“You have been warned.”
That was how it all really started.
Basically, this line was the last part of the final message the Mysterons issued to the people of Earth. They said that they had now reached the next stage of their War of Nerves, and that they would be issuing no more of their customary threats, that the Earthmen knew all they needed to know about their upcoming attacks, should they consider themselves able to stop the destructive powers of the Mysterons.
And then, on October 31st, 2072, on the Night of Halloween, the Voice of the Mysterons, which had previously heralded all of their attacks, fell silent, never to be heard again by any human ears.
At first, Spectrum was at a loss to understand what exactly the Mysterons meant. Obviously, that message had all the flavour of one of their often cryptic threats, except that this time, the full meaning carried much more impact on all the attacks to come; they clearly meant to strike harder than they had up until now. Even with all its past successes at keeping the Mysterons at bay and countering their devastating attacks, the Spectrum organisation was careful not to appear too confident in what they expected would be much more perilous and terrible times.
If the first attack that followed this ultimate statement was a failure for the Mysterons, it was merely due to a pure stroke of luck. They came after World President Younger again, three years after he had escaped from their first attempt on his life. But this time around, Spectrum had nothing to do with saving the World President, and wasn’t even in attendance to protect him, unaware of where the Mysterons would strike next. As it was, the assassin chosen by the Mysterons was an incompetent who totally botched up the job, and fell under the bullets of the U.S.S. agents assigned to Younger’s protection.
As new attacks from the Mysterons carried on in the following months, with failures and successes on each side, Spectrum started to realise a distinct pattern to the Mysterons’ second wave of attacks: they were targeting the same objectives they had in the first wave.
At the start, the order of these attacks remained the same, so it was relatively easy for Spectrum to organise itself and be ready for the Mysterons’ next move. However, the Mysterons didn’t stick to their modus operandi and soon, they once again changed the rules of engagement. They did keep to the same targets, but they no longer followed the same order of attack. They also became much more aggressive and ambitious, applying with no hesitation or scruple the principle that it was acceptable to ‘use a cannon to kill a fly’, as long as they obtained results. They would willingly total an entire city just to get at one man.
Spectrum, and Earth with it, was starting to seriously lose ground, and it became more than obvious that Earth was fighting a desperate battle. Emboldened by a series of momentous victories against their human foes, the Mysterons once again changed their own rules, realising that, by combining attacks, they could kill two birds, and more, with one single stone. The Mysterons used their great powers and Earth’s own technologies against its own people, creating disaster after disaster, destroying cities and entire lands, ravaging food and fuel reserves, wreaking havoc, terror and destruction everywhere on the planet. They were swift and ruthless in their death dealing, cold, calculating, and totally efficient. One after the other, all of the Mysterons targets fell inexorably to their might.
During most of those dark years, Spectrum fought valiantly to, if not stop the Mysteron attacks, at least lessen the deadly toll and impact of them. With the organisation often becoming the target of these attacks itself, confronted with growing public criticism, and caught within the constant whirlwind of political schemes and manipulations, Spectrum agents never gave up, despite the many drawbacks and failures that kept striking them, their numbers decreasing with each encounter and the battle quickly becoming a desperate one.
Captain Scarlet, Spectrum’s fiercest and most proficient agent, had disappeared many years ago, soon after the death of first his wife, and then his closest partner. Nobody knew exactly what had happened to him, and his colleagues, too occupied with facing the surging wave of Mysteron threats, couldn’t devote as much effort to searching for him as they would have wished. His absence denied Spectrum of the much-needed asset the organisation so desperately needed, and the exemplary encouragement his determination and resilience provided to those who worked close to him. Without him, it seemed inevitable that Spectrum would lose its war against the Mysterons.
And then, in 2078, ten years after they declared their War of Nerves, in one single attack, the Mysterons struck their most ambitious blow, which brought Humanity and its courageous defenders to their knees.
From then on, Earth was doomed, although the War of Nerves waged on for decades. The disasters and natural cataclysms created by the Mysterons’ powers devastated the face of the Earth, changing its ecosystem, and even its geography, in ways that no other wars, even combined together, had ever done before.
Earth’s environment was deteriorating and was threatening to become sterile in only a few years…
Left without its elected representatives and leaders, those who survived the catastrophes had very little to go on: housing, food, money and fuel reserves, when there were any left, were rapidly depleting. Technology and communication were mostly gone in all parts of the world. Starving, sick and desperate, the population of Earth nevertheless organised itself in small communities all over the planet, trying hard to survive in a now hostile and unproductive environment. They lived off the ruins of once great, impressive cities, scavenging for food, clothing and bare necessities, bartering with neighbouring communities, and fending off hordes of bandits who would often kill to rob them of their meagre possessions.
Through it all, they lived in dread of the Mysterons – their presence now more than ever felt amongst them, as the feared aliens had moved from their home planet of Mars to finally settle on Earth, like conquerors taking over the land of their defeated foes. Patient, silent, biding their time, they were watching the weakened Earthmen, watching for the first opportunity to strike a new blow that would put them down definitely. For hope still lived amongst the populace, along with talk, gossip, and murmurings exchanged within the meeting caravans and brought by visiting strangers. Spectrum still survived – some of its senior staff having escaped the fall of Cloudbase, to organise the resistance against the Mysterons.
But forty years after the Mysterons’ first threat against Earth, with the state the world was now in, what chance could anyone have against these terrible alien foes?
What it took was a miracle.
Or more precisely, the return of a miracle…
Looking through the devastation that surrounded him, Scarlet instantly knew why he had avoided coming back to this place for so many years.
He remembered the time, so very long ago, when this was one of the greatest metropolises of the world, and when he felt a surge of personal pride whenever he heard people around him express their awe and admiration at the sight of it. It was his city, although he had not been born here. His favourite. The most precious jewel in the English crown.
Today the two thousand years old city was nothing but rubble and ruins, and scarcely bore witness to the greatness of another age. This was where thousands of vehicles used to drive by relentlessly every hour of the day, and where a multitude of people busily walked, going about their many businesses, in a hive of exultant and intense activity. Now there was only desolation and misery between the wrecked, collapsed buildings and the uneven cracked streets.
Scarlet knew and had seen the devastation of other great cities around the world. Paris had been the first to fall, when the Mysterons killed one third of the Europe Triumvirate and in the process, destroyed half of the city by way of geoplasmic bombing. Los Angeles, which was completely devastated when the Mysterons used a giant nuclear-powered drill in the Puente Hills fault, causing a massive earthquake of uncommon magnitude that created a gigantic rift between the major part of California and the rest of North America. New York, once the greatest metropolis in the world, which suffered as many various attacks as London itself; it was nothing more than broken spires left by its long-collapsed buildings. And Futura City, the capital of the World, the jewel of Bermuda, was nothing more than a memory.
Each time Scarlet had felt distraught at scenes of destruction such as he was seeing now, and he would never be able to erase such tragedies from his memory. But today, walking in the middle of the fallen ruins of his city, what he could see, added to the personal loss he had suffered on this very ground so many years ago, broke his heart. Even knowing from experience what he would find, he was far from being prepared for it.
Nothing of what had made this city so great existed anymore.
That was the thought going through Scarlet’s mind as, holding his horse by the bridle, he walked through the streets, looking despondently at the devastation that surrounded him.
He wasn’t surprised to find that London had not been completely deserted. People still lived within the outskirts of the city, trying to make a living from what was left in the ruins, and taking shelter in structures that looked like they would collapse at any moment. He suspected that it was their presence that had given cause for the Mysterons to strike at London again and again. The initial attack of 2073 had seen the collapse of the city’s maze of centuries-old sewers, undermined by former rivers, subway tunnels and multiple underground nuclear explosions, which brought down the buildings that sat on them. During the years that followed, the Mysterons pressed their attacks, with assaults on a smaller scale perhaps, but which took repeated toll of the once great city. But the population was not leaving. They were a hardy people, even in their desperation, and that made Scarlet all the more proud of them. They were his people.
No. Not his people. Not anymore. Even after all these years, he tended to forget: he wasn’t really part of the human race. But because of what he was, what he might have been so many years ago, these people, these individuals living on this island were those to whom he felt closest.
England was his home. This was imprinted on his heart, into his very being. He might try as hard as he wanted, he could never deny it. Even to himself.
He had gained access to the city though the Thames, by securing the service of the owner of a barge who made a rather lucrative business of bringing people inside London by demanding a high price for their passage. The man had been reluctant at first, arguing that Scarlet’s mount was taking the place of two or three clients all by itself. There was no doubt he would have asked for an excessive fare if he had dared to; but when he saw the truncated barrel of Scarlet’s shotgun hanging from his belt, he wisely kept quiet and contented himself with the already generous amount Scarlet offered him.
Scarlet had disembarked in the area of what used to be King Edward VII Memorial Park, near Wapping to the east of The City. From there, he had slowly made his way through London. First on horseback along the former A1203, past what was left of the Tower of London, then following the Embankment, making a detour around the ruins of the Hungerford and Golden Jubilee Bridges blocking his path, and finally on foot, leading Rainbow, his horse, by the bridle, through the rubble-filled streets of the city, and the crowds of people living in them.
By noon, he had reached Trafalgar Square, which bore very little resemblance to what he remembered of it. The buildings surrounding the place were all but reduced to so many ruins and debris. Nelson’s Column lay on the now patchy ground, in five broken pieces, and the only thing left of the monument was one of its four guardian lions, miraculously intact. A boy, of about twelve years old, was riding it. He was brandishing a piece of wood as if it was a sword, with other children playing and laughing at the foot of the monument. Shelters made out of wood, old pieces of fabric and even stones had been erected all around the place, with fires burning bright in front of them. A nauseating smell of bad meat burning over one such fire caught Scarlet’s nostrils and he hurriedly passed through. He ignored, as best as he could, the children that had now taken interest in Rainbow, and who were running alongside. They were stroking the flanks of the great sorrel stallion who docilely tolerated their presence; Scarlet threw them a handful of coins and walked out of the square, through one of the rare streets that was still accessible.
From Trafalgar Square, Scarlet made his way to what used to be Piccadilly Circus. As he had recently learned, it had become over time, the centre of London’s activities; people had erected stands where they ran a variety of businesses in an attempt to make a better life for themselves. Everything could be bartered for here: fruits and vegetables, bread, and other types of food; clothing, either found in the ruins and repaired, stolen, or even made by hand with varying degrees of success; charms and token jewellery and tools of various utilities. All was for sale. At one end of the place, Scarlet saw some women selling their bodies for a little money, out in the open, without any shame or reservation; they had nothing else left and felt they needed to do whatever they could to survive. At another corner, kids were begging for a few coins to buy some food. One of them stole a piece of rotten bread from a stand and ran past Scarlet, with the yelling vendor hot on his tail. The boy was too fast for the man who gave up after three steps and returned to his stand, cursing and panting loudly, while his quarry disappeared in the shadow of a nearby small street. Scarlet watched as the boy met with two younger kids, and the three of them shared the bread and sat down directly on the pavement to start eating. He heard them laugh, and the younger kids made jokes at the expense of the oversized bread vendor who obviously was no match for their hero. In the face of the clear precariousness of their lives, they were in good spirits, and in spite of himself, Scarlet couldn’t help but smile.
Still holding Rainbow by the bridle, he made his way through the various stands, ignoring the many vendors calling to him, and quietly checked their stalls, looking for anything that might be useful to him. His stomach was starting to cry out, and he realised he probably would have to eat something soon; but so far, the food offered to his eyes was not really that appetising. He quickly realised that finding the nice, fresh, and very juicy fruit he was craving would be somewhat difficult.
An unusual group of people walking on the other side of the place attracted his attention, and made him stop and watch with curiosity. He couldn’t help but notice they were dressed almost identically in dark apparel, with large coats that went down either to their thighs or ankles, and heavy, high boots. They were all armed, with rifles and guns, and Scarlet even saw a knife or two tucked in some boots. There were six of them: five men, and one woman; she was tall, with long blonde hair, and at this distance, she looked rather attractive. She seemed slightly older than her companions, who couldn’t be that much older than twenty years of age; walking self-assuredly in front of them, she was checking the various stands as they passed by. Her companions followed her with obviously bored and exasperated expressions upon their faces.
Scarlet followed them with his eyes until they reached the front of a building, surmounted by a crudely-drawn poster advertising pots and pans. A man standing by the door invited the blonde woman in, and she motioned to her followers to wait for her, before disappearing with the man inside the shop. The expressions of relief on the young men’s faces couldn’t be more manifest; it was with cheerful laughter that they left the front door of the building and went exploring on their own.
For a second or two, Scarlet watched them go, mulling over who they could be. It was hard not to notice how people were stepping aside to make way for them. Scarlet could even decipher traces of apprehension, or even fear, on a few faces, as the boys walked by with an evident self-importance, ignoring these people as if they were simply part of the scenery. Obviously, they instilled, if not respect, then fear, and Scarlet wondered exactly what could motivate such a reaction in their wake. Maybe it was simply the fact that they carried weapons. It was clear to him that they were bad news, and it was obvious that people knew or felt that it was better to avoid any contact with them.
He shrugged inwardly, assessing that it was probably a very good idea for him to stay away as well. He didn’t need any trouble if he could avoid it.
“Hey, mate. I’m talking to you. I can give you a good price for your horse.”
Absorbed in his reflections, Scarlet had not heard the man addressing him the first time around, and frowned at these words. He slowly turned around to direct a cold stare at the man who had spoken to him. He was a big fellow, with half of his teeth crooked and decayed. It wasn’t difficult to guess his profession; the leather apron he was wearing, the dirt and dark brown stains that covered it, the stench pervading him… Scarlet didn’t have to look at the makeshift wooden sign hanging from the wall of his shop or to get a glance beyond the open door where a multitude of flies were buzzing around hanging carcasses of dead animals to know exactly what this man was.
He turned his back in disgust at the man and gently stroked Rainbow’s forehead. “He’s a working animal,” he answered. “He would not make good meat.”
“Ah, doesn’t matter,” the man replied casually, failing to hear the warning in Scarlet’s voice. “These days, people will eat cats and dogs… even rats, and if they get the chance, the occasional rabbit… But a horse… I could feed a lot of people with that.”
Scarlet’s eyes glowed as he glanced at the man over his shoulder. “You don’t care about feeding people,” he replied coldly. “You only care about how many pieces you would be able to carve from him, and sell at the highest possible price.”
The man threw up his hands. “Hey, a man has to make a living…”
“You don’t look like you go hungry very often.”
The man hesitated, recognizing the insult for what it was. He preferred not to answer it, and cleared his throat. “I’m serious, you know. How much do you want for the horse?”
“There’s no amount of money you can offer me to pay for him.”
Scarlet gathered the bridle in his hand and started to walk away. He heard the butcher approach from behind; he could almost feel the man’s movement as his hand reached for him.
“Hey Mister, I’m making you a fair offer. You don’t have to act so high and mighty. You’ll probably end up eating that horse one day, so why not make a good deal with it while you still ca –”
The words died on the butcher’s lips and he never had the time to actually touch Scarlet’s shoulder. The latter had turned around swiftly, knocking the dirty hand away with one hand and presenting the barrel of his shotgun under the man’s nose with the other. The butcher stopped in his tracks and, with wide eyes and a slack jaw, stared at the cannon aimed at him and the cold face beyond.
“The horse has been my means of transport, my travelling companion, my confidant and my friend for the past five years,” Scarlet said, shaking his head. “He is more precious to me than your insignificant business, or even your meaningless, miserable existence. So if I were you, I would not insist.” He narrowed his eyes, and added, in an ominous voice: “I’m quite willing to bet that you value your life much more than the money you could make by butchering my horse.”
“Hey…” His voice shaking with fear, the butcher raised his hands, in an appeasing gesture. “… Where did that gun come from?”
“I took it from the cold hands of the last man who tried to steal my horse. So if you know what’s good for you… you will stay away from him, and me, and will stick to rats. I hope I’m making myself clear?”
The butcher swallowed hard. “As crystal, mate.”
Scarlet gave a brief nod and re-holstered the gun. He purposely turned his back on the butcher and walked away, taking Rainbow along; the horse had grown nervous during the whole confrontation, as if he had understood what it was all about. Scarlet gently caressed his forehead, murmuring calming words. It took barely seconds for Rainbow to relax.
In the busy street, nearby people had noticed the incident, but barely anyone had reacted to the fact that Scarlet had pulled a gun on the butcher. These were wild and desperate times, and people had grown accustomed to such displays right, in front of their eyes. Too damn accustomed, Scarlet told himself with irritation, remembering a time when such behaviour was not acceptable, and would have warranted an arrest from the local constabulary, in any city in the country. But there was barely any law anymore, and people had to fend for themselves, and mind their own business, if they were to survive.
Especially here, in this vast town of ruins and detritus, resembling an inhabited junkyard more than the actual city it had once been many decades ago, and that Scarlet still remembered so well.
Damn Mysterons. They sure made good on their threat…
Scarlet glanced at the other side of the place, distractedly searching for the group he had been watching until the butcher had distracted him. He found them again, and they were now looking in his direction. Obviously, they had also noticed what had happened, and were regarding him as curiously as he had them, a few minutes before. Scarlet met their gaze, and noticed how one of them, a tall, dark-haired, not so pleasant-looking young man with a particularly callous expression upon his face, didn’t seem inclined to divert his eyes and look away.
“You’re new around here, aren’t you, son?”
An old woman, tending a stand of fruits in front of a dilapidated building, which probably had been very beautiful in its time, gave a smile to Scarlet as he turned to face her. She had white hair and a charming smile, in the middle of a very wrinkled face, and immediately, Scarlet took a liking to her.
“I’m just passing through,” he answered kindly. He chose an apple from the rack and examined it. It wasn’t red, a little too green, and had probably been waiting on the stand for a long time. “But I’ve been in this city before… a long time ago.”
“Not that long, I’m sure,” the old woman told him. “Only ten years ago, we couldn’t even come around here without getting ill from radioactivity. You don’t appear old enough, to have known the city before that time.”
“You would be surprised.”
“Well, the city has gone to the dogs lately,” she said gloomily. “I saw your… little chat with the butcher. You put him in his place all right. The bastard. I’m sure he’s behind the disappearance of my poor old Buster.”
“A cat I owned. He was my faithful companion. He liked to stay home and keep me company, instead of going out to chase rats. But one night, two months ago, he went out for the night. He never usually did that. He never came back, the poor dear… I think it’s easy to imagine what happened to him. The butcher has teams of kids running around the place at night to bring him whatever meat they can find. Poor, poor, old Buster…”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“These are really cruel times, sonny, if we can’t even protect our best friends.”
Scarlet nodded. He chose another apple from the rack and presented both of them to the old woman, signifying that he wanted to buy them.
She shook her head. “No, you don’t want those.” She took the apples and put them back into the rack. Before the eyes of the puzzled Scarlet, she produced two other apples from under the rack and put them into his hands; they had some red in them, and looked obviously juicier. The look of them made Scarlet’s mouth water. “You want these. I keep the good stuff for my favourite clients – those who really deserve it.”
“You don’t know me.” Scarlet pointed to Rainbow. “And one of them will be for him.”
“And you think he doesn’t deserve it either? With the scare the poor dear just had…”
Scarlet gave a bright smile to the woman. “Why, then?”
“Because despite of that awful beard which is hiding half your face, you’re so good-looking? And that smile of yours is worth millions.” She smiled in turn, a crooked and sad smile. “You put balm onto an old woman’s heart. I wish I was younger… much younger.”
Scarlet kept from telling her he was probably older than she was, and paid for the apples. As he was giving her more than she was asking for, she told him to take two more apples from the rack, which he did. With thanks and a farewell gesture, he started walking away. He gave one of the good apples to Rainbow, who devoured it in one instant. Scarlet put the other three into his travelling bag for later.
He reached another stand, a little further away, where the merchant was displaying a variety of knives and blades; he looked at them with a critical eye. Some of the blades were covered with rust, but most of them were well tended, and one particular knife attracted his attention.
“Looking for something to get rid of that beard, friend?” the merchant asked.
Scarlet raised his eyes to look at him, realising he had been stroking his chin in a pensive way. The man smiled at him. “I’ve got good razors that you might want to use. Freshly sharpened, and I guarantee there’s no trace of rust on ‘em.”
“That’s good to know,” Scarlet commented. “But actually, I’m more interested in this.” From the stand, he took a Swiss Army knife, with a bright red handle. He went through the multiple blades, examining them with an approving nod and presented it to the man. “How much?”
The seller shook his head. “You know your stuff. That’s my best piece.”
“I had one of those, many years ago. I lost it. I could use a new one. What’s your price?”
“Five, if you got them.”
Scarlet tutted. “Too much. Will you throw in a whetstone with it?”
“And a set of those razors you mentioned earlier.”
The seller smiled widely and chortled. “You drive a hard bargain, mister. A set of three razors, a whetstone and the knife. Six pieces.”
Scarlet grinned; the seller was an honest man. “Done.”
He had just paid the man and was pocketing his purchases when he heard voices raised in angry shouts coming from behind. The knife merchant muttered a low curse and Scarlet looked over his shoulder to see what was going on.
It was the group of young men he had seen earlier; they were now at the old woman’s apple stall, and the tall, slim, dark-haired lad was yelling heatedly at her, throwing fruits back into the rack.
“What’s this, you old hag? These fruits are rotten! I know you stash the best underneath and I want them!” He pushed the top of her stand with an angry gesture, sending apples rolling onto the street. “I ain’t buying these! They’re worth nothing!”
Scarlet tried to ignore the incident and turned back to the blade stall; he was really torn between the desire to intervene and to not get involved and walk away. He really didn’t need any trouble, and didn’t want to be any part of it, but it seemed that wherever he went, trouble followed behind.
As the yells continued behind him, he looked around and realised that nobody else was willing to step up. He glanced over his shoulder again, and caught a glimpse of the old woman, facing the five young men. At this very moment, she seemed so much frailer than she actually was, so helpless and distraught to see her means of making a living being thrown away like this into the dust…
Scarlet grunted with irritation. Who am I kidding? I can’t turn my back on her…
He patted Rainbow’s forehead and handled the reins to a small boy who was standing nearby. “There will be a coin for you if you hold him for me.” The boy smiled widely, and accepted the deal with a vigorous nod. Scarlet turned on his heels and walked back to the apple stand. He stopped only a couple of feet from it, and his voice was calm when he addressed the gang: “Hey.”
The dark-haired young man immediately stopped his invective and his head snapped in Scarlet’s direction. Up close, Scarlet could judge that he might just be three or four years over twenty. The boys behind him were about the same age, if not even younger. They looked strong and well fed, and displayed a self-assurance that bordered on arrogance. They didn’t feel threatened by him; they had the strength of superior numbers, and their weapons to back them up.
Scarlet wasn’t impressed in the least; he nodded towards the apples the boy had thrown on the ground. “Pick those up and gave them back to her.”
The eyes of the slim man burned. “Beat it, stranger. This is none of your business.”
“It is when smart-ass bullies like you and your mates take it out on an old woman who can’t defend herself.”
“She’s a thief, and her apples are rotten.” He threw another apple onto the street with such force that it smashed at Scarlet’s feet. His companions, who had gathered around him, chuckled wickedly. “Nobody wants to buy them.”
“They do when they don’t have a choice,” Scarlet replied. “Be fair. That old woman’s doing the best with what she has.”
“I saw her giving you good apples,” the younger man spat.
“And I paid for them. I suggest you do the same with those you ruined.”
“Or what?” the boy chuckled. “You’re gonna use your big gun on us, like you did the butcher? Do you have enough ammunition for all of us? Or even any of it, to begin with?”
Scarlet narrowed his eyes and shook his head. “It’s not very wise to make that kind of assumption and not be prepared to verify it, kid,” he replied icily. “Beside, I do believe I’ve got more than enough to take care of you, but I’d rather not try to find that out.”
The young man snorted irreverently. “What’s stopping you?”
“Bullets cost big money these days, you must know that. And using them on any of you would be a waste. However, I do suggest you step away from that old woman’s stall. I still can hurt you without the need of a gun.”
“You talk big, hot shot. Is that all you have? Words?” The young man gave a violent kick to the stand, turning it over, and all the apples went rolling in all directions down the street. The old woman wailed miserably. Another member of the gang, a black boy, who seemed the youngest among them, made a face at the scene, and didn’t seem very at ease with what was going on. He had the merit of being the only one of the gang to speak up:
“Oh man, Watson… you shouldn’t have done that.”
“Shut up, Jones!” the first boy snapped angrily at him. He turned back to Scarlet. “Come and show us your stuff, if you think you’re so tough. We’ll play fair: we won’t use the guns either.”
Scarlet shook his head sadly. “You’re making a big mistake, kid.”
He had barely spoken before the boy was already running at him, his fists at the ready. “Don’t call me kid, you –”
Scarlet bent down to avoid the swing the young man was throwing at him, and at the same time, punched him in the stomach, instantly stopping his advance. The boy’s knees folded, and Scarlet pulled him up by his shirt, before sending a new punch into his jaw. The force of the impact sent him straight into the path of his approaching companions.
The young black man called Jones, who was coming in the first line, was the second to suffer a punch from Scarlet’s fist; a third boy received a well-placed kick into his abdomen, which sent him into the dirt. At the same moment, Watson, showing himself much more resilient that Scarlet had anticipated, came charging again with the rest of his companions. To stop their advance, Scarlet roughly tossed Jones into them like a bowling ball, sending them tumbling down like ninepins. He heard whooping and cheers of support and delight, as he easily disposed of his assailants, who visibly were no match for him. Scarlet understood that he was right about these boys earlier on: they were not very popular around here.
Then he saw Watson going for the handgun hanging from his belt, and he didn’t hesitate one second to draw his own weapon. It was out and ready faster that Watson could get his out of its holster, and the young man froze in place when he saw the barrel of the shotgun aimed straight between his eyes.
“Don’t be a fool, kid, or I’ll spray your brains all over the pavement!”
Silence fell onto the place, with everyone watching intently.
Watson swallowed hard, glaring with anger at Scarlet. The latter met his gaze without faltering. “I’m quite willing to use up a bullet for you, if you don’t give me any choice. So don’t tempt me.”
Seeing their leader in danger, the other young men had stopped their assault, and now stood rooted in place, wondering what they should do. As for Watson, although he was clearly afraid, he still displayed the same arrogant façade he had up until now.
“You’re making a big mistake, man. You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
Scarlet narrowed his eyes. He was barely breathing hard. He cocked the hammer of his gun; the clicking sound made Watson shiver and he paled horribly. “Do I look like someone who cares?” Scarlet asked ominously.
“What the hell is going on, here?”
A female voice rang out beyond the line of curious bystanders and attracted everyone’s attention. Scarlet saw movement, as someone was trying to get through to them. The tall, blonde, young woman he had seen earlier with the boys emerged from the crowd and stepped into the space occupied by the antagonists. She looked extremely angry, but at least wasn’t holding in her hands the rifle she carried on her shoulder.
She came to stand tall between Scarlet and Watson, seemingly not impressed by the shotgun in the older man’s hand. She first gave him a cursory glance, before turning to face Watson.
“Still getting into trouble, Watson? I told you to lay low!”
“He started it!” Watson replied, pointing at Scarlet.
The latter rolled his eyes. How very childish…
“No, he did not,” the old apple vendor shot back, with a shivering voice. Everyone turned to her, and she pointed a trembling finger in Watson’s direction. “This boy destroyed my stand, and ruined all of my apples.” She nodded towards Scarlet. “This nice man just tried to stop him.”
The young woman looked at the frightened old lady for a moment, then down at the destroyed stand, and at the apples covering the uneven ground. Her eyes – which were a deep blue, Scarlet noticed – glared with barely contained anger when she looked back at the group of young men standing in front of her. This close to her, Scarlet could see she was older than he had first thought – maybe around thirty, or just over. There was a sense of leadership emanating from her and Scarlet understood that the boys, much younger, deferred to her authority.
“Put that stand back on its feet,” she ordered, “and the apples back into it. You’ll all pay for those you ruined with your own money.”
The word made Scarlet raise a brow, but he didn’t have time to comment on it. The young woman was turning angrily at the one man who had dared to protest, pointing a warning finger at him.
“You’ll do as I say, Watson, or you’ll be in even more trouble than you already are.” She had spoken softly, but there was an unmistakeable threat in her voice. Scarlet couldn’t clearly define what her accent was exactly ; it sounded mid-Atlantic, a mix of English and American.
Watson lowered his eyes and nodded, and he and his friends carried out the given order.
“Captain…?” Scarlet repeated in a quizzical voice. “Wha –”
She turned swiftly back to him, not giving him the time to continue. “Mind your own business, mister.” She seemed as furious with him as she was with the boys. Scarlet didn’t insist. Quietly, as there was no need for it anymore, he lowered his gun. She followed the gesture, nodding thoughtfully. “I take it this is your habit to get involved in affairs that aren’t yours?”
He tilted his head and looked down into her eyes, re-holstering his gun. “I didn’t think it fair that five grown-up young men would pick on a defenceless old lady like that,” he replied.
“What is she to you?”
Scarlet shook his head. “Nothing, really. Just an old lady I just bought apples from.”
The young woman narrowed her eyes at him. “I have a feeling that if you had not got involved in the first place, things would not have gone this far.”
Scarlet pondered about this a second; inwardly, he couldn’t deny that point. But he wasn’t about to admit it to her. “It still wasn’t fair on the old woman. Maybe you should learn to keep a better leash on your puppies?”
He saw the anger burning hotter in her eyes; he wondered with whom she was the more annoyed at the moment. The boys she had responsibility for … or him?
“I’m working on that,” she said, in answer to his comments. “And you,” she added, poking Scarlet’s chest, “I suggest you do your best not to cross paths with them ever again. That could end badly.”
“For them, certainly.”
She didn’t seem to appreciate that reply, and stood up to her full height to face him as levelly as she could. Although a tall woman, she still only came up to his nose. “Don’t play that kind of game, buster. Or it’ll be me you’ll have a problem with. And believe me, I’m a lot tougher than these boys you just manhandled.”
Scarlet nodded calmly. “I’ll keep that in mind… Captain.”
He carefully kept his eyes on her, and she didn’t lower hers. He inwardly assessed that she was indeed telling the truth, she was probably more dangerous than all the others put together. She was nice-looking – strong, athletic, with an assured poise that he had not seen in any woman for so many years. Her skin was tanned, contrasting heavily with her very blonde hair and her clear blue eyes. There was a slight and short white scar marring her cheek, just beneath her left eye, but that didn’t detract from any of her natural beauty. Although dressed exactly like the young men following her, there was an unmistakeable femininity in her that was quite attractive. Scarlet felt a yearning he had not felt for a long time, and nearly without thinking about it, let his eyes wander on her.
He didn’t go very far; underneath her open coat, he saw a badge pinned on her shirt, at breast level, and it attracted his immediate attention.
It was a round emblem, made out of dirty white cloth; there was a simple symbol crudely hand-drawn on the fabric: a series of concentric rings, with drawn atop of them the letter ‘S’, crossed by a slash going from top right to the bottom left.
He froze at the sight.
Realising he was staring, he quickly averted his eyes, and looked back into hers, just in time to realise she was still glaring furiously at him; but this time, it was a different kind of anger. She had noticed the direction of his eyes, and now was mistaken about the thoughts coursing through his mind; consequently, she looked downright insulted.
She poked his chest again, this time harder. “I don’t know what kind of woman you think I am, buster, but if you ever look at me like that again, I’ll gouge your eyes out.”
Scarlet didn’t care to reply and simply looked back at her in silence. She took a step back, and casually took her rifle from her back. She didn’t have any intention of using it; she was just trying to make it clear that she was deadly serious.
“Make sure we never cross paths again,” she told him by the way of a farewell.
With that, she motioned to her men that it was time to leave, and the whole group melted into the crowd, shouldering their way, murmurs following them in heir wake.
Scarlet saw the discontentment reflected in the eyes of many bystanders; one of them, glaring at the departing group, spat on the ground to show his complete contempt, before walking the other way.
Looking over the crowd, Scarlet followed the ‘captain’ and her men with his eyes; he saw her turning to give him one last glance, before they disappeared round a corner.
He chewed on his lip, pensively.
“Damn those trouble-makers,” he heard the voice of an angry man from his right. “They think they can do whatever they please because they have weapons… We can do without them.”
“No, we can’t,” another voice – a woman – replied. “We need them as much as they need us. Their money is as good as anybody else. And they got plenty.”
“You mean when they’re willing to pay – and don’t decide to ‘requisition food’.”
Scarlet turned to the man who had last spoken; it was the blade merchant, who was now standing next to the old woman from whom Scarlet had bought apples. He was helping her put the remainder of her fruits onto her cart.
“I take it these people come here often?” he asked the man.
“Them… others of their kind… They come once in a while, buy or barter some stuff… go to one of the pubs and make trouble.” The man spat on the ground. “Nobody dares stand up to ‘em. They’re trouble, with a capital ‘T’.”
“You should be careful, if you ever meet them again, son,” the old apple vendor told Scarlet. “They don’t like people putting their noses in their business. You might be in their sights, now.”
“I’m not afraid of them,” Scarlet replied.
“Oh, that I can see…” There was a sad smile on the old woman’s lips. “But I wouldn’t want you to get into trouble because of me. I’m just an old person who doesn’t have long to stay on this Earth now…”
“I don’t need you to get into trouble with anybody, my dear lady,” Scarlet answered softly. “I can find it all alone – and quite easily.” He looked in the direction the captain and her men had disappeared. “Who are those people exactly?”
“They’re part of an isolated community,” the old woman explained vaguely. “A tribe of some sort… They don’t mix with us, except to barter.”
“Yeah, they think they’re better than every last one of us,” another fruit merchant continued. “They think themselves as military…”
“Military?” Scarlet asked with a raised brow, interested by the comment.
“I sold them army knives once,” the blade merchant said. “They took all of my stock. They did pay well that time, mind you. The girl you saw – she’s pretty much honest about it, and will pay fair and square.”
“She’s obviously their leader,” Scarlet commented thoughtfully. “They called her ‘Captain’…”
The fruit merchant chuckled. “I don’t think she’s a sea captain, by the looks of things. She’s really a nice-looking girl, but even if she does business honestly, she’s as bad as they come. You’re lucky to come out unscathed from an encounter with her. She killed a guy in a pub, a couple of years back. Gutted him like a pig, and slit his throat.”
“For what reason?” Scarlet asked with a frown.
“Think she needs one?” the blade merchant replied with a grimace. “Maybe she didn’t like the way he was looking at her?”
“She had a reason,” the old apple vendor replied in protest. “Word is, he wanted to do her.”
“That’s only a rumour, old girl.”
“And she went free?” Scarlet asked.
“With her whole gang of bodyguards surrounding her?” The fruit merchant shrugged. “The old girl’s right on one account: as far as we know, the guy probably had it coming.”
“Isn’t there any kind of law around this place?” Scarlet wondered out loud.
The blade merchant chuckled. “We haven’t got any. Not since our self-proclaimed one and only officer of the law got himself killed. But he wasn’t much good to begin with.” He thumbed in the direction taken by the young woman and her men. “That’s the trouble, you see: he was the one the girl killed two years ago. And her men took care of his chums when they came to avenge him.”
Scarlet shook his head pensively, muttering: “They’re trouble, all right.”
“That’s why you ought to keep away from them,” the apple vendor insisted.
Scarlet nodded slowly. “I saw a badge, pinned onto the woman’s vest.”
“Ah, that’s their emblem,” the blade merchant remarked. “They don’t all wear it. Only their… officers, as they call them. Like this captain.”
“Who are they?” Scarlet asked carefully.
That was the question that was burning his lips.
“We call them the Spectres,” the fruit vendor said.
When he heard the reply, Scarlet’s heart nearly skipped a beat. It wasn’t exactly the answer he was hoping for, but the word was so very close to it, that he couldn’t presume it wasn’t defining the same thing.
“Spectres?” he repeated, thoughtfully.
“They’re like goddamn ghosts, coming out of nowhere, making trouble whenever they go, without anyone being able to do anything about it. We don’t know more than that about them. They like to keep mysterious.” It was the fruit merchant’s turn to spit on the ground. “Bastards and bitches, the whole lot of them. I’m betting they’re nothing but bandits. They certainly look the part.”
“Do you know where they can be found?” Scarlet asked, frowning.
“Haven’t you heard anything we said?” the knife seller said, frowning. “We don’t know where they come from.”
“… It’s said their camp is somewhere around what used to be Winchester,” the apple vendor said then.
“Winchester?” Scarlet echoed in a bleak voice.
The old woman nodded. “Well hidden in the hills. Nobody knows where exactly, and no one tries to look for it anymore. Many did – and they never came back.”
“The Spectres got them?” Scarlet asked.
“Either the Spectres,” the man selling knives replied, “or something else. Because you know, they’re not that very far from there…” He stopped short, when the old woman elbowed him in the side. He looked down at her, frowning.
“You should not mention their names,” she advised.
He rolled his eyes. “I’m not superstitious, love,” he protested, “and in any case, he certainly knows what I’m talking about. Everybody with half a brain in England knows about it.”
He looked to Scarlet for support, and the latter nodded his head in acknowledgement, very slowly.
“Oh yeah, I know,” Scarlet muttered. He turned a grim expression towards the South West. “Winchester is only halfway from here to the Mendips… and I know that you shouldn’t go to the Mendips if you value your life.”
He had been away from England for a long time but he had heard all the stories about it already. How the long dormant volcanoes underneath the Mendips had reawakened. How the place had been rendered totally hostile to any life… He had heard of what lay within the hills, hidden in a volcanic valley no man was allowed to enter. And those who dared never came back.
There. So close to the place Scarlet had called home, so long ago.
His face became hard.
“The stories said that it is there, deep in Mendips Hills,” he said in a hollow voice, “that you can find the Earthly domain of the Mysterons.”
Dressed in civvies for what seemed to him the first time in so many months, Paul Metcalfe exited the Spectrum-restricted area of the Sydney International Airport to mix with the passengers of civilian aircraft that had recently arrived. Holding his carry-on bag, his only luggage, he made his way towards the gateway and fell into the line, waiting for his turn to get through customs.
He exhaled a deep sigh of relief; after years of seemingly carrying the world on his shoulders, he suddenly felt so strangely light. No office to go to for debriefing, no Spectrum I.D. card to present, no weapon to declare. It was the first time in a lifetime that he felt so totally free. He had no duty to carry out anymore, and didn’t have to answer for one single act to a superior officer. He was leaving his old life behind, with not a single regret or ounce of guilt.
These last few years of fighting the Mysterons had certainly taken their toll. For all of the human race, and for him as well. He already knew that, but it was only now that he fully realised how badly he needed to put a definite stop to all this. During the first years, it had been difficult enough, but ever since the moment the Mysterons had launched their second wave of attacks, and had decided that they wouldn’t issue their customary threats before each one of their moves anymore, it had become a complete nightmare. And he, had been right in the middle of it, even more than all of his colleagues of Spectrum united.
Whatever lay ahead for him, he wanted to face it without Spectrum. Without having to pull the trigger of a gun, or step in front of a bullet. The identity he had carried for so long was threatening to take whatever was left of his humanity. While there was still enough of Paul Metcalfe in him – whatever little it could be – he needed to go.
His colleagues didn’t seem to understand his decision to leave; they had tried to convince him to stay, but had failed. Sure, they said that they understood what he was going through, but that could not possibly be true. They couldn’t really appreciate the whole significance of what his life had become – what it meant to die, and then come back to life repeatedly. Of course, he had done it, it was his duty to do it, but in the long run, it had taken its toll on him. But even that was of little consequence compared to what he had had to do lately. And that had been the last straw.
Colonel White did seem to understand the reasons behind his decision. However, he had refused to see Scarlet’s resolve as the resignation it was meant to be. He had simply suggested to his best agent – his ‘most important asset’ in the War of Nerves – that he take some time off, to get some much needed vacation for a few weeks. Afterwards, he would see things more clearly, and would return to continue to perform his duties as commendably as he ever did. Scarlet had not tried to contradict him in any way; but as his commander walked away from his quarters, he had left his letter of resignation, as well as his Spectrum I.D. on his desk. Eventually, the old man would find them and would understand that Captain Scarlet was through, and would not return to Cloudbase.
Maybe he had already realised that.
It had not been easy to resign, but for the sake of his own sanity, Scarlet had to do it. He couldn’t take it anymore, all these responsibilities weighing so heavily on him were suffocating him. He couldn’t die for the cause anymore, couldn’t bear to take any more life either. Not now, not after that last fiasco…
They called it an even draw between Spectrum and the Mysterons, but for Scarlet, it was an utter failure. A failure that cost him more than anyone else seemed to realise. The look of deception he had seen in the eyes of someone whom he considered one of his dearest friends was nearly impossible to bear. Almost as much as…
Scarlet shook his head. No. He shouldn’t think about this anymore, or feel guilty for what he had to do. He had lost so much already, and was unwilling to go through it again. After the loss he had suffered in London three years before and now this, it was enough.
He tried to tell himself that it was all behind him. But it was so difficult to forget… Perhaps one day he would be able to even forgive himself, but right now, it was still too early.
As he was standing in line, Scarlet checked the time on his watch; it was still early in the morning. He thought he would be able to get something to eat at a nearby restaurant, then he would find a taxi and make his way to Edward’s place. Surely, the former Doctor Fawn, who had retired from Spectrum only a year before to take care of family business, would be surprised to see him arrive on his doorstep. He imagined his old friend would have many questions to ask; Scarlet hoped he wouldn’t try to convince him to return to Spectrum. Edward had always been on his side, all these years he had been his doctor. He had never seen Scarlet as something similar to a laboratory guinea pig. Unlike his replacement of latter years, Doctor Argent, that Scarlet had grown to dislike a little bit more after each visit. It was simply not tolerable going to Sickbay anymore, and waking there after a mission that had ended up with him being hurt. That bastard Argent had made it all the more easy for the English officer to give up on Spectrum.
Lost in his thoughts, Scarlet slowly became aware of the brouhaha around him and searched in confusion for what it was all about. The people surrounding him were all pointing towards the giant TV screen set over the wall of the gateway, and seemed very upset about the images it displayed. Curious about what could be going on, Scarlet looked up – and the hair on the back of his head stood straight up.
On the screen, he could see the skyline of New York, with heavy wreaths of smoke mounting from in-between the skyscrapers, and heavy dark clouds floating all over the city. He could see fires burning in more places that he was able to count in a glance, and buildings collapsing, one after the other – and the Statue of Liberty, in the foreground, standing without its head in the middle of the harbour. There was no sound on the screen, but nobody needed it to understand. And if the images were not self-explanatory enough, the banner scrolling at the bottom of the screen dramatically exposed the events happening on the other side of the world:
MANHATTAN DESTROYED BY MULTIPLE ATTACKS. MYSTERON ACTIVITIES SUSPECTED. SPECTRUM ON THE SITE.
Scarlet grew pale. The ‘Heart of New York’, he realised… Another of their original threats – It must be the one they had chosen for their latest attack. Again, they were targeting New York. And this time, it seemed like they were drawing heavy blood.
And Scarlet KNEW right this instant, that he couldn’t turn his back on all of this. He was needed.
He hurriedly left the line, and, in an attempt to return to the Spectrum hangar, pushed his way through the multitude of people watching the TV screen in horror, ran back the distance he had walked just a few minutes ago. Perhaps if he could reach the shuttle in time, he would be able to return to Cloudbase, and resume his duties.
He had almost reached the door he needed to cross, when three men dressed in black appeared in front of him and blocked his way. He stopped in his tracks, glaring at them.
“Let me through,” he demanded.
“This is a restricted area, sir,” one of the men answered.
“I know that.” Scarlet sighed and nearly rolled his eyes. He didn’t know these men, but they were obviously part of the hangar security. He didn’t have his Spectrum I.D., but he certainly hoped they wouldn’t prove too difficult to convince. “I’m Captain Scarlet. I have to reach the shuttle for Cloudbase before it leaves.”
“We know who you are, Captain,” the same man replied.
Scarlet frowned and took another step forward. “Then kindly let me through. There’s no time to waste.”
The man placed a hand onto his chest, stopping his advance, and his two companions stepped closer, forming a wall in front of the door. A fourth man appeared out of nowhere and came to stand behind Scarlet, blocking his way back.
“We certainly agree with you, sir. You will come with us.”
Scarlet’s frown deepened, as did his perplexity at these men’s truly odd behaviour. “Into the hangar?” he inquired.
The one who seemed to be the leader slowly shook his head to the negative.
Scarlet felt the man behind him putting a hand onto his shoulder, and at the same time, sensed the needle piercing his skin, and then the drug immediately entering his bloodstream. His mind fogged almost instantly, and his whole body became numb; his bag escaped from his hand just as his knees buckled underneath him. Strong hands caught him, and stopped him from sprawling onto the carpeted floor.
“Everything’s all right.,” That was the voice of the only man who had talked to him; he was now talking to the bystanders who seemed curious to know what exactly was going on. “Airport security. This gentleman is not feeling very well.”
As if to confirm his identity, he waved a badge at the nearest onlookers. His vision barely more than a haze, Scarlet didn’t see what the badge was. Unable to resist, barely capable of putting one foot in front of the other, he felt himself being dragged and pushed by the multiple hands holding him up. He tried to clear his mind, as he was carried towards a nearby door, which was marked ‘Security’. He didn’t know who these men were, or what they wanted of him – maybe they were Mysterons, which was a definite possibility.
He only knew that he ought not to go behind that door.
As they approached, he felt the rush of adrenaline and some of his strength returning as his unique metabolism attempted to eliminate the effects of the drug. He suddenly fought his assailants, pulling himself out of their hands and landing a blow on the one nearest to him. They obviously didn’t expect him to be able to fight back so strongly, and it took them a few seconds to react accordingly. One of his adversaries retaliated with a punch of his own that caught Scarlet right in the face and made him see stars. His body still fighting off the effects of the drugs, he didn’t have all the control he needed to free himself. He was pushed to the floor, and forcibly held there, as his hands were pulled behind his back. Handcuffs were secured around his wrists; he could hear the voice of the same man as before, again talking to curious and confounded onlookers, and explaining that ‘it was all a matter of security’, that ‘everything was under control’ and that ‘nobody had to worry about anything’.
“Call Spectrum!” Scarlet called in a strained voice from his position on the floor. “These men are not what they say they are!”
Someone pushed his head against the floor roughly, nearly knocking him out in the process. “Shut up! You want to scare all these good people?”
His head reeling, Scarlet felt himself pulled from the floor and dragged towards the same door as before. They all went through, and it closed swiftly behind them.
He was thrown against the surface of a table, and again he was held there in place; as he was still trying to free himself from their hands, Scarlet’s eyes fell on a man who was standing on the other side of the table, watching him with a calm but hard expression on his face.
“Commander Ward?” he called with disbelief.
This wasn’t good. Ward – who had been appointed Supreme Commander of S.H.E.F. only a few months back – despised Spectrum, especially since the organisation had been unable to keep the Mysterons from destroying the entire Frost Line Outer Space Defence System, his old command. Scarlet had heard Colonel White commenting that Ward might very well use his new found authority and influence to conduct his own personal vendetta against Spectrum for what he regarded as an unforgivable failure… as well as waging war against the Mysterons in his own unmitigated fashion. Ward wasn’t known for his flexible attitude, or smooth approach. His strategy was to strike hard and fast at the enemy, wherever he could find it.
‘Might makes right’, was his motto, and he certainly had all the might he ever dreamed of in his hands at the moment.
“What is the meaning of this?” Scarlet demanded. “What do you want from me?”
“Ah, Captain Scarlet… Why don’t you tell me that yourself, mmm?”
Ward put a large object onto the table, so that Scarlet could clearly see what it was. The former Spectrum officer opened wide eyes at the sight of it, and his heart started beating faster.
It was a Mysteron detector.
“That’s Spectrum equipment,” he claimed, trying to remain calm. “Where did you –”
“It doesn’t really matter how I got my hands on it,” Ward replied quietly. “It’s what it tells me… that does matter.” Calmly, he presented to his captive a small black and white picture he was holding in his hand. Scarlet could only stare at it, with incredulity. It was his picture, obviously taken with the Mysteron detector.
Displaying a positive result.
“Commander…” he tried to explain. “Please, listen to me…”
“I don’t need to listen to you, Captain,” Ward retorted. “I know exactly what I need to know.” He made a gesture with his hand, and Scarlet was pulled to his feet, but still held securely by the men surrounding him. Ward looked hard into his face, narrowing his eyes in intense contemplation.
“And if I had any doubts left,” he said after a second or two, “they have completely disappeared now. Along with that bruise you had on your cheek when you entered this room.” He shook his head. “It’s completely gone now.”
“Commander –” Scarlet tried again. He stopped; he just had noticed the man standing only a few feet behind Ward, and watching in silence. He recognised him instantly.
And suddenly his anger got the better of him, and he tried to reach for the man.
“Argent!” he roared with fury. “You bastard, have you any idea what you’ve done?”
Doctor Argent looked at Scarlet with the same cold expression he had always regarded him, ever since he had taken over the duties of chief medical officer of Cloudbase.
“I’m sorry, Captain Scarlet,” he said in an incredibly cool voice. “But I know where my duty lies. And it’s obviously not the same place as yours.”
“When Colonel White hears about this –”
“And what makes you think that Colonel White will ever hear about this?” Ward said suddenly, interrupting Scarlet in the middle of his furious diatribe. He stepped forwards, and came to stand straight in front of the younger man, looking deep into his eyes. There was a coldness and a hatred in Ward’s expression that told Scarlet that this man in front of him was an enemy even more dangerous than any Mysteron he had ever faced, including Captain Black himself. “You left Spectrum,” Wade pointed out. “You left your letter of resignation on your desk, along with your Spectrum I.D. Colonel White will believe you are gone for good. Oh, he might be searching for you, for a while at least, but it’s doubtful he will ever find you. After all, he knows you better than anyone else. And he knows that if you don’t want to be found, you won’t be.”
Scarlet turned an accusing glance towards Argent. “YOU told him all this! You traitor!”
“You dare call him a traitor?” Ward snapped at him. “I would say that he did more than his duty in revealing your existence to me. Now I’ll be able to act on it, and do what should have been done from the very beginning.”
“Commander, I don’t know what Argent’s been telling you, but I can assure you, I’m loyal to Spectrum and –”
“Doctor Argent’s been telling me enough for me to assume that you played a very good game, Captain,” Ward replied quietly. “How brilliant of the Mysterons. To plant a spy directly in the midst of Spectrum’s finest.”
“I fight Mysterons,” Scarlet replied harshly. “I risked my life –”
“Of course, so that your cover would remain intact. And risking your life doesn’t mean much for you, does it, Captain? Since you are indestructible…” Ward scoffed. “How could Colonel White be so naïve? It should have been so obvious.”
“Commander… the World President himself knows –”
“The World President signed the order for your arrest, Captain Scarlet.”
That shut Scarlet up instantly, and he looked with incredulity into Ward’s eyes. The latter shoved a paper right under his nose. Scarlet could see it was an arrest warrant. He read his name, recognised the signature of President Roberts at the bottom.
Roberts… who’s life he had saved years before.
He felt betrayed. And utterly defeated.
“You are under arrest, Captain Scarlet,” Ward continued restlessly. “For treason, conspiracy, and complicity in acts of terrorism. I am also accusing you of having acted as a fifth columnist for your masters on Mars, reporting to them everything you knew of our defences, which ultimately was the cause of our failure to counteract their actions in recent years.”
“You don’t have any proof of that!” Scarlet lashed out sharply.
“I have enough proof,” Ward said quietly, showing the picture he still held in his hand. “You are a Mysteron agent, Captain Scarlet, and you shall be treated as such. And as you are the only one we ever got our hands on, I’m sure you’re perfectly aware that you’ll benefit from some… special treatment?” He gave a thin, wicked smile. “You’ll tell us all you know about your masters, that I can promise you. And neither those you think your allies in Spectrum, nor Colonel White, not even death itself, will be able to spare you from this.”
As Scarlet prepared himself to protest once more, he suddenly felt a violent electric shock surging through him, and understood that one of the men holding him was using a taser against him. He groaned loudly and his body arched against the pain; he felt himself falling numbly into his captors’ hands.
Then his mind filled with a deep fog and oblivion claimed him.
One of Scarlet’s many skills that he had developed during his military training and honed through years of service was his efficiency at trailing people without them realising he was even there.
Keeping at a safe distance to remain unseen, he followed the ‘captain’ and her men when, their purchases done, they left the Piccadilly area a couple of hours later. Hiding amongst passers-by at the corner of a street, he watched as they met with a sixth man, who was waiting for them with horses in Hyde Park. They saddled up and slowly made their way through the city, and after travelling for a while through a maze of fallen buildings and debris, took what was left of a road that Scarlet, still trailing them, recognised as the former A4. It was almost nightfall when they finally left the outskirts of London, and made their way in a south-westerly direction.
The road had changed quite a lot, since the former days when going from London to Winchester didn’t take more than two hours by car. The main roads of Britain, A-roads and motorways, had nearly all been destroyed during the many Mysteron attacks and the multiple geological catastrophes they provoked. What used to be the A316, which left London for Winchester, wasn’t any different. It was particularly treacherous, with parts of the roadway having collapsed in so many places, and chunks of broken pavement obstructing half of the way. Even if motor vehicles were still in use – which they were not, due to appalling near-lack of petrol for the last fifteen years or so, when it had became a very rare luxury that only a handful could afford, and that in very restricted areas – it would not have been possible to drive a car on these roads nowadays.
The uneven surface was barely manageable by carts to begin with. Travellers could only go on foot or on horseback. A good horse was an extra advantage, and Scarlet certainly felt privileged to own such an excellent one. Rainbow had been a God-given gift; he had barely exaggerated when threatening that butcher who had coveted the great stallion for the sole purpose of cutting him into so many pieces. He would have gladly killed that despicable man if he had even tried to commit such an odious crime on such a noble creature.
The landscape had also undergone major alterations since Scarlet had last set foot in the area. He could barely recognise it. The land had been shattered by nuclear attacks and geological tremors; huge chunks of rocks had risen from the ground, while crevices were cut deep into it. Hills and meadows were there once grew rich grassland feeding horses and sheep, crops and trees now seemed dry and barely able to sustain any life. There was only the barren ground with rare patches of hay-like tufts of grass, and dead trees and shrubs, with even sparser yellowish foliage. The sky was almost constantly covered with clouds – there was rarely any blue anymore, just greys of various hues blocking the much-needed rays of the sun. It was a country which seemed to constantly wait for winter to come, and yet, it barely rained, or snowed. The air was dry and hot in the day, and the nights were cold, with a wind that could chill to the bone.
It was a wonder that anyone could live here, let alone be able to harvest anything on this deprived land… enough, anyway, to provide foodstuff to the surrounding area. And yet, some people actually succeeded in doing so. The land, Scarlet suspected, was being used up to its very limit and he wondered how long it will still be able to produce anything at all.
And it wasn’t just the London area, or England alone that was that way. Everywhere Scarlet had gone in the world over the last years had been like this – and sometimes even worse. And the situation everywhere was deteriorating as time went by. At the rate it was going, Scarlet feared that it wouldn’t take many generations before the planet became totally inhabitable.
The Mysterons willing…
Scarlet’s quarry rode for a little while on the former A-road, before stopping to make camp for the night. After checking that they had settled down nicely and would apparently not leave before the next morning, Scarlet travelled a kilometre away from their position, found a secure location and made camp in turn. From where he settled down, he could well see the fire of the band he was trailing, as well as other fires from other night camps, set at various distances from his position. With so many fires around, he felt safe to start one for himself. At least he would eat a hot meal, and drink some of that coffee he had bought in Piccadilly, before he had left.
As he lay down on his travelling blanket, which didn’t offer much padding against the ground’s hard surface, he looked up to the sky above, pondering the strange stroke of fate that had made him cross paths with the band of young people he had met in London.
For the better part of the last fifteen years, he had travelled all of Europe in search of Spectrum, with very little success. He had heard so many tales during his quest: of the existence of former members of the organisation, who had, after the fall of Cloudbase and the break up of the organisation, gathered in small bands in the face of adversity, in various parts of the world. Either to survive the hardships of the new reality imposed by the War or Nerves, or, some said, to even continue the battle against the alien invaders. But as time passed, Scarlet had started to suspect he was only chasing after ghosts and shadows. The alleged survivors had constantly eluded him, and all Scarlet was able to really find were rumours, and very rare clues of their passage – clues that mostly proved inconclusive upon further examination.
Scarlet had came to the conclusion that the small bands that came to call themselves ‘Spectrum’, and that might have existed here and there, had finally been forced to disband. They could have been decimated by the Mysterons themselves, in an attempt to completely annihilate their most resilient foes. In the Mysterons’ view, it might not have mattered that much if these people were really Spectrum, or just pretended to be. The mere fact they were using the name could have been sufficient. After all, ‘destroying Spectrum’ was one of the Mysterons’ original threats… And seeing how successful they had been with the rest, it was probably one of the last targets to fall under their attacks.
It was also highly possible these people had also been hunted down by resentful communities that associated the suffering brought by years of war with the Mysterons with Spectrum’s failure to protect them. It was ludicrous to consider Spectrum responsible for all that happened; or to assume the organisation would have been able to literally do the impossible to avoid all the disasters created by the Mysterons from the moment they had decided to go to the next level in this war they had declared on Earth. But it was human nature to look for a scapegoat, and in some people’s eyes, Spectrum was the perfect one.
After all, for many people, Spectrum was to blame for the fall of the World Government, and was at the very heart of the worst ever cataclysm to happen in Human history which had caused untold devastation and countless victims.
The last of the original members of Spectrum probably had died over time, one after the other. Either they had been murdered, killed in the many disasters and attacked, or succumbed to old age. So many years had passed since Scarlet had left… It was unlikely that many of them would still be alive today. And he imagined that of all those who had composed Cloudbase’s senior staff, the elite of all Cloudbase, were all gone now.
Patrick Donaghue, the former Captain Magenta, had actually been the only one of his former colleagues and friends he had succeeded in locating. But that was more than fifteen years ago, and a continent away… in New Jersey, where he lived with what was left of his family. From him, Scarlet had learned the final fate of Cloudbase, and of all he held dear. And he had been the first one to tell him of the rumours he had heard, before the satellites finally fell silent, years before. That Spectrum might still exist somewhere in the Old World. Scarlet had then decided to cross the ocean and check for himself if the rumours were true; he asked his friend to come along with him, but Patrick had sadly shook his head.
“Look at me, Paul. I’m an old man compared to you. I’m slow and sick, and my sight and reflexes aren’t what they used to be. I’m probably suffering from radiation poisoning. I feel myself weakening every day. Chances are, within the next three to five years, I’ll be dead. I couldn’t survive a crossing of the Atlantic. And if I did, I would only slow you down. And quite frankly… I can’t go and leave what’s left of my family behind. They need me.”
Scarlet could only agree that his friend was right. There wasn’t much time left to him, and crossing the ocean by sea was unthinkable for him. It meant a long and tiring journey of many weeks, if not months. But to get to Europe, it was the only option; flying was no longer possible – at the time, fuel reserves were nearly completely gone. The only flights that were allowed at the time were of the rare authority officials and military left to the World, who were still holding on to the desperate hope they might yet make things right again.
Even that was gone now – fuel, most of it anyway… aircraft… officials… and possibly hope as well.
Patrick was probably long dead by now, and the thought sent a wave of sorrow into Scarlet’s heart.
After his multiple failures at finding any trace of Spectrum, Scarlet had long thought that his meeting with his Irish colleague would be the only contact he would have with his former life. That was the conclusion he had come to, for the last two years or so, and he had made peace with that.
But that was until today.
Scarlet reached for his inside vest pocket, to take a small bit of white fabric, neatly folded, out. He unfolded it carefully, and under the light of his fire, examined it with interest. He had not looked at this for weeks.
Rounded, crudely cut from a piece of thick white cotton, dirty and torn on one side, it sported a drawing similar to the one he had seen pinned on the young blonde woman’s shirt.
He stroked his chin thoughtfully. This ‘badge’ was the only real indication he had found over the years that could have been a proof of Spectrum’s survival. He had found it, five years before in Italy, fastened with a safely pin on to the coat of a young Russian rider. Since then, Scarlet had not come on any other clues. Not a single one.
He had concluded that the young man was pursuing an impossible dream, just like himself when he had been looking for Spectrum survivors. So, after long months of frustration and failures, he had stopped searching for Spectrum altogether – and set his sights on another goal.
One that might prove a little easier to reach.
Now… as he was approaching that goal, Fate threw him a curve ball – as Adam had said more than a few times in that now distant past, during the course of their assignments.
He heard neighing and he turned his attention to Rainbow who, standing only a couple of feet away from him, was looking straight at him with those big, intelligent eyes that seemed to ask him what could be on his mind. Scarlet observed the horse pensively for a moment.
“I wonder if you miss him, at times?” he asked softly, watching as the great stallion moved his ears attentively at the sound of his voice. “Your former master… Yes, you must miss him. When he asked me to take care of you, it was obvious he liked you very much… And knowing you, you must have been very attached to him.”
Rainbow snorted, as if answering, although Scarlet would have had a hard time trying to understand what he meant exactly. He chose to take it as an approval and smiled. He had not lied to the butcher in London; during these last five years of his wanderings, Rainbow had been a faithful companion, as well as an attentive and discreet confidant.
As the horse turned around and seemed about to settle for the night, Scarlet returned to his examination of the badge, turning it between his fingers, mulling over what he would do.
This badge he was holding, that he had kept hold of for five years, had returned to revive an almost forgotten hope.
Could these people, these… ‘Spectres’, really be Spectrum? Could Spectrum really be alive, to begin with?
It seemed so impossible. Almost too good to be true. And yet… the two badges, the similarity of both names… the military manner of these people... even their reticence at mixing with the rest of the crowd…
And the fact that they were living so close to where the Mysterons were said to have settled their Complex…
Could it be really be possible?
He didn’t approve of the attitude of the young men he had encountered; he didn’t even like what he had heard of their captain, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe, it was simply a survivor’s reaction from individuals who had learned not to trust anyone implicitly, and to guard themselves against any potential threat. A knee-jerk reflex of sort, that would certainly create this impression of bad attitude they had towards the rest of the world.
A world that might have been in some way responsible for their near disappearance, and force them to go underground, with this witch-hunt it carried out against all things Spectrum.
Scarlet felt he had to know the truth; and since he was going in the same direction anyway, he might as well take some time to check it out… before moving on with his main objective.
His mind set, Scarlet put the badge back into his pocket and rolled himself into his blanket, fully intending to get some sleep before morning came.
As his eyes closed and he swiftly drifted into sleep, he heard, in the distance, the call of wolves. Wolves… in England… He had read somewhere that wolves, previously hunted to the brink of extinction, had been reintroduced in the wild somewhere after the turn of the 21st Century. Before that, you couldn’t find them anywhere in the country. Now they were everywhere, these he was hearing right now probably the offspring of beasts that had escaped zoological parks, at one time or another during the many disasters that had plagued the land. Exactly like what had happened everywhere else…
He felt lucky it wasn’t a pride of lions he was hearing then...
That didn’t bother him much. Confident that Rainbow would give the alert should something approach the camp during the night, he set his mind completely to rest, and fell asleep almost instantly.
From the hill where he was standing, Scarlet could see perfectly the drama unfolding in the valley below him.
With wild kicks, the horse – a great sorrel stallion – was desperately trying to keep at bay the wolves that were surrounding both him and his rider, who lay flat on his belly at his feet. When landing on the ground, the stallion’s hooves were getting dangerously close to his master’s head, and it would only take one accidental kick to kill him. Assuming he was still alive to begin with, and from his point of view, it was impossible for Scarlet to know if he was or not. The man wasn’t moving at all; that’s all he knew about him.
Despite the horse’s commendable efforts, it was obvious that he was doomed to fail: his reins were caught in the tangled twigs of a nearby dead bush, greatly impairing his freedom of movement; by the foam covering his flanks, it was obvious he was growing tired. Soon, he would be unable to keep the wolves away, and they would come in for the kill.
Scarlet couldn’t stand idle and watch as such a valiant animal, while defending his master, met his fate under the predators’ fangs and claws. It barely took him a few seconds to make his decision: removing his rifle from his back, he took careful aim.
His first shot wounded the wolf closest to the horse, as it was about to bite into the fallen man. The wolf yelped in pain, and the loud detonation echoing through the valley made all its companions jump in surprise. The horse turned around and trampled the injured wolf that had fallen under his hooves, effectively finishing it off. Scarlet took aim again, and shot a second wolf, which was preparing to attack the stallion from behind.
After a third successful shot, Scarlet hurried down the hill, yelling like the proverbial banshee and firing wildly, in the hope of scaring the remainder of the wolves away. It worked for most of them and they ran in the opposite direction. Two of them, however, bolder and probably more famished, did not recognise the danger represented by the weapon he was carrying; they came straight at him, growling furiously. He shot the closest one as it was nearly on him and it fell to its side, yelping. The second wolf stopped in its tracks, now hesitating, its ears flat on its head. His rifle now empty, Scarlet took hold of it by the barrel and, swinging it as if it was a club, marched threateningly towards the wolf.
“Shoo! Get away from here, you filthy beast! Run, if you know what’s good for you!”
The wolf turned tail and fled as fast as its legs could carry it.
Scarlet gave chase until he nearly reached the horse; once there, he stopped, watching as all the wolves ran away, while reloading his rifle. One of the beasts stopped at the top of the hill to look back in his direction, so Scarlet fired one shot high. The thundering sound was enough to scare the animal off and it disappeared over the hill.
With the threat gone, Scarlet turned to the horse. He had stopped kicking around, and was now standing on his four legs, snorting loudly; his head was down, and it was with weary and frightened eyes that he was watching the man standing only a few feet away from him. He looked so very tired, but continued to stand guard over his master who, still lying flat on the ground, had not made a single move.
Scarlet slowly moved closer, presenting his hand, and making soothing sounds to calm the stallion. The latter attempted to move away from the approaching human, unsure whether he should trust him. But with the reins still tangled within the twigs of the bush, he was unable to go far.
“Good boy,” Scarlet called in a calm voice. “I’m a friend… I won’t hurt you, nor your master. You know that, don’t you? Stay calm…”
Warily, the stallion watched his approach, but didn’t move. Scarlet reached for him with his hand and then gently stroked his neck, talking to him with a soothing voice. The visibly exhausted stallion heavily rested his head against Scarlet’s chest, snorting gently, and slowly calmed down.
Scarlet stroked the huge head for a short moment, until he was sure the horse had relaxed enough not to be a threat anymore. Then gently, he pushed the stallion aside and crouched down near the still body of the rider. He checked for a pulse and found one, although it was very weak. Carefully he turned the body on its back; it was a young man, in the middle of his twenties, with the start of a beard on his chin. His eyes were closed and there was a very ugly bleeding wound on the side of his head. Scarlet winced; he didn’t like the sight of this injury. He feared the young man was in serious danger of dying.
He settled the rider as comfortably as he could, removing his own coat to roll it into a makeshift pillow that he gently placed under the injured man’s head. He then searched for other wounds, checking each of the boy’s limbs one after the other. The right leg was broken, with an open fracture, and the left wrist was at an odd angle. He could hear a strange wheezing sound coming from the man’s throat, which made Scarlet realise that maybe one of his lungs had been pierced by a broken rib during his fall. He gently opened the man's coat to check his torso.
It was at this moment that he found, pinned inside coat, a white badge that made him freeze in his movement.
It was a white roundel, with a crude S drawn by hand in the middle of multiple circles – a symbol that strangely resembled the Spectrum logo.
Scarlet tore it from the safety pin keeping it in place and, holding it in his hand, stared at it in disbelief. After all these years of searching… could he have really found what he was looking for?
He looked incredulously into the set face of the young rider. So, the inhabitants of the last village he had visited had been right… This was the man he was looking for; the man who might be able to give him the much needed information he was seeking…
He heard the young rider emit a moan, and then, he gasped suddenly, and his eyes flew open. They were glazed, reflecting fear and pain, and at the sight of Scarlet leaning over him, he attempted to push himself up; he cried out briefly, as the pain pulled him down. Swiftly pocketing the badge, Scarlet put a helping hand onto the gasping young man’s chest and gently compelled him to stay still.
“Easy, son. You’ve been hurt badly. Don’t try to move.” He saw the eyes of the young man fixed on him, as he laid back, breathing hard. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
The young man nodded. He was panting heavily, as if he was trying to regain his breath. “Me… understand,” he answered in a deep accented voice. “What… happen?”
Scarlet shook his head. “You fell from your horse, and you were attacked by wolves. I don’t know in which order that happened exactly. Maybe you can tell me?”
“Wolves?” the young man repeated in a low voice. “Y-yes… I… remember…” His hand reached for his injured head. “Hurt… Cannot move…”
“You took a bad fall,” Scarlet explained. “You must have hit your head pretty badly. You also have a few fractures. I haven’t got a chance to check your back as yet, so I would suggest you don’t try to move. Just in case. You understand?” The boy nodded, closing his eyes against the pain. “What is your name, son?” Scarlet asked.
“Piotr Ivanovitch. You’re Russian, Piotr?”
“Da… Russian. You… English?” The young man opened his eyes again and looked straight at Scarlet who nodded briefly. “You… save me?”
“More or less. Your horse made a good job of protecting you, until I arrived. He’s a good horse.”
“Good horse…” Piotr moaned. “Who’s… you? You… from …village around?”
Scarlet watched as the young man’s eyes were threatening to close again; he seemed to be growing weaker with each passing second. He was dying, and there was nothing that Scarlet could do to help him. He heaved a deep sight and shook his head. It was such a shame; the boy was so young…
“I’ve been following you, Piotr,” Scarlet said softly. “I passed by the same village you left three days ago in the mountains… The village where you bought your supplies?”
“You… follow me?” Piotr repeated, as if trying to grasp what Scarlet was telling him.
“I was trying to catch up with you. See, I’m searching for something. And people in the village, they told me you might be able to help me.” Scarlet reached for his pocket, and took from it the badge he had pocketed earlier. He leaned closer to the young man, and showed it to him, shaking him gently when he realised he was about to close his eyes again. Piotr looked in tired confusion at the object the older man presented to him. “They said… that you told them you were looking for the same thing I am. You were looking for Spectrum.”
“Spectrum?” Piotr repeated in a weak voice.
Scarlet swallowed hard. He hated being so inquisitive towards a man who was dying; but he needed to know, before it was too late. “I found this on you, Piotr... Please tell me… Where did you get it? Did you make this yourself?”
“No… Was… gift,” the young man slurred.
“From whom?” Scarlet insisted. “Why were you looking for Spectrum, Piotr?” Scarlet asked again. “Do you know where they are? Where they can be found?”
The young Russian didn’t answer; he gasped loudly and closed his eyes against a sudden wave of pain. Then his hand shot out and grabbed Scarlet’s arm. The former Spectrum officer leaned closer to the boy, who made an effort to raise his head and look at him, with a pleading expression. “I… dying… Take care… of horse, please?”
Scarlet faltered, unsure how to answer the dying young man’s request. His throat tightening, he was only able to nod uneasily. “What’s his name?” he finally was able to ask, when he found his voice again.
Piotr smiled, and muttered something in his mother tongue, that Scarlet was unable to make out. It was so low that even if he had spoken Russian, he would not have understood any of it. Then the young man’s eyes closed one last time and he exhaled his last breath, before his head slowly fell back against the makeshift pillow.
Scarlet sighed heavily and stood up, looking down in sadness at the now dead body at his feet.
He felt somewhat frustrated. For the past five years, he had been looking for Spectrum, walking all over Europe from village to village, trying to find a single clue of where any survivor might have disappeared to. All he had heard were rumours, quite similar to what Patrick had told him. Spectrum was supposedly still around, but keeping in hiding to avoid both the wrath of the Mysterons still trying to destroy it, or of the human population, who sought to take their anger out on someone they considered responsible for the state of the world.
Three days ago, Scarlet had stopped in an Italian village in the nearby mountains, and had asked his customary questions regarding Spectrum, growing more and more concerned that he would never receive the answers he was hoping for. He could hardly believe it when an old farmer told him that a young man on a horse had passed by not that very long ago, asking similar questions. After he had been shown the direction taken by the rider, Scarlet had headed towards this valley. Soon, he had picked up the trail, which was easy enough to find, and followed it, walking day and night, hoping he would catch up with the man who was following a quest similar to his own. He was hoping he would be able to indicate to him where to find what he was looking for – or at least to give him some of the precious information he was craving.
Piotr had been the only serious lead he had found in a long time. And now, he lay at his feet, dead.
Scarlet sighed and averted his eyes, looking towards the horizon, trying to regain his composure; no matter how many deaths he had seen in his life – and he had seen more than his share – it always felt so unfair to him, in any circumstances. Piotr was no different from those other young men and women he had seen dying under enemy bullets during wars, or from all the innocent people who had been collateral damage of so many battles he had experienced… or all the victims of the Mysterons.
To die at such a young age… It was so unfair.
He would give the boy a decent burial. He had seen a cross hanging from his neck, so just to honour Piotr’s faith he would place a cross on his grave. He wasn’t sure if it was that important for the young man, or if it would make any difference… But just to make sure, it seemed the right thing to do.
He turned on his heels; standing behind him, the sorrel stallion was staring at him, with curious eyes, his ears standing up straight onto his head. He wasn’t afraid of him anymore, and he probably didn’t realise that his young master was gone. Scarlet walked to him and stroked his forehead. The horse let him do it, and leaned against Scarlet’s shoulder. He seemed to enjoy the man’s presence and the attention he provided.
“Looks like you and I are stuck with each other, boy,” Scarlet muttered in a soft voice. He took the horse’s head between his hands and looked into his eyes. “And I would bet you don’t even understand a word of English, do you?”
As if answering, the stallion snorted and neighed loudly, before shaking his head vigorously, Scarlet held on to the bridle to keep him still. Despite himself, he chuckled. “Well, then… I guess I will have to teach you… And give you a name I’ll be able to pronounce.” The horse snorted again. “Give me some time, boy… I’ll find a suitable name for you.”
After burying Piotr Ivanovitch, Scarlet saddled his newly acquired mount and travelled north for a few miles, with the intention of leaving the valley behind as soon as he could. At first, the horse proved a bit hostile to his presence on his back; but Scarlet was an accomplished rider, and it didn’t take long for the stallion to finally accept his new master’s commands, and come to the calm trot Scarlet imposed on him.
They only stopped at nightfall, and Scarlet built a fire for the night. He shared his meal of stale bread and spongy vegetables with the horse and then rolled himself into his blanket and settled for the night. He felt the stallion approach him quietly to briefly sniff at him with curiosity, before taking a few steps away. Scarlet had taken care to tie him up to a nearby dead tree, so he wouldn’t run away. Now that he had a mount, he wasn’t so keen to lose it that quickly. With the comforting thought that the horse would still be there come morning, he dozed off, exhausted by another long and tiring day.
He didn’t know how long he was asleep when suddenly, his instinct alerted him of a presence nearby and he opened his eyes. He was fully awake.. It was deeper than just his military intuition reacting – he knew the feeling all too well. It was what his former colleagues used to refer to as his ‘Mysteron sixth sense’, which often warned him of impending threats coming specifically from the Mysterons.
It was still the middle of the night, and the fire was still burning, although the flames were now low. The first thing he noticed was the stallion, standing only a few feet away by the tree he was secured to, with his ears straight, and staring cagily. Scarlet realised he wasn’t looking at him, but beyond him. He turned his head to see what could be attracting the horse’s attention – and found himself facing the muzzle of a gun, aimed directly at him.
The fire was outlining the silhouette of a man, sitting there by the fire.
“Don’t make any sudden moves, Captain Scarlet. I will not hesitate to shoot..”
Scarlet recognised the deep, accented voice, now speaking this ominous warning in perfect English, before he could actually see the man’s features. “Piotr?”
“Piotr Ivanovitch is dead. Try again, Earthman.”
Even without the addition of the word ‘Earthman’, Scarlet had guessed who he was facing.
A Mysteron agent.
His face became hard. “You took him over?” he asked harshly. “Don’t you even have any respect for consecrated graves?”
“The chance to approach you is not often handed to us these days,” the replicate of Piotr Ivanovitch replied. “We couldn’t pass up this opportunity. It has been too long.”
“Not long enough, from my point of view.” Scarlet shook his head. “Can I sit?”
The Mysteron agent nodded and watched cautiously as Scarlet settled himself into a sitting position, the gun following his every move. The former Spectrum captain glanced at the weapon for a brief second, before returning his attention to the face of the man holding it. “What do you want from me?”
Piotr Ivanovitch gave a wicked smile. “What do you think? We want our revenge on Spectrum, of course.”
“I am not Spectrum anymore.”
The Mysteron agent scoffed loudly. “You are deluding yourself, Captain. Of course you are Spectrum. It’s within your very being. You cannot get away from it. Even when you tried, all those years ago, you found yourself drawn back to Spectrum.”
“You know very well that I could never go back to Spectrum,” Scarlet snapped angrily. “Your masters made sure of that, didn’t they? When they destroyed Cloudbase, they destroyed what made the organisation what it was.”
“You think that Spectrum is finished?” Piotr asked, raising a brow. “What do you make of the rumours that it might still be alive?”
“You’re telling me the Mysterons give credit to mere rumours from Earthmen, now?”
“Don’t you?” the Mysteron replied, narrowing his eyes. “What about the badge Piotr Ivanovitch carried on his person and that you took from him? Don’t you think it looks like a Spectrum insignia?”
“Hardly,” Scarlet replied. “It’s too amateurish. It lacks colours, for starters.”
The Mysteron agent smiled again, a smile apparently more malevolent than it had seemed until now. “Now is not really the time for witty repartee, Earthman. I’m disappointed in you. You’ve been searching for Spectrum forever. Will you tell me now that, after all this time, you have no interest in this badge – what it represents… and why Piotr Ivanovitch had it on his person? You would not have taken it from him, if you were not curious about that. And if you didn’t believe it could be an important clue for your search.”
“For all I know, Piotr could have drawn that thing himself,” Scarlet answered roughly . “But I suppose you would know better than me. After all, you have the boy’s personality and memories. You speak better English, though. I’ll give you that. So why not tell me yourself what’s the deal with that badge, then, instead of asking me meaningless and empty questions you already know the answers of? This really is not a productive conversation.”
“Correct, Earthman. There is nothing productive about this conversation.” The replicate chuckled softly. “No… I think I will kill you without telling you.”
“You would be so cruel?” Scarlet inquired, raising a brow. “And how do you plan to kill me exactly? You know it’s not that easily done. God knows you Mysterons did try in the past...”
“You are not invincible. I can think of a number of ways to destroy you beyond retrometabolism. I can shoot you in the head, and cut your body to pieces. I could burn you to ashes… I could even do both, to truly make sure you wouldn’t come back. Or,” he added as in an afterthought, “I can leave your body to the wolves, who would feast on it.”
Scarlet grimaced. He made a show of not appearing too impressed by the Mysteron’s gruesome threats. “Okay, you are making valid points. Still, would you really kill me, without telling me what you are obviously dying to tell me – no pun intended.” He shifted his position, and saw his foe edgily raising his gun. He made a calming gesture. “Tell me about the badge, at least. Piotr said it was gift. From whom?”
The Mysteron gave it some thought, and finally nodded. “From his father,” he answered coldly. “Alekseï Ivanovitch. Piotr was only a baby when his father left for a business trip – that was shortly before the destruction of Futura City. He didn’t return before many years after, and Piotr was already all grown up. Somehow, during his trip, Alekseï came into possession of the badge you now have. Quite by chance. He believed the badge came from Spectrum, and gave it to his son – so that the boy could do what he himself had wanted to do before dying.”
“Meaning?” Scarlet asked with interest.
“Joining Spectrum.” The Mysteron chuckled evilly. “Young Piotr was as much an idealist and a fool as his father: he wanted to fight the Mysterons… and free Earth. His intentions were to travel until he found Spectrum, and join them. Like his father, he thought he could use the badge as some kind of a pass. That simply by showing it to Colonel White, he would be accepted within Spectrum’s ranks.”
Scarlet frowned, perplexed. “Colonel White?” he repeated. “Even if he had survived the fall of Cloudbase, he surely can’t be still alive. He would be well into his eighties!”
“Does it really matter, if he is alive or not?” the Mysteron replicate of Piotr Ivanovitch replied sharply. “The spirit of Spectrum lives, and as long as Earthmen like Ivanovitch, his father, and others such as them aspire to be of their number and carry on the fight, Spectrum will remain a threat to the Mysterons. Like you yourself are, Captain Scarlet. You are a symbol of Spectrum, and of the hope it stands for to your kind – as much as this ridiculous badge Ivanovitch wore. You must be dealt with, once and for all.”
The Mysteron agent rose to his feet, his gun still aimed at Scarlet; the latter tensed, as he followed his foe’s movements, keeping his eyes on the finger resting on the trigger. The horse, standing behind the Mysteron, started snorting with agitation and pulled on his reins, trying to free himself.
“I have toyed enough with you, and there’s nothing more you will learn from me. Whatever happened to Spectrum, you will never find it now. You will never go back home, Captain Scarlet.” He pulled back the hammer of his gun. “Now… you die, Earthman.”
As soon as he saw the Mysteron’s index finger stroking the trigger, Scarlet made his move – so fast that his foe couldn’t react in time. When he had sat down earlier, Scarlet had surreptitiously got hold of the knife stuck into his left boot, under the blanket, and had kept it hidden in the palm of his hand until the right moment to use it came along. Just as the Mysteron agent was about to shoot, Scarlet’s arm shot out in his direction and released the knife.
The blade drove itself to the handle into the shoulder of the duplicate who cried out; instinctively, his arm jerked up, his finger pulling the trigger. Scarlet leapt to the side in an attempt to avoid the blast, and nearly made it; at about the same instant he heard the shot, he felt the bullet tear into his side. He winced and grunted, clenching his teeth against the pain.
Alarmed by the shot, the already upset stallion reared up, seemingly aiming at the Mysteron agent with his hooves. As he swirled on his heels, Piotr Ivanovitch’s duplicate suddenly realised with horror that he was a little too close to the animal, just as the hooves suddenly came down on his head at full speed. He fell to the ground, right beneath the great horse, and yelled, raising his arms to protect himself, but not to avail. A second well-placed kick to the head silenced him forever. The stallion, far from calming down, now seemed enraged, and deliberately trampled the Mysteron agent, as if to make sure he was properly finished.
“Whoa, boy…” Scarlet was on his feet and by the horse’s side in seconds. He caught the bridle and forced him down, before pushing him away from the now dead body. The animal resisted, and snorted and baulked for a moment, as his new master attempted to calm him down. His anger subsided finally, and Scarlet, stroking the horse’s forehead, looked down in wonder at the crushed body of the Mysteron agent.
“I guess you were able to see that this wasn’t your former master, weren’t you?” he asked the horse. “He’s dead now. I don’t think he’ll come back after the number you just did on him.”
The attempt on his life made him wonder. It had been a long time since he had encountered a Mysteron agent face to face; one, that is, who would make him his target. Of course, during his years of wanderings, he had crossed paths with them, and even attempted on occasions to thwart whatever nefarious project they were planning – sometimes with success, sometimes without. Over time, he had learned to hone his ‘sixth sense’, to sharpen it so it would be more reliable and would warn him more efficiently. Occasionally, he had even been able to use it as a kind of ‘homing device’ that would lead him wherever there was a Mysteron threat or a Mysteron presence. However, he had to be fairly close to the menace, to even sense the beginning of ‘something’.
Why this attack now? It was true, as the duplicate had said, that the Mysterons had little chance these days to use a recently deceased person to go after him… But then again, if they had truly bothered to try in recent years, they would have found other opportunities to get him. He didn’t think that, in view of the circumstances, they considered him a big enough threat to be bothered with him – not until he got involved with their latest project, anyway.
This time around, it wasn’t the threat that had attracted him. They had come after him, and his sixth sense nearly didn’t awaken him in time to escape death. He had no doubt that the duplicate would have used one of the means he had mentioned to make sure the Mysterons’ most resilient foe would stay dead this time around.
Why did the Mysterons specifically chose this moment to come after him? Were they trying to stop him from learning whether Spectrum existed or not – and if they did, to actually find them out and join them again? He couldn’t be that close to discovering the whereabouts of what remained of the organisation… of that he was sure. He never felt as far from finding it, and as discouraged as at the moment he stood over the dead body of young Piotr Ivanovitch.
Scarlet looked down in frustration at the dead body lying on the ground. Probably, he was trying to taunt him, with the dreams of the boy he had been duplicated from. Colonel White couldn’t possibly be alive, for starters… And Piotr had even less chance than himself of ever finding Spectrum. If it still existed.
“You will never get back home, he said,” he muttered, repeating the duplicate’s words.
The horse, that he was still holding by the bridle, seemed to think he was talking to him, and nudged his shoulder. Scarlet turned to him, and stroke his forehead again, heaving a deep sigh. “I’m afraid this Mysteron was right,” he said in a soft voice. “Spectrum was indeed my home, when I was a part of it. My family. I’ll never find any of them again. So I guess it’s only you and me now, boy…” He looked into the eye of the great stallion. “You acted like a real Spectrum agent just there. And obviously, you hate Mysterons as badly as I do.” A thought suddenly imposed itself into his mind and he smiled, scratching the horse’s ear. “How about I call you ‘Rainbow’, then?”
The stallion snorted, as if disapproving. Scarlet chuckled briefly. “What, you don’t like it? But it’s a beautiful name… And it would be quite fitting for you.” He affectionately patted the horse’s neck. “You’ll see, pal… You’ll learn to like it.”
On his second day of trailing his quarry on the treacherous road leading to Winchester, Scarlet kept an even greater distance than the day before, between him and his prey. He wasn’t worried that he might lose them; his military training had made him an expert in finding trails that not many others would be able to see, whatever uneasy to read ground he worked on. Beside, even if the tracks had not been obvious enough, he knew exactly what their destination was, and going there, whatever the path taken, would be relatively easy.
If they really were who he suspected them to be, there was a good chance that sooner or later, they would realise they were being followed – it would even disappoint him if they never found that out. So he thought it a good idea to keep as good a distance from they on the road as he could. That might provide him with a means to deceive them long enough to surprise them, when they eventually discovered his presence.
The chase lasted until a little after noon, at which time Scarlet came to realise that they indeed were as good as he expected them to be.
The traces he was now following told him of horses which were carrying lighter charges. There was no indication that their riders had dismounted, to walk by their horses’ side. Not all of them anyway. The footprints he could see on the ground indicated that only half of them were going on foot while the other half… had seemingly disappeared.
But he knew they could not have disappeared like that. It was easy to guess what had happened: the first half of the troop had continued to travel towards their intended destination, keeping all the horses with them, while the second half had stayed behind. Scarlet couldn’t really be sure if they had indeed discovered his presence, or if it was normal security procedure for them, in order to make sure no-one was following them to their secret location.
At some point during his journey, Scarlet must have passed them by; he estimated that it could have been no later than five minutes ago. From hunter, he had become the hunted.
And they were now watching him. He could feel their eyes on him as he gently guided the trotting Rainbow down the beaten path by the destroyed A316. There were two… maybe three of them, positioned behind the huge chunks of asphalt debris on each side of the path, watching him pass by. He couldn’t see them, but he knew they were there. They were most assuredly armed, and their weapons were trailing him. If it had been their intention of killing him, they would have done so by now. So their orders were simply to keep their eyes on him, and see what his intentions exactly were.
He ignored their presence and continued his way. The best strategy at this point was to trick them in believing he didn’t even suspect their presence.
For a few hours more, Scarlet travelled quietly along the road, fully aware of being followed in turn. He made a show of appearing relax and carefree, going as far as humming a cheerful tune, while he was planning his next move. Sooner or later, he knew there would be a confrontation. And he wanted to be well-prepared when that moment would come.
Slowly, a plan formed in his mind.
It was towards the end of the day, as the sun was slowly descending to the West when Scarlet decided to set camp early. He was famished and a bit cramped and tired after such a long day; he needed to eat something and get some strength and rest, before he would be able to set his plan to motion. He had to be very careful, knowing that watchful eyes were following his every gesture; he had to prepare everything, and be casual about it, so not to raise any suspicion.
As he had done the previous day, he left the road and travelled a few kilometres to find a suitable point where he could set up camp. This time around, he didn’t bother checking the position of the riders he was following; he was perfectly sure that a scout would be sent ahead by his followers to inform the rest of the troop of his whereabouts.
They would eventually come to him.
Scarlet evaluated that it would be two or three hours before the two groups would rejoin. He had time enough to get some rest, a proper dinner – and to organise himself. Dismounting from Rainbow, he gave the great horse something to eat. Then, he set camp, and started a fire; he started up his portable petrol stove to put a fresh pot of coffee on it, and then sat down to prepare his meal.
Scarlet was very good in his assessment. The sun had nearly completely set and the reddish sky was turning to dark; he had nearly finished his dinner, and was checking the contents of his pot of coffee when he heard shuffling sounds from all around him. He casually sat back, settling the pot on the ground next to him, and dug into his bowl once more.
He knew he had been surrounded, well before she appeared.
It was Rainbow’s snorting that first told him of the woman’s presence and gave him an indication of where exactly she was; the horse was looking in one specific direction, ears erect in attention. From the corner of his right eye, he saw her emerging from the darkness and approaching him. The fire was casting eerie shadows onto the stones she stood in front of. Scarlet glanced at her, acknowledging her presence, without interrupting his meal.
“Come closer to the fire,” he invited in a quiet voice. “It’s cold already, and it’s not quite night yet; you must be frozen.”
For a moment, she didn’t move, but he could feel her eyes on him. Then, slowly, she walked around the fire, to stand on the other side, just in front of him. He nodded at her. “May I offer you some coffee? I just bought it in London. It’s not the best around, certainly not worth the price I paid, but it’s still drinkable and I’m willing to share.”
She didn’t care to answer. She was watching him with a blank expression on her face, her arms crossed on her breast, holding her rifle in a casual way, with the muzzle directed towards the sky. She wasn’t aiming it at Scarlet. Good, he thought. I wouldn’t want to die before having some answers first.
“You’ve been following us,” she said finally, after a moment. It was a statement, not a question.
Scarlet raised a brow, playing the innocent. “Was I? I admit I may have been going in the same direction as you –”
“No. You’ve been following us. We noticed your presence a few hours ago and we watched you. You’ve been picking up our trail.”
Scarlet casually put his fork down into his empty bowl; she followed his gesture with her eyes. “And here I thought I was trailing wild horses,” he said offhandedly enough.
She shook her head. “You’re not fooling me. You seem like too good a tracker to make a mistake like that. You’ve been trained efficiently, that’s easy to see.”
Scarlet looked back at her. “If you are able to see that, then it must mean that your training has been equally efficient… Captain.”
She frowned deeply. “Who are you?”
“Doest it really matter?”
“You’re playing a dangerous game, mister,” the young woman said warningly. “And I don’t particularly like games. Right at this moment, my men are surrounding you, and they have orders to fire if you make any kind of threatening gesture towards me. One word from me, and you will end up riddled with bullets, before you would even have the time to move.”
Scarlet nodded quietly. “It seems I have misjudged you. I didn’t think you would need anyone else to defend yourself. From what I heard of you in London, you seemed like a woman who was able to fight her own battles. I was told how you killed that policeman, a few years back…”
“He was no policeman.” She scoffed, shaking her head contemptuously. “And what happened that time is none of your business. You should really worry about yourself instead. I could have you killed here and now, if I wanted too. Nobody would know or find your body. And in this day and age, nobody would really care if you disappeared.”
“Oh, but you care, don’t you?” Scarlet asked quietly. “Or you would not be standing there merely threatening to murder me. You would have me killed already.”
“If you are not dead already, it’s only because I want some answers from you.”
The young woman made a casual gesture. Scarlet watched as the six young men he had seen in London emerged from the shadows all around him, their weapons trained on him. He had no doubt they would indeed shoot him dead, at the first order from their captain.
He put his fork and his bowl down on the ground at his feet, taking great care to make each of his gestures obvious. His right hand reached for the coffee pot. He saw the guns raised and heard hammers click. The boys were obviously nervous. Much more nervous than their leader.
“I just wanted to offer you guys some coffee,” he reassuringly explained, raising the pot to eye level. His finger slipped into the pin attached to the handle, and that his visitors could not see. Just before settling himself down for his meal, he had prepared a surprise of his own for them. He just needed to wait for the opportune moment to act now.
” I want to know why you are following us,” the blonde woman said sharply. “What do you want from us?”
“From you?” Scarlet replied, raising a brow. “I want nothing from you. What makes you believe that?”
“You’re lying,” she accused him. “You’re not following us for nothing.”
Scarlet shook his head. “I don’t lie, Captain – if this is how I should address you.” He eyed her carefully. She had not moved from her place; she was still standing in front of him, on the other side of the fire. “It’s not you I want something from.”
She frowned at his comment. “So. You do have a reason then. Explain yourself now.”
Instead of answering, Scarlet raised his coffee pot again, this time a little higher, and showed it around. “You don’t want some, then?” As nobody seemed inclined to answer his invitation, he tutted, almost regretfully. “No-one? What a shame to have to waste it… Even if it’s not that good.”
“Stop playing games,” the blonde woman said with impatience. “We don’t want your stinking coffee.”
“Then I guess there’s nothing left to do but to throw it away.”
With all the eyes still fixed on him watching his every move, Scarlet threw his coffee pot into the fire – and pulled the pin as he let go of the handle. The hand-made flare grenade hidden inside the pot exploded into an loud bang as the pot landed in the fire, sending flaming firebrands flying all around, and brightening up the night with a sudden and blinding light. Taken by surprise by the explosion, everyone either froze where they stood or threw themselves to the safety of the ground, in order to avoid the rain of fire, obviously expecting worse to come.
Scarlet moved swiftly.
While the flare acted as the distraction it was meant to be, he leapt over the fire, paying little attention to the now high flames, which served as a shield against the eyes and aim of his opponents; he aimed straight at the young woman still standing on the other side. To her, he certainly must appeared like a vision straight from hell, a fraction of a second before he roughly landed on her and threw her to the ground. She had no time to raise her rifle, but her finger instinctively squeezed the trigger once; the bullet flew wide, and ricocheted against nearby rocks.
Standing over his fallen opponent, Scarlet kicked the weapon aside, and pinned her hand to the ground under his foot in the same movement, squashing her fingers. The captain yelled in pain and made an attempt to raise… and stopped instantly. Scarlet, now bending over her, was holding the edge of a very sharp knife close against her throat.
“Nobody moves!” Scarlet barked. The effect of his flare bomb was dying out, and so were the flames behind him; the young men, seeing their leader in danger, were moving forward. He put the knife firmer against her throat, while he knelt down over her; he was keeping her right hand imprisoned under his left foot while his right knee pressed solidly and painfully against her shoulder, pushing her down completely to the ground. “Take another step, and your dear captain dies!”
“Let her go or we’ll shoot!” Jones shot back in alarm.
“You shoot and my hand will slip,” Scarlet replied coldly. “I don’t care if I die, but I certainly won’t be the only one to go. I’ll take her with me.”
The boys didn’t dare to move;, they watched in dread of what this stranger threatening their leader would do next. Scarlet glared at them, in such a way that they had no doubt he would not hesitate to execute his ultimatum if they were to move.
“Drop your weapons,” he ordered. “All of them.”
They exchanged glances, unsure what do to. “If we throw our weapons, what will stop you from killing her anyway?” Watson asked. “And then all of us?”
“Don’t be dense, boy,” Scarlet replied harshly. “With or without weapons, you’d have the advantage: you’re six against me. I know I’m good, but I wouldn’t be able to take you all out with only this knife. Consider this: if I kill your captain after you drop your weapons, I wouldn’t have any shield left to protect myself from you.”
“Captain?” Jones asked then. “What should we do?”
Scarlet looked down at the young woman pinned underneath him; she was glaring hatefully at him, her teeth clenched. No doubt, she didn’t appreciate finding herself so powerless. She probably wasn’t used to it. “I won’t kill you if they obey my orders,” he promised her. “You have my word.”
“What is it your word worth?” she spat at him. He didn’t answer, and she grunted. It wasn’t as if she had any choice. “Do as he says,” she ordered.
“Wise decision, Captain.”
Scarlet watched as the boys threw all of their weapons next to the fire, in clear view. “Don’t leave out anything,” he said. “I said I wanted all of your weapons. Guns, knifes… everything you have. At the first attempt to trick me, I’ll slit her throat. I’m not kidding. ”
Watson was throwing his pistol with the other weapons; glaring at Scarlet, he removed the knife from his belt, and dropped it as well. “What do you plan to do now?” he asked.
“I want you all to go away,” Scarlet answered. “Take your horses and ride back to your camp.” He looked down at the blonde woman. “The captain will stay with me.”
“We’re not leaving without her, man,” Jones protested. “The colonel will not like –”
“Shut up, Jones!” the captain shouted, interrupting him.
Scarlet smiled slightly. Now that was interesting to know. Even if that sounded a little odd.
“The ‘colonel’ will not like it, uh? Well, that’s tough, then… I don’t care much that your colonel will like it or not: you are staying with me, Captain.”
“What guarantee do we have that you won’t kill her as soon as we’ll leave?” Watson asked suspiciously.
“You have no guarantee… only my word that I won’t do it. Unless…” Scarlet looked down at the young woman. “Unless you attempt to escape, Captain. And in that case, every bet is off. So if you know what’s good for you, you won’t try anything. Because you know I will kill you, right?”
She glared at him, with an icy stare. “I can see in your eyes that you won’t hesitate one second, you creep,” she said between her teeth.
“Then we understand each other perfectly. Tell them to go.”
She raised her voice: “You heard him: go back to camp. That’s an order.”
“That’s a good girl,” Scarlet said quietly. He turned to address the six young men who were starting to leave, reluctantly. “Go directly to camp,” he advised them. “Don’t try to come back and attempt to free her. Or you will have to explain to your colonel how you foolishly got her killed in the process.”
“What will you do with her?” Jones asked. It was obvious he was concerned for the young woman’s safety.
“If you do as I say, you’ll see her soon,” Scarlet answered. “Give this message to your colonel: I will be coming, and I’ll bring her back with me, safe and sound.”
“You’ll follow us to camp?” Watson said in surprise.
“I’ll get there eventually,” Scarlet replied calmly, looking down at the captain.
For a moment, the six young men remained silent; the stranger seemed so sure of himself, and indeed, had the upper hand at the moment. They exchanged wary glances, obviously wondering if they were facing a man who was totally crazy, or if there wasn’t something they’d missed about him. As they seemed rooted into place, unwilling to comply to his orders, Scarlet glared at them.
“Come on, go now! I want to hear the hoof beats of your horses leaving in five minutes! Get a move on!”
They left quickly, disappearing into the shadows. By this point, night had nearly fallen completely, and Scarlet soon lost sight of them. He returned his attention to the young woman he was still holding prisoner. The knife had came closer to her neck during the confrontation, causing a slight cut against her skin. She wasn’t moving, but kept glaring up at him with murder and hate in her blue eyes.
Scarlet waited, keeping her pinned to the ground. Soon he heard the sounds of departing horses. With the young woman, he listened to the sound of the hoof beats decreasing in the distance, until it faded. He was sure now that the boys would follow his orders.
“I’ll kill you at the first opportunity, you swine…” his captive promised, her jaws clenched in anger.
“You’re welcome to try,” Scarlet replied quietly.
He removed his blade, freed her hand from under his foot and removed some of his weight from her; she started to rise on one elbow ––to receive a vicious punch that caught her straight on the chin.
She dropped back to the ground, unconscious.
“Sorry,” Scarlet said, genuinely contrite, as he knelt astride her and gathered her hands onto her belly. “But I think you’re too dangerous, and it wouldn’t be wise for me not to take some necessary precautions with you.” He took the already prepared length of rope from his pocket, and started tying her hands with it; he heard neighing, and looked up in direction of Rainbow, who was staring at him in interest. The horse snorted and shook his head, as if to show his disapproval.
“Yes, I know,” Scarlet admitted with a sigh. “This is not very gentlemanly… But would you rather see her slit my throat during my sleep and finding her riding on your back instead of me in the morning?” Rainbow neighed again, and Scarlet frowned. “I know, I know… I’ve put on some weight lately and she would be a lot lighter than I am, but –” Rainbow answered with a last snort shaking his head wildly. Scarlet rolled his eyes. “Oh, shut up… You don’t have to answer that, you know.”
Crumpled on the cold floor of his cell, Scarlet was desperately trying to keep the persistent hands from prying from his closed fists the precious object he so wanted to keep for himself. His fingers were covered with blood, broken from the multiple blows from his tormentors’ clubs, in their merciless attempts to take from him this forbidden possession. It was the only comfort he had been able to keep with him since his arrival in this hellhole, the only thing that had made his life here somewhat tolerable.
“Come on, Scarlet, give it to us!” a voice told him insistently. “Let go of it, you bastard, or you’re really going to regret it! We’ll break every bone in your miserable body if we have to.”
Scarlet didn’t reply to the threat, and clenched his teeth, bracing himself. The four military guards kept at him relentlessly. He couldn’t get up, so he curled on the floor in an attempt to protect himself against the many blows and kicks coming from all sides. His head was reeling and he could barely see straight. A bludgeon hit him on the right arm with such strength that he heard it crack ominously, and a new wave of pain raced through his entire body. He smothered a cry, determined not to show them his agony and not give in to their demands; they wouldn’t take from him this last treasure he had kept this long from them.
They could kill him if they want, he didn’t care.
“Come on! Is this thing so worth dying for?” the same voice called to him.
Scarlet closed his eyes, wanting to shout ‘yes’ at the top of his lungs. The bludgeon caught him on the cheek and he grunted; he nearly lost consciousness under the blow.
“What is going on, here?”
The blows ceased instantly at the sound of this new voice, which rang imperiously around the cell. Breathing hard, Scarlet stayed curled up on the floor, trying to pull himself together. The four guards who had been hammering him so brutally stepped away. His whole body throbbing in pain, he permitted himself a cautious glance over his shoulder, from the only eye that consented to open. His vision was blurred, but he recognised the uniformed man currently standing in the doorway of his cell, facing his guards with a livid expression.
“What do you think you are doing to this man?” Commander Ward snapped. He appeared outraged to find them beating a prisoner that way, and quite frankly, his intervention came as much as a surprise to Scarlet as to the four guards. He had suffered far worse than this beating in this prison and he highly suspected it was under this very man’s specific orders.
“Sir,” one of the guards answered, in a very official voice, “the prisoner was hiding something in his cell. A personal belonging. As it is strictly forbidden by the prison rules, we were attempting to confiscate the said object.”
“And beating him half to death is your way of taking it away from him?”
“He refused to comply and resisted. We thought –”
“You thought?!” Ward suddenly bellowed into the man’s face. “You’re not here to think, Sergeant Larsen, but to follow orders! And I don’t recall giving any orders permitting you to beat up any prisoner the way you just did!”
Larsen straightened up under the remonstrance and his companions instinctively did the same. For a moment, Ward glared at them, seemingly barely able to contain his righteous anger.
Behind the wall formed by the four guards standing to attention, Scarlet looked up in confusion, wondering what Ward could possibly want from him right now. His good eye met with Ward’s for a brief instant, before the S.H.E.F. commander looked away to address the guards once more:
“Help him up, and put him on his bed.”
Larsen murmured his acknowledgement; he motioned to two of his companions, and both turned to Scarlet. They took him by the arms and lifted his limp body…
Scarlet suddenly came to life, and hit them with all the strength he could muster; the first one let go and backed away when the former Spectrum officer hit him on the nose; the other guard doubled over when he was struck in the groin. Scarlet leapt forward with an angry growl, straight at Ward, his hands reaching out for him. This was the man responsible for all his latest grief; the man who had caused for him to be arrested and held in this hellish place. It had been a long time since he had found himself in his presence – and it was the first time he wasn’t actually restrained in such circumstances.
He would be damned if he wouldn’t take his chance to get his rightful revenge on this bastard now.
The SHEF commander froze onto place when a steel grip seized the front of his uniform. Larsen did not wait; he bludgeoned Scarlet over the head, making him stumble. Scarlet’s hands were still clutching Ward’s uniform.and the last guard struck at his already damaged hands, finally forcing him to let go. Ward finally stepped back, and watched as the prisoner fell at his feet.
Immediately, Larsen and his companions started hitting him, in a similar way as they had been doing when Ward had entered the cell.
“NO!” Ward shouted.
The four guards froze, standing over the fallen captain, ready to strike, they turned confused looks towards Ward. He gestured in direction of the still open door:
“Get out of here, all of you! Leave me alone with the prisoner.”
Larsen tried to protest, “Sir, this man is dangerous. He just tried to –”
“I know what he tried to do!” Ward replied sharply. “But you made damn sure he wouldn’t attack me again, didn’t you? I told you to get out, and I mean right now!”
None of the men dared to protest again. However, Larsen shot a brief, malevolent glance in direction of the prisoner. Scarlet was crawling towards the nearest wall, in an attempt to put some distance between him and his tormentors.
“Larsen, this is an order. You get out with your little friends, or I’ll put you on report,” Ward snapped.
The guard nodded silently, and followed his companions out of the cell. Ward closed the door on them. The lock being pulled echoed through the small room before silence finally fell.
Scarlet braced himself against the wall, and painfully pulled his tortured body into a seated position. He put his aching back against the wall and closed his eyes, letting out a deep breath – which forced a moan of pain from his gritting teeth. After a few seconds he opened his good eye. Now alone in the cell with him, Ward turned his attention on Scarlet, and observed him intently.
“I would suggest you do not try again to attack me, Scarlet,” Ward warned him. “I just want to talk to you – in private. I wouldn’t like to call your guards again to restrain you. And this time around, I might not be able to stop them. So – before you decide to try and wring my neck again, I think it would be in your best interest to hear me out.”
Scarlet answered silently with the briefest of nods.
Slowly, Ward walked the short distance separating him from the empty bunk; it was set against the wall opposite the prisoner, who was still sitting on the floor, looking warily at him.
Ward sat down, and rested his hands on his knees, his fingers intertwined. “You might not believe it, but I’m sorry this happened, Captain Scarlet.”
“Sure I don’t believe you, General Ward…” Scarlet’s voice caught in his throat. He coughed and spat some blood, before wiping his mouth. He had trouble breathing; he figured Larsen and his friends had broken a couple of his ribs. “I mean, Commander…” he corrected himself. “Sorry, I can’t see clearly, right now… Can’t quite see how many stars on your epaulettes…”
“You look in pain,” Ward observed. “Do you need a doctor?”
Scarlet shook his head. “You should know I’ll be right as rain in a few hours. So why worry, all of a sudden?”
Ward leaned closer to him; before Scarlet could even think of stopping him, he took from his ruined fingers the object the guards had been trying to take from him. Even during his attempt to reach for Ward, he had not let go of it. Now he wasn’t even able to hold onto it.
It was a simple photography, now stained with blood. For a short moment, Ward intently looked at it, before showing it to Scarlet.
“Who is it?” he asked quietly.
Scarlet looked at the beautiful and smiling red-head on the picture. “My wife,” he answered, trying to sound dispassionate.
“You’re married?” Ward seemed surprised.
“I was… I’m not anymore. She’s –” Scarlet leaned his throbbing head against the wall behind him. At the moment, it was hard to think; harder still, when it came to reminisce about sad and painful memories. He swallowed hard. “The nuclear attack the Mysterons launched on London, in 2073,” he explained. “She died there, with so many others. Her body was never recovered.”
Ward shook his head. “I’m truly sorry to hear that, Captain.”
“Are you, really?” Scarlet replied sharply. “What do you want from me this time, Commander? It’s been a while since you personally came to visit me.”
Without answering, Ward handed him the picture. Scarlet struggled to take it between his wrecked fingers, but nevertheless managed to hold on to it.
“She was very pretty,” Ward continued. “Did she know about your… condition?”
“She was a Spectrum Angel pilot. Of course, she knew.”
Ward nodded. “She must have loved you very much. And you must have loved her the same way, if you were willing to take such a harsh beating just to keep this picture of her with you.”
“This is all I have left of her,” Scarlet murmured. “You don’t know what she meant to me.”
“ I thought they took all of your personal belongings when you were incarcerated here. How did you hide this, on your arrival? And keep it for so long since then, without anyone realising you had it before today?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Scarlet answered with a slurred voice. His swollen lips gave his mysterious smile a crooked, almost disturbing look.
“Where are your shoes?” Ward asked, noticing that Scarlet was barefoot.
“I don’t have any. I’m not allowed to keep shoes.”
Ward frowned. “Why? Did they think you would hang yourself with your laces?”
Scarlet chuckled briefly. “They would only have removed the laces then, wouldn’t they?” he replied sarcastically. “ Not that it would have made any difference, since I would not have been able to kill myself with them anyway. No, I’m too dangerous a man to be allowed shoes.” Scarlet paused for drama. “I could use them as a weapon to hurt or even kill someone. Ask Sergeant Larsen. He’s got a broken nose to prove it.”
“I’m sure that despicable man deserved it,” Ward muttered. “Is that why he seems to hate you so much?”
“Why so much solicitude all of a sudden, Commander?” Scarlet asked, scrutinizing Ward with his good eye. “You’ll pardon me if I sound like such an ingrate, but I can’t help feeling suspicious. I’m not accustomed to such civility on your part. Or don’t you remember how our previous meeting went?”
Ward looked away, and Scarlet, noticing his unusual awkwardness, leaned towards him. The movement alone sent a wave of pain throughout his tormented body and he winced, trying to keep the pain out of his voice when he spoke again:
“I’ll remind you, that it’s you, who had me thrown into this military prison, months ago. Kept me in solitary confinement, alone in this cell… You had me questioned and drugged so that I would admit my association with the Mysteron,. because you were so sure I was their spy, or some kind of fifth columnist that they could use for their own means.”
“We didn’t expect your retrometabolism to offer such an effective resistance to drugs –” Ward started.
“You damn hypocrite, Ward!” Scarlet interrupted him bitterly. “You wanted so much to know what I knew of the Mysterons’ plans, that you shut your eyes on whatever was done to me, if it meant finding out exactly what I might be hiding. You know damn well your ‘interrogators’ used any means they considered necessary in attempting to drag either information or a confession from me! And drugging me wasn’t the only thing they did. Nor was it the least illegal of their methods!”
“And you held on,” Ward commented quietly. “You never gave up.”
“That was bloody easy – I had nothing to tell you!”
Ward sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, Captain… But you must understand, I really felt I needed to learn the truth about you.”
“And you think that alone justified the use of methods that can only be described as torture?” Scarlet snapped at him in disgust. “You were there, you assisted to some of these sessions yourself, Ward, and you didn’t bat an eyelid! I suspect you even took some pleasure it them!”
“That’s not true, I – I was only doing my duty.”
“Don’t hand me that, you bastard. It doesn’t work with me! And now… you’re showing concern and sympathy for me? What is your angle, now?”
“Don’t call me that!” Scarlet shot back heatedly. “Your torturers made it very clear that Paul Metcalfe has been dead for a long time and that I have no right to that name! I had figured this out myself before you got me arrested, anyway. But that doesn’t change the fact: I am not a Mysteron agent, and I know nothing of the Mysterons’ plans! How many times do I have to tell you that? Given the chance, I’d fight them ‘til the bitter end. I hate them, and despise them, for what they have done to my life, for the loved ones they took from me – as much as I despise you, you miserable bastard!”
Ward pursed his lips and kept silence; he averted his eyes, seeming unwilling to look at Scarlet. Slowly, he got to his feet and took a few steps towards the far wall of the cell, turning his back on the prisoner who followed him with his stare. The WAAF commander contemplated the empty wall, lost in his thoughts.
For a brief moment, Scarlet considered the thought of attacking him again, but something stopped him.
“We are losing this war, Captain,” the SHEF commander finally said. He turned to face Scarlet again. He had the look of a desperate man. “And we are losing it badly.”
Scarlet gazed back at him for a second or two, before averting his eyes. “What do you expect me to do about it?” he muttered bitterly. He waved around. “I’m merely a guest in this magnificent palace of yours.”
“That could easily change.”
At Ward’s words, Scarlet turned to face him again; this was an unexpected statement, to say the least. He managed not to show any of his surprise and hid it behind a hard façade. “How long have I been here?” he asked abruptly.
“A little less than two years,” Ward admitted, somehow reluctantly.
“Two years?” This time, Scarlet was unable to hide his shock. He had not realised it had been so long. With the constant sessions of interrogation he had been submitted to, sometimes for hours, or perhaps days on end, and the frequent periods of unconsciousness caused by either the many drugs used on him, or the severity of his the treatment he had endured, he had lost sense of the time. He had no way to efficiently count it. He just knew he had been kept here a very long time; weeks, months… he was unable to tell. Now, to find that he had been a prisoner so long, he could barely believe it.
But Ward had no reason to lie – to hide the truth from him. And Scarlet’s anger and loathing for this man grew even beyond what he had ever felt for anyone in his life. With the exception of the Mysterons, perhaps.
However, he had to ignore the revulsion he felt for him, because something Ward had just said was simply too important to be dismissed.
“You’ve kept me here for two years, because you couldn’t trust me as far as you could throw me. And now, after all this time, you tell me that it’s possible I could go free?”
“Yes,” Ward answered briefly.
“Why?” Scarlet asked guardedly. “What changed your mind? Don’t you see me as a Mysteron spy anymore?”
Ward gave a deep sigh. “I see you as the dedicated soldier you once were,” he said. “And I want you to become that soldier again.”
Scarlet wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. He narrowed his eyes, staring at Ward. “Would you mind repeating that?”
“You heard me well the first time, Captain.”
Scarlet scoffed. “So that’s what you want in exchange of my freedom, Commander? You’re offering me a job in the W.A.A.F? Or within S.H.E.F. itself? Well, think again! After what you have done to me, there’s no way in hell I would agree to work under your orders, Ward!”
“Oh, come on now, Captain. You’d be no good in S.H.E.F. and you know it.” Ward came closer and looked down at Scarlet with a set expression. I’m giving you back your old job at Spectrum.”
Scarlet blinked. He truly couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What trick is this?” he muttered.
“No tricks, Scarlet. This is a genuine offer.” Ward crouched in front of him. “I want you back with Spectrum, so you can do again the good work you once did there, against the Mysterons.”
“That’s it, then?” Scarlet replied, still guardedly. “No questions asked, forget about these past two years of incarceration, torture and suffering… Oh no, Commander, it won’t be so easy. I want to know why you’ve changed your mind about me, so drastically – what could have happened that, in your eyes, could turn me from a hated spy to a notable hero.”
Ward took a deep breath; he lowered his head, in another attempt to avoid Scarlet’s probing and angry eyes. “I have learned a few truths about you,” he said. “For example, why you decided to resign for Spectrum. You… were very close to Adam Svenson and what happened to him –”
“… Isn’t of any concern to yours,” Scarlet cut in suddenly. Even after two years, he wasn’t prepared to hear about it – let alone talk about it. “This certainly doesn’t account for your change of heart.”
“On the contrary, Captain,” Ward replied. “ The choice you had to make then is a clear indication that you are as dedicated to the cause as anyone could ever be.”
“You think I liked doing what I did then?” Scarlet snapped at him with anger. “You think I liked being forced to kill my best friend?”
“No.” Ward shook his head. “No, it must have been very difficult for you. And when it happened, I misread what such a gesture on your part truly meant: I could only see a strategy from the Mysterons to weaken the forces of Spectrum and get rid of a most resilient foe at the same time. And that’s how I presented it to the World President, when I demanded your arrest. I see today that it was me and not you who played the Mysterons’ hand: Indeed, it was I who got rid of their most resilient foe, when I had you put here.”
“Did you, now?” Scarlet dryly stated.
“I told you, Captain: Earth is fighting a war that it is losing. Things have considerably worsened since you came here. During all these months, the Mysterons have carried on with their attacks. Our food stocks and fuel supplies are dangerously low, and we’ve found out that radioactive fallouts have poisoned many of our water resources. Many of our cities are on the brink of disaster and those which have already endured much, like London or New York, have not been spared in all this. They continue to be the targets of repeated attacks, as if the Mysterons were trying to make a point that they will not be finished with them until there isn’t a single building left. We lost contact with the Moon last month, and the last we heard of them at the time was that half of our colonies have either been destroyed or abandoned. With the mining at the North Pole stopped by the Mysterons, space flight is about to be cancelled, so we won’t even have the resources to go up there and help them, and they will be left to fend for themselves. We don’t expect for them to last very long – if they are still alive.” He sat down directly on the floor, in front of Scarlet and this time, looked the younger man in the eyes. “Our defences are being taken one by one: Atlantica is gone. It was destroyed six months ago, from the inside, much like the Frost Line Defence was, four years ago. And I don’t give Base Concord much of a chance of surviving much longer: the last Mysteron assault against it has left it pretty much crippled. If we don’t find an edge fast, it will soon be too late for all of us. We need all of our good men, all of the assets we have to at least have any hope of surviving, and God willing, even winning. I am convinced now that you are one of these assets, Captain Scarlet. I would have realised this sooner if only…” Ward faltered. He lowered his head again. “… If only I had not been just too damn blinded with hate for the Mysterons and what I believed came from them.”
“Like me.” Scarlet commented in an even voice.
Ward nodded. “I hated you – because the Mysterons were responsible for the destruction of the Frost Line Defence.”
“Your old command,” Scarlet stated.
“More than that, Captain.” Ward shook his head and took another deep, shaky breath. “You didn’t know it, but my son… was amongst the staff of Red Deer, during that second attack of the Mysterons against the Frost Line. He died there, like all the others at the base.” He swallowed hard at this very painful memory. “It was just a stroke of fate that I wasn’t present when our H.Q. was struck down,” he continued. “Or I would have died as well. Maybe it would have been better, all things considered. I would have been with my men.”
“You’re not the only one to have lost someone dear to the Mysterons,” Scarlet reminded him sullenly. He looked down at the picture he was still holding in his swollen, but now healing hand. “Or to suffer from survivor’s guilt. I’ve lived with that often. And some times have been worse than others.”
“Your friend,” commented Ward. He pointed to the picture. “And your wife as well.”
“And our child,” Scarlet added. “She was pregnant at the time of her death. In fact – she was in London because she would have given birth in a few months.”
Ward nodded again, this time very slowly. “So now I know you lost as much as I did to the Mysterons,” he said. “Perhaps even more, considering that they also took your… Humanity.”
“You don’t have to spell it out for me, Commander,” Scarlet replied dryly.
“I don’t hold any ill will towards you anymore, Captain,” Ward assured him. “I told you I recently learned a few truths about you. I also learned that you had been closely involved with the operation to stop the first Mysteron attack on Frost Line… and that, in effect, you saved many lives that time.”
“I wasn’t alone. It was a team effort, Commander. And unfortunately, we were unable to save every one of your men. Two of your bases suffered from the attacks, and many died.”
“Don’t be modest, Captain. I know what you did and that it was mainly through your efforts that many other men owed their lives to you. And that includes me.” Ward gazed around the cell, thoughtfully. “And this is how I repaid you.” He looked back at Scarlet. “I checked your service records more thoroughly. Something I should have done before requesting your arrest. But my judgment was so tainted with hatred that I couldn’t see past the fact that you had been a Mysteron agent, and couldn’t take into account the many good things you did after you broke free from their control. You fought them all the way… and never once faltered.”
“I faltered once,” Scarlet said in a low voice, averting his eyes, a look of disgust on his face. “And you took advantage of that moment to get me here.”
“President Roberts wants you out,” Ward said.
Scarlet shivered. “Now he remembers me?” he muttered dryly. “If I’m not mistaken, he was the one who signed my arrest in the first place.”
“He didn’t know it was you specifically,” Ward confessed, causing Scarlet to snap his head in his direction. “I conveniently left out your name when I asked him to sign that warrant that sealed your fate. He only knew that his predecessor had consented to a Mysteron replicate working as a Spectrum officer and obviously, himself wasn’t too keen on the idea. Which is why he agreed to my request to arrest you, and accepted that it would be kept it secret from Spectrum.” Ward paused. “I revealed your identity to him two days ago. He was livid. He remembered how you had put your life on the line to save his, that first time the Mysterons came after him, ten years ago.”
“So… is that really what you’re saying, then? I’m free to go?” Scarlet asked, scarcely believing it.
Ward shook his head. “Not quite just yet. I must ask you to be a little more patient. The World Government will be holding a special summit two days from now. All of Earth’s security forces will be participating, and we should decided what will be our next strategies in regard of the Mysterons’ War of Nerves. I told you we needed an edge, and we’re working on getting it right now. But we can only do it if all of us are working together. The Director General of the Asian Republic and the new European Triumvirate will be attending as well. Colonel White will be there too.”
“Colonel White?” Scarlet repeated. “Do you mean Charles Grey?” He saw little point in keeping that name a secret. As S.H.E.F. commander, Ward would know of the real identity of Colonel White anyway. “Is he still Colonel White?”
Ward nodded. “Yes,” he confirmed. “After the incident that happened the first time he retired, he decided to return to duty. He reportedly said he wouldn’t retire until you are found. I think he sees you as the only worthy successor to lead Spectrum and to effectively continue the fight against the Mysterons.”
“I’m not sure I’m fit to replace him,” Scarlet said hesitantly. “I’m not sure anyone is.”
“That’ll be a question to settle between the two of you. He and I will meet the World President in private before the summit. Roberts has agreed to sign your release papers and hand them to your commander. You’ll be free to go then.”
“Does Colonel White know where I am? What happened to me?”
“Not as yet, but he’ll know everything when we meet the World President. I expect White will demand my head. And he will surely have it. Roberts is already angry enough with me as it is, it won’t take much for him to decide to ask for my resignation.”
Scarlet glared at him and said nothing; he found it difficult, if not impossible, to sympathise with Ward in any way. Not after all he had suffered, since this man had instigated his arrest.
“Three days, Captain Scarlet,” Ward promised, “and you will be walking from this prison as a free man. In the meantime, I’ll make arrangements so you’ll be more comfortable… and see that Larsen and everyone else will leave you alone.”
“And you will be out of my life as well?” Scarlet said between his teeth.
“Out of your life once and for all. Whether the World President asks for my resignation as S.H.E.F. commander or not, I fully intend to go anyway. I won’t pose a threat to you anymore. I’ll destroy all papers which concern you, and so no-one will ever learn the truth about your condition.”
“You’re really going out on a limb to get me off the hook, aren’t you?” Scarlet commented. “Roberts set you up to this?”
“Even if he had not, I would have done all this anyway. I know I will never entirely repay my debt in your eyes… But this is the least I can do for you. Just promise me you will continue the good fight… to the best of your capacity.”
Scarlet didn’t feel like he would be able to promise anything to a man who had caused him so much grief, however pleadingly he asked. He grunted, and shifted his position against the wall. His hands were less numb, and the pain in his back subsided. His vision was much clearer now.
“Just keep your word, Ward,” he said dispassionately, “and I’ll see what I can do from my end.”
Ward nodded, apparently content with that answer. He got up, and slowly walked towards the door. He knocked on it to call the guards, and then stood there, his back turned on Scarlet, waiting.
When the guards came to pull the lock and opened the door to let him out, Ward turned one last time towards the silent prisoner who didn’t seem inclined to look at him. “For what it’s worth, Scarlet – I’m very sorry for what happened, and all the wrong I caused you.”
Scarlet didn’t answer, didn’t even raise his head when Ward finally walked out and the door closed, with its lock echoing loudly into the lonely cell.
“Yeah,” Scarlet murmured for himself, staring longingly into the picture he still held in the palm of his hand. “Me too…”
The subsequent wait was excruciating. The three days promised passed by and were gone. At least, Scarlet, reflected, his jailers were leaving him alone since Ward’s visit. That suggested to him that the S.H.E.F. commander had at least kept his word by making sure he wouldn’t be tormented anymore by Larsen and his goons. As it was, the door to his cell remained closed, and Scarlet wasn’t visted at all after Ward came, except for the silent guard assigned to hand him his food through the flap of his door.
He didn’t know exactly what time it was, but he figured it had been about two weeks after Ward’s visit, when he heard the lock of his door finally being pulled. He was dozing on his hard bunk and as soon as the sound reached his ears, he raised himself into a seated position, fully awake.
He watched as Sergeant Larsen, and one of his men entered the cell; beyond the door, he could see two other men standing guard in the corridor, clubs in hands. As Larsen came to stand by the bed, Scarlet slowly pulled himself from under his blanket and put his bare feet on the cold floor, carefully keeping an eye on his visitors.
“Glad to see you’re awake, Scarlet,” Larsen told him with a dull voice. He had in his hands a pair of old working boots that he casually threw at the prisoner’s feet. “Put these on, and be fast about it. And don’t do anything funny.”
Scarlet reached for one boot. “So I’m going then?” he asked. He was trying to keep both the relief and the excitement from his voice. Finally, after all this time, he would be leaving this dreadful place and be a free man again. He didn’t know as yet how it would feel to resume his life as a Spectrum officer, but if Colonel White would have him, and if and when, he was considered fit for duty, he was quite ready and willing to continue his fight against the Mysterons.
Larsen raised a brow at his question. His expression remained unreadable, but his voice was callous enough when he replied: “We’re moving you to better quarters. Seems the warden thinks this cell is not secure enough for you anymore. We’re sending you down.”
Scarlet froze, the boot he was about to put on still in his hand. He raised his eyes to Larsen, frowning. “Sending me down?”
“Underground, to a level five security cell.”
Scarlet looked at him in shock; after having seen his hope rekindled only a few days before, now it was cruelly squashed down again. Freedom was slipping from his fingers. He stood up, protesting: “Wait a sec… Commander Ward told me I was going to be released. He promised –”
“You mean, when he came, a week ago?” Larsen interrupted him. A crooked smile appeared on his lips. “You got that on paper?”
Scarlet’s heart sank. “Well, no… He said… I would be reinstated within Spectrum…”
“Spectrum?” Larsen scoffed loudly. Scarlet could hear the obvious loathing in his voice when he said that single word. “Well, it wouldn’t matter if you had a paper or not, mate, because it wouldn’t be worth shit today. Or haven’t you heard?”
“Heard what?” Scarlet asked with a frown. He was starting to be seriously worried.
“Oh, that’s right you don’t have access to the outside world. So you couldn’t possibly know what had happened out there. Well, it’ll be my pleasure to tell you all about it, then…”
Larsen’s expression became hard. As if on cue, the two men left outside entered the cell to stand in line with their companions, clubs at the ready, looking at Scarlet with a bleak expression and a mean flash in their eyes. Scarlet watched them guardedly, now certain that they meant to do him some damage.
For whatever reason exactly, he had no idea; but he was about to find that out.
“Commander Ward is dead,” Larsen then told him in an even voice.
That announcement chilled Scarlet’s blood into his veins. He paled and started unbelievingly at Larsen. “Dead?” he repeated.
“They’re all dead,” Larsen said bitterly. “The World President, his entire cabinet, the whole of S.H.E.F. senior staff, the heads of the W.A.A.F… All of the population of Futura. All of them – they are gone.”
It was as if Scarlet’s mind suddenly went blank; he wasn’t quite sure if he was understanding the full meaning and implication of what Larsen was telling him. It seemed too big, too unbelievable. Surely, the man was lying – trying to torturing him with lies. But by the expression on his face, it didn’t seem to be the case. He had rarely seen the man’s eyes display such hate before.
“What?” Scarlet murmured, refusing to believe what he was hearing. “What is this nonsense? How –?”
“That’s the truth, Scarlet,” Larsen snapped, this time making no effort to hide his anger and antagonism from his voice. “It’s been all over the news for days! Spectrum’s Cloudbase crashed into Slaton Base. There were nuclear warheads stored there, which were to be used for a projected attack against Mars. The crash triggered them to explode – You couldn’t start to believe the devastation it caused! It was an explosion such as nobody had ever seen before. It destroyed the base, Futura City, the whole island – All of it was gone in mere minutes!”
Scarlet felt his knees buckling underneath him; the terrible news was too overwhelming. He found the need to sit down. His head suddenly felt so very light and his heart started beating faster; what was left of his last meal threatened to come up and out. It was London again. New York City again… Paris… All of those deaths… all of those innocent lives gone, lost forever… And even if he had been free, he would have been unable to do anything about it. Nobody could have done anything to avert a tragedy of this magnitude.
‘We are looking for an edge’, Ward had told him. Of course… the nuclear warheads stored in Slaton Airbase, ready to be launched against Mars. Against the Mysterons. They had learn of this. And they had launched their attack against the Earthmen using the same weapons they were planning to use on them.
That was so sickly ironic. So utterly… Mysteron.
The dreadful aliens had won yet another battle… And this time they had done the worst damage possible.
They were to be all there in Futura. So many of their original targets, all at once: Futura City; the World President, who just happened to be President Roberts; the Director General of the Asian Republic and the European Triumvirate; the S.H.E.F. Supreme commander and his staff, amongst which were the high command of the W.A.A.F. Air Force Division…
Cloudbase and Colonel White…
All of them… gone.
Through the blood beating loudly in his ears, Scarlet could also hear the echo of a voice, seemingly coming from far away. It was Larsen’s, filled with loathing, as he continued to recount the horror of what happened:
“As if it wasn’t enough, the explosion caused an underwater earthquake… and then, an enormous tsunami. It destroyed everything in its wake. The Bermudas and all the surrounding islands in the Atlantic – they took the brunt of it. About just two hours after that, New York was hit. Again. The whole East Coast was devastated. They say the waves were nearly a hundred feet high and that it went more then two to three miles inland. We’ll be picking up the pieces and finding dead people for months to come.”
Scarlet could hear the steps of the guards as they approached closer and surrounded him. “The Mysterons –” he said in a low, bleak voice.
“Yeah – the Mysterons,” Larsen spat. “Maybe it’s like they say on the news… Maybe Cloudbase was taken over by the Mysterons. Or maybe Spectrum, at last, turned against the World Government.”
Scarlet shook his head. “No. They would never –”
“No? You think they wouldn’t? Whatever, it doesn’t matter, Scarlet. Because Spectrum could never be trusted anymore. After what just happened, I doubt their earth-bases will continue to operate, and as for Cloudbase’s survivors –”
Scarlet’s head snapped to stare unbelievingly at Larsen. “There are survivors?”
Larsen grunted with annoyance. “They say that craft were seen escaping Cloudbase, as it was plunging towards Slaton Base. ”
That caused hope to revive in Scarlet’s heart, even if it was a very weak hope. Survivors. So not everyone onboard Cloudbase died in this catastrophe. Maybe some of his friends and colleagues were out there, somewhere… Maybe they would be able to explain what happened exactly, report of the chain of events that led to such horror. It was obvious it was the Mysterons’ doing, that they had caused this. There could be no other explanation.
“I see in your eyes what you’re thinking, Scarlet,” Larsen continued. “But we know nothing more we know about this. It’s unknown if these craft got away from the disaster when Cloudbase hit, or if they were destroyed in the explosion after that.”
“They survived,” Scarlet said with conviction. “They must have. They –”
“Well, quite frankly, I don’t give a shit about them, Scarlet. They could rot in hell for all I care. And as for you, you bastard, it doesn’t change a thing. Because whether you’re Mysteron or Spectrum, you’re here to stay. And if you thought you had it tough up until now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. It’s going to get a hell of a lot rougher for you from now on.”
At these words, Scarlet suddenly came back to his senses. Out of anger and frustration, he made a desperate attempt to throw the boot he was still holding in his hands into Larsen’s scornful face. But the guards were ready for him, and one of them caught his raised arm; the boot flew harmlessly high over its target’s face.
The next second, a struggling Scarlet was pushed down flat onto his belly against his bunk, and forcibly held there, with his face buried into the mattress with such roughness that he nearly choked. His arms were pulled behind his back almost to breaking point. He felt the knees and clubs of the guards against his back, and with so many hands holding him down, despite all of his efforts, he was unable to free himself.
He felt shackles closing around his wrists, biting so deep into his flesh that it was hurting him and cutting off the blood flow; it was only then that they removed his face from the mattress and allowed him to breath freely again. Hands still held him down, with his cheek against the bed, though, and from this new angle, panting, his teeth clenched, he could see Larsen leaning over him, with the same hateful expression on his face; he was looking straight at him, and playing with his bludgeon.
“Have I ever told you you’re my favourite inmate, Scarlet?” Larsen asked, with a wicked chuckle. “You want to know why? It’s because I can hit you as many times as I want and as hard as I want, and a few hours later, you won’t have a single mark on you to show from it. It doesn’t matter if I kill you, when I set my heart on it, ‘cause you’ll revive and nobody would know. And you want to know the best part of it?” He aimed at Scarlet’s head, and raised his club high, taking a deep breath. “I can do it as often as I want, over and over again.”
The last thing Scarlet say was the club coming straight at his face. The pain was mercifully brief. Then it was total darkness.
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