Original series Suitable for all readers

A White Christmas Carol

 

 

A “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” story for Christmas

 

By Chris Bishop, Mary J. Rudy and Sue Stanhope

 

 

PART 1

 

 

It had to be him… WHY did they HAVE to send HIM?

Colonel White looked up from the memorandum in his hands and scowled at the man dressed in civilian clothes standing before him.  The Spectrum commander-in-chief rubbed his face, bringing attention to his tired eyes.  He, and the rest of his senior staff, had been up through the previous night thwarting the most recent Mysteron threat, and his fatigue was evident, even though White tried his best to conceal it.  “When Accounting first notified me of this, I assumed they meant they would send a representative from their own offices, not Intelligence.”

Special Agent Martin Conners smiled thinly, as if it were possible for him to smile any other way. “They’re a bit short-handed, sir.  I volunteered for the job.”

“You volunteered,” said White unctuously.  “How nice of you to do so, Mr Conners.”

“Colonel, I hope you realise it’s nothing personal.”  He consulted the file in his hands – it seemed as if he ALWAYS had a file in his hands whenever White saw him.  “It came to the Accounting Centre’s attention that a number of… financial irregularities, shall we say, occurred this past year aboard Cloudbase.  Discrepancies between mission expenses, equipment allowances, and officers’ reimbursement vouchers, that sort of thing.  Nothing really bad; a routine audit will be sufficient to sort it out, I’m sure…”

Suddenly Colonel White was fully awake.  “You want to do a what?!”

“An audit, sir,” Conners repeated.  “Of the senior officers’ expense accounts, which is the reason it has come to the attention of Internal Affairs.”

“Internal Affairs?” White scoffed, throwing the sheet on his desk.  “My officers have nothing to hide!”

“Which is why I know they’ll comply fully with my investigation.”

“But why now?  I’m told you want to start TODAY!  It’s Christmas Eve, for goodness sake!”

“Spectrum Intelligence – that is, the internal affairs bureau at Spectrum Intelligence – feels that we should clear this matter up before the end of the year.  My team is prepared to start today, if possible…”

“Team?”

“A team of three auditors, Colonel.  I thought the work could be done more efficiently that way.  I assure you, as soon as we’re finished here, we’ll be on our way, and we’ll be out of your crew’s way in time for your holiday celebrations.”

Colonel White scowled.  Celebrations?  Well yes, it would soon be Christmas.  Over the past few weeks several delegations from his crew had come to him asking permission to put up decorations and celebrate the various holidays on board.  He had given his agreement, on the sole condition that everyone continued with their duties as normal.  After all, this was a military base, and everyone had to keep in mind that there was no better time for the Mysterons – or any terrestrial terrorist group – to launch an attack, when no-one would anticipate it and would be taken by surprise.  White wouldn’t want that; the cost in lives would be too high.

White looked down at the paper set on his desk in front of him.  The authorisation that Conners had given him upon entering the Control Room a few minutes ago, and before explaining to him what his visit was for exactly.  In principle, White could have rejected the demand and asked Conners to wait until after the Holiday Season for his auditors to perform their task.  It would be easier on everyone at the moment, his crew, officers, staff – himself.  And he had a feeling that the auditors themselves would prefer to be anywhere else rather than on Cloudbase – probably with their own families, no doubt.  But the colonel could not, in all conscience, regard this as a good enough reason to ask Conners to leave.  He could see the necessity of such an administrative operation.  He nodded quietly.

“You won’t disturb my staff during the course of their duties?” he asked in a warning tone.

“No, Colonel.  Maybe a few questions to some of them, and I’ll make sure it’s quick.”

“All right, then.  Lieutenant Green?”  White called, addressing the communication officer seated at his station and working on the base’s main computer.  He saw the young Black man turn in his direction and raise his head.  “Mr Conners’ team is cleared to board.  Inform the Accounting Centre that we are expecting them.”

“S.I.G., sir,” Green answered, turning to his console.

“When your team arrives someone will escort them to the Bursar’s Office, Mr Conners,” White added to the Spectrum Intelligence agent.  “Lieutenant Gold is in charge.  I’ll make sure he co-operates with them.”

“Thank you, Colonel.  I’m much obliged.” 

There was a bit of surprise in Conners’ tone of voice.  He was indeed perplexed by the colonel’s quick approval, because he had come prepared for a fight.  The result was that he was at a loss for words.  He stood there, not quite knowing what to say.

“Is that all, Mr Conners?”

“Er… Yes, sir.  That’s all.  I will, of course, forward you a copy of my report to Accounting…”

White narrowed his eyes.  “Yes, Mr Conners.  I would appreciate that.  Now, if you’ll excuse me and carry on with your duties – I am quite busy myself.”

Conners nodded briefly and turned on his heel, briskly walking the distance separating him from the green doors leading out of the Control Room.  They opened before him and he left.  White was thoughtfully staring as the doors slid shut on him, his eyes following the paper decorations – in the shape of mistletoe leaves and berries – pasted on them.  That was Lieutenant Green’s doing, earlier that day.  White shook his head morosely.  His eyes changed direction; they fell on glittering garlands, hanging from the ceiling – put there by Captains Ochre and Magenta the day before.  He grumbled and picked up his pen, to continue writing in the report he had been working on before Conners’ arrival.

Christmas…

White heard a faint beeping sound coming from Green’s console, almost as soon as the young man had finished contacting first the SPJ hangar, then the Bursar’s Offices.   Someone was contacting Cloudbase Control Room.  The colonel distractedly heard his aide saying something into his mic, then raising his voice to address him.

“Sir, an important call for you.”

“From whom, Lieutenant?”  White asked, without raising his eyes from his document.

“The World President, sir.  He says he wants to speak to you in private and if you would call him back from your quarters…”

White stopped working. The World President… calling on Christmas Eve? And asking for a private conversation? That certainly must be important.  He rose from his seat.  “Thank you, Lieutenant.  Tell the World President I’ll call back in five minutes.”

 

 

“Got a minute?”

Captain Blue looked up from his half-written report and pushed his chair away from the desk.  “You know, normally I don’t mind doing these after-action reviews, but today my heart’s just not in it.” His smile was tired; they were all done in, it seemed.  “What can I do for you?”

Captain Ochre smiled in return, a bit brighter than his colleague.  “I need some muscle.”

“Huh?  If you have to collect a debt, maybe it’s Magenta you should be asking.  He used to do that for a living.”

“Not that kind of muscle.  I have to set something up in the Officers’ Lounge for the party.”

“Sure, why not?  This can wait.”

The pair strode down the corridor, but passed the hatch leading into the lounge and headed for the access to the lower decks.  “Wait a minute, where are we going?” Blue asked.

“Oh, I stored it on the Hangar Deck.  We’re going there by way of Sickbay, because I’ll need Scarlet’s help as well.”

“Scarlet?  What is this thing?”

“You’ll see when we get there.”  He paused, seeming a bit embarrassed. “This was meant as a Christmas surprise for everyone, but... now I need some help.”

Blue shrugged.  Captain Ochre didn’t normally ask for help from his fellow officers, but he usually wasn’t so secretive about one of his projects either – not that anyone was ever really interested in one of his projects…  This time, apparently, he wasn’t going to tell him any more, and Blue left it at that.  It was the time of year for surprise gifts and keeping secrets from each other, after all, and the Midwesterner had obviously been keeping something secret from the others for months.  He assumed he’d know soon enough what it was. 

Captain Scarlet had just been released and was putting a new uniform on when they got to Sickbay, and he was only too glad to be of assistance.  “Will do me some good to stretch out these new muscles,” he remarked, rolling his shoulders as he did so.

“Nothing too strenuous, Captain,” cautioned Dr. Fawn, who had entered the room just as Scarlet finished.  “I don’t want you back here in an hour.”

“As you say, Doctor, ‘no worries.’  I’ll be fine.”  He snatched the release from Fawn’s clipboard.  “Happy Christmas, Doc.”

“Thanks, and the same to all of you!” Fawn cheerfully replied, nodding to each of them as they left.

The three officers eventually reached the Hangar Deck and stopped before a locked storeroom.  Captain Ochre swiped the lock with his keycard, then entered a code.

Blue stared in disbelief. “You coded the lock?!”

“Just in case the colonel came snooping around,” said Ochre as he pulled the door open and gestured them in.  “Remember, he doesn’t know about any of this.”

“Neither do we,” Blue growled. “What have you been up to for the last few months, Rick, and why are you hiding it in here?”

“Can we please discuss this later?  The colonel doesn't know about the party either, does he?”  Scarlet consulted his watch.  “He’ll have our guts for garters if he doesn’t get our reports soon.  Fawn told me he’s in a dreadful mood.”

“Don’t worry,” said Ochre with a wink.  “I’ve got that covered.  You two aren’t the only ones in on this—”  With that his personal communicator beeped; the top of the pen-shaped device flashed green.  He pulled it out of his tunic pocket.

“Right on time, Lieutenant.  Talk to me.”

“Ebenezer’s having a word with Marley right now.  You are clear to take the turkey out of the oven.”

“S.I.G.  Hot stuff, comin’ through.”  He closed the channel.

 Scarlet and Blue exchanged glances.  “Rick, sometimes you take your job way too seriously,” Blue said, shaking his head.

Ochre ignored the comment, and headed for the workbench in the corner of the room.  “Come on, we haven’t much time.  Once we get these in the lounge I’ll explain everything.”  He moved several empty boxes from the front of the bench, revealing three large objects covered with individual tarpaulins.

“We’ll make sure you do.”  Scarlet frowned, thoughtful.  “Ebenezer I can understand, but who the devil is Marley?”

“The World President,” Ochre explained.  “Green told me earlier that he heard through the grapevine the colonel would be getting a private call from him today, Christmas greetings I imagine.”  He waved toward the workbench.  “Now’s the time for us to get these out of here, before he goes off Green’s radar and starts wandering the decks looking for us.”

Ochre had appropriated three wheeled carts used for transporting mechanic’s tools.  Scarlet and Blue lifted each of the heavy bundles onto a cart, straining with the effort.  “Jesus, Rick, what have you got in here?” Blue grunted.  “This better be worth the effort!”

“Oh, it will be, believe me,” said Ochre with a sly smile.

The three of them started across the deck with their cargo, dodging the deckhands preparing for an incoming aircraft.  Suddenly Scarlet stopped in his tracks.

“Perhaps you were too hasty in assigning code names, Captain,” he whispered, nodding toward the other end of the deck.  “Here comes someone more appropriate for the part of Mr Scrooge.”

Ochre swore under his breath.  “What’s Conners doing here?”

As if he heard him, the Intelligence agent changed course and headed straight for the three officers.  “Good morning, Captains,” he said, eyeing the tarpaulins more than the men.  “What have you got there?”

None of your goddamn business, thought Ochre, but instead replied, “A last-minute Christmas present, if you must know…”  Conners was about to make another comment when the klaxon sounded, warning everyone to clear the deck for depressurisation. 

“Merry Christmas, Mr Conners!” Ochre shouted over the din, pushing the cart away with a vengeance.  He took off at a run toward the exit, Scarlet and Blue following closely behind.  Thank God for small favours, he said to himself.  He smiled slightly when he realised that Scarlet and Blue were probably thinking the exact same thing…

 

 

It took White less than the five minutes announced to reach his personal quarters, located on the lower level of the Control Tower.  As he briskly walked down there, he encountered a few groups of rather festive people.  The third group, a low-ranked officer and a security sergeant, nearly forgot to salute him appropriately.  It was only when they noticed the colonel’s reproving frown that they caught themselves, coming to attention as he walked by.  Apparently, White reflected, every one was in the spirit of the Holiday Season.  Everyone, that was, except him.  For the last few years, he mused, he had never truly felt like celebrating during Christmas.  Oh, he would accept that the holiday be celebrated, and even joined in the festivities, but ever so briefly.    Always, he would leave early, and would usually return to his work, which he couldn’t stay away from for long. 

It wasn’t always that way, though.  White remembered a time, so long ago, when he would be in as much of a celebratory spirit as anyone else, if not more.

Was that so many years ago?

He reached the door to his quarters, slid his card into the slot and keyed his security number on the lock pad.  The door slid open and he stepped in.  As the door slid closed behind him, he heaved a deep sigh.  His quarters always felt like home.  Not as Spartan as anyone would imagine, he thought as his eyes browsed around, taking in his surroundings with obvious contentment, but comfortable, and very personal, with all kinds of memorabilia from his past life hanging on the walls or adorning his furniture.  On the place of honour on his desk, right next to his work computer, was the framed photo of his deceased wife, which had never left him for the last seventeen years.  As he sat down in front of his station and reached for the comm.link console to make his call, he noticed the ‘new mail’ message flashing on the screen of his computer.  A quick glance informed him it was coming from his secured personal mailbox.  He took note to come back to that, in the back of his mind, then contacted the World President’s office.

It only took a few seconds before the image of James T. Younger, seated at his desk in his office, appeared on the comm. screen, to greet the Spectrum commander. “Ah, Colonel White,” the World President said with a grin, “so glad you were able to call me so swiftly.”

“Mr President,” White answered with a nod, “how may I be of service to you?  I suppose it’s an urgent matter for you to have called today, and asked me to contact you right away.”

“Urgent matter?  Not exactly.”  The World President waved toward the surface of his desk, which was covered with mounds of paper. “I have documents I have to attend to, before leaving for the Christmas vacations – hoping everything will go  smoothly during those few days and that I won’t have to be called back to duty unexpectedly.” 

The colonel visibly relaxed.  So, the World President hadn’t called him because of an emergency.  Still, he was curious to know what it was all about.  He saw Younger reach for a folder on his desk, put it in front of him and open it.  “One of those documents concerns Spectrum, and I thought I should contact you about it. It’s about that budget expansion for Spectrum that you asked the Cabinet for a few months back.”

White straightened on his seat hearing those words. About time! he thought.  They’re finally following it up. Frankly he had about given up hope of hearing anything about it any time soon. It had been his intention to make another attempt after the Holidays, if the World Government Cabinet failed to take any action on his first demand. Although benefiting from large funds for its operations, it was  the colonel’s point of view that Spectrum needed even more, in order to do an even more efficient job.  The organisation was in need of new fighter pilots, and well-trained ground agents – not to mention always the best equipment in the Research and Technologies Department, if it wanted to find out more about the Mysterons – and subsequently, come up with new and more effective ways to counter them.

“You realise that demand of yours involves quite a large amount of capital, Colonel?”  Younger noted, consulting the document and scratching his ear pensively.

“I realise that, Mr President,” White replied with an assured tone.  “But it is imperative that Spectrum gets this money.  As you know, our fight against the Mysterons – although successful – has taken its toll on the organisation.  We need more equipment and personnel if we want this fight to continue to be successful.”  He paused, and saw the World President seemingly hesitant.  “We’re talking the defence of the entire planet, sir,” White added meaningfully.

“You’re preaching to the choir, Colonel,” Younger replied with a sly smile.  “You and I are convinced that Spectrum needs all the capital necessary to continue the good fight.  I’m on your side all the way, and I will support any demands you deem essential to pursue Spectrum’s operations.”

“Thank you, sir.”  White was feeling a ‘but’ coming.  Sure enough, he didn’t have to wait very long for it.

“However,” the World President pursued, “there are those in the World Government Cabinet who feel that Spectrum is already costing more than it should…  and those people are quite willing to consider suggestions from other agencies that might help make some cuts in Government expenditure.”

White felt nervous again. He inhaled slowly.  “What kind of cuts, sir?”

Younger smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Colonel.  There is no intention whatsoever of cutting expenses for Spectrum’s needs. We know all too well how invaluable the service provided by the organisation is to Earth’s security.  No, it’s not that…”  the World President looked down at his document. “It’s a… proposition the Cabinet received that might interest you.”

“A proposition?” White asked with a frown.  “What kind?”

“One that might provide for a sharing of Spectrum’s burden in their operations – and especially with regard to its fight against the Mysterons –  with other World Security Organisations.” 

White stared at the screen in silence.  He was unsure he had understood correctly.

 “A sharing of Spectrum’s burden,” he repeated gloomily. “Frankly, Mr President, we already receive all the assistance and support of the other security organisations, whenever we  need  them.  By World Government authority, it’s their responsibility to provide us with all  necessary help at Spectrum’s demand.”

“I already know that, Colonel.  But this is something different.”

No apparent emotion was visible on White’s face, but his mind was racing. He was starting not to like this at all.  Something was up, he could smell it.  And just by seeing the expression on the World President’s face, he could guess it was something serious. 

“Now I can assure you,” Younger continued quickly, “the final decision will be yours.  But I’d like for you to hear me out, and consider all the options before you make a decision concerning this proposal I’m about to reveal to you.  I know you are a man of considerable good judgement, Colonel.  I’ll trust that judgement, whatever your decision may be.”

White let out a deep breath.  This was serious.

“Please, Mr President,” he said softly, tensing as he spoke, “go on…”

 

 

Captain Magenta stood in the observation room of the SPJ hangar deck watching with ill-concealed pleasure as the hydraulics lowered the seventy-eight foot, blue and white aircraft down into the hangar bay.  Destiny had earlier in the day volunteered for the priority detail of collecting Conners’ team of auditors and bringing them to Cloudbase.  But she had another, altogether devious, reason for taking the task.  Under cover of supposedly collecting vaccines for Doctor Fawn, two boxes had also been loaded onto the SPJ, each one containing twelve bottles of the finest French wines, personally selected by Destiny herself. 

Lowering his cap microphone, Magenta grinned conspiratorially as he contacted Lieutenant Green.

“Lieutenant, how’s Ebenezer?”

“Busy, but Captain, Bob Cratchit’s on his way to the hangar!”

“Who?” asked Magenta, surprised by the reply.

“Bob Cratchit, on his way to pick up the little Cratchits.”

Magenta turned a disdainful eye to the SPJ, which he knew had brought an auditing team to Cloudbase.  Conners!  Magenta laughed to himself.  Bob Cratchit was a good family man.  How out of place it seemed that Conners of all people should be referred to in this way!  But with the part of Scrooge gone to the Colonel...

It seemed to Magenta that Marley would had then been  much more appropriate for the SI agent, but perhaps Green was feeling charitable towards him?  Even Christmas couldn't change his attitude THAT much, surely... nah, there was only one explanation.  Marley had already been used. 

For whom, Magenta wouldn't even try to guess...

 “S.I.G. Lieutenant.  I’ll be careful.”

Magenta was barely able to contain his anticipation as the bay doors closed above the sleek plane, shrouding it in semi-darkness.  A green light flashed to confirm that air pressure and atmosphere had been restored and Magenta wasted no time in exiting the observation room.  Joining him in the hangar, two men and one woman, smartly dressed and with dark, serious expressions, stepped from the SPJ.  One of the men, clearly the senior of the three, strode purposefully towards him.  The second man, shorter, and with a slight limp, walked a step behind, accompanied by the woman, a little taller with long blonde hair.

“Pleased to meet you, gentlemen, ma’am,” Magenta greeted them.  “I’m Captain Magenta, welcome to Cloudbase.”

“Thank you, Captain.”  The first man stepped forward.  “My name is Peter Finch.  My colleagues, Tim Copely and Belinda Jackson.  I understand that we are to wait here.”

“Yes, Mr Cr… Conners will be here shortly to escort you to the Bursar’s Office.”

Finch raised his eyebrows at the strange slip with Conners’ name.  Magenta shrugged.

“Beginnings of a cold,” he explained.  “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“Perhaps you should get a shot of one of Doctor Fawn’s vaccines that your rather attractive pilot brought on board with us?”

Magenta offered him a genial smile.  “Yes, I’m sure the vaccines will be very popular amongst the staff.  We’re scheduled to get dosed up tonight as it happens.”

“Captain Magenta?”

The voice behind him was one he knew well, and it never made him feel any better to hear it, no matter what the reason.

“Mr Conners.”  Magenta turned, fixing the Spectrum Intelligence agent with a forced and insincere smile. 

“You’ve met my team of auditors?”  Conners nodded and smiled to himself.  “That’s good, we’ll be wanting to speak with you later, I’m sure.”

Magenta’s smile vanished in an instant, to be replaced with a cold, hard stare.  Conners tried to maintain his superior attitude and bearing.  He didn’t like Captain Magenta, it was commonly known, but it appeared that the feeling was entirely mutual.  Magenta’s gaze went beyond superficial contempt and his unblinking stare began to unnerve the Spectrum Intelligence agent to the point that he finally lowered his eyes to the file he carried and cleared his throat.

“Anyway…” he began uncomfortably.

“Captain Magenta?” Destiny Angel called from the SPJ’s main hatch.  “I think we’ve taken up enough of Mr Conners’ time.  He and his team have a lot of work to do and we have to get those vaccines down to Sickbay.”

Magenta turned and nodded, the sooner Conners and his team were out of their way, the better.

“Destiny Angel,” Conners nodded politely.  “Very thoughtful of you, we will be quite busy, I’m sure.”

Magenta felt eyes burning into the back of his neck and the frown from Destiny merely confirmed his thoughts.

“Mr Conners?” Magenta began through gritted teeth, still with his back to him.  “Will you be requiring an escort?”

“No thank you, Captain, I know the way,” Conners returned abruptly.

“Mr Conners?” Finch stepped forward, eager to break the obvious tension in the hangar.  “Perhaps we could help to carry the vaccines, the boxes looked very heavy and, no offence, ma’am,” he turned courteously to Destiny, “but a lady ought not to be carrying such a weight.”

Magenta grinned, the idea of Conners assisting him with contraband was simply delicious.  His hopes were dashed by the voice of reason, in the form of Destiny Angel.

“Thank you, Mr Finch,” Destiny offered him a grateful smile, “but that won’t be necessary.  We have already made arrangements for their delivery.”

“Thank you, but I think we should be going to the Bursar’s Office.  We’ll speak later I’m sure, Captain,” Conners cut in, signalling to the three auditors.

Magenta watched as Conners led the team from the hangar and heaved a heavy sigh as the doors slid closed behind them.

“Could have had some fun there,” he sighed, turning to face Destiny who merely shook her head slowly at him.

“What?” asked Magenta with concern. “Were they suspicious?  Did you have any trouble?”

“Do you think I am incapable, Captain?” Destiny Angel, asked in a slightly haughty manner.

Magenta raised his hands in defence whilst almost losing his smile.  “No, not all, who could think that?” he finished with a grin spreading once more across his face.  “You got the stuff?” he asked with an exaggerated wink.

“Huh!” Destiny scoffed.  “I hope you don’t mind me asking, Patrick…”

“Uh oh, I’m about to be told off,” Magenta noted with a wry smile.

“You enjoy this, don’t you?”

Magenta grinned.  “And you don’t?”  Magenta paused as Destiny grinned in return.  “Where did you put the boxes?”

“In the passenger compartment, I didn’t want the wine to chill too quickly in the cargo hold, that can be as bad as not chilled at all,” Destiny replied coolly.

“What?! You put it right under their noses?”

“No, right under their feet, they were using the boxes as little footstools all the way here.”

“You’re joking, tell me you’re joking.”

It was only then that Magenta saw the teasing smile spread across her face.

“So, you DO think I’m incapable!”

Magenta took a deep breath, realising he’d been tricked, he gritted his teeth and managed a half smile.  “Sometimes, I don’t know who’s worse, you or Ochre.”

Mon pauvre Patrick,” she replied, brushing her hand gently across his cheek, “you’ll have to work that one out before tonight.”

Magenta’s eyes widened in horror as she turned smoothly to step back into the SPJ.  There was the Christmas party tonight, and both he and Destiny would attend.  After all, they were providing the wine for it.  But later on... he had hoped for a romantic evening, but it was clear she was either in a playful mood or she was deadly serious, it was never easy to tell.  But this latest dilemma was a real problem.  If he told her she was worse than Ochre, she could be offended and furious, if he told her that Ochre was the better trickster, she could be… well, she could be offended and furious.  His shoulders sagged as he followed her into the SPJ.  Well, he thought to himself, she was in line for an evening of flattery and attention in the hope that she would forget the question.  Hearing the slight sigh behind her, Destiny smiled, satisfied.

Inside the SPJ, Magenta followed Destiny to the cabin situated immediately behind the cockpit and watched as she started to pull a box out of a storage cupboard; it was clearly heavy. Stepping forward, Magenta gallantly stooped to take over; struggling as he shouldered the burden.

“Huh!” he gasped.  “What’s in here?  France’s gold reserves?”

“Just twelve bottles of the finest French wine,” Destiny replied casually with a wave of her hand.

“Twelve?  Between eleven of us?” Magenta frowned.

“Don’t panic, Patrick!” Destiny admonished.  “That’s just the red wine.  The white is underneath. Anyway, there will be ten of us, you know how the colonel reacted last time to Angel One being unmanned.”

“No… I didn’t mean…  Twenty four?!  We’re only going to get about two hours, you know!”

“And this –” Destiny continued, ignoring his outburst, “– is for us.”

Magenta’s eyes opened as wide as his grin as she raised a bottle of his favourite vintage champagne.  “Where did you get this?”  Magenta’s eyes all but glazed over as he took the champagne from her hands and examined it carefully, holding the precious bottle as if it were nectar from the Gods.  “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I’ve seen this vintage?”

Destiny sighed and nodded tiredly.  “Yes, eight years.  I know the story word for word and I’m rather hoping that it’ll be another eight years before I have to hear it again.”

Magenta glanced sheepishly at the French Angel, before grinning as he handed the bottle back to her.  “It’s going to be a wonderful Christmas, isn’t it? Our first… together.”

Destiny placed the bottle to one side, all the while not moving her eyes from Magenta’s own.  The treasured champagne now forgotten, he gazed lovingly down at her beautiful heart-shaped face.  Stepping forward, he cupped his hands around her face and gently let his fingers trace the outline of her cheeks and neck.  As his hands ran from her shoulders to her arms, Magenta gathered her towards him, his cheek brushing hers.  Sliding his left hand around her slender waist, he ran the fingers of his right hand through her long platinum blonde hair, breathing in her fragrance as he gently kissed her neck.

“Oh, get a room!” came the voice of Captain Grey from the doorway.

Magenta felt Destiny try to pull back sharply with embarrassment, but held her firmly.

“He can wait,” he whispered softly in her ear as he waved an arm vaguely in Grey’s direction.

“I heard that!” admonished Grey.

“Hearing like a bat!” Magenta sighed, turning and offering Grey a shrug of resignation.  “Too much time in a submarine listening to the sonar.”

“Yeah, well, at least I’ve kept my skills.  I imagine there was a time when you’d have been fully aware of anyone creeping up on you.”

Magenta frowned. “I knew you were there,” he muttered defensively.

“Gentlemen!  This is Christmas!” Destiny reminded them.  “A time of peace.  Goodwill.  And carrying of heavy boxes.”

Grey sighed and smiled.  “And unbelievable luck too.  Green just told me that the old man’s gone to his quarters.  Important communication from the ground, and he expected to be a while.  So we have plenty of time."

 “Right then,” Magenta grinned in return, tapping his foot on the remaining box in the storage cupboard. “Grab a box.”

 

 

Pensively, Colonel White was reading the paper version of the document that the World President had sent him through the World Government top-security Ethernet lines and which he had printed only minutes ago. It contained all the details of the proposition Younger had been telling him about.  And more.

Sharing of responsibility, White thought grimly, pushing the piles of paper away from him as he finished reading the last lines for the third time.  Sharing of everything else – knowledge of the enemy, files, weapons, strategies, courses of action – but certainly NOT responsibility. They would share the credit, ‘collaborating more closely with Spectrum’.  Spectrum would retain overall control of its operations, but the other agencies would have the opportunity of consultation.  In other words, butting in whenever they feel like it, White reflected irritably. But, if  a problem should arise, if a mission should fail – Spectrum would certainly be the only one to take the heat.  There would be no-one to step forward to share the blame.

He had seen this before, when he was part of the Universal Secret Service.  He had seen it between offices and between organisations too.  He knew very well that it wasn’t coming from the ‘concern to cut some of the expenses’.  No, they had something more devious than that in mind.  And he should have realised it over the last couple of years.  Spectrum’s continual success in its operations – especially in view of the fight against the Mysterons – had probably caused some jealousy within the other security organisations.  It was really the spotlight they wanted to share.  Why should Spectrum be the only organisation with the mandate to fight the Mysterons?  Wasn’t it a planetary concern that should involve every World Government security office?  Notwithstanding the fact that they had to bring their full support and assistance to Spectrum when asked.  They didn’t receive much of the credit for that.  They wanted more.

Colonel White wasn’t very surprised when he had seen the name of the person who had signed that proposal to the World Government – the man personally responsible for it.  Weston.  Shane Weston Jr.  Head of the Universal Secret Service, who had succeeded Charles Gray as head of the London Offices after his resignation, and who had quickly climbed the ladder up to the highest position in the organisation.  In fact, he had been the second choice for this post, after Gray.  When the latter had turned down the promotion, to take on the title of Colonel White for the newly formed Spectrum organisation, Weston had eagerly accepted the post.  He was a good administrator, no doubt about that, but, White knew , he was also able to use fierce and dubious methods to get the job done to his satisfaction.  Stabbing people in the back wouldn’t be beyond him. I swear, White thought with humour, he’d use children if it would serve him…

Weston’s proposal didn’t include ONLY the USS, but other security organisations.  It meant, amongst others, the WGPC, the WAAF, the WASP, and the World Navy…  All in all, White reflected, it wasn’t a bad proposal.  But he had a sneaky suspicion that, considering from whom it was coming, there was more to it.  When it came to Weston, there was always a price tag attached to everything.  He wasn’t someone White would trust implicitly.  Not without insurance.

The colonel rubbed his eyes tiredly, grunting. He had not been able to sleep for many hours, and it was beginning to have an effect on him.  He needed the rest, he was aware of that.  To fully concentrate on that ‘proposition’.  All in all, it might not be a bad decision to accept it – to have access to a greater number of assets and on immediate help whenever necessary.  But he had to think of the downside of what it could mean.  Well, working with Weston would be one, most probably.  And it wouldn’t be the only one, more than assuredly.

Am I ready to collaborate to the fullest with all those organisations? To share EVERYTHING with them?  Knowledge and weapons?  To make a decision that might very well put some of the members of the Spectrum organisation at risk?

Not everybody knew about the existence of Captain Scarlet for example.  How would other heads of security organisations react when they found out about Spectrum’s own ex-Mysteron agent?

He closed the folder in which he had put the document.  Later.  He would have to check it later, when his mind was clearer.  His eyes fell on his computer screen, where, at the very bottom , the message that he had received mail in his personal box was displayed.  He touched the small box to bring it up, wondering what it might be about.  Few people knew this mail address of his, and even fewer still used it to write to him.  There were only a couple of people who did, he reflected, as he typed in the security code to access the box.  It already had been scanned and cleared by the Cloudbase security features by the time it opened on his screen.

Amanda.

Of course.  This was the third time she had written this week.

He had met Amanda Wainwright, the mother of Symphony Angel, one of Cloudbase’s ace fighter pilots, the preceding summer.  Well, they had already met before, a couple of times, but they really got to know each other better that summer.  More closely than Symphony Angel, or Captain Blue, or the others who were there at the time, would even suspect.  And that was something that White wasn’t ready to admit to anyone.  And especially not to Symphony.  He liked Amanda a lot.  He felt closer to her than he had ever felt to any woman since his wife’s untimely demise.  Enough to give her his personal box address, something he had never done before, with anyone.

He quietly read the message.  He thought it would be a nice change from the official documentation he had just read a few minutes ago.  And indeed it was.  Amanda had a way with words and each message was a pleasure to read.  This one was no different, and a smile formed on White’s lips, as he read the woman’s best wishes for the Holiday Season.  She was also HOPING he wasn’t over-tiring himself – from what he knew of Amanda, he felt for sure it was more a demand than anything else – that she still recalled the beautiful time they had spent together, and that she hoped to be seeing him soon – as she was sending him an invitation to spend a couple of days during the Holiday at her home in Iowa…

Hold on.

Invitation?

A few days in her home?

The smile on White’s face disappeared instantly.  He sat back on his seat, heaving a deep sigh.

Yes, of course, he enjoyed the time he had spent in Amanda Wainwright’s company.  She was a spirited, quick-witted, intelligent, beautiful and charming woman.  So much like her daughter, to whom she was very close –Symphony was her only family, since the death of her dear husband a few years back, so it was no wonder she had become the ultimate centre of her universe – her only pride and joy.  White thought Amanda was very lucky to have the comfort of a daughter after her husband’s departure – it was a chance he himself hadn’t had, and that he regretted bitterly, since his wife died while carrying their first child.  Yet, she also felt lonely – and that was a feeling that he knew only too well.  That common loneliness had probably contributed to draw them toward one another, White reflected.  Of course that didn’t reduce any of Amanda’s inherent qualities.  Or he wouldn’t have been attracted to her.

But now, he couldn’t help feeling that maybe it had been a mistake.  A mistake he had pursued by keeping in contact with the woman.

How can I do that? he thought grimly.  She’s the mother of one of my agents, for Heaven’s sake!  I can’t possibly entertain any romantic ideas about her – however innocent they might be.  That wouldn’t be fair to her.  I should know that.

SHE should know that too.

How can she invite me to her home?

Amanda knew about her daughter’s and Captain Blue’s engagement.  She was overjoyed by it – and had shown herself very happy that the colonel would approve of their upcoming marriage and had also promised to help any way he would with regard to Spectrum regulations. But as White had said himself, he was Spectrum Supreme Commander, so he’d find a solution.  And Amanda, since having heard that, had not stopped, in her messages, thanking him and telling him how generous and wonderful his gesture was.  To the point of embarrassing the colonel like never before.

Is this what she really feels for me? Only gratitude?

He shook his head. 

No.  Be fair to yourself, Charles.  It’s not Amanda.  It’s you…

You and Elizabeth.  

It was this time of year, he thought bitterly, when he would find himself thinking the more about his dear and deceased wife.  Of the wonderfully happy times they had together during those long-gone days of Christmas Season, where they would go to party after party, visit friends all over the place, and throw their own special bashes that would be the talk of London back then.  Or those other blissful hours and days when they would choose to be all by themselves, not seeing anyone, and celebrate the Holidays in their own, personal fashion.

Nothing could replace those fond memories Charles Gray had of those too short but oh-so-vivid moments of happiness. 

And how cruelly lonely the Holiday Season had been for him those last seventeen years.

I can’t go, he reflected, looking at the invitation on the screen.  It wouldn’t be a good idea. He wouldn’t feel like celebrating.  The ghost of Elizabeth would still be with him.  How odd it would have seemed, it would be like betraying her.

He closed the message.  He knew he was taking the cowardly way out by not answering it.  He just didn’t want to sadden Amanda with a negative answer.  With any luck, she might think he had not seen the message in time.

After all, it was the day before Christmas…

And he had no time for this, did he? He still had work to do, especially that day.  And he knew he wasn’t the only one. Since the debriefing with his staff officers a few hours earlier in the Conference Room, he had been expecting their individual written reports concerning the latest Mysteron activity they had thwarted the preceding night.  Some of them must have arrived by now… He pressed the button to the comm.link, which put him in direct contact with Lieutenant Green’s station.

“Colonel White?”  He heard the voice of his aide through the speakers.

“Lieutenant, have you received any of those reports I’ve been waiting for?”

“No, sir.  Except for Doctor Fawn, who just sent his to the Control Room.  Captain Scarlet has made a full recovery, as usual, and came back on duty less than an hour ago.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” White snapped in an annoyed tone.  “I’m sure I’ll read all the details in Doctor Fawn’s report.”

He almost heard Green suck in his breath at the reprimand.  Probably, he had been surprised by it.  He wasn’t the only one, as White himself wondered why he had snapped that way at the younger man. Maybe he was a little frustrated that those written reports he was waiting for were not ready just yet…  But it was no way Green’s fault. He heard him murmuring a vague excuse.

“Has Captain Scarlet reported to the Control Room yet for debriefing?”

There was hesitation on Green’s part.  “No, sir,” he finally conceded.  “I haven’t seen him yet.”

White frowned.  No reports, Scarlet not coming to the Control Room after his revival…  What was going on with people onboard Cloudbase lately?

Maybe I should check that out.

“I’ll be back in the Control Room later,” the colonel informed his aide.  “I want to take a tour of the base.  Maybe see what could be delaying those reports.”

“Yes, sir.”  Green had wisely decided not to offer his service to check on those missing reports himself.  Either he felt  that his commander was in need of some cooling off, or he didn’t want to set him off further.  In either case, Green probably took a good decision. 

White cut contact and stood up, reaching for his cap.  Doing so, his eye fell on the folder containing the proposal. His eyes flashed with anger.  Some Christmas present!  he thought irritably.  How could Younger drop that on him like that, today of all days? “Take the time to study it carefully,” he had said.  “You don’t have to answer this before the end of the Holiday Season.”

“Oh, and Merry Christmas, Charles.”

And a happy Christmas to you, Mr President, Colonel White thought inwardly, putting on his cap and walking to his door to push the opening button.

Bah, humbug.

 

 

Captain Grey shifted the box in his grip once more.  In itself, the box of twelve bottles of wine was not beyond his muscles’ capability, but the awkwardness of the size and shape made it difficult to hold.  The large box seemed to increase in weight with every step he took.  Ahead of him, Magenta grunted with pain and frustration as he propped the corner of the box up against the wall and relaxed his aching arms.  Grey followed suit and sighed with a healthy measure of relief.

“Where are we taking these, Pat?  If I carry this much longer, my shoulders are going to separate.”

Magenta looked up at Grey and nodded with a sigh. 

“Sorry, Brad, a slight miscalculation on my part,” Magenta admitted with a grimace.  “But we’ve not far to go.  We’re going to leave it in one of the supply cupboards in the Conference Room, I’ve already had a small fridge installed in there.”

“A fridge?” replied Grey, taken aback.  “Where did you get that from?”

Magenta rolled his eyes as he shifted the box more comfortably in his hands.  “Don’t ask, but if you don’t want to listen to a lecture on why Chablis shouldn’t be drunk at room temperature, you get a fridge!”

“Destiny’s pretty knowledgeable on her wines, isn’t she?” Grey grinned.  “I bet she even knows the right temperature to chill them to!”

Magenta laughed, but it was a hollow, embarrassed laugh.  “She gave me a thermometer.”

“She’s got you wrapped around her little finger,” Grey laughed to himself, then suddenly stopped as he realised he’d actually said it out loud.

“Hey!  She…” Magenta met Grey’s unimpressed gaze.  “No she hasn’t!”

“You can’t convince me that you just like a quiet life?”

“There are benefits,” Magenta replied with a twinkle in his eyes.

Grey shook his head in dismay, sometimes Magenta was truly incorrigible.

“Come on.” Grey hoisted the box back into his arms. “Let’s get going, we don’t have that long.”

The two men continued in virtual silence with only the occasion grunt of discomfort between them.  As they passed unchallenged down the corridors with only the occasional salute from junior officers, they saw nothing but their final destination.

It seemed to take an age, but finally, the two captains reached the Conference Room.  Placing his box on the floor, Grey swiped his pass through the slot next to the door.  As Magenta stepped through, Grey slumped back against the wall massaging his tired muscles.  The weight of the box now removed, his arms felt almost lighter than air, but the dull numbness still clung unpleasantly.  Grey had already decided that he wouldn’t even consider picking the box up again until the feeling had returned.

“I’ll follow you in a minute, I want to get my arms working first,” Grey explained, flexing his fingers.

Magenta merely grunted in reply, cursing himself for not having Ochre’s foresight and acquiring a trolley to transport the wine.  He had even laughed at the suggestion.  He made a mental note to ask Grey to keep quiet about it; the last thing he wanted was Ochre having the last laugh.

Captain Grey sighed as he shook out his arms one last time; finally the tingling sensation was fading and full feeling was returning.

“Captain Grey?”

Grey looked up, horrified to hear Colonel White addressing him; he had felt certain that they had more than enough time to store the wine before he left his quarters.

“Colonel White,” Grey replied, snapping to attention.

“At ease, Grey,” White frowned as he considered Grey’s obviously apprehensive response.  White had, of course, noticed the box at Grey’s feet and his apparent discomfort, but chose at first to make no reference to it.  He noted with interest that, despite the instruction, Grey had barely relaxed his stance.  Definitely guilty of something, White mused.  “Your report, Captain, I haven’t received it yet.”

“I’m sorry, Colonel, it’s almost completed.”

“Almost?” White frowned.  “That’s not like you, Captain.  Are you too caught up with the season that you think discipline no longer matters on this base?”

Grey’s expression was one of distraction; White was… well it was hard to say.  He seemed angry, very angry, but beneath that was weary disappointment. 

“I’m sorry, Sir, I’ll do it right away, you’ll have it on your desk within the hour.”

“An hour?” White narrowed his eyes; he could have written all their reports in that time.  They were being slack.  There was no excuse, certainly not the so-called season of goodwill!

“Twenty minutes, Colonel, no more.”

“Make it fifteen,” White replied with a harsh stare. “And if you see any of the other captains, I want their reports too!”

“Yes, Sir,” Grey nodded.

“Captain, I haven’t asked yet, I thought I’d give you the opportunity to tell me, but my curiosity is growing.”

“Sir?” Grey asked with an impending sense of doom.

White gently tapped the box with his left foot.  “What is this?” he asked expectantly.

Grey looked away and sighed.  White, he knew, had his own suspicions and no matter what he said, the colonel was certain to check inside.  There was only one course of action and that was to tell the truth.

“Wine, Sir.” Grey was unable to look him in the eyes and so was spared the furious glare now aimed directly at him.  It was only after a moment or two of dead air that he finally looked up and caught the colonel’s gaze.

“Captain Grey!  Where did this come from?” White demanded angrily.

“I…” Grey frowned, White was truly livid.  “I brought it on board, Sir.  I was going to use it for a small Christmas Party for the Senior Staff.”

You did?” White stared intently at the American captain.  You?”

“Yes, Sir,” replied Grey apologetically.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in you, Captain, I thought you knew better than that.  Who else is involved?”

“Nobody, Sir, just me.”

“Grey, don’t insult my intelligence!  Who else is involved?”

“Sir,” Grey began, his face fixed in a determined stare. “I assure you…”

“You’re not taking the flack for me, Grey,” a voice came from inside the Conference Room.  Only seconds later, Captain Magenta appeared, framed in the doorway.  “Colonel, I arranged for the boxes to be brought onto Cloudbase, but nobody knew what was in them, it was entirely my doing.”

White shook his head.  “Captain Magenta?  Do you expect me to accept your lies any easier than Captain Grey’s?”

“With respect, Sir, you have no evidence to back up that statement.”

“Don’t be impertinent, Captain!”

“I’m not lying to you, Sir,” Magenta insisted.

“Captain,” White glowered at the Irishman, “there is nothing lower than deceit.  Now I’m going to give you one last chance.”

“Colonel, Captain Grey was just helping me carry them.”

White stared at the Irishman; he was clever, that was certain, his quick mind considering the known facts to try his best to extricate Grey from certainly a  reprimand, if not worse. 

“You’re telling me that Captain Grey did not know what he was carrying?

“Sir…” Magenta began.  Grey could see from his bearing that he was about to tell their Commander-in-Chief and he had already admitted full knowledge of the contents of the box.

“Sir, I’ve already admitted my part in this,” Grey cut in urgently, silencing Magenta with his confession.

“Indeed.”  White narrowed his eyes at Grey before turning back to face Magenta.  “You said, ‘them’, Captain Magenta, you have more?”

Magenta’s shoulders sagged.  “Yes, Sir.”

“Not any more, you haven’t.  Captain Magenta, report at once to the Radar Room and relieve Lieutenant Sienna.  Captain Grey, you will relieve Captain Magenta in four hours.  You will continue four hours on four hours off for the next four days.”

“But Sir, Captain Grey didn’t…”

“Captain Magenta, I will not tolerate your continued outbursts.  But,” and White paused thoughtfully, “how did you get them on board?  You haven’t left the base, either of you.  But I am aware that Destiny Angel has just landed an SPJ carrying Mr Conners’ team of auditors.  Is that ALL she was carrying?”

Magenta’s face paled visibly.  “Sir, I promise you, she had no involvement in this.”

“Just like Captain Grey had no involvement?  Perhaps I should ask the auditors if they saw any boxes being loaded on board.”

“Colonel, please,” Magenta begged, “she believed them to be vaccines for Doctor Fawn.”

White stared at Magenta, realising for the first time that Magenta’s desperation went a little further than protecting a friend.

“I would not have believed that Destiny Angel could be THAT stupid, Captain.”  The brief flash of anger in Magenta’s expression did little but confirm White’s suspicions. “But then, everyone will occasionally suffer a serious lapse in judgement.”

White inspected the box at his feet, within it stood twelve bottles of the finest French Chablis.  Upside down and nestled in the centre lay another bottle.  Reaching down, White picked up the bottle and examined it approvingly.

“You have good taste, Captain,” White said as he placed the bottle once more inside the box.  “I hope you have a personal receipt, I don’t want to hear that the auditors have found an entry for this in your expenses sheets.  Captain Grey, arrange for these boxes to be sent to my quarters, that way, I know they will remain unopened until I can have them removed from the base.  Be grateful, Captains, that it is only the wine I’m having removed.  Understood?”

“Yes, Colonel,” both men replied miserably.

“Good!  And Captain Magenta, I am still awaiting your report.  I want it on my desk in ten minutes,” White snapped as he walked briskly down the corridor.

Grey turned wretched eyes to Magenta.  “I’m sorry, Pat, I really thought we had more time. If only I’d followed you inside.”

Magenta sighed and shook his head. “Or if I’d arranged a trolley for us to transport the boxes.  Don’t blame yourself, Brad.  And thanks, if you hadn’t spoken up when you did, I’d be in the brig now, with smoking heels.”

Grey smiled weakly.  “That wouldn’t have done your Christmas with Destiny any good.”

“No.” Magenta frowned, half his plans were already ruined but suddenly it didn’t matter.  He realised that he would still be with her, if only briefly between shifts.  Scarlet would spend Christmas with Rhapsody, Blue had Symphony and if they could stop bickering long enough to enjoy each other’s company, Ochre had Melody, while Harmony didn’t celebrate Christmas.  Grey would be alone.  “Thanks, man, I really appreciate what you did,” Magenta nodded, patting Grey’s arm. “I better get going.”

“Pat?  Do you have a receipt for the wine?”

Magenta chewed his lip and shrugged.  “No, Destiny does, so I can’t even prove it’s not under expenses.”

“I’m sure the old man won’t say anything,” Grey offered hopefully.

Magenta nodded grimly, before setting off in the direction of the Radar Room, leaving Grey alone in the corridor.

 

 

Captain Ochre’s bundles were atop a long table in the Officers’ Lounge, now covered by one larger tarpaulin instead of the three smaller ones.  He was behind the table, glue bottle in hand, working on something under the tarp, when Captains Scarlet and Blue returned to the Lounge.

“That was quick!” Ochre commented.

“Didn’t have to go all the way back down to return the trolleys,” a smiling Scarlet said.

“We met one of the deckhands on his way to the Spectra-Mart,” Blue explained.  He grinned.  “He was glad to have something to put all his packages on.  Sometimes last-minute Christmas shopping pays off, at least for us.”

“So, what is it then?” asked Scarlet, picking up a corner of the tarpaulin.  “A bust of Colonel White made of Cheddar?”

“An ice sculpture of the Old Man would be more appropriate, with the mood he’s been in,” grumbled Blue.  “This is for the buffet, isn’t it?”

“Not exactly,” Ochre admitted, folding back a portion of the tarp.  “See for yourselves.” 

Blue stared open-mouthed at the sight before him:  it was a familiar shape, in all the appropriate colours and markings.  “A model of Cloudbase?!” he finally gasped.  “No wonder it took you months to do, the size it is!”

“Why so big?” inquired Scarlet.  “It looks like it’s about ten feet long!”

“It scaled out to about nine feet, actually.  I did it in 1:72 scale, one of the standard model airplane scales.  Most commercial kits are issued in this scale, so it’s a lot easier to scrounge the appropriate parts from various kits whenever possible rather than build them from scratch…”

“It looks like a perfect size for those Angel jets you built a while ago,” Scarlet noted, obviously cutting him off before he started talking about scale modelling techniques for the next hour.

“That was the idea.  They’re in there.”  He pointed to the top of the last remaining cart, where a box of various small parts lay.  The box was next to something wrapped in another piece of canvas.  “They’re going to go on the flight deck, once I attach the Control Tower, over there.”

Blue’s eyes grew even wider.  That’s the size of the Control Tower?”

“Of course!” Ochre stared up, surprised by Blue’s exclamation.  “Don’t you know anything about model building, Blue?”

“Of course I do!  We used them all the time as part of our pilot training, as I’m sure you know.  I do remember you saying you wanted to build a model of Cloudbase some day, but I thought it was going to be much smaller than this, like one of your kits!”

A short pause followed, during which Ochre placed his glue bottle and brush on the top of the cart and rolled his eyes.

“Blue, remember how big Cloudbase is compared to an airplane.  If I make it the same size as one of the jet models, it will be in so small a scale I’ll lose all the details.  It’ll look like a toy.  If you wanted a shabby amateur job, you came to the wrong guy!  This is a highly detailed, scratch-built scale model we’re talking about, not a mass produced, moulded plastic, shake a box full of parts and a completed kit falls out, job!”

“But it’s nine feet long!” Blue complained.

“And you never said anything about wanting it to be nine inches long!” Ochre snapped back.

“Oh dear,” came the voice of Symphony Angel at the doorway, “I seem to have arrived at a bad time.”

The lounge fell silent for a long moment, then Scarlet burst out laughing.  “Karen, you should have been a comedienne.  You’ve certainly got a knack for timing!”  He looked at the others; Ochre had quickly covered the model, but he was nearly doubled over, trying to keep from laughing out loud.  Symphony also had a wicked smile on her face as she realised the double entendre.  The only one not smiling was Blue, whose face was about to change the same colour as Scarlet’s tunic.

Ochre saw his compatriot’s predicament and quickly brought the subject back to the unfinished project.  “Here, Blue, can you hand me that last bundle now?”

“Sure,” he said gratefully, reaching for the lump of canvas.

“What is it, anyway?” asked Symphony, reaching for a corner of the tarp.

“Don’t touch that!” Blue said, reaching out to smack her fingers, but her reflexes were too quick and he knocked over the almost-full glue bottle instead.  The liquid solvent sprayed all over, a few drops catching Symphony on front of her uniform, but a good deal more of it soaking into her sleeve and flowing over the top of the cart.

Ochre practically leaped over the model to get to the cart.  “Look what you’ve done!” he yelled, frantically scooping up the parts before the glue reached them.

Blue started to mop up the spilled glue with the corner of the tarpaulin.  “No, don’t do that!” Ochre warned, pulling the canvas away.  “That’s a ‘hot’ solvent.  It’s best to just let it evaporate.”

Symphony stared at him.  “What do you mean, ‘hot’?  Am I going to burst into flames or something?”

“No, nothing like that, it just means that it creates a chemical reaction.  But it could cause a chemical burn if you leave it on your skin too long.”

The young pilot checked her hand and wrist; she could feel the chemicals already reacting to her skin.  “Hey, my hand feels all hot!  What do I do?”

“Wash it off right away,” Scarlet said.  “That should stop the chemical reaction.”

“But what about my uniform?  That glue went all over the front, and all the way up my sleeve!”

Ochre checked the sleeve; it was indeed damp and smelled strongly of the glue.  “If I were you, I’d change into a clean uniform.”

Blue stepped forward, hand outstretched toward Symphony’s cleavage.  “I’ll help you with that, Karen—”

Now it was Symphony’s turn to slap Blue’s hand away.  “Don’t even think of it, Buster!  You got me into this mess!”

“Can I help?” Scarlet offered, thinking he might be less of a threat to her.  “At least, let me take the trolley away…”

“No, no, I’ll take it with me,” Symphony sighed.  “I have to go that way anyway to get a clean uniform.  But you can take it outside for me while I go to the head and wash this off.”  She stormed out of the Officers’ Lounge, grumbling something about smelling like Ochre’s quarters.

“Anything else I can do, Captains?” Scarlet said over his shoulder as he pushed the sloshing cart toward the hatch.

“No thanks, Scarlet, you’d better report for your debriefing,” said Blue.

“Blue and I can handle it from here,” Ochre added.  “No sense in your getting into any trouble with the colonel.”

“You mean like the trouble Blue just got into with Symphony?” he replied, nodding toward the blond American as he ran out of the hatch in the direction of the women’s washroom.  “To paraphrase an old saying, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman glued’…”

 

 

Colonel White was briskly walking down the corridor, his frustration growing with each passing minute.  His anger too, especially since that last, surprising encounter in front of the Conference Room. Never, he reflected, would he have thought that Captain Grey would have gone to such lengths to deceive him.  Becoming an accomplice of Captain Magenta for bringing contraband wine onboard Cloudbase… Well, Magenta, yes, that would be something he could expect of him.  But Grey – that was a surprise.  A totally unexpected and appalling surprise.

White realised, of course, that those bottles were meant for the ‘buffet’ his senior staff had asked permission to set up, a couple of days ago – and to which he had given his agreement.  Never, however, would he have agreed to the provision of alcohol. Of course, they had never told him there would be some. They knew he wouldn’t have accepted that. He prohibited alcohol on Cloudbase. Will they never learn?  he thought with exasperation. Wasn’t the last time they brought alcohol on base BEHIND MY BACK enough? Apparently not.

Well it packed a LOT of punch, but it wasn’t REALLY alcoholic, he added inwardly, the thought doing little to soothe his anger and disappointment.  But that WAS beside the point.   The fact remained:  they held discipline in contempt and deliberately disobeyed orders.

His crew seemed to be getting lax, probably due to the Holiday Season, and he didn’t like it one bit.  They seemed to have forgotten their last mission against the Mysterons, just last night, and how close the Mysterons had come to succeeding in their destructive plans this time.  And Scarlet, yet again, had had to sustain nearly fatal injuries to stop them from carrying out their evil schemes.  All of this was forgotten, and no-one, apart from him, seemed to realise how important it was for them to keep a vigilant watch at present, until everything was reported clear.

He took the elevator to the next level, where the Officers’ Lounge was situated, and where he suspected he would find members of his senior staff – and probably those responsible for that little ‘buffet turned party’ that should be taking place that evening.  He wanted to have some words with them, to teach them responsibility and discipline, once and for all.  As the door slid open in front of him and he stepped out into the corridor, he heard voices, just round the corner leading to the Officers’ Lounge. That made him slow down and stop, just before reaching the corner. They were female voices, that he recognised instantly as two of the Angel pilots, who were presently engaged in discussion.

“Karen, what are you doing with that trolley?”

“Oh, hi Chan.  I’ve been in the Officers’ Lounge. The boys have put up a surprise there and, as they were otherwise busy, they asked me to bring this back down.”

“Not very gentlemanly of them,” Harmony Angel remarked coolly.  Her voice took on a tone filled with curiosity.  “What’s that smell?”

“Don’t ask,” grumbled Symphony. “Really – don’t ask.”

“If you insist… You spoke of a surprise in the Officers’ Lounge. What kind of surprise?”

“If I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?”  A pause.  “Actually, I have no idea.  Captain Ochre had something stashed under a tarpaulin, so I couldn’t see a thing.”

“No chance it would be the buffet?” Harmony Angel demanded.  “I’m on my way to the restaurant for a little snack…”

“You’d better stick to the restaurant, Chan.  The buffet isn’t ready yet, I’m afraid.”

Normally, White would show himself, or turn away, so not to invade in a private conversation, but he could do little to avoid hearing what they were saying – and it was almost despite himself that he felt compelled to listen.   Not that it was White’s habit to spy on his agents, but…  what he was hearing was intriguing enough.

“Chan, I’m glad to see you,” Symphony pursued.  “There is something I want to ask you.”

Harmony Angel shuffled her feet.  “I have a feeling I know what it is.  But go on.”

“I… Well, Adam and I were planning to go down to my mother’s place for Christmas.  Tomorrow.  You know, for a nice old country family dinner… Mom is a wonderful cook, and I kept telling that to Adam…”

“So you want to have him actually experience your mother’s cooking.”

“You saw our schedule, yes?”  Symphony asked tentatively.

“I saw, yes.  You’re listed for Angel One and Amber Room duty for the 25th and 26th.”

“Yes…  You see the problem I have?”

“Let me guess,” Harmony then said. “You want me to cover your shift?”

Symphony gave her an apologetic smile. “Well… ‘Take my place’ would be a better description?  I thought of you because…”

“… You knew I wouldn’t mind, because I don’t celebrate Christmas, anyway.”

Symphony grimaced.  “I wouldn’t phrase it quite that way.  It sounds rather blunt, but… That’s exactly it, yes.  Chan, please? You’ll know I’ll make it up to you, as usual.”

“Well, I…” 

The smile spreading on Harmony’s face told Symphony that her Japanese counterpart was about to accept.  The blonde pilot was about to inwardly celebrate her victory when a stern voice suddenly boomed from behind her, interrupting Harmony:

“Just ONE minute!”

An impending sense of disaster hit Symphony at the sound of that  easily recognisable voice.  Right there and then, she just knew her plans for a perfect Christmas dinner in Iowa with her fiancé were destined to fail.

She managed to find the strength to fight back the temporary paralysis that had hit her upon hearing Colonel White’s voice, and turned around ever so slowly.  She saw him coming their way, at a quickened pace, and looking anything but happy and calm. Both women snapped to attention when he reached them.

“Symphony Angel,” he said, nearly leaning over the young woman. “JUST what do you think you were doing just there?”

“Sir?” Symphony asked, giving her commander a puzzled look.  “I don’t see…”

“You – don’t – see,” White repeated, cutting her off abruptly.  “Well that’s exactly part of the problem, isn’t it?”  He waved toward Harmony, who looked like she would have wanted the floor to open up and swallow her, instead of standing there, looking on as White tore into her American colleague.  “Just because Harmony Angel doesn’t celebrate Christmas doesn’t give you the right to ask her to forfeit her free time in order to take your place. 

“Colonel,” Harmony then started, almost timidly. “I assure you, I don’t mind at all…”

“Then you must not have realised, Harmony Angel, that the other pilots take you for granted,” White snapped, jerking his head in Harmony’s direction.  “Recently, I’ve started noticing how they always come to you whenever a Christian holiday comes up and they want to evade doing their duty that day.”

“But…”

“Enough!  If you are too kind – or naïve –  to put a stop to it, Harmony, I’ll have to do it myself!”  That shut Harmony up instantly. With an angry stare, White turned back to Symphony, not noticing the Japanese pilot’s surprised and concerned expression fairly apparent in her now wide eyes. “I’m starting to believe I have been too accommodating myself,” White continued in an undertone.

“Sir?” Symphony asked with a puzzled tone.

“Didn’t it occur to you that you needed my permission before you could leave base, and go on this little escapade of yours with your boyfriend?”

“Sir, I was going to ask you,” Symphony replied.  “But I wanted to ask Harmony before, to make sure…”

“…To make sure she wouldn’t disturb your carefully crafted plan.”  That left Symphony unable to reply. “And what makes you think I would have approved your request?”

“Sir… I’m sorry, I assumed…”

“You assumed wrongly!” White snapped, interrupting the confused young woman.  “Just because I agreed to give Captain Blue and yourself my support for your upcoming wedding in regard of the regulations doesn’t mean I have to also agree to every little wish and whim that might cross your mind, of either of you!”

“Yes, sir.  I mean… no, sir…”

“Or perhaps there is something else that makes you believe I would,” White continued, narrowing his eyes.

The clueless stare Symphony addressed him gave White the answer he sought.  No, he decided. She doesn’t know about her mother’s invitation… He saw no reason why she would, as he was pretty sure that Symphony didn’t know how close he had been with Amanda during the summer.  Unless Amanda had told her.  Obviously, it wasn’t the case.  Most probably, the earlier invitation and Symphony’s present plans had no relation whatsoever – it was just a simple coincidence.  Amanda probably didn’t even know of her daughter’s initiative to visit her on Christmas Day.  Unless it was a huge conspiracy – a possibility that White didn’t really think was likely, but which kept nagging at the back of his mind.  

“Whatever do you mean, sir?” Symphony asked hesitantly.

He grumbled, irritated more by his own suspicions than anything else.  “Maybe it was a mistake to offer to help and support the request for your marriage…”

Symphony almost felt her heart miss a beat. “Sir, you can’t mean…”

“I will have to reconsider it,” White cut in.  “In the meantime, you’ll do me the favour of performing your duty as is expected from you.  And to stop taking your fellow Angel pilots for granted. This might be a Holiday Season, but we still have work to do.  And I don’t have to remind you that this work is very important.”

Symphony nearly sighed.  There was no use in protesting, she could see that.  She lowered her eyes. “Yes, sir.”

There is no excuse for not performing your duty,” White continued. “You or anyone else.”

“No, sir,” Symphony answered with little hesitation.

“Good,” White grunted with a barely satisfied nod.  “I will have a word with the other Angels and Captains too, as it seem to be an epidemic amongst the staff.  I will not tolerate any of this happening ever again. Is that understood, Symphony?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Go and take that cart back where it belongs.”  He sniffed angrily, noticing the irritating chemical smell pervading from the young woman’s uniform.  It was a familiar smell, but strangely, he wasn’t able to recall from where he remembered it.  “And go change into a new uniform, before you start poisoning people with that horrible smell.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ll take Angel One shift at midnight tonight.”

He feigned not to see the disappointed glitter in the young woman’s eyes, as she acknowledged the order with a brief nod.  Talk about a punishment, Symphony thought dourly. Spending Christmas on Angel One duty, instead of with Adam…  The old man sure knows how to hurt someone.

“That’ll be all, ladies.  Carry on with your duties.”

“Yes sir,” was the common answer from both Symphony and Harmony.  They watched as the colonel turned crisply on his heels and left them standing there.  It was only when he disappeared from their view that they allowed themselves to relax and let out a deep sigh.  Harmony gave her gloomy-looking friend an apologetic look.

“I’m sorry, Karen,” she said in a soothing voice.  “I mean, I really wanted to cover for you.”

“I know, Chan,” Symphony sighed again, looking in the direction their commander had gone.

“That wasn’t fair on you.  Or any of the others.  Surely, he knows that any of you will cover for me whenever I ask you?  I have my own Holidays too, and you’re all always so kind to permit me to celebrate them…”

“Try explaining that to him,” Symphony scoffed with a dry smile.  “He just wouldn’t listen to us.”  She paused a second. “What’s eating him, I wonder?  I’ve rarely seen him so bad-tempered…  I mean, we’ve all seen him angry at one time or another, but now…”

“He looked tired,” Harmony agreed.  “He must not have slept that much last night.”

“But that’s no reason to take it out on us,” Symphony grumbled.  “I hope he wasn’t serious about what he said – concerning Adam and me.”

“I’m sure he wasn’t,” Harmony offered sympathetically.

Symphony nodded grimly. “I hope he’ll get over it,” she said turning around, and pushing her cart in front of her.  “I wouldn’t want to be stuck forever with a constantly grumpy Colonel White…”

“You’re right,” Harmony agreed with a short laugh, deciding to follow her American counterpart.  “Life would quickly become Hell onboard Cloudbase if that was the case!”

 

 

“That should do it,” Captain Ochre sighed tiredly as he tucked the last corner of cloth – a rainbow-coloured satin sheet now, instead of the soiled canvas – under the finished model.  “All ready for tomorrow’s unveiling.”

Blue was standing before the sheet, his chin in his hand.  “Rick?” he said thoughtfully.

“What?”

“Just out of curiosity, what are we going to do with this thing once it’s unveiled?  I mean, it’s huge!”

“I thought of that.  It’s meant to be disassembled for transport or storage.”

“We can’t possibly store it up here on Cloudbase.”

“I don’t plan to.  It could go on permanent display somewhere on the surface, like Koala Base or London HQ – in a restricted area, of course, not in the front lobby.  The general public doesn’t know what our secret base looks like.”

“That’s a good idea; maybe one day, when the base’s design is declassified, it could go on public display.”  He smiled at his fellow officer.  “It’s that good, Rick.”

“Thanks, Adam.  That means a lot.  I know you guys put up with a lot from me and my hobby.”

“Hey, we all need something to help us cope.  Your models, Green’s music, Grey’s swimming, just to name a few.”  He grinned.  “Not to mention this party tonight.”

“If we ever get started setting it up,” Ochre grumbled.  “I didn’t anticipate the final assembly taking as long as it did, but then again I did have to get another bottle of cement.”  He waved the second bottle under Blue’s face.

“Hey, I already said I was sorry!”

The Midwesterner smiled and shrugged.  “Could have happened to anybody.  Anyway, I need to take a break before we get started on the buffet.  I think those glue fumes are starting to get to me.” 

“Me too.  This is one time I wish we could open a window.”

“We don’t have much time though.  How about we just get a cup of coffee in the restaurant?”

“S.I.G., Captain Ochre.  Lead the way.”

The pair started across the floor to the hatch when the door slid open.  They stopped and came to attention when they saw who stood in the doorway.

Colonel White eyed the two men, then sniffed the air and made a face.  “I should have known,” he muttered.  “Captain Ochre!”

“Sir!” he replied crisply.

Need I remind you, Captain, that your report takes precedence over your hobby?” he snapped.

“Colonel, it’s not like that.  I wasn’t working on a model, I was—”

“Preoccupied with setting up the buffet for tonight’s do?” White offered, entering the lounge and gesturing toward the cloth-draped table.  “That still has a lower priority than performing your assigned duties.”

Captain Blue stepped forward.  “If I may, Colonel, it’s actually a surprise—”

“Oh, you mean like that little ‘surprise’ Captains Grey and Magenta were just sorting out in the Conference Room?” White scoffed.  “I suppose disobeying Spectrum regulations and bringing alcohol onto this base was your idea as well?”

“Sir?” said Ochre and Blue simultaneously, with similar looks of confusion on their faces.  They didn’t know anything about that one; all Magenta had told them was that he was bringing a “surprise” for the party.  Some surprise; now WE have to suffer for it…

Colonel White, however, read their expressions as those of indignation, of being caught red-handed.  “I can’t believe this!” he exclaimed.  “Does anyone take work seriously on board this base any more?!”  He started to count on his fingers.  “Respect for rank, discipline, compliance with regulations, proper accounting for expenses – nothing is being done satisfactorily!”

“Expenses?” Blue asked.

“Yes, expenses,” White spat.  “Why the devil do you think Conners is here, today of all days?  On top of everything else that’s been going on, he’s brought a team of auditors on board to check the senior officers’ expense accounts!”

Blue and Ochre exchanged glances.  Auditors…and Conners in charge of them… Their already bad day just got worse, tenfold.  Spectrum Accounting’s internal auditors were known for their ruthlessness; like everyone else in Spectrum, they were chosen from the best in their fields.  They wouldn’t stop until they had found something, anything, that would incriminate each and every one of them, no matter how small or insignificant a discrepancy.

White went on, “And instead of submitting the proper paperwork necessary after any action against the Mysterons, my officers – my senior staff – are smuggling contraband and playing with toy aeroplanes!”  He glared directly at Captain Ochre.  “This is the last time I warn you about that annoying hobby of yours disrupting your responsibilities, Captain!”

Ochre was tempted to roll his eyes.  He hated it when Colonel White brought up the old argument of scale models being nothing more than toys – especially when he was working on something completely different…  But he knew to hold his tongue, particularly when the colonel was in this foul a mood.  “Yes, sir,” he merely replied.

“Fifteen minutes, gentlemen,” Colonel White said, turning back toward the door.  “I want to see your reports on my desk in fifteen minutes, or you will share radar duty with Captains Grey and Magenta, and Captain Scarlet if I ever find him!”

“He was on his way up to Control to see you, Colonel,” said Blue.  “He left here five or ten minutes ago.”

White nodded his thanks.  “Oh well, at least someone here knows the proper procedure,” he grumbled as he left.  “Although I will have to speak to him about the delay…”  With that the door slid shut.

The two officers relaxed and exhaled slowly.  “Well, I guess we’d better get moving on those reports,” Blue finally said, “if we intend to have any kind of gathering tonight.”

“If he still lets us!” Ochre replied.  “Why the hell did Magenta have to do something that stupid?  He knows how the Old Man feels about booze on board!”

“What I can’t believe,” said Blue as they walked through the hatch, “is how he conned Grey into helping him…”

 

 

When Captain Scarlet entered the Control Room, it was to find Lieutenant Green busying himself in front of his station,  turning dials and pressing buttons, with a preoccupied expression on his face.  The commander’s chair was empty, and a glance towards the observation tube, where Colonel White often stood in a contemplative stance, gazing out over the sky and clouds, informed him that the Spectrum commander-in-chief was absent from the room.  He approached Green from behind.

“Hi, Lieutenant.  Where’s the colonel?”

He saw the younger man literally jump from his chair, obviously not having noticed Scarlet come in.  Green turned around on his chair, holding his chest.

“Captain Scarlet!  You nearly gave me a start!”

“Nearly?” Scarlet lifted a brow.  “You seem to have a problem, Lieutenant.”

“I might have,” Green replied, turning back to his station, under Scarlet’s curious gaze.  “I don’t know why, but it seems some of the base’s secondary computers are malfunctioning.   Or rather, there are programs within them that are malfunctioning.  And it seems to be spreading.”  He saw the worry in Scarlet’s features.  “It’s not affecting the main computer’s major programming, Captain,” he reassured him.  “Only a handful of secondary and support programs.  Such as network communications, access to Worldnet, word processing…  It’s annoying, more than anything else, because we need those programs for our work.  But not vital.”

“Are you sure the colonel would see it that way, and make so little of the problem?” Scarlet asked doubtfully. 

Green hesitated.  “I’d rather not try to guess what Colonel White’s reaction will be, Captain,” he said under his breath.  “He’s in a rather…  dreadful mood.”

He had barely said those words when the main door opened and Colonel White walked quickly in. 

“There you are! It’s about time you showed up!”

Scarlet suppressed a frown, as White passed right by him to walk to his desk; the English captain exchanged a glance with Green.  The latter gave him an ‘I told you so’ look that spoke volumes. 

“Sir,” Scarlet began, following his commander,  “I’m sorry I’m late, I…”

“Spare me the excuses, Captain!” White snapped, raising a hand and not even turning back to look at his junior officer.  “I’m not interested in them!”

Oh boy! thought Scarlet.  He really IS angry.

“I’m more interested in your report,” White continued, sitting down at his desk.  “Dare I hope you might have it right now?”

“I… er… Yes, sir, I have it right here.”

In a deliberately slow gesture, White presented a requesting hand.  Scarlet fished the data-tube on which he had filed his report from his tunic pocket and handed it to his commander, who nodded his thanks.  “So kind of you, Captain,” he said in a sarcastic tone.

What’s up with him? Scarlet wondered, without letting any of his surprise show on his face.  He could see his commander was very angry – more than he dared imagine – but that he also seemed tense – preoccupied.  Remaining at ease, he watched as White turned the tube in his hands for a short instant, before pressing a button that caused the player to pop up from the desk. 

Maybe if the old man would learn to relax a little – Scarlet wondered if White had been officially invited to the buffet that evening.  It wasn’t as if the event was a secret one, as they had asked his permission for it – which he had given.  They had all learned not to throw a secret party behind the colonel’s back since that… event… a couple of years ago, when they wanted to celebrate Spectrum’s first anniversary.  The colonel had been very angry when he had found out, and apparently, even more so when he had learned about the champagne they had brought onboard even though it was non-alcoholic.   But they had been surprised a few days later when the old man had thrown his own party, for the same event – offering real champagne.  Scarlet had often joked, afterward, that Colonel White had been angry with them that day because he had not been invited to the party.  Of course, nobody really thought it could be the case.    

Well, who knows? Scarlet asked himself.  Perhaps he WOULD like an official invitation.  After all, there was Captain Blue and Symphony Angel’s official engagement, and upcoming wedding… The colonel had promised to help them out in regard of regulations, so this was something to celebrate, wasn’t it?    And there also was that surprise Ochre was preparing – for everyone, but also most especially for the Spectrum commander.  He would surely like it.

As the colonel inserted the recorded tube into the player, Scarlet cleared his throat and decided to test the water.

“Permission to speak, sir?”

“You have something to ask me, Captain,” White said in a grumbling tone.  “Or you would not start by asking permission.”

Scarlet scowled.  “It’s about tonight’s party, sir…  The Christmas party…”

“I doubt there will be much of a party tonight.”

Following that dry statement, Scarlet gave his commander a perplexed look. “Sorry, sir?”

“Work still has to be done, Captain.  I think you all will be far too busy to think of any party tonight.  I’m still waiting for reports to be handed to me, for example.  And you’ll be short a few members for your little get-together.”  He raised his eyes toward Scarlet, who was keeping quiet, not seeming to understand fully what he meant.  “I just assigned Captains Grey and Magenta to radar duty.”

“What did they do?”  The question had come into Scarlet’s mind and out through his lips before he could stop it. The harsh stare White gave him spoke volumes. 

“Are you pretending you don’t know?”  White snapped.  The answer he received from Scarlet was an imperturbable expression.  A doubt insinuated itself into the colonel’s mind.  Could his young compatriot not know?  Or was he better than his colleague at hiding it?  He waved in annoyance, remembering that Scarlet himself had been doing the champagne smuggling a couple of years ago.  “Bringing alcohol onboard is already a serious offence in itself, Captain.  I don’t need my senior staff to pretend they don’t know about it.”

“I didn’t know about it, sir,” Scarlet said, tilting his head to one side.  “Who brought alcohol onboard? Magenta and Grey?”

“Never mind,” White grumbled with bad humour.  “And this is only ONE problem amongst many others.  Did you all forget discipline and proper procedures on Cloudbase?”  White was on his feet, leaning on his desk, to stare levelly at Scarlet.  His eyes were burning brighter with contained anger.  “This is an operational base, not Club Med!  You should all know that NOTHING can take precedence over your duties, and what do I find, on a day following a successful but harrowing mission against the Mysterons?  Smuggled alcohol, for personal leisure being put ahead of work, indiscipline, negligence…”

“This is Christmas Eve, sir,” Scarlet tried tentatively.

“REGARDLESS, Captain!” White nearly exploded.  “I will not tolerate such disorderliness on base any more, and ESPECIALLY not from my senior staff!” He pointed an accusing finger at Scarlet.  “Where did you go, an hour ago, after you were released from sickbay?  Weren’t you supposed to present yourself to me for debriefing?  Why didn’t you come right away?”

Not really known himself for being a patient man, Paul Metcalfe had nevertheless learned to keep calm in any given situation.  The verbal abuse he was suffering at the moment from his commander in chief was one of those  circumstances.   He recognised that something was bothering his commander more deeply than he would ever admit.  Christmas never really was a good time of year for him, for whatever reason; but this year, there was something else.  Scarlet had no idea what it might be, but he was sure he shouldn’t exacerbate the situation by getting angry himself – or irritating White even more.

“I wasn’t aware that I should report immediately, sir,” he declared in an even tone.  “In fact, it was my understanding that you weren’t available when I was released from sickbay.  My apologies if I made a mistake.”

Those words took White a little aback.  It was true he wasn’t available when Scarlet revived – he was busy with that communication from the World President.  He would have had difficulty blaming his compatriot under the circumstances.  Especially since he had handed him his full report.

“That doesn’t account for any of your colleagues’ behaviour, Captain Scarlet,” he replied bitterly.  “There’s been some sloppiness onboard Cloudbase recently – maybe I did notice it more today – and yes, I AM aware that it is Christmas Eve,” he cut in, seeing Scarlet ready to defend his colleagues.  “But that makes it EVEN MORE serious.  This time of year, we must be even more alert than the rest of the year, because it’s an obvious period for any terrorist group – AND the Mysterons – to make a move.  You are a soldier, you know that as much as I do.  But I’m afraid most of the others are FORGETTING this alarming fact.”  He looked down gloomily, as he finally flicked down the button powering up the tube-player.  “I’m afraid I will have to take drastic measures to make sure that the security of this planet – which is Spectrum’s responsibility – will be insured.”

Scarlet tensed.  “Sir… Whatever do you mean?”

“If the personnel of Spectrum becomes too lax, Captain... maybe I should seek other avenues.  There's been some... talk…”

“Talk, sir?” a perplexed Scarlet asked.

“About the possibility of other forces coming in to assist Spectrum if we cannot effectively do our part.”

“But sir, we already have the co-operation of all the World Government agencies.”

“The talk has been about them taking a more... active role, shall we say, in Spectrum's operations.”

That left Scarlet even more puzzled.  He would have liked to know more of what could possibly be on his commander’s mind; but he could see that Colonel White didn’t want to reveal any more.  Instead, he was looking down at the player’s screen, starting to read the report that had just been given to him. 

Maybe if he could have learned what it was the colonel was thinking about, Scarlet would have been concerned himself.

White had just read the first short paragraph of Scarlet’s report when suddenly, the screen went blank.  He frowned and pressed the button again, with no result.  His anger growing still, he emitted a low growl, that was barely audible from Scarlet’s spot.

“What NOW?” the colonel finally exhaled with a deep sigh. “Why isn’t this thing working?!”

“Sir,” came the voice of Lieutenant Green from his station.  It had an abnormally timid tone to it and Scarlet turned on his heels to check the younger man with curiosity.  Green had a worried expression on his face, as he raised his eyes to meet those of his commander. “Sir, I’m sorry to report that it might be due to an apparent problem with the computers.  It might have reached some minor programs installed on your desk.”

“Problem?”  White grumbled.  “What kind of problem, Lieutenant?”  He gestured in annoyance at the player.  “You call that ‘minor’?”

“I’m sorry, sir,”  Green offered.  “I have isolated the malfunction, but I will apparently need time to correct the problem properly.  It looks like some kind of badly-written program or virus – that has been introduced recently into the network.”

“A virus?” White said, frowning.  “How can a virus introduce itself into our network, passing through all the security features – which are the best in the world?”

“I don’t know that yet, sir.”

“Could it affect more important  functions?” asked White.  “Just about everything onboard Cloudbase is computerised.  Flight control and life-support included.”

“Not to worry, sir.  Those vital programs are held on an independent system.  The malfunction is restricted to the minor programs’ system, and that’s what’s falling apart, at the moment.”

“Lieutenant, you said that you had isolated the malfunction,” Scarlet then said.  “Have you, by any chance, discovered where it’s coming from?”

There was a hesitation on Green’s part; it was short, as he carefully eyed Colonel White, who was waiting impatiently.  “I just found that out,” he declared.  “It came from the Bursar’s Office…”

“The Bursar’s Office?”  Scarlet replied in perplexity.

“Conners,” he heard White mutter suddenly.

What’s Conners doing in the Bursar’s Office?  a puzzled Scarlet asked himself.  He felt as if he just had stepped into the middle of a movie.

“Lieutenant Green, contact Lieutenant Gold at the Bursar’s Office,” White ordered his aid.  “Tell him to ask Conners and… his friends, to stop doing IMMEDIATELY whatever they might be doing.  Until further notice.”

I doubt they’d be doing anything right now, Green thought inwardly.  He was about sure the computers in the Bursar’s Office weren’t working.  “S.I.G., sir.”

“I trust you’ll be able to restore normal activity to the computers?”  White asked.

“Of course, sir.  But I expect it to be a long process.  I will probably have to go down to the Bursar’s Office to check their consoles there – and it may also mean general work on certain files and programming on the main computer.  I do not know at this point.”  He paused a second, looking back as his console, then added with a nod: “I will need Captain Magenta’s expertise, of course.”

“Of course,” White acknowledged with a curt nod. “You can call on him, Lieutenant.”

“S.I.G., sir.”

“I want you to work on those computers until they are fully operational again.  You understand that we need all our systems to work properly, if we want to carry out our duties with the maximum of effectiveness.”

“It will mean hours of work, sir,” Green remarked, with a brief nod.  “But of course, we’ll do it.  And work as fast as we can.”

White nodded his thanks in turn.  Between Magenta and Green, he was sure that the problem would be solved,  if not quickly – as Green was emphasising – then expertly. The colonel closed his eyes and rubbed them tiredly.  He was feeling a migraine coming, and nothing that was happening right now contributed to curing it.  He gave a deep, dejected sigh. “Why me?” he grumbled irritably.

Scarlet gave his commander a sympathetic stare. “You look exhausted, sir,” he commented. 

“Do I?” White replied curtly.  Sometimes, you certainly can COUNT on Scarlet to state the obvious! 

“You’ve been up for more than twenty-four hours, because of the latest Mysteron threat,” Scarlet continued carefully, causing White to stare at him with annoyance.  “Pushing yourself to the limit. You should take it easy.”

“Easy?  Are you implying that because of my age, Captain?” snapped White.

“Sir, I would never dare,” Scarlet quickly replied.  “I’m just saying:  you didn’t take any rest at all during that period, not even five minutes to relax…”

“It may be because everybody ELSE was ‘relaxing’, Captain,” White pointed out in a meaningful tone.  “I sometimes feel that I have to do ALL the work around here when the lot of you feel like deciding it’s ‘time to take some time off’.”

Scarlet refrained from scowling.  He didn’t think that was very fair.  To himself or the others.  They all were pulling their weight – and even more, since the Mysterons’ War of Nerves had begun.  Yes, they needed to relax – if only to continue the good fight with more efficiency, and not go thoroughly mad.  White just seemed to be unable to let go completely, in a general sense – even though he normally understood the need for his officers to do so.  Whatever his actual reasons might be today, he seemed to have forgotten that.  The reproach of ‘them being lax’ only served as an excuse for him to let off some steam.

“Sir, you need to rest,” Scarlet insisted, not letting himself be deterred by his commander’s remonstrance.

“I have work to do.”  White looked down at the computer screen embedded  in his desk, pressing a number of commands.  The show of lights he saw on the screen was an obvious message that he couldn’t count on it to work properly.  “Reports to read…”  White continued, less persistently.

“Sir, I doubt anybody will be able to either write or send you reports right now, with the word processing program down,” Lieutenant Green stated from his station.  He nodded when his commander turned in his direction. “I agree with Captain Scarlet.  You should get some rest.  There’s little you can do right now.”  He paused a short moment.  “With respect, sir,” he added quickly.

“Well, yes,” White said reluctantly.  “Maybe a couple of hours in the Room of Sleep would do me some good after all…” 

Both Scarlet and Green displayed the same look of relief – or satisfaction? – on their respective faces.  Scarlet seemed to relax a little; White addressed him a fixed stare.

“Captain Scarlet,” he said, causing the younger man to stand to attention once again, “I give you command of the Control Room for a few hours.”

“Sir?” Scarlet was a little taken aback.  Duty in the Control Room?  On Christmas Eve?!  Now that certainly wasn’t what he had in mind!

But one look at Colonel White’s tired features made him regret his selfish consideration.  It wasn’t only his duty to take the colonel’s chair today  – but it was also the charitable thing to do.

Oh well, it IS Christmas.  It’s certainly the time for generous deeds.

“Of course, sir,” he added quickly.  “I’ll take care of things.”

“Thank you.” White stood up from his seat, slowly.  “If something should come up, don’t hesitate to call me back.”

“S.I.G., Colonel,” Scarlet replied in an affirmative tone.  But as his commander left his chair and walked down the distance to the green door leading out of the room,  deep down inside,  the English captain promised himself NOT to wake White, unless it became absolutely necessary.

When White stepped out of the room and the doors slid closed on him, Scarlet sat down on the commander’s chair, removing his cap and putting it down on the desk with a deep sigh, before turning to Green.

“Call Captain Magenta to the Control Room, Lieutenant,” he said.  “The sooner the two of you go to work on this problem, the faster we’ll have our system back up and running.”

“S.I.G., Captain,” Green answered, turning to his console.

“And while we’re waiting for him to arrive,” Scarlet continued with a conspiratorial note in his voice, “would you mind telling me what Special Agent Martin Conners is doing onboard Cloudbase today?  And who those ‘friends’ of his might be…”

 

 

A frustrated Colonel White entered his quarters briskly.

He had come directly from the Room of Sleep where, of all the latest aggravations to possibly befall him today of all days, he had learned that there was also a breakdown in the device’s computerised controls… Causing it to be completely out of order until further notice.  It was so obvious it was but part of the problem detected by Green, and which was affecting so many programs right now.  It seemed it was spreading at an infuriating rate now; White counted his blessings that the major programming was safely out of reach – in a different database.  Otherwise, he didn’t want to imagine what REAL trouble they would all be in.

He removed his tunic and threw it on the back of his seat, in front of his console. Damned Conners! he thought with renewed anger.  What did he do, exactly? There was no doubt in his mind that he and the auditors he had brought onboard were responsible for the current breakdown.  It was far too obvious, and their arrival coincided with it.  He didn’t want to meet with Conners and the auditors right now and demand explanations.  He felt that, in the mood he was in right now, he might do something he would regret.  Conners wasn’t his most favourite person in the world.  Well, WHO in the world COULD like that despicable man? he added furiously.  Seeing him right now, after all the events of this awful day, would not really be a good idea.

On his way back from the Room of Sleep to his quarters, he had called the Control Room, to find out if there had been any developments concerning the computers.  The Lieutenant had told him not to expect any progress for another six hours – or even not before the morning.  That was even more frustrating for White.

White sat down heavily.  He had to admit, he felt tired.  And in dire need of rest. Since he was forced to wait a long time, and since using the Room of Sleep was out of the question right now, he might as well take advantage of this situation, as bad as it was, to get ‘natural sleep’, as Doctor Fawn would say.  He nearly laughed at the thought.  Fawn didn’t like people to use the Room of Sleep – he found it unnatural to employ ‘artificially induced sleep’ in order to replenish oneself. The human body needed a minimum amount of sleep in order to function normally and minimise the risk of health problems, whether in the short or long run. 

So he had told Captain Scarlet and Lieutenant Green that he’d be in his quarters, should they need him, and that he’d get a good night’s sleep there.  He felt for certain that he heard a satisfied sigh coming over the radio. Whether it was from Scarlet or Green, he couldn’t tell.  He was willing to bet it was from both of them.

White’s eyes fell on the folder he had left on his desk.  The one containing the proposition the World President had sent to him that day.  Distractedly, he opened it, and looked down at the text once again.  Might not be such a bad idea, after all, he told himself.  This is a difficult task we have, a long fight we’re pursuing.  It is possible that it is now weighing down on my staff – and myself – and that might explain why they’re feeling so lax right now.  Having some help might be a solution…

It would certainly remove some of the pressure…Order will be restored to Cloudbase, and people will do their work again, as they are required to.

Yes.  That would be a solution.

He reached for his fountain pen and signed his name in three of the four spaces requiring it.  When he reached the last space, at the bottom of the last page, he stopped, uncertain.  He couldn’t send this paper to the World President tonight.  The breakdown would prevent him from doing so.  He closed the folder. Might as well finish filling it in tomorrow, he thought.  It won’t go away, and it’s not as if the World President is waiting for it right now.

A night’s sleep will do me a lot of good, after all, he mused, walking in the direction of his bathroom, and removing his turtle-neck shirt.

But first, a shower, and an aspirin…  Maybe that’ll clear up this awful migraine!

 

 

 

At first, it was but a breeze, that came smoothly caressing Colonel White’s cheek.  It was very soft, and very cool, but it was enough to draw him out of his sleep.  He half-opened his eyes to the dark of his quarters, his mind still drowsy with sleep.

Must have left a window open…

It only took him a second to realise how absurd that thought was, as he couldn’t possibly open a window at 40,000 feet up in the air, in the sealed confinement of Cloudbase.  He sat up on his mattress, grunting against the headache that the too-short amount of sleep wasn’t able to cure. He rubbed his eyes tiredly in an attempt to chase away the remnants of his sleepiness. Unconsciously, he checked his watch. Two minutes past midnight.

The soft breeze came brushing his face, recalling to him the reason why he woke up.  Where is THAT coming from? he thought, shaking his head.  Surely, the ventilation was not defective too.  Maybe the computers’ breakdown had extended to the environmental controls…

“Happy Christmas, Charles.”

The soft voice, little more than a murmur, made the colonel’s ears prick up.  His head jerked up in surprise.  He looked around into the darkness, nervously, narrowing his eyes, in search of who had pronounced these words.

“Who’s there?” he demanded with a stern voice.

There was no answer.  I must have been dreaming, he decided with irritation. “Lights up, thirty percent,” he commanded to the voice-controlled command.  The lights stayed off, and that made him even more angry.

“Damned computers!” he grumbled, pushing the covers aside and stepping out of his bed.  “What will go down next?  Life-support controls?”

“Don’t worry.  There’s nothing wrong with life-support.”

White was reaching for his dressing gown when he heard the voice again.  This time it was clearer, louder.  A woman’s voice with a laughing tone to it.  And it came from behind him.  He practically jumped out of his skin at the sound.

“Who’s there?” he repeated nervously, swiftly turning around.  He could barely see in the darkness, but he was able to make out the outlines of a slender figure, standing a few feet from him, and wearing what appeared to be a long white gown.  It was a woman, all right, but he couldn’t see her face.

There was an intruder in his quarters.  He frowned deeply. “Security!” he called toward the voice-controlled comm.

“Is that the way you greet me?” the female voice gently admonished him.  There was a kind of ethereal quality to her tone that nearly made White freeze again and shiver.  Nearly.

“Who are you?” he demanded, even more irate than previously since nobody was responding to his call to security.  He thought communication was down too, and that did nothing to reassure him.  If that person there should be a Mysteron agent, out to get him…  His hand reached for the gun he always left in the first drawer of his night table.  He heard the woman softly tutting at his gesture.

“Now that’s new.  Since when do you sleep with a weapon, Charlie?”

He straightened up, the gun in his hand, but his arm hanging down by his side, surprised by the chiding, yet amused tone.  It was so familiar… And… she had called him ‘Charlie’?   With a renewed frown, he looked up in the woman’s direction.  The soft breeze that had woken him earlier was blowing from behind her, making her gown fly, as if in slow-motion.  He narrowed his eyes, trying to see her face.  All he could see was long, flowing black hair.  She stepped forward quietly, in a gracious way.

“Who are you?” White demanded again, detaching each word carefully, his eyes nearly disappearing under his brow. 

“I know it’s been a long time, Charles,” the woman gently said to him, “but… don’t you recognise me?” 

She had stopped a mere two feet in front of him, and her face was bathed in light that didn’t come from any particular source.  It was as if she was radiating it herself.  Her smile was warm and kind, and her eyes a deep blue that looked tenderly at him.  He gasped, and made a step back; he felt his heartbeat rising.

“I must be dreaming…”

“Dreaming?” She nodded slowly.  “Well, maybe you are.  It will be for you to decide.”

“It can’t be…”

“Oh, but I assure you, Charles, it definitely is.”

She made a step further, growing closer; he felt mesmerised by her smiling blue eyes, as she looked up straight in his face.  He stared at her, eyes wide with total disbelief, unable to move, to speak, to get away or to do anything else for that matter.  In his life, he had seen many strange things, but this – this was impossible. 

“Elizabeth?” The name caught in his throat and came out as a croaked murmur.  This was impossible.  That woman standing there, looking at him that way – it couldn’t be his long-gone, deceased wife. 

I am dreaming.  Dear Lord, I really am dreaming…Please, don’t let me wake up right now…

“It – it really is you?”

“Yes, Charles, it’s me. It’s really me.”

He let a huge sigh out, and his hand, in a trembling gesture, deposited the gun on the table, right next to the bed.  His eyes were unable to detach themselves from the adorable form standing in front of him. “You…  you haven’t changed at all.”

“Naturally.  Time has no hold on me now.  But you’ve… you have grown older, Charles.”  She smiled mischievously.  He didn’t react when her hand reached for his face but stopped short, to nearly graze his untidy hair.  The smile broadened.  “White hair now, but it’s all still there… That becomes you.  You’re still as handsome as ever.”

“Why, thank you,” he said a little dryly.  It must be Elizabeth.  Always so direct, even in that annoyingly mocking way.  Nobody had ever dared be that way with him.  Well, nobody except…

How could he think of Amanda when standing in front of Elizabeth?

And how could he be standing in front of Elizabeth right now?

It didn’t matter; she was there, and that was all that counted.  His hand reached forward, in an attempt to caress her cheek, but she stopped him by raising her own hand, imperatively.

“No, you can’t touch me.  Don’t try it, Charles.  You would disturb the forces at work here.”

“What forces?” he asked frowning.  “Liz, you – you’re dead.  How can it be possible that you should be here right now?  In front of me?”  He arched his brow, hesitating to pronounce out loud the thought that was foremost in his mind.  “Are you…  Are you a ghost?”

She chuckled softly.  “Don’t worry.  I’m not here to haunt you.”

White scowled. “Haunt me?  Why do you believe it would be so bad to be haunted by you?”

“I don’t think you’d want the meddling phantom of your dead wife to constantly interfere with your life, Charles,” she replied.  “I know you still think of me. But while I’m dead, I also know you still have your life to live.  But I know you’re thinking about another.  Right now, even.”

He couldn’t deny it.  “I’m sorry,” he murmured with a contrite tone. He really felt that he was betraying her. 

“Oh no, don’t be sorry. You have your own life to live, Charles.”

“I could never forget you.”

“That’s very nice of you, Charles. And I know it’s true, or I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t the case. I know how deep your love was for me.”

“Was…?  Elizabeth, I…”

“You should let go of me, Charles.”

“I can’t.  I will never cease to love you.”

“Neither will I.  That’s why I’m here.”

He gave a doubtful smile. “You’re here to show me the light?”

“That’s not really my job.”  She stepped back. “I don’t have much time. The first will be here shortly.”

“The first what?”

“I’m just their herald, Charles.  I was asked to tell you you’ll be visited tonight by three ghosts, who’ll show you the errors of your ways.”

“The errors of my ways?”  White scoffed softly.  “Have I been so bad?”

“You’re not a bad man, Charles Gray.  You’re a very decent one, but lately, you have let your bad temper get the better of you.  It always was your flaw, I know, but today, it brought you to make decisions that could have terrible consequences.”

“What are you talking about?” White asked with a very deep frown.

“It is not for me to tell you.  It’ll be for the ghosts to reveal.  And for you to find out.” She backed away another step. “My job is done.  I will have to go.”

“What?  Right now?  So soon?  Can’t you stay a little longer?”  White quickly walked the distance separating him from his wife.  All of his being yearned to take her in his arms and he nearly did at that.  But he stopped himself, only a fraction of a second before touching her, and lowered his arms helplessly.  “It’s been so long,” he murmured.  “Years since I saw you last.  I’ve never even been able to say my goodbyes to you… You can’t go like this.  Just allowing me mere minutes to gaze at your face one last time and disappear again, so quickly… Not telling me how you’ve been and…”

She addressed him a warm smile. “I’ve been well,” she said candidly.  “Don’t worry about me…  My life was cut short, but I lived it fully – and even more for loving you and being loved by you.  I couldn’t think of a better life, Charles.  Even if I had lived a thousand years.”  She reached for his cheek, but didn’t touch it.   Her hand was merely a millimetre away, but he could see, and feel the radiance from it, warming his skin in a comforting way.  “You still have things to do down here, Charles.  Important things.  More important that you may even imagine. So promise me you’ll listen to the ghosts, and that you won’t let your stubbornness get in the way of the revelations they’ll bring you.”

“Liz… You don’t know how I miss you.”

“I know.  I would like to stay with you longer, but it’s impossible.”  She touched his cheek, just barely, but nevertheless in a sweet caress.  The warmth grew even more comfortingly, compelling him to close his eyes.  He couldn’t see, but felt the deep loving eyes set on him, as the ghost came closer. “Dreams always are brief, Charles,” he heard the murmur in his ear.  “And even sweet ones must end.”

He felt lips grazing his cheek, into a gentle goodbye kiss, and then the warmth disappeared.

White opened his eyes.

The room was dark again. There was no breeze anymore. He was alone.

“Elizabeth?”

No answer.  He looked around, turning on himself, searching for any sign that he didn’t imagine what he had just experienced.  There was none.  “Lights, thirty percent,” he called.  The lights came on, bathing the room of a soft blue hue.  It gave the room a ghostly appearance.  But it was as empty as previously.  Almost despite himself, a scoffing sound escaped him. “A dream, only a dream,” he murmured.

What crap.  He was a rational man.  How could he let himself be affected emotionally by a simple dream?  It wasn’t as if it was the first time that he had dreamt of his wife.  But it had been years, he had to admit.  And never before did he find himself standing in the middle of a room after waking up.

It was quite a vivid dream, he had to admit.

He walked back to his bed, stifling a yawn as he did, climbed back into it, and pulled up the covers.

A few hours more of sleep wouldn’t be too much, he thought.  He knew he still had lots of work waiting for him to do when he woke up again.  He’d need the rest.

He yawned again, closing his eyes.  “Lights…”

“… Down, ten percent.”

It had the effect of a bee sting.  Colonel White was on his feet quicker than he had ever thought possible, pushing the blankets so far away from him that they literally flew off the bed.  “WHO’S THERE?”

On the other side of the bed, not far from where the covers had fallen, was standing the figure of a man, who was looking at him with bright eyes and a faint smile.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you like that.”

White stepped back, his eyes wide again with disbelief, but this time, filled with concern – and a certain amount of fear.   Quickly, his hand rummaged in his first drawer again. He didn’t find the gun. Only then did he see it lying on the table.  He took it and turned it in the direction of where the intruder was standing. 

He only found empty space.

“You won’t need that.”

The voice was coming from directly behind him.  White spun around.  So quickly that he fell onto the bed.  He swiftly gathered himself up on the other side of the bed.  The gun was still in his hand and he pointed it at the man who, this time, had not moved from his spot.  He didn’t appear threatening in any way, and was looking at him coolly, a quiet expression on his face, and his hands behind his back.  He tilted his head to one side, looking at White in a curious way.

White couldn’t believe his eyes.  How could he be there? How could he have passed through Cloudbase security to get to his quarters?  Sure, he knew all there was to know about the base – he had supervised its construction in space, he had brought it down through the atmosphere, for it to sit at 40,000 feet above the earth’s surface.  The base didn’t hold any secrets for him.  But up until now, his new masters, the Mysterons, had not ordered him to get inside the base, for whatever plans they might need him to carry out.

Him, Captain Black.  Once, Spectrum’s premier agent.  Colonel White’s second-in-command.  His old friend.

Now his worst enemy.

“What are you doing here?” White snapped furiously.  “How did you get in?”

He saw Black cock an eyebrow, to stare at him with the same curious stare.  “You were informed of my visit,” he stated quietly. 

The voice.  It wasn’t the voice that Colonel White knew of the Mysteron-controlled Captain Black. The deep, slow, menacing tone he had heard on some occasions coming from his former friend’s mouth and which had disturbed him so profoundly.   It now sounded like his real voice, the voice of the man who had become the first victim of the Mysterons’ War of Nerves.  A decent man who, following a foolish gesture born out of fear and ignorance, was the very cause of that war.

That he was now speaking with his normal voice – and his normal accent - that his features also seemed back to normal, not wearing the deadly pallor and coldness that had been his since he had been taken under the Mysterons’ control wasn’t something that really reassured White.  Black’s presence here really was too disturbing.  It didn’t forebode anything good.  And what he had just said didn’t help either.

“Informed?  What do you mean?  As far as I know, there wasn’t a Mysteron threat tonight!”

“There wasn’t one, that’s true.  I was not sent by the Mysterons.  I am not who you think I am.”

“Oh really?”  White briefly turned to the comm.link.  “Security!”  he barked.  He was really frustrated that the voice-command didn’t seem to work.  He frowned deeply.  “Damn!” he seethed between his teeth, moving around the bed to walk to his desk, his gun still trained on Black.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past,” the latter said quietly, just as White reached his desk.  “You were informed of my visit by your dead wife.”

That caused White to lift his head furiously at him.  “You don’t say?  So I didn’t dream…  I should have known!  Was it by the powers of the Mysterons that I saw an illusion of her tonight?  Isn’t there anything sacred to your masters?” For a brief second, his eyes left Black, and he pressed down the manual command of the comm.  That it didn’t work either frustrated him even more then earlier. “Is this also some of their work?”

“This is not the Mysterons’ doing.”

The voice was now coming from behind White and he turned around.  Black had materialised there suddenly, surprising him once again; White raised the gun; Black shook his head, in a regretful way.

“I told you you wouldn’t need it.” 

Inexplicably, the gun wasn’t in White’s hand anymore.  He didn’t drop it, it didn’t fade, and Black didn’t take him from him.  It simply wasn’t there.  White blinked, and gave a disbelieving look at Black.

“How…?”  He was starting to panic.  Unable to call for help, unarmed, alone with Black.  “What do you want from me?”

Black tilted his head again.  “You still are wary of me.  You shouldn’t be.  I’m not here to hurt you.  I am the Ghost of Christmas Past and I am here to help you see the truth.”  White didn’t reply; he contented himself with staring at Black, who gestured at himself.  “I chose this familiar image of your friend Conrad Turner to show myself to you.  I didn’t mean to alarm you in any way.”

“Well you picked the wrong bloody IMAGE, Spirit!” White snarled.

Black looked puzzled.  “How?  It was not my intention to—”

“Alarm me?” White exploded.  “After all you’ve done, and after defiling the memory of my wife, how can you expect me to believe any of that crap you’re handing me …”

“Please, calm yourself,” Black replied with still a quiet tone.  Then he repeated, with more emphasis, “I am NOT who you think I am.”

White didn’t know how he could have possibly done that, but Black was now a mere foot away, his hand now grasping White’s arm firmly.  The hold was strong, not painfully forceful, but was more than enough to make White aware that he wouldn’t free himself without a violent struggle.  But somehow, he didn’t fight back.  The hold had a strange soothing, compelling effect on him.  He looked straight into Black’s serene expression; he saw a thin smile appear on his lips.

 “I am simply here to help you see the truth,” Black continued, gently detaching each word.

White felt a warmth enveloping him – a warmth similar to the one he had felt earlier when his wife – the ghost of his wife – had brushed his cheek with her lips.  The room around became pitch back, so dark that he was unable to see a thing. He felt suddenly cold and he shivered.

“What are you doing?” he murmured, holding his breath.  Panic was threatening to get hold of him, but the sensation only lasted a second.  The darkness slowly made way to light, and the coldness disappeared at the same rate.  White started to breathe again – and suddenly, felt lost, as he gazed around him in total disbelief.

The scene around White had changed. He wasn’t restrained in his quarters anymore.  He didn’t even appear to be in any part of Cloudbase.

He was standing in the middle of a comfortable, large enough drawing room with beautiful stylish furniture, elegant décor, and a magnificent stone fireplace, in which a warm fire was crackling comfortingly.  At the other side of the room, next to a window, was set a high and brightly decorated Christmas tree, with glittering lights blinking sporadically, and gifts surrounding its foot.  Through the window, big snowflakes, like cotton balls, could be seen quietly falling against the dark night sky.

White looked around the place, not understanding how he could possibly be there.  That was an impossibility, he knew, but somehow…

“I know this place,” he murmured.

“Of course you do,” Black noted quietly.  “It’s your home.”

“Was,” corrected White.  “Was my home.  In London.”  He looked through the window.  “My God… How…? How did you bring me here?”

“You shouldn’t concern yourself with the ‘how’, Charles Gray.  The ‘when’ and ‘why’ should be of more importance to you.”

“ ‘When’?” White repeated, looking over at Black.

“Better,” the latter said with another faint smile.  “We are in the past, of course.  I am the Ghost of Christmas Past, after all.”

“You still continue to pretend that…”

“I’m not pretending anything.”  He waved around.  “You recognised the place yourself.  I didn’t have to force that realisation upon you.”

“I… recognise it, yes,” murmured White, looking around again. 

“Can you also recognise the time?”

White hesitated; before shaking his head; it was a nervous shake, that ‘the ghost’ with Black’s face identified instantly. “You do know.”

“No, I don’t…”

“You can’t lie to me…”  Black raised a brow, looking at White. “…Admiral.”

That made White turn to him with surprise. That was a name that Conrad Turner had often used in the past to address him – even though Charles Gray had long since left the Navy and wasn’t using it anymore.  For Black, it was a teasing way to address his friend.  It generally annoyed White.  He was about to admonish Black – or the ghost wearing his old friend’s face, he wasn’t quite sure yet – when he was suddenly interrupted by a giggling sound.  He turned around, to stare in the direction of the large opening leading into the hall.  He became pale.

“My God…”

“Something wrong, Charles?” the voice of Black said behind him.

He didn’t care to respond.  His ear had picked up a new giggling sound – a soft female laugh, then followed by the deeper chuckle of a man.  He heard running coming from upstairs, and then saw the bare feet of a woman as they quickly rushed down the steps.  White moved aside, as if he wanted to hide himself from the person he just knew would appear fully to his view in a few seconds.  He felt the hand of the Ghost reaching for his shoulder, and somehow forcing him to stay where he was.

“You don’t have to hide.  They can’t see us.”

They?  White didn’t have time to ask the question.  Even though he somehow knew the answer.  He watched as the woman, dressed in a nice, but sober, nightgown appeared at the foot of the stairs, laughing happily, her long dark hair flowing around her radiant, beautiful face.  Behind her, running down the stairs in pursuit, was a young man with light brown hair, bright blue eyes and a broad smile that made White shiver almost despite himself.  He recognised the young man.  He recognised his brashness when he saw him cutting the chase short by jumping over the stair rail, and capturing his prey from behind, just as she was walking through the living room doorway.  His laugh mixed with hers, when she turned around, playfully punching his chest, as if in protest. 

He recognised himself in this young man – as he was some twenty years before.  And he recognised his wife, looking exactly as she had when he had seen her earlier that night.

He felt a pinch to his heart when he saw the young couple standing only a few feet from him, hugging each other in a loving, playful embrace.

“That’s me,” he murmured.  “That’s me and…”

“Your wife,” the Ghost behind him said, as White was hesitant to finish his sentence.  “Elizabeth.”

White shook his head. “Me and Elizabeth,” he said in a croaked whisper.

“You brute!” the young woman said with a chuckling sound, making a show of pushing him off  her, but not really putting much effort into it.  “Let me go this instant!”

“Not before you tell me what you got me for Christmas this year,” he replied, imprisoning her body against his own. 

“You’re such a baby!”  she giggled, hiding her face against his chest.  “I won’t say a thing.”

“Really?” he said with a falsely serious tone, betrayed by his large smile.  “I can make you talk…” He leaned to kiss her neck.  “I know your one weak point…”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“Wouldn’t I?”

She giggled again under his kisses, and he allowed her to escape him when she pushed herself off him, a little harder.  He always knew when to let her go.  Her hand caught his as she led him into the living room. He followed docilely.  White watched them, as they passed in front of him, not seeing him, not being aware of his presence, or of the man – ghost – spirit – standing right behind him.  They were invisible to the young couple, who walked toward the tall Christmas tree.

“We should get ready to go to that party at Creighton-Ward Manor,” she advised him.

“Do we have to?” he asked, pulling a face as if he were a pouting child.

She turned around swiftly and again, he got closer to her. “It’s good PR for your job.”

He grinned down at her.  “I’d rather do good PR at home with you.”

“You would say that…  Look at me, I’m not even ready.  And it’s your fault.”

“You didn’t complain earlier,” he protested.

“Watch it.”  She smiled and looked up at him, under half-closed eyes.  “What did you get ME for Christmas?”

“I thought I already gave you…”

“One more word, Charles Gray, and you’re sleeping on the sofa tonight!” she warned him, pointing an imperative finger under his nose. 

He cleared his throat.  “Yes, ma’am.”

“That’s better,” she said with a satisfied nod.  “Now, if you’re a good boy, I’ll tell you what I’m giving you for Christmas.  Better yet, I’ll show you.”  She turned around and went to crouch in front of the tree.  He followed suit, and sat down on the floor next to her, looking on with amused curiosity as she selected a small box amongst the many that had been put under there. 

Behind them, White shivered, looking on attentively.  He had recognised the scene.  He remembered it.

“My God…” he murmured.

“You can speak up, Charles,” the voice of the Spirit told him from behind. “They can no more hear us than they can see us.” 

White approached the couple, aware that the Ghost was following closely.  He watched on, as Elizabeth, after delicately settling back a ribbon around the box, was turning to offer it to his other, younger self.

“I remember that scene,” White said.  “I remember when it was.”

“I’m not surprised that you should remember,” the Ghost said.

White watched with growing anticipation as young Charles Gray took the neatly decorated little box, and turned it upside down in his hand, examining it carefully.  “What’s this?”  he murmured.  “Seems a little small for a new car…”  He shook it energetically near his ear, listening to the sound it might produce.   “The keys, perhaps?”  His mischievous eyes were set on his wife, who scowled at him.

“A car? Is that what you thought I would give you?!  On my salary?”

“That never stopped you before…”  He laughed, and tore into ribbon and wrapping paper.  White turned around as his younger self was opening the box.  The Ghost stopped him, grabbing him by the arm.

“Don’t you want to see what’s in the box?”

“I know what it is,” White murmured, his face blank.  “That’s me opening it, remember?”

“What Christmas is it, Charles?”  White didn’t answer.  The Ghost insisted. “It was an important day for you.  Surely, you remember…”

“Christmas Eve, 2052,” White cut in suddenly.  He shook himself from the Ghost’s hold and turned around, slowly.  “Yes…  It… It was an important day…  We were supposed to go to a very fashionable party that night…  We didn’t.”

His younger self had finally opened the box and was delicately pulling aside the thin layer of silk paper covering the object within.  The young man frowned, when he discovered what it was.  And then took it between two fingers, to raise it to eye level and check it closely.  “A spoon?” he said, furrowing his brow.

“A silver spoon,” Elizabeth specified, looking at him, with a mocking glitter in her blue eyes.  “A tiny, silver, baby spoon.”

He looked at her with something of a clueless stare.  “And what should I do with it?” he asked, waving the spoon in a negligent fashion.

White, watching it from afar, frowned in annoyance.  “Open your eyes, you fool…” he murmured.  The frown on his young wife’s face was very similar to his own. He remembered vividly the disdainful scoff she had given him then.  Sure enough it came, precisely as he recalled it.

“Didn’t you listen to a single word I said?”

“You said I was a big baby, but…” She pressed her hand on his lips, to stop him from babbling further.

“I said: ‘It’s a tiny, silver baby spoon’.”

He nodded.  “That’s what I said, a…”  He stopped dead, as a thought suddenly seemed to enlighten his mind.  His stare became somehow absent, before he looked down again at his wife’s grinning face.  “No…  You don’t mean…”

She nodded.  “That’s what I mean.”

“A… baby?”  the younger version of Charles Gray said.  His eyes were opened wide, looking at his wife with plain disbelief.  Elizabeth nodded again, more energetically. “A baby?!”  he repeated, as his eyes wandered off into empty space, in a thoughtful glance.  He seemed to have difficulty letting the news sink in. “You’re saying you’re going to have a baby?”

“Have you turned deaf all of a sudden?” Elizabeth asked him.  “And I’m saying – We’re going to have a baby.”

He then looked right at her. There was still some doubt in his features.   “Elizabeth, are you sure?”

“I just had the news from the doctor earlier today,” she confirmed.  “This morning, to be exact.”

“When I got out of the shower you were speaking to someone on the phone and hung up rather quickly,” young Gray recalled.  “Then wanted to do some last minute shopping…”  He looked down at the spoon in his hand.  “Oh my God…  A baby…”

Elizabeth looked at him in concern.  “Charles, are you all right?  I mean, I wanted to surprise you with the news.  I know how much you wanted to have children, but…”

“Am I all right?”  A large smile finally spread on the young man’s face.  He brought his wife against his heart, hugging her into a strong embrace, kissing her with passion. He then laughed, his eyes bright with happiness, and he cupped her lovely face in his hands.  “A baby…  Darling, that’s wonderful news!”

“Are you happy?”

“I couldn’t be happier! But – when is it due?” Charles asked her, all excited and looking up and down at her. “I mean… it can’t be soon, you haven’t put on any weight yet.”

“Very kind of you to say that,” she said chuckling.  “I have put on a few pounds, but you were too gentlemanly to mention it.”  She nodded quietly. “July,”  she announced. “Maybe in time for your birthday?”

“I never had to wait THAT long to open a Christmas present,” he answered laughing. 

“Well, there might be an old thing in there somewhere,” Elisabeth replied, waving at the boxes piled under the Christmas tree.

Charles shook his head.  “That baby… It’s the most wonderful gift you can give me, darling.”

She shook her head slowly, looking deeply into his eyes. “That’s the most wonderful gift you can give me,” she answered, stroking his cheek.

When he saw his younger self leaning toward his wife for another, more tender kiss,  Colonel White turned around quickly, turning his back on the scene he knew would come, and walking a few steps into the room, not wanting to witness it. “Enough,” he grumbled to the Ghost who had followed him. “I don’t want to see anymore.”

“That’s a happy scene, Charles,” the Ghost wearing Black’s face told him. “What happened?”

“You know bloody well what happened!” White snarled at him.  He spun around to face the Ghost, fighting himself not to watch the couple behind, as they continued to kiss and slowly lie down on the floor. He stared defiantly at the Ghost.  “Why did you bring me here, recalling happy moments from my past life?  What is the purpose of this – charade?”

“Do you still think the Mysterons are behind this?” the Ghost asked.  He raised his hand, and touched White’s arm.  The latter felt a new warmth enveloping him, then darkness fell around.  It was very brief and when it slowly dissipated – although not completely this time – White, the Ghost having apparently disappeared –  turned around to gaze at the scene.

He was in the same room again, but this time, it was darker. It was the same décor and furniture, but there was no light, no warmth, except from a dying fire in the fireplace.  There were no Christmas decorations anymore, and no Christmas tree – but from the radio, the faint sound of a Christmas ballad could be heard.

“Blue Christmas.”  White spun on his heels.  The Ghost was standing right next to the radio, listening to the music.  “Not the Elvis Presley version.  This one is sadder…”

“What, now?”  White retorted angrily.  “Where…”  He gave it a quick thought. “When is it?” he corrected himself.

“You should be able to tell me yourself.”

White looked around.  It wasn’t very difficult to figure it out, actually.  He walked toward the fireplace.  A framed photo had been put upon it.  It was the same picture he kept on his desk, in his quarters on Cloudbase.  The last picture he had of his deceased wife, taken only a couple of weeks before she died.  He shivered when he saw it, and turned around.  The Ghost was now standing behind the sofa, looking down thoughtfully. A snoring sound came to White’s ear and he looked down toward the sofa too. 

He saw the sprawling figure of a tall man, sleeping there, his feet protruding at one end of the sofa, and his head in an odd angle.  He didn’t seem to be very comfortable, but he didn’t seem to care. As he didn’t seem to care about anything else for that matter. His clothes were untidy, as was his whole appearance. By the look of his face, he had not shaved in days – maybe weeks. 

White approached the sofa to look more closely, although he didn’t need to, to know who this man was.  He had recognised his younger self, sleeping there.  The smell of alcohol hit him well before he had closed on him.  He had seen in the man’s hand, hanging to the floor, the empty bottle of whisky.

“The death of your wife hit you very hard, didn’t it?” the Ghost asked softly.

“She never had the child,” White murmured, looking down at his sleeping self.  “There was that plane accident in May.  We crashed in the Highlands.  She didn’t survive, and I…”  His voice trailed off.

“Do you blame yourself, Charles?”

He turned around, not deigning to answer. “Why did you bring me here?  There’s nothing to see, but a crushed young man who drank himself stupid, trying to drown his grief in alcohol.”

“That’s plenty to see, if you ask me,” the Ghost replied. “And there’s plenty more…”

As if on cue, a loud thumping made itself heard at that moment, drawing White’s attentive eyes to the front door, which he could see from his spot in the hall.  The thumping grew in intensity, without even succeeding in waking up the sleeping man on the sofa.  Then a loud male voice was heard, muffled by the thickness of the door. “Charles, are you in there?  Open up, please!”

White frowned, looked down at his sleeping counterpart, then at the Ghost standing a few feet from him.  The latter didn’t address him a single gesture, and gave him an answer to his mute question.   White raised his eyes when the door open slowly, creaking as it did.  A dark-haired young man, in his early twenties, and dressed smartly, as if ready to go to a party, stepped inside cautiously, looking around with curiosity.  White shivered when he saw his face, having confirmation that he had indeed recognised the voice earlier on.

“Charles?” young Conrad Turner called again.  “You in there?”  He walked briskly into the dark drawing room,  removing his coat and casually throwing it onto the rocking chair, and directed his steps toward the dying fire, passing in front of White –  without seeing him, of course, which didn’t surprise the Spectrum commander.  He was as invisible in this new scene as he was in the previous one.  He followed the young man with his eyes, curious at what he would do.  He saw him crouching in front of the fireplace, to work the fire with a poker, and throwing a new log in.  Despite his efforts, the fire didn’t revive.  He got to his feet and turned around. 

That’s when he saw the man sleeping on the sofa, and walked over to him, muttering under his breath. “Damn it, Charles, do you have to get yourself in such a state?!”  He snatched the bottle from the sleeping man’s hand, in a very annoyed and brusque gesture. “Wake up already!” he bellowed, shaking Gray’s shoulder vigorously.  “Come on, snap out of it!”

The sleeping man groaned and opened his eyes to look up into the concerned face gazing down at him.  The blue eyes were tired, lost – and didn’t seem to recognise the visitor.  Gray blinked several times.

“What’re you doing here?” he finally muttered in a thick voice.

“Indeed, what am I doing here!” Turner replied harshly.  He released his friend and got up, walking toward the fireplace, with the empty bottle in his hand.  He turned around sharply to stare at Gray, who was slowly getting himself into a sitting position.  “What are YOU doing here, Admiral?” He violently tossed the bottle into the fireplace, sending it crashing against the stone surface; the loud crashing sound seemed to reverberate through Gray’s skull, who groaned loudly.

“Not so much noise, please,” he grumbled.  He looked up at Turner.  “How did you get in?”

“The door wasn’t locked,” Turner answered grimly.  “I noticed that, after knocking on it for the last ten minutes!”

“What’s with the clothes?  Are you going  somewhere?”

“I was on my way to a Christmas party with Alexia, when Miranda called, and told me there was something wrong with you.”

“Miranda? Who’s Miranda?”  Gray gave it some thought.  “Oh yes…  That girl you threw into my arms three weeks ago…”

“… And who you’ve been going out with ever since.”

“I seem to recall we ‘broke up’ this morning.”

“Indeed you did. She told me you’ve been horrible to her,” Turner continued.  “That you said all kinds of unpleasant things to her.”

“I did not.”

“I rather believe you did! What got into you?”

“Please, Conrad, don’t shout,” Gray grunted, taking his head between his hands.  “I’ve got a terrible headache.”

“You’re drunk, that’s what you are.”

“And what if I am?” muttered Gray, looking away.

“You were already drunk this morning when you ‘broke up’ with Miranda.  And last evening, when we accidentally met at the restaurant. And you already looked as if you weren’t taking care of yourself,” Turner said, waving with a disgusted gesture in Gray’s direction.   “I suspect you haven’t sobered up at all for the last twenty-four hours. Perhaps even more.  “What’s going on with you?  I thought we went through this already…”

“Get out of here, Conrad,” Gray said between his teeth.

“I won’t get out until you tell me what your problem is, and until you straighten up!”

“Will you leave me alone?” Gray barked, suddenly getting to his feet, his eyes flashing with anger.  “I’m tired of you constantly butting into my life, always being behind me, looking after me, and setting me up with girls!  I don’t need a snot-nosed kid to protect me, Lieutenant Turner!”  He turned his back on the younger man and swayed on his feet.  He caught himself against the arm of the sofa. “You don’t have to feel obligated to look after me just because you saved my life on that mountain, all those months ago,” he muttered. 

“I came in search of you on that mountain because I felt I had a debt with you,” Turner replied dryly.  “Because you saved my life seven years ago.   I thought it was a way for me to repay that debt…”

 “Maybe you shouldn’t have bothered,” Gray grumbled.

“And left you to die up there?”

“Maybe that would have been better.”

Turner nodded.  “Oh.  I see…  Dying with your wife would have been easier for you… The coward’s way out, Admiral.”

“Don’t be impertinent!” Gray lashed out, turning around angrily.

“You’re the one who’s being impertinent, to the memory of your wife!” Turner lashed back.  That seemed to calm Gray down instantly.  It had served to stop him in his tracks, as he was about to take a threatening step towards Turner. But he maintained an angry stare at the younger man, who shook his head and gave a deep sigh. “I never met her.  But from what I’ve heard of her, she was a wonderful lady.  You think she would be proud of you, if she could see you getting yourself into such a state on her account?”

White twitched, hearing the words.  He gave an interrogating glance at the Ghost by his side.  The latter was looking at him intently.  He shrugged his shoulders meaningfully.  “I believe she probably wasn’t very happy about that period of your life,” he commented.

“Neither was I,” White muttered.  “It’s not a period I like to dwell upon.”  He turned around when he heard the following outburst by his younger self.

“Mind your own business, Conrad!  I don’t need you to lecture me!”

“Self-pity doesn’t become you, Admiral.  I know you miss them – her and the child she was to give you.”

“It’s Christmas,”  Gray muttered, turning his back on his friend, not wanting for him to see the trouble in his eyes.  “Don’t you think I have the right to a little self-pity? This should have been the most wonderful Christmas for me, with my wife and a child – I would finally be a father.  And instead – I’m all alone, now.  No wife, no child, my father dead years ago –  no family left…”

“Welcome to my world, Charles.”

Gray slowly turned around to stare at Conrad.  The young man was still standing in the same spot, looking at him meaningfully.  The flash in his dark eyes was quite obvious, even at a distance.  White flinched.  Conrad Turner had had no family of his own for a very long time.  Orphaned as a baby, he never knew his parents, and had been moved from one distant relative to the other when still at a tender age.  He never truly knew what his true place was in life, until he had joined the British army, lying about his age to do so.  As soon as he had signed up, he had found himself entangled in the Civil Insurrection, and sided with his then commander on the side of the insurgents – and was stationed at the rebel base of Liberty Base.  That was where he performed what some people might have considered an act of bravery or total foolishness.  A bomb had been left in a plane on the base’s runway, and Turner – who was at that time learning his trade as a pilot – took the controls of the plane and flew it out to sea where it exploded.  Turner just had the time to eject, but was caught in the blast.  It was three days later that he was found, still strapped to his seat, floating in the sea – by Captain Charles Gray, who was taking his destroyer to Liberty Base, in order to protect it against a British Government force, on its way to destroy the rebel base.

Turner had lost contact with Gray for some years after that, but, upon hearing of the plane accident during which he had disappeared in the Highlands with his wife, he had volunteered to participate in the search.  Because of his dedication in continuing the search, while everybody else was giving up, Turner found the plane – and Gray, still alive, although his wife had died in the crash.

That was eight months before, and Conrad Turner had kept gravitating around Charles Gray, as if he now felt responsible for having saved his life.  Gray had not been the easiest person to keep close to those last few months – now bitter and lonely, he felt responsible for his wife’s death and felt that he had lost everything that had any value to him.  He had immersed himself in his work, started drinking too much, and had been growing increasingly irritable.  He barely tolerated anyone working with and around him.  The only familiar figure was indeed Turner, who wouldn’t let himself be deterred by the older man’s bad temper.  Probably, mused Colonel White, as he looked at the two men now standing face to face, he was as stubborn as me…

“I’m sorry, Conrad,” his younger self said with a deep sigh, “I didn’t mean to minimise your…”

“You’re not the only person to be alone in the world,” Turner cut in abruptly.  “And neither am I. Far from it.” Before Gray could utter a word, and under White’s scrutinising gaze, the young man took his coat from the chair and put it across his arm.  “Okay, you want to drown yourself in self-pity and alcohol?  Fine, go ahead.  I won’t stop you.  You were right earlier, Admiral, you don’t need me to be your guardian angel.”

He started to walk toward the exit, and Gray tried to catch him by the arm to stop him.  “Conrad, I…”

The younger man abruptly disengaged himself and turned angrily to him. 

“You know, seven years ago, after that bomb exploded, and you found me floating in the freezing sea, still attached to that damned seat – For a while,  I wanted nothing to do with the world.   I was lying in a hospital bed, my face, my whole body almost destroyed – my life finished, or so I thought.  I was all alone, with no one to visit me but  military officials who wanted to give me bloody medals to honour my so-called ‘act of bravery’, and damned reporters who wanted to know my story.  The ONLY friendly face I saw – ONCE – was yours, when you came to visit me, on Christmas Eve, this very day, seven years ago, and stayed a couple of hours with me – just talking.”  He stared meaningfully at his elder, who didn’t find anything to say to his diatribe, and then continued:  “Eight months ago, when I joined the search for you in those mountains after they announced your plane had crashed, I thought I was only repaying a debt, by rescuing the man who had rescued me once.  For me you were more than the ‘legendary Admiral Gray’, who had helped turn the tide of the Civil Insurrection in favour of the Rebels.  You were also a good and caring man.”  He shook his head.  “And as human as any of us, I see.”  He turned around.  “I can’t stop you destroying yourself with that attitude of yours.  It’s up to you, now.  Call me when you’re in a better mood and ready to accept my help.” 

He walked out of the room and directed his steps toward the door.  Gray tried again to call him, but the younger man didn’t even turn around.  The door slammed rather violently behind the departing Turner, and Gray found himself staring at the spot where his friend had disappeared from his view.

“Of course, the very next day he was back.”  Colonel White was only a few feet from his now troubled-looking younger counterpart, who let himself slump onto the sofa.  He watched in complete silence, as the voice of the Ghost, standing behind him, pursued: “He didn’t wait for your call.  He was ready to offer his help again.”

White nodded. “He didn’t only repay a debt when he came looking for me, in those mountains,” he noted.  “He also found a friend.  And I found one as well.”

“You were very lucky to have such a friend.”

“Indeed I was,” muttered White.  “I often wonder… How he is today.”

He gave the Ghost an interrogating look.  The latter shook his head.  “It’s not for me to tell you.  Conrad Turner isn’t the subject which should interest you tonight.  You are.”  He  pointed to the younger Charles Gray,  who was now leaning back on his seat, grumbling, taking his head between his hands.  White gave a sigh.

“I stopped viewing myself as the most miserable man alive that night.  And threw away every  last drop of alcohol I had in the house.”

“And you immersed yourself totally in your work,” the Ghost remarked.

White turned and glared at the Spirit wearing his friend’s face.  “That was all I had left.”

“Are you sure you stopped viewing yourself as the most miserable man alive that night?”

“I had a job to do,” White snapped.  “I had responsibilities at the USS. Growing responsibilities, that involved international security.  People’s lives  depended on me.  On the decisions I made.”

“That hasn’t changed much, has it?”

“Are you saying I should just let go of my responsibilities as Spectrum Commander?”  White asked with a frown.

The Ghost smiled. “No,” he said, shaking his head.  “No, I’m not saying that.”  He moved toward the younger image of White, who was apparently starting to drift into slumber, and waved in his direction. “Apparently, your… aversion for alcohol seems to come from this rather sad period of your life.”

My ‘aversion for alcohol’?” White replied.  “That’s got nothing to do with this!”  He walked briskly to join the Ghost.  “Cloudbase is a military base, whose purpose is keeping watch over the entire population of Earth to protect it against terrorists and—” He faltered slightly as the image he knew as Captain Black caught his eye.  “…and the Mysterons.  We must be in constant vigilance, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week!  Alcohol is NOT allowed, because it would provide an unwelcome distraction.”

 “Aren’t you too hard on your people, Colonel White?” the Ghost replied.  “Or is it that you don’t trust their judgement?”

“They have no right to go behind my back, to sneak alcohol onto the base and arrange parties without asking permission!”

“You would have given them that permission?”

“NOT for drinking parties!”

“So.  You DON’T trust their judgement, then.”

“Oh, that’s nonsense…”

“Enough.”  The Ghost reached for White’s shoulder;  as soon as he touched it, the warming sensation came back, and the room started growing dark. Here we go again, thought White with some irritation.  All around him was pitch black now, and he could barely distinguish the features of the Ghost, standing right in front of him.  “My part with you is done.  It is time now to return you to your time and place…  There is still much to be done tonight, Charles Gray.”

“What?  What do you mean, I…”

“A second Ghost will be here shortly to guide you through the second part of your journey,” the now disembodied voice replied, without hearing him out. “Take notice of what she reveals to you.  The importance of it must not escape you.”

The light started coming back again;  the hand that was holding White’s shoulder was gone and so was the Ghost’s figure.  The colonel found himself staring into empty space, where the Spirit was before.  He looked around, in search of him.  He couldn’t see any trace of his presence.

He was back in his quarters, standing right next to his bed. It was exactly as if he had not left at all.

Don’t tell me I dreamed all of this! he thought with irritation.

“Hello?” he called tentatively.  “Spirit, where are you?”

He listened, but heard only silence.  Dejected, he shook his head.  “No,” he mumbled, “I can’t believe it.  It couldn’t have been…”

“Colonel White?”

The new voice coming from behind him made him turn around swiftly.  This time, it was a female voice.  And he saw a female silhouette, with long flowing hair, standing in the semi-darkness at the other side of his quarters, right next to the door.

Elizabeth? he thought, his heart racing in anticipation.

He nearly called her name, but stopped himself just in time, as, quietly, the new visitor stepped forward and appeared clearly to his eyes.  No dark hair and blue eyes – but blond hair, and brown eyes, that were looking curiously at him.  White gave a deep sigh, not really sure if it was of disappointment of not seeing his wife – or of relief of not finding himself in front of yet another Spirit.

“Symphony,” he said in some puzzlement, but with a hint of severity.  “What are you doing in my quarters at this hour of the night? How did you get in?”

She stared at him for a moment, not answering right away.  Then, she approached, and opened her mouth.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present…”

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2

 

 

Other stories by Chris Bishop

 

Other stories by Mary J. Rudy

 

Other stories by Sue Stanhope

 

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