a CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERONS story
by Mary J. Rudy
Captain Blue snapped the lid of his suitcase shut and pulled it off his bed. Automatically, he smoothed the white sheet and non-regulation azure blanket. Several of the items issued to the Spectrum officers could be officially replaced with color-coded ones at the officer's discretion, and he had received this blanket from his parents last Christmas to replace the dark gray one he had been issued. It was his little piece of home, his reminder that he had a life beyond the dangerous employ of Spectrum.
For the past month, Blue had begun to wonder if there really was any life beyond Spectrum. He hadn't been home, or even off Cloudbase except for surface assignments or the occasional overnight pass, for almost a year. But now that summer and his turn for a long furlough had come up, it seemed as if every one of his plans for departure had been thwarted. The Mysteron threats were unavoidable, of course, but he was also having a bad streak of luck. It had happened again this morning as he was returning from Koala Base. Although it looked as if Captain Blue would finally get to go home, sadly he got back to Cloudbase too late to say goodbye to her.
He glanced longingly at Symphony Angel's photograph next to that of his parents on the night stand. Everything had been planned perfectly. He had checked the duty roster before he left for Australia, and then he arranged his schedule so he could make it back before she went on duty in Angel One. But then he was delayed by that coolant leak. As his plane approached the Spectrum base, he saw the alert interceptor take off and his heart sank. At least Symphony had waggled her wings at him in farewell; they both knew that words would have to wait.
Blue took a clean uniform out of the closet and draped it over a chair. The last straw was that he couldn't even dress comfortably. He was longing to wear his civilian clothes, but as he had to hand-deliver a report to Spectrum Headquarters in New York on his way home, he had to be in uniform. This was not to say that he wasn't proud of his Spectrum uniform, however. In fact, he thought to himself as he pulled a pair of light blue socks out of the drawer, it was he who started the other captains wearing color-coded socks inside their boots instead of the black ones. It was just that the uniform was uncomfortable in the summer months. He had waited until the last possible moment to get fully dressed, to put on his dark shirt, his dark pants, and then the vest and high boots dyed the color of a cloudless summer sky. Captain Blue shrugged and reached for his uniform trousers. Oh, well, he thought, at least he was going home. Maybe he'd go to the family's cabin in the Berkshires. A couple of days on a mountain lake with only a few fish for company was just what he needed.
As the tall blond officer dressed, he noticed a pleasant guitar melody he hadn't heard before. Must have left the radio on by accident, he mused. Captain Blue checked his quarters one last time for anything he missed, then reached for the radio switch. Strange--it had been off the whole time. As he opened the door, the music became more audible, and Blue recognized Lieutenant Green's voice immediately. Checking his watch, he figured he had a couple of minutes to spare.
Lieutenant Green, Colonel White's personal aide and Cloudbase's computer expert, occupied quarters next to those of Captain Blue. A native of Port of Spain, Trinidad, the young black man grew up listening to storytellers weaving tales and making up songs on the spur of the moment for the tourists. Green often would entertain his fellow Spectrum officers and the Angels with West Indian stories and homemade songs on his guitar. The youth had a good singing voice and a vivid imagination. Blue leaned against the doorway with arms folded, listening to the lyrics that flowed so effortlessly from the lieutenant's lips. He was singing a traditional Calypso melody about a mission that he, Captain Blue and Captain Scarlet had been on previously. The captain smiled at Lieutenant Green's exaggerated Caribbean accent:
"Spectrum came to Wash-ing-ton,
To safeguard de King Con-ven-ti-on.
Captain Scarlet t'ought dat de Mysterons meant
Dat dey were going to murder de Pres-i-dent.
Now de Pres-i-dent and de Chiefs of Staff
Held a summit for a week and a half
But dey ran into trouble, as de story is told,
When de Mysterons struck with a T'un-der-bolt."
Lieutenant Green stopped and toyed with the guitar strings, thinking of more words, as Captain Blue cleared his throat.
"Oh, hello, Captain Blue," the lieutenant smiled, rising from his chair. "Was I disturbing you?"
"Not at all, Lieutenant," the senior officer replied, motioning for him to sit down. "I heard the music and stopped in to say goodbye."
"Finally leaving for that holiday, are you?"
"Finally," he sighed. "I was beginning to wonder if I'd get there before my fishing license expired."
"Fishing, sir? I figured you'd go on some exotic adventure, like a safari through darkest Africa, or maybe climbing a few mountains in the Himalayas."
Blue shook his head. "I'm going home to Massachusetts. I think a nice quiet fishing trip is in order." He turned to leave, then stopped. "Oh, I know why I came in. Do you happen to know where Captain Scarlet is?"
Green looked up at the wall clock. "It's 1603. He's probably having tea with the colonel."
"Of course, it's Sunday. How stupid of me. I really do need a vacation." Captain Blue bade the lieutenant farewell, picked up his suitcase and headed for the officers' lounge.
Cloudbase's English senior officers--namely Colonel White, Captain Scarlet and Rhapsody Angel--and also Dr. Fawn, an Australian, traditionally got together for tea every Sunday barring schedule conflicts. Occasionally, one of the other officers would join them, but today the four were by themselves. Colonel White had only two rules during this time which were strictly observed--first, except for urgent messages, no Spectrum business was to be discussed. Secondly, the colonel always was "mother," always poured. White was very firm on the latter because it was the one time of day when he could do something for his officers instead of the other way around. Besides, if anything were to happen to his family's 200-year-old tea service, he would much rather it be of his own doing.
As the door to the lounge slid open, Colonel White looked up and stared. "Good heavens, Captain Scarlet! Which tribe of Red Indians attacked you?"
The younger man returned the look with a puzzled one of his own. "Sir?"
"Your hair. A bit shorter since I saw you last, isn't it?"
Scarlet grinned and ran a hand through his freshly-barbered head of dark hair. "It's summertime, Colonel. More comfortable."
"Also rather handsome," added Rhapsody with a smile.
The captain blushed. "Thanks. I think Symphony did a good job--"
"Symphony?!" remarked the colonel. "We have a barber on base, Captain."
"Yes, but he's not as good-looking as Symphony," retorted Rhapsody. Seeing Captain Scarlet glaring at her, she laughed and explained. "Symphony offered to do it before she went on duty, Colonel." The captain looked at her gratefully, for she knew the real reason he had gone to the Amber Room, and it wasn't for a haircut.
Colonel White nodded and poured the tea, changing the subject. "So, I understand that Captain Blue is leaving on holiday today."
"Yes, sir, he's long overdue," Scarlet replied. "I don't think he's had a furlough for nearly a year."
"Not even Christmas?"
"He volunteered for duty."
"Hmm," agreed the colonel as he sipped from his teacup. "I remember now. He organized a roving group of carolers--quite enjoyable, that."
"Where is he going on holiday, Captain Scarlet?" interjected Rhapsody.
"Home, to Boston. He said something about fishing." The captain took a slice of cake from the plate Colonel White was holding and nodded his thanks. "I hear Massachusetts is lovely this time of year."
"I've heard the same," added Dr. Fawn, quiet until now. "It's a well-known fact that a peaceful location makes a big difference in the way people feel. Just as these tea breaks are relaxing for us, a change of scenery will do Captain Blue good." The medical officer looked up as he spoke. "Well, talk of the devil." He smiled at Captain Blue, who had just appeared in the doorway. "So, you've finally hung up that 'gone fishing' sign, have you?"
"Yes, at last." Then, to Colonel White, "I'll see you in two weeks, sir. My plane's waiting."
"Very good, Captain. Just remember, if there's an alert--"
"Be ready for immediate recall," Blue sighed. "With all the other things that have happened to me this past month, I wouldn't be surprised."
"Well, anyway, enjoy yourself." They shook hands.
"Colonel," began Captain Scarlet, standing and placing his cup and saucer on the table, "will you excuse me? I want to have a word with Captain Blue before he leaves."
"Of course." Scarlet picked up his partner's suitcase and left the room.
As the pair walked down the corridor, Captain Scarlet said, "I'm terribly sorry, Adam. Rhapsody would've swapped with Symphony, but she was on duty just before her. The others started to ask too many questions--"
"It's OK," Blue interrupted sadly. "That's just the way things have been going. Thanks for trying."
"Oh, there's no need to thank me. I'm just glad you two are speaking to each other again."
"What do you mean?"
"I thought she'd never forgive you, missing her birthday like you did."
"Yeah, I thought I'd lost her for good after that screw-up. But thanks to you, she finally forgave me. When you explained everything to her, it seemed to work just like one of Cupid's arrows--"
"Yes, I suppose you could say that. Playing at Cupid for you two gives me a good feeling inside. Perhaps you'll do it for me some day."
Captain Blue gave him a strange look, as if his friend was trying to tell him something, but decided not to comment. "Did she give you any message for me?"
"Only that she'd try to ring you. She said she already has your parents' number."
"Good. I'll tell Mom to give her the number up at the cabin." They finally reached the door to the airlock. "Well, looks like I'm going to make it this time."
"Let's hope so." Captain Scarlet handed the suitcase to his friend. "OK, partner, have a good holiday and forget that we even exist up here." He held out his hand.
Blue took it in his own and was about to say something when the last voice he wanted to hear at that moment droned loudly:
"This is the voice of the Mysterons…"
The suitcase clattered to the floor as Captain Blue clenched his fists. "No. No. Not now, please."
"Steady, Adam," said Captain Scarlet.
"…We know that you can hear us, Earthmen. Beware; the first voyage of a new adventure shall be the last when the mouse slays the lion. We will be avenged!"
Captain Blue, known for his unlimited patience, for once snapped. "Damn!" he shouted, sending the suitcase halfway down the corridor with one kick. "What the hell do I have to do around here to go home?"
"Take it easy," his best friend replied, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You'll just go in a few days, that's all. The lake will still be there."
"Yeah, I know. Sorry."
"Well, just think of it this way. At least you'll be able to say goodbye to Symphony yourself when this is over." Scarlet retrieved the suitcase from the floor and handed it to him. "And the sooner we get cracking, the faster you'll get home. Let's go."
There is an old saying that good things sometimes come in small packages. This was often quoted when describing Ruth Kaplan. Standing all of four-foot-seven and tipping the scales at 85 pounds dripping wet, Ruthie was not an imposing figure. What she lacked in stature, however, she counterbalanced with her vocal talent. The diminutive redhead had a surprisingly powerful singing voice, one of excellent range and tonal quality. Whether the tune was a tearful ballad or the latest Broadway hit, Ruthie was comfortable with it. Her favorite style of music, however, was the sultry "torch song" usually performed in smoky jazz nightclubs. Ruthie enjoyed the atmosphere generated by the music, but the famous vocalist had another, deeper reason that she chose it as her personal favorite--she had been performing just such a song in some forgettable club a few years ago when she first met her husband.
Sidney Rubin was the typical Jewish mother's ideal son-in-law. He came from a good family, he was handsome and he was a successful law partner. He was also a good cook, which was fortunate because Ruthie had no culinary skills whatsoever. Sid usually described Ruthie's cooking by paraphrasing an old ethnic joke--just about the only thing she could make for dinner was reservations. But he didn't mind. They loved each other, and that was all that mattered to him.
Sid understood Ruthie's love of music and did not discourage her performing on tour, so he didn't usually mind that she was away from home so much. In fact, he accompanied her as often as his thriving legal practice would allow. The trip they were going on later today would be the best one of all, but when the letter and package of space-travel clothing was delivered Sid could not believe it.
"What do you mean, I'm not invited?" Sid asked angrily.
"That's what the Prime Minister's letter says, honey." She handed him a sheet of fine-quality stationery. "Read it for yourself. You are invited to attend the launch--"
"You must be kidding. If I can't go with you, I'm not going all the way to French Guiana just to see something I can watch on TV here. Florida would be another story."
"That's OK with me, Sid. I don't expect you to take the time off work every time I go away."
"I thought you made it clear to your agent when you agreed to this contract that we both want to take this trip. Did you call him to see if there was some mistake?"
"Right away. Joel said the guest list had to be limited because of all the security people the Prime Minister has to take with him."
Sid stormed into the kitchen, figuring if he got busy with preparing lunch that it would calm him down. Ruthie knew that it usually did and left him alone, choosing instead to set the table.
Shortly, Sid emerged with a tray of cold sliced chicken and salad. He hardly resembled the man who had gone through the doorway a few minutes ago, for he had a smile on his face and the spring was back in his step. A relieved Ruthie sighed and sat down to eat.
Despite his outward appearance, Sid still was obviously disappointed. He pushed the food around on his plate as he said, "I'm sorry, hon. I still can't believe I'm going to miss the first luxury passenger flight to the moon because of seating arrangements. I thought only airlines bumped people."
"Well, I'm disappointed you can't come with me too. But this does mean a lot to me and I wish you'd be a little more supportive."
"Don't get me wrong, Ruthie, I'm happy for you."
"You sure have a funny way of showing it. Now cheer up and eat." She then added with a thick Old Country accent, "Have a little chicken, Sidney. What could it hurt?"
"Yes, Mom," laughed Sid. Ruthie could sound just like his mother at times, and it never failed to lift his spirits. The pair turned their attention back to their plates and ate the rest of their meal quietly.
As Sid got up to put his dishes in the sink, he said, "So, when is your flight?"
"We have lots of time." Ruthie handed him her plate and silverware. "But would you mind if we left now? Joel reminded me when I called him that I haven't returned the advertising contract."
"Now why would I mind that?" he asked, putting his hands on her shoulders. He bent down and kissed her on the cheek. "I'm just not crazy about the idea that you're going so far away. Space travel may have been around for a hundred years but it still makes me nervous."
"Well, just think of outer space as a big ocean and this trip as a luxury cruise. I've been on lots of them without you."
"I suppose you're right," he sighed. "Do you have everything packed?"
"All set. I'll get these into the dishwasher while you take my bag to the car."
Although Ruthie was very excited about her voyage to the moon, she did not discuss it with Sid during the drive downtown. She didn't want to upset him any more than he already was. Instead, she talked about the success of her latest recording, which had just gone platinum the day before and did not show signs of stopping. However, Ruthie was thinking more about her upcoming adventure. She was more popular than she had ever been, and the publicity she would receive as the Prime Minister's favorite American pop artist could only be beneficial. It was at Mr. Rixham's last-minute request that she have the opportunity to accompany him on this historic flight. The Prime Minister had seen a television interview in which Ruthie stated that her greatest dream growing up was to be an astronaut, but height requirements had forced her to abandon her hope. Since World Space Lines was looking for a goodwill ambassador from the United States, he had suggested Ruthie to them. They immediately liked the idea and contacted Ruthie's agent who jumped at the opportunity. He had drawn up an advertising contract, and Ruthie had taken it home for Sid to approve before she signed it. Now she had to return the contract to Joel before she left for French Guiana.
The white sports convertible eventually fought its way through the downtown traffic and stopped at the freight entrance of a high-rise office building. Ruthie gave Sid a quick kiss and grabbed a manila envelope. "I shouldn't be any more than five minutes, honey. You might as well stay double-parked."
"OK," her husband replied as he fiddled with the car radio. "I'll just see if my favorite singer is on the air today," he added, looking up at her with a loving smile.
Ruthie spoke for a minute with the security guard, signed a publicity photo for his daughter and headed for the elevators. She was about to step into one of them when someone grabbed her arm from behind. Thinking it was just another fan wanting an autograph, Ruthie forced a smile and turned around.
The sight of the man's face made her gasp in horror. He looked more dead than alive, with an ashen complexion, hollow cheeks and sunken eye sockets. He did not speak, but pointed to the elevator she was about to enter and shook his head.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Miss Kaplan," apologized the security guard. "He grabbed you like that because he can't talk. I forgot to tell you--both elevators have been acting up all day and he was just about to shut Number One down." The repairman nodded at Ruthie and jingled the keys in his hand.
"Oh, OK. Thanks." She entered the other elevator and reached on tiptoe for the button for the 71st floor. The silent man stepped into the car and pressed the button for her, then remained in the car as the door slid shut. Ruthie noticed that he didn't select another floor but she didn't give it a second thought. She did, however, have an uneasy feeling that the repairman was watching her.
At the 69th floor, the car lurched to a stop, throwing Ruthie off balance. She was frightened for a few seconds but then remembered who her fellow passenger was. The repairman removed the ceiling access panel and climbed up into the elevator shaft.
"It's a good thing you're here," called Ruthie encouragingly. "I can't reach the alarm button." She stood helplessly, staring at the hole in the ceiling as the man worked above.
The elevator shuddered, making strange noises, and Ruthie's confidence in the repairman's ability began to diminish. Beads of perspiration formed on her forehead as she waited. Elevators were not one of her favorite places to be to begin with. Then the car shook again and actually dropped a few feet, and Ruthie lost her composure. "Hey, you up there! Lower it to the next floor and I'll walk the rest of the way!"
A deep voice intoned, "You will soon walk with the Mysterons," startling the famous singer. The security guard had said that the repairman couldn't talk! "What's going on?" she called nervously. "Who are you? What do you want with me?"
"We want you to become one of us, Earthwoman," replied Mysteron agent Captain Black as he cut the final cable. The elevator car carrying the helpless Ruth Kaplan plunged to destruction in the sub-basement. Even if she could sound the alarm, it would have done no good as Captain Black had removed the emergency brakes before he cut the cables.
Ten minutes later, as rescue workers attempted to pry the crushed elevator car out of the hole it had made itself in the building's foundation, an unharmed Ruth Kaplan emerged from another elevator and casually walked toward the door. The lobby was in such an uproar over the accident that not even the security guard saw the tiny woman leave.
"Well, what took you so long?" asked Sid as Ruthie got into the passenger seat of the convertible.
"Elevator trouble," the Mysteron copy replied, looking over her shoulder at the office building as they pulled out into the traffic.
"Captain Scarlet reporting, sir."
"At ease, Captain. Sit down." Colonel White looked at his chief agent and gestured to the stool in front of him. Scarlet doffed his red uniform cap and tucked it smartly under his arm as he sat.
"And where is your cohort?" asked the colonel.
"Ringing up his parents. I told him to let them know his situation while I finished the report."
"Good idea. No sense in their worrying about him."
With that, the ruggedly handsome American officer entered the control room. "Captain Blue reporting as ordered, sir." His half-hearted salute and the disappointment in his voice did not go unnoticed by the white-haired Spectrum chief.
"My apologies, Captain Blue. How did your parents react to the news?"
"Fine, sir. Mom understands I have a job to do, but my father--"
"Don't tell me," Scarlet interrupted tiredly. "The usual lecture about having regular holidays if you'd joined him at the stock exchange?"
Blue nodded with a sigh. "Yeah, but this time I was ready for him. I had Captain Grey standing by to call me away from the phone if I gave him the signal."
"All right, gentlemen," the colonel broke in, "you're not here to discuss your private lives. Let's have your report."
"It was easier than we thought, Colonel," began Captain Scarlet. "The Mysterons are referring to the centennial of the first moon landing. In celebration, the World Space Lines ship Adventure, the first luxury space liner, is scheduled to lift off from French Guiana tomorrow for the moon."
"I see. That certainly fits. But what about that bit with the lion and the mouse?"
"Well, Colonel," said Captain Blue, "the 'lion' is most likely Prime Minister Rixham. As the lion in the British coat of arms denotes strength, the press has taken to calling him 'the new lion'--just as a writer once referred to Winston Churchill as 'the last lion.'"
"And the fact that he's going along, representing the World Space Committee he heads, confirms him as the target," added Scarlet.
"Quite. And the 'mouse'?"
Blue shrugged. "We haven't a clue, sir. It could mean anything at this point."
"Well, we at least know where to start," the colonel mused. "Have you checked the passenger list?"
"Yes, sir," Captain Scarlet replied. "Mostly press and security, plus a number of assorted celebrities--an American singer, a British science fiction writer, and so on. No obvious Mysteron suspects--"
"Everyone's suspect, Captains," snapped White. "We can rule no one out until the threat is ended, as you both well know."
"But we can take a Mysteron detector to the spaceport," suggested Captain Blue. "We can at least check everyone before they get on the ship."
"I was coming to that." The colonel turned to his aide. "Have Captains Grey and Magenta report to the World Space Lines terminal with a detector. They are to check all spaceport security personnel and passengers without exception."
"Yes, sir." Lieutenant Green moved his chair down the console to the intercom.
Blue looked up from his copy of the report. "Where do we fit in, Colonel?"
"I want you both on that spacecraft. You will keep close watch on all of the passengers." White turned back to Captain Scarlet. "Captain, you've had previous dealings with Mr. Rixham, haven't you? If I remember correctly, it was just before the Zero-X mission."
"Yes, sir," the British officer replied. "And I'm sure you also remember Mr. Rixham's stubbornness."
"He hasn't changed a bit, I'm afraid. I hear he is still very uncooperative towards Spectrum. In fact, he has refused a uniformed escort all the way from Downing Street to Cayenne, but I think he might consent to the decoy tanker for the trip to the spaceport. In any event, I'll still order our plainclothes agents to keep an eye on him. Once he arrives there, your orders are to stick to him like glue no matter how much he objects."
Captain Blue looked at his partner like he was being asked to babysit an incorrigible child. "Is this guy as bad as President Roberts the first time we were assigned to protect him?"
"To use one of your expressions, Captain Blue, Roberts was a Boy Scout compared to 'Stubborn Stevie.'" Before Colonel White could reprimand him, Scarlet added, "I'm sorry, Colonel, but you'll have to admit it is a rather appropriate nickname."
"It is at that, Captain, but during this assignment you shall forget you ever heard it."
"Of course, sir."
"Now," continued the Spectrum commander, "getting back to the business at hand, you've both been through space travel before, so you know to draw your special boots and weapons before you leave Cloudbase. Also, I don't need to remind you that although the Adventure is a luxury liner, the dangers of space travel in general and the importance of this mission should not be minimized. Mr. Rixham's safety is our utmost concern."
"Don't worry, Colonel," reassured Captain Scarlet as he rose from the stool and put on his cap. "The Prime Minister is in safe hands."
"Yes, sir, we'll take good care of Stub-- er, Mr. Rixham," Blue added, shaking his head at his slip of the tongue. He left the control room quickly, wishing he had kept his mouth shut.
The mysteronized Ruth Kaplan, surrounded by security people and signing autographs as she walked, finally emerged from the airport terminal at Cayenne, French Guiana and was greeted by a chauffeur-driven limousine. The driver took her luggage and said, "Sorry, Miss Kaplan, but the Prime Minister couldn't be here to meet you. He received an urgent last-minute message and sent me to fetch you."
Ruthie nodded and looked at her watch. "He will still be at the spaceport, won't he?"
"Oh, my, yes! He's looking forward to this trip ever so much. It's just that he received a call from Spectrum."
"Spectrum?!" Ruthie exclaimed, startling the chauffeur.
"Is something wrong, Miss Kaplan?"
The Mysteron realized her mistake. "Oh, no, no," she blurted. "I'm just surprised at the amount of security."
"The Mysterons have threatened to sabotage the flight. Spectrum's presence is quite routine, I hear."
Ruthie frowned. She had planned to destroy the Prime Minister in the limousine. And now that Spectrum knew the target already, the spaceport would be crawling with agents. There would probably be a Mysteron detector set up to check the passengers as they boarded. If she was identified as a Mysteron agent, she would be destroyed before she would get a chance to strike. How could she get to the Prime Minister while avoiding the detectors?
A voice inside her head boomed:
"Miss Kaplan, this is Captain Black relaying instructions from the Mysterons. Open the small black case you picked up at the airport."
Besides the normal contents of Ruthie's makeup kit, the case also contained an odd-looking gun, a black box and a remote control. The dolorous voice continued, "The black box is a remote-control bomb. Carry it with you and leave it near the Prime Minister. If you cannot destroy the Earthman, board the spacecraft and use the space pistol when you can. You can avoid the Spectrum agents by using your size to your advantage."
Her size an advantage?! The real Ruth Kaplan would have found the last comment amusing. For all of her life, her diminutive stature had been her enemy. Even her demise had been due to her shortness. So many things were out of her reach that she more than once considered becoming an advocate for short people along with her singing career. She was always looking for the chance to prove that smaller often is better.
Of course, the Mysteron copy did not think along those lines. Her job was to kill Prime Minister Rixham in any way possible. What Ruthie had done or thought during her life made no difference. She took the black box and tucked it into the pocket of her zero-g coveralls, then murmured in reply, "I know what I must do."
"Did you say something, Miss Kaplan?" asked the chauffeur, looking up at the rear-view mirror.
Ruthie shook her head and closed the makeup case.
The oppressive tropical heat and humidity surrounded the two Spectrum captains seconds after they exited from their red saloon car. It transformed the short walk to the spaceport terminal entrance into a steamy ordeal.
"Whew, it's hot!" grumbled Captain Scarlet, wiping perspiration from his brow and the inside of his uniform cap with his handkerchief. "The Mysterons would have to choose the Equator for their latest threat, wouldn't they?"
Captain Blue removed his fogged sunglasses and wiped them dry, grinning at his colleague. "What's the matter, Captain Scarlet? Wish it was March and you were getting seasick on the U.S.S. John Barry again?"
"I'll take this over another nor'easter, thank you," the British officer replied, shaking his head. "And I told you before, I didn't get seasick." He folded the handkerchief and mopped his head again before putting it back into his pocket. "It's just that when it's like this, I'd like to have a go at the boffin who designed our 'summer' uniforms! Who ever heard of wearing dark colors and roll-neck jumpers in July?"
Blue nodded. "You know, I was just thinking of that today myself. As much as I like this uniform, it's just awful whenever it gets hot or humid. It'll sure feel good to get inside the terminal building."
The officers finally reached the spaceport entrance and the automatic doors whooshed open. Compared to the hot stillness outside, the lobby seemed almost wintry. The two men, however, adjusted quickly to the temperature change and made their way to the security gate.
At the gate, two more Spectrum officers were already hard at work. One scrutinized each passenger's credentials while the other appeared to be taking photographs of them, but with a strange-looking device. Scarlet waited until the agents were unoccupied and then approached the elder of the pair.
"What's the situation, Captain Grey?"
"Nothing to report so far," the Chicagoan replied in a booming voice. "The shuttle with the majority of the passengers hasn't arrived yet from the airport."
"How about the Mysteron detector?" asked Captain Blue.
Grey patted the piece of equipment hanging from his neck. "Working like a charm."
"Good. What's the word on the Prime Minister?"
Captain Magenta answered, "There's a slight problem."
"What kind of problem?" continued Blue.
"He apparently refused to travel in our dummy tanker--"
"Typical," muttered Captain Scarlet.
"He insisted on a limousine and a grand entrance. I made sure one of our plainclothes people was driving and the roads were patrolled."
"Well, I guess that's the best we can do at this point. You two carry on here, and Captain Scarlet and I will see to Mr. Rixham as soon as he arrives."
"S.I.G., Captain Blue," replied Magenta cheerfully. "The Mysterons won't get by us." Blue nodded in reply as he and Captain Scarlet headed back toward the terminal entrance.
Within minutes, a limousine appeared. Prime Minister Stephen R. Rixham, a balding but energetic older man exhibiting more than a hint of brash self-confidence, emerged from the back seat and smiled broadly at the press photographers. Then the two Spectrum captains approached the entourage.
"Prime Minister, if you will please accompany us aboard--"
"Captain Scarlet," interrupted the British leader, "I thought Colonel White had approved the prelaunch ceremony as long as you were here."
"He did, sir. It's just that you'll be safer inside--"
"Where I won't be able to christen the ship? Absolutely not!"
Scarlet sighed. He'd forgotten about the christening. "Prime Minister," he continued, "if you insist on going up on the platform to christen the Adventure, I want the ceremony closed to the press."
"No, Captain, I won't allow that--"
"Now wait just a minute!"
The tension grew with each passing second. Captain Blue knew that his partner's patience was wearing thin. "What Captain Scarlet means, ladies and gentlemen," he interrupted, stepping forward, "is that you may take as many pictures as you want from this distance. You can't come any closer for reasons of security." He then whispered to Scarlet, "Don't make a scene. Just go along with whatever he says so we can get him on the ship."
"Right," Scarlet hissed in reply. He then gestured to Rixham's bodyguards, who cleared a path through the mob of reporters.
Ten minutes before Prime Minister Rixham's limousine arrived at the spaceport terminal, another car pulled up to a rear entrance. The mysteronized Ruth Kaplan, knowing that she would be surrounded by fans and the press if she entered through the main gate, had asked the chauffeur to leave her there. Ruthie scurried inside the terminal building as the chauffeur unpacked her luggage. She headed right for the ship at first, then remembered that she still might be recognized. Entering a restroom, she donned a dark wig and a pair of large sunglasses that she kept in the makeup case for just such an emergency. It was a simple disguise, but it almost always worked.
The diminutive Mysteron slipped into the crowd which had just arrived on the shuttle from the airport. The actual passenger capacity of the Adventure, of course, was small compared to the number of people who had come to see the historic launch. Besides the passengers and the press, there were a number of dignitaries from World Space Lines and the World Space Committee that Rixham headed. Other spectators had tried to fly into the airport, but Spectrum had canceled all regularly scheduled flights until after the launch.
Ruthie spotted the Prime Minister, amid a crowd of reporters, near the windows on one side of the terminal. A pair of Spectrum officers, conspicuous in their brightly-colored uniforms, approached the assembly. Ruthie groaned at the sight of the agents. Then she noticed that there appeared to be a dispute of some kind between the younger officer and Rixham. The Prime Minister's arrival had attracted the attention of the passengers, and it was becoming more difficult for his bodyguards to keep the crowd under surveillance. It was time for the Mysteron to make her move.
Ruthie elbowed and pushed her way through the growing mob until she reached the wall of the terminal building. When she got a few feet away from the Prime Minister's entourage, she dropped the black box into a photographer's camera bag. Still unnoticed in the confusion, Ruthie slipped back into the crowd and escaped to the baggage loading area.
Captain Black had told Ruthie to board the spacecraft using her size to her advantage. But how? Two more Spectrum agents were photographing the passengers as they boarded, and a heavily-armed security guard was carefully watching the entrance to the space liner. Even the luggage was being pulled apart--
The luggage! Each item going on the Adventure was opened and inspected prior to being loaded in the cargo bay. A light but sturdy case used to transport electronic equipment caught Ruthie's attention. The Mysteron pressed the button on her remote control, tore off her disguise and squeezed her small body into the case, shoving the equipment out. No one saw her, for when she activated the remote control something much more powerful caught everyone's attention.
The two Spectrum officers and the British prime minister, after a great deal of effort, finally were able to wrest themselves away from the mob of news-hungry reporters.
"Thanks for rescuing me," sighed Captain Scarlet gratefully to his best friend.
Blue looked back and smiled. "Any time, Captain Scarlet, but I was mainly worried about Mr. Rixham."
"I am losing my patience with him, I'll admit, but--"
"It's not that. This kind of crowd might just be the diversion the Mysterons--"
The blond American agent never finished his sentence, for just then an explosion tore through that area of the terminal where they had been standing moments before. All of the floor-to-ceiling windows fell harmlessly outward, but part of a modern art exhibit made of glass panels broke loose from its supports and fell toward the horrified crowd.
"Adam, look out!" yelled Captain Scarlet, throwing himself at Blue and the Prime Minister. He knocked the pair out from under the glass wall, but the edge of it caught him in the shoulder before he could avoid it himself. Scarlet cried out in pain as the razor-sharp jagged edge sliced through his vest and into the soft flesh of his upper body.
"Go on, get on board! I'll cover you!" Scarlet shouted, waving off Captain Blue's offer of assistance. He activated his radio as he fumbled for his gun with his left hand, scanning the crowd carefully as he got up.
"Scarlet to Grey," he called, stumbling toward the boarding ramp.
"Grey here," he replied excitedly, his voice noticeably higher in pitch than his usual bass. "What the hell happened? Are you all right?"
"A bomb went off, but the Prime Minister is unharmed. Get ready for immediate launch."
"But all the passengers and luggage aren't aboard yet--"
"What do you think, we're going to wait round for another bomb?" he snapped. "Prepare for launch and notify Cloudbase. That's an order!"
"S.I.G." Although the Spectrum captains were technically equal in rank, it was under-stood that Captain Scarlet called the shots when the situation warranted it. "OK, Captain Magenta," he called to his partner, "let that big case go in and then close it up." He pointed to a large black lightweight container at the end of the conveyor belt.
"S.I.G., Captain Grey--"
"What do you mean, 'close it up'?!" a passenger exclaimed. "Are they just going to take off and leave the rest of us here?"
"Yes, what about us?" demanded another. "I'm with the Prime Minister's personal staff. I must get aboard!"
As the two officers attempted to calm down the angry passengers, Prime Minister Rixham boarded the Adventure along with Captain Blue and the injured Captain Scarlet. The latter was taken immediately to the ship's doctor as Blue closed the outer hatch. The space liner took off shortly after the last piece of baggage--the case containing the mysteronized Ruth Kaplan--was loaded. In all the confusion, Captain Magenta had forgotten to check the contents of the case.
Colonel White's last-minute conversation with Mr. Rixham had been doubly fortunate. Firstly, the Spectrum commander had delayed the Prime Minister's departure, sparing Mr. Rixham from certain death at the hands of the mysteronized Ruth Kaplan on the way to the spaceport. Secondly, White had called to order a last-minute change in the crew assignments for the Adventure. Instead of the scheduled physician, he had requested a replacement from the Spectrum Medical Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dr. Maria Meitzler, a tall blonde in her early 40s, was a much better security risk. She, like all Spectrum medical personnel, had been briefed on Captain Scarlet's unique ability and had been sworn to secrecy.
Dr. Meitzler, besides her Spectrum duties, was a consultant for Atlanta's famous Centers for Disease Control. Being in contact with the various aspects of immunology at the CDC caused her to have a natural curiosity about Captain Scarlet's restorative powers. She had never met the officer before, but she had researched Dr. Fawn's records extensively, and she hoped to use this opportunity to observe his recuperative process in person.
She looked at the semi-conscious figure strapped to the examination/operating table. The poor thing had collapsed from loss of blood shortly after getting aboard, and it was all the security guard and she could do to get Scarlet into the sick bay before liftoff. She had barely enough time to strip him to the waist, strap him down and apply a quick dressing to the wound before the g forces shoved her into her own seat. Cleaning the wound would have to be done when they were weightless.
As the W.S.S. Adventure hurtled upward through the earth's atmosphere, Dr. Meitzler studied Captain Scarlet from where she sat. From all outward appearances, he looked like a normal human being. A handsome, dashing hero-type, to be precise, in perfect physical condition. But from her study of Dr. Fawn's notes, she knew there was much more to Captain Scarlet than met the eye.
Dr. Meitzler marveled at the man lying motionless on the examination table and mentally noted that he appeared a bit younger than his thirty-odd years. She thought that interesting. Had the Mysterons stopped his aging process as well? If they had, she wondered how he would feel about it in later years, whether he would approve of it or be embarrassed about it. There were so many questions the doctor wanted to ask Captain Scarlet, but stabilizing his condition would have to remain her priority.
A soft chime sounded in the sick bay, indicating that the space liner was safely out of the earth's gravity and all systems could be operated in the weightless mode. Dr. Meitzler checked that her boots were secured to the floor before she released her seat belt, then walked slowly to the examination table. She gently removed the dressing on Scarlet's wound. The blood had formed a crust over the injury, so there was no danger of little droplets of hemoglobin floating around the weightless compartment. Dr. Meitzler nodded her satisfaction as she disposed of the soiled bandage and plucked a moist towelette from the dispenser above her. Now, Captain Scarlet, she said to herself, let's see how much of your wound has healed in this short time--
She gasped with surprise as she removed the coating of dried blood. There was no wound! The severe laceration was gone as though it never existed. There wasn't even a scar. Dr. Meitzler could not believe her eyes. Had she not seen the injury firsthand, she never would have known Scarlet had needed medical attention. She grabbed his wrist and searched for his pulse.
The doctor's actions, combined with the cool temperature of the sick bay, soon brought Scarlet out of his stupor. He lurched forward groggily, trying to get up from the table, but the restraints held him back. "Whoa, big fella!" warned Dr. Meitzler, gently pushing him back to a supine position. "If you get out of bed like that in zero-g, you'll somersault across the room. Let's take it a little slower, OK?"
The dark-haired Spectrum agent nodded as the doctor loosened his upper body restraints, slowly raising himself so that he sat up normally.
"That's more like it," commented Dr. Meitzler. She handed him a scrub shirt. "Put this on if you're cold. Your partner should be back soon with your clothes."
"I'll be all right, thank you." Scarlet put the shirt down on the table, forgetting about the zero gravity. He grinned sheepishly as he snatched the shirt before it floated too far away. "My, this will take a bit of getting used to, won't it?"
"You'll get the hang of it." She held out her hand. "Dr. Maria Meitzler, Spectrum Medical Center. I've heard a lot about you, Captain Scarlet."
He returned the handshake congenially. "All good, I trust, Doctor. It appears Colonel White made a wise choice, replacing the scheduled ship's doctor with one of our own."
"Yes, we can't have anyone finding out about our secret weapon. Now, if you'll just allow me to run a few tests--"
"Tests?!" Scarlet replied in surprise. "You as well? With all the tests Dr. Fawn performs on me at Cloudbase I'm beginning to wonder if he still thinks I'm human."
Dr. Meitzler finished unstrapping his legs and patted him on the shoulder. "Captain, if the amount of blood you lost with that wound is any indication, I'd say you are very human." The chime sounded again. "That'll be your uniform. If Captain Blue's there, do you want to talk to him?"
"Later, Doctor. The Prime Minister mustn't see me fully recovered."
"Yes, of course." Dr. Meitzler soon returned with the replacement dark shirt and red vest, still folded as crisply as when he had packed them. She watched Scarlet dress, noticing that there was absolutely no stiffness in his lean, muscular upper body. The doctor, reaching for a clipboard and a pen, began, "Now, Captain, we'll start with a few basic questions and then I'll examine you--"
Scarlet grabbed his uniform cap from the wall cabinet and put his feet on the floor. "Sorry, Dr. Meitzler," he said tersely, "but the Prime Minister's safety is much more important than making sure I don't have high blood pressure. Perhaps another time." He walked through the hatch and into the corridor, uneasily at first but quickly adapting to his adhesive-soled boots. "Hopefully there won't be another time," he grumbled as he made his way to the Prime Minister's cabin.
Deep inside the pressurized cargo bay, a sharp noise pierced the stillness--he sound of a size 4 shoe kicking the lid of a packing case. It was followed almost immediately by a dull thud as Ruth Kaplan slammed into the side of the case opposite the lid. She had neglected to brace herself before she tried to kick her way out, and without gravity to act as resistance she ricocheted off the box lid like a billiard ball. Shaking her head at her stupidity, she wedged herself between the two side walls and kicked again. This time the lid swung open smoothly. Ruthie pushed herself out of the case, pressed her shoes to the floor of the compartment and slowly walked toward the hatch. The Mysteron was about to reach for the opening switch when the hatch whooshed open and she heard voices outside.
"…And this third door is the cargo bay, Captain," a gruff American voice said, its owner obviously a native of Brooklyn.
"Good," was the reply. "Let's get a fresh uniform for Captain Scarlet in sick bay while we're here."
Ruthie darted behind one of the storage racks just inside the hatch. The same burly security guard who had blocked the main hatch before takeoff entered and reached for a suitcase stowed in the rack directly in front of her. Ruthie crouched down further and pulled out the gun Captain Black had given her. This one would serve the Mysterons well--
"Not that one, Sergeant, the one above it," came the second voice again from the corridor. The speaker was also American, possibly from New England, and his voice had a familiar ring to it. Ruthie pushed two of the bags slightly apart and peered between them.
It was the fair-haired Spectrum agent she had seen in the spaceport with the Prime Minister! Since Spectrum's usual practice was to safeguard dignitaries constantly, and it was said that the other agent had been taken to the sick bay, that could only mean one thing--the Prime Minister was out there in the corridor with the agent! Maybe she wouldn't need an accomplice after all. If she could get a clear shot at Mr. Rixham, the Mysterons would be successful. Ruthie raised the pistol and aimed it toward the open hatch, waiting for her opportunity.
The security guard retrieved a red and black suitcase from the upper rack and turned toward the Spectrum officer. "Here's Captain Scarlet's bag, sir," he said, handing it to him.
Captain Blue nodded and opened the suitcase. He pulled out a bundle of clothing and gave it to the guard. "Here, take this uniform to sick bay. I can't leave the Prime Minister by himself."
"Yes, sir." The guard replaced the bag in the rack and turned to leave. "By the way, Captain, if either of you need anything from your own luggage, it might be a good idea to get it now. I don't think they'll get around to putting the bags in your cabins before we get to the moon."
Blue shook his head. "No thanks, Sergeant. That'll be all for now." The guard touched his cap brim in salute and left for the sick bay. The Spectrum agent then crossed in front of the open hatchway, and Ruthie tightened her grip on the gun. "Now, Mr. Rixham, if you'll just follow me, I'll escort you to your cabin--"
"You most certainly will not, Captain!" exclaimed the Prime Minister. "The world must know straight away that I was not harmed in that attack. I must hold a press conference in the main passenger lounge immediately."
"Can't your press secretary do that, sir? That's the way they work it in America--"
"You're not in America now, Captain Blue. The agreement was that you must abide by my wishes if you intend to escort me!"
"Very well, sir," Blue sighed. "It's the other way." He turned and walked alongside the Prime Minister, away from the hatch. Then the Spectrum officer touched a wall switch, and the hatch shut as quickly as it opened.
The mysteronized Ruth Kaplan lowered the pistol and cursed to herself. So close! She knew that just taking a shot at the Prime Minister would be too easy. Now how would she perform the Mysterons' deadly work? She would have a difficult time destroying the whole ship without any more bombs. She couldn't even walk around the ship freely. She didn't have one of the identification disks that were given to the passengers on the boarding ramp. She would be discovered and eliminated before she got close enough to her target--
"Oy, gevalt!" she muttered in Yiddish, throwing her hands up in desperation. As she uttered the oath, Ruthie looked up at the ceiling as if appealing to a higher authority. Her frustrated look dissolved into an evil smile.
An air duct! Ruthie pulled her feet from the floor and floated up to the grille covering the duct. She opened the cover and crawled inside. It would be too tight a squeeze for an average-sized person, but for the diminutive Mysteron it was the perfect size.
Captain Scarlet knocked again on Mr. Rixham's door, and again there was no response. Sensing something was amiss, he pulled his gun from its holster and disengaged the lock, standing to the side of the entrance as the hatch slid open.
The cabin was dark and apparently undisturbed. A quick yet thorough search verified that it was indeed empty. Scarlet shoved the gun back into the holster and stood in the center of the tiny cabin with his hands on his hips, obviously annoyed. The original plan was to keep Mr. Rixham in his cabin until they reached the moon, and Blue would never disobey the colonel's orders without good reason. Of course, he knew of someone who would. He opened the channel on his cap radio.
"Scarlet to Blue. I'm in the Prime Minister's cabin. Where the devil are you?"
Captain Blue quietly replied, "We're in the main passenger lounge. I'll explain when you get here."
"S.I.G." Scarlet exited the cabin and started to walk down the corridor, then staggered as a wave of nausea came over him. He stopped and put one hand on the wall to steady himself, his other hand instinctively pulling out his gun as he muttered under his breath. Was he getting spacesick, more so because of his loss of blood, like he did that one time in the hopping Moonmobile? Or was there a Mysteron on the ship? He wiped his sweaty brow on his sleeve and scanned the deserted corridor. The only hatchway nearby, besides the one he had just left, led to the cargo bay behind him. Captain Scarlet opened the hatch and walked inside, but the bay was still filled with the assorted luggage of the passengers and he could not go very far. From what he could see, everything appeared normal. Since the nausea did not intensify upon his entering the cargo bay, and in fact seemed to diminish with every passing second, he shrugged and exited, continuing toward the lounge. Perhaps it was spacesickness after all.
Ruth Kaplan could not see her hand in front of her face in the blackness of her private tunnel system, but she did not need to see where she was going. The Mysterons did not always use eyesight, hearing or other normal human senses when carrying out their threats. She was guided from within, told exactly how far to crawl and in which direction.
One main duct ran the length of the ship and branched off to circulate air through the various compartments. It was this large duct that would become Ruthie's principal thoroughfare while aboard the space liner. She could enter any area of the ship, with the exception of the cockpit which had its own air supply for safety reasons, without being seen. As long as she made no more than the normal amount of noise in the metal ductwork, she would not be heard either.
The mysteronized singer finally made her way through the side duct of the cargo bay and entered the main tunnel, beginning her crawl to the main passenger lounge. It was slow going at first due to the weightless environment, but Ruthie eventually learned to propel herself with her hands and feet braced against the sides of the metal shaft.
Below her, she heard heavy footsteps accompanied by the now-familiar faint ripping sound of shoe adhesive as the boots pulled away from the carpeted hallway. Then suddenly the footsteps halted, and the Mysteron could hear the passenger stumble and gasp for breath. The owner of the heavy steps then spoke, obviously in pain, forcing the words out through clenched teeth:
"Perhaps-- Mysteron… Better-- check-- that last hatch…"
Ruthie sighed with relief as the footsteps faded away in the opposite direction. The man had gone back toward the cargo bay--but who was he? How could he tell she was in the vicinity? Ruthie did not wait to find out, but instead started again toward the lounge, scuttling along much faster than before she had stopped.
Prime Minister Rixham finished his response to the question from the Los Angeles Times reporter and stepped down from the podium. He held up his hand as the members of the press, thinking he was leaving the passenger lounge, rose from their seats.
"I'm not going anywhere, ladies and gentlemen, except to welcome back our wounded hero." As Captain Scarlet strode into the lounge amid sincere applause, the head of the British government greeted him with a handshake and a smile. The captain was taken aback for an instant, then he realized exactly why the Prime Minister was so civil toward him--he was only putting on a show for the reporters and photographers.
As Rixham resumed the question and answer session, Scarlet approached Captain Blue. "Now, will you please tell me what is going on? Why isn't Mr. Rixham in his cabin?"
"Ask him," Blue replied in disgust, cocking his head in the general direction of the podium as he spoke. "Now I know why your people call him 'Stubborn Stevie.' How did that spoiled brat ever get into office?"
"He actually made it due to his stubbornness. He's just never liked the idea of armed guards hovering round him constantly."
"You figure he'd be used to it by now." Captain Blue stopped and looked thoughtfully at his colleague. "How'd things go in sick bay?"
The younger man sighed. "I'm beginning to hate doctors. Would you believe she was all ready to do a complete examination?"
"She? You always did have all the luck--"
"Oh, go on. She's a good ten years older than me."
"Yeah, but that's what some of them like," Blue retorted, grinning devilishly.
"Well, not this one, I'm afraid. She was interested only in my immune system--" Scarlet faltered and swayed, growing suddenly pale. He had to grip the back of a chair to regain his balance.
"You sure you didn't leave there too soon?" asked Captain Blue, a note of mock concern evident in his voice. "Maybe you were so anxious to get away from her that you didn't finish your recovery--"
Scarlet shook his head. "The wound was gone. It's either a touch of spacesickness or--" He looked at his partner and Captain Blue knew what he meant.
"I guess it's possible that there's a Mysteron on board," the fair-haired officer replied, "but everyone was checked before we took off, and Security just finished the regular recheck. What do you think we should do?"
"For now, just keep your eyes open for anything unusual. I'm going to check the current situation with the Prime Minister's staff." Scarlet approached Rixham's chief of security, who was engaged in conversation with a young man in a strange uniform. Both men smiled congenially at the Spectrum agent, and the security chief extended his hand.
"We're all glad to have you back with us, Captain."
"Thank you, Mr. Stratford. What's the situation with the passengers?"
"Seven did not make it aboard before we launched. We've accounted for six back at the spaceport, but the seventh--"
"Ruth Kaplan, the American singer," chimed in the other man. Realizing that he hadn't introduced himself, he held out his hand to the captain. "James Steele, sir. I'm Mr. Rixham's valet and regular chauffeur."
"James and I were just discussing this, Captain," continued Stratford. "He brought Miss Kaplan to the spaceport in plenty of time for the launch."
"I thought the Prime Minister and she were supposed to arrive together."
"Yes, Captain," noted Steele. "But that message from Colonel White changed everything. Mr. Rixham insisted I drive Miss Kaplan to the spaceport while he--"
"You got there before the Prime Minister?" Scarlet interrupted.
"Oh, yes sir," Steele continued. "I'd say a good ten or fifteen minutes ahead of him. I saw Miss Kaplan to the service entrance--she didn't want to be besieged by fans--and then I took care of her bags. When I looked again, she was gone. I just assumed she'd gone to the boarding queue, but when I boarded the ship myself she hadn't got on yet."
"Strange," murmured Captain Scarlet, rubbing his chin.
"What's even more odd, Captain," added Stratford, "we have security people all over the spaceport, including someone at every exit, but there's been no trace of her."
"You said you'd accounted for the other six who went missing. Have they been checked with our Mysteron detector?"
"Yes, Captain. All negative--" The security chief stopped in mid-sentence as an electronic alarm sounded from above and a vapor began to fill the lounge.
"That's the fire alarm!" yelled one of the space liner crewmen, recognizing the sound immediately. He punched the intercom button. "Bridge, the oxygen displacers have been activated in the main passenger lounge."
"Stand by," a calm voice replied, followed by a short pause. "We have no sign of electrical fire. Attempting to shut down."
Vapor continued to pour into the compartment, creating a choking fog. "No response," the crewman reported.
"Evacuate compartment and attempt manual override from the corridor."
"Yes, sir," replied the crewman. Captain Blue, upon hearing the order from the cockpit, gestured to the Prime Minister, and the pair approached the corridor hatch.
The hatch would not open. Attempts to unlock it from the inside, even with the security guards' specially-coded keys, proved futile, and the bridge was notified that assistance was needed.
The air grew increasingly foul as the chemical fire extinguisher continued to displace the oxygen of the normal cabin atmosphere. Captain Scarlet, knowing that the occupants of the lounge would soon suffocate if the extinguisher was not shut off, yanked his boots from the carpet and floated toward the ceiling over the hatch.
"What are you doing?" called Captain Blue after him.
"He said the manual shutoff is in the corridor. I'm going to see if I can get out through the ceiling. If they can't open the hatch or get the air back into this compartment, we're done for!"
"S.I.G." Blue smiled to himself as he watched Captain Scarlet remove a vent cover and squeeze into the opening. He had noticed his partner's use of the word "we." Scarlet did not take his indestructible label for granted, but reminded himself constantly that no one knew exactly how long he would have his special powers. True, he was not afraid of death, but he wasn't going to accept it either. If risking his own life meant saving others from certain destruction, so be it. He was already living on borrowed time.
Captain Blue shook his head and gasped for breath, then glanced at Rixham. The Prime Minister's eyes were half-shut and he was deathly pale. The older man was losing consciousness quickly. "Come on, Captain Scarlet," the American officer wheezed--
Just then the hatch opened. Those passengers still coherent burst into the hallway, overwhelming the crew outside and gulping in deep breaths of air. Blue waved the medical personnel toward the Prime Minister and looked up at the ceiling where Captain Scarlet's legs and lower body protruded from the vent opening. "Nice going, Captain--"
A muffled British voice interrupted him. "I didn't do a blasted thing except get myself stuck. See to the Prime Minister and then help me out of here!"
"Sabotage?!" exclaimed Prime Minister Rixham, half-rising from his seat in the space liner's cockpit.
"Sabotage," repeated Jeff Tobin, the dark-haired captain of the W.S.S. Adventure, handing him a report. "Here's what our people found when they tried to shut off the extinguisher."
Rixham glanced cursorily at the sheet and handed it to Captain Blue. "The oxygen displacer valve was opened all the way up and the air supply cut off?" the blond officer noted aloud as he read.
Tobin nodded. "Not only that, the valve handles were somehow jammed so we couldn't just reverse the flow. Also, the electrical cables leading to the hatch were disconnected."
Blue whistled. "I was wondering why the hatch wouldn't open."
"And it's not easy to pry a hatch open in zero-g, either," Tobin added. "You were all very lucky."
"Looks like your hunch was right," Blue commented to Captain Scarlet.
The British Spectrum agent nodded in response. "Did your people notice anything else unusual, sir?"
"As a matter of fact, Captain Scarlet, they did. Those valves are behind a sealed emergency panel, but Crewman Hess told me the seal wasn't broken. There's no way anyone could tamper with those valves without breaking the seal."
Blue stared blankly at Tobin. "Are you sure that's the only access?"
"Well, the valves are located inside the ductwork--"
"Impossible," Scarlet interrupted sharply. "I nearly dislocated my bad shoulder trying to get out of the lounge through that shaft. Only a child could fit through there, and there are no children on board--"
"Or Ruthie," Rixham's valet muttered.
"What did you say, James?" queried the Prime Minister.
"Ruth Kaplan, sir; you know, the American singer. Mr. Stratford said she's gone missing."
"That's right," added Captain Scarlet. "I'd forgotten about that. But what about her?"
"Well, she's ever so small, Captain. She can't be much taller than four-foot-six, only weighs about six stone--"
Blue frowned as he tried to think of the American translation.
"84 pounds," replied Scarlet almost automatically. Sometimes one Spectrum officer had to act as interpreter for another.
"No wonder her latest album's titled 'Short and Sweet,'" Blue remarked.
"Well, what I mean, Captain Scarlet," continued Steele, "is that if you're looking for someone small enough to crawl about in the ductwork Ruthie's the perfect choice--"
"The mouse!" Captain Blue exclaimed.
Scarlet nodded slowly as he remembered becoming dizzy just before the fire alarm sounded. "Now that I think about it, when that bomb went off in the spaceport she could have boarded in the confusion."
"She couldn't just walk in, though, with our security," replied Blue. "Someone that small would be able to hide almost anywhere, even in a large suitcase--" He snapped his fingers. "There was a shipping container listed on the manifest. I'll go check out the cargo bay again."
"Let me know if you find anything," said his partner.
"S.I.G., Captain Scarlet." The American agent exited into the corridor.
"Captain Scarlet," the Prime Minister began, glaring at the Spectrum officer as he spoke, "are you certain about this? How in God's name can one small woman be of any danger to me?"
"Sir," he replied, "when someone is mysteronized, size or gender only makes a difference in the plan of attack. You are in as much danger from Miss Kaplan as you are from a heavyweight boxer--" His epaulets flashed and he paused in mid-sentence.
"Blue to Scarlet."
"Go ahead, Captain Blue."
"Just as we suspected. That packing case was empty except for some of Miss Kaplan's things. It can be opened from the inside as well as the outside."
"Understood. Did you find anything else?"
"Yes. The access to the air duct over the hatch was removed. She could be anywhere."
"Can you get inside the duct?"
"Negative. It's too small."
Captain Scarlet sighed and turned his attention back to the radio. "Very well, Captain Blue. Leave everything the way it is and report back here. I'll alert Security to the situation."
The Prime Minister looked up in surprise. "What, is that all? Aren't you going to go after her? You just finished saying that I was in danger!"
"Mr. Rixham," Scarlet sighed, trying to hide his exasperation but not doing a very good job of it, "there's not much else we can do until we enter lunar orbit and get assistance from the Moon's surface." Rixham turned his back on him and instead turned his attention to his personal valet.
With that, Captain Blue floated into the cabin and secured himself on the carpet next to Captain Scarlet. The blond American started when he saw the expression on his colleague's face. "'Stubborn Stevie' living up to his nickname again, huh?" he whispered.
Scarlet nodded and rolled his eyes. "If he keeps this up, I really am going to lose my patience with him." He looked at Captain Blue, who had a strange, faraway look in his eyes. "Rather tempting, isn't it?"
"You know, you may have hit the nail on the head."
"What are you on about?"
"I think I've figured out how we can bring Miss Kaplan out into the open. All we need is for the Prime Minister to play along."
Scarlet stared at him. "You must be joking!"
"No," said Captain Blue with his characteristic broad grin. "He won't even know he's cooperating. And you get to do what you've wanted to do since we got this assignment." He beckoned for the obviously confused Captain Scarlet to come closer and spoke to him in a whisper for several minutes.
So far, Ruth Kaplan had been able to avoid being detected. It had been easy for most of the trip. Now, however, it was clear that they knew about her. Flashlight beams stabbed into the darkness of the ductwork from vent grilles and access hatches. The only thing that was keeping her from being caught was her size--as long as she stayed inside the narrow air ducts where normal people could not go, she was safe.
She was also accomplishing nothing by hiding. Ruthie was getting restless. For the last few minutes, she had even lost track of her target. As the Prime Minister and his Spectrum guards left the cockpit and came back into areas accessible to her, Ruthie had tried to follow them and nearly got caught. Knowing that an average-sized person couldn't fit into the ductwork, the security guards had enlisted the services of the smallest passenger they could find. He'd got further into the shaft than the rest but soon became stuck like a cork in a bottle. His outstretched fingers scraped Ruthie's shoes in his desperate lunge. The diminutive redhead scurried away only to find someone else at the next access panel. Luckily for her, there was a connecting side shaft that saved her from being trapped.
Where the hell are they?! Ruthie muttered to herself. She checked every place the Prime Minister could be, then as an afterthought went back to his cabin one more time. There she was in luck, for she heard Rixham speaking to the English Spectrum officer. Ruthie waited silently in the shaft listening to the conversation and waiting for the right moment to strike.
"Now, Captain Scarlet, what's all this about a change in plans? Do you mean to say that the meeting with the Lunar Controller won't be held aboard the Adventure?"
"Precisely, sir. As long as we are on board the ship, you are in danger of Mysteron attack."
"From Ruth Kaplan? You can't be serious. I still don't see how you and Captain Blue can think of her as such a menace."
Ruthie smiled sinisterly.
"May I remind you, Prime Minister," Scarlet retorted, his voice growing more strained, "she probably set off that bomb in the spaceport and nearly asphyxiated us in the lounge."
That remark made Rixham pause to think. "If in fact you are correct, where do you intend to hold the meeting?"
"In Lunarville 8."
Ruthie and Prime Minister Rixham simultaneously started at the words.
"What?!" Rixham exclaimed. "It's still under construction! It's still without an atmosphere!"
"That's right, sir. You'll go down to the surface in the two-man escape pod wearing a spacesuit. She won't be able to follow without being spotted."
"Preposterous!" The Prime Minister was half-screaming now. "First you two follow me all about the ship, protecting me from this-- this tiny terror if you will, and now you're going to send me down to the lunar surface by myself, without any protection?"
"Not at all, sir. I'm accompanying you to the surface."
"No. I want one of my own staff."
"Out of the question. My orders are that either Captain Blue or I must be with you at all times--"
"Damn your orders! I am tired of not even being able to go to the loo without seeing either or both of you nearby--"
"And how do you think I feel?" Captain Scarlet shouted suddenly, causing both Ruthie and Rixham to jump again. "Arguing my every word, resisting my every move--for pity's sake, Mr. Rixham, I really don't understand why you are so against Spectrum! Here we are, trying to protect you--"
"Your idea of 'protection,' Captain Scarlet, is sending me spare! An organization that is supposedly the most secure and efficient in the world has not been able to stop two attempts on my life, and this lunar cruise is not yet half finished! Your Colonel White is going to hear about the shoddy treatment I have received in your hands, as well as your disrespect; you can be certain of that!" Ruthie heard the sound of footsteps approaching the hatch. "I'm going to the lunar surface myself, Captain. If you want to follow me in the other pod, that's up to you. I can't stop you. But I refuse to take the trip down with either you or Captain Blue!" The hatch opened and Ruthie heard one pair of footsteps trail off down the corridor, with the other following behind.
The Mysteron suddenly realized what had transpired. What luck! The stubborn old goat was going down to the surface alone! Seeing her big chance, she headed rapidly for the pod bay.
The Adventure was equipped with several self-propelled escape vehicles in case the ship had to be evacuated. They came in two sizes, the larger ones being for the passengers and smaller two-man pods for the use of the flight crew after the passengers had been evacuated safely. The pods were one-way vehicles; the type of engine used was only to cushion a crash landing. There was neither sufficient engine thrust nor fuel to achieve liftoff from the Moon's surface.
The artificial atmosphere had not yet been completely installed in Lunarville 8. When the Prime Minister's escape pod landed on the Moon, he would have to exit it already fully clad in an EVA suit. Ruthie knew that the suits were awkward to put on and it would take some time for Rixham to get dressed, so she had a little time to "prepare" one of the pods as the Mysterons wished.
"Oy!" she grunted as she shoved with all her might against a vent grille, then held onto it when it popped loose and sailed into the pod bay. She headed for the two-man pod that was already in position in front of the airlock. Snatching a couple of zero-torque tools from the wall rack, she set to work first removing the engine access panel and then cutting several lines, her tiny hands guided by the powers of the Mysterons. She had just slid the access panel back into place when the dressing room hatch opened, and the Mysteron quickly concealed herself under one of the other pods.
A spacesuited figure walked clumsily toward the airlock, moving stiffly due to the bulky outfit and the weighted "moon" boots. Ruthie sighed with relief when she recognized the Prime Minister's white helmet instead of a color-coded Spectrum one. Although she could not see the man's face through the helmet's tinted visor, she figured it had to be Rixham when he climbed right into the pod. The Spectrum officer would have inspected the craft first.
As soon as the inner airlock doors closed, Ruthie emerged from her hiding place and stood by the window, watching the escape vehicle shrink in size as it headed for the surface. "Farewell, Earthman!" she said maliciously, so intent on watching her success that she didn't hear the hatch open or the footsteps come up behind her. The gun barrel in the middle of her back made her flinch slightly, but she didn't bother to turn around. "Go ahead, Captain Scarlet, shoot me," she sneered. "We have won this round--"
"Captain Blue, what the devil is going on here?"
Rixham! But how? She whirled around to see Captain Blue and a dumbfounded Prime Minister, the latter attired in a spacesuit minus his helmet.
"Here is your Mysteron, Mr. Rixham." Blue leveled the gun again at Ruthie. "Looks like we won this time, Miss Kaplan--"
"You have not won yet, Earthman!" exclaimed the captured Mysteron, lunging at Captain Blue, who was easily knocked off balance with Ruthie's inertia in the weightless bay. Ruthie bounced off the Spectrum agent and was knocked into the wall behind her. She grabbed an exposed pipe to keep from rebounding and jabbed a button on the airlock control.
"No!" cried Blue as both sets of doors opened and the compartment started to decompress. He grabbed the Prime Minister and shoved him behind one of the moored pods. "Hold on! I've got to get those doors shut, it's our only chance!"
"But won't you get sucked out?--"
"If I don't shut the doors and keep the air in the bay, it won't make any difference if we're sucked out!" Blue crawled toward the control panel using the pipes along the wall and ceiling, using every ounce of his strength to hold on to them against the rapidly increasing vacuum. The decreasing air pressure made him feel as though his lungs were being squeezed shut, but he plodded along hand over hand. He knew from his experience as a test pilot that if the air pressure got too low their blood would boil, and there was no way to survive that. Blue finally reached the control panel and smacked his hand down on the emergency button. The airlock doors quickly closed and the pod bay once again filled up with air.
Captain Blue let go of the pipe and just floated for a few seconds, inhaling air in huge gasps and dangling his stiff arms and legs. When he had finally caught his breath, he called out to the Prime Minister, "It's all right, Mr. Rixham, you're safe now. She must have been pulled out into space."
Rixham nodded slowly. "Yes, the decompression sucked her out almost straight away. She was too small and light to hang on against the vacuum. But how did you know she would come here?"
"When you're hunting, setting out decoys often works best."
"You mean that was all an act?"
"The whole thing. We even made up the part about the meeting on Lunarville 8."
"And Captain Scarlet--"
"Was the decoy," Blue continued. "He finished dressing before you did, disguised himself with your helmet and took his chances." The captain raised a hand to activate his cap microphone but found only tousled blond hair, the cap having been lost in the decompression. Instead, he got out his pocket radio. "Captain Scarlet, are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Did it work?"
"Yes. The Prime Minister is safe."
"That's great. Now, how do I get back?"
"Use your maneuvering thrusters to bring the pod back around toward the ship. Get as close as possible and we'll pick you up."
"S.I.--" Scarlet began to give the normal acknowledgement as he activated the thrusters, then stopped. "Spectrum Is Red! Thrusters malfunctioning!"
"Try the descent engine. It should slow you down."
There was a pause. "Negative. She must have sabotaged both of those controls."
"Why doesn't he just jump out?" interjected Rixham.
Blue stared at him icily. "It wouldn't do any good. He'd just float alongside the pod and travel at the same velocity." He could feel the cold sweat on his neck as he tried to think of a way to help his best friend. He addressed Scarlet again. "Maybe if I got in the other pod--"
"You'd never catch up to me."
"Just notify the surface to have a crash team standing by. I may have a chance if I stay inside the pod."
"A chance?! Is he mad?" exclaimed Rixham.
Blue shook his head in reply as he made the distress call. "OK, Captain Scarlet," he continued. "They'll be waiting for you at your estimated contact. Good luck."
"Thanks, Adam." Amazing how he could be so calm with almost no chance of survival, Blue thought. That pod wasn't made for a landing like that. It would split open like an overripe melon as soon as it hit the lunar surface. He stood at the window for several seconds, not moving, staring at the Moon below, wondering what the rescue team would find.
Prime Minister Rixham cleared his throat and Captain Blue came out of his trance. As he turned toward Rixham, he noticed that the color had disappeared from the British leader's face. Probably figures it's all his fault, he said to himself.
"I'm terribly sorry, Captain--"
"Forget it," the American officer interrupted curtly. "Let's go inform the Lunar Controller, if you have no objections."
"I'll do whatever you say, Captain Blue. I assume you'll want to have the meeting on the lunar surface now."
"Yes," replied Blue, turning again toward the window. "I'll have to take my friend home."
Dr. Fawn flipped the reflector away from in front of his face and took a long look at the subject of his examination. A male figure lay motionless on the table before him, one that he had examined many times before under different circumstances. How the body was even in one piece astonished him. The Spectrum physician stood back from the table and shook his head in disbelief. "Captain Scarlet," he finally said half to himself, slowly and deliberately, "I didn't think I'd ever see you like this."
The seemingly lifeless figure stirred, swinging his legs off the table and sitting up to face him. "Don't give me all the credit this time, Doctor. If that pressure suit hadn't held--"
"That's not what I meant."
Scarlet looked quizzically at Dr. Fawn.
"You haven't complained once this time. I know how much you hate the routine."
The captain laughed. "After being in the clutches of Dr. Meitzler for most of the return trip, this is a piece of cake. If you need any test results, I'm sure she has a complete set you can have."
"OK, Captain Scarlet, I get the message," Fawn said smiling, scribbling his signature on the release form. "Will you be taking Captain Blue down for his furlough?"
"No, but I do want to make sure he gets in the jet. Poor man has been trying to leave for the past month." He snatched the release form from the doctor's outstretched hand. "Thanks."
"Don't come back too soon, Captain."
Captain Scarlet did not even bother to stop at his friend's quarters. Knowing him better than anyone, he headed straight for the Promenade Deck at the very top of Cloudbase and knocked on the door. Sure enough, Captain Blue was there with Symphony, the pair arm in arm as they stood at the windows. Blue, already in casual summer clothes, looked at his partner and then at his watch. "Boy, that was quick this time!" he said with surprise in his voice.
"And why shouldn't it have been? All he has to do is get all the test results from that blasted ship's doctor."
Blue retorted, with a twinkle in his eye, "It was worth it, though, just to have seen the way you looked when she was done with you."
But Scarlet was ready for him: "Be careful what you say, friend. I hear Koala Base asked the colonel if you could return for more lectures--"
"Just help me get out of here and I won't say another word," replied the American quickly, holding up his hands.
"S.I.G., Captain Blue. Let's go." He picked up Blue's suitcase and waited outside while the couple said their goodbyes. The two men were barely halfway down the corridor when Lieutenant Green's voice on the P.A. announced: "Captain Blue, please report to the Control Room immediately."
"Now why did I know he was going to say that?" Blue sighed.
"Maybe it's just a question about your report," his friend reassured him. "You still have plenty of time."
Not convinced, Blue hesitated as he approached the door to the Control Room. "I had no idea I was so indispensable--"
"Just go in, Adam."
The blond American was not prepared for what he saw as the door slid open. Every available member of the senior staff had crowded into the small room, and the work table held a large sheet cake.
"Happy birthday, Captain Blue!"
Colonel White, smiling broadly, approached the stunned officer and shook his hand. "Now, now, Captain, you didn't think we'd let you go without saying goodbye, did you?"
"But my birthday's not for another month, sir--"
"I know that, but you may as well put this to good use on your holiday." The colonel handed him a long package.
Blue unwrapped the box and pulled out a fishing pole. "I don't know what to say, Colonel," he said, smiling.
"Just don't bring back any stories about the one that got away." Everyone laughed heartily.
A rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" accompanied by the traditional cutting of the cake followed. While the party was in full swing, White sat down at his desk and motioned for Scarlet to come forward. "Captain Scarlet, a very important assignment has just come up and I'll trust only you to handle it."
He replied without hesitation. "I'm ready, Colonel."
The white-haired Spectrum commander reached under the desk and handed Scarlet a package similar to the one he had previously given Captain Blue. "Do make sure he gets there this time, will you?"
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