A Captain Scarlet short story
Mary J. Rudy
“Isn’t that what the Room of Sleep is for?”
Captain Scarlet jumped at the sound of the voice, nearly falling out of his chair. He looked up and scowled at his fellow officer. “Damn it, Steve! You nearly gave me a heart attack!”
Captain Brown grinned in his customary way, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Sorry, mate. Too tempting, seeing you out cold in the midst of your report.”
“You’ve been hanging around Ochre too much. That’s more his style.” Scarlet shook his head and gathered up his notes, stifling a yawn as he did so. “I hate paperwork. Puts me to sleep nearly every time.”
“Having been on the other side of the planet for the past three days hasn’t helped either, I’m sure. Sometimes the Room of Sleep does help get you sorted…”
“I prefer to use it only in an emergency, thank you very much. I’ll be all right, once I get a good night’s sleep.”
Brown sighed. “I wish I had gone to Sydney instead of you. Would have been easy to get back home and see the family whilst I was there.”
“Given the choice, I’m sure you’d prefer to be in London right about now, with your own family.” Scarlet smiled warmly. “How’s Becky getting on these days?”
“She went for her checkup yesterday. ‘No worries,’ she said to tell you.” The smile Brown returned was even warmer. “She’s feeling the baby move now. Dr. Fawn said in a month or so I should be able to feel it.”
“Brilliant. I can only imagine how happy that must make you.”
“It’s hard to describe, really. Maybe once I feel it… that is, if I get down there again in time…”
“Come on, Steve, you can’t still be sore at the colonel for grounding you! He didn’t really have much choice after what you did, did he? He only did what he thought was right for you and Becky. And for the rest of us.” He smirked. “I’m sure that little space between the Control Tower and the deck wasn’t intended as a shortcut.”
“No, but at least I proved it could be done. I have to keep up my test pilot skills, don’t I?” Brown retorted with a sly wink.
“Reckless Aussie,” Scarlet grumbled.
A knock on the door stopped the exchange of insults. “Come in, it’s open,” Scarlet called. “I assume it’s open, anyway, since you got in,” he muttered to Brown.
Another officer entered Scarlet’s quarters, this one clad in a bright orange-yellow Spectrum-issue vest and boots. “Buenos dias, Capitánes,” he said cordially.
“And buenos dias to you too, Captain Amber,” Brown replied. “Is it that time already?”
“Yes, it is. Are you ready, Captain Scarlet?”
“For what— Damn!” Scarlet looked at his watch and swore under his breath. “Was I asleep that long?”
“Too right you were,” Brown laughed. “Why do you think I’m here in your quarters?”
“Beside winding me up, you mean? I thought you were just bringing me up to date about the baby.”
Amber grinned at the mention of Brown’s expectant fatherhood. “You’ll have to fill me in later. Right now, we have to get Paul into his costume.”
Scarlet looked incredulously at the pair. “Costume?!”
Cloudbase was still decorated in red and green. Although Christmas Day was nearly two weeks ago, the festive holiday technically wasn’t over. Today was an important day in many of the world’s cultures, in some even more important than December 25th itself.
The base personnel had enjoyed the previous goings-on as much as possible under the circumstances. They had all been on duty at one time or another during the past month on a rotating schedule, allowing others to spend a few days with their loved ones during the various holidays celebrated around the world at this time of year. Some, such as Captain Blue, had volunteered to stay on base the whole time. That didn’t mean that they didn’t participate in the holiday celebrations. Blue had in fact organized many of the activities, including the Christmas caroling party, and he was in the officers’ lounge taking a well-deserved rest when the day’s celebrations began.
It was Blue who first heard the bells. At first he thought it was someone taking down Christmas decorations, but then he realized that the jingling was rhythmic. The sound came steadily closer, and he looked up from his chess game with Symphony Angel just as the door to the lounge slid open.
The blond American stared slack-jawed as he beheld a strange sight. First the Cloudbase chaplain, Father Ivory, clad in his most ornate white and gold vestments and carrying the bells, entered the lounge, followed by three men dressed in flowing brocaded robes and turbans, wearing long false beards.
“Happy Three Kings Day!” cried a joyous Captain Amber, or rather Melchior, as he handed Blue, Symphony and the other two occupants of the lounge something from a small velvet sack. Blue looked down and saw that it was a chocolate “coin” covered in gold foil.
Ivory nodded to the second Wise Man, who in reality was Lieutenant Green. He handed the chaplain a censer full of incense; Ivory swung the censer, anointing the room with the pungent odor. The third Wise Man, Captain Scarlet, wrote “K+M+B” and under it “2068” in chalk over the doorway.
Symphony understood the gold and frankincense, but not the chalk. “What’s that for?” she queried.
Father Ivory pointed to the inscription as he explained. “That’s the initials of the three Wise Men – Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar – and the date. It’s what they do in the Eastern Europe countries. Since several cultures celebrate the Epiphany with different traditions, we’re trying to combine them.”
“At least we’re not anointing you with myrrh,” Scarlet/Kaspar chuckled. “They did that to prepare a body for burial.”
“Thanks, I think we’ll pass on that,” Blue said with a smile.
“What do we do now, Padre?” Green/Balthazar asked.
“We’re done here, Seymour. Now we go to the Control Room and do the same thing all over again.”
“Again?!” grumbled Scarlet, his beard not hiding his displeasure. He turned toward Amber/Melchior. “José, I volunteered because you said this was a ‘little’ ritual you do in your country. It sounds as if we’re going to do this to the whole base!”
“That’s what we’re going to do,” Amber replied with a grin. He shrugged his shoulders. “Believe me, this is short, compared to what they do in Argentina.” Then, he addressed the others in the lounge: “Now it’s customary for you to join our procession. Come, follow us to the Christ Child.” He motioned toward the doorway.
Blue stood up, but didn’t join the others. “I’ll see you later. I have something else to do.”
Symphony frowned. “You’re not at least going to keep me company?”
“I have to go help Brown—” He stopped suddenly, as if he’d said something he shouldn’t have.
“Yes, where is Brown, anyway?” interrupted Scarlet, turning an annoyed stare to Captain Amber. “I thought he had a part in this too.”
Amber quickly replied, “He does. He’s down in the galley, baking the cake.”
“It’s a special cake we have on Three Kings’ Day. I gave him Mama’s recipe.”
“It must be a big cake, if it’s going to feed everyone on base.”
“That’s why I’m going to help him. See you later.” Captain Blue darted out of the lounge before Scarlet could say another word.
Symphony shrugged and left the lounge for the Magi’s next stop. Why did Brown need help? Blue couldn’t even make coffee properly, let alone cook. And an expert cook like Brown certainly wouldn’t need assistance baking something as simple as a cake. Something didn’t sound right…
Captain Blue didn’t go to the galley right away. He instead stopped at a compartment just below the hovering aircraft carrier’s flight deck. This was the Angel pilots’ ready room, and it connected directly with the interceptor aircraft parked directly above it. The Angels also used the Ready Room as their rest lounge as it was very comfortably furnished. It was also often used for other purposes, which was the reason Blue was here.
Blue stood and waited outside the Ready Room for someone to open the hatch. The male officers had adopted the policy of knocking before entering; anyone was welcome to visit at any time, but since all the interceptor pilots were female the men agreed it best to err on the side of discretion.
Presently the door slid open, and a beautiful young woman with hair the color of the sky at sunset stood in front of him. “Hello, Captain Blue,” she said, waving him in. “We’ve been expecting you.” Her sophisticated English accent had a friendly ring to it.
“Hi, Rhapsody,” he answered warmly, then nodded toward the dark-skinned girl who was seated on one of the lounge’s long padded benches. “How’s it going, Melody?”
“Just fine, Captain.” She gestured to the seat next to her on the bench. “Did you enjoy José’s little show? Too bad we’re on duty, I’d like to have seen it.”
“You’ll be able to see the finale on the closed-circuit TV if you like. And José’s enjoying it more than the rest of us. He’s playing the Wise Man who brings the gold, and he’s giving everyone a little gift as they’re going around.”
“Not exactly.” Blue fished the chocolate coin out of his vest pocket for them to see.
Rhapsody snatched at the coin. “Ooh, chocolate! Give it here!”
But Blue was too quick for her, closing his hand around it before she could grab it from him. “Don’t worry, Amber’s saving some for you. You know he wouldn’t forget his beloved Angels.”
“He’d better not, if he knows what’s good for him,” retorted Melody. Amazing how her soft Atlanta drawl could sound tough in an instant. “If he doesn’t bring us chocolate, we just won’t let him in the Ready Room any more. You know how much he loves it here.”
Blue laughed along with them. It was well known throughout Cloudbase that Captain Amber couldn’t keep out of the Ready Room, spending most of his off-duty hours in the Angels’ company. That wasn’t to say that he was romantically involved with any of them; José-Maria Santos was a happily married man with two children. He just loved to flirt with the ladies. And the ladies loved his Latin charm, not just the Angels but all the female staff.
“Have you given him a room yet?"
“Certainly not!” Rhapsody scoffed. “But we have been thinking of renaming it the ‘Amber Room’ – I mean, look at the décor. It’d be appropriate, wouldn’t it?”
Indeed, the Ready Room seemed to have been designed with that in mind. The walls, the seat cushions, even the glass access door to the alert aircraft, were all in different shades of orange and yellow. It was officially called the Ready Room though; none of the compartments on Cloudbase had ever been given names of colors.
“It certainly would,” Blue continued. “He does have that effect on people, and not just you ladies.” He grinned as he related more of what happened earlier. “You know who he got to play the other two Wise Men? Scarlet and Green!”
“You’re kidding!” the pair of Angels said in unison, looking at each other and giggling as they realized it.
“Yeah. Amber talked them into dressing as the other two Magi, and they’re going around helping the Padre bless everything on Cloudbase.”
“Oh, no!” gasped Rhapsody in mock horror. “Are you sure Paul’s enjoying himself?”
“Well… that I don’t know about, but he did volunteer to help out, and he always keeps to his word.” Blue noticed Rhapsody’s referring to Captain Scarlet by his first name, but didn’t think twice about it. Scarlet was another of the Angels’ favorites, but no competition for Amber. “They should be gone for a couple of hours at least, which should give us plenty of time to carry out our plan. Is the coast clear here?”
“SIG, Captain Blue,” Melody replied in affirmation. “We’ll be ready by the time the festivities are over.”
“Good. I’ll see you then.” Blue rose from his seat and started toward the door. “I’ll go and see if Brown needs any help in the galley.”
“Not with the cooking, I hope,” muttered Rhapsody, rolling her eyes. She’d been the victim of Blue’s most recent attempt at brewing the coffee in the officers’ lounge.
The now sizable procession entered one of the larger compartments, which served as Cloudbase’s auditorium, theater and sports arena. When they reached the stage, Captain Amber motioned for the others to sit while the chaplain and Magi disappeared backstage. The curtain rose, and the assembly saw the life-size manger scene from the base chapel, with some more off-duty personnel taking the place of the statues of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.
Father Ivory walked on stage carrying the statue of the baby Jesus, blessed it and laid it in the manger, then went to the podium. As he narrated the legend of the three Wise Men in heavily Italian-accented English, the three captains acted out the story. Amber/Melchior now carried a chest of “gold,” and Scarlet/Kaspar a jar of “myrrh,” while Green/Balthazar still had the frankincense. They presented the gifts before the Christ Child, knelt in homage, then walked off stage the opposite way they’d come in, to symbolize their not returning to King Herod. The assembly gave all the players a hearty round of applause at the end.
Father Ivory turned the podium over to Captain Amber, who received more applause. Amber had suggested today’s event as it was the custom in his native land of Argentina and most of Latin America, and many of the crew complement on Spectrum’s main base of operations were of Hispanic heritage.
Amber nodded his thanks and motioned for the assembly to be silent. “Señoras y Señores, Feliz Dia de los Reyes!” he first said in Spanish, then repeated in English “Ladies and gentlemen, Happy Three Kings Day!” He then spoke exclusively in English, thanking Colonel White for permitting the celebration and all those present for their participation. He went on to explain some of the traditions associated with the day in various countries. “But our celebration isn’t finished yet,” he continued. “What would a party be without a cake?”
With that Captain Brown, Captain Blue and two mess stewards entered the auditorium, wheeling a tray containing an enormous crown-shaped cake decorated with candied fruits as “jewels.” After Father Ivory said a blessing, Colonel White cut the first slice of the cake and handed the knife to one of the stewards, who finished cutting it. The other steward then wheeled out urns of coffee and tea. As Brown and Blue started distributing the cake, the players retreated offstage to remove their costumes and eventually joined the party.
As some of the personnel began to sing carols appropriate for the occasion, Colonel White approached the “stars” of the pageant, who had congregated in a corner of the hall. “May I congratulate you, Captain,” he said to Amber, shaking his hand. “You’ve done a marvelous job with the festivities.”
“Thank you, sir,” Amber replied, a larger-than-usual toothy grin showing beneath his mustache. “Captain Brown’s done a fantástico job with my mother’s cake too.”
“Yes, he has,” White agreed. “Where is he? I’d like to congratulate him as well.”
“Oh, he is around somewhere—”
Just then Captain Scarlet, who had taken a bite of the cake, made a face. “What the devil?” he muttered as he spat something into his napkin. “I hope I didn’t break a tooth!”
“What is it?” asked Green.
Scarlet rubbed the object with the napkin, revealing a small plastic figure of a baby.
“Ah!” cried Amber. “You’ve found one of the three Niños Brown baked into the Rosca! That means you have the job of putting away the posada until next Christmas!”
“Don’t worry, Captain,” Green quickly said. “It’s considered a great honor.”
“It also means you’ll have good luck for the upcoming year,” added Ivory. “Other peoples bake different things into the torta like coins or beans, and the one who finds them is considered blessed.”
“Well, I’m not having much luck so far today,” Scarlet noted. He pointed to a patch of red, raw flesh on his cheek. “First I take off a layer of skin removing that bloody theatrical beard, now I have to go to the dentist!” He was smiling as he said it. “My day can only get better from here!”
Colonel White didn’t laugh with the others at Scarlet’s comment, but instead accepted an urgent message from the Control Room. He read it and frowned, then looked up at Amber. “Unfortunately, Captain, I’m afraid the lieutenant and I must leave your little party. There is a severe weather front moving in, and Cloudbase must be repositioned to avoid it.” He nodded to Green. “Whenever you’re ready, Lieutenant.”
“SIG, Colonel.” The pair left Scarlet, Amber and Ivory and exited the auditorium.
Father Ivory took his leave as well, shaking hands with Scarlet and then Amber, patting the latter on the back. “Bellisimo, gentlemen. See you in chapel on Sunday, José.”
“Gracias, Padre.” Then, to Scarlet, “Well, that went well, didn’t it?”
“Yes, actually. You and Brown pulled it off quite well.” Scarlet scanned the auditorium. “So where’s he got to now?”
“Probably back to the galley to finish the other cake.”
“What other one?”
Amber winked. “You know…”
“That’s today as well?” His fellow officer nodded. “So that’s why you lot have been so secretive! You’ve got something planned, haven’t you?”
Amber rolled his eyes. “For someone who is supposed to be so good at surveillance, it took you long enough to figure out!”
Captain Blue finally found Symphony, who was chatting with one of the Sickbay nurses, and offered to walk her back to her quarters. She excused herself and left the hall with him.
“But why do we have to leave now?” Symphony protested. “I’m not on standby duty for another half-hour!”
Blue smiled and gestured toward the access to the control tower. “We have another stop to make.” They got on the moving passageway.
Over the past few months Adam and Karen – Captain Blue and Symphony Angel – had grown quite fond of each other. It had really started the day they first met; if there ever was a case for “love at first sight,” this was it. Once they’d finished their training and settled into Cloudbase, the attraction was evident. Already a few of their friends had figured out that they’d fallen in love, but the rest were still pretty much in the dark.
They rode the escalator only partway up the “island” structure, stopping at the Promenade Deck. It was the only strictly recreational area on the base, and one of the few places they could be alone together in peace.
“So, how did you like the show?” Blue asked as he opened the door.
“It was fun,” Symphony commented. “And the cake was delicious!” She then grinned maliciously. “Come on, Adam, I know you didn’t help bake it.”
“Listen, just because I’m not so good at making coffee—”
She snickered. “I believe Rhapsody used the term ‘battery acid.’”
Blue shook his head and walked over to the windows. “That doesn’t mean I can’t cook at all! “I’ve been living on my own for years, you know!”
“Yeah, eating Chinese takeout and cold pizza if you’re like most guys I know.”
“I’ll have you know I make a pretty mean breakfast.” He gave her a sideways glance. “You’ll have to let me cook it for you sometime.”
“Deal.” They symbolically shook hands, then she stood next to him and put her arm in the crook of his. “So, why did you leave me earlier?”
“I told you, I had to do something.” He grinned and unzipped his vest pocket, then pulled out a small wrapped package. “I had to wrap this.”
“Happy Birthday, Karen!”
She accepted the gift and unwrapped it. “But how did you know?”
“A little bird told me.”
Symphony’s eyes narrowed. “And did this ‘bird’ have a bright orange-yellow coat?”
“How did you know?”
“We were discussing our birthdays the other day in the Ready Room. The only way you could have found out is if José told you.”
Symphony opened the box and took out a dainty necklace, with a St. Christopher medal hanging from it. “That’s to protect you while you’re away from me,” he said affectionately.
“It’s lovely, Big Blue.” She’d taken to calling him that recently; with his background in the financial world it seemed only fitting to give him one of Wall Street’s most famous nicknames. “Will you put it on for me?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” Blue draped the chain around her neck and fastened the catch. He picked up her ash-blond hair from under the chain, then bent down and kissed her on the back of her neck. He next gently turned her around and kissed her on her mouth. She wound her arms around him and returned the kiss passionately.
“Thank you,” she whispered in his ear.
“Happy Birthday, honey.” They broke the embrace and Blue looked at his watch. “We’d better get back down there.”
“We still have a couple minutes.” She wasn’t looking at him, but staring off into the distance. “What do you make of those clouds?”
He looked in the direction she was facing. “Cumulonimbus, and at this distance they must be big. Nasty. I sure wouldn’t want to be under them.”
I wouldn’t want to be near them. This time of year, you can’t predict which way those thunderheads are going to go.” Symphony Angel sighed. “You know, sometimes I’m glad we’re up here at 40,000 feet.”
Captain Brown exited the freight elevator and pushed a mess trolley in front of him down the corridor, cursing the squeaky wheel that was drawing everyone’s attention. But it was the only trolley left available to him; the others were in use, either in the crew mess or still in the auditorium for the Three Kings party.
He looked at his watch and cursed again. Of all the times to be late! He thought the cake would have cooled sufficiently by the time he got back down to the galley. It hadn’t, and he had a devil of a time applying the icing and decorating it. At least Brown had remembered to put on a white mess jacket while he was working, or he’d have been covered head-to-toe in flour and confectioners’ sugar by now.
Brown reached the far end and peered around the corner. The next corridor was empty. Breathing a sigh of relief, he wheeled the trolley around the corner and took off at a run down the hall. Squeaky wheel or no squeaky wheel, he had to get there in time. “Crikey!” he grumbled as he ran. “Why the hell did both of these dos have to be on the same bloody day?!”
Captain Scarlet, now sporting a bandage over the abrasion on his cheek, had finally made it out of Sickbay. He thought the dental nurse would keep him there forever, first checking his tooth – that was fine – and fussing over his face. It was all he could do to get her to just put a plaster on it and let him go. Normally he didn’t mind the nurses’ lavish attention, but today wasn’t the day for it.
He buzzed at the Ready Room door and was quickly pulled inside before the door completely opened. “Get in here!” hissed Rhapsody Angel, tugging him off-balance through the doorway. “They’ll be here any minute!” She looked surprised, and poked her head back out. “Where’s Brown? I thought he’d be with you.”
Scarlet shrugged. “I haven’t seen him since he served us the cake.”
“Where is he? It’s nearly 1600!”
“I’m sure he’ll get here on time. We’ll get it sorted, don’t worry.” His voice and the sympathetic look in his eyes had a calming effect on the red-haired Angel.
She took a deep breath, steadying herself. “Well, now that you’re here--” She stopped and was staring at him. “What happened to your face?”
Scarlet touched the bandage. “Oh, it’s nothing. Amber made us wear these false beards, and mine became quite attached to me – literally. I just won’t be able to shave that area for a few days.” He nodded toward the center of the Ready Room, where Captains Ochre and Magenta were busy hanging colored streamers from the metal support arch. “Now tell me what I can do to help.”
“Well, until Brown gets here with the cake, I suppose you can help José and Melody sort out the drinks.”
“Soft drinks, orange juice and coffee, of course?”
“Of course,” she repeated pertly. “Since the colonel may come down later we shan’t have anything stronger than that this time.”
“You did clear this with him, right, Rhapsody?” called Ochre from his perch on the chair.
“I didn’t. Melody spoke to him earlier.”
The black girl chimed in, “Yes, he said it was OK. He also said that Lieutenant Green, Captain Grey and he might not be able to make it. They’ve apparently received a warning of severe thunderstorms headed our way and are trying to steer around them.”
Ochre hopped off the chair. “Great,” he said with a sour look. “Airsick pills, anyone?”
“Just like the airlines,” joked Magenta. “They seem to find turbulence just as they’re ready to serve the coffee.”
Captain Amber appeared from a side room with the percolator. “Did someone say coffee?” he said, setting it on the table. “My dear Rosana just sent up some more of her special blend. It’s the best on Earth!”
“I thought the best coffee came from Brazil,” said Magenta.
“Colombia,” Amber corrected. “There is Colombian in it, but I’m not telling you what else.”
“Fine with me, as long as it’s not Blue making it.”
“Speaking of coffee,” noted Rhapsody, “I just wish we had some cake to go with it! What could be taking Brown so long?”
Right on cue, the door buzzer went off. “And you were worried,” Scarlet admonished.
It was Captain Brown at the door, but he was gasping for breath as if he’d just come off the jogging track. “Did I make it?” he panted.
“What did you do, go to Australia for the ingredients?”
“Rhapsody!” Scarlet cut her off. Then, to Brown, “Yes, you made it. Just. Now let’s get that cake in here before they arrive.”
Brown brought the trolley in and wheeled it to a side table. He took one end of the tray, Scarlet the other, and they slid the cake onto the table. As Scarlet wheeled the trolley into the other room, Brown whipped off the metal cover with a flourish. “How do you like it?”
The cake was skillfully decorated, with a hand-drawn Spectrum emblem on one side, the proper colors filled in with icing gels, and a scanned picture of an Angel aircraft transferred onto the other. “Well, it was certainly worth the wait!” Rhapsody said, nodding in admiration. “It’ll be almost a shame to cut it!”
“Thanks. It did come out well, didn’t it?” The others voiced their agreement.
Magenta spoke up. “Is there anything else you want us to do, Rhapsody?”
“No, that should be all for now. Now all we have to do is wait.”
Colonel White sat in his chair, his circular desk turned around so he could view the weather map projected on the screen behind him. “Are you sure you’re reading that report correctly, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Green replied morosely. “It’s coming directly from the U.S. National Weather Service, and the World Military METSAT confirms it. This is going to be the biggest winter storm North America has seen in nearly a century.” He scanned the printout. “Two huge storm fronts are engulfing the central and eastern United States, and we’re bang in the middle of them. Severe thunderstorms at altitude, icing and blizzard conditions on the ground, high winds – they’re all on this report. All they seem to have left out are tornadoes.”
“Wrong time of year for that, Lieutenant,” Captain Grey pointed out. “Spring and summer’s tornado season around these parts.”
“That’s no comfort, Captain,” snapped White. “Those two storms are expanding as we speak. Soon they will join together and engulf us.” He sighed heavily. “What have you come up with as far as navigation?”
Grey picked up a sheet of his own. “Two choices, Colonel, neither one promising. They both recommend passing through rough weather in order to get to areas outside the storm track.”
“Are you telling me the only way to get us out of danger is to go straight through the worst of it?”
“No, sir. According to the METSAT computer models, both paths should avoid the worst of the storm cells. Lieutenant, project the suggested courses onto the map for us, will you please?”
Symphony Angel slid her ID card into the access slot, and the Ready Room door opened.
“SURPRISE!” shouted the five captains and two Angels.
“Happy Birthday, Symphony!”
“What the—” Symphony gasped, then turned back to a beaming Captain Blue. “So that’s what you’ve been up to for the past few days! I knew something was going on besides this Three Kings Day stuff!”
“Hey, don’t give me the credit. This was José’s idea too.”
At the mention of his name, Captain Amber stepped forward. “Feliz cumpleaños, señorita,” he said, giving her a slight bow and kissing her hand.
She giggled and replied in Spanish, “Muchas gracias, señor,” and kissed him on the cheek.
A grinning Captain Scarlet elbowed Blue. “Looks like you’ve got some competition, Adam,” he whispered. Blue glared at him in reply.
“Yes, Happy Birthday from all of us,” Amber said again, this time in English. He gestured to the others in the Ready Room. “It may have been my idea, but all of us helped. Captain Brown made you a beautiful cake – although he was already very busy today baking the Rosca. Captain Blue kept you occupied—”
“Yes, by throwing me off the scent, giving me my present early. Sneaky.” Symphony interrupted, looking back at Blue and giving him a sly wink.
“I try my best.”
“Captain Ochre and Captain Magenta provided the decorations, and Melody and Rhapsody organized the whole thing.” Amber glanced at the one person whose name he hadn’t mentioned. “Even though Captain Scarlet didn’t help ‘officially,’ you could say he did as well; he acted his normal, impatient self when we kept you in the procession for those two hours, so you wouldn’t wonder why the others weren’t around.”
Even Scarlet laughed at that one.
“Thank you, folks,” Symphony said quietly, looking at each of them in turn. “Thank you all.”
Rhapsody cleared her throat and pulled an envelope out of her uniform pocket. “As you know, Symphony, Harmony isn’t here. She did send you her regards from home.” She handed it to her. “Destiny’s in Angel One right now, and she said she’ll see you when she’s done her shift. Colonel White, Captain Grey and Lieutenant Green are all on duty, but they said they’ll try to come down to the party later.” Rhapsody paused, smiling. “About the only one who didn’t wish you well is Captain Black, but as he’s on his way to Mars at the moment I don’t think you should expect him to.”
“Fair enough,” she replied, laughing. “I think I’ll forgive him this time.”
Captain Brown pulled out his cigarette lighter and proceeded to light the candles on the cake, then he and Scarlet brought the tray over and put it on the table in front of her as the group sang “Happy Birthday.” Symphony made a wish and blew out the candles, then took a good long look at the cake. She turned back to Amber. “You weren’t kidding, José!” She then said to Brown, “Steve, that cake really is beautiful! I hate to cut it!”
“Join the crowd,” Brown replied. “That’s what Rhapsody said too.” He handed her the knife. “Go ahead and cut it, love. I won’t look.”
Green entered the coordinates, and red and blue lines, one for each of the proposed routes, appeared on the map. “Looks like it’s either northern Canada or the Caribbean,” the young black man observed. “Wow, that’s one big storm!”
“How in blue blazes did you land us in the midst of this, Captain Grey?” White demanded. “I’d have thought our navigational computers would choose more stable locations for us.”
“Remember, Colonel, the latest terrorist actions were on opposite coasts of the U.S.,” Grey reminded him. “Standard procedure is for us to reposition to a location central to the actions, for the sake of our aircraft and pilots.”
“Someone needs to rewrite that protocol. There’s no need for us to reposition Cloudbase every time we send out our aircraft. It made sense in the old Navy, because otherwise the planes would run out of fuel before returning to the carrier, but there’s no danger of that anymore.”
Grey shook his head. “That’s not entirely the reason, sir. “We were in a stable position; METSAT didn’t predict this to happen. These are two fast-moving, constantly-evolving storms, and they have proved all the computer models wrong.”
Colonel White sighed again and turned back to the map. “Recommendations?”
“I’d go with the southerly route, sir. The Jet Stream doesn’t dip that low. If we go north, we run the risk of the Jet Stream changing position, and the storm moving with it as well.” He looked down at his commanding officer. “The southerly route is a little bumpier, sir, but Cloudbase should be able to take that kind of punishment with little trouble. I wouldn’t risk damaging the Angels, though.”
“Agreed.” White turned to his aide. “Lieutenant, clear the flight deck and secure all aircraft on the Hangar Deck! Start horizontal jets!”
As Symphony sliced through the cake and began to cut it into small squares, a humming sound came from the aircraft access door. The door opened and Destiny Angel appeared, the mechanism having lowered her flight seat from the alert aircraft.
“Destiny, what are you doing down here?” Captain Scarlet asked. “Is there something wrong?”
She removed her helmet and shook out her long blond hair. “I was just ordered to evacuate Angel One. Lieutenant Green said we were heading into a bad thunderstorm and it wouldn’t be safe to stay on the flight deck.”
“Wouldn’t be ‘safe’?” Brown just looked at her. “In a thunderstorm? That sounds odd.”
“Have you looked out the window lately? It’s as dark as night out there.”
Indeed, the sky had considerably darkened since the party started.
“If it’s so bad, why doesn’t the colonel move Cloudbase out of this?” noted Ochre.
“We are moving.” Destiny nodded toward the window; what individual clouds they could see through the overcast were quickly falling behind them. “We started to move just as I was ordered to evacuate. Green said the colonel’s ordered all aircraft secured below decks too.”
“It’s bad,” Magenta deadpanned, then turned very serious. “We should be OK though, right?”
“Yeah, no worries,” Brown reassured him. “This base was built in space, wasn’t it? It’s been tested under conditions of extreme heat and cold, vacuum—”
“What about high winds? There aren’t any of those in space.”
“That’s what wind tunnels are for,” Ochre reminded Magenta. “They always test a model of something – aircraft, cars, even bridges – in a wind tunnel before building the real thing.”
Brown added, “Colonel White’s just taking extra precaution with the aircraft, that’s all. If the lightning comes too close it could fry their delicate electronics—”
As if to prove his point, a streak of lightning appeared out the window, followed a few seconds later by a crack of thunder.
“—but it would take something a lot stronger than that last one,” he continued without missing a beat.
Captain Scarlet came over and handed each of them a slice of cake. “Penny for ‘em, Steve. You’re the expert here on flying conditions.”
“According to the last met’ report I saw, the eastern United States was due to get clobbered by two big winter storms. They were expecting higher precipitation than usual, perhaps even some coastal flooding, but not much else. People on the ground would be bad off, but the worst it could do up here is make a few people airsick.” Brown smiled directly at Captain Magenta. “Each of these storms by itself wouldn’t be enough to make us move. But, if they combine, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“And you think that’s what’s happening,” Ochre mused.
“Yeah. I’m no expert in meteorology, but I know that when one storm front comes in on top of another it makes conditions quite unpredictable.”
Just as Brown finished, lightning flashed a second time, much brighter than before. The earsplitting thunderclap that immediately followed actually shook the Ready Room and knocked a few of its occupants off-balance.
“Whoa!” cried Magenta, ducking on reflex. “That one was close!”
Magenta’s reaction amused Captain Amber, who was standing right next to the bay window sipping from his coffee cup as if nothing happened. He was more used to loud noises and concussions than anyone else in the room, having been a demolitions expert in the World Army before being selected for Spectrum. Amber laughed softly as he turned his attention back to the light show outside. The lightning was actually quite fascinating, especially at this altitude. As he watched the tops of the clouds sporadically glowing below them, something caught his eye as lightning flashed again. He peered closely at the window glass, then ran his fingers over it.
“Madre de Dios,” he murmured.
A crack had appeared in the glass. Suddenly a corner of the paper napkin in his hand clung to the crack.
“PRESSURE LEAK! EVERYBODY OUT NOW!” he shouted, grabbing the closest one to him – Melody – and shoving her in front of him toward the door.
Without a word of protest, they all rushed to the hatch. All of the Cloudbase personnel had been trained to act instinctively at the first sign of a drop in cabin pressure. At 40,000 feet there was no margin for error, and no time for debate. They knew that even the smallest delay would cost them their lives.
Captain Amber had one foot on each side of the Ready Room hatch, holding the automatic door open as he shoved each of them out into the corridor. He had just pushed Captain Blue through the doorway when suddenly the bay window spiderwebbed with a loud CRACK.
Blue had just enough time to grab Captain Amber’s hand before the window was sucked outward, but could not hold on as the rapid depressurization pulled Amber back through the Ready Room.
“NO!” Blue screamed, lunging forward to grab him.
It took the combined strength of Captains Scarlet and Brown to pull Blue back through the doorway. “Leave him, Adam!” shouted Scarlet over the rush of escaping air. “There’s nothing you can do for him now, we’ve got to save ourselves!”
Once they sealed the Ready Room hatch, the captains rushed the still shaken Blue and the Angels through to the next airtight compartment. Captain Magenta was the last one through the emergency corridor airlock. “Vaya con Dios, José,” he said softly as he sealed it down.
Captain Scarlet watched through the cockpit window as the flight deck elevator lowered his transport to the Hangar Deck. Soon he recognized the familiar shape of one of the Angel interceptors receiving maintenance. It was good to be back.
Amazing how quickly the bureaucratic machine operated sometimes, he mused. Although it seemed like an eternity because so much had happened, Cloudbase had been restored to fully operational status in only two weeks. Things were just now getting back to normal, though it would be another few days before all the operational personnel would return to Spectrum’s hovering headquarters.
Even as the surviving officers and Angels were being evaluated in Sickbay, preliminary tests were underway to determine the cause of the accident and prevent it from ever recurring. Thankfully, with the exception of Captain Amber no one else had been seriously injured. Cloudbase had not suffered any additional damage in the electrical storm, and had reached its Caribbean destination without further mishap.
The Spectrum base had gone through an exhaustive structural inspection, with special attention paid to its literally hundreds of windows. All of the tests had been done with Cloudbase fully manned and at her normal operational altitude. It was deemed not necessary to evacuate the base for this, except for the outboard compartments when the most severe of the stress tests were performed. It had stayed in the upper atmosphere during the entire inspection.
Flight operations, naturally, had been curtailed until the Ready Room was repaired and its aircraft access could be inspected. Robots, specially manufactured for this purpose when Cloudbase was first built, performed the repairs, computer-programmed and “supervised” by human maintenance personnel.
The Angels, senior staff officers and others not essential to the refit had been temporarily reassigned to Spectrum ground installations of their choice as the repairs went on. Most chose to go to the installations closest to their homes and families. Colonel White had been considerate enough to allow the personnel to take leave time if they felt they needed it.
Even Captain Amber’s body had been found. Captain Blue had ferried his body home, and Father Ivory concelebrated the Mass of Christian Burial with the Santos family’s parish priest. “Retired” World Army Major José-Maria Santos, aka Captain Amber of Spectrum, had been buried, with full military honors, in a private ceremony in his hometown of Mar del Plata, Argentina. Both World Army and Spectrum personnel composed the honor guard, and Captains Blue and Ochre served as two of the pallbearers.
Scarlet unbuckled his harness and stretched his back muscles, then turned to his copilot. “I’m surprised you let me land this time.”
Destiny Angel, who had joined him at Spectrum Headquarters London after a brief furlough back home in Paris, smiled. “You need the practice. Besides, it was nice to sit back and let someone else fly the plane for a change.”
“How did I do?”
Her smile turned mischievous. “You must be improving. I didn’t hear any screams from the passenger cabin this time.”
“Very funny.” He stood and opened the cockpit door, gesturing her to precede him out of the plane.
A junior deck officer saluted them as they reached the bottom of the ladder. He started to give the log to Destiny for her signature, but realized his mistake as he saw Scarlet holding out his hand for it. “Welcome back, sir… ma’am,” he said cheerfully, nodding to each of them. “Colonel White’s been waiting for you.”
“Has he?” Scarlet asked, scrawling his signature and time of arrival in the log.
“Yes, sir. The colonel said to report to the Ready Room as soon as you arrive.”
“The Ready Room’s back in use already?” Captain Scarlet looked surprised, then shrugged and held out his arm to Destiny. “Looks like I’m walking you home, chérie.”
It was unusual to see all the senior staff in one place. Under normal conditions, one of the Angels would be in the alert aircraft, Lieutenant Green or one of the captains would be manning the communications console, and Dr. Fawn scarcely left his Sickbay. Other officers regularly stood watch in the radar room, the Information Center or could even be off at one of the ground installations. But all the high-ranking Cloudbase officers were here today in the Ready Room.
Captain Scarlet and Destiny Angel entered and squeezed into the last two available seats. The room’s center table had been removed. Colonel White, commander-in-chief of the whole Spectrum organization, was standing in its place, and he acknowledged their arrival with a nod before he began.
“Members of Spectrum,” he began, his distinguished English voice exhibiting obvious pride, “it’s good to see you all back on Cloudbase. Most of us have called it home for the past six months or more, and I hope that you’re glad to be returning ‘home.’
“I am sure the past fifteen days have not been easy ones for you. I know they have not been easy for me. We have experienced the—er, ‘full spectrum’ of human emotions, from joy in celebrating our traditional holidays, to the grief of losing a fine officer in a tragic accident, to frustration, physical exhaustion and finally satisfaction in ensuring such an accident never happens again.
“After extensive research and testing, Spectrum Research have concluded that the accident that killed Captain Amber was the fault of no one. Our engineers have inspected and exhaustively tested the glass that comprises all of Cloudbase’s windows, putting the windows through every possible testing scenario, exceeding all the normal parameters, and have been unable to duplicate the results even under the most extreme conditions. Their only explanation is that the bolt of lightning that struck Cloudbase just below this window—” he swept his hand toward the room’s bay window “—exacerbated some microscopic flaw, existent in the window glass, that had previously gone undetected. In short, ladies and gentlemen, this was an unfortunate, unpreventable freak accident.
“I have summoned you all here today for a special reason. We are not here merely to mourn Captain Amber; we must also recognize his actions. Were it not for his quick reaction to the situation, Spectrum would have met with even greater loss. His keen observation and realization that the cabin pressure had been compromised saved the lives of nine of his fellow officers, and possibly many more, had those surviving officers not been able to contain the pressure leak. They – and Spectrum – shall be forever in his debt. For this reason, we honor him today.”
White then walked over to the side of the room, next to the doorway. A black velvet curtain, with a rainbow-colored cord hanging from it, had been draped over that portion of the wall next to the door molding. “Rhapsody Angel, Captain Blue, would you come forward, please?”
The pair stood and joined White. The colonel cleared his throat and continued. “Your colleagues here were instrumental in deciding how we should remember Captain Amber. During the course of the repairs they made it known to me how much time Captain Amber spent in this room, and how much he enjoyed the Angels’ company. The feeling, I’m sure, was mutual, as they often joked that they should rename the Ready Room after him. After discussion with the rest of the Angels I decided it would be a fitting tribute.”
Rhapsody grasped the cord and tugged gently; the curtain fell away to reveal a brass plaque. Captain Blue read the inscription on the plaque:
THE AMBER ROOM
dedicated to the memory of Captain Amber
‘There is no greater love than this:
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ --John 15:13
“Captain Amber may be gone,” White concluded, “but this room shall be his legacy.”
The officers and Angels broke into heartfelt applause.
“Say what you want about him,” Captain Ochre, who was seated behind Scarlet, said to the junior doctor sitting next to him, “but sometimes the Old Man surprises us by doing exactly the right thing.”
Captain Scarlet nodded in silent reply.
Some hours later, Captain Blue stood before the Amber Room’s new bay window. But Blue wasn’t looking out at the night sky; he instead turned his empty coffee cup in his hand, apparently deep in thought.
Captains Scarlet and Brown, chatting congenially with Destiny and Symphony Angels, entered the room. Brown was the first to see his friend there. “What’s the matter, Captain Blue?” he wisecracked. “Tried to drink some of your own coffee?”
The others began to laugh, but stopped suddenly as Blue turned toward them. His normally sunny face bore the saddest expression they had ever seen. “No, Grey made it,” he replied softly. “He used the last of that ‘special blend’ of José’s.” The American sighed. “He was standing right here, you know, drinking it, when he—”
Brown quickly approached the window, grabbed both of Blue’s arms and gripped them tightly, turning his American friend to face him. “I know what you’re thinking, Adam,” he said gently, looking him in the eyes, “and you can stop it right now.”
Blue shook his head. “That should have been me,” he muttered, shaking off Brown’s grasp and flopping himself down on one of the benches.
Brown settled onto the seat opposite him. “That’s no way to think, mate, and I should know. Surely you remember, early on, when the WAS tested the 204?”
Blue’s countenance brightened slightly, but he shook his head again. “That wasn’t the same. You tried everything you could to bring her out of that spin. You both ejected; you ejected safely, Dombrowski didn’t.”
“And I felt just as shattered because a man died and I didn’t. I thought of all the things I should have done, all I shouldn’t have done—”
“He saved my life, Steve. If it hadn’t been for José—”
“We’d all be dead,” Scarlet interrupted, coming over and placing his hand on Blue’s shoulder. His voice was firm, but still full of understanding. “He saved all our lives, Adam. If he hadn’t found that pressure leak when he did, none of us would have got out in time.”
Destiny, perhaps the most emotional of the Angels, choked back a sob. Captain Scarlet turned toward her, and at the sight of him the French girl rushed into his arms, almost knocking him over. He just stood there, stroking Destiny’s hair as he held her tightly, letting her cry it out.
“I miss him, Paul,” she sobbed in French into his shoulder. “He was such a good friend.”
Scarlet gently patted her on the back. “We’ll all miss him, chérie,” he whispered. He eased her onto the bench and then sat alongside her, handing her his handkerchief so she could dry her eyes, gently holding her other hand.
Destiny’s outburst had an effect on Blue, and Symphony noticed it. She glanced at him, and he quickly turned from her gaze. But Symphony didn’t let that stop her. She walked over to him and took his hand in hers. “He had a big effect on all of us, Adam, and I’m sure our lives are better for it.”
“Yeah, I know. I thought I got it all out of my system – first by writing that letter to Rosana, then being with her and the kids in person when the colonel suggested I take José back home.”
Captain Scarlet nodded. He knew exactly how Blue felt. It had hit him hard the first night after it happened, when he’d emptied his pockets and found the figurine of the baby Jesus from the cake. He remembered how he’d complained about biting into it, and about the stubborn false beard, and how his day couldn’t get any worse… but sadly, it had… much, much worse. He’d been up walking the halls all night, unable to sleep until sheer exhaustion claimed him.
Blue got up and walked to the doorway, motioning to the plaque on the wall as he continued. “It’s just that I didn’t know the colonel had planned a whole ceremony for today.”
Scarlet crossed the room and joined his American friend at the door. He traced the lettering on the plaque with his fingers as he said, “Well, you know José would want us to remember him. And now this is officially ‘his’ room. I’m sure he’d be very proud.”
Symphony came over to Captain Blue and put her arm around him. She rested her head on his shoulder, and he drew her just a little bit closer to him. “Come on, Adam,” she finally said after a long moment. “I’ll walk you back to your quarters. If you want to talk about it, I’m here for you.”
Blue nodded and kissed the top of her head. The pair left arm in arm, and Captain Scarlet returned to the bench where Destiny sat. “Do you want me to stay a little while, love?” he said to her.
“No, I’ll be all right, thank you. Harmony should be back soon.”
“Don’t worry.” He pointed upward, out the window. “I’m sure someone else is watching out for you too, somewhere out there.”
Destiny Angel smiled and nodded in understanding.
Scarlet cleared his throat and shifted position. The hereafter wasn’t one of his conversational strong points. “Right. I think I’ll go finish my report.” He cocked his head at Brown. “You coming, Steve?”
“If only to keep you awake this time,” he retorted.
“As you always say, Steve, ‘no worries.’ I reckon we’ll be doing a lot of talking tonight as well.” Captain Scarlet smiled over his shoulder as he exited the “Amber Room.”
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