by Marion Woods
The clinical, modern lines of the steel and glass laboratory made it a surprising discovery amidst the cluster of small, hand-built wooden buildings nestled in the shadow of the escarpment that fractured the landscape for several miles. Some distance away, the immature river thundered over the cliff, forming a muddy plunge pool before it ran out onto a wide, flat, heavily-forested plain and slowed to a lazy walking pace. Merging with nameless streams, it meandered on its journey to join the Amazon. The nearest village was on the bank of the river and the road from there to the laboratory was little more than a track through the jungle, so that although supplies arrived by boat they had to finish the journey on the backs of scrawny donkeys, or equally scrawny porters.
It wouldn’t be the first choice of posting for most, but the dedicated team working under the charismatic Professor Diego Espinoza wouldn’t have swapped it for the world. Espinoza had been the world’s pre-eminent biologist when he won the Nobel Prize for his work on genetically modified plants a decade ago, but subsequently he’d gained a reputation for eccentricity, and the World Food Organisation had sidelined him into a non-research post. Annoyed at what he called their short-sightedness, Espinoza resigned and used his Nobel prize money, and what private funding he could drum up, to fund this private laboratory out in the Amazon jungle. Once the building was finished, he’d recruited a team of three to work with him on his latest projects: searching for local plants with medicinal properties.
This trio of young scientists were a mixed bunch. The eldest was in his late thirties: a serious American from Kansas, Doctor Byron Scheel’s speciality was genetics, and he’d worked with Espinoza at the WFO. He was a dedicated believer in the validity of Espinoza’s ideas, and highly motivated by the thought of what they were trying to achieve. His junior colleagues, Doctor Ursula Owens from England and Doctor Ahmed Salek from the Magreb, had both been recruited direct from the Universities where they’d completed their doctorates, but they were as dedicated to making the Professor’s ideas work as Scheel.
The three of them were sitting on the veranda of the laboratory, sipping cool drinks and waiting for the sound of an approaching engine that would signify the professor’s return.
“Listen,” Scheel said, and Salek stopped talking.
“That’s the plane…” Ursula smiled and got to her feet. “I’ll start the cooking, I’m sure the professor will be hungry.”
“Even if he is not; I am,” Salek confessed with his dazzling smile.
“You’re always hungry,” Scheel remarked amicably.
By the time the professor arrived, the rice and fish stew was ready and they sat to eat before they unloaded their supplies or even opened the bundles of post he gave them.
“A successful trip?” Scheel asked, as he passed the bread to Espinoza.
The professor nodded. “I have spoken again with BioMed and Mr Strauss is willing to fund our research for another season; although he is getting impatient to see some results.”
“One more season should be all we need,” Scheel said complaisantly, “I’m sure we’ve cracked the problem this time.”
Espinoza nodded. “BioMed will want the plants grown in their own facility, so one of us will have to go and supervise that. We need a success to fund our ongoing researches.”
“Who do you want to go?” Salek glanced at the other two and saw they were as interested in the response as he was.
Espinoza shook his head. “I have not given it any thought, as yet. We’ll discuss it closer to the time.” He smiled at his companions. “I would be sorry to lose any of you, and there will be a place here for you, after the trials are over – if you want to come back after tasting the joys of civilisation once more.”
“We’re all working on our own projects,” Ursula reminded him. “I can’t see any of us wanting to stay away longer than we have to.”
The younger men nodded agreement and the professor smiled again. “We shall see,” he said calmly. “What is even more exciting is that I was contacted by Doctor Thomas Randolph, the senior neurologist in the World Medical Organisation. He and an associate of his, Doctor Francis Lawson, have a project and they feel we may be of great assistance.”
Scheel looked up. “Randolph is reputed to be the best there is; it’d be an honour to work with him. Can you tell us what the project involves?”
Espinoza hesitated. “I’m sure I can trust all of you, and the ideas are at a very early stage; but Randolph spoke to me about the possibility of using cordyceps fungi in neurosurgery.”
“Fascinating,” Scheel remarked thoughtfully.
Ursula heard this news with mixed feelings; she’d worked on fungi for her thesis. “How would they use them?”
“They are looking at modifying the fungi at the genetic level to attack diseased tissue within the nervous systems of patients,” Espinoza explained.
“Cordyceps are species specific,” Ursula said. “They’re deadly to the host species and can wipe out whole colonies, in no time at all. They’re so toxic that chemical extracts are used to control locust swarms,” she added, glancing for corroboration at Salek.
“Indeed,” he confirmed, “It is an important part of protecting irrigated desert land. Locust swarms devastating our crops are largely a thing of the past.”
“That is why they want to modify the fungi,” Espinoza remarked quietly. “But you may be assured, Ursula, Doctor Randolph is aware of the potential dangers.”
“I hope so,” she said thoughtfully, a small frown creasing her brow.
Colonel White closed the file he’d been reading and glanced at the small pile still waiting for his attention. He sighed.
As head of the Spectrum organisation his life was a strange mixture of boredom and exhilaration. When the Mysterons made a threat and his elite squadrons sprang into action he could – and, on occasion, had – work for days with barely an hour’s sleep and only the occasional meal; but during the lulls that separated these bursts of activity, his day was punctuated by the routine of commanding a complex military installation with a crew of around 600 souls.
One of the routines he still preferred to do himself was checking the monthly procurement reports. These meticulous documents covered everything from the number of missiles they had on board to the minutiae of the canteen requisitions. He felt that it gave him a finger on the pulse of his command.
The reports were produced by teams across the base, collated and checked by the team leaders and then passed to his Senior Administrative Lieutenant. Lieutenant Silver produced a précis alerting him to anything unusual. So far this month, the most exciting thing he’d read was that there had been an unaccountable surge in demand for rice pudding.
That would explain why I saw Captain Scarlet and Rhapsody Angel mixing strawberry jam into their pudding bowls and giggling like schoolchildren at the horrified expressions on the faces of Captain Blue and Symphony Angel as the rice went pink...
He moved the file to the ‘out’ tray and picked up the next one. This was a buff-coloured file with the multicoloured caduceus of Spectrum Medical emblazoned on the front.
Doctor Fawn’s reports were generally interesting reading. As the staff of Cloudbase were a fairly healthy lot – a requirement of the job – Fawn’s workload usually consisted of work-related injuries and Captain Scarlet. But Scarlet had been singularly lucky this month and had escaped with only minor injuries from his last two missions, so the colonel wondered what his medical chief would have to report.
It seemed on first glance that Doctor Fawn had felt the same. There were two cases of tonsillitis, one fractured finger and an upset stomach duly noted in the log and thereafter the report consisted of a block of text.
I think it wise to put on record, the doctor had written, that when I went to the World Medical Organisation’s conference in Vienna, I ran into an old friend of mine: Dr Thomas Randolph. Randolph was there to present a paper about some research he’s commissioned from Professor Diego Espinoza and his team, into the use of fungi in neurosurgery: a truly fascinating concept, which looks to be showing great promise. I’ve asked Dr Randolph to keep me abreast of developments, as I can see many practical uses for such a technique in Spectrum bases where there is no access to a neurosurgeon.
Colonel White shook his head at his Chief Medical Officer’s talent for understating the facts. “That has to be just about every Spectrum base…” he muttered, as he closed the file.
Doctor Fawn was in Cloudbase’s laboratory running some tests on Captain Scarlet’s blood samples when the call came in. Lieutenant Green’s voice, slightly distorted by the intercom, informed him that Doctor Randolph was on the videophone.
With an intrigued expression, Fawn left the auto-analyser working and went into his office, closing the door as he went.
“Hello, Tom,” he said, selecting the voice only option, as the regulations instructed. “What can I do for you?”
He could see his friend’s face and recognised the rather anxious expression. He wondered why Randolph needed to speak to him so soon after they’d had a long conversation in Vienna.
“Hi, Ed? There must be something wrong with this machine, I can’t see you.”
“Yeah, that’s technology for you,” Fawn said, managing to keep the smile on his face from his voice. “I can see you right enough.”
“Look,” Randolph said, “Can you get over to Casterbridge, Ed?”
“What for? I can’t just drop everything and go joy riding, Tom.”
“No, I know; and I wouldn’t ask you in the normal way of things, but … Ed, you remember what we were talking about in Vienna?”
“Sure I do; it sounded hopeful.”
Randolph’s gaze dropped away from the camera as if he couldn’t bring himself to say what he had to. “I’ve got problems, major problems. I need your help.”
“Tell me everything,” Fawn said, settling down to listen carefully.
Colonel White looked up as the door to the Control Room snapped open. Fawn was marching purposefully down the automatic walkway – an unusual enough sight at the best of times, but in the middle of the afternoon, it was almost unheard of.
The colonel’s thoughts went straight to Captain Scarlet: Fawn spent much of his time trying to find the secret of retrometabolism.
“Is something wrong, Doctor?” he asked, as Fawn came up to the circular desk.
“I think there might well be, Colonel.” Fawn looked around; Lieutenant Green was staring in their direction in undisguised interest. “If I might have a word… privately.”
White pressed a button and the Perspex surround came down as a stool rose from the floor close to where the doctor was standing.
“Now, what’s the matter, Edward?”
Ten minutes later, Colonel White sent for Captain Scarlet.
“Where are you going?” Captain Blue asked, as his partner strode purposefully towards Hangar Bay Two.
“From everyone, Blue-boy.”
Captain Blue rolled his eyes. “Why can’t I come?”
Scarlet stopped and turned, grinning, to glance at his friend. “Have you heard yourself?” He mimicked the voice of a peevish child: “‘It’s not fair! I wanna go on the mission too!’” then laughed at his friend’s injured expression.
“It’s just odd that you’re going alone. We’re partners, after all.”
“I’m not going alone,” Scarlet said, striding on again.
Frowning, Blue went after him and when they got to the departure room, Doctor Fawn was waiting, shifting from foot to foot as if anxious to be gone.
“Have they loaded your gear?” Scarlet asked.
“Yes, it’s safely stowed away.”
“Then, all aboard, Doc,” Scarlet said. “Catch you later, Adam.” He went out towards the helijet, with Fawn almost running alongside him.
“Huh, I hope you both have a really miserable time,” Blue muttered after them – but he didn’t really mean it.
Casterbridge was a modern eco-town built after the European atomic war, yet its houses mimicked a melange of past styles: from Tudor mansions to Regency Crescents, from thatched cottages to square, brick-built, almost utilitarian, terraces, in a concerted effort to create a sense of ‘history’ for the place. It didn’t work, as the streets were wide and regular and all the houses had discreet solar panels and wind turbines. The roadside parking bays were equipped with power points to recharge the batteries of the mandatory electric cars.
Flying westward over the town to where the hospital stood in the splendid isolation of a landscaped park, Scarlet concluded it was a brave attempt to merge the best of both worlds, which had gone horribly wrong.
He landed the helijet on a billiard-table-smooth lawn and followed Fawn across to the entrance, where they were met by a tall, dark-haired man who introduced himself as Frank Lawson.
“I’m Doctor Randolph’s assistant,” he explained as he hurried them along the empty corridors.
“Where is everybody?” Scarlet asked. The hospital was unnaturally quiet.
Lawson pressed the button to call the lift and looked directly at the captain for the first time. “The hospital’s been evacuated,” he admitted. “Purely as a precaution.”
“A wise one,” Fawn remarked, adding cryptically, “under the circumstances.”
“And when’re you going to explain to me exactly what these circumstances are, Doctor Wilkie?” Scarlet asked. The identity of Spectrum’s agents was a closely-guarded secret and Fawn was not in uniform.
Lawson replied before Fawn could. “You’re only here as an observer, Captain. Doctor Randolph agreed to Doctor Wilkie’s suggestion that we involve Spectrum, simply to facilitate the doctor’s journey and expedite his arrival.”
“Spectrum doesn’t act as a taxi service, Doctor Lawson, not even for pre-eminent members of the medical community,” Scarlet said. “I’m here to observe and report back. I expect your co-operation to be given as freely as Doctor Wilkie has offered his.”
“You haven’t told him anything?” Lawson glared accusingly at Fawn.
“I told Spectrum’s commander-in-chief what Randolph told me. As the good captain says, Spectrum don’t provide taxi services and they don’t do favours for nothing.”
The lift door opened onto a basement corridor lined with laboratories and offices. Lawson stalked along, the two Spectrum officers following at a more sedate pace. Scarlet gave Fawn an interrogative glance, but the genial Australian shrugged in response.
“I owe you an apology,” the captain whispered, “I thought your bedside manner was as bad as it gets – until I met Doctor Lawson…”
Fawn suppressed a chuckle and frowned warningly. “Remember we’re not supposed to know each other…”
Scarlet smiled. It wasn’t often that Fawn got to participate in an actual mission and he was playing it strictly by the rulebook, even though it was obvious he was fizzing with excitement. He reminded himself not to tease the Australian too much and to bear in mind that not everyone he worked with was as easy-going and forgiving of his dry sense of humour as Captain Blue.
Doctor Lawson opened the door to the last office in the corridor and stood aside for them to go in. Scarlet saw that it was a small antechamber, with a viewing window to a sealed room. There were two people in there: a stocky man with thinning fair hair, and a slender, dark-haired woman.
“Ed!” The man exclaimed and came forward to shake Fawn’s hand. “Thank you for coming; I’m so glad to see you. May I present Doctor Ursula Owens?”
“Pleased to meet you, Doctor Owens,” Fawn said, shaking the woman’s hand. “This is Captain Scarlet, of Spectrum.”
“Captain.” The man perfunctorily acknowledged Scarlet’s presence. “Now, Ed, I need your advice and your help-”
“So you said, Tom. What’s going on?”
Doctor Randolph indicated the observation window and Fawn moved to take a look. Scarlet edged round until he was standing behind Doctor Owens and looking in over her shoulder.
The room was like a padded cell, with a bedstead in the centre. Lying on the bed was a man, or, at least, it looked like a man to Scarlet. He was naked, and his skin was a dull greyish-brown and appeared to be spotted with darker patches.
“Poor soul,” Fawn muttered, “who is he?”
“My lab technician: Jonathan Knox. We’re not sure what happened, but we assume there was an accident in the main lab and some of the spores escaped their containment cabinet.”
“Spores?” Scarlet asked quietly.
Randolph turned and looked up at the younger man. “My colleagues and I have been working on genetically modifying fungi for use in neurosurgery. The development was at a critical stage when this happened.”
“Fungi?” Scarlet asked in disbelief. “As in mushrooms, the things you have grilled on toast?”
Fawn sighed. “Look, let me study the medical records and while I’m doing that, perhaps you’d be so good as to explain what’s going on to Captain Scarlet, Doctor Owens?”
“Of course, Doctor Wilkie. If you’d come with me, Captain, I’ll show you the genetics lab.”
Randolph nodded briskly and called, “Frank, please bring the medical records over here.”
As Scarlet followed Ursula Owens out of the room, he saw fierce jealousy flash in Lawson’s eyes. Oh-oh, he thought.
Ursula led the way back towards the lift and paused at a wooden door. “Please, when we go into the lab, don’t touch anything, Captain. As Doctor Randolph said, we’re not sure what happened, so I will have to ask you to put on a protective bio-suit and a helmet. We’re not sure we’ve contained the leakage; that’s why the hospital was evacuated.”
“Of course, Doctor,” he replied. “What kind of mushroom would do that to anybody, though?”
As they suited up, she explained. “The fungi we’re using are cordyceps. There are many variations within that category, and all, or most of them, are species specific. They attack insects, or other plants. None are harmful to man.”
“You say they attack insects? I’m afraid I’m just a plain soldier, Doctor, and the image of ninja mushrooms you’re conjuring up is probably way off the mark.”
She smiled at him, chuckling. He grinned back.
“Yes, you’re way off beam, Captain. The fungal spores infect the insects through gaps and joints in their exoskeletons. Once there, they invade the nervous system and gradually take control of the animal, driving it mad and making it climb as high as it can go. When the fungi is ready, the fruiting bodies erupt from the insects, sometimes through every gap and sometimes just through the skull. It then takes about three weeks for the spores to develop and be scattered into the atmosphere in search of new hosts.”
“I’m guessing the insect is dead by then,” he remarked, a grimace on his face.
“The body within the carapace is dissolved by enzymes to feed the fungus’s development,” she said, without actually confirming his hypothesis.
“Ugh.” Scarlet shuddered. “I’ll never feel the same about a mushroom omelette again.”
“Relax, Captain. The cordyceps are mostly tropical and sub-tropical, and species specific. If the spores land on the wrong insect they do no harm. However,” she admitted, “they’re extremely virulent and can wipe out whole colonies of hundreds of thousands if they’re not detected.”
“Workers that have been infected are usually dragged away and abandoned by guards or other workers. Cruel, but necessary.”
“Right; and you’re telling me that Doctor Randolph decided to modify these harmless little mushrooms so they were dangerous to humans?”
“No. Doctor Randolph wanted a species developed that would attack diseased tissue within the body. We still have no way to deal with brain tumours and such-like if they’re sited dangerously. The idea in itself is a valid one. Carefully controlled, sterilised spores would be introduced close to the tumour. It would dissolve the diseased tissue and then die.”
Scarlet fastened the final zip of the bio-suit and activated the helmet microphone. “I take it something’s gone wrong and that poor guy in there is paying the price?”
“We don’t know. Doctor Randolph hoped Doctor Wilkie would be able to help.”
She opened the door to the lab and they walked in. There were rows of glass cabinets sealed and locked, with Petri dishes displayed inside. In each cabinet, grotesque, minute fungi in various stages of development flourished: some looked like small toadstools, some were long and bulbous and others thin and wiry.
“I don’t think you’d want any of these on toast.”
Dr Owens’ voice came over the radio and made Scarlet grin in agreement. “Have these been modified?” he asked.
“They’ve all had some work done on them. If you look over here you’ll see the next stage of our work.”
There were some fungi growing on what looked like a slab of flesh. It was the dull grey colour of Knox’s skin. “What’s that?” he asked.
Ursula smiled at his unease. “Relax, it’s just rump steak.”
“Thank God. How do you propose to test them on humans, Doctor?”
She looked at him for a moment and decided he was not the squeamish kind. “There are tumours that have been removed and cadavers donated for scientific experiments.”
“You get many of those these days?”
“We haven’t had to resort to Burke and Hare just yet.”
“Have you worked here long, Doctor?”
“No, not really. I’m part of the rain forest research team led by Professor Espinoza. Doctor Randolph asked for the professor’s help. I was chosen to accompany Doctor Lawson back to Casterbridge with samples of the species of fungi we’d selected as having the most potential for genetic modification. I’m leading the team of geneticists working on the genes.”
She paused and glanced unhappily towards the Isolation Room where Knox lay. “I can’t help feeling this is all my fault.”
“Accidents happen,” Scarlet reassured her. “I’m sure no one blames you.”
“No one except myself, you mean.”
Scarlet decided there was no answer to her guilt-ridden thoughts and so he tried to change the subject. “Why does Randolph think Doctor Wilkie can help?”
“They worked together at the World Medical Organisation and Doctor Wilkie was developing robot ‘nurses’ capable of complex diagnosis. If Knox has been infected with the spores of one of the cordyceps that has spontaneously mutated into something dangerous, we can’t risk human lives in trying to solve the problem. The room must remain sealed.”
“What about the people Knox might’ve already been in contact with?”
“Until the fungus fruits he should’ve been harmless enough. If it fruits…”
“You mean these are not sterile?” Scarlet swept his arm in a gesture that encompassed the rows of cabinets.
“Captain Scarlet, genetic modifications manifest themselves through succeeding generations; sterile organisms do not reproduce – ergo, these are viable specimens.”
Scarlet flushed. “Yes, I guess so – sorry Doc; I’m out of my depth with stuff like microbiology and genetics, but I ought to have thought that through.”
“No, I’m sorry; there was no need for me to snap at you. We’re all on edge at the moment.”
“Don’t worry about it, Doc, I’ve heard much worse. While we’re here, do you mind if I take a look around the place, check the security and so on?”
“No, go ahead; I’ll wait over here. Let me know if I can be of any help.”
Doctor Fawn sighed and put down the medical notes. There seemed no doubt that Knox had been infected by one of the new strains of cordyceps, although there was no way of knowing which one until it fruited, by which time the man would be dead – if he was lucky.
The potential danger of the situation was obvious and he knew he would have to help as much as he could. Out in the helijet was the latest prototype of his robotic nurse; it represented months of painstaking work and years of development. It was unique and – to him – priceless, and if it went into that room and was exposed to deadly spores, it would have to remain there forever, or be destroyed.
“Get a grip, Edward Wilkie, it’s only a damn machine…” he muttered, getting to his feet.
Captain Scarlet, fresh from checking security in the lab, went with Fawn to fetch the crate from the helijet.
“How bad is it, Doc?” he asked as he manoeuvred the crate to the door and jumped down to help slide it onto the trolley they’d appropriated.
“It’s serious, no point pretending otherwise. They can’t treat Knox until they know which spores infected him, and even then, I doubt there’s much they can do,” Fawn admitted.
“Is it worth it?” Scarlet asked.
“Oh yes; if they achieve their goal, it would be. However, I’m not sure they’re ever going to get there. The obstacles to do with testing and making the cordyceps safe for general use are astronomical. I admire their vision and their tenacity, but I can’t help thinking it’ll all be for nothing.”
“What’s worrying me, Doc, is that Doctor Owens spoke about ‘spontaneous mutation into something dangerous’. Now from where Spectrum stands, unexplained and dangerous events like that have ‘Mysteron’ written across them. Can you imagine what’d happen if the Mysterons got wind of this?” Scarlet paused in the act of turning the gurney round and added, “And they do have an uncanny knack of using our ingenuity against us. The thought of deadly spores, with the capacity to wipe out millions of people, loose in the atmosphere is not one I like to dwell on.”
“I’m way ahead of you,” Fawn reassured him. “That’s why I got the colonel to let us come down and investigate.”
“I checked the lab; that place is sealed tighter than a drum, I don’t think the spores got out by accident. I want to check Knox out, Edward.”
“You think he might be a Mysteron agent?”
“I don’t know, and until I do I’m not going to feel easy about any of this.”
“There’s no logical way I could ask for an X-ray, Paul; if the fungi is attacking his body it’ll be dissolving his internal organs and soft tissues, an X-ray wouldn’t show that.”
“No, I realise that; but someone’s got to wheel this machine in there, haven’t they? I think, under the circumstances, it’d better be me.”
Fawn tilted his head thoughtfully. “It’ll be interesting to know if your sixth sense can detect a Mysteron through the protection of a bio-suit,” he mused.
Scarlet chuckled and started to wheel the gurney towards the entrance. “Oh good,” he said, “Because I do like to feel I’m doing something useful.”
“Absolutely not,” Frank Lawson said, when Fawn told them that Captain Scarlet would be taking the robotic nurse into the sick room. “We can’t allow anyone outside of the team to be put at risk.”
“He’ll be in a bio-suit, and so would you,” Fawn reasoned, without looking up from making the final connections to the machine. “I can’t see he’s in any more danger than you’d be.”
“He’s not a doctor,” Randolph said.
“No, but he doesn’t have to be, the robotic nurse will take care of that. All he needs to do is put the sensors onto the… patient.”
Lawson snorted in disapproval. “He shouldn’t be here at all; never mind taking a part in the proceedings.”
Fawn looked up and complained in an exasperated voice, “Tom, do you want my help, or not? Because, if you do, please tell your assistant to keep out of my business. Captain Scarlet’s well aware of the risks and he’s prepared to do what he has to, to make sure we sort this matter out. Now, he knows what to do, because I’ve told him and he’s already suiting up. I suggest we stop arguing and prepare ourselves to analyse the data from the robotic nurse.”
“Wilkie’s right, Frank; Knox is looking worse all the time, we shouldn’t be arguing about trivialities.”
Doctor Owens followed Scarlet into the room, carrying the helmet to the bio-suit.
Fawn stood up and went through the procedure Scarlet had to follow. The captain listened intently, nodding every so often, until Fawn had finished.
“Any questions, Captain?”
“No, Doctor. I‘m to stay in the room while the machine takes a complete set of all the data you need, and if there’s anything else you need, I’ll do what I can to get it for you.”
“If the machine doesn’t work we’ll need a doctor in there,” Lawson interjected. “It’d be much better to let me go in the first place.”
“That’s enough – Captain Scarlet is the best person to go in there,” Fawn said angrily. “I won’t entrust my machine to anyone else.”
“I think you’re very brave, Captain,” Ursula said, as she handed him his helmet.
“Thank you, but not really; it’s just my job, Doctor. Besides, if anything does go wrong, it makes sense to have all the people who know most about the problems, safe and ready to find a solution.”
“Rest assured, we’d do all we can – in the unlikely event there’s a problem,” Randolph said.
“I know.” Scarlet took the helmet and put it on. “Let’s go, shall we?”
The double-door behind Scarlet swung shut with a muted thump and the seals engaged. The Isolation Room was chilly, although there was no sound of any air conditioning or signs of air vents.
Over the headphones he heard Fawn asking:
“Is everything, okay, Scarlet?”
He turned and gave the watching quartet a thumbs-up sign. “Yes, Doc; I was just wondering why it’s so cold in here.”
Ursula Owens replied:
“The cordyceps in the experiment are all tropical species; we hoped that a cold environment would hinder their development.”
“I thought you said it took about three weeks for the things to be ready to release any spores?” Scarlet asked, as he approached the bed, pushing the robotic nurse before him. “This guy’s only been ill for a matter of days, hasn’t he?”
The silence from the quartet made him glance across at them enquiringly. Doctor Randolph finally said:
“The modifications we made were also designed to speed up the development of the fungi; some operations are urgent, patients can’t wait that long.”
“Great; and why am I guessing that you don’t know just how speedy their development will be?” Scarlet muttered. He rolled his eyes and plugged the extension cable into a wall socket. The small, grey box lit up with two red lights, and then one changed to green.
“System engaged,” Scarlet reported.
“Good,” Fawn replied. “Use the gel to attach the sensors as I explained: one on each arm and each leg, three across his torso and one at either temple.”
Scarlet fumbled with the tube of gel provided by Dr Lawson, but his fingers couldn’t get a grip on the safety top. “Sod this,” he muttered, and drew off the bio-suit glove.
“Captain Scarlet, that’s too dangerous!” Ursula exclaimed.
“Okay, keep your hair on,” he muttered as the top came free, and pulled the glove back on. “There aren’t any spores in here yet, are there?”
“Nevertheless, I urge you not to take unnecessary risks, Captain.” Fawn sounded annoyed and Scarlet smirked apologetically in his direction.
“Sorry, Doctor F-ilkie.”
“Concentrate!” There was no mistaking the anger in Fawn’s voice now and Scarlet nodded.
He squirted the gel onto the first of the sensor pads and moved alongside the bed, reaching down to attach it to Knox’s thigh.
Sluggish ripples moved across the surface of the skin as he touched it, and the sensor and his finger sank into a pit of flesh.
Scarlet looked up: the four doctors were watching intently, but they were probably too far away to see exactly what had happened. The robotic nurse bleeped in acknowledgement of the data source as he prepared another sensor. When he pressed it onto Knox’s arm, the same thing happened.
He looked across to the observation window. “Doc,” he said. “I don’t like the look of this at all. The body’s all… soggy.”
“Soggy?” Fawn repeated in uncertainty.
“Yeah, gelatinous, like when you poke a water bed…”
“Surely it can’t be that advanced…” Scarlet only caught Randolph’s words on the very edge of his hearing, but they filled him with dread.
“You mean this poor guy’s being dissolved from the inside by the cordyceps?” he demanded.
“We won’t know until we have all the data,” Lawson snapped. “It might simply be water retention.”
Scarlet didn’t believe a word of it. “Oh yeah…? What did he do, drink his bath water?” he muttered rebelliously, but he went on preparing the next sensor.
The sensors on the torso were next and Scarlet’s keen hearing caught the muted sound of gurgling, like water sloshing about in a hot water bottle. He was growing increasingly reluctant to touch Knox’s body.
“Only the temple sensors to go,” Fawn’s voice encouraged him.
Scarlet looked up to see the reassuring smile on Fawn’s face, and gave a wan smile in response. He prepared the two sensors and leant over the head to fix them on at the same time.
As they touched the skin, the robotic nurse emitted a piercing alarm and Scarlet turned to check it was still functioning just as the power meter shot into the red zone. Scarlet turned back to see Knox’s eyes fly open. Frowning, he peered down and gasped at what he saw. Knox’s eyes were a uniform dull grey in colour, the iris and the pupil indistinguishable beneath what looked like a squirming morass of tiny worms trapped beneath the cornea. These unholy eyes stared hypnotically at Scarlet as he leant closer to examine the phenomenon.
Suddenly, two strong arms reached up and grabbed him, pulling him off balance. The puffy fingers struggled with the fastening around his shoulder and yanked the bio-suit helmet from his shoulders. Even as Knox threw the helmet away Scarlet could still hear Doctor Owens screaming and the pandemonium in the observation booth over the microphone.
Dazed, but unhurt, Scarlet started to fight back, but as his hands touched the cold flesh it came away from the body, like a mushroom crumbles to the touch. A red, glutinous liquid seeped from the wound, and Scarlet saw more of the worm-like tendrils strung across the gaping sore.
Knox pinioned Scarlet’s arms and pressed him against the wall, effectively immobilising him. There was a powerful stench in the air and when Scarlet looked up at Knox’s face he gasped in horror.
Dozens of filaments sprouted from Knox’s eyes, ears and nose, writhing as they grew. Scarlet tried to shrug free and shook his head, seeking to evade the groping tendrils, but there was no avoiding their advance. One brushed against his nose and immediately began to swell, bursting the eyeball it extruded from in a shower of matter. It splattered over Scarlet’s face and dripped from his eyelashes, nose and lips. He spat at Knox, not wanting to swallow any of it.
When he opened his eyes again, the tip of the closest fungus had flushed a darker brownish-grey and swollen into an obscenely phallic bulge. As the head grew too heavy for the slender filament to support, it exploded.
Moments later the hundreds of other tendrils, whose maturation had been triggered by the contact with a potential host, did the same until Scarlet could see the cloud of dust-like spores floating between them both.
There was someone banging on the observation window and the red light over the door was flashing a warning that the airlock was in operation.
Someone’s coming in, Scarlet thought. But they mustn’t – it’s too dangerous – there are spores everywhere – they might escape.
With a superhuman effort he pushed Knox away, although now that the initial bloom of cordyceps had shed their spores, the strength seemed to have left his adversary and Knox staggered back, knocking into the bed and falling across it.
Scarlet left him and ran to the door, slamming his fist down on the auto-lock to cancel the over-ride command.
“Stay out of here!” he ordered. “The spores are airborne.”
He turned to the observation window where he saw Ursula pointing to the helmet, so he went and put it on again.
“Hardly seems worth it now,” he said to her, his voice decidedly shaky.
“At least we can communicate with you,” she replied. “What happened?”
Fawn and Randolph came back into the room, the latter continuing to manhandle Lawson to prevent him returning to the airlock.
Scarlet replied, “I don’t know what happened. There were no obvious signs of life as I fitted the sensors – until the last two. When I touched them to his temples, his eyes opened and he grabbed me. You saw the rest.”
“Is he dead now?” Randolph asked.
“I bloody well hope so,” Scarlet retorted. He looked nervously over his shoulder and gave a significant glance at Fawn. “He was strong… stronger than you’d expect,” he added pointedly.
“He didn’t look fit enough to have any strength,” Ursula interjected. Although her initial tone had been one of bewilderment, it was quickly apparent that her curiosity was piqued by what she’d witnessed and instinctively she began to theorise. “It looks clear to me that the cordyceps has invaded his entire body cavity; I can only presume the fungi was somehow driving the body to move – as it does to infected insect hosts – to somewhere it stood most chance of reproducing successfully. Did one of the filaments touch you, Captain Scarlet?”
Scarlet nodded ruefully. “Just brushed my nose, that’s all.”
“Never mind all of this,” Lawson exclaimed, “the man’s infected; he’ll end up like Knox.”
“Of course; forgive me, Captain. What must you think of me?” Ursula apologised and then turned to Doctor Randolph. “I’ll do an autopsy on Knox. Maybe there is something to show us how to combat the infection…”
While Fawn listened to the bickering of his colleagues as they discussed the potential dangers and advantages of being able to work on Knox’s diseased body, he looked at Scarlet. He was standing silently in the Isolation Room, his shoulders a little drooped, his head hung.
Fawn knew that throughout his incident-packed life since the Mysterons recreated him to act as their agent, Paul Metcalfe had faced many dangers, and faced them squarely, but most had been physical: sharp pain and fairly speedy death. Now he faced something new – a death sentence from which even his retrometabolism might not be able to offer him a reprieve. The sight of Knox’s body alive with the writhing tentacles of the deadly fungus had been one of the most gruesome sights he could remember – and his medical career had not spared him in that respect.
He’d understood the relevance of Scarlet’s remark about the unexpected strength of his attacker; Mysteron agents were often endowed with super-human attributes as they strove to obey the orders of their alien masters. He also knew that if there was any chance Knox had been Mysteronised, then so had the cordyceps, and there was no way he could allow anyone to become infected.
He turned to his colleagues.
“Stop it! Listen to me,” he snapped at his most authoritative. “I want you all to stay here and don’t touch anything.”
“What are you saying, Ed?” Randolph demanded.
Fawn turned towards the intercom to include Scarlet in what he had to say. “I’m going to inform Spectrum of the events here and ask for their help. They’ll have facilities we can utilise.”
“How will you get him out of the room?” Lawson demanded. “Look at Knox, the cordyceps is still fruiting. The air in there is thick with spores; if any of them escape it could be catastrophic.”
“He’s right, Doctor Wilkie.” Scarlet’s voice over the intercom sounded defeatist.
“While there’s life there’s hope,” Fawn reassured him. “I haven’t lost a patient for several years, Captain – and if I have anything to do with it, you won’t be the first. Everyone wait here and don’t touch anything. I’m going to use the radio in the helijet to contact Cloudbase.”
He hurried to the lift. Outside the hospital the sun was starting to set and the clouds boiled up over the horizon threatening rain. Bad weather might well delay the arrival of reinforcements.
He heaved himself into the flight cabin and hit the communicator.
“Lieutenant Green, we have an emergency.”
“Go ahead, Doctor Fawn.”
With the practised ease of a man used to conveying complex situations clearly and at speed, Fawn explained what had happened and what he wanted done.
“Alert Doctor Tan and have him prepare the isolation capsule next to the morgue. Set the temperature to as low as he can without it being at freezing. Scarlet won’t mind the cold, I’m sure.”
“S.I.G.,” Green responded.
“I want the capsule loaded onto an SPJ and flown down here by two captains – both in bio-suits. One will return with me and the other will remain here to co-ordinate the clean-up operation using local agents from the nearest terrestrial base. The hospital must be thoroughly cleansed from top to bottom and everything inside the Isolation Room here incinerated. And that includes Knox’s body, so you’d better remind Tan to include a bio-hazard body bag.”
“S.I.G., Anything else?”
“Emergency containment fields around Scarlet’s usual recovery room. Isolate the water supply, the air conditioning, sewage and garbage disposal – temporary airlocks across the doors, if you can achieve it in time. I don’t want so much as a quark to be able to get in or out of there!”
“How long have we got?” Green asked.
“How long before the SPJ gets down here?”
There was a slight pause and Green replied, “E.T.A. at Casterbridge about 70 minutes.”
“Then you’d better be quick, Lieutenant,” Fawn urged and closed the link.
The SPJ touched down at Casterbridge hospital alongside the helijet and effectively blocked all access along the gravel drive. There was a growing crowd of interested spectators, including pressmen, outside the gates, peering into the grounds. Luckily, Doctor Randolph had arranged for the police to patrol all the entrances when the hospital had been evacuated, and so far they’d succeeded in keeping everyone out.
Fawn and Dr Randolph walked across to the plane as the door opened. Steps descended and two men appeared at the exit. The taller of the men, with a head of striking blond hair, wore a bio-suit with a pale-blue line down the outside of the arms and legs. His companion was slightly shorter with unruly brown hair and a stripe of rich gold on his bio-suit. They introduced themselves as Captain Blue and Captain Ochre.
“Doctor Wilkie,” Blue said, “how can we help? We’ve brought the equipment you asked for.”
“Good. Inside the hospital, your colleague, Captain Scarlet, is in a containment room. He may have become infected-”
“Almost certainly has become infected-” Randolph interjected to correct his companion.
Fawn ignored him. “-by a myocondrial spore.”
“We’ll take him back to Cloudbase,” Blue said. “Our medical team will know what to do.”
“No one knows what to do,” Randolph said. “That’s the problem. The spores came into contact with a human too soon; they hadn’t been sterilised – they’re reproducing.”
“Myocondrial,” Captain Ochre said thoughtfully, “that’s mushrooms, right?”
“Fungi,” Fawn corrected. “Yes.”
“Killer mushrooms? You expect me to believe this, Doc? This isn’t April 1st.”
“No, it isn’t,” Fawn snapped. “And I’ve never felt less like joking.”
“We understand,” Blue said, as Ochre smirked apologetically. “Now, how do you propose we get Scarlet back to Cloudbase?”
Scarlet looked up as the door to the observation room opened and felt a surge of relief to see the familiar sight of Captain Blue and Captain Ochre flanking the diminutive Fawn. He couldn’t help his spirits lifting, even though his common sense told him that the arrival of his friends did little or nothing to improve his predicament.
Blue immediately strode towards the intercom panel and asked, “How are you, Captain?”
Scarlet gave him the most reassuring smile he could muster. “I’m fine, Captain. I guess nothing’s going to happen straight away.”
Ochre came to join the conversation. He nodded a casual greeting to Scarlet, and said, “The terrestrial base has sent emergency crew; they’ll be here in about ten minutes. Once they arrive we’ll set up a vacuum pump and draw off as much of the air as we can, into a bio-hazard tank.”
Scarlet nodded slightly and with a sudden shift into concern Ochre added, “We’ll get you through this, buddy; trust the doc, ol’ Blue-boy and me.”
“I do,” Scarlet said fervently.
“Doctor Wilkie suggests we leave a fresh bio-suit in the airlock and you strip off before you step out of there and get into the new suit before you get into the bio-haz capsule. We’re going to place that against the door now and activate the seals,” Blue explained. “That should eliminate the chances of any spores escaping into the atmosphere.”
“Shades of the K14 virus,” Scarlet reminded him, with a slight smile.
“Yes; and as Ochre said, just like that we’ll get through this,” Blue reassured him quietly. “I promise you.”
Scarlet nodded and managed another smile. “Okay, Captain.”
“Doctor Wilkie’s agreed to accompany you back to Cloudbase; to liaise with our medical staff. They’ll do all they can, Captain,” Blue added.
“Thanks, Captain – and thanks, Doc; it’s much appreciated.” Scarlet struggled to hide a smirk.
“You’re welcome,” Fawn replied dryly. Now that his plan was in action, he wanted to get a move on and he found these delays irksome – even while he appreciated that his colleagues needed time to express their concerns.
“Why is Wilkie going?” Doctor Lawson demanded. “He knows least about the project.”
“Doctor Wilkie’s known to us,” Ochre replied sharply. “He’s been vetted. Cloudbase is a classified security base – not just anyone can walk on board.”
“You’ll need expert advice if you want any hope of saving your friend!” Lawson blustered. “Taking Wilkie is like sentencing him to death! You’ll need expert advice-”
“Yes, I will,” Fawn agreed angrily.
He’d realised some time ago that, despite the young man’s well-deserved reputation in his field of expertise, he’d find it hard to work with the temperamental Lawson – and Scarlet’s jibe about the younger doctor’s bedside manner suggested he felt the same. Besides, he didn’t feel he could trust Lawson to keep quiet about any secret information he might acquire – the man was too determined to make it to the top. He came to a swift decision. “That’s why I’ve obtained permission to invite Doctor Owens to accompany us.”
“Me?” Ursula gasped, as surprised by the announcement as the men around her.
“You’re the project’s geneticist and a mycologist, that makes sense to me,” Fawn explained. He turned to glance at Randolph, who was nodding in agreement. “Tom, I want to ask you and Lawson to supervise the clean-up here. Spectrum will supply the equipment and the manpower, and Captain Ochre will be in charge, but I’d feel happier with a medical input too.”
“Of course,” Randolph said. “I want to be of help, Ed; I feel as if we’re to blame in some way.”
No one commented on this. Ursula was too preoccupied coming to terms with the news of her impending departure, to notice the way Lawson was glaring angrily at her and Fawn, but Captain Blue was more observant and he took Fawn aside.
“Are you sure she’s the right choice, Doc? Scarlet may need all the help he can get with this; if Lawson’s the better bet-”
“He isn’t,” Fawn snapped. “Are you questioning my professional judgement?” Blue shook his head, taken aback at this reaction. Fawn sighed. “I’m sorry, Blue; I didn’t mean to bite your head off. Lawson’s been nothing but a hindrance to us since we got here. He’s a glory-seeker, and while he’s worked with Randolph for longer than Doctor Owens, from what I’ve seen of the progress reports she’s played a far more productive role in the project. We’re going to need someone who can find a way out of this mess – and that may be by developing some kind of antidote or predatory fungi that will destroy the one in Scarlet’s system. I don’t think Lawson would be able to do that.”
“You know best, Doc,” Blue said. “I’ll clear it with the colonel.”
Scarlet watched with interest as Blue and Ochre manhandled the bio-haz capsule into place, and he heard the whump of the seals engaging with the outer door before he started to remove his bio-suit. He stood close to the airlock and stripped down to his uniform. As quickly as he could, he opened the outer door and stepped into the sealed compartment, closing the door behind himself in a single movement. There, lying in a container on the floor, was a clean bio-suit. It was awkward trying to put it on in the confined space, but he managed to zip himself into the overall and secure the helmet with only minor bruises to his elbows.
“Scarlet to Rescue Team,” he said, as he switched on the internal mic, “I’m in the new bio-suit and am opening the outer door now.”
“S.I.G.” Over the hospital communication link Blue’s voice sounded alarmingly distant.
Scarlet stepped into the capsule. It was designed to take one body and there was a gimbal-slung chair which adapted to a level platform if necessary. He strapped himself in and announced:
“Secured. Take her away, guys.”
The capsule had its own self-contained air supply and dim lighting. There was no view of the outside world and it was a weird sensation to feel the judder as the seals to the door were broken.
“Going to horizontal,” Ochre warned him, and as Scarlet felt the capsule slowly fall backwards, the footrest of the chair rose to provide a horizontal plane.
“A-okay in here,” he said.
The capsule moved forwards and then stopped. The communication link was fuzzy, but he could just make out the indistinct conversation outside.
“Are you ready to go, Doctor Owens?”
That’s Blue-boy, habitually polite and formal – especially to the ladies.
“Yes, Captain Blue. I take it that I won’t need to take much?”
“Only what you need to work.”
Fawn, brisk and efficient as ever.
“Safe journey, Ed. Let me know how it goes with… with Captain Scarlet.”
Nice of Doctor Randolph to care.
“Make sure everything is destroyed, Tom. We can’t risk leaving anything.”
“Too damn right,” Scarlet muttered, and wriggled his shoulders to ease the persistent itch between them.
“You can rely on me, Ed.”
“And if you can’t rely on him, you can rely on me.”
Ochre, a man to whom tact is a closed book.
There was a thump on the bio-haz capsule and Ochre’s voice, louder and clearer, called, “Take it easy, big guy.”
“S.I.G.,” Scarlet replied.
“Catch you later. Safe journey, Blue.”
Blue’s reply was obscured by the squeak of the wheels of the capsule as it jolted into motion again.
There was nothing to do in the gloom of the capsule and so Scarlet closed his eyes and tried to sleep. His mind’s eye recreated the shocking events of the day and he felt himself sweating with something akin to fear. He opened his eyes and stared at the smooth surface above his head.
He knew he was unlikely to die – permanently – from the fungal infection, but the idea of years – or maybe forever – isolated from human contact because they could not ‘cure’ him, was one he preferred not to contemplate.
The Mysterons must be laughing their socks off, assuming they have feet to put socks on. They can’t reclaim me, they can’t kill me, and so they make me a danger to my species and effectively remove me from the fight. I’m going to insist the colonel orders a thorough investigation – I’m damn sure Black is at the bottom of this – somewhere.
Colonel White was waiting in the sickbay as the SPJ landed and the technicians wheeled the bio-haz capsule through to the door of the recovery room set aside for Captain Scarlet’s use. Even the Commander-in-Chief of Spectrum knew better to get in the way of the medical team as it swung into action.
Fawn stalked through the sickbay, barking orders at the nurses and technicians and barely acknowledging the colonel’s presence.
“Is the recovery room sealed? Good. I want the bio-haz attached to the door so that Scarlet can get out. Did you clear the auto-analyser for the exclusive use of Doctor Owens – what do you mean, ‘no’? I don’t care what else is in the pipeline – I gave you an order. Do it now! Where is Doctor Owens’s medical gown, and have you prepared the two new bio-suits for her and for me? What do you mean, ‘what size is she’? How should I know what size she is, Nurse Ingram – ask her yourself, woman!”
Colonel White glanced across at Captain Blue who was just entering the sickbay. Beside him was a petite, dark-haired woman, whose grey eyes were round with astonishment. He stepped forward before Nurse Ingram could approach her, and introduced himself.
“Doctor Owens, welcome to Cloudbase. I’m Colonel White.”
“Hello, Colonel,” Ursula said, smiling uncertainly at the nurse who was eyeing her up.
“Something wrong, Bill?” Blue asked.
“Not at all,” Belinda Ingram replied. “A small, I’d say…” she muttered cryptically, and dashed off towards a store cupboard.
Having supervised the installation of the bio-haz capsule to the entrance of the Recovery Room, Fawn wandered over, smiling reassuringly at Ursula.
“My nurse is fetching you a medical gown and the technicians are unloading the rest of your equipment from the SPJ,” he said. “G’day, Colonel.”
“Hello, Doctor Fawn.”
“Your nurse?” Ursula latched on to the most surprising of all the unbelievable things she was seeing and hearing.
“Doctor Fawn is head of our medical service,” White explained.
“And the best damn doctor around,” Blue added, sotto voce.
“And that is confidential information, Doctor Owens; so I must ask you to sign the World Government’s official secrets act before we proceed,” White continued, ignoring his subordinate’s intervention.
“We don’t have time for that,” Fawn said.
“We do, or Doctor Owens leaves immediately.”
“I will sign it, of course I will,” Ursula said. She took the medical coat Nurse Ingram handed her and went into Fawn’s office where the colonel had left the security document. Then Fawn led her across to the observation panel for Scarlet’s Recovery Room. He switched off the obscured glass and the screen cleared to reveal Scarlet, still in his bio-suit, sitting on the edge of his bed.
“How are you feeling, Captain?” Fawn asked over the intercom.
“Not so bad, Doc.”
Fawn checked the atmospheric readings and said, “You can take the bio-suit off, if you want; the room’s been totally isolated from Cloudbase’s environmental systems. We’ll suit up when we need to come in.”
“Thanks,” Scarlet replied. “I’m getting sick to death of this thing – it’s like wearing a sauna. I’m sweating so much it’s making me itch.”
Ursula checked the room temperature. “All the specimen cordyceps were tropical; it could be that if it’s too hot in there their development will speed up even more.”
They watched as Scarlet peeled off the bio-suit and, at Ursula’s suggestion – which Fawn agreed with – his uniform as well.
“Put them in the disposal chute; better they’re incinerated immediately.”
“That’s going to cost me,” Scarlet joked, as he obeyed. He walked to the chute and pulled it open.
For the first time the doctors saw his naked back and they both drew an intake of breath. Along the line of Scarlet’s spine were darker patches of skin and between his shoulder blades a reddened patch was criss-crossed by hundreds of grey filaments.
“Oh no,” Ursula moaned quietly. “He’s infected, and the progress is even quicker than with Knox.”
“Captain Scarlet, where exactly is the itch?” Fawn asked, trying to remain calm.
“Same place an annoying itch always pops up, right between your shoulder blades where you can’t reach it.”
“Put a gown on, Paul, and sit tight.”
Scarlet studied Fawn’s face through the window and saw the anxiety reflected in his expression. There was no need for explanations. “Right-o, Doc,” he said with an air of quiet resignation.
Fawn and Doctor Owens had examined Scarlet, taken a few samples and retired into the labs to see what they could devise to slow, or remove, the infection, so, to keep his friend company, Blue sat outside the Recovery Room, drinking Sick Bay coffee and chatting with Scarlet, who was pacing restlessly and chewing on his finger nails.
Suddenly, he jumped onto the bed and reached up to the ceiling where the ‘welcome back’ banner his friends had made for him, was pinned. He tore it down, shredding it and throwing the strips around.
“Hey, if you were fed up of that you only had to say,” Blue said mildly, although a frown had appeared between his fair brows.
Scarlet turned towards him, his blue eyes flashing with a fevered brightness. “I don’t want to be in here; let me out, Adam,” he pleaded. “I need to move, I need to run and jump – I can’t stay here!” He thumped his hands against the glass and then ran into the door, crashing against it.
“Paul, calm down!” Blue pleaded, as he watched his friend banging his forehead against the door.
Scarlet was roaring, “Let me out!”
Blue sprinted to the lab, calling for Fawn as he ran. The two doctors met him half way and hurried back to the Recovery Room, where Scarlet was throwing his bedding onto the floor in a towering rage. Seeing Fawn approach the window he came towards it and tore the medical gown off as he came. The discoloured patches were all over his body now and under his skin squirming tendrils were visibly spreading to form a network of interlacing pathways. His sapphire-blue eyes were rolled back into his head and from his eye sockets tiny filaments were bursting out, causing a trickle of blood-stained fluid to drip unheeded down his cheeks.
“Oh, my God,” Blue exclaimed, horrified by what he was seeing as he came up behind them.
“We must sedate him,” Fawn decided. “Maybe that’ll slow it all down.”
As he spoke Scarlet seemed to choke, coughing and spluttering until his chest heaved. Then with one almighty retch, he vomited out a mass of grey matter that hit the window, causing them all to jump back in alarm. It slithered down the glass, leaving a trail of pus.
“Edward,” Ursula gasped, “The cordyceps has started to break down his internal tissue…”
As Fawn flicked the switch that flooded the room with a sedative gas, Blue grabbed her and demanded, “What’s happening to him?”
With much hesitation she described what had happened to Knox and what appeared to be happening to Scarlet. The colour faded from Blue’s face as he listened. He turned to stare in fascinated horror at the man writhing on the floor of the Recovery Room.
“If he dies -” he turned to Fawn “– will those fucking things be retrometabolic too?”
Fawn shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Was Knox a Mysteron?” Blue demanded urgently.
“He wasn’t tested,” Fawn began.
Blue interrupted him with a violent curse, “Why the fuck not?”
“There wasn’t time – but Scarlet didn’t sense anything,” Fawn explained. He could see the anxiety in Blue’s eyes and didn’t need his friend’s sudden, uncharacteristic descent into obscenity to realise why the captain was worried. Maybe they should have done a more thorough test when they’d first arrived, but it hadn’t been easy to operate under the watchful eyes of Randolph and Lawson.
“I have to warn Ochre – if Knox and the fungus are retrometabolic the only way to safely destroy them is with a massive dose of electricity.” Blue turned and hurried into Fawn’s office.
“Retrometabolic?” Ursula asked in confusion.
“Long story – I’ll tell you later,” Fawn promised. “Right now, we have to suit up and go in to help Scarlet.”
Blue got no response to his hails through the standard communication links, so he got Lieutenant Green to patch him through to the terrestrial team at the hospital instead.
The video-link screen flickered into life and he saw a charcoal-uniformed security guard, sweating and panting, leaning over the com desk.
“Casterbridge hospital, Sergeant Prentiss speaking.”
“Where’s Captain Ochre?”
”He’s busy, sir,” Prentiss replied.
“I have to speak to him, Sergeant,” Blue ordered. “We have a ‘Spectrum-is-red’ code on Cloudbase.”
“Same here, sir.” Prentiss jerked the vid-cam round so that Blue could see the Isolation Room. Several men, including Captain Ochre, were struggling to restrain the man he recognised as Knox. “Knox is a Mysteron,” he continued. “He attacked Doctor Randolph when the doc went in to help remove the body.”
“It just keeps getting worse,” Blue muttered to himself and then ordered, “Tell Captain Ochre to get everyone out of the room, then flood the place with electricity. Just fry the bastard, okay?”
“But that’s dangerous,” Prentiss said.
“Not as dangerous as Knox or the fucking fungus! And not as dangerous as I’ll be if you fail to pass on my orders, Sergeant.”
“S.I.G,” the sergeant said, and vanished from view.
Blue got back to Lieutenant Green. “Lieutenant, monitor events at Casterbridge and keep the colonel informed. If Ochre asks for any help, send it p.d.q., okay?”
“Scarlet’s showing signs of a serious infection and Fawn’s sedated him. I think the doctors are going in to see what they can do, but it doesn’t look hopeful, Griff. The colonel may want to be here.”
“S.I.G., Captain Blue,” Green took refuge in formality as the shock of the news hit him. “I’ll let him know.”
Blue closed the link, and rested his elbows on the desk for a moment, his head in his hands. Virtually indestructible – that’s what Fawn said – but could it be that something as small and insignificant as a fucking mushroom is going to end Paul Metcalfe’s life? We’ve fought everything the Mysterons have thrown at us; he’s survived explosions, gunshots, falls, crashes beyond number… I can’t believe this.
He looked heavenward and sent up one desperate prayer: we need a miracle like we’ve never needed anything before. Paul’s taken everything they’ve thrown at him and never asked for quarter. He deserves a break…
When Blue got back to the Recovery Room, Fawn and Doctor Owens were already inside. They’d lifted the inert body of Scarlet onto his bed, and were busy examining him. Blue squinted and thought he could see tiny disturbances in the air – presumably some of the cordyceps had released their spores.
Ursula turned away to place a vial of blood into the small auto-analyser they’d taken with them, as she did so, Scarlet sprang upright, knocking Fawn down with a sweep of his arm and lunging after her.
She struggled, but it was obvious that she was no match for the powerful Spectrum agent. Fawn, evidently dazed and still struggling to get to his feet, could not help her. Even as Scarlet fumbled to remove her bio-suit helmet, Blue could see more filaments of fungus bursting through his sightless eye sockets and oscillating as they sought for contact with another host.
In desperation he did the only thing he could think of, and flooded the room with nerve gas again. As he anxiously watched Scarlet weakening, the colonel arrived with Magenta and Grey at his side, both of them already wearing bio-suits. In the split second it took for him to assess the situation, White ordered them into the Recovery Room.
Both officers set about Scarlet and managed to get him back on the bed where they pinioned him down until he finally lost consciousness.
Then Grey helped Fawn to his feet and Magenta supported Ursula Owens.
Blue activated the intercom.
“Stay where you are. The room’s flooded with spores. We’re going to have to find a way to decontaminate you before you can come out.”
“You saw spores released?” Fawn asked.
Before Blue could reply, Ursula said, “Edward, look at Captain Scarlet’s face and beneath his fingernails, those withered filaments are what’s left after the cordyceps has fruited and released its spores. Captain Blue’s right; we’re all contaminated now.”
“Does that mean you’ll be infected like Scarlet?” White asked.
She shook her head. “No, Knox made physical contact with Scarlet’s skin. The bio-suits are impervious, and as long as we don’t rip them, I can’t see any way the spores can get through them. We’ll need to strip and be decontaminated as with any bio-hazard, and the suits and everything in this room will need to be destroyed, but, once we’re out of here, we should all be clear.”
“Thank goodness,” the colonel muttered. Then he asked Fawn, “What now, Doctor?”
“We’re okay while the suits’ oxygen supplies last. So we’ve got to devise a way out before they’re drained. The portable auto-analyser can produce some of the test results we need, but we may need to get Randolph and, or, Lawson up here to do the more delicate genetic modifications and trials.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor Fawn,” Blue said, “but Knox was a Mysteron and he retrometabolised and attacked Ochre, the terrestrial team and Doctor Randolph. He may not be fit to come here.” He glanced at the colonel for confirmation.
White drew a deep breath and said, “Blue’s right. I know he was a friend of yours, Edward, and I’m sorry I have to tell you that Doctor Randolph was killed by Knox.”
Ursula turned her head away and gasped. “What have I done?” she murmured. “If only I’d never agreed to work on the project…”
“Hey,” Magenta said kindly, “‘If only’ are the two most pointless words in any language. You weren’t to know, Doctor. You were all trying to do something good.”
“Captain Magenta’s right, Doctor Owens,” the colonel said. “What we need now is for you to apply your knowledge to help us reverse the genetic modifications and save our friend’s life, and that of many millions of innocent people.”
“What about Lawson?” Fawn asked her. “Could he be of help? I don’t like the man, but under the circumstances, I’ll take help wherever I can get it.”
“Lawson’s disappeared,” Colonel White informed them. “Captain Ochre reported that he was sent to destroy the cordyceps samples in the lab; but he and they have vanished. It seems he’s stolen them. I’ve put out an all points alert, and we’ll get him – in time. However, I won’t allow him to come here. If he can help from a ground lab, all well and good.”
Doctor Owens glanced around at the Spectrum officers and said, “Frank was always jealous of me. He wanted credit as the sole developer – along with Doctor Randolph – of any advances we made. He even resented the fact that Randolph had asked Professor Espinoza for help. He was bitter about me being there, and made sure I knew why. I’ve got suspicions that he’s been sabotaging my experiments.”
“In what way, Ursula?” Fawn asked. “You think he might’ve tampered with the strain that infected Knox, or even infected the man himself?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know that I’d go that far; I mean, it would be tantamount to accusing him of murder, wouldn’t it? But this strain of cordyceps is the third one I’ve developed. The other two were far less virulent than this one – which would have made them easier to control in surgical procedures, of course – but they failed to reproduce after modification. I was going to destroy them, only Lawson said he’d done it for me. I didn’t know what to do – Randolph was unlikely to take anything I said against him seriously. The pair of them were… very close, if you understand me? I only found out the other day that Lawson’s skilled in cloning techniques, something he kept very quiet about around me. I began to suspect he’s been trying to clone my earlier strains. I was annoyed, because I’d suggested that as a way forwards only to have it rejected by Randolph.”
“If we can find Lawson, do you think he’ll have those samples with him?” Blue asked eagerly. “Could you use them to attack the dangerous strain in Scarlet?”
“It is possible,” she conceded.
“Right,” the colonel said. “Captain Blue, I want you to return to Casterbridge, start a ground search for Lawson and draw on all the manpower you need. I want him found, Captain, and I want him found quickly.”
“S.I.G.,” Blue replied, with a smart salute. Delighted to be active and useful again, he set off at a brisk stride towards the hangar decks.
“You could also ask Professor Espinoza for fresh samples of the native cordyceps and I could replicate the work I did on them. It might take a week or so, but it’s one possible solution,” she suggested.
“Excellent, Doctor.” White opened a communication link. “Lieutenant Green, launch Angel One and have her head for Professor Espinoza’s base in Amazonia, at speed ultimate. You’ll need to check the co-ordinates. Then patch Doctor Owens through to the professor so that she can give him the details of what we need.”
He turned and gave a dry smile at the occupants of the room. “You’d all better make yourselves as comfortable as you can, while we prepare the necessary decontamination process.”
The next two months were an absolute nightmare for everyone in Spectrum.
Doctor Lawson could not be found and the colonel, short of manpower and faced with half-a-dozen consecutive major Mysteron threats, was forced to recall Blue and scale down the search. Around the world they lost seven agents in the various attacks and morale plummeted. The World President was getting critical as the losses and costs mounted and even the colonel seemed at a loss to know what to do about it.
On Cloudbase, Ursula Owens and Doctor Fawn worked tirelessly to modify the new cordyceps samples, but whatever they tried had no effect on Scarlet.
As for Captain Scarlet, he was now in a pitiful state. He was incarcerated in the Recovery Room which he’d wrecked numerous times, but they were unable to refurbish it due to the vast number of spores it now contained. The pumps were working flat out to decontaminate the room but the cycle of regeneration and infection was getting faster. It seemed that whenever the cordyceps reduced his internal organs to a soup, his retrometabolism kicked in and fought back until he was almost fit and well, then the tell-tale dark patches would appear close to his spine and spread until they had covered him once more and the cycle would continue.
Each time his regeneration took a little longer and his body was weaker, for he was rarely able to consume enough food before he lost control of his nervous system and his digestion.
Fawn tried various compounds, drugs and decontamination processes, but nothing seemed to shift the fungi from his system. They pinned their hope on the alternative strains Ursula was developing, but even when they injected them into Scarlet at the high point of his regeneration, the new cordyceps were powerless against the more virulent strain and merely served to prolong his suffering as his tissue broke down and the fruiting bodies of the cordyceps erupted from his body.
In one of his rare moments of lucidity, Scarlet had pleaded with Fawn to use the Mysteron gun on him, but the doctor had refused. He felt nothing but pity for his friend, but until he’d exhausted every possibility he was not prepared to commit murder even for Scarlet.
After that, Scarlet had, metaphorically, turned his back on everyone. He insisted the observation panel remain obscured at all times and refused to speak to anyone, even Blue or Rhapsody Angel – in fact, especially not Rhapsody; he barely ate or drank, even when he could.
“I think he’s trying to starve himself, Colonel,” Fawn explained, as the senior command sat in conference about their friend’s predicament.
“As a matter of conjecture,” the colonel asked, “would Scarlet’s death – complete death – mean the cordyceps would die out too?”
Fawn, by now something of an expert on the life cycle of fungi, shook his head. “The spores can lie dormant for years – maybe decades – until the right conditions present themselves. If Scarlet rotted away to bone, it wouldn’t kill them.”
“We can’t let that happen!” Symphony Angel exclaimed. She and Melody were there representing the Angel flight. “Quite apart from the fact that it’s horrific to even contemplate this happening to Paul, we need him! We’ve only managed to defeat the last three Mysteron attacks by the skin of our teeth.”
“I’m aware of that,” the colonel said. “I was about to suggest that, if he hasn’t already, Doctor Fawn explains that fact to Scarlet. It might make him see some point in going on.”
“He knows; I’ve been totally honest with him,” Fawn replied. “It seems the least I can do. Mind you, I’m not even sure how much of it he takes in or understands any more.”
Melody looked around the conference table: Grey was looking exhausted and Magenta had his arm in a sling from his last mission, Ochre sported a magnificent black-eye and Blue was so drawn he looked twenty years older.
“I hate to say it, Colonel,” she began, “but we can’t take this for much longer. Rhapsody’s near to a collapse – and looking round this table, she ain’t the only one – we’re all working four hour on-two hour off shifts. We’ve used up all our allotted time in the Room of Sleep. We’ll do whatever you ask of us until we drop, you know that, sir; but I don’t think that’ll be all that long in coming, if we go on like this. I think it’s time you should call up the reserves.”
“Are you saying that without Scarlet we’re incapable of doing our jobs?” Grey asked irritably.
“No; I’m saying that even with Scarlet we’d be hard pressed, right now. The Mysterons ain’t stupid, Brad; they must know what a state we’re in and they’re stepping up their campaigns against us. Sound military tactics, as I’m sure Scarlet would tell you, if you asked him.”
“Melody has a point,” Blue said quietly. “We’re being run ragged, Colonel.”
White nodded. “I know; we’ve done all we can alone. I’d already decided that I will inform the World President we need to call in our reserves and the terrestrial bases must be brought up to battle-readiness. The Standby Angel flight will be the first to arrive and once they do, I want the Angels to take 48 hours’ furlough. When the Beta Squadron of terrestrial officers arrives, you may do the same, gentlemen.”
There was a quiet murmur of gratitude.
“In the meantime, we’ll continue to do what we can to ease Scarlet’s situation. We must hope something will turn up.”
When Symphony had gone back to the Amber Room, Blue ambled down to the Sick Bay through corridors of silent, grey-faced people. Although Scarlet’s amazing ability to cheat death was something of a legend aboard Cloudbase, few people actually knew the truth of the case. So, when the word had gone round that he had some kind of virus and it was highly contagious, that was enough to make people wary. However, the repeated Mysteron threats had impacted on everyone, not just the elite squadrons and Blue mused that the colonel would have to call up all 600 reserves to back up everyone, eventually.
The nurses in Sick Bay nodded a welcome as he strolled in. Belinda Ingram came towards him.
“How is he?” Blue asked.
“Conscious, irritable, angry, frustrated…”
“Same as usual…” Blue managed to joke. She nodded and gave him a tired smile. “Will he see me?”
Belinda shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him. I’ve given up trying to second-guess him, Captain.”
Blue went to the observation panel and pressed the intercom.
“Paul? It’s me.”
There was a long silence and he began to think his friend wouldn’t reply. He sighed and was about to say goodbye when the light flashed red and Scarlet’s voice, weak and hoarse, replied:
“I’m here. Can I see you?”
The observation panel began to clear and Blue gasped as he looked in at his closest friend.
Scarlet was emaciated, his long, black hair filthy and lank. His blue eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed, and his skin an unhealthy grey. The hand that shielded his eyes from the sudden brightness was missing several fingernails and the remaining ones were broken and chipped.
“Jesus wept,” Blue breathed.
“How’re you doing, Adam?”
“I’m good,” Blue managed to reply, though the hot lump of pity in his throat made it hard to speak.
“Good,” Scarlet croaked. He looked furtively to see if Blue was alone and then made an urgent plea, “You’ve got to kill me, Adam. I can’t do this anymore – I can’t – I can’t stand it any… any… any more! I can’t stand it; I can’t… can’t stand it! No, no, I can’t!”
“Paul, you’ve got to hang in there. I swear to you we’re doing all we can. We will save you!”
“I don’t want to be saved!” Scarlet screamed, banging his fists on the observation pane in frustration. “Don’t save me for more of this – I can feel them, moving through me – they never stop moving… moving through me. I can feel them… turning my flesh to jelly… all over… it hangs off me… I can’t move. They get into my mind, they drive me mad! Adam! Adam, for pity’s sake – have pity – kill me!”
“I can’t! God help me – I can’t!”
Blue slammed the intercom off and watched, with tears in his eyes, as Scarlet banged on the observation panel until it darkened and hid him from sight.
After this, Doctor Fawn banned everyone from visiting.
About a fortnight later, Doctor Fawn and Doctor Owens were taking a break on the Promenade Deck. They’d recently witnessed the failure of another attempt to destroy the cordyceps and Scarlet was at present a putrid corpse in the Recovery Room, where the air was thick with spores.
Fawn was concerned that as yet there was no sign of his retrometabolism starting to repair the damage and, to take his mind off it while they waited, Ursula had suggested a coffee break and a stroll in the bright, perpetual sunshine of the Prom Deck.
She had grown used to living on Cloudbase and knew her way around as well as any rookie. As they went to sit on the bench that overlooked the runways, she wondered how she’d feel if Scarlet did not pull through this time and she had to leave – all this.
Beside her, Fawn stared out of the huge window and mulled over their latest failure.
“Edward, what will happen when… when all this is over?” she asked him.
“How do you mean?”
“When Scarlet dies.”
“He’s not going to die.”
“Oh, come on, Ed; I’ve witnessed more miracles since I met Scarlet than I ever thought were possible, but he’s growing weaker by the day. I know you think his retrometabolism will always kick in, but what use is that if all it makes him is a skeletal weakling?”
“I am not going to let him die.”
“No one’s going to let him die, but we might not be able to stop him dying.”
“I sent him in there with Knox. I owe it to him to never stop trying.”
“Yes, you did, and, as I remember it, he was willing to go. He’s a brave man – a very brave man.” She waited a moment and added, “If he dies, what will happen to me?”
“Nothing.” He glanced at her in surprise, assuming she was concerned about possible legal actions against her. “What happened down there wasn’t your fault. None of this is your fault.”
“I meant, will I have to leave Cloudbase?”
He turned and looked steadily at her. She smiled slightly and dropped her gaze from his intense examination. A blush started in her cheeks, and somewhere a light went on in Fawn’s mind and his libido sighed with relief.
“Do you want to?”
Ursula shook her head. “I never thought I’d get used to it, but I have. I like it here; I like the people.”
“All of them?”
“Most of them – and some of them more than others.”
Fawn smiled. “Yeah, Adam’s a nice guy, and so is Pat.”
She chuckled. “Adam’s spoken for, and Pat… well, we both know that Pat would like to be. Poor guy; still, they do say love is blind.”
“Yeah; they also say ‘life’s a bitch and then you die’,” Fawn remarked cynically. He saw her unhappy glance at him and added, “I’m spending too much time with Blue, or his habit of quoting things is contagious.”
She smiled. “Yes, I know what you mean. But, Ed, although they’re both nice guys and I count them as my friends, they’re not… well, I’m not… you-know… not with them.”
“Am I what?”
“Are you what you assume I know you’re not with them?”
“I think I might be.”
“With anyone I know?” he asked with over-hearty casualness.
“Edward Wilkie, sometimes you’re the doziest man I’ve ever met.”
He grinned. “Good, because I think I might be what you’re not with them, too.”
“Run that past me again?” she said, with another chuckle.
He reached across and took her hand. “Maybe a practical demonstration would suit the occasion better, Doctor?” He leant over and kissed her. “Got it now?” he whispered.
“Oh yes… I am fully cognisant of the facts now, Doctor.”
“Good.” He put his arm around her shoulders and she slipped closer to rest her dark head against his shoulder.
“Will I have to leave?” she asked again.
“Not if I have anything to do with it; besides, you know almost as much about retrometabolism as I do now. You’re needed here.”
“Oh, so there’s always method in your madness, Ed? You’re hoping to entice me to stay by dangling the twin temptations of retrometabolism and… you know… in front of me?”
“You know my methods, Ursula.”
The bubbling laughter that greeted this remark made his heart soar and he hugged her closer.
They sat on in happy silence for some time.
So still and quiet were they that the colonel, wandering through the walkway to tend to his personal rose tree, planted there in memory of his dead wife, failed to see them. He examined the plant carefully and opened the wicker basket he was carrying, to bring out a sealed can.
‘Tutting’ over the condition of a few of the glossy leaves, he slipped a protective mask over his mouth and put on gardening gloves before he began to paint the leaves with whatever was in the can.
Fawn stood up and the sudden movement made the colonel turn in surprise.
“What are you doing, Colonel?” Fawn asked.
White removed his mask and replied, “Treating my rose for black spot and mildew. I have to use a systemic because I can’t spray in here; it might get into the air con system.”
Fawn turned back to Ursula. “Would a systemic fungicide kill the cordyceps?”
She frowned as she considered the question. “If it was powerful enough, it ought to. Black spot and Mildew are both fungal infections. Why?”
“It’s the one thing we haven’t tried: a common or garden fungicide.”
“But Ed, it’d have to be highly toxic to kill the cordyceps and that’d kill a human being too,” she replied.
“Your point being?”
“Are you saying what I think you are, Doctor?” the colonel asked. “You intend to poison Scarlet in order to kill the cordyceps?”
“He’ll die,” Ursula said.
“I hope so. Look, if we make his body toxic to the cordyceps, we’ll destroy it root and branch. And it won’t matter,” Fawn explained. “Scarlet’s retrometabolism will deal with the toxin – it’s done so before with other lethal compounds.”
“It sounds an interesting hypothesis,” White said thoughtfully. “We kill the fungi by poisoning Scarlet and his retrometabolism cures the death by poisoning.”
“Exactly, Charles,” Fawn said, advancing towards his commanding officer. “A systemic fungicide will go throughout his body, everywhere the cordyceps goes – there’ll be no place for it to hide. Job done! I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.”
“Possibly because it wouldn’t work for any other individual,” White suggested. “It’s only because of Scarlet’s ability to retrometabolise that you can do it this time.”
“Yeah, I know that. But, if we’re going to try we have to do it soon. He’s growing weaker and each revival is taking longer.” Fawn reached out for the can. “I’ll get to work on it straight away.”
“You need gloves to handle it,” White insisted, giving him one of his before he handed the can over.
“Thanks. How much of this do you have?”
“About a half-full can in the hazardous bio-chem store.”
“I can replicate more, if I need to. Concentrating the liquid should increase the toxicity,” Fawn mused aloud. “Can I have this, Charles?”
“Of course, if you really think it will help. I’ll get my valet to bring the rest of it along to Sick Bay.”
Fawn grinned and with a spring in his step that had been absent for several weeks, turned to leave. He paused at the bench to kiss Ursula and went on his way humming.
She glanced at Colonel White who was staring after his chief medical officer in some bemusement. He sensed her scrutiny and met her gaze with a friendly half-smile.
“Do you think it will work?” he asked her.
“I don’t see why not – in theory. We’ve tried everything else,” she replied non-committally. “If it doesn’t, we’ll have lost nothing. I’m afraid that if we don’t find a solution sooner, rather than later, Colonel White, Captain Scarlet is going to die, for good.”
“You know about his Mysteronisation and the retrometabolism it gave him?”
“Edward had to tell me – I would never have dared try half the solutions we did, if I’d thought I might accidentally kill him. I think Captain Scarlet is a very brave and remarkable man, Colonel.”
“Yes, Doctor Owens, he is.” Colonel White’s smile grew broader. “And Edward Wilkie is another quite remarkable man, in his own quiet way.”
Eight days later, Fawn, with the help of Doctor Owens, had completed his work on the systemic fungicide. The commercial preparation, although toxic, had proven to be too weak to eradicate the cordyceps in a clinical test, so Fawn had removed all impurities, condensed and concentrated the active ingredients and purified the resulting distillation.
They tested it on some of the samples and were encouraged by the results.
When Captain Scarlet regained consciousness from his latest death, Doctor Owens hooked him up to a saline drip to which she’d added nutritional supplements, in an attempt to bolster his condition.
Clearly struggling to cope with the weakness of his shattered body, he was listless, morose and monosyllabic in his answers to her questions, and she was surprised and pleased when he asked plaintively:
“Can I have a cup of tea? I’d like some custard creams or chocolate digestives too – Rhapsody’ll have some.”
Ursula looked down at him and smiled kindly. “I don’t see why not, if you feel like having them.” She went across to the intercom and ordered them for him.
While they waited, she told him, “Edward’s almost ready to test his latest compound-”
“No point in testing it,” Scarlet interrupted. “Just use it.”
“You need time to rest.”
“Look, Doc, we both know that by the time I’ve drunk my tea the skin lesions will be back and I’ll be dead by morning.”
“We’re doing all we can, Paul-”
“I know and I appreciate it. But I’m not daft – well, not all of the time – and I can feel the changes in me. I’m telling you, Doc, don’t wait much longer before you try what you have planned.”
She handed him the tray and hurried off to speak to Doctor Fawn.
“It’s too dangerous,” he decided. “In his weakened state, if the compound is too strong it might-”
“Kill him?” she interjected. “Your point being – as you once asked me? Look, Ed, I think Paul was trying to tell me that he doesn’t think he’ll recover from another attack.”
Fawn looked at her in alarm. “What are his vital signs?”
“Stable, but very weak. Even Scarlet can’t survive continuous multiple-organ failure. You have my sympathy, Doctor, I know it’s a tough decision, but isn’t making these kinds of decisions exactly what we’ve been trained to do? You have to make it, Edward, or Captain Scarlet may die for the last time.”
Scarlet managed a weak smile when Fawn came in through the airlock.
“G’day to you, mate. Nice to see you’ve got some appetite back.” Fawn glanced at the half-empty tea cup and barely nibbled custard cream biscuits. That Scarlet couldn’t even bring himself to eat his favourite comfort food wasn’t a good sign.
“Yeah… I’m almost ready to tackle a steak with all the trimmings,” Scarlet replied with a glimmer of his old flippancy, “so I didn’t want to spoil it by eating a plateful of biscuits.”
“Glad to hear it. Mind you, the food bills for the medical unit have plummeted since you went on this diet.”
Scarlet’s smile broadened into a feeble grin but then he closed his eyes as if even this brief exchange had exhausted him. Fawn went over the computerised records from the robot nurse. All indices were down and some were at critical levels.
“Paul,” Fawn said softly, and Scarlet opened his eyes again. “You remember I told you I was hopeful of producing a compound that was toxic enough to kill the cordyceps? Well, I have one ready to go. Will you allow me to use this enhanced systemic fungicide on you?”
Scarlet nodded. “It’s now, or never, Ed.”
Fawn patted his shoulder and nodded in response. “Okay – we’ll do it now.” He paused for a moment and, with a significant glance at his patient, prompted gently, “Is there anyone you want to see before we start?”
He saw the yearning in Scarlet’s haunted blue eyes and his lips started to form an eager response, but then his friend appeared to have a mental battle with himself and drew a deep breath before giving a slight shake of his head.
“Let them remember me as I was. Give them my love, won’t you, Doc? Tell them … just tell them: I never forgot how much they mean to me.”
Scarlet sighed. “There’s so much more I want to say and no time to say it now.”
“They’ll know, Paul.”
“Yes, I think they will. No one could ask for better, kinder, parents or truer friends. I’ve been a lucky man.”
Not trusting himself to speak, Fawn nodded and patted Scarlet’s shoulder again.
It took a while to get ready for the procedure. Doctor Owens brought the compound through to the Recovery Room in its sealed canister, while Fawn calibrated the robot nurses to monitor the progress.
Ursula went to the bed and looked down at Scarlet. There was an unhealthy sweat on his face and his eyes were becoming bloodshot again; they were running out of time.
She turned to go, but he grabbed her arm and clung to her.
“Stay with me, please?”
“Of course I will, Paul. I’ll be here.”
“What day is it?”
“Which Wednesday? I’ve lost track.”
“October 31st – it’s Halloween,” she said brightly.
Scarlet grimaced. “I might’ve guessed; nothing ever goes well for me on Halloween.” He glanced over at Fawn, who was preparing a syringe. “Well, this has to be the ultimate trick or treat.”
Fawn came over and began to explain what would happen.
“I think it best to administer the compound as an epidural. This will mean it enters your body close to what we believe is the centre of the infection. From there it will infuse throughout your body, destroying the cordyceps as it does so. I have to administer this in a concentration that is lethal. You understand?”
“We can give you something for the pain,” Ursula offered.
“No we can’t,” Fawn corrected her. “Most analgesics don’t work on Scarlet – well, not for long, anyway – and I don’t want anything to interfere with the efficacy of the systemic.”
“Go ahead, Doc,” Scarlet said. “And hurry…”
They helped him turn onto his side and Ursula held his hands to steady him as Fawn swabbed the area with iodine and carefully inserted the Tuohy needle.
Scarlet whimpered and closed his eyes. His grip tightened on Ursula’s hands.
Fawn inserted the catheter and withdrew the needle. Then he fixed the catheter in place with tape.
“That’s the first part over,” he told Scarlet, who let out a shuddering breath and nodded.
“I’m attaching the solution now… and opening the drip valve. It should start entering your body any minute now…”
Across Sick Bay, the nurses hastened to reassure their patients that the unearthly screams they could hear were nothing to worry about.
“Someone playing a Halloween joke, that’s all,” Nurse Ingram soothed a frightened technician recovering from an appendectomy.
She glanced towards the Recovery Room and bit her bottom lip.
Fawn checked the measurements. “About half way,” he muttered to Ursula.
She nodded and gripped Scarlet’s hands tightly. His body was rigid, his head thrown back and blood-stained spittle spattered from his open mouth and dribbled down his chin.
Periodically, he was racked by violent spasms and the high, wailing screams of pain tore at her composure.
Fawn was busy checking the monitors, and watching for signs of success. From each of Scarlet’s ruptured eye sockets hundreds of filaments sprouted and surged upwards in search of a fresh host, as they did from every orifice, and from beneath his finger and toe nails. The mucus in his mouth turned grey and he vomited a seething biomass of tissue and fungus.
Fawn stepped across and doused it in a concentrate of fungicide, watching with satisfaction as the tendrils shrivelled and died back.
“I think it’s going to work,” he said to Ursula.
She glanced at the monitors and with tears in her voice replied, “He’s dying, Ed.”
They watched as Scarlet’s body went rigid once more; his breathing was laboured, fluid trickled from his mouth and there was a death rattle in his throat. As his tortured body voided itself they heard him murmur:
Once his breathing stopped and all the sensors had flat-lined, Fawn increased the dosage and switched on a pump to keep the fluids circulating.
“Is that necessary?” Ursula asked, watching with distaste as liquid seeped from Scarlet’s body.
“You have a problem in a closed system, you flush it out,” Fawn replied. “When he wakes up I don’t want there to be any chance that there is one spore left inside him.”
He walked to the intercom and ordered the technicians to drain all the air from the room. As the pumps whirled overhead, he and Ursula shaved Scarlet’s body completely and washed him with systemic fungicide, before dressing him a bio-suit and carrying him into the air lock. From there, Doctor Tan and Nurse Ingram, also in bio-suits, manhandled him into the bio-haz capsule and wheeled him across to the sealed-off Post-Operative Recovery Room, where he was placed in an intensive care bed.
Then the Bio-haz Team moved in to the Recovery Room with their gear to ensure that the room was thoroughly cleaned and sterilised.
After they had gone through the rigorous decontamination process, Ursula slipped her hand into Edward’s as they watched Scarlet lying motionless in the oxygen tent.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“We wait – just as we always do – for his retrometabolism to kick in.”
“For how long?”
“For as long as it takes.”
Twenty-four hours later, Fawn was getting anxious. There were still no signs of any recovery.
Colonel White came into the Sick Bay and joined the constant watch at the observation window.
“We can’t leave him there indefinitely, Edward,” he said sadly. “Another 48 hours and we’ll have to declare him dead.”
“He’ll make it, Colonel: he’s Captain Scarlet, he’s got to make it. He’ll pull though.”
“I hope you’re right, Doctor.”
As the second day slipped into the third and final day, Captain Blue appeared at the door of the Sick Bay. Although Nurse Ingram tried unsuccessfully to head him off, he strode briskly towards the observation window, where Fawn was already standing.
The two men stood side by side: the stocky, dark-haired Australian and the broad-shouldered, fair-haired American, who topped him by a good six inches.
“He’s not dead, Edward; I just know he’s not,” Blue stated with utter conviction.
“There are times when I wish I had your faith, Adam.”
Blue pressed the intercom to the Intensive Care Room and spoke clearly, so that his voice carried across to the inert body of his best friend.
“Paul Metcalfe’s not the kind of man to give up when he knows there is still a job to do. Besides, I owe him fifty bucks; I bet him Ochre’d try and scare us all witless again this year. In fact he was as good as gold. You know, Paul, I expect he heard about our bet and was just being perverse… but I still lose. Oh, and Arsenal beat Manchester United yesterday and went top of the League. It was a good match and, according to Dinger Bell, well worth watching. It’ll be on the viewing bank for the next day or so… Rhapsody’s parents have invited you to visit at Christmas and your mother wants to know what you’d like for your birthday. She told me to tell you that she’s started knitting you another jumper in case you can’t make your mind up.”
Fawn chuckled. “You think that’ll help?”
“Never done any harm before,” Blue remarked, drawing a chair up to the window and settling down for a good – if extremely one-sided – gossip.
Fawn patted his shoulder and said, “No, it doesn’t do any harm.”
There was less than another two hours to go before the deadline. Blue had long since left to go on duty and there was still no change in the flat-lined sensors.
Fawn stood at the observation pane and bit his lip. Then, with an almost furtive gesture, he switched on the intercom and said:
“Come on, Paul. Make the Mysterons do something for you, for a change. Fight – you know you want to live. Think of your parents, think of Dianne – think of Adam and the others. We need you, Paul; the human race needs you – your friends need you – Godammit – I need you!”
When there was no response, he switched the intercom off and, with a despairing sigh, went to get another cup of coffee.
And that’s why he missed the infinitesimal smile that curled the corners of Scarlet’s mouth as the monitors bleeped.
Several days later, the sound of laughter echoed across the Sick Bay to the nurses’ station where the two on-duty nurses smiled to hear it.
In the Post-Operative Recovery Room, which had been adapted for Captain Scarlet’s use while his usual room was de-contaminated, refurbished and generally made habitable again, there was a small party going on. Colonel White was there, with Doctor Fawn and Doctor Owens. Captain Blue, Symphony Angel, Captain Ochre, Rhapsody and Nurse Ingram made up the guests. Captain Scarlet, clean-shaven and with his black eyebrows and hair sprouting once more, was holding court as he lay in bed, dressed in his favourite Arsenal F.C. pyjamas animatedly discussing the football match he had just finished watching, with his friends.
Rhapsody was sitting on a chair beside him, feeding him grapes, chocolates, pastries and anything else he fancied from the buffet Captain Blue had organised from Cloudbase’s kitchen.
Scarlet stopped chewing long enough to ask: “So, everything’s been destroyed now and the Casterbridge Hospital is fully functional again?”
Ochre nodded. “The latest report said that they had finally eradicated all the spores from the bio-haz tanker by using the chemical Fawn rustled up, the labs have been fumigated and everything replaced by new. It’s as safe as they can make it.”
“There’s no sign of Doctor Lawson, though?” Scarlet asked, swallowing another grape.
“No,” the colonel replied. “We’ll catch him, given time. History has shown that people like him always come to a sticky end.”
“Was he a Mysteron?” Ursula asked.
“Can’t tell you that,” Ochre replied. “Due to an administrative failure, we never checked him out properly.”
“Hmmph,” the colonel said. “An administrative failure is one way of looking at it, Captain – but whatever it was, I sincerely hope the lesson’s been learnt by all concerned.”
There was a chorus of muted assurances.
“I’m not sure this did have anything to do with the Mysterons,” Symphony said. “There was never a threat, was there?”
“No, not a specific one,” Ochre agreed.
Blue looked up from the glass of fruit punch he was holding. “Given that when the Mysterons issue a threat they’re usually ready to go, it is logical-”
“Oh, here we go: Mr. Svenson of Planet Vulcan,” Ochre muttered to Symphony, who sniggered even as she punched his arm.
“-it is logical,” Blue reiterated, ignoring him, “to assume that they have made plans and preparations to carry out a threat before they actually make it.”
“So, you’re saying I was a dry run?” Scarlet asked wryly.
“Yeah, if you want to think of it like that.”
“Might it be that, having decided to issue a series of threats all at once – or in quick succession – they decided it was best to eliminate the man they considered most likely to lead the counter-attacks and defensive measures?” Ursula suggested and blushed violently as every head turned towards her.
“A good idea,” Blue said, with one of his dazzling smiles. “You’re really getting the hang of this, aren’t you, Doc?”
She grinned back and hugged Doctor Fawn’s arm for support. He squeezed her elbow encouragingly and said:
“Scarlet was out of action for almost three months during a hectic phase of Mysteron activity.”
“Yes, Doc; and we don’t know when they’ll start up again, so when can I get up and out of here?” his patient asked tetchily.
“When I’ve completed my tests and I’m sure you’re fit and well.”
“I am – look at me, positively bursting with health!”
“And grapes…” Rhapsody interjected.
“And eating like a pig at a trough…” Ochre added cheekily, winking at Scarlet.
Rhapsody laughed and ran her fingers through the stubble of her fiancé’s cropped hair. “You have to be careful, Paul. You came as close to dying as we’ve seen since…”
“Since I died,” he concluded for her.
“There’s more to a recovery than physical health anyway,” Fawn warned him. “You went through enough to lay any man low with mental anguish for months.”
Scarlet gave a nonchalant shrug. “That was the mushroom talking,” he complained. Suddenly he looked up at Blue and saw a shadow of anxiety still on his friend’s face at the memory. He grinned reassuringly. “Luckily, my friends know me well enough to know when to ignore even my most fervent requests.”
“It was your friends’ mental anguish I was talking about,” Fawn explained, only half-joking, as he glanced at Rhapsody. Scarlet flushed slightly as the import of the words became clear. In a lighter tone, Fawn added, “I never doubted you’d be all right - you have the mental sensitivity of a rhino, Paul.”
“Where there’s no sense, there’s no feeling, as my old mom used to say,” Ochre quipped.
“Just you wait till I’m out of this bed, Fraser!” Scarlet exclaimed good naturedly, as everyone laughed.
“That will come quicker, if you get some rest,” Fawn said, glancing at his wrist watch. “Time everyone went.”
There was a chorus of goodbyes and Doctor Owens held out her hand to Scarlet.
“I’ll say goodbye, Captain. I am leaving Cloudbase this evening.”
“Oh no! I thought you were going to stay – the colonel said you’d agreed to join us,” he said, holding her hand in his strong grasp.
Ursula smiled. “I have; I’ll be back in about a month, after my basic training. I have accepted a post on Cloudbase as Deputy Head of Medical Research. I’ll be working with Edward.”
“Brilliant,” he said, genuinely pleased.
“The only problem now is thinking of a codename – all the good ones are taken,” she remarked genially.
“Well,” Scarlet said thoughtfully, “Mushroom is a colour, of sorts!”
“Oh dear, he’s completely recovered… unfortunately,” Blue said, rolling his eyes at this terrible joke.
Scarlet laughed and waved goodbye as they trooped out of his room. Then he settled down and looked up at the ceiling where a temporary banner had been fixed.
It said ‘Welcome Back, Scarlet.’
“It’s good to be back,” he murmured, closing his eyes to get some sleep.
The scary thing is that Cordyceps are real – and there’s no Mysteron involvement suspected!
My sincere thanks go to my remarkable Beta-reader, Hazel Köhler, who put up with all the gory bits as they developed in my deranged imagination, and still had the sang-froid to spot every errant comma. Any mistakes still lingering in the text are my fault.
Thanks also to Chris Bishop, for giving us such a wonderful website!
'Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons' is a registered trademark of Carlton International Media Ltd.; the series was devised in the 1960s by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.