I'm back to pinching titles from other TV shows. As well as being the phrase finished off by "must come to an end", this is the title of the very last Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. Not a terribly good ep, in my opinion, but I loved the title.

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 haven't read my other fic, this one might not be the best place to start. You'll find the earlier stuff at http://www.reeslay.co.uk/cath/botp/index.htm .

More warnings than usual for language, and I'll tell you in advance that this fic ends on a cliffhanger.

If you wonder where you've seen something like Jason's solution to the mid-air combat before, I was inspired by a scene in Jane Lebak's "Good Times Roll". I don't think it ever happened in canon.

Thanks to my husband for beta-reading, and to all those who commented on the first version on the ML.

Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank. Gatchaman belongs to Tatsunoko. In short, if it's canon, it isn't mine.

Mark's starting to suspect that Jason's not the only one with medical problems.

All good things

The mission was going perfectly. They'd made it to the nerve centre of the Spectran base almost unchallenged. Now he was guarding one entrance, Jason the other, while Princess attempted to figure out how the controls worked. This time the Spectrans had given them crossword clues as hints. Princess was good at crosswords. If it had been Sudoku, he'd have used Jason.

He always checked the ceiling before considering an area clear, but somehow this time he hadn't. It was much higher than he'd thought, and was suddenly filled with green-clad goons descending on what looked like red ribbons. He had no idea how they'd got there, but goons were easy. Mark delivered a well-placed scissor kick to the head of the nearest, sent his sonic boomerang sweeping its unique form of carnage along the rear rank, and turned to take on the attacker behind him.

It didn't happen. His mind screamed that he'd whirled, ducked and prepared to strike. His eyes told him that he was still standing, wide open to attack from all sides. And it wasn't just a goon in front of him any more. It was a Blackbird. No, it was Zoltar himself. A vicious blow from behind forced him to his knees, helpless. And the Spectran leader was coming in for the kill, knife upraised, the rest of G-Force turning in slow motion to watch as Mark's life was ripped away --

 

Mark threw himself to one side, and collided painfully with something hard and metallic which toppled over with a resounding crash. It took several seconds of frozen confusion before he managed to persuade his body that it was safe to move. Just a bad dream. Not a nightmare. Nightmares had to be reported to the psychiatrist. This hadn't been that bad.

Mark righted the lamp, lost his battle with himself, and turned it on. Who was he kidding? This was the fifth time he'd been woken by that dream, or a variant on it. Every dream started out different, but the end result was the same. His body's complete failure to move when required, followed swiftly by a horrible death. Oh, he'd had the standard dreams of being somehow stuck before. These were different. In these, there was no struggle, no effort, no sense of resistance. No sense of wrongness, and no warning. Just a sudden failure of his body to respond to instruction. It was starting to scare the hell out of him.

The alarm clock read four twenty-six. Mark groaned out loud. Nobody should be awake voluntarily at this time. Especially not him. It was still dark outside, for goodness sake. He wanted nothing more than to curl up under the covers and go back to sleep - but he dreaded the dreams coming back. It had come to this, then. The Commander of G-Force, sitting on the end of his bed, afraid to sleep. Mark drew his knees up to his chest in the pre-dawn chill and considered his options.

He could do nothing. Well, he'd been trying that for the past couple of weeks, and as solutions went, it sucked.

He could go to the shrinks and tell them he had a problem. It was unappealing. Jason might well believe that the Mars base disaster had been the cause of his demotion. Mark knew he was wrong. Failing a series of psychiatric evaluations was what had cost Jason his command, and Mark was quite sure that if he was felt to have more problems than his second, there would be a rapid reversal in ranks.

Or he could do it unofficially. Reword his description slightly such that in his dreams he was just a security operative, and find himself a civilian psychiatrist. He dismissed that one immediately. Not only would changing things around make any diagnosis inaccurate at best, but he suspected there would be drugs involved. What ordinary ISO officer would refuse to even try his doctor's recommended solution? Mark had no idea whether there really was a drug which could control nightmares, but it didn't matter. It wasn't an option for him.

So, take the best option and run with it. Dr Samuels, tomorrow morning. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He wouldn't get angry, or defensive, and since his performance was unaffected they'd have no reason to consider his position.

Feeling a whole lot better just for having made the decision, Mark turned the light off, crawled back under the covers, and fell into a deep and mercifully dreamless sleep.

 

He felt so very much better after talking to Dr Samuels. Jason might rail about 'old man', 'out of touch', 'no idea what it's like'. Mark had always been comforted by the kindly, grey-haired gentleman, who listened sympathetically, didn't judge, and always had a helpful suggestion.

This time, he'd reassured Mark that nightmares were a common problem for combat personnel, that they often happened in clusters. That worrying about a particular aspect often made it recur. And that it would stop all by itself. Sitting in Samuels' warm, brightly lit office, it all seemed so much less terrifying than it had at four in the morning.

Mark had asked if there was anything he should do, and Dr Samuels had smiled at him again. "Imagery rehearsal therapy might help."

He knew he'd blanched, and the psychiatrist had quickly elaborated. "Picture yourself doing it properly. Even better, go out there and do it. Physical training of whatever it was you were dreaming about having problems with would be ideal."

As Mark stood to go, Dr Samuels chuckled. "I think that's the first time I've ever told a patient to go out and fly, when he was dreaming about falling. Joking aside, Commander, if it doesn't help within a few days, come back. Or sooner, if you want to talk."

Mark didn't think that was going to be necessary. Positive visualisation - why hadn't he thought of that for himself? He could go to the gym, run through the moves from his dream, and remind himself that he knew full well how to do it for real.

 

Tiny was already in the gym when Mark arrived, working on what Mark instantly recognised as a set of flexibility exercises. Relatively advanced ones, too - having lost twenty pounds in their effort to cover for a sick, grounded Jason, Tiny had sworn he wasn't going to put the weight back on, or lose the conditioning he'd worked so hard for. He'd been less than happy to return to his role as 'stay behind guy'. But Mark didn't have a whole lot of choice. Tiny still wasn't as fast or as versatile as anyone else, although watching his performance now, that might not be true indefinitely.

He came to the end of his routine, breathing hard, and only then noticed his commander standing watching. It was hard to tell what his reaction was - he was already flushed and sweating - but Mark thought he saw embarrassment in there somewhere.

"You're getting good at that."

"Everything's relative." The big pilot picked his towel off the bench and wiped his face. "If you need me, I'll be ready. More ready than I was last time, anyhow."

He paused, and now there was definite embarrassment. "Mark, would you - oh hell, never mind."

Tiny nervous about asking him something? Mark snapped back into full commander mode. "If you're worried about something, I need to know. If not, tell me anyway."

Tiny looked at the floor. "It's not like that. There's no problem - heck, embarrassment won't kill me. I've been working on my martial arts. I mean the speed-based stuff, not strength. Sensei says it's time I tried it out on one of you lot."

"As in, using the implants for speed?" Mark stared at him in incredulous delight. "You want a sparring partner for, what, speed-and-a-half?"

"Well, my speed-and-a-half's nowhere near yours, but I need faster than standard. Sorry, Commander, I know you're busy. I'll ask Rick."

"Like hell you will." Mark dropped his own towel on the bench, and thought of something else. "Birdstyle?"

"No. My visor doesn't give me enough peripheral vision."

Realisation finally dawned as to exactly what was causing Tiny's reticence. His visor was optimised for his role on the Phoenix, with no distorting change in angle to the front. Asking to have that optimisation taken away was tantamount to pushing for an active role. Since they'd had a fairly vocal showdown over this very subject, culminating in Mark telling his pilot that the decision was made and the discussion over, he could see why Tiny was wary of going anywhere near it. But my goodness, he could use an Owl who didn't struggle to keep up, who added speed and dexterity to his colossal strength - and heaven help the goons who came up against anyone that strong with skill and timing behind his moves.

"If Jason can fly the Phoenix in a full raptor visor, I'm not ruling out some sort of hybrid. Show me what you've got, and I'll reconsider."

Tiny licked his lips nervously, dropped into what was a decidedly more professional fighting stance than anything Mark had seen from him before, and with no more ado came straight at him.

He had certainly improved. Mark had to give him that. No match yet even for Princess or Keyop, unless he also brought his strength to bear. But there was style here, and precision, and a decent range of moves. One thing, though, simply had to go. Mark waited his moment, danced in, grabbed a fold of sweatpant leg and deposited his opponent in an ungraceful heap on the floor.

Tiny sighed as he sat up. "You're going to tell me I have to wear skin-tight leggings, aren't you?"

Mark's eyes widened. "Hardly. Not unless you think you'll never have to fight in street clothes."

"But you're --"

"I'm wearing what I find comfortable to train in on my own. If I'd have known I was going to be sparring, I'd have worn something loose too. No, I took you out because your weight distribution was wrong."

Tiny frowned. "Step forward, then shift back? Isn't that what I was doing?"

"Yes, it's what you were doing. You'd get away with it if I wasn't implanted. Or a goon. A Blackbird, you'd be in trouble. You've got to keep your weight balanced much more. All the time. All the time. You have to be balanced all the way through the step." He saw Tiny's face start to fall, and realised he could easily put him off for good, if he wasn't careful.

"But your main problem's only with a couple of moves, and I can show you what to work on. Apart from that, not bad. I'd like to see how fast you can take it - has Sensei taught you the speed drill?"

Tiny nodded again, looking less than convinced, and called the cadence for the speed drill.

Compared to how he and Jason took it, this was a crawl. Mark reminded himself that half an hour ago he'd have said Tiny couldn't even string this set of moves together, much less repeat them precisely and at an ever-increasing speed, and settled to making sure his counters were as immaculate as possible.

They'd reached close to what he would have considered a respectable starting speed when it happened. The fact that he wasn't quite sure what 'it' was did, if he was honest with himself, suggest that perhaps his concentration hadn't been all it might be. All he remembered was a flash of Tiny's foot in his peripheral vision, much lower than he was expecting to see it, followed by realising that he was flat on his back, hand to the right side of his face, feeling like his jaw had lost an argument with half a brick.

Tiny was kneeling beside him, demonstrating between apologies that his vocabulary was nearly as varied as Jason's, if not so well exercised.

"Let me see," he demanded, and Mark gingerly removed his hand. "Man, that's gonna bruise. Can you open your mouth?"

Mark did so, with care, and added "yes" for good measure. He guessed that since the mechanics seemed to be working, it probably wasn't broken. Tiny's probing fingers hurt like hell, though, and Mark was glad when he sat back, face stricken.

"Mark, I'm so sorry. I don't even know what I did wrong. I...I'll take it back to Sensei. Or I'll give it up, if you think I should."

Mark shook his head, instantly regretting it as fire exploded up the side of his jaw. "I asked you to do that drill. I should have been watching more carefully. But you're not ready to take that to the enemy yet."

He'd have said more, but his face was feeling worse by the minute, and all he wanted to do was lie down with an icepack on it and let the implant reduce it from agony to merely visually spectacular. The only saving grace was that he'd already announced his plans to spend the rest of today and tomorrow at the airfield. Scrambles notwithstanding, nobody would expect to see him until Monday, by which time it would be mostly faded. As would Tiny's embarrassment at having screwed up. He could present it as a minor training incident, and nobody would be any the wiser.

 

In the event, it worked exactly like that. Monday morning Mark came back in, with only the fading yellow and purple and a reluctance to eat anything chewy to remind him of the incident. He'd had a day and a half of heaven, and the airfield's training jet was running more efficiently than it had done in years. All that, and while he'd had a slightly bizarre dream involving Tiny, Keyop, and a swordfight with bunches of flowers, it hadn't even woken him up, much less qualified as a nightmare.

He was ready for a good workout by the time their briefing was over, and judging by the impatient wriggling he'd seen from some of his crew when they thought no-one was looking, he wasn't the only one.

"Aw, c'mon!" Keyop whined at his proposal. "We don't need more practise!"

"We always need more practise," Princess told him.

"Yes, but...boring. More the same." He pouted, making his point without requiring too many words. "Can't we do something fun?"

Fun? I remember when this sort of training was fun. Mark hastily reconsidered his training plan. The standard run through of their combat formations was so familiar they could have done it in their sleep. Maybe that was why he was dreaming about it going wrong - was his subconscious fed up with it always being the same? It was possible. And there was definitely such a thing as being stale. If Keyop didn't want a physical workout even after two hours of listening to intelligence reports, it was time for a change.

"How about we break out the holograms? See what Rick's been doing with the AI programming?"

Four faces broke into broad grins. Yes, it was definitely time for a change.

 

The two trainees were in the smaller gym running through some standard birdstyle exercises when Mark caught up with them. He leant against the door and watched as they worked their way methodically through a routine he and Keyop had trained on. Then it had been him on the bottom of the very simplest variation of whirlwind pyramid - the two-man. Today it was Rick with Dimitri on his shoulders. No signs of boredom here. Both were still at the stage where intense concentration was required, and Mark doubted they even knew they had an audience.

The moment Rick did realise he was being watched, the Red Kite lived up to the full version of his codename, flushing a scarlet visible even through his grey-tinted visor.

"That's looking good," Mark commented, strolling over. In truth, it wasn't. It was slow and imprecise. If it had been any two of G-Force performing like that, he'd have torn strips off them. However, although he'd not taken much notice of the trainees' progress, he had seen them doing this before, and it was now a whole lot better than it had been back then. They'd managed to stay in the formation, for a start.

Rick drew himself up to his full height, and Mark resisted the urge to stand on his toes to keep their eyes level. "Thank you, Commander."

"Have you finished?"

Rick's eyes went wide. "Yes. I'm sorry - did you want the room? You should have stopped us."

Mark shook his head. "I wanted you. Or your creation, at least. How's the holographic simulation coming?"

"Better. Faster reactions, and twice as many permutations. I hope it acts a lot more like the real thing."

"Is it ready for a workout?"

"I think so. You want to try it? Now?"

"Now. Can you set it up for me?"

"Of course, Commander." He hesitated, then swallowed visibly. "Commander --"

"Rick, I'm not even wearing birdstyle. My name's Mark, remember?"

"Yes, sir. Can I - can we watch?"

Mark smothered a smile. The last thing Rick needed was to think he was being laughed at, even if his star-struck rookie act was getting old. It was outside normal procedures - but really, what harm could it do? Rick and Dimitri weren't kids. They knew their limitations. In theory, yes, they might be encouraged to try something they weren't ready for, but he couldn't see it happening.

"Provided you're not supposed to be somewhere else."

Both trainees shook their heads. "We're done for the morning," Rick told him.

"Then come see how it's done right." Mark turned on his heel and strode out, heading for the primary gym.

 

"Just get the red flag? That's all?"

Rick's shoulders went back. "It won't be that easy."

"We'll see about that." Keyop was starting to take this personally, and Mark jumped in.

"Team, we're doing this for an audience. I want absolute precision. No second shots - and remember, if you get touched, you're dead."

Keyop twirled his bolos casually. "No chance."

"Don't be complacent," Jason warned him.

Keyop glared, furious at being pulled up in front of the trainees. "Not c...complacent."

"Good." Mark looked around his team - not that he needed to remind himself of their skills, but it was a habit he'd never lost. "Jason, you and I will go in last, and we'll go high as soon as we get a chance. Princess, left. Keyop, right. Tiny, work in from the entrance. Rick, are you ready?"

The Kite looked up from his computer screen. "Simulation'll start when you open the door."

"Good. Let's go."

Jason was already at the door leading from the observation room - currently with blinds locked down so they couldn't see what was waiting for them in the main gym. The cablegun was holstered at his side, and a flash of white between the fingers of his right hand demonstrated that he'd chosen a different weapon for today. A good choice - the cablegun was incredibly versatile, but even in Jason's hands, not the greatest weapon for taking on multiple enemies. Especially when they were holographic, so a shuriken was just as effective as a bullet or cableshot.

His boomerang, on the other hand, was ideal, capable of taking down multiple holographic enemies without even activating the sonics. Neither Tiny nor Keyop was a great fan of shuriken, but he could see Keyop with a handful of them now, still watching Rick out of the corner of his eye. The two had never particularly got along - Keyop, Mark suspected, was at least subconsciously afraid of being replaced by the computer expert three years older and over a foot taller than he was - and Mark only hoped he stayed focused.

"Dark or light?" he asked his second, who had his eye to the crack around the edge of the door.

"Spotlights." His visor was darkening even as he spoke. Darkening to way beyond what Jason normally used, even in brilliant sunlight. Even on Spectra when both suns were up.

Of course. Spotlights. Mark wondered whether Rick knew of the Condor's problems with bright lights. He suspected not - 'deferential' was too mild a term for the Red Kite's usual behaviour towards G-Force in general, and its two senior officers in particular. Rick did know about Jason's migraines, and Mark simply couldn't believe he'd knowingly do anything which could be a problem for him. Not that sort of problem, anyway. Regardless of what Keyop might think, Mark was quite sure this session would be no walkover.

"G-2, you stay high," he ordered, and Jason nodded in agreement before killing the lights in the observation room.

Mark held his hand out, dark fingers just visible against the white wall to cerebonically-enhanced vision, and counted down the seconds. Tiny swung the door silently open, and Princess and Keyop slid inside.

Jason hadn't been underestimating with the darkness of his visor. Those spotlight beams were seriously bright - and very narrow. The vast majority of the room was in complete darkness, with just a few pools of white light so brilliant it almost hurt to look at them. Jason, with his visor almost completely black, would be largely blind today. Peering round the edge of the doorframe, Mark left his own visor relatively clear, made a mental note to keep his eyeline well away from the lights themselves, and concentrated on trying to make something - anything - out in the darkness.

"Flag?" he hissed at Jason.

"Can't see it."

And, as Tiny stepped past him to move into the room, all the lights went out, there was a single dazzling flash in a previously dark area, and then a return to the previous lighting.

Mark blinked tears from his eyes - he'd been looking almost directly at the new light source as it flared - as Jason hissed "Flag."

"Good. Move in."

He'd barely taken three steps inside the room, Jason at his right shoulder, when his second hissed, "Duck."

He dived down and to his right, willing his eyes to find something in the impossible light conditions, as two shuriken arrowed through where his head had just been. Two beeps from the computer indicated that both had found their targets.

His team was all in now, the door was closed, and it was time to move. Mark decided that the reason he could see nothing in the darkness above him was that there was nothing there. He stood up cautiously, not wanting to walk into another shuriken. A quick tap on Jason's shoulder, indicating a clear route above, and he leapt for the bars in the roof.

Once up there above the lights, things became rather simpler. Jason was picking off any of the holographic goons who strayed into the light, and Mark had switched to shuriken and was doing the same every time he thought he saw a flicker of movement in the shadows. Only about half of them resulted in a computer bleep, but he had plenty of shuriken. In a blatantly unrealistic simulation like this - if it had been for real, the very first thing he'd have done was have Jason shoot out the lights and switch their visors to infra-red - he felt no particular need to conserve them.

The other three were clocking up a steady stream of kills, different pitched beeps for each of them. Mark was just starting to wonder whether the stream of goons was infinite, and how he should start setting up to send someone in for the flag, when there was a whoop of glee from below. "Got it!"

Mark launched himself from his vantage point, wings out in a controlled leap to the floor three stories below. If he'd designed the scenario, he'd have had every remaining goon home in on the flag's position the moment it was lifted. Rick might not think the same as him, but they had been to many of the same talks on tactics in the past year.

As, indeed, had the rest of his team. Mark landed between the Swallow and an advancing mass of hologoons, only to catch a glimpse of Jason doing exactly the same on Keyop's other side. He might have guessed that Jason would follow his order to stay above the lights for only as long as he agreed with it. Still, if Jason could see anything, he could use him down here. This had to be an infinite number of enemies, surely. Which was a problem, because there was no way they could cut goons down faster than the computer could generate them.

Jason was certainly giving it his best shot. Every shuriken was finding its mark, but even he would run out eventually. Mark switched to his boomerang, handing the remainder of his shuriken to his second at the same time, and sent it whistling through one of the rear ranks. That was more like it! A whole series of beeps, and at least ten of the hologoons winked out of existence. Not enough to save them, though. They had to get the flag out of the gym, and at the moment they were barely holding their ground.

Hold on, though. The flag had to get out. They didn't. Mark cast a desperate glance round the shadows for the remaining two members of his team, and found Princess, back to the wall and keeping a semicircle of goons at the length of her yo-yo cord. She was in almost exactly the right position, having made little or no progress in from the door. Goodness only knew where Tiny was. He sent his boomerang slicing round the ranks again, and spoke quietly to Keyop.

"Weight the flag and prepare to throw."

Keyop didn't reply, just ducked even tighter between him and Jason with the red flag clutched in his hand, and Mark turned his attention to the next part of his plan. He suspected that the AI would have extremely good voice recognition in English, and probably also Spectran, Rigan and Russian. He was relying on that not extending to Polish.

"G-3! Stand by to open the door!"

"Roger!" came back.

Well, his faith in his comm-tech's linguistic skills wasn't misplaced, at any rate. Mark sent his boomerang round again while watching her work her way back along the wall, and readied himself. This was going to have to be one precise throw.

"G-4?"

"Ready." The Swallow straightened up, bolas in hand. The cord appeared to have thickened, and it definitely hadn't been red before.

Mark caught his boomerang on the return, stood tall, and in one fluid movement sent it, not along the ranks, but arrowing directly for the door at head height. "Now!"

Keyop's bolas followed the path cut through the hologoons. Princess dived for the handle and flung the door open just in time. The boomerang swung round clear of the opening and back to his hand, and the flag left the gym to end the simulation.

"Said it would be easy!" Keyop crowed, as the rest of the goons flickered out of existence and the lights came up.

"Speak for yourself," Jason muttered. "I nearly ran out of shuriken."

Mark didn't answer, too shocked to speak. He hadn't thought about catching his boomerang in years. It was instinct, at the same level as not breathing and swallowing simultaneously. That little flick of the wrist to absorb the momentum at the instant of impact was something that just happened.

It hadn't. Half a kilo of razor-sharp titanium alloy had slapped into his hand, and the only reason he still had fingers was that he was in birdstyle.

"Mark?" Tiny queried.

"Good job, team," he responded automatically. With concentration, he forced his fingers to work enough to fold the boomerang and holster it. "We'll debrief later." He hoped that didn't sound too strange. They didn't always discuss the simulations right afterwards - although it would have been nice to do so this time, with Rick and Dimitri still there. But he desperately needed to detransmute and take a look at the damage to his hand, and no way was he doing that in public.

 

It was just as well that it was his left hand that controlled the transmutation process, he thought detachedly as the light flared around him. He was quite sure his right hand couldn't currently work with that degree of precision. Really didn't want to move at all, in fact. He barely noticed the neural stimulation of the transmutation field, normally. This time it had hurt so badly he'd come close to screaming. Mark staggered across to the sink, turned the cold tap on left-handed, gritted his teeth and held his damaged hand under the cold water until torture turned to numbness.

Only then did he dare look at it. The birdstyle glove had saved his fingers, certainly. It hurt far too much to check for breaks, but he thought he'd have felt it at the time if he had broken something. In any case, the hand was now swollen enough to hold everything in place. The palm was twice the thickness it should be, no chance of closing his hand. The cold and the implant should take the swelling down fairly fast, but even so there was an angry scarlet line right across the centre, just starting to blacken. That was going to be one hell of a bruise.

He stopped dead, ice water running through his veins. He'd had training accidents before, even discounting those before he'd come to the States and become commander of G-Force. Minor ones. Brief discomfort. In the past three days, he'd had the two worst non-combat injuries of his adult life. This wasn't coincidence. A couple of months back, when he'd first started to have problems, he'd gone off and done an Internet search on his symptoms. Two minutes of frozen horror at the top entry, and he'd turned the machine off at the wall, forcing himself to believe it was hypochondria. He'd done a good job of it, too, blaming the implants for everything that had happened since. Now he was starting to wonder if he'd been wrong. There was certainly something going on.

He replaced continuous cold water with an icepack, and collapsed into the one comfortable chair in his quarters. The cold did help, somewhat. Mark flexed his hand painfully against the pressure of the swelling and tried to decide what he should do now. Dr Samuels' positive visualisation was most definitely not the answer. Suddenly a whole lot of things he'd wondered about Jason's behaviour made a lot more sense. Getting help he wasn't sure existed simply wasn't a priority any more. Not being removed from the team was far more important. His hand still worked, sort of. Would work a whole lot better once he'd got the swelling to go down. He'd have to be careful, and not rely on his reflexes until he'd figured out what was happening to him, but he could do this.

He had to do this. Had to find out exactly what was going on, to have any chance of working around it. Mark pulled the computer keyboard towards him, fired up a search engine, and typed in a list of symptoms. Tiredness. Lack of coordination. 'Implant going out of tune' seemed like a pointless one to add. The muscle pain and slightly unfocused vision associated with it probably weren't, but searching too closely meant you were relying on someone else using the same turn of phrase that you did. He hit the enter key and forced himself to analyse the list of results.

It wasn't the first one, he knew that. The second was the entry that had scared him so badly before. This time he read it, properly. Twice. The other symptoms, the ones he hadn't searched on, were there too. It was real, and it was serious. He ought to report this.

If he reported it, he wouldn't just be removed from the team. They'd take his pilot's license, too. Probably his driver's license. And it wasn't that bad at the moment. Nothing had ever happened while he was flying, or in combat. Maybe that was the answer? His implants were compensating. All he needed to do was use them a little more. He could live with the extra tiredness afterwards, now he knew what was causing it. It wasn't like there was anything the doctors could do for him even if he did tell them. When he was unsafe to fly, then he'd go to Chris. And that could be years in the future. Nobody needed to know yet.

 

Hiding his injury from his team was another matter. Later that afternoon, even after three hours of implant-induced rest, Mark didn't even try.

"Let's run through this morning's exercise. I need someone to fill in the forms."

"Not me!" Keyop piped up in a hurry.

"Not Jason either, if you want it..." Tiny's voice tailed off. "Mark, what did you do to your hand?"

"I got dazzled good a couple of times. Missed a catch." He persuaded his fingers to open, and held out his now purpled but less swollen palm to the team's medic. "Hurts like hell, but no real damage."

"Did a doctor say that?" Tiny looked up, concern on his face. "That's nasty."

"It's bruised." Mark jerked his hand away and rested it in his lap. "If I went to the doctor for every bruise, I'd never leave."

"But you --"

"Leave it, Tiny," Jason interjected. "He said he's fine. Princess can take the notes."

"Pass it over," Princess confirmed, wide-eyed, and Mark pushed the paperwork across left-handed.

"So, what did you think?"

"Great!" Keyop beamed. "More fun than normal training."

"We needed to communicate more," Princess added.

Jason's eyebrows went up. "Yeah. How?"

Mark grinned at his second. "If I suggest Polish immersion classes, will you kill me?"

"Yes."

"I'll help," Tiny added.

"Okay, enough. Was it useful? Do we get Rick to keep developing it?"

"We'd have lost if he'd put a couple of Blackbirds in there," Jason put in.

"And the visors don't handle spotlights well." Princess looked up from writing. "I could have used a lot more gradation. Could you see anything at all, Jason?"

"If they were in the light. It's no-win when you get something that bright and localised."

"But it would help if we could selectively darken the top, wouldn't it?" Princess persisted.

"For you, maybe."

"Note it, Princess," Mark told her. "It's going to be down to personal preference whether we use it."

That particular note never made it to paper. An altogether too familiar sound filled the air: the proximity alert. No briefing, no tactical discussion, this one meant 'get the Phoenix in the air right now'. Training session forgotten, the five were on their feet and ready for action.

"Transmute!" and they were running for the lift down to the hangar.

 

Adrenaline was a wonderful thing. Mark had completely forgotten the pain in his hand and was half way through his checklist before it even occurred to him to wonder whether he was fit to fly. By that point, he'd already accessed most of the controls on his board, so the question answered itself. Given his limited input - at least in terms of physically manipulating controls - on the Phoenix, it wasn't going to be an issue. And chances were that on a proximity alert there would be no need for them to go hand-to-hand. This time he'd forgo any infiltration, give Jason his head, and let him blow the intruder to bits.

They were barely airborne before Anderson's face appeared  on the monitor. "Steer zero niner zero, flight level two zero zero," he snapped.

When he used that tone of voice, the team didn't wait for Mark to confirm it. Tiny was throwing the Phoenix into a steep banking climb even as Princess radioed the local air traffic control.

"Ground, this is Phoenix. Heading zero niner zero and climbing. Clear the sky."

"Already done. Good luck, Phoenix."

That was what was supposed to happen, of course - but there had been a couple of interesting occasions where someone had failed to realise quite how fast the Phoenix could move when G-Force were in a hurry. One of the near-misses had left them close enough to see the horrified expressions on the faces of the passengers as they emerged from the cloud. Tiny had, as ever, been utterly imperturbable as he'd hauled them vertically upward and clear of the airliner's tailfin. Mark had been scared rigid, years of close formation flying notwithstanding. He had no idea how they'd managed to miss the jet wake turbulence, and if they'd hit that even Tiny's skills couldn't have prevented a collision. Goodness only knew how the pilots of the airliner in question had felt. If they'd filed a complaint, he hadn't heard about it.

Anderson waited until they were climbing steadily before continuing. "We have incoming, headed directly for New York. Nothing on the early warning. All I can tell you at this point is that it's long and thin."

From behind him, Jason muttered, "Oh good, a separator."

"Probably."

"Position?" asked Keyop. "I've nothing on radar. No, wait. Flight level two one zero, zero niner two. Very faint contact."

Anderson looked away to speak to his junior controllers, then returned his attention to them. "That's it. Keep it away from New York. Permanently."

"Understood." The screen went blank, as Mark thought furiously. "Keyop, time to intercept?"

"Three minutes."

Well, this plan was going to be well thought through - not. The major problem was going to be engaging it somewhere safe. Mark was pretty sure that 'keep it away from New York' had the implicit instruction that dropping it on Philadelphia instead wouldn't be a good idea. They weren't going to be there in time to engage it over the water. Where was there an unpopulated area around here? Dammit, why couldn't Spectra have decided to attack Denver?

"We need to make it overshoot. Tiny, I want to intercept climbing. Jase - make it dodge up, not down."

"Got it," his pilot replied, and levelled off. His gunner said nothing, but Mark didn't need to turn round to know what sort of grin he would be wearing.

"Keyop, centre the viewscreen on the target," he ordered, and the view swung up to show clear blue sky, and maybe just the faintest hint of a black dot in the centre. "Magnify."

That had to be it. Even on full magnification it was hard to make out: distant, foreshortened and moving fast, but that arrowhead, the slightly undulating tail, the segments, all looked familiar.

"Princess, is --"

"It's a close match to the separator we took out on Vega."

"But that one was easy!" Mark would have reprimanded Keyop for overconfidence, except for the implied question in his voice.

"They don't repeat failures. Bet you missiles won't work." Jason sounded disgusted.

"One minute," Keyop announced.

"We'll try missiles anyway. The momentum will knock it up, even if they can't penetrate. We need a forty mile overshoot, minimum."

"Right."

"Stand by for attack run," Tiny announced. "Jase?"

"I'll take my shots. You just fly."

"Climbing."

Climbing was an understatement. This didn't quite have the acceleration of a full orbital boost, but there was no way Jason was going to be standing at the front to fire today. Two bird missiles streaking for the enemy said very clearly that this wasn't going to stop him.

"Chin shot!" yelped Keyop ecstatically, as the mech did exactly as Mark had hoped and jerked upwards. Jason had another two missiles in the air, and whether by luck or brilliance, one impacted directly underneath the first segment precisely as it tried to put its nose down to descend again. This might just work, if they could keep it up.

Tiny lined them up right under the mecha's tail, and Jason continued to hammer missiles into the front section every time it attempted to dive. They'd certainly made it much more resistant to missiles than the previous time they'd seen this design. but even so it was now looking rather singed.

"What do I do if it turns?" Tiny asked, never moving his concentration from the controls.

"Don't let it." Mark didn't as yet have a real answer for that one. He was more than a little surprised it hadn't happened already. Maybe he'd got the Spectrans so off-balance it hadn't occurred to them yet. If they could keep this up for two minutes more they'd be out of the heavily populated region, and he could start thinking about something more than prevention. They were at twenty thousand feet, close to the eastern seaboard. He couldn't guarantee nobody would be hurt. The best he could do was avoid the cities and hope.

He zoomed his own screen in sufficiently to see that they'd done little more than blacken the paint. Last time a single missile had been more than enough to take out a segment. "What's going on, team? Talk to me!"

"Not hitting. Pre-d...d...--"

Just for once, Jason jumped in over their youngest member's stutter. "Keyop's right. The missiles are going off early. Some sort of field, twenty feet out from the skin. That's just explosion damage, and it's not enough."

"Can we block it? Princess?"

She didn't even look up from her console. "I can't detect a field to block."

"Separate?" asked Keyop. "Bullets better than missiles."

Jason snorted. "At twenty thousand? No thanks." He continued to pound the head of the mecha with explosions.

Mark thought frantically. Keyop was right that what they needed were bullets. Non-explosive projectiles. They could modify the bird missiles that way, but only by unloading them, and that would mean they had to stop shooting. At which point, the mecha would be free to do whatever it wanted with the cities below.

The G-1, though, was armed with lasers.

"G-4, I want you to go disarm the explosive warheads on the missiles. As many as you can, starting with the subsidiary loader. I think you're right about the predetonation."

"I knew I should have asked for that gatling in the nose," Tiny commented, as Keyop left at a run..

Jason spluttered. "But you've got one! Princess, take over the weapons. I'm going to the G-2."

"But you already said we can't separate this high!"

Jason half-turned, already most of the way to the flight deck door. "Who said anything about separating? We'll open the cowling and I'll blow them to bits." He too was gone.

"Mark - I'm not manoeuvrable enough without the nose plates!" Tiny pleaded. "And what if it separates?"

"Princess, keep shooting," Mark ordered. "Tiny, let Jason call this one. I'm going out the back. If my lasers don't work, I'll herd anything which tries to leave in front of you, and Jase can let rip." 

Mark contacted Keyop over the bracelet as his seat rose into the G-1's bay.

"How's it coming?"

"I've done five."

"Keep going."

And Tiny's voice came over the intercom, calm as ever. "Mark, it's separating."

"Keyop, you've got sixty more seconds while I preflight, then take launcher two offline and load your big bullets. Jason?"

"Ready. Open the nose, G-5."

Preflight was something he did without conscious thought. Mark's hands flew over his controls - the right one a little slower than the left, it was true - while his main attention was focused on what was going on outside. One of these days he really had to get a screen on his console. Even a tiny one would have made a difference. As it was, he was relying solely on the radio.

"Keep coming round. Faster!" Jason.

"This is as fast as it gets with the nose open." Tiny.

"Tail's separating too now." Princess.

"Gotcha!" And the sounds of machinegun fire. "One down, nineteen to go! Keep swinging, Tiny."

"Good shooting," he himself added. "I'm ready for launch."

"The tail segments are heading back towards the city!" Princess almost wailed.

"I'll be in the air in ten seconds. Keyop, now!"

"Launcher two offline. I'm loading seven big bullets."

"Make them all count. G-5, open the doors."

His right hand didn't want to grip the control yoke particularly tightly, but he didn't think that would be a problem today. He remembered the separated segments from the last time they'd encountered this particular mecha. Fitting a shield generator to the design was one thing. Redesigning the basic shape of the segments was something entirely different. They were boxy, unaerodynamic craft intended to drop their payload on an undefended city in a surprise attack. They certainly wouldn't be able to out-turn him, even if he couldn't quite pull his usual aeronautical stunts today.

Mark let the G-1 roll gently backwards towards the open rear bay doors, getting a feel for the wind as his tailfin released from its location in the roof of the Phoenix. Launching mid-air was not his favourite. Not that he didn't trust Tiny, of course, just that he much preferred being in control himself. He had no control at all over this, except the ability to abort it. It was like being the glass in one of those magician's tricks where the tablecloth gets jerked out leaving the crockery intact. He'd said that to Tiny once, and the ready room had suffered a quantity of broken china over the next few weeks, as both he and Jason had tried and failed to learn to reproduce it reliably. Luckily, when it came to the Phoenix pulling itself away from under and around the G-1, Tiny had the knack every time.

"Ready?"

"Ready for launch," he acknowledged.

"Three..two..one..now!"

For one heart-stopping moment the G-1 was in freefall, the turbulence at the rear of the Phoenix all wrong to keep her airborne. Then the main engines engaged, the airflow established itself, the wings splayed to their flight conformation, and he pulled up and right, accelerating past the Phoenix before swinging back east in pursuit of six black dots in the blue sky ahead.

As he shot past, spinning almost on the spot to head back towards the lumbering segment ships, Mark almost felt sorry for their pilots. They had no chance at all against him.

The lead craft was the original tail segment, slightly more aerodynamic than the others and therefore travelling a little faster. It still had no chance. Mark sighted on it and sent a pair of laser beams its way. As Keyop had deduced, this time there was nothing to cause a pre-explosion. Just the sight of a melted hole in the hull, a brief moment of calm, and then a ball of fire where the segment had been. Bullseye. And a pat on the back owed to their engineer.

Numbers two and three promptly suffered the same fate. Mark took a couple of quick looks at the terrain below and decided it was mostly green down there. That would have to do. He hoped the ships blowing up had been a big enough bang that anyone below would be paying attention, and getting the hell out of the way of the flaming wreckage headed their way at terminal velocity. He didn't have the time, or appropriate weaponry, to do anything about it..

Four and five had headed off slightly south while he dealt with their friends, and it took a whole twenty seconds for him to get back into point blank range. Both exploded very satisfyingly - at times like this he could see exactly what it was Jason enjoyed about his job - and he spun round, scanning both visually and electronically for the sixth.

Its pilot had done exactly what the textbooks recommended: climbed into the sun, ditched the payload, and opened the throttle all the way. Nowhere near enough to save it from the G-1. Mark dispatched it with just as much ease as he had the previous five, and was just wondering what the payload was and how he should deal with it when he saw an explosion a few thousand feet below. Timed detonation, then, and released much too high to reach the ground. These six weren't going to bother anyone any more. It was time to see how many of the other fourteen remained to be dealt with. Mark switched his radio channel back to listen continuously - he'd set it to only pick up emergency calls while concentrating on his own little battle - and headed back towards the Phoenix.

Five remained; four standard segments and the head, and they were making some attempt at a coordinated attack. Tiny had the Phoenix jinking and dodging out of the way, but that had to be throwing Jason's aim off. Not that he had a lot of adjustment on that gatling - a bit of vertical control, but apart from that it was aimed the way the G-2 was pointing. Right now that was determined by the way the Phoenix was pointing, which wasn't in the same direction for more than a couple of seconds at a time. Under the circumstances, Mark felt that Jason's language was really quite restrained. Princess, on the missiles, was her usual restrained self.

The right way to help was entirely obvious. Mark screamed in on the two segments harrying the Phoenix from behind. He didn't even need to fire. The first pilot dodged up and left, the second up and right, and the designers clearly hadn't intended for them to dock at that speed and angle. The resultant pile of jagged metal fell from the sky, and Mark turned his attention to the remaining three - no, two now as an inert missile impaled the nearest. Jason's gun poured lead into the sky, and then there was one. Just the head section, diving for momentary safety. There was no way out for it down there, but there were still towns, villages, and the possibility of one last act of destruction. Even crash-diving into a major road could kill a lot of civilians. Mark slammed the nose of the G-1 down and dived after it, finger on the trigger of his lasers.

Crucial moments in his life had been ten a penny, especially for the last three years. He commanded the team who saved the world on a regular basis, after all. Every decision he made carried with it the trust, and the lives, not only of his teammates, but of all the people in the houses below. He didn't get to make mistakes. He was used to that.

Life-changing moments, the sort that stayed frozen in memory forever, were fewer by far. Being told, as a small child, that his father was dead. Opening the envelope which confirmed his appointment as commander of G-Force. Princess, blurting out Cronus' true identity. And now, sitting in the cockpit of the G-1 at the perfect firing distance from his enemy, targeting system flashing red at him for missile lock, his hands refusing to coordinate in order to fire. Or to pull up, or to swing away from the enemy craft, or do anything useful at all.

He was going to die here. The nose segment had obviously registered his presence, had pulled up in what its pilot must have believed was a futile attempt to get behind the G-1, and had gone beyond his peripheral vision. It was behind him now, he could hear his alarm systems going wild telling him that it had locked on and was about to fire, and there was nothing he could do about it.

The scream on the radio was Princess, he was fairly sure. Tiny was howling at him to pull up, that the Phoenix was out of disarmed missiles. And then Jason, voice as close to terror as Mark had ever heard it.

"Drop me, G-5! Do it now!"

"But --"

"Do it!"

The explosion he'd expected to destroy the G-1, and him with it, never came. Instead there was the whistle of bullets just past his canopy, and then a glimpse at the edge of his peripheral vision of the G-2 plummeting nose first. It was in a spin, and he thought he saw a flash of a black helmet still in the cockpit.

"G-2, get out of there!" Tiny's voice confirmed it.

Would the G-2's cockpit even open midair? Mark didn't know. He was, however, completely sure that it couldn't survive a landing from twenty thousand feet. Neither could Jason. He'd have to sit tight, in a hideous spinning freefall, and try to eject at a lower level. Did the G-2 even have an altimeter? Probably not. What Jason had just done, in order to save his commander's life, was so far outside the design specifications of his vehicle as to be near suicide.

He couldn't even pull out of his own dive and swing round to watch his second's fight for survival. There wasn't anything he could do to help. Jason was going to die sacrificing himself, pointlessly, because Mark was thirty seconds away from arrowing into the ground which would kill him just as efficiently as a Spectran mecha. Two of them dead, for nothing, and all because he'd failed to report his problem.

And the problem was gone. Mark pulled out of the dive with at least a hundred feet to spare, and just kept going.

 

He ignored several sets of bleeps on his bracelet, and it wasn't until the patchwork of fields, roads and small towns changed to more deserted countryside that he even thought about stopping. He couldn't fly on forever. An empty field miles from anywhere caught his attention, and he dropped down fast, pulled up into a stall and caught it on the VTOL engines, landing feather-light among the meadow flowers.

It wasn't fair! How could he do this now, when ten minutes ago he'd been unable to perform the simplest manoeuvre? Had failed his team completely? Had forced his best friend into a suicide launch? Tears stung his eyes, and even closing his eyes couldn't prevent them from overflowing down his cheeks. It was over for him. No matter what, even if Jason had somehow survived, Mark had flown his last mission. He'd been wrong about being able to handle it. Concentration had done nothing. His implants hadn't helped. For the best part of a minute, both hands had been effectively useless. And Jason had hurled himself from the Phoenix in order to save him. All Mark could see was that one flash he'd had in his peripheral vision, the G-2 falling like a stone, its driver still in the cockpit.

He wasn't sure how long it was until the roar of engines intruded into the silence around him. Looking up, his vision still blurred, he saw the Phoenix landing just feet in front of him, perfectly positioned for a rescue load of the G-1. His bracelet flashed again, and this time he gave in to the inevitable.

"G-1 here."

"G-5. You had a malfunction? I'm extending the docking arms."

Mark almost couldn't bring himself to ask, but he had to know. "G-2?"

"The Condor's fine. Pissed off, but fine. The car looks like someone threw it out of a plane at twenty thousand feet. He'll be needing the spare. Oh, and some debris from the mecha landed in a town, and the other three are securing it until ISO get there."

In other words, they're not on the Phoenix. Grateful for his pilot's understanding, Mark told his jet to furl her wings, and cleared his throat. "Ready for docking."

He winced as the clamps closed around the fuselage. The G-1 didn't balance nearly as nicely as the G-2. Just about all her weight was in the back, the centre of gravity inconveniently located somewhere the clamps couldn't lock on, and the mechanical docking invariably left dents no matter how careful Tiny was. He really couldn't trust himself to dock her in-flight, though. Not after today. Freeze as he had before, fail to shut off the engines at the right time as he glided into the compartment at the back of the Phoenix, and he'd kill them both.

They were already lifting off as he activated the exit hatch to drop down to corridor level. By the time he reached the flight deck they were cruising a few thousand feet up, presumably heading back to pick up the others.

Mark dropped heavily into his seat, and Tiny cast a curious glance in his direction. "What malfunctioned? All my lights were green when you launched."

He couldn't answer. Couldn't lie about it - not when it would be so obvious the moment anyone checked the G-1 out that it was in perfect condition. Couldn't tell the truth either - he simply didn't know what it was. But couldn't remain silent. Even if by some miracle he bluffed his way out of it this time, next time could get them all killed. This time could have killed Jason.

"Mark?"

"I did."

"You did..." Tiny glanced sideways at his commander, and went to the radio. "G-4, belay that, land and wait for pickup. Out.

"Okay, Mark, what's wrong?"

Mark hesitated, flexing his fingers. Everything seemed fine now. Reflexes exactly as normal. But this time he was certain he hadn't imagined it, and that meant he had to talk.

"I don't know." He swallowed hard. No going back from here. "I...this makes no sense. But every so often, my coordination just goes. Totally. I couldn't fire, I couldn't pull up. And then all of a sudden it's fine again."

Tiny frowned. "Maybe the implant's out of tune."

"Oh, man. Do you know how many times I've said that and gone in to have it retuned recently? It can't be that. I think it's physical."

Tiny looked away, bringing the Phoenix round in a smooth holding pattern. "You don't move the way you expect? Is there any chance that's what happened when we sparred?"

"I don't know. I didn't think so then. But now I think it has to be."

Tiny slammed his fist down on the console. "Damn, I'm sorry, Mark. I should have known. I shouldn't have been able to get anywhere near you, not even if you had your eyes shut and one hand behind your back!"

Mark smiled despite his unhappiness. "You're better than that. But you damn near took my head off. I'm not safe any more. I nearly lost my jaw Friday, and my hand today."

"You said you were dazzled?"

"I lied."

"Mark --"

"Never mind, okay!" The edge was back in Mark's voice. "Who's in command here? We need to make pickup."

"Yes, Commander." Tiny turned his attention back to his console, and Mark hunched in his chair and cradled his throbbing hand. The adrenaline had worn off with a vengeance.

He barely noticed as Tiny performed a textbook simultaneous double pickup. Didn't react as the rest of the team piled back onto the flight deck, Keyop babbling at the successful conclusion to the mission.

"Typical Spectrans. Fix their mecha against missiles and forget about everything else."

"I c..couldn't believe how fast you were spinning when you ejected!"

Jason snorted. "I could. Mark, next time, just tell me you've got something in mind, would you? I don't have a vehicle any more, thanks to your little stunt."

"You shouldn't have tried to be so clever." Princess's tone shifted to one of concern. "Mark, what happened?"

"Decide to sucker him into crashing instead?" Jason queried. "He nearly had you, you know."

"Even Mark's human," Keyop chortled.

"Guys --" Tiny warned, but too late.

Mark swung round, too miserable to even consider that they had no idea what had happened. "Yes, that's right. Write me off, why don't you? Or, since I'm still in charge, why don't you all shut the hell up and do your jobs! Is that too much to ask?"

If ever a silence could be said to be stunned, this was it. There was the sort of squeak associated with Keyop trying to speak before a hand was clamped over his mouth, and then nothing. It was a depressing flight home.

Mark spent it in an agony of indecision. Tell the others now, or wait for the official medical diagnosis? At least let Jason know? Jason was about to be de facto G-Force commander, after all. This incident would ground him, possibly for good. Not just from G-Force, either. He'd never fly again. That almost hurt worse.

He was still unsure what to do as they approached the point where they would dive for the underwater approach to the hangar, which was as good as a decision. He'd say nothing for now, and talk to Jason in private once the doctor had confirmed what was wrong.

It was a good plan, and it almost worked. By the time they'd finished the shutdown procedures, Tiny had started to tease Jason about trying to fly a car, while Princess and Keyop were discussing what they could have tried next if bullets and lasers hadn't worked. Nobody would have expected him to join in, not even on a normal day. Now was when everyone else relaxed, and he started worrying about his preliminary verbal report.

"Mark? Do you want me to report on the combat?"

He sighed. "Let's play it by ear." He could feel Tiny's eyes on him, and could guess what the other was thinking. He still wanted to avoid admitting it for just a little longer. Not very much longer. There was almost no chance that he'd make it to debrief today.

"Finished," Keyop finally said, and there was a general getting out of chairs and stretching.

"Medical, we're on our way," Tiny said into his bracelet, and headed for the exit.

Mark took a deep breath, cast a final glance around the flight deck of the Phoenix, and followed his pilot out.

Five yards from the door of Medical, and any lingering hopes he might have had of secrecy were gone. Just as before, out of nowhere his right leg simply failed to work. Mark stumbled hard, pitching forward, and only Jason's lightning reflexes saved him from a humiliating faceplant.

"What the hell is wrong with you today, Mark?"

"I have - no - fucking - idea," he ground out, twisting away and somehow staying upright with one working leg and the wall. Please, God, let it come back quickly...

He wasn't entirely sure how long he balanced there until suddenly his right leg took his weight again and he tentatively stood up straight. Jason leant against the opposite wall, watching him. The other three were, mercifully, gone. He didn't think he could have faced Keyop at the moment.

"Want a shoulder to lean on?"

"I'm fine."

"And I'm the Easter Bunny. You never swear like that. And that was a novice dogfighting error. Something's wrong, and you know it."

Mark turned a furious, unhappy scowl on his second, but Jason didn't back down.

"Been there, done that. So I know you don't want my advice. You're getting it anyway. Chris is a damn good doctor. Tell him everything and he'll fix you a darn sight quicker."

"You sound like Keyop. There are some things nobody can fix."

"Even Keyop's right sometimes. Tell him everything, Mark. Even the stupid things, and the embarrassing ones."

Mark froze, appalled at the idea of admitting having been knocked cold by Tiny. "You have no idea."

Jason snorted. "I'm the one who spent six months not telling him about the headaches from hell. Trust me on this, Mark. It's better for him to know."

Mark just barely caught himself before responding with 'whatever'. He would not handle this the way his second had. He'd be honest and open. He'd cooperate fully with medical staff. He absolutely would not storm off in a thundercloud of solitude. And Chris Johnson would be back to him in a day or so with news of what was wrong with him. Something he'd missed, that was fixable.

He'd been here before. Persuading himself of it then hadn't stopped it coming back to haunt him now. His problem wasn't fixable. He was quite certain of that.

The other three were waiting in Medical when he and Jason walked in. It couldn't have been more than a few seconds that he'd been frozen in the corridor. It only felt like forever.

Chris Johnson came round the corner, his usual cheery self. "So, who's first?" It was a courtesy question. Mark was always first, an unwritten rule of the team giving him maximum time to prepare himself for the report. The other tradition was that anyone with a problem went last, so that the others didn't have to sit around for too long. Since his return, that had been Jason.

Jason looked sideways at him. "I'll go first."

Mark just nodded. Ten more minutes of privacy, and Jason was going to be the one making the report, he had to admit. There was no way Chris would let him go, not after what he was about to say.

Jason came out in what seemed like a few seconds, hesitated as if to speak, then changed his mind and just left in silence. Keyop next, then Princess. Mark was left sitting alone as Tiny went in for his checkup. Over at the other side of Medical, an assistant did something with labels and pills. At the edge of his cerebonically enhanced hearing, two men heading for the parking lot argued over who was going to win the baseball that evening. Outside, a blue sky with just a scattering of clouds was fading to a perfect sunset in the west. Just another day, for everyone else.

Tiny didn't even look at him when he came out, just putting his head down and hurrying for the exit. And Mark's decision was made.

"Tell Anderson not to wait for me."

"Yes, Commander."

Even then, he couldn't make himself do it. Mark wandered across to the window, watching the cars on the distant freeway. He'd have given absolutely anything to be able to run after his pilot, tell him it had been a joke that had backfired spectacularly. Nothing was wrong. Life could go on. They'd sit in debrief, Princess attentive, Jason appearing half asleep, Keyop larking about and Tiny encouraging him when he thought Anderson wouldn't notice. He'd give his report, explain that he was having a temporary problem which he thought was implant-related, that his second had over-reacted. Apologise profusely to Jason for the loss of the G-2. Go in, get his implant tuned again. Come out fine. All this would be forgotten. Tomorrow was a new day. They'd still be five acting as one.

"Mark?" Chris Johnson had come out of his office to find his last patient. "Your turn."

Nothing to do with his problem, but he still couldn't move. Out here, he was still the Eagle. Still G-1, commander of G-Force on active duty. Even ten seconds more of that life was worth holding on to.

"You want to be checked out here?"

"No."

"Then how about we go in my office, and you can tell me what's wrong in private?"

He knew now, when it was far too late to do any good, exactly how Jason had felt. Why his second had repeatedly walked away, shunned help, raged at those offering sympathy. He wanted to be anywhere but here. Help wasn't what he wanted. Not needing that help was all he could think of. And it was no longer an option. Barely seeing where he was going, Mark headed for the office and sat down in the chair facing the desk. He was rather proud that he managed to fold his hands calmly in his lap.

The doctor sat down, poured two glasses of water, and pushed one across the desk. Not normal treatment, but Mark was grateful for it. He bought himself five more seconds by taking a long swallow. No point pretending to be fine, not any more. He took a deep breath, made sure his voice was going to come out in the right octave, and said the words that would end his career.

"Chris, I think I have multiple sclerosis."


Catherine Rees Lay, July 2006

tbc...

Notes: Self-diagnosis of such problems is a very, very bad idea.