That shock overwhelmed almost all else, save for the sudden, crystal-clear knowledge in Ochre’s mind that the sheer luck of Zil’s boredom---and Zil’s boredom alone---had seen to the fact of the winter cover being off the pool and that was all that had saved their skins....
The explosive concussion and the heat had skimmed over Ochre’s back some fraction of a second after he’d tackled Tylan McLaine in a desperate sprint for survival. He’d hit her hard, shoulder to rib cage and taken her into the only possible refuge. Likely he’d winded her in the process, and while the pool may well have helped him to save her from death by explosion, it would hardly do for him to drown her in the rescue. He kicked for the surface, glad, at that moment, that they’d plunged into deep water and hadn’t cracked their skulls on the bottom of the shallow end----
Damn hazards everywhere....
He broke the surface, gasping after air himself; the water was damn cold and it did take the breath away---Zil came up with him, sputtering and choking, still with one of his arms locked around her middle.
She flailed at him, no little bit confused, frightened and trying simultaneously to get the hair out of her eyes and some air into her lungs. His left foot found purchase on the bottom and he hauled her into shallower water, closer to the edge of the pool. One arm found the tiled surface of the patio and she pulled herself up and stopped, finding devastation all around----
Every window was shattered, the privacy fence was blown mostly down and into splintered scraps. Bits of it were burning, and, insanely, one of the screwdrivers she’d been carrying only seconds before was embedded point first into a still standing plank. Her eyes were wide, taking that in; the tool, airborne leaving her hand had been caught by the explosion and blasted into it’s present place in the wreckage----it had been that close that they’d come themselves....
She went white, and turned to look at him all wild-eyed and in that moment, utterly transparent.
Scared. Astonished. Appalled. And then abruptly, rational thought kicked back in, realization of what she was giving away.
The mask came back down. Deliberate and sudden. And she hit at him, a badly aimed slap that scarcely caught his shoulder and didn’t hurt at all.
‘What did you do!?’ She sputtered. ‘Look at this....this----mess!’
Mess hardly covered it. She was trying for outrage and coming up lame in the vocabulary. His own aftershock reaction perhaps, but all he could do was burst into a ridiculous and out-of-place titter at the attempt.
And that made her angry.
Or maybe it was more pretense. In either case she hit him again, enough to hurt the shoulder this time, but it only made him laugh again. ‘Zil---Zil, ow---stop that, it’s okay, we’re okay! You don’t have to---’
‘Shutup!’ It sounded half-hysterical. She heaved herself out of the pool to land on hands and knees, a posture that quickly gave way to a slump onto her backside. The devastation was real. She stared at it anew, panting and shivering and her eyes came back to his, all blinking and bewildered, a crack in the mask. ‘Look what you did, Och!’
‘I wasn’t even near the barbecue!’ he pointed out in his own defense. ‘You saw me, don’t pretend not, Zil! It was the Mysterons!’ It was the first serious thing he’d gotten out as he pulled himself halfway from the water, only to be stopped when her foot caught him at the sternum. It was all true, and she could see that every bit as well.
‘Martians?! Invisible Martians? In my backyard?!?’ Her voice rose, catching on the last syllable. ‘You---you lunatic!’ And she kicked him backwards, off his precarious perch on the pool’s edge and into the ice water again.
He still came up tittering, this time to find Zil storming into the house past Scarlet, who had appeared from nowhere with a fire extinguisher in hand and was using it on a few of the remaining bits of fence that were still burning. Scarlet’s cap mike was down, he was reporting no lives lost...
And getting orders in return.
Scarlet came to give him a hand out of the pool. ‘Fast thinking, Captain.’ It had been close, that escape. Scarlet praised his action. ‘But she’s an ingrate.’ Scarlet expressed disapproval, glancing back over his shoulder and through the now ruined panoramic glass windows. ‘I’ve told her to get changed. Colonel White has diverted Blue and Arthur Prince to Demeter. Security can clean up here.’
Ochre clambered out of the pool. The cold was really beginning to hit him now, and he shivered in the soaked uniform. His cap was floating close to the edge of the pool and he rescued it with one booted and squelching toe. ‘This is not my idea of skinny dipping,’ he complained, shaking the water out of the cap. Ochre’s glance went to the spot where last the barbecue had been seen, and there was little recognizable left to identify the thing. A close call indeed. He shivered again, not entirely with the cold. ‘And us?’ he asked after that, refusing to dwell on it. ‘Now that the pool party’s over?’
‘We’re to report immediately to Cloudbase,’ Scarlet said. ‘With Doctor McLaine.’
Momentum alone got her as far as her own bedroom and slammed the door the instant she’d crossed the threshold.
Then she put her back to it and all but collapsed breathless and shaking to the floor behind it. Tylan McLaine wrapped her arms around her knees and concentrated on getting some oxygen into her blood. Deep slow breaths. Don’t hyperventilate.
It was the only sane thing she could think to do. Her glance went over toward the window. Glass all gone---shattered, lying in bits and shards all over the bedroom floor. Probably every pane in the whole house-----
A bomb went off in the yard.....
And some Martian had thrown it.
There were those who didn’t believe. Lots. They said that it was all some sort of a Government plot---a political power grab. An excuse to beef up the Global Military Presence. One probe gone to Mars, and coming back with wild stories and an interplanetary war to fight----a War conducted by invisible forces and agents nearly impossible to tell from the average human on the street corner. How gullible did they think the population was????
She hadn’t been sure she’d believed. It was rather an exciting thought---aliens. Wow. Real ones. Some part of her had always wanted to believe that. But not that they were petty and vindictive and that they wanted to devastate her planet....
Not to kill her.....
Her stomach was upset. Things had been under control. Andy was taking care of things. She and Arthur just had to sit tight. The trouble wasn’t here----wasn’t supposed to be here.
Someone was yelling up the stairs at her. Scarlet.
‘I’m----’ What did he want---pack a bag, she thought he’d said. ‘I’m---working on it!’ she yelled back, finding the breath somewhere around the shakes. She found her feet, flung the door open. ‘And keep the dog out of the broken glass, dammit!’ Merlin would be back, he was nosy and not bright. All at once, her heart ached. Merlin could have been killed. Dead and gone. A forever thing.
They said that Todd was already dead. She hadn’t quite believed it.
Bombs in the backyard. Todd dead. Aliens threatening to take control of Minerva.......
An interplanetary war, and the Other Side wanted Minerva for a weapon.
She slammed the bedroom door again and threw open the closet instead. Find a bag. Any bag, anything in it. And something dry, right now. Think of practical things. A short term plan. Things that needed doing----like an apology for Och----
Did I really call him a lunatic? Jeez, Zil...
She needed to see Andy. Needed to talk to him. In person, preferably. Not likely, not yet, anyway. In the meantime----
Pull it back together. Pick up the pieces. Carry on. Until told otherwise. Business as usual.
She tried to believe that, but----
But it wasn’t. And it wasn’t going to be.
Everything had just changed. Damn it all to hell.
Colonel White had left instructions that Captains Scarlet and Ochre were to escort Doctor McLaine directly to the Control Room once their jet had landed and locked through. It took longer than he’d anticipated for them to arrive, Captain Ochre apparently having to stop off in quarters to find a dry pair of boots, and Captain Scarlet having to settle some sort of minor disturbance out on the Flight Deck.
He might (and likely should have) guessed, but he was still taken somewhat aback when Doctor McLaine finally put in an appearance. Lieutenant Vermilion, taking his duty at the communications board, hardly knew what to make of Tylan McLaine’s arrival, which in retrospect, had to have been one of the most entertaining that the Control Room vid records had ever captured electronically. Vermilion kept his nose studiously to the console, sparing only the odd sidelong glance over toward the Control Desk.
Captain Scarlet arrived with their guest first, coming in via the portside doorway to drop a bound and gagged Doctor McLaine onto one of the raised stools from where she’d been gracelessly slung over one uniformed shoulder.
‘Reporting as ordered, Colonel White.’ Scarlet said crisply, snapping to attention.
‘At ease, Captain.’ Colonel White replied, for the moment deciding to play along with the somewhat extreme measures that Scarlet and Ochre had so obviously elected to employ with their current charge. ‘Welcome to Spectrum Cloudbase, Doctor McLaine. I trust you’ve had a pleasant flight?’
The woman lifted her chin haughtily, and White guessed she would hardly have deigned to respond, even had she been able to.
The far door of the Control Room opened at that moment to admit Captain Ochre, bearing two styrofoam cups of coffee, one of which he handed to Scarlet as he nodded an informal greeting his own direction, bending the rules to the limit as Ochre was well renowned to do. ‘Afternoon, sir. I understand you have re-assignments for us, Colonel.’
Doctor McLaine stiffened almost imperceptibly at the comment, but she cast her glance to the opposite wall and ignored the lot of them.
‘Yes, Captain, I’ve----’
Lieutenant Vermilion looked up from his console. ‘Excuse me, sir---I have a priority one call coming in Colonel White,’ he said. ‘Andrew Weller for Doctor McLaine. Response, sir?’ The Lieutenant looked from the trussed woman to himself and back, waiting for further instruction.
‘Put him through, Lieutenant, I’ll speak to him.’ His first instinct was to ask how Weller had managed to process through a priority call, but instead he motioned for Scarlet to release the Doctor’s bindings as he turned to face the main viewscreen. ‘Doctor Weller?’ he inquired, as the screen lit active, but otherwise remained blank. The call came through on audio only.
‘Colonel White?’ Andrew Weller sounded vexed. ‘I’ve been told that Tylan is on her way up there and I’ve been trying to get a call through to her for hours now---has she arrived yet?’ His tone conveyed a belief that his difficulty in doing so had somehow been deliberate.
And it raised another question, because there was no information blackout or blockade in effect as far as Weller was concerned and it therefore couldn’t possibly have taken him hours to get a call through. Not unless he was using a very unorthodox and probably unauthorized sequence of channels to connect. ‘She’s been----preoccupied, Doctor Weller. But she has arrived. We’ll put you in touch directly, Doctor.’
‘I’d appreciate it if you would, Colonel.’
Scarlet ripped away the wide piece of tape covering Doctor McLaine’s mouth, and she swore promptly.
‘Ah! There she is!’ Weller remarked cheerfully, hearing the familiar voice. ‘Zil, I’ve been---’
‘I want to see your aesthetician’s license Scarlet!’ She muttered an obscenity under her breath, something about an unauthorized lip wax, as Scarlet uncuffed her hands from behind her back.
‘Andy---’ she grated out Doctor Weller’s name irritably, glaring a dozen lethal and invisible daggers at Captain Scarlet as she rubbed at her wrists dramatically. ‘I’m busy right now, Andy!’
Scarlet simply ignored the acid gaze, and replaced the cuffs onto his utility belt nonchalantly.
‘Busy? Oh---still working on that Captain then, are you?’
‘No!’ She all but snarled as if suddenly enraged by the very notion, just forget that she’d been flirting shamelessly with Ochre the week long. ‘I will have you know,’ she stated coldly, for whatever record was being made. ‘That I am no longer on speaking terms with any of them!’ She spared Ochre a scathing glance and then pointedly looked away. ‘Besides,’ she added, sternly disapproving. ‘It seems that they have some sort of a Rule about that around here.’ Her tone alone was enough to advise anyone listening just precisely what she thought about that particular state of affairs.
Lieutenant Vermilion was looking over again, all askance, trying not to stare as Scarlet and Ochre continued to sip at their coffee with blithe indifference.
‘Oh....and you haven’t discovered a way around that yet?’ Weller inquired innocently.
Colonel White watched as Doctor McLaine’s eyes narrowed and she smiled faintly, as if the blank screen had just registered significantly. ‘No,’ she admitted. ‘But I’d bet that you have.’
Andrew Weller chuckled, and Colonel White decided right then that it wasn’t funny anymore, because Weller had been, in small and mostly irrelevant ways, getting around Grey’s security measures all week, one way or another.
‘You know me far too well, young lady.’ Weller admonished the woman affectionately. ‘And you’d win the bet too.’
Colonel White looked up sharply. Damn that man’s arrogance! He thought, biting back a flicker of anger. Bad enough he can’t co-operate, he has to flaunt it too. Both Scarlet and Ochre raised an interested eyebrow, but otherwise continued to mind their coffee, oblivious to her previous remarks.
‘Actually,’ concern entered Weller’s voice for the first time. ‘I was calling to ask after your health and well being. I understand there was a spot of trouble out at the house, though I haven’t been able to get any details about it.’
Did you even ask anyone that might know? Colonel White’s annoyance grew. Grey had the latest updates, and had likely tried to brief the Doctor----
‘There’s not much too it, Andy.’ Tylan McLaine filled in after a brief, uncomfortable silence. She had not been unmoved by the incident, pretend otherwise as she might. ‘I’ll get you all the details if they ever let me out of this place.’
It was not precisely an insult. But it was obvious by that comment that there were places other than Spectrum Cloudbase that Doctor McLaine would much rather have been, Demeter no doubt chief among them.
‘Hmmmm.....like that then, was it?’ Weller allowed a long pause of his own. ‘All right then, we’ll leave that for tomorrow. Perhaps I can distract you with another problem in the meantime. I have a small difficulty I’d like you to have a look at----’
‘What---now?!’ The irritation from Doctor McLaine was real, as a sudden, loud shuffling of papers sounded from the speakers.
‘Certainly, now, if that’s not a problem---you didn’t really think you were going to get the whole week off, did you? I’ll just hold it up to the vid and----’
‘You’ll have to turn the vid on first, Andy.’ Her tone was sarcastic and deadpan and----all Colonel White could think----very insubordinate again.
The screen lit up to reveal Weller propped up in bed and undressed---at least what could be seen of him----with a pair of glasses pushed up onto his head. A tiny motion in the vid’s peripheral field suggested he was not alone, but that view was obliterated quickly as Weller held up a page of scrawled script and figures for Doctor McLaine to review.
She squinted at the main screen, scanning the page and for that moment, oblivious to all but the problem presented. Colonel White could make neither heads nor tails of it, and in any case was more absorbed wondering how Weller---if in fact he was not alone---had managed to finagle some woman past a contingent of Security, two zealous Spectrum Lieutenants and one very vigilant Captain.....
After a long minute she sighed her own annoyance aloud. ‘For God’s sake, Andy---read it again.’
Weller snatched the paper back. ‘Read what? I’ve already been through it twice now and----’
‘Forget the program. I’ll fix it later.’
‘But it won’t interface---’
‘Forget it!’ Her voice rose, outright insubordination. ‘I’ll take care of it!’
Weller let the glasses slide down onto his nose and then stared at the screen over the tops of them. ‘My, my...’ he chided casually. ‘Raging hormones, is it? You really haven’t made any headway with that Captain, have you?’
She smiled sweetly, not a trace of a blush touching her cheeks. ‘I will thank you to stay out of that and just mind your own business. I love a challenge. So you can just go right back to whatever you were doing and perhaps I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow.’ She lifted her chin again and sniffed dismissal. ‘Ciao, baby.’
At which Andrew Weller grinned wickedly, blew her a kiss and disconnected. The screen went dark abruptly; in that same instant she made a noise of disgust and swung around toward the Control Desk.
‘How’d you like to tell me just what that was doing coming through on a priority channel? And just who that might have been with him, because I’ll bet that it wasn’t Spectrum Security and you’re supposed to be protecting him and that’s just exactly the sort of----’
It wasn’t the least bit amusing anymore, and even if Colonel White was in complete agreement with what she thought about Weller’s immediate circumstances, he wasn’t about to take any more of this cheek about it.
‘It will be looked into!’ he rumbled ominously, using the tone that normally sufficed to set his men to trembling in their boots. Scarlet and Ochre feigned deafness, and Vermilion looked over sidelong again, a very uncertain glance. ‘Now, Doctor, if you’d care to accompany Captain Scarlet to the briefing room, I’ll be with you very shortly myself to discuss it.’
He had spoken, it was final and the tone seemed enough to silence any objections, at least temporarily. She narrowed her eyes again and glowered belligerence. He would find out just how much she enjoyed a challenge.
‘Come back for your assignment immediately Captain, you can have Magenta sit with the Doctor for a while.’
‘Yessir.’ Scarlet motioned for the woman to come along, and she went, reluctantly and bristling in general menace. She favored Ochre with a look of cool disdain, and simply ignored Vermilion altogether on her way out.
Colonel White watched them go, and when the door had closed, turned to Ochre. ‘I was going to ask you why you felt it necessary to bind and gag that woman---’ he said. ‘But I’m not going to anymore.’
Ochre drained the last of the coffee from the styrofoam cup and tossed it into the waste receptacle at the end of the communications console. ‘Figured it would be self-evident, sir. But you’ve missed most of the highlights this week.’
‘Am I to understand then, that that was a typical display?’
‘Absolutely, Colonel. But it’s mostly bluster. She’s pretty harmless, really. On edge right now. The---incident---with the barbecue shook her up a bit.’
‘And she’s coping with belligerence?’
‘Same as she’s been coping all week. I think that she could brazen her way through just about any situation, Colonel.’
‘I can believe that, Captain.’ Colonel White permitted himself a faint smile. ‘However, Lieutenant Vermilion---get Captain Grey on the line for me immediately. It’s time for him to have another little chat with Doctor Weller.’
‘Another?’ Ochre echoed.
‘Yes, Captain---another. Operation Minerva hasn’t been easy on any of you, if that’s any consolation.’ Vermilion motioned to him that Grey was on-line, and he touched a toggle on his own console. ‘Captain Grey?’
‘Yes, Colonel. You were looking for me, sir?’
‘That’s correct, Captain. We’ve just had a priority one call from Doctor Weller.’
‘A what? Colonel, I’ve been here in the communications room for the last hour. I haven’t authorized any priority calls. There’s been nothing external---at least, nothing that’s shown on the boards.’
‘Then it would seem that the good Doctor is making mischief again, Captain, because he just got one through. And, Captain--- it appears that he may be---entertaining----in his quarters as well.’
There was a short pause. An offended pause, in fact. ‘Okay, thank you, sir. We’ll get to the bottom of it. Grey out.’
Grey was not an easy one to get around. White watched as Ochre wiped the slowly forming grin from his face, hearing the weary frustration in his colleague’s voice.
‘Typical, sir?’ Ochre inquired innocently.
‘Unfortunately, yes. Demeter R & D has provided Doctor Weller with more resource and opportunity for mischief than either Mr. Prince or Doctor McLaine have had at their disposal.’ He glanced up as the far door opened to admit Captain Scarlet, looking a trifle ruffled. White guessed he must have gotten an earful.....
‘Sit down, Captain,’ White invited, looking then from Scarlet to Ochre and back again once they were both settled. ‘Well, gentlemen---your reports?’
They told him the same story from different viewpoints.
‘You’re quite sure then that it was no accident.’
‘Absolutely not.’ Scarlet shook his head emphatically. ‘It was the Mysterons. I could feel it. Their---presence---was so strong that I could hardly move to do anything about it. Turned out to be a mixed blessing though. It was so focused I was able to pinpoint what they were doing.’
‘Lucky for us too,’ Ochre added. ‘If Scarlet hadn’t warned me what was happening then Zil and---sorry, Doctor McLaine and I would have gone up with the barbecue. We were pretty fortunate to have had the cover off the pool too. Or it wouldn’t have mattered having had the warning.’
‘Well, it seems that we have been very lucky this time. But I’d still be interested to know how the Mysterons knew enough to plan such an attack. They couldn’t possibly have had any prior knowledge of Doctor McLaine’s plans to entertain the lot of you with a barbecue for dinner. It was a spur of the moment decision on her part, wasn’t it?’
‘Like everything else that she does.’ Ochre remarked. ‘But maybe they didn’t plan it, sir. Maybe they were just having a look in to see what we were doing and saw the chance to make some trouble.’
‘A disquieting thought,’ Scarlet said into the ensuing pause. ‘But likely. We’ve known for some time that the actual physical presence of a Mysteron agent isn’t always necessary for them to achieve their ends.’
‘Perhaps.’ Colonel White leaned back in his seat and stroked his chin thoughtfully. ‘But I’m still bothered by it. Was the attack co-incidental to the change of plans with Mr. Prince, or was it in response to it? Miss Sauder has verified for us that it was none other than Todd Carey himself that tipped her off about our security arrangements with Mr. Prince. Carey seems to have vanished again and as of this time we don’t know if he would still be in the Toronto area or not. But the media’s involvement with the tip-off may have been meant to dislodge us---and Mr. Prince----from that location. Somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re being compelled to get the three of them to Demeter Research.’
The two Captains exchanged glances.
‘There’s only one way to find out for sure.’ Scarlet said after another moment. ‘And that’s to take them all there and see if that will force the Mysteron’s hand...if that’s possible. And if we want to risk it.’
Colonel White nodded. ‘Precisely, Captain. And that may be what we’ll have to do.’ He sat up straight in the chair. ‘Lieutenant Vermilion, the display please.’
The main viewscreen came to life, featuring a colored schematic that was labeled DEMETER RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT.
‘As you’re already aware, Demeter R & D is a mid-to-low security research complex comprised of a number of laboratories, residencies and administration buildings. The research that Shonbeck-Weller conducts there is of a highly advanced but not particularly restricted nature, primarily in the fields of medicine and agriculture. Demeter has a history of providing the Corporation with highly profitable breakthroughs, and in spite of it’s apparent lack of protection, Demeter’s security has never been breached. The whole region is isolated deep in the Canadian Rockies, surrounded, literally, by thousands of square kilometers of wilderness. Air transport is the only way in or out, since the one road that did lead to the facility was blocked by a rockslide several years ago.’
‘The Corporation went to all the trouble and expense of putting a road in there?’ Ochre was skeptical, mentally calculating up the price tag on that.
‘No, Captain, the road had been in existence for years---prior to Demeter R & D, the site was a mine operated by another of Shonbeck-Weller’s subsidiary companies. When the mine was shut down, the corporate powers-that-be turned the facility over to Demeter, satisfying Biotech regulations and their own bottom line.’ With a nod toward Vermilion, Colonel White went on as a topographic overlay appeared on screen, superimposed over the schematic. ‘This is what any would-be spies would find.
‘Rugged ground,’ Scarlet commented, studying the contour lines in detail. The terrain itself discourages visitors.’
Again, Colonel White nodded agreement. ‘Exactly. Demeter gets very few unexpected guests. While it would be unrealistic to say that anyone couldn’t get into Demeter with the proper equipment and mountaineering skills, the facility does nonetheless have some security to speak of and so far, it seems to have done the trick for them. This time, however, they’ve got more than industrial espionage to worry about.’ He paused, glancing at the screen and then reaching to touch another button on his console. ‘The facility is self sufficient, with two of its own power sources. One is the geothermal plant, located here----’ the structure in question flashed briefly on screen, ‘---and a small hydro electric generating station located here, about five kilometers upriver from Demeter itself. Here you see the labs, residencies, and administration offices. This open area serves as the airfield, and these outbuildings are the hangars.’ Each block flashed as he identified them.
‘The labs don’t look very extensive, unless the buildings are taller than they look.’ Scarlet remarked, taking the information in.
Once more, Colonel White nodded at Vermilion, and the overview was replaced by a cutaway diagram. ‘The labs were built over and down into the mining excavations. Most of them are located here, under Administration and five or six levels down. Another Biotech safety precaution, I’d warrant. The main shaft goes right down to here....’ the main bulk of the geothermal plant flashed once more ‘...where the mining folk found enough geothermal energy that they stopped digging. This region isn’t as well known for it’s sulfur and hot springs as a few others, but they do exist in the area. Maintenance personnel are the only staff permitted into the thermic plant, that being considered too important to the facility’s overall well being to permit casual visitors access.’ Then the cutaway view vanished, replaced again by the overview.
‘And all of these peripheral structures?’ Ochre gestured at the ring of markers surrounding Demeter on the diagram.
‘Air traffic control. Satellite transceivers for the telecommunications system, an interlinked series of radar towers and reception dishes. Shonbeck-Weller hasn’t skimped on the facility. State of the art, by the report.’
‘And that other building, up on the shoulder of the mountain?’
‘That? Some old hunting lodge. Recreational retreat, according to the same report. Log cabin or some such, I wouldn’t doubt. The more adventurous of Demeter’s staff will sometimes hike up there for a bit of solitude. It’s not used in the winter and rarely at other times as it is very isolated and lacking most of the amenities. Seems they’ve never laid any power lines up that way.’
‘Appears secure enough, overall.’ Scarlet commented. ‘What kind of a winter have they had?’
‘One with an unusually light snowfall this season and an early spring. A good deal of the snow is gone already, but they’re due for a spring blizzard. Weather Scan indicates a storm center tracking into the area that’s expected to dump a couple of feet of snow over the northern parts of British Columbia, including the Demeter area. We’re going to take advantage of the weather, gentlemen. Doctor Weller is already at the facility, and Arthur Prince due to arrive with the hour. Once I’ve interviewed Doctor McLaine and made a final decision on the matter, we’ll fly her down there tomorrow morning, and then let this storm blanket the lot of you in. Hopefully it will also blanket the Mysterons out. Certainly it will discourage any would-be hikers making for the facility, be they Mysterons or no. But---’ Colonel White let his voice go very serious as he looked earnestly from Scarlet to Ochre. ‘The storm will isolate us too. We must be absolutely certain that the facility is secure. As secure as Spectrum can possibly make it.’
‘And our assignments, then, Colonel?’ Scarlet asked.
‘You, Captain Scarlet, will leave immediately for Demeter R & D. Consult with Grey and requisition whatever personnel or equipment you think you may need. Don’t take any chances, Captain. Plug all the holes.’
‘I’m afraid you’re stuck with Doctor McLaine for the time being. Right now, however, I’d like you to sit command while I go and have that little chat with her. Once Scarlet has cleared Demeter, and if no crisis arises in the meanwhile, we’ll send the two of you down there as well.’
‘No complaints, Colonel White.’ Ochre nodded acceptance.
‘All right, then. You have your orders....’ Colonel White rose to his feet and his officers followed suit, ‘...and I have a guest to see to.’ He cleared way for Ochre to assume command, and moved toward the exit door with Scarlet, passing Vermilion as the Lieutenant responded to some sort of query from the Flight Deck---one that had Vermilion turning to Ochre for advice.
‘Captain---the Deck Officer reports---’ Vermilion’s head turned back to the board ‘---say again? A horse? Sir, they’re reporting a horse loose on the Flight Deck!’
‘Well then, Lieutenant, you’d best advise that they catch it before it does any damage.’ Ochre told Vermilion in reply, quite straight-faced.
Colonel White drew in a long, deep breath as he stepped into the lift corridor, Scarlet at his heels. ‘Do I want to know what that was all about, Captain?’
Scarlet kept his face every bit as straight as Ochre’s. ‘No sir.’ Scarlet said. ‘You don’t.’
‘I didn’t think so.’ But he did think that he would just save that question for Doctor McLaine instead.
It was definite.
They’ve got--- Tylan McLaine decided finally ---some sort of good-looks quota to meet.
She was sitting, casually slouched in one of the chairs around a small conference table with her feet slung onto the adjacent seat, and was very congenially regarding the officer that had identified himself as Captain Magenta. He had the nicest eyes, and a smile that matched...
Cute, like a teddy bear.....
And he hadn’t mentioned Minerva even once. Apparently he wasn’t going to---they’d all stopped asking---and he was obviously going to leave that to Colonel White, who turned up just a few moments later and dismissed the Captain with what appeared to be his habitual and efficient courtesy.
‘Thank you, Captain Magenta, that will be all.’
‘S.I.G. Colonel.’ Magenta had gotten to his feet and nodded once her direction. ‘Doctor McLaine.’ He dismissed himself politely.
And so she inclined her head likewise. ‘Yo---see ya ‘round, Ted.’
At which he stopped and turned a confused glance back at her while Colonel White ground his teeth and rolled his eyes upward. ‘Dismissed, Captain.’
‘Yessir.’ Magenta turned again and left without another backward glance.
Once the door had closed, Colonel White’s gaze came to lock with her own. ‘His name’s not Ted.’
She shrugged. ‘Probably not. He’s just cute---like a teddy bear, that’s all.’
“Oh. I see. And therefore good for sleeping with?’
She only raised an eyebrow. ‘I didn’t say that. But I’m sure all of your officers are competent at whatever task they might set their minds to. I could concur, if you’d like.” Though she was quite certain that the Colonel would not appreciate it----and Andy had said that she was not to antagonize Colonel White.
Things had gotten serious.
Colonel White settled himself into the chair at the head of the table and tapped one finger on the console there, giving her a long, silent and searching gaze. ‘Would it help, Doctor McLaine, if I were to ask you, with all due courtesy, to stop playing games with my men?’
‘I very seldom play games, Colonel White.’
The tapping stopped, as he thought about that one. ‘And just how, precisely, Doctor, would you like me to interpret that statement?’
‘Take it any way you like. But I’d take it seriously. Andy told me I should be nice to you.’
Colonel White leaned back in his seat and folded his arms. ‘Did he? And in which conversation was that, Doctor? I’m afraid I don’t recall it.’
‘Ah---so you’ll admit then that you’ve been tapping all my calls. I’d rather thought so.’
‘Very standard procedure. This is a security operation you’re involved in Doctor McLaine. A very grave situation in all regards. But you haven’t answered the question yet. And I would like to know just when you were speaking to Doctor Weller about it.’
She glanced at her watch. ‘Oh---about forty minutes ago.’
There was a prolonged quiet. Colonel White let out a deep sigh. ‘So that was the program error, was it? Would you care to tell me just what else was in the communication, or shall I get someone onto deciphering it right away?’
‘There wasn’t much more than that, really. Andy just tossed the whole thing into my court. I told him I’d take care of it.’
‘Your court, Doctor?’
She smiled. ‘My court. Maybe Andy didn’t tell you, but Minerva is mine, Colonel White. Andy just thinks that it should be up to me to decide what you should or shouldn’t hear about it. He has a conscience. And a lot of morals.’
‘It’s a week late.’
‘Nonsense. You’ve all been doing an excellent job all week. Andy’s impressed.’
‘Doctor Weller hasn’t made it easy.’
‘That’s why he’s impressed. But he’s actually been pretty co-operative. Arthur too.’
The Colonel’s eyebrows went up. ‘Have they now?’
‘Well, of course they have been. Aside from annoying your men, I’m sure there’s not much that they’ve done to really get in their way. So go ahead---just name something nasty that they’ve done. I’d like to hear about it. And believe me, you’ve never seen Andy in a bad mood.’
Another long silence at that. ‘Games, Doctor.’ Colonel White was antagonized. ‘I’m not at all impressed.’
‘Neither am I, truth to tell. Andy was being stupid today. He is, sometimes. And that was probably only Lance there with him, by the way. Captain Grey won’t find out who it was if he’s asking.’
‘Games, Doctor McLaine. You supported his story, as I recall.’ Colonel White did not look happy at that admission. No, not happy at all, not to have been tripped up by a couple of civilians.
‘Diversionary tactic. Worked, didn’t it? Where Minerva is concerned, Colonel, the general policy has been ‘Keep Them Guessing’. It’s been quite effective, so far.’
‘And you’ve changed your mind now, have you?’
‘Just ask my barbecue repairman.’ Her gut fluttered, just thinking about it. ‘Martians in my backyard, Colonel White. That impressed me.’
‘Captain Ochre said you were shaken.’
‘Captain Ochre is very perceptive. I happen to like him.’
‘I’m sure he’d be happy to hear it. Do you have something that you’d like to tell me about Minerva, Doctor McLaine?’
‘Very possibly---but first I’d like to know just what Andy had to say about it. There is a vid record, isn’t there?’
‘There is,’ he admitted.
She waited. And when it became apparent he was waiting to see what she’d follow up with, she went on. ‘Ah. And may I please see that vid record, Colonel White? If I ask you very nicely?’
‘I’m considering it.’
‘Some of our own medicine, is it?’ Tylan looked down and found something to stare at on her thumbnail. That certainly wasn’t going to work. ‘Okay. Suit yourself. I have all day Colonel White. And all night. And all of tomorrow.’
Oh no, it wasn’t going to work at all. She wasn’t the one who wanted information badly. Spectrum needed it, even more than they wanted it. She was even prepared to give it to them.
Once more, Colonel White lifted an eyebrow. ‘And tomorrow after that? And all of next week too?’
‘I’d very much prefer not to have to try your patience like that, Colonel. So, if it wouldn’t be too terribly much trouble, might I pretty please see the vid record? I’d really rather not beg.’
Colonel White looked back at her, as if that was something he would dearly have loved to see. But he had the good grace to give in. Spectrum, in this particular matter, could only lose by refusal, and she wasn’t asking for much.
Colonel White knew it, and he let out another of those long and exasperated sighs. ‘Games, Doctor. Do you always play to win?’
‘Beats the hell out of losing. And I’d just as soon the Mysterons didn’t win this one. The stakes are high.’
She cast her glance pointedly to the viewscreen. ‘Just push the dratted play button, if you don’t mind?’ Hard-wired male obstinacy. People with Y-chromosomes just couldn’t give in without a fight.
He hit the button. Hard. And sat there with his jaw muscle tight and twitching as she watched the replay of Andy going head-to-head with Spectrum. When it was finally through, she knew what she had to do----and the fluttering in her belly just got worse. Andy had told the truth---as much of it as he could, anyway. Andy wasn’t a liar.
The record itself had told her everything else that she’d been wanting to know, and she’d pinpointed the conference room’s two vid-pickups long before Colonel White’s hand had gone to press the stop button.
‘Well, Doctor? Any comments? Anything additional, perhaps, that you might want to say about that Minerva Project?’
‘Everything that Andy told you was true. But---’
Colonel White leaned forward, going grim. ‘But?’
‘But he didn’t tell you everything.’
‘I hadn’t thought so.’
‘He told you all that you needed to know.’
‘But did he tell us all that you might think we need to know?’
She allowed a quiet moment. ‘No, he didn’t.’ She let her gaze wander the room, looking everywhere but towards the two vid-pickups. She let the statement hang.
Colonel White inhaled deeply, closing his eyes, no doubt counting to ten. ‘Should I ask you very nicely?’
‘No. You should just ask the right questions.’
That seized his attention.
‘It’s not a game.’ Tylan said. ‘I’m very serious.’
Another slow assessment. ‘Is there something you’d like to tell me about Minerva, Doctor McLaine?’
She smiled approval at him. That was a very good question to start. ‘Nothing I’d care to have on record,’ she said.
His eyes narrowed and he watched her carefully, as she let her glance wander the room once again. ‘That sounds terribly secretive.’
‘Minerva is a secret.’
‘Not to the Mysterons.’
Very, very good. she lifted her chin. ‘That’s a problem.’ It was a very, very big problem.
‘You could solve that, Doctor.’
‘I could.’ She looked around again. But she would not, not on record, not for anything.....
He was running short of patience. ‘And what I could do, Doctor, is just have you hauled off to Sickbay and put down under a hypnophoric and then I could just ask you again. You know something about neurology, Doctor, and I can assure you that----’
‘Oh! Really now!’ She was quite disappointed. ‘And I thought we were doing so well, too! I suppose you could do that. And I suppose under the circumstances that any old court of law would support you on it too. But I’ll tell you the truth, Colonel White. Not even hypnophorics will get you the truth about Minerva.’
God! Scary prospect....she hadn’t expected him to take that tack----and it was a tack he could take, because her Rights didn’t matter a whit in a Global Security situation.
And in Minerva’s case, they’d be justified too.
He’d expected to rattle her with that one. ‘And you’re immune to neurological persuasion, are you, Doctor McLaine?’ Clearly, he did not believe that. There were some damn good serums out there these days.....
Even though they wouldn’t help.
She shrugged, refusing to be rattled, attention back to her thumbnail. ‘I have all day, Colonel White. And all night. And all of tomorrow---’ She called it, and hoped it was still a bluff.
It took one more long minute. Finally she glanced up, looking to catch his reactions in the continued quiet. He had the most astonishingly pale blue eyes.....eyes that locked onto hers and held her there until he at last decided there was only one civilized way to expedite the matter.
He didn’t even have to look down. His finger knew where the proper button was and he pushed it, killing the surveillance. A recorded message advised him he was in violation of a particular regulation, and he allowed that to play through for her benefit. It cycled again, and he silenced it with a verbal override and a keyed in command.
The eyelock went on, long after the recorded message had been terminated.
Her stomach was churning. She was past the performance. The suddenness of the seeming capitulation did rattle her. ‘Thank you,’ she managed weakly. He was much tougher to get around than Andy. So much more an unknown equation. ‘It’s rather a long story.’
‘I have all day, Doctor. And all night. And it had best be a very good story too.’
She tried to swallow the fluttering. ‘You can let me know.’ He’d given in. She had to deliver now. Major rattle, that was. She took a deep breath and started to tell it-----
While Colonel White just sat there and grew grimmer and grimmer and grimmer by the minute......
It had been hours.
Captain Ochre looked up to the wall clock. Going on for four hours. Must’ve been one hell of a conversation. That, or they were just sitting there in that conference room, staring at one another, waiting to see just who was going to out-stubborn whom.
Colonel White and Tylan McLaine.
Could take forever.....
Vermilion had gone off shift an hour ago and Green was back at his console now. Vermilion, he suspected, was headed Lower Decks, because Vermilion was the curious kind and he wanted to hear for himself more about the horse-business. Too late. Scarlet would have taken Merlin with him down to Demeter, and Merlin, no doubt, would have been grateful. The dog had not liked the Flight Deck---which was big and hollow and full of noise and smells that any dog, even a stupid one like Merlin, would have found upsetting. He wondered if anyone had mentioned that the dog was not to have been fed. Zil had claimed he was prone to motion sickness. The dog would have been a novelty on the Deck, and the guys down there, being decent guys, in fact, might well have given Merlin anything that they’d thought might have kept Merlin happy.
Well---that would be Scarlet’s problem.
Ochre loved a good practical joke and soon enough found himself trying to suppress the grin that threatened, just imagining Scarlet’s horror.
Which was when the Control Room door had opened again and both Colonel White and Tylan McLaine walked in. Colonel White looked tired. Zil looked exhausted. Neither one looked happy. Ochre rose to his feet and stepped away from the Control Desk as Colonel White approached.
‘It’s been quiet, sir.’ Ochre said. ‘Nothing to report.’
The Colonel nodded absently. ‘Thank you, Captain Ochre.’ He resumed his seat and settled. Not ready to go off shift himself, then. Ochre---and many of his fellow officers---often wondered just what it was that the Colonel ran on. ‘If you’d be kind enough to escort Doctor McLaine to guest quarters, Captain---’
‘---I’d appreciate it. Take a break, Captain. You’ve had a long day. Dismissed.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ Ochre didn’t get conversational. The Colonel was obviously preoccupied. He motioned for Zil, who came along, surprisingly quite docile, and he escorted her out into the corridor again.
She had nothing to say, for once.
‘How’d it go?’ he asked finally, breaking the silence.
Short and sour reply. Four hours alone with Colonel White could do that to anyone, even Zil McLaine. He would try to cheer her up.
‘Tired?’ It seemed a safe question.
‘Got that right.’ A definite affirmative. She heaved a long sigh, glancing down the corridor. ‘Which way to quarters?’
He thumbed her toward the main lift. An hour of electro-sleep sure wasn’t going to hurt, and then maybe he’d just distract her with a tour of the Base. Up to and including one or another of the more secluded spots on the Observation Deck, guaranteed to be deserted during the present Operation, with just about everyone having Upper Deck clearance off-base.....
Maybe he’d see just what she’d be inclined to pursue on his turf and with himself so conveniently off-duty for a nice change.
‘Downstairs,’ he said. ‘Got a great cure for the tired.’ She knew some neuroscience, she’d be impressed by the facility so innocuously called the Room of Sleep. It was one of only a handful outside of experimental electro-sleep labs that was fully operational. Prolonged use of electro-sleep had been shown to be less than healthful, but it had proved extremely and justifiably useful when time and human resources needed to be stretched. It was not recommended for stealing time-out for less-than-critical time management situations. Down-time in the Room of Sleep was meticulously logged and if one happened to log just one minute too many in there, one was apt to find oneself hauled off to Sickbay for a session with the Australian Inquisition. Doctor Fawn took a notoriously dim view of electro-sleep abuse.
Ochre, however, wasn’t worried about it. He had little enough time logged this month that he could key Zil in for a nap too...even if she would complain that it would be in separate beds.
But the expected delight and subsequent innuendo failed to materialize. When they arrived, Tylan McLaine stared at the sign beside the doorway with evident dismay.
‘This does not look like guest quarters to me, Och.’
‘It’s not.’ he admitted freely. ‘But it’s fast and I thought it might be handy to buy a little time. Just in case you might like a tour of the place.’
She smiled tightly. ‘Nice.’ She folded her arms and sighed again, this time with schooled patience. ‘Electro-sleep doesn’t work for everyone.’ She looked up and down the hallway, lost in Cloudbase’s corridors. ‘Quarters?’
‘Mine or yours?’ The words were out, unthinking verbal riposte, having dealt with the same from her the week long. Where, he was wondering, had the like response gone?
It earned him a withering stare. ’Quarters.’ she insisted.
‘Okay, I’m convinced. Zil, you really do need a nap.’ Lousiest mood he’d seen out of her to date. He took her by the elbow and pulled her one step closer. ‘Com’on. Twenty minutes is as good as eight hours otherwise and you’ll feel a lot better. I promise not to take advantage while you’re out.’
But she balked as if he was trying to pull her through the very Gates of Hell. ‘I know how it works, Och. And it doesn’t work for everyone. Quarters.’
He let the folded elbow go as she jerked it back. He’d never once heard anything of the sort and as far as he knew, electro-sleep did work for everyone----at least, for everyone who didn’t have an anxiety attack when it came to trying it for the first time.
‘You got a phobia, Zil?’
Weary, long-suffering look. ‘No, I do not have a phobia. What I do have is a headache and you’re not helping it much.’
Oh. Oh, he thought. She was playing hard-to-get today. Oldest excuse in the book.
One last go at it. He folded his own arms and put on his most charming smile. ‘Zil...’ he began, leaning against the bulkhead. ‘You, Zil? You have a headache?’
‘Getting bigger by the second. Don’t argue with me, Och. Do I have to find my own quarters?’
‘I’m not arguing, I’d just like to know why not the----’
‘I don’t care what you’d like to know!’ she snapped. ‘And you are arguing.’
‘I’m not and I won’t.’ Suddenly, the bad mood was contagious. He found himself shoving off the bulkhead , snapping back. He was trying to be nice and still, she was coping with belligerence-----.
‘Good! Then maybe I’ll get to quarters sometime today!’
‘Twenty minutes,’ he repeated, his last offer, and he didn’t mean the time it might take to get to quarters.
She knew it. ‘I like my eight hours! Thank you, no.’
‘Electro-sleep,’ he said. ‘Try it, you’ll like it.’ Hard sell. Good Lord, where had he dredged up that old commercial clip? And why was he wasting his time------
‘What’s the problem?!’
The answer came very unexpectedly from behind him, the worst possible----
‘It seems to be with an ability to follow instructions, Captain!’ Colonel White said sternly, coming from around the corner of the corridor. ‘Guest Quarters are not located on this level, Captain Ochre.’
Of course they were not. And of course, what Colonel White ran on when in operations mode was electro-sleep, just like the rest of them did and what kind of an idiot was he to think otherwise and whatever had he been thinking and doing, arguing with a guest, belligerent or not, in the corridor anyway....
Ochre straightened to attention, catching only an alarmed look out of Zil as he turned smartly on one heel and simply acknowledged that he’d been caught in that inability with a humiliated ‘Yes, sir.’ Eyes front and center, expression as flat as he could manage and hoping to hell he wasn’t blushing guilt and embarrassment all over----
Colonel White did not look amused, did not look pleased. Colonel White’s gaze went directly past him to Zil, standing behind him now, and the Colonel did not look pleased at her either. Not that that mattered. She was not under Colonel White’s command, she was civilian and didn’t have to answer to that authority.
He did. Damn....
Mercifully, Colonel White seemed to be considering the source. ‘You’ve had a long day, Captain. Get some rest. Dismissed.’
‘Yes, sir.’ There was nothing else to say. Ochre dismissed himself, and walked, stiff-backed all the way to his own quarters, mortified and embarrassed and with only one seemingly unanswerable question looping itself endlessly around inside his head.
When, he wondered, when did I forget that it was all an Act....
The scenery was magnificent.
But Scarlet scarcely noticed, even though he happened to be quite fond of any mountain environment. The Alps had been his winter-sports haunt for years, but they were far different from the Canadian Rockies. The Alps had long since been tamed, were laced with roadways, trails and all manner of ski resorts. Not so with the Rockies, at least, not for the most part. There were resorts, of course---he’d been to Aspen once, and had made plans to visit Whistler too---but that trip hadn’t worked out for one reason or another, and the visit to Demeter therefore turned out to be his first ever to this neck of the woods. And it was, as Colonel White had indicated in conference, all but virgin wilderness. There were no ski resorts or groomed downhill runs to be seen anywhere. Skiing, however, was far from his mind when he’d finally touched down on the small airfield that serviced Demeter R&D. It had been a routine approach and a problem free landing. He taxied the SPJ to the edge of the apron, where Blue, Teal and one of Spectrum Security’s men were waiting for him.
Merlin had been very glad to arrive.
The dog had been harnessed in the passenger compartment for the duration of the flight---and had complained almost non-stop the whole way in a vast array of canine mutterings, whines and a most pitiful whimpering that had distracted him the entire flight. Merlin had quieted only once the wheels had touched the ground, and had, the instant Scarlet had left the cockpit, fixed him with those big, brown and mournful eyes, just begging for release from the restraints. Scarlet had been quite happy to comply, and had no sooner let the mutt loose and turned for the exit door when Merlin, in thanks, had promptly upchucked at his feet. The dog had then sat down behind the mess, head low and the brown eyes had glanced from him to the door, to the mess and back again, all wretched and apologetic. Scarlet closed his eyes and wondered what he’d done to deserve it.
Just one more minute, he was thinking. Just one more minute and the dratted dog would have been outside....
So, he opened the door and shooed the thing out, only too pleased to see Teal sitting there, and to be able to hand him a clean-up assignment.
Thank heaven for junior officers. And Security too----standard policy under an Alert circumstance was that no one worked alone. Scarlet left the SPJ and its particular circumstance to his subordinates and simply ceased to worry about it, trivial inconvenience that it was in the scheme of things.
Some of the tension drained away, seeing Blue sitting there too, waiting for him with some sympathy for the situation. He clapped his colleague once on the shoulder, and returned the solid glad-to-see-you handclasp with an earnest reciprocal shake.
‘You’ve had that kind of a week too.’ Blue stated rather than asked, reading his expression. His partner’s glance went to Merlin, looking the near pony-sized dog over once, as the wretched thing sat there on the pavement expectantly watching the backseat. ‘Merlin, I presume.’ Blue added. ‘Does he shed?’
“He does much worse than that.’ Scarlet commented drily in reply. ‘And yes, I’ve had that kind of a week too. Some things are the same all over.’ Scarlet climbed into the passenger seat of the jeep, as Blue got behind the wheel. “Com’on, then.’ Scarlet said at last, and Merlin leapt into the rear seat and sat down, nose forward and sniffing the air in anticipation of an open-air ride; there was no such thing as a dog that didn’t love a rush of cold air up the snout.
But Scarlet’s first order of business was to inspect the premises. Blue drove the jeep back to the Administration building, where they handed Merlin off to Security. That done, he finally, finally felt free to get at the job at hand.
Blue filled him in. “There’s not much to report. The airspace hasn’t been violated, though the girls have chased off one or two bush pilots on the edges---all legitimate...helihikers for one and a charter hunting party the other. No sign yet of Black or Carey. The ground perimeter’s been active all week---I think Lance may have tripped it once or twice, but he’s been supervised, so it hasn’t been a concern. Security’s in the process of upgrading the sensor array to handle the snow that’s expected. And that brings us up to date.”
“Sounds good. How about our charges?”
Blue shrugged. “The same. Though Arthur seems pleased enough to be here. Andy seems pleased to see him. And for once, they’re not bothering anyone. It’s making Grey suspicious...he’s wondering what they’re up to.”
“Under close supervision?”
“As close as anyone can tolerate for long.” Blue remarked with another shrug. “They don’t go anywhere alone. Weller’s getting rather testy about it.”
“Aren’t we all?” Scarlet replied drily to that. They made a tour of the valley, skirting the airfield, inspecting the hangars and outbuildings. They made a walkaround examination of the Residency, which was directly connected to Administration by an underground pedestrian walkway, and therefore a bit more of a concern.
Scarlet could find nothing to complain about; everything was in good order...even the dogs, who were out for exercise when they pulled up in front of Administration again. One of Demeter’s Security people was in charge of the pack, and yelling at Lance before he strayed too far.
“Do you ever get the feeling,” Blue asked as they got out of the jeep. “That you’ve landed in Camelot instead of Canada?”
“Hmmm.” No comment came immediately to mind---Scarlet hadn’t given it any thought---but a sudden foreboding crept up his back as he did.
“Don’t even think it,” he said, wishing then that Adam hadn’t brought it up at all.
Blue looked at him sideways, quizzical. “Huh? Why not?”
Scarlet answered slowly, being perhaps more culturally familiar with that particular storyline. Blue was only skimming surface details.
“Because,” he said slowly. “Nearly everyone in Camelot came to a bad end.”
There had already been a guard standing there, waiting patiently in the corridor outside of her assigned Guest Quarters when Colonel White had finally delivered her there. The young woman in the sharp grey/black/white of Spectrum Security had saluted the Colonel smartly, and Tylan McLaine had wondered idly how long she might have been standing there if she had actually taken Ochre up on his offer to tour the Base. It was something that Colonel White had obviously arranged, not having expected Ochre to have gone off elsewhere with her once they’d left the Control Room.
Poor Ochre had gotten the short end of that episode.
And she’d felt responsible. Entirely.
She had said so, too, had given Colonel White a clear piece of her mind on the matter. “Not his fault,” she’d insisted. “He doesn’t know.”
“No excuse, and not the point besides.” Colonel White had replied.
She’d argued after that and had finally finished with a threat to just tell him herself, if that was the way it had to be. It had won Ochre some small concession, and then the Colonel had dropped it. The Guest Quarters had loomed with their attendant guard, and Colonel White had assured her that the premises were, indeed, secure, and that she would no doubt have a pleasant and restful night.
Which might have been the case if she hadn’t spent most of it awake composing apologies for Ochre. That was at least two that she owed him now. She’d done the mental composition sitting on the wide ledge by the room’s window---or port, she thought it more properly would have been called. The size of that port had surprised her---as had the view, which was stratospheric and spectacular. Well above the clouds here, the sky was rarified and crystal clear, and the stars there had been surreal in their brilliance. The Base’s Guest Sector was situated on the Upper Deck opposite to the main flight deck---for the better view, she also guessed, and the earthwards vista wasn’t much spoiled by the austere necessities of the carrier’s construction and engineering.
She likely should have taken Ochre up on the tour; Cloudbase looked like it would well have been worth the time spent to see it.
Except that she had more important things to think about.
Like the Mysterons. Like Minerva.
And, most vitally, like what she could possibly do about either one.
Because there was one option that she’d only touched on with Colonel White.
The disaster plan.
So, she’d sat there on the windowsill, hardly seeing the spectacular view in her preoccupation, and it was only when the eastern sky began to grow lighter that she’d finally laid down on the immaculately made bed and fallen into a fitful sleep.
A wake up call had come seemingly at once, but was in fact a couple of hours later by the clock; she’d come to abruptly, with one of her arms thrown casually around her own duffle bag; which had arrived there in quarters before her, typical Cloudbase efficiency. They gave her an hour’s warning, and then someone would collect her for breakfast and then a final briefing. She’d appreciated the warning; she felt----all rumpled, after sleeping fully clothed. She spent a good part of that hour in the small but efficient ensuite bath doing something about it.
And hoping that she’d find something decent to wear in the duffle.
She had not thought that she’d packed especially well. She had been upset, and had simply grabbed the first bag that had come to hand out of the closet, one that had already had something in it.
Tylan McLaine pulled the contents out to shake them of wrinkles---and was immediately pleased with her own sub-conscious cleverness, if in fact some part of her brain had been functioning well enough to have made the choice without her attention.
It was perfect! What a statement she could make. It might amuse. But more likely, it would irritate.....
When Captain Magenta finally came to collect her, she was ready.
Andrew Weller motioned Captain Scarlet into his office when the Spectrum officer tapped lightly on the glass wall opposite his desk. Scarlet pushed aside the sliding glass panel and approached the desk with his arms folded and a determined look in his eye. Andy gestured him toward the guest chair, listening absently to one of his corporate bankers on the line, but thinking, with some annoyance, that the Captain was here to lecture him, as Grey had been doing the week long.
“You’re going to have to cancel the meeting, that’s all,” he said to the banker, watching as Scarlet disdained the offered seat and perched himself instead on the edge of the desk, his whole attitude one of schooled patience and high purpose.
Lecture time for certain.
Well, the Captain could just wait. It was getting late, pushing midnight, and both he and the banker were putting in some heavy overtime, trying to iron out a few details. Realistically, it was not going to be easy---or even desirable---to keep Demeter shut-down for much longer.....
He’d really thought that things might have been resolved by now. A few days disruption was all he’d truly expected.
Andy swivelled his chair around, putting his back to the Captain as he nodded and murmured affirmative comments and followed them up with a brief parcel of instructions. And when he swung the chair back around again, he all but froze cold when he saw what Scarlet had been doing while he’d been so busily ignoring him.
Good God! He’d forgotten all about that----
He had left his desk drawer open, had been shuffling though it just a short while ago and he’d absolutely forgotten what else had been rolling around inside there with all of his other office flotsam.
Scarlet had found---and picked up---the heavy acrylic paperweight from inside the drawer and was turning it over, casually rolling it from palm to palm and finally holding it up to the light to better examine the object within. The clear acrylic refracted the light through the small mass of silver-gold filigree embedded in the center, casting a faint nebulous glow across the Captain’s features. Scarlet’s expression had changed from one of idle inattention to one of active curiosity, and Andy decided right then that it was time to cut his conversation short and deal with the situation before it got out of hand.
“No, no I’m sorry, I just can’t make it, Kevin. You’ll have to reschedule. Look, I’ve got to run, I’ve got a Security problem to deal with---”
Andy made a hasty farewell, and then let the phone’s receiver clatter loudly into its cradle on the desk.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Captain.” Andy came at once to his feet to distract the Captain’s attention. “What can I do for you today?”
How could I possibly have missed that one.....
But Scarlet’s gaze did not immediately leave the object in his hand. “What is this, Doctor?”
‘A highly detailed and very accurate schematic representation of a rat brain’s reticular formation’ Andy responded immediately, quickly enough that it wasn’t likely to stick in the Captain’s brain.. And then he added, half a breath later: “It’s a paperweight, obviously.”
Scarlet blinked at him, not quite having caught that reply, as planned.
Irritated, Andy reached to pluck the thing out of Scarlet’s grasp with deliberate rudeness. “I’m afraid I’m a very busy man, Captain Scarlet. How may I help you?” Andy repeated himself, a polite phrase, none too politely delivered.
The discourtesy produced the desired result. Scarlet came to his feet abruptly, as short-tempered as he was feeling himself.
“Doctor Weller,” Scarlet began tersely. “I just wanted to advise you that Doctor McLaine has requested an urgent, personal interview with you. Colonel White has agreed to that request, and Spectrum will be bringing Doctor McLaine here to Demeter for that meeting as soon as possible.”
“Really?” So, she’d talked Colonel White into it. He frowned, still not entirely convinced that it was a good idea, however.....
He’d left it in Zil’s hands.
And suddenly he wanted that private interview too, to see just what it was that she’d done to finagle the trip in.
“Yes, Doctor Weller---really.” Scarlet reiterated, when he didn’t go on. “The schedule isn’t set as yet, but I wanted to ask what precautions you thought might be appropriate in light of the fact.”
“I’ll be meeting the jet, of course.” Andy insisted, right off.
“We’ll see.” No deal, no agreement on that point.
“Are you saying, Captain, that your security measures are inadequate for that?” He tossed out a challenge to keep the Captain on the defensive.
“No, Doctor, I’m not saying that at all, but Spectrum will not be exposing you or any member of your Project team to any unnecessary risk----”
I haven’t seen any Mysterons yet, Captain.” He stated the obvious, and was annoyed with himself for not coming up with something more original---he’d already used that one on Grey.
“No, and I hope that you don’t, Doctor Weller. But I didn’t see the one that tried to kill Doctor McLaine either. You may want to give that a little thought before---”
Good counterpoint, damn the man, what kind of spin could he put on that to turn it around?
“I have already given it a good deal of thought, thank you, and I won’t have you questioning my motives where my researchers are concerned, Captain.” That was the angle, make it sound as though the Captain was insulting his intelligence and his integrity. “Spectrum may make whatever arrangements it thinks would be appropriate and sufficient, but I will be meeting the jet.”
“Thank you Captain. I still have work to do here. Good night.” He made it a firm dismissal, one that Scarlet couldn’t and didn’t fail to recognize.
Scarlet lifted his chin, measuring his tone and his stance and deciding, it was clear, that he’d run into an immovable object. “Very well, Doctor. I’ll advise you when we have a more detailed timetable.”
Or not, more likely, Andy thought. Two could play the game, and there was nothing stopping Scarlet from just not telling him anything until after Zil actually arrived.
Which would not matter at all, so long as Spectrum got her here in one piece. In the meanwhile....
“Thank you, Captain Scarlet.” Andy softened his tone, going to his best and most reasonable voice. “I’d very much appreciate that.”
Scarlet’s eyes betrayed his disbelief in that, as well as a deep suspicion of the tone, too. But the man moved for the door finally, and only stopped to look back once as he crossed the threshold. “There will be a guard posted, as usual, Doctor. Enjoy your work.”
Andy slid the door closed and locked it audibly behind the Captain as he retreated. He nodded once and smiled at Lieutenant Teal, performing the promised guard duty, as he closed the vertical blinds, looking for the privacy that they offered.
They trusted him in his office alone. After all, they’d checked and scanned it enough times.
Andrew Weller dropped back into his chair behind the desk and drew the paperweight from the pocket he’d dropped it into; he had been careless, admittedly. But, no harm done.....
Pretty thing, he mused, lifting the object and letting the light shine through, casting the same nebulous glow over his own face that he’d seen so recently on Scarlet’s features....but he didn’t dwell on it.
His gaze went instead to the back wall, and what he could see there in his mind’s eye.
He sighed heavily. Fifteen minutes, he figured.
He could take care of himself for that long, at least, Spectrum notwithstanding. It was a risk, but a very marginal one.
Colonel White wasn’t there, but Magenta was already in the Control Room, sitting with Doctor McLaine when Ochre arrived. He had spent a restless, sleepless night stewing over the scene in the corridor, and eventually had just made up his mind that there was nothing to be done for or about it. He’d put his emotions into neutral, adopted his best professional attitude and vowed that nothing was going to break his concentration.
But it had faltered anyway, with the first look that he got of her----
Good Lord. Where had she come up with those?
He exchanged a patient, long-suffering look with Lieutenant Green as he passed the communications console. Green seemed amused, but didn’t make any comment---it was possible he already had, and wasn’t going to repeat himself.
‘Zil---’ he said, once he’d approached closely enough that she really had no choice but to look at him. ‘Zil, why are you wearing combat fatigues?’
They were not the real thing, he could see that at close range. Nice fit. It had been a fashion trend just a year or two ago, and all manner of inappropriate clothing had turned up in public in the mottled green/black/brown of the World Army’s standard camouflage----
She did not, for once, sniff disdain at him. Apparently she had also decided to adopt a polite and neutral attitude. ‘Just in case,’ she replied, as if it should have been self-evident.
‘In case?’ he repeated. ‘Of?’ He just had to ask.
That question did earn him a disdainful glance. ‘In case of combat,’ she supplied, all melodramatic exasperation. ‘What else?’
Naturally. Ask a stupid question.... he thought inwardly. ‘Of course.’ It didn’t deserve any further reaction than that, and if she was hoping for more, he was going to disappoint her.
In any event, further discussion was precluded as Colonel White came in through the portside doorway. Magenta came to his feet and Ochre straightened. Spit and polish today; there was authority present.
‘At ease, gentlemen.’ Colonel White nodded greetings as he took his seat at the Control Desk. ‘Good morning, Doctor McLaine. I trust you found your quarters comfortable?’
‘Just fine, thank you, Colonel. No complaints.’
‘I’m pleased to hear it. As Cloudbase is an operational base, you may have found the accommodations somewhat less posh than you might be accustomed to.’ Pausing, Colonel White also took a moment to look Zil up and down once. ‘Doctor McLaine, might I inquire as to why you would be wearing combat fatigues?’
No, Ochre thought. Colonel, don’t even ask....
The Colonel did not get the same indifferent regard that he had. But she did let her shoulders slump in mock consternation. ‘Just in case,’ she repeated.
‘Of what circumstance, Doctor?’
She let her eyes go wide, and rolled them up. ‘Doomed....’ she moaned. “I’m doomed. Consigned to a military that doesn’t know the meaning of the word combat....’
Colonel White permitted the outburst, leaning back in his seat and waiting patiently for it to pass without acknowledging it. “Thank you, Doctor. But I’m afraid you’ll find that there are neither drama nor fashion critics present. We’re here for a final briefing before your departure.’ With another nod, Colonel White gestured for his officers to be seated. Magenta resumed his seat next to Tylan McLaine.
Ochre elected to sit opposite and one stool removed.
‘Captain Ochre, Captain Magenta,’ the Colonel began. ‘I have been in contact with Captain Scarlet at Demeter Research and Development, and he has indicated that the facility is, indeed, secure. Doctor McLaine has urgently requested a personal interview with Doctor Weller, to discuss the possibility of removing hardware critical to the Minerva Project to another location, for destruction and disposal.’
‘At what risk, sir?’ Ochre sat up straight on the stool. This was a new development. ‘Are we putting all of our eggs in one basket?’
‘Doctor McLaine assures me that Doctor Weller has, to some degree, exaggerated the risk posed by having all members of the Minerva team gathered together at the Demeter facility. Once discussions have taken place, and providing that all members of the Project team are in agreement, we will have the personnel available on-site to remove the hazard altogether.’
‘Win by default?’ Ochre commented, glancing at Magenta. ‘The Mysterons won’t like that.’
‘We can assume not. And yes, Captain, I believe that there is still some risk involved. Both Captain Black and Todd Carey remain unaccounted for, and I, for one, can’t believe that they’re through with the situation yet.’
‘Why Demeter, then?’ Magenta asked. ‘Can’t we move the personnel elsewhere if a conference is all we want to arrange in the short term?’
Good question. It mirrored exactly what was going through Ochre’s mind when Magenta asked it.
Colonel White did not immediately reply, but cast his glance directly to Tylan McLaine, raising one eyebrow.
‘Andy and Arthur are already in a safe place,’ she said, answering for herself. ‘If we decide to give you Minerva for disposal, we’ll just have to go back again anyway. Moving everyone around will just be a waste of time---and an additional risk besides. We’ll want to move fast, and we will be supervising the process. The Mysterons won’t get Minerva. And we’ll make sure that no one else does either.’
It sounded acutely paranoid.
‘I thought Doctor Weller wanted to keep the pieces apart?’
‘We can do that indefinitely, Captain Ochre. And the Mysterons will wait it out.’ Colonel White sighed in response. ‘We’re looking for a resolution to the threat, and as of this moment, neutralizing Minerva ourselves, thereby denying it to the Mysterons seems to make the most sense.’
Ochre nodded. ‘All right. I can accept that. And if Andy and Arthur are already safe, I guess that makes us the likeliest targets until we arrive.’
‘There’s no denying that possibility, Captain. You’ll have an Angel escort.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ He’d expected that much. Still, Ochre was not entirely mollified. The Mysterons may have dislodged Arthur Prince with their media-ploy, but they had actually tried to kill Tylan McLaine.
The Colonel must have read it off of his face. ‘And as a further precaution,’ White went on. ‘We’ve maintained, and will continue to maintain a radio silence on the matter. You and Captain Magenta will advise your colleagues of the situation once you touch down at Demeter.’
Ochre nodded and then turned to Lieutenant Green. There was one more thing he could think of. ‘Lieutenant, if the Deck Officer has one available, make sure we get a Mk.II’
He would feel a whole lot better knowing, if worse came to worst, that he was sitting on some live ordnance with his own finger on the button.
Just in case.....