My friend, I’ve known your soul a long time…
“Can I tempt you to a cocktail, sir? Numb is famous for its frozen margaritas; or if you’d prefer, I can make you a mean daiquiri.”
The man to whom the remark was directed was beginning to feel irritated. Out of all the bars in Caesar’s Palace, he’d selected this one partly because its name – ‘Numb’ – appealed to his perverse sense of humour, but also because it was quiet and laid-back. He didn’t need company and he couldn’t be bothered with conversation; it was usually a waste of time anyway. But the idiot bartender was obsequious in his attentions and Conrad Lefkon began to regret having abandoned the privacy of his luxurious suite for the dubious pleasure of consuming several single malts in a room jam-packed with the species he now despised.
He’d come to Las Vegas for a reason. He needed to think, to plan his next move and that generally involved significant amounts of cash. There were lots of ways of acquiring money, of course, the easiest usually being the most illegal. His Mysteron powers would allow him to manufacture whatever he needed without much difficulty, but that was too easy and didn’t appeal to what was left of his gambling nature. He preferred to accumulate funds by legitimate means – using the money for his own nefarious purpose was all part of the fun. He was an expert at poker, roulette and blackjack and he rarely lost a game.
Inevitably, there were occasions when pickings were lean, but if that happened, he forced himself to cash in his chips and walk away. He enjoyed hiding in plain sight, which was one reason why he liked Las Vegas so much. He could blend into the millions of tourists without anyone giving him so much as a second glance. He dared not risk cheating, though; with every security force in the world hunting him, he couldn’t afford undue CCTV coverage. For that reason, Las Vegas was usually just a pit stop of no more than two days. If he hadn’t got what he needed in that time, he moved on, sometimes to other casino hotspots like Atlantic City or Monte Carlo.
There was something different about this visit, however. He knew he wasn’t behaving as he usually did, although he was unable to pinpoint quite how, or why this was. He had no clear idea why he’d chosen to stay at Caesar’s Palace in an opulent set of rooms dubbed The Skyran Suite, other than it tickled his sense of humour. But it was February and he’d spent much of the previous month in the frozen wastes of Siberia. His environment didn’t usually matter much to him, but suddenly he craved warmth, luxury, superb food and wines.
Earlier that evening, he’d called room service and ordered caviar, truffle soup and sea bass with delicate spices, as well as an exorbitantly priced bottle of Krug 2000. He wondered whether or not his Mysteron masters would approve and was surprised to discover that he couldn’t care less one way or the other.
While he waited for his food to arrive, he’d availed himself of the suite’s spa facilities, which consisted of an oversized bathtub and Jacuzzi, complete with expensive skin and hair products and a qualified masseuse, ‘should sir require a deep relaxation treatment’. He had a flashback memory of massages he’d enjoyed in his former life and was vaguely disturbed by the sudden desire for such hedonistic pleasures. He debated the wisdom of booking ‘Lorelei’, whose pretty face shone out of the promotional pamphlet and eventually decided that the time would be better spent in sizing up the gaming tables and working on his strategy for the night.
He’d ended up in the bar by accident. After his meal, dressed in smart but unobtrusive clothes he had made his way towards the Casino. A quick check of his watch revealed it was only 9pm, however – much too early for the big games with the promise of really worthwhile rewards. Through Numb’s open doorway, a barman was spinning cocktail shakers in a dazzling display of showmanship, cheered on by several scantily clad young ladies who looked as if they’d already imbibed several of his ‘signature’ drinks. Lefkon watched in fascination for a moment before spotting a bottle of Lagavulin on a shelf behind the bar. The sight of it brought back such a flood of memories that for a second, he almost staggered as his mind bent under the sheer weight of it.
“How come we’ve never discovered Scottish distilleries before? We should get a bottle of this, Conrad... at these prices, it’s a steal.”
“I agree. Let’s make it a few bottles – if we take the Laphroig and the Balvenie as well, we can make up a case.”
“Good idea – then we won’t have anything to carry. We can just have it shipped.”
“To Skybase? That’s crazy, Paul. What if the Old Man finds out?”
“What if he doesn’t? I reckon it’s worth the risk. Cheers, Con.”
Before he knew it, the former Captain Black found himself perched on a bar stool, a generous measure of malt whisky warming in his hands. “Cheers, Paul,” he replied in silent salute, sipping the amber liquid appreciatively.
He looked around. The girls who had been clustered round the barman were now giggling and laughing in a far corner of the room. Black suspected they were a ‘hen’ party, with the drunken bride-to-be on a hapless mission to lose some of Daddy’s millions in the Casino. His lip curled.
Silly little bitches, he thought. No wonder Earth was in the dark ages in galactic terms. Each generation seemed to produce specimens with fewer and fewer brain cells. He stared down into his Lagavulin and wondered why his masters were so intent on destroying humanity. After all, just wait a few thousand years and the earthlings would do it all by themselves.
“Can I have another one of these?” He raised his glass to the barman, who obligingly refilled it.
“Shall I put them on your tab, sir? What’s the name?”
“Theodopoulos. George Theodopoulos. The Skyran Suite.”
Even as he said it, he knew he was taking unaccustomed risks. He’d used the combination of his father’s and mother’s names several times before; they were relatively common, so alarm bells were unlikely to go off. However, a Theodopoulos staying in the Skyran Suite might just be a light-bulb moment for one of the bright young things in Spectrum Intelligence.
Then he dismissed the thought. He was paranoid, as the humans would say. The risk was infinitesimal. In any case, the whisky was measuring up well against the possibility of having to make an unscheduled exit. He decided it was worth it.
“What’s going on over there?” he asked the barman, indicating a table in a corner where a slender blonde had thrown her arms around the dark-haired man at her side, as waiters wheeled in a champagne bucket and an enormous bouquet of red roses.
“An engagement, sir,” the young man replied with a grin. “We get loads of them on Valentine’s Day. They’re almost as popular as drive-through weddings.”
“Engagement?” Black was nonplussed.
“Yeah, you know… diamond rings, hearts and flowers, all that stuff. Love and romance. You just can’t get away from it, can you?”
“Umm, no, I suppose not. Sorry, I just forgot what day it was. I’ve been travelling a lot. Jetlag is catching up with me.” He wondered why he was making excuses; indeed, why he was making conversation at all. But there was something fascinating about the young couple so engrossed in each other. He couldn’t look away as the young woman thrust her hand out proudly, displaying to the world the sparkling beauty of a magnificent solitaire diamond.
Something picked at the edges of his memory; something he didn’t want to think about because he knew instinctively the pain it would cause. His Mysteron masters used it against him occasionally; it was a form of torture if they were displeased with him. It wasn’t always the past; sometimes they taunted him with visions of a present he was no longer part of and that was when the pain became really unbearable. It was on rare occasions such as tonight, when the lines were blurred, when the veil between his human and alien self seemed to be at its thinnest, that he remembered the times he’d screamed, begged, pleaded for an end to it all. An end that seemed destined never to come.
“Mr Theodopoulos? There’s a message for you in your suite, sir.” His reverie was interrupted by Numb’s manager, a smart-suited young woman in her early thirties with auburn hair and an easy-going manner.
He was momentarily confused. A message? From whom? And why?
“May I take it here?” he asked, trying to be courteous. He didn’t want to leave the bar. If it was a trap, he could find himself surrounded by Spectrum agents and without any obvious means of escape. What a fool, he thought. Where were your wits? The Theodopoulos/Skyran thing was too much.
The manager shook her head. “It’s not a phone message, sir. Someone has sent you a gift. It’s waiting in your suite. I’m afraid I don’t know any more than that.”
The barman winked at him. “Way to go buddy! You might have forgotten it’s Valentine’s Day, but it sounds like someone you know hasn’t.”
Black didn’t deign to reply. He downed the rest of his drink and threw several dollar notes onto the tip plate. Then he got to his feet and strode towards the door.
“What the hell’s eating him?” the barman asked. “One minute he’s fine, the next…”
His colleague shrugged. “Come on, Ben, this is Vegas. It takes all sorts. People don’t just come here for the fantasy; they come to escape their demons. For all we know, the ‘gift’ may be a set of divorce papers – or a bankruptcy order.”
“Let’s hope not,” Ben replied. “Maybe we ought to check his credit rating, Darlene, make sure he can settle his bill. Skyran’s one of the most expensive suites. ”
“Hmm.” Darlene peered down at the tip plate. “Well, he’s been very generous; he’s obviously got plenty of cash. Maybe it’s not about money or marital problems. Or if it is, we need to make sure he pays up in full before the soon-to-be-ex Mrs Theodopoulos cleans him out.”
Black made his way back to his suite by a circuitous route. He was taking no chances, even though he had probably added a kilometre to his journey around the huge Caesar’s Palace resort. He saw nothing untoward on the way; no hint of anything other than tourists enjoying themselves in America’s entertainment capital. Absolutely no-one took any notice of him whatsoever.
Eventually, he arrived at his door. He could detect no light under it, and no evidence of a forced entry. He wasn’t surprised. He suspected that whoever had left something in his suite had done so by legitimate means. Nevertheless, he wasn’t taking any chances. He carefully withdrew the handgun concealed in his jacket. It was small and light – no match for Spectrum’s superior firepower, but it was all he carried with him on so-called ‘down-time’ between missions. He slid the key card in and silently pushed down the door handle.
The suite was in darkness. He waited by the door till his eyes adjusted. There was silence and no movement. Eventually he snapped on the light and took aim. The room was empty. It was exactly as he’d left it, his jeans and jumper on the bed, the towels from the Jacuzzi still lying where he’d carelessly dropped them on the floor.
He slowly lowered the gun and stared ahead in puzzlement. There was nothing untoward, nothing at all. Then he saw it, the thing that hadn’t been there before. On the bedside table lay a single black rose.
He blinked. It seemed real, although he’d never seen a natural rose as dark as this. Most so-called ‘black’ roses were in fact a very dark shade of burgundy, occasionally bordering on blueberry. This flower was pure black, its perfect petals reflected in velvety softness on the glass topped table. He picked it up, all the while wondering what kind of trap it contained.
Then he noticed the card lying alongside it. The hand-written message (presumably penned by one of the hotel staff) said simply, “You have done well lately. Enjoy this with our compliments.”
Our compliments? Whose compliments? And why the hell would anyone want to send him a black flower? Unless of course, it concealed a time-triggered bomb… but no, a quick check showed it was definitely nothing more than a perfectly-formed rose.
He sat down on the bed and picked up the card again. It didn’t make sense. If this was a message from his masters, it was so cryptic it needed decoding. He didn’t usually have trouble understanding their instructions; he’d learned what they would and would not tolerate. Failure because they’d been outsmarted was one thing; failure because he hadn’t grasped the fundamentals of the mission was something else entirely. Their punishments had been sufficient to eradicate any possibility of further communication difficulties.
He looked at the flower again. His instincts told him this wasn’t just a gift from Caesar’s Palace to all guests who happened to be there on Valentine’s Day. Apart from the fact that the colour of the rose was significant, no-one other than the Mysterons would congratulate him on a job well done. But...Enjoy this with our compliments…? What in hell did that mean? A flower was a flower; not much you could do with it other than stick it in water. He didn’t want to go to the bother of ringing room service to ask for a vase; after all, he wasn’t going to be there long enough to admire the damn thing.
Still, it wouldn’t do to seem ungrateful. He got to his feet, wondering if there was a glass or tooth mug in the bathroom that would fit the bill. As he moved across the plushly- carpeted floor, the door bell sounded. Ah. Perhaps the management had pre-empted his need for a vase.
The woman standing expectantly in the corridor was definitely not one of the hotel’s maids. Her appearance completely ruled out that possibility. She looked like a life-size copy of the world’s most famous doll, if ever Mattel had decided to produce a version entitled ‘Porn Star Barbie.’ She was not particularly tall, but had chosen to display disproportionately long legs by wearing six- inch stilettos and an extremely short skirt, so tight it looked as if her pelvic area was wrapped in an elastic bandage. Her red peasant-style blouse was sheer enough to confirm that the black lace bra underneath wasn’t up to the task of supporting breasts so generously cantaloupish as to suggest they held a sizeable percentage of the world’s silicone supply. Her long blonde hair had been inexpertly coloured and dark roots were peeking through to betray its natural shade.
Black stared, momentarily lost for words. “Who the hell are you?” he managed at last, all thoughts of flower receptacles now driven from his mind.
She smiled at him, displaying orthodontically perfect teeth. “I’m yours,” she replied simply. “I’m your Valentine gift.”
“You have the wrong room. I’m not expecting a... er… companion.”
He nearly said prostitute, but stopped himself in time. If he wanted to remain incognito, it wouldn’t do to offend an overly-sensitive call girl who might complain to the agency.
She seemed unfazed, however. She held out a bottle of champagne – the Krug 1998 this time – and said cheerfully, “There’s no mistake. My name is Candy. I’m your gift from the Mysterons.”
Black’s mouth dropped open in astonishment. Then he grabbed both her and the champagne and hustled her into the suite, shutting the door firmly behind them. “You little fool,” he hissed. “Weren’t you told never to mention the Mysterons out loud? Anyone could have overheard you.”
“No, they couldn’t. The corridor was deserted, I checked. You do over react, don’t you?” she replied, an amused look on her face.
He glared at her. He wasn’t used to being contradicted. “How much are they paying you?” he snapped. “Whatever it is, I’ll double it as long as you leave right now.”
“Why would they pay me?” she asked, looking puzzled. Then her face cleared. “Oh, I see. I apologise if I haven’t made myself clear. I’m a Mysteron, Conrad. This body has been reconstructed. I’m here to reward you for the work you’ve done for us. I want to give you pleasure in the way that the Earthlings seem to enjoy so much.”
She raised her arms and lifted the blouse over her head, discarding it carelessly on the floor. Then she stepped out of the skirt with more ease than he would have believed possible and calmly uncorked the champagne with a finesse that made him wonder if the host body really had been a maid. “Shall we have this now, or leave it till later?” she asked with a provocative glance from under her dark lashes.
“Put your clothes back on,” he replied curtly. “This is not going to work, Candy, or whatever your name is. I don’t do trailer-park trash.”
She sat down opposite him, crossing her legs in such a way as to ensure that he got the full impact of the lacy, crotch-less panties. She looked vaguely hurt.
“Really know how to make a girl feel good about herself, don’t you?” she said, a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “This body belonged to Candy Morrison. She was a good Catholic girl from Ohio, well-educated, well-behaved and well-mannered, which is more than can be said for you. She was working in the cabaret here, singing back-up for Dolores Aquino, the main act. She made a decent living, she loved her family and she had good friends. A nice girl; not trailer- park trash.”
Black gazed at her in surprise. It was most unusual for a Mysteron replicant to show any interest in the person they’d formerly been, let alone rise to their defence. ‘No more than spores in a lab experiment’ was generally the dismissive view his masters took of the human race. He was feeling rather wrong-footed by this particular Mysteron.
“If Candy was the paragon of virtue you’re suggesting, I’m surprised she has stuff like that in her wardrobe,” he said, with a gesture towards the bra and panties that, he was reluctant to admit, were having something of a pleasing effect on him.
She sighed. “Well, frankly, a body like this would make buying French designer lingerie an act of wilful idiocy. But I don’t know what you’re complaining about. We know you, Conrad. We know your tastes, your past history and the sort of woman who excites you. I’m exactly your type.”
“No, you’re not,” he snapped. “You know nothing about me. You don’t seem to realise that everything a human is, or may want, is not laid down in stone for the whole of their life. It may seem slow to you, but humans evolve over the course of their time on Earth. Tastes change, desires wax and wane. To use a food analogy, Conrad Lefkon’s palate is more sophisticated now than when I – he - was younger. I learned to love fillet steak; why would I settle for hamburger now?”
Her face hardened and he began to question the wisdom of back-chat. He was hopelessly out of his depth, he knew. He’d never had a conversation quite like this, either with a replicant, or the Mysteron Consciousness itself. It was as if he and Candy had entered a no-man’s land where the rules of engagement had been abandoned.
She said, coldly, “The steak’s no longer on your particular menu, remember? These days, you have to make do with hamburger, so get used to it. Besides, I didn’t have a lot of time to tailor-make any of this; I was a bit limited as to the type of body available.”
He raised an eyebrow in genuine curiosity. “Limited? Why?”
“I didn’t want to kill anyone,” she answered impatiently. “That meant I had to hope that someone would meet their natural end so I could step in. Luckily, Candy obliged very nicely. She was taking a shower before rehearsals for tonight’s show. She slipped and cracked her head against the marble sink. Massive brain bleed; she was dead in seconds, no witnesses. After that, it was easy-peasy. All I had to do was call the management and tell them Candy was under the weather and wouldn’t make tonight’s show. Then I went shopping for things to wear – you were right, her wardrobe doesn’t include this sort of stuff. After that, I was all set.”
“And all this, just for me.” Black’s tone was mocking. “I’m flattered, I must say, although if you’d had fewer scruples, I could have ended up with Dolores Aquino, not one of her backing singers.”
Surprisingly, Candy laughed. “Nah,” she replied nonchalantly. “You’re a hard rock man. Tex-Mex isn’t your thing. Neither is Dolores.” She shifted in her chair, casually adjusting the strap of the wispy lace bra, eyeing him provocatively as she did so.
She was right, he thought, in surprise. She was also right about the effect she was having on him. His biological body still sometimes reminded him of its needs in that department. He was perfectly comfortable with satisfying those urges on a casual pick-up basis. Sometimes he could metaphorically kill two birds with one stone; he found it perfectly possible to ensure the complicity of Earth women without resorting to killing and replicating them. He simply enticed them into bed and gave them the best sex of their lives. Not only did everyone have a good time, they would be left with the sense that he had done them an enormous favour, rather than the other way round. Money didn’t need to change hands before they’d agreed to play their part in whatever dastardly plan he was carrying out in a bid to destroy their planet.
But it was all rather perfunctory; the last time he’d experienced true desire had been… no, he wasn’t going to go there in his mind. It was too painful to touch upon and in any case, Candy had already unhooked her bra; he felt his senses scramble into the moment as her magnificent breasts sprang free from their lacy cradle.
He couldn’t stop himself. He had to touch her, find out… And yes, not nearly as much silicone as he’d initially thought. In any case, he no longer cared. She was flesh and blood, warm and pliable; and she was his for however long the Mysterons decreed. He decided to make the most of it.
Much later, lying on his back staring up at the ceiling, he realised he had missed his opportunity at the roulette wheel. Not that he cared in this soporific state of post-coital bliss. But he was starting to think there were answers he needed. Candy had proved to be a most willing and inventive lover, not to mention tireless; they had spent hours engaged in passionate, energetic love-making, punctuated with only a few refreshing gulps of champagne.
They hadn’t said much to each other; after their first enthusiastic coupling, he’d ventured to voice his thanks for the ‘present’. Her only comment had been to say, somewhat shyly, “I can’t take all the credit; maybe you’re getting the part of me that was Candy and it seems she liked this thing you call sex.”
“It’s… interesting. We Mysterons would consider it time-wasting from a reproductive point of view. But I understand that its function for humans is recreational too, and that it creates a bond – draws individuals closer together. But, like all things of a human nature, it can be destructive and used for the wrong reasons.”
“Oh, Lord, yes. Most of the wars ever fought on Earth have been in the name of sex or religion. It’s a peculiarity of humankind – their greatest gifts are also their deadliest weapons. They’ll wipe themselves out in the not-too-distant-future; unless we succeed in doing it first, of course.”
“Hmm… yes...” she replied thoughtfully, giving him a speculative look. She seemed about to say something more, then changed her mind. Before he knew it, she rose to swing her legs over to straddle him, pushing him back against the pillows. “How about another round?” she murmured against his mouth, her hair brushing his cheeks. All the other questions he wanted to ask receded to the back of his mind as his body willingly responded to her ministrations.
But now, hours later, some degree of clarity had been restored. He felt more like his human self than he could ever recall. He wasn’t free; he was still under their control, he knew that. But he didn’t feel the normal, crushing, dead weight of the power that prevented him from exercising any type of free will that did not serve their purpose.
He didn’t understand what was going on, but he suspected that Candy did. So he shook her awake, thrusting a glass of champagne and orange juice into her hand. “Buck’s Fizz. The restorative that works wonders,” he said softly, planting an appreciative kiss on her forehead.
“Buck’s Fizz? I like the sound of it. Very appropriate,” she giggled, her hand snaking under the bedclothes towards his groin. This time, he took countermeasures, grabbing her hand and raising it to his lips.
“No more, Candy. Delightful as all this has been, I think we need to spend some time talking now.”
He caught the brief flash of green light in her eyes as she rolled over to face him. “All right, Conrad. What do you want to know?”
“Why am I being allowed to feel human again? Is it some kind of trick? And who the hell are you, really? You said you didn’t want to kill... I don’t understand why not. And if you’re truly Mysteron, why are we communicating in this way? We don’t need to exercise vocal cords.”
She sighed deeply and took a long sip of her drink. “It may be easier to answer your last question first,” she said at last. “By talking to you using our human bodies, I’m hoping to bypass the part of the Mysteron Consciousness that controls you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“When the Ruling Council decided to reward you for services rendered, so to speak, they knew that for you to get the benefit of it, they needed to let your human element come to the fore. I suppose Earthlings would say ‘They cut you some slack’. For twenty-four hours, they’ve put you on the back burner. You’re being monitored, but at a low level. They’re allowing you to have some fun without being observed.”
“Giving me back my privacy? Jeez, I almost don’t know how to thank them.” Black couldn’t control the bitterness in his voice.
“Well, you should be thanking them,” Candy replied quietly. “The fact that you’re off the radar right now is the only reason I’m here. My purpose was to take my place within the Mysteron Consciousness that exists within you. I need to do it without the Ruling Council knowing it’s happened.”
“Why? What difference does that make to anything? Mysterons are Mysterons, right? One thought, one vote, one massive collective out to destroy Earth.”
“Wrong. We’re a collective, yes, but we have our individual identities within that. Our studies show that scientifically, we’re light years ahead of Earth. For many years we’ve been encouraged to believe – supported by the Ruling Council – that we have an optimum life, a perfect society. But the reality is, we don’t, any more than humans do. And, ironically, it’s taken the onset of war with Earth to highlight that.”
“In what way?”
“The Elders on the Ruling Council are like old men who play golf, yet can no longer see the course. Frankly, that’s a luxury we can’t afford. There are problems in the Universe that are a great deal more troublesome than anything Earth could throw at us. Yet this War of Nerves has become their golf; it’s fun, but it’s a game they’re spending far too much time playing. As a consequence, they’re losing sight of more important things. There is significant opposition to the Ruling Council; many of us have lost faith in it. We hope one day to overthrow the Elders and restore some stability to our way of life.”
She smiled at him. “I am part of the opposition group, as was the person the Earthlings knew as Astrid Winters. You remember her?”
“Oh, God, yes. She was going to betray The Mysterons. How did they let that happen?”
“She got in under their radar, much as I’ve done. She did her best, but she made mistakes. Sadly, it cost her.” She gave him a look of cool appraisal. “You killed her.”
For some reason, he felt guilty and didn’t know why. He had been following instructions; it was clear-cut. So why did he feel this sense of discomfort? He said, “I shot her so you could take her back, that’s all.”
Candy said nothing; simply lay on her back staring out of the window.
Deep within him, he felt the faint stirrings of sadness, disapproval, even. Was this what she meant by becoming part of him? “What happened to Astrid?” he asked at last, suspecting he might not really want to know the answer.
“She was... obliterated.”
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“She is no longer part of the Consciousness. She does not exist anywhere in space and time.”
He felt chilled. He suspected that for a Mysteron, obliteration was considerably more final than death.
“Why was it so important that you bond with me?” he asked. “I don’t think recruiting me for your resistance movement is likely to work, somehow.”
“Perhaps not, but we thought that if we could weaken the Ruling Council’s control over you, that would limit your usefulness to them. You would no longer be their primary instrument of destruction.”
“Wouldn’t they just find another? There are millions of potential candidates who could be destroyed and replicated just like I was.”
She gave him a speculative look and then said pensively, “Actually not as many as you would imagine; certainly not with your particular talents, anyway. Your loss would be a bitter blow to them. I suppose they might try to re-take Scarlet, but they’ve done that before and met with no success. They don’t understand why. As far as the Opposition is concerned, we regard it as a waste of time and effort. We don’t need to blow up this planet; Earth will destroy itself eventually. The whole charade is utter nonsense. Anything we can do to weaken the authority of the Ruling Council and destroy their credibility in the eyes of the Collective takes us one step further to overthrowing them.”
His eyes narrowed. “And if you were successful, what would happen to me? Would I regain control of my psyche as Scarlet did? Or would that be too much to hope for?”
Candy hesitated for a second. “It might be,” she admitted. “To be frank, we’re not sure what would happen. We didn’t expect to lose Scarlet; after that, we fine-tuned the retrometabolic process to make sure it couldn’t happen again. So I certainly can’t promise you the same outcome.”
“And the alternative would be…?”
“Obliteration,” she replied quietly. “If you were ejected from the Mysteron Consciousness, your mind and body might cease to exist. We simply don’t know.”
“Couldn’t I just defect? You know, swap sides, live alongside the Collective in the Opposition beehive? I daresay I’d eventually feel like Mars was home.”
She shook her head. “That’s not how it works, I’m afraid. You may no longer be fully human, but you’re not wholly Mysteron either. You have some of our DNA and that makes you part of us, but you could never truly be one with the Collective.”
Black laughed out loud. “I see. So I guess it would be back to being dead, then,” he said sardonically. “Oh, well. On reflection, that might actually be my preferred option. I suspect that life as I used to know it would no longer be worth living anyway.”
“Remorse is an alien concept to us. Once something is done, it cannot be undone, so there is no point in regret. There is only cause and effect. The cause of this war was your attack on our city and the effect is our retaliation. You tried to destroy us, so we will destroy you: it’s that simple. Yet we know now that your violence arose from a primitive ‘fight or flight’ response to something which was beyond your capacity to understand. Your actions were that of a primitive bunch of savages. We have moved light years ahead of you; we believe we are one of the oldest races in the universe. Many of us now believe that the mark of a truly advanced civilisation lies in its capacity to forgive and perhaps that is something we need to learn.”
She raised herself on one elbow and gazed down at him. “Conrad, I know you and your people are deeply sorry for what you did to us. I am offering you an opportunity to atone for your actions by helping the Opposition put an end to this war. You will save your planet rather than destroy it.”
“So how does that work, exactly? I get instructions from warring factions and have to decide how to keep you both happy?”
“Not exactly. You will still carry out the wishes of the Elders; they will resume their full control of you in a few hours. However, the Opposition is now also part of your consciousness. We will be working to loosen their hold on you. Don’t worry, you won’t be aware of it; not at first, anyway.”
“What happens if you’re found out?”
“To you? Nothing. Because we’re talking out loud rather than communicating in the normal way, they won’t realise this conversation has taken place. As I said before, they’re not paying much attention to you right now. But I can’t risk having my presence detected within your Consciousness. If that should happen… well, let’s just say that the consequences won’t be pleasant. But that is not your concern. My time here is up, I’m afraid; I shall have to take my leave of you.”
Black sighed. “That’s a pity. Tonight’s been great. You’re a helluva good fuck, you know that?”
“The part of me that’s still Candy suggests that’s a rather crude compliment,” she replied, with a frown.
He grinned. “True. But it is a compliment. I’d like a return match sometime; although maybe I wouldn’t recognise you in a different body.”
“You will know me,” she said softly. “I am part of you now; that will not change. I don’t pretend to fully understand the human need for interaction in this way, but I would like to think I have been a companion for you tonight.”
“You’ve been a friend,” he replied, giving her hand an unexpected squeeze. “I hope I won’t forget all this, but from what you’ve told me, I probably will.”
“I’m sorry it has to be that way. But for the moment, there is no choice. You will go back to being controlled by the Elders who must not suspect any conflict of interests.”
“It’s okay, I understand.” He reached for the champagne bottle, pouring out the remainder into their glasses. “You know, about a century ago – in Earth time – there was a TV show called My Favourite Martian. I never thought I’d be starring in the remake.”
He caught her puzzled look and laughed out loud. “Never mind, sweetheart, you wouldn’t understand.” He chinked his glass against hers. “To my Valentine Candy – and to the future, whatever it holds.”
I’ve wondered for some time about how Captain Black lives on a day to day basis under the control of his Mysteron masters. How does he get about, what does he do for money, accommodation, etc? What does he do during down-time? How much free will is he allowed?
I’m also intrigued at the Mysteron communication process in NCS. Unlike OCS, they don’t seem to ‘announce’ threats to Spectrum. Fair enough, but do they specify to Black what his mission is, or do they let him decide what the next target will be and give him full responsibility for carrying it out?
I’m afraid I have probably failed dismally in providing a plausible answer to those questions. The premise of a Mysteron opposition to the War of Nerves was suggested by the replicated Astrid Winters in the episode “Achilles Messenger.” I decided to build on that idea, although what was intended to be a very short vignette became a great deal more than I had time to achieve in the week or so I had to write it. (That’s in total, not actual writing time, lest you think I’m slacking!)
Conrad and Candy had more to say to each other than I realised, so maybe there’ll be a sequel… or something… who knows?
I’m enormously grateful to my beta-reader Marion Woods; her saintly patience and exemplary last-minute editing is very humbly appreciated. I have also taken Chris Bishop to the wire on this one; thanks a lot, Chris, for everything you do to accommodate your writers.
The quote at the beginning is a line from a 1988 film called “Black Roses”, directed by John Fasano.
Finally, the usual disclaimers apply; no rights are owned, no profit is made, every respect is intended and many, many thanks are given to all involved with New Captain Scarlet.
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