Scarlet didn’t trust the young men he had driven away from his camp not to come back later that night in an attempt to recover their leader. As a precautionary measure, he decided, soon after their departure, that it would be best to change the location of his camp. So he unceremoniously loaded his unconscious prisoner, bound and gagged, onto Rainbow’s back and guided him through the field on foot. He had covered the shoes of his horse with length of cloth, so that they would not leave any prints, and was erasing all of their remaining traces as they progressed into the semi-darkness. They travelled that way for at least four or five kilometres, until Scarlet found an area at the top of a small hill which he considered secure enough. This was the perfect spot to see people coming his way from a good distance, and he would be able to defend the place easily if the need should present itself.
He unloaded his captive from his horse’s back and installed her on the ground, as comfortably as he could. She was still unconscious, and he checked on the bonds restraining her to make sure they had not loosened
up during their trek. He tightened the piece of cloth he had put in her mouth as a gag, secured her feet as well, and covered her with his thickest blanket, so that she wouldn’t suffer from the cold of the night. Then, he started a new fire; with still many camps around, he considered that even if the boys were to search for him, there was little chance that they would guess which of the fires burning in the field actually marked his camp. He then made sure that Rainbow was comfortable as well, and then went to sit in front of his fire, and started drinking the coffee he had prepared earlier.
Set on the ground before him, he was comparing Piotr’s badge with the one he had just taken from the young woman who was his captive. The fabric used for each was different; Piotr’s badge was lighter, dirty and the pattern was almost faded, while the Captain’s was made from a piece of cotton, and was obviously newer. The ink used for the drawing was also different, the captain’s benefiting from a better quality, that seemed heavier than the one used on Piotr’s. But the drawing was definitely similar, although probably drawn by different hands. There was no mistaking that they came from the same original design.
He sat back against the rock serving him as backrest and sighed, while he rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
The Spectres… would really be Spectrum.
Scarlet could scarcely believe it; but the proof seemed irrefutable.
He thought of the strange fate that had brought him here, this night, on the trail of those he had searched for, for so long. He was so close to them now, and he wasn’t even looking for them anymore. What were the chances of that happening, he wondered.
He thought it was too much of a coincidence. So close to where the Mysterons were supposed to be… so close to where Winchester actually was… No, all this couldn’t be accidental. If the Mysterons had chosen to set their Earth complex in the Mendips, it certainly wasn’t because they had flipped a coin. They would have chosen that location for an exact reason – and Scarlet knew better than anyone that they never did anything without a good motive.
He couldn’t help but wonder if he was the reason for that choice. After all, throughout the years, they always considered him as a pain in a backside, who, when he was actively fighting them, was able to confront them and hold his own against them. They had tried often enough to get rid of him, to remove the obstacle he represented. And they had succeeded in getting rid of him temporarily, at one point. Although he wasn’t arrogant enough to imagine that his presence alone would have changed anything about the outcome of the war – despite what Colonel White’s personal thoughts on the matter might be.
Colonel White… Scarlet wondered what could have happened to him after the fall of Cloudbase. He knew the old man had attempted to escape – Patrick had told him as much. But what Patrick didn’t know was if White had actually succeeded.
Scarlet often wondered about that. If he was to consider the rumours about Spectrum being still active, and he believed that if White did indeed survive the fall of Cloudbase he would have reunited around him as many other Spectrum survivors as he could, built a new, secure hideout, and together with them, would have continued to protect civilians and fight the Mysterons.
Charles Grey wasn’t a man who would easily give in to desperation. While he drew breath, he would keep hope shining.
Only such a man could have made it possible for Spectrum to survive after all the difficulties they had lived through, all the grief and the destruction.
And if Spectrum really still existed today, it would be because of Charles Grey’s indomitable spirit.
When the duplicate of Piotr Ivanovitch had mentioned ‘Colonel White’, Scarlet had quickly dismissed the likelihood of the Spectrum commander being alive as an impossibility. Indeed, Charles Grey would have been a very old man, if he was still alive at the time; and even more so now, five years later. But now, after hearing the young man, Jones, mentioning ‘the colonel’ just a few hours ago, Scarlet was wondering if it really was that impossible.
If he was alive Colonel White would be in his early nineties. Charles Grey had always been a force of nature who had the vigour and health of a man half of his age, when Scarlet knew him. Quite a few years ago, with the advance in medicine being as it was, and people taking greater care of themselves and following good eating habits, it would not have been so improbable that a man like White would still be alive – and possible well – at such an advanced age. But in these days, it was another matter. Life was much more difficult than it was back then, people lacked the bare medical necessities and healthy food was difficult to come by. Not to mention that the planet’s environment had become less hospitable in recent years, with so many hazardous chemicals thrown into the atmosphere by volcanic activities or nuclear explosions…
I might be indestructible – but, if the old man is still alive today, then perhaps he is as well.
Scarlet glanced in his captive’s direction. He didn’t have all the answers to his questions yet, and wasn’t sure of anything, but maybe she would be able to provide them for him. Although considering what he had seen of her temperament so far, he very much doubted she would do it willingly.
In any case, whether she was Spectrum or not, he planned to take her back to her camp. And then maybe he would know.
Scarlet only slept for an hour or two, and woke up shortly before the morning came. He prepared some new coffee, and sat back in the same place as before, looking thoughtful as his campfire slowly died out.
The ‘captain’ woke up soon after the sunrise, and when he heard her grunt, Scarlet turned his attention to her.
She moved, to find her hands and feet were tied up and that she was gagged as well; she looked around in confusion. Either she had realised they had changed location, or she didn’t have a clear memory of what had happened the previous night. She obviously remembered after a brief moment, when she discovered Scarlet seated just across the dying fire, drinking a cup of coffee. She glared at him as she struggled to position herself better, and the gag muffled the insults she no-doubt was trying to shout at him. He simply looked back at her, ignoring her invectives, and continued to savour the coffee he was drinking. Realising that her thrashing about was leading her nowhere, she eventually stopped – but continued to shoot him a stare that was nothing less then murderous.
When she had calmed down, Scarlet put his coffee down and took a new cup from his backpack set by his side. He took the coffee pot from his petrol stove and poured hot coffee into the clean cup. He then approached his prisoner and, put the cup down next to her, before using his knife to cut the rope keeping her bound hands against her belly. The annoyed and irritated young woman removed her gag, as soon as she was able to raise her hands to it.
“Why you dirty – ”
Scarlet didn’t hesitate one second to press the point of his knife against her breast. She froze.
“One insult out of you and I put the gag back,” he warned her. “I’m trying to be nice, but I really don’t care if you die of thirst before we reach your camp.”
“You call this trying to be nice?” she spat, showing her tied up hands, and nodding towards the knife.
“I call it being careful. I remember the threats you made to me. I also heard what you did to that policeman in London. I don’t intend to give you any chance to slit my throat. It would be kind of messy.”
“You probably deserve it as much as that swine,” she replied icily.
Scarlet didn’t bat an eyelid. He removed the knife. “Do you want that coffee or not?”
She hesitated for a moment, before briefly answering with a nod; he carefully handed her the coffee. “I warn you: you try to throw it in my face, and that will be the first and only time I’ll offer you something to either drink or eat. And I promise you, you will do the rest of the trip with the gag on.”
She glared at him, but didn’t say anything, or make any threatening move. Scarlet nodded his satisfaction and returned to his previous place. “Why any need for the gag, to begin with?” she asked, before taking a sip of the hot beverage. She grimaced. Obviously, she didn’t like it that much, but she kept from making a comment and continue to drink it.
Scarlet sat down, and took up his own cup. “I don’t need much sleep, but when I do sleep, I like to have some peace and quiet,” he replied casually. “If you had woken up during the night, no doubt you would have made a lot of noise. That would have given your friends our new position.”
“So you think they’re following us?”
Scarlet raised a brow. “Oh, I think they tried. At least one of them did, while the others went back to camp to inform your colonel. But it’s likely he lost the trail at some point. It was the middle of the night, and I made sure to hide our tracks.”
“They’re very well trained soldiers. You think yourself that good?”
“I know I am that good.” Scarlet gave her a wicked smile. “And you’re overestimating your ‘soldiers’ – or should I say ‘boys?’ He shook his head. “They’re not soldiers. Not yet. Their training is not complete.”
“How can you know that?” the woman asked suspiciously.
“Let’s say I’ve got the experience. That’s easy for me to see.” Scarlet pointed to her. “You might be very well trained. They’re not. You’re the soldier amongst that outfit – without you with them, I’ve got very little to fear from your men.”
“That’s why you weren’t worried at all and allowed yourself some sleep,” she said gloomily.
“Only for a few hours. As I said, I don’t need much sleep. And I’m a very light sleeper.” Scarlet pointed to Rainbow. “My horse is better than a guard dog. He would have warned me if anyone had approached our position.”
“A very precious animal, then,” she remarked dryly. “That’s why you didn’t want that butcher to have him.”
“Would you give your best friend to be butchered?” Scarlet asked her stoically. “I see that your pal Watson told you about that.”
With his free hand, he searched into his backpack, to find a little sachet that he tossed to his prisoner. She caught it on the fly, nearly spilling what was left of the contents of her cup.
“We’ll be on our way soon,” Scarlet told her. “I suggest you drink your coffee and eat your breakfast. We have a long road ahead of us.”
The blonde woman put the coffee down and opened the bag to examine the contents. She wrinkled her nose. “These biscuits are stale. You really expect me to eat that?”
“If you were a soldier, you would be able to eat anything that’s more or less eatable when it becomes necessary,” Scarlet replied dryly. “I ate just the same about five minutes ago. Would you do less?
She took one of the biscuits and tore into it with rage.
Scarlet grinned. “Chew it slowly. You’ll be less hungry later on.”
“What do you want from me?” she spat at him.
“For the moment, you are my shield against your men. As long as they know you are under my power, they won’t attempt anything against me.”
“Or they will kill you at the first opportunity in order to free me.”
Scarlet shook his head. “They won’t do that.”
“And why are you so sure of that?”
Scarlet smiled knowingly. “Between the whole lot of them, they don’t have a brain to match yours. They wouldn’t want to attack me, and risk your life in the process. If I don’t miss my guess, they don’t want to take that responsibility. If you were to die because of such an action, they would have to answer for it to your leader… the colonel.”
“What makes you so sure the colonel would give a damn about me?” the woman asked, taking another bite from her biscuit.
“Because of what Jones said, before you ordered him to shut up: your colonel wouldn’t be very happy.”
She lowered her eyes. “Jones should learn to shut his mouth.”
“I’m guessing there aren’t so many quality officers at your camp, that your colonel can afford to lose even one during a stupid scuffle.”
She scoffed, glaring at him. “Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“I’m not trying to flatter you. I’m just judging you for what you are. And what you are is a dangerous person that I shouldn’t be trusting.” Scarlet looked at her squarely. “I find you very interesting.”
“Really? And what do you find so interesting exactly?” the young woman asked suspiciously.
Scarlet approached and sat down near her, but still out of striking distance from her hand. He took the badge he had taken from her the previous night, from his pocket and carefully put them on the ground between the two of them.
“This,” he explained, pointing to her badge. “This is what I find interesting.”
She looked down at the badge. She didn’t seem inclined to say anything.
“Wait, I’ve got something else.” Scarlet took from his pocket the badge he had kept for the last five years and put it next to the other. “This is mine.” He pointed to the first badge. “That one is yours. Don’t you find them similar?”
She looked at both badges; Scarlet watched her carefully and thought he saw a reaction in her eyes, when she looked up to him.
“Where did you find that?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I came upon it by chance,” he explained. “I was told that I only needed to show it to your colonel – in order to be accepted into your camp.”
She scoffed. “After taking me prisoner – you really think that this piece of dirty cloth will save you from being killed, if you showed yourself at our camp? Think again, buster.” She nodded at the badges. “Many of our own left camp, wearing one of these – and never returned. What tells me that you didn’t kill one of them, and then got your hand on that badge?”
Scarlet shook his head. “Look carefully: mine is old. I got it from a young Russian man that I met in Italy, five years ago. He received it from his father, who had returned home after a long absence that took him outside of the country. My guess is, the boy’s father had been at your camp – or met someone from it. And that’s where he got that badge.”
“You killed the boy to get the badge?” the young woman asked.
“No… the boy fell from his horse following an attack by wolves. His name was Piotr Ivanovitch.” Scarlet waited to see a reaction from the girl. He saw none. “His father’s name was Alekseï. Does that tell you anything?”
“Not someone from our camp, that I can tell you,” she replied with a shake of her head, without even looking at him.
“Someone who was there before you, perhaps?”
“No. I’ve been there all my life. I grew up there.” The girl glared at Scarlet. “I would know if there had ever been someone by the name of Alekseï Ivanovitch. So if you think you have business there because of that man or his son –”
“No. It’s not that.” Scarlet pointed to the badges again. “I use to know that symbol. At least, I knew of something, very similar, that existed long ago. A stylized “S”, stamped over concentric rings of colours. That was the emblem of Spectrum.”
She didn’t react, keeping silent, and still not looking at him.
“You know what Spectrum was, don’t you?” As she still kept silent, Scarlet continued: “Piotr was searching for Spectrum – that’s why he had that badge his father gave him. And that badge leads directly to your camp.”
“I’ve heard of Spectrum,” she replied finally, glaring at him. “It’s only a myth. What makes you think we have anything to do with it?”
“People in London call you the ‘Spectres’. That sounds very similar to ‘Spectrum’, don’t you think?”
She shrugged, dismissively. “I don’t know where you get that idea. People call us ‘Spectres’, because they’re afraid of us.”
“With good reasons, it seems to me, if I am to judge from what I saw there in London and what I’ve been told about your group.”
“Then why aren’t you afraid too?” she asked defiantly.
“Lady, there is very little that can scare me. I’ve seen it all.”
She chuckled. “You know, you’re either a pompous ass, or a reckless fool. I can’t decide exactly which.”
Scarlet smiled sardonically. “I’ve been called far worse. By your colonel, as a matter of fact, who had a nice collection of well-chosen words especially designed for me.”
He saw his words had hit their target, by the way she blinked her eyes; but the reaction was ever so brief, and she made a show of appearing indifferent when she addressed him again, without meeting his eyes: “You say you know the colonel?”
Scarlet nodded slowly. “He and I are old friends,” he said.
The expression in her eyes changed and she looked coldly at him. “You’re lying,” she replied, shaking her head. “You can’t possibly know the colonel.”
“You’ll see for yourself when we reach your camp.”
“So you really plan to go to our camp then?” The captain laughed. “You’ll get yourself killed. Showing this badge won’t certainly protect you! We don’t like strangers coming to bother us. Especially strangers using one of us as a hostage for protection.”
“You don’t have to worry,” Scarlet replied quietly. “I have no intention of bothering you. Your camp is merely a stopover for me. It’s not my destination.”
“And what is your destination, then?”
Scarlet hesitated. He kept silent for a second or two, then looked down into the cinders of what remained of his fire. “I have a score to settle with old friends,” he said in a low voice.
“Then they will wait for you a very long time,” the woman promised. “You’ll never leave our camp alive.”
Scarlet looked at her pensively. “You’re certainly a bloodthirsty little witch,” he muttered. “Don’t cry victory over my death too quickly. What is you name?”
She glared at him. “Just call me ‘Captain’,” she answered guardedly, before looking away.
Scarlet’s eyebrows rose in curiosity. “What, no colour attached to it? You know, as a soldier, you’re also allowed to give your name and your serial number. But maybe your colonel didn’t tell you that.” He stood up and looked down at her. “Maybe Colonel White forgot to instruct you on some details.”
He saw her shiver, before she looked up, straight at him; she couldn’t conceal the surprise from her face. He nodded knowingly – the name ‘Colonel White’ had made her react. He knew then he had guessed right.
Slowly, he turned his back on his captive and went to take the coffee pot from the stove, before standing in front of the fire. He looked over to the young woman who was still staring at him with a frown of perplexity on her brow.
“Who are you?” she finally asked him.
Scarlet simply stared back at her. “That is a good question,” he answered cryptically. “But as you won’t give me your name, I see no reason to give you mine.” He poured some of the coffee into the fire to extinguish its last flames. Then he put the rest of the coffee into a Thermos flask and screw the cap tightly. “Now you have finished, we’ll get ready to go.”
New Jersey, U.S.A.
From Hamilton Boulevard, by the hill forming Hamilton Park in New Jersey, Scarlet could clearly see the shattered skyline of what once was the great city of New York. There wasn’t much of it left, and it barely resembled what he had known of the city.
Nearly fifteen years ago, the Mysterons had, for the third time, carried out their threat against ‘the Heart of New York’. They destroyed nearly all of Manhattan, and most of the once powerful metropolis, using a nuclear device, that had started a chain reaction through various other bombs hidden throughout the island. Because of this attack, the economic centre of the world was badly shaken. Many people died when the blast occurred, and many more in the following years, from nuclear poisoning. Unfortunately, even the most advanced treatments couldn’t save the most grievous cases, and, as a result, the city that had had a population equivalent to that of a country inside another country, lost a staggering third of its population.
Another third was to die two years later when the gigantic tsunami caused by the destruction of Futura City levelled most of what was left of the Big Apple and flooded nearly all of the East Coast for many miles inland.
However hardy the people of New York were, most of its survivors saw no other choice but to leave the city behind and seek refuge inland.
It was in New Jersey that Scarlet knew he would find the man he was looking for, but it took a bit of investigation and asking around to locate where he was living now.
Scarlet had the name of the street and the number on the door, but with the lack of proper indicators on road corners as well as on the houses themselves, he had trouble finding the one he was looking for. The area had suffered greatly from the multiple disasters throughout the years, so that, like New York, it barely resembled what it used to be. The houses – which at one time were probably nice and well-tended for – were now dilapidated, many with walls or roofs half-destroyed, and some seemingly keeping upright only due to some architectural miracle. It indeed looked like the site of a bombing – or rather multiple bombings, with roads half destroyed and filled with huge holes, and dead trees lying around. There were unused cars abandoned here and there, most of them with broken windows, some with no doors, no seats, or no engines. Their tanks were probably all empty – the petrol they used to contain siphoned off, as it had become a precious and rare commodity, that could be either used for stoves or heaters.
It was after knocking on various doors and asking his way from the rare people who actually were willing to answer him, that Scarlet finally located the house he was looking for – and stood in the middle of the road, looking musingly at it.
It didn’t look that different from any other house that Scarlet had walked by. It had probably been a nice little house some years ago, with a pretty little garden and a green lawn in front. Now it was barely more than a shack, with its exterior covered with flaking paint of an indistinguishable colour, broken windows closed by wooden boards and newspaper sheets, and a door with a missing part at the left corner. The ground where the lawn had been green in the past was brown, and there was a dead bush right next to the small porch surrounded by a wooden railing that barely held together.
Still, it looked solid and probably offered good shelter from the harsh winters.
Scarlet climbed onto the porch, the wooden steps creaking so much under his weight that he thought he would go right through them. He knocked on the frame and listened; there was no sound inside, no call asking who it was. He walked to the nearest window and gave a quick peek through it, but it was so dark he couldn’t see a thing, so he returned to the door.
He tried the handle; it wasn’t locked, and he wondered if he should really be surprised that it wasn’t. He pushed the door in front of him, and it screeched open. As he stood still in the doorway, waiting for his eyes to get accustomed to the darkness, he was very aware that he was making a perfect target against the sun, but he didn’t think he needed to worry.
He almost changed his mind when, after a few seconds, he distinguished two boys, crouched behind the old wooden table; the oldest of the two, who probably wasn’t more than thirteen, was pointing a rifle at him. The weapon, which was too big for the boy to get a comfortable and solid hold on, looked very old, and didn’t seem to be in working order. It probably was risky to even load it.
“Nice try, kid,” Scarlet said quietly. “But I doubt this would help you much, even if I was a threat to you.”
A clicking sound from his immediate left pricked his ear; loud, very distinctive, and that he recognised instantly: it was the hammer of a shotgun being pulled.
“Worry about me, not the kids,” an angry voice told him from very close.
Scarlet froze. Obviously, the man was standing only a few feet by the door. He didn’t look in his direction, when he repeated, very quietly: “I do not mean any harm to anyone.”
“What guarantee do we have of that?” The voice repeated with the same edge. “Whoever you are, you are not welcome here. So leave us be, before I pulled this trigger.”
“Don’t you recognise my voice, Pat?” Scarlet replied in a soothing voice.
He felt the hesitation from his interlocutor. Carefully, he turned around, his hands well in view to clearly show he held nothing, and came face to face with the double barrels of a huge shotgun. He could see the finger on the trigger, and the stooping figure of a robust-looking man standing behind it, with eyes glaring at him warningly.
Scarlet nodded slowly: he was not mistaken. He had recognised the voice; it was lower, rougher than he remembered, probably because it was older, but it was definitely the same voice.
“I know it’s been a while, Patrick, but you should know better than to wave a gun at me,” he said quietly. “Or has it really been so long that you have forgotten?”
He saw the heavy silhouette shudder slightly. “Yes… Yes, now I recognise that voice… But it can’t be…”
The man made a step forward to stand in the light. Even knowing that fifteen years had passed since the last time he had seen his friend, Scarlet wasn’t quite prepared for the sight of this bearded, wrinkled face. The once luxurious black hair was now all white and grey, and the athletic man he knew was now heavier, although he still seem as solid as a rock.
“Paul… Paul Metcalfe… Is that really you?”
Scarlet chewed on his lip. He had not gone by that name for a long time. In fact, he wasn’t even sure if he had to use it anymore. He nearly answered ‘Not quite’, but he imagined that, under the circumstances, this might alarm his old friend.
“I could say the same to you, Patrick. You… look different from what I remember.”
“My God.” Patrick Donaghue lowered his shotgun completely and walked to his former colleague. He looked at him from head to toes and then back, to stare straight at his face in wonder. “The majority of us got to grow older… and in my case, heavier.” He gave a short laugh, and amicably thumbed his former colleague’s arm. “You haven’t changed a bit. Except for the beard.”
Scarlet stroked his dark beard thoughtfully. He had not bothered to shave in weeks.
“You’ve got a nice one too, Magenta,” he replied.
Patrick chuckled. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been called that.” He frowned, still staring at Scarlet’s face. “What happened to you? You disappeared so many years ago. We didn’t hear from you at all for so long. We even thought –”
“–That I might be dead?” Scarlet smiled thinly and shook his head. “You know that I don’t die that easily.”
“It’s a long story.”
“I imagine it would be.” Patrick heaved a heavy sigh and turned to the two boys who, still hidden behind the table, were shooting wary looks towards Scarlet. “Nathan, William… don’t be afraid, boys. It’s all right. You can get out of there.” He turned to Scarlet and smiled, waving at him. “This is an old friend of mine. He won’t hurt us.”
“You’re sure, Uncle Pat?” the older boy asked, with a shaky voice, raising his head just over the table.
“Yeah, quite sure.” Pat put a hand onto Scarlet’s shoulder. “Join us for supper, Paul. We don’t have much, but we’ll be happy to share it with you.” He gave a thin smile. “And then, you’ll tell me that long story of yours.”
Some hours later, as the night had fallen, the two men sat at the rickety table, a lighted petrol lantern and a half-empty bottle of whisky between them. Each held a glass, and were leaning over the table, talking in low voices, so not to disturb the two children sleeping in the next room. Patrick Donaghue shook his head despondently, as Scarlet reached the end of his story.
“So it was Ward who was behind your disappearance,” he said musingly. “Well, I can’t say that surprises me that much. Ward never made any secret that he hated the Mysterons more than anything else, since they had destroyed his old Frost Line Defence command. He didn’t like them much before, to begin with. When he became commander of SHEF he swore he would fight and destroy the lot of them ‘til there were none left.” He looked at his friend in the semi-darkness. “ I suppose he was seeing you as a Mysteron as well. And he got to you when you left Spectrum, after…” he hesitated, looking uncertainly at Scarlet.”
The latter nodded thoughtfully. “When I resigned from Spectrum, after Adam’s death,” he said. “When I was on my own, and vulnerable. Patrick, believe me, I meant to return, almost as soon as I left – but Ward…”
“I know, Paul. We all knew you that you would not abandon us like that, and would have returned to us if you had been able to. That’s why we thought you were dead – that the Mysterons finally got to you. If we had imagined for one second that it was one of our own who was responsible –”
“How could you know? Ward was acting under the World President’s authorisation. My capture was done in total secrecy, and I was also incarcerated in secret in that military prison. Which was in Arizona, I learned years later, when I finally got out of that hellhole.”
“Of course. They kept all of this secret, because they expected Colonel White would intervene if he knew.” Pat frowned. “When – how did you finally get out?”
“I actually escaped. Five… six years ago.” Scarlet shrugged. “I actually owe my freedom to the Mysterons, believe it or not. The entire complex was totalled when they launched their attack on Nuclear City.”
Patrick shook his head, sadly. “That was a bad one, that one,” he muttered. “Worst than what they did to Futura. Almost as bad as the Big One they caused in California. The explosion caused a seismic shockwave that must have devastated the entire American Southwest and part of the Midwest. The radioactive fallout was everywhere on the continent.”
“The entire complex was totalled,” Scarlet explained. “We felt the earthquake down to the lower levels. There were only a few survivors, most of them inmates, who took the opportunity to break out – and go their different ways. Me amongst them.”
“You’d been there ten years?” Pat commented with a frown. “That can not have been easy for you.”
“I was the only suspected ‘Mysteron agent’ in custody,” Scarlet replied. “No, it was not very easy.” He took a sip of his glass. “I prefer not to talk about it.”
“Of course. So, since then you’ve been running away?”
Scarlet shrugged. “Not quite. At first, I thought I would have to hide, but... it seems nobody bothered looking for me. What exactly should I be running from? I’m not even sure my incarceration was on official records – or if it was, it was kept classified. Those who knew of my existence and cared enough to either see me dead or imprisoned must all be dead now. Plus, what little is left of the military and authorities have much more to be concerned about than going after a fugitive from a prison that should not even have existed.”
“It’s true that with the state of the world right now, we’re all in ‘Survivor mode’,” Pat commented thoughtfully.
“Tell me about it. When I was thrown in jail the world was still, more or less, a civilised place. But now…” Scarlet shook his head, despondently. “Now it looks more like one of those post-apocalyptic worlds described in those old movies, like Mad Max and the rest of them. And even since I regained my freedom, I’ve noticed some drastic changes. Six years ago, I could still see craft flying in the sky…”
“They’re pretty much rare now,” Patrick confirmed. “I’m guessing that lack of fuel has a lot to do with that. And if you do see one of them, it would be one of these old crates, that don’t require high technology to fly. We lost contact with our satellites about two years ago, and a craft filled with technological gadgetry pretty much needed them to fly around the planet.”
“No satellites, no communication,” commented Scarlet. “The Mysterons must have destroyed the whole lot.”
“No.” Patrick raised his eyes to the ceiling and waved into empty space. “I’m pretty sure these satellites are still out there, but that we can’t reach them anymore. They only stopped working gradually, after Futura, until they stopped completely. Probably we would be able to make contact again, if the Mysterons gave us an even break, but they’re not about to do that. Communication kept us united, and that was one of our strengths. Now, each continent, each country is pretty much on its own. There used to be a time when you could learn what was going on on the other side of the planet, almost at the exact moment it happened. We’re a long way from that.” He sighed with regret and took a swig of his whisky. “Damned Mysterons…” he muttered. “They sure made a mess of things.”
“They sure did,” Scarlet approved gloomily. He looked into space. “For the past five to six years, I’ve been roaming around America,” he explained. “Not quite aimlessly – I was trying to do some good wherever I was going, to make a difference to what the Mysterons have made of our world.” He paused. “I actually crossed swords with them a few times. They tried to get to me on each occasion, but as you know – I’m not that easily killed.” Scarlet took a sip from his whisky. “I went to Karen’s place,” he said, after a moment.
He met Patrick’s inquiring eyes and continued: “I found nothing but crosses marking old graves. The family ranch had been abandoned… No-one had lived there in years. I know that Karen had been planning to leave Spectrum after Adam’s death, and I imagine she intended to return home, but if she had been there –”
“No,” Patrick interrupted his friend. “No, Karen didn’t return to Iowa. She left Spectrum all right – she actually resigned shortly after you, and when she did, she went to Australia.”
“Australia?” Scarlet repeated with a frown.
“Where you had gone yourself when you left, I reckon?” Patrick said, playing with his glass on the table. “Perhaps she was trying to find you.” He looked Scarlet in the eyes. “ She was rather upset you had gone after… what happened.”
“I thought she would have been glad to be rid of me,” Scarlet retorted sombrely. “The sight of me could only remind her of bad memories.”
“Did she actually tell you that?”
“No… But the little she said was enough for me to figure out she hated me.”
“Paul, she could never hate you. You were her big brother. She loved you as such. And as for what happened, I’m sure she understood that you had no choice.”
Scarlet didn’t answer to that, and preferred to keep his eyes diverted from Patrick’s, so he wouldn’t see the grief in them.
“Was it the reason why you left Spectrum?” Pat asked.
“No – not the only reason. I had… other considerations. I imagine they don’t count as much anymore, considering what the Mysterons did since then.”
“What do you make of those rumours – saying that the Mysterons might have left Mars and come to establish themselves on Earth?”
Patrick narrowed his eyes, staring at his friend. “I think it actually might be likely. We don’t know much about the nature of the Mysterons… Are they physical or not… how they might travel… Invading Earth would have been the next logical step in their war against us. That they are here might also explain how easily they are able to ‘manipulate’ our world now... destroying it a little bit more with each passing day.”
Scarlet nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I am thinking in the same vein. And I’ve been feeling… ‘something’ for some time now.”
“Your sixth sense?” Patrick asked, scowling.
“I can’t define what it is,” Scarlet replied. “Something… has changed. And yes, it could be that it means the Mysterons are now on Earth. But where on Earth exactly… that would be the question.”
“For all we know, they’d be hidden deep into the Himalayas…” Pat commented. “Which would be a perfect hiding place for them.”
Scarlet shrugged. “Do you think they really need to hide anymore, Pat?” he asked quietly. They have very little to fear from us anymore. Now that Spectrum is gone –”
“Without you, Spectrum didn’t have a chance against them, Paul.”
Scarlet frowned, looking at his friend in a doubtful way.
“What more could I have done, Patrick? I’m only one man, after all. Indestructible, maybe… but still, just one man.” He lowered his eyes, looking at his hands. “Even if I had been free, I doubt I would have been able to help avoid what happened. Still, I wish I had been able to do more… I blame Ward for this. He might have wanted to free me in the end, but – it was all his fault if I was taken out of the game for so long.”
“Colonel White never liked the guy very much,” Patrick commented. “He and Ward, they didn’t see eye-to-eye on how to conduct the war against the Mysterons. Ward was for more decisive action directly against Mars. Launch nuclear missiles to the location of the Mysteron complex, going as far as levelling the planet’s surface. Colonel White… he thought it was foolish to even suggest we would attack our sister planet. He thought it might have caused even worse damage than what we were already living with.”
“How could the Mysterons do any worse than what they did?” Scarlet groused in a low voice. “Look at the state of the world… You just need to take a look through that window.”
“I see it every day, remember?” Patrick said sombrely. “But what the Mysterons did to Futura… Paul, they used our own weapons against us. Those same missiles that Ward was planning to launch against Mars… The Mysterons beat him to it and detonated them in Futura.” He looked away. “And they used Cloudbase as the detonator… I know. I was there.”
Scarlet leaned over the table. “Can you tell me about it, Patrick?”
“What can I tell you exactly?” Patrick replied, with a deep scowl. “You know how they work, these bastards… They played unfair, like they often do.” He looked at his friend, and saw his insistent gaze. He blew a deep sigh and grew sombre. “They used Green to get control of Cloudbase,” he finally said.
Scarlet tensed; he looked at his friend with shocked incredulity. “Not Green…” he said in a low voice.
“How…” Scarlet swallowed hard. “How did they get to him? I mean, how did he –”
“I don’t know how he died,” Patrick answered swiftly. “Either he was killed by another agent onboard Cloudbase, or if it was by accident – like tripping down some stairs, or from some sickness. Although to my knowledge, he was a healthy man, so we might rule that out. The result was the same: the Mysterons got control of him. And you’ve got to admit: he was the best choice they could’ve made to get total control of Cloudbase.”
“With the exception of yourself, or of Colonel White, there was no-one who knew the base’s technology better.”
“Yeah, well, I suppose I should be grateful I wasn’t the Mysterons’ chosen pawn at the time, then.” Patrick paused to take another swig from his glass, this time emptying it. He put it down loudly on the table and exhaled before continuing: “I was in the Control Room – with the colonel. We were approaching Futura City – Colonel White was to participate at the World Security Conference they were holding there where the main subject of discussion was to be the War of Nerves and what Earth’s next move should be if we planned to succeed.”
“Ward told me about that, on his last visit to me,” Scarlet said. To himself, he added that through the years since then, he often heard the list of the dignitaries and high-profiled security agencies that had been at the conference in Futura on that fatal day.
“Green was manning the computer. We never saw anything happening; he must have prepared whatever he had planned to do very carefully. The first thing we realised, was that Cloudbase was moving too fast… and was losing height. When the colonel asked Green what was going on, he simply turned to us and…” Pat closed his eyes. “I’ll never forget it. He had that cold look in his eyes, and that blank expression on his face. He said: ‘You’re doomed, Earthmen, and there’s nothing you can do to stop the Mysterons this time.’”
He opened his eyes and stared into nothingness, pensively.
“And then what?” Scarlet prompted him.
Patrick Donaghue shook himself.
“I jumped him; but he shot me; I was only grazed, but that was enough to unbalance me. As I fell, I saw him turning to the colonel, aiming at him. I got my own firearm out, but I didn’t have time to shoot. The colonel – he already had his gun out and he shot Green.” He shook his head. “It must have been one of the worst things he ever had to do. I reckon he was very attached to Green. I never saw such anger and pain on his face before in my life.”
“I did,” Scarlet said softly, remembering the only two other occurrences he had witnessed the emotion of sadness and grief in his commander. “He wasn’t the unemotional man he had led us to believe. What happened next, Pat?”
“Well, even with Green’s duplicate dead, we were unable to regain control of Cloudbase. I don’t know exactly what Green did to Cloudbase, and I don’t even think it was only his doing: I could have undone anything he did in a few minutes. As the colonel and I worked to regain control, we felt the base veer suddenly, nearly throwing us off of our feet, and set for a new course at maximum speed. Whatever we tried, we couldn’t change course. It was like, there was someone – something – at the helm…”
“The Mysterons were controlling Cloudbase,” Scarlet realised.
Pat nodded. “You remember, like they did with that truck during the first London attempt? The driver, what was his name…”
“Macey,” Scarlet remembered. “He told us it was as if his lorry had a mind of its own. He couldn’t drive it.” He sat back. “The same happened to Blue and me with the Flight 104 incident, when we tried to take the helm of the plane. It was pure luck that we were able to regain control. It would seem it was because we flew over an electricity station.”
“Well, there was no electricity station for us.”
Pat poured himself a new glass and drank the whole contents in one shot, swallowing hard. His hands were trembling, and Scarlet realised that he was reliving difficult moments. He reached for his friend’s hand resting on the table and squeezed it encouragingly.
“When did you realise what the course was?” he asked gently.
“Nearly straight away,” Patrick answered. “It was all too painfully evident that the Mysterons planned to use Cloudbase to at least sabotage the meeting and possibly kill everyone. We remembered the original thread, of course… The destruction of Futura City… And then we realised that Cloudbase was specifically heading for Slaton Base… where all the nuclear warheads destined for Mars were stored.”
“I attempted to use the communications to give the alert, but nothing was working. Green – or the Mysterons – had seen to that. In any case, it was far too late to organise a complete evacuation of the city. There was nothing we could do to stop Cloudbase crashing into Slaton Airbase. Colonel White did the only thing he could do at the time, and ordered the evacuation of all personnel – providing that at least our planes, shuttles and helicopters would fly to begin with. We were lucky they did: the Mysterons did not take control of them.”
“Colonel White did try to activate the base auto-destruction device, but that had been disabled, so that option was out. You know, he actually wanted to go down with the ship… It took some effort, but I convinced him otherwise.”
Scarlet raised an eyebrow. “How did you do that?”
Patrick smiled sadly. “I knocked him out. I imagine he wasn’t too happy about it when he woke up, but there wasn’t really time to argue whether he should be a dead hero or a live one.” He grew sombre. “I took him down to the shuttle bay. When I arrived there, most of the craft had already left, carrying personnel to safety, and there were only two remaining shuttles, each waiting to depart with its group. Destiny was to pilot one of them, and I handed the colonel over to her. I was the only pilot left, so I took the helm of the last shuttle.”
“By this point, the Slaton Base radars had picked up Cloudbase’s approach and realised it was on a crash course. I imagine they tried to contact us, and seeing that we didn’t respond, they sent their jets to try and stop the base. Their missiles didn’t stop Cloudbase, but some of these fighters turned against the survivors’ shuttles and took pot-shots at them… probably thinking they were all under Mysteron control or that Spectrum had turned against the World Government. I remember shouting in the radio for them to stand down, but no-one seemed to listened. I guess they probably were too panicky at this point. They knew as well as us what would happen if Cloudbase were to crash on Slaton Base. I saw an Angel being shot down while trying to defend us. I don’t know which one it was –” Pat’s voice broke.
“How many of you survived?” Scarlet asked.
“I don’t know. We all went in different directions, flying at maximum speed from the danger zone. I had fifteen people on board, whose lives depended on my ability to pilot the shuttle as far away as possible. It seemed like an eternity before… before we saw the blast behind us. And then we heard it.” Patrick closed his eyes and took a shaky breath. “Don’t ask me more, Paul… I can’t describe to you how it was. I do not want to remember how it looked… The horror I felt when I saw the enormous mushroom cloud over Futura… or felt the impact of the blast pushing the plane off course…”
Scarlet nodded his understanding. “Okay. You can stop it there. Thanks for telling me that much, Pat.”
There was a moment of silence, during which Scarlet permitted his friend to compose himself, by taking sips from a new glass of whisky. Patrick’s hands was still shaking, and his eyes, filled with a suspicious dampness, were avoiding Scarlet’s. The latter didn’t mention it.
“I’m guessing you successfully flew the shuttle to safety,” he finally said, once Patrick had finished his glass.
“We landed somewhere in Pennsylvania. At the time, we didn’t know all of what had occurred exactly, except that Futura had been destroyed. Considering Cloudbase’s involvement with that event, we weren’t sure how the world at large would react to surviving members of Spectrum. We suspected – not very well.
“The news was soon all over the radio: the city was gone, the surrounding islands levelled, and then, the tsunami that hit the American East Coast, and the ensuing flood… Millions of people dead or refugees… And public opinion against us. Spectrum was indeed held responsible. So we decided not to go public and, for a little while we hooked up together, for security’s sake – then after a while, we disbanded each going our own way.” Patrick sighed. “Returning to Spectrum, considering the state of affairs, wasn’t an option. The organisation was all but finished, anyway, and it would have been suicide to try and get together once more. We all had families and close ones we wanted to check on, in any case.”
Scarlet nodded his understanding. “Your nephews?” he asked, thumbing towards the other room where the boys were sleeping.
“My sister’s kids, yes. The family was in New York when the flood hit. When I found the boys, their parents were already gone.”
“I’m sorry, Patrick.”
Patrick shook his head, his eyes staring into emptiness again. “I wasn’t there for Sarah… but I figured the least I could do was take care of the kids, now that she was gone. So I moved us all from New York, and we came here, to New Jersey. This was the house of an old aunt… She was kind enough to accept us in. She died a couple of years back.”
Scarlet nodded pensively. “What about the others, Patrick?” he asked again. “Those who escaped in the other shuttles? Colonel White? Destiny…? The rest of Spectrum? Did they survive?”
“I don’t know.” Patrick shook himself. “Could be many of the craft escaping Cloudbase that day didn’t make it and were caught in the blast. I think… from the last contacts I had through the radio the day we escaped, some craft were able to reach safety in Africa, Europe… But quite frankly, I’m not sure. We lost contact after that.” He hesitated. “ Well at least, we lost direct contact,” he added carefully.
“What do you mean?” Scarlet asked with a frown.
Patrick gave another moment’s hesitation. He shifted position on his chair, to lean on the table. “I told you about our satellites earlier,” he explained. “Before they completely stopped working two years ago, I had accessed a communication network with a old device I kept playing with at nights. That network was able to reach all around North America – and on good days, even go as far as Europe, when sun flares did not disrupt the radio waves.” He smiled. “It was a clandestine network,” he explained, with no concealed pride. “The remaining authorities actually forbade the use of such devices, claiming that it disturbed authorised communications. But, hey, you know me… I believe in the strength of free speech and knowledge, so that wasn’t going to stop me.”
“Good ol’ Pat,” Scarlet said with a grin. “You’ll always be the Irish rogue ready to go against the established authority.”
“I was only trying to see if I could reach someone – anyone… There were actually quite a lot of people out there doing the same as me, so I picked up some rare communications... All kinds of transmissions… Bits of radio talk… old songs… people trying to contact each others… Messages…” He paused a second or two. “It’s through the network that I heard some rumours regarding Spectrum…”
Scarlet frowned. “Did you? After all these years?”
“I don’t know how much of this is true,” Patrick added quickly. “But… there seem to be some people who were part of Spectrum – or who claimed they were part of Spectrum – still alive… and active out there.”
Scarlet had tensed. “Where’s ‘out there’?”
Patrick shrugged. “As far as I can say – somewhere in Europe.”
“Europe is mighty big, Pat. Are you sure of what you’re implying?”
“No.” Patrick shook his head. “As I said, I don’t know how much truth there is in these rumours. Since then, I’ve had no more information on the subject. The network died with the satellites, two years ago. Which is a shame, because I would have liked to know more about this. But… those were probably only rumours.”
“… Which can be based of some factual truth.” Scarlet sat back on his chair, pensively. “What if Spectrum is really still alive, Pat?”
“You’re serious?” Patrick scowled. “I know what you’re thinking, Paul: if Spectrum is still alive – then they would certainly continue the fight against the Mysterons. And you think it could make a difference against these bastards?
“Maybe they are fighting the Mysterons,” Scarlet mused. “And maybe they are making a difference – if only a slight one. How can you know, from this side of the Atlantic? You said yourself that you don’t have any contact with the old countries anymore.”
“Paul, a fight against the Mysterons, with the limited resources we have right now – it would only be suicide.”
“And I do know all about suicide,” Scarlet replied with a grin. He looked through the window, into the night. “In any case, I’ve got to get over there to check that out.”
“For what purpose?” Patrick asked him. “As far as we know, those rumours about Spectrum might only be just that – rumours. You might be very disappointed if you get there to find that Spectrum, like Bigfoot, does not really exist.”
“I have to go anyway,” Scarlet replied. “And see for myself.” He leaned above the table, towards his friend. “You’ve got contacts around here, Patrick. Can you find me a boat… A ship with a captain willing to sail towards Europe? Anywhere in Europe will do.”
“England, perhaps?” his friend suggested. “Wouldn’t you like to return home?”
“Home…” Scarlet shrugged, trying to be dismissive. He didn’t know if he could call England his home, anymore. But, he didn’t want to tell Pat Donaghue that. His friend would go on about how he had heard the same fifteen years ago and how he had imagined him to have got over it by now. But ten years in prison, of having been viewed as only a Mysteron agent, a duplicate created from the dead body of the real Paul Metcalfe, had done nothing to reassure Scarlet about exactly who he was.
He wasn’t exactly prepared to go through this with his friend, so he simply replied: “ I would love to return to England, but obviously, I can’t be too choosy about the destination. Find me any boat you can, and I’ll take it.”
“You’re really going to do this, aren’t you?” Patrick groused.
“I have no choice, Pat. I have to know.” Scarlet reached for his friend’s hand and squeezed it again. “I have to know if Spectrum is really still active.”
Patrick narrowed his eyes, looking straight into Scarlet face. “All right, I’ll see what I can find for you. It might take some time, mind you.”
“I have all the time in the world,” Scarlet assured him. “I can wait.”
“Then in the meantime, you can stay here.” Patrick smiled slightly. “We can talk about the good old times together. When Spectrum used to win, and the Mysterons bit the dust.”
Scarlet answered with a smile of his own, albeit a sad one. “Thanks, Pat… You’re a good friend, you know that?”
“I do my best.” Patrick Donaghue tilted his head to the side and looked at his friend with an enquiring look. “Is there something you’re not telling me, Paul? You look, I don’t know… like you have something on your mind? Is something bothering you?”
“Me?” Scarlet’s smile became a reassuring one. “No, Patrick, I can assure you… There’s nothing I’m hiding from you,” he said, trying to make his lie as convincing as possible. “ Except, maybe… considering the world we live in now, I think that’s pretty normal I should feel a bit down.”
“Like all of us,” Patrick agreed. “But I have here the perfect remedy for that.” He took the bottle of whisky from the table, and filled their glasses once more. “I know you can’t get drunk, buddy, but I’m pretty sure this will do a lot of good to your mood anyway.”
“You are right, Pat.” Scarlet took the glass and made it chink against his friend’s. “This will definitely do me a lot of good.”
After cleaning up the camp and loading his gear onto Rainbow’s back, Scarlet heaved his captive into the saddle, taking great care to bind her hands firmly onto the pommel and then joining her feet together with a length of rope which he tied across his horse’s belly. Rainbow remained very still throughout the operation – although he was obviously wondering what kind of game his master was playing. He only moved when Scarlet completed the task, and the Captain held on to the pommel, muttering soothing sounds in the animal’s ear. She glared at Scarlet, who stood next to her, patting the horse’s neck.
“You should be careful,” she told him with bitterness in her voice. “Your rope is too loose. If your horse should take the bit in his teeth, rear or dart into a run, I might slide underneath him and he might trample me to death. You wouldn’t want your shield dead before you reach the Spectres’ camp, would you?”
“I wouldn’t… But quite frankly, I don’t think you will fall, unless it’s by your own fault. My horse generally behaves himself, but he only answers to me. So, keep quiet while on his back, and let me guide him. If you try to force him to obey your commands, if you spur him or pull on his mane, or even try to run me down with him, he might not appreciate it and will try to get rid of you. However good you are as a rider, bound as you are, I don’t think you would be good enough to stay on my horse’s back if he doesn’t want you there. And as you pointed out… the rope is loose and will not hold you on the saddle.” He took the bridle in his hands and looked sternly up at her. “I think I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly,” she replied icily. The expression in her eyes turned to murder. “But it doesn’t make any difference. When – if – we reach the camp, you’ll be a dead man.”
Scarlet grinned. “Lady, you don’t know how many times I’ve heard that kind of threat. It will take much more than that to impress me.”
He started walking, pulling the reins. Rainbow hesitated for a moment; when he started to follow, the jolt momentarily unbalanced the Captain, who grasped the pommel with both hands so as not to fall. Scarlet heard her mutter a curse and smiled, without turning around. “Now it’s you who should be careful,” he advised. “Rainbow doesn’t like to be called names.”
“You call your horse ‘Rainbow’?” she called back from the top of horse. “Jeez, you’re really obsessed with that Spectrum thing, aren’t you?”
Scarlet guided his horse towards the A316, so as to find his bearings, and then followed the beaten path by the road in the direction of Winchester. Because he was now walking instead of riding, and he was also carrying a prisoner along, he found himself considerably slowed down. This was his third day of travelling, and he estimated that he would only arrive at Winchester early the next day. From there, it was just a matter of locating the Spectres’ camp. Although he didn’t think he would have that much trouble finding them; he was pretty sure they would know he was there well before he met them. They would certainly come to him.
Now the question was if, after that, they would take him to Colonel White – alive. He expected that he would be able to use his hostage, and count on the colonel’s good nature and sense of honour to give his men the orders not to harm him. Failing that…
On second thoughts, maybe he should have properly introduced himself to these boys, before sending them back to their camp. His name might have eased things a bit.
For a few hours, he walked in silence, loosely holding the reins of Rainbow, who was following close behind him. On the horse’s back, the Captain was brooding, but Scarlet could feel her eyes drilling holes in his back. No doubt, if she had laser beams instead of eyes, he would have dropped dead, right there on the road.
“Did my horse eat your tongue?” he inquired.
The comeback didn’t take long: “I’ve got nothing to tell you.”
“What? No ‘I’ll kill you’, ‘You’re dead meat’, or ‘You’ll never make it out of our camp alive’?”
She laughed sarcastically. “You’ll never make it in there alive to begin with, let alone be able to leave it!”
“How much are you willing to bet?” Scarlet asked, good-naturally.
“I’m not betting against walking dead men. Beside, when you’re dead, the little possessions you have will be mine for the taking.” She paused for about two to three seconds. “I think I’ll call dibs on your horse and shotgun.”
“Then they will be yours if I lose. But you have to bet something else in return.” He looked over his shoulder, grinning, and saw her deep scowl. “You have to play fair,” he said insistently. “I do expect a prize if I win.”
“You’re crazy,” she retorted. “Either you don’t take the risk you’re running seriously, or you’re damn sure of yourself.”
“Maybe I am,” Scarlet replied, turning his back on her.
“You know you’re risking your life, trying to find a myth that doesn’t exist anymore?”
“How about the badges?”
“That’s the Spectres’ badge – not Spectrum. The father of that boy you met – he probably made the same mistake you’re doing right now. But maybe you’ll realise that at the end. Just before you die.”
“We’ll see about that,” Scarlet muttered. “When I meet Colonel White –”
“I don’t know any Colonel White,” she interjected quickly.
“Really now? Don’t you think it makes a lot of coincidences?” He stopped and stood in front of the horse, looking up at him. “The badges resembling the Spectrum insignia… The collective name your group carries, and the secrecy surrounding it… The fact that you and those other bozos go around acting like you are military – Captain. And your ‘leader’ being called ‘colonel’?” He shook his head. “No, my dear Captain. I don’t know about you, but as for me, I don’t believe in so many coincidences.”
“You’re so obsessed, you’re deluding yourself,” she replied, without budging one inch in her attitude.
Scarlet nodded slowly. “Or maybe you’re telling the truth, after all. It might be that ‘the Spectres’ actually are be the direct successors to Spectrum. And maybe you don’t even know that. Have you considered that possibility?”
She refused to answer and looked away. “That doesn’t change the fact that you won’t even reach our camp alive,” she repeated obstinately.
He smiled again. “And I’m still waiting for you to meet my bet,” he said, turning around and resuming his walk, dragging Rainbow behind him.
“You don’t even know where our camp could be,” she challenged him.
“I know.” He pointed ahead. “In that direction. Around Winchester.” He indicated, glancing over his shoulder to judge of her reaction.
The young woman simply shrugged. “You learned that in London,” she observed. “That’s the easy part. The hard part will be to find where around Winchester we are.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll find your camp,” Scarlet retorted. “I know the area pretty damn well.” He hesitated. “I’ve been here before… a long time ago.”
“Well, I don’t know how long, but I’ve been here all my life and the area keeps changing at each tremor of the Earth. Whatever you knew back then, you might not recognise it anymore.”
“Is the Cathedral still standing?” Scarlet asked.
She seemed surprised by the question. “ Winchester Cathedral? Why are you asking?”
“Just trying to make conversation… I told you I knew the area, so maybe we can find some common ground with some casual chat.”
“That would surprise me very much,” she muttered.
“So – is it still standing?”
She didn’t reply at first, seemingly musing over her answer. “Only half of it,” she finally said. “Part of the back collapsed many years ago, following an earthquake. Most of the roof is gone too, having crumbled inside the Cathedral.”
Scarlet tutted desolately. “It’s a shame, really. That church is more than a thousand years old. Did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t – and why do you care so much? You’re such a religious person? Or is it that you want to be buried within its walls?” Scarlet looked over his shoulders again and caught the evil smirk on the young woman’s lips. “That could be arranged…”
“You’re really an odd person,” Scarlet said, shaking his head.
“Listen who’s talking.”
Scarlet sighed and rolled his eyes. He looked at the sky, towards the sun he could barely distinguish beyond the clouds above. “We’ll walk an hour more, and then we’ll stop for lunch.”
They did as he said, and bivouacked on a small mound by the road, around midday. Scarlet helped his captive down and let her rest, seated on the ground, while he kept his eyes on their surroundings, making sure that they wouldn’t be surprised by any unwelcome visitors. Between the two of them, they drank the coffee from the Thermos flask and ate a couple of the stale biscuits from Scarlet’s supplies. They didn’t exchange a word , but the young woman’s expression, and the loathing Scarlet could see in her eyes, were eloquent enough. At the first opportunity she got, she would attempt to escape – and possibly kill him.
He planned not to give her that chance.
After he judged they had sufficiently rested, he put her onto Rainbow’s back again, restrained her like before and resumed their trip.
It took about another hour, before Scarlet’s captive deigned to speak again: “I’ve got to hand it to you, you seem to know your stuff.”
He turned around to give her a look of curiosity, while he momentarily walked backwards. She nodded. “You’re a remarkable tracker. You’re following the trail left by my men without much of an effort. So that’s how you expected to find our camp.”
“A compliment from you? I’m flattered, Captain.”
She shook her head. “It’s not a compliment. I was taught to appreciate the qualities in an enemy.”
Scarlet shrugged and turned around to walk forward again. “I am not an enemy.”
“Sure. And that’s the reason why you punched me, took me hostage and dragged me around the countryside, tied to your horse.”
“You didn’t leave me any choice. You threatened to kill me. I always take a threat to my life seriously.”
“You certainly know how to bring the best out of people.”
Scarlet stopped in his tracks, forcing Rainbow to do the same, and turned to face his captive. “Look – I knew that you would not have listened to me. I know that you view the security of your camp as being of the utmost importance, and that you would kill to make sure it remains safe. And in view of the circumstances, I don’t blame you. These days are not really secure. You never know what the angle of the next person you encounter will be.”
“You’ve got that right, buster,” she said between her teeth. “I’m still trying to figure out what’s your angle in trying to come to our camp to meet the colonel.”
“I’ve told you already. Your colonel and I are old friends.”
“And I called you a stinking liar.”
“And I wonder why you’re so categorical about me being a liar.”
She snorted. “You said you’ve been around here a long time ago. I’ve been raised around these parts. If you had met the colonel during that period, I would remember.”
He grinned. “So you admit that it is Colonel White, then?” he asked.
“I never admitted anything.”
“No… of course, not. So, let’s pretend – for the sake of carrying an intelligent conversation, that your colonel is indeed the same Colonel White who was commander of Spectrum… Have you considered that I might actually known him before you were born?”
“No way. You’re, what, about my age?”
“I’m considerably older than I look,” Scarlet answered, with a shake of his head.
She scowled. “How old are you, then?”
Scarlet turned his back on her and resumed his walking. He considered his answer. If he wanted to be technical about it, he would have to say that he was truly born in 2068, when the Mysterons created him from the dead body of the real Paul Metcalfe.
A sound suddenly caught his ear – like the snapping of a dead twig someone had walked on. Keeping his walk casual, he looked around, on each side of the path, trying to see past each boulder and feature of the landscape to see if something – or rather someone – was hiding behind them.
He saw a shadow moving.
“I’m talking to you, mister,” he heard the young woman behind him say.
“I heard,” Scarlet quietly replied in answer. “I’m just trying to figure out what year we are in.”
“You mean, you don’t even know what year this is?” There was obvious perplexity in the young woman’s voice. Scarlet grunted.
“Look, I’ve wandered back and fro through Europe for many years, and I didn’t really keep count of the passing days that meticulously. I often forget to put that new notch on the butt of my gun in the morning,” he deadpanned, looking at her over his shoulder.
She stared blankly at him; she obviously wasn’t sure if she should believe him or not. All things considered, she probably figured that what he was saying could be possible, as she said: “The year is 2108. 13th of February.”
Scarlet nodded, looking ahead again; he was still looking surreptitiously around. More shadows moved, following their progress along the path.
“Then I’ll be forty years old next month.”
“You don’t look forty,” the young woman noted suspiciously.
“Told you I looked younger than I really am.” He counted four moving shadows, and from behind a boulder, he saw the flash of rare sunlight on the barrel of a gun.
“And even if this is the truth,” his captive continued, “I’d still be calling you a liar. If it was before I was born, the two of you could only have met when you were a kid. Even if it was the same colonel as your Colonel White.”
“Think what you will,” Scarlet replied with impatience. “Whether you believe me or not is of no importance.” He stopped in his tracks, causing Rainbow to do the same. A sudden gust of wind brought an unpleasant smell to his nostrils and it was all he could do not to wrinkle his nose. “My business is with Colonel White,” he said to the young woman behind him, in a way to complete his reply.
“And what is this business exactly?” she insisted.
“That’s not your concern.” Scarlet slowly turned around and casually walked the short distance separating him from his captive; he stood by the horse, gently patting his neck. “Now you’d better stay quiet,” he said in an undertone to the young woman. “We are being watched.”
She raised a brow. “That surprises you? I told you my men – ”
“No,” Scarlet interrupted her. “Not your men. These guys are better than those boys of yours.”
“Someone else from camp, then,” she said with assurance. “Watson and the others would have gone to get some help.”
Scarlet glared at her with annoyance. He got his knife out and he saw her stiffen as he ejected the blade. “For your sake,” he groused, “I hope you’re right.”
She frowned. “What do you mean exactly?”
He scoffed. He leaned down, and cut the rope that was holding her feet together. When he stood again, she was looking at him with perplexity. “What a good soldier you make,” he said in a low voice.
She was about to reply when she heard it too: snapping twigs, and pebbles rolling under the footsteps of heavy boots. She raised her head and Scarlet turned around to look with her.
Five men emerged from the shadows of the boulders all around them, and were slowly approaching them. They looked nothing at all like the young men Scarlet had seen with the Captain in London. The boys were relatively well-groomed, clean in their person, and their clothes, if somewhat obviously used, were clean as well. These men now surrounding them were filthy, and were wearing tattered clothing, made of various unmatched fabrics. They smelled so badly as they came closer that Scarlet wondered why he had not detected their presence before.
He looked at the young woman saddled on his horse; she was seated upright, and was watching the approaching men with a composed expression; he could barely detect the gleam of concern in her blue eyes.
“Not men of yours, then,” he whispered.
“Hardly,” she replied with a cold voice. “The stink alone would be grounds for a reprimand at the camp. And I’m not mentioning the rest.”
“Than it’s bad news.” Furtively, he took the small gun hidden in his belt, under his shirt and slipped it into the young woman’s hand. At the same time, he used his knife to cut the rope securing her hands to the pommel – but left her wrists bound. She gave the slightest of frown, and looked into his eyes. “That might help you in the next few minutes,” Scarlet explained. “Keep it out of view.”
She nodded briefly, and slipped the gun between herself and the pommel; it was so small she could almost hide all of it under both her hands.
Scarlet quietly moved in front of Rainbow, without letting go of the bridle. The five men had stopped at a short distance from them; they were all looking at him, but had not raised their weapons, keeping the barrels down while waiting to use them eventually.
One of the men, bald, with a greyish, seemingly moth-eaten beard, took a step forward – but stopped in his track, when he saw that Scarlet was keeping his hand on the handle of his shotgun. He grinned, a smile of rotten teeth that nearly turned Scarlet’s stomach.
“Greetings, citizens,” he said good-naturally. “How are you on this beautiful day?”
Scarlet gave a glance in direction of the sky above. “To begin with, the day isn’t that beautiful,” he commented, sharply enough. “And secondly – it was a hell of a lot better before you lot appeared and blocked our way. What is it you want?”
“We are the local tax collectors,” the bald man answered, keeping a falsely civil voice. “You have to pay the toll to be allowed to use this road.”
“We’re not even on the road – which is impassable anyway. We’re walking on this path.”
“That’s the alternative road. The toll applies as well.”
Scarlet glanced over to the young woman behind him, who was glaring at the newcomers. “You never told me there was a toll on this path,” he commented matter-of-factly.
“To my knowledge, there isn’t any,” she replied dryly.
“Must be a new administration,” Scarlet mused.
“Come on, mate,” said the bald man – who was obviously the leader of the group. “You know you don’t have much choice. Make it easy on yourself and pay the toll. Then you’ll be allowed to move on.”
Scarlet looked around; all of the men either had their guns trained on him, or their hands on their weapons, ready for use. Two took a threatening step forwards, grinning in a way that showed that they were only waiting for him to make a false move. He shook his head. “I must admit you have… convincing arguments,” he said quietly.
The bald man nodded slowly, his smile widening. “I thought you would see things our way.”
“The problem is, I don’t have much to offer as payment.”
The bald man chuckled. “Well, from my point of view, you’re a very rich man. You’ve got that shotgun of yours, a magnificent mount – on the back of which I see your gear… and a very beautiful bird.”
“The girl?” Scarlet said, rising an eyebrow.
“A girl like that is worth a lot, mate.”
“Mmm…” Scarlet turned to look at his captive, seemingly considering it; she frowned at him, visibly not happy, and he returned his attention to the bald man. “She’s a handful.”
“We kind of figured that out,” the leader of the bandits commented, with a thin smile. He pointed to the woman. “You’re keeping her tied up. And we heard you arguing while we followed you. Where did you take her from – you killed her boyfriend to have her for yourself?”
“That’s none of your business,” Scarlet sharply replied. “You want her, you can take her. As long as I keep the rest of my belongings.”
The Captain gasped in outrage. “Why, you creep –”
“Face it, love,” Scarlet interrupted her suddenly, without even turning to face her. “It would never have worked out between us.”
The brigands laughed, but the blonde woman was incensed. “I’ll kill you the first chance I’ll get,” she promised, addressing Scarlet.
“That’s the second time you’ve made that promise,” he replied. He nodded to the leader of the bandits. “She’s all yours, mate.”
“Jack,” the bald man said, addressing the man closest to Scarlet. “Get her down from this horse.” He pointed his rifle at Scarlet. “And you don’t move, pal. I don’t trust you.”
Scarlet didn’t reply, and kept his eyes on the bald man, while the one called Jack, a young man of barely twenty, walked eagerly towards Rainbow’s side, chuckling like a maniac. His hand had barely touched the young woman when she raised her foot – and kicked him in the face, pushing him back.
The others laughed at the discomfiture of their younger companion, and Scarlet joined in their fun. Jack, stroking his painful jaw, glared at the blonde woman, and came for another attempt to get her down. One of his companions came from the other side to help him out.
This time around, the Captain didn’t even wait for them to put their hands on her and didn’t offer Jack her booted foot: she pointed the small gun Scarlet had given her earlier straight at his face and pulled the trigger, at almost point blank range, killing him instantly. The detonation had barely rung out when she roughly kicked Rainbow’s flanks and held on to his mane as he reared up suddenly, with a loud neigh. Scarlet, who was still holding the reins, let go at that moment, and the great stallion’s front hooves lifted up high in the air, knocking the second man over the head and sending him sprawling into the dust.
Scarlet turned on his heels; he swiftly drew his shotgun out of the holster and aimed at the bald man, standing only a few feet away. The latter had raised his gun as soon as he had seen his companions go down. Both weapons thundered almost simultaneously; Scarlet felt the other man’s bullet brushing his side, but he stood still. His buckshot hit the band’s leader straight in the stomach, and lifted him from the ground, sending him backward.
There were two men left standing; the events had been so surprisingly fast that they didn’t react in time to stop the demise of their companions. The first one who finally came to his senses raised his gun at the Captain. Scarlet, who was facing the other man, saw him from the corner of his eye, pulled his knife… and in one fluid movement, threw it. It reached the throat of his target and made him stumble. His finger jerked on the trigger, but the bullet missed the Captain. It probably wheezed at Rainbow’s ears as the great horse reared up again, throwing the surprised rider off his back and down into the dirt, before he moved away from her fallen body, snorting loudly.
The last bandit had time to fire just as Scarlet turned to him; but he was so nervous, having to face this dangerous man armed with a shotgun that he almost missed. Scarlet felt the bullet hit his right side and he flinched, his knees buckling momentary. But he didn’t fall and he regained his footing, pumping his gun. The man facing him made a last desperate attempt, but it was too late: he was blown off his feet when Scarlet pulled the trigger and he fell onto his back.
“Damn it,” Scarlet muttered. He looked down at his side, and saw the blood starting to stain his shirt. He could feel some pain, but it was manageable. He wasn’t overly concerned by the wound, but rather apprehensive that all this blood on his shirt might give an inkling of his secret. Bloodstains were difficult to get rid of, and he only had one other shirt in his gear. The previous one had been ruined in quite a similar manner about a month back.
He turned around, and looked in the direction of the Captain who still lay in the middle of the path. Rainbow was trotting at some distance from her, snorting and shaking his head, obviously agitated by all the action.
Scarlet muttered a curse. He ran in the direction of the young woman, limping slightly, concerned that she might be seriously hurt.
But as he knelt by her side and he shook her gently, she groaned and her eyes fluttered.
“Are you okay?” he asked her.
“Your horse be damned,” she slurred, pushing herself up. “That animal is a public danger…”
Scarlet smiled faintly and blew a sigh of relief. “You’re okay if you can make jokes…” He stopped before continuing. As she turned to him, she leaned on one elbow, and he saw that the gun he had given her was still in one of her bound hands and was now aimed at him. He stared at it for a moment, than raised his eyes to meet hers. She was looking at him with a blank expression.
He sighed again, this time very slowly. “You do realise,” he said very quietly, “that this gun only has one shot…”
Scarlet saw but the glitter of a surprise at this revelation in her eyes before she lowered them to examine the gun. She had to concede he was telling the truth.
She handed him the gun. “You must admit I had to try,” she replied calmly.
“I would have tried too,” he said, with a nod. He took the gun and put it in the pocket of his shirt. He pulled it down to hide the bloodstain underneath, but she had time to see some of it.
“You’ve been hurt,” she declared, looking at his face.
He waved the concern aside. “Just a scratch,” he said, hoping his voice sounded nonchalant enough. He would change shirt at the first opportunity and throw this one away, before she could notice how serious the wound already was. “The important thing is that you are all right.”
“I am. A little stiff maybe, because your horse threw me down, and I’ll have some bruises, but otherwise…” She nodded in direction of the dead men, surrounding them. “These highway bandits are becoming a plague in the countryside. There were never any on this path.”
“Maybe there was,” Scarlet commented, looking at the bodies. “And maybe you never actually saw them, because you always were riding with your band of men, and these guys certainly wouldn’t want to face someone who would be able to oppose them. They probably didn’t expect us to resist.”
“Cowards,” the Captain muttered. “They won’t hurt anyone anymore, now.”
“It’s not quite finished.” Scarlet rose to his feet. “Rest for a while. I’ve got to get rid of these bodies.”
“You’re going to bury them?” she asked. This seemed like the right thing to do. Not that they really need to hide the fact that they had killed these men – nobody would care in this day and age – but considering how precarious the state of the world was presently, it was better not to risk even worse by leaving bodies lying all around the place to rot in the open air and cause epidemics.
Scarlet turned a cold stare to her. “I’m going to burn them,” he replied stoically, his expression becoming hard. “And pray that I will be fast enough, before the Mysterons have the time to duplicate them and send them after us.”
She watched him in shocked perplexity and he turned his back on her to prepare himself to the unenviable task that awaited him.
The quake hit in the middle of the night. And as fate would have it, it was the first night in many weeks that Scarlet had actually been able to sleep, without being submitted to one of those insufferable interrogations his tormentors specialised in, in a hopeless attempt to extract information he didn’t have out of him – or woken by his guards who obviously had nothing else to do and took some perverse pleasure in persecuting him.
At five level underground, it was violent enough to shake the solid concrete walls and ceilings down and to fissure the floor under Scarlet’s feet. He only just had time to find refuge under his bunk before the ceiling came crumbling down on him. He must have received a blow on the head and lost consciousness, because he didn’t remember what happened next. The first thing he knew was waking up in total chaos. He was surrounded by dust which threatened to choke him; the bunk was leaning at an odd angle, pressing against him and it was all he could do to extirpate himself from underneath it. When he was finally able to free himself, it was to discover a dark cell, filled with debris, and a light flickering from the gap of his ajar and half-smashed down door.
The lock of that door was shattered.
Scarlet staggered through the debris and reached the door. It was blocked by debris, so that he was unable to open it fully, but the gap was wide enough, and he was grateful to be thin enough to slip through it. He stumbled into the corridor and looked around, cautiously.
There was no-one around, and he couldn’t hear a sound, except for the echo of water dripping from a broken pipe. All along the length of the long corridor, half of the lights were broken, or had fallen from the ceiling. Those that were still in place and working were spluttering, and only produced a dim light that threw shadows against the walls. Two-thirds of these walls still stood, and many cells doors on either sides were either open or broken, just like Scarlet’s. Walking in front of one of them, he took a peek inside, but couldn’t see past the falling dust and darkness. He didn’t know if there was anyone inside or if it was empty. His guess was that, if the cell was still occupied by a prisoner, then that prisoner was dead. Because if he was not, he would be gone by now.
Scarlet didn’t know what had happened exactly. It felt like a major earthquake. Quite similar that the one of three years ago, which – he heard after the fact – had devastated the West Coast of the U.S.A. and cut more than half of California from the rest of the continent. An attack by the Mysterons, he had been told by Larsen and his goons, the next time they came in to torment him. The tremors had been felt for a huge distance inland, and Arizona had been violently hit, and it only then that Scarlet learned where in the world this military prison he had been incarcerated in for five years was situated. The facility had withstood the earthquake with a minimum of damage – or so the management probably believed at the time. By the look of things now, it seemed that these first tremors might have weakened the structure; just enough for another earthquake of a similar magnitude to finish the job properly.
Earthquake or not, and whether it was due to the Mysterons or not, Scarlet thought he would be crazy to pass up the chance to escape from this dreadful place, where he had been secretly kept for the past ten years.
He followed the debris-filled passageway towards what he imagined was the exit; his naked feet suffered many cuts from the sharp rocks he slipped on, but it was nothing compared to what he had experienced in this hellhole.
The first security door he found was completely shattered. So was the second. Crushed under that one, he found a dead man, wearing the uniform of the military guards. It was Gillespie, one of Larsen’s goons, the one who, after Larsen, he hated the most. Many years ago, Gillespie had found the only picture Scarlet kept of his dear, dead wife and had taken it from him, after breaking all the bones of his hands. Every so often, he had taunted Scarlet with it, telling the captive of what he would like to do to his woman if he ever met her – showing her what a real man could do. He didn’t know that his captive’s wife was dead, and Scarlet mostly ignored his insanities. But one time, Gillespie had gone too far and carelessly left an opening for an enraged Scarlet to attack him – breaking his right leg in three places before he could be made to stop. Up to this day, the guard had a limp from this attack – and had done his very best to punish Scarlet for what he had done to him, each time he had the chance.
Gillespie always kept Dianne’s picture in his breast pocket, so in the hope of finding it, Scarlet struggled to reach the man’s shirt. He found the object of his search and after all these years, held it in his trembling fingers. He caressed the surface of the picture, before carefully pocketing it close to his heart. Then, he turned his attention to Gillespie’s booted feet, wondering if this despicable man had the same size feet as himself.
Five minutes later, wearing his newly acquired boots, he was continuing his trek to leave the prison. He fully expected to encounter someone – an escaped prisoner like him, a surviving guard – but he found no-one. It was if the whole complex had been abandoned, and he wondered how long exactly he had been unconscious. Maybe he actually died, and everyone had already left before he woke up. That certainly seemed like a possibility to him.
A hole in the ceiling permitted him access to the upper level; from there, he found a half-destroyed staircase, and then another hole. Two more levels left, before he would reach the ground floor. He found himself in front of the torn doors of an open lift, with its cabin missing and looked inside and up. He could see the light of the day several meters above his head. Hope flared in his heart. He was so close to freedom he could smell it; in fact, he could feel the wind lashing onto his face.
The maintenance ladder shuddered under his weight; he held on, and looked down into the menacing darkness of the well below him. He took a deep breath, and started climbing trying to ignore the dangerous way the ladder was shaking and creaking at nearly every movement. All of his mind was focussed to one thing only: that tantalising light at the top of this well, calling to him.
As he approached his goal, the wind became stronger; and when he finally hauled himself out of the well, he blinked his eyes. For the first time in ten years he was seeing the light of day, and it was literally blinding him. The air wasn’t exactly fresh; it was filled with dirt, and tiny fragments of cement that entered his nostrils and his throat and made him cough. But he was free, and for that, he couldn’t be more grateful.
He stood on staggering feet and, as his eyes became accustomed to the ambient light, he looked around in confusion. He fully expected to end up inside a building, but he was standing in a pile of debris that barely gave any inkling as to what could possibly have stood there before and what exactly it looked like. There were only parts of a couple of small buildings left up, with blown out windows and doors, and some sections of destroyed walls standing here and there. The rest was completely down – reduced to so many high heaps of rubble. The complex had been razed by whatever cataclysm had at the same time given Scarlet his freedom.
He climbed the highest pile of debris he could find and stood on top of it to look around; it was the desert, as far as his eyes could see. Towards the South-East, he could see the outlines of faraway mountains. Of course, if the facility was in Arizona, even underground, it would have been built as far away from civilisation as possible. This was, after all, a secret military prison, which didn’t officially exist and which the public in general didn’t even know about. It was used to keep prisoners whose crimes were so heinous or discreditable to the authorities that they didn’t want anyone to know about them. The conditions of detention were appalling – with the prisoners never allowed to see the sun as long as they were kept there, and they were sometimes kept in isolation for weeks on end. The guards made their own laws, and the administration wasn’t any better. They didn’t hesitate to use methods of interrogation that were proscribed to extract information from some of their prisoners. Officially, this went against all the international laws that the World Government had sworn to uphold. Practically… for politicians and military officials, there was simply no other way to keep peace an order around the world.
Over the horizon, toward the North-East, he saw huge black clouds, that didn’t seem really natural to him, and he wondered what they could mean exactly. Surely nothing good, he imagined, and he wondered if they were related in some way to the earthquake that had destroyed the prison.
He was telling himself that the place seemed completely deserted, when his attention was attracted by voices, carried by the wind. He listened with attention. It seemed to be coming from close nearby.
He climbed down the mound and followed the voices inside the confines of the destroyed complex. The huge piles of boulders and debris, and what remained of the walls, formed something akin to a giant maze which he followed relentlessly. The voices were becoming stronger and as he progressed, and after a few minutes, he could hear clearer bits of what they were saying:
“… Think we’re the only one left? There were only dead bodies in my block.”
“… Said it’s the Mysterons again that made an attack…”
“…Nuclear City. They detonated an underground bomb…”
“That’s why we felt it over here, you think?”
“Radioactive clouds all over the continent… People are dead and more are gonna die…”
“Never mind people. The only death I’m interested in is this bastard’s.”
At the turn of a corner, Scarlet finally arrived at destination, to discover he had crossed all of the facility’s length to arrive in the main front courtyard, which was surrounded by a high metallic fence. He could see the broken gates of the prison, a couple of hundreds of meters beyond. In the courtyard, there was a gathering of people. There were about fifty of them, he counted at a glance, all, wearing the grey overalls of the prisoners, and covered with dust. Not having seen anyone before, Scarlet could only suspect they had got out through a different exit than the one he had taken. Perhaps more than one other exit.
None of them seemed that interested by the fact that the gates were wide open, and that freedom was there, within their reach. They were all talking animatedly and surrounding a smaller group, nearly right in the middle of them, where voices were stronger and where there seemed to be some action. From where he was standing, Scarlet couldn’t see what could be happening.
Practically unnoticed by anyone – he was after all an inmate like all of them – Scarlet joined the group, and slowly and almost effortlessly made his way through the crowd. As he came closer to the centre of the action, he noticed that the men surrounding him were more wound up. They were shaking their fists excitedly, and shouting, with a mix of anger and enthusiasm in their voices.
“Kill the pig!” one of them, standing next to Scarlet yelled.
“Yeah, bleed the bastard!” another called, thrusting his fist so fiercely that he nearly hit Scarlet who moved to avoid it. “He deserves it!”
That doesn’t sound good, Scarlet thought, and when he finally reached the first line, he saw what it was all about.
In an empty space surrounded by the inmates, two dead guards were lying in the dirt, covered with blood; they had obviously been killed very recently. A third, still alive, was on the receiving end of a harsh beating, as four convicts were hitting him with either fists , or kicks, or with bludgeons they had obviously taken from their hated jailers.
Scarlet recognised the surviving guard immediately.
Larsen. The man who had made his life miserable these last ten years.
He was unable to stand, as one of his legs appeared broken, and his face was covered with bleeding cuts and bruises. His uniform was torn and covered with blood in places, and yet he was obviously too obstinate to give up and was trying to repel his attackers, despite the blows raining on him on all sides.
That was the kind of beating he had often dispensed to Scarlet and the latter couldn’t help thinking that it was poetic justice to see the man now receiving the same treatment.
He was leaning on a boulder, trying to get up when a bludgeon hit him on the only leg that seemed to be working. From where he was standing, and despite the surrounding uproar, Scarlet distinctly heard it crack and winced. With a yell of pain, Larsen fell and rolled to the floor. A last kick landed in his stomach and he lay there on his belly, breathing hard and unable to move.
“That’ll be enough.”
A large bulky man, with a crew cut and a large scar on his neck, and who was standing not that far from Scarlet, stepped into the empty space; he had a gun in his hands that Scarlet had not seen before, and was pumping it with a look of determination on his face. “Time for fun is through,” he said with a loud, gruff voice. “Time to put this swine out of his misery.” He stood over Larsen and glared at him, with a cold expression on his face.
“Wait!” It was Scarlet who shouted, and for a second, the giant hesitated. Scarlet pushed his way to the place and quickly came over. But the big man grunted with annoyance, and took aim at Larsen’s head..
Scarlet rushed over, And arrived a fraction of the second before the man pulled the trigger. He took the gun by the barrel and pushed it up roughly. The shot lost itself in the sky. At the same time the mob fell silent It only lasted a few seconds, before everyone started protesting.
The giant shot a murderous glare at Scarlet, but the latter met his eyes without flinching. The shouts of disapprobation from the crowd grew louder; they all wanted Larsen dead, and they didn’t appreciate someone – one of them – would step and interfere with their fun.
Scarlet stood his ground. “Hear me out!” he called out. But his shout fell on deaf ear. At least at first. In a few seconds, he realised, that it was a piece of him these men wanted.
He inserted his finger against the trigger of the gun the giant was still holding, with the barrel up in the air, and pulled. The new shot rang over the shouts, causing them to subside His gesture surprised the big man so much that he didn’t even react.
“Don’t you have something better to do than amuse yourself with killing guards?” Scarlet yelled to the mob.
“Why d’you want to save this scum?” the big man sharply asked.
“I hate him as much as all of you do,” Scarlet retorted. “But I think you’re all stupid and wasting your time.”
“Who are you to call us stupid?” a voice called from the crowd.
“Yeah, you have a death wish or what?” another shouted.
“That’s the Spectrum guy they kept in isolation!” Scarlet heard from behind the lines, unsure exactly where it came from. “He was on the same level as me… They said he was a Mysteron agent.”
“A Mysteron agent, really?” another said. “Those bastards destroyed Los Angeles…”
“I’m not a Mysteron agent!” Scarlet shouted back, with a firm voice. “And nor am I a Spectrum agent.”
“But you were, weren’t you?” someone else asked, menacingly.
“But I’m not anymore.”
Surprisingly, it was the giant who intervened: “It doesn’t matter what he was,” he said with his gruff voice. “He’s a convict, just like us. The least we can do is to hear him out.”
“Yeah, let’s hear him,” a voice echoed. Other voices rose in approval. Scarlet nodded, relieved that they would permit him to talk.
“Yes, I’m an inmate, just like you. But the difference between you and me is that I’m thinking with my head, instead than with my emotions. I know you suffered much between these walls, but do you really think that nobody will realise what happened to this prison? Do you think they won’t send anyone to check what’s going on, why nobody answers their calls any more? The walls are down, you can escape. I would suggest you make a better use of your time and get the hell away from here.”
The murmurs in the crowd were different now, as many approved of Scarlet’s suggestion. There were still some hesitation, though, as obviously some of them were still after blood.
“That makes sense to me.”
“I want to be alive… and free. I want to see my family in New York, see how they are,” another added.
“Where should we go?”
The giant by Scarlet’s side narrowed his eyes at him, obviously trying to assess him.
“Who are you exactly?” he asked in a low voice.
“Does it really matter? I just freed myself from level five, where I had been left for dead. This guy…” He gave a brief, loathing nod in direction of Larsen, “was the guard personally assigned to me.” He tore the gun from the giant’s hands, without him making any effort to stop him. “And if someone has to do the bastard, it’s gonna be me.”
The giant looked him in the eyes; then he nodded sharply and turned around to the crowd. “He’s right,” he said in a loud voice. “Let’s escape while we still have the time. We should run, as if the devil was after us.” He waved his arms at the crowd. “Go on, you bums! Separate, go your own way, and lose yourself in the scenery! Don’t you want to be free?”
There was a general movement as the crowd of inmates broke off and they hurriedly started leaving, in small groups, heading for the fallen walls or the open gates. The big man turned to Scarlet one last time. He pointed to Larsen, who was still breathing hard, and now trying to turn on his back and raise himself on his elbows. “He’s all yours. Do what you want with him. Kill him or not, I don’t give a damn. But I think you should follow your own advice and get out of here fast as well.”
“Don’t worry, I will,” Scarlet replied with an icy voice, lowering his eyes to Larsen. “I just have one last business to attend to.”
The giant nodded his approval and ran away, towards the open gates. Scarlet stood there, the gun in his hands, and looked at all the inmates go.
“So… you’re gonna have your revenge on me, Scarlet?” Larsen found the strength to cackle – a sound that reminded Scarlet of too many bad memories, when the man had been tormenting him. Slowly he crouched in front of the wounded guard and looked at him levelly.
Larsen coughed, spitting some blood. He looked like he was badly wounded. He couldn’t rise from where he was lying, his broken legs refusing to move. “You’re gonna kill me now, aren’t you?” he asked, turning his bruised and bloody face to Scarlet, still with the same coldness and hatred the former Spectrum officer was accustomed to.
“You don’t know how much I’d like that,” Scarlet replied with a sour voice. “I want to see you dead all right, Larsen. I want to pull this trigger, and put an end to your miserable life.”
“Than why don’t you do it, and spare me the sermon?” Larsen challenged him.
Scarlet’s finger twitched on the trigger of the gun. Larsen didn’t know how close he was to letting himself be tempted. “That would be lowering myself to your level,” he said softly. “You’re a disgrace as a man. You should have been put in with the rest of the inmates. And something tells me that some of them were probably better men than you are.”
“Like you think yourself a better man than me, Scarlet?” Larsen cackled. “That might be because you ain’t human, to begin with.”
Scarlet shook his head in disgust. “I don’t have to listen to this,” he muttered. “Stay here to rot, you dirty scumbag. Pray that someone will indeed come to save you, because with your two broken legs, you’re not going anywhere by yourself and you’re not likely to survive.”
Scarlet stood on his feet and turned his back on the wounded man. He had only taken three steps, when he heard the latter calling to him, in a mocking voice:
“Not killing me and leaving me to my fate might seems like the best option to you, ‘cause you think that suits your conscience, Scarlet. But it’s poor strategy. You never know what could happen. For example, I could heal from my wounds – and then go after you to kill you, like I should have done years ago.”
Scarlet stopped in his tracks; he wondered if he understood clearly the understatement he thought he had heard in Larsen’s words. He frowned in perplexity, a doubt inserting itself in is mind.
Could it be possible…?
Larsen’s next words sent a shiver down his spine, and then he knew he had thought right:
“Do you hear me, Earthman? You have not finished with me yet!”
Scarlet slowly turned on his heel. He walked back the distance he had just covered like an automaton, to return to the wounded man. He stood over him, and looked at him with incredulity. Larsen looked up to him, and grinned evilly. “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?”
“You’re a Mysteron?” Scarlet murmured, frowning.
“Search into yourself, Scarlet. Listen to what your ‘sixth sense’ tells you. You’ll have your answer.”
Scarlet shook his head in disbelief. He didn’t have to search for long. He already felt the nausea and the cold sweat he sometimes felt in the presence of a Mysteron agent. And he felt it stronger than he ever did before; it was as if Larsen’s revelation had actually triggered his not-so-reliable sixth sense, which was now coming back with a vengeance, after laying dormant for years, as he had not come into contact with any Mysteron following his incarceration.
At least that was what he had thought. But was it really the case?
“Since when?” Scarlet growled between his teeth. “Since when are you a Mysteron agent? Since the prison was hit by this attack of your masters? Was it a few hours ago? Last month? Three years ago? Or were you a Mysteron agent since the very beginning? Tell me, you bastard!”
Larsen’s evil smirk broadened. “Nearly since the beginning,” he replied. “The original Larsen was already a despicable character when the Mysterons had him killed, so I could be created. My mission was to keep my eye on you, Captain Scarlet. And make sure you would never leave this facility alive.”
“That’s impossible,” Scarlet almost whispered, shaking his head again. “It’s been ten years. At one point or another, I would have realised your true nature…”
“Your sixth sense doesn’t always work, does it?” Larsen said scoffing. “It was just a matter to make sure you remained weak, and tired, or unfocussed enough for it never to find me out.”
“You aged,” Scarlet replied dryly.
“By the powers of the Mysterons, I did. And by the powers of the Mysterons, I lived that long – longer than any other Mysteron agent before me. I had to age as I lived, so I would look normal, and nobody would suspect me. It’s a good thing Spectrum never distributed its Mysteron detector to the other World security organisations.”
“Commander Ward had his hand on one,” Scarlet retorted. “He used it to find me out ten years ago. You tell me he never had it replicated for the W.A.A.F?”
“Oh, that detector… Ward only had it because it was given to him by Doctor Argent.”
“That traitor,” Scarlet spat. “ I hope he’s dead, because if he’s not –”
“Oh, he’s dead, Scarlet. Twice over.” Larsen chuckled, seeing the confused expression on Scarlet’s face. “Didn’t you know? Argent died in a car accident, two days before you left Cloudbase, ten years ago. It was his Mysteron duplicate who came to Ward with the Mysteron detector and told him all about you.” He shook his head, mockingly. “The real Argent would never have betrayed Spectrum, or you. His deed done, his Mysteron duplicate died in turn – again, in a car accident – this one caused by the Mysterons, to erase all traces of what they had done. The Mysteron detector he still had with him was destroyed in the process.”
Scarlet was shocked. All these revelations changed his view on what had happened to him all those years ago. Argent was innocent. After having cursed Argent for so many years, blaming him for his predicament, Scarlet finally realised that the man had not betrayed him. For him, Scarlet was an interesting specimen, but he would not have given his secret away to anyone. Despite all of Scarlet’s dislike for the man, he had been a loyal member of Spectrum. It was his Mysteron duplicate who had trapped him, in a way that Scarlet would never have been able to escape.
“So, all of this was a Mysteron setup,” he said in a bleak voice, “to simply get me out of the way. All they had to do, was to work on the mistrust, hate and fear of my own people for all things Mysteron – and on their misunderstanding of me. All these years of physical pain, of psychological distress… I owe it to the Mysterons.” He glowered down unemotionally at the Mysteron agent at his feet. “Thank you, Larsen, for having brought this to light for me.”
“It doesn’t matter that I’ve told you, Scarlet,” Larsen replied. “’Cause Spectrum is gone now, and the rest of the world will soon follow.”
Scarlet tilted his head. “You’ve been a good actor all these years, Larsen. Making a show about how horrified you supposedly were over the destruction of Futura, and then of California. Showing your loathing and revulsion of me, in plain daylight, because I had been a Spectrum agent. Without anyone ever realising why you hated me so much. Ward wondered about your reasons, before he died. A shame he will never know the truth now.”
“Ward was a fool, Earthman,” Larsen snarled. “Like you are yourself. You might go free from this now, but you will never be free of the Mysterons. We will hunt you, until the end of this war.”
“Perhaps. But it doesn’t mean I won’t try to escape. And you’re wrong thinking I’m a fool. Because I most certainly am not.” Scarlet pulled the hammer of his gun and aimed it at the Mysteron agent’s head. “Proof of that: I won’t let you come after me.”
Stoically, he pulled the trigger. He watched, as Larsen’s brain splattered all over the ground.
Grimly he looked at the dead body, then raised his head towards the open gate beckoning to him.
He would go and escape this place; he had suffered so much for the last ten years… but first, he had to make sure the Mysteron agent, dead at his feet, would remain dead and never come to haunt him, as he had promised to do.
“You’re a soldier.”
Scarlet stopped stirring the contents of the cooking pan that he had put on his petrol stove; the broth inside was just starting to boil and would be ready soon. He raised his eyes to look across the fire to the Captain, who sat on the ground, staring at him with curiosity. Her hands were still bound, and she was keeping a blanket around her, to protect herself against the cold of the early evening.
“That’s not difficult to figure out,” Scarlet replied at her comment.
“And a damn good one, at that,” she pursued.
“I trust your judgement.”
“You know about the Mysterons,” she continued. “I’m guessing you have met them before, to take the precautions you just did with the bandits.”
“I’ve… had experiences with them, yes,” Scarlet confirmed. “They’re a bloody pain in the arse, and I certainly can do without them, so when I can do something about it, I do.”
“Well, you certainly did what you could with these guys. Too bad they didn’t have anything worthwhile on them to take…”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Scarlet replied. “Their guns and knifes will be good for bargaining once we arrive at your camp. I’m sure there will be someone there who would like to acquire them.”
The Captain sighed and shook her head. “Well, if you’re actually able to set foot in the camp without being killed, yes, maybe you’ll find people to barter with you.” She paused. “And if it’s true you knew Colonel White –”
“Colonel White.” Scarlet stopped stirring again and looked back at her. “It’s actually the first time you’ve call your commander by his full name. So you have decided to stop playing that little game of cat and mouse.”
She frowned. “There’s little point denying it, isn’t it?”
“Very little indeed. And about the Spectres really being Spectrum?”
She lowered her eyes. “As a name, ‘Spectrum’ doesn’t fit very well anymore. Do you see any colours in our badges? Only black on white.”
“In the spectrum, white is the combination of all colours,” Scarlet answered. “A reflection of all the wavelengths of light. That is why the commander of Spectrum was called Colonel White.” He grinned. “So yes, I would say your badge has colours on it.”
The Captain frowned. “You like to show off, don’t you?”
“Only to pretty girls.” Scarlet stirred his broth one last time. He shook the spoon and put it aside, taking the two only metal cups he carried in his gear. He filled them, one after the other. “It’s ready. I know it doesn’t look like much, but it’s filling.”
He went to her in a crouched position and handed her the cup. She took it between her bound hands, her fingers grazing his. He noticed the gentleness of her touch. Their eyes met, and she lowered her glance, almost coyly, to take a sip from the contents of her cup.
Scarlet sat down in front of her and he started to slowly drink the broth. Silence fell between them.
After a while, Scarlet looked at what was left in his cup, making it swirl, to mix the rest of the concentrate that he knew remained at the bottom. “We’ll get some sleep soon,” he said. “And tomorrow, we’ll start early for your camp. I figure we’re not that far now. So depending how long it takes us to find it, we should be there in the morning, or the early afternoon.”
“You seem so sure of yourself,” the Captain commented.
“It would be easier if you would tell me the exact location,” Scarlet replied, looking into her eyes.
She didn’t answer; nor had Scarlet expected her to.
“I’ll have to remove your boots,” he said. “Please, finish drinking and don’t try anything.”
She raised a brow. “Ever the cautious one, aren’t you?” she commented, as he started to undo her laces. She remained quiet, keeping the cup on her lap.
“I don’t want you to run away to warn your little friends,” Scarlet replied. “Without your boots, you won’t try that. Or if you do, you won’t get very far.”
“I thought you were a light sleeper,” she said. “And that your horse was better than a watch dog.” She nodded in direction of Rainbow who stood to one side, a couple of metres away, grazing on some yellowish leaves remaining on a bush.
“I am… and he is.” Scarlet removed one boot, and threw it away, and then pulled on the second. “But, as much as you consider me a good soldier, I think you are one too. So, I’m considering the unlikely possibility that you might escape anyway. Now, I can tie your feet up , but I prefer not to. They’ll get numb, and you won’t be able to stay on the saddle tomorrow.”
She grinned, almost mockingly. “Why so considerate, all of the sudden?” she asked.
“I’m being practical. You had a rough day today, and I don’t want you to fall off the horse again. It wouldn’t look good if I were to bring you back to your camp with a broken neck.”
She nodded, putting her cup down by her side. “Indeed. You’re very practical. A man like you would be useful in our camp.”
Scarlet grinned at her. “That makes three compliments on the same day,” he commented. “You’re doing me a great honour, Captain.”
“I mean it.” She looked at him with seriousness. “We don’t often come by men like you, that would be an asset to us.”
“An asset for what?” Scarlet asked suddenly. “Fighting the Mysterons?” His face became hard. “I heard the rumours: they’re supposed to be hiding deep in what used to be the Mendips. How much of this is true?”
She lowered her head. “We think they are there. In a deep, volcanic gorge, that opened during one of the earthquakes they caused, many years ago. But anybody who went there to check never returned to confirm it.”
“The people in London said that nobody ever came back from your camp either,” Scarlet remarked dryly. “You killed them?”
She shook her head. “That depends on the motive for their coming. If they come to attack us or as a threat to our camp’s security, we defended ourselves. There are those who came to stay with us. There are also those who never reached our camp. Maybe like this Piotr Ivanovitch that you told me about.” She raised her eyes to him. “And there are those who have been taken over by the Mysterons and who seek to destroy us.”
“And you kill those,” Scarlet concluded.
“Most definitely, yes. We must be ever vigilant.”
“How do you know they are real Mysterons? That you’re not killing innocent people?”
She smiled thinly. “Oh, believe me, we know.”
“Because it seems to me that you are a rather trigger-happy bunch,” Scarlet commented.
“These are hard times we live in. We are cautious. Like you are yourself. I don’t think you’re in any position to judge us. I saw how easily you killed those bandits. You did not hesitate for one moment to dispose of them to protect yourself… and to protect me.”
Scarlet grunted. “I didn’t wish to lose my hostage. You’re my entrance ticket to see Colonel White.”
“I can make your entrance much easier if you accept my offer,” the Captain declared. “You join our ranks, and I’ll arrange an audience for you with the colonel. You already have experience with the Mysterons, and –”
“So you do fight the Mysterons.”
“When we find them. Or when they find us.”
Scarlet slowly shook his head. “No, thank you… As much as I appreciate the offer, I’m not looking for a job.”
“Why?” The young woman seemed surprised by his refusal.
“I told you. I’m only passing by to see Colonel White. After that, I’ve got business to attend to elsewhere.”
“Then, as I told you already – whatever that business is, that person you are going to meet might very well wait for you indefinitely,” the Captain said gravely. “Whoever comes to our camp and doesn’t become one of us isn’t allowed to leave again. It’s a question of security. You might reveal our location.”
Scarlet scoffed. “Is that an ultimatum? Are you trying to blackmail me into accepting your offer, or else I’ll die?”
“No. I’m just exposing the facts, so you know what could await you.” She raised both her hands and stroked his bearded cheek. Again, Scarlet noticed the softness of her touch and he froze. “It might be that I don’t want to see you come to any harm.”
He frowned, with some perplexity. “Really now? Since last night you’ve kept threatening me with death. Why this sudden change of heart?”
“Maybe I’m starting to appreciate you?”
Scarlet kept staring, as the Captain’s hands slithered down his neck and she leant forward, approaching closer to him, her lips pursed into what was obviously meant as an offered kiss. He stopped her wandering hands, a little roughly, as it reached the opening of his shirt, and that caused her to look into his eyes. His scowl had deepened considerably, as he assessed her with caution.
“What are your intentions, exactly?”
She smiled coyly, for the second time that evening. “Is that true I am pretty?” she asked in a whisper.
He tilted his head to one side. “You’re not answering the question.”
She sighed and nearly rolled her eyes. “And you are playing hard to get. You told me this morning that you found me interesting… It so happens that I find you interesting too. And I don’t often get to meet men as interesting as you…”
She leaned forward again. She was indeed a very beautiful woman, and Scarlet couldn’t deny he found her attractive. And the way she was coming on to him, he was starting to feel some long repressed yearning. But when he had taken her hostage the night before, he hadn’t planned on things going that way between them.
He grunted, shaking his head. “Lady, I am warning you… If you continue this way, you might end up having more than you are bargaining for. And I might not be able to control myself. ”
She smiled, and her lips brushed his. “And what tells you that it isn’t exactly what I want?” she whispered, before kissing him.
It was a hard kiss, which Scarlet answered almost without thinking about it. Desire rose in him and he reached to take her into his arms and bring her closer to him. Her tied up hands were pressed against his chest, and her fingers were clumsily trying to undo his shirt.
“Wait,” she murmured. “Wait a second…” She rose to her knees, and Scarlet released her slightly as she pushed him back. He felt for certain that she was having second thoughts. But as she was regaining her breath, she showed him her hands. “It might surprise you… but I’m not into bondage much.”
Scarlet glanced at the bonds and hesitated, before looking at her face; he could see a determination in her eyes indicating that she was indeed ready to go all the way, but on the sole condition that he released her. He pondered about the wisdom of such an action. It was a brief consideration.
“I will surprise you even more…” He took his knife from his pocket, opened the blade, and cut through the ropes holding her hands. “I’m not much into it either.” His deed done, he expertly threw the knife in direction of the tree Rainbow was attached to. The Captain followed the trajectory, and saw the blade drive itself into the bark. She nodded her understanding and looked back at Scarlet, putting her arms around his shoulders. “Keeping that knife away from my hands, are you? Don’t you trust me?”
“Not on your life. While it’s out of reach, you won’t be tempted to stick it in my back. I remember that policeman you killed in London. I don’t want to become your next victim.”
“It wasn’t the same situation. The pig tried to rape me.” The young woman pointed to the short scar she had on her cheek. “See this? He did that to me with a knife, because I wasn’t cooperative. I took the knife out of his filthy hands and killed him with it.”
“Maybe he had it coming, then,” Scarlet commented musingly. He glanced down, following her hands as they lowered to his belt and fiddled to undo it. His desire was growing ever more when she grazed his groin. It was as if electricity went through him. She couldn’t but feel his erection through the fabric of the trousers, and she looked into his eyes and smiled up at him.
“As if I would do the same to you…” she whispered.
You might…” He breathed out. “Given the chance.”
Their lips pressed together, and they tongues intertwined hungrily. Scarlet felt the urgency of his desire pushing him to the brink of impatience. His own hands reached for her belt and he unfastened it faster that she had done his; then he swiftly undid the buttons and zip of her trousers and pulled them down, as low as he could considering her position. By then, she had undone the buttons and zip to his own trousers, pushing his fly open to free him from the fabric’s constraint. Their lips parted, as they attempted to regain their breath, and they locked eyes. Scarlet was unable to wait a second more. He rolled her down on her back onto the blanket, eagerly peeling her trousers down to her ankles and pushing her legs open, he immediately lay down on her, resting on his forearms so not to crush her under his weight in his enthusiasm.
There wasn’t much foreplay between them, and he took her almost at once. In fact, he wasn’t sure if it wasn’t actually she who took him, so ready and eager was she to receive him, arching her body hard against his so she could take as much as she could of him, and they shared a common groan of content at this first physical contact. The insistence of their desires was such that they didn’t remove more clothes than was strictly necessary at first, as they made love fiercely. It wasn’t really love-making to be accurate, but rather a mutual consent to assuage their respective needs.
Scarlet couldn’t remember having a woman like this one in his arms for a long time; since he had escaped from jail, he had had a few chance encounters with women, but only a handful of them were of a certain quality, for whom he felt a little more than just a passing attraction. None of them, of course, compared to the fulfilment he had known with his beloved Dianne – and even the other loves of his life before or after his wife had not been able to fill the gaping hole her passing had left in his soul.
This girl was of another calibre. She was clever, beautiful, sexy – and dangerous. And Scarlet wondered if it wasn’t the dangerous aspect of the affair that excited him so. One thing for certain, he couldn’t content himself with just satisfying his needs with this wild coupling, devoid of passionate interaction. He wanted more; he wanted to give her pleasure in ways that no other man had done before.
He slowed his pace, forcing her to do the same, his thrusts now long and languorous, as he took his time to take her to new heights of pleasure. He lowered his head to hers and gently kissed her. He felt her lips part willingly against his as she answered the kiss, and their tongues met again. Keeping his rhythm as he moved in her, his hands started following the curves of her body, pushing the shirt up, fiddling to undo her buttons. She seemed to think it was a good idea, as she started doing the same with his. The contact of her fingers on his bare chest made him shiver and he stroked her skin tenderly, moving up to her breast, while his lips lowered to the hollow of her neck. He heard the low approving moan emitted by her throat in response to his languorous caresses, and more elaborate love-making. She seemed to want more of him; she pushed the shirt of his chest so their naked skins would be in contact and she folded her arms around his shoulders, in an attempt to draw him closer to her still.
Good thing I changed shirt earlier, Scarlet reflected in the back of his mind, lost in bliss of the moment, as, his breath mixing with hers, he continued to move against her, and her hands slithered down his body.
And it suddenly occurred to him; almost at the same instant her hands reached his right side. He felt her shivering between his arms, and it wasn’t as a reaction to their passion.
He realised he had made a mistake.
She knew he had been injured during the showdown with the bandits; she had seen the blood on the right side of his shirt and although he had told her it was only a scratch, she would expect to find something there.
A dressing of some sort… or the injury itself. But she found nothing. He didn’t even flinch when she touched the area where he had been wounded.
Suddenly, the heart wasn’t there anymore and she pushed him away from her with both hands; he leaned on his hands, looking down into her face, which was staring at him with an unbelieving expression. She lowered her eyes, and quickly scanned his side, now revealed to her in the flickering of the fire.
She could see nothing but unblemished flesh.
When her eyes returned to stare at him, horror and shock had replaced her disbelief. He knew instantly what she was thinking. After years of having been careful not to reveal himself, he was now caught – and at the most inopportune of moments.
“Wait, I can explain…”
She pushed him violently, with all of her might. “Get off me, you bastard!”
There was untold anger in her voice and Scarlet quickly left her and knelt by her side; she swiftly moved out of his embrace, getting up in an attempt to get away, but her feet got entangled in her trousers lying in a heap around her ankles, and she fell back to the ground, only a few feet away from him. She turned to him like a wild animal, gathering her shirt around her with one hand, and pointing an accusing finger to him with the other. “You’re a filthy Mysteron!”
The accusation hurt him more than he imagined it would; kneeling there, he looked at her, despondently. “It’s not what you think –”
“It’s exactly what I think!” she lashed out with obvious loathing in her voice. “Now I understand why you want to see Colonel White so much! My God, I let myself be tricked like a fool… How could you?!”
The utter look of revulsion and hurt on her face was even worse to him than any accusation. She picked up her trousers and got up swiftly, turning around as she did. She bumped her toes on some rocks and fell face first, next to the tree where Rainbow was still standing. The horse backed away, snorting and stamping the ground nervously.
Scarlet rose as well, faster than she did; adjusting his trousers, he went to her, in three long strides. “Please, listen to me –”
From her position on the ground, she turned to him – and brandished in his direction the knife he had thrown into the tree earlier. He stepped back, putting himself out of harm’s way.
“Don’t get any closer!” she snarled.
““Now let’s not get too excited,” Scarlet demanded in a soothing voice, presenting his open hands to show he meant no harm.
She got up again and this time, steadied herself. “Aren’t there any depths you alien bastards wouldn’t go to perform your masters’ biddings? Did you have to seduce me as well?”
He scowled. “Now wait just a damn minute! You’re not exactly sinless. You were the one who threw yourself so shamelessly at me! In fact, I wasn’t so sure that you were not trying to seduce me so that I would lower my defences enough for you to get free!”
“How dare you –”
The Captain’s outraged protest was swiftly interrupted by Rainbow who was becoming more and more agitated. He was now pulling on the reins tying him to the tree, and neighing loudly. Scarlet imagined than the horse didn’t appreciate all this action.
“Quiet, Rainbow,” he called sternly, fastening two of his shirt buttons. He was growing cold now, and it wasn’t just from the night temperature. The situation was chilling him as well. He faced the young woman, who was still on her guard. “Please, I’m sorry I said that. But if you would just let me explain –” He took a step forward, and she backed away at his approach.
“Stay away from me!” she lashed, her eyes flashing warningly. “You filthy monster… If you think I will now lead you to Spectrum’s camp you’re deadly mistaken. You come near me, and I’ll kill you!”
Scarlet pointed to the knife. “Put that down – before you hurt yourself.”
She scoffed derisively. “Hurt myself? I’m expert at handling these blades. Or have you forgotten that man I killed in London and that you heard about? You were right earlier, bastard: given the chance, I’ll do the same to you.”
Scarlet shook his head. “That would surprise me very much.” And then, without warning or any hesitation, he walked to her.
The Captain launched forward, trying to hit him with the knife. She was fast, and obviously well trained, and she had not lied saying that she was an expert. But unfortunately for her, Scarlet surpassed her on all accounts. He moved with lightning speed to avoid the blade, and it only drove a hole into the flap of his shirt; at the same time, his hand closed on her wrist and squeezed like a vice. He solidly struck at the same time at her face and shoulder with his elbow, unbalancing her and while he took the knife from her numb fingers, he tripped her, and sent her roughly to the ground, straight underneath him.
The knife now in his hand, he towered over her, in a threatening fashion and she looked up to him with fear in her eyes.
“Now will you please listen to me?” he told her impatiently. “I’m trying to explain to you. I’m not really –”
He was interrupted by the snapping of a twig coming from nearby, and then immediately, an angry shout rang into the darkness: “Hold it right there!”
Scarlet spun around, the voice coming from behind him. Then he heard another voice, younger, more nervous: “Look out! He’s got a knife!”
There was a loud thunder and Scarlet felt the pain in his chest; he stumbled on his feet, his hand clutching on the handle of the knife, and looked down, almost in incomprehension at the large stain now marking his shirt.
He tried to focus his attention on what was exactly happening, but almost right away, there were new shots, ringing out in rapid succession, and more pain as the bullets riddled his body. His vision blurred but he thought he saw, through the growing mist, human silhouettes seemingly coming from the shadows of the night, holding guns that were spitting fire. He fell on his knees, his hand finally letting go of the knife and held on to consciousness long enough to hear the Captain shout an order to cease fire over the crackling of the gun.
Unfortunately, the order came too late and Scarlet fell face first into the dirt, losing his fight against oblivion.
After escaping the military prison, Scarlet headed for the mountains, where he knew he had the best chance of escaping pursuit. His training as a soldier had been dulled somewhat by his long imprisonment, but not enough for him to have forgotten how to erase traces of his passage, so that nobody would be able to find him.
He walked restlessly for the better part of two days, at first ignoring the pain of his muscles, and the tiredness he felt. Away from the mistreatment he had suffered during the last years, and out in the sun, his strength was slowly returning to him, due in good part of his powers of recuperation and the unnatural stamina given to him when he had been Mysteronised more than fifteen years before.
He had been more or less undernourished while in prison, and he knew now that it probably wasn’t only a tactic from his jailers’ to undermine his resistance during interrogation, but also part of Larsen’s own scheme to keep his charge so weak that he wouldn’t figure out he was so close to a Mysteron. Now Scarlet’s stomach was crying out for food. He didn’t dare to use the gun to kill a passing rodent-like creature – from the distance, he wasn’t sure if it was a prairie dog or a hare – because the shot might attract unwanted attention. He didn’t have time to set traps either and wait for one of them to catch something for him, as he wanted to put as much distance as possible between the prison and himself. The only thing he was able to lay his hands on, towards the end of his second day of walking, was a lizard, that carelessly slithered between his feet. He just had time to leap on the small animal and quickly wring its neck before it could even bite or fight for it’s life. He didn’t ask himself if it was edible or not; at this point he figured that anything other than the meagre rations he had been accustomed to in the past years would be a feast worthy of a kind.
It was nearly nightfall on the second day when he stopped walking. He didn’t know his exact position, but at this point, he considered himself far away enough from the complex for him to stop and take a rest. He had not seen any helicopters over-flying the area. The sky, over to the north, was still threateningly dark, and he wondered if the giant black clouds he was seeing weren’t the reason why there wasn’t any craft visible. The inmates had mentioned an attack on Nuclear City and nuclear clouds expanding over the continent. If that was the case, then the authorities had far more important things to concern themselves about than the escape of a few dozen military convicts.
He started a small fire; considering the events, he didn’t think it was unsafe to do so; beside, he was frozen to the bones and needed some warmth to regain the energy he had used up. The lizard he had killed earlier would also probably look more appealing cooked than raw.
He didn’t know exactly when he realised he had been followed, nor for how long exactly, although he was sure that his mysterious shadow had been with him for at least a few hours. The fact that someone had been able to trail him and remain unnoticed for so long bothered him a bit. It was a painful reminder that he needed to hone his skills fast, if he wanted them to return to their former efficiency.
The only comfort he had was that if the person following him – and he was pretty certain it was only one person – had wanted to do him any harm, he would have done so already.
It was about two or three hours after night had fallen and Scarlet was quietly seated close to the heat of his fire, waiting for his lizard to be ready, when he quietly called out to his unseen visitor, who he knew was watching him from the shadow of the bushes behind him:
“You can come out, I know you’re there. Come join me by the fire, you’ll be far more comfortable.”
Scarlet heard some shuffles from as the man left his hiding place. Then he heard the footsteps. The man came to stand in front of him, on the other side of the fire; Scarlet quietly raised his head; it was the big man with the crew cut and the long scar on his neck.. He looked down at Scarlet with an inquiring expression on his face, his eyes bright in the reflection of the fire.
“How d’you know I was there?” he asked in his gravely voice.
Scarlet nodded quietly. “It’s difficult to sneak up on me,” he said. “Not impossible, but difficult. I’ve known for a time that you were following me.” He hid the fact that if he had been his former self, he probably would have realised his presence sooner.
The man narrowed his eyes. “What did you do with that Larsen swine? You killed him?”
“That’s none of your bloody business.” Scarlet was chewing away at the twig between his lips, in an attempt to assuage his hunger. The lizard grilling over the crackling fire was starting to look very mouth-watering.
The big man shrugged dismissively and sat down in front of the fire. “You killed him, then. Not that I care… I’m sure that bastard deserved it.”
Scarlet didn’t need to tell this man what he actually did to Larsen’s body after he had killed him. Decapitating a Mysteron agent was a sure way to make sure he would not pursue him, but even a hardened criminal might find this a little extreme for his taste. So he didn’t reply to the giant’s comment and contented himself with staring at his fire. He wondered if he would have killed Larsen anyway, even if he had not been a Mysteron agent; his desire to take revenge on the man who had tormented him for so long had been so great, that discovering he was a Mysteron seemed like the perfect excuse he was looking for to blow his head off. In a sense, that didn’t make him any better than the other murderers kept in the complex.
For a moment, the giant left Scarlet to his contemplative silence. He was staring with craving at the lizard slowly cooking over the fire.
After a moment, the man finally spoke: “I knew that scum Larsen… I was on level four, just over yours. I heard him talk with the other guards. You had it pretty rough with these bastards, from the sound of it.”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” Scarlet retorted, without looking at his companion.
“I understand. But… they were saying that they could do whatever they wanted to you, ‘cause you were… indestructible. What does it mean?”
Scarlet threw his twig away. He pulled the lizard of the fire and checked how well it was cooked. “It means they could not kill me,” he answered truthfully. “Nobody can.” He considered that there was no use to hide the truth. Not that he expected his companion to understand that he meant that literally, or that he would actually believe him. He heard the man emit a grunt.
“Like they say about those Mysteron guys?”
“Not all Mysteron agents are indestructible. In fact, if you make a little effort about it, you’re pretty much able to kill them. Spectrum believed that if we were able to destroy them, it’s because their masters on Mars somehow ‘disconnected’ them, and left them to their fate.”
“And are you a Mysteron? Like the guys said at the prison?”
Scarlet sighed. “Sometimes, I wonder about that. One thing for certain: if I am one, I’m not your typical Mysteron.” He looked squarely at the man seated quietly by the fire. “For starters, I do not answer to any alien masters. Obviously, when they ‘disconnected’ me, I didn’t die, like their other agents did. Secondly, I do not depend on them for my recuperative powers to work. They are my own. And thirdly…” He grunted disdainfully. “…I do not blow things up and kill innocent people in their name.”
The man shrugged. “It takes something to end up in that dirty prison to begin with…”
“Well, it wasn’t that for me,” Scarlet countered, on the defensive. “Let’s say the guy who asked for my imprisonment was a bit paranoid about suspected Mysteron agents.”
The man chuckled, seemingly amused by the statement. “Well, damn. I really wonder why,” he said, tongue firmly in cheek.
Scarlet couldn’t help but smile. He scrutinised his companion. He obviously was no angel, looked rough at the edges, and he was certainly someone you didn’t want to pick a fight with – not that it would stop Scarlet if the need should arise. There was something obviously dangerous about him, and yet, Scarlet couldn’t help finding him friendly – in an odd sort of way.
“And what about you?” Scarlet asked. “What did it take for you to end up in that high security prison?”
The man shrugged dismissively. “I was a W.A.A.F commando. I killed my superior officer,” he said matter-of-factly.
Scarlet grimaced. Definitely dangerous… “I’m sure he deserved it.”
“Sure did. He was the worst scumbag you could imagine. Probably as bad as Larsen was. He sent my unit to its death, knowing full well we wouldn’t return. Yeah, I know, sometimes, you gotta make sacrifices to win wars, but even then… We’re talking about twenty men… We didn’t even get a fair warning of what awaited us. We had our asses handed to us. I was the only survivor, and it was only by pure dumb luck. That scumbag Weyland…”
“Yeah – you know him?”
“Yes… I was in the W.A.A.F before I…” Scarlet stopped himself. No. He had to remember, it wasn’t him. It was the real Paul Metcalfe, who died so he would be created. “Let’s say it was another lifetime…” he finished.
“Then you might know what kind of man Weyland was. Never saw action, that bastard. Always stayed safely away in his office, sending soldiers to their deaths, like he would push a pawn on a checker board. The bastard… he had the balls to call me a coward. He didn’t repeat it twice.”
“That’s when you killed him.”
“Was only justice, for all the poor devils who died because of him. I gutted him like the pig he was. I don’t regret killing him. I only regret that I didn’t have the time to escape, when the M.P.s came to stop me. I was court-martialled quickly and flown in Arizona.” He grimaced. “Heard they gave Weyland a hero’s funerals. Life’s a bitch, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is.”
The man pointed to Scarlet. “So it’s true you’re a Spectrum officer?”
“No. As I said, I’m not anymore. Seems like a long time ago…”
The giant nodded. “What’s your name?”
The man snorted. “Is that really your name?”
“That’s the only name I have left,” Scarlet replied cryptically.
“Well that certainly sounds like a Spectrum name…”
“Does it really matter?” Scarlet asked in a voice that warned his companion not to insist. “What’s yours?
“Just call me Caine,” the giant answered roughly.
Scarlet raised an eyebrow. “Like the guy in the Bible?”
“Pronounced the same, spelled different: C-A-I-N-E.”
Scarlet chuckled. “And that is your real name?”
“You call yourself ‘Scarlet’ and you ask me that?” the giant asked, snorting again.
“It’s just that the coincidence is somewhat amusing,” Scarlet said. “The man I used to work with when I was in Spectrum. His name was Adam.”
“Your commander?” Caine enquired.
Scarlet shook his head, pensively. “He ended up as my commander, yes.” He grew sombre. “That was just before he…” His voice trailed off. The subject was still a sore one, even after ten years.
“Before he died?” Caine inquired. Scarlet averted his eyes, keeping silent. That was probably what made his companion suspicious: “You killed him?”
Scarlet hesitated. No. He wasn’t prepared to confide this to anyone. Certainly not to an escaped convict. Perhaps never to anyone. He didn’t answer the question directly. “It’s a long story. And a complicated one.”
“Was it why they threw you in jail?”
“They threw me in jail because they thought I was a Mysteron agent. Period. For the rest, I’d rather not speak of it, if you don’t mind.”
Caine shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He gave the faintest of smile. “But it seems to me that you and I have more in common than you might think.”
Scarlet huffed, as he couldn’t see what he could have that much in common with a condemned murderer, but preferred not to answer at all, this time around. He didn’t want a fight. He only wanted to be left alone. But it looked as if he wouldn’t see his wish granted, as he saw Caine settling himself more comfortably. It looked like the giant was preparing himself for the night. That annoyed him.
For a time there was silence, as both watched the fire burning between them. Then, the giant spoke again, with a sober voice: “Y’know what happened exactly, for the prison to be destroyed like that? The rumours I heard afterwards say that the Mysterons blew up Nuclear City, but I don’t know where that came from. You think that’s possible?”
Scarlet nodded. “That was one of their original targets,” he confirmed. “And considering that the destruction was felt over here, I’d say it’s pretty likely. Nuclear City has – or rather had – a nuclear-based energy centre, that went deep underground, with a complex network of conduits running all over the place underneath the city. Nuclear City not only used that for its own electricity, heating and lighting, but also provided the same services to other cities as well, selling the energy for a lucrative profit.” He grew sombre. “Whatever means the Mysteron used for their attack, it must have triggered a chain reaction within the conduits.”
“Which caused the earthquake?”
“Many successive earthquakes, possibly,” Scarlet said, nodding thoughtfully. “Which probably had devastating repercussions on the surface for many hundreds of kilometres around.”
“You know loads about that, Spectrum.”
“We studied the catastrophe scenario of what such a attack would imply, the first time the Mysterons made a threat against Nuclear City. We studied all possible scenarios of various attacks of that amplitude for all their threats.” Scarlet shook his head, despondently. “Nuclear City must have been completely erased from the surface of Earth. The neighbouring lands must be a complete wasteland for a very long distance. I don’t want to think how many people died in that cataclysm, because of the explosion itself and the following quakes. And I don’t want to think of how many will die in the following years, because of the nuclear fallouts.”
“Poor devils,” Caine muttered. “There were lots of dead guys on my level,” Caine commented. “Inmates and guards alike. How about you?”
“I didn’t see anyone. There weren’t many people in Level 5, to begin with. And if there were dead people in the cells I passed by when I got out, I didn’t see them. It was too damn dark.”
“These Mysterons... They sure know how to play hard ball. Bastards.” Caine sighed deeply. “You know, Scarlet – or whatever your real name is – I’m rather glad you’re not a Mysteron.”
“Any particular reason why?” a curious Scarlet inquired.
“My family was from the Bronx… and you know what these bastards from Mars did to New York. If you had been a Mysteron, I would have been forced to kill you. And I would have hated to do that.”
Scarlet narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “And how would you have done that, if I am indestructible?”
Caine snorted derisively. “Yeah, right… Like I’d believe any of that crazy stuff… On the other hand, if that’s true, I guess it means I’d have wasted my time in trying, then…”
Scarlet nodded slowly. “You know, Caine… for a murdering brute, you’re a surprisingly wise man.”
“Should I take that as a compliment?” Caine asked, grinning.
“I think you should yes.” Scarlet paused. “In your best interests.”
Caine guffawed loudly. “I’ll give you that, Spectrum: You sure know how to subtly threaten a guy, and get away with it.”
“I suppose that’s a good thing,” Scarlet commented. “Because I don’t feel like I’d like to fight you.”
“I don’t feel like it either. Not after today.” Caine rubbed his hands over the fire, his eyes fixed on the lizard sizzling above the flames. Scarlet watched him attentively; it was obvious the big man was as famished as himself. “What are you planning to do, now that you’re out of jail?” he asked, returning his attention to Scarlet.
“The hell if I know,” the latter muttered. “I will certainly try to avoid the authorities at any price – or what might be left of them. With what just happened, it’s possible that no-one will bother to come after a few escapees from a military prison…”
“That’s hopeful thoughts, that. But suppose they do come after us, it’s better to get as far away from this place as possible.” Caine waved in a general direction over his shoulder. “The border to Mexico would be that way, if you plan to leave the States, that is.”
“Crossing the border would be the best way to get caught, if someone does come after us,” Scarlet advised. “I would rather go east… Try to find some food and shelter… Avoid roads and people for a while… Make everyone forget about me.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Caine commented quietly. “Mind if we stick together?”
Scarlet raised a brow. “You and I?” he asked dubiously.
“Sure… Why not? We can look after one another.” Caine smirked. “You know, you never know what kind of strange and dangerous people you can find in the wild…”
Scarlet laughed at the comment. He didn’t remember having laughed that way for a very long time. Years, it seemed to him. He considered Caine’s suggestion for a moment, looking at the man pensively.
‘The Mysterons will hunt you down until the end of the war,’ Larsen had told him. He had no trouble imagining that they would indeed reappear in his life in the near future. He needed some time to recuperate. After ten years of imprisonment, he knew it would take him a while to regain his military skills, and to get back in shape. He needed that if he wanted to face what ever challenges lay ahead. He also needed to figure out a way to hone his ‘sixth sense’ so it would become reliable. It goaded him to think that a Mysteron agent had been able to stay so close to him for so many years without him ever figuring it out. If he was able to use his sixth sense more efficiently, these bastards would have more difficulty approaching him.
Considering that, it wasn’t such a bad idea to join forces with someone who would watch his back – while he would do the same for him. Caine was a soldier, a commando, and probably a good one: While it was possible that Clayton Weyland received his command because of his personal background more than earning it through his skills, he had still been at the head of some of the most capable units of the W.A.A.F.
Sighing, Scarlet took his decision. He removed the lizard from the fire. “I don’t have much of this, but maybe you would like a bite? If you have a knife, I can share it.”
Caine grinned and nodded his thanks. His hand disappeared behind his back and after a second, returned with a knife. “Took this from the guards’ kitchen on my way out. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d eat grilled lizard. But I must admit, this looks real good.”
“And I never imagined that one day I would associate myself with a murderer…”
“That makes two of us, then. I never thought I would travel with a Spectrum bastard.” Caine extended his hand to Scarlet to give him the knife, without any hesitation. Scarlet took it, but the giant kept presenting his open hand. “We have a deal, then?”
Scarlet put the knife down and squeezed the offered hand. “For a while. But you try anything funny…”
“Don’t you worry, pal,” Caine interjected. “The day I’ve enough of you, I’ll go my own way. In the meantime, you have my word I won’t kill you during your sleep.”
“Good luck in trying,” Scarlet said with a warning flash in his blue eyes. “And you’d better be sure that in the unlikely event you succeed – I will kill you when I wake up.”
Caine chortled at what he imagined was a tease and agreed to the conditions. He never imagined for one instant that Scarlet was deadly serious. It would take him a few weeks to figure out that his new found companion, the man he would come to call his friend over the following months when they would travel through the war-desolated land, had actually told him the whole truth about himself, and was much more than just an ordinary man.
It was the clip-clop of hooves and the murmur of a surrounding crowd that welcomed Scarlet back to reality. Immediately, he felt like throwing up. His head was hanging upside down, and he felt light and dizzy, at the same time. He realised, after a short moment, that he was lying across a saddle, and that the painful bob he felt was caused by the movement of a horse walking.
He didn’t move. He felt so dizzy, he didn’t have the strength to, anyway. And he could only congratulate himself for keeping still, as he realised there was a multitude of people around him, all talking and asking questions.
“She’s back!” a man was saying. “Thank God, she’s all right!”
“Has somebody told her mother?” the voice of a woman said in turn. “Someone must tell her!”
“Put some more sentries around the camp!” Another voice called sternly. “Looks like they killed a bandit. He might have accomplices around.”
“That’s no bandit – that’s the kidnapper, and he was working alone. Our boys took care of him.”
“Someone, go tell the colonel!”
Scarlet half-opened the eyelid of one eye, very carefully. He recognised the saddle he had been thrown across as his own, and the horse’s coat told him he was on Rainbow. The latter was walking slowly, guided by a young man who was holding his reins and walking by his side. By his slimness, Scarlet recognised the one named Watson, the unpleasant young man he had met in London. Next to him was the blonde woman Scarlet had kept hostage. They were not alone: Scarlet could see other young men and women with them, all guiding their mounts behind them. They were all dressed in the same dark clothing, and were all carrying weapons. They were all walking between rows of people, who were welcoming them back and congratulating them with pats on their shoulders and handshakes, like soldiers returning from battle.
Beyond that crowd, Scarlet could see tents, with campfires burning in front of them.
He realised then that he had been taken to his destination. The Spectres’ camp.
Or rather – Spectrum’s.
Except for the Captain herself and Watson, Scarlet couldn’t recognise any of those who surrounded him. The ‘Spectres’ soldiers, those dressed in dark cloth, looked older, sharper than the boys he had met in London. And obviously they were very good at what they were doing. Scarlet never saw where they came from, and he was rather annoyed with himself for not realising their presence, and that they had been able to catch him unawares like that, before he could defend himself – and almost literally with his pants off. He wondered how long they had been there, watching, and how much they must have seen of what occurred between him and the Captain, before everything went sour.
“The sentries saw you approaching, about an hour ago,” someone said from nearby. “We didn’t quite expect you for a couple of days. So, you caught up with that bastard fast, then?”
“It wasn’t difficult,” replied a well-built soldier, a young man in his late twenties, who wore a red bandana over his hazelnut hair. “He was on his way to come here. Like he told Watson and the others.”
“Get these children away,” the Captain suddenly said in a stern voice. “This isn’t a sight for them.”
The answering call almost made Scarlet shiver on the saddle, but he had the good sense not to react.
He figured he had been out for about four hours. The dawn was breaking, if he was to judge by the feeble light and the red sky he could see still low over the horizon. They had probably walked all night to get to the camp, their arrival waking up everybody. They obviously thought he was dead, from what he was hearing, and for whatever reason, had decided to bring his body along with them. Since the Captain had discovered he was a Mysteron, he imagined that perhaps she hoped to ‘examine’ his body.
To say that he didn’t quite expect to arrive at the Spectres’ camp as a corpse was an understatement, but he hoped that he could perhaps make this work to his advantage – eventually and before they could realise he wasn’t really as dead as they first thought. How exactly, he didn’t have a clue yet.
The cortege finally stopped in front of a large white tent, and the soldiers tied their horses to a wood railing obviously built for that function. The Captain received greetings from nearby residents, and an older woman came to take her hands into hers.
“Welcome back, Dee,” she said with a shaking voice. “We were so worried about you.”
“It’s good to be back,” she answered with a reassuring smile, and her words were like an echo from the past to Scarlet’s ears.
“Are you okay?” the other woman asked in concern. “Did this man mistreat you in any way?”
“No, I’m okay. Just… tired, I guess. I just need some rest.” The Captain paused a second. “Where’s my mother? I presume she already knows I’m back?”
“She’s resting in her tent. Someone was sent to inform her that you were here. She will be so relieved to see you with her own eyes. She hasn’t slept since Watson came back with the news. She was worried sick about you.”
“Well, I’m all right, so I’ll go and reassure her on that.” She glanced over her shoulder to Scarlet. “As soon as I have taken care of some business.”
Watson was finishing to tie up Rainbow to the railing, next to the other mounts, when someone called his name; he raised his head just as a young black man came running to him. Scarlet recognised that one as well: it was Jones, who was also part of the gang he had met in London.
“You brought the captain back!” he said in a joyous voice. “That’s great, Erik! Is she okay?”
“I suppose she is,” Watson replied crossly. “Considering what she might have been doing when we found her…”
“What do you mean?” Jones asked, his brows knitting as he didn’t understand the allusion. Watson shrugged, without answering. “The guy’s dead?” the young black man said then.
“Don’t you see all the blood? We shot him down like the dog he was.”
““Why did you bring him back here?”
“Ask the captain, that’s her brilliant idea,” Watson retorted, in the same grumpy voice.
Scarlet saw a knife shine in the boy’s hand – his knife - and then, it sliced through the ropes that were keeping him in the saddle. He quickly closed his eyelids tight and held his breath.
“Instead of asking stupid questions,” Watson continued, “help me get this dead waste down.” He got hold of Scarlet’s trousers by the waistband, and the latter braced himself, feeling that the moment to act would soon be upon him, when a voice suddenly rang and stopped Watson in his movement:
“I didn’t give any order to unload him, Watson.”
The boy turned around; the blonde captain was approaching and came to stand in front of him. “Leave him there. I’ll have him brought to the medical tent.”
“If you’ll pardon my saying, Captain, I don’t think he’s in any shape to receive medical attention,” Watson replied, with a sarcastic edge to his voice. “Unless you want the doc to perform on autopsy on him… which might be a waste of time, since it’s pretty obvious what this bastard died of.”
“It’s none of your concern what we’ll do with the body, Watson,” she replied waspishly.
“I agree. I’m more interested with his stuff, actually. He doesn’t need it anymore, so we might as well share it between us. I’d very much like to get the horse. It’s a nice horse, much better than the old nag I have, and –”
“The horse isn’t for you,” the Captain cut sharply. “He’d kill you if you tried to get on his back. And leave the guy’s stuff alone. There will be plenty of time to decide what to do with it later. We’re not common thieves, Watson, and we have to be respectful of dead men. Even if they were enemies.”
“Like he was respectful to you?” Watson asked, sarcasm dripping in every word, talking loud enough for the people closest to them to hear him. “I was there, Captain: I saw how you looked, when we found you with him, how little clothes you had on at the time. What happened, did the creep screw you, or –”
He didn’t have time to finish. With irritation, the Captain swiftly punched him in the face so hard that it surprised him and threw him back. He fell straight against Rainbow, who, disturbed, snort loudly and struggled to free himself from the reins holding him down.
Seeing as he had little choice now, and that this moment was as good as any other, Scarlet chose the opportunity to make his move. He let his body slide from the saddle, but didn’t fall to the ground like a sack of potatoes, as the crowd would have expected him to. Instead, he landed on his feet and stood tall, just behind Watson. Jones, who was very close to him, stepped back and gave a gasp of surprise, which found its echo within the crowd surrounding them.
“Look out!” a voice shouted. “He’s alive!”
“He’s a Mysteron!”
There were more clamours coming from the crowd as people suddenly became agitated. Watson never truly understood exactly what was going on, when a strong arm came across his throat and pressed hard, half-choking him. The knife, which he could have used to defend himself with, escaped from his hand. Scarlet used his free arm to relieve the boy of the gun in the holster of his belt, and then roughly threw him down to the ground to get him out of his way. The next second, he was taking aim at the person who was now left straight in front of him.
The Captain herself, glaring at him with the same burning hate he had seen in her eyes the second she had discovered his condition.
Guns were raised all around, and aimed at Scarlet. Behind the Captain, he could see the young man with the red bandana; he had raised his hand, in a gesture that demanded everyone around to hold their fire.
Scarlet stoically cocked the hammer of his newly acquired gun, and aligned it between the Captain’s eyes. “Tell your people to drop their weapons,” he said ominously.
“Or what?” she asked brusquely. “You’ll pull that trigger and kill me? I don’t think you would do that.” She smiled lightly. “You’d lose your precious shield, Mysteron.”
“Don’t call me that,” he snapped. “I swear, if only one of them makes a false move…”
“They won’t,” the man with the bandana replied. “Not before I give the order. And I won’t give it, if it means putting my captain in danger.”
“That’s very wise of you. I do not wish to harm anyone. Least of all, your beloved captain. I just want to see Colonel White.”
The young man looked Scarlet straight in the eyes. “Yes, I already know that. The men you sent back to us gave us the message that you were coming for that.” He added, tetchily: “Did you really expect you could walk in here, with one of our own captive, and expect to see Colonel White?”
“You’re in charge of security?”
“I’m Lieutenant Ian Kelly.” He glanced at the Captain, standing stoically in front of him and nodded at her. “I’m in charge of security only when she’s not around.”
“Lieutenant Kelly.” Scarlet took a deep breath. “I’m sorry if my approach seems a little… unorthodox to you. But this was the only way I could think of that would permit me to talk before you would shoot me.”
“That’s a damned risky way you chose. You’re either very bold, or very naïve.”
“Or absolutely insane,” the Captain added in turn.
“How can you not realise that you’ve set yourself an impossible task, and that you would get killed almost instantly? “ Kelly continued. “And considering that we now know you’re a Mysteron, there’s no way we’re going to let you see Colonel White.”
“I sent a message of my coming so you would know I mean no harm.”
“The message means nothing. I can only judge it for what it probably was: a Mysteron strategy to trick us into lowering our defences. It doesn’t work.”
“That’s the second time you’ve called me a Mysteron,” Scarlet snapped. “I will disregard this.”
“You don’t like it?” the Captain asked, tilting her head to one side.
“I’m not here to hurt Colonel White. I’ve already told you that we know each other. I understand that you and your men want to protect him…”
“Protect him?” Kelly repeated. “You say you know the colonel?”
“You’re lying and that’s obvious.”
Scarlet frowned. Why was everyone accusing him of lying every time he said he knew Colonel White?
“What can I do to prove to you that I am not a Mysteron and that I don’t want to hurt anyone?”
“The evidence is against you,” Kelly replied. “Considering you were dead a few minutes ago, and that you are now standing in front of us, with that shirt-covered with your own blood.”
“You could start by lowering that gun,” the Captain then said. “And stop threatening me with it. I promise, my men will hold their fire.”
Kelly seemed perplexed by the decision. “Captain –”
“I’m calling the shots, Lieutenant,” she interrupted him, not letting Scarlet out of her sight.
“S.I.G.,” Kelly muttered reluctantly.
“What do you say, then?” the Captain added, addressing a hesitant Scarlet again. “A gesture of your good faith is all I want.”
Scarlet grunted. “Now we’re talking about a bold move, lady.”
“You don’t have much choice: either you lower that gun of yours, or you shoot me with it. I don’t think you will shoot, so that leaves you with only one option. And if you want us to give you a chance to talk to us, you will choose that option.”
“So, you’re willing to give me the benefit of the doubt?” he asked suspiciously.
She nodded. “It’s my life I’m bargaining. I don’t think I have a choice either. And… I’m beginning to have some suspicion of who you possibly could be.”
Scarlet blinked; now that was something he didn’t expect to hear from her. “The colonel told you about me.”
The Captain nodded again. “If you’re truly the one I think, yes, he did.” She looked at him in the eyes. “That’s the reason why I brought you here to the camp. I hoped to find out if my suspicions were true.”
Scarlet’s hesitation last a few more seconds; then, slowly, he lowered the hammer of his gun, and aimed it towards the ground. It was an enormous risk he was taking, but he knew the woman was right. When he saw the approval in her eyes, he knew that it was a good decision to trust her.
He nodded in turn. “I should probably have given you my name long ago,” he said quietly. “That could have made things a lot easier between us if –”
Scarlet was unable to finish his sentence as suddenly, something hit him violently over the head from behind; he saw stars, and his finger involuntarily squeezed the trigger of his gun before he fell to his knees; the shot lost itself in the ground, without harming anyone, but it was enough to cause an instant moment of panic within the crowd.
He could see the shocked expression on the Captain’s face before a second blow threw him into the dust, right at Watson’s feet who stood over him, his hand clutching a rock covered with blood.
“Grab him!” he yelled victoriously. “He’s a filthy Mysteron!”
There was a clamour of anger coming from the crowd. Hands seized Scarlet, and pulled his weapon from his hand, as fists and feet kicked him relentlessly. He curled up to protect himself, but couldn’t avoid most of the blows, amidst the total chaos. All he could see were feet, trampling the dusty ground; and all he could hear was angry voices shouting and insulting him. Through it all, he thought he recognised the Captain’s voice, but his mind was too fuzzy to make out what it was she was shouting. He tried to focus, ignoring the pain, trying to built up enough strength to strike one decisive blow the second the opportunity presented itself.
“That’s enough!” the strong voice of Kelly ordered. “Put him on his feet now!”
He made his way towards Scarlet, pushing everyone aside, the Captain following close behind. Two men, who were keeping Scarlet down, pulled him to his feet. He hung between them, barely standing, his head reeling.
“What should we do with him?” he heard a voice shout from the crowd.
“Let’s take him to the lava river!” another voice answered. “We’ll throw him in. No Mysteron could survive that!”
There was some general approval.
“No!” another voice shouted, and Scarlet thought he recognised Watson’s “We can’t risk making that trip. It’s a one-day ride. He might escape us! Let’s build a pyre!”
“Yes, good idea!” Another voice clamoured. “Let’s burn the bastard!”
“Let’s burn him!” A third voice added. “To the pyre!”
New voices raised in approval. Then, in the middle of it all, the Captain’s shout rang out again, and passing by Kelly, she came to stand in front of Scarlet, and glare at the mob with anger: “Listen to me! Stop acting like animals! I will not let you lynch this man!”
“He’s not a man!” someone yelled. “He’s Mysteron scum!”
“Only Colonel White can decide what we’ll do with him!”
“You would let him face the colonel?” Watson asked bitterly. “Would you really take that risk?”
“This is not your decision, soldier!”
“And I don’t think this is yours either, ‘Captain’ – I believe you’re way too involved as far as he’s concerned for you to make a clear decision!” Watson accused her.
Kelly turned to him angrily. “How dare you, you bastard…”
That was the moment Scarlet had waited for; while they were busy arguing amongst them, he had recuperated enough strength to strike back. Over the years, he had learned how to use his speedy metabolism better and he was able to recover faster now than he was previously, when wounded and still conscious. He propped himself against the two men keeping him upright, and sent both of his feet forwards to hit Watson from behind, knocking him against Kelly. Losing their balance, his captors relaxed their hold, and he freed himself. He struck one in the face, and the other in the chest. Then he leapt forward…
… And grabbed the Captain, before she could even move, to hold her from behind, his arm across her throat, in the similar way he had held Watson before. The mob froze, guns appeared, but no one dare shoot.
“Tell them to stay back!” Scarlet snarled into her ear in a stressed voice.
She gasped. “I just did!” she replied, forcing the words out. “Didn’t you hear? I tried to stop them! You’re just making it worse now.”
“It can’t be any worse,” he said. “Tell them to lower their weapons, or I swear, I’ll strangle you!”
She gritted her teeth. “Then what are you waiting for?” she challenged him. “I was wrong about you after all – you’re nothing but a Mysteron! Don’t tell me you have second thoughts about killing me? Or is it that you plan to use me to get at your real target?”
Scarlet understood exactly what she was implying. “I am not here to kill Colonel White,” he protested. “And for the last time, I’m not a bloody Mysteron!”
A loud gunshot resonated in answer, silencing everyone and making them jump.
“No, he’s not!” a shaky but strong voice claimed from beyond the assembled mob.
All eyes turned to where the shot had come from; in front of the large white tent an old woman stood, holding in her frail hands a powerful rifle, smoke emerging from its barrel aimed at the sky. She was short, slightly leaning forwards, and her long hair, completely white, was flowing around a face heavily marked by the years. Scarlet narrowed his eyes at her, wondering who she could be; she was looking directly at him.
“Everybody, calm down!” she demanded in the same authoritarian voice that Scarlet had heard earlier, and in which he detected a heavy accent that was familiar. “And lower your weapons.” She started walking forward, in an unsteady, and yet assured step; the woman who had greeted the Captain earlier was walking by her side, seemingly intended to make sure she would approach safely.
Still keeping hold of the Captain, but relaxing the pressure against her throat, Scarlet watched, in wonderment, as everyone stepped aside from the old woman, literally creating a path in his direction. Most of the mob surrounding him had obeyed her orders and were lowering their weapons – except for Watson and Kelly, who were slowly getting to their feet.
As she passed in front of Kelly, the young man went to her, and started to protest: “Colonel, it might not be a good idea for you to approach this man. He –”
“Lower your weapon, I say,” the old woman repeated with more insistence, putting her hand on the barrel of his gun to push it down.
Scarlet blinked in surprise. Did he just call her ‘Colonel’?
So that was the reason they all assumed he was lying. He always believed he was coming to see Charles Grey – the one he knew as Colonel White. He never imagined the colonel they were all talking about was a woman – a very frail, and very old woman.
Had he made a mistake, then? Maybe these ‘Spectres’ weren’t Spectrum after all; maybe they simply were a band of misfits who just took a liking in emulating some aspect of what they thought Spectrum was all about?
The old woman gave her rifle to Kelly and approached to stand in front of Scarlet; she looked straight into his eyes. In the reflection of a torch planted nearby, Scarlet could see her eyes were old and tired, but at the same time intelligent and determined.
“Would you mind releasing the girl, please?” she asked quietly.
At first, Scarlet hesitated. Then, despite his best judgement, he obeyed the order, and let go of the Captain. She stumbled forward, breathing out with relief.
The old woman looked at the Captain for a moment, with a calm and composed expression on her face.
“Are you all right, D.B.?” she asked her.
The blonde young woman nodded slowly. “I am, Mother.”
Scarlet scowled. Mother?
The old woman smiled at the Captain, and briefly but tenderly stroked her cheek. Something passed in her old eyes, a silent message that both of them would talk, and take comfort in one another later, in private, when there was no one else around them.
Passing by the Captain, the white-haired woman took another step towards Scarlet, who stood there rooted to the spot, watching her edgily.
Alarmed at the proximity between them, the blond woman tried to interpose herself.
“Mother, I don’t think you should come any closer,” the blonde woman told her quickly. “This man could be a Mysteron and…”
“He is no Mysteron,” the white-haired woman replied calmly, looking deep into Scarlet’s eyes, as if she was reaching for his soul. “Now, step aside, please.” Reluctantly the young woman obeyed, her eyes turning to Scarlet to throw warning glances at him. Her mother reached for her cheek to stroke it again. “I am glad to see you are all right and back with us, but I now know you were never in true danger of being harmed.” She turned back to Scarlet, and added with a shaky voice: “… If he had been a Mysteron, he would have killed you already, and used you against me, instead of coming here himself. But I know this man. I know he is not a Mysteron. And I know he would never have hurt you.”
For a second Scarlet stared at the old woman; there was something familiar in this aged face looking so fixedly at him. And that voice… with that accent to it… An accent he had heard before but couldn’t quite place.
And suddenly, he recognised her.
My God… how could I have forgotten? My mind must still be blurry from my recent regeneration and the blows I just received…
“Juliette?” he murmured, looking closely into her face.
The smile she gave him was unmistakable.
“Hello, Paul. It has been a long time…”
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