It had been a long shift, reflected Symphony Angel, much longer than usual. But it was finally over, and she intended to enjoy a relaxing hot shower before changing her clothes and fixing her hair. Captain Blue had asked her to join him for a tête-à-tête dinner, and she was eager for the remaining two hours to pass before she met him.
As she entered her quarters, Symphony was surprised to hear the shower running behind the closed door to her bathroom. She was certain she had turned the water off before leaving earlier. Someone must have come in and turned it on again, but who? And why?
The Angel frowned. It was possible an intruder awaited in the bathroom, but not likely. The housekeeping staff could enter only at certain times of the day, and then only with special authorization codes that monitored their entries and exits. There was no chance someone could be lingering; if a housekeeper remained too long, Security would be notified. Sickbay personnel could gain access, but only with emergency authorization and an emergency code that changed with every use. Again, there was no chance of lingering. Apart from them, only a very few people could gain access to her quarters when she wasn’t there. Which of them, then, had come in and turned on the shower?
She smiled. Adam had hinted that this would be an especially romantic evening. It was early still, much too early for supper. But perhaps he intended to start the evening with a shower for two? It was the sort of surprise he would arrange, especially if he’d learned of her extended shift.
Excited, Symphony pushed the door open and flipped on the light switch as she stepped forward. Almost immediately, her head exploded with pain. Something had hit her violently. She staggered back, and something hit her again, hard. She slumped to the floor, confused and scared, shooting stars dancing before her eyes. Something yellow and white billowed above her, but she couldn’t focus on it as her vision doubled, then faded as she lost consciousness. She had not taken in the message on the shower curtain in dark ochre letters that read MARRY ME, KAREN!
Before taking his seat, Captain Scarlet set down a beaker full of coffee in front of Captain Blue. Blue added sugar to his drink, took a mouthful, and quickly swallowed it with a visible effort. “Ugh!”
Scarlet grinned at him. “That’s your first cup of coffee since this morning, isn’t it.”
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“I tried a cup earlier. It was so bitter, I asked the kitchen to brew another pot.”
“Now I’m drinking tea.”
Both men laughed. “Well, that’s good enough for you Brits, I suppose. But remember, my ancestors helped throw the stuff into Boston Harbour! I’ve got to start my day with coffee, if only as a point of American honour,” said Blue. He grimaced at his cup. “But drinking this is going to take a lot of honour! Even the sugar didn’t help.”
Scarlet handed Blue a small box. “Have you ever tried this?”
“No,” he replied, eyeing the unfamiliar mint-green packets in the box. “What is it?”
“It’s some sort of new no-calorie sugar, a lot sweeter than ordinary sugar. Apparently my mother received it as a free sample. She sent it up to me, thinking I’d be interested in trying it. She sometimes forgets that I take my coffee and tea black.”
“Well, it can’t make this battery acid any worse. I’ll try it in a fresh cup.” After fetching a new beaker, Blue tore open two of the packets and stirred their contents into the coffee. He took a cautious sip. “Hey! That’s a lot better! It’s still not great, but at least it’s drinkable.”
He handed the box back to Captain Scarlet who waved it away. “Keep it. You know I don’t use sugar. And you’re probably going to want to use it for a few more days.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I suspect a batch of bad coffee beans got delivered to Cloudbase in the last shipment of supplies. And you know how much coffee is consumed here —”
“And how many beans that requires!” groaned Blue. He held up a green packet. “Be sure to thank your mother for me. These will be a lifesaver! I asked the kitchen to prepare a very special dessert for my dinner with Karen tonight, with coffee to follow.”
“So tonight’s the night, is it?” Scarlet drew back in an affected attitude of horror. “You’re a brave man, Adam!”
Blue shook his head and shrugged. “Actually, I’m nervous. I know Karen loves me and I want to spend my life with her, but marriage will require both of us to make a lot of adjustments. I’m not sure she wants to make any dramatic changes in her life just now. I can only offer her my heart and hope that’s enough to overcome everything.”
Scarlet leaned over and peered into Blue’s beaker. “It must the coffee. You don’t usually go philosophic on me.” Blue laughed. “Why are you drinking coffee if you’re nervous? Most people find it makes them worse.”
“I’m just the opposite. A cup of coffee when I’m under stress helps me relax.”
“Americans!” said Scarlet with mock disgust. “Well, I’m off down to the weight room to work off my own stress. You coming?”
“No, thanks. I’m going to check on the dinner arrangements, make sure everything’s going to go smoothly.”
Scarlet smiled and clapped a hand on his best friend’s shoulder. “Best of luck to you!”
Symphony was late. Much later than she’d ever been. Captain Blue was beginning to fret. When he’d talked to her in the morning, she’d been looking forward to this dinner. Had she changed her mind? Blue shook his head. More likely, her shift had been extended without warning. That had happened several times lately. He called the Amber Room over the comm link and spoke to Melody.
“Yes, Captain Blue. Symphony stayed on to cover part of Rhapsody’s shift after Rhapsody became ill and went down to Sickbay. But Symphony left almost three hours ago. She said she was going to her quarters to prepare for her date with you.”
“Thanks, Melody. If you see her, tell her I’m waiting, would you?”
Three hours? Symphony took great care with her appearance, especially when she was meeting Captain Blue, but it had never taken her so long to get ready before. He tried calling her quarters; the comm went unanswered. But where else could she be? Perhaps she was in the shower and hadn’t heard the comm. The only way to find out was to go to her quarters and check.
Blue knocked at the door. There was no answer, but he thought he could hear the shower running. Glancing to see that the corridor was clear, he keyed in the door code and entered the Angel’s quarters. The only light came from the open door to the bathroom. Getting no answer to his call, he looked in.
Symphony was lying on the bathroom floor, surrounded by hundreds of polished stones. A metal tin partially filled with more stones leaned against a stout wooden board. Blue snapped on the comm link. “Captain Blue to Sickbay!”
“Medical emergency in Symphony Angel’s quarters. She’s unconscious. You’ll need a stretcher. Hurry!”
“S.I.G., Captain Blue.” He sounded slightly hysterical, thought the nurse, then shrugged. Laypeople always felt shock when a colleague fell ill or was injured, and the senior captains and Angels often worked closely together.
Immediately after Captain Blue informed Colonel White of the attack on Symphony Angel, the Colonel ordered an investigation. The preliminary findings were soon presented to him.
A piece of wood, a partially opened, tall metal tin with a sharp rim, and dozens of small but heavy polished stones littered the floor of the bathroom in Symphony’s quarters. A wired metal tube loosely attached to the inside wall above the bathroom door led the investigator to believe that the piece of wood, which had a narrow lip on one side, had been installed like a shelf. It was not a stationary installation; the shelf’s support had been wired so it would collapse when turning on the light completed a circuit. The shelf had somehow completely detached from the wall and fallen. One edge of it was stained red and some blonde hairs were stuck to it. Like the shelf, the tin’s sharp bottom edge had blood, hair, and tissue adhering to it. Samples of the material found on the shelf and tin had been delivered to a medical lab for analysis. Likewise, the writing on the shower curtain was being compared with the samples of Cloudbase personnel handwritings on file.
A suspect had been tentatively identified, on the basis of circumstances. Grimly, the Colonel summoned Captain Ochre.
He waited while the captain read the investigator’s report. Ochre shook his head. “I don’t understand, sir. This isn’t all my work. What I set up couldn’t have gone wrong!”
“You admit —”
“I admit staging a prank, sir. But not like this!”
After learning that Captain Blue intended to propose to the Angel, Ochre had conceived the idea of proposing to her himself, but only as a joke. He had obtained the access code to her quarters and gone in while she was on duty. He acknowledged painting the message on her shower curtain; in fact, he’d used ochre paint so she’d immediately guess who the message was from. He had also put up the shelf the investigator found, but, Ochre protested vigorously, he had fastened it to the wall very carefully, because, he admitted, he’d been afraid it might fall off otherwise. Besides the support, it had hinges so that when the support dropped, the shelf would tilt, almost but not quite flat against the wall. And he had not brought a metal tin or stones. He had filled a plastic bucket with heart-shaped confetti so that when Symphony turned on the light, the shelf would drop and allow the bucket to tip just enough to spill its contents over the Angel. “A sort of ‘bridal shower’,” Ochre said, with a short laugh. The bucket itself could not have fallen. He’d attached the lip on the shelf to prevent that. He could not explain why a sealed metal tin and stones had been found instead.
Colonel White let the point rest for the moment. Instead he asked Ochre who had helped him gain access to Symphony’s quarters. Reluctantly, Ochre named Captain Magenta, who was immediately called to Colonel White’s office.
Captain Magenta acknowledged knowing of Captain Ochre’s plan. They had discussed it on a couple of occasions, he said, adding that they hadn’t spoken of it privately but in the Officers’ Lounge and in the Mess, too. He admitted obtaining the entry code to Symphony’s quarters by accessing the restricted information file on the Cloudbase computer, and had also assured that there would be no alarm raised by the unauthorized access. Magenta confirmed that he knew the plan’s details with the shelf and bucket, but insisted that Ochre told him it would be filled with confetti; in fact, Magenta had obtained the confetti from shredded printouts. But he hadn’t helped to set up the prank in Symphony’s bathroom — he had no idea what could have gone wrong.
Neither man had taken note when they were plotting of who was sitting nearby, other than to make sure that neither Captain Blue nor Symphony Angel was there. Both were sure that someone overheard, because at least once they’d heard people nearby laugh. Magenta was pretty sure someone had laughed at something Ochre said that had made him laugh, too.
Plainly, further investigation would be necessary, Colonel White decided. He allowed both men to remain on duty and at liberty, but neither would be permitted leave Cloudbase for any reason.
Captain Blue emptied a green packet into yet another cup of the bitter coffee he’d been sipping when he wasn’t pacing around Sickbay’s waiting area. He’d been waiting for hours before Dr Fawn, looking grave, came to talk to him.
Blue began to rise, but the doctor motioned him to remain seated, then sat down himself. “It doesn’t look good. Symphony’s skull was shattered by a blow. From what, I can’t say.”
“A fractured skull? You can fix that, can’t you?” Blue knew he sounded inane, but he had to ask. He had to clutch at hope.
Fawn hesitated. He knew that Captain Blue was in love with Symphony Angel. And it wasn’t a well-kept secret that he’d intended to propose to her very soon. That knowledge made Fawn’s job difficult. There was no gentle way to deliver the news.
“Symphony’s brain has swollen. She’s on life support.”
Blue looked stunned. “But... it’s only temporary, right?”
“If we can get the swelling under control, she may not experience severe brain damage. We’ll do all we can for her.” He paused, while the American captain absorbed his words. “It’s past midnight. You should get some rest. And ease up on the coffee,” he added, noting the stack of empty paper cups on the end table.
Captain Blue shook his head. “I’m not sleepy, not at all. I want to stay close, in case Karen needs me. If I get tired, I’ll just stretch out on the sofa here.” He walked over to the coffee pot and poured another cup.
“No one likes to follow doctor’s orders,” Fawn half-joked as he left.
The duty nurse looked up from his desk as the two young women came into Sickbay. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” said the one who was supporting her friend. “We were going over the maintenance schematics for the new helicopters when she collapsed.”
Dr Fawn studied the most recent ECG and CAT scan results and summoned the technician to discuss them. He hadn’t really doubted what he saw, but he wanted to be certain.
A nurse came into the waiting area. Captain Blue had returned after his day’s work and fallen into a restless doze as evening fell. He woke with a start when the nurse touched his arm. “Captain? Dr Fawn asked me to bring you to him.”
“Karen?” asked Blue. The nurse shook her head.
They hurried to the women’s ward. Dr Fawn intercepted the captain at the doorway. “Captain Blue... we did our best. But we can’t hold her back. I’m sorry.”
Blue froze. “You can’t... you’re not...”
“She has no higher brain activity. She can’t even breathe on her own. Long ago, Symphony declared she didn’t want to be kept alive without hope of recovery. I have to respect her wishes, Captain Blue. But I didn’t think she’d want to be released before you could say goodbye.” Fawn let his words register. “Would you like me to leave you alone for a while?”
Blue said nothing, did nothing, then cleared his throat. “Yes, thank you, doctor. Can you give me a few hours or so?”
Fawn nodded and left.
Blue stood in the doorway of Symphony’s room for a moment and took in the sight of his beloved, lying unnaturally straight and still, flanked by machines that were the only sources of sound and motion. Symphony’s head had been shaved and was now wrapped in stark white bandages. Her eyes were shut and appeared sunken, surrounded as they were by dark shadows. A tube covered her mouth; a hose attached to a pump steadily pulsed as it forced air into her lungs. Fluid dripped slowly from bags and ran down through tubes into her arms.
“Karen?” he whispered as he touched her hand. “Sweetheart, it’s Adam.” He blinked as tears filled his eyes, and his words became urgent. “Please, Karen, come back. Come back!”
Spectrum’s commanding officer snapped awake before the comm link finished buzzing. He reached for it without bothering to turn on a light.
“I’m sorry to wake you, Colonel.” The speaker was Australian, White noted. “But I thought you should be informed.”
Bad news always seems to come in the darkest hours of the morning. “Go on, Doctor.”
“It’s Symphony Angel.” Fawn sighed. “We couldn’t save her. I’ll be letting her go before dawn. Captain Blue is with her right now.”
Colonel White found he’d been holding his breath. He released it slowly. “Thank you, doctor. Keep me posted.”
He did not sleep again that night. In the morning, he would have to announce Symphony Angel’s death to everyone on Cloudbase and see that her family was personally informed. Of all the burdens a commanding officer shouldered, this was one of the heaviest.
Time passed too quickly for Captain Blue. He spoke to his beloved constantly, yet there was nothing more he could say. Nothing more he could do.
Wondering if Blue had heard him, Fawn repeated himself as he entered Symphony’s room.
“ I’m sorry, Captain Blue. It’s time. Do you want to stay?”
Blue covered his face with his hands as he struggled to control his emotions. “Yes,” he finally said, his voice breaking. “Yes,” he repeated, more strongly and calmly. He took Symphony’s hand again and cradled it. His eyes misted.
He remembered a morning, not long ago, when he had gotten out of bed to shower and shave, then returned to sit and gaze down at Karen as she slept. Her expression had been serene, her breathing deep and even. All through the night he had felt her heartbeat, steady and reassuring, as she lay against him. His own heart had swelled with the intensity of his love for this beautiful woman. He’d taken her hand and stroked it gently as she smiled in her sleep and rolled onto her back. He’d bent over and kissed her softly on the mouth, murmuring, “Time to wake up, Sleeping Beauty. Duty calls.” And his lover had sighed deeply, then opened her eyes, and smiled at him. “I was having such a good dream,” she’d said. “What was it about?” Blue had asked, slipping his free hand under the sheet that covered the Angel. “About what you’re doing now,” she’d purred sensually, arching her back as she stretched. “Mmm. And what about this?” he’d replied, folding back the sheet and touching his lips to her breast before he lay down beside her. Neither of them had given any more thought to the time, or to anything but each other. They were both late reporting to their shifts. It didn’t matter. It had been worth it for a beautiful morning together.
Now it was a beautiful memory. Blue wished he could kiss Symphony one last time, but the tube in her mouth made that impossible. And the hand he held had a tube and needle taped in its back; he could not even stroke it as he had before. Blue leaned over carefully and kissed Symphony’s cheek, tears streaming down his face and falling on the pillow. Goodbye, my love. I hope heaven is as beautiful as you are. Wait for me there, Karen. Wait for me!
He nodded to Dr Fawn, who had waited silently and respectfully until the captain had made his farewell.
The end was a simple process. A few buttons pressed, and the lights stopped blinking, the machines stopped humming. There was silence.
Dr Fawn listened to Symphony’s heart and breathing as he watched the lines on the monitors go flat. After several minutes, he straightened up and removed his stethoscope. “She’s gone.”
Captain Blue still held his lover’s hand. He felt his heart swell unbearably, then break, spilling love, grief, pain, and bewilderment into his soul.
An orderly dropped a crateful of supplies he’d been cataloguing, startled by a man’s anguished scream.
The searing, piercing pain shot through her midsection as if she’d been impaled. Instinctively, Rhapsody Angel tried to roll into a ball, but the cockpit of Angel One did not allow her to bring her knees up very far, and the harness held her fast. She clenched her jaw and hugged herself tight as she fought down the urge to vomit. As suddenly as it came, the pain was gone. Rhapsody drew several sobbing breaths before she unfolded and sat up straight again.
“Rhapsody! Are you receiving?”
Her epaulets had been flashing green, the Angel realised. She’d been too ill to notice it. “Yes, Lieutenant. I’m receiving you fine. I had a small problem with my mic.” That was true enough. She’d turned it off to prevent anyone from hearing her cries.
“There’s been a change in the duty roster. After your shift in Angel One is over, you’re to remain on standby in the Amber Room until Harmony relieves you.”
“S.I.G.” Maybe it was just as well. She could call Sickbay and make an appointment instead of walking in and hoping she wouldn’t have to wait long. There had to be an explanation for what was happening to her.
Impatiently, Rhapsody wiped away a bead of sweat.
Shattered, Captain Blue requested leave to convey Symphony’s body to her family and attend her funeral in Iowa. Because her family had chosen immediate cremation in accord with Symphony’s declared wishes, a memorial service would be held in two days. Colonel White granted him seventy-two hours leave — just long enough to attend and return promptly to Cloudbase. “Captain Scarlet will take you to Iowa; Captain Grey will bring you back to Cloudbase.”
“Only seventy-two hours? Sir, I’d hoped to have more time with Karen’s family. I —”
“I know you loved her, Captain,” the commanding officer interrupted. “I’m truly sorry for your loss. Believe this. But I can’t allow you more time. We need you here.”
“Why? Sir,” Blue added as an afterthought, trying not to clench his teeth. “There’s been no threat from the Mysterons.”
“True, although there could be at any time. You know we haven’t been able to predict many Mysteron attacks. But there have been terrorist threats made by Bereznik separatists, who want to attract the world’s attention, if not its sympathy. We may not have much warning before they stage an attack somewhere. You and Captain Scarlet will be needed.”
Blue’s strong sense of duty briefly overrode his pain. “SIG.”
Captain Magenta was angry. A court-martial for an accident! That was bad enough. But the talk was worse.
Everyone seemed to be discussing Symphony Angel’s death, arguing about the facts and what the outcome of Captain Ochre’s trial should be. Was it simply a joke gone wrong? An accident? Or murder? Emotions were running high on Cloudbase. And off as well. Captain Magenta had already received dozens of e-mails from planetside agents he supervised asking about Symphony’s death and expressing opinions about Ochre. And more than a few mentioned rumours they’d heard about his role, although none had come out and said he ought to be prosecuted alongside Ochre. Others weren’t as reluctant.
Alone in his quarters, he stared at the screen of his personal computer. He had tapped into Cloudbase’s e-mail system to see if others were also receiving and sending e-mails about the case. Judging by the volume of the traffic, they were. He had hacked some open at random and read them.
As he’d suspected, the news had travelled fast. Ochre had his defenders, and there were those who remained adamantly neutral, but the rest... There were also those who asked why Captain Magenta hadn’t been charged. After all, hadn’t Magenta made it possible for others besides Ochre to sneak into Symphony’s quarters? So even if Ochre was innocent, possibly Magenta wasn’t. And consider his past, after all... His throat tightened as he looked at the muck people had dredged up about him. It was as though his impeccable record with Spectrum was worthless in the eyes of most people.
It would only take a few keystrokes to clear the cache of all the read and unread e-mails. Perhaps he could devise a filter as well, block any more of them...
Captain Blue found no sense of closure from the funeral. The polished wooden box containing Symphony’s ashes had been so small, much too small to contain such a vibrant life as hers as been. Angrily, he tore open three green packets of sweetener and emptied them all into the cup of acidic warmed-over convenience-store coffee. It was strange to learn that life could be reduced to so little. A small box containing a smaller heap of grey powder. There should be more to mark a life than that.
Captain Grey was waiting on the tarmac when Captain Blue arrived. “I’m sorry I’m late. Karen’s family wanted to talk for a long time.”
Grey shook his head. “I didn’t mind waiting. My other passengers are getting a bit antsy, though. I only told them I had to pick you up; I didn’t say why. You can ride up in the cockpit with me, unless you’d rather ride in the back with the judges and lawyers for the court-martial.”
“Court-martial?” asked Blue, surprised. “Who’s being court-martialled?”
Grey clenched his jaw. “Captain Ochre. He’s been charged with Symphony’s death.”
“Ochre? Ochre did it?” Captain Blue staggered, then stopped dead, swaying with the shock.
Grey put a hand on the other man’s shoulder to steady him. “He’s admitted setting up the prank, but insists someone tampered with it. I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”
“No,” Captain Blue said blankly. “I didn’t. I didn’t know.”
Grey wanted to kick himself.
Because of Ochre’s admissions, the court-martial was brief.
Dr Fawn testified about Symphony’s fatal injuries. The metal tin had weighed nearly three kilos. The wooden shelf had swung with the force of ten. Using graphic charts, he showed where the sharp edges of the tin and the shelf had struck Symphony’s skull and fractured it; splinters of bone had been driven into her brain. On cross-examination, he opined that while he was certain Ochre’s prank had caused Symphony’s injuries, he believed it was an accident. When the can struck her, Symphony had apparently staggered backward, into the path of the swinging shelf, rather than falling forward, surely an unpredictable event. And a layperson, even with extensive study of human anatomy, would have had difficulty figuring out exactly where the two blows had to land. But, he reluctantly conceded, either blow would have caused serious, potentially fatal, injury. And luck — good or bad — could not be ruled out.
An investigator confirmed that Captain Ochre’s Internet access logs had been reviewed. Ochre had not searched for, downloaded, or received information relevant to Fawn’s opinion. He had no medical background whatsoever apart from a mandatory high-school biology class, and the basic emergency medical training all agents received.
Another investigator had discovered that the stones had most likely been taken from the planters on the Promenade Deck, although it wasn’t possible to determine if any stones were missing. No one had seen Captain Ochre — or anyone else — removing stones from the planters. None had been found in Ochre’s quarters. And — significantly — the investigator could not positively link Ochre to the stones. Despite their polished surfaces, the stones had no fingerprints; each one had been wiped clean, as had the tin they had been placed in. More than that, there were no traces of Ochre’s DNA on the stones or the tin.
But neither had anyone else’s DNA, except for Symphony Angel’s, been found on the stones or the tin. Ochre’s fingerprints and DNA were found on the shelf, doors, and walls of Symphony’s quarters, and, of course, the message he admittedly painted on the shower curtain in his colours; all this, the defence argued, strongly suggested Ochre had not intended to hide his presence. But, the prosecution countered, Captain Ochre was a skilled investigator himself. He would know how to cover up a trail, even a DNA trail.
When he testified, Ochre admitted that he had worked out, in theory, how one might avoid creating a DNA trail. But it was very, very difficult to do. It required extensive preparation to ensure against hair and skin loss. To his knowledge, it had not been done successfully. And he adamantly repeated that while he had not secured the shelf as well as he might have, he had not placed a metal tin on the shelf nor had he filled a tin with stones. It had been a lightweight plastic bucket filled with confetti. Besides, he pointed out, if they thought he was canny enough to avoid leaving a DNA trail, why on earth would he have left the stones and tin to damn him?
But there was no evidence that any other unauthorized person entered Symphony Angel’s quarters that day. In fact, there was no evidence to show anyone had entered at all. The investigators had checked the access log, only to discover it was empty, beginning at a time after Symphony went on duty that day and before she was discovered injured. At least three people were known to have entered during that time: Symphony Angel herself, and, by their own admissions, Captain Ochre and Captain Blue. Why weren’t their entries recorded?
Testifying to his role in the scheme, Captain Magenta admitted that he reprogrammed the log for Symphony’s quarters to ignore Ochre’s entry and exit, but declared that he had set it to return to normal and resume recording before Symphony’s shift ended. He couldn’t explain why the data retrieved by Lieutenant Green showed otherwise; the only explanation he could think of what that somebody else changed it. But whoever it was, it could not have been Captain Ochre. He simply did not have the skill. If he did, why would he have enlisted Magenta’s help?
After hearing all the testimony, the court-martial judges had retired to consider their verdict. They had not deliberated long. Captain Ochre had admitted to staging the prank that had killed Symphony Angel. The question then was whether he had caused her death deliberately or accidentally. Harm had certainly been intended, but the judges were divided. They could not agree whether Ochre was responsible for the tin full of stones or not. They had considered his background in law enforcement, his knowledge of how to cover up a trail. But there was nothing absolute to connect Ochre to the stones. The question of his intent to injure Symphony remained unresolved. For that reason, the judges decided that Captain Ochre was not guilty of murder.
Ochre heaved a sigh of relief. But the verdict was incomplete.
The judges agreed that in staging the prank, Captain Ochre had disregarded the possibility that serious injury could occur and a death had resulted from his criminal negligence. The court found him guilty of manslaughter and recommended that he be fined, demoted, and reassigned.
Dr Fawn frowned at the reports he was holding. The young engineer who had collapsed and been brought to Sickbay several days ago had died. The cause of her death was still being determined. Ten people had come to Sickbay today complaining of similar symptoms: headaches, congestion, difficulty breathing, nausea, joint and muscle aches, and dizziness. The symptoms were so general that they could be attributed to many different causes. Medicine for the symptoms and rest in quarters had been prescribed until test results were ready or the symptoms worsened. But even with several hundred people on Cloudbase, it was unusual to have so many walk-in patients with similar complaints on the same day.
Captain Scarlet found Captain Blue in the Mess, staring into a cup of coffee. He sat down across from his friend and waited for Blue to indicate he was aware of his presence. When he did, Scarlet asked softly, “How are you holding up, Adam?”
Blue drained his coffee cup. “Damn!” he growled, pushing back his chair.
“Let me.” Scarlet took the cup and went off to refill it. He prepared some tea for himself, taking his time before returning to the table.
“Thanks,” Blue said as he accepted the coffee. “I’m sorry I’m being so rude. It’s just...”
“No, you don’t. You can’t,” the American retorted bitterly. In the silence that followed, he tore open a couple of green sweetener packets and noisily stirred his coffee. He sighed deeply and rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry, Paul. I suppose I’m still in shock. The box with Karen’s ashes... There was so little of her there, I just can’t seem to accept it.”
Scarlet nodded. “I remember how I felt when I first held the box containing the ashes of my first body. I couldn’t believe that was all there was left of me.”
Captain Blue looked away. He remembered Captain Scarlet’s first death, and the disposal of his ashes, too. But that was different. His best friend had come back. Karen was gone forever. He drained his coffee cup again, and rose. “I’m not leaving. Just going to refill my cup.”
“Are you sure all that caffeine isn’t making you nervous?”
“Drinking coffee steadies me.” He fetched himself another cup and sat down again, reaching for two more of the green sweetener packets. “It sounds ridiculous, I know, but in way these,” he indicated the packets, “keep me linked to Karen. I drank coffee constantly while... while...” He sighed. “And during the court-martial, it helped keep me focussed.”
“I’m still astonished by Ochre’s stupid prank. He should have seen the flaws in it.”
“I still can’t believe he got off so lightly. He killed Karen and all he gets is a demotion and transfer planetside. Tell me that’s justice!” Blue snarled, his voice rising.
People turned to listen to the angry voice, then quickly turned away as they caught Captain Scarlet’s eye. Apparently, he thought, others agreed with his friend.
Lieutenant Ochre sat in his Detroit office, contemplating the mountain of petty paperwork, weighed down with an antique iron paperweight, and wondered what he should do with his life. It had been too much to hope, he knew, that he might be assigned to Spectrum Intelligence or at least some law-enforcement related function. But he had no real future with Spectrum now, no hope of rising through the ranks again. He would never gain a position of trust or responsibility again, not with his record. His career with Spectrum was effectively over.
The Colonel had been right to demote him and send him here, he accepted that. Even though he had not killed Symphony, he had set the stage for her death, made it possible for some unknown criminal to act. If he hadn’t set up the prank, it couldn’t have been used to harm Symphony Angel. He’d never imagined that anyone would sabotage one of his practical jokes. He should have. He would never forgive himself for that.
Why? he wondered, not for the first time. Why would anyone want to harm Symphony? And who? The answers, he knew, would only satisfy his curiosity, not salvage his career.
So here he was. He could stick with Spectrum, spend the years plodding at paperwork until he was eligible for retirement, or he could resign. I’m only 34, he thought. The long years ahead looked bleak. If he left Spectrum, then what?
He could go to university, he thought, then shrugged that off. Not an inviting prospect. Police work was out; what plausible story could he make up to explain his resignation from the World Police and lack of a history for the last two years? He couldn’t reveal or discuss his Spectrum career. He didn’t have the money to start his own security agency. And it was tough to find work of any kind since the world economy had slipped into a recession.
For now, Ochre decided, he would have to resign himself to circumstances. Suppressing a groan, he lifted the iron paperweight off the stack of papers, slid out the first document, and began to read it.
“Colonel, Captain Blue is showing signs of a possible breakdown. I believe Symphony Angel’s death has affected him more deeply than I realized at first.”
“What do you recommend, Doctor?”
“He needs time to grieve, sir. A few weeks medical leave will give him a chance to work through the worst of it. But he needs to do it somewhere everything he sees won’t remind him of her, somewhere away from Cloudbase. And I want him to report to a grief counsellor during that time.”
Colonel White considered. “Is it absolutely necessary that he leave Cloudbase? Now that Captain — Lieutenant — Ochre is gone, I can hardly spare another senior officer for an extended period of time.”
“I understand that, Colonel. But Captain Blue isn’t fully effective in his present state of mind. And he isn’t likely to improve unless he has some time to come to terms with Symphony’s death in a less memory-filled environment.”
Colonel White ordered the duty lieutenant to arrange for Captain Blue’s leave, effective immediately.
Three weeks. Three weeks to grieve. Three weeks to seek revenge. Much more than he needed. Immediately after arriving on Earth, Captain Blue had made his way to the Spectrum base in Detroit, and asked to see Lieutenant Ochre.
“No need to announce I’m here. We’re old friends,” Blue told the security guard after presenting his Spectrum ID. “It’s a surprise visit.” The guard told him the way to Ochre’s office and waved him on past.
Lieutenant Ochre didn’t bother looking up when the knock on his door came. “Come in, it’s unlocked.” He heard someone enter and shut the door, then the unmistakable sound of the lock being turned. “What are you—?” he began as he raised his head. “Captain Blue! I didn’t get a chance to see you before I left Cloudbase. I wanted to talk to you.”
He was rising to his feet when Captain Blue suddenly lashed out with his fist. Ochre reeled sideways, his ears ringing, shocked by the unexpected attack. Before he could collect himself, Blue had leaped the desk, knocking papers all over the floor, seized the other man’s gold vest in one hand, and his throat with the other, and slammed him against the wall.
“Talk about what? This? Is this how she felt? Is that what Karen felt when that can of stones hit her? When you killed her? Is it? Is it?” screamed Blue, as tightened his grip on Ochre’s throat and savagely pounded his head against the wall.
The pain made stars shoot through Ochre’s eyes. He clawed futilely at Blue’s hands, trying to pry a finger free so he could bend it backwards, but Blue’s fingers seemed as strong as steel cables. Still struggling, Ochre shifted his efforts, and dug his thumbs between the bones of Blue’s wrists, but Blue didn’t seem to feel any pain. Unable to bring his knee up with any force, Ochre instead stamped down on Blue’s foot as hard as he could, all too aware that Spectrum boots were designed to prevent injury from such tactics but hoping to distract his deranged attacker. When that didn’t succeed, the lieutenant next struck out and jammed his thumbs into the captain’s eyes. Blue shrieked and released Ochre, who kicked out, hard and high, then leaned against the wall, gasping for air, while his attacker writhed on the floor, doubled over in pain and rubbing his eyes.
People were clamouring outside the locked door of the office. Ochre’s head burned. The room was spinning. His vision was doubled and hazy. His throat hurt, and he felt limp. He tried to shout for help but discovered he could hardly croak. All he really wanted to do was lie down and be still, to wait for someone to break in and rescue him. But he didn’t want to stay a second longer in the same room with a madman if he could help it. Blue was lying between him and the door, blocking his shortest route of escape. But time and speed were essential. Ochre hesitated, took a painful breath, coughed, and pushed off from the wall.
As Ochre stepped over the fallen captain, Blue grabbed his leg and threw him off balance. The lieutenant crashed heavily to the floor. The deranged man was on him in an instant. He sat on Ochre’s chest, so his knees would pin his victim’s arms. Blue then began to methodically, violently batter Ochre’s head with something heavy, holding him still with one hand squeezed around his throat. Ochre tried to get the taller, heavier man off him by kicking and bucking, to no avail. He could not stop Blue from choking and pounding him, screaming incoherently at him as he did so. The pounding sensation was coming from inside Ochre’s head as well as outside. The pressure on his throat increased and he could hardly breathe. His vision turned red again, then darker red. He could still hear Blue’s furious roaring, but the words made no sense at all and the sound seemed to be moving away from him. The red was turning to black. Ochre was unconscious before the door was smashed open.
Gasping for breath, Blue stopped hitting his victim, and slowly turned to stare blankly at the intruders. The iron paperweight slipped out of his hand and fell heavily to the floor.
It was several days before news of Captain Blue’s attack on Lieutenant Ochre leaked out, but all of Cloudbase was shocked. Melody Angel wept quietly when she learned that Ochre was still alive, though comatose.
Captain Blue had been arrested, but doctors had quickly determined that he was incompetent to stand before a court-martial. The medical review board believed that he had been unhinged by his grief over Symphony Angel’s death and that, with treatment, he would soon regain his sanity.
Cloudbase was experiencing an epidemic, reported Dr Fawn. Some of the earliest victims were still seriously ill, a few were convalescing. But over a third had died. As many as twenty people a day were complaining of symptoms. Sickbay didn’t have enough beds for all of them, so many were being treated in their quarters for as long as possible.
Lieutenant Cadmium was Cloudbase’s newest expert in information-technology security. She had been recruited straight from university after taking her degree in the field, received advanced training as a cadet at Koala Base, then served at Spectrum Headquarters in Moscow before being called to Cloudbase. Proudly, she tapped in the code to open her new office for the first time. Not many junior lieutenants had private offices. True it was small; Cadmium had seen bigger broom closets at Koala Base. But still! It was her office, the first ever, and she could work in peace and privacy.
Of course, privacy was a core concern in her work. When Cloudbase was built, Spectrum’s Information Technology section had installed an e-mail and Internet monitoring system. As part of her work, Cadmium was authorized to examine e-mails and recommend investigation into anything that looked suspicious. It was her particular duty to examine e-mails that were encrypted or masked, and decipher them. Most such e-mails proved to be very personal; she was constantly amazed at the information people put into e-mails; much of it was personal, which she tried to ignore, although she couldn’t help looking at some people rather differently. Nothing alarming had ever turned up in the e-mails in Moscow. She’d probably have dull reports to give to Lieutenant Coral, too. At least she was stationed on Cloudbase!
Nonetheless, she groaned inwardly at the sight of the printouts on her new desk. Even the excitement of a private office couldn’t make routine paperwork less dull. There were long hours ahead examining statistics on how many e-mails were sent and received by each person, the number of occurrences of keywords, the dates of occurrences, etc. It was boring work, scanning the numbers and words, but Cadmium consoled herself that even senior captains were sometimes put to work poring over printouts looking for trends; more than a few times, a disaster has been averted because someone saw a pattern in seemingly unrelated information. It was always possible that someone could get careless and mention names or disclose sensitive information in an e-mail. So she felt her work would be good training for the future, even if for now her reports were about trends of only minor concern.
Today’s statistics didn’t look entirely routine. One of the first things Cadmium noted was that Captain Magenta’s e-transmissions and receptions were more than significantly above the median, even adjusting for the recent flurries of messages about Symphony Angel and Captain Blue and Lieutenant Ochre. And, without exception, Magenta’s e-mails were masked and encrypted. Many were sent to Spectrum addresses, but a substantial number were not.
Cadmium saw another reason for concern. The monitoring programme routinely performed a rough deciphering of all masked and encrypted e-mails, and produced a list of keywords. Certain words appeared over and over in Magenta’s e-mails, words such as “captain,” “lieutenant,” and “money,” keywords that in association could signal security breaches. She could not discern what they might mean or how Captain Magenta had used them merely from the stats; but an instinct told her they warranted investigation. She decided to review the e-mails to see what she could learn from them, and provide copies of them with her report.
Cloudbase’s monitoring programme retained copies of all incoming and outgoing e-transmissions in a secure database, one that was virtually unbreachable. Or should have been. When Lieutenant Cadmium attempted to retrieve some of Captain Magenta’s e-mails, she discovered that many of the dates she requested had been deleted. Everything was gone; not just Magenta’s e-mails but everyone’s. She attempted to recover the deleted files, but someone had done such a thorough job that almost nothing could be retrieved. That troubled her. She set the computer to cross-comparing and correlating data from the statistics with the contents of the backup files. When the computer was finished, Cadmium found that all the deleted dates corresponded with dates on which Magenta received or sent e-mails; no one else had a 100% match.
But although most of Magenta’s e-mails had been erased, Cadmium found she was able to reconstruct a few. It took her three days hard work to recover the original messages, thoroughly decipher them, then read them. Shocked, Cadmium immediately took her findings to Lieutenant Coral, who then reported to Colonel White.
When confronted, Magenta objected to the retention of copies of his incoming and outgoing mail, deeming it an invasion of his privacy. He admitted that he knew that Spectrum had a tracking and retention programme, and that he masked and encrypted his correspondence to frustrate it.
The Colonel asked Magenta if he had things to hide. Magenta replied that he only wished to keep his private life private, nothing more.
“Have you contacted any of the members of your former criminal network?” pressed the Colonel.
“No, of course not.”
Colonel White handed him copies of the retrieved e-mails, and waited to observe his reaction. Magenta glanced at them, then stared, his face reflecting shock, but Colonel White could not guess at its source. Magenta got to his feet. “Colonel, I did not write these! Someone must have signed my name to them or else these are fake!” he stormed. “Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to study my past in detail and set me up!”
Lieutenant Coral looked up from her station, alerted by the tone of Magenta’s voice. Her hand edged down the workstation and hovered near the security-alarm button.
“Sit down, captain,” commanded White. Magenta complied, dropping heavily on the seat again. “Who do you think would do this to you? And why?”
“I don’t know.” Magenta quivered with anger and indignation. “But I want to.”
“Then I’ll order an investigation immediately. I expect you to cooperate fully.” The British commander put an unmistakable edge on the final word. “Dismissed.” After the Irish captain had gone, Colonel White returned to the Control Room and ordered Lieutenant Coral to organise the investigation.
It would have been nice to get some good news, Dr Fawn thought, instead of more aggravation. He had inquired about Lieutenant Ochre’s condition. The tests showed that he had almost certainly suffered brain damage because of oxygen deprivation and external physical impacts. The prognosis for his recovery was poor. If he ever regained consciousness, he would in therapy for a long, long time, trying to regain lost faculties. Almost certainly, he would never be himself again.
Fawn wondered how he should break the news to Melody.
For the second time in less than two months, Colonel White was obliged to summon a court-martial. The results of Lieutenant Coral’s investigation left him no choice.
Captain Magenta was accused of betraying Spectrum.
The e-mail data-gathering results showed that Magenta had been sending and receiving an unusual amount of e-mail containing a high percentage of red-flag words. And when measures were taken to review those e-mails, massive tampering with the computer was discovered. Not only had Magenta’s communications been erased, so had those of many other people. Only a few people on Cloudbase, including Captain Magenta, were known to have the skill to manipulate the computer. The evidence showed that the tampering took place when Magenta was on-duty in the Computer Room, and when he was off-duty, from his personal PC in his quarters.
Despite his attorney’s best efforts, Magenta made a poor witness in his own behalf. He admitted that he had the skill to manipulate the computer, and that several times he had erased large volumes of e-mails, other people’s as well as his own.
“I read some of the stuff people were writing, what they were saying about Captain Ochre, and about my involvement in Symphony Angel’s death. And about my past, before I joined Spectrum. It was libellous! I couldn’t let those lies and speculations and half-truths keep on spreading, so I decided to delete all the ones I could find. Sometime I lost my temper and just erased everything; it was easier. And after Ochre was attacked, it started up again. People were saying he got what he deserved. Yeah, I deleted those, too.”
As for the retrieved e-mails that were addressed to or by him, Magenta protested that he had never seen any of them before, so he could hardly explain them. Besides, if he had written them or received them, wouldn’t he have made sure to delete them along with everything else?
The prosecutor repeated what Magenta had just said, that he’d sometimes erased the e-mail databases piecemeal, and sometimes erased everything. And he’d already admitted that his own e-mails were masked and encrypted, so perhaps he didn’t need to be so careful about destroying them? Magenta had no reply for that.
Several of the e-mails were read aloud, all indicating that Captain Magenta was in touch with members of his old criminal syndicate, and setting up sales of Spectrum’s secrets. One of the most damning e-mails, which the prosecutor referred to as the “South American e-mail,” said: “Tell the buyer his price is acceptable. Here’re the goods he’s paying for:” A list of the code names and real names of some fifty Spectrum agents in South America followed. “Tell him if he wants to know where they’re stationed, the price is double. Collect the money before delivery, as usual, and transfer it to my Cayman Island account.” The prosecutor paused for effect, then asked Magenta about the anger he’d felt since Captain Ochre’s court-martial.
Captain Magenta acknowledged that he had been furious, angry at almost everyone on Cloudbase and even the organisation because of what happened to Captain Ochre, but he denied that he had ever sold out any Spectrum agents or secrets as the e-mails suggested.
“In fact, I can prove that I didn’t send that ‘South American’ e-mail. I couldn’t have. Look, it’s time-stamped 2:37 a.m. on the day it was sent and the origin point is my quarters,” he pointed out. “I wasn’t in my quarters that night; I spent that whole night with Captain Cerise!”
Captain Cerise was called to testify. Her face flushed the colour of her vest. She corroborated Magenta’s story. She testified that they had been friends for a long time, but only friends, nothing more. Several times over the past few months they had gotten together for dinner, then sat up most of the night talking. “People do just talk, you know,” she said, defensively.
“Captain Magenta never mentioned anything that could be considered sensitive or compromising. Sure, we talked about money sometimes, but who doesn’t?” Pressed to continue, she added, “Well, we also talked about personal things. Stuff that made us sad or happy or angry.”
“Stuff that made you angry?” repeated the prosecutor. “Was Captain Magenta angry about anything?”
Cerise hesitated before she spoke again. “Yes. Patrick — Captain Magenta — was upset about what people have said about him since — since — the accident. He was upset that so many people seemed to believe he had more to do with it than just giving Captain Ochre confetti and Symphony Angel’s door code. A lot of people know about his past, that he was once a criminal, so some think he might have... have... murdered Symphony. But anybody would get mad about being suspected like that!”
“Did Captain Magenta direct his anger at anyone or anything in particular?”
The question was a dangerous one; Cerise knew it. But she’d sworn to tell the truth. She nodded curtly. “He was mad at Spectrum as a whole. He joined because it was a chance to leave his past behind and start over. And now it turns out no one really trusts him. Almost no one,” she amended.
“Are you absolutely certain that you visited with the defendant on the date of the e-mail?” the prosecutor asked. “Do you keep a diary or journal?”
“Yes, I am certain of the date,” the English captain stated defiantly. She admitted that she didn’t keep a diary and hadn’t made a note of the date. She couldn’t think of anything particularly memorable that would mark the day, either. She and Captain Magenta both had both worked routine duty shifts that day and had shifts scheduled the next day. “We’re both night owls and our shifts begin in the afternoon. So it’s no big deal to stay up late at night.” But she couldn’t use the duty roster to pinpoint the date with accuracy. Nonetheless, she was certain of the date. “It was only a few weeks ago, after all. My memory is good.”
The access records for Captain Magenta’s and Captain Cerise’s quarters had been examined. On the night the “South American” e-mail had been sent, an entry to Cerise’s quarters had been logged at 10:10 p.m. and an exit at 8:22 a.m. Cerise acknowledged that those had been the approximate times she and Magenta had entered and left again. She stated that she had not left before 8 o’clock.
“You said the two of sat up talking ‘most of the night.’ Did you stay awake all night, Captain Cerise?” the prosecutor asked, a raised eyebrow expressing his scepticism.
Flushing again, Cerise admitted that she’d fallen asleep sometime after midnight. “But when I woke up, Captain Magenta was still there. In fact, he’d fallen asleep. I’m sure he didn’t leave.”
The access records were produced again. Someone had left Captain Cerise’s quarters at 2:02 a.m. At 2:13, someone entered Captain Magenta’s quarters; an exit was recorded at 2:38, a minute after the “South American” e-mail’s time stamp. And someone entered Cerise’s quarters at 2:46.
Captain Cerise could offer no explanation. She gave Magenta an apologetic look as she left the witness box.
The prosecution offered one final piece of evidence. A worldwide search of bank accounts had turned up several that were traced to Captain Magenta. They had been accessed from Cloudbase from computers Magenta was covering or had access to. In his defence, Magenta could only insist that he had nothing to do with them, no knowledge of them at all.
All the threads tied to Magenta. There was no evidence that anyone else on Cloudbase was involved. The court-martial’s outcome was inevitable. A heavy fine, a long term of imprisonment, and, finally, expulsion from Spectrum.
Spectrum Security guards flanked the disgraced captain. He seemed oblivious to their presence. “I’m innocent,” he murmured. Then, snapping out of his daze, “Colonel White, I’m innocent! Innocent!” He continued yelling until the guards subdued him and lead away with his hands tied behind him.
In only a matter of weeks, almost half of Cloudbase’s personnel had fallen ill with the mysterious plague. Almost a quarter of the afflicted had died. And still the cause eluded detection.
“Are you sure, Dr Fawn?”
“There’s no doubt at all, Rhapsody. You’re about eight to ten weeks pregnant.” He extended a friendly hand as the Angel’s face fell. “I’m sorry you’re not happy. I take it this was not a planned pregnancy.”
Rhapsody shifted uncomfortably. “No. We always took precautions.”
Fawn forbore from asking Rhapsody who “we” referred to. If she wanted to name the father, she would. Besides, Fawn was already certain of his identity; there was no need to probe. “You didn’t suspect when you missed your period?”
Rhapsody shook her head. “I’ve always been irregular, especially when I’m under stress or sick. You know I haven’t been feeling too well. Besides the throwing up, I’ve had all these headaches. Then the anaemia and the abdominal pain and feeling so tired all the time...” She let her voice trail off. She’d been so ill so often, she’d hardly missed visiting Sickbay for a single day over the last several weeks. “Those just didn’t seem like ordinary signs of pregnancy.”
“They’re not,” Fawn told her gently. “You’re experiencing an extraordinarily unusual pregnancy.”
“Quite. Your body has made some unusual — ” he searched for a word — “adaptations to the pregnancy. I’d like to run some more tests, so we can determine how best to get your symptoms under control and make you more comfortable.”
“Doctor, I’m not sure I want to... to continue this pregnancy. I want children someday, but not yet!”
“Normally, you would be free to make that choice, Rhapsody, and I’d respect your choice. But this time, in good conscience, I can’t.”
“Why not, Doctor?”
It was never easy to tell a patient how serious his or her condition was, Fawn thought. It was especially hard when the patient was also a friend. He took her hand. “Rhapsody, this pregnancy is grossly abnormal. The placenta hasn’t just attached to the uterine walls, its embedded itself like a parasite. Worse, it’s somehow flowed up and out through your Fallopian tubes and embedded tendrils in various of your internal organs. Your immune system has been attacking it, but something seems to be fighting back; your white-blood-cell count is sky high, but the cells are also being destroyed. And the placenta has been draining your red-blood cells for energy, leaving you anaemic.” He paused to let the Angel absorb what he’d told her before continuing. She squeezed his hand when she was ready to hear more. “Trying to detach the placenta and its tendrils surgically or chemically would certainly cause substantial injury to you. It would probably kill you. That’s why I can’t terminate your pregnancy.”
Long moments passed. “I understand,” Rhapsody, white-faced, finally whispered. “ Do you believe I can live through this pregnancy and deliver a normal child? Will I survive the birth?”
“I don’t know,” Fawn admitted. “You may not survive until the baby is ready to be born. If the foreign antibodies destroy too many of your white cells or eventually go so far as to attack your bone marrow and destroy your immune system, that will leave you totally vulnerable to diseases and infections. I can give you medications to suppress your immune system so the foreign antibodies will back off; you’ll still be vulnerable to illness, but perhaps less so than otherwise. I can also boost your blood, to alleviate some of the anaemia symptoms, but you’ll probably continue to get weaker with time; even a normal pregnancy makes demands on a woman’s resources and yours is much more demanding. If more problems arise...” He shook his head. “ There’s a very high chance you won’t be strong enough for a natural delivery. A caesarean delivery may not be possible either.” Fawn held both her hands in his and squeezed. “We’ll do everything we can for you, do everything possible. For as long as possible. I doubt you’ll survive the birth. But I’m certain you’ll die if I try to perform an abortion. I’m sorry.”
Rhapsody’s eyes glistened; she refused to blink because that would force the tears out. “So I have maybe seven months to live.”
The two of them sat in silence for a long while. The Angel straightened her back and cleared her throat. “What about the baby? Will it be normal?”
“I could do ultrasound and amniocentesis. But it’s really too soon to say anything for certain about the baby, if it will be normal.”
“Since I’m only two months along, I can carry on with my duties for a while, can’t I?”
“No. I’m going to have to tell Colonel White that you’re medically unfit to fly.”
Rhapsody gasped. “Doctor Fawn, you can’t! That will leave only three Angels, and we’re already straining to cover all the shifts since Symphony’s death. Her replacement won’t be here for weeks. And I’ve, well, I’ve missed some hours of my shifts lately.”
“Because you haven’t been well.” Fawn understood the Angel’s dedication. It was a valuable characteristic in a Spectrum pilot. But right now, it wasn’t a virtue. “Rhapsody, you have no choice now. It may be possible to alleviate some of your symptoms; in fact, I’m almost sure it is. But making you somewhat comfortable is the best I can do. The stress of piloting will probably make your condition worse, faster. I can’t assure your survival as it is. I’m sorry, but I have to ground you.”
Captain Scarlet listened gravely as Rhapsody told him about her condition. She rose from the couch and began to pace the room restlessly, arms crossed tight across her body. Captain Scarlet remained where he was and said nothing, aware that she was unhappy and sensing that she had more to say. Rhapsody stopped before a picture on the far wall and stared at it without seeing it. She spoke without turning. “I have an interview with Colonel White in the morning. Since I can’t fly anymore, Dr Fawn is going to recommend that he transfer me planetside, to London. I’ll be leaving Cloudbase very soon.”
“Then I’ll go with you to see the Colonel tomorrow and tell him we’re going to marry before you leave,” declared Scarlet, getting to his feet.
“No, Paul. I won’t marry you.” Rhapsody’s voice was steady and strong.
Scarlet realized that she had expected his declaration and prepared her refusal. “Why not?” he protested, wounded. “It could be months before I see you again.”
“If I marry you, then the Colonel will be obliged to transfer you to London as well. You know Spectrum’s policies about keeping married couples united.” Rhapsody shook her head. “Paul, we’ve never talked about what we expect from marriage, what we each want and expect. We hadn’t even talked about having a family.” She laughed weakly as she patted her stomach. “I’m not ready to plunge into marriage without thinking about all the factors.” She moved farther away from him. “This baby doesn’t change that.”
“Perhaps I should request a voluntary transfer so I can stay near you. After all, I’m the baby’s father. And stop running away from me!” He caught up to her and corralled her against the wall with his arms.
The Angel shook her head. “Spectrum needs you here, on Cloudbase. That’s more important than me. Listen to me!” Scarlet swallowed what he had been about to say. “When I joined Spectrum, I swore an oath of honour and duty. The best way I can keep my oath now is to refuse to let you do anything that will deprive Spectrum of its best officer. And if I die...” She gulped. “If I die, it will be easier for you if you haven’t seen me in a long while,” she said, her voice choking with tears.
Scarlet took her in his arms and held her close. “Dianne.” Rhapsody buried her face in his shoulder. He could feel her heart thumping against his chest. “All right. All right. But you know, my duty to Spectrum can’t override my heart forever. I still want to marry you, when you’ll have me.”
Colonel White and Dr Fawn took their seats again after Rhapsody Angel left. It had been a difficult interview for all of them.
Just before she went, Rhapsody had embraced Colonel White tightly. “I wouldn’t be crying if I was about to die fighting the Mysterons. But this isn’t fair; I’m going to die because I’m in love!”
He had returned the embrace, stroking her hair as he would a daughter’s, aware that he had no other comfort to offer her as she sobbed. He had assured her that after she had given birth and been certified fit to fly again, she would be recalled to Cloudbase. Spectrum needed her. But they both knew how empty Rhapsody’s future was. Fawn had confirmed it. There was little more White could say or do that might help her.
It was going to be hard for the Angels to manage without Rhapsody, mused Colonel White. There had always been a number of qualified pilots among the other Cloudbase personnel, enough to fill in for a short period while an Angel was ill or on holiday. But that was before the flu-like illness had somehow been brought to Cloudbase and decimated its personnel; all the duty shifts were short-staffed as it was. Lieutenant Green would have a difficult task, reorganizing the Angels’ duty schedule to make up for Rhapsody’s absence.
White shook himself mentally and sighed aloud. He had not yet adjusted to Lieutenant Green’s death. It had been unexpected; Green had always been a strong young man who never needed more than routine medical attention, yet he had died suddenly only two days after complaining of a headache and congestion. At least his passing had been easy; he’d apparently fallen asleep and never awoke.
Lieutenant Beige, Green’s replacement, was competent, but the junior lieutenant was much less experienced and struggling with the immense workload she’d inherited. Still, she was doing her best, and Colonel White understood that she was also mourning the death of her mentor and friend. But he sorely missed his trusted aide.
Dr Fawn’s concerned voice broke into his thoughts. “You should come down to Sickbay soon for a full examination.”
The colonel looked up at the doctor, surprised. “I haven’t got time, Doctor. Besides my command duties, I’ve been covering several vacant supervisory positions. I’m never off duty, even when I sleep.”
“When do you sleep?” asked Fawn with a glint of humour. His smile quickly slipped. “You’ve just explained exactly why you need a check-up. I shouldn’t have to point out that you’re not a young man. You’re pushing yourself harder than anyone else on this base. It doesn’t take a doctor to see signs of the strain, and we need you to stay healthy. If necessary, I’ll force you to come to Sickbay.”
His commanding officer raised an eyebrow at the physician’s veiled threat. “In other words, if I don’t make arrangements for an exam very soon, you’ll declare me unfit for duty.”
“I will, Sir.” There was steel in Fawn’s voice.
The colonel studied the younger officer, observing his newly acquired worry lines, the shadows under his eyes, the paleness of his skin, the tremor in his hands. “You look as though you should be taking your own advice.”
“Physician, heal thyself!” Fawn joked thinly. “I almost wish I had Captain Scarlet’s retrometabolism or at least had some retrometabolised staff.”
“Your reports have been filled with numbers, diagnoses, prognoses, and the like. Statistics. They don’t say much about the human factors. Such as how you and your staff are coping with the epidemic on a personal level?”
Fawn ran a shaking hand through his brown hair. “When I was an intern, getting my training in a teaching hospital, I was routinely assigned to hundred-hour shifts. Sometimes, I got several consecutive hours of sleep; other times, I’d catch catnaps. Often, I’d be working without sleep for more than twenty-four hours at a go. I thought I’d left those days long behind me.” Fawn got up and went to the coffee counter. After the colonel declined a cup, Fawn poured himself some coffee, drank the cup in a few gulps, and poured himself another before sitting down again. “As you know, more than half my staff is sick or dead. The survivors have been working double and triple shifts. We were managing by using the Room of Sleep between shifts, until the Room broke down.”
Colonel White nodded. “All of Cloudbase was getting by, even with a dramatically reduced complement, as long as we had access to the Room of Sleep. Now, everyone who’s still reasonably healthy is getting by on catnaps, when and as they can.”
“But it isn’t enough. New cases of the plague are still turning up. I suspect Melody Angel is sickening, but she’s reluctant to come to Sickbay because there’s no one to replace her.” Fawn leaned forward, and rested his head in his hands. “ And in all honesty she wouldn’t get the best care in Sickbay right now. We’re overcrowded, overworked. My staff are tired and making mistakes.”
“You said in your last report that you were considering sending some of the plague’s victims to the surface for treatment. Have you made a decision on that?”
Fawn rubbed his temples, trying to alleviate the first symptoms of headache. “Yes, Colonel. I don’t really want to release anyone from Cloudbase. We still don’t know how the plague spreads or how to effectively treat it. But my staff has been decimated and the survivors are exhausted. We just can’t manage anymore. So I’ve arranged for Spectrum Medical in London to create a special isolation wing and accept some of the convalescent and less seriously ill patients, those who are able to withstand the journey. Provisions have been made to keep the wing sealed so that the plague won’t spread; the staff are all volunteers who’ve agreed to enforced quarantine.”
White nodded. “I’ll arrange for a transport.”
Fawn stood, gulping down the last of his lukewarm coffee. “I just hope we’re not making a horrible mistake.”
Colonel White met with his two remaining senior captains to discuss the situation on Cloudbase. In addition, he had to inform them of some very difficult decisions he had made.
Captain Grey stifled a yawn. “Begging your pardon, sir,” he said, his face reddening.
The commanding officer shook his head. “Never mind. We’re all tired, Grey. We’ve been going through hell.”
“I would have preferred going through a few attacks by the Mysterons to what’s happened the last few months.”
“I would suspect the Mysterons of causing these extraordinary events, but they almost always deliver a threat in advance and carry it out quickly; something long and drawn-out is unlike them. But nonetheless, our recent losses have made Spectrum, particularly Cloudbase, more vulnerable than ever before. For that reason, I’ve called Captains Umber, Aquamarine, Sapphire, and Ruddy out of the field to join the senior staff on Cloudbase. In addition, four pilots, Felicity, Tranquillity, Prosperity, and Serenity, will be joining the Angels.”
Grey and Scarlet exchanged a look. “Four senior captains, sir?” asked Captain Scarlet. Colonel White did not respond immediately. “Replacements for Ochre, Magenta... ”
“Brown. And Black?” ventured Captain Grey. “That accounts for everyone. There’ll be a lot of new faces for Blue to meet.”
“Captain Blue will not be returning.”
Scarlet gasped. Grey looked stunned.
“I have the final report on his condition. He is suffering from an incurable neurological disorder.”
“But what could have caused it?” demanded Scarlet. “I know he took Symphony’s death hard, but that couldn’t have triggered this!”
“It might have,” said Colonel White. “His illness appears to be the result of brain damage caused by regularly ingesting some kind of neurologically corrosive substance.”
“Blue on drugs? That’s ridiculous!” Scarlet sputtered angrily.
“The psychiatrist notes that many people turn to substance abuse as a way of escaping pain. Still,” Colonel White continued, raising a hand to stay Scarlet’s next objection, “another alternative is suggested. In rare cases, an illness such as Blue’s results from an allergic reaction to something.
“Isn’t it also possible that the Mysterons interfered with something Blue ate, the way they did with that champagne?” argued Captain Grey.
“That’s a possibility, but it can’t be assessed. Nonetheless, for his family’s sake, an allergy will be the cause noted in Captain Blue’s official record.”
Captain Scarlet’s piercing blue eyes locked with his commanding officer’s. “I can’t believe this. You’re telling us that one of the new captains is replacing Blue. That’s ridiculous! Captain Brown is dead, and Ochre and Magenta have been sent down, but Captain Black is a traitor! You can’t be retaining him and dismissing Captain Blue just because he’s sick!”
Colonel White met Scarlet’s glare with equanimity. “When Captain Black is tried and found guilty of crimes, or if he is killed, then I will appoint a replacement for him on the senior staff. We still don’t know his status for certain, if he is a traitor or a tool. You committed a crime, Scarlet, while under Mysteron influence: you kidnapped the world president. But you were given a chance to redeem yourself. I will allow Captain Black the same chance.” Colonel White’s expression did not change, but the colour of his eyes became more intense. “As for Captain Blue, the report is unequivocal: he has permanent brain damage. He will never again live outside a hospital. I cannot hold his place on my staff open against the day he might make a miraculous recovery.”
The younger man broke eye contact first. He knew he was wrong, but he wouldn’t say it out loud.
The colonel turned to his other remaining officer. “Captain Grey, tomorrow morning you will fly an SPJ down to the surface. Dr Fawn is sending some of his patients to Spectrum Medical in London for treatment. Rhapsody Angel will go with you; I’ve temporarily assigned her to duty in London. You and the SPJ will be grounded for at least twenty-four hours for disinfecting. Then the new senior captains and pilots will meet you for the return trip to Cloudbase.”
After dismissing his two remaining senior captains, Colonel White leaned on his desk and put his head in his hands. Glancing up at him from her post at the computers, Lieutenant Beige couldn’t help thinking that he looked so tired. And so old. His face was lined with worry. She felt a pang of fear. So much depended on the commanding officer. What would happen to Cloudbase — to Spectrum! — if something happened to him?
That night, sleep eluded Captain Grey. He would manage to fall into a restless doze then wake up in a panic triggered by vague nightmares. Tired and frustrated after the umpteenth episode, he dressed, checked his messages, and left his quarters, hopeful that a walk might clear his head.
Eventually, he found himself on the flight deck. He didn’t hear any sounds in the hangar bay, but the lights were on, so someone was probably there. Human company had become scarce lately, especially deep in the night. A friendly chat might be just what he needed to drive away the demons in his dreams.
Captain Scarlet was working alone on an SPJ’s engine. He consulted a clipboard, then put it aside again as he reached inside.
“Hey, Paul! Since when did you take up aircraft maintenance?”
The overall-clad man turned on the ladder to see who was there. “Brad! You know I don’t require much sleep these days, so I’ve taken up a new hobby. I might ask when you started paying late-night calls to aeroplanes. Are you worried you’ll oversleep and miss your flight?”
Grey laughed. “Just restless. I thought a walk might help and when I saw the lights on here I thought I’d drop in.” He looked around. “Isn’t there anyone else around?”
Scarlet made his way down the ladder. “There aren’t enough mechanics left to cover the day shifts, let alone make up a night shift. I’ve been keeping tabs on them; they’re pretty seriously fatigued and that means they’re likely to make mistakes.” When he reached the floor, he pointed to a coffee machine and the two men started walking towards it. “So I’ve started checking their work to see that necessary maintenance and repairs have, in fact, been made to aircraft scheduled for immediate or emergency use, like the Interceptors and the SPJs. This is my first night but I probably should have started sooner. I’ve already fixed a few problems with this SPJ.”
Grey expressed his gratitude, reassured that everything would be fine for tomorrow’s flight. “That will be a major relief for the Angels especially, not to have to worry about anything going wrong again.”
“I got a message that Harmony will be coming back to Cloudbase with the replacements. Seems she sent her Interceptor into the ground a few hours ago while on routine patrol. Fortunately, she ejected in time.”
“Did she report a mechanical problem?”
“She did. But I suspect pilot error played a role,” Grey confided. “All the remaining Angels are exhausted by these double and triple shifts and none of them has had adequate rest since the Room of Sleep quit functioning.” He shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Same as the rest of us.”
“At least you’ll have a chance to rest tomorrow.”
“Yeah, that’s true. It will take a day or two for the ground crew to disinfect the SPJ’s passenger compartment so, hopefully, the new personnel won’t be exposed to the plague any sooner than necessary.” Grey shook his head and smiled weakly. “I’ll probably spend the whole time fretting that I should be here covering a shift in Angel One or something instead of relaxing.”
Grey declined the offer of a cup of coffee and the two men said goodnight. Grey resumed his rambling about the base while Scarlet continued inspecting the SPJ.
Captain Scarlet was waiting on the flight deck. Medical personnel were carefully helping the ill and convalescent who were being transferred to London to board the SPJ. When a wan-looking Rhapsody arrived, carrying her flight bag and dressed in civilian clothes, Scarlet kissed her tenderly, not caring who saw. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, his voice thick with emotion. “Always remember how much I love you, Dianne.” As he released her, he told Captain Grey to take good care of her.
“I will, Captain Scarlet. You have my word on that,” replied Grey. “I’m sorry the Colonel assigned me to make this flight instead of you.”
Scarlet shrugged. “My mind wouldn’t have been completely on my flying. Colonel White knows that.”
Grey nodded and took Rhapsody’s flight bag from her. “I’d be honoured to have you act as my co-pilot.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Rhapsody brightened a little at the thought of making one last flight before she was grounded forever. Before following Grey into the SPJ, she looked back, her eyes glistening. “Goodbye, Paul. I love you!”
Captain Scarlet went to the Officers’ Lounge and watched from the window until the SPJ was out of sight.
Two days later, Captain Scarlet entered the Amber Room to start his shift as a substitute pilot. He found Destiny Angel alone there, weeping softly. “Oh, Captain Scarlet! I am sorry to be crying when I must be on duty. But it is so terrible!”
Scarlet had no idea what she was talking about and told her so. “I’ve been asleep and didn’t meet anyone on the way here,” he explained.
Destiny dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Brad is gone! And Kwan with him!”
“Brad? Brad who? Who’s Kwan?”
Destiny punched him in the chest angrily. “You are still muzzy with sleep! Captain Grey — Brad — and Harmony Angel and the people they were bringing to Cloudbase. They are all gone! The SPJ exploded in midair! Melody saw the fireball from Angel One.” She hit Scarlet again. “Why weren’t you flying the SPJ instead of Brad? You could have survived! And he would still be here!” She turned away in a flood of tears.
Before Scarlet could think of anything to say, Melody Angel came down from Angel One. Destiny seized her helmet as she leaped up and raced for the lift. In moments, she was gone. Melody glared at Captain Scarlet.
“I didn’t know,” he said weakly. “About the accident or about Juliette and Brad. What happened? Destiny didn’t tell me any details.”
Melody poured herself a glass of water and swallowed some aspirin tablets. She must have grabbed the wrong flight helmet earlier; it had been too tight and given her a monster headache. “I imagine she didn’t. There’s not much to tell. Captain Grey’s SPJ exploded a few thousand feet below us. There was no Mysteron threat, so some dodgy ground crew member must have screwed up something while doing maintenance. Maybe our own crew bodged something before the SPJ left Cloudbase. Or maybe the Mysterons planted an agent and didn’t tell us,” growled Melody. “Either way, ten people are dead.” She stretched out on the sofa. “Ten people. Including the new Angels.” Her voice became more gravelly and thready as she struggled for breath. “So it’s just me and Destiny now. I’ll have to keep hanging on, but I don’t know how much longer I can put off going to Sickbay.”
After his shift in Angel One, Captain Scarlet had an hour before he was expected to report for his next duty assignment. He returned to his quarters, where he settled into a chair, leaned back, and stared into space. It had been tricky work tuning the bomb in the SPJ so that it would go off when Captain Grey ascended to thirty-five thousand feet on his return flight. He hadn’t quite finished installing it when Grey had unexpectedly come to the flight deck. Fortunately, Grey had apparently not mentioned their late-night encounter to anyone.
Captain Scarlet. This is Captain Black, relaying instructions from the Mysterons. You have done well so far. Continue to act as if you are a Spectrum agent while carrying out your mission. Your next target is Colonel White.
“Mysteron instructions will be carried out,” Scarlet intoned emotionlessly. His eyes glazed over as he began to plot what new tragedy should befall the commander of Spectrum before he could remember that the Mysterons had indeed delivered a threat.
OUR RETALIATION WILL BE SLOW, BUT NONETHELESS EFFECTIVE.
Thanks for reading the story. Would you care to stay for coffee? The sweetener in the green packets is very good, I’m told.
Those who have read my 2002 Halloween story, S–A–Y–A–N–Z, will recognise where the idea for this story came from. But I still don’t know whose idea it was: mine or the Writer’s. Sometimes I only take dictation from the characters rather than write dialogue for them.
To Chris Bishop, Mary J. Rudy, and Kelly Haycock, the creators of Captains Sapphire, Ruddy, and Aquamarine: GOTCHA! :-D What’s Halloween without a scare for those making guest cameo appearances?
I just had to borrow several characters because they’ve become a part of the Spectrum universe, at least in fan fic and role playing, and it seemed logical that they would be on Cloudbase during the crisis. Sue Stanhope created Captain Cerise, who’s just perfect for the role she plays here. I hope Sue doesn’t mind the guest appearance. Lieutenants Beige and Coral are Christine Price’s creations, not mine. Again, I hope the guest appearances are seen as the compliment I meant them to be.
Captain Umber is my own creation from Rising Waters: India 2067. As far as I know, Felicity, Tranquillity, Prosperity, and Serenity Angels are merely names and haven’t been brought to life in fan fic. Yet. I keep hearing one of them warble “ich bin bis Kopf zum Fuss so übereinlicher…” Hmmm.
The story idea is original. It is based on characters created by Gerry And Sylvia Anderson for the TV series “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” Some events and characters Copyright © of all trademarks materials (Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons and all other series titles, all their characters, vehicles, crafts, etc.), owned by ITC/Polygram.