Direct interdimensional intervention was required.
It was something that the humans had only recently decided was possible in theory, though they had in fact seen it in practice during previous phases of the War. The mathematics were complex, and many of the abstractions did not normally apply in this particular time-space continuum.
It was also something that the Black unit’s mind had continued to define as Cheating. Opposing notions of Justice and Fair Play often accompanied the concept, which seemed to fall loosely under the heading of Morals---this was under continued investigation, as a separate matter.
Current phase-event analysis, however, had indicated that further Constructs had now become necessary to reach the phase-objective. At this point in the linear time-line the subject units were beyond the reach of either the Black unit or the Carey-Construct. Strategically, a very specific sequence of events, precisely arranged along the linear time-line had to be executed; the choreography, the timing had to be perfect, or the desired outcome would be lost.
Time was a malleable property of this continuum, another thing that the humans understood only in theory. In practice it was difficult, and costly in ways that the humans did not yet remotely comprehend, not even theoretically. Difficult and costly too, was the creation of a Construct itself.
Such, however, was the price of the War.
Direct interdimensional intervention was required....
They were bringing Zil in.
She had talked Colonel White into it, and Andrew Weller suspected that he knew how and why. And the next step---
The next step would all depend on Zil and just what she had in mind. Andy was concerned about that. She was worried. More worried than he was, but that was only to be expected. Minerva had always been near and dear to her heart, and she was loathe to give it to anyone.
Arthur was not so directly affected, but he and Zil had worked closely together on the Project and Arthur was no more keen to have Spectrum laying hands on it than Zil was.
Spectrum, as it happened though, was likely to be better than the alternatives; the real trick would be to maintain control of the technology even if it did fall under official jurisdiction.
Those were the thoughts uppermost in his mind when he absently thanked Captain Scarlet for the briefing and left the communications room to move down the hallway toward the elevator. Arthur was right behind him, Merlin was bounding alongside and Lieutenant Roan was bringing up the rear. Weller was becoming very annoyed with the constant, smothering company; he did not care to be nurse-maided. Captain Scarlet was watching their little parade from the doorway, seeing them safely on their way downstairs. He wanted just a few minutes to talk to Arthur---in private. But there seemed no immediate escape. After the incident at the house, Spectrum had tightened things up even further---which he would scarcely have credited as possible---and was keeping itself very close at hand. Tensions had risen all around, and while he simply couldn’t see how it would be possible to break the security cordon, they all seemed to be waiting for something dire to happen.
Weller punched the elevator button, chafing at the circumstances. Distracted, he reached down and scratched at Merlin’s ear, the dog having latched onto him in Zil’s absence. He urged the dog into the elevator car when the doors finally opened. And then suddenly, Captain Scarlet was calling out Lieutenant Roan’s name, just as he and Arthur stepped into the lift---which would amount to another delay, whatever it was that the Captain wanted now. The Lieutenant, however, seemed quite oblivious to the summons and was stepping toward the elevator without answering it.
‘Are you deaf, Lieutenant?’ Andy asked irritably. ‘The Captain is calling you!’
Roan looked startled. Concentrating too hard on his nurse-maiding duties, obviously. The young officer stopped up short and looked back over his shoulder, quizzical expression saying that he’d heard not a word of it.
It had just become an opportune moment.
Weller’s hand hit the DOOR CLOSE button the second he realized it, and before the Lieutenant had seen it, recovered and reacted, the doors had shut. Arthur keyed in the office level.
For just a minute at least, they had made good their escape.
‘They don’t understand anything, Andy.’ Arthur scowled openly, out suddenly from under the ever-present scrutiny. ‘Not a single thing.’
‘They’re not supposed to, Arthur. And I’d like to keep it that way. But I don’t know what Zil got through with the Colonel. She was quite upset. We may well be doing damage control before too long.’
‘What’s Ty had to say on it?’
‘She’s very unhappy---any you’ve just missed our floor.’
Arthur stabbed at the STOP button irritably and re-keyed Level IV. The lift stopped, but it did not begin to rise again. ‘What’s the matter with this thing now?’ Arthur grumbled.
But Merlin gave an abrupt growl before Andy could respond; the dog whined loudly and backed into a corner with his fur all bristling, pawing up at him for reassurance.
What in God’s name was the probl---
The question ceased mid-thought, over-ridden by the one that displaced it and turned Andrew Weller cold all over.
It’s not the ones you see that get you......Captain Grey had said.
An icy, raw fear solidified in the pit of his belly. He felt his skin go all clammy with the realization that they were no longer in control of the lift. ‘No---’ he breathed.
Arthur’s head snapped around, eyes wide, coming to the same conclusion and he made a frantic grab at the emergency phone---
But the connections were already dead.
Yell for help---sound some sort of an alarm.....it was what came to mind, but Andy’s mouth had gone parchment dry, and only a breath of an old and he’d long thought forgotten prayer came out.
From somewhere just above them, a faint creak of metal on metal could be heard----
---as a support cable began to separate from its mooring bolts under the influence of an unseen but very real and manifest power. It was only a matter of seizing the object at its quantum level and changing it’s co-ordinates in three dimensions; the mechanical safeties had been similarly disabled, the suspension engineering would fail under the applied stress and the local gravity well would do the rest. Scanning had already been initiated and the recordings would capture every detail of the subject units and objects, templating minutiae right down to the precise energy flux and particle spin of each of those subject units and objects immediately prior to the destruction of the originals----
---but it was only when the sudden drop came that Andy was able to give voice to the scream that had been caught in his throat, a terrified sound that Arthur had mimicked and both of which ceased abruptly when the elevator car impacted at the bottom of the shaft with a force calculated to be more than sufficient to ensure that there would be no survivors. The wreckage settled in a slow clattering of metal and plastics and only the faintest echoes of those final, dying screams remained----
----while time was suspended only very briefly; assembly of the Constructs was proceeding in an adjacent continuum, where time was not a linear concept. Transfer through of the Constructs was an event that manifested with only a faint spiraling of ghostly green light; twin circles of residual visible radiation, telltales of the scanning operation that played over the remnants of the originals and precisely indicated the correct temporal and physical placement of the newly formed Constructs----
----and the fading sounds were lost in the whirring of gears and pulleys as the lift car ascended from the depths of the elevator shaft to stop at Level IV.
The Weller-Construct straightened his tie and cleared his throat, knowing with an absolute certainty that Spectrum officer Teal was going to be standing there the very instant that the doors opened.
And the Earthman was.
One very irate and imposing Lieutenant Teal, standing there with folded arms and a humourless expression that stated very clearly that he did not approve of one Andrew Weller’s actions in abandoning his escort upstairs. Roan had no doubt called ahead---Teal’s cap mike was down in the activated position, ready for the report of their timely arrival, which had been carefully calculated to arouse no suspicions.
‘They’re here.’ Teal stated, flatly and with no amusement at all.
‘Lieutenant Roan will be right along,’ Weller assured the unsmiling officer with an affable grin of his own, exiting the lift car with the Prince-Construct on his heels. ‘I’m afraid your colleague missed the elevator.’
‘So I heard.’ Teal commented drily. ‘Doctor Weller, once again, might I ask---’
‘You can always ask.’ Weller interrupted, still smiling. Co-operation with Spectrum’s security arrangements was now entirely out of the question. ‘We shall be in my office, Lieutenant. You’re welcome, as usual, to guard the door.’
‘Count on it, Doctor.’ Teal gestured them politely down the corridor, and provided close escort all the way to the sliding glass panel that opened into the erstwhile Doctor Weller’s so very thoroughly scanned and checked inner sanctum.
‘Thank you, Lieutenant---and I’d appreciate it if you could give us about thirty minutes warning of Doctor McLaine’s arrival---we’d like to meet her ourselves, of course.’
‘Of course, Doctor Weller. You’ll be advised.’
The Weller-Construct nodded with due courtesy and closed the sliding glass panel, while the Prince-Construct turned the privacy blinds, shutting out prying human eyes that would have been very much interested in the work that still needed to be done before the last surviving member of the Minerva Project arrived….
Scarlet had seen the whole thing, and even caught from down the hallway, that very last comment from Weller.
He had certainly not called out Roan’s name, and that was why Roan had not heard him.
Roan had been startled and had hesitated, the Lieutenant concerned just enough not to want to offend, let alone ignore a superior officer, and that hesitation had been sufficient for Weller and Prince to elude their escort.
In the space of an instant, Roan had been surprised, mortified and then angry. But he hadn’t hesitated any longer---his cap mike was down and he had Teal on the alert in seconds. Roan’s hand hit the summons button, casting an apologetic glance his direction, and otherwise looking like he was ready to throttle the first civilian that might come within reach.
Weller hadn’t made a friend out of Roan with that move. It was so----Weller-typical.
Nonetheless, Scarlet felt a prickling sensation run up his spine---Weller and Prince, together and out of sight---translated as Weller and Prince unprotected. Even if it was for all of the forty seconds that it took for the lift to reach the office level and for Teal to report that they had arrived.
It settled his tingling nerves, long enough for him to wave Roan off with a forgiving tone. “Just stick with them, Lieutenant. You and Teal both. See if you can lock them in the office.”
The brig---any brig---would have been his own preference, but Demeter didn’t have one.
“Yes, sir.” Roan acknowledged the instruction and was gone a minute later when the elevator doors opened again to admit him.
And it was only then that Scarlet turned and went back to rejoin Blue and Grey in the communications room. He would spend a bit of time with some normal people....
“Don’t tell me.” Grey said. “They got away.” It was a statement, not a question.
Scarlet shrugged, not wanting to incriminate Roan. ‘Less than a minute of freedom. We’ll clamp down hard as soon as Doctor McLaine arrives.”
“They want to meet the jet.”
“Maybe. If they behave. If no crisis occurs.” But Scarlet couldn’t think of a truly good reason why not, and his own annoyance with the man didn’t count as one. He wasn’t that petty. “The Angels are reporting clear skies?”
An air attack seemed to him to be the only viable way for the Mysterons to break the security lock they had on Demeter. He and Blue had toured the grounds....the perimeters were all up, all functioning. The facility itself was far enough from the woods on any side to give them plenty of warning of a ground approach, whatever it’s nature. He had found no fault at all with any of Grey’s security arrangements---not that he had expected to and even though he’d been looking.
The problems all seemed to lie with the subjects of those security measures---and it didn’t matter how good Spectrum could be, if those subjects simply chose to ignore those security measures.
“The Angels,” Blue drawled slowly. “Are getting bored silly up there. Yes, the skies are still clear---though that could change any minute, let alone in an hour.”
“Well, we’ll see...it might distract them for a time. And so long as there’s no apparent danger. Still----” Scarlet let his voice trail off.
There had seemed no apparent danger in having a barbecue for dinner either.
“There was never any real trouble out of Arthur.” Blue offered. “You just can’t any information out of him, even though he hardly ever shuts up. He didn’t once cross any of the lines we set for him.”
Grey looked at Blue enviously. “I could have done with a quiet week.”
“Arthur is not ‘quiet’. But I did finally get to the point where I could tune him out. Vermilion was a big help.”
Scarlet looked to Grey. “And yours?”
“Teal and Roan have performed quite flawlessly. I’ve told them I’m happy with them, but I’m afraid Weller keeps knocking the wind out of their sails. He’s kept them humble. I’m beginning to think that it’s a part of the Mysteron plot---if Weller keeps it up, they’ll take him apart and save them all the trouble.” Grey shrugged. "Did the Colonel mention any sort of an agenda we're going to have once the jet touches down?"
Scarlet shook his head. “Radio code 7. Ochre and Magenta know more than we do about that right now. She must have said something that made the Colonel uneasy.”
Both his colleagues raised an interested brow. Code 7's weren't common.
The agenda, if there was one, would be delivered by personal debriefing. Cloudbase wasn’t outputting even an encrypted message on a scrambled frequency on the subject.
And that was enough to make Scarlet uneasy too.
Frosty. Things had gotten decidedly so in the last twelve hours.
Tylan McLaine leaned over and glanced up the short aisle of the SPJ towards the cockpit, not for the first time, probably not for the last.
It had been an express ride down to Cloudbase’s Flight Deck after the briefing with Colonel White, and a quick and apparently routine log off from the carrier. Ochre had scarcely spoken two words to her throughout, and had left Magenta to settle her into the passenger compartment of the SPJ as he’d taken himself forward and then stayed there.
For the entire flight, so far. For more than four hours of deliberate cold-shouldered silence.
Magenta had come back to check on her twice, not that there was very much to him to check. It was a boring flight - an estimated five hours from Cloudbase (somewhere over the North Atlantic) and across the Canadian North on the most direct rump line of flight, point to point, chasing the morning sun. It had been all ocean, tundra and boreal forest down there. She had amused herself naming the lands and the waters that had passed beneath the jet along the way: Labrador, Ungava, Hudson’s Bay.....there was less than half the continent left to go, now. More tundra, the lake-riddled Shield, some prairie-land and then the Rockies themselves after that.
Direct to the BC Interior, and Demeter, soon enough, meaning Andy and Arthur. That was the best part, except----
Except that Andy wasn’t going to be the least bit pleased. Arthur wasn’t going to be either.
Because she had told Colonel White the whole story. Off the record - she’d salvaged that much out of the situation, at the very least she’d managed that. Colonel White had promised that his report was going to be highly classified.
In just a few hours, it might not matter that much. There would be no evidence, not after---
Destruction and disposal, Colonel White had said, in the briefing, which was true enough. But all the work, all the effort, all the spectacular success----
All the colossal waste, she thought. Damn. The complete and utter waste of---of everything that they’d done.....
She wasn’t especially happy either. Still, there just wasn’t a lot of choice left about it.
Todd dead. Bombs in the backyard. Martians after Minerva.
Minerva had come to official attention, and destruction and disposal - at their own hands and no one else’s - had been the very most she could contrive to salvage, under the circumstances.
What she might yet be able to salvage with Captain Ochre remained to be seen. He really didn’t seem to be on speaking terms today. Damn that too. She’d have taken his tour of the dratted Base, she would have been happy to...except for the idea of the stupid electro-sleep first. She’d never expected that.
Electro-sleep which didn’t work for everyone. For reasons that Colonel White had classified and she was not keen to divulge, even if those reasons hadn’t been well above Ochre’s security clearance.
She’d see what could be saved. There was some time yet, and there that storm coming too. She would talk to Andy. She would find out if things could be delayed---or she would perhaps insist that things absolutely be delayed just long enough to ensure that none of them escaped before the weather locked Demeter down tight.
Long enough for her to get an apology delivered. Maybe even delivered with a dumbed-down and sanitized explanation about why not the electro-sleep. Classified or not.
Should’ve just said ‘yes’ to his quarters, she thought miserably. Might not get that invite again. Should’ve just admitted to the phobia, he might even have believed that since he was the one who came up with it....damn, but I was slow on that uptake, got too distracted with the Colonel and plain let that one blow right by. Since when am I that dense?
Since it had started to matter, she decided. That was when since.
Magenta made another trip back to check on her a few minutes later.
“Hey, Ted,” she greeted him. “Got a minute?”
“Only if you’d like to tell me where you got that ‘Ted’ business from,” he responded congenially, apparently just curious and not bothered by the fact she’d used the unknown reference in front of Colonel White.
“Can’t figure that one out?” She gestured him down to eye-level, and revealed it in a conspirational whisper. “I told the Colonel it’s because you’re cute like a teddy bear. He figured it out.”
Magenta did too, and every bit as quickly. He had trouble suppressing the grin that the thought provoked. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Doctor.”
“As intended, Ted.” Tylan cast her glance up towards the cockpit again. “So how long do his snits usually last?”
Magenta’s glance followed hers. “Depends on how serious the snit is.”
“And what’s this one rate? In your considered opinion?”
He shrugged. “Dunno what started it, Doc. He hasn’t said. Which means he’s upset. But I’d say this is a 7 or 8 on an upset-scale of 10.”
“Hmmm. Yeah,” she sighed. “At least.”
”Maybe. But since he’s not on speaking terms, do me a favor?”
“Tell him there’s a good reason. Tell him...” her voice faded into another frustrated sigh. “Just tell him that I’d really like to talk to him.”
His gaze went forward again. “I’m not sure that’s mutual, at the moment.”
“Is he gonna shoot the messenger?”
“No.” Magenta shook his head. “He’s got a little more class than that. But if he can’t figure it out I’ll hit him over the head and tell him it’s an olive branch.”
“Thanks, Ted. Much appreciated.”
“No charge, Doc.” Magenta straightened, giving her a wink and a thumbs up. “Yell if you need anything.”
“Always.” She returned the thumbs up as he moved away, acting the neutral courier.
And she started earnestly to review her apologies...
What passed for the communications and air traffic control center at Demeter R & D, was a long room on the second floor of the Administration building, one that had a wide bank of bowed-out floor-to-ceiling windows on the side that faced the airfield, and gave anyone looking a panoramic view of the whole airstrip, end to end across the valley. The consoles, displays and computer systems were as state-of-the-art as everything else Scarlet had seen at the facility, and most of the components would have done even Cloudbase's ever-so-picky engineering staff proud.
At the outset of the Operation, Spectrum had set up a portable Security console of its own near Demeter's main boards. Within a few paces, Scarlet had found it was possible to scan all of the relevant information displays and downloads from each system easily and conveniently. At the moment, he was studying the radar screen, watching as the patrol Angels roved the nearby skies, and both Melody and Rhapsody made their routine, negative reports on schedule.
He was expecting to hear from the SPJ and its Angel escort at any time now. Blue and Grey were outside, making one final inspection of the grounds. Roan had mostly cooled off now, and had reported all quiet from the office downstairs. Weller and Prince had indeed vanished into the Doctor's sanctum, and had caused no further known trouble since doing so. Teal had inquired once about the jet's ETA, at Weller's apparent request. And Scarlet had finally decided that he might as well allow Weller and Prince to greet Doctor McLaine when the SPJ touched down.
Because he wanted them where he could see them. All three of them.
All other personnel were presently accounted for. The Residency was empty. Such of Demeter's staff as had stayed were sequestered with Security, Demeter's and their own, just for the morning, just until the whole Minerva team was reunited and settled in. That had been his own doing; Scarlet wanted no loose ends, and no potential loose cannons. The only scattered personnel were the maintenance techs down in the geothermal plant, two of them with a Spectrum Security escort, and there wasn't much trouble they could get into at the bottom of the mine. Even so, he'd told them to be upstairs and having breakfast with the rest of the staff before the SPJ arrived. The dogs had been exercised early, and were also accounted for with the rest of the locals.
Scarlet prowled up and down the length of the windows, glancing at the clock on the wall, and finally pulled his cap mike down.
“Captain Blue, report," he requested, beginning his final checks.
"Blue, S.I.G.. Reporting security perimeter green, no anomalies."
"All clear, Scarlet."
"Spectrum is Green, all quiet, sir." That was Taylor, Spectrum Security in charge of the staff.
He paused in his pacing to touch the internal PA controls, to activate the patch-through he’d programmed in earlier to transmit to the bottom of the mine, his cap-signal relayed over Demeter’s com system. "Security two."
"Maintenance crew, S.I.G., Captain. Estimated time to task completion, 25 minutes." And that was Sanchez, Taylor's partner, down in the thermic plant.
Scarlet resumed his pacing, stopping a minute later in front of the radar display. A message flashed in the corner, Demeter's tracking system advising of new contacts on its outer signal radius. The transponder ID's listed Spectrum positive.
"All personnel, standby, we have radar contact on incoming Spectrum aircraft. Maintain full alert." Scarlet moved for the air traffic console. "Lieutenants Teal, Roan.--" he said into his cap mike. "Please advise Doctor Weller and Mr. Prince that their colleague's ETA is approximately twenty minutes. They may report to the communications room at their discretion, under your escort. Please acknowledge."
"Spectrum is Green, Captain Scarlet." Teal replied. "Minerva One and Two are anxious to proceed. We'll be right up, sir."
“S.I.G., Teal.” Scarlet’s cap mike flipped up. He estimated about five minutes of peace before he’d have to read the riot act to Weller one more time. Across the floor, Traffic Control was exchanging routine protocol with the SPJ. Nothing unusual happening there.
And so, there were no apparent, immediate problems to deal with, except perhaps for the nearly empty coffee pot. Scarlet attended to that absently, running over all of the standard security procedures in his head - they’d gone by the book, right to the letter. Beyond that, there was enough cumulative Spectrum field experience there at Demeter to deal with pretty much anything that wasn’t covered in the procedure manual.
He heard voices out in the corridor, before the coffee was brewed.
Scarlet moved towards the radar console for one last glance at the screen. Several Spectrum ID blips were moving there in close formation, approaching Demeter on schedule. The Angels now had the SPJ in a protective ring, still reporting skies clear----
He turned from the screen as Teal and Roan escorted Weller and Prince into the room.
Andrew Weller broke that tight little cluster and strode over to the same console, his eyes scanning it, drinking in the information it presented. “Captain Scarlet.” The man nodded at him, amiable and co-operative. “You have some final instructions for us?”
“I don’t want any nonsense, Doctor.” Scarlet began, speaking plainly and without preamble. “I have decided that I am going to allow both you and Mr. Prince to meet the jet when it lands. As you have so clearly and repeatedly insisted. You will, however, be under close escort. Captains Blue and Grey will accompany you to the airfield, and you will follow any instructions that they give to you without any question or hesitation.. Those are my terms, Doctor Weller. You will either accept them or I will send you back downstairs immediately, where you can wait for Doctor McLaine in your office, under guard and in communications blackout. Am I making myself clear?”
“Perfectly, Captain. We have no ‘nonsense’ planned; our mission is a serious one, so your terms are quite acceptable. And might I inquire as to Spectrum’s proposed schedule, once Doctor McLaine has finally arrived?”
“Spectrum will debrief, Doctor. For security reasons, we are currently operating under a Spectrum Code 7 radio silence. Our colleagues in the SPJ have information regarding our agenda which they will share on arrival, and upon which we will act accordingly. I expect that to be a very short process, and we will conduct that debriefing with or without yourselves present. That decision rests with Captain Ochre. Thereafter, you and both members of your Project team will confer, and will then advise Spectrum of your conclusions and recommended actions as regards the Minerva Project. It is my intention to debrief in the level 3 conference room. Do you have any objections or suggestions otherwise, Doctor Weller?”
“You seem to have things well in hand, Captain. No objections.”
“Thank you, Doctor. Roan and Teal will escort you outside. When they have handed you off to Blue and Grey, they will then report to Level 3 and vet the conference room prior to the debriefing. All incoming personnel will be subject to a thorough security check upon disembarkation. You will attempt no contact with Doctor McLaine until that check has been completed. Understood?”
“Again, Captain, yes. Clearly. With all due courtesy.”
Scarlet inclined his head. “Then you may go, Doctor Weller. Mr. Prince.” He nodded once at Arthur Prince, acknowledging his presence and including the young inventor in his general dismissal. “Lieutenants---any questions?”
“None, sir.” Teal replied.
“No questions, Captain,” Roan echoed.
“Captains Blue and Grey will meet you at the front doors, then. You have your instructions. Dismissed, gentlemen.”
Scarlet watched as the group retreated, then pulled his cap mike down again. “Blue, Grey - Minerva personnel are headed for escort. Main entrance, Captains.”
“On our way, Scarlet.” Blue replied.
“I’ve laid down the law.” Scarlet went on. “Weller seems to be in the mood to cooperate. But remind him anyway --- any nonsense and they’re locked up again.”
“We’ll keep them in line.”
“Please do.” Scarlet let out a long breath. “Also advise you the jet’s ETA is now approximately ten minutes.”
“S.I.G..” Blue acknowledged and signed off.
With one more glance at the radar screen, Scarlet paced over toward the window, waiting until he saw Blue and Grey pull up in front of Administration in two of Demeter’s jeeps. Teal’s group turned up there just a minute later, and the Lieutenants relieved themselves of Weller and Prince. Blue began his own lecture, a short one that finished up with Weller and Prince in one jeep, and Blue and Grey in the other.
Both vehicles pulled away from the main entrance, over to the side of the airfield, where they parked together at the edge of the apron to wait for the SPJ.
Scarlet looked down at his watch. The scent of the freshly brewed coffee drew him that direction, and he poured a steaming cup of the stuff before he returned to the panoramic window and settled himself there on the wide sill with it, listening as he heard Ochre’s voice - tiny and faraway in the traffic console’s speakers - requesting final approach clearance from the controller, and receiving it. His gaze went to the northeast, to the peaks still capped with snow, over which the SPJ and its Angel escort appeared only a moment later, on the sort of rapid descent that the terrain and the airstrip in Demeter’s narrow valley demanded.
The SPJ made a routine touchdown, rolling to a halt out on the tarmac as the Angels broke formation to resume patrol. Blue and Grey’s jeep moved forward to meet it, while Weller and Prince’s vehicle stayed put, no doubt on Blue’s hard and fast instruction. The jet’s hatch opened, Magenta at the exit, and Doctor McLaine behind him. Grey had the Mysteron detector out and operational. Magenta paused for the security check, then vanished back into the jet. Doctor McLaine leapt to the pavement without waiting for Ochre, who appeared there in the hatchway next. She marched toward the jeep, and right straight on past it, exchanging some sort of comment as she did so, her posture and general attitude all typically bellicose and full of disdain - he could feel it from where he sat, and cursed inwardly.
Bloody hell, they’d just gotten Weller all settled and she was going to stir that pot again, he could see that coming too. So much for even an hour’s worth of peace out of that lot----
Scarlet closed his eyes in weary frustration as he raised his cup of coffee, and didn’t see it as his cap mike suddenly flipped down and hit the cup in the very same instant that the PA blared at full volume; he spilled the coffee in abrupt startlement, wincing as the hot liquid soaked through his trousers and he spat another curse aloud.
It was Sanchez, yelling, the man’s voice echoing inside his cap as well as all over the PA.
“Red alert! Captain – Captain, there’s been some sort of an accident! In the elevator shaft, sir - I’ve got fatalities down here, Captain!”
Scarlet froze, forgetting the spilled coffee, his mind leaping into instantaneous calculation, two plus two----
Weller and Prince alone in the lift...
Fatalities at the bottom of the elevator shaft...
Hellfire and bloody damnation!
He turned from the window, shouting himself into the already activated mike, code-words and a sequence of instructions that auto-locked the emergency channel open on all stations broadcast:
“This is a Spectrum Code One Priority Red Alert! Apprehend Weller and Prince immediately! They’re Mysterons! Repeat: apprehend Weller and Prince immediately! Blue! Grey! Move!”
And with that, Captain Scarlet himself turned and ran.....
For once, she was really feeling like Godzilla.
It had been a long wait, that last hour or so in the SPJ. Time that she’d very obviously wasted waiting for Ochre to make some small effort to come back into the passenger compartment and hear her well prepared apologies, because he had absolutely failed to do so.
She’d upset herself over that, recognized that she’d worked herself into a state and had instead made the large effort required to force her thoughts away from that same particular state and ahead to the task waiting there for her at Demeter. An exercise which had only served to push her own upset-scale well past the 10---that task being the far greater of those two upsets in any case, and the one that truly warranted her attention.
Tylan McLaine was in a foul frame of mind and it was showing too. She’d made the short leap from the jet down to the pavement, and strode purposefully away from it, not bothering to slow for Captain Ochre when he finally abandoned the SPJ’s controls to Magenta and resumed his assigned duties as her personal escort.
“You’re supposed to wait for me!” he complained irritably from the jet’s hatchway, color-coded jacket in hand, as he made that same short jump himself, without bothering to kick down the fold-out steps that might have made for a more civilized exit of passengers and crew.
She reached the vicinity of the jeep long before he did, feeling far less than civil.
“Security check negative, Doctor,” Captain Blue told her cheerfully, as she approached that vehicle and smiled back tightly at the advisement.
“Glad to hear it,” she commented, the most caustic tone she could muster. “And if it’s okay with you, I’ll just catch the other bus, thanks.” She continued to stride on past their jeep, her gaze fixed on the other one, waiting there further ahead. She deliberately snubbed Blue and Grey, they noticed, she made quite sure of that, thinking perhaps that snubbing them just might improve her mood.
It didn’t, somehow. She found, after a moment, that she was still stalking and storming angrily across the paved surface of the airfield, and it had taken her a good twenty-five yards to realize it.
It was Ochre who had decided to land the jet in the end, and it had been Magenta who had opened the jet’s door for her. Really. And to think, she’d been ready---oooohhh, just that close to making not just an apology of some sort, but a heartfelt and genuine one.
Well, he could just----
What? She had to ask herself irritably. Well, just what could he just do?
Damn, but I’m touchy. Too damn touchy, Zil, what else did you expect after that little display in the corridor yesterday?
She was having a hard time even feeling pleased that she was finally there, and that both Andy and Arthur were only a hundred yards ahead. She would again be comfortably ensconced in their muchly desired presence and----
And she was annoyed with them too! They were just sitting over there in their own jeep, waiting for God only knew what while she was storming their direction and only beginning to really feel the irritation about it when several things happened simultaneously.
In front of her, Arthur gunned the jeep to life suddenly, squealing the wheels and burning rubber in a completely uncharacteristic display of driving habits---
Behind her, Ochre screamed out her name, and she couldn’t help but spin in response to the urgent note that was there in his voice---in time to see that the other jeep with the two Spectrum officers in it had also leapt abruptly into motion, turning to hurtle her direction----
Tylan McLaine stopped, paralyzed where she stood, and all hell simply broke loose around her......
Captain Ochre’s heart jumped into his throat and skipped several beats the instant he heard what Scarlet had to say on the open emergency frequency. He shouted after Zil without even thinking about it----she was halfway across the tarmac and walking right to her death if what Scarlet had just said was true, and he didn’t have a single breath of a reason to doubt it.
‘Zil! Zil, get down!’ From where he stood, transfixed for an instant with horror, he could see that Andrew Weller was armed with a small handgun of some kind and was raising the weapon, ready to fire it as the car continued to close the rapidly diminishing gap between the Mysterons and their intended victim. He started to run, feet pounding ground after Blue and Grey, and, for one of the few times in his entire life, fighting down a feeling of utter panic.
Turn around! he shrieked inwardly. Dammit, Zil, turn around!
Zil still hadn’t moved, hadn’t looked behind her and still wasn’t aware that she would be shot in the back if she didn’t because she was watching the wrong jeep. Blue swung his vehicle wide, putting it between Zil and the Mysterons. Grey raised his electron gun over the windshield, bracing his arm there to make the shot count. Arthur saw it and swerved recklessly, wheeling his car around onto another course that would carry them around to their target again.
Andy opened fire with the handgun.
The windshield of Blue’s jeep shattered. Both Blue and Grey ducked to avoid the flying shrapnel and the successive bullets that continued to come their way. Then Andy scored, taking out one of the jeep’s front tires---the Spectrum jeep went into a wild skid which Blue was hard pressed to keep from turning into a uncontrolled and likely fatal flip-over. Grey held on, but loose objects were hurled from the car as Blue managed to bring the vehicle to a clumsy halt. The Mysteron detector smashed into fragments that scattered across the pavement and his colleagues both took refuge behind the crippled jeep. Blue shouted for Tylan----the wide arc that Arthur had been swinging through would bring her back into range any second now if she didn’t move----
‘Ochre! Back off----’ Magenta’s voice was yelling in his ear. ‘You’re in my way!’
Ochre checked his headlong run, jerking his gaze around to see that Magenta was bringing the nose of the SPJ to bear on the Mysteron’s car. He reversed his direction, taking himself out of the line of fire and the very instant he was clear, Magenta brought the MK-II’s strafing guns into play---
The superior weaponry ripped pavement between the Mysterons and Tylan McLaine, deflecting Arthur sharply from his course and jolting Tylan from immobility. She took two uncertain steps forward, and then she began to run toward Blue’s jeep in wide, ground devouring strides as both Blue and Grey opened up on their targets.
She’s gonna make it, he thought fiercely, mind flooding over with relief. She’s gonna---
Too late, he realized that she wasn’t running for cover.
‘No!’ She vented one long, hysterical scream and hit them from behind, dropkicking Grey decisively, and Grey fell to lay still where he landed. Blue swung around in surprise, his face a mask of wide-eyed astonishment as her boot caught him high in the ribs to knock him back against the side of the jeep with bone-cracking force.
No dust, Ochre thought suddenly, inanely. No dust on that damned equipment in the basement, she actually uses that stuff....
Blue lost breath with a loud curse and slumped, recovering limply to raise his Mysteron gun, this time putting Zil square in the sights....
‘Captain---no!’ Ochre shrieked into his mike. ‘Don’t!’
She turned and bolted. Tires screeched and the Mysterons were in pursuit. Blue re-aimed weakly and hit the firing stud on the weapon.
The Mysteronized Arthur collapsed over the steering wheel and the car careened wildly until Andy was able to shove the lifeless body out of the way and bring the jeep under control again. Zil had gained ground, was still racing pell-mell for the cluster of hangars and storage sheds at the edge of the airfield.
‘I’m after her!’ Magenta’s voice cut in again. The taxiing SPJ turned onto a vector that would intersect the line she was running. Andy’s jeep sped to follow the fleeing figure and Ochre dropped hard onto one knee, whipping up his Mysteron gun because the car was going to pass inside the weapon’s effective radius.
He counted, gauging the distance, the time---his finger closed over the firing button----
Blue-white energy cracked the cool spring air and the being that had once been Andrew Weller cried out and slumped as Arthur had done. But the jeep----
The jeep just kept right on rolling out of control towards Magenta’s jet!
Zil had just passed the SPJ, ducking instinctively to avoid the nose of the craft because Magenta had been that close to cutting off her route of escape. She stumbled, picked herself up and kept going. Ochre went cold all over----there wasn’t going to be time for----
‘Magenta!’ he screamed. ‘Pat! Get outta there!’
There would be no avoiding the collision.
Magenta must have seen it coming even as the warning registered on the open channel. Ochre could see in his mind’s eye how hard Magenta’s hand would have hit the ejector switch---
Ochre’s gaze jerked up, following the ejector seat as it cleared the doomed aircraft; he missed it as the jeep slammed into the side of the jet and the two vehicles erupted in a massive explosion that sent him sprawling to the asphalt only a fractional second later as the shockwave of heated air swept in expanding radius outwards from the blazing wreckage. The first explosion was followed at once by a second as the SPJ’s reserve fuel tanks went up.
Captain Ochre shook his head once to clear it, and then clambered slowly to his feet.
Where was Tylan McLaine!?
He could see nothing beyond the billowing clouds of dense, black smoke pouring heavily from the wreckage, obscuring everything where last he’d seen her running. He felt the irrational panic again, rising to become a thick lump in his throat.
He swallowed against it. ‘Magenta? Magenta---where was she?’ he asked, sounding a good deal calmer than he felt inside. ‘Where was Doctor McLaine?’ He forced the question out.
‘She’s all right!’ Magenta reported. ‘She’s okay---she was down, same as you, but she’s up again now. She’s still running for the hangars!’
‘What the hell for?’ Ochre wondered aloud, glancing up briefly to watch as Magenta’s ejector seat drifted downwind on it’s chute. Another wave of relief washed over him, but it was overwhelmed instantly by a hot flush of anger.
Goddammit---what does she think she’s doing?
‘Blue? What’s your situation over there?’
Captain Blue was in obvious pain as he responded. ‘I’ve got something broken---Grey’s out cold, but his pulse and breathing is strong enough. Go get her Ochre---before we lose her too.’
Scarlet’s voice cut in at last. ‘Get going, Captain---we’ll clean up here. Magenta---keep tabs on her while you can.’
‘S.I.G. Scarlet. Ochre---you’d better move...looks to me like she’s taking to the hills---she’s just bypassed the hangars. If she hits the bush I won’t be able to say where she’s going.’
Ochre heaved a determined sigh and began to move. ‘Don’t worry,’ he began, not even trying to disguise the sour note in his voice. ‘I’ll get her. If it takes me all day, I’ll get her!’ Magenta gave him the proper bearings, and he set himself to a pace he’d be able to maintain long enough to catch up with Zil McLaine.
Before the Mysterons did.
The whole thing was over in less than three minutes, start to finish. By the time Scarlet reached the airfield, there was hardly anything left to be said or done about the Mysteron attack. After a long moment taking it all in, Scarlet let his shoulders slump and reached into to his cap to make a minor adjustment, disengaging the emergency lock. He reported to Cloudbase in a voice edged with frustration.
‘What’s going on down there, Scarlet?!’ Colonel White demanded impatiently. ‘Report!’
‘We’ve had a fiasco here, Colonel. All of the details aren’t too clear yet, but it seems that the Mysterons have killed Doctor Weller and Arthur Prince. They’ve made an unsuccessful attempt on Doctor McLaine’s life. Grey’s unconscious, Blue’s injured and we’re out one passenger jet. Magenta ejected safely, and Ochre has gone off after Doctor McLaine.’
‘After Doctor McLaine? Where has she gone?’
‘She high-tailed it off into the bush after decking both Blue and Grey.’
There was a long pause on the channel, as if Colonel White wasn’t sure he’d heard that correctly. ‘She did what?!’
Scarlet sighed. ‘I can’t explain it, sir. But she did. Maybe....well, maybe she misunderstood what was happening at the time and jumped to the wrong conclusion about who was shooting at whom and why, but whatever the reason, she hit them from behind while they were still firing on the two Mysterons. Captain Blue nearly shot her himself, thinking she was one of them when it happened. And then....’ His voice trailed into silence and he shrugged, even though the Colonel wasn’t there to see it. ‘She just bolted, Colonel White. I think perhaps she panicked. We haven’t caught up with her yet to ask.’
‘Well, Ochre will find her, I don’t doubt. She can’t have had much of a head start. What happened to Weller and Prince?’
Scarlet explained what he’d been told by Sanchez.. ‘I’ve got Teal and Roan investigating, piecing it all together. I reassigned the two of them to vet the briefing room – Weller and Prince came to the airfield under Blue and Grey’s guard. Mysterons, by then, evidently. I haven’t verified it yet, but judging by what’s happened out here, it’s got to be the two of them at the bottom of that elevator shaft. There’s simply no other explanation for all of this.’
‘It sounds very likely, Captain. What’s Grey’s condition?’
‘Just out cold, by the look of it, sir. But I imagine that Doctor Fawn will want to do a brain scan and whatnot, just to be sure. Blue has a broken bone or so, but whether it’s shoulder, ribs or collarbone I wouldn’t hazard a guess.’ Scarlet sighed again. ‘She really caught them off-guard. They---well, none of us would have expected that.’
Once more, there was a pause on the open channel, thoughtful rather than surprised this time. ‘All right then, Captain. The Mysterons have made their next move---though I’m not sure what they think they’ve accomplished by it yet. Other than to kill some very valuable people for no apparent gain. Start cleaning up. And as soon as Magenta returns to base, have him get Blue and Grey back up here to Sickbay at once. I want him back there before the weather locks up, so he’ll have to move fast. Keep me informed, Captain Scarlet. And keep your guard up---it may be the next move, but it certainly won’t be the last.’
‘S.I.G. Colonel White. Demeter Base out.’ Scarlet’s cap mike flipped up as the channel closed off. For one more long minute, he continued to survey the still-burning wreckage of the jet, feeling at once both helpless and angry---because in spite of all of Spectrum’s precautions,---all of his own, as well---the Mysterons had succeeded in killing Andy Weller and Arthur Prince.
And they had done it right under their very noses....
Colonel White leaned back in his command chair when Scarlet went off the air and chewed his lower lip thoughtfully. What had Doctor McLaine been doing? Scarlet had been angry, there had been no mistaking that tone in his voice, and the anger had been directed at Tylan McLaine as much as it had been at the Mysterons. She had just finished injuring two of his senior officers, and she had done it deliberately and moreover, from behind their backs without any warning whatever. And, of course, they had been trying to protect her to boot....
Colonel White felt a degree of anger himself. It was one thing to have men hurt in action when they were dealing with the enemy. It was something else again when----
But it didn’t matter at this point. He had two men down and he could only be grateful that they had only been injured when it was every bit as likely that they could have been killed instead. And as for Doctor McLaine; had it merely been panic? Or-----
‘Lieutenant Green,’ he said suddenly, sitting up straight. ‘Put that topo map of Demeter R&D on screen for me again, would you please?’
‘Yessir.’ Green touched a number of controls and in a moment they were both staring thoughtfully at the main display. ‘Where do you think she might be heading, Colonel?’ Green asked him.
Colonel White shook his head slowly. ‘Only a hunch, Lieutenant, but possibly for that cabin up on the mountain. She must be mad to think that she can make it with that storm coming----’ His voice faded to silence as he studied the map in depth, his brow crinkling with the thoughts that were bringing him to certain, unpleasant conclusions. ‘Raise Ochre for me and pinpoint him on the map. That will settle it one way or the other. If she’s on the wrong mountain, we’ll know for a fact where she’s not headed.’
Demeter R & D was nestled in a narrow valley between the flanks of three mountains. Depending on which direction the Doctor had taken, there were only two possible destinations for her to be heading in the surrounding area---either the hydro electric plant, or the hunting cabin. Offhand, he could imagine no good reason whatever for her to make for the dam-site, but the cabin....
The cabin was another story altogether.
‘I’ve got Captain Ochre for you, sir.’ Green said.
‘Thank you, Lieutenant.’ White leaned forward and touched the appropriate toggle on his own console. ‘Captain Ochre? I’ve just had a report from Scarlet---have you located Doctor McLaine yet?’
‘Not yet, Colonel,’ Ochre replied, sounding a tad breathless. ‘But she can’t be too far ahead, not with this country. She’s left an obvious trail, but the brush here is thick and I haven’t caught sight of her yet.’
Colonel White nodded to himself as the blip onscreen confirmed for him that the cabin had to be the woman’s ultimate destination. ‘I’ve reason to believe that she’s headed for that hunting cabin you asked about yesterday, Captain.’
There was a stunned pause. ‘Colonel---you’re kidding. It’s too far. And that map we had a look at just doesn’t do this mountain justice. We’re talking uphill here, sir. She knows there’s a blizzard coming and---’
‘And that’s why you’ve got to find her and get back to Demeter before it gets too late in the day Captain Ochre. For all we know the Mysterons intended that she gets lost out there and caught in it when it hits. Well away from where we could do anything to stop them from killing her next time---or from doing anything to stop their reconstruction, if it came to that.’
‘Not if I can help it,’ Ochre muttered, almost unintelligibly. ‘But that was one pretty damned elaborate scene back on the airfield if that was what they wanted to accomplish.’
‘We mustn’t ever underestimate the Mysterons, Captain. We know what they’re capable of, to some extent. And they’ve just finished proving that they can walk past our security any time they like. Do you have a detector with you?’
‘No.’ Ochre admitted, rather uncomfortably. ‘Blue’s was wrecked and ours went up with the jet....and I hadn’t figured on being out here long enough to need one.’
‘Damn.’ Colonel White swore softly. ‘Well, you haven’t the time to go back for one. Watch your step, Ochre. That mountain itself could be lethal enough, blizzard or no, and there are likely a hundred different ways and places for that woman to kill herself without any help from the Mysterons. By the time you find her she could already be one---and don’t you forget it.’
It had been more than apparent yesterday that there was a certain amount of emotional electricity in the air around those two. Ochre was enough of a professional that it shouldn’t matter, but still....
‘Yessir.’ Ochre said. ‘Understood.’
At every level. That was in the Captain’s voice. Good. ‘Just be careful, Captain’ he reiterated. ‘Maintain contact, and we’ll keep you advised of any new developments at this end.’
‘Spectrum is Green. How much time have I got, roughly? What’s the weather scan looking like?’
Lieutenant Green punched up the information. ‘It should start to snow down there just shortly after noon, local time, Captain, and worsen progressively as night approaches. I wouldn’t recommend getting caught out there----this one’s blowing in from the Arctic and you’ll know it when she hits.’
‘Thanks, Lieutenant---Ochre out.’
Colonel White listened, still studying the display which was now split-screened with both the weather schematic and the topographic overlay. He got up and paced before it, lost in thought. Finally he turned his gaze out the wide observation port nearby. Cloudbase was a few hours distant from the Canadian Northwest, and it would be touch and go for Magenta to make the round trip before the weather locked up. Conditions were going to deteriorate quickly, by the look of the schematic....
‘Why would she head for the cabin, Colonel?’ Green asked from his console. ‘If that’s where she’s going?’
‘A lot of reasons.’ Colonel White turned from the viewport as he responded. ‘There were a few things that Doctor Weller omitted to tell us, Lieutenant. Doctor McLaine has owned up to them---and we were planning to do something about them before the Mysterons pulled the rug out from under us. And now it’s getting a little late, if Doctor McLaine’s thinking what I suspect she is. I think she’s trying to do what Doctor Weller was doing all along---and that’s to protect Minerva. Without our help. And of all people, she should know better than that. I’m afraid perhaps Scarlet was right. Doctor McLaine panicked----and now we’re all in trouble.’
‘Is the Project really that dangerous?’
Colonel White let out a long breath. ‘I’m afraid it is. If Doctor McLaine is to be believed. And I do happen to believe what she told me yesterday when she finally opened up.’
‘Then...the module is up on the mountain and not down at Demeter at all?’ Green speculated aloud.
‘Tylan McLaine is up there on the mountain, Lieutenant, and module or no, the whole Minerva Project is just so much useless hardware without her. Weller did a good job of leading us astray, kept us playing the game his way. And now....’ He sighed again, and left the sentence hanging. ‘Ochre’s got to get that woman back to Demeter, Lieutenant. If he doesn’t---well, I suppose we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.’
‘Shouldn’t we tell Captain Ochre?’
Colonel White looked up sharply, and Green bit his lip uncertainly, realizing that the question was out of line. But Colonel White let his features soften almost at once. Concern for a colleague just didn’t warrant a dressing-down. ‘There’s nothing useful I can tell him, Lieutenant. Not a single thing that would make a whit of difference, not at this point. All we can do right now is sit tight until Ochre finds her---and once he does, all we can do is keep on walking the fine line that Doctor Weller has set us up on.’
And it was, he decided, a very fine line indeed.....
It was well over an hour after he’s spoken with Colonel White that Scarlet again found himself standing outside of the lift into which he’d watched Andy and Arthur climb only a few short hours ago.
The prickling sensation ran up his back again as the doors opened. He did not trust it. The lift itself was now a Mysteron reconstruction if what he’d been told by the tech was true, and he simply didn’t doubt it after what had happened out on the airfield. With a resigned sigh, he got into it anyway---as far as the Mysterons were concerned, the lift had served its purpose, and they would forget about it now.
The side panels were out of the lift, and as it descended, Scarlet watched without interest as the walls of the elevator shaft slipped by, faintly illuminated by the emergency lights that the techs had jury-rigged on the external framework. He could hear voices echoing up to meet the lift as it approached the geothermal plant, and stopped short of the bottom, the techs having reprogrammed it to do so. A moment later, he leaned out the open panel and surveyed the wreckage of the original lift.
Teal and Roan and the tech looked up at him. ‘It’s them all right.’ Roan said unhappily and feeling, Scarlet could tell, somehow responsible. As if his being in the lift might somehow have made a difference.
No fault, Lieutenant, you’d just have been killed too...
‘I’m not surprised.’ Scarlet replied, clambering down out of the lift. He would talk to Roan later, after the Lieutenant figured out just how lucky he’d actually been that Andy had closed those doors on his nose---which, he estimated, would not take any longer than it would to get the bodies out. ‘What a mess.’
The lift had shattered on impact and the debris was little more than a twisted heap of splintered plastics, paneling, sheet metal and structural framework.
‘They must have dropped it from somewhere in the upper levels to do this kind of damage.’ Teal commented. ‘The Mysterons must’ve been working fast---Andy and Arthur showed up on time---no delays for this. Or you wouldn’t have thought so, anyway.’
Scarlet could only shrug. ‘Mysterons. Not too much beyond them, not that we know about.’ It wasn’t the first time that the Mysterons had managed to do something extraordinary in the blink of an eye. There were theories---one of which was that the Mysterons could manipulate time. No one knew. And they might never know the truth behind this one.
Some of the debris had been cleared to one side and Scarlet steeled himself as he moved to peer awkwardly into the space that had been made accessible.
The beam from his hand torch touched a grim scene.
Andrew Weller’s neck had been snapped, and the Doctor’s sightless eyes were staring at him from a face turned impossibly his direction. It would have been quick, anyway.
Arthur Prince had not been quite so fortunate. A metal support beam had found its way deep into the young inventor’s chest, impaling him to what had once been the floor of the lift. There was a great deal of blood, some of which had run down Arthur’s arm and was now drying, thickly matting the fur of one very large, very dead dog.
Even Merlin! Scarlet thought bitterly. Even Tylan’s damn dog, the poor stupid thing....
He pulled back, paler, he was sure, than he had been, and drew a deep breath. ‘Well,’ he said, letting the air go slowly. ‘Let’s get to work.’
It was not a pleasant task, not by any stretch of the imagination. Scarlet was grimy with sweat and dirt and blood by the time the bodies had been extricated, and he found himself wanting a shower badly as he passed a few more orders on to Teal and Roan, rank having that privilege. It had taken almost two hours and every minute had served to sour an already bad mood further. He glanced at his watch for the hour. Well past time to report and he could hardly do that from the bottom of an old mine shaft. As the lift rose, he wiped his palms absently on the thighs of his coffee-stained trousers, deciding that he would let Ochre take charge for awhile and he took that shower that he needed just as badly as he wanted. As for Doctor McLaine....well, she had just best stay out of his way for a while, that was all there was to that.
But Captain Ochre wasn’t back yet.
Scarlet’s gaze snapped to the window. It was far darker outside than any midday sky had the right to be. The tops of the surrounding peaks were obscured at times by localized squalls, gusting ahead of the oncoming storm. Snow sifted down from a heavy overcast.
Where the hell are they?!
‘Has he reported in?’ Scarlet demanded of the man on duty, only to be told that Ochre had been in touch with Cloudbase. He bit at his lip, pacing over to the window, hoping that just maybe they’d be there, walking back to the Administration building across the airfield. No such luck, dammit. It made him very apprehensive.
‘Ochre,’ he said suddenly, voice-activating his cap radio. ‘Captain Ochre, where are you?’ Scarlet had forgotten all about the hot shower---which was just as well, because it didn’t look like he would be getting one any time soon.....
At the moment that Scarlet’s call came through, Captain Ochre was busy very cautiously navigating his way around a massive, living obstruction and mentally reviewing everything that he knew about bears fresh out of hibernation. The sum total of that knowledge came to three words---hungry, unpredictable and dangerous. He had been wishing for a bit of Zil’s zoological experience, and he wished for it all the harder as the bear reared up and snuffled his direction when Scarlet’s voice broke the mountain silence.
‘Can I call you right back?’ he whispered into the mike quietly, hoping not to further alarm the bear that he had roused rather abruptly when he’d come around a large boulder and stopped up short in surprise himself.
He had been following Zil’s trail for hours now, and had yet to catch even a glimpse of her. This was hardly an aggravation he needed, and he might have slipped quietly by if Scarlet’s sense of timing could have been just a little bit more or less uncanny. His hand was hovering near the butt of his gun as he considered loosing a shot to scare the creature off. But that could just as easily backfire, and prod the thing into charging instead. Then he would simply have been obliged to kill it and endangering wildlife had never sat terribly well with him either.
So he waited.
The bear finally sank back down onto its haunches, raising its snout skyward. It peered about in a nearsighted sort of way as its nose continued to twitch. After a long moment it reached whatever conclusion its instincts judiciously indicated, and with a wide, moaning yawn, shambled off down a narrow, rocky defile and disappeared from Ochre’s view, no doubt seeking the shelter it would require to wait out the impending storm. Ochre breathed easier and returned Scarlet’s call.
‘Where are you, Captain?’ Scarlet repeated his initial inquiry in a voice more concerned than before.
‘Between a rock and a hard place---literally. And still heading uphill.’ Ochre complained. ‘How’re things on your end?’
‘No surprises. We found what we thought we would at the bottom of the mine. I doubt you want the details. Where’s Doctor McLaine?’
‘Beats the hell out of me----I’m still on her trail, finding footprints and whatnot, so she’s up here and can’t be that far ahead, but---’ Ochre shook his head with frustration. ‘She seems to know where she’s going and she’s not wasting any time getting there.’
‘Well, you’d better not be wasting any either---it’s already starting to snow down here and if you don’t find her soon, you won’t make it back here before that blizzard hits.’
It was not a reminder that Ochre needed. He’d seen the rapidly darkening sky. ‘I’m not coming back without her,’ he announced, quite unnecessarily, because Scarlet wouldn’t have either. ‘If worse comes to worst, that cabin will just have to do, amenities or not, if we get stuck up here. And right now I’d say that’s taking on an alarming possibility. I’ve been in touch with Cloudbase---Colonel’s already aware of it.’
‘They’ve got you on the topographic grid?’
‘Hours ago. But it’s one thing to see it on a map and quite another to climb it on foot. She’s just lost it, Scarlet. Or she wouldn’t be out here at all.’
Scarlet grunted agreement. ‘All I can say is find her soon. The weather’s not going to hold much longer and I guess we’d all prefer not to lose either one of you up there in it. Have we tried to locate her by air?’
‘Melody took a sweep, but came up negative on Zil and negative on the cabin too---not a trace of either. We didn’t pursue it---I don’t want to scare her to ground. God knows where else she could find a hole to hide in out here----and if she thinks we’ll get to the cabin first, she won’t go there at all.’
He’d been agonizing about that. She was capable. Surprisingly so. That cabin was the only fixed point Spectrum could hope for, unless she came to her senses and turned around and went back to Demeter on her own. Which, according to Scarlet and at this moment, hadn’t happened. The trail was still in front of him. So far, at least, she hadn’t detoured off into a secret cave or whatever other shelter she might have known about and they didn’t. It worried him---because if she knew of such a hole, then it was just as likely that Todd Carey---wilderness buff--- would have known it too. No doubt. None.
And no one knew where Todd Carey was.
Surely it had crossed Zil’s mind too, and kept her moving, whatever the direction. He prayed it would make her cautious, and in her favor, though it was working against him, she was even halfway dressed for it, dolled up in those ridiculous play-fashion combat fatigues.....
Just in case, she’d said. Of combat.
She’s a blasted psychic too, he thought.
Scarlet was mulling it all over, to judge by the moment’s delay in answering. ‘You want help?’ Scarlet offered.
‘No. I’ve got no detector. Not that it would matter in your case. I don’t want anyone else up here I can’t trust---you’d just scare the both of us. And there’s no time now anyway. You know it as well as I do.’
‘Yeah, I figured. Stay in touch, Captain.’
‘S.I.G. Scarlet. Ochre out.’ His cap mike flipped up, and Ochre cast a weary glance back downhill, very much regretting the sleep he’d missed the night before and deciding all at once that that was Tylan McLaine’s fault too.
He was going to have an awful lot to say to that woman once he finally managed to lay hands on her.......
By the time he finally reached another level patch of ground, Ochre had concluded that the bears had the right idea. Find a nice deep hole in the ground, curl up and go to sleep. He was aching with a bone-deep weariness and was equally discouraged with his continued lack of success in locating his quarry. He wanted to take his boots off---his feet hurt, damn the new boots too. Hell of a way to break them in, mountain climbing. He was footsore with blisters and the snow, he reasoned, just might have done something to numb the pain and take the swelling down, because it sure wasn’t helping him to track Tylan McLaine anymore.
At first the snow had been a bonus, had given Zil something to lay fresh tracks down into. He’d been convinced he was closer than before, but that snow had kept on coming, and now it was doing nothing but to obscure the trail effectively.
He was more than worried now. And on more than a level that was purely professional. Feeling depressed, he pulled down his cap mike and called Cloudbase again. ‘Where am I, Lieutenant? Besides lost, that is.’
Green’s voice came back colored with concern. ‘Well past the point of no return, Captain. You’ll have to make for that cabin now, I’m afraid.’
‘That’s not news.’ Ochre muttered, glancing again at his watch. It was late afternoon now and dusk would be falling sooner than he cared to admit. They were that far north and just coming out of winter too. ‘Can you give me a better idea just how to go about locating this cabin? For all I know she’s already there and snugged down to wait this thing out. And if she’s not, she’s bound to show up there sooner or later as long as that’s where she’s really heading.’
It was Colonel White’s voice that came back on the line. ‘Don’t waste any more time looking for that woman, Captain. I don’t want you lost out there, not by the way things are shaping up on scan. We have you pinpointed just below a ridge that runs roughly parallel to a narrow lake. Can you confirm that for me Captain?’
‘Sure thing, Colonel.’ The ridge was there all right, but a lake? Ochre moved forward through a thin stand of pines and almost at once found himself overlooking a short drop of five or six feet down to an unsafe-looking expanse of ice. The narrow lake. ‘You’ve got me, sir,’ he began, and stopped short as a motion downhill off to his left caught his eye.
It was Zil!
It was Tylan McLaine trudging wearily uphill along the same ledge he was standing on himself, her head down and hands shoved into the kangaroo pocket of those silly, all too effective fleece fatigues.
He’d passed her somewhere along the way, or taken a different route---it didn’t matter, he didn’t care how he’d managed to bypass her, only that he’d finally found her....
‘Colonel!’ he exclaimed, the depression evaporating on the instant. ‘I’ve found her, sir!’
‘Good!’ Relief evident in the Colonel’s voice too. ‘Get her Captain, and don’t lose her. Keep me advised----and do keep what we discussed earlier in mind as well.’
‘Yessir. Ochre out.’ Ochre signed off as he melted back into the thin stand of pine trees, waiting, footsore as he was, for Zil McLaine to simply close the distance between them.
Her hands were freezing.
She had them balled into tight fists and pressed together in the only excuse for a pocket that her pullover possessed. Still, it was a mostly unsuccessful attempt at getting them warm. The thin fleece really hadn’t been designed for any of----of this....
She was angry, and trying hard to stay that way, to keep out the hurt and the fear. Those two men had hustled her out of her own house without any of the gear she would preferentially have chosen to bring had she been given the opportunity to do so and she was now adding numb fingers to the already lengthy list of grievances she imagined herself laying before a Supreme Court of Law. Corporate Legal Affairs would nail Spectrum’s collective hide to the wall for the loss of Andy and Arthur’s lives---it wouldn’t take much in the line of creativity to sue the hell out of them!
It was all fantasy, of course.
You weren’t planning on hiking anyway. Wouldn’t have brought any gear no matter what, Zil, and they’d just counter-sue for harassment and non-compliance. And Andy wouldn’t do that. Andy would never do that because it was all probably Andy’s own fault and you know it, Zil....
Andy was gone.
Arthur was gone.
They were both gone and there was no calling them back.
Andy had been looking out for them. Andy had been doing an awful lot of looking out for them, for her and for Arthur both, and now it seemed as if the weight of the entire world had come crashing down on her shoulders and it had come down damned hard.
It has, she kept concluding. It really has....
She was alone now.
The sense of isolation was acute. Disturbing. And it rankled her to no end because the name and the face that kept coming up to haunt her troubled mind didn’t belong to either of her two lost companions.....
Don’t! Don’t even think about them, don’t even----
Tylan McLaine kicked suddenly at a rock under the thin layer of snow, purging herself of an inarticulate, violent emotion. The rock sailed over the edge of the drop and landed with an unsatisfying thunk on the softening ice.
And there was another annoyance. If that lake had still been better frozen, she might have cut across it, instead of having to take the long way around. But spring had come early and the water under that ice moved fast; the ice wasn’t as thick as one might otherwise have supposed.
‘Temper, temper,’ chided a familiar voice, suddenly and from somewhere close at hand----
Her head jerked up, jaw dropping. She caught it and snapped it shut on the shock of surprise and the upwelling of fear that halted her mid-step.
‘I guess,’ Ochre went on, casual conversation ‘that we’re still not on speaking terms?’
Trouble. More trouble than she’d ever imagined it could possibly ever be...and she didn’t know how to handle it.
There was only one way to handle it. Like it or not......
And she didn’t like it. Not one little bit.
‘Well, you just guessed right!’ she snapped, finding her voice. ‘Get out of my way, Captain!’
Captain, is it?
Ochre didn’t move from the spot he was occupying in Zil’s path and studied the angry expression that did nothing whatsoever to mask the fear flitting through her eyes.
She faced the same problem he did. Neither of them had any means of determining just whether or not the other might have been a Mysteron. She was too intelligent not to have considered it---and he’d warned her about it, had been giving her bits of information about the Mysterons all week, in the event that she might need it----
He had to admire the backbone----she really would try to brazen her way thought just about anything, even this. And----
Captain? He repeated inwardly. She hadn’t called him that once all week. What had happened to Och? It struck him all at once just how fond he’d become of hearing that affectionate corruption of his official code-name.
Off on a tangent, Captain, that’s not why you’re here.
His voice went hard with self-annoyance. ‘Just where the hell do you think you’re going, Zil?’
‘Away.’ She shuffled nervously.
‘Away?’ he echoed, coldly.
‘Away!’ Zil repeated herself curt and hostile. ‘And I can’t recall having invited any company, so if you don’t mind, I’ll----’
‘I do mind. And I’m crashing your party.’ Ochre interrupted her abruptly and reached out to take her by the arm. ‘It looks like you and I are going to be stuck for awhile in that cozy little cabin of yours.’
Tight-lipped, she jerked her arm free of his grip. ‘And what do you suppose you know about my cozy little cabin?’ she demanded icily.
‘Enough.’ With less patience, Ochre reached for her arm a second time and he should have known better. Especially after having witnessed what she’d done back on the airfield.
Tylan McLaine seized at his arm suddenly, pulled it down and reversed it into a forearm throw----he landed heavily on the ground with a grunt, losing the tenuous grip on her sleeve, his breath and his temper, in that order. The latter had been short-fused enough between the day and his own fatigue and now----
He rolled over in time to see her spin and start to sprint away. Possible----too damned possible to lose her again in this gods awful weather with the snow swirling down more thickly all the time and really beginning to blow besides----
He wasn’t going to explain it to Colonel White. He moved....
She hadn’t gone more than ten strides when he brought her down with a skidding kick that took her legs out from under her. She sprawled into his grasp, but he couldn’t hang on somehow as she began to fight him with a desperation he could scarcely credit and more muscle than he’d expected. She twisted and kicked awkwardly, silently---
With stark terror written on her face.
As if----as if she really and truly didn’t know what he was, and maybe couldn’t afford to take the chance. She’d jumped to the only safe conclusion there was.
‘Zil---I’m not a Myst---’
Her elbow caught him, contacting hard just under the chin, cutting off the words mid-sentence as they rolled. Pain jarred him to silence too. He noticed peripherally that they’d come perilously close to the edge of the rock ledge. He didn’t think that she saw it, and fought his way to his knees, straightening to find her ready to bring a knee of her own up under his jaw this time---a potential, truly damaging move. He reacted, knocking her weight bearing leg aside and sending her tumbling sidelong into the snow. He slid after her, reaching around under his jacket, groping after the cuffs on his belt clip. If there was no other way, he’d just have to put her under restraint----
Damn appealing idea, somehow.
But she wasn’t going to make it easy. She must have thought he was going for a gun----they grappled again, and again, he found he could get no clear advantage, couldn’t pin her down in her desperation and panic and he was growing more and more angry by the second.
A girl for God’s sake, damn it all to hell anyway since when can’t I take a girl down?!
The scrap should have been over long before it had even gotten started. It was heaping insult on injury, and the affront to his ego did nothing to improve his mood. Finally he got his fingers anchored onto the hood of the fleece pullover and he yanked down hard, applying more force than he’d thought himself capable of using on a woman----
Her knees buckled and she crashed to the ground beside him, clawing up at his arm but unable this time to break his hold as he gained some leverage and rose to his feet before her, glaring outrage, staring her down....
In her eyes, where before there had been terror, there was now only an utter despair, as if---as if---
As if she actually thought he was going to kill her.
‘Oh, for God’s sake, Zil----Get up!’ Impatiently, he reached to pull her to her feet with the other hand.
It was another mistake.
Tylan McLaine looked past him as he lifted her, eyes fixing on something back there, and in one final all-or-nothing move, made one last attempt to get away.
She shoved at him hard, throwing him off-balance.
And when his foot went back to stop the fall, he found out that there was nothing there but empty space.
Together they tumbled off the ledge and crashed in a heap to the surface of the lake below. The ice there cracked and gave, too far gone with spring to survive the impact and support their combined weight.
Captain Ochre sensed the surface tipping and had time enough to see wide-eyed shock displace the fear on her face before the icy water began to pour down the back of his own neck….