Things were not adding up.
Scarlet stood in the shower, letting the stream of hot water rinse away the film of grime and the mingled scent of death and spilled coffee as he reviewed the situation mentally one more time. He wished he could have sent a few haunting memories down the drain along with the soap suds.
Something was badly out of whack. Very badly out of whack. And he was having an unusual lack of success in pinpointing whatever it was that was gnawing holes in the back of his mind.
Ochre’s not back yet, he kept thinking. He hasn’t found her either.
Had that been a part of the Mysteron’s plan? Colonel White seemed to think so, though the Colonel hadn’t said as much verbatim. Scarlet knew the Colonel though---well enough that he could read almost as much into what he didn’t say as he could into what he did. But what was it that Colonel White wasn’t saying? And why wasn’t he saying it? Scarlet had had enough of not hearing things from the late Doctor Weller, he simply didn’t need any of it from---
No, stop that.
If Colonel White wasn’t saying something, there would be good enough reason for it, and he could certainly stomach whatever resentment he felt about it based on that alone. Andrew Weller had paid dearly enough for his mistakes, if mistakes they had been. Nonetheless----
It’s something with real security clearance. Obviously not something that Colonel White wants generally known. What did she tell him yesterday? What did she say that can’t be shared? How deep and dark a secret is this Minerva-thing anyway?
If it was above his own security clearance, well---so be it, then. He could live with that. It was hardly the first time. But as for the rest of it----well, there were holes there too. Great, gaping, big holes. The timing was all wrong, for one thing, and it just wasn’t like the Mysterons to foul things up so badly.
How did they ever suppose they’d get Doctor McLaine in front of four---no, five, counting me---Spectrum agents? Armed Spectrum agents. Even if they’d managed to kill her, what hope did they have of successfully reconstructing her with that kind of a witness party? Damn stupid. And we had Roan and Teal and a contingent of Spectrum Security to boot. Why didn’t they just wait? Another thirty minutes, if that, and then all three of them would have been in that lift---Spectrum escort and all---and headed for some dark corner for a conference of their own. A huddle without, for damn sure, Spectrum tagging along. An hour, tops. One hour more, and we all could have been dead in that elevator and even Sanchez and the maintenance crew wouldn’t have been down in the power plant to find the wreckage......
Teal and Roan were still snooping around downstairs, were in the process of tearing Weller’s office apart trying to figure out where Weller had found the gun. That office had been scanned. Repeatedly. There had been no trace of a weapon, not even a hint that there was a vault of any kind where it could have been hidden. No anomalies. Or none that had registered.
It was possible, he supposed, that the Mysterons - who could make Captain Black disappear on a whim - could have just dropped the thing into Weller’s pocket after the last security check.
How do we ever fight that sort of thing? he wondered bitterly. How can we ever even hope to win against that sort of capability?
He would have to discuss it all with Magenta when Magenta got back. Haul Roan and Teal into it and see if they had any fresh and novel viewpoints. Let them listen, try teach them something, salvage anything at all positive out of the whole mess. Scarlet prayed for the weather to hold that long at the very least. Mountains, blizzards and helijets were not necessarily good for a pilot’s health and well-being when taken collectively. Even if one was a crack helijet pilot like Magenta, who actually preferred the heavy aircraft over a faster, sleeker fighter.
Scarlet had seen the weather scans, knew himself what they meant and took a moment to speculate that the Mysterons might have planned that too. It would be all too easy to ditch Magenta on the way back, if the Colonel didn’t recall him first. Ochre was still out there, skirting the edge of a survival ordeal, no doubt reviewing his winter survival training. And Blue and Gray were already out of the game, long since.
Scarlet reached out and shut off the water.
It was not exactly a rosy picture.
Fortunately, the water wasn’t deep. It was one small mercy.
And in spite of the frigid cold, in spite of the wet, Tylan McLaine managed yet again to elude Ochre’s own unsure grip as they struggled free of the ice and the lake. She gained her feet, slipping repeatedly on the wet, near-frictionless surface, and began to stumble for shore nearby, going for low ground a few hundred feet along the ledge.
But Ochre was moving too, fired by a temper that the icy dip had done nothing to quench. He was furious. He was enraged. He was outraged...
Twice! Twice, dammit. Twice in as many days she’s tossed me into cold water!
She reached the shore first, but only a few steps ahead of him. The shock of the cold was beginning to register fully as he tackled her again, taking her down into the snow, rolling with her, succeeding somehow in pinning her flailing arms under his own, ending with them splayed back above her head. For a moment he just let her struggle beneath him, allowing his own limp weight to hold her there.
He panted, sucking in deep breaths---icy air, snow still falling. Captain Ochre lifted his head to lean over Tylan McLaine’s face, his eyes glaring as they locked with hers, his angry brown meeting her frightened blue-grey and there was something there that he’d never seen before---
Suddenly, he leaned in closer and his mouth found hers in a fierce kiss that stunned the both of them with its intensity.
She exhaled explosively, eyes going wide, blinking with surprise. And Ochre let go abruptly as he realized what he’d just done and staggered to his feet with his teeth chattering.
He pulled Zil up after him and gave her a rough shove to make her move. ‘Find that cabin,’ he hissed through clenched teeth. ‘Before we both freeze to death!’ He began to move too, knowing that the temperatures were due to drop sharply with the coming dusk. Hypothermia was imminent.
It had become suddenly all too conceivable that they were both going to die up here.
Zil was realizing it too, and she nodded a mute, hasty assent before starting off in what Ochre hoped was the right direction.
It was a difficult climb. The storm worsened on a brutal, lashing wind. He called Cloudbase to verify their position, and been encouraged to hear that they were almost on top of the cabin’s location. Magenta was on his way back with a helijet---but Ochre knew it was already too late to hope for rescue that way----there plain wasn’t sufficient visibility for an air-lift of any kind. Ochre soon enough found himself entirely dependent on Zil’s sense of direction, reliant on the hope that she still knew where she was going, because he just didn’t anymore---and Cloudbase could only be so accurate with a position fix---in this murk, thirty feet off the mark would mean a miss altogether.
Neither of them would have made it alone. He simply wouldn’t have found the place, and he doubted whether she could have made that steep climb alone under those conditions. Ochre lost count of the times that they’d clung precariously to tough rootholds that he believed saved their skins on several steep inclines.
Who put a cabin up here anyway? he kept asking himself. They ought to be shot.
It wasn’t far, she kept saying. He hoped not. He prayed not, and he was not the praying kind.. Not far, maybe, but it was certainly the most demanding part of the entire ascent. He decided afterwards that it was only the sheer physical exertion of the climb that had kept the imminent hypothermia at bay.
A seeming eternity later, when the snow was swirling more than ankle-deep around their feet, their destination finally hove into view.
‘Here...’ Zil breathed, exhausted and shuddering with the cold. ‘We’re here!’ Her voice cracked with relief.
Ochre stopped short, for a moment unsure just what she was talking about.
Here? There was no cabin to be seen. He cast his glance around, peering into the snow-whipped twilight. But there was still no cabin. Zil was fording her way through a drift of snow, making for a dark outcropping of rock. He followed, as much to get out of the wind as to see where she thought she was going.
On closer approach, he saw that it wasn’t just an outcropping of rock...
There was a ledge of stone, yes, but under it was a smoothly rounded wall, some portion of a domed structure set against the face of a cliff.
There was no cabin---and the edifice that was looming there in the darkness before him was the farthest thing he could have imagined from the preconceived notion of a sawn-log and ramshackle shelter that he’d had in mind. It was a prefabricated dome lying there in the gloom, its graceful, fusion-formed permamold sides sweeping off into the murk under the ledge.
No damn wonder Melody couldn’t spot it from the air....
‘Com’on!’ Tylan urged, tone echoing the misery that for just a moment he’d forgotten. ‘Och! Com’on!’
‘I’ll go first!’ he yelled suddenly through the chattering of his teeth, recalling what he was doing up here at all. ‘Where’s the door?’ With numb, stiff fingers, he pulled his electron gun from inside the frozen flap of his jacket, wondering just how badly his aim would be spoiled by the shivering if he were to need it.
She crossed though another drift, making for a dimly outlined doorframe on the otherwise unmarred surface of the dome. With unsteady hands, she fumbled for and found a magnetic key-card somewhere inside the combat fleece. She pushed it into a slot, and a foot-square panel glowed to life beside that doorframe, bright green and vivid in the darkness. She brushed snow from the panel and then pressed her hand flat to it for scanning----
A print-keyed palm-lock.
Ochre swore inwardly. What was this place? This so-called recreational retreat? Why hadn’t Spectrum been told about it? And---the solid chill that sank to the pit of his stomach had nothing to do with the weather---just how much did the Mysterons really know about it?
Every single friggin’ damn thing that Todd Carey and Andy Weller and Arthur Prince between them had known.
Including how very, very isolated it was up here.
The door hummed to life, gliding smoothly into a recess in the wall, revealing a short, starkly empty entry corridor. Dim lights came on automatically. Ochre slid past Tylan McLaine, scanning for some evidence of tampering, something, anything that might indicate whether or not someone had gotten here ahead of them.
Carey’s still missing. No one knows where he is.....
‘Todd Carey got a key too?’ he demanded---harsh question, harsh tone. Not that the Mysterons necessarily needed a key. God! It was cold up here---if this wasn’t safe refuge, he thought desperately, then....
Then they were dead. Might as well surrender. Hell, just ask the Mysterons what it was that they wanted done---
She stepped over the threshold, staying right behind him. ‘No....no, he didn’t take it with him to Africa. No reason for him to do that. Andy checked. Andy knew where it was.’ Her hand hit the control panel on the inside wall, closing the door, cutting off the wind. She pushed past him and went to the far end of the corridor, using the keycard and opening that door too.
He got in front of her again, gun up as more lights deeper inside came to life. She punched more buttons.
‘Nobody’s been---Och, really----no one’s been here! Records show no entry.’
‘Lock it.’ Ochre told her. ‘Lock it---change the codes if you can.’
‘Can’t.” she shook her head without turning. ‘Can’t change the codes---it takes dual authorization. But it’s alarmed. No one can get in without tripping it.’
Better than nothing. She shoved him further into the cabin---the dome, the whatever, looking more and more like the misery he was feeling himself.
It sounded like truth. Reluctantly, aching, Ochre lowered the gun and looked around, finding himself inside a room that could have been pulled from the pages of a better-living magazine. His boots sank in the carpeting, a high-pile, high-priced complement to the furniture that sat before a wide stone fireplace trimmed in brass. The whole room was done up in tasteful warm tones that belied the chill in the air.
Colonel White, who wasn’t often wrong, had really missed the mark when he’d said the place lacked most of the amenities....
The thought made him shudder again, reinforcing what he’d thought when he’d laid eyes on the place. She was busy at another panel. More lights came on, but most of them flickered out immediately. She cursed under a visible breath, seeming to have expected something more.
‘I was told,’ Ochre ventured irritably. ‘That there were no power lines run up this way.’
‘Well then, I’d guess that your information was out of date!’ Zil snapped right back, hearing the you-lied-to-us tone in his voice. ‘You’re welcome to spend the night elsewhere if you don’t like it!’ Her voice was all stinging ice, as cold as the blizzard outside as she continued punching at the buttons.
Raw emotion stabbed through Ochre as he opened his mouth, only to shut it again without speaking because he wasn’t sure precisely what he was going to say or just what it was that was prompting it. But that only lasted for a brief few seconds.
‘Nothing...’ he began finally, feeling it as a warm flush crept up his cheeks. ‘Would please me more! But I’m afraid I’ve got orders to stick around a protect your miserable, ingrate hide whether I like it or not!’ He jabbed an accusing finger toward her chest as he spoke, furiously punctuating his words.
She slapped his hand away. ‘I neither need nor want Spectrum’s protection!’ Zil countered hotly. ‘I never did!’
‘Well you’ve got it anyway, and maybe, just maybe, if you’d tried to co-operate just a bit it would have---’
Her voice rose to cut him off, near hysteria touching it as she went livid, yelling until the syllables cracked. ‘Andy and Arthur tried co-operating! And a whole fat lot of good Spectrum did them!’
Ochre reacted as if he’d been struck, physically recoiling back a step. For a long moment there was no telling what that accusation had done to his already roiling emotions and he came up blank for an answer---just utterly, totally, completely blank.
Zil spun away with her fists clenched and he thought she was going to pound the wall. She jerked her gaze back around as if she was going to go on, but all at once her shoulders fell and she ran out of nasty, ugly things to say.
The truth was nasty and ugly, sometimes.
She made a limp gesture towards the fireplace. ‘There’s no heat right now. I’m gonna build a fire.’
White Flag. Ceasefire. Truce. Whatever.
‘I’ll---’ Ochre threw his own gaze around helplessly. ‘I’m---gonna look around.’ Lame answer. Really lame. She didn’t respond. She just turned to the fireplace and he vacated the living area willingly enough, dropping that conversation without having to think about it twice. He made a swift check of the kitchen and combined study/den, those being the only other rooms on that level. There was an upstairs---a loft sort of affair with several bedrooms and a bathroom, all as opulent as what he’d seen downstairs. She’d been right---as far as a visual inspection would reveal, the place was as secure as she’d indicated.
Finally he shut himself into one of the bedrooms, and with a long sigh, pulled down his cap mike to report to Cloudbase.
He couldn’t get through, and tried for Scarlet instead, wondering if there was something besides permamold in the dome’s construction, and just how far that extended. Perhaps it was just a facing on the cliff---he tried to configure the interior, thought that maybe the so-called cabin was built into caves----and if he was under half the mountain, there was no way his radio was going to reach Cloudbase....
He managed to raise Scarlet, but the channel was bad. It confirmed his suspicion about the place---the static was characteristic of scan-shielding----another probable reason that Melody hadn’t been able to find it. His reception was poor, and Scarlet complained of his transmission before he did anything else.
‘Thought we’d lost you for good, Ochre.’ Scarlet said, worriedly. ‘Report?’
‘Wet and cold and tired.’ Ochre replied wearily. ‘But I’ve got Zil and we’re at the cabin.’ He supplied no details. ‘We’re safe enough for the time being. Can you raise Cloudbase for me? Can’t seem to reach them from here between the storm and the mountain.’
‘S.I.G. Ochre---hold on.’ There was a brief silence. Ochre closed his eyes, waiting, shivering. ‘Ochre? Colonel’s coming---standby.’
‘Thanks.’ Ochre mumbled.
Scarlet’s voice clouded suddenly with concern. ‘Rich? Rich---are you all right? You don’t sound it.’
I can imagine....
He clamped his jaw down on the shivers. ‘Yeah---well, like I said, I’m wet and cold and tired. Had an unexpected dip in the lake. The ice broke.’ Praying again, he hoped that Scarlet wouldn’t ask him what he’d been doing on thin ice in the first place. ‘And then,’ he went on, to pre-empt any inquiries. ‘We had a rough hike in that storm out there just to find this place. Not to mention Godzilla---’ he broke off as Colonel White’s voice came on-line.
‘Ochre---you’ve got Doctor McLaine?’
‘Yes sir, she’s here.’
‘And just where might that be, Captain?’
What the hell kind of a question was that? Hadn’t Scarlet told him? Or was the Colonel fishing for information? ‘I’m somewhere up on the side of a mountain, sir,’ he replied, going fishing himself.
‘The cabin, Captain?’
Colonel White’s voice confirmed it. Damn. He’d known what was up here then. Why hadn’t the rest of them been told? ‘Yes sir, we’re at the cabin.’
‘And how about Doctor McLaine? You don’t think that she’s---’
‘Nossir.’ Ochre said flatly, knowing the question before the Colonel even got it out. ‘No, Colonel, she’s not a Mysteron.’
And please don’t ask me how I know....he wished inwardly. He’d hardly be able to explain that he knew because he’d kissed her to find out. It was not precisely a method listed in the book, and a far cry from proof, but----
But he wouldn’t have kissed a Mysteron. Not that. No. Never.
Never, ever that....
There was a short pause, as Colonel White weighed his tone of voice. God...he knows I’m stuck on her. Figures how stupid I’m getting, just couldn’t miss it yesterday, dammit....
‘Colonel, if she’d wanted to kill me, she had plenty of opportunity on the way up here.’ Ochre supplied, when the pause went on longer than he thought necessary. And that was true enough. One well-placed kick on any of those steep inclines would have done it and very neatly, too.
‘All right, Captain. As long as you’re satisfied. How is Doctor McLaine?’ Colonel White re-phrased his question.
‘Difficult, Colonel White. And not especially pleased with Spectrum at the moment either.’
‘Over Doctor Weller and Mr. Prince, I presume.’
‘The problem in a nutshell, Colonel. Any advice for me, sir?’
‘Patience only, Captain Ochre. I think this whole Operation has been harder on her than you realize. She’s never had to deal with Mysterons before, and, unfortunately, Doctor Weller did too good a job protecting both her and Arthur from certain realities. Today the Mysterons caught her right up in the middle of something she wasn’t at all prepared for. Take care of her Ochre. She’s absolutely vital to the Minerva Project. I believe she’ll come around, Captain. She’s just got to do some thinking about it first. You’ll find she’s quite a realist, under all of that other nonsense.’
Take care of her, Ochre repeated silently. Who’s gonna take care of me?
‘Yessir,’ he said aloud.
‘Captain---’ Colonel White’s voice was suddenly mimicking Scarlet’s concerned tone. ‘Are you well, Captain Ochre?’
Ochre caught himself again. ‘I---will be, thanks, Colonel. I’m just a bit tired, sir, that’s all.’
‘Hmmmm. Well, there’s not a great deal we can do for you in any case. This weather’s got you socked in for the next day, at least.’ There was a thoughtful pause. ‘Just one word of advice, Captain---you’re going to have to trust her. She’s got sense. Just trust her, Captain Ochre.’
Trust her. Ochre closed his eyes and did not immediately reply. I do already, didn’t we just establish that?
‘Yessir,’ he said at length. ‘I’ll stay in touch.’
‘Do that, Captain. And Ochre---thank you. It’s been a long haul today. Do what you can to get some rest. We’ll keep you advised of any new developments elsewhere.’
‘S.I.G. Colonel. Ochre out.’ Ochre closed off the channel and rubbed at his forehead wearily, aware, suddenly of a throbbing headache and the renewed shivering that served to remind him he was still standing around in wet clothes. The cabin wasn’t warm, though it had seemed that way at first, once they were out of the howling winds and the driving snow.
A great way to catch pneumonia. He could just hear what his mother would have had to say about it.
He turned, heading back downstairs, sincerely hoping that Zil had, in fact, gotten a fire under way and blazing.
And that she’d maintain the ceasefire long enough for him to curl up and get some sleep for a couple of hours.....
Colonel White leaned back in his command chair when Ochre went off the air, not liking the way that Ochre had sounded.
‘Scarlet,’ he said suddenly. ‘Are you still there, Captain?’ It had been a patch-through, not a direct transmission. Another worry, that was.
‘How’s Ochre, in your opinion, Captain?’
Scarlet didn’t have to hesitate looking for an answer. ‘He’s exhausted, Colonel. He would have been coming off-shift this morning when the bottom dropped out down here. And then he hiked off after the Doctor while the rest of us mopped up. It really is rugged ground out there, and we both know how long it took him to catch up to her.’
‘That’s understandable enough---but he sounded worse off than that. Or is it my imagination?’
‘No sir, it’s not your imagination. Seems they had a dunk in the lake, and a wet hike from there up to the cabin. He’s suffering from exposure, I’d say. It’s not exactly...ah...balmy down here, sir.’
‘Now there’s an understatement if ever I’ve heard one, Scarlet. Why didn’t he say something?’
Scarlet paused. ‘Probably because he knows there’s no helping it anyway. You as much as said so yourself.’
‘Well....it’s true enough, however we want to look at it.” Colonel White grumbled, half under his breath. His brow crinkled with a frown at the complication. They couldn’t afford to have Ochre down too---especially not Ochre, under the circumstances---
Scarlet was volunteering himself again. ‘Sir, I could try to get up to the cabin myself and---’
‘Absolutely not, Scarlet! Stay put and don’t be thinking that I don’t know what the weather’s doing down there. You’d never make it. I’m already thinking about pulling Magenta back here to Cloudbase. Ochre and McLaine will be safe enough where they are for now. Just give Ochre a few hours to rest up. Stay in touch, all the same. I’d daresay even a Mysteron agent would have trouble reaching them where they are right now.’
‘Yes, sir. How are Blue and Grey?’
‘Oh, they’ll be all right. Grey’s got a concussion, but he’s up and grumbling about it. And as for Blue---well, he’s been making noise about having been decked by a girl. Embarrassed, I’d say. But he’s got a broken collar-bone and he’ll be out of the action for awhile with it. Doesn’t heal quite the way you do, after all.’
‘Thank you sir. I’ve nothing new to report here other than we’ve got all remaining personnel isolated in Administration. Maximum security is in place. Not that it proved very effective earlier today.’
‘Spectrum is Green, Captain. Stay on your toes. I’m very sure that the Mysterons aren’t through with Minerva yet. They’ll make another move, you can count on that.’
‘Understood, Colonel. Scarlet out.’
As the speaker on his console fell silent, Colonel White let out a long breath and drummed his fingers on the board, disliking more and more the way things were shaping up.
‘I don’t like it, Lieutenant. I don’t like having my people scattered around and cut off from one another like this. They become too vulnerable...it looks like we gambled badly, counting on this storm to protect us.’
‘We don’t know that yet, Colonel,’ Green offered optimistically. ‘It could work to our advantage yet.’
‘Perhaps. Thank you, Lieutenant. But I’d feel a great deal better about the whole business if Ochre hadn’t had such a rough go of it. Damn that woman anyway---they shouldn’t be up there at all.’
‘But at least they made it.’
Colonel White nodded slowly. ‘Yes. Yes, they did, and we can be grateful for that much after all. Still, now that he’s there, there are things that Ochre should know---and doesn’t yet.’
Green sat silent for a moment, thinking, it was clear from his features, that there was no reason Ochre couldn’t be told whatever it was that Ochre didn’t know---even if Green himself couldn’t be let in on it.
Green had it halfway figured out already.
Why did I promise I’d keep her secret? Am I being twice the fool that Weller was? But there’s time yet. Time for her to ‘fess up herself, and likely she will, especially with Ochre, so----
‘I think he suspects though, Colonel.’ Green said at last. ‘He’s a good man and---’
“Oh, definitely, Lieutenant. There’s no doubt but that he’s one of the best we’ve got. But he’s still human, Lieutenant Green, and we humans have our weaknesses and our limits. Weaknesses and limits that are precisely what the Mysterons like to push. Let’s just hope that Doctor McLaine hasn’t already pushed Ochre’s too far....’
It was time to head downstairs again. Captain Scarlet left the communications room once he’d signed off with the Colonel, in a state of relative reassurance that Ochre wasn’t going to freeze to death out there and Godzilla McLaine was once again nominally within Spectrum’s protective custody.
Feeling somewhat less than charitable and sympathetic, Scarlet supposed she had to be suffering at least as much as Ochre was, and hoped she wouldn’t be able to muster any further difficulty for the man. He wondered if it had been a mistake not putting more personnel out into the field after her - though initially, none of them had imagined that she’d have managed to elude Ochre for so long. And it had been too late, once they’d come to that determination. Scarlet himself would have arrived at the same detector-less conclusions that Ochre had; when it came to the Mysterons, no help was often better than help that you couldn’t trust.
At minimum, the two of them had reached a place of comparative safety. Scarlet would not stop worrying about them altogether, but he could at least devote some unclouded thought elsewhere in the short term. He knew that Ochre could take care of himself. And Ochre had handled Godzilla just fine all week.
Scarlet still needed to talk to Roan.
He summoned the lift and waited patiently for it to arrive. Scarlet stepped into it when the doors opened and keyed in the office level, exactly as he imagined Andy or Arthur must have done earlier. He shut his eyes, laying a hand on the control panel and concentrated for a moment, trying to reach out, trying to detect any hint of residual Mysteron influence in the reconstructed elevator car.
But there was nothing; the lift stopped at the requested level and Scarlet left it no further enlightened than he had been when he boarded it.
He found Weller’s office in total disarray, Teal and Roan having stripped the desk, credenza and files to their respective bottoms, apparently without having found any enlightenment of their own in the process.
Scarlet stepped over a box of file folders toward the center of the chaos. “Well,” he let out a long breath and glanced from one Lieutenant to the other. “Anything to report?”
“Nothing, Captain.” Roan shook his head, obviously frustrated with that.
“There’s nothing here that doesn’t look like it belongs, sir.” Teal added, more matter-of-factly.
“All we seem to be missing is Weller and Prince.” Roan added sullenly.
Teal looked up at the ceiling. “He’s still sulking, sir. Kick his butt.”
“I’m not here to kick butt,” Scarlet said quietly, fixing his gaze on Roan. “But I would like you to stop sulking, Lieutenant. I won’t pretend that you didn’t have a bad experience here today. But that does happen sometimes when the Mysterons are involved. It happens quite frequently. You are not responsible for what happened to Weller and Prince.”
“I should have been in the lift with them. Why would Weller want to keep me out? They had plenty of privacy in the office. It’s not like it was going to take us hours to get down there.”
“Roan,” Teal stated his fellow Lieutenant’s name firmly, as if he’d already been over that ground once with him.. “Thank the man - he saved your life.”
“He convinced me,” Roan said. “It was....it was like he’d really heard you, even though I hadn’t.”
Scarlet’s brow furrowed. “It’s very possible, Lieutenant,” he said slowly. “That Weller did hear me. The Mysterons can throw voices. And I’ve witnessed them using mine before.”
A troubled look crossed Roan’s face. Teal’s too. It was a spooky thought.
“But how did they even know? That Weller was in the lift and I wasn’t, I mean. And why stop me? Why not just let me go along for the ride?”
Scarlet settled himself on the corner of Weller’s desk, the same place he’d been sat not even twenty four hours ago, arguing with the man. “We’re not likely ever to find out how, Lieutenant. And as far as why---well, I think there are two possible reasons. Firstly, you might have been able to do something about it. They undid the suspension cable, we saw that from the wreckage. Whatever force or power or energy that they used to do that could very well have been disrupted if you’d discharged your electron gun that direction. We know for a fact that electrical fields interfere with Mysteron influence.”
Scarlet’s glance went to the electron gun in the holster at Roan’s hip, nestled right behind the more standard Spectrum issue pistol. All field officers carried both weapons nowadays. The electron guns had improved immeasurably since the successful demonstration of the original, if cumbersome prototype. The upgraded versions looked like guns now, though they operated on totally different principles. They were not projectile weapons; if anything they were far more like portable linear accelerators with a laser targeting beam and a tiny, shielded chamber that housed a radioactive alpha-particle source in the barrel. They were engineered such that the laser emission and a split second burst of focused hard radiation between them served to ionize an accurate path to target and kept the following nano-second long discharge of high-energy electrons from grounding out on any nearby object before it could find its mark. The Mysteron guns were remarkably effective and compact, even if they were heavy as sin to haul around, and limited in the amount of charge that they could carry. It was enough, usually....
He did not suggest that the Mysterons could well have disabled that, too.
“Flight 104, sir?” Teal queried. The entire Lake Toma incident was considered textbook evidence, these days. It was a studied case at Koala Base, a lesson obviously not lost on all recruits.
“I wouldn’t necessarily be here otherwise, Lieutenant.”
The suggestion seemed to make Roan feel better. Though he frowned again after another moment of reflection. “So I should thank the Mysterons for saving my life instead?”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow. “Disquieting, isn’t it?”
“And the second possible reason, Captain?” Teal went on, to keep his current partner from dwelling on it.
“It’s far more speculative. Something that Doctor Conrad was hypothesizing about, since you’ve mentioned Flight 104. He’s a brilliant theoretical physicist, you may recall.”
“I’m not sure that was in the book, but I’ll take your word on it, sir.”
“He can do in his head the kind of math that makes my brain hurt just to look at. He has a number of theories about the Mysterons and their ability to recreate exact duplicates of their victims or target objects. One of them is that it just may not be as easy as it seems for them to make a reconstruction. They use unknown resources and a process that we don’t understand, but is obviously possible to do. Doctor Conrad thinks it may be a difficult and somehow expensive process for them, in terms that we simply don’t yet comprehend. He’s working on it.”
“So....” Teal speculated aloud, following that train of reasoning. “Another reconstruction---like Roan here---was maybe more than they needed or wanted to pay for?”
Scarlet shrugged. “Throwing my voice had to be cheaper and easier.”
Roan’s troubled look went to consternation. “I’m not sure I like it either way, Captain.” Roan picked up the scanner again and activated it, muttering under his breath. “I’m either too dangerous to take along or I’m not worth the trouble....”
Roan started in on the walls one more time, now that some of the clutter was out of the way. Scarlet watched for a moment, deciding Roan’s funk was not as deep as it had been and about to tell the kid not to take anything the Mysterons did too personally when the scanner bleeped once and loudly.
Roan stepped back, and repeated the sweep, rewarded with second bleep as he did so.
“It didn’t do that the last time.” Roan said, his attention suddenly fastened entirely on that section of the back wall. “Teal....”
Teal was there in a heartbeat. “It didn’t do that any of the six times we scanned it before,” he confirmed, running a hand over the same area and finding a seam there in the wallboard. “Captain, I think we’ve got something here----” Teal gave that section of expensive wood paneling a hard shove; something there clicked and gave under that pressure, and the panel swung suddenly inwards on a narrow cavity there behind.
Roan swore once, low and explicit, as Teal pulled out his hand torch to shine it into the access. Scarlet himself crossed the room for a better look with his own pulse racing, wondering, hoping perhaps that they’d finally stumbled onto something to do with the real Minerva at last.....
“Teal...what have we got?” Scarlet asked, unable to see past Teal’s broad shoulders and into the black well beyond.
But it was Roan that answered, with an absolute certainty, as if the whole thing had abruptly fallen into place even though he couldn’t see what was there any better than Scarlet could----
“It would be a secret passage, sir.” Roan said.
The fire that Zil had built, Ochre was grateful to discover, was a hot blaze, almost too big for the hearth, but welcome all the same---already the chill in the living room was beginning to dissipate.
It made him realize just how cold he really was, and the shivering became very nearly uncontrollable.
She was sitting in front of that fire, huddled in a blanket looking wilted and morose. She turned as he came down the stairs and rose to her feet, favoring her left leg.
‘”You’re hurt,” he said. “Zil, you’re---”
“I’m fine,” she countered. “Now get out of all that wet stuff before you catch pneumonia or something.”
“There’s lots of blankets. I’m gonna fix up something hot to eat. But here’s some hot coffee in the meantime.” She was pouring coffee into a mug from a battered enameled pot she’d had in or near the fire, and pressed it into his hands as soon as he got close enough.
Ochre clutched at it, letting the heat warm his palms as he sank to his knees on the stone, surprised, really and truly surprised that he’d been gone long enough for her to get this much done. Gladly, he gulped down some of the brew---
And gasped. It was coffee all right---but that wasn’t all. “What’s in this?!” he sputtered, trying not to spill the stuff.
“Something stiff. It helps---trust me.” Zil turned, making no apology for the addition and headed kitchen-ward, leaving him alone with the fire and the slow warmth of the spiked coffee seeping into his veins.
Silently he quoted the regulation prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages while on active duty and drained the mug anyway, in no frame of mind to follow the book on this one. Alcohol wasn’t good for hypothermia. Vaso-dialation; he’d actually lose more body heat, never mind the warm glow that the stuff provided short-term. He knew that, surely she did. But he wasn’t outdoors anymore...the fire would make up for any heat losses here and now. And the warm glow---so what if it was alcohol induced---did actually help, steadying him long enough to strip off the wet uniform and drop it onto the sodden pile that the fashionable combat fatigues and lacy underthings made to one side of the hearth. He followed the example, kicking everything away before wrapping himself in a blessedly dry and warm blanket that Zil had thought to set close enough to the fire to take some of the chill out of it.
Ochre allowed himself to sink down in front of the fire for a second time and closed his eyes, letting the heat wash his face and dry his hair into whatever tangle it would. He waited for the shivering to subside, poured himself another coffee, leaving the alcohol out of it on that second round. He wanted the caffeine---he needed the caffeine, because he was going to go to sleep any second if he didn’t get some kind of a stimulant into his blood and his brain before he----
Zil touched his shoulder, startling him. His head swam.
That was the booze, he told himself, again quoting the appropriate regulation. He tried to focus his attention on the plate that Zil had just shoved into his hands.
“It’s not much right now,” Zil was apologizing. “Isn’t too much here that’s quick and easy. Sorry.”
Ochre surveyed to meal, hungry because he hadn’t eaten all day, but queasy with the thought of putting it down. He needed something down there with the spiked coffee though---it was no wonder at all that his head was swimming....
It was a canned stew and not his favorite. He picked at it anyway, and did actually feel better once there was something solid in his stomach. It countered the booze---but it countered the caffeine too. He was getting warm and comfortable and the full belly would put him to sleep as fast as anything.
I’d better get up, better move around a bit or else...
Zil was tossing more wood on the fire, pulling logs out of a stack of firewood from an alcove that backed onto the inside wall of the entry corridor. No lack of that apparently. Should give her a hand, he thought, should get up and---
“Where’s the flue to this thing go?” he asked suddenly. “Where’s the chimney come out?”
He was alarmed. He hadn’t even thought of it until that moment, that it was a direct outside access---and not secure. Not at all secure, if there was someone out there with a nerve gas cylinder to drop down the pipe....
“Roof,” she answered. “Top of the dome, under the ledge. Not very easy to get to, if that’s what you’re thinking. Screened. Caged, to keep the squirrels and the pack-rats out. Can’t get there without a ladder, if that makes you feel any better.”
The fresh logs caught fire, began to burn furiously. Dry hardwood. No smoke, or not much. If the chimney was under the ledge, it wouldn’t be easy to spot, not even with an infra-red scope. A heat seeking missile might be fooled, if there was---
Ochre shook his head. His imagination was running wild. Nerve gas and heat-seeking missiles---Todd Carey hauling them up mountainsides in the Blizzard of the Century. Not even the Mysterons could be so masochistic.
Hope not, anyway.
Zil moved back, sitting a little further away from the blaze. He moved too---the heat was fierce, really. He let his glance wander the room. Nice decorating. As nice as the house.
Lacking most of the amenities.... Colonel White had said. Sure. But maybe the Colonel hadn’t known at that point. She must have told him after he and Scarlet had been briefed.
Second time he’d thought that today. He wondered if he dared ask about the place, wondered what kind of reaction the question might provoke.
Neither one of them had spoken for a time, content enough just to be warm and comfortable after the day’s events.
She finally broke the silence. “Och?” she said, a small, hollow voice with a question in it.
“What?” Neutral and non-combative. He just didn’t have the energy.
“I---I want to apologize. I behaved badly today.”
Ochre heaved a sigh. “It’s all right.”
But she shook her head. “No. No, it’s not all right! How can it possibly be all right?” A note of irritation crept into her voice. “I---panicked. I panicked and I reacted and then I ran without even stopping to think about what I was doing.”
He didn’t reply. Couldn’t very well deny any of that. It was a pretty fair assessment, in fact.
She went on, lots of remorse now. “I’ve never hurt anyone in my life before. Never. But Andy made us take these self-defense courses, both of us. Just----just in case, he said.”
Like, just in case of combat.
Goddamned if Weller hadn’t been right.
“I’m sorry. All I saw was Spectrum shooting at my friends and---”
“They weren’t your friends. Not at that point. They were Mysterons.”
“You think that helps?” Her voice hit a strained note. “They’re dead one way or another and I just didn’t think---not until---until later. After. I said I panicked, didn’t I?” She sniffed, stifling what sounded like a sob, and Ochre turned, looking at her for the first time since she’d started talking---
Tears. Long, wet tracks running down both cheeks. More welling up as she just kept staring into the fire....
It took him aback. This was not a Tylan McLaine he’d seen yet. Not the same one he’d fought tooth and nail back at the lake. Surely not the same one he’d been fencing and bickering with the week long----
“I’ve never been so scared in my whole life, Och---” that came out in a whisper, as if that alone were enough to explain everything. Her eyes closed and the gathered tears tumbled down into the wet tracks after the others. “They’re all dead---Andy and Arthur and Todd too. They’re all gone and everyone’s dead....”
“No,” he objected earnestly. “No, Zil---listen to me---you’re still alive and the module is still secure. The Mysterons don’t have Minerva. We’re still ahead in the game.”
Wake up, Zil. Wake up and see it.
“Yet,” she said bitterly, sniffing. “Not yet, that’s what you mean.” She looked down, avoiding his gaze, pulling her blanket more tightly around her shoulders. She was trembling again, but this time it wasn’t from the cold.
Ochre ached for something to say, but nothing that came to mind seemed adequate. She had lost what had probably been the two most important people in her life; long time friends, associates and---and something more, in Andy’s case, anyway. Of course she had panicked. What else could they have expected? Death was an occupational hazard in his line of work. Loss of life was an anticipated occurrence, a statistical probability that Spectrum operatives simply accepted as a part of the territory.
Tylan McLaine wasn’t a trained Spectrum operative, she was----
At the moment, very grief-stricken, frightened and lonely, and coping with what had to be the crisis of her normally well-ordered life, facing murder---both attempted and accomplished---with a threat to the world hanging in the balance.
And still, she was being realistic enough.
Because, no, the Mysterons didn’t have her or the module---yet.
Ochre stretched out a hand for hers and waited. It took a minute, but she finally put one of her own out from under the blanket and he gave it a reassuring squeeze---one that she just accepted without protest until the trembling had stopped.
‘When the Mysterons---” she cast about for words. “When they...copy...someone, do they really know everything that person knew?’
There was an edge to the question that told Ochre she was close to panic again. She’d asked that question before. She already knew the answer.
“Yes.” There was no reason to elaborate.
She squeezed her eyes shut again, anguished by the unchanged response, and nodded tightly to herself. The hand under his clenched, trembling renewed. This time he ended up with both arms around her, holding on until she finally fell asleep with her head resting on his shoulder. It seemed to take forever. Ochre left his chin resting there on her head, still staring into the fire as he wished with an increasing desperation for that release himself.
But it wasn’t a good idea not to have a watch posted. Not a good idea at all. He willed the sleep back, and bolstered that will by remembering that the Mysterons had managed to kill both Andy and Arthur, despite of all of Spectrum’s best efforts to the contrary.
They were not going to get Tylan McLaine.
Not unless---very old, and suddenly true cliché---it was over his dead body.
Captain Scarlet closed his eyes and forced himself to relax as he peeled the headset off and shut the communications board down. It had been close...too close at times, but they had done it. The helijet was down and down in one piece thanks to Demeter’s advanced radar tracking systems and some very agile seat-of-the-pants flying on Magenta’s part; skills that had not only gotten the helijet down, but had parked it safely inside one of the hangars too. Scarlet hoped he’d never have to talk anyone down through this sort of muck again as long as he lived.
The radar scans said that the worst of the storm hadn’t even hit them yet.
Colonel White had wanted to recall the helijet. Magenta had wanted to try coming in, had even been entertaining notions of finding the cabin on Ochre’s radio signal....except that Ochre’s radio signal was a lousy thing right now. Water in the circuit boards or something, between the pool yesterday and apparently some lake today. Tough as their caps were, it was a miracle the thing was working at all, if moisture had gotten in and frozen there, damaging the microcircuits.
If that was the problem. Scarlet had a good many ifs gnawing at him.
Scarlet’s glance went to the coffee pot, and found it direly in need of a refill. He took care of that and then went to lean heavily on the windowsill, staring out into the thickly swirling snow that had already accumulated to several inches on the ground.
Two snowmobiles with Security men and bearing Magenta appeared from nowhere out of the storm and pulled up in front of the building, stopping there for just a moment, before peeling off into the darkness again, making a final round of the security perimeter and the hangars and sheds. Scarlet did not particularly envy those men their assignments; they would trade off with Teal and Roan later, both of whom he’d dismissed for a few hours of rest after a day that had been long and full of unpleasant events for pretty much everyone.
A moment later, Captain Magenta was divesting himself of his colored, regulation Spectrum parka and helping himself to the freshly brewed coffee. He sank into one of the lounge chairs and looked over toward the bowed window, where Scarlet was still perched on the broad sill.
“I feel like I could rewrite the definition of harrowing.” Magenta commented.
Scarlet smiled faintly. “Caffeine,” he stated mildly, “Won’t do much to soothe your frazzled nerves.”
Magenta shrugged. “Should’ve been back sooner, before the soup got that thick. But the Colonel made me stop and take a nap while I was there. He still thinks we can’t run on coffee.”
“Well, that would be because the Colonel very sensibly never drinks enough of the battery acid they try pass off as coffee on Cloudbase to find out that it does work for that.” Scarlet found Cloudbase coffee tolerable, but not nearly as good as Demeter’s. At the moment, Scarlet was avoiding the brew, excellent as it was. Because it would keep him up all night if he indulged.
“Hmmm.” Magenta nodded agreement with that appraisal. “This is much better, I’ll say that for Weller & crew. Seems like he generally went for the best of everything. Did I miss much while I was out?”
“Extrication of a couple of bodies. A hair-raising hike for Ochre before he finally got where he was going. And just a little unwarranted excitement exploring the secret passage outside Weller’s office back door.”
“Secret passage. Grey said a few very unprintable things when he heard that particular tidbit. He’d been over the mine schematics. He’d been looking for it. That’s why he’d had the kids scanning it so often, not just to give them the practice.”
“Brad doesn’t miss much.”
“No, he doesn’t. Weller had his tracks covered. There was a hidden corridor behind the back wall in Weller’s office. Lined with high-grade scan-shielding. Class stuff. Expensive, like the coffee.”
Magenta raised his cup. “What was he hiding?”
It was Scarlet’s turn to shrug. “Not much, apparently. Unless we’ve missed something again. It was nothing but a concrete and cinder block corridor that led to a spiral staircase that went up an old service shaft to ground level. Exited into a janitor’s closet in the Residency. No secret vaults, no hiding holes, no connecting corridors, nothing of interest at all. I was looking for Minerva, but didn’t find it. The janitor’s closet, however, is just a couple of doors down from Weller’s own quarters. Roan thinks he probably just used the route to sneak his girlfriends in and out. It seems to have no serious purpose.”
“Lined with expensive scan-shielding.”
Scarlet shrugged again. “That bothers me, too. But only the wall was shielded. Could be that Weller just didn’t want any biotech regulators to know about it.”
“Sounds highly illegal.”
“That was my first thought. It isn’t, apparently. At the quarantine level, yes, but not from Weller’s office. Demeter’s Security didn’t make much of it, though they seemed as surprised as we did to find it was there. They did, however, also think it sounded very much like something Andy would have. We tend to forget what an eccentric Weller was. You’ll have to take the tour.”
“You have any second thoughts? Educated guesses? Hunches? Gut instincts?”
“Not about the tunnel. But I have a few about her.” Scarlet shifted where he sat, letting his voice trail into silence.
Magenta waited. “Such as?” he prompted.
“It’s nagging at me that she ran...and I’m thinking that she ran for a reason. One that the Mysterons know. And it’s almost as if they scared her into it.”
“They wanted her where they could get a clear shot at her?”
“Not impossible. But if that’s it, then they must’ve missed their opportunity. Ochre doesn’t think they got her.”
“Hope he’s right. Ochre usually is. ” Magenta drained the last of the coffee from the mug. “Maybe she was taking herself out of the hazard area. Weller never wanted her here at Demeter.. That was all her idea - she even convinced the Colonel it was okay. Maybe she re-thought it.”
Scarlet shook his head. “It happened too fast. That was panic, not a reassessment.”
“Fair enough. What else?” Magenta got up, went to refill the mug.
“Nothing specific. Just a bad feeling.”
“Those work too, most of the time. What about?”
“About....whatever it is that we’re missing.”
Something obvious, Scarlet thought inwardly. Something like Minerva itself, for one thing, the mystery gizmo that no one from Spectrum had laid eyes on as yet. Something like why Colonel White wasn’t telling all he knew. Something like why no one had seen hide nor hair of Todd Carey or Captain Black recently. Something like why Weller and Prince were dead for no apparent good reason and Godzilla McLaine had gone AWOL---
“You should sleep on it.”
“The hell you’re not. I’m under orders to put you to bed. It’s been a long day for everyone. And you only skip the caffeine when you want to sleep. Think no one knows but Blue knows that?”
“I think maybe I work with too many observant people.” Scarlet decided he wouldn’t argue the point. “I can take a hint.” He abandoned his seat at the window, left the snow and the chill behind him there. “We’re trying to figure out if Weller-the-Mysteron might have left the office by the back door while we were all still waiting for your SPJ today. The kids say Weller and Prince locked themselves in there and didn’t come out until I told them you were nearly here. I need you to look over the security records for the relevant time frame to see if Weller might have disabled the sensors or alarms in the corridors between the janitor’s closet and Weller’s quarters. Hack it if you have to---Demeter’s security says if anything was changed it either wasn’t logged or it’s been key-locked above their authorization. Weller could have done that. Talk to Taylor. It seems obvious now that the back wall was opened, and maybe even deliberately left ajar for us to find----after the fact.”
“Rubbing our noses in it?”
“Something like....” Scarlet sighed with frustration, heading for the door. “Don’t give me any more than four hours,” he said.
“Set your own alarm. Take six.” Magenta’s glance went to the window. “Nothing about to happen here by the look of that out there. Other than the perimeter tripping off every other minute or so. We’ll try not to cry wolf.”
“You’re in charge.” Scarlet handed off command, then paused in the doorway. “Colonel White told Ochre to get some rest too, but....” One more time, Scarlet’s voice faded into silence with the bad feeling multiplying inarticulate apprehensions in his gut. He was never going to get to sleep, not for six minutes, never mind for six hours...Scarlet shook his head, unable to pin it down.
“Dunno, Pat,” he said. “Just don’t let Ochre sleep for too long.”
Something disturbed him.
Ochre’s eyes flew open and he sat up abruptly in the blanket, realizing that sleep had claimed him in the end, in spite of his best efforts to stave it off. Zil was up again and adding more wood to the fire, which had burned down to little more than a heap of glowing embers. So---it had been an hour, surely no longer. He glanced around sharply, but nothing seemed to be amiss. He hurt---oh, but he hurt with a whole myriad of aches and pains. Muscles had gone stiff, lying there on the stone by the hearth. He rubbed at his eyes, feeling lethargic and finding bruises that protested each and every new movement.....
Zil slumped into the big chair, extending bare feet out toward the fireplace. “Take the couch, Och---it’s warm enough now and you need the sleep. I’ll sit up for awhile.”
He found no inclination to argue and complied with the suggestion stiffly, no further urging necessary. He eased himself into the corner of the couch and stared into the fire once he was settled, listening to the crackling of the logs in the near silence that followed. Faintly, he could still hear the wind outside as it continued to howl, a soothing white noise that lulled his senses and soon enough closed his eyes one more time.
He neck was sore the next time he woke. Zil was tending the fire again, and their clothes were now spread out on the stone where first they’d sat to dry out themselves. She had abandoned the blanket in favor of one of her ever-present sweat suits, doubtless obtained from one of the bedrooms upstairs.
“What time is it?’ he asked, shaking off the grogginess, stretching to relieve a cramp.
“Not late. Not even eight o’clock yet.” She gestured towards another pair of sweats on the chair to his left. “Got a change of clothes for you too,” she said, turning to prod at one of the logs with the poker, creating a brief shower of sparks.
She was looking very despondent.
“Zil,” he said gently. “You okay there, Zil?”
She shrugged without looking at him. “Yeah,” she said. “You?”
She set the poker down and her gaze strayed for the kitchen. “I’ve got some instant hot chocolate or some instant coffee. What’s your preference?”
‘Whatever you’re having.” He made it easy for her, knowing it was nothing more than an excuse to give him a moment’s privacy. She moved off with another nod, he got himself into the sweat suit and took the opportunity to put in a call down to Demeter.
It was Magenta on the other end this time. “Glad to hear you made it,” Magenta told him. “Weather’s not too nice outside. How’re the conditions up there---report made it sound like things were a bit primitive.”
“Snug enough---seems they fixed the place up recently. We’re comfortable.” Ochre glanced around as he said it, still feeling that it was a gross understatement of fact. But as the Colonel hadn’t said anything, he wasn’t about to either.
“Nothing to report , then?”
“Negative, Captain. Not a thing. Should stay that way too, by the sound of the storm out there.” Perhaps he was just wider awake this time, but it seemed as if the howl had picked up, a muted roar against the dome.
“She’s a mean one all right---barometer’s still going down. Keep in touch Ochre---we’ve no set contact schedule at this time. Colonel wanted you to get some rest.”
“S.I.G., Magenta. Ochre out.”
The cap mike flipped up automatically and Ochre tossed it onto the nearby chair, close to the rest of the uniform. He turned, hearing Zil approach from the kitchen doorway, suspecting that she’d been eavesdropping on the call and hoping that maybe she’d cough up an explanation of why the cabin wasn’t the old hunting lodge the reports had indicated it would be.
She didn’t. She just handed him a mug of hot chocolate. “Want anything else? Hungry?”
He shook his head. “No. No, this is just fine, thank you.”
She nodded an acknowledgment and settled herself onto the couch, toying idly with her own mug for a minute before setting it down and retrieving her blanket. She resettled with it, tucking feet up under and pulling it snugly.
Retreating into a shell, that was the impression he got.
Ochre watched her with concern, getting rid of his mug and sinking down on the other end of the couch. “Still cold?”
“Little bit.” She didn’t look at him.
‘You sure you’re okay, Zil?”
She drew a deep breath and let it go slowly. “As far as the circumstances permit.” She closed her eyes and leaned her head back. A long pause ensued. “How did they die, Ochre?” She asked finally.
Of course, she had to have been wondering. Ochre leaned back himself and looked toward the fire. He told her what he knew of the non-accident in the elevator shaft, devoid of the details he didn’t have, though he would have kept the worst of it to himself anyway if he had.
She listened without comment and just gave a small nod of grim, mute acceptance when he was finished. The silence continued after that, and he spent the time staring into the flames, eventually to find his own thoughts wandering.....
“Why’d you kiss me back at the lake?”
She was being psychic again - how had she known he was thinking about that? “Impulse,” he replied with a sigh. “Should I apologize?”
She turned her face toward him. “No.”
Her hair was all scrags and tangles. She didn’t wear much makeup, and whatever there had been had gone long since in the snow and the wet and the tears. She looked----
----she looked, in the firelight and the solitude---heaven help him---like the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his entire life, and he couldn’t seem to pull his eyes away from hers----
“Och...” she whispered.
“What? He found that he was whispering too, caught up in the spell, spiraling into an enchantment that had come out of nowhere to suspend time and banish the crisis to some distant, remote place.
“Kiss me again---”
There was a regulation about that too. But he didn’t bother to review it. He just leaned over and kissed Tylan McLaine, letting his lips linger there, lacking immediate distractions and enjoying it more than he would ever have believed possible, considering....
It was certainly the nicest thing that had happened to him all day.
She let out a long, soft sigh when it was over. “I’ve been wanting you to do that for a long time,” she confessed into the quiet.
Ochre lifted a finger to touch at her cheek lightly, looking into those pretty blue-grey eyes in that wonderful nose-to-nose proximity. “Ummm....but you haven’t known me for a long time, Zil.”
And he wondered then if that was possible, that there had ever really been a time in his life that he hadn’t known her, because it felt like----
Feels like forever, Zil.
She managed a wan smile. “Guess not,” she admitted. “But I usually know what I want, Och.”
“My name,” he told her, as if divulging a secret. “Is Richard.”
The tiny smile pulled at the corner of her mouth. “Richard.” She repeated his name, trying the sound of it. “Richard what?”
“Fraser.” It was a common name. He shrugged slightly, handing out what he wasn’t supposed to, not while on duty.
Common, maybe, but he liked the way it sounded when she said it. He liked it an awful lot. “That would be me.”
“I think I’d feel silly calling you Richard.”
“Hmmm---well, I don’t think I’d feel silly hearing it.” He let his fingertips wander her face, and tug idly at the tangled curls of her hair---he could still detect the faint fragrance of green apples, the scent that he’d somehow come to inseparably associate with Zil McLaine. Or maybe it was more of the enchantment winding into him. “I suppose---’ he suggested finally, pulling her progressively closer, “---that you’ll just have to try it and find out.”
There was no resistance. “Hey, Richard...” she whispered, as her nose bumped his, evoking a few very pleasant and arousing electrical sensations. “I think we’re being stupid.”
“I know we’re being stupid,” he murmured, planting a series of light kisses across her cheeks and brow as his fingers slipped deeper into the tangles and he basked in the apple-scented aura there, unable somehow, to summon up any sense of urgency, any reason at all to cease and desist---
“Been being stupid all day...” she concurred, leaning into the hand, cheek to cheek with him, and closed her eyes as his lips brushed across hers again in another delicate, tentative kiss----
“Why stop now?” His own voice faded to near inaudibility as he let his perceptions slide sidelong into voluntary sensory intoxication.
“Stupid,” she whispered, without opening her eyes. “But I think that maybe----” her voice was faint in confession. “I think that maybe I need you, Richard.”
“Hmmm....think so, huh?”
“Yeah....I do. And---”
She opened her eyes again, all sober and serious, to look right into his, still nose-to-nose and seemingly content to stay that way. “And I think that I want you, too....”
God, I’m in deep trouble....
It was mutual.
“Kinda thought so,” he murmured, and his mouth sought out hers one more time---Captain Ochre kissed her again, long and deep and as serious as she’d gone, peeling the blanket back off of her shoulders. And then he simply proceeded, with Tylan McLaine’s full and willing co-operation and consent, to break every rule of professional conduct that there was in the book…..
It had not entirely been another sleepless night.
In fact, it had not been an entire night at all. Still he should have spent a little more of that time slumbering, but he’d been---well, rather preoccupied.
And Captain Ochre was still preoccupied now, having finally settled comfortably inside the makeshift nest of blankets and sofa cushions and pillows that he and Zil had made for themselves at some point; it was not a thing that he could clearly recall having put any conscious effort into.
He was putting a good deal of conscious effort into trying to pinpoint the precise moment that he had become such a colossal idiot. As nearly as he could peg it down, it was the same moment that he’d forgotten that it had all been an Act.
Which it had ceased to be, at some point. The Act had gone serious, somewhere, somewhen and without even knowing it had happened, he’d become all too Emotionally Involved.
It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Not while he was working. He knew better.
Stupid. But they’d both known that, too.
Ochre had been in love before, on at least two prior occasions. He knew what it felt like and he was therefore quite capable of identifying it again. This time, he was in over his head.
Which was simply all the more reason to start behaving sensibly. Orders or no orders, he had something here that he was going to protect, forget the Mysterons, forget Global Security, forget Colonel White too---this was something he wanted for his own selfish personal reasons and it was just a bonus that protecting Zil McLaine happened to cover all those other bases by default.
He wanted----more of the same. Quite a lot more.
It had not entirely been a romantic fireside encounter either, though it had more or less started out that way and had gone quite intense for a time. Intense and then----and then it had gone all…intimate. Never mind the physical bits. He’d looked into her eyes, she’d looked back and that had been that. Bang. Soul-mates. A Forever Look. The very same thing he’d seen at the lake without identifying it, the thing that had prompted him to start what she’d not been at all adverse to finishing.
And after that, the tears had come. She had wept; for Andy, for Arthur, but mostly he suspected for Andy Weller, who’d been a long time mentor, friend, and---he could admit it---lover too, which was not a thing he suspected of Arthur.
Zil had wept long and hard and had clung to him, and it had not just been because he was there and convenient.
She’d been in love before too, and was every bit as capable as he was of identifying the circumstance.
So he’d done what he could to wipe the tears away, had held on until the worst had passed, had tried to kiss it better and had not said silly, ridiculous things like ‘it would be all right....’ .
He simply couldn’t guarantee that.
And she wouldn’t have believed him anyway.
Because---putting all the personal intimacies aside---they were still in one serious lot of trouble of a very impersonal kind.
The Mysterons would care nothing for the honeymooning; the Mysterons had their own agenda and plans for Tylan McLaine that did not take one Richard Fraser’s wants and desires into consideration.
Damned Operation wasn’t over yet, not nearly.
With that dismal thought, Ochre let out a heavy, frustrated sigh that woke Zil up.
She started awake, blinking a quick, confused look around and then she relaxed, recalling where she was and with whom. She settled again, back into the comfortable snuggle he wasn’t quite yet prepared to abandon. No rush, the wind was still howling, the door was still locked and alarmed....
Not that that couldn’t change, and at any given second. He was going to have to move, dammit. Get dressed, at the very least.
“Should get moving,” he mumbled. “You know---just in case.”
“Hmmm. Yeah.” Slow, sleepy reply. She’d been exhausted, after the weeping and…after everything else, too. “Yeah, I guess.”
But she didn’t move either, and he gave some serious consideration to just going back to sleep. He needed the rest. Even Colonel White had said so.
Get up you fool, get into uniform, get some arms nearby and then you can nod off again....
“Are you in trouble, Och?” Zil asked, after a moment. Not sleeping herself, then. She was thinking.
Because that was a multi-leveled question.
‘Not unless you’re planning to press charges.”
It was absolutely the wrong answer. It was the stupid, insensitive, glib answer; he obviously wasn’t awake yet.
It must have stung, because she sat up abruptly and almost got the blanket off before he caught her by the arm and pulled her back around. She didn’t need any more hurt....
“I’m kidding, Zil, for God’s sake...”
She was still out there on the edge. He’d taken it for granted that she would take the comment in the right light. He’d gotten far too comfortable with her.....
She did look hurt. But she hesitated, and let herself be drawn back under his arm. She stayed there, looking elsewhere for a long moment. “I have gotten you into trouble,” she said, deciding it all at once. “Och, I’m---”
He did not want to hear sorry. That was his line.
“Hey---” he interrupted the apology she didn’t owe. “I don’t need your help to get into trouble. I can do that all by myself.” He kept the tone light, though it did not negate the truth of the statement
She took it in with a heavy sigh of her own. “I think,” she said at length. “That we’re both in a lot of trouble.”
Another multi-leveled comment.
He replied with an open-ended one of his own. “Is there anything you want to tell me, Zil?”
Let her interpret the question. Gauge her mood, personal or professional, based on the response.
She snuggled into his side a little more closely.
Personal, then. Damn, he had to get off this tangent. The sooner the better.
“‘Jackass’,” she said, after a moment. “Is a code word.”
It was his turn to start. He recalled that very first, post-breakfast phone call she’d made to Cloudbase; her urgent request to speak to Doctor Weller. And the conversation---which had not been just conversation, he surmised now in retrospect, but an urgent, cleverly disguised request for instruction....
Not Personal then. Professional.
He wasn’t even going to guess why they’d picked the term jackass to begin with, or to whom it was meant to apply.
But he suddenly felt like one.
She went on. “ ‘Ciao, baby’ is an acknowledgment.”
She’d used that one in the jackass-conversation. And used it again, later in the Control Room on Cloudbase.
“And the program error?” he asked.
She shrugged. “It wasn’t. Colonel White already knows.”
“I’ll bet. And just what else does Colonel White know?”
She fidgeted. Quite uncomfortably. “Everything,” she whispered. “I---confessed.”
‘Yeah. Okay---so, I’m listening too.”
More discomfort. “You don’t have clearance.”
It stung. Deservedly so, probably. He’d already guessed that Colonel White wasn’t telling all.
“It’s a need-to-know sort of thing.” Zil went on, salve after the last comment. “I think that you probably need to know.”
It didn’t sound promising, somehow. “Why,’ he asked. “Would I need to know now?”
Pursue it or not? He was getting very tired of the phrase. But he supposed he had to....
“Don’t tell me---let me guess. In case of combat again?”
He’d been half-expecting another beat-around-the-bush, put-off response. Maybe even a poke in the ribs for such a silly answer.
But he had not expected that she would sit up straight in the pile of blankets and cushions and look down at him with the most earnest, most sober expression he’d ever seen cross her face.
She bit at her lip nervously.
“I think so,” she said.
Tylan McLaine wasn’t sure she’d ever been so anxious about anything in her entire life. It was worse, by far, that it had been to tell Colonel White.
Spilling it all to Och---she still couldn’t quite get Richard through her head---could change things she wasn’t sure she wanted changed. He would look at her differently, once he knew. He wouldn’t be able to help it.
And she had to tell him.
Everything. Clearance or not.
She was running out of time and she couldn’t even find the words to begin. She had work to do. It was the reason she was here; or one of the reasons, anyway. And still she was wasting time, puttering around in the kitchen, fussing over a pot of coffee. She’d abandoned the blankets and run from the questions in Och’s eyes, had busied herself finding more clothes to wear while he’d gathered his own. From the loft she’d distantly heard him making a report---all clear. Spectrum was Green. Even from her end---the thermics were on-line now, there was heat and hot water; she considered a shower but decided no, she had more important things to do and settled for a quick freshen up in the opulent bathroom.
Ochre took a turn and she’d busied herself with the damned coffee....
It was ready by the time he turned up and she motioned him into a seat at the small table. “Hungry too?” Another stalling tactic.
He didn’t buy it. “No.”
She shrugged. “Me neither.” Her stomach was tied into knots. She couldn’t have eaten if she’d been starving.
He waited. “I’m still listening,” he prompted finally.
She could not sit down. She shuffled and finally leaned up against the counter to hide the agitation. “It’s kind of a good news / bad news sort of thing.”
“Well, we could start with the good news.” Ochre suggested, picking up the coffee mug, excessively casual, trying to set her at ease.
“I’ve been thinking about it all week,” she started. “And I think I’ve got a program sketched out that would keep the Mysterons from using Minerva to break into Spectrum’s computer systems.”
He raised an eyebrow. “That sounds like it may be useful.”
“The bad news is that I need Minerva to install it.”
“You need Minerva---you mean all that stuff in the cardboard box that Grey told us about? That doesn’t sound very useful.”
She sighed. She’d almost forgotten that stuff. The prototype. But....
“If it was put back together. Arthur could’ve done it, I guess.” It ached, thinking about Arthur. Poor dead Arthur.
It had to as plain as day---she was being transparent.
Minerva wasn’t in any damn cardboard box, and he’d figured that part out already.
“I thought the plan was to permanently dispose of the stuff. Ourselves.” Ochre said.
“It was---or it was supposed to be. I needed to talk to Andy and Arthur first.”
“So much for Plan A, then. I suppose there was a Plan B?”
‘Only vaguely. Giving Minerva to Spectrum was discussed.”
‘Giving it to Spectrum? The mystery gizmo?” Ochre seemed genuinely astonished.
“I won’t ask what the conditions were. Was there a Plan C?”
“The anti-Mysteron program was Plan C. It was the plan of last resort. There isn’t a Plan D, unless Spectrum wants to shoot me first----I’m the only one who can make it work.”
“Nobody’s gonna shoot you, Zil. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I said there wasn’t a Plan D.”
Ochre leaned back in his chair, coffee forgotten. “Zil. Zil---you haven’t said anything yet. You want to know what I think?”
Her shoulders fell. Transparent.... she thought.
But he was no slouch himself, and there were clues all over the place.
“I think,” he began. “That there’s a print-lock on that door for a reason. I think that there’s an alarm on that door for the same reason. I think that----”
He was altogether on the right track.
But the conversation died aborning, because the door alarm that Ochre had just mentioned abruptly went off----
Her back was already against the counter; she jumped as the klaxon shrilled and only moved sidelong----there was no retreat, save for that useless one.
Ochre was on his feet in an eye-blink, one gun drawn, and he was moving for the door...
He spun. “Is there a camera?”
She blinked. “Yes.” There was. “Vid screen’s inside the entry---Och!”
He’d turned again, moving that direction, and looked back, hearing the rising note in her voice. She was trying hard not to panic again.
‘Is there---I mean, do you have a plan you’d care to tell me about?”
“I’m going to see who’s at the door. You’re going to stay out of the way.”
Her heart was crashing against her ribcage, but she suddenly found herself right beside him. “What if you get shot? What if---”
He caught her by the arm, pulled her around and shoved something into her hands. His other gun, the ordinary one. “Here. The safety’s off.” His thumb clicked a tiny stud to the right. ‘Point and shoot. Try not to hit me.”
She stared at him, wide-eyed and shock-stupid. She had never handled a weapon like that one in her life.
He got as far as the entry corridor before she caught up again, was activating the vid screen. It came to life, a tiny, black-and-white-only vid, and the pickup must have been at least halfway blown over with snow, judging by the poor quality of the image on-screen. She reached past Ochre’s shoulder and hit a button on the panel that silenced the klaxon.
Something thumped against the door, a blurred movement in the murk on the vid-screen; something scraped loudly against the outside wall.
‘Does it have infra-red? Zil?”
“This isn’t Cloudbase! No!” But there was a front door light that could be turned on. She punched the button for that, and another for the audio link. “Hello?” She called loudly into the speaker, friendly and only slightly hysterical.
Ochre rolled his eyes, keeping his gun trained on the front door, and then glanced to the vid-screen again.
The wind whipped across the audio pick-up outside, but the scratching took on a frantic quality, accompanied by an unmistakable, desperate whine----
Tylan McLaine almost dropped the gun. ‘It’s Merlin! Och, it’s Merlin, he’s----”
“Pay attention!” Ochre gripped her by the wrist of the hand that had the gun dangling in it as she was moving for the door. “Careful with that thing, dammit! Zil, don’t you dare open that door! It might not even be Merlin---you don’t open that door, Zil!”
“That’s my dog!”
“We don’t know if he’s alone!”
“No other idiot would be----”
“I’m not worried about idiots! It could be Black or Carey. Merlin can wait a minute.” Ochre pulled down the cap mike. “Magenta?” he said firmly. “Got a question for you, Captain---has anyone down there seen Doctor McLaine’s dog recently?”
Tylan stood there, waiting for the response, emotions roiling. Merlin, for God’s sake. The dog. Not a mean bone in his body. Not a lot in the way of smarts either, or he wouldn’t have been out there in this weather, the stupid thing. No instinct left at all in that animal. With all that ruckus on the airfield, her bets were that no one---no one---had been paying any attention to where Merlin had been at all. And Merlin had just come sniffing after her, looking for comfort in a crisis, always ignorant of the weather reports. But the nose still worked, even if the instinct didn’t. Merlin had been here before, knew the way in a canine Lassie-come-home fashion and had just been behind them on the mountain. They’d hardly made it themselves, the snow would have slowed Merlin down, but he’d come....
Damned idiot dog.....
“I haven’t seen him,” Magenta was reporting back. “Let me check with Security, stand by.”
“Standing by,” Ochre muttered, still eyeing the screen, brow all crinkled with concern. The scratching continued, and so did the pitiful whining.
“Negative, Captain,” Magenta reported just a moment later. “Taylor hasn’t seen the dog. We know where Lance and Gwen are. Why?”
“Because he’s just turned up here. And I just wanted to know---for security reasons.”
“Understood, Captain. Keep us advised.”
“S.I.G..” The cap mike swung up. Ochre looked at her. “I don’t fully trust this,” he said, point blank. “We still don’t know if Merlin is the only thing out there.”
“And if he is?” she demanded. “I’m not leaving him out there in that. I’m---”
“I’d rather not!” Ochre countered. “Zil---”
“We’ll turn off the inside lights,’ she argued. ‘We won’t present a target---he’s just outside, Och!---we won’t even have to open the door all the way. We’ll just haul him in and close the door again. How hard can it be?”
Ochre hesitated. “We can’t be wrong about this. We can’t be.”
“You just checked! No one has seen him. No one has seen him because he’s not there. He’s here!”
Ochre took the gun out of her hand, clicked the safety back on and holstered it. But he held on to the other one. He took one last glance up to the vid screen, and punched off the lights---both inside and out----himself.
“All right,” he said. “Open the door.”