A story by Marion Woods
To live in the hearts we leave behind us, is not to die.
Thomas Campbell (1777-1844)
The giant base was over the Pacific Ocean, serenely making its way towards the Panamanian isthmus and the North Atlantic.
The commander adjusted the controls and watched the scanners for the approach of the executive jet. A small dot appeared on the screen and he watched its approach with interest. At 1500metres, the security cameras kicked in and he could see the small, white jet.
He checked the stabilisers and unconsciously held his breath as the plane approached. This was the first plane, apart from his own, to attempt a landing on the newly-built carrier and, although the computer-predictions were that the operation would be successful and safe, somehow until someone else had done it, he wasn’t quite prepared to believe it.
The jet came in at an oblique angle and hit the runway plum centre, its brakes on maximum as it skittered along the tarmac.
For a heart-stopping moment he thought it wouldn’t make it, but then he realised the craft had come to a virtual standstill and was taxiing towards the circular elevator pad for descent into the hangar bays beneath the runway.
As the red light flashed on the control console, he pushed the button to activate the elevator and the craft slowly disappeared from view as the landing pad descended into the body of the vast airbase.
He exhaled and blew out his cheeks to release the tension he’d been under. Hardly a perfect landing, but a successful one: they were in business.
“Permission to come aboard, Captain Black?”
The crisp, confident tones of the pilot came over the Control Room tannoy and Black smiled as he replied: “Permission granted, Colonel. Welcome to Cloudbase.”
The two men strode along the acres of corridors, inspecting everything: from the vast engines, capable of providing the 2,688,000 Lbs PSO thrust needed to keep Cloudbase at the optimum seven and a half miles above the surface of the planet, through the aircraft hangers and maintenance bays to the somewhat utilitarian comforts of the Officers’ Lounge and the revolutionary Room of Sleep, where gimbal-mounted beds and hypnotic lighting minimised the time required for personnel to rest.
It was at the door of the Room of Sleep that Colonel White first paused, a doubtful expression on his face.
“Is there a problem, sir?” Captain Black asked, peering into the dimly lit room in an effort to spot anything that might have caught his superior’s eye.
“Not really, Captain; it is just… well, I am sure you’ve spoken to Doctor Fawn about just how effective this technique will be?”
“Fawn doesn’t like it,” Black replied, “He wants it restricted and logged and – frankly – I think he’s being over-cautious.”
“Do you?” Colonel White sounded surprised. “I have to admit that I respect Fawn’s opinion. Sleep is essential to keep our personnel in peak physical condition and while I understand that this will condense the benefits of a good night’s sleep into a matter of a few hours, I am old-fashioned enough to consider that nothing beats a warm bed, a good book and – in moderation – a nightcap.”
“Sleep is essential,” Black agreed, “but Spectrum’s not exactly over-manned, Colonel. Our field officers will need to be ready to take action at any time, on-duty or off. Better they get that essential respite in an hypnotic state, than they rush into action bleary-eyed and dog tired.”
Colonel White nodded thoughtfully. “Nevertheless, I think we will introduce a logbook of use, Conrad, and let Fawn monitor it. That way, if there seems to be an issue, we’ll spot it in time to prevent any unforeseen consequences. Make a note of it, please, and get Lieutenant Green to implement it to Fawn’s specifications.”
“Yes, sir.” Black keyed the information onto his hand-held data screen. He paused, sensing that his companion had more on his mind. “Was there anything else, Colonel?”
“Yes, while we’re on the subject of crew welfare, there is. The Officers’ Lounge.”
“What about it?”
“The whole place is too austere; it has got to be a home from home to the officers permanently assigned here, so get some rugs and put some art on the walls to cheer the place up, Conrad. I know this is a military base, but – well, let’s just say that if I checked into a hotel with that standard of furnishing, I wouldn’t be going back there any time soon. Besides, that furniture looks decidedly uncomfortable to me. Order some colourful cushions; I don’t want my elite squad reporting to Sick Bay with back trouble caused by inadequate seating.”
“Damn the budget, Conrad. We’ve brought this project home within the upper estimate and I am not going to have Cloudbase spoilt for a dozen cushions and some basic comforts! And, if I ever discover who employed an interior designer with a fetish for orange, I shall give them a talking to they won’t forget in a hurry. Just because the Angels’ standby lounge was codenamed the Amber Room, it didn’t mean that everything in the place had to be amber.”
“The idea with the Officers’ Lounge was that the officers could personalise it themselves,” Black reminded him, with just a hint of reproach in his voice.
White gave him a pitying look. “You’ve met them all now and seen the group dynamics. Fine men, the best in their field, but as diverse a squad as you could imagine. I can’t see our streetwise Captain Ochre relishing the same artistic daubs that’d gladden the refined eye of Captain Blue, for example, can you? And I will not have the usual sordid squabbles over whether the latest pneumatically-enhanced pin-up in her birthday suit is a suitable decoration for an officers’ lounge. They can keep that sort of thing for their private quarters. So put something up, Conrad; they can all experience it together – whether they like it or not.”
Black’s thin lips tightened into a compressed smile. “Yes, Colonel.” He made another note. “Cushions and artworks.”
“Speak to Spectrum London; I’m sure they can do a deal with the National Art Collection Trustees and borrow some of the publicly-owned stuff that nobody will miss. I’m not asking for Rembrandts or Picassos.”
Black made a show of amending his note. “Minor artworks,” he muttered.
Shaking his head slightly, the colonel marched on.
Captain Black’s list of the improvements required by the colonel was an extensive one long before the tour was finished. Colonel White, who had left the construction work to more experienced men, had no such qualms about the fitting out of his command vessel, and with years of naval experience behind him, he was not about to cut corners on the comfort of his crew. Black, who had flown in the Spartan comforts of the Fireball XL fleet, remained sceptical about the necessity for such ‘mollycoddling’, but wisely kept his opinion to himself.
The inspection tour ended in the canteen, where Black had arranged for some food and refreshments to be delivered and he presented the colonel with a bowl of soup and a bread roll, with the promise of chicken casserole and apple pie to follow. The colonel ate sparingly, although he pronounced the food ‘excellent’.
“It was sent up by the catering corps,” Black confessed. “They’re due to come and ‘test drive’ the kitchens next week.”
“If the standard stays this high, we shall have to make sure all the crew have a regular exercise regime in place, or they’ll be putting on weight,” White observed.
Black nodded and quickly finished his apple pie, afraid that the colonel would remark on the size of the portions next.
As Colonel White planned to spend the night aboard Cloudbase in his quarters, there was no sense of urgency about his visit, so, after they had finished their meal, he and Captain Black took a stroll to the Promenade deck, from where the external runways which formed the flight deck of the base, could be viewed in comparative comfort.
The deck had large floor to ceiling external windows, with window-boxes at floor level, while, along the internal wall, bordered with a strip of artificial grass, was a large, landscaped area, planted with an assortment of lush tropical vegetation, many with large, heavily-scented flowers. The wide promenade had groups of wooden seats and patio tables spaced along it, to allow the crew members to relax and enjoy the scent of the flowers while watching the activity on the flight decks. At present there were no planes to be seen, but once the Angel pilots were installed, there would be three of the sleek Angel Interceptor Jets waiting on the tarmac, ready for immediate launch.
Black watched the colonel drinking in the view and was prompted to ask, with not a little pride, “What do you think of her, Colonel? Isn’t she magnificent?”
“She certainly is, Captain. You and your crew have done a marvellous job.
The World President will be bowled over by the sheer majesty of Cloudbase.”
“I suppose every commanding officer feels a pride for his vessel,” Black remarked. “I certainly considered Fireball XL3 to be the finest craft in the WSP fleet, even though I knew they were identical. You can’t help endowing them with characteristics – I won’t say personalities –”
“Why not?” White challenged, to Black’s surprise. “I would say ‘personality,” he continued. “All of the vessels I commanded had their own personality – maybe it was engendered by the crew, or coloured by my perception of how they handled in the situations we faced, but in my mind they are as unique as the crews that manned them. They had their quirks and their moods. I believe it is a common enough phenomenon for people to endow inanimate objects with human characteristics – witness the centuries old tradition of referring to naval vessels as ‘she’.”
Black nodded. “Not just naval vessels: I have to admit XL3 was always ‘female’ to me – and a damned fickle mistress at times. I hope Cloudbase will be far less demanding, Colonel.”
Colonel White did not reply immediately. He surveyed the powerful, yet graceful, vessel spread out below their vantage point – the vessel that was to be his new home. As yet untouched by events or enlivened by the 600-odd crew who would share the base with him, Cloudbase was a blank canvas, but deep in his psyche he already felt an affinity with ‘her’.
“Oh, she will demand – and deserve – the loyalty and admiration of us all, Captain.” He turned to his companion and gave a rare smile. “I am sure that we will all come to feel Cloudbase is part of our lives – part of that extended family that includes our childhood homes and our very first car. Nobody who experiences this vessel will ever forget her.”
Black nodded, his usually passive face revealing something of the emotion he felt.
“You’re right, sir. I admit, I already regard Cloudbase as the finest vessel I have had the privilege to command. I am proud to hand her over to one of the finest commanders the British Navy ever had.”
White gave a slight shake of his head at this fulsome remark.
“I suppose your current command always outshines all the previous ones,” Black continued, “but, in all honesty, I don’t expect to ever command a finer vessel than this, even though my tenure has been a short one.”
“Not necessarily,” White replied. “While Cloudbase is magnificent, and I have no doubt will, in time, fill my life with incident and – I hope – success, I will retain happy memories of my previous commands. You tend to forget the inconveniences and occasional inadequacies, if I’m honest. It must be nostalgia.”
“I’m not surprised. Your name will be forever linked to the Coquet, of course. Your exploits in the civil war made you both household names.”
White shook his head again. “You – of all people – know that the public perception of events is not always an accurate one.”
Black responded with an ironic smile. He had been lauded for his actions during the brief British Civil War, but they both knew that, in truth, his actions had been far less ‘heroic’ than the public believed.
“I refuse to believe the same applies to you,” he said. “Or are you telling me that the spin doctors got to the tale of the Coquet, just as they got to my ‘peace flight’?”
White hesitated; he did not like to dwell on the past, yet something seemed to be urging him to tell his story. It was too fanciful to imagine it was Cloudbase that wanted to know her new commander’s history, but the conceit persisted and so, just as Black started to wonder if he’d overstepped the mark, he replied:
“Well, I suppose we have time, so I will tell you what happened and you can tell me if it equates to the public perception, Conrad.”
They took seats on the Promenade Deck, and as the sun began to set on the distant horizon, Charles Gray let his mind wander back almost twenty years, to when, as the recently appointed captain of the Coquet, he was enjoying some much-needed shore-leave – and the chance to renew his courtship of the charming daughter of a fellow naval officer. Annabel Hamilton was well worth the effort he was making to impress her. She was intelligent, vivacious and playing hard to get… well, he amended thoughtfully, with an amused smile to himself, relatively hard to get…
He was starting to get used to pushing his way through the London crowds again, as he made his way towards the imposing buildings that housed the offices of the Admiralty. An infrequent visitor to the administrative offices, he was answering a summons – an imperious and inescapable summons – to meet the First Sea Lord. Not that the fact worried him unduly, he knew his star was in the ascendancy, but he was curious as to why Sir Frederick had bothered to summon him to a personal interview.
The guard on security duty at the door saluted as he entered, responding to his rank, if not his face. He reported to the reception desk and was ushered to an ornate, gilded and elderly private lift that raised him jerkily towards the offices of the First Sea Lord, creaking with apparent resentment at the indignity of transporting a mere captain.
He smiled. Technology had come a long way in the 21st century, but some things just felt ‘right’, especially when embedded in the opulent ambience of the 19th Century. As the Senior Service of the British military establishment, the Navy clung to traditions that might seem arcane and meaningless to outsiders. But, he mused, as he left the lift and strode along the plushly carpeted corridor that led to the outer office, if it was good enough for Nelson, it’s good enough for us…
Through a partially open window, he glimpsed the statue of the greatest British Admiral, raised above the hubbub of the Square named in honour of his final victory, and gave Horatio a passing nod of fellowship before he smartened himself up one last time and knocked on the door.
The First Sea Lord was in conference with three of his admirals. He looked up with a frown at the interruption as his secretary ushered Gray into the office, but his frown evaporated when he saw the newcomer snap to attention.
“At ease, Captain Gray,” Sir Frederick said, with a wave of his hand. “Thank you for coming so promptly; I’m aware that you’re on leave… I hope it was not too great an inconvenience?”
“No sir,” Gray replied, removing his uniform cap and walking to the desk to take the seat his commander indicated. He nodded at the assembled admirals, most of whom he knew by sight, and received a taut smile of welcome from Admiral Hamilton. He’d seen Annabel’s father last night when they’d returned from the theatre, and he hadn’t mentioned this meeting, so it must have been a last minute decision to call him in.
“Captain, I’m sure you’re aware of the current unsettled state of affairs within the United Kingdom,” Sir Frederick said, with a refreshingly efficient abandonment of small talk.
Gray nodded his response.
“We in the Navy are extremely concerned about the political situation. You must be aware that the Democratic Monarchists are expected to fight the latest restrictions – indeed, they have no choice, other than to back-down and accept the status quo. If, as the Junta believes they will, the World Government tries to intervene on the rebels’ behalf, there will be civil war. This must not be allowed to happen. The Junta must be free to face the rebels without fear of outside interference. Therefore, it has been decided that you are to patrol the western approaches and prevent the World Navy becoming involved in any way.”
“With one ship, sir?”
“Of course not. I have issued orders for three gunboats to join the Coquet. You will be in command of the flotilla.”
“Gunboat diplomacy?” Gray asked, raising one dark eyebrow.
“As you say, Captain,” Sir Frederick confirmed. “A blunt weapon, perhaps, but an effective one.”
He studied the man before him as carefully as he had previously studied his record. There was little doubt that Gray was trustworthy, and Admiral Hamilton had vouched for his loyalty. They needed someone and time was running out. The First Sea Lord rose from his seat and stared out over Trafalgar Square.
“As I am sure you are also aware, Captain Gray, not all of the military want the government to remain vested in a military junta; yet a significant faction are opposed to the return to a constitutional monarchy. The Strategic Naval Command wants to keep the armed forces from tearing themselves to ribbons in a needless conflict, which would seriously weaken this country’s ability to defend itself. Therefore, all vessels on active service are being recalled. In order to… prevent the sequestration of our ships and personnel by any… opposition forces, all commissioned vessels currently in harbour will put to sea with all expediency, where they will also be out of reach of either side.”
“Forces opposed to what, sir?”
“To the overthrow of over a thousand years of royal naval tradition and service.”
“I see.” The Sea Lord’s use of the description of the service as ‘royal’ spoke volumes. Gray began to see there was more to his orders than was initially apparent. He remained silent, waiting to be enlightened as to the real purport of his mission.
Admiral Hamilton glanced at the First Sea Lord, who nodded at his subordinate so, having obtained the authorisation to explain all, the Admiral began:
“Officially, you will be putting to sea on your superior officers’ orders to deflect the World Navy – should they approach –and, by instructing you to do so, we are obeying the orders given to us by the Chief of the Defence Staff.”
“And unofficially?” Gray said sombrely.
“We all fear that there will be civil war, Captain. Should the worst happen and the need arise, you and a small flotilla of ships will be there to prevent bloody massacre.”
There was a long pause and Hamilton concluded. “Do I make myself clear enough? Do you have any questions?”
“I understand you perfectly, sir, and I have no questions,” Gray replied briskly.
“You understand that, if you choose to accept this mission, the circumstances may arise when you might be considered a traitor?” Hamilton’s voice was carefully neutral – he made no overt reference to which side might find the younger man’s action treacherous.
“And if I refuse the mission?”
“You will remain on indefinite leave, until events have resolved themselves…”
Gray sniffed. “Indefinite leave has its appeal, Admiral. But I’m guessing this ‘indefinite leave’ would not allow me the freedom I’m accustomed to?” He glanced at the stern faces watching him gravely. “No, I thought not. Let me reassure you, gentlemen, I know my duty, to my country and its traditions, as much as I do to my commanding officers.”
“Good man.” Sir Frederick’s relief that there was no need to explain further was evident in his voice, nevertheless, he continued: “None of this goes beyond these walls, Captain – but we are also recalling the vessels from more distant stations. When this conflict comes – as I fear it must – the Navy must be at full strength. When can you have the Coquet ready to put to sea again?”
“Forty-eight hours… my men will need time to get back to Portsmouth.”
“Excellent; make it so….”
Sir Frederick’s gesture was one of dismissal and so Gray saluted, and turned to leave. Hamilton followed him to the door and as they stepped beyond it he said:
“Goodbye and good luck, Charles.”
“Thank you, sir. I have just one question, if I might?”
Hamilton nodded and Gray continued, “Sir Frederick said every ship on active duty is being recalled; would that include the scientific mission vessels?”
Hamilton nodded again. “You’re thinking of your brother, I take it? His ship has already been recalled and is making its way back to England.”
“William will be glad; he’d hate to miss the chance of seeing action,” Gray commented, with a wry smile. His younger brother had been less than thrilled when his first posting had been aboard a survey vessel.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Hamilton said fervently, as he handed the younger man a sealed envelope. “Everything you need to know is in there… and it is all deniable.”
The younger man’s expression grew cynical. “Naturally; it would be. Thank you, Admiral. We are living in interesting times…”
“We are indeed. Shall I make your apologies to Annabel? The fewer people who knew of your whereabouts, the better it would be.”
“Thank you, sir; I would appreciate that. Tell her… tell her I hope to see her soon.”
“She will be sorry to see you go, I think – and so will I. Take care, my boy, a lot depends on your loyalty and common sense.”
“Thank you, sir. I will do my best not to disappoint you and the trust the navy has placed in me.”
Hamilton shook the younger man’s hand and watched as he marched away towards the rickety lift.
Although there was some grumbling on board the Coquet, it was as if every crew member sensed there was a serious purpose to their unexpected recall. Gray did not reveal their secret orders, even to his senior officers, but put to sea as soon as possible and sailed out into the Atlantic approaches. They were soon joined by three smaller gunboats, the commanders of which reported for duty, placing themselves under Gray’s command.
The small flotilla rode out the rough seas, monitoring the increasingly fraught situation on land as the Democratic Monarchists challenged the Military Junta’s right to continue to govern.
There were skirmishes; reports of protest marches around the country, with the largest congregating on Parliament Hill for a march on Westminster. Across the country the military police were charged with breaking up the marches and arresting the ringleaders. Fighting broke out as they moved in, resulting in water cannon and tear gas being deployed. Stones, bricks and even Molotov cocktails were lobbed at the massed ranks of the police in Birmingham, Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Leeds. In London, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had long been a mild, but persistent critic of the Junta, addressed the crowd of protesters and called for restraint and peace talks, he was arrested; and as a result , fresh fighting erupted across the country.
Gray listened stony-faced to the news bulletins on the official state broadcaster and the unofficial ‘rebel’ stations. Taking the Archbishop’s arrest as evidence that the Military Junta had moved beyond the pale, he ordered his small flotilla to turn back – lights blazing, flags flying, guns trained on the coastline, so they could be clearly seen.
“Full steam ahead, Mr Coxswain; full steam ahead for London. Relay orders to the flotilla that I want to be off the Medway by nightfall.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“Let’s hope the sight of the gunboats will be enough to convince the Junta there’s no hope of their making a fight of it, Captain,” Commander Benwick muttered vehemently.
Gray glanced at his subordinate officer – never had Benwick looked so young as he did now, staring out across towards the distant coastline. He was pale and his dark-eyes were wide, although Gray did not for a moment consider it was with fear. Benwick made little secret of his political leanings and was an ardent Monarchist.
“Yes, I would not like to have to call their bluff – nor have them call ours,” Gray remarked. “We’re the ones out on a limb, Commander, and don’t you forget it for one moment. If they launch an air attack against us, we’ll be shooting down our fellow countrymen and I do not want to go down in history as the man who started the civil war.”
“It’s already started, sir,” Benwick replied. “There’s a number of protest marches making their way to London, demanding the release of the Archbishop. If the military police turn on them this time – which they’re sure to do – there will be bloodshed.”
The Coxswain suddenly started to sing:
“Trelawny he's in keep and hold;
Trelawny he may die:
Here's twenty thousand Cornish bold
Will know the reason why.”
Gray suppressed a smile and joined in singing the chorus:
“A good sword and a trusty hand, a merry heart and true!
King James’s men shall understand what Cornish lads can do!”
“What goes around comes around, eh, Captain?” the Coxswain remarked, once the singing had stopped.
“It seems so,” Gray agreed affably. “Let me know when we sight land, Benwick. I am going to get something to eat: we could have a long night ahead of us.”
Humming the catchy tune to himself, he left the bridge.
The next few days rushed past in a whirl of excitement and danger. The Military Police, presumably realising the rebels meant business, but reluctant to open fire on them, let the marchers pour into London. The Archbishop, newly released from Paddington Green Police Station, led the crowds to Whitehall. The security guards at the entrance to Downing Street threw open the gates and the members of the Military Junta, with as good a show of grace as they could fabricate, welcomed the leaders of the Monarchists into 10 Downing Street for talks, while behind the scenes orders were issued to the army and navy to converge on London with instructions to quell the rebellion.
From his moorage in the Thames, Gray let it be known that any regiment or vessel seeking to obey those orders, would have to face the firepower of the Coquet and the increasing number of gunboats that had joined the flotilla.
“The Archbishop has guaranteed the safety of all the participants in the Peace Talks,” he declared, on the hastily rigged up digital broadcast from the bridge of the Coquet, “and, on behalf of the Royal Navy,” –and he was well aware of the implications of using that forbidden name – “I pledge the ships in my flotilla to upholding that guarantee. Any act to interfere with the peace talks will be considered an act of war and I will order my flotilla to take appropriate action.” Just don’t ask me what that action will be… he added silently, because I haven’t got a clue….
New Year’s Eve 2046 was a red-letter day in more ways than one. The ‘Civil War’ was more or less over and done with and London was alive with impromptu street parties. The Royal Family were due to arrive back in Buckingham Palace on January the first and the leaders of the military junta had resigned their commissions and ‘retired’ to the country, clutching their unconditional pardons and immunity from prosecution. An emergency national government was in – at least nominal – charge and the World Government had sent in diplomats and peace-keeping forces to ensure the transition back to a constitutional monarchy went smoothly. The first elections in a decade were due to held on January 18th.
Charles Gray and Annabel Hamilton were just one couple amongst the many thousands who made their way down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace. They stood hand in hand, counting down the minutes to midnight, and cheering wildly as, in the dying echoes of Big Ben, the Royal Standard was raised on the roof of the Palace.
“We want the King! We want the King!” the crowd chanted and a few minutes later the noise level rose even further as the Royal Family stepped out onto the iconic balcony to wave to the crowds.
After jumping up and down with excitement and cheering herself almost hoarse, Annabel turned to Charles and threw her arms around him.
“Oh Charles, I can’t believe it’s all over! You’re safe and everything will be wonderful now.”
He tilted her face to his, smiling affectionately at her flushed cheeks and red nose – it was a cold night – and the happy tears swimming in her blue eyes. He bent his head and kissed her and she threw her arms around him again and hugged him.
“It’ll be even more wonderful if you’ll marry me,” he said, uncertain if she’d hear him over the hullaballoo around them.
She stood back to look into his face. There was surprise in her eyes, which quickly turned to elation. “Why, Charles; you old romantic… and here was I beginning to think you’d never ask.” She nodded her head vigorously. “Yes, of course I will marry you. You’re sure to be ordered overseas again soon, so don’t let’s wait, darling. It doesn’t need to be a big wedding, let’s do it just as soon as we can get it arranged.”
14 July 2068
Cloudbase was over the Pacific Ocean, serenely making its way towards the Panamanian isthmus and the North Atlantic, when the door to Captain Ochre’s quarters slid open and his chestnut-haired head peered out. He scanned the corridor both ways, listening intently for the sounds of approaching footsteps.
From behind him, the voice of Melody Angel hissed impatiently, “Hurry up, Rick; we haven’t got all day.”
He stepped back into his quarters. “More haste less speed, Nolie. Besides, you don’t want it spoilt by our being spotted, do you?”
“I don’t want it spoilt by my being reprimanded for missing the duty change-over in ten minutes,” she retorted.
“The other girls’ll cover for you,” he reassured her. “They know what we’re doing.”
“Perhaps I should go back to the Amber Room now?” Harmony Angel suggested, glancing up at her friends. “There are enough people to finish it, and I have played my part already.”
“You sure have,” Captain Blue assured her. “I don’t think we’d have managed without your expertise, Chan.”
“Sure, honey; that’d take the heat of me, at least,” Melody agreed.
Harmony smiled and gave a slight bow to the others. “Then I will see you later for the grand reveal.”
Ochre smiled and opened the door for her to leave. “Let the other Angels know we’re on schedule,” he reminded her.
Harmony nodded and pattered off down the corridor in the direction of the Amber Room. As she reached the corner she almost bumped into Captain Scarlet who was wandering back towards his own quarters after a stint in Sick Bay.
“Whoa! Sorry, Harmony,” he exclaimed. “You’re in a hurry…”
“I am late; please forgive me, Captain Scarlet.”
“No problem… see you,” Scarlet said to her departing back, as she dodged around him and hurried away.
Surprised, Scarlet turned his gaze back along the corridor and saw Ochre beckoning to him from his doorway.
Bemused, Scarlet made his way to his friend’s quarters.
“What’s going on, Rick?” he asked, nodding in surprised acknowledgement at the presence of Melody and Blue.
“Have you forgotten what today is?” said Rick.
“It’s Saturday,” Scarlet replied. The weekend made very little difference to the routines on board Cloudbase, so he was surprised to be asked.
“The date,” Melody hinted.
“Eh, it’s…eh, the thirteenth.”
“Wrong! It’s the fourteenth,” Ochre cried.
“Bastille Day,” Scarlet said, with a smile. “I must remember to congratulate Destiny. Are we having a celebratory shindig in the Amber Room?” He turned hopefully to Melody.
“No; we’ve more important things to do today.”
“Destiny might not agree,” Scarlet retorted. “The French get very patriotic on Bastille Day. I mean, nobody would dare suggest there was anything more important to do on July the Fourth, would they? You Yanks’d make our lives a misery if we did.”
Captain Blue stepped in to stop the confusion escalating. “Paul, July the fourteenth is the Colonel’s birthday. Remember? We agreed we’d celebrate that – as well as Bastille Day,” he added, remembering Destiny’s pouting disapproval when it was suggested she ignore her country’s national day in favour of an Englishman’s birthday – albeit that the Englishman in question was Colonel White.
“Tcha – so it is. I’ve lost a day somewhere along the line and the significance had escaped me, momentarily. That’s what spending time in Sick Bay can do to you.”
“Considering you were dead when you went there,” Melody said, “I reckon we’ll forgive you a little lapse of memory.” She smiled and Scarlet smiled back. “It’s a shame we couldn’t have celebrated the birthday last year,” she continued, “what with that being his fiftieth, an’ all; but, I think given the year we’ve had so far, it’s as good an idea to do it now.”
“Yes, we all owe the Colonel a great deal,” Blue said, glancing at Ochre with a significant expression on his face.
Ochre nodded. “Can’t be many commanders-in-chief who’d have stuck their neck out like he did for us, after what happened at Atlantica. I thought we’d get cashiered for sure.”
“We’re three men down,” Scarlet reminded him sombrely. “That might’ve had something to do with it.”
“Do you have to put a dampener on everything?” Ochre complained, but the twinkle in his eye showed he was not serious.
“We have the present all ready for him,” Melody said, bringing them back to the important matter in hand. But we’re not sure how to get it to the Officers’ Lounge. If we carry it we’re sure to be seen on the CCTV and we don’t want the colonel to get any inkling of what we’re doing.”
“I had an idea about that,” Blue explained. “I thought we’d get Philly to take it – she could put it in the big wicker laundry basket and wheel it there, right under the Colonel’s gaze. Nobody takes any notice of the support staff – especially Philly. I get surprised at where she gets to – I ought to report her for entering secure areas, but it wouldn’t do any good – nobody notices Philly.”
“True,” Ochre agreed. “That girl gets everywhere.”
Melody grinned. “Good idea, Blue. You’d better let her know.”
“No need. I’ve already asked her to bring the laundry basket here,” Blue admitted.
Scarlet grinned. “So, we’d better get it ready for her then.”
The colonel made his routine evening inspection. It was his habit to speak to the duty Angel pilots, technicians and officers and touch base about any issues that had arisen during the day, before he handed Cloudbase over to the Night Command Team. As usual, the tour concluded with his visit to the Officers’ Lounge. He could hear the murmur of voices as he approached the room, which surprised him. The Officers’ Lounge was not usually a hive of activity.
The door slid open at his approach to reveal the full complement of colour captains, plus Doctor Fawn, Lieutenant Green and the two off duty Angel pilots: Rhapsody and Harmony.
‘Happy Birthday, Colonel!’ they all chorused, and spontaneous applause broke out.
Captain Scarlet – the self-appointed spokesman – stepped forward and handed White a large envelope containing a birthday card signed by them all.
“Why…erm… humph…” White cleared his throat. “Thank you all very much. It is very good of you.”
There was more applause.
Scarlet said: “On behalf of us all, Colonel, we would also like to present you with a birthday gift.”
As if on cue, the line of officers broke up to reveal a large, painstakingly detailed model of Cloudbase, complete with three tiny Angel Interceptor Jets on the runway.
“We hope you like it, sir,” Rhapsody Angel said anxiously, as the silence lasted just a fraction too long.
“I do indeed. It is spectacular. I had no idea it was available in kit form.”
“It isn’t,” Ochre explained, “I made it from scratch, Colonel. I’m afraid this is the reason for the unpleasant smell you objected to – the model glue…”
“Really? How inconvenient then that I instructed you to stop using it.” White glanced at Ochre, a slight smile on his face. “And I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that you ignored my order, Captain.”
“Yes, sir.” Ochre grinned unapologetically.
White examined the model closely. Ochre really had done an excellent job and inside the portholes and the panoramic windows of the control deck, he could see tiny figures – one in green and the other in white – beavering away at computer consoles. The expansive windows of the Promenade Deck revealed a minute garden of lush vegetation and lounging on the deckchairs were five figures, dressed in red, blue, orange, grey and pink, respectively. The replica Amber Room showed four figures in white uniforms and the model of Angel One had the fifth Angel seated inside.
“Amazing, Captain,” White remarked. “Really, I am very impressed and grateful to you all for this… marvellous gift.”
“We wanted to thank you, sir,” Scarlet said, “For all you’ve done to make Spectrum such a success. We really do appreciate it.”
White straightened up from his examination of the model.
“Teamwork, Captain – that’s the secret. As long as we remain a coherent, unified force, we’ll defeat whatever the Mysterons throw at us.”
“S.I.G., sir!” they chorused dutifully.
“Shall we help you move it to your quarters, sir?” Blue asked. “We’ve still got the wicker laundry basket …”
“I wondered what that was doing here,” White remarked, with one raised eyebrow. “It isn’t often you see one of the batmen wheeling a laundry basket into the Officers’ Lounge; next time I shall keep watching the security feed. Yes, bring her along to my quarters, if you can. I have the ideal spot for her.”
Captain Blue and Captain Ochre said their goodbyes and left the colonel in his quarters, with the model in pride of place on a low cabinet in the living area.
White opened the birthday card and read the friendly messages above the signatures. He felt unexpectedly emotional and was surprised that he did not resent the fact that they had acknowledged his birthday – something he had not celebrated for many years. After all, they couldn’t know. He stood beside the model and, as he always did at the end of his birthday, he let the memories flood back from that fateful day:
14 July 2050
He could see that there were two cards on the breakfast table as he came down the stairs; one propped up against the china teapot and one against the rack of toast.
He went to the table without looking around, pretending not to see them hiding behind the half-open door. He’d heard William chortling even as he came down the stairs, although he doubted the child understood much of what was going on.
Last year there had just been the two of them celebrating his birthday, and waiting with excited trepidation for the approaching arrival of their first child. He recalled how Annabel hadn’t felt like going out, so he’d driven to their favourite Chinese takeaway for chicken noodles, egg fried rice and ‘whatever you want, darling’. There were times when he thought he’d never want to see another portion of chow mein – but, he reminded himself, there were worse things she might have craved.
He remembered the actual birth of his son as a long drawn out process. The contractions had started early one morning and inexplicably stopped after a few hours – a pattern that had repeated itself for a couple of days. Then there was the uncomfortably hot hospital room, the feeling of inadequacy as Annabel had laboured – and how descriptive a term that was – to give birth to their child.
The exhaustion had been wiped away by the sight of that bloody scrap of humanity, wailing out its objections to the bright lights of its new world, and finally holding him in his arms.
‘Your life will never be the same’, friends with children had warned them, and they were right. It had never been so wonderful before.
Right now, mother and son were complicit in creating a big surprise for him, and he decided to play along.
“My, my… where can mummy and William be? Here’s my toast and here’s my tea, but nobody’s here… where can they be?”
He gave an exaggerated gesture of surprise and heard his son squealing with laughter. When he turned around William stretched out his podgy arms out towards him. His black hair was still standing up in tufts from his sleep, and his blue eyes sparkled with delight above his soft, rosy cheeks.
“Happy birthday, Daddy!” Annabel exclaimed, handing him the excited baby before reaching up on tip-toe to kiss his freshly-shaven cheek.
With his mother making such a fuss, the baby was correspondingly excited, and he gave his father a slobbery kiss too.
“Dad-ad-da,” he said authoritatively.
“William and I wanted it to be a big surprise. We made you a special breakfast – William put your toast in the rack all by himself.”
“Did you? I bet it is the tastiest toast ever.”
William giggled and sucked his fingers.
“Go on, open your cards, Charles,” Annabel said, reaching for the teapot to make his morning cuppa.
“Oh, I will; but which one shall it be first? The one in the blue envelope or the one in the yellow?” He made a show of thinking about the decision. With a squeal, William pointed to the yellow envelope and his father picked it up. “Oh yes, quite right; I like this one best too,” he agreed.
With his son on his knee ’helping’, he tore the envelope and drew out a gaily coloured card with a cartoon of a ‘Daddy Bear’ and a ‘Baby Bear’ fishing in an idyllic stream, while butterflies flew around them and a cloud floated overhead with ‘For the Best Daddy in the World’ written on it in different coloured letters.
Inside Annabel had written: ‘To Daddy, with Love from William xxx’ and allowed the baby to scribble over the paper with a bright yellow crayon. Yellow was William’s favourite colour, and his parents both thought it highly appropriate for such a sweet-natured child.
“Oh, that is the best card I’ve ever had!” He looked up at his pretty, dark-haired wife, and hugged his son. “Thank you, William!”
Together father and son examined the picture, counting the butterflies, the smiling fish peeking with impunity out of the water, and the clouds, as well as naming the colours of the words in the message. Finally, as the child’s attention began to wander, he stood the card up on the table, and, when Annabel lifted William off his knee, he gratefully sipped his tea and spread butter on the toast.
“Oh…” he said, as he took a bite. “This is the best toast ever!”
She laughed at him. “Honestly, Charlie…”
Laughing, he reached for her card and opened the flap. This one was a good deal less colourful, showing a romantic sepia-tinted photograph of young lovers walking arm-in-arm down a country lane. Inside she’d written: To Charles, my darling husband and lover. Yours forever, Annie.
He stood, and taking her in his arms kissed her lips with a gentle and grateful passion. William squirmed in protest at this display of affection that ignored him and, laughing, he ruffled his son’s dark hair and hugged them both.
“I’m the luckiest man alive,” he said with conviction. “I never thought I could feel like this, Annie.”
“Charles,” she cried, laughing affectionately at him. “I don’t know what’s got in to you; but I like it…”
She kissed him again.
“What do you plan to do today?” he asked, as he went back to his breakfast, starting to become aware that the time was slipping away and he had an important meeting that morning.
“Oh, well, William has a check-up at the clinic and then we’re going to go shopping to buy something special for a birthday tea – aren’t we, William?”
“I’ll do my very best not to be late back.”
“I think we can let him stay up late for one night – as long as you’re not going to be too late. After he’s in bed, I thought we’d have a little candlelit supper on our own, and maybe an early night…?”
“An early night? I can’t wait.”
She laughed at him and bent to kiss his cheek, whispering, “I didn’t say anything about sleeping, did I?” He gave a deep, throaty chuckle that made her senses tingle. “I want this to be your best birthday ever.”
“I’m sure it will be. You’re making me wish this day would never end…” he said.
“But today is just the start, Charles. We have a lifetime of happiest days ahead of us…You, William and me – together for ever.”
“For ever,” he echoed happily, blissfully unaware of what the future held, and trusting to the surety in her voice.
On his way to the office, he reflected that he had come through the dangers and uncertainty of the Civil War, to an unforeseen haven of peace and contentment. Circumstances had kept Annabel from him, but he thanked Heaven that when he had returned from the war, she’d still felt the same about him. His work was still dangerous, but the fact that he had dependents meant that he had some discretion to pick and choose what he tackled, and his craving for continual adrenalin-fuelled excitement had dissipated; there was enough to satisfy him now within his neat, detached, suburban house and especially the love of the family he’d thought he’d never have.
He couldn’t remember ever being so happy.
14 July 2068
As the memories faded, Colonel White looked once more at the card from his officers. He was touched by their thoughtfulness, and for that reason, he placed their card against the two he already had on display on his desk. They stood either side of the photograph of his late wife and child, which he kept in a silver, art-deco photo frame. One was a colourful, but rather faded drawing of two bears fishing in a stream, and the other, a photo-card of a couple of young lovers walking down a lane.
The familiar scalding wash of tears stung his blue eyes as he remembered the white-faced secretary apologetically interrupting his afternoon meeting; the sombre-faced policeman waiting in his office, who had told him in quiet, sympathetic tones what had happened to the car Annabel and William had been travelling in.
He remembered the blind rage of hate that had roared through him, as he listened to the sorry chain of events that had led the drunken-driver to jump the lights and smash, at speed, into their car as they drove home from the supermarket.
He blinked rapidly, exhaling deeply. It sometimes surprised him that all these years later, he could still be so emotionally affected on this particular day. But then, he thought, no amount of gongs, accolades or public recognition would ever make up for the family he’d lost on the 33rd anniversary of his birth. That blow from fate’s right hand had almost destroyed him and he had spent years burying his anguish by risking his life as an agent for the Universal Secret Service.
He reached out a finger to trace the oh-so-familiar outlines of the faces he loved so much, knowing that this private remembrance was the only tribute he had.
Forever, my loves,” he whispered.
2017 is a significant year in the Captain Scarlet fandom: it is 50 years since the show first aired on British TV and, even more significantly in my eyes, on 14 July 2017, Charles Gray was born in England. So we are finally living the Scarlet universe in ‘Real Time’!
I hope you enjoyed this small peek into the life of Colonel White. I had the bare bones of the story written many years ago, but never found the impetus to complete it, until now. It might never have reached the website without the help of Skybase Girl, who beta read the original and suggested some very pertinent amendments, which pulled the whole thing together and provided a suitable conclusion. So I owe her a debt of thanks and happily admit that any remaining errors are all mine.
Thanks also to Chris Bishop for the usual large helpings of support and encouragement. Despite being incredibly busy with her own projects – including a new puppy (envy!) – Chris was, as always, generous with her time and patience as the story struggled to reach completion. Thanks also to Isabelle Saucier for our enjoyable chats about Colonel White’s character. I hope you think I have done him justice, Isa.
I acknowledge that the original Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons TV show, was the brainchild of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and was brought to life by them and their incredibly talented collaborators. I have enjoyed the fruits of their labours for 50 years – which is a scary thought on a personal level! – and am grateful to all involved with the show, then and now, for creating such a fascinating world, with so much potential for the imagination.
Here’s to the next 50 years of Captain Scarlet, and a very Happy Birthday to Colonel White!
14 July 2017