THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS. WE KNOW THAT YOU CAN HEAR US, EARTHMEN.
WE HAVE LOCATED SPECTRUM'S EXPERIMENTAL VEHICLE TESTING GROUNDS ON THE ETOSHA SALT PAN. TODAY, WHEN YOU HAVE GATHERED TO EVALUATE YOUR NEW DEVICES, WE WILL DESTROY THE ETOSHA FACILITY. YOUR WORKS WILL BURN, AND YOU WILL UNDERSTAND MORE CLEARLY WHAT IT MEANS TO OPPOSE US.
WE WILL BE AVENGED.
"You'd better be grateful, Captain Blue. You had a very lucky escape!"
"Not luck," replied Captain Blue through gritted teeth. "Skill." He kept his eyes fixed on the opposite wall of the infirmary, far from the sight below of Doctor Fawn stitching up the last of his cuts. Even with the painkillers and the topical anesthetic, there was an uncomfortable pulling sensation as each stitch tightened, and somehow it felt worse if he watched. "Old test pilot reflexes, mostly. I could feel the engine kicking even before the sabotaged belt gave out."
"And if you hadn't ejected then, there wouldn't have been much of you left for me to work on. There we are." Doctor Fawn stepped back, as if to survey his handiwork. "We'll have to pull you off duty so the lacerations and the broken ankle can heal, but we should have you back to active status in a week or two. Just don't do anything rash... ah, I believe you have a visitor." Fawn stepped to the side, revealing Captain Scarlet standing in the doorway, holding his uniform cap in his hands. "Come in, Captain Scarlet," the doctor continued. "There's no further danger."
Captain Blue smiled, although a twinge of pain from his stitched-up forehead told him that he'd be better off keeping a stern expression. "Good to see you. Must be a novelty not to be here for once yourself, eh?"
"I'm sorry, Blue." Even as he walked closer to the examination table, Captain Scarlet's eyes were focused on the floor, and his complexion was oddly sallow. "I did what I could, but if I'd gotten to the hangar in time --"
"You saved the research team, and that's what matters! We can rebuild the hangar and the HSX prototypes, and I'll heal. The doctor says it'll only be a week or two."
"A week or two?" Captain Scarlet looked up, a bit of color returning to his face and his nervous brow relaxing, but his expression seemed faintly puzzled. "That's good to hear. It must not be too serious. Does it feel... odd?"
"Odd? I'm not sure what you mean. It certainly hurts, but that's hardly odd, under the circumstances."
"No, I suppose not, but -- there are the stitches and all, all those wounds that'll have to close. You might scar. Don't you think that's going to feel odd?"
Under normal circumstances, Captain Blue would have assumed that Scarlet was making a rather dry joke, but his face was absolutely earnest. How was he to take that? Worse, how was he to respond to it. "Ah, it'll be fine, Scarlet. If I were worried about a scar ruining my looks, I'd never have taken up test piloting in the first place, let alone joined SPECTRUM. Don't worry about me!"
"I'm not worried," replied Scarlet. "I just... wondered. You know, before SPECTRUM, I never had to have stitches, and now I never will. I only wondered how -- well, never mind." He paused again, and he made eye contact -- the first time in the conversation he'd done so, Blue realized. "I'm sorry. I'm feeling rather out of sorts, and you don't need to be bothered at a time like this."
Captain Blue was about to lie through his teeth and say it was all all right, surely just nerves, when Doctor Fawn cut in. "Scarlet, I imagine you're suffering from a touch of nervous exhaustion. We're all worn down by the Mysterons. Take a few of those nerve tablets I gave you and try and rest, all right? Captain Blue's going to be fine, and you will be too."
Scarlet nodded, snapped off a salute to the doctor, and made his way out of the infirmary again. Blue couldn't help but frown, even as it pulled at his forehead stitches again. "Doctor Fawn, are you certain he's all right? That was a bit... strange."
There was a moment of silence, and Doctor Fawn spoke in a lowered, careful tone when he spoke again. "I simply don't know, Blue. I've run some tests, and I'll continue to monitor him, but I can't say for sure. It could be nervous exhaustion, or a side effect of the blow he took to the head a few weeks ago."
"What, in the Prague pursuit? The sleeper agent barely tapped him! I know he was concussed, but that wouldn't have kept a normal SPECTRUM agent down long, let alone Captain Scarlet!"
"Head injuries are a complex subject," replied Doctor Fawn, but even he didn't sound convinced. "It's only a theory, though. The truth is, I just don't know what could be causing strange moods in him. I can only hope it's simple war-weariness."
Captain Blue wasn't a medical man, but told himself the nervous exhaustion theory sounded plausible, more out of hope than certainty. Fighting the War of Nerves was like playing poker with a man in an iron mask, a deep monotone, and an endless bankroll. All they could do was stay alive and hope that the end would come into sight, somehow, someday... and perhaps, with his condition as it was, Captain Scarlet couldn't see a way out either way. When you were a hero with the blood of the enemy, was peace really any better than war?
Cloudbase never had the liberty of sleeping, but some of its facilities were lower-traffic than others, and late at night the lecture and seminar area was blessedly quiet. In one of the several anonymous conference rooms a few doors away from the lecture hall, Doctor Fawn drummed his fingers on the table as much to simply have some sound in the room as out of nerves. Colonel White had been right that this was a fine location for a private meeting, at this time of night, but after a career spent in bustling medical facilities, Doctor Fawn felt shockingly vulnerable alone in the quiet. How could silence be such a chilling thing?
At last, ten minutes before the scheduled meeting time, a shadow fell upon the door and Colonel White let himself in. "Doctor Fawn. My apologies for my tardiness; Lieutenant Green wanted to talk to me about certain patterns of static he's observed on some of our outward channels. I hope I haven't wasted your time."
"There's nothing to apologize for, Colonel; the auto-docs are handling the most critical cases, and Doctor Sinopia and her night-shift staff will handle things quite ably. I should be the one apologizing for wasting your time, sir."
Colonel White sat down at the conference table, his face set in its usual stoic calm. "I assure you, Doctor, nothing having to do with Captain Scarlet or the Mysteron War is a waste of my time. You write fine report copy, but I need to hear this directly from you to make policy. Be honest with me, Doctor Fawn: do you believe Scarlet is stable, and do you believe he is a security risk?"
"Sir, I have no concrete evidence to that effect, but I have concerns." Doctor Fawn picked up the spiral-bound copy of his research notebook and collected reports and paged to a two-page spread of pictures. "Here are the last six months' worth of scanning images, along with a baseline image from before Mysteron contact. Compare this first one, from after the explosion of his jet over Burma three months ago, to pre-Mysteron baseline. He was still recovering when that image was taken, but you can see that his bodily systems look normal, barring the deviations caused by our switch to the M-Scanners that can produce accurate images of his physiology. He is precisely as he was when the Mysterons first abducted and transformed him."
"Yes, of course," replied Colonel White, carefully analyzing the pair of figures. "As we'd expect? He dies, however terribly, and his body rebuilds itself as good as new."
"Precisely, sir. It's the generally observed pattern, the one we've come to both expect and rely on. The problems come with several other figures. Look at this one, from after the extraction of Professor Kadlacek from Prague five weeks ago. Captain Scarlet suffered only a minor concussion and, after passing a neurological wellness check, was released from the sickbay with no further treatment needed, but... well, see for yourself, Colonel." He gestured towards the cranial scan, where jagged, opaque white lines radiated out from the position of impact. "Before you ask, the sickbay technical staff and I spent several hours troubleshooting the scanner. It functioned, and continues to function, perfectly. Whatever is present in this diagram resists even our current visualization solutions for Captain Scarlet. You can see similar phenomena in these three diagrams -- here, here and here -- all connected to non-life-threatening injuries, as well as to reports of Captain Scarlet exhibiting unusual mood and behavior. We're calling these formations M-Opaque Fibre Clusters."
"I see. Do you have any samples of these 'Fibre Clusters'?"
"I'm afraid not, sir," admitted Doctor Fawn. "None of the injuries that have provoked the phenomena have required surgery, and my colleagues and I are very hesitant to ask Captain Scarlet to suffer through exploratory surgery at this juncture, especially given the risk that said surgery would create more of the fibre clusters. We're looking for a solution that doesn't involve... well, that's part of the trouble, sir. Even once the injuries have healed, the only thing that seems to address the fiber clusters is Captain Scarlet's death. Let me show you --" Doctor Fawn picked up the notebook to flip to another page of diagrams. "This series of scans shows the healing of the knee injury Captain Scarlet suffered four months ago in the Santiago parachute drop. The injury healed as quickly as ever, the fibrous structure around the injury remained, until a month later and the Burmese explosion. When he recovered, the fibres were gone."
"Mmm." Colonel White closed his eyes and took a moment to think, expression unchanging. "Allow me to see if I understand this, Doctor Fawn. When Captain Scarlet is injured but not killed, his injuries heal as expected, but these fibre clusters form in the injured region. They are scanner-opaque even to your M-Scanners, suggesting a type of Mysteron tissue not normally present. While these fibre clusters are present, Captain Scarlet seems to act out of sorts, but when he dies, his body resets entirely and removes them. Is this accurate?"
"Yes, sir. That's what we know at this point."
"I believe I understand, then, and I can see your concerns." Colonel White's eyes snapped open again, and their gaze was steel-edged and distant. "We've never had any reason to believe that Captain Scarlet's state was anything more than a happy accident for SPECTRUM, but the Mysterons know, and would have known, how much we would value him. They know enough about humans to know we are concerned about the safety of our personnel, however irrationally, and that we value our own bodily integrity. If they assumed, and assumed rightly, that we would do everything in our power to keep Captain Scarlet safe from death, but that he would still suffer injuries... these injuries would accumulate over time, even as he healed. The fibres would slowly accumulate, he would act more erratically, and yet we would still protect him -- until the Mysteron snare closes once again on his mind. A perfect sleeper agent, one we had come to rely on and one whose betrayal would strike a telling blow in the War of Nerves. Yes, Doctor Fawn, I can see why you might conclude this was their plan all along."
"It's only speculation, of course, sir. We need more evidence, proper samples of the fibre clusters, a thousand more articles of data before we could say anything definitive. But..."
"Yes, Doctor Fawn?"
Doctor Fawn exhaled, and he let his shoulders slump a bit. "It sounds dreadful, which means it sounds plausible. You know as well as I do how important Scarlet is to morale. We've worked so hard to try and reverse-engineer his immortality and find a way to create an invincible SPECTRUM, and now I fear we're stepped straight into their trap. And yet he's still too valuable, sir, and too good a man to give up on. We can't depend on Scarlet, and we can't survive without him."
"You're right, of course, Doctor Fawn. You're all too right. And yet... I believe there might yet be ways to address this while you continue your research. Keep up the good work, Doctor, and I'll keep Cloudbase safe." It was hard, at the moment, to be truly reassured, but the hard darkness of Colonel White's eyes told Doctor Fawn that he was as good as his word. The Doctor would do his job, and the Colonel would do his own, even with the Mysterons at their throats.
Before he'd received the invitation to meet there, Captain Blue had had no idea that Colonel White even maintained a private office. He'd never seemed the sort of man to need one, and as Blue stepped inside, he realized just how small and spartan it was. The walls were bare of service awards or diplomas, the bookshelves held only books where other men might have kept a lifetime's worth of paperweights and trophies, and the desk had only a workscreen and a single framed photograph of the Colonel and his wife. There were two chairs in front of the desk, one chair behind it, and, of course, Colonel White himself. "Please, Captain Blue, have a seat. How are you feeling? May I offer you some water?"
"No, thank you. I'm all right, sir; Doctor Fawn says I'm healing just fine."
"That's excellent news. I'd like to talk to you about a topic of some concern for when you return to duty."
"What is it, sir? If there's any part of my performance that needs to improve --"
"It's not a concern with your performance," Colonel White replied. "You are an exemplary SPECTRUM agent. If you weren't, Captain, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Somehow, Captain Blue's nerves didn't lift. "Then what is it, Colonel?"
"It's about Captain Scarlet. Doctor Fawn mentioned to me that he discussed the matter of his... nervous exhaustion with you."
"Yes, we talked about it, but he said he didn't know what was wrong. Is there something I can do to help? Speaking frankly, sir, I'm worried."
"And you're very correct to worry." Colonel White broke eye contact and stared at a fixed point just past Captain Blue's shoulder. "I'm not at liberty to discuss Doctor Fawn's findings, but he believes there's a physiological component to Scarlet's troubles. It accumulates upon injury but is wiped clean upon death. In the light of these findings... Captain Blue, I must ask you to take on an extraordinary responsibility. As Captain Scarlet's trusted service partner, you must ensure by any means that, if Scarlet is non-fatally injured and acting erratically, that his injuries become fatal. Do you understand?"
Captain Blue understood, and he also understood why Colonel White's gaze couldn't meet his eyes. This couldn't be easy for him to ask, but asking was still infinitely easier than doing. Did he really expect Blue to -- to -- "Sir, I --"
"You're outraged. You're disgusted. I'm asking you to break every rule you've learned as a soldier, as a Captain of SPECTRUM, as a friend, and as a human being. I don't ask this easily, and I would never ask it if it weren't necessary." The Colonel paused again, inhaled, and managed at last to meet Captain Blue's eyes again. "This may be the only thing that keeps Captain Scarlet the man we know. He's a fine, brave man, and I hope you'll never have to do what I'm asking you, but if he begins to lose himself..."
"Then this is the only way, sir?"
"This is the only way we know. We can only pray there may be others."
Captain Blue stood up, trying to dislodge the fearful knot in his stomach and breathe in a full lungful of air. "Sir... I can't say what you ask of me is an honor, but it's my duty as an agent of SPECTRUM, and I promise to do what I must."
"That's all I can ask of you, Captain. Dismissed."
Once he was out in the hallway, lost in the warren of Cloudbase Administrative, Captain Blue let himsef slump against the wall and sink to his knees. He told himself that the Colonel was right, that it'd save Scarlet, that he'd wake up in the sickbay like he always did and be back to joking in the mess hall by the afternoon... but it wasn't an easy thing to accept. With luck, he'd never be tested. With the war as it was, he knew he would be.
Captain Blue stared out the window of the staff canteen, letting his mug of strictly adequate coffee warm his hands as he took in the vision of unbroken cloud cover. His time off duty was swiftly becoming the worst of both worlds: the boredom of inactivity without the comfort of mental serenity. Usually, working through worst-case scenarios in his mind reassured him; this time, it was only a litany of nightmares.
"Blue? ... Adam?"
The sound of Captain Scarlet's voice snapped him to attention, a part of him expected to see a ravening Mysteron death's-head, a doppelganger of Captain Black, but Scarlet looked better today, somehow. He, too, had a mug of strong coffee, and maybe it was doing him more good than it was doing Captain Blue at the moment. "Oh, hello, Scarlet!" he forced himself to say, trying his best simply to sound normal. "How are you? Feeling any better since the last shake-up?"
"I don't know," replied Scarlet as he sat down. "It comes and it goes. Adam, will you think I'm mad if I tell you about the dream I had last night?"
"If I didn't think you were mad after you self-destructed over the Burmese jungle, Scarlet, how could a dream do it?"
"This was... it's different." Captain Scarlet looked into his coffee, then took a deep draught. "I dreamt I was on Mars with Captain Black, in the middle of the Mysteron city. It was just as it looked in the file photos from the exploration vehicle, even though I barely remember the details of any of them -- but they were a perfect match to my dream."
"The brain can remember and regurgitate some very strange things, Paul." He'd gone to a first-name basis without even thinking of it, but Scarlet had started it; perhaps it would help the man's nerves.
"I suppose so, but this was... well, never mind. Black and I were there, and he was telling me things the Mysterons had told him about a mistake they made with a servitor race. He said they were like me, retrometabolic but alive, but then things started to go wrong. They became uncontrollable, inconvenient, and... and then he said the rest was a surprise. 'A lovely surprise, Paul,' he said. 'You'll see soon enough. They'll have to kill you 'round the clock to stop you.'"
"I don't know," said Captain Blue, trying his best not to think of the distant eyes of Colonel White. "It could be just an anxiety dream? Heaven knows we all have enough of them now!"
"Oh, I'm sure it was," replied Scarlet, sounding not remotely sure. "It had to be. But it felt so very real this time. Usually my anxiety dreams are sort of floating, like I can't remember where I'm supposed to be but I know where I am isn't right. This was very crisp, and Captain Black... he sounded like Conrad, Adam. No strange dream voices. Just himself, as he was, and yet not right. It was the strangest thing, Adam. Right before I awoke, he said the oddest thing of all."
"And what was that?"
"He said he was a single frame of a film: a static frame, fixed in place by the Mysterons, and that if I wasn't careful, Cloudbase'd fix me as a single frame just the same. He said I deserve to be the film that he can't be -- 'a bloody, wonderful film,' and not 'bloody' in the way you Yanks think we always use it. In the literal way. If that's my mind playing tricks on me, what's it even supposed to mean?"
A deep draught of his own coffee gave Captain Blue the chance to chase away any errant words. "I don't know," he finally answered, although he suspected, terribly, that he did. Whatever had a hold on Captain Scarlet wanted him to change, Doctor Fawn had seen that lurking somewhere within, and Colonel White would have Scarlet die a thousand deaths to make sure that change never happened. Captain Blue had hoped against hope that the Colonel was wrong for once, that all his worst-case scenarios Blue could envision were simply fantasies, and yet here was a dream like a promise that he was wrong. One day, Captain Blue knew, he would see that bloody, wonderful film, and he would have to pull the trigger.
"Look," he finally said. "I'd talk to Doctor Fawn if you're worried about having funny dreams. Maybe he can give you different nerve tablets or recommend something to help you rest." And maybe he could pull out the worm coiling around Scarlet's brain while he was at it.
"You're right. I'd better try. You'd better be resting up yourself, Adam -- we need you out there."
"I know you do," said Captain Blue, with a hitch in his throat. "I promise, Paul, I'll be there when you need me."
THIS IS THE VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS. WE KNOW THAT YOU CAN HEAR US, EARTHMEN. WE KNOW THAT WE ARE HEARD IN THE HALLS OF YOUR CLOUDBASE, WITH OUR VOICES LIKE THUNDER.
YOU BELIEVE CAPTAIN SCARLET IS YOUR SAVIOR. YOU BELIEVE HE WILL LEAD YOU TO VICTORY.
YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT HE IS.
WE WILL KILL CAPTAIN SCARLET, EARTHMEN, AND NOT SIMPLY BECAUSE HE IS OUR ENEMY. IT WILL BE A FAVOR TO YOU, AND YOU WILL BE GRATEFUL. YOU WILL NEVER HAVE TO KNOW THE DEPTHS OF WHAT HE HAS BECOME.
YOU WILL NEVER TRULY UNDERSTAND, AND FOR THAT, WE PROMISE THAT YOU WILL BE GRATEFUL.