Simple but effective.
Data taken from the Carey‑Construct's mind had indicated what course of action the Weller unit might adopt, and to this point in the linear time‑line, the Weller unit's actions were bearing the data out. This analysis was positive; accuracy early in this phase generally extrapolated toward attainment of the phase objective, though this was ever subject to principles of uncertainly ‑ random events were not only possible, but also probable. Behaviour of the human Whole was easier to predict than the behaviour of any human unit...
Nonetheless, the subject sectors and units were conforming to parameter. Units of the Spectrum sector had consulted with the Whole and reacted according to procedure. This was typical and expected ‑ the Spectrum sector itself was now attempting to collect data; a task that was proving difficult, as the Weller, Prince, and McLaine units were actively denying the desired data to the individual Spectrum units. This, too, was accurate according to the information stored in the Carey‑Construct's mind. The Shonbeck‑Weller sector was not functionally connected to or under the authority of the Spectrum sector, and the Whole seldom stirred itself to mediate inter‑sector communications. It was some kind of low‑level function; an exploitable weakness that had operated to the humans' general detriment in previous phases of the War.
The Carey unit had been studying the other three. The Spectrum sector was not aware of this ‑ and it left them at a slight disadvantage, though it was possible that the Carey unit's mate could have supplied this data on request. Significance of such a request had not yet been established, and the request had not materialised.
The Carey‑Construct's stored knowledge was proving both valuable and, indeed, essential. The Weller unit's simple but effective strategy---to physically separate functional portions of the Minerva Project---had to be circumvented, and circumvented, moreover, without alerting units of the Spectrum sector that this would be a compromise of their procedures. Attainment of the phase‑objective would be lost should the Spectrum‑sector learn of the objective's true form too early. The Carey‑Construct had been tasked to formulate a counter‑strategy, and once the Carey- Construct had been returned to origins and collected its own data, it had done so in a remarkably short interval of linear time. The Carey unit had been an intelligent and well‑organised one; its function had been management of many subordinate units in the hierarchy of the Shonbeck‑Weller sector. Unlike many other previous Constructs, the Carey unit, and therefore the Carey‑Construct, possessed little skill with or access to the sort of offensive technologies that it might otherwise utilise against the Spectrum sector...so its counter‑strategy drew instead on its experience and directed other resources toward the achievement of its goal.
Simple, but effective...
Scarlet did not quite spit the word out. But he came close, Colonel White mused, reflecting on the past few days and the mounting levels of frustration that were all too quickly becoming a hallmark of Operation Minerva.
'At ease, Captain.' Colonel White motioned Scarlet into one of the stools before his desk. 'And I'm afraid that's an accurate assessment too, Captain. We've had another report ‑ one more positive ID on Todd Carey.'
Scarlet did not bat an eye. He nodded, unsurprised. 'And where ‑ dare I ask ‑ is the elusive Mr. Carey this time?'
'Auckland, New Zealand.'
'He was positively reported in Copenhagen just three hours ago. Sir, even we can't move that fast.'
'No, and I'm rather beginning to suspect that Todd Carey can't either.'
'Shall I check‑'
'No, Captain, thank you, but the local agents can chase the report down. I'm not going to have you barking up the wrong tree again.' Moody, even at the best of times, the last few days had served to put Scarlet in, to say the very least, a poor frame of mind. Colonel White had yet to see it affect Scarlet's professional judgment negatively, though it sometimes sharpened up his focus ‑ to an enemy, Scarlet mad translated as Scarlet dangerous...
Scarlet had been in a bad mood ever since Captain Black had stood him up the other day, and it hadn't helped either that the hijacking incident had proved to be a very effective diversion, tying up Spectrum's attention while Todd Carey had quietly taken himself elsewhere. There was little doubt in Colonel White's mind but that the man had been killed and Mysteronised ‑ nothing else could possibly explain the man's unexpected disappearance and the subsequent sightings made worldwide. Black's tactics at the time had served to activate the security grid in every airport within the radius of Flight 904's fuel capacity, and the stand‑down orders had been typically, bureaucratically slow in issue, even after Black's apparent destination had become clear. Security had been tightened up on incoming flights ‑ looser, therefore, on those outgoing, and Todd Carey had slipped out of Nairobi on a flight to Pretoria. In the relevant time‑frame it was possible he'd boarded other flights connecting to Cairo, Bombay, or Perth. After that, the list of possibilities simply proliferated ‑ Carey had given Spectrum the slip under cover of Black's hijacking of Flight 904, and the strategy had worked for the Mysterons.
It would have helped too, if only Spectrum could prove conclusively that Todd Carey was, in fact, now a Mysteron agent. So far, Magenta had not been able to turn up the original's body. Kenyan authorities had had no more luck ‑ which led then to the question of just when and where Carey might have been murdered. Evidently, not in Nairobi or its immediate vicinity. Magenta, and Lieutenant Indigo, whom he'd dispatched to help, was now touring game reserves with an increasingly more distraught Mrs. Carey; and it was a lot of ground to cover. With the lengthening passage of time it became less likely that whatever remains might be found would be easily identifiable. The African heat and scavengers doubtless would take their toll. It wasn't going to be pleasant, but still Colonel White was hoping that the news would come soon. Doctor Weller was demanding confirmation of the suspected event, however unpleasant, and was still being, again to say the very least, unco-operative in his approach to Operation Minerva.
Scarlet smiled wryly. Even under pressure he could be good‑humoured about his own bad‑humour. 'Busywork,' he said again, with less venom. 'Carey just can't be in all those places. Is it possible that the Mysterons are feeding false data into the security records in any or all of these places?'
'I'd certainly say it's a possibility ‑ digital corruption of the vid records has to be simpler than teleporting the man around the globe ‑ and we've seen that they can do that when they like. I'd give a great deal to know how it's done.' It was one of the more difficult and perplexing sides to the entire War of Nerves ‑ the Mysterons obviously had and sometimes did display abilities far beyond anything that Spectrum, or any human agency for that matter, could ever hope to match. Possessed of such superior technologies and science, the Mysterons nonetheless seldom employed those advances to end the War of Nerves, applying their abilities instead to tax and coax their human opposition along. It lent grim credence to certain think‑tank speculations which proposed the Mysterons were simply playing with mankind for their own unfathomable reasons. It wasn't a hypothesis he liked personally--- it implied theoretically that all Spectrum could ever do was to prolong the agony---until the Mysterons themselves grew tired of the game.
'I'll ask Captain Black when I catch up to him, sir.' Scarlet remarked. 'If ever. Slippery devil, that man.'
'Well, that we've known for some time, Captain. But for now, I think we'd be further ahead to focus our energies on Todd Carey.'
'The wrong tree again? Although Auckland to Honolulu to Anchorage would put Carey back into Demeter's general neighbourhood, and he does have to be somewhere. What do we know about the man, Colonel? Are we missing something obvious?'
'We've been asking those same questions, Captain.' Colonel White picked up the file that was sitting on his console and handed it across the desk to Scarlet. 'There's not much there that looks especially enlightening.' He gave Scarlet a moment to scan through a few pages. 'Todd Carey is forty‑eight, married, happily it seems, no children, has a background in General Science and Business Administration. He's been working for Shonbeck‑Weller in various managerial positions for twenty‑three years. He's been the senior Director of Demeter R&D for the last nine years and evidently does a fine job of it. He has a number of academic interests, enjoys the outdoors and he and his wife travel extensively, hiking and camping in exotic places.'
'Any firearms training?'
'Virtually none ‑ they do maintain a stock of hunting rifles at Demeter for use with the local bear population, but Carey isn't a sports hunter, no. A bit of survival training is all that's in his background. He doesn't own or collect guns, has no interest in them at all.'
'He's a scholar, then. Caught away from home, no arms, no obvious resources to use against us ‑ what have the Mysterons got in mind?'
'A good question, Captain, if a rhetorical one. I wish I could say.'
'What's at Demeter, then? He's got the outdoors experience to hike in there. Biohazards? I'm reminded of the Judy Chapman incident ‑ and she did eventually turn up in the hazard area.'
'It's not the nature of the threat, but it's been looked at. Grey says not... Demeter just doesn't do work with military application, they concern themselves primarily with agriculture and medicine. Which is not to say that any number their of products couldn't be perverted to other uses. Yes, there are a number of biohazardous substances in use at Demeter, but they're more in the nature of tools, as opposed to weapons. Due precautions are in place.'
'And our next move, then, Colonel White?'
'Get some rest, Captain. We have to wait for the Mysterons to give us a hint what they're up to ‑ and I've a hunch it won't be too much longer in coming...
The coffee was good, and so was the doughnut. Todd Carey sat in the corner of the doughnut shop and stared out at the early morning crowds on a busy city street in downtown Toronto. He has gone to school not far from here, had lived not much further and had grown up locally. It was all familiar; it was, though he hadn't lived there for many years, still home.
He glanced up to the stylish wall clock. Soon the morning crowds would be cleared out and he would have to pay a bit more mind to the loitering limit. Use of the lavatory facilities and the purchase of another coffee would delay the inevitable heave‑ho, but Todd was not concerned about that yet. He had no trouble to cause, not here and not yet. There were many rather rowdier customers that would catch the management's eye long before he did. He spent time, like many of the other patrons, sitting very quietly sipping the excellent considering‑its‑source coffee and leafed through one of the daily newspapers that the establishment provided as a courtesy.
There was little news in the daily to interest him. The front pages and the editorials all failed to mention the Mysterons, Spectrum or the current threat to global security. He did find a brief notation on the second last page of section one stating that the authorities had the matter well in hand; the target had been established and appropriate security measures had been put in place. An official from Spectrum HQ Public Relations was in town, to prepare and co‑ordinate press releases. As of this time, there was little news to release, the official had said. Efforts were being made to locate the suspected Mysteron agent or agents. Aside from the minor flap that the sudden arrival of several Spectrum elite in the city four days ago had caused, there had been no action to report. Events more exciting and newsworthy had taken place elsewhere and elicited little concern with the bulk of the populace; they had gone back to minding their own business.
Spectrum was playing the current threat very low‑key, it seemed.
Todd Carey noted the name of the reporter that had filed the brief, back‑page update and folded the paper, tucking it under his arm (so as not to lose it to another inquiring patron) as he bought and paid for the second coffee. Further perusal pinpointed the other bit of information he needed. He finished the coffee at leisure and then sifted through his pocket for some proper change. He nodded a banal acknowledgement to the counter girl's cheerful farewell and made his way to the vid‑phone booth in the corner of the front vestibule. Inserting his proper change, he punched in the number that had been listed in the back of the paper and waited while the connection was made. He felt a small, irrational gratification that he'd memorised the number correctly when the receptionist on the other end confirmed the successful placement of his call.
'Good morning,' he replied in response to the pleasant female voice. 'I wonder if I could possibly speak with one of your field reporters, please?'
Guinevere had long blonde hair. She was tall and athletic‑looking, with long lean legs. Her eyes were very brown and very expressive. She was quiet and well‑mannered and evidently a patient, live‑in listener for Arthur Prince, who loved her dearly. Vermillion was even becoming somewhat fond of her.
Captain Blue himself didn't feel that way. Gwen was not deliberately a problem. Gwen was just turning out to be a part of the whole annoying tapestry and after four seemingly unending days Blue was finding his own patience fraying dangerously thin with the entire thing.
Irritated, he picked another half‑handful of long blonde hair from his trousers, mildly cursing the unalterable fact that it was springtime and Guinevere was shedding something awful. She appeared to be a purebred Afghan Hound or something very close; she was a bit broader across the nose and shoulders than he thought a purebred should have been. But then again, he was no expert on dogs. He wasn't even especially fond of the things, and he'd learned young to dislike the succession of psychotic poodles that his mother had doted over, much to the rest of the family's dismay. The poodles had generally reciprocated the animosity and Blue found himself quite at a loss for an appropriate response to Gwen's much friendlier demands for attention. Arthur had trained her to believe she was a lap animal it was impossible to sit down anywhere without getting a very hopeful and bodily snuggle from Gwen.
Arthur Prince fawned all over her, and had spent a significant proportion of the past three days brushing and coddling the thing, throwing hostile glances at any Spectrum officer daring to shoo the animal out of the way. Arthur worried about Gwen, and so did Captain Blue, because Guinevere was very pregnant and it looked, even to his utterly untrained eye, that she might just whelp those pups at any second and if she did, he suspected that she would likely do it in his bed...
The dogs were everywhere.
Ochre was contending with one and so too was Grey. Merlin and Lancelot respectively, with Lance, evidently, being responsible for Guinevere's condition. Doctor McLaine---Gwen's attending physician---had also evidently long since removed Merlin's options in such matters personally, an exercise in historical fact that she had gone into and explained in some considerable detail to a less‑than‑enthralled Captain Ochre and a polite but discomfited Lieutenant Russet. She had lectured deliberately and with thinly disguised delight, he understood, from his colleagues' accounting of it. It was a surgical procedure designed to unsettle the male of any species.
There was an upside to the whole Gwen‑thing, however. She kept Arthur's time occupied with something other than the interminable political diatribes that Arthur would lapse into on the scarcest of excuses. Get Arthur going on any subject and it would eventually be bent around into a lecture on the shortcomings of the planetary socio‑economic structures and political frameworks. Lectures that were very one‑sided discussions, because Blue refused absolutely to be drawn into them and Vermilion had learned---via the school of hard knocks---that Arthur was not one to debate lightly. Vermilion had never studied political science.
Every attempt the Lieutenant had made to engage Mr. Prince in a conversation about electronics ‑ an interest that the two of them shared at the very least ‑ had failed utterly, because Arthur absolutely wouldn't be drawn very deeply into those. There had been several such pseudo‑discussions and most had ended abruptly whenever Arthur had decided Vermilion was asking too many of the right questions and that divulging any more than had been said could well prove hazardous. Knowing Arthur as he did now, Blue thought it a probable, misdirecting put‑off. Mr. Prince obviously preferred not to lie. But he was pretty good at omissions.
At the moment, the Lieutenant was having another good‑spirited go at Arthur ‑ Vermilion wasn't one to give up easily and it seemed that in spite of their political differences, Vermilion and Arthur liked one another. It was something in the genotype, Blue had concluded; they were both relatively tall, underweight, angular, and both ‑ they claimed ‑ were lousy at sports. Blue rather suspected they had each spent their teen years communing with microchips. But whatever the reasons, they were just plain compatible and even if Arthur wouldn't answer them, Arthur tolerated questions from Vermilion that Blue seriously doubted he would have tolerated from Blue himself. It had settled into a kind of guessing game; Vermilion was testing Arthur out subject by electronic subject, hunting clues about the Minerva gizmo. Today the topic was biochips.
'Biochips don't work,' Arthur muttered, responding to the Lieutenant's question without even looking up from the brush he was pulling across Gwen's back.
'But they've improved so much lately,' Vermilion argued. 'The early ones weren't much good I'll admit, but they've improved ‑ I know ‑ I'm from Silicon Valley and I've got a big sister working in the field.'
'Hope she can keep her job, then. Biochips don't work. I don't think they ever will.'
'AI, then. That's what drives the chips. And that's come a long way too.'
'AI is another chimera. They've been playing with AI for nearly a century and it still doesn't work. AI is as limited as the biochips are. You don't want artificial intelligence. You want intelligence that's real.'
'It's a matter of time.'
'It's a waste of time.'
'You have better ideas, maybe?'
Oohh... Blue thought. Nice try, Lieutenant.
But Arthur could recognise a leading question when he heard one, and he transfixed Vermilion with a deadpan stare. 'Maybe. Go back to square one, Lieutenant. You're the one chasing chimera now. The gizmo's not biochips and it's not AI. End of discussion.'
Blue sighed. And Spectrum still knew nothing more than Weller had said. Or would yet say. The Minerva gizmo was still a mystery, a fact that was worrying Colonel White more and more by the hour and ticking off Scarlet supremely; Blue hadn't seen Scarlet so annoyed since he'd had to spend that day with President Roberts... That operation had had a short deadline; the Mysterons had said nothing about a time‑frame on this one.
Mysterons must mean it as harassment, Blue had long since decided. Or they're waiting for those pups to happen along just to complicate the matter, or else...
His train of thought was interrupted by the beep of his shoulder epaulettes, unaccompanied by a coloured signal flash. A general communication from Security then and not a call from Cloudbase.
Which did not imply any non‑urgency, however.
Vermilion answered it, speaking quietly into his cap mike, and leaned over to peer out of the front window. The Lieutenant gestured his attention to the slanted vertical blinds of the living room window.
'Got some woman walking the street ‑ she's just cruised by the house for the third time,' he reported, obviously in touch with the Spectrum Security agents parked in an unmarked vehicle at the end of the street.
It sounded suspicious to him. 'Looking for an address?' Blue asked, checking his weapons as he turned to glance across the room toward Arthur Prince ‑ whose present brush and coddle had just come to a nervous halt. Arthur missed very little, and the alert coupled with his own reaction to it had left Arthur looking suddenly as if he was the one about to have pups.
It might be nothing. It might be just some woman with legitimate business checking for a local address. But then again, it might not be, and he'd personally seen Mysteron agents self‑destruct violently before...
In either case, he'd much rather be safe than sorry.
'Stay down, Mr. Prince,' Blue instructed the young inventor calmly, advice which served only to distress Arthur as thoroughly as it ensured his immediate compliance. Blue moved to the window, flexing the fingers of his right hand while he peered cautiously through the half‑closed blinds, taking a visual fix on the pedestrian in question. It was all quiet suburbia out there, an older but well‑maintained residential neighbourhood with little traffic flow mid‑day. Any working neighbours were at the office, the schoolkids were still in class and any stay‑at‑homes were indoors, because it was early spring and the weather was wet and blustery today. The lone woman was therefore easy to spot, moving away from the house at the moment, not glancing back with any interest and maintaining a casual pace.
But she did stop at the corner and pause, and then she turned and started back up the street again.
'Lieutenant Vermilion.' Blue said, looking over to see that the Lieutenant had already second‑guessed him and was pulling on an oversized sweater to hide the uniform.
'Let's take her in for questioning...'
It was the blasted media!
Typically, the media gave Scarlet headaches. Nosy bloody reporters. He put up with them because he had to, not because he liked them. Some of them were very good, and most of them were only trying to do their jobs, but as often as not their jobs simply complicated and interfered with his and invariably they bothered him..
And he was bothered, because this reporter was protecting her source.
Scarlet had to give the woman credit, peeved though he was by the entire incident. She had plainly been tipped‑off, had been promised a scoop on what had, so far, been a rather dull story as far as the media had been concerned. There had been some minor buzz of enquiry when Spectrum had first flown in ‑ Angel escort and all ‑ to pick up Andrew Weller the other day. The fuss had been minimal; it had been the middle of the night after all, but Spectrum's presence had been noted and questioned and concerns had been raised over public safety.
HQ had already dispatched an officer from their Public Relations staff to handle all of that and the Mysterons themselves had diverted public attention south to Cape Town and Rio. Things had been relatively quiet since and Spectrum's Toronto‑area operations had gone unobtrusively to ground. The bright red Saloon Cars had been replaced by unmarked vehicles, and all of Spectrum Security's officers had gone plainsclothes. Effectively, it seemed, because for certain the reporter had been surprised when Vermilion had accosted her on the street and she'd been unceremoniously hustled into the back of the innocuous‑looking mini‑van for an on‑the‑spot interrogation. She had toughed that out and demanded her one obligatory phone call; they'd had to give her that, because the Mysteron detector had checked negative, both for the woman and for her photographer, who'd come charging to her defence when he'd witnessed the apparent arrest. They had both made a good deal of noise about legal counsel.
Said legal counsel had arrived just ahead of Scarlet, in the company of the reporter's senior editor. Those two grim‑faced men watched him with stony determination as he entered the detention area in the lower level of the police station. The local authorities had been co‑operative throughout the Operation so far. Spectrum had no complaints to air on that account ‑ the police had a good working relationship with the media and things had remained cool, despite the reporter's somewhat voluble protests and self‑confident assurances that the incident was not going to be glossed over.
She would change her mind. Scarlet had little doubt about that. He nodded politely with the stony‑faced gentlemen and moved across the room to shake hands with their own PR rep, who handed over a bulky envelope after the greetings had been exchanged. He scanned the contents quickly ‑ everything was in order. No need then for further delay.
Within minutes he was seated across the table from the reporter, her editor and their staff lawyer. He planned to be brief and he produced his ID officially to get things started.
'Captain Scarlet, Spectrum,' he began, nodding once at the woman. 'Miss Sauder. Gentlemen. I'd like to begin by thanking you for your prompt arrival. Time is very often a critical factor in Spectrum's investigations.'
'Are you here then, Captain, to further question Miss Sauder? She's already given her statement.' It was the lawyer that asked, as he picked up and looked over the ID.
'No sir, I'm not here to question, Miss Sauder. I understand that she's made it perfectly clear in that statement that she is not willing to divulge the identity of the person or persons that disclosed to her information regarding the location of one of our security operations.'
'That is well within her rights, Captain.'
'In this jurisdiction, that's very true. I'm not here to dispute that, though I personally happen to disagree with that position strongly. Based on the nature and accuracy of the information that she received, Spectrum has good reason to believe that Miss Sauder has been in contact with a suspected Mysteron agent. I'm here to try to trace the present whereabouts and activities of any such Mysteron agent.'
'There's been no conspiracy for you to investigate,' the reporter snapped. 'I was following a lead.'
'Our paper, and Miss Sauder personally, have a reputation to protect,' the editor chimed in. 'Breach of confidence could have very serious and damaging repercussions for us in the future.'
If there is a future, Spectrum has to protect that; why can't these people see things any further than their own interests?
'Spectrum isn't asking for a front page story with pictures, sir,' he stated patiently. 'Nor are we implying that your paper has any direct connection to or is co‑operating with this suspected Mysteron agent. Failure to locate this Mysteron agent could also have a few very damaging repercussions to our security operations.'
'Which are?' The editor became indignant.
'Which are not for public disclosure.'
'The public has a right to know if it's at hazard, Captain!' It was Miss Sauder objecting this time, and she was all righteous indignation Certainly she was not prepared to budge from her adopted and unfortunate defiant stance.
'The public was not at hazard, Miss Sauder, and if it was then Spectrum would have moved it's operations elsewhere. However, I can say that the breach of security has changed our local operations. The matter has now been isolated and removed from the city as a precautionary step.' He did not say that Russet had been re‑assigned, that they had brought in a tanker from Buffalo and at dusk last night had whisked Arthur ‑ and Guinevere too ‑ out of town. Aloud, he went on, scarcely missing a beat. 'The public's best interests have always been Spectrum's first concern.' Scarlet opened the envelope he'd placed on the table before him. 'Pursuant to those concerns, I have been duly authorised to present you with the following documents.'
Documents that they weren't going to like.
'On the direction of the World Government and under terms of current treaties covering member jurisdictions, you are hereby ordered to cease publication of information or articles pertaining to the present Mysteron threat or Spectrum's operations in dealing with situations arising out of such circumstance...'
A gag order. The editor knew it and fumed, stifling a protest as Scarlet continued smoothly, dropping the relevant document on the table in front of the lawyer. Miss Sauder's eyes had widened in a dawning outrage.
'...which may be rescinded pending the outcome of...' he pulled yet another document forth '...Spectrum's official interrogation of Miss Leanne Sauder, who is hereby subpoenaed to report under military escort to Spectrum Cloudbase immediately to undergo questioning...'
Interrupting, Miss Sauder squared her shoulders. 'I've already been questioned!' she objected loudly.
Scarlet continued, non‑plussed: '...to undergo questioning with or without the administration of hypnophoric serums as deemed necessary and appropriate by members of Spectrum's medical or security staff--‑ '
'---‑as is allowed under terms of the International Securities Act, Section VIII, Subsection II, a copy of which is appended to this subpoena and which supersedes all local jurisdictional regulations. We have a Spectrum Passenger Jet standing by to convey Miss Sauder, with or without your company, sirs ‑ Spectrum has no objection to the presence of a witness or legal counsel ‑ to Spectrum Cloudbase without further delay. I'm sure you can appreciate that time is indeed of the essence in this investigation and on Spectrum's behalf I'd like to thank you in advance for your co‑operation.'
Scarlet rose to his feet, signalling his intention to end the meeting as the editor gathered an argument and the reporter sat motionless in a quickly crumbling bravado. She had blanched at the mention of hypnophoric serums ‑ truth drugs in common parlance ‑ and he had little doubt but that she'd be co‑operating fully once the SPJ touched down on Cloudbase. He did not give any of them time to object and gathered up his ID from the spot the lawyer had left it on the table. Pulling down his cap mike, he summoned a waiting Lieutenant Vermilion and the security escort to collect their media detainees and be gone with them. The editor had mustered a weak protest that the lawyer had silenced with a curt '...it's in order, Craig...' and the presumption of authority that his professional opinion carried under the circumstances.
In all, it had been the most satisfying encounter of the week so far. Generally, he disliked having to flex Spectrum's muscles that way ‑ until it became necessary and as far as Operation Minerva was concerned, he would very gladly have seen the entire book dropped on Andrew Weller's head. The problem with Andrew Weller was that, at least ostensibly, the Doctor was co‑operating with Spectrum and there were therefore no legal grounds on which to nail the man or his secret project down. He knew because he had asked ‑ and been told that not only had it already been looked into, Weller's SWC legal advisors had also contacted HQ with ‑ again ostensibly ‑ an offer to 'aid' Spectrum's investigations in whatever way they could...
Meaning Weller was ready for anything that could be thrown against the Corporation's no‑doubt‑formidable resources. It was all paperwork and fortunately it wasn't usually Scarlet's job. Legal doubletalk was just not forthright enough an approach to take when dealing with the Mysterons, and Scarlet intended to be quite forthright with the next item on his agenda.
He had just one more harpy to deal with.
She favoured showy, dangling earrings and pale frosted lipsticks. The week‑long wardrobe had been casual to an extreme and if Tylan McLaine owned anything other than jeans and sweatshirts, Ochre had yet to discover it. The hairstyle and the make‑up both were likewise light and natural and all easy care. Especially the curls, she'd confessed yesterday morning, lamenting the fact that those were, alas, maintained solely through artifice. Fragrance, like the earrings, came in a seemingly endless and oft‑changed array, and Ochre was convinced that she'd been testing them out, looking, not very surreptitiously, for the one that might catch his attention. He had tested that particular hypothesis, complimenting her on a fruity green‑apple scent that had (in truth) caught his fancy yesterday afternoon. She had settled on it thereafter and he'd chalked himself up a point on the mental scoreboard he was keeping.
Godzilla McLaine was not utterly unpredictable after all.
She had been housekeeping. Spring‑cleaning, even. The weather had turned, had gone for the most part all warm and sunny and she'd flung every window in the place open for both the fresh air and for a thorough scrubbing. She had washed walls. She had, though she'd claimed to detest it, dusted, albeit rather sporadically on only the upper levels, disdaining to apply the duster to the collection of gleaming and expensive exercise equipment, stylishly arranged in a very European spa‑like setting in an elegantly refinished basement. Andy's stuff, all of it, she'd sniffed, dismissing a suggestion that she work off a bit of that energy down there. I just hate exercise...
She had also vacuumed with a vengeance ‑ and somehow she'd managed to buzz through each and every single time he tried to make a report.
'Zil,' he'd finally complained. 'Do you mind?'
To which she'd replied, smiling, up one point. 'Yes, actually, I do mind. A great deal. So please do move your feet, Och'.'
Stupid question. He'd refused after that to let the very deliberate vacuuming bother him and had made his reports while supervising Merlin out of doors. He'd had to give her the point, however reluctantly. And then he'd awarded it back to himself when Russet had afterwards told him that she'd moaned bitterly that she couldn't eavesdrop on the reports any more, since they weren't allowing her out of the house for the duration of the crisis.
He'd been smug for the rest of the day, and she'd practised her wiles on Russet in the meantime.
Russet's auburn hair and green eyes had not gone unnoticed and the very instant that he'd come through the door she'd sized the Lieutenant up and down with, he'd learned, that typical McLaine thoroughness. Then she'd confused poor Russet altogether by asking ‑ hopefully ‑ if Andy had perhaps sent him?
And so, Ochre had added fickle to his list of descriptive terms, though the interest seemed short‑lived enough. She was thirty‑two and not a cradle robber, she'd said, with much regret upon learning that there was another very identical twin to go along with Russet. That revelation had turned over a few gears and elicited another contradictory comment that twenty‑three wasn't all that young, after all, and that she would also very much like to do a comparison at the earliest opportunity.
It was a wonderful Act ‑ and Act it was. A previous career with the World Police ‑ much of it spent doing International Undercover Drugs and Vice ‑ had left Ochre often too well acquainted with humankind's sleazy underbelly; he'd met nymphomaniacs and exhibitionists and despite all the innuendo, suggestive stances, brush‑bys and come‑hither eyework, Zil McLaine was no nymphomaniac, and no exhibitionist either. The casual wardrobe was too modest by far and that, if nothing else, flat‑out gave the act away.
She was of medium frame and height; her shoulders were broad and there was a generous curve at her hip. She moved with a solid confidence and he suspected a lean, athletic build lurked under those baggy sweatshirts, whatever she did or did not claim to like about exercise. Her hair was an unremarkable medium brown, her features average, symmetrical, with no outstanding, distinguishing marks or characteristics. At first glance there was nothing about the person of Tylan McLaine that was particularly eye‑catching. Closer observation revealed a nose that was straight but not hawkish, lips that were neither too thin or pouting, teeth straight and white, a slightly higher than average cheekbone. She had a strong jawline and an intriguingly long‑lashed profile. Handsome, rather than pretty, Ochre had at last concluded, and had then put Zil's physical attributes---real and imagined---out of his head entirely. Dealing with the mind behind the pretty blue‑grey eyes was enough of a full‑time occupation...
It had been a few quiet but interesting days here in his corner of the present Operation. Security personnel and their surveillance equipment had gone into place around the property early on, and to date, the only things to trip those alarms had been birds and squirrels and, of course, Merlin. The dog, friendly, dumb, and perpetually hungry, made a round of the security posts two or three times a day in a friendly, and perhaps not‑so‑dumb, search for whatever handouts of food or affection were to be had from the Security guys out there. Leftover sandwiches were sometimes to be had and the ear-sratches and belly-rubs---on-duty and necessarily brief---were willingly dispensed and Merlin sent on his way. It was a deal that Zil had literally cooked up; she was exchanging more-than-decent home cooked food for the dog-walking duties that Spectrum was currently not allowing her to perform.
It was a genius, he had to remind himself, running the scam that wore well-ordered domesticity for a facade and plied nothing less than plain, old human nature with tantalizing aromas from the kitchen. The results were palate-pleasing and in every way superior to the fast-food and automated dispenser stuff that was the dietary mainstay on Cloudbase. This was a corporate guest-house and its well-funded pantry was stacked to the rafters, primarily, it seemed, to tickle Zil’s whims to cook. If it was a hobby, she was delighting in it; she had, in the short term, as did Arthur Prince, a captive audience. For his part, Ochre could only be glad that she was a wanna-be chef, and not a wanna-be political activist.
More obviously, and just in case the stomach was not the quickest way to a man’s heart, she had also continued to massage deliberately at base male instinct and her specialty scamming was aimed below the belt. Not a day had gone by that she hadn’t asked him when he would finally be off-duty. Certain offers were, apparently, still open.
All of which was very ego-boosting, but Ochre did not altogether trust it, or her. He had personally seen to warning Lieutenant Russet and each of the Security men to mind their p’s and q’s. To be Professional at all times and to re-read the conduct regs. For the good of those under his immediate command, he did what he could to keep himself in that potentially hazardous position of dealing with her face-to-face and not always at arm’s length. She was too clever by far, and she had already threatened legal action the once. He did not doubt that she’d do it again, not if it meant protection for Minerva, a single useful word of which she’d yet to breathe in anyone’s presence. Other than, that was, to say that if he wanted to know all about Minerva, he’d just have to seduce it out of her.....
On that occasion, he’d settled for helping her to drag the winter cover off of the pool, another task on her rapidly shortening list of domestic chores. He’d allowed that the patio enclosure just outside of the living room’s vast floor-to-ceiling windows was as safe as the house. On that same occasion he’d needed something to distract her from so very competently hitting on the nearest available Spectrum officer---
And it had, as he’d suspected, proved to be about as effective as a cold shower too.
Captain Grey had noted early on that Andrew Weller’s penchant for mythology was not restricted to the classics of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, though the Demeter facility was well and liberally graced with the image---carved, cast and otherwise rendered on canvas---of the goddess for which it had been named. Certainly it was impossible to miss the 12-foot high statue of the goddess herself, placed prominently right outside the panoramic glass doors at the front of the Administration building. Scantily clad in flowing robes of stone-gray, she bore the elements, her symbolic sheaf of wheat cradled in arm as she gazed across the narrow valley to the Rocky mountain peaks beyond the airfield.
Her presence there made sense, considering that agricultural pursuits were the primary business of the place. Themes diverged widely from there however. The posh grounds, gardens and fountains were accented by Totem Poles, statues of mythical beasts and one towering Egyptian obelisk. Inside the panoramic glass doors of the Administration building, Demeter’s reception area gleamed---a spacious enclosure of stone and marble, nicely complemented with tropical plants and even a small, Corporate Art Gallery, that housing a further variety of mythically-inspired pieces. Overall, there did not seem to be any central theme.
But there did seem to be a current one.
And speaking just for himself, Grey could have done with a little less influence from the Arthurian pantheon. He was not getting along well with Lancelot. Certainly not much better than he was getting along with Doctor Weller.
Things with the Doctor had gotten off to an exceedingly poor start and he still hadn't been able to decide where the blame for that ought to lie. Just one of those things, that none of Demeter's staff had seen fit to warn him about the dog. Lance was a local fixture and when out of sight, was out of mind. And so, Grey had learned about Lancelot the hard way, when the SPJ bringing Weller from Cloudbase had touched down and taxied to a stop at the edge of the small airfield. He'd been there in person to greet Andrew Weller and he'd just been approaching the SPJ as Weller had disembarked, nodding at him with a smile, one hand coming up to shake his own, when Lance had chosen to put in a typical appearance--- to no‑one's surprise except his own.
All Grey had seen had been a large and charging brown and grey projectile hurtling from the pine brush at the edge of the tarmac. A bloody big wolf for God's sake, arrowing directly for Doctor Weller, and he had reacted ‑ too quickly, as it turned out ‑ to the perceived threat. He'd shoved Weller bodily to the ground, whipped his pistol out and taken aim.
Weller, shouting, had physically knocked his arm aside; the shot had gone skyward and Grey had found himself struggling to get Weller off his arm and his back before it was too late for him to deal properly with the attacking wolf.
'No, you idiot, don't shoot! That's my dog, dammit!'
That one wayward shot had been enough to stop Lance so abruptly that the animal had tripped over his own big feet and toppled sidelong into a rolling skid. He picked himself up and bolted, tail tucked, back into the bush from whence he'd come.
A shouting match had commenced from there, Weller alternately admonishing Grey for the trigger‑happy reaction and calling after Lance in a vain attempt to coax him back out of the woods. At equal decibels Grey had argued back that no such thing would be permitted until after a very thorough security check.
It had been a heated exchange, but Grey had won it, because even Weller had to admit that the possibility existed that it might not have been Lance. The Doctor had even apologised for the 'idiot' reference once the matter had been cooled down and sorted out, and (hours later) when Lance had both re‑appeared and been checked negative on the Mysteron detector. Weller had accepted, with grudging grace, that Grey had only been doing his job ‑ and doing it well besides. Good reflexes, Weller had commented at the last, and had forgiven him for the introductory debacle.
Lance, however, had not. Not even after Weller had summoned the dog over and insisted that Lance sit nicely while Grey made his acquaintance.
Dog, Weller had reiterated, though it was true that Lance has some wolf in his ancestry. Canine, was all Grey had granted of that, and he might have guessed that the animal was almost full-blooded timber wolf from the look, the size of the paws and the coarsely coated, solidly muscled frame. Lance had sharp white teeth and a predatory, suspicious glint in the eyes that had never left him throughout the supervised snuffle. Lance now went out of his way to avoid Grey; Grey just shrugged it off did his best to let Lance be and got on with his work.
The evacuation of Demeter HQ had gone smoothly. Some four hundred and sixty-odd souls called Demeter home, and it had taken nearly a full two days of frantic activity to pack everyone up and out of the place. Scientists and research assistants had scrambled to suspend and shelve their work; clerical and administrative staff to tidy their desks and lock their files; maintenance and support workers, spouses and families to pack their bags and board the hastily arranged and Spectrum Security cleared charter flights that SWC had booked for either Edmonton or Vancouver. The Corporation had arranged to put everyone up in top‑class hotels for the duration of the crisis, all expenses paid. Few had complained ‑ it was a bit of an adventure for most, and a novel change from the routine for all. Demeter was now down to a skeleton crew. Weller had hand‑picked an aide or two out of the senior staff, had approved a couple of volunteer maintenance people to keep the power plant running at minimal levels and assigned only three of Demeter's own Security staff to stay and advise their Spectrum counter‑parts about the facility. All air‑traffic and communications functions had been handed over to Spectrum.
The Residency was now shut down and all remaining personnel had been isolated in Administration; guest quarters and air‑traffic were being handled there. Everything Spectrum considered operations‑critical was located in the Admin building, either above or below ground. The security perimeter was up and running. The Angels were patrolling the area, maintaining a twenty‑four hour no‑fly zone around the clock three of them on a rotating schedule of flight/refuel and layover out of CFB Cold Lake, Alberta, just a short easterly flight away and a damn' sight handier than Cloudbase for the purpose.
By and large Grey was satisfied with just about everything ‑ except for the fact that Weller still hadn't come clean about Minerva. Such staff as had been questioned about the project had stared blankly at its mention. They knew Prince and McLaine, who, yes, had been working at the facility for the last couple of years and who still maintained reserve quarters in the Residency. But, no, they weren't sure what they'd been working on, except they'd been in different departments ‑ Prince in the technical wing and McLaine in both biomedics and comp‑sci ‑ and so had been considered to be working on separate projects. There seemed to be no pretence---Demeter's staff simply didn't know.
Grey's footsteps echoed in the vast, silent foyer of the Administration Centre as he crossed it. The quiet was tomb‑like after the past few frenetic days. He hoped that the quiet would last, but he did not believe it; by Weller's own admission whatever the Mysterons were after it lay at Demeter R&D. Grey was expecting something to break, very shortly; he had just had the report from Cloudbase, and he was on his way to see Doctor Weller with the news.
Captain Magenta had finally found what he was looking for in Africa.
They were going to run another scan.
Andrew Weller tipped his seat back and made himself comfortable for the duration, feet slung onto the corner of the desk, a pen in hand. The pen he tapped deliberately on the edge of the desk, persistently and loudly because he was annoyed.
Earlier that morning Captain Grey had made a request to see him; bad news, apparently. Now that news had been delivered: Spectrum had found what they supposed was left of Todd... Remains in an ugly state which had been recovered and were now being sent for forensic identification. Dental records were what they'd been after and he'd had to do the digging in the personnel records himself to set them on the right track.
Poor Todd. Poor Shelley.
He just trusted that they had not asked Shelley to identify those remains. His heart ached for Shelley Carey in her grief, and if what Grey had told him was true, it was no way for the woman to have to remember her husband. He'd arranged for a corporate security escort to retrieve Todd's widow. While it had not yet been positively confirmed that the corpse located belonged to Todd, he strongly suspected it. The gruesomeness of Grey's report had disturbed him anew. He'd accustomed himself to the idea that this was a worst case scenario, and he could not for the life of him imagine anything else that would have sent Todd off AWOL, which was completely out of character. So he had to assume the worst and that Spectrum was right about the man's unfortunate ending. He had liked Todd. A good man, a trusted colleague, a relatively close friend. Shelley would be well taken care of. He'd already set that in motion.
Confirmation of Todd's death, well ‑ that would change everything. Worst case, he thought again. I must talk to Zil.
He would see to it, somehow, that Todd's loss would not be an empty one.
Andrew Weller had been thinking hard and grim since, and he did not appreciate this renewed intrusion.
'I can assure you, Captain, that your scans are not going to reveal anything different than they did the last time you ran them. This is a completely unnecessary exercise.'
Captain Grey, a paragon of patience, smiled back at him politely as Lieutenant Roan activated the scanning device in his hand and began to run it across the nearest wall. 'Procedure, Doctor Weller.' It was the standard reply.
Weller sighed. 'Every day?'
'Yes, Doctor Weller. Things can change, sir.'
He wanted to laugh and decided against it. 'Captain Grey. As you know, this office is located several levels underground. What is it you're looking for? A secret passage?'
Grey raised an eyebrow. 'Would I find one, Doctor?'
The man was altogether too quick. It was a mistake even to give him such ideas. Grey had also hounded him, until he'd finally given in and shown him what was left of Minerva's prototype ‑ a pile of now abandoned electronic bits and pieces that Arthur himself had dismantled and stowed in a plain and innocuous cardboard box in the main vaults downstairs a level. Grey had not believed him, though it was true.
Too quick, this one. Captain Grey had his suspicions, and they were not entirely unfounded. I must stop being so glib...
Still, Weller was not yet prepared to sacrifice all.
'Rock, Captain,' he stated into a carefully measured silence. They were looking for something. He suddenly wanted to have a long, private discussion with Zil. 'Quite solid for the most part--‑' there now, that wasn't a lie. '‑--you'll find ventilation ducts, electrical wiring, power conduits, framing and drywall. All the usual stuff, I'd imagine.'
It would never do to tell the Captain just what was behind those walls. He wondered if Spectrum's last scan had shown up some anomaly. He earnestly hoped not, he'd gone to such pains...
But that was military hardware in Roan's hands, cutting edge technology and the military was so often, but not always, one step ahead of its civilian counterpart. He hadn't thought it held true, not for scan‑shielding...
'Imagination is fine, Doctor,' Grey said. 'But I'm afraid I need to know what might be behind that drywall. This facility was once a mining operation and the blueprints did indicate the presence of a number of cross‑connecting air shafts.'
My God... Weller thought. He's checked!
'I see... You've been digging through old records then. I am sorry to disappoint you, but those were dealt with some time ago. Biotech regulations do not permit secret passages of any kind. The microbes are not allowed to leave by anything other than officially sanctioned means.' Just see if the Captain caught on to that one.
'We're above the quarantine levels, Doctor,' Grey said drily.
No fooling this one, no, not at all...
'Just testing, Captain,' he nodded affably, making light of it. 'You pass.'
Grey, for his response, merely waited again, while Lieutenant Roan completed the scan over the walls and finally reported it negative.
That was nice to know. Weller's faith was restored. Scan‑shielding by Aultmann Industries, an SWC affiliate, best in the world, Captain...
Grey signalled Roan out, turning to leave the office himself, with one parting comment. 'It's not the microbes I'm worried about, Doctor Weller. It's the Mysterons.'
Weller smiled a tight smile. 'Ah, yes, but you've been doing such a fine job ‑ I haven't seen any hereabouts, Captain.'
'With all due respect, Doctor Weller, it's not the ones you see that get you.'
And that one comment made Andrew Weller more nervous than any anomalous scan could possibly have.
This was not what he'd anticipated.
All along the length of Doctor McLaine's laneway was planted a series of very ridiculous, very hastily scrawled signposts. The cardboard placards, fixed rather insecurely with masking tape to rough wooden stakes read, in order:
YOU ARE ABOUT TO ENTER A MAXIMUM SECURITY ZONE
VISITORS REPORT TO THE MAIN ENTRANCE
PLEASE HAVE YOUR SECRET PASSWORD READY
It was not amusing. It was unmitigated, utter silliness and while Ochre may have appreciated the Doctor distracting herself with that sort of nonsense, Ochre ought not to have been encouraging it to the point of posting that nonsense on the front lawn. Perhaps she'd conned Lieutenant Russet into planting the blasted things on his way out the door to Buffalo ‑ Russet and Roan themselves being fresh from a stint of legendary pranksterism of Koala Base.
Ochre, however, knew better. This hinted at a loss of control over the situation. A loss of control that seemed to be running right rampant across the board ‑ because Blue was going stir‑crazy locked up with Arthur Prince, and Grey's hair was going to be, well, grey by the time Doctor Weller was through with him...
Scarlet pulled the saloon up beside that final sign and parked it there, getting out and uprooting it with undisguised irritation. It pulled loose from the dirt easily and came up with a small plastic bag dangling on a piece of string tied to the bottom end.
What the hell is this now?!
Scarlet brushed dirt from the plastic, revealing a note in unfamiliar hand‑writing which warned:
You'd better not be reading this...
'Not funny!' Scarlet cursed out loud, marching up to the front door, staked placard in hand. God help him, there was a Mysteron threat current and unresolved, there were Mysteron agents loose and on the prowl, there was a serious lack of co‑operation from the intended victims, and ‑ and now, this; this sort of flippancy was rife and running wild and it was damn near time that someone wrested control of the situation back.
It was all going to stop. Right here and right now.
He did not knock. He did not ring the doorbell. Scarlet stormed into the front entranceway and stood there bristling until a bloody, blasted horse came galloping down the stairs to greet him.
He'd heard all about Merlin, and he'd left the door open behind him in anticipation of the canine charge.
'You ‑ out!' Scarlet gave the command in no uncertain terms; to his immediate satisfaction the dog's ears and tail went down and the thing went slinking out of the opened door behind him.
He slammed the door and turned, looking up a short flight of stairs toward the living room---where one overly insouciant Doctor McLaine was now standing, regarding him with folded arms and mild disapproval set in her features. Ochre appeared at her shoulder, some mild alarm giving way to something else that looked to be an interested anticipation.
Ochre was obviously having too much fun at Operation Minerva, but he would address that issue later and less publicly. He did not allow himself to stray from his purpose.
He held up the home‑made signpost and shook it. 'Doctor McLaine,' he stated the woman’s name icily. 'Just what the hell do you call this?'
They had sent in the heavy guns.
And Andy hadn't lied either ‑ obviously there were lots of good‑looking Spectrum officers to choose from.
Ochre was handsome in an average, down to earth sort of way. Tylan had found herself gravitating to those marvellous deep brown eyes. He was fun, too. Had a good sense of humour. So far, Ochre was her favourite; he played her games and wasn't for one instant fooled by them.
She'd only seen Blue on the vid a few times ‑ but that was okay. Nice Scandinavian blond; rugged, outdoorsy, athletic. She would complete her assessment later ‑ Blue was bringing Arthur in, and would be there for dinner.
And then there was Lieutenant Russet of the auburn hair and the enchanting green eyes. Exotic, good‑humoured and wickedly intelligent. Possessed too of an identical twin, which sounded twice the fun.
And now...now here was Captain Scarlet.
Ochre had spoken highly of this one and seemed to like and respect him. This one was Often In Charge, apparently he had some special rank or something, though whatever that was did not immediately concern her, not in her initial first impression. Hmmm. Tall, dark and handsome. Oh, my ‑ just devastating good looks with those finely sculpted, flawless features. A classic textbook hunk, if ever she'd encountered one, right down to the adorable little cleft in his chin and eyes of deep, clear sapphire blue.
Sapphire blue ice, that was.
She met the hard, cold look with one of out and out interest, a regard that simply annoyed him further.
'Excuse me, Doctor, but I said 'what the hell do you call this?'' The voice ‑ all tenor silk and old‑time movie star smooth ‑ was level and cold and insistent. He shook the sign again, fairly oozing authority....
She sighed. Oh dear. Regrettably, he would have to be put in place. ‘Excuse me,’ she began. ‘Please don’t assume that I’m deaf or ignoring you, Captain’
‘Foolish of me to have forgotten! You just don’t answer civilized questions, do you, Doctor McLaine?’
Oooh. Snarky when peeved. That comment had been all scathing sarcasm---indicative that perhaps he did have a sense of humour lurking under the authoritative exterior. There was a simple test for that. He’d already taken the bait.
She tossed the question back at him just to prove she’d been listening. ‘What do I call that, Captain?’ she asked, waggling an unconcerned finger at the signpost. She leaned against the wall casually. 'I call that private property, Captain. Vandalized private property.'
Sudden realisation cracked the sapphire ice, recognition that he was, in that instant, at a serious disadvantage. She had no real intention of lodging a complaint, but she wanted to make it clear that such possibilities existed. Trumped‑up or not, a charge of willfully defacing private property could not look good on anyone's record.
'Doctor McLaine,’ the voice had gone glacial cold, like the eyes. ‘May I take a moment to remind you that we are in the midst of a very serious security situation, a crisis of globe‑threatening proportions that‑--'
She raised her voice. ‘I will thank you, Captain, not to insult my intelligence.’ she countered, going on the offensive before he got too far down that tangent. ‘I am very well aware of the situation. Better versed in it than some, I might add.’
‘And that’s another matter I intend to address, Doctor. And may I also remind you, Doctor McLaine, who is in charge here---’
'Oh, please do save your breath, Captain Scarlet ‑ I already know you're in charge.'
He must have been expecting her to protest that, because her confirmation that the In-Charge post was his seemed to catch him unawares. He opened his mouth to retort, but she beat him to the next remark.
‘That is true, isn’t it?’
Hint of suspicion in the eyes now. ‘Yes, it is true, Doctor.’
Absolute agreement. In fact, he wanted to press the point. It was the perfect answer.
‘Well, then---’ She stepped forward and pulled the placard from his hands. 'So just what do you think you're doing wasting your time with this nonsense? You should know better. Get to work before some Mysteron gets me!'
He saw the trap. 'What?!'
'Work, Captain. It’s what they pay you for. This---' she opened the front door and tossed the signpost out. ‘---shouldn’t be distracting you from your job.’
She closed the door and sighed with satisfaction, pretending not to notice the flush that was crawling up his cheeks, fit to match the colour of his uniform. But she didn’t want to argue anymore, and she truly didn’t want to alienate him either. That had never been her intention, and it was bad policy besides. So she changed the subject abruptly.
‘What do you like with your steak, by the way?’
Outflanked again. Whatever argument he’d been gathering was derailed. ‘Steak?’
She stated the obvious. ‘Yes, steak, Captain. We are having company to dinner, a party of at least three more. I shall barbecue steak. The question was, what do you like to have with it?’
Ochre, at long last, stepped into the breach, rescuing his still speechless colleague. ‘He likes mustard.’ Ochre offered.
Scarlet’s shoulders finally slumped, recognition of the inevitable. ‘Dijon,’ he added. ‘I’ll take dijon mustard, if that’s all right.’
She smiled sweetly, and turned for the stairs again, heading kitchenward all aglow with success. The blathering technique usually worked.
Captain Scarlet wasn’t apt to ask about Minerva again until at least tomorrow morning.....
For a long moment. Scarlet just stood there, dumbstruck and wondering how he had ever lost control of that conversation so quickly. He watched Doctor McLaine vanish upstairs and then turned to Ochre, bouncing out of the indignity. ‘What was that!?’ he demanded.
‘That---’ Ochre informed him. ‘Is what happens when you cross her turf with an Attitude. The nick-name, Captain, is Godzilla---and you’ve just been stepped on.’
He could only mumble a gruff concurrance. ‘Harpy!’ he breathed, cursing darkly and feeling better for it. ‘And you can stop enjoying yourself so much now!’ Ochre’s features were serious, but Scarlet was convinced that he was howling with mirth inside---the joke was too good, even he could see that---and he knew Ochre too well. ‘What were you thinking, putting those damn signs out on the lawn anyway?’
Ochre did not grin, but he did shrug casually. ‘I was thinking that she’s awful damn smart and she’s bored. I was thinking it was time-consuming, harmless and irrelevant. And I didn’t think you’d bother. It’s a molehill, not a mountain. Take it as a lesson, Scarlet---and do yourself a favor---don’t pick up any more of the bits of rope she leaves laying around.’
Scarlet smiled suddenly himself, perspective restored, thinking on water gun battles and antique alarm clocks. Ochre had still owed him for that one. ‘Even score,’ he capitulated, a comment that did crack the grin onto Ochre’s face. ‘Is she serious about the steak?’
‘Blue will love it, if he hasn’t already wasted away to a rack of bones. Even I’m feeling sorry for him. Beautiful day for it too. Yes, she’s serious about the steak---but we’ll have to look over the barbecue first and make sure it’s working---she has a few doubts.’
‘Well, we don’t want to disappoint Blue.’ Scarlet was looking forward to seeing his regular partner. It had seemed a long few days on his side of things but he had a good deal more sympathy for Captain Blue. Less than an hour with Arthur Prince the other day had set his own teeth on edge. Adam had been stuck with the opinionated young inventor since, and had no doubt earned more than one paltry steak dinner on perseverance alone. At Blue's last report the tanker had pulled over for yet another roadside pit‑stop on Gwen's account. No puppies yet. But, Blue had lamented, the interior carpet would be damaged if the pitstops weren't frequent enough. ‘Speaking of Blue, time to check in again; the security vehicles should have made rendezvous by now.’ Scarlet put dinner to the back of his mind, where it belonged. It was time to get back to work.
Before the harpy came back and told him to....
Another uneventful two hours went by. The motorcade had formed up without incident and was on its way to the first checkpoint.
He listened idly to the routine radio chatter between the escort vehicles and Lieutenant Russet behind the wheel of the tanker, casting his glance from time to time outside to the patio enclosure and the lively discussion that was taking place over the not quite functional barbecue. Godzilla McLaine’s suspicions had been borne out---the thing wouldn’t start. Talk of ‘needed tools’ was accompanied by widely animated gestures, pointing fingers and Ochre eventually adopting a stance of finality with his hands planted firmly on hips as he attempted to stare the woman down.
‘All right then!’ she conceded, not very gracefully. ‘I’ll go and get one---but all you really need is a damn dime!’ With melodramatic effect, Tylan McLaine threw her arms up. ‘You,’ she instructed Ochre with a departing toss of here head, ‘will please let the dog out.’
The conversation drifted in, carried on a cool, fresh and pleasant breeze off the Lake. It was a perfect early spring day, unusually warm for the season, according to Ochre, who ought to know. Hell, the man was practically home ‑ Detroit being only a few hours west by car. Ochre was therefore surprisingly familiar with this neck of the woods, and that doubtless accounted ‑ at least in part ‑ for his colleague's settled‑in composure. Great Lakes boy, that was the proper pigeon hole. Grey would likely have behaved the same; Chicago was only one more Great Lake further west yet. Like those that grew up near salt oceans, the Lakes seemed to be something that got into the blood...
A door banged open as Doctor McLaine headed for the basement and a toolbox, going with feigned animosity for the tools Ochre had asked for. Academy performance. Ochre had been right about that business; and right too about the fact that it was a beautiful day for a barbecued steak. It was sounding more and more appealing all the time. Scarlet soon enough found himself hoping that Ochre would get the recalcitrant barbecue working in fairly short order. For poor Blue's sake, if not for his own ‑ Arthur thrived on frozen dinners, and he shared them with considerable zeal. Ochre stared after the Doctor’s retreating form with an expression of good-humoured but strained tolerance, watching until she’d vanished inside before turning to let Merlin out through the patio’s back gate. The big mutt had waited patiently for the moment of attention, and thumped his tail in gratitude for the release when it came. Merlin sauntered off towards the bluff and Ochre pulled down his cap mike to advise Security’s duty-officer that the dog was loose and likely to set off the perimeter alarms.
And so, Scarlet thought, the whole Operation was becoming unbearably tedious. Aside from the bit of excitement with the media ‑ which could turn out to be yet another false alarm ‑ everything had been much too quiet since Black's hijacking escapade nearly a week ago. Following up on reported Todd Carey sightings had been a singularly pointless exercise ‑ a repeat of the Judy Chapman scenario, with several reported positive ID's being made in far flung locations and at impossibly short intervals. None of those reports had borne out and Spectrum had simply withdrawn matters to target proximity---if the Mysterons wanted Minerva they would have to come and get it.
It was pressure of a different kind ‑ fighting off the tedium was in many ways harder than fighting through a direct attack. Scarlet leaned back in his seat, feeling trapped by circumstance and wished for something interesting to happen.
A wish that was granted almost at once.
Sudden nausea gripped Captain Scarlet and all thoughts of grilled steak vanished in a cold sweat.
Mysteron! Scarlet thought fiercely, fighting back the unmistakable sensation. He rose unsteadily to his feet, dizziness washing over him in successive waves. Shaking his head to clear it and failing, he tried instead to focus, to pinpoint the source...
Tylan McLaine was walking across the patio again, outbound this time with an assortment of screwdrivers and wrenches in hand. Ochre had closed the gate and turned.
A small but perceptible motion caught Scarlet's eye, chilling him with a swift and terrible realisation ‑ he reached for his cap mike, wrestling desperately to get past the near‑crippling dizziness and the nausea...
'Ochre!' he managed to hiss through clenched teeth. 'The propane tank!'
At the warning, Captain Ochre's gaze jerked immediately to the barbecue's fuel tank ‑ and the dismantled gas‑line fitting whose valve was spinning itself open ever more quickly, releasing a deadly and volatile flood of propane into the patio enclosure. Ochre moved instantly, breaking into a sprint toward Tylan McLaine, who looked up in startlement at the sudden movement. Simultaneously, the barbecue's auto‑ignite clicked once, audible, even from where Scarlet was swaying inside at the balcony, and then clicked again ‑ attempting a spark in close proximity to the hissing gas leak.
No! No dammit just pray the bloody part's broken they're too close there's nowhere to hide there's nowhere to go there's nothing I can do there's----
In a split second of uncannily heightened awareness, a potent, overwhelming sense of impending disaster sent Scarlet diving instinctively for cover, just as---‑
Just as the propane tank detonated, obliterating the whole of the patio enclosure in a violent, all consuming fireball!