A Spectrum Story
By Marion Woods
It is often tragic to see how blatantly a man bungles his own life and the lives of others yet remains totally incapable of seeing how much the whole tragedy originates in himself, and how he continually feeds it and keeps it going
Part One: Colonel Con
March 2065, Atello Beach, South Pacific.
The open-topped, light-grey sports car took the curving coast road at speed and, with a squeal of brakes, stopped in front of a small, glass-fronted, roundhouse that overlooked a palm-fringed beach and an endless expanse of azure-blue sea. The single occupant clambered out and reached into the back seat to lift out a heavy-duty, brown paper bag full of groceries.
He flicked his hand towards the car dashboard, pressing his thumb on the small remote control he held. A tiny infrared light flashed and bleeped as it obediently locked down the driving pedals before he strode up the short path, which ran through the sparsely-planted garden, to the heavy-duty glass door. At another flick of his hand, the automatic locks whirred and clicked, and the panel slid open.
The inside of the house offered respite from the endless sunshine and he removed his jet-black, dense, wrap-around sunglasses, walked to the kitchen area of the open-plan design and put the bag down on the work surface nearest to the fridge. He unpacked the food, and helped himself to a cold beer from the top shelf, before walking into the lounge area.
He took several gulps of the refreshing lager and put the bottle down on the clear, glass-topped table. There was a small, neat pile of post on the table-top, and he flicked through the envelopes without enthusiasm: bills, flyers, bank statements, and offers for things he’d never need and didn’t want – nothing unusual there.
He paused a moment to stretch and glance around the preternaturally tidy living room, assessing the familiar walls with their abstract artworks, the modern tubular furniture, the large, expensive domestic cinema equipment. Beyond the French doors he could see the landscaped garden, as sparsely planted as the front, for minimum maintenance.
Everything was as it should be: nothing had changed since he’d left on the last mission.
Exhaling, he removed the distinctive white, red and gold jacket of his uniform, stretching his shoulders before he bent to unzip the boots. He collected his beer and ambled into the single bedroom, turning on the shower as he passed the door to the en-suite bathroom.
He stripped, finished the beer and strode into the shower.
There was nothing to beat a proper shower after a mission. He let the water run down his tired and grimy body for several minutes before reaching out for the shampoo and vigorously washing his thick, black hair.
Although he lived alone and there was no one to take offence at his nakedness, he wrapped a small towel round his waist and regarded himself in the large mirror that backed the washbasin.
He was thirty-six, sallow-skinned, with emphatic brows above sardonic, brown eyes. He’d been told he was handsome, and he supposed it might be true; what he knew to be true was that he was single by choice, gainfully employed in a job many men would have given their right arms for, and – increasingly - bored.
Well, not bored, exactly: for the past couple of years he’d been responsible for several successful zero-gravity construction projects, but after eleven years of doing the job, even piloting a rocket into space became rather mundane.
“Happy birthday,” he said to his reflection, and a wry smile twisted his thin lips at the sight of the patches of heavy stubble on his chin. He ran a hand over his gaunt cheeks and wondered if he could forgo shaving until tomorrow.
The chime of the doorbell startled him and, not for the first time, he regretted the open-plan nature of his home. He strode back into his bedroom and pulled on a towelling robe, before walking out into the lounge.
From outside the glass-fronted entrance, Mrs Glenda Doughty waved her fingers playfully in his direction.
Conrad Turner smothered the curse that rose to his lips, and managed a dry smile in response.
His visitor was the mother-in-law of young, recently married, Doctor Frost, who lived in the companion beach house that backed on to his on the other side of the sand dunes. She had come to stay with her daughter ‘for a short visit’ some six months ago, since when she had managed to insinuate herself into the social life of the base to an alarming degree. She was in her mid-forties and must once have been as shapely and attractive a woman as her twenty-two year old daughter was now, but since her divorce she’d made the cardinal error of trying to regain those youthful charms with the aid of a bottle of blonde hair dye and by dressing in predominantly girlish-pink sundresses that cruelly emphasised the undulating contours around her broad hips.
“Hello,” she said with an enticing smile; as he opened the door a fraction she pushed past him into the lounge. “I saw the car parked outside and I knew you must be back. Eleanor Zero told me XL3 was due back today. Did you have a pleasant trip?”
Glenda had never quite managed to grasp the fact that the crews of the Fireball XL fleet weren’t zooming round the universe for the fun of it, but he was long past reasoning with her.
“It was a successful mission,” he replied, self-consciously drawing the edges of the robe closer together.
She gave him a lingering look-over and ran the tip of her tongue over her candy-pink lips. “A little bird told me it was your birthday today, Colonel, so I am here to invite you to a barbecue in celebration. Nothing much, just a small get-together with our neighbours and, of course, you will be the guest of honour…”
“Really?” He managed to hide the dismay that swept through him. “That’s really very kind of the Frosts, Mrs Doughty-”
“Glenda!” she corrected him, with a coy shake of her finger in his face.
“Very kind of you… Glenda, but I am rather tired. It was a long mission and a tricky re-entry and I had planned to have a quiet evening and…”
“Nonsense. You always plan quiet evenings, Colonel Turner. I insist you come along – after all it is your birthday we’re celebrating!”
“Well,” Turner prevaricated.
“Eleanor has promised to get Commander Zero to attend and she will be most disappointed if you don’t turn up.”
Turner recognised a veiled threat when he heard it. Commander Zero’s wife ruled her devoted husband with an iron hand in a chintz glove. If ‘dear Eleanor’ was upset, Zero wouldn’t be pleased. He knew he’d been outmanoeuvred.
“Well, just for a short time…”
“Splendid! I’ll expect you at 5pm, sharp.” She gave him a broad smile and raised a pencil-thin eyebrow. “Now, I had better let you get dressed – what will the neighbours think if they see me talking to you like this?”
“I dread to think,” Turner said to himself, as he closed the door after her and managed an awkward wave as she turned to wiggle her fingers at him again in what she obviously thought was a girlish gesture. “Damn and blast you, you interfering Harpy,” he muttered, as he turned away.
The cacophony of voices was almost drowned out by the jazzy music blaring out from the Frost house. An enticing smell of barbecued meat wafted over the low fence as Conrad approached the gate. He could see a small crowd of people gathered at the far end of the garden near the swimming pool, and recognised most of them as his World Space Patrol colleagues and their spouses, partners or lovers. For a ‘small get-together’ there were a lot of people present and they looked to have been enjoying the Frosts’ hospitality for some time already.
The gate gave a high-pitched squeak as he opened it and attracted the attention of Glenda Doughty – no doubt on the lookout for his arrival. She advanced towards him, wearing a colourful sarong and a diaphanous, flower-patterned, chiffon wrap.
“Colonel! I’m so glad you’ve arrived!” She slipped her arm through his and turned back towards the others, calling, “Here he is, everyone – the birthday boy!”
There was a smattering of laughter and some cheering and Conrad felt his cheeks colouring at this unwelcome attention.
Sherilynne Frost came clattering across the patio to join her mother. She was undoubtedly pretty and - as her skimpy top and skin-tight shorts proved - shapely, but, at least as far as he’d discovered anyway, she was an archetypal dumb blonde with a trusting innocence and weak intellect.
But then, Conrad thought, I doubt the doctor married her for her brains.
Sherilynne gave him a bright smile, which he did his best to return. Unlike her mother, she was not the kind of woman you could take offence at. “I am so pleased you could come, Colonel Turner,” she said, as she took his arm and guided him towards the barbecue, where the personable doctor was busy flipping steaks and chatting to the space doctor from Fireball XL5.
“Look, Mike, Colonel Turner’s here,” Sherilynne called.
Frost grinned in welcome at Turner. “That’s swell, honey,” he replied. “Maybe you could fix Conrad a drink? He looks like he needs one.” He rolled his eyes in the vague direction of his mother-in-law still hovering close to her daughter.
Sherilynne beamed and nodded at these wise words, and went tripping into the house on her high-heeled, sling-back sandals. She returned with a bottle of beer, and handed it over with a bright, but insincere smile before sashaying away to chat to more congenial guests.
Conrad, looking for a polite way to detach himself from Mrs Doughty, moved closer to his host and his companion, the amiable Dr Venus, who, as the owner of the most isolated of the beach houses in their exclusive little enclave, was their joint neighbour.
Venus was an experienced space doctor and she had served as part of the crew of Fireball XL5 for some years now. Conrad had known her ever since he joined the WSP, and considered her to be one of the most knowledgeable – and therefore, interesting - women he’d ever met.
She smiled a welcome at him, and politely enquired after the health of the crew on the latest mission.
Thankful to be talking shop, Turner launched into a detailed discussion, resolutely keeping to the topic until Glenda Doughty drifted away in search of easier prey.
As she watched the older woman walk away, Venus tossed her platinum-blonde hair back from her face. “It is all right now, Conrad; she has gone. You can relax,” she said, with a sympathetic smile.
“Was it so obvious?” he asked ruefully.
Venus gave a very Gallic shrug and arched her eyebrows. “Maybe only to another woman,” she consoled him.
She guessed that while the colonel’s aversion to flirting made him a magnet for the certain kind of woman who couldn’t resist a challenge, Glenda Doughty was not one of those. Disappointed by her ex-husband and slightly desperate to find a man who would pamper and care for her, Glenda preferred someone who responded to her advances. Venus had little doubt that it wouldn’t be much longer before she gave up her dogged pursuit of one of Space City’s most determined bachelors.
She quickly thought back over the years she’d known the taciturn Englishman and couldn’t think of even one occasion when he’d allowed anyone to get close to him.
“It was a long mission,” Conrad was saying to justify himself, “and I was expecting a quiet evening.”
“Even you ought to socialise with your compeers sometimes, Conrad,” Venus said. “You are too dedicated to your work – and that is not healthy.”
“Is that your professional opinion, Doctor?” Conrad asked frostily.
Venus shook her head and laid her slim hand on his arm. “No; it is the advice of a friend, Conrad, that is all.” Her blue eyes looked up into his dark ones and a small frown appeared between her brows. “You need to relax more. We are your friends and we care about you.”
Conrad cleared his throat and was about to confess his growing unease to Venus, when Doctor Frost thrust a plate with a well-done steak on it at him, and nodded indoors.
“Sheri’s laid out all sorts of salads and breads in there; help yourself, Conrad.”
Conrad thanked his host and started to move away, hearing Venus’s irritated gasp and seeing the frown she gave Doc Frost.
Oblivious to the annoyance of his professional colleague, he continued, moderating his voice to something approaching a confidential tone, “And please, don’t feel you have to stay if you really don’t want to. I know Glenda can be awfully pushy, and I’m not going to take offence if you’d prefer to crash out at home.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that, Mike.”
Conrad excused himself to Doctor Venus and went into the dining room. Frost hadn’t exaggerated; there was a mountain of breads and salads laid out for the guests. Suddenly realising how hungry he was, and how long it had been since he’d anything but space rations to eat, he heaped salads onto his plate, pausing to eat some before he wandered outside again.
Venus had moved to join the crowd of people near the pool, and so he looked about, searching for a seat at the garden tables. He joined a group of men sitting close to the large clump of bamboo that formed a hedge against the prevailing winds, and after exchanging greetings, settled down to eat his food, listening to the conversation.
As he finished eating, Colonel Steve Zodiac, sitting to his left, asked, “I heard you had a tricky re-entry, Con; anything we should worry about?”
Conrad shook his head. “We’d taken a hit from some space debris, so it was a bit hair-raising, to say the least. Still, everything held together and although XL3 will need some repairs, she’s sound enough. I’ll let you see the full report when I’ve written it, if you like, Steve?”
Zodiac nodded. “Yeah, thanks, I would. I’ve been advocating to Commander Zero that we need to get that space debris mapped, if we can’t get it cleared out of the way, that is. It’s like riding the dodgems sometimes, and one of these days it’s going to cause a major accident. Some of those freighters on the shuttle runs to the lunar colonies simply don’t have the manoeuvrability of the Fireball fleet.”
The other men around the table nodded in agreement.
“I know what you mean; I’ve had a couple of near-misses before this and I raised the problem myself. I expect Zero’s response is still that ‘we don’t have the manpower’?” Conrad remarked, swigging back the rest of his beer.
“No men, no money, no interest,” Colonel Jackie Malone of Fireball XL2 remarked acerbically.
The others mumbled their agreement.
“Makes me wonder how we’re ever going to do all the solar system exploration they’re always talking about, if we can’t get in and out of Space City safely,” Zodiac said. “I’m starting to feel cooped up on this one little planet!”
The others laughed.
“Ah, gentlemen, I’m glad to see you having such a good time.”
The laughter ceased and the men started to get to their feet as their commanding officer approached. “At ease, we’re all off duty,” Zero said jovially. “Good to see you’re safely back, Conrad. I need to talk to you – shall we say 0900 hours, tomorrow, in my office?”
“Of course, Commander.”
“Give him a break, Commander,” Zodiac protested, on his companion’s behalf. “He only got back this afternoon; and he’s on vacation.”
Zero gave a rueful smile. “09.30,” he compromised.
Conrad smiled and nodded. He’d nothing planned, and the prospect of an extra project was a welcome one.
After all, what do I need a vacation for? he asked himself.
Colonel Turner presented himself at the Space City Control Tower at 0915 and prepared to wait. Commander Zero, on being informed he had arrived, called him into the office.
“Thanks for coming over, Conrad,” he said, indicating a seat across from his desk. “I hope I didn’t spoil your lie-in this morning?”
Turner, who had been up since 5.30, shook his head. “Not at all, Commander. What did you want to see me about?”
Zero tapped his pen against the blotter on his desk. “I’ve had a rather strange request – concerning you.” Turner said nothing, and it was impossible to read his expression, so Zero continued, “From the office of the World President.”
There was a hint of wariness in Turner’s voice; he had had dealings with President Bandranaik before.
The World President was undoubtedly a great man, largely responsible for the direction and the success of the World Government since its inception twenty years ago. He was a consummate politician, skilled at manipulating public opinion to get his own way, and – as Conrad had reason to know – not averse to using individuals to further his own aims.
Even now, at the age when most people would have been considering retirement and be winding down their activities and responsibilities, Bandranaik still had his fingers on the pulse of world affairs. He was actively pressing for the introduction of another quasi-military force, tasked with eradicating the radical terrorists who still held much of the world to ransom with their acts of sickening violence. A significant proportion of the established military hierarchy were fighting him tooth and claw, whilst civil libertarians pondered on the wisdom of creating a supra-national armed force.
Zero nodded. “They want me to agree to your secondment to a special project force, based in Futura. They need someone with experience of space construction techniques, so they asked for you – by name.”
“Did they, indeed? Well, I’ve certainly done my share of project-managing the construction of space relays and docking ports – can’t fault them there.”
“You’re my most experienced man, Turner, I can’t spare you!” Zero snapped.
The World Space Patrol was midway through a programme of constructing space relay stations, intended to enable their space fleet to remain on duty for longer without needing to complete the dangerous re-entry procedures too often, and the project was already well behind schedule.
“How long is this secondment for?” Turner asked as casually as he could.
Zero looked irritated. “That’s just it! They can’t tell me – or they won’t, more likely: ‘until the project is complete’ is about the limit of their frankness.” He glowered and vented his frustration. “They expect me to run a service and meet their targets, but they keep me short of funding - and manpower! I don’t mind telling you, Conrad, that I’m not that keen on agreeing to this. Losing you will necessitate considerable reorganisation of crewmen.”
“Hardly,” Turner responded calmly, he’d learned long ago not to fan the flames of his commanding officer’s irascible moods. “Lieutenant Dean has been my co-pilot for several months now, and he and Conway are perfectly capable of handling XL3 until my return. Besides, there are plenty of junior officers champing at the bit to take part in a tour of duty; you could look at this as a chance to give them that chance and assess their potential. Sir.”
“You want to go,” Zero stated; he knew Turner well enough to read the subtext in his words. “Are you sure it’s wise?”
Conrad shrugged his shoulders slightly, and pursed his lips as if in doubt.
Zero sighed thoughtfully. He knew that Turner’s aversion to publicity matched the World President’s love of it; the chances were that whatever Bandranaik had lined up would be done in a blaze of public relations sound bites and press coverage. He waited to hear what his officer had to say.
“I’m intrigued; and flattered that he remembered me, I guess,” Conrad admitted, turning his face towards Zero’s.
“Hmm; I can’t count the number of times you’ve said that Bandranaik is a politician to his fingertips and quite ruthless at manipulating everyone to get what he wants,” Zero reminded him. “He’s probably doing exactly that to you now – there’s an election looming, remember! Dammit, Conrad! You’re walking straight into whatever he’s got planned for you! After all these years of keeping a low profile too -” Conrad’s dark gaze fell away from his commanding officer, and Zero tried to temper his rage. “But you’ll know that as well as me, and well, I suppose I can’t blame you; although I’d have expected a little more loyalty from you, Conrad. I still don’t like it; if I let you go without a fight, they’ll assume they can cherry-pick my best men whenever it suits them. I could be making a rod for my own back, you realise? And without a fixed date for your return, it makes project planning far more difficult!”
“Well, as you know, sir, I have enough accumulated furlough to take almost three months away from duty,” Turner reminded him dryly. “I was talking to Doctor Venus yesterday and she said I needed a break. At the medical before my last mission, Doc Frost warned me that he’d be putting me on compulsory leave if I didn’t take it soon. Now, if I put in for that leave you’d have to agree to it, Commander, and you couldn’t stop me going to Futura if I wanted to, could you, sir?”
Zero glowered across the desk and shook his head.
Conrad smothered a smile and continued, “At least this way, you’ll have complied with the World President’s request, and, technically, I’ll have used up the leave I have, so Doc Frost will be satisfied. You’ll only lose me for the three months, Commander; and you know you’re going to have to let me take it, anyway. Isn’t it better if I go on our terms, rather than theirs?”
Zero looked at him steadily. If he was honest, he’d known his officer had been getting restless for some time, and he hoped this change of scene would remind Turner of just what had attracted him to his job in the first place. He made a show of resignation and said:
“Okay, Conrad, you win. It’ll make it easier for me to let you go, if you want to. I half-expected you to protest against it,” he confessed. He sighed grumpily and sucked on his teeth for a moment. “Taking your leave would solve the immediate problems, wouldn’t it?” His subordinate nodded. “Mind you, you will work yourself to death one of these days, Colonel,” he added.
The thin lips twitched in what Zero recognised as a smile. “Unlikely, Commander; I just like to keep busy.”
Zero shrugged. “I remember my old grandmother telling me a folk story about someone who raised the Devil and then had the devil’s own job of keeping him busy.”
Turner smiled politely.
Zero scribbled his signature on the document in front of him. “Very well; I’ll tell Futura you’re on your way. Let me know as much as you can, when you can. I need you back here at their earliest convenience – remember that.”
“My secretary has your travel warrants and schedules,” Zero admitted. “You can pick them up on your way out.”
“Oh, and Conrad -”
“Have a nice ‘vacation’.”
The sentence sounded like a goodbye.
After an uneventful flight, Turner was met at Futura Airport by a rather off-hand young officer from the World Army Air Force, who gave him a sealed envelope and the address of the hotel that had been booked for him, before glancing at his watch, saluting and leaving in a hurry.
Rather at a loss for what to do next, Turner sat in one of the airport’s many coffee bars, ordered a ‘full-strength, full milk, just-as-it-comes-from-the-pot’ coffee from the bewildering array on the menu, and opened the envelope. There were plane tickets to New York, for a flight that left tomorrow morning, the address of another hotel and instructions to report to the headquarters of the Supreme Commander: Earth Forces, at 1030 hours the day after next.
He was instructed not to wear his WSP uniform – even the less gaudy dress uniform - and told to ask for ‘Mr Snow’ when he reported to the SC: EF building.
He finished his coffee and took a taxi to the hotel, where he showered, shaved and went down to the restaurant to eat. His fellow diners were all in well-dressed groups, busily engaged in conversation over their meals.
There seems to be some truth in the saying that all the work in Futura gets done around restaurant tables, Conrad thought in amusement, as he sipped his liqueur and called for his bill.
He took a walk along the well-lit, busy street, down to the beach. Even there, people were still disporting themselves under floodlights. He watched their antics for a while before he went back to his room and settled down to watch the International Telecast highlights of an iconic British sporting fixture.
It was cold and wet at the far-distant stadium, and Conrad didn’t for one moment miss it. He might tire of the perpetual sunshine of Space City, but he never missed the dank British winters. His childhood had been spent in Lancashire, and in most of his memories it was raining.
Orphaned as a baby and grudgingly raised by an elderly great aunt and her taciturn husband on their remote farm, he’d had a lonely childhood. His guardians had no children of their own and seemed to think all he was there for was to perform the chores they set him; he could remember being dragged out of bed to help with the milking when it was still dark and he was barely old enough to dress himself properly, and he’d looked forward to the school terms as an escape from the drudgery of farm life.
The staff of the local mobile library that chugged along the lanes once a fortnight, had all known him, and they’d become his closest friends. They fed his insatiable thirst for knowledge with an enthusiasm he never encountered at home. Then, when he moved to the secondary school he was fortunate enough to fall into the orbit of a marvellously gifted teacher. Mr Davies had impressed the fact that ‘Conrad has brains’ onto his great aunt, and grudgingly, she’d let him study all he wanted to, as long as he helped around the farm once he’d finished his homework for the day.
He had excelled at school, and, at fifteen had won himself a scholarship place to the Manchester Technical Academy, an off-shoot of the prestigious Northern University. On receiving assurances that it wouldn’t cost her anything, his great aunt gave permission for him to go.
The day he packed and left the farm was one of the happiest he’d ever experienced. He said goodbye to his guardians and walked away without once looking back.
In Manchester he’d found it hard to fit in; his social skills were basic and clumsy compared to the other students, but he flourished in the atmosphere of learning, and impressed his teachers with his application and ability. He’d remained at college, working through the holidays - having no desire to go back to the farm - and in eighteen months he was ready to take his National Diploma exams. He’d chosen to study physics and space navigation, with the aim of working towards becoming a pilot for the new supersonic jets, and then added International Law as a useful insight into the world that had largely by-passed him, until now. He graduated with top marks and was readily accepted into Northern University to read science and technology.
By now he had a small circle of friends, mostly young men fascinated, like him, by the wonders of science and the limitless possibility of technology to harness them. The intense concentration and fierce competition of this circle drove him to complete his degree in another eighteen months, so that at eighteen years of age, he was a highly-qualified young adult, with his living to make.
The prospect of working in a commercial environment did not really appeal, and yet, he still yearned to fly the planes he knew so much about, so that applying to the British Air Force was an obvious choice. He was accepted for training and turned his back on the rain-soaked north, moving down to Oxfordshire to begin his initial training in the summer of 2047
Conrad always felt that his life was split into two distinct parts: the early part had been endured by a lonely, unloved boy, while the second part was being ‘enjoyed’ by a celebrated hero, and sometimes, even he found it hard to reconcile them. He got up from his armchair and turned his back on the telescreen, walking over to the window to gaze, without really seeing, at the view towards the World Senate building.
The turning point had undoubtedly been another dark, rain-lashed day, in the winter of 2047, when the taciturn Flight Lieutenant Conrad Turner had become a national hero.
In those days the country was seething with a barely hidden resentment against the government, a resentment that finally erupted in the popular uprising that became known – with typical British absurdity - as the ‘British Civil War’, but such had been his self-absorption that the national mood had hardly impinged on his conscious mind at the time.
Conrad sighed and shook his head at the way things had panned out. He’d read numerous articles that assigned all kinds of motivation to his actions on that fateful day, motives that had never crossed his mind then – and wouldn’t now. Finally he’d stopped reading the popular press and refused to give any interviews. Ironically, this withdrawal had merely created an aura of mystery around him that was equally annoying.
Despite the cocoon of legend that preserved his hypothetical motivations in the national consciousness, he knew that his conscience had been untroubled by any doubts whatsoever when he’d signed his military service contract, and that his vow to protect the current military-led government - which had seized power almost twenty years before as an emergency measure at the start of the European ‘atomic’ war - had carried as little weight with him then as it would now. His interest in politics only went as far as the regime touched his own life, and in providing him with a good, free education – the only kind his aunt would have tolerated - it had done him no harm at all.
He had been aware that many people hated living under a dictatorship, of course, and that they believed passionately that Britain should take its place amongst the peaceful nations of the World by joining the newly-created World Government. He’d had no argument with that, as long as it could be done with the minimum of personal inconvenience to Flight Lieutenant Conrad Turner.
By the winter of 2047 the political tension had been building for some time, yet, like most people, he’d been convinced that the British propensity for compromise, as much as their general political apathy, would see that it never led to anything.
But that was before the so-called ‘royalist’ freedom fighters had begun waging a war against the Military Dictatorship. When soldiers started dying – and civilians too – the pro-government media began to compare the rebels with the IRA, who had terrorised the United Kingdom during the 1970s and 80s, and the more conservative elements of the country started demanding retaliation and the ‘removal’ of the rebels, and what had largely been a war of words had quickly escalated into acts of violence on both sides.
But, Conrad recalled, none of that slowed my determined march towards achieving my own goals. I was devoted to winning commendations and promotions, too delighted by my own success to think about the events happening around me. Until, that was, the ‘freedom fighters’ decided to put a bomb on a plane and destroy my airbase.
His base commander, whose ‘rebel’ sympathies were well known, had ordered the evacuation, ready to abandon the facility to its fate. This was, in the young Conrad’s eyes, a complete dereliction of his duty, so, fired up with a mixture of courage and foolhardiness and in contravention of his orders, he had hijacked the plane and set a course towards the coast, intending to ditch over the sea, where the bomb could detonate harmlessly enough.
Conrad deliberately broke the flow of memories with a shiver, and turned back to the telescreen to watch the football, but after a few minutes he turned it off, aware that it was too late to halt the inevitable. He knew he’d have to relive the events of that day, if he wanted to get any sleep. All too often he suppressed the waking memories only to have them haunt his dreams, night after night, until he faced the demons of his past.
He ran a hand over his face and felt the sweat that had broken out on his upper lip. He wasn’t surprised; experience had taught him that hindsight was a cruel judge, and although, at thirty-six, he could now marvel at his stupidity, to his eighteen-year-old self, it had seemed such a logical thing to do.
Sometimes, in the starkness of his dreams, he would hear the increasingly desperate voices of the command team, trying to reach him over the plane radio. They’d grown ever more frantic as he’d flown over the towns and cities that lay between the base and the coast, but he’d ignored them all, until one voice had all but screamed:
You stupid bastard, Turner! If that plane explodes over a built-up area, thousands will die!
Then – and only then - had he realised the folly of his actions; a folly that even now started his heart thumping, and made adrenalin-fuelled fear grip him.
Back then, on board the plane, he’d lost all confidence, dithering between the shortest route to the sea, which lay over a heavily populated area, and the longer, but less populated, route, which increased the risk of the bomb going off while he was airborne. Either way, he’d realised he was probably going to die, and that if he should, by any miracle, survive, his Air Force career was almost certainly over.
He’d been sobbing before he saw the coastline in the distance and turned the plane out into the emptiness of the open water.
So lost was he in the memories of that day, that he could have sworn he smelt burning: the electrical burnout of fusing wires that had warned him of an imminent explosion. The plane had been crossing the harbour walls when he’d set the auto-pilot and in a moment of blind panic, ejected. He had seen the sudden glare of flames in the cockpit as an incendiary device ignited and moments later, as the plane started to come down towards the choppy, grey sea, there had been an earth-shattering explosion.
Shaking, Conrad got back up and paced the floor of his room. He’d been too close to the explosion, too low to get clear in time – and his last conscious memory had been of the burning heat of the shockwave that had engulfed his ejector seat.
He had no memories of what happened after that, only what he’d been told by other people, because the next thing he remembered was waking in a hospital bed, his whole body throbbing with unimaginable pain, and wondering if he had died anyway and this was what eternity was going to be like.
Finally, after what had felt like aeons of confusion and pain, a nurse had appeared and injected him with something. Awareness ebbed away and he slept. The next time he regained consciousness, he was bandaged and unable to move. A doctor came and muttered something to the nurse, and there was another injection and blessed oblivion.
He had no conception of how long that went on for, but finally he was allowed to sit up and change his view of the ceiling for one of the room he was in. There were flowers everywhere, and hundreds of ‘get well’ cards.
He remembered wondering who they were for.
He discovered the truth when a senior officer from the Air Force came to see him.
Air Vice-Marshal George Knightley had brusquely explained that the war was over; the military dictatorship had been overthrown and democracy restored to the United Kingdom, all in a few short weeks.
“You’re a very lucky man, Turner,” he’d explained in no friendly manner. “You’re lucky your irresponsible gamble paid off and that the plane made it to the coast; lucky that the World President sent search planes out to find you and had you brought to this World Government medical centre. Once they’d found you, Bandranaik went on air to announce that your actions proved to him there are brave and selfless men on both sides of the political divide and plead with the government to realise that it was madness to waste lives fighting, when diplomacy could restore the monarchy, according to the democratic wishes of the majority of the citizens. His use of the fact that you – a member of the Military Government’s armed forces - were being cared for here, at his expense, was a public relations coup, one the Royalists made good use of.”
Conrad had shaken his head in bewilderment; he’d had no idea what had been happening from the time the plane exploded up to the moment Knightley had walked in.
“The World President knows that what you did was the height of folly, the military know it, the Royalists know it – but the press used it to accentuate the benefits of a peaceful return to a constitutional monarchy, and in the light of the subsequent events, they declared that your ‘brave act’ was the catalyst for the mutinies that followed. To the public you are a hero; to anyone who knows what really happened you are a damn fool. You owe your life to the World President’s political expertise as much as to his stated desire for peace – never forget that!”
Even now, so many years later, Conrad remembered the helpless confusion he’d felt as he’d looked into Knightley’s stern face; but the Air Vice-Marshal had been pitiless and hadn’t pulled his punches.
“If it had been down to me, you could have drowned before I’d have wasted a single man on finding you,” he’d announced as he made ready to leave. “You are never to reveal the truth – to anyone – you must live up to the image the public have of you; that’s the World President’s order, by the way, the new government took us into the World Government, just as they’d threatened to do. Your military career in this country is at an end, I doubt any service would want you, but Bandranaik wants you transferred to the World Army Air Force anyway; another publicity stunt, of course.”
At the door he’d paused and turned back to the shaken young man, still a long way from total recovery and, with a conscious effort, tried to leave him on a more conciliatory note. “We’re all friends now, Turner, and you are the living symbol of that reconciliation. Just make sure you live up to it; not everyone is lucky enough to get a chance to make amends for their mistakes.”
Conrad could still hear the contempt in Knightley’s voice ringing in his head, as clearly as if the man was standing in front of him. Yet, with little option but to do as the World President ordered, he’d taken those words to heart and vowed, there and then, to deserve the reputation he’d earned in such an unexpected fashion.
From what he’d read about the consequences of his action and the subsequent events that had brought the war to such a sudden end, it seemed that, in reprisal for the foiled attack on the airbase, the Military Junta had ordered the Air Force to attack ‘rebel’ strongholds. Even now, he sometimes speculated whether he would have been one of the many who refused to bomb their fellow countrymen, or if he would have blindly obeyed.
But, Conrad thought, with wry gratitude to Fate, my war was over before I had to make that choice, but somehow I came out of it with an undeserved reputation for bravery and as a totem for peace and reconciliation. The mere fact that a British government intended to turn its armaments on its own people, led to its collapse as one by one the services mutinied. Charles Gray; he was the real hero – not me. He led the naval revolt that started the ball rolling. I wonder what happened to him. Last I heard he’d left the Navy; perhaps he hated all the attention he got, just as I did?
He poured himself a drink, raised it in salute to the officer whose courage had led to the rapid cessation of hostilities, and knocked it back in one.
Conrad had never been comfortable with his public reputation - whatever everyone else thought about him, he held himself in fairly low esteem - and his decision to accept the move to the World Army Air Force, rather than return to his old job, had been partly to escape from that. He’d done well in his new service, always keeping a low profile and eschewing publicity. His career move to the glamorous World Space Patrol and his promotion to Colonel, had briefly sparked interest in him once more, but he’d sat it out until the ever-hungry media had moved on to their latest ‘hero’.
He reflected that, in some unconscious way, he’d been waiting for the World President to call in his favour ever since.
Maybe this is it?
He sincerely hoped whatever the World President had planned would not involve the media. Some instinct told him that, this time, he was on to a winner; if they were being coy with Commander Zero, they were unlikely to alert the World Press to whatever they were up to.
He studied the air tickets with a thoughtful expression.
Maybe this is another chance for me to make amends? he wondered.
New York 2065. Headquarters of the Supreme Commander: Earth Forces.
Although he’d been told to ask for ‘Robert Snow’, Conrad recognised the man waiting for him in the appointed office of the Supreme Commander’s headquarters, as soon as he saw him. Even though he was smartly dressed in a dark business suit, rather than his service uniform, and, at some time during the past twenty years, his black hair had turned a distinguished silvery-white, there was no mistaking that face, or the patrician air and upright military bearing.
Time had been kind to Admiral Sir Charles Gray.
The slight, residual bewilderment resolved itself in Conrad’s mind; he’d always wondered - and regretted – why such an able man had retired so early in his career, and so soon after he’d been made Admiral of the British Fleet by a grateful, democratically elected government.
Well, it looks like he didn’t really retire, he simply moved on to other things, much the same as I did, he thought, and perhaps for the same reason? Living with fame isn’t easy, although at least he deserved to be called a hero… If he’s involved with this project, it just might be everything I hope it is… I can’t see Gray pandering to anyone’s desire for publicity, even the World President’s.
The meeting was taking place in an office on the twenty-third floor of the Supreme Commander: Earth Forces’ imposing Headquarters building, in New York, New York – a place which, incidentally, Turner considered hardly deserved naming once, never mind twice. There was a jaw-dropping view of the Manhattan skyline from the enormous wall-to-ceiling windows that would have given anyone who suffered from vertigo severe mental trauma.
Certainly a very strange place for two Englishmen to meet for the first time, Conrad mused, and even though he was not in uniform either, but casually dressed in a dark jacket and trousers with an open-necked shirt, he saluted.
“Colonel Conrad Turner, of the World Space Patrol, reporting for duty, sir.”
“At ease, Colonel.”
Gray’s voice was deep, and, as Conrad remembered, he spoke with the rounded tones of a well-educated, middle-class Englishman; with a flicker of surprise he realised that the inborn feeling of inferiority such accents had always provoked in him, was still there.
I suppose countless generations of Englishmen have automatically deferred to people with voices like that, and it must be more ingrained than I’d imagined, he thought. I haven’t heard an accent like it for years - since I’ve been immersed in the WSP, in fact, and even I’ve got a mid-Atlantic Americanised drawl now.
Aloud he replied, “Thank you, sir,” and relaxed into a slightly less formal ‘at ease’ stance.
“First of all, I’d like to say that I’m pleased you’ve agreed to this meeting, Colonel Turner. As you’ve been told, this project is close to the World President’s heart, and one which many people consider of vital importance, and long overdue. I have no doubt your expertise will be invaluable.”
“Thank you, sir. However, I really haven’t been told much at all about what this is about.”
Gray nodded. “No, that was deliberate. Project Mithras is top secret; it has not even been thoroughly explained to the Supreme Commander – yet.” He indicated a pair of armchairs surrounding a small coffee table close to the window. “Please, take a seat, Colonel. We have a lot to discuss, and a little less formality will make the task easier, I think. May I offer you a drink? Tea? Coffee?”
“Coffee, please, sir. I’ve long grown out of the habit of drinking tea. The stuff you get over here… well – let’s just say that our American friends don’t quite have the knack for making a decent cup of tea.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Colonel. I was presented with what was supposed to be tea this morning… I don’t really know what it was, but I know it wasn’t tea.”
Conrad gave a quiet snort of laughter.
His host pressed an intercom button and ordered two coffees from the young man who entered the room. They settled themselves into the armchairs while they waited, and once they had their refreshments, and the orderly had left them, the conversation came back on track, although the older man’s voice was quieter, and the tone more guarded.
“This meeting is confidential, Colonel; but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that?”
“No sir. I’m well aware of the need for secrecy.”
“Good, then I can tell you a little more about the project. It concerns the formation and equipping of a supranational anti-terrorist force, which would be under the direct control of the World President. This organisation will be called Spectrum.”
Conrad frowned slightly. “There’s been talk for so long about forming a united anti-terrorism force that most people doubted it could happen.”
“Then, it’s our duty to prove them wrong, Colonel, and not only ensure that it does happen, but to ensure it is a success,” Gray replied.
Conrad nodded, ‘being in on the ground floor’ of such a project held plenty of appeal and if this was a genuine attempt to create the much discussed peace-keeping force, he rather hoped his secondment would lead to a more permanent involvement. If he did a decent job at whatever they had lined up for him, it would be another chance to ‘move on’.
“Spectrum will have a wide range of responsibilities and, for this reason the personnel will come from all walks of life - both military and civilian. The only qualifying criteria will be pre-eminence in their field: be they fighter pilots or laundresses, Spectrum wants the best.” He paused and gave a slight shrug of his broad shoulders. “The official reason for the organisation’s name is that it will be like no other security force; although tightly regulated to ensure it never becomes an ‘over-mighty subject’ of the World Government, it will be beyond the control of the conventional military leaders, having authority over them, if it ever proves necessary. Bandranaik wishes to ensure that the office he created never becomes more of a threat to the World than a blessing.”
“I’ve often thought that President Bandranaik is a far-sighted and wise man,” Conrad agreed circumspectly.
“He is indeed, although, in this instance, I rather suspect the choice of name had more to do with the President’s imagination, than with finding a name to match his concept of the organisation,” Gray replied with a hint of cynicism.
He glanced at Conrad with perceptive, piercing, blue eyes and waited for a response.
Well aware of that scrutiny and still unsure of what was expected of him, Conrad played it straight. “Nevertheless, sir, it is very indicative of the organisation’s responsibilities over a multitude of areas,” he said.
“Hmm, you’ve got the idea. Every active member of Spectrum will have a codename – every senior member, I should say – colours are not inexhaustible and I’d prefer to steer clear of the... errm… the more imaginative ones.”
“So, there won’t be a ‘Sergeant sky-blue-pink’ then, sir?” Conrad asked dryly, noting with satisfaction the smile that twitched at the corners of the other man’s mouth.
“No, Colonel, nothing so romantic. Spectrum will be distinctive enough to be instantly recognisable, yet secret enough for its personnel to remain anonymous. We can’t risk the possibility that someone’s family might be used as a means of corrupting an officer from his duty, and our elite Field Agents will be protected by a security level that is second to none. The only means of identifying any Spectrum agent will be by their ‘colour-code name’ and their distinctive uniform. There will be no rank insignia, either.”
“How very egalitarian, sir.”
Gray gave him a sceptical glance, but Conrad’s face showed nothing but polite interest, so he continued, “Senior agents will have code-names based on the primary colours. I am the commander-in-chief designate, and will use the codename ‘White’, with the nominal rank of Colonel. Even so, given Spectrum’s remit as an ‘umbrella’ agency, I will out-rank all but a very few of the senior commanders of the more… established military wings.”
“I can see the wisdom in that, sir,” Conrad responded, as he finished his coffee. “From my experience of the military top brass, they’re not going to like having their thunder stolen.”
“Quite right.” Gray paused, and once more those perceptive eyes studied Conrad’s face. “For the duration of your secondment, I think it wisest that you refer to me under my codename. Although, I suspect you’ve recognised me under another name?”
“I think, Colonel White, that I was confusing you with Sir Charles Gray, former Admiral of the British Fleet of the World Navy. A highly respected - and much missed - officer,” Conrad admitted, his dark eyes mischievously alive within his poker-face.
“It happens,” ‘Colonel White’ said, with another wry twitch of a smile. “I get confused with Sir Charles on a fairly regular basis….” His eyes met Turner’s with frankness. “Around the time Sir Charles retired, I started my posting to the British section of the Universal Secret Service,” he added, “and I was eventually made head of that section. There was a great deal to do to bring it into line with the other branches of the service, so I’m not without experience of running a complex security service. I was approached to lead this new organisation by the World President himself, and I feel privileged to say I’ve been closely involved with delineating the composition and the remit of Spectrum.”
“I can tell you’ve invested a great deal of your time and effort into it, sir,” Conrad said politely.
Colonel White continued, “I report directly to the World President, and Spectrum will be outside of the existing international command structure, even that of the Supreme Commander: Earth Forces, because our remit will include off-world terrorism in the lunar colonies. The senior officer rank of the organisation - the ‘colour captains’ - will be the field officers, who will be based on a soon-to-be-constructed aerial headquarters. This is where you come in, Colonel Turner.”
Conrad gave a slight nod of his head: they were moving into his area of expertise now.
White studied his companion, trying to weigh up how much he could safely divulge. “You and I will have to work closely for the time it takes to get Spectrum up and running and I need a man I can trust; one who will be able to carry the weight of my authority to the disparate parts of the project. My ‘alter-ego’, if you will. The brief will include supervising an ambitious building project in all its aspects; there will be terrestrial facilities and global networks to support Spectrum’s work. But you will not be working alone, there will be several other experts working on differing aspects of the project, collating and overseeing manufacturing and technical projects for facilities, vehicles and weapons, for example. However, the post I’m offering you, Colonel, will be the most significant one. Of course, none of the individual projects can be allowed to know the extent of the whole project they’re working on.”
Conrad nodded gravely; he was impressed by the lengths the World Government was prepared to go to fund the creation of Spectrum and spared a sympathetic thought for the cash-strapped Commander Zero and his WSP colleagues, with their dreams of inter-stellar missions.
Colonel White continued, “Spectrum’s headquarters will be of a new and unique design; a sort of airborne aircraft carrier, for want of a better description.”
“An unusual concept, sir. Is there any particular reason for that?”
White nodded. “If it were situated on any terrestrial location, it might be seen – however erroneously – as acting on behalf of that country. The most obvious location would be Futura, of course, but we will be answerable to the World President, and the mind that conceived Spectrum could see the drawbacks in that arrangement. We are most emphatically not a ‘Presidential’ army, yet siting our headquarters near Futura might lead to that assumption. It was agreed that our isolation makes the possibility that Spectrum could be used in that way by any future occupant of the office, less likely.”
“Good point. Who was the mind behind this, Colonel White? Or is that confidential?”
“No, not at all. The concept was formulated by World President Bandranaik himself, and he’s been working to bring it to fruition for many years.”
“Would the fact that the project’s starting now have something to do with the forthcoming election and the rumours of his imminent retirement?”
“There is no truth in the rumours, as far as I know, Colonel. Bandranaik hasn’t been in the best of health recently – that much is well-known, but he shows no signs of slowing down. He’s a remarkable man.” White paused and drew a pensive breath before adding, “It might be a little fanciful to say it, but I feel that he wants Spectrum to be his legacy to the World.”
“And it will carry on once the World President does retire?”
“It’s harder to stop something that’s in progress than delay something starting,” White said levelly. “Vice-President Younger has been aware of the plans for Spectrum for a considerable time, he’s unlikely to… pull the plug on the project – should he be the man who takes over. Don’t forget, a lot of work has already been done towards preparing the organisational infrastructure. You are not the first recruit, but you are one of the first of the essential technical officers.”
“Will I be working with these other recruits?”
“Undoubtedly projects will overlap and impact on each other, and then you will need to co-operate with the technical officer concerned. I should point out that Spectrum has no personnel budget, as such; that is why you – and the others – are working on secondment. Their involvement, as with yours, is in response to a direct request from the World President to their individual services.”
“Who pays you – if I may ask?”
White glanced at his companion, but it was hard to read Conrad Turner’s face at the best of times and he couldn’t make out the reason for this line of questioning – his companion’s face showed a polite interest and nothing more. “I’m paid out of the WP’s own staff budget – for the moment.”
“Thank you,” Conrad said, and by way of an explanation, added, “I like to know that there are the resources to finish what I start, before I invest time and energy in it.”
“A sensible enough precaution, Colonel, but I can assure you, the money – and the will to create Spectrum - is there.”
Conrad inclined his head. “I’d like to hear more about these unique headquarters, Colonel White.”
White’s defensive attitude relaxed a little and he continued, “The design for Cloudbase – for that is what it will be called – is revolutionary. A vast craft, over 600 feet long and 300 feet wide, equipped with an entire squadron of planes and helijets, all maintained, launched and fuelled from the base. It is estimated that the crew will number around 600 people, and they will need to be housed, fed, kept fit and healthy, and entertained when they’re off duty. Cloudbase will be a little city in the sky…”
“I’m impressed,” Conrad said truthfully. “The technology to keep such a vast craft airborne is very new. Tell me, will it be manoeuvrable?” White nodded. “Well, now that’s something else entirely; something beyond what’s ever been done before.”
“Most of the fifty prefabricated component parts will be manufactured at the World Government’s largest research depot outside Stockholm, and taken into space by dedicated cargo vessels, manned by WSP personnel. They will then be assembled in geo-stationary orbit, using several abandoned space stations, and experienced engineers from the WSP, again, and the WAAF. None of these men can be told what they’re building, of course, and that’s where your skills and experience will be invaluable to us. I’ll be honest with you, Colonel Turner, it will mean a great deal of hard work - all undertaken in stringent security conditions that are unlikely to make you popular with the contractors - but would you be prepared to take it on?”
Conrad Turner shifted slightly in his seat and returned the scrutiny of his companion. White continued to stare thoughtfully, waiting his answer but saying nothing further to press his argument.
After a few seconds, which seemed far longer to both men, Conrad said, “Gladly, sir. I look forward to working with you.”
White’s relief was evident only in the deep sigh he let out, as he drew breath again. “Welcome to Spectrum, Colonel Turner,” he said, extending a hand.
The Birth of a dream
The base began to take shape in a remarkably short span of time. Conrad managed to keep the project specs secret from the manufacturers and labourers, but still managed to keep them on schedule and on budget. He felt justifiably proud of his work when he saw, for the first time, the skeleton of Cloudbase tethered to a space station.
Equipping the base was more complicated, and the work was done by several major companies in isolation from each other. The cahelium engines were the last word in efficient technology and had several adaptations that made little sense if you didn’t know their purpose. The giant hover combine engines could generate a hurricane force wind, and were unique in their design. Everything was to be controlled by the latest Seventh Generation Computers, capable of primitive intuitive thought, but at this stage of the build, only the basic, essential systems were in place.
Once Cloudbase’s engines had been installed, Conrad was kept busy testing them and the computer control links through to navigation – the very minimum necessary to control the base’s movements. The process was intense, with teams of engineers and computer technicians working around-the-clock shifts. Once he felt confident that he had the measure of the vessel and its capabilities, Conrad ordered everyone to leave and engaged the override that brought every operational function under the control of the master computer. Situated in the Control Room, this would be the hub for all the specialist systems, but for now it had one function only, to allow him to pilot Cloudbase.
If this works, I shall make sure the override is dismantled; it would never do for the Control Room to be cut off from the main base by terrorists and still have the ability to control everything….
He checked the exterior cameras and saw, in the distance, the sleek shape of Fireball XL8, which had remained on station after taking off the technical crews.
Not that they’ll be able to do anything if something goes wrong, Conrad thought, surprised at drawing such comfort from the fact that the manoeuvre was being observed. At least everyone will see what happens if… No – it won’t go wrong!
He engaged the engines and started Cloudbase moving. For a moment nothing happened, then like a leviathan waking from sleep, the base overcame its inertia and he realised she was moving forwards.
“Good girl,” he muttered.
When the momentum started to build, he tapped in the co-ordinates for the re-entry trajectory over the Pacific. He had checked and double-checked the figures, yet despite the confidence he had in his own abilities, he couldn’t still the painful thump of his heart as he pressed ‘enter’. Once more, he was staking his life on his skill in controlling a machine; only this time he knew the potential dangers. Cloudbase should enter the atmosphere as far away from all human habitation as he could calculate.
He sat back in the sliding chair and watched as the computer seamlessly made the necessary adjustments. Cloudbase gathered speed and the sensors around the deserted shell of the base began to relay information to the main console: hull temperature, pressure, engine performance, navigation…
He was very conscious of having the base to himself and that there was nothing between him and death but the ship he had come to think of as his. The years slipped away, and for a brief moment he was reliving the emotions of the callow youth he’d been. A splinter of fear ran through him: fear of being at the mercy of forces that were beyond his control. He let out a groan of despair and instantly despised himself.
“This is not the same; Cloudbase won’t let me down. You’re not about to blow me to Kingdom Come, are you, Old Girl?”.
The sound of his own voice echoing in the empty Control Room blocked out the memory of those radio voices from almost twenty years ago, and Conrad felt in control again. There were enough practical problems to concern himself with, without dredging up the past.
He’d done this manoeuvre innumerable times before in a sleek, cigar-shaped - and, above all, aerodynamic - rocket, but on XL3 he’d had a crew of three; now he was alone on Cloudbase, a vessel that was as aerodynamic as a brick wall and had all the responsive manoeuvrability of a cow and he’d have to cover every task himself.
He checked the gauges as he felt the base begin to vibrate; the temporary shielding on the shell was rattling as she descended. The main stress points were going to be the stanchions supporting the Control Tower, and so he paid particular attention to the readings from there: so far, so good. The lights flickered and cut out, leaving him in the pitch dark. The windows that were intended to surround the Control Room would be installed once the base was safely out of orbit, so the only light came from the dim glow of the emergency lighting that finally grew just bright enough to see by.
He made a mental note: That needs to be improved; in an emergency no one would find their way out in time.
The radio crackled into life, although the voice was indistinct. “XL8 to Cloudbase, is everything okay?”
“Cloudbase to XL8, descent within acceptable parameters,” he replied, although the creaking was getting louder. “Mission proceeding.”
He glanced at the radar screen and saw the blip of the rocket, tracking his course: XL8 was following him down, filming every move.
“Come on, my beauty,” Conrad crooned, “show them what you can do-”
Creaking and rattling, barely lit and with her engines flat out, Cloudbase burst into the atmosphere and fell like a stone. The temperature on the hull climbed to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit and the heat shields, specially built for this one occasion, began to melt and erode, vaporising as they shredded away from the hull. Conrad knew that from XL8 it would look as if the base was sinking in flames, but his instruments reassured him that, so far, everything was going according to plan.
A light flashed on the console and Conrad flicked the switch, deploying the numerous huge parachutes that sprang from their cases along the runways as the deadbolts snapped back. Cloudbase shuddered as the combined force of the atmosphere and the parachutes slowed its descent, and, to a rousing cheer over the communication link, Conrad activated the four hover combines and threw the cahelium engines into reverse.
He exhaled: the most dangerous part of the operation was over. “We did it, Old Girl; we did it!” he shouted, thumping his hand down on the arms of his chair, which shot off along the moving runway and shuddered to a halt, tipping him off in an untidy heap beside the computer screen.
Conrad picked himself up, rubbed his elbow, and threw back his head to laugh out loud.
The commercial flight from Stockholm touched down at London Airport, some two hours late, and slowly taxied to the terminal. With his all-important briefcase chained securely to his wrist, Conrad Turner strode through immigration and customs without waiting to collect his luggage; the plane was late, and, as a consequence, he was late, therefore he’d have to send someone along to claim his baggage later – until then, he’d cope.
He hailed a taxi.
“Whitehall,” he snapped and sat back in the leather upholstery, a frown on his face and anger coursing through his blood like fire.
Realising there was nothing he could do to speed his agonisingly slow journey into the city centre, he thought back over the past year, reviewing the highlights and problems he’d encountered.
The move from New York to London had gone smoothly. Colonel White had negotiated with the British Government for the purchase of an entire block of a former Civil Service building in Whitehall and had moved his administration away from the HQs of most of the other top-ranking military commanders. It had been a very successful way of distancing Spectrum from the interminable jockeying for position the service chiefs indulged in. Not that the colonel wasn’t prepared to fight his corner when he had to; and - Turner thought sceptically – he’s had to.
As rumours and gossip about Spectrum’s mandate had begun to circulate, the objections and complaints from the other commanders had started to arrive. There’d been nothing they could do, of course: Bandranaik had stood firm and dismissed them and their objections – but now there was a genuine crisis.
The World President had finally confirmed that he would be standing down due to ill health, and phalanxes of power-hungry politicians were already circling around like vultures over a carcass. He knew Colonel White was worried, or he’d never have summoned him to London with such urgency.
Conrad derived some small comfort from the advanced state of the work he was involved in; surely no incoming President would consider axing a project this far advanced? He – the life-long, sceptical agnostic – found himself praying that wasn’t what had got the colonel up-tight.
At long last the taxi pulled up in front of the anonymous grey-stone building, and he paid the fare and a ten-percent tip, and marched into the foyer. The security guard on duty demanded his ID and seemed to take an interminable time checking it, before he allowed him to walk to the cranky lift and press the button for the sixth floor.
Colonel White greeted him with a handshake and listened as Conrad explained about the delayed flight. “It’s understood, Colonel Turner; I appreciate the efforts you’ve made to get here so quickly. Please don’t concern yourself about it any further,” he said. He pressed a button on the intercom on his desk and asked, “Would you send Major Stephens in now?”
Conrad turned and nodded a welcome to Major Alan Stephens of the WAAF as he entered the room.
“Good to see you again, Colonel Turner,” Stephens said, with a broad smile that revealed his nicotine-stained teeth.
“Good to see you too,” Conrad replied, rather pleased he wasn’t able to give a similar smile. Although the surgeons had done an excellent reconstruction job on his face, so that you’d hardly know it had once been a charred mass of blood and bones, something had gone wrong and, as a consequence, several of his facial muscles barely worked, giving him an expression that rarely changed, whatever the provocation. He was well aware that this stone-faced expression had earned him a reputation for dourness, and he had long ago ceased to care.
“Gentlemen,” Colonel White said, as they took their seats around a conference table, “I have brought you here, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, largely because of the news about President Bandranaik.”
“How long have you known he would not stand again, sir?” Stephens asked.
“I was told yesterday, along with the other senior military and security commanders, just a few hours before the official announcement was made.”
“What effect will this have on Spectrum?” Conrad asked.
White gave a wry smile, unsurprised that his subordinate had cut straight to the heart of the matter. “In theory, none whatsoever. Our budget is secure for the next three years.”
“But you’re worried,” Conrad said.
“I am, rather. Several politicians have expressed interest in running for World President, and not all of them have been so convinced Spectrum is a necessity. However, I’m advised by the political aides that those particular men have a poor chance of being selected.”
“Will the Senate elect Vice-President Younger?” Stephens asked.
Colonel White shrugged. “The World Senate does what it wants, and it’s never wise to try to second-guess the members; but I know that Bandranaik will make it clear that he would like Younger to get the job.”
“Is Younger up to it?” Conrad said bluntly. “He’s a good-looking, smooth-talking man, but he’s never struck me as a political heavyweight.”
“Compared to Bandranaik, no one is,” Stephens remarked. He was twiddling with his cigarette lighter and the flash of light on the metal was starting to annoy Conrad.
“True,” Conrad said morosely, and stood up to walk to the window. He wondered if he’d been wasting the past months and if Spectrum would ever get off the ground. Younger had been selected to become Vice-President at the last election, because the previous Vice-President had been a thorn in Bandranaik’s side for the past couple of years and had even run against him. It was widely rumoured that Younger got the job as running mate, simply because he’d be no threat to the Grand Old Man of World Politics, but would enough of the ambitious men – and women – in the Senate vote for him as President, simply to prevent their rivals getting the job?
“In the light of this uncertainty,” White continued, “I am proposing to move ahead as soon as we can with the final stage of recruitment: the elite force of colour-captains. I want them in place before any ‘new broom’ decides to sweep away my authority to appoint them.”
Conrad turned back to face the others as White asked, “What is the earliest date Cloudbase can be operational, Colonel Turner?”
“There’s a month to six weeks’ work still to do – at the very least.”
White nodded. “They’ve made good progress; but now, Conrad, I want you to squeeze them until the pips squeak. I want to move the colour captains onto Cloudbase in no more than eight weeks.”
“Two months… it’ll be touch and go, Colonel.”
“The men we’ve selected should be perfectly capable of roughing it for a while, and I doubt if any of them get nauseous over the smell of new paint.”
Stephens sniggered. “You have the names, Colonel?”
White nodded. “The selection committee reported to me last week. The initial vetting has been done, of course, and invitations will be sent out tomorrow. I have negotiated the use of a secret USS training campus in South Carolina. The candidates will go there and be assessed before they’re told what Spectrum is and what their part in the organisation will be. If they agree to join, they’ll be taken to the training station in Australia you bought off the WAAF, Conrad – the aptly named Koala Base – where they’ll undergo further training and, for those not used to flying military class planes, there will be intensive instruction and flight practice. Then they’ll be sent to Cloudbase for more Spectrum-orientated training, in our procedures, our responsibilities and our technology.”
White saw his subordinates nod their approval so he continued:
“I want you both to get to know them. You’ll be expected to do some of their Spectrum-specific training, of course; but I feel it would be a valuable exercise if you were both accepted as part of the squadron from the start. However, when the time comes for them move to Cloudbase, I want you to be on board before they arrive, Conrad. As the man who knows most about the base, it makes sense for you to welcome them and show them round.”
“Will we know who they are – I mean, who they really are?” Stephens asked.
Colonel White looked thoughtful for a moment and then replied, “No, I don’t think so; I don’t want to colour your judgement of them by allowing you to form opinions before you meet them. You will be allowed to see their assessment reports after the session at the USS centre; by then you should’ve got to know them and I think it would be helpful in planning their subsequent training.”
“How many of them will there be?”
White pursed his lips and drew a deep breath before answering. “At the moment, in addition to you two, we have two confirmed senior staff officers; one you know about: Seymour Griffiths, the former WASP communications lieutenant, and we’ve also recruited Dr Edward Wilkie of the World Medical Organisation, to be our Supreme Medical Commander. Their codenames have been assigned as Lieutenant Green and Doctor Fawn, respectively. In addition, there are six potential colour captains under consideration: Blue, Grey, Purple, Red, Violet and Yellow; and – until today - six defence squadron pilots: Destiny, Harmony, Melody, Modesty, Rhapsody and Symphony.”
“What happened today?” Stephens asked.
“We discovered that Modesty has managed to get pregnant.”
Despite himself, Conrad gave a snort of laughter. “How careless of her,” he said, meeting White’s exasperated glance with a shrug.
“Modesty is a lady?” Stephens asked, looking bewildered.
“Not much of a one, it seems,” Conrad muttered.
“That’s enough, Colonel Turner,” White said firmly. “All of the defence squadron are female pilots, Major Stephens.”
“Why?” both men asked together and glanced at each other as they did so.
Stephens made a gesture to imply that Turner should continue and Conrad said, “Whilst I agree that the airborne base is going to need round-the-clock aerial protection, Colonel, I fail to see why it has to be an all-female squadron that provides it? Sir. I thought that every officer would be a capable pilot, and as a consequence, I see nothing wrong with expecting every officer to take their turn in the defence squadron.”
“The Squadron will primarily be responsible for the defence of the base 24:7,” White reiterated, going on to explain, “And consequently these people will be living in each other’s pockets. A mixed company might lead to… hanky-panky. I don’t want such distractions getting in the way of efficiency.”
“You left it too late for Modesty, it seems,” Stephens remarked, smiling.
“With all due respect, Colonel, there will be almost 600 people on the base. There is bound to be some ‘hanky-panky’… whatever you do. I’m afraid it’s just basic human nature,” Conrad pointed out.
“I’m aware of that, Colonel, but I still feel that making the defence squadron single sex is a wise move.”
“Are there enough female – I mean, suitably qualified - female pilots to fill the posts?” Turner could hardly keep the scepticism from his voice. “And I still don’t see why it has to be women.”
“There are numerous candidates to choose from, all with suitable experience, Conrad. I decided on a female squadron for the simple reason that – even in today’s enlightened society - women still suffer discrimination in mixed working environments. It’s all too easy to give them the… less interesting jobs - shall we say? - under the cover of ensuring their safety, for example, and all the legislation in the world can’t change that, it seems.”
Unable to resist a little dig at his colleague’s undeniable misogyny, White continued, “A successful all-female squadron will go a long way towards evening out the imbalance, and we must never lose sight of the fact that Spectrum will recruit from all walks of life. Including the fairer sex.”
Colonel Turner turned his dark gaze on his commanding officer.
“Yes, sir,” he said gravely. “The search goes on for first-rate hairdressers and telephone sanitizers: I’ll remember that.”
White threw back his head and laughed. “I do believe you’re winding me up, Conrad!”
Turner inclined his head a fraction. “Well, maybe just a little bit, sir – but only a little bit,” he conceded.
Major Stephens gave a deep sigh. “It looks like phase one of Project Mithras is coming to an end.” He looked at Colonel White expectantly. “May I ask a personal question, sir?”
White nodded, and Stephens continued, “What will happen to Colonel Turner and me, now? We’ve played our part in getting everything ready, there’s not much left to do on that front. I can’t speak for the colonel, of course, but for myself, it has been a wonderful experience and I’m not looking forward to reverting to my previous job.”
Conrad nodded. He felt much the same and the news that the final stage of the project was being brought forward had filled him with a sense of disappointment. The prospect of returning to Space City and starting routine flights for the WSP was not a welcome one; he’d ‘moved on’ in his own mind, at least.
Colonel White leant back in his chair and glanced at the two men. He’d watched them both working their socks off over the recent months, and he felt he knew them pretty well.
Major Stephens was an easier man to get to know than Colonel Turner, but, although it might take time, eventually Conrad Turner did reveal himself to be a compassionate and witty man, with a sophisticated, if extremely dry, sense of humour. Yet, only those people with the patience - and the nerve - to look beyond his somewhat disdainful, stone-faced expression and watch those dark eyes closely would ever see them sparkle with amusement. White knew he had the patience, but he’d watched carefully to see how others reacted to Turner’s character; within the close confines of Spectrum’s Cloudbase, any officer who was too much of an irritant to his colleagues would be a liability. Universal brotherhood amongst a disparate and high-ranking group was – he realised – a pipedream, but they had to be able to work together and live amicably in close proximity.
A slight smile played at the corner of his lips as he said, “I was coming to that, gentlemen. I hoped that you would both consider a permanent placement in Spectrum?”
Stephens’ face lit up in a smile and even Turner’s expression thawed slightly.
White continued, “There are two places left in the elite complement. Now, both are field officer placements, of course, and I’m aware that your experience is limited in that area, Major Stephens, yet I’m sure with some training, you’d make the grade easily, and your skills in technical surveillance will be invaluable to us. What do you think?”
Stephens nodded. “I’d be delighted to accept, sir!”
White smiled. “Excellent.” He turned to Conrad who was waiting silently to hear what he was to be offered. “Colonel Turner – Conrad -” White paused and then said matter-of-factly, “It’s my hope, that once you have completed your secondment to Spectrum, you’ll consider becoming the senior member of the elite squadron of colour captains. I don’t know if you’ve given any thought to that, or if it is even what you’d like to do?”
“Some, Colonel, as you might expect,” Conrad replied.
“Well, I consider the work you’ve done here to be exceptional, Colonel, and your knowledge of many aspects of Spectrum – not just Cloudbase - along with your many skills, would also be invaluable to us. I needed to get sanction to ask you, or I’d have done so many months ago,” White explained. “The WSP are anxious to get you back – and if you wish to go, I shan’t stand in your way - but I hope you’ve developed as much of a stake in making Spectrum work, as I have?”
There was a pause, which dragged on for a heartbeat too long to be comfortable. Then Turner turned his dark gaze on to Colonel White, and even in the dim yellow-glow of the lamps, those dark eyes sparkled with excitement.
“I am honoured to be asked,” he replied, “and delighted to accept the appointment, Colonel.”
“Splendid! It will mean a notional demotion for you both, of course; all the elite officers will be ranked as captains. The least I can let you do is chose your own colour code-names.” White smiled.
“Except the ones you listed?” Stephens asked, adding so quickly it was clear he’d given the matter some thought already, “I think I’ll use Brown, sir. Captain Brown.”
“Very well,” White said, with the thought that such a mundane colour actually suited the somewhat muted personality of the man. He glanced curiously at Conrad.
“Oh… I don’t think I’m colourful enough for any of the glamorous names,” Turner joked. “But, I’ll have black, if that isn’t too presumptuous of me and is acceptable to you, Colonel White?”
“Of course. May I be the first to welcome you – the first colour captains – into Spectrum, Captain Black, and Captain Brown?” White extended his hand and shook their hands with genuine pleasure.
“Will it make any practical difference to our current duties, sir?” Stephens asked.
“A few. Of course, I will instruct Administration to record the date of your Spectrum service as starting today, and your next salary cheque will come through them… but as they’ve been reimbursing the WAAF and the WSP for your services anyway, I can’t see any problem at all.”
“I hadn’t even considered pay scales,” Conrad admitted with a wry tilt of his head. “I’m confident you have, though?”
White raised an eyebrow. “Accountants like to know the details of such matters; it helps them sleep nights, I think. What was finally agreed was that where the candidate is earning less than we would pay, they’ll be paid at our scale rate. Where they are already over that rate, we’ll continue to pay them the same until our rates catch up. For your information, the… the scale rates are on the last page of the New Admissions file you will both receive, Captains.”
Turner snorted with laughter. “That is going to take more getting used to than the pay rates, sir,” he said, and gave as much of a grin as White had ever seen him manage.
Stephens joined in. “Yes, it will take some getting used to. I take it we should use our codenames now, as we’ve been using yours all this time, sir?”
“Yes indeed. From now on you should both address each other as Captain, and refer to each other by your codenames.” He shrugged. “Ideally none of the elite squadron will even know each others’ real names, but I’m aware that would be asking too much. However, officially, it is codenames only.”
White turned to Conrad and continued, “I want you to become involved in some aspects of the training of the colour captains, and the base’s defence squadron – obviously paying special attention to Cloudbase. Now the construction is almost complete and the supply chains are working efficiently, there should be less to occupy you – it can become a holding brief.”
“Yes, sir, although I’d like to see the job through to completion,” Conrad remarked.
“Of course, and so you will,” the colonel reassured him, and then returned to his main topic. “I’ve selected the candidates I think are most suitable from the final shortlist; I want to move on as quickly as possible to the next stage of the recruitment process, and get these men into training. I’ll be relying on you both to work with the trainers on completing the assessments. You’ll find the details in these folders.”
White handed each of them a thick folder of paperwork and saw Turner’s acknowledging nod. He marvelled again at the man’s capacity for work, but then he doubted Conrad Turner had much of a life outside of his work and – whilst it was a major advantage at this stage of the process - he made a mental note to insist the man took some leisure time - when things finally slowed down.
He turned to Major Stephens. “The candidates for the technical posts, that will provide the latest technology to make Spectrum effective, are currently undergoing their basic training under Dr Robert Giardello. As you’re aware, he was appointed as the Head of Spectrum Intelligence’s Research and Development Team some eighteen months ago.”
“Spectrum Intelligence?” Conrad interrupted.
“Yes, that is what the internal audit, monitoring and administrative side of the organisation will be called,” White explained. “The head of Spectrum Intelligence will be independent of the main command structure, to ensure I toe the line too.”
“Bandranaik is leaving nothing to chance,” Conrad mused.
“I’m hoping that you will continue to liaise with Dr Giardello, Captain Brown; the work you’ve already completed together on our surveillance and communication facilities is excellent, and we don’t want to disrupt that, but you will need to complete the field officer’s training course too.”
Stephens nodded. “I’m looking forward to it already, sir.”
To the colonel’s surprise, Conrad said thoughtfully, “One thing worries me, sir. Am I not too old for this job? I’m already thirty-seven.”
This was not what the colonel had expected to hear.
“No, Conrad, you’re not too old to be my second in command. It’s true that the candidates we’re considering are younger than you; although, with the exception of young Griffiths there, the field officers are all somewhat older than the Angel Defence squadron’s candidates. Do you have doubts you’ll be able to match them physically?”
Black gave a wry shrug. “This old body of mine may ache like hell sometimes, sir, but it’s good for a few more years yet,” he said, his glance catching the colonel’s with some amusement. “Bring on your young Turks, Colonel – I’m up for the challenge.”
“Heaven help any man who assumes your age is an indication of frailty,” White responded, with a twinkle of amusement. “Still, you may find yourself having to act the ‘older brother’ to some of the candidates, Captain,” he warned. “They might still be wet behind the ears, when it comes to this kind of work.”
“Good heavens, I sincerely hope not,” Conrad cried, with a horrified expression. “If they want their hands holding, they’ll have to do it for each other.”
Colonel White noted that, once again, his subordinate shied away from personal commitment. White had no doubt that Turner would give of his best and never rest until he’d created a unit that would be the envy of every military organisation on the globe; but he would not – or could not - see these men as potential friends.
And that is both his greatest strength and his profoundest weakness, White mused, as the meeting drew to a close.
It was on the final day of their scheduled meetings that Colonel White‘s assistant brought in a suit-cover and handed it to ‘Captain Black’ at his commander’s nod.
“What’s this?” Conrad asked warily.
“Go and try it on,” the colonel said, with a friendly nod. “It’s the very first one – apart from mine - to have been finished.”
“Go and see…”
With a sceptical shrug of his shoulders, Turner obediently went into the executive washroom, taking the coat hanger with him.
Colonel White paced the office, as nervous as any designer at a fashion show; it was only when Turner emerged, that his face broke into a broad smile.
Dressed in his Spectrum uniform, Conrad Turner looked rather self-consciously proud.
“Now that’s what I call distinctive,” White said. “How does it feel?”
“Good,” Conrad said thoughtfully. “The boots are tight, but they’ll give with wear; I mean they fit perfectly, just the leather’s a little stiff.” He reached up and adjusted the peaked cap.
“And the tunic?”
“Surprisingly comfortable, but I think it’ll be a little warm in the heat of the Tropics.”
“It shouldn’t be; the fabric is thermo-reactive as well as being bullet-proof. The electronics that control the communication-links are woven into it, providing instantaneous contact throughout the organisation between any of the agents. Each tunic costs a small fortune for that very reason. The epaulettes are removable, for re-charging or repair if they’re damaged, but they should be worn at all times, as a rule. Every Spectrum agent needs to be in constant communication with base command.”
“It is a very ingenious system,” Conrad agreed, squinting sideways at the epaulettes. He visibly jumped when they lit up with a pale-green light. The microphone on the edge of his clear cap-peak swung down and he could hear a voice.
“Lieutenant Green to Captain Black; are you reading me, sir?”
“Yes, I can hear you,” Conrad replied, glancing at the rather smug expression on the colonel’s face.
“S.I.G., sir,” the young voice said, and the connection closed.
“You’ll soon get used to it,” White reassured him, as he stood up from the edge of the desk he was perched on.
“Will every one of the Spectrum colour captains will have a uniform like this?” Turner asked.
“Yes, in their distinctive codename colour. Of course, the zips on their tunics will be a contrasting black, which would be wasted on yours, so we went for white instead. It’ll make you stand out; reinforce your authority, if you like.”
“Make me different from the others,” Conrad said, a familiar world-weariness creeping into his voice again. Colonel White frowned slightly and his subordinate went on, “Isn’t it a rather unnecessary expense; individually coloured, handmade, made-to-measure uniforms? They won’t be inter-changeable, sir, and what’ll happen when one gets damaged?”
“Well, everyone will have an issue of three; once they’ve gone through those, there will be a charge made against them for repairs or replacements – if only to teach them to be more careful.”
Conrad nodded thoughtfully. “Hence the need for the inflated salaries?” he asked rhetorically.
White ignored him. “Of course, below the ranks of colour codenames, the uniform will be the less individual, and far less expensive, design we’ve discussed; but as Spectrum is a new organisation and still has to forge itself an identity, it was agreed that the uniforms should be distinctive and as practical as possible. The colour officers - most especially the colour captains – will be the lynchpin of our offensive. People will have to come to recognise and trust Spectrum officers quickly. I want them to be distinctive, so the terrorists can see what they’re up against, yet anonymous as individuals.”
Conrad sniffed. “I can’t see the likes of anyone in a red, orange or purple uniform, or even brown, grey and blue, come to that, being able to move about with any anonymity. They’ll stand out like beacons. The press will have a field day.”
“That’s been thought of. The press will be under a restriction notice – and yes, I know that’ll do no good in many cases – but the technicians have developed a device which will fog the pictures. All the TV screen will show is a coloured smudge – the faces will be obscured, and in some cases, I understand a mere silhouette will be the only result of any exposure. It’s very clever.”
“How big is it?” Conrad asked, having the vague impression of something the size of a portable TV.
“Small enough to be concealed in a button,” White assured him. “R&D have thought of everything. Robert Giardello’s a good man. We were lucky to get him from the USS development service.”
Conrad nodded. He glanced at his reflection once more and his lips twitched in a smile. He liked the uniform more every time he studied it. It was stylish and distinctive, its lack of resemblance to the more conventional uniforms of the military was bound to emphasise Spectrum’s uniqueness.
“By the way, Colonel, what exactly did ‘Lieutenant Green’ mean by ‘S.I.G.’?”
“It will be our call-sign: S.I.G., or Spectrum is Green, will mean everything is okay and ready to go, whereas an emergency or a problem will be reported under the call sign, S.I.R. – Spectrum is Red.”
“Some bright spark is going to say that a spectrum isn’t only green or red,” Turner mused. “You realise that, don’t you?”
Colonel White nodded. “Everyone gets to say it once – after that it earns them a demerit on their record - for lack of imagination,” he said, sardonically.
“Point taken,” Conrad replied, “or should that be S.I.G., Colonel?” he added, with a smile. “After all, Spectrum really is green - for go - now!”
Part Two: First Impressions
The Universal Secret Service’s training base was buried away on an old plantation deep in South Carolina. Conrad drove along the highway noting the small, slightly dilapidated settlements and the roadside stalls selling fresh local produce of peaches and sweet corn. Numerous small churches sported large signs exhorting repentance in the face of impending hellfire and damnation, with the fervour that reminded him of the joyless brand of Christianity his Great Aunt had espoused, and which had made a devout atheist of him from an early age.
Petrol stations – certainly few and far between – all had hoardings sententiously proclaiming ‘Last gas for 100 miles’, an exaggeration that would have guaranteed them the eternal torment the churches promised, except that with such scattered settlements there was always a chance that to the residents the next gas station did seem that far away.
Conrad saw a station approaching and pulled over onto the forecourt. He filled the car and bought an ice-cold soda from the hot and dusty store where he paid, and, on a rare impulse, some peaches from the nearby stall.
He drove on for some distance and pulled over under the shade of some overhanging trees to drink the over-sweet, gaseous liquid and munch one of the peaches. He’d been on the road for two days now and he was tired.
His orders to leave Cloudbase and go to the training compound hadn’t given him much notice; but he’d been unwilling to leave the base until a tricky installation had been completed successfully. That decision had eaten into his travelling time, leaving him no choice but to press on without much of a stop.
He ran a hand over his unshaven face and grimaced, aware that he needed a shower too. There hardly seemed time to accomplish the less necessary tasks these days.
It’s a good job I like to be kept busy, Conrad thought as he pushed the seat back into a slight recline and closed his eyes. He reflected that he’d already quartered the globe many times in the service of Spectrum: commissioning engineering work from different manufacturers, none of whom had the slightest idea what they were working on, ordering supplies, supervising construction work and settling disputes. He had a unique overview of the whole project, was closer to it even than Colonel White, and thought of it as ‘his’ project.
I can’t believe how lucky I was to be chosen, or how much we’ve accomplished in such a short time.
A memory of his old beach house, the comfort and anonymity it had afforded him, along with images of his erstwhile colleagues in the World Space Patrol, surfaced momentarily; but Conrad was not a man to linger on the past and always refused to have any regrets. It was part of his philosophy of ‘moving on’ never to allow himself to get too emotionally attached to anything, and although a small part of him missed the friendship and support he’d received from those individuals, he was already looking forward to the challenge of working with a coterie of new colleagues.
However tired he was, he never seemed to be able to sleep easily; his mind was always teeming with new ideas and solutions to old problems. There were so many tight deadlines, so many security considerations to be taken into account at all times.
The next big job was installing the computers in the Information Centre, just off the Control Room, where the liquid plasma cells collated and stored the constant stream of reports from around the world, feeding them through to the communications console when required. He’d need to contact the colonel and make sure he’d ordered Lieutenant Green to make himself available when he was needed. The newly appointed ‘Communications Chief’ was currently assisting the colonel with the training schedule for the Angel pilots.
I’m so glad the colonel didn’t expect me to deal with the Angel flight, he reasoned, I’m not cut out to cope with hormonal women: they’re temperamental, downright illogical and often more trouble than they’re worth! Still, the colonel says this lot are knuckling down to the training with a will, so maybe they’ll surprise me yet…
Slowly he drifted into a light doze and his mind wandered…
He was woken by the roar of approaching engines and he sat upright, glancing into the mirror.
A powerful motorbike was speeding towards him, obviously breaking every possible speed limit, and coming along behind it, at even greater speed, was a red sports car, low-slung and sleek.
The car moved out to overtake, and the motorbike speeded up, pulling ahead of the car as it drew alongside. The red car fell behind momentarily and then swept out and passed the bike as if it was standing still.
The bike gave chase, and they raced past Conrad’s car, causing it to judder in their violent slipstream. The bike was moving out to overtake again, and as the vehicles vanished over the brow of a low hill ahead of them, the race was still undecided.
“Bloody idiots,” Conrad muttered to himself. “They’ll get themselves killed, like as not – or more likely they’ll kill someone else.”
Aware of the time pressing on, and that he would not be able to sleep any more now, he started the engine and set out along the road in the direction the ‘boy-racers’ had taken.
An hour later, he pulled into a quiet town.
There was a neat town square, edged with a church, its hoarding slightly more restrained than those of the hinterland; a courthouse, with a flag pole bearing an flag of unidentifiable provenance - there simply wasn’t enough breeze to move the heavy fabric – and the inevitable mini-mart.
Parked outside the courthouse was the red sports car – a Ferrari, Conrad noted with interest – flanked by the motorbike and a police squad car.
Conrad gave a self-satisfied smirk. They must’ve been done for speeding, if not reckless driving,’ he thought as he pulled into a space before the mini-mart.
Inside, the heat was tempered by noisy and inefficient air–conditioning, but it was pleasant after the steamy heat of his drive, so he wandered around and bought a few bits and pieces, including another soda and a newspaper, although he really only wanted to stretch his legs.
Outside he wandered to a bench and sat down to glance at his newspaper. It was full of local news and celebrities he’d never heard of, so he tossed it into a trash can and opened his soda.
He was sipping it and gazing across the square when he noticed a man with chestnut-coloured hair and a neat, full beard stalking across the lawn towards him. He was wearing biker leathers and carrying a black helmet with a smoked visor, so it wasn’t hard to deduce who it was. He strode past the bench and into the mini-mart without appearing to notice Conrad, who glanced back towards the courthouse in time to see a tall, fair-haired man, wearing an impeccably tailored lightweight suit, emerge from the building with a policeman in attendance.
The pair shook hands and the officer got into his car and backed away, turning out of the square.
The stranger surveyed his surroundings and ambled towards the mini-mart, as if he had all the time in the world. The motorcyclist emerged just as the car driver reached the entrance and Conrad watched with unfeigned interest as both men side-stepped the same way to avoid each other.
“Jeez, Boston, can’t you stay out of my way for five minutes?” growled the biker.
“You were lucky you weren’t charged,” the driver responded, as if continuing some previous conversation.
“You too! You’d been going faster than me.”
“I have excellent reaction times, and my car has top-rated brakes. Besides,” he added with an exasperating sophistry, “there was never any danger of me hitting anything and it wasn’t me that went off the road trying to avoid the patrol car at the intersection.”
“That has nothing to do with it – and you know it! He should never have been coming out of that junction like that; and anyway, I missed him.” He took a step away and then paused to add over his shoulder, “Where I come from, wealth can’t buy you immunity from prosecution, buddy.”
“No? But showing an out-of-state police badge can, I presume?”
“How do you know about that?”
“I have excellent hearing, Commander Fraser.” The cop froze and stared hard at the taller man, who waited a moment and then added, “I also have a good memory for faces, and I’ve seen you on TV.”
“Who are you?” Fraser growled suspiciously.
“Just a guy from Boston minding my own business.”
“Yeah? Well, make sure you do, because if you know as much as you brag that you do, you’ll know that a World Police Corps officer has powers of arrest anywhere and everywhere.”
“Of course, Commander.” The taller man gave a friendly smile and added genially, “Drive safely.”
Fraser cursed him and stomped off, back to his bike, kicking it into action and revving hard before ramming the helmet on his head and driving away.
The blond man went into the mini-mart as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
“Interesting,” Conrad mused, as he gathered his things and went back to his car. “What’s a Chicago-based Commander of the WPC doing here – now?”
He was buckling his seat belt as the car driver emerged, nodded a polite ‘how-d’ye-do’, as he walked past on his way to his car.
“Hmm, doesn’t miss much, that one. I wonder…”
The training compound was in an isolated valley, and surrounded by a high, wire fence, and the only gate into the compound was manned by a guard in an anonymous corporate security uniform. From the road there was nothing to see, due to the well-established trees that marked the boundary.
As Conrad drew up to the guardpost a burly man moved towards him.
“Kin ai help yew?” he asked, with a less-than-friendly glance. He held a gun in his hand and Conrad had no doubt he was prepared to use it.
He showed the invitation he’d been sent and, after a slow and deliberate examination of it, the guard nodded to an unseen colleague in an adjacent sentry box, and the high metal-mesh barrier swung open.
“Thank you,” Conrad said formally, as he edged the car forward into the serpentine, tree-lined drive.
The final bend brought him to an impressive, colonnaded building surrounded by sweeping lawns and drooping trees, that looked for all the world to Conrad just like his idea of what the archetypal antebellum-style southern mansion should look like. So strong was that impression that he half-expected to see Scarlett O’Hara come running from the building, her crinoline billowing in the warm breeze.
The memory surprised him; he rarely watched films or television, but somehow this one image had stayed with him. He could even remember when he’d seen it. Christmas had rarely seen much of a celebration in their household; his aunt had held it to be ‘almost pagan’ and generally the day had been characterised by Bible readings interspaced with tracts from some of the volumes of dull sermons his aunt had amassed.
Then once, after an uncharacteristically hearty lunch, his aunt had instructed him to sit quietly while they watched the Loyal Christmas Broadcast on the television and the news which followed it. The hour-long broadcast had been so boring, that she and her husband had dozed off in their armchairs. He’d sat there, silent and still, as the news ended and the afternoon film started. He turned the sound down and watched, enthralled by the opulence as much as by the beauty and wildness of the heroine, but his aunt had woken before the end, and realising what he was watching had switched off the set and banished him to his bedroom.
Now here he was, in just about the most incongruous place he could imagine for a security agents’ training camp.
A portable sign directed him to the car park; he drove around the building, found himself in a concreted parking lot and noted with some satisfaction that the Ferrari was there. It was parked slightly away from the other cars – as if its exalted status meant it deserved to be given twice the space. He parked alongside it and admired the sleek lines once more as he collected his overnight bag from the boot of his car and walked past the powerful motorbike Commander Fraser had been riding, on his way to the front of the building.
The inside of the building cured Conrad of any romantic expectations he might have had. The place had been gutted and the space ‘reinvented’ to accommodate its more prosaic function. The entrance hall now contained a modern reception desk, and on the wall was a map, showing dining rooms, convention rooms and lecture theatres. At the foot of the staircase a plain notice directed visitors to the appropriate ‘dormitory’ wings.
The pretty receptionist greeted him with a vacant smile that did not reach her large, blue eyes.
“Welcome, sir,” she said brightly, her accent quite definitely marking her as an outsider. “Please sign the register.” She swivelled a large book round towards him, presenting him with a blank page.
“Am I the first one here?” he asked in surprise.
“The other gentlemen are in the lounge,” she replied, waving one hand, with sharp, bright-red talons instead of fingernails, towards a set of open double doors.
Conrad nodded and filled in his details on the page:
Conrad Turner, colonel, World Space Patrol, Space City.
She glanced at it and said, “Before you go through, sir, I must ask you to check in any communication devices or weapons with me. They will be returned to you on your departure. “
With a nod, Conrad handed over his mobile phone and the service pistol he’d been issued with by the WSP. The Spectrum weapon, with the distinctive black streak along the barrel and the butt, was with his uniform in his luggage – his instructions had made it clear that he was not to reveal his connection to the organisation to the recruits until he was given permission.
Leaving his luggage with the receptionist as instructed, he walked across the foyer to the lounge.
He could feel the familiar tingle of excited expectation as he approached the first meeting with the other men – every one of them an epitome of the skills needed in their respective disciplines - who would make the elite squadron of Spectrum the most efficient and respected force in the world.
The room was long and high ceilinged; it must have been stately and handsome once, but now someone – presumably the USS - had built a partition wall down its length and painted it a dull, institutional yellowish-green, fixing fake-wooden shelves along it. The bay window was curtain-less and looked out onto the trees of the drive and the formal lawns of the garden beyond. The other, original, wall still had heavy wooden shelving packed with books.
Obviously, the USS is a member of a superior book club, Conrad mused as he noticed the unappealing titles and uniform appearance of the bindings. Perched on a table before the bookshelves was the tall, fair-haired driver of the Ferrari. He met Conrad’s glance with a nod of recognition, but said nothing.
There was a long table on the wall behind the door, on which stood several thermos jugs of hot drinks and plates of biscuits and snacks. Next to it stood a water cooler and beside that stood the biker, munching on a plate of biscuits. He scowled at Conrad, but gave no other sign of recognition.
Conrad’s attention was taken by the sound of Alan Stephens’ voice as he ambled across the room towards him.
“Hello and welcome to our gathering!” he said in a rush. “We’re all getting to know each other. I’m Stephens, codename Brown. Haven’t we met before?”
He held out his hand and Conrad shook it even as he was giving a frown of warning. “I don’t think so.”
Smiling, Stephens continued, “Come and meet the others.”
He turned to the man standing closest to him, indicating that he should introduce himself.
“Holden, codename Grey,” said a dark-haired man Conrad’s initial glance around the room had missed. He was handsome, tanned and spoke with an American accent. His grip was firm as they shook hands.
Stephens’ relentless round of introductions continued with another dark-haired man, younger than the first, and boyishly good-looking.
“Lawrence, codename Blue. Pleased to meet you, Mr…?”
They shook hands and Stephens – or Brown as Conrad tried to think of him – swept him on towards the biker.
“And this is –”
“Codename,” Brown prompted.
“Yellow,” Fraser admitted through gritted teeth.
There was a snigger from the last remaining occupant of the room. He was a well-dressed, broad-shouldered man, who was sitting in an armchair close to the window. He met Conrad’s glance with a mocking smile and said clearly:
“Donaghue, codename Purple.”
“Is this all of us?” Conrad asked.
Brown replied, “Apparently we are to be nine, like the worthies -”
“Or the nine riders of Mordor,” Donaghue interjected quietly.
“Or the Fellowship of the Ring,” the fair-haired man countered. He stood and reached across to shake Conrad’s hand. “Codename Violet,” he said.
“We’ve met, sort of.” Conrad felt himself smile at the younger man.
“Indeed; you witnessed that little charade in town.”
“The tail end of it,” Conrad admitted. “Nice car you’ve got.”
Violet gave a confirming nod. “Yes.”
Suddenly, Yellow said, “I’m going to ask when lunch is,” and several voices spoke in agreement commenting that they too were getting hungry.
“Perhaps,” Violet suggested, “they’re waiting till we’re all here…” His voice was light and for the moment bore little hint of his New England upbringing.
“I can’t see that starving us until everyone gets here is a very clever way of doing things,” Yellow snapped, with a pitying glance at the fair-haired man as he helped himself to the last of the cookies. “What if someone never arrives? Do we starve to death?”
“I’m assuming that was a rhetorical question,” Violet said, with an elegant shrug of his broad shoulders, “because it’s far too stupid a question to attempt to answer with any seriousness.”
“Fuck-you too, smartass,” Yellow muttered, glaring at Violet with obvious irritation. “If all you’re going to do is sneer down your nose at the rest of us, I’ll be wishing you’d never come.”
“If all you’re going to do is complain, I’ll be wishing the same thing,” Violet retorted mildly enough, as he slid into the nearest armchair.
“Sorry I spoke,” Yellow muttered, as an angry frown appeared between his brows.
“Hey, come on guys,” Brown encouraged. “This is supposed to be a top-level venue and I bet the food’s fantastic.”
“The problem is, I’ll probably be dead before I get to taste it,” Yellow complained. He glanced at Violet, as if he was expecting another acerbic comment, but his antagonist was apparently paying no further attention; occupied with carefully brushing a minute piece of fluff from his jacket, he said nothing.
“Surely that’s highly improbable, given the number of cookies you’ve managed to stuff away,” Purple interjected unexpectedly.
“Who the hell do you think you are, mister?” Yellow demanded. “And who gave you the right to criticise me?”
This time Violet did glance up at the irate Yellow. “It was merely an observation, don’t be so touchy,” he said.
“Yeah, well, just watch it – that’s all,” Yellow muttered, backing off slightly. He had no wish to provoke a full-blown argument, especially when he wasn’t sure he’d win.
Violet’s pale brows rose and he rolled his blue eyes with every indication of exasperation, and retreated back into his previous silence.
For a moment there was uneasy tension in the room, until Brown went back to looking out of the window. “So, is that your car? That Ferrari?” he asked Violet.
“Yes,” Violet replied, as if it was costing him something to admit even that much. However, it was obvious that if Brown could see the car, he could also have seen who got out of it.
Yellow stomped angrily across to the window, staring towards the car park.
“Marvellous machines, aren’t they?” Brown said, providing the man at his side with an opening for a discussion about the fascinating topic of motor vehicles, but Yellow said nothing; he merely glowered across at Violet and walked away from the perplexed Brown.
It seemed that now he had made a decision to converse with the others, Purple was determined to keep the conversation going. He leant forward in his armchair and asked Blue if he was from Ireland.
“I detect a slight accent there,” Purple said, revealing a hint of a brogue himself.
“I spent a good many years there,” Blue admitted ingenuously, “but I’m American born and I came back here to study Forensic Science at University.”
“And I’m the opposite,” Purple confessed. “I was born in Dublin, but grew up in New York.”
Conrad listened as the two men had a conversation about the ‘Emerald Isle’, noting that Purple was adept at learning more than he gave away.
Finally Yellow’s apparently meagre supply of patience ran out and he wandered to the door to call across to the receptionist:
“Hey, sweetie, when’s lunch? We’re all about to die of starvation.”
The young woman’s voice was just audible to the men in the room as she replied, “Lunch will be served when everyone’s here, sir.”
“And when will that be?” Yellow pressed.
There was a silence. “We’re waiting one other man,” she replied eventually.
“Great,” Yellow muttered as he returned to the group by the window. “Some guy’s late and we’re made to suffer for it.”
“Are you really that hungry?” Conrad asked, examining the angry face beside him.
“I ate real early and I was on the road for a long time.” He glanced across at Violet and added with all the vehemence of a man with a perceived grievance, “I nearly didn’t make it at all, because some jumped-up mother-fucking jerk nearly knocked me off my bike at an interchange.”
Violet looked up. “Godammit, you should be thanking God I’ve got sharp reflexes and a car with excellent brakes; because if I hadn’t stopped in time to avoid the police car that swerved to avoid you, as you swerved to avoid it – neither of us would be here now, Buddy. We’d all be laid out side by side in the morgue. You were going at quite a speed.”
“And you must’ve been doing Mach 2 in that car,” Yellow retorted. “But, I notice, it wasn’t you got the caution.”
“You were lucky I was there to see what happened, and witness the cop jump the red light; or you could’ve been spending tonight in a police cell,” Violet said with a slight smile on his face. “That officer wouldn’t have admitted his own fault in the matter otherwise - I bet ya’. I told you that you shouldn’t have overtaken so close to an intersection. There is, after all, no accounting for the actions of moronic traffic cops from the sticks, is there?”
But Yellow refused to be mollified and he returned to the attack. “He could’ve killed me; you know. I had right of way and the road was clear when I started across. Just how fast were you going?”
“Not as fast as you, I’d slowed for the junction – which is the only reason you managed to pass me in the first place,” Violet said evenly.
Yellow’s growled response was unintelligible.
“Designed by computer, built by craftsmen and driven by Bostonians…?” Purple remarked, raising an eyebrow at the man beside him.
“You could say that.” Violet chuckled, and for the first time, Conrad saw him give a genuine smile which lit up his face in the way previous smiles – mere movements of facial muscles – had failed to do.
“I take it there was no real harm done?” he asked Violet.
“There was an impressive squealing of brakes and a smell of burning rubber,” Violet replied, with a shrug. “But nobody was hurt, except, maybe some people’s pride. I’ll need to check the car over before I go home in it.”
“I can’t see you getting your fingers dirty,” Yellow jibed. “I doubt you even know where to put gas in.”
Violet’s expression hardened and a note of irritation entered his voice. “What’s with you? We were all in the wrong. We shouldn’t have been racing and the squad car shouldn’t have jumped the light. We’re all lucky we’re still alive,” he said, “and if you’re expecting some sort of apology – you can forget it.”
“Your sort never apologise,” Yellow snapped.
“My sort? What ‘sort’ do you imagine I am?” Violet got to his feet, and there was real irritation in his voice.
Before Yellow could reply, Brown’s interruption broke the growing tension. “Hey, there’s a helicopter approaching…” Glad of the distraction, the others clustered round to look out of the window. Brown added, “It’s a WAAF helicopter. Maybe it’s someone come to tell us why we’re here?”
“Or maybe it’s the missing man?” Blue suggested. “The one who’s late, I mean.”
“Talk about making an entrance,” Grey said.
They could see security guards running from the building to the edge of the lawn where the chopper was about to land. They were armed and, it seemed, prepared to use their weapons if the unexpected visitor was hostile.
The WAAF chopper landed on the lawn and when the door opened a young man, tall, with black hair, leapt down and loped, in a crouching run, away from the spinning blades. Once clear he straightened up and his face became visible for the first time; a handsome, confident face, with bright blue eyes and a dimpled chin.
He had a leather holdall slung over his shoulder and he walked with a long stride until he was clear, then he turned to wave farewell and thanks to the pilot of the chopper as it took off again. Continuing to stroll towards the guards, apparently whistling, he was escorted into the building by two men. Intrigued, Brown, Yellow and Black walked across to the doorway to see what was going to happen next.
“You won’t be taking things this casually in a day or two, my lad,” Conrad thought, noting the blue and white checked jacket, pale-blue open-necked shirt and the light-grey casual trousers that denoted a man who expected to be taking things easy.
The newcomer was all apologies as he spoke to the pretty receptionist.
“I’m frightfully sorry to be so late,” he apologised, in an English accent that you could cut glass with. “I arrived in America a few days ago and thought to take an extended leave by driving down here, visiting a few Civil War battlefields en route, but my hire car broke down in some awfully isolated place and, if I hadn’t convinced Major Ryan that it was his long-held ambition to fly me over here, I probably wouldn’t have arrived until tomorrow.”
“The other gentlemen are in the lounge, sir,” she replied, with a warm smile and, with a significant nod of her head, she added, “Lunch will be served very soon…”
“Oh, don’t tell me I’m responsible for delaying lunch? I’m not going to be very popular, am I? Oh well, here goes Daniel into the lions’ den…”
He gave her a smile, which made her blush, and marched across the reception area, reciting to himself,
“King Darius said to the lions: —
Bite Daniel. Bite Daniel.
Bite him. Bite him. Bite him.”
But there was no sign of real concern on his face as he approached the door. The watching trio backed into the room.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” the new arrival said, and walked into the centre of the room smiling at his new companions. “I’m sorry if my tardiness has caused you any inconvenience.”
“Oh wonderful, another Brit,” Purple muttered, loud enough to be heard by everyone. “Where do they find them all?”
As usual, Brown was the first to respond, coming over to introduce himself and shake the newcomer’s hand. “Hello, I’m codename ‘Brown’, of the WAAF, research and development.”
“Codename ‘Red’, also WAAF. Pleased to meet you.” He turned to nod genially at the others, and gradually they introduced themselves.
“My codename’s Blue. I work for the World Police, in forensics. Nice to meet you.”
“Codename Grey, World Aquanaut Security Patrol.”
“Codename Black.” As Conrad shook the younger man’s hand he noticed a flicker of recognition register in his face. Dammit, we should have thought of this. It’s possible he recognises me; he must’ve been about ten or eleven when the civil war happened - old enough to have seen all the gossip in the papers. Oh, well...
“Yellow.” That introduction came with no further explanation, and when Red reached out to shake his hand, Yellow hesitated before he extended his own in response.
“Codename Purple.” The man raised a hand in greeting, but made no effort to shake hands.
Violet turned in his armchair to reach up and take Red’s proffered hand. “Hello,” he said and gave his codename.
“I take we’re all here because of the same invitation?” Grey ventured to say into the growing silence.
“I’m here because my commanding officer sent me,” Brown volunteered.
“You asked permission? My letter said come without informing anyone,” Red declared.
“I’ve been on a secondment for some time – it gets complicated. Still, you don’t disobey a letter from the World Government, do you? It sounded intriguing enough to be worth a fortnight of my time,” Brown replied brightly.
“Does anyone know exactly why we’re here?” Purple asked.
The general murmured consensus was that they did not.
“There’s coffee, and there were some biscuits, but I believe they’ve all been eaten,” Brown interjected, clumsily changing the topic.
“Not to worry, I’m not really bothered. Lunch is about to served, if the receptionist was telling the truth,” Red replied, nodding his thanks.
“About time,” Yellow muttered.
Footsteps approached the open door and they turned to see the two new arrivals: a tall, rangy man followed by a short, rounded woman.
The man was in early middle-age and had sharp features, set in a long, lugubrious face, surmounted by an upright shock of red hair. His pallid skin was covered with pale freckles and his pale-green-grey eyes were shaded by almost invisible lashes. There was more than a hint of albino about him.
In contrast, his companion was a rather dumpy woman, with a severe haircut and black-rimmed glasses that enlarged what could be seen of her brown eyes. She was - considering the sweltering heat – rather inappropriately dressed in a suit and high-necked blouse and carrying a clipboard. There was an air of school-mistressy, ‘no-nonsense’ about her.
The man addressed them all:
“Gentlemen, now that you are all assembled, allow me to introduce myself and my colleague. My name is Oldring; I’m in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly. This is Miss Dawson; she is your primary instructor for the duration of the course.” He gave a mirthless smile. “And I’m sure you will all co-operate with her to ensure the programme runs without any hitches.”
“Yeah, how right you are there, buddy,” Yellow muttered, with an exasperated grimace.
Miss Dawson stepped forward, adjusted her glasses and read from her clipboard. “You are here at the request of the World Government. You are covered by their official secrets laws, and you signed a document agreeing to abide by the terms of those laws when you accepted the invitation. That agreement will be enforced. To this end you will use only the codenames you have been given during your stay here. You will not divulge any personal details to any other candidate-”
“Too late,” Red muttered cheerfully, with a shake of his head.
She looked up and said, “That is most regrettable, Codename Red. You will all be monitored at all times by CCTV and recording devices during your stay, this is to assist in our assessment of your suitability-”
“Even in our rooms?” Purple interjected.
“No, not in your private rooms. Now, if you will follow me through to the next room, you will be given your uniforms and allowed to go to your rooms and change before we eat lunch.”
“Uniforms?” Blue asked her.
“Some of the exercises will be dirty and … dangerous. We would not ask you to risk damaging your own clothes, Blue.”
Violet stood up suddenly. He brushed the non-existent creases out of his trousers, and said, in a drawl now fully redolent of an upper-class Bostonian, “I would hope not, ma’am.”
Miss Dawson gave a prim smile and indicated they should follow her next door. Exchanging amused glances, the men decided to humour her.
A trestle-table with white plastic laundry baskets piled with the ‘uniforms’ of brightly-coloured, hooded sweatshirts, T-shirts and trousers, stood against a wall. Oldring invited the men to sign their names alongside the listed codenames before they received their basket. Then he led them upstairs, where an orderly had piled their luggage at the end of a short corridor.
“We eat in thirty minutes,” Oldring said, as he turned to leave them.
“Do we just choose a room?” Brown asked, hefting his carry-all on to his shoulder.
“There are colour-coded strips on the door,” Yellow said. “I guess we match the colours.”
“Are they assuming we can’t read?” Violet asked rhetorically, as he lifted Yellow’s battered holdall from off an expensive leather suitcase and sighed.
“Let’s not argue, or we’ll never find out what going on here,” Grey advised, walking down the corridor to the grey-coded door and entering the room.
“I never argue,” Violet muttered, adding pointedly as he handed Yellow his holdall with a raised eyebrow, “however much provocation I encounter.”
Yellow simpered back at him with deliberate mischievousness and swung his holdall over his shoulder then, whistling to himself, found the door to his room and went inside.
“Well, I’m going to get changed and devour what I hope will be a splendid meal.” Red picked up his bag and grinned. “I haven’t come all this way to waste my time bickering with the natives.”
Violet walked to the colour-coded door and pushed it open. Red’s colour-coded door was next to it and, after watching Violet disappear, he too went in, leaving the corridor empty, apart from Conrad.
Conrad picked up his case and went into his room, where he hung his Spectrum Uniform at the back of the small wardrobe, before quickly changing into the ‘assessment uniform’. He sat on his bed for a moment, considering the recruits.
It wasn’t surprising that such experienced men were wary of what was going on, although they were all obviously confident enough of their own prowess to risk indulging their curiosity to find out. He knew little enough about them, but he was surprised by Yellow’s overt antagonism.
Although, given the potentially serious accident he and Violet so narrowly avoided, it might just be delayed shock, he mused. It is early days and they’re finding their feet. We’ll have to wait and see if they settle down into a cohesive unit – that’s the real test here. In the meantime, I want my lunch; Red certainly hasn’t made a brilliant start by arriving so late. Arrogant, that’s what I call it. He sighed. If he did recognise me, I sincerely hope he isn’t going to tell the others who I am. Not that it will make much difference in the long term; we’ll all get to know each other very well, if this goes according to plan.
He left the room, locking the door behind him, and slipped down the stairs. As he arrived, Oldring emerged from the office behind the reception desk.
Unsure of how much the man knew about his identity, Conrad hesitated to say anything. For a long moment the two men stared at each other and then Oldring pursed his lips slightly.
He moved closer and said, “Anything wrong… Captain?”
Conrad replied softly, “You’d better watch Yellow; he seems to be determined to annoy people.”
Oldring nodded. “We have it all on tape. The receptionist reported he was reluctant to hand over his guns and his cell phone, but he did – eventually. Purple handed over a cell phone, and a gun, but the remote scanners suggest he still has some sort of device – possibly a small personal computer – in his luggage. We’ll search his room later.”
Conrad shook his head. “That would only make him more cautious. Just keep an eye on him, but don’t let the others know you suspect he’s not obeying the rules.” Oldring acknowledged the order and Conrad continued. “You’ll have heard about the run in with the police Yellow and Violet had?”
“Yes; it could have compromised the whole mission.”
“They were acting like a right pair of daft buggers,” Conrad commented. “I saw them on my way here, racing each other along the highway. But, luckily, they seem to have got away with it.”
“Let’s hope so. I don’t want the local police force knocking on the door and asking who, and what, we are. Mind you, although Violet complied readily enough with our request to hand over his belongings when he got here, he did take the chance to ‘case the joint’ before he went into the lounge. He went to the bathroom, and stopped to check out the CCTV cameras in the corridor. It seems he doesn’t trust us.”
Conrad gave a rueful shrug. “He’s not the only one.”
Oldring nodded. “For the record, out of them all, it’s Violet and Purple seem the least at ease.” He glanced towards the stairs. “They’re coming.”
“Thank you, Oldring,” Conrad said loud enough for his voice to carry to the newcomers. He strolled away and took his seat at the table, where a black card indicated his place. He poured some water and waited.
Grey had met Red at the top of the stairs, and they entered the dining room together, closely followed by Blue, Brown and Yellow. All the places around the circular table were indicated by colour-coded cards and Conrad found himself seated between Red and the prickly Yellow.
Purple came in alone, cutting a dash in his deep purple sweats. His place was set next to Grey – and opposite Yellow - which seemed to discompose him somewhat. Brown and the genial Blue were between Yellow and Grey, whilst Violet’s place was set between Purple and Red – not a combination that was going to be easy on the eye.
“Where’s our fashion model?” Yellow asked, glancing at the empty violet place. “I want my lunch.”
Suddenly, they heard Miss Dawson’s voice come ringing through the open door.
“Codename Violet, why aren’t you wearing your uniform?”
“There’s a problem; I can’t wear it because it’s the wrong size, Miss Dawson. Here, take a look.”
“They were tailored to your measurements, Violet,” she replied coldly.
Shamelessly straining to hear what was going on, Yellow sniggered at her use of the code name.
“I really don’t think they could’ve been, ma’am. Not unless you think I’m an overweight dwarf. Do I look as if I’m about 5ft nothing in height and chest measurement?”
“But I don’t understand…” she floundered. “They should fit perfectly. They were taken from the measurements on your personal record…”
“You got access to my personal records?” Violet picked up on that admission quickly enough. “That was very clever of you, Miss Dawson. However, I feel I ought to tell you that my first uniform didn’t fit either, due to a clerical error.”
“We saw the current records,” she bristled.
“No, you would’ve seen the dead file, Miss Dawson, because that’s all there is to see. Take my word for it.”
“I will not argue with you, Violet. There must be a mistake. This is most annoying; you must have a uniform,” she began.
“Lucky I brought one of my own then, isn’t it?”
‘Violet’ walked into the room wearing a pale-blue sweatshirt and pants bearing the discreet logo of a well-known, international designer. He nodded a greeting at his companions, sliding on to the seat next to Purple with unruffled calm.
Miss Dawson stood in the doorway holding the rejected sickly violet-hued ‘uniform’ and frowning irritably at the oblivious recruit, until Oldring appeared alongside her, and asked what the problem was.
They whispered together as she held up the garments and nodded towards Violet, who was helping himself to a glass of water.
Oldring’s expression was one of profound annoyance when he came into the room and stood beside the table. Everyone turned towards him, interested to see what was going to happen next.
“It does seem as if there has been a clerical error, somewhere in the process. Our apologies, Codename Violet; we’ll alter our documentation accordingly.”
“You do that,” Violet advised him evenly. “In the meantime, I guess you have no objection to me wearing my own sweats? I really don’t want to risk any damage to my suit.”
Oldring shook his head. “That will be perfectly acceptable, Violet.”
“Wait a minute, Oldring; surely he can’t be called ‘Violet’ any more?” Red interjected, with his tongue firmly in his cheek. “I mean, those sweats aren’t violet by any stretch of the imagination, and it will far too confusing to remember what his name is without the aide memoir of colour-coded tags everywhere...”
“I don’t see what else we can do,” Oldring replied.
Red turned to the man beside him and issued a jovial reprimand. “You do realise that you’re going to cause poor Miss Dawson to be up all night, colouring in new colour-coded indicators for all the doors and tables.”
“I’m desolate at the very thought,” Violet replied, in the same good-humoured vein.
“I hope you’re going to apologise?” Red teased the unrepentant American, who grinned in response.
“It would make sense to change it… presumably to ‘Blue’,” Oldring reasoned, glancing at the blond man with a perplexed frown, “given that is the colour of his clothing. But that would mean…” He looked at the man currently using that codename.
“How about, ‘Blue-Lite’?” Yellow suggested and began to chuckle. Across the table the former ‘Violet’ grinned and looked away, presumably to stop himself joining in.
“Our original ‘Codename Blue’ could use the codename ‘Indigo’,” Conrad suggested, concerned that Oldring appeared to be losing control of the situation. He added, “I remember references to a ‘spectrum’ in the letter inviting me here, and, as every schoolboy knows, a spectrum goes: Richard of York gained battle in vain - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet,” he chanted, tapping the colours off with his fingers on the tabletop.
“I like it.” ‘Original-Blue’ grinned. “Indigo sounds classy. You can christen him ‘Blue’, if I can become ‘Indigo’.”
“Well, yes; I suppose we could….Very well,” Oldring agreed with some relief. “Thank you for your suggestion, Codename Black; we will change our records to show that your codename is now ‘Indigo’.” He pointed at the dark-haired man in dark-blue sweats, “And the former Codename Violet will become ‘Blue’. That should work out well enough.”
Yellow interjected loudly, “If we’re swapping codenames, I don’t want to be yellow. I don’t mind this colour so much, it’s a decent orangey-yellow after all and not some cissy primrose, but the name makes me sound like you think I’m a coward!”
“He has a point,” Red said. “I’m surprised you even thought of using it, to be honest, Oldring – whatever colours the spectrum’s got in it.”
“How about ochre?” the newly-christened Blue suggested helpfully. “That can be a sort of old-gold-yellowy-orange colour. My mother had one of the guest bedrooms painted ochre last year. ”
‘Yellow’ nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, that sounds a much classier name – even if your mom did paint a room with it. Ochre…I like it. You can change me to that while you’re at it, Oldring. Well done, ‘Violet-changing-to-Blue’; maybe you have your uses after all?”
“Gentlemen, please...” Oldring said, but his tone was casual.
Realising all this had been very carefully orchestrated by the trainers, Conrad said, “I’ve no argument with my codename.”
“Grey’s fine with me,” Grey reassured him, and Stephens nodded his approval too.
“You know, I’m starting to think that ‘Red’ sounds a bit ordinary amongst all these refined colours,” the most recent arrival said, looking down at his tracksuit. “So, how about changing me to Codename Crimson instead?”
“No,” ‘New-Blue’ said decisively. “That’s scarlet, not crimson, and surely for an Englishman, there is a tradition of scarlet coats?”
His companion grinned at him. “You’re right, there is – and we don’t want to awaken any Anglo-American antagonism by keeping me a redcoat, do we? Mr Oldring, in the furtherance of international harmony, I want to be Codename Scarlet, okay?”
“I’m beginning to suspect you’re not taking this very seriously, gentlemen.” Oldring sniffed.
“Well, you’re not exactly overwhelming us with reasons why we should,” Grey replied shortly.
Oldring didn’t rise to the bait and merely said, “Very well, I will make the changes to the records. However, I hope you’re all satisfied now, as I must insist you use your newly-adjusted codenames at all times, from this moment on.” He glanced questioningly at Purple.
“Never better,” the dark-haired man assured him.
“Still pretty bad, though,” Ochre commented dryly. “I’m gonna have to apply for famine relief if I don’t get fed real soon…”
Everyone laughed and settled down to eat as the first course was wheeled in on a catering trolley by two stewards, supervised by Miss Dawson.
By the time they had finished eating, the men were getting used to using their reassigned codenames, and the prevailing sense of absurdity was starting to evaporate.
During the meal, Brown led the conversation, although it was Scarlet who got the others to open up, without revealing much about himself.
Although he wasn’t sure that Brown should have been quite so free with his personal details, Conrad presumed his fellow agent had also been given his own set of instructions by Colonel White, and was merely doing what was expected. His own instructions had made it quite clear that he wasn’t expected to reveal much about himself – which suited him perfectly.
Scarlet’s information-gathering techniques were not universally successful, though; it was noticeable that Ochre, Purple and Blue were not prepared to divulge anything.
But, when the coffee arrived, Purple suddenly turned to his neighbour and asked:
“What’s a rich guy like you doing here?”
“Rich? What makes you think that?” Blue asked calmly.
“Let me see… you arrived in a Ferrari worth a king’s ransom.” Purple counted on his fingers. “Your mother painted one of the guest bedrooms ochre, you have Italian leather luggage, and unless I am very much mistaken – which I’m not - that was a Francois Lemaire suit you were wearing, and those are Verdain sweats. They’re hardly the accessories of Mr Average American.”
Blue’s pale brows rose in silent acknowledgement of the stated facts.
Purple continued, “Furthermore, with an accent like that, you have to come from Boston, and you bear a passing resemblance to one John Svenson, Chairman of the Boston-based finance company, SvenCorp. All of that family are known to be obscenely wealthy. It takes money to dress and travel like you, which could be said to clinch my theory. Apart from that? It’s just a wild guess.”
Blue didn’t argue; instead he asked, “Are you in business, Purple?”
“You could say that,” his neighbour replied demurely.
“Yeah, he’s in business all right, but not his own most of the time,” Ochre interjected, as he peeled an apple. He ate a slice off the knife and waved it in the direction of Purple as he added, “He’s Patrick Donaghue, boss of New York Crime Syndicate Five – fraud and computer crime - am I right?”
Purple merely looked reflectively at Ochre and said, “And you are Commander Richard Fraser, of the World Government Police’s anti-organised-crime operation. You were in charge of the special investigation that netted an entire Chicago syndicate.”
Ochre nodded. “And we’re working on the others – so there’s no need for you to feel smug, Donaghue.”
Purple gave him a mocking smile. “I’m trembling in my seat, Commander. You might’ve hit the jackpot with the morons in Chicago, but you don’t stand a chance against New Yorkers.”
With unfeigned astonishment at the truth about Purple’s identity, Conrad said mildly, “So, we’re a real mixed bag.”
He sensed trouble brewing between the two men, and reached across Ochre to take a bunch of grapes from the fruit bowl, incidentally breaking the eye contact between the antagonists.
Brown joined in enthusiastically. “You could say that again, Black; after all we have a crook – begging your pardon, Purple - a couple of cops, a sailor, a technical officer, a regular soldier and…” He looked at Blue. “You. What are you, exactly? A banker?”
“Close,” Ochre muttered, “but you got the first letter of the word wrong.”
Blue ignored him and replied in all seriousness, “Well, my mother says I’m a right pain in the butt.”
“Does she also say it’s easier getting blood from a stone than a straight answer from you?” Scarlet remarked, his dark brows rocketing upwards.
“She’s been known to say something very similar,” Blue agreed, with a smile.
“We’ve all told you something about ourselves; it would be nice to think you trusted us enough to be as open,” Brown encouraged.
“I’m sorry; you’ll have to do much better before I do that,” Blue said, glancing down into his coffee cup. “‘Confidence is a plant of slow growth’ as the man once said, and trust is something I’ve never been very liberal with.”
“What man?” Ochre asked, looking bemused.
Purple gave Ochre a withering look, ignored the question and remarked dryly to Blue, “Now that’s something we’d never have guessed, left to ourselves.”
The Bostonian shrugged. “I’m not the only one who feels like that here though, am I?” He looked across at Conrad and raised his coffee cup to his lips. “We all have secrets…”
Conrad inclined his head and said nothing. There was a tense silence until Brown began complaining about the taste of the tea and the moment passed.
According to Oldring’s timetable, there should have been an hour’s free time after lunch and before the first briefing; but, as they were running behind schedule the time was reduced to thirty minutes. Conrad went through the French windows and out into the grounds, seeking to enjoy the afternoon sunshine; at somewhat of a loss what to do, the others followed him.
Scarlet and Grey walked together across the lawn to the shade of the trees, deep in conversation, whilst Ochre gravitated towards the car park, where he, and the recently-renamed Indigo, examined the Ferrari with a keen interest. Its owner, strolling out onto the main lawn, kept a wary eye on them, but didn’t seem too concerned.
After a while, Blue was joined by the garrulous Brown, who produced a cigarette case and lit one up before asking his companion’s permission, drawing in the smoke with relish and carefully exhaling it away from his none-too-pleased colleague.
After noting that Purple had perched on the low wall that edged the car park with his head tilted back, apparently topping up his suntan, Conrad moved across to join Brown – he was slightly concerned at what his garrulous compatriot might let slip - but he was able to keep a watchful eye on the others while Brown chattered on about inconsequential matters, punctuating his monologue with deep draws on his cigarette.
The time passed quickly, and when Miss Dawson bustled out onto the steps and called them in for the meeting, their response was slow. She stood, tapping her foot impatiently as the men strolled towards her without any apparent sense of urgency. In fact, Indigo stopped and waited for Blue to reach him before launching into a flurry of questions about the Ferrari’s performance, which the Bostonian answered politely enough.
Once inside they were directed to a small lecture theatre, where Mr Oldring spent the next three hours detailing what they might expect over the duration of the course, as well as a sketchy introduction to the organisation they were being assessed to join.
It was easy to see the candidates were impressed at the thoroughness of the forthcoming assessment, and Conrad was gratified that something he and Colonel White had devised between them was so well received. The scheme had the aim of learning the strengths and weaknesses of all the men the Selection Panel had nominated and covered most aspects of the skills essential to do the job Spectrum required.
“Any questions, gentlemen?” Oldring asked, as he concluded his speech.
There was a tangible release of tension as the men shuffled their papers and waited – what seemed an interminably long time - for the first question to be asked. It seemed perfectly in keeping for Brown to ask the first, mundane question and that opened a floodgate from everyone.
Oldring’s answers to the many and varied questions remained vague, although he promised the group that before they left the compound all of their questions would have been answered.
“If you pass all the tests we’re going to set you, gentlemen, you’ll be told everything there is to know. And if you don’t, you won’t be permitted to know any more than I’ve just told you,” Oldring explained with a degree of finality that discouraged further questions.
“So we’ll be expected to just go home and forget all this ever happened?” Purple asked.
“Yes, indeed, Purple, that’s about the strength of it,” Oldring confirmed. “You will, of course, be required to sign another strict confidentiality agreement before you leave, and rest assured, should we suspect there have been any breaches of that agreement, the culprit will be rigorously pursued with the full force of the law.”
“And if we pass your tests, but still decide not to join this secretive organisation of yours?” asked Ochre, a slight frown between his dark brows.
“If you pass, I’m certain you will want to join,” Oldring replied resolutely. He glanced at the uncertainty on Ochre’s face and hastened on to the next stage of the session, anxious to avoid discussion of any individual concerns at this stage.
“Now, in the light of the… mishap over our records for Codename Blue, I have some forms for you to fill in… personal matters, financial details, health questions – the usual things… all in total confidence, of course. You may take them away and complete them in your rooms, if you wish; the rest of the day is your own. I want them back first thing tomorrow morning. There will be a light supper served at about 7.30. You will receive an alarm call at 0500 hours tomorrow, so I suggest you all get plenty of sleep. It will be a busy day.”
Miss Dawson handed them all a thick sheaf of papers.
“Paperwork? I didn’t come here to do paperwork,” Scarlet groaned in mock despair, as he flicked though the wad of documents, all on World Government headed paper.
“Never met an organisation yet that could function without a mountain of paperwork,” Grey commented, as he glanced through the handouts. “These seem to cover just about everything… but what if we don’t know our grandmother’s shoe-size, what do we do then?”
“This is essential information you should all know,” Miss Dawson interjected. “We’re not in the habit of creating unnecessary paperwork, Grey.”
“I wouldn’t know what you’re in the habit of creating, Miss Dawson,” he replied genially, before he sighed and added, “Well, looks like there won’t be any time to watch TV tonight.”
“There is no TV, nor radio, nor daily newspapers in the building. Whilst you’re here you’re ‘in purdah’, so to speak,” Miss Dawson informed them.
“No TV? I’ve no idea where this ‘purdah’ place is, but I sure know Hell when I see it,” Ochre grumbled, as he gathered his belongings. “There’s a big game on tomorrow; I don’t wanna miss it.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to,” she replied tartly. “You may help yourself to any of the books from the library here,” she added, and bustled away.
Grumbling under his breath, Ochre left the lecture room and sprinted energetically up the stairs to his room, disappearing inside with a slam of the door.
Gradually the others followed suit, except for Blue and Scarlet, who gravitated towards the inexhaustible supply of coffee on the bench at the back of the lecture room. Conrad walked over and helped himself to a cup too.
“What do you make of it all, Black?”
To Conrad’s surprise it was Scarlet who asked the question. He shrugged in response.
Undeterred by this, Scarlet continued his line of reasoning, “The World Government seems to be playing its cards close to its chest.”
Standing beside him, Blue nodded. “That’s nothing new,” he commented.
“True enough.” Scarlet sighed and continued, “Personally, I prefer things to be open and above board before I make any decisions about what I will, or won’t, be part of.”
“I’m sure they have their reasons,” Conrad replied, with another slight shrug. “From what Oldring said, we’ll be up against it to make the grade and discover much more about… whatever is going on.”
“Oh, I’ve no worries about that,” Scarlet said, with a confident, if intrinsically boyish, grin. “The WAAF keep their personnel in tip-top physical condition. It didn’t sound like there’s anything for me to be that concerned about on the timetable.”
“You reckon?” Conrad said dryly, with a doubtful glance. Scarlet was a little taller than him, and slighter, but he had no doubt the man was fit and strong; he moved with the bearing of a soldier: very upright and a little rigid.
Years ago, Conrad thought, I moved the same way and probably had the same self-confident arrogance that I had all the answers. Times change.
Scarlet’s grin broadened. “Yes; besides, we’re not here because they think we won’t make the grade. Not even the World Government wastes its time on no-hopers and potential losers.”
“How about you?” Conrad asked Blue. “Do you reckon we’re all shoe-ins for the organisation?”
The tall man shrugged. “We’ll see. I’m not as confident as Scarlet says he is, but I agree that they don’t expect us to fail. It wouldn’t make sense to go to all the expense of dragging us all here otherwise, would it?”
Conrad gave a thoughtful nod. “If you look at it that way, you could be right.”
“Of course I’m right,” Scarlet said with some spirit. He put his cup down and picked up his wad of questionnaires. “Now, I suppose I’d better start filling this in. We’ve only got till breakfast time, and I need some sleep…”
Blue chuckled. “Doesn’t the WAAF keep their personnel’s administrative skills up to the mark too?”
Scarlet wrinkled his nose in a dismissive grimace. “Paperwork is for wusses; I don’t waste my time with it, as a rule.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Blue said, as he too put his cup down and picked up his papers. “Right now, I’m going to put these in my room and take a walk around the grounds. I like to know all there is to know about where I am.”
Scarlet gave a frown as if he wished he’d thought of doing that. “Do you need some company?” he asked.
“Not really, but both, or either of you, can come along, if you want…” Blue turned to politely include Conrad in the offer.
“Thanks; I’d like another stroll too. Too much sitting about makes me restless,” he replied, before Scarlet could respond.
The Englishman weighed up the pros and cons of joining them and decided that he wouldn’t bother, this time. “Right then,” he said breezily. “See you guys for supper.”
They watched him stride quickly from the room.
“That looks to me like someone who is a trifle over-confident, wouldn’t you say?” Conrad suggested, glancing at his companion.
Blue’s expression was dismissive. “I doubt it. If he says he can walk it, I expect it’s because he knows he can.”
“Do you have any worries?”
Blue gazed out over the compound for a moment and then replied, “Not worries; but I haven’t exactly been hitting the gym much lately.” He glanced at Conrad and shrugged. “That said, I’m not exactly decrepit yet, either.”
“No, none of us look to be physical wrecks, exactly,” Conrad agreed.
Blue started towards the door. “See you in Reception in five minutes?”
Once he was alone, Conrad put his coffee down untasted and strolled back to his room. To his concerned surprise, Oldring was there.
“Everything all right?” he asked, as Conrad closed the door.
Conrad nodded curtly, annoyed that the man had taken such a risk. “What the bloody hell are you doing here? I will come to the office – when I think it is safe to do so. Don’t do this again.”
“Very well, Captain,” Oldring replied, without the least hint of an apology.
“Right now I’m going to walk the compound with Blue. I don’t want him finding out more than is good for him,” Conrad explained, as he changed his shoes.
“He doesn’t trust us,” Oldring stated flatly.
“That’s perfectly obvious, but he’s not the only one, I think,” Conrad said. “He’s just the most open about it.”
“I can understand why you’d want to keep an eye on him. Mind you,” Oldring added, “his record tends to suggest he’s totally trustworthy. If he did discover more than he should, it wouldn’t necessarily be a complete disaster, Captain.”
“No, but it would be a failure on our part to perform our mission successfully,” Conrad snapped, although he noted the fact that Oldring had seen the records of – presumably – all the candidates. “They must learn the reason they’re here at the same time.”
Oldring nodded. “We’ll watch what we say around him, and I’m sorry if my visit here has risked compromising you with the recruits.”
“Let yourself out carefully, after I’ve left the building,” Conrad instructed. “And, if any of them see you, you’d better have a bloody good reason why you were in here.” He began to open the door.
He shut it again and snapped, “On this occasion I won’t report this lapse to the colonel, but if you can’t do this properly, Mr. Oldring, you can rest assured that you’ll be replaced just as easily as the recruits.”
Oldring flushed slightly. “Yes, Captain Black,” he said sombrely.
Black left the room and from the top of the stairs saw Blue by the main door, waiting. He hurried to join him.
It was pleasant striding round the well-kept lawns and gardens in the early evening sun, and he really had to stride: Blue was a good three inches taller than him, and Conrad reckoned his extra height was in his legs, if his length of stride was any indication.
Initially they walked side-by-side in an undemanding silence. The American wasn’t one for idle chit-chat, it seemed, and Conrad had never really mastered the art adequately enough to be confident he could do it well; besides, he didn’t want to seem to be pumping his companion for information.
Finally, they reached the shore of the lake that had been just visible from the dining room window. There was a small, tree-covered island off-set from the middle. It was easy to see the wooden jetty that led to a well-worn track into the trees, and there were signs of other military-type equipment as well.
Blue spoke for the first time since greeting him. “I assume some of what Oldring has planned is going to involve us getting wet.” He stooped and dabbled his hand in the water. “Freezing cold. Wonderful. I hope they have proper wetsuits for us, even if they aren’t colour-coded.”
Conrad chuckled. “You’re not impressed with all this colour-coding, are you?”
Blue produced a large, white handkerchief from the pocket of his sweat-suit and wiped his fingers. “It does rather smack of infantile games of ‘super-sleuths and spies’; but I guess if they want to keep it – and us – hush-hush, then it makes sense, of a kind. But I rather think they’re taking it to extremes.”
Conrad had to admit to himself that he’d thought the same way initially, but now he knew more about the intended purpose of Spectrum, he appreciated the attempts being made to protect operatives and their families from the reprisals of opponents with far fewer scruples.
“Is that because you wish you could’ve stayed as ‘Codename Violet’?” he suggested glibly, hoping to divert Blue’s attention from too intense a study of the compound.
The younger man grinned. “To be honest, if they’d expected me to use that name for the rest of my days, I might well have decided not to bother.”
“Smacked too much of the nancy-boy for your liking, did it?”
“Never gave it a thought; but I’m no shrinking violet, I can tell you that. Well, there wouldn’t be much point in it, would there? I’m six-foot-three, and it isn’t exactly easy for me to be inconspicuous in a crowd.”
“You have a point there.”
Blue’s gaze swept round the lake and compound and back to the house. “This place is well thought out,” he commented. “There’s hardly anywhere you can go without being under surveillance. I wonder why?”
Conrad gave an elaborate shrug. “To keep people out, or us in, do you think?”
“Us in; or so I’d imagine.” Blue drew a deep breath and shrugged off his musing. “Let’s get back, shall we? That paperwork is going to take some time.”
“Yes; you could be right.”
As they walked towards the house, Conrad scanned the first floor windows. He could see Scarlet at his bedroom window, presumably watching them. Suddenly, Blue waved.
“You’ve spotted him?” Conrad couldn’t quite keep the surprise out of his voice.
“Sure,” Blue replied, giving his companion an inquisitorial glance. “But then I don’t think he’s trying very hard not to be seen, for a start and, if I’m honest, I expected to see him. I didn’t think he’d let us out of his sight. Did you?”
Conrad gave a non-committal shrug. “You reckon he’s snooping on us?”
Blue dismissed that with a derisive snort. “Nah; well, no more than I would, if I were him. That’s a man who likes to know what’s going on as much as I do.”
He waved again, and this time Scarlet acknowledged that he’d been spotted with an ironic wave in response before he vanished back into the interior of his room.
“But that doesn’t mean I have to pretend I hadn’t noticed him, does it?” Blue reasoned.
“No, not if you’re prepared to let him know just how observant you are,” Conrad agreed, glancing at his companion. Blue shrugged, apparently unconcerned at what Scarlet might learn from the incident.
“What do you know about him? Do you know who he is?” Conrad asked, as they approached the manicured formal lawns.
Blue shook his head. “No; he didn’t say much about himself over lunch, did he? So I know no more than you. In fact, probably a good deal less than you. He’s a WAAF officer, we all heard him say that, so I assume he’s a good pilot - they train well.”
Blue stopped and after a moment said thoughtfully, “In fact, come to think of it, I know more about him than I do about you…”
Conrad glanced up at the tall man beside him. The pale brows were raised inquisitively, and from the expression on his face, Blue was obviously expecting an answer.
To delay a confession he instinctively felt was becoming inevitable, Conrad countered with a question of his own. “I could say the same; was Purple right about you? Are you related to that financier, John Svenson?”
“He’s my father. I’m Adam Svenson.” Blue’s answer was prompt and prosaic, as if he was merely confirming with a known fact. On seeing Conrad’s frown, he added, “I see little point in denying that to you.”
“Why me, precisely?”
“I happen to think you know more about what’s going on here, and who we all are, than you’re letting on.”
Conrad shook his head. “It’d be interesting to know what you base that assertion on.”
“Observation… Captain,” Blue said deliberately. “Plus I happen to have very good hearing, and I heard you talking to Oldring as I passed your door.”
Conrad stopped dead and glanced up at the man beside him. “You bloody eavesdropper!”
Blue shook his head. “No, I’m not. But you have the kind of voice that carries and Oldring’s just… loud. Don’t worry, my lips are sealed and I won’t ask you to tell me more than you’re allowed to. I know how these things work.”
“You expect me to … confess?” Conrad challenged him.
“No. Well, not unless you want to.”
“I have nothing to confess.”
“Glad to hear it,” Blue said dismissively. He quickened his long stride and it was apparent that he’d decided if Conrad wasn’t prepared to be more open with him, he wasn’t going to waste his time any longer.
Conrad hastened after him for a yard or two and then called, “Wait.”
Blue stopped and perched on the end of a convenient wooden bench, waiting for his companion to catch up.
With a wry twitch of his brows, Conrad said, “I guess, since you’ve been honest with me, I ought to reciprocate.”
Blue didn’t move; he sat with his hands in his pockets, a perfectly amiable, if slightly patronising, expression on his face, and waited. He gave the impression of being prepared to wait for as long as it took, too. Despite his inherent reluctance to share personal details, Conrad found that he wanted to satisfy this man’s – seemingly disinterested – curiosity.
He extended his hand. “I’m Conrad Turner, a colonel in the World Space Patrol…”
“The commander of Fireball XL3?” Shaking Conrad’s hand, he said, “I’ve read press coverage of your missions with interest. I envy you, Colonel; I’ve always wanted to get into space…”
“Well, it’s not something everyone gets a chance to do. Were you ever likely to get the chance?”
“I suppose I could’ve, if things hadn’t gone the way they did. I am – or rather, I was - a test pilot with the World Aeronautical Society, but I’d moved on from flying before they started testing prototype hypersonic planes.”
“To security work?” Conrad hazarded a guess.
“Uh-huh.” Blue studied him thoughtfully for a moment and then asked, in such a confident way it was more of a statement, “You’re English, aren’t you?”
Conrad’s smile of acknowledgment revealed his surprise at the comment. “After working so long with Americans, I thought my bloody English accent was well and truly buried.”
The Bostonian grinned, a smile that lit up his handsome face and made his pale-blue-grey eyes sparkle, like sunlight on a restless sea. “Oh, it is; you’re safe enough, but I’ve spent time in England, and I guess I developed an ear for those little tell-tale signs… well, more a tone of voice than anything. Of course, dry irony and liberal cussing is even more of a giveaway.”
“And I thought I was doing so well,” Conrad said, with an exaggeratedly rueful sigh.
His companion laughed. “I doubt the others have twigged – with the possible exception of the other Brits – sorry, Britons – I had it drummed into me when I was there that ‘Brits’ is not a name appreciated by many of your countrymen.”
“I’ll try and avoid irony, but I can’t promise I’ll be able to do anything about the cussing – that must be part of my genetic make up.”
Blue grinned. “Oh, I can turn the air blue, when I feel the need. But any American would tell you that Bawstin’s not typical of the rest of the country.” He smiled to see Conrad chuckle. “I mean, we don't speak either American-English or British-English; we speak whatever they brought over from East Anglia in 1630. It’s frickin’ wicked, all the same.”
Conrad laughed and Blue continued, “Added to which, I have European connections… well, Scandinavian ones, so I’m even less typical, I guess.”
“You don’t have to apologise.”
Blue grinned. “I wasn’t. I’m proud of my home, and my ancestry. Dammit, if a Bostonian doesn’t love the place, ain’t no one gonna do it fer ’im.”
“I wish I could feel the same way about where I grew up.”
“And where was that?” Blue asked, leaning back.
“Lancashire. Some little place in the middle of nowhere.”
“A long way from here, then.”
Conrad nodded, and without quite knowing how or why, he found himself telling Blue all about the farm and his great aunt.
The younger man listened in sympathetic silence and when Conrad’s story finished, he asked, “What happened to your parents?” adding, with an apologetic smile, “If you don’t mind me asking? You can tell me to go take a hike, if you like.”
“No, it’s okay,” Conrad replied, rather surprised to discover that he meant it. Talking to this young man was easy and didn’t make his hackles rise in the way that Scarlet’s trawling for personal details had done – for some reason.
He explained, “They died when I was less than a year old. I never knew them.”
“That’s tough.” Blue shifted. “My dad and I fight like tigers; I’m a huge disappointment to him and he’s never gonna let me forget it, but, all the same, I’m glad I have him around, even when he pisses me off.”
Conrad shrugged. “You don’t miss what you never had.”
Blue studied him thoughtfully, but didn’t press the matter. Changing the subject he asked, “What did you study at college?”
“Physics, space navigation and International Law. When I’d got my National Diplomas, I elected to read Science and Technology at Northern University.”
“I envy you,” Blue said. “I went to Hahvuhd at sixteen, and I’d have dearly loved to have done something like that; but my dad wouldn’t hear of it. I majored in economics and applied mathematics, with computer control and technology. I only managed to add in aerodynamics by convincing my father I didn’t intend to make a career of it.”
“That’s still pretty good going,” Conrad complimented.
Blue shrugged it off. “I have the kind of mind that retains information, whether I want it to or not, sometimes, and I can trot it out in examinations at the drop of a hat. I don’t feel I pushed myself as I might’ve done. The only one I was really interested in was the aerodynamics.”
“You ended up in the W.A.S.,” Conrad said, “so you got one over on your father, after all.”
“Yeah,” Blue said thoughtfully. He gave a self-conscious snort of laughter and looked apologetically at Conrad. “My father must’ve thought there was something wrong with me. He used to tell me it was my duty to enter the family business and devote myself to making money; that’s all we’re on God’s earth for, if you listen to him. But all I wanted to do was fly planes.”
“I can relate to that. I got my degree in eighteen months and joined the British Air Force at 18; I had no desire to go back to the farm. Maybe not my brightest move… there was trouble brewing and I managed to get myself into the middle of it.”
Blue snapped his fingers. “Of course, I knew I’d heard the name in connection with something other than WSP missions. You were the guy who flew that booby-trap plane to safety. It was a very brave thing you did.”
Conrad shook his head. “I was eighteen, Adam. Inexperienced, over-confident and insubordinate. I knew I could fly that plane away from the base, and, like most youngsters, I didn’t think it through to the logical conclusion. As a consequence, I damn near got myself killed and was lucky I didn’t blow up half of England.”
“You were a hero.”
“I was a bloody fool.”
Blue gave a sceptical shrug. “Maybe it’s a thin line between the two?” he suggested.
“You could have a point there. Who in their right mind would be brave?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Blue replied, and went on to explain, “I was thinking more about someone like Scarlet, or Grey. Maybe even our friend, Ochre. None of them are fools, and yet they routinely pit themselves against the most dangerous thing on this planet: human beings. Compared to the treachery of mankind, even space ships and prototype planes are kid’s play, so are they fools to do what they do? ”
“An original concept, but I think I see what you mean.”
“In my experience, when it comes to dealing with human beings you have to be prepared for anything. They’re the one thing in creation that can always play dirtier than you think it possible to go. I imagine you have to have a streak of wildness in you to want to face up to that hazard.”
“You think you can’t have bravery without the wild streak?” Conrad asked.
“Maybe.” Blue shrugged.
“And do you have it?”
Blue frowned. “I didn’t; but I think I do now. I learnt the hard way not to trust anyone without good reason.” He stood. “My, we’re getting mighty philosophical.”
Conrad nodded and fell in beside him as they walked on. After they’d gone a few yards, Blue continued the conversation, asking, “Why have you chosen to abandon the WSP for – whatever this … organisation is?”
“I think this is an important project. A valid call on my talents, whatever they may be. I… I suppose I want to repay my debt to the World Government as well.”
Blue gave a cynical snort. “Can’t say I feel I owe them anything, but I’m intrigued by whatever’s going on here. A well-known, experienced astronaut like you wouldn’t waste his time here, for a start. There must be something to have attracted you to this organisation.” He smiled. “I think I might just stick it out after all, and see what it has to offer.”
“You weren’t planning to stay?” Conrad’s surprise was evident as he stared at his companion.
“Not initially.” Blue stopped and drew a deep breath. “But, maybe you should know, if you don’t already, that I’ve spent much of my time - far too much lately - running away from the past and I guess I’ve come to realise I can’t run for ever. This seems like as good a place as any to turn and face up to my life.”
“I’m glad you’ve decided to give it a chance; the project will need good men,” Conrad responded, abandoning the pretence that he knew nothing more than his companion about Spectrum, in the face of the unexpected revelation that one of the chosen recruits was considering defection so early on in the process. “Does your decision account for your… morose mood?”
Blue gave a self-conscious shrug. “Oh, I’m not normally this miserable, even though I have enough Scandinavian blood in me to fit the cliché. It… it happens to be the anniversary of the day a… a close friend of mine died. I should get over it, I guess, but it’s easier said than done. I generally spend the day getting blind drunk and - with luck – the evening getting laid. I don’t see any opportunity to do that here.”
“There’s always Miss Dawson,” Conrad suggested, meeting Blue’s horrified gaze with an amused smile.
“I’d have to be really drunk…” Blue retorted quickly and then reprimanded himself. “That was unforgivably rude of me; the poor woman’s probably a veritable tiger in the sack.”
“Oh, goodness, I’m not sure I want to go there…”
“Goodness has nothing to do with it,” Blue quipped, and gave a thoroughly lascivious guffaw of laughter.
Conrad smirked to see such unexpected roguery, but Blue sobered up quickly enough and they walked on slowly.
“So, what does motivate you?” Conrad asked. “It’s not likely to be the money, and you’ve said you don’t feel obliged to serve the World Government.”
“Boredom.” Blue’s admission was surprising. He went on to explain, “I have a fear and loathing of finding myself bored. My father always wanted me to join his company - and he still does, now I’m contemplating leaving the W.A.S. - but to my mind, that way lies unremitting, unutterable boredom.”
“And is the W.A.S. boring?”
“It never used to be; but now the accountants have taken over and there’s no longer the scope to undertake work on a need basis, only on a cost basis.” Blue glanced at Conrad and shrugged. “Let’s just say that I don’t ‘do’ cost-cutting; blame it on my background, if you like.”
Conrad considered that with a wry shrug; it was fascinating to discover why this particular man had accepted their invitation – and surprising that it was for such an unexpected reason.
“You think this new organisation might be more generous with its resources?” he asked, after a short pause.
“Bandranaik isn’t known for ever under-funding his projects. And, like I said, I’m intrigued.”
“I hope you’re not going to be disappointed,” Conrad said, although he knew that the scope of Spectrum should be enough to impress anyone.
“Me too.” Blue gave a friendly smile. They’d reached the door when he added, “Anyway, mataheah, as we say in Bawstin. If tomorrow’s going to be a busy day, I want to get those documents done and get some rest – it’s been a long and tiring day, what with one thing and another. Goodnight, Con.”
“You won’t be down for supper?” Conrad asked, startled to hear his companion use the diminutive; there’d been few enough people who’d felt easy enough in his presence to do so on such a short acquaintance. Blue shook his head and Conrad added briskly, “Then I’ll say goodnight, Adam.”
He watched the younger man walk upstairs two at a time and disappear along the corridor without so much as a backwards glance in his direction.
Left alone in the Reception, he glanced around the place and looked down the corridor to where he suspected Oldring – or his operatives - would be monitoring the incident. Irritation that Oldring had caused a breach of security by his thoughtlessness resurfaced. Yet, even as he cursed, he sensed that Adam Svenson was a man he could trust to keep his mouth shut: he might not trust the World Government and its ‘infantile play-acting’, but he didn’t trust the other men here either. Yet.
“What a bloody mess,” he muttered under his breath, and chuckled to himself to consider his profanity was such a clue to his nationality.
He would have to make it quite clear to his colleagues that they were dealing with some of the most capable men in their fields, and any laxness on their point would undoubtedly be noted and acted upon by the very people they were meant to be assessing. The incident would have to be explained thoroughly in his report to Colonel White.
He turned on his heel and stomped upstairs to complete the paperwork and write his daily log.
Part Three: Survival of the Fittest
The next morning they were all woken at 0500, as they’d been warned, and summoned downstairs to a meeting before breakfast. In various states of alertness and undress, they filed into the lecture room.
Oldring nodded to Miss Dawson, who primly handed out densely printed sheet of instructions to them all.
They studied them in silence and swapped expressions of surprise.
“Gentlemen, enjoy your breakfasts,” Oldring said, smiling as he left the room with Miss Dawson in tow.
Exactly an hour later, having dressed and grabbed what breakfast they could, they were all lined up out in the compound, being started at 90 second intervals around a fiendishly difficult obstacle course. It was beautiful, clear weather, with the sun beating down on the ground and the promise of high temperatures and humidity as the day progressed.
The circuit wound around the compound, through several copses of tangled vegetation, across a deep, muddy brook, around the car park and over the sports field beyond it, where barriers and obstacles had been laid out in a grid. After that it doubled back towards the lake, where pontoon bridges had been fixed out to the small island.
There the recruits found a second series of obstacles to negotiate before returning to the mainland and completing the circuit in front of the house where they had started.
After they completed the first circuit, which had really been little more than a gentle jog to familiarise themselves with the course, Oldring explained that they would now draw lots for the order of the start and collect a weighted haversack before they set off.
“You will have to complete five circuits of the course, and every time you complete a circuit the weight in the haversack will be adjusted-”
“Upwards?” Scarlet asked.
“Yes,” Oldring confirmed, as if surprised there could ever have been any doubt.
There was a chorus of sighing groans from the men.
“Just checking,” Scarlet said, with a grin. “Carry on, Mr Oldring.”
“This is a competitive race; you all start with a base of ten points, additional points will be awarded for every circuit you complete within the allotted time and points deducted for any time over the allocation. Bonus points will reflect your position at the finish.”
“How long do we have?” Conrad asked, glancing at his watch in readiness for setting the timer mechanism.
“Let’s just say that you all got back from the first circuit over the time limit,” Oldring said. “That circuit will not be scored, but from now on, the clock is ticking.”
“Sadist,” Grey muttered, as he moved behind Brown, who was the first to go.
Conrad started out after Grey and before Ochre. Scarlet was the last to start, but he quickly began to overtake the others. The young Englishman’s face was a mask of concentration as he pounded along the track and marshalled his strength and stamina, and Conrad, keeping to a measured and fairly rigorous pace himself, was impressed despite himself.
Before the third circuit was completed, Scarlet was in the lead and he romped home well ahead of the field. Conrad finished close behind Ochre, who came a closer second than most of the observers had expected. Agile and quick, it was clear that there was more strength in the acerbic policeman than was immediately obvious.
The first three sat on the ground with welcome bottles of water, and watched the others finish. Grey came in next, looking fresh enough, although he’d seemed reluctant to commit himself to an out and out battle with the others. Blue loped home next, looking fairly relaxed, although after the first circuit, when he had kept pace with Scarlet, he had slowed and kept to his own pace.
It’s almost, Conrad thought, as if he was merely showing Scarlet ‘I could if I wanted to…’
He nodded to the tall American, who sank onto the ground beside him, splayed out on the grassy bank and splashed bottled water onto his face, before gulping down the rest.
Brown and Indigo finished some way behind Blue, but within the time limit and well ahead of Purple, who’d had real trouble in places, falling into several of the muddy pools beneath the numerous water jumps and balance poles, and who was still floundering round the course when Miss Dawson brought out a picnic basket containing a meagre sandwich lunch.
“I suppose we should applaud his determination to finish?” Scarlet said, as they watched an exhausted and bedraggled Purple making his way back towards the finish on his final circuit.
“Sure, applaud away,” Ochre said. “Just don’t expect me not to eat all the sandwiches.” He took another one from the basket.
“That’s a bit unfair,” Brown remarked.
Ochre nodded, chewing vigorously.
By the time Purple had completed his final circuit the basket was empty, apart from a few pieces of over-ripe fruit. Once he’d caught his breath and drunk his bottled water, he crawled over to the hamper and peered inside.
“I don’t suppose it occurred to you morons to save me something?” he snarled, looking at the sorry pieces of fruit that were all that remained.
“No,” Ochre replied. “You should’ve kept up.”
“Look, Cop, I haven’t had the benefit of the square-bashing they drill into you quasi-military jerks! I think this comes pretty close to torture, if you ask me.”
Scarlet laughed. “Hardly; it was tough, but we all managed. You should keep fit, Purple. A man your age shouldn’t find this sort of thing difficult.”
“Oh, fuck off, Brit,” Purple growled, and bit into the last peach.
He’d hardly finished before Oldring came out and ordered them back indoors.
Complaining bitterly, they got to their feet and trooped after him into a large and well-equipped gymnasium, where he introduced them to Miss Candy Newman.
There was a noticeable straightening of backs and clearing of throats as a shapely, blonde-haired, young woman greeted them with a bright smile and a high-pitched, girlish voice. She wore a tight Lycra two-piece outfit that left nothing to the imagination and emphasised every curve.
With an enthusiasm none of them felt like sharing, she checked their names off against her list and questioned them individually on their familiarity with the equipment.
Springing onto a small dais, she addressed her somewhat jaded audience.
“Now, I just know all you big, strong men are going to impress me! I want to see what all of you can do, boys!”
“More points?” Grey asked.
“More points than you can count, Grey – all going begging for every performance that electrifies me! I wanna see those muscles pumping, boys! This is your chance to show me what you’ve got!”
Standing next to Blue, Conrad muttered, “Shame you didn’t know she was here last night. You could’ve got laid, after all.”
Blue’s explosive snort of laughter caused heads to turn.
Once the attention had moved back to Candy as she began to assign them to machines, he whispered to Conrad, “Oh sure, and I’d have never survived the first round of the obstacle course, never mind this…”
Once more, Scarlet led the field home, with excellent results on all the equipment. Conrad slipped down the league table a little as Ochre, Indigo and Brown acquitted themselves well, but once more Grey seemed to be holding himself back and his performance suffered as a result. Purple, still muddy and damp from the outdoor exercise, made another poor showing and finished flat out on the floor, breathing heavily and sweating copiously.
The real surprise of this round was Blue, who came close to toppling Scarlet from his pole position, without looking particularly stretched.
“You’ve done very well, Blue,” Candy trilled, as she finished reading the results out. “Well done. I did wonder about you after I saw the morning’s results, but I’m thrilled to see that you’ve kept yourself a very fit boy!”
Blue flushed as the others, led by Scarlet and Ochre, burst into teasing laughter.
As she dismissed them all, Candy went over to Purple and patted his arm in a friendly gesture.
“Don’t worry, Purple,” she said, her childish voice carrying around the hall, “I’m sure you did your very best. A few extra sessions with me and you’ll soon be up there with the other boys!”
The men were still in the high spirits Candy had engendered, when they were met by Oldring at the door of the gym and led into the basement of the building, where there was a firing range.
Each man was conducted into a separate alley and given a variety of weapons.
Purple managed to salvage some pride by proving himself adept at the exercise and scoring highly, although Scarlet topped the rankings with a perfect score on each weapon. Grey’s achievement ranked alongside Purple’s, with Ochre just one shot off a perfect score. The two technical officers were well above average, but although Blue’s performance was good, he seemed dissatisfied with his achievement, going so far as to complain to Oldring that although he was unfamiliar with several of the weapons he’d been given, he doubted they were all working properly.
Oldring merely nodded and without a pause, the agents were hustled into another set of rooms where extensive co-ordination tests finished the day’s examinations.
Everyone was already flagging by the time the tests started and this was reflected in several performances. Only Blue came out with a perfect score; his reflexes were as fast as a cat’s and his hand-eye co-ordination was superior to them all, although Scarlet came a close second.
That result left Conrad with more than a suspicion that the tall American was regretting his leisurely pace around the obstacle course that had started the day, quite as much as he resented his moderate score on the shooting range.
Well, he thought, he’ll get another chance to improve on his fitness ranking later this week… until then it will pull his average down.
With the day’s tests completed, the men wandered back to the sitting room and Miss Dawson came in with the offer of laundering Purple’s muddy uniform – giving him permission to dress ‘civilian’ for dinner. Purple accepted her offer with an exhausted gratitude, and stumbled off to change.
They were all too tired to do much more than eat, and digest their meal in almost total silence afterwards. Gradually they all slipped away to their rooms and took themselves off to bed.
Once the candidates had all turned in for the night, Conrad slipped down the stairs and joined the others in the office, where Oldring led the review of the day’s results.
“I think the weapon results are very interesting,” Conrad remarked, scanning the reports. “It’s no surprise that Scarlet and Ochre did well – they’ve both had training and have to keep their skill finely honed.”
“Indeed, the World Police have a reputation for excellent marksmanship,” Oldring agreed.
“But I expected Blue to do better,” Conrad continued thoughtfully. “Especially given his result in the co-ordination tests.”
“Ah, that’d be my fault,” Miss Dawson said, peering over the top of her glasses. “I arranged for the weapons in that alley to be ever so slightly unbalanced.”
“He was right to complain then?” Conrad asked, with some surprise.
She nodded. “The problem was, Scarlet was supposed to get that alley.” She shrugged apologetically. “Slight cock-up on the organisational front, I’m afraid.”
“Hmm, well, no great harm done and the tests will be repeated later this week,” Oldring said. “Next time, make sure Scarlet gets the faulty weapons.”
“Purple’s performance was a bit of an eye-opener,” Candy Newman said.
“Donaghue must need to make sure he can defend himself adequately,” Oldring reasoned, as he annotated his file. “He’s going to have to do some serious fitness training, though.”
“Yes, but bear in mind, he’s probably never experienced anything like the obstacle course before today. I expect the others, including Ochre and Indigo, have undergone similar tests in their training. Blue didn’t do as well as you expected, and yet it’s a certainty that he’s no stranger to circuit training in a gym – you don’t get abs like that sitting at a desk all day,” Miss Dawson reasoned and Candy nodded agreement.
“Purple’s circuit result was probably so bad because he was tired,” she remarked. “Perhaps, if the exercises had been the other way round, he’d have done better indoors. He doesn’t strike me as a man who’s out of shape.”
“That’s a good point,” Conrad said thoughtfully. “Why did you offer to launder his uniform?” he asked Miss Dawson suddenly. “I thought there are plenty of spares.”
She grinned. “Oh, I have my reasons…”
Oldring sniggered. “No point arguing with Jean, Captain Black. Watch and learn.”
Purple’s non-appearance over breakfast the next morning led to some idle speculation amongst the other candidates that he had been dropped, due to his dismal showing in most of yesterday’s tests.
Ochre was the most vociferous, adding that he should not be allowed to stay. “He is a criminal, after all,” he pontificated, over his toast.
“Does he have a serious criminal record?” Grey asked quietly, between mouthfuls of muesli.
“He did time for his part in the anti-Bereznik riots of ’52; but he’s avoided further arrest so far,” Ochre revealed reluctantly. “We know he’s involved with organised crime - he didn’t deny it yesterday – and we’ll get him, eventually.”
“What happened to innocent until proven guilty?” Conrad asked rhetorically.
“He admitted it, you all heard him!” Ochre snapped.
“He didn’t say anything - except to say you were a cop,” Grey reminded them.
“He’s guilty as hell; take it from me,” retorted Ochre, before finishing his coffee.
“We’ll have to, unless he comes back and explains himself,” Blue commented dryly, as he too drained his coffee cup.
“And what about you - our man of mystery - I think we ought to know what you do.” Ochre was getting angry.
“Me? Oh, you heard Purple: I’m a lazy, do-nothing, rich kid.”
“Sounds about right to me,” Ochre retorted. “You rich folk are all the same: parasites living off the hard work of decent people.”
“That’s a bit harsh,” Grey remarked, frowning at Ochre.
“And a sweeping generalisation, if I may be allowed to comment,” Blue said levelly. “My father works a darn sight longer than any official working week, and he generates employment for those same decent, hard-working people you’re so worried about. Sure, he makes a lot of money doing what he does, but that’s what capitalism is all about, buddy. And it’s his money – not mine.”
“Oh sure – I forgot only paupers drive Ferraris these days. And, of course, Daddy’s money isn’t why you laze around doing nothing.” Ochre jabbed a finger towards Blue to emphasise his argument.
“I didn’t say I do nothing,” Blue reasoned, “Purple did; and what makes you so sure he knows what he’s talking about, all of a sudden?”
“Dah! You’re just bull-shitting to cover your tracks,” Ochre said, waving a hand dismissively. “My guess is you only do what you want, when you want. Chance’d be a fine thing for the rest of us.”
“If that’s what you want to believe, nothing I can say will stop you,” Blue said, a spark of anger in his blue eyes. “Quite frankly, I can’t think of anything I’d like less than being a dilettante or a playboy, but I admit, there are times when it has some appeal. And, just so you have your facts right, Ochre, I drive a Ferrari because it happens to be the only car I own. I was given it as a 21st birthday present, and if I’d known it was going to be such a source of controversy, I’d have come by Greyhound Bus.”
“Working when and because I want to, would be fine by me,” Brown volunteered, before Ochre could reply. “I’d love the chance to be a do-nothing, rich man.”
Blue was obviously already regretting his outburst, so his reply to Brown was in a far more restrained tone, and accompanied by a genial shrug as he poured yet another coffee.
“Maybe that’s what I am then.”
“Oh, sure you are,” Scarlet mused, with a slight smile at the man beside him. “A rich, do-nothing guy fit enough to complete that obstacle course and the circuit training without breaking into much of a sweat. A proficient marksman, with reflexes a cat would envy. You know, you’re a real slob, Blue-boy.”
The blond man gave a chuckle at this description and gracefully inclined his head towards the Englishman.
“We heard you mention a uniform that didn’t fit - when you were hauling Miss Dawson over the coals – a uniform for what?” Indigo asked directly.
There was a pause, as if Svenson was weighing the decision to answer or not, then a slow grin reappeared on his face and he said, “For a World Aeronautical Society test pilot.”
There was a distinct feeling of anti-climax at that revelation.
“I told you it was nothing exciting,” he remarked, glancing at Conrad and giving a slight shrug.
“Very useful profession,” Grey muttered, with a distinct air of offering consolation to the younger man.
“Thank you, I’m glad you approve.” Blue made no attempt to hide his amusement.
“That only leaves you, Black,” Scarlet said, turning towards Conrad with a knowing smile. “Are you going to tell us what you do in real life?”
“We were told not to talk about such things,” he reminded them, and was rewarded with a unanimous chorus of put-downs. “But, under the circumstances, I can see that rule is to be more observed in the breach…”
“Come on, already!” Ochre cried. “Stop hamming it up.”
“I’m a colonel in the World Space Patrol.”
“Really?” Indigo asked, clearly impressed. “That must be fascinating.”
“Yes, I’ve enjoyed my tenure there.”
“So why come here to jump through hoops for these guys?” Ochre asked pointedly.
“Why did you?” Conrad responded quickly, more then a little interested to hear what Fraser would reply, but he had underestimated his man; Ochre had no intention of revealing that.
Instead, as Blue reached out for the coffee jug again, Ochre asked sarcastically, “Do you live on coffee?”
“It helps me think down to some people’s level, so yes, I guess I do,” Blue snapped with unexpected spite.
There was a concerted intake of breath, but before Ochre could respond, everyone’s attention was distracted by the door opening to reveal a very annoyed looking ‘Purple’, but not the Purple from yesterday - for he was now wearing a tracksuit of a deep, rich pink.
Trailing in his wake was a rather subdued Miss Dawson.
There was a snort of laughter from the direction of Ochre, and Purple’s dark eyes glowered even more.
“What on earth has happened to you?” Brown asked, as his eyebrows rose as high as they could go.
“Demoted to girly pink for being such a wuss,” Ochre crowed with delight.
Donaghue growled, “This stupid woman washed these on the wrong setting and the colour ran…”
He glared down at the sweats with loathing.
“I assure you it was an accident,” Miss Dawson bleated apologetically.
The others fought to control their laughter, sensing it would only make matters worse.
“Do we still use Purple as your codename, or are you ‘Pink’ now?” Grey asked far too innocently, as he fought the urge to laugh out loud.
“I will not be called pink!” Donaghue snarled.
“Magenta,” Scarlet suggested cryptically, a huge grin on his handsome face as he made room for Donaghue to sit beside him.
“Huh?” said Ochre.
“Sophisticated name for that shade of pink,” Scarlet explained. There was an uneasy silence until he added, “Actually, the prep school I went to had a blazer pretty much that colour. It was always referred to as magenta; and woe betides any oik from another school who called it pink!”
“What planet did you say you came from?” Ochre asked, with a sardonic glance at the Englishman, who was smiling at the memories the colour evoked.
But Donaghue gave him a grateful nod. “Yeah, okay, if old blue there can become Indigo and red can change to fancy Scarlet, not to mention our good friend yellow morphing into Ochre - I’ll be Magenta.”
He smiled smugly at Ochre.
Grey sighed as he watched ‘Magenta’ reach for the coffee pot. “I don’t know about ‘a spectrum’, but we’re certainly a colourful crowd.”
“Red and yellow and pink and green, orange and purple and blue,” Stephens sang off-key. “I can sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow – sing a rainbow too.”
“Correction – you can’t sing.” Indigo grimaced.
There was a ripple of laughter at Brown’s chagrined expression.
Miss Dawson took the opportunity to give them all a printed copy of the schedule for the day but then left them to finish their meal in peace.
Everyone was relieved to see from the list that the activities for the day were less physical than yesterday’s. Today the emphasis was on mental capabilities, and the list promised exam-type questionnaires covering complex exercises in problem-solving and logic, computer literacy and proficiency. These were to be followed by memory games, IQ tests, and deciphering code messages.
Studying the reactions of his colleagues to the timetable, Conrad divined sub-sets within the group, as each man had found his natural level against his companions. But, after the events of yesterday, everyone had realised they had to do well in all of the challenges in order to make their mark, and there was a notable increase in competitiveness.
After studying the timetable of what was in store, Ochre became almost aggressively competitive, but it didn’t take an expert to see that, beneath his swagger, he wasn’t as confident as he was making out, whereas Blue - who said very little - was perfectly at ease with the forthcoming challenge, facts that did not escape Magenta, who was also exuding an air of quiet confidence.
They had twenty minutes before the first test and, after returning to their rooms to prepare themselves, they started to congregate in the corridor next to the closed door of the room at about five minutes to nine.
Conrad smiled as he sat at one of the desks in the small room; it revived long forgotten memories of his schooldays and, as he drew two pens and a pencil out of his pocket, he saw with some amusement that several of the candidates had ‘lucky’ mascots on their desks.
Blue didn’t. He drew a silver fountain pen from his pocket and a biro and pencil, set them on the desk and sat, arms folded, waiting for the tests to begin.
Candy Newman followed Miss Dawson into the room and, smiling cheerfully and with an encouraging word for them all, began to distribute paper. She was wearing the clingy sports-wear she’d worn yesterday, which proved to be quite a distraction for some of the candidates.
Miss Dawson handed out the question papers and instructed them they had to answer as many as they could in one hour.
“You may start,” she said, pressing the button of the large minute timer on the desk at the front of the class. She sat behind the desk, making notes in a folder, while Candy sat where her long legs were displayed to best advantage and started to give herself a manicure.
Conrad skimmed through the questions: there were thirty-five of them, covering general knowledge, current affairs and basic maths. Some were multiple choice answers – but not all. He started to complete the paper, working steadily through the list and became rather engrossed in his task, so that he was surprised when he glanced up, as Miss Dawson alerted them to the fact that they had ten minutes remaining, to see that Blue had finished. His arms were folded again and his pale-blue eyes gazed out of the window… his expression suggested he was a million miles away…
When Miss Dawson ordered everyone to stop writing, Candy bounced up and collected their papers, with more smiles and friendly encouragement.
Out in the lounge, there was coffee and other refreshments, and for once Ochre beat Blue to the huge thermos jug. He poured himself a cup and collected a couple of biscuits from the selection available before walking over to the window and turning his back on the others.
“Well, that was a refreshing blast from the past,” Brown said, sipping his tea and nibbling on a digestive biscuit. “I haven’t done a ‘proper’ exam since university.”
“What did you study? Nursery education 101?” Magenta remarked. “That was junior high stuff.”
“Granted,” Brown replied, with no hint of having taken offence. “But the sitting in rows and all the ‘stop writing now’ rigmarole is the same whatever level and it’s guaranteed to send shivers down my spine, anyway.”
Magenta nodded. “Guess so.”
“I was never that good at exams,” Indigo admitted, “at least, not until after lunch. My brain needs to get fired up before I do myself justice.”
Scarlet turned from the tea urn and said, “Yes, but as Magenta said, that wasn’t exactly taxing. Maybe they’re just getting us limbered up and they’ll throw something with more punch at us after this?”
“Nothing like a quick gallop round the basics to get your mind working, eh?” Brown mused. “Wonder what they’ll want us to do next?”
“You finished quickly,” Conrad remarked, glancing at Blue.
“I write fast.”
Scarlet laughed. “You call ticking the right boxes and filling in basic multiplication, dates or the names of politicians, ‘writing’?”
Blue smiled and shrugged.
“Who is the head of the World Government’s Agriculture and Farming division?” Indigo asked. “Name was on the tip of my tongue and I couldn’t remember it for the life of me.”
“Teu Chi Wan,” several voices responded in unison.
“That’s it! Well, I’m one mark down at least.” Indigo laughed.
“I guess the one about the head of the World Police Corps was a cinch for you, Ochre?” Magenta remarked. He’d noticed how unusually quiet his antagonist was and he added, “So you’ll get at least one mark.”
There was a ripple of laughter at what was seen as a fairly innocuous jibe, but Ochre spun round and glared at Magenta with a ferocity that killed the amusement dead.
“One more word from you and I’ll run you in, Donaghue.”
“What for? Being brighter than you? Let’s face it, that’s not difficult, Fraser.”
Conrad and Scarlet got between the pair in time to prevent Ochre’s lunge at his tormentor resulting in fisticuffs.
“Cut that out – now!” Conrad snapped, pushing Ochre away.
Scarlet made Magenta back away. “That was uncalled for,” he admonished the older man levelly, rather spoiling things by adding sotto voce, “however true.”
Ochre pushed Conrad away. “Leave me be, willya? I don’t have to take any crap from the likes of that vermin.” He stared belligerently at the still smiling Magenta.
“No, you don’t,” Blue agreed as he joined him, using his height and bulk to effectively block the adversaries. “But you’re doing yourself no favours by letting him get to you, Fraser. Look, we’re all in this together, and my guess is that most of this is academic – by which I mean, they already know what we can and can’t do – what they’re really interested in is how well we’d work together. If I’m right, and you continue to rock the boat, you may just get asked to leave, however much you were provoked.”
Blue gave Ochre a long, significant stare, and as a faint blush began to colour Ochre’s bearded cheeks, he gave Blue an almost imperceptible nod, and said quietly:
“Message received, Blue. I’m not about to let that bastard ruin my chances.”
“Good; now cool it. If you go into the next test in a paddy you won’t be able to concentrate. And anyway, no one gives a toss how well you do; we’re all too busy taking care of ourselves. Right?”
Ochre stomped back to the coffee flask and busied himself pouring another cup, while Magenta relaxed in an armchair, chatting amicably with Grey.
Conrad moved to Blue’s side. “You shouldn’t have said that,” he said in a confidential whisper.
To his surprise, Blue turned on him and snapped angrily, “Why? Because it’s true? Or because you’re getting some kind of a kick from watching us ‘jump through hoops’?”
Realising he couldn’t answer that easily, Conrad glanced away and shrugged. “He’s more likely to assume you’re involved with official things than me,” he reasoned, changing tack slightly.
“I don’t care what he thinks,” Blue asserted. “I just happen to think we all deserve the same chance.”
“But he really had a go at you, earlier.”
“He wasn’t the first and I doubt he’ll be the last. You get used to it, Con.”
Along the corridor from the dining room, behind a door marked ‘Private’, there was a bank of monitors, trained on every public room of the facility and the grounds around the house.
The earlier incident involving Patrick Donaghue’s uniform and this latest altercation between him and Ochre had been observed by Anthony Oldring. Candy Newman, who’d come in with the test papers, had stayed to watch and now she glanced at Oldring.
“They don’t seem to be getting on very well. Is this going as you expected?” she asked.
Oldring pursed his lips. “We always knew the most likely flash-point would be between Fraser and Donaghue. Fraser’s a dedicated law-enforcement officer and Donaghue’s a notorious – if only in police circles – criminal. It’s better to let them get over and done with it now, and see if they can work together; or at least, tolerate working in close proximity.”
“And did you expect Blue to intervene like that?”
“No, that was rather unexpected. He seems to be making a habit of peace-making, though.”
“It’s been a morning of surprises,” Candy said thoughtfully. “I thought Donaghue was really going to lose it over what happened to his sweats. We were lucky the accident had no lasting consequences.”
“Miss Dawson does very little by accident,” he replied, and seeing the bemusement on her face, he shifted slightly and explained, “It was carefully planned, Candy; didn’t you realise? I found it quite revealing. You could see the beginnings of comradeship. Even though Fraser was needling Donaghue, the others diffused the situation and now, everyone’s happy.”
“Magenta?” Candy’s eyebrows rose slightly. “Is that going to be his official name now?”
“Well, it wasn’t ever going to be pink, whatever happened.” Oldring laughed. “The colonel’s given us the power of veto over colour names, but I think Donaghue might come to wear his uniform with a certain amount of pride despite - or even because of - the colour.”
“So who’s the grit in the oyster?” Candy asked, as Jean Dawson entered the room and smiled at the both of them.
She answered Candy’s question. “At the moment, it’s Ochre. We knew he was an outspoken man, with definite opinions on a good many subjects, but he’s almost gone out of his way to needle the others. He’s done a fair bit of our job for us, in fact, if he did but know it. Still, that could change; I have a feeling our Mr Fraser might be less sure of himself by the end of the day.”
“He’s already looking rattled,” Oldring agreed.
Candy continued the analogy with her next question. “Okay, Ochre’s the grit, so who’s the pearl?”
Jean took a moment to think and then said, “That’s harder to say, Candy. Scarlet did well yesterday – as he was expected to: almost everything they did played to his strengths. On the other hand, Grey was less effective than we – and probably he - expected. He’s only recently recovered from a back injury – fully recovered, we understand – but his reluctance to push himself might well be due to that. Our medical staff will have to check that out before he’s assigned to field officer status.”
Candy nodded. “I read that in his file; I made sure none of the workout yesterday was going to push him too far – just in case.”
Oldring continued the review: “Blue made a slow start, which surprised us, but he did well enough and got better. He should, if things follow the projected path, come out on top today.”
“He’s a clever guy, is he?” Candy asked, peering at the screen monitor, where Blue was reading one of the out-of-date magazines and - inevitably – holding a cup of coffee. “He’s a caffeine addict, you realise that?” she added.
Jean shook her head. “He rarely finishes them after the first one or two in the morning. The stewards are always picking up half empty cups. I think he just likes to have something to hang on to – a sort of existential comfort blanket.”
The women chuckled at each other as Candy said, “Aah, bless…”
Oldring interrupted. “There’s little to choose between Scarlet, Grey and Blue. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.”
Candy picked up her clipboard. “Are you sure we’re not supposed to be taking Captains Black and Brown into account?”
Oldring nodded. “Yes, they’ve already been evaluated, and just as we are, they may well be following a given plan, so their results can’t be trusted as a true reflection.”
Jean Dawson gave a sceptical sniff. “I know Captain Black is supposed to be top notch – and he’s fit and strong, I don’t deny that – but I’d be more than surprised if these youngsters didn’t run the legs out of him fairly soon.”
Oldring paused on his way to the door and said, “Don’t bet on it.”
Scarlet’s hypothesis proved to be right; the next series of test papers were more complex and the time limit was not increased to compensate.
Miss Dawson watched the candidates carefully. The heads, ranging in colour from the flaxen-blond of Blue to the jet-black of Magenta, Scarlet, Indigo and Black, were bent over the desks in fierce concentration and she could see their thoughtful frowns as surreptitious calculations were done on scrap paper.
Blue finished first again, and read his paper through before screwing the cap back onto his pen and putting it away. He glanced across at her, sensing her scrutiny and gave her a friendly smile. To her annoyance, she felt herself colouring and starting to smile back.
Damn the man; he’s beguiling, I’ll give him that, she thought.
She knew Adam Svenson’s record noted him as having a ‘photographic memory’, which gave him a slight edge over the others. It would certainly go some way in accounting for his speed in finishing, she reasoned, and took pity on him as he sat there, indicating that he might, if he wished, leave the room.
With a grateful smile, Blue rose and quietly walked out. After that, it was only a matter of minutes before Brown followed him, and then Magenta and Scarlet.
As the numbers in the room dwindled, Ochre felt under even more pressure to succeed and he grew less confident as a result. He and Grey were the only ones left when Miss Dawson called time and of the pair, Ochre was the less confident that he’d done well.
The others were lounging in the sunshine outside on the lawns when Ochre and Grey emerged from the house.
“Lunch will be in about twenty minutes,” Brown called as they approached.
“Good,” Grey replied. “Ah, it’s nice to be out of the place.” He turned his darkly-handsome face to the sun and gave a contented smile.
Ochre walked past the group and sat apart, biting his bottom lip.
“You have a problem, Yellow?” Magenta asked. He snapped his fingers and made a show of apologising. “Ochre – so sorry!”
“Apart from spending all my time cooped up with a criminal, do you mean? No, I have no problem,” Ochre replied, glaring at his tormenter.
“Thought you might’ve been struggling a bit there,” Magenta continued, “from the mutterings I heard from behind me. But, I might’ve guessed a nice guy like you was merely keeping Grey company.”
“Fuck off,” Ochre snarled.
Blue stepped across. “That’s enough,” he said to Magenta. “Leave the guy alone, can’t you?”
“Butt out,” Magenta said frostily. “This is between me and the cop.”
“Yeah,” Ochre said. “The day I need your help, Saint Blue, I’ll hand in my shield.”
Blue felt himself flushing and tried to shrug it off. “Okay; have it your own way. I have better things to do with my time,” he said, walking away.
“Who does he think he is?” Magenta asked Ochre, loud enough for the words to carry to the departing Bostonian.
“He’ll choke on his frigging halo one of these days,” Ochre agreed loudly, a wry smile on his lips.
Magenta gave a chuckle. “Bleeding-heart liberals…”
“Yeah. Can’t be doing with them.”
Scarlet, who had been watching the whole incident unfold, intercepted Blue’s stroll towards the building.
“What was all that about?” he asked, jerking his head towards where Magenta and Ochre were still talking and sharing a laugh at the expense of their would-be conciliator.
Blue drew a deep breath. “Nothing whatsoever, it seems.”
“Then why bother? I mean: what is it to you if they get themselves thrown out for bickering?”
The taller man shrugged. “I shouldn’t care, I know that. You could call it in-bred ‘big brotherism’… it’s a bad habit of mine.”
“Really? I’m an only child, but I’ve always thought siblings were born to fight.”
“Oh, they are, but, as the eldest, I was the one who got bawled out if it didn’t stop before it annoyed my father. I guess it just got to be a survival reflex: stop the bickering before it turns nasty and you can have a peaceful life.”
Conrad joined them as they approached the door.
“A little reverse-psychology?” he asked Blue.
“Not intentionally,” Blue admitted, with a wry chuckle. “I just succeeded in making a fool of myself.”
Conrad shrugged. “Well, they’re not killing each other yet, so maybe you’ve had a positive influence.” He smiled up at the American. “Could be they’ll join forces now to torment you, instead.”
“Oh, wonderful, that’s really cheered me up. I can’t wait.” Blue rolled his eyes, smiled farewell to his companions and strode indoors.
Scarlet watched Blue walk away and then glanced at Conrad. The older man saw a shadow of doubt - or perhaps, he thought, it is disappointment – in those remarkably clear blue eyes. Scarlet had not been very forthcoming so far; he had joined in with conversations, cleverly eliciting information from his companions without revealing much of his own inner thoughts, but now he voiced his concern.
“He called it ‘big brotherism’,” he explained, “He said it was a bad habit of his.”
“There are far worse habits,” Conrad remarked neutrally. He glanced back at the other two men. “Maybe he’s done them a good turn, despite themselves?”
Scarlet gave the matter some thought and then said, “Living with someone who is damn sure they’re always on the moral high ground isn’t my recipe for a happy working partnership, Black. And that’s a shame, because here was I thinking Blue was someone I could work with easily enough.”
“Why should this stop you? Is it so bad?”
“It is if he’s going to morph into Saint Blue of Boston.” Scarlet sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “I guess it’s in the lap of the Gods anyway, it won’t be my decision that carries any weight. And, overall, I’d rather he was with us than not,” he said and chuckled. “At least, with our very own saint on board, we’d certainly be in exalted company, Black.”
As Scarlet walked inside after Blue, Conrad chewed his lip thoughtfully. It was suspicious that Scarlet had chosen him to confide his doubts to, when until now they’d barely spoken a word, yet he couldn’t believe that Blue would have told the Englishman what he knew. He concluded that he’d have to report this conversation to Colonel White as well.
After lunch, Miss Dawson supervised the administration of a stress level test for every man. As he submitted himself to the test, it occurred to Conrad that the presence of the anonymous group of technicians, men and women who never spoke unless it was necessary, was likely to increase rather than reduce any stress the recruits might be feeling.
He hoped this had been factored into the equations, and then dismissed the thought as unworthy of the thoroughness of Oldring and his team.
Once the stress tests had been taken, and the reports delivered to the office, the technicians led the recruits down into the basement of the building, where they’d never been allowed to go before, and through the open door of a drab room with olive-green walls.
The windows, which ran along one wall, were high, small, and barred. Externally they must have been just above ground level, so that only fitful shafts of light drifted into the room, highlighting the motes of dust that swirled in the air currents.
The room had fierce fluorescent lights and all around the walls were maps, and aerial reconnaissance pictures of an anonymous office building, with floor plans and electrical layout diagrams. High in one corner was a CCTV camera. There was a long table and wooden chairs for them all down the middle of the room; a flip-chart on a stand and a water cooler with plastic cups completed the decor.
The result was oppressive and bordered on claustrophobic, and Blue stood on a chair to see if he could open one of the windows.
“They’re locked,” he reported, clambering down and placing the chair on the side of the table that faced the windows before he sat down. Conrad sat beside him as Oldring marched in to brief them on the exercise.
“Terrorists have taken important hostages and are threatening to kill them if their demands are not met. The team has five hours to solve the problem, free the hostages and capture the malefactors. The rest of the information you need, about resources and so forth, is in the envelopes on the table. Some of them are time-coded and must not be opened until the specified moment. “
“But we can do this however we like?” Scarlet interjected.
“Yes, it’s up to you, Scarlet. The decisions you make will be fed into a computer and it will produce a response, which will be relayed to you and so on, until the time limit expires, or the mission is completed. You have five hours. We will be monitoring your progress over closed-circuit TV, and you will be given additional information in the light of how you progress towards your goal. Just as it would happen in a real-life situation, things will change. Your time starts now.”
Oldring nodded farewell and turned to leave.
As the door closed, Ochre took off his sweat jacket, and placed it over the back of a chair. He reached out for the top envelope and slit it open.
“Are you taking charge?” Indigo asked.
“I have experience of personal security work,” Ochre replied airily. “Seems to me best that we all play to our strengths in this.”
“Agreed,” Brown said, pouring him a glass of water before taking a seat. “Although, I’m not sure I’ll be of much help. This is all new to me.”
“Wait a minute,” Scarlet said, ignoring his fellow WAAF officer, as he read the detailed list of hostages over Ochre’s shoulder. “There are military hostages in there too, so the WAAF would definitely be involved – it wouldn’t be a civilian matter.”
“We can work together, can’t we?” Conrad said, taking a seat at the table and intending to go with the flow.
He knew this exercise had been planned, but hadn’t expected it to happen for several days yet, as it was the culmination of the assessment, and designed as a final test of their ability to work together. He hadn’t been given any foreknowledge of the actual exercise and he was keen to see his comrades do well; if they couldn’t work together, then they might not be the men Spectrum needed to form the elite corps of colour-captains. He noted with some surprise that the thought was an unwelcome one – he was starting to feel a member of this eclectic group.
Scarlet gave a curt nod in response to Conrad’s comment. “Sure,” he said, a little stiffly, “but I’m not going to just accept that Ochre should take charge and order me about. It will need the WAAF’s co-operation to get those people out, and I want to make it quite clear that I won’t see them pushed aside by the civil authorities.”
“I thought we were supposed to be acting as a non-specific team, and not as representatives of any particular external organisation?” Magenta said pointedly. “So, before you toy soldiers start getting on your high horses and demanding we all do it your way, remember I’m not in any external organisation – at least, not one that you’d want to know about.”
“Oh, I don’t know…” Ochre growled. “Anything you feel you can tell me about the New York syndicates will be used in evidence against you…”
“Stop it,” Grey warned them, looking up from his copy of the initial scenario. “If we fight amongst ourselves, I’m damn sure we’ll fail and that might well be curtains for the whole lot of us. I agree with Scarlet, you will need military co-operation here and, as there are military officers here, we’ll have to be in command.”
“Maybe we should vote on who we want to be in charge,” Indigo suggested. “After all, the police won’t take orders from the WAAF.”
“This is an emergency, not a popularity contest,” Blue remarked, looking up from the sheaf of papers he’d been reading. “In real life, the first alert would go to the World Police, and they’d take control, drafting in who they needed. Right?”
There was reluctant agreement around the room.
“So, go on, Ochre, start the ball rolling…we can always swap and change if necessary,” Blue concluded, and leant back in his chair.
“What gives you the right to decide who takes charge?” Grey asked mildly; as a military officer he was less inclined to work under Ochre’s direction.
“Well, I’m the only one here who seems to be thinking straight,” Blue responded. “But you can please yourselves: we can argue about who’s in charge for four and a half hours and then send the planes in and blow the entire place to Kingdom Come... if that’s what you want.”
Scarlet shook his head affably and grinned across at Blue before saying, “Off you go then, Ochre, let’s get this show on the road.”
Ochre gave a brisk nod and walked to the flip chart, where he began to list the order of actions he thought were needed.
Scarlet walked over to Blue and as he bent down Conrad heard him whisper, “A case of ‘money talks’, Blue-boy?”
Blue glanced up into Scarlet’s laughing blue eyes and said courteously, “Drop dead will’ya, Scarlet?”
The Englishman laughed, took the seat on the other side of Blue and composed himself to listen to Ochre.
It wasn’t all plain sailing.
At one point, early on, there was a full-blown argument, with the police officers insisting that the actions proposed by the military team of Scarlet and Grey were illegal under almost every statute of international law; a fact Conrad had to confirm.
“Well, I don’t see what else we could do,” Grey said, slinging his pencil down across the pad of paper he’d been using to describe the plan they’d come up with.
Conrad glanced at Blue, half-expecting him to take on the role of mediator, but the Bostonian was refusing to be drawn into the squabbling. He realised he was going to have to do it himself.
“Okay, okay! Let’s get something straight before we go any further, shall we?” he interjected, into what was becoming a war of words between Scarlet and Ochre. “We can’t afford the time to debate this point every time it crops up. So, for once and for all, do we accept the need to circumvent the strict letter of the law in order to save lives?”
There was an intense silence and no one spoke.
Finally, Blue said, “Yes, as long as doing so does not put other lives at risk – however obliquely.”
“You can’t foresee every eventuality,” Scarlet reasoned. “But I take the point, and agree with you, as far as it goes.”
“That’s a ringing endorsement, if ever I heard one,” Magenta said with a sardonic grimace. “Nevertheless, you heard the man. Do you agree, Grey?” Grey nodded. “Everyone else okay with it?” There was a general mutter of agreement and a nodding of heads. Magenta concluded, “Good, we have a consensus. What now, Black?”
“Now we go with the plan Grey proposed. Okay?”
Ochre frowned, sucking in his lower lip. “Okay, but if it fouls up, the World Police will throw the book at you.”
“No buts…” Conrad said sharply. “And, if the book gets thrown at anyone, Ochre, it gets thrown at all of us.”
The policeman gave a rueful smile. “So it does, Black; so it does,” he agreed.
There was the sound of seven men releasing pent up breath.
“Right,” Grey said, “Let’s get a move on.”
There were still occasions when Conrad had to find a way through heightened testosterone levels and bruised egos to maintain the working consensus, but by and large things went well after this. To his surprise, he was more than ably assisted by Magenta, rather than Blue. The New Yorker showed a quick and lively intelligence, a superb grasp of logistics and strategy and only a sceptical regard for the rule of law. He managed to defuse several potential clashes and keep the consensus between the team members.
Having started the day as something of a figure of fun in his pink sweats, Magenta continued to gain stature throughout the exercise. Ochre, previously the least co-operative member of the group, more than adequately proved his ability to be a team player, ceding leadership to Grey and Scarlet when new information from Oldring meant the situation in the role-play changed dramatically. He followed orders and played an important part in the progress of the mission, without the slightest dissention.
In fact, everyone played their part, and through their co-operation and best endeavours, the group managed to reach a suitable solution to the supposed incident with just less than five minutes of the allotted time remaining.
There was a genuine feeling of achievement as the exercise concluded and the team congratulated themselves on their success. Scarlet generously acknowledged the contribution everyone had made, especially Ochre and Magenta, but took pains to include everyone in his thanks.
As they followed Miss Dawson back to the clinical examination room for another stress level test, Conrad was well aware that the dynamics in the group had changed subtly over the course of the day.
Blue had definitely held the upper hand after his performance in the exam room that morning, but he had withdrawn into his shell after the incident with Ochre and Magenta, and it was difficult to know if his decision to remain on the periphery of the leadership team during the afternoon’s exercise was connected to that public affront, or because he sensed Scarlet might be more open to advice given discreetly, rather than in open discussion. There had certainly been instances of the pair of them in close conflab when decisions loomed over the rescue plan; but only once had Blue voiced a contrary opinion to Scarlet’s, urging caution rather than a risky, but daring plan.
For the most part, Scarlet and Grey, the most experienced field commanders in the team, worked well in tandem, while Indigo had contributed his specialist knowledge to the discussion when asked, but the quiet Irish-American had displayed a reluctance to take contentious decisions. Overall, it was Brown who’d played least part in the discussions; by stressing that he was no field officer and was, therefore, reluctant to cloud the issue with irrelevant advice, he had been reduced to a mere observer.
But for Conrad, the biggest surprise was how well Ochre and Magenta had managed to bury their differences and work together. There was the makings of a strong team there, if they could forget their differences for long enough.
For the rest of the week the assessment exercises continued at an intense pace. The unacknowledged leadership of the group varied from day to day as each man revealed their strengths and weaknesses; Conrad took care to remain slightly aloof from the general jockeying for position, his place in Spectrum was secure and he knew he had nothing to prove to Colonel White and the appointment board. Even so, he was careful to ensure that he wasn’t written off by the others; knowing he would have to train them in the near future, it was important he retained their respect, and to that end he occasionally exerted himself to come top, or close to it, in important tasks.
Overall, the top of the leadership board – a whiteboard erected in the reception and updated nightly by Oldring - was filled by Scarlet, whose strong competitive urge, as well as his abilities and skills, proved to be exactly what the template of the ‘perfect agent’ described. His performance was not flawless though, and the exercises on the lake revealed him to be – at best - a poor sailor. In addition, both Grey and Blue proved to be his match in the swimming pool, where – even he admitted - he found himself well and truly outclassed.
The swimming gala took place on the Sunday afternoon. There had been a religious service in the morning, held in a room that had been adapted for the purpose, and everyone had attended, even if – like Conrad – it was only for a sense of curiosity or for fear of missing something. Afterwards, they’d been free to relax and stroll around the gardens until a light lunch, and later they’d assembled in the swimming pool, for a programme of exercises and races that, in comparison with the rest of the week’s events, were light-hearted fun.
Even so, Conrad was mildly surprised at the excitement generated by the final swimming relay of the afternoon. As the lead swimmer for his team, he felt he’d done his part by handing Ochre quite a lead, but the two teams were evenly matched and, as the final swimmers took their places on the blocks, Scarlet and Magenta were neck and neck in their leg of the race.
Scarlet touched first as Magenta faded badly, and Blue dived in, surfacing some way along the pool and striking out with a powerful front crawl; but Grey, not far behind him in hitting the water, surfaced later and his apparently lazy stroke proved deceptively fast.
Inexorably the gap was closed between them.
Blue topped his dark-haired compatriot by several inches and had a strength advantage too, but at the turn, Grey edged into the lead and then seemed to move up a gear.
Blue came back at him over the final half of the length and closed the gap, encouraged by deafening cheering from his team mates, led by the excited Scarlet. Inch-by-inch the blond head edged forward, and Grey did not seem to have the answer to his challenge; Scarlet was already whooping with victorious delight when, in the final few feet, Grey produced another change of gear and regained his lead, beating Blue in a fingertip finish.
His team went wild.
Blue congratulated his vanquisher with a cheerful smile and a slap on the shoulders, and then lay on his back, staring at the roof, as he floated away from the steps, allowing Grey the honour of leaving first to a rapturous reception and a victory parade back to the locker room.
Conrad waited for the younger man to float to the side and heave himself out of the pool. He handed him a towel and, with a nod of gratitude, Blue wiped his face and rubbed his hair, so that it was brushed back from his high forehead. Conrad noticed the pale, puckered skin of a thin scar along the hairline, usually hidden by his long fringe, but as Blue noticed his scrutiny he flushed and ran his fingers through his hair, dragging the fringe back into its habitual place.
“It was a good race,” Conrad said evenly. “I thought you had the measure of him for a moment.”
“I underestimated him,” Blue growled. “I won’t do it again.”
“You think you could have beaten him?”
With a shrug and a grin Blue replied, “Not sure, but I’d sure like another crack at him, now I know what to expect.”
Before he could reply, Scarlet appeared in the doorway and yelled for Blue to get a move on. Conrad turned to glare angrily, and his companion waved a dismissive hand towards the intruder.
Scarlet’s demands grew louder. “Come on!” he yelled.
“Give it a rest, Paul!” Blue sighed, and gave Conrad a rueful grin. “I suppose we’d better join the others, or Ochre will have eaten all the food before we get to the dining room; and I’m hungry. Swimming always gives me an appetite. ”
He draped the towel over his shoulders, stuffing his feet into his poolside flip-flops, and strode towards the doorway where Scarlet was still waiting impatiently. Conrad watched them vanish together into the locker room.
He felt the sudden, familiar, stab of loneliness.
“Damn Scarlet,” he muttered to himself, “he always has to be the centre of attention, even when it is nothing to do with him.” He picked up his own towel and started to walk to the locker room.
He knew he was jealous of the younger man, but there was little he could do about it. He was jealous of the way the others had come to accept Scarlet’s assumption of leadership within the group, primarily because they enjoyed his company as much as they admired his undoubted military skills.
As he pushed the door open, he heard the rumble of Grey’s voice and Ochre’s strident laughter in response to his comment. There was a cacophony of chatter - the normal sounds of a collection of likeminded individuals, who had come to realise that as experts in their chosen fields they all had something to offer the group. They’d found within themselves something to admire and like in each other and that had created a bond between them – the first stirrings of a most necessary comradeship, from Spectrum’s point of view.
Only, once more he was excluded.
As they saw him walk in, the conversation fizzled out and a heavy silence settled on the room. Ochre, the first to dress, left the locker room and the door banged behind him as he let it swing closed. The others followed him, Blue and Scarlet the last, deep in a discussion about the joys – or lack of them - of sailing. As Scarlet marched out, Blue glanced at Con, and beckoned him to follow them.
Conrad watched the door swinging shut and settling into its groove. He finished tying the laces on his trainers and dropped his damp towel into the laundry chute, before he sighed and left the locker room, wondering if there would be anything he liked left to eat.
Part Four: Weaving the rainbow.
Colonel White glanced at the wall clock and gathered his documents together. He had instructed Oldring to call the meeting for 10 o’clock sharp and he was not going to be late.
He marched into the lounge, flanked by Oldring and Miss Dawson, as the hall clock chimed ten. Every member of the group was already there, seated around on the chairs and sofas, and looking ready to get down to business. He nodded a greeting and placed his file on the table Oldring had prepared. Behind him hung a screen and before him a computerised projector – this presentation had been ready for weeks and should go without a hitch.
“Gentleman, before we begin, may I remind you that you have all signed an official secrets declaration – anything said in this building is to go no further. Breaches in security will be ruthlessly dealt with, and the severest measures taken against the culprit. I hope I make myself clear?”
He noted with satisfaction the nods of agreement from his audience and continued, “My name is Colonel White, I have been appointed to head the Spectrum organisation. You are here to be assessed for your fitness to become members of that organisation.”
There was a murmur of comment amongst the audience and, at a nod from the colonel, Conrad and Alan Stephens rose from their seats towards the back and walked to the front of the gathering.
Colonel White continued, “You already know Mr Anthony Oldring, a senior commander of the organisation’s internal monitors - Spectrum Intelligence - and Miss Jean Dawson, our senior trainer. But may I present to you, two of the organisation’s founder members, Captain Black and Captain Brown, who will both be part of Spectrum’s senior command.”
There was even more comment at this revelation. Brown grinned good-naturedly at his colleagues while Conrad stared over their heads; even here, he hated to be the centre of attention and scrutiny.
To Conrad’s relief, Colonel White said, “Please go and put on your uniforms, gentlemen.” And as the two officers marched out, Conrad heard the colonel say, “I will show you a short presentation from the World President’s office while we wait for them to return...”
“Can we accept anything either of those two told us as correct, Colonel?” Scarlet asked sharply. Black paused by the open door long enough to hear the colonel’s reply.
“Yes, you may accept what Captain Black and Captain Brown told you as perfectly correct, Scarlet. They were part of the assessment team, but, as they will also be part of the elite command squad, they were allowed to tell you as much about themselves as they thought necessary.”
Conrad sprinted up to his room and proudly took the jet-black uniform from his cupboard. He had put his charcoal-grey, roll-neck sweater on that morning and it didn’t take long to put on the trousers, boots and tunic. He put his radio cap on, and was fastening the belts and buckles of the tunic as he joined Brown at the top of the stairs.
They re-entered the room together to stand beside Oldring and Miss Dawson.
The presentation was drawing to a close when Conrad glanced at the faces of the candidates for the first time. They were mesmerised, much as he had been, by the idea of Spectrum.
As the World President’s speech drew to a close, Miss Dawson raised the automatic blinds at the windows and Colonel White addressed the men once more.
“You heard what the President said: Spectrum will be the World Government’s anti-terrorism unit. The idea was first promulgated by President Bandranaik some years ago, but it has been the duty of Vice-President Younger to bring that vision to fruition. The new organisation will be answerable only to the World President, enabling us to cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that so often hampers other World Government organisations.”
White glanced up at the attentive faces and gave a slight smile. “You may imagine, gentlemen, that the name ‘Spectrum’ was chosen simply to allow the use of colour-code names and such artifice, but the name represents a far more fundamental truth. Spectrum’s brief will be wide-ranging, all-embracing and… above the petty bureaucracy and narrow-mindedness that characterise so many of the existing security forces. We will have at our disposal a comprehensive array of equipment, of the highest quality and specification, and the elite ‘colour-coded’ forces will be supported by a vast army of undercover agents and support units, most of which are already in place.”
He paused to allow the information to sink in; he could see that he had every man’s attention.
“As you may imagine, this represents a tremendous outlay on the behalf of the World Government, and a considerable degree of confidence that Spectrum will meet its obligations and perform its duties as intended. To do this, we have already recruited a group of carefully selected and trained technical agents - simply to begin to create the framework within which Spectrum will function. You, gentleman, represent the next level of recruitment – the elite force of senior officers, who will act as the strike arm of the organisation.”
He paused again as there was a shuffle of reaction from the men listening to his speech. He used the break to power up the projector again. Behind him on the screen – a logo appeared. It was circular, with concentric bands of colours around from a central spot of bright red. Orange, yellow, green, pale-blue, dark-blue, violet… all the colours of the rainbow – the colours of the visible spectrum. Overlaid on these bands was a stylised, golden letter S, outlined in black. It narrowed to a dark centre over the middle of the roundel, cutting through every one of the coloured circles.
“This, gentlemen, is the Spectrum emblem,” White continued, “and it was intended that the elite captains would bear the code names of these colours. However, I am led to believe that some of you have already changed your minds as to what you will answer to… and within reason, I see no need to argue over it.”
This brought some amused smiles from his audience and Ochre chuckled.
Colonel White clicked the switch and the picture changed. Displayed behind him was an amazing structure. “This is Spectrum’s headquarters: Cloudbase. This vessel has been constructed in space – under the careful eye of Captain Black and a team of dedicated experts – amongst them, your colleague, Captain Brown.”
As White had expected, this statement caused considerable stir, as everyone looked at the unassuming man they had all rather written off as a well-meaning non-entity. Brown blushed slightly and gave an apologetic shrug.
White continued, “Cloudbase will be stationed at approximately 40,000 feet… able to move around the globe to cover trouble spots and safe from terrorist attacks. Primary bases in London, New York, Montevideo, Sydney, Beijing and Moscow, to name a few, will provide back-up and supplies. Land-based agents will be controlled by a separate hierarchy of officers, but all terrestrial officers will be – at least nominally – subordinate to the colour-coded field captains – who will answer to me.”
He paused again to allow them to assimilate the information.
“If there is anyone here who already feels that this is not the life for him, then please take your leave. No action will be taken against any man who no longer wishes to participate – but anyone remaining will be deemed to have accepted the basic terms and conditions of service and will fall under Spectrum’s code of discipline. We will take a break to allow you time for reflection.”
White turned away and glanced at Captain Black with a questioning expression. Black gave a satisfied nod – no-one looked like making a move to leave.
Scarlet and Blue were sitting closest to the exit and Black heard Scarlet asking quietly, “Sounds okay to me; but what do you think of it?”
The American smiled in response. “Forty thousand feet,” he breathed. “Did you hear the guy? Forty-thousand; you know what that means, don’t you?” Scarlet frowned a negative. “Flying…” Blue grinned. “Lots and lots of airplanes doing lots and lots of flying….”
His companion chuckled. “I guess that’s a yes then?”
“Just try and stop me…” Blue caught sight of Black watching them and his grin broadened until it was impossible not to respond with a smile.
Conrad felt that, for once, it was worth the pain of stretching his taut facial muscles.
Scarlet’s whispered cynicism was just loud enough for Conrad to hear. “Watch it, or you’ll make our resident misery guts crack his face in two.”
Blue dug his elbow in the younger man’s ribs and the conversation came to an abrupt end.
For the rest of the day, Colonel White and his staff outlined more about Spectrum’s future responsibilities, giving a detailed breakdown of equipment, authority and the legal framework of their jurisdiction. The organisation was certainly intended to be comprehensive, to combat any form of global terrorism, against any member state of the World Government, on land, or sea, or air.
There were detailed information packs containing specifications, pictures and diagrams of the new and redesigned equipment the Spectrum agents would be using and the candidates split into small groups to examine these. Automatically, Scarlet and Blue took one of the information packs and went to a corner seat by the window to study the contents.
Scarlet was impressed with the well-thought-out vehicles: a fast pursuit car – in Ferrari red, he thought gleefully – and an armoured security vehicle which, with its rear-facing drivers’ seats, looked as if it would pose quite a challenge to manage, made up most of the transport fleet. There were fewer maximum security vehicles and several equally well-protected security transports disguised as petrol tankers, at strategic places around the globe. All of the vehicles had armaments and were at the cutting edge of technology.
Blue was intrigued to see the aircraft at their disposal, admitting to Scarlet that he had done some test-flights on the original design for the Universal Aero Engineering’s TVR 24, a refined version of which would form the fleet of Spectrum Passenger Jets – the workhorses of the organisation. But the crowning glory of the fleet was the so-called Angel Interceptor – based on the World Army Air Force "Viper" jets – a plane that, Scarlet could see, Blue was itching to fly.
Captain Black circulated round the room, answering questions from the various men, and as he approached, Blue hailed him, requesting further information about the Interceptor and asking how soon they would get to use the equipment.
“The Angel Interceptors will not be available to the officers, Blue,” Captain Black explained rather stiffly. “They will be reserved for the Angel pilots’ squad.”
“Then I volunteer to be one of them,” Blue said quickly.
“That might be difficult – and you might come to regret volunteering…” Black said, smothering a smile. “You see, the Angel pilots are all female…”
Scarlet sniggered. “I think he wants to retract his previous offer to volunteer,” he said, as Black lost his battle to keep a straight face.
“Why are they all female?” Blue protested.
“Women make equally as good pilots as men,” Conrad replied, taking few pains to hide the hint of misogyny in his rueful tone; he was well aware that his words sounded like a lesson he’d been drilled into repeating, despite his own misgivings. “And these days, they get everywhere…” he concluded, confirming the younger men’s suspicions.
“Huh,” Blue complained. “I bet they’re all built like heavy-weight wrestlers and need to shave more often than I do…”
“Aww,” Scarlet teased, vastly amused at the whole situation. “Maybe, if you ask them nicely, they’ll let you have a go with their little aeroplanes, Adam…”
Blue gave him a withering look. “Equal opportunity works both ways… at least it should. Why shouldn’t a guy be an Angel pilot?”
“No reason at all, except the Angel squad has already been chosen and they happen to be all women,” Black explained patiently. He added in a confidential aside, “They’re all women to avoid what the colonel calls ‘hanky-panky’ on Cloudbase.”
“When will we get to meet these… Angels?” Scarlet asked.
“Colonel White is planning a trip to our Australian training base, where we will meet up with the Angel pilots, and from there, a trip to view Cloudbase… Now this assessment is over, I believe the colonel wants it to happen rather sooner than originally planned.”
“Have you met these Angels?” Blue asked. “Do they seem like reasonable women?”
“Who would let a guy have a go in their aeroplanes…” Scarlet added innocently, and chuckled as Blue glared at him.
“No, I haven’t met them yet. The colonel and his senior lieutenant are the only people who have met them and that was merely to introduce them to the concept of Spectrum, much like he’s doing here. I understand that they are ‘very charming young women’ – according to the colonel, at least.”
“Weight-lifters, I bet you,” Blue said glumly, with a rueful shake of his head.
“Didn’t the lieutenant have an opinion of them?” Scarlet asked, still chuckling at the morose American beside him.
“No doubt,” Black replied in surprise. “But I didn’t ask him.”
Scarlet rolled his eyes as if he’d expected nothing better, and, irritated once more by the younger man’s dismissive attitude, Conrad nodded brusquely and moved on to where Indigo and Ochre were anxious to question him.
After dinner there was an evening session in the lounge, and Colonel White addressed the assembled group again.
“You may already know that I have made arrangements for us all to fly to Australia tomorrow – to the Spectrum Training Camp, known as Koala Base. The corps of Angel pilots is currently based there, undergoing flight and procedural training. You, gentlemen, will spend the next three days there, doing much the same. At the end of this period, I have arranged for all of the elite officers - and that includes the Angel pilots - to fly to Cloudbase to view the base first-hand. I understand from the latest reports that it is not yet ready for habitation, and Captain Black will remain there to resume his former role as project manager, and ensure the work is completed on time.”
“The rest of you will then have the opportunity to return to your personal bases, in order to resign your current posts, clear up any outstanding personal matters and be ready to report to a designated Spectrum land base at the end of the following month. I am aware that, for some of you, it will not be a simple case of ‘resigning’ from your current posts, and matters are under discussion with Spectrum Intelligence to ensure these instances are taken care of.”
At this point, Black glanced at Magenta, who was looking very thoughtful, and whose questions had been somewhat downbeat.
Colonel White concluded his address: “I will now see each of you individually, and answer any questions you may have of a personal nature. Then, assuming you are in agreement, you’ll be taken to complete the formalities of joining Spectrum.”
Black and Brown joined Oldring, Miss Dawson and Candy Newman, and followed the colonel into the office to prepare to interview the candidates.
Conrad could tell that the colonel was nervous, although he covered it well beneath his customary stern-faced silence. This was the culmination of the expensive gamble they’d been taking; if the best of the available manpower now refused the offer to join, Spectrum’s operational deadline would be severely compromised and they’d be facing a staff shortage of serious proportions.
The first knock at the door was firm and confident, and the door opened to reveal Blue. He came in and handed the colonel the completed paperwork they’d been given after the presentation.
“Thank you, Mr Svenson,” White said, glancing at the documents. “You do not anticipate any delays in leaving the W.A.S.?”
“No, sir, I do not. They can manage without me now, and I’m not tied into any contract I can’t afford to break; if I have to accept a financial penalty in lieu of my notice period, well, I’ll cope.”
White stood up and reached his hand across the desk. “Welcome to Spectrum, Captain Blue.” The men shook hands. “If you would see Mr Oldring in the other office, he will complete the formalities.”
Oldring took the papers from the colonel, and opened the other door into the corridor. Svenson nodded affably to the others and followed Oldring out.
Grey was next and Miss Dawson took him through to the other office for his final briefing, and then Indigo was led away by Candy.
Ochre came into the office with an air of aggressive determination and handed over the paperwork upside down and back to front. Colonel White turned it over and immediately saw the signature on the bottom of the top page: firm, strong handwriting, written so fiercely the letters had caused an indent in the paper: Richard Atticus Fraser.
“Thank you,” he said, managing to convey a good deal of the private satisfaction he felt in those simple words.
He indicated a seat and Fraser settled himself down, although to Conrad, watching carefully from his vantage point beside the colonel’s desk, he looked less relaxed than he’d been at pains to appear previously. His hands, strong, broad and tanned with square-cut nails, gripped the wooden arms of his chair so tightly the knuckles were white.
“There’s a great deal to discuss,” the colonel said, gently. “I’m aware that, of all the candidates, you have the most to lose on a personal level: your home, your job and…” he hesitated, and Fraser completed the sentence:
White inclined his head. “You must realise that in order for us to protect you and for you to protect her, once you are fully inducted into Spectrum, you will never be able to contact her again?”
There was no way to disguise the stark brutality of those words and even Conrad, who prided himself on never allowing personal feelings to cloud his professional judgement, appreciated the severity of the choice.
For one long moment, Fraser continued to regard the colonel. There was no discernable emotion on his face, although his intense, dark eyes burned suspiciously bright for a moment before he blinked rapidly and said:
The colonel showed no reaction; biding his time, he waited and, after a long pause during which Fraser’s glance dropped away, the younger man continued:
“For some time now, Colonel, I’ve felt a restless need to do more than the letter of the law allows me to do. I’ve achieved a great deal in my time in the WGPC, and I hope you’ll understand if I say that whatever else might’ve come my way would only repeat past achievements?”
Conrad recognised that his silence was drawing out more confidences than Fraser had given in the entire assessment programme, so far. These formed the reassurances and reasons Spectrum had to have to accept Fraser’s level of commitment.
Fraser continued, “I’m sure you’re aware that I’m being considered for the top WGPC job – you seem to know everything else, after all – but what you can’t know, is that I’ve already decided I don’t want it. If my value to the World Government is as anything, it isn’t as a pen-pushing administrator; I do know my limitations. I’m a street cop, Colonel. That’s all I am, even if I’m the best there is – which I am – and if you think that those qualities can play some part in protecting the world from terrorism, then I think that’s more important than anything else I could do with my life.”
But will you still think that tomorrow? Conrad wondered. He could envisage any number of reasons why Fraser might come to regret the severing of his attachment to this unknown young woman, and any man with an all-consuming longing to change history and take the path he’d rejected, was unlikely to make a successful Spectrum agent.
The colonel obviously had similar doubts. “And the young lady?” he prompted, adding, “Before you answer, I should perhaps tell you, Commander Fraser, that, in order to effect a complete break, and – shall we say – effectively remove you from the public eye, Spectrum Intelligence proposes a fake assassination – to be performed by our agents, of course – after which, some slight changes to your appearance and a complete break from everyone you knew, should ensure your safety – and theirs. Do you wish time to consider the implications of this further, Commander?”
A shadow of pain crossed Fraser’s guarded expression. “This will sound like an old cliché, sir, but she really is better off without me. She wants me to be something I’m not: she wants Paris and the glamour of being the wife of the Supreme Commander. She’s not going to be pleased with me when I turn it down. I know that, and it might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, for her. This way, she need never know I wasn’t going to do what she wanted.” He gave a sardonic snort of rueful laughter. “I guess I’m just a coward about hurting her, but with me gone, she can move on – and she will. Alison is a strong woman.”
“Even so, she will have to deal with the trauma of your sudden, unexpected death.”
“She’s lived with that possibility since we moved in together, Colonel, it’s not as if we haven’t discussed it. Besides, if I’m officially ‘dead’, she’ll get all that’s she’s entitled to, won’t she? I mean, the WGPC won’t refuse to pay my death-in-service award, or anything like that, will they?”
“They won’t know you aren’t dead either, Commander.”
“Good; then since I’ve kept my will up to date, Ali will get the money. In my job it pays not to leave things to chance, Colonel.”
White nodded. “She will; in fact, all of your effects will have to be disposed of – you do understand?” Fraser nodded and White continued, emphasising his point. “After the ‘assassination’, you can never contact her – or any of your family - again. It’s the only way to ensure their protection.”
“I understand,” Fraser said calmly. “I’ve made my decision, sir. Apart from Ali, there’s only my brother left, and Steve and I are not that close.”
“And how do you think you’ll cope with what will be the military standards of discipline within Spectrum?” White asked, surprising his colleagues with the change of subject as much as Fraser, who was obviously taken aback for a moment.
Then he chuckled. “Okay, that’s fair enough. I guess I haven’t been on my best behaviour since I got here; but, you see, I reckoned this would be my only chance to assess you guys as well. As you rightly say, I’ve a lot to lose and I didn’t intend to give it up for anything less than the right cause.”
“And this is the right cause?”
Fraser nodded. “They’re not a bad bunch of guys – even ‘Saint Blue’, the ‘Redcoat’ and the ‘New York Hoodlum’ have their good points; not that I’m going to let them know it, sir. Well; not yet.”
He smiled up at Conrad and Stephens, still standing either side of the colonel’s chair and listening intently. “I promise I’m not quite as big a jerk as I’ve seemed.”
“That will be a blessing,” Conrad responded, and Fraser chuckled again.
Colonel White was satisfied. He stood and extended his hand across the desk towards the younger man, who sprang to his feet and grasped it.
“Welcome to Spectrum, Captain Ochre.”
After Brown had taken Ochre to complete the formalities, Patrick Donaghue sauntered into the room. He dropped the papers on the desk and took a seat without waiting to be asked.
Colonel White didn’t even look at the documents, but studied the intelligent and expressive face across the desk from him. Donaghue’s genial expression didn’t alter.
“You will need some serious training,” the colonel said firmly. “You’ll have to learn to fly a plane, for a start.”
“That’s fine by me,” Donaghue replied. “What I’m concerned about is how my disappearance is going to be explained to my… business partners. There are some of them who won’t take too kindly to my defection.”
“Your value to Spectrum lies in your knowledge of the ways of organised crime,” White responded. “You’ll be there to help us break the connections between the criminal fraternity and the financing of terrorist groups. You’ll be our link into the underworld black market, the arms, the money laundering – the whole set up.”
“You’re expecting a lot. The Syndicates are not stupid, Colonel; the first time they get busted they’ll assume we got lucky. The second time they’ll smell a rat and the third time we won’t know they’ve done it until it’s too late, because the whole procedure will have changed,” Donaghue reflected.
“That’s how it is now,” White agreed, “but isn’t that because such matters are routinely dealt with by the Donaghue Gang? Without you in charge, will the other leaders trust any one else to do what you do?”
Donaghue smiled and agreed to the truth in that. “I had top backing when I started; apart from me there isn’t any one person the Bosses would be prepared to trust with running the money laundering – and they don’t even trust me with everything. It’s rather short-sighted of them, in my opinion; my men could manage to keep things afloat, if they were allowed to; but I don’t see it happening. Either way, my value to Spectrum may well be transitory, Colonel.”
“Nevertheless, the World Government is prepared to offer you immunity from prosecution for the duration of your service in Spectrum and, as long as you play fair by us, this will be extended for the rest of your life.”
“And what do the others get told – my partners, I mean?”
Colonel White sat back in his chair and explained, “Spectrum Intelligence has proposed the following scheme: Patrick Donaghue will be one of the first people to be arrested by the newly-formed Spectrum and, after interrogation, he will be tried in a Spectrum court, closed to all outsiders. Upon his conviction he will be held in a Spectrum high-security facility – indefinitely.”
“You’re not serious?” Donaghue said, amazed.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Well, for a start, the moment I’m arrested, the Bosses will close every laundry operation down. They’ll scatter and you’ll be worse off than you are now. You’ll have to start looking for them again. In addition to that, it’s a bit final, isn’t it? Locking me away in a high-security facility - whoever runs it - makes it unlikely I’d be able to keep tabs on what’s happening, without arousing suspicion.”
Colonel White sat back in his chair and rested his interlaced, steepled fingers against his lips, thoughtfully. After a moment he said, “You have a point, Mr Donaghue. What do you propose we do instead?”
Donaghue gave an elegant shrug. “If I can devise something that would give me a plausible way of keeping in touch with a few – select – colleagues, that would mean I’d be of more use, for longer.”
“Spectrum will discipline any person found to be leaking information about its security, or personnel, with the utmost rigour.”
Donaghue looked annoyed. “Colonel, one thing has to be agreed at the outset, if this stands any chance of working. I have to trust you and, through you, the World Government, and you have to trust me. I won’t look kindly on any assumptions that information that might – and most likely will – get out into the public domain has to be down to me. Remember, the men I’ve worked with wouldn’t merely lock me up and throw away the key for transgressing their code of conduct – they’d kill me, painfully and… very slowly. So, I’ve more reason to protect Spectrum than any of the others.”
“I take your point, but what do you suggest in place of S.I.’s plan?”
“Leave it with me… I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
“Do not act alone, Mr Donaghue.”
Donaghue laughed. “Not a chance. None of my associates are forgiving men; when I go, I’m going for good.”
“Very well; but I expect you to co-ordinate whatever scheme you come up with, through me. I must be kept fully informed, or the World Government might decide against granting you your pardon.”
“I don’t like that word – pardon. You get a pardon when they know you’ve done something wrong. If they could prove I’d done something wrong, Commander Fraser would have cuffed and booked me the day he arrived. As far as the whole damn police force of any state, nation or government knows, I’m as crooked as they come, but they don’t have a scintilla of proof. It really irritates them.” He laughed: a mischievous, good-natured laugh that brought smiles to the faces of his companions.
“Very well, I’ll bear that in mind,” the colonel said genially. “Welcome to Spectrum, Captain Magenta.”
After they’d shaken hands, Captain Magenta left with Mr Oldring, who had returned from dealing with Captain Blue.
Alone in the room with the colonel for a moment, Conrad said, “This is going better than we dared hope, sir.”
White smiled. “Yes – thank the Lord. Only Scarlet to go and I don’t foresee any problems there, do you?”
Conrad shook his head. “I could wish he was a little less … sure of himself.”
“He’s a superb soldier, Conrad; he has every right to be sure of himself.”
“Yes, sir,” Conrad replied, as there was a loud knock on the door and Paul Metcalfe came in jauntily, beaming from ear to ear.
“Welcome to Spectrum, Captain Scarlet,” White said, reaching out to shake the hand Metcalfe had extended towards him.
“Thank you, sir.” Scarlet saluted. “Now, when do we start?”
A brand new Spectrum Passenger Jet was waiting on the runway when Conrad arrived. He signed the necessary papers, and managed to avoid answering questions from the admiring mechanics; he was well aware that whatever they needed to know about the SPJ, they’d be told in due time. He slung his holdall aboard the silver and blue plane and relieved the support technician of his command, spending a few minutes getting acquainted with the layout of the controls before contacting the control tower for permission to take off.
The plane handled like a dream and he set the coordinates for the flight path once he was clear of the airfield. Below him he could see the dusty reddish-brown and greyish-green patchwork of the Australian outback spreading out to the distant horizon. The buildings of Koala Base and the small township that serviced it were soon dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape.
He’d taken the decision to leave Koala with some reluctance, but his presence was needed on Cloudbase and the captains were all settling in very well. The petty differences that had surfaced in South Carolina seemed to have evaporated in the intense Australian sun, proving the wisdom of the colonel’s scheme to forge a cohesive bond amongst them by transposing them to a landscape that was alien to them all.
The group that constituted the elite corps of Spectrum’s Field Agents was now ready to provide friendship and support for each other, and this new-found camaraderie had already been tested by their meeting with the Angels.
Contrary to Blue’s gloomy prediction, the five women pilots were all attractive, young women, and Conrad still harboured doubts that the two squadrons would be able to work together effectively. Clearly, the captains all wanted to impress the Angels, and the women were – apparently – willing to be impressed.
Captain Ochre, presumably anxious to bury the memory of his lost love, flirted outrageously with all of the Angels and the youngest one, an aristocratic, English red-head, was clearly smitten.
Ah well, she’ll have to learn the hard way, I suppose. I just hope it all doesn’t backfire and they end up fighting. Conrad sniffed, trying not to think badly of anyone.
In any case, Ochre isn’t the only one who’s made a conquest, it seems. According to Brown, Scarlet told him he knows Destiny Angel from when they’d both worked in Paris. And on top of that, Brown’s hinted that Blue’s become very friendly with that Symphony Angel. It seems they’re in the habit of going for walks in the evenings. Going for ‘walks’ – that’s a euphemism, if ever I heard one - don’t they know Alan’s a top surveillance agent?
They’re all acting as if Koala is some sort of singles holiday camp.
He glared into the distance where a tiny speck was just visible, and muttered to himself: “Well, that’ll stop when they get to Cloudbase. There isn’t that far to walk for a start…”
He shook his head, banishing the potential problems of Koala from his mind. There were things that needed his supervision on Cloudbase; Lieutenant Green and a well-trained support crew of computer and engineering staff were completing work on the engines and equipment, and Conrad had been itching to get back to that job for the past fortnight or so.
Lieutenant Green had proved to be as effective a chief-of-staff as the colonel had prophesied, but the young man couldn’t be expected to take the responsibility for signing off Cloudbase as ready for occupation. There were important decisions still to be taken, vital modifications and final checks to be made, with a view to ensuring the base was safe, secure and ready to perform, and he didn’t feel there was anyone else he could entrust these duties to.
Besides, I like to follow a job through to its conclusion and I’ve watched Cloudbase grow from the very first prefabricated sections we shipped from Sweden – I want to see her ready for action. As soon as I’m satisfied everything’s as it should be, Colonel White will bring the captains and the Angels aboard and I’ll have the task of showing them the entire base to look forward to. There’s still so much needs to be organised and we could really do with a run-through….
I must make sure the support staff are all ready for the officers’ arrival; the last thing we should have to worry about are the mundane routines of ensuring there are clean uniforms or hot meals. Mrs Dawkins comes with excellent references, of course, and I’m sure she’ll have it under control. I’d better check that Sergeant O’Neill managed to get the deep freeze storage room fixed… when we’re at full capacity the routine shuttle craft runs won’t have capacity for enough fresh food.
He smiled to himself as his SPJ approached the base.
I’m going to have to learn to let go, once we’ve gone operational. I’ll be too busy to worry about the minutiae of keeping her afloat. But, if I say so myself, Cloudbase is one of the wonders of the modern world – and she’s beautiful, with it. It’s not every man can say he’s responsible for creating such a marvel.
He contacted the Control Room and received authorisation to land on the main runway from a confident and composed sounding Lieutenant Green.
“I have the latest check-lists drawn up for you, Captain Black,” Green added. “I assume you will want to conduct a spot check once you’ve docked safely?”
“Good work, Lieutenant. Please meet me in the hangar bay and we’ll start with the main engine complex.”-
“S.I.G, sir. I’ll get Lieutenant Claret to man the Communication Station and come straight down.”
“S.I.G., Black out.”
He brought the SPJ in with precision and a feeling of pride as the turntable descended smoothly into the vast hangar deck. The warning siren’s mournful whoop faded as the deck came up to pressure, and the automatic locks on the SPJ’s doors snapped open to allow him out.
It’s good to be home, Conrad Turner thought as he walked across the deck to where Lieutenant Green was standing saluting.
A week later, Conrad was trying not to stroll around Cloudbase with a proprietorial air, but it was hard not to feel proud, and he hadn’t quite mastered the trick of it. He was aware of the excited thump of his heartbeat as he walked along the corridors with Lieutenant Green one step behind him, as he had been for that first inspection. It was hard not to stop and check every door and light switch, but he reminded himself of the most important aspects of his final inspection and limited himself to random checks on every deck.
Everything worked and he found himself basking in the feeling of a job well done.
The auxiliary staff and technicians he encountered all stood politely to the side and saluted or, at least, acknowledged his presence, and one or two of the Section Managers came to stand beside him as he surveyed their particular fiefdom, reporting with the same degree of pride he felt that everything was ‘Green for Go’.
Conrad made a particular point of thanking all the staff in every section with as much warmth as Green – for one - had ever heard him use. Then he marched on to the next inspection point, leaving the lieutenant barely time to exchange broad, almost conspiratorial, grins with his technical colleagues, before he hurried after his commanding officer, scribbling notes on his clipboard.
As they rode the stanchion escalator to the raised Control Tower, they moved from the artificially lit interior of the base to the brilliance of natural daylight. Beneath them stretched the vast runways and, anchored to the deck at one end, the three gleaming-white Interceptor Jets.
Angel Interceptors, Conrad reminded himself. I suppose I’ve got to get used to the fact that the base’s defence is going to rely on those young women. Now I’ve met them, I’ve more confidence in the colonel’s decision than I did have. They’re all very young though, and pretty enough to represent considerable temptation to an enclosed community where the majority of the staff are men. I mean, if what Brown tells me is true, three of them are already vamping three of the captains. Well, I did try to warn the colonel.
The regulations are clear about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, but even so, there’s enough of the captains – as well as the Angel pilots – who aren’t used to the rigours of military life. The colonel’s still of the opinion that the risks are worth taking, and as long as everyone remembers that we’re not supposed to put the safety of ourselves and our colleagues before the success of our missions, I suppose it’s an acceptable risk.
Conrad found it hard to empathise with anyone who might find obeying the rules difficult. He had rarely felt the urge to put anyone, or anything, before his duty. He believed his unfailing dedication to duty had made him the well-respected WSP colonel he’d become: the man his superior officers had trusted to get the toughest of jobs done.
Every one of them has been trained to the utmost degree in the ways and means of achieving success without taking unnecessary risks. I’ve taught them everything I know, and I’ve never lost a man on active service. Something I’ve every right to feel proud of.
He stepped off the escalator and glanced around the Control Tower. However much pride he took in the well-designed, self-contained bulk of the engine rooms, crew accommodation, hangar decks and support facilities that lay beneath the runways, he felt a particular pride in this part of the base. Bathed in almost perpetual sunshine, it was one of the few places on Cloudbase that had windows - and they were large windows, allowing the bright sunshine to flood through the base. The décor and standard of finish reflected its importance too, and the rank of the people who would, very shortly, be living and working here.
Like the designated Angel pilots’ quarters that bordered the Amber Room and the launch facilities for their jets on the lower decks of the other side of the base, the individual captains’ quarters in the Control Tower were more spacious than the basic crew accommodation. This was not so much to do with their rank, as to reflect the fact that the agents who’d reside there had committed their lives to the organisation. Whilst the non-commissioned ranks and technical support staff worked quarterly tours of duty on Cloudbase, time-sharing their two-sleeper quarters with their opposite numbers in ‘B’ crew, for the elite officers this was now their permanent home. Such leave as they had could be taken with their families if they wanted, but only their immediate next of kin was supposed to know that they were working for the World Government and, even then, the actual details of the work were confidential.
Of course, for some of them even that wasn’t possible.
Conrad had no difficulty in leaving the past behind. He’d long since turned his back on a home life that had been a bleak affair, and thereafter, at every stage of his life, he’d embraced change and moved on to fresh challenges with interest and enthusiasm.
Homesickness was, for him, merely a word that weaker men used.
His career was his life.
“The SPJ is expected to arrive around mid-morning, sir,” Lieutenant Green reported.
“Precise timing, if you please, Lieutenant,” Conrad grumbled. He despised inaccuracy.
“I can’t be more precise, sir,” Green explained, his voice betraying none of the exasperation he felt. “The colonel’s jet has left for Koala, but once there it will need to refuel and load all the gear and luggage. The colonel feels it would be appropriate for him to address the officers before they leave Koala, and Major Stone, who’s moving in to make the place ready for the cadets that start training there in the next few weeks, has asked for a meeting with him too. Given all those imponderables, sir, the colonel told me ‘mid-morning’ – Standard Global Time – was the best he could do.”
“S.I.G., Lieutenant. Keep me informed; I want to know the moment the SPJ leaves Koala for Cloudbase and when it does, I want a precise E.T.A..”
Green knew it wasn’t worth remarking that you can’t have a ‘precise estimate’; instead he merely acknowledged the order and closed the comm. link.
Filled with a restlessness that another man might’ve recognised as excitement, Conrad decided to make another quick tour of inspection, concentrating on the Control Tower. With the officers due to arrive today, he wanted one last check that everything was ready.
He was familiar with every aspect of the design of the individual quarters; they were all identically equipped, and, as yet, most of them remained blank canvases waiting for their new occupants to stamp their personalities on them. The only rooms currently occupied were Green’s, Doctor Fawn’s and his; with a rueful twitch of his eyebrows, he reflected that his were scarcely more ‘personalised’ than the ones still standing empty.
Still, it is early days yet… he thought as he approached the corridor.
The automatic locks beside the doors had discreet colour bars beneath them, referring to the occupant’s colour-codename. He rattled them off in order, whispering under his breath, “Grey, Brown, Indigo, Ochre, Magenta, Green, Blue, Fawn, Scarlet, and Black,” as he walked down the corridor checking the doors.
Until recently those names had meant nothing, but now he knew the men they referred to, and, from today, they’d be the closest thing he had to a circle of friends. He called them to mind as he moved along the corridor, and opened the first door with the generic key code.
He was startled to see one the valets emerge from the bathroom as he entered.
“Sorry, Captain Black, sir,” the man stammered. “I was just putting the towels out. Everything’s ready now, sir.”
“That’s fine. I’m just checking all the quarters to make sure everything’s ready.”
“Oh, it is, sir. We’ve been looking forward to today all week. It’ll be good to meet the captains at last.”
“Yes, it will, err…” He hesitated over the man’s name.
“Lewis, sir – Bob Lewis.”
“Yes, Lewis, it will be good to have the men aboard.”
“I’ll be off then, Captain; unless there’s anything I can do for you, sir?”
“No. Thank you. Off you go… Lewis.”
The man sidled out and Conrad heard him whistling as he left the corridor.
That was something he was still getting used to – having a valet – it wasn’t something the WSP had provided, but he could see the logic of it for the colour-captains. His own – Michael Bell – was a young Englishman, in fact, most of the valets were English, whether by accident or design, he didn’t know; the colonel had dealt with that aspect of recruitment. Most were military-trained men, highly recommended by their previous officers and with the knack of blending into the background so that half the time you didn’t notice they were there.
And not a Jeeves amongst them, he thought with a slight smile.
He looked around the empty room and tried to picture the man destined to occupy it.
Captain Grey: Bradley Holden’s definitely a man I can work with. Given his naval background it seems odd he’s chosen to join Spectrum. Although, Colonel White’s a former Admiral of the Fleet, so perhaps there’s more of a similarity in the organisations than I imagine?
I suppose an experienced submariner will find the constraints of living here familiar, although it’s far more comfortable than any submarine could ever be. It’s odd to think the colonel, Grey and I share a capacity for living in confined spaces; although the WSP boast about the superiority of their XL rockets, the accommodation is pretty Spartan, to say the least. Not that I minded; I prefer an uncluttered life, and I expect Holden does too.
It’s good Doctor Fawn was able to confirm he’s recovered from injury. We can’t afford anyone who’s less than 100 percent fit. I’m sure Holden gives 100 percent effort to everything he does.
Conrad closed the door on Grey’s quarters and moved next door to Captain Brown’s room.
The more he’d got to know Alan Stephens, the more Conrad believed him to be a fish out of water. Compared to the other Field Officers, he was a novice; he’d never been on a field mission, despite his many years of military service, his expertise was in surveillance equipment and – in fairness – he was extremely good at that.
Conrad glanced around the room – the colonel had forbidden any surveillance equipment in the private quarters, so the only thing Stephens had installed was a heat sensor to allow the main Control Room to see where people were, in the event of any emergency. But that was the only concession to privacy: every phone number had to be security-cleared before it was permitted, and every call, in or out, was logged through the computers.
I hope Stephens realises that smoking on Cloudbase would be suicidal. There are ultra-sensitive smoke detectors everywhere. He glanced at the ceiling and smiled to see a smoke detector there. The flame-retardant foam would cover him in seconds…
Still, it wouldn’t do to underestimate him; he’s sharp enough under that genial exterior and he may yet become a key player in Spectrum’s development. I’m glad he’s on my side.
He crossed the corridor to Captain Indigo’s quarters.
Indigo… hmmm, he mused. I wonder if there really is more to Andrew Lawrence than the friendly soul with a kind word for everyone.
Oh, I know there’s a considerable intelligence under that boyish demeanour; he’s got an international reputation in forensics and ballistic science – which is rather at odds with his temperament, I’d say. I still think he’d be far more use working with the Research and Development people in one of their bases, than up here – especially as he’s having to learn to fly from scratch, and still isn’t up to standard. I’ve had no response from the colonel to the suggestion in my final assessment report yet; maybe he’s discussing it with Doctor Giardello?
The more I think about it though, the more surprising it is that Lawrence remains as outgoing as he does; he’s seen more of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man than most – with the possible exception of his next-door neighbour, Captain Ochre.
Conrad stood in the middle of the empty room designated for the use of the late WGPC Commander, Richard Fraser, and frowned thoughtfully. Since that memorable conversation in the colonel’s office at the assessment centre, he’d made it his business to discover what he could about Fraser.
Hailing from Detroit, he was the younger of two sons of a blue-collar worker and his officer worker wife. The older boy had gone to University and was now working as an accountant for a firm in Silicon Valley, but Rick had performed no more than adequately at school. He’d wanted to be a pilot for the WAAF, but when his application was rejected on academic grounds, despite the fact that he had acquired his pilot’s license at sixteen, he’d gone into the police force as a second best.
It’s ironic, Conrad thought, that the WAAF’s rejection threw Fraser into his ideal job. With such an impressive number of logged air hours to his credit, it isn’t surprising he’s taken to our planes without any problem. He’s rapidly becoming very adept at flying SPJs.
Forthright, outspoken and too sharp for his own good at times, Captain Ochre was intensely ambitious and had worked his way to the top of his profession with determination and skill. Since those early days in the training camp, Conrad had acquired a healthy respect for him; he felt that they had something in common, and although he did not appreciate Ochre’s occasionally juvenile sense of humour, he tolerated it. He took more interest in Ochre’s main hobby – model-making – and was impressed at the care and meticulous attention to detail that was lavished on each model.
Of course, there was an even more unusual connection between the pair of them: Conrad remembered taking aim through the telescopic sights of the service rifle and homing in on the tall man standing at the top of a flight of stone steps leading from the Chicago HQ of the WGPC. It had been a strange sensation to squeeze the trigger and watch the man drop.
Every care had been taken to ensure the missile fired was merely a tranquillising dart, but he’d wondered for a moment if he’d made a mistake and really killed Fraser. The plastic surgery that had completed ‘Operation Jigsaw’ had, in effect, been little more than cosmetic dentistry to straighten his teeth and – Conrad guessed - a little face lift?
I’m reasonably sure about that; after all, I’m something of an expert. I should be, after all the reconstruction work they did on my face.
As Conrad paced the room, glancing around to check all was shipshape, he continued musing: Fraser’s practical jokes won’t endear him to his companions if he goes too far, and he’s not above speaking his mind – even at the risk of offending his colleagues. He’ll have to watch his step.
The reports Conrad had received from Brown at Koala stated that Ochre had already had several run-ins with the man destined to be his neighbour on Cloudbase: Captain Magenta.
For Patrick Donaghue, disappearing from his old life had been even more problematical than for Fraser. As promised, the World President had granted him immunity from prosecution, but that wasn’t guaranteed to protect him from his former associates – quite the opposite. Around the same time as Donaghue’s ‘pardon’ arrived – and quite co-incidentally - the World Government Police Corps had launched an operation against several New York syndicates, and Donaghue had seized his chance.
The newspapers reported that he had wound up his affairs, cleared his bank accounts – or at least the ones anyone knew about – and ‘fled’ to the small rebel state of Porto Guava in South America – away from the clutches of the World Government’s Police Corps.
At least, that was the official story.
In fact, he had reported for duty with the others in Australia. Colonel White had commented that this new plan suited everyone: in Porto Guava, Donaghue was far enough away for his former associates not to go looking for him, but as he was, nominally, still at large, he could contact his old ‘friends’ whenever there was a need.
It was a spectacular way to go, right enough, Conrad thought, and no one was more surprised to see him arrive in Sydney than Fraser. He smiled ruefully at the memory of the less-than-friendly meeting between the two men. They’re going to have to get used to working together – and pretty quickly…
Surprisingly, the most official bother had come from the World Aeronautical Society who had lodged a protest with Admiral Sir Charles Gray, the man they knew was acting as the independent representative of Spectrum’s Recruitment Panel, over the ‘poaching’ of their head of security. Their extremely vocal Director General, Peter Galvin, had even turned up at the Panel’s Futura offices in person, to make a case for Svenson to be ordered to remain in his current post, but it had made no difference; Captain Blue had arrived in Sydney with the others.
So, from now on, all of the candidates from the initial assessment exercise in South Carolina would be Spectrum officers, known only by their designated code names and detached from their families and former friends.
Conrad moved on to the next room and contemplated Patrick Donaghue. In his opinion, Donaghue still represented an unacceptable level of risk, on several levels. Firstly, the man was a civilian with no military experience and, like Indigo, no flying skills.
At least he’s shown an aptitude for it, which is more than can be said for Indigo, he conceded with his usual scrupulous fairness. He’s been trained by one of the Angels – the pushy, blonde, American one – the one Blue’s been ‘walking out’ with…. She’s done a good job, I suppose, because, although he’s still barely adequate as a military pilot, he can at least fly a plane now.
Given his nefarious past, Conrad was sure Donaghue was going to have his work cut out to gain acceptance from his Spectrum colleagues. Perhaps understandably, Fraser had it in for the ex-con, although the others were less censorious about his past – even Indigo, the other police officer.
Maybe their tolerance is because none of them can claim to be as pure as the driven snow? If there’s one characteristic that links everyone in the elite squadron, it’s ruthlessness, Conrad mused, as he tried the bathroom fittings and noted with satisfaction that everything was working fine.
Donaghue’s potential to contribute to the success of the organisation is enormous, he reasoned, wiping his damp hand on his trousers, because he’s an accomplished computer technician and has the logical mind that requires. And so does Lieutenant Green, of course; they could make a very useful team, so I suppose we’ll have to overlook the drawbacks…
He moved on to the next room, which was the only other occupied one – Lieutenant Green’s. He didn’t check that, knowing the young man would have raised any problem directly with the housekeepers, but he spared a thought for the young officer.
Seymour Griffiths was the youngest member of the elite squadron, yet Conrad found him an unexpectedly mature individual. The eldest of a large family, he had a natural talent for peacemaking. That made his inclusion in the elite group as logical a move as his responsibility for Cloudbase’s computer services suggested; but how he’d cope with being treated as everyone’s kid brother, was unknown.
The next apartment Conrad entered was Captain Blue’s.
He paused in the doorway to conjure the image of the American to mind. The fierce self-confidence, intelligence and strictly-controlled emotions of Adam Svenson struck a definite chord in him; he felt they had a lot in common. Over the course of the training they’d shared, he’d found himself enjoying the company of the younger man and talking to him with a candour that – frankly - surprised himself. He’d always been wary of revealing too much about himself, but he’d found it hard to resist Blue’s talent for listening, especially as his companion exuded an air of total trustworthiness.
It’s not surprising he became the most respected security agent outside of the Universal Secret Service, he thought, absolving himself of any shortcoming for the way he’d found himself opening up. He has the knack for inviting confidences; I’d better watch my step in future.
He crossed the room and looked out of the small porthole at the empty sky; the clouds were thin and wispy, so that far below he could see the deeper blue of the ocean.
Brown said Blue still tends to intervene in the quarrels between Ochre and Magenta and they will stop arguing with each other to gang up on him. I know his patrician air exacerbates Ochre’s dislike of anything he considers pompous, but I don’t know why Magenta joins in.
It’s all to the good, of course, if the pair of them stop needling each other… but Blue might be better letting them get it out of their systems.
I think Blue uses that aloofness and those impeccable manners as a disguise for his strength of character; everyone but the most assiduous observers fail to realise how formidable an opponent he can be – but I’ve got his measure, he concluded with some small sense of satisfaction.
He left the room and glanced at the door of the final apartment on this side of the corridor, which was assigned to Doctor Fawn, although from what Conrad knew of Edward Wilkie, it might be the least used in the accommodation block.
The Head of Spectrum’s Medical Services had a small private rest room down in the Medical Bay, which was situated between the Amber Room and the access to the Control Tower. It had quickly become apparent that Wilkie was dedicated to his vocation, almost to the point of obsession, so the likelihood was that he’d spend his rest periods there.
Conrad pursed his lips thoughtfully as he recalled that Fawn’s private life was emerging from a period of turmoil. He’d married another doctor while working for the World Medical Organisation in Scandinavia, but the pressure of his promotion to the post of Administrator for the Advancement of Medicine, as much as his devotion to duty, had led to a breakdown in the relationship. The divorce had been a messy one, it seemed - so there was every chance Fawn would compensate by immersing himself even further in his work.
I’ll have to make it my responsibility to see that he doesn’t bury himself away to the extent that he has no contact with the rest of us. A doctor needs to know his patients, and one who has no small talk or an unpleasant bedside manner isn’t likely to be popular when – as is bound to happen – the wounded come back to the base.
There was the other problem, of course: Fawn was one of the few people to complain about Cloudbase’s facilities.
Conrad could still remember the burning sense of injustice he’d felt when the doctor had criticised the provision of a so-called ‘Room of Sleep’. It had been included on Cloudbase to allow agents to use enhanced periods of sleep when they were busy. There would be periods when they’d all be working shifts of four hours on and two off, and the Room of Sleep – by using an hypnotic effect produced through its diffused lighting and the weightless effect of the gimbal-slung couches – would give the benefits of eight hours’ sleep in about thirty minutes.
Only, Doctor Fawn was insistent that its use had to be restricted to essential need only. He’d warned the colonel about the dangers of too much reliance on ‘enhanced sleep’ and had insisted on a log book, so that anyone ‘abusing the facility’ – in his opinion – would be referred to the medical staff before being allowed to use it again.
Given that – technically speaking – everyone was subject to orders given by the Head of Medical Services, the colonel had had little choice but to agree with the doctor’s demands. Yet, Conrad remained unconvinced that the Room of Sleep posed any threat to the well-being of the officers, so much so, that he had used the facility himself several times already, much to the doctor’s annoyance.
He closed the door and moved across to the remaining apartments on the other side of the corridor. These had been assigned to Captain Scarlet and himself.
Scarlet was the fourth member of the quartet of Englishman amongst the elite officers: the C-in-C, Brown and himself being the other three; he was also the youngest, with the exception of Lieutenant Green - who didn’t really count.
Conrad sighed, reflecting that he couldn’t quite understand why he disliked Captain Scarlet as much as he did. Paul Metcalfe was intelligent enough to hold his own with the erudite Indigo and Blue, and carefree enough to laugh at Ochre’s antics, tolerate Magenta’s lapses in protocol, concede that Grey had every right to his privacy and argue that if Brown wanted to choke his lungs with tobacco smoke, that was his choice.
He was also what you’d have to describe as ‘tall, dark and handsome’ – and he knew it. The fact that his peers at West Point had voted him the perfect soldier was totally justified – and he knew that too. He was surprisingly popular with the rest of the captains, despite a propensity to be a little arrogant and overbearing at times; he and Captain Blue were already firm friends, and had ambitions to be partnered together for Field Missions, or so Brown had mentioned in his reports.
On top of this sociability, Metcalfe was also canny enough to know that Spectrum was the perfect job for him and that he, effectively, set the benchmark for the others.
Something no one – except me – seems to hold against him, Conrad admitted.
He knew himself well enough to realise why he resented the younger man. Everything he’d had to work to achieve had fallen into Metcalfe’s lap without any apparent effort: son of a general from a family of military heroes, he’d slipped into the World Army Air Force as if born to it.
Which, Conrad reflected ruefully, in an odd way, he was.
Leaving West Point with the accolade of ‘Supreme Soldier’, Metcalfe’s rise through the ranks had been spectacular, making him the youngest colonel in the WAAF.
Oh, I know it’s churlish of me to despise the guy for being a success, but I worked bloody hard to get my colonelcy, and I was proud of it, because it meant I’d achieved something – but Metcalfe seems to regard his as merely a step on the ladder to greater success.
Still, it’s my responsibility to see the elite captains all work in harmony and have complete trust in each other, so I’ll have to learn to live with the ‘Supreme Soldier’ and like it.
He gave a contemptuous sniff as he closed the door of Scarlet’s room and dismissed the man from his thoughts at the same time.
Opening the door to the final room, he walked inside and went into the bathroom. He looked around as he washed his hands and walked back towards the door. Now everything was ready to start and he’d be living and working on Cloudbase for most of the time, he’d have time to settle in properly.
There are a few things from my old house at Atello I’d like to get shipped up here. I’ll ask Doctor Venus if she’d be good enough to oversee the packing and shipping of the stuff to a storage warehouse in Futura; she won’t mind and I’d rather it was her than risk anyone else going through my things. Venus is discretion personified.
Of course, I don’t know what the scheduled duties are for the Fireball Fleet any more, but it won’t much matter when she’d be able to fit it in. I’ll pay the firm enough to make sure they comply with whatever her schedule is. After all, I’m going to be here for the foreseeable future, maybe until I retire, so there’s no hurry…
The epaulettes on his tunic flashed and the mic on his peaked cap swung down.
“The colonel’s SPJ has come into range, sir. They’ll be here in about fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Claret. Ask Lieutenant Green to join me on Hangar Deck Two, would you? We’ll meet them there.” He paused and asked, “Who’s piloting the plane; do you know, Claret?”
“Captain Blue, sir.”
Conrad nodded with satisfaction. “Then we stand a chance of not getting our paintwork scratched by the first arrivals…” he said, surprising his colleague at this glimpse of humour.
Recognising this was as close as the dour captain ever came to making a joke, Lieutenant Claret gave a polite chuckle. “Let’s hope so, sir.”
Conrad started towards the hangars, surprised at just how nervous he was. Travelling in the lift, he paused and whispered aloud to the base he’d grown to consider his.
“Well, this is it, Old Girl. I hope they’ll love you as much as I do.” He gave an embarrassed chuckle.
He walked into the hangar deck with his head held high, and saluted Colonel White as he descended from the Spectrum Passenger Jet ahead of his elite colour-coded captains and the quintet of Angel Pilots.
“Spectrum is Green, sir. Welcome aboard Cloudbase, Colonel,” said Captain Black.
Conrad closed his door and strolled towards the Officers’ Lounge. It had been a hectic day with more than enough work to occupy his time, without the added distraction of wondering about his forthcoming mission into space. The on-going Martian exploration programme was one he was familiar with, and the thought of actually exploring an, as yet, unknown part of the red planet was tempting; but his loyalty to Spectrum was important to him. He was beginning to develop ties within the organisation that it would be hard to leave behind, even for the duration of the mission.
Colonel White had offered him the mission first, of course. Ever since Spectrum’s powerful radio monitors had picked up the strange signals coming from Mars, he’d been consulting him about their possible source. Now, with the agreement of the World Space Patrol and the Zero X mission team, he’d arranged for a Spectrum officer to lead the investigating mission.
And who else should he turn to but Conrad Turner?
On impulse, Conrad turned and headed for the Promenade Deck, intending to use the colonel’s telescope to survey the familiar contours of the red planet before he joined the others for the evening.
As he approached the telescope, which was mounted on the low wall that enclosed a raised flower bed, he heard a sultry chuckle - throaty and rich with promise. It was a woman’s laugh – no doubt of that – and it was coming from a part of the deck obscured from view by some large shrubs.
He tried to ignore it, but when her voice drifted towards him, he recognised it. It was Symphony. He heard the deeper rumble of a man’s voice answering her - the words indistinct but the aching desire more than obvious in the tone.
He knew instantly who the speaker was.
He strode on, veering away from the telescope and intending to hurry past, but he caught sight of them from the corner of his eye and stopped dead.
Captain Blue held her in his arms, and she was smiling up into his face, her eyes fixed on his as he spoke to her. Slowly their heads moved together and they kissed. Not a peck on the cheek, nor even a glancing brush of friendly lips – but a long, passionate kiss, clamped together, sharing breath, mingling souls.
Blue’s hands stroked her back and cupped her buttocks, pulling her against his hips – no doubt to ease the fiery arousal her closeness engendered. Her arms encircled his shoulders as she opened herself to him.
They parted momentarily – caught their breaths and kissed again; soft butterfly kisses that grew in intensity until once more their lips fused together.
Conrad knew he shouldn’t be watching; he felt guilty at invading their privacy, but something kept him rooted to the spot. Suddenly he could bear it no longer and deliberately moved into their line of sight.
Guiltily, they sprang apart; then, as realisation of who the intruder was dawned on Blue, he gasped:
“Jeez, Con, you gave me a fright creeping about like that! I thought you were the colonel.”
“You should be more discreet,” Conrad warned him in response. “It might well have been.”
He glanced at the young woman, seeing a mixture of amusement and relief on her face.
She caught his censorious gaze and blushed. “Please, Captain Black, say you won’t tell? We’ll get into such trouble.”
From her exultant expression it didn’t look as if she would have minded if they had got into trouble, and Black doubted they’d face the full force of the colonel’s wrath, even if they were caught. Symphony was the ‘Old Man’s’ favourite, after all.
“I ought to report you both, you know? You’re breaking regulations,” he reminded them sourly.
Blue interjected, “Oh come on, Con; we’re not doing any harm.” He smiled down at Symphony and reassured her. “He’s only teasing; aren’t you, Conrad?” he said, glancing warningly at the older man from under lowering brows.
Black sighed and shook his head in exasperation. “Would it prevent it happening again, if I did report you?”
It was Blue’s turn to blush. “Probably not,” he said with some contrition, and chuckled guiltily.
“Then, I see no point,” Black acknowledged.
Symphony beamed; she darted towards Captain Black and laid a hand on his arm. “I have to go anyway; I’m on duty in about ten minutes, but, thanks, Captain. We’ll do the same for you, some day…” and blowing a kiss to Blue, she sprinted out of the Promenade Deck.
“That young woman…” Conrad began, with some disapprobation in his voice; then he noticed the far-away look in Blue’s eyes as he gazed after her, and saved his breath.
“She’s wonderful,” the younger man confided dreamily, misreading the older man’s tone completely. Swept along by his emotion he confided in a rush, “After my fiancée died, I never felt much about anything, but Karen’s woken my senses again: I feel more alive than I have for years, Con.”
He turned and beamed at his field partner, and Conrad smiled back, gratified to be the recipient of Blue’s confidences.
Burning with the need to explain his happiness to someone, Blue continued, “You know what the first heady days of a love affair are like: everything looks brighter and sharper, even the food tastes better and you get silly amounts of pleasure from doing the simplest things… well, right now I’m so high I feel I could take on the world single-handed!”
This confession hit Conrad in a blinding flash, causing a wave of self-conscious knowledge to radiate through him. He hoped he wasn’t blushing as much as he felt he must be.
To hide his discomfiture, he responded by trying to tease his companion. “Bloody hell; don’t go and do anything daft, will you? I’ve only just got used to having a partner; it’d be a shame to lose him so soon.”
Blue chuckled. “I might feel like a kid again, but I’ve not quite lost all sense of reality. I’ll behave, don’t worry.”
Captain Black said more soberly, “You really are the giddy limit, Adam. If I’d caught Ochre or Magenta canoodling in the bushes, I wouldn’t have been surprised - but you? You know the regulations about getting too close to other agents, and yet you stand there, drooling after one of the Angels.”
“I’m not drooling,” Blue protested, before admitting with a sigh, “I’m way beyond drooling, Con; I’m heavily into lusting.”
“Oh, for crying out loud, Adam; put a Band-Aid on it or you’re going to have real problems… She might escape the Old Man’s wrath, but you could find yourself posted to a job checking spare machine parts in Siberia, my friend. You know the colonel guards his ‘girls’ ferociously.”
Blue gave a rueful snort of laughter, and Black, who always found it difficult to be critical of anything his field partner did for long, went on to ask, “I take it she feels the same about you? It would’ve taken a crowbar to prise you two apart from that clinch.”
Blue gave a rather self-conscious nod, then as if to justify himself he said, “We’re not the only ones, you know – just the only ones you’ve caught.”
Conrad’s face moved in his characteristically meagre smile. “That’s no excuse and you know it.” Blue shrugged and Conrad slapped a hand on his shoulder, saying: “Oh, come on, lover-boy, I’ll buy you a coffee – although, unless they’re putting bromide in it, a cold shower might be of more use.”
Still struggling to contain his exhilaration, Blue fell in beside his partner and they walked down to the Officers’ Lounge in their usual companionable silence.
Part Six: Nemesis
With great personal sadness and some reluctance, Colonel White walked along the corridor that housed the officers’ apartments – colloquially known as ‘Captains’ Row’ – past the discreetly colour-coded doors to the final one that stood nearest to the landing from the stanchion escalators.
He used his over-ride pass code to open the door and entered the quarters. The rooms already had the general mustiness that comes from standing empty; he understood the valet had orders to give them a ‘once over’ a couple of times a month. As the door closed behind him, he felt like an intruder in the preternaturally tidy rooms so indicative of the seemingly blank canvas that was Conrad Turner’s life.
There was very little personal material – no family pictures or mementos of happier days gone by. The only picture on display anywhere in the room was on the desk, slipped into the side of a leather-bound blotting pad, and was one that had been taken on the day Spectrum’s charter had been signed by the new World President, James Younger, and showed the reception for the field officers that had been held on the Promenade Deck. Captain Black was enjoying a rare glass of wine as part of the official celebrations, and standing beside his newly-designated partner, Captain Blue. The young American was obviously talking to someone out of shot, a broad smile on his face.
It was a better picture of Blue than of Black, who was slightly out of focus.
“But then, that was nothing new for you, was it, Conrad?” White asked the man in the photograph, “You never quite got your life into focus.”
He opened the desk drawer and looked for the documentation that instructed what Turner wanted doing with his belongings, in the event of his death. Every Spectrum agent had to fill in their Last Will and Testament, and Conrad had mentioned that he’d completed a new one before he left for Mars.
The drawer was neatly arranged, with labelled folders for bank statements, bills and accounts, and legal documents. The colonel vowed he would, of course, see that all the captain’s creditors were paid in full.
Beneath the folder of legal documents, he found a chunky diary, about the size of a paperback book and bound in black board. He lifted it out and flicked through it.
It was some kind of personal log and the early pages, written in the small, crabbed handwriting he was so familiar with, were largely blank, except for comments like ‘Late shift’ or ‘radar duty’.
Things changed when he got to the page devoted to the first official mission he’d sent Black and his partner on. Conrad had obviously come back and, in addition to his official report, written an account in his log book. It was a detailed analysis of the way things had gone, and spoke well of Captain Blue’s part in the action – even though it highlighted some areas where the younger man would benefit from more training.
Two or three more reports of a similar nature followed, their comments suggesting an overall softening in Conrad’s previously uncompromising belief that Captain Blue and the other ‘civilians’ were inferior field officers.
White gave a satisfied grunt. I told you they were good men, Conrad.
A frown settled between his brows as the entries between the mission reports became more frequent and the contents took on a more informal tone.
There wasn’t much to start with; just cryptic notes and passing asides.
Tuesday: Lunch with CB
He skipped through the book, reading entries at random as they gradually started to get longer and more informative.
Thursday: In the gym when CB and Scarlet came into play racquetball. He plays well; Scarlet was hard pressed to match him. That put our man in red’s nose out of joint. CB just laughed – he was in an unusually cheerful mood today, for some reason.
A few weeks later the entries had become positively garrulous.
Sunday: CB went to the movies with SA this evening. That’s the 2nd time this week. I bumped into them strolling along the Prom Deck as I was coming back from covering for CW, and when I asked him what film they’d seen, he couldn’t remember which amused them both. I suspect she didn’t stop talking long enough for him to concentrate. I don’t know why he puts up with her sometimes – she’s always hanging around him when she’s off duty these days. Her, and Captain Scarlet. We were playing chess after lunch today when they both came in looking for him – not together either, so it was twice the disruption – and he only got her to go away by agreeing to see the film with her. Scarlet wouldn’t go at all – he hovered; and I could see he was itching to butt in. In the end CB resigned from what was a close-fought match, and took Scarlet away to the pool to work off his excess energy. It doesn’t seem fair that he has to keep that man occupied all the time. CB leads our contest by 3 matches, counting this forfeited game.
White sighed, out of pity for the lonely man living a vicarious social life through his far more popular partner. He wondered how Black had viewed his impending space mission, and flicked through to the final entry on the day before Conrad’s departure for Space City and the launch of the Martian Expedition.
Thursday: All space travel is dangerous, even with the XL fleet and Zero X, so there’s always a chance I won’t make it back. The unidentified signals from Mars might be anything: space junk, debris, or an alien culture – take your pick. Maybe I will be the first man to discover Mars is populated by little green men after all?
What I mean is: I know this might be the last chance I have to put into words what I can’t say to your face. It is a coward’s way out; but if I do make it back – well, you’ll never see this, and no one will be any the wiser. If I don’t – and they hand you this with the rest of my stuff – well, I won’t have to see the disgust in your eyes.
The real tragedy is I know it will be there.
It never entered my mind that I might find such a good friend in Spectrum. I’ve always expected to be alone – simply because throughout my life that’s the way it’s been. Until I got to know you, the closest thing to a good friend I ever had was Charles Gray – a man I admire and respect very much. A great man, in my opinion, but like myself, not an easy man to know. But you have what I – and maybe the colonel - lack: the knack of making friends and of being popular, and I’m amazed to find that it’s something I’ve come to envy. Until now it never mattered to me what anyone thought about me – and by and large it still doesn’t. I know what they say – Scarlet, Ochre and the others – I’m a killjoy and a ‘dinosaur’ with no sense of humour. You’ve tried to keep it from me, but you didn’t have to. I‘ve always had a thick hide.
I was talking to the colonel today about what would happen when I get back. Whatever does happen in my absence – whoever Colonel White partners you with - I shall do my damnedest to get him to restore the status quo. I can’t imagine myself working with any of the others, and you must surely have realised by now that I’d go with you anywhere. Maybe, if nothing stood in the way of honesty between us, you’d acknowledge the depth of my friendship and even be thankful you have such a friend, but I know that can’t ever be.
I don’t know how to tell you what your friendship has, and does, mean to me. And, paradoxically, that depresses me, because you deserve more than this sneaky, sly yearning. I know it is to my eternal shame that I’m not strong enough to do without it.
You always give of yourself to others so generously; yet I know you have your own inner demons, and what must be virtually impossible barriers to your emotional surrender to another person. I can recognise it; I’ve lived my own life in the shadow of such barriers.
I understand you, Adam, but it occurs to me that you probably aren’t aware of just how much I know about you. I know it all, my friend; I read all the files – even the ones still under embargo. I shouldn’t have read them; and the colonel would probably drum me out of the service if he knew, but for a time I had the authority as a training officer to requisition the personnel files, and I misused it.
Whilst reading it, I discovered the origin of that scar you’re so careful to hide, and all that happened to you when you were just a kid. I can imagine your pain. It seems that you too, have something you want to hide, but you’ve dealt with a harrowing childhood better than I dealt with mine.
She will never understand; not even if she knew as much about you as I do – and as for Scarlet; he’s such a self-centred bastard, he wouldn’t even try to understand.
All the same, you need never fear that I will say anything about what I know – I realise that to do so would be to jeopardise our friendship. I don’t want that and I know you like to keep your privacy – I can’t imagine why she doesn’t realise that. She is very indiscreet.
All I really need is my daydream to keep me going. It’s so much a part of me now that I don’t need to write it down, but I want you to know what it is. It’s quite simple: we’re close friends and you know how I feel and don’t mind at all. It isn’t much to ask, is it? But I don’t want the harshness of reality or the disappointment of rejection to spoil things, so I’m never going to risk saying anything, of course. I just know I will never feel like this about anyone else.
Do you remember when you told me how you felt about Symphony and how she made you feel ‘more alive than you had for years’? That’s when I realised what had happened to me. I didn’t understand until then, because I’d never felt like that before. Now I know what you meant.
So, I’ll protect my own peculiar idea of my personal heaven against the onslaught of your lesser friends – male or female – for as long as I can; but I don’t want you to forgo anything that makes you happy. Jealousy is a strange feeling – I’ve been jealous of Scarlet since I met him and that’s a corrosive thing, but I am jealous for you – I want to protect your happiness. If that makes any sense?
That’s why I even found myself praying - me, the great unbeliever – ‘Let me have the strength to remain silent for one more day’.
The launch time is approaching inexorably. It’s getting harder to face with every new dawn. There’s no point in my pretending I still have any pride, Adam, I have to face the truth and admit it to myself and to you:
Tomorrow I’m going to leave the man I love and what’s going to hurt like hell is the fact that he’d be horrified if I ever told him that.
So, when the time comes to say goodbye, I’ll leave you with something you – of all people – might appreciate, and hide behind the words of another tortured soul.
"Never shall I forget the days I spent with you. Continue to be my friend, as you will always find me yours." (Ludwig van Beethoven, just in case you don’t already know…)
Colonel White snapped the book closed and stared in horrified pity at the photograph on the blotter: it was a very good picture of Blue.
That final entry had been written three days before the launch of the Martian expedition. Blue had piloted the plane that had taken Captain Black to the spaceport two days before the launch. He had returned with the report that Black was in good spirits – or what passed for good spirits in that notoriously introverted man. He’d seemed untouched by any awareness of the depth of the emotion that had driven his friend to such soul-searching and anguish.
Black had maintained his façade of polite friendship to the very end.
Sadly, White lifted the official document that lay beneath the diary, and opened it. It was brief and unequivocal.
This is the final deposition of Conrad Turner.
After the payments of any debts, I leave everything of which I die possessed to Adam John Svenson, of Boston, Massachusetts, in gratitude for his friendship and with the hope that he will occasionally remember me and eventually understand just how much his friendship meant to me.
Captain Blue came into the colonel’s private office and stood before his commander’s desk.
“At ease, Captain,” White said brusquely.
Blue relaxed slightly and an inquisitive expression settled on his face.
“Captain, you’re aware that as we have heard nothing from the Zero X Martian expedition, since Captain Black discovered and attacked the ‘alien complex’, we must assume every man was killed by whatever happened on the planet’s surface?”
White glanced at the man before him; was there a tremor in his voice?
“The WSP have informed me that the ship is returning to Earth – we can only assume it is being operated by some emergency back-up system. We have little hope of finding the bodies of the men who went to the surface, and it is assumed the pilot is also dead.”
“Sir?” Blue asked levelly, as the colonel’s voice came to a halt.
White stood and walked away, his back turned to the younger man. “I have the duty to inform you, that, as we must now assume he is dead, I have opened Captain Black’s final deposition and - and he has left everything to you…”
“Me?” Blue gasped.
White turned. “You’re surprised at that?”
Blue nodded. “I can only imagine he had no one else he wanted to give it to and – as his partner – I seemed a logical choice, sir.”
White nodded. “Yes, it is safe to assume that. He mentioned that it was in gratitude for your friendship.”
“I wouldn’t have said we were ever good friends,” Blue said thoughtfully, “but then, he wasn’t an easy man to get to know, and I guess I did know him better than most.”
“He certainly thought so,” White said carefully. Blue seemed to be genuinely unaware of any of the deeper feelings Turner had harboured towards him. He thought of the log book and the document in his desk. It seemed to him that the least he could do for the man he had admired and respected, was to suppress the final revelation of his innermost secrets.
“There will be legal papers to sign, Captain. I will instruct Spectrum’s lawyers to wind up the estate and have the necessary documents drawn up in your name.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“When the Zero X returns and it’s been confirmed there are no bodies aboard, I plan a memorial service for Captain Black. Perhaps it might be appropriate for you to give the eulogy? Do you think you could do that, Captain?”
Blue shifted slightly. “I’d be honoured, sir,” he said without much conviction.
White gave his dry smile and nodded. “Thank you, Captain. Dismissed.”
Blue left the room and White remained standing at the porthole, staring into the vastness of the celestial canopy that surrounded them.
“I hope that’s what you really wanted, Conrad. Let him remember you as he does now. You, of all people, would know what the guilt of not realising how you felt would do to him…and that wouldn’t be just, my old friend.”
On the Zero X craft, speeding silently through the hostile vacuum of space towards the astoundingly beautiful globe which shimmered sapphire-blue, white and green against the infinite blackness, Captain Black sat motionless, his face pale and unshaven.
His mind echoed with the powerful voice of the Mysterons and his conscience suffered under the knowledge of what he must do to avenge his tormentors against his friends and his home.
Into his mind’s eye they projected an image of Cloudbase; he saw Captain Scarlet greet his friend Captain Blue, as the latter arrived back from his meeting with the colonel. Scarlet slapped a hand on the American’s shoulder and said something. Blue’s mouth twitched into a smile and he laughed. With an answering grin, Scarlet led the way towards the refectory.
A solitary tear spilled from the dark and seemingly sightless eye of Conrad Turner, and slid down his pallid cheek.
The Mysterons noted his reaction with interest and added another facet to the detailed multi-dimensional picture they were creating of the emotional beings that lived on their neighbouring world. It appeared these beings were far more complex than they had originally divined.
This required further study; there was nothing to be gained from destroying something before you knew all there was to know about it, and the Mysterons did not like to think they were not in full possession of all the facts. They would exact their full and total revenge for the destruction of their city, once they had a complete understanding of these multifarious beings.
They could wait; they had no doubt they would prevail and the man called Captain Black would be the perfect tool for this undertaking.
Once they were ready, they spoke to their enemies:
"Earthmen; we are peaceful beings and you have tried to destroy us, but you cannot succeed. You and your people will pay for this act of aggression. This is the voice of the Mysterons. We know that you can hear us, Earthmen. Our retaliation will be slow but nonetheless effective. It will mean the ultimate destruction of life on Earth. It will be useless for you to resist, for we have discovered the secret of reversing matter, as you have just witnessed. One of you will be under our control. You will be instrumental in avenging the Mysterons. Our first act of retaliation will be to assassinate your World President."
“The Daniel Jazz” by Vachel Lindsay, from “The Daniel Jazz and Other Poems” (1920)
This story has been a long time coming to fruition. It was one of the first I started writing, but ever conscious of the excellent ‘All the Colours’ by Chris Bishop, I struggled to make it sufficiently different and it struggled to find its individual voice.
Ever since I read the Captain Scarlet stories in the TV21 comic back in the 1960s, I wondered why, given the numerous chances he had, Captain Black never killed Captain Blue. I’m awfully glad that he didn’t, of course. The rationale given in this story dawned on me gradually and is based on nothing but imagination.
My thanks are due to my dear friend and beta-reader, the incomparable Hazel Köhler, who tolerates my terrible plots, long winded prose and verbal diarrhoea with exemplary patience and corrects my many mistakes. Any errors still in the text are down to me.
Thanks also to Chris Bishop, who is kind enough to post the final, final version of whatever I’ve been frivolling with this time.
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons ™ belongs to Carlton International, but the initial inspiration came from the fertile imaginations of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and was made possible by their team of skilled puppeteers and technicians. My thanks go to each and every one of them, too.
Finally, thanks to you for reading it; I hope it kept you amused, if nothing else.
I created the illustrations in the text using photo-montages and pictures I found on the Internet.
09 March 2009.