It was still dark when Ochre finally pulled the Saloon car into the laneway that Doctor Weller had assured him would lead directly to Doctor McLaine's place of residence. The country home, located some fifty miles east of Toronto, belonged technically to the Corporation and was adjacent to a tract of farmland also belonging SWC ‑ and where there was an agricultural research station and veterinary clinic on‑site. He suspected that the residence, which turned out to be a large and contemporary multi‑level design, was maintained by the Corporation as local guest lodging for visiting researchers ‑ and, no doubt, provided SWC with a sizable tax shelter as well. He approved of the location ‑ the house was perched atop a high bluff overlooking the heaving grey‑green waters of Lake Ontario and was flanked on either side by flat fields that ran to a wooded area on the west and a steep ravine to the east, one that emptied a small creek into the lake. To the north were the adjacent farmlands ‑ it would be quite easy, he decided, to set up an effective security perimeter around the property. That was Russet's job to organise...
Vermilion was now stuck with Blue and the over‑garrulous Arthur Prince, and Vermilion, not knowing any better than the rest of them, had even volunteered for it, being an electronics buff himself. Vermilion had thought his expertise might help. Might just, at that, if Prince would stop talking long enough for Vermilion to tell him all about it. Ochre himself was feeling rather pleased to have pulled Doctor McLaine as his own assignment, and Blue hadn't even offered to swap. Symphony had a jealous streak that Blue didn't care to push if he could help it.
So, serve Blue right, if he was going to let Symphony push him around like that... Ochre was not sympathetic in the least.
He found that there was no car in the driveway and no car in the garage. He rang the doorbell and was, after a suitable interval had elapsed, convinced enough that there was nobody home to pick the lock with the Spectrum‑issue electronic key that they all carried as a part of their standard kits. He let himself in quietly, hoping to conduct a quick and discreet security check before Doctor McLaine showed up to catch him at it.... He turned to close the door, reached for the light‑switch, and when he turned again---‑
Captain Ochre abruptly found himself face to muzzle with the biggest dog he'd ever seen in his life ‑ a huge dog that jumped up at him, forcing his back to the door and pinning him there with paws that easily had the equal of his own weight behind them: paws that were suddenly and heavily draped over his shoulders ‑ his heart came just as suddenly into his mouth while his pulse pounded wildly.
The dog licked his face, tail wagging, overjoyed to see him.
Ochre finally let go held breath and relaxed, realizing that the dog was not going to tear him to shreds on the spot. He berated himself silently for having been so careless ‑ it could have just as easily have been a Mysteron agent jumping him. Weller had even said something about the dog too. But this was obviously no guard animal---just a big, friendly mutt without even the audacity to bark when he'd rung the doorbell; a dog that had silently allowed him to make a casual, leisurely break‑in.
Dammit, he thought. Dogs are supposed to bark!
Part Wolfhound by the look of the thing. Only God knew what else, though the colouring indicated Dane. And that fit ‑ his family had been owned by a Great Dane once, one that had taken him for many a walk, and it had been a supremely silly‑minded thing, which had been just as well. Nobody wanted a dog that big to be mean.
This one seemed to fit that particular mold. “Okay boy ‑ down.” He pushed the dog back, and it went willingly enough, sitting immediately to yawn widely and thump its tail, looking expectantly at the door. He debated with himself for a moment about letting the thing out. He'd be in hot water if it ran off for sure. Still, he didn't want to be followed around about his own business here either. Ochre let the dog out and waited for it to come back, which it did when he whistled for it. The dog stretched lazily on its return and trotted back into the house, settling onto the living room couch (this was apparently allowed) then ignored him entirely, comfortable, it seemed, to have a stranger in the house.
'Some guard dog you are.' Ochre murmured, closing the door again, and feeling not at all ungrateful for it. He skimmed through the house and completed his security check in peace. If there had been any Mysteron tampering, he couldn't find it and wouldn't, not without making a far more detailed sort of search that he didn't have the time for right then. He'd been just about finished when Russet had called him up and advised that Doctor McLaine's car had just passed his checkpoint and was on its way in. He locked up and got himself back outside before the car came rolling up the laneway to the house and parked beside the saloon car. He had the Mysteron detector ready, and snapped a picture of the woman that got out of the car and stood beside the Saloon, examining the gleaming Spectrum logo on the side panel in apparent consternation. As soon as the detector showed negative, Ochre pulled down his cap mike and reported quickly to Lieutenant Green. 'Doctor McLaine located safe and now under surveillance. Ochre out.' Then he got out of the car to greet Tylan McLaine and introduce himself...
'Doctor McLaine?' he began.
'None other than,' she replied, raising one eyebrow to give him a surprisingly thorough appraisal. 'You realize of course,' she said, bantering easily, 'that you've parked that thing on my side of the driveway.'
'I beg your pardon?' It was not what he'd expected to hear. Spectrum's presence normally provoked a somewhat less casual response.
She had her own car keys out and had turned to move for the trunk of the small silver imported wagon that she drove. She opened the hatchback. 'You heard me.'
Ochre followed her around to the back of the car. 'Doctor McLaine, I think that‑--'
'Here ‑ make yourself useful, since you're here anyway.' She shoved a bag of groceries into his arms. 'I'll unlock the door.' She let the bag go, obligating him to either catch it or let the contents spill onto the driveway ‑ which would not have been a very good start to things.
He caught the bag---the contents of which smelled pretty good and evoked hunger instantly. He shook his head of that distraction and followed Tylan McLaine up to the front door and through it. He dropped the bag onto the front hallway bench and tried again. 'Doctor McLaine‑'
But she was whistling for the dog. 'Yo ‑ Merlin! Com'on, let's go!' The dog appeared around a corner, tail wagging enthusiastically, and she got the same sort of greeting that he had. She let the dog out again and went along after it, back for more groceries. He did not fall for it that time; he simply waited and watched, holding the door open when she returned with the next load in hand.
'Well, thank you!' she said brightly as she brushed past him. 'It's so nice to know that chivalry isn't really dead.'
Oh, very subtle sarcasm in that one, he thought. Bet she's quick with the comebacks too...
'You're welcome,' Ochre replied drily. 'Doctor McLaine--‑'
The bags landed on the bench beside the one he'd dropped there. Finally she turned, putting her hands onto her hips to give him another long appraisal. 'Ummmnnn. Excuse me...' she inquired politely, 'but do I know you?' As if he was someone she might have met once in passing and forgotten.
'No. Doctor McLaine, I'm--‑'
'I didn't think so. I'm Tylan McLaine. Have you had breakfast yet?'
'Um, no, but‑--'
'Oh‑--good! I'm delighted! I do so dislike eating alone. What's your preference?'
Ochre gave it up. The woman was being deliberately outrageous and evasive. He was not going to get a word in edgewise until she decided she was ready for it. He folded his arms and gave her a long assessment back. 'What's on the menu?'
The eyebrow shot up in amusement at that. Tylan McLaine shifted her stance suggestively and gave him a very unabashed and critical once over that time. 'Anything you like,' she replied, just a little too easily to have meant it.
She wasn't talking about bacon and eggs either.
Well, he'd played that game before too. He gave her his best and most lecherous wink. 'Maybe sometime when I'm not on duty.'
Her features fell. 'Ohhh!' She groaned in disappointment. 'How very typically military of you' she complained, letting out a long sigh. She cast her glance around, finally allowing her gaze to come back and inspect the uniform. 'Spectrum, huh?'
He nodded. 'Spectrum. Captain Ochre. I'm afraid that a situation of some concern has come up.'
'So I'd gathered.' The voice had gone dry and flat. Concerned herself, finally. 'Com'on in ‑ the offer for breakfast is still open and you can tell me all about it...'
Not quite an hour later, Tylan McLaine speared another sausage off the serving platter and chewed on it thoughtfully, staring at the Spectrum officer sitting opposite across her kitchen table. She had cooked too much ‑ not a problem as the stuff was good to eat cold too ‑ but as she tended to overeat when depressed or frightened, it wasn't likely to last long enough to get into the leftover phase, because what this rather attractive (if rather disconcertingly uniformed) man had just told her had been more than enough to frighten her badly.
'Have seconds,' she told Captain Ochre with her mouth full. That colour went very nicely with those lovely brown eyes too.
'I've had seconds,' he replied, matter‑of‑factly. 'Didn't you notice?' He was waiting for some sort of response to the news he'd just delivered.
'So, have thirds.' She indicated the remaining sausages on the plate. She was not given to hysterics, frightened or not. Options and Contingency Plans had been crossing through her mind, the ones that she and Arthur and Andy had bounced around but never actually supposed they'd have to implement. She was blank on how to handle it. Martians wanting Minerva wasn't something that had occurred to them. Talking to Andy and Arthur seemed like a pretty good idea though.
'Thanks, no. I've had plenty.'
'Suit yourself.' Tylan shrugged and dumped them onto her own plate. Then she reached for the vidphone sitting immediately adjacent to the table. Ochre watched as she punched buttons.
'Doctor Weller's not home,' he stated mildly, before she'd completed the sequence. 'If that's who you're calling.'
It was, and she was impressed that he'd known Andy's number off by heart. Interesting. She lifted one brow, expecting it to be true, but confirming it for herself anyway. 'You're right.' She hung up and then promptly dialled Arthur instead. Ochre had said that Arthur was home, if not alone.
Arthur did not answer the call, however. The vid came up audio‑only and an unfamiliar voice said 'Hello?' while the screen flickered ever so slightly, indication that there was a tracer on the line. She'd figured that much, and she'd made very sure that her end was audio‑only too.
'Mornin'' she greeted the stranger. 'Arthur up yet?'
'May I ask who's calling?'
'May I ask who the hell wants to know?' She noted peripherally as Ochre rolled his eyes upwards, trying not to smile too obviously. He recognized the voice on the other end.
Brief silence. 'May I ask who's calling?' the voice repeated, more sternly.
'You can ask.' But he'd know soon enough... The trace would be complete, any second now---confirming her line ID. The video came alive to reveal a ruggedly handsome blond in a blue Spectrum uniform at the other end. 'Doctor McLaine,' he began, suitably vexed with the call, 'would you please ask Captain Ochre to brief you on communications procedures appropriate to the current security situation.'
She smiled her sweetest and wondered if they had some kind of a good‑looks regulation in effect. Not half‑bad, any of them so far... not half‑bad at all. 'That would be a waste of Captain Ochre's time,' she sniffed indifferently. 'I'm afraid that I don't do procedures, Mister...?'
'Captain Blue,' he supplied.
'...Captain Blue.' She finished her own sentence amiably.
'That seems obvious.' Stiff reply. Very stiff; he hadn't liked that at all. So much the better.
'And if it wouldn't be too terribly much trouble, Captain, could you please drag Arthur's skinny little backside out of bed and put him on the line for me?'
'Mr. Prince is sleeping, Doctor McLaine.'
'So I had assumed---‑if I suspected he was otherwise engaged I would not ask you to interrupt him. I'll wait,' she said, dismissing him with a bit of crisp finality and put the vid on hold. She returned her attention to the nearly cold sausages, smiling at a quietly bemused Captain Ochre across the table. He didn't look about to lecture her on procedures... rather he seemed interested in seeing just where the performance was going.
Five minutes later, when the sausage was gone and she took the vid off hold, it was to find Arthur's scowling, overtired face on the screen . He looked like he'd been up most of the night.
'Damn it, Ty!' Arthur began irritably. 'The next time you do that I'll just hang up!' Arthur didn't like to be put on hold. Or dragged out of bed, for that matter. 'Are you home now? Are you under arrest too?'
'You're not under arrest!' Captain Blue objected in the background.
'I'm home,' Tylan replied calmly. Arthur disliked dealing with officials; he detested confrontation. Arthur was presently overtired, grumpy and ‑ she didn't doubt ‑ extremely nervous about the whole business with Spectrum and this Mysteron threat.
'Then you must be under arrest too,' Arthur repeated, casting a defiant glance aside, presumably at Captain Blue. 'They've already taken Andy away. Took him to skybase or somewhere and‑'
'Cloudbase!' Blue interjected.
'‑and we'll likely never see him again!' Arthur finished up, satisfied that he'd made his statement, despite the objections.
Tylan leaned back in her chair and sighed. 'Hmmm... So, where was he when our system broke down?'
'Figures. Pager in the car?'
'Didn't ask. Probably.'
'Any word from him since?'
'I'll call him.' It looker to her like the performance would have to go all the way to Cloudbase.
'Please do. And give him hell while you're at it too, Ty.'
'Oh, com'on, Arthur ‑ he loves you too! He's just checking 'em out for us.' Had to be a lot of truth in that; so far there hadn't been any word or action out of SWC Security, and that meant that Andy hadn't thrown them any emergency calls. Andy was out fact‑gathering, that was what. And Andy wouldn't call SWC Security into a situation that they likely couldn't handle anyway. Dealing with Martians wasn't part of Security's job description. 'And before I forget to ask, how's Guinevere?' She gave Arthur something else to worry about.
'She's fine so far. But with all the upset--‑' Arthur shot another hostile look to one side. “You just never know.'
'Give her my regards. I'll call you back.'
'No, you won't. I'm going back to bed. Give a message to my answering service here if you like.' Arthur demoted Blue in a sentence. 'Have a nice day,' Arthur concluded sourly, and disconnected. The day, in his opinion, had already been very thoroughly ruined.
And Tylan McLaine could only concur with that.
The reports claimed she was a genius. An oddball one, in Ochre's initial estimation. Quite a number of adjectives had come to mind so far. Eccentric was one of them. He didn't know many people that actually did their grocery shopping in the middle of the night. She was sassy. She was a flirt and a tease. And she was a damn good cook. She was also evasive, and she hadn't paid any mind whatsoever to any question that had contained the word 'Minerva'. Every time he'd mentioned Minerva she had simply looked around with an expression of puzzled innocence.
She had entertainment value, if that little song and dance with Blue was any indication. She was demonstrating a real ability to handle herself under pressure. When he'd told her that the Mysterons wanted Minerva so that they could devastate the planet, she'd responded that it was a 'novel idea'. And then added, very Arthur Prince‑like, that the world no doubt deserved it.
She was running one helluva scam.
When Arthur hung up, her attention came back to Ochre's side of the table.
'Well?' she demanded.
'Well what?' he inquired, echoing her own tones.
'Well, where is he?'
'Doctor Weller is on Spectrum Cloudbase,' he answered, truthfully enough. 'And he's been there for...' he consulted his watch '...approximately two hours. He's in conference with Colonel White.'
'What's the number?'
'You don't need the number. I can put you in touch without the phone. Ochre pulled down his cap mike. 'Cloudbase,' he said firmly, a command that the cap's microprocessor understood and complied with, putting him instantly in touch with Lieutenant Green.
'Cloudbase Control. Go ahead Captain Ochre.'
'I have an urgent request from Doctor McLaine, Lieutenant. She'd like to speak to Doctor Weller.'
'Doctor Weller is still in conference, Captain.'
'Interrupt them!' Tylan said loudly, leaning across the table to make herself heard.
'I don't copy that, Captain.'
'You don't have to, Lieutenant.' Ochre pushed her back into her seat. 'She can call again later if she‑ Hold on Lieutenant.'
Tylan McLaine was dialling something rapidly into the vid.
'Who are you calling now?' he asked, worried that it was going to be trouble. She'd said something about a 'system' and if Minerva was as potentially hazardous as the Mysterons had indicated, surely these three had some sort of an emergency plan that they could kick in...
'Corporate Legal Affairs. Public Rela‑'
Sure, blow the whistle! The last thing Spectrum needed was a media circus on top of the threat. Ochre reached over and pushed the disconnect key on the vid. 'Did you copy that, Lieutenant?'
'S.I.G. Captain. Standby. I'll make enquiries.'
Tylan McLaine met his gaze squarely without taking her hands off the vid. 'That's better,' she said, just dripping honey.
'That's blackmail,' Ochre corrected her.
'That too,' she admitted, still smiling.
'You don't have to be unreasonable.'
'Nothing personal, Och...' she shrugged, leaning closer, flirting again, corrupting his code‑name into a little sweet nothing...
Damn good at it too.
Andrew Weller had said she was able to take care of herself.
'Am I,' she whispered from a proximity that was far too close, 'going to have to talk through that thing too?'
As if it wasn't a bad idea, not if it kept her that close. Pretty blue‑grey eyes, he decided. It was a shame he was on‑duty and working; she had one finger trailing an idle and somewhat distracting pattern across the back of the hand he had resting on the vid.
'That won't be necessary,' he whispered back, and turned his glance down to the keypad. He twitched off the finger and punched in the number that would hook them directly into Green's main console and Cloudbase's internal communications. There was no reason not to put the call through on vid, especially, he thought, with a bit of wicked self‑satisfaction, Tylan was going to pay for the long‑distance call.
He warned Lieutenant Green to expect it, and in a moment Colonel White's face appeared on‑screen..
'Do you have a problem, Captain Ochre?'
He winced inwardly. Colonel White didn't appreciate interruptions to important conferences.
'Not exactly, sir, I've--‑'
Tylan McLaine butted‑in. 'I've got a problem, Colonel White,' she advised him in a firm, no‑nonsense tone. 'And you will too if you don't put Andy on for me.'
Ouch. Ochre winced again, visibly, this time. It was not the sort of tone that anyone took with the Commander‑in‑Chief of Spectrum.
Colonel White kept his expression straight. 'Oh? And with whom, specifically, Doctor McLaine?' he asked.
Ochre stepped in. 'Doctor McLaine felt that SWC Legal Affairs and Public Relations might take an interest in the present situation, sir. I felt that it wasn't necessary to ‑ ah, inconvenience them, Colonel White.
Inconvenience was, of course, an understatement. An unofficial leak to the media always had the capacity to set the public on its ear. Until Spectrum's PR department in London had its own general media‑release statements prepared, Mysteron threats were kept quiet. No need to panic a major city like Toronto without good cause. The standing orders were to avoid as much bad publicity as was possible.
'That was well advised, Captain Ochre. Thank you. Doctor McLaine.' Colonel White addressed the woman sitting there at the vid. 'Doctor Weller is right here. I'll put him through for you, if you can only exercise a little patience.'
Colonel White moved away from his vid‑terminal, and was very shortly replaced by Andrew Weller.
'Zil!' Weller said cheerfully. 'You're home at last!'
'And a very fine welcome I got too!' Her voice went hard with irritation. 'Andy ‑ what are you doing up there?!'
Andy Weller shrugged non‑committally and looked for all the world as if he would have preferred to avoid the subject. 'Well, Zil,' he cleared his throat. 'I'm afraid I was just a trifle lax and I--‑'
'You got caught.'
Weller heaved a sigh. 'Guilty as charged, I'll confess. Jackass, I suppose, would be the appropriate term. Sorry, Zil.'
'Only jackasses leave their pagers in the car. Don't try to butter me up. What are you doing now, is the question.'
'Oh, really, Zil ‑ did you have a bad night out? I'm afraid we've got a bit of a problem involving Minerva. And what I'm doing is making all sorts of lovely arrangements with these people to resolve that problem just as quickly as possible. It looks as if you and Arthur will be having some company for the next few days or so.'
'Or so?' Tylan questioned that seriously, Ochre noted.
'Or until this thing blows over, which I'm quite certain it will, soon enough.'
'I wasn't ready for company.'
'You're flexible, Zil.'
'But Andy ‑ this company is on‑duty!' She thumbed a gesture at Ochre over her shoulder. 'That's no good to me!'
'Then I'll arrange to send you another one! There seem to be lots to choose from. Now, I'll be going on to Demeter later this morning and I'll get everything organized at that end. I'm very sorry, but we're going to need a bit of help on this one.'
'I don't suppose asking to go to Demeter myself would get me there ?'
'Nope. Don't ask.'
'Wouldn't dream of it.'
'Please, Zil ‑ no more fussing. I'm taking steps to protect the project and I'm doing it with your best interests in mind.'
'No more buts!' Weller raised his voice, and then paused, as if he regretted it. 'Zil, I'm asking you, very nicely, to do your best to co‑operate this time 'round. Settle down and let me take care of the situation.'
Tylan McLaine stared at the screen. A loud silence, if ever Ochre had heard one. She wasn't smiling.
'Please?' Weller added.
'If you say so.' She slumped back into the chair. 'You'll forgive me if I sulk?'
'Do so to your heart's content Zil, not that it will get you anywhere. Amuse yourself working on the Captain instead; I'm sure that will be much more fun. I will call Arthur and let him know what's going on, and the two of you can commiserate by vid thereafter. All right?'
'Of course, all right. What possible objections could I have?' she said in a tone that indicated she had objections in plenty. 'Ciao, baby.'
She hung up the vid.
For the next few moments there was a silence in the kitchen. Eventually Ochre cleared his throat, still not quite sure he'd heard the whole conversation correctly, particularly the part about amusing herself....
'That,' he admitted slowly, 'was one of the more interesting conversations I've heard in a long while.' He wondered inwardly just how dim a view Colonel White was going to take of the whole thing.
'You must lead a very dull life then,' Tylan replied. 'I'll try,' she said, turning and drawing herself up to his eye‑level, 'to spice it up for you.' Her smile radiated innocence.
The pretty blue‑grey eyes were all mischief.
'Is that a threat or a promise?' he asked, deciding that her ill‑humour was obviously going to be reserved for persons other than himself. She was back to flirting shamelessly.
'Take it any way you like, Och'.'
Ochre returned the smile, and figured that of the two, it was the former that was the most likely.
'Zil?' He had to ask. Couldn't figure how one got to that from a name like Tylan McLaine.
'Yeah ‑ Zil. I have a nickname; Zil's a short form. Term of affection. You can use it if you like.'
'Can I? That's nice,' he said, playing the game. He became serious. 'You're scamming me, Doctor McLaine. I want you to know that I know that. What's the nickname?'
She took a step nearer---which was hardly necessary (or possible) but Ochre didn't back up. Give her just one inch, and she'd take a parsec; give in just once, and he'd be disadvantaged for the whole of Operation Minerva, however long it lasted.
'Can't figure it out?' Whispering again. Intimately. Teasingly. She put her lips close to his ear. 'It's short for Godzilla.'
Somehow, Ochre thought, that fit. Perfectly.
And somehow, he just knew this was going to be a long assignment, too.
Scarlet had watched Doctor Weller for the duration of the vid call with an uneasy mixture of amusement and suspicion. He couldn't see the vid screen from his side of the table, but the tone of the voice on the other end was something that he would never even have contemplated using with Colonel White ‑ virtual indestructibility would have done him precious little good in the aftermath of such a tirade with Spectrum's chief...
He didn't like Weller's attitude much at all. The situation was serious, if any of what Weller had just divulged was factual and accurate. If it was ‑ and Colonel White seemed inclined to think so ‑ then Scarlet thought that both Weller's researchers and equipment most certainly did belong under lock and key. Loose surveillance of the personnel and unquestioning trust in a civilian's security codes and/or storage vault just didn't sound like anywhere near enough to thwart the Mysterons. Maybe Demeter's security measured up ‑ Grey would be able to determine that once he was briefed ‑ and then Colonel White's tolerance with Weller's attitude and demands would change accordingly. At the moment, Colonel White was holding all options open.
As to Doctor Weller himself ‑ the man had tolerated a level of insolence from Arthur Prince and now again from Tylan McLaine that had Scarlet wondering just who was really running that show. Weller had not only tolerated the verbal abuse from Dr. McLaine, he positively seemed to be basking in it. Ochre had wondered in last night's conference if there were any personal connections involved---and that was, in Scarlet's immediate opinion, a definite. Weller was sitting there, gazing at the now darkened vid with a tiny, besotted smile fixed onto his face ‑ one that had been there since the vid had been so rudely disconnected from the other end.
None of it had been lost on Colonel White either.
'That, Doctor Weller,' the Colonel commented, 'sounds rather like insubordination to me. Is that usual in your chain of command?'
Weller's smile widened into one of genuine affection. 'She can be very impertinent at times ‑ and yes, it is usual. And very refreshing. Doctor McLaine is one of the few people who dare to dish it out in my direction. She's allowed, if that's what you want to know.'
'A close friend?' Scarlet ventured.
Which was not really the question at all, naturally, and Weller knew it as he turned an amused eye of his own back at him. 'That is also rather impertinent, Captain. But the answer is yes ‑ very close friends.' Weller closed his eyes and sighed wistfully. 'She is a goddess.'
Scarlet recalled his mythology well enough to know that Weller doubtless meant Aphrodite. But the only classical reference that had come to his mind had been 'harpy'. He exchanged glances with Colonel White who shrugged slightly ‑ Weller was obviously infatuated with the woman, despite the fact that he'd been sharing someone else's bed that morning.
Colonel White turned his attention back to Weller. 'Minerva, perhaps?' he asked, probing for information.
Weller's smile broadened. 'That's not the goddess I had in mind. But apt enough. Tylan McLaine is, in fact, one of the principal forces behind the Minerva Project.'
'Speaking of which, you seem very fond of Doctor McLaine. I do wish you'd reconsider the security arrangements.'
'If necessary.' Weller's smile faded. 'I do wish, Colonel White, that you could believe that I know where you're coming from on this. I am very fond of Doctor McLaine. And of Mr. Prince too, I might add. I wouldn't willingly expose them to any needless hazard. Further, I trust that your personnel are both capable and competent at what they do.'
'Very much so, Doctor; however‑'
'Then Demeter R&D is my primary concern. A partial evacuation of the facility seems to be in order, and I'll make the arrangements to shut down all but the most critical functions and experimental work. I expect most of the staff will appreciate an unscheduled holiday, though a few won't be willing to abandon their projects at the drop of a hat.'
'An expensive disruption, then?' Scarlet asked. Biotechnology was not so cut and dried a science as engineering, or any other more physical discipline ‑ months of work could go right down the tubes, curtailing any particular line of experimental research abruptly.
'I expect so,' Weller admitted.
'It could be avoided altogether,' Colonel White stated. 'It's hardly necessary, Doctor Weller. Transfer of the equipment would‑'
'No,' Weller was adamant in his refusal. 'Again ‑ no, Colonel White.'
Scarlet bit back an argument. There were reasons, and good ones, for Weller not to want to shut down the Demeter facility. So, then, just what was it, he had to wonder, that had him so dead‑set against the idea?
'I won't waste time debating it with you, Doctor. I've already stated Spectrum's position. Our personnel will assist in the evacuation, if you're certain that's the best option for your staff.'
'Appreciated, Colonel. I don't anticipate that there will be any danger to Demeter personnel. And I can assure you that the equipment is quite safe where it is.'
'Spectrum would appreciate the opportunity to verify that,' Colonel White said. 'If necessary, of course.'
'Persistent, Colonel White. I've also stated my position on that. I'll await developments, thank you.'
'No, don't thank me, Doctor Weller. I think it's a grave mistake.' Colonel White fastened his eyes on Weller's, engaging the Doctor in another of those measuring assessments. 'I hope I'll be proved wrong.'
Even that statement didn't unnerve Andrew Weller, and Scarlet knew that it had been meant to. A couple of very tough old birds, those two----and well‑matched at verbal sparring.
Weller inclined his head in acknowledgement. 'Pending developments, Colonel White. I'm not a fool and I'm not that inflexible.'
'I'll trust not.' Colonel White rose to his feet and Scarlet followed suit. 'That, then, will conclude this briefing, Doctor Weller. Captain Scarlet will fly you to Demeter at once under an Angel escort. Communications will be available if there are any arrangements you want to make while en route.'
So that we can monitor them, Scarlet thought, rather uncharitably. Secrets. He didn't like it, not with global devastation waiting in the wings, should it all go wrong. He didn't think either that Weller was taking the Mysteron threat seriously enough. He would have to see what could be done to convince the Doctor otherwise.
'Thank you, Colonel.' Weller got to his feet and shook Colonel White's hand again. 'I'm sure we'll be in touch soon.'
'Depend on it, Doctor.' The Colonel's gaze came his way. 'Captain Scarlet. You have your assignment. Maximum security procedures, Captain. You will consult with Doctor Weller and Captain Grey. I want the Demeter facility secured. We know---' he said slowly, to emphasise the point, '---that the Mysterons don't make idle threats.' It was another statement made for Doctor Weller's benefit. 'Good luck, gentlemen.'
'Spectrum is Green, sir.' Scarlet responded, gesturing Weller toward the corridor.
Colonel White nodded curtly and then vanished, leaving Weller in Scarlet's care.
Weller himself stared after the Colonel's retreating form thoughtfully, his chin lifted and his eyes slightly narrowed with respect. 'He means every word of it, doesn't he, Captain?'
'Absolutely, Doctor Weller ‑ if you'd care to come with me sir, they'll have our jet ready by the time we get to the flight deck.'
'Not wasting time.'
'No, sir.' Scarlet kept it short, all business as he keyed in a summons to the lift. There would be time to bend the Doctor's ear later. 'The Mysterons don't.'
Weller digested that silently, all the way down to Lower Decks. 'You're unhappy, Captain,' Weller remarked, after a moment. 'You disapprove. Not willing to await those developments?'
'I'm in agreement with Colonel White,' Scarlet replied flatly. 'The developments, Doctor, aren't generally something to be wished for. Developments can sometimes be extraordinarily unpleasant. We have one loose end, Doctor, and I'd feel better right now if I knew precisely where Mr. Carey was.'
'As would I, Captain.'
Scarlet ushered Weller back through security, watching absently as the Doctor was duly logged off‑base and his security card turned in. He logged himself out as Weller endured the brief procedure and then escorted his charge back onto the flight deck. All personnel on Cloudbase were subject to the same rules ‑ the carrier was far too sensitive a place, far too much a security risk to hazard the presence of persons unknown or unaccounted for loose on her decks. In an official sense, the flight deck was a kind of no‑man's land, and even that was under the careful scrutiny of the Deck Officer, until such time as the aircraft falling under Deck jurisdiction were locked through and launched.
The flight deck was as far as they got.
Scarlet's epaulettes suddenly flashed rapidly white ‑ indicating an urgent message ‑ while Lieutenant Green's voice boomed over the deck loudhailers, echoing in the vast confines of the flight hangar.
'Angels One and Two: Immediate launch! Red Alert! This is not a drill. Repeat. Angels One and Two: Immediate launch! Captain Scarlet, Lieutenant Indigo, report to Control. This is a Spectrum Red Alert.'
Instantly, Scarlet wheeled in his tracks, taking Weller by the elbow and heading back the way they'd just come. His cap mike swung down before the echoes of Green's message had died in the distance, and it was Colonel White's voice alive in his ear. 'Report to Control at once, Captain. Bring Doctor Weller with you. We have a situation.'
'S.I.G. ‑ details, sir?'
'Still coming in, Captain. Cape Town Air Traffic Central has just received word that a recent departure for Rio de Janeiro has been hijacked. We have a positive ID on the hijacker.'
Cape Town. Africa. 'Todd Carey, Colonel?' But that made no sense...
'No, Captain. The pilot, co‑pilot and flight crew have been locked out of the cockpit. At present the pilot of the airliner is in contact with Cape Town Security via passenger vid‑link. His description and the video records from the airport security cameras have positively identified the hijacker as Captain Black!'
Lieutenant Indigo arrived in the Control Room just a moment ahead of Scarlet and Weller. Colonel White gestured them all onto the raised stools surrounding his Control Desk.
'Briefly, gentlemen, the situation is that an airliner has been hijacked out of Cape Town by a known and very dangerous Mysteron agent. Why a commercial airliner is the most obvious question. That the flight originates in Africa disturbs me.' He spared a direct glance at Doctor Weller. 'Why Africa, and why now?'
Lieutenant Green turned from his console. 'Angels One and Two skyborne, sir. Intercept plotted on flight 904. Last reported fix from Cape Town Air Traffic Control puts the jet still on course for Rio de Janeiro.'
'The intended destination?' Scarlet asked with a puzzled frown.
'Yes. And that's another question. Why hijack an airliner and then keep it on course for its scheduled destination? It doesn't make sense.'
'Perhaps,' Indigo suggested quietly, 'this is what you would call 'grandstanding'.'
'I'm inclined to agree with you, Lieutenant. A ploy to get our attention. The pilot reports that Captain Black made no demands, nor did anything other than threaten violence until he had taken control of the jetliner. The crew have simply been locked out of the cockpit. Black must know the pilot will use one of the airliner's passenger vid‑links to contact the Cape Town authorities.'
'Then this must be a diversion,' Scarlet concluded. 'Nothing but.'
'Exactly.' Colonel White mirrored Scarlet's frown. 'I could divert Magenta ‑ he's close enough to intercept that airliner long before the Angels can get there.'
'But what can he do about it?'
'Very little. I haven't diverted Captain Magenta; he's in an unarmed Mk.I SPJ. Diverting him from Nairobi won't serve any purpose except to keep him off Todd Carey's tail.'
'Which may well be the idea,' Scarlet guessed.
Colonel White looked directly at Weller, who had been listening intently, saying nothing. 'We've also had word from the Kenyan authorities, Doctor. Todd Carey has vanished from his scheduled tour. Mrs. Carey has evidently just filed a missing persons report with the local police. Carey failed to meet her at their hotel for a planned shopping excursion in Nairobi. She's apparently been trying to contact you by SWC Security ‑ who have also, co‑incidentally, just placed an urgent call to us for you.'
'Todd would never abandon Shelley alone in a foreign country,' Weller stated, concern creasing a deep furrow across his brow. 'Well,' he said, apparently resigning himself to the situation, 'we didn't have to wait long for developments, did we?'
'It seems not. I've scrambled two Angel aircraft to intercept Flight 904. It will be a couple of hours before they establish contact. We do not at present know Captain Black's intent, or whether Todd Carey is also aboard the aircraft. I think it unlikely.'
'If it is grandstanding,' Scarlet mused aloud, 'Carey won't be on that flight. Black's calling too much attention to himself. This isn't something we can ignore.'
'No, it isn't Captain. You and Lieutenant Indigo will leave immediately to intercept that jet along with the Angels. A helijet is being readied now.'
Unlike the SPJs, Spectrum helijets were armed. But the status of the SPJ fleet was changing: prior to the War of Nerves, when Spectrum's mandate had been essentially that of global security and peacekeeping, the World Government had not wanted to present the organisation as being too heavily militarised. And so the SPJ's were just that: strictly passenger‑carrying aircraft. No one had forseen the need to arm them, and while the Angels had always been available to run escort in situations that had warranted it, running escort had never been their primary mission. Hence the current programme to add offensive capability to the SPJ fleet. But the wheels of Government often turn slowly; approvals and appropriations to arm the remainder of Spectrum's aircraft had been long in coming and a large proportion of the fleet still had not received its weaponry. The newly designed Mk.II, however, now incorporated armament as standard.
Colonel White drew a deep breath. 'What you may be able to do at the time, Captain, I can't say yet. But I want you there ‑ whatever kind of ball the Mysterons lob into our court we want to be in position to hit it back. Your objective, of course, will be to apprehend Captain Black. Watch your step Captain ‑ there are nearly three hundred people aboard that jetliner. We mustn't provoke Black into any rash action.'
'Understood, Colonel White.' Scarlet nodded, rising to his feet. 'We'll leave at once. Lieutenant...'
Indigo was already on his feet. 'S.I.G., sir,' he responded enthusiastically. For the Lieutenant, thought White, this would be a good introduction to the field...
No time for fanfares and friendly advice. 'Good luck, gentlemen.' White dismissed them without ceremony. 'We'll keep you appraised of any change in the status quo.'
'Thank you, sir.' Scarlet acknowledged the dismissal, and then they were gone, moving smartly for the corridor and the flight deck.
Colonel White turned his attention to Doctor Weller. 'Would you like to return the call to SWC Security, Doctor?'
'Yes ‑ en route to Demeter. I want Todd Carey found, Colonel White. And I need to be at Demeter in the event that this does prove to be a worst‑case scenario.'
'I've held an Angel back to escort you, Doctor Weller. Once Captain Scarlet's helijet has taken off we'll have you on your way.' The Colonel paused briefly. 'As to Mr. Carey, we've alerted the local authorities in Kenya that this is most certainly not a simple case of a missing tourist. Captain Magenta will be interviewing Mrs. Carey to establish if anything unusual or out of the ordinary has happened while on tour. We will be tracing Mr. Carey's activities of the last few days. Airport, customs, and airline records will be examined, to determine if either Captain Black or Mr. Carey have come and gone. But it takes time. And if this is a worst‑case scenario, it's not time that we want to be wasting.'
'No, Colonel. Nor do I.' Weller looked at him directly. 'Demeter.'
'As quickly as we can get you there, Doctor Weller. Can we forward any instructions ahead to my personnel?'
'No, not really.'
'We're here to help, Doctor. And I'll ask again: is there anything else that Spectrum should know about Minerva?'
'I appreciate the intent, Colonel White. Find Todd. I'll take care of Minerva.'
Stubborn man. Not rattled, even by news that wasn't particularly good. Determined to wait until the worst was confirmed. Doubtless, it served the Doctor well in a boardroom. This, however, wasn't corporate politics, and Colonel White feared, with some certainty, that the news, when it came, would be anything but good.
Captain Black was involved.
'We'll try, Doctor Weller.'
It was the only promise he could make that he could in any wise keep...
It was a long way to go. But there wasn't a commercial airliner in the sky that could outrace an Angel Interceptor, and Rhapsody Angel knew that she and Harmony could get from Cloudbase's current position over the North Atlantic, straight south a hemisphere away before that jetliner could possibly reach South America, even with a head start from Cape Town. Scarlet's helijet wasn't far behind them.
Captain Black hadn't altered course one bit. Black had maintained his course, altitude and speed, as if he was working for the airline and keeping the schedule. Cape Town had had no further official contact with the flight since it had made its routine exit from Cape Town's regulated airspace. Cloudbase had requested that they treat the hijacking as nothing more than business as usual. The last thing Spectrum wanted to give the Mysterons was a public forum for their antics. And there was still no knowing if Black was aware that Spectrum was involved.
He would know soon enough.
'Angel Leader to Cloudbase,' Rhapsody reported to Control for final instructions. They would soon overtake the jetliner. 'We are closing on Flight 904, Colonel White. Estimated time to intercept is four minutes.'
'Understood, Rhapsody. I want you to contact Flight 904 on standard commercial frequencies. Inform Captain Black that we are aware of his actions and that his aircraft will be escorted to Rio de Janeiro. The pilot reports that Black has disabled the escape pods from the cockpit, so the people on board don't even have the option to eject at this point. We have arranged with the authorities to refuel that jet and allow its departure, once the crew and passengers have been released. Be reasonable, don't threaten any reprisals should he refuse to co‑operate. There are innocent lives at stake in this crisis. Scarlet and Indigo will be listening in; they're on a vector that will intercept Black’s aircraft as soon as is possible.'
'Spectrum is Green, sir. And if Captain Black does not respond or comply?'
'Then you will shepherd that jet wherever Black is taking it, Rhapsody. There's little else we can do short of shooting it down, and that's simply not an option. We'll monitor your call.'
'Yessir. Angel Leader, standing by.' Rhapsody adjusted her com, leaving a link open to Cloudbase on a secondary channel, and switching to International Hailing on the primary. Flight 904, a blip for the last ten minutes on radar, was now a visible dot distant in the sky. The weather was good; stable, cloudless air and nearly unlimited visibility. 'Harmony: we'll come up one on either side of him; let him see us right out of his front window. Let's drop stealth and announce our presence.'
If Black hadn't known they were there, he would know now ‑ their stealth fields might have shown ghostly images on a military tracking screen, but they'd have been invisible to a jetliner's more standard radar scanners. They closed on Flight 904 rapidly. The two Angels drew alongside the aircraft in close formation, near enough to see anxious faces peering at them out of the windows of the passenger compartment.
'Flight 904, this is Spectrum Angel Leader.' Rhapsody hailed the airliner on the standard commercial airline frequency. 'Captain Black, be advised that Spectrum is aware that you are in control of Flight 904. Please respond.'
Polite and official. Black might or might not answer. Rhapsody's pulse quickened. For the people trapped on that plane this was a dangerous moment. The situation made her nervous. She recalled all too vividly what Major Reeves had done with his jet after he'd refused to accompany the Angels back to Base Concord...
There was, for a moment, only the quiet hiss of an open and inactive channel on the frequency. And then---
Captain Black's unnaturally deep and sonorous voice did reply, identifying her. It was all the Mysteron agent said, her code name, stated once. Every one of the fine hairs at the back of her neck stood on end.
It was contact.
Rhapsody went on. 'Captain Black.' As if it was conversation. 'We query, why this action?' It couldn't hurt to ask, chilling though it was to attempt conversation with the aliens...
'Rhapsody Angel,' Black repeated the code name, the same flat monotone. Not Conrad Turner's voice at all. 'Earthwoman. The Mysterons are not obligated to provide Spectrum with this information.'
'No, I suppose not. Just asking. I, however, am obligated to escort your aircraft to Rio de Janeiro so that the passengers and crew may disembark safely. May we expect your co‑operation?'
'Spectrum cannot enforce this intention, Rhapsody Angel. The passengers and crew of this aircraft do not concern the Mysterons. Rio de Janeiro is not my destination.'
She did not like the sound of that.
'Then, again, Captain Black, we query, why this action? Canada is a very long way from Rio, and your aircraft hasn't the fuel capacity to take you there.'
A short silence followed.
'Spectrum knows where Minerva lies. Do the Mysterons deny the stated objective?'
'The Mysteron objective remains unchanged.'
'The authorities are prepared to refuel and grant departure clearance to your aircraft at Rio when the passengers and crew have been released. I say again, Captain Black, may we expect your co‑operation?'
Again, another silence.
'Rhapsody Angel, I say again, Rio de Janeiro is not my destination. The passengers and crew of this aircraft are of no consequence. Nor does Spectrum yet know the Mysterons' purpose. Further communication is therefore deemed unnecessary.'
With that, communication ceased, Black ignoring Rhapsody's attempts to re‑establish contact.
Bloody hell! Rhapsody swore softly under her breath. Riddles. It was always damned riddles with the Mysterons. What did Black mean, his destination was not Rio?
'Angel Leader to Cloudbase. Colonel White? I'm sorry sir, I couldn't keep him talking.'
'That was well handled, Rhapsody. You got some information out of him, even if its meaning is unclear. Has he altered course?
'No sir. Not yet.'
'Maintain surveillance. We'll have to play a waiting game until Black's intentions become clear. Stay with that jet, Rhapsody.'
'Yes sir. We'll---Sir!' Rhapsody's pulse skyrocketed as Captain Black's intentions suddenly became all too clear: 'Colonel White!' she exclaimed with horror, 'Captain Black has just put the jet into a dive!'
Indigo stiffened at the helijet's controls when he heard Rhapsody's exclamation over the open channel. 'Sir?!'
'Hold your course Lieutenant!' Scarlet snapped back. They were already at maximum speed and fast closing on the airliner that was still some miles ahead of them. He was watching the radar screen and the instrument's associated readout, extrapolating the dive angle...not too steep, not too hazardous...just an unexpected move. The airliner was almost on a glide path. Nonetheless, he could still imagine the panic that was ensuing in the passenger compartment with that manoeuvre.
What the hell is he doing?!
But their helijet was still on an intercept course; perhaps that was exactly what Black wanted.
Scarlet's hand hit the com panel hard. 'Captain Black! Pull up! Hotdogging’s just not your style, Captain! You have our attention, if that's what you're looking for!'
Personal confrontation; now that was Turner's style.
Scarlet cursed silently. It was never possible to know just who ‑ or what ‑ it was that you were actually dealing with when it came to the Mysterons. Would Black answer him after he'd told Rhapsody that no further communications would be necessary?
'You have yet to deny it. Level off, Captain. If you have some demands to make, we're willing to negotiate. Those people have nothing to do with this. We're here ‑ what is it you want?'
'It is not in the Mysterons' best interests to either confirm or deny any of Spectrum's speculations, Captain Scarlet. If you would bargain, you may begin by withdrawing your Interceptors.'
There wasn't much the Angels could do in any case. It wasn't a demand that would cost them much. 'Angels One and Two, you will proceed immediately to Rio de Janeiro and await further instructions. Flight 904 does not require your escort to destination. Please acknowledge.'
At once, the large blip on his screen broke into three distinct and smaller blips. 'Angel Leader, S.I.G. Proceeding as ordered to Rio de Janeiro, Captain. Standing by.' Rhapsody broadcast her response on both the commercial and Spectrum frequencies. Both fighters withdrew; but they would not be far away, and they would both still be monitoring their radios. Black would not fail to notice either condition.
'Rio de Janeiro is very local, Captain Scarlet. This is but a token gesture on Spectrum's part.'
'It should suffice nicely, Captain Black, as Rio de Janeiro is not your intended destination. Perhaps you would care to clarify that point?'
'The Mysterons do not choose to volunteer this information.'
'Spectrum has fulfilled your request and withdrawn your escort. Level the plane off, Captain, and then tell me what you want.' Scarlet watched the radar screen carefully, waiting to see the change in the readout. It came, a minute correction. The jetliner was still descending, but more slowly now. He cursed again. 'A token gesture of your own, Captain. That is not level flight ‑ you were always a better pilot than that.'
'It will suffice.'
Mysteron arrogance. Black still had the upper hand, and Black knew it.
'What do you want, Captain?'
There was silence on the frequency.
Scarlet spared a glance out of the starboard side of the helijet's cockpit; Indigo touched his sleeve and indicated the distant airliner on the horizon. He nodded, pegging it. Still descending. They still had altitude, were just coming down to 30,000 feet. Still time to bargain, then.
'You lack manners today, Captain Scarlet. Perhaps the Mysterons simply desire the pleasure of your company.'
Humour? Scarlet blinked in disbelief. From the Mysterons? Or...
They want me? Personally?
It wasn't impossible. The Mysterons had tried to take him out of the game more times than he cared to think about. He'd been a royal pain in their backsides (assuming they had any) on more than one occasion. They want to take me out? Early in the game? Was that the purpose Black had mentioned to Rhapsody?
Suddenly his epaulettes started flashing a rapid white for the second time today. He heaved a sigh and with a wry smile at Indigo's questioning gaze answered Captain Black first. 'It hardly sounds like an offer I could possibly refuse, Captain. Please stand‑by. I'll check my datebook.'
He closed the commercial channel. 'Colonel White?'
'I don't like the sound of this, Captain.'
'I'm not sure I like the sound of it either, Colonel. But I don't see much choice about it, sir. Black's still got a jetliner full of hostages. There's only one thing he can have in mind at this point. And as flattering as it all sounds, I'm sure the rest of you can make do without me if you have to.'
'Yes ‑ if we have to, though I'd just as soon have you back in one piece, Captain. We've walked right into this one. Exercise all due caution, Scarlet. You'll be on your own. Don't go unarmed or without communications.'
'Black hasn't put any conditions on it yet, Colonel.'
'Again, Captain, good luck. Have Indigo keep us appraised of the situation.'
'Spectrum is Green, Colonel. Scarlet out.' He switched back to Black's frequency. 'Captain Black?'
'Very sorry to keep you waiting, Captain.' He put undue courtesy into his voice. 'I've been able to free up some time in my busy schedule for you. I do trust that you'll turn Flight 904 back over to the regular crew.'
'Flight 904 has served its purpose. The Mysterons have no further interest in this aircraft or its occupants.'
'In that case, I'm sure they'll enjoy Rio when they arrive without further incident. Shall we agree on 15,000 feet?'
'This is acceptable.'
'I'll be there, Captain.' Scarlet closed the channel without giving Black the opportunity to put forward any of the conditions White had mentioned. He unbuckled his safety harness.
Indigo turned a puzzled frown to him as he stood. 'Captain ‑ an explanation sir?'
'One on one with Captain Black, Lieutenant. The Mysterons aren't just trying to distract us from Todd Carey's trail; they're trying to shift the odds in their favour by taking at least one of us out of the action. They've been trying to ditch me for ages. One thing you might as well learn early Lieutenant: The Mysterons nearly always have more than one good reason for doing anything.' Scarlet glanced out of the window again. Indigo was bringing them onto a course that would take them parallel to Flight 904's descent path and perhaps a kilometre to the north, well within visual range. Scarlet nodded. 'Hold course, Indigo; stay with the jetliner. Colonel White will recall the Angels on your all‑clear signal.'
Indigo blinked comprehension at him. He'd caught most of the situation. Indigo wasn't slow or stupid ‑ just inexperienced. 'Sir, where are you going?'
They were miles from anywhere ‑ closing on the South American coastline, but still a few hundred miles out. There was no landfall, just ocean. Scarlet was already stripping off his uniform, reaching for the wetsuit in the storage locker in the aft compartment of the helijet. 'Swimming, Lieutenant. I'll be jumping at 15,000 feet, as will Captain Black. We're taking Flight 904 out of the equation.'
Personal confrontation. Ask Ochre or Magenta or Grey about Conrad Turner someday, kid...
Hard to recall at times, that Blue hadn't even been assigned to Cloudbase, hadn't been his partner then. Brown had been, but that was before the Mysterons had---‑
'And after that?' Indigo had dark, earnest eyes, full of concern. He'd heard about Scarlet, knew, in theory at any rate, about the retrometabolism. The older agents---his own generation---joked about his virtual indestructibility. The younger ones weren't sure quite what to make of the hearsay.
In a situation like this one he was never sure himself. He joked about it as much as anyone, but there were dark hours when he often wondered when the Mysterons would finally get him. His sense of vulnerability was perversely acute; aside from the risk posed by high voltages, which they all knew about, he personally could think of all sorts of ways to get rid of someone who so persistently kept on coming back Most of them gruesome in the extreme. Perhaps there was a point past which the retrometabolism wouldn't work. He'd never... well, he’d never actually lost anything ‑ and his one relative piece had always received prompt medical attention. But there might be a time limit. There might be some critical mass. Or other---thresholds, that was what Fawn called them. It wasn't something anyone particularly wanted to experiment with. In the present circumstances he could well end up as shark bait, beyond recovery...
'After that?' he repeated. 'Hell of a good question, Lieutenant. Stick around and find out.'
Scarlet zipped‑up the wetsuit and snugged the utility belt tight. He double checked the guns ‑ the electron gun and the standard issue Spectrum pistol. Waterproof, both of them. Though, he mused grimly, the Mysterons were capable of disabling pretty much anything they felt like disabling when they felt it necessary. How many times had reliable equipment simply failed to function for no apparent reason at a critical moment? He took two distress beacons, and traded his cap for a helmet that strapped securely under his chin. 'Altitude?'
He strapped a parachute to his back and a small airtank beneath it. He slipped a diving mask over his head and grabbed a pair of flippers before working his way to the access hatch just behind the cockpit. He put on the flippers and called to Indigo. 'Level off at 15,500. I want that jet to hit 15,000 before we do.' Scarlet wasn't going to jump until Black did. Not that he doubted it much. His hand rested lightly on the door’s emergency‑release lever. 'Let me know the instant Black leaves the jet, Lieutenant.'
A pause. And then Indigo shouted: 'Escape pod gone, Captain! Black is on his way down!'
'That's it--- see you on the other side, Indigo!' Scarlet pulled the lever and the sudden violence of the slip‑stream hit him, feebly countered by the air rushing from thepressurized compartment through the hatch. He gave in to it and let himself fall into space...
He quickly adopted the classic skydiving position and scanned the sky for Black's pod. He didn't want to pull his chute until he'd spotted the son of a---‑
There! Even with its braking chute deployed the pod was still falling fast.
He pulled the rip‑cord and braced himself for the jolt. With his chute deployed he began to steer himself toward the pod. He activated the helmet com. 'Scarlet to Indigo ‑ confirm contact with Flight 904 and verify that Captain Black was in that pod!'
Indigo's response was immediate. 'That's affirmative Captain; the pilot reports that Captain Black was aboard the escape pod. Flight 904 is under their control again and remains bound for Rio. Your status, sir?'
'All Green, Lieutenant.' Got him then! There was nowhere for Black to go. There was a real possibility that they might just catch him this time...
The main chute was deployed on the pod, slowing its descent further. The pod was bigger, heavier than Scarlet on his own, and it was well below him. Grasping at the cords on his own chute, Scarlet tugged, steering himself closer to the pod. He wanted to be right on top of Black, before Black had the chance to pull something fancy.
It was an anxious few minutes, waiting for splashdown. Scarlet spent them worrying alternately about his own chances, and that of even finding Black there ‑ it wasn't impossible either, for Black to pull one of those infamous vanishing acts.
Black's pod hit the water first, submerging completely and then bobbing to the top of another passing swell. The chute disconnected automatically, release charges firing on impact. The pod, a bright yellow object with black ID markings and a checkerboard pattern across the hatch righted itself and red and white strobe lights started flashing around its upper surface. Scarlet splashed down some hundred metres to the east of it.
Scarlet released the chute, pulled down his mask, shoved the regulator into his mouth, and commenced swimming towards the pod as quickly as he could, thinking of sharks no less than of the Mysterons...
The pod had tiny portholes mounted in the sides. Black could conceivably have seen him coming, if Black had had the leisure to be looking...commercial escape pods were large: large enough to hold thirty or forty people at a pinch, and the big jetliners were required by law to have sufficient to get all passengers off a doomed flight in an emergency. For one alone, they were spacious enough to be dangerous---Black would have been cautious, he was sure, but he could always hope that the Mysteron agent had at least knocked a few teeth loose in the descent.
From surface level, the thing was huge.
Scarlet grasped at one of the external handholds---a series of depressions in the bright yellow hull that led upwards like a narrow embedded ladder to the upper hatch. The fins became a liability and he peeled them off, wedging them tightly into one of the handholds ‑ he'd likely want them later. Thankfully there were no viewports on this quarter, but Black could probably hear him climbing. He doubted that the slap and play of water around the lower half of the pod would mask it.
He tossed stealth to the winds and climbed, drawing his electron gun at the upper rim. He could reach the outside control panel from the handholds and hit the universal release code.
The upper hatch, only large enough for the exit of one person at a time, hissed with equalising pressure as the seal cracked open. Scarlet moved himself into position, wrapped one hand around another handhold, got one toe under the hatch and kicked, rolling with the motion and dropping gun‑first into the black maw of the hatchway---‑
He froze. And double‑checked, scanning wildly for an ambush that didn't come. Finally, he stopped holding his breath and other sounds slowly intruded into his consciousness. Indigo's helijet whining overhead; one of the Angels roaring above him; Cloudbase making demands in his right ear...
Scarlet ignored them all and drove his fist into the side of the pod in adrenaline‑charged frustration.
Goddammit! This whole thing's been nothing but a friggin' wild goose chase!
The escape pod was empty.