A Spectrum Story for Christmas
by Marion Woods
They say hard work never hurt anybody, but I figure why take the chance.
Des Moines, Iowa, USA – a few days before Christmas Eve
Sergeant John Jacobs, second-in-command of Spectrum’s terrestrial base in Des Moines, Iowa, checked his uniform once more and took the opportunity to glance at his watch again. The weather had been bad and that had delayed all the flights, incoming and outgoing; but he’d been waiting for over an hour already and he was getting hungry. The fast-food outlet across the concourse was beginning to look like a good idea.
After another twenty minutes, he surrendered to the lure of the aroma wafting from the burger joint and bought himself the biggest burger they had on their predictable, standardised menu. He was standing, leaning against a wall eating it, when an authoritative voice said:
“Sergeant? My apologies for keeping you waiting.”
Desperately swallowing his mouthful, Jacobs gasped, “Doctor Giardello, sir – I was just…”
Giardello’s dark eyebrow rose in an atypically tolerant amusement. “It’s all right, sergeant, I know I’m very late. However, if you would take me to the SSC, I’d be grateful.”
“Sir.” Jacobs pitched his burger into a nearby waste bin and wiped his fingers and mouth on the paper napkin, before tossing that away too. He had studied the ID picture of the Doctor before he’d come to meet the man, but he remembered to take a look at the proffered ID card even so.
Doctor Giardello was smaller than he’d expected. His lugubrious face was etched with worry lines and his blue eyes were cold behind his steel-rimmed glasses. His abundant black hair was liberally scattered with grey and he was wearing a sober charcoal-grey overcoat over a neat business suit. Not for the R&D staff the conspicuous uniform of the Spectrum personnel; Spectrum Intelligence kept its existence low-key.
Despite his unprepossessing appearance, the Head of Spectrum Intelligence’s Research and Development Section – known by the acronym SIRAD – had a formidable reputation and was renowned throughout the organisation as the developer of the invaluable Mysteron detector and the electron gun, both , however cumbersome, essential weapons in Spectrum’s arsenal against the Mysterons. He was certainly the most important person in Spectrum that Jacobs had ever met; apart from Colonel White, of course, on the day he’d come to inaugurate the recently established terrestrial base, here in Des Moines. That the colonel had come in person had been something of a turn up for the books too and akin to a State visit, as far as Jacobs was concerned.
He led the Doctor through to the car park, where the impressive, red Spectrum Saloon Car stood in a reserved spot, attracting plenty of attention from the curious public.
Jacobs opened the door for his charge and ushered Giardello inside, before clambering into the driving seat.
“Where to, sir?” he asked as he buckled up.
“Air Electronics Systems Corporation,” Giardello replied, continuing, “it’s just outside of Cedar Rapids.”
“Yes, sir, I know it well. My brother works there,” Jacobs volunteered as he steered the SSC out into the snow-bound streets and joined the slow-moving traffic. “What do you want to go there for, sir?” he asked without thinking.
“That,” said Giardello sharply, “is none of your business, Sergeant.” He saw a blush suffuse the young man’s face and added, less waspishly, “Spectrum has some business to transact with them, but you need not concern yourself with it.”
“S.I.G., sir,” Jacobs responded crisply, cursing his absent-minded curiosity. He was ambitious enough to know that he’d never get anywhere if he couldn’t keep his mind open and his mouth shut in the presence of the high command.
Giardello gave a wry smile and turned to watch the light show of the highway as they made what speed they could through the traffic. He was not used to having to deal with enthusiastic inquisitiveness from the terrestrial support staff. The R&D section’s staff were all used to keeping quiet about their work and habitually suppressed whatever curiosity they might have about their superior’s activities as well.
He settled back in the comfortable seat. It was snowing again he noticed, as he allowed his mind to drift.
He hadn’t expected to get the summons to AESC so quickly and he’d have preferred to have stayed at home this close to Christmas – but there were important issues at stake. If the new system was as good as they expected, it would be an invaluable tool for Spectrum to use against their implacable foes - the Mysterons.
Robert Giardello was absolutely dedicated to his work, so much so that he rarely got enthusiastic about mundane things. His private life was run on well-designed and predictable lines. His wife, Teresa, ran an orderly and efficient home, keeping precise and accurate financial records which they checked over together, once a quarter, deciding where to invest the surplus money; Teresa prided herself on always coming in ‘under budget’. Their three children – the youngest a rare example of failure to adhere to their agreed life-plan – were performing well at school, and he looked forward to seeing them all in useful and lucrative careers, before they settled down to just such orderly lives as their parents enjoyed.
What did excite him was innovation at the cutting edge of applied science and technology. He had almost declined the invitation to attend last year’s World Science summit, but Colonel White had urged him to be there. Wisely, as it had happened, for at the conference in Bonn, he had met and conversed with Dr Vernon Catesby – a well-respected physicist working in the field of advanced aviation electronics.
What had resulted from that discussion – and had absorbed a fraction under 28% of his department’s annual budget – was what was bringing him to AESC this close to Christmas; and causing him such unusual excitement.
“It is, “Giardello thought with uncharacteristic whimsy, “as if Christmas has come early…”
Vernon Catesby was waiting for his guest in the lobby of the AESC offices. He swept Dr Giardello through the administration block without a moment’s delay and into the inner sanctum of his workroom-cum-office, in the separate building that housed the high security research block.
“I’m so pleased you were able to come at such short notice, Doctor,” Catesby said with barely suppressed excitement. He was younger than Giardello, taller and rapier-thin, with an untidy head of brown hair and intelligent brown eyes, framed by his wire-rimmed glasses, which, Giardello noted, were held together by a small roll of sticking plaster in the best ‘mad scientist’ tradition. Catesby was still young enough to ignore the fact that a sober outward appearance could lend gravitas and authority to a scientist’s theories.
“You sounded very positive about your latest work, Doctor,” Giardello replied, placing his briefcase on the workbench. “I am naturally eager to see what progress has been made and to evaluate its applications for Spectrum.”
Catesby almost bounced with excitement. “I’m sure I can make your day, Doctor… we’re making great strides and are within a hair’s breadth of success. I was sure you’d want to know and with your help - and the assistance of your team – we can nail this thing!”
Giardello smiled broadly, infected by Catesby’s enthusiasm. “Well, let’s get started, Doctor. I’m all yours…”
Colonel White put his toothbrush into his sponge bag, slid it into the suitcase on the bed and snapped the locks closed. A quick glance around his room reassured him that he hadn’t forgotten anything important. He put on his tweed jacket, draped his winter overcoat over his arm, picked up his trilby in one hand and his suitcase in the other.
Outside of his quarters he found Captain Scarlet and Captain Blue lounging with apparent casualness against the wall, some way down the corridor. They gave a credible appearance of surprise to see him emerge and fell in, one on either side and one pace behind him, as he walked to the escalators.
“I am capable of finding the hangar deck, Captains,” White said with dry humour.
“Well, of course you are, sir…” Scarlet began.
“We just thought we’d be around just in case you…errmm…”
“Needed anything – yes, in case we could be of any assistance…” Scarlet rescued his partner from his dilemma.
“That is uncommonly helpful of you, gentlemen. For a brief moment I thought it might have to do with your wanting to make sure I was actually leaving the base…”
Scarlet’s laugh didn’t sound even remotely genuine. “Why would we do that?”
“That’s what’s worrying me, Captain.”
The two officers exchanged wary grimaces. “We’re merely concerned that you have a wonderful vacation, sir,” Blue ventured to say. “Things have been pretty hectic lately and you’re due for some ground time...”
“Did Doctor Fawn send you?” White asked abruptly.
“Of course not.”
The answers were just a little too quick. White’s eyebrows rose and he said, “Well, you can assure him that I am going on leave, and put your own minds at rest that I intend to have a wonderful time.”
“Have you decided where you’re going to go, sir?” Scarlet asked with a grin. There wasn’t much escaped ‘the old man’.
“Oh, I thought I’d go to a favourite place of mine, Captain. It’s called ‘none-of-your-business’, and it’s about as restful as it gets.”
“You did log it with Lieutenant Green’s location database, didn’t you, sir?” Blue asked. “We need to know where you are – just in case…”
White stopped suddenly and the two younger men cannoned into each other whilst attempting to avoid barging into their commanding officer.
“That’s rich, that is, coming from one of you two! Yes, I have logged it, Captain Blue, so you don’t have to worry that protocol has been breached. And if I find out that Lieutenant Green has let either of you – or anyone else on the base – go nosing through my records in my absence, I’ll bust everyone concerned down to ensign and send one of you to Archives and the other to a training base as a junior instructor. Do I make myself clear?”
“As crystal…” Scarlet confirmed with a warning frown at his companion.
The Colonel walked on, smiling at the frantic whispers coming from his ‘escort’. Scarlet was obviously not amused by Blue’s heavy-handed comments. He was rather surprised himself – Blue was usually the more diplomatic of the two – but maybe it was a hangover from the fact that the last couple of holidays his officers had taken had been interrupted by Mysteron activity which had placed them in some danger.
He reached the hangar bay and looked across at the two SPJs being prepared for the morning shuttle runs down to the main terrestrial bases. The far one was for London and the closer one for New York. He turned to his companions.
“Well, thank you for your company, Captains. I’m sure you have plenty to do, so don’t let me detain you further.”
“Oh, it’s all right, sir, we’re not that busy,” Scarlet replied. As Blue looked daggers at him, he hastened to cover his gaffe. “That is, we’re ahead of schedule on what we have to do…”
Colonel White’s expression showed that he was not fooled for one minute.
A technician came towards them. “May I stow your luggage, Colonel?” he asked. White handed the suitcase over. “Where to, sir?”
“New York.” White noticed Scarlet’s dark eyebrows shoot upwards.
“I hope you have a good time, sir.”
“Thank you, Captain Blue. I intend to.”
They watched him walk towards the shuttle and climb aboard.
“New York?” Scarlet commented dryly as the plane’s doors were closed and the Klaxon sounded to warn people to leave the hangar before depressurisation. “I never thought he’d go there.”
“Why not? New York’s all right…” the Boston-born American conceded with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
Scarlet grinned at him and then said more soberly, “Well, I thought he’d spend Christmas in England, with family or something… “
“Maybe he doesn’t have anybody in England anymore?” Blue suggested, his tone openly compassionate,
Scarlet sniffed and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Could be, I guess. Strange we don’t even know that much about him, even after all this time. I’d hate to think we’ve talked him into going and he’s got nowhere to go… if you follow me?”
“Not even Fawn could have talked him into leaving Cloudbase if he didn’t want to go,” Blue reasoned.
“That’s true… but New York? Ah well, I bet you he won’t stay there for long…”
“Hmmm,” Blue agreed. “I wouldn’t…”
Scarlet sniggered and punched his friend’s arm as he turned to lead the way off the deck. “Now, why doesn’t that surprise me?” he asked rhetorically. “Come on; let’s go tell Doc Fawn that we’ve waved him off, as instructed.” From then safety of the entry lock, he watched the plane as it rose on the hydraulic platform to the launch pad. “Anyway, I hope he has a good time. Mind you, this place never seems the same when he’s away…”
“Yeah, people get nervous,” Blue agreed. “Can’t imagine why…”
Scarlet grinned. “Did you notice the collective sigh of relief that wafted over Cloudbase when the colonel named Grey as his deputy?” he teased. “Everyone was dreading it might’ve been you.”
Blue gave a look of outraged innocence. “I don’t know where this reputation I have for being a terrible commander has come from,” he protested.
“Yes you do! Talks about monkeys, indeed…you’ll never live that down, Adam.” He laughed at his friend’s embarrassed scowl. “Come on; let’s see Fawn and then we can wander down to the Amber Room… I happen to know that Rhapsody and Symphony are on standby together this morning, and they’ve invited us to help with putting up some of the Christmas decorations.” He paused and gave a rueful grimace before admitting, “Well, what Dianne actually said was: ‘you can both put your long, lazy carcases to some good use, for once’ – but I prefer to think it was meant as an invitation… ”
It was less than an hour after Colonel White had left when the familiar opening burst of static, over the communication tannoy, warned every Spectrum Cloudbase operative of an incoming message from the Mysterons. In the Amber Room, Scarlet and Blue, occupied with stringing brightly-coloured garlands across the central space, glanced across the room at each other. Symphony and Rhapsody stopped giving their peremptory – and often contradictory – orders to their willing assistants and unconsciously moved closer together in solidarity. Scarlet clambered down from the step-ladder and Blue slid off the table-top he’d been standing on.
The voice of the Mysterons, unemotional, harsh and threatening, issued over the speakers, reverberating along the stark metallic corridors of the base.
THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS. WE KNOW YOU CAN HEAR US, EARTHMEN.
YOU WILL NEVER DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE MYSTERONS. WE WILL DESTROY YOUR HORIZION TECHNOLOGY AND ENSURE YOUR PRIMITIVE EYES REMAIN BLIND. OUR RETALIATION WILL CONTINUE…
Scarlet dropped the end of the garland he was holding and wordlessly collected his radio cap from Rhapsody’s outstretched hand as he crossed to join his partner at the door; just as Lieutenant Green’s voice ordered all senior captains to the control room.
The Angels watched the door slide close behind the officers.
“Here we go again,” Rhapsody said her words less concerned than her tone. Symphony nodded and her friend mused, “I wonder what it’ll be this time.” She started to roll up the garland, finding comfort in the mundane task.
“I don’t know,” the American replied anxiously, “but I’d lay odds those two will be up to their necks in it… whatever it is.”
“No takers,” Rhapsody said. She looked at her friend with a wry smile. “We couldn’t stop them if we tried, and… would they really be the men we know and love if they let us stop them?”
Symphony shook her head and pulled herself together. “No, but they’d be safe… and… alive.”
Rhapsody fumbled the garland which dropped to the floor and rolled away across the open space, leaving a ribbon of colour on the plain carpet. Mechanically she bent and started the task again.
It never gets any easier, watching them start another mission, she thought, and I doubt it ever will…
“That doesn’t make any sense; it can’t be what they’re on about,” Captain Scarlet said and sighed; they’d already spent some considerable time without being able to solve the puzzle of the threat.
“Okay, genius, do you have any better ideas?” Captain Ochre asked rather belligerently.
Captain Grey gave him a sharp, warning glance; he couldn’t afford to allow bickering to break out amongst the officers and Ochre was rapidly losing his patience. Captain Magenta’s suggestion had more chance of being right than Scarlet seemed prepared to admit; but, all the same, it was a rather forced explanation of the threat.
Scarlet threw his radio cap onto the edge of the circular command desk and scratched his head. “They don’t make idle threats; it has to mean something.” He glanced at his partner. “Come on, Adam, you’re the king of the cryptic clues, what do you think it means?”
Blue looked up from the notepad he was doodling on and shrugged. “Well, it seems to me that they’re worried about something. They’ve used that taunt of our never being able to gain any insight or understanding of them several times before. The best example is when we went to the moon to investigate the complex they were constructing in the Humboldt Sea, but they used similar words when we launched the spy satellite to Phobos, and when we created the Mysteron Detector and the Electron gun. They seem to think we’re about to make another discovery with similar potential.”
“Hmm,” Grey gave the idea some thought and then said, “that could be the case; but we’ve heard nothing about anything that suggests we might be on to something significant. I think it is more prosaic than that, Blue. What I’m thinking is – this reference to ‘primitive eyes’ and to ‘horizon technology’ – could it be radar?”
Blue gave a sceptical tilt of his head. “Yes, it could be. If something disabled our radar systems, that’d ground every plane - even ours - and certainly affect our ability to stop their future threats succeeding. But, Grey, that’s a helluva big target. Every plane and ship has radar installed. Mind you,” he said thoughtfully as an idea struck him, “it might be a threat to the air traffic control towers. That’s what we can’t know: how and where they’ll strike.”
“Satellite navigation,” Ochre chipped in. “Just about every car on the road has that. Take it away and half the population would be lost in minutes – no one seems to look where they’re going these days -”
Blue nodded. “Yes… the possibilities for disruption are endless. But, you know, I can’t help feeling that this might be a decoy for some other target they have in mind. I can’t help coming back to this jibe about our never understanding them - something has them worried – as much as they ever get worried by what we do, I mean.”
Lieutenant Green had heard the way the conversation was developing and he’d already started a search for any likely targets. He called across from his research console. “I have an all airlines press release here, from the World Aeronautical Society, dated yesterday. They’re announcing a new generation of radar tracking technology for air-traffic control systems; it’s about to go into parallel testing - at Atlantic Airport.”
“Hmm, that’s a distinct possibility then. We should get someone down to check that out,” Scarlet suggested; he’d had enough of sitting still and he was itching to get into action. “It’s the only lead we have at the moment, anyway.”
“What I want to know is why they chose to run trials on this thing at one of the world’s busiest airports – at its busiest time of year! I mean, doesn’t the WAS realise that if it goes ‘kaboom’ at Atlantic, the repercussions will be felt internationally? Why not start with a little place somewhere?” Ochre asked, shaking his head.
Blue looked up again from his complex artwork. “They’ll have done that already. If it’s going into trial at Atlantic it’s because it’s proved itself at some provincial airfields.”
Ochre nodded in understanding. “Ah, I guess it also spreads the misery if it fails…?”
Blue grimaced. “Oh no, someone will be in for a whole truckload of misery if Atlantic goes down. That sort of thing means you end up in some God-forsaken, two-bit airfield, in the middle of nowhere, shortly after your next annual performance review. I’ve seen it happen…”
“Well, that gives us all the confirmation we need that you can’t go and check out Atlantic, Blue, you’ve got too many contacts in the organisation for it to be safe,” Captain Grey said. As acting commander of Cloudbase he had the task of assigning the duties. “I think you’d better go to Atlantic, Magenta… and Ochre can go with you – as the security expert. Check out the installation, the system, and their security procedures and report back.”
“S.I.G, Captain.” Magenta smiled. The job sounded right up his street; he liked tinkering with computers.
“What about the rest of us?” Scarlet said sharply. It hadn’t occurred to him before that with Blue sidelined, he might not get to participate in the mission.
Grey sucked his teeth. “I think you and Lieutenant Green had better go and check out London. The transatlantic routes are the busiest and – as I understand it – transatlantic traffic that isn’t covered by Atlantic itself is covered by London -”
“Swanwick,” Blue corrected absently
“Huh?” Grey was baffled.
“UK Air Traffic Control HQ is in Swanwick,” their WAS expert said, as he contemplated his completed design.
“I beg your pardon,” Grey said with a wry grin. “Scarlet, you had better take Green to…Swanwick and check that everything is okay there.”
“S.I.G.” Scarlet laughed. “Looks like you’re confined to base, Blue-boy.”
“Seems so,” Blue said with a shrug. He pushed the pad away from him and replaced the cap on his pen.
“Should we tell the colonel?” Ochre asked as he started to pack up his folder.
“No, he’s only just gone on furlough, for Pete’s sake!” Grey snapped. “We can manage this by ourselves. We’re big boys now…” He resented the implied suggestion that he might not be up to the task of organising the response to a Mysteron threat.
“Just a thought,” Ochre replied apologetically, realising how his innocent, yet thoughtless, question must have sounded to his friend. “Don’t jump down my throat.”
Magenta picked up the discarded notepad and tore Blue’s artwork from the top. “Nice picture,” he said, surveying the detailed image of a Christmas angel with more than a passing resemblance to Symphony. “It’d be a real treat to find that on your Christmas tree…”
“You get your own decorations…” Blue said, reaching for the paper and colouring slightly as he slipped it into his pocket.
Military Airfield, north-eastern USA
Charles Gray collected his luggage and walked briskly across to the civilian part of the airfield. He queued patiently and bought his ticket on the next flight to the East Iowa Airport, Cedar Rapids. Then he found a public call box and rang the number he’d long ago committed to memory.
A woman’s voice answered.
“Amanda? It’s Charles. I’m at New York and the first flight I could get arrives at East Iowa in about four hours.”
He could hear her smile in her voice as she said, “Charles! How wonderful. I’ll be there to meet you. Sure you can remember what I look like, or shall I carry one of those notices with your name written on?” she teased him.
“No need, Amanda. I have your image imprinted on my mind…”
Amanda laughed. “Charles Gray, you old flatterer! I’ll see you soon, then. Have a pleasant flight.”
He hung up and went towards the garishly decorated shops in search of some small gifts, and something to read, whilst he waited. He sincerely hoped the arrival at East Iowa would be much better than the flight there could possibly be. He knew full well the butterflies in his stomach had nothing to do with any fear of flying, but they were the promise of an uncomfortable journey.
He was conscious that this was a big step forward in his relationship with Amanda Wainwright. It had all started a couple of years ago, after she’d sent him a Christmas card with a personal message inside, to thank him for his kindness to her and her daughter – the Angel pilot codenamed Symphony – since the recent death of her husband. He’d been surprised and pleased to receive it. He had retained a clear recollection of the charming Mrs Wainwright from the one occasion he’d met her, and he’d drawn the encouragement to think she might like to get to know him.
A few months later – whilst he was spending a few days conducting promotion interviews and performing commissioning ceremonies for the mid-western division, at the Spectrum base in Des Moines – he had contacted her with a tentative invitation to dine with him, on a thin pretext of speaking to her about her daughter. Amanda had accepted with every show of pleasure and by the end of the evening they had both known that they’d be seeing more of each other.
Since then, they’d met up several times for weekend visits to various cities; doing tours of tourist venues and museums during the day, followed by a show and a meal out somewhere glamorous in the evening. He was acutely conscious that it was still only a few years since she’d been widowed by her husband’s tragic death in a road accident – something they had in common, as his own wife and baby son had been killed that way, many years ago – and he’d been careful not to press her into getting more involved than she was happy to do.
They’d enjoyed the time they spent in each other’s company; found that they had a liking for a great many things in common and, in his case, that he could relax with her in a way he found it difficult to do with anyone else.
He’d been delighted, yet a little apprehensive, when Amanda sent him an invitation to spend Christmas at her home in Iowa, at the ranch her family had owned for well over a century, it seemed. This was, he knew, the possible start of a much closer relationship between them, because they’d always met on ‘neutral ground’ before. He’d thought long and hard about the consequences of accepting her invitation before he’d done so. He knew that he couldn’t be content with the platonic nature of their relationship for ever. Sometime he would have to test the water and see if Amanda felt the same – and this seemed as good a time as any.
Amanda Wainwright was also trying to ignore the nervous fluttering of the butterflies in her stomach, as she turned her car out of the ranch gate, the tyres scrunching on the icy, snow-crusted surface, and headed towards Cedar Rapids.
As she drove she considered her guest and the strange way their lives had become inter-twined.
She’d first met Charles Grey in London when she and Sam had flown over, at Spectrum’s invitation, to attend their daughter’s commissioning ceremony. They had both been slightly over-awed; partly by the grandeur of the venue, partly by the pomp of the ceremony, but mostly by the unexpected emotion of the occasion.
During the course of the reception that followed the official oath-taking, Colonel White had made it his business to meet and greet the family members of every Spectrum officer. Every guest had already received a detailed dossier, explaining why it was imperative that the true identity of the elite officers of Spectrum be kept confidential, and this had also been the tenor of his conversation with them both.
She could tell from Sam’s body language that he was as excited as she about Karen’s new career, and as ready to agree to keeping it a secret as anyone there. The colonel had made a great impression on them both, with his upright military bearing and authoritative voice, and, although she doubted if Sam had noticed either his good-looking face, or the twinkle in his china-blue eyes, or the more than adequate way he filled his pristine, white dress uniform, the combination had created a very favourable impression on her and -she’d noted with some pleasure – the Englishman’d enjoyed looking at her too.
Not that she’d ever thought any more of it. Sam Wainwright might not have been about to set the Great Lakes on fire, but he was the man she loved.
She sighed, and as she changed lanes to take the exit to the airport, she allowed her thoughts to drift back over the familiar memories of her relationship with her much-loved and greatly-missed husband.
Eighteen year old Amanda Hoffman was studying business management at college, with a view to helping her parents run their ranch, when she met Sam Wainwright. Working in a summer job as an office administrator at the AESC plant, just outside Cedar Rapids, Amanda had quickly settled in and made several new friends. She knew she was a pretty young woman – and as such she was used to the attentions of the young – and the not so young – men around her; some of these ‘attentions’ she welcomed, and some she rejected. There was no false modesty about her, but thankfully there was no vanity either, and a suitor soon learned where he stood with the feisty Miss Hoffman. Sam Wainwright was a recent MIT graduate, who had been taken on as a researcher for the new programs development department. They’d hit it off straight away.
Wainwright was tall and rather slender in build, with reddish-brown hair and mossy-green eyes, flecked with brown. He was rather diffident, and spoke with the pinched nasal tones of a New England accent that made him stand out a mile amongst the mid-western voices of his co-workers. He’d been born and raised in Massachusetts, where his father was an engineer and his mother a Math teacher. The youngest of three sons, Sam was none-too confident around young women – especially pretty ones.
Amanda, who had no shortage of potential suitors from amongst the local population of eligible young men, thought he was cute and Sam Wainwright had been smitten from the moment she’d smiled at him, and willingly became her devoted acolyte. As far as both of them were concerned it was a perfect match.
When Sam asked Amanda to marry him, she’d been happy to say ‘yes’; despite the reservations expressed by her parents about their youth, the comparative speed of their commitment to each other and the fact that Amanda had not yet completed her college course. They advised the couple to have a long engagement, but Amanda had other ideas and the wedding was held one pleasant autumnal day, little more than a year after they’d met.
Sam’s family had travelled over from Massachusetts and they’d been won over by the beautiful young bride and welcomed her into their family. There was, however, no likelihood that the newly-weds would accept the invitation to return to the East Coast, despite Sam’s recent offer of a job at his old college. The Hoffman family had been farming in the area for almost two hundred years and it was unthinkable that their only daughter might leave the neighbourhood. So, as Sam had an apartment in Cedar Rapids, it made sense for the newly-married couple to live there. They planned for Amanda to complete her studies, and then find a decent house before starting a family.
Things had not gone exactly according to plan, however, but when Amanda gave birth to a healthy baby girl – christened Karen Amanda – the child had been adored by the entire family and the beautiful baby grew into a bright, vivacious child with red-gold hair and hazel-green eyes.
As she’d grown, Karen had spent most of her time at the ranch – her parents, both still working in Cedar Rapids, lived in their small apartment, and rushed home at weekends to be with their daughter. It was a happy childhood, and as the centre of a loving family, Karen blossomed into a popular and fairly happy-go-lucky personality.
But it was becoming obvious that the ranch no longer provided the secure livelihood it had once done. Both Amanda’s grandfather and great-grandfather had sold land and, in so doing, had compromised the economic viability of the farm. To combat this decline, Willis Hoffman was investigating alternative ways of producing income and had even seriously considered becoming a component of the ever-growing leisure industry by turning part of his property into a holiday venue – a kind of ‘Dude Ranch’.
Once Karen started school, it quickly became apparent that she was an extremely intelligent child and her parents and grandparents had scrimped and saved to provide her with the best education they could. For a time she’d been sent to stay with her Wainwright relatives, and study at a school in Boston, with a view to entering Harvard. But, with Karen’s usual perversity, she had, at sixteen, won a scholarship to Yale University, which Sam had accepted with a sigh of resignation that only a Massachusetts-born scholar could have produced.
Amanda had gone to Connecticut with her daughter, working in the administration department of one of the colleges to be close at hand and keep an eye on her, until Karen felt confident to cope alone. The relationship between mother and daughter had always been affable, but they were rather too alike to get on well for long. In addition, Karen was the apple of her father’s eye and her grandparents’ pride and joy, which favoured status Amanda rather resented; whilst, in her turn, Karen was competitive enough to dislike having a mother young and attractive enough to pass for her older sister. When Karen turned eighteen she insisted her mother return home.
It had taken some time for that breach to heal, but as usual, Sam Wainwright had kept the peace between the women in his family. He told Amanda that they should be pleased their daughter had grown into an attractive, self-assured and intelligent young woman, who did not need their help to make a success of her life. It was true that there remained a touch of the country-bred tomboy about her, but she could, when she wanted to, act like a ‘real lady’. She was forthright and could be wilful, but she was also passionate, enthusiastic, honest and devoted to her family and friends. Amanda had agreed with everything he said – only adding ‘spoiled’ to the list, even in the face of Sam’s exasperation.
Karen had done extremely well at college – graduating near the top of her class with excellent grades and a handful of awards. Then she’d taken a government job – about which she said very little to her parents, except that it involved a great deal of travelling – and they had not seen much of her for the next few years. Sam missed her desperately, and spoiled her all the more as a consequence when he saw her.
They knew that Karen was ambitious to do well, and so it came as a surprise when she quit the government job and started working as a pilot for a company of air taxis. Her mother had argued against it, as had her grandparents, even though they knew there was no real point; Karen had her father’s stubbornness and she wasn’t used to opposition from her family, so it was far too late to start trying to talk her out of anything now… and, of course, her father stood by her – as always.
Yet that humble pilot’s job had been her introduction to Spectrum, and the astonishment amongst her family had been spectacular when Karen had confessed that that the ‘government job’ she’d been doing was with a security agency and that she had – in fact – been a secret agent. It amazed her mother that her garrulous daughter had managed to keep anything a secret, but her father had been fit to burst with pride when Karen told him why she had been accepted into the world’s newest and best-equipped security force. These revelations came as less of a welcome surprise to the rest of the family, and the worry of it had probably contributed towards the death of her grandfather, in the months after Karen received her commission as Symphony Angel. Devastated, she’d come home and clung to her parents – as if everything in Iowa was suddenly infinitely more precious.
When Karen returned to Cloudbase her family had resorted to watching the TV rolling news channels for any information they could glean. They had learnt from the newscasts that Spectrum was actively waging a campaign against the terrorist forces known as ‘the Mysterons’ and watched in apprehension whenever footage of Spectrum’s Angel Interceptors was shown – wondering if their daughter was flying one of them.
Very occasionally Karen came home for short visits and, on one such occasion, the blue-clad officer who arrived to escort her back to Cloudbase was a tall, blond-haired man, with an accent that – to Sam’s expert ear – declared him to be a native of Boston. He shook their visitor’s hand warmly, challenging him to deny his origins. The young man acknowledged his birthplace with a broad grin, and slid easily into a far broader drawl – much to Sam’s delight – as he introduced himself as Captain Blue.
Amanda, chuckling at her husband’s innocent pleasure, smiled into the young man’s vaguely familiar, handsome face, with its pale-blue, ‘bedroom-eyes’ and wondered where she’d seen him before. From the corners of her memory came the realisation that it had been at the same commissioning ceremony where she’d first seen Colonel White – only there, her daughter had been avoiding the captain with an off-hand casualness that was, in retrospect, very revealing. Obviously, Karen’s apparent indifference had not lasted.
Watching the couple together, Amanda told Sam that he’d just met his future son-in-law and Sam laughed; but Amanda was convinced Karen was very much in love, as, she suspected, was Captain Blue – only she wasn’t sure the young man was aware of the fact yet.
Amanda navigated the last junction and mused to herself, ‘That was our last happy time together. A few months later, Sam was dead. At least he got to know that Karen was enjoying her new job and looked set to make a success of it. How he loved to talk to me about ‘our daughter – Symphony Angel’…’
Indeed, Karen’s happiness and success had been just about the only bright spot on the family’s horizon; the ranch was not doing well, and despite his finest endeavours, Sam Wainwright was not the best man to run the place. He’d revived his father-in-law’s idea of creating a Dude Ranch and had enthusiastically entered into business deals and financial commitments that – if successful – would have solved their financial problems, but Amanda had quickly discovered it was a big IF.
Sam’s death in a highway pile-up, during terrible weather in the spring of 2069, had come as a great shock to everyone, and for the first time since her marriage, Amanda had felt vulnerable. Her mother, who was no longer in the best of health, had on the death of her husband retired to live with her sister in the milder climate of Florida, Karen was on Cloudbase, and consequently Amanda had never felt so alone. It had been a great relief to her when Colonel White had allowed Karen special leave to come home again. She’d been brought back to the ranch by a solicitous Captain Blue and had reached for her mother from the comfort of his supportive arm. Even from the depths of her misery Amanda could see the bond between him and her daughter had grown and she’d drawn comfort from knowing that Karen was not facing this second blow alone.
Captain Blue had seen to it that everything was unloaded from the car and very thoughtfully made some coffee for them as they sat consoling each other, before he took his leave. Karen had walked with him to the car, and from the kitchen sink window – where she was disposing of the truly abysmal beverage – Amanda had seen him kiss her daughter with such tenderness it had brought a lump to her throat. It confirmed what she’s suspected; Karen was clearly head-over-heels in love with this man, and – unless she was losing her insight into the male psyche – he was very much in love with her.
Amanda changed down a gear and turned onto the airport approach road. Even this car was a present two Christmases ago to Karen- and me- from the man I now know is Adam Svenson. She smiled. I wish Sam had lived long enough to get to know him. He’s a fine young man, and they’d have got on like a house on fire; typical native-born New Englanders to their fingertips, both of them, she mused.
It had been a stroke of good fortune too, Amanda conceded, that Adam turned out to be from a family of successful bankers and financiers. He’d grown up in a culture where business deals and money-management were considered everyday topics of conversation and had breathed in financial acumen whilst still in diapers. During a visit home with Karen, he’d tried to persuade her mother to allow him to take a look at the ranch’s account books. At first, Amanda had been unwilling, partly from pride and partly through a sense of not wanting him to know just how much of a muddle they were in; she didn’t want him to think poorly of Sam.
But Adam wasn’t the kind of man whose courteously expressed requests you could deny, and, once she’d handed over the relevant documents, he had retired to his bedroom early one evening and had – she thought – stayed there, for once. By the morning he had dark rings beneath his pale-blue eyes, and a whole series of proposals drawn up, with a list of names for her to contact for further advice.
Once the young couple had left, Amanda had done as Adam suggested and found, to her delight, that she was likely to be entitled to considerable compensation for the ineptitude of Sam’s financial adviser. She’d taken the liberty of contacting Adam personally by phone, in order to thank him; she was well aware that he didn’t want Karen to know of his familiarity with their financial situation and she respected him for it.
He’d been delighted to hear her news and then – much to her surprise – he’d proceeded to try to sweet-talk her into the idea of accepting a car from him: as a gift for them both, he’d cleverly insisted. She’d been genuinely reluctant to become even more beholden to this young man, but her arguments had failed to change his mind; not surprisingly, for she knew now that it would take a virtual act of God to make Adam shift from his considered decisions. It was not that she thought he might ever use his generosity towards them as leverage, to pressure them into doing something they didn’t want to do, that would have breached the distinctive code of good manners Adam lived by. She’d recognised that in him almost straight away, as Sam had been of much the same turn of mind. However, the young man had persisted in his persuasive reasoning until she’d run out of objections and had agreed to his proposal – with certain strict provisos.
Several months later when the car had arrived - with a long letter from Adam, explaining that he liked both of them too much to suffer the torments of knowing they were driving around in the worn-out wrecks the Ranch possessed – she’d taken the impulsive step of contacting him by video-link to remonstrate with him over the extravagant nature of the gift. She’d agreed to a good quality, second-hand car, at best, and what had turned up was a brand-new, top-of-the-range model. But even as she attempted to reprimand him, she knew from the expression on his face – as much as from his unpretentious admission that he didn’t ‘do’ second-hand - that she wasn’t going to get anywhere. Karen was not the only one used to getting her own way, it seemed, and she’d wondered how the pair of them dealt with their equal propensity to be stubborn at times.
Now, of course, she knew: Adam gave in, more often than not, and far too often for it to be good for Karen.
Still, she concluded as she drove into the multi-storey car park, it’s always easier to judge other people’s relationships from the outside; the chances are it doesn’t seem like that to either of them.
Captain Grey listened to his communication officer’s latest report with an ashen face.
“Are they sure, Lieutenant?” he asked. “Doctor Giardello might’ve just forgotten to let anyone know where he was going to be.”
Lieutenant Claret nodded his dark head and gave a rueful grimace. “The Assistant Director at SIRAD is not aware of where Doctor Giardello has gone. The Doctor’s wife is most anxious that we trace her husband; apparently Doctor Giardello follows a rigid pattern of behaviour and he was supposed to be on leave from now until after Christmas. Mrs Giardello is very anxious, sir.”
Grey sighed. “Put me through to Doctor Kelly, Claret.”
The Assistant Director of SIRAD looked rather younger than Grey expected. She was a serene looking woman, with close-cropped brown hair and a round face with a fresh complexion. She gave Captain Grey a calm smile.
“Good of you to speak to me, Acting Commander,” she said.
“How may we be of help, Doctor Kelly?”
“I’ve had a call from Mrs Giardello; asking where her husband is. The fact is, Acting Commander, that according to our records, Doctor Giardello is at home - I’m concerned, naturally.”
“When was he last seen?”
“Yesterday lunchtime… he took a phone call and then told his assistant that he was leaving early. Mrs Giardello says he rang to say something urgent had come up and he would be late home – so not to wait dinner. She didn’t worry until this morning when he didn’t call and so she rang here… we, of course, haven’t seen him.”
“Don’t the members of SIRAD log their whereabouts into a register?”
Doctor Kelly nodded. “Of course, it is standard practise.” She frowned slightly adding, “Doctor Giardello merely wrote – Christmas has come early – have a nice break…” Her glance at Grey was apologetic. “He will have his little joke from time to time.”
“Hilarious,” Grey muttered. “We’ll start a search from here, Doctor Kelly; please advise us if you have any contact with Doctor Giardello in the meantime.”
“Of course, Acting Commander; but I ought to warn you, the labs close tonight – apart from an emergency skeleton crew – we’re all off over Christmas.”
“Well, make sure they know to contact us,” Grey advised patiently.
“Of course,” Doctor Kelly suddenly gave a bright smile that animated her face and gave her an impish look. “And a very merry Christmas to all our colleagues on Cloudbase,” she concluded as she terminated the call.
“Fat chance,” Grey muttered.
There had hardly been time for Gray to give the orders for the standard search procedures to get underway for Doctor Giardello, when Captain Magenta called through to give his initial analysis of the situation regarding the new air traffic control system at Atlantic Airport. What he told Grey confirmed that things were far more complicated than they’d hoped.
“The new system is controlling the traffic,” Magenta explained. “But, at the moment, the system isn’t fully installed and the main system over-ride controls are still at the Air Electronics Systems Corporation headquarters. We could manage to block an attempted take-over of the computers that was launched from Atlantic; but the system is vulnerable to an attack through the HQ. In my opinion, you need to get the security checked out there, Captain Grey. Someone needs to ensure the automatic and manual over-rides are encrypted, for example. It has to be done with care; if it’s bungled, it would close the system down here, which would cause chaos and the result of that would be to cause chaos everywhere in the commercial airlines system. Air Electronics Systems have a good reputation for tight security, but that won’t save them from becoming the target of a Mysteron attack, of course.”
“So, where’s their HQ exactly?” Grey asked, rubbing his chin with his hand.
“Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” said Captain Magenta’s voice in concert with the voice of Captain Blue, who, having been summoned immediately after Doctor Kelly’s call ended, had arrived soon after Magenta’s report started and was perched on a stool across the central control room desk from Grey, listening intently.
“That rings a bell,” Grey said with a raised eyebrow at his colleague.
“It’s where Symphony Angel lives,” Blue admitted with a dismissive shrug. He focused on what relevant facts he knew. “AESC is one of the most significant companies in this field; they’d be a potential Mysteron target for attack even without the new computer system.”
“Does Spectrum keep any security staff on the site?” Grey asked Claret who scanned the database and shook his head.
“There is no record of any, sir. Of course, it may be administered on an informal basis from the local Spectrum Agency in Des Moines. We would not necessarily have a record here, unless we’d asked for it.”
“Right, well, there’s no option then. Someone better check it out,” Grey declared. He glanced at Captain Blue. “Someone who knows about air-traffic control systems and computers would be the best person to send. You don’t know everyone there too, do you?” he asked warily.
Blue shook his head with a slight smile. “I’ve only been there a couple of times – once as a very unimportant WAS cadet - they won’t remember me.”
Grey nodded thankfully. “Okay, Captain Magenta, I’ll send Captain Blue down to Cedar Rapids to check them out.”
“S.I.G., Captain Grey. In the meantime, I’ll keep track of events here, and Captain Ochre’s gonna put their security team through hell in an effort to wake them up to potential threats.”
“Carry on, Captains, and keep me informed.” Grey cut the link and glanced at Blue, who was scratching his head with the air of someone wondering if he dare push his luck. “How soon can you be ready to leave?”
“Good, as soon as possible then.” Grey waited, but Blue said nothing and made no effort to leave. “Is there something else, Captain?”
“I could do with some help,” Blue said. “It’ll be a tricky job for one man to do alone.” He glanced at Grey with a thoughtful expression.
Grey nodded and quickly thought through his available officers. “Why don’t you take Lieutenant Cerulean,” he said in a tone that was part suggestion, part order. “He’s a computer-type and supposedly a good man, but inexperienced in field work. He’ll benefit from the experience of working with you and I’m sure he’ll be able to do some of the technical stuff as well…”
Blue gave a short nod of agreement. “Good idea. Get him to meet me in hangar two; I’ll update him on the way.” He stood, making ready to leave. “I hope we can nail this one quickly. I have to admit, I’m worried about what might happen if Atlantic goes down, Brad.”
Grey sucked his teeth thoughtfully. “So am I,” he confessed, his dark eyes rising to meet Blue’s pale ones. With the merest brooding tone of uncertainty he added, “Maybe I should alert the colonel?”
Sensing his colleague’s uncertainty, Blue’s response was reassuring, “What could he have done that we haven’t? We’re capable men and he trusts us to manage without him. Let him have his vacation in peace.” He turned and then added, “Wherever he is, I just hope he isn’t planning to do any flying…”
It was only after Blue’d left that Grey realised he hadn’t told him that Doctor Giardello was missing… still, Blue’d have enough to keep him occupied without worrying about the errant scientist….
Grey turned back to his console and continued with his mountain of paperwork.
Captain Blue was already in the cockpit going through the pre-flight checks when Lieutenant Cerulean clambered aboard the SPJ, stowed his bag in the lockers provided and slipped into the co-pilot’s seat with a salute at his superior officer.
Blue, preoccupied with what he was doing, barely acknowledged his arrival, but Cerulean knew better than to feel aggrieved. It was well known that attempts to divert Captain Blue from doing something he considered important never got you anywhere.
The control panel speaker announced they were clear to go and the klaxon sounded as the hangar decompressed and the plane was elevated to the runways that formed the bulk of the vast floating base.
Blue waited for permission to take off and the silver and blue jet slid forward and out into the empty sky with barely a lurch. Lieutenant Claret gave them their coordinates and radio frequency, followed by the mission codeword. Blue acknowledged the information, set the coordinates, engaged the auto-pilot and turned to the silent lieutenant at his side.
“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant. In that folder you’ll find the background to the mission. Once you’ve familiarised yourself with it, I’ll endeavour to answer any questions you might have,” Blue said with a genial smile.
“S.I.G, Captain,” Cerulean gave a bright smile in response and reached for the dossier. He fully intended to make a glorious success of this mission.
Love is like the measles – all the worse when it comes late in life.
Douglas William Jerrold
Amanda Wainwright had arrived at the airport before the plane was due and spent five minutes or so in the ladies’ room, checking her make-up and carefully arranging her clothes to obtain the optimum look of casual chic. She glanced at herself in the mirror with a wry smile; her golden-blonde hair was expertly designed to frame her oval face, her tawny-brown eyes were subtly highlighted by the expert application of make-up, her lips defined by a warm pink lip-gloss. She knew she looked good – younger than she was – and she was used to turning men’s heads as they walked by… Sam had always been proud of her looks and encouraged her to look her best at all times.
Right now, she felt as nervous as a schoolgirl on her first date; she’d never expected to be going through the roller-coaster ride of a new love affair again – especially at her age.
She wondered what Charles Gray really thought of her; a middle-aged widow, ripe for a little romancing? Please heaven, he doesn’t think I’m desperate… Amanda sniffed. Actually, there are two or three local men who’d gladly lay all they possess at my elegantly shod feet, if I so much as asked…. Poor Greg Schwartz for one… he’s had the hots for me since high school and he’s never married either. Well, looks like Greg’s going to be unlucky again…
She gave her reflection an excited little wink and marched out towards the arrivals gate.
Charles Gray pocketed his ID papers and collected his luggage from the carousel. He looked around the airport and saw the arrow pointing the way to the arrivals lounge. Before he went across the hallway, he stepped into the gents’ and combed his hair, brushed the creases from his trousers and straightened his tie.
He wiped his hands on a paper towel and hoped they wouldn’t get sweaty again. I’m nervous. Yes, that’s what it is… if I was given even half a chance I’d get on the next plane out of here and sit on it until it was time to go back to Cloudbase. I hope Amanda won’t think I’m just a middle-aged widower, desperate for a little feminine company.
He opened his hand-luggage for the umpteenth time and checked that he still had the expensive box of hand-made chocolates he’d got Spectrum: Brussels to send him, and the flamboyantly wrapped perfume he’d bought in New York, as a Christmas gift for his hostess. He hoped it was the right kind – the kind she liked. The shop assistant at the airport shop had been helpful enough to let him sniff at a sampler, so that he could see if it matched the memory he had of the fragrance she’d worn on their last meeting, and had then wrapped the small – and incredibly expensive – box in this confection of ribbon and tinsel.
He marched out onto the concourse and drew a sharp breath before he strode through the automatic doors.
Amanda saw him approaching before the opaque glass doors opened; there was no mistaking that upright military figure. She smiled and moved towards the exit. Charles saw her moving towards him, a smile on her face and her hands held out in welcome.
His heart flipped and he felt himself blushing like a schoolboy. My God – every time I see her she’s even more beautiful than I remember….
“Hello, Charles,” she placed her hand on his sleeve and tiptoed to reach his cheek with a welcoming kiss.
“Amanda, how wonderful to see you again… you look so…perfectly charming...I mean…”
She slipped her arm through his. “You don’t have to flatter me, Charles,” she assured him, and she meant every word, the expression in his eyes had resolved all her doubts.
“I’m not flattering you, my dear… you are a welcome sight for old eyes…”
“But what about your eyes, Charles?” She smiled at him. “They’re not old eyes… not by a long shot… am I still a welcome sight to your eyes?”
Charles Gray smiled back at her. He’d forgotten just how naturally she flirted. “Yes, Amanda, you are the most welcome sight I could wish to see.”
She laughed gaily and led him through the main doors and out into the freezing cold, towards the car park where she’d left the off-roader.
The air was bitingly cold and, as they stepped out of the sheltered concourse and crossed to the car, Gray felt his face growing numb. He sniffed in the icy, dry air and wished he hadn’t as the inside of his nose froze. Even huddled in the warmest overcoat he had, his hand carrying his suitcase was already starting to feel numb, when they arrived at the car. The temperature on Cloudbase remained at an even level all year round, and he was finding the experience of the winter cold of the North American continent something of a shock.
Amanda clicked the key fob and the sidelights blinked a welcome. As she opened the back door for him to stow his case away, he studied the car – a sturdy, if rather surprisingly bright yellow, four-wheel drive – with a detached interest. The car had been a subject of much speculative gossip on Cloudbase for a time and he had finally asked Lieutenant Green – his oracle when it came to verifying such gossip – just exactly what the truth was. Green had been able to give him surprisingly few hard facts – which meant, the colonel knew, that Captain Blue wasn’t talking about it – beyond that it was a top of the range model and the captain had got it at a substantial discount. It was only because he’d overheard Symphony, one lunchtime in the officer’s restaurant, complaining to Melody about the fact that her insurance had gone up, and revealing that she’d had to ask Adam for the receipt to confirm what he paid for the car – and exactly how much that was and that he’d paid cash – that he’d any idea what Blue had paid for it.
“So this is the car Captain Blue gave you?” he said reflectively.
“It is the car Adam gave us, yes,” Amanda said with a wary glance at him.
He ignored her gentle rebuke. “Hmm, he was right… he did tell me that he’d got a good deal on it,” he commented as he climbed into the passenger seat.
“He’s a Svenson – no-one fleeces them.” She laughed.
“Not twice, anyway,” he agreed and fastened the seat belt.
“I hope you’re not a back-seat driver, Charles?”
“No; I have plenty of experience of being chauffeured around.”
“Good, the last time Adam dropped by I thought he was going to be sick when I drove him to the airport….”
And just when had Captain Blue managed to ‘drop by’? he wondered before replying, “He’s a notoriously bad passenger.”
“So Karen tells me. Still, let’s go shall we? I have so much to show you before we get back to the house. I thought we’d eat in tonight… I hope you don’t mind?”
“Sounds idyllic…” he said with genuine enthusiasm; the thought of venturing out in this weather was not an appealing one.
“We’re going to have so much fun, Charles… trust me.”
“So, all of this is part of the ranch?” Charles waved his hand to cover the surrounding countryside as they drove along a single-track roadway towards a large, comfortable-looking house. There wasn’t that much to see beneath the blanket of snow.
“Yes. Of course, it was bigger in my grandfather’s day, but with one thing and another, land got sold. I think it passed the optimum size to be profitable some years before Sam took over, to be honest. My father sold a piece of land over on the west side to finance part of Karen’s education. That was why Sam decided to go into this leisure-ranch project… a sort of dude ranch. The ‘bunk house’ over there and some of the facilities, like the indoor swimming pool, were built before his death; but, unfortunately, we’ve never had the resources to run the place properly, and now the infrastructure’s in danger of deteriorating, so that the place will become uninhabitable if the work isn’t completed and money found to keep the buildings warm in this bad weather. Still, thanks to Adam’s help, we should have enough money to finish the project and then open for business – hopefully the year after.”
“He’s lending you the money?”
“Oh no – I only mean he advised me about some of the financial deals Sam signed up to.” She smiled across at him. “He’s a sweet boy, but I couldn’t let him bail us out; although, I expect he would, if we asked him.”
Colonel White raised his dark eyebrows as he contemplated the idea that the Captain Blue he knew was a ‘sweet boy’… something didn’t quite compute. “Very wise of you, Amanda; besides everything else, it would be in contravention of Spectrum’s regulations. He could lose his job.”
“But that would be down to you, wouldn’t it? I didn’t think you’d be so petty, Charles.”
He bristled slightly. “The regulations are not optional, I’m afraid. I’m already turning more of a blind eye to his relationship with your daughter than I ought to.”
“See, I knew you were just a romantic at heart,” Amanda patted his thigh.
“Hummph.” Charles tilted his head in doubt. “They sail pretty close to the wind on occasion, I can tell you.”
“But they cannot be the only ones, surely?”
He gave a deep sigh. “No, I don’t expect they are, but I have less evidence of the other… romantically involved couples. I’m afraid Karen isn’t all that discreet, at times.”
Amanda gave a trill of laughter. “Oh, when my daughter falls in love she does it one hundred percent; and she can’t keep it hidden for long. Unfortunately – until now – she seems to have fallen for guys who aren’t worth one hundred percent of her time, effort or enthusiasm. This time I think she may have got it right. Time will tell. But, Spectrum cannot really expect its operatives to embrace total celibacy? Can it?” She glanced at him, one elegantly slim eyebrow raised in enquiry.
“No, but relationships between colleagues can lead to complications. It’s hard, I know, for them to have a terrestrial-based relationship… which is why I don’t enforce the regulations with too much draconian force. I’m well aware of human frailties and - despite what my senior staff members appear to think – I can sympathise with their situation. I … err... I might even admit to a few frailties of my own – in the strictest confidence, of course… ” He smiled at her and she grinned back.
“But terrestrial based relationships are… approved of?” she asked, turning her eyes back to the road.
“As long as the officer concerned continues to work well, it isn’t forbidden for them to have … close friends… on the ground…”
She beamed at him and patted his thigh again. “Good,” she said.
“I… well, I want to say, how pleased I was when you invited me to visit here. I… I had been hoping for an opportunity to…to get to know you a little better.”
“A little better? I was hoping that, before you leave, we’ll know each other rather better than that…”
He smiled and patted her arm. “So was I…”
Drawing up before a double garage, she pressed a remote control and the door opened automatically. She drove the car in and switched off the headlights. Automatic lights came on in the garage, revealing a solid door, which obviously connected to the main part of the building. She led the way through into the warmth of a large, well-equipped modern kitchen-diner.
The tantalising aroma of cooking assaulted his nostrils and, as he divested himself of his overcoat and jacket, he realised he was extremely hungry. Amanda gave him a quick guided tour of the house, and after depositing his suitcase in an upstairs room, she suggested he sit and talk to her, whilst she finished the dinner she’d been preparing. Gray sat contentedly at the kitchen table across from her, sipping the beer she’d poured him from a supply in the enormous fridge.
As she busied herself with vegetables, she chatted to him about the ranch and other more inconsequential matters. She asked if he was happy to eat there at the kitchen table, or did he want to use the dining room?
“This is fine; don’t go to too much trouble…”
“No trouble, I enjoy having someone to cook for. I find it hard to motivate myself to cook much when I’m alone… and I have a freezer full of what’s left after I do cook for myself as proof.” She handed him a corkscrew and a bottle of red wine. “I keep threatening to send Adam food parcels… he‘s kind enough to say he likes my cooking so much… sweet-talking charmer that he is,” she added brightly, failing to catch the slight glower that crossed her guest’s face.
Air Electronics Systems Corporation
The SPJ landed at East Iowa Airport and taxied to the far side of the airfield, where the occupants of the craft disembarked. Sergeant Jacobs met them with an SSC and, acknowledging receipt of the vehicle with a thumbprint on the officer’s electronic pad, Captain Blue slid into the driver’s seat, as Cerulean buckled himself into the passenger seat.
“Next stop: AESC, Cedar Rapids.” Blue smiled as he turned on the red car’s powerful engines and slid out of the airport gates onto the highway and hit the gas.
As the snow-blanketed Iowan landscape slid past the windows, Cerulean’s adrenalin levels began to rise. He’d never been so involved with a field mission before; never worked with one of the elite colour captains, and – even if this was merely a back-up for the main mission at Atlantic – it was a chance to prove himself in action. He vowed to be efficient and thorough so that even a perfectionist, which Captain Blue had the reputation for being, wouldn’t be able to find fault.
He surreptitiously glanced at the older man. Blue’s face was expressionless as he concentrated on his driving, dodging through the traffic with a skill that made the sleek car look even more graceful. His eyes flickered down to the GPS navigation computer on the dashboard occasionally, but Cerulean got the impression it was merely perfunctory; Blue was driving like a man who knew the way.
It wasn’t long before a collection of buildings appeared on the horizon and Blue took the next slip road off the highway and headed towards them. AESC was a large complex and two security guards manned the main gate. They regarded the SSC with suspicion, until Captain Blue showed his Spectrum ID pass. The guards raised the barrier, directing them towards a four-storey building away on their left.
Blue swung the SSC into a vacant parking bay close to the main reception entrance before he glanced at Cerulean.
A friendly smile spread over his wide mouth as he said, “Bring the Mysteron detector with you, Lieutenant; let's start as we mean to go on. We have to ensure this place is not only secure enough, but also that the staff can pose no threat to the trial system at Atlantic, and, quite frankly, it’s going to be a long and largely routine job."
"S.I.G, Captain." Cerulean dragged the bulky MD from its secure compartment and checked the batteries were fully charged. He followed the American into the reception area with as much seriousness as he could muster, but it was hard to keep the excited smile off his face.
The attractive brunette woman at the reception desk studied the two Spectrum officers as they approached. They were both tall and good-looking; both dressed in uniforms of arresting sky-blue, with only a subtle difference in hue and they made a welcome treat after the usual visual diet of boring businessmen and surly delivery drivers, who made the bulk of the plant's visitors.
"Can I help you, officers?" she asked with a welcoming smile.
The blond officer, slightly taller and, now they were closer, she could see, the elder of the two, replied, “Captain Blue and Lieutenant Cerulean of Spectrum; we’re here to see Mr. Calvin Hansford. He is expecting us," Blue replied, returning the warm smile.
She checked her ‘visitors schedule’, nodded and alerted Mr. Hansford’s secretary that her guests had arrived, before giving them detailed instructions how to reach his office.
Blue tipped his cap politely and Cerulean followed suit, falling in alongside his companion by the lift door. He let Blue walk in first and then pushed the button for the second floor.
“Did you notice the CCTV cameras?” Blue commented as the lift slid upwards. “The place is at least well protected. We ought to check that they’re wired up to a permanently manned observation post. That could be useful if we need backup at any time.”
“S.I.G,” Cerulean nodded. He hadn’t noticed the cameras at all and he was kicking himself for his error.
As the lift door opened they were met by a petite woman with a shapely figure and a wonderful mane of curling red hair. As she raised her face to bid them welcome, Cerulean did a double-take – she was not only plain, but her complexion was ravaged by acne and noticing his start of distaste, she turned away quickly.
“This way, gentlemen,” she requested, leading them through an open plan office towards a partitioned room with smoked glass walls.
Cerulean dragged his eyes away from her swaying hips and surveyed the room in which about a dozen desks, most manned by pre-occupied young men and women, were crammed close together.
The secretary ushered them into the office and closed the door behind them.
Calvin Hansford, the manager of the research facility, glanced across his desk as the Spectrum officers entered. He stood and extended his hand to the tall, impressively-built, blond officer, who was slightly ahead of his darker-haired companion. Blue saluted and then shook the proffered hand, accepting a seat opposite Hansford across the tubular-steel framed desk.
Cerulean snapped off a text-book salute and sat slightly further away, to enable him to deploy the MD camera with ease. He proffered Blue the results of the Mysteron detector test of the secretary and her boss – both showed clear X-ray pictures. Blue nodded his satisfaction as Hansford got down to business with commendable speed.
“We were informed by the commander of Cloudbase to expect you, Captain Blue, but he was rather vague as to what your visit would entail. Naturally we are only too willing to co-operate with Spectrum on any project whatsoever. I speak for all the senior management here when I say; we wish to do all we can to assist Spectrum.”
Blue thanked him and went on to explain,” We are here to perform an extensive security vetting, Mr Hansford. Some of AESC’s activities have attracted the interest of hostile elements. This, naturally, causes Spectrum some concern.”
Hansford pursed his lips doubtfully and replied with a hint of patronisation in his voice, “We’ve worked in secure partnerships for many years now, and I can assure you, Captain Blue, that our security is top notch here – we can’t afford to risk having anyone muscling in on our work. Our client confidentiality is of paramount importance to us and we have a deservedly high reputation for protecting that confidentiality. If there’s been any indication of a security leak, I feel confident that it isn’t going to be from AESC. Not every link in the chain is as strong as ours, of course, and there have been regrettable instances in the past. Between you and me, not so many years ago any problem in that department would have been with the World Aeronautical Society, which in all honesty, leaked like a sieve; but they got some whizz-kid in and he cleaned things up pretty well, so between them and us we run a tight ship now. Nothing sensitive is going to get out of either organisation; not that we allow our most secure research programs to overlap in any way – you understand – even when they may cover similar ground.”
Blue’s frown had lifted slightly when he heard himself described as a ‘whizz-kid’; it had been his mission, while he worked for the WAS to cleanse the Augean stables of their security division. He suppressed a smile and gave a brisk nod of his head as he said, “Yes, so I understand, Mr Hansford, but I’m sure you understand that Spectrum cannot afford to risk any terrorists using the plant here as a launch for any threatened attacks?”
Hansford frowned and looked a little hesitant. “We’re only too happy to have Spectrum take a look over our security procedures. I assumed you were already happy with them – but you know best, of course. We know you can never be too careful where sabotage and industrial espionage is concerned. We always take great care, as you know.”
Blue noted that, once more, Hansford seemed to imply that Spectrum and AESC were partners of long standing and squirreled the fact away for future investigation. As far as he was aware, Spectrum had never worked in partnership with the company – for anything – but it might, of course, refer to the time when the construction of Cloudbase or the advanced equipment the Spectrum machines used, was underway. Out loud he said, “Thank you, Mr Hansford, I appreciate your co-operation. Spectrum’s primary concern is with the new air-traffic control system you are parallel testing at Atlantic…”
“Really? I’m surprised to hear you mention that,” Hansford interrupted and went on, “At the moment that’s restricted to commercial flights, but I guess I can tell you that we’ve had interest in it from the WAAF as well.” His pride in the company’s achievement was obvious. “The system – we call it ‘The Horizon-i’, you know, as if it was horizon and eye, but it’s written like Horizon with an ‘I’ after it…? That ‘I’ stands for intelligence…”
“I’m sure it does,” Blue said remembering the Mysterons’ threat had referred to both ‘Horizon technology’ and ‘eyes’ and feeling slightly more confident that they were on the right lines with this investigation. “We understand that during the parallel testing, you retain the master over-ride control, here – at this site?”
“We do,” Hansford affirmed, going on to defend the situation. “This is our standard procedure when testing at a large airport facility. You see, our system shadows every move the Atlantic system makes, allowing us to make a detailed and accurate analysis of its performance. We can correct any false moves from our computer room, and correct any faults that may arise in our programming. Of course, we have every confidence in our back-up arrangements; the system’s been thoroughly tested on a local airfield with our own test pilots and then at regional airports like here, at East Iowa, and across the country at a field in California and one down in Texas. Atlantic is the biggest challenge yet; but we are confident our system will deal with the large amount of traffic with ease.”
“Have there been any teething troubles?” Blue asked. Hansford shook his head promptly and Blue continued, “I have always had my doubts about the value of ‘blind over-ride’ testing. The air traffic controllers on the site must surely have a better idea of what the situation in their airspace really is. I thought the WAS discouraged it?”
Hansford gave Blue a frowning examination. Unperturbed, the Spectrum officer returned the stare without reacting, until Hansford became unsettled and, flustered, began to defend his company. “Look, we aren’t going to risk any outsider getting their hands on our latest system, Captain Blue, and every eventuality has been catered for...” He dropped his gaze and drew a calming breath before he said, “I have been authorised by the board to let you see the reports, but… well, they are highly confidential… I mean, you’d have to agree that nothing would go any further than Spectrum - our clients’ confidentiality is important to us – as you’ll appreciate.”
“Rest assured, Mr Hansford, Spectrum has no interest in your system beyond the concerns we have based on its current use at Atlantic.” Blue gave a slight shrug and added, “If you got the WAS to agree to your testing schedule, who am I to argue?”
“Sure… I mean, why would you? Spectrum can’t overrule a WAS decision anyway, I reckon.” He stood up and walked across to the window of his office and looked out over the various buildings that formed the site. He seemed to come to a decision and turned towards the younger man with every appearance of laying his cards on the table. “In all confidence, Captain Blue, this project means a lot to everyone here. We can’t afford to have it fail and we’ve made it the best damned system we could.” He became vehement and Blue realised the cause of some of his frustration was the delays AESC had encountered. “It hasn’t been easy getting the backing to get this project off the ground – the damn banks won’t cough up until they can see a guaranteed profit in something and the military wanted so many security clauses in the contract we couldn’t have sneezed without permission! But, of course, they’ll all want their cut if – when – it becomes the new standard system for all air traffic control systems internationally.” Hansford bit back his ire and said in a calmer voice, “AESC would welcome Spectrum’s help to make the trial successful.”
“I can’t promise that we’ll have any influence on the outcome, Mr Hansford; but if the system is as good as you suggest – it won’t need any help,” Blue said reassuringly.
"Right," Hansford smiled. “But a clean bill of health endorsed by Spectrum would be the publicity coup to beat them all. All the money in the world couldn’t buy a product that kind of promotional boost.”
“Mr. Hansford, I’m afraid that you won’t be allowed to mention that Spectrum has vetted the system. We’re not here to evaluate your product – but to prevent a major act of terrorism, that might cost thousands of lives.” Blue’s tone was stern and his expression implacable.
Hansford shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I knew that, Captain, but you can’t blame us for hoping, can you?”
With a friendly smile Blue shook his head. “We should get to work, sir,” he reminded their host gently.
“Sure, sure. What’s the best for you, Captain? I can give you a tour of the computer rooms, so you can see the dual control system in action, and you have carte-blanche to see any documentation you require.”
“Thank you. We’d better see the computer room and check out the specifications and the analysis of the performance so far. That will enable my colleagues at Atlantic to identify any deviations from normal operating procedures. Would it be possible for Lieutenant Cerulean to have access to the CCTV system in the plant and a monitor to keep an eye on the computer room?”
“Shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange,” Hansford agreed. “I’ll tell my secretary to get a technician onto it while I show you around.” He paused momentarily. “You sure you’ll be able to make head or tails of the specifications, Captain? I mean, they’re pretty technical documents and the WAS specifications alone are not light reading…” his voice trailed into silence as Blue gave him a sharp glance. It was hard to read this man.
“Leave that to me, Mr. Hansford. I can assure you, I know what I’m doing.”
They were shown a small office along the corridor that ran from Hansford’s office to the computer block, and, after agreeing that it suited their needs, they left with Hansford to examine the dual control system. Cerulean checked the operatives with the MD; whilst Captain Blue assessed the security of the department and familiarised himself with the basic details of the program; so that by the time they returned to the office, the technician had set up a CCTV monitor on a small, somewhat rickety, desk and Hansford’s secretary – who, they’d discovered, rejoiced in the name of Celeste – had brought in a large, wheeled metal cabinet housing technical files and blueprints.
Once the Spectrum officers had settled themselves in, she opened the cabinet’s combination lock, and explained the layout of the filing system. Her instructions were clear and concise, and Blue – who’d learned the value of an efficient PA to over-worked executives at his father’s knee – complimented her by name, with a genuine appreciation of her efficiency. The young woman blushed, her skin turning an unattractive mottled red and white. Suddenly embarrassed at being the centre of attention from two good-looking young men, she pointed out where what she, rather coyly, called ‘the facilities’ were, smiled shyly at Captain Blue and sidled out.
Cerulean added his latest MD shots to the ones of Hansford and Celeste, and waited to hear what Blue wanted him to do next.
The Captain removed his radio cap and ran a hand through his hair. He sighed as he surveyed the mountain of paperwork he had to negotiate. “I just love spending my time trawling through the fine print of the specs for air-traffic control systems,” he confessed ruefully.
“You sound as if you’ve done it before, sir,” Cerulean remarked.
“I have, during my WAS days.”
The door opened again and Celeste re-entered with a trolley bearing a thermos jug of coffee, cream and sugar and a plate of cookies. She gave another shy smile and left them alone again.
“Nice girl that,” Cerulean remarked, biting into a chocolate-chip cookie. “It’s a real shame about her face – you’d think she’d do something about it, wouldn’t you? I mean, she has a great body, don’t you thi…”
Blue interrupted, openly expressing the disapproval he felt, “That is none of our business – get to work, Lieutenant. You’d better check that the CCTV coverage is adequate and then there are a few files that you can check for me… they don’t look all that technical. Check them through for any practical indicators that can be used as monitors by our team at Atlantic, to reveal an attempt to gain remote control of the Horizon-I system, or interfere with the efficiency of the operations.” Blue tossed a thick file towards Cerulean. “You’ll find a breakdown of the system parameters in there. It shouldn’t take you too long – if you concentrate – and by the end you’ll know all there is to know about the standard WAS requirements for all air-traffic control systems; which is always useful to know.” He indicated a pile of buff coloured folders on the desk. “I’ll do these. I want to find out just what it is Hansford believes Spectrum’s using AESC for. That might give us a lead on the Mysterons’ intentions.”
Slightly chastened, Cerulean still ventured to mutter a protest. “I thought we’d decided that they were threatening Atlantic airport… sir?”
Blue looked up at this and saw his companion pouring himself a cup of coffee; his back was turned towards his commanding officer and his shoulders hunched mutinously.
“Black, no sugar for me, Lieutenant,” he said evenly. There was no point letting the youngster brood about being rebuked.
Cerulean nodded and poured a second cup. There really was no point in sulking; Captain Blue had a reputation for playing by the rules, but he wasn’t known for his sarcasm and the lieutenant realised he’d got off on the wrong foot with his superior officer, and regretted it. When he placed the cup beside the heap of files Blue was already flicking through the American officer smiled his thanks.
“You know, Lieutenant, with the Mysterons you can never be sure, and it always pays to keep an open mind. Remember that, and the fact that you can never trust anyone you are not sure of one hundred percent.”
“S.I.G., sir,” Cerulean muttered and went to the other desk to check the CCTV monitor.
The Hoffman Ranch
The meal had been superb. Food on Cloudbase was necessarily rather bland and monotonous, as most institutional cooking tends to be, and it was a real treat to eat well-prepared home cooking.
“Amanda,” Gray said as he laid his knife and fork down, “I can honestly say that was the most delicious meal I’ve eaten in months – possibly years!”
“Why, thank you. It’s so nice to have an appreciative man to cook for. Adam always complains I over-feed him.”
“Does he, indeed?” Gray’s tone was surprisingly surly.
She smiled at him. “Why, Charles, are you jealous? I’ll send a doggy bag with him, next time he calls in.”
“Does he call in often?”
“He’s turned up once or twice…all very above board, I can assure you. Usually, he’s either fetching Karen or delivering Karen, but once, when he was on leave, he flew himself across from Boston to deliver some birthday presents from Karen and him. I invited him to stay and he took me out to dinner at my favourite restaurant in Cedar Rapids. I was pleased to have an opportunity of getting to know him better, without Karen butting in all the time. We spent the next day, riding around the ranch and I managed to get a little out of him about himself and his family. Had to work for it though, he doesn’t let much slip. Still, he’s good company, and I like him, Charles. I doubt there are many men of his age that’d be so considerate with regard to winning over their future mother-in-law.” She gave him a look that dared him to object to such innocent pastimes.
Gray noted her innocent confirmation that his officers were intending to marry. He wasn’t surprised; it was in the character of both to think along such predictable lines when it came to their personal lives. Blue came from a traditionalist – if not exactly puritan – background and despite his having rejected some of his family’s conventional values and aspirations, his whole upbringing – as much as his quiet, but deeply held personal faith – would reinforce the ideal of marriage to the woman he loved. And however much Symphony championed women’s rights, and insisted on her ability to do any job the male officers were given just as well, she remained a conventional young woman in many ways, and exhibited a broadly similar mindset to her more urbane lover.
I just hope they don’t plan anything without going through the correct channels, he thought, they’d leave me no choice but to cashier them both, otherwise. I suppose I’ll have to trust to Blue’s good sense overcoming Symphony’s romantic enthusiasm…
As he mulled over the situation he realised that he envied, beyond words, this casual friendliness that allowed Captain Blue to be seen as ‘one of the family’. He knew, deep inside, that it was this aspect of a private life which he missed more than anything: the honest and open acceptance of you for yourself and your unquestioned right to be considered as one of a tightly-knit group. He sipped his wine to hide the embarrassment his jealousy was causing him.
Amanda watched her companion carefully; weighing the significance of his supposition that Adam was sneaking unauthorised visits, and his reaction to it. She realised that it was going to take longer than she’d thought for her to really get to know this man. She knew he was a widower – and Karen’d told her what she knew about how he’d lost his wife – but even the people he worked with knew little enough about his private life, and she suspected he aimed to keep it that way. She very much doubted that he’d asked Karen if she had any message for her mother before he left Cloudbase and she’d have to remember not to speak to her daughter about her Christmas visitor.
It wasn’t that she wanted to hide their relationship from her daughter, but she knew that Charles had reservations about revealing their affair to his Spectrum subordinates. She already suspected, from what her daughter had said, that there was already a significant minority of the Cloudbase personnel who believed their colonel had a soft spot for Symphony Angel, and that this almost amounted to favouritism. Letting it be known that he was involved with Symphony’s mother, would play right into the hands of these malcontents, making his – and Karen’s – life more difficult.
She also knew from her private conversations with Adam, that that perceptive young man already had his own suspicions regarding the extent of the relationship between herself and his commanding officer. Surprisingly, these dated from the time he had been reprimanded by the colonel – over his gift of the car – which was even before she and Charles had had their first ‘date’. Adam had admitted that he’d detected a ‘partiality’ towards her – and her daughter – in his commander’s attitude. He’d been careful not to suggest that he assumed he was right, and had asked no questions of her, but she knew that whatever evidence Adam had gleaned since then, would’ve merely confirmed his initial suspicions.
Despite this, she had still decided to make the move towards raising the fledgling relationship on to a more intimate level; mostly because the opportunity had presented itself. She doubted ‘the colonel’ ever took a proper Christmas break; and with Karen – and Adam – working over the holiday period, it had left her free to do as she pleased. Karen hoped, if circumstances allowed, to visit her around the date of her birthday – January 6th – but Charles would be back on Cloudbase by then, and they would both know if what they felt for each other was real and could last; even under the difficult circumstances the responsibilities of his job created. And so, she had invited Charles Gray to share the seasonal festivities with her, although she now wondered as she saw the bleak expression on his face, if it had been a good idea; she had never intended that his visit should be a catalyst for getting Karen or Adam into trouble. With a sigh she contemplated the expertly decorated Christmas tree in the lounge, beneath which was a carefully selected pile of presents, including a few for Charles, which she hoped he’d appreciate. They’d never given each other gifts before and she was unsure of just what his reaction would be; yet she felt she knew him well enough now to know that he would be touched and – hopefully – he would like what she’d selected for him.
“Would you care for a brandy?” she asked before the silence between them stretched beyond the bounds of comfort. “I’ve got a log fire in the lounge, and we could sit by the fireside and turn the Christmas tree lights on – if you’d like? It’s a rather nice Armagnac,” she added.
“Did Adam give you that, as well?” Charles muttered.
“Good heavens, of course not! I am perfectly able to buy my own alcohol, Charles Gray.” Amanda’s exasperation was obvious in her voice and he glanced up at her in some surprise. She glared at him with open impatience, then catching his eye; she smiled and said in a far more reasonable tone, “Now, would you like some?”
He grimaced apologetically at his own bad temper and nodded. “I’m sorry, Amanda, please forgive me. I’m out of practise at being a good ‘Christmas-spirited’ guest. I would like a glass… very much. And sitting by the fireside in the light of the Christmas tree sounds the most wonderful way to spend an evening. After such a sumptuous meal I‘ve got a feeling that remaining sedentary is the wisest option…at least, for awhile.”
“Not for too long, I hope?” she said more cheerfully. “I’m sure you realise that there is no such thing as a free meal, Charles, and I have plenty of things for you to do to earn your keep…”
His eyebrows rose. “Such as?”
“Well,” she busied herself getting two glasses and bringing the bottle to the table. “There is a dripping tap in the bathroom that’s driving me crazy…”
He laughed. “You have a tool-kit, I suppose?”
“Sam’s is in the garage.”
“I’ll look at it tomorrow… will that do?”
She handed him a generous slug of brandy. “Splendid – and how are you with blocked drains?”
“I thought I was on holiday…”
She smiled and touched her wine glass to his. “You are… for now anyway.”
Air Electronics Systems Corporation
Cerulean smothered a yawn and closed his file. He glanced across at his companion, and seeing that he was still deeply caught up in the file he was currently working on, he stood up and, without speaking, went to gaze out of the window; pausing to glance at the CCTV monitor on the way.
They’d been studying the files for hours and it seemed as if Captain Blue had finally found something interesting in the mountains of mind-boggling dull paperwork he’d been working through. He’d certainly gathered quite a paper trail of files from the cabinet and was cross-referencing them with a thoroughness that bordered on obsession – in Cerulean’s opinion. He’d had his subordinate rifling through more and more obscure information, cursing under his breath when Cerulean had failed to turn up what he’d apparently expected to find.
Cerulean’s patience was rapidly coming to an end. He’d not expected to spend his first terrestrial mission ploughing through dreary paperwork; nor had he expected to play such an insignificant part in the proceedings. When Captain Blue had had a long conversation with Captain Grey and Captain Magenta, Cerulean had not been included in the discussions, even though they resulted in Blue requesting that the research team on Cloudbase do a sweep for the details of some technique or other that Cerulean had just spent several hours scanning the files for – although its relevance was a mystery to him. He was generally thought of as a ‘bright lad’ by his superiors on Cloudbase; he’d even been allowed to help Lieutenants Green and Flaxen do urgent information research for Captains on away missions – and now he felt slighted by Blue’s apparent ignoring of him. The consensus was that of all the elite captains, Blue was the brainiest – the intellectual one, if you liked – but Cerulean was coming to the conclusion that Blue wasn’t as bright as everyone thought; he was too easily distracted away from the obvious aim of the mission and sidetracked into research for the sake of it.
They were still waiting for the results of the search Blue had requested, but, as his own researches had not proved as fascinating as his commander’s, Cerulean was bored. A glance at the clock told him that it was approaching 7pm. He frowned to himself – surely he can’t mean us to wait here all night?
He gazed out through the window and noticed the windows were still alight in a large, low building, set slightly apart from the ‘clean zone’ that housed the production plant. As he stared, the door opened and a group of men came out, laughing and calling to each other as they crossed to their respective workplaces. It’s the canteen, he realised with a jolt of envy. He could almost imagine that the tantalising aroma of cooked food was wafting towards him on the cold night air.
His stomach rumbled and he crossed his arms across his midriff with a wry grimace towards the officer at the desk. Biscuits were all very well, but it had been a long time since he’d eaten breakfast on Cloudbase. He wondered if he could find a way to get something from the canteen; Celeste, the secretary, had popped back for the last time to replenish the coffee and the cookies, before she left, but that had been hours ago. His glance flickered back to Captain Blue – his fair head still bent over the paperwork – he hadn’t eaten any of the cookies, despite drinking most of the coffee. Cerulean gave a silent chuckle – the rumour on Cloudbase was that Captain Blue ran on black coffee and from today’s evidence, it was true. He sighed. They’d barely spoken for some time and he was not sure if he was in favour with the surprisingly strict Captain. But even Blue has to eat sometime…maybe we could go together? he thought wistfully.
Cerulean turned to stare longingly out at the canteen and was so busy with his own thoughts that he didn’t see Captain Blue raise his head and study him thoughtfully from his vantage point at the desk. He knew that Colonel White had high hopes for this young officer; a high-achiever at University, Spectrum had not been the only organisation interested in the young man. He was as tall as Blue himself, but of a different build, being slight and lanky. His face had retained its boyish, rounded contours, which made him look younger than he actually was; his unruly mop of hair – largely untamed, even by a regulation haircut – was a rich mahogany-brown and combined with his deep-set brown eyes, could make him look like a friendly puppy.
Blue frowned slightly as he recalled details from his capacious memory: Jake… Jake Askew…that’s his name…. and he comes from somewhere in Britain that sounds like a dessert… Bakewell, was it? Quite a popular guy – especially with the ladies, if the base gossip is to be believed – I seem to remember Karen saying he was romancing a couple of technicians at the same time… let’s hope neither one finds out…
Blue’s eyebrow twitched slightly at the recollection – Cerulean barely looked old enough to be out alone. I must be getting old, he thought, if the new lieutenants are starting to look this young…. “A penny for your thoughts, Lieutenant,” he said aloud.
Cerulean spun around in alarm at the words, annoyed at having been caught day-dreaming. “I was just wondering what the Mysterons have planned for us, sir,” he replied, “and if we’ll find out how to stop them before they manage to hurt anyone.”
“Yeah, it’s the million-dollar question isn’t it? Will we be good enough to stop them this time?” Blue sighed and gave a rueful shrug.
Cerulean looked at his companion. Captain Blue was one of the few Spectrum officers to have been involved in almost every Mysteron threat since the war of nerves started. His successful partnership with Captain Scarlet was fast becoming something of a legend amongst the newer officers and – of the two – Blue was deemed the most approachable… Bloody glad I haven’t got Scarlet to contend with then… this one’s bad enough. “We don’t do so badly, sir,” he ventured to say.
Blue’s reply was startling in its vehemence. “Yeah, but they only have to get lucky once – we have to win every time.”
“We do all we can,” Cerulean reasoned, coming back to the table. He frowned slightly at the weariness in his commander’s pale-blue eyes. It was rare to see Captain Blue looking anything apart from confident. “Surely, we’ve safeguarded the over-ride control for the Atlantic system, Captain? And that’s what we were supposed to do, after all.”
Blue’s vague nod suggested that aspect of the job was a mere trifle. He studied the younger man thoughtfully and said, “It’s a Spectrum officer’s duty to make sure he doesn’t overlook anything that might give the Mysterons an edge, Cerulean. Something tells me we haven’t finished here – not yet.”
“But there’s been no news from Cloudbase, or Captain Magenta, yet,” Cerulean pressed. “We must’ve prevented their attack.”
Blue shook his head. “No.” He heaved a deep sigh. “I might be wrong, Cerulean, but something still doesn’t strike me as right about all this… oh, I think we’re in the right place; but there is something else here that’s the key to this threat – only I’m damned if I can pin it down. Still, no news is good news, I guess. And at least nothing’s gone wrong.”
Cerulean nodded in agreement and took his courage in both hands. “Look, I don’t know about you, sir, but I could do with a break. Didn’t Mr. Hansford say he’s given orders for us to be allowed full access to the plant? I’m sure there’s a staff canteen across the way where we could get something to eat, and we’d feel better for the chance to stretch our legs and get a breath of fresh air.”
“You want to eat canteen food?” Blue’s pale eyebrows rose in surprise. Those were the days – when the idea of a canteen meal was as welcome as haute cuisine... he thought in amusement; too many indifferent meals in canteens around the world had trained his palate to steer clear of the experience.
Cerulean thought he’d seen him gazing at the canteen – maybe even heard his stomach rumble. “I ... I just thought that maybe you could do with a break...” he stammered, his embarrassment increasing by the moment in the face of his commanding officer’s mildly amused expression.
Blue shrugged. “Maybe I could eat something, if it comes to that. You go and have something at the canteen - if you want – just bring me a couple of sandwiches, or some fruit and bottle of mineral water, if they have such a thing.”
Cerulean squirmed uneasily and admitted, “I’m afraid I don’t have any money, sir. I just have my ID and my Spectracard – I never thought to bring cash.”
Blue chuckled to himself. On Cloudbase everyone used their Spectracard to swipe through payment terminals, with the money being deducted at source from their salaries. This was Cerulean’s first away mission and it was a common mistake not to bring any cash to use in the ‘real world’. He fished out his wallet and handed over a selection of notes. “Use this, Lieutenant,” he said without further comment. Cerulean reached out to pocket the cash and as he walked towards the door, Blue added helpfully, “I usually claim it back through expenses after the mission.” In point of fact, Captain Blue rarely bothered to indent for such small amounts, but he assumed the younger and less well-off officers would do so.
Cerulean nodded his thanks. “S.I.G, Captain, I won’t be long, sir.”
“Take your time, Lieutenant; we’ve still got a long night ahead of us…” Blue turned his attention back to the open file on his desk as his colleague slipped out of the office as quietly as he could.
The Hoffman Ranch
Amanda’s hand lay comfortably on Charles’s arm as they sat side by side on a couch beside the fireplace, sipping their brandies and watching the flames dance up into the darkness of the chimney. They’d been talking over a variety of topics, neutral and non-contentious ones that skirted the decision they knew they must soon confront.
The room, decorated with few garlands and dominated by a majestic tree, was warm and comfortable; the atmosphere intimate and convivial, but they each knew that this was a delicate state of affairs and that it would not take much to shatter the fragile accord between them.
“Are you getting tired, my dear?” Gray asked as she gave a little shiver and ran a hand through her golden hair.
“No; well, maybe just a little. It has been a rather long day – but a very pleasant one, for me at least. I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself?”
“I cannot remember a day I have enjoyed more for many years…”
Amanda smiled, gratified by his words. She shook her head and confessed, “It was just like someone walked over my grave, just then. I hope Karen’s okay…”
“I’m sure she is – why shouldn’t she be?”
“You ask me that?” she shook her head, smiling at him. “I still find it difficult to imagine my baby as a Spectrum Angel. Every time I hear what’s been happening on the news, I panic… it’s all I can do to stop myself calling up and demanding to speak to her! I know she’d hate that; but since I lost Sam…” she dropped her head and fought a sudden surge of emotion, “she’s all I have, Charles… “
He put his arm around her. “Amanda, your daughter is one of the most capable women I‘ve ever met - believe me – added to which she has a charmed hide…”
“That’s what I’m afraid of – one day her luck will run out and then… “
“…Then she’ll use her skill, her brains and her tenacity, to haul herself back to you…” he reassured her quickly, adding in a jovial tone,”and to her young man, of course.”
Amanda gave a slight chuckle. “Yes; even if her love for me isn’t enough to give her the motivation to survive, I’m sure her love for Adam - and his for her - is.”
“You do yourself an injustice, my dear. She’s very fond of you – I’ve heard her talking about you a great deal…”
“Oh dear – you don’t believe a word of it, do you?”
He laughed. “I’d be sorry to have to disbelieve it all… your daughter’s very complimentary about you.”
Amanda looked genuinely taken aback. “You surprise me. I sometimes think we are a little too alike to get on well and Karen was always her ‘daddy’s girl’ – Sam adored her, not that I don’t, of course.”
Charles gave her a hug. “I envy you your daughter, Amanda, and the relationship you have with her; however … stormy it might get. I lost my only child when he was just a baby; he and his mother were killed by a drunken driver who crashed into their car at a junction….” She gave a compassionate moan, and squeezed his arm. He acknowledged her sympathy with a smile and added ruefully, “Sometimes, it seems like I’m making up for it with a vengeance now, with five daughters and six sons – as you might say – not to mention countless nephews, nieces and god-children, to worry about.”
“And you do worry about them all, don’t you?” She smiled at him and reached out to touch his cheek with her hand. “Karen always says you’re an old softie underneath…”
“Does she indeed?” He raised an ironic eyebrow. “Maybe I’m too soft with them? I shall have to stop being so indulgent…”
“You don’t fool me, Charles Gray.” Gently she reached across and kissed him on the lips. His arms tightened around her. “Not one little bit…” she added contentedly.
Air Electronics Systems Corporation
Cerulean walked into the steamy, pungent atmosphere of the staff canteen and undid the pale-blue, leather uniform coat that he’d worn even to go this short distance outside. The canteen was decorated with garlands and had fairy lights at the windows, tinny-sounding Christmas musak was being broadcast over the tannoy, and an artificial Christmas tree with threadbare branches stood in one corner. He was surprised to see just how many people were in there. It had never occurred to him that the plant ran 24:7 programmes of shifts. Nevertheless, he queued contentedly and selected meatloaf and mashed potato. At the end of the counter were chilled cabinets full of sandwiches, from which he selected two and a crisp, shiny – and almost certainly tasteless – red apple, along with a bottle of mineral water for Captain Blue.
He paid at the checkout and looked for a place to sit. The canteen was almost full – there wasn’t an empty table. He caught the eye of an attractive blonde woman who invited him over with a bold smile. Sitting with her was the dark-haired receptionist they had met on their arrival and he was rather surprised to see her still at work, but when she too smiled at him, Cerulean, always overconfident about his ability to charm young women, went and joined them.
The brunette introduced herself as Gail and her friend as Darlene.
“You have come here alone?” Gail asked, glancing around looking for Captain Blue. “Why is your partner hiding away?”
Cerulean gave a depreciating smile. “The captain stayed in the office we’re using; he sent me for supplies. I’m taking the chance to grab a bite to eat before I take these sandwiches back for him.”
“Is he as good looking as you?” the bottle-blonde asked with her bold smile. “Either way, I bet his accent ain’t as cute…”
Cerulean’s smile became winsome; he was absurdly flattered by their interest. “Oh, I believe Captain Blue is considered amongst the best looking of the senior personnel,” he replied, unintentionally damning Blue with faint praise.
“Captain Blue? Seems to me I’ve heard about him on the TV newscasts. You’re not him, then? I mean, you’re in blue too…” Darlene purred.
“No, I’m Lieutenant Cerulean. I’m sure you will have heard of Captain Blue – he’s one of our most experienced officers. I’m his partner on this mission.”
“How romantic it all sounds.” Darlene sighed. “Do you think that I could meet him, Lieutenant? I mean - just to take a peek? You can never see much on the newscasts…the pictures are always so blurry and it’d be a real coup to be able to say to my girlfriends that I’d met two Spectrum officers and one was Captain Blue.” Her blue eyes raked up and down Cerulean and she grinned, “Besides, I bet he isn’t as good looking as you, even though they say Spectrum only employs the best…”
Gail gave a warm chuckle. “Darlene, honey, they don’t mean they employ the best looking – although, like the Lieutenant here, the Captain sure was a looker, I’ll vouch for that – Spectrum only take the best men for the job; I’m right aren’t I, Lieutenant?”
Cerulean nodded and smiled in affirmation. Darlene winked at him. “So what are you good at, Lieutenant?”
“Computers. I work with computers… mostly,” he replied as soon as he had swallowed his mouthful of food.
“Boring,” Darlene said disappointment obvious in her voice. “I kinda hoped you’d be an expert in more personal matters…” Her pink tongue flicked around her bold red lips. Cerulean felt his pulse racing uncomfortably. Darlene continued, “Surely you’re not taking your good-looking captain nothing more than a couple of sandwiches and some mineral water? No red-blooded man can function on such meagre rations. I mean, I wouldn’t expect a man to put in a good night’s… performance, unless he’d had a decent meal…”
“Honestly, Darlene, you’re making the lieutenant blush…” her friend chided with a merry laugh. “Please don’t worry, Lieutenant, she’s only teasing. We know you Spectrum types are all work and no play – darn shame though it is.”
“But, Gail, not even Spectrum officers can work all day and all night – I bet they need a little R&R from time to time – I never met a man who didn’t,” Darlene said with an inviting smile. “I’ll tell you what, Lieutenant,” she added, “why don’t Gail and I buy you and your captain a cup of coffee and a couple of doughnuts – as a friendly gesture? We can carry them over and I can take a little peek at the famous Captain Blue at the same time. Maybe he’ll welcome the distraction for a time… and we can both be… very distracting, if the time is right….”
Cerulean began to refuse her astonishing offer, but Darlene had no intention of letting him leave alone. “It’s a crying shame. Here we are, as close to some of the most macho men on the planet as we’ll ever get, and you won’t let us even say ‘hi’ in a friendly manner. I thought Spectrum was supposed to be nice to people and we’ll be quiet as church mice – won’t we, Gail?”
Gail glanced sympathetically at the confused young officer. “You might as well let us do as Darlene suggests, Lieutenant – she’ll only pester you otherwise. We’ll be in and out in a trice and we’ll make sure your captain won’t be able to blame you…”
Like most of the young and inexperienced officers posted to Cloudbase, Cerulean had an exaggerated idea of just what ‘perks’ going on a mission presented. Although the World Government was careful to play down the threat the Mysterons represented to the Earth, media conjecture kept Spectrum and its dedicated personnel in the public gaze. He had seen the magazine articles, and heard the chat shows, that speculated about just what the organisation was up to and a recent TV show was broadly based on Spectrum. The incredibly unlikely, but universally popular, adventures of ‘Captain Starlight’, and his comrades in the security agency known as ‘PRISM’, were a source of embarrassment to the upper echelons, and a source of much merriment to everyone else in Spectrum.
Surely these women were confusing him with the ‘PRISM’ officers who thought nothing of romancing a new woman every week.
Mind you, Cerulean mused, who am I to disappoint the public? Who’d ever know, after all? In answer to his unspoken thought the image of a disapproving Captain Blue and a stern Colonel White flashed before his mind’s eye, effectively cooling his enthusiasm for the scheme once more and, with a sigh of regret, he continued to try to talk them out of the scheme. But, as he finished his meal, Darlene stood and sashayed over to the counter, ordering two cappuccinos ’to go’.
She came back to the table, holding two large thermos mugs, one of which she handed to Gail. “Come on, Lieutenant… you don’t want the coffee to get cold, now do you? Lead the way…”
Captain Blue had been busy in Cerulean’s absence. Captain Grey had called back with the results of Lieutenant Flaxen’s research on the topics he’d suggested.
“It looks as if there is something going on, Blue,” Grey confirmed in a worried voice. “And you were right – it does have SIRAD’s thumbprints all over it.”
“I knew there had to be something underlying what Hansford was hinting at...” Blue said.
“Mind you, “Grey continued, “the evidence is at best patchy.”
“I’m still trying to gain access to the SIRAD accounts, sir,” Flaxen volunteered, “I feel sure they will throw some light on the matter; but without a prism class clearance, it isn’t easy.”
“What did you turn up on Terahertz, Flaxen?” Blue asked. The references he’d seen in the files he’d been examining were cryptic, but frequent enough to suggest a possible line of enquiry. Blue conscientiously kept himself abreast of new thinking in any field that might impinge on his own area of expertise; and he was aware that Terahertz had been around for a while, as a method of high-altitude communication between aircraft and satellites, for example; but their value in other areas had only recently started being investigated with any diligence.
“That looks promising, sir,” the lieutenant confirmed. “The aeronautical uses are fairly well established and new, improved systems are in the offing. Some medical uses are being pioneered in the UK and the US, but those are not so far advanced.”
“Does anything in the records suggest any kind of project that SIRAD might possibly get involved with?”
Flaxen hesitated. “I couldn’t speculate on that, but there is a report from Doctor Giardello concerning a contact he made with a Doctor Vernon Catesby of AESC – at a conference last year – and Dr Catesby is an expert on Terahertz applications. Apart from that basic information, sir, the rest is ‘senior clearance level only’ and then only on a on a ‘need to know’ basis. We’d need the colonel’s passwords to get to see it.”
“I have tried to contact the colonel, Blue,” Grey informed him. “I’m worried, as this mission is tying up most of our available resources. But, with Lieutenant Green away, there is no one here with the key to his confidential memos and I don’t know where he is. I know you and Scarlet said he’d got on the New York shuttle, but New York is a pretty big place and I can’t trace him there. I finally tried his personal pager, but there was no response; it simply isn’t working.” Grey explained gloomily.
“Could it be switched off?” Blue hazarded.
“Hard to tell,” Grey said. “It might be malfunctioning – that would be in keeping with my current run of luck.”
“I shouldn’t worry too much about it, Captain; after all, by the time he got back to Cloudbase it might be too late anyway. The Mysterons have got ahead of us and they are unlikely to give us a chance to catch up.” Blue thought quickly. “Giardello knows a researcher here…? Check with Des Moines, Flaxen, and see if they have any records of the doctor visiting the place. He’d be sure to register with them if he came here.”
There was a pause while Flaxen carried out the suggestion. “Sir,” her voice was tense with excitement, “Sergeant Jacobs of Des Moines, posted a report that he gave Doctor Giardello a lift to the AESC plant yesterday – he has not received a request for him to return to the airport, so he assumes that Doctor Giardello got a lift from his contact at AESC.”
“What? They’re making a pretty big assumption there, aren’t they? What if he’s still here?” Blue’s concern caused his voice to soar. “Jeez, I’d call it a red alert if the head of SIRAD goes AWOL. Why wasn’t his absence reported?”
“Well, it was…” Grey admitted. “That is, Mrs Giardello asked SIRAD where he was, but they didn’t know and they informed me, but I didn’t mention it because, although I’d intended you to conduct the search, the Cedar Rapids thing took priority and I couldn’t have known he’d have gone to AESC, could I?”
“Why didn’t SIRAD do something?” Blue snapped.
“They weren’t unduly concerned because…well, because…”
“SIRAD has him on leave, sir, until after Christmas,” Flaxen explained succinctly, taking pity on her acting commander’s embarrassment.
“Wonderful; between SIRAD and Spectrum: Des Moines, the head of our research team has been missing for about 48 hours and no one’s done anything. The colonel will go postal, Brad, and you know it.” Blue began to snap out demands. “I need people here; we have to track him down – and Doctor Vernon Catesby – and quickly! They are both prime targets for the Mysterons. I think whatever those two are up to has more to do with the Mysteron threat than the new system at Atlantic. I said I thought that the Mysterons were worried about something… if Catesby is an expert in Terahertz – that might explain it.”
“Why?” Grey asked. “I don’t see what all this fuss about Terahertz is about.”
Blue sighed; Grey could picture those pale-blue eyes rolling heavenward in exasperation. The crisp voice began to explain, the New England accent coming to the fore as Blue went into ‘tutorial-mode’, as Ochre had once so accurately dubbed it.
“Terahertz radiation is non-ionising – it is not likely to damage human DNA – unlike conventional X-rays. Some frequencies can penetrate tissue and reflect back; so the latest ideas seem to be that they could be an accurate and safe alternative to X-rays in medicine and dentistry. Think, Brad – Giardello developed the Mysteron Detector using X-rays, but maybe he and Vernon are looking to replace that with a safer system – based on Terahertz.”
“That’s pure speculation,” Grey responded.
“Everything about every Mysteron threat is,” Blue reasoned. “It doesn’t alter the fact that we have to find Giardello. Then he can tell us what he’s doing; I may be wildly off target – but either way - we still have to find him.”
Grey acquiesced. “Okay, you do have a point; I’ll send some of the guys from Des Moines to give you a hand…”
“On recent past performance I wouldn’t trust that crew to find their own asses with a map,” Blue complained, “but still, beggars can’t be choosers and I’ll take whoever you’ve got -” he broke off and looked up as a very shame-faced Cerulean opened the office door. Standing on either side of him were two women.
Blue recognised the receptionist immediately and wondered what she was still doing at the plant this late – then he realised with a sigh that they were dealing with ‘Spectrafans’ – which was the term Captain Ochre had adopted to describe the star-struck females – well mostly females – who would dog the footsteps of any senior officer they spotted, even when they were on a mission. This fascination applied to every colour captain and had always been there to some extent, but it had got much worse as a consequence of the ‘Captain Starlight’ show – which programme Blue deplored. He had no doubt these two women were examples of the trend – which would explain why the receptionist was still here, of course – and they must have run rings round a novice like Cerulean. However much self-confidence that young man had in his skill as a lady-killer, he had no experience of brushing off determined ‘fans’.
Blue stood up at his desk, carefully covering the documents he was studying with the blotter, resentful of the interruption.
“Captain Blue,” Cerulean began to explain apologetically, “these ladies were kind enough to help me in the canteen and they’ve bought us both a cup of coffee…”
Before Blue could respond, Gail produced a gun, with a silencer attached, from the pocket of her padded fleece and fired directly at him. Darlene pushed Cerulean aside, tripping him as he staggered and shoving him to the floor to prevent him from going to assist his stricken captain. Both coffee cups were thrown down, one of them striking the lieutenant as he lay, stunned by his fall. The lid flew off, spewing scalding coffee over the surprised young man.
“Cerulean,” Blue gasped, as the bullet in his shoulder began to cause enough pain to cloud his consciousness, “you forgot rule one – never trust a stranger until they’ve passed the Mysteron Detector test…”
Even as he was speaking, the tall captain had started to fold up over the desk and the last words he heard were Captain Grey’s frantic calls over his radio as, with a despairing sigh, he passed out. His radio cap rolled clear, the mic returning to the peak, severing the connection to Cloudbase.
Gazing up at the two women, Cerulean cursed under his breath and then screwed up his eyes in terror as Gail pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger.
Friendship often ends in love: but love in friendship – never.
Charles Caleb Coltan
Captains Magenta and Ochre were in conference with Cloudbase.
“I was just talking to him and what I heard definitely sounded like shots…” Grey was explaining. “Blue was complaining that Cerulean had allowed someone in without doing a Mysteron Detector test and then – BHAM! I don’t like it; I’m worried.”
“I agree that doesn’t sound good,” Magenta said, sharing a concerned look with Captain Ochre. The pair were in a glass-fronted office on a mezzanine floor at Atlantic airport, watching the air-traffic controllers at work in the large open-plan office below them. “Have you heard anything from either of them since?”
“No,” Grey said. “I want you to get over there, Magenta. I’m sending Lieutenant Flaxen down to Swanwick, and Green over to Atlantic to replace you. Ochre can keep tabs on the security there, but I want you to go and ensure the computer set-up at AESC remains secure. See if you can find out what’s happened to Blue and Cerulean – and maybe link up with them to discover if Doctor Giardello is still there,” Grey instructed.
“Alone?” Ochre chipped in, his cap mic snapping into place as he joined the conversation.
“No,” Grey said with a touch of asperity. “I wish you’d let me finish, Captain Ochre. I’ll send Angel One as back-up for Magenta, until Scarlet arrives.”
“Why send Scarlet to Cedar Rapids?” Magenta asked with a slight frown. “I can manage with the Angel as back-up.”
“Oh, I won’t send him,” Grey said with a glimmer of amusement, “but I doubt I’ll be able to keep him away once he learns Blue’s missing and a possible casualty. Putting the mission before his Spectrum colleagues is a regulation that’s never carried much weight with Paul Metcalfe. He’ll go to Cedar Rapids as fast as is humanly possible – whether I let him or not.”
Magenta grinned. “I agree with that. Even a direct order from the colonel doesn’t stop him, once he has the bit between his teeth!”
Grey signed off and Magenta started to prepare for his departure.
“The duty Angel should arrive about the same time as you, with luck. I think it’s better we work in pairs,” Ochre commented, watching his friend.
“What about you, working here all alone, until Green arrives?” Magenta asked as he walked to the door.
“My sixth-sense tells me that there ain’t nothing going to happen here that I can’t handle,” Ochre smiled, waving farewell. “Good luck, Pat.”
“Launch Angel One,” Captain Grey ordered.
“Angel One – immediate launch!” Claret obeyed the order with alacrity.
The sleek, white, jet sprang off the runway in a roar of powerful engines. As soon as the plane had cleared the immediate environs of the base, Claret entered the destination co-ordinates and the pilot watched them come up on her navigation computer.
“Cedar Rapids? What the hell am I going there for?” she murmured.
The Hoffman Ranch
In the warmth of the comfortable double bed, Charles Gray was lying staring at the ceiling in a state of relaxed contentment. Beside him, Amanda Wainwright lay dozing; her arm still wrapped through his, her corn-gold hair tumbled across the pillow.
Charles glanced at her and smiled. He was not, and never had been, the curmudgeonly automaton his officers imagined and the feelings he had for this beautiful woman were growing and becoming more deeply entrenched in his very being with every moment they were together.
Amanda had been open about her expectation that they would spend the night together; but she had, however, given him the option of a room of his own – effectively leaving the decision to him. Not that he’d had to give it much thought. She was everything he’d ever hoped for; everything he’d missed in the long years since Annabel had died, even during the encounters he’d had with other women. With her he felt relaxed and able to be himself without fear of exposing his all too human weaknesses to the world. She could make him feel good about himself, simply by her admiration for him. Their love-making had been tender and unhurried – comfortable, and yet, exciting - and she had given of herself with generosity and open affection.
She’s that rare kind of woman whose simple presence can make a man feel so… masculine… he thought affectionately. If this is the kind of buzz Blue – Adam, I mean – gets from being with Karen, then I can certainly understand why he feels as he does about her. It’s like a drug… you could easily get addicted to having this much self-confidence sloshing around your psyche… Never since Annabel’s death has any woman affected me as profoundly as Amanda does.
He acknowledged to himself that he’d admired and wanted her for months, but now, with a growing certainty he knew it was more than that.
I’m in love with her, he realised with a surge of excited happiness. I only hope she’s found such certainty as well.
He wanted her to open her eyes – he wanted to see what he could read in them.
Almost as if she could read his mind, she half-turned her head towards him, a slight smile on her lips as she nestled against his shoulder. “You sleepy?” she murmured.
“Not really,” he admitted softly.
Her eyes opened and he saw a bright sparkle in them; amusement, expectation and – undoubtedly – happiness. He smiled in response and she gave a merry laugh.
“Well, it is still early, I guess...” she said softly.
“I’m not used to going to bed this early,” he confessed. “On Cloudbase there is always something to do and never enough time to do it all.”
“You’re not on Cloudbase now, Charles, and we have the time to do everything we want to,” she mused. “And we don’t have to get up in the morning either,” she concluded as if that was the clincher in her argument.
He put his arm around her and brushed her hair back from her beautiful face. “Perfect,” he said and she wondered if he meant the prospect of a lie-in, or her. “I have plenty of imagination… and for once, the time to make good use of it.”
“Perfect,” she echoed, stretching to press her lips to his.
He returned her kiss and banished all conscious thought from his mind as he gave his attention to the woman lying beside him.
East Iowa Airport, USA
Magenta’s SPJ landed and taxied to a halt beside the plane left by Blue and Cerulean. Sergeant Jacobs, back at the airport for the second time in twenty-four hours, saluted and handed over the keys for the SSC.
“Do we have an e.t.a. on Angel One?” Magenta asked.
“Yes sir, e.t.a. in five minutes,” Jacobs replied. He was a little subdued. Captain Grey – in his capacity as Commander-in-chief – had read the riot act to the Des Moines base over neglecting to keep track of Doctor Giardello. Yet, despite that, Jacobs couldn’t help feeling a thrill of excitement at meeting another of the Cloudbase elite officers. He was hoping that Captain Magenta would invite his participation in whatever was going on at the AESC plant and debated whether he should point out that his local knowledge might be useful…
Magenta nodded and glanced at his watch. What seemed mere seconds later he saw the graceful, delta-wing Angel jet overfly the airfield, bank sharply and come in to land close to the two SPJs.
He couldn’t disguise his shock as the pilot disembarked and walked into the circle of light created by the floodlights overhead, before removing her helmet.
“Captain Magenta, what the hell’s going on here?” Symphony called across to him.
His heart sank. Why the blazes didn’t Grey check exactly which Angel was on duty before he dispatched Angel One on this mission? There was no avoiding Symphony’s direct question, however, and as he escorted her to the SSC, Magenta began to explain what had happened.
“So, Blue and Cerulean are both missing?” she demanded crisply as she took the driver’s seat and navigated the SSC towards the same gates Blue had used earlier.
“Both uncontactable,” Magenta corrected precisely. “There might be nothing wrong except some technical fault, after all.”
She gave him a sour glance. “You don’t have to try to shield me from the truth, Captain. We both know that Blue would never willingly omit to send his regular check-in. Something’s seriously wrong, Pat,” she asserted. “We have to find him – them…”
He smiled to himself at her unconscious slip and prompt correction. “We will, Karen; never fear.”
“I’m not afraid,” she said quietly, “but I am worried. Let’s get a move on…” The car slid into the highway traffic and raced towards AESC.
Air Electronics Systems Corporation
Captain Blue frowned to squeeze his eyelids tighter shut and prevent any light seeping in and further pulverising his already aching head. Even that slight movement set the sledgehammers thumping in his brain again and, reluctantly, he eased the frown, risking the light. His mouth was dry with a lingering aftertaste of vomit, the acrid smell of which was assaulting his nostrils and making him want to retch again. He dreaded to imagine what kind of state he was in and briefly wished himself unconscious once more.
Knowing he had to face the worst, he tentatively opened one eye, wincing at the expected protest from his throbbing head. Thankfully there was less light than he’d expected and he ventured to try and open his other eye, but found it too swollen to see through. He’d have to rely on examining his surroundings with one good eye.
He took in as much as he could without moving his head, but braced himself for another bout of pain when he had to look beyond the current limited range of his vision. He was lying on his back, on the floor of what looked like an office, partitioned off from what appeared to be a warehouse.
It was an office: a small, dingy, cold and unimpressive office – none too clean, either. There was a battered desk and a chair with a faded and worn padded seat. On the desk was an old computer and a small desk-lamp and it was that which was supplying the dim light; mercifully the overhead fluorescent strip light was switched off – or not working…
Swallowing bile, Blue ventured to try to sit up, grimacing with the effort. It took him some time to manage it; his right arm was next to useless and his shoulder was on fire with pain. A damp, red patch of blood had soaked into the fabric around the bullet wound. He was splattered with blood and vomit and couldn’t repress a shudder of distaste as he examined himself. He was acutely aware of, and rather resentful about, his reputation on Cloudbase for always being ‘well-turned-out’ – ‘dapper’ is what Scarlet called it – a reputation that was probably enhanced by comparisons with his partner, whose uniform tunics bore witness to the hazards he routinely faced and the multitude of injuries he received as a consequence. Yet, here he was, as filthy and grimy as Scarlet consistently got and his first reactions were dismay and disgust.
Maybe I am just a soft little rich kid addicted to my creature comforts, after all… he reflected.
He moved his head a fraction to examine the rest of the room and saw the body of another man, lying some feet away from him. It took him several seconds to recall who the lanky, dark-haired Spectrum Officer was… Lieutenant Cerulean. The young man’s eyes were closed, his complexion was drained of colour and the vibrant sky-blue of his tunic was stained with a large, unhealthy patch of red.
The kid’s bleeding to death, Blue realised with a jolt. Painfully, he edged over to his partner, unsure if he could do anything to help, or even if he was already too late. He placed a finger against the man’s throat, relieved and concerned at the same moment to feel the weak, erratic pulse that fluttered there.
Blue had witnessed many critical, and indeed fatal, wounds, but under normal circumstances the victim was Captain Scarlet and however much he regretted the fact that his partner had to suffer – knowing, as he did, that the pain would scourge and torture his friend – he also knew that Scarlet would rise, phoenix-like, from his wounds or even from the coldness of death.
But Cerulean would not.
Desperately trying to concentrate, Blue examined the youngster. The bullet was in his chest cavity; it might even have nicked his lung…he needed medical treatment and soon.
Without holding out much hope, Blue shuffled back to the desk and tried to reach his radio cap, which lay discarded in the centre. The jolt of pain that shot through him as he thoughtlessly raised his right arm brought on another wave of nausea and left him trembling and fighting back the hot tears that sprang unbidden to his eyes. Sweating, he glanced again at his own wound; it had almost certainly damaged his shoulder. Cradling his arm against his chest and hunching his shoulder against the movement, he shifted position and reached out with his left hand.
His fingers were crawling agonisingly towards the cap as the door swung open and the overhead light snapped on; blinding him with its brilliance and making him jerk his head down to avoid it, which sent fresh needles of pain through him.
The two women who’d come with Cerulean walked in and Blue’s memory was jolted into supplying the missing details of how he’d got here.
He remembered them coming into the office and shooting him. When they’d brought him round from his faint – and he had no idea how long he’d been unconscious for – they were in this room, which could be anywhere. He’d seen that Cerulean had also been shot, and that he was in a far worse condition. Then the blonde woman had single-handedly thrown him – no lightweight – across the office, with a strength that was out of all proportion to her build and that was enough in itself to tell him that she, at least – and probably both of them – was a Mysteron reconstruct.
What had followed had been a period of sustained agony such as he hoped never to encounter again. The two women had tortured him in an effort to force him to tell them what Doctor Giardello was working on – and where. They hadn’t believed him when he’d said he didn’t have a clue and their revenge had been particularly unpleasant. He doubted he would ever look at a stiletto heel in the same way again; always assuming he lived long enough to see another one.
Seeing him at the desk and realising what he was trying to do, the blonde woman strode across and with a well-aimed kick of her stiletto-shod foot sent him sprawling to the floor, rolling away from the desk.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, Captain,” the brunette said. She was carrying a litre bottle of water and Blue could hardly tear his gaze from it – such was his thirst. She noticed his longing and smiled ruefully. “Your luck is definitely out, today. I was going to rouse you with this, but you managed all by yourself, so there is no need for this now…” She opened the bottle and began to pour the contents onto the floor.
Blue looked away, suppressing the groan that rose in his throat.
Gail stopped. “The rest is yours, Captain Blue; in return for your co-operation.”
“Go to Hell,” Blue croaked.
Darlene’s foot lashed out again, making contact with his damaged shoulder. Blue’s body exploded with shards of pain and as a second kick impacted on his lower spine, he vomited the remaining meagre contents of his stomach onto the floor.
“You dirty boy…” she mocked.
Blue retched once more, spat what he could from his dehydrated mouth and strove to wipe his chin clean with a shaking hand. “At least I can clean myself up,” he gasped. “You’ll always be filth.”
Darlene kicked again, drawing a groan of pain from between Blue’s tightly compressed lips.
“Careful, Darlene, we need him awake,” Gail ordered. “We’ve wasted too much time waiting for him to co-operate already.” She walked across and bent over the semi-conscious man, her disgust apparent in her expression, even as she dribbled water over his face.
Blue’s tongue lapped greedily at the moisture and he opened his eye again.
“Now, Captain, we’ll have better manners from you,” Gail said warningly. “Darlene’s not as forgiving as I am – understand me?”
Blue nodded, biding his time. He’d no idea what these Harpies intended, and besides, there was little chance of his taking them both on until he was stronger. It’d be touch and go if he managed it before Cerulean died.
Gail moved to the chair and invited Blue to sit. With agonising slowness he clambered onto the seat, cradling his damaged arm.
“We want your help, Captain,” Gail said. She bent to put her face close to Blue’s forcing him to back away to keep her in focus. “We want to gain access to the secure research facility and you’re going to provide us with that access.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he mumbled, through swollen lips.
“Spectrum has been using AESC’s facilities to work on a new device – which they believe will help them thwart the Mysterons’ aims. However mistaken that belief may be, we do not intend to allow them to gain even that much satisfaction. The device will be destroyed; and we are here to destroy it.”
Having had his worst suspicions confirmed Blue temporised, playing for time. “Why should I help you?”
Gail snapped, “If you don’t – your young lieutenant will die, and then – so will you.”
Blue shook his head, and immediately regretted it. “Cerulean can’t help you,” he murmured. “Get him to a doctor and I’ll do what I can to help you…”
“You have nothing to bargain with, Earthman,” Darlene snarled. “We don’t care if you both die. The Mysterons will succeed in destroying the device whatever you do.”
Gail gave her companion an angry glance. “The choice is yours, Captain. Little boy-blue here can bleed to death before your eyes and then you’ll have the comfort of knowing that you’ll join him – eventually. I’ve already warned you that Darlene’s not patient or forgiving – if you disappoint her, she’ll take her time extracting her revenge.”
Blue rolled his eyes. “Spare me the melodramatic threats; you’re really not that good at them.”
This time Darlene’s fist cannoned into his shoulder, sending him writhing across the desk as his collarbone took the impact.
“Enough of these pleasantries, Captain,” Gail said with a heavy sigh. “Understand that we know Spectrum has been using the secure facilities here and we also know these facilities are protected by one of your so-called Mysteron Detectors – which would set off alarms. You will access the facility and then disable the alarm, using the cipher codes…so that we may carry out the Mysterons’ instructions. You do not have a choice, Captain… so don’t make the mistake of saying you won’t co-operate again. You haven’t even started to feel the full extent of the pain we can inflict. Get ready to start work.”
“What makes you think I know the ciphers used here?” he asked with some boldness. “Our agent didn’t tell me which encryption he was using.” It was true, up to a point; although anyone would have had to use approved codes.
“We’re not dumb, Captain Blue. Whoever installed those codes had to make sure they were standardised – or what’s the point? You’d better hope he stuck to the rule book; because you’re going to have to work the codes out. You can use this computer,” Gail snapped. “We reckon you’re our best bet, but we’ll get in there without you, if we have to. You’re not indispensable, Captain. And, if you don’t co-operate, your young companion will die and then – so will you.”
“Which would be a shame,” Darlene added, squeezing Blue’s wounded shoulder with a vice-like grip. “’Cause you’re kinda cute, and I like playing with cute toys…mind you, they ain’t so cute when I’ve done with ‘em. It’d be a shame to take the sparkle out of those lovely blue eyes permanently, or mar that perfect profile with a broken nose – or no nose at all… Still, I’m sure your mother would still love you...“ She released him with a shove, banging him hard against the desk.
Knowing that he couldn’t take much more physical punishment without passing out again, Blue struggled to sit up, fighting the urge to simply close his eyes and sleep. The faint comfort that they were obviously still on the AESC site and that Cloudbase knew of his plight and would send a back-up team, was the only hope he had to sustain him. There was no chance that his partner would revive to assist him. It was a surprise to realise how used he’d become to factoring Scarlet’s constant recoveries into the evaluation of every situation. But this time his life, and Cerulean’s, were dependent on his own skills and very little else.
He switched on the computer and swallowed several gulps from the water bottle Gail handed him as he waited for it to boot up.
With luck, I won’t discover which code was used straight away or I can disguise it, if I do. I hope these Mysterons don’t know that much about computers and encryptions - even more than that – I hope someone broke the rules and used one of his own ciphers….
Atlantic Airport, Massachusetts
Lieutenant Green sat staring anxiously out of the SPJ as Captain Scarlet squeezed every last ounce of speed from the plane. When Lieutenants Flaxen and Viridian had arrived in Swanwick to relieve them, Scarlet had almost begrudged him the time it took to bring Flaxen up to speed on the computers, then he’d hustled him into the SPJ and flown like a mad man over to Atlantic. Green half expected to be ordered to parachute down to the airfield so that Scarlet could press on to Iowa.
It wasn’t that his companion’s attitude surprised him; Scarlet and Blue were as close as any brothers and, whatever the regulations said, everyone knew they watched each other’s back when on a mission. Green smiled as he remembered Scarlet’s belligerent tone when he told Captain Grey – who was, after all, the commanding officer in the colonel’s absence – that he was going to Iowa once Grey’d finished giving them an update on the situation.
Grey had wisely forborne to dispute this, and merely said that he’d already decided that was the best course of action. ‘We need to find Doctor Giardello, Scarlet,’ he’d explained.
Scarlet had agreed and fretted impatiently until their replacements arrived. Once airborne he had clarified his understanding of his orders to his field partner thus: We find Giardello immediately after we’ve found Blue. And Green had instinctively known that this was the right thing to do; Spectrum agents had no one else to rely on but each other. The trust and certainty that their colleagues would back them up, provided a secure base for every operative facing the dangers of a Mysteron threat.
When Scarlet brought the SPJ to a halt at Atlantic and opened the automatic doors for Green’s departure, the lieutenant had barely had time to salute Captain Ochre - who’d come down to meet him - before the jet was taxiing back to the runway and getting airborne again.
“Spectrum personnel will always put their mission before themselves or the safety of any Spectrum officer,” Ochre said blandly, watching the jet‘s taillights disappear into the night sky.
“And if it was your partner,” Lieutenant Green asked evenly, “if it was Captain Magenta who had gone missing?”
“I’d be doing exactly the same as Scarlet’s doing now,” Ochre replied honestly. “We all work this way – whatever the regulations say. I can trust my buddies and they can trust me. How else do you imagine we manage all that we do accomplish?”
Air Electronics Systems Corporation
Symphony drew the SSC up at the security barrier before the AESC plant and showed her Spectrum pass to the guard. “Tell me, buddy, are the other Spectrum officers still on the site?” she asked with a charming smile.
The guard responded easily enough. “Sure ma’am. Their car’s over at the main admin building. I guess they’re busy about the place somewhere. Everyone except the night shift will have gone home. The plant’s still working, of course and the computer department’s on an all night trial – so there’ll be people over there, I guess. Maybe your friends are there?”
“Thanks, we’ll find them,” Symphony answered.
Magenta leant across her to ask, “Where’s the main computer offices?”
“In the next building over from the admin offices; but you can’t get into them at this time of night, except by the corridor from the administration building. I can let one of the security team there know you wanna get through…?” he offered.
“Thanks…” Symphony started the car moving slowly forward. It crept over the security humps and accelerated towards the administration block.
“We’ll check out the office they were using first; see if that can tell us anything about where they’ve gone. Then we’ll try the computer offices, they might have an idea about what’s been going on or even where Blue and Cerulean are,” Magenta said as she parked the SSC and turned off the lights.
“S.I.G,” she agreed, adding, “I have a bad feeling about all this, Pat. It isn’t like Adam to be out of touch for so long. Grey heard shots, and we know someone who should not have been there was in the office. What if…?”
“The shots may have been from Adam’s gun,” Magenta interrupted quickly. “Don’t torture yourself thinking that he was shot, Karen. It’d take a good man to get the drop on Blue.”
“Yes, you’re right.” Symphony gave a shaky smile and gathered herself. “This place is vast – they might be anywhere. I hope we find them quickly. “
“Hey – we will. Trust me.” He placed a hand on her arm and she reached her other hand over to grip his fingers.
“I’m glad you’re with me,” she admitted, before letting go and turning to open the door.
Magenta climbed out of the car. He looked across at Symphony with the rueful mental observation that it was ironic how she expected him, of all people, to rescue the very man who stood between him and the woman he wanted. Of course, he mused, she’s come to expect that I’ll do whatever I can to help her; and I’ve skated pretty close to the edge a time or two to do so, because I can never bear to disappoint her. One pleading look from those beautiful eyes and I’m putty in her hands. It’s a double irony, really, I mean, Blue’s a decent guy; he’s never thrown my past at me and has always been perfectly affable, even though there is a slight restraint between us. I can’t hate him for winning her love – I wish I could, it’d make me feel better in some perverse way – but either way, I couldn’t risk his life just because I’m jealous. My life’s never that straightforward.
With a shrug he followed her into the main building.
The AESC Security Guard led them to the office Blue and Cerulean had been assigned. The door was locked and the light switched off inside. He opened it for them with his pass key and switched on the light. Asking the guard to remain outside, they went in, careful not to disturb anything.
There was a strong residual smell of coffee and a pool of cold liquid by the door. Two thermos cups lay discarded on the floor. The monitor Cerulean had been watching was still functioning and Magenta’s quick glance at the files on the desk told him that Blue had been pursuing the line of investigation they’d discussed. He couldn’t see a reason why they’d have willingly left the room – although the spilt coffee might be indicative of a struggle. He went to the window to look out across the plant.
Symphony came to the desk. She gave a slight frown to see that Adam had left his wallet behind. She reached out to pick it up, sliding her thumb between the folds to open it. As expected, she saw the small photograph of herself in the front section, and smiled; it was nice to think that he must have been looking at it…
She moved one of the files, intending to perch on the desk and wait for Magenta to finish his examination of the view.
“Pat!” she cried in alarm.
He came to her side and followed the direction of her fearful gaze. On the blotter, originally hidden by the open file, was a bloodstain.
“Damn,” he hissed. He examined the desk and in an effort to reassure her said, “We can’t know who was at this desk; after all, the blood was hidden, so someone tidied the desk after whoever was here was shot. Maybe Blue disturbed someone rifling the files?”
“Grey heard someone enter the room and Captain Blue reprimand Cerulean for allowing them in… then he heard a shot. Chances are, Blue was at this desk and he was shot.” She held out the wallet. “He left this behind.” Magenta met her frightened glance as she added, “I’m thinking that maybe this is the work of the Mysterons…?”
He nodded. “And if they have Blue it’s more than likely that they have Cerulean too, and that one of them has been shot. We need to find them, Symphony – and soon.” He shook his head and added, “It’s not rocket science to figure out that these trigger-happy Mysterons may kill Doctor Giardello as well – if they haven’t already.”
The Security Guard, surprised at the sudden urgency the Spectrum officer displayed, led them through a maze of dim corridors to the main computer room, where the night shift was busy monitoring the performance of the system at Atlantic. In one corner was the video link and Magenta could see Captain Ochre’s image quite clearly.
The night shift supervisor – a different man from the one Magenta had been in conversation with over the video link for several hours earlier – came over to them, a broad smile on his face as he reached out a hand towards the officer. “Captain Magenta, so nice to meet you! I’m Al Wetmore, I’m in charge here. Your colleague at Atlantic told me you were on your way,” he explained. He greeted Symphony with a smile and held on to her hand for just a moment too long. “What can we do for you?” he asked as he reluctantly let go of the Angel’s hand.
“Mr. Wetmore, we’re here to rendezvous with our colleagues, Captain Blue and Lieutenant Cerulean,” Magenta explained. “They don’t seem to be in the office they were allocated; we hoped they might be here…”
Wetmore gave him a perplexed glance. “I haven’t met Captain Blue; neither he, nor his colleague, has been in here while I’ve been on duty. The day shift supervisor told me they spent some time familiarising themselves with the system earlier, but they haven’t been back.”
“Do you have any ideas where they might’ve gone?” Symphony asked as casually as she could. They both knew instinctively that it was better to play their situation down. Panic amongst the AESC staff wouldn’t help matters at all.
Wetmore shook his head. “I can ask if anyone’s seen them,” he offered.
“Please do,” Magenta replied.
Wetmore turned to his fellow workers, many of whom were watching the Spectrum officers with blatant interest rather than their computer monitors. “Has anyone seen Spectrum’s Captain Blue or Lieutenant Cerulean – or know where they are?” he called.
There was a rumble of negative replies. Symphony’s arched brows sank into a frown. “They have to be on the base; they’d have told us if they intended to leave…” she remarked.
One young man ventured to say, “I saw one of them in the canteen; a tall, brown-haired guy, dressed in a blue tunic. He was talking to two of the women from the admin building. Only that was some time ago, now.”
“The canteen? Thanks,” Magenta said with a glance at Symphony.
“Do you know the women’s names?” she asked the young man.
“Not as such; I’ve seen them around the place, one of them is the day shift receptionist – Gail something – the other one works in the admin building, that’s all I know.”
“What do they look like?” Magenta probed.
“A blonde and a brunette – good looking gals with… nice figures.” He traced a shapely curve in the air with both of his hands, winking at Magenta as he did so.
Beside him Magenta heard Symphony draw a sharp, angry intake of breath. “Thanks, Buddy,” he said before she could respond. “We’ll stroll over and check out the canteen.”
Wetmore gave them directions and ushered them from the computer room. As they walked along the corridor Magenta said, “It’s fishy… It was obviously Cerulean in the canteen with the two women… so where was Blue?” When she didn’t answer he added, “If we find the women they might be able to tell us what Cerulean was doing and where Blue was…”
He glanced at her. Symphony’s face was a mixture of emotion: annoyance and irritation mostly, overlaid with concern. They reached the canteen before she finally spoke.
“My guess is because Blue wouldn’t leave their work unguarded, Cerulean was sent to get coffee – Blue lives off the stuff, after all – while he was alone, he might have been attacked and… taken from the office, his disappearance covered by leaving everything neat and tidy. Cerulean could be looking for him.”
“Surely, he’d have reported an incident like that to Cloudbase?” Magenta reasoned cautiously.
She turned her worried eyes on him. “Yes, unless he’s been wounded too… but I was trying not to think of that,” she admitted.
Scarlet contacted Captain Magenta for the latest news as soon as he landed at East Iowa.
“We still haven’t found either of them,” Magenta admitted with some reluctance. “We did find some blood stains in the office they were using – it confirms that they’ve been attacked and are not merely AWOL or out of contact for some technical reason.”
“Any leads on who might’ve attacked them?”
“One reported sighting of Cerulean talking to two women in the canteen earlier… we’re following that up right now.”
“Symphony is with you?” Scarlet’s voice was concerned.
“Yes; she’s here to do a job – the same as we all are.” Magenta could sense what was coming.
“But… what if … I mean – if Blue’s been hurt?”
“She knows first aid,” Magenta said curtly. “Look, Scarlet, she wouldn’t stay behind even if I told her to, and frankly, I’m not in the mood to try.”
“S.I.G,” Scarlet acknowledged. He paused and said quietly, “Take care of her, Pat.”
“Yeah, you got it…”
Magenta and Symphony were not having much luck in tracking down the women Cerulean had been seen talking to. They had names for both of them now – Gail North and Darlene McGinty – but none of the other technicians working in the plant, remembered seeing them recently, and no one had any ideas where they might be.
The security guard came up to where they were conferring, in the supervisor’s office on a gantry overlooking the main production area, and informed them that another Spectrum officer had arrived at the base. Magenta turned to Symphony.
“You stay here; see if you can jog anyone’s memory about the women – they remain our best lead. I’ll go and fetch Scarlet and we’ll meet you here. Don’t go wandering about alone, Symphony – we can’t spare the time to go searching for you too.”
She nodded and watched him stride out after the guard.
Symphony glanced around the production building. There were dozens of people working at making components and whatever else the system needed and dozens of places, in addition to those they’d already checked, where two men might be held captive. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, she thought. Where are you, Adam?
She walked back to the shop floor, determined to leave no stone unturned in her search. As she passed one section a grey-haired man looked up and reached out a hand to stop her.
“Karen? Karen Wainwright – Sam Wainwright’s daughter?”
She looked down at him as he smiled up at her, and from the depths of her memory came his face and a name. “Mr. Erhardt?“
“I thought it was you. You have a look of your mother about you, my girl. What’re you doing here with that Spectrum guy?”
Symphony gave a rueful smile. There’d always been a chance she might meet someone she knew – or who knew her parents. She glanced nervously at the other workers and Erhardt rose and walked away with her out of earshot.
“I do some work for them, now and again,” she admitted.
Erhardt nodded. “Okay, you don’t have to say any more. Sam told me you’d got a government job and I guess they can ask you to do anything, can’t they?”
She nodded. “Yes, they can. Right now I’m helping them search for the two Spectrum officers who were here earlier today. They’ve gone missing. Last we know, one of them was talking to two women – Gail North and Darlene McGinty. They’re missing too.”
Erhardt gave the matter some thought. “When was this? Those two shouldn’t be working now, Karen; they work the day shift over in reception and petty cash. Mind you, Darlene is…‘friendly’ with several of the men who work the night shifts… and probably with the day shift guys too. Not that Gail has that kind of reputation, but I don’t know her all that well. If their usual beaux were too busy to ‘entertain’ them, I imagine they’ve lured your officers away for a little hanky-panky in their place,” he snorted.
“No,” she replied fiercely. “Spectrum officers would never do anything like that.”
“You seem sure of that, Karen. Most men wouldn’t think twice.”
“Not these – at least, not one of them.”
Erhardt looked at her long and hard until she felt herself starting to colour. “Oh, I see – it’s like that, is it?” he said with a smile. “Well, I hope he’s good enough for you – your dad was pretty certain there’d never be a man born who would be…” he teased.
“Mr Erhardt, please, I have a job to do.”
“And maybe I can help you. One guy from my section fell in with Darlene a couple of months ago… kept vanishing in work hours… I finally tracked him down. There’s an old warehouse building, across the plant – part of it used to be used for testing programs that couldn’t be done on the local networks… its not used much now – since they built the new secure unit. But Darlene and her boyfriends were using it… for a little … rest and relaxation…if you follow me?”
“You mean; they might’ve taken the Spectrum officers there?”
“It’s a possibility; if they haven’t left the plant altogether.”
“We do know - that is – we found traces of blood in the office they were using in the admin building.”
“I’ve never heard that either woman ever got physical… but maybe someone else learned of the place from one of them and took your Spectrum guys there. Some punks will mug anyone for their loose change these days, Karen.”
“Will you tell me how to get there, Mr Erhardt?”
“Well, I don’t know that you should go there, especially not alone, young lady. If there is something going on…” He frowned at her.
“I’m a grown woman, Mr Erhardt; I can take care of myself. Besides, my Spectrum colleague’s gone to fetch reinforcements; I won’t be alone for long.” She laid a hand on his arm. “Please, it means a lot to me…”
Erhardt pursed his lips in consideration, then said, “He must,” with a kindly smile and the emphasis on the pronoun. “Okay, honey, just let me tell my deputy I’ll be away awhile. I’m coming with you, at least until these Spectrum heavies arrive. Your dad’d never have forgiven me if I’d let anything happen to his girl.”
Symphony gave a grateful nod of agreement; she knew it would be useless arguing and she felt sure that once they met up with Magenta and Scarlet, they’d send Erhardt packing. The last thing they’d want was a witness to a tussle with Mysteron agents. She watched as Erhardt walked across to the closest desk to his own and whispered something to the man sitting there. He looked back at the young woman waiting and nodded.
Erhardt fetched his heavy parka and Symphony slipped back into her fur-collared coat and they stepped from the warm, sterile conditions of the production plant into the biting cold of the night air. Their breath formed a hazy curtain of steam as they crunched across the snow-covered courtyard, heading in the direction of the canteen. Beyond that brightly-lit area was the dark wall of a long building with a few smaller structures, clustered around it. They were almost all in total darkness and even the floodlights were wide apart and dimmer than those by the newer buildings. The whole section had the sorry atmosphere of dilapidation.
“They’re talking about demolishing it next year…” Erhardt told her as they approached. It was almost as if he felt he had to apologise for the place.
Symphony smiled. “You know, I think I remember parts of this place. I came here with my dad a few times as a kid. Odd how things come back to you, isn’t it?”
“Sure you came here. You came to every kids’ Christmas party in the canteen and social club until you were about 9 or 10 years old… I can remember you; you and my girl, Maggie used to play together.”
“I remember Maggie Erhardt,” Symphony said cheerfully. “How’s she doing these days?”
“Fine, thank you – she married Les McKinley and they’re living in Des Moines – got two kids and another on the way.”
“Wonderful,” she said, suppressing a slight shudder at the mundanity of it all. That’s the life I’d have had if I hadn’t got out of here. I’d never have joined Spectrum, never have met Adam…. Aloud she said, “Say ‘Hi’ to her from me, when you see her, will you?”
“Sure; but she isn’t going to believe what you’re up to now.”
She stopped suddenly. “Mr Erhardt, please, you must realise that the fewer people know about my job, the better for me. I have to ask you not to tell Maggie – or anyone else.”
He turned to look at her, seeing the earnest appeal in her beautiful eyes. She did look a lot like her mother, but he could see Sam Wainwright in her serious expression, and the way she carried herself.
“Sure, Karen; I won’t say a word – I swear.” Her grateful smile was reward enough – she always was a charmer, he reflected.
They were walking briskly across the open courtyard again when Magenta and Scarlet caught up with them.
“Symphony, what’s happened? I told you to wait in the production building,” Magenta said, eyeing Erhardt with some hostility.
Captain Scarlet came to her side and laid a hand on her shoulder in solidarity and support. She smiled into the Englishman’s face, acknowledging his concern for her before answering Magenta’s query. “Captain Magenta, Captain Scarlet, this is Mr Erhardt – he knew my father when he worked here. He thinks he might know a place where the women might’ve taken Blue and Cerulean – if they were involved in their disappearances. He was taking me there.”
“Martin Erhardt,” the older man said crisply. “You can trust me, gentlemen; I knew Sam Wainwright before this girl was even born. He was a good friend of mine.”
“I’m sure we can, Mr Erhardt, which is why you won’t mind if we take your picture,” Magenta said, pointing the MD at the stranger. Moments later the result emerged showing an X-ray.
“Neat gadget,” Erhardt remarked.
“It’s purely for identification,” Magenta said, pocketing the picture.
“Lead on, Mr Erhardt,” Scarlet said impatiently. “We have to find our colleagues as soon as we can.”
Erhardt strode on quickly around the side of the canteen block with the Spectrum officers in his wake. A few hundred yards away a single-storey building stood in solitary splendour.
“It’s an old warehouse – used to store junk now, mostly – but there’s an office at the far end; with a night watchman’s room beyond that.” Erhardt led them on around the corner. There was a small door built into the wall, and a barred window. A dim light showed under the door and at the edges of the drawn window blinds.
“Right; it looks like there is someone in there,” Scarlet said.
“Might not be your friends though,” Erhardt commented with a wary glance at Symphony. “I was telling Karen here, that some of the …err...the wilder elements among the staff, use it for illicit ‘get-togethers’. She didn’t think your guys would join in with that sort of activity.”
“No, she’s quite right – they wouldn’t.” Scarlet grinned. “Don’t worry, Mr Erhardt, we won’t hurt anyone who might be … taking a little breather in there. Thank you for your assistance, but you can leave this to us now. You’d better get back to your own office,” he ordered.
But Erhardt seemed reluctant to leave and watched as Scarlet advanced on the building, his gun in his hand. Magenta handed Symphony the MD and followed as back-up, his own weapon at the ready.
Scarlet’s hand reached down towards the door handle and he turned it as quietly as he could – to his relief, it opened noiselessly. He peered through the slight gap for a moment and then stepped away to confer in whispers with Magenta. Symphony joined them.
“Blue’s in there with two women; they have a gun on him and their backs to the door. He’s looking pale, but he’s conscious. “
“Thank God,” Symphony murmured.
Scarlet laid a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll deal with this, you wait here.” He turned to Magenta. “I’ll go in and draw their fire; you take them out – both of them.”
“Wait a minute,” Magenta protested, “what if they’re not Mysterons?”
“That’s not very likely,” Scarlet said, raising a surprised eyebrow. “Anyway, they’ve kidnapped a Spectrum officer – maybe two – I couldn’t see Cerulean. And, if they resist, as I’m sure they will, you’ll have to kill them – Mysterons or not.”
Realising that his surprise at this demonstration of Scarlet’s perfect military ruthlessness was incongruous, Magenta gave a nod. After all, he could always just wound the women – he didn’t have to kill them…
Scarlet strode quickly back to the door and kicked it in, so that it ricocheted on the wall and bounced back as he sprang through the entrance. Captain Blue slithered behind the desk as a gun went off and the women turned to face their assailant.
“Earthmen,” Darlene snarled, launching herself at Scarlet, her nails scratching his face and trying to reach his eyes.
Gail fired at him, and then seeing Magenta approach with his gun aimed at her, she fired at him and then back at Scarlet who was struggling to disentangle himself from the wildcat Mysteronised woman. The second bullet caught him in the neck and with a groan he fell to his knees, blood pumping from his wound in the rhythm of a heartbeat to apparently vanish as it was absorbed by the scarlet tunic.
Magenta fired twice; the first shot took out Gail, who fell to the floor, with a bullet between her eyes, and then Darlene was blown aside by a bullet that shattered her breastbone. Immediately, Symphony rushed in, passed Magenta and Scarlet to where Blue was lying, semi-conscious behind the desk. His face was a mess, his lower lip badly cut and one eye firmly closed and turning a worrying shade of purple.
“Karen?” he whispered as she bent over him.
“You’re safe now, we’ll get you seen to…where’s Cerulean? Adam, where’s the lieutenant?”
Another shot reverberated around the office as Magenta made sure he’d successfully despatched the second Mysteronised woman. He then went to see what he could do for Captain Scarlet.
Blue tried to focus his mind. “They shot him; he was bleeding to death… they told me if I showed them the cipher codes and found Giardello for them, they’d get him help…but I couldn’t do that – it would have cost many more lives… I wouldn’t decrypt it and they weren’t pleased. They’ve hurt him, Karen – hurt him bad… ”
“They haven’t exactly treated you with any kindness,” she muttered, surveying his pitiful state. “Where is he? We’ll get him some help.”
Blue’s head slightly moved towards a door behind them. “In there, they took him in there.”
“Okay; take it easy, honey. I’ll be right back.”
Symphony kissed his filthy cheek, settling him as comfortably as she could against the office wall before she went to push the door of the storeroom open and peer inside. Lying on the floor was a body. She knelt down and reached out towards the hand lying closest to her. It was cold – no point in even looking for a pulse. Sadly, she closed the door and went to Magenta, who was kneeling beside Scarlet.
“Where’s Erhardt?” she asked him.
Magenta glanced around. “He must’ve gone to get help – come to think of it, he shouted something about ‘fetching a doctor’ earlier.”
“Well, Adam will need a doctor, sure enough, but Cerulean won’t. We’re too late – he’d dead.”
“Damn,” Magenta‘s head drooped with frustration. His glance fell on the ashen face of Captain Scarlet and he grimaced. “We mustn’t let a doctor see Scarlet; we have to get him away from here. Can you take him to the airfield?”
Before she could answer there was a deafening explosion from the direction of the plant. “Oh my God,” Magenta breathed. “The Mysterons have struck and we still don’t know where Giardello is - he could’ve been in there…” He glanced at her. “Karen, it’s up to you now – you have to get Paul and Adam away from here – Paul mustn’t be seen by a doctor and in the chaos out there, no one will have time to check Adam. They’ll both have to go back to Cloudbase… can you do that, if I help you move them to an SSC? Then I have to go and do what I can to help at the plant.”
“Of course; I’ll take them to my mom’s place and get a medical helijet to come pick them up from there; it’s closer than the airfield and I can always come back to help.”
“What about your mom?”
“She knows enough about Spectrum not to be fazed by anything anymore… and she can make Adam comfortable, while I look after Paul.”
“Okay, let’s get them to an SSC… and drive carefully.”
“I always do. You’ve been listening to Adam, haven’t you?” she said with a wry smile.
Magenta grinned. “Only occasionally…”
It wasn’t difficult to get the two Spectrum agents back to the SSCs in the car park. In the confused aftermath of the explosion, the AESC staff were more concerned with helping their colleagues and fighting the fire than keeping tabs on their visitors. Magenta strapped Scarlet into the rear passenger seats as Symphony eased Blue into the front seat. Then, seeing her take the wheel of the vehicle, he bade farewell to his friends and ran back towards the inferno of the blaze, determined to do all he could to help.
Symphony turned out of the plant, through the abandoned security posts and onto the highway before she contacted Cloudbase and ordered the communications lieutenant to send a medical helijet from Cloudbase to her family ranch and reported what had happened to the shocked Captain Grey.
“I’ll get what help I can over to the plant,” Grey assured her.
“I think it might be better to leave that to the local emergency services, although, maybe Magenta could do with a hand…” she mused. Glancing at the injured man beside her she continued, “Blue won’t be fit to go back on duty for some days - at best – and Scarlet will need some time to recover too.”
Blue opened his good eye and asked in a croak, “What’s happened at Atlantic – to the traffic control?”
Symphony passed on the question and Grey answered, “The Horizon-i system crashed – obviously – when the explosion wrecked the plant. But, Ochre says that because Magenta had insisted the old system be reactivated and used as a back-up during the dual running, the staff at Atlantic were able to prevent total chaos – with the assistance of the Swanwick Controllers – although, they have planes stacked up all over the place, while they sort out the mess.”
Blue gave a relieved sigh and closed his eye again; he should have trusted to Magenta’s consummate professionalism.
Grey continued, “I’ll see if there’s anything I do to help Magenta – I suppose we’ll need to test everyone with the Mysteron Detector – there must’ve been a sleeper in the plant…” His voice trailed away and dropped a tone as he almost whispered, “Symphony, you’d better test Blue as well when you get to the ranch… just in case.”
Automatically she glanced at the captain, and the protest she’d been about to make died on her lips as she saw an amused smile tug at the corner of his bruised mouth. “S.I.G, Captain Grey,” she said as much as for Blue’s benefit as Grey’s. “I’ll check him over all right…”
The smile broadened until Blue gave a wince of pain as his cut lip started to ooze blood once more. He regained control his features and composed his face into a semblance of innocent slumber.
The rest of the journey to the ranch was accomplished in silence and with minimum delay.
Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love.
Charlie Brown in ‘Peanuts’ (Charles Schulz)
The Hoffman Ranch
The sweep of car headlights across the curtained window was enough to make Amanda stir from her sleep. It was a rare enough occurrence, this far from the main highway. She half-opened an eye and strained to hear any noise. The engine sound died away, to be followed by the muffled sound of car doors and the rattle of a key in the kitchen lock.
By now she was wide awake and slipped from the bed and into her robe, with a wary glance at the man still sleeping in the bed, beside her. She walked quietly from the room and out onto the landing to peer over the banister.
As the bedroom door swung close behind her, Charles Gray opened his eyes and sat up, straining to hear what was happening.
“Mom? You awake? Mom? We need a hand…”
“Karen? What are you doing here?” Amanda raced down the stairs to her daughter’s side. “Adam? Oh my God, you’ve been hurt! What’s happened?”
“It’s okay, Mom, really it is. We’ve been on a mission - at the AESC plant – Adam got beaten up pretty badly and he was shot but, he’ll be okay. I’ve requested a Spectrum medical helijet to come and pick him up – him and another captain…”
Amanda had gone to the captain’s side and eased him into a chair. She insisted on his removing his tunic and assisted in the removal of the black polo-neck sweater underneath that. With a sharp intake of breath she surveyed the bullet wound in his shoulder. The flesh around it was bruising as they watched, turning sickly shades of grey and purple; there were also several puncture wounds obviously made with something sharp.
“There’s not much I can do, Adam, except to clean you up a little…” she walked to the kettle, filled it and snapped the switch on. “Are you all right, Karen? You weren’t hurt?”
“I’m fine, Mom. Really – I wasn’t there when the shooting started.”
“What about this other captain? Is he as badly hurt as Adam?”
Karen met Adam’s eyes and with some hesitation said, “Yes, he is… we can’t move him. I need a blanket to keep him warm until the medical team can take care of him. He’s comfortable enough in the SSC for now…” It occurred to her that it was an odd thing to be saying about a man already dead, but on the other hand she knew Scarlet would recover, eventually.
“You can’t leave him in there, not if he’s hurt!” Amanda protested.
“We can’t move him, Amanda,” Adam mumbled. “Let Karen do what she can for him – the medical team will be here soon. If you don’t mind, please, I’d like a drink of water…?”
“Of course, Adam – what am I thinking of? I’m sorry…” Amanda moved to get a glass – the stranger banished from her mind in the face of the immediate needs of the young man she knew and liked.
Symphony turned to give Blue a relieved smile as she raced towards the stairs to fetch a blanket. She was about half way up, just where the stairs turned, when, in her haste, she ran smack-bang into a man making his way down.
“Who the hell are you?” she blazed, raking angry and embarrassed eyes up to the man’s face.
Her mouth fell open in astonishment as the colonel said, “I’d have thought that was perfectly obvious to anyone who took the trouble to watch where they were going…Symphony Angel.”
Blue staggered to his feet as Colonel White, looking surprisingly magisterial in a pair of striped pyjamas and bedroom slippers, walked into the kitchen. The colonel noted to his officer’s credit that Blue’s expression remained politely neutral; but he could not have guessed that the captain’s surprise was tempered by a sudden realisation that he’d been half-expecting something of the kind for a while. Even as he stood there, several unresolved incidents that had been niggling at his sub-conscious mind suddenly clarified – odd remarks, made by both the colonel and Amanda, clicked into focus and Blue struggled to suppress a satisfied grin.
“At ease, Captain,” White said, seeing only the condition of his officer’s face and the seriousness of his wound. “I heard you speak of another wounded officer – Captain Scarlet, I presume?”
“Yes, sir,” Blue confirmed, adding, “condition red, sir.”
White acknowledged the codeword for the fact that Scarlet was dead with a sharp nod of his head. That was why it was imperative that Amanda be kept busy with the needs of the living officer. “The medical team will be here when?”
“Their e.t.a. is about another ten minutes, Sir.”
“Time enough for you to bring me up to speed, then, Captain Blue.”
Amanda came and put a hand on the younger man’s uninjured shoulder. “Charles Gray, have a heart – can’t you see he’s hurt, he can hardly speak – and this isn’t the time for you to be quizzing him?”
“Amanda, please - keep out of this. Captain Blue, I’m waiting…”
As Blue struggled to tell the story of the Mysteron threat and the attack on the officers at the AESC plant and then on the plant itself, Amanda insisted in cleaning his face and the area around his bullet wound.
She glanced up from her ministrations only when her daughter stomped down the stairs and, with her proud head held high, walked through the kitchen and out into the night without a word. Karen had a blanket over her arm and a pillow in her hand, and it was then that Amanda remembered the other injured officer.
“Maybe I should help Karen with the other man?” she asked, cutting across Blue’s report.
“No,” White answered sharply. “Please, my dear, leave Captain Scarlet to Spectrum.”
“Captain Scarlet is your partner, isn’t he, Adam? Surely you don’t want to risk his life by leaving him out there?”
“Amanda, I must insist you stay out of this,” White reiterated his demand.
With a snort of disgust, Amanda Wainwright took the bowl of hot, bloody water to the sink and tipped it away. She found a clean towel, folded it sideways to make a pad and slid it over Blue’s wound, and then lifted a fleece from the back of the cupboard door, and placed that over his shoulders. “Keep warm, Adam,” she instructed him before she turned and busied herself making hot coffee, paying little attention to the subdued conversation between the two men as White resumed his interrogation.
“Why wasn’t I kept informed of the Mysteron threat, Captain?”
Blue swallowed with some difficulty. “Sir, we believed you deserved a holiday and we also believed,” he raised his voice as much as he could to continue over the colonel’s ‘harrumph’ of disapproval, “that we had solved the threat. Captain Grey did suggest contacting you,” he added in defence of his colleague.
White continued to grumble. He sometimes found it hard to accept that his officers could manage well enough without him, although his reason told him that as experienced and capable men, they were perfectly able to cope alone. However, in this case, he was also aware that he knew more of the extenuating circumstances around the matter than they could have.
“You believed this threat concerned the air traffic control system?” he asked impatiently. It was slow going as Blue struggled to make himself understood through lips that felt numb and a throat that was sore from retching. He drank the hot coffee Amanda gave him thirstily.
Blue considered his reply. “Initially, sir, we all did; but subsequently I began to have doubts; which I shared with Captain Grey once I felt they were plausible. Hansford, the plant’s manager and some of the documents I had access to, suggested that AESC may well have been working on a project for SIRAD, possibly on applications for Terahertz technology. But, you’d know all about that, sir, I assume. We now think it’s likely that this project was fronted by Doctor Giardello.” He hesitated and then ploughed on with the worst of the news, “I also have to tell you, Colonel, that we have reason to believe Doctor Giardello has disappeared on a visit to the plant. I don’t know if Magenta or Symphony have any further news on that – it had just been verified that he was missing when Cerulean and I were shot by the Mysteron agents.”
White’s face grew dark with anger and he stuttered, “I…I should’ve been informed the moment you realised he was missing! It is bad enough that you neglected to tell me of the extent of this problem in the first place…”
Captain Blue sighed. He was tired and aching and in no mood to deal with the colonel’s wrath; besides which he felt he and his colleagues were being criticised unfairly. His normally well-restrained temper flared and he interrupted his commanding officer, “By the time we’d learned of the extent of the problem, and of the possible disappearance of Giardello, it was too late to do much about it. We were concerned that the Mysterons were about to strike against us and we couldn’t risk withdrawing support from the air traffic control networks – we didn’t know enough to discount that possibility completely! I know Captain Grey did try to contact you – he mentioned it several times – but no one knew where you were. Green had been sent with Scarlet on a terrestrial mission and he’s the only person with the key to your confidential files… Grey even tried your personal pager – but maybe it wasn’t switched on - sir? That would be perfectly understandable, if you wished to keep Mrs Wainwright’s identity a secret from us all… although why Spectrum personnel feel the need to keep their personal and private lives shrouded in mystery has always been something you’ve never comprehended – sir.”
Colonel White glared at the younger man, but he knew the last jibe was merited, and he bit back his angry retort as he saw Blue’s head sag under the strain of his injuries. “You are wounded, Captain, and are no doubt feeling the strain. I’ll ignore your last remarks – this time.”
Blue did not respond and White knew his officer was still angry; that in itself was an indication of the stress and resentment Blue was experiencing, for he, of all the senior staff, was the most even-tempered.
White made himself calm down and then continued in a far more reasonable tone, “You say these women, who were both Mysteronised, had been with you ever since they took you prisoner at the administration office? And both were killed by Magenta and Scarlet. From what you’re saying they had no intention of destroying the plant so crudely – or why would they have been interested in the cipher codes?”
Blue raised his head as Amanda placed a second cup of black coffee close to him. He took a sip from the cup before he answered the colonel. “In all honesty, Colonel, the women could have gone anywhere or done anything while I was unconscious – either time – I have no idea how long I was out for. They spoke about a secure facility on the site, protected by Mysteron Detectors. I knew then that whatever it was they were looking for must’ve been potentially important to Spectrum; SIRAD would never install Mysteron detectors in anywhere they weren’t using on a regular basis. The Mysterons believed Giardello was in there and they wanted me to crack the cipher codes, go in and disable the alarms, so they could go in and get the doctor. That’s probably why they didn’t kill me – as a Mysteron reconstruct I’d have been no use to them. It’s my belief the Mysterons are worried about something Giardello’s working on – working on with people at AESC – something we don’t know about.”
“Nothing Spectrum Intelligence’s Research and development division does is kept from me, Captain,” White admitted. “But the information is only disseminated on a need to know basis…”
Blue’s anger flared again. “Well we damn well needed to know this time! Sir.”
White raised a hand. “That is enough. This affair has been handled badly from the start – but I accept that no one person is to blame for that,” he conceded, as Blue gave an angry gasp of protest, “circumstances have conspired against us…”
“And cost one young man his life,” Blue muttered, averting his face from the colonel’s gaze by drinking deeply from his cup of coffee.
White said nothing. There was nothing he could say. Blue was used to seeing men die – well, one man in particular – but he was also used to seeing that man recover. This is going to be hard for him to deal with. He’s had to decide to forfeit a colleague’s life rather than be party to a Mysteron threat. He’s made the right choice, of course, White reasoned, but no one has ever said it’s an easy choice.
He waited until Blue, unable to drink any more coffee without taking a breath, put the cup down and glanced resentfully under his fair brows at his commanding officer. Then in a neutral tone – as if nothing contentious had been said between them, White said, “It is most probable that there are other Mysteronised subjects at the plant. Maybe this man, Erhardt, you heard Magenta and Scarlet speaking about?”
Blue nodded. “S’ possible, sir,” he slurred. He had no way of knowing if the stranger had been tested with an MD.
White looked at him in concern – the younger man was visibly sinking under the bludgeons of exhaustion and pain. Even Blue’s strong body could only take so much punishment at once. “Very good, Captain. You should rest for now. Once Scarlet is aboard the helijet, I’ll take the SSC and return to the plant myself, to help Captain Magenta.”
Blue’s one good eye widened and he raised his head in alarm. “Is that wise, sir?”
“Maybe not, but it is expedient, Captain.” He stopped and cocked an ear. “I think I hear the helijet approaching. I’ll go and get dressed...” he paused. “They should have a spare uniform tunic aboard and I didn’t bring my uniform with me. I think I’ll forgo borrowing your tunic; it needs cleaning at the very least…”
Blue’s grimace of disgust was a clear sign of his agreement with that assessment.
White smiled. “Ask them to leave one behind, Captain, if you would.”
Gray turned and marched upstairs. He was busily rummaging in his suitcase for clean underwear when Amanda came in.
“You’re going with them?” she asked a little hesitantly.
“Not exactly; I can be of more use at the AESC plant. With Blue and Scarlet out of action, they’ll be at full stretch.” He gazed into the vague mid-distance, almost forgetting he had company. Amanda’s touch on his arm made him jump.
“Take care, Charles; I don’t want to lose you so soon…”
He smiled and bent to kiss her lips with tenderness. “Never fear, my dear, I have more than enough to live for… now.”
Amanda smiled and laid her head against his shoulder. “We’ll have to deal with Karen, of course, rather sooner than I imagined…”
“Deal with Karen? In what way?”
“Didn’t you see her stalking about the place? We are not approved of, Charles… well, I am not approved of…” she amended.
“Nonsense; Karen would do well to remember that she’s not exactly above reproach… I’m sure you’re worrying unduly.”
Amanda gave a rueful smile. “I hope you’re right, Charles.”
They heard Captain Blue’s shaky voice calling farewell from the kitchen. Amanda left the room and hurried downstairs, arriving just in time to wave goodbye to them. Throwing a coat over her robe, she joined her daughter standing on the porch watching the helijet swirl away into the dark sky. Karen was holding a charcoal-grey cap and uniform tunic, and when Amanda reached to take it from her, she saw the glint of tears in her daughter’s eyes.
“He’ll be okay; he’s made of granite, your young man,” she soothed. “I only hope Captain Scarlet is too…”
“Scarlet?” Karen said shakily, “Oh, he’s made of whatever’s stronger than granite… but, it’s still hard to see them both – in pain.”
“Yes, that’s what love can do to your detachment, Sunny.”
At the sound of her childhood nickname, Karen turned tearful eyes on her mother seeking the familiar solace in her comforting presence and reassurance from her words. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could utter a word, she saw her commanding officer emerging from the house, wearing plain black trousers and shoes, with a white shirt.
Her eyes flicked back to her mother, whose heart lurched to see the sudden coldness in them. “What would you know about true love between two people?” she asked in a fierce whisper.
Dumbfounded, Amanda watched as her daughter slid into the driver’s seat of the SSC and switched on the engine. Brought back to reality by Charles’ hand on her arm, she handed him the tunic and whispered, “Please… go easy on Karen, Charles. I’m afraid our… relationship has come as a shock to her – and she isn’t taking it very well…”
“I need to talk to her – before she goes back to Cloudbase - or it’ll be even worse next time I see her. Please, can you bring her back with you?”
“I won’t let her upset you…” he began.
“I know my daughter, Charles; far better than you do. Just bring her back that’s all I ask of you.”
Colonel White gave a brisk nod, kissed her cheek and slid into the passenger’s seat. He gave Symphony the order to drive off.
Amanda watched the tail lights until they vanished in the darkness. She sighed. This isn’t going to be easy… I only hope I can make her accept it. Oh, Sam – why can’t I get on with our daughter as well as you used to?
The atmosphere inside the speeding SSC was not a comfortable one. Symphony kept her eyes fixed on the road and said nothing beyond acknowledging her Commander-in-Chief’s presence, answering all of his questions in curt monosyllables. Eventually White gave up trying to make headway in the one-sided conversation and sat in silence himself. He realised that her reticence was only partly to do with the difficult driving conditions and that the discovery of his presence in her family home had been even more of a complete shock to her than he’d expected. He had thought that Amanda would have said something to her daughter about their weekend meetings at least, but apparently she had said nothing that might have forewarned her daughter of their growing friendship.
With an internal sigh, he pushed that problem aside and turned his thoughts to the more immediate problem of the situation at the AESC plant.
He had no communicator – the spare tunics carried in every Spectrum vehicle were not wired for direct communication through Cloudbase – and didn’t have a radio cap, just the basic uniform one. Symphony, although her usual pilot’s uniform was covered by her regulation cream-leather, fur-collared overcoat, would still have the capability of contacting any one of the officers logged into the mission loop. These communication networks were created by the powerful computers on Cloudbase specifically for the use of all of the operatives working together on a given mission. He would have to make use of her to direct operations, if he needed to.
He didn’t want to make it seem as if he was muscling in on the mission, but he expected that once he was at the scene, decisions would automatically be deferred to him. Things may not have gone as smoothly as they might have; but all of his officers had done their best and he intended to make sure Captains Grey, Magenta and Ochre, all knew he approved of their endeavours.
As they turned into the plant’s entrance they encountered police security guards, and the colonel allowed Symphony to deal with their questions, nodding in satisfaction when she gained entry. She drove slowly to the administration block and they got out of the car.
The scene that confronted them was surreal. A major part of the plant was ablaze, the flames leaping high into the inky-black sky; sparks, blown by the increasing wind, danced across the rooftops, threatening to set further buildings alight. Fire tenders, ambulances and police cars added to the hellish glow with the silent flashing of their emergency lights. Men ran back and forth, dragging hoses or pushing gurneys towards the paramedic station – set up in a small tent close to the admin block. Radio messages crackled in the air, mingling with the snap and rustle of the fire.
Such was the confusion and the concentration of the rescuers, that no one took any notice of the SSC or its occupants.
Colonel White snapped out an order to Symphony Angel, “Contact Captain Magenta. Find out where he is and who else from Spectrum is here. I want to know exactly what’s happening.”
“S.I.G,” Symphony put her flight helmet on and activated the mic. “Captain Magenta…” she began, waiting the mere seconds it took for her call to be routed via the mission communication link.
“Go ahead, Symphony.”
“I’ve arrived back at the plant. Scarlet and Blue are safely on a medi-jet back to Cloudbase. I have Colonel White with me, Captain. He wants a situation report, but, as he has no communications facility at present – he’s in an auxiliary uniform – you’d better tell me and I’ll pass it on.”
“The colonel? Where did he spring from?” Magenta wondered aloud; he sounded harassed. “Tell him: we got most people out of the main production building. The fire is more or less under control; although they doubt they’ll be able to save the secondary building closest to the canteen.”
Symphony relayed the information and forwarded the colonel’s response. “Are you any further forward with ascertaining the cause of the conflagration?”
She heard Magenta chuckle at the incongruity of hearing such words coming from her. “Not really,” he replied. “Where are you? I’ll come over. There isn’t much more I can do here at the moment.”
“The administration building’s parking lot,” she told him.
“Wait there; Grey’s been on to me and he’s sending back-up from Des Moines.”
Once she’d informed White of the nature of the conversation, they stood side by side in silence – with Symphony refusing even to glance at her commander. White found it difficult to assess her mood. Was she embarrassed or angry? If she was angry – and knowing Symphony as he did, he suspected the latter – was she angry at him, or at her mother? He found himself staring at the blaze and wishing women were as – comparatively – easy to deal with as infernos.
He felt a surge of relief as he saw Magenta sprinting towards them.
“Colonel, I hadn’t expected to see you, sir,” the captain gasped as he came to a halt close by and rested momentarily to catch his breath, doubled-up, his hands on his knees.
“Serendipity, Captain, nothing more. How many men is Grey sending?”
“Four, sir; Des Moines isn’t a big station.” Magenta straightened up again and gave a wry smile at Symphony. His face was dirty with sooty streaks and rivulets of sweat dripped from his hair and off his chin. His uniform tunic – he’d long since discarded his fur-collared coat in the heat of the blaze – was also grimy and slightly scorched; the clear panel of one of the shoulder epaulettes had been crazed by the heat. It was obvious that he’d had been as close to the fire as he’d been permitted to go by the emergency services.
White was focussing single-mindedly on the main problem facing Spectrum. “There is no hope now that we’ll be able to check the workers here with Mysteron Detectors, to ascertain if any of them are Mysteron agents. Is it feasible to have the ground staff diverted to the hospital and have them check the injured there? Of course, if any of the people die as a result of this incident, I’d feel better knowing Spectrum had a presence at the hospital to detect any retrometabolism – and prevent any replicated individuals leaving,” he said.
“I’ll tell Grey to change their orders,” Magenta said with a nod. “There’s nothing much we can do here now until the fire’s died down and the embers have cooled. The police are treating it as arson, by the way,” he added. “Apparently, AESC have been in a trade war with a rival firm for the past couple of years and I thought it best not to enlighten them as to what the probable cause was…”
“Very wise, Captain; we must not spread undue fear amongst the general public concerning the extent of the powers the Mysterons possess,” White agreed.
Magenta got on the radio to Cloudbase and instructed Captain Grey in what the colonel wanted done.
“Colonel White is with you?” Grey sounded confused.
“Yes, it’s him all right,” Magenta replied with a wry twitch of an eyebrow. “Lord knows what he’s doing here… but he’s here.”
“Very well, I’ll get the Des Moines crew to turn back to the hospital. What are you going to do?”
“Whatever the colonel wants,” Magenta replied. “Left to myself, I’d collapse into a nice big armchair with a cold beer and sleep the night away…”
Grey’s voice sounded amused but admiring of his friend’s hard work as he commented, “I guess you’d have deserved it at that.”
Colonel White had been gathering information from the police and the fire chiefs about the condition and safety of the site. He quickly came to the conclusion that no one would be allowed to enter the site tonight and possibly into the next morning. The wind was getting up and flurries of snow were starting to fall, sizzling as they encountered the red-hot ruins of the plant. The last ambulance had just crunched away towards the highway, its siren starting to wail as it disappeared from view and everyone that could be, had been evacuated. The police chief was treating the plant as a crime scene, and White knew that with the reduced manpower he had available, he might as well let the local police do their job. Any Mysteron agents that might have been on the site were as likely to have been killed by their own bombs as the poor souls who had borne the brunt of the blast.
He turned to look at Magenta, dirty, tired and looking definitely the worse for wear, and ran a hand over his chin thoughtfully. He had his mobile phone in his pocket and on an impulse rang the first speed-dial number. A few moments later he heard Amanda’s voice at the other end.
“Amanda, it’s me, Charles. Don’t worry everything is okay; no one’s been hurt, but I need a favour.”
“Of course, Charles; whatever I can do to help, I will do, gladly.”
“Karen and I will be coming back for the night – there is nothing we can do here now – but we’ll need to come back tomorrow. We have a colleague with us – Captain Magenta – who has been helping with the rescue attempts. He needs a shower and a bed for the night… I was wonder…”
“Bring him here! The poor man! Charles, how could you even imagine I’d say no? Bring him here now – I’ll put some food on for him… and make up a bed. You’ll be here in about thirty minutes – right?”
“It’s very good of you, Amanda.”
“No, it’s the least I can do,” she retorted, adding, “Maybe it’ll make Karen behave a little too – with a guest here.”
White gave a quiet groan. “I hope so,” he conceded.
The Hoffman Ranch
Captain Magenta fell asleep in the back of the SSC and didn’t wake until Symphony shook him gently and explained that they had arrived at her home.
Still slightly fuzzy from sleep, Magenta smiled at her and murmured, “I like waking up to the sight of you, Angel.”
Symphony coloured slightly and removed her hand from his shoulder. As she backed away Magenta cursed to himself, but as he emerged from the car he saw Colonel White disappearing through the door to the house, and only then did he see Symphony smile at him.
Yet, as they approached the connecting door she stopped and said, with a sweet, melancholy expression on her face, “You know, Pat, you are a really sweet guy…”
“Yeah, so I’ve been told,” he said wryly.
“And we’re friends, aren’t we?” she asked. Magenta agreed that they were. “Only sometimes,” she continued, “I get the impression that you’d like us to be more than friends.” He could see the blush on her cheeks.
“Karen,” he said, putting a hand on her arm.
She rushed on before he could say anything else. “I am very fond of you, Pat – you know that, don’t you? – but well, I’m in love with someone else; you understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”
He nodded. “Yeah, it’s not exactly news to me, honey.” He smiled at her and she blushed again. He continued, “Are you trying to tell me that there, but for a blond from Boston go I, Karen?”
“Maybe; I… I don’t know – but-”
“Hey, Angel, It doesn’t take a genius to see that you two are a matched pair. We’re friends, Karen – good friends – and that’ll do me. Besides, I like being fancy-free; you don’t have to worry.”
“But I do worry, and I do appreciate your kindness to me, Patrick. But you understand that we’re just friends… don’t you?”
“Sure, we’re just friends. Don’t give it a second thought…” She gave him a warm smile and continued into the house. And I can live with that; after all, I have no choice, he added to himself as he followed her into the warm.
As he was ushered into the kitchen, a slender woman, with rich blonde hair, a clear complexion and honey-coloured eyes, dressed in a fleecy, cherry–red robe, swept him into a seat and put a bowl of steaming hot stew in front of him, with a hunk of crusty bread, still warm from the oven. He began to devour it without speaking – realising he was famished.
Amanda Wainwright placed a similar bowl in front of her daughter and made Colonel White a sandwich. She sat looking at the stranger at her table with concerned eyes, seeing the scratches and bruises appearing on his face and hands. “I’ve made you a bed in the guest room on the second floor, Captain,” she said with a smile. “Just as soon as you’re ready after your meal – feel free to go to bed. You look like you could do with the sleep.”
Magenta swallowed and replied, “That’s true enough, ma’am; but I should shower first, I’m all over dirt from the fire…”
“Nonsense, don’t let it bother you, young man, you just take yourself off when you need to.” Amanda smiled at him, adding, “I’ve left a pair of clean pyjamas on the bed – if you want to use them - I doubt that they’ve ever been worn; Adam certainly never uses them, so I don’t really know why he’s left them here…unless he just likes the idea of me laundering them after his every visit…” she added with a surreptitious glance at her daughter. Karen refused to meet her eye.
Magenta gave a forced smile and made himself the promise that he’d not use them either; but then he thought – it is bitterly cold and, presumably, Blue has someone to cuddle up to in bed and doesn’t need pyjamas to keep him warm. He ducked his head and concentrated on the last of his food, hoping no one would notice his blush.
White broke the lengthening silence to say, “Captain, we’ll need to make the most of the daylight tomorrow and get over to the site as soon as we can. It is possible the police forensic teams will have some answers about how the blast was caused – and, maybe - have recovered more bodies…”
“More bodies…?” Amanda interrupted. “How many people were killed?”
“Not many, Mom,” Karen replied. “At least – not as many as might’ve been. We know of three who may not have been counted in the death toll, Colonel: the two women and Lieutenant Cerulean.”
“Another of your Spectrum colleagues? Oh, Charles – this is far worse than I thought.”
“Amanda, I think you’d better go up to bed. I’m afraid this is confidential information,” he replied with a fleeting look at her. She returned his glance with a wry grimace, but she made her farewells and went up the stairs obediently enough.
Karen watched her go with a discontented face. Her mother had never been one to do what she didn’t want to without arguing, but it seemed that the colonel’s habit of ordering people about was pervasive. She turned to her commander and said, “Can’t we discuss this tomorrow, Colonel? Magenta’s falling asleep where he’s sitting… and I’m tired too.”
White could see that Magenta was indeed on the verge of falling asleep again, so he agreed to her request and extended a hand to help his officer to stand. Symphony led the exhausted captain up the stairs and along to the guest room. She delivered him to the side of the bed, watching as he slumped on to it. With a shake of her head, she dragged his boots off for him, divested him of his sooty tunic, then his polo-neck top and trousers before deciding that was enough. She swivelled him round so that he was lying on the bed and, as his eyelashes fluttered down over his deep-brown eyes, she covered him with a patchwork quilt.
“Goodnight, Pat,” she whispered as she switched off the light and fled up the stairs to her attic rooms – not wanting to know where the colonel planned to spend what was left of this disturbed night.
Captain Scarlet half-opened one eye and squinted into the distance. He gave a relieved sigh as he recognised the familiar ceiling of his usual recovery room in Cloudbase medical. He’d woken so many times in this same recovery room – and complained so often about having to stare at that same anonymous stretch of ceiling whilst he struggled to work out where he was – that Blue had, in defiance of Doctor Fawn’s objections, pinned a notice up there, saying ‘welcome back’ in large, multi-coloured, handwritten letters – of which everyone had done at least one – he’d assured his friend. Fawn was always threatening to take it down, but so far he hadn’t bothered, sensing, perhaps, the reassurance it gave his patient at a difficult time in his retrometabolic cycle.
His raging thirst told Scarlet that he’d died – again – and his throbbing head told him it’d been an unpleasant death.
I have no desire to remember any more about it, right now. Blue can tell me all about it later – as usual.
He opened both eyes completely and glanced towards where the armchair was always placed. It wasn’t there this time – but further back against the wall and it was an unpleasant surprise to see it empty. Normally Blue’s there, keeping vigil and doing one of the nurses out of a job… as I’m wont to remind him.
He concentrated; trying to remember where he’d been and what he’d been doing to earn himself this death. His memory always took a while to come back after a serious incident. He became aware of the deep breathing of someone on the other side of the room, and turned his head slightly to see who it was.
Captain Blue was lying asleep on a gurney, his arm and shoulder bandaged and his face pale beneath – what Scarlet always referred to as – his ‘perma-tan’ complexion. The memories flooded back: Blue had been shot – then he’d been shot… so Magenta sent them here. He tried to sit up and the movement brought a nurse rushing in from the ward outside.
“Captain Scarlet, lie down this minute,” Nurse Ingram instructed in a stage whisper, designed to be forceful and yet not wake her other patient. “You have a serious wound in your neck.”
“How’s Blue?” he asked gratefully accepting the water she offered him, and her help to drink it. Every gulp made his throat ache like the devil, but the water soothed him and he started to feel better. He knew he’d start feeling hungry soon.
“Captain Blue is fine – he’s had a bullet taken from his shoulder and he’s sedated to keep him still. I wish we could find something that would keep you still…” she added sternly, but with a friendly wink.
“I’m fine, Bill,” he reasoned. “I just need a drink and something to eat.”
“That’s Nurse Ingram to you or, at the very least – and then only when I’m satisfied that you’re going to do as you’re told – Belinda, if you please.” She fussed around him, not fooling him at all by her tough, professional nurse act.
“Belinda – a beautiful name for the most wonderful nurse in the world – let me get up, beautiful Belinda… pretty please?”
“Certainly not; but I will tell Doctor Fawn you’re back with us, and no doubt he’ll be along to see you shortly. Now, promise me you will stay put until then, won’t you, Paul?”
“For you, anything…” he promised with a charming smile. The effort made him wince.
Tutting, she bustled away and Scarlet closed his eyes again. Nice of them to put Blue in here… so I’d know he was okay…” he thought groggily, as fresh waves of sleep washed over him and he drifted off once more, long before Fawn came in to check him over.
The Hoffman Ranch
Captain Magenta woke to the tantalizing smell of fried bacon and hot coffee. He rubbed his eyes and turned his head to see a cup of coffee on the bedside table. He heaved himself upright and rubbed his chin, grimacing at the rough stubble. His watch said 9.34. He gulped down the drink, savouring the freshly made taste as much as the aroma, then he slid from the bed and looked around the room. He didn’t recall going to bed and he wondered who, exactly, had undressed him last night. His uniform lay piled on the floor and on a straight-backed chair near the wall was a pile of towels and a handwritten note saying: bathroom is down the hall – on the right. He didn’t recognise the writing and guessed it must have been left by his hostess – probably when she brought him the coffee.
He ventured out and found the room, discovering a disposable razor, shaving cream– presumably courtesy of either Blue or the colonel – and a wrapped bar of soap on the sink top. He showered, shaved and felt much better, even though he had to get back into his grubby, smoke-scented uniform.
He went downstairs.
Colonel White and Symphony were eating breakfast and the woman from last night – Karen’s mother – was busy at the stove still cooking. She looked up at the sound of his tread on the stairs and smiled a welcome.
“Your breakfast is nearly ready, Captain. How do you like your eggs?”
“Over easy, thank you, ma’am.” He slipped next to Symphony at the table and nodded a greeting at her and the colonel.
“Did you sleep okay, Pat?” Symphony asked quietly.
“Like a log,” he confessed. “I hope I haven’t delayed our departure, sir?”
“No, Captain. I’ve been in touch with the chief of police. He was reluctant to grant us access at all, but with a little persuasion, he’s compromised on ‘late morning’.”
Mrs. Wainwright placed a plate of food before him, and poured him another coffee, before refilling the others’ cups.
Once she had finished her meal, Symphony disappeared upstairs again, and Colonel White excused himself shortly after that, leaving Magenta alone with Mrs Wainwright.
“I have to thank you, Ma’am…”
“Amanda,” she said firmly.
“Thank you, Amanda, for all your kindness. I’m afraid your bed sheets reek of smoke.”
“Not to worry, it’s what washing machines are for, after all… Pat, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “Patrick Donaghue.”
“I’m pleased to meet you.” Amanda held out a hand and Magenta shook it.
“I can see why Captain Blue values his visits here so much,” he said eating his breakfast with relish.
She laughed. “Oh, he tells me I spoil him – but then - I so rarely get visited by good-looking men, it’s kinda nice for me to have someone to spoil.”
Magenta joined in with her amused chuckle and then sobered up as the colonel came back downstairs. He was once more wearing the grey auxiliary tunic and cap, but to Magenta’s eyes he still looked every inch the commander-in-chief. He permitted himself to muse on just what the colonel had been doing at the Wainwright ranch, but on catching the look Amanda gave the older man he guessed it wasn’t that hard to figure out. There’s life in the old devil yet, the captain thought, hiding his amusement by sipping at the remainder of his coffee.
He saw the colonel donning his overcoat and struggled to his feet to do the same. Amanda went to the bottom of the stairs and bellowed: “Karen – they’re leaving without you!”
Symphony clattered down stairs and followed the men out to the SSC, annoyed to find that Magenta was in the driving seat and she was relegated to the backseats.
On the journey back to AESC, the colonel bought them both up to date with what he’d learned from Captain Blue’s report and the latest information from Cloudbase. Captain Grey had used the Wainwrights’ video-phone to report back earlier that morning; it seemed that he was taking no more risks that his commanding officer was less than fully informed.
Air Electronics Systems Corporation
The Fire Chief was too pre-occupied to do more than issue the Spectrum agents with the compulsory hard-hats and give them a strict lecture on site safety. Then he bustled away to deal with more important problems.
“Where do we start, Colonel?” Magenta asked.
“There are two priorities, Captain. We must find Doctor Giardello and determine what the Mysterons are really after. I have to agree with Captain Blue that the air-traffic control threat may have been a red herring, or least a secondary part of their scheme. I think the key to this lies with Doctor Giardello.”
“We know he was here, Colonel, but not what’s happened to him. We didn’t really have time to search before the plant was hit.”
“Cloudbase confirms that none of the bodies – or the injured – at the hospital can be identified as the doctor, so we can assume he was not caught in the blast. Blue mentioned a secure facility – separated from the main plant complex and guarded by Mysteron detectors. We’ll start there.”
Magenta had learned quite a lot about the layout of the site and he led the way to the new block, which was set some way away from the more established buildings. It had not been damaged much by the fire, and was being largely ignored by the rescue and investigation workers, who still combed the burnt-out buildings for bodies and evidence of what had happened.
“How are we going to get in?” Symphony asked. The door had an impressive key-pad lock and bore the standard notice to the effect that as all entrants would be scanned by X-ray anybody who was – or thought they might be – pregnant was advised to think twice about entering.
Colonel White glanced at Captain Magenta. “Do you know the cipher code?”
Magenta shook his head. “I could work it out, given time. I expect Blue had worked it out – it’s merely a matter of trying the standard codes until you find the one that works, after all.”
“We don’t have time for that.” Colonel White sighed and strode to the door. He reached across and jabbed in a series of numbers. The keypad gave a chirpy ‘bleep’ and the colonel entered a second series of numbers. The keypad lights flickered and then they heard the whirring of the electronic locks as they slid open.
Magenta and Symphony shared expressive glances. “That must’ve been the master code,” he whispered to her. “It over-rides all Spectrum security protocols. I’ve never been able to crack that one…”
Colonel White turned and looked at him, his dark eyebrow raised. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said sharply.
Magenta’s face radiated innocence and Symphony smothered a giggle as they followed the colonel into a small vestibule. Ahead of them was another set of locked doors.
An automatic voice asked them to identify themselves.
“Colonel White, Spectrum,” White said, quoting his service number.
“Captain Magenta, Spectrum,” Magenta did the same.
“Symphony Angel, Spectrum,” Symphony recited her number.
They passed through a metal archway that hummed and clicked as they were scanned by the Mysteron detector. Green lights flashed on an indicator board and the inner door locks clicked open.
The building consisted of one large room, divided into several cubicles, most of them sterilised working environments. Computers hummed and a CCTV camera followed their movement as they walked deeper into the room, looking for signs of life, or clues as to the whereabouts of Doctor Giardello. The place was deserted.
Symphony wandered over towards a small area around a coffee machine where there were a few comfortable chairs. She looked around, noticing the pile of scientific magazines and the discarded coffee cups. There was nothing to say who had been here, nor how long ago.
Magenta gravitated towards the computers, flicking the pieces of paper beside the first terminal and wondering if it was worth switching it on.
Colonel White headed for the cluttered workbench at the far end of the building. It was obviously used as a desk – or at least a repository for documents and equipment.
They were about as far apart as the room allowed them to be when suddenly there was a gunshot, the alarm system whooped into life, and the inner doors burst open.
Magenta wheeled round, pulling his gun from his holster, as the figure of Lieutenant Cerulean burst through the door, firing in his direction. His initial shock at seeing the man was tempered by the realisation that he’d half been expecting this to happen. He dived behind a desk and peered around. The colonel had also dodged under cover behind the workbench, whilst Symphony was sprinting towards one of the offices in the hope of taking refuge. Cerulean fired at her, bringing her down with a bullet in her thigh.
She rolled on the floor, her hands reaching to cover her wound and staunch the bleeding. Then she struggled to keep moving, gasping as she pulled herself along the floor towards the nearest office, leaving a trail of blood in her wake.
Magenta’s line of fire was hampered by equipment and the possibility of hitting Symphony, so Cerulean easily caught her up before she reached the safety of the office partition. Straddling her, he snapped, “keep still, earthwoman.” He turned towards Magenta and ordered, “You will stop the alarms – or I will kill her.”
Colonel White saw the captain’s face blanch. According to the regulations he should refuse to carry out this demand, but he was not surprised when Magenta called back,
“Very well, don’t hurt her…”
Risking putting himself in the line of fire, Magenta stood and laid his gun on the desk top before walking to the control panel. A quick examination showed him how to silence the alarm and he jabbed in the code. It’s unlikely anyone will respond to it anyway, he reasoned to himself, and I’m not going to risk Cerulean carrying out his threat just over an alarm.
The wailing siren stopped and an un-natural silence fell on the room, broken only by Symphony’s barely suppressed sobs.
Cerulean nodded in approval. His dark eyes roamed around the room, a frown appearing between his dark brows. “Where is Doctor Giardello?” he demanded.
Magenta shrugged. “We were asking ourselves the same question, Lieutenant. We expected him to be here too – dead or alive.”
Cerulean wasn’t impressed with this answer. “Earthmen, Spectrum is trying to learn the secrets of the Mysterons, you will not succeed,” he said in echo of the original Mysteron threat. “We will find Doctor Giardello, and the Horizon-I device will be destroyed.”
Magenta glanced at Colonel White at this, wondering how his commander would react to the apparent confirmation that the Mysteron target was the air traffic control system after all. The colonel’s face remained impassive. He had not moved or spoken since Cerulean entered the room, but the Mysteron noticed Captain Magenta’s referential glance and he finally studied the other Spectrum agent. A slow, lupine smile came over his boyish features. “Colonel White,” he said, “you will come with me.”
“I will not.” White’s face remained as impassive as his words.
Cerulean shifted the gun from Symphony to point at the colonel and was intrigued to see the older man’s expression almost relax. Swiftly the gun went back to target the wounded Angel. “You value the Earthwoman’s life, it seems. If you wish to save it, obey me. Now.” He cocked the trigger.
Symphony’s head came up in a brave defiance at those words, but White could see her chin was trembling and tears were sparkling on her long lashes. He did not doubt that she was as prepared to give her life for Spectrum as any agent, but she was already in pain and that devastating tremble and the little suppressed sob she could not prevent, tore at his heart. He saw Amanda in the pout of her lower lip, the way her hair swung to her shoulders and the proud tilt of her head – he could not allow this woman to die – whatever the regulations said.
“Wait,” he snapped. “I do not know where Giardello is – I expected to find him here.”
“Come here,” Cerulean ordered and as White walked over to surrender himself to the Mysteron, Cerulean relaxed slightly. He took hold of White’s arm and twisted it behind his back, forcing the colonel into a bent posture and pushing him towards the office partition, away from the Angel pilot. He glanced at Magenta. “Spectrum has four hours to find the Doctor and bring him here. If you do not succeed within that time, I will kill Colonel White. Any attempt to storm this building will also result in the death of the colonel. Understood, Captain Magenta?”
Magenta nodded. “What about Symphony?”
Cerulean looked at the young woman. “She is no further use to us – you may take her.”
With what he hoped was a reassuring glance at his commanding officer, Magenta moved to help the young woman to her feet. Hobbling beside him, her weight against his sturdy body, Symphony looked at the colonel as they made their way to the door.
“We’ll be back, sir,” she promised.
“S.I.G.,” White responded, his blue eyes meeting her hazel ones. On impulse he added, “Please reassure your mother that I am perfectly at ease with my situation.” It was as close as he could come to revealing to Symphony that he both valued her life and that his feelings for her mother were beyond the commonplace.
“Colonel…” Symphony’s impulsive emotions overcame her, her voice broke and tears slipped down her cheeks.
“Get her out of here, Captain Magenta, and get a search underway immediately. Spectrum is red,” White said with as much composure as he could muster.
“S.I.G., Colonel…” Magenta acknowledged his orders and half-carried the weeping Angel from the building.
Once clear of the secure facility, Magenta radioed Captain Grey and informed him of the situation.
“Get Symphony back to her mother’s ranch – I’ll send another helijet down for her,” Grey ordered. Captain Ochre will be on his way from Atlantic shortly and Captain Scarlet will be on the helijet… Fawn’s told me he’s conscious again. He’ll have to get what rest he can on the journey – we’re going to need every man we have on this mission.”
“S.I.G.,” Magenta said. “We don’t have much time, Brad…”
“Every available man will be with you as soon as humanly possible…” Grey promised. “Let’s hope we find Giardello sooner rather than later…”
“You don’t mean you intend to hand him over?” Magenta gasped.
“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it… right now; I just want to know where he is and what the hell he’s been doing…”
The Hoffman Ranch
Despite her pain and current emotional turmoil, Symphony was able to call her mother on her personal cell phone. She struggled to keep her voice under control as she told Amanda what had happened to the colonel and to herself, warning her of their imminent arrival to await the Spectrum medical helijet. Amanda’s reaction was surprisingly calm, and sensing Karen’s nervous strain she was able to offer her daughter some reassurance.
As she closed the call Amanda placed a hand against her brow and gave way to a sigh of unutterable melancholy. With her daughter and the man she loved wounded, and her own lover held hostage – her very worst fears were realised. Yet, after a few moments assimilating the news, she pulled herself together and made preparations for the arrival of the Spectrum pair – boiling some water and laying out clean cloths and the few remaining bandages she had left in the house. Karen had not been able to tell her too much about the nature of her wound and she sincerely hoped the helijet would arrive quickly.
She was waiting by the screen door as the SSC swept up to the house. She opened it and watched Captain Magenta carry Karen indoors directing him to place her on the couch. She moved across and stared down at her daughter, her love and concern mirrored in her eyes. Karen looked up at her mother and, with a slight tremble of her lower lip, reached out towards her. Amanda sank onto her knees and enfolded her only child in her arms. “I thought I had lost you too. I thought I had lost you… my little girl…my darling…” she crooned as Symphony’s flimsy composure broke down and she wept against her mother’s shoulder.
Magenta watched the women for a moment, until he felt like an intruder in this loving family relationship. He had never had the luxury of sharing his emotions with his family – even as a youngster - and once they had learned of his career in crime, they had, more or less, excluded him from their company. Even though he had assured them he was ‘reformed’ they were often less than welcoming on his rare visits home. He knew that Captain Blue was also considered something of a ‘black sheep’ in his family, and mused that that was another thing they had in common…
Shrugging off his tired introspection, he determined to make himself useful and went to fetch a bowl of water to bathe the wound. He saw the neat pile of cloths and carried them back to where Amanda was still comforting Symphony. She gave him a grateful smile and quietly asked him to go upstairs and fetch a blanket to keep Karen warm. As he climbed the stairs he heard the sounds of the boot zips being undone and Amanda encouraging her daughter to ease herself out of her flying suit, so she could clean the wound.
These Wainwright women are certainly tough, he thought glancing over the banister to where Karen was struggling from her uniform trousers. He averted his eyes and strode with as much haste as he could to find the blanket.
Some time later, Magenta was sitting in the living room, across from the sofa where Symphony lay wrapped in a warm blanket, her tired eyes closed, her face pale and her glorious hair, for once, a mare’s nest of tangles. Her mother had cleaned the bullet wound which, luckily – although it had bled copiously – appeared to be a simple flesh wound. Magenta had hovered around in a state of uselessness. He didn’t want to embarrass mother or daughter by trying to help with the first aid and he was exhausted – mentally, emotionally and physically – by the recent turn of events. Once Karen was settled and as comfortable as possible, her mother, recognising the symptoms of his exhaustion, had guided him into an armchair and bustled off to make coffee, leaving him with nothing to do but brood; something he always took great pains to avoid, preferring to watch the 24 hour news channels or read newspapers rather than be left with his own thoughts.
He stared at the sleeping woman on the sofa, his mind a jumble of longing and self-imposed restraint.
Unnoticed, Amanda came back into the room. She looked thoughtfully at the exhausted man for a long moment, watching him watch her daughter. Then she stepped closer and handed him a cup of hot coffee. He took it with a grateful smile, although his gaze soon reverted back to the younger woman.
Amanda fetched her own coffee and sat some feet away from him on the second chair. “Does she know?” she said gently.
“Know what?” Magenta asked sharply, dragging his gaze from the sleeping Symphony.
“How you feel about her?” Amanda said quietly. “Mind you, I think she’d have to be far more foolish than I can imagine her to be if she didn’t,” she added.
Magenta sipped his coffee, noticing that there was a slug of brandy in there too, and turned his dark-brown eyes on the older woman, marvelling again at the beauty of her face that was, at the same time, like and yet, unlike her daughter’s. There was no avoiding those discerning eyes, however. With a sigh he replied, “I guess she knows how I used to feel about her, yes.”
“Used to?” it was obvious Amanda did not believe him.
“She’s in love with another man – as you well know – and he loves her and they are my friends… I’d never knowingly hurt either of them. Besides,” he said with another sigh, “I’m over her. It was a passing phase.”
“Yes – what else could it be, Mrs Wainwright?”
“You tell me, Patrick Donaghue.”
There was a long silence; the type of silence which seemed to invite confidences and offered a chance of baring his soul to a friendly and non-judgmental listener. He fought against the temptation, but his need to confide in someone after keeping his own counsel for so long was too great. He began, “Somehow – when you think you’ve found the one love that will surpass anything you’ve ever known – you never imagine it won’t be the same for the person you‘ve chosen. But, love IS blind; and when the one you love, loves someone else, what else can you do, but get over it?”
“A wise philosophy, Patrick.” Amanda laid a hand on his arm with an understanding smile.
As if a floodgate had opened he continued in a rush, “So, I can tell you, in all honesty, that I’m over her. Really…really over her. I mean, I barely notice the way her perfume lingers in a room after she’s left anymore. I can hear her wonderful laughter – Hell, I can even see the way her nose wrinkles when she laughs – without feeling as if someone is twisting a knife in my heart. I can see how she binds a man to her without his realising it; or, if he does realise, he believes it was his own idea in the first place and welcomes his captivity.” He looked across at Karen and then added, “I can see her everyday; see how much she loves the man I am proud to call my friend, and how much he loves her. I can witness all that and not even wish the man she wants to share her life with was me, not anymore.…. It took a while, but I managed it.”
Amanda looked down to hide the pity in her eyes. Magenta gave a wry smile. “Not very convincing, am I? I’ve told myself that time is a great healer, but sometimes I wish it’d get a move on. I don’t know how much longer I can conceal my feelings and pretend what I feel isn’t real for me any more. To do less than hide would risk losing the friendships I have come to value. But, so far, I think only Heaven knows for sure what an unmitigated fool I am - in loving someone who cannot love me - Heaven, and you, of course.”
“And Karen – how does she feel?”
“She’s my friend; she treats me as she treats all her friends – and I wouldn’t have it any other way, Mrs Wainwright. Believe me, she’s never given me any cause to think of her as anything other than a friend – she’s never led me on or promised me anything. She’s a lady – especially in matters of the heart – however much she acts the tough little tomboy at times. She is… altogether wonderful; but I doubt I have to tell you that? It isn’t her fault that I’m crazy about everything she does or that I’m in love with her, and yet, if I could choose, I would have it no other way.”
“And does Adam know of this… state of affairs?”
“He knows; I think. I would, if the case was reversed.” He looked at her. “He’s a decent, honest guy; I like him. Besides, Karen loves him – that much was obvious since day one of their acquaintance and it’s enough for me; I wouldn’t interfere. However much it might hurt me to say it – that pair were made for each other.”
Amanda reached across and planted a kiss on the unshaven cheek. “Patrick Donaghue – you are a rare man. My girl’s lucky that she can inspire such feelings in two such remarkable men. I’m just sorry it has to be that way.”
“Don’t be. It’s no one’s problem but mine. Besides, I’m thoroughly convinced that one day I’ll walk around a corner and meet a woman the equal of that sleeping beauty over there. And then I’ll invite you to the wedding…”
“And I’ll come, too,” Amanda said with a cheerful nod.
They exchanged warm smiles and Amanda saw, buried in the depths of those intense, world-weary eyes, just the merest wisp of sadness that told her this young man didn’t believe a word of his hopeful prediction. She fervently hoped that he would find someone – one day – who would appreciate him for what he was: a generous and courageous man, with a wealth of love for the right woman.
No personal consideration should stand in the way of performing a public duty.
Ulysses S. Grant
The Hoffman Ranch
The medical helijet dropped Captain Scarlet off and whisked Symphony Angel away into the gathering gloom of the afternoon. Amanda looked at the darkly handsome Englishman and wondered if she’d been right in thinking that he’d been severely injured when Karen and Adam had brought him to the ranch – he was certainly pale - yet he looked fit enough. Captain Scarlet had been warned that he might have to explain what had happened, and he was not intending to say any more than he had to. Pre-empting any enquiry he volunteered the information that Captain Blue was conscious and Cloudbase’s medical team were predicting a full recovery.
“Well, I’m sure pleased to hear that. It looked like a nasty wound to me; not that I am any expert, Captain,” she replied, adding with some concern, “I understood that you were also wounded…”
“Only in my pride, Mrs Wainwright…I wasn’t paying enough attention and it was a rather unfortunate place to get knee’d by an opponent … I definitely thought I might end up as a soprano for a time…” he gave her a rather bashful smile and Amanda fought the urge to chuckle.
“You boys ought to be more careful and watch what you’re doing,” she advised him with a friendly pat on his arm. Scarlet rolled his eyes, pleased that she wasn’t going to pursue the topic for fear of embarrassing him. “Now, tell me what you propose to do about rescuing Charles – I mean – Colonel White?”
Magenta suppressed his grin and spoke up, “How many men do we have, Scarlet?”
Captain Scarlet gave Amanda a wary glance and replied, “Grey’s sent Cerise and Gentian with me to lend a hand; we’re short staffed on Cloudbase, with so many people already off on their Christmas leave. I understand we can expect four men from the base at Des Moines?” Magenta gave a brisk confirming nod. “So, that’s the lot. With Symphony off duty, the Angels are picking up the extra shift between them, but we can call on them, if we have a need.”
“Let me help,” Amanda said into the sudden silence that fell between the two men as they considered the task before them.
“No,” they both replied and Magenta went on to explain, “It’s very good of you to offer, Mrs Wainwright, but we’d only worry about you and that’d make what we have to do more difficult…”
Scarlet nodded vehemently. “You’ll be more help staying here, Mrs Wainwright; then we’ll know there is a ‘safe house’ we can use, if the need arises. We may need to evacuate the colonel somewhere – when we get him out of the plant.”
She looked from one man to the other and realised that she didn’t stand a chance of convincing them otherwise. They had the same stubborn glint in their eyes that she recognised from both Karen’s and Adam’s, when they’d been determined to exclude her from Spectrum business.
“Very well, but on one condition…”
Scarlet and Magenta shared a mistrustful glance and Scarlet said, “And that is?”
“You boys both call me Amanda and someone tells me what’s going on every so often?” she pleaded.
“Done,” Magenta said briskly. “Now, we’d better get out of here… Amanda. There’s work to do.”
She smiled and watched them leave, staring after the SSC until it was no longer visible.
Air Electronics Systems Corporation
Colonel White glanced surreptitiously at his watch. The movement was barely discernable but Cerulean snapped, “Sit still.”
Taking the opportunity presented to him by this, White responded, “You don’t imagine my men will obey your orders, do you? When they find Giardello – and find him they will – they’ll never hand him over to you, just to save me.”
”For your sake, I hope you are wrong, Earthman. If they do not find Doctor Giardello, and bring him here, you will die. The Mysterons’ orders will be carried out.”
“Don’t you imagine they’ll assume that if they do hand Giardello over, you’ll kill me and as many of them as you can?”
Cerulean gave him a dark stare, but did not respond.
White continued, “This research really has got the Mysterons worried, hasn’t it? I’m assuming you know all about it, Cerulean, so maybe you can tell me: why do they fear Terahertz?”
“The Mysterons fear nothing, Earthman. They merely see that you gain encouragement from your puny triumphs against us. Such triumphs avail you nothing. Our retaliation will be slow but nonetheless effective.”
“Yes, so you keep telling us.” Colonel White shifted his position slightly. “Surely the Mysterons are intelligent enough to realise that what happened on Mars was the action of one frightened and all too fallible human being? It had never been our intention to attack your city; Captain Black acted from a rash, yet understandable, fear.”
“Captain Black acts as we instruct him. Resistance is futile,” Cerulean’s hollow voice intoned flatly.
“Resistance is a fundamental part of the human condition,” White reasoned. “We don’t accept defeat easily. Spectrum will never surrender. We will fight until the last man falls – you must know that?” His voice had taken on a pleading note of reasonableness; such was his eagerness to use this unexpected dialogue with the Mysterons to argue his point. Never before had he had a chance to extend an olive branch towards them; they’d never listened; or rather, on the one occasion they had appeared to be ready to listen, they’d used the opportunity to attack Cloudbase and try to destroy Spectrum. In his earnestness he reached out with one hand towards Cerulean.
As if his touch had fired a reflex response, Cerulean’s fist swung out and the butt of his pistol impacted on White’s face, leaving a jagged cut down the strong-boned cheek. Blood flowed copiously from the wound and White cursed, rummaging through the charcoal tunic’s pockets for a handkerchief. Finally, he reached out for a box of tissues on the workbench and clasped a handful against his face. Cerulean watched him with interest, as if he had never seen such a thing. White stared back and seeing nothing even remotely human in those dark eyes, sat back with a dry sigh – defeated by the sheer implacable hostility of the aliens’ mind.
“Resistance is futile,” Cerulean said, almost conversationally. “The Mysterons’ orders will be carried out.”
“Futile or not, that’s what you face and will continue to face,” White muttered, “until you leave us alone or destroy every one of us.”
“The Mysterons’ orders will be carried out.”
“Oh, give it a rest…” Colonel White sighed.
Lieutenants Cerise and Gentian arrived to report back to Captain Scarlet at the appointed time, although he could already deduce by the look on their faces that they’d had no luck in finding any sign of Giardello. He reported back to Captain Grey and then the three captains discussed what to do next.
“There’s no record of Giardello having returned to SIRAD,” Grey informed them. “We’ve checked every possibility within Spectrum for sightings or contact with him. He has to be at the plant.”
“Not necessarily,” Magenta said quietly. “In fact we know with almost 100 per cent certainty that he isn’t here.”
“So where is he?” Scarlet asked. “Cerulean doesn’t know – which means the Mysterons don’t know. It’s like he’s vanished off the face of the earth!”
“Do we have an address for Vernon Catesby?” Magenta remarked, “And has anyone checked with him where Giardello went?”
Grey’s voice answered that no one had checked as far as he was aware “We all assumed Giardello and Catesby would be at the plant.”
“Just as the Mysterons have done…” Scarlet’s voice trailed away. He sighed. This mission was fated to go down in the annals as ‘how not to do it’. He turned to Gentian. “Lieutenant, please would you get the details of Catesby’s address and drive over there yourself – with one of the Des Moines men – and speak to Dr Catesby? See if he has any information about where Giardello went after they met. The Mysterons don’t have him, and we must get to him first; I don’t think they’d keep the colonel alive for a moment longer than necessary and once they have Giardello, from us or by their own methods, he is no longer of use to them.”
The taciturn Scotsman saluted. “S.I.G., sir.”
“And, Gentian…” Scarlet added.
“S.I.G, Captain Scarlet.”
Magenta glanced at his colleague. Possibly unfairly, Captain Scarlet had a reputation for rarely considering the well-being of his co-workers. Cloudbase wisdom puts it down to his own invulnerability tending to make him too rash in his actions, he mused. But then, he so rarely works with any one except Blue that how can we really know what he’s like? I mean, Blue’s no one’s fool and he’s happy to work alongside Scarlet. There’s no doubt they’d both stick their necks on the line for the other…which suggests Blue feels confident Scarlet’s not likely to get them both killed.
He glanced away quickly as Scarlet’s sharp blue eyes met his. “What do you think we should do about Colonel White?” he asked to cover his true thoughts.
Scarlet sighed. “Even if we find Giardello we can’t hand him over; that’s a given. We have to get the colonel out of there – the sooner the better, I’d say.”
“If we attack the offices, Cerulean will kill him,” Magenta said bleakly.
“Then we have to do it without him knowing we’re about to attack,” Scarlet explained.
“He’s a Mysteron, Paul – and he could have accomplices – they’d let him know, however careful we are.”
“Do you think I don’t know that? We have to find a way to neutralise the threat Cerulean represents – before he gets chance to fire at the colonel. It’d be easier if we knew what the situation was in there. If the colonel is some distance from his captor, we stand a better chance…”
“The whole plant has CCTV security,” Magenta broke in eagerly. I bet that department does too.”
Scarlet’s jet-black brows rose so high they were almost lost in his fringe. “Oh, for crying out loud! Why didn’t somebody mention this before? Where’s the control room?”
Magenta gestured over his shoulder. “I can show you,” he offered.
“Come on then – we don’t have time to waste…”
Inside the security control room, there were several signs of the damage done by the fire. Initially it looked as if they wouldn’t be able to view the secure unit, but Magenta spent a busy half-hour tinkering with the electronics and managed to get a fuzzy, but recognisable picture of the room where White was being held. He called to Scarlet who was pacing impatiently up and down behind him and they peered at the small screen intently.
Colonel White was sitting on the floor, his back against the large workbench at the far end of the room. His head was back, resting against the wooden panels of the desk and his eyes were closed. It was possible to make out a dark smudge on his cheekbone. Scarlet frowned, concerned that the colonel had been seriously hurt, but the dismay only lasted for a few minutes, until White shifted slightly and glanced at his watch.
Magenta heaved a sigh of relief and Scarlet placed a hand on his shoulder. “The old man’s okay for now, it seems. Can you find Cerulean?”
“I can try to move the camera… it might still work.”
Scarlet nodded and Magenta tapped instructions into the battered keyboard. The picture went blank for a moment and then refocused. Cerulean was standing about half way down the room, staring fixedly at the colonel. In his hand he held his Spectrum issue gun.
“We need a distraction,” Scarlet mused. “Something, or someone, that will draw Cerulean’s attention from the colonel and keep him occupied whilst someone else shoots him with the Mysteron rifle before he has time to shoot the colonel.”
“And what if we miss? Those rifles are not the most accurate of weapons at a distance, as you well know. He could just as easily shoot both of us and then shoot the colonel,” Magenta responded. “Personally speaking, I don’t like the survival odds on that scheme.”
“Do you have any alternative suggestion then?” Scarlet asked with considerable hauteur.
Lieutenant Cerise ventured to speak. “We have an SPV out in the car park; I suggest we use the rockets on the place.”
“And bring the building down on top of Colonel White, I suppose? We need a diversion, not a demolition job, Lieutenant,” Scarlet exclaimed. “We might as well just let Cerulean shoot him if our only other option is to blast him to smithereens.” Cerise looked abashed and the silence dragged on for some time until Scarlet said, “If we could warn the colonel, it might be safer to risk an attack; but, you say the colonel has no Spectrum communication devices with him?”
“Nothing, except his cell phone – I saw him use that…”
They shared an understanding glance as the same idea flashed into their minds simultaneously.
“Do you know the number?” Scarlet asked.
”No, but I know a woman who does.” Magenta spoke to Grey over his cap mic, “Can you get in touch with Symphony’s mother and ask her what the colonel’s phone number is?”
“Symphony’s mother?” Grey repeated incredulously.
“Just do it,” Scarlet snapped impatiently.
They waited for what seemed an age and then heard Grey’s voice reciting a number. Magenta scribbled it down on the nearest scrap of paper and reached for the phone. “Let’s hope it’s working…”
But the phone lines to the site were dead and they wasted precious minutes getting hold of a mobile phone from one of the rescue workers. Then Magenta dialled the number.
“It’s ringing… I just hope it doesn’t revert to an answering service,” he said, handing the slim device to Captain Scarlet.
In the secure workroom, Cerulean frowned at the persistent ringing of the colonel’s phone.
“Make it stop,” he ordered.
“I’ll need to answer it,” White explained and saw the Mysteron agent incline his head in permission.
“Do not try to trick me, I will be listening,” he warned.
White grabbed the phone from his pocket and flicked it open. He didn’t recognise the number and prayed it wasn’t someone trying to sell him insurance.
“Charles Grey,” he said sharply.
“Colonel – it’s Scarlet. We can see you on CCTV and we have a scheme to rescue you. Keep as far away from Cerulean as you can, and be ready to get under cover….”
“Amanda, I’m far too busy to talk to you now…”
Scarlet ignored the comment and continued, “We haven’t found Giardello and time’s running out. An attempt to free you is our best bet. Be ready.”
Cerulean moved towards White with an angry frown.
“Amanda, it’s quite all right… don’t wait lunch for me…I’ll call you back.” White snapped the phone off and gave Cerulean a wry smile. “That woman could talk for America…”
Cerulean held out his hand for the phone and White handed it over, wincing as the Mysteron crushed it beneath his foot. “I wonder if I can claim for a new one on expenses,” the colonel muttered dryly.
“You got through to him?” Magenta asked as Scarlet closed the phone and handed it back to its owner.
“Yes, I’m sure he understood. My guess is Cerulean was threatening him.”
“Yeah, look.” Magenta pointed to the CCTV screen and they saw Cerulean crush the phone underfoot.
“It’s a good job he’s a Mysteron, or the colonel would’ve had him scrubbing decks for a year for that,” the Englishman remarked.
Magenta chuckled. “You’d get two years at least for trampling your commanding officer’s cell phone,” he corrected.
“Let’s hope the colonel’ll be around long enough to hand out such implausible punishments,” Grey added sombrely.
“You said we had a plan,” Magenta said to Scarlet. “Would you care to tell the rest of us what it is?”
Scarlet rubbed a hand over his chin and drew a sharp breath. “I don’t think you’re going to like it; but this is what I think we should do…”
Grey and Magenta heard him out in silence and both of them had severe doubts about the efficacy of the scheme; but Scarlet was on a roll and he wasn’t listening to doubts – well, that is, he wasn’t admitting to listening to doubts – but even as he shook his dark head at the voicing of another possible flaw, he was adapting his scheme to lessen the likelihood of failure. As Grey’s voice came to a halt and there were no further difficulties worth mentioning, he grinned.
“Magenta, I want you to drive – I’m depending on your skill not to bring the entire bloody building down on us all at the first go. Cerise, you’ll move in after me and you’ll get the colonel out. I don’t care what else happens – your only task is to get the old man out and to safety. Understand me, Lieutenant?”
Cerise nodded. Scarlet only knew him slightly; he was a tall, athletic Australian with boundless energy and enthusiasm and a love of surfing that rivalled Captain Blue’s. Whenever the pair got together in the canteen, they bored everyone rigid with the topic over lunch. Despite that, Cerise had a reputation as being a good, solid worker and sociable with it. “S.I.G., Captain Scarlet, sir,” he answered now, with barely suppressed excitement.
“And what about you?” Magenta asked Scarlet.
“I’m going after Cerulean, of course. I’m betting he’ll go for me before he goes for the colonel.”
“You can’t know that for certain,” Magenta reasoned with more than a hint of anxiety in his voice.
“No,” Scarlet agreed, reaching his gun from its holster and checking it over. “But let’s just say that – whenever they’ve had the chance – they’ve gone for me. Blue’d tell you; if he was here. It’s given us the edge more than once when we’ve needed to occupy the Mysterons’ attention.” Scarlet put his gun back and paused, a vagueness flooding into his sapphire-blue eyes and a weariness settling on his handsome face. “I guess they really don’t like me…” He raised his eyes to Magenta’s incredulous face and a boyish grin lit his face. He thumped his colleague’s arm. “Don’t let it worry, you, Captain. I’m used to it and - believe me, the feeling’s mutual - I don’t like them either.”
Magenta shook his head in a mixture of exasperated defeat and amusement. “Whatever you say, Paul; we’re running out of time and we don’t have another plan. We have to get the colonel out of there.”
Scarlet nodded. “Let’s do it; and, Pat – I mean this most sincerely – drive carefully.”
Conscious of the impending attempt at rescue, Colonel White shuffled his position and when Cerulean glared at him, he said, “I need to stand up. This floor is cold and I’m not as young as I once was…I take it your masters don’t want me dead from hypothermia before the exchange is made?”
Cerulean’s head inclined carelessly, and White eased himself upright. He slapped his arms around himself in a show of trying to warm up, and paced up and down for a few feet, his eyes searching for somewhere to hide. He couldn’t imagine what Scarlet had in mind, but he suspected it was going to be short, sharp and explosive. From where he was pacing up and down, the best place to hide was under the workbench itself. He started to march in a circuit around the long structure, aware of Cerulean’s disparaging stare; but the Mysteron gave no order for him to stop, even though his watch became more intense as he guarded against the possibility that White might grab something as a weapon, or try some crazy attack.
White saw Cerulean stiffen; his head going back as he strained to listen. In the distance, just on the edge of his hearing, White could hear – or rather feel the vibrations of – an approaching vehicle. A large vehicle. In a flash of conviction he knew that it was an SPV and the full import of Scarlet’s plan became apparent. Cerulean, far less experienced than his prisoner, turned towards the noise and White took the opportunity to duck out of sight under the workbench – almost as he did so the nose of the SPV gave the building a glancing blow, taking out the corner, so that the structure shuddered and a large section of wall crumbled. From where he had been riding on the nosecone of the vehicle, Captain Scarlet leapt to the ground, stumbling for a second under the impact of his arrival. The SPV started to reverse –with the obvious intention of ramming the building again.
Cerulean spun to where the colonel should have been.
Scarlet shouted, “Deal with me – you treacherous bastard!” And fired a blast with the electron gun he held. It missed, burying the discharge in a work table. The fake wood smouldered, the acrid smoke of the chemicals adding to the dust-laden atmosphere. Cursing, Scarlet advanced towards the Mysteron.
Cerulean edged away from the irate man approaching him over the rubble of the demolition and scrambled for the cover of one of the research cubicles.
Scarlet fired his Spectrum pistol, taking out the transparent partition wall, and Cerulean returned fire, before spinning to clamber over the desk, making his way remorselessly to where he’d last seen Colonel White.
Scarlet easily evaded the shot and fired again, his bullet catching the Mysteron in the leg. Hampered, but not halted, Cerulean ploughed on; diving through the next partition, rolling clear of Scarlet’s fusillade of shots.
The SPV returned, taking out another portion of wall, the building creaked ominously and a large section of concrete collapsed bringing down the ceiling at the far end of the room. The dust intensified.
Scarlet bawled, “Colonel…?” There was no response. It was impossible to tell where the commander might be or if he was in any state to respond to the call. That last cave-in might well have trapped him, leaving him at the mercy of the Mysteron assassin. He activated his cap mike. “Magenta, stop! You’ll have this jerry-built box down on us! Cerise, find Colonel White – get him to safety -”
Across the destruction, Scarlet could see that Cerulean’s face wore an almost triumphant smile. He was advancing towards the workbench and Scarlet immediately guessed that was where the colonel must be. He raced across the floor, stumbling over debris and upended furniture, yelling defiance and taunts at his adversary. Cerise was clambering after him, but Cerulean had already reached the workbench and, with a triumphant smirk at Scarlet, he prepared to execute his prisoner.
“NO!” Scarlet screamed.
As Cerulean started to pull the trigger, he was jabbed in the stomach by the metal legs of an office stool, and staggered slightly. The shot went wild and ricocheted into a computer monitor, causing a flash of electrical light. Momentarily distracted, Cerulean didn’t see the next attack: a well-placed kick that swung upwards from beneath the bench. It made forceful contact; winding him and making him bend double. Scarlet winced in an instinctive surge of masculine solidarity, and then watched in surprise as the colonel emerged from his hiding place and dealt his assailant a sharp, right upper cut. Cerulean collapsed.
White glanced at his officer; Scarlet’s face left little doubt of the surprise his street-fighting skills had provoked. How persistently they underestimate me, he thought wryly and snapped at his speechless officer, “Do you have an electron rifle, Captain?”
Scarlet shook himself back to alertness. “Yes, sir.” He raced over and after a slight hesitation handed the gun to his commander. “It’s almost recharged.”
White took the weapon, glanced at the meter and said, “Jake Askew was a good man. He deserves to rest in peace.” He aimed and pulled the trigger. “Now, he’ll be able to do just that,” he said as the Mysteron’s body writhed under the blast of the gun.
Cerise and Magenta came running up. “Colonel, are you all right, sir?”
White handed the electron rifle to Cerise and nodded. “Yes, thank you, Captain. I owe you all my thanks.”
Magenta glanced at Scarlet and grinned. “Hey, what do you know – you pulled it off without having someone use you for target practise…”
Scarlet couldn’t help grinning in response. “So I did. You know, maybe there’s something in what Blue said to me once, and I do only get shot up when he’s around.” His companions chuckled, and even the colonel found what passed for a smile. “Mind you,” Scarlet explained with a shrug, “he was just peeved at the time about having to carry me back to the SPV – again.”
“Well, this time you can walk back unaided,” Magenta said. “We’ve still got another job to do, remember? We’ve still got to find Giardello. There may be other Mysteron agents out there looking for him…”
They clambered out of the wreckage of the secure laboratory and started walking back to the SPV. Magenta was reporting back to Captain Grey, reassuring him that the colonel was once more safe and secure. Captain Scarlet strode along beside his commanding officer, answering questions about his last ‘death’ and how fit he was feeling. Cerise walked behind them, carrying the electron rifle.
Scarlet’s epaulettes flashed blue, and he activated his mic, half-expecting to hear the familiar tones of his partner, but instead he heard the lilting Scottish tones of Lieutenant Gentian.
“Captain Scarlet, is everything all right? I can’t raise Captain Magenta…”
“Yes, Gentian; we have the colonel. He’s safe and well. Magenta’s reporting to Cloudbase. Where are you and what do you have to report?”
“I’m at the address of Doctor Vernon Catesby. The place is deserted, Captain, I can’t raise anyone. There’s no car in the drive and the neighbour told me she hadn’t seen the doctor for a few days – but it seems that is not unusual. She said Mrs Catesby went out early this morning.”
Scarlet paused a moment and glanced at the colonel. He gave White a précis of what Gentian had told him and then, taking his commander’s agreement for granted, he said, “Break in, Gentian. Search the place thoroughly. Check things like the answer-phone; see if there’s been any messages demanding a ransom or that might be a Mysteron threat. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“S.I.G., Captain.” Gentian closed the link.
“I’d better get over there,” Scarlet said, “I don’t like the sound of this. Maybe the Mysterons have used the threat to you, Colonel, as a decoy… they might have taken Giardello and Catesby both.”
“Agreed,” White said briskly. “But you’re not going alone, Captain.” He glanced at Magenta and said, “Take control here, Captain Magenta, get the back-up teams in to clear up. I’m going with Captain Scarlet.”
“Sir!” Scarlet’s voice rose in disbelief. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, after what you’ve been through…” He laid a restraining hand on his commander’s arm.
“I am not an invalid, Captain,” White snapped as he shrugged off the offending hand. “If there is evidence concerning Giardello’s disappearance, I want to see it for myself. I am perfectly capable of carrying out an investigation – don’t consign me to my dotage too soon.”
Scarlet dropped his hand and muttered an apology as White strode ahead towards the car park. He gave Magenta an astonished glance.
The dark-haired, Irish-American laughed. “Hey, the old man’s feeling his oats… I should just go with the flow, if I were you.”
“You won’t have to work with him,” Scarlet complained. He rolled his eyes as the colonel’s barking order for him to get a move on, reached them. He sprinted after his commander.
“Sometimes,” Magenta said to no one in particular, “life can be so sweet…” He watched the SSC pull away from the plant and it occurred to him that Amanda Wainwright would be worrying and waiting for news. With a smile he borrowed a cell phone and dialled the number Grey gave him…
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA
Vernon Catesby’s house was in a tidy, well-to-do suburb of Cedar Rapids and the SSC already parked outside of the house was attracting considerable attention from the local residents, a small crowd of whom had wrapped up warm and come out to watch the fun – despite the biting cold. They stood aside as Scarlet pulled up and parked behind Gentian’s vehicle. As Colonel White slammed the door and began to stride towards the partially open front door, a woman stepped in front of him and demanded to know what the Catesbys were guilty of.
“Absolutely nothing – that we know of – we are simply looking for Doctor Catesby.” He raised his voice to address the gathered spectators. “Has anyone seen Doctor Catesby recently?”
There was a muttering of negatives and a general shaking of heads. As Scarlet followed his commander into the building, he called for Gentian and the Lieutenant emerged from the kitchen down the hall, saluting when he saw his superior officers. White stepped into the living room, noticing the detritus of normal family life – discarded magazines, children’s toys in a box in the corner and a large Christmas tree resplendent with gaudy decorations and fairy lights, near the window. His heart sank as he contemplated the anguish he’d cause this unknown family, if he had to tell them their father was dead.
Gentian arrived and began his report, not that he was able to tell them much more than they already knew.
Scarlet’s sensitive hearing picked up the commotion outside before anyone else. He moved to the window and saw a battered station wagon pull up at the kerbside and a woman emerge, advancing at a run towards the house.
“What’s happened?” she called to the crowd as they parted to let her through.
Scarlet turned to White. “Sir, I think Mrs Catesby might’ve returned home,” he said without expression.
“Ah, good, maybe now we’ll learn something,” White said, moving towards the door, all politeness and suavity, to deal with the lady of the house.
But Mrs Catesby was in no mood to be charmed. She stormed into her house, slamming the front door behind her and advanced on Spectrum’s commander-in-chief, with rage etched onto her face. Before the colonel could speak she shouted, “Who the hell do you think you are, bursting into my house like this? Leaving dirty boot marks all over my carpets and leaving the door open to let the heat out – what’s more! Were you raised in a barn, the whole lot of you? How dare you search my home, or touch my possessions! You’re getting out right now…and I’m calling the cops…” She pushed passed the startled colonel and reached for her phone handset.
Scarlet stepped forward and took the phone from her hand as she started to dial. “That won’t be necessary, Mrs Catesby,” he said levelly.
“Spectrum can’t just walk in and help themselves to people’s property!”
“We haven’t taken anything,” White snapped and then sought to recover his poise. “We are looking for your husband, madam.”
“Vernon? Why? Where’s he gone?”
“He’s missing,” Scarlet explained gently.
“No he isn’t – well, he wasn’t when I went out to get the shopping. He’s in his workroom, down in the basement – him and the other guy – Giardello…”
“Doctor Giardello is here?” White exploded. “When did he get here?”
“Vernon brought him back here the other day. He said they had some experiments to do on a new project and he’d be staying over. I cooked them dinner, and they stopped working just long enough to eat it. I don’t think either of them went to bed last night – I know Vernon didn’t.”
“They ate dinner?” Scarlet repeated. He glanced at the colonel – Mysteron agents were not known to waste time eating.
“Sure they did – although they hardly stopped talking the whole time about some guy called Terry Hurst, or something. What’s it to do with Spectrum?” she asked suddenly wary again.
“Madam, we have spent considerable time and resources trying to find Doctor Giardello and your husband,” the colonel explained. “Why didn’t they let anyone know where they were?”
She shrugged and said, “I guess they forgot.” She gave Scarlet a rather charming smile and explained, “Vernon’s terrible once he gets working on a project – my guess is that your man Giardello’s the same?” Scarlet nodded in affirmation and she rolled her eyes and then glanced at White, her smile fading. “It still doesn’t give you the right to bust into my house, mister.”
“Sir,” Gentian interrupted, “Why hasn’t the noise attracted the attention of Doctor Catesby? We weren’t exactly quiet when we gained entry.”
“Did you guys bust my door locks?” Mrs Catesby glared fiercely at the unfortunate Lieutenant.
“True,” White said, ignoring her angry question. “Captain Scarlet, you’d better investigate the basement. I’m sure you’ll be able to detect any problems…”
Scarlet nodded. His ‘sixth sense’ reacted to the presence of Mysteron reconstructs.
Mrs Catesby seemed less perturbed about any potential threat to her husband, and more concerned with the state of her home’s security. She marched towards the front door, Scarlet following in her wake. “Vernon wouldn’t notice a nuclear war when he’s down there…” she remarked. “But, I guess if it is so very important, you can go and speak to him. Don’t expect to be welcomed though – he doesn’t like to be interrupted.”
She led Scarlet to a heavy door set along the hallway towards the kitchen. “We had the place padded up – Vernon’s worried that any explosions might do damage. Actually, you can’t hear much when you’re down there – like I said – even if he’d be likely to notice the noise – he couldn’t have heard it…” She gave a wry grimace at the conclusion of her sentence and added, “If that makes sense…”
Scarlet smiled. “Yes, I follow you, Mrs Catesby. Please wait here while I go down to see the doctors.”
“Oh, I’m not coming with you.” She turned to Gentian and the colonel. “One of you two can make yourselves useful and give me a hand with fetching in the shopping, and the other one can make sure my locks are working – you’re not leaving this place till it is as it should be! Then, maybe, I won’t call the cops and lodge a complaint…”
White sighed and gestured for Gentian to accompany her back to her car.
Scarlet made his way cautiously down the staircase to the basement. There was another padded ‘blast’ door at the foot of the staircase. He waited momentarily wondering if his sixth sense would be able to detect Mysterons even through this barrier. He could feel nothing: no dizziness, no sweating, no waves of nausea. Warily he reached out and turned the door handle. The door swung open and from within the brightly lit room he could hear a male voice.
“…but it should be possible to build it into the front of the cap. This prototype is bulky, but I’m sure we could streamline it further.”
Scarlet recognised the second speaker as Doctor Giardello. “True, but even so, it’s going to require a substantial outlay to adapt every cap to take the equipment. I mean, it might even be necessary to provide every officer with a new cap – to account for the space taken up by the adaptation – otherwise the caps are likely to sit on their heads like coconuts… and the microphones would end half-way up their noses rather than at their mouths…”
“I think you’re exaggerating the problem, Bob.”
Scarlet stepped into the basement workroom, his gun in his hand. Doctor Giardello looked up and said, without any sort of surprise at the sudden appearance of Spectrum’s top security agent, “Ah, Captain Scarlet – the very person I most wanted to see! How fortuitous that you dropped by…”
“Dropped by? Doctor, the cream of Spectrum’s officers have been out looking for you!”
“Whatever for?” Giardello asked. “I’ve been here all the time. Now, Captain, if you would be so good as to stand over there… Vernon, we should be able to test the device’s effectiveness on Captain Scarlet.”
“I don’t understand,” Doctor Catesby said, frowning at the intruder, who was looking none too pleased with them and not in the least co-operative.
Scarlet moved back to the stairs and called, “Colonel, I have found Doctor Giardello and Doctor Catesby. I don’t think either of them are Mysterons, but could you please send a Mysteron detector down?”
Colonel White went one better; he brought the detector himself. Giardello seemed delighted to see him and cried, “Colonel – what luck! Now we can give you a demonstration of our proto-type, cap-mounted, Terahertz Mysteron detector: the TMD for short.”
“What?” Scarlet and White asked simultaneously, in bewilderment.
Giardello pounced on Captain Scarlet and moved him into the brighter glare of the overhead fluorescent strip-lights. “Doctor Catesby and I have been working on a new, improved and far safer Mysteron Detector. This utilizes the science of Terahertz radiation, and, as such, it is not harmful to humans. We envisage a device which could be fitted into the front of the uniform caps, allowing a visor to swing down before the officer’s eyes, giving instant verification on the question of whether the subject under surveillance has been Mysteronised or not.” He produced an odd-looking device attached to a baseball cap and peered through it at the colonel. Then he handed it to the commander-in-chief and said excitedly, “Look at Captain Scarlet…”
Warily White held the Perspex visor before his eyes and peered through it at the rather nonplussed Captain Scarlet. He saw a perfect image of the younger Englishman. Scarlet stared back at his commanding officer, the merest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his expressive lips; suddenly he raised his hand and waved. Colonel White spluttered and lowered the device.
“What was I supposed to see – apart from Scarlet acting the goat?”
“A perfect image,” Giardello said. “Now look at me.”
With a sigh of resignation, White humoured the doctor and this time he saw a far less well defined image – Giardello’s skeletal outline was clearly visible beneath his skin. White lowered the device with far more reverence. “I see, Doctor; most impressive.”
“Of course, this is a proto-type… there is still a lot of work to do on it, at the moment you have to reset the visor by hand, using that little lever – which also makes it drop into place; of course, in the final design that will automated, much as the cap mics are now. But you see the implications this could have, Colonel? It could solve Spectrum’s problem of delays in identifying a Mysteron…”
“Indeed; if it proves practical,” White agreed. He was weighing the bulky cap in his hand and his doubts were obvious. No one would be able to wear such a heavy piece of headgear for very long. He handed it to Captain Scarlet, who with a wary grimace slipped the baseball cap onto his head in place of his uniform cap.
“Of course it’s practical,” Giardello cried, wiping his glasses on his tie.
Scarlet activated the lever and the visor swung down with such force that it smashed into his nose, causing it to bleed profusely. Scarlet moaned and rummaged for a handkerchief.
Giardello barely missed a beat in his explanation, “Or it will be with some more adaptations – miniaturisation and the use of lighter materials, for example. That’s what Doctor Catesby and I have been working on for the past…” he restored his glasses and glanced at his watch. His heavy eyebrows rose… “My goodness, is that the time? We’ve been working so hard, we didn’t realise what time it was…”
“Doctor Giardello,” Scarlet interrupted somewhat indistinctly, as he was now pinching his nose with his pocket handkerchief in an effort to stem the blood flow, “you’ve been working so hard you haven’t realised what DAY it is…”
Giardello turned at looked at the young man and had the grace to blush slightly. “But, we’ve been here since we left the plant,” he asserted.
“Why did you leave the plant?” White asked removing the baseball cap from his officer’s head and handing back to its proud designer.
“Oh, that was my idea,” Catesby interrupted. “I had several innovative ideas I’d been working on and I wanted Doctor Giardello to see them for himself. Once we arrived we set to work on improving the cap-mounted Mysteron detector immediately, and I must say Doctor Giardello is the finest scientist I have ever worked with; why, do you know….?”
“Did you notify anyone of your departure?” Colonel White interrupted.
The two scientists shared bemused glances. “No,” Catesby said, “should we have?”
“Doctor Giardello, we have been dealing with a Mysteron threat at AESC and we were concerned for your welfare – especially after the plant was fire-bombed,” Scarlet explained thickly as Colonel White seemed to be having difficulty making an intelligible sound.
“Fire-bombed?” Catesby gasped his astonishment obvious. “Was any damage done to my secure workroom?”
“I’m afraid it has been partly demolished,” Scarlet replied, feeling justified in deliberately leaving the details vague.
“Oh no! I must go over there at once, and investigate – some of the research was at a crucial stage -” Catesby made a dash for the stairs, and was stopped by the colonel.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Doctor Catesby. The police wouldn’t let you in anyway. Doctor Giardello, we should get you back to SIRAD, or your family. Your wife is concerned about you.”
“SIRAD,” Giardello said briskly. “There’s still time for us to do some further work on the cap adaptation before Christmas… Catesby, you must accompany me; I have some equipment there that should help us overcome that minor operational glitch Captain Scarlet has identified. Oh, and of course, my wife would be delighted if you and your family spent Christmas with us…”
“Somehow,” Captain Scarlet muttered to the colonel as they ushered the scientists out of the basement some time later, “I don’t think we’re going to be very popular with either Mrs Catesby or Mrs Giardello…”
‘Home’ is any four walls that enclose the right person.
The Hoffman Ranch
By Christmas Eve the situation had returned to what could pass as normal.
Dr Giardello and Doctor Catesby – with his entire family, their luggage, Christmas presents and the pet dog – had been delivered to the Giardello household by a somewhat frazzled Captain Ochre; Captain Scarlet and the Lieutenants had returned to Cloudbase – after fixing Mrs Catesby’s front door – and the welcome news that Symphony and Blue were both on the road to a complete recovery had been received by all and sundry. Colonel White had spent a few minutes giving Captain Grey permission to carry on in command and resumed his holiday without a qualm.
Amanda and Charles had spent last night alone together and whatever doubts they had had about the validity of the rapport between them, had been banished by a passionate encounter that had lasted long into the early hours of the morning. Perfectly comfortable with each other, and reassured about the strength of their feelings, they spent the day relaxing, with the phone off the hook.
Towards mid-afternoon, Amanda noticed a car’s headlights swinging along the track towards the house. They waited on the porch, with a less than enthusiastic welcome for the intruders and, as the car drew up and Adam and Karen got out – he with his arm in a sling and she on crutches – Gray gave a low groan.
Captain Scarlet, who was acting as their chauffeur – and whose acute hearing caught the colonel’s reaction – saluted, tipped his hat to Amanda, unloaded the luggage with great dexterity and speed and high-tailed it out of there.
“Doctor Fawn gave us sick leave,” Karen explained to her mother over a cup of coffee, “so we thought we’d come here.” She had not, as yet, acknowledged Gray’s presence, but as he had been busy stowing their luggage away, it didn’t seemed too pointed an omission.
“How nice of him,” Gray muttered as he came back to rejoin the three of them. “I don’t suppose you considered a Christmas in Boston, did you, by any chance?”
“They are always welcome here, they know that,” Amanda said, with a sharp glance at him.
“Karen wanted to see her mother,” Adam explained with an exaggerated air of innocence, which only served to remind the colonel that his officer normally had to be dragged home to Boston at Christmastime by a team of wild horses.
“That’s as it should be,” Amanda said, reaching across the table to take Adam’s good hand whilst her other one held Karen’s. “And it’s entirely natural that you should want to come with her. I’m delighted to see you too, Adam. Are you sure your mother won’t mind, though? She might’ve liked you to go home…?”
“She wasn’t expecting me, and so I don’t think it’ll make any difference where I spend Christmas,” he said, a dull flush staining his tanned face. “Besides, with this crop of bruises she’d have only worried herself silly about what I was getting up to. Best she never sees me looking like this,” he admitted revealing a concern for his mother’s peace of mind that had Amanda smiling and squeezing his hand in approval. “We tried to let you know we were coming, but the phone seems to be out of order...” he added, quickly changing the subject.
“Oh, It’s off the hook, I couldn’t be doing with people calling to speak to Charles all day and all night,” Amanda confessed. “I’m just so glad you are both here! We’ll have a wonderful family Christmas – won’t we, Charles?”
“I’m sure you’ll do us all proud, Amanda,” Gray responded dourly. He was not looking forward to spending the first holiday he’d had with the woman he was in love with, in the company of the younger couple.
“Please don’t go to any bother, Amanda,” Adam said. “Our last intention was to cause you extra work.” Karen nodded in agreement.
“It’s no bother, Adam, honey,” Amanda reassured him. “There’s nothing I like better than a house full at Christmas! Karen, we must call your grandmother tomorrow…she’ll be surprised and delighted to hear from you!”
Karen smiled. “Sure, I would’ve found time to call her anyway. It just won’t seem like a real family Christmas without her… and…”
Amanda squeezed her daughter’s hand. “I know – it’s hardest at the times we remember being all together. But your father and your grandfather wouldn’t have wanted us to mourn them when we have such good friends around us.”
Karen’s head dipped as she struggled to contain the sadness she felt. She’d been badly scared recently and was still a little shocked and emotional. Adam loosened his hold of Amanda’s hand to reach across and place his hand on her shoulder. She tilted her head to rest her cheek against his fingers, as if she was drawing strength from him.
“You know,” she muttered more to him than anyone else, “I had this wonderful dream that one Christmas we’d all be together – Mom and Dad and you and me, Adam. It’ll never happen now. I just wish you could’ve known him…” she broke down and Adam reached over to enfold her clumsily in his good arm. She rested her head against his shoulder and clung to the lapels of his jacket.
Amanda looked across at Charles and shook her head sadly, her own eyes bright with tears. She knew Karen had got upset every Christmas since her grandfather died, but this was the first time she’d actually been home for the holiday since her father’s death. She was not surprised her daughter’s thoughts were of her missing loved ones.
“Come on, älskling,” Adam murmured. “Its okay, your mom’s here and me and … the colonel…” as soon as he said it he knew that was a mistake. He felt her stiffen in his embrace, she drew a deep breath and her head came up.
She stared at her mother, hurt and anger beginning to glow in the mossy-green of her eyes. Momentarily, Amanda was taken aback, seeing an echo of Sam in the tilt of her head and her reddish-blonde colouring.
“Yes,” Karen said, barely above a whisper, “I meant to ask you what he was still doing here…”
“Karen,” Adam said sternly, trying to warn and calm her at the same time.
“Charles is here because I invited him to stay. This is my house, young lady, and don’t you forget it.”
“It wasn’t just your house; it wasn’t just your bed!” Karen’s eyes blazed with a green fire.
Charles Gray shifted uneasily. “I can understand that you might be a little surprised to see me here, but you shouldn’t speak like that to your mother, Symph…”
She interrupted him, crying vehemently, “Karen – my name is Karen – I’m not Symphony Angel here – I’m a person and this is my home! I’m not on duty, so my name is Karen and you have no right to tell me what to do or say in my own home!”
“No,” Amanda snapped back, “but I do. How dare you speak to me and my guest like this, in my own home? You will apologise to Charles…”
“I’ll see hell freeze over first!”
“Karen, I know I should’ve told you about it before now…” Amanda said, struggling to keep her own temper.
“I expect you were too ashamed of yourself!”
The silence fell like a pall after that remark. Amanda looked horrified, the colonel embarrassed and even Karen’s face paled slightly. She kept her head high, meeting her mother’s stare with a bravado she did not feel.
What finally cracked her stubborn defiance was Adam’s voice saying levelly, “That was totally uncalled for, Karen.”
She turned on him, her rage mingled now with shame and self-pity. “What do you know about it, Adam? You don’t allow yourself to feel real emotions anymore!” She spun round to face the others. “Well, I loved my father and I don’t care who knows it – he was the most wonderful man – and I won’t stand by in silence and see him supplanted in his own home…”
“Karen, that’s enough!” Amanda drew herself up and shook off the solicitous hand Charles laid on her arm. “You will apologise, or you and I will come to a reckoning, and you won’t like it, young lady, I can promise you.”
“I won’t apologise for loving my father… I have nothing else to apologise for.”
Gray drew a breath and said, “I’m sorry you feel this way about your mother and me, Karen; but I care very much for her and I don’t intend to stop seeing her – unless she herself wishes it. I’d expect someone with your service experience to behave with slightly more reasonableness than you have shown this afternoon.”
“On Cloudbase you’re my commanding officer, on Cloudbase I’ll do as you tell me and respect you for who you are. Here, you’re just the man my mother’s throwing herself at… the man who’s taken advantage of her. I don’t owe you any respect at all…”
“Karen!” Amanda was horrified.
“I have not ‘taken advantage’ of Amanda, nor has she ‘thrown herself’ at me,” Gray insisted, his voice bleakly dispassionate
“Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?” Karen sniped.
Gray’s expression hardened. He knew Symphony could over-react at times, but this was worse than anything he’d expected. He’d had little – or rather, no – experience of dealing with family arguments for decades and he hoped Amanda could sort this one out without his help.
As it happened, help came from a rather unexpected quarter.
“That’s enough,” Adam said sharply. “You’re out of order, Karen. I think you’d better go and get some rest – Doctor Fawn said you’d need to rest after the journey – your leg is still not healed properly.”
“Don’t patronise me, Adam.”
“I’m not. I’m trying to make you see sense, before you dig yourself such a hole you’ll never get out of it with your self-respect intact! And if you can’t behave rationally in this room with us now, you’d better go and rest upstairs until you can.”
She gave him a beseeching look; surprised and upset by what she saw as his desertion of her. Seeing hostility in her mother’s face and nothing but unrelenting disapproval in Adam’s, Karen knew it was wisest to withdraw. She began to hobble across the room to the stairs and slowly, painfully, drag herself up them; her head held high and her face stony as she fought the tears that threatened to fall.
As she disappeared from sight, Amanda sank back onto her chair, her head in her hands. “I should’ve told her, Charles, I shouldn’t have left it for her to find out about us like this…”
“My dear, what was there to tell until now? You mustn’t blame yourself for Karen’s outburst.”
“She was always so close to her father,” Amanda moaned. “I should have known she’d be upset. If I’d told her before, I’d have spared you this ugliness. I’m so sorry, Charles.”
“Well, from what I’ve heard of Sam Wainwright,” Adam said firmly, “he wouldn’t be very pleased with her now, either.”
Amanda glanced up at him and fought the urge to smile. Adam’s face might be set in a stern expression, but his eyes, staring up the staircase after Karen, were full of concern.
“Will you go up to her?” she asked.
“No,” he said emphatically. “And I don’t think anyone of us should – not for a while, anyway. She does need to rest and she needs to think about what she’s done and said.” He glanced at the colonel. “I’m sorry, sir; I feel I brought that outburst on. I knew she’d been bottling things up and letting them rankle ever since we came here from the plant, that night. I tried to get her to talk about it when we were in sickbay, but she wouldn’t. It’s been building for awhile – I’m afraid – and I had to go and provide the ignition for the explosion.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Captain. I think we both suspected there might be some… opposition from Sym…Karen, to our relationship.” Gray smiled apologetically at Amanda. “Perhaps I should’ve gone back to Cloudbase with Captain Scarlet?” he suggested.
Amanda responded quickly to that suggestion. “No, you shouldn’t – you shouldn’t even have to imagine that you should’ve. Karen’s over-wrought. This is her first Christmas at home since Sam died – and I guess she’s not feeling too good with her bad leg; but I will make her apologise. She can’t speak to us like that.”
“I don’t need you to get me an apology, Amanda.”
“Never mind you!” she responded with vim, “I want an apology. ‘Throwing myself at you’ – indeed! I ought to tan her hide.”
“Oh, you know Karen,” Adam said with a gentle smile. “She’ll be so sorry tomorrow; she won’t be able to do enough to make it up to you. She just has a habit of letting rip and – like a badly made firework – it’s impressive and potentially dangerous, but only for a short time. Believe me, I’d rather have the sound and the fury and move on into calmer waters, than have someone who holds a grudge for ever, and indulges in a life-long war of attrition over imagined slights.”
“There’s someone in your family like that?” Amanda asked intrigued by this rare insight into the young man’s home life. It wasn’t often he volunteered information.
“My father and my brother – at the last count,” Adam replied with a shrug. “They’re experts at it – makes Karen’s tantrums kinda restful – in a strange way…” he added and laughed at their stunned expressions.
“Well, I’ll cook us some dinner, and maybe she’ll come and eat with us,” Amanda said. “Why don’t you two have a beer and watch TV while I’m busy?”
Charles and Adam exchanged wary glances. Fraternising with his subordinates was not something the colonel did much of; although he knew and liked all of his officers. Thrown together in an informal setting, neither man felt that comfortable.
“I won’t have a drink, thanks, Amanda,” Adam said. “I’m still taking painkillers and I don’t want to go completely loopy; but don’t let that stop you, Colonel.”
“Under the circumstances, I think you can dispense with calling me colonel, don’t you? My name’s Charles and you have my permission to use it.”
Amanda smiled at them and suddenly leant over and kissed Gray’s uninjured cheek. “That’s good,” she smiled, standing and moving to Adam’s side. She bent and kissed him too. “Play nice, like good boys…”
They could hear her chuckling as she walked into the kitchen.
Karen did not come down to dinner and the tray her mother took and left outside her door, remained there untouched. Amanda took it away with a sigh. She’d hoped Karen would have come to her senses and joined them. Consequently, the atmosphere around the table had been sombre; it was obvious that Charles had been upset by the outburst, and that Adam found it hard to relax completely in the company of his commanding officer; given that he was also probably feeling like a bit of a gooseberry. She did her best to make cheerful conversation, but gave up about halfway through the evening when both men were sitting across the room from each other in armchairs, in what amounted to a morose silence.
“Well, I don’t know about you two, but I’m going to bed,” she announced, gratified to see the way both men’s heads turned to look at her. “Do you want me to make you up a bed, Adam?” She turned to Gray and asked, “Or you, Charles?”
She couldn’t help smirking at the wave of embarrassment that suffused both faces. These two are more alike than they realise, she thought.
“Don’t worry, Amanda, I’ll sort myself out,” Adam finally managed to say.
Amanda’s brain translated that as – I’ll be sleeping with Karen…there are some things we have to get sorted out. She looked at Charles with a raised eyebrow.
“No, unless you’d prefer otherwise…?” he said. His blue eyes meet hers and he instinctively knew that, if she asked him to sleep in a guest room, he would have lost some elemental battle, and Karen would have won. Her answer gladdened his heart.
“I’m not afraid of my daughter’s censure and I have no desire to pander to her tantrums. Come up when you’re ready, Charles….”
The two men sat in silence for some time after their hostess had left them. The colonel drained his glass of brandy and looked across at the younger man with concern. Captain Blue’s face was drawn, his bruises emphasised by a pallor that was not often seen on his face. His injured eye was bloodshot and White doubted he could see clearly from it, even now.
“You look tired, Captain,” he said solicitously and reverting to the formality they were both more comfortable with.
“I am starting to flag, sir. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll turn in too?”
“Of course.” White watched him struggle to his feet and as he started to move to the stairs he said, “Don’t be too hard on her, Adam; it can take a while to come to terms with the consequences of a death in your family.”
Captain Blue turned and looked straight into his commander’s eyes. “I know. I have lost people who were very dear to me, too. I guess we all have our own ways of coming to terms with death, and the way life flows on around you, even after you think you can’t cope with another day.” He gave a silent sigh of resignation and concluded, “But besides that, however used I am to seeing Karen behaving badly, sir, I don’t have to like it.”
White watched him climb the stairs and concluded that it was his persistent miscalculation to underestimate that young man. In the face of the miracle that was Captain Scarlet’s continuing bravery and sacrifice, Captain Blue was easy to overlook, but it was a mistake to do so. Adam Svenson was a redoubtable man in his own right – as his close friend and ally, Captain Scarlet, would avow.
He took his empty glass back to the kitchen and rinsed it. Then switching out the lights he climbed the stairs and slipped quietly into the master bedroom, where Amanda was sitting reading in bed.
She looked up as he entered, closed her book and smiled.
Lying rigid and silent in bed with Adam at her side, Karen could sense his continuing disapproval.
She’d been rather surprised when he’d walked into the room and, without speaking to her, stripped off before going to the bathroom and emerging, minutes later, to slip under the covers beside her. At first she’d thought it was a sign that he had reconsidered the situation, and was offering her his support; but his silence, and that fact that he made no move to embrace her, soon disabused her of that idea.
He still disapproved.
He was unhappy with her.
He was ashamed of her.
She was ashamed of herself…
With each increasingly censorious thought she grew more defensive, and yet perversely, more anxious to win him over – to regain his good opinion. She may have behaved badly – she could acknowledge that now – but it was shock; surely he ought to be able to see that?
Tentatively she moved so that she could roll onto her side, her damaged leg resting against his thigh, and slide her arm across his muscular chest, careful to avoid his wounded shoulder, still covered in Fawn’s discreet bandaging. He did not respond to her touch, even though she could see by the pale moonlight striking the bed through the partially open curtains, that he was awake.
She raised herself on her elbow, so that she could look at his face. “Adam, honey?” she whispered somewhat apologetically.
“Hold me,” she pleaded. Slowly his arm came around her, circling her shoulders, yet failing to pull her closer to him. She sighed, that hadn’t worked… “Are you okay?” she asked.
“You’re mad at me, aren’t you?”
“No.” The brevity of his reply made it clear that what he really meant was ‘yes’. She laid her cheek against his chest and kissed the smooth skin. She felt his chest rise and fall in a deep sigh.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
His sigh was almost a snort of laughter. “You don’t owe me an apology, Karen.”
She frowned and wanted to cry out – to plead with him, ‘don’t make me do this – don’t make me crawl… can’t you just forgive me and accept that I have realised I was in the wrong?’
Biting back her misery she said, “I shouldn’t have said what I did, I shouldn’t have acted like I did… I know that. But, Adam… he was my daddy… and she’s forgotten him in no time at all – much sooner than I have…”
She could feel the tears stealing down the side of her nose and dropping onto his chest. She sniffed and rubbed her nose. Then she gave up the struggle and began to cry.
Then, and only then, did his arm tighten around her. He held her for a long moment and then brought his free hand to stroke her hair. After a few moments she managed to regain her self -control.
He drew a short breath and his voice echoed slightly, as her ear lay pressed to his chest. “Falling in love again doesn’t mean you cease to love the one you’ve lost…”
It wasn’t what she expected to hear and she pushed herself away from him, sitting upright in the bed, pulling the covers after her.
“She’s already forgotten my father… the man she said she loved – the man who gave up everything for her!” Her anger made her eloquent. “She’s slept with another man in their bed! In their house! My dad would never have forgotten her so soon!”
“Is that all you object to? If she’d waited until they were both much older – would you have cared so much then?”
Karen shook her head. “She’s betrayed my father’s memory – and what is worse – she expects me to approve!”
“And am I as bad?”
She glanced over her shoulder at him; his arm was resting across his forehead, casting a shadow on his face so that she couldn’t make out his expression.
“You’re angry with your mother because she has a new man in her life. You’re saying she should have respected your father’s memory enough to remain celibate for some indefinite period that you’d determine – eventually. Do you consider me as worthy of your anger and disapproval too?”
She squirmed round towards him, confused by his words.
He continued, “I had a fiancée, she died. I met you; I fell in love. Now we’re lovers – in fact we’re engaged – so, am I as worthy of your contempt as your mother, for failing to live up to your exacting standards?”
“That’s different,” she snapped, drawing a sharp breath as he shook his head. “You were not married to her for decades…”
“Ah,” he said, removing his arm and tilting his head in a mocking acceptance of her argument. “So, the depth of the feeling, and the pain of being separated, count for less than the length of time you spent together? I never realised. I thought love was measured by the feelings you shared, not by a chronological yardstick.”
“You’re twisting my words!”
“You’re twisting your own logic, Karen.”
She leant back towards him, resting her weight on her arm, so that she could confront him directly. “How would you feel if it was your mother? If you walked into your home and found your mother … making out with a man who wasn’t your father?”
He shrugged and pursed his lips as he gave the matter what seemed to be genuine thought. “I’d probably say – what took you so long? I’ve never understood why she stays with my father anyway…”
With an exasperated gasp she flounced away from him, hugging her knees and protesting, “You’re not taking this seriously. It matters to me, Adam – or don’t my feelings count?”
“Sure they do – I consider them paramount in almost every case – but not this one.”
She glared angrily at him over her shoulder and had opened her mouth to pursue her argument when he suddenly sat up, grabbing her shoulder and turning her to face him.
“For once in your life, Karen Wainwright, think about someone other than yourself first! Why shouldn’t your mother expect to have a life of her own? Why shouldn’t she build a relationship with someone she likes? She’s here alone – in this mausoleum to her parents and her husband – I don’t see you coming back to keep her company. She’s an attractive woman – maybe you don’t realise just how attractive? – and by some marvellous chance – some gift of Fate – she’s met a man she likes and who likes her – shut up and listen to me; you can have your say when I’m finished! – She’s met a good and a decent man. Why should she deny herself what happiness she can find? I know you’re upset, I know you loved your father – so did your mother and she would not have done what she has done lightly. I know how hard it can be to find yourself falling in love again after you’ve lost someone. If you condemn her for it, you might as well condemn me. And if you condemn me for loving you, then you don’t love me as much as I thought you did, or as much as you say you do…”
She broke his hold on her shoulder and spat venomously, “This has nothing to do with us – don’t cloud the issue, Adam. I know only too well how easily you can wrong-foot me with your sophistry, but this time I won’t fall for it… the fact remains that my mother’s having an affair – not just any garden-variety affair either; she was in bed – my father’s bed – with…with… the colonel, for goodness sake!”
He had stretched out on the pillows again and was watching her with an unyielding sternness, but her final words brought a mischievous grin to his lips.
“Boy, when we get into hot water we do it with a vengeance,” he said; the vehemence had evaporated from his voice, which resumed its usual good-humour. “When we’re back on Cloudbase, do you think we’ll get court-martialed for going AWOL?”
By now she could feel the bed shaking slightly with his silent laughter and she turned to see him grinning. Fighting the urge to respond to his amusement she turned away again. But, as his laughter became audible she adapted to his change of mood, and threw herself down beside him, wrapping her arms around him and cuddling close, so that she could nibble his neck, before she answered his hypothetical question.
“I think we might manage to avoid it…after all, Fawn signed us off on the sick register and he didn’t want us cluttering up his nice clean wards over Christmas. Captain Grey didn’t object – and he’s in command – so I think we can say we’re here with permission. But, if the colonel disputes it – we’ll still be okay – if we’re prepared to use a little blackmail…” she teased.
His amusement vanished. “Karen, this can’t go any further…”
“You’re damn right – d’you think I want everyone knowing my mother is the colonel’s holiday squeeze?”
He shook his head. “I think it is more than a ‘holiday fling’… I don’t think either of them is that kind of person, to be honest. You have to realise that Amanda has the right to live her life, as you do yours, as I do mine – as Scarlet, Rhapsody and every one of our friends does. We don’t have the right to expose the colonel’s private life to public scrutiny. God knows, it’s bad enough having everyone speculating about you and me… I wouldn’t wish it on any one else. We say nothing – to anyone.”
“We might agree not to, but we weren’t the only ones here, remember? Scarlet was here; he saw the colonel – and Magenta too – he was here when we discovered him, don’t forget.”
“Paul’s indestructible – not insensitive – and he’s much less of a gossip than he used to be… or hadn’t you noticed? And Patrick won’t say a word.”
“What makes you so sure? He can be as devilish as Ochre in the pursuit of a joke. He might make something of this.”
“No, Patrick has a respect for people’s… emotions – something Ochre could do with considering occasionally.”
She was tracing a pattern on his chest with her finger. He caught her hand and gave her a forbidding frown. She smirked at him; the fact that he was so unexpectedly ticklish had always amused her.
She was thoughtful for a moment and then glanced warily at him. “Did you know…?” She paused. “That is… Patrick… well… he was talking to my mom – I think he thought I was asleep – and he told her – my mom… well, that is… he said to her… that he… he had – he was…”
“That he’s in love with you.”
“You know?” She was genuinely surprised.
“It isn’t that hard to recognise – once you know what signs to look for.”
“Don’t you mind?”
“You mean – am I jealous? No, I’m not. If you loved him, I would be – insanely jealous.”
“He’s a nice guy…”
“I might fancy him…”
“You might,” he conceded, adding, “but you don’t.”
“You sound certain of that.”
“I am. I happen to know that you love me… and it’s a damn good thing too – because I love you…
“You don’t…” she pouted. “You’re horrible to me.”
He gave a derisory snort. “Oh right, of course I am. Mean, horrible Mr Svenson, that’s me…”
“If you weren’t horrible to me, you wouldn’t get cross with me all the time…”
“If I was horrible, I’d have packed my bag and left tonight… you were quite unjustifiably hurtful – and you know it – or you wouldn’t be trying to worm your way back into my good graces by doing that…”
“Wouldn’t I?” she asked with a tantalising smile. “If you disapprove you can always tell me to stop…”
He reached for her and kissed her hungrily. “Uh-uh,” He shook his head. “Now you’ve really started something and you’ll have to show me just how eager you are to regain my favour…” he teased.
“Regain your favour? Oh, as if – that’s just in your dreams, Harvard…” she responded, returning his kiss with enthusiasm. “But I might just let you prove to me that you can be very nice to me… sometimes.”
In the master bedroom situated below Karen’s attic apartment, Amanda smiled and snuggled a little closer to Charles.
“What’s that noise?” he asked drowsily. “Air in the heating pipes?”
“That is my daughter and her boyfriend enthusiastically resolving their differences… You can’t complain either; it’s just that it’s taken them a little longer to get round to it than it took us, but then, they’ve had more to talk about…”
“Is it always like this?” Gray asked. Amanda nodded. “And they think you don’t notice?” She nodded again, her smile broadening. “They’re delusional,” he concluded.
“Well, maybe they don’t realise how loud it sounds down here; I mean I’ve never had the courage to mention it to them.”
“They should get those bedsprings oiled…”
She chuckled and kissed him. “Well, maybe you could suggest it to them – or do it yourself before you go?”
“I had to make the suggestion, didn’t I?” He smiled and kissed her. “I just hope they don’t have the stamina to go on all night. I’d like to get some sleep…”
No one woke early on Christmas Day.
When Adam did surface, he discovered Karen was already missing, so he dressed in some boxer shorts and a T-shirt to pad downstairs in search of a cup of coffee. He found Amanda and Karen in the kitchen already, and stood for a moment watching them. They’d obviously patched up their differences and Karen had a huge box of her favourite chocolates unwrapped before her and was chewing happily, whilst he recognised the wrapping paper from one of the presents they’d brought with them lying beside Amanda’s cup. Suddenly, over the sound system came the rousing sound of Rogers and Hammerstein – which was one of the music discs Karen had bought her mother.
Amanda joined in the song, and Karen, hastily swallowing her chocolate, followed suit.
“O…..klahoma! Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain…
And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain.
“I hate to tell you this, Ladies, but you’re in the wrong State,” Adam said teasingly. They both jumped at the sound of his voice and laughed as he came towards them.
Amanda stood and embraced him, kissing his unshaven cheek. “Merry Christmas, Adam, honey. You’ll be needing some coffee…”
“Merry Christmas, ‘my honey-lamb’,” Karen said as he came and kissed her cheek.
He sat down next to her and gratefully sipped the coffee Amanda placed before him. “Maybe I should make Charles a cup of tea?” she mused and was answered by his voice from the staircase saying,
“Tea would be most welcome, but I’ll take coffee, if it’s a bother.”
“No bother, come and sit with us while I make it… I think Karen has something she wants to say to you.”
He came down the rest of the stairs and across to the table to embrace Amanda.
Adam glanced encouraging at Karen who looked up at her commanding officer with an apologetic blush on her face. “Colonel, I am very sorry for what I said yesterday – Adam was right - I was ‘well out of order’ and I apologise, sir.”
Gray sat down and studied her face in silence for a moment. She held his gaze, even as her cheeks grew more crimson under his stare.
“Thank you, Karen. I’m pleased that you and your mother are seeing eye-to-eye again; and that you and Adam have also… resolved your differences.” Amanda sniggered from the direction of the kitchen work surface. Gray continued, “I think I owe you an apology too, and perhaps we – Amanda and I – should have told you of your growing relationship; but – in all honesty – until this holiday, neither of us were sure there was anything to tell. Now I can say, with sincerity, that I am… extremely fond of your mother.”
“Extremely fond?” Amanda asked with wide-eyed amazement.
“Extremely fond,” he confirmed.
Karen laughed. “Mom, you’re going to have a devil of a job to get beyond ‘extremely fond’. Spectrum officers are not given to making sweeping declarations of affection; at least, not if Adam’s anything to go by, he has to work up to saying ‘I love you’ for at least a day or two!”
“I do not,” Adam protested amiably enough, amidst the sociable laughter.
After they had finished their leisurely breakfast they all washed and dressed and met up once more in the living room, where the presents, piled around the tree, were handed out and opened and admired.
Amanda was thrilled to receive a bottle of her favourite perfume from Charles and an elaborate gift set of the same fragrance from Adam – rather to the mutual embarrassment of both men.
Karen was delighted with the variety of gifts she received from her mother; but her greatest enthusiasm was reserved for one of the pile of parcels she received from Adam, who’d really excelled himself this year by buying a selection of gifts for her that included the new designer handbag she’d been mooning over for weeks – so much so - that she’d even set the webpage it was displayed on, as the homepage on Blue’s private computer in his quarters on Cloudbase.
She launched herself at him, as they sat side by side and almost throttled him in gratitude.
“She’s nothing, if not subtle,” he said with a boyish grin as he explained about the hint he’d been given to Amanda.
“I’d have to say you’d be better to call her ingenious,” Amanda teased her excited daughter, “because she wouldn’t know subtlety, even if you’d wrapped it up as another gift…”
Charles expressed his delight in the silk tie Amanda had bought him and the selection of books she’d chosen, as well. She’d taken note of the leisure reading he’d done on their weekends away, and tried hard to match the new titles with those she’d seen him reading; it made her day to see his genuine pleasure at her thoughtfulness.
Adam also received several books he wanted from Karen, and Amanda, in a sudden burst of inspiration, had bought him a Stetson. “It’s meant for when we get to go riding together again,” she explained with a chuckle, as he stood before the mirror admiring himself wearing it. He acknowledged the fact, but made no attempt to remove it, even when he resumed his seat beside Karen. Amanda shook her head at his boyish delight with the gift and leant forward to promise, in what was supposed to be a confidential, motherly whisper, to buy him ‘real cowboy boots’ for his birthday…
Karen, over-hearing the exchange, was inspired to start humming and suddenly burst into an apposite refrain from ‘Oklahoma’:
“I’d like to say a word for the cowboy;
If he rides by and asks for food and water;
Don’t treat him like a louse,
Make him welcome in your house –
But be sure that you lock up yer wife and daughter…”
At which, even the colonel was heard to chuckle.
The turkey was starting to smell tantalisingly good, and Amanda was considering preparing the vegetables, when Adam suddenly frowned and tilted his head, straining to catch a distant noise.
He glanced at Karen. She concentrated. “A helicopter,” she confirmed.
Gray moved to the window, and Amanda noticed how all three Spectrum officers were suddenly on the alert. She felt a shiver of apprehension as Adam removed his Stetson and joined his commander at the window. Gray pointed in an easterly direction.
“I see it,” Adam confirmed. “It’s too small for a helijet – it’s not Spectrum.”
Amanda gasped as both men suddenly drew Spectrum pistols from out of the discreet shoulder holsters they were both wearing.
“We always have to be careful, Mom,” Karen explained, reaching to take her mother’s hand. “Even here there is always a possibility the Mysterons might try to attack us – especially as the colonel’s with us. We can’t be sure what they’re going to target in any new threat and their threats often come as riddles which we have to try to analyse, and even when they’re not proper riddles they’re usually cryptic or misleading. That’s what happened at AESC.”
Amanda said, “But, Karen… I think it might be…” her voice trailed into silence as she realised no one was listening to her; their training – and the habitual state of wariness in which they lived their lives – had taken over and she watched helplessly as three of Spectrum’s finest agents swung into defensive action.
Gray moved to the door, and as the helicopter began its landing approach, he opened it slightly to peer outside. Adam was covering the approach to the house from the window and Karen was waiting, a gun now in her hand as well, ready to move to assist either man, if necessary.
Amanda, excluded from this activity, moved away from them and wondered what on earth she should do.
The tension in the room was broken by the muted electronic bleep of Adam’s cell phone. He fumbled it open and clamped it to his ear, after a moment he gasped, “What? Why on earth did you do that?” and turned away from them to conduct the rest of his conversation in vehement whispers. Karen moved to replace him by the window, and Gray stared after him, annoyed that his officer should desert his post. “Stay calm, Amanda, but keep away from the doors and windows,” he said to her as she stood quietly watching them. “You’ll be safe enough with us here.”
“I have no doubt that I’ll be safe, Charles…because, I think it’s…. ” she started to reply, but Gray had turned back to watch the approach of the chopper once more. Amanda sighed and when he turned, to glare at his subordinate officer who was now remonstrating volubly with his caller, she ignored him.
When Adam finally closed his phone he gave them all a look of apology. “That was Captain Scarlet – Rhapsody had just convinced him that he ought to warn us, it seems. Apparently, my mother rang Cloudbase to speak to me and when she couldn’t get me, she demanded to speak to Paul, and he told her Karen and I were here – convalescing - because we’d both been injured. My mother was, naturally, concerned and rather upset and to calm her down – he says – Paul gave her your phone number here, because he couldn’t be sure I had my cell phone with me and he knows my mother doesn’t have the number for it, anyway - not that he thought to try - of course, until now. So, I’m sorry, Amanda, but my mother will probably call up to ask to speak to me. I can’t imagine what Paul thought he was doing when he told her what’s happened.”
Karen fought the urge to giggle. “Well, your mother does have the knack of worming things out of people – even people as well-trained as Captain Scarlet.”
“Perhaps I should invite her to do some of our interrogation training?” the colonel suggested dryly, smirking at the grimace that distorted Adam’s face at his teasing.
“But she did call – your mother; she called this morning – I’ve been trying to tell you,” Amanda said with a sigh of exasperation. “I didn’t want to spoil the surprise, but as you’ve all got so worked up about it, I guess I have no choice but to come clean. You were still asleep when I spoke to her, Adam, and we agreed that it wasn’t a good idea to wake you; you need your rest, especially since you’ve been shot. We chatted for a while, and she asked my permission to call again – or if I would let you call her – and I said, ‘why don’t you come and visit him? We have plenty of room, and I’d love to meet you’…”
“You did what?” Adam gasped.
“Well, I thought it’d be a nice surprise for you to see your mom at Christmas; although, as I told her, I know she has other family to consider… so I didn’t push it….”
“You wouldn’t have to,” Adam muttered. ”That’d be more than enough of an excuse for my mother to throw everyone into confusion and decamp to Iowa. She just revels in doing ‘spontaneous’ things like that – says it’s what keeps her young.” He paused, “But, maybe she won’t – after all - my dad won’t want to leave Boston and he wouldn’t like it if she came alone.”
“Unless I’m mistaken that ‘copter is a SvenCorp machine,” Karen announced from her post by the window.
“Don’t make jokes like that,” Adam pleaded.
“No joke. It is a SvenCorp machine.”
They watched the helicopter land on a flat piece of open ground across from the house and saw a uniformed pilot spring from the cabin and turn to assist the elegant figure of Sarah Svenson, impeccably dressed in a flawless white fur coat, with a matching ‘Cossack’ hat and boots, step onto the icy ground. She turned and waited until a second figure, dressed in a dark fur coat, his fair head exposed to the elements, followed her. She took his arm and they advanced carefully across the open expanse of snow towards the house. Behind them the pilot was unloading overnight bags and boxes of Christmas parcels.
“Jeepers – it’s not just my mother – my father’s here too!” Adam exclaimed.
Amanda seemed delighted at the news. “How wonderful! I never expected she’d get your father to come with her; she said she’d try, but she thought your father might dig his heels in and want to stay at home. Mind you, she did say that if anything could tempt him away from Boston at Christmas, it’d be seeing you… and Karen.” She glanced at her daughter and smiled. “Mrs Svenson said he was ‘quite taken’ with you, Karen – what have you been doing, my girl?”
“I think he’s impressed just because I don’t cower in the face of his bad temper,” her daughter said with a bright smile.
“Well, I’m so glad they’ve decided to visit,” Amanda cried, reaching to squeeze Adam’s hand. “I’ve been wanting to meet your folks for some time. I do hope they can stay over for a day or two – and then we’ll have plenty of time to really get to know each other – now wouldn’t that just make this a perfect Christmas?” she asked rhetorically, as she moved to throw open her front door. “Come on, Adam, come and introduce us…”
But, as Amanda Wainwright stepped joyfully out into the snow to welcome her guests, Colonel White could have sworn he heard Captain Blue – the man who had faced death against the Mysterons many times – give a distraught whimper. As he passed the colonel he muttered, “A right busman’s holiday this is turning out to be…” before trailing obediently after her.
Gray stepped onto the porch and tried to suppress his amusement as Sarah Svenson threw herself into her son’s awkward, one-armed embrace. Her voice carried back to him as she chided and fussed over Adam before she turned to embrace Amanda Wainwright, with barely a pause for breath in the vociferous flow of words.
Karen came to stand beside him, watching as Adam and his father shook hands self-consciously, and then Amanda embraced John Svenson, while his wife returned to admonishing her wayward son. Gray couldn’t help but smile down at her and, to his delight, Karen met his gaze with a smile of her own.
“It is a pity my dad can’t be with us today,” she said to him, “but you know I think I have the next best thing...” and she slipped her arm through his and squeezed it. “We’ll make a pretty spectacular ‘family’; won’t we…Charles?”
The colonel silently agreed that they would, and watched her as she limped forward to greet the new arrivals in response to their enthusiastic calls of greeting. “A pretty spectacular family indeed…” he murmured, as he too went to meet the Svensons when Amanda beckoned. He saw the sparkle of recognition in Sarah’s bright eyes and she gave him just the merest flicker of a conspiratorial wink as he shook her hand.
Sarah Svenson was busy organising the safe transportation of their luggage into the house, and John Svenson was chatting with surprising geniality to Karen and his son, when Amanda slipped her arm through Charles’s and confessed, “I knew this Christmas holiday was going to be special – and I was right!”
His happiness was complete when she reached up and kissed his cheek.
And when she led him back into the house after their guests and closed the door on the snow-covered landscape, Charles Gray felt as if he had finally reached home.
I don’t own most of the characters in this story. The established characters from the TV show Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, including Doctor Giardello, belong to Carlton International and were created by Gerry Anderson and his co-workers on the original TV show from the 1960s.
Amanda Wainwright and John and Sarah Svenson, were created by Chris Bishop, and appear in her story, ‘Symphony in Blue’ – one of my all time favourites and a constant source of inspiration to me. What I have done with them here is not in keeping with Chris’s story – the ‘contemporary’ events she depicts in ‘Symphony in Blue’ do not occur in my narrative framework – and so, John Svenson and Amanda Wainwright have not met before.
My thanks go to Chris for letting me loose with her creations – and, as always – for her wonderful website and her unstinting encouragement to me when I get stuck with my plotlines – and her willingness to let me revise the text very late in the proceedings.
Sam Wainwright, the Catesbys, Sergeant Jacobs and the other incidental characters, including the Lieutenants: Cerise, Cerulean, Claret, Flaxen, Gentian and Viridian, as they appear in this story – and as some of them also occur in my other stories – are my own creations; as is ‘Captain Starlight’ and the TV show he inhabits, which is also mentioned in the text.
Thanks to Caroline Smith, for her helpful suggestions, especially about Iowan weather - I gather it is pretty darn cold - and to Mary J Rudy for beta-reading this story and correcting my ‘American’ dialogue. It is true what they say: the English and the Americans are two nations separated by a common language!
Any mistakes in the text are my responsibility. I don’t have a great deal of scientific knowledge and the hypothesis I have used here, regarding Terahertz, is derived from my researches on the internet. If I have made any fundamental errors, I apologise, and hope that they are not such terrific ‘howlers’ that they spoil the story for those in the know. This is, after all, meant as a ‘fiction with science in’ story and not ‘science with fiction’!
Thank you for reading – and I hope you enjoyed it.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year,
November 2005 - January 2006