachelor apartment, with a good job as an aeronautical engineer and a private plane that cost him a good portion of his life savings. But perhaps his greatest joy was doing what he was occupied with at the moment--flying a vintage aircraft, a "warbird," for the Planes of Extinction.
Calling themselves the "Exes" for short, this group of retired military pilots and aviation enthusiasts rescued old warplanes from the scrap heap and restored them to flying condition. They then performed with them in air shows around the world. Oh, to have been there in the early days when they were flying Mustangs and Corsairs! But the last of the famous World War II airplanes, sadly, were retired years before Stone was even born. Now they just flew replicas of them, originally frowned upon as not being authentic but accepted because they were what the people asked for the most. The mock dogfights staged by the fighter replicas were often the highlight of a typical air show. But the jets--! The fighter-bombers, the attack planes, screaming in on the deck, filling the air with booming thunder, beating up an enemy position and disappearing into the heavens before the ground troops knew what hit them--they were what Frank Stone loved.
Especially the one he was piloting at the moment, the A-10, affectionately named the "Warthog" because it was ugly as sin. No graceful aerodynamics on this puppy. It was a real rebel, much like Stone himself. Short and stubby, it also packed a deadly punch--a rotary cannon in the nose and an ordnance load that would snap the wings of those older planes. This particular one was in desert camouflage, overall tan with green and brown spots, with a shark's mouth painted on the nose around the gun. Stone considered himself lucky to be the one picked to fly the plane in front of both the President and the mayor of Washington on the same day, and he was taking the whole thing quite seriously. He had taken the A-10 up every day for the past week to practice some special maneuvers that he was keeping a secret from everyone.
Stone nosed the homely aircraft into a steep dive, then hauled the stick back into his abdomen, the plane's engines screaming in protest. His vision began to gray at the edges, and he felt the blood drain from his head, but still he held on and fought for altitude. When he had finished the wicked maneuver, he quickly scanned the gauges, which were in order, and nodded in approval.
Then a strange feeling came over him, one he hadn't felt since leaving the Air Force. His hair, which he always kept in a medium-length crewcut, felt as if it were standing on end. Stone took off the helmet and scratched his head while holding the stick between his knees. Odd--that had only happened when the enemy was near, when they were ready to pounce on his flight. He put the helmet back on, but the sensation lingered. Again, he checked the instruments, even thumping the fuel gauge to make sure the needle hadn't stuck. Everything was working fine. He took both hands off the stick and wiped his sweating palms on his thighs, and then it happened.
There was a loud crack, like a gunshot, and the glass faces of the instruments shattered. The stick lurched forward. Stone grabbed it and pulled, but it seemed to be set in concrete. So were the rudder pedals, which he frantically kicked trying to put the aircraft into a turn. So was the throttle, the flap controls, the ejector handles, everything. The radio was useless, the canopy unbreakable. Stone put both feet on the instrument panel and used his body as a lever, tugging on the stick with every ounce of strength he had in his body, but it was no use. Knowing he was doomed, he closed his eyes and relaxed. He chose for his last thoughts his family, the wife he had barely known, and all of the friends he had lost in an all-too-senseless war.
Then Francis J. Stone, also known as "Blinder," returned to the dust from whence he came.
Overhead, high above the barren landscape, another jet scratched across the sky. It was tan in color, with green and brown spots and a shark's mouth, just like the one in the wreckage below. Seated in the cockpit, flying the aircraft as though it were part of his anatomy, was the mysteronized Frank Stone.
Captain Scarlet and Lieutenant Green were at first glimpse a mismatched pair. About the only similarity between them was the uniform. Scarlet was tall, over six feet, with a thick head of straight black hair. He had smooth, handsome facial features which went well with his fair skin and piercing blue eyes. His strong muscular build and precise British-accented speech gave him the appearance of a tough, no-nonsense military officer, yet one could tell that he was cool-headed and a very good judge of character by the way he acted.
Lieutenant Green, on the other hand, was a light-skinned black man of shorter stature and slight build. Although he was in his late twenties, he looked extremely young, like a teenager. He appeared quite intelligent, almost to a fault, and also somewhat nervous. It gave one the impression that the youth would be much more comfortable behind a computer than in the field. Caribbean blood was reflected in his appearance and mannerisms. Indeed, his voice had a lilting West Indies accent to it, which Raymond Cherry picked up immediately as the officer introduced himself.
The mayor of Washington, D.C. finished eyeing the two and said, "Red, black and green. The symbolic colors of Africa and African-Americans."
He was referring to the Spectrum uniforms--black shirt and trousers common to all, with cap, vest and high boots in the color of the officer's code name.
"Purely coincidental, your honor," Lieutenant Green replied. "Captain Blue was to accompany Captain Scarlet originally."
Cherry nodded. "Well anyway, gentlemen, welcome to the District of Columbia, and welcome to the site of the King Convention for Ethnic Pride. I hope that you'll find the security in this hotel adequate." He gestured, and the two Spectrum officers followed him into the main banquet hall. Mayor Cherry was a tall, thin black man, dark-complexioned with a mustache and thick eyeglasses. He was obviously an intelligent man, a political leader who knew the inner workings of the System. A man who could get the job done when it counted, yet one who knew the System's limitations. Intelligent, but with plenty of common sense too.
"The Independence Hotel is considered a maximum-security location," Cherry began as they walked to the center of the large room. "Since so many U.S. and foreign dignitaries come to Washington every year, this hotel has its own private security staff. Besides visible uniformed guards, there are plainclothes personnel in attendance at every function. For this convention, since the delegates are almost all black people, too many non-blacks would stand out, so the Independence called up another hotel and 'borrowed' its black security people for a few days. That way, their own security staff could pose as hotel employees or whatever and blend in a little better."
Scarlet studied the room with a practiced eye. "What about cameras?"
"Good question, Captain. Every square inch of the convention floor is covered at different angles by numerous surveillance cameras. Each hallway, elevator, the lobby, the kitchens--just about every public area is watched in some way."
Green mused, "Seems like a lot of preparation for a non-political function."
"Maybe so, Lieutenant, but bear in mind the guest list. You have governors, mayors, and more U.S. and state congressmen and -women than you can shake a ballot at. Since my office announced the convention late last year, we have received numerous telephoned, computer-sent and written threats--from your everyday crackpot to the Ku Klux Klan, and now the Mysterons. If something happens during this affair, it will be a political matter. You can bet your green boots on that." The lieutenant looked away in embarrassment. "Contrary to official reports, radical groups still exist. Look at the Klan; everyone thought that was ancient history, but years after it was supposedly disbanded my office gets a threat. These politicians are scared, Lieutenant. A tragedy here could send us back to 1968 all over again."
Just as Colonel White said, Scarlet thought. "No, your honor, of course we wouldn't want that to happen," he said aloud. "That's the main reason we're here, to keep matters under control." His words seemed to have a soothing effect on the mayor. "I'm sure that Lieutenant Green didn't mean that security is unnecessary."
"Oh, no, sir," added the lieutenant eagerly. "I merely meant that your security is impressive, even by our standards. Perhaps I can even make a few suggestions along the way."
"I admire your initiative, Lieutenant. Suggest as you see fit, but I don't think any improvements are needed. As you pointed out, we have a pretty impressive setup here."
Don't be surprised, your honor, thought Captain Scarlet to himself, fully aware of his junior officer's potential.
Cherry calmed down gradually as the day progressed and they observed the rest of the security arrangements. He especially felt more comfortable with Lieutenant Green after the latter proved his potential to him in the security office. The youth made a good surveillance system even more efficient with a few minutes in front of the computers. The mayor was dumbfounded as he watched the cameras scan a much wider area than before at twice the speed.
"Lieutenant, do you have any idea how much we paid for this system? The company told us it was state-of-the-art!"
Green beamed with satisfaction. "And now even more so, sir."
In a matter of five minutes, Mayor Cherry had changed his mind completely about the young black man. He even apologized at length for having formed the wrong opinion about him originally. Captain Scarlet said nothing but went about his own work; Green's electronic miracles on board Cloudbase were nothing new to him.
As the trio left the security office, Cherry glanced at his watch. "Well, gentlemen," he said, "there is one more stop we have to make before we call it a day."
Surprised, Lieutenant Green asked, "What did we miss, your honor? I thought we covered everything."
The mayor scowled at him. "What, you don't know?"
"Sir," assured the lieutenant, "we've gone through our normal security check. If you're not pleased with something--"
Sensing that he had troubled Green in exactly the way he wanted, Mayor Cherry began to chuckle. "Don't be so touchy, son!" He stopped in front of a pair of heavy doors. "This is the V.I.P. dining room. You people do break for meals, don't you?" The mayor snickered again as the pair relaxed and smiled back at him.
"Well--yes, sir," began Scarlet, "we were only going to ring up room service--"
Cherry held up his hand. "Lesson number one, Captain Scarlet, on African-American relations--never turn down an invitation to supper." The mayor led them through the double doors. He added, in a dialect long considered derogatory but appropriately humorous, with a wide toothy grin and a sly wink, "I hopes you boys is hongry."
The faint aroma of cherry blossoms wafted in through the open windows behind President Roberts. The chief executive, a middle-aged man with hair graying at the temples and deep-set eyes, hunched over the large desk. Document after document was placed before him, which he signed methodically as Captain Blue waited patiently. Roberts handed the paperwork to his secretary and asked not to be disturbed further, shoving the fountain pen back into the desk stand with obvious annoyance. He sighed and sat back in the swivel chair as the secretary shut the door behind her.
Roberts' countenance changed as soon as the door clicked shut. The frown dissolved into a smile as he stood and shook hands with Captain Blue.
A pleasure to see you again, Captain."
"The pleasure's all mine, Mr. President, although I don't usually visit you unless it's bad news."
"Well, yes, that much is true. But it is still good to see you." He waved the tall captain to a chair. "So, the Mysterons are after me for real this time, is it?"
"Everyone else seems to think it's the black civic leaders' convention except Captain Scarlet. He's got the idea it's either you or the Joint Chiefs."
The President smiled slightly at the mention of the name. "And how is Captain Scarlet doing these days?"
"Very well, Mr. President. He sends you his regards."
"The American people owe that man a lot, you know."
"Yes, sir. Not the least of which is the ship bearing your name."
"I still don't know how he managed to survive that explosion. Who would believe that the Mysteron agent was a newspaper reporter?"
Captain Blue wondered if the President would believe that Scarlet actually "died" during that attack, but due to his quasi-Mysteron powers had recovered without a scratch. But, being faced with similarly awkward conversations any number of times, Blue had learned to lie about his best friend's secret with ease. Or rather not lie, but not necessarily tell the whole story: "He nearly didn't make it, Mr. President. I believe we actually lost him at one time." There, perfectly done.
"Amazing. Is he still with Spectrum?"
"Oh, yes, sir. In fact, Lieutenant Green and he are with Mayor Cherry as we speak. He's in charge of the security for the King Convention."
Roberts stared at him. "He's back on duty?!"
"That's right, sir. Full performance."
"Amazing," the President repeated, shaking his head. "There was another officer with you, an American, maybe Midwestern, brown hair--"
"You mean Captain Ochre. He was our assistant."
"Of course; how could I forget? We share an interest. It seems he knows a lot about World War II and mid-to-late-20th century military aircraft from when he was young."
Blue sighed. "That he does, and when he gets involved with a model building project, he goes in headfirst. He doesn't talk about anything else. He can really be a pest sometimes, taking up the entire officers' lounge with his equipment and books."
"Don't be too hard on him, Captain. Everyone needs a hobby. Didn't you ever build model airplanes as a kid?"
"Yes, of course, but not that seriously."
"From what I observed, he takes his hobby very seriously. So you might want to tell him about this." He handed Blue a sheet. "I've invited the Planes of Extinction to put on a show for the finale of the summit. Too bad he didn't come on this mission himself."
Blue read the sheet quickly, then looked up at Roberts. "Knowing Captain Ochre, he'd probably have found some way of getting this assignment. I can just imagine how much film he'd bring with him."
"I had to do something special for the Joint Chiefs," explained Roberts. "Prime Minister Rixham did something similar last year."
"I'm curious, Mr. President," began Captain Blue. "Why is the show being held at Bong Air Force Base instead of Andrews? Bong is inactive, if I remember."
"Better security. Since Bong is an inactive base, only the generals and the security people will be there."
"I see." The Spectrum officer perused the press release again. "Also, why the Planes of Extinction? Why didn't you choose the Air Force Thunderbirds or the Navy Blue Angels?"
Call it 'executive privilege' if you want, Captain. The Exes have always held a special place in my heart. I figure that the World Armed Forces chiefs see modern aircraft every day, but maybe a few old warbirds might cause some excitement. While the armed forces demonstration teams stick to a set routine, this group improvises. One never knows what to expect."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Blue muttered.
The President heard the comment and shook his head. "You Spectrum people are always so suspicious. What can a group of unarmed, slow, ancient aircraft do?"
"If the Mysterons are involved, sir, you can expect anything." Captain Blue stood. "I think I'd better call Cloudbase and have them send the Angels."
Just then the intercom buzzed and the secretary's face appeared on the screen. "I'm sorry, sir, I have to interrupt--"
"That's all right, Irene. What is it?"
"You asked me to buzz you when Space General Perreault and General Murray arrived. They're waiting outside."
"Give me two minutes and then just send them in." Roberts motioned to Blue to sit back down. "These two generals, from Canada and the U.S. respectively, are the coordinators of this conference. I think you should sit in on this discussion as long as you're here. You'll have plenty of time to call headquarters after they leave."
"All right, Mr. President," agreed Captain Blue. "It'll be good to see General Murray again anyway. He and I go way back."
Even Frank Stone’s own mother, were she still alive, would be unable to tell the difference. The Mysteron copy was flawless. Stone removed the dark sunglasses with the usual flourish and slipped them into the pocket of his leather jacket. He sat heavily in a chair and crossed his right ankle over his left knee. "General" Ed Moriarty, commander of the Planes of Extinction, was slightly surprised that Stone was not exhausted from practicing in the A-10 since sunrise.
"Drink?" asked Moriarty, gesturing with a half-empty bottle of bourbon.
Stone nodded. Two glasses were produced from a desk drawer. After a quick toast to the Exes, Moriarty spoke.
"How's the A-10, Blinder?"
"Great. Performance is a hundred per cent, and all the systems check out."
"So, are you going to let me in on it?"
"The maneuvers, of course. What are you planning to do?"
"I'd like to give those brass hats a taste of the real thing. Come in low, on the deck, so close it scares the bejesus out of them. After all, that's what the Warthog does best."
"Well, I don’t know. That is a little dangerous--"
"Hell, Ed, you always say we can improvise if we want to."
"Yes, yes, I know. But don’t you think buzzing generals is a little tricky?"
Stone grinned. "Something I always wanted to do when I was working for 'em."
Moriarty laughed. "I think we all have at one time or another. Well, why not? But promise me you won't come in too low, OK?"
"You bet. Me in the A-10 and Friedman in the Skyavenger, same as always?"
"You can scratch that idea. Friedman's out of commission."
Stone's eyes widened. Irv Friedman was one of the few old friends he had left from the war. "What happened? Did he crunch?"
"Nothing's wrong. His wife's gone into labor."
"Oh." Just like that, no congratulations or comments of any kind. This was a perfect example of how he had earned his nickname. Stone sat erect in the chair and stared out the window, the only sound being the high-pitched whine of a jet engine at full power taking off. Moriarty winced and wished he had said something else.
In reality, it was partly Stone's normal reaction and partly a delay while the Mysteron clone devised another plan.
"No one else can fly the Skyavenger then, I assume," Stone said finally, much to Moriarty's relief.
"Not low like that, Blinder. I won't let anyone who doesn't know the bird like the back of his hand do a stunt like that. And the other planes able to stay with you through a strafing run are being used for the dogfights."
The words "strafing run" echoed through the mysteronized Stone's calculating mind.
"Why don't we make it a real strafing run, Ed? Get a little ammo for the nose gun--"
The commander nearly choked on the bourbon he'd just swallowed. "Whose side you on, Frank?!"
"Blanks, General, blanks, of course."
"OK, OK. But only if you let me tell the President ahead of time."
"If I don't, Frank, he may very well ground us. You wouldn't want that to happen, would you?"
No, Stone certainly did not want that to happen. His mission was to fly a killer plane. If that was thwarted, something else might not work so thoroughly. "No, go ahead. Do what you have to do, naturally." He drained his glass and held it out for a refill.
"You know I'm only asking this because I have to, Frank," said Moriarty as he poured. "You did get checked out by the Secret Service, didn't you?"
"What, you too? Yes, but it wasn't just the Secret Service. There was somebody else there, in a uniform I've never seen before."
"That guy was from Spectrum."
"Spectrum?!" Stone said the word a little strongly, almost angrily, but Moriarty chose to ignore it. "Why is Spectrum in on this?"
"Besides the usual safeguarding of the President, the Secret Service has asked Spectrum's assistance in taking extra security measures with that black convention in town. The mayor's office apparently got a lot of threats. I have no idea why Spectrum is around, and frankly, I don't really want to know anyway."
"Just because I'm from the South doesn't mean I'm a member of the Klan," said Stone, smiling.
"I guess they aren't taking any chances." Moriarty knocked back the last bit of liquor in his glass in a gulp. "Well, I suggest you get some rest, Frank. We're going to saddle up early tomorrow. The show is first thing in the morning so the generals can get out of Washington."
"I'm going to take her up one more time, Ed. I have to run one more check and then go and pick up the blanks from someone I know. I might not be back until after dark."
"Just so it's not so dark that you mistake live 30-millimeter shells for blank ones."
Stone laughed and gave Moriarty a casual salute on his way out the door. That's just the mistake I intend to make, he said to himself.
Captain Scarlet pulled the red and black Spectrum issue sweatshirt over his head and picked up the ringing telephone. "Yes?" he answered, wedging the handset between his chin and left shoulder as he put his right arm through the sleeve.
"Captain Blue here. Just checking that everything's OK since you didn't answer my radio call."
"Sorry, I was in the shower. We're getting ready for that celebrity foot race tonight." He paused a moment to pull his other arm through the shirt. "All is well so far, nothing suspicious yet. The convention center has such tight security that we're hardly even needed. What's the situation where you are?"
"Almost the same, except for one thing. President Roberts has scheduled a little entertainment for the Joint Chiefs at the end of the summit, just before everyone leaves the capital. He's invited an aviation group to perform at Bong Air Force Base."
"Yes, I heard about that. Mayor Cherry said that Roberts mentioned it to him. Which group did he invite?"
"The Planes of Extinction. You know, the old-timers, late 20th, early 21st-century types. Replica World War II planes, F-14's, F-36's, helicopters, you name it. Roberts likes them better than the modern stuff."
"So does Captain Ochre," laughed Scarlet. "He does a right good job on those model airplanes, but I must admit I come rather close to using the blasted things for target practice now and then."
"I know what you mean, especially when he paints with that sprayer. But back to business--do you have any objection to the air show? I mean, do you think there is any danger?"
"I had quite a bit of a row with Cherry on just that subject. He wants tomorrow's welcome breakfast to be held in the rooftop garden just as the planes are flying overhead, and I flatly refused. However, we did reach a compromise." Scarlet sighed. "He can hold his breakfast buffet, but the roof must be cleared before the aircraft are in the area. He wasn't too happy about it, but I think he'll get over it. I don't see any problems on my end as long as Mayor Cherry follows my orders."
"Well, I'm taking out a little insurance. I'm going to call in some air support. At least two Angels, if not all three."
"Good thinking. They should suffice."
"If there's nothing else then, I'm going to call Cloudbase right away. Besides the Angels, I have to talk to Captain Ochre, rub it in a little."
"You would do that, wouldn't you? OK, let me know if the situation changes. We'll be in constant radio contact with hotel security while we're out."
"S.I.G., Captain Scarlet. See you two on the passenger jet on the way back."
"Right. Good night, then." He hung up the phone and walked back through the hotel suite. Lieutenant Green was still in the shower, so Scarlet combed his hair and washed up at the second sink outside of the bathroom. Just as he was finishing up, the lieutenant, already clad in an identical sweatsuit only in green and black, opened the door.
"Did I hear the telephone?"
"Yes. Captain Blue was just updating me."
"He confirmed that air show tomorrow. The Planes of Extinction are performing. Antiques, the type Captain Ochre likes."
"Too bad for Captain Ochre. Think it means anything?"
"I'm not sure, Lieutenant. Shows like that are fairly commonplace. However, a mysteronized jet could cause a lot of problems, so Captain Blue's requesting an Angel patrol just in case. The girls can outfly any of those old planes."
"Do you still think the President and the Joint Chiefs are the real target, Captain?"
"Yes, I do. But we're not taking any chances. Unless some emergency comes up, we're both staying here. Now," he said, pushing up his shirt sleeves to his elbows and rubbing his hands together, "how about once round the park?"
Washington certainly is an interesting city, thought Captain Scarlet as he jogged along the Mall. One of the greatest museum complexes in the world lay along this stretch, the main exhibit halls of the Smithsonian Institution. He had visited one building, the Air and Space Museum, several years ago, and had spent the entire day there. He remembered it fondly now, looking through the glass walls as he passed, spotting the Wright brothers' Flyer and Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. Working at the museum was an old friend from his World Army Air Force days who took him behind the scenes, showing him many of the articles in the museum's vast inventory. It was an unexpected surprise to meet him, but sadly Scarlet never heard from him again. He made a mental note to look him up again on his next furlough.
"Come on, Captain, slow down!" panted Lieutenant Green. Scarlet looked over his shoulder and saw that he had pulled several yards ahead of the young black man. Usually, the lieutenant could keep up with him pretty well on Cloudbase's jogging track, but for some reason was lagging behind this evening. Captain Scarlet knew the reason, and he slowed his pace so that he trotted alongside Green.
"Shouldn't have had that third helping of fried chicken, Lieutenant."
The mayor and his wife had treated them to a home-cooked dinner, authentic "soul food"--chicken, gravy, rice, collard greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, biscuits, several other vegetables he couldn't remember, minted iced tea and numerous desserts including Mrs. Cherry's "famous" sweet potato pie. An unbelievable amount of food for only six people, including two of the mayor's three children. But what food! It was some of the best Captain Scarlet ever tasted, particularly the chicken. Coming from southern England as he did, he had never even heard of some of the dishes, but Mayor and Mrs. Cherry were only too happy to explain what they were, how they were prepared, and with which main courses they were usually eaten. Except for the dinner wine, because Spectrum regulations strictly forbade alcoholic beverages while on duty, Scarlet turned nothing down. By the time they finished dinner, he was quite full. The meal might have been unfamiliar to him, but he enjoyed it just as well.
By contrast, Lieutenant Green felt right at home. The food was very similar to that he had known while growing up in Trinidad, and it was a welcome surprise. The lieutenant was rarely assigned to the field, and while the food on Cloudbase was of good quality, he often longed for something different. Well, thought Captain Scarlet, that was certainly the case earlier this evening. Green seemed to be making up for lost time, or rather, lost meals. He truly stuffed himself; Scarlet more than once wondered where the youth was putting it all. He was surprised that Green had actually joined him on his evening run. It must be all that food weighing him down. He laughed aloud at the thought of Mrs. Cherry serving him yet another helping of chicken.
"What's so funny, Captain Scarlet?"
"You, Lieutenant. You certainly made an impression on Mrs. Cherry this evening."
"Black women are proud of their cooking, sir. They are insulted if you don't eat much."
"I wouldn't exactly call eating enough for three people an insult."
"Oh, give me a break, Captain. I miss that type of food. Mrs. Cherry is a wonderful cook."
"I'll second that."
"Besides," continued the young lieutenant, flashing his teeth in a wide grin, "I also made an impression on the mayor's daughter."
"You devil!" laughed Scarlet as they stopped and sat on a park bench for a rest. Mayor Cherry had invited two of his three children to the get-together, his youngest being away on military service. The older son, about 30, and his daughter, who appeared to be in her mid-twenties, reflected their father's intelligence and sense of humor. The mayor's daughter Jean was particularly delicate and beautiful, but with looks that would go as well with the tailored white suit she was wearing as with faded denims and a worn-out flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. One could tell that she was not putting on an act, that this was the way she normally spoke and acted. Her honesty and candor was what attracted Lieutenant Green to her.
"I was wondering, Captain," the lieutenant began rather hesitantly, "if our work is finished for the night, well--"
"My, but you do work fast!" Scarlet replied with a twinkle in his eye. "What did you do, ask her for a date?"
"No, sir, I'd get back too late. Just a nice evening chat at the house over coffee."
"How'd you manage to ask her? I thought you stayed at the dinner table the whole time."
The lieutenant smiled again. "Someone had to help clear away the dishes."
Scarlet laughed again and shook his head. "As long as the mayor's residence is so close, I don't see any harm." He checked his watch. "Go ahead, then, have fun. Just don't be too late. We have a rather early start."
Green rose quickly. "Thanks," he said and started to run back.
"Oh, and Lieutenant--"
The youth stopped. "Yes, sir?"
"Do try not to bore the poor girl with computers, eh?"
"S.I.G., Captain," was the reply. "I'll let her do all the talking. That shouldn't be too difficult."
Frank Stone got takeoff clearance from the control tower and eased the A-10 into a climb. Once airborne, he programmed a new course and speed into the automatic pilot. He did not know his destination, nor did he need to know. The coordinates came from within, from that part of his psyche now controlled by the Mysterons. He would receive further orders as they became necessary.
Some hours later, he got those orders. A voice echoed in his mind rather than crackled over the radio. It was a slow, deep voice, like a recording played at the wrong speed, the kind of voice that would remind one of a zombie in an old science fiction movie.
"Colonel Stone," the voice began, "this is Captain Black relaying instructions from the Mysterons. You are to increase airspeed and descend to an altitude where you will not be spotted on the radar. Set course for 077 degrees and follow course until you see an airfield. You will land there and await further instructions."
Stone responded, in an emotionless version of his normal voice, "Mysteron instructions will be carried out."
The new course took the A-10 over miles of open ocean. Just as the voice had said, a tiny island materialized on the horizon. It had a wide, flat beach, clean of shrubs and rocks, and a small airstrip used in the past for smuggling, long since abandoned. Although the strip was difficult to see in the twilight, Stone was an experienced pilot. He brought the deadly aircraft down flawlessly, its landing gear bumping along the uneven ground. Stone saw a man in an old military jeep at the end of the runway waving with a flashlight to follow him, and he taxied the plane toward a well-camouflaged building behind a sand dune. When Stone had shut down the engines, the two men wheeled the attack plane into the building.
The man who met the plane turned on the inside lights after the doors were closed, and finally Stone saw his face. He had short dark hair and was very gaunt, with an ashen face that resembled a corpse. He was apparently Captain Black, because the voice was the same.
"I will prepare the plane, Colonel Stone. Your body must rest for now." He pointed to a doorway, and Stone saw a cot inside. "I will awaken you when I am finished. There will be little time to practice your mission."
The real Frank Stone would have offered to help, but the Mysteron copy merely nodded, walked over to the small room and shut the door behind him.
Lieutenant Green looked at his watch and was shocked to see that it was past 1 A.M. He had spent the entire evening at the Cherry residence just talking to the mayor's daughter, pausing only long enough for refills of coffee or homemade cookies. Jean and he had a lot in common, he noticed. They both liked simple pleasures, such as walks in the park and so on. They also had similar educations in the electronics field. Unfortunately, another thing they had in common was the gift of gab, and the pair conversed for several hours like two old friends. When Green noticed the lateness of the hour, he made his goodbyes as brief yet courteous as possible and raced back to the Independence Hotel.
The lieutenant glanced up at the hotel room from across the street. Good; the lights were out. Maybe he could make it into the suite without disturbing Captain Scarlet, not an easy task. He proceeded upstairs and quietly opened the door. Catlike, he tiptoed across the carpet and started to undress. So far, so good. Captain Scarlet had not stirred; the only sound was the regular breathing of a sound sleep. Green put his uniform on the chair and pulled back the covers of his bed.
"Is this your idea of early, Lieutenant?"
The voice startled the young man.
"I--I'm terribly sorry, Captain Scarlet. We lost track of the time--"
"Save the explanation. Just get some rest."
"I'm sorry I awakened you, sir."
"You didn't, Lieutenant. I couldn't sleep myself."
"Is something wrong, sir?"
"I'm not sure. There was a rather disturbing report on the news tonight about a plane crash. They think it might have been an old military jet but they're not certain. Both plane and pilot were burned beyond recognition. All they found so far was a piece of probably the nose; it had shark's teeth painted on it, like that model airplane Ochre just finished before we left."
"Do you think it has anything to do with the air show?"
"I don't know. What disturbs me the most is the location of the wreck. Captain Blue said that the demonstration team is headquartered in that general area."
"If you want, I'll ring him up--"
"I already have done. He saw the same report, and he's ordered a full patrol of all three Angels and a helijet. It may be nothing, but we won't take any chances."
"Then it appears we've done all we can for the night."
"Right. Get some sleep. I hope you can function properly with less than four hours' worth."
"I've made do with less before. Good night, Captain."
Thank God for peacetime, thought Ed Moriarty. It was still before first light, but the runways at the Planes of Extinction's field shone under row after row of powerful lights. No matter how experienced a pilot was, pre-dawn takeoffs under blackout conditions were always hazardous. That was one of the few things he didn't miss about combat flying.
Moriarty stood on the wing root of his Mustang replica and scanned the flight line. 130 years of aviation history, freshly painted and waxed, stared back at him. Some, of course, were copies, such as his personal mount, the Corsair on his right and the Spitfire on his left. The originals had been retired to their museum long ago. The newer planes, though, were genuine. Frighteningly so, in the case of the former enemy fighters. Many a pilot would never forget the sight of one in his rear-view mirror or on his radar screen. All of the Planes of Extinction would fly before the mayor of Washington and his guests, the Joint Chiefs, and President Roberts, an old friend of Moriarty's, later today. All, that is, save for one glaring exception, its space on the flight line noticeably empty.
"Where the hell is Stone?" shouted Moriarty to his second-in-command, Colonel Dietrich, who was seated in the Corsair and usually flew as Moriarty's wingman. "He should've been back before this."
Dietrich shrugged. "Got me, Morry. I haven't had time to worry about anything this morning but this engine."
Moriarty nodded and picked up his radio. "This is the General to all Exes. If anyone has seen hide or hair of Frank Stone recently, sing out. If you haven't, stay off the channel."
Well, he thought, we can't wait forever. He thumbed the radio button again. "Tower, do we have takeoff clearance?"
"Roger, General-- ah, negative. Stand by." Seconds later, the voice returned. "We just picked up an incoming aircraft on radar, General. Judging by its size and speed, it could be your A-10."
"OK. Tell Mac to gas up the plane right away, and as soon as the runway is clear, give us the signal."
Moriarty next spoke to the other pilots. "OK, boys and girls, get those engines turning over. We'll begin the takeoff routine as soon as we get tower clearance."
The cough and sputter of piston engines and the whine of jet turbines acknowledged him. Moriarty reached for his own starter switch, then stopped before he flipped it. He was thinking about the way Stone had been acting for the past 24 hours.
Something just wasn't right, but Moriarty hadn't been able to pick it out. He'd been good friends with Frank since the end of the war, if it was possible for anyone to be friendly with him at all, and Moriarty knew him better than anyone. He'd given him his first civilian job, held his hand through his drinking problem, hounded him to--
His drinking problem! Why hadn't Moriarty thought of it before? During the war and for a short time afterward, Frank Stone had been hitting the bottle quite heavily. Moriarty tried to get him to quit, took him to AA meetings, which had no effect, and even had to bail him out of jail a couple of times. Finally, out of desperation, he had taken his friend to a hypnotist. For whatever reason, that worked. Whenever Frank took a drink, he would become violently ill. He stopped accepting offers of drinks after a few good bouts of vomiting. It got so that the thought of even a bottle of beer would repulse him, and he'd sworn off the stuff for good a few years back.
Yet Moriarty, without thinking, had poured Stone two glasses of the hard stuff, and Stone had tossed both of them down without a second thought! What gives? Had Frank fallen off the wagon? Moriarty cursed himself at his stupidity. With this air show and the threats against the black leaders and all of the security checks they'd had to endure, he didn't even think twice about Stone's actions.
His actions! Wait just a minute! Things were starting to come together now. Stone was a flying ace, a real daredevil who often stretched the established flight plan a little, but he'd never suggest endangering the lives of others, not even generals. And that bit about the ammo was another thing. There was no place nearby other than a military base where he could pick up a large quantity of either blank or live 30-millimeter shells. Except-- Moriarty picked up the radio again.
"Tower, from which direction did you first spot that A-10?"
"What, the ocean?"
"Yes, but there are a few small islands on the charts along his flight path."
Moriarty groaned. He remembered those islands. They were constructed by one of the big drug cartels in the early 21st century as small airstrips. Even now, they were still occasionally used for smuggling contraband. If Stone was coming from that direction, there was no telling what he was up to or whether the shells were blanks or live rounds.
The radio came to life. "General, you are cleared for takeoff."
"Roger." A pause, then, "Karl, you take the lead position and move out. I'll join you shortly."
"OK, Morry," Dietrich answered.
Moriarty leaped into a jeep and raced to the area where the A-10 had come to a stop. Fuel hoses already were attached to the plane. Stone was still sitting in the cockpit, waiting for his tanks to be filled. Moriarty brought the jeep to a screeching halt and asked the maintenance chief, "How long before he's ready to roll, Mac?"
Gary McBride, a crusty old mechanic, growled through an unlit cigar clenched in his teeth, "Only a couple of minutes, Ed."
"That's all I need." Moriarty bounded up the ladder. Stone had been marking his flight map, and when he heard the footsteps on the ladder he folded up the map and quickly stuffed it into his pocket.
"Ed!" he exclaimed. "Why aren't you flying with the other Exes?"
"I was about to ask you the same thing, Blinder. Where the hell have you been?"
"Getting the ammo and practicing." That at least was true.
"All night? I told you to get some rest."
"What are you, my nursemaid?"
"No, your friend. How come you took a couple of drinks yesterday?"
"You were the one who offered them, if I remember correctly."
"Yes, but you're an alcoholic."
Stone just looked at him. The Mysterons had no idea of his past problems, but Moriarty took his reaction as one of guilt.
"What happened, Frank?" continued the flight leader. "You swore to me a few years ago that you'd never touch a drop of liquor again."
"Last time I checked I was over 21, Ed. I think I'm a big enough boy to do what I want."
"Not when it involves alcohol, Frank. We both know what you're like when you have a few."
"So, what's it to you if I drink?" Stone snapped.
"Because, if I have a drunk in my group, the rest of my men are in danger."
"Oh, come on, Ed. I'm in control." The Mysteron realized that Moriarty was unaware of his plan, was just trying to protect the Frank Stone he knew. No need yet for self-defense.
"Are you, Frank? You've been pulling some crazy uncharacteristic stunts the past couple of days." He pointed to the gun in the plane's nose. "How do I know you haven't filled your magazines with live ammunition?"
"Oh, come on, General," Stone said tiredly. "What do you think I am, a traitor to my country?"
"I know one thing you're not, and that's in any condition to fly. You're grounded, Mister." Moriarty leaned forward on the ladder in an effort to shut down the A-10's engine. The Mysteron, sensing a threat to his plot, pulled a pistol out of his thigh pocket and shot Moriarty, killing him instantly. The retired general's lifeless body dropped to the tarmac.
"What the hell?" McBride was on the other side of the aircraft replacing a fuel cap when he heard the gunshot. At first he thought it was an engine backfiring, but when he saw Moriarty's body he knew what the noise was. He grabbed a wrench and called to the other mechanic. "Charlie! Get over here! We got a problem!" The crew chief tried to climb the ladder, but Stone released it and sent him sprawling onto the concrete. Then the Mysteron gunned the engines, shutting the canopy as he rolled over the empty fuel lines.
"Come on!" shouted McBride. "We gotta stop him!" The two men jumped into their trucks and cut across the grass to the runway, stopping the trucks in the middle so as to block the plane's path. By this time, Stone had reached the end of the runway and lined up to take off. He could see the fuel trucks further down the runway, and he knew what he had to do.
As the A-10 proceeded down the runway, Stone flipped a new switch on the control panel that Captain Black had installed. Since the A-10 could not fire its guns while its landing gear was extended, the evil captain had added some modern lightweight rockets in a hollow aerodynamic fairing just in case Stone ran into trouble on the ground. As he pressed the button, he could see the men running away from the trucks, but they did not run fast enough to escape the explosion. Stone paid no attention as he pulled the control stick back as hard as he could, missing the wreckage by inches.
The blast rocked the control tower at the other end of the airfield, sending the air traffic controller's breakfast into his lap. "What the--" Stan Gruber yelped as a shower of hot tea made him leap to his feet. There was no need to get the binoculars; Gruber could see the pillar of black oily smoke and the desert-camouflaged aircraft climbing away from it clearly enough. Instead, he grabbed the microphone.
"Stone, what the hell's going on over there?"
There was no answer from the A-10, but the homely airplane changed course and pointed its nose and its shark teeth directly toward the tower.
"Oh, God," murmured Gruber. He switched to the emergency channel. "Mayday, mayday, this is--" Gruber never got to complete the distress call as the control tower erupted in a ball of flames, smoke and glass splinters.
Stone's A-10 soared away from the airfield, two columns of smoke boiling skyward from the runway and tower behind him. The mission had got off to a shaky start, but it would take time for the authorities to put out the fires, gather up the survivors and ask questions. By the time they had the whole story, the real damage would have been done.
END OF PART I
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