It was possible to take the stairs.
But it was seldom that anyone ever did, and it was therefore all the more surprising when Colonel White stepped into the lift corridor outside the Control Room and paused, noting both an unexpected noise and the direction from which it was coming.
Of course, he reflected, things had been quiet of late. Downright slow, in fact, and that in turn translated into boredom for the majority of his subordinate officers ‑ all of whom were Intelligent, Imaginative, and Mostly Incapable of Sitting Still for any extended period of time. The boredom, judging by the approaching racket, had become acute, and the Intelligence and the Imagination had tipped over into Invention...
The subordinates, he guessed, were no longer sitting still.
Curiosity aroused, Colonel White - himself bored - abandoned the express lift that would have taken him quickly and quietly to Cloudbase Engineering Ops and moved instead for the exit door at the lift corridor's portside bulkhead. The door there let him into the bottom of a starkly spartan stairwell, painted in dull, neutral beige. That beige expanse was broken by a single sign, vivid red with broad white block lettering, that proclaimed 'DOWN' and was accompanied, quite nonsensically, by an arrow that pointed up the stairs.
You'd think they could find a better way to phrase that, he thought, even it is true...
To take the stairs down meant that one first had to go up a flight, to access the maintenance gantries above the lift system, and so gain entry to the main hollow of the port support pylon which, with its starboard twin, buttressed Cloudbase's upper levels alongside and above the carrier's Engineering and Flight Decks.
The wall at the upper end of the beige stairwell was far more informative:
ENTRY RESTRICTED TO AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
To Upper Deck Observation (arrow up)
To Upper Deck Level B,C,D (arrow down)
To Portside Maintenance Tunnel and External Access Hatches P: A thru G (arrow port)
To Lower Decks ‑ All Levels (arrow down)
There were at least twenty separate possible destinations that could be reached from the landing where he stood. The beige stairwell continued on upwards, security clearance not being pre-requisite to getting to the Observation Deck from the Control Level on foot, should one be feeling so inclined.
A schematic of the carrier's upper decks was posted under the listing. There was a neon-green 'X' on the map, with the words 'YOU ARE HERE' beside it. Then there was yet another red sign with the broad white lettering. 'DOWN' it said, and the arrow that accompanied it didn't lie this time. The last and final bit of information that the wall conveyed was what someone may or may not have meant as a joke. 'WATCH YOUR STEP' it advised.
Turning from the panel, Colonel White let himself through the security door with a thumbprint scan. Entry into the support pylons was restricted - there were too many vulnerable systems accessible from the catwalks and the service gantries that laced the pylon's interior ‑ and he found himself staring down at a dizzying perspective. The watch your step was not a joke, he decided, having forgotten what that vista looked like; the pylon was sixteen and some stories in depth, skewed diagonally and criss‑crossed with lightweight carbon‑fiber ribbing and flight after flight of narrow, white‑painted metallic‑mesh steps. The omnipresent beige primer sprayed on all the visible surfaces was broken by color‑coded conduits ‑ power, ventilation, plumbing, electronics ‑ each brightly identified and garishly lit by powerful mercury vapor lamps that descended the full length of the overhead slope and provided bizarre illumination for the mobile riot of color presently tacking its collective, noisy way up the narrow stairs. Foot race or mock combat - he couldn't decide which - it looked like his veteran officers were doing their best to break‑in the neophytes.
The quiet period had provided an opportunity for him to both interview and select another handful of junior officers. He disliked running short of manpower in a crisis, and while his experienced men seldom managed to get themselves seriously injured or killed it didn't mean that it couldn't or wouldn't happen to them. Simple probability argued for it, and while, in the on‑going War of Nerves with the Mysterons Captain Scarlet bore the brunt of it, sooner or later the odds were going to come down on someone without Scarlet's built‑in partially‑Mysteronised advantages. Simple pragmatism dictated that Spectrum be ready for it, because it just didn't look like the War was going to be coming to any sort of a quick conclusion.
At the moment he couldn't see Scarlet amongst his colleagues. It was mock combat for certain then, because Blue was also absent from the upwardly mobile group. That in turn meant that the two of them were both elsewhere, hidden among the gantries and catwalks and color‑coded systems, no doubt ready with an ambush planned.
It didn't take him long to spot them, being at least halfway familiar with the most obvious attack points. The exercise, he decided, was apt to prove entertaining. Colonel White settled himself onto the upper railing, his back to the bulkhead, and folded his arms to watch.
It was an awkward place to be, Scarlet mused silently, and with second thoughts about it and a cramp in his left leg he decided that he'd probably given Blue the better hiding hole.
He could feel the pounding vibration of multiple sets of boots in the mesh step beneath his hand; they were coming closer. The objective of the game was simple enough - someone in that approaching group had to get to the top end, and that someone had to get there before the antique wind‑up alarm clock perched on one of the upper railings went off. It was a race against time and obstacles, never mind the good-for-sweat workout that running up those sixteen stories of metallic mesh happened to be.
Blue hadn't felt like the workout and had volunteered readily for ambush duty when Ochre had first proposed Initiation Rites for the novice ranks – there were five new field officers now assigned to Cloudbase, one for each of the senior captains, Scarlet supposed ‑ and the juniors had all gone for it eagerly enough - keyed up, fresh, much too enthusiastic and every last one of them aching for a real assignment to come along. It was easy to understand the why behind it, but the newcomers were far too eager in Scarlet's estimation; a real assignment generally meant serious property damage and often death for some poor sod.
A real assignment wasn't something to look forward to. But try to explain it to this lot though – freshly graduated from Koala Base and for the most part not officers drawn from some previous life and on‑the‑job experience. These were first generation Career Spectrum, signed up as raw recruits, ground through the mill and surviving it all to graduate. Cream of the crop, too; he'd seen the reports and these guys were good. Damn good and damn green and trying damn hard not to be as cocky as they were really feeling.
An affliction of youth, Scarlet had concluded. They were also damn young ‑ or maybe, as the cramp in his leg was reminding him, he was just feeling older by comparison.
He shifted slightly atop the air duct he was crouched on, fingering his pistol and the damp patch it was causing on his sleeve. The thing was fluorescent orange and yellow; lousy camouflage under other conditions, but it was just practice after all, and Ochre had insisted that the pressure water guns were the only real way to make sure that nobody could cheat if hit in battle. They could assess the damages and rate performance. The rules had been clearly laid out: if you were hit you had to act as if it was real. The ammunition, being only water, was harmless to personnel, uniforms, and the surrounding environment. Maintenance would have been severely upset with them if they'd gone for the dye squibs and the pellet pistols to be had for practice purposes down in the firing range. The dyes didn't wash out easily either, and that would have also upset the folks down in Services too, who always complained that their uniforms were too hard to keep both clean and the appropriate color ‑ the fabric was tough and durable, but the color hues tended to go splotchy under certain solvents.
So, trust Ochre, with all the deviousness of the ten‑year‑old he'd once been and still had lurking somewhere in his mind, to come back from leave with a dozen cheap and leaking water pistols, obtained at nominal cost from some local department store. Trust Ochre too, to present his colleagues with the bill for them, in the unlikely event that someone might choose to reimburse him. Ochre wasn't holding his breath, though it was likely the new guys would cough up, because Ochre had Rank and they didn't, and they were all going out of their way to be nice to their superior officers.
Four of the five were pounding up the stairs with Ochre and Magenta. Grey was up at the top end with Indigo, keeping score. Vermilion, Teal, Russet and Roan ‑ all of them were going to be in firing range in only a few seconds. Scarlet tensed, bracing the leaking weapon in both hands against his knee, one shoulder to the duct for balance...
Vermilion bought it first, taking a direct hit in the side of the neck as he came alongside Scarlet's hiding place. A shocked look and a surprised exclamation escaped the young Lieutenant, but he took it and collapsed, moaning with embarrassment, onto the mesh stairway, dying with good humor. Scarlet didn't stop to watch and he was gone when Teal's vengeful return fire came splashing around the bend. Scarlet was already upward bound himself, over the top of the power conduits and making for the service gantry that ran parallel. Steep, but straight, the gantry went to the upper level same as the stairs did, but without the zigzagging.
One of them should have thought of it at the bottom.
Teal thought of it now, and was coming after him, realizing that Scarlet was going to get to the bomb first by that route, and Scarlet, being on the wrong side of the mock battle, was apt to touch it off early. That was allowed. Anything was allowed, all being fair in Love and War and this was the latter. He could hear the others still pounding along the mesh, recalling, he hoped, that Blue was still unaccounted for. Teal seemed to have forgotten that, and he found out the hard way a moment later when Blue shot one of his knees out.
Scarlet had gained a couple of flights and he dropped back out of sight, going for low ground under the mesh at a point where the red‑coded plumbing provided some semblance of cover. It wasn't perfect, but the white mesh and the angles could trick the eye when the eye was in climbing motion itself. The red, however, was a give‑away and Russet and Roan had their brains in gear. A water blast came at him through the mesh ‑ he ducked it and got away un-maimed by the salvo. It cost him time. The group passed him overhead and the mesh deflected the couple of shots he sent after them. He gave up the cover and scrambled onto the stairway himself, pumping up the pressure in the gun and aiming for unprotected backs. Magenta died cheerfully, shot through the spine, protecting his comrades‑in‑arms, who, quite wisely, kept on going, moving out of range of the water gun by the time Magenta had gone down.
“Go!” Ochre yelled, and spun on the stairs, firing a wide pattern down in Scarlet's direction, giving Russet and Roan cover. Those two were near the upper end now, close to their goal. Scarlet ducked again, but Ochre had the high vantage. Water spattered across his arm and shoulder. Scarlet let that arm drop to his side and dangle there uselessly. His right arm too! He dropped the gun and bent to pick it up again left‑handed, aiming badly after Ochre. But Ochre was long gone by then. Scarlet let his arm fall back, watching up the stairs, an interested spectator now, as Blue swung into view ahead of Russet and Roan ‑ and died, shot square in the chest because at least one of them had been expecting him. Teal, down but not out, had obviously used his radio to warn them where Blue was. One Lieutenant bypassed the other and grabbed at the alarm clock, disarming it with a whoop that echoed up and down the cavernous pylon.
Grey and Indigo applauded, and the dead and wounded came limping in as the mock combat ended. Scarlet waited on the stairs for Vermilion and walked up the last couple of flights with him, the new officer shaking his head sheepishly. Young, Scarlet thought again, glancing sidelong at the sandy‑haired and freckled lieutenant. Skinny American kid. Scarlet couldn't figure out how he'd ever gotten by the weight requirements.
“Died early, sir,” Vermilion said apologetically.
Scarlet shrugged. “That happens, sometimes. Keep it in mind, Lieutenant. Learn something. It's been a good exercise, actually,” he added as they drew level with Captain Blue who was examining the wet blotch on his uniform. “'Everyone made mistakes.”
“Speak for yourself Scarlet.” Ochre snorted in mock offence. “I survived and so did my good buddies here.” Ochre turned and made an elaborate bow at the two smiling lieutenants behind him. “Thank you, Lieutenant Russet. Thank you, Lieutenant Roan. You have saved Cloudbase from certain destruction.”
Scarlet could scarcely keep a grin from his face as both Russet and Roan looked at one another, very pleased with themselves. Scarlet wondered, not for the first time, how, under the garish mercury lights, Ochre could possibly tell the two apart, and he wondered too just how on earth they'd ever managed to pick (and furthermore, keep) their colors. The only difference that he could see between the color russet and the color roan was the difference between a reddish‑brown and a brownish‑red. A very slight difference that simply vanished under the mercury lamps, and that slight difference itself being a significant one beside the non‑existent variances between the bodies that were inside of those two uniforms. Because Russet and Roan were identical twin brothers and Scarlet himself had never met a pair of twins that matched so perfectly.
A good looking pair too, as the Angels had noted, the very day these two had arrived on Base. The Angels had given the new recruits a lengthy and critical once‑over on introduction. They were tall, broad at the shoulders, with striking green eyes and the most amazing shock of wavy auburn hair on the both of them. They had thick Australian accents, much thicker than Doctor Fawn's, and they were the brashest, most self‑assured couple of smart‑asses that Scarlet had ever met - except perhaps for Captain Ochre. Which was probably how Ochre could tell the two apart. Ochre related to them on some common level, possibly that of devious ten‑year‑olds, a level that somehow escaped everyone else on‑Base. Colonel White himself had been overheard referring to pair as 'insufferable young pups' and had personally read them the riot act about how any identity‑based antics would get them summarily busted down to Puce and Fuchsia faster than they could even ask what colors those were.
Colors were not generally assigned, although there was nothing in the regs that said they couldn't be. Officers rating a color‑code were permitted to select their own from the list of available and HQ approved hues ‑ a list that was growing shorter as the primary colors had long since been exhausted and HQ was having a harder and harder time coming up with colors that anyone would accept. No one had ever picked Fuchsia. Or Puce, for that matter; Scarlet didn't even like the sound of that one. No one had ever picked Orange or Purple either, because each of those had a lousy ring and connotation; no one wanted to be called a fruit all day in the case of Orange, and Purple simply sounded too much like a bruise.
A code‑name had to be something that one could live with.
Teal, Scarlet guessed, had to be one of the last decent colors remaining, or HQ wouldn't have recycled Indigo again. A deceased agent's color-code was usually retired, but it seemed as if HQ had decided to put a respectable limit on how long any code‑name would remain in such a retired state. It had been about a year ago that Captain Indigo had died.
It was Lieutenant Indigo now, and the black‑haired, swarthy Greek youth inside that uniform didn't resemble the original in the least. He was stocky and solid and quiet. A good one to have at your back in a crisis, Scarlet had surmised so far, also getting the impression that Indigo wasn't someone you wanted for an enemy. It was always the quiet ones you had to watch out for...
Teal was the last to arrive, coming down a few vertical flights from the upper gantry. The skewed mesh only came up as far as Upper Deck D, and then became vertical on up to C, B, and Control (officially Deck A) at the very top. To go up further to Observation meant exiting the pylon; as a group they weren't planning on doing that ‑ Colonel White wouldn't have appreciated the lot of them trooping through the Control Level corridors whooping it up. The mesh itself was noisy, Scarlet noted, as Teal came thumping down the last flight. Teal was a big guy; a big, black guy hailing from Chicago's south side and built like a star linebacker. No problem getting Teal past the weight requirements - Teal was broader than any single one of them, and if Scarlet thought Indigo was solid, he knew that Teal was built like a bloody brick wall. Teal pumped iron for fun, and he wasn't a brick wall you wanted to run into on the wrong side of a scrap.
On the whole then, it was a bunch with a great deal of potential. If, of course, the more experienced officers could somehow manage to keep them from getting themselves killed too soon; there was just one more lesson in that direction today; one that Scarlet knew would also take that annoying and smug look off of Ochre's face.
Any second now...
An alarm clock went off suddenly, surprisingly loud, a sound that startled everyone into silence and sent multiple gazes darting about looking for the source. Ochre had indeed lost the grin, a look of slow and suspicious realization taking shape as Scarlet reached around behind a support column and retrieved his own ancient wind‑up alarm clock. He shut the bell off and tossed it to Ochre.
“Slow to check assumptions, Captain ‑ you didn't look for a second bomb. Everyone made mistakes,” he repeated congenially.
Ochre caught the clock deftly, a slow smile pulling at the corners of his mouth, eyes narrowing. Next time... the look said. Ochre loved a good practical joke, and didn't even mind being the butt of one. “Got that, everyone?” Ochre asked generally. “It seems we've just blown up Cloudbase. Let's try not to let it happen again, huh?”
“Indeed not, gentlemen.” Another very familiar, very unexpected voice spoke suddenly from somewhere overhead.
Scarlet's gaze jerked up ‑ in time to catch the blast from the water gun in Colonel White's hand full in the face. He squeezed his eyes shut with a groan ‑ Teal had come down that way, without his weapon, he now belatedly realized. Teal had come down from a landing that couldn't be seen properly from the lower steps.
“Oh, damn...” Scarlet murmured, and then he began to laugh, caught up in the irony of it.
Colonel White dropped the water gun and Scarlet caught it, smiling. The Colonel was obviously in a good mood. “'Keep checking those assumptions, Captain. Please do carry‑on, gentlemen. I'm afraid that at least I have some work to do.”' He left it at that and vanished, back to duty.
There was silence from the new recruits, who looked from one to another in mild confusion. They didn't yet know Colonel White well enough to figure out that that had been good humor and what was ‑ for the Colonel ‑ an ebullient mood. Nothing nasty, after all, had happened for weeks.
But it was only once the upper door had clicked shut that Ochre finally let loose a gale of hysterical and very infectious laughter...
The reports on Colonel White's command console were devoid of anything that warranted his immediate attention, but he picked them up and skimmed through them for a second time anyway, feeling the need to do something productive, and in fact, looking very hard for a reason to tell Sandor Contini at HQ Accounting that Cloudbase staff really didn't have the time to spare for an annoying and unnecessary audit right now.
He considered running the base through another emergency drill, but decided against it after a moment's reflection. He'd done that once last week and he doubted very much that a repetition would do anything to blow off any more of the restless tension that was infecting all base personnel, himself included.
Everyone was waiting, idly speculating on whatever the Mysterons might be working up for them this time, anticipating a break in the calm that had characterized the last five weeks. The latest rumor circulating was that the Mysterons were trying to bore them all to death...
He was beginning to believe he was succumbing to it himself when the loudspeaker hissed and crackled loudly, without warning. Colonel White looked up sharply from the twice‑read reports to see that Lieutenant Green was rapidly hitting all the appropriate toggles on his own console necessary to make a permanent recording of what they both knew would be an incoming Mysteron threat.
From the loudhailer a deep, haunting voice began to speak with cold formality:
“This is the voice of the Mysterons,”
it intoned solemnly, and Colonel White's pulse picked up in the short pause that the Mysterons habitually chose to make at this point. Then the voice went on, with deliberate slowness:
“We know that you can hear us, Earthmen. It is useless for you to persist in your futile attempts to defend yourselves against us. Our next act of retaliation for your unprovoked attack on our Martian complex will be to gain control of the Minerva Project, and with it we will devastate first Spectrum and then your entire planet. Do you hear us Earthmen? The Minerva Project will be ours and your world will be destroyed with it!”
Lieutenant Green waited, but the loudhailers gave up nothing more than static before falling silent again. Green looked in Colonel White's direction.
“Well, there it is Lieutenant,” White commented with a frown. “I guess we're through waiting - play that back for me would you, please?” He activated a number of his own controls as the now‑recorded message was repeated.
“The Minerva Project,” Lieutenant Green said aloud, when it was through.
“Yes...” Colonel White murmured under his breath. “Minerva. Well, it's nothing I'm familiar with, but a specific enough reference that we shouldn't have too much trouble in tracking it down.” He racked his memory for some notion of what it might be about. As Commander‑In‑Chief of Spectrum, itself a globe‑spanning security organization, he was privy to most goings‑on in high‑level military and political circles, and he could recall nothing by the name of Minerva that was, by the Mysteron's inference, capable of global devastation. “All right Lieutenant; let's get to work on it. I'll have to talk to the World President, World Forces Command, World Tech Central ‑ you know the list. Alert all Spectrum agencies and have everyone in the conference room in thirty minutes.”
But twenty‑five minutes later he had to postpone the conference indefinitely; they hadn't turned up a single hint as to just what Minerva was or might have been, nor did they, not for another four hours.
Finally Colonel White reviewed the sketchy evidence in his hand and let out a long breath. “It's as close as we're likely to get, Lieutenant,” he said with a glance up to the wall chronometer. “'Five hours and we're only just getting started. Call that conference again and get Spectrum Security onto this right away.” He stood, tapping the hastily assembled file with one finger. “And hope that this is it, Lieutenant, because if it's not, then we're in a great deal of trouble...advise me immediately if something new comes in.”
Green turned to his own board to comply, echoing the weary frustration Colonel White was feeling himself. It was seldom that they'd ever had so little to go on.
As Colonel White entered the conference room his glance went around automatically, doing a quick mental tally of those present and knowing even as he looked that all of his operations personnel and off‑duty pilots were there. The room seemed unusually crowded, and more colorfully so at that; it would be the first active assignment for the newer agents.
“Members of Spectrum,” he began, with the words that had long since become a matter of tradition, and were formal enough for the newcomers. “We have all heard the latest Mysteron threat. They have announced that they intend to gain control of the Minerva Project, and with it they propose to destroy both Spectrum and then our planet.” He paused, half expecting a murmur to run around the table, as normally it did; he was not particularly surprised as his subordinates merely traded a few puzzled glances and waited for him to continue. The silence confirmed that none of them had any inkling of what the Minerva Project actually was and doubtless they'd all been pursuing their own avenues of inquiry while waiting for the conference to begin. They were not the sort to waste time.
“I can see,” he went on, “that you're not familiar with Minerva, and to be sure, you shouldn't be. The Minerva Project does not officially exist at all. That the Mysterons know of it to begin with again demonstrates their remarkable ability to ferret out and turn our own information and technology against us, leaving us, ladies and gentlemen, with a very pretty problem indeed.”
As was not unusual, Captain Scarlet was the first to speak up. “Can we assume, then, that Minerva is a top‑secret military program of some sort?”
“No, Captain, you may not assume anything of the kind.” This time he got the murmur he'd been waiting for. “Had that been the case I would have had a much easier time finding out about Minerva myself. As is, I've had to do a bit of subtle arm‑twisting just to learn what little I have.”
He leaned forward and touched a button set into the table before him. The big viewscreen on the wall behind him lit up. A large scale copy of a grainy photograph from a news‑clipping appeared, featuring a middle‑aged, sharp‑featured man with silver‑grey hair. An expression of benign indifference was set into those decidedly handsome features. He was in the forefront of a crowd on a city street, and he was surrounded, it seemed, by journalists after an interview. “This is one Doctor Andrew Weller, Canadian, a world‑renowned neurobiologist and man of varied academic achievements and background, with degrees in medicine, electronics, and computer science, to name but a few. The man is brilliant, and very wealthy besides. He's spent the better part of his life flitting from one interest to the next, doing pretty much as he pleased, writing a few books and teaching at a variety of universities and technological centers throughout North America.”
“'Looks kinda familiar,” said Captain Blue. “Weller, of the Shonbeck‑Weller Corporation?”
“The same,” Colonel White confirmed, and an impressed murmur ran around the room. Blue would know that ‑ he hailed from a family of well‑to‑do financiers. “Heir to one of the largest aerospace and biotechnology research and industrial conglomerates in the world, although Doctor Weller's corporate ties appear to be primarily financial. He leaves the vast majority of his corporate dealings to a team of lawyers and accountants who handle everything without Doctor Weller's interference ‑ most of the time. He pays enough attention to keep them honest and, I understand, can be quite ruthless with those that aren't. He doesn't often display it but Weller apparently has a temper. This is one that we'll have to watch our step with.” Colonel White paused, taking a long glance at the screen before reaching to touch the console again.
The grainy picture was replaced by another, even grainier photo, a corner of the previous picture's background enlarged. It was centered on two apparent bystanders in the crowd. A man and a woman standing side by side, the man looking annoyed, the woman bored.
“Arthur Prince,” Colonel White went on, referring to the tall and angular young man on the screen. “A student of Doctor Weller's from a few years back when he did a stint teaching at the Canadian Institute of Advanced Technology in Manitoba. Prince is a hardware man, designing and engineering components for the computers he also designs, and for which state‑of‑the‑art technology proved inadequate. Arthur Prince, ladies and gentlemen, is a genius, and Andrew Weller snapped him up the moment he recognized it. Prince is employed by Shonbeck‑Weller now, but no one, it seems, knows exactly what it is that he does for them, unless it's Doctor Weller himself.”
“That means new technology in undisciplined non‑military hands.” Scarlet speculated grimly. “That could be dangerous.”
Colonel White smiled. “Odd that you should say that, Captain. It seems that Mr. Prince holds precisely the opposite view, and he's been withholding the patents on virtually all of his new components to keep them, and I quote, 'out of the hands of the world's war machine', unquote. As far as Mr. Prince is concerned it's in the hands of organized authority of military or paramilitary origin where new technology can be considered the most hazardous.”
“Sounds pretty militant himself,” Scarlet sniffed, expressing his own disdain for such an attitude. “He looks it too.”
By the vid, Arthur Prince was every inch anti‑establishment, from an unkempt and shaggy haircut to faded jeans and jacket; his boots, had they been visible, would certainly have been found well‑scuffed. He was young enough not to look out of place in the garb either.
“I suppose that's true enough,” Colonel White commented. “But it's hard to fault Mr. Prince for that sort of altruism, especially when there are so many other people out there that agree with him, whatever we may happen to think to the contrary. On a philosophical level we may have a problem with Mr. Prince.”
He drew a deep breath and continued. “'This is the third member of the Minerva team, if we can call them that.” He indicated the woman standing next to Prince. “Her name is Tylan McLaine and she is, like Arthur Prince, a genius in at least one of her fields, which is computer programming.’
‘One of her fields?” queried Blue.
“Yes, Captain; she's also a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and was studying neurological pathology when she met Doctor Weller. She was, needless to say, also snapped up immediately and now, we think, she writes the software for Prince's hardware. Again, no one appears to know just precisely what she does for Shonbeck‑Weller.”
“Talented bunch,” Captain Ochre murmured, surveying the not‑unattractive features of the woman on the viewscreen. “Are we aware of any personal connections?”
Colonel White shrugged. “Possibly something off and on, by the report. Doctor Weller has a lot of girlfriends and it's likely, but not certain, that Doctor McLaine has been among them. Not a matter relevant to Minerva, or at least, we don't have any reason to believe so at this point.” He paused again, and momentarily the soft whirring of the digital vid-recorder was the only sound in the room.
“'I'm afraid,” he admitted finally, “that we don't know just what the Minerva Project is. And as of this moment that is Spectrum's biggest problem. The Mysterons are one up on us, because presumably they do know or they wouldn't have picked the target as they did.”
“How do we know then,” Scarlet asked, picking up the ball, “that these three people are involved? You seem fairly certain about that, Colonel.”
“We've been following a very slender thread, Captain. It took Spectrum Intelligence's automated search and find more than three hours to locate one very obscure reference that we believe has put us on the right track. At first it seemed unconnected, possibly a system error. But once we took a closer look, a few interesting things began to emerge.” He leaned forward and touched another button.
The grainy photo was replaced with a portion of a document letter-headed Demeter Research and Development; its appearance suggested it had been electronically transmitted. The transmission had been interrupted, at source perhaps; the lower‑half of the page was missing. The note had been hand‑scrawled and read:
Tests are behind again! New alloy isn't holding up in the acid and the results are 'NDG'. Don't recommend you hold your breath waiting for Minerva---gonna be late at this rate. Good news on the construction though; we're ahead on that timetable and the shipments have arrived in port a week ahead of schedu
The note had been cut off in mid‑word. Colonel White gave everyone a moment to read it.
“Where's the rest?” Captain Grey asked.
“'That's all there is, Captain. There wasn't even supposed to be this much. The memo was sent, in an apparent clerical error, to an incorrect web-address. The originating address recalled the transmission when, we suppose, the error was noted. As luck would have it, the receiving address was one in an office of the Canadian Government where all transmissions are recorded and stored in data banks before delivery to the appropriate destination. This message was incomplete and likely corrupted when the recall was engaged - but the government data storage isn't dumped. Spectrum Intelligence was running a routine word‑recognition on government files and picked up the word Minerva in this. The file copy was reprinted as is and forwarded on to us.”
“And the connection?” Scarlet prompted.
“Aside from the obvious mention of Minerva outright, we have a name. Andy.”
“As in Andy Weller?” Blue filled in.
Again Colonel White could only shrug, although it was what he thought himself. “We've no confirmation as yet. The note is almost two years old.”
Rhapsody Angel looked up and spoke thoughtfully. “Demeter....Minerva.....Greek or Roman goddesses. Is that a clue, Colonel?”
“It's the slender thread I mentioned earlier, Rhapsody, and one of the few things that had us looking deeper. The receiving address differs only slightly from that belonging to another of Shonbeck‑Weller's subsidiary companies, and that was the likeliest destination for the memo in the first place. It turns out that Demeter Research and Development is another such subsidiary ‑ along with all of these others.”
A list of names displaced the memo on the screen. There were some twenty‑five to thirty corporate and company identities on that list and along with the corporate titles there were a number of patent applications for new or proposed projects. Each of those projects, almost without exception, had been named after a deity of classical origin.
“We have pattern, and a very high degree of probability that Minerva can be considered a recent undertaking of the Shonbeck‑Weller Conglomerate. And so we've been twisting a few arms, trying to follow that memo up. Demeter R&D has been very evasive, and keeps referring us elsewhere. Shonbeck‑Weller has been almost as helpful. Still, we have managed to piece a few things together using government files again to follow up on tax records and residency addresses. Both Arthur Prince and Tylan McLaine have been working at Demeter R&D for the last three years. Doctor Weller likewise. We believe that Doctor Weller is the key to the whole business. According to the reports I've received, he has personally spearheaded about eighty percent of these projects -” he gestured at the screen “‑ and I'm told, moreover, that he has a penchant for classical mythology. All three are presently in the Toronto area and Spectrum Security is currently trying to track them down.”
There was a sudden air of expectancy throughout the room.
“And our assignments, then, Colonel?” Scarlet asked the question.
“I want the Demeter Research and Development Facility secured and these three people in our protective custody until we can find out exactly what this Minerva business is all about. When we locate Doctor Weller, I want him returned here to Cloudbase so that I can question him personally. Captain Grey -”
'Take Lieutenants Roan and Teal along with you and proceed directly to Demeter R&D. Do what you can to check out the security ‑ this is a civilian outfit and they're likely to try and prevent you until we can get some sort of authority out of Doctor Weller. Keep me advised on that situation. Destiny Angel will provide escort and will patrol the area in the short term. I think it may be a bit premature to mount a restricted airspace operation at this point.”
Grey nodded. “Understood, Colonel.”
“Captains Scarlet, Blue and Ochre: you will find these three people and stick with them until I give the order otherwise. Symphony Angel will escort you to Toronto and back once you have located Doctor Weller. Lieutenants Russet and Vermilion will accompany you. Captain Magenta and Lieutenant Indigo will standby, pending developments.”
A chorus of affirmatives preceded a low buzz of conversation as his subordinate officers began to discuss amongst themselves the tasks they'd just been handed. A smile of grim satisfaction touched his lips.
If there was an answer there to find, he knew that his people would find it.
Andrew Weller swore as the vidphone rang and he vented his annoyance by hurling imprecations at the device as he crossed the floor toward it. Behind him the bedroom door swung slowly to, obscuring the still‑occupied bed. It was after two in the morning, and while he hadn't been sleeping - he would have been less annoyed if he had been - the persistent electronic demand for attention had caught him in the midst of another favored nocturnal activity, and at a particularly inopportune moment.
“What is it?!” he barked at the vid, almost before the lighted screen had cleared to reveal a face as night‑rumpled as his own. It had damned well better be important---
It was Arthur.
“Shut up Andy!” Arthur Prince had long since learned to ignore his superior's fits of pique. “We've got a problem. I've got -”
“But Arthur, I'm...” he ran a hand through his hair “...very busy right now...” Weller heaved a long sigh. Problem, Arthur had said. He began to wonder whatever in the world could have come up at this ungodly hour that would prompt Arthur into invading what they both knew was his sacrosanct privacy. “All right, all right. You're forgiven. What's up?”
“Minerva is out of the bag. I've got uniformed authority here on my doorstep asking about it and asking about you too. That's what's up.” Arthur's voice conveyed his own irritation with the late night disturbance---but it also conveyed a fear that ran deeper.
“Is that so? And just who are they, then?” Weller had forgotten in an instant both the hour and what the call had interrupted. This could be a problem indeed, depending on precisely who it was on Arthur's doorstep, and exactly what they wanted. Already he was reviewing the half‑formed contingency plans that had lain dormant in the back of his mind since Minerva had gone awry.
“They claim to be Spectrum Field Operations and they've got ID to prove it,” Arthur said, all irritation and impatience.
Weller dropped down hard onto the chair by the phone. “Spectrum?” he repeated aloud. Spectrum was the last of all the organized authorities he'd ever expected to hear from. Spectrum handled the Mysterons....he felt the color draining from his face. If Spectrum handled the Mysterons and Spectrum was calling, then...
Well, then, this was going to be a problem. And rather a large problem at that. Andrew Weller frowned. None of his options had ever taken that into account, and right off the top of his head he couldn't think of one that did. But it was too late for any of that, especially if Minerva was, as Arthur had put it, already out of the bag.
Spectrum Field Operations...
It was trouble. Trouble already in progress.
We should have called it Pandora instead, he thought bitterly. But they simply hadn't known at the time that the project was going to work out the way it had...a way that they hadn’t really anticipated.
It was too late to undo it. Much too late.
So. They would just have to deal with Spectrum, that was all. And that could have been worse too ‑ it could have been World Tech Central calling.
“Andy.” Arthur prompted him. “Wake up Andy!”
“I am awake Arthur. I'm just thinking. You're quite right. This is a problem. Have you called Tylan yet?”'
“She's not home and didn't leave a forwarding address,” Arthur told him, concern in his voice. “That's another thing they want to know.” He turned from his vid, glaring hostility at someone out of the vid camera's line of sight. “Talk to these people for me Andy!” With that final plea, Arthur moved away from the terminal; he was replaced almost instantly by a man in a red and black Spectrum uniform.
“Doctor Weller?” the man asked him, all cool profession and courtesy. “Captain Scarlet, Spectrum.”
“This is most inconvenient, Captain,” Weller informed him, in a voice that left no doubt as to what he thought of the early morning interruption. He cast a rueful glance back at the bedroom. “What can I do for you?”
“I can only apologize for the inconvenience, Doctor Weller. I have instructions to immediately escort you back to Spectrum Cloudbase for an urgent conference with Colonel White. Where are you, sir?”
Weller gauged the length of the call so far. “I'm quite sure, Captain,” he said slowly, “that you've already got a trace on this call and are well aware of my present location. And I would appreciate an explanation of just what this is all about before I go ahead and confirm it for you.”
Something flickered through the Captain's eyes that told Weller it wasn't the sort of response he'd expected. “I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say at the moment, Doctor Weller. Where are you?” he asked again. Firmly, this time.
Weller nodded, as much to himself as to the vid. “So - Mysteron trouble, is it then? And I'll be briefed later. Is that what you're trying to tell me Captain?”
The officer kept his expression carefully neutral. “Colonel White will brief you on Cloudbase, yes sir. Must I ask you again where you are, Doctor?”
Weller heaved a sigh and let his shoulders fall, acquiescing to the inevitable. He named the address. “I'll be waiting, Captain.”
“Thank you, Doctor Weller. We do appreciate the co‑operation.” Scarlet forced a smile and relinquished the vid to Prince.
“Anything you want me to do here Andy?” Arthur asked.
“Just stay put Arthur ‑ and don't let anyone talk you out of there. I trust,” he added, when Scarlet's face leaned into view over Arthur's shoulder, “that those instructions won't conflict with yours, Captain?”
“We'll be leaving someone behind to keep Mr. Prince company in the short term, Doctor, as a matter of precaution. Do you happen to know where Doctor McLaine is?”
“No. No, Captain, I'm very sorry, I don't. But she will turn up. I assume you've got people out looking for her and I'd only be guessing where she might be. She can take care of herself until they find her.”
And thereafter too, he added inwardly.
There was a quiet knock at his door. Weller spared it a knowing glance. “I'll be seeing you soon, Captain Scarlet.” Nodding a quick farewell, Weller hung up the vid and shrugged himself into a shirt before opening the door to admit the caller.
A man in a yellow and black Spectrum uniform stood there. “Captain Ochre, Spectrum.”
Weller let the door swing wide. “Whatever kept you?” he inquired amiably.
Captain Ochre raised an eyebrow, smiled, and then walked right in as if he owned the place.
In less than fifteen minutes Andrew Weller was settling his rangy length into the passenger seat of a sleek red Spectrum saloon car with Captain Ochre behind the wheel. The vehicle rumbled to life with a resonant, bone‑deep thrumming that spoke to Weller of power ‑ and he had a deep and inherent dislike of power that wasn't either directly or indirectly under his own not inconsiderable influence.
An influence which Spectrum fell well outside of.
As did the Mysterons.
Mysterons! How in God's name was he supposed to deal with that? The more Weller thought about it, the more and more complicated things became. There had been so many possibilities... all gone, now that he found himself tangled up with officialdom and unable to follow them through. If only they hadn't managed to catch him so completely unawares...
Zil would have something to say about that; yes she most certainly would, and he hadn't a leg to stand on, having deliberately left his pager in the car. He hated the pager, hated being on call sans respite. Usually he didn't need it. Emergencies so seldom cropped up. He should have had word from his own security people that something was up, long before anyone else had appeared on his doormat to take him into ‑ as Ochre had politely put it ‑ protective custody.
Should have. It was his own damn fault that he hadn't. Damn. Damn and damn and damn. They'd caught him, quite literally, with his pants down.
And just where, come to think of her, was Tylan McLaine? Weller started as he realized the question had been spoken aloud.
“Oh? I'm sorry Captain; I’m afraid I wasn't really listening. I'm not sure. Tylan comes and goes with the wind most of the time and I'm not necessarily privy to which way it's blowing.”
“She's all grown up now is she?” Ochre responded, a trace of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Any good guesses?”
Weller couldn't help but smile outright. Grown up. Oh, yes indeed she was. He found himself relaxing, in spite of the circumstances. “She said something about grocery shopping, actually.” Captain Ochre seemed friendly and affable enough and Weller wondered absently if he was typical of Spectrum's field agents. Unlike most of the other authorities he'd ever had the misfortune to have to deal with, Ochre had remained friendly without being either overbearing or supercilious. Better Spectrum, he decided, than an investigator from World Tech Central---they were a humorless lot, and Ochre had elevated himself well above that when he'd managed an appreciative wink as Weller had informed his bedmate that he would not, regrettably, be rejoining her in the immediate future.
“Grocery shopping?” Ochre echoed. “At two in the morning?”
“My dear Captain Ochre, this is a very civilized country; it is possessed of a great many 24‑hour shopping facilities and I can assure you that Doctor McLaine dislikes crowds intensely.”
Ochre gave him a sidelong glance. “Thank you, Doctor Weller. I'll take it under advisement. Does she happen to have a favorite grocery store?”
“If she does, I don't know it. But seriously Captain, she was on her way home, and that's where she's most likely to turn up. She will have to get back to let the dog out before too long.”
“Home being the corporate country residence?” Ochre asked. And at which Weller had to wonder where he'd gotten the information.
“That's it‑--why are we stopping here?” Weller realized they'd driven straight to Arthur's place. “Arthur is not coming with us.” He made it a statement, rather than a question.
“No, Doctor Weller, he's not ‑ but Captain Scarlet is. He'll be escorting you back to Cloudbase. I'll be tracking down Doctor McLaine once I've seen the two of you safely to the airport.”
Weller watched as the Captain he'd spoken to on the vid emerged from Arthur's door. A second later Captain Scarlet had joined them in the saloon car, looking somehow relieved to be out of the house. Weller could read that expression and suppressed a grin ‑ he knew Arthur well enough to guess at the situation Scarlet had left behind.
“Problems, Captain?” he inquired innocently.
“Not at all, Doctor Weller. I've merely discovered how much your Mr. Prince enjoys having a captive audience.” Scarlet exchanged a meaningful glance with Ochre ‑ neither of them envying the next officer to be assigned to Arthur Prince.
“Mr. Prince has been lecturing again?” Ochre asked in a tone as innocent as Weller's.
“Not again...” Scarlet commented dryly. “It's still the same one ‑ he hasn't stopped.”
Weller grinned openly and gave an amused sigh. “Arthur loves to debate philosophy,” he said. Prince knew his territory and could hold his own when he was one on one with an opposing viewpoint. That Spectrum personnel possessed such a viewpoint went without saying.
Then there was Tylan McLaine.
“Have we narrowed down the possible places that we might find Doctor McLaine?” Scarlet was querying Ochre but looking at him instead.
In reply, Weller gave Ochre detailed directions to the country house. Then he started to pry for information himself, though it was of little avail. Beyond the generalities that he could guess, there was nothing that these two would say, other than that Colonel White would tell all on Cloudbase.
By the time Scarlet had him secured safely aboard a Spectrum Passenger Jet and airborne for Cloudbase - with an Angel Interceptor for escort no less - Andrew Weller was feeling very worried indeed.
Not quite two hours later, Weller surveyed their intended destination and tried not to appear too impressed – something he found difficult: Spectrum Cloudbase was a startling sight. As the most advanced piece of hover‑tech engineering ever developed, he couldn't help but be fascinated by it, simply from an aerospace engineer's standpoint.
Impressive technology, yes ‑ but Cloudbase was also, he had to remind himself, one of the world's foremost halls of military authority, and not, moreover, one from which it was possible to just walk away.
The jet touched down and locked through into a cavernous flight deck. Scarlet walked him across that chilled deck ‑ a place that smelled of cold metal and aviation volatiles ‑ and into a tiny security office where he was scanned for concealed weapons and requested to supply a voice print I.D. He was logged onto the base and provided with a security card that clipped onto his front pocket and identified him as 'Guest Personnel'. It was all very courteous and efficient. After a short ride in an express lift, Captain Scarlet delivered him into an Upper Deck briefing room.
A briefing room in which Colonel White was already seated and waiting for him. Damned efficient, these military folk. He had to give them that much credit. He drew in a deep breath. This was it---zero hour. Minerva, out of the bag, as Arthur had put it, and the brass tacks were coming.
He suspected those tacks were going to be sharp ones...
Colonel White rose to his feet as Scarlet ushered Doctor Weller into the briefing room and watched as Weller looked him up and down, quickly and not too obviously. The Colonel took a few steps around the conference table, meeting the Doctor partway and putting out a hand that Weller shook firmly in greeting.
“Colonel White, Commander‑in‑Chief, Spectrum Operations,” he said. “Welcome to Cloudbase Doctor Weller. I realize it's quite early in the day for you here...is there anything we can get for you?”
“Thank you Colonel ‑ it's an impressive place you have here. A bit of coffee wouldn't hurt, but an explanation would be far more welcome.”
Straight to the point. Colonel White released Weller's hand. Weller was measuring him up again, one more long and piercing gaze to gauge his own reaction to that statement. He held that gaze without flinching, and finally Andrew Weller broke into a tight little grin and relaxed, apparently having found him up to snuff.
Colonel White nodded, raising an eyebrow in response to the grin. “You'll see to some breakfast for our guest, please Captain Scarlet?” He gestured Weller into a seat at the table.
As Scarlet left, Weller slid into the seat that Colonel White had indicated for him. “I take it that there's been a Mysteron threat, Colonel,” he said. “And I further take it that you believe that I'm involved somehow.”
“That's absolutely correct, Doctor, on both counts. This -” he resumed his own seat and activated the tabletop console “‑ is the Mysteron threat that we received late yesterday.” He hit the appropriate button and the ominous crackle of static burst from the speaker, followed by the threat itself. Weller sat motionless throughout, a raised eyebrow the only reaction that the recording provoked.
“Creepy,” Weller commented when it was finished. “How did they find out about Minerva?”
“Well, Doctor, if you could answer that for me I'd find myself eternally in your debt. I'm afraid we just don't know how they go about gaining access to the information that they do. I was hoping you might be able to shed some light on that matter.”
“Sorry...” Weller sighed heavily. “I can't help you with that right off the cuff. But I suppose, since you've come asking, that you could go on and tell me how Spectrum found out about Minerva. We went to considerable lengths to keep the Project under wraps ‑ and it concerns me a great deal that those wrappings seem to have come off.”
Quickly, Colonel White explained what they'd pieced together. “...and it seems,” he concluded, “that we've hit upon the right track after all. Haven't we, Doctor Weller?”
“A very neat little bit of detective work, I must say. The memo came to me from Todd Carey, the Director of the Demeter Facility. Have you got people on their way there now?”
“Yes, Doctor, we have. And in fact they've probably arrived by now. Perhaps you can tell me what kind of a reception Mr. Carey is going to give them.”
Weller smiled. “None whatsoever; Todd is off vacationing in Africa right now.” Then the Doctor's expression changed, becoming serious. “I hope. Todd knows a good deal about Minerva--and not many people do.”
“A potential leak?”
“Not a voluntary one.”
“The Mysterons don't ask permission before they strike, Doctor Weller. Give me a few details and we'll get someone out after Mr. Carey immediately.”
“I think, Colonel, that under the circumstances, that would be a very good idea. And I'd better speak to someone at Demeter while I'm at it, or your people are going to run into a stone wall.”
Colonel White got up out of his seat and gestured Weller into it, handing him over to the external vid lines. Weller made the call, authorizing the Demeter management to co‑operate with Captain Grey who had, apparently, just arrived.
One difficulty averted, he thought. A moment later there was a travel itinerary on its way to Green's console. A few minutes after that, Magenta was on his way to Africa to find and retrieve Todd Carey. If, as Doctor Weller fervently hoped, it wasn't already too late.
Scarlet arrived before the calls were done, bearing a tray supporting a large breakfast. “Trust its okay,” Scarlet said, indicating the scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes and coffee; all safe choices. Weller dug in, obviously hungry.
“You might as well sit in on this Captain,” Colonel White invited, motioning Scarlet into a chair and then leveling a direct stare at Weller. “Doctor---I wonder if you wouldn't mind telling us what the Minerva Project is, and why the Mysterons might want it?”
“Project Minerva,” Weller said between bites of pancake, “was not the success that we wanted and we shelved it nearly eight months ago.”
“You did what?” White blinked. That was not what he'd expected to hear.
“'We dropped it. Scrapped it. Closed the file. And I would say that the Mysterons want it precisely because it didn't work out quite the way we'd thought it would.”
He leaned back as Scarlet traded a concerned glance with him, thoughtfully chewing on his lip. “Why?”
“Minerva turned out to be too full of potential hazard. Dangerous, Colonel White ‑ in ways we hadn't anticipated.” Weller sipped at his coffee. “The Minerva Project involved the development of a---a module---small and portable, that was capable of intermeshing completely dissimilar computer information banks and programs without having to access the central computer systems that govern them.”
“That sort of thing's been available for years,” Scarlet commented. “It's hardly a new idea.”
“Not on Minerva's scale. Minerva is a whole new technology, Captain. Nothing like it's ever been done before. It surpasses by far the current state of the art. In our case such a module would have served to cut through an enormous amount of corporate red‑tape and saved us millions in revamping entire global systems.”
Colonel White digested that. “And what went wrong?”
“'Nothing.” Weller shrugged. “Nothing whatsoever. Minerva worked, right from the very start. It's only that the module turned out to be too successful ‑ it did things we hadn't anticipated.”
“Specifically, it accessed networks that it wasn't intended to access. Our initial trial was to link a selected few of Shonbeck‑Weller's information networks, pooling their data files and cross‑checking accounts, inventories, assets and the like ‑ we wanted to simplify a few things, making it easier to trace discrepancies; it would have been a marvelous way of doing things. It worked too.”
“And?” Colonel White sensed that they were getting down to the crux of it.
“And...” Weller sucked in air. “We happened to access everything connected through World Telecom; even locked security‑coded systems ‑ it was as if passwords and encryption algorithms didn't exist.”
Colonel White caught his breath. Scarlet stared at the Doctor. It took a second for the enormity of that statement to sink in. The Colonel set his lips grimly---Spectrum was connected to World Telecom....and, come to think of it, what wasn't?
“Everything?” he repeated softly.
“Everything,” Weller confirmed his voice flat. “You name it Colonel, we were into it. Every level of government online, be it municipal, federal or global ‑ every military bank, no matter who it belonged to, various other industrial and commercial data pools, the world banking system...all of it Colonel White. And I do mean all of it.”
“But the security...”
“...didn't even detect us. We bypassed every security safeguard without even trying to.” Doctor Weller lowered a direct and level stare at him this time. “It scared the hell out of us. We dropped the Project.”
Colonel White spent a moment thinking about it. He supposed it was possible. Certainly it explained why the Mysterons were interested and had picked Minerva as their target. World Telecom was the global communications network, and as Weller had just said, had virtually all of the world's telecommunications systems hooked into it one way or another. Both public and private subscribers shared the system's ground based and orbiting transmission facilities. If they could be tapped at will...
He cleared his throat. “Doctor Weller ‑ do you know what this implies?”
“I'm the one that dropped it like a hot potato, Colonel. Yes, I'd say that I'm pretty well aware of what Minerva implies. And we dropped it precisely because we didn't want to be responsible for global collapse.”
Seems that the Doctor has a few morals, Colonel White mused silently. Damned good thing. If he's not lying through his teeth...
He didn't get that impression. “What would it take to re‑activate Minerva, Doctor Weller? What exactly did you do when you shelved the Project?”
Again, Weller shrugged. “To put it online again? It wouldn't take that much. The vast majority of the files were destroyed, and fortunately, there were a minimum number of people who were directly involved with the project, especially during the final stages of development. We knew it was a touchy science, and didn't want any publicity. However...we did sink quite a tidy sum of money into the research and we weren't willing to just toss all of that out the window. The components were surprisingly basic. They're in storage, under my own personal security lock. The equipment and the know‑how exists, Colonel White. Does that answer the question?”
“Very much so, Doctor. We have at least one of your researchers under surveillance and will hopefully locate both Doctor McLaine and Mr. Carey in the very immediate future. I would like to transfer both the personnel and equipment to a maximum security facility at the earliest possible -”
“No.” Weller interrupted him abruptly. Flat, outright denial.
Colonel White paused. “'No? I'm afraid I don't understand Doctor. No‑ what?”
“No to all of that ‑ the equipment will stay right where it is, Colonel, and so will my researchers. I will go to Demeter myself and take charge of things while Todd Carey is absent. I'm afraid I'm going to insist on all of that ‑ and that Spectrum stay out of restricted files and areas as established by myself or my staff. You're welcome to protect us, Colonel, but you will not be permitted to pry.”
Colonel White lifted his chin, meeting another of Andrew Weller's measured stares, seeing one of those stone walls that Weller had mentioned not so very long ago.
Scarlet was watching the man closely, and then Scarlet glanced his way, not liking it; not liking the idea or the tone in which it had been delivered. Scarlet's hackles had just come up.
As had his own---he did not take well to being dictated to, not under the most favorable of circumstances, and working under the pressure of a Mysteron threat hardly qualified the present circumstances as being among the best. He made a conscious effort to hold his temper, and spoke with deliberate patience. “Doctor Weller---it is very difficult for us to protect an unknown. We may miss something vital if -”
One more time Weller cut him short. “We will afford you our complete co‑operation, Colonel White. Your men will have all the necessary relevant information provided for them. As far as Minerva is concerned, I'd say that we're the better judges of what is or isn't vital for your personnel to know.”
His nerves grated under the tone of voice. “That may not suffice, Doctor. As far as the Mysterons are concerned, I'd say that Spectrum might be the better judge of what is or isn't vital, so long as we’re going to pursue that line of argument.” The words were tightly controlled.
Weller must have recognized the angry undertone. He looked in mild startlement from his face to Scarlet's and back again. “You're looking at me from the wrong side of the fence ‑ I'm not the enemy, Colonel White. I don't want the Mysterons anywhere near Minerva. I don't want that at all. Very possibly I want it a good deal less than you do, because, Colonel White, I do happen to know just what's vital about the Project.” Weller's voice softened. “This whole thing has me very worried. I want you to believe that, Colonel ‑ I am very concerned about the whole business. I might not be an expert on the Mysterons but I'm no fool either. I will not, must not allow Minerva to fall into their hands. But at the same time, I can't allow it to fall into yours ‑ or anybody else's either. The Mysterons aren't the only ones that could use Minerva in a devastatingly detrimental fashion. That's what I've got to consider Colonel ‑ that's what's on my conscience. And you can believe too, that if I didn't think I needed Spectrum's help in this, I wouldn't even be sitting here, let alone discussing what details of the Project that I have so far.”
It was truth, or he was no judge at all. Colonel White sighed and looked away. Weller was sincere or he was the best damned actor he had ever met. “I believe you, Doctor,” he said at length. “And for the time being I'll accept those terms, although I'm going to reserve the right to amend them at any given moment and without notice, depending on just what the Mysterons' first move turns out to be. The hazard does lie at Demeter, does it not?”
“Then we will also keep your researchers under surveillance and well away from the hazard area for the time being. We'll keep the Demeter facility under a tight security cordon pending developments. Can you make any other recommendations, based on your own, very much more informed viewpoint?”
Weller leaned back in his seat and considered. “The equipment is useless without a specifically trained operator. And the researchers are quite harmless without the equipment. Keep a couple of thousand miles between them and I don't see that there's any danger at all.”
“I'll bear that in mind.” There was a moment's silence, during which Colonel White allowed his eyes to lock with Andrew Weller's.
“Trust me, Colonel,” Weller said levelly.
Eventually White nodded. Andrew Weller seemed sincere enough. Sincere, yes, but also evasive on a few key points and it was what Doctor Weller wasn't saying that had him worried now.
He broke the eye-lock himself, letting his gaze drift over to Captain Scarlet. Scarlet's instincts were good - Scarlet was as reliable a hunch‑barometer as any...
Right now, Captain Scarlet was looking pretty grim.
And damned if it wasn't contagious.