You should be warned that this is set after the end of the TV series. Canon is over. The universe may not finish the story in the same state it started out in. In any case, this is set in my AU, which contains several recurring original characters. If you're not familiar with my fic, I don't recommend starting here. (Though you're very welcome to, of course, you're just going to do a lot of wondering what the heck's happened to get to this point...)
This fic is set after "Coming to an End", and certain comments will make very little sense if you haven't also read "Confession" and/or "Consequences". If you'd like to, they're in the archives here, or there's an HTML version at http://www.reeslay.co.uk/cath/botp/index.htm . And on the new gatchfanfic site!
Warnings: some mild swearing and a couple of grisly moments.
Thanks to my husband for beta-reading, and to Julie Bloss Kelsey for beta-reading and for providing a couple of brilliantly evil plot suggestions.
As always: Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank, Gatchaman belongs to Tatsunoko, and all comments are very welcome, here or by email, including (especially!) if you have suggestions for improvement.
Mark's still missing, and a rebuilt G-Force has to carry on the fight against Spectra.
"We believe Spectra is in the process of reoccupying its old bases on Mars."
It was a bland comment towards the end of a standard Monday morning briefing. Even so, Princess couldn't resist a glance toward Jason, and, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tiny doing exactly the same.
Jason sat up marginally straighter from his slouched position in the chair at the head of the table. "Which ones?"
"A couple of smaller ones near the south pole, and the big one southeast of Olympus Mons." Anderson had the slide up on the screen, pointing to each in turn.
Jason's stare was uncompromising. "That's the one that was close to the Mars dome."
"I'm afraid so."
"Then we go trash it." Tiny's voice was as harsh as she'd ever heard it. "Right now. Mars is ours."
"Let's go kick some Spectran butt!" Keyop exclaimed, and she hushed him reflexively.
"Indications are that they have a fair sized force based there, and a mecha construction facility in the big cavern. And yes, Tiny, Mars has to be ours. It's way too close to Earth for us to allow them a foothold there. We are going to have to take it out."
"When?" was all Jason asked.
"We need more information. We're hoping Wade can come up with some details on the internal layout."
"Wade?" asked Rick, as Jason blanched.
"He was held captive there," Princess explained, trying her hardest to convey to G-Force's newest member that this was so not something he wanted to be ask about. Not here. Not now. Preferably not ever.
"What - recently?" Rick asked, oblivious. Her hinting had worked well, then. Not.
"Leave it, Rick," Tiny warned quietly.
There was mutinous anger in the blond man's eyes, though he kept his voice calm. "I can't contribute if I don't know what's going on."
"Then this is one time you can't contribute." Jason's glare was an unmistakeable order to back off, and Rick did just that, leaning back in his chair in silence. Jason turned to the older man at the head of the table. "Chief, you're not going to interrogate him again."
"He has information we need."
"He was locked in a damn cell there, years back! What use will it be, even if he knows anything? And he's a wreck! An unreliable wreck, who will tell Grant absolutely anything he wants to hear."
Anderson dropped the pitch of his voice almost to a growl - something Princess was sure must be infuriating to Jason, who couldn't do it. "We will discuss this in private, Commander. Team, you are dismissed."
"So do I get an explanation now?" Rick demanded as soon as they were in the corridor. "Why can't we talk to this guy Wade? Why does Jason even care? It's not like he's Mr Sensitivity on the interrogation front."
Princess contemplated how she could possibly explain this in two lines. Don was a former member of G-Force who was captured by Spectra and tortured for three years, and Jason thinks it's his fault. No. It needed a lot more than that, and in the corridor wasn't the place for it. They should all go to the ready room where they could discuss it in private, but before she could suggest it, Tiny cut in.
"He cares, and that's all you need to know." Tiny's tone was far from sympathetic, and she stared at him in confusion as he continued. "Rick, there's a hell of a lot of background to do with this team, and you're never going to learn it all. You have to take these things on trust."
"I do take them on trust. But I don't see why you can't explain it to me now."
"Because there's only so much time available, and yours is better spent on combat skills." That was a low blow from Tiny, and Rick flushed scarlet. He was still, despite what Princess knew had been an awful lot of work, way behind where he needed to be. Slower and less accurate than the rest of the team. Prone to mistakes which would be fatal in the field. Jason had said to her he had no plans to allow Rick off the Phoenix for the foreseeable future, and she wholeheartedly agreed.
Rick's face was set and unhappy, though, and she thought she might find time to give him a brief explanation later. Not now, though, not undermining Tiny's point.
"Where are you going now?" she asked in her friendliest tone.
"Gym," he said curtly.
"Yes. Sensei's no happier with me than the rest of you are."
Princess forced a smile. "Sensei's never happy with anyone. He was dressing me down this morning for lack of precision. You just need more work. You'll get there."
"I have to, don't I?" She saw the shoulders go back, the determination put on like a mask. "You're right, of course, G-2. I'll put in all the work that's required."
"Well, he's dedicated," Tiny said as the tall figure of the Kite headed away from them towards the gym.
"Keyop!" Princess forced herself to respond. "That's mean. He's doing his best."
"Best not good enough."
"We need to be able to replace people if they're hurt."
"No. Need a second team. Put Rick on that. Not G-Force."
He'd said this before, at every opportunity, and to a certain extent Princess agreed with him. This was no fun for any of them. Combat training with Rick was a waste of their time unless it was far too advanced for him. He didn't have the speed to keep up with Jason or Keyop, her accuracy or agility, or Tiny's strength. Skilled though he was, Tiny's agility, Keyop's accuracy, and her speed simply weren't a good enough combination - Rick was three years short of any of them on this sort of training, and it showed. Even though she made an effort to include him as part of the team away from training, it was always a struggle. Keyop wouldn't even try, and she was sure Rick knew it.
Now, though, with a space mission beckoning, she was deeply worried. Spectra had been quiet for the past month, and the only times they'd been out it was for things which normally would have been handled by other ISO squads. Not real missions at all, though she'd managed - just about - to keep Keyop from saying so in Rick's hearing. So, was Spectra building up to something big? Was this Mars intelligence the first hint of what they'd been doing all this time, or was it a trap? The thought of being deep underground with Rick as their backup on the Phoenix instead of Tiny, without Mark's calm logic in control, scared her more than she'd ever have admitted openly.
"Grant is not going to interrogate Don! Not again. Not while I can stop it."
"Jason, be reasonable."
"I am being reasonable." Jason gritted his teeth and kept his voice as low as it got. "He told us everything he knew, Chief. He's such a mess. Can't we just leave him alone?"
"We never asked him about the layout of the Mars base. It was abandoned - there seemed no point."
Dammit, but Anderson was right. Don could very well know something he hadn't passed on. Even basic stuff, like how many levels the elevator served, or which level the labs were on. He'd not have considered it worth mentioning. What would Mark do, faced with a situation where he knew something had to be done, but didn't want anyone else doing it?
He'd do it himself.
"Let me talk to Don, Chief. He trusts me, as much as he trusts anyone. Give me the list of what you need to know, and I'll find out what I can."
Half an hour later he found himself walking across the ISO grounds - hopefully walking would clear his head more efficiently than driving - making for the rehabilitation facility which was located at the far end of the campus.
He'd put off making this trip ever since Don had been brought here. First he'd been sick, then Mark had, now they were training twenty-five hours a day in an attempt to get Rick up to something approaching speed.
He'd have given anything not to have to do it now. For them to have been able to help Don enough that he was the Don of old. When Mark had walked out, he'd had a sudden flash of clarity. This was how it was all meant to be. He should go to Anderson and say that there was a far better candidate than Rick Shayler for the co-pilot's seat on the Phoenix, and for the job of second-in-command of G-Force. Don deserved it. Full circle. The original G-2, back where he belonged, and the rest of the team happy to stay where they were. Ten seconds of clear thought had told him that it was impossible. Don was a psychological mess who could never be trusted again. He knew full well he'd been avoiding this trip because he didn't want the confirmation that his old friend was changed forever.
ISO's rehabilitation facility turned out to be a long, low building, positioned over a rise so that the rest of the buildings weren't visible, and near the clifftop. Very scenic. Very green, lots of trees and bushes. He knew there was a security fence out there, but it was, probably deliberately, out of sight further down the slope. Jason had to steel himself to approach. But for the fact that the facility hadn't existed then, he'd probably have spent time here himself. Instead he'd had interminable one-to-one sessions with Samuels, who'd ended up prescribing him a month at ISO Racing. Even if everything else Samuels had done had been a waste of time, Jason owed him for that one decision. He suspected that his return, capable of functioning as part of G-Force again, was the main reason Samuels had ended up as the team psychiatrist.
He wondered if he might run into Don outside, but while there were various people who were obviously patients wandering around outside, and some equally obvious staff keeping a close eye on them from a careful distance, there was no sign of the man he was looking for. Jason nodded cheerfully to those he passed, making a deliberate attempt not to look intimidating. He knew only too well what it felt like to be unable to cope with the world. When the PTSD was bad, the last thing he'd have wanted to encounter was himself in a foul mood.
"Donald Wade?" the woman on the desk repeated, typing and squinting at her screen. "Friend or colleague?"
She looked him up and down, taking in the Team Seven uniform jacket. "Is this a professional visit?"
If it had been anyone but Don he was visiting, he'd have lied, said he was a friend visiting, anything to get past the nurse to the information they needed. He should have done it now, but he couldn't bring himself to. Not when it was Don's mental health, such as it was, at stake.
"Would you wait here one moment, please?" She turned to the intercom, and shortly a call went out for 'Dr Winslow to the front desk, please'. He was wondering how long this was likely to take when a short, brisk, grey-haired man wearing a doctor's identity tag showed up.
"You wanted me?"
"This gentleman is asking to see Donald Wade."
"I see." The doctor looked him up and down. "Come with me please, Lieutenant."
The doctor's office was just down the corridor. He ushered Jason in and indicated that he should take a seat, sitting down behind his own desk.
"Mr Wade isn't fit for any more questioning. I was given to understand that it was over. I'm afraid I'm going to have to say no."
Jason sighed. "Just five minutes?"
"I'm afraid not."
Jason leaned forward, resisting the temptation to add Condor intimidation to his posture. "Look, the reason I'm here is that I'm Don's friend. A very old friend. If you've got his records there, you know there are people who can override you on his list. If I don't talk to Don, one of them will be down here with paperwork that you can't refuse, and they will bring a real interrogator."
The doctor typed something on his computer, and Jason could see uncertainty in his eyes. He pushed it. "I've known Don since we were kids. If he trusts anyone, it's me. Please, let me do this. Not someone he's afraid of. You know they can do that to him, if they need to. Look at my records as well as his. I'm a paramedic. I'm not going to hurt him, or let him hurt himself."
He could see the man bring up something else on the screen, presumably his public, Team 7 profile, and then go back to whatever he had been scanning before, presumably to find the senior officer on the case. He wasn't sure who it would be - Anderson or Grant, most likely, just possibly Mark - but whoever it was, they were infamous enough to scare him.
"You can talk to him. Please understand, his recovery is extremely fragile at the moment. I would prefer to refuse altogether - but you're right, I can't say no to those people. I'm taking it on trust that you will be the lesser of two evils."
Jason nodded. "Is there anything I should know? Anything to avoid?"
"You're a paramedic - do you know anything about post-traumatic stress disorder?"
Jason felt himself flinch, and knew from the doctor's expression that it had been all too visible.
"First-hand experience? In that case, all I'll say is that he's having a hell of a time with agoraphobia."
"Open spaces? I guess that's why he wasn't outside."
"He can't handle a room with a window yet." The doctor stood up. "Come this way."
The door he tapped on was indeed on a windowless corridor, and the room had to be completely internal to the building. "Don? It's Doctor Winslow, and I have a friend of yours here who'd like to talk to you."
"A friend?" The voice was Don's, shaky and unhappy though it was.
The doctor gestured to him, and Jason cleared his throat. "Don? It's Jason. Can I have a word?"
"I...I guess." There was the sound of footsteps, and the door opened part way before there was a gasp of "Come in," and the footsteps retreated hastily.
It was a bare cube of a room, painted in the pale pink which Jason would associate forever with psychiatrists' offices. As the doctor had indicated, no windows, not even a curtain to give an illusion of one. A white plastic chair. A single bed, with linen in a slightly darker shade of pink. Cameras in the corners of the ceiling. Impersonal and institutional, he'd have been climbing the walls to be out of here within hours, if not sooner.
Don had backed onto the bed until he was right in the corner, back pressed against both walls, fidgeting with some kind of remote control device.
"Sit down. I'll be right with you." His voice shook, and Jason's throat constricted in sympathy.
"Do you need someone?"
"Trying not to call them." He put the device down and closed his hands one around the other, his eyes twitching from Jason's face to what was now clearly a panic button and back again. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you."
Don grimaced. "In uniform, whatever that uniform is. What is it you want?"
Damn, this is hard. Jason dug deep in his memories to try to find something to say which would be reassuring, and came up short. "Will you freak on me if I tell you?"
Don's hands locked around the knees drawn tight up to his chest. "I'll try not to."
"You remember anything about the layout of that Mars base?"
There was a sharp intake of breath, and then a desperate whimper as Don's head went down on his knees. "Oh, no. Not again. I can't go back there."
Back? Jason hesitated, unsure whether Don meant back into the cells in black section or back to Mars, and decided it didn't matter. "Nobody's asking you to go back anywhere. How are you at drawing maps?"
Don still shook, struggling with himself in silence, and Jason bit his tongue hard. He must not push. Must let Don do this on his own, or anything he got would be worthless. And yet, if he came back with nothing, Grant would be in here doing the questioning, and Grant still thought Don should be in solitary, in an underground cell with an armed guard at his door.
"Don, you have to give me something." He got no reaction at all and, desperate, Jason reached out and gripped the other's shoulder. "Don, come on, man. Let's start with where you were held. What was opposite your cell?"
Grey, terror-filled eyes met his. "Blank wall. Then the guardroom, to the left."
"Good." Jason flicked to a clean page in his notebook and pulled out a pen. "You want to draw this, or shall I?"
There was just a flash of the old Don, as the other put a hand out for the pen. "If Anderson's to be able to read this, I'd best draw it."
Whatever else had been destroyed in him, Don was still a scientist. The lines were faint and shaky, but the dimensions worked. And there were many missing areas on Don's plan, but where he'd been, he was clear on what had been there, in some detail.
"That's all," he said finally. "I...Jason..." He cast a desperate glance upwards to the camera in the far corner of the room.
"You want to talk to me in private?"
"Let's go outside." He bit his tongue the moment he said it, as Don gasped, dropping notepad and pen onto the bed and curling back into his protective ball. Agoraphobia. Jason, you moron. "Or I could take the camera out."
Don made a noise that was half way between a laugh and a sob. "They'd be in here in twenty seconds. They're convinced I want to end it all."
"And do you?"
"No. Not any more." The head raised up, just enough for Jason to see his face, and a weak smile. "I'm going to walk out of here some day. And I want to fly again."
Confidence. Optimism. Hope. It was just possible that, given those, he could do it. And Jason saw the man he'd known, even behind the mess of stress and phobia, and decided now was the time to push.
"You want to talk away from the camera? Come outside with me, right now."
"If you want to talk, you have to. And - dammit, Don, I'd like to talk too!" There. Have a bit more pressure. Hopefully, the right sort.
"Go talk to your new best friend," Don spat out.
"You hadn't heard I had a promotion?" That was all he dared say, probably more than he should have said, since anyone who checked up on his Team Seven record would know darn well that he hadn't been promoted there, ever. It was enough for Don's head to come up and for him to stare in a raw, horrified disbelief which told Jason that Don knew exactly what he meant.
"Crap, Jason. I mean, congratulations, I mean...let's go. Before I change my mind."
They made it five yards down the corridor before Don gasped, "No...," and flattened himself against the wall.
Jason hesitated, looking around. Don had panicked at the first glimpse of sunlight on the opposite wall, shining through the recessed door he planned to go out through fifteen yards ahead. This wasn't looking good. "Don?"
The young man's breathing was ragged and desperate. "I don't think I can do this."
"Shut your eyes." Jason took a tight grip on his shoulder. "Come on. You can. Or do you want to go back?"
"No." There was a desperate determination in his voice as Don pushed himself away from the wall and staggered forward two steps before diving for its limited comfort again. "Oh, man. I'm such a useless coward!"
"You're here, and you're fighting it." Out of the corner of his eye, Jason saw the doctor hovering at the end of the passage, and he waved him off. "You can do this. One step. And another. That's it. Remember you're safe. You think anyone could get past me?"
"No..." Don still had one hand on the wall, and his eyes were tight shut, but he was moving forwards, just a brief hesitation when they reached a door and the texture under his hand changed. "Where are we?"
"Three more yards to the door we want."
"Okay." Don's pace slowed as they reached it and he felt for the edge of the alcove. "Oh, hell. Jason..." His breathing was fast and shallow, and now the doctor was a whole lot closer, concern on his face.
"You still want to try?" Jason asked. He was pretty sure the intervention of a third party would be disastrous.
"Yes." Don reached round the alcove and touched the doorframe. "I hope it's not raining out there."
Pathetic joke, but an attempt, and the doctor's face relaxed as he nodded.
"Not raining. Good and sunny, in fact." Jason pushed down the bar and swung the door wide open. "How's that?"
Don took one desperate breath, and turned to flee back inside, eyes wide in unseeing panic. Jason had been expecting it, though, and caught him by both wrists, pulling him ruthlessly close. "You can do this. You know you can. Stay in control, Don. Stay with me. Breathe."
Don fought him, silently, desperately, and Jason just held him still, telling him, over and over again, that he was safe now, that nobody could get to him. The doctor stayed where he was, five yards away, hand over but not pressing an alarm button. And, very slowly, Don's struggles stopped and he managed to slow his breathing down to something approaching calm.
"Not much. Just do it, Jason. I don't think I can."
"Okay. Five more yards." He turned the other, keeping a tight hold on him, and pushed such that he had to move or fall. It worked on Spectrans, and it worked on Don, too, forcing him to take shaky steps towards the door and out onto the porch.
"Step down here," Jason told him, but didn't give him the opportunity to balk. And then they were out and onto the gravel surround of the building, and while he'd told Don only five more yards, fifteen away there was an internal corner and no overlooking windows. He turned that way and, when they reached it, twisted Don round so his back was into the junction of the two walls. "You did it. You can sit down now."
"Don't let go," Don breathed, and Jason didn't, steadying him down to the familiar sitting position with his knees drawn up to his chest. He continued to hold his shoulder while Don shook and gasped and panicked, his hands clenched so tight they were white to the wrists.
The doctor had stayed in the doorway, presumably because gravel was noisy, and continued to watch without apparent major concern. Jason hoped this meant he'd done the right thing. He was no psychiatrist - but man, had he talked to a lot of them, and he knew first-hand that this was exactly what aversion therapy involved. For him it had been enclosed spaces, legacy, the psychiatrists had decided, of the rockfall he'd barely escaped on Mars - but the principle was no different. And it had worked.
"Better?" he asked again.
"Do you want to talk to the doc? Drugs?"
There was a weak chuckle. "I don't want any drugs ever again."
Jason lowered his voice, not sure to what extent Don still had any enhancement to his hearing, just far enough that he didn't think the man at the door would make it out. "See, the doc's right here, making sure I'm not dragging you off or anything. If you want to talk in private, you're going to have to tell him you're okay."
"Doc?" Don raised his voice, though his head was still down.
"Yes, Don. You've done very well. Do you need to come back inside now?"
"I need a few minutes with Jason, in private. I'll come back in when I'm ready." The voice was as steady as it had been at any point, though the hands were still clenched white.
"That's fine, Don. If you need help, just shout."
"I will do."
Winslow turned and left, apparently satisfied, though Jason would have laid money that he was hovering just inside the door. No matter, he was out of sight, and well out of earshot for normal speech.
"So, what did you want to tell me?"
"That I'm sorry."
Jason just stopped himself from laughing. "You could have said that inside."
"That you were a better commander than me. That it was my fault I was caught. That I'm sorry I cost you your command."
"You didn't." Jason squeezed the shoulder he held. "We weren't trained for combat. I've gone over it so many times, and there's nothing you could have done short of taking out the guys who captured you yourself. Why the hell would you have expected to be attacked? There are some things you don't take precautions against, and back then Spectra was one of them."
"You lost your command because I got caught."
"I lost my command because I had PTSD so bad I couldn't fire a jump-drive for four years."
"You're kidding me."
"Not kidding. Stress does different things to different people. I couldn't get near the implant functions." Mentioning the claustrophobia seemed cruel.
"And they took your command away."
"Old history. I was a bloody awful mess in other ways too, Don. They did the right thing. And now I have it back."
"They promoted you over the Peacock?"
Jason took a breath to answer, caught it awkwardly as he realised just what Don had said, and spluttered helplessly as the twin urges to cough and laugh fought with one another. "Oh, man. I can't believe you called him that."
"Nah. It was funny. No - he's gone. Solo assignment." Or that's what was being said, in any case. Rumoured more than just a little, put about quietly and consistently and deliberately. So far, Spectra hadn't claimed to have killed or captured the Eagle, presumably because they hadn't realised he was missing. Jason knew full well that the press release was ready and waiting for when they did, that the new G-Force would be paraded in front of the world's media. That they were planning one of their very rare press conferences. Him as the new commander of G-Force, and the Kite as the new member, with their best manners and neutral accents on show. He'd have preferred going hand-to-hand with Zoltar.
"I'm glad you came." Don's voice shook. "The last person I talked to as a friend was - well, it was probably you. On the Phoenix, before we landed on Mars. Just Spectrans and interrogators and doctors, since then."
"Crap." If that had been intended to make him feel guilty, it had worked. "I'll try to come again. Maybe the others."
"I know you're busy." There was a trace of humour in the tone. "I'd like that, though. See Kate and Tony again."
Jason grinned, even though the other hadn't opened his eyes since they'd come outside. "Best go back to calling them Princess and Tiny. Everyone else does."
"My legacy. I never thought it would be that."
Jason snorted. "Your legacy right now is that we're not facing transmuting Blackbirds who know exactly who I am. For which I thank you. Now, you want to take a look before we go back inside?"
There was a sharp intake of breath, and Jason tightened his grip on the other's shoulder again. "Or we can just go."
"No." Don reached blindly for a hand, and Jason gave it to him, as his head raised off his knees and his eyes opened a crack - and then closed tight, watering in a brightness he hadn't seen in who knew how long. It was bright sunlight out here. Had Don been outside at all since his capture on Mars? Apart from being frogmarched on board the Phoenix, quite possibly not.
"Take your time," he suggested.
"Okay. Just too much light." He blinked a couple more times, screwing his eyes up without ever opening them, and then hesitantly opened them again a fraction, this time shading his face with his other hand. Just for a couple of seconds. "Urgh. Man. Now that'll do."
"No miracle cure, let's put it that way." The desperate waver was back in his voice, and Jason turned back towards the doorway, raising his voice.
"Doc? You there?"
"I'm here." The older man was at his side in a few seconds. "Well done, Don. Let's get you back inside now. Can you stand up?"
Jason didn't wait to see, or for him to try and fail, instead providing an irresistible upward force and turning it into forward motion the moment Don was on his feet. He knew what Don wanted - to curl in a safe corner and shake with reaction, all pressure off. He needed to be back in his room right now.
Once there, Don crumpled onto the bed, curled into a tight ball and trembled, breath coming in ragged gasps. The eyes didn't open again, and Jason started to worry. Had he pushed too hard? Got his five minutes of near-normality at the price of Don's fragile recovery?
"Take it easy, son," the doctor said to Don, a comforting hand on his back. "You did great. Just let it happen. You'll feel better in a few minutes."
He half turned to Jason, still staying in physical contact with his patient. "And you can come again. I didn't think he was ready to do that yet, and I'd have stopped you if you'd forced him. He did that for himself. He just needs to settle down now and get the adrenaline out of his system."
"Yeah, Don. You did great. Catch you soon." Jason knew a dismissal when he heard one, and that the doctor was right. He left the building, his face set, and strode across the grass back towards the ISO main buildings. He'd be back, soon, and with the news that G-Force had crushed the Spectran attempt to retake Mars. That, he was quite sure, would be better therapy than anything the psychiatrists could provide.
"Confirm? Confirm?" Furious, Jason would have been on his feet if Tiny hadn't held him down by the back of his belt. "You told me there was no other way to get the information."
"One unreliable source. We needed more than that."
"I went over there and grilled someone who's a complete mental mess, because you wanted a second opinion."
Grant stared at him, the expression in his ice blue eyes never changing. "Do you have a problem with that, Commander?"
He could hardly demand not to be asked to do it again, since he hadn't been asked to do it in the first place. Jason settled for a killer glare and a snarl of "No." Or what passed for a snarl in his voice. He'd long since given up on trying to sound impressive. Dammit, but Mark wouldn't have stood for this. Wouldn't have lost his temper either. And there was Rick, sitting opposite, eagerness personified, watching how he handled this. Man, command sucked.
"So, do we have a mission, or are all these plans theoretical?" Beside him, Princess sat forward. "It seems to me that the Olympus Mons base is the only one that matters. Without it, these little ones won't be viable. And with what we've discussed, we should be able to take it out."
Anderson smiled at her. "We think you are right. We're not worrying about the others at the moment. But the amount of activity in the larger one is concerning, especially since the latest report suggests they are actively building mecha."
"Let's go splat it!" Keyop exclaimed, and Anderson smiled again.
"Indeed. Jason, is your team ready for this mission?"
Jason glanced at Rick, eager, willing and enthusiastic, eyes shining with the expectation of finally getting to go off-planet. And, despite his misgivings, he couldn't say no. There would be no reason for them to do anything other than infiltrate with four people and leave one on the Phoenix. Rick wouldn't go outside the ship, and nobody would think that was in any way strange.
"We're as ready as we're going to get any time soon."
"Then you have a go. Good luck, G-Force!"
Jason caught himself looking round for Mark's cue, and had to swallow before he jumped to his feet, eyes fixed on the opposite wall. Mark had never looked to see if anyone was following his lead, and he wasn't going to either.
He was much more comfortable once in the Phoenix itself. Mark had frequently not been there at launch, as it was so much easier for him to dock the G-1 in flight. That was one bullet they'd dodged so far - Rick never had lived off-base, and at the moment he had so much training to do that he didn't have time to even consider it. Thank goodness. The G-1 lived safely in the tail of the Phoenix, and Rick trained almost exclusively on the simulator.
This wasn't a fast response launch. Jason took his time over the checks, and he was fairly sure Princess and Tiny did too. Keyop couldn't wait to spit out "G-3", though, and Rick seemed to take forever to finish. Doing the same checks, Mark had invariably finished first.
Mark was gone, and Jason had growled at the rest of the team enough times that they had to forget him. It was time to follow his own advice.
"Control, we're ready to go."
"Good luck, G-1," Anderson said, and the bay doors cracked open for the water to begin pouring in. With nobody watching him, Jason permitted himself a smile. He was still only acting commander, his promotion not confirmed. And it hadn't escaped his notice as to what the senior staff called him. Since Mark had left, he'd had a whole lot of 'Condor', the occasional 'Commander' when someone wanted to remind him of his new responsibilities. 'G-1' was something nobody had been using. And dammit, it sounded good.
An uneventful launch. Straight into transit - they'd just barely got Rick to the point where they, and he, trusted his quick glance at the instruments and gut feeling that all was as it should be. When they'd first run a launch-and-onward simulation, Rick's face had been priceless. He'd never voiced 'it's reckless not doing the checks properly', but man, had his expression said it. This time there was no hesitation, nothing apart from the fact that he still took longer than anyone else to respond.
"Five minutes to jump," Tiny said shortly, and Jason sat forward and began to fire up all the technology which existed for this one sole purpose. Fragile, hyper-sensitive sensors which would fry instantly if turned on anywhere but deep space. A computer which, Rick was quite right, was outdated. But it worked. He trusted it. It wasn't broken, and he didn't want it fixed, thank you very much. And then there was the giant jump-engine itself, half the back end of the Phoenix. Coming to life, a deep glow in his awareness, halfway between mind and implant. Raw power at his command.
He glanced at the readouts, just to confirm what he already knew, bone-deep. The drive was ready, and the sensors had settled down nicely. Next stop, Mars.
"Data dump, G-2," he said, glancing to his right. Princess nodded and got on with her job, and Jason turned his full attention to the figures on his screen.
This had been his first jump, now almost five years ago. How ironic that it should also be his first jump now he was back in command of G-Force. It wasn't going to be as fast as the original one, that was for sure. Mars wasn't at opposition this time, and the numbers weren't very nice. But it was only Mars. Hardly a long way, for them.
"Ready," Princess told him, and he took a deep breath and relaxed into his connection with the jump-drive. This was what the implant gave him, what he'd missed for all that time: the sensation of raw power just waiting for instruction. All he had to do was look at the equations, see the solutions in the way that nobody else could, set up the drive at the speed of thought, and then pull the control lever all the way back and wait for the drive to redline and take them to the flaming hell that was jumpspace.
Five years of sitting behind Mark, observing someone else in the jump-pilot's role, and Jason knew exactly what a good jump felt like. This one was okay, no more than that. He could do better. For now, he'd sit and endure.
Princess had always said that jump drained her. He found that it burnt, only his eyes and experience telling him that the sensation of searing flesh from bone was an illusion. He wasn't sure what Rick had felt, the one and only time he'd been on a jump-flight, back when he'd been still a trainee. Wasn't even sure he'd been asked, now that he thought about it. Thirty seconds into the jump was a bit late.
Should he have asked? Said something encouraging, to someone making his first jump with the team? Probably not. Mollycoddling couldn't be the answer. Rick had to stand on his own two feet.
Red light faded, bleaching out to the normal diffuse fluorescent of the cockpit, and Jason forced himself to breathe out all the way, and then in, slowly. Beside him, Princess was doing exactly the same thing. Jason noted with amusement that Keyop had not only stayed in his own seat throughout the jump, he'd foregone his usual complaints afterwards. Maybe having Rick on board would be good for something after all.
Up front, Rick's helmet was visible and moving, so their new co-pilot hadn't passed out in jump. That was also good. And Tiny was already getting them under way towards the big red planet filling the viewscreen.
Man, this was horribly familiar. Only this time, they knew that the only people down on the planet were hostile aliens. The only bases were Spectran. That the one human colony had been destroyed without warning, five years earlier.
"No ships," Keyop reported from the radar station.
"None that I can see," Rick said.
"Keyop, check that. Princess, any activity on the radio?"
"Bit of chatter, mostly automated, mostly down south. Nothing to indicate they've seen us. Not as much as I'd expected."
"Work with Tiny, find us the least observable path down." Jason pulled up the best approximation they had to the Spectran base schematics and glared at it, thinking hard. This whole raid was based on the belief that there was a connection between the old emergency tunnels of Mars dome and the Spectran base in the foothills of Mount Olympus. Don had been unequivocal that there had to be, that even tasered and mostly stunned he would have been aware of being taken out on the surface. And the ground radar scan done by a lone Galactic Patrol volunteer did seem to confirm it. But whether it was accessible from the surface, after the sheer devastation wreaked on the dome and its surroundings by the first Spectran mecha he'd ever destroyed, was another matter. There had been an emergency shaft on the base's plans, coming up outside the dome itself, and that was his first, and best, hope. It wasn't exactly large diameter, though. It was just as well that Tiny had lost all that weight.
"Course laid in," Tiny told him. "Shall I --"
"Take us down."
Half way down, he'd started to wonder if he should have put some parameters on 'least observable'. He wasn't at all enjoying this roller-coaster descent through the thin, windy Martian atmosphere. Tiny seemed confident, though, and a glance sideways showed him that Princess was still monitoring radio traffic.
"Clear?" he asked through gritted teeth.
"They've no idea we're here."
"Great." He clamped his jaw shut as Tiny pulled the Phoenix into what felt like a seven-twenty turn and Immelmann combined. They were below twenty thousand feet now, deep into the lower atmosphere, only minutes from landing.
"Where do you want her parked?" Tiny asked, half-turning as the Phoenix steadied back onto a more even descent. "Tight to the cliffside?"
Jason telegraphed a glance at the right-hand seat, glad that Rick wasn't looking. "Out a bit. I'm not sure where the access will be." Come on, Tiny. We both know the access is on the clifftop. I want you to leave Rick with an easy takeoff, just in case.
"Understood." Tiny went back to his piloting, and Jason sat back, trying to superimpose in his mind the plans of the dome and the location of the shaft he hoped they could enter by with the old pictures Anderson had produced. Pictures taken of the construction stages, and the completed structure. He was doing his utmost to forget that most of those pictures had people in them. Scientists and technicians, posing for the camera in front of the dome they'd helped build. Some had come home, bringing their pictures with them. The rest had died there. And then there was the third image, the one which existed only in his memory. That same dome, the first time he'd seen it for real, with a shattered hole near the top. The moment all his dreams of a life exploring the stars had died.
"That is one big mountain," Rick commented as they skirted just north of Mount Olympus, close enough now to see individual boulders, and well below the height of the summit. Jason had to agree, it was impressive.
"Obviously," Keyop snorted.
Rick didn't respond, and Jason breathed an inward sigh of relief. It was well past time Rick stopped rising to the kid. At least he was behaving more professionally now they were out on a mission.
There was a sharp intake of breath from Princess as they came over the last rise, and Jason found his attention firmly fixed on his own data screen. Oh, to turn the clock back. To look up and see Don sitting in the co-pilot's chair. An intact dome. No Spectran threat. For this to be a training mission, delivering supplies to humanity's furthest outpost. To know they were going back to Earth afterwards to public acclaim, in their own names. To a career exploring the galaxy, not fighting to save it.
He looked up, and the cliff ahead bore the unmistakeable scar of an explosion. Fragments of the dome's plexiglass reflected the setting sun's rays. The twisted remains of a much smaller ship than the Phoenix littered the flat area below the cliff, and abruptly a large green 'X' appeared superposed on the viewscreen image, below the cliff, a way out from it in the flat area initially cleared by the dome staff for use as a runway.
"That do you?" Tiny asked.
It didn't escape his notice that Tiny circled round before dropping down to land neatly in the centre of the area he'd indicated. Leaving the Phoenix nose to wind, in case Rick should have to move it. Tiny was thinking even more defensively than he was.
The landing was whisper-light, as usual, and as the engine note died away Jason took a deep breath and stood up. His first off-world mission in command. First mission that could be called a mission, really. He didn't count escort duty, or indeed patrol. This one was for real, decisions that mattered his to make. His to succeed or fail.
"Rick, you're staying here. The rest of us - masks and tanks. And make sure they're full - it's a long way to the base and back. Keyop, I want your best guess for the top of that shaft. Princess, I take it we're quiet on the radio front?"
"Reception's poor down here. But there was nothing as we came in."
"Good. Make sure Rick knows what to monitor. Tiny --"
"I know what to do," Rick put in.
Jason turned deliberately back to him. "You're not a radio expert. Listen to her, and pay attention. Martian rock eats our comm signals. Once we go down that hole you're on your own. Tiny, you and I will take a look around."
"After last time, I thought I'd never get the chance to walk on Mars," Tiny commented as they left the Phoenix by the underneath hatch, unwilling to try the combination of thin atmosphere and relatively high gravity. "Strange. All those other planets, and Mars feels special."
Jason shrugged and adjusted a tank strap. "Just another Spectran base to blow up." A very personal one, this, but he wasn't letting on.
Tiny looked sideways at him - Jason still wasn't used to seeing him in the new visor, what Anderson had called a 'hybrid raptor'. "This one isn't different for you?"
"We need these darn masks. Apart from that - no." A lie, but Tiny seemed to accept it. He kicked at a fractured shard of dome, cloudy with explosion damage. "I don't see any signs they've been back."
"How long would footprints last here, with the dust storms they get?"
"Not long. Vehicle tracks, though, we'd see the lines where the stones had moved. I don't see any." He indicated the cliff face, the explosion scar a mass of tumbled rocks. "They've not dug out the tunnels."
"Or hauled away Skylark for scrap." Tiny pointed at the remnants of Earth's first jumpship, and shuddered. "Do you think they just left the bodies?"
"Not much left, after the explosion." Not out here, at any rate. But Don had said there were bodies in the room where he was captured, and Jason didn't like to think what state they would be in. He cast one final glance out to the horizon, trying to convince himself that he wasn't missing something here. If he was, it was determined to stay missed.
He brought the bracelet up to his mouth instinctively, then remembered and turned the movement into a prod at his mask, activating the longer range communicator. "Nobody's been here since us. G-2, G-3, you ready to join us?"
Princess and Keyop were out shortly, Keyop with the front face of his bracelet open in scanner mode.
"Where?" Jason asked him.
"Up there." He indicated the top of the cliff, pretty much where Jason's memory suggested it ought to be.
"Who's for a climb?" Princess headed for the rocks at the foot of what looked like a promising route.
Tiny groaned. "I finally get to leave the Phoenix and it's on a planet where the air's so thin I can't even use the damn wings."
"You'll live. And it's hardly the first time you've been off the ship." Jason strode after his second, eyeing up the available handholds. There were plenty, and it was only fifty or so feet high. Not a problem for any of them.
As he saw Tiny disappear out of sight over the top of the cliff, Rick sagged back into his chair, finally able to stop projecting a relaxed calm he didn't feel. His first interplanetary mission as part of G-Force. Sure, he wasn't involved directly in the base bust. Not this time. But he was here. Part of the team. Now, maybe, he could take a proper part in the conversations. Laugh with Keyop and Tiny, instead of always being the one laughed at. Not have every suggestion he made dismissed with 'nice idea, but it won't work in practice.' He might be eighty-odd missions behind them in experience, but he wasn't on zero, not any more. Three, and this one an interplanetary one.
He reached over to transfer control across to his co-pilot's station, and then paused. He was the pilot right now, heck, he was in command of the Phoenix right now. The carefully positioned Phoenix, nose to wind, a nice safe distance from the cliffs. He was desperately tempted to lift her, just ten feet on the vertical jets, and shift her sideways and backwards into a more protected location, less visible and out of the wind close into the rocks. Tempted, but not going to. Jason would have his head, and rightly so. What he needed wasn't active mutiny, it was to keep his nose clean, show himself to be utterly reliable, earn his commander's trust. He could do that, even if it took him another six months. But there was no reason why, right now, he couldn't keep watch from the pilot's seat.
"Phoenix," the radio crackled, and he reached for the button to respond.
"Phoenix here, go ahead."
"We've located the shaft and we're going in. Keep her warm and ready to fly."
"No. If they show, keep things sealed up tight. Run if you have to."
In other words, do nothing useful. Rick simply said, "Yes, Commander," and waited for further instructions.
"G-1 out." And the line went dead.
Rick sat and seethed. I'm useless. Everything I do, he has someone check. I'm nothing more than a glorified autopilot.
I can put this right. I'm good at what I do, I'm just new on the team. It will get better. Rick got up and fetched the protocols manual from underneath his own console. Jason might not want him in the field yet, but when he got his chance, the Kite was going to be so well-prepared the Condor would wish he'd used him a whole lot sooner.
"You're not serious!" Tiny exclaimed, looking down at the opening they'd just uncovered. "That's rabbit hole-sized."
"It's an inch wider than you are with tanks on." Jason raised his eyebrows, then felt the pressure of the mask and remembered that Tiny couldn't possibly see his expression. "Forty feet down to an airlock chamber. Or you can go back and babysit the Kite."
Tiny swallowed, visible even through the mask. "An inch, you say."
"More, if you've carried on losing weight since your last medical."
"Okay, I'm in. What's at the bottom?"
"There's a dogleg half way down, which is what we can see. The plans are a little sketchy below that. Which is why Keyop's going first, with my cablegun."
The Swallow was there, hand out for the weapon as if he feared Jason might change his mind at any moment.
"Hand above your head," Jason told him, handing it over. "If you stick at all, fire it straight up, don't wait. You know how to reel yourself out?"
"Yes." Keyop stepped to the edge of the hole, folded his left arm across his chest, raised the right one with the cablegun straight up, and jumped in, perfectly straight-legged, as if he was plunging into a swimming pool.
"Hatch here," he said shortly. "Opens from the inside."
"Can you get in? Non-destructively?"
"Hold on..." There was a grunt, and then a squeak of triumph. "In. You can come down now."
"Me next." Tiny stepped forward, jaw set and his own gun out.
"Are you sure about this?" Princess asked him. "I'll go next, if you like."
That definitely sounded like a nervous chuckle. "If I'm gonna get stuck, I want you two up here to pull me out. Sure of your dimensions, Condor?"
"Then - here goes nothing!" He pulled his shoulders in, one arm crossed and the one with the gun raised in a fair impression of Keyop, and stepped forward into the hole. Jason had the strong impression that, had he been able to see them, Tiny's eyes would have been clamped shut.
"I'm in," he reported a couple of minutes later. "Man, that was tight. Not looking forward to getting out."
Jason didn't bother to comment that the alternative would be staying down there. Instead he indicated for Princess to take her turn. As she dropped neatly into the hole he called Rick again.
"As the grave. Anything you want me to do?"
"Sit tight. We're going in now, we may be a while. Don't expect comms to work, not through Martian rock."
Since Tiny had fit, he should have no problem. Even now, after all this time, Jason still disliked the idea of dropping into a hole little more than a foot across more than he'd ever have admitted. He took a last look round, putting off the moment for as long as possible. Red rocks, red dust, a few weather-worn fittings remaining from the dome adding some silver to the monochrome landscape. Over to the northwest, the thin atmosphere making it look far closer than he knew it to be, Mount Olympus. Like Rick had said, that was one big mountain. The Phoenix was just to the south, but he couldn't see it over the lip of the cliff. Beyond, he thought he could see the edge of the deep canyons, the Valles Marineris, a similar distance to Olympus. Right now, he'd rather have walked there and back than jumped into the hole at his feet.
Claustrophobia. Something he hadn't worried about in years. Had only ever had problems with right after they'd lost Don, in the grip of PTSD which, back then, he hadn't learnt how to control. Getting rid of the stress of command had been enough that it hadn't been a problem since. Right now that wasn't an option. He had to be able to do this. And, much as he hated to admit it, he knew how, because Samuels had insisted that he learn the techniques no matter how stupid he thought they were. Relaxation, mostly. Visualisation. And reminding himself that tunnels didn't shrink, and if Tiny fitted, he'd have no problems at all.
The worry receded back behind his control. He took a deep breath, relaxed as much as he could, and dropped into the shaft.
The plughole sensation was less than fun. The bend in the shaft, downright unpleasant. But the shaft was clear and smooth, and in short order he was standing at the bottom, a circular hatch open at waist height to his right, and the rest of the team standing inside it waiting for him.
"Now what?" Tiny asked, as Jason clambered through to join them in a tiny space, barely six feet across and not much higher.
"If the tunnels are depressurised, we just open the door. Otherwise we have to seal the hatch up first."
"How do we know which?"
Keyop spluttered, and Jason favoured both him and the pilot with a withering look, doubtless wasted on the inside of his visor. "Door opens outwards. If it's pressurised on the other side, it won't shift. Keyop, do the honours."
The young man wrapped both hands round the handle and jiggled it experimentally. "Stiff."
"The mechanism, or the door?"
"Mechanism." He reached into the pouch at his belt and pulled out a minute oil spray. A few seconds' work, and he pushed the handle down fully and leant casually against the door. "There."
It would have been more impressive had the door opened more than a couple of inches. Jason smiled to himself, as the Swallow's casual demeanour changed to frantic shoving.
"Stand back, squirt." Tiny put his shoulder to the door, and it ground open over a floor strewn with debris, all the red rock of Mars, everything from dust to football- sized chunks.
He was impressed with the amount of light in here. Their briefing had suggested that it would be pitch dark, and he'd been prepared to be negotiating the tunnels by torchlight. Instead, the emergency lighting still glowed a dull red, plenty enough to see by with implant-enhanced vision.
"Good batteries," Tiny commented, forcing the protesting door open another inch.
"Good solar panels," Princess told them. "They weren't expected to last this long, with all the abrasion from the sandstorms. Maybe I should ask the Kite to fetch one, to take back for analysis?"
Jason shook his head. "We'll snag one on our way back. Gun, Swallow."
Keyop gave it back, regret obvious in every line of his posture. Jason moved past him into the narrow gap which Tiny had created between door and frame and crouched down to take a closer look at the floor. Nothing but dust and rocks. No footprints, no tracks. No sign that anything had been brushed out, or any attempt to clean up. Nothing had moved in here since the dust had settled out of the air after the Spectrans had blasted their way in. Jason was horribly relieved. Ever since they'd found Don still alive, he'd been fighting the little voice which said that he'd not checked the whole of the tunnel complex. That others might have hidden from Spectra, survived - and been left behind.
That it hadn't happened like that didn't make them any less dead. It just meant that nothing he'd done could have saved them.
He stepped out fully into the passageway and glanced around. They'd been lucky. The roof collapse which had separated him from Don was barely two feet away to his right. And his snap judgement of five years earlier had been correct. He'd never have been able to get through.
The cause of the collapse was all too clear now. Almost immediately opposite him was a ragged hole in the tunnel wall, gaping black. This should be their access to the Spectran base. Now he just hoped that there was some form of transportation down there. If they had to walk the estimated twenty miles, they would, but he didn't much fancy it.
"It's clear," he said over his shoulder, habit kicking in even though their short range communicators worked equally well whichever direction they were facing. "Come on."
He vaguely registered Princess dissuading Keyop from investigating the doors to their left, and Tiny struggling to push the door wider so he could squeeze through. He headed straight for the tunnel, stepping over the rim into the darkness and flipping on the headlight on his helmet. Only the last few inches of rock had been blasted through, and once through the opening the tunnel was close to perfectly cylindrical, though barely five feet in diameter. The Spectran methods for cutting tunnels on Mars had been far superior to the human ones, but he sincerely hoped they had a larger bore further on. Jason proceeded down the steep passageway with care, gun out, the beam of his headlight flashing from walls to ceiling to floor as he struggled to move smoothly in a space a foot too short for him to stand up straight.
Fifty feet of that and he came to the end of the steep downward drop, joining in a T onto a much larger thoroughfare which ran away at right angles in both directions to beyond the reach of the torch's beam. Vehicle tracks marked the floor, enough to have worn ruts in the rock, with the occasional oilstain on the floor between.
"What do you think?" he asked Princess as she arrived alongside him, straightening up with a gasp of relief.
"Hard to tell the age of anything in a vacuum - but I'd guess this predated our dome by a while. It's dropping away to the left - that's towards the canyon. Probably to the mines they had down there. I wonder if they planned to make the dome look like an accident, and when we showed up they panicked and blasted through to get their people out?"
"Could be." They'd never know. But it was as good a theory as anything. Certainly this was too much tunnel to be justified by killing twenty-odd humans, when their main attack had been from the air.
His contemplation was broken by a jubilant cry from Keyop. "Look what I've found!"
He'd gone fifty yards or so down the tunnel, and been rewarded with a side cavern, a pile of boxes labelled in Spectran - and a vehicle.
"Why'd they leave this here?" Tiny asked.
Princess pointed to the sign, and Tiny shook his head. "My Spectran doesn't get beyond 'important' and 'emergency'."
"It's an emergency cache. The notice says that you can use anything you need, but to report it on return to base so that it can be replaced. It's a long walk home from here if your vehicle died."
Keyop snorted. "Zoltar wouldn't care."
"He might, if what you were towing was something valuable from the mines. This would be about the halfway point."
"If those mines have reopened, this might still be in use," Tiny said.
"Intelligence says they haven't."
"Let's hope they're right." Tiny shrugged. "They're not exactly perfect."
"If they're wrong, we borrow some uniforms from the first troop we see." Jason joined Keyop at the vehicle. "Okay, G-3, you think we can get this running?"
Twenty minutes later they were trundling steadily, this time in the uphill, basewards direction. Not exactly racetrack speeds, but a steady forty miles per hour or so. Certainly much faster than walking would have been. Not a bad ride, either, with giant solid rubber tyres and an actual suspension system. This hadn't been a throwaway operation. Spectra had wanted these workers to stay happy.
A little over half an hour brought them to the end of the tunnel: a solid steel wall across the whole width of the circular cross-section, a large vehicle-sized door in the centre and, to its right, a person-sized one. Jason swung the vehicle round neatly and left it pointing back the way they'd come.
"Quick getaway?" Tiny asked.
"Exactly." Jason vaulted from his driver's seat, crossed to the door, and listened, helmet hard against the metal door. All quiet. Again, intelligence suggested that this part of the main base wasn't in use - but Jason trusted that less and less as they got closer to the main seat of operations.
"G-3, is there a sensor on this door?"
Keyop joined him, scanner out, moving it with careful precision all round the frame. "Don't think so."
"Still, let's not hang about, once we're in. Owl, you're with me. Swan, Swallow, together. You're taking the upper level. Comms aren't going to work --"
"Know this already," Keyop put in. "G-1, we're ready. Let's do it."
Dammit, but the kid had a point. He didn't need to rehash their briefing. Mark wouldn't have.
"Let's go." Hoping that Keyop was right about the sensors, he pushed the button, and the door swung open towards them. Inside, an airlock more than large enough for the four of them, and the lights were on for the first time since the dull glow in the old dome tunnels. Active enemy territory, from here on.
Keyop was at the far side of the airlock performing the same checks on the door there before he could be asked. Jason moved in, gun out and covering him in case someone should come investigating, and the other two slipped in behind him.
"This one's wired," Keyop said shortly.
"Can you get round it?"
"Yes." The Swallow went to work, and Princess moved past Jason, careful not to impede his line of fire to the door, and angled her head so that her headlight beam illuminated what Keyop was working on.
After what seemed like forever, despite being a whole three minutes twenty seconds, Keyop said, "Done," and stepped back.
He got three yesses, three sets of readied weapons, and only then did he hit the button to cycle the airlock.
After the silence of near-vacuum, the rushing of air was strange, and very welcome. Princess had her bracelet open, and shortly she nodded.
There was a general peeling off of pressure masks and rubbing of faces. When he'd first joined G-Force, Jason hadn't minded wearing them so much - a bit hot and sticky, but nothing more than a minor irritation. Then he'd hit the age where he had to shave, and suddenly they had become itchy torture. Wearing a pressure mask was the one time he was jealous of Keyop's screwed-up metabolism.
Tiny had his ear to the door - or, at least, the side of his helmet pressed against it, which worked just as well. He shrugged at Jason's querying look.
"Machinery running, but that's all."
"Okay, let's go. Set the fuses with a two hour delay from now. Remember, our comms won't go through this rock. You won't be able to contact us if something goes wrong."
"We know." Keyop was at the door, hand over the button and bouncing with impatience, and, reluctantly, Jason let go.
"Good luck, team. You two go first."
Princess smiled at him, eased the door open, peered out, and then she and Keyop were away to the right, beyond his narrow field of vision. He stepped out after them, waited for Tiny to follow, and then silently closed the door behind them. This was it. Two hours, to mine this place to destruction and get out again. He knew he could do it. He had to trust that someone else was equally competent at some point. He knew it already, intellectually. Now he had to trust it. Had to trust that Princess and Keyop could do what he'd ordered without him watching their every move. If he couldn't, then he couldn't command them. It was that simple, when it came down to it. And the answer was equally simple. He did trust them.
The cavern he found himself in matched the description Intelligence had given, which was a good start. It could have held a fair number of people, or smaller vehicles. Not a mecha - that cavern was on a higher level, and was Princess and Keyop's target. For now, this one was nearly empty. The machinery Tiny had heard was over against the far wall, and sounded like ventilation pumps. Jason took a moment to get his bearings and be sure he could identify this door in a hurry if he had to. 'Airlock Three' was written above it in Spectran, in the sort of paint he knew would glow for days if the lights went out. So far, so good.
"Fresh paint," Tiny said, smearing his finger through a drip on the floor. "We should take a sample back. Our luminous stuff's not half as bright as theirs."
"On our way out." Jason completed his visual inspection of the cavern, and headed for the machinery. Their instructions today were simple: trash the base so badly it was unusable. Taking out the air system would be a good start.
They tucked three charges out of sight and as near as possible to the pump itself, before heading off to the northwest corner of the cavern. Intelligence had told them where the tunnel led and how big the spaces down here were. Don's shakily drawn plan said that this particular corner held a staircase down to the lower, inhabited levels.
Once down the stairs, they were into an area far more obviously occupied. These walls were smooth and white, grey floors discoloured by a long history of footprints. There was a faint undercurrent of sound, far too distant for even implant-enhanced hearing to pick out voices, but there were people here.
"Do we split up?" Tiny asked.
"No," Jason replied reflexively. "Stay together. Now, hush."
He led the way down the corridor towards what Don had said were the research labs, and pushed open an unlocked door. The lights came up, and he gritted his teeth.
This was exactly as Don had described it. Right down to the locations of the benches and fittings. Very modern, much of the equipment either of Earth origin or a close copy. Don had never worked here, but they'd tempted him with it. And he'd been tempted, of that there was no question. But he'd sworn that he'd never worked here. Looking at the equipment, Jason was inclined to believe him. The benches appeared unused. No chemical stains. No signs that it had been repeatedly scrubbed clean. No burn marks.
"This is brand new," Tiny said.
"It's dusty." Jason ran a finger over the benches. Not much - without people or airflow, you didn't get dust - but there was a white trace on his dark gloves, paint fragments from the walls and ceiling. "It's from before. We still trash it." The lab Don had been forced to work in was out of reach on Spectra - but destroying this one would be a small measure of revenge.
Tiny was at the lockers at the rear of the room. "Plenty of chemicals. This ought to go bang with style."
"Good." He left Tiny to mine his cupboards, setting a couple of charges of his own on the high-voltage power supply. "Let's move."
Tiny moved smoothly after him - he was now one hell of a lot better at this than he'd ever been before. Jason had had one brief moment of wondering, when he'd seen the shaft entrance, whether he should have sent him back - while very much slimmer than he had been, Tiny was still a big man in all directions. Now he was very glad he'd stuck with the original plan. Tiny was a competent field operative these days, Rick simply wasn't, and doing this with three of them would have been a pain, if mostly because it would have reduced the number of explosive charges they could have carried.
They both heard the approaching patrol at the same time, not a large group, but four people was enough that taking them down probably wouldn't be silent. Jason indicated that they should hide, and Tiny backed hastily into the nearest doorway and sighed audibly with relief when the door opened onto a hiding place plenty large enough for the two of them.
"Trust you to find the food stores," Jason said as the sound of footsteps retreated.
"Natural ability...Jase, why does a Spectran base have human food supplies?"
"We're not that different."
"No, real human ones. I've heard Princess talk about Cadbury's chocolate. I think all these are European brands."
"So Spectrans share Princess's taste in chocolate. So what?" Jason opened the door a crack, listening for more footsteps.
"Shouldn't we at least set charges here?"
"What...Yeah. Go on." Very Tiny, blowing up the food stores, but not the worst idea he'd ever had. Should they fail in destroying the base itself, at least those left here would have nothing to eat. At the very least, destroying their treats should piss them off very effectively. If they liked this stuff enough to import it from Earth, make the effort to get it past the early warning system...
"Tiny, take some pictures."
"Maker's names. Batch numbers. If this was bought legitimately..."
"Gotcha." Tiny was silent for a few seconds. "Maybe we should take some samples."
Jason swung round in exasperation. "You're hungry? Tiny, this is serious."
"I'm thinking maybe they didn't get it from Earth, they plan on putting it there. Mind control drugs. Some killer virus. Everyone who eats it thinks they're a gorilla."
Jason rolled his eyes. "Man, am I glad you're not in charge of Spectran strategy. Yeah, do it. And hurry!"
"I'm done." Tiny joined him at the door, slipping a few packets into his belt pouch. "Just as well Keyop's not here. We'd never get him out."
"Where is everybody?" Tiny asked a couple of corridors later.
Jason had been wondering the same thing himself, but he still shrugged. "Feel-good meeting in the main hangar? Team-building expedition to climb Mount Olympus?"
"Lining up a sneak attack on the Phoenix? Tearing the Swan to pieces, with the Swallow as the second course?"
Jason took a slow breath. The last thing he wanted was Tiny voicing concerns which he was having problems fighting down himself. This had all been so much easier when he knew there was someone else with an eye on the big picture. Now it was down to him, and he hadn't a clue what was going on.
"Our comms are out. Theirs aren't. If the others had been spotted there'd be alarms."
"And if it's the Phoenix?"
"Better hope Rick's as good as he thinks he is."
Tiny groaned. "I'll try not to think about it. Where next?"
"Next corridor's accommodation, if Don was right."
"And he's been right so far. You want to find them?"
"Timetable or something. My Spectran's up to that. Yours needs to be, too, if you're to be doing infiltrations."
Tiny subsided, and Jason led the way down the corridor, taking the first turning on the right. Don had told them he'd been offered a room down here. Told he could lose the guards and the cell, in return for his unconditional cooperation. He'd sworn that he'd refused it and been taken back to the cell. That had all been in the paperwork from his original interrogation. Jason weighed that against the near-scale drawing Don had made of this part of the base, and told himself that the Hawk's photographic memory had been nearly as good as his own. That there was nothing untoward in just how well Don had remembered a part of the base he said he'd only been in once.
The first three rooms had audibly sleeping occupants, and Jason passed them by. The next was silent. Jason tried the door handle, moving it a fraction at a time and ready to stop at the slightest sound. It was unlocked, and he eased the door open, squinting through the crack, visor set to show him the body heat of any occupant. There wasn't one, and he beckoned Tiny inside and closed the door behind him before switching on the light.
Tiny's gasp was loud enough that Jason's hand came up in a demand for silence even as he processed his own reaction.
"Do you want to wake his friends up?"
"This is why they have human food." Tiny had moderated his voice to the near-silent murmur audible only to enhanced hearing, but his shock was still obvious. "It's humans they're training. Not Spectrans at all. And how the hell are they getting them here without triggering the early warning system? This is a lot more involved than that goon recruitment op we busted."
"Yeah." Jason picked the photo frame up from the desk. There were four separate pictures in there. A family, arms around each others' shoulders, smiling, with the White House in the background. The boy from the family, a couple of years older, and a pretty girl with her head on his shoulder. A high school graduation photo. And the same man, in the same pose, helmet under his arm. A long-visored, black helmet, and a Blackbird uniform.
"They're human. We need to get them out."
"They've made their choice. We need records. Shut the recruiting down." He turned the frame over, extracted the back, and took the photos. There were letters on the desk, and he took those too.
"Jason, I think we should try to take someone back for interrogation --"
He whirled, furious. "That's Commander, G-4. We are twenty miles from the Phoenix and we don't have time to take prisoners."
Tiny nodded slowly, face pale behind the visor. "Sorry."
"Keep it that way." Jason tucked a charge under the bed, and slid the frame in after it. If the owner came in now, he might not notice that it was missing altogether. A frame with no pictures, now that would be much more obvious. He handed his prizes to Tiny.
"Take these, make your way back to the vehicle. Wait for Princess and Keyop as long as you can, but if they're back and I'm not, at twenty minutes to detonation, leave without me."
"That's an order, G-4."
"I'm not leaving you."
"You'll slow me down." Harsh, but it was true, and Tiny flinched back in silence. "Clear?"
"Go at T minus twenty unless Princess and Keyop aren't back. I'll wait for them until T minus five. What are you going to do?"
Jason scowled. "Go find all the information I can." He couldn't believe he was saying this, not pushing for them to blow the place sky-high and be done with it, but this time it seemed obvious. They needed to know what was going on here, not just put a stop to it. The bigger picture was his responsibility now.
There was forty minutes remaining on their timers as Tiny left, clearly unhappy. That was too bad. He didn't have time for the Owl's sensibilities.
The man asleep in the next room was human too. Jason wasn't surprised, and it made no difference to how he felt. Don had given his sanity to make sure people weren't forced into serving Spectra, and this scumbag was doing it willingly? Jason woke him with an unsympathetic prod of a gun barrel.
"Get up. Spectran scum."
"I'm not --"
"You fight for them. Up. Dress."
Arrogant grey eyes met his. "If you shoot me, everyone will hear. We're Blackbirds. You can't take all of us."
Jason let his face harden into the Condor's ruthless mask. "I've done it before. And it's an airgun. Moron."
The man flinched, and hastily slipped on the Spectran green jumpsuit hanging over the back of the chair. He wasn't very old - his own age, no more. Maybe less. Clear grey eyes, blond crewcut. Tall, strong and fit. Put him in an ISO uniform and he'd have fit in just like that. So - where had they gone wrong? Why was this kid fighting for Spectra, instead of his own planet? Could Tiny be right? Should he be taking someone back for interrogation? Interrogating him here, maybe? He'd have given anything to be able to look over his shoulder and have Mark make the decision.
"Now. Where is everyone?"
The sneer was instant. "Setting up to kick your arse."
Jason snarled. "Nice try, moron. One more like that, and I shoot you now. Where are they?"
"They're all --" The attack wasn't bad. The guy was a Blackbird, or at least a trainee, after all. But he wasn't implanted, and he wasn't G-Force. Jason ducked under the flying scissor kick, caught the man's ankle as it flew past his face, and yanked hard. Blond head hit wall, forehead first, there was a sickening crack, and a motionless body lay at his feet.
"Moron," said Jason to nobody in particular, and froze as there was a bang on the door.
"Hey, Kevin? Watcha doing in there?"
"Uh...nightmare." He did his best to duplicate the accent while still sounding half asleep. Mark would have done it better, but he was fairly sure he could manage two words.
There was a nasty moment when he wondered if he'd been seen through, and then the voice said, "Well, we're trying to sleep too. Keep it down, willya?"
Footsteps receded, and the door opposite closed. Jason waited a couple of minutes and then crept out. Fighting his way out of here wasn't in the plan, unless he had no other option. This was a big, deeply buried base, with no major machinery that he'd found. To take it out they'd need all their charges to go off, and if he was discovered they might wonder what it was he'd been doing, and find enough charges in time to disarm them. That wouldn't do at all. He slipped silently down the corridor and on towards the administrative part of the base, tucking charges out of sight as he went.
Was there a squadron of Blackbirds based here? If so, where were they? All asleep in their quarters? The raid had been planned for late evening local time, so that the Phoenix could come in out of the sun and hopefully stay unnoticed. People shouldn't be asleep yet. Maybe the base wasn't running on local time? That hadn't been in the intelligence - then again, if it was off by only a few hours, they might not have noticed. What if the scout had come over at what should have been the middle of the night local time, and had assumed from the minor activity that this was a busy base at a quiet time? Maybe there was almost nobody around because there was almost nobody here.
Maybe he could find out. Maybe he should have thought of this already. Jason doubled back on himself, cursing silently, and headed back to the accommodation section.
All was silent as he crept back into the room. The corpse lay untouched, neck at a grotesque angle, the trickle of blood from nose and ears just starting to dry. Jason glanced round the room and almost immediately found what he was looking for. Local time was somewhere approaching eleven p.m. The clock on the desk said it was a little after three in the morning. Bingo.
And that was when the bracelet on his wrist pinged its silent warning. Ten minutes until Tiny would leave without him. Jason crept from the accommodation corridor for the second time, and once clear, sprinted for the administration part of the base. Records. Computer disks. Anything that would tell them where and how Spectra were recruiting humans of a high enough calibre to make Blackbird.
Eight minutes left, thirty seconds wasted while a patrol went past, and he was in an admin office which could have been back on Earth. Files, papers, folders - all, doubtless, full of priceless intelligence. And he'd sent Tiny back to the transport with his hands empty apart from a few chocolate bars. Computers, several of them, a server tower flashing its little lights at him from the corner. His computer expert was back on the Phoenix, two other team-mates far more competent than him in this area busy setting charges in the main cavern. What a goddamned mess.
He grabbed a handful of Spectran data crystals on the principle that anything on the desk was recent, and also the data stick lying underneath them. That one was of Earth manufacture - he owned one just like it, though his wasn't green. The box in the top desk drawer was labelled in Spectran, but he was fairly sure it read 'Backup'. He took the contents of that too.
Dammit, but if only he'd known! With better intelligence he could have sent Rick down here with Princess, detailed Keyop and Tiny to take out the sleeping Blackbirds, laid the charges in the top caverns himself. No time for that now. With four minutes left, he had to go, now. Two charges under the server, more under the computer on the desk, and he sprinted for the stairwell they'd come by, hoping that his instinct was correct and that the patrol was nowhere near.
The base remained quiet. Jason left another couple of charges in the stairwell, went up the stairs four at a time and hit the main cavern with a minute and a half to spare, realising only now that he'd failed to allow time for the airlock to cycle. Stupid mistake, one Mark would never have made. He did not fancy a twenty mile hike back to the Phoenix. God, but he'd made such a mess of this, and they hadn't even encountered any resistance!
He hit the airlock door with thirty seconds to spare, knowing it would take at least a minute to cycle, and was relieved to find Keyop there, fully alert and obviously waiting for him.
"I thought I said to wait at the vehicle," he panted.
"Thought you might need cover."
"There's almost nobody here." Jason struggled to get his breath back, holding off on starting the airlock cycling. Being out of breath in a pressure mask was horrible. "Damn the lack of comms! There's a whole unguarded computer system down there, and no time to get the data!"
"I'll go back."
Jason shook his head. "I've got what I could. Masks."
He hit the button before the Swallow could argue, and slid the hated mask into position. Just for an hour more, he told himself. Then you'll be off this planet, and you won't ever have to come back.
Princess climbed into the back seat as they emerged. Tiny was already in the driver's seat with the engine ticking over, but shifted over as Jason approached. "Success?"
"Complete bloody mess," he said shortly, releasing the brake and heading back off down the tunnel. "How long until the timers go off?"
"Twelve minutes," Princess replied.
"Could have gone back," Keyop grumbled.
Jason half looked round, just far enough to let the young engineer in the back seat see how annoyed he was. "You think this vehicle can outrun a fireball down the tunnel, G-3?"
"No, Commander." Keyop subsided, and Jason settled to getting the best speed he could out of a vehicle designed for low speed heavy load-hauling. He didn't think there would be sufficient explosive force to affect them several miles down the tunnel, but the way his luck was going today, he wasn't about to risk it.
"Comms any better yet?"
"No," Princess told him. "I'll keep checking."
Five minutes and nearly four miles later - they were making much better time downhill - she suddenly squeaked. "Clear patch! Condor --"
Jason was already braking to a hard stop. "Still?"
"I've got a voice channel to the Phoenix."
"Tell the Kite we're on our way back."
She did so, reporting shortly, "The Kite says it's all quiet up there."
"Good." He wanted out, and off this abominable planet, as soon as possible. And, more than anything and sadly unattainable, he wanted to talk to Mark. He'd led missions before, but now he knew he'd be leading the next, and the next, and the next, and his decision-making, his tactics, were all they had. Why the hell couldn't Mark have stayed, or at least come back having made his point? Right now Jason would have killed to know his friend would be there when they got back to Earth. He wanted desperately to discuss what he'd done right and the million things he'd done wrong, and so help him, neither Grant nor Anderson was who he wanted to talk to.
"Charges should be --" Princess said as he got them moving again, and at that moment there was a dull, vibrational thud which seemed to pick up the whole vehicle and bounce it on the tunnel floor. And his bracelet pinged.
"Get that, G-2," he ordered, concentrating on getting the vehicle back up to its top speed. Rock transmitted shockwaves much better than the near-vacuum of the tunnel would. There could well be a fireball speeding up the tunnel towards them.
"Phoenix reports massive fireball to the northwest," Princess told him. "Then the comms went out again."
"Fireball? Excellent." That would imply the cavern roof had gone. Which should put a nice crimp in the Spectran plans for that particular base - and also mean that the explosive force had gone upwards, instead of being forced through the tunnel towards them. He still didn't throttle back, though.
He might well have missed the side passage they needed if Keyop hadn't squeaked. Jason braked smoothly, hopefully giving the impression that he'd intended all along to stop outside the cavern where they'd found the vehicle. Which, come to think of it, wasn't a bad plan. He saw no reason to leave anything useful here either.
"How deep underground are we? Can we bring the roof down?"
Princess shook her head. "I don't think so. Close to a hundred feet of solid rock. We could trash the ceiling, but I don't see the point, since we don't have the explosives to get to the surface. They'd dig it out in no time, if they wanted to, with their machinery."
"We won't bother, then. Just destroy the equipment. What is this stuff?"
"Old, and Spectran." Princess glanced around, torchlight flashing off the crate labels. "Oxygen. Masks. Clothing. Emergency rations. Tools."
"Set charges for two hours, and on the vehicle. G-4, what the heck is that?" He pointed to a bucket which Tiny was extracting from behind the driver's seat.
"Luminous paint." He angled the bucket in Jason's direction, narrowly avoiding pouring the contents over his own feet. "There it was just sitting looking at me, and I figured some chemist somewhere might be interested."
Under his mask, Jason felt the start of a slow smile. A harmless, but useful, Spectran chemical to be analysed, nothing urgent. "I think I might know just the man."
"Charges set," Princess said as she stood up. "Time to leave?"
"Time to leave." He couldn't imagine anyone ever wanting to come here again. And, since they might well not, there was one remaining thing he had to do, which he wasn't looking forward to at all.
By the time they had reached the top of the sloping tunnel, he'd decided exactly what was needed.
"G-3, back up the shaft. We'll be with you in a minute."
Unsurprisingly, Keyop stared in confusion. "What are you doing?"
"Setting charges down here."
Princess caught his eye. "We need you to recover one of those solar panels. They're on the cliff edge a couple of hundred yards south. Or do you need me to come and help you?"
Jason was glad of the mask hiding his grin, as Keyop drew himself up to his full height. "Don't need help. Cablegun?"
Jason passed it over. "Toss it back down the shaft when you're out. Call the Phoenix if you have a problem, get G-5 to relay to us. Bracelet to bracelet may not make it."
"Yes, Commander." Keyop twirled the gun casually on one finger, spoilt the effect by having to grab for it with the other hand, and headed for the door back to the shaft.
Jason waited until he was gone with no likelihood of coming back before holding up his hand for attention, and ostentatiously switching his transmissions to exclude both Swallow and Kite.
"We need to check the room where Don found the victims. This may be grim."
Princess nodded, as she and Tiny made the same adjustment to their own comms. "That door there?"
"I think so. You remember his report?"
"Killed and left in a heap." Tiny swallowed. "Five years ago. Even with no atmosphere... I'm glad you sent the Swallow away."
"What do you plan to do?" Princess asked. "We can't take them back for their families. We'll never get bodies up that shaft."
Jason shook his head. "Dog tags, if we can. Then blow the whole chamber. This time I do want to bring the ceiling down."
"They were the first to come live here," Tiny said. "I think it's right they'll be the first to be buried here."
"Apart from those jerks we just blew up, yeah." Personally Jason wasn't that sentimental - he just didn't like the idea that anyone in the future could stroll up the corridor and take a look-see. But if Tiny felt better about it that way, so be it.
It was a moderately large room. High ceiling - twenty feet rather than the eight or so of the passage. Roughly circular, and maybe fifty feet across. In the centre, a sprawling heap of bodies. For a moment all he could see was that day five years ago, himself just yards away in the connecting tunnel, chatting with his second-in-command. And Don opening this door to Spectran tasers.
Tiny was past him, carefully investigating the gruesome pile, before Jason could drag himself back to the present. "They're dessicated. Never fought back, I don't think. Shot in the head, one at a time. I wonder why Zoltar didn't want them alive?"
"Not enough supplies to feed them?" Jason shrugged. "Maybe they did take a couple alive, for long enough to find out they didn't know anything useful. Maybe they panicked when we arrived. Spectrans aren't human. They don't think like us."
"Eleven, I count." Princess stood up, three chains with tags dangling from her hand. "They're a bit...fragile."
Jason considered the unhappiness in her tone, and took the tags from her, exchanging them for his last handful of explosive charges. "You set these. Make sure the roof comes down, and we'll be the last people to disturb them."
"Should we take pictures?" Tiny asked.
"No." It was a kneejerk reaction, but one he'd have made anyway. What could it prove? That Spectrans were murdering, callous bastards? They knew that anyway. People like the human Blackbirds in the Spectran base hadn't made their decisions in ignorance. And the families of the Mars dome victims didn't need to see this, or to know that the best he'd been able to do for their loved ones was to blow their bodies to bits in order to leave them under a few tons of rubble.
Both 'dessicated' and 'fragile' were right, he decided, doing his best not to break limbs from the upper corpses to gain access to the lower ones. It wasn't as unpleasant as he'd feared. Just...weird. They still looked like people, but the weight was gone, the skin blackened and shrunken against the bones. He was glad there was no way to take them home. Nobody should ever have to identify a body that looked like this. Not of somebody they'd loved.
"Tring's here," Tiny said suddenly.
Jason didn't look round. Adam Tring had been very far from someone he'd cared about - but he had known the man. Had been taught the practicalities of the jump-drive by him. Had hero-worshipped him for a while, before he'd got to know him. He had no desire to see what he looked like now.
"I have his tags, and his bracelet. That's six - how many do you have?"
"Five - almost." Jason fiddled the last chain free from around the neck of its female owner, struggling where it caught on her long blonde hair, and extracted himself carefully from the pile. "That's the lot."
"It doesn't account for everyone. Not even with those we know died outside."
"There's nothing we can do about it. We'll never find their tags, and there's nothing left of the buildings. G-2?"
"Done." Princess skirted widely round the pile. "I've set everything we have, it ought to be enough. I...I wish I knew what to say. This isn't much of a funeral."
"Either they don't care any more, or they know we're doing all we can." Tiny patted her on the shoulder. "When this war is over, we'll come back. Put up a proper memorial. One with the right names on it, and the truth about what happened here."
Princess's sniff was clearly audible. So that was the issue, was it? Officially she'd died here, so she felt an affinity with those who really had? She certainly didn't get this upset over every casualty that they failed to save. That must be it. He must remember to suggest that she go to see Don. For now, she could pull herself together.
"What's the delay on the charges?"
"Half an hour."
"Then let's go." He agreed with the short fuse - they had no guarantees that there weren't Spectrans coming up the tunnel from the mines in the canyon right now. It did mean that they couldn't hang around. One last glance at the cavern where humanity had come face to face with Spectra for the first time, and he turned his back and headed for the shaft. The dead were dead. His job was to protect the living.
His cablegun lay at the bottom of the shaft. Jason smiled at the thought of Keyop agonising at the top of the shaft over whether he thought he could get away with saying he'd needed to keep it. Whether he had been tempted or not, the kid did the right thing when it mattered.
The shaft looked even less inviting - narrow and uneven - from the bottom than it had from the top. Looking at it wouldn't make it any better, though - and at least there was a faint red light filtering down from above. They were almost out. Jason took the deepest breath the pressure mask would allow, stepped into the base of the shaft, and fired the cablegun up as far as he could see, into the bend of the dogleg. A single tug to check that it was well seated, and he winched himself upwards.
A couple of minutes later, Tiny appeared at the top, seemingly unperturbed now that the shaft led out instead of in. He accepted Jason's hand to haul himself over the edge and back to his feet, but stopped him before he could toss the cablegun back down again.
"We need to bring the bucket up first."
Bucket? Jason almost said, remembering just in time about the paint. Possibly the sole useful return from this mission. He stepped back and took the time to check that Keyop was safely back on board the Phoenix, while Tiny unreeled his own cable and dropped the end down the shaft. Shortly he reeled it in, untied the handle, set the bucket aside, and dropped the whole gun down for Princess to use.
"Let's get out of here," she said the moment she stood up, brushing traces of red Martian dust from her birdstyle.
Jason agreed. Time to go home.
Being back in the Phoenix was heaven. Jason couldn't wait for the flight deck to be rid of the mask, stripping it off and scrubbing at his itchy jaw the moment the airlock cycled. Beside him, Tiny was doing the same thing. Princess only laughed.
"You two need to shave better."
"It doesn't help!" Tiny told her. "You think I didn't try that when I knew where we were coming? Now, where am I going to put my bucket?"
Jason could think of any number of answers to that, none sensible and several unprintable, but Princess made serious comments about the temperature of jump maybe altering the chemical structure, and how they should take a sample small enough to keep genuinely cool and secure the rest in sickbay. He let her get on with it and made his way back to the flight deck. Still ten minutes until the charges blew. Plenty of time.
Keyop was lounging in his seat as he came in, but jumped up quickly the moment he saw him. "One solar panel as requested. In the hold."
"I could have fetched it for you," Rick commented.
"I left you minding the ship. Any activity?"
"A big bang a while back - I told Princess about that one. Nothing since."
"Good. Start your preflights. Keyop, best scan you can get me for orbiting ships."
"Do you want me to do the pilot's checks, too?"
Jason belatedly realised that Rick was in Tiny's seat, not his own, and sighed in exasperation. "No, Rick, I want you to do your job. Quit pushing."
"Sorry, Commander." Rick shifted across into his own seat and applied himself to his own console, as Princess and Tiny came onto the flight deck and took their seats in silence.
"What kept you?" Keyop quipped. "You were ages. Could have fetched ten solar panels while we were waiting."
"Unfinished business," Tiny said shortly, while Princess hushed him.
"Do your job, G-3," Jason said wearily. "Orbiting ships, remember? Launches from other bases? Anything?"
That didn't seem feasible, and Jason crossed to the radar station. "Show me."
Not feasible, maybe - but it was true, to the limits of their equipment. Nothing. Jason caught himself rubbing the bridge of his nose and forced himself to stop. Think, man! Two possibilities. Intelligence screwup - or massive trap. Well, if it was a screwup and there was nothing to see, it didn't matter anyway. If it was a trap then it would surely be sprung where the Phoenix couldn't scan, behind the biggest mountain in the solar system. Which had an obvious counter.
"Tiny, we're going to launch heading east. Go orbital as soon as we have good scans, heading directly away from the mountain."
"That's about as far from 'least observable' as it gets," Rick commented.
Jason counted to five, slowly, at the end of which time Tiny was ostentatiously plotting the course he'd asked for and the flush on the Kite's face was obvious even behind the visor. Goddamn over-enthusiastic rookies...
"Sound off," he said instead. With a two minute head start even Rick could call his check in a reasonable speed, and shortly they were aloft. Tiny brought them round in a tight curve, and Jason took what he hoped would be his last look at the stricken Mars dome site. Princess and Tiny could bring their memorial back, if they wanted. He wasn't coming back. Ever.
"Orbital boost when you want," Tiny said shortly.
"Keyop, where are the Spectrans?"
"There aren't any!"
"Keep scanning, especially behind the mountain. Princess --"
"Nothing on comms."
"Okay. Hit it!"
Tiny did just that; the nose came up sharply and the Phoenix blasted for orbit, and Jason resisted the urge to cross his fingers. If this was a trap, he was flying them right into it, because he had no idea what he was missing here. 'Act, not react,' Mark had always said. He agreed, absolutely. But acting and getting no reaction at all - that was weird. Wrong. There had to be a Spectran mecha somewhere for them to take out. There just had to be.
They hit orbit, and there was still nothing. And from nowhere cold fear ran down his spine. What if the Spectrans weren't here because they were somewhere else?
"G-2, get me a status report from Control."
Princess glanced sideways, her eyes going wide in horror as Jason knew that she'd just had the same realisation he had. She said nothing, and went to the jump-comm. "Control, Phoenix, do you copy?"
She piped the response through the speaker, and while hardly clear it was perfectly comprehensible, as jump communications went. Calm, relaxed, a simple touching of base. Not the voice of someone whose home planet was under attack.
"Scans are clear. Still." There was creeping exasperation in Keyop's tone, and Jason had the distinct impression that staying professional in front of Rick was all that was keeping him from having a good whine. Jason decided against checking his findings again, since Keyop did know what he was doing. Maybe there had been a particularly cowardly mecha captain in charge. He'd run for it on seeing the Phoenix arrive, but after they'd entered the tunnels, and Rick had missed the launch. If that was the case, it would come out when the records were analysed.
For now, though, they were clear, free, running for home, and the weight was gone. Just the jump left. Forty-six seconds was his time for this one, from that first disastrous mission, but the official record was Mark's, at one fifty-three. He'd not break the forty-six, not with this planetary alignment, but a minute was certainly possible. It was well past time that he put the record straight.
Anderson's reaction to the situation, when they made it into debrief with Jason smiling privately at the knowledge of the mission tape with '0:53' glowing green in the bottom corner of the image after their return jump, was not what he'd expected. Not at all. And if Anderson thought that he was going to have less involvement in this stage of the post-mission process than Mark had, he could think again.
"I want to speak to the head of that intelligence operation."
Tiny snorted. "Speak to him? I want to tear his stupid head off."
"There's no indication that Intelligence did anything wrong," Anderson replied calmly.
"Intelligence are human too." Princess gave both of them a pleading look, and Jason simply ignored it. She'd have never done anything other than back up Mark in this situation.
"Okay, fine. I want to see the analysis from the Phoenix monitoring tapes. Rick needs to know what he missed."
"I didn't miss anything."
Jason waved a hand in dismissal. "Intelligence is perfect. So either there's an invisible mecha out there, or Spectra can go to jump direct from a cavern on Mars. Or you screwed up. Like it or not."
"I did not screw up!" The scarlet colouring was creeping up Rick's neck at a remarkable rate.
"Invisible mecha, then," Keyop chortled. "Since Kite is perfect."
"Rick did not 'screw up'," Anderson stated, and the man in question smiled slightly and leant back in his chair, the flush fading slightly. "And neither, I am happy to say, did Intelligence."
"I don't get it." Tiny frowned. "A big, active base, you said. Mecha under construction. They weren't there, Chief. Not them, not the personnel to support it. Someone screwed up. It wasn't us. That leaves Rick, and Intelligence."
"Nobody screwed up." Anderson looked slowly round the table, catching one set of shocked eyes after another, and Jason felt his heart sink. Played for a fool, by his own people. He knew, now, what was coming.
"The Mars base was a low priority target. You did an excellent job, and we can now move on to more significant threats."
Don't explode. Don't lose it. Jason kept his breathing steady, and focused on a point just beyond Anderson's shoulder until the man had finished. By then, he was close to red fury. Close to, but still in control.
"There was a complete computer system down there, Chief. Blackbird recruits. Human ones. A whole load of Earth-sourced supplies."
"Human Blackbirds?" Princess went white, and he realised he'd not shared that particular piece of information with her.
More interestingly, Anderson himself had paled, and this time Jason did see red.
"You didn't know they were there, did you? All that stuff about dodgy information, needing to quiz Don to get the details? Well, heads-up time, Chief. Don's information was right on the button. He told me the truth about that base, which is more than you did. All that insistence on us not engaging, doing nothing bar blow the place to high heaven? You knew damn well they weren't building mecha there. Well, now the laugh's on you. If you hadn't insisted on us charging in with two hour fuses instead of letting me run an infiltration first to analyse the situation, we might have been able to find out just what the hell was going on, and where those human Blackbirds are coming from. I guess it was on that computer system I just blew up. If you'd given us the real facts, I'd have taken the Kite in there and pulled every last byte off it! As it is, you get a few bits and pieces we picked up on the way out. And it's a damn stupid waste. Don't do it again, Chief. I don't like being played, and I'm done with being tested. You said you wanted a press conference when this one was over? Let me know when you want me."
He wasn't sure at what point he'd got to his feet. It really didn't matter. Nobody would have stood for this treatment. Certainly not Mark. He had no intention of putting up with it. Jason headed for the door without thought of whether he had any support at all, head pounding and knowing that he had to go lie down, right now, before his head exploded in migraine. Four sets of footsteps followed him out.
Anderson waited until he was quite sure they were gone before crossing to the anteroom door and tapping. There was the sound of a key being turned, and Grant opened the door for him.
"So, are you happy now?" he asked his deputy.
Grant's spine stiffened, if that was possible, just a little more. "Yes."
Samuels, still sitting in front of the video feed screen, looked entirely relaxed. "I'm satisfied. Jason held up well in a situation which appears to have been more stressful than we had intended. The team followed him to the letter. No bad decisions, no signs of cracks in the team. Better than I'd hoped, to be honest. I'd suspect Jason's in for a nasty migraine now, but that's to be expected."
"Intelligence, on the other hand," Grant spat out. "How the hell did they miss a Blackbird training centre, when we specifically asked them to check the base was still mothballed? Just for once, the Owl was right. I'm going to tear someone's stupid head off."
"And the Condor?" Anderson asked.
Grant frowned, and Anderson continued. "He is still only acting commander of G-Force, remember. Major? Doctor? Your recommendations?"
"I have no further concerns," Samuels said.
Grant rolled his eyes. "He's who we've got, and he appears to be coping. Who else are we going to promote? Do it. I'll set things in motion for the press conference later."
"The way Jason reacted just then? Unless you want reporter blood on the carpet, make it tomorrow," Samuels said.
The young, dark-haired man had already started to cross the road when something caught his attention, and he stopped and turned back so suddenly that the man behind almost ran right into him.
"Look where you're going, can't you, kid?"
It was an automatic response, and Mark headed to the electronics store behind the crossing without paying any attention to the man's affronted glare.
Every screen in the front window showed the same image. A press conference; long, white-clothed table on a raised dais, microphones on the surface, three people sitting behind it. In the middle, Chief Anderson , wearing his unflappable media face. To his right, the Condor, and to his left, the Kite, both with visors in full reflective mode. G-Force in front of the media was unusual to say the least, and he wasn't the only one who had stopped to watch. Three people followed him into the store and parked themselves in front of the largest screen. The salesman tried to continue his pitch for a couple of sentences, but the two men he was addressing so obviously had all their attention focused on the screen that he abandoned his spiel and switched the volume on.
"There you go, folks. Be sure to notice the quality of picture and sound from that baby, while we're finding out what G-Force have pulled off this time."
"--been a full member of the team?" asked an interviewer whose voice Mark remembered. One of the senior war reporters, from a major US channel, though he didn't remember which one. G-Force didn't do exclusives, and these events were always open to everyone.
"Three months now," Rick replied, and Mark inwardly nodded in approval. He had their bland, non-specific American accent down pat.
"So how do you feel you're fitting in? It must be tough, joining an existing military unit of this calibre."
Rick glanced at Jason and smiled confidently. "We're getting used to one another. These things take time, and work, and we've done that."
"And what do you say to the Spectran reports that they killed the Eagle on Mars yesterday?"
Jason laughed out loud. "Don't they just wish! The Eagle's been on a new assignment for a while now. And no, I'm not going to tell you what it is."
There was a clamour of voices as that particular questioner was forced to give way, among which Mark's enhanced hearing distinctly picked out a female voice saying, "So now they're not both in G-Force, are the Swan and the Eagle an item?" He only wished it were that simple. He was damaged goods now, and Princess deserved better. He hoped she'd find someone else. At least, he did when he wasn't desperately wishing that she hadn't.
A journalist from a woman's magazine stood no chance in that sort of fight for the microphone, though, and the next question was when they'd be seeing the Kite in action.
"When he's the right man for the job," Jason said.
Rick glanced across again. "Very soon, I'm sure. We make one hell of a good team, wouldn't you say, Commander?"
And Jason smiled and nodded, not a trace of hesitation. "If Spectra thinks we're a soft touch without the Eagle - boy are they in for a shock!"
Anderson had always known a good closing soundbite when he heard one. Amid groans of disappointment, he stood up, instantly followed by the other two. "That's enough for today. Good day, gentlemen."
"But --" "Just one more --" "You haven't --" were to no avail. The seats on the podium were empty, and the TV channel cut back to the announcer as the salesman remembered his job, turned the volume back down, and exhorted the audience, now grown to some twenty people, to remember what a great experience seeing it on his product had been, how superior the quality was to anything they might have at home...
Mark had heard more than enough. They'd replaced him with Rick. He bent over, rubbing at a right calf muscle which locked up on him with distressing regularity at the moment, and didn't stand up again until his face was fully under control.
"You okay, son?" the older half of the TV-buying couple asked.
He nodded, forcing a smile. "Sure. Just a cramp." Oh, and that was my former second-in-command making it quite clear they don't miss me.
It did, at least, clear up any remaining concerns he'd had about whether he should go back for their sake. They patently didn't need him for moral support. And if the team didn't need him, he had no reason or desire to be there. The screen was now showing a silent montage of bootleg footage of and from the Phoenix, At least one shot had to be faked - there was no earthly way to launch the G-1 with a camera plane that close behind. And the next one had him smiling - a head-on view of the G-2 firing? Someone had been having far too much fun with their image manipulation. Once, he'd have been furious. Now, he gave it one last regretful glance, then, hoping his misbehaving right leg would hold out that long, he headed for home.
Catherine Rees Lay, April 2007.