We cannot banish dangers, but we can banish fears.
Prologue: Summer 2083
Colonel Blue had been in charge of Spectrum for almost a year. The first commander-in-chief, Colonel – now General - White, had taken partial retirement and was living, and working as a consultant for Spectrum, in the UK. In the 15 years since its inception, Spectrum had grown exponentially as the need to fight the Mysterons and their deadly threats dictated, but not everyone appreciated the reasons why. There was a growing faction that wanted Spectrum brought down to size and some of the other military chiefs of staff were in the vanguard of this. Colonel Blue, well-aware that although the newly-elected World President understood Spectrum’s unique problem, he was under considerable political pressure to cut defence spending, was hoping to pre-empt any salami slicing of his resources by a comprehensive and authoritative report into exactly what was already out there.
In his opinion, General White was the man to do just that and he had flown from Cloudbase to visit his old commander-in-chief in his new home, in order to ask for his advice and assistance. They were sitting in the comfortable living room of the Grays’ house, situated in an idyllic village in the English Home Counties. The weather was perfect – bright sunshine and a gentle breeze - and in the immaculate garden beyond the French windows the roses that were the general’s obsession were putting on a display of colourful and aromatic splendour. It was easy to forget that this beautiful planet, and all the life on it, was under the constant threat of annihilation by an implacable alien entity.
“I hope you don’t find yourself hoist by your own petard, Adam,” Sir Charles Gray said to his step-son-in-law, when asked to conduct the audit.
“I don’t see how I can avoid it, Charles. Either we do it voluntarily, or President Kobayashi will have to bring in outsiders – or worse, Spectrum Intelligence – and they’ll be all over us like maggots looking to cut anything they see as superfluous spending. He needs to make his mark and stamp his authority on the military after the years of President Roberts throwing money at every possible scheme and project the Chiefs of Staff could come up with. But we’re already operating at breaking point in some sectors and even Major Scarlet can’t carry the entire burden of the fight alone.”
“How is Scarlet?”
Blue shrugged. “Much as ever: seemingly tireless. He’s working with Green now.” He gave a slight sigh. “I guess we’re really starting to see the non-combative effects of his retrometabolism; the rest of us are slowing down, waking to a few discreet aches and pains, and Scarlet – well, he doesn’t change.”
General White’s dark eyebrows rose as he considered this. “A word of caution, Adam,” he said, pausing as his wife entered the room with a tray of tea cups and biscuits. He smiled at her and then turned back to the younger man. “Don’t exclude him. He may look like he’s 31, but he’s the same age as you and from what we’ve observed his character is maturing at the same rate as everyone else. We can’t know how it will pan out over what may be many decades, but right now, I would say Scarlet needs the company of his peers – not the brashness of the new intake of officers.”
“I’m not excluding him,” Blue asserted, without realising there was a hint of defensiveness in his tone.
“Not consciously,” White agreed. “But consider what you do, how you speak to him. That’s all I’m saying. You’re his commanding officer now, but my guess is that he needs you as his friend as much as ever. Perhaps more so, now that Rhapsody is no longer on Cloudbase.”
The American said nothing but gave a thoughtful nod. His introspection was interrupted by Amanda Gray offering him a teacup and saucer. He glanced up at her with a hesitant smile.
“It’s coffee,” she assured him, with an affectionate smile in response.
“So you haven’t surrendered to the lure of the Englishman’s tea addiction?” he asked her, as he took the cup.
“I have always liked the odd cup of tea,” she replied.
“The very odd cup of tea,” her husband interjected. “I’ve had to train her in the art of making a decent cuppa.”
The affection between the couple was so obvious that Blue couldn’t help but join in their amusement.
“Will you go and see Dianne and the children before you return to base?” Amanda Gray asked, as she took a place on the sofa beside her son-in-law.
“If I get the chance; I’m expecting a summons to Futura at any minute.”
“The new Head of Global Security making her mark as well, is she?”
“If I know Senator Arnorsdottir, yes, she will be.”
White smiled at the memory of the feisty World Senator and her formidable strength of character. “Well, at least they appointed someone with a working knowledge of Spectrum and our mission,” he reasoned. “And I always thought she had a soft spot for you – and Scarlet.”
Blue actually flushed as he shook his head.
There was a prickly silence until Amanda asked with some hesitancy, “Have you heard from Karen?”
“Not recently.” Blue sipped his coffee before asking, with a lightness he did not feel: “Have you?”
“Just a text message every so often. I assume she’s busy at Glenn Field?”
“Yes, the new intake of trainee Angel pilots is undergoing intensive training. It’s the busiest time of the training year with assessments and gradings to be done. I’m hopeful that we’ll finally be able to build up the additional squadrons we’ve been planning for the past few years. The major terrestrial bases could do with airborne support and we’ve got some excellent candidates this time.”
General White knew his former officer well enough to know when he was not prepared to discuss a topic any further. He caught his wife’s troubled gaze and, in order to prevent her from continuing with the subject of her daughter’s floundering marriage, he said, “What resources can you let me have while I’m doing this review, Adam?” and the awkwardness dissipated.
The road from Winchester was traffic-free as Colonel Blue approached the Metcalfe home of Longwood Abbey, nestling in the fold of its quiet valley. The sun was shining and through the open window of his car he could smell the heady aroma of the roses in the large, well-tended garden as he swept up the drive to the front door.
He was greeted by the enthusiastic squeals of his godchildren and the smiling countenances of Dianne Metcalfe and her mother-in-law, Mary. Lady Dianne Metcalfe - the former Rhapsody Angel of Spectrum - had chosen to move in with her in-laws instead of her own family so that her husband, Major Scarlet, would be able to visit regularly without anyone commenting on any aspect of his apparently miraculous returns to health, or escapes from certain death after a mission. General and Mrs Metcalfe were both privy to the secret of Scarlet’s retrometabolism and provided Dianne with the emotional support she needed whenever reports came in that Spectrum - and almost certainly, her husband - were involved in some dangerous mission. Fortunately, the women got along excellently and the decision had been a winner all round.
However, Blue barely had time to satisfy their questions about the well-being of his friend and the circumstances of his latest mission, before there was a beep from his watch-communicator and he had to excuse himself to take the call in the library.
“Was it important?” Dianne asked as he came back into the living room, where his 6-year old godson and namesake was noisily banging a construction kit together while his 4-year old sister was impatiently watching her grandmother undress the latest ‘must-have’ baby doll he’d given her, so that she could continue her own game of ‘mummy and baby’.
“I’m afraid so; but it isn’t all gloom. Paul will be here in about 40 minutes. The summons I’ve been expecting has arrived. I’m required in Futura for tomorrow.”
“Will you have time to eat before you have to go?” Mary Metcalfe asked, ever practical, “or shall I make up some sandwiches – again?”
Blue chuckled and gave them both one of his dazzling smiles. “I reckon we can squeeze time to eat something, Mrs. M. Especially if it is one of your wonderful dinners.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere…” she teased, as she handed the doll to her grand-daughter and stood to leave the room. She placed a hand on his arm as she moved to the door. “I’ll get on with it, Adam-dear.”
As the door closed behind her, Blue turned to the young woman sitting on the sofa and asked, “How’s Karen?”
“You don’t know?”
“I received her quarterly stats last week, so I know she’s been busy. Her mother told me she’d had the occasional text message but nothing more.”
“What makes you think I’d have heard more?”
“Because whatever I’ve done wrong – or have not done that is wrong – this time, she’d rely on you to tell me,” he explained, sitting opposite her.
“Like that again, is it?”
“It’s always like that, these days.”
“She hasn’t said anything much…” Dianne said hesitantly.
“Ah; a new boyfriend.”
“Oh, don’t worry; I’m used to it.”
Dianne recognised the hurt and suppressed anger in those few words. She ached to be able to do or say something that would repair the damage her friend was doing to the man she’d married.
“She does love you,” she said compassionately.
“She has a damned funny way of showing it,” Blue snapped. He sighed and tried to reassure his friend with a smile. “As long as she’s happy.”
Dianne shook her head. “No, I don’t think she is. I think she hates herself every moment she’s not with you…”
“And she hates me every moment she is with me,” he concluded quietly.
“She doesn’t hate you,” Dianne cried. “She’s disappointed; she feels she’s let you down.”
“No; she thinks I let her down. And maybe I did?”
“Oh, Adam,” Dianne began, but her son interrupted them with a demand that ‘Uncle Adam’ examine the plane he’d created from the construction kit he’d just given him.
There didn’t seem to be an occasion to continue the conversation after that, and before long the Spectrum helijet arrived on the field beyond the garden shortly afterwards, and Major Scarlet strode in to see his family.
Futura City was the hub of the World Government; the actual work might be done in New York, Buenos Aires, London, Beijing or numerous other cities, but Futura was the global icon that signified that authority to every citizen of the planet. During the hurricane season the place was on constant standby to evacuate the World President and the members of the senate and the administration that were based there, but the day-to-day work of the government went on as much as possible.
The newly-elected World President, Yoshio Kobayashi, although anxious to make his mark, was an old hand at playing Futura’s style of politics. He had emerged as the favoured candidate from the four nominees the World Senate had been given, having served his fixed two terms as a Vice-President. The Electoral College of the Senate appointed four new vice-presidents with the election of every new World President, and together with the four who remained in post, these formed an Executive Cabinet designed to provide credible replacements in the event of something happening to the World President during the 7-year tenure of office. It was from these Vice-Presidents that the next President would probably emerge to be confirmed in post by the Electoral College.
Having risen to the top job over his fellow Vice-Presidents, Kobayashi exercised his authority by holding a cabinet reshuffle and appointing the new intake to the administrative briefs that oversaw the various arms of the World Government’s responsibilities. It was the unspoken but accepted fact that the VP in charge of Security was senior amongst the peers and the competition was fierce for that particular brief. The appointment of a relatively inexperienced, first-term Vice-President was controversial, and the fact that she was a woman had given several of the chiefs of staff apoplexy.
“How long is the meeting likely to go on?” Scarlet asked, as Blue got ready to leave the flight deck of the SPJ now parked on the tarmac at Futura.
“I’m not sure. I expect Senator Arnorsdottir will want to make her position quite clear to the military chiefs before they can start campaigning for more money. I’m just hoping she doesn’t intend to actually make any cuts – in our budget or theirs.”
“You’ll be lucky. But, if I may offer a word of advice? Just remember she’s a V-P now and you’ll walk it.”
“Damn; yes, I’d better make sure I remember that small fact. Valdis isn’t always that forgiving. Well, you’ve always said I’m lucky; let’s hope you’re right, Paul.”
“You sure you don’t want me to wait?”
Blue nodded as he zipped his briefcase closed. “No, I want you to get back to Cloudbase and make sure everything’s okay. In fact, you can review the cover-up operation after that production plant explosion. Far too much detail was leaked to the press. I want Spectrum: Madrid brought up to scratch. If you have to, send Magenta and one of the youngsters down to kick ass.”
“S.I.G.; Patrick will enjoy that. He’s been practising swearing in Spanish lately.”
Blue smiled. “Job satisfaction is what I’m all about,” he said sardonically.
Scarlet chuckled. “Oh, sure you are. I’ll be off then. Give the Vice-President my love.”
The conference room was at the top of one of the many WG office blocks that made up the administrative district of Futura. They had been built to ‘blend in’ with the landscape and ran long and low across the shallow cliffs of the coastline. Nevertheless, there was a magnificent view out across the low-lying island to the turquoise-blue of the shallow Bahamian seas. It was a sight Colonel Blue was familiar with from long-ago family holidays spent cruising the warm waters in his father’s motor yacht. He stood by the window reminiscing and drinking in the subtle changes of colour as the restless seas swayed around the land that barred their way in their eternal mission to circle the globe.
He loved the sea in all its moods: from the deceptively peaceful swell here, to the roaring power of the waves off Hawaii or the Australian Gold Coast. He had surfed and dived in almost every part of the world and enjoyed nothing more than being on the coast. He was experienced enough to know that even calm seas were dangerous and that things could change very quickly. He glanced down at the printout he’d received from Cloudbase about a potential tropical storm building away over the Caribbean Sea; with luck they should be finished here before it became a factor. They didn’t always amount to anything, but, all the same, he had ordered his officers to keep him updated; he didn’t want Valdis’s first high level conference to end in an undignified scramble to an evacuation helijet.
He heard the door close behind him and turned to see who had arrived.
The Vice-President was standing by the entrance smiling at him. After a moment’s hesitation he smiled back.
Valdis Arnorsdottir knew how to dress to impress and the stylist who designed her outfits was very good at their job. She was wearing a below-the-knee-length sheath dress of her trademark black-and-white check, with an unusual detailed neckline. Over it she wore a crisp, white, tailored jacket, and the towering heels of her open-toed shoes completed the overall impression of height. She looked professional and business-like and overwhelmingly feminine. It was a combination that many male politicians couldn’t handle and Blue could well understand why.
“They told me you’d arrived early. I can’t say I was surprised; after all, punctuality is one of your obsessions; but this time I was glad of it. I wanted to talk to you before the meeting,” she said in the slightly husky voice that always sent shivers down Blue’s spine.
“May I congratulate you on your appointment, Madame Vice-President,” he replied, sounding far less formal than his words. “Major Scarlet sends his… best wishes.”
She chuckled as she removed her jacket and placed it on the back of a chair. “Scarlet wouldn’t be so restrained. Are you sure it wasn’t something warmer than mere good wishes, Adam?”
“He sends his love,” Blue admitted, smiling.
“How kind of him,” she said, with a grin. “And how typical. Please thank him from me, when you see him again.”
“Of course, Madame Vice-President.”
She gave a little ‘tcha’ of disapproval as she walked towards him. “Always so formal, Colonel Blue; it makes me feel you are not pleased to see me.” The smile on her lips caused a dimple to appear in her cheek as she continued: “So I am not going to ask if that is a gun in your pocket…”
Blue’s reserve broke and he laughed aloud, a grin on his face. He took the hand she was offering and embraced her, dipping his face to hers to exchange a chaste kiss of friendship.
Valdis broke the clinch and went to the cupboard against the wall where refreshments were laid out. Turning her back to him, so that he couldn’t see the heightened colour in her cheeks, she poured herself a glass of fruit juice and offered to get him one, but the colonel gestured to a glass on the conference table, implying he already had one.
“What did you need to speak me about?” he asked.
Having regained her poise, she came back to stand beside him and looked out at the scenery. “Money, of course. Isn’t it always the topic on everyone’s mind?”
Blue was unable to keep the resentment from his voice as he asked, “Are you going to tell me that you need to cut Spectrum’s budget?”
She glanced up at him over her shoulder in order to assess his reaction. “The spending round will be a tough one, but I wanted to reassure you that the World President fully understands the necessity of maintaining the world’s defences against the Mysterons.”
“Why do I sense a ‘but’ coming here?” he interjected.
“I really have no idea, because I made sure he read the confidential dossier and – I confess – I told him some of the things I’ve learned about it all. I can’t promise any more funding, Adam – but you won’t get any less.” She frowned at the look of exasperation that appeared on his face and continued:
“I wanted to tell you this before the other military arrive. They are going to have to cope with substantial cuts.”
He took a moment to digest this information. “How substantial?”
“Significant,” she replied, with the politician’s skill at evasion. “I fully expect them all to be outraged.”
“Are you asking me to back you up in the meeting?” he asked warily.
She gave a slight shake of her head. “No. I can handle the chiefs of staff. You will just need to fight your corner, as you would do anyway.”
He was looking at her expectantly, obviously anticipating there would be some price to pay for this tip off. Impulsively, she explained, “I don’t want them ganging up on you. They’re not going to be pleased when Spectrum emerges relatively unscathed from the cuts.”
He snorted. “I wouldn’t call a funding freeze ‘relatively unscathed’.”
“Wait till you hear the rest of the settlement,” she said sharply.
Blue ignored that and continued, “I have commissioned General White to do a resources review, it’ll take a few months, but I’ll be able to supply you with a much clearer picture of our need for upgrades.”
She turned away and shook her head. “I can’t promise you a dime more than last year, Adam. Be grateful for that – the Air Force is going to have to make draconian cuts.”
The pilot in him rebelled against the very idea. “Why single out the Air Force?”
“Perhaps you’re the person who can explain to me why there are still so many distinct air forces?” Valdis responded. “The World Army Air Force was supposed to combine all of the ground and air forces, but all the Army did was invest in more planes for itself and the air forces continued on their own sweet ways. And don’t get me started about the Navy! Did you know that even the WASPs have their own planes and pilots? Heaven knows why – they operate submarines, for God’s sake – but every one of you, including Spectrum, has dedicated squadrons of aircraft and pilots.”
“Cloudbase couldn’t function without planes,” he interjected, and she nodded, accepting that fact. He continued, “You don’t seem to understand, Valdis: it’s horses for courses…”
“Don’t bring the cavalry into this,” she remarked with a flash of her usual geniality. “Just tell me why, if every service has to have an air force that is suited to whatever its own area of expertise happens to be, why we need an air force that is dedicated to flying planes and nothing more?”
He opened his mouth to reply and closed it again, a frown appearing on his face. The concept was almost too radical for him to grasp immediately and he felt that whatever he said she’d have an answer for – after all, she’d been preparing to reveal this bombshell for some time.
“You know you’re going to get lynched, don’t you?” he warned her, evading the question.
“I know,” she responded, with a wry smile. Then after a moment she laid a hand on his arm and admitted, “That’s partly why I wanted to see you before the meeting; that and I didn’t want to meet you with every military chief in the world watching. I can hear their accusations of favouritism already.”
He patted her hand. “You would never do that!”
“I’m glad you think so. Sometimes I’m not so sure though; Spectrum means a lot to me.”
He removed his hand and walked away from her to refill his glass, although he didn’t actually want another drink.
They had known each other for almost five years, ever since Blue and Scarlet had saved Senator Arnorsdottir from a Mysteron threat. During that time the three of them had met several times on Spectrum business and had grown to be friends, implicitly trusting in each other’s probity; so much so, that Valdis Arnorsdottir was one of the few people outside of Spectrum who not only knew the secret of the nature of the threat the Mysterons posed to the safety of the world, but of Scarlet’s alien-induced indestructibility.
But it hadn’t just stopped there: not for the two of them, at least. It was never spoken about, but it was understood that there was a deep and abiding attraction between them. Captain Scarlet had sensed it the first time they’d all met, but his flippant comments had aroused such a fervent denial from his field partner, that he had – apparently – become convinced there was nothing in it.
And there isn’t, Blue thought now, as he kept his back turned and sipped at the cool juice. But the struggle to keep things that way is getting harder with every meeting.
Valdis was unmarried. She had a select coterie of male escorts for her public appearances, and Blue didn’t doubt that some of them provided more than an arm, when asked. She made little secret of her attraction to him – at least between themselves – but he was married and she knew that meant something to him and respected his opinion.
Still, she can’t resist giving me a nudge every now and again just to see if my resolution has crumbled... God, one of these days she is going to be buried in an avalanche…
He was still wrestling with what to say next as he sensed her approach, when the door clicked open and the first of the chiefs of staff entered.
Without any apparent change of direction, the Vice-President moved towards him, her hand outstretched and her professional politician’s smile on her face.
Blue turned and greeted the Supreme Commander Earth Forces with a friendly salute and a warm handshake, and the perilous moment passed by, once again.
As predicted, the meeting was a turbulent one and Colonel Blue found much to admire in the way the Vice-President handled it. She was not above using the fact that she was a woman to make the men moderate their expressions of outrage, but she drew the line at claiming she was merely obeying orders, or that she sympathised with their predicament. She stood her ground and countered their protests with cogent arguments of her own. Not that Colonel Blue agreed with them.
“Gentlemen,” Valdis said a little wearily, as one o’clock approached, “I feel we need to take a break. Lunch has been prepared in the adjacent room. Shall we reconvene in ninety minutes? I am sure you all need to discuss matters with your service personnel… and amongst yourselves. Supreme Commander, Colonel Blue, perhaps you would care to accompany me?”
Blue glanced at the other service chiefs, most of who had expressed their feelings about Spectrum all too eloquently, and accepted the offer with a polite inclination of his head. The Supreme Commander also accepted and Valdis led them into a smaller room on the other side of the conference room, where a table had been laid for three people.
They politely conducted the Vice President to her seat and the three of them settled down to a freshly prepared meal, spoilt for Blue by the preponderance of sea food, to which he had an allergy.
“I never knew you were allergic to sea food, Adam,” Valdis said. “I do apologise. I am sure the chef could get something else for you.”
He settled for a steak.
Douglas Blackwood was Scottish, a veteran army officer and probably World President Roberts’ most successful appointment. Experienced and intelligent, he would have been Colonel Blue’s choice for the thankless task of Supreme Commander – if anyone had asked. Although he was technically a World Government appointee, it was hardly surprising that he was opposed to the proposed reductions in conventional military spending and he had made that quite clear.
Nevertheless, in the face of considerable protest from his subordinate chiefs of staff, he had supported the proposed financial settlement for Spectrum because, as he explained, he trusted the organisation to do whatever was necessary to prevent the Mysterons from carrying out their subversive threats.
Blue was aware that, as his predecessors in the post had done, Blackwood knew the full facts about the Mysterons and the nature of the threat they posed, but not about the special attributes of Major Scarlet. He was grateful to Blackwood for his support and for the way he had slapped down some of the more vociferous complaints from the military commanders.
Listening to Blackwood’s avuncular tones as they made small talk over the food and wine, it was almost possible to forget that, next to the World President, this was the single most powerful man on the planet, but Blue knew – as did the other dignitaries present – that an order from Blackwood was an order – however gently it was phrased.
Although, technically, Blackwood’s remit did not cover Spectrum or its sphere of activity because the commander-in–chief of Spectrum answered only to the World President, Blue was well aware that with the SC:EF on his side, he stood a much better chance of both retaining the funding necessary to keep Spectrum at maximum efficiency and gaining the co-operation of the conventional service chiefs, which was essential to ensure continued success against the aliens. He was, therefore, more than willing to court Blackwood’s friendship.
Over the meal the conversation had steered clear of the politics and negotiations of the morning, although as they lingered over coffee, Blackwood made a few attempts to pump Blue for details of Spectrum’s current complement.
“You must come to Cloudbase, Supreme Commander,” Blue said genially. “I‘d be delighted to show you around. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering.”
“Thank you, Colonel. I’ll get my people to talk to your people and we’ll fix that up.”
“Oh, Cloudbase is amazing,” Valdis confirmed. “Perhaps I will come with you, Douglas. It’s been a while since I was there. Colonel White – as he was then – was kind enough to invite me to tour the facility.”
“How is the general these days? Do you know, Colonel?”
“I saw him recently. He’s very well – settled down into his new home and making the best of his retirement. His rose garden is a work of art.”
“A truly great man,” Blackwood remarked. “I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times before his retirement, and of course, I remember reading about his exploits while he was in the navy. They don’t make them like him any more.”
“How true,” Blue agreed, smiling.
“I expect you know him very well,” Blackwood continued.
“Yes, I do. He is a great man and he served the World Government well.”
“And he’s extremely good looking,” Valdis interjected. “I think that must’ve been on the service requirements when they recruited the first intake for Spectrum.” Her companions both smirked. “What?” she asked with amusement. “You think because I am a politician I don’t have eyes to appreciate a handsome man in a uniform? Why do you think I asked for the security brief?”
Blackwood laughed. “I think you have the measure of every man in the meeting, dear lady. Any man trying to do what you did in there would’ve been lucky to walk out still in one piece.”
“Oh, you’re all just pussy-cats really,” she teased.
“Well, I’m glad you think so,” Blackwood replied seriously, adding, “There will be a good deal of opposition to the proposals and it might take longer than you’d like for any progress to be made on implementing them.”
Valdis sipped her wine thoughtfully and then said: “They can take as long as they like if they’re prepared to do it for nothing. The funding will stop next year: the World Government will not continue to pay for non-essential bases or equipment. That is the reality we all have to face, Supreme Commander. Your predecessors failed to bite the bullet when the World Army Air Force was created and people have forgotten that the intention was to merge services and make savings.”
“I agree, maybe more should have been done,” Blackwood reasoned. “But twelve months is no time at all, Madame Vice-President.”
She gave a slight nod. “I’m afraid President Kobayashi has little room for manoeuvre. I don’t want to make a political issue of this, but President Roberts vastly over-spent on the conventional military and there simply isn’t the money to continue funding at those levels.”
Blackwood inclined his head and sighed. “Perhaps over five years we might be able to run down bases and redeploy people and equipment…” he began.
“It can’t be done,” Valdis said sharply. “Consider this: although Spectrum has done a fine job in keeping the Mysterons at bay, they have still caused significant damage over the years to important installations, infrastructure and – most importantly – food production. The loss of production caused by the destruction of the irrigation plant at Najama – for just one example - is only now starting to be made up again. The weather hasn’t helped; crop failures have left people malnourished. They have to be our priority, Douglas.”
“You will have a significant number of disgruntled military men with armaments and equipment,” Blackwood warned.
“You think they’d attempt a coup?” she asked sceptically, raising an eyebrow.
Blue interjected: “Spectrum couldn’t allow that, Supreme Commander. We still have our remit as a counter-terrorism force.”
“I don’t know what they might do, Madame Vice-President. There is the usual sprinkling of hot heads amongst the senior staff, but I think I can control them. Don’t expect to win any popularity contests any time soon, though.”
“I am a rare politician, Douglas; I live in the real world,” she replied, with a sad smile. “If they want to vilify me, I can’t stop them, but I won’t let it stop me, either. When the contest is between feeding a starving child and buying a jet plane, I know which I would choose.”
Cloudbase: December 2083
Captain Magenta heard the door to the Officers’ Lounge opening and glanced across to see who had arrived. He got to his feet and was about to salute when Colonel Blue said:
“At ease, Captain.”
“Were you looking for someone, sir, or can I help you?” Magenta asked, resuming his seat as Blue sat down on the long bench that ran along the side of the main seating area.
“No, it was you I wanted, Pat,” Blue said. They were the only two in the room and he was not one to stand on ceremony with his old colleagues.
“Fire away,” said Magenta.
“When you were in Madrid this summer, did you sense any unrest?”
“At the Spectrum base? No; the senior brass were anxious not to get a rocket, of course, but they passed the inspection, as you’d expect.”
Blue didn’t respond and after a moment, Magenta asked: “Why? Has something else happened?”
In reply his commanding officer handed him a slim file with the logo of Spectrum Intelligence on it.
Rolling his eyes at the provenance, Magenta opened it and glanced at the single sheet inside. He looked up at Blue with a frown.
“You believe this?”
Blue shrugged. “SI is reporting that there is some sort of conspiracy going on in the Spanish military. Even if Spectrum isn’t directly involved, I don’t like it.”
“Even if the military are… restless, it isn’t anything we should deal with,” Magenta replied. “Send it to the Triumvirate in Brussels and let them sort it out.”
Blue nodded, but without conviction, and extended his hand for the file. “I’m not so sure this is as straightforward as that.”
“Why ever not?”
“Tomorrow, Vice-President Arnorsdottir is attending an inaugural charity performance of ‘Carmen’ at the new Teatro Moderno in aid of the President’s Christmas Appeal.”
Magenta nodded slowly. “And the military are not happy with Arnorsdottir… I see your point. Want me to go and poke about a bit?”
“Yes, I rather think I do. I will speak to the Vice-President, but I doubt I’ll be able to stop her attending.”
“I’ll get straight on to it, Adam.”
“Thanks; keep me informed – and Pat: keep this under your hat as far as possible. If the press get wind of it, there could be panic.”
“Adam, how nice to see you!” The attractive face of Valdis Arnorsdottir filled the screen in Colonel Blue’s ‘ready room’. He had decided it was prudent to make the call in private, as the Vice-President was sometimes a little too informal for his liking over the video-phone.
“Madame Vice-President, it is good to see you too.”
“Ah, I am in your bad books and we’re being formal. I’m sorry, Colonel; what have I done to upset Spectrum now?”
“Nothing – yet. Madame Vice-President, we have received a report suggesting that you may be in some… some danger if you attend the Gala tomorrow evening.”
“Do you like opera, Colonel?”
Blue sighed and ruefully accepted that he was going to have work at this conversation more than he’d hoped. “Depends on the opera,” he replied evasively.
“Hmm; well, I suppose that at least means you’re not going to say the danger comes from the music. But then it is ‘Carmen’ and everyone likes ‘Carmen’.” She sang a few bars. “Toréador, en garde! Toréador! Toréador!”
“Valdis, please; take this seriously. The Spanish military-”
“Oh – that. You’re too late, Colonel. The Supreme Commander told me about that, days ago. They plan to burn me in effigy, it seems. I have been wondering if I should send them one of my old dresses… I’d hate to be on the newscasts going up in flames looking anything except my best. ”
“Adam! I appreciate your concern – really I do. But I don’t think it is a problem. There will be security guards and hundreds of people about. They’re unlikely to get anywhere near me. And I wouldn’t be much of a politician if I couldn’t take a little personal abuse, now would I?”
He cut straight to the point. “I don’t think you should go.”
She thought for a moment and her expression softened as she realised that his anxiety was for her, rather than her office. “If it was just me and you asked me not to, I would not go,” she replied. “But it isn’t just me. The World President and every one of the Vice-Presidents are all attending charity functions somewhere tomorrow evening. I can’t pull out without a good excuse; and, my dear friend, your concern for me – while I appreciate it - isn’t a good enough excuse.”
“Then I want Major Scarlet to accompany you,” Blue demanded.
“Does Paul like opera?”
“Not much, but he won’t be there to enjoy the performance.”
“I have a better idea. Why don’t you come? The Supreme Commander is here to play chaperone and I promise to respect your virtue…”
“Valdis…” He couldn’t help but smile at her. “Paul is a better bet.”
“I don’t want a bet, I want a promise…” She pouted, and then smiled winsomely.
Struggling to keep a straight face, he replied, “I will send Major Scarlet down to join Captain Magenta and they will oversee the security. Paul scrubs up well and owns a tuxedo, so he won’t embarrass you.”
“Scarlet and Magenta? I had better make sure my outfit doesn’t clash.”
He shook his head in surrender at her refusal to take the risk seriously. “I’ll be in touch, Val.”
“Glad to hear it, Adam.”
THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS. WE KNOW THAT YOU CAN HEAR US, EARTHMEN. YOU STARTED THE SHOCKWAVE WITH YOUR UNPROVOKED ATTACK ON OUR MARTIAN COMPLEX. OUR RETALIATION WILL BE SLOW BUT NONETHELESS EFFECTIVE. THERE WILL BE NO CHARITY WHEN WE ELIMINATE THE GLOBAL SUPPORTS OF THE WORLD GOVERNMENT. WE WILL CONTINUE TO TAKE OUR REVENGE. YOU WILL PAY IN FULL FOR YOUR AGGRESSION.
“Play it again, Lieutenant,” Colonel Blue ordered.
The flat, deep tones of the Mysterons reverberated around the Conference Room again, as the men and women sitting round the circular table racked their brains for the meaning behind the threat.
“Global supports? Who writes their stuff?” Captain Ochre muttered in bewilderment, running a hand through his dark hair.
“What supports the World Government?” Major Scarlet asked rhetorically. “Money?”
“How do you terminate money?” Captain Green responded.
“You put it in my bank account where it vanishes like a mist,” Ochre replied. “Take my word for it.”
Despite the solemnity of the situation, his colleagues smirked at Ochre’s remarks and the mood of the meeting lifted slightly.
“No,” Blue said thoughtfully. “It isn’t ‘what’ supports the World Government, but ‘who’.”
“And you think that because?” asked Scarlet.
“Their use of ‘charity’. You’ve probably heard that the World President has arranged for gala concerts around the globe to raise money for his Famine Relief Programme,” Blue explained. “These concerts will be attended by the President himself and the Vice-Presidents, in locations around the globe.”
“You think they’re after the President as well?” asked Ochre. “I know they’ve gone for World Presidents before, and they’re not given to repeating themselves, but I guess a new incumbent means they have the chance to try again.”
Blue shook his head. “It is possible, but I think they’re threatening the Vice-Presidents – the ‘supports’ for the World Government which in turn ‘supports’ the World President.”
“Far be it from me to argue with you, Colonel – you have a track record for working these things out…” Scarlet began.
“But?” Blue invited further comment from his friend. The brain-storming sessions that followed any cryptic Mysteron threat were open to every theory and interpretation in the search for a definite response to prevent the aliens succeeding.
Scarlet shrugged. “Are you sure about this? You’re splitting hairs somewhat with that interpretation. At least, I think so.”
“Perhaps they’re going to go after all of the executive powers?” Green suggested. “It’d be a devastating blow if they achieved even part of their threat.”
“All eight – or nine - of them?” interjected Melody Angel, the designated Leader of the Premier Angel Squadron on Cloudbase. “That’s a big ask, even for the Mysterons. They’ve usually concentrated on two targets at most when they’ve threatened assassinations before.”
“Three,” Scarlet muttered. His colleagues, with the exception of the colonel, looked expectantly at him and with a wry grin he explained, “They threatened the Triumvirate of Europe, back in the early days of the war, only Blue and I were quick enough to stop them after they’d only made an attempt on two of the politicians.”
“Ah, yes; I had forgotten that,” Melody said, with a smile. “The electronics genius, right? The guy who bamboozled us into thinking our secure base was under attack by playing a recording of tanks?”
Scarlet nodded. “He also reminded us – to his somewhat… fatal cost - that our responses to these threats don’t have to be as convoluted or as high-tech as the threats themselves appear to be.”
“There does have to be a response though,” Blue observed, bringing the meeting firmly back on track before the reminiscences got too prolonged.
“S.I.G., Colonel,” said Scarlet, with a friendly nod towards his oldest and closest friend.
“They said ‘supports’ plural,” Captain Grey mused, picking up the current conversation where it had left off to go wandering down Memory Lane. “I agree with Blue – I mean, the colonel - they must be going after all of the Vice-Presidents.”
Melody replied, “Even if they did use the plural, it could still mean that they won’t go for them all – only one or two of the most important, maybe?”
“But we don’t know which ones they consider to be important,” Major Scarlet reasoned. “Would you like to play spin the bottle to see which ones we don’t protect?”
Melody shook her head and glanced at Harmony Angel who was sitting beside her. “I guess we’re all going to have to be in this one,” she said.
Harmony nodded in agreement.
“Lieutenant Flaxen, do we know where the Vice-Presidents are?” the colonel asked.
“Yes, sir. They’re all over the place attending the charity galas.”
“Should we take the World President into safe-keeping?” Captain Green asked.
Scarlet shook his head again. “He wouldn’t go if you tried,” he said. “But I think the colonel’s right. The Mysterons may be threatening more individuals than usual but they’re focussing on one category, if you like – the Vice-Presidents. That’d be in keeping with their usual modus operandi. If anything happens to Kobayashi, it will be collateral damage.”
“That’s not really a comfort,” Colonel Blue said ruefully.
“President Kobayashi is in Futura, Colonel,” Flaxen informed him. “He’s hosting his own charity concert which will be attended by hundreds of VIPs. None of the Vice-Presidents will be there, though.”
Blue looked around the room. It was his duty to assign an officer to each of the eight Vice-Presidents and ensure the World President’s safety as well. He consulted the list Lieutenant Flaxen had handed him.
“Okay. Captain Magenta is already in Madrid with Vice-President Arnorsdottir. Major Scarlet, you take the World President in Futura. Captain Grey, Mackenzie in London. Captain Ochre, Demidov in Moscow. Captain Green, Da Silva in Sầo Paolo. Lieutenant Claret, Ibrahim in Jakarta. Melody Angel, you will accompany Vice-President Mulenga in Cape Town and Harmony, Vice-President Sechen in Tokyo. Use local forces to back you up.”
There was a chorus of ‘S.I.G.’ as the officers dispersed, except for Major Scarlet.
“Melody does have a point; this is spreading us a bit thin,” he commented.
“Do we have a choice?”
Scarlet looked Blue in the eye and asked, “Do you have a hunch which one of them it will be?”
“I don’t have hunches.”
“You do; you just don’t call them that.” There was no immediate reply, so Scarlet gathered his documents ready to leave. “Adam?” he asked, just before he turned to go.
“Before the threat arrived, I was planning to send you to Madrid,” Blue admitted. “It seems the Spanish military are getting mutinous over the World Government’s cuts to the air forces. I think they may be planning to attack Valdis.”
“Shouldn’t I go there then? The Mysterons have been known to piggy-back on purely human unrest and malice before now.”
Blue looked up and met his friend’s steady gaze. “I can’t risk anything happening to Kobayashi. I need my best man there.”
“There are no ‘buts’. You have to go to Futura City, Major Scarlet, as quick as you can.”
Scarlet hesitated. He knew Blue as well as he knew himself and he was well aware that the colonel considered Arnorsdottir as a friend – a close friend. Momentarily he weighed the possibility that his commander’s judgement was being affected by this simple fact. Blue returned his gaze with a stern composure.
Scarlet drew in a deep breath and said: “S.I.G., Colonel. I hope you’re right.”
Blue watched him walk out and muttered to himself, “So do I.”
Captain Magenta met Commandante Rioz, the head of Spectrum’s Madrid office, in his office close to the administrative offices of the World Government and the European Triumvirate. Rioz was a small, dapper man – barely regulation height – who was some years younger than his visitor, and was a little too sensitive to anything that threatened his authority over his command. He greeted the colour-captain, who outranked him, with a polite deference that was nevertheless tinged with resentment. The inspection of the recent summer had been a tough one and Rioz was on edge at a repeat visit so soon.
Magenta snapped off a smart text-book salute, deciding that they’d get things done much more efficiently if he deferred to his host - in the company of others, at least.
“Pleased to see you again, sir.”
The smaller man’s attitude thawed slightly and he invited the American to sit down.
Magenta was delighted to discover Rioz’s reputation for efficiency really was well-deserved; he had already arranged for the two of them to meet Teniente General Herrera, the commanding officer of the nearest conventional force airbase to Madrid as well as a large proportion of the air force’s personnel and equipment, that very afternoon. Given the approaching deadline of the gala concert, there wasn’t enough time to waste on formalities.
Teniente General Herrera was punctiliously polite and coldly formal when they were ushered into his presence soon after lunchtime.
“How may I help you, gentlemen?”
Magenta wondered flippantly if they’d interrupted his siesta, and went on to explain about the report they’d received concerning the anticipated protest against the World Government’s plans, in the presence of Vice-President Arnorsdottir.
“I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, General, that Spectrum needs to ensure nothing untoward comes from this. We have received a terrorist threat against the Vice-Presidents, and obviously Spain is now considered as one of the potential flash-points. Therefore, I am asking you to do all you can to make the men delay their protest until we have been able to prevent harm to Madame Arnorsdottir.”
“Capitán Magenta, I can assure you that when my men will make their protest, they will not harm the Vice-President. But many officers and enlisted men feel that the World Government has acted with disrespect of our service to our country and to them. Señora Arnorsdottir is the representative of this Government; indeed, she is the instigator of these proposals. To abolish every air force is not to be tolerated! I cannot deny my men the opportunity to show their objections.”
“Of course not, sir. The World Government is all in favour of free speech. I am merely requesting that you delay making your representations for the moment. In addition, I have to inform you that Spectrum will have armed security men at the Teatro Moderno. We’re not looking for trouble, sir, but we have to take precautions. It is not inconceivable that your protest might be hijacked by less… honourable men.”
“These Mysterons we hear so much about and no one ever sees?” Herrera’s scepticism was obvious.
Magenta nodded. “Believe me, General, you do not want to face the Mysterons,” he said sombrely.
“No, for if we do and do so successfully, the truth that Spectrum is a mere booster to the World President’s ego will be revealed. Is that not the case?”
“No, it is not the case!” Major Rioz retorted, before Magenta could reply. “With respect, General, the Mysterons are a greater threat than you can imagine.”
“I doubt that, Capitán,” Herrera said. “You would be surprised to know what I can imagine.”
He pressed a button on his desk and the door burst open. Several armed men rushed in and when Rioz drew his gun, he was savagely bludgeoned to the floor with a rifle butt. The men surrounded Magenta, hustling him into a corner to prevent him helping his colleague.
Herrera came from behind his desk and moved towards the Spectrum Captain. The men parted to let him through. “You will do as we say,” he told Magenta.
“And if I don’t?” he asked.
“You are expendable, Capitán, but the Mysterons have a mind to let you live to witness our triumph. The supports of the World Government will crumble; you will see.”
Although a wave of shock washed over him, Magenta wasn’t completely surprised by this revelation. The Mysterons’ intentions were often unfathomable and he didn’t discount the notion that he might be killed and retrometabolised later on in the cause of furthering their plans. He considered his options: staying alive in case he could somehow thwart whatever plans Herrera had in hand, seemed the most logical.
He remained silent, but gave a brief nod and waited to hear what was required.
“What do you mean, ‘Captain Magenta’s missed his report deadline’?” Colonel Blue demanded.
“I can’t raise him sir,” Lieutenant Flaxen admitted. She had rarely seen Blue this agitated. “I have tried all frequencies.”
“Where was he going?”
“To see the Air Force General at his base, Colonel.”
“He was due to report in 30 minutes ago,” Flaxen replied, checking her records.
“Keep trying, Lieutenant, and get me Vice–President Arnorsdottir immediately.”
It took about 10 minutes to get Arnorsdottir to the phone. She was looking a little flustered as she sat down at the booth. Her hand went to her hair and she tidied it up, slipping one strand behind her ear as she focused on the screen and said:
“Madame Vice-President, are you all right?”
She frowned a little. “Perfectly; is there a problem?”
“Captain Magenta has failed to make his scheduled report. We’re unable to contact him or trace his whereabouts at this present time. I’m concerned; he’s due to escort you tonight.”
“Yes, I got the message that Major Scarlet was going to Futura,” she replied and gave a wry tilt of her head. “I thought the Mysterons are after the Vice-Presidents only?”
“That’s what we believe their threat implied, but we can’t risk anything happening to the World President. Of course, I’ll arrange for another officer to accompany you.”
She glanced over her shoulder and leant towards the screen, lowering her voice. “Adam, I am… worried about the Supreme Commander. He had a meeting with General Herrera this morning and he’s… well, he’s very distant. We were getting on so well and now he seems to have had a sense of humour failure.”
“Blackwood?” Blue’s mind raced. “He’s going with you tonight?”
She nodded. “Yes, he will be at the opera too. But right now, he’s put the hotel and the theatre under a security cordon. There’s no need, I’m sure of that. These soldiers are angry – but they’re not going to hurt me. What would it gain them?”
“A security cordon?”
She nodded. “I didn’t tell him about the threat, by the way; so it can’t be the Mysterons he’s worried about, but no one’s being allowed in unless Blackwood agrees. I wanted to go out and do some shopping, but he says it is too dangerous...”
“He’s right – it is – but not for the reason he thinks, if you haven’t told him about the Mysterons’ threat. Valdis, I want you to keep away from him.”
“I think there is a possibility that Blackwood may be a Mysteron.”
She gave a sharp exclamation of shocked surprise. “You mean they may have killed him and… recreated him again?”
“I’m afraid so. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve attacked a Supreme Commander and if you look at it in even broader terms than we considered, the post of the Supreme Commander Earth Forces could be considered a ‘support’ of the World Government – one we wouldn’t have suspected to be a danger.”
“But that is terrible! I can hardly believe it, Adam. No, it can’t be true or why doesn’t he just kill me? I’m here and more or less defenceless – he could just kill me now! So why doesn’t he, if he is a Mysteron?”
“The Mysterons like to cause as much terror and panic as they can. I suspect they intend to make their move in front of the World News networks – tonight.”
“Oh, my God… like it was some kind of spectator sport?” Her face went pale.
Blue tried to reassure her. “They want to spread panic, that’s all, shake people’s faith in their government. Now, tell me: are there any Spectrum agents with you inside the cordon?”
She thought and then shook her head. “No. Lieutenant Nieto was here, but Blackwood sent him back to his base for some reason. There are Spanish military here and some of Blackwood’s own staff and mine – all three of them – but that’s all.”
“Get me the report from Lieutenant Nieto, Flaxen.” He paused, lost in thought, and she waited with commendable patience for his deliberations to reach a conclusion. “There’s one person Blackwood can’t keep outside of the cordon: me. I will be with you as soon as I can; until then – stay away from him, Valdis. Better still, stay in your room!”
“Very well; I have some work I can do. Please hurry, Adam.”
“S.I.G., Madame Vice-President.”
Captain Magenta was getting frustrated.
Herrera had ordered his men to put the Spectrum officers in the brig and removed their radio caps, throwing them onto his desk.
The guards had dragged Rioz through the corridors and across the courtyard to the cells, hustling Magenta along and ignoring his attempts to speak to them. By the time they reached the cells and were locked into one together, he had come to realise that they were all Mysteron agents. He spared a thought for the men they had been and lifted Rioz onto the narrow camp bed to examine him.
Gradually the commandante came to his senses and accepted the tin mug of tepid water Magenta offered him with gratitude.
They heard the sound of vehicles leaving the courtyard and then a deathly silence fell over the base.
Magenta rummaged in his tunic pocket and produced a tiny credit-card sized data chip. Then he perched on the end of one of the bunks and started tapping away, applying the card’s flat surface to the palm reader of the electronic lock every so often, without success.
“What’s the matter with you Spaniards,” he grumbled to his companion, as his latest attempt to spring the lock failed. “Don’t you have normal palm-prints?”
Rioz watched the colour captain and didn’t dare speak in case he disturbed Magenta’s concentration.
“What are you trying to do?” Rioz asked eventually.
“Crack the lock. This device will access the local memory bank of approved palm prints and reproduce one. Well, it should – that’s the theory.
“And then what?”
“Then we get out of here and go back to Madrid, of course.”
Rioz stood up and went to peer out of the small barred window. “Capitán, I cannot see anyone moving about the base. Nor any vehicles. Our SSC has gone and the jeeps. I think the base is deserted, sir.”
“There are houses beyond the base, right?”
“Then we requisition a car, Commandante. And if they won’t give us one willingly; well, we’ll just have to add auto-theft to our rap sheet, won’t we?”
“We won’t be in time to escort the Vice-President, Capitán, if we don’t leave soon.”
Magenta turned his back and went back to his attempts to crack the lock, muttering: “And to think I thought it was only Ochre who stated the blooming obvious whenever we were up against it…”
Blue’s SPJ touched down at the airport and Lieutenant Nieto conducted him to the waiting SSC with much deference.
“I am sorry, Coronel, but Commandante Rioz went with Capitán Magenta and has not returned.”
“Just get me to the Vice-President’s hotel as soon as you can, Lieutenant,” Blue ordered.
En route to the hotel, Blue contacted Cloudbase, now under the command of the imperturbable Doctor Fawn, and asked Lieutenant Flaxen for an update.
“The other officers have arrived at the Vice-Presidents’ locations, sir,” she explained. “Still no report from Captain Magenta. The World President has sent a message saying that he wants Spectrum to protect the Vice-Presidents, but that the galas must not be cancelled.”
“Reply in my name that we’re doing all we can, Lieutenant.”
The central streets of the city were thronged with traffic as the time for the gala performance approached. The route to the hotel passed the Teatro Moderno, which was the centrepiece of Madrid’s regeneration after the Atomic War had devastated part of the city. Funded by the World Government and the European Triumvirate, it was a radical design set in a broad plaza and surrounded by new shopping arcades and gardens, with fountains and exotic flower beds. The glass- and steel-built foyer represented the prow of a ship, to signify Spain’s proud maritime history, and the huge, acoustically perfect auditorium was in the main part of the building, while the gently rising marble-clad slope that formed the third section of the building held a warren of rehearsal rooms, storage bays and workshops.
Blue could see the banks of television lights, cameras, reporters and spectators that were already in place. Valdis Arnorsdottir was very much the ‘pin-up girl’ of the World Government and there was a devoted fan base eager to see and hear whatever she was doing; it seemed that a great many of them had turned up tonight to witness the opening of the new theatre in such a glittering presence. He was even more certain that her life was in jeopardy. The Mysterons could be sure of creating widespread dismay and panic if such a prominent politician was murdered in front of the cameras of the world’s media.
He sighed as his car crept past the crowds.
If anything happens tonight it’s inevitable that Spectrum will be blamed for failing to prevent the attack. Without Valdis, our funding could well be reduced, handing those alien bastards their victory on a plate.
He leant forward from the back seat and snapped irritably, “Can’t you go any faster, Lieutenant?”
Lieutenant Nieto shrugged apologetically, sounded an imperious fanfare on the motor horn and increased speed as much as he dared in the crowded streets, but he slowed down again as they approached the security cordon around the hotel. He lowered the window and entered into a vociferous conversation with the armed sergeant who approached the car.
Blue’s Spanish was pretty good, but even he had difficulty keeping up with the voluble flow. Finally, he leant forward again and said sharply, in Spanish, “I am the commander-in-chief of Spectrum. I do not expect to be told that anyone, except the World President himself, is forbidding me entry to anywhere I want to go. Now, before I have you and this entire troop arrested on charges of insubordination, get the hell out of my way!”
The sergeant stared in surprise and staggered back, waving his men aside for the car to pass through.
Nieto glanced at the American with admiration. “That was sure telling him, Coronel.”
“Arrogance runs in my family, Lieutenant,” Blue replied dryly. “Now, hand me that Mysteron detector and bring my suitcase with you. We’re going in.”
Valdis looked up from her desk at the sound of the commotion in the corridor outside her suite. She stood and turned towards the door, feeling that if she faced her enemies they might not be so ready to do her harm. She wished she had a gun or some weapon – any weapon – and reached down to pick up the thin, steel-bladed letter opener she’d been using.
The door was opened and a young Spectrum officer, dressed in the charcoal-grey tunic of a terrestrial posting, entered, carrying a large light-blue case. He paused and gave her a cheesy grin, followed by a hasty salute.
Now the door was open she could hear more clearly what was going on outside and, easily recognising the loudest voice, she was smiling when Blue walked in and ordered Lieutenant Nieto out with a peremptory wave of his hand.
“You certainly know how to make an entrance,” she said, relief flooding into her face as she watched him.
“Blackwood has got them all so worked up they wanted me to wait for him to ‘check me’ before they’d let me up here. Well, I’m not having that!”
“Of course not.” She came to his side and smiled up into his clear blue eyes. She stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek, toppling gently against him as she lost her balance.
“Hey, watch what you’re doing with that letter opener, or I might have to check you with the Mysteron detector,” he teased.
“What do you mean, might? You will anyway,” she retorted and went to put her improvised dagger down, feeling rather foolish. She heard the click of the camera-shaped device as her back was turned.
She turned towards him to see him frowning at the small display on the back.
“You have a perfectly straight spine,” he remarked, and grinned at her.
“Have you checked Blackwood?”
“No; I want to meet him on my chosen ground, not his.”
“And you chose here? In my suite?” She pursed her lips at him. “Some protector you are.”
He was acute enough to sense the uncertainty in her remark, however jovial she sounded, and he was quick to reassure her.
“I have to be with you to protect you. You’re a virtual prisoner in here, so here is where I am. I’ve made plans, don’t worry. Nieto has his orders.”
“I’m not worried – now.”
“Good.” He bent to open his suitcase and then straightened up with something in his hand. He held it out to her. “I want you to have this. Keep it with you whatever happens.”
Frowning inquisitively, she reached to take the small pouch. Inside she found a miniature gun and a tiny disc. She grimaced with distaste at the weapon, and asked what the other item was.
“It’s a tracer. Fix it to your clothing, or it should have an adhesive pad on the back if you prefer to stick it to your body. Spectrum will be able to pinpoint your position – whatever happens.”
“Can they transport me out of danger?” She glanced up at him. “Is there a password? ‘Beam me up, Cloudbase’?”
He shook his head. “No, we’re not that technologically advanced – sadly. Please, Val, wear it – for my peace of mind, if nothing else?”
“Of course; and I will even put the gun in my evening bag.”
He stooped to the suitcase once more and lifted a hanger with a carefully folded suit cover hanging from it. “Now, where can I put my tuxedo so it doesn’t crease?”
Laughing, she directed him to the wardrobe and he was still busy there when, after a peremptory knock, the door opened to admit the Supreme Commander.
He glanced around the room, frowning when he did not immediately see Colonel Blue, who was screened from view by the open wardrobe door.
“Madame Vice-President, I understand people were seeking admittance to your rooms,” Blackwood began.
Blue stepped back and faced the Supreme Commander.
“Some of your men – at least, I assume they were yours – tried to prevent me seeing the Vice-President. Would that have been on your authority, Supreme Commander?” he asked coldly.
“Blue – thank God. Yes, I’ve been trying to ensure no one gets in here. I’d give a good deal to know how you managed it.”
“I pulled rank. You have no jurisdiction over Spectrum and certainly none over me.”
“I suppose that’s true, although no one’s ever put it in quite such blunt terms before. Anyway, I’m glad to see you,” Blackwood began and moved towards them.
“Stay where you are,” Blue ordered, moving protectively in front of Valdis.
“For goodness sake, man; I’m not the threat here,” Blackwood snapped.
“Then you won’t object to me taking your picture,” Blue replied, drawing the Mysteron detector from his tunic pocket.
Blackwood submitted to the test, and Blue handed Valdis the machine when the small screen showed a skeletal image.
“What’ve you been doing? Your behaviour’s alarmed the Vice-President,” Blue demanded.
“Before I explain, I’m sure you won’t mind if I give you the same test,” said Blackwood, reaching for the device.
Valdis handed it over and stood beside Blue as the Supreme Commander reassured himself neither of them were Mysteron agents. He handed the Mysteron Detector back and sighed with relief.
“I met Herrera this morning. He was quite blatant about the situation amongst the air force personnel here – and some of the other forces too. They feel that if the air force is disbanded they may be drawn into conflicts they do not wish to participate in, while being vulnerable to attack from the air. The memory of Guernica and the Civil War casts a long shadow, not to mention the pounding the city took in the Atomic War. ”
“The World Government guarantees the safety of all its members, Supreme Commander,” Valdis protested. “If Bereznik, or anywhere else, attacked Spain, they would have the armed forces of the World Government to call on, the same as everyone else.”
“You don’t have to convince me, Madame; but the Spanish are not as convinced the World Government would act to defend them.”
Valdis slapped her palm to her forehead in exasperation. “Tcha! Men!”
“It is more than that, Madame; it is the national psyche,” Blackwood said, a little tetchily. “However, the fact remains that they are vehemently opposed to the World Government’s plans and they have formed an association to argue against it. They plan to bring their cause to public attention by kidnapping you and holding you to ransom. Their plan is to do it in front of the world’s media at the opera tonight.”
“This is nothing new,” Blue interjected.
“No; but I know Herrera well and he wasn’t the same man; I’d stake my life on it. I said nothing to him, but when I got back here I dismissed all the guards who had been on duty while he was in command, and brought in my own men, with orders to stop everyone – I couldn’t risk drawing attention to my suspicions by just banning Herrera’s men.”
“You think Herrera is a Mysteron?” Valdis asked.
Blackwood explained, with just a hint of exasperation, “I don’t know – he may just have been angry and annoyed, but he wasn’t as I expected him to be. Spectrum is so protective of their technology that even I don’t have access to a Mysteron detector, or I would have made sure. Either way, I felt that better safe than sorry was the way to go.”
“But you didn’t think to explain to the Vice-President?” Blue reasoned.
“If the Mysterons are active in Madrid, they may have already replaced her with their agent, and I wasn’t going to volunteer to be Mysteronised by letting on what I suspected.”
Valdis glanced at them both and sighed. “Okay, so now we know we’re all human and we’re all trapped in here by an army of possible Mysterons, what’re we going to do?”
Captain Magenta floored the accelerator of the car he and Commandante Rioz had requisitioned from a surprised resident of the village near the airbase, and swerved to avoid a motorcyclist that appeared suddenly from a side alley. The Commandante was navigating them back to the city after they had managed to escape from the prison cell and there was little time to spare.
Before they’d left the base, however, he had taken the time to retrieve their radio caps, only to discover the microphones broken off and the system out of action. A search had revealed a communications room and he’d been able to patch a call through to Cloudbase and tell them what they’d learned.
Fawn heard them out and then told them that Colonel Blue was in Madrid with the Vice-President.
“So who’s driving Cloudbase?” Magenta gasped in alarm, momentarily distracted by the idea of Lieutenant Flaxen – one of the most accident-prone officers they had – being in charge.
Fawn’s laconic comment of not to worry because he’d passed his driving test many years ago, had made him blush. They all tended to forget that the Head of Spectrum Medical was also a serving officer with the same command training the rest of them had.
Fawn continued: “I think you better get to the city as soon as you can and liaise with Major Scarlet-”
“Scarlet went to Futura, Doc,” Magenta exclaimed.
“When the colonel left me in charge, I felt it was only my duty to inform Cloudbase’s second-in-command of the situation,” the doctor said primly. “Major Scarlet confirmed me in my post and made an executive decision to – and I quote – ‘get the hell over to there before Blue gets himself into all sorts of trouble’. He should be arriving in the next hour.”
“Oh, I get you,” Magenta said, with a wry smile. “Nevertheless, it turns out that was a smart move, Doc. Mind you, Blue will probably court-martial him – and maybe you too - when this is over.”
“That, I would like to see,” Fawn remarked, doubtfully. “Now, I’ll warn Scarlet about Herrera and tell him what’s happened and where you’re going. I’ll tell him to bring you an emergency communicator too.”
“S.I.G., Doc, and thanks!”
Major Scarlet’s plane landed close to the terminal and he almost sprinted down the steps and into the building. He saw Captain Magenta waiting anxiously by the main entrance and hurried across.
“What news?” he asked.
“No idea,” Magenta replied. “The pilots disabled my communication system. But, over there on the news screen it looks like excitement is mounting at the theatre.” He glanced at his watch and said, “The performance is due to start in less than an hour, and Arnorsdottir is due to arrive about fifteen minutes before the curtain goes up.”
Scarlet handed over the emergency communicator kit and watched the TV screen as Magenta effected a repair.
The crowd around the Teatro Moderno was excited, and cheering everyone as they arrived. There were pop stars giving impromptu performances to elicit charitable contributions, aristocrats rubbing shoulders with politicians, and actors and models ‘strutting their stuff’ on the red carpet.
Scarlet had never quite understood why making an ass of yourself in public was supposed to encourage charitable giving, although he considered it might be either a sympathy donation or a bribe to make the mendicant go away. He watched some pneumatically-enhanced chanteuse warbling off-key to rapturous applause, and shuddered.
“Tell me Spectrum isn’t involved in that parade of mediocrity,” he said to Magenta.
“Nope, we’re just there as security guards – at least we should be.”
The newscaster seemed to be having hysterics as she squeaked in excitement.
Magenta looked up at the screen and explained: “Seems like Arnorsdottir has arrived early. That’s her car.”
“What on earth for?” Scarlet demanded, although there was no one who could answer that.
They watched in concern as the flash guns went off and the chauffeur, dressed in a Spectrum uniform, opened the back door of the limo.
The Supreme Commander, dressed in an evening suit, got out and moved to the other side of the door from the chauffeur.
“Didn’t Blue think he was a Mysteron?” Scarlet asked.
“That’s what Fawn said, yes,” Magenta replied. “I guess he isn’t.”
“Or we’re already too late,” Scarlet muttered to himself.
The commentator was almost breathless as the Vice-President began to emerge from the car.
“What’s she saying?” Scarlet asked.
“It’s all about her dress,” Magenta said disapprovingly. “Nothing about the charity or the new theatre or the army.”
“I suppose it is a pretty dress,” Scarlet remarked. “If you like that kind of thing.”
The camera followed Valdis some way along the carpet until she stopped and turned back. It panned round to see what she was waiting for and, to their astonishment, the Spectrum officers saw Colonel Blue, in full evening dress, briskly walk past the Supreme Commander to her side. He offered her his arm and she took it, walking beside him smiling and waving to the cheering crowds.
“Make a handsome pair, don’t they?” Magenta said.
“What?” Scarlet stared at him in surprise.
“That’s what the commentator just said. She hasn’t given his name though; he must’ve had the sense to keep it from them. They think he’s her new beau.”
“Yeah, right,” Scarlet said dismissively and made a decision. “Let’s get over there as soon as we can. They may’ve wrong-footed the Mysterons by arriving early, but that doesn’t mean the threat is over.”
Inside the theatre, everything was bright and new. With the Spanish flair for design, the building was unusual and pleasing to the eye. The lighting was designed to make the best of the open spaces and set a suitable backdrop for the finery of the audience members.
Colonel Blue was familiar with a great many opera houses. His mother was a devotee and had dragged her children to notable performances around the world as part of her eclectic cultural education programme. He had sat through plenty of operas that he did not enjoy and a few that he did. Consequently he looked perfectly at home amongst the crowd of opera-goers.
He remained on the alert, his Spectrum hand gun in his jacket pocket and kept a close eye on Valdis as she ‘pressed flesh’ with the VIPs and media stars. It was easy enough for him to say ‘no comprendez’ and speak Swedish to the individuals that sought to engage him in conversation and gradually he was left alone.
On the other hand, the Supreme Commander was a known personality, and consequently he was surrounded by people and having difficulty keeping an eye on Valdis. So Blue moved to a part of the room where he could watch the whole scene and kept his hand on his gun. There was no sign of any military personnel amongst the gaudy crowd, but there was no way of telling an off-duty officer, and the Mysterons rarely played by any rules but their own.
Eventually, Valdis managed to excuse herself from her admirers and came over to him.
“Okay?” Luckily, she used probably the one word that was understood in every language and it allowed him to respond in Swedish – just in case they were overheard.
“Yes; I’m too much of a nobody for anyone to bother with me. Plus I don’t speak English or Spanish – a serious disability in such a society.”
After a moment she replied, “Your accent isn’t bad, for an American.”
“Nor is yours for an Icelander…”
They both chuckled and she leant her forehead against his shoulder for a brief moment.
“My Norwegian is better,” she said, actually blushing a little.
“Mine’s worse,” he admitted.
“So, you haven’t seen anyone I should avoid then?” she asked. “I’ve been drumming up donations for the charity funds - a politician’s work is never done - but I haven’t come across anyone who seemed to be holding a grudge or out to get me.”
“Not that I can see. Be careful though; I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet.”
“Of course. Oh, and if anyone asks, you’re an old friend of mine by the name of Sven Andersson. So nice and neutral, isn’t it?”
“I think I can remember that,” he agreed, with a smile.
There was a movement towards the auditorium as the doors opened and the crowd began to thin as people went to take their places.
“I’d better go and powder my nose,” Valdis said.
“Wait a minute… you can’t go in there alone,” Blue said.
“Well, somehow I don’t think they’ll let you come with me,” she replied, genially. “And I have to go… especially now I’ve thought of it.”
He looked around for someone in authority who could be sent to clear the washroom. “Damn,” he muttered as every official seemed to have disappeared.
“This is getting to be an issue…” she said, fidgeting.
“If you gotta go, you gotta go, I suppose… Come on.”
They walked towards the Ladies’ toilets together. The Supreme Commander, finally free from hangers-on, came to join them.
“What’s going on?”
“I am going in there,” said Valdis, pointing. “You two are waiting – out here.”
“Just put your head round the door and see if there is anyone else in there and let us know,” Blue instructed her.
“Hey, there’s always a queue in the Ladies’ loo.”
“Maybe we could turf everyone out of the Gents and you could go in there,” Blackwood suggested, but she pulled a face and rolled her eyes.
“I need to pee, guys….”
“We ought to get the place checked by Security before you go in,” Blue reasoned.
“Be too late by then. I drank too much coffee this afternoon,” Valdis complained.
As they stood debating, an usherette approached and drew Valdis aside, indicating a separate VIP facility, cleverly built under the curve of a staircase that ascended to the restaurant in the ‘prow’ of the building, and virtually hidden by the decorative foliage that grew up a slender column supporting the stairs. With a bright smile and a cheeky wave of her fingers to her escorts, she went with the usherette.
The men exchanged wry glances.
“Women, huh?” Blackwood said.
“They’re wired differently – at least that seems to explain most things,” Blue replied affably.
Blackwood chuckled, and there was an awkward pause until he said, “I’m surprised the Mysterons haven’t made their move.”
“It may come during the performance,” Blue said sombrely. “A lot of people in an enclosed space make an effective target.”
“Then why are we letting her go in?” Blackwood asked, appalled.
“Have you tried stopping her?”
Blackwood rolled his eyes. “Granted; she won’t listen.”
Unconsciously, their faces assumed the universal look of nonchalance common to every man fated to wait for his companion to emerge from a mysterious female compound, be it a washroom, beauty parlour or seraglio.
Blue was the first to notice the commotion that had broken out near the main entrance. There was shouting and squealing as people were jostled and thrust aside.
As the door to the VIP washroom started to open he heard someone shout:
“Where is Arnorsdottir?”
“Good God,” muttered Blackwood and he started to move forward. Blue turned back to the door and saw Valdis emerging.
“Get back in there and keep quiet!” he snapped, pulling the door closed and taking guard in front of it.
“What’s going on?” he heard her calling, but he didn’t answer as his attention was focused on Blackwood.
The Supreme Commander had taken a position in the middle of the foyer and was demanding:
“What is the meaning of this? Where is your commanding officer? I’ll have him and every one of you court-martialled if you don’t get out of here immediately. This is a disgrace!”
The vanguard of the invading military hesitated in the face of this unexpected defiance, until they parted to admit the man Blue recognised as General Herrera.
“I am sorry, Supreme Commander,” Herrera said. “We have come for the Vice-President; we want you and her to accompany us.”
“Well, that is not going to happen,” Blackwood replied firmly. “Get these men out of here. I will not tolerate-”
“You have no choice, Earthman,” said Herrera and shot him.
Pandemonium resulted as the civilians tried to get away from the soldiers. More shots were fired as the soldiers were prevented from moving further into the foyer by the press of the crowd trying to get out.
Outside of the building there was more firing, accompanied by the screams of bystanders and the wail of police and emergency sirens.
Valdis opened the door a fraction to peer out and Blue yanked it close again.
“Stay there,” he ordered. He had heard Herrera’s words and the realisation that they were facing a force of Mysteron agents chilled his blood. He castigated himself for allowing himself to be distracted by Valdis, and failing to weigh every possibility and all of the options thoroughly.
By not doing so, I’ve exposed her to untold danger. And for what –so I can look like some frigging hero? I should know better: I’ve been acting like some raw recruit desperate to get in some chick’s panties. White would’ve cashiered any officer who acted like I’ve done and risked the life of a civilian, he thought. This is a resigning matter – if I survive long enough to resign. Until then, I’d better do what I can to resolve this before it becomes an unmitigated disaster.
He dodged his way through the crowd to where the Supreme Commander lay in a pool of blood. He stooped down, one eye on the soldiers herding the crowd away from the exits, and placed a practised finger against Blackwood’s neck. Feeling a weak pulse, he placed his hands under the man’s shoulders and dragged him back to the washroom, kicking on the door with his heel as he backed up to it.
“Open the door!” he shouted in Swedish, hoping that would convince her it really was him. Thankfully, it was enough and the door was flung open.
He dragged Blackwood through and heard her lock the door behind him.
“Is he dead?” she gasped, coming to kneel beside them.
“No, or I wouldn’t have brought him here. The risk that he might be Mysteronised is too great. At least we can see what’s happening to him in here.”
“But he might die!”
“He’s the Supreme Commander of the Earth’s Military Forces, I expect he considers that an occupational hazard. I know I do.”
She stared at him as if she’d never really known him at all.
“He’s not like Scarlet; for him it will be the only time he dies,” she gasped.
He spared a moment from his first aid work to glance at her. He saw the fear in her eyes but couldn’t help snapping back: “Just like it will be for me and for you, if they find us. Now, put your finger there and keep up a constant pressure until the bleeding stops. I am going to see if there is a back way out of here. They’ll try to get in here soon enough and that lock won’t hold them for long.”
Major Scarlet sprang from the SSC before it actually stopped moving and ran towards the Teatro Moderno, pushing his way through the milling crowds and pressmen struggling to see what was happening.
He saw a Spectrum lieutenant on the edge of the red carpet and grabbed him by the shoulders, spinning him round to face him.
“Where is the Vice-President?” he shouted.
Lieutenant Nieto pointed into the building. “She, the colonel and the Supreme Commander went in there. They have not come out.”
Scarlet let him go and stood contemplating his next move.
Hesitantly, Nieto asked, “How did you get here so soon? I only contacted base when I saw General Herrera arrive.”
“I’m psychic,” Scarlet replied, absently. He turned his attention back to the lieutenant and demanded, “Does Blue know Herrera is a Mysteron? Maybe all his men too?”
Magenta had arrived at that moment with Rioz beside him.
Nieto shook his head. “We do not know this, Capitán.”
The Spaniard started to correct Nieto. “Idiot, this is Major Scarlet.”
Scarlet waved Nieto’s stammered apology aside as an irrelevance. “Never mind that now; we have to get inside and find Blue, Arnorsdottir and the Supreme Commander.”
Magenta noticed the order of the names and hid a smile. Scarlet never quite managed to follow the regulation that insisted Spectrum personnel put others before their colleagues.
Mind you, neither has the rest of the elite squadron, he thought, and diverted his thoughts to consider the problem.
“Can we contact the colonel?” Scarlet demanded.
Nieto shook his head. “I have been trying, Major, sir. I got Cloudbase to try too, but there is no response. They think it must be a faulty communicator, or the colonel does not have it with him.”
Scarlet shook his head at the suggestion that Blue would not have a communicating device with him. “We really need to replace some of this equipment; the failure rates are getting too high,” he muttered to himself.
Nieto continued, “The Vice-President, she is wearing a tracer and that says she is inside the building.”
“Well, that’s a lot of help,” Scarlet grumbled, “considering we already know that much. What we don’t know is where inside the building, exactly, and how we get inside to where she is.”
“The stage door,” Magenta said suddenly, as inspiration hit him. Scarlet stared at him blankly. “Round the side, there must be a performers’ entrance – where the groupies hang out for autographs and so forth. We can get in that way.”
“Great – where is it?” Scarlet demanded.
Magenta shrugged. “We must be able to get some plans of the building…”
“That’ll take too long,” Scarlet snapped. “Surely someone must know?”
Nieto admitted that he knew and so it was that moments later he and Scarlet were running through the crowds towards the back of the building, leaving Magenta and Rioz to provide a diversion at the front of the building when necessary.
Inside the theatre, Herrera was marshalling his troops and hustling those civilians who had failed to get out of the building back into the auditorium. He had sent men up into the balcony and boxes to see if they could find Arnorsdottir and others were still searching the ground floor. With a bodyguard of three troopers he went out onto the steps of the building and addressed the waiting press.
“The World Government has announced plans to disband the air forces of the world and hand authority over to the World Army Air Force and Spectrum. The Army is already too powerful and Spectrum is a threat to democracy, being as it is above the democratic control of the people of the world. We, the Spanish air force and military, call on the World President to reconsider this decision and agree to continue to fund the air forces of the world.”
Captain Magenta was watching from the crowd and felt some of the cameras swing towards him as the most obvious representative of Spectrum present. He pulled his cap down over his eyes and tried to melt into the background. He did not want his face flashed around the globe attracting unwanted attention from his former gangster associates. Spectrum had developed a device that ‘fogged’ cameras, but he had never felt entirely sure they worked.
Herrera continued: “We give the World Government two hours to respond to our demands. If they do not, then we shall begin to execute one hostage for every hour they delay.”
The reporters reacted in a frenzy of questions, one of which rose above the others:
Do you have the Vice-President?
Herrera’s face darkened. “Vice-President Arnorsdottir is within the building,” he said curtly, and turned on his heels to walk back inside.
Colonel Blue threw the defunct communicator down with a look of disgust. It explained why he’d heard nothing for so long.
Well, we’re really on our own now, he thought, glancing at Valdis who was conscientiously pressing her fingers against the wound on Blackwood’s collarbone.
He looked around the washroom, which was ornately decorated with a dainty chair in front of a wall-mounted mirror and shelf with a selection of individual cosmetic sachets and tissues.
Nothing useful there – except maybe the chair…
The room had an artistically pleasing arch of stained glass running along one side, but it obviously didn’t lead to the outside given the amount of ‘daylight’ that was streaming through it.
There must be sunlight lamps arranged to give the impression of daylight, he conjectured, wondering if that could provide anything he could utilise in their self-defence.
He dragged the chair over and tested it for his weight before standing on it and examining the window. There were no opening catches, so if that was to be the way out, it was going to mean breaking it. He looked back at Valdis. Her evening gown was a charming creation in lace, with an impractically long train, and he wondered how she was going to manage to scramble through a broken window.
He was distracted from his thoughts by a dull rattle from the throat of the Supreme Commander.
“Adam!” Valdis wailed and removed her hand as she sprang back from the body. The blood spurted out and splattered her dress.
He jumped down and came over to see if anything could be done, but, as he’d suspected, it was no good: Blackwood had lost too much blood and without proper medical equipment he was beyond saving. He held the man’s hand until the laboured breathing ceased and the pain-filled eyes filmed over to stare bleakly at the ceiling. Behind him he heard Valdis sob and felt her rest her head against his back as she cried.
Blue closed the Supreme Commander’s eyes and took a moment to put an arm around her.
“At least he didn’t suffer too much,” he told her. “And we did all we could.” She nodded her head against his chest, unable to speak. He set his expression to one of authority and said, “I want you to go into the cubicle. Shut the door, put your fingers in your ears and wait until I say you can come out.”
“Why?” She looked up, frowning. Her cheeks were streaked with tears and still moist.
Shock, he thought.
“Because what I have to do now isn’t nice,” he explained.
“What?” She wiped the back of her hands across her cheeks and sniffed. He handed her the clean handkerchief from his buttonhole pocket.
“The Mysterons have the power of retrometabolism,” he reminded her. “The only thing we’ve discovered that weakens their ability to do this is electricity. That’s what the electron rifle uses – concentrated electric pulses. But, I don’t have an electron gun with me, so I’ll have to improvise.”
“On the Supreme Commander.”
“Oh no – Adam, no!”
“There’s no option-”
“He was our friend,” she protested. “We should treat his body with respect.”
“It’s because I respected him that I won’t let them retrometabolise him. Now, please, go into the cubicle.”
She hesitated. “Will we get out of here?”
“Yeah,” he said confidently, nodding his head. “Oh, yeah, no problem. Now, please, I have to do this quickly.”
She stumbled to her feet and went into the cubicle, closing the door behind her. As she disappeared, Blue reached for the small table lamp on the shelf and removed the shade and bulb – burning his fingers in the process. He closed his eyes briefly, sending up a prayer for his fallen comrade and, with gritted teeth, drove the live end of the lamp into Blackwood’s eye socket, ramming it down with as much force as he could.
The body juddered and the smell was enough to make him retch, but he held it there until even his iron constitution had had enough. He dragged it out and grimaced at the matter that splattered him as he did so.
Another tuxedo ruined, he thought, almost hysterically. He threw the lamp away and dragged the body into a corner, turning the shattered face to the wall so that Valdis might not have to see it.
He washed his hands and splashed water onto his face, fastidiously sponging his jacket clean. He had taken Blackwood’s jacket off him when he’d started first aid and now he picked it up and wrapped it around his gun. He went back to the window and fired a shot into the corner of the glass.
It shattered and fell with a tinkling crash and he knocked out all the jagged edges he could with the pistol butt. Then he draped Blackwood’s jacket over the sill and peered out. Beyond the frame of daylight bulbs, the window looked out into a dimly-lit corridor and the drop down from the sill wasn’t too far.
Knowing the noise would have attracted unwanted attention he jumped down off the chair and went to fetch Valdis.
“Quickly! Come on!” He took her hand and drew her towards the shattered window. She swivelled her head to look around. “No – don’t look. Come on, they’ll have heard us!”
He helped her up onto the chair and urged her to climb out.
“I can’t,” she said, getting her feet tangled in the fancy train of the evening gown.
“Hold still.” He yanked a sharp piece of glass from the window frame and, pulling the material taut, hacked the train off.
“This is a classic haute couture gown,” she said sadly, appalled at the sight of the blood and grime that bespattered her tattered dress.
“”It was,” he corrected with a smile. “Maybe it will be again, but right now, it is a liability. Can you swing your legs over the sill now? Good. Now jump.”
“You’re kidding me?”
She grimaced and with a look of abject misery, slid off the sill and down out of the room.
He peered over and saw her get to her feet. From the other side of the door came the unmistakeable sound of voices – and they did not sound friendly.
He vaulted down beside her and took her hand. “Now, let’s get out of here.”
Scarlet and Nieto pushed their way through the performers’ entrance. It was unguarded, rather to Scarlet’s surprise; however, they hadn’t gone far along the utilitarian corridors before they saw a group of soldiers, armed and guarding the entrance to the wings and stage. Scarlet moved up a metal ladder attached to the wall, leading to walkways across the stage. There were armed men up there too and on the stage were terrified members of the cast and orchestra, while the auditorium was full of silent and terrified civilians. There was no sign of the Supreme Commander, Arnorsdottir or Blue.
He slid down again and placed a finger against his lips to warn Nieto to be quiet. Then he led the way into the scenery store.
“What are we going to do?” whispered Nieto.
“We have to find the VP, the SC:EF and Colonel Blue. Unless they’re holding them apart from the other hostages, they can’t have found them. My guess is Blue is holed up somewhere. Trouble is – from our point of view - there are thousands of places they could be hiding and the soldiers will be searching for them too.”
“How will we find them before the soldiers?”
“There’s no way Blue would risk Arnorsdottir’s life by not having the equipment he needs. If it was me, I’d have a communicator, and a tracer. Dammit! Why didn’t I think of this before? Maybe they can pinpoint their position if they limit the search area? Lieutenant, we daren’t use our radio caps – Herrera might have the place monitored for transmissions – so you will have to go back to Magenta and get him to contact Cloudbase. Tell him to tell them to home in on the building and concentrate on finding Blue’s tracer or the one the VP had. Tell him not to accept any bullshit about not being able to do it; I’m damned sure Green could’ve done it and he trained those operators. Then come back here and we’ll find them together.”
“Shouldn’t we stay together?” Nieto asked, although he was making ready to leave.
“No; if Herrera finds Blue’s party, they’re going to need some help…”
Scarlet waited until he was sure Nieto had successfully left the building before he acted. He moved with stealth, slipping between the hanging backdrops towards the wings, where he might keep a closer eye on events in the auditorium. As he peered around the edge of one backdrop, the movement caught the eye of one young chorus member, who was looking fearfully around.
Scarlet put his fingers to his lips and prayed the young man would keep his nerve.
I wish my Spanish was better, he thought, as he struggled to understand the harangue being given by one of the military leaders. He concentrated on listening for a few words: President, Supremo, coronel or Blue. Whatever was occupying the attention of the military it was none of these.
They can’t have found them… Good, I still have a chance.
He started, as there was the distant sound of a muffled gunshot and glanced in the direction of the noise. A great many of the military looked in that direction too.
At a gesture from the speaker, several men rushed off to investigate.
So, that was not something they were expecting to hear… Blue is sure to have been armed… I’d better see for myself what’s going on.
He dropped back and keeping to the shadows, moved quietly and quickly in the direction the men had taken. As he approached the public areas of the building the décor became more elaborate and the lighting better. He watched the men go through a padded sound-proof door into the foyer and edged forwards to peer through the small porthole-like window. He saw the soldiers battering away at the locked door of what he assumed was a washroom. It didn’t stop them for long and splintered under the onslaught.
The men rushed in, guns drawn.
They’ll kill him…
Scarlet kicked the padded door open and rushed into the open foyer area, shouting and firing into the air to distract attention away from Blue and the Vice President. The military reacted swiftly and started to return his fire. He dodged behind one of the plaster columns and fired upwards at the vast, elaborate crystal chandelier that provided the main feature of the foyer. The pendants tinkled cheerfully as the bullets ricocheted around, shattering them and scattering sharp shards onto the heads of the military men waiting in the space.
There were shouts and exclamations. Scarlet dodged a few wild gunshots and returned the shots with rather more accuracy, wounding two soldiers.
Outside on the steps and plaza that surrounded the new theatre, there was more activity, noise and eventually, firing.
Right on time, Pat, Scarlet thought, thankfully.
Captain Magenta had taken control of the situation on the Plaza when the firing started inside the building and ordered the more gung-ho elements of the Supreme Commander’s forces to back off.
“There are thousands of innocent people in that theatre,” he admonished them. “You could end up getting them all killed. Hostage situations rarely end well when the buildings are stormed.”
Then the news spread like wildfire through the soldiers and the crowd:
The Supreme Commander has been shot.
The reporters surged forwards. Cursing, Magenta turned and ordered Rioz to move the press corps back. There were shouts of protest from the reporters when Rioz tried to carry out his orders and so Magenta went over to them and held up a hand for silence.
Eventually he got it.
“You want the story, right? You want to see every move of the end game, right?” Those closest to him were nodding. “Okay: I give you two choices. Back off and you can stay in the Plaza, or, stay where you are and in much less than ten minutes I will have enough men here to arrest you all and throw you into a jail so far away from the action you’ll have to read about events in the local newspapers when they come out next week… Understand? Good. Now – move!”
Grumbling, the cameras and reporters moved towards the back of the plaza.
Magenta turned to Rioz. “We need a mediator; someone the military in there will respect and listen to. Any ideas?”
Before Rioz could reply, they could clearly hear more shots being fired and the tinkle of broken glass coming from inside the theatre.
“What do we do now?” Rioz asked, as the men of the Supreme Commander’s brigade started to mill about and seemed to be preparing to take matters into their own hands.
Magenta strode towards them, shouting orders.
He was surrounded by the argumentative men when Herrera came to the main entrance and shouted:
“You have lost, Earthmen! Your Supreme Commander is dead. The Vice-President will die! The supports of the World Government will crumble! The Mysterons will be avenged!”
“Herrera!” Magenta shouted, springing towards the entrance. “Don’t be a fool man! Give yourself up – Spectrum can help-”
The force of the explosion that ripped through the foyer of the Theatro Moderno threw him to the ground as the glass entrance hall collapsed inwards and the gaudy roof imploded.
Blue and Valdis hurried down the corridor towards the backstage areas of the building. He held her hand and pulled her along as they raced down two flights of stairs, dodged through doors and round corners. So far they had been lucky and there had been no sight of any of the military, although they were sure they were still being followed.
There was a distant echo of firing from the front of the building and Blue stopped dead in his tracks.
“Are we safe?” Valdis panted beside him.
“No; but if there is fighting then there are people here to rescue us. Even more reason for us to keep out of the rebels’ clutches. However, the likelihood is that every entrance will now be guarded, so the chances of us getting out undetected are slight.”
He looked around, chewing his bottom lip between his strong, white teeth as he looked for a solution to the problem.
“We could hide,” she suggested. “There is a door over there; maybe we can find a place to hide?”
Blue heard the approach of running footsteps and didn’t hesitate.
“Come on, and keep quiet.”
He tried the door, and yanked it open. They slipped inside; the room was dim, the only ambient light coming from some distance away and two small ‘security’ lights close to the two steps down to the main floor of the room. There was no way to lock the door from the inside, so he listened with his ear pressed to the wood and sent up a grateful prayer of thanks as he heard the footsteps run by.
With his finger to his lips he moved her away from the door and down the couple of steps into the long, cavernous room with its boxes of neatly labelled stage props lined up in two neat aisles.
“We’ve hit the jackpot,” he whispered, as exhaustion hit her and she sank gratefully onto a Victorian-style chaise longue. “Plenty of places to hide here. We’ll…”
There was an explosion, the rumble of falling masonry in the corridor, and the lights went out.
Scarlet was buried under shattered glass and the steel frames of the entrance hall by the explosion. His face was cut and bleeding and a large shard of glass was pinning his left arm to the floor.
Glad to be conscious and aware that if Herrera hadn’t been killed by the blast he would be searching to make sure the Spectrum agent had been, he gritted his teeth and with a gasp at the pain that almost made him black out, he yanked the shard out at the third attempt and threw it away.
Blood was flowing copiously down his arm, making his left hand slippery, and his right hand was lacerated from pulling the glass out. Although pain was throbbing through his body until his mind was fuzzy with it, he knew that his retrometabolism would repair the damage soon enough. It seemed to work much quicker in instances where he or his colleagues were still in danger; a fact that had led Doctor Fawn to conclude that adrenalin had an effect on the process. Shaking from loss of blood, he undid his uniform belt and improvised a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Then he set about wriggling out from under the rubble.
There must a few broken bones as well, he reasoned, as protesting stabs of pain came from one ankle and several ribs. I doubt the others in the foyer were as lucky.
He hauled himself to his feet and surveyed the devastation around him. There were bodies strewn across the foyer, partially buried under glass and rubble. In some places the twisted metal support beams had prevent the rubble crushing people to death, and he could see several groups of people – soldiers and civilians – starting to emerge from these caverns.
As the dust cleared he could see the front of the theatre had completely collapsed and debris was strewn across the plaza outside. The lights of the press which were powered by batteries continued to shine in the darkness, but everywhere else the lights had gone out.
He struggled over the rubble towards the plaza, stopping to help anyone he could, or simply reassure those trapped that help was on its way.
He heard Captain Magenta calling him and turned with relief to acknowledge his friend. And so it was that he did not see Herrera fire the bullet that severed his jugular, or Magenta’s instinctive return of fire that resulted in a wayward bullet striking a piece of masonry and the spark it created igniting the gas that was seeping from broken pipes.
Major Scarlet was dead before the gas exploded in a fireball that turned the theatre into a deadly inferno.
In the gloom of their prison Adam and Valdis took stock of their situation.
“Someone must’ve bombed the building,” he said, turning from an unsuccessful attempt to get the door open. They could hear the manic wail of fire alarms and some emergency lighting was flickering intermittently on the ceiling.
“Is there another way out?” she asked.
“There must be a window or something; it wasn’t pitch black in here, even before these lights came on,” he reasoned. He stared into the distance. “But I have no idea where to start looking. As this is a props store it is likely to be secure…”
Valdis’s nerve gave way and her head dropped into her hands. “We’re trapped.”
“No, we’ll find a way out; never fear.”
He moved towards her, but as he approached there was a second explosion and part of the ceiling behind them gave way, knocking him to the floor in the blast. Much of the ambient light vanished and the emergency lighting flickered once or twice more and gave up completely. They were in darkness.
“Are you okay?” he asked, crawling towards her. His hand touched her. She gripped it and clung on.
She nodded, in response to his question and then, unsure he could even see her, replied, “Yes, but this isn’t good, is it?”
He gently withdrew his hand and slowly got to his feet, one hand above his head to feel for the ceiling. He could stand, but not upright, and moved slowly forward in the direction of the supposed window. He hadn’t gone more than a few feet when he bumped into a huge concrete block, which effectively blocked the way further into the storage.
“There’s a block – probably a weight-bearing lintel – that must’ve come down in the blast. The good news is that it will keep the rest of the ceiling off us if there are any more explosions,” he reassured her.
“And the bad news?”
“Why should there be bad news?”
“There is always bad news,” she said and he could hear the defeat in her voice.
He dropped to his knees and crawled back to where she was sitting. She felt his hand on her ankle and reached to take hold of it again.
“They will find us,” he assured her, sitting beside her on the couch.
“Who? The Mysterons?”
“Spectrum.” There was a confidence in his voice that she wanted to believe.
“But how long will it take them? There were hundreds of people in the auditorium, maybe thousands. They’ll have to get them out and then discover we aren’t amongst them before they even start looking.”
“So, we’ll wait. They won’t give up. Besides, you’ve got the tracer with you, haven’t you, Valdis?”
There was a pause and then she said, “It was spoilt the line of my dress and it was uncomfortable, so I put it in my handbag with the little gun… I never anticipated not having the bag with me, you see… only…I left my bag in the cloakroom…”
She felt his arm go around her and hug her in what she hoped was forgiveness.
“Better hope mine’s working better than my communicator was then…” he said evenly.
They sat in silence, each occupied with their thoughts as they came to terms with their situation.
Blue was fighting a rising sense of panic in himself; he had developed a phobia of dark, enclosed spaces following a childhood incident, and try as he might, he’d never been able to rationalise it away. Now, as the adrenalin that had fuelled their escape ebbed away, he felt an iron band of panic clamp around his heart which was starting to thump with irrational fear.
Suddenly he heard Valdis sob and realised she was crying.
“It’s okay, Val. We’re not licked yet,” he said, his voice shakier than he’d have liked. “I’ll think of something.”
“I’m frightened!” she screamed at him, verging on hysteria. “I’m not some trained agent with ice in my blood! I’m scared, damn you!”
“It’s okay,” he began again.
“No, it isn’t! Hold me – hold me, Adam! I’m so frightened…” She flung herself against his chest and he wrapped her in his arms as she wept. Eventually the sobs ceased and apart from an occasional sniff she was silent.
Valdis did not attempt to move, his embrace was so comfortingly firm around her. It was only as she grew calmer and began to take more notice of external factors, that she realised he was shaking. She could feel the rapid rhythm of his heartbeat and the irregularity of his breathing.
“Are you hurt?” she asked fearfully, raising her head from where it lay on his broad chest. There was no response and fearfully she raised her hand to his face. His skin was clammy and he was trembling. “Adam, what’s wrong?”
His voice was tense, revealing his fight for self-control. “Nothing. I… I just don’t like dark, enclosed spaces. That’s all. I can cope… I can cope… I can…” It sounded like a personal mantra.
She smiled, thinking she understood. “Hey, loads of people are claustrophobic; it’s no big deal.”
He said nothing more, but the tension did not leave him. Gradually she realised there was more to it than that. “Have you always been like this?”
“Does it bring back memories of something else that happened?” She knew that when he and Scarlet were field partners they had been in some horrific incidents and wasn’t surprised it should have left a mark on the man. “Want to talk about it? It might help.”
The silence lasted for a very long time, and she thought he wasn’t going to accept her suggestion. Nevertheless, she sat beside him and hoped that he found her presence as comforting as she found his.
Then suddenly he said in a quiet voice that shook slightly: “I was just a k-kid. I was held in a cellar: small, dark, cold - alone. They wanted a ransom from my folks, they said. This guy… this… m-man…” A shudder ran through his body and his voice was louder when he continued: “No – I don’t want to go there. I’m all right. I can deal with this.”
Surprised by the gist of what he’d said, she doubted that he would find it easy to calm himself if the trauma of the experience had stayed with him this long. Well aware of how much her own courage depended on him being the strong and reliable man she loved while this incarceration lasted, she stroked the damp hair back from his forehead and replied gently, “What happened? I can understand that this must’ve been a terrible experience for a child, but why does it still scare you so much?”
He moved away from her slightly and she feared that she’d gone too far with her questions. She knew him to be a reserved man and it was quite possible that she’d crossed some unknown boundary. She began to apologise, when he suddenly began to speak in an unnatural gabble. She listened in horrified silence as he blurted out the story of his blighted childhood; she didn’t need to think about the scars it must have left on his psyche.
“Oh, my dear,” she gasped, aghast at his revelation. She felt the moisture of cathartic tears against her hand, where it still lay against his cheek. “Elskan min, I am so sorry. It’s appalling… my poor darling.”
He was crying in earnest now, and she gathered him into her arms and he clung to her. Although his voice was muffled against her body, she heard him mumble:
“I can control this; I have always been in control. I am always in control. I won’t give way. I guess it’s just…” He broke off.
“Sssshhhh… Elskan….sssshhhh. It’s all right, Adam, you’re not here alone; I’m here with you. There is just you and me… together we will banish this terrible memory - exorcise this ghost of the past. Hold me, Adam, hold me tight. I’m here, I won’t let you go.”
She held him until the muscles in her back ached with supporting his weight, but she vowed she would not move until he did. The relief when he shifted and sat up beside her was tremendous. She laid her head against his shoulder.
He stood up and helped her to her feet, before lowering himself so that he could lie along the length of the couch. She nestled against him, sighing contentedly. His hand came to rest on her hip and she turned towards him, sliding her knee over his thigh to make herself more comfortable. Then, as his embrace tightened around her, she started to chatter about anything she could think of to distract him.
She told him about amusing incidents at World Senate meetings, of the celebrities she’d met, of places she’d visited. Frequently slipping unselfconsciously into her native language, she dredged her mind for diverting topics. He said nothing, although she felt, rather than saw, him smile and snort with amusement at her more outrageous anecdotes as the tension left him.
Her hand lay on his chest, fiddling with one of the pearl buttons of his now blood- and grime-splattered dress-shirt. She raised herself on her elbow and reached to undo the white silk bow tie that completed his outfit.
“We might as well be less formal,” she said. “The gala event is – effectively – over, after all.”
“I’m sorry about your dress.” He spoke for the first time in a while and she was relieved to hear him sound as composed as usual.
“It’s just a dress; it doesn’t matter.”
“It’s a very pretty dress; you looked… gorgeous.”
“Thank you.” She was absurdly pleased that he’d thought so. “I can’t remember the last time I had such a handsome escort; you were a topic of interest to quite a number of the ladies I was chatting to.”
“What did you tell them?”
“That you were an old friend – like I told you. I kept it vague. One of them said you reminded her of someone, but I didn’t give her a chance to tell me who.”
“Thanks. I guess I’m starting to remind people of my father, or my grandfather, if they remember him. There is a Svenson ‘family mould’ and we tend to resemble each other.”
“My sister is nothing like me. She’s married with three children – a real hausfrau.”
“Did you never want that?”
“Oh yes, once upon a time, for several hours…”
He gave a snort of laughter.
“I admit it; I’m a power-junkie. I like being in charge and involved in important things. Besides, I never found a ‘Mr Right’ that didn’t already have a ‘Mrs Right’ of his own.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she said, just a shade too quickly. “I had a relationship with a Swiss politician for several years, until his wife threatened to go to the press. Neither of us cared enough for each other to risk our careers; which shows you how genuine it was.”
She cursed herself for sounding so cynical, but the episode had wounded her, because her feelings had been genuine: she had felt more for the man than he for her. She hoped Adam hadn’t picked up on that and was relieved when he continued:
“I wanted to say that… I … well, I consider you a very dear friend. If things had been different, I would have hoped…”
Irritated at what she considered a sop to her feelings, she interrupted him with what she felt sure would be the conclusion to his sentence. “But you have a wife – and you’ve told me often enough that you feel committed to her.” She hesitated and then decided that, as there was every chance they’d never get out of this alive, she might as well lay her cards on the table once and for all. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how I feel. You know I find you very attractive.”
There was a lengthy pause and she began to suspect he was angry until he said dolefully: “But I’m a married man…”
Frustrated, she snapped back: “I know; you hide behind it like a coward.”
His arm tightened around her as if to show he was not annoyed, but he replied, “I love my wife.”
She thought she sensed despondency in his voice and challenged him: “Say that again: without the sadness this time…”
“I loved my wife…”
Her heart jumped as she noticed the subtle change in his words. Barely daring to speak in case she was rebuffed again, she whispered, “That was then… this… this is now…And perhaps this is all there will be…”
There was a different kind of tension in him now, the hand that had lain motionless on her hip was moving, caressing her curves. His breathing was faster, each breath shallow and, it seemed to her, intense with anticipation.
She moved slightly, so that her face was closer to his. She could feel his breath on her cheek and slowly, by sense alone, closed in to press her lips to his.
The kiss was long and lingering, just two sets of lips pressed close, parted so that their breath could mingle.
“Valdis,” he murmured and suddenly the nature of their embrace changed. His was forceful, passionate and demanding, while hers was equally passionate, but yielding to his touch. Both of his arms encircled her, his hands caressing her as they traced the body that lay against his. His free hand touched her knee, where it still lay across his thigh, and moved down to the tattered hem of her dress, only to slide upwards beneath the cloth and over the silky fabric of her sheer stockings. He pulled her across his body.
Valdis straddled his hips, her hands busy with the delicate pearl buttons of his shirt. She yanked the shirt out of the waistband of the trousers and almost ripped the buttons open to slide her hands onto his warm skin and upwards over the flesh that shivered beneath her touch.
Almost at a loss at how to control her desire, she finally pulled away from him and pushed him down, so that she might bury her tongue in the warmth of his mouth.
“I’ve waited a long time to get this close to you,” she confessed, her cheek pressed against his. “Please, don’t make me wait any longer.”
He turned his head to kiss her lips, his hands once more delving beneath the fabric of her dress.
Valdis surrendered to the long-awaited fulfilment of her cherished ambition with a tremulous sigh….
Daylight was streaking across the sky before the fire brigades managed to get the blaze under control. Heavy moving equipment was brought in to clear the rubble, but it was slow work. Captain Magenta summoned Doctor Fawn from Cloudbase with an emergency team to deal with Major Scarlet’s charred body. Fawn had taken one look and shipped Scarlet back to Cloudbase, but he stayed to lend what assistance he could to the medical teams. Most of the bodies were burnt beyond recognition, but the advanced design of the theatre had prevented the flames from spreading to the auditorium and the people still trapped in there needed treatment for shock and smoke inhalation.
“Any sign of the Vice-President or the colonel?” Magenta asked his colleague, as Fawn came out to the rescue command centre to take a break.
“No; that is to say, not that we can identify.”
Fawn looked exhausted; his eyes were puffy and red and not all of it, Magenta expected, was due to the smoke. He laid a sympathetic hand on the doctor’s shoulder. Fawn’s experiences since he’d joined Spectrum had not included mass disaster and death; even though he had witnessed the appalling injuries Scarlet had experienced at the hands of the Mysterons, this was a different kind of horror.
The Australian gave a shaky smile. “I’d better get back. There’s a lot to do.”
“The World President’s going crazy asking for news about Blue and Arnorsdottir,” Magenta confessed. “We heard Blackwood had been shot before all this hit the fan… that’s all I’ve been able to tell him.”
“Don’t worry; he’ll understand that. Any news of Scarlet?” Fawn asked as he prepared to get back to work.
Magenta nodded. “Doctor Tan said he’s regained consciousness and his body’s well on the way to recovery.”
“Good. Tell Tan that as soon as Scarlet asks to be assigned back to duty, to send him down here.”
“You’re going to let him out?” Magenta was surprised. “He was in a bad way, Doc.”
Fawn wiped a hand over his grimy face; he was disheartened and distressed by what he’d seen, but he was only too well aware that Scarlet wouldn’t stay put while his best friend was missing, presumed dead. He turned to face Magenta and explained, “One thing I’ve learned over the past decade or so, Patrick, is that Scarlet knows better than I do what he’s capable of and when. Besides, we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
Major Scarlet arrived with a fresh corps of Spectrum personnel who had volunteered to help the rescue mission, at about tea-time on Christmas Eve. The sky was darkening again beyond the arc of fluorescent brilliance from the search lights and there was a splattering of snow which hissed against the hot lights and soon melted on the plaza, making it slippery and churning the dust and ash into a sticky mud.
Magenta, dirty and unshaven, was delighted to see Scarlet. He noted that the Englishman’s skin looked almost baby-pink where it had regenerated and his uniform was pristine – although that wouldn’t last.
“Good to see you, Major,” he said, saluting.
“Thanks. You’re doing a great job here, Pat. Grey’s in charge of Cloudbase and Ochre’s on his way with the next group of volunteers. You’ll be able to get a rest soon.”
“That’s the best news I’ve heard for what seems like a lifetime.”
“Have you found Blue and Arnorsdottir?” Scarlet asked, even though he knew that Magenta would have told him the moment he’d arrived if there was any news.
Magenta shook his head. “We don’t even know where to look. The blast must’ve done something to block the tracer signals. They say Blue is in there… but that’s as good as it gets, and that’s even after Green got back and did all he could to focus the signal.”
“I think I know where to start looking at least. They weren’t in the auditorium and after we heard a gun shot, I saw some of the guards heading off” – Scarlet gestured towards the back of the theatre –“presumably to search for them.”
“I can give you some men and gear to look, if you like?” Magenta suggested, consulting the plans of the building he’d downloaded onto his hand-held data pad. “It’s mostly storerooms and rehearsal spaces over there. We haven’t got that far yet. There’re still civilians trapped in the auditorium.”
“S.I.G.,” Scarlet said briskly. “I’m sure Blue’s in there somewhere. I’d stake my life on it.”
Magenta wasn’t about to argue with one of Scarlet’s hunches. The bond between him and Blue had always been a strong one and since they had both been ‘cloned’ several years ago by a Mysteron-enhanced machine, they’d had what at times had appeared to be an almost telepathic awareness of each other.
“Where there’s Blue there’s a Vice-President?” Magenta remarked quizzically, reminding Scarlet that they were not only searching for their comrade, but for the VIP he’d been protecting.
“Oh yes; he won’t have let her out of his sight.”
The muffled sound of activity gradually became too audible to ignore and Valdis, lying complacently in Adam’s arms, said:
“Hear that, Elskan?”
“Yes; someone’s coming.”
There was an edge of fear in her voice and he knew he couldn’t give her the reassurance she sought.
“It’s a possibility,” he admitted, calmly.
“They’ll kill us, won’t they?”
“Yes, they probably will. But we won’t go down without a fight, älskling.”
“How can we fight them? There’s just the two of us and we’re trapped.”
“Well, for a start, we can get dressed.”
Valdis exhaled a shaky snort of laughter and kissed him gently before sitting up and stretching. Her elbow caught his head as he sat up. They dissolved into giggles and she leant over to ‘kiss him better’.
Groping for his trousers in the dark, Blue felt the gun in the pocket and reached for his jacket where he’d put an additional ammunition clip. It wasn’t much, and a conventional weapon wasn’t going to kill any Mysteron for good, but it would slow them down and might just give them a chance to break through.
Once they had both dressed as best they could, they sat side by side on the chaise longue. Blue tried to prepare Valdis for the expected onslaught.
“If they open the door they’re bound to use flashlights,” he said as matter-of-factly as he could. “We’ll be dazzled after being in here for so long. I want you to keep behind this couch; it will offer some protection.”
“What will you do?” She grasped his hand as it brushed her arm.
“I’m going to stand behind the door. I won’t be dazzled and I’ll see them before they see me.”
“How many bullets do you have?”
“Fourteen and a back-up clip… but…”
“You don’t think you’ll get the chance to use them all…” she concluded. There was a deep silence until she continued, “If they’re winning, will you shoot me?”
“No; that’s not what I’m here for,” he said fiercely.
“But I don’t want them to kill me,” she protested. “That’d be much, much worse than just dying.”
Blue had to agree; throughout the years they had been field partners, he and Scarlet had had an understanding that should the very worst happen, they both wanted to be killed by an electron gun so that the Mysterons couldn’t take them over and use them – as they used Black – to wreak havoc on the world. “I can’t say for sure, Val, that the Mysterons can’t retrometabolise someone they were not directly responsible for killing. We just don’t know that kind of detail, even now.”
She placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “Then, as a Vice-President of the World Government, I am giving you an order, Colonel Blue. I want you to use the last bullet you have a chance to fire on me. If they can still retrometabolise me – well, at least we’ll have done our best to prevent it.”
She felt his lips kiss the back of her hand and he replied:
“S.I.G., Madame Vice-President; but it won’t be the last bullet. That one will be for me.”
“Understood, Colonel.” Her fingers stroked his rough cheek. “Thank you, Elskan.”
Major Scarlet was directing the operation to move the rubble away from the area where the plans of the building he’d consulted with the rescue team, showed there was a series of underground storage rooms. He couldn’t be sure that he was looking in the right place, but this was the right direction and they had, some hours ago, found the charred remains of a party of four military men, their identity confirmed by the amount of fused metal clinging to the corpses.
I guess they wouldn’t even find that for a Spectrum uniform, he mused, as he watched the paramedics remove the sealed body bags. And both of them were dressed in civvies and we haven’t seen any civilian bodies.
He nodded at the rescue team leader to restart the work.
Where the hell are you, Adam?
As he watched the lifting gear remove a lump of concrete, his mind went back over the numerous times he’d been buried in collapsed buildings or caves. There had been times when he’d been dead and oblivious to the frantic work going on to retrieve him from his unpleasant grave. There had often been times when his retrometabolism had returned him to consciousness and he’d waited in the dark, unable to move, without hope of contacting his partner or Cloudbase and unsure if there was a rescue underway. The mental anguish coupled with the physical pain and discomfort had almost made him wish he hadn’t regained his senses and that his retrometabolism had dawdled over his recovery.
The sound of approaching rescue, and especially the muffled but distinctive voice of his friend, shouting his name, had always brought a flood of overwhelming relief. Thereafter, however tedious the wait, he had been able to bear it with fortitude.
He moved forwards and stood as close to the front line of the rescue work as he could.
He filled his lungs with the dusty air and bellowed:
“Colonel! Can you hear me? It’s Scarlet! Adam – it’s Paul. We’re coming. Hold on!”
The Team Leader, a grizzled veteran of more heart-rending accidents and rescue attempts than he cared to remember, stretched out an arm towards his younger second-in-command and shook his head.
“Leave him,” he said, preventing him from stopping Scarlet’s act of desperation. “It does no harm and if there is anyone alive under all this, it may well give them the hope to survive.”
The younger man looked at the officer in the grimy red uniform, his hands cupped to his mouth as he bellowed one name into the unknown once more, and nodded.
“God help them all…”
They sat side by side on the couch, his arm around her, her head on his shoulder. There was nothing either could think of to say and hardly a need for words between them. The long hours of intimate darkness had brought them to a deep understanding of each other, which could have taken years in normal circumstances.
Valdis’s mind was barely functioning consciously as she listened to the steady heartbeat of the man beside her. She was hungry and very thirsty, but accepted that if this was her fate she was glad it was to happen in company with this man.
She sat up suddenly as she felt him stiffen, and his comforting embrace stopped as he gently moved her aside so that he could stand.
“Do you hear that?” he whispered.
“No… listen. I can hear a voice…”
She stood beside him, slipping her hand into his, and strained to hear what he could.
“I’m… I’m not sure…” she whispered in reply.
Blue dropped her hand and went to the door, banging on it with a clenched fist.
“Paul! Paul! We’re in here! Help, Paul!”
He stopped and she went to the door, wanting to believe he had heard something.
On the very edge of her hearing she could just make out one distant voice and one word.
“Oh, thank God,” she breathed, and sank to the ground as relief shattered the remainder of her courage and tears spilt from her eyes.
Blue continued to stand, beating his fist on the door and shouting until his voice cracked. Then he sank down beside her and wrapped her in his arms while they waited for their deliverance.
It was some hours before the rescuers were close enough for Scarlet’s voice to become clearly audible.
“You’re by the door?” he called.
“Yes,” Blue croaked in reply. “Both of us.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No; we can walk. Thirsty,” Blue replied.
“Okay; move away from the door. We may have to knock it down. Can you do that?”
“We have paramedics standing by. You’ll get medical attention,” Scarlet went on to say. He paused. “The press are outside on the plaza.”
Blue heard Valdis sigh, but responded: “Okay, Paul.” Blue helped her to her feet and she leant against him. “We’re moving away.”
“Good. Not long now, Adam.”
They stumbled over to the couch and sat down on it together, holding hands.
“You were right,” Valdis said quietly. Her voice was huskier than ever now. “Spectrum did rescue us. Pity they can’t save us from the press.”
“You’ll be okay; they’ll look after you.”
“What about us?” she asked, her grip tightening on his hand.
“Us? Oh, we can’t say anything, to anyone. What happened here is between us.”
“Forever and for always,” she responded firmly. “But what I meant was: will I see you again – privately?”
He kissed her. “I would like that.” Nevertheless he knew how sharing danger could affect relationships, how people acted in a way they could come to regret. Whatever she came to feel about their time together, he wanted her to know that he would never betray her, or use emotional blackmail to pressure her into continuing an intimacy she regretted in the light of day.
“Whatever you want to happen is fine by me,” he explained. “We should both take time to take stock of what’s happened to us and between us. I don’t want to make life difficult for you.”
She gave a weak chuckle. “If it hadn’t been you, I would never have – what I mean is – I wanted it to happen – all of it.”
“So did I,” he assured her. “But outside of the theatre, real life has claims on us both; we can’t and we shouldn’t ignore them.”
“Your wife,” she said, bitterness permeating her voice.
“Yes,” he agreed readily, adding, “and your career… and mine.”
“Oh yes… my career,” she said sombrely. “People say I could be the next World President, if I want to be,” she confessed. “You think if this got out the Senate wouldn’t elect me?” There was now a hint of amusement in her voice.
He chuckled. “You could be anything you want to be; I was surprised you weren’t nominated this time round.”
“I declined the offer to stand,” she admitted. “I knew I was not ready for the job – yet. When I stand for the post it will be because I know I can do it better than anyone else.”
“You are amazing,” he told her, squeezing her hand. “I wouldn’t bet against you winning whenever you decide to stand. And you would certainly have my vote – if I had one.”
She hugged him, jumping in alarm as there was an almighty crash from beyond the door. There were now shafts of light coming from around the door frame.
“They’re almost here,” Blue remarked.
“Adam, let’s set a date,” she said urgently. “Let’s meet somewhere - somewhere we won’t be known - in a few months, for a weekend. Just the two of us – and see how we feel.”
“You think there’s anywhere on this planet where you won’t be recognised?”
“I am a mistress of disguise,” she teased. “So, how about it?”
“I think it’s a great idea. Where do you suggest?”
“Niagara Falls; it’s always crowded so nobody recognises anybody. And the hotels ask no questions.”
“Good grief,” he muttered, a little concerned at the proximity – on a global scale – to Boston and to Karen. “Are you sure that’s wise?”
“I go there sometimes when I want to escape the press. Living in the spotlight is truly tiring. I am sure it’d be an ideal place for me to meet my old friend Sven Andersson again.”
He laughed. “Well, maybe you’re right… we should certainly get together and see what we feel. We can decide on where, exactly, later.”
The door fell inwards with a resounding crash and lights flooded into the storeroom.
Major Scarlet strode towards them, a beaming smile on his face.
“Good to see you both,” he said, glancing at Blue while he helped Valdis to her feet. “Are you all right, Madame Vice-President?”
“I am perfectly all right; just very thirsty and a little hungry, Major.”
Rather to her alarm, he swept her into his arms and carried her out of the storeroom to the rubble-strewn corridor, where the paramedics had an emergency stretcher to take her out to the ambulance.
Then he turned to help his friend over the rubble as the paramedics whisked Valdis away.
“Can you walk out on your own okay?” he asked Blue. “We can get another stretcher sent down if necessary.”
“No, I’m fine; I could do with a drink, though.”
Scarlet handed him a small bottle of water from the shoulder bag of rations he had with him.
“Thanks,” Blue said, as he unscrewed it and put it to his lips.
“My pleasure,” Scarlet remarked, adding cheerfully as he glanced at his watch, “Oh, and Merry Christmas, Colonel.”
The World Government swung into action and its officials whisked the traumatised Vice-President away to a private hospital for care, debriefing and recuperation, before the reporters had a chance to pester her with questions.
Scarlet stood beside Blue as the ambulance drove away and most of the media circus followed it. Slowly, the plaza emptied, apart from the diehard news reporters and the recovery crews.
Captain Magenta hurried across to stand by the colonel’s side, shielding him from the remaining onlookers. Blue was staring after the ambulance and didn’t seem to register his presence at all.
Magenta looked across at Scarlet with a concerned frown.
“She’ll be fine; she’s one tough lady,” Scarlet said reassuringly to his friend, as Blue made no effort to move even after the ambulance had disappeared from sight. “And we’d better get you back to Cloudbase. Doctor Fawn’s lending a hand with the injured people here, but I reckon he’ll have issued orders for a week’s convalescence for you, at least, with plenty of tests.”
Blue snapped out of his reverie, acknowledged Magenta with a nod and a smile and looked at Scarlet who was regarding him with a quizzical expression.
There was a shout from across the plaza and, excusing himself with a salute, Magenta raced away to lend a hand.
Once they were alone again, Scarlet asked:
“Are you okay, Adam?”
“Yeah.” Blue’s tone was implausibly upbeat and his friend’s dark eyebrow rose in cynical disbelief. Knowing he was going to have to give some sort of explanation for his distraction, he continued, “You know how I hate dark, enclosed spaces? It was pretty grim in there for a while, but Valdis was… very supportive; she helped me through it.”
“Oh yeah, by doing what?” Scarlet asked, with a roguish chuckle.
“You have a dirty mind, Scarlet,” Blue replied, but with a friendly smile. “Mostly, we talked. We even played ‘Twenty Questions’ for a while. We discovered we have quite a lot in common, really.”
“That was news to you?” Scarlet was incredulous. “I’ve thought for a long time that you two make … a… felicitous couple - in many ways.”
Blue studied his friend’s face, but saw nothing in his expression that suggested he had twigged what had happened.
Scarlet misread the glance and continued to dig himself into a hole by saying: “Well, I mean; by having more in common than you and Karen – that’s all. I mean, Valdis likes opera and art and all that intellectual stuff you’re into and Karen…”
“Karen doesn’t,” Blue concluded sharply.
“She called, by the way; while you were in there. She was frantic with worry. I said you’d get back to her when you were able. I hope that was the right thing to say? She wanted to go to Cloudbase…”
“No, no – I can’t deal with her there. That was fine. I’ll give her a call when Fawn’s finished giving me a once-over. Was she okay?”
“I think so. Sometimes it’s hard to tell with Karen.” Scarlet hesitated and then confessed in a rush, “Di told me that her latest… flirtation is over… her protégé’s moved to another airbase.”
Blue sighed and looked up at the clear, blue sky. “Right; looks like I’ll be expected to provide a shoulder for her to cry on, then.”
Scarlet shook his head and, with the privilege of a long and valued friend, said, “You’re mad, you know that? You let her treat you like… like this when you wouldn’t take it from anyone else. You ought to deal with this uncertainty once and for all, Adam; get it sorted out and move on with your life.”
“It’s Christmas Day, Major; what happened to ‘goodwill to all men’? In which I include women, of course – even Karen.”
Scarlet sighed. “Then someone ought to tell Karen that goodwill to all men includes you. Whatever she does, she seems to think she has a right to demand you dig her out of the pit of her own making. And you continue to do it. I just don’t understand why and I think it is time you stopped and let her stand on her own high heels.”
“Sometimes, I think you’re right…”
“You know I’m right, Adam.”
His friend’s voice had taken on a hard edge and Scarlet was all too familiar with the pointlessness of arguing with Blue about Symphony Angel. He grinned ruefully and changed the subject.
“Come on; you look shattered. I’ll drive you to the airbase and fly you back home. And this time, you are going to sit in the passenger compartment and relax…”
Blue laughed. “S.I.G., Major Scarlet. Let’s go home, Paul.”
This is only a Christmas story in as much as it mentions Christmas, so I hope I haven’t broken the terms of the website challenge. It is set in the future of the Captain Scarlet TV episodes and builds on some plot lines that I have been considering for some years.
The characters of Captains Scarlet, Blue, Magenta and Grey, as well as Doctor Fawn, come from the original Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons™ TV show, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson in the 1960s. All other characters are my own invention and despite my use of images of Diane Kruger, they are not intended to represent her or any other person, living, dead, or appearing in reality TV shows.
I owe my thanks to Hazel Köhler for beta-reading the story and for her helpful comments. My grateful thanks also go to Chris Bishop, the creator of the website that has meant so much to me for many years. I am looking forward to the tenth anniversary with great excitement.
And, finally, I would like to thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed the story.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone!
19 December 2010
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