An Abridged Mission Brief
Colonel White brought the lights to dim within Cloudbase’s command center for the benefit of his solitary audience. “Now, Captain. Pay close attention. The effect only lasts a moment.”
Scrutinizing the large screen beyond the colonel’s circular desk, Captain Scarlet sat atop his stool and waited. The coalescing video footage showed a familiar scene for the British captain. “The Mysteron city.” The remnants of an abandoned Mysteron base, dust blown and seemingly in disrepair, passed by the floating camera’s eye. No glowing lights or iridescent colors danced about the streamline structures of Scarlet’s memory. “It seems dead,” he observed.
“That is what I believe we are expected to see,” White cautioned. “Watch.” Another moment of stillness and a verdant flash of light swirled about the city, shooting between the buildings before disappearing in mid arc.
“What was that?”
In answer the colonel spun in his seat to consider his officer. “That’s what Spectrum needs to determine, firsthand.” He placed his wide palms atop the desk. “This footage came from a passing probe on its way to the incoming asteroid Phobos II, out beyond Mars’ orbit. The probe’s official mission is to search for gold and tritonium deposits. The hope is for a possible mining installation on the asteroid, which is ultimately headed toward Earth’s near orbit.” White paused in his explanation in order for those facts to sink in. Folding his hands before Scarlet, the colonel continued: “Secretly, however, the probe captured what we had hoped would be an indication of the Mysterons’ present status on Mars. To our revelation, we found the city has been abandoned.” Now the colonel tilted his silver head at his subordinate. “Or so it seems.”
Scarlet scowled at the implication. “Are the Mysterons gone, Sir? Are they hibernating?”
“If so, in either case, we need to know and to discover the source of that mystery light.”
“But Colonel,” Scarlet countered. “Mistakes were made four years ago, in destroying the Mysteron city. We haven’t been back there since. Why now?”
Colonel White frowned at the captain’s anticipated next question. He beat Scarlet to the punch line. “And why you?”
Scarlet grunted against the query. “Sir. You’re sending me to Mars?”
The slight nod of acquiescence was filled with foreboding seriousness. “Suffice it to say, Captain, you’re the only one who can go. This is to be a secret mission, Scarlet, making use of a new engine technology. That’s why I’ve temporarily relieved Lieutenant Green. No one on Cloudbase but we two are to know.”
“But how, Sir?” Scarlet stammered, his mind revisiting his previous encounters both with the Mysteron installation on the moon and his near permanent conversion to the Mysterons’ control. “Surely I can’t simply materialize on Mars. Someone in the World Space Organization will need to assist.”
With another nod Colonel White produced a slim portfolio of data. Setting it atop his circular dais, Cloudbase’s commander slid the folder toward his subordinate and folded his hands once more. “All that you need to know is here. I have an SPJ readied for your immediate departure. From this moment, you are to maintain radio silence until your scheduled pick up in twenty-nine days’ time.” White unclasped his hands to poke the portfolio with a single digit. “Study the contents of this mission brief closely, Captain. Once you reach Lunarville Control, someone will come forward to set you off for Mars.”
Scarlet sat speechless for a long moment. What could he say? What questions could he ask? It didn’t seem as though his superior was open for any further discussion. “SIG, Colonel.” In the continued silence between them Scarlet took his leave. Slowly he gathered up the portfolio and rose from his stool. “If I have any questions -”
White raised a prudent finger. “All you need to know -”
Scarlet dipped his chin. “Is here,” he finished with a pat of the folder in his hand. “Yes, Sir.” With a slight bow to his commander, he pivoted to leave.
“And Scarlet,” White interrupted the captain’s swirling synapses. “God speed. And good luck.”
Pausing to consider his commanding officer’s dour countenance, the British compatriot tightened his grip upon the slim folder and his uncertain future. “Thank you, Sir. I’ll do my very best to ascertain the information.”
With a stoic dip of his silver head Colonel White agreed. “Of that, I have no doubt.”
Exiting the control room, Scarlet was whisked to the flight deck and his waiting SPJ. Within minutes, he was singularly airborne and on his way to his initial destination: Manley International Airport outside Kingston, Jamaica. Once there, a personal car drove him to an interior location, a secretive and privately owned airbase platform near Belmore Castle amidst the tropical jungle of Jamaica’s Mount Denham highlands. Scarlet next boarded a transport rocket for the moon and the Lunarville 8 Complex.
Beneath the veil of a starlit night, the missile-like craft took off from Mt. Denham under the official auspices of an ordinary and automated equipment resupply run. There existed no passenger manifest. The launch into space provided the roaring cacophony of an exploding firestorm followed by absolute, deathly silence once Scarlet’s vessel had perforated the bonds of Earth’s atmosphere. With a determined grimace, the captain clenched his jaw against the brutal vibrations and blood-draining G forces.
Still in uniform beneath his protective spacesuit, Scarlet nonetheless kept his private portfolio close, tucked within his Spectrum vest. Further instructions were to be known once he had reached Lunarville 8 and the company of an astral-engineer named Doctor Emeril deRavin.
Meanwhile, Captain Scarlet’s mind somersaulted with the rocketing spacecraft. Why him? Why alone? Why the secrecy? What would he find on Mars? And how would he get home? The file, tucked away on his person outlined only what he was to survey: the manual reconnaissance of the Mysteron complex on Mars. He was to ascertain the existence of any lifeforms, and if possible retrieve the mystery verdant light, what was postulated to be the sole survivor of the deserted Mysteron city.
Scarlet fully understood his voyage would require a session of forced metabolic suspension, far deeper than provided by Cloudbase’s Room of Sleep. His would be a solitary slumber of several days while his as yet unidentified transport shuttled him to Mars, the forbidden outpost of the Mysterons, the place where the non-corporeal aliens had set up their second home far from their planet of origin. Would Scarlet discover clues to their point of origin? Would he instead find true death? Had the colonel’s strained concern been for the gamble he was now taking? Who was truly in charge of this mission? Only pieces of his journey were apparent; no map provided.
A fool’s errand …
Once free from his spacesuit, Captain Scarlet cycled through Lunarville 8’s airlock and handed his scarlet kepi over to the scowling scientist who met him in the airlock anteroom. “I was told to maintain radio silence,” he stated simply. “I trust you’ll keep this safe for me.”
“Yes, Captain.” The dark-haired man in silver accepted the cap and asked, “Password?”
Scarlet swallowed. Here we go. This was the beginning of the end for his mission. “Operation Sword. Codename: Phoenix.”
The stranger nodded. “Very good, Captain Scarlet. I’m Emeril deRavin. I believe your mission specs spoke of me.”
“Yes, Sir. You’re to further brief me on this Mars mission and instruct me regarding my modus operandi, so to speak.”
deRavin’s response was a stoic scowl of consent. It seemed the man had no joy in his life, nor humor in his bones. “We have little time. Your capsule leaves in an hour.” deRavin turned to leave the anteroom. “I must brief you on its operation quickly. The Mysterons may even now be planning a counterattack.”
“Sir?” Scarlet’s spine tingled at the repercussions. His boots stalled in their exit. “Counterattack? On what?”
“My probe, of course. It’s keeping a discreet distance, in orbit of the asteroid Phobos II, but its cameras are still trained on the Martian base. Come; I’ll show you.”
Scarlet was escorted by deRavin to a simple auxiliary command annex within the bowels of the Lunarville Complex. Scarlet noted that the corridors were vacant of personnel. As far as the captain knew, he and deRavin were the facility’s only inhabitants.
Once inside the annex, Scarlet took his station by a data screen and planted his boots in defiance. “Doctor, please. Before we go any further, answer me this: Am I risking my life for a fool’s errand? Is Colonel White being deceived by sending me? Is this a trap?”
To Scarlet’s discomfort, Dr. deRavin finally smiled, a thin smirk with a twist of an ironic brow. “You’re Earth’s last hope, Captain. Only you, the indestructible Captain Scarlet, can journey to Mars to discover the ultimate truth.” The engineer paused for effect. “Are the Mysterons here to destroy us or just to toy with us so we destroy ourselves?”
Now Scarlet’s hackles bristled at his nape. “Is your probe really in orbit to search for tritonium, Doctor? To spy on the Mysterons? Or do you have yet another agenda?”
“I’m a humble servant of Spectrum, Captain. Over the last two years, Operation Sword has had many setbacks, but this new data, the images from Mars, proves there are answers there we must know.” deRavin waved Scarlet to a seat before the screen. “Please. Make yourself comfortable. My operating systems are simple once downloaded. They’ll become part of your synapses; you’ll pilot the capsule as if by instinct.”
Though Scarlet lowered himself into the offered chair he scrutinized the astral-engineer severely. “Am I following your logic correctly, Doctor? You plan to implant the instructions into my brain?”
“Yes, yes. It’s all been prearranged, Captain.” The shorter man scurried about his lab like a mouse in a mechanical wheel. He brought over a skullcap imbedded with electrodes and inset circuits. “Time is of the essence. Please, don’t distract me.”
But as deRavin moved to place the cap atop Scarlet’s dark head, the Spectrum officer swerved aside. “Wait!” His hand came up to intercept the device. “My mission specs said nothing of a cerebral implant.”
With a heavy sigh, deRavin clutched the cap to his chest, rolled his brown eyes and spat, “Of course not. The less written down, the greater the freedom from interception. Don’t you see? No one of us holds every clue. We can’t let the Mysterons know our plans. There are prying eyes everywhere, even on your Cloudbase.”
Now Scarlet shot to his booted feet. His arm came up defensively. The other rested atop his service pistol. “I am not going to cooperate on half truths and hidden agendas, Doctor. I’m a Spectrum officer. I have the Earth to protect; and I don’t intend to jeopardize its safety with Swiss cheese stratagem.”
With a disappointed grimace, deRavin groaned. “That’s what White said you’d say.” He lowered the electrode cap to his hip. “Fine.” With a chin jab toward the data console the astral-engineer grumbled, “Press the green button.”
Brow raised in skepticism at the chosen color, Captain Scarlet turned to consider the array of controls and symbols upon the computer terminal’s face. Beside a bank of switches and gauges, a large green button sat, out of place. Part of him was too suspicious to reach forward. The other reacted as a trusted soldier in the fight to save Earth. “All right.” A single digit reached out to the appointed marker. With the singular deliberation of fate, Captain Scarlet depressed the green button and was instantly enlightened.
THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS. ONCE MORE YOU HAVE VIOLATED OUR SPACE FOR YOUR OWN CURIOSITY, EARTHMEN. WE, FOR ONCE, WILL INDULGE THAT CURIOSITY. SEND US YOUR SPECTRUM OFFICER. ON MARS HE WILL DISCOVER THE TRUE MYSTERY OF THE MYSTERONS. HERE WE WILL ANSWER THREE QUESTIONS. THIS MAN WILL FIND THE ANSWERS HE SEEKS. WE KNOW THAT YOU CAN HEAR US, EARTHMEN. SEND CAPTAIN SCARLET. ALONE.
Blinking at the booming voice from the speaker, Scarlet found his legs had grown suddenly weak. He sank into the seat deRavin had previously provided. “I … I don’t know what to say. Does the colonel know about this message? Cloudbase didn’t intercept this transmission.”
“That’s because it wasn’t sent to Earth, through the Mysterons’ usual channels.” deRavin nodded toward the speakers set within the data console. “That message was sent through the data stream of the probe orbiting the asteroid Phobos II. My probe, Captain, the Phoenix.”
Scarlet’s mind swirled with the information, his brain a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. “They want me? The Mysterons wish to oblige us? What three questions? Will they allow me to return to Earth once I have the answers?”
“I’m afraid that’s one question too many, Captain,” deRavin lamented. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to any of those. But I do have the questions of which you are to ask the Mysterons. I’ve narrowed them down to nine. I’m afraid you’ll have to choose the best three once you get there.”
Pivoting in his seat, Captain Scarlet considered the engineer. “That still leaves a world of uncertainties, Doctor.”
“Well, then, Captain. Let me remedy a few right now. I need to implant the instructions for flying my capsule. We call her the Phoenix-B.” With that, deRavin lifted the skullcap once more into the air and stepped forward to place the translucent device over the Spectrum officer’s head. “Now, just relax.” The tingling of electricity across Scarlet’s scalp was not unlike another incident he had experienced. The British captain had once allowed himself to be captured by Captain Black. Black and his scientific associates had attempted to brainwash the Spectrum officer using a similar device within the confines of an underground Mysteron bunker. The endeavor, though risky, had ultimately failed.
deRavin pressed the initiator button on his data console. Apprehension washed over Scarlet as he closed his eyes against the tsunami of images that suddenly rushed through his brain. The data streamed about his consciousness like an ice water dowsing. Scarlet shivered and mashed his lids tighter about his orbits. Willfully, he clutched his throbbing mind within his skull, resisting the sensation of exploding brain matter. A deep growl roared over his clenched and vibrating teeth. The sound rose in timbre until his ears twinged against the maddening onslaught.
“You’re doing well, Captain. Remain still. The download is almost complete.”
Who had whispered beyond the roaring in his ears? Had someone spoken? Was there life beyond his tortured brain? “What’s happening?” he hollered past the muddled imagery bursting like fireworks behind his eyelids.
Then the rush of data ceased. The arctic chill warmed to heated perspiration. Scarlet instantly slumped within his seat, the pounding in his skull dulling to a slight throb. “Good,” deRavin announced. “Now to your other questions, Captain Scarlet.” The astral-engineer leaned forward to remove the electrode helmet from the officer’s scalp. “Allow me to enlighten you.”
Scarlet’s brain was soon awash with newfound knowledge regarding the Mysterons and Spectrum’s Operation Sword. His part in it was vital and the second probe had been modified to ensure his success. Within the hour, Captain Scarlet was once again enshrouded in a space environmental suit, though this one was a slender, silvery and form-fitted version. Its reptilian-like skin hugged his bare shoulders, torso and hips as a submariner’s wetsuit. The headdress slipped snuggly over his hair like the translucent lines of an electrode-studded fish bowl. The tubules and conduits which sprouted from his encased chest and arms were for life support functions within deRavin’s capsule.
Scarlet silently shadowed his guide, his soft-soled booties padding hushingly behind the scientist. The captain expected them to end their trek at Lunarville 8’s launch pad for his trip to Mars. Instead Scarlet found himself facing what seemed a torpedo tube. “What’s this, Doctor?”
“Why, your launch tube, of course, Captain. The Phoenix-B isn’t your everyday, ordinary space orbiter. No.” Dr. Emeril deRavin shoved back his silver-clad shoulders. “She’s a stealthy, ultra-sophisticated and complex probe, crammed with data collecting equipment and scientific analyzers. I designed her to evaluate soil samples for the barest traces of precious metals and alloys for the Deep Space Mining Corporation. State of the art, my boy.”
Scarlet scrutinized the diminutive diameter of the launch tube. “And far too small for a pilot, Doctor. Just how do you expect me to navigate this probe? Do I sit astride it like a bloody bronco rider?”
deRavin’s lips slid toward a smile again. Scarlet felt his cautionary hackles rise once more. “Your Colonel White assured me you would be the consummate professional, his top agent, in fact; fearless in the face of perilous challenges. According to your dossier, your courage is legendary. I’m assuming, Captain Scarlet, that neither are you claustrophobic?”
Journey into Oblivion
With a determined grimace, Captain Scarlet followed deRavin’s instructions and crawled within the cramped confines of the probe’s hollowed out capsule. He had to curl his legs into a near-fetal position in order to leave room for his environmental helmet with its most vital oxygen supply. From beyond the capsule’s tritonium shell, he could still hear the engineer’s voice. “Make the connections with your life-support systems, Captain. Be sure they’re snug. Once you’re space-borne, they’ll be your only means of oxygen and fluids. Suspension will kick in only once you’ve set the course and achieved maximum velocity.”
Snug though he was, Scarlet was able to turn his head to holler back, “SIG.”
“I’ll shore up the hatch here. Good luck, Captain.”
There were a million questions and uncertainties swirling about Scarlet’s head as deRavin sealed him within the probe. Had human frailties been considered in the launch speed of this missile? As within a hard-shelled egg, the Phoenix-B would take him to Mars using a revolutionary new fuel and an ultra-velocity technology known as a near-warp engine. Though the mechanics were in their infancy, the principles, deRavin assured, were sound and based on hard-won astral-physics. “The late Stephen Hawking would be proud,” deRavin had proclaimed before Scarlet had gulped his last free lungful of air and sealed the helmet over his skull. Now he was crammed into this sardine can for the long-haul. His only freedom would come once he landed the craft on Mars for his reconnaissance mission. An electromagnetic containment globe had been included in his essential toolkit to restrain the mystery light, if caught. Scarlet would then have to return to the claustrophobic capsule for his pre-programmed and monotonous ride home.
A definitive clanking sound announced his full interment. His inset microphone hissed to life next. “Countdown in twenty from ten,” deRavin instructed. “There are no long-distance calls home, I’m afraid, Captain. If you run into trouble, best it be before you reach beyond perigee around the far side of the moon. Once you’re in suspension, you’ll swiftly outdistance any conventional rescue vessel. Use the probe’s transmitter capabilities and you’ll be in violation of the radio silence order from your commanding officer. Remember, I had to remove all but essential instrumentation to make room for your bulk.” Why did it sound as though deRavin was haughty with his godlike presence over the open mike? Scarlet would be dead before he ever reached Mars if the scientist’s new fuel and engine configuration malfunctioned. Though the British captain was indestructible, no one could survive the absolute zero of space and eternal oxygen deprivation. Scarlet would become just another near-Earth orbiting chuck of space debris.
And no one even knew he was out here. Gone for a month, off on vacation, as far as Spectrum personnel knew. A fool’s errand, indeed.
“Counting down to ignition. Ten, nine, eight, seven -”
Scarlet adjusted his legs to brace them for the G forces of a moon launch. Gratefully, it’d be less strenuous than from Earth. The moon’s smaller mass allowed for a lighter gravity. Scarlet, however, wasn’t prepared for the jolt of a rapidly accelerating fuel burst. The capsule rumbled to life, spiraling up the launch shaft like a rifle bullet through a high-powered sniper’s weapon. His equilibrium was sent churning, his brain battering against his skull. Ears whined at the assault. Darkness swiftly constricted his sight through his ping pong ball-sized portal into space. Captain Scarlet promptly blacked out with the violence.
It was perhaps minutes before the urgent demands of deRavin roused him from his faint. “I’m here,” Scarlet mumbled once his brain was able to process the words. “I’m back.”
“Set course for Mars, Captain. Immediately. Your trajectory will take you into deep space if you don’t enter the coordinates now!”
“SIG.” With his hands already positioned within the tiny capsule for manual navigating, Captain Scarlet input the information for a swing around the moon and out toward his Martian destination. “Course set, Doctor. I’m initiating sleep suspension cycle. How do you read Phoenix’s status?”
Static answered his hail.
“Doctor deRavin, do you read? Are thrusters functioning at maximum?” Even as the extended-sleep sedative coursed into his bloodstream through the onboard injector, Scarlet felt the throbbing of the probe’s acceleration. Ready or not, he was on his way.
A Miraculous Discovery
Two uniformed figures ducked inside the confines of an abandoned, crumbling home. Panting with the effort to avoid the oncoming horde of enraged birds, the pair gripped their firearms and moved to station their gaze by the curtained windows of the front room.
“I can’t fathom what got them so upset,” Captain Blue groaned eyeing his colorful tunic vest. Fresh blood stained several holes poked into the fabric. “It’s like something out of an old Hitchcock film.” He swiped away the blood trickling from his jabbed earlobe.
Captain Grey spied the flock circling over the nearest tree. “It won’t take them long before they find out where we disappeared. That last volley only scattered the majority.” His cap mike flipped before tensed lips. “Grey to Cloudbase. We’re cut off from our saloon. The flock is converging on our location and it’s not exactly secure. Where the devil is Melody Angel?”
From the tiny mike set into the inner rim of the officer’s kepi, the voice of Magenta replied. “Sorry, Captain. I’ve got an ETA of twenty-eight minutes. She’ll be there as quickly as she can.”
“I’m not sure we can wait that long. Isn’t anyone closer? A Spectrum heli with a tranq-mister would work wonders. These birds are in a frenzy, possessed. It’s surreal.” Grey, too, had sustained injuries. His sleeves and chin were oozing from a collection of violent pecks.
Blue, still scanning the exterior hollered over the air, “If we were Scarlet, Patrick, it wouldn’t matter. But we’re mortal and these creatures mean business.” He discharged another bullet out the shattered window. “They’re swarming again. Brad, fall back. They’re headed this way.”
From his position at an opposite window, Grey knelt below the sill line to peek up into the late afternoon’s darkening sky. “I think they called in reinforcements. It’s like they’re under someone’s control.”
“Mysteron control, you mean,” Blue groaned from his lowered stance beside a threadbare upholstered chair. “We were told to expect an oncoming army. I would have never considered a murder of crows to be the Mysterons’ infantrymen.”
Grey considered the swirling flock of black-winged bodies descending around the house. “It’s like being in the eye of a tornado. We have to get to ground somehow, ride it out until reinforcements get here.” The captain stole a quick glance about the dust-hazed room. “Maybe there’s a crawlspace or cellar. We could barricade the door behind us.”
Grimly Blue consented. “Sounds like a plan. I’m almost out of ammo. Cover me and I‘ll take a look around.” Jamming his kepi more tightly onto his scalp, the blond officer hunched his face protectively and slid aside to slink across to the floor, heading for the rear of the front room, what had once been the home’s parlor or living room.
As Blue neared the remnants of a heavy oak table and the half-cocked door into the next room, movement caught his attention. Beneath the furniture a blanket-enshrouded form shifted. Defensively, Blue took a knee to brandish his firearm. “Who’s there?” When there was no immediate response, he ducked his head to reconsider the lump. Not wishing to alarm his preoccupied partner by the front windows, Blue slid a hand beneath the tilting table to pinch the edge of the tattered shroud. With a singular tug of retracting muscle, the blanket jerked aside to reveal the folded form of a person. “Hey, we have another victim here, Captain,” Blue announced past Grey’s diverting gunshots. “We better find a sanctuary quick.”
Just then two large crows swooped in through a broken pane, cawing loudly. They instantly veered toward the hunched form of Captain Grey, stationed by his curtain-veiled window. A shot barked into the dusty air. One of the birds folded and dropped to the floor. The other swerved away to rise against the ceiling, smacking drywall and ricocheting toward the kneeling Blue. Grey fired again, but only an empty click emerged from the captain’s pistol. “I’m out.”
Blue instinctively swung his gun into position, aiming for the marauding creature.
“No!” a hoarse voice demanded from beside him. A slender hand clutched his dark sleeve and the shot went wide. Blue turned to see his saboteur squinting at him from beneath the table. Sad, dark eyes implored him. “Please. Leave them alone. They’re here to protect -” The hand slipped from Blue’s appendage. The shrouded figure fell back against the grimy floor.
“What?” Grey hollered over the ruckus outside and the dazed crow drooping upon the floor. He had seen what had happened. “Who is that?”
Before Blue could fully digest what had just occurred he answered, “A woman.”
Another bird burst through the shredded curtains to flop about within the abandoned house. Captain Grey tossed his useless gun at it. The bird stilled its struggles. “We need to find a safe place,” he confirmed. “Now.”
Agreeing with a heavy sigh, Blue stood beside his discovery and grunted. “I’ll get the girl. You check the next room.” With a bending of body and heaving of arms, Captain Blue dragged the half-covered woman out from beneath the table and swiftly slid her to follow the retreating Grey. Once inside the second room, they slammed the door shut.
Grey was surveying their new sanctuary. “Not very promising,” he announced. “More broken glass and no barricading furniture. We need a space with no windows.”
Blue, who knelt beside his unconscious charge, quickly scrutinized the room. “Looks like a bedroom. We need the kitchen. Might find access to the basement there.” He jerked his head toward the door Grey was approaching. “Closet or exit?”
“Bathroom,” Grey answered.
Blue knelt to gather up the slumped woman in his arms. “What about that door?”
Grey had already opened another access to find a small closet. “Not enough room for three. But it’d be safe for one.”
“Right. She doesn’t look too injured.” With a heave of his legs, Captain Blue was on his boots. At his movement, a bird concussed against an intact windowpane. The surface issued a loud crack, but didn’t shatter. Blue was at the closet door in two more strides. “Sorry about this, Miss. But, we’ll be back for you. I promise.” He slid the unconscious woman into the enclosed space and folded her legs against the confines of the closet walls before closing the door. Then Blue stood to consider his waiting partner. “Ok, us next.”
In that moment, a flurry of feathered bodies erupted through an open window and swirled about the Spectrum officers’ heads. Blue drew his pistol but couldn’t risk firing his remaining bullets in such an enclosed area. Grey was just steps away. “Let’s get out of here!” Grey hollered, swerving to exit through the one remaining door. It led into a hallway. Together they scurried left, down its length and into the hollowed out remains of a kitchen. “Bingo!”
Blue slid to a stop before another door. “Let’s hope it’s defensible.” With a twist of his wrist, the captain found the darkened stairwell of a cellar entrance. “Got it.” They scrambled down into the space, the door latching behind them. In the dimness of two tiny dirt-encrusted windows, the captains surveyed their hiding place. “Sun’s going down soon. We might get a shot at the saloon once the birds settle in to roost.”
“Yeah,” Grey replied with dripping skepticism. “Roost in the trees right above our saloon, remember? We could still get a good sticking. They were after our eyes that last time.”
Blue noticed in the dusty confines of the cellar then that Grey had lost his cap. A dark stain bisected his dirtied face. “You OK?”
“Just a scratch,” Grey informed with a dismissing hand. “But I have one hell of a headache.”
“Well, let’s call you an ambulance, shall we?” Blue twitched a cheek to bring his cap mike before his lips. “Cloudbase, this is Blue. I need an update on our taxi. We’re a bit fatigued of playing Dr. Doolittle here.”
Magenta answered quickly. “Good news, Captain. We found you a ride. Came up unexpectedly. He was in the area. The chopper should be there presently.”
“Great!” Blue gifted the bloody and slouching Grey with a hopeful grin and a thumbs-up. “Is there room for three? We picked up an extra passenger.”
“Ask him, yourself. He’s rendezvousing as we speak.”
“I hear a helicopter,” Grey announced with a poke of a finger toward the sky beyond their basement stronghold. “Melody?”
Blue shook his head. “It’s a surprise, I think.” Blue let his microphone return to his kepi. “Come on. The chopper should effectively scatter our winged assault squad. Should be clear to leave.” With Grey in tow, the two captains mounted the stairs, back into the desolation of the neglected house.
“I’ll get my cap and retrieve the girl,” Grey offered. “You hail the pilot, find out where that chopper’s landing.”
“SIG.” Blue stomped toward the front room while Grey sidestepped into the bedroom. A few boot falls brought him to his discarded cap and the still sealed closet door. Within, Grey hoped to find the woman still alive. Silently he prayed that she had not been mortally wounded. “Hello?” he announced into the darkening room. “We’re back, like my partner promised.” Grey grasped the knob and swung the closet door open. “Are you OK?”
A flurry of fur was his answer. A stealthy form of spots and coiled muscle launched itself from the confining space. Colliding with Grey it knocked him onto his buttocks amidst the scattered debris of dead and injured birds. He blinked at the sight. “What the hell? Where did-” He never got to finish his query. The creature veered toward the open doorway into the corridor beyond and disappeared. A flash of long tail was Grey’s last glimpse.
Gathering up his cap and checking for injury beyond his throbbing head, Captain Grey rolled to his feet to follow. “Adam, watch out!” he warned as he rounded the doorframe and teetered toward the front room. “There’s an animal-” Another wobbly step and Grey found his blonde partner bent over the form of the woman, supine on the bare floor, unconscious and naked. “How?”
“I found her. I turned to hear your call and I found her here on the floor. She wasn’t there a moment ago.” Blue checked her pulse. “She’s alive, but I think she’s ill.” Blue considered the shared concern of his field partner. “She’s burning up.”
“I don’t understand,” Grey groaned past his teetering frame. He brought his hand up to steady his swimming brain. “I’m sure I saw-” Suddenly his own knees gave way and he was on the floor beside the woman, strong hands preventing him from smacking the dust. “I saw-”
“You’re going to see a doctor, Brad,” Blue assured, bracing his friend’s chest. “That head wound’s more than just a scratch. Come on. I think it’s safe to go outside now. The chopper’s powering down.”
As the pair grunted back to their feet, the home’s front door swung open and a uniformed shape blocked out the brilliant sunset beyond. “Are you two alright?” Scarlet asked. He stepped forward to assist Blue in supporting the injured Grey.
“Hey, where’d you come from?” Grey mused. “I thought you were on vacation.”
“Just got back. And trust me; it was no vacation.” As Grey threw a clumsy arm toward his rescuer, Scarlet added, “I’ll tell you later. Right now, we have to hurry. Those crows scattered, but they look determined enough to brave the chopper blades if we wait too long.”
“I’ve got Brad,” Blue offered. He jerked his chin back toward the home’s hallway. “There’s a woman. She needs our help too.” Blue nearly dragged his field partner from the dilapidated house and out into the swirling dust and leaves of a parked civilian helicopter. On its side was scrawled the logo of the Kansas City Police Department. “Now we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, Bradley,” Blue chimed in with a grin. “Captain Scarlet to the rescue. Next stop, Cloudbase.”
“Home,” Grey groaned and slumped even further into Blue’s side. The blond officer struggled to haul his friend to the vehicle’s side, ducking his head instinctively below the still rotating blades. With a rough shove, Grey was onboard. As Blue turned to check on their other passenger, he saw Scarlet stride from the house a blanket-wrapped bundle draped in his arms. “We found her inside,” Blue explained as he took Grey’s recovered pistol from where it perched atop the woman’s lap. “Strange story.”
“Later, Adam. Let’s get you three to hospital.”
“SIG.” Blue took the woman from him and clambered aboard as Scarlet slid into the pilot’s seat. It was a tight fit. As Blue shifted to make their two patients more comfortable, Scarlet pivoted in his chair, a red device gripped in his hands.
“Adam, lean away. I have to check.”
Blue recognized the device. “You think she’s a Mysteron?”
“We need to be sure. Their threat wasn’t too specific.” The Mysteron detector clicked off a burst of radiating X-rays. “We’ll know in a moment.”
“There’s something else,” Grey offered from his slouching seat beside the crumpled woman. The man’s scalp still oozed bloody from his attack. “There was an animal.”
“Yeah,” Blue assured. “A whole flock of them, Brad.” He patted Grey’s knee. “We’re not worried about PETA, buddy. Those birds attacked us, remember?”
“A cat,” Grey mumbled and let his eyelids drop over weary orbs. The captain grew quiet.
“Let him rest,” Scarlet advised.” We’ll get the entire story later.”
“He’s delirious, I think,” Blue said. “Saw something.”
Scarlet smirked and tugged the film from the Mysteron detector. “Well, I see a normal X-ray. We’re good to go.”
“Great.” With the injured woman by his boots, Blue settled into the second rear seat. He next slid the passenger door shut so Scarlet could take off. Thus, silhouetted by the glorious sunset, the commandeered police chopper safely rose into the evening sky. “I’ll be glad to be away from this nightmare.”
Several minutes later, Scarlet landed the vehicle at the nearest airport. There, Melody Angel rendezvoused with them for the trip to Cloudbase. “Glad to see y’all in solid pieces.”
Blue helped Scarlet transfer Grey from their smaller, borrowed aircraft and into the larger Spectrum Passenger Jet. “Still not sure what that was all about,” he told Melody. “Never saw such chaos.”
“We’ll get you fixed- up, darlin’,” Melody drawled with a demure smile. “No more bizarre bird wars for you.” She slid into her seat in the pilot cabin and fired up the SPJ’s twin reheat turbo jet engines. With a whining holler, the vehicle rolled forward and soon ascended into the sky.
As they rose toward Spectrum’s floating air-carrier, Blue again checked their new acquisition nestled within a passenger seat. The woman was dirty, scratched and bruised. Her tawny hair was rumpled and matted. Her facial features were delicate, refined, as though she could have been a movie actress in another life. Through the filth, Blue discerned finely muscled arms and sturdy, strong legs. Why she was naked beneath the blanket Blue had no clue. Had she been so deflowered when he had first discovered her beneath the table? Had Blue somehow missed, amidst the chaos of birds, that this woman was alone and injured, as abandoned as the house? He stroked some strands of hair from the closed creases of her eyes. “Who are you? And what did you mean?” he mused.
Blue’s gaze rose to the copilot’s seat, just to the right of Melody’s position. There, Scarlet sat watching the clouds approach as the jet reached cruising altitude. The man had left unexpectedly for a so-called vacation. No itinerary, no anticipation, no luggage, just off for exotica. At least according to Colonel White. Gone for an entire month, now suddenly reunited with his team. “So, where did you go?” Blue asked his customary partner.
Scarlet flinched as if from an engrossing daydream. “What’s that, Adam?”
“Your vacation. Where did you go? Is everything all right?”
“Fine.” Scarlet hadn’t even turned to look at him.
“Is your family OK?”
Blue shrugged against the brusqueness. “It’s just that you left so unexpectedly. No one knew where you’d gone. It was an unspoken subject. Colonel White was absolutely mute.”
“I was sent away, Captain,” Scarlet replied, still focused on the ascending sky beyond the flight deck canopy. “That’s all you need to know.”
“A mission then. Secret by the sound of it.”
Now Scarlet pivoted in his seat to glare at his friend. “Say no more about it.”
“OK, pal. Don’t get defensive. It’s just that we all missed you.”
Slowly Scarlet turned back to the SPJ’s prow. “Thanks.”
Blue shook away his partner’s strange brevity. “Green speculated that you’d been sent to Jamaica, for some special assignment.”
“Rumors are cruel and destructive things.” Blue noticed that Scarlet had a thumb to his temple.
“Fine, Captain. Just a little dizzy.”
“Then I’m glad Melody’s at the controls this time. Maybe we should all be checked out.” Even so, Blue suspected something strange was going on, both with Scarlet and the unusual discovery of the woman. To himself he murmured, “Mysterons be damned.”
Mystery to Misery
The Spectrum jet arrived within the half hour, settling atop Cloudbase’s wide carrier deck, to be lowered to the hangar below. There two gurneys were brought out to shuttle the injured to Dr. Fawn’s sickbay. Scarlet stood before his customary partner as nurses helped Grey down and laid him out on one of the wheeled stretchers. “He took a rather nasty blow,” Scarlet observed. Blue followed Scarlet’s gaze back up the steps to the SPJ’s open hatch. Two more medical techs had lifted the blanket-enshrouded woman, carrying her down to gently settle her onto the second gurney. “You said you found her inside the derelict house?”
Blue nodded. “Strangest thing. She woke up long enough to throw off one of my shots. I was aiming at an attacking bird. She was upset that I was going to shoot the thing.”
“She didn’t want you to commit murder against a crow?”
Now a shrug of his epaulettes. “Exactly. It was as if she was protecting them.”
“From you? Weren’t you protecting her?”
“That’s what I thought at the time.” Blue shook the violent images away. “It was the darnedest thing I ever saw. Birds swirling around in a tornado, descending on us like a single-minded army.”
“Winged assassins,” Scarlet murmured, almost detachedly, a hand over his forehead.
“Now I know we all better report to Dr. Fawn,” Blue advised. “Whatever happened on your vacation, you need a look over too.”
“Perhaps, Captain,” Scarlet agreed, lowering his hand. “But first I have to report to Colonel White.”
“Your vacation brief?”
Scarlet turned his gaze away from the retreating medical team. His countenance was calm, professional, even stoic. Blue felt his hackles prickle at the coolness of Scarlet’s reply. “A discovery of my own.”
“Well, I for one will have plenty of questions once that woman’s awake. I think she knows what was going on. I’m going to get to the bottom of it.” Blue shook his capped head in assurance. “No secrets allowed.”
Scarlet, for his part, nodded and silently headed off for the nearest lift to the control room.
As the threesome and their medical entourage approached Cloudbase’s health facilities, Dr. Fawn met them outside the main doors. “Decontamination protocols are engaged for all three of these people,” he announced to his team. Fawn’s cool eyes settled on the one member still standing. “Give me a brief of what happened, Captain Blue.”
“Yes, Sir.” Blue followed the loaded gurneys into an isolation stall where a misty cloud of decontamination gas enshrouded them for a few moments. The airborne substance killed germs and deterred virus replication, while inhibiting respiratory infection to those who breathed it in. Within the span of an hour following, two people were made comfortable on beds and Blue reclined in a chair, dressed in scrubs, his mild puncture wounds now disinfected and dressed.
“It was unbelievable, Doctor,” he described as Fawn finished bandaging Grey’s wounded scalp. “Like a dream. Or nightmare, more likely.”
“Well,” Fawn offered absently. “Birds have been known to defend their nests from intruders. Mated pairs are very protective of their young. But an entire flock?” Fawn shook his head. “That’s most unprecedented.” He looked up from his ministries to smirk. “One for the record books, I’d say, Captain.”
“Yes,” Blue mused and scrutinized his field partner, just waking from his stupor. “Is he going to live, Doc?”
Fawn stood back to allow Grey a chance to sit up from the bed. “Oh, he’ll live all right,” the physician assured with another grin. “But I’m certain he won’t soon be adopting any pet parrots.”
For his part, Captain Grey groaned at the ache in his skull and grimaced. “Nevermore. A bird-brained idea, if you ask me.” He focused weary eyes on his field partner. “How’s the woman? Is she talking yet?”
Blue shook his head and raised a deferring hand toward their chief medical officer. “You’ll have to ask Dr. Fawn. Dr. Topaz is with her now.”
“Yes,” Fawn agreed. “Most unusual. Given her state of undress, we’re doing a health scan on her to check for any foul play. Her condition seems nonlife threatening; however, she’s in a deep sleep, almost a coma.” Fawn sighed in puzzlement. “It may be a while before we find out anything from her.”
“She had a fever, Doc,” Blue offered, straightening in his chair. “Is that why you ordered the decontamination shower?”
“Yes, and because of the bird attack. Due to your exposure and sustained wounds, I was concerned for some errant strain of avian flu virus. Luckily, we’ve since ruled that out.” The doctor pointed to a nearby wheeled tray of veiled samples. “Scarlet thought to bring back a dead crow for analysis. We’ll know more after a necropsy.”
Blue rose from his seat with a back-stretching groan. “Do I have your permission to check on our mystery patient, Doctor? I’m as perplexed as anyone to find out who she really is.”
Fawn nodded. “If Topaz has completed her tests, I see no reason why you couldn’t stick your nose in, but let her rest, Captain. She’s suffered some trauma and is no doubt going to be apprehensive once she wakes. We must let her know she’s safe and among friends here.”
With an affirmative dip of his chin, Captain Blue waved his partner farewell and strode from Grey’s bed to the ICU where he found a perplexed Dr. Topaz standing outside the isolation room scrutinizing her charts. “Cat caught a bird, Julia?”
Topaz jerked from her reverie to glare at the intrusion. “No. I mean yes.” With a stress-relieving sigh she scowled and waved the electronic medical tablet in her hand. “I’ve not finished my examination,” she lilted in her melodic Irish accent, “but there are some very strange readings here. Her DNA is unique.”
Blue’s brow contorted at the news. “Isn’t each of our DNA signatures unique? No one of us shares the same genetic sequencing. Even among identical twins there’s a slight variation.”
Julia Shannon O’Donnell grinned at her companion. “Antibody profile. Why Adam, you have been paying attention to my lectures. I’m touched.”
Blue shrugged non-committedly. “I dabble.” Then he glanced past her medipad to the room beyond. “How’s she doing?”
“Well, first off, I’m going to have to prep her for surgery.”
“Internal injuries from the bird attack? I didn’t see any major wounds.”
“No, not externally, but look here.” Topaz tilted her pad so the captain could see. She scrolled down with her finger to another page of data. “Here’s an X-ray of her right shoulder. The area was inflamed, so I anticipated a fractured or broken scapula.”
Blue scrutinized the X-ray. Within the picture, the woman’s shoulder blade glowed a ghostly white. Stuck beneath, however, askew amidst the intact bone and globular scar tissue, a bright mass sat. Blue squinted at the sight and leaned further over the pad. “Is that what I think it is?”
“It’s metal, and it shouldn’t be there.” Topaz’s next words were dripping with loathing. “I think it’s a bolt, a surgical appliance, left in her flesh.”
Topaz nodded. “That’s right. Placed as it is, it effectively hinders her movements, leaving her in pain, and unable to rest comfortably. No wonder she had a fever. The thing’s infected the tissue and contact bone beneath the skin. It’s been there long enough to amass scar tissue.”
“Well, if she’s in pain because of it, why hasn’t she gotten to the hospital to have it removed? I smell a medical malpractice lawsuit here, Doctor.”
Topaz lowered the medipad and glowered at her patient through the adjoining glass. “So do I.” Her next words were grim and determined. “There’s a mystery here, all right. I’m going to find out what.”
“Well, let me in on it, Doctor. Colonel White will want the complete story, and I’m responsible for bringing her here.”
With an agreeing nod Topaz turned on the scrub-dressed captain. “If Dr. Fawn’s cleared you for duty, I suggest you get back into uniform and start doing some investigating for me.”
“Of course, Doctor. What do you want me to research?”
“Look up all variations of circus acts, the more extraordinary the better.”
“Circus? You think she’s a circus performer? What gave it away?”
Topaz’s lips were taut with suspicion. “When I know more, I’ll share my theories. Until then, I need that information.”
“Sure, Julia. I’ll clear it with Colonel White and get right on it.”
“Good enough.” Topaz fell silent, her gaze descending once more to the tablet within her grip.
Blue, though curious, left her for his cabin. There the captain drew on a fresh set of Spectrum finery before heading to the control room. Stepping out of the bridge lift, however, he intercepted the remnants of a heated argument. He stalled his advance with a squeak of blue boot heels.
Captain Scarlet stood, leaning forward over Colonel White’s circular desk, his tight knuckles jammed atop the studded surface. “She’s a threat, Colonel. That’s all I know. We should be rid of her immediately.”
Swiftly analyzing White’s sullen countenance behind the desk, Blue swallowed his discretion and cleared his throat. “Captain Scarlet, are you referring to the wounded woman we brought onboard? The one from the abandoned house?”
Scarlet glowered at the interruption and broke gaze with their commanding officer. “Stuff it, Adam. I didn’t ask for your input or your empathy.”
“That’s enough, Scarlet,” White ordered darkly. “You’re dismissed.”
“Sir?” Scarlet straightened before the desk, stiff-backed.
“Dismissed, I said. You speak English, don’t you?”
“Yes, Sir.” With that the dark-haired captain spun on his boots to stomp past Blue for the lift beyond his tensed shoulders. Scarlet wouldn’t even look at him in passing. Once the translucent doors slid shut and the elevator whisked his friend away, Blue let out a slow, tension-relieving sigh. Still stalled in his advance he waited for the colonel’s next orders.
“Report, Captain Blue.”
With such beckoning permission, Blue stepped forward to accept the rising stool before White’s semicircular dais. “Sir?”
Strain still evident in his furrowed scowl, the colonel nonetheless nodded and spoke more gently. “I wanted to commend you your cool head in Kansas, Captain. You thought through your perilous situation and got Captain Grey and the woman safely away from that flock of incensed creatures. I’m glad to see you didn’t sustain major injury.”
“Thank you, Sir. I’m fine.”
“And Captain Grey?”
“A few holes in him, Sir. Otherwise, he’s not leaking too badly onto sickbay’s deck. He’ll be all right.”
“Good to hear. I am concerned, however.” When the colonel’s words stalled, Blue ventured a cause.
“You’re unsure what to do with this mystery woman. You think she’s a Mysteron?”
“Scarlet does,” White grumbled with an arching brow. “Yet she cleared a Mysteron detector test conducted by Scarlet himself.” White shook his silver head. “I don’t know what she is. Preliminary test results from Dr. Topaz states that she’s an anomaly.”
“Her DNA, Colonel?”
“Quite.” Still scowling at some uncertain fact, White raised a steely gaze to his subordinate officer. “I want you to find out who she is, Captain Blue. Until we know for sure, I’m stationing security outside the ICU. Once she’s well enough, you’ll have her transferred to a brig cell. We must determine if she’s a threat to Spectrum in general and Cloudbase specifically.”
“Colonel, you don’t really think she’s dangerous? She’s injured, weak. She pleaded with me to save a bird from death.” Blue’s eyes narrowed at the maintained skepticism. “Part of you believes what Scarlet’s claiming, don’t you?”
Chin half-turned in negation, Colonel White had to contend, “Captain Scarlet is seldom mistaken where the Mysterons are concerned. I have to proceed with caution. We all must proceed with caution. Is that clear, Captain?” That last sentence had been delivered with a severe brow. Colonel White was warning him not to become emotionally involved.
“SIG, Colonel. I understand.”
“Good. Then, if you’re cleared for duty, I want you back down there. Keep an eye on our guest, and update me once she’s conscious. You’ll be the one to interrogate her. She met you once; she may remember your face once she wakes.”
Blue took this as a dismissal and rose from his stool. “SIG, Colonel. Oh, and Dr. Topaz has asked me to conduct some related research on her. Is that permissible?”
White lowered his chin. “If it brings us answers about who she is and why she was placed inside that house for you to find, by all means dig, Captain. Dig deep.”
“Yes, Sir.” With a glance toward the curious but so far silent Lieutenant Green, Captain Blue marched from Cloudbase’s bridge. His next stop: sickbay.
Captain Blue arrived in sickbay in time to watch as Dr. Topaz entered the ICU stall dressed in a surgical gown and accompanied by a pair of nurses. He took up a stance in the medical theater beyond the stall to observe. Dr. Fawn soon came to join him. “Strange, isn’t it?” the doctor asked. Arms folded, his gaze was upon the proceedings beyond the glass.
Blue arched a brow and considered Fawn’s preoccupied look. “About who she is or what Dr. Topaz is about to do? Remove a surgical bolt from her shoulder?”
“Everything about her,” Fawn blurted with a spread hand. “Take Grey, for instance. Do you know he claims to have seen a big cat leap from the very closet inside which you had placed that woman?”
Blue pursed his lips against the claim. “I’m sorry, Doctor, but Brad was injured, with a head wound. He was woozy. He almost fainted on me. Did in fact, once I got him into the police helicopter. I don’t think he actually saw what he claims.”
“I believe you underestimate the human capacity to remember, Captain. Grey didn’t dream this. He saw a spotted cat. It physically knocked him down and ran out of the room toward you.”
Now Blue blinked at the accusation. He squared his shoulders to the physician. “Wait a minute. I found the woman.” He pointed to the patient on the surgical table. “That woman, naked on the floor of that old house.” He waggled his blonde head. “There was no wild animal inside that house. Just a gaggle of crazed crows.”
“Geese are a gaggle,” Fawn corrected. “A group of crows is called a murder.”
Blue was losing patience with this fantasy. “Damn it, I know the difference. I still say Grey was mistaken.”
“Perhaps, Captain,” Fawn mused with a rub of his chin whiskers. “Perhaps there’s something to this DNA sequencing anomaly. Once she’s conscious, we’ll know more.”
Blue mused on that quandary for a long moment, then fell to watching the gruesome process of dislodging and extracting the implanted bolt from the woman’s back. Topaz operated with caution and compassion, gently prizing loose constricting scar tissue to ease in healing. The surgery finished with four sutures and a sterile gauze pad. From within the stall, Topaz’s voice announced the completion of her work.
“Make her comfortable, Grayson. Continue with fluids and the antibiotic infusion. She’ll be out for a few hours. After that, we might see an improvement in her condition.” The woman’s dark green eyes rose to consider her chief physician. “Dr. Fawn, I’d like to keep her condition monitored. But a security detail wasn’t what I had in mind.” A pair of Spectrum officers was visibly stationed just beyond the ICU’s double doors.
Fawn frowned. “I’m sorry, Dr. Topaz; these are Colonel White’s orders. They just came down from Control.” He shrugged an arm at an alternative. “We can assign a rotating crew of nurses and delegate the security to the corridor if you feel she needs more personal monitoring, but -”
“I’ll do it. I’ll sit with her,” Blue offered, earnestly raising a hand. “Colonel White assigned me to her anyway.”
Fawn’s brow tilted vertical. “You moving in with her, Captain? The woman is to be put under twenty-four hour surveillance until we can ascertain her position. The colonel feels she may be a threat to Spectrum.”
“No,” Blue spat. “Scarlet thinks she’s a threat. The colonel only suspects.”
“And what do you believe, Captain?” Fawn interrogated. “You certainly can’t know this woman from your brief encounter of her. She’s an unknown, set down in the middle of a Mysteron threat. Even if she’s not a Mysteron agent, she could still be a part of their plan.”
“Well, it looks like I’m here to find that out for sure, Doctor. I plan on doing my job.” He paused to make sure Fawn was listening. “Very well.”
The chief physician, in response, waved an arm toward the ICU stall. “Then by all means, Captain, welcome to our world.”
“Good. I’ll be right back.”
Blue exited the theater to collect his equipment. He needed to set up his data center within the confines of the medical stall, yet he didn’t wish to scare the woman with too much technology. Blue well remembered her stricken eyes, how she had pleaded with him for mercy. “Over a bird?” The captain still didn’t see the reasoning. Marching through the corridor, Blue recalled the recent event. Grey and he had been attacked soon after they had stepped away from their Spectrum saloon, as soon as they had approached the house … “With weapons drawn,” he remembered aloud. What had she said? “The birds were protecting -” Blue stalled in his advance and scowled at the possibilities. “Protecting her? Why?”
Was there some shred of truth to what Grey had claimed? The American captain shook the quandary away and regained his steps. “Man, I better find out the truth because I won’t get a blink of sleep until then.”
Within fifteen minutes, Captain Blue was back guiding a rolling cart including a slim computer and its dangling data-link hookups, looking more some high-tech octopus than a mobile research station. Sliding the cart over to a far wall, Blue plugged in the devices and uplinked the center with Cloudbase’s mainframe. From here, Blue could now murder two crows with one mouse, so to speak. A tug of a chair and the captain settled in for his exploration into the world of circus traditions.
As he typed in his various requests, poked the stylus, and scrolled about his readouts, Blue murmured to himself: “Acrobatics. Animal acts. Prestidigitation and magical trickery.” Perhaps these would lead him to where Dr. Topaz was postulating. “Trickery indeed,” he said with another poke of the stylus. He opened a website for international circus and carnival history. It seemed promising.
For the next hour or so, the captain floated among the names of great performers and wondrous animal acts. At one point he was bedazzled by a tiger shown in mid-flight over a great watery chasm, its own tail seemingly on fire, and a tiny simian rider perched upon its back. “Gads! How do they get these creatures to do that?” he spouted, tilting his head to try for a better perspective.
At bedside, a soft groan issued from the shrouded patient. Blue gulped at his volume. Had he awakened her accidentally? The captain paused in his research to watch her. A slight head turn, no more. After another silence, he returned to his studies.
Then a call came in from the colonel over the open public address. With a frown, Blue rose from his chair to take it. He hounded himself for forgetting to keep his cap. It was, after all, customary only to wear the kepi while on duty away from base. Striding to the wall, he poked a digit at the intercom. “Yes, Colonel?”
“An update, please, Captain.”
Blue considered the slumbering woman before softly responding. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything conclusive yet. My research is only now gaining momentum.”
“And the woman?”
“Still unconscious, I’m afraid. I guess the anesthesia hasn’t worn off quite yet.”
“Scarlet’s on his way to you now with another Mysteron detector. I’ve asked Dr. Topaz to attend on a few more tests to help determine her identity.”
“Sir? What kinds of tests?”
“Not your concern, Captain. Once they arrive, you are to clear the room and allow Topaz and Scarlet to conduct their experiments. Is that clear?”
Blue swallowed at the unspoken meaning. “Of course, Sir. SIG.” Now too anxious to revisit his computer, Blue paced the stall until Dr. Topaz arrived with a tray of instruments. Blue studied the objects with suspicion. “What are those scalpels and needles for?”
Topaz smiled slightly, her chin lowered in consent. “I’m going to take some skin and fluid samples for analysis. Nothing too unusual, Captain.”
Topaz’s smile wilted. “I’m afraid he still believes she’s a Mysteron plant. He wants to test her again. I consented. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Blue. I must attend to my patient.”
He was being dismissed. “Of course.” Blue straightened his liberated spine and stepped from the room. Out in the corridor, the ever-present sentries stood. Blue glared at the pair as though they were the reason for his ousting. “I don’t understand,” he mumbled to himself. “I’ve already seen her naked.” While Blue simmered, the alert guards exchanged quizzical glances and tried to suppress their sudden levity at the private comment.
Escape is not an Option
A Mysteron detector strapped over his neck, Captain Scarlet exited the lift onto sickbay’s deck. As he did so, he made eye contact with his American partner stationed by the entrance.
“Always the suspicious one, I see,” Blue offered. “Maybe I’m one too.”
Scarlet felt his jaw clench at the sarcasm. He had regretted snapping at Blue earlier in the midst of his argument with the colonel. Now he found the animosity still raw. “I’m doing my job, Adam, just as you are. You know she could be a Mysteron plant, a bomb, or even an assassin, just as those birds were.”
“I know, pal,” Blue contended grudgingly. “You just seem so damned determined to crucify her.”
Scarlet stopped before the door. “Like you, I want answers.” How much of his true angst could he expose to his friend? “There are things about the Mysterons that you don’t know, Captain. I’m erring on the side of caution.”
Blue visibly relaxed at Scarlet’s logic. With an acquiescent nod the American captain waved the man past him. “Help yourself, then.”
“And I hope you don’t find anything awry.”
Nodding at his friend’s wish, Scarlet stepped past the guards and his partner to stride through the widening ICU doors. A few more steps brought him to the woman’s stall. He paused at the entrance while Dr. Topaz finished re-covering the stranger with a light blanket. “Doctor?”
“That’s fine, Captain.” She swept her arm toward her patient. “I’m almost finished. I just need to take an epidermal scraping.”
With a slight bow, Scarlet gripped the detector. “I can wait. Please complete your examination.” He watched as the female physician chose her next tool from the surgical tray.
“You know, Scarlet,” Topaz offered, her scalpel poised over the unconscious woman’s exposed elbow. “Blue has faith that she was left for us to help, not condemn. That bird carcass you brought back had no disease, no abnormality, only an elevated adrenalin level.”
“An inflamed adrenal gland is a sign of disease, Doctor. Even I know that.” Scarlet shook a grave head at her. “Like Mysteron agents, those birds possessed a singularly, ominous intent. I’m here to prove whether she does as well.”
“Fine,” Topaz replied, her green gaze returning to her patient’s waiting skin. “Just a second, then.”
Abruptly, the woman on the bed stirred. Her eyes opened and focused on the scalpel hovering above her. In a movement Scarlet saw only as a blur, the stranger vaulted from the platform amidst a flurry of flopping blanket and tearing surgical gown. His eyes expanded at the sight of her transformation. A sudden growl issued from the woman’s throat as fur sprouted from appendages still in fluid motion. The stranger sprang to the floor, now a slinking, spotted cat of rippling muscle and shifting golden eyes. “Great space,” Scarlet was able to gasp. His voice caught the feline’s attention. It hissed his way then shifted its attack to the woman wielding the knife.
Topaz shrieked at the violent pounce. She was flat on the floor beneath the menacing creature a millisecond later. Scarlet’s reaction was almost as fluid. His firearm swung from his hip. The bark of a bullet echoed eerily within the confines of the medical stall. Screaming in protest, the large cat buckled upon the deck, rumbling gasps hissing from its heaving chest.
“Julia?” Scarlet demanded, gun ready for a second volley. “Status.”
From the floor, head no doubt spinning from the impact, Topaz grunted to her knees to slide away from the injured cat. “I’m … not hurt, just stunned.”
Scarlet approached the downed cat cautiously, eyeing its curled lips and suspicious golden gaze. “What in Heaven’s name are you?” In answer the cat bawled as if in pain and collapsed against the floor, eyes sliding shut. Then a strange shimmering effect of fading fur was followed by the return of the woman. Blood flowed from the bullet hole to her naked side.
Topaz was back to her feet a moment later. “My God, Paul. Get the nurse.” Even as she spoke, Julia grabbed the blanket from the bed to cover the wounded woman’s form.
“What the Hell’s going on?” Captain Blue commanded, now also in the room, his security detail shouldering to enter as well.
In answer, Scarlet squeezed his partner’s shoulder. “Bradley was right, Adam.” He next stepped past Blue to hail a medical assistant. The captain returned in time to see Blue and one security officer hoisting the woman back into bed. “Give the doctor room, everyone.” Scarlet evaluated the confusion of the guards. “Saunders, alert Dr. Fawn. He’ll need to see this.”
“See what, Paul?” Blue demanded scrutinizing the spreading bloodstain through the enshrouding blanket. “What’s going on?”
Scarlet swallowed his indecision. What could he say? He’d seen the transformation with his own eyes. “She’s … a shape shifter.”
“No. That’s … that’s impossible,” Blue spouted. “They don’t exist.”
“I saw it too,” a breathless Topaz assured even as she pressed gauze into the woman’s bleeding side to staunch the loss. “She …” Topaz’s confusion grasped at Scarlet’s steadier gaze. “I think she thought I was going to cut her.”
Captain Scarlet’s lips tightened to the fact. “You were.” He acknowledged the arrival of another nurse, rolling forward a crash cart of emergency fluids and medicines. Topaz quickly reattached the dislodged IV line to the woman’s arm. “It was a cat, all right.”
“A leopard,” Topaz murmured.
“A jaguar,” Scarlet corrected. “Spots inside spots.”
“This is crazy,” Blue announced standing just beyond the circle of medical personnel. “Captain, you’re all imagining things. Maybe she is a Mysteron.”
Hearing that, Scarlet scooped up the discarded detector device and stepped to within the tech team’s shoulders to snap off another X-ray photo. “We’ll know in a moment.”
“What if she’s under their control? Just like you said, but not physically a Mysteron?”
Scarlet considered his partner’s words. “Maybe. But we’ll have to get her talking next time to learn more.” He pivoted toward the occupied Topaz. “She’ll need to be restrained, Doctor. She cannot be allowed to attack anyone else. Those claws were long enough to disembowel you.”
Topaz, though busy evaluating the woman’s bullet wound, shook her head. “If she wanted me dead, Captain, she would have used her canines to rip out my throat as soon as we hit the floor.”
Dr. Fawn entered the stall, then, adding to the congestion. “Only medical personnel here, people,” he addressed them all. “Security, fall back to the outer room.” Next Fawn caught the concerned gaze of the two Spectrum captains. “Scarlet and Blue, report to Colonel White, immediately. You have to conjure a course of action here while we save her life.”
Though Scarlet’s body was still tense for battle, his head understood the challenge. The priority for Fawn and Topaz was their patient. His and Blue’s was answers to the swiftly multiplying questions. “SIG. Come on, Adam.”
Together, they marched to the confines of Cloudbase’s command deck. There they found an antsy Lieutenant Green nearly bursting from his chair for news. “Captain Blue. What did you see?” the younger man stammered.
“Not enough, it seems,” Blue answered as he approached the waiting and pacing Colonel White. He stabbed a thumb Scarlet’s way. “He saw a big cat.”
White halted his steps to ask, “Just like Grey?”
Captain Scarlet nodded simply. “It would seem so, Sir. She’s able to shift her form into a jaguar. She awoke, saw a threat and attacked Dr. Topaz.”
“Was she harmed, Captain?”
“Dr. Topaz is fine, Colonel, but the woman,” Scarlet admitted with just a hint of hesitation. “I shot her, Sir.”
“Shot an injured woman?” White railed.
“I shot an attacking animal,” Scarlet defended with only a prickle of self-defense.
“Just like the birds,” Blue acknowledged with a grip of his partner’s sleeve. “There’s a connection. I’m sure of it.” Lips kneading Blue continued, “Colonel, she asked me not to harm the crows. She said they were there to protect. I wasn’t sure what, but what if the birds attacked Grey and me only because we seemed a threat to the woman?”
“A symbiotic relationship, Captain,” White grumbled in open skepticism. “Interspecies communication?”
In his friend’s defense, Captain Scarlet took a step closer to his superior. “Maybe.” When White shot him a suspicious glare, Scarlet continued. “Look, Sir, if she’s capable of changing her shape, then what’s to stop her from communicating with other animals?” He shrugged his epaulettes. “There are just too many possibilities here. We’re in virgin territory.”
“Uncharted, certainly,” White contended and settled into his seat behind the desk. With a heavy sigh, the commander of Cloudbase continued. “Very well.” He leaned forward over his desktop and folded his hands to consider his officers. “We must ascertain the answers, gentlemen. It’s far too great a coincidence that she is here, at this very moment, at the very instant Captain Scarlet has returned from Mars. The concurrence is just too perfect.”
“Mars?” Blue snapped. “Is that where you’ve been?”
Colonel White spoke up in justification. “Calm yourself, Captain Blue. There were only two men here who knew of this mission to Mars. Myself and Captain Scarlet.”
“And Doctor deRavin, on Lunarville 8,” Scarlet finished. He saw White’s silent consent to continue before he explained, “I was invited. By the Mysterons.”
“But how?” Green sputtered from his station. The colonel shot the junior officer a warning glare and the younger man fell silent. Scarlet continued.
“A mineral probe, sent to scan the incoming asteroid Phobos II, intercepted a transmission from the Mysterons. They knew we had been spying on them, and invited me to ask three questions.”
“Incredible,” Blue growled. “You obviously survived the ordeal.” He glanced about the threesome in attendance. “Any revelations?”
Now White crushed any further speculation. “I’m afraid the mission’s outcome is still classified to top Spectrum personnel.” White leaned back and unfolded his stoic hands. “Suffice it to say that further analysis of Scarlet’s adventure is necessary. Once we have concrete results, more will be revealed regarding the rendezvous.”
“Rendezvous,” Blue echoed wispily. Scarlet watched the man’s brows furrow at the possibilities.
The colonel cleared the air with a grunt and return to business. “For now, gentleman, this mystery woman is your top priority. Find out why she’s here and what are her intentions. Take all security precautions, and get me answers.”
Snapping spines of consensus, both Blue and Scarlet chimed in together. “SIG.”
They exited the control room, taking the lift together down to Dr. Fawn’s domain once more. The pair discovered a flurry of activity within the confines of the woman’s stall.
“What’s going on now?” Blue demanded.
A passing nurse, her eyes incredulous, stammered, “The shape shifter! She’s healing already. It’s totally incomprehensible.”
With a glance his British partner’s way, Blue agreed. “You’re telling me.”
Jaw steady, Scarlet suggested a course of action. “Come on, Adam. Let’s see for ourselves.”
Fawn allowed them entrance, as the emergency nurses had already evacuated. All that remained was Topaz and a single medical assistant who was busy monitoring the woman’s life signs on the overhead screen.
“Julia?” Blue began. “How is she?”
Wiping the remnants of dried blood splatter from her cheek, Dr. Topaz nodded. “I think she’ll be just fine.” Her dark green eyes sparkled at the possibilities and settled instead on Scarlet. “She has remarkable recuperative powers, Captain. Perhaps nearly equal to yours.”
Scarlet’s gaze narrowed. “Explain, Doctor.”
Tossing the towel aside then tugging off her surgical gloves, she next stepped forward to the monitors and pointed. “When she arrived here, she had scratches, bruises and a deep wound to her thigh. Here are those same injuries now.” A rotating set of medical photos documented the woman’s rapid recovery. “The shoulder wound, the one on which I just hours ago performed surgery? Well, the stitches have already dissolved.” Topaz grinned incredulously. “Remnant scar tissue’s receding. All that’s left is a reddened area of new skin. It’s absolutely astonishing.”
“Wait a minute,” Blue stammered. “Are you saying she’s like Paul? A recovered Mysteron agent?”
Now Topaz’s grin widened to include her dazzling eyes. “No. Scarlet’s detector proves it yet a second time. She’s not a Mysteron, just a mystery.”
“I’m growing weary of that term,” Scarlet grumbled. His head was a-swirl with the amassed data of the last several days. The truths he was suddenly carrying made him wobble atop the deck. Blue must have seen his discomfort.
“Paul, what is it?”
“Dizzy again,” the captain explained, raising his hand to a throbbing temple. “I can’t explain it. I’m light-headed. Like when there’s a Mysteron about, but with shortness of breath.”
Topaz stepped around Blue to consider the British officer with a medical eye. She took his free arm. “Come, sit down, Captain. Let me take a look.” Scarlet complied and allowed Topaz to guide him to a nearby chair. Slowly he sank into its seat. Another moment and a tiny light was glaring into his eyes. Topaz swiftly went through the motions of a preliminary medical exam. After a few moments she straightened to conclude, “Your pupils are constricted, Captain, as though you’re in distress. Your heart rate’s up but your pressure and temperature aren’t elevated. Are you feeling chilled? Any aches in your body besides your head?”
Scarlet dismissed the questions with an impatient grunt. “I’m fine, Doctor.” He stood from his seat. “It’s gone now.”
“Are you sure, Paul?” Blue urged with a narrowed brow. “You look peaked to me. Pale.”
Scarlet brushed Topaz’s probing fingers away. “I’m fine. The sensation’s past.” Now he straightened his spine at them. “We have work to do. A mystery to solve.”
“Yeah,” Blue agreed, “And I need a partner who’s at his best. You up to it?”
Scarlet succinctly nodded. “Bloody sure, Captain. I want this charade to end. I need answers. I need to know what this is all about.”
In his impatience, Scarlet missed the concerned glances Blue and Topaz shared. Blue spoke up first. “OK, buddy. We want answers too.” He turned to the resident physician. “When can we question her, Julia? The colonel has us on eggs until we can determine just what’s going on here.”
“Tell you what, gentlemen. Go get yourselves a late dinner and I’ll alert you the moment she’s awake.” When Scarlet shot her a suspicious glare, she rested a reassuring hand atop his sleeve. “Don’t worry, Paul. I’m done with scalpels for now, and she’s restrained. I’ll keep one security officer just inside her stall. The other can stay just outside the door.”
“All right,” Blue acknowledged raising a hand to grip his partner’s arm. “Let’s let the woman rest, Paul. You look weary enough for a nap yourself. Graveyard shifts are always tedious. Maybe a meal’s just what you need.”
“Maybe,” Scarlet contended, though he grudgingly stole one last glance toward the patient supine on the bed. “Julia, the moment she wakes-”
“Go, Captain,” Topaz urged.
He allowed Blue to guide him from the medical lab and into the corridor beyond. “We’ll get to the bottom of it, Paul. Don’t worry. We have time.”
“No, Adam. We don’t.”
Beside him Blue squinted in concern. “I wish you’d quit being so cagey. I can’t help you if you’re keeping vital facts from me. We’re a team, remember?”
“SIG,” he acknowledged for the benefit of his friend. So quietly that Blue, in the lead and heading for the galley, didn’t discern the man’s worry, Scarlet finished under his breath, “A team with a time constraint.”
* * *
The air about her was chilled. Instinctively, she huddled deeper against the cushioning beneath her. Pain, so recently a constant companion, was strangely fading. Danger, her constant peril, seemed absent for once as well. Years of urgency had eased for the moment. Within the confines of this present space, the world was quiet, except for the distant and deep roaring of monstrous engines. Where was she?
As her consciousness slowly rose from the depths of injury, Ehlora Piper was increasingly aware of her surroundings. The humming of machinery, the tweets of monitors, the thrumming of a powerful, mechanical heart. Even in her deep stupor, she knew this was no ordinary hospital. Yes, hospital; that dreaded environment Ehlora had long avoided for her own sake and survival.
They knew. There were others who knew what she was. A deep-set dread descended on her fuzzy mind, then. Escape. It was the only option. Escape and avoidance had been Ehlora’s creed for countless years now, almost since the first change. It was a way of life, a method of her continued existence.
Ehlora had gotten good at avoiding trouble, at hiding, blending in. As long as she kept moving, kept her head low and her identity anonymous, Ehlora had avoided capture, scrutiny and dissection. But now, she was a captive. They had brought her to a hospital. They would soon know all her secrets. And once those secrets were revealed, the next step was exploitation.
It’s what Kraven had wanted, her unique abilities for his own private use. She had avoided him, escaped from his clutches more than once; but he never abandoned the pursuit. Ever wary, Ehlora had survived, but at the greatest of costs. All that she had cared for, clung to, loved and cherished had, over the years, been stripped from her, lost and abandoned. Had Kraven finally won this time?
“Luke,” she murmured as the man’s kind and tender face floated behind her closed eyes. “Luke?” What had happened to Luke? To Jed? Were the brothers now dead, as Dr. Kraven had claimed? As she had witnessed? Or had the scientist lied simply to entice Ehlora in to yet another of his complicated traps?
A deep, gut-wrenching breath and Ehlora shoved her lids open. She had to flee from this hospital. Tests would lead to more tests, which would lead to too many questions. She wasn’t like anybody else. She only wanted to be left alone, to live free. To Ehlora, confinement was more frightening than death.
There were few sanctuaries in this world, Ehlora had discovered. The concealed womb of wild woods, the vastness of ocean depths, the high altitude winds of open plains and deserts. Wherever there were few people, Ehlora could find peace. Until she was discovered yet again.
With a twist of head, she discerned the room about her. Sterile white walls and the bleeping of monitors, no doubt hooked to her very life functions, made her cringe. This place was not safe. Despite Ehlora’s subconscious hopes, this place was yet another one from which to escape.
She tugged at her blanket. Strangely it remained taut. Restraints, as hindering as the metal slug left in her shoulder, restricted her capability to escape with alacrity and speed. But now, as she shifted her weight beneath these new restraints, Ehlora realized the deep, throbbing pain in her shoulder had eased. Had the restraining slug been found and removed? Was there compassion among this hospital’s staff? It still didn’t guarantee anonymity. She could still be a prisoner.
Ehlora tried to move yet again. Along with the twinging tug of the healing wound at her side, a pressure lay across her chest, her hips, and over her legs and upper arms. She had been strapped down to a table. There was only one way to free herself. With a determined and concentrated force of thought, Ehlora saw herself as different, longer, slimmer, free of cumbersome appendages, able to slink beneath the straps and fall to the floor unhindered by anything beyond her pulsing, rhythmic ribs.
The guard, daydreaming by the medical stall’s door, had first turned to scrutinize the strange patient when she had murmured the name of her dead lover. Now, his attentions caught movement and he wielded his weapon as an enormous snake slithered from the bed to coil upon the floor. “Security, SIR!” he hollered into the air. His partner was just beyond the stall’s space.
Ehlora saw the two men move to block the only exit she could discern from her perch close to the floor. She needed to gain height; she needed swiftness and power. With another concentrated effort, Ehlora shifted to a more advantageous form.
It was when she launched herself into the air and beat rapid wings above her guards that Ehlora caught a glimpse beyond the windows of this hospital. A startled screech escaped her avian throat. Dawn-light mackerel clouds streaked below a vaulted ceiling of paled and blinking stars, far above any mountaintop city she had ever seen. Where exactly was she? And if she was indeed at such a great altitude, how in the devil was she to return to Earth with only the lungs of an eagle?
Another vicious flapping of broad wings and her startled guards, perhaps unwilling to shoot wildly in such a precarious environment, ducked to safety, allowing her exit. She pumped her way to an outer room, through a set of wide, double doors and out into a broad corridor. With talons tucked for safety and maneuverability, Ehlora flew along the smooth walls to a T-intersection. With a purposeful tilt of braking tail feathers, she swung wide to starboard and continued her journey down yet another hallway.
Ehlora’s glimpses out beyond the building’s walls fermented her concern. This was no hospital with elevators and emergency exits at every turn. Where was the way out? Where was she going? As Ehlora continued her escape through this base carrier in the clouds, she grew frightened and slowed her flight.
Up ahead was a railing, open to a brightness beyond. Another window? Perhaps it was a glass doorway leading onto an open patio or balcony. If she could get past that barrier, out into the fresh morning air, Ehlora would be free. She never made it that far.
Sirens blared around her. The base beyond the hospital had been alerted. More of the black and white clad, X-chested security guards would be after her. In frustration, Ehlora landed atop the deck, folded her wings and grew to her full human height. She bolted for the nearest door. Perhaps as a non-descript person in borrowed clothes, she could evade detection.
The door led not to a storage closet, but to an unoccupied room of equipment and circuits, a monitoring station of some kind. She strode to the closest computer terminal. The keypad there accepted her waggling fingers and a schematic of her location was soon on the screen.
“Spectrum?” The name seemed familiar. “Spectrum,” she mused again, eyeing the roundel logo of rainbow hues. “World security.” Her throat constricted at the revelation. “Police. I’m in a hive of them.”
Now her urgency was even more immediate. This was an armed force which had found her, brought her to its base in the clouds, where, with the most sophisticated of tools, it could extract any and all knowledge of her abilities for its own ends. “Damn it, Kraven. You really led me astray this time. Out of the frying pan-”
Ehlora had perhaps minutes before a base-wide search would be conducted for her whereabouts. She had to get clear of this place and back to any anonymity she could still grasp. With a few more pokes of the keypad, Ehlora found a crude base layout. It outlined the structure of the facility, its current cruising altitude of 42,000 feet, and the general locations of various inner departments. She immediately recognized the nearest - sickbay. What she wanted, however, was the closest airlock.
Despite the altitude, her need for freedom outweighed the peril of cold and oxygen deprivation. If she could stay conscious long enough outside these protective walls, form could be maintained. Wings were her favorite mode of transportation, after all. It was why Kraven had hobbled her so with the cruel metal shoulder shackle.
Straightening over the computer, Ehlora’s roving eyes scanned for anything to wrap about her bare shoulders. A lab coat, a janitor’s jumper, anything. What she found was an oversized and discarded cardigan sweater, draped over a neglected chair. It was better than nothing. With a jab of arms, she wrapped the garment about her and returned to the station’s door. A quick glimpse beyond the room showed a momentary vacancy of personnel. Were there many officers onboard this floating base, or was it more a supply aircraft of crew and cargo? The schematics had hinted otherwise. Time was of the essence.
As she shouldered her way into the still chiming corridor, her bare feet padded quietly toward her next promising avenue: a large, clear alcove with a pair of lighted arrows. An elevator. Ehlora ducked within its transparent fold and poked an internal button: down. The inset display showed symbols, one of which was in the shape of an airplane. “Hangar deck,” she announced aloud, just in case this fancy boat understood verbal commands.
The lift descended to the lower floors where Ehlora hoped to find an escape route to the open air. When the lift doors slid open onto another corridor of doors and plainness, however, a pair of men was waiting. Their rifles rose to cover her. “Please,” she implored. “I just want to go home.”
“Come with us, and you won’t be harmed,” one of the suited security officers stated.
Instead, Ehlora poked yet another button. “Hangar deck!” she demanded. This time the lift ascended, smoothly sliding past decks, some with startled people noticing her passage for the first time. How often did a half-naked woman gambol about this Spectrum base, after all?
When an open superstructure of parked planes and maintenance bays came into sight, Ehlora smashed a fist into the red emergency stop button. The lift shook slightly, but obediently halted its advance. Another poke of the automatic door release and she was out among a pair of sleek, A-framed interceptor planes and the streamlined fuselages of larger passenger jets. These exotic vehicles were of an elite and powerful police organization.
Golden-green eyes wide at the sight, Ehlora strode forward to gawk at the closest. “These must be the Angel planes.” Her roving gaze next located a set of sealed doors beyond the dormant fighter jets and their larger brethren. “An airlock. Finally.”
But as she moved forward to shed the cardigan for her next transformation to freedom, an order barked from a nearby set of landing gear. “Hold or I’ll shoot.”
Ehlora paused long enough to recognize the pistol poking from the end of the officer’s raised hand. He wore a vested uniform in gray and black with color-coordinated boots and cap. She appealed to his sense of honor first. “I’m only here because you brought me here. Please let me leave.”
The man stepped away from his shelter beneath the passenger plane. “I remember you, from the house. Do you know who I am?”
Ehlora clutched at the cloak of her sweater. The air within this hangar was near ice cold. Skin prickling, she had to make her escape quickly. Her toes were numbing upon the steel flight deck. “You. You’re Spectrum. I won’t be interrogated and cut open again. You have to let me go. Please. I don’t want to-”
“Captain Grey!” a voice hollered. Ehlora twisted to see another pair of colorful officers trotting forward. “We need her alive,” cautioned the one in red. Ehlora remembered this man as well. He had shot her when she had defended herself against the woman wielding the scalpel.
A blue-clad man strode beside his scarlet companion, arm wide, beckoning. “We’re not here to hurt you. We brought you here to help you,” he said as they continued their approach. “Come away from the emergency exit. You’ll die out there. The altitude.”
“I can make it,” Ehlora attested, peeling the sweater from her chilled frame. “I can fly.” With that she forced her muscles and bones to shift into the eagle once more. She launched herself forward, toward the airlock, talons ready to swipe the door release once she reached it. She was instantly stalled by the explosion of a gun. The searing pain burned into her open wing. The snap of bone announced her failure. No bird can soar upon a broken wing. In a flutter of feathers, Ehlora smashed to the deck, her avian scream echoing for long moments amidst her fellow flyers. As her form reverted to human, Ehlora gasped at the injury to her forearm and clutched it against her breast. Tears erupted from pain-racked eyes, human eyes which saw the trio of rainbow uniforms rush to her side. “No!” she wailed against her confinement. Ehlora was helped to her bare feet. The blonde man in blue peeled off his colorful vest to veil her naked torso.
She watched the red-dressed man slide his pistol back to its holster. “I’m sorry for that,” he said in a sympathetic English accent. “We can’t have you committing suicide out the airlock.”
Beside her, the man in gray had a tiny microphone before his lips. “Dr. Fawn to the main hangar bay. We found the woman. She’s injured.”
The arms of the blond man supported her wilting frame even as she felt her consciousness slip from her overtaxed body. “I’m Captain Blue,” he said. “We met before.” His smile was gentle. “I didn’t kill that bird. And we won’t hurt you either.”
“I’m … I’m Ehlora,” she admitted. Her will was slinking toward oblivion. Part of her knew to accept her fate. Her fighting spirit was just too weary. “Ehlora Piper.” Darkness enshrouded the compassionate gaze of the man in blue and she was out.
Outside the medical center Scarlet paced between his station by the entrance and the nearest utility closet. “I don’t understand,” he grumbled, hands clutched behind his back. “She’s a threat. It’s all a Mysteron ploy.” When a lift opened and out stepped Colonel White, Scarlet stalled his advance and snapped to attention. “Sir. The woman. She’s recovering.”
“I hope so, Captain, for your sake. I hear she’s up to talking.”
“Good. I want to hear what she has to say.” The colonel marched past his subordinate and into the ICU. As he approached the medical stall, however, White stopped to raise a cautionary hand to his shadowing officer. “Stay out, Scarlet. You’ve done quite enough harm for one day.”
“But, Colonel -” The man’s open palm was enough to stall Scarlet at the door. He could, however, stand by the room and surreptitiously observe the proceedings.
Colonel White, hands clasped behind his back, approached the stranger seated atop a medical bed. Her arm had been bandaged of its bullet wound and placed in a stabilizing sling. She was once more dressed in a surgical gown. From the doorway, Scarlet listened as his commanding officer introduced himself. “I’m Colonel White, Miss Piper, commander-in-chief of Spectrum. I wanted to apologize for the impulses of my officer. Captain Scarlet was attempting to prevent a tragedy in both cases. First, our Dr. Topaz is a respected and essential member of my staff. Secondly, your jaunt outside the protective shell of Cloudbase would have swiftly seen your own demise and endangered those officers present along with the entire base.”
“I … I just wanted my freedom, Colonel,” the woman answered, her voice timid before the uniformed leader.
White leaned to slide a chair up beside the bed. Next he sank onto the seat and offered his bare hand in greeting. “I understand your fear. May I offer you my solemn promise that you are safe here and that nothing dreadful shall come of you? Be reassured.” The colonel’s hand remained unshaken. He lowered it to his lap.
“But … Dr. Kraven’s pursued me for so long, Sir. I … I assumed he’d hired you to capture me.” The younger woman released an emotional breath and slid down against the bed. Her voice was noticeably shaking as she continued. “You’re not going to vivisect me?”
White’s profile darkened to disgust. “Heavens no, young lady. Whatever gave you that idea?”
From his perch beyond the room Scarlet saw the woman’s ashen complexion redden just a shade. “I’m used to being prodded and tested. It seems I’m a bit of an anomaly.”
White’s head twisted in irony. “To say the least, Miss Piper. I am curious, of course, but there are more pressing issues at the moment.” White cleared his throat. “I have some vital questions for you to answer. I need to know that you will answer them honestly.”
Piper visibly swallowed, seemingly small amongst the white walls of Cloudbase and Spectrum’s commander. “I don’t think I have a choice. Of course, Colonel.”
Now White nodded his silver-haired skull. “Very good, Miss Piper.” He straightened in his chair to address the woman with the first and most serious of his queries. “Are you now and have you ever been in collaboration with the Mysterons?”
“Myster- What are Mysterons?” the woman asked her eyes lined with legitimate bewilderment. “I’m not a member of any terrorist cult, Colonel. I’m just me, trying to stay out of everyone’s way and keep my … my special talent out of the news media.”
Skeptical gaze upon her White continued his interrogation. “You’ve never heard of the Mysterons’ threat to Earth?”
The woman shook her head and carefully adjusted her arm within its sling. “No, Sir.”
Leaning back in his chair White exhaled slowly. “This is strange indeed, young lady. I believe you may be a victim of circumstances here.” Then the colonel tilted forward. “Just how long have you had this special talent?”
There was genuine dread in the woman’s widening eyes as she stammered an answer. “You mean shape shifting.” When White calmly nodded ascent she elaborated: “I was eleven. I had a vivid dream. When I woke up I was exactly where the dream had sent me. And I wasn’t myself. I was … something else.”
“An animal? Or can you change to be another person as well?”
Now Scarlet saw the tension wash Piper’s face to powder. She had been interrogated before, perhaps many times. Escape and concealment had come to be a way of life for this young fugitive. “I can do it, but it’s extremely difficult, and I can’t match someone exactly. As an animal, I don’t have to worry about getting the details right.”
“I see.” From his station by the door, Scarlet watched the colonel mentally chew on this information. “How exactly have you used this talent of yours? Certainly not just to avoid unnecessary attention.”
“I keep to myself, mostly. But there have been people along the way who’ve needed my help.” Piper swallowed again and sank further into her sitting position. A dry cough issued from her throat. Her voice had grown hoarse, frail. “May I have a drink of water, Sir?”
Colonel White’s gaze softened to sympathy. “Of course, my dear.” He raised a beckoning hand to the nearest nurse who promptly poured a glass and handed it to him. “Thank you, Nelson.” White next offered the drink to his guest. As she delicately took it, the colonel returned to his investigation. “My officers and I have been preoccupied of late with a threat to the safety of all the inhabitants of Earth,” he divulged. “It’s Spectrum’s primary mission. That and the peaceful coexistence of the world’s citizens.” His head tilted philosophical. “A person of your talents would be indispensible in such a service, Miss Piper. We could also offer you the anonymity you wish.” White’s pale gaze pivoted toward the stall’s exit. Scarlet saw the man consider his stance by the door. Scarlet shifted away just a hair, as if oblivious to the interview. White had missed nothing. “Captain Scarlet. Would you please come in?”
Gulping against his eavesdropping, Scarlet slid his boots forward to step inside the medical stall. “Sir.”
White turned back to his guest. “Miss Piper. This is Captain Scarlet. He’s my primary officer in dealing with the Mysterons. It was his belief that you were in league with them.”
Again the woman shook her head in innocence. “I don’t know any group called the Mysterons. Are they associated with any particular government or terrorist cell? I haven’t even traveled to other continents. North America keeps me pretty busy.”
“Busy?” Scarlet found himself spouting even as he approached the bed. “Doing what?”
White slid a warning glare at him but otherwise didn’t protest the interruption.
“I … I know I’ve been given this … gift for a reason, Colonel. For a time, I was just scared and curious. Tried it out in the isolation of an empty room or within the hidden veil of a forest.” Her eyes switched between men as she elaborated. “But why have such an ability only to selfishly play around with the possibilities?”
“Go on,” White encouraged when Piper hesitated.
“At a lake, I once saw a drowning child. She had stolen a canoe, drifted away from her family’s campsite. Then the canoe capsized.” Piper tilted her auburn head at the recollection. “I couldn’t just stand there and watch.” She snatched a quick breath and barreled on. “I made myself a dolphin and rescued her, Colonel. It was the first time I had ever used my talent for someone else’s benefit. It felt good, and at the same time exhilaratingly dangerous.” She winced at the ache in her shifting arm before her eyes shrank serious. “I was still young, inexperienced and trusting. I started showing off my gifts, to help, but also for the attention.” Now her voice lowered to sobriety. “I learned an important lesson very quickly: If you’re different, people will distrust you, suspect you of evil. Envy your abilities. Even as I helped people, I was feared, cast out, chased away. Then came the pursuit. There were questions.” Piper’s eyes dipped closed to the memory. “Too many questions. When word got to Dr. Kraven, that’s when the real horror began.”
She had fallen silent again. Scarlet saw how her sunken gaze had dulled to hazel-green. When she continued, her voice was subdued, just above a whisper. “I became an object for study. That’s why I had to get away from here, Colonel. I was terrified you wanted to use me to make more.”
Scarlet gulped at her words. “You mean replicate your abilities. Cloning?”
Piper shrugged her shoulders then flinched at the obvious pull to her broken ulna. “At first. But my blood, my DNA, even my spinal fluid and stem cells were never capable of duplication. Dr. Kraven discovered he couldn’t do what he wanted.”
“Which was what, exactly?” White asked literally at the edge of his seat.
“Create super soldier shape shifters. An army of them.”
Scarlet found his voice first. “Colonel! The Mysteron threat.”
“Yes, Captain. I see the connection now.” White rose from his chair. “Miss Piper, I want you to rest. Dr. Topaz will see to your recovery. Meanwhile, food will be brought to you. As I said, you’re under our protection. On Cloudbase, you’re safe. No one here has any plans to vivisect you or otherwise.”
Though Scarlet knew the colonel was attempting to alleviate the palpable tension in the room, Piper didn’t seem to find the joke. “Thank you, Colonel White,” she answered. Her tired eyes were still rimmed in trepidation.
White turned toward the exit but stalled at the door. “Oh, and Miss Piper? Please refrain from any further escape attempts. I wouldn’t want any of my personnel to be harmed either.”
Standing at the foot of the bed, Captain Scarlet watched the woman cringe against the news. Her fate was still uncertain and she knew it. Security was soon doubled at the door.
For his part, Scarlet shared an impassioned glance her way, though he noticed she would not meet his eyes. He followed his superior from the room.
“Colonel,” he called trotting to catch up to the man just entering the lift back to the control room. “Sir,” he began once he’d slid inside. The arching doors sealed them in together. “If she’s telling the truth, we have to keep her here. Cloudbase is the most secure and inaccessible fortress on Earth.”
“Curious how you’ve switched sides so swiftly, Scarlet,” White observed with obvious irony. “Is it from a sense of guilt, having twice brought her near death?”
Scarlet’s eyes dipped shut briefly to the discomfort of his former stance. “I didn’t understand my own apprehension then. There’s something about her, Colonel. Her abilities are powerful. Such power can be made evil if not tempered.”
“Much like yourself.”
Scarlet scowled. “Sir?”
White sighed into the air between them as the lift deposited the pair onto the command deck. The colonel stepped out. His subordinate followed. “Captain Scarlet, your unique abilities have proven indispensable in our fight against the Mysterons.” He stopped his advance toward his desk to raise a poignant finger. “But … you were created to destroy us.” With a tilt of his chin he elaborated: “We all have the potential for good, and the penchant for evil. You, Captain, have chosen to save lives. It would seem Miss Piper has done the same.”
“You believe her. Her story.”
White’s silver brow rose to the challenge. “I believe she is truly frightened that we will disregard her human rights and use her for some ungodly purpose. That in itself signifies her sincerity.” He strode forward to take a stance behind his command dais. “Lieutenant Green. I need you to contact Spectrum Geneva’s Maximum Security Building. Tell them we have a special envoy arriving, a VIP who needs their direct protection.”
Scarlet stepped up to his commander’s desk. “Sir. You’re not keeping her here?”
The colonel swung wise eyes to his compatriot. “Captain Scarlet. I’m putting you, Blue and Captain Grey in charge of Miss Piper’s safety. I see no better hands in which to entrust her life and her special skills.”
“But why Geneva, Sir? Why not London?”
Now White sank into his chair and eyed his officer with a creased brow. “Since when have you questioned my command decisions, Captain?”
In Scarlet’s gut, that urgency was back, this time to keep the woman close rather than cast her aside. “You implied that we could offer her a chance to serve Spectrum. Hiding her away for the duration of the Mysteron threat would waste precious time to learn from her.”
“You too wish to study her condition? Wouldn’t that make us as manipulative as this Dr. Kraven of whom she spoke?”
Scarlet huffed away his sudden apprehension. “I don’t want to discard her, Sir. But if we shuffle her back into civilian life, we’re losing an opportunity, another weapon against the Mysterons. Not an army, Colonel, but one very talented woman.”
The colonel’s lips twisted at the thought. “A new asset. You wish to give her the opportunity to join Spectrum.” Spectrum’s commander nodded. “I do as well, but only if it were her wish. At the moment she seems disinclined.” White straightened his spine before his officer. “We here are not in the business of drafting our personnel, Captain. Our officers are chosen from the finest service organizations around the globe.”
“Yes, Sir,” Scarlet huffed, feeling his lungs constrict, his heart race. “I agree she would need combat training, weapons instruction.” His gaze lost focus on his superior. “All manner of disciplinary tutelage.”
“You wish to tutor her yourself-”
“No, Sir. I want -” His hand rose to his suddenly teetering head. “I need her safe. Here.”
“Well, Captain. Wishes don’t always come true. Your orders stand.”
Scarlet gripped the desk before him leaning against it for stability. Panic gripped his shoulders; an arctic chill seized his spine, his legs. “SIG, Colonel.”
“Scarlet, are you all right?”
“No, Sir. I -” Darkness attacked his eyes and his body dropped to the deck in a lump.
Taken to Task
Captain Scarlet awoke in his cabin, in bed. A glimpse about him showed that he was clothed in a nightshirt and pants, his feet bare of his uniform boots. “How?” Memory fuzzy, he sat up to find his head still ached from his concussion with the control room floor. Why was he not in sickbay? He eyed the dim room around him. “Lights, sixty percent,” he ordered. The internal illumination rose accordingly. He next tossed his legs over the side of his bed and stood, conscious of the light-headed mist still within his brain. “I really must steer clear of that Scotch whiskey,” he groaned shaking his skull free of the remnants of his most recent bout. Yes, his retrometabolism had swiftly healed him of any detrimental effects of his swoon.
The captain redressed in his uniform and was striding to the medical lab in the next minutes. He found Dr. Fawn on duty, but their special patient absent. “Where’s the woman, Doctor?”
Fawn spun in his desk chair to consider the captain’s demand. “You mean Miss Piper?”
“Of course, damn it. Where is she? Has she been sent on to Geneva already?”
“Captain Scarlet,” Fawn advised rising from his chair to confront the agitated officer. “You’ve lately been suffering from some form of vertigo. Dr. Topaz told me you nearly fainted on her a few hours ago.”
“I’m fine. Completely rational. Tip top.”
Reservedly Fawn lowered his chin to disagree. “You’ve been put on temporary medical leave until we can figure out what’s affecting you.” He waved toward the medical beds. “Now I know you don’t want me confining you to sickbay. That’s why I sent you to your quarters. However, if you’re going to be uncooperative, I will keep you here.”
Huffily, Scarlet growled, “What are my restrictions?”
“You’re to remain on Cloudbase. No off-base assignments until we can discern this malady. Sorry, Captain, but you’ve been grounded, by order of Colonel White himself.”
“Impossible. He ordered me to accompany Miss Piper to Spectrum Geneva.”
Another shake of Fawn’s dark head. “I believe she’ll be disembarking shortly with Captains Blue and Grey. They’ll be in charge of her safety.”
“No,” Scarlet nearly whined. His boots were moving before he realized he had exited the sickbay. As if on autopilot, the captain marched to the hangar bay. He found an SPJ missing from the parked fleet. “No.”
A few strides brought him to a wall intercom. “Scarlet to Colonel White. I request an update on Miss Piper. I’m … concerned.”
“I’m sorry, Captain Scarlet,” Lieutenant Green answered from the control room. “The colonel is in attendance within the promenade arboretum, a special demonstration.”
“SIG.” In the next breath, Scarlet was jogging to the lift and ascending to the promenade deck just below Cloudbase’s command bridge. As he exited and ran the final few meters to the access door, Scarlet slowed to enter. The door obediently slid aside. Once among the trees and tropical flower displays, Scarlet immediately sighted the feathered form of a large predatory bird. Its broad wing-beats took it up against the high glass panels of the arboretum’s vaulted ceiling. “Great space!” Stepping forward, Scarlet’s gaze never deviated from the avian flight path. So guided by the bird’s soaring course, he soon found Colonel White and Captains Blue and Grey upon the garden path, engrossed in the enclosed aerial display. “Colonel. What’s going on?”
“Paul,” Blue breathed. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Scarlet scrutinized the bird’s flight pattern. “She volunteered a demonstration?”
“Extraordinary, Captain,” White offered. “I saw it for my own eyes, her transformation.”
“Have you ever seen the like?” Grey crooned, enthralled by Piper’s sudden midair acrobatics. The tawny eagle flipped over, talons extended to scrape glass, the screeching contact much like the squeal of fingernails across a chalkboard. Scarlet cringed at the amplified noise. Then the bird regained its stance, twisting in midflight to grab a ceiling brace. With a flap of wings and span of tail, it swung like a monkey from the horizontal pole before launching itself toward another lofty pane. The concussion of hard keratin beak rang like a tiny bell about the promenade.
“She’s testing the integrity of the ceiling panels,” Scarlet realized, his hips bracing for a surge forward. “She’s going to break free. At this altitude -” Scarlet never finished his warning. With a burst of adrenaline, he was racing toward the eagle, gun drawn and prepared to fire.
“Scarlet. No!” White rebuked.
As the captain slid to within a near vertical space of her, he implored, “Miss Piper! If you break the glass, we’re all dead. Do you really want that?” To reinforce his intent, Scarlet raised his firearm to aim. “You already know I’m a good shot.”
From the sun-warmed ceiling, golden-green eyes glared down upon him. The eagle screeched its tinny alarm. Piper pivoted among the steel crossbeams and descended for a noiseless landing beside the Spectrum captain. His weapon still at the ready, the Briton lowered its muzzle to avoid an accidental shot. Before his steely gaze the bird grew in height and straightened, de-feathered, to the naked form of the woman. “You’re a survivalist too, I see, Captain Scarlet.” Colonel White was beside her next, a terry robe to enshroud her form. Piper shrugged into the garment and with saddened eyes nodded her thanks to the commanding officer. “I know I can’t escape, not without getting myself hurt or injuring another. I concede defeat, Captain. I hope you’re satisfied.”
“I really wish I could believe you, Miss Piper,” Scarlet cautioned his pistol still poised within his grip. “But your survivalist instincts will no doubt continue to look for avenues of escape.” His blue gaze pivoted to his commanding officer. “Colonel, she needs our protection. That is certain. Here, she can’t slip away from us. We can’t protect what we can’t find.”
“Exactly, Captain,” White agreed soberly. “That’s why I’ve decided to keep her on Cloudbase, for the interim. Miss Piper’s also agreed to be implanted with a tracking device. From now on we can locate her when the need arises.”
“This sounds like a long term contract, Colonel,” Scarlet observed. “Are we offering Miss Piper sanctuary?”
“Precisely,” Blue chimed in with an affable smack to his partner’s shoulder.
Grudgingly, Scarlet re-holstered his sidearm. “Bloody close.” His eyes rose to the terry-wrapped woman. “I could have shot you.”
A slim smile traced Piper’s lips. “Adam told me you’re a reasonable man. You’d only shoot to injure, and only if I didn’t concede. Besides, that glass canopy’s two inches thick.”
“You believed him?”
Piper nodded and lifted her now healed arm to slide it through Blue’s offered elbow. “He has kind eyes and a gentle smile. Who wouldn’t believe him?”
Scarlet shot his friend a sarcastic brow. “What about Symphony?”
Adam patted Piper’s hand atop his forearm. “Not to worry, buddy. I’m a true gentleman.”
Blue chuckled then turned serious. “Hey, I heard about another spell of vertigo. You OK?”
“Right as rain, Captain,” Scarlet assured and followed the entourage back into the corridor. “Orders, Colonel?”
“Yours, Scarlet? A trip to sickbay with Miss Piper here. For her minor surgery.”
Captain Scarlet slowed his advance; in discomfort he cleared his throat. “Before that, Sir, I feel I must apologize for my recent insubordination. Instincts have been at the forefront of my actions lately. My professionalism’s left much to be desired.”
“Yes, Captain,” White agreed with a thin frown. “Very unbecoming a Spectrum officer. However, you have been under undue pressure as of late.” With a challenging chin rise the colonel offered a solution. “You can repay your impulsiveness with refocused dedication to the protection of Miss Piper. The Mysterons have not offered us a timetable for this new threat. For the present, we will proceed with utmost caution.”
“SIG,” Blue, Grey and Scarlet all echoed together.
With that, Colonel White departed, back to his commanding enclave in the clouds. That left the three captains standing awkwardly beside their talented and still mysterious charge. “I must admit,” Blue began for them all, “I have a million questions, Ehlora. Your life must be as fascinating as it’s been challenging for you.”
“Yes,” Grey agreed. “You must have thousands of stories and adventures.”
Ehlora Piper glanced betwixt the trio of colorful uniforms. “Honestly, I never felt I was especially heroic. My adventures, as you call them, Captain Grey, have more often been a matter of pure luck and a quick retreat.”
“Luck?” Scarlet inquired leading them to the returned lift, for their trek down to Medical.
As they stepped inside together, Ehlora blushed, no doubt at the forced closeness of the three men in the relatively slim tube. “Being in the right place at the right moment. Especially once Luke and Jed teamed up with me.”
“More shape shifters?” Grey asked his hazel-gray orbs as wide as jumbo eggs.
To this Ehlora hiccupped then grinned. “Heavens, no. Their specialty was getting me out of harm’s way after I’d performed some quick-change miracle.”
“I was right,” Grey snapped with a self-satisfied smirk. “Great stories.” Now Grey stepped from the lift but turned and stomped to a halt. “Miss Piper, may I offer you an early dinner? I’d love to hear some of your war stories.”
“War stories?” Ehlora spat back, her levity visibly cooling to contempt as she too exited the lift. “I’m not a military officer, Captain Grey. I don’t kill people. I try to help them.”
“Besides, Brad,” Blue defended once more at the woman’s shoulder, “Miss Piper isn’t dressed for dinner.”
Standing in nothing but her terry robe, Ehlora Piper darkened another shade of red. “You’re toying with me. In my current state of undress, it’s hardly gentlemanly.”
Scarlet, watching the teasing wordplay between his two friends, felt his cheeks steam. They were wasting precious time. “Miss Piper, we really need to get you to sickbay. Surely all this has been wearying for you.”
“You’re right, Captain Scarlet,” she admitted, her cheery eyes dulling to show her true exhaustion. “You might not realize, but consciously maintaining another form besides my own takes great concentration and expends a lot of energy. To speak nothing of healing wounds and broken bones. ” She sighed and blinked against the shared looks of concern. “I’m more than ready for a good night’s sleep. And I’d be grateful for another chance to lie in a warm, soft bed.”
Blue’s gaze sharpened to genuine unease. “Why? Where do you normally sleep?”
With a weary smile Ehlora admitted, “You’d be surprised, Adam, some of the spots I’ve curled my body to rest.”
“In your journeys,” Scarlet surmised, “I can imagine you’ve taken refuge wherever you found calm silence and a lack of prying eyes.”
“Yes,” she consented with a dip of refined chin. “And, as you guessed, I don’t carry a suitcase with me.” With a gesture toward her terry robe she added, “I’m ashamed to admit I’ve stolen more than my share of clothes.”
The men fell silent at this sobering confession. “Then can I instead invite you to breakfast in the morning?” Grey offered again.
Tiredly Ehlora nodded. “Well, you are my protectors, according to the good colonel. I suppose I really have no choice but your company.” Her gold-green eyes shifted between the three of them. “So, which one of you gets first watch tonight?”
“The colonel assigned me to you first,” Blue spoke up. “Dr. Topaz will want to monitor your sleep as well, at least for the first night.” He shrugged. “I suppose to determine … how you do it.”
“I sleep as well as most people.” Ehlora released a sudden and apologetic yawn. “I’ve learned to leave one ear open, as some say. It’s been a challenge, I assure you.”
“We’ll give you your privacy, Miss Piper,” Scarlet reassured with a slight bow. “But with a Mysteron threat for a new and dangerous army, Spectrum won’t take any chances with your life. It makes the most sense for me to provide for your security.”
Now Piper’s gaze shrank suspicious. It was obvious she trusted him the least of all three. Scarlet really couldn’t begrudge her caution. He had repeatedly drawn his weapon on her. “If you must.”
With their next course of action decided, the foursome proceeded to Dr. Fawn’s domain and a private medical suite, dimmed and softened with curtains and gentle colors. Ehlora Piper’s mouth dropped at the opulence. “Now this is far better than any hayloft or leaf pile I’ve ever been in.”
“Leaf pile?” Grey sputtered.
Scarlet watched Piper return the man’s shock with a gentle smile. “Surprisingly warm on chilly autumn nights, Captain. You should try it sometime.”
Dr. Topaz stepped into the room then, her arms wide to herd the men away. “Now, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse us? We women have some private issues to discuss.” Her fresh lab coat was blatantly juxtaposed against the muted tones of the medical guest suite.
Blue caught Piper’s gaze before leaving. “I’ll be right outside if you need anything.”
With a dip of tired lids Ehlora answered, “Thank you, Adam. Good night.”
In the next moment, the trio of Spectrum captains were together in the corridor, minds concertedly whirling with the day’s events. “Now I know I’m not going to sleep,” Blue promised. “I would have never, in a thousand dreams, expected to witness the existence of a genuine shape shifter. I thought they were a myth: supernatural, spiritual manifestations.”
“I wonder how many different things she can become,” Grey offered. “I mean, can she change size too?”
“I’d imagine,” Scarlet postulated, “that she’d be confined to forms nearly her body mass. Nothing accountably larger or smaller.”
“That would make sense,” Blue breathed. “Astounding. Really. I’m speechless.”
“Good, Adam, because I doubt she’ll get any sleep with you nattering on out here.” With a teasing smirk, Scarlet dipped his cap and offered, “Night.” He next strode off to his own cabin for a few hours’ rest himself. For the moment, his eerie sense of peril had eased. Perhaps, all would indeed be well with the woman as long as she stayed within the safe confines of Spectrum’s Cloudbase.
Finding Your Way
The sun rose swiftly at such a high altitude. The curvature of the Earth below Cloudbase could be discerned, an arching mantle of blue, green and brown. Ehlora admired the view out her thick window and smiled. “My favorite colors.”
“Did you mean me?” Captain Blue inquired from just beyond the suite’s door. He stood there, ever dapper in his color-coordinated cap, vest and boots, hands behind his back. “Excuse the interruption, Miss Piper, but I’ve come to escort you to breakfast.”
Ehlora slid from the window seat and nodded her good morning. Awkwardly she next tugged at the two-piece jumper provided for her. “You know, I’m really not used to wearing so much clothing. I know it sounds downright Neanderthalish, but it’s true. The less on, the fewer garments I have to toss off or ruin.”
“Well, Miss Piper,” Blue stammered, no doubt at the turn of subject, “in any case, you look refreshed and in good spirits.”
“A warm bath and womanly attentions do wonders for the soul, yes.” Ehlora brushed tawny hair back from her eyes and waggled a finger at him in contradiction. “On the other hand, a cat is very good at hiding its illness. Otherwise stronger predators would take advantage.”
Blue’s vibrant eyes dulled, downtrodden. “You still don’t trust us.”
Ehlora raised a steadfast chin. “I can’t afford to trust, Captain.” She strode to stand before him. “My personal history’s been a rather convoluted trial of mistakes and losses, I’m afraid. It took time, but to survive, I’ve learned to hold off on trust.”
Chin dipped in visible sorrow, Blue shook his blonde head. “I’m sorry, Ehlora. I truly am that you’ve become so cynical. The Mysterons give us a good fight; but for the safety of the Earth, we Spectrum members work together.” He shrugged. “We have to trust each other for the good of all.” Possibly to counter the sobering mood, he raised his chin to grin at her. “On the other hand, we have some of the best chefs here on Cloudbase. I can promise you a wonderful breakfast.”
Ehlora smiled at the man’s perpetual cheerfulness. “Will my other soldiers of fortune be in attendance?”
Blue nodded. “Of course. Your safety is also of the utmost importance to us.” He waved an arm toward the door. “Care to join us?”
With a diminutive nod, Ehlora kept pace with the captain, allowing him to guide her to the galley, on deck with other personnel comforts. “This place is like a floating cruise ship,” she observed, noticing the swaying gazes as she passed other Spectrum staff. “All amenities thought of.”
“We have our share of perks,” Blue admitted with a stifled yawn.
“Didn’t you get much sleep, Captain?”
“Actually, I just got off from the Room of Sleep. We all took turns last night. I just need some coffee for a jump start.”
“My personal guardian,” Ehlora posed. “I suppose I should be grateful. I thought I’d been found by Kraven’s men. Instead you found me.”
“Yes.” They turned into the open space of Cloudbase’s main galley. Inside a collection of circular tables were centered on a bank of cafeteria-styled serving platforms, all laid out with a display of breakfast items and assorted utensils. At present, the room was half-filled with personnel, all availing themselves of the aromatic fare.
“My word.” As Ehlora entered beside Blue, two uniformed men stood from a nearby table to greet them. Their colored kepis perched astride the chair-back finials, at the ready. Ehlora watched the pair approach, aware that their service pistols were also perpetually at their hips. “Always on duty, I see.”
Grey must have understood the comment, for he placed a hand atop his holster. “We never know when we might be called away. We’re a world security force, Miss Piper, but we’re also just like you, trying to make a difference for others. Welcome.”
Ehlora dipped her head at the greeting. “Good morning.” Blue, Grey and Scarlet led her back to their table where Scarlet held out a free chair for her. “Thank you, Captain.”
“You’re welcome, Miss Piper. I hope you’ve slept well.” When she nodded briefly to him Ehlora noticed Scarlet’s vivid blue eyes were longing to say more.
“Yes, Captain. I did. It was very refreshing.”
“Would you like some coffee?” Grey offered still on his boots. The three officers were soon presenting her with a variety of food choices. There was no reason for a growling, empty stomach by the time they were done serving her. Still, she noticed that of the three Spectrum captains, Scarlet was the most subdued.
Setting her napkin once more atop the table she sighed at the fullness of her stomach. “Well, you all must have your share of stories. I suppose, I’m going to have to start us off.” She raised her gaze toward Blue first. “That is, Captain, if we’re all going to learn to trust one another.”
“Yes, of course,” Blue chimed in, his cheeks darkening at the previous reference.
She nodded at his agreement. “I know you all have questions. Who’s to start?”
“Who’s Luke?” Grey spouted. He flinched at his own question as if it had been presumptuous.
“He was my boyfriend. More than that, actually. The one man I could truly be open with.” Her eyes drifted between Blue and Grey. Scarlet seemed preoccupied with his near-empty plate. “Luke and his brother Jedidiah found me some five years ago. I’d been injured by a harpoon, stranded on a Maine beach.”
“A harpoon?” Grey stammered. “Someone tried to kill you?”
“I was a whale at the time, Captain. I guess I wandered too close to a fishing boat. The ship captain thought I was after his catch. I’m not sure. Anyway, the harpoon was imbedded in my tail, near my spine. I couldn’t change back, not sure where the shaft would end up in my human form. I was dying.”
“Dying?” Scarlet barked. “You can die?”
The sudden intensity of the query made Ehlora blink. “Can’t we all?” She swallowed at the hard glare from the dark-haired officer. “I can be injured, and I can recover quickly, but it drains me.” Ehlora shrugged. “I’ve never been so wounded that I’ve died. I’ve come close. I don’t wish to repeat the performance, I assure you.”
Blue cleared his throat. “Forgive my friend, Ehlora. Scarlet has a long and complicated story of his own. Right now, we’re fascinated by your abilities. Just how do you do it?”
Green eyes shifting about her small audience, Ehlora blushed at their captivated attention. “I put my mind to it. It’s really no more complicated than that. I’ve had a lot of practice.”
Grey spoke up next. “How many different shapes can you take?”
“Not sure,” Ehlora contended with a twisting of thoughtful lips. “I guess I’ve fallen into a rut with some familiar ones, the forms I’m most comfortable with.”
“Like the eagle,” Scarlet posed, his voice subdued now, almost apologetic from his former outburst.
“Yes. And the jaguar. They’re the forms I most often use to get around and help others.”
“What was your most unusual?” Grey asked, his hands unconsciously kneading his coffee mug.
Ehlora bowed her head against the truth. “It’s all very improbable, Captain Grey, but I was a dragon once. It seemed the only form to use to achieve the needed outcome.”
“A dragon?” Blue blurted. “Why a dragon?”
Ehlora considered the rapt attentions of Blue and Grey. “There was a boy, once, who was being bullied at a park. I was there, sitting in a car, totally unobtrusive; but the kids wouldn’t leave him alone. I was so angry at the injustice I slinked behind a tree and contemplated the most frightening form I could think of. Then, I just was. I surprised even myself at the time. Winged, fire-breathing and everything.”
From the far side of Blue, Captain Scarlet was shaking his bowed head. “Most unlikely.”
“Unlikely?” Ehlora countered, rising to her feet. “What do you know about my abilities, Captain? All I’ve seen from you is hostility, fear and skepticism. You don’t know me. You have no idea what I’ve been through.”
In his defense, Scarlet too climbed to his boots. “Miss Piper, to me you are an unlikely, illogical anomaly, something to be questioned and researched. I barely know what my purpose in life is, much less your part in it.” With a shove of his chair, Scarlet snatched up his cap and circumvented the table. With a brusque, “If you’ll excuse me,” he marched from the galley, his back as stiff as a mahogany plank.
Standing beside Blue, Ehlora huffed against the palpable unrest present in the room. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-”
Blue shoved his chair back to stand beside her. “Ehlora, don’t apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong.” His solid hand was about her shoulder. “Paul’s got a lot on his mind right now. I guess he’s not as good a juggler as he thought.”
“The Mars mission?” Grey inquired, setting down his coffee mug and standing as well.
Blue nodded once. “I think he and the colonel have a quandary on their hands, something to do with the Mysterons, and no clear answers.”
“Well, then, I suppose we give Scarlet his space.” Grey sighed and dropped his napkin beside his finished plate. “So. Who’s up for the grand tour?”
Ehlora caught the man’s gleaming hazel-gray eye. “You mean around this base?”
Grey took up his cap, bowed his head and swept back his arm in a grand gesture. “Your wish is my command, Mademoiselle.”
Despite the tension of a moment before, Ehlora allowed a pleased giggle to tickle her tongue. “I’d love a grand tour.” As Grey adjusted his kepi atop his head, she purposely allowed a teasing glint to rim her golden-green eyes. “It’ll give me a chance to scope out all the emergency exits.”
Blue must not have seen the humor in her implied escape. “The Mysterons would love to get their non-corporeal fingers on you, Miss Piper. It’s our job to keep you safe.” He shook his blonde head. “I really hope you’ll heed our caution. You have no idea what measures they’re capable of.”
“Then I think it only fair that you educate me, Captain Blue,” Ehlora countered. “If these Mysterons are as relentless as Kraven, then I need to know everything.” She shrugged her arms wide in gesture. “My life has been in jeopardy for a long time. Only by the grace of God am I still here.”
“Ehlora,” Grey posed with a somber tone, “we know you treasure your freedom. And we’re sorry if you perceive us as holding you here. We also believe that for the time being, you’re safest with us.”
Blue nodded and added, “You’re not our prisoner, by any means, Ehlora. But you are in very grave danger.”
“And Scarlet’s in charge?” Ehlora challenged with a thumb poke toward the exit. She considered her two guardians. “I think I’d sooner meet the Mysterons and bide my chances with them. Perhaps I can reason with them.”
“Not likely,” Blue conceded retrieving his own cap from the seat back. He twirled its rim between his hands before explaining, “Since you’re not Spectrum, we can only tell you so much.”
“You have to understand, Miss Piper,” Grey reasoned coming to stand by her side as well. “We believe you were either bait of some kind or it was by pure happenstance that we found you. In either case, we’re glad we found you before Kraven or the Mysterons did.”
“Why were you in that house anyway?” Blue pursued, all serious once more. “And what was with those crazed birds? Were they protecting you?”
Ehlora lowered her gaze to her booted feet. “I know you have a lot of questions. I’d feel better answering these if I could just see the sky again.” Her own eyes glazing with melancholy at her limited options, she considered the kind gaze of Blue. “Could we start our tour in that grand arboretum you showed me yesterday?”
“No escapes, right?”
Dipping her eyes, a slim smile pressed across Ehlora’s lips. “Promise.”
“Come on, then. I believe we have a while before Topaz has you in for that implant.”
Meal complete, the trio exited the galley. A short walk and lift ride brought them to the open promenade of trees, flowers and cloud-painted sky beyond the thick, protective glass. Ehlora strode forward to find a spot that best resembled the confines of a shaded glen. “This is where I feel safe,” she explained when her captains exchanged quizzical looks. With a smile and closing of eyes Ehlora lifted her face to the sky. It wasn’t the same, however. “I can’t feel the sun,” she admitted her smile falling flat. “The breeze is gone. The birds are silent.” She opened her eyes again and frowned. “It’s not the same here. It’s still a prison.”
“You really loath confinement that much?” Grey posed.
Ehlora contemplated her words. How could she make them understand? “My only sanctuaries have been open spaces, away from people and their questions, Captain.” She pivoted a shoulder to face him. “You don’t know the uncertainties out there, the fear and distrust. The avarice and jealousy. I can only truly be one of you if I deny who I really am.” She sighed and pivoted toward the other Spectrum officer. “I’m a creature of nature, Adam. I have to be free or I’ll wither and die.” She visibly shivered. “I can feel it even now. Like being shut up in a black box with only walls. It’s a horrible insanity.”
“Like being claustrophobic,” Grey offered. “You need to feel the Earth beneath your feet, the wind in your hair.”
“Exactly, Captain,” Ehlora answered in relief. “Thank you for understanding.”
“Bradley,” Grey offered next. “In private you can call me Brad.”
Another nod of agreement and Ehlora fell silent once more. After a few more moments of contemplation she offered, “You wanted to know why I was in that house.”
“Yes,” Blue acknowledged. “And about the birds.”
“Well, it’s a bit hard to explain, but sometimes, when I’m in danger, the animals can sense it and they come to help. It’s all I can say. They rally around me, like a chaotic storm. I was hiding, exhausted, in pain and grieving.” Ehlora felt her throat constricting again. Her lungs were reluctant to express the truth. “Luke and Jed are dead. I miss them so much. It’s because of me that Kraven had them killed.”
“Now wait a minute here,” Blue cautioned with a hand upon her jumper sleeve. “You’re saying that this Dr. Kraven had your friends murdered?”
Tears were welling in her eyes now. She couldn’t see her Spectrum guardians except through a watery wash of sorrow. “I’m sure of it. He couldn’t keep me, so he made sure I’d never have them again. I’m alone. Again.”
“No, Miss Piper,” Grey assured. “You’re never alone. We’re here, and we’ll be your friends.”
“No better friends than us,” Blue added with a half-tilted grin and twist of head. “Faithful and kind to the end.”
The attempt worked. Ehlora chuckled through her tears. “End of the yellow-brick road? I suppose you two’re the Tin Man and Scarecrow.” She harrumphed in irony. “That makes me either Dorothy or Toto.”
Grey grinned widely. “Oh, never Toto! Even with your furry guise. Lady Ehlora of Spectrum-Oz, to be sure.”
“And your friend; Scarlet?”
Blue contorted his mouth to consider it. “I guess Paul’s the lion, but cowardly isn’t in his fiber. He’s the bravest and most selfless man I’ve ever known.”
Ehlora saw the honesty in Blue’s conviction. “I guess I should have given him a kinder reply. He was only doing his duty, as the colonel said.”
“Miss Piper,” Grey assured. “You can trust Scarlet with your life, your soul, your very breath. He’ll die for you.”
“And live, and die…” The two captains shared a chuckle. Blue continued, “Scarlet’s preoccupied right now. The Mysterons have shared some information with him and I guess he’s still digesting it all. We’ll know for sure once he’s worked it out in his head.”
“And am I a part of this puzzle?” An emptiness widened in Ehlora’s stomach that had little to do with her recent meal. “I don’t mean to be trouble. I don’t want you putting yourselves at risk for me. That’s what killed Luke and Jed.”
“Protecting others is our job, Ehlora,” Blue counseled. “We’re used to risking our lives, and we know how to be cautious. The more we know about this Dr. Kraven, the better we can protect you.”
“And these Mysterons? Don’t you think I should know all I can about them?”
In the resultant silence, Blue and Grey exchanged knowing glances. It was Grey who offered this promise: “When the colonel is ready, he’ll give you everything you need to avoid them. Just know that the Mysterons are more powerful and unpredictable than your mad scientist. We have to be careful. It’s the only way to protect you and the Earth from what they’d do. …Use you to harm us.”
“I don’t fully understand. A group of people who even Spectrum is afraid of? This terrorist organization must be very powerful.”
“You have no idea,” Blue mused. The man’s eyes were creased in genuine concern.
“Then I guess I should be grateful that you two are so brave.” The effort elicited the needed response. Blue and Grey both grinned and exhaled tensed breaths.
“How about we continue our tour?” Grey asked. “Where to next?”
“Well, do you all have any fun up here in this monolith of a carrier?”
“The Relaxabay it is then.” Blue swung an arm toward the promenade’s exit. The trio recommenced their excursion. Ehlora was soon to know that Cloudbase’s recreational facility included billiard tables, a fully equipped exercise gym, tennis and squash courts, chess tables and an assortment of other playful pastimes.
But when they came upon the base’s large Olympic-sized saltwater pool, Ehlora paused and grinned mischievously. “Anyone up for a swim?”
“You’re kidding right?” Blue harangued. “Technically, we’re on duty.”
“Can’t you be on duty and wet at the same time?”
Grey shook his head. “We’re due in on the control deck in a half hour, Miss Piper. The colonel wants an update and he’s called a conference.”
“Then when do you have any fun?”
“When we’re not on duty,” Blue informed.
“Do I have to make an appointment to swim, then?”
“We’ll talk about it later.”
“Hey!” a new voice called from the far side of the pool. “You guys up for a friendly swim meet?”
Ehlora turned toward the proposition to see a dark-haired man finish his climb to the top of the pool’s high diving board. His swim trunks were color-coded in a purplish hue. “Who’s that?”
“That’s Captain Magenta,” Grey informed. “He’s our resident enthusiast and one of our fellow officers.” Grey pivoted to his compatriot. “Patrick, now’s not the time. Sorry.”
With a wide grin Patrick strode to the end of the board. “Then judge me on my triple back flip. I’ve been practicing.”
Blue sighed beside Ehlora and waved an arm to their friend. “Come on, Pat. Save it for later. We’re just leaving.” He considered their shorter guest. “I think he just wants to show off his form.” The three turned to depart. As they stepped toward the pool’s exit, however, a great crack and splash issued from behind them.
Ehlora spun back to see what had happened to Magenta. The water within the pool was bucking, washing over the edges. A dark form floated just beneath the surface, sinking. Squinting at the object, Ehlora discerned a darkened stain flowing from it. “No,” she groaned. Instantly, Ehlora was peeling the jumper and boots from her body. A ripping of seams and her form was streamlined and legless. Arching into the water, Ehlora gasped a breath through her blowhole and dove toward the pool’s bottom. In her rush to transform, she was unaware of her companions’ awe at the sight of a dolphin swimming within the saltwater confines of Cloudbase’s high-altitude pool.
With a shove of her rostrum Ehlora positioned the motionless and prone Magenta atop her back and pumped her flukes to return to the surface. Another splash informed her that a second body had entered the water. A quick sonar blast told her it was Grey.
“Ehlora, bring him over here,” Grey hollered above the water line. “Help’s coming.”
Carefully, so that her victim didn’t slide from her smooth back, Ehlora shifted her head from side to side, keeping Magenta centered against her arching dorsal fin. Pumping forward, she neared the stroking form of Grey, who held out an arm to flip the unconscious victim onto his back. With another breath from her blowhole, Ehlora helped Grey guide Magenta to the pool’s edge. From there, Blue hauled the man out onto the deck as Grey heaved himself out beside them.
With a conscious thought to relax her altered self, Ehlora too was treading water. “Is he all right?” she called over the splashing of her arms and tossing of drenched hair. “He’s bleeding from his head.”
Grey twisted to consider her naked form in the water. “He’s got a deep gash. Must have hit his head on the diving board.”
“Medical’s on its way,” Blue announced, helping to lay their friend out on his back. “He’s breathing.”
“Patrick. Can you hear me?” Grey inquired kneeling beside his soggy friend. “You idiot. What were you thinking?”
From the floor, Patrick groaned then sputtered water. “Did I do it?”
“Do what?” Blue demanded handing Grey a towel to staunch the man’s bloody head.
“Did I make three flips?”
Ehlora, having paddled to their side, grabbed the rolled edge of the pool and grinned over its rim. “You made a big splash, Captain Magenta,” she announced kicking in place. “I was impressed.”
Magenta’s rolling eyes swerved her way. In his pain and disorientation he grinned widely. “Pretty lady. I’d flip over you anytime.”
“He’ll be all right,” Blue assured. “Not that it’ll help his intellect any.” The captain addressed their injured comrade, “You conked your thick skull on the diving board, Patrick. Ehlora here saved your skinny hide.”
Though still woozy from his ordeal, Magenta rolled his shoulder to better face his rescuer. “Thank you, pretty lady.”
“Don’t mention it.” She considered her cohorts in the rescue. “Do either of you have another towel?”
Sitting up awkwardly in Grey’s supportive arms, Magenta glanced her way and must have realized Ehlora’s situation. “Are we skinny-dipping now? Does the colonel know?”
Blue harrumphed loudly and stood to reach for a second towel. “I’ll explain later. You haven’t had an opportunity to meet our newest guest onboard.” Stepping to the pool’s edge, Blue splayed open the towel width-wise to allow Ehlora the obscurity to splash from the pool and wrap its length about her torso. “Patrick, this is Ehlora Piper. Miss Piper, Captain Magenta.”
Tucking the towel’s corner securely into her bust line Ehlora smiled down at the reposed officer. “It’s nice to meet you. Thanks for the dip.”
“Thank you for the trip. You must be a very strong swimmer to bring me that far across the pool.” Magenta was scrutinizing his other companion. “Bradley, where’re your swim trunks?”
Smiling, Grey swiped his dripping hair away from his forehead. “I didn’t have time to change. Maybe next time.” They all paused to see the arrival of a pair of med-techs guiding a wheeled stretcher. The techs rolled it over to Magenta’s side. Climbing to his feet Grey squished his boots aside to make room. “He’s got a nice gash, Grayson,” he told the nurse. “See to it that Pat’s brains stay intact. He needs all he has.”
“Funny, Brad,” Magenta groaned as he was helped to his feet and onto the stretcher. “I’ll remember that next time you put on a wetsuit and go swimming with the real sharks.”
Through their chuckles Ehlora saw that the Spectrum captains’ following gazes were truly concerned for their injured friend. “I hope he’ll be all right,” she posed as the stretcher was wheeled away.
Beside her the drenched Captain Grey shook more water from his head and bent to retrieve his abandoned cap from the concrete deck. “He’s an eager one, really.” His hazel-gray gaze shifted to Ehlora’s slender form beneath the towel. “He’s a good officer. A lot of potential there, if still a tad green.” With the wadded and bloodied towel from Magenta, Grey gently wiped the dripping water from her hunched shoulders. “That was extraordinary, young lady. Are you OK?”
“Cold,” Ehlora offered with a shiver. “Dry clothes would be appreciated.”
“Of course,” Blue stammered. He handed her another towel for her wet head. “We’ll get you to a dressing room.” She watched him snatch up her pile of discarded apparel. “Maybe something less complicated this time.”
Ehlora laughed at Blue’s blushing awkwardness. “A sundress and sandals would be fine, Adam. I told you; I’m not used to such confinement.” They headed for the pool’s dressing room. A quick intercom call from Blue brought a new delivery of clothes, this time a simple sweater dress and pull-on moccasin-styled boots. “Nice,” Ehlora chimed in as the tall, blonde man handed them over. She tiptoed up to briefly kiss his cheek. “Thanks, Adam.” With another awkward blush from her guardian, Ehlora stepped into a dressing stall to finish drying herself and change into the proffered outfit.
When she treaded out of the stall, Grey and Blue were both standing beyond the room’s threshold, backs to her, their capped heads close together as if in private conversation. Silently Ehlora approached and cleared her throat to announce herself. Blue flinched slightly. “Ready?” he asked with a forced grin.
“Yes, though I think Grey needs new regs before we continue.” Ehlora considered how the Spectrum officer’s sopping uniform clung to his wide-shouldered frame. “You look like a drowned puppy, Brad.”
“I’ll stop off at my cabin shortly,” he explained. “We need to get you to sickbay.”
“Orders,” Blue expounded with a tap to his cap mike. “Looks like the Mysterons may have just infiltrated a medical facility in Vancouver. We believe they were looking for you there.”
“Me?’ Ehlora gasped at her caught breath. “I avoid hospitals like the black death. I told you. I’d never go near one voluntarily.”
Grey’s lips were dour when he elaborated, “This hospital is purported to house the genetics research laboratory of a Doctor Harvard Kraven. Sound familiar?”
“No, oh no.” Ehlora felt her knees weaken. “He’s moved again. I thought he was in Illinois. That’s why I’d fled to Kansas.” With a hard swallow, Ehlora allowed her companions to guide her from the Relaxabay and out into the open corridor. “He’s always on the move; military and government run facilities mostly. But I always believed his work was on the sly, especially when it came to me.”
Grey, trotting ahead, glanced over his shoulder. “You mean he’s government financed, but also under their radar.”
“Yes.” Ehlora picked up speed to meet their longer strides. The pair was swiftly guiding her to Dr. Fawn’s medical complex. “I’d run; he’d follow. Sometimes, his men would find me and haul me off to some secluded base in a mountain or abandoned warehouse. Anywhere Kraven could set up his shop.”
“To do what, exactly?” Blue inquired, slowing his trot to flank her. His blue eyes were ominously concerned for how she would answer.
“Basically, he wanted to know what I could do. Put me to task. Took blood samples every day. Skin scrapings. I peed in a cup. Nothing pleasant except perhaps for the food.”
“Sorry,” Blue panted. “I didn’t realize. Before, when I mentioned our good food -”
Ehlora shook her still damp head. “No offense, Captain. You didn’t know.”
“Right, well, we’re in a position to call the shots now.” The trio ducked into the lift and headed for the next level. Blue instinctively rested his palm atop his occupied holster. “We’ll get to the bottom of this Kraven fellow.”
“And now he’s in Canada?” Together they exited the lift and proceeded forward toward sickbay. “I hope they’re not now financing his twisted genetics experiments.”
“If the Mysterons have taken control of Kraven and his experiments,” Grey warned leading the way, “we’ll need to stymie his efforts to clone you.”
“Mysterons again,” Ehlora mused as they stepped in through the widening sickbay doors. “I really need to know who these terrorists are.”
“You will, my dear,” Dr. Fawn greeted them. He motioned her to an adjoining medical stall as Grey excused himself to depart for his uniform change. “The Mysterons are a wily foe. We’re here to make sure their plans fail.”
“And just how will this implant help?” Ehlora panted following Fawn and Blue into the stall. The doctor waved her to the bed.
“By being able to track your movements,” Fawn explained, “we’ll be able to intercept anybody who captures you. We can keep tabs on you, Miss Piper, for your own safety.”
She slid up onto the bed, laying her head atop its pillow. “And it’ll be with me forever?”
Fawn nodded from beside her. “For as long as you choose it to be. It can always be removed.”
“And you’d do that?”
“Of course,” Blue argued. “Why won’t you trust that we’re here to help you?”
With a nervous swallow Ehlora had to insist on her reasoning once more. “Because I’ve been used before. Kraven put a GPS tracking chip in me once, under my arm. I had to dig it out myself with a steak knife.” Blue and Fawn both exchanged sneers of disdain. Ehlora continued, “Next he implanted a steel bolt in my shoulder, a place he knew I couldn’t get to myself, just to hobble my movements. He did that just after he burned Luke and Jed alive in a barn fire.” Beside her, Fawn rolled a cart over and prepped himself with latex gloves. Ehlora watched his silent ministries and felt the dread arise once more. “The trap worked fabulously, but I was able to escape again.” She and the doctor made eye contact. “It seems I didn’t get far enough.”
Blue stepped up to stand by her side, opposite Fawn’s station. His solid hand was about her trembling wrist. “Ehlora, we’re truly sorry for your losses. That you’ve grown so distrustful.” He squeezed her slim wrist. “I promise you that none of us will hurt you. Not now, not ever.” Blue swung his capped head aside. “Spectrum’s job is to protect Earth’s citizens.”
“Humans aren’t perfect, Miss Piper,” Fawn acknowledged, sliding his mask before his lips. “We have many vices. But with Spectrum, we try to set our faults aside for the good of all.”
“I see,” Ehlora mused, closing her eyes to the dreaded scalpel she knew would soon be wielded.
“Now, my dear. Just where are we placing this tiny technological terror?” At the end of forceps, Fawn displayed the petite capsule to be implanted beneath her skin.
Ehlora eyed it suspiciously, but was pleased at just how small Spectrum’s tracker device really was. “Somewhere where no one would think to look and at a spot that won’t interfere with my shape shifting.”
“And that would be?”
Ehlora had had hours to contemplate the device’s possible location. She knew it had to be in a site that would be consistent each time she shifted from one form to another. “I have the perfect spot, Doctor. Right here.” She pointed to the most logical position.
Fawn nodded with an approving brow. “Agreed.” His scalpel was swiftly set to work.
Captain Scarlet glowered at the delay. He paced the space between the conference room door and his already chosen chair at the perimeter of the colonel’s central dais. “What’s taking them so long?” he grumbled to himself. The shape shifter should be done in sickbay by now. The procedure to implant the tracking chip shouldn’t have taken more than two minutes. Reflexively Scarlet rubbed his forearm, beneath his sleeve. He had several times been implanted with such a device. Yet like bullets, his unique Mysteron abilities had soon dissolved each of them. Piper’s physiology was little different than his peers, normal, just as his wasn’t. He stomped his boots across the room once more.
Within another seven minutes, Colonel White strode in, his younger lieutenant at his side. “Scarlet. You’re early.” The colonel swung around the desk to settle into his seat and splay a set of folders atop its smooth surface. “I gather you heard about Magenta’s accident at the pool.”
Scarlet stalled in his meandering to straighten his epaulettes. “Sir?”
Lieutenant Green, sinking into his data station by the wall, grinned widely. “I have it on shipboard security, Captain. You should see it. It’s amazing!”
Now Scarlet strode to the younger man’s desk. “What’s amazing?”
“Miss Piper’s rescue,” White offered with mild irritation. “You, of all people, should have been by her side just then. Blue and Grey handled the situation admirably.”
“Let me see,” Scarlet commanded Green. Standing beside the man, Scarlet considered the inset monitor at Green’s auxiliary station. He watched silently as the pool’s security cameras played back the daring rescue from three divergent angles. His blue eyes widened at the video footage. “Amazing is correct,” he finally rumbled. He straightened his back to face his superior. “Sir, I … I was preoccupied for a time. I left Blue and Grey in charge.”
“You stomped off without them, Captain,” White growled. “There’s a difference.” When Scarlet shuffled his boot in indecision, Cloudbase’s commander-in-chief lowered his chin menacingly in his subordinate’s direction. “I understand your reluctance to work with this woman, especially in light of recent discoveries. However, every Spectrum officer is expected to perform his duties with the same dedication and concision or face a court-martial for derelict of those duties.” Now White raised a warning glare Scarlet’s way. “I dare say you had no conscious intention to disregard what has always been your greatest quality. Your orders stand, Captain. Keep the woman safe.”
Scarlet suddenly found his boots snapping together at stiff-spined attention. “SIG, Colonel.” He stepped away from Green and slid into his chair by the central table just as Captains Blue and Grey entered, their female charge in tow. Scarlet pointedly refused to make eye contact with them. His earlier exasperation at Ehlora’s fantastic story now seemed trivial and irrelevant. In short, Scarlet was ashamed.
“Welcome, Miss Piper,” Colonel White announced cheerfully, the tension of a moment before audibly gone from the man’s voice. “Please join us. I understand you have questions regarding Spectrum’s mission.” He nodded his head. “I’m here to oblige your curiosity.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Piper answered, settling into a seat between her two escorts.
“First, however, I’d like to extend my gratitude for your saving one of my officers.”
“Colonel?” Scarlet saw her tawny brow crease in bewilderment.
“Why Captain Magenta, of course,” the colonel elaborated. “Quite a swift action you took, and a very appropriate one, I might add. A stellar performance.”
“Colonel,” Piper countered her voice, once demure, now edged in steel. “It’s obvious that you’ve either heard or seen what happened. I don’t do what I do for an audience. Not anymore. What I did was instinctual. It wasn’t a performance.” That last word, Scarlet observed, was as sharp as a Japanese katana sword.
“Anymore?” Blue blurted. “Was Topaz right to have me research circus acts? Did you once work in a circus?”
Now the young woman’s golden eyes burned into her neighbor’s. “I had to make a living, Adam. Feed myself. I was totally on my own. The traveling kept me from becoming a prisoner to scientists like Kraven.” She switched her gaze to the colonel to continue. “Sir, I’ve been many things over the years, but I never did anything to harm another. I just needed to get by.”
In response, White solemnly bowed his head. “My apologies, Miss Piper. I did not mean to trivialize your abilities or your intentions. I’m simply at a loss for words to describe your extraordinary talents.”
To Scarlet’s relief, Ehlora Piper sighed against her angst. “I’m sorry too. I keep assuming you’re all here to learn from me, so you can somehow exploit me for your own purposes.” She shook her drying head and shifted her eyes toward Scarlet. “I’m not good at trusting authority. I guess, like you, I’m only human.”
The scrutiny was unnerving. Though Scarlet mechanically nodded his kepi-topped head in agreement, his gut twisted uncomfortably at the truth of her words. She was apologizing to him as well, drawing a flag of truce. When next the colonel spoke, the British captain made it a point to focus on his superior.
“Well, my dear, please allow us to curb your curiosity.” White flipped open the first of his folders. “You wish to know about the Mysterons and why we are so adamant about protecting you from them.”
“Yes. They seem to be a threat to Spectrum and to Earth. A formidable enemy.”
“To say the least,” White replied dourly. He turned the opened folder around so that Piper could see the pictures encased within. “This is a photo of the Mysterons’ city … on Mars.”
“Mars?” Ehlora leaned forward to consider the picture of a glowing, iridescent cityscape of spires and circular buildings nestled within a reddish, barren valley. “They live on Mars?”
“They, Miss Piper, have existed for many millennia; but the Mysterons are not from Mars. I’m afraid their point of origin is even farther away. They’ve been observing us here on Earth for a long time.” The colonel paused, perhaps to allow the woman time to digest his words.
Ehlora leaned back between her two captains and asked the most obvious question. “They’re not human, are they?”
“No, young lady,” White confirmed. “They’re not.”
Ehlora turned her creased eyes to Blue. “You said it before, Adam. Non-corporeal, you said.”
“Yes, Ehlora,” Blue admitted with a quick apologetic glance toward White. “They’ve declared war on Earth. They want to see us destroyed.”
Ehlora shook her head in deeper confusion. “But why?”
Scarlet found his throat rumbling aloud, “Because we humans made a foolish mistake, in letting fear govern our actions.”
With a warning glare Scarlet’s way, Colonel White reclaimed control of the conversation. “Miss Piper, suffice it to say that a mistake was made on first surveying the Mysterons’ base on Mars. A fellow Spectrum officer fired a rocket, purely believing it was in self-defense. The Mysterons have not forgiven our rash act of violence. They wish to teach us a lesson, by waging a war of nerves.”
Blue raised a hand to explain further. “They contact us. Provide us a new threat, a warning. Then they sit back and watch us struggle to overcome their murderous intentions.”
“We’ve lost men and women,” White elaborated. “Good people, fellow officers and innocent citizens, to this war of nerves.” The colonel straightened his spine against his chair back. “The Mysterons observe and evaluate us from their base on Mars. They have the power to influence people and objects here on Earth. Their abilities are highly advanced, both formidable and deadly. The latest threat deals with a new army, of their making, which will destroy every life on Earth.”
“Destroy life?” Ehlora gulped. “And you believe they want to use me for those ends?” Scarlet saw from across the table that the woman’s face had paled to ashen. Her golden-green eyes swerved nervously between the few officers stationed about the room. “I don’t want to be the puppet of the Mysterons. I’d rather die.” Her gaze settled on the one she must have felt would most efficiently carry out that sentence. “Kill me, Captain Scarlet. I understand your fear now.”
The verbal directive paralyzed Scarlet’s spine. Rigid with horror, he gulped a quaking breath and blinked against the command. “No,” he growled. “Never.”
Now the woman’s eyes were desperate to find a solution. They shifted betwixt the collection of compassionate faces. “Please. You can’t let an alien race clone my abilities to conduct a mass murder of every living thing here. Paradise lost, at my hands? I’d be damned for eternity.”
“And I’d be left to watch it all,” Scarlet offered, his spine now free to lean him forward to bash the table with an iron fist. “Colonel. Play her the threat. Perhaps she’ll have a new perspective on its meaning.”
“Perhaps, Captain.” White turned his gaze toward his junior officer. “Lieutenant Green. Play back the most recent Mysteron threat for Miss Piper.”
As the Trinidadian somberly nodded to comply, Scarlet watched Piper place an anxious hand atop her sweater-enshrouded heart. Her breathing was quick, frightened. The captain did not envy her position. From the speakers set about the conference room a deep, familiar and fully emotionless voice boomed. THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS. WE WELL REMEMBER YOUR VIOLENCE AGAINST US. BEWARE, EARTHMEN. WE SHALL BRING A NEW AND MORE POWERFUL ARMY TO BEAR UPON THE INHABITANTS OF YOUR PLANET. EARTH ITSELF SHALL BE YOUR FATEFUL FOE.
The room fell suddenly silent. The ominous voice ceased. A heavy sob escaped the throat of their guest. “No. You can’t let that happen,” Ehlora cried. “The earth can’t be our enemy. She can’t be the cause of all our deaths.”
“How so, young lady?” White inquired.
Ehlora was visibly shaken from the news. Tears coursed along her ashen cheeks. Captain Blue, ever the champion, reached over to place a comforting hand atop her shoulder. “We’re doing all we can, Ehlora. Now you understand why we want to keep you safe here.”
Despite Blue’s impassioned sentiment, Piper rose from her chair, knees visibly wobbling and unsteady. “I won’t be the cause of Earth’s destruction, Colonel. If you won’t kill me outright, then lock me away. Put me in a cage; shut me up in a cave. Bury me beneath Earth’s soil.”
“Ehlora,” Blue spouted rising from his chair to brace her swaying form. “What are you talking about? The Mysterons need an army. You’re only one person. You can’t be their pawn if we keep you safe.”
“Miss Piper,” White explained. “The Mysterons are well-known for their riddles. This message is unclear as to what this new army may be.” He shrugged his epauletted shoulders. “It may have been pure coincidence that you were discovered just as this new threat was broadcast. A governmental army may be the real enemy agent. I have officers on the ground investigating all the possibilities.” He laid out an open palm. “Please, sit. This news is clearly traumatic for you. We’re doing all in our power to prevent the Mysterons from succeeding with their threat.”
“Ehlora,” Blue offered with a guiding hand back into their chairs. “The Mysterons have a time limit. They usually give us a certain amount of time to solve their riddles; then they leave us alone. All we have to do is let the threat run out. Once they’re placated, you can return to your normal life.”
Scarlet watched Piper’s grieving eyes set to emeralds. “I don’t have a normal life. Haven’t you been listening to me?” Her booted feet were pressing her vertical once more. “Please, Colonel. If I’m to be the weapon for the Mysterons, you have to prevent Kraven from finishing what he’s started. His army. You have to stop them.”
Captain Scarlet glowered at her words. “Wait. You said he’d never been able to clone you, your DNA. If you’re here now, then how could he hurt you? Use you to make an army?”
“Not me.” Her stricken eyes bored into Scarlet’s brain. “My children.”
“You’re a mother?” Grey stammered from his seat.
Wavering upon her feet, Ehlora swung to face the baffled captain. “My eggs, Bradley. He stole my eggs.” The strain must have been too much for the young woman to bear. Knees giving out beneath her, Ehlora Piper collapsed to the floor. It was only by the swift actions of her flanking guardians that her skull didn’t crack against the deck plates.
“Dr. Fawn,” Green hollered into the comm. “We have a medical emergency in the conference room. Assistance is needed immediately.”
Scarlet found he was on his feet. Several stomps of his boots brought him up beside his kneeling partner. “Adam. Is she alright?”
From the floor Blue broke his gaze from the downed woman to glare up at him. “She fainted, Paul. We just frightened the living daydreams out of her.” The man’s hands were gently cradling Ehlora’s head. Her eyes were shut and her face was flushed. “I feel partly responsible. I was the one who brought her here.”
White too rose from his chair. “If you hadn’t, Captain,” he counseled, “she may have instead been taken by the Mysterons or Dr. Kraven. Despite the threat of an army, even one shape shifter would have been a formidable enemy, had they had their way.”
“Colonel,” Grey advised from beside the woman. “Do we keep her here indefinitely? Or can she help us find this army of … of her children?”
“If they truly exist,” Scarlet heard himself say. Ever the skeptic, he watched White chew at his lip in contemplation.
“We’ll give Miss Piper the choice to help us. I have a feeling she’ll do all in her power to prevent the death of innocent lives.” The colonel gestured toward the door. “Get her to sickbay. Have Fawn advise me on her condition. Once she’s stable, I wish to converse with her myself. Alone.”
“Yes, Sir,” Blue acknowledged. He and Grey hoisted Piper onto her flaccid boots, cradling her across their able shoulders. In unison, the pair dragged Piper from the conference room and toward their rendezvous with the oncoming medical team.
Scarlet, his own boots frozen in place, pivoted back to his superior. “Colonel. Even if Kraven has been successful in creating shape shifting hybrids using Piper’s ova, they’d be mere infants by now, if that. We don’t have the scientific capabilities of accelerating human life, fast forwarding child development. Ehlora said it took her time to perfect her skills at shape shifting, and that her talent didn’t even manifest before puberty.” He shrugged. “How could an army of babies be a threat now?”
“Not now, Captain,” White agreed gravely. “But in the future, perhaps when we’d least expect it; an army of well-hidden and well trained shape shifter soldiers could infiltrate entire governments and military installations.”
“An army of eagles, jaguars and dolphins?”
“People, Scarlet. She did say she could become another human, if an imperfect copy of one.” The colonel shook his head. “No, Scarlet. This threat is very real. Ominous, to say the least.” He drew back his shoulders in sobriety. “We must be ever more vigilant, Captain. The fight is by no means won or over.”
“SIG,” Scarlet agreed, his cool gaze traveling back to the now closed conference room door. The captain’s twisting gut was anxious for resolution. His whirling brain was unsure he’d soon get it. “The war of nerves continues.”
Point of Action
Ehlora found her consciousness returning before she’d even made it back to sickbay. Her throat was desert dry, burning. Her eyes seemed glued shut. A wavering hand found the sturdy grip of a friend. “I’m here, Ehlora. You’re going to be all right.” She recognized the kind voice: Blue. They were wheeling her along the corridor on a stretcher. The cool breeze of their passage caused her skin to prickle. She shivered. “You just fainted,” Blue explained as she forced her weary eyes to open despite the dried tears. “We’re going to keep you safe. I’ll be with you all the way.”
“Thank you,” her hoarse throat scratched. He squeezed her hand in consolation.
Fawn met them at sickbay’s door. “Bring her into the stall,” he instructed. She was lifted up off the gurney and onto a warm bed. “Check her pressure, Grayson. Nurse Nelson, get her a drink of water.” The busyness of the room made Ehlora’s head swirl. What had happened? The Mysterons wanted her to destroy Earth’s inhabitants. They were going to use Kraven to carry out the threat. Ehlora was the catalyst.
“No, no,” she groaned at the cognitive assault. “Don’t let Kraven do this. You have to stop him.”
Blue’s compassionate eyes were before her swaying sight. “Ehlora, don’t worry. We’ll do all we can to prevent something bad from happening. We just need to find them. We can stop the shape shifters once we find out where they are.”
“You won’t find them, Adam,” Ehlora insisted. “I made it a point in my life to avoid detection. You can’t find a shape shifter amongst a crowd. I’m just another person. I can hide in the woods, become just another deer in the herd. I can be the eagle on the wind, the wild mustang of the plains.” She gulped another bereaved breath. “How can you find what you don’t really see?”
“Maybe Kraven’s smart enough to want to keep track of his creations,” Grey spoke up from beyond Fawn’s ministering shoulders. “We can find them that way.”
“How?” Ehlora blurted. Her brain felt like scrambled eggs.
Grey drew up beside her and shrugged with an encouraging smile. “He wanted to track you, didn’t he? Maybe the hybrids all have GPS tracking chips too.”
Blue grinned at his compatriot. “Find the signal, find them all.”
“No matter what form they’ve taken,” Grey finished with a self-satisfied toe roll.
“That’s brilliant, Captains,” Fawn cut in. “But would you two please clear the stall? I have a distressed patient here. We need a few minutes.”
“SIG,” the two officers chimed in. With a final squeeze to Ehlora’s hand, Blue backed away to be replaced by Dr. Fawn and his bevy of nurses. Ehlora, for her part, settled down against the warmth of the bed and allowed the medical staff to attend to her physical needs.
It was some time before Fawn gave his approval for a visitor. Glass of electrolyte juice in hand, Ehlora sat up in bed, expecting her brave captain to return. Blue didn’t. Instead, Colonel White strode through the open stall door and drew up beside her. “I hope you are feeling refreshed, my dear,” he started, his cool eyes soft with compassion, his hand patting her enshrouded knee. “I know we gave you a grave fright a while ago. For that we ask your forgiveness.” Sliding a chair over, he sank into its berth.
“I am frightened, Colonel,” Ehlora assured setting down her juice. Instinctively, she drew the bed’s blanket further up her torso for security. “I’m afraid of what might happen and even more afraid to offer my help.”
“Do you feel you can make a difference, Miss Piper?” White’s brows jumped in concession. “We could use every man on this, and you’re our expert when it comes to the abilities of a shape shifter.”
“I know. I know that’s why you’ve come. You want me to go with your Spectrum officers to hunt down Kraven and the others.”
“I will not throw you to the wolves, young lady,” White insisted. “If you desire us to leave you off, anywhere on Earth, I will, if reluctantly, comply with your wishes.” Now the man’s steel-blue eyes hardened in conviction. “However, considering the constant threats to Earth, Spectrum cannot again rescue you from harm nor prevent your demise at the hands of evil should you chose to go off on your own.” With a spread of arms White admitted, “Frankly, we here have a rather full plate.”
“I understand, Colonel. I’ve been on my own for a long time. I know the dangers.” She too shrugged above the blanket. “In a way, the Mysterons are just a new form of Kraven and every other scientist who wants to get their hands on my abilities. They’re just not of this Earth.” Ehlora felt her body quake at that reality. “Metaphysical contradiction.”
“What’s that, my dear?”
Ehlora blinked away the question and drew her knees up to her chest beneath the covers. Wrapping her arms about her knees, she rocked slightly and explained. “It’s something my mother told me. She once said that if something that shouldn’t exist did, it was merely a metaphysical contradiction. I was to chalk it up to subconscious desires and fearful, childish phobias.”
“Your mother was a hard soul, Miss Piper.” White’s frown deepened at the implications. “You have been on your own a long time.”
“Yes.” Her eyes wandered unfocused to the empty doorway before another quandary tickled her exhausted brain. “What did he mean, Colonel? Scarlet. He said that, if the Mysterons had their way, all the people of Earth would be gone, and he’d be left to watch.”
“Ah,” White exhaled, leaning back in his chair. “I see you have a photographic memory as well.” The colonel’s gaze softened to contemplative. He shifted in his seat as if to make himself more comfortable for a long story. “Scarlet, my dear, has his own fascinating history. His circumstances are as unique as your own, though he’s only been … different for a fraction of the time you have.” The colonel cocked his head at the fact. “I dare say you could teach Scarlet many things about tolerance and trust.” His brow twisted in irony. “And humility and forgiveness.”
“You’re not going to tell me Captain Scarlet’s an alien too, are you?”
“Actually, you’re not far off the mark, Miss Piper.” White jerked his spine rigid. “Captain Scarlet was once a Mysteron himself, a human/alien hybrid of a sort. And because of those alien abilities, their retrometabolism, Captain Scarlet cannot die.”
“You mean, he can be hurt, and recover, just like I can? Quickly and without a scar?”
White nodded. “And if he’s killed, his body will repair itself and he will live again.”
“No!” Ehlora gasped, shoving her feet to the end of the bed. “That’s as improbable as me becoming a dragon. As incomprehensible as … as a unicorn.”
The colonel sighed against the sarcastic outburst and drew a grin across his mouth. “Indeed, young lady. Just as unlikely.”
“And I thought he just wasn’t the friendly type.”
“Now there you may be mistaken,” White countered, rising to his boots and pushing the chair back out of the way for his exit. “Though Scarlet may be an impulsive, pig-headed rogue at times, he’s proven to be our best asset against the Mysterons. It would behoove you to earn his friendship, my dear. His is an unyielding loyalty, a true hero to humanity.” With a nod to her he added, “Much like yourself.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” Ehlora murmured, her heart aflutter at the compliment.
As White backed away, ready to leave he offered one last thought to contemplate: “Ehlora. Please consider whether you would wish your immediate freedom or the option to assist us in saving our planet from this Mysteron threat. Your liberty and all of ours is ultimately at stake here. I will honor any decision you make.”
Ehlora felt her throat constrict in stalled emotion. How could she answer him? He was the head of a world-wide security force whose sole duty was to the sanctity and continuance of human life. “I’ll … I’ll let you know, Sir. Thank you, Sir.” With a simple nod, Colonel White strode from her side and exited the room.
That left her alone, at the mercy of Dr. Fawn and his medical minions. With a groan of indecision, Ehlora slid down onto the pillow and flopped her arms wide as if in flight. “Not enough chances in a lifetime,” she grumbled.
“Chances for what?” a voice asked. A quick glance toward the door revealed another visitor poking her auburn head into the stall.
“Dr. Topaz.” Ehlora scooted herself more vertical in bed. “Can I get out of this place now? I hate hospitals.”
With a demure smile, Topaz glided in, her hands full of a tray and colorful dishes. Her delightful accent was as cheerful as a spring morning and just as full of promise. “Why you’re not going to leave before we’ve had our tea, are you?”
“Tea?” Ehlora blinked at the approaching tray’s contents. A pair of cups and saucers flanked a rainbow-hued teapot, and a display of creamer, sugar bowl, spoons and plate of cookies. “I didn’t know it was that late in the afternoon already.”
Topaz set the tray down on an adjoining medical cart and grimaced with guilt. “It’s not, but how often do I get an opportunity to klatch with another heroine around here?”
“Heroine, huh?” Ehlora challenged folding her legs like a pretzel as Topaz set the plate of cookies atop her blanket. “You want to gossip like chickadee teenagers or gabble like old biddies at the corn trough?”
Topaz grinned wider and next handed her a cup filled with steaming brown liquid. “I’m more the philosophical spiritualist, actually, contemplating the finer points of men’s minds.”
“Well, that may be a very convoluted conversation. I’m not sure I’m up to it.”
Now Topaz chuckled. “First off, you have to stop thinking of me as your doctor.” She poured herself a cup and sidled down onto the bed’s edge. “I’m a friend and advocate. And my name’s Julia, by the way. Julia Shannon O’Donnell, to be exact. Born and raised in County Kerry, Ireland.”
“I’m a Montana girl, myself,” Ehlora admitted. “And Ehlora’s fine.”
“Do you have a middle name?”
Sipping the hot tea, Ehlora blinked at the odd question. “I do. Why?”
“Well,” Topaz lilted, dark green eyes rolling skyward, “it’s an old Irish tradition to give a girl child a most secret and significant middle name. It’s a way into her soul.”
“Then, perhaps I shouldn’t tell you mine,” Ehlora chimed over her cup rim. “I might give away part of my soul.”
“Why that’s the point, my dear. Knowing your middle name means we’re true and forever friends. Because we’ve shared that secret.”
“Secrets,” Ehlora mused. “I have my share, for sure.” She dipped her chin in confession. “And lies. I’ve had to lie most of my life to keep out of trouble.”
“Lies weigh heavily on our souls, Ehlora. You should let them go. Be free of deceit.”
“Well, these lies were an occupational hazard. As a carnival performer, for example, I became an illusionist by trade. And my trade secret was a doozy!”
Topaz grinned again. “Lies kept you safe. It’s a hard way to live.”
“Yes,” Ehlora agreed, her tea cup poised below her lip. “I never liked it, but it did keep me safe. Only a very few people knew of my true abilities. Some of them are dead now because of it.”
“How sad. How much of a burden it must be for you.”
Ehlora stalled her teacup to sigh her sobering truth. “I thought to end it once. I almost did.”
Now Topaz set her own cup down on her lap. “What changed your mind?”
“I was at the edge of a city park, just outside the security fence. The commuter train was approaching. I knew it’d be a quick death. There wouldn’t be enough of me left for scientists to dissect. I’d be buried in a pauper’s grave without a lot of questions.” Reliving the incident was melancholy. In her present quandary, Ehlora closed her eyes and briefly considered revisiting that moment.
“Then?” Topaz prompted her when she fell silent.
“Then I heard a most wonderful sound behind me.” Smirking at the memory, Ehlora shook her head. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take my own life so close to that joyful noise.”
The young doctor must have understood. A slow smile spread atop her teacup. “It was children, wasn’t it? They were playing in the park.”
Ehlora shared that grin. “Yes. They were giggling and squealing, climbing trees. Swinging on swings, all the while pretending they could fly and soar like I actually could. I realized their dreams were just to grow up and be happy. Children only want to be happy.”
“And in your life, you had made children and others happy.”
“Yes. I had done some good things. I knew those children had the potential to do so too. I wanted to help if I could.” She lowered her eyes. “I was being a coward before those train tracks, denying my own happiness.” Ehlora glanced up to see Topaz studying her. “I’m not a coward, Julia. I’m afraid, but I’m not a coward.”
“I believe you. You’re a realist. The best heroines are.” Silence fell between them then. Dr. Topaz nibbled on a cookie. Ehlora took more sips of her tea, reveling in the healing warmth of the liquid on her strained throat. After a few more suspended moments Topaz asked her initial question. “Chances. When I arrived, you were talking to yourself. Not enough chances in a lifetime, you said. What did you mean?”
Ehlora set her empty teacup and saucer down atop the serving tray before pivoting to answer the question. “Not enough chances for peace.” She explained. “There are perfect moments in this world, Julia. Instances of sheer poise and peace. Moments of glory you never wish to leave. It could be a beautiful sunset, a sweet scent upon the breeze, the sweeping landscape below my wings.” Ehlora shrugged. “I’ve witnessed so many; but by their very nature, they’re fleeting, never pausing long enough to encompass more than a few seconds or minutes.” She closed her eyes to a remembered instance. “I want more of those perfect moments, Doctor.” She stared at her new friend with grim conviction. “I want to be free; but in good conscience, I can’t be free at the cost of others’ misery.”
Topaz nodded. “You’re going to help us, aren’t you? You’re going to tell Colonel White you’ll find Kraven and any shape shifters, help us stop the Mysterons.”
Her voice was quavering when she conceded. “If there are other shape shifters, if they are my children, I can’t abandon them. I can’t let them kill or die themselves. How could I live free knowing they had taken freedom away from others?”
Topaz leaned forward to squeeze her knee. “You’re a wise and compassionate woman, Ehlora. I’m proud to call you my friend.”
“Thank you, Julia. I think I’m going to need as many friends as I can get.” Ehlora couldn’t stay in sickbay any longer. Her roiling emotions needed a release, and there was only one true way she knew how. “Can I go now, Julia? Please. I really do hate hospitals, the confinement of it all.”
Julia O’Donnell nodded simply and stood from the bed. “I’ll call for Captain Grey. He’ll be here in a few moments to escort you to the temporary quarters we’ve set aside for you.”
“Thank you,” Ehlora responded as the doctor returned the food and her cup to the serving tray. “By the way, Julia. My middle name is Dawn. Ehlora Dawn Piper. I was named after my Irish grandmother.” Ehlora smiled at the memory. “She was a philosophical spiritualist too.”
Chuckling at the reference Topaz wheeled the cart away. Over her shoulder she said, “And we never did get to talk about men. That’ll have to be a conversation for another teatime.”
“I look forward to it,” Ehlora called back as the woman disappeared from view. Anticipating her release, Ehlora slid from the bed and hastily slipped on her moccasin-styled boots. The confinement of clothes would soon be remedied, though she’d long ago accepted the fact that a naked woman wandering around towns and countrysides got much more unwelcomed attention than a lone hitchhiker wearing a simple cotton dress and flip-flops.
When Captain Grey arrived, she was once more enshrouded in the sweater dress, her hair combed back and with a welcoming smile upon her lips. “Hi,” she greeted standing by the bedside. “Can we take a detour before you show me the other walled cage?”
“Cage?” Grey sputtered. His creased eyes clearly displayed his confusion beneath his kepi rim.
“Oh. Sure. As long as we’re not gone for too long. I have to prepare for the mission.”
“The mission?” Ehlora’s heart skipped a few steady beats. “To confront Kraven? So soon?”
Grey nodded solemnly. “I told you we’re only a moment’s notice away from any perilous assignment.” The man shrugged as she came to stand beside him at the door. “Scarlet and I are to leave for Vancouver in half an hour. Blue and Magenta are off to the Kansas site in case we missed anything in our previous haste.”
“You’re splitting up? Leaving me?”
“Well, Melody and Symphony Angels are at your disposal if you want a ride back to Earth. The colonel said he’d honor your wishes. You’ll be leaving soon too, in that case.”
“I … I’m not leaving.” Ehlora swallowed hastily and continued. “I’m going with you. I have to. They’re my children.”
Grey nodded once. “You’ve decided, then.”
Ehlora gulped away her anxiety. This was to be her final say. After this she couldn’t back down, not before her friend. “Yes, Bradley. I’m going with you and Scarlet to Vancouver.”
“That means we have a half hour to brief you.” Grey took her arm in his capable hand. “Come on, then. We have a lot to discuss.”
The pair strode through the base, soon ducking into an auxiliary briefing room below Cloudbase’s command deck. Inside Ehlora Piper was to confront her Spectrum nemesis once more. Scarlet stood facing a computer terminal, bent over and intent upon the data scrawled there. “Captain Grey,” he began not looking up, “I’ve found the blueprints to this base Black purportedly attacked. According to real-time satellite images, there’s little damage. The complex is still intact.” He straightened to turn and consider his mission partner. “I’ll find us the best place to enter -” Scarlet blinked at the two arrivals to his private enclave. “Miss Piper.”
Grey released her arm and cleared his throat. “She’s coming with us.”
The British captain’s demeanor never wavered. With a stern glare he turned to face her. “Miss Piper, this is a very dangerous mission. You would be putting yourself at great risk, perhaps stepping right into a Mysteron trap.”
Ehlora stood her ground, but only barely, before the steadfast Spectrum soldier. “I know. I’m willing to take that chance if Bradley is. He’s risking his life too.”
Now Scarlet’s icy glare bored into her. “Unlike myself, you imply.”
“No. That’s not what I meant, Captain. I know you can’t die. Colonel White told me. But I also understand that you risk pain and hardship greater than any other officer here. You make use of your advantages and gifts.” Ehlora nodded. “I’m doing that too. I hope, if there are shape shifters like me, I can help them, reason with them, rescue them from the Mysterons’ influences.”
Grey groaned at her words. “Oh, Paul. We have to tell her everything. If she’s going into the lion’s den, she has to know the entire truth.”
Scarlet stepped away from the computer center and approached their spot by the door. “Miss Piper, I’m not sure what the colonel told you about me, about how I became indestructible, but you need to know the true danger of the Mysterons.”
Unconsciously, Ehlora leaned into Grey’s side as Scarlet drew up before her. “I’m a big girl, Captain. I can take the truth.”
“The Mysterons don’t simply influence their victims. In order to create their agents of destruction, they first must kill that person.”
“Kill them? But how -”
“The Mysterons have the power of retrometabolism,” Scarlet continued dourly. “They destroy, then with errant matter recreate an exact likeness of that person or object. At that moment, the Mysterons are in complete control.” He shook his head grimly. “There is no redemption from that transformation. Only the blast of a high-powered electron gun will completely annihilate a Mysteron agent.”
“Somehow, you broke free,” Ehlora disputed.
“Mine was a most unusual circumstance,” Scarlet admitted with a somber nod. “We have been unable to repeat it, though we have tried. Many times.”
“And you believe the Mysterons have taken over Kraven’s base in Vancouver? That they’ve killed everyone and made copies, like programmed zombies, to do their bidding?”
“Yes, Miss Piper. That’s essentially the premise.” Scarlet glowered at his field partner before expounding, “With such an army of indestructible shape shifters, Spectrum will be hard-pressed to capture and kill them all before they do indescribable damage to Earth’s populations.”
Ehlora felt the tingling of draining blood from her skull. “The Mysterons have made murderers of my children.”
“The most deadly assassins,” Grey posed with a grim frown. “I’m sorry, Ehlora. No person, no mother, should have to deal with such a tragedy.”
“And you’re going to Vancouver to find them and kill them.”
“Before they kill others, yes,” Scarlet assured with a stern nod. “It’s the only way to prevent a massacre. The Mysterons, though deceptive, never bluff. This is a most serious threat.”
Ehlora’s vision dimmed at the reality. Grey braced her as her slimmer frame teetered sideways. “I can’t breathe, Captain. I’m devastated. You want me to kill. I can’t do that. I’m not a soldier.”
“We are, Ehlora,” Grey informed grimly. “If it means saving innocent lives, sometimes we must use deadly force. We defend Earth. You were talking about the same thing earlier, saving the Earth and all its life.”
“Miss Piper,” Scarlet addressed. “We don’t know for sure what we’re going to find down there. This entire attack might be a ploy by the Mysterons to flush you out. There may not be any shape shifting hybrids. There may not be any children.” He shook his capped head. “Kraven may not have been successful with his experiments, but we won’t know until we investigate the complex ourselves. You don’t have to come.”
Ehlora forced her feet beneath her spine and drew herself up to her full height. “But I do. I have an ability which would help you. I know the risks, Captain Scarlet. I’ve helped others before. If there’s a chance to save a life, any life, I’ll do it.”
“But what if it means you’re captured or killed by the Mysterons?” Grey stressed. He shook his dark head. “If they recreate you, even just you, we’d be up against an enemy with all the abilities of a shape shifter.” Grey shook his head again. “We’d have to destroy that too.”
Ehlora considered the impassioned and worried gaze of the friend beside her. “Bradley, I want to help.” She swallowed against her heart-trembling fear. “If I get into trouble, if the Mysterons are there and capture me, you have to kill me first so they won’t win.”
“The final decision is up to the colonel,” Scarlet rumbled. “Take her to the control room, Captain. I’ll finish up here and meet you in the hangar bay for takeoff in twenty minutes.”
Grey nodded agreement. “SIG, Captain.”
With his hand once more about Ehlora’s arm, Captain Grey escorted her to Colonel White’s domain. As the lift brought them to the pinnacle of Cloudbase, Ehlora marveled at the sophistication of the twenty-foot deep computer relay station. Grey, ignoring the curious gaze of Lieutenant Green, guided her forward to White’s circular desk. “Colonel, Miss Piper has an announcement.” With that, Grey released her.
Piper swallowed at the attentive and concerned eyes of Spectrum’s commanding officer. She knew him to be a man of justice and deep compassion. She’d tell him the truth. “Colonel. I won’t lie to you. I’m scared stupid right now. This is way over my head, the hardest decision I’ve ever made, but I request permission to accompany Captains Scarlet and Grey to Kraven’s complex in Vancouver. Sir.”
In response, the colonel closed the folder set before him and slowly folded his hands atop his desk. “I see, Miss Piper. You’ve decided that you can make a difference after all.”
“Yes, Sir. I trust you. I trust Captain Grey. I’m willing to help Spectrum make a difference for Earth. I can’t see living my life any other way.”
Colonel White dipped his chin in the smallest of agreeable gestures. He next rose to his booted feet and strode around his dais to face her directly. “You’re a brave young woman, Miss Piper. It has truly been an honor to know you. Keep my people safe. They’ll be your loyal protectors as well.” White opened his arms. “Until we meet again, my dear, I wish you Godspeed.” His hug was sincere and warm. As they parted Ehlora caught sight of Grey’s surprise. This sudden gesture of affection, it seemed, was unusual for Spectrum’s commander-in-chief.
“Thank you, Colonel. I hope to make you proud of me as well.” With another silent nod from White, Ehlora let Grey guide her away from Cloudbase’s bridge and down the lift to the waiting hangar bay and Captain Scarlet. “I’m not sure if I can hurt anybody, Brad,” she told her friend. “And I’d be more comfortable if it was you and Adam with me, instead of Scarlet.”
Beside her, Grey chuckled. “Paul’s a bit of a roguish hard-ass, but he means well.” Brad’s sparklingly gray eyes glittered her way. “I won’t tell Scarlet you’re afraid of him. He’s a solemn, stodgy fellow when it comes to Mysterons, but off-duty, he’s really a pleasant and endearing guy. You’ll see.” Grey shrugged non-committedly. “You’ve just caught him on a bad day.”
“Days,” Ehlora corrected. “I hope the good days are just up the road, because I need a little compassion right now. I don’t think he likes me.”
Grey grunted good-humoredly. “He’s the best man you want with you in a crisis, Ehlora. Trust me.”
Now she smiled. “I do.”
“Good, because there’s our plane.” Standing beside the parked SPJ’s boarding steps was their field partner. Right hand resting atop his service weapon, Scarlet stood, a duffle bag dangling from his other digits. “Are we ready to go?” Grey called across the distance.
“Now or never, Captain,” Scarlet replied then turned to climb aboard the jet.
“See? All serious right now. He’s a pit-bull, Ehlora, but off-duty he’s a puppy dog.”
“We’ll see.” Ehlora followed Grey’s lead across the sub-deck tarmac. “I hope we get a chance to be off duty.” As the pair drew up to the sleek passenger jet, Piper considered what she was about to do: embark on a near suicidal mission with a pair of men she had only met two days before. Her stomach growled so loudly at the apprehension, Grey paused by the gangway and turned to her.
“Hungry? We have provisions aboard if you missed lunch.”
“I did, actually. Just had tea with Julia.”
Waving her aboard the jet Grey smiled at her and nodded. “She’s a sweetheart.”
“A good friend, I imagine.” With that Ehlora boarded the plane and took a seat where Grey instructed. Once she was strapped in she felt safe to steal a glance toward the flight deck. There, Scarlet was already secured, busying himself with a preflight checklist.
Grey caught her eye and smiled. “I’ll be up front if you need anything. We have to prep for takeoff.”
“OK.” Ehlora returned the smile though she gripped the seat’s armrests with white-knuckled uncertainty. “What have I gone and done to myself now?” she murmured into the chilled air about her.
As the fuselage was sealed, warm air cycled into the fuselage and the plane began to rise atop its platform. Ehlora watched as a large bay door bisected above them, a field of late afternoon cumulus clouds and bright sky above. For a moment, Ehlora allowed herself to marvel at the sight and sensations. Never in her wildest dreams would she have guessed such an adventure. In the grand scheme of things, Ehlora realized then that if she were to die saving the Earth from the Mysteron threat, at least all her previous failings would be redeemed. She would die with no black marks against her ever-living spirit.
Then a grave thought clutched her brain. The Mysterons killed their victims before recreating them. Scarlet had once been a Mysteron. Did that mean he too had died? His original self had been destroyed, this man now only a copy? Did Scarlet have a soul? Her mental wanderings were replaced by the spectacle of open sky and a long runway into empty space beyond Cloudbase’s main tarmac. “My God, what a view.”
Her pilots must have heard her for Grey turned his head back to grin over his shoulder. “Welcome to Spectrum Airlines. Peanuts will soon be served in the galley.”
“Captain,” Scarlet spoke from the pilot’s seat. “Request clearance for takeoff.”
“SIG, Captain Scarlet,” Grey agreed and contacted Cloudbase’s central control. Ehlora recognized Lieutenant Green’s soft voice through the onboard speaker permitting their immediate launch.
With a shock of acceleration, the SPJ shot forward and glided smoothly out into free air. Ehlora smiled. The experience wasn’t far different from a launch of her own once, out into the glory of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. “I’ll show you gentlemen how to really fly,” she privately vowed.
“Course set to British Columbia, Canada,” Grey announced. “ETA one hour, thirty-seven minutes, due magnetic.”
“Confirmed,” Scarlet responded, adjusting flight controls and speed from his seat.
Ehlora sank into the cushioned back of her own chair. This was going to be a long flight and her with nothing to do but worry. She had to get control of her energies, her life-force, if she was to be ready for the possible battle ahead. Ehlora knew how to tap the energies of her home planet; for she, like every other inhabitant, was a child of Earth after all. Setting her spine vertically within the chair, Ehlora placed her elbows squarely atop the seat’s armrests. Next she closed her eyes and breathed slowly in through her nose to exhale out her pursed mouth. In this repeated way, Ehlora was able to calm her racing heart and still her worried mind for the task ahead.
The meditation lasted some minutes before a disturbance in the cockpit wrenched her from her inner peace. Eyes bolting, her attention swung toward the pilot’s seat. “Paul, what’s wrong?” Grey asked. “We’re off course.” Beneath her feet Ehlora felt the plane buck. “Paul! Switch to autopilot.”
“What’s wrong?” Ehlora demanded from her passenger seat. Instinct told her to unstrap the elaborate safety restraints. The snap of buckles freed her to investigate. She was between the forward seats the next moment to see Scarlet’s arm fall from his temple and his head droop to his chest. “He’s unconscious.”
“Yes,” Grey agreed, his own hands flying about the instrument panel before him. “I think he’s had another spell. I’m taking control.” With another buck and surge of engines, the SPJ soon leveled out. “Got it.”
“What’s the matter with him, Brad?” Ehlora queried, studying the British officer’s slack face beneath the scarlet and black cap. “Do we head back to Cloudbase?”
“No. We’re committed to Vancouver now. ETA twenty-eight minutes.” Grey released a hand from his joystick to reach across the cockpit to his friend’s slack neck. “He’s alive, but his pulse is quick.”
“Maybe.” Grey considered her concern. “See if you can rouse him. I have to finalize our heading with Civilian Air Command. Wouldn’t want us smashing into a commercial airliner on our descent.”
With a grim frown, Ehlora knelt beside Scarlet’s seat and raised a hand to clutch his shoulder. “Captain Scarlet. Can you hear me? Wake up.” The man’s chin bobbled uselessly at the vibrating aircraft. Ehlora braved a press against his slack chest. “I don’t think he’s breathing, Brad.” Ehlora gasped at the news. “Please don’t ask me to resuscitate him.”
Grey, for his part, chuckled without humor. “No, nothing that drastic. Just keep at it. I have control of the plane. We’ll be fine for landing without him.”
“That is as long as nothing else goes wrong,” Ehlora heard her own quavering voice say.
Silence soon fell about the cabin. Ehlora continued to shake the pilot’s arm, but Scarlet remained comatose. After a few more moments, she shook her head. “Is he dead?” The words spilled from her in a tense gulp.
“Not sure,” Grey offered, preoccupied with his own task. “Check his pulse again. I don’t understand what’s going on. I thought Dr. Fawn confined Scarlet to Cloudbase because of this stunt. With his assignment, I assumed Paul was cured.”
Ehlora nodded and again tried to rouse their companion. After another shoulder shake proved unsuccessful she decided on a new strategy. “Captain Scarlet!” she barked in her deepest, most authoritative voice. “Report!”
Through either his inborn sense of duty or her blasting vocals, Captain Scarlet flinched and gulped a deep lungful of air. “Colonel! The Guardians are coming.” His eyes swung open and glazed out the forward flight deck window. It was another moment before sentience actually returned. He straightened in his seat. “What happened?” he demanded.
“You got dizzy and passed out again, partner,” Grey explained. “Ehlora said you’d stopped breathing. What’s up with you anyway?”
His stoic composure swiftly returning, Scarlet adjusted his slump within his chair and turned his head to notice Ehlora watching him. “I’m fine, Captain. Just a dizzy spell.”
“Berk spatter,” Ehlora grumbled back. “There’s something going on with you. I’m almost certain that fainting in midflight isn’t your usual habit.”
His vibrant eyes furrowed severely at her accusation. Scarlet seemed as though he was going to protest, deny his disability. Instead, his countenance softened at her strained concern and Scarlet nodded. “You’re right, Miss Piper. There is something going on.” He next slid his hand up to unbuckle his restraints.
“What are you doing?” Grey asked from his station.
“I’m relieving myself of duty, Captain. I’m a danger to you and Miss Piper.” He pivoted out of his chair, even as Ehlora scuffled back to make room for his passage.
From his seat, Grey glanced back to watch Scarlet’s retreat. “What are you planning, Paul? We’re nearing our destination. I need you fit for duty.”
“And I will be, Captain,” Scarlet assured as he groaned into a passenger seat. “I just need a moment’s reprieve.” The man set his head back against the chair rest to close weary eyes.
Ehlora moved to sit across from him. Prudently, she strapped into her restraints before posing, “Are you all right, Captain? Do I have anything to do with what’s happening with you?”
“Yes, Paul,” Grey quickly agreed. “You’ve had these dizzy spells ever since we rescued Ehlora from that derelict home. Could there be a connection?”
“Am I allergic to shape shifters, you ask?” Scarlet posed with an ironic eye lift. Ehlora wasn’t sure whether the man wanted them to dismiss the incident all together. “Unlikely.” The captain rubbed at his temple. “It’s bizarre. I feel tired … as though I’ve over-exerted myself.”
“Like after a long run?” Ehlora probed. “You’re breathing heavy.”
“It’s hard to breathe,” he admitted to her. “I can’t seem to get enough air.”
“Well, an allergic reaction could be the cause,” Grey suggested from the cockpit. “Beginning our descent into Vancouver.”
“Anaphylaxis, I think it’s called,” Ehlora offered. “Is your throat constricted? Is it swollen? Do you feel a lump?”
Scarlet continued to rub his temple. With an arching brow he exhaled, “No, Doctor.”
“Well then, is your heart racing? Are you cold? Nauseous?”
“Yes. Yes and no.”
“Cold?” Grey inquired. “Despite the environmental controls? It’s toasty in here.”
“Yes, I know, Captain,” Scarlet agreed dourly, lowering his messaging hand. “I can’t explain it. My innards pulse like I’m in a panic, a fight for my life.”
“Panic,” Ehlora mused. “The human body’s like an electrical motor. If there’s something trying to overload your electrical circuitry, you might react like a short-circuiting dynamo.”
“He’s tripped a breaker?” Grey expounded from the cockpit.
Scarlet’s skepticism was clear in his bounding eyebrows. “Now you’re an electrical engineer? What other skills do you possess, Miss Piper?”
“Oh, will you please stop calling me that, Captain?” Ehlora huffed. “It sounds so formal. Please just call me Ehlora.”
“Ehlora,” Scarlet murmured. “It’s a beautiful name. Most unusual.” The man’s eyes dipped shut again. After a moment, Ehlora saw his chin droop.
“I think he’s out again,” Ehlora announced to their pilot. “What do you want me to do?”
“See if you can’t strap him into his harness. We’re on final approach to the airport.”
“SIG,” she responded with a tilted smirk. With the release of her own restraints, Ehlora was able to tug the straps to secure her slumping companion. Once Ehlora was again safely secured herself, she stole a look out the forward flight deck. The plane was swiftly descending into a metropolitan area. “Vancouver,” she murmured. “I’ve never been here. I hope I can help you find your way at this new installation, Brad. I’ve learned the layout of a few of Kraven’s others. Perhaps the architect utilized the same design.”
“Let’s hope so,” Grey offered. “If it’s just us two going in there, we’re going to need reinforcements. Blue and Magenta can be here in an hour if I put in the request now.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Ehlora agreed with another glance at their still comatose companion.
The SPJ was soon taxiing off Vancouver International’s main runway and into the private section reserved for military aircraft. Grey piloted the plane into an open hangar and powered down the engines.
“Now what?” Ehlora asked.
From his seat, Captain Grey completed his post-flight checks before unlocking his harness and turning to her. “We requisition a pursuit vehicle, an SPV. It’ll get us to within sight of the medical complex. Then we go on foot to maintain our stealth.”
Ehlora grinned at her friend. “You go on foot. I’m taking the high road.”
Ehlora nodded. “I’d appreciate you bringing along an outfit for me. Once I change back, I wouldn’t want to alarm the neighbors.”
Grey chuckled at the reference and rose from his seat. The man’s hazel-gray eyes immediately switched to another target within the parked plane. “Paul?”
Turning back to look, Ehlora saw Captain Scarlet rouse from his stupor. “Captain?”
With a cringing swallow over a no doubt dry tongue, Scarlet cleared his throat and opened his eyes. “I’m back.”
“Well, I sure hope it’s for good,” Grey announced. “We’re here.”
“Vancouver Airport?” Scarlet seemed to regain his senses more quickly this time. Ehlora hoped, like Grey, that the captain was back in action. He released his harness and stood within the cabin to check out the forward window. “Right. Reporting for duty, Captain.”
“I’m still calling for backup,” Grey insisted. His cap mike was before his lips a second later.
While Grey consulted his other officers’ status, Ehlora moved to flank the reconnoitering Scarlet. “Need help?” she asked as he rummaged in a storage locker. “I can carry something for you.”
“I’m fine, Miss … Ehlora.” Their eyes met. Scarlet’s were calm, serene, even bright with new-found vigor.
“Yes, Captain,” she stated. “I believe you are.”
“I have the blueprints to Kraven’s medical facility.” He pulled a duffle from the locker and set it atop a seat. With a smooth motion Scarlet unzipped the bag to reveal his stowed gear. With a silent prayer, Ehlora noticed a slim pistol and holster within.
“I do hope that gun’s not for me, Captain. It’s not in my nature.”
With a stoic nod Scarlet retrieved the weapon and set it down onto the seat. “A back up, then.” He next pulled out a large rolled paper. Without ceremony he handed it to her. “We’ll be driving to the site. I’d hoped you’d study this for us.”
“Familiarize myself with the base layout? I’d be happy to, Captain Scarlet.”
“Paul,” the man beside her asserted. “Please.”
Ehlora felt the name slip over her tongue. “Paul.” She liked its simple dignity.
“Let’s go,” Grey announced sliding past them in the aisle. “Blue and Ochre should catch us up by sunset. They’re already on their way.”
“Ochre now?” Ehlora inquired. “What happened to Magenta?”
Grey’s lips traced a smile. “He’s to relieve Green in Cloudbase Control. Scheduling conflict.”
Ehlora harrumphed in good humor. “Too many colors to keep track.” As her companions exited the plane, Ehlora found herself taking up the rear. She marveled at the sudden appearance of a multi-wheeled, tank-like vehicle from within the confines of a mislabeled shipping container. When the SPV’s side door slid outward, Grey waved her ahead of himself to a spare seat before the backward facing driver’s cockpit. “How do you drive this thing?”
With a slim grin Grey arched his brow. “You’ll see. Watch the inset monitor.”
Once Scarlet and Grey were secured, the Spectrum vehicle rolled forward and headed for the closest highway. They next fixed their heading north by northwest, toward Burrard Inlet’s highlands and Mount Seymour. The road trip took nearly another hour and a half. The sun was soon setting over the near four thousand foot hump of Grouse Mountain.
Into the Labyrinth
As the SPV barreled on through the north woods of British Columbia, Ehlora studied the research laboratory map Scarlet had provided her. She paused only to sip at the protein shake Grey had passed her from the onboard provision locker. The sustenance bolstered her energy reserves. As night fell, she understood her way through the forested landscape would soon need to be by owl flight, rather than her more familiar bird of prey. Her Spectrum companions would benefit from her enhanced night vision. As Ehlora had promised Colonel White, she would keep her captains safe.
“I think I know the best place for us to enter the complex,” she offered after some time with the blueprint spread over her lap. “East wall, southern corner. It’s the service entrance, where they take deliveries. The security, if it’s still functioning, will be mostly remote cameras.”
Grey was nodding from his co-driver’s seat. “More easily neutralized and less dangerous than living guards. Good,” he agreed. “We’ll need the location of the surveillance cameras, Ehlora. Are they listed there?”
Squinting at the schematics she shook her head. For her companions’ benefit she added, “I don’t see a key or marker for them, but I can get close without much ado. No one monitoring the security cameras will blink twice at an owl patrolling the forest fringes. I’ll take them out with a swipe of talons.”
“You’ll need only move their point of sight toward the sky,” Scarlet advised as he turned the steering bar into a curve about the winding road.
Ears popping, Ehlora knew they were gaining altitude. “I’m looking forward to the freedom of the trees,” she admitted rolling up the blueprint and tucking it in beside her seat. “The stars over my head.”
Scarlet must have understood, for though he was watching the darkening road on the forward monitor, he nodded his head. “You’ll be in your natural element.” Then Scarlet’s epaulettes flashed white. The captain’s cap mike swung down before his lips. “Yes, Colonel.” Listening to his superior’s query, the captain answered, “We’re just nearing the outlying boundary to the research facility now, Sir. We’ll park alongside the road, in amongst the trees and proceed by foot from there. ETA thirty-three minutes.” After another silence, Scarlet nodded. “SIG.” His mike flipped back to its berth and the captain informed, “Captain Blue is twenty minutes behind us. He and Ochre intend to drive their Spectrum saloon right up to the complex’s front doors while we slip around back. They’ll distract the guards while we survey the interior. We’ll have approximately ten minutes before they raise suspicions.” Scarlet considered Ehlora’s earnest attention. “Do you think you’ll recognize a shape shifter on sight, Miss Piper?”
“Me?” She swallowed at the scrutiny. “I’ve never met another. I doubt they have an aura or scent I’d recognize. Perhaps as a snake, I could seek out their heat signatures. My body temperature’s warmer than most other people.” She shrugged at her own suggestion. “It might work.”
Another nod from Scarlet and the man returned his attentions to the road. She found that Grey, however, was studying her. “Snake?” he finally inquired.
Ehlora found her cheeks flushing. “How else do you think I got out of those bed bindings in Dr. Fawn’s sickbay?”
“And an owl.” Grey grinned from his bucket seat. “This I have to see.”
“Really, Captain,” Scarlet harangued. “We’re not out here for the Saturday matinee.” The man’s seriousness softened however when he smirked and added, “I took the liberty of packing you some spare apparel, Miss Piper. I hope you don’t mind.”
Ehlora found herself grinning. “Not at all.” The trio fell silent once more as Scarlet slowed their progress to scout out a site to park the SPV’s bulk. Ehlora felt her hackles rising in anticipation. The softness of a forest floor, the cleansing breeze of fresh air, the stillness of sentinel trees were just beyond the steel shell of this mechanical beast. She was itching to get outside and into the embrace of natural environs once more. The Pacific Coastal Ranges of British Columbia would not be too far removed from the forests of Washington State further south. The creatures and plants would be for the most part familiar to her.
The SPV was nestled amidst a stand of pacific fir and hemlock. So concealed, the vehicle was ready for a hasty retreat if need be. Scarlet opened the starboard hatch and climbed down with his duffle bag, ready for action. He opened it to retrieve a silver, boxy device which promptly started beeping once activated.
“What’s that?” Ehlora asked as she stepped down beside him. Grey closed the SPV hatch and turned to inspect the device as well.
“It’s a tracking monitor. Captain Grey suggested we use it to seek out any other GPS tracking signals.”
“I remember,” Ehlora agreed with a knowing nod toward Grey. “You have my frequency, so you can follow my movements, right?”
“Of course,” Grey informed. He pointed to the silver box. “We can track you and a host of others once we recognize their signals.”
“If these others exist,” Scarlet reminded, duffle swung onto one shoulder and tracking monitor scanning for GPS ground signals. The device chirped immediately. “One shape shifter found,” he added swinging the device Ehlora’s way.
Standing beside the SPV Ehlora grinned and moved to strip off her dress. “Catch me if you can,” she chimed and melted her form into the guise of a large, round-eyed owl. On silent wings she launched herself into the trees and disappeared.
“Whoa!” Grey called. “Come on, Paul. Time to get our boots dirty.”
Ehlora coursed through the forest, resplendent at the free space beneath her wide wings. The air whooshed past her internal ear openings, giving her complete vectoring capabilities while in flight. A mouse dug beneath the forest detritus. A dozing dove jostled at the air displacement of Ehlora’s passing. In the darkness of twilight, her owl eyes discerned a deer path through the landscape. She followed it, knowing her Spectrum companions would move more swiftly with fewer obstructions. To alert them to her presence, she bellowed a single set of deep hooting notes and alighted atop a high hemlock bough to await them.
Trotting along the narrow path, the pair soon caught up. “Thought you’d out-fly us, huh?” Grey challenged sighting her among the branches. Perched before his eyes, the captain wore a set of night-vision glasses. Ehlora was tempted to transform into herself, if just to laugh and verbally harangue the officer for his use of artificial sight. Yet, she couldn’t begrudge a man who didn’t have the abilities she had long accepted as part of her DNA. Ehlora smiled as only an owl could and launched herself once more into the breeze.
Scarlet and Grey followed. Their twenty-two minute hike brought them to the southern edge of a wide complex of three buildings and parking lots. Surrounding the medical compound was a balustrade fence peeked in electrified wires. “Be careful, Ehlora,” Grey warned sliding the night-vision glasses from concerned eyes. “Stay away from those wires or you’ll singe more than feathers.”
With a nod of her rounded head, Ehlora flew over the compound to seek out the security cameras. Dodging among the parked vehicles in the lots and the shadows between pole lamps, her winged form found the first three obstacles. A swift tilt of wings and swing of splayed talons shifted the cameras’ eyes away from the pedestrian walkways and cars. Soon it was safe for them to proceed. She swung around above the downcast light posts and pumped her wings to return to Scarlet and Grey’s sides. Landing on the far side of a tree, she stood to her full human height once more. “There’re three cameras, all disabled,” she told her companions from the concealment of the trunk. “I’ll show you the path I made. What do we do once we’re inside?”
Scarlet spoke up: “Captain Grey and I will scout the interior with the Mysteron detector. You’re to remain out here, hidden in the forest until we return.”
“Wait a minute,” Ehlora stammered as Grey handed her the dress to re-clothe herself. “I’m coming with you. You had me study the interior schematics. Remember? I promised Colonel White I’d help you find the shape shifters.”
It was Grey who next issued his dissension. “We haven’t had time to brief you on everything there is to know about the Mysterons, Ehlora. One of our fallen officers is their chief agent; Captain Black.” Grey checked his current partner before continuing. “While you were knocking out the cameras, we got an update from Cloudbase. Black’s been spotted in the area again by local RCMP constables. He’s headed this way in a dark sedan. Blue and Ochre have detoured to intercept him which means our distraction at the front gate will be delayed. We’re on our own.”
Ehlora stepped out from behind her tree, fully clothed once more. “Well, then you need me even more. I can help. I can provide the distraction so you two can sneak in the delivery door.”
“Then you’ll need this,” Scarlet offered withdrawing the spare pistol and holster from his duffle bag.
Ehlora scowled at the weapon. “And just where am I supposed to strap that thing if I’m not myself?” she challenged with a sweep of her arms along her sides. “I know how to keep someone enthralled, Captain. I was once a carnival performer, remember?”
“Right,” Grey agreed. “She’s not a soldier, Paul. Let her do this her own way.”
“And if she gets captured or killed?”
Grey tapped the Mysteron detector now slung over his neck. “We check; then we shoot.”
Ehlora understood the implication. “I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“The Mysterons aren’t as gullible as a carnival crowd, Miss Piper,” Scarlet reminded with a stern frown. “You must be more cautious than you’ve ever been. You may still be their primary target.”
“Maybe I should go with her, Captain,” Grey suggested. “Then you can sneak in the back and find that main laboratory. If the shape shifters are interred, ready to be deployed, you’d be able to disable the entire complex in one fell swoop.”
“Disable?” Ehlora’s eyes narrowed. “Is that a kind euphemism for something more deadly?”
“A concentric mine,” Scarlet explained with a shrug of his duffle bag. “Its detonation spreads out from a central point, sweeping everything clear.”
“Yikes. Like a mini-nuclear weapon.” Ehlora groaned. “You might be killing innocent people, Paul.”
Scarlet shook his head. “I’ll be sure before I detonate the bomb. I won’t risk lives if I don’t have to. I must find these shape shifters first, determine if they really exist and if they’re controlled by the Mysterons.”
Grey defended his partner. “This is serious business, Ehlora. We can’t risk letting these agents out into the world. They’d quickly scatter and wreak havoc worldwide.”
“This is our one chance to catch them in one place, to take them out in a single blow.”
“Which would endanger the fewest lives. I understand,” Ehlora agreed. “OK. I’m off then.” A peel of her sweater dress and kick of her boots and Ehlora slunk low into the furred figure of the jaguar. In this form, she could keep an eye on her following partner and still make use of the able night vision of her feline guise.
“Wait, Ehlora.” Grey passed the Mysteron detector to Scarlet. In return, Scarlet handed over the spare weapon.
“Stay safe, Captain,” Scarlet wished aloud. “Keep her alive.”
“SIG. Good luck.” With that, Grey slipped the glasses back before his eyes and trotted off to intercept his waiting shape shifting partner.
Ehlora soon rounded a forested hill at the south-western entrance before slinking down into the underbrush to survey the medical complex’s main gate. As Grey drew up beside her, he too knelt to conceal himself
“Do we go in together?” he asked holding up both the slim pistol and her dangling dress.
In response Ehlora growled and swung her feline head sideways. She needed to go alone, to get as close as possible to any guards on duty, and take them out with a stealthy swipe of paws. Over the years, Ehlora had gained practice both in eluding and subduing Kraven’s men without inflicting permanent injury. As a jaguar, her paws were powerful, and she had learned to keep her claws retracted when needed. With a beckoning flip of her long tail, the spotted cat treaded forward through the trees and down the bluff toward the facility’s swing gate and occupied guardhouse.
She heard Grey’s boot falls following her. He coursed between obstacles, darting from one camouflaged tree or bush to another. Inwardly, Ehlora smiled. Her spots perfectly obscured her from anyone surveying the nearby forest, even if they used night-vision capable binoculars. Her padded feet were nearly silent upon the forest underbrush. The only way she’d have been detected would be with heat-sensitive equipment.
As she and Grey drew near the perimeter fence, her Spectrum partner swiped the night-vision glasses from his eyes. “Ehlora, stop,” he urgently whispered as he slid to a halt behind a wide hemlock trunk. His boots scratched against the needled understory. “I need to update Scarlet. We have to coordinate our approach.”
Ehlora understood all too well the coordinated breach of these two diminutive teams. Captain Scarlet had to scale a steel fence topped with electrical wires. The man had previously mentioned that high voltage electricity was the method of dispatching a Mysteron. Ehlora instinctively knew that it would also be a danger to the Spectrum captain himself. In compliance with her partner, she retreated to Grey and sat like an obedient dog at his side as the captain’s mike swung down to his lips. “Scarlet. We’re just outside the western gate, concealed in the trees. I observe two armed men stationed at the guardhouse. Ready to move forward. What’s your status?”
With her more sensitive feline hearing, Ehlora could discern Scarlet’s reply through the tiny earpiece set within Grey’s cap. “I’ve scaled the fence, now inside the perimeter. The electricity’s been deactivated. Probably since Captain Black’s breach. I’m proceeding forward toward the service entrance now. Keeping to the shadows of the parked vehicles.”
“Right,” Grey answered. “Give us a few minutes -”
Ehlora had to speak. She relaxed her guise and resumed her human form beside her partner. “Brad,” she interrupted. “I need to go alone. I can take them out, before they set off any alarms and without killing them. Trust me.”
“I heard that,” Scarlet’s muffled reply stated through Grey’s cap. “You can’t let her risk capture.”
Grey raised concerned eyes to the woman beside him. “Scarlet agrees with me. That’d be ill-advised. You could be captured. Trust us, Ehlora. We know what we’re doing.”
Ehlora rolled her eyes. “If you waltz down there, those guards are going to see your uniform and alert any Mysterons inside. Where’d you come from? Where’s your car? Survival instincts cultivate a suspicious mind, Bradley. I know. You can’t go dressed like that.”
“Well then, what do you expect I do? Go out there naked like you?”
Ehlora burst into a stifled guffaw then checked to make sure the noise hadn’t traveled as far as the occupied guardhouse. “I’d love to see you try.”
“No,” Grey countered with a tilted head and waggling finger. “Not happening.”
Though Ehlora giggled over her grinning teeth, she cautioned, “Come when I call.” She stood and stepped forward into the security lanterns before Grey could stop her. His urgent whisper lost its strength as she padded barefoot out into the glare of spotlights and human eyes. The pair of sentries instantly strode forward and swung their weapons into play.
“Hey!” one called stepping out beyond the guardhouse. “Am I dreaming? Artie, do you see what -”
“A naked woman.”
“Where’d she come from?”
“She’s beautiful. Artie, should we shoot her?”
“Are you crazy? She’s probably lost. Drunk or something.”
As Ehlora approached, she rubbed her sides, swinging her hips in her best Marilyn Monroe imitation. Seductively she twirled her tawny locks and blinked her eyes at the slack-jawed pair, even as she drew up to the guardhouse. Just as a house cat might request play of a littermate, Ehlora held her head low, gaze demur and inviting. Once she was within their drooping pistols’ range, Ehlora blew the dumbfounded sentries a kiss before closing her eyes to see her form change. From human to jaguar, she launched herself over their heads and pelted them both with a potent swing of paws. The pair twisted against the assault, knocked shoulders and spiraled to the ground, unconscious in a heap.
Next, Ehlora padded to the ground on all fours before shifting again to the wide-winged eagle. A powerful pump of feathers propelled her over the traffic gate and into the complex’s yard. With an arching of wings, Ehlora screamed her signal. Beyond the lights, Grey discarded his glasses and drew his gun. He bolted forward into the spotlights, ready to dispatch the guards with a marksman’s precision if they stirred. At the rear of the facility, Scarlet took the sharp call to mean it was time for him to move forward as well.
Swiftly, Ehlora alighted on the nearest roof and relaxed her feathered form to call down. “Captain, more guards, coming your way.” Eyeing their confused and alert stance, Ehlora murmured, “Time’s up.” She dove from the roof to glide down amidst the patrol. The men got off a surprised shot, but Ehlora dispatched them with a swift pounce of renewed feline muscle and another swipe of restrained paws.
Next, Grey trotted up to her feline side, panting against her swiftness. “Not bad, but what’s next? I still don’t think we’re getting inside the complex without a fight.” His epaulettes blinked golden, microphone swinging down. “Grey. Go ahead, Captain Ochre.”
Ehlora listened with her jaguar ears titled toward his inset cap speaker. “Be alerted. We lost Black’s saloon. He just vanished ahead of our headlights. We’re coming to your location, in case he shows up there again.”
“SIG,” Grey responded. “The gatehouse has been neutralized for now. Scarlet’s inside the complex, searching for the shape shifters. Ehlora and I’ll breach the front entrance and do a reconnaissance sweep, forward to back. We’ll need to evacuate the complex of staff and patients if we’re going to destroy Kraven’s research lab.”
“Right. We’ve got your six. Be careful.”
“You too,” Grey agreed with a nod. As his microphone returned to his visor, the American captain considered his most unusual partner. “Let’s go see who’s keeping shop.”
Ehlora relaxed her form, rising to her feet. “SIG.” Grey next handed her the dress and she swiftly slipped its warmth over her chilled shoulders. “Getting nippy out here. Thanks.”
Together they trotted forward to the main entrance, where movement within alerted them to another sentry. “You planning on repeating your performance?” Grey challenged with a tilted smirk and a glance toward her still bare feet.
“I think I’ll be more subtle this time,” Ehlora offered with an echoing grin. “Wait here, Spectrum man.” As Grey slid aside, out of the line of sight, Ehlora stepped toward the front doors and waved a greeting. “Excuse me,” she called. “My car broke down out here on the highway. I saw your lights. Do you have a phone I can use to call for a tow?”
Within, the double doors slid open. A single guard stepped into the outer foyer and beckoned her closer. “Do you have any ID?” he asked. Ehlora noticed his hand resting securely atop his hip holster. The man’s uniform displayed the logo of Kraven’s research company. Ehlora felt her hackles rise at the flood of unpleasant memories.
“I’m sorry. I left my purse in the car. All I have are my keys with me. Please, can I come in and use your phone?”
“I’m not allowed to permit entry without a positive ID, Miss.” The man seemed innocent enough. Whoever these Mysterons were, they hadn’t seemed to have taken over this polite lad.
Grey stepped from the shadows then and brandished his service pistol. “I have official ID for you, young man. Captain Grey, Spectrum. Let us in.”
“But -” As the guard backed away, hand gripping for his pistol, Grey shot out the blinking security lock. Obediently, the outer doors slid open and Grey dispatched a second bullet to graze the sentry’s rising gun arm. With a grunt, the man backed up against the inner wall, his weapon impotent on the floor beside him.
“Leave your sidearm with us, lad. We’ll keep it safe.”
“Security!” the younger man hollered over the obvious pain of his bleeding wound.
“Ehl?” Grey queried. With an understanding nod, Ehlora shifted to the jaguar once more and sent the sentry’s head reeling with a single swipe of spotted paw. The man slid along the wall to the floor and made no more protests. “Come on,” Grey urged and trotted forward into the now vacant security booth. There he swiftly disabled the inner camera array and hailed his other Spectrum partner. “Captain Scarlet. I’ve disabled the interior security cameras. Where are you?”
Scarlet’s grave reply was quiet, as if from an extreme distance. “I found them, Captain.” Silence was their next response. The communication line had gone dead.
“Found who?” Ehlora queried, once more human beside the Spectrum officer.
“Unclear. The shape shifters?” Grey asked.
“We have to find him,” Ehlora urged. “He could be in danger. All alone.”
“Alone is right,” Grey growled, his hazel-gray eyes scanning the corridor. “Do you recall the layout of this place? Scarlet was headed for the main lab.”
“How fast can you run?” Ehlora challenged him.
“As fast as a cat if I have to,” Grey assured and waved her forward with his pistol. “Lead the way.”
“SIG,” Ehlora responded. With an easy shift to her supple feline guise, Piper sprang forward and coursed through the complex. In her studies of this facility, Ehlora had indeed found similarities to Kraven’s other research sites. Previously, the main laboratory where she’d been probed, caged and analyzed had been in a central location, nearest the massive mainframe computers with their ever-present humming cooling units. If necessary, Ehlora could find them here by sound alone.
Grey ran after her, his service pistol ever-vigilant to oncoming human obstacles. Fortunately, they encountered very few. There were, however signs of previous infiltration. Scorch marks, a missing door, even a buckled bulkhead were evidence of an unauthorized security breach. “Damn. Black was looking for something here. He left it looking like a warzone,” Grey panted gravely as he kept pace with Ehlora’s slinking form. She knew Bradley would soon need to slow, to catch his breath. She too felt the strain of maintaining her altered shape and the expended energy in her rushed, forward momentum. However, her instincts told her there was something wrong. Wherever Scarlet was within the medical base, he was not in a position of authority. If even one shape shifter had been created by Kraven’s twisted means, the Spectrum captain could be in grave danger.
Ehlora had to be prepared, perhaps, to use deadly force against one of her own children. The very thought sickened her. In all her years of running, she had never purposely harmed or killed anyone. Now, dire need warranted a most serious outcome. Paws padding softly against hard concrete, Ehlora gasped a growling breath over flared nostrils and quickened her pace.
Recalling his previous study of the research complex’s blueprints, Captain Scarlet had swiftly advanced through the abandoned back corridors, discovering Kraven’s main laboratory without much unnecessary backtracking. Now he leaned low against a massive metal console, as tall as his standing height, within the confines of a massive room of pulsing equipment and medical computers. From the concealment of this isolated bulk, he could witness the research being conducted, his weapon drawn at the ready. Singularly, however, Scarlet doubted he could overtake the collection of Mysterons before him. Perhaps Spectrum reinforcements were even now on their way. So far, the scientists had not discovered his hideout. He would wait a little longer and continue his silent surveillance.
“It’s working, Doctor,” a woman in a nurse’s gown announced from her station by a biotube. “Life signs are stabilizing. We can proceed.”
“Very good, Ellen. Make sure the oxygen levels are optimal, but keep the water circulating. I want complete transformation. Gills aren’t good enough.”
Another voice uttered his skepticism. “Training them to shift by threatening their lives this way is rather drastic, don’t you think, Dr. Kraven?”
“You’ve seen our failures, Darryl. I’m not accepting any more deaths. We have a finite number of these viable fetuses. If we’re going to jumpstart this army, I need them to be able to shift instinctively, without thought. The human womb is just another bag of water. This should be second nature.”
From behind his metal blind, Scarlet stole another glance into the room. Along the far wall of the laboratory, an array of ten gallon, fluid-filled tubes bubbled and gurgled. Within each a single curled form floated. Fetuses. Several dozen of them. Were these the surviving offspring of Ehlora Piper’s stolen ova? Was Dr. Kraven trying to force these preborn infants to use the DNA inherited from their shape shifter mother? How did the ambitious physician plan to raise these children? Had he found a way to accelerate their development, making them full-grown and deadly assassins within the span of days or months? Did the Mysterons instead have that capability? In the past, the alien race’s powers had been both alarming and bizarre. Scarlet scowled at the possibilities and slunk back behind his barrier to continue his stealth.
For the moment, one biotube had been singled out for experimentation. Within its transparent curvature the occupant was being subjected to Kraven’s exploratory whims. “Increase the temperature, one degree per minute,” Kraven instructed. “Introduce salinity at two thousand parts per million each degree once the fluid reaches 75 degrees Fahrenheit.”
“Slowly, Ellen. We want to encourage a shift, not risk injury.”
“Heart rate rising again,” Nurse Ellen warned. From his concealment, Scarlet easily imagined the woman’s concern. The alarm in her voice was apparent. She’d no doubt experienced these symptoms before. “Blood pressure increasing. Nearing critical.”
“Readjust salinity. Increase concentration to four thousand parts per million each degree of rise.”
Darryl’s astounded voice announced, “I’m seeing webs forming between digits, Dr. Kraven. It’s working.”
“I want full transformation. Keep increasing temperature and salinity.”
“Approaching maximum safe salinity at 39 grams per kilogram, Doctor,” Ellen warned. “We don’t want a repeat of last time.”
“Electrical conductivity nearing dangerous levels,” Darryl cautioned. “Any spark or errant pulse could fry him.” Another moment and Darryl reported, “Water currents are slowing due to halocline barrier formation.”
“Boost the pumps, then. I want saline equalization in the biotube.”
Scarlet breathed through his growing concern. These medical professionals were playing God with a helpless infant. Through their twisted efforts, they had stolen Ehlora’s ova and created hybrid lifeforms of which they intended to make deadly killers. In the wrong hands, Mysteron hands, these children could become the assassins for the entire human race.
Part of Scarlet wanted to slide the concentric mine from his duffle and destroy every one of these hapless constructions. For if torture was to be their future, terminating the fetuses now was the kindest of acts. Scarlet recognized the aching in his jaw, so tightly were his teeth clenched. “Mysterons be damned,” he quietly cursed. His body tensed for action as the inhuman experiment continued.
“Sir, we’re risking the rapid dehydration of tissues. The fetus will go into shock. At this rate, we’ll lose him.”
“Equalize salinity,” Kraven demanded. “Increase water pressure to fifteen pounds per square inch. That’ll force a shift to full aquatic mode.”
“Sir!” Ellen yelped. “Fetus is going critical!”
“Quickly, Darryl. Dilute the mixture to 34 grams per kilogram. Now! We’re not losing this one too.”
“Sir,” Darryl gasped. “A tail! His legs are fusing into a tail. It’s working!”
Scarlet listened, his heart pounding out an alarming rhythm within his skull. At the very moment of their ill-begotten success, the life of the hybrid was to be snuffed out, drowned and crushed under artificial water conditions. The cruelest of deaths. Then his epaulettes flashed again. Instinctively Scarlet hunched over the incoming call. He muffled his hand over tight lips as the microphone flipped down. “Scarlet,” he whispered.
“Where are you, Captain?” Grey asked. “We’re within the complex, heading to the main laboratory. Have you found the Mysterons? Are the shape shifters there?”
Too many questions, no chance to answer all without revealing his hiding spot. But most alarming of all was that Grey and Piper were inside the complex. If Scarlet detonated the concentric mine now, he’d risk killing them as well. “Leave,” he urged into the dangling microphone before his covered lips. “Leave now. I’m going to set off the bomb.”
“You can’t,” Grey countered into his ear. “Blue and Ochre are here as well. They’re evacuating the complex. No Mysterons present. We’d be killing innocent lives.”
Scarlet huffed into his mike. “Mysterons here.” He dared say no more. The threat was real. As Colonel White feared, these altered fetuses couldn’t be allowed to grow and become the Mysterons’ super soldier assassins.
“You have proof?” That query came from Captain Blue. He too was monitoring the transmission. “Please tell me you’re not going to risk us all on one of your feelings.”
“Evacuate,” Scarlet urged. “You have seven minutes.” He couldn’t guarantee any more. The situation in the laboratory was escalating.
“No!” Kraven hollered. “Not another one. We were so close!”
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” the nurse apologized tersely. “His heart stalled. Salinity and pressure caused metabolic shutdown.”
“Darryl. You two. Bring me another. A female this time. Perhaps we’ll have more success with a double X chromosome matrix.”
Scarlet stole a look around the edge of his towering console to see the blonde-haired Darryl and two other nurses stride to the bank of biotubes. Swiftly the men selected another specimen to wheel over to the main equipment station. They would torture another preborn to death. Fuming, Scarlet set down his pistol and dug into the duffle bag for the concentric mine. He could at least have the bomb ready to deploy.
Even as he was setting the device’s timer, however, the shuffle of a boot caught Scarlet’s attention. “Can I help you, Scarlet?” a deep, grating voice droned.
Hackles instantly rising, Captain Scarlet stalled his preparations to snatch up his latent gun. “Black.” The dark-dressed man stood at the far end of his metallic blind.
The Mysteron agent was prepared for such a defense. One bark of his own pistol sent Scarlet reeling backward onto the floor, a hole in his chest. With a grunt of pain, the captain watched as Black approached him and kicked the mine harmlessly aside. As Scarlet’s sight faded from his injury, Conrad Turner lowered his weapon and smiled. “You will live to see the end of life on Earth, Captain Scarlet. Our promise of retribution will be fulfilled.” Black bent over the downed officer to pluck the scarlet cap from his head. “I will give your friends one chance to live.” Before Scarlet could witness Black’s mercy, he lost consciousness. Would he ever see his friends again? That was his final thought.
Death and Destruction
Ehlora stalled her feline advance to shift once more to her human self. She was out of breath, nearing exhaustion. Only her determination had kept her going this far. She had to speak to her companion. “Bradley,” she panted clutching an aching rib. “I smell fear. Something’s terribly wrong.”
“You’re telling me?” Grey spouted, his arms wide. “Scarlet’s going to blow the place, and we’ve got civilians in harm’s way.” Around them, a silent alarm flashed red at all corridor intersections. Captain Ochre had tapped into the base’s security system and issued the emergency evacuation orders without alerting the Mysterons. The premise had been that if the Mysteron agents were too busy formulating their plan in the main lab, they would have no time or care to notice that the complex was emptying of its human staff.
“We have to find Scarlet,” Ehlora urged. “He can’t set off that bomb.”
“I’ll try one more time to hail him,” Grey sighed. “Keep your fingers crossed.” But just as the captain twitched his cheek to activate the microphone, his epaulettes flashed red. “Thank God. Scarlet, we’re nearing your location. Stall all offensive measures.”
“Captain Grey,” a deep, emotionless voice announced from his inset speaker. “This is Captain Black. You have one chance to save yourselves. Leave this facility and your lives will be spared.”
Grey scowled at the news. “You’re showing mercy?”
“Where’s Paul?” Ehlora insisted. Standing beside her friend, she too had heard the droning ultimatum. “What happened to Scarlet?”
“Captain Scarlet will remain with us. His destiny will be to see the end of life on Earth. If you wish to live, leave now.”
Ehlora glared at her partner. “We can’t.”
Grey’s eyes glazed gloomy. “We have to. I’ll alert the others,” he told the voice at the other end of the stolen microphone. “We’ll evacuate with the rest.” As his own mike flipped back to his cap, Grey frowned at her contrary pout. “Ehlora, we’re out of options right now. We’ll fall back and reconfigure a plan. We have to get these people away first.”
“I don’t have to go anywhere, Brad. My children are here. I won’t abandon them.”
“Don’t make me carry you out of here,” Grey threatened. “I will if I have to.”
“No.” With that, Ehlora saw herself as yet another fleet form. Her anger and desperation this time chose the structure. In a flash of heated fire Ehlora Piper became a sleek and wiry serpent of shiny scales and glistening wings. With a shove of her clawed legs the green dragon lurched into the air and swiftly flew about the closest corner to speed her way toward a new destiny: the rescue of Scarlet and her kin.
From behind, she heard Captain Grey bark a warning: “Don’t let the Mysterons kill you. Ehlora! I’ll kill you myself if I have to.”
Silently Piper vowed to keep herself and her friends safe. She had had much practice in the past risking, rescuing, surviving and recovering from hurts both physical and mental. This was just another such trial to overcome. In the back of her mind, however, a blaring siren reminded: death would not be final in the hands of the Mysterons. It would only mean the rebirth of an evil puppet in shape shifter guise. At all costs, Ehlora must keep from becoming the aliens’ pawn.
With a pumping of determined wings, her shimmering fluidity slipped along the corridors. A flip of reptilian tongue told her bodies were ahead. Several heat signatures. Could she be drawing close to the laboratory within which her children were being held against their will? Would they recognize her? Would she know them by their scent? Their warmer body temperature? As the dragon, Ehlora could both seek them out and defend them if need be. Harvard Kraven would soon learn her true skills and intent. Ehlora would show him the wrath of a protective mother.
Another twist of hallway brought her up short. A startled collection of nurses and doctors in lab coats and patients dragging intravenous carts or sitting in wheelchairs gasped and screamed at her sudden appearance. Before them, as guide, a tall man in a sky blue uniform halted their advance and drew his weapon.
Ehlora landed yards away to lower her head at her Spectrum friend. In submission she flattened her spine, folded her wings and retracted deadly claws.
“Ehlora?” Blue stammered. “Is that you?”
In answer the dragon tilted her head and winked one golden eye. If she could have, Ehlora Piper would have grinned at Captain Blue and offered him a warm kiss, so thrilled was she to see him. Instead, she straightened to stand and gulp a suppressed ball of fire. There was no time for happy reunions. She hoped the Spectrum officer understood her urgency.
Blue turned to one of the doctors in tow. “Get these people out of here, as quickly as you can. I’m going with … her.” In gesture he pointed a digit at the waiting dragon. “She’s with me.”
“Yes, Captain,” the physician stammered, his eyes still wide to the mythical apparition before them. In a rush, the medical entourage flattened themselves against one wall so Ehlora could pass. “If you’re looking for Dr. Kraven’s main laboratory,” the man spluttered, “he’s that way, to the right.” With a poke of a quavering hand before the frightening beast, the doctor fell silent.
“Thanks,” Blue offered then waved Ehlora forward. “Let’s go save the day, sweetheart.”
With a puff of satisfied smoke, Ehlora Piper launched herself once more into the air and slinked about to head off in the direction of the physician’s gesturing hand. Her bearings were renewed as the collective heat of humming computers told her she was nearing the complex’s nexus. Just up the corridor double-wide red doors announced the entrance to Kraven’s private enclave. In satisfaction of their find, Ehlora breathed a fireball at the obstruction. The barrier popped at the heated concussion, partially dislodging from its hinges. From behind her Captain Blue held his firearm ready and slid to a halt beside her.
“Right. On the count of three, then. I’ll take right. You go left.” Nodding her scaled crown at his orders, Ehlora coiled her spiked tail for a spring forward. Captain Blue poised before the breached entrance, his pistol held high, and counted down.
As they rushed forward, Ehlora’s bulk shoved the tilted doors aside and the pair was instantly within the scientific enclave of her old nemesis. She immediately recognized the gray-haired doctor on the far side of the room, amidst a collection of occupied biotubes. The sights, sounds and scents of medical experimentation flared her brain into a vengeful fervor. A saurian roar escaped her fiery throat, accompanied by a violent torch of destruction. The flames arched forward to ignite a set of low tables and wooden chairs.
“Ehlora!” Kraven called. “You’ve come back, my love. I want you to meet my children.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Blue urged aiming his firearm toward the collection of Mysteron agents stationed before the bubbling cylinders. “He’s baiting you. Keep your cool.”
“Yes, Ehlora, dear,” Kraven agreed jamming hands into his lab coat pockets. “Love what you’ve done with yourself, by the way. That’s a new one. I knew you’d been holding out on me.”
“Dr. Kraven. Step away from those cylinders. We’re not here to harm the children.”
“Of course not, Spectrum. You’re here to hand over the grand prize.”
Ehlora couldn’t remain stationary. She’d seen the objects floating within the fluid-filled tanks. They were fetal infants, innocents who only needed, as she did, their freedom. Kraven watched her flank left around a line of computer terminals. He drew his hand from a pocket. A petite pistol perched within the clutch of his digits. With a grin he swung the gun toward the nearest tube. “Do you think I’m going to let you murder your own children, Ehlora? They’re guiltless in all of this.”
“No, Ehlora!” Blue called stomping forward to intercept her reptilian slink between consoles. “It’s a trap.”
“Of course it is,” a deep voice announced from behind another bank of blinking equipment. A pallid man dressed in black stepped out from his concealment; a man in red was draped over one shoulder.
“Captain Black,” Blue growled. “Give us Scarlet and the infants. Then we’ll leave.”
“You cannot win this time, Captain Blue,” the pale man acknowledged, letting Scarlet slump to the floor, a dead weight. Ehlora watched Black’s other hand rise to display the blinking circular discus she assumed was the bomb of which Captain Scarlet had spoken.
Ehlora spit a ball of flame toward the Mysteron agent. It concussed against the concrete floor before Black’s boots. A hiss next issued from her burning throat and Ehlora relaxed her form. Gulping hot air she tilted toward the nearest examination table. “I can’t do this anymore, Harvard,” she sighed, her sudden exhaustion no longer able to maintain her fury. “I trade myself for them.”
From his stance Kraven grinned. “But why, my dear, when I can have all?”
“Ehlora,” Blue warned. “You can’t.”
“I know,” she agreed sadly and slumped to the ground in a heap. Blue’s boots were at her side in another moment. A single gunshot was fired. A warm body sank beside her. Hands grabbed at her arms, dragging her away, undercover of a heavy lab table.
“I sure hope you’re faking it,” Blue whispered into her ear. “I only distracted them. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Ehlora sucked in a heavy breath and opened her eyes to assure him, “I know. Get to Scarlet if you can.” She understood that the Mysteron agents would instantly be converging on their location.
“What do you have in mind?”
“Paul was right. The bomb’s the only way out.”
“Here!” someone called. Their hideout had been discovered.
Blue raised his weapon and discharged two more bullets. “Captain Scarlet!” he called into the open air. “Get to the mine!” As he rose, ready to defend them from the approaching agents, Ehlora gathered her final energies and shifted one last time.
From beneath the table burst a flash of scale and claw. The fiery crimson dragon of rage plunged forward to slay the nurses in a single engulfing firebrand. The expanding heat popped circuits and sent errant sparks of erupting electronics zapping in all directions. The sting of electricity scorched her leathery skin and stabbed up through the soles of her reptilian feet. Ehlora screamed at the agony of it and belched out another fireball. Chemical containers ruptured, exploding into lethal grenades. Chaos was Ehlora’s only reality. Part of her consciousness wondered if Blue had been incinerated in that last blast. She prayed she hadn’t hurt the man or his partner. These two brave souls deserved to live even if she didn’t.
A sudden flare of sparks and concussive eruptions were followed by more screams of agony. Did some of them issue from her own throat? Had Ehlora heard the cracking of glass and the gushing of water? What was to survive the firestorm her fury had created? Exhaustion and searing pain were her companions as all conscious thought abandoned her. Burning blackness was Ehlora’s next fate.
“Ehlora? Ehlora?” A kind voice was calling her. “She’s barely breathing. Her lips, skin. Burned. How did this happen?”
“She set loose a chain reaction. The lab equipment exploded. Hell on Earth, Brad. You should have seen it.”
“Let’s get you three to a medical chopper.”
“Scarlet’s dead,” a new, unfamiliar voice announced. “Bullet to the heart.”
“He’s not the one I’m worried about, Rick. Adam, can you walk?”
“I … I can limp, if Ochre lets me lean on him.”
“I need to set the timer on the mine first. We’re not leaving any of this for the Mysterons to regenerate.”
“Amen to that, Rick.”
Someone lifted her up. There was the stench of cooked flesh. Ehlora’s failing consciousness would not allow her a response to the urgings of her friends. Such dire injuries required healing first. Her energy reserves were too taxed. Perhaps this time she would die.
Redemption and Forgiveness
It was not for some undetermined span before the coolness of damp bandages eased Ehlora’s deep stabbing aches. Singed flesh healed slowly. Intravenous fluids and nourishment were infused directly into her body. The nutrients allowed her the required boost to assist her own healing abilities, to mend the wounds, restore her vigor and recuperate.
People came and went. There were voices, hopeful words, sincere wishes. Even in her deep coma, Ehlora recognized some of them. A gentle woman with lilting accent cared for her charred wounds. A deep, compassionate authority spoke proudly and held her hand. The subdued British voice thanked her for being so brave. The kind man joked with her even as she lay unresponsive to his humor. A brave captain promised to take her swimming in the north Atlantic if she would let him cheat with an arctic wetsuit and tanks. Women, too, came to introduce themselves and express their envy at her ability to soar without the need for steel wings and roaring engines. There was even an awkward ‘thanks again’ to the pretty lady for the saving of a drowning victim.
All wished her well, conveyed their gratitude, and hope for a speedy recovery. As Ehlora’s body mended, her consciousness returned in weary, transient snatches. Blue smiled and urged her to get better. White nodded his approval and kissed her hand like a true gentleman. Scarlet was more stoic, but his bright eyes gleamed with encouragement. Grey was the ever-doting father, tapping her knee and inviting her to a cheery picnic in the open sunshine. Topaz brought her warm tea in a delicate cup, feeding her gently by tiny spoonful.
Within the span of a week, far swifter than any normal recovery, Ehlora Dawn Piper was sitting up and enjoying the company of her Spectrum friends. An afternoon nap ended when Blue came hobbling in, nearly bursting with good news. “Ehlora. I found them. They’re alive.”
“What? Who?” She bolted upright to pat the light blanket on her lap. “Adam, you’re stammering like an over-stimulated three year old.”
With swinging crutches, the captain drew up beside her bed to plop down into a chair. With a huff of expelled air Blue grinned widely. He let the crutches clatter to the sickbay’s deck. “I found them. While you’ve been recovering, I used the Spectrum database computers to scan all activity, all pseudonyms they might be using. I reconnected the dots, revisited all the places you’ve ever mentioned living. Remember the traveling circus you stayed with some twelve years ago? They’re working for them now, waiting to find you.”
“Adam. What are you talking about? Who’s looking for me?”
“Luke and Jedidiah. Ehlora, they’re not dead. Kraven lied to you.”
Ehlora’s heart bashed against her ribs, breath stalled within her lungs. She clutched a hand to her throat to force a sound out. “Alive?”
Blue’s nod was so forceful, his kepi nearly tilted into his lap. “I haven’t sent them a communiqué yet. I thought you might want to surprise them. What do you say? Can we invite you to a family reunion?”
“I … I’d love that. I … I can’t believe it. They got away? The barn fire. It was intense. I rushed in to save them, but the roof collapsed. That’s how Kraven captured me. I panicked and ran out. There was a net and tranquilizer gun. I was sure I saw bodies in that fire. I was sure it was them.”
Blue waggled his head, though his grin only widened. “I found them. Kraven must have let them go. Maybe he didn’t set his trap well enough. In any case, we can go see them. They’re in Seattle. I’ll take you there myself once my bum leg allows.”
“Adam … I don’t know what to say.”
“You can thank him, my dear,” a deep, compassionate voice announced from the doorway. Ehlora’s eyes shifted to her new visitor.
“Colonel, they’re alive.”
“Yes, Ehlora.” White stepped into the medical stall his hands behind his back. “Captain Blue spared no occasion monopolizing our computer resources in searching for your friends. I dare say he’s held up Spectrum’s normal operations for the past three days.”
“Lieutenant Green helped too,” Blue acknowledged. “The colonel gave his blessing.”
“Yes, Miss Piper. I was happy to allow my officer here something to keep him occupied during his own recovery.” There was a slight, promissory grin along the colonel’s normally serious lip. He stepped to her bedside. “It kept him from chivvying Dr. Fawn for hourly updates on your status.” From his back, the colonel brought forward a bouquet of yellow roses. “I wish you peace and swift recovery, young lady.”
Eyes expanding at the display of fragrant blooms, Ehlora grinned. “Thank you, Colonel.” She took the roses from Blue’s commanding officer and bent to sniff their potent scent. “They’re beautiful. I love them.”
“I thought I’d briefly check in on you,” White continued. “The Mysterons were unsuccessful in their attempt to hijack Dr. Kraven’s genetic experiments. The laboratory and its contents were destroyed by concentric mine once you were all safely clear.” The colonel paused for just a moment. His voice softened to silken regret when he continued. “You have my sincere condolences to the loss of your children, Miss Piper. If there had been any other way to save them, we would have, I assure you.”
“I know, Colonel. I knew what had to be done the moment Kraven spoke about wanting us all. It’s why I torched the lab. I knew that I was risking everyone’s lives for the sake of stopping the Mysterons. I’m glad they failed.”
“And that we’re still here,” Blue offered cheerily. “You, me, Scarlet, Grey. We make a great team.”
“Yes,” White agreed. “If you wish to continue your service with Spectrum, Miss Piper, know that you are always welcome here.” He bowed slightly. “Otherwise, I wish you good fortunes and peace in any future you choose.”
“Thank you, Sir. I’ll let you know when I know.” With that, Colonel White dipped his chin in dismissal and backed away to return to the control deck. Ehlora watched Spectrum’s commander leave before returning grinning eyes to Captain Blue. “So, how soon can we leave Cloudbase? I’m yearning for the freedom of open skies again. It’s like keeping an eagle caged and clipped. I need to get out of here.”
In response, Blue’s smile was more subdued. “Dr. Fawn’s in charge here. I’m sure he’ll clear us both soon. I’m a bit antsy myself, and I’ve been beyond these sterile walls for the past five days.”
Ehlora sighed and slipped her legs out from the confines of the blanket. “Well, I was never very good at following my mother’s orders growing up. I think she was afraid of me, once she realized what I could do.” Ehlora slid her bare feet to the cool floor and stood before her friend in her hospital gown. “I’m ready for a walkabout. Let’s slip the bonds of earth and break outta this joint. A trip to the arboretum would be nice.”
“Well, I’ll go see if Mom will give his permission.” With a tilted brow of mischief, Blue lurched himself out of the chair and bent to grab his crutches.
“What happened to you, by the way?” Ehlora blurted with a nod to his bent leg. “Those last moments in Kraven’s lab are both fuzzy and horrific.” She had little memory past the chaos and pain.
“Oh, nothing much,” Blue mused hobbling toward the door. “Stuff exploded and I was hapless enough to be in the way of the shrapnel.” He shrugged. “Acceptable losses.”
“Chunk of meat. Fawn’s got it on the mend.”
“Adam. I’m sorry.” Ehlora’s throat had been seared by the fire. Now healed, it nonetheless constricted at her grief. “I wasn’t thinking straight. I was angry, enraged even. I wanted Kraven dead. I’m not proud of what I did.”
Over his crutches Blue straightened his uniformed spine to assure her. “Well, I am. So’s the colonel. You did just what you had to, what I couldn’t do with my single pistol and all my best intentions.” Blue gave her a little nod of acknowledgement. “You were extraordinary.”
Leave was soon arranged, as was a change of clothes. With a warning from Fawn to refrain from shape shifting for a while, as a means to speed a full recovery, Ehlora was allowed out of Cloudbase’s sickbay. With a hobbled Blue in tow, she wandered the high altitude corridors of Spectrum’s premier station. There were smiles, congratulatory nods and grateful greetings from everyone they encountered. Ehlora’s skin prickled at the passing goodwill. “This is foreign to me, Adam,” she finally admitted. “After years of keeping to myself, staying mysterious and anonymous, this is just so … alien to me.”
“You helped Spectrum. You saved the Earth, Ehlora,” Blue defended. “We know about you, your abilities, and we accept you. We trust you.”
“Then I’ve finally found redemption for all the foolish mistakes of my past.”
“It feels good, I know, to be a part of something bigger than yourself. You can stay and be that again,” he urged. “You have friends here. You always will.”
“Thank you, Adam.” Ehlora fell silent as they entered the promenade’s vestibule. She was contemplating just how graciously to turn down her friend’s offer. Ehlora’s freedom to roam, to fly, to run, to swim as the many creatures she became was cathartic. The nonattachment of responsibility still held a strong allure. Making promises meant you had to keep them. Alone, her only promises were to herself. Stalling within the foyer, Ehlora turned to her blonde-haired, kindly friend. “Adam. I just-”
“Surprise!” A cacophony of voices interrupted her. Ehlora flinched at the concussive reverberation about the greater room’s vaulted ceiling. Spinning away from Blue she noticed the collection of bodies out beyond the flowered foyer. They were standing out among the greenery, in the open courtyard, all turned her way, smiles of greeting and congratulations.
“What’s this?” she stammered at her nearest companion.
Blue, grinning mountains stood from his crutches, letting them drop to his either side. One sure step to her elbow and he hooked an arm to drag her forward. “This is how Spectrum throws a going away party.”
“Going?” They had known all along. “You knew?”
Captain Grey stepped forward from the crowd to take her free hand. “Of course we knew. You love your freedom too much.” With a sad smile the older captain shrugged his epauletted shoulders. “We could never keep you caged up here.”
“But you’re always welcome to come back, pretty lady,” Magenta blurted and promptly flushed at Colonel White’s curious scrutiny.
Grey and Blue led her forward to the assembly of Spectrum personnel. “Melody Angel sends her regards,” Blue informed. “She’s on duty out there in Angel One. Lieutenant Green’s monitoring operations from the control room. He told me to give you a genuine Trinidadian farewell.”
“Oh?” Ehlora stammered. “What’s that?”
With an awkward blush of cheeks, Blue leaned forward to hug her and plant a kiss squarely atop her pate. “That’s the censored version, for my honor’s sake.”
“Good one,” someone called out. Ehlora didn’t recognize the female voice.
“Well, I’m speechless, everyone,” Ehlora began, her voice quavering. She glanced at each officer and Angel in turn. “Thank you for accepting me and my special talent, for … for offering me a home when I had none, and for being such good and trusting friends.”
“Here, here,” a new voice called. Striding in through the promenade doors came Captain Scarlet, an ample, rectangular cake poised in his arms. “Let us celebrate friendship.” Someone distributed balloons as members of the kitchen staff scurried forward to slice the cake and pass around plates and utensils. A nearby table had been set up to house the remnants and a singular present, wrapped in rainbow-tinted foil paper.
As the partygoers mingled and exchanged memories from past revels and recent days, Ehlora found herself wandering away from the boisterous crowd. The span of open sky beyond the promenade enticed her to the towering windows. The clouds below were just shifting to shades of tangerine, crimson and mauve, calling an end to a most vibrant day. Placing an open palm against the glass Ehlora murmured to the open air beyond, “I’m sorry I missed it.” Another perfect chance fading. She stood there, her warm teacup nestled daintily in one hand, for innumerable moments as the sky darkened, the colors washing toward twilight.
Someone joined her at the window, silent and contemplative. He allowed her to notice him there before he spoke. “I will miss you, Ehlora Dawn Piper,” Scarlet offered raising his punch goblet for a transitory toast. “You gave me a chance to see myself through your eyes. Being different is a gift all its own.”
Ehlora blinked at him, noticed for the first time a deep weariness to the man’s vibrant blue eyes. “And you, Paul. You gave me a chance to see my gift as something beyond my own little world. I stretched a perfect moment past the blink of my eye.” She turned to watch the first stars wink on in the blackening velvet of evening. “I am greater than I ever thought. And I am infinitesimal, all at once.”
“Yes,” Scarlet agreed. Silence was their companion for the next few moments as Venus and Mars rose to dominate the eastern horizon. The British captain pointed out toward the glistening planets. “There’s life out there too. Life we need to understand better. Life we need to justify to, that we have a right to live and learn, at our own pace or peril.”
“You mean the Mysterons.” When Scarlet nodded slightly, his gaze focused out past the glass Ehlora offered him her encouragement. “In our own ways and deeds we do what we can, everyday, for the betterment of Earth.”
“And its citizens, yes,” Scarlet agreed. Then the man raised his chin at a private thought. “My life was stolen from me once. I’ve done what I can to prevent that from happening to others since.” His eyes bore into hers, crystals of conviction, when he continued. “Ehlora. Keep yourself safe. Do what you can for others, but remember that you have worth beyond your skin, whatever form it takes.”
Ehlora’s lips relaxed into an easy smile. “Thank you, Paul. That means a lot coming from you.”
“Well,” he added, backing away a step. “Take care of yourself.”
“Wait,” Ehlora stammered. “Adam found Luke and Jed. They’re alive. Living in Seattle.” She shrugged at her warming cheeks. “I’ll need a ride down to Earth to see them. Would you mind offering me a plane? I’d like you to meet them.”
For a moment it seemed Scarlet would decline, perhaps still believing himself a fifth wheel. Then his stiff shoulders slumped and his chin dipped. “I’d be honored to accompany you. I’ll check with Colonel White.”
“Good. Thank you.” As Scarlet left her side, Ehlora turned away from the darkening windows to consider the joyful interior lights of Cloudbase’s promenade. She noticed that several of the officers had already left the party, no doubt for their duty stations. Blue stood grinning beside the cake table, gesticulating at a short-haired, blonde Angel pilot. Symphony was her name, Ehlora recalled. Karen. The way the pair interacted, Ehlora understood the strong bond they shared. With a small twinge of jealousy Ehlora smiled as well. No one deserved to be alone. And she had Luke again. Luke was alive. Ehlora’s heart jumped at the prospect. What would she say to him when they met?
Another body moved through the trees to approach her. Ehlora immediately recognized the sadness in Captain Grey’s hazel-gray eyes. “Bradley. What’s wrong?”
“I’ve been assigned to supervise the final demolition of Kraven’s Vancouver laboratory. We need to ensure that everything of his was destroyed in the explosion, all his databanks, his research. We must guarantee that no one ever tries to repeat his experiments.” Grey stretched out a hand to gently clasp her arm. “I’m leaving in an hour. So I’ll be saying my goodbyes tonight.”
The man’s sobering words surprised her. Lungs hiccupping, Ehlora found her eyes suddenly glazing. “I’ll miss you most of all, I think,” she admitted falling into his arms.
Grey hugged her gently but released his grip to hold her steady. “You’ll find your way just fine, Ehl. We’re never too far if you need us.” He smiled at her. “We’ll always know where you are, remember?”
“The tracking chip,” Ehlora whispered. “I’m not sure I need it anymore. If Kraven’s really dead -”
“He is.” Grey gripped her shoulders in conviction. “Be assured of that. The concentric mine is an electromagnetic device. It kills Mysterons as effectively as it obliterates matter.”
“Then perhaps I’ll ask Dr. Fawn to remove the chip.” She twirled her tongue about her lower teeth. “I can still feel it there, just under my tongue.”
“Hold onto it for a while, will you? Just in case?” Grey urged. “If you truly don’t want us to find you, we’ll keep our word and remove it, whenever you like.”
“Why would you want to find me?”
Now Grey laughed heartily. “Silly girl; drop the suspicions. Because we care about you, of course. We’d never abandon one of our own. Just like you wouldn’t leave your children or Scarlet behind. We take care of our people.”
“And I’m one of your people.”
“Oh, Ehlora.” Grey drew her close within his arms again. “You’re one of the most precious we have.” For a short, few, stalled, and genuine moments, Ehlora wanted to remain with her Spectrum friends. They were like family. They were family. The perfect moment lasted but a few seconds. Grey released her, kissed her cheek and stepped back. “I’ve gotta go. Stay safe, Ehlora.”
“Bye, Brad.” Her throat allowed no further words to escape. She watched him leave, a single wave to Blue as he exited the promenade. “Alone.” Ehlora stood alone by the starry window. In the morning, she too would leave Cloudbase behind. Her future would include Luke and his brother, but would suddenly be absent of these good people. The sensation was one of grief, loss, and of leaving home for the first time. Her mother had not been proud at her departure, but at least these people were. There was comfort in knowing she could return to this home if she wished. Colonel White had said so himself.
The remainder of the party was subdued and mechanical. Cake was distributed for the other non-attendees, then carted off to the galley for the rest of the staff. The wrapped gift sat ignored until Captain Blue patted its bow enticingly. “So, are you going to open this or what?”
“What’s inside?” Ehlora stammered setting down her empty teacup. “It’s not my birthday.”
Topaz squeezed her arm encouragingly. “It will be some day. We might miss it, off saving the world again. So open it.”
Ehlora considered her remaining guests - just the doctor, Blue, Symphony and a returned Captain Scarlet. “Whatever it is, I’ll have no place to put it.” She swallowed at her reality. “I’m always on the move.”
“Well, then,” Symphony urged with a smile, “I hope this works for you. We girls thought long and hard. A fellow flyer needs to maintain her dignity at all times.”
Ehlora swung her gaze across the expectant gathering. Even Scarlet seemed eager to see what the Angel pilots had chosen for her going away gift. “All right. But I hope you kept the receipt.” With a curling of fingernails, Ehlora dug into the package, revealing a box under the foiled paper. A click of a pocketknife from Scarlet and the sealing tape was severed next. Ehlora leaned over the container to peel the flaps open. Tissue paper obscured the contents. Ehlora dipped in a suspicious hand. “It’s not going to bite me is it?”
Symphony giggled. “Sweetie, the last thing you need is a pet.”
Her fingers found the supple texture of fine tanned leather, fringe, and a long, plaited handle. She withdrew the pouch with expectant eyes. “A travel bag?”
“With a long enough strap for you to sling over your shoulder no matter what form you take,” Symphony informed. “Look inside.”
It was true; the traveling pouch seemed laden with pliable contents. Flipping open the flapped cover, Ehlora next withdrew a shimmery fabric and flat-heeled, slip-on shoes. The dress and footwear were both light and supple, easy to carry no matter how far the journey.
“Wouldn’t want you to jeopardize your dignity along a roadside again,” Symphony explained.
“Or inside an old abandoned house,” Blue added with a knowing smirk. “It’s beautiful, Karen. Tell the girls you all have a fabulous fashion sense.”
“Very practical, Symphony,” Scarlet offered with an approving nod. “Bravo.”
“Yes, Symphony,” Ehlora agreed. “It’s perfect.” In illustration, she held up the gossamer sundress with its in-sewn slip, winglet sleeves and spiraling colors. “I even think it’ll fit.” Ehlora laid the dress onto the table to appreciate the leather pouch. Its construction was also light, with a rainbow roundel sewn onto the flap’s underside. “The Spectrum logo?”
“That’s in case you ever run into trouble,” Karen explained. “Consider it a mark of kinship. The authorities will think twice before hassling you if you flash them that.”
“Great idea, Karen,” Blue spouted. “I hope the colonel approves.”
“Well, it’s only for emergencies. I don’t think he’d mind.”
Ehlora smiled at the inference. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission?”
“Exactly,” Symphony answered blushing.
“Well,” Scarlet sighed. “It’s getting late. Miss Piper has an early start tomorrow.” The captain considered his customary partner. “I believe you have an appointment with Dr. Fawn about that leg, Adam. Perhaps we should call it an evening.”
“Right,” Blue acknowledged and limped back toward the promenade’s entrance for his abandoned crutches. “Let’s leave the festivities to the night owls, shall we?” he said sporting the metal contraptions, one under each armpit. “I’m bushed.”
Ehlora noticed the arching bough of a flowering tree and the fanned stems of blooming rhododendron beside the hobbled captain and pointed. “I get it.” She chuckled. “Bushed?” That set off Karen and Julia, who both covered their grins and joined in with feminine chitters.
Scarlet for his part only shook his capped head. “You must be tired,” he acknowledged. “You all have a case of the queer-giggles.” With giddy women in tow, the two captains led the way to their various final destinations. Ehlora found herself back in a sickbay bed. For once, she offered no protest to being confined to the infirmary. She was among friends. The blinking and beeping of medical monitors was now just background noise.
Captain Scarlet arose before the sun the next morning. He was to pilot the SPJ to Earth, escorting Ehlora Piper home to Seattle and a reunion with her longtime companions and friends, Luke and Jedidiah Haven. He noticed the mood about the base was unusually melancholy as he quickly ate a small meal and sipped his coffee in the galley. The celebratory cake of the previous night was gone, only crumbs and an abandoned cake platter sat where the dessert had been left out for human scavengers. As breakfast fell into full swing, the cafeteria staff swiftly dispensed of the refuse. With a setting down of his empty mug, Scarlet stood and marched for his preflight duties.
He arrived in the hangar bay, mounted the steps to the waiting jet’s flight deck and silently prepped the aircraft for takeoff. Voices beyond the vessel soon alerted him to his passenger’s arrival. Ehlora wasn’t alone. Lurching from his seat, Scarlet strode to the open hatch to greet her.
“I’ll be happy to fly with you anytime, Miss Piper,” one of the deck hands offered with a handshake of farewell. Scarlet saw that Ehlora was collecting quite an entourage as she strolled across the sub-level tarmac, Captain Blue in tow. Scarlet’s partner was no longer sporting his cumbersome crutches, yet the man still limped visually. The large chunk of flesh from his calf would no doubt leave a nasty scar and generate long-term nerve pain for the American captain. Scarlet frowned at the knowledge. Whereas he fully recovered from such injury, his friends could be permanently damaged. Next time, Scarlet wouldn’t be so careless and cavalier to leave his friends to come to his rescue.
Ehlora and Blue were approaching the plane. Scarlet noticed the woman’s shoulder sported her new travel bag. Beside her, Magenta waved his goodbye and trotted off. Melody gave a quick hug before returning to the Amber Room. As others came and hastily left with their final good wishes, Colonel White appeared at the SPJ’s boarding steps. “Colonel,” Scarlet acknowledged.
“Scarlet.” The man climbed a few steps to lean in for a private conversation. “I’ve gotten word that a man matching the description of Captain Black was seen just outside the city of Seattle, Washington, two days ago.” His firm scowl spoke oceans. “I dare say; I want you vigilant at this meeting of the Haven brothers and Miss Piper.”
“Sir,” Scarlet stammered. “Do you believe the threat against Miss Piper may not be over?”
“You’re a cautious man, Captain. Have a Mysteron detector at the ready, and protect Miss Piper with your life. They may yet draw a final effort to take her from us.”
“That would be devastating, Sir. I understand.”
“Good. Speak no more of it.” With that, White jaunted down the steps to spread his smile and arms in final farewell. “Miss Piper,” he called. “I wish you good journeys.”
“Thank you, Colonel.” With a relaxed grin and welcome hug, Ehlora squeezed the older man’s ribs heartily. “I’ll never forget your kindness or your trust.”
The colonel planted a kiss upon the young woman’s forehead. “Live well, my dear. Stay safe.”
“You too, Sir.” Scarlet watched White give a friendly pat to Captain Blue’s shoulder as he strode off. The pair next stepped to the SPJ’s boarding steps. “I’m going to miss all of you,” Ehlora muttered, sniffling. Scarlet saw her eyes were once again glistening with emotion.
“I believe you’ve left an impression on us as well, Miss Piper.”
Ehlora squinted up at him. “Captain, you’re being formal again. I told you to stop that.”
Scarlet dipped his chin in contention. “Ehlora. Forgive me. Welcome aboard. Our flight will take us to the west coast of North America in approximately an hour and forty minutes.” He stepped aside to allow his partner and passenger aboard. “I’m looking forward to meeting these men who have risked their lives for you.”
Ehlora chuckled at Scarlet’s raised brow. “Jealous of their bravery, Captain? Please don’t be. I’ve seen enough heroism around here to fill a Cloudbase. You have nothing to fear.” She settled into a seat and strapped herself in. “I’m all jumpy inside,” she admitted with a click of locking harness. “Like a kid on her first day at school.”
“You’re anticipating a happy reunion,” Blue surmised as he sank into the copilot’s seat. “Butterflies are normal.”
“Takeoff in two,” Scarlet announced, strapping himself in and finalizing the pre-flight procedures. He contacted Control and was given clearance by the ground crew to begin the lift sequence. Beneath them, the jet’s platform rose into the bright promise of a new day.
Out beyond the runway, Scarlet noticed the brooding storm clouds gathering and hoped turbulence wouldn’t be an issue. Lieutenant Green gave launch clearance, and the jet shot forward into free air a moment later.
But as the SPJ sped toward the North American continent, Scarlet felt a twist of worry clutch his gut. Had Captain Black reappeared to wreak havoc yet again? Was the Mysteron agent in Seattle to sabotage Ehlora’s reunion with her travel companions? Had Ehlora survived her first ordeal with Mysterons only to be killed by them on her second? Silently, Scarlet concentrated on their flight path, and kept his reservations to himself.
Conversely, the conversation within the plane was more animated. Ehlora’s passion for her lost friends was evident, as was her hope that life would be far easier now that Dr. Harvard Kraven was no longer her pursuer. “I’m planning on taking a real vacation,” she told Blue. “I’ve never been to Yellowstone National Park. I bet there are some really grand places to explore. I’ve never been a bison or wolf before. Maybe I can observe a pack from up close.”
“Don’t you ever worry that an animal will sense that you’re not really what you seem and attack you?”
“They did, Adam. In the beginning, I guess I was a bit rash. To the animals, I was seen as untrustworthy. I was nearly ripped apart by a pair of nesting eagles once. I flew over their aerie and called down a greeting. I didn’t know that in eagle-speak, I was threatening their territory.” Ehlora expelled a tensed breath of remembrance. “That was a close one.”
“What happened?” Blue balked.
“I had to find a safe place to land, as far from their tree as I could get. I folded my wings and darted down. Landed on an open rock shelf. I made myself human and curled up very small.” Ehlora’s voice from over Scarlet’s right shoulder was filled with renewed angst. “They buzzed me a few times. Screamed bloody murder in my ears. I kept my head down and never made eye contact. Caught a few gouges in my back from their talons, but never moved.” She sighed at the conclusion of her tale. “They could have killed me.”
“Lesson learned, I guess,” Blue ventured with a knowing brow. He turned back to his instrument panel to check their airspeed. “We’re making good time. Scarlet are you speeding? Why the rush? I’m in no hurry to part ways with our lovely lady friend here.”
“Sorry, Captain. I …” Scarlet poked at his controls, pulling back on a lever. “I didn’t realize I was over-throttling the engines. Readjusting airspeed.”
“Paul,” Ehlora ventured, leaning in to his free ear. “I probably won’t get another chance to ask you. We really haven’t had much opportunity to talk, but can I ask you something about your healing abilities?”
Scarlet swallowed. Perhaps a distraction from his private concerns was just what he needed. “Of course, Ehlora. What do you wish to know?”
“Well, Colonel White said you can be killed, but you can come back to life. Retrometabolism, he called it.”
“How do you do it? I mean, I go into a deep sleep. Luke always called it my healing sleep. Julia likened it to a self-induced coma. It taps my reserves to heal, and I’m famished when I wake up. Is it the same for you?”
“I experience the pain of my injuries, of course,” he explained matter-of-factly. “I lose consciousness. Then emptiness. Sometimes I dream as I begin to recover.”
“Dream? When you’re dead, you dream? How’s that possible?”
From his pilot’s seat Scarlet shrugged. “I’m not sure. It’s just what happens.”
“Nightmares?” Blue inquired. “I’ve never asked you about this before, Paul. I guess I’m curious now too.”
“Nightmares,” Scarlet challenged with a rising brow. “You mean like dying over and over again?”
“Really?” Ehlora blathered.
“He’s kidding, Ehlora. Don’t believe him.”
“I can’t remember my dreams once I wake,” Scarlet acknowledged. “I remember the dying part, though. Every single time.”
“Oh,” Ehlora exhaled. “I’m sorry, Paul. Sorry I asked.”
Scarlet felt a twinge of worry tightening his gut as the pain and pressure in his skull returned then. His brain swirled as within a tempest. His body shivered, ice infiltrating his muscles and bones. Scarlet’s lungs began to constrict, as though the oxygen was being sucked from the space around him. “I … I need you to take control, Adam.”
“What?” Blue gulped, off put by the sudden request. “Take the plane?”
“Why?” Ehlora asked from behind him.
“Because … I believe I’m going to -”
“Paul!” Blue called out to the pilot as Scarlet felt the final squeeze to his lungs.
There was an indeterminate blackness before Ehlora’s urging shakes brought him ‘round again. “I’m back,” he gasped, filling burning lungs with cockpit air. “How long?”
“You were unconscious for several minutes, Paul,” Blue informed. “I radioed Cloudbase. Fawn’s urging us to turn back. Ehlora said you’d be fine once you had a chance to recover. What’s going on with you?”
“Yes, Paul. Bradley and Julia both said this isn’t normal for you. They’re all concerned about you.”
“Paul,” Blue urged. “If this has something to do with Ehlora, we need to get her planetside and you back to Cloudbase ASAP.”
“Yes. That’s what we need to do. Take Ehlora home.”
“Right. You OK?”
“Of course, Adam. Just a dizzy spell.”
“Berk spatter,” Ehlora barked. “Whatever the hell that means, anyway.”
Blue leaned back against his headrest and kept control of the flight deck. “Something’s weird here, Captain. I’ll get us to the airport. You … you just rest.”
Scarlet allowed his weary eyes to drop shut. “SIG.” He didn’t see the worried glances shared by his companions. The remainder of the flight to Seattle was less animated and more uncertain.
Blue brought the plane in for a smooth landing at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. They taxied in and Blue stoically powered down. With an expectant eye to his partner he asked, “Ready to go?”
With a punch to his safety release, Captain Scarlet rolled out of his seat and stood. He gripped the bulkhead for stability and smiled. “Right as rain, Adam.”
“Bloody rubbish, partner,” Blue accused with forced British flare as he too rose from his seat. With a pop to his kepi the American shouldered past Scarlet to follow Ehlora from the plane. “Come on, Ehl. Let’s get us a Spectrum saloon. I’m driving.”
Scarlet drew in a strength reviving breath and stomped off to shadow them. He immediately thought of Colonel White’s warning. Checking his weapon, the British captain increased his pace, down the steps and across the tarmac to Spectrum’s security booth where Blue was already requesting one of Spectrum’s high performance patrol vehicles. “Thank you, Wilson. Sky’s looking a bit dreary today. Are we getting into some weather?”
“You’re in Seattle, Captain Blue,” the security officer assured dourly. “You’re always in the weather here.”
“Right.” With an eye to his approaching partner Blue raised a sarcastic brow. “Bumbershoots it is, then.”
“Oh, full marks, Captain,” Scarlet spat. “Remember; we have a real job to do here.”
Ehlora shifted her attentions between the officers as they moved to occupy a waiting SSC. “Are you two going to parry strokes all day or will there be a final death blow soon?”
Blue chuckled at her and slid behind the car’s steering wheel to buckle in. “Just a bit of fun, Ehlora. We’re really best friends in another life.”
“Well, in this one, I’d think you two rivals for superiority.” Ehlora took up the rear seat behind Scarlet. “My mother would have told you two to go chase a prairie chicken.”
“My mom would have had us duke it out in a back alley,” Blue offered with a smile. He turned over the engine and the car roared forward, exiting the hangar and turning out onto the nearest road toward the highway. “The map gives this circus a location just northwest of the city central, in Discovery Park. We should be there in half an hour.” Blue paused at a traffic light before pulling out into the northbound lanes of Highway 5. He glanced over his right shoulder to smile. “Getting excited again?”
“Joyful might be the best word, Adam. Remember, I’ve thought Luke and Jed dead for nearly two months. I never thought they’d have been searching for me all this time.”
“Two months,” Scarlet mused. “The asteroid will be here soon. We can recover deRavin’s Phoenix probe, see what data it’s gathered along its journey.”
“What’s that, Captain Scarlet?” Blue asked as he maneuvered the Spectrum saloon around a slower car. “Did you say the Phoenix probe? Is that the ship you used to get to Mars?”
“No. My tin trap was the Phoenix-B. deRavin’s initial probe was sent to spy on the Mysterons and ride Phobos II back to Earth. There’s a mining company ready to extract minerals from the asteroid as it circles Earth then slingshots on toward the sun for incineration.”
“Phobos II?” Ehlora asked from the back seat. “Isn’t Phobos the name of one of Mars’ moons?”
“Yes,” Blue confirmed. “It means ‘fear’ in ancient Greek. The companion to the Roman god of war, Mars. Fear always follows Mars into battle.”
“Dreary,” Ehlora mused and settled back into her seat. “So, Captain,” she started up again with a tap to the back of Scarlet’s chair. “You’ve been to Mars. Did you meet the Mysterons there?”
“No, I… I, uh. I never made it.”
“What?” Blue stammered, instinctively tapping at the saloon’s brakes. “You never made it to Mars? But I thought… The colonel said -”
“Stuff it, Adam. I can’t talk about it, remember? I can’t.”
“All right, pal. Calm down. I forgot this secret mission stuff had to stay secret until it wasn’t anymore. Just curious. You know, a lot of us would like to know what the Mysterons told you. What answers you got to your three questions.”
“Three questions?” Ehlora posed. Her voice was close. She’d leaned forward in her rear seat again, almost at Scarlet’s left ear. “Paul, what three questions did you ask them?”
Scarlet’s brain fought to recall the facts of his space-faring journey. “I needed to know what the Mysterons ultimately intended to do with Earth. Once all human life was gone.”
“Just human life?” Ehlora probed. “What about all life? Will everything else be spared?”
“And why the Mysterons have been watching us.”
Blue cut in then. “Paul, you mean why they came to Mars in the first place? Have they been there watching Earth since before there was life here? Did they start life here? Are they our creators?”
Scarlet shot his friend a glaring eye. “Three questions, Adam. I can only ask three questions. Out of a million we’d like to know the answers to, I can only ask three.”
“You mean you only asked three, past tense,” Ehlora clarified.
“Paul. Are you OK? Are you feeling like you’re going to pass out again? Your trip into space… it left you ill, or injured somehow. Am I right?”
“I… I can’t remember.”
Blue’s pale eyes expanded then beside him. “Oh, damn, Paul. Is that the problem? The colonel wants your intelligence report from your trip and you can’t remember? The Mysterons took your memory? Is that why you’ve been so cross? You’ve been trying to remember what happened on Mars?”
Scarlet shut his eyes to the interrogation. “Are we to the park yet?” he asked with a huff. “I need some fresh air.”
“Sure, pal,” Blue assured with a worried glance his partner’s way. “We’ll be there soon. Just up the road. We’ll get you some fresh air.”
“Good.” Scarlet stared out the forward windscreen and fell silent for the remainder of their trip. Blue pulled the saloon off the highway and followed the signs leading to Discovery Park’s entrance. He soon parked the vehicle among a collection of others along the edges of a coastal forest.
“This looks a bit familiar,” Blue ventured. “Like Vancouver.”
“Same temperate rainforest, Adam,” Ehlora offered. “Only further south. Come on. I can’t wait any longer. The parade grounds should be out there, where there aren’t any trees.” Scarlet felt her shoving against his seat back. He had to lean forward to exit first before allowing her access. “Thanks,” she murmured, sidling about his bulk and trotting off.
“Wait, Ehlora!” Blue called after her. Scarlet was right behind, his palm instinctively atop his firearm. As he trotted on, Scarlet’s eyes scanned the roving crowd and parked vehicles for the familiar ashen face of Conrad Turner.
Up ahead, Piper slowed her advance, pivoting to huff her impatience. “Come on, you two. I know these people. This is my other family. Devon Sykes is the High-Top Circus manager. His tent is always just inside the main gate. We’ll go see him first.”
“Why did you ever leave the circus, if these people were like family?” Blue inquired, striding up beside her and taking her arm. Scarlet paced beside them.
“Devon and I had a falling out. Performer jealousies. I’m sure he’s forgiven me by now. It was twelve years ago.”
“Caution would be prudent, Captain Blue,” Scarlet suggested with a pat to his hip holster. The taller man’s eyes hardened. He understood the warning.
“Right.” To Ehlora he said, “You need to take a breath first, Ehl. Take a look around. Get your bearings. The public’s come here to see the circus, the sideshows. You wouldn’t want to steal the scene, would you?”
“No,” Ehlora agreed grudgingly. “It’s just that this was part of my life once. Now I know Luke’s here. Alive. I don’t want to waste a single moment.”
“Sometimes moments are all we have,” Scarlet observed. His gaze surveyed the flowing crowds. He pointed slightly to the right of their position. “The main gate seems to be there, where the crowd is moving. Let’s head that way.” Blue nodded and steered his charge into the general flow of human traffic.
As they approached the ribboned-off perimeter, the sights and sounds of traveling tent life bombarded Scarlet’s piqued senses. Pungent odors flared his nostrils. Elephants, horses, popcorn, the sweetness of candy floss drifted amongst the dirt and sweat of life on the road. Whirling rides and the tunes of a calliope circumvented the area. Colorful, billowing tent covers highlighted the horizon above the converging crowd’s heads. The largest and tallest structure dominated the center of the parade grounds. Around it hovered the more personal domiciles of the individual circus performers.
“There,” Ehlora pointed. “That’s Devon Sykes’ tent. The green and red one. He’ll be hovering by the ticket booth if I know him.” She rubbed her fingertips together. “Money makes the world go round.”
“One of his anthems?” Blue challenged with a tilted brow.
Ehlora nodded and shrugged her arm loose from the man’s grasp. “Zooks?” she called and bolted forward. “Archie? Is that you?”
Scarlet exchanged a concerned glance toward his partner before lurching forward through the condensing crowd to intercept the woman before she got too far ahead of them.
“Ellie?” A scruffy man in a soiled white shirt and holey jeans raised a chin their way. He was tall and slender, towering over the shifting human herd. A friendly arm shot up to hail her. “Ellie Piper.”
Ehlora twisted about a family of four, excusing herself, before jerking forward to hug the dusty man just outside the ribbon-fence. Another man, shorter and with a long blonde ponytail also grabbed her into his embrace. “So good to see you two bums. Still in love with the traveling bug?”
The shorter man grinned with missing teeth. “Not s’much anymore,” he conceded with a deep Scottish flare. “Ev’ry bump and pothole’s murder to me spine. We’re getting t’old for this crap.”
Blue jolted to a stop at Ehlora’s side. Scarlet flanked the group, his pistol just a centimeter from a poised hand. Blue asked the obvious. “You know these two?”
“Circus grunts,” Ehlora explained an arm around each stranger’s waist. “Tent crew. Hardest working stiffs this side of a high wire.”
“We’re here for the Haven brothers,” Scarlet addressed, matter-of-factly. “Do you know where they might be?”
The tall man frowned at Scarlet’s lack of cordiality. With a jerk of his head toward the main gate he offered, “Check with Devon. He knows where everyone is right now. First show’s in twenty-five minutes.”
“Right. Thank you.” Scarlet too tilted his skull toward the nearby ticket booth. “Come on, Captain Blue.”
“Ehlora,” Blue began with an apologetic brow. “We have to leave soon. You can stay with your friends, of course, but we have other duties.”
“I’m sorry, Adam. I understand.” She quickly smacked a peck against each circus grunt’s cheek before releasing them and following her Spectrum escort. The eyes of Zooks, Archie and the crowd now followed the colorful uniforms into the cordoned off clutches of the High-Top Circus . “There,” Ehlora instructed with a poke of a finger. “That’s Devon in the top hat.”
“Right,” Scarlet murmured. He forced his hand to his side, away from his weapon. This Sykes was the circus’ show boss. No need to show disrespect. Here, Devon Sykes was chief executive officer. “Excuse me, Sir,” the captain began. Dark eyes swung Scarlet’s way. Sykes immediately scanned the man’s uniform and wrenched for his rifle, propped against a tent pole. Scarlet held out a cautionary hand even as the crowd gasped and yelped, feigning back out of the way of the long-barreled weapon.
“Spectrum. Here?” Sykes growled in a voice gruff from years sucking the pungent cigar gripped in his darkened teeth. “What do you want?”
“We’re here to see the Haven brothers,” Scarlet offered, lifting his hands before the circus boss. No counter threat graced his open palms. “We’ve brought a friend of yours to see them.”
“Hi, Devon,” Ehlora offered sweetly, her lashes flashing. “Forgive me?”
The man’s dark eyes lowered from Scarlet’s cap to the crown of the woman beside him. “Ellie. You’re still alive?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? I wasn’t the one with the bullet hole in the gut when we parted ways.”
Scarlet felt his hackles rise along with a suspicious brow. Violence had been these two’s last meeting? Sykes was speaking, as Scarlet also noticed the man had lowered the gun barrel. “It was touch and go for a while there. Never expected you’d come back here.”
“Well, Devon, my men are here. You hired them yourself, I’m sure. Didn’t think I’d find out?”
“Again,” Sykes stated with a jerk of his rifle stock, “I thought you were dead. I think Luke thought so too. So I hired them. They’re good with the animals.” Scarlet watched Ehlora’s cheeks flush at the comment. Sykes thrust a chin back to the main arena. “Horses, especially.”
“May we go see them, Sir?” Scarlet asked with professional aplomb.
“You got ten minutes before the opening sequence. No more. We got a show to run here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sykes.” As Scarlet turned to lead the way, however, Sykes grabbed Ehlora’s passing arm. The British captain stalled, his fist tensing for blows.
“Ellie. You’re not planning on sticking around are you? I’ve moved on.”
Ehlora, for her part, drew up straight and lowered her chin just a tad. Her eyes were golden green gems of cooled fire. “I have as well, Devon. I’m glad to see you’re doing so well.”
As Sykes released her arm Scarlet was pleased to see the man grin, genuinely cordial. “I’ve missed you, girl. Had a devil of a time trying to top your act. Never quite found a replacement.”
Ehlora raised a confident chin. “Never will either.” Her golden gaze shifted to her uniformed companions. “Let’s go find Luke and Jed.” With a pair of nods, Scarlet and Blue followed her into the circus enclave. Bypassing the main entrance into the central tent, she guided them around the side to the performers’ flap. Along the way, there were gasps or calls of recognition. Ehlora, however, ignored the opportunities to reunite with past friendships and fellow colleagues. Scarlet understood that only a certain few knew the woman’s true talents.
The noise beyond the heavy canvas was expectant, boisterous. Inside the big top, families were settling for the upcoming three-ringed show. There was the trumpet of an elephant, the toot of a clown horn, the rustling of innumerable costumes. Within the tent, a time-honored spectacle and fantasy would soon commence. Blue must have shared the thought. “Ah, to steal away and join the circus. It must have been exhilarating at times.”
“And dreary and dirty, and smelly and tiring,” Ehlora retorted with a flip of a loose tent fold. “I was constantly shifting between being myself and someone totally contrived. It grew exhausting. I miss the crew the most. They were genuine human beings. No egos to bruise.” Blue chuckled at her and shared a knowing brow with his partner. Scarlet understood the reference. Those in power, or at least with the illusion of it, generally held the most delicate of personalities. Another lurch forward through the gathering performers and Ehlora called out. “Luke! Jed!” Her eyes were constantly scanning the collection of vibrant costumes and flowing and feathered headdresses. “Luke!”
“Ellie! Here,” someone hailed back. A brown-capped head popped up above the rest. It was a woman in skimpy, flamboyant garb. Her raised hand was wrapped about the reins of a silken horse be-speckled with just as much rhinestoned flare as its rider. “Luke’s over to the third ring, getting ready for our entrance. Oh, girl, he’ll be thrilled to see ya.”
“Thanks, Jezzie. I’ll see you later. Break a fetlock.”
Scarlet found it increasingly difficult to keep up with his charge as Ehlora rushed on amongst the assembled performers. Then the woman ducked inside the main tent through an invisible seam. “Blue, I lost sight of her.”
“The colonel warned. Black was about here recently.”
“No,” Blue groaned. “You’re not thinking -”
“I’m praying otherwise,” Scarlet growled back and slipped between the closest open flaps. He ducked beneath the scaffolding of the grandstands to push on past the pressing circus crowd. Tiptoeing over the melee, the captain next drew his weapon and called out: “Ehlora! Wait!”
“Ehlora!” Blue hailed as well. His taller stature gave him little advantage here, so close to the gathered horses and elephants lined up for the grand entry. “There, Paul. The last ring. I saw her.”
“Go. There’s little time.” If this was a Mysteron trap, only seconds could determine the outcome. Frantically Scarlet scanned the throng for Captain Black. Innocent people, families, could be hurt if a firefight broke loose within the teeming confines of the main tent. He shoved himself forward, not caring what adult he jostled. His boots shuffled ahead, hoping not to topple a smaller person. There was the threat of crushing if panic ensued.
An opening in the masses presented itself. Bolting forward beyond the grandstands, Scarlet coursed along the sawdusted perimeter of the stage floor to the third ring. He skidded to a halt as Ehlora fell into the arms of a younger, brown-haired man, his muscular frame and tanned skin evident of a rugged life outdoors. Luke lifted her into the air, a joyful grin spreading from one ear to the next. Another man soon burst forward from the crowd, taller, darker-haired and more slender. Was this Jedidiah?
“Ellie!” the pair chorused. Ehlora’s feet had yet to land atop the sawdust. The trio twirled in irreverent reunion for nearly an eternity.
Blue, limping painfully on his still healing leg, caught up to his partner. “Looks happy enough,” he panted. “Maybe the colonel was wrong.” He sucked in a breath-catching gulp. “I haven’t seen Black. I’ve looked.”
“There are an awful lot of people here, Adam. He could be anywhere.”
“What do you propose?”
“We have to get them out of the main tent, away from the crowd. Quickly.”
Blue, though he grunted at the ache in his leg, agreed with a nod. “SIG.” Warily the two officers approached the boisterous trio. “Ehlora,” Blue started. “Would you introduce us?”
Giggling uncontrollably, Ehlora Piper nodded her head. She still clung to the broader man beside her. “Captain Blue, Captain Scarlet. This is Luke and Jedidiah Haven. They’re alive!”
“We see that.” Blue grinned. “Nice to meet you gentlemen.”
“Ehlora,” Scarlet began even as he shared a handshake with the men, “can we get out of this noisy fluster? It seems unfair to steal the thunder from these hard-working performers.”
“The grand entry’s about to start,” Jed informed with a sobering nod. “This way.” The taller brother waved them out through another flap in the heavy canvas, back into the muted sunshine beyond the artful chaos.
“We have so much to talk about, Ehl,” Luke spouted through his interminably spreading smile. “Where do we start?”
Scarlet cleared his throat. “First, we must make sure you’re all safe.” He shared a sobering glance toward his agreeable partner. “Please follow us back to the saloon.”
“Saloon?” Jed stuttered as Scarlet took the lead toward the parking area. “Are we leaving the grounds? We’re on duty. We can’t go to a bar now.”
“Our vehicle,” Blue elaborated. “Forgive my partner. He’s British. Please,” Blue added with a welcoming wave further away from the main tent. “We need to update you all on what’s been happening.”
“Consider it a professional debriefing,” Scarlet offered.
“Come on. Jed,” Ehlora urged cheerily, her arm about Luke’s accompanying waist. “These are my friends. Look past the dashing uniforms and come along. They’re serious about the threat.”
“I always thought authority was the threat,” Jed offered with a narrowed brow. The man was no doubt alluding to the trio’s past life together. Indeed their journeys must have been harrowing at times.
“We apologize for any misconceptions, gentlemen,” Blue offered as he limped beside his Spectrum partner. They were approaching the dirt and grass parking area. The human crowd had dissipated, now all within the confines of the big top for the impending show. “We’re here on official business, but there’s a happy ending to all of this.” Blue paused to wink Ehlora’s way. “We’re your reunion committee.”
Scarlet had never ceased surveying the area for any signs of Captain Black or other such murderous characters. Now he too stalled by a dark sedan as prickles formed beneath his kepi rim. “Adam.” Scarlet felt the clutching panic of constricting lungs once more. The frigid grip spread through his appendages. He shivered. “Something’s wrong.”
“Not again,” Blue groaned. “Sit down, Captain, before you fall down.”
“What’s going on?” Luke demanded, dropping his hand from Ehlora’s to instinctively brace the teetering captain.
Scarlet dropped to a knee. “Dizzy. Can’t breathe.”
“It’s a fainting spell,” Ehlora explained for her friends’ sakes. “He’ll be fine shortly.”
“No,” Scarlet disagreed, chin tilted toward the dirt, his brain pounding out an alarming rhythm. “I know this feeling.” The nausea coursed through his blood like a tsunami wave. “This is different.”
“Captain?” Blue demanded. “Clarify.”
Between blurring blinks and swirling, sparking brain matter, Captain Scarlet hissed, “Mysterons. They’re here.”
“You know this?”
“Adam. The detector. In the saloon. Get it.”
“No time for that, Spectrum,” Luke growled his arm swinging up to clutch Ehlora about the throat. The tanned muscles of his forearm constricted. Ehlora gasped out a breath but didn’t scream. “We’re leaving.” Luke took a step toward a set of parked vehicles.
“Wait,” Blue blurted, his hand rising, Spectrum pistol perched there. “You’re not going anywhere. Ehlora, they’re Mysterons.”
“Can’t be,” Ehlora groaned as Luke eased his grip and backed away. Jed produced a handgun of his own to cover their retreat. “I’d know.”
“No, Ehlora,” Scarlet growled through the pain of his disorientation. From his kneel, he forced his hand to grip his holstered sidearm. With determined muscles he rose to his feet. “You can’t save them, or reason with them. Jed and Luke. They’re already dead.”
Luke had released his captive, now dragging her back by the wrist, a knife wielded in his free hand. “She’s ours now, Spectrum. We won’t ever let her be taken from us again.”
“Luke, listen to me,” Ehlora urged, shoving his knife hand away from her side. “Don’t be foolish. I’m here with you now. I want to stay with you. We’ll go away. Kraven’s dead, Luke. These men aren’t a threat.”
“Spectrum? The military? What’s the difference?” Jed muttered as the trio continued to back away along the parked vehicles. “They’ve always wanted what you can do. Now that you’re here, we can protect you.”
“Step away from her, Haven,” Scarlet demanded. His wavering gun, gripped in both fists, shifted from Luke to Jed. “Ehlora. They aren’t what they seem. It’s not them.”
“How do you know, Captain?” Ehlora challenged tugging herself free from Luke’s grip. “I love Luke. He’s just afraid of you, of what you represent. Just like I was. Please. Put the gun down.”
“Get into the truck, Ellie,” Jed instructed. He had stepped to an old blue pickup truck and swung the door open for her. “We have a safe house. In the woods where you like it. Isolated.”
“Captain Scarlet,” Blue urged. “Back down. Ehlora’s right. It’s our uniforms. They’re just frightened.” He had already lowered his weapon.
The warning beats of Scarlet’s heart told him otherwise. “Can’t take the risk,” he grunted against the tightness in his chest. A few more moments and Scarlet knew he’d be unconscious. As Ehlora scrambled into the truck cab, Luke moved around to the driver’s side door. “You can’t leave.”
“You can’t stop us. You won’t find us,” Luke assured tugging open the door. His knife was still twisting in shared certainty. “Leave us alone, Earthman.”
“Paul!” Blue barked at the words.
Scarlet squeezed the trigger. A single bullet shot toward the younger man. Luke flinched at the concussion to his chest. Scarlet took two more shaking steps forward to reset his aim. A Mysteron didn’t drop with a single slug. Behind him, Blue let loose a volley. From the passenger side, Jed dropped his weapon and curled toward the grass.
Within the cab, Ehlora screamed. “No!” Horrid panic was strident in the cry. It was the same desperation Scarlet had heard her expel at his bullet to her retreating wing in Cloudbase’s hangar bay.
The captain stepped up to the truck bed, close enough not to miss with his narrowing sight. He leaned heavily against the vehicle. “I’m sorry, Ehlora,” he whispered and pulled the trigger twice more.
As Luke contorted against the injuries, he hissed at the teetering Spectrum officer. “The Mysterons haven’t forgotten, Captain. You will be alone for an eternity.”
Ehlora burst from the truck as Luke slid along the open door to collapse in a heap before his killer. “No, oh no.” Crying, she bent over her fallen lover. “You murdered him.” The condemnation was shrill, eagle-like in its timbre.
Scarlet watched, fascinated, as his dimming view shifted between that tragic scene and a darkened, cold place of pure silence. Ehlora would leave, he knew. She would escape to the trees, never to trust again. Had his fogging eyes seen her shift to a bird and arch into the bright sky? The blackness won out against his consciousness. Scarlet never felt the concussion of his falling body.
Salvation and Reunion
The sound of hammering metal rattled about his skull as if from within a massive bell. “Captain Scarlet? Are you in there?”
“He’s sealed up tight,” Grey confirmed, his voice strangely muffled with distance or obstruction. “We’ll have to drill through the probe’s hatch. Cut it open.”
“His oxygen reserves would have run out some time ago,” warned Fawn. “Scarlet’s been without air for weeks, gentlemen. He may be beyond salvation.”
“We won’t give up until we know for sure,” Blue assured. “Let’s get this tin can aboard the miner’s shuttle. Together we can lift it in this slight gravity.”
“He was marooned out here on purpose,” Grey announced gravely. “This asteroid, this probe was to be his grave and coffin.”
“Lucky for him the asteroid was headed our way.”
“Yeah, another couple weeks and it’ll be spiraling on, into the sun.”
Scarlet witnessed this grim conversation as if through a fog, his body floating above the scene. Floating in space. He was still in space? Not on Earth. Not in Seattle.
Scarlet’s first real sensation was that of bone-numbing cold. He couldn’t stop shivering. They had pried open the Phoenix-B probe and wrenched him from his twisted repose within its modified cockpit. Blue kept referring to the craft as Scarlet’s death vault. “Damn thing. I’m glad deRavin’s been neutralized.”
Scarlet was next stripped of his form-fitting spacesuit and nestled into the confines of a medical suspension capsule. Fawn then worked to reanimate Scarlet’s frozen and desiccated body, supplying pure oxygen via an inserted tracheal tube. Heat was provided through the immersion tank using circulating, saline and mineral-laden fluids, which were also beneficial in rehydrating the man’s freeze-dried tissues.
Under water, naked, face obscured by his sealed oxygen mask, Scarlet floated within his biotube. At first he showed no outward sign of life. Ever dedicated and hopeful, however, Dr. Fawn and his orbiting comrades kept the resuscitation going until the rescue shuttle had returned them to Earth.
From the World Space Organization’s terrestrial base, Scarlet’s encapsulated corpse was next flown to Cloudbase. There both Fawn and Topaz fought on to revive him. It took two more days before there was a stable pulse and Scarlet’s thready blood pressure had normalized enough for the medical team to extract him from the biotube and set him out upon an infirmary bed. He was then wrapped in heated blankets and administered intravenous fluids and a feeding tube, inserted in order to nourish Scarlet’s depleted organs.
Another day passed. Visitors and well-wishers, sporting scrubs and sterile masks, came and went. Scarlet was strangely witness to all this as if a floating, disembodied spirit. The sensation was not unlike an eagle soaring free upon a spiraling thermal.
His shivering continued. Blue even rubbed his arms in a futile attempt to restore circulation to his pale, stiffened limbs. “Come on, buddy. Give me a sign here. Are you still you? What happened out there?”
“Captain Blue,” Fawn chastised, medipad in hand. “Scarlet needs rest, not an interrogation. The colonel will pump him with questions soon enough. Only Scarlet knows whether he reached Mars or not.”
“The electromagnetic containment globe was empty,” Blue informed. “If he got to the city, he never captured whatever that green light was.” After a somber few moments, Blue added, “Maybe Grey’s right. It was a trap all along. Dr. deRavin was a Mysteron pawn used to trick us into sending Scarlet off to his death. We’ll never know the answers to our millions of questions.”
“If that is true, no,” Fawn agreed soberly. “Not even the three Scarlet was supposed to ask. We’re just as ignorant as we were two months ago.”
“Well, at least we found out about Paul in time to reach him on the asteroid, rescue him and bring him home.” Blue continued to rub circulation back into his friend’s arm. “What must it have been like to crash land on Phobos II? To find himself stranded, running out of oxygen, freezing to death? All alone?” Blue too shivered at the thought. “Bloody hell, he would say.”
“Leave him be, Adam,” Fawn cautioned. “In his deep coma, he needs to hear only good things from his friends.” After a moment considering his medipad, the doctor had another suggestion. “Tell him a joke, mate. Something that’d make Scarlet laugh.”
“Make him laugh?” Blue guffawed pointing to the supine patient dressed in blankets, face enshrouded by the oxygen mask. “Dr. Fawn, he’s the master straight man. It’d take an elephantine joke just to get him to smirk. What he needs is a little female persuasion.”
Fawn grinned. “Brilliant, lad. Get the Angels down here to cheer our good captain. Their sweet chorus will sound like angel-song to his thawing ears.”
And so Destiny, Rhapsody, Harmony, Symphony and Melody were all hastily hustled into sickbay to sing a patriotic rendition of God Save the Queen, in honor of Scarlet’s mother country. Harmony then rushed back to the flight deck, for duty in Angel One. The remainder pilots cooed and chatted by the comatose officer for some time before Fawn shooed them off and dimmed the lights for nightfall. “We’ll start a’fresh in the morning, lassies,” he urged with a cheerful Aussie wink.
In the quiet darkness of Cloudbase’s evening, as only the monitors blinked and beeped, Scarlet murmured to himself through the cumbersome mask. “Ehlora. I … I’m sorry.” Captain Grey heard the mumbling first thing the next morning, before his duty shift, and alerted Dr. Topaz.
“He’s saying something, Julia. I can’t figure it out.”
“That’s good news,” Topaz expressed, checking Scarlet’s lung function before agreeing to remove the oxygen mask. “Let’s see what’s so important.”
With a shifting of his head and a grimace at the discomfort of a dry throat, Scarlet mumbled, “I ... I’m sorry. I had to kill him.”
“Kill who?” Topaz inquired, even as Grey moved to the wall intercom.
“Colonel White to the sickbay,” the captain alerted Control. “Scarlet’s waking up.”
At the hail, White, Blue and Fawn were soon in attendance. The colonel leaned over his wounded officer. “Come on, Scarlet,” he urged. “Give us a sign.” When the captain remained inert beneath his blankets, White grumbled. Clearing his throat, the colonel next raised his voice. “Captain Scarlet. Report.”
With a flinch at the summons, Scarlet turned his chin toward the hail and opened his eyes. “Here, Sir.”
Though the attending assembly smiled at the captain’s reaction, White only scowled. “It’s about time, man. You’re late for duty.”
“I … I was detained, Sir. I was … in Seattle.”
“Seattle?” Blue spouted. “Well, if that’s true, it’s way too cold for this time of year. We had to sport spacesuits just to retrieve you.”
Scarlet shifted atop the bed, urging cramped muscles to sit before his commanding officer. To his audience, the man seemed flustered at their collective scrutiny. Topaz stepped forward to raise the platform’s head. White slid his hands behind his back and considered his anxious and reposed subordinate. “We have much to discuss, Captain. For now, welcome back. I’ll await Dr. Fawn’s recommendations of your full recovery.”
“Yes, Sir,” Scarlet murmured as the colonel excused himself. Scarlet’s confused scowl was met with smiles and chuckles. “Have I been away long?” he asked the hovering Blue.
“Well, let’s see, buddy. You’ve been away, crashed, lost and abandoned, but never forgotten.” Blue continued to count off the events. “You were marooned, dead, frozen, found and deiced.” Blue’s gleaming eyes next told of an impending, happy ending. “Looks to me like you survived.”
“Survived?” Scarlet huffed. “Survived what exactly?”
“Quite an ordeal, mate,” Fawn informed with a satisfied nod. “Bloody beaut, if you ask me.” With that, the chief physician shook his head and strolled off. With concerted well-wishes, the remaining staff and officers meandered away as well.
Blue stalled by the door and turned to face his friend. “Paul, you sure you’re OK?”
“Adam,” Scarlet posed once they were alone. “Whatever happened to Ehlora?”
“Who?” Now Blue strode back to Scarlet’s bedside.
“Miss Piper,” Scarlet clarified. “We can track her. Fawn’ll have the frequency.”
Blue shook his capped head and easily settled into a chair beside the bed. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Paul. I have no idea who you’re talking about.”
Scarlet frowned at his partner’s ignorance. “The bloody shape shifter. The Mysterons wanted to use her to create an army of super soldiers. Please tell me I didn’t dream it all.”
Blue’s eyes were sympathetic when he offered, “You’ve been through an ordeal, just like the doctor said, Paul. You’re a bit confused right now.”
“Then what was real?”
“Do you remember Operation Sword?”
“Do you recall the Phoenix probe and leaving for Mars?”
Blue raised a challenging brow. “Do you remember getting there?”
“Do you recall the loss of power to the probe? The complete and utter malfunction that sent you crashing into the asteroid, Phobos II?”
“N … not especially. I was cold. Dizzy. I had trouble breathing. I … passed out.”
Blue lowered his chin to the news. “That was from oxygen deprivation. Fawn figures you probably were in and out of consciousness, perhaps dying over and over again in the span of weeks.” Now Blue’s eyes rolled up to consider his friend with sympathetic reluctance. “Paul, the truth is you were entombed inside that death vault. deRavin’s spacesuit, that fish bowl of a helmet especially, somehow kept your brain alive.” Blue waggled fingers at his own skull. “Electrical impulses from the helmet stimulated your neural pathways.” He shrugged. “I can only guess that it must have short-circuited your memory.”
“Then what did I witness and what did I only dream?”
Blue splayed his hands. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to work that out for yourself.”
“Then there was no shape shifter?”
Blue’s smile was tentative, edged in remorse. “Sorry, buddy. Shape shifters don’t exist. Just like fairies, dragons and unicorns.”
“Is this real?” Scarlet demanded.
“If you’d like, I can pinch you a few times.” The American captain extended a pincer grip. “Tell me if it hurts.” Blue squeezed his partner’s arm.
“Then you’re not dreaming.” Blue tilted a sober chin at him. “The sad news is - that means there’re still Mysterons, and we’re still at war with them. And without your reconnaissance of Mars, we know no more about them than we did before you left on your secret mission.”
“I see.” As Scarlet fell silent, contemplative, Blue lurched from his seat.
“So, I’ll see you, buddy. Don’t go wandering off on us again. I want to know just where you are if another crisis breaks out. OK?”
“SIG,” Scarlet acknowledged and leaned back against his pillow. It would not be for several hours before the captain was able to piece together the two puzzles of his recent past. Some memories belonged to this world, his reality. Others were from a fantasy episode in which a tawny-haired woman could make herself seem anything she wished. A chimera, an anomaly, the totally fantastic apparition, it seemed, of a very vivid imagination. Scarlet’s.
A few days later, as requested, Captain Scarlet reported to Cloudbase’s control room and the waiting colonel. White acknowledged his arrival with a wave to a rising stool. “Good to see you on your feet again, Scarlet.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“I expect to read a rather interesting though unrevealing report on your recent Mars mission. It’s unfortunate you never reached your destination.”
“No, Sir,” Scarlet lamented as he sank onto the stool. “It’s possible Dr. deRavin’s probe was either faulty or sabotaged. When I awoke from suspension, the Phoenix-B was already off course and headed for the asteroid.”
“Yes,” White grumbled. “During your recovery, our engineers had an opportunity to dissect the probe. It seems a coolant leak led to a ruptured fuel cell. If not for your prompt actions in jettisoning that cell, the entire probe would have exploded.”
“Yes, Sir.” Scarlet swallowed against his recovered memories of the event. “According to my onboard instruments, the main propulsion engine was overheating. I remember making the decision to strand myself rather than become a scattered debris field.”
White was studying him with a steely gaze. “You were aware that such an action would leave you without a means to return to Earth?”
“Yes, Colonel. At the time, my intention was to ration my oxygen supply, thinning the mixture to extend my life as best I could. I fired the retrorockets and maneuvered the probe toward the nearest space body.”
Again Scarlet nodded. “My only hope then was that once my rendezvous with Lunarville Complex had gone overdue, you would send a ship out looking for me.” At his commanding officer’s severe frown Scarlet paused in his recitation. “Sir. You did come looking for me once I had not checked in with Lunarville 8, didn’t you, Sir?”
Colonel White’s scowl deepened at the query. “At the time, Captain, deRavin’s treachery was unknown to us. I’m afraid the astral-engineer told us you had safely returned with news from the Mysterons.”
Scarlet blinked against the fact. “deRavin was a Mysteron?”
White nodded. “Quite. Once we had ascertained that deRavin was lying to us, and that no communication from you was imminent, I had Captains Blue and Grey reconnoiter on the moon to find you.”
“Instead, they discovered and neutralized a Mysteron agent,” Scarlet presumed.
“Yes. Dr. Fawn then rendezvoused with them to launch a rescue mission. The kind assistance of the Deep Space Mining Company and their astral-miners’ shuttle was instrumental in discovering your crashed probe on Phobos II. The miners are even now completing their own mission of recovering a store of tritonium from the asteroid.
“That’s good to hear, Sir. At least that aspect of the mission was successful.”
“Yes.” White still seemed troubled by the turn of events.
“Sir? Is there something else?”
White expelled a tense sigh. “I suppose I feel guilty for your extended exile on Phobos II, my boy.”
“But why, Sir?”
“It was my order to keep to radio silence. Had you activated an emergency beacon, we could have rescued you sooner.”
“No, Sir. That wouldn’t have helped.”
“How so, Scarlet?”
“Sir, I had no emergency beacon. I checked. Once I had recovered from the crash landing on the asteroid, I searched the control panel for any means of communication.” Scarlet shrugged. “deRavin had previously extracted most of the probe’s interior to make room for me. Either intentionally or by accident, the communications array had been partially dismantled as well. It was therefore impossible for me to get a signal of any kind out to Lunarville Complex or to Spectrum Headquarters.”
White scowled at the news. “In any case, Captain, I feel I put you in unnecessary peril. For that, I apologize.”
“I understand, Colonel. We’ve been misled by the Mysterons before.”
“Yes,” the colonel assured dourly. “The Mysterons have proven they can be as devious as our own human failings.” The colonel straightened in his seat. “I await the opportunity to query their true motivations someday. It would be fortuitous to know their answers.”
“To the three questions, Colonel?” Scarlet inquired, his fists tightening upon his lap.
“Indeed, Captain. Answers to the many questions we still have to ask.”
“I hope to be there, Sir. After my ill-fated escapade, I’d like some answers of my own.”
“And what of those adventures, Scarlet? Your hallucinations? Have you come to terms with the … shall I say, the cognitive calamity of your forced seclusion?”
“Sir.” Scarlet paused before offering, “While in sickbay, I had a chance to reconcile those memories. It’s been an exercise in piecing together the nits and tatters.” He clasped his hands together atop his lap, subconsciously gaining strength in the gesture before he continued: “I was stranded in space, facing imminent death from asphyxiation and the extreme cold. I can only guess that in my oxygen deprived condition, my … my subconscious provided me a mission of my own making. One to keep my mind busy, one to keep me sane while I experienced the full weight of my impending demise.”
“And deRavin’s neuron-stimulating helmet? Did that device have something to do with your delusions of the shape shifter, Ehlora Piper?”
Scarlet pursed his brow at the question. “Not certain, Colonel. Dr. Fawn said the electrical stimulation, coupled with my intermittent oxygen infusions, did keep my brain functioning, on a deep, comatose level.” Now Scarlet shrugged. “Ironically, that helmet may have been my only saving grace, Sir.”
“Let us hope your resilience is far greater than that, Scarlet. We’ll not risk such a chance again.”
“Thank you, Colonel.” Then Scarlet grinned sardonically at the recollection. “She’s still here, Sir.” He poked at his capped head. “Just at the edges of my conscious memory. Ehlora seemed so vibrant, so real. It’s hard to believe she was just a figment of my sparking neurons.”
“The brain is a mysterious organ, Captain,” Colonel White mused. “I for one am glad you had her to keep you company.”
“Colonel,” Green suddenly spouted from Cloudbase’s computer control station. “We just received an urgent report from Washington State, North America. There’s been a … a sighting, Sir.”
White’s steel blue eyes shifted to his chief controller. “What is it, Lieutenant? Has someone spotted Captain Black?”
“No, Sir. It’s a … a unicorn. In the forest outside Seattle. A confirmed sighting, Colonel, of a pearl white horse, a spiraling horn sprouting from its head. A genuine unicorn, Sir. Can you believe it?”
“Unicorn,” White droned with a tilted brow toward the scarlet uniformed officer seated before him. “Why, a unicorn sighting is as dubious as Bigfoot in that corner of the world, Lieutenant. Best dismiss the report altogether. We’re after Mysterons, remember?”
“Yes, Sir,” Green responded. The young man’s voice was clearly disappointed at the order, however.
From his stool Scarlet watched Green punch off the transmission and grinned once more. “A unicorn on Earth, Colonel?” He chuckled at the imagery. “Why, that’s as unlikely as a dragon coursing the skies outside Cloudbase.”
“Yes, and just as improbable, Captain.” The colonel straightened in his seat to consider both his officers. “We need to maintain discipline, gentlemen. This is Spectrum. We function on facts, not fantasies.” The colonel next eyed his closest agent. “Captain Scarlet, as you were.”
“Yes, Sir.” He rose from his stool at the dismissal.
“Good to have you back, man. Glad to see the Mysterons have failed yet again to rid us of our ace in the hole.”
“Yes, Sir. Though I felt more like a contorted fish in a can. Not a pleasant experience, I assure you.”
“Any residual discomfort?” White inquired, his brow drawn in concern.
“No, Sir. Just lingering nightmares.” With a spin of his boots, Scarlet returned to his friends and duties aboard Cloudbase. Strolling the corridors, he was elated to glance out beyond the tall windows, to view the clear open skies of Earth, his home.
Epilogue: The Next Chapter
Scarlet knelt over the tawny-haired woman, reposed and unconscious upon the cold forest floor. She was disheveled, her pale skin bruised and bleeding. A bloody gouge to her bare abdomen told of a knife wound. Someone had tried to kill her. “Ehlora?” he asked. “Are you all right?” The woman’s chin shifted, as if from within a deep, comatose sleep. Had she heard his summons? “Ehlora,” Scarlet tried again. “Wake up.”
Ehlora Piper’s eyes, though closed, seemed to scrunch at some inner conflict or pain. Was she reliving the violent episode? Was she having a bad dream? Scarlet reached out to gently feel for her pulse along her smooth neck. Yes, Ehlora’s heart was racing as if unconsciously in peril. Scarlet’s fingers turned the woman’s chin toward him. She had to wake up and explain what had happened. The truth was within her.
“Ehlora, please. I’m dreaming. We must wake up.” When there was still no response, Scarlet’s urgings hardened to a mandate. “Report.”
With a little groan of effort, Ehlora’s eyes opened at his insistence. Her golden-green orbs were alert, surprised. “Scarlet,” she moaned. As if from a menacing inner possession, her gaze suddenly flashed an eerie, iridescent green. “The Guardians are coming.”
With a gasp, Captain Scarlet sat up in his bed. The disturbing vision had returned. Though he was no longer attached to deRavin’s electrode-studded helmet, no longer entombed within the frozen confines of the Phoenix-B probe, the Spectrum officer was still haunted by the illusory world of his inner angst. “Damn,” he groaned and rubbed the image from his sleep-deprived eyes. “Mysterons. More questions than answers.” With a shove of blankets, Scarlet bolted to his feet to grab for his uniform. There was only one answer the captain required at present. Somehow, he had to discover what these Guardians were. This mystery was to be Captain Scarlet’s next chapter in Spectrum’s war against the Mysterons ...
Copyright, April 24, 2012.
Visit Lady Hawke’s website for more on Earth Child: the E.D. Piper Chronicles, and follow the heroic adventures of Ehlora Dawn Piper, shape shifter, available in the near future!
Author’s Note: Dreams are mysterious glimpses into our subconscious wishes, fears and aspirations. A more extensive, epic dream, known as a disappearing narrative is one in which one dreams a more complete story than is actually remembered upon awakening. What is recalled is usually the first person narrative only, even though the dreamer can actually occupy multiple characters and points of view during the dream. Lucid dreamers and those practiced to remember such dreams can sometimes recall the various characters they occupy during their dream story. I’m so blessed to dream in stories and recall many of those I’ve had over the years. In the future, I hope to transcribe some of these subconscious adventures into the Earth Child series.
Thank you for reading!
Also, visit Spectrum Headquarters for my upcoming CS sequel: While You Were Sleeping…