It could only be trouble.
And it was that fact, more than anything else, that diverted Magenta's attention from his worry over Ochre and the situation up there on the mountain, as well as from the general mad he'd had going over the happenstances that had left Rich in that particular tight and hazardous corner.
Magenta liked his colleagues; for the most part he always had. But they were his co-workers and comrades-in-arms and there were few enough of them that he really considered friends. Ochre was at the top of that particular list, something that had come as a surprise to everyone back in the early days. Those that had known his background had welcomed him in despite it, but never wholly trusted him, not at first, not for a long time. Most of them had tried, but none of them had come from the streets; they couldn't even help the total disconnect of empathy and understanding they had for what destitution really meant.
Except for Rich - who hadn't come from the streets himself, but who'd spent enough time there to learn the meaning, and who knew that most of the things he'd done in a previous life had not been done out of choice, but out of desperation. It had, plain and simple, been a matter of survival.
Something that Rich had just finished fighting for himself.
There was no point in chewing Scarlet out over it, not just for being as human as the rest of them. Scarlet never knowingly put any of his colleagues at risk. Scarlet was very much more often than not in harm's way himself and he was there deliberately covering for the rest of them whenever he was.
Human nature, he thought. The Mysterons know us better than we think they do.
He might well have forgotten about the dog himself, had his position and Scarlet's been reversed. There had been numerous times throughout his larcenous past, when the success of any particular endeavor had actually hinged on human failing. Some things never changed. Human behavior was one of them.
Right now, Captain Magenta knew where he was going, despite the fact that he'd only been there at Demeter for a few hours, and had spent the better part of that time staring at a vid screen. A vid screen that had been showing him the layout of the place, and in particular the very corridors that were their immediate destination.
He'd been doing the homework Scarlet had assigned him.
"Just so you know---" he called over his shoulder at Scarlet there behind him as they pelted through the wide hallway and into the stairwell that would take them to ground level, "---it looks like Weller did make a foray or two upstairs from the office - the security records were access locked. Weller's authorization. The second trip was bang-on in the time-frame you were talking about."
"Why am I not surprised?" Scarlet breathed the rhetorical question, then spoke rapidly into his cap mike, overriding the patch-through to Cloudbase, going to local broadcast. "Teal, Roan---we have a security breach in the Residency. Weller's quarters - repeat - Weller's quarters -we're on our way - get there! Taylor - keep the staff corralled in Admin - we don't want any of them involved in an incident. Get Sanchez and a crew to the main entrances, keep those accesses secure. No one goes outside! Status reports!"
A chorus of responses flooded back.
"We're moving, sir!" Teal was the first on the line.
"S.I.G., Captain. I've got Admin," Taylor acknowledged her orders.
"Teams are on their way, sir!" Sanchez reported before Taylor had signed off.
Magenta stopped worrying about all of them - he rounded the stairwell railing at ground level without slowing, kept moving down, going for the underground corridor that linked Demeter Admin to the Residency - a route faster and more secure than trying to cross the intervening distance between the two buildings outside in the dark and the storm.
Because somebody was already out there. Maybe more than one somebody.
Somebodies that hadn't managed to trip the perimeter alarms. Somebodies that had targeted the same, perhaps the one and only area of mutual interest that might have been left at Demeter.
"Betcha it's them!” Magenta yelled as he reached the sealed fire-doors to the wide and brightly lit passageway, skidding to a halt and keying in the code that unlocked them.
Scarlet drew level with him. "Gambling again?"
"Sure bet---how much?" Magenta shoved the double doors wide, gathering momentum to sprint the length of that hallway, already eyeing the security panel on the wall at the far end, his next scheduled pit-stop.
"I'll pass. You're far too likely to win." Scarlet was pulling a gun from his side as he ran alongside. "Who do we know that can teleport?"
"Damn short list."
Black and Carey, Magenta was thinking. Past the perimeter and messing around in Andrew Weller's quarters. Where Weller - the Mysteronized Weller - may well have left something for the miscreants to find. Something that they thought important. Something worth the trouble.
Scarlet's hunch about the security systems had been right. Those systems had been disabled, not just once, but twice. The first time by the human Doctor Weller. The second time by the Mysteron - who would have known whatever it was that the original had been doing there that first time. Or at anytime.
Maybe they would find out what it was themselves. Maybe not.
They cleared the second set of fire doors as quickly as the first, and were then pelting up another stairwell into the main corridor of the Residency, into an area that could have been mistaken for the lobby of a posh hotel. Weller's suite of rooms was on the main floor, first hallway to the left of the lobby-like space. Magenta and Scarlet split to either side of that door when they arrived, weapons drawn.
"You can go first." Magenta breathed, nodding once at his colleague. "In case they have guns. In case they're still here." Though he thought that highly unlikely.
"If you insist." Without question or hesitation, Scarlet raised his pistol, took aim and fired once at the door's lockset, a stock-standard device not at all of security-grade manufacture, and it shattered under the very first discharge.
Magenta kicked the door inwards and Scarlet charged through---
Ice cold air hit Scarlet's face as he swung into the open doorway with Magenta right behind him. Inside, there was a window wide open to the blizzard, and snow already drifting across the carpet beneath it. The darkened room was deserted. Not daring the lights, not wanting to make himself an easily visible target, Scarlet crossed to that window, quickly and cautiously, as Magenta checked the adjoining set of chambers, finding and reporting them likewise empty.
But not untouched.
"Smash and grab!" Magenta called back through the door, as Teal and Roan arrived. "We've got some vandalism by the look of it!"
"The culprits appear to have fled," Scarlet cursed. "And the evidence is melting fast." Scarlet had his hand torch out, examining the snow and the wet carpet. "One set of boot prints inside," he reported as Magenta crossed back into that part of the suite. "And we're going to lose whatever's outside in no time."
"Don't disturb the crime scene." Magenta said, sounding uncannily like Ochre might have if he'd been there. Magenta moved for the adjacent window, motioning Teal toward Scarlet and Roan to his own side. "They're long gone by now - it'll all be circumstantial now." Magenta unlocked and threw that second window wide, letting in twice the amount of storm. "Roan and I are going out to count footprints," he announced.
"Carefully." Scarlet acknowledged, getting on his cap mike and alerting the security team in the hangar that there was trouble on the loose.
A potential problem there, Scarlet realized. If the Mysterons went after the helijet - at the moment, their only helijet, then Ochre and Godzilla were in more trouble than they all knew. He wanted to keep it in one piece long enough to take the two-minute trip up the mountain and practice an airlift rescue or two.
Just as soon as the weather permitted. And before any wanna-be extreme weather hikers got there first.
Another blast of glacial air snatched his breath away as he watched Magenta ease through the opening and drop into two feet of snow with Roan right behind him. Scarlet leaned out his own window, peering into the thick darkness, and finally turned on his hand torch to sweep the grounds immediately beneath.
Deep depressions in the drift there, rapidly filling in with more blown snow, but there and evident and numerous enough to tell them how many sets of feet had made them.
"Two intruders." Magenta confirmed from up close. "They approached from the left and retreated straight out. "We're going to lose this trail fast."
Scarlet slung his legs over the sill and slid out the window into the storm to examine the receding sets of tracks for himself. They would have to outfit and gather gear, and no matter how fast they moved now, the trail would be gone, lost to the storm.
Roan was already talking about going, already looking frozen, already shivering in the snow without jacket or parka or anything appropriate for this sort of pursuit. His own fingers were already aching with the biting cold, body heat snatched from breath and skin by a wind as cold and as bitter as he'd experienced once at the north pole---
Scarlet could go himself, just as he was, let the others gather gear and follow. He could handle a bit of frostbite, he could take that risk and hope to catch up with Carey and Black.....
He'd taken no more than three tentative steps that direction, and his shoulder epaulettes began to flash a rapid, urgent white, vivid and distracting in the darkness.
He had missed the beginning.
In fact, he'd missed the whole of the Cabin episode, and was coming into the middle of the Intruder one.
Colonel White had been Lower Decks, on his way to the main hangar, going to personally greet Shelley Carey, whose SPJ had just touched down only a few moments ago and whose presence he had belatedly requested for an in-depth interview. He did not want to call it an interrogation - he did not interrogate recent and grieving widows - but he'd had a deeply nagging hunch that they'd been missing something important all along, and he'd wanted to talk to the woman. Himself.
His planned Q & A session with Todd Carey's widow would have been low-key but thorough, had it not been interrupted by not just one, but two unexpected incidents down at Demeter.
Incidents that had occurred in the middle of the night, in the middle of a raging snowstorm.
He'd listened in on live com, such as he could on the express ride back up to the Control Room, having immediately turned the widow Carey's arrival and escort to Sickbay over to Russet and Vermilion via his cap radio, Doctor Fawn also having been as abruptly diverted from the same task as he had been.
Lieutenant Green already had the com logs auto-transcripted and running on scrolling display on his console monitor by the time he arrived. He scanned them quickly, disturbed not just by the succession of events, but by the evident concurrance of them.
His hunches were coalescing.
Colonel White leaned forward and put his elbows on the console, laced his fingers and then dropped his chin onto them, listening without interruption as the reports from Demeter took shape.
The board is set-up now, he thought. The pieces are in place. And the timing----
Even the time remaining was laid out. Now it was very much a matter of when Spectrum itself would make its next move.
And every single possible move and option that came to his mind looked bad.
Timing, he thought again. It's been in the timing all along. They gave us time to find Minerva. Timed their diversionary actions for Carey to elude us. They gave Weller time to misdirect us, time to clear out Demeter. They chose the time they wanted us to move Arthur Prince, chose the time to frighten Doctor McLaine to her senses, timed what she spilled and when. Gave me the time to mull over the possibilities. They timed, in precise calculation, when to kill Weller and Prince. Timed, with the same sort of accuracy how and when to panic the woman, and make her jump on cue the very direction they wanted her to go. Timed it such that Spectrum was scattered and ineffective. Timed it so that the very same storm we wanted to protect us simply trapped us exactly and precisely where they wanted us to be.
Timed when and how to use the dog.
Timed this last move.
For he was convinced now that it was the last move from the Mysterons, this round.
The ball was now in Spectrum's court.
"...we'll go, sir. Right now, before they can---"
He heard the suggestion on the open line, knew it was Roan, investigating outside in that blizzard with Magenta and Scarlet too, advocating what could only become a self-lethal action if undertaken. Colonel White snapped out of contemplation, unlaced his fingers and hit the toggle that gave him all-stations broadcast through to Demeter.
"Negative on that action, Lieutenant Roan. Spectrum is Red. Do not pursue. I repeat, do not pursue. That's an order. Captain Scarlet, get everyone back inside. I want all color-rank personnel in Demeter site-command for briefing - you have ten minutes."
As he'd suspected, Scarlet's instincts were leaning the same way as Roan's. "But, Colonel White, sir---" Scarlet protested, even as the wind whipped across the mike and garbled the words. "But Colonel, they just can't have gone very far----"
"Which was precisely what we'd thought earlier, when Ochre went off after Tylan McLaine, and we were wrong, Captain. That was an order, Captain Scarlet. Move! You now have less than ten minutes, and I want a report on just what Carey and Black were looking for in Weller's quarters in the first place."
"Spectrum is Green, Colonel." Scarlet capitulated. Unhappily. "Scarlet out."
Various other voices chimed in, signing off one after another, and the colored lights on the board winked out in the same sequence. Colonel White reached into the narrow filing drawer under the console to retrieve the folder that was there. "Lieutenant Green - I need Doctor Fawn up here - have him bring Blue and Grey with him if they're still in the Infirmary. And Shelley Carey too, if he hasn't already given her a sedative.. Page Indigo, as well. We'll need him to escort Mrs. Carey back to guest quarters - we won't need to question her for long. Give them twelve minutes."
Which was more than enough time for him to open the file, and find the piece of information he was looking for, even before Scarlet reported back, eight and a half minutes later.
"Captain Scarlet, establish a patch-through to Captain Ochre. He's going to be a key part of this briefing. Ensure that it's a secure channel, Captain. This entire communication is going to be level-one encrypted. Understood?"
"Yes, sir. Stand-by."
Indigo arrived next, coming into the Control Room from the portside doorway as he shunted the com to one-way, outbound transmission, holding all incoming com temporarily. Only a half a moment later, the Sickbay group filed in, Doctor Fawn escorting a bewildered widow and trailed by Blue and Grey, both out of uniform, silent, attentive and alert, if a trifle pale. Professionals, the two of them, senior staff, who guessed that something was up.
White rose to his feet, moving to greet Shelley Carey at last. "Mrs. Carey," he said gently. "Thank you for coming. I realize it's been a long and trying week for you. My condolences, Mrs. Carey. My apologies for the necessity. I have just one or two questions for you, and then we can let you go back to quarters to rest. Please, sit down."
Fawn indicated one of the stools, and Shelley Carey sank onto it, co-operative and nodding as White resumed his own seat behind the control desk, picking up and placing the file immediately before him on the console. "I have a file here, Mrs. Carey, that tells me your husband was academically very accomplished. He had both Bachelor and Masters degrees in Science and Business Administration. Is that correct?"
The woman nodded again. "Yes, Colonel White," she confirmed. "He did."
"And he was continuing his studies."
"He was working on his Doctorate."
"May I ask what field of study? And what his thesis was?"
She blinked, wondering, no doubt, why it mattered anymore. "It was Psychology," she replied. "He was writing a paper on the Psychology of Genius."
That was it. The key, to the entire Mysteron threat and Operation Minerva.
"A very narrow field, I'm sure. Was he blind-studying his subjects?"
She shrugged. "I would imagine so. Or the results would be skewed. He only told me recently what his theme was - he was almost done." Shelley Carey's lips pressed into a tight, thin line, shaken and trying to maintain composure. Still understandably distraught. "It won't ever be finished now."
"Thank you, Mrs. Carey," he said quietly. "You've been most helpful and co-operative. I think that's all we need to know for now. Lieutenant Indigo will escort you back to quarters and standby, should you require anything."
She nodded mutely, and left with Indigo, upset and trying not to let it show. Colonel White waited until the door had closed, and motioned everyone left standing to sit down as he released the lock on incoming transmissions on the console.
"Captain Scarlet?" he queried. "Captain Ochre? Did everyone catch that conversation clearly?"
Unlike the other indicators, the yellow button on the console flickered unsteadily. Ochre's line was static-filled, but his voice clearly audible, despite the poor signal. “Yeah,” Ochre said, short and worried. "We caught it."
"Demeter, S.I.G.," Scarlet replied. "That's an affirmative, sir. And based on what I just heard, I think we've perhaps underestimated and misconstrued Todd Carey's true role throughout the course of this whole Operation."
There was a brief silence, followed by an explosive "Dammit!" and then another silence.
Colonel White sighed. "A sentiment we can all share, I'm sure, but I was hoping for some commentary just a little more useful than that, Doctor."
"Like what? Like it's a good thing I'm a scientist who understands what the hell a blind study is? I'm sure Todd would have let us read it when it was finished and we wouldn't have cared. Andy would have been beside himself in hysterics because he never really considered himself a genius. Personally, I'm flattered. I can tell you that Arthur would have been. But I don't think any of that's especially useful."
"Nor do I, Doctor. However---"
"However what? How about I just state the obvious? I've been maneuvered and manipulated!"
"We've all been maneuvered and manipulated - so you're in very good company, Doctor McLaine." The woman was going to work herself into another state. Colonel White kept his voice calm. "However---"
"Are you telling me that they killed Andy and Arthur just to make me run?!" Her voice rose in panic again, that was where it was going. "I shouldn't be here!"
He abandoned the level tone, and raised his own voice, wanting to secure her attention. "Trust that I'm very well aware of that, Doctor! And I'm thinking that it's well past high time to make everyone aware of the reason for it! I need you to be listening carefully to Scarlet's upcoming report, Doctor, as you may just be the only person left alive on the face of this planet that can advise us of the possible significance behind it. What you're very likely not to be aware of at the moment, is that we've had a very serious breach of security at Demeter. Coordinated a little too conveniently with your own difficulties up there at the cabin for my liking and I, for one, most certainly do not happen to believe that any of it is pure coincidence!"
Another short silence ensued. Captain Ochre broke it. "Go ahead, sir. We're both listening."
Colonel White drew breath. "Captain Scarlet," he said. "May we now have your report on the situation at Demeter, please?"
"As a 'report', sir, I'm afraid it's liable to somewhat incomplete." Captain Scarlet replied, when he heard Colonel White's request. "And wide open to interpretation. Everyone please feel free to make comments and conjectures. Colonel White is correct insofar as we've had a significant breach of security here, despite the fact that our perimeter alarms failed to detect the evident presence of at least two persons at large within the vicinity of Demeter R & D. The records show nothing other than normal flux in the perimeter's sensor arrays, even with enhancements allowing for the conditions outside. They should have tripped if the line had been crossed. They didn't; therefore our first indication that anything was amiss was the intruder alert that sounded when the Residency - specifically Doctor Weller's personal quarters - was broken into and vandalized, shortly after midnight, local time.
"Our initial investigation revealed that two persons approached the building from the northeast on foot. Only one entered the premises and then both retreated again, proceeding in a westerly direction---"
"Heading this way, that means." Ochre observed, uneasily.
"Just advising the facts, Captain." Scarlet said neutrally. It still rankled with him, just sitting there at Demeter, orders or no, and doing nothing about it. "Pursuit was...interdicted and we remained on-scene. We found that a concealed security vault in Doctor Weller's quarters had been opened and we presume - though we have no way to verify it - something was removed from that vault before the intruder exited the premises prior to our arrival from Administration. Nothing else in the suite seems to have been disturbed. We removed all remaining articles from the compartment for further investigation. We're just sorting through them now." Scarlet paused for air, watching across the work table in the communications room as Teal and Roan methodically removed those objects from inside the pillowcase that they'd used to bring that haul back with them from the Residency.
"Were you aware, Doctor McLaine, that Weller had a vault in his quarters?" Colonel White asked in the brief interlude. "Do you have any idea what he kept there?"
"I knew there was a safe - but I don't know what Andy kept in it. I wouldn't think it would be anything especially important - not if it was vandalized that quickly and easily."
"Did Todd Carey know about it?" Scarlet asked after that, glancing over to where Magenta was re-engaged at his previous workstation, pursuing another important line of inquiry. "The Mysteron could well have left it open for Carey, if he'd known Carey was coming."
"I knew about it. I know Arthur did. I would have to think Todd must have...there wasn't much Andy kept from Todd. They had a good working relationship. But I don't know that for sure. What was left behind?"
"We'll get to that in a minute - we did find one rather anomalous object in the room. And we think it was left there deliberately. Magenta - what have you got?"
Magenta pulled down his cap mike, coming directly online. "The first thing we ran across was a set of car keys lying on the floor in Weller's quarters - the ID tag attached indicates they belong to a vehicle from a rental agency based in Prince George - the nearest major population center that's road-accessible to Demeter - or about as road-accessible as far as any road towards here goes. I've managed to contact the local authorities in Prince George - they're currently chasing down the agency manager to see specifically who it was that rented the vehicle and when. I've asked them to contact Lieutenant Green when they have that information, though I think we all pretty much can guess who it was. I've also contacted the vehicle manufacturer's sat-com center - all rental vehicles have onboard GPS transponders installed in case of emergency, theft or abandonment. They've pinged the car - and I have the grid-reference co-ordinates back from them."
Colonel White spoke grimly. “Go on, Captain."
"The car is stationary - apparently parked at the end of the road inbound, just the far side of the rockslide that blocked ground access several years ago. And that's only fourteen kilometers upstream of Demeter R & D, sir."
"Puts them slap-bang in the neighborhood...." Ochre muttered with a curse. "That's great."
"And likely they drove in under cover of the advancing storm - just as soon as we withdrew the Angels when we lost visibility," Colonel White concluded darkly. "A matter of very careful timing, it would seem."
"A long and grueling hike in these conditions," Scarlet murmured.
"They're Mysterons, Captain, and I hardly have to tell you that they'll stop at nothing short of achieving their objective. As we're only too well aware. Thank you for that information, Captain Magenta." Colonel White said. "We'll advise all personnel as soon as Green has any further news to report. Captain Scarlet - what did you find left in Weller's vault?"
"A variety of things, by the look of it, sir." Scarlet cast his glance over the assortment of objects and papers that had come out of the sack. "A stack of data disks – " he picked them up and passed them to Magenta at his workstation. "Captain Magenta is going to try to see what's on them for us. There are a few file folders – but not much in them." Scarlet flipped the first open, finding only a few sheets of hand-scrawled notes and figures. "There's a paper airplane," he said, taking that out and carefully unfolding it.
"Andy kept that?" Godzilla seemed surprised. "He would, I suppose…." she finished with her voice tight, as if she had a sudden lump in her throat. "It's the original proposal," she offered, after that. "For Minerva. Not much information in that."
Scarlet scanned it anyway – if it was about Minerva, he was interested. He read aloud: "Memo To: Andrew Douglas Weller, BSc., MSc., PhD, M.D., O.F. - O.F. – what's that designation?" Scarlet asked, when his brain failed to identify the acronym.
"Uh…term of affection," she replied, hesitantly. She cleared her throat, embarrassed. "Irrelevant."
"I'm tired of secrets, Doctor McLaine," Scarlet snapped in response. "If you don't mind."
Godzilla bit right back. Sarcastic, deadpan and very annoyed. "It's shorthand for 'Old Fart' – how's that for relevancy, Captain?"
"I'll sleep better at night for knowing it, thank you, Doctor." Scarlet rolled his eyes, and did not allow himself to be distracted by the humor of that inside joke. If it struck anyone else present as funny, they kept it to themselves, taking his own non-response as cue, and said nothing aloud.
Colonel White was the only one that reacted at all. "Don't anyone get any ideas," he muttered tersely, because the Colonel knew that he was himself already affectionately referred to on Cloudbase as the Old Man, even if he never heard it directly to his face. And certainly never would have seen it in print.
Scarlet simply continued to read: "From: T. McLaine, BSc., MSc., D.V.M., G.," for Godzilla, Scarlet didn't doubt, and didn't ask. "Date: Groundhog Day, 2067." That pegged Minerva at just over three years old – conception to present. "Have had a few thoughts about Arthur's think-tank. As follows:
1. Biochips don't work in neural nets.
2. Computers are only as good as their programs.
3. AI is therefore a bust because that means it’s still stupid.
Question # 1: How do you make Artificial Intelligence smart?
Answer # 1: You don't. You just use Real Intelligence instead."
"Arthur said that." Blue interjected suddenly. "Almost verbatim. Vermillion had asked him about AI – and Arthur said: 'You don't want intelligence that's artificial. You want intelligence that's real.'." Blue quoted from memory. "We thought it was just a put-off. That's how it came across."
Scarlet frowned. A real answer from Arthur? Framed and presented as something innocuously contrary? "The handwriting changes here – the next bit says: Question # 2: How?"
"That was Andy's reply. And I answered that one," Godzilla said. "That plane flew across the office a few times."
"Go on, Captain," Colonel White prompted.
"It replies: Answer # 2 : you build a real neural net. And then goes on to another Question # 3: How? And an Answer # 3: Rabies."
Scarlet turned the paper over, but the other side of it was blank. "That appears to be it, Colonel."
"That's it." Doctor McLaine confirmed. "End of Proposal."
"That's a project proposal?"
"Not much there, Doctor." Scarlet refolded the paper and put it back in the file.
"Which is exactly what I told you in the first place!" Godzilla was irritated. "Stay still, Och! What else did Andy have stashed?"
"A manual for a hand-gun." Scarlet picked up the small booklet. It answered where Weller had found the weapon, one small mystery solved. "Did you know he had one?"
"No. Andy didn't like guns." She answered it as if she was truly surprised.
"Small caliber," he commented. Not a serious weapon, in his opinion. Personal protection only. Though the Mysteron had certainly managed to do enough damage with it earlier that day. "There are two security cards here…one for Doctor Weller and another one for Mr. Prince. Silver, each with two black stripes and their names embossed. No other markings."
"I have one of those too," she admitted, uneasily. "There should be one for Todd."
Scarlet looked over, and Roan reached into the sack one more time, rummaging at the bottom, and shook his head.
"Negative, Doctor McLaine. Nothing for Mr. Carey. What are they for? And how likely is that to be our missing item?" He asked the question, though he suspected he already knew the answer.
There was silence. Uncomfortable and prolonged.
Ochre responded, when she didn't. "Hers opened the cabin, Captain. She said Carey didn't have any reason to take his to Africa. And she said Weller knew where it was."
That as good as clinched it in Scarlet's books. "I'd say that Mr. Carey got what he came for then," Scarlet concluded, watching as Roan drew some final object from the pillowcase and dropped the empty sack to the tabletop. "And I can't say as I'm liking the direction this is going, either…" Scarlet's voice trailed to inaudibility when he looked over and suddenly recognized the thing in Roan's hand. "Was that in the vault?!" he demanded, all sharp and suspicious and surprised.
"Yes, sir, it was." The Lieutenant's expression went quizzical at the harsh tone. Roan exchanged a nervous glance with Teal, likely wondering what he'd done wrong this time, and passed the thing across the table, dropping it into Scarlet's upturned palm.
"Captain Scarlet?" Colonel White was the first to query him about his abrupt change of tone and topic. "What have you found, Captain?"
"I'm really not too sure now, sir." Scarlet said, lifting his hand, bringing the object up and turning towards the nearest overhead light fixture with it, watching as the central mass within caught and refracted the light into his eyes, a back-lit, silver-gold illumination. "But yesterday Doctor Weller told me it was only a paperweight---"
The whole of Ochre's left arm had gone numb, and his brain, he figured, with whatever bits of it were still working, wasn't very far behind in that department.
The first aid kit was probably the best equipped he'd ever seen, due, no doubt, to having belonged to and likely been stocked and maintained by a professional MD. There was also little doubt in Ochre's mind either, that the dispensation and administration of that stock was being handled by a professional. That much was obvious.
The medical emergency in which he found himself front and center had served to steady Zil McLaine, occupying both her mind and her hands, a smaller but more immediate crisis that fell within her realm of expertise. It kept her from thinking about the root cause behind it, and made it easier for her to ignore the dead Mysteron on the floor there in the kitchen with them.
Once she'd managed to stop the worst of the bleeding with the tightly wrapped towel, and recovered her med-kit from wherever it had been, Zil had set about seeing to his wounds with a crisp, focused alacrity, even before Fawn had gotten involved. She'd wrapped him in one of the dry and unused blankets that had been by the hearth, a welcome and effective treatment for the trauma-induced cold-shakes. She'd rinsed his blood off of her hands with water from the jug and then scrubbed as best she could with some antiseptic she'd retrieved from the kit before turning a renewed and latex-gloved attention to poking around under the towel again, looking as if she knew what she was going about as she did so.
It was ugly under there. One short glimpse was enough to convince Ochre that he didn't want a second.
"Looks worse than it is," she'd murmured, seeing how he'd gone another shade paler than he'd already been; he'd felt it as the blood had gone from his face. "You stay out of there, Och - you've had more than enough shock for one day."
"No problem..." He simply sat there and stared at the opposite wall as she'd tied an awkward tourniquet around the top of his arm to reduce blood flow to the area she planned to stitch.
"It's gonna be okay. I'm not seeing any permanent damage here, Och. But this next bit's gonna hurt."
That 'bit' had been the alcohol and iodine wipe...a cold, quick swabbing that had stung and burned like acid in his wounds and made him decide in the next wobbly, about-to-pass-out-again moment that she'd lied about the additional shock he wasn't supposed to be getting any more of for the rest of the day.
A day that was scarcely a half an hour old and wasn't shaping up to be a good one.
She'd had the longest of the two lacerations closed and had started in on the second when the Colonel had pulled them back into radio-conference for the rest of the bad news.
Trouble at Demeter. Trouble that had skipped through and was evidently heading their way. A couple of Mysteron agents going mountain climbing in the Blizzard of the Century.
They are masochists, he decided. Dammit. Hope they don't have nerve gas and heat-seeking missiles with them....
That news had focused his attention very quickly. But it had slipped away again, back into a pained haze almost as fast. He winced and grimaced as Zil worked, not completely numb after all. He thought he'd just heard Scarlet say something about some stupid desk ornament.
Zil had been quiet, ever since word of the security cards. Spooked, through and through. But she answered Scarlet again - dismissively.
"Oh," she said. "That thing. It's just a paperweight."
Scarlet wasn't buying it. "I don't think so, Doctor McLaine." Scarlet replied curtly. "Last night Weller locked it up almost immediately after I'd asked him what it was, and he went to some considerable trouble disabling the security systems to do it without our knowledge. We've checked the records and we know the timeframes. I don't think 'just a paperweight' would warrant anything like that sort of attention."
It was hard to argue with that logic. Zil placed another stitch, paying attention to that task, evading an immediate reply, avoiding eye contact with him at that moment. Ochre was about to prod her to answer when she let out a heavy sigh of resignation and responded voluntarily.
"It's the first successful outcome of the initial feasibility study. Andy had it preserved. The scrappy-looking thing inside is a silicon-based filament that mimics a rat brain's reticular formation."
"Can you be more specific?" Scarlet pressed for more details, after a brief silence of his own. "Weller said something like that."
"That was specific, Captain. I'm sure Andy would've told you exactly what it was. It'll be in the data. And it's still just a paperweight."
"Is there a password on these files, Doctor McLaine?" Scarlet asked next, frustrated, but evidently deciding not to pursue it any further, giving her the last word on the matter. "One that you might know?"
"Yes, there's probably a password. No, I'm sorry, I don't know it. I'd tell you if I knew." Zil completed one more stitch. "I think those files have only the most difficult processes zipped down and stored on them. He wouldn't have kept the data on the more routine stuff."
"What sort of 'stuff', Doctor?" Scarlet pressed for more information, now that she'd started talking.
"The sort of stuff that tells you how to build a Minerva module, Captain, which is a complete and total waste of time to go into right now!" She stonewalled the line of inquiry as quickly as Scarlet had brought it up.
"Speaking of which---" Scarlet seized on the mention of the Mysteron's objective. "Where is the Minerva module, Doctor McLaine?" The question was asked in a tone that was clipped and demanding, Scarlet in what was probably his finest short-tempered, interrogative form. Not, Ochre thought distantly, that it was going to get Scarlet anywhere with Zil McLaine on the receiving end of it. "Please do be precise."
She paused in what she was doing, dabbing at a slow dribble of blood with a bit of gauze before closing her eyes, letting out another pent breath, far more annoyed than intimidated. "It's here, Captain. Here at the cabin. Where it shouldn't be."
"Not that it's really a surprise anymore," Ochre added casually, a pre-emptive attempt to defuse Scarlet's reaction to that non-news. "We were about to get into that when the dog wanted in."
"Brilliant." Scarlet muttered, absorbing it. "That's just bloody brilliant, isn't it?"
"Thank you, Captain Scarlet," Colonel White jumped in at last, calling Scarlet off. "That will do for now. We know it's not good news." For the Colonel, it was a very mild admonition. "I may as well tell you all now that I've known it since yesterday. The whole story. And I personally asked Doctor McLaine to maintain her silence on the matter."
A lengthy pause ensued in the wake of that revelation.
"What level of clearance does Minerva warrant, sir?" The question, when it came, was still clipped and short from Scarlet, but not quite so demanding. Somewhat offended, if anything.
"The very highest possible, Captain. Which is why I've requested that only color-rank personnel be present for this briefing. We've made mistakes, Captain. The Mysterons have set us up for them this round. They've given us the time and opportunities to make them and it seems quite obvious now that Todd Carey fully expected that we would."
"Maneuvered and manipulated." Scarlet repeated. "Sir, it's not too late, if we leave now there's still a chance to catch up with---"
"No, Captain Scarlet." Colonel White denied approval to that course of action adamantly. "That's what they want us to do."
"Don't even think about it, Scarlet." Ochre was in complete agreement with Colonel White on that one. "You'd never get here. Not a single one of you. Not alive, anyway. How much more company do suppose I want up here right now?"
"So we do nothing?" Scarlet objected.
Ochre closed his eyes, wishing that he'd gotten a little further into that last and so very thoroughly interrupted conversation with Zil. "Doctor McLaine indicated to me earlier that there are things that can be done to address the situation. Are we still Code 7, sir?"
"There's very little point in that now, Captain Ochre. No." Colonel White paused, taking a deep breath. "Captain Scarlet - had things gone differently yesterday, and had Doctor McLaine been able to confer with her colleagues, you would have learned long since that our plan was to remove and destroy hardware critical to the Minerva Project from its operations lab, effectively stalemating the Mysterons in this threat."
"And this operations lab is located not here at Demeter, but up on the mountain, sir?" Scarlet was quick enough to figure that one out.
Ochre heard it as Grey swore in the background.
"Sitting up there all week, completely unguarded?" Scarlet was incredulous.
"There was no need, Captain. Doctor Weller was absolutely correct when he said that the equipment was useless without a specifically trained operator. Keeping the pieces apart was an effective course of action. Very much to our detriment, however, the Mysterons have managed to circumvent it. Todd Carey - as a Mysteron agent - knew precisely what buttons to push and when to push them to move us and his subjects the necessary direction."
"Because he'd been studying them for his paper. He knew them. Personally, professionally and objectively. Todd Carey didn't know any of us, though, Colonel White. No prior knowledge there."
"No - Carey might not have, but Conrad sure did," Ochre said suddenly, as the pieces continued to fall into place, one domino after another. His mind wasn't numb now - it was racing, reviewing and configuring the layout of the cabin-that-wasn't. If there were caves - and he'd wondered earlier if there might have been - then the 'cabin' could well have had a lot of additional things he hadn't seen to this point. "Between the two of them the Mysterons were able to accurately predict what we were going to do - and they planned for it. But I haven't seen any operations lab, Colonel."
"Yet," Zil said then, keeping her eyes fixed on her next stitch, one that was looking, in the quick glance he took, to be one of the last. "Not yet, Och."
"Then it's not too late to still do that," Scarlet said with an excited realization. "We can still destroy the equipment!"
It explained, in an instant, why the Colonel hadn't allowed anyone out to go and chase the Mysterons down.
"Perhaps." Colonel White's voice remained grim. "Captain Ochre."
"Captain Ochre - I fear you're very much in the hot seat this time. I'm sure you've realized it. I'd like to have your assessment of the situation."
It didn't sound promising, despite Scarlet's positive take on things. Ochre thought about it.
Destruction of the equipment.....
"Might already be too late..." he murmured. "We've never determined, sir, if it makes any difference to the Mysterons who it is that destroys something they might want to copy, have we?"
"No, that's not a thing that we know with any certainty. Keep going, Captain."
"Carey knew the stuff was here. Weller and Prince knew. Therefore there's not a snowflake's chance in hell the Mysterons didn't. They've known all along and could be waiting for us to dispose of the stuff for them."
This time, it was Scarlet that cursed explicitly, before he implored for permission to leave again. "Colonel White---"
"Don't beg, Captain Scarlet. The answer is still no.”
"How long is this storm supposed to last?" Ochre asked next. "When did you withdraw the Angels? How fast are these two moving?" His questions came tumbling out in rapid succession.
"You're on the right track, Captain Ochre. We withdrew the Angel patrol at about three in the afternoon. Assuming that's when the Mysterons drove in, they then had to traverse the rockslide and hike fourteen kilometers into Demeter itself - nine hours elapsed time, approximate."
Ochre frowned. "It took us about eight hours to make the climb under better conditions - but I'll assume they'll keep at it regardless of the weather. We might not be as far away ground-measure - but it's tougher going than the valley floor and uphill against snow, wind and gravity. Let's say it'll take them at least as long as it took us."
"For argument's sake, we'll call that a base-line time, Captain, though there's nothing reliably fixed about it. We have to assume Todd Carey is familiar enough with the terrain to make the trip despite the weather. The storm itself is due to peak at about three a.m., your local time, and then abate by noon."
"We can fly before that," Magenta broke in. "I got the helijet down through this muck, I'll get up there in it if I have to. It's just two minutes - that's all it is by air. Two minutes."
If anyone could do it, Pat could, Ochre thought. No question in his mind. But the Mysterons could ditch any air rescue attempt, and if they ditched it before arrival, then the company wasn't going to be welcome when it did get there. If after a rescue - well, then the Mysterons still had a dead-to-be-reconstructed operator and the operations lab right at hand to return their robot-copies to.
Either way, Minerva was left vulnerable.
Maybe he'd just let Zil finish up with the repair job, they'd gather some survival gear, bail out of the cabin and lose themselves in the storm, hole up somewhere less comfortable, somewhere that the Mysterons might not find them.
Or where they might simply die trying to hide, and make the job that much easier for them again, leaving both operator and undefended lab nearby and Minerva therefore still vulnerable.
Zil had said something about using Minerva....using it to install something to protect Spectrum from its possible future misuse and---
His heart skipped a beat and then resumed hammering at double-time.
A sudden, harrowing doubt assailed him, chilling him to the core. His racing pulse set his arm to throbbing painfully.
If he was wrong about Zil...if the dog and the break-in had been nothing more than elaborate deceptions designed by Todd Carey - master psychologist - to divert Spectrum's attention---
He had no detector.
Whether he wanted to believe it or not, Kiss and Tell wasn't a reliable alien-detection measure. He had done colossally idiotic things. He was emotionally involved and more liable than ever be to be making the mistakes that Colonel White believed they'd all been ear-marked for...
If he was wrong, then he'd already served the Mysterons' purposes in making sure that their reconstruction had managed to get as far as the cabin and its still hidden ops-lab in one piece.
The dog had come after him; he saw it in an agonized realization, he had been the target and not Zil, despite the proximity and more than just one opportunity for the Mysteronized Merlin to have killed or fatally injured her before he could possibly have intervened.
He must have tensed involuntarily. She stopped abruptly in her ministrations and saw that something had changed in the way he couldn't help but glance at her---
"Och?" Her voice was scarcely audible. The hands that had been so sure and steady trembled as the color drained from her face. She stepped back, and just stared at him, blinking and frightened, because his good hand had landed on his electron gun before he'd even consciously thought to send it there.
And if he wasn't wrong, then....
Then the thoughts that were crossing his mind right now, thoughts about taking drastic steps to keep her away from the ops-lab would also serve enemy purposes by preventing her from doing something that could be the only thing that might save Spectrum - not to mention the rest of the planet - from a non-idle promise of annihilation.
"Zil..." he stated her name, his voice level and quiet. "Zil - can you really destroy the world?"
She swallowed in trepidation. "Yeah," she nodded tightly, her voice little more than a hoarse whisper. "Easy done, really."
It was a dizzying truth.
He obviously hadn't believed it, not until that very moment, when it hit him that she meant it.
A crushing, unimagined responsibility seized and assaulted him, overwhelming in its scope and its imminence. His gut knotted and quivered in momentary, disorienting panic. His fingers tightened on the electron gun---
And he understood then what had made her run. Understood, why she'd fought him back at the lake.
He understood, perhaps for the very first time at a gut level, precisely what motivation had been behind Conrad's oh-so-deadly mistake on Mars...
She didn't move, other than to wrap her arms tightly around her middle, as if her own gut was roiling out of control. "There's no way you can tell...." she said faintly, reading his mind, plainly saying aloud the most disconcertingly psychic thing he'd yet heard fall out of her mouth. "Plan D is your only safe option."
And then she closed her eyes, waiting for him to kill her.
It was noble and it was courageous and it was absolutely ridiculous.
The shaky panic subsided abruptly. He took three deep breaths and counted to ten silently, firmly re-orienting himself and knowing that he just wasn't going to do it. He was emotionally involved, that was a given now, and maybe he was stupid for it, but there was no damned way he was stupid enough to repeat Turner's greatest blunder in shooting first and finding out the hard way why it was wrong later.
And Colonel White had said---
The crushing weight evaporated. "It's not gonna happen, Zil." He heard his own voice make that announcement in a devastatingly normal tone. "Carey's not gonna push that button. They're not gonna spook us out." He refused absolutely to paralyse himself in what ifs, maybes and might have beens...
She opened her eyes, and stared at him like he was a ranting, raving lunatic. He took the hand off the gun, and held it out to her. She blinked once, and then moved to take it. He pulled her close, nose to nose again and looked into her pretty blue-grey eyes. There was nothing maybe about what he saw there.
"I still trust her, Colonel. You wanted my assessment, sir? This whole thing's a set-up. War of Nerves. They're playing chicken with us, sir, waiting to see if we're gonna blink first. Let's stick to the facts, sir. They can teleport when they want to – but they're making them walk. How many reasons can there be for that? It's the loophole this time – they're daring us to gamble whether you can get here before they can.”
"Turning our own plan to use the storm as cover directly against us. I concur with that assessment, Captain. It's all in the timing. It has been all along."
"Zil says she's got an anti-Minerva program in the works for us, Colonel. Plan C."
"I heard about it yesterday, Captain Ochre. And I think we're going to have to gamble and take that option at this point, providing Doctor McLaine thinks it's still feasible."
"You've got it, Colonel." Zil leaned toward the cap, perched centrally on the table. "There's time."
"If all goes well, we'll follow it up with Plan A, then. You have a tight schedule, Doctor. Settle that Captain down and see that he stays out of your way. I'm authorizing full security clearance - don't hold any information back. Captain Ochre - stay in close touch with Demeter - contact schedule 4, Captain. And get some rest. That's an order - you have company on the way, like it or not. I realize your condition is hardly optimal, but I'm afraid I need you to be to some degree functional until we can get some help up there."
"Yes, sir. Understood."
"I'll take care of filling in the information gaps at Demeter. And we'll sort out the quickest air rescue we can for you. The clock's running now, Captain. Good luck."
"Thank you, Colonel. Ochre out."
The hiss of static had become an un-noticed white noise in the background; it ceased as the channel closed, leaving a deep silence in the small kitchen.
"Where were we?" Ochre asked into the quiet that followed, keeping Zil there in close proximity.
Her hand came up to touch his cheek lightly. She lifted his chin, turning his face to examine the deep scratch there that she hadn't tended to as yet. "I'd kiss this better if I could."
"I think I'd like that," he murmured. "But we can't be stupid right now."
"I know, Och. We're not gonna be." She planted a kiss on his forehead anyway, of a chaste and disappointing sort. Still, it felt comfortable and deceptively safe after the harrowing doubts that had played through his mind only a few moments before.
"Zil." Ochre said her name, going serious, hanging onto her hand and hell-bent that she was not going to escape the question this time. "Where's Minerva, Zil?"
"It's here, Och. Right here."
"In the cabin - I know. I get it. I have clearance. Where's the module?" His arm was aching again, his panic-induced second wind running out and she still hadn't 'fessed up.
"You might have clearance, but you don't get it. The module's right here."
"Dammit, nothing!" Zil pulled her hand out of his grasp, and swatted his undamaged shoulder hard enough to smart. "Pay attention! Och, you're so damned intelligent, why the hell haven't you figured it out yet?" She turned and paced away, folding her arms as if her belly was full of fluttering knots again.
The backhanded, half-assed compliment confused him. "Haven't figured what out yet?"
She turned back to stare at him, biting at her lip, nervous and sober one more time. "I don't just operate the module, Och...." her voice faded, trailing into silence.
He waited. "What, Zil?" he repeated. "What haven't I figured out yet?"
Agitated, casting her glance around helplessly, she came closer and picked up his hand, squeezing his fingers as if she wanted to soften some descending blow, hesitating to say whatever it was---
"That I'm…” she stammered, and swallowed hard. “That I am the module, Och...”