A Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons story
For 2006 Halloween Challenge
By Chris Bishop
Chapter 1 – Back on Duty
“You’re sending me on an assignment?”
Colonel Blue nodded at Captain Scarlet’s question, as they both walked out of the elevator at the lowest level of the Underground Base. The Spectrum commander had given Scarlet a rapid briefing as they were making their way there, and it was with some bewilderment that the English captain now considered his upcoming mission.
“Let me get this straight… you don’t completely trust me, but you allow me to leave your base – which location must not become known at any cost – and that, after you have revealed all your secrets to me?”
“Not all our secrets, Paul. Far from it. And give me a little credit, please.” After walking down a corridor toward a large door – which, Scarlet reflected, could easily let an SPV pass through it – Blue punched a security code into the keypad. The door slid open in front of the two men. “I do not intend to let you go on your own,” Blue added with a grin.
“You don’t say… You’re assigning me a guardian, then?”
“I’m assigning you a partner.”
Invited by Blue, Scarlet crossed the threshold… and stopped in his tracks as soon as he cleared the doorway, looking around in wonder.
He was inside a huge natural cave, with a rocky, arched ceiling high above their heads, half covered with stalactites, and a smooth man-made concrete floor that led to a large, underground lake. The whole place looked like a hangar, with aircraft lined up on one side – helijets and planes, painted with camouflage colours – and armoured vehicles and speed cars. Moored to docking bays that jutted out into the lake were a number of ships, of different sizes and shapes. Most of them looked like submarines – while the largest of these ships resembled small-sized carriers. There was a helijet on the deck of one of them, with technicians busy folding its rotor blades neatly against one another, and checking that its floats were well clamped to the deck.
“Great Scott…” Scarlet muttered. “This is quite a sight…”
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Blue commented. “Welcome to the Cave, Captain. This is where we store our means of transportation.” He invited Scarlet to follow him towards the carrier with the helijet onboard. “This is also the domain of a very good friend of yours.”
As he said these words, one of the men checking the helijet floats got to his feet and turned to them. Scarlet wasn’t sure he recognised him at first, until the man smiled broadly, jumped from the deck and onto the dock to approach them.
“Captain Grey,” Blue said in welcome. “Is she ready to go?”
“Only waiting for your order, Colonel Blue,” Grey answered. He grabbed Scarlet’s hand before the latter could even react and pumped it vigorously. “Hey Paul! So good to see you again after all these years. You haven’t changed a bit, sport!”
“Brad.” Scarlet responded to the energetic handshake in kind, smiling in turn. “Brad, I nearly didn’t recognise you at first! That look becomes you…”
“It’s just a way for you to say I look much older now,” Grey answered. “Not like you, apparently. Oh, I know all about the jump through time thing. Must be pretty disconcerting, right?” He gave another lively shake of Scarlet’s hand before letting go of it. Scarlet was sure it would take long minutes before the feeling came back to his fingers. “So, it looks like you’re coming back into the game?”
“Apparently. Are you by any chance the person who’s coming with me on this assignment?”
Grey was shaking his head, when a voice came from behind Scarlet in answer to his question: “Captain Grey rarely goes on assignments other than commanding one of our vessels. He will merely take you to your destination, Captain Scarlet. But he will not be the one to go with you on the assignment.” Scarlet turned around to find Captain Black and Lieutenant Brown approaching them. Both men were holding huge rucksacks.
“You will be my partner, Captain Black?” Scarlet asked, lifting a brow, as he took note of the bags.
“Me? I’m just playing delivery boy, Scarlet.” Black gave Blue a large bracelet, which Scarlet examined with interest, noticing it was covered with all kinds of electronic devices. Then Black turned to him again, and tossed his bag towards him; Scarlet caught it with both hands just as it collided with his stomach. “Lieutenant Brown is going with you.”
“Brown?” Scarlet said with obvious surprise. “But…”
“Don’t worry, Paul. The kid’s good.” Black gave an encouraging pat on Scarlet’s shoulder. “I taught him all I know.” He grinned at Scarlet, then left them to follow Grey to the carrier behind them. Scarlet exchanged glares with Brown and held his stare in silence. Then, responding to a call from Black, the young man briefly nodded his salutations to Blue, and jogged to join his mentor who was climbing on deck. Scarlet followed him with his eyes.
“Brown?” Scarlet repeated, addressing Blue. “Adam, you can’t be serious… he’s just a kid…”
“Don’t let his age fool you, Captain,” Blue answered. “Black didn’t lie: the kid is good.”
“Still very young…”
“You were very young too, when you had your first mission with the WAAF, weren’t you?”
“Not that young… You really expect him to…‘keep his eye on me’?”
“Did I say he had to keep his eye on you?”
“Not in so many words… but yes.”
“I’m actually assigning him to assist you. He’s good – but he needs experience.”
“Oh sure. You’re a pitiful liar. Besides, the kid hates me.”
“No… he doesn’t hate you. He’s just distrustful of you. Don’t worry, he won’t shoot you in the back at the first move he might find suspicious. Chip is quite efficient in his work. He’ll do fine.” Blue seemed to find this conversation somehow amusing. Which didn’t please Scarlet at all; he didn’t like anyone having fun at his expense – even if he was a friend.
“I’m not worried,” Scarlet retorted, putting the bag down. “But maybe you should be worried for your man – and for this mission. What if I’m really not to be trusted?”
“I’ll take that risk.”
Scarlet frowned. “Colonel… that thing you want Brown and me to search for in Cloudbase’s wreckage...”
“The Quantum Transmitter.”
“Yes. The same thing that was used to trigger the bomb that destroyed Futura City… fifteen years ago…”
“And that sent you to this time. Similar, yes.”
“It’s important, then?”
“Quite frankly, I don’t know exactly how important it might be. But I’d rather not wait any longer to find out.”
“But you’ve waited all these years already. Why the rush now?”
“Because…” Blue sighed. “We didn’t know it might be of importance, until fairly recently. Apparently, the World Government thinks it’s important enough to have sent many expeditions to the Himalayas, over the years, in order to find it.”
“But they didn’t find it?”
Blue grunted. “According to Green, the few men who returned did so empty-handed. Most of them… did not return at all.” He paused. “Cloudbase crashed in a particularly treacherous area. Anything could have happened to these expeditions – from falling into a crevice to being swallowed by a snowstorm or an avalanche – or even encountering bandits, who reportedly are common to the area. That’s why I need you to go there. I know that if anyone can succeed in such a mission, it’s you.”
“Your confidence is really touching, Colonel.”
Blue chuckled. “It’s because I know you.” He presented to Scarlet the bracelet Black had given him minutes earlier. “Here. Put this on. It will be helpful to you.”
“What is it, exactly?” Scarlet asked, as he took the bracelet.
“Various instruments you will need. There’s a radio communicator in there, a tracker and emergency signal, electronic maps and compass, chronometer, short-range radar… Mysteron detector…”
“Mysteron detector?” Scarlet asked with a raised brow.
“We’re a long way from that ‘Polaroid-like’ device we had fifteen years ago,” Blue noted with a faint smile. “And from that back-breaking Mysteron gun too… Our instruments are more sophisticated now. Oh, the Mysteron gun still uses electrons, like the old one – except now it’s handgun-sized.”
“Let me guess – Brown will be carrying one during this assignment?” Scarlet asked, frowning.
“You will be too, don’t worry. Just in case. Do remember that you were not around these last fifteen years, and that therefore, we didn’t need to restrict the availability of the Mysteron gun for your safety anymore … In case it might fall into Mysteron hands and be used against you. It’s standard equipment now.”
“Of course. How silly of me.”
“If the Mysteron gun is using the same technology as fifteen years ago, it’s not the same for the Mysteron detector. We’ve found new ways to detect Mysteron agents now...” Blue pointed to the bracelet Scarlet was strapping around his wrist. “I had this one especially designed for you – to take into account your unique metabolic signature, so it won’t go off whenever you turn it on. As we learned from Doctor Fawn… it’s slightly different from that of a ‘real’ Mysteron.”
“Still good to hear that.” As Scarlet closed the last catch on the bracelet, he heard a beeping sound coming from it, and looked down, to see a small screen coming to life. The word ‘activated’ appeared in red letters onto the screen, and he turned an inquiring look at Blue, wondering what it meant. The latter was watching him gravely.
“Remember the Scarab Protocol?” Blue asked with a quiet tone.
Scarlet blanched. “Oh no…” He glanced down with an incredulous look at the bracelet, then back at Blue. “You had a bomb planted in this thing?!”
“Nothing you should worry about if you are on the level, I can assure you. But if I were you, I wouldn’t try to remove that bracelet.”
“Oh, that’s precious!” Scarlet fumed. “What a friend you are, Colonel!”
“Give me a break, will you?” Blue suddenly cut in sharply, before Scarlet could protest further. “If you were in my place, and confronted with the uncertainty your sudden reappearance represents, what would you do?”
“I…” Scarlet hesitated. Quite frankly, he didn’t know what to say. Blue wasn’t really wrong. He couldn’t take too many chances with such an uncertain situation. He angrily pointed to the bracelet. “You should at least have told me before I put this on!”
“And what? You would have agreed to snap it around your wrist willingly?” Blue ignored the annoyed – nearly murderous - look Scarlet addressed him, and shrugged almost dismissively. “At least I told you about it. But as I said: if you are on the level, you don’t have anything to worry about. We’ll have it removed after your return from your assignment.”
“Small comfort,” Scarlet muttered. He took his rucksack and followed, as Blue was now walking toward the carrier. “You said I would have a sidearm for this mission?”
“It’s waiting for you onboard.” Blue stopped in front of the carrier. “Beautiful, isn’t it? This is Sea Turtle One. We have five of these ships. Submersible carriers. They are unique in the world.”
“Submersible?” Scarlet asked. He was indeed impressed.
“Yes… the only accesses in and out of the Cave are underwater. That way, we are able to avoid detection from above ground. Oh, like all our means of transportation, the subs are equipped with stealth capability. Once it’s turned on, they are totally invisible to sonar and radar.”
Scarlet nodded his understanding. “If they’re submersible… How about the craft they carry? Surely, they can’t go underwater…”
As he said those words, he heard a humming sound. Then, before his eyes, he saw the deck supporting the helijet slowly lowering itself into the ship, while a shield made of multiple metallic plates started moving over to cover the gap, gradually forming a rounded bulge over the deck. Scarlet watched in fascination, as Blue grinned at him.
“Does that answer your question? That’s why it’s called ‘Sea Turtle’.”
“I see why you chose the name. But… it looks more like an armadillo…”
“Don’t say that to Brad – it’s he who chose that name, actually. Anyway, it’s quite appropriate.”
“Sea turtle? Doesn’t it imply that it’s a bit on the slow side?”
“Quite the contrary. Brad explained to me that if sea turtles are slow on land, it’s certainly not the case in the ocean. They can travel great distances – and at amazing speeds. Which is the case for our vessels, too. They’re the latest in supersonic, yet sound-proof, undersea technology…”
“The latest…?” Scarlet asked with a raised brow. “What did you do – steal it from the World Navy?”
“The WASP, actually…” Blue’s honest answer made Scarlet chuckle, almost despite himself. “Hey, since our humble beginnings, after the destruction of Cloudbase, we’ve had to be content with second-hand – I would say even third-hand – equipment. So today I do not have any scruples in actually calling on industrial espionage - not to mention other methods – to get this organisation working as efficiently as possible. Especially if it means saving lives.”
“It does help to have millions of dollars at your disposal too…”
“It does indeed.” Blue paused again. “Are you ready?”
“As ready as I can be. And I promise you, I’ll return.” Scarlet showed his bracelet, glaring meaningfully at Blue. “If only to have you swallow this thing.”
“Threatening a superior officer is not a good way to win his trust, Captain.”
“I haven’t officially signed up to your set-up… Colonel.” Scarlet watched as the shield of the Sea Turtle finally snapped into place with a loud clang. “But I’m willing to lend a hand – if it doesn’t mean losing it in the process,” he added in an undertone.
“I knew I could count on you.” Blue walked up the gangway leading to the carrier, and Scarlet followed. Captain Grey was waiting for them, standing on what little was left of the visible deck; some distance from Grey, they could see Captain Black with Lieutenant Brown, just in front of the entrance of the submersible, obviously giving the young man his last instructions. Brown nodded in silence at what Black told him, before disappearing inside, after a last handshake with his superior.
“Captain Grey will take you within flying distance of your destination,” Blue explained. “Once there, the Sea Turtle will surface… and you’ll use the helijet to reach the objective. The approximate location is marked on the map within the bracelet. Sorry, that’s the best we could come up with.” He pointed to the rucksack. “You have your personal equipment in there, and the rest is in the helijet, along with the rations you’ll need for the duration of your journey. You will have three days to find Cloudbase, search the wreckage and retrieve what we need…”
“If there’s anything to be found and retrieved to begin with,” Scarlet commented.
“I know it’s a possibility you might not find anything at all.”
“If you should encounter any trouble, activate the emergency signal,” Grey said in turn. “The Sea Turtle will be within range and we’ll do all in our power to send a retrieving team… That is, if you can’t make it back by yourself.”
“Much obliged, Grey,” Scarlet said in a rather gloomy tone. “Let’s just hope the kid and I will not find ourselves in the statistics.” He moved towards the entrance to the sub, passing in front of Blue, and then Black. The latter raised his hand and put it on his compatriot’s shoulder, stopping his advance.
“Paul…” Scarlet turned to Black, with an inquiring look. Black glanced through the entrance, and down the ladder that Brown had climbed down, just a few minutes before. “Take care of the boy, will you?”
Scarlet hesitated; he could hear a genuine concern in Black’s voice. He considered his answer, for a second or two. “If Junior is half as reckless as his father was…”
“Unfortunately, he is,” Black commented, with a slight smile.
“Then I’ll have my hands full.” Scarlet nodded. “But I promise: I’ll keep a close eye on him – and will do my very best to keep him safe.”
Black nodded his thanks, and Scarlet turned for the last time to Blue, as he stood just inside the doorway.
“Do be careful out there,” the Spectrum commander recommended. “And remember your promise to come back.”
“Oh, I will…” Scarlet grinned. “There’s still a lot more I want to know about this world…”
“I’m not sure you want to know everything,” Blue said in a sombre tone, shaking his head. “But… I will tell you all you want to know…. Ah… within reason, or course.”
“Of course.” Scarlet backed into the entrance, just over the ladder. “See you later, Colonel.”
And he disappeared down into the submersible carrier.
Chapter 2 – White Snows
“We’ll be reaching our launch site in a few minutes.”
Straight after leaving the Cave, the Sea Turtle had set a course south, and had travelled full speed all evening and night, and the rest of the next day undersea, avoiding the World Navy patrols all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. It rounded Cape Aghulas and then sailed into the Indian Ocean in record time, pushing its engines to their maximum capacity – without encountering any challenge. It was only within the Bay of Bengal, off the shores of Bangladesh, that the carrier surfaced, in the middle of the night, keeping all lights and communications off, and in full stealth mode. Time being of the essence, the helijet was quickly prepared, and, its flight plan being already drawn and completed with the last needed details, both Scarlet and Brown climbed aboard, with their required equipment and took off without delay.
The silent and invisible craft flew across Bangladesh, and then over a small region of India and Nepal. As Captain Grey had explained, before they had left the carrier, the Asian Republic wasn’t as hostile towards Spectrum as the World Government had proven to be in the last few years. They mostly ignored the outlawed organisation’s activities – and even if its presence did become known to them on their territory, they would often look the other way. However, Spectrum couldn’t always count on that fact, as, in order to keep a relatively good relationship with the World Government – a relationship that had been deteriorating over the last few years - the Asian Republic might, from time to time, make a gesture to ‘apprehend the dangerous criminals’ that set foot on their territory and fell under their jurisdiction. Grey was just hoping that, these days, the government led by the Asian Director General was in a good mood…
It probably was, as Scarlet and Brown didn’t encounter any major problem during their flight, and soon found themselves approaching their objective.
Before reaching the area they had to search, they made a landing on a safe, uninhabited plateau, to take the time to rest a little, eat, and to refill the craft with fuel transported in jerricans kept in the cargo bay. Then, after a few hours’ rest, they took flight again, and reached the search area, where they started looking around without delay. Brown was flying the helijet, and Scarlet served as co-pilot, consulting the onboard map, and comparing it with the information he had received of the approximate location where Cloudbase had crashed, years ago. Their landing point, where they had to set up camp, was to be positioned in the middle of the search area, to facilitate their mission.
Scarlet looked down through the cockpit windshield, and pointed to the snowy high valley bordered by menacing peaks, and almost entirely hidden by clouds heavy with snow. It seemed to be just below their feet, but in reality, it was still a few miles ahead.
“Over there,” he said to Brown. “That should be the valley where Cloudbase crashed.”
Brown looked in turn and nodded. “I see it. Colonel Blue told me that, according to the locals, this area is considered evil – haunted… or inhabited by demons.”
“The yeti, perhaps?” Scarlet suggested, obviously unimpressed by the statement.
“The name was mentioned…” Brown conceded.
“I don’t believe in indigenous myths, Lieutenant. This is a dangerous area – see how treacherous the topography looks. People bold enough to venture in there might have paid for their audacity with their lives…” Scarlet grinned. “And when they didn’t return, rumours were that the yeti ate them…”
Brown shrugged. “You think that’s what happened to those expeditions the World Government sent to find Cloudbase?”
Scarlet didn’t answer, his eyes were scanning the area as the helijet drew closer to it. The winds had became stronger, and were crossing over, threatening to push the craft off its course. Scarlet couldn’t help but marvel at how expertly the young man was handling the controls.
“You’re a natural flyer, Lieutenant,” Scarlet said with an admiring nod. “You obviously take after your father.”
“Colonel Blue taught me everything I know about flying,” Brown admitted. “He told me that my father was nearly as good as he was himself…”
“And your father always said that Colonel Blue was almost as good as he was,” Scarlet chuckled.
“Really? The colonel never told me that…”
“Did he tell you about the time your father flew between Cloudbase control tower’s pylons?”
“No… He did that?”
“Remind me to tell you the story when we have the time. It’s worth hearing. Of course, you had to have seen the control tower to realise how reckless such a feat was at the time…” Scarlet pointed down toward the valley. “Can you get us down through those clouds? According to the instruments, it should be calmer below…”
“I’ll try my best…”
Brown pushed the controls and the helijet plunged into the puffy clouds; Scarlet’s admiration of the young pilot’s skills grew as he watched him using the winds themselves to manoeuvre the craft down where he wanted it, smoothly and effortlessly. Within seconds, the craft emerged beneath the clouds and over the valley below. They could see the ground now; it was very uneven, covered with a thick layer of snow, blasted by the strong winds, through which emerged the peaks of dangerous-looking rocks.
Scarlet grimaced as he looked around with his binoculars, trying to find their quarry. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t find anything in this treacherous landscape. Not even a safe place to land the helijet. There was no way to tell if the ground was suitable for landing under all that snow. For all he knew, the craft would sink down up to its rotor blades or fall into a hidden crevice, if they were not careful enough.
“This is not going to be a piece of cake,” he muttered under his breath.
“In the meantime, we have to land shortly, Captain,” Brown remarked pointedly. “We are flying on our reserves right now, and we should really fill her up, before we do the same as Cloudbase and crash here. Which won’t help with this mission.”
“Right…” Scarlet scanned the area for a few minutes more, then stopped on a specific point ahead of them. He lowered the binoculars and pointed forward. “One o’clock, nearly straight ahead,” he said to Brown. “There’s a large ledge which seems even enough to land the bird. Plus, it would be a perfect vantage point – and it’s almost right in the middle of the search zone.”
Brown narrowed his eyes in the direction Scarlet was pointing. There was indeed an outcrop over there just on the side of a cliff, sheltered from the high winds which were sweeping the peak overhead. It did look like a safe place. “I see it… here’s hoping that the ground underneath all that snow is solid enough to hold the helijet’s weight. Let’s go.”
He tenaciously pushed the helijet forward. Scarlet was looking ahead, towards their destination, when suddenly his bracelet began to emit an insistent beeping noise. He froze, a little wary of what it might be – he had not forgotten the bomb that Blue had revealed was installed in the bracelet. He looked down at it, to see that a little screen had lit up with a small red dot blinking nearly in the middle of it.
“Hold it… what is that?”
“Ground scan,” Brown explained. “Seems your instruments have picked up something, Captain. Might be some life-form, heat… or some kind of power source.”
“Cloudbase?” Scarlet suggested.
“Perhaps… But somehow I doubt it. It would not be working after the crash, right? Certainly not after so many years.”
“I think the same. And I can’t imagine we would find it so easily… Not after so many World Government search expeditions have been unsuccessful in the last fifteen years… And we’ve been here, what, three hours at the most?”
Brown was concentrating on handling the controls, bringing the helijet down as gently as he could on their chosen lading site; until the floats touched down he had very little time to pay much attention to the beeping sound coming from Scarlet’s instruments. The English captain, however, couldn’t detach his eyes from the small blinking red light. He was chewing on his lower lip, trying to figure out what it could be exactly.
“Strange,” he murmured, “but it seems to be heading in our direction.”
“That’s not pos…” Brown stopped himself, just as, from his onboard instruments, a much louder and more urgent signal than the one from Scarlet’s bracelet made itself heard; he knew what that sound was, but nevertheless looked down at the panel in front of him in alarm. “We’re under attack! Something’s coming straight at us!”
Scarlet swore, and rolled his eyes at the realisation of what his bracelet had actually picked up.
Heat source indeed…
“Bail out!” he shouted, as he pressed the panic button to undo his safety belt. That was an unnecessary recommendation, as Brown was unfastening his own belt, then he reached for the bag of instruments stacked behind his seat. Scarlet grabbed their two rucksacks and kicked open the cockpit door. Both men jumped feet first into the snow, and made a run for it, getting as far away as possible from the helijet.
Scarlet actually heard the sound of the missile before he saw it coming, trailing a long tail of white smoke behind it. It passed right over their heads, heading to the helijet behind them. They were still too close and Scarlet, in desperation, pushed Brown down the slope as they reached the edge of the ledge, jumping after him. Both men fell into the thick snow and slid down the slope, their loads escaping them as they went bowling down the steep incline with increasing speed.
They were barely halfway down the slope when the missile hit its target and exploded in a ball of fire that completely destroyed the helijet, sending pieces of metal, snow and rocks all over the place – causing a small avalanche that fell down the side of the mountain, chasing after the two men.
That they managed to escape the threatening rain was like a miracle and when they finally were able to stop themselves from rolling down the slope, both men looked up in disbelief at what was left of their craft –burning like a bonfire on top of what was left of the ledge.
“Okay,” Scarlet gasped, forcing himself to regain a normal breathing rate. “It does look like we won’t be able to make it back on our own, after all…”
“Who could have been shooting at us?” Brown said, gasping as well. “The World Government? The Asian Republic? None of them’s supposed to know we’re here.” He addressed a meaningful glare at Scarlet, but the latter feigned ignorance of the underlying suspicion he detected in the young man’s attitude. He had no time to deal with such fancies.
“Don’t ask me, I’m the newbie in your time,” he said with a snort, getting to his feet with difficulty. He grimaced as he fully straightened up and reached for his back. He had probably pulled a muscle. Fortunately, it would take no time for his retrometabolism to heal that. He glanced at Brown who was standing too, shaking his legs and patting the snow off his clothes. “Nothing broken?”
“Not as far as I can see, no…”
Scarlet nodded his satisfaction. “Well, whoever used us as target practice is not very far away from us…”
“How can you say?”
Scarlet pointed to the sky; they could still see remnants of the smoke trail that had followed the missile. Scarlet’s finger traced the trail, going beyond their position and straight ahead of them; the tail went over a ridge, a short distance from where they were standing, and seemed to continue beyond it.
“Despite our rather hasty retreat, I did see that it looked like a small, short-range projectile,” Scarlet explained. “Like it was from a rocket launcher, hand-held weapon. Did you notice its erratic flight trajectory? It wasn’t shot straight at us, but was probably equipped with a heat-seeking warhead…”
“You’re sure?” a doubtful Brown asked.
“Positive. I was Cloudbase’s weapons expert. We had something VERY similar in our armoury back then.”
“Are you saying someone was waiting for us?”
Scarlet shrugged. “I’m saying that whoever tried to shoot us down probably saw us arrive the minute we emerged from the clouds…”
“You mean we might still be being watched as we speak?”
Scarlet grunted. “I doubt it – those people must be over that ridge – which would be blocking us from their view.”
“And vice-versa…” Brown mumbled, looking in direction of the ridge.
“Unless they’re hidden somewhere between the rocks…”
Scarlet took his binoculars, which were still hanging from his neck and checked the ridge carefully. The inbuilt computerised instruments within the binoculars also told him the distance separating them from it. Five kilometres…
“I can’t see anyone in view,” he reported, lowering the binoculars. “What would you say if we go over there and ask our welcoming committee who they are, exactly?”
Brown approved with a nod. “Sounds like a good idea… I’ll follow your lead.”
Scarlet raised a brow. “Do you trust me, Lieutenant?”
“I’ve been told to do so within reason, Captain,” Brown answered truthfully. “If I were to kill you without a good motive, I’ll have hell to pay with the Colonel.”
Scarlet grinned. “I knew there was a reason why I liked Adam so much…” He thumped Brown’s shoulder. “Come on… Let us see who’s over there and why they seem to dislike us so much.”
After checking that the material they had saved when they escaped the exploding helijet hadn’t suffered any damage that would hinder their mission, Scarlet and Brown started walking toward the ridge, silently and very carefully. While the uneven ground and deep snow made their progress extremely difficult, it also had the advantage to give them enough cover to approach their objective, without risking being seen by whoever had taken their craft as a target. As far as they knew, their enemy, after seeing the helijet explode, could very well have assumed that they had perished. If it was the case, neither Scarlet nor Brown had any intention of showing them they were wrong in their assumption – and maybe there was still a chance to surprise them.
It took the two men far more time than they expected to reach the ridge, because of the roughness of the terrain and the fact that they did not exactly follow a straight line to get there. Brown discovered an easy enough route to get over the ridge and to the other side – a gap in the rocky and icy side of the mountain. After they had checked that no-one was guarding that way in, they walked purposefully through it.
Scarlet was looking around, a little edgy. Since the destruction of the helijet, he hadn’t seen a single trace of life anywhere. No footprints, no forgotten item left by whoever had fired at them… No-one about. It was as if the place was totally devoid of life – human or otherwise – apart from themselves.
As if this place is indeed haunted…like the natives say.
Except ghosts didn’t fire missiles.
As they carefully cleared the last rocks hiding the view of whatever was on the other side of the rocky wall, both Scarlet and Brown suddenly stopped in their tracks – and stood there, staring in bewilderment, at the spectacle offered to their eyes. Almost despite himself, Scarlet felt a twinge of pain stab into his heart. He never thought that such a sight would grieve him that way.
Cloudbase was lying there, like a giant dragonfly, her back broken against the rocky and uneven surface of a narrow valley, half covered with deep snow that had accumulated over it during the passing years, and which served as a cover, hiding her completely from anyone who would have been searching for her from the sky. Of the four sets of two nacelles containing the fans and stabilisers that originally kept the base hovering many miles over the surface of the Earth, only one was still attached to the main body, and another was still only visible, lying far away from there, broken in two parts. The other two sets had completely disappeared, as if torn apart by the hand of a gigantic, destructive child. The giant pylons were no more, and the control tower was nothing but an almost indistinct heap of junk, a broken disc, fallen on its side. Only the first part of the word ‘SPECTRUM’ was still visible, the paint faded and covered with snow, the second part looking as if it had been driven forcefully into the ground.
The main body had at least three major fractures – at least as far as Scarlet could see, considering the amount of snow covering it. Through the biggest of them, he could see the multiple layers of floors. There were burn marks – probably caused by massive fires and explosions. By the look of it, if Cloudbase had been inhabited when it crashed, nobody would have survived.
As he looked at what remained of the once mighty and proud base, his home for many years, Scarlet couldn’t help a feeling of deep loss and sorrow clutching at his mind and heart.
“That’s… an impressive sight,” he heard the voice of Brown say, as if through a deep mist.
“That’s a heartbreaking sight,” Scarlet sighed in answer. “There’s nothing but desolation.”
Brown heard the sadness in Scarlet’s voice, and suddenly felt a little inadequate. “I… I mean… this is huge. That thing… really hovered 40,000 feet above the surface?”
“Yeah…” Scarlet said with a tired nod. “It could at that…” For him, it was only a few days before that he was strolling down the corridors of Cloudbase. To think it crashed nearly fifteen years ago, he pondered, still with bewilderment. I will never get used to it… But if he still had any lingering doubt about the truthfulness of his situation… he had the proof there, right in front of his eyes.
It is very well hidden in this valley, he mused, looking around at the high peaks surrounding the valley, and casting their shadow upon Cloudbase. If it wasn’t for that rocket that hit our helijet – and the trajectory we were able to track down – we would never have found it…
The voice of Lieutenant Brown pulled Scarlet out of his fugue and he turned an inquiring look to the young man. Somewhat agitated, the latter pointed towards a precise point, just at the foot of the fallen Control Tower. Scarlet narrowed his eyes, struggling to see against the almost blinding whiteness of the snow. He saw then, just beneath the huge black letter ‘T’ of what remained of the name ‘Spectrum’ what seemed to have impressed Brown that much. He opened his eyes wide.
Skulls – human skulls – thoroughly cleaned and bleached by the sun – were planted on wooden pikes just next to what was left of the tower. Ten of them – no, eight, Scarlet counted – neatly aligned to form some kind of barrier directly in line with the large opening ripped into the hull of Cloudbase, metres behind them.
The first moment of surprise passed, both Scarlet and Brown approached, guns drawn, and looked around carefully.
“So…” Scarlet muttered, “it looks like we now know what happened to the members of those expeditions the World Government sent to find Cloudbase.”
“And you were joking about the yeti having eaten them,” grumbled Brown. “Maybe you were partly right… who could have done that to them?”
“Someone who doesn’t want anyone coming here…” Scarlet noted. “Someone who left that… ‘warning’ to scare off unwanted visitors.”
“The same someone who shot our helijet with that missile, Captain?”
“Seems very likely, Lieutenant.”
“Whoever it is, they must be mad to plant those human skulls here like that.”
“And potentially dangerous,” Scarlet acknowledged, quickly scanning the area with his eyes. “And certainly around.” He looked in the direction of Cloudbase’s wreckage, resting silently there – the large rip taunting him. It was large enough to walk right through it. “Be careful where you put your feet, Lieutenant. I’m sure they’re watching us from somewhere… Waiting to fall on us like birds of prey…”
“S.I.G…” the younger man murmured.
Brown was walking around, inspecting the area with his eyes, his gun still in his hand; Scarlet turned towards his companion, in order to give him further instructions when his eye caught something… just at the young man’s feet.
“Brown! Step back! It’s…”
Too late the warning came, even though Brown stopped dead in his tracks upon hearing it. He heard a whistling sound coming right at his feet and lowered his gaze quickly. He barely saw the net that had been hidden under the light snow as it swiftly rose from the ground around him, and imprisoned him tightly. He yelped in surprise as he was swept off his feet, and taken into the air.
Scarlet had watched in dismay as his young companion had fallen into the carefully laid trap. Now Brown was dangling about six feet up from the ground, feet over head, totally and tightly enveloped in a crude, wide-meshed net that had obviously been made by hand with scraps of whatever kind of fabric had been lying around. Scarlet moved quickly to grab the net as it swung wildly round, threatening to bang its contents against the side of the destroyed control tower. He scanned it closely as he stopped it in mid-movement, noticing how it was now securely sealed at the top by a strong loop of rope, the other end of which was tied up to a long piece of flexible, but obviously strong, metallic rod. It probably had been bent down to ground level, and a mechanism had made it recoil suddenly, probably triggered by Brown’s weight on the net.
“You okay, Brown?” Scarlet asked in concern. At first sight, the young man didn’t seem badly hurt – perhaps shaken, more than anything else.
“Yes,” gasped Brown, his fingers clutching through the mesh. “Just… feeling a bit stupid, hanging like a caught fish…”
“Hang on,” Scarlet said, smiling despite himself. “I’ll get you down in…”
He was interrupted as his ears heard another whistling sound – but this time, different from the first one. He saw something coming quickly at him, a split second before it thudded violently against his shoulder and embedded itself deep into his flesh, at the same time driving him to the ground. He gave a brief cry of pain as he fell onto his back, stars dancing in front of his eyes, his fingers letting go of his gun, and his hand instinctively reaching for whatever was protruding from his shoulder.
“Captain!” Brown roared in apprehension from the net imprisoning him.
Scarlet swiftly got to his knees, his fingers closing around the projectile that had hit him. An arrow… he realised, befuddled. What a strange array of weapons their enemies were using, both high technology and primitive at the same time… He tore the arrow from his shoulder, grimacing at the pain.
A new whistling sound… and another arrow came to plant itself in the snow, just in front of his hand. Quickly, Scarlet raised his eyes to the direction it came from, and caught sight of a dark silhouette standing just over the top of Cloudbase’s wrecked hull. That silhouette was obviously holding something that looked like a crossbow – and was aiming it straight at him yet again.
Scarlet jumped behind the wreck of the control tower, just as the new projectile was released. He felt the shaft grazing his arm as he reached his cover.
“Captain!” Brown called again from where he was dangling, seeing his superior officer in danger. He struggled to free himself, but with no avail.
“Stay where you are, Chip!” Scarlet called from his hiding place. The kid was safe as long as he stayed inside his net. Obviously, whoever was shooting arrows at him right now considered him a more immediate danger. Once he had dealt with him – he would turn his attention to Brown.
Well, I’ve no intention of letting him do any harm to the kid…
Scarlet made a quick check of the shooter’s position. He saw him move atop his perch, to get to another spot quickly. Scarlet could see no other movement. One man alone… he realised. There was obviously only one man attacking them, and he seemed determined to kill them both.
The man disappeared from view, and Scarlet gauged the distance separating him from the huge gap in Cloudbase’s side; probably, he would be able to surprise his opponent from behind if he could enter the base. He looked around for his gun, but couldn’t find it – it obviously had been swallowed by the surrounding snow. So… he’d have to make do without it, then. He crawled a short distance behind a heap of snow and then got to his feet, to make a run towards the wreck that was Cloudbase, and the gash in its hull.
He saw his adversary briefly appear again atop the wreckage to swiftly release a new shaft in his direction. It hit Scarlet in the right thigh and with a groan of pain, the Englishman leapt the remaining distance separating him from the large gash. He landed roughly on snow-covered ground, grunting.
Whoever that guy is – whatever side he’s on – he’s certainly a good shot…
He heard footsteps echoing from above, and realised that his adversary was coming down for him. If he stayed there, he would be an easy target. Swiftly, Scarlet pushed himself to his feet, his teeth clenched against the throbbing in his leg. He limped, almost falling, far away from the opening and deeper under the wreckage. There were tears and splits everywhere, leading off from these devastated rooms, and half-crushed corridors with torn-out doors could be seen, and Scarlet realised that his enemy could appear from anywhere to kill him. He certainly knew the labyrinth that Cloudbase had become much better than Scarlet did himself.
He stopped when he realised the footsteps were approaching his position. He listened carefully, trying to figure out where it was coming from exactly. From that half-destroyed corridor on the left, apparently… Scarlet chewed his lip, and looked around. Ahead, the large rip ran deep into Cloudbase; part of the sky was visible in some places. To the right…
Scarlet noticed the heap of distorted metal, leading directly up onto the next level, to an indistinct room. An easy enough climb, if he had not been wounded, but with his bad leg and his sore shoulder…
Like the first time, Scarlet pulled out the arrow from his leg, biting his lip so not to cry out. Blood started pouring profusely from the fresh wound. Then, he threw the shaft deeper into the rip. Staunching the flow of blood from his thigh by pressing his hand against it, he climbed up the heap, as swiftly as he could… just as he heard the sound of his opponent approaching behind him.
As he reached the level above, Scarlet looked down, in time to see his adversary appear below. Heavily dressed in fur, with coat, boots and hat, the man was advancing very carefully, looking at the ground as he did so; he was now carrying his crossbow across his broad shoulders, and was holding a handgun in his right hand. He was obviously expecting to execute Scarlet up close once he found him.
If you think I will end up as yet another skull for your collection, mister, you’re badly mistaken…
Scarlet lay in wait, as the man slowly approached under his position. He never looked up, all his attention drawn to the ground, soiled with blood, and he advanced until he reached the large smear left on the spot where Scarlet had stopped to remove the arrow. The man crouched down to examine it more closely. Scarlet moved above him, as silently as a cat.
The man got up on his feet, and looked ahead into the rip where he could see the arrow, lying ahead on the ground. Probably he realised at this instant that he’d been led into a trap, because he hesitated suddenly – and raised his head.
Ignoring the pain in his leg, Scarlet leapt from his perch straight at his adversary, without giving him time to react. The man raised his arm, trying to get a good shot at him with the gun, and his finger squeezed the trigger – but the bullet went wide. Scarlet landed on him with his whole weight, driving him to the ground with great force. The man fell roughly onto his back with a loud huff, and rolled to the side.
Scarlet did everything in his power not to land on his bad leg, but it was all he could do to avoid any pain. Grimacing, he rose to his feet, looking down at the man lying there, motionless – obviously unconscious. His gun lay only a metre away from Scarlet’s feet. He hobbled towards it, grunting under the effort, and leaned down with difficulty to pick it up. His back was hurting again.
He heard his adversary moaning as he regained his senses. Scarlet approached, aiming the gun at the man. At the same time, he activated the Mysteron detector in his bracelet, as Brown had taught him. Considering all the effort this man had put into stopping and killing Brown and himself, and seeing that he had killed a number of people prior to that, from the evidence found outside Cloudbase’s wreck, Scarlet wasn’t dismissing the possibility that he might indeed be an agent of the Mysterons.
But the reassuring beeping sound he heard told him it wasn’t the case. He stood over the gasping man who was slowly pushing himself up from his lying position. He cocked the hammer of the gun, and the sound made the man stop his movement.
“Stay where you are,” Scarlet said between clenched teeth, spitting out each word. “Don’t make any false moves… or I’ll shoot!”
“Kill me right away!” the man demanded in a raging, coarse voice. “Kill me, and be done with it, you Mysteron scum…”
The sound of that voice – different and yet so familiar – made Scarlet freeze on the spot. It COULDN’T be possible… And yet…
He watched the man rise to his knees and lift his head proudly and defiantly. He had completely white hair, long and unkempt, sticking out under the furry hat, and an equally white and too long beard, which hid his chin and cheeks; the skin of his face was marked with more lines than Scarlet remembered, and tanned a deep nut-brown, but he still recognised it easily – especially those intense blue eyes that now were looking up at him with such intensity and the same surprise – and hesitation born out of disbelief – that he knew had registered in his own face.
“Oh, my God,” Scarlet whispered, “it can’t be…” He glanced once again at the Mysteron detector on his wrist, just to make sure. But there could be no doubt the man was human – unless the instrument was defective. He didn’t think it was the case. Forgetting the gun, he got down on his knees, at the man’s level. “Colonel White…” he said, taking him by the shoulders and looking into his disbelieving face. “It is you… You’re alive!”
“Scarlet,” White mumbled in a low voice, obviously unsure if he should believe his eyes. “It can’t be you… You’re dead.” He shook his head, doubt obvious in his features. “It must be a Mysteron trick…”
“I was thinking the same of you… but the instruments say you’re clean. Colonel… it really is me…”
“No Mysteron?” murmured White. “No ghost?” He raised his hand and tentatively touched Scarlet’s face. The fingers trembled, then they touched something solid and recoiled, almost instinctively.
“No more than you are,” Scarlet said, now smiling. “You nearly killed me.” He looked into the confused man’s face. “And I nearly killed you… Are you all right? Can you stand…?” While saying that, he was helping the older man, who didn’t offer any resistance, to get on his feet.
“I’m all right,” White confirmed in a still unsure – and somewhat gruff – tone. “These old bones are still very solid, despite the passage of time… And I had to keep myself in shape in this Godforsaken place.” He sighed as he finally stood up – as straight as he always had been years before. He turned to Scarlet yet again, frowning. “You… haven’t changed a bit.”
“Well, there’s a reason for that,” Scarlet said, with a shake of his head.
“And I’m sure it makes… an interesting story.”
“It certainly does. But how about you, sir? Have you been here all this time?” Scarlet asked with a frown of his own. “Isolated? Hiding inside the wreck of Cloudbase?”
White grunted. “Someone… had to guard it. To keep scavengers out.”
Scarlet nodded. “Well, I’m sure that also makes an interesting story. But before we exchange our explanations, what do you say we… free my companion from his rather uncomfortable position?”
White agreed with a slow, still uncertain nod; still unsure if he should fully trust him, Scarlet made sure the older man walked in front, keeping very close to him, while trying to look inconspicuous. He was still limping heavily on his wounded thigh, but he could already feel the itching, announcing that his retrometabolism had kicked in and was taking care of his injuries. Before long, his leg and shoulder would be as good as new.
They walked back the way Scarlet had come and soon emerged out of Cloudbase, to direct their steps towards the spot where Brown had been trapped; the latter was still hanging in his net, but his position had shifted slightly, an indication that he had struggled to get free, without much success. When he saw Scarlet coming back with another man he didn’t know, he stopped his efforts and turned in their direction.
“Captain!” he called. “You’re alive! You captured that scum!”
White briefly stopped in his tracks at this insult before starting again. Scarlet winced. “That’s not quite accurate, Brown,” he said with a little hesitation.
A bemused Brown watched as they both approached him, and noticed that the stranger, who was still marching up front, increased his pace, putting some distance between him and the following Scarlet. The apprehensive Brown saw the man open his coat and his hand close around the handle of a knife, hanging from his belt.
“Captain, look out!” Brown warned, suddenly becoming agitated. “He’s got a knife! He…”
Before Scarlet could do anything about it, White grabbed the rope holding the net up and sliced through it with the knife in a single stroke. The net and its load fell heavily to the ground. Brown landed on his back with a loud groan. Scarlet grimaced. That’s gotta hurt…
He came to a stop right next to White and watched in concern as Brown, despite the pain he was surely in, angrily disentangled himself from the net, muttering barely comprehensible insults and various words of irritation. Scarlet quickly glanced at White to discover his old commander was quietly sheathing his knife, without a single worry in the world.
Brown got to his feet, and finally emerging from under the net, threw it aside in annoyance. He glared furiously in White’s direction.
“You crazy old man!” he shouted. “You nearly killed me!”
“More than once, I believe…” White deadpanned.
Brown purposefully walked to him, his face pale with fury, his fists clenched in rage. “Why, you, I should…” He stopped in his tracks and the words died on his lips, as he reached White; the latter had swiftly unsheathed his knife again, and was now threatening the younger man with it. The blade was but an inch from his throat.
“Watch it,” White warned between his teeth, glowering at Brown. “I’ve grown accustomed to peace and quiet, living in these parts for all these years. Either you calm yourself down… or I will do it for you.”
Brown swallowed hard, but his eyes didn’t fall under the colonel’s intense stare. He clenched his teeth. “I don’t know if you’re mad, or…”
“Insulting me will not help your case, son,” White replied, very coldly. “So I advise you to change your ways.”
“Or what? You’ll take my head and add it to those other poor souls over there?”
“I think the two of you have started off on the wrong foot.” Scarlet stepped forwards, and putting his hand on White’s wrist, in a way not to antagonise him, pushed the blade down, away from Brown’s throat. “Chip, believe me, you don’t want to get in this man’s bad books…”
But Brown snorted, with obvious contempt, not really taking heed of his partner’s cautionary counsel. “Captain, this man tried to kill us…” He turned to White. “That rocket that destroyed our helijet – and nearly ourselves… That was yours, wasn’t it?”
“You were trespassing,” White noted. “I didn’t invite you in…”
“Well, excuse us if we didn’t phone first!” snapped Brown. “We didn’t realise this was a forbidden zone!”
“It is. Didn’t you hear it was haunted? You did see the warnings… You’ve just mentioned it yourself.”
“So you don’t deny that’s your work, then?” Brown gestured towards the row of skulls, planted on wooden pikes behind them. “Now if that isn’t proof enough that you’re out of your mind…”
“You really think I’m as mad as you imagine, don’t you, boy?” Brown didn’t have to speak; the way he was glaring at White was enough of an answer. The older man nodded slowly. He raised a brow, addressing Scarlet, whilst not taking his eyes from the incensed Brown. “Your… friend… is the frantic sort, isn’t he, Captain?”
“I’m afraid he takes very much after his father,” Scarlet agreed. “And like his father, he’s also… a bit reckless.”
“If you say so yourself, knowing how reckless you can be, then he must really be quite a case,” a poker-faced White remarked.
“You know this man, Captain?” Brown asked, his tone still edgy.
“Quite well, actually. Lieutenant Brown… this is Colonel White.”
“White?” Brown’s face, already pale with anger, suddenly changed to an expression of disbelief.
“Brown?” White turned to Scarlet, finally breaking eye contact with the younger man. “Any relation to…?”
“His father,” Scarlet answered with a nod. “This is Steve Blackburn Jr.”
“Now I see what you mean – about him being reckless.” White turned again to face the now silent Brown, who was still staring at him incredulously. “And yes… I can see the resemblance too.”
It was Brown’s turn to look at Scarlet. “Shouldn’t he be dead?” he asked in a murmur, frowning.
Scarlet contented himself with smiling, while White huffed loudly, obviously annoyed at the remark. “I wish you would all stop saying that.” He turned towards Cloudbase. “Come. You lads must be cold. I’ll make you some tea and then we’ll talk.”
“Just like that?” Brown growled, watching as the man started walking away, his back turned on them. “He’s inviting us for tea, and we have to believe he’s on the level? I don’t believe this guy!”
Scarlet put a calming hand on his shoulder. “Better do as he says, Chip,” he advised cautiously. “You will never have the last word with him. Take my word for it.”
Chapter 3 – The Ghost of Cloudbase
Colonel White had established his ‘camp’ inside what was left of a second lieutenants’ room – in a section of Cloudbase’s main body which had withstood the force of the crash, years ago, and which had not been damaged by flames or smoke at the time. All the electronic systems were, of course, defective, as they were in the rest of the wrecked base. That meant the sliding doors weren’t working anymore either, so a blanket had been hung in the opening. Not only did it prevent any heat from escaping, it also prevented the winds that often twirled around the destroyed corridors of Cloudbase from entering.
White had successfully fixed a small electrical system within the confines of his habitat, using a small emergency generator and whatever tools and equipment he had been able to retrieve during his multiple scavenger hunts inside Cloudbase. He could pump plenty of fuel from the only container that had not been destroyed and had not exploded years ago during the crash – and he had torn as many solar panels from the base’s hull as he could, in order to collect energy from the sun whenever the weather permitted. He had lighting, and enough heat not to suffer from the cold.
Food was rationed – that is, whatever White could keep for many years without fearing any danger to his health whenever it would be consumed. As for the rest, he hunted down whatever prey was roaming alive in the area – which, he admitted to the younger men he had invited to share his meal with him, was not that much.
While Colonel White was preparing tea for his hosts, on the small survival kit that permitted him to cook his meals, Scarlet looked around, and marvelled at the assortment of electronic devices that were stacked up in the room. Connected to the generator installed by White, was the equipment that obviously permitted him to keep a close check on the area. There was a makeshift radar screen on a table, next to a monitor which was showing the very place where Brown had been so efficiently netted. Indicator lights, made with whatever bulbs were found around, were lined on the wall, right above that monitor. On the other wall, just above the only bunk left of the four that had occupied the room in the time when Cloudbase was operational, there were rows of weapons of all kind. Obviously taken from the base armoury, Scarlet mused. Probably those are the weapons that survived the crash, fifteen years ago.
With the tea ready, the three men sat around the heat generator, and drank the warm beverage, eating ration biscuits. Brown grimaced, making no effort to hide his distaste. Not only did he have a profound dislike of tea, but this one had a strange taste to it, and the biscuits were obviously stale. Scarlet, also noticing the taste, shrugged inwardly, and continued to drink and eat, without mentioning anything. Only White seemed to savour his tea and biscuits, as if they were the most delicious repast he had ever taken.
While they were all eating – with different degrees of enjoyment – Scarlet related his story to White – with Brown adding various details to it, and explaining much of what he was allowed to say to the older man. White, of course, sensed that he wasn’t completely trusted – by either of them – but he didn’t seem to mind, as obviously, he didn’t trust them that entirely either. He was simply waiting to hear all of what they had to say before deciding what he could believe of their tale.
His frown had deepened as Scarlet’s story unravelled, and by the end of it, many minutes later, his eyes had completely disappeared under his now bushy eyebrows. Aside from that, however, there didn’t seem to be that much surprise registering on his face.
“I stand corrected. This is indeed an interesting story…” White put down his empty cup. “A remarkable one, even.”
Scarlet looked at him in perplexity. “You don’t seem as surprised as I would have expected you to be. You don’t believe me?”
White shrugged. “When you were involved, I came to expect anything, Scarlet. Even the unexpected. And,” he said with a sigh, as he stood on his feet, “I have heard of Professor Barnard’s theory of the Quantum Effect – and what it might do. Living out here all on my own, and considering the events that happened in Futura City – I became somewhat interested in the subject, and read whatever I could find about it, that was not destroyed in the databank. More biscuits?”
“Er… no thank you,” Scarlet answered as the old man went to the nearby counter to fetch a new packet. Brown shook his head vehemently. White looked directly at the younger man as he came back to his seat.
“They are not poisoned, you know,” he told him. “Or I would’ve been dead long before now…” He opened the packet and started eating a biscuit.
“Maybe your stomach has grown accustomed to them, sir,” Scarlet suggested carefully, before Brown could make an incensed remark. “Lieutenant Brown’s belly might be… too delicate for them.”
White shrugged again, eating the rest of the biscuit. “Anyway,” he continued, “I know that Professor Barnard’s theory – or rather ‘theories’ – were never truly verified for their accuracy. But I’m guessing that if anyone could bring the proof of those theories – and survive the jump in time he described… it would be you, Scarlet, with your unique metabolism.” He took another biscuit and devoured it. “After all,” he said with his mouth full, “all the required conditions were met for the… ‘experiment’ to succeed, when Futura City was bombed.”
Scarlet raised a brow. “You obviously have less trouble than I did believing it, when I was told about it,” he noted.
“You had trouble believing in your own invulnerability, when you were first told about that,” White reminded him. “Years ago…”
“Indeed,” Scarlet mused. “What about you, sir? What is your story? How did you survive Cloudbase’s crash – and why did you stay here all these years?”
“How did I survive?” White marked a pause, swallowing what was left of his last biscuit. He looked into empty space, without answering right away. “Damned if I know exactly. I felt for sure that the crash would kill me. I guess some of your own luck rubbed off on me at some point…” He glanced at Brown. “And I know I’m not a Mysteron reconstruct, Lieutenant Brown.”
“Don’t worry,” Brown answered rather sourly. “I already double-checked that with my Mysteron detector.” He pointed to his bracelet of instruments, before nodding in Scarlet’s direction. “Even after the Captain assured me you were clean…”
“It’s good to see Spectrum is still using efficient officers,” White deadpanned. “Even when they seem to be fairly young…”
“I may be young by your standards, Colonel,” Brown replied a little defiantly, “but I can assure you – I have plenty of experience.”
“Experience in what exactly? You look hardly old enough to drive…”
“That’s hardly fair, Colonel…”
“Chip,” Scarlet called in a calming tone. Instantly, the younger man grew quiet, biting down the rest of his reply. “Sir,” Scarlet continued, addressing White, “the Cloudbase crash? What happened?”
“The crash… Well, as you can see for yourself, it destroyed the base without any hope of it being repaired. I was at the helm, manning one of the wheels. The other wheel was set on auto-pilot. When the base crashed, I was tossed around the room like a rag doll. I must have hit my head somewhere, because I don’t remember much of what happened next, except that I saw fire erupt from various parts of Cloudbase on the screens. When I came to, hours… maybe even days later… I was lying in the snow. I had a concussion, a broken leg, a few cracked ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and cuts and bumps everywhere on my body. But I was definitely alive.”
“And you obviously survived after that,” Scarlet mused.
White nodded. “Putting my shoulder and my leg right wasn’t the toughest thing to do – but Hell, did that hurt… After that, I found a proper shelter, within the wreck of Cloudbase. Then I searched for whatever I needed to take care of my wounds and survive in this environment, and nurse myself back to health. It took a long time… But I somehow made it.”
“You’ve always been a survivor,” Scarlet said with a faint, admiring smile.
“Once I was able to walk around with relative ease, I set up camp in this room, using whatever I could lay my hands on that would be useful to me, and prepared myself for a long stay… At least, until I would be strong enough to make it back to civilisation on my own.”
“Wait,” Brown interrupted suddenly. “With all the stuff you found around – those electronic devices, those weapons – you mean to tell us you didn’t find any communication device that you would use to call for help?”
“And whom would have I called?” White asked pointedly. “I had refused a direct order from the World President to surrender Cloudbase – and I did so without mincing my words, I have to say. I had ordered my own people to go into hiding, and crashed the base. To all intents and purposes, I was considered a traitor to the World Government. What kind of fate do you think would have befallen me, if my calls for help had attracted the unwanted attention of those I had supposedly betrayed?”
Brown hesitated. “Good point,” he finally conceded. “But… you didn’t leave this place.”
“Well observed, Lieutenant.”
“Why?” Scarlet asked with a frown. “Why did you stay?”
White chewed on his lip, thoughtfully. He hesitated, looking squarely at the two younger men. He sighed deeply. “To be truthful, I was about ready to leave the wreckage,” he admitted, “and make it back to civilisation on foot. I did find a radio, which permitted me to intercept communications which obviously came from nearby. Somewhere beyond this valley, beyond those mountains, there were people… I simply needed to find these people, and then I’d be able to leave this place – to leave Cloudbase behind me – and maybe… go back home.”
“What happened?” Scarlet asked softly.
Colonel White’s expression darkened. “They came,” he said in a low tone.
“They?” Scarlet repeated in puzzlement.
“Mysteron agents,” White specified, his voice dropping an octave, as he went pensive. Both Brown and Scarlet straightened up on their seats, and exchanged a concerned glance. White continued, “At first, I thought they were an expedition, sent by the World Government. Some of them wore WAAF winter uniforms. They approached the crash site, and started rummaging around… looking for something.” He gestured around. “As you can see, Cloudbase was not entirely destroyed. There was still… equipment… devices… that could be retrieved from it. I managed to destroy most of the files, before the crash, giving a copy to Lieutenant Green for safekeeping, but there was still a risk that certain files might still be retrieved and used. Besides, Cloudbase was built with very advanced technology that must not fall into the wrong hands. I came to the realisation at that moment… that I couldn’t leave Cloudbase, and abandon it to scavengers.”
“But you said they wore WAAF uniforms,” Scarlet remarked.
“Yes – agents of the same government to whom I had refused to surrender Cloudbase,” White said coldly. “As long as Roberts was in office, I wasn’t going to hand him Spectrum’s crown technological jewel. Beside, they were not from the WAAF.”
“Yes, you said they were Mysteron agents,” Brown remarked. “Are you sure? Did you have a Mysteron detector?”
“Did you think I had time to check them in the heat of the battle? When you shoot someone and you see him getting back on his feet five minutes later, as if he didn’t have a half dozen bullets in his chest, and shouting ‘the Mysterons will get their revenge’, what are you liable to think, Lieutenant?”
“That he is a Mysteron,” Scarlet admitted.
“That’s what happened. My first move was to approach those men cautiously… but as soon as they saw me, they started firing and I returned fire. I was lucky to get out of that alive, with no more than a few scratches.”
“What happened to them?” Brown asked.
“I killed them, of course.” White pointed to the monitor screen behind him. “There were five WAAF officers, and three sherpas. You saw what’s left of them when you arrived here.”
“Those skulls planted in front of Cloudbase?” Brown asked incredulously.
“I didn’t have a Mysteron gun – so to make sure they wouldn’t come back from the dead and attack me again, I burned them, after I shot them – and as an added precaution, I cut their heads off… I reckoned if it worked for vampires in folklore, it would surely work for Mysteron agents.”
“That’s why you decided to stay here,” Scarlet said thoughtfully. “To protect Cloudbase from further incursions.”
White nodded. “I planted the skulls of those Mysteron agents over there as a warning to whoever might approach… And there were people who approached this location, and came close to finding Cloudbase or even actually found it. Many expeditions over the years. I managed to scare some of them off. The others…” He let the sentence hang.
“You killed them?” Brown said, lifting a disbelieving brow. “But surely, they didn’t all deserve…”
“They were warned, lad, by the example of what would happen to them if they chose to move any closer,” White said icily. “And as far as I was concerned, when they decided to ignore that warning, I was free to do what was needed to stop them from approaching any closer to Cloudbase – or even to leave and report that they had seen where it was. Besides, be assured that all who came had an ulterior motive.”
“They couldn’t all be Mysterons…”
“I checked most of them out with the only Mysteron detector I had. Some of them were Mysteron agents. Others were World Government agents… and others were unscrupulous sherpas who had guided those men here and who would do to me worse than what you think I did to that first expedition – if there was money to be made from it.”
“You blew up our chopper…”
“With my last rocket, yes. As far as I knew, you also came to take something out of Cloudbase. Two weeks ago, I had to fight off another expedition – There was one survivor who ran away from here as if he had encountered the devil himself. I imagined your helijet was the next expedition – coming fully prepared after this man’s report – if he had made it back to civilisation alive, of course. Believe me, son, I had every reason to be suspicious. No-one comes here to pick daisies…”
“You are mad…”
“Lieutenant,” Scarlet started warningly.
But White raised a hand to stop him from intervening. He still could fight his own battles. “No. I was merely doing my duty, boy. I couldn’t know you were Spectrum – that helijet was unmarked – with good reason, I believe. Maybe I would have shot it down anyway, if I had known it was Spectrum. From what I heard from the radio, Spectrum agents are wanted by the authority not only for treason, but for acts of terrorism.”
“Those are damned lies!” Brown said between his teeth. “We are no terrorists.”
White glared at him coldly. “And how can I be so sure of that?” he demanded. “How can I be sure that you might be my allies – or yet another group wanting to take from Cloudbase whatever technology you need for some nefarious purpose?”
“Colonel…” White turned to Scarlet, who had kept his composure during the altercation between his two companions. The English captain looked levelly into his compatriot’s livid face. “You know me. Would you believe I would ally myself with terrorists?”
“On your own admittance, you only have been with them a while, since your… arrival.”
“Yes, but I’ve seen their set-up. And what they told me is quite in accordance with what you’ve told me of the end of Cloudbase.” Scarlet put a reassuring hand on White’s shoulder. “And Blue is in charge of this Spectrum.”
“So I’ve heard…” White grew calmer; but his eyes were still set on Brown, in a suspicious way. “You have yet to tell me why you came here.”
“It’s true we want something from Cloudbase,” Scarlet admitted.
He felt White tensing under his fingers. “Of course – otherwise you wouldn’t be here. What is it you’re looking for?”
“I believe it might be the same thing that those World Government expeditions wanted to find. Something called the Quantum Transmitter.” White’s face remained without reaction. “Colonel Blue told me that aside from the one which served as detonator when Futura City was destroyed; there remained one last prototype, which had been brought to Cloudbase, prior to the crash.”
“Yes, that is true. For safe-keeping. What do you want with it? Planning a return to your time, maybe?”
Scarlet frowned in curiousity. “What do you mean exactly?”
White shrugged. “One of the latest theories I came across in the databank mentioned a possibility of harnessing the Quantum energy to actually be able to travel efficiently in time… And I mean, a controlled trip. Not doing it by accident, like you seemed to have done yourself. Perhaps it would be possible, with the proper technology, to travel back in time.”
“According to Captain Green, the trip can only be performed forwards,” Brown remarked. ‘Going back’ is impossible, at the moment.”
“‘At the moment’… But who knows, perhaps somewhere – somewhen – someone is actually planning to make it work – and eventually put the theory into use. If I were you, I would start to seriously consider looking into that option, Scarlet.”
“Well, it would surprise me if that’s the actual reason Colonel Blue wants the Transmitter,” Scarlet replied, all the while wondering if Colonel White was serious or only talking in jest. “Or the World Government for that matter.”
“Did he tell you why the World Government might want it?”
“No… only that he had just found out recently that they wanted it, that he believed it must be for an important reason – and that he would not wait any longer to find out exactly how important it might be.”
“Sounds rather ominous.” White glanced in Brown’s direction. The younger man was keeping silent. “And what about you, Lieutenant? What do you know about this that we don’t?”
“What makes you think I know anything?” Brown asked suspiciously.
“You were very quiet, the whole time Captain Scarlet and I were talking about it. Which makes me think you might have something on your mind.”
Brown shook his head. “Even if it was the case… and I’m not saying it is… I’m not allowed to say anything…” He caught sight of Scarlet glaring at him with a reproachful look. “…sir,” he added, almost despite himself.
White nodded slowly, before addressing Scarlet. “It would seem your ‘old friend’ doesn’t trust you entirely, Captain.”
“Considering the circumstances, sir, I can’t say I blame him…” Scarlet discreetly rubbed the bracelet he was wearing on his left wrist. He didn’t know if Brown knew about the bomb in it – probably, he thought, and he might even have the detonator, with the instructions to use it if he feels any need for it. He wasn’t going to ask him directly, though. At the moment, the young man was still rather edgy – not only towards Scarlet, but towards White as well. He really had issues with trusting people.
He’s not called ‘Chip’ for nothing…
A beeping sound suddenly resonated from behind him. White instantly was on his feet, moving with a speed and swiftness that were rather surprising for a man of his age. Both Scarlet and Brown looked on as he moved toward the radar screen on the table.
“What is that sound?” Scarlet asked.
“Radar alert,” White answered gruffly, as both Scarlet and Brown stood up to approach. “There’s an aircraft approaching Cloudbase’s position.” He pointed to the screen, where there was a luminous point bleeping, almost dead centre. “Too slow to be a jet. It’s probably a helicopter.”
“That’s how you knew we were here,” Brown noted. “Through that radar.”
Scarlet nodded. “Cloudbase was equipped with the best scanning systems in the world. We might have escaped the Asian Republic radars on our way here, but we obviously didn’t escape this one…”
“They’ll be here shortly,” White commented, analysing what the screen was telling him. Another beeping sound made him raise his head. One of the many indicators on his walls was now blinking steadily. “Correction, they are already here.” He walked to his computer screen. “That’s the perimeter alert,” he explained. “Someone is approaching Cloudbase and has tripped one of the alarms I set around the place… That’s also how I knew exactly where you were when you came on foot.” He typed a command on the keyboard below the monitor. “Looks like someone’s coming almost the same way you took. Was there anyone else with you?” It was almost an accusation. But Scarlet shook his head.
“Only the two of us,” he answered. “They might have followed our footprints – if the winds have not erased them completely.”
“Whoever they are, they are probably with that helicopter your radar picked up,” Brown remarked.
The image on the screen changed and another part of the area surrounding Cloudbase was shown. Six men in brown uniforms were advancing on the ground, very carefully, guns at the ready. White grunted.
“Asian Republic soldiers,” he said between his teeth.
“Probably, that rocket you launched earlier which destroyed our chopper has alerted them,” Brown noted. “The explosion was big enough to be noticed.”
“Or maybe you didn’t escape all their radar screens as you thought earlier,” White replied.
“Either way, these men have been sent to investigate,” Scarlet concluded.
White shook his head. “They’ve arrived a little too soon after the events for my taste,” he mumbled. “They were probably already in the area.”
“On routine patrol, surely…”
“What is there to patrol about in this area, Lieutenant? Believe me, I’ve been living here long enough to know that there’s nothing of interest for the military to check. The conditions around here are too harsh for any settlements – and apart from a few bandits, hiding from the authorities…”
“If you’re saying the Asian Republic would send soldiers around to look for Cloudbase – why would they?” Brown asked. “Their government mainly ignores Spectrum’s activities…”
“Maybe as a favour to the World Government? In a gesture to try to patch things up between the two of them? I’ve learned through the radio that the relationship is rather strained at the moment.”
“Captain Grey did mention something about that,” Scarlet concurred.
“Perhaps,” Brown admitted, pensively.
White was flicking the screen, going through the various cameras he had installed in and around Cloudbase. The men they had seen previously were not the only ones; there were others, in various locations around the base, searching through the wreckage.
“How many did you count?” he asked his two companions.
“Fifteen so far,” Scarlet answered. “Too many to imagine they won’t find us eventually – especially if they continue to search the wrecks.”
On the screen on which White had stopped, they saw one of the men suddenly snatched by the foot by a concealed noose, which took him high into the air – in a similar way to that which had trapped Brown earlier. The young man snorted.
“My traps might buy us some time,” Colonel White said with satisfaction, as he turned around and took an automatic rifle from the wall behind him.
“Some time to do what?” Brown inquired.
“I knew this day would come,” White explained, unhooking a clip of ammunition as well and arming the weapon. “The day when the odds will be too high and I will have no other choice but to destroy Cloudbase entirely. I haven’t done it before, because I was concerned that such an explosion would attract unwanted attention… But now, that’s a moot point, it seems.” He presented the gun to Brown. “Since you are here, you might as well make yourself useful.”
“You want me to shoot at soldiers from the Asian Republic?” Brown asked with a frown.
“How different are they from the WAAF or the WGPC?” White asked. “If I believe the news, Spectrum doesn’t hesitate to exchange fire with them… Unless you’re going to tell me those are lies as well?”
“No… that did happen. But not by our choice, Colonel, and only to defend ourselves. And only because we were unable to avoid it.”
“I am sure.” White shoved the gun into the young man’s arms. “Consider that we have no choice now either. Besides,” he added in an undertone, “I have the feeling that these men might not be who they appear to be.”
“Mysterons?” Scarlet said, lifting a brow.
“So far, most of my ‘visitors’ have been.”
“This is ludicrous,” Brown said vehemently. “Why would the Mysterons come here in the first place? You haven’t told us that, Colonel.”
“I’ve been asking myself the same question from years, but quite frankly, right now might not be the time to try to find the answer.”
“The Quantum Transmitter,” Scarlet then suggested. “They could be after it themselves…”
“Like the World Government?” Brown said with a frown.
“It is a possibility.”
“We’re wasting time, men.” White pointed to the bracelets both Scarlet and Brown were wearing. “Those are certainly more practical to carry around than my own detector. Feel free to check if these men are Mysterons or not if you want, before making your decision. But I have a feeling that they wouldn’t let you come close enough to use them.”
“I have quite the same feeling,” Scarlet commented.
“So – are you with me or not?”
Scarlet took the rifle that White was handing him and checked the ammunition. “Always, Colonel.” He glanced in Brown’s direction, and White did the same. The younger man remained silent.
“Lieutenant?” White asked.
“All right,” Brown grumbled under his breath. “But only because these men’s presence might interfere with our mission.” He glared at Scarlet. “You do remember we have a mission, don’t you, Captain?”
Scarlet only took a few seconds to give it some thought, before addressing White again: “He’s right, Colonel. We did come for the Quantum Transmitter ourselves.”
White shrugged dismissively. “All right. If it is so important to you… But you will have to fetch it yourself – that is, if it’s not been destroyed by the crash.”
“Where is it?”
“The last time I heard of it – years ago before the crash – it was in the R and D Department.”
“Bottom level, starboard of the Control Tower.”
“That section has been nearly completely crushed under Cloudbase’s own weight. If you find anything intact there… you’ll be lucky.” White chuckled despite himself. “Imagine so many people possibly looking – and dying – for something which doesn’t exist anymore.”
“I’ll go get the Transmitter,” Brown proposed.
“You don’t know the base,” Scarlet pointed out. “The colonel and I do.”
“And I do know the ground which our… opponents are walking on,” White added, looking at the screen, where he could see the men fanning out to explore the wreckage. “We’d better move fast, or we won’t have time to do anything.” He turned to the two men. “You get the Transmitter, Scarlet. Brown will come with me. I’ve already placed charges around Cloudbase, but I didn’t have the mechanism to set remote timers. We’ll have to do it by hand and then get the Hell out of here before everything goes up in smoke.”
“We can call Spectrum and they’ll come to fetch us,” Brown said. “Since we don’t have any means of transportation to leave anymore.”
White rolled his eyes. “You’re an unforgiving kind, aren’t you, Lieutenant?” White remarked coolly. He took a communication device from the top of his desk. “I’ll need your radio frequency to keep in contact with you.”
“I think we’d better not use communicators,” Brown intervened. “We don’t know what frequency these soldiers use for their own radios, so we might accidentally stumble on it… Besides, the Asian Republic Army has advanced technology to intercept radio communications – however protected they might be. It’s too big a risk to take.”
“You’re right,” White admitted, after listening to Brown’s argument with interest. “For once…”
“I get better,” Brown grinned mischievously. “I have a remote that can be used for your bomb.” Scarlet’s ears pricked up at the announcement, but he said nothing. “If it can be useful to you…” Brown continued.
White looked impressed. “Well, it can be handy, yes. Thank you for the offer, Lieutenant.”
“We’d better set up a rendezvous point, then,” Scarlet suggested. “How much time can you give me, before you blow it all up?”
“I calculate forty-five minutes to set timers in strategic charges. When they detonate, they will set the other charges off as well. That’s as long as we’ll be able to play hide and seek with these men before they catch us. Longer than that, we won’t be able to avoid confrontation.”
“Will we be able to get far enough away in forty-five minutes?” Brown asked in concern. “An explosion in this narrow valley could start an avalanche that could engulf Cloudbase…”
“I’m counting on it,” White retorted.
“… And us at the same time,” Brown finished.
“We’ll have to make do with the time we have.”
Scarlet nodded, before turning to Brown. “Use our most secure frequency to contact the Sea Turtle,” he instructed. “Make it an encrypted message to reduce the risks of being picked up. Tell them to send us the second helijet for pickup, as soon as possible.”
“S.I.G.”, Brown answered.
“I know a cave in which we can establish camp, while waiting for them,” White continued. “It’s near the entrance of the valley, and it goes right through the mountain, to the other side where they’ll be able to pick us up. Once inside that cave, we’ll be safe from any avalanche, Lieutenant.”
“Right. If it doesn’t collapse on top of us…”
“The cave’ll be perfect,” Scarlet interrupted before White could give Brown a piece of his mind. “Because I don’t expect the craft to arrive before a day or two.” Scarlet moved towards the exit. “We’ll rendezvous by the entrance of the valley,” he said. “That would be far enough away to avoid being hit by the explosion, I believe?”
“Agreed. Be careful over there, Scarlet. The place is quite a mess.”
“I’ll be as careful as I can, Colonel.”
“I’ll believe that the day pigs fly.” Scarlet smiled despite himself at hearing the doubt in his former commander’s voice. He was about to get out when he heard the old man call him again. “Uh… Paul?”
Scarlet stopped in his tracks and turned around. White gave him an encouraging thumbs-up. “It’s good to see you back in action.”
“The same here, sir,” Scarlet answered with a smile. “Please, while I’m away, do try not to kill each other, the pair of you.”
And he disappeared behind the blanket.
“We’d better get a move on, too,” White said, walking to the door in turn, Brown on his heels.
Chapter 4 – Heat of Battle
Colonel White had not lied. The way to what was left of the Research and Development Centre was indeed a mess. It was across the large rip – where Cloudbase had obviously suffered the most damage from the crash, and Scarlet was barely able to recognise it from the base he knew so well. The walls that were still standing were dangerously distorted, blackened by smoke, and covered with an ice and snow layer many inches thick. Most of the corridors and rooms in this part were either destroyed or blocked by debris, and in some places, Scarlet barely had the space to squeeze through, in order to continue his advance. Snow had penetrated through various openings, and was all over the place, while ice had rendered the floor very slippery.
It took Scarlet the better part of twenty minutes, just to reach R and D – or rather, what was left of it.
The room was in total chaos – barely holding together at all. Part of the upper decks had fallen straight into it – Scarlet thought he recognised the varnished floor from the gymnasium - which had been three levels up – with equipment scattered all around, broken and twisted.
There was barely space to walk in the room, and after having lost precious minutes in searching for what he was looking for – checking under and behind various heaps of wreckage, Scarlet was despairing of ever finding it – let alone in one piece. He stopped in the middle of the destroyed room and looked around, thinking.
It’s probably gone, he reflected with a grunt. Destroyed by the crash, most certainly. Colonel White was right. People died needlessly for a piece of junk…
He checked his watch. If he wanted to make the deadline and meet the others before Cloudbase was destroyed, he had to leave now – in fact, he should have left five minutes ago. With a sense of defeat, he turned around to go.
When suddenly, he saw something.
The R and D safe was lying there, trapped under part of the fallen ceiling – just beneath the varnished floor of the gymnasium. It was half-crushed, and the door had burst open under the shock but was still held by one hinge.
Scarlet remembered that the Quantum Transmitter had been given to Spectrum for safe-keeping – so what better place to keep the thing, than in the safe itself?
Scarlet walked over to it and crouched under the destroyed ceiling and floor. The safe was within reach, and so he pulled on the door handle, with all of his strength. He had all the trouble in the world to successfully open the door completely. He peered inside the safe. It was too dark for him to see beyond the opening, so he extended his hand inside and rummaged blindly.
His fingers touched something small. Like a box, the size of a medium-sized television remote control. He closed his hand on it and holding his breath, pulled it back out of the safe, at the same time crawling out from under the floor.
When he finally was able to stand, Scarlet opened his hand and looked at the object he had taken from the safe. He exhaled loudly.
It was indeed the Quantum Transmitter – he recognised it from the picture that had been shown to him, before his mission onboard the Goliath II. It was handheld size, made of plastic and metal, and covered with electronic chips, with a yellow screen surmounting a digital pad…
Except it was damaged, and so didn’t look quite like what Scarlet knew of the Quantum Transmitter.
A dark, lightbulb-like component, which originally should have been screwed on top of the device, was missing, and Scarlet could see a sharp edge where it used to be. The box was barely holding together, and electronic bits seemed to be missing from within it. The yellow screen was split in two, one half gone, and ice had entered under the digital pad.
It’s useless, Scarlet told himself, looking bitterly at the device in his hand. This thing will never work again.
Nonetheless, he put the Quantum Transmitter into his rucksack – maybe, he thought, Spectrum’s scientists would be able to make something of it, when they examined it…
He looked at his watch again. I’d better step on it. I’m already late as it is… He started making his way back out, the way he entered through the wreckage.
He certainly didn’t want to be buried alive, under tons of rocks and debris, when Cloudbase was destroyed…
Following their own schedule, Colonel White and Lieutenant Brown, after separating to install the timers on the already set charges, met once more, outside Cloudbase, just at the entrance of what had been, in its time, one of the recreational rooms of the base. White actually jumped in surprise when the young man suddenly arrived at a run behind him, and he turned around, his gun at the ready. Brown stopped in his tracks and put up his hands in a defensive way; before he could say anything, White put a finger to his own lips and motioned Brown to approach cautiously. When the young man crouched beside him, White pointed through a rip on the wall, towards a group of three Asian Republic soldiers walking amidst the wreckage.
“Have you placed your timers?” the colonel asked in a whisper.
“Yeah – following your instructions – and your carefully drawn plan. You did the same?”
White nodded in silence.
“What were you in another life, Colonel? An explosives expert?”
“An admiral in the World Navy. Why the stupid questions?”
“I was just wondering where you had learned to set up explosives like that. I will admit, I was quite impressed by the way those charges were set all around the place. The way it is, Cloudbase will surely be completely destroyed by the blast.”
“Yes, well… one can only hope so,” White muttered. “Have you set the remote to the right frequency?”
“Yes, I have.” Brown said, presenting the remote to White. “If we need to set off the explosion before time… we just push the button. But I do hope we won’t be doing that. We are cutting it short enough as it is right now.” He consulted his watch. “Fifteen minutes. About time we went. And no trace of Captain Scarlet.”
“I wouldn’t worry about Scarlet if I were you. He knows very well how to take care of himself. And he did say he would meet us at the entrance of the valley.”
“So you suggest we go without him, then?”
“He suggested it. Not me. He knows what he’s doing. Did you call for our pickup?” Brown answered with a slow and silent nod, much like White had done before. Colonel White slowly rose to his feet. “Come on, then. Our ‘visitors’ are far away enough now. Let’s make a run for it.”
They left their hiding place and carefully took a few steps into the open.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, four soldiers in brown uniform appeared, surrounding them, their rifles raised.
“HOLD! Do not move!”
The order was spoken in bad and heavily accented English. White and Brown instantly froze in their tracks, and looked at the men who had trapped them.
“Throw guns down!” said the man who had spoken before. “NOW!”
Reluctantly, White and Brown obeyed.
“Where did they come from?” White said between his teeth.
“Beats me…” Brown muttered under his breath.
“SILENCE!” The man closest to them struck White in the face with the butt of his rifle, sending the older man sprawling in the snow.
“HEY!” Brown protested, making a step forward. “That’s an old man! Show some respect!”
“SILENCE!” was the automatic reply. This time, the butt of the rifle hit Brown violently in his stomach. He fell to his knees, beside White, groaning. The latter was on his hands and knees, trying to get up, and shaking his head to get his bearings back.
“Thank you for your support, Lieutenant,” he gasped. “I’ll try to forget you called me an old man, though…”
White was pulled up onto his knees. The barrel of a rifle was shoved under his nose and he raised his eyes defiantly to the man who was holding the weapon. A large, blueish swelling was starting to form on what could be seen of his cheek, under his left eye, the rest being hidden under his beard. He watched as one of the men took out his communication device and started talking into it. They’re speaking Chinese, White realised – he didn’t understand much Chinese, but he didn’t need to, to understand that their presence was being reported to these men’s leader.
White glanced to Brown, who was kneeling by his side, and the younger man glanced back at him. He quickly lowered his eyes to his right hand, which was resting by his side. White briefly looked down and saw that Brown was still holding the hand-held remote, hidden within his palm. He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
“Not now,” he muttered.
But he knew the young man would be ready to act, whenever he gave the signal.
Which would be soon, before these men discovered the remote in Brown’s hand…
White didn’t have to give that signal. From behind the Asian Republic soldiers, a man dressed in dark clothing suddenly emerged from the shadows, and grabbed the last of them from behind, breaking his neck in one swift movement. The others heard their companion fall and instantly turned around to deal with the newcomer, but it was already too late, as the latter was on them, knocking out one with his rifle, and kicking the other in his stomach.
The surprise was such that it allowed both Brown and White to act in turn, and they quickly jumped the last two soldiers and dealt with them very quickly. Brown tackled one and brought him down to the ground, where he punched him in the face, knocking him out instantly, while, White, more deadly, pulled his opponent down and hit him at the throat with the butt of his own rifle.
Brown and White got to their feet and crossed the fallen soldiers, to stand before Scarlet. “You’re late,” White grunted, checking the ammunition in his newly acquired weapon.
“Next time, I’ll try to be on time,” Scarlet answered. “How much time do we have left before the charges explode?”
“Just enough to make it out of here in one piece… Without taking the time to hide ourselves. The others were alerted, I believe – so let’s go now! Follow me!”
The three of them took off, in the hope of putting as much distance as they could between them and the wreckage, before the other Asian Republic soldiers came after them.
They were not so lucky. They had barely left Cloudbase’s vicinity when the soldiers suddenly emerged from amongst the wreckage, and discovered them. A voice shouted after them. Volleys of shots rang out around them – and they ran faster, the soldiers now hot on their tail.
As the bullets flew closer around them, they realised they would never make it to the cave Colonel White had mentioned earlier – not without one or more of them being hit from behind. They might all be killed before reaching safety.
Near the ridge, they found refuge behind a formation of boulders, and from there, started returning fire. They saw the Asian Republic soldiers plunging into the snow and behind huge rocks to seek cover. Exchanges of fire followed, with each group displaying the same determination to either capture – or not be captured.
“Where’s the cave?” Scarlet asked over the shots, leaning towards White.
The later shook his head. “Forget it now. It’s still too far, and we’ll be too much in the open trying to reach it. They’ll shoot us like flies as we run to it.”
“So we hold station here?” Brown asked. “Until they get us anyway or we freeze to death from exposure?”
“You have a better suggestion?” White replied with a frown.
“Oh yeah… I definitely have a better suggestion!”
In surprise, both White and Scarlet turned to the younger man crouched behind them, wondering what he meant.
It was only then that they noticed a camouflage-painted helijet hovering just over the ridge behind them. White turned swiftly, and raised his gun to get a crack at it, believing they had been surprised from behind by the enemy, but Scarlet put his hand on the barrel of his rifle.
“Wait!” He looked up to the approaching craft. “It’s Spectrum!”
“… Spectrum?” White narrowed his eyes at the helijet. It was moving swiftly, almost silently, as it cleared the ridge and flew over the valley. It came low enough for them to get a good view of the pilot – who gave them the thumbs up. Brown answered with a similar signal, and then turned to Scarlet and White, grinning from ear to ear. Scarlet looked rather perplexed.
“I can imagine that craft are faster in this day and age, but this is ridiculous!” he said, looking as the helijet gained some altitude and hovered around, looking for a landing spot. “How did it arrive here that quickly here?” He turned to Brown; he saw the young man redden violently under his inquiring stare.
“I… er… It was already around,” Brown explained. “Colonel Blue gave instructions that it should follow us from some distance. It left the carrier a few hours after us, and landed within a short flying distance from our position. Ready to intervene if we should need it. You weren’t told because…”
“… Of security reasons. I understand.” Scarlet sighed. “Remind me to give Colonel Blue a big hug next time I see him.”
“I don’t know if protocol allows such displays, Captain,” Brown said with a nonetheless amused smile.
“You don’t strike me as a man who would let protocols dictate your actions, Lieutenant,” White said gruffly.
“Whenever it suits me… sir,” Brown answered. There was now a newborn respect in the young man’s voice for the elderly man, and both Scarlet and White noticed it instantly.
The three men looked on as the helijet finally made its touch-down approach. To ensure that the Asian Republic soldiers kept their distance, it spat a volley of bullets in their direction. The soldiers ran away, to find better cover, preferring to save their lives instead of catching their escaped captives.
“Right,” Scarlet said. “Let’s not waste any more time. Here’s our chance. Let’s go!”
Urging the other two to run for it, Scarlet lingered behind, covering their retreat, by firing on their pursuers. Caught between Scarlet’s automatic and the machine gun from the helijet, the soldiers didn’t dare leave their shelter, and barely responded to their fire. Scarlet gave his companions a few seconds’ advance, then backed away towards the helijet in turn, still firing at the soldiers; he only glanced briefly behind him to make sure that both White and Brown were safely approaching their objective.
The helijet had touched down, holding its fire to do so, and the door slid open to welcome the escapees, who, to avoid the wind stirred by the rotating blades, had crouched down for the last steps of their run. Colonel White was the first to reach the door, where the silhouette of a man – dressed in what he understood was the new Spectrum uniform – appeared, leaning forwards to lend a helping hand. White reached for that hand and raised his eyes to the man, to thank him for his assistance – and froze instantly on the spot.
With the same, obviously stunned expression that he could see in the man’s eyes, he was staring straight into the face of Captain Black.
“Charles?” Black murmured incredulously. “You’re alive?”
The voice, White noticed instantly, had nothing of the Mysterons’ ominous tone to it. Yet, he was unsure if this wasn’t some kind of a trap set by his enemies and was hesitant to climb onboard the helijet.
“Conrad – is it really you?”
Black noticed that White’s hand was hovering over the butt of his handgun. Both of them were uncertain of the identity of the other, and obviously uncertain what he should do. Just at that moment, Brown arrived next to White, out of breath, and putting a hand on the older man’s shoulder to urge him to move on.
“You two can do the niceties later on,” he said quickly enough. “Now is not the time! Get a move on!”
The tone of his voice snapped both White and Black out of their surprise and White finally decided to climb aboard the helijet when the sound of a new volley of shots coming from behind made all of them duck instinctively. As none of them were hit, they turned around, in time to see that one of the soldiers pursuing them had crawled around a formation of rocks to avoid Scarlet’s fire, and finally take pot shots at him from the flank. The new shots obviously surprised Scarlet, and even as he spun on his heel to return fire, a new volley cut him down and he fell face first into the snow.
“Scarlet!” Black roared. “Brown, cover me! Colonel White, get inside the chopper!” And before anyone could answer or stop him, he dashed from the safety of his position and ran straight where Scarlet had fallen. Behind him, he could hear Brown’s gun, as the young man, following his order, was covering his progress. The soldier who had shot Scarlet down, was hit in the shoulder, and forced to take cover again, like his companions, who were also attempting to fire at their opponents.
When he arrived next to him, Black realised that Scarlet was still alive and attempting to haul himself up; he was obviously badly hit, because he was hardly able to move more than an inch.
“Hang on, Paul, I’m getting you out of here.”
Black barely stopped. He threw himself on his knees beside the wounded man, took him by the armpits and lifted him over his shoulder, causing him to groan in pain. Black winced under the added weight as he got to his feet and started to make a run back to the helijet, clenching his teeth with determination. Brown was covering his retreat, as best he could – but he could still feel the bullets from the Asian Republic soldiers flying around him.
He reached the helijet door and pushed Scarlet inside to White’s helping hands and then climbed aboard. Brown got in last, still firing.
“Gaylord!” Black barked to the pilot. “Take her up! NOW!”
“S.I.G…” The man pushed the helm and the helijet jumped upwards. It took merely seconds for it to get out of range of the guns of the soldiers on ground – who had now came out of hiding to shoot freely at them.
As the helijet was taking them away from the danger zone, Black helped White to lie Scarlet down on the floor, as comfortably as possibly. Brown found a blanket in a seat compartment, and unfolded it to cover the wounded man; the latter tiredly opened his eyes. He winced when he tried to move.
“Ow… That hurts…”
“Keep still,” Black advised. “Let your retrometabolism do its usual stuff.”
A sudden thundering sound was heard, and all heads turned to the nearest window; through the glass, they saw a huge ball of fire emerging from within the wreckage of Cloudbase, quickly followed by another, and then another. Like a chain reaction, all the charges installed by Colonel White detonated, one after the other. The men all looked in fascination at this show of fiery destruction. The explosions caused the side of the mountain on which the base was resting to collapse and with a loud rumble, rocks and snow started sliding down the slope – to engulf what was left of the once proud and powerful hovering base.
“There won’t be anything left of it to be found,” Brown murmured.
“That’s as well,” White said gloomily. “That technology will not fall into unworthy hands…” His words sounded harsh enough, but Brown wasn’t fooled by them. He had been able to discern the tone of sadness, as White’s voice obviously caught in his throat.
“That’s why you brought it over here to crash, all those years ago,” Brown noted, his tone now quiet and deferential as he addressed the older man. It was more a statement than a question – Colonel Blue had told him that story so many times, that it had become like catechism for him. “Now you’ve completed your work.”
“Yes… I’ve completed it,” White agreed. “After fifteen years…” He looked down into the valley. “Those soldiers will be able to avoid the avalanche,” he noted. “So they might be able to alert their superiors of our presence here and call for backup...”
“We won’t be staying around to wait for them,” Captain Black answered from his place in front of Scarlet. “Gaylord is already taking us to safety… But I’m afraid that the Asian Republic Government won’t be happy with Spectrum, when they hear of what occurred here.”
“What else is new?” Brown asked with a shrug.
Black smiled thinly. “Not much, you’re right.” He turned to Scarlet, who had his eyes closed. “Relax and get comfortable, Paul. You’ll probably have healed completely by the time we’re back on the sub.”
Scarlet nodded very slowly and opened his eyes. “Thanks for fetching me…” he said in a slurred voice.
“Hey… You’ve just returned to us – I wasn’t about to leave you behind…”
“When… did you come onboard the Sea Turtle?” Scarlet asked. He winced. “I… didn’t see you come onboard.”
“Well, you probably remember you went down the sub before me,” Black explained. “I just waited until Grey took you to your assigned quarters… And then I went to mine. I just kept out of your way while you were onboard. It’s as simple as that.”
“Simple all right…”
“You should get some rest.”
“I have your Q Transmitter...” Finding himself out of breath, Scarlet sighed – only to wince again. “It’s in the rucksack…”
“Later,” Black said with a soothing tone. “That’s not important for now.”
“And… we found… someone… too…” Scarlet’s voice trailed off and he closed his eyes again, falling out of consciousness with a low groan.
Black simply nodded, looking down at him.
“That’s right,” he murmured, addressing Scarlet, although he was sure the man couldn’t hear him anymore. “Rest now… You’ll feel better later.”
As Brown was leaving to take the co-pilot seat in the cockpit, Black watched as Colonel White sat on the floor, right next to the now sleeping – or unconscious – Scarlet, dismissing the more comfortable seat not that far away from him.
“He’ll be all right,” White said, his eyes set on those of Black.
“I know,” the latter answered. “I might not have witnessed his healing powers as often as you did in the past, but I have a fairly good knowledge of how it works…”
“I bet,” White said coolly. “So… I see you’re free of Mysteron control now.”
“Yes. And… you survived the crash, and they found you here?”
“Obviously.” White tilted his head to the side. “I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to shoot you earlier.”
“Quite frankly – the same goes for me, when I saw you,” Black admitted. “But I realised almost instantly that if Brown was keeping so close to you – then you couldn’t be a Mysteron. He would have checked you out.”
“That he did.” White pensively scratched his bearded chin. “He seems like a competent enough officer – despite being so young,” he confided in a low tone. “But I won’t tell him that – he’s got enough overconfidence as it is.”
Black permitted himself a faint smile and glanced in Brown’s direction; the younger man, who was presently consulting with the pilot, had obviously not heard the last of White’s remark.
“I’m afraid I have to claim responsibility for most of what he knows – and what he is,” Black confided.
White nodded his understanding, lifting a brow with some irony. “That explains a lot, then. Including the arrogance.” He glanced around, and then looked straight up towards the cockpit and beyond the windshield, where all he could now see were blue skies and clouds – and the peaks of high mountains. “So where are we going from here?”
“Somewhere safe, as I said,” Black answered without compromising himself. “Where you will meet some of our old friends – Colonel.”
“As long as I’ll be allowed to take a long, relaxing bath…” White sighed and leaned his head against the surface of the wall behind him, closing his eyes as he did so. He suddenly felt so tired and in need of rest. He certainly felt he was entitled to it. “Please wake me up when we arrive, Captain. I think I will… shut my eyes for a little while.”
Seconds later, the only thing that Captain Black could hear from his old friend, was the sound of quiet breathing – punctuated with faint snoring.
END OF PART 2