Original series Suitable for all readers

The Substitute

 

 

A ‘Captain Scarlet' story for Christmas

 

By Chris Bishop

 

 

 

 

At the most isolated table in the restaurant, Scarlet stared at the face of the much older man opposite him, over the mugs of hot chocolate they were both drinking.  

“Let me get this straight: You’re asking me to take your job?”  The other man nodded silently. “As in, ‘definitely take your place’?”  Another nod.  “Not just once?” Scarlet insisted, trying to make sure. This time, the man answered with a shake of his head. Scarlet was puzzled. “You have the perfect job – the most wonderful job there is – why would you give it up?”

The older man sighed.  “Because – I’m getting old…  I’ve done this job for centuries and now and I’m growing weary – exhausted.  It is a wonderful job, indeed, but with, oh, so many responsibilities…  I’m approaching two millennia, Paul, so I thought it was time for me to retire.  And find someone who would take over.”

“But… why me?”

“You’re one of the only other immortals I know – and you have proved, more than once over your life, that you are indeed worthy of the task.”

“Me?”  Scarlet grimaced.  “But I’m a soldier…”

The other man grinned. “My predecessor was a Germanic warlord,” he said. “Of course, those were different times, and things and events were named differently, but he was good at his work. If he was fit for the job, I believe you will be too.”

“Nick, I don’t know…  It would be a big privilege but…”

“But what? What other duties do you have that can stop you from accepting?  The War has been over for over two centuries…”

“Officially over.  There are still dissidents that will not acknowledge the Armistice between Earth and Mars.  I have to keep an eye on them…”

“Have you met those dissidents recently?”

“Not for years, no… but I know they’re out there.  If they know I have taken over your job, they might come after me and that would jeopardize…”

“You shouldn’t worry about them.  Leave them to me.”

“You?”

 They can’t be different from any other of the… er… ‘agents of evil’ that I’ve encountered over the centuries.  Believe me, Paul, it’s not always been all peachy a job for me…”

“So I’m starting to realise,” Scarlet said, raising a curious brow.

“I’ll be able to manage, don’t worry.  As for yourself, think about it… You’ve been wasting yourself in that big house of yours, for years…  Why not do something productive with your life instead? And think of your wife…  She’d be delighted!”

“She would be in it too?” Scarlet asked with surprise.

“Did you think my wife would be part of the package deal?” Nick said with an amused smile.  “Jessica is an open-minded woman, but I don’t think she would accept that. Neither would your wife, of course.”  He started chuckling at the thought, and Scarlet nodded slowly, thinking of what his wife’s reaction would be on hearing this proposition.  She certainly would welcome the change in their lives.  Ever since she had been released from their enemies’ hold all those years ago – after they had taken her to get at him – she had grown withdrawn, moody – thinking thoughts of revenge against the entities who had done this to her.  Of course, because of that, they had both been able to share many centuries of happiness together, but somehow, that didn’t erase the evil that had been done to her – or to him, for that matter.

Nick’s proposition would be a nice change of pace for both of them – and it would be much more healthy than continuing to brood in their home for the next centuries, waiting for the enemy to eventually attack them yet again. They had grown old, yes – more slowly than any other human beings… None of the friends they had known in the past were alive anymore. Aside from Nick – and his case was a peculiar one, just like theirs – they had only each other to share company with – and the eventuality that they might grow so accustomed to their boring, and extended life together that they might come to hate it with a vengeance , filled him with dread.

Scarlet looked out through the window, and watched as snow was slowly drifting down to settle on the already white ground.  He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  His eyes caught his reflection in the glass; his hair was not quite white yet, and his eyebrows had become the same colour; there were wrinkles on his face, but not yet very deep ones – at least, not as deep as those adorning Nick’s own face.  But his eyes were still as blue and vibrant as they were centuries ago.

There was still many years – centuries – in front of him.  Why not enjoy them to the utmost?

“I know that wearing red suits me,” he murmured thoughtfully.

“You can’t say no to this proposition, Paul,” Nick said with a mischievous smile.  “Come on – you’re tempted to accept.  I can see it.”

It didn’t take very long for Scarlet to make his decision. “All right, Nick.”  He turned smiling eyes to his companion.  “I think I will accept the proposition…”

“There you go, old chap!” Nick said, laughing with his big laugh, and vigorously thumping Scarlet’s shoulder.  “I knew you couldn’t say no!”

“Just one last question, though,” the still hesitant Scarlet continued.

“And what is that?”

“Will I have to wear the beard?” Scarlet asked with a frown.  “Because, beards don’t agree with me.”

Nick laughed again, stroking his own, long snow-white beard.  “Well, I’m afraid that goes with the territory, my boy,” he said.  “But of course, until you can grow your own, you can do as all those Santa impersonators do in shops – and wear a false one!”

 

 

 

In the open stable, the man who had been Paul Metcalfe, and Captain Scarlet of Spectrum, walked round the back of the sleigh, and slowly went to the front, where the harnessed reindeers were patiently waiting.  Thoughtfully, he came to scratch the nose of the lead reindeer, while slowly removing his false beard, to let it hang on his chest. In the past twenty years since he had been doing the job, he had never been able to convince himself to let his own beard grow. 

He still gave the impression of being one of the fake Santas from the malls; his appearance had changed very little. In addition to the beard, he had not been able to put on weight – his metabolism would not allow it – so he had to resort to wearing a padded coat.  Nick had told him not to worry too much about it because, eventually, with age, it would come, and he would then be able to fill the coat perfectly. Somehow, that perspective wasn’t one that Scarlet was looking forward to, but he accepted it anyway as a necessity that came with the job he‘d agreed to undertake, when Nick had retired.

The beard was, however, another matter.

Has it really been twenty years already?

The reindeers snorted and shook themselves, making their bells ring in to the night; they were obviously growing excited, as they sensed that the time to leave was approaching.  Scarlet scratched the lead reindeer behind the ears, murmuring calming words.  Then, he turned to face the large open door of the stable, and looked past the falling snow, towards the little rustic, log house, which had been his home for the past years. It was all illuminated, and he could see smoke coming out of the chimney.

There was something he had to do tonight, before leaving.

He jogged towards the house.  Not bad for a three hundred year old guy, he mused.  Almost feels like only a hundred … 

He had reached his home before he knew it, almost in the blink of an eye, and the next second opened the door; the warmth inside the house was in deep contrast to the cold outside, and hit him right in the face. Logs were burning in the stone fireplace in the centre of the house, dispensing a nice aroma that mingled with that of a big pine tree, set in a corner of the room, decorated with small wooden toys, old fairy lights, pine cones, dried fruits, candies and popcorn garlands.  All old-fashioned decorations.

Only then did he notice the lively and yet faint lyrics of ‘Deck the Hall with boughs of holly’, coming from a small radio set in the living area.  Someone was humming in tune with the song; he looked in that direction, to see the back of a white hat-covered head over the backrest of a rocking chair.  Agile, female hands were knitting what appeared to be a scarf, of bright red, green and snowy white colours.

 He entered, closing the door behind him, realising the wind and snow were getting inside. The sound made the hands stop.

“Have you not gone yet?” a female voice asked. 

He shook his head. The voice still sounded as young as it had been so many years ago. Not changed at all by the passage of time, except, perhaps, it was a little tired.

“Soon.  The reindeers are all being harnessed and ready to go,” he answered quietly. He saw the white head nod slowly, and the hands continued their knitting.  He tilted his head to one side, watching, keeping silent for a moment.

“Are you happy here, sweetheart?”

The knitting stopped again.  “After twenty years, you’re finally asking me?”

He could hear the disapproval – almost the irritation – in the voice now. “Well, I just thought that you…”

“Well, you certainly took your damn time about it!”

The rocking chair spun around and the woman’s vibrant blue eyes flashed with barely contained anger as she glared at him finally.  He stepped back, almost from surprise. He knew she had grown old, like himself, but strangely, her face was still unmarked by any wrinkles at all.  Her hair had all gone white, and she now needed glasses to read and do intricate work, but that was the only thing marking her years.  

She was still as beautiful as she had always been.

And seeing her furious features right now was taking Scarlet back to centuries ago…

“Years ago, you took the decision before consulting with me,” she told him. 

Oh.  The old argument again.  And unfortunately he had only the same answer to offer.

“Nick needed an immediate answer,” he said as she got to her feet. “And I really thought that you would like it…  Don’t you?”

 “You know, there’s only so much knitting a woman can do to pass the time,” she declared. “How many scarves do you think I can make?  I’ve provided one for every elf in the toy factory so far.”  She sighed.  “Somehow, I thought it would be different. More… exciting.”

“You don’t like it,” he concluded.

She sighed, apparently regretful. “Oh I do.  I appreciate that it’s quiet –And it’s a nice change from our previous life but… perhaps it’s too quiet.  I kind of miss the action.”

“You miss the Mysterons?”

She shivered and Scarlet regretted his words instantly; the thought was only making her uncomfortable. Scarlet couldn’t help but think that, in more ways than one, she had suffered far more than him from what the Mysterons had done to her years ago.

He still blamed himself for that.

“Not that – Never that.  I mean, any action.  I miss…  I don’t know -  You know I’m not Jessica.  If she could be content with only knitting scarves, then good for her.  But me…”  She lowered her beautiful eyes. “Maybe… just maybe, having children around could have made things easier…”

Here we go.

“Elves don’t replace children.  Okay, they’re small, but most of them are older than us!”

“We couldn’t have children,” he said. 

“I know,” she answered.  “If one of us had still been human long enough…  Perhaps, then…”  She sighed sadly. “After that, we didn’t dare.”

“No,” his simple answer echoed her own regret.  He lowered his head in turn.  “I’m sorry, darling… I realise it’s all my fault.”

“Oh no, Paul.  No!”

She reached to him and gently stroked his cheek, forcing him to look at her again.  She smiled.  “I’m so sorry, I never meant for you to feel guilty,” she said.  “Especially not tonight, of all nights.  The happiest of night for everyone in the world, including you. But for me… it’s the longest and saddest of nights.”

He raised an inquiring brow.

“You’re bringing joy to children all over the world,” she continued.  “Just like Nick did before you.  And for that, I love you even more.  But me, I stay here and wait… for an eternity, it would seem.  And I think of all those children… those without parents.  Especially those in need. You get to pass some time with them.  It’s like they’re your children.  You’re – their father.”

“They’re your children too,” he remarked, stroking her hand gently. “You’re Mother Christmas, after all.”

She almost scoffed.  “I’m Mother Christmas – but Mother Christmas always fades in the shadow of her husband.”

“Never.”  Scarlet kissed her hand, and then leaned to kiss her on the lips.  “I thought there was something amiss with you – You should have told me all that earlier.”

“You were too happy – I didn’t want to spoil it all.”

“Would you like to come with me?” he asked.

She opened her eyes wide.  “On the tour?  But Mother Christmas never… It’s not tradition…”

“Nick sometimes took Jessica with him.  Why shouldn’t I do the same?”  He stood tall, smirking down at her.  “And am I not Santa Claus now?  So I’m quite allowed to change and even break with tradition.  For now on, I declare that Mrs Claus will follow her husband on the tour – and distribute gifts with him to the children of the world.”

She giggled.  “You mean it?”

“In all the years we’ve been together, have you ever known me to say something and not mean it?”

“Oh, thank you, Santa!”  She literally jumped at his neck, nearly knocking him down.  “This is the best Christmas present ever!”

He laughed – and his laugh really sounded like Nick’s used to. He was deeply amused by her childish display.  “Now you will have to wear your coat,” he warned.  “It’ll be mighty cold up there.”

“I know.”  She detached herself from him and caught the long red coat hanging from a hook next to the door.  Scarlet frowned.  He could have sworn it wasn’t there a second ago.  “Good thing my hair went white,” she remarked, putting the coat on. “You know I could never wear red – when I was younger.”

“Red or white, you’re still the love of my life,” he answered with a smirk.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve flown.  Can I drive?”  She asked, still with that childish expression on her face.

“No,” he answered, opening the door for her.

“Oh come on, Santa…” she moaned, stepping out.

“Santa’s got to drive the sleigh.  It’s tradition.”

“You said you would break the tradition.”

“Not this one…”

“I always was a better pilot than you were…”

Scarlet rolled his eyes, as he closed the door. He knew she would continue to argue until they reached the sleigh – and perhaps still after that, while they were in flight.  But he didn’t mind.  He knew he would have a good time tonight – like all Christmas Eves.

He looked up to the clear sky; it was still snowing.  He smiled.  It was a beautiful night to fly.  Quiet, and silent, except for the sound of bells he could hear in the distance. He wondered where it could be coming from, then dismissed the thought right away, and walked towards the stable with his wife.

Accepting Nick’s proposition to take over after his retirement was certainly the best decision he had ever made.

I wonder how Nick is these days – and if he’s having as much fun as us…

Standing alone at the entrance of the stable, as his wife walked in, he looked up to the dark sky; above their heads, beyond the falling snow, they was one of the most beautiful aurora borealis he had even seen.  It was an eerie green, and moving ever so slowly into the dark sky.  He frowned.  That colour…

He heard the faint sound of bells behind him, with soft humming. Turning around, he glanced at a short man, who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, to check on the reindeers’ harness.  He was dressed all in green, with a funny little beret garnished with small golden bells that were ringing gaily at each movement.  He raised his head to look at Scarlet and a broad smile lit up his dark face.

“The sleigh will be ready in thirty minutes, Santa,” he said.  “Just in time for your annual tour.”

“Thank you, Seymour,” Scarlet heard himself say to the stable elf.  And even as he said the name, he frowned, as if his subconscious was trying to tell him something.  He looked in direction of his wife, who was getting ready behind the sleigh…  She didn’t appear in the least preoccupied by the elf’s presence; she was humming contently.

Scarlet’s frown deepened, and once again, he raised his eyes to the sky, to look at the eerie moving lights of the aurora borealis.

For whatever reason he couldn’t explain, the sight of it was making him uncomfortable now.

A shiver ran down his spine…

 

Winter in Finland, Northern Lights in green colours

 

On the red and dark planet called Mars, on a part unseen by man’s telescopes and where no human dared to set foot anymore, was a strange city, glowing with eerie, alien, multicoloured lights that seemed to have a life of their own, where evil minds were scheming again – plotting revenge once more, after centuries, on those who had defeated them so long ago.  It had taken them this long to heal from the devastating blow that had nearly obliterated them, but now they were ready to start the war anew, and finally destroy that loathed planet, The Earth.

“WE, THE MYSTERONS, ARE READY TO STRIKE ANEW,” a deep, disembodied voice stated, seemingly addressing the empty void of space.  “THE EARTHMEN THINK THEY DESTROYED US YEARS AGO, AND ARE NOW CONFIDENT THAT THEY ARE SAFE FROM US.  BUT TIME HAS NO MEANING FOR THE MYSTERONS.  WE WILL DESTROY THEIR PITIFUL PLANET, ONCE AND FOR ALL.  IN THE END, THE MYSTERONS WILL BE VICTORIOUS – AS IT SHOULD BE.”

The voice had barely stopped when a crashing sound was heard and fire seemed to fill the sky.  A white and red rocket passed over the Mysteron City and a missile was launched. It hit the tallest building, an orange and green mushroom-shaped tower, destroying it on impact, and sending puffs of smoky clouds and fire over the rest of the city.  The rocket landed just outside the city, and, as it settled down onto the ground, the canopy opened and a tall, robust man, dressed all in red, and sporting a neatly-trimmed white beard, stepped out, holding a huge missile-thrower in his strong hands. The sound of ringing bells was heard in the distance, seemingly coming out of nowhere, and his eyes glowered as he looked at the gleaming lights coming from the alien complex.

“Hear me, you extra-terrestrial pawns of evil!” he boomed confidently.  “I’ve been watching you for years, hoping that you had learned your lesson already. Now I see that you have learned nothing.  But mark my words:  as long as I live, you will not threaten the Earth, ever again!”  He reloaded his weapon.  “Now come on, alien scum!  Make my day…”

The bell sound mounted in crescendo as he took aim at the complex.

 

 

Captain Scarlet woke with a start and nearly fell down from the dangerously tilted seat.  He just had time to put his feet on the floor.  He looked around, his face haggard; he was alone, in the Officers’ Lounge, on Cloudbase. Tentatively, he reached for his face, stroking his cheeks, his brow…  He felt no wrinkles.  Looking at himself, he saw he was wearing his Spectrum uniform.

Bells were still ringing in his ears, and he was wondering where this odd sound was coming from.

“This is Jay Morgan from R-KID – radio station,” a voice boomed from the speaker above his head, nearly making him jump. “It’s two in the morning, and Santa is making his way to your house… He knows who’s been naughty and nice… so be nice… and all of you have a Happy Christmas.  HO-HO-HO…”

The song ‘Santa Claus is coming to Town’ started playing, drowning the sound of the bells.

Scarlet heaved a deep sigh. A dream.  It was all a dream… There had been a party in the Officers’ Lounge during the evening, and everybody ate and drank – non-alcoholic beverages, of course – more than was reasonable.  Himself more than anyone else, he recalled.  Indigestion.  It must have been indigestion that caused that dream…

 His eyes fell on the TV-guide set on the table next to him; it was open on a page announcing a movie that evening:

‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’…

Scarlet groaned. Now he remembered fully; he had read the article, and thought the title was intriguing enough to warrant him proposing to his colleagues to check the movie out.  The others had declined, but he had ordered it from the Television Databank anyway, and had sat down to watch it, as the party continued around him. He had never heard of this particular movie – but the TV-guide warned that it was considered one of the worst ever made; yet, despite that fact, it had become a cult classic, as often happened with really awful movies.

If his memory served him right, a handful of his friends had gathered around to watch as well, out of curiosity, but had quickly left. The few images he could recall from the beginning of the movie had not impressed Scarlet at all, and were enough to convince him that it was truly awful.

 But, as far as he remembered, it had nothing to do with his dream.

I must have dozed off shortly after it started… That silly title must have conjured that last image in my dream…

The bells were heard again, as he moved.  Something was hanging by the side of his head and he reached for it; it was a white, furry bobble, which, he noted, was attached to the end of a red hat, garnished with bells and stuck on his head.  Shocked as if the hat was electrified, he felt his heart miss a beat; swiftly, he removed it from his head.

A Santa Claus hat.

He heard a giggle coming from nearby.

“Don’t you like my little present?”

Scarlet swivelled the chair around and found Rhapsody Angel standing by the Christmas tree, watching him mischievously. She was still wearing her Angel flight suit, and had her crash helmet tucked under her left arm.  He watched as she approached him, deliberately slowly.

“When I came down from my stint in Angel One, Symphony told me you had dozed off, in front of the TV during the party.  Nobody wanted to wake you up when they all left, once the party was over, so I thought that maybe you would still be here.” 

She sat down on his lap, and he continued to stare at her, silent and slack-jawed.  “Now, Santa…  Whatever should I ask you for, as my Christmas gift?”  She took his Christmas hat from his hand and put it on her own head, causing the bells to resonate again, and grinned widely. 

That was when she noticed his stunned expression. She frowned in concern.  “Paul, are you all right?”

“I…” His brow furrowed in turn.  “I don’t know… I’ve just had the wildest dream… ever.”

“A wild dream?”  Rhapsody’s smile widened.  “Was I in it?”

“Yes…”

“Oh – a kinky dream?”

“Well… it involved you dressed in a Mrs. Claus outfit…  And me as Santa…”  She gave him a thoughtful expression at those words, and his frown deepened.  “But it was far from kinky – and yet again… very odd.”

“Will you tell me about it?”

He shook his head.  “Well, the details are starting to fade… As with all dreams.”  He chuckled.  “But I do remember seeing Green as an Elf too…”

“He won’t be pleased to hear that…”

“I don’t have any intention of telling him,” Scarlet defended himself. He shook his head, trying to dismiss, as quickly as possible, whatever memory still remained of his silly dream.  “Now, as for you, my dear…” He drew her closer to him, grinning as he did so.  “You said something about wanting a Christmas gift?  Have you been a good girl this year?”

“I’ve been very naughty, Father Christmas,” she answered in a childish voice.

“Oh, don’t I know it…” he answered, leaning to kiss her.

He could still hear the bells in his ears; this time, he knew the sounds were coming from her hat.  He opened an eye nevertheless, to peer beyond her head, out of the porthole they were sitting next to. 

Through the glass, he saw a small, luminous red dot running through the dark, starry sky.

He didn’t dare to think it was something other than the position lights of an aircraft flying nearby…

 

 

 

THE END

 

 

This short story – written in a few days only – was more or less inspired by the title of the B Series movie “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” – which, Scarlet has stated himself, has little in common with what happens to him in the dreamy sequence of this story!

I want to thank Marion Woods for having checked this story and given me food for thoughts while writing it.  Any mistake found in the story is mine alone. 

To the members of the “Inner Circle” of the Spectrum Headquarters – you know who you are if you’re reading these lines – this story – that  I hope you liked – is my dedicated gift to you, to thank you for all your support, advices and help throughout those last five years.

I hope you – and everyone else – liked this story.

 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

 

Chris Bishop

 

 

If you are a little curious about the movie ‘Santa Claus conquers the Martians’ – just click on the image on the right.  The link will bring you to a YouTube Video, where you’ll be able to view the said movie…

 

 

 

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