Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank, I'm just playing with it for fun.

My universe is non-canon in several respects, and if you haven't read either "Rumours of Death" and "Reconstruction", or my intro, you may be confused by some of the references to the team's early history. All are available at http://www.reeslay.co.uk/cath/botp/index.htm .

Deep space is very big, very empty - and not a good place for systems failure.

Set 3 months after "Strike at Spectra" but before "Conway Tape Tap".

Some mild swearing.

Thanks to Dei for permission to borrow part of her theory from "A Different Diagnosis."

Thanks to Becky and my husband for beta-reading.

Any and all comments are welcome, especially suggestions for improvement. Yes, I really do like it when people tell me what I could do better :-)

Breakdown

The pilot of the Spectran fighter watched on his sensor screen as, miles below him, the lights which represented the other segments of the mecha blossomed and died. He knew he should be down there, helping them in their fight against the deadly red and blue command ship of their enemy. He couldn't make himself do it. It would be suicide. He'd stay up here in the cloud cover and hope they didn't notice him when they left, then return and report. Maybe useful information on their combat tactics would impress his superiors. Maybe his debriefers wouldn't realise what a total coward he was.

He couldn't believe it when the Earth ship made its orbital boost to pass within a hundred yards of him. At first he thought his luck had run out, but no, they didn't appear to have seen him. They must think they'd destroyed everyone already. This was going to do more than just save his skin - this was going to bring him promotion. He had the perfect weapon for this situation, and tomorrow everyone on Spectra would know his name as the man who destroyed G-Force. He sighted on the giant engines as the ship roared past him towards orbit. Nobody could miss from this distance - all he had to do was fire the tiny warhead into the engines. It would lodge there, waiting for the formation of a jump-field, and explode at the moment of the ship's maximum vulnerability. No more need to worry. He was going to be a hero.


"I'll swear Spectran pilots get more incompetent every week." Jason was wearing a broad smile. "When I saw it separate into that many fighters I thought we were in for a good scrap. But honestly - they fly in close formation, you hit the one in the centre and the whole lot goes up."

"Mark's birthday present!" exclaimed Keyop. "Self-destruct Spectrans!"

"Special deal!" Tiny joined in. "Two-for-one offer."

Princess smiled. "Today only, limited edition with extra-explosive fuel tanks."

"Okay, team. Focus." Mark tried to sound authoritative, but he knew he was smiling. Really, it had been too easy. The mecha seemed designed to intimidate rather than fight, and once it had split into its component parts they had proved ridiculously vulnerable. Jason had gone easy on the missiles, preferring to watch the chain-reaction havoc which his precision shooting had wreaked in the formation.

As birthday presents went, a mission this easy had been unexpected but very welcome. Long-awaited, and a bigger comfort than he'd ever have admitted, was the presence of his second-in-command, newly reactivated after three months of illness, treatment and convalescence, finally back where he belonged. Mark hadn't realised how much he relied on his second's insights until he suddenly wasn't there. With Jason back in his seat, problems seemed smaller, decisions somehow more clear-cut. Everything didn't come down to whether to use one bird missile or two, as Jason sometimes seemed to think - but as a starting point, it wasn't bad. And when his second didn't want to go in shooting, he was invariably right.

"Five minutes to jump-coordinates," Tiny announced, more or less straight-faced.

"Final checks, please." Mark applied himself to his console, and around him the rest of the team did the same.

"Fuel's lower than it should be," Keyop reported when it came to his turn.

Mark considered it. "How much?"

"Five percent. I think maybe the injection system needs overhauling?"

"Note it for the technicians. Anything else?"

There was nothing, and Tiny put them on final approach to the jump-point as Jason's console began to spew the vast array of numbers he needed to compute their jump home.

Mark watched the numbers come up on his console, listened to Jason calling them out, and prepared himself. No matter how many times he did this, the final act of engaging the jump-drive to hurl them faster than thought to their destination was nerve-wracking. There was no room for error or confusion.

He checked his board again. Green lights. This was it.

"Going for jump in five." He narrowed his concentration, used the numbers on his screen to configure the drive. Not a movement needed - this was all via the implant, transmitting his instructions far faster than voice or fingers could have. Set everything, a fraction of a second to settle himself, fire the jump-drive, and engage. His work over, he could collapse back into the chair and endure the blazing misery that was jump.

Not this time. As the drive engaged, the normal shriek was replaced by the roar of an explosion and the Phoenix vibrated alarmingly. A brief moment of normality, and then ghastly, unendurable horror. This was wrong! It had never, ever been this bad, even in his worst jumps, and this one he'd got right. He was sure of it.

From behind him, he heard Princess's desperate gasp, and then Jason shouting.

"Abort, Mark. Abort it now!"

"No!" he gasped reflexively. You didn't abort a jump. It could drop you anywhere. Come out coincidental with space debris and it would shred holes in ship and crew. Or you could come out inside a sun.

"Do it!" There was a note of despair in Jason's voice, and the sensation of wrongness was so strong that Mark reached mentally for an implant function he'd never used, and had hoped he never would.

Nothing happened. Nothing at all. An instant of panic that the implant had failed, and training took over. "Can't," Mark gasped again, and forced his hands to reach out for the manual controls. They responded no better, and his head was starting to swim alarmingly, as reason oscillated from 'it's not the implant' to 'it's the entire system'. "Jason, I've got no control over it."

"Keyop, cut power to the jump-drive. Fast!" Mark had never heard that tone of command in his second's voice, and the technician moved instinctively to obey it. Keyop's board couldn't be responding any better than Mark's was, because through the blur of his red-tinged, failing vision he saw the Swallow unstrap, throw himself to the back of the cockpit and haul down on the emergency manual control which would stop every engine instantly.

A moment of quiet. Then an appalling crash, the Phoenix slammed to starboard, he heard Keyop shriek, and everything went black.


Paula Arkwright reached the end of her checklist, with no more success than she'd had with the previous twenty attempts. There was nothing left to try. Dreading the reaction, she turned to her senior controller.

"Sir, there's no response on any of the emergency channels. I can't make a connection."

Anderson's voice was barely a whisper. "Acknowledged."

"Sir," said David Hamilton from alongside her, "could they still be in jump?"

"Not after three hours." Anderson sounded dreadful, and Paula looked more closely to ensure he wasn't showing signs of recurring heart problems. "I'm officially logging them in as missing. Eleven thirty-two EST."

"Noted." David's voice wobbled, and Paula found herself blinking back tears.

"Lieutenant Arkwright, open a channel to the Rigan high command."

"Yes, sir - but I don't normally do that from here."

"You do when we've lost G-Force." Anderson cleared his throat. "Make the connection."

It wasn't a long discussion. Anderson dictated a brief, bleak message about the location and time of the jump, and the lack of contact since. The last phrase was a simple 'code 26' , then he told her to terminate the connection and signed out of his own console.

"What's code 26, sir?" David asked.

"'We are unable to provide military support.' You two can log off. Switch to automatics."

"But - sir!" David protested.

"We've done everything we can from here."

"There must be something else we can try!"

Anderson looked over his shoulder on his way out, his face haggard. "Prayer."

 

Paula wandered aimlessly through the corridors of Black Section. The lights were still red, signifying that G-Force was out on  a mission. She wondered how long it would be left that way, and what could have gone wrong after Princess had signed off with 'see you in a couple of hours'. That might be the last thing she'd ever said. Would it have been quick, or were they still in some hellish limbo of failed jump, waiting for the Phoenix to disintegrate and end it?

Walking straight into someone coming too quickly round a corner was the final straw. Paula sat on the floor and wept. It took some time for her to regain enough composure to stammer out that she wasn't hurt, and that her tears had nothing to do with him.

He wasn't having any of it. "When the duty comm-tech is in this sort of state, it's the business of everyone in here. Tell me."

Paula didn't have much of an option. Rick was the senior Force Two recruit; the leading candidate for commander; the Red Kite. He'd outranked her even before today's disaster, and now she suspected he was technically the ranking ISO field commander. She stayed where she was and told him that G-Force was gone.

"I don't believe it," he stated flatly. "They're too good to go out like that."

Paula trembled. "Anderson believes it."

"I'll believe it when we find debris," Rick snapped. "Until then, they deserve the benefit of the doubt."


Mark forced his eyes open with no idea of how long he'd been unconscious. It was pitch black and cold, with only a few lights glowing on the consoles. Those in front of him were universally red. The gravity was out. And the only sound was miserable retching from behind him, which he tentatively identified as Jason.

Years of training took over. His brain was still whirring round 'what happened? where am I?' as he heard his voice calling, "Sound off."

Jason barely managed "G-2" between spasms, and Mark was torn between sympathy and a selfish hope that his second had found an airsickness bag to throw up in.

Princess's "G-3" was very shaky, and then there was silence. A long pause, before Tiny chimed in with "G-5".

"G-3, check we're safe. I'll get the lights on." No point assigning Jason to do anything in his current state.

Mark was greatly relieved to put his hand straight on the emergency lighting control, and even more so that the lights responded.

"Keyop!" Tiny vaulted out of his seat and across to a small, limp form slumped impossibly half way up the port cockpit wall. "Get me some gravity," he demanded as he lowered Keyop towards the floor. "Keyop, man, talk to me!"

Mark brought the artificial gravity up slowly. "How much do you want?"

"One-tenth." Tiny had Keyop's helmet off, and Mark left him to handle that particular problem.

"Princess, where are we?"

"Don't know, but there's nothing and nobody within sensor range."

"Well, that's something." Mark finally turned his attention to Jason. The gunner was sitting hunched forward, elbow on his console and hand to his forehead, and Mark was relieved to see the brown bag in his other hand.

"Can you talk to me, Jase?"

His second didn't move his head. "Give me a moment."

"He'll be better now we've got gravity," Princess put in.

Mark didn't have time for a discussion of Jason's susceptibility to freefall. "What damage do we have?"

"I've got no internal sensors working aft of bulkhead 5, and the pressure doors have locked."

The engine section. Some sort of major malfunction back there, then. Vacuum in the back of the ship, and both his board and Tiny's showed nothing but red lights. Time to call in.

"G-3, get onto Control, tell them that we have a problem and more details will follow."

Princess went to work, and Mark allowed himself to relax somewhat at the sight of Keyop responding to Tiny's questions and trying to sit up.

"G-4, you okay?" he asked.

"Broken collarbone and a lot of bruises," Tiny answered. "He's pretty sore."

"I'm okay," Keyop contradicted.

"Like hell you are. You were out cold for longer than any of us. Let's get you back in your seat and you're to take it easy while-"

And Princess cut in. "Commander, we have a problem."

Not 'I'. 'We'. This didn't sound good. "I'm listening."

"Jump-comm's non-responsive. I've run all the checks twice. I can't fix it from here. I'm thinking the problem's with the functionality it shares with the jump-drive."

Mark went cold. A major problem with the jump-drive, and no way to call for help. No chance now of a rapid ride home in the hold of one of the giant Rigan jump-freighters. They'd have to fix this themselves. He scanned his crew, assessing their status. Keyop, despite his protestations to the contrary, was clearly hurting. Jason was at least moving now, but even in the dim emergency lighting Mark could see how badly he was trembling. Better to slow things down now and not make any mistakes. He took a deep breath and raised his voice.

"Okay, team. We have a major problem here, and we need to sit back and consider. Take five minutes." He didn't wait to see how they reacted, just headed for the rear door of the cockpit. He still felt shaky after the awfulness of the jump; he badly wanted a drink, and a glucose tablet was sounding very attractive right about now.

Or even two. Mark decided he needed the extra blood sugar to help him concentrate, and was just washing the second one down with a mouthful of water as Jason came into the area they fondly called the kitchen, largely on the basis of it having drinking water and the emergency rations.

"Glucose?" he offered.

Jason gulped and turned away, leaning hard on the counter.

Mark cursed himself. Having never suffered from motion sickness in his life, he had no idea what Jason was going through, and he always seemed to say the wrong thing. Still, he had to keep trying. "What do you need?"

"A new inner ear?" Jason managed half a smile. "Bit of water."

He needed both hands to cope with the cup, and Mark watched him with some concern. "You're right out of blood sugar."

"Right out of stomach contents, too. Don't push it, Mark."

His second was a lot more laid-back about his problems than he had been, Mark considered. Knowing what was wrong had made a huge difference, and where once he'd have been furiously defensive, now he was far more likely to make a joke at his own expense. Provided you didn't try to offer sympathy. Mark handed him the packet of glucose tablets. "Take a couple when you're up to it."

Jason nodded, and headed back out.

Mark took another moment to consider, and promptly gave up. He was planning on the basis of insufficient information. What they needed now was a complete diagnostic - the hour-long horror they all objected like mad to being forced to simulate. Well, those simulations would come in handy now.

Four heads turned as he strode back onto the flight deck. Good - no panic here, just interest in what they were going to do next.

"I want a full diagnostic. What do we have, what's out, what do we need to check further. No mistakes. Keyop, are you up for this? Be honest."

The young man turned earnest eyes to his commander. "I can do it."

"Good. If not, I need to know right away." Arguing would only make Keyop more determined to keep going. Mark walked to his seat and sat down, forcing a relaxed confidence he didn't feel. "Take as long as you need. I want to know how we can get this ship back into jump and to be sure the same thing won't happen again."

He was deep in the jump-drive control circuits when Keyop's voice broke the silence five minutes later. "Commander?"

He didn't look up. "I said a full diagnostic, G-4."

"I can't. None of the diagnostics work."

This time Mark did turn, exasperation creeping to the surface. "So note it and carry on. Keyop, this is basic stuff. Do you need to be relieved?"

"You never listen to me! I'm the engineer here! Just because I'm the youngest!"

"Not the way to convince him, kid," Jason muttered.

Mark bit back his initial response. Keyop was right in part; he was the engineer, and Mark did tend to give his opinions less weight because of his age. However, nobody else had half his knowledge of the spacedrives. He was in pain now; Mark would cut him some slack and have words about his inappropriate comments later.

"I'm listening. Find a better way to convince me."

Keyop's truculent expression faded somewhat. "I have no diagnostics. I can't tell you if the engines work, or even if they're still there. I only know that the diagnostics don't work. I need to see it properly."

Mark frowned. "What do you mean, properly?"

"I mean I have to look at the damage myself."

"Fine." Jason stood up. "I'll go outside with a camera."

"Not you," Tiny said.

"Who asked you?" Jason snapped.

"That's zero g out there, Jason. You'll be throwing up again inside three minutes. In a helmet."

"Thank you, Tiny. We get the picture. I'll go." Mark ignored his second's glare.

"I have to go," Keyop told them.

Tiny rounded on him. "And there's no way in hell you're fit for it. You can't use that arm at all."

Keyop seemed close to tears. "I have to go. What sort of camera are you planning on using in vacuum? We don't have one. Nobody else knows enough about the engines. I have to do it. You have to let me."

Mark hadn't even considered that, and Keyop was right. It was a major problem. They didn't have the time or facilities to set up a camera for use in vacuum. If it could even be done with any of their cameras.

"Tiny, I think he's right. Can't you strap him up enough?"

Their medic shook his head. "There's no way. It'll be lines and handholds all the way aft from the bubble. He's one-handed. He'll never cope."

"If you say so. Keyop, you're going to have to tell me what to look for over the bracelet."

Keyop looked frantic. "No...No, Mark, it won't be good enough. Maybe I can talk you through repairs, but I have to see it first." He looked pleadingly at his commander. "If it was your plane - could you tell me how to fix it if I told you what it looked like?"

"No." Can this day get any worse? Mark wondered. "No, I couldn't. You'll have to come with me."

"Mark -" Tiny began.

"G-5, we don't have a choice!" Out of options and aware he was oscillating from one unpalatable choice to another, Mark's temper flared. "I don't like this any more than you do, but he's right! We can let him do this, or we can sit in here and hope to be found. Strap his shoulder immobile, I'll tether him to me and tow him. All he has to do is look." He stopped at the wide-eyed looks he was getting, and forced himself to speak more calmly. "I've made my decision. Keyop and I are going. Princess, you'll be monitoring us from in here. Jason and Tiny, I want you to get a navigational fix."

None of his team looked happy, but they had to accept he was making the best of a bad situation. Jason brought up the first of many star charts on the main viewscreen and set to work, while Princess and Tiny took Keyop into sickbay to strap his arm up. Mark himself began to check the EVA equipment, trying not to think about how long it was since they'd done any zero-g training, let alone worked in a vacuum. At least he could go in his birdstyle, with a few additions. All they needed were a full helmet to replace the normal birdstyle one, and oxygen tanks. Much preferable to a bulky spacesuit. He still really didn't want to do this, but Jason wasn't fit and neither Tiny nor Princess had shown any enthusiasm. He was in command; he should be the one to go.

Keyop returned, left arm strapped across his chest, and Mark pushed his nerves aside. He could do this. Just like the underwater training they'd done far more of. Darker, infinitely more hostile, and no way to swim back to the Phoenix if he let go, but basically the same. He needed to believe that.

Princess assigned herself to double-checking Mark's EVA equipment, while Tiny did the same for Keyop. Even hurt, the kid was clearly excited by the prospect. Mark wished he felt half as confident.

All too soon, both Princess and Tiny declared themselves satisfied. Tiny clipped Keyop into the short tether line, checked every inch for faults, and repeated the procedure Mark's end, using a fixture point behind Mark's back to be quite sure that it couldn't be unfastened it by mistake. Standard procedure, but one they'd never needed to use before. Next, the long line. Mark had checked this one himself, but Tiny went over it too. This one was clipped at the front, Tiny handed him the coils and the other end, and the two of them went through the formality of being sure he knew which line was which.

It was a set procedure, and seemed to be over far too soon. "Good luck," Tiny said simply, and returned to his seat.

Mark allowed himself one glance round the familiar, safe, warm cockpit, and then forced himself into full professional mode. "Come on, G-4. Let's go see what we have to fix."

 

It was very dark in the bubble. Plenty of stars, but nothing which looked particularly close. There was no way to tell whether the Phoenix was moving - the definition of 'moving' was unclear anyway - but at least they didn't appear to be spinning. That should make determining their location easier.

Mark flicked on the torch built into the top of the full helmet, and did the same for Keyop. Being able to see the familiar blue and red of the hull curving away made him feel better. He attached the end of the tether line to the strong point in the bubble's floor and checked it more times than was strictly necessary. Once the bubble opened, they would be outside the artificial gravity field. That tether line would be the only thing between the two of them and a long, cold death should he miss a handhold. Mark remembered all too well the exact specs for how far apart the handholds were, and how small. He was only too aware that his had been one of the loudest voices in favour of keeping the hull as smooth as possible to optimise the jump-field. Hindsight was a real bitch.

"Commander?" Keyop looked up at him expectantly.

"I'm ready. Let's do this." Mark took a deep breath, bent down to lock his grip around the handhold at the aft end of the bubble, and hit the control to open the bubble itself.

Gravity ceased to exist. Mark let his legs float up, remembering his training. 'Just swim along above the surface, holding on. It's like being underwater. Don't try to walk.' He hung on tight to the handhold, letting his body remember how this worked. Just like in the pool. Just like in the ocean. Nothing to worry about. He only belatedly remembered that Keyop was floating alongside him with no handholds at all.

"G-4, you okay?"

"Fine!" chirped a happy voice in his helmet. "Freefall's fun."

"Sure is." In a controlled situation. Out here, not such fun. "Hang on - I'm going to start heading for the engines."

It wasn't as bad as he'd feared. The six feet between handholds wasn't as far as it sounded once you were weightless, and every one had a clip for him to attach the tether line to the side of the ship,  effectively sewing it along the hull. When they got back, he was going to find the designer he'd been so dismissive of in the meeting, and thank him personally for his persistence. Ten feet between handholds and no clips had been easy in the simulations, and would have increased the efficiency of the jump-field marginally. Mark was fairly sure he couldn't have coped with it in this situation.

"Hey, that looks like Betelgeuse!" Keyop piped up just as he swung for the sixth handhold. Mark jumped, flailed for the grip, and barely caught it. Five seconds of hanging on, forcing his breathing to slow, and he managed to speak calmly. "G-3, did you get that? Might help G-2."

"Yes - which direction, G-4?"

"Almost due aft. About ten degrees up, eight to port. Magnitude three. The colour's good for Betelgeuse."

"I see it. Thanks. How far along are you, G-1?"

"Getting there." Mark reached for the next handhold. This would never do. He needed to move much faster and more smoothly. It was absurd to be afraid of falling when he was tied on. Jason would be making a better job of it than this, space-sickness or not. He fixed his gaze firmly on the next handhold and told himself that this time he'd let the momentum carry him through to the following one. He could easily clip the line in as he changed his hands over.

Reach out left-handed, grab the handhold, bring his right hand across, lock the rope off as his hands came together, let go with the left hand and reach again as his body continued to drift aft. Once he'd got the rhythm going, it was a lot easier. Having less time to think helped, too. It was rather a shock when he reached out and found only the rim of the engine.

Mark stopped their momentum, and pulled his small passenger around so Keyop could hold on alongside him. "Where now?"

Keyop was grinning with delight, but Mark couldn't fault the professionalism of his response. "Give me ten feet of slack and I'll check the port engine. Can you get over to the starboard one?"

Mark looked unenthusiastically at the route over the curve of the hull. "Sure. Hold still a minute - I'll fasten you to the ship." He performed a careful textbook transfer of Keyop's tether, ignoring the fact that the engineer was practically dancing with impatience. "You going to be okay with one hand?"

Keyop's grin grew even wider. "Don't need two." He did a quick check of both ends of his safety line, and before Mark could stop him he had grabbed the edge of the engine with his good hand and launched himself round the corner. "Uh-oh."

Mark's blood froze, and he scanned the stars desperately for a drifting body. "Dammit, G-4, I can't see you!"

"Of course you can't." He sounded confused rather than terrified, and Mark started to breathe again. "There's a lot of damage here. Something exploded inside. It's bad. I think --"

"Start listing what we'll have to replace," Princess's voice cut in. "You two shouldn't stay out too long. It's not like you're wearing real spacesuits."

To Mark's surprise, Keyop didn't argue. Of course, he'd been immobile during their trip down the side of the Phoenix. Mark himself was still sweating. He'd have liked to believe it was from the exertion, but he had his suspicions. He needed to check the other engine as quickly as possible.

He listened in on Keyop listing one trashed part after another as he swung his way to the other engine. Here the damage was minimal, apparently caused by shrapnel from the port side, but there was a worrying jet of vapour sparkling in the light of his torch.

"G-4?"

"Yes, Commander?" There was an edge of strain in his voice which Mark didn't like at all.

"We're venting fuel."

Just for once, neither Mark nor Princess commented on Keyop's choice of epithet before he became all professional. "G-5? Lock down all the fuel tank valves."

"Done," came back the reply a few seconds later.

Mark held his breath and hoped, and just for once they got some luck. "It's slowed to almost nothing."

Keyop's voice shook. "That means it's one of the lines. I should have thought of it right away. Who knows how much fuel we've lost?"

"It's done, G-4. Move on." Truth be told, Mark was thinking much the same himself. It was Keyop's area of expertise, but he was hurt, and that made it the rest of the team's responsibility to pick up the slack. Jason hadn't been in a fit state to think of anything. Tiny had been occupied with patching up Keyop, and he'd put Princess onto trying the comm before she had a chance to do anything else. That left him - and he'd never even thought about it.

He needed to move on physically, too. Mark had started to get cold, and Keyop must be suffering by now.

Going back, Mark left the line fixed to the handholds - they were going to be coming backwards and forwards for a while, repairing the damage - and went hand-over-hand back down it to the bubble. It seemed much shorter than it had on the way out.

Even the one-tenth gravity they were still working in felt strange as the bubble closed around them. Taking the helmet off, though, was pure relief. Mark leant against the bulkhead and enjoyed breathing freely, letting Tiny strip him out of the EVA gear while Princess assisted Keyop.

He was very grateful to drop back into his seat.

"Commander?" That was Jason, sufficiently formal that it could only be bad news.

"Give it to me."

"We're in the middle of nowhere. Way too far from anywhere for standard radio to be picked up. About a fifth of the way between Vega and Earth - and be very glad you didn't wait another three seconds to abort, because there's a nice big dust cloud on the line of flight." He hesitated, then came to a decision and carried on. "We're directly on the line I'd expect."

Mark considered the implications of that last statement. "So it was mechanical failure, not a bad jump?"

"If there's a way to make a bad jump down the exact same line of a good one, I don't know what it would be. Something failed. Or was made to fail. I heard a big bang right before it all went insane."

Mark shuddered inwardly at what might have been. "Good work. Now let's have some better news. Keyop, can you give me any sort of repair schedule?"

The young man half turned from his station, where he was checking the list he'd dictated to Princess, and for a moment his stammer was so bad that he was entirely incomprehensible. He stopped, shook his head, and buried his face in his good hand.

"Hey - Keyop!" Tiny went over and knelt beside his chair. "Take it easy, kid. We'll fix it. It may take a while, but we'll get there."

Keyop raised his head and made a huge effort to speak normally. "I'm sorry. We c...can't fix it. The main jump drive chamber is fractured, and we don't carry a spare."

Jason's head snapped round, and from the look on his face Mark could tell it was bad.

"Surely we can weld it?" Tiny suggested. "Or - something?"

"No. Jason, t...tell him I c...c...can't."

Princess put her arm round the shaking Swallow, as Jason told them in a few bald words precisely why the chamber had to be utterly perfect, and why they didn't carry a spare. One of the components whose failure was never supposed to happen. Stronger than the ship itself. Except, it seemed, at the moment of entering jump.

"So we send Mark for help." Princess frowned. "Is this a problem?"

"How?" Keyop asked, and then his face lit up. "In the G-1! I forgot that."

"That's too far to jump in an atmosphere plane with a few extra thrusters," Tiny said slowly.

"If you have a better idea, let's hear it," Jason retorted. "Better make it quick, though. We're pretty low on fuel, and I don't fancy freezing to death while you try to superglue the drive chamber back together."

"Enough!" Mark snapped as the two men erupted to their feet. "I said enough! Sit down, both of you - that's an order."

He glared at the two culprits until Jason huffed and folded his arms, and Tiny dropped his gaze and came back to his seat.

"This isn't good enough. We don't have time for arguments. Now, G-2, I need the best guess you can get me for a jump-point within reach. I'm aware it's going to be a problem this far from anywhere. Just find me somewhere I can jump from."

Jason nodded silently, and applied himself to his console yet again.

"Commander," said a small voice from alongside him, "I'm sorry."

Tiny's face was showing more strain than he'd seen in a while. Probably they all were. "Don't apologise. Just don't do it again."

Tiny nodded. "If you're going to take the G-1, you'd better get some rest first. Let Jason take his time with those numbers. I don't care what he says, an hour here or there won't make that much difference and going out there already tired might."

Mark started to say no, then reconsidered. So far today he'd made two jumps - one of them horribly aborted - fought an admittedly simple battle against a Spectran mecha, and made only the second spacewalk of his career. He was cold and exhausted, and Tiny was absolutely right. He'd made precisely one jump in the G-1, along the well-defined and understood route between Earth and Riga, and it hadn't been much fun. This would be much further and from a totally new location. Probably a highly non-optimal one, given how far out they were. Most usable jump-points were close to planets or stars. He hated to admit it, but he needed at least an hour's sleep before he could even consider tackling it.

 

Jason finished the last of his calculations and leaned back, stretching the kinks from his shoulders. He'd done everything twice, which had been a complete waste of time since he'd known perfectly well that it had been right the first time. These results weren't going to get any better.

It was a lot colder in here than it had been when he started working. There was a quiet discussion going on to his right, with Tiny hanging over the back of Keyop's chair and Princess leaning across, and a single white wing trailing from Mark's chair in front of him.

Princess turned at his movement. "Done?"

"Done." He scowled at the numbers, as if that would make them somehow improve. "How about you?"

"Setting up a repair schedule. We've got most of what we need here, we can fix everything else and plug the chamber in when Mark gets back with it. We've got to get the Phoenix home if at all possible so the techs can tear her apart and figure out what happened and why. How are you feeling now?"

"I'm fine." He wasn't. He felt cold and sick, but not for any physical reason. The numbers on his screen led inescapably to one single course of action. He was going to have to face something he'd avoided for more than two years. To accept that all along he had been wrong and Anderson had been right. That there was no physical reason why he couldn't control the jump-drive any more. Mental block, pure and simple - and he was going to have to break through it, or they all died here.

 

Mark considered the screen for a long time, then looked back at his second. "Is that really the best option?"

"No, Mark, I spent an hour on a calculation I can do in seven seconds, and I still got it wrong."

If he'd snapped it, Mark wouldn't have thought twice about telling him to do it again and find a better answer this time. The weary tone was unexpected, though, and Mark looked more closely at Jason's haggard face before deciding against discussing it. "Then it'll have to do."

Jason continued to stare at the screen. "You know you can't make that jump. Not even if I got the figures perfect - which they won't be, because that jump-point's twelve miles from here and even with the sensors tuned as fine as they'll go the definition's lousy. You're not a good enough jump-pilot to pull it off."

"Jason!" Princess exclaimed. "What an awful thing to say!"

"True, though." Jason turned his screen towards her. "You know what the numbers mean, Princess. Look at those figures. Mark's never made a jump that hard even on a simulator. I have, though."

Four jaws dropped as the flight deck went silent.

"You think you can make a jump I can't?" Mark stared in bemusement at the gunner, who as far as he was aware simply wasn't a jump-pilot at all.

"If I can't, I'll fly through the jump-point feeling a real idiot, come back here, dock somehow, and you'll have to go. Whereas if you get it wrong you'll have jumped somewhere, and there'll be no second chance."

"The implant's talking to you again?" Princess queried.

Again. Mark had a deep suspicion this was going to be another of those times when the three original G-Force members would look at him innocently and say, 'but didn't you know?'

Jason swallowed hard. "I think so. Enough that it's worth a shot. If I fail, like I said, you've still got the G-1 and Mark can take a crack at it. I'd even have some better numbers for him once I've been there. It's not like I'm any use doing zero-g repairs, in any case. You're much better off if I'm the one who goes."

"No gravity generator on the G-1," Tiny put in.

"I'll be too busy to worry about it before the jump. Afterwards - well, once I'm in radio contact with Earth it doesn't really matter. I'll cope." His manner brightened. "What do you want me to ask for? Do you think the Phoenix would fit in one of those giant Rigan freighters?"

Keyop frowned. "Wingspan's too big. It would have to be in pieces."

Mark held up both hands. "This discussion stops now. No way am I sending you out there. I don't know what happened, but I do know you haven't made a jump in well over two years, and you can't have made more than a couple then. This is not the time to start."

He'd expected a blazing retort. What he got was silence, a glare which could have stripped paint - and an interjection from Tiny.

"Commander, can I have a word in private?"

Mark nodded and indicated the rear door.

 

"You should let him go," Tiny stated simply the moment the door closed on the flight deck.

Mark had wondered exactly what Tiny wanted to say. That hadn't even occurred to him as a possibility, and all he could manage was a bemused "what?"

The pilot's face was a mixture of embarrassment and determination. "Jason was one hell of a jump-pilot. I don't really know how to put this, but, well, his time for the Mars jump was about half of yours. He lost the ability to use the implant when the PTSD kicked in. If he can access it again, it's got to be worth a try."

"We get one shot at this. One." Mark tried to digest what he'd just been told. Jason's twice as good a jump-pilot as I am? Like hell he is. "Raw talent two years out of practise doesn't compensate for experience. No."

Tiny groaned. "Mark, it doesn't matter how well you hit the jump. I may not be a jump-pilot, but I can read an extrapolation curve just fine. We both know the G-1 simply won't hold together for forty minutes in jump-space. Jason's starting from a baseline of half your time, and he can calculate his own numbers. He has a chance."

Tiny's right. And forty minutes is an under-estimate. Mark sagged against the wall and slid down it, not even noticing the other leaving quietly. Two choices, both bad ones. Pick one. Get it wrong and the rest of the team dies slowly in the dark. Not the way any of them wanted to go out.

In the end, it was Jason's manner that decided it. He'd never said anything about being a jump-pilot. Never commented on Mark's times, never suggested he could have done better. Mark remembered with sick embarrassment how self-congratulatory he'd been when he'd taken Tring's Mars jump record. One minute fifty-two seconds, of which he'd been inordinately proud. He wondered whether Jason had broken the minute barrier he'd loudly proclaimed to be impossible, and how much it had cost his second to smile and congratulate him.

And now Jason was dead against him making this jump. Mark trusted him implicitly where the jump-calculations were concerned, always had done. Jason didn't make mistakes where jump was concerned. There was no reason for this time to be any different. Logically, much as he hated to admit it, Jason should be the one to go.

And when they got home, he was going to demand copies of every tape made of the original team's training missions and go through them with a fine tooth comb. This was becoming ridiculous - he was sure the information hadn't been kept from him deliberately, but if he didn't know to ask for it, it might as well have been. The time for secrecy was long past.

 

He went back onto the flight deck still unsure how he was going to present his decision, but in the end his instincts took over. Three steps over to his second's side and a quiet "You take her."

Jason nodded calmly, as if he'd expected it. "You want a Rigan jump-freighter, right? Even if it's not quite big enough to take the Phoenix whole?"

"Pieces be hanged, I want to take her home," Mark told them. "We need to know exactly what happened, and I don't see how we can do that if she's been hacked apart. Get them to bring the replacement chamber out and we'll fix her here." He couldn't tell whether the smile on his second's face was forced or genuine.

"I'll do that. Keyop, I'll take a copy of your list just in case. And a full data dump."

Mark was forced to laugh. "On the computer in the G-1? It'll just barely hold the sensor data from your jump approach. No room for anything else."

"I'll put as much as I can on CD," Tiny volunteered. "Mark, can I make a suggestion?"

Mark raised his eyebrows, wondering what on earth it was this time. "Sure."

"You do the preflight. One less thing for Jason to worry about." He looked with some concern at Jason, but this time there was no retort.

"Okay." Mark took a deep breath to calm himself and get his mind round the idea of his second as jump-pilot. "Jason, it's your call. Do you want to go now, or take a rest first?"

"Now." Jason wore his most determined expression. "I've spent an hour on those damned sensor readings. The longer I wait the more unreliable the data gets. And like you said, the G-1's systems aren't that good. Fine to compute a jump, but I don't want to rely on them to find the jump-point in the first place. Let's go."

 

"She's not as bad as all that," Mark said as they headed for the G-1's compartment. "Jump-drive feels a little different to the Phoenix - have you ever jumped the G-1?"

"Nope." Even Mark could pick up the undertone of 'I don't want to talk about this.' Now was not the time to push him further. He could ask the others once Jason was safely away.

Jason stopped abruptly at the end of the corridor. "I have no idea how this works."

Mark grinned and sat in the chair. "Commander's privilege." He cursed himself when he saw Jason's tense expression. "You won't need it. Follow me up and I'll talk you through the preflight. It's what, a couple of weeks since you and Rick spent all that time on the simulator?"

"Yeah."

Mark had half expected Jason to jump up in the low gravity, but instead he saw the cable fire then retract. Jason appeared through the hole, disentangled his weapon, and Mark popped the canopy so he could be heard. "Do you want to do this, or shall I?"

"You do it. It'll be quicker."

At the breakneck speed he was usually forced to employ, it would have been. This time he fell back into his old habit of talking himself through the checklist out loud - a gentle reminder of the controls couldn't hurt. They'd been very lucky - the explosion damage had come close to the bay door, and the floor was buckled and scorched in places. The G-1 itself was untouched.

"Once I'm out of the way, you'll be able to go out the back to get at the damage," Jason commented as Mark came to the end of his checklist. "Quicker than going all down the side from the bubble."

"Good thought." Mark swung himself out of the cockpit, resisting the urge to pat the seat in farewell. "She's all yours. Got everything?"

"3 CDs, a paper list and a bunch of numbers in my head." Jason clambered awkwardly into the pilot's seat. "See you at ISO."

"Good luck." Mark couldn't bring himself to say any more. He held a hand up in farewell as Jason sealed the cockpit, then jumped down through the empty shaft and returned to the flight deck, trying not to think about that dark helmet in his place. That was his plane going out there, being flown by his second, doing his job. He hated it.

 

"Coming up on jump-coordinates," Jason said into the radio, and turned his attention to the sensors. Compared to what he had on the Phoenix, they were severely limited. With a little tweaking, Keyop could probably patch the Phoenix sensors into the tiny screen he had on the G-1, and he'd suggest it for their next upgrade session. There was no time for it now. He'd have to cope with what he had..

He checked his heading again, and adjusted it fractionally. The simulator hadn't given him the feeling for just how light it handled. He'd very nearly put it into a spin just heading out after undocking. That would have been confidence-inspiring for the rest of the team. Thank goodness Mark had only asked him whether he'd jumped the G-1. It wasn't at all surprising that he hadn't. Now, if Mark had realised that he'd never even flown it other than in the simulator, his decision might well have been different.

"One minute to jump." The cold, sick feeling was rising again, and not just because of the lack of gravity. He forced it back. The numbers were fine. He could calculate a solution from here. Whether or not he could force himself to activate the implant and fire the jump-drive, even in these dire straits, was another matter.

It had been because of Don's death, he told himself yet again. Not a physical problem at all. PTSD, avoidance - he'd heard every psychological explanation over the years, and denied them furiously. Now he needed them to have been right. The cause was gone. Don wasn't dead. Don was secure on Earth, where he needed to go. Mark's interface with the jump-drive wasn't good enough for a jump this hard. The team was counting on him. He had to get beyond the mental block. He simply had to.

As the jump-drive began to cycle, the urge to panic and shut it down was almost overwhelming. It was working. For the first time in two years there was something responding to his commands. There was a sense of deep relief, of a huge weight being lifted off his shoulders - mixed with abject terror at what he had to do next. Even without a two year hiatus, without the first tendrils of space-sickness nipping at his concentration, jumping this cockleshell halfway across the galaxy would have been terrifying.

"Five seconds and counting." No more time to consider anything. Just refine his solution for the last time, reach mentally for the implant, and go.


Dreadful, swimming nausea was the first thing Jason was aware of as he came round. The second was that his head hurt terribly, and the third that he was about to throw up.

It took a while before he recovered sufficiently to remember where he was, and why he was in the throes of space-sickness for the second time in six hours. He'd jumped the G-1 back to Earth to get help - or that had been the plan.

Jason forced his eyes open and cursed. As he'd feared the moment he'd registered the headache, his vision was all over the place. Even so, the blue and white marble in front of him looked pretty familiar. If it wasn't Earth, it was the biggest coincidence ever. Time to call in.

Locating the communicator controls among twice as many lights and switches as there should have been was impossible. Jason was forced to rely on physical memories of the control board layout he hadn't known he possessed. He wondered briefly whether Mark could find the radio on the G-2's dashboard with his eyes shut. He suspected not.

'-fied ship, identify yourself now or be considered hostile. Repeat: unidentified ship -'

Jason swore furiously and fumbled for the G-1's beacon. The last thing he needed now was an overzealous Space Patrol officer taking potshots at him.

The repeated transmission cycled twice more, then stopped mid-phrase and was replaced by a real voice. "G-1? Report, please."

"G-2 here." Even to his own ears, he sounded awful.

"Status, G-2." It was Ivanov's deep, accented voice.

"Status - uh -" He squinted at the control board. "Mostly green."

"G-2, we're not getting telemetry," said a second voice which he couldn't immediately identify. "Can you confirm you're sending it?"

Jason tried and failed again to make sense of the dancing fairy lights in front of him.

"G-2, do you have a problem?" Ivanov again.

Once he'd have denied it furiously, forced himself to cope alone somehow, and probably cracked the G-1 up in the process. If he did that now, there would be nobody to go back for the rest of the team.

"Colonel, I'm gonna need someone to talk me down."

He was so glad it was Ivanov he was dealing with. Anderson would have demanded an instant, full report. Grant would have been railing at his incompetence as a pilot. Ivanov simply said, "Who would you like?"

Not that there was much of a choice. The person he really needed was stuck in deep space, and the last thing he wanted was some flyboy who didn't know him from Adam.

"Get me the Kite."

He heard Ivanov give instructions that Rick was to be fetched immediately, and then the questions started in earnest.

 

Five minutes later, Rick's voice replaced Ivanov's. "Condor, that telemetry?"

"Yeah. Hi, Kite. Where do I find it?"

"Top left of your board, you should see two red lights and a green one just above the left one."

Jason looked for four red lights and two green ones. "Got it."

"Flip the switch below the right hand red light."

Touch was a much better sense than sight in this situation. "Got it - hey, lots of lights."

"That's normal. Good, I've got your telemetry. Everything looks fine." There was a pause, then some carefully-considered wording. "Condor, are you having problems with visual?"

Jason had sworn at people and cut off radio contact for less. This time was different. "Let's pretend this is a blindfold exercise, okay?"

He'd made the right choice for ground control. Rick didn't try to discuss it or get more details from him, but simply said, "Just like those simulator runs, then," and started him on the sequence of operations needed to get the G-1 back from where it had exited jump-space to high Earth orbit.

 

"Stable orbit," Rick said some twenty minutes later. "Good job. You just sit there - we can send someone up to get you easy now."

Jason considered a couple of hours sitting here in freefall with nothing to distract him, his head pounding and his stomach in open rebellion. "You have to be kidding. When I said 'talk me down' I meant down. As in the ground. Now are you going to help, or should I do it from memory?"

"Stand by." The radio link went silent, but Jason could imagine what was going on. Grant doubtless insisting that someone should be sent up to get him, Rick in some confusion offering the information he had, Ivanov with any luck fighting his corner. Goodness only knew what the medical opinion on this one would be - the ISO doctor must have his suspicions as to what was going on, but whether that would make him recommend that they talked him down as quickly as possible or left him there for rescue, Jason had no idea.

"Condor, it's your call. Are you sure you want to do it? We can have a rescue shuttle to you in ninety minutes."

"Or I can be at ISO in thirty. Let's do it."

 

He had done this successfully seven times running in the simulator just a few days ago - largely because Mark had expressed an opinion that nobody but him could land the G-1 without using instruments. Sure, he'd claimed later he'd meant without the information from said instruments. Jason had enlisted Rick, and they'd proved that, provided a third party was allowed, it was perfectly possible even for non superhuman pilots.

The eighth time, the random weather generator had thrown him gusting crosswinds and a wet runway, and he'd wiped out spectacularly. Best not to think about that one. Also, the simulator didn't have roaring engine noise or dazzling sunshine in his eyes, and he hadn't had a splitting headache at the time.

He couldn't let it affect him. He'd had a lot of practise recently at functioning while feeling less than optimal, and somewhat to his surprise he was finding flying the G-1 not as hard as he'd expected. His eyes might not be focusing worth a damn, but now that he was dropping into the atmosphere up and down looked distinctly different, and there was gravity. Rather too much of it, in fact. The G-1 didn't have anything like enough braking power to slow down from orbital velocity using engines or flaps. Standing the plane on its tail and flying underside first was a time-honoured technique for re-entry, but it certainly didn't make for a smooth ride.

The radio crackled back into life as he dropped out of the blackout zone.

"So, where are you going to put me down?"

"The airfield next to ISO. Unless you prefer JFK."

Jason chuckled inwardly. "ISO is fine. Just make sure the trainees are well out of the way - I know the Eagle spends half his time flying rings round them. I don't want one of them to decide this is the time to try to reciprocate."

"They'll be out of the way. You've got a clear run all the way down. A couple of the airlines are less than pleased."

Jason didn't respond. There was a lot of vibration now that the atmosphere was thicker, and the sensation of speed was far greater. All he wanted to do was brake with everything he had, and he knew he couldn't. At this speed, the G-1 would fall apart if he didn't follow the flight plan to the letter. He was still going way too fast to switch from the re-entry profile to standard flight.

"Condor? You need to dump some speed. Bring your nose up."

Oh, hell. It wasn't just sensation. He was going too fast - and this was real deep in the atmosphere to be trying this particular trick. Controlled stall. He knew how it worked, had mastered it more or less on the simulator. Not recently, though, and he'd never been comfortable with it.

"Ten degrees, asap." Rick's voice was calm. Jason would have believed there was no problem if he hadn't heard this same tone right before his simulator crash. Rick had only started swearing after the lights had come up.

Nose up ten degrees. Hang on to the controls for dear life as the little plane threatened to shake itself apart, and thank everything he believed in that it was designed to cope with the temperatures of fiery Phoenix. Hold on, and hope that Rick was on top of the telemetry, and would tell him when it was safe to return to a more normal flight profile. Hope that Rick was still on the end of the radio at all.

"Nose down five degrees, gently. That's much better."

It didn't feel that much better. "I've still got one hell of a lot of vibration."

"That's normal. Always happens at the interface to powered flight. Give it a couple more minutes and you can start pretending she's a plane again."

At this speed? Jason spared a moment to force his eyes to focus. Blue sky above, deeper blue sea below - and was that the line of land in the far distance? ISO was right on the coast. He was close. He was practically home, and moving much too fast to land. Damn.

This is the G-1, you idiot! Of course it goes like a bat out of hell. Lands like one too. You did it in the simulator. You have to do it for real. If you don't, the team dies. You chose to come down rather than stay in orbit and have someone come up for you. You can't quit now.

"Tell me I can start slowing down properly?"

"Okay. Come two degrees to port, and nose down another five degrees. Whoa - slowly. Back off a couple. Can you see the coast yet?"

"Yeah - and the runway, I think." At least two of them, thin grey lines pointing directly towards him, shifting together and apart in a blurred mess of false colour. Three months ago he'd have been in total panic at not having clear vision. Now he was used to it, as much as he ever could be - he tried not to worry about it and remembered that the real thing was somewhere in the middle of the visual artifacts. No good for precision shooting. Plenty good enough for getting a forty foot wingspan jet on an eighty foot wide runway.

"I'll do the alignment manually. Just give me speed and altitude."

"Not yet. Overfly, get a feel for the conditions. I want you to make a couple of circuits first."

Jason barely controlled his urge to groan. He wanted out of this plane, dammit. Keeping his eyes open, even just enough to see which way was up, was hurting worse by the minute. He was having to fight not to tear his helmet off and apply pressure to both temples. Very gentle pressure. And the runway was right there, two minutes away. All he had to do was ignore the voice on the radio, line it up, slam the flaps up hard and put the G-1 on the runway somehow. Any landing he could walk away from was sounding good right now. Just let this torture stop.

"Condor, make an immediate right turn, hold your altitude steady."

No. "Sorry, Kite, I'm landing now."

"Like hell you are!" Jason even heard the gulp as Rick realised the enormity of what he'd said. "Break right for a full circuit, now. We need the data you have. Two extra minutes and you can land at a sensible speed. Work with me here."

Jason fought with himself, and the airspeed gauge tipped the balance. One nice, simple circuit, slowing all the time. No other aircraft to get in the way. No need to worry about the radio, or the correct protocol. He'd play it safe and get down in one piece.

"Going around. Let's make it just the one circuit."

"Roger that. Keep her level, stay off the power. Your airspeed's coming down just fine."

Jason sighed, reluctantly turning his eyes away from the illusory safety of the ISO airfield and bringing the G-1 round in a long sweep back out to sea. Now he'd made the decision, he couldn't believe how close he'd come to doing something so completely stupid. Sure, Mark could land the G-1 at that speed, probably with his eyes shut. Rick - maybe. Jason was reasonably sure he'd have got down somehow, but at what cost? Quite apart from the possibility of trashing the vital data in the flight computer, if he bent the G-1, Mark would kill him.

"Right turn, one-eighty degrees. Line her up, keep it simple."

He was getting close now. City away to the left, bright green of the airfield directly in front of him, runway straight at him, ISO buildings to the side. This was much better. This speed felt halfway manageable - he still wasn't confident of not making a mistake, but at least he'd be doing better than getting as close to the runway as he could and then throwing the G-1 at the tarmac. This was the part of flying he hated above all else, and with good reason. Seven out of eight wasn't good enough.

That coastline was desperately near. He could see the deep water cove which contained the entrance to the Phoenix's hangar, even tell that the tide was in. The runway began barely a hundred yards from the edge of the cliff.

"Keep slowing. There's not much headwind."

"Check."

Even allowing for double vision, that was a lot of red vehicles parked the far end of the runway, and a couple of fast chasers parked this end ready to follow him down in case he never got that far. Jason allowed himself a snort of derision, and applied himself to making this a textbook landing. If there even was a textbook for the G-1.

It was close enough. The nosewheel hit considerably harder than Mark would have approved of, and for one horrible moment he thought the G-1 would veer off the runway altogether. He was standing on the brakes as hard as he could with engines in full reverse, and the end of the runway was getting closer and closer...

There was plenty of length, of course. The runway was designed to take the Phoenix coming in hot in an emergency, and Mark regularly landed the G-1 faster than he'd been going, just for fun. The G-1 rolled to a stop several hundred yards short of the waiting emergency vehicles, and Jason folded his arms on the controls and lowered his throbbing head onto them. He was down in one piece. It would do.

The sound of vehicle engines grew louder, then there was a jolt as something hit the side of the plane, followed by an insistent tapping. Jason forced his eyes open and popped the canopy. Major Grant stood at the top of the steps. Not the welcoming committee he'd have chosen.

Not Grant's normal superior mood, though. The man actually looked pleased to see him, and Jason started to realise just what it must have been like for the control crew, to hear them go into jump and apparently never come out the other side.

"Can you stand?"

"Yeah, walk too, on a good day. I'm working on running."

Grant didn't even react to the sarcasm. "Power down. Let's get you out of there."

Jason put a protective hand across the controls. "Not yet. There's a load of jump-data in the computer. I've got to get it out, figure out how to get someone back there." He became aware of an ambulance at the bottom of the steps, two green-clad figures waiting. "Don't let them drug me. I have to talk to Anderson. You're going to need Riga -"

"Slow down, son." Jason was so unnerved by the mixture of worry and relief in Grant's voice - by any recognisable emotion at all from the man - that he didn't even object to 'son.' "I'll get the data. You get yourself out of that seat."

When it came to it, he found he couldn't stand up after all. Grant and one of the medics had to help him out of the cockpit, and Grant himself provided a shoulder down the steps. The gurney waiting at the bottom was one of the best sights of his life. He was vaguely aware of Grant, back in full icy mode, making it very clear to the medical personnel that no drugs were to be administered to him, and then he was lying quiet on the gurney and the world seemed to distance itself for a while.


"Jason, I'd like you out of birdstyle, if you can." That was Chris Johnson's voice. "Jason, can you hear me?"

He opened his eyes a crack to a blessedly dark and quiet room, and struggled to a position where he could activate the bracelet. The blinding flash of transmutation spiked clean through his eyelids, and he couldn't suppress a groan.

"I'm going to put in an IV - you're dehydrated, and-"

Jason was bolt upright. "No drugs!"

"No drugs. Just saline. Jason, you're in shock. Lie down."

"I need to talk to Anderson."

"I said lie down!"

Jason would have resisted, but he knew only too well what the symptoms of shock were, and that he was exhibiting most of them. And that if he didn't do as instructed, he had about ten seconds before he passed out.

Five minutes later he felt better enough to argue properly. It wasn't needed. As he opened his mouth to demand again to see Anderson, the man himself walked through the door and stood looking down at him, face unreadable in the shadow.

"Hi, Chief. Miss me?"

Anderson cleared his throat. "Talk to me."

Jason looked desperately around him. "I had a list, and three CDs -"

"Major Grant gave them to me, together with all the data from the G-1's computer. I've talked with Colonel Ivanov. Now tell me exactly what happened."

Jason started at the beginning, and scarcely drew breath until he reached the point where he'd taken the G-1 and jumped it back to Earth.

"You jumped the G-1," Anderson stated. "Do you think you could do it again?"

Jason just nodded, unable to look at him.

"Well done." Anderson patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. "Now get some rest. We have a rescue mission to organise, and you need to be in a fit state to contribute later."

Jason wanted to be involved now. There was a vast amount of data to analyse, liaison with the Red Rangers for a Rigan rescue ship, spares to be checked - and he couldn't do it. He'd fought the migraine back while flying, but now he was down and safe he had nothing left. He couldn't focus at all, his head was ready to explode and he had the distinct suspicion that if he sat up he'd be throwing up for the third time that day. Taking the drugs was a last resort he wasn't ready to take yet. He had to prove that he could cope drug free, or his first mission back could be his last. Chris Johnson was standing next to him with the electrode net which was the only other thing which helped, and he knew that he needed to relax completely for it to work. Others would have to do the preparation. He had no choice but to sleep.


"That's the last one," Mark told the two who were outside sealing the holes in the Phoenix's hull. "Come back in."

"And about time too." Tiny's voice was weary. "I hope you've got dinner ready."

"In your dreams, G-5." Mark really wasn't in the mood for quips. "Keyop, can we repressurise?"

The young man started, and instantly froze. He's hurting bad, Mark thought, and pushed it to the back of his mind. There was nothing that could be done. "Repressurisation, so we can get to the engines. When can we do it?"

Keyop made a visible effort to concentrate. "Best leave it for a while. The foam works better if it's not stressed until it's fully cured."

"So how long - a couple of hours?"

Keyop was silent again, and Mark looked round from the communications console in concern. "G-4, you alright?"

Keyop looked utterly miserable, and Mark felt his throat contract in sympathy. The kid had to hold on. However bad he was hurting now, making a jump with drugs in his system would be far, far worse.

"God, it's cold out there!" Tiny came back onto the flight deck, helmet in hand, closely followed by Princess. "Tell me we've got a good enough seal to open up the pressure doors and work from inside."

"Keyop thinks we should leave it for a while before we repressurise," Mark told them. "In the meantime, you two should rest. I'll keep watch."

Tiny peered at him. "You still look tired."

Mark scowled. He felt it, too, and he shouldn't - he was the only one who'd had any rest at all so far. "I'm getting old."

"Twenty isn't old, birthday boy. Twenty-one, now..."

Mark smiled despite himself. Tiny, self-appointed morale officer, back on form.

"Tiny?" said a small voice from Keyop's chair. "Can't we make it warmer in here?"

The medic was at his friend's side in three strides. "You're not too comfortable, are you?"

"No." His voice wavered. "I need to curl up and sleep, and it hurts no matter what I try."

"I'll get him some blankets," Princess volunteered, and disappeared out of the rear of the cockpit.

"He could lie down in sickbay?" Mark suggested.

"It's warmer in here - we're more central and there's equipment running. The Phoenix isn't meant for drifting around in space. Everything's designed to dump heat, not retain it."

Keyop managed a chuckle. "I've never wanted to go to fiery Phoenix before."

"Good man," Mark told him. "We'll wrap you up warm. Once you relax the implant'll start doing its job properly, and before you know it Jason'll have a ship back here to get us."

There were rather a lot of assumptions in there, but Keyop looked happier, and the return of Princess with the blankets from sickbay improved his mood still more. He was soon almost invisible, tucked into his seat, and barely five minutes after that his eyes had closed.

"You two, as well," Mark insisted. "We've still got a lot to do. Get some sleep now while the repairs set."

Princess nodded, and dropped into her seat with a sigh. Even Tiny didn't argue. Maybe freefall was intrinsically tiring - or maybe it was the stress of the situation. Or maybe they were far too out of practise. Whichever, Mark was very glad for the enforced rest, and glad he hadn't had to go back out there and carry out a second shift of repairs. He'd just sit here and relax while the others slept.

Two minutes later, the flight deck was silent.


Jason woke, disorientated. For a moment he expected to be strapped into a seat in zero g, but no, he remembered now he'd landed the G-1. This was ISO, and opening his eyes a crack revealed a room he'd become all too familiar with in the past three months.

Medical's side room. Quiet and dark, he'd spent a truly miserable ten days in here after the team had returned from Spectra, in between more tests than he'd thought existed. Initially for every possible side-effect of the concussion he'd suffered, then for more serious conditions. Everything from meningitis to aneurysm to brain tumour. They'd found nothing, the painkillers were becoming less and less effective, and it had got to the point where all he could do was sit with his head in his hands and try to cope from one minute to the next. He was out of endurance and the doctors were out of ideas, and all he could think was how ironic it was that his career would be ended by a simple bump on the head.

And then Chris Johnson had come in, turned the light on despite his furious protests, and told him to describe exactly what visual disturbances he was getting. Jason had done just that, in words of one syllable, and he wasn't sure which of them had realised first that what he was describing now was subtly different from the concussion symptoms he'd described initially. Chris had sworn - the first and only time Jason had ever heard him do so - turned the light back off, and stalked out of the room, muttering about 'status' and various other Latin terms. Five minutes later he'd returned and administered an injection, and half an hour after that Jason had felt better than he had done for weeks.

He still couldn't believe he'd been so completely flattened by something which he'd assumed only affected middle-aged women. Migraine, of all things. Not even post-concussion syndrome, or something similarly impressive-sounding. He remained grateful that he hadn't been the one to tell the team. He'd not been remotely out of the woods - the drugs which kept the symptoms at bay were about as incompatible with jump as you could get, and for several weeks the blinding headache had come back every time the medication had been stopped. The electrode net had been a long shot, something which worked for a small minority of people. He'd expected nothing, and got a miracle. It worked for him. There was serious talk of putting something similar in his helmet, and there was even the possibility that he could have a mini-version implanted against his skull. The cerebonic implant designers were working flat out to determine whether the two types of implant could co-exist successfully. If so, there'd be no more need for him to worry whether every time he pushed himself, went without sleep, went through jump, would trigger another attack. For now, though, the external net was all he had, and while it had worked well in the early stages of an attack, by the time he'd got here he'd been pretty bad. Time to find out whether he was in for twenty-four hours of dark and quiet, or whether life was back to normal.

He opened his eyes fully and found that fate had been kind. His vision was back to normal and the headache had gone, leaving him with the strange sensation that something was missing. There was an IV in his arm and a scatter of electrodes taped to his head and neck, which he promptly set about removing.

"Feeling better?" asked a voice from the doorway.

Jason grinned at the doctor. "What are you - psychic? Yes. What time is it?"

"You've slept for four hours." His hands went up to forestall Jason's protest. "They've only just finished analysing the data you brought back. Are you fit for a briefing?"

"I will be once you get this lot off me."

Much swearing and removal of surgical tape later, he was back on his feet, hoping that he wasn't showing the shakiness he felt.

"You need to eat something," the doctor told him. So much for that hope, then.

He ended up with a glass of Chris's patent restorative - he had to admit that it worked, but the stuff tasted vile. He'd barely started it when his bracelet pinged.

"G-2, Briefing Room 1 please."


There were far more people there than was normal for a briefing. Anderson, Grant and Ivanov, a tall man in a Rigan colonel's uniform, a couple of the jump theoreticians, the two Force Two hopefuls and Anderson's communications technician, Paula Arkwright. A strange split of expressions, too - the younger three looked excited, happy even, while the senior staff universally projected concern.

"Ah, Condor. Good," said Anderson as Jason made his way to a free chair. "Now we have a number of possibilities which we've been considering - Dr Sheridan, would you start, please?"

The jump specialist got hesitantly to his feet and turned on the projector. "I've analysed the data from the jump-point that the Condor used to get back here, and we have a problem."

They certainly did. There was nothing to jump to; next to no variation in particle density, barely measurable gravitational fields, nothing to distinguish that particular point on the trajectory from any other. Anderson looked grave as Sheridan finished, and the Rigan was shaking his head.

"Colonel Targon?" Ivanov asked.

"I'm sorry, my friend. We don't have a ship capable of making such a jump. Our larger ships, anything big enough to carry your Phoenix, need a much better defined target. It is beyond even our medium class of ships. And I will be honest, I could not make that jump myself even in a fighter. My compliments to you, Condor."

Jason nodded his thanks, as Sheridan sat down again, and only then did the ramifications of what had just been said sink in. Riga couldn't help. No rescue ship was being prepped. Nobody else could get to the team to help. He was going to have to go back.

"I suspected as much," Anderson said. "Thank you for your support, Colonel. This leaves us with few options -"

"It's obvious you need me to jump the G-1 back, Chief," Jason snapped. "Let's just get on with it, shall we?"

Targon's jaw dropped visibly. Jason guessed Red Ranger seconds were a little less outspoken.

Anderson had long since stopped reacting to such comments. "We will discuss all the options, G-2, limited though they are. Taking the G-1 back out is next on the list. Major?"

"The engineers say it's a problem," Grant said. "The G-1's no cargo plane. The drive chamber will fit inside, but they'd have to take the G-1 apart and rebuild the rear section around it. It won't be quick."

Jason glared. "Then they'd better get started."

He saw Grant take a breath, then swallow whatever he'd been about to say. Anderson didn't react either. They're humouring me, he thought. They don't think I'm up to it.

They've already decided it's impossible. We're only having this discussion as a courtesy. They don't expect anything useful to come from it. That hurt. Jason determined that the next thing he said would be useful and helpful, and to hell with his reputation.

In the event, the next thing he said was "What the hell is that?"

Rick grinned at him. "That's the P-X. The next generation Phoenix."

Jason stared at the new image on the projector screen. Technicians running here and there around what looked like a remodeled Phoenix with a paint job. This was a lot more promising than featureless contour plots. "The prototype for Force Two? It's ready?"

"Ready enough." Rick's grin grew broader. If and when they managed a full complement of personnel for Force Two - in particular, a jump-pilot - this red and silver beauty would be his to fly. Jason was almost jealous.

Almost. His own ship was out there in tatters, and she needed him.

The ship? What was wrong with him? His team-mates were still out there in the cold and dark of interstellar space, and here he was, safe at home, thinking about how good it had felt to interface with a jump-drive again, and how much better the raw power of the Phoenix would be than the minimal system in the G-1.

"G-2, are you even listening?"

"Yeah, Chief. Fully functional drives, no weapons. How tested is it?"

"Not very. I was going to have G-Force take it up next week."

"She'll fly," Rick put in.

"Handle much like the Phoenix?"

"No. You need us - Dimitri and me." Rick leaned forwards, his expression close to pleading. "We've been working on the simulators for months. We can fly her for you, get you to the jump-point."

Jason didn't need time to consider. This was far, far better than he'd dared hope. "You're on. I don't know the systems - the two of you can handle it?"

"You're not going anywhere without a jump-communicator," Grant cut in. "Lieutenant Arkwright has volunteered. She'll be going with you."

He might as well have suggested coming himself. Jason stared at him in disbelief. "Paula? She doesn't have a birdstyle, she's not -". He caught himself. Of course she was implanted - the jump-comm used the same sort of interface that the drive itself did. But still - "Is she even remotely fit? Drug free? This is insane."

Paula blinked unhappily. "If I'm no use, I'm no use. But yes, I'm drug free, and I'm prepared to go." Her voice steeled. "You want to see my half-mile times? I'm fit enough."

"Launch and jump is nothing like running round a track." Jason considered one face after another. "You're serious, aren't you? What's she even going to wear?"

"The Red Rangers manage perfectly well without birdstyle," Anderson said. "Jason, we've been through this in detail while you were recovering. Do you really think we would have nominated someone who wasn't clean and ready? Paula's an extremely good comm-tech, and having her out there will free up Princess to help with the repairs."

Jason knew when he was onto a loser. Anderson's mind was made up - and he had to admit that his reasoning wasn't bad. "Okay, she comes. When do we leave?"

"When I've seen you on the jump-simulator for the P-X."

"Oh, for crying out loud!" Jason slammed both hands down on the table. "Look at the jump I just made! I don't need a simulator run!"

He might as well not have bothered. "Simulator room in five minutes, G-2," Anderson said mildly, and called the meeting to a close.


"The following personnel to the launch bay immediately: Kite, Osprey, Condor, Lieutenant Arkwright. Acknowledge, please."

"Kite here," Rick said into his bracelet. "On my way."

He'd spent the fifteen minutes since he'd been dismissed sitting cross-legged on his bed, running through every relaxation exercise he knew in an attempt to calm himself. Almost a year since he'd been implanted, and he'd started to wonder why they'd bothered. All he and Dimitri did was train on their own. They never got to train alongside G-Force, only occasionally got to watch them. Rick had suggested tentatively - just once - that maybe it would be useful for him to fly a mission as inactive observer. Anderson hadn't even deigned to answer, had simply looked at him with his eyebrows raised, and Rick had mumbled a shamefaced apology and returned to his practise. He'd dared to hope again when the Condor had been sidelined for several weeks, allegedly with a concussion, although everyone who'd seen how ill he looked suspected more. Nothing had been said, and G-Force had continued to fly a man short. There was no sign of Force Two becoming a reality, and he saw less active duty now - read 'none' - than he had on Team 7. And then, out of the blue, Anderson had called him and Dimitri in and told them they'd be flying a rescue mission under the Condor's command.

His first thought had been relief that ISO's leading team wasn't lost after all. Selfish delight at the opportunity had rapidly moved in, intermixed with concern about his own ability to do this. It was only later that he'd started to worry about the people out there, when Dimitri had asked how they were. Dimitri, who'd met them for the first time only a few months ago, and barely knew them other than by codename. Rick, on the other hand, had worked with Mark and Jason as colleagues on Team 7, considered them team-mates and equals long before he'd realised they were the Eagle and the Condor. Even now, knowing what danger four of his friends were in, there was a part of him which still thought of this as an opportunity. Act as pilot for the Condor, help to rescue the Eagle, and surely Anderson would recognise that he was ready for a real job. Then - who knew what might happen? All of a sudden Jason was a jump-pilot - well, surely G-Force didn't need two? Force Two might not be such a long way off after all.

Three of them converged in the lift - himself and Dimitri in birdstyle, Paula looking more than a little out of place in a poorly fitting Red Ranger uniform and a generic training helmet. She noticed him looking and flushed.

"At least they didn't ask me to wear the hat."

"You'll be fine." Rick did his best impression of a reassuring smile. "Hell, you're closer to having real mission experience than either of us is."

The corners of Paula's mouth twitched. "I guess so. Provided I remember which side of the communications protocol is me."

The lift slowed and stopped, and Rick realised the other two were waiting for him to take the lead. You're the senior officer here, pal. If the Condor keels over - and he sounded truly awful when you were talking him down - you're It. Think you're ready for a commission? Really?

Yes, he did. Rick took a firm hold of his own uncertainties. I'm ready for this. Enough with the training. Time to do it for real.

"Come on, then. Let's not keep the Condor waiting."


"We launch in five," Jason said to the arriving footsteps. "Preflight now. Control's ready for us." He shifted over to his own seat - well, the seat which corresponded to his on the Phoenix - and glared at the acres of blank console. Not a weapons system on the ship. He'd have been so much happier knowing there was a Bird Missile launcher. Just one. Well, maybe two - and the Super launcher wouldn't go amiss either. Run into Spectra on this little trip and they were in serious trouble.

Paula slipped into the chair to his right, and the image of Control came up on the main screen. Grant and his team, since Anderson's comms expert was right here with him. Anderson was there, though, leaning on Grant's chair, and Grant didn't look entirely comfortable. Good. Let him find out how it feels.

It was very strange listening to the comms checks going on alongside him in a voice other than Princess's. Looking back, he tried to remember the last time he'd been there and she hadn't. It had been a long time.

His own checks were complete in a matter of seconds - only the jump-drive controls to consider. Dimitri was handling the scanners, and Jason quietly pulled up his own interface to the radar station and watched what the young Russian was doing. Dimitri was very young and very new at this, but he seemed to be doing fine. Of course, young was relative. Jason had commanded G-Force before he'd reached Dimitri's age. At the time he'd thought those who said they were too young and tried to hold the program back were acting out of jealousy. Now he knew exactly how they'd felt.

Paula was finally finishing her checks, and Jason forced himself not to display impatience. They were new at this, slow. They'd never needed to take off from cold inside a minute, never had to skip checks in favour of trying to see a pattern in scan data, never had to choose between preflight and emergency first aid. He'd forgotten just how long the full set of standard checks was supposed to take. This was long enough, though.

"Sound off."

He knew Rick well enough to hear the forced control in his voice. "Kite."

"Osprey." Dimitri he knew less well, but that was more excitement than nerves.

"Uh - comms." Paula didn't have a callsign of her own, of course, and was used to answering as Control.

"Control, we're ready."

"Good luck, G-2," Grant said. "Internal comms off."

"Acknowledged," Jason said, reached across Paula, and turned the transmitter off. "Fine, Rick. Who do you want in that co-pilot's chair? Me or Dimitri?"

"I don't need -"

"This isn't a discussion. You're not doing your first orbital boost without a co-pilot."

"You."

"You got it. Paula, comms on." He locked down the controls at the console he instinctively felt ought to be his, and headed for the front right seat. "Let's do this. Control, open the bay doors."

He was forced to admit to himself that Rick was a good pilot these days. Not in Tiny's class, but then nobody was. The launch was smooth enough, though, boost to orbit made cleanly and accurately. Not much finesse there yet, but a whole lot better than flying it himself. At least until they hit orbit and Rick cut thrust to leave them sailing along in zero g.

Tiny knew not to do that, had known for years. Jason was so used to the gravity generator going on the moment the engines cut that it hadn't even occurred to him. Normally he could cope for a time before motion sickness got the better of him, but today had already been too much. He gagged and groped frantically for the control, willing himself not to lose it and throw up in front of this crew, and hoping this was one switch they'd left in the same place that it was on the Phoenix.

Gravity. Up and down, and his stomach back where it belonged. Jason allowed himself the luxury of two slow breaths to settle himself, and opened his eyes to a concerned pilot.

"Sir - are you OK?"

"Fine."

Rick swallowed hard. "Because if, if you're not fit to make the jump, my orders are to proceed no further. Sir. If you're passing out on launch, you're not fit."

Jason glared. "I didn't pass out."

"You didn't look good. At all."

And you have no idea why. Here goes my image. Mark, you'd better appreciate this. "Zero g's not my favourite."

Rick gaped at him. "That's why you needed talking down? It takes you out that bad?"

"No. Comms, confirm orbit with Control, tell them we're moving out."

"Not yet, Paula."

Jason was on his feet in one smooth movement, intimidatingly close to the pilot, his hand resting on the cable gun. "Don't you ever do that again, mister. Nobody countermands my orders - you get that? Nobody. Now I know Anderson told you you're second in command here. Forget it. You do as I say or I'll tie all three of you up in the cargo hold and fly her alone. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

"Yes, Condor." Rick's voice held an edge of fear. "But I still need to know if you're having a major problem."

Well, he's got guts. And he's got a point. Dammit. "You want to know why I couldn't see straight to land the G-1? Well, I get migraines, Rick, that's all. Yep, migraines. Nothing heroic, or dramatic, or medically interesting, or curable. Just migraines bad enough that I can't see straight or keep my lunch down. Happy?"

Rick just stared at him in disbelief. Jason wasn't surprised. He'd heard the rumours spreading through black section as to why he'd been inactive for three months, and none of them had ever been mundane. People like him weren't supposed to get sick like the rest of the universe. They were supposed to suffer unusual, life-threatening illnesses or severe injury sustained doing something heroic, and either die bravely saving their team-mates or make a full recovery following some miraculous discovery by the medical team.

"One other thing. I hear this on the grapevine, you three are dead."

"You won't," Dimitri said quietly from behind him. "We only want to help. Are you going to be ill again after making the jump?"

Jason gave the only answer he could. "I don't know. Comms, I gave you an order."

"Yes, sir." Paula made her radio contact, and Jason moved to the jump-pilot's seat alongside her.

"Kite, take us out. You know the heading?"

Rick nodded. "Yes - but the checks -"

"Welcome to the real world. Is there anything you're concerned about? Any of you?"

He got three 'no's in response.

"Then we go. Line her up and hit it."

He only belatedly remembered that he'd got a crew who'd never taken a ship into orbit before, and a comm-tech who'd never so much as ridden a centrifuge. They had to be scared witless at this point. Maybe he should have let them comfort themselves with the checks. Too late now.

"Ten minutes to the jump-point." Rick said a little too loudly shortly afterwards. "Jason - I'm not too clear on what I do."

"You do nothing." Jason looked up from his own checks of the jump-drive. "I'd prefer it if we went in inertial, but it doesn't matter that much. Just don't touch anything once I call 'going for jump'." He noticed Paula's hands, clenched white on the console, and realised she probably had no idea what was going to happen. "You okay there?"

"I...yes. I'll be okay."

"I doubt it." That got to her. The mask of faked confidence slipped, and he sensed rather than saw the other two snap to attention. "Jump's unpleasant, and your implants haven't been fine-tuned. We're going a long way."

Dimitri cleared his throat. "How...how long?"

"At least twenty minutes. I don't expect any of you to stay conscious. It doesn't matter in any case. Once we jump, it's all automatic." They don't need to know about this morning. Hell, I wish I could forget it right now.

There was silence for a while, broken by a nervous splutter from Paula. "I'm sorry - I know we have to do a data dump before we jump, I know it's my job, but I have no idea how to do it."

Don't snap. She's doing her best. And at least she told you. Jason did allow himself a sigh. Like he knew where half the controls were on this ship - the darn thing was so new it still smelt of plastic, and he'd had to peel the protective film cover off the screen on his console. He'd have been much, much happier taking it on a shorter test jump first - say to Mars - but he knew he was close to running on empty already, plus it would have meant still more delay. He didn't like to think how cold it would be getting out there by now.

"I can do it," Dimitri offered.

"Good." Jason looked at the clock. "Start now. Rick, would you know crap sensor data if you saw it?"

Rick gulped. "For jump? Maybe."

"Tell me if you see it. Jump in two minutes." God, he wished he had more time. The sensors were better than the Phoenix's, but he hated having to trust someone else's calibration, and the screen wasn't laid out the way he liked it. It was too bad - this was what he had, and it was a million times better than if he'd been in the G-1.

Fate was on his side today. It was about time. The numbers were good - better than he could have hoped.

"Ten seconds." Final checks, all as it should be. "Stand by - jump!"

This was the way it should be. This was how it should have been for the past three years. Raw power just a thought away, his to control. As the jump-drive screamed into life, Jason felt himself smiling despite everything - and it wasn't until the blazing fire of the transition had tinged his vision red that he realised he hadn't even considered whether the interface would work.


"Mark - are you alright?"

He dragged himself up from the depths of sleep. "Sure, why are you - oh." Suddenly wide awake and feeling his face turn scarlet with embarrassment, he couldn't even look at Tiny.

"You should have said. That bad jump really screwed with you, didn't it?" Tiny's tone was sympathetic, but the suggestion jarred.

Mark glared. "I'm fine. At least I have an excuse for going to sleep on the job." He regretted it the moment the words left his mouth, but the damage was done. Tiny walked away in silence.

"What do we need to do next?" asked Princess, and he shot her a quick smile, grateful for the change of subject.

"Pressurise the engine compartment and get those pressure doors open." He shuddered, becoming aware of the temperature. "Man, it's cold in here. Do you think it would be warmer if we got more equipment running?"

"No fuel to spare," Tiny said bluntly.

"You're right." How did I forget that?

What am I going to forget next? How can I possibly still be this tired?

"Mark, be honest with us." Tiny's face was concerned. "You're struggling, aren't you? Look, I don't know much about how that implant works, but you were trying to pull us out of the jump before Keyop cut the power, and I guess there was something wrong with the connection. Could it have drained the implant?"

He forced himself to concentrate and consider the suggestion. It made a lot of sense. He should have realised it himself.

"I'm pretty tired," he admitted. "But that's too bad right now. We're already down to three of us - how's Keyop doing?"

"Fast asleep, and I'd rather not wake him," Tiny said.

"We may need to later, but for now we know what to do." Mark managed a sheepish smile. "That foam's had more than a couple of hours to harden. I'll start the repressurisation."

 

"Pressure holding," Princess reported. "I have a green light on the pressure doors."

Tiny sighed with relief. "No more spacewalks! Let's go fix stuff. Mark, you stay here. Princess and I can do it, and someone's got to keep watch."

Mark shook his head. "Princess can stay."

"Now hold on a minute!"

"If I sit down in here, I'll just go to sleep again."

"Okay." Tiny looked far from convinced. "Provided you tell me if you've got a problem. You expect Jason to - well, now it's your turn. Make a mistake rewiring, and we all get blown to hell when the engines fire. Assuming Jason makes it back to Earth to tell them where we are in the first place."

"He'll make it," Princess stated. Mark envied her faith.

 

In truth, it wasn't as bad back there as he'd feared. The main force of the explosion had been sucked straight out into space, and the firestorm he'd anticipated in the control systems had been snuffed out as soon as it had begun due to lack of oxygen. They'd still have to replace every wire in here - but at least the old ones were still in place. Replacing damaged wire with new wire was so much easier than starting from a pile of ash and a wiring diagram.

"Man, we were lucky." Tiny stopped in the doorway just behind him. "When I think what could have happened - that list of Keyop's was pretty long, but just think of all the things that weren't on it. Fuel tanks, the main engines, all the mechanical controls. We could have had major structural failure."

"We weren't that far off losing the G-1," Mark said quietly. "The floor's buckled in the bay. If the doors had jammed, it would have been hell getting her out even if she'd survived intact."

Tiny shivered, not entirely due to the temperature. "Okay. Where do we start?"

"Wiring. When your fingers get too cold, tell me and we'll go on to something more vigorous to warm up."

Five minutes in, Tiny sighed dramatically. "This is so boring. How many have you done?"

Mark looked down. "Six. It's going to take a while."

"And how. Still, I guess I can always chuck in the day job and set up as an electrician after this."

"I'll join you. No, on second thoughts, no I won't. That's eight."

"How'd you get so quick at this?"

Mark grinned even though he knew Tiny couldn't see his face. "Even Cessnas have wiring. Just because that antique boat of yours predates the wheel. Nine."

Tiny growled and applied himself to the task, and there was silence for some time.

"Should we be saving this lot? So they can use it to figure out what went wrong?"

"Load of charred wires?" Mark considered it. "We may as well keep it, but getting home's more important. We'll be more careful with the big bits - the drive chamber and the fuel lines. And keep your eyes open for anything you don't recognise."

"Not sure I'm the best person for that. Mark, I'm wondering if we should wake Keyop up and bring him in here before we get too far. He's more familiar with it than any of us. He might spot something."

"We'll try it." He switched to his bracelet. "G-3? Any chance of waking G-4 up?"

"Hold on." There was a brief pause, then she came back on the line. "He's really out of it. Dead to the world. I'd say the implant's doing its job. I've never been hurt that bad - is it possible to wake someone at this stage?"

"Darn. No, no chance at all. Leave him."

 

Keyop was still fast asleep when Tiny changed places with Princess, and again when Mark changed places with Tiny. He was finally feeling more alert, enough to dare to sit in Princess's chair and watch sensor screens without fear of dropping off. They were getting there slowly, the engine room was starting to look less like a burnt-out wreck and more like a high-tech operational unit, and Princess had a small plastic box containing a few charred fragments she claimed were of alien origin, which she'd found as they replaced the damaged fuel line. Mark would be a whole lot happier if it turned out that this disaster had been caused by sabotage - except that then they'd have to find the saboteur. Still, it would be better than knowing that the jump-drive had failed all on its own.

He was deep in consideration of where there might possibly be weak spots in the Phoenix's security when Princess's board started to flash red lights at him. Mark jumped, squinted at the screen and used one of Jason's favourite expressions before hitting the intercom - and then remembering that that particular system was way down the repair list. He went to the bracelet.

"Get back up here fast! We've got an incoming ship!"

Princess was in the engine room, Keyop was useless, and Jason was the other side of the galaxy. Mark shifted to the gunner's station and reviewed their options. It didn't take long. There was nothing that could be brought to bear on the newcomer. The targeting system seemed to be responding, but he had no way to tell whether the missile launcher really had activated, or whether the sensors just thought it had.

Tiny entered the flight deck at a flat run, dropped into his seat and spread his hands in the air above his board. "You do know I've got no engines yet?"

"Tell me we've got manoeuvring thrusters and get us lined up on the coordinates I just sent you. Princess, what the hell is that thing? All I can tell is it's way bigger than the G-1, and a couple of hundred klicks off."

Princess looked at the readings, shook her head, played with the settings a bit and sat back with her mouth open.

"Well? Do I blow it out of the sky or not? What is it?"

"Mark - I know this is impossible, but it's the Phoenix."


The jump-drive cut out, and it took Jason several seconds to realise that Mark wasn't going to call for them to sound off. He called it himself, to no effect. He might have expected them all to pass out - but he'd really rather they hadn't. The sensor console on this ship was completely different to the one he knew. Dimitri had operated it very efficiently, but Dimitri was now collapsed back in his seat, eyes rolled back, breathing unsteadily and Jason knew from experience there would be no waking him for at least ten minutes.

He checked on Rick, with much the same result, and only then noticed that Paula was struggling to sit up.

"Nice going," he told her, and helped her to upright. "You up to telling Control we're here? Wherever here is."

Paula stared at him in bleary-eyed horror, and croaked, "Don't you know?"

"Only to within a few million klicks. I'm hoping we're close enough for Dimitri to pick the Phoenix up on the scanner. Now, call Control."

Paula did so, and Jason belatedly realised how rough her voice sounded and presented her with half a cup of water, before endeavouring unsuccessfully to rouse the Osprey again.

"Is he okay?" Paula asked, having finished her interchange.

"They're both fine." Jason returned to his seat. "Absolutely normal. It takes forever for the docs to get the implants fine-tuned - until then, you pass out in jump. And then they go out of tune, and you start passing out again, or your recovery time goes way up, and you spend another three hours face down in Medical while they stick needles in your neck. It's great fun. Thank your lucky stars you're not in this line of work." He raised his voice. "Rick?"

There was no reply, and Jason sighed. "And out of the three of you, the one who got lucky is the one who doesn't know how the sensors work. Typical. Still, we may as well tell the Phoenix we're here. Get on the radio and see if you can raise them."


 "Us?" Mark leant over her shoulder. "I'm not in the mood for jokes."

"Me neither." She pointed to a set of figures on her screen. "See those? That's a jump-drive signature just like ours, and there's another set which looks just like the remnants of fiery Phoenix. And the size is right." Her eyebrows went up as another set of lights started to blink. "And they're radioing us on our default frequency."

"Put it on speaker." Mark took a deep breath. He had no idea what was going on here - but at least part of him was running through every time travel or alternate universe sci-fi episode he'd ever seen.

"Come in Phoenix, this is Lifeboat, do you read me?"

Princess's jaw dropped visibly. "Paula?"

"Give me that," Mark demanded, grabbing at the microphone. "Lieutenant Arkwright? I want to speak to your commanding officer, right away."

"You don't get rid of me that easily," a familiar voice drawled. "Hey, no radio lag."

"You're two hundred klicks from us, idiot! What do you expect? And what are you flying?"

"Two hundred?" There was a brief pause, as if Jason was considering his next words. "Uh - can you give me a direction? My scanner operator hasn't exactly woken up yet, and these scanner controls are...esoteric."

Tiny chuckled. "Did I hear that right? Tell Jason I'll get him a bearing."

"Bearing on its way," Mark said into the mike. "Condor, who's the rest of your crew? And why are you here at all?"

"Rigan tech can't make that jump. I'm in the P-X with the Kite and the Osprey. Both still out for the count. Unless you're desperate, I'll wait for them to wake up - the Kite's a darn sight better at piloting this crate than I would be, and I take it you want us transfer tube distance away."

"I sure don't want you trying to spacewalk with a drive chamber. Tell me you have a drive chamber?"

"Oh, darn, I knew I'd forgotten something - yes, Commander, I have a drive chamber. And a full set of fuel lines, and more wiring than I knew existed. And a hold full of other stuff Engineering thought should come along for the ride. I - hold on, sleepyheads are stirring."

Mark clicked the microphone off. "Sounds like we got ourselves a breakdown truck. Tiny, we're going to need to open the bottom hatch. Have we got any damage down there?"

The pilot shrugged. "I'll go take a look."


"Back with us?" a voice asked in Rick's ear.

Back where? Nothing seemed to fit - he felt as if he'd gone to sleep by accident and woken up with the worst case of sunburn he'd ever had, but he was sitting up, it was cool in here - and he was in birdstyle? He opened his eyes, but being faced with the P-X's control panel didn't immediately make any sense.

"Okay, Rick. Nap time's over. Talk to me."

"I don't - oh." Memory returned. Going to jump, blazing fire running through every nerve and the horrible realisation that he couldn't fight the waves of unconsciousness sweeping up on him. "Sorry."

"For what? Not your fault nobody ever tuned your implant for jump." Jason turned his head. "Dimitri, if you're going to throw up, at least don't do it on the controls."

"'Mitri?" Rick pushed himself to his feet, looking round for his colleague.

The young Russian groaned. "I feel awful."

"Then show me you can function while feeling awful."

That's harsh, Rick thought, and abruptly realised that it was entirely justified. Not only that, but Jason was equally hard on himself.

He's had to be, to stay on G-Force. I'll have to be, to ever be a serious contender for a second team.

"What do you want me to do?"

Jason pointed to the co-ordinates displayed very prominently in the centre of Rick's screen, and he instantly felt idiotic.

"That's the Phoenix. It's not that far, but we want to end up below her, a maximum of ten feet away, our bubble aligned with her underneath hatch."

"Ten feet?" Rick swallowed. "I'll do my best."

"If your best involves bumping her, I'd rather you didn't. Get us within a hundred yards and Tiny can come over and do it. They don't have power yet, or I'd have them come to dock with us."

If Jason's aim had been to make Rick determined to do it himself, he'd succeeded. Call the Owl over - no way. This was his ship, his chance to show what he could do. He made a very careful check of the thruster system, then gently nudged her along the correct vector. Nothing fancy. No need to hurry. If this took ten minutes, so be it. He'd never even tried this on a simulator before without a strong gravitational field in the picture, and the less momentum he had to counter the happier he'd be.

Rick never noticed Jason sit down alongside him in the co-pilot's seat and activate the override controls. Never saw him program the upper thrusters to fire at maximum capacity at a single touch. His world had narrowed to the controls under his fingertips, the flightpath on the screen, and the stationary target in front of him. Flying was almost too strong a word for it, but they were drifting in, already in the right vertical separation. He didn't want to have to fire the upper thrusters if he could possibly avoid it, not with the Phoenix already damaged.

Two hundred metres. Left a fraction. He overcompensated slightly, came back right again too far. Don't start oscillating. Stay calm. One hundred metres, and he was going to miss by at least ten. Rick hit the front thrusters and took off most of his remaining speed, then twitched the ship back onto the correct course as gently as he could. Fifty metres. Twenty. Slow it right down. The P-X drifted under the Phoenix at barely a metre per second, and slowed to a tenth of that. Still too fast - they were still moving, and he couldn't control it any more finely than this --

"That'll do." Jason's voice.

Rick was vaguely aware that Paula was on the radio with the Phoenix, that at least one member of G-Force was outside fastening grapples. He was still trying to juggle thruster controls which weren't responding to him in any way when Jason took him by both shoulders and pushed him back into the seat.

"That's good enough. Leave it. And you need to learn to stop when you're told - if I hadn't overridden your controls, you'd just have fried Princess."

Rick sagged back into his seat, crestfallen. "Sorry."

"Quit saying that. You did okay. Now I'm hoping one of you two knows how to set up the transfer tube."

Rick's mind blanked, but Dimitri volunteered that yes, he could set it up, and he and Jason headed for the bubble.

 

"You can take ten minutes to get warm. In fact you can take more than that. Rick, are you up for some repair work?"

Rick swung round to see the whole of G-Force except for G-4 coming onto the flight deck, Eagle and Condor locked in discussion.

"I guess so. Mitri knows more about it than I do, though."

"He's already there. Mark, show some sense. There's only room for three to work in there, and we're fresh."

Fresh? How can Jason even think that? Rick felt as if he'd been to hell and back already today, after a single jump. Jason had made four, and had had a truly rough time in the G-1. His expression must have suggested something similar, because Tiny stopped and looked closely at the Condor's face.

"You're about as fresh as Keyop is. You and Mark have to jump back, and I have to land the Phoenix. Let Princess do it."

Paula cleared her throat. "I'll help."

"You know nothing about the systems," Mark told her bluntly. "I appreciate the offer, but you can get experience on something less critical. This has to be done right."

Paula shrank back into her seat, and Rick made a mental note to be extra nice to her later. She must feel horribly out of her depth - goodness knew he did, and he was allegedly training for this.

He became aware that Princess was waiting in the doorway, not quite tapping her foot impatiently but definitely looking as if she might. Rick hurriedly got to his feet and followed her, trying to ignore the casual way the Eagle and Owl dropped into the two front seats and acquainted themselves with the controls. They already had a ship. This one was his.

It took hours. Hours of meticulously tracing along a damaged wire, checking the location of  both ends. Cutting a new piece of the correct thickness, laying it along the path of the old one, replacing both end connections, stripping out the old wire, checking the electrical connection both ends, ticking it off on the apparently endless list. Regardless of what Tiny had said about keeping the jump-pilots fresh, it took all six of them working in shifts, and by the time the end was in sight Rick was sick of the sight of wire. His hands cramped, his shoulders ached, his eyes burned. If Rick had been asked for a definition of hell, right now this would have been well up the list.

It didn't seem real when he made the final connection. He didn't even realise it was the last one, just reached for the reel of wire and only then did his dulled brain register that all the wiring in front of him was bright and new.

"Anyone still going?" Mark's voice.

Rick shook his head, too weary even to answer.

"Time to test it out then." He brought his bracelet up. "G-Force, full systems test. Phoenix flight deck in two."

Tiny unfolded himself from where he'd been making the final connections to the new jump-drive chamber - it hadn't escaped Rick's notice that he'd been put to rewiring the diagnostics, while the G-Force crew were responsible for the control circuits. He couldn't blame them.

"Let's go. Rick, you're on the P-X." And the two of them picked up the cables and tools and left, no tiredness in their voices or postures, not a hint of what they'd been through. None of them had complained, protested, or asked for a break at any point. They'd simply got on with what had to be done, with clinical efficiency. Rick was starting to realise that what made them so feared wasn't simply that at their best they were very, very good. It was that they could maintain that level for hours, days. On duty they were that good all the time. They never gave up.

His dismissal had been very clear. Rick took himself back to the P-X's cockpit and, as expected, found only Dimitri and Paula there.

"They've finished," he said as he dropped into the pilot's seat. "They're running tests now."

"That will take at least an hour," Dimitri said. "Well, them - maybe half an hour?"

"Maybe ten minutes." Rick swivelled in his chair. "'Mitri, what are we doing here? They didn't need us."

"They'd still be wiring if we weren't here," Dimitri pointed out. "They are tired, Rick. They just don't show it. Not to us."

"No, and never will. Paula, tell Control what's going on."

"Right."

That said it all, really. Here he was, technically in command of this ship for the first time, nothing to do, and the only order he'd given got answered with 'right'. At least it hadn't been 'why'. Force Two? He might be sitting in deep space, the senior officer on the P-X, but right now it had never seemed so unlikely to happen.

"Control's asking how long until we jump?" Paula was looking round for confirmation. At him.

"Hold on." Rick hit the bracelet and got Mark.

"G-1. What?"

"Control wants an estimate on how long till we jump."

"Twenty minutes. Out."

Rick started to thank him, and realised the channel had already closed. "Tell them thirty, Paula."

"Twenty -"

"Thirty." Rick half turned and glared at her. "Give them some slack. Mitri's right. They shouldn't be having to pretend they're fine, and they are, because we're here."

"Control, G-Force say thirty minutes."

"No, we said twenty." Jason strode back onto the flight deck and dropped into his seat. "What's going on?"

Paula gave Rick a despairing look, said "Lifeboat out" into the mike and shut the connection.

Rick forced confidence into his expression, and turned to face the Condor. "I figured ten minutes extra before Control started worrying wasn't a bad thing. Sir."

Jason's face was unreadable. "A word of advice, Lieutenant. Second-guessing the Eagle is a very bad idea. Regardless of how good your intentions are." Rick had started to breathe again when he added. "And I already told you how I feel about it. Clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Not to mention that the estimate's now twenty minutes off. Are we ready to go?"

"Comms ready," Paula said, and Rick hastily checked his instruments before confirming.

"Phoenix, we're ready for separation."

Separation was far, far easier than the docking procedure had been. All Rick had to do once the Swan had reported that they were disconnected was touch the upper thrusters and wait for the two ships to drift sufficiently far apart that it was safe to fire the main engines. Then all they could do was sit and listen to the transmissions from the Phoenix, and hope.

"Why are they all still on there?" Dimitri asked. "Would it not have been wise just to have one, in case things - go wrong?"

Jason shook his head tiredly. "We're a team. We do things together." It was all too obvious that he'd have been over there himself if the three junior officers could have flown the P-X home without him.

"Firing main engines in five," came over the radio, and Rick froze, very glad he was facing away from the others. All he could think about was that engineroom, spiderwebbed with bright new wire. If even one of those was connected wrongly, the best they could hope for was that they'd be back to square one and hours more of checking every circuit. If they were unlucky, he'd be watching a fireball on the main viewscreen.

"Firing now."

Rick couldn't watch. He shut his eyes, knowing the others' reactions would tell him what had happened and unsure that he'd be able to control his own if the worst happened.

The silence went on for way too long. No cheers, no gasps of horror from behind him. Nothing until the voice on the radio.

"Well? Aren't you going to congratulate us?"

Rick opened his eyes to the beautiful sight of the Phoenix moving away, both engines blazing steadily.

"Only when the jump-drive works," Jason muttered, apparently to himself, before raising his voice. "Rick, set us on a course back to the jump-point. Phoenix, do you need us to match course?"

"You line it up nice and straight. We'll be just off your port wingtip."

Rick did as instructed, and then gulped at the course and speed of the ship moving in on them. "So how far's 'just off'?"

"About five yards. Hold your course." Jason appeared completely relaxed, and Rick tried to imitate his manner.

"Are you going to tell us why we're doing formation flying to an audience of three particles of spacedust?"

"Because I told you to." He paused, seemed happy at the lack of reaction, and continued. "Two ships, one person who can solve the jump-equations. We take a pass through the jump-point with the Phoenix on our wingtip, I solve the equations for them, they jump, we go around."

"We can't jump together?" Dimitri asked.

"I don't even want to think about two ships going coincidental in jump-space. It's not worth the risk. Sensors on, and I need an open radio channel."

"And what do I do?" Rick asked.

"Nothing. Fly straight, and don't panic when the Phoenix goes fiery. Now quiet." The screens filled with incomprehensible numbers, and Rick did exactly as he'd been told. Hands off the controls, and watch in silence. The Phoenix had matched course and speed with them as if it were a training exercise, and now they were bearing down on the jump-point at high speed, feet apart, with Jason chanting apparently random numbers into the radio and on the speaker, the Eagle counting down seconds. He hit zero, the viewscreen flared to bright orange, and then gradually faded to the black of deep space.

"Osprey, scan down the flightpath for them." Jason was out of his seat, leaning over Dimitri's chair, and Rick was very glad he wasn't the one trying to work with eyes boring into the back of his head. "Increase the resolution."

"It doesn't go any further." Dimitri swivelled round, earnest eyes meeting his commander's. "They are not within range."

"What definition have you got?" Jason moved round to get an even better view of the scanner controls, and there was a quickfire discussion which started off technical and rapidly became incomprehensible.

"Okay, we've done all we can. Let's go home. Rick, bring us round and back through that same point. Paula, tell Control the Phoenix has jumped, and we're jumping."

That same point. Rick knew perfectly well that Jason would be recalculating all his numbers, that it didn't matter to the nearest hundred yards exactly how near he got to the same trajectory. He was also certain that how close he got would be discussed by those considering his future, and compared in detail to how well the Owl would have performed the same manoeuvre. So, play it safe, bring her round wide and slow - or aim to impress, execute a tight power turn and go inertial at the last minute?

It wasn't hard to decide. G-Force weren't the best because they were showy or took unnecessary risks, but because they did the right thing at the right time. Rick set up for a wide circle to get back onto his original trajectory well before the point where he needed to go inertial, and concentrated on getting the simpler flightpath absolutely right.

He had no way of telling whether his commanding officer approved. Glancing round at Jason's set face, he couldn't even tell whether he cared. The Condor had one hand to his head and the other on the jump-controls, leaning forward and squinting at his screen in frowning concentration. Tired, ill, vision playing up? On the verge of collapse? About to make a mistake which would kill them all? Technically, Rick could abort the run and ask Jason to explain himself yet again. Not this time. For now, he'd go with his instincts and trust that G-2 could get them home safely.

Going into jump was every bit as bad as it had been the previous time. Rick had been determined that this time he'd stay conscious, prove that he had what it took. It had been in the back of his mind all the time he'd been doing the rewiring; maintaining the concentration required, ignoring the sensation of being burned alive, keeping his eyes open no matter what. Five seconds into the jump he knew he'd been fooling himself. His mind was being stripped away one conscious thought at a time, and he could either start screaming or he could let go and pass out. He let go.


"Isn't it unlucky to celebrate someone's birthday three days late?" Jason asked, coming into a ready room unrecognisable behind miles of paper streamers and a whole flotilla of balloons.

Princess turned from where she was balanced on the back of the sofa attaching streamers to the ceiling. "No, late's fine. Early's unlucky. Where I come from, at least, and since I'm organising it that's what matters. Did they give you the all-clear?"

"Yeah." As much as he was likely to get, anyway. He'd spent the past hour walking the clifftop, drumming into himself that there was no way Anderson would have reinstated him as Phoenix jump-pilot on the basis of a one day disaster recovery mission. He'd need more evidence than that to get it back, and he was sure he'd get the chance. Mark was no fool - and the difference in their times for the jump back was very telling. Mark had also been at pains to tell him that the debrief had considered the relative accuracies of the jump-calculations the two had used, and that in fact the first set of numbers, those Mark had jumped with, had been slightly more accurate. Jason did wonder why his commander had felt the need to share that piece of information, and could only conclude that someone at the debrief had publicly assumed otherwise. His money was on Grant.

It was a shame he hadn't been at the debrief, but he hadn't even been aware it was happening. He'd come out of the jump home with a migraine he couldn't even start to handle, had just barely managed to tell Rick to take over, had stripped his helmet off and collapsed forward onto his console. The next thing he remembered clearly was waking up a full day later, shaky, headachy and miserable, for just long enough to take in that the Phoenix had made it home safely after nearly an hour in jump. Chris Johnson hadn't even allowed him out of bed for a further thirtysix hours, and he hadn't wanted to argue for thirty of them. The doctors' logic seemed good enough - he'd piloted three jumps, and two of them had triggered migraine, therefore jump was to blame. He was sure they were wrong, that each time the jump had been the last straw in a run of events which had forced him to push himself way beyond sensible limits. He'd prove it to them, sooner or later. Preferably sooner.

"That's good, man." Tiny's expression was all too readable, and Jason stiffened for the assault. "But you're still supposed to steer clear of that list of foods, right? Shame we got chocolate cake. Can I have your share?"

"Like hell." Jason grinned, and retaliated. "How about that ten pounds you're supposed to be losing? Princess, we have to save him from himself."

"If you two can't play nicely, neither of you will have any cake - Keyop! You're here!" She vaulted down and rushed to hug the small figure who'd been standing silently in the door, observing the argument with a broad grin.

"I could eat it all. Doesn't give me headaches, and I'm supposed to be growing."

Princess shook her head sternly. " Do I really have to tell you we share? Good timing, though. Mark shouldn't be long."

"Where is he anyway?" Jason asked.

"Medical. They're retuning his implant again." Tiny sighed. "He's going spare - they don't seem to be able to get it right at the moment. It gave us a chance to get this lot set up, at least."

"So who else is coming?" Princess asked him.

"Just us. I asked the P-X crew, but they didn't want to intrude."

"Intrude? They saved our butts back there!" Jason stated indignantly.

"They did good. I think Rick and Dimitri saw how far they still have to go, though, and Paula - I dunno, it was a lot to ask of her. Too much. She's been awful quiet since. They feel like this is for us, and I do understand. It's no fun going to a party where everyone else is best buddies."

"If you say so. I think we're nicer than that." Princess looked up at the clock. "We must finish setting up - Mark'll be here any minute, and I want everything to be perfect."


"That should do it." The probe was withdrawn from the back of his neck and replaced with a pad and pressure to stop any bleeding. "G-5 suggested that being interfaced with the jump-drive as it failed could have caused the problem, and I'm inclined to think he's right. I can't find anything else wrong with it. Try not to blow up any more engines, and it should stay in tune for rather longer this time."

Mark chuckled obediently as he stood up and stretched the kinks out of his spine. "I'll bear that in mind."

It was a good explanation. It seemed perfectly logical. If only his memory didn't insist that he'd shut down the interface the moment they'd gone to jump, before the problems manifested. That there hadn't been a connection to his implant as the jump-drive went wrong - or at any time afterwards. He shook his head, forcing it out of his mind. He had to be wrong. There had been an external cause - feedback from the damaged circuits as the drive chamber shattered. They'd retuned the implant , and it would be months before he was face down on the table again. The problems he'd been having were random, statistical variations within perfectly normal implant functionality. There was nothing to worry about.


Zoltar looked from the report in his hand to the one lying on the desk, then up to the quivering soldier in front of him.

"So. You say you fired on the Earth ship with the dimensional needle, and hit it from behind in the area of the engines."

"Yes, my lord."

"They then went into interstellar flight."

"Yes, my lord." He seemed to gather his courage. "I saw an explosion as they vanished, my lord. I'm sure the ship was destroyed."

"Are you now?" Zoltar turned the second report to face him. "Then perhaps you can explain how our operative observed it descending from orbit on Earth some eighteen hours later?" He paused for several seconds, enjoying the look of frozen horror on the wretched man's face.

"I thought not."

He gestured elaborately to the guard at the door. "This man is a liar who abandoned his crewmates. Make an example of him."


Notes:

Migraine takes many shapes and forms, and is associated with both light-sensitivity and motion-sickness. One thing it doesn't usually do is cause ongoing vision problems - as far as I understand, they usually last only a few minutes and go away once the headache starts. Then again, if what Jason had was standard migraine, they'd surely have picked it up much earlier. The electrodes exist and work on a similar principle to TENS machines, but from what I've read, they don't work for many people.

Catherine Rees Lay, July 2005.