You should be warned that this is set after the end of the TV series. Canon is over. The universe may not finish the story in the same state it started out in. In any case, this is set in my AU, which contains several recurring original characters. This follows on from "All Good Things" and will make very little sense if you haven't read it first. If you'd like to, it's in the archives here, or there's an HTML version at http://www.reeslay.co.uk/cath/botp/allgoodthings.htm .
Warnings: some swearing, and not the happiest plotline you'll ever read.
Be reassured that I do know exactly where this is going - it's just going to take a while to get there...
Thanks to Julie Bloss Kelsey and my husband for beta-reading.
As always: Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank, Gatchaman belongs to Tatsunoko, and all comments are very welcome, here or by email, including (especially!) if you have suggestions for improvement.
G-Force have to carry on despite Mark's mysterious illness...
"MS?" Chris repeated, buying himself a few seconds. "Mark, that's extremely unlikely."
"I've done my research." The young man flushed, miserably embarrassed. "It fits everything."
"I appreciate that." Chris gave him a reassuring smile. "I know of at least ten other conditions which can produce similar symptoms. Most are much less serious - and treatable."
Mark's eyes went wide in disbelief. "You think I'm imagining this? You think --"
It was time for his deepest, calmest voice. "I think you have possibly the most stressful job on the planet. I think you've worked yourself to the bone, keeping everything going while Jason was out of action. I think you may have pushed yourself too hard, and your body's telling you it needs a break." He looked to Mark for confirmation. When none came, he added, "But, specifically, what symptoms do you have?"
"I..." Mark's voice cracked, and he hid his expression temporarily in another mouthful of water. He was, Chris realised, close to tears. Coming in here and admitting to a problem he thought was of this magnitude must have been hard for him. More than hard. Soul-destroying. Jason was the team member with the reputation for hiding his problems. Mark just never seemed to have any.
The Eagle was tough, though. The facade might have slipped briefly, but the command mask was back within moments. This, Chris imagined, would be how he listed problems with his plane.
"I'm much tireder than I should be. If I use the implants, I'm crashing like you wouldn't believe. Twice in succession, sometimes. And a couple of times, it's like I've gone to move and nothing's happened."
Chris frowned. "Ordinary move or implant-move?"
"Ordinary. Stupid things. Nearly landing on my face walking down the hall. I missed a dodge sparring Friday and damn near had my jaw broken." He looked down, flushing scarlet. "I missed a catch this morning."
The hand he extended had a swollen red line all the way across the palm, black and yellow bruising extending for more than an inch either side of it. It looked sore enough that Chris felt his own hand twitch in sympathy.
"Did you ice that?"
"Oh, yes. And slept for a couple of hours to let the implant do its thing."
"You should have brought an injury that bad to me."
Mark's jaw set. "I'm bringing it to you now. But the injury's not the problem. It's trivial. It should never have happened."
His eyes levelled with Chris's, saying everything that the commander of G-Force never would. 'Tell me what's wrong'. 'Make it go away'. 'Please help me'.
Chris knew the most likely cause of the problem. He also knew he couldn't, under any circumstances, say it out loud. Now, how to achieve the necessary next step?
"The first thing I want is you fully rested." He saw the alarm start in the other's eyes, and carried on reassuringly. "I need to run a bunch of tests, and I'm sure Mike Bennett will too --"
"I've been to him five, six times thinking it was the implant. Retuning it doesn't help. It's not that."
"I still want it ruled out by him. And I'd like you to see Dr Samuels."
Mark snorted. "I already did that, too. He told me to try positive visualisation, but it doesn't make a bit of difference. It's not that I think I can't do it. My body just doesn’t do what I tell it to."
"Okay." Chris thought a moment. "In your opinion, are you fit for active duty?"
Mark took a shuddering breath. "After what happened on this mission? No."
"I see." That said it all, really. No definite symptoms, and the commander of G-Force was grounding himself. Oh, it was serious all right, but it was a job for the team psychiatrist, not for him. The best part of three years' unrelenting stress had inevitably taken its toll. He'd do the tests, do them thoroughly and conscientiously, call in every expert in obscure physical problems to be quite, quite sure nothing had been missed. Chances were, though, there was nothing to miss. The tests would come in negative. Chris only hoped that taking the pressure off, having the tests done, having admitted to the problem, would help to put the Eagle on the road to recovery. The first thing, then, was to take the pressure off a little more.
"In that case, I'm grounding you pending test results. No training, either, given the state of that hand. I'd like you to rest - on site - and come in tomorrow morning expecting to be tested on anything and everything. All I want you to do today is rest. When you feel up to it, write me a list of everything that's happened."
"What tests?" Mark asked, almost shakily.
"To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure. I'm going to call some people and see what they recommend. At the moment I couldn't tell you if it's going to be a couple of blood tests or exploratory brain surgery." At Mark's look of horror, he retracted. "Okay, I'm pretty sure it's not going to be brain surgery. But right now, I don't know. Leave it with me. But seriously, I want you fully rested. There's no point doing anything from a baseline of a half discharged implant. I'd keep you in Medical if I didn't know you'd spend the whole night climbing the walls."
That just barely got a smile, but it was enough for Chris to know he'd cleared the first hurdle. Sometimes 'they're taking me seriously' was all that was needed to start a patient on the road to recovery.
Nevertheless, the commander of G-Force declaring himself unfit for duty was not something you ignored in the hope that it would go away. Thirty minutes later saw Chris sitting in the sort of meeting which, as a medical doctor, he tried not to think too hard about. Six people, only three of them even remotely concerned with Mark's medical care, being told every confidential detail. It was at times like this that he had to remind himself repeatedly of the potential consequences of the senior military staff not having this information. When measured against planetary security, Mark's right to privacy counted for precisely nothing.
"I've never known him claim a problem which wasn't real," Ivanov told them. "Not even when he was very small. Mark does not make excuses."
"He's been back and forward to me several times over the past few weeks," Mike Bennett, the implant specialist, told them. "Convinced the implants needed retuning. The last three times, there's been nothing to adjust." He sighed. "I'm sorry - I thought it was just an artifact of his Russian implant. It's always been weird."
"There is a difference between 'weird' and 'well-integrated'," Ivanov said calmly. "Mark's interface with his implant is superior to any of the others. Consider his more rapid healing speed."
"And the fact that he can't access it deliberately?" Grant snorted. "When the Condor can make a conscious decision whether to use his or not, not to mention being able to access a team-mate's implant? Are we sure this isn't just malfunctioning Russian technology?"
"You're overplaying the usefulness of what Jason can do," Chris put in. "If he's very focused, and gets close enough to give people the wrong idea, he can get physical feedback from the other person. He can't make their implants do anything. It's a party trick, nothing more."
"Gentlemen, this is irrelevant," Anderson said. "Doctor Bennett, is it possible that the implant is malfunctioning? It is, what, sixteen years old now?"
"A little less, but yes, it's much older than any we've put in here at ISO USA, and several years older even than Keyop's." He shrugged. "I'll test it again, of course, and there are more sensitive tests I can do if I knock him out first. Maybe I should have thought about doing it sooner, given how often he's come to me recently. I just figured with Jason back, Mark wanted to be at top speed."
"Could that be it?" Grant leaned forwards, glancing round the table. "Jason's back, Jason's at full speed again and Jason's finally remembered how a jump-drive works. If he's been sitting there pushing for his old job back - that's mutiny."
"I do not think he would," Ivanov said calmly. "Jason's not that - what would you say? - sneaky."
"I agree," Samuels, the psychiatrist, added. "If Jason was pushing for his old job back we'd all know about it. Not that I get to talk to him that often, but that just demonstrates the point. He thinks I'm a waste of his time, so he doesn't come. Even though he'd get much less grief from the rest of you if he showed up and talked about baseball for fifteen minutes like Tiny does."
"It would be cricket," said Chris, "and I take your point. Plus, he has to know we're looking at a second team, and that he would be by far the strongest candidate for its commander. He and Mark are darned close. I can't believe he'd kick his best friend aside to get command, when it's most likely coming his way in any case."
"I think Jason Alouita would do almost anything for command of G-Force," Grant muttered.
"I think you're wrong." Chris just barely kept his tone civil. Jason really could do no right where Grant was concerned. "And even if he was, I think Mark would have spotted it a mile off, and the very last thing he'd be doing is declaring himself unfit for active duty."
Grant nodded reluctantly. "You have a point."
"So," said Anderson, who had listened in silence for a while, "what do we do now?"
"I've grounded him," Chris said. "Having said that, if they're called out and Mark wants to go, I'd have no problems with it."
"I would, after the debrief Jason gave me," Anderson said gravely. "At least until I've seen a psychiatric report I like. Mark didn't tell you about their mission?"
Chris shook his head. "Not in any detail."
"I think you should read the debrief report. It's not pretty."
"I'll do that. As to what happens next, I'll run the basic neurological tests here tomorrow morning and schedule more specialised ones based on that. Mike?"
"Given just how hard it is to knock him cold, I'll let you do your stuff first."
"I scanned the debrief report before I came over," Samuels said. "I don't like the look of it. Off the record, I'm seeing classic stress and, I hesitate to say it given the patient, but if he's claiming MS, the most likely cause is hypochondriasis."
"I don't believe that. Not of Mark. Not Cronus' son." Ivanov's voice remained calm, but anger smouldered in his eyes.
"I thought that too, from talking to him." Chris sighed, looking around the table, seeing the sheer disbelief in the eyes of the non-medical personnel. "You wouldn't believe how badly I want to be wrong. Anything but that. If it's physical, we can find a way to fix it, somehow. Psychological - well, just look at Jason. It's a much bigger problem."
"I do my best," the psychiatrist said, mildly enough for it to be pointed.
"And we have five fairly normal, functioning kids as proof," Anderson said. "Nobody's to blame here. With what they do, the surprise is that we haven't had far more problems. Now, I want to hear every report, gentlemen. Without Mark, G-Force will be operating far below optimum. We need him back as soon as possible."
The senior staff's meeting had not been the only one taking place. A more informal one had started the moment Anderson dismissed G-Force from their debriefing.
"So what's going on?" Jason asked Tiny as the door closed behind Anderson.
Tiny shook his head. "Mark's sick."
"I got that far! What kind of sick?"
"I don't know. Something neurological, I'd guess, from what he said."
"And what did he say?" Jason rounded on the Owl so fast that the big man stepped back, holding both hands up protectively.
"Whoa, there - Jase, this isn't right. If you'd talked to me, you'd be livid if I went and told Mark."
"I guess." Jason backed off reluctantly. "But - fixable?"
"I don't know, okay! I just don't know!" And Tiny twisted away, stalking to the other side of the room, obviously putting distance between himself and Jason.
"I hate this," Princess said miserably. "Why is it happening now? We've only just got you back!"
"A month ago, and you'd have been in c...c...command, Princess!"
Princess turned to snap at Keyop, and her heart melted at the unhappiness in his face belying the feeble attempt at humour. He'd known Mark longer than any of them, she reminded herself. Over a decade longer.
"Don't like people getting sick." Keyop's lip trembled.
"Me neither, kid." Jason reached out and tousled his hair, and for once Keyop tolerated it.
"I should have seen it," Tiny murmured from the window, and Jason's expression turned to a snarl as he spun towards their medic.
"Don't give me that self-pitying crap! Mark should have reported it. No excuses. He knew there was something going on and he hid it."
Like he'd be the first one on this team to do that. Princess bit back the sharp retort, and headed slowly for the door, talking over her shoulder. "I'm not sure he did, though." She'd done this before, after particularly contentious debriefings. They'd argue furiously in the briefing room, lessen off somewhat down the corridor, drop it as they entered the ready room. She didn't know how it worked, only that, once there, the atmosphere would be different: more supportive, less accusatory.
Tiny followed her. "What?"
"How many times has he had that implant retuned recently? Far more than any of the rest of us have. What if that was the first sign? You said neurological - well, it's wired into the nervous system, isn't it? What if the implant was all that was keeping him going and he's been using it way too much without realising it?"
"Don't." Jason was following too, Keyop close behind him. "We'll know soon enough."
The last thing she'd expected was to open the ready room door and see her commander sprawled in the armchair. Princess didn't even think. She was across the room, on her knees beside him, and burying her head in his chest.
"Steady there, Princess." The voice was warm, calm. Not a shadow of the unhappy figure who'd snarled them into silence on the Phoenix on their return from the mission only a couple of hours earlier. This close, though, she could hear his heartbeat. Definitely more rapid than usual. Mark was horribly good at hiding his reactions when he tried - and he was trying now.
"Tell me you're going to be all right," she whispered.
"I don't know."
She snaked an arm round him and was rewarded with a hug. "Chris is going to do tests tomorrow."
"Mark - do you think you know what's wrong?" That was Tiny.
She felt his head drop to lean against hers. "Yeah."
"I thought you might. Internet diagnosis is mostly wrong, you know. It's nearly always less serious than people think."
"Told myself that, too." There was just the start of a catch in his breath. "Told myself I was imagining it. Then three bad accidents in four days. That's not right. Not for me. Jase - I'm sorry about your car."
"If you had to trash it, you picked the right version." Jason's tone was light, artificially so, she thought. "I'd have been pissed if you'd bent the Skyline."
"I'll be sure and remember that next time I'm sitting in a Spectran target lock unable to move." This time his voice really did catch. "Thanks."
"Okay, enough." That was Keyop, high-pitched and making no attempt to hide his own unhappiness. "I'm making c...coffee."
"Is that a promise or a threat?" Princess pushed herself up, trying to wipe her eyes discreetly. "I'll make it."
"Not likely." Jason was already at the coffee machine, as she'd known he would be.
Coffee had been a panacea for them for a long time. Jason coaxed something which smelt almost like the real thing from the machine, Princess poured the milk with near mathematical precision, and Keyop was dissuaded from adding enough sugar to turn it to syrup by Tiny. Their youngest had yet to appreciate that he was the only one who still thought that sweeter was always better.
Mark moved over to the table and just sat, making no attempt to come and join in what was a team ritual. Princess kept glancing over, waiting for him to at least say something. He just sat there, alone and devastated. Once the coffee was finally poured, she couldn't get over there fast enough, a mug in each hand.
"Doctors will help," Keyop insisted. He sat down next to the man he'd known from babyhood and put an arm round the broad shoulders as far as he could reach. "Tell us. Maybe we can help too."
"I don't think so." Mark wrapped his hands round the mug, obviously still favouring the right one, and bent his head over, drinking in the steam.
"Dammit, Mark!" Tiny suddenly exploded, and Princess jumped so hard her coffee sloshed across the table. "Please don't put us through this again! Jason wouldn't talk...and now you won't...and..." There was a sniff of abject unhappiness, and Tiny buried his face in his hands.
Princess couldn't look. She couldn't sit here saying nothing - but she couldn't bear to pressure her commander either. She took the excuse of the coffee slick threatening to run off the edge of the table and headed for the sink.
She came back with a handful of towels just in time to hear a stranger's voice come from Mark.
"It's MS. Chris has grounded me. I'm finished."
"Oh, no." Tiny looked stricken. "How sure are they?"
"What's MS?" Keyop demanded. "Is it bad?"
"It's not good --" Tiny cut off as Mark's chair crashed to the floor, tipped backwards by the force with which he'd shot to standing.
"I can't do this. I'm sorry, I know you mean well, but...I can't."
"Please, just leave me alone!"
He was gone, leaving Keyop staring after him, jaw trembling, clutching the coffee mug as if his life depended on it.
"I'll go talk --" Tiny began.
"No, you won't. He wants to be left alone, that's what we do." Even Jason's voice wavered briefly. "Trust me. He needs some space, and it's the worst thing in the world when you don't get it."
"But we can't just leave him," Princess said, hearing her own voice come out as a whimper.
"That's exactly what we're going to do." Jason's face was hard. "Leave him alone. Let Chris figure out what the hell's going on - because there's no way he's diagnosed Mark with MS that quick. I've had the tests for MS. They take a lot longer than ten minutes, and the results take days."
"You've had the tests for MS?" Tiny asked.
Jason snorted. "Name something they didn't test me for. I'll say this: Mark's not going to enjoy tomorrow."
Princess was quite sure, but chose not to say, that none of the rest of them would enjoy it either. Not until their commander was back where he belonged.
Jason had never really appreciated before just how difficult it was to leave someone to their own devices. It wasn't even like he had to do anything. More like not-do. He'd never understood, when he'd been desperate to be alone, what it felt like to be on the other side. To be the one who wanted to be doing something. To help. Mark's concern had driven him half-mad when he was struggling with chronic migraine. He knew, intellectually, that he'd do no better himself. It didn't help. He still needed to try.
He'd have given almost anything for a mission the following morning. Spectra, of course, didn't oblige. Which was probably for the best, since the rest of the team had to be at least as on edge as he was, and didn't react as well to adrenaline. On second thought, a mission with tearful Princess, overly jovial Tiny, and incoherent Keyop wouldn't have been such a good idea. Jason avoided the ready room altogether and went to beat hell out of something in the gym. He followed up by destroying the centre of a complete set of targets on the range, and massacring a whole series of Mark's best times on the jump-simulator.
He'd even cleared the official paperwork from yesterday's mission, confirming and signing off the transcript of the debrief, and the vast piles of forms Logistics seemed to need - those that he was responsible for, anyway. He'd briefly considered filling in the whole darn lot, one less thing for Mark to worry about, before little warning lights had flashed up in his mind. 'Hi, Mark, I thought I'd take over your role as commander' - not the way to go. Even having finished his own paperwork before Mark had chased him for it multiple times was going to raise eyebrows. Too bad.
By four o'clock, he couldn't stand it any longer. If the entirety of black section found out and laughed at his incapability to practise what he preached, so be it. The Condor was going to check on his friend.
Chris did look surprised when he walked into Medical a little after four. "Jason? What can I do for you?"
"I'm fine." He hesitated, scuffing one foot on the floor. "You did a lumbar puncture?"
"What are you, psychic?" Chris's tone was light, but there was real exhaustion behind it, and the computer desktop behind him had possibly the largest collection of open windows Jason had ever seen. Some serious research was going on here. "I did, and between you and me, I don't think your commander's feeling too good right now. He says he's fine, though, so I see no reason you can't go see him."
Walking into the side room was like looking into a time-delayed mirror. Jason knew that half-curled posture, eyes tight shut and both hands to the temples, way too well. As well as the very slight odour, quite unmistakable, telling him that it had been bad enough to make even Mark throw up. He turned off the light and crossed to the bed, gut twisted in sympathy.
Mark opened one eye, briefly. "Yes."
"Yeah, right." Jason put one hand on the other's forehead, and observed him flinch away even from that gentle contact. "You want help, or for me to go away?"
Mark just groaned, and shifted. "God, my head hurts."
Jason considered how much sympathy was due, just how unhappy Mark had been the day before - and decided 'so now you know what it's like' was inappropriate. Mark was incoherent with misery, obviously concentrating just on coping, and the last thing Jason wanted to do was make him think about something else. Which was unfortunate, because if he knew where and how the other hurt, he could probably help, but going at it blindly could well make things worse.
"You up to talking?"
"Telling me where it hurts?"
Mark groaned again, clutching his head in his hands, flushed cheeks the only colour in his face.
"Okay, I get that it's pretty darn bad. Want me to take a look?"
The flush deepened. Mark really, really hated having to admit he needed help. Jason knew just how he felt.
"I'll take that as a yes. Shift over, and I'll see for myself."
Mark moved gingerly such that the back of his neck was a whole lot nearer the side of the bed, and Jason checked that the door was shut before walking round to stand alongside him. What he was about to do was, he'd discovered the hard way, open to misinterpretation. Keyop's face, when he'd walked into the ready room the first time they'd tried it, had been an absolute picture. Close physical contact between two eighteen-year-old males seemed to leave even their friends drawing the wrong conclusion. Though quite what Keyop thought they would have been doing back-to-back and fully clothed wasn't something he'd ever dared ask.
No, this was apparently an entirely unplanned feature of the transmitter implant at the base of the skull. It talked to the second implant, the one which stimulated the body into producing the chemicals required to make them faster, keep them going long past normal human tolerance, bring them safely through jump. And while the implants' link with the body was electrochemical, the link between implants was electromagnetic. Safe and secure, normally, completely shielded by the high collar of birdstyle. Now, not so shielded. Capable of interception, by a third similar implant brought close enough, where close enough was measured in single figures of millimetres.
Jason crouched down alongside the bed, pushing his hair away from the implant scar, and moved back until he felt Mark's hand behind his head. He knew Mark found this unnerving - Mark had had his implant from such a young age that he couldn't consciously make it do anything at all. For him it was all instinctive with no possibility of tapping into a different source of data. He hadn't believed Jason could do it until Jason had demonstrated that, even with his eyes shut, he knew exactly where Mark was pinching himself.
"Yeah." Mark's hand moved, giving him just enough space to lean his head back until their necks were touching at the implant scars, and he focused totally on his own transmitter implant. Stopped it from listening to his own system, and reached out for the other data that should be there.
It was. Very faint, unfamiliar - and extremely uncomfortable. Jason took a deep breath to steady himself, reminding himself that it wasn't his head feeling like this, but Mark's. Yup, that was a fair approximation of migraine, and he could feel exactly where the other was tense and miserable, and precisely what was rendering him unable to let go. If he could just get Mark to relax, the implant would help him sleep it off.
"Okay, I've seen enough." He pulled away and stood up, taking a moment to refocus and remind his implant where it should be looking now. "Lie face down, and I'll fix it."
Mark obediently rolled forwards, stifling a ragged gasp as he brought his right hand up to his forehead. "I feel like crap."
"I know. Welcome to my world." He put his hands on Mark's shoulders, feeling the tension he'd expected. This, though, was physical. This was the sort of thing he could help with. Jason was a fully trained paramedic, and had been told on more than one occasion that he was one hell of a good masseur to boot. The other thing he'd picked up from the implant was just how tired Mark was - whatever the rest of today's tests had involved, they'd certainly been intensive. It wouldn't take much to break the cycle of pain, tip his commander over the edge into implant recharge mode, and let him sleep off the symptoms of the lumbar puncture. Not much at all, given how Mark was relaxing under his hands.
Chris was frowning at the computer as Jason came back into the main part of Medical five minutes later, closing the door silently behind him. Jason peered over his shoulder. "Those his test results?"
"You know you shouldn't do that." Chris blanked the screen and turned to face him. "Jason, I can't discuss it with you. We've done a wide range of tests and the results will take several days to come through. I'll tell you now, though, that there is nothing obviously wrong with any of them. Which is good, because it rules out most of the truly nasty rapid-onset conditions."
"That would come under 'I can't discuss it with you'."
"Just tell me who's in command if the siren goes off, okay?"
"Mike Bennett's going to knock him cold tomorrow to run a full diagnostic on those implants. You will be for a while. But don't get too used to it."
Three days later, Jason was lying flat on the roof of his trailer, trying to find the irritating leak that had dripped at him all night, when his bracelet vibrated on his wrist. Not just the single ping of a communication, but the ongoing, urgent summons which meant 'get here now.'
He glanced surreptitiously around - not that anyone was likely to be out in the pouring rain, but it never hurt to make sure - before pushing his sleeve up to answer it. "G-2."
"Get here as fast as you can," Anderson's voice said, and the connection went dead.
Fabulous. Here he was, soaking wet, he'd just stripped three inches of perished sealant from between the panels on the roof, and he had to drop everything and scream into ISO. He'd doubtless get back to a trailer which could happily double as a bathtub. Jason slid down the roof, leapt into his car (great, so now the driver's seat of that would be soaking wet too) and took advantage of the vile weather and lack of audience to break the park speed limit more than a little.
The temptation to transmute on the highway was almost too much for him. Birdstyle would, after all, be dry. Not to mention the zero chance that anyone would give the transmuted G-2 a speeding ticket. He resisted it, though. The roads weren't that deserted, and somebody might well notice the dark blue Nissan Skyline changing form. They weren't common, and he was well known at the racetrack for driving one. And then there was the fact that only in civilian form would the G-2 fit in the lift down to the Phoenix's bay - the racecar was considerably too wide. If he transmuted, they'd be doing a pickup, and the rain was pelting down harder than ever. Tiny would be far from impressed. No, he'd stay wet for another few minutes.
This did involve him in stopping at the gate to the ISO complex and bringing an unimpressed-looking ISO officer out of the guardhouse to check his badge and wave him through. Jason forced a cheery wave as his bracelet vibrated again ('okay guys, I'm coming as fast as I can!') and headed for the underground parking as fast as he thought wouldn't get him remembered. Once there, he pulled into the vehicle lift which everyone else thought went down to the sub-basement and chauffeur parking, input a long and complex code to the keypad, and swallowed hard as the elevator plummeted, not one floor, but nearly a hundred feet to the level of the Phoenix's hangar.
"What have we got?" Transmuted, Jason strode onto the flight deck. No Mark, but everyone else was in their seats, waiting expectantly.
"Patrol," Keyop grumbled. "Weird readings over Alaska. Investigate."
"And the UN fighters can't do this because?"
There was an awkward silence. Evidently he wasn't the only one wondering that.
"Co-pilot's checks done," Tiny prompted.
"Good." Jason scanned his own board to find a full complement of green lights. "Sound off."
The other three were entirely ready, and Jason ordered them to launch. He could get more information from Anderson once they were in the air.
Five minutes later, with a course set for Alaska and the Phoenix climbing sharply to get out of the rainclouds, Jason turned his attention to the information they had. It took him a whole thirty seconds to scan, and the whole crew knew when he'd finished.
"What the hell? This isn't a job for us! This isn't even a job for ISO. The UN should be handling it!"
"Training run, Jase." Tiny didn't turn.
"Fine. Turn us around."
"Not for you. For Mark."
Jason gestured expansively at the empty seat in front of him, sure that Tiny would see the reflection of the movement in the viewscreen even if he wasn't watching directly. "He seems to have turned it down."
"Jason," Princess's voice was almost a whisper. "They tried to persuade him to come, and he wouldn't."
"With these details? I'm not surprised. What I want to know is why we're here."
"They didn't give us any details until we were on board." Tiny still had his back to them, but the set of his shoulders was far from relaxed. "We thought it was something major."
"Mark swore at the colonel," Keyop blurted out.
"Okay." Jason gave one final glance at the screen to convince himself he hadn't missed anything more significant than a possible Spectran reconnaissance patrol, and turned to Princess.
"Start at the beginning. I don't like being played."
"There's not much to say." Princess looked thoroughly unhappy. "The alarm went off, and right away Ivanov showed up in the ready room, suggesting Mark should go. Mark refused. Said he wasn't safe. Ivanov pushed, and Mark...snapped. I've never heard him speak like that to anyone! Mark stormed out, and Ivanov ordered us to the Phoenix, and that's where you came in."
"And now we're chasing shadows," Tiny grumbled. "What the hell is Anderson playing at?"
Jason sighed. "He's testing Mark, to see what his reaction is to being grounded. Mark passed his stupid test."
"Mark was real upset," Tiny put in.
"No...I guess not. So, what do we do now?"
"We go chase some shadows." Because I don't think Mark's the only one being tested here, and I am going to show I can lead this team when I have to.
"Stupid waste of time," Keyop grumbled.
"We'd be doing it in the simulator if we weren't out here." Jason suddenly grinned as inspiration struck. "Tiny, Keyop, swap seats. I see no reason we can't make some use of the time. Princess, you're copilot."
"You're not swapping?" Tiny asked as he sat down in front of Keyop's scanners.
"I'm playing commander, remember?"
"I guess so." Tiny made a show of peering at his controls. "I wonder what this one does? Maybe if I tweak these focusing sliders a bit..."
"Jason!" Keyop wailed from the pilot's seat. "Don't let him wreck everything!"
Jason exchanged amused glances with Tiny. "Concentrate on your flying, squirt. Alaska's thataway."
"We found some ion traces consistent with Spectran drives, but that was all." Jason finished his debriefing report, and sat back.
Major Grant steepled his fingers in front of his face, his expression radiating disapproval. "You don't think you'd have had more success if you'd had your crew actually do the jobs they're trained for?"
I am not going to rise to this man. Jason smiled at Grant, even if it was more of a rictus grin. "No, Major. It was a standard sweep pattern, and I operated the radar screens myself."
"You had no problems operating without G-1?"
"On a standard patrol? No."
"So you think you'd have had problems on a less standard mission?"
"I didn't say that." Keep your temper, Jase. He's winding you up.
"We have to be able to stand in for one another," Princess said. "Mark also has us switch seats in non-stress situations, sometimes. It's good practice."
"G-1? Your opinion?"
"I think G-2 did a good job," Mark said. "He was right. And this was a non-stress situation."
"Very well. Dismissed, G-Force."
"Dammit, I should have come," Mark spat out as soon as they were outside the briefing room. "What if there was something there and you missed it?"
Jason stopped dead. "You mean what you said was for show?"
"I mean five heads are better than four."
"Yeah, and you're such an expert at the radar." Jason sighed resignedly. "They knew we weren't going to find anything. They wanted to see how you'd react to being left behind."
"And I failed."
"You passed. The last thing they want is you behaving like me."
"And it was a test," Princess added. "I didn't want to make a fuss in the debriefing - but you were right, Jason. They wouldn't normally have sent G-Force for that."
"Even so." Mark sighed. "I could have gone. Even if there had been something there, I could have stayed on the Phoenix, instead of twiddling my thumbs here."
Mark took a deep breath. "How would you all feel if I had a word with Chris? See if he'll clear me for situations like that. I wouldn't dare fly the G-1 or go out on an infiltration, but I think I could man my station on the Phoenix. Just until my test results come through."
"And then?" Keyop asked.
His jaw clenched visibly. "That depends on the results. Once I know exactly what the problem is, I'll know what I can and can't do safely."
"How's it going at the moment?" Tiny asked.
"That's almost the worst thing. I'm fine. No symptoms at all."
"None?" Jason grinned, relieved beyond measure at seeing a Mark who obviously wanted to come back, who was once again looking to a future with G-Force. "In that case, I can use a sparring partner."
Mark hesitated. "I don't know. Tiny --"
"I'm fast enough to pull a blow if you freeze. Come on. You can have that word with Chris first."
Jason was back on the roof of the trailer, thankfully in much better weather, when a familiar red sports car drew up alongside and Mark climbed out. "Thinking of adding an upstairs?"
"Just a roof that doesn't leak." Jason pointed at the door. "You can put the kettle on while I finish this."
Mark disappeared inside, and Jason continued to persuade sealant into the gap between two aluminium sheets that had formerly been filled only by less-than-waterproof moss. This trailer was almost certainly older than he was, and was starting to show it. At some point he was going to have to buy a new one, if he was to continue to have his own personal retreat out here.
He heard the sounds of coffee-making just as he simultaneously ran out of sealant and gap, and slid down the front of the trailer to meet Mark emerging with two steaming mugs of decaf.
"Chris cleared you to drive?"
"Yeah." Mark swallowed. "I'm thinking it might be the last time for a while. Results are in tomorrow morning."
"And about time." Jason took the mug and downed half of it in a single swallow. It was hot lying up there with the sun beating down, but still much preferable to the pouring rain of four days earlier. "He give you any hints?"
"No. Bennett wouldn't say a damn thing, so I'm pretty sure he found nothing wrong with my implants. And Samuels has been after me so much I'm starting to understand the way you feel about him." Mark sat on the hood of his car, staring into the mug. "I think it's something bad, Jase. I really do. I just hope there's something that they can do to help."
"If he let you drive, that sounds good," Jason suggested.
"I thought that. Like at least they can predict it."
"Maybe you're better?"
"No." He still didn't look up. "I know I can still pass all the coordination tests - but it's not the same. I know it's still there. It just hasn't happened while I've been doing something complicated recently."
Jason considered, and then didn't say, that maybe Mark had just lost his nerve. "Are there things that do that?"
"Still looking like MS from where I'm sitting."
"Crap." For lack of anything else meaningful to say, Jason walked round the car, scrutinising it. "Your fuel mixture's off."
"Exhaust pipe's the wrong colour. Much too black." Now this, he thought, was where someone who knew what they were doing would make some great analogy about teamwork and fixing things without ever having to say it explicitly. He was pretty darn sure Mark had come out here because he wanted to talk - he never came to the trailer, although he often came to the track - but that was about as far as his insight went. The right thing to say wasn't springing magically to mind.
"Can you fix it?"
Jason grinned. "I can fix anything, given the right tools." Now that definitely hadn't been the right thing to say. Mark stiffened visibly, and Jason didn't dare skirt round the subject any more.
"Look, I don't know what Chris is going to say. But if it is MS, then maybe you're in remission right now. And it could explain what they were playing at Wednesday: Ivanov as devil's advocate, seeing what it would take for you to fly against medical advice. They can test for when it's flaring up, can't they? You could still be active most of the time. That doesn't make you so very different from me. Not perfect, but a damn sight better than the alternatives."
Mark stared. "You know about MS?"
"I'd be a fool not to look it up, wouldn't I?"
"If...if it was that, would you fly with me?"
"Yes." Jason grabbed his commander's shoulder, twisting him round to look him directly in the face. "I get the migraines from hell, Princess feels lousy once a month, Tiny's far from the finest physical specimen you'll ever see and Keyop still hasn't got that stutter under control. If you're joining the ranks of the not-quite-perfect, then it's a damn shame, but provided we all know where your limits are, I can't see a problem. If you're fit to fly, we're not going to hold some medical label against you."
Mark drew a shaky breath. "God, I feel like an idiot. I guess I owe Colonel Ivanov an apology."
"I think he owes you one, winding you up like that. You'll be fine once Chris tells you what's going on." Jason reached through the open window of the car and popped the hood. "But for now, why don't we fix your car?"
"I thought you needed the right tools?"
"I think I can make do with a second pair of hands." As Mark stood up, Jason lifted the hood and surveyed the engine inside. "What have you been doing in here - growing potatoes? This thing is a filthy mess!"
Mark laughed, and joined him. "All cars look like this under the hood."
"They so do not. Does your plane's engine look like this?"
"Of course not."
"Well, then." Jason went to the trunk of his own car and returned with a handful of tools and an oily rag. "As penance for cruelty to a perfectly good car, you can start by cleaning off that hose connection there. Unless you really want all that crud in your engine when I start disconnecting things. I'll be underneath, so try not to drop it all on me."
He just barely stopped himself from commenting that he hadn't fixed it, yet.
There was no particular reason for any of them to be in ISO the following morning, but nevertheless, there they all were, waiting in the ready room, pretending to have genuine reasons to be there. Princess looked at the clock for the tenth time in the last hour, feeling utterly helpless, and finally gave up the pretence. "Shouldn't Mark be back by now?"
"Give him a little longer," Jason suggested.
"He might need time to get his head together, if it's something serious," Tiny added.
"Yes, but..." She glanced up at the clock again. "I'm worried about him. If it's something really bad, should he be alone?"
Jason snorted. "If he wants to be, yes."
Keyop shifted up on the sofa and put an arm round her. "Won't be bad. Chris will fix him. You'll see."
"Oh, I hope so." She resisted the urge to look up at the clock again. "I just hate all this waiting. What's taking so long?"
"That's a good sign," Tiny told her. "Chris is probably explaining every detail of what he needs to do. Knowing Mark, he'll be wanting to know exactly what's involved. He could be a couple more hours yet, easily."
Princess looked at him in horror, but thinking about it she knew he was right. And Mark would hate to know she was worrying about him like this. She fetched her latest project from the bookshelf - a Spectran popular novel, no less - and buried her nose in it.
"I don't know how you can read that rubbish," Jason said loftily.
"Practice?" she replied, wilfully misunderstanding him.
"We're the bad guys in it."
"You've never read a book written by the other side?"
"Jason never read a book," chortled Keyop.
"Quiet, short stuff. I've read far more books than you have. None of them glorifying Spectra."
"That's not why I read it, though. Not the language practice, either, not really." Princess put the book down, knowing she'd get no peace for a while. "It's useful. Not real military techniques, obviously - but their mindset. The hero's a squad leader. But he really doesn't think anything of his men at all. They're expendable to him."
"We know that already."
"I guess so." She looked at the floor. "It's kind of depressing, actually. I hoped there'd be something I could identify with. Something I could look at and say 'hey, these guys aren't that different from us, if we can get past Zoltar and his top brass we might get along.' "
Tiny hooted with laughter. "Get along?"
"The alternative's genocide. Or bombing them back to the stone age."
"Or making them realise they can't win." Jason's tone switched to one more serious. "Princess, if we could reason with them, we would have. That book tells you what they think of us. Don't beat yourself up over it. Have a good laugh at their wishful thinking and learn some Spectran at the same time. That's all."
"You're right." She grinned as an idea struck. "You know, I've never looked. Are there books here about us?"
"Heroically battling the evil forces of Planet Spectra, you mean?" Tiny headed for the computer terminal. "I don't know, but I have got to find out!"
A little over two hours - and rather a large order to an online bookstore - later, the phone rang. Tiny wandered over and picked it up. "What - no, he's not here."
"I don't know."
"No, he's not been in here at all."
And everyone in the room froze as his tone shifted to horror. "What? How long ago?"
"Okay, we'll go find him. It would help if you gave us the short version of what's wrong with him."
"Oh, no. You told him that? Man, you've got to be totally insane!" The phone hit the receiver hard enough to bounce, as Tiny turned to his horrified team-mates, white as a sheet.
"Chris sent Mark away three hours ago. He told him there's nothing wrong with him and put him back on active duty."
Keyop whooped with delight, his face clearing. "That's great!"
"No, it's not." Tiny stared the young Russian into seriousness. "If Mark believed him for one second, he'd have come and told us. Mark's darn sure there's something wrong, and the people he thought would sort it out, haven't. We need to find him. And fast."
Princess was already working with her bracelet. "I have a fix. Not moving. In ISO, but not black section."
"Show me." Jason peered over her shoulder. "That's Team 7 territory. I'll go fetch him."
Keyop frowned. "Why set his bracelet to locator mode, but not come here?"
"Who knows?" Jason grabbed his jacket from the hook by the door and was gone.
It wasn't until he'd walked into the Team 7 common room and found all eyes on him that he remembered he was out of uniform. It was typical of his luck that this would be one of the few occasions that Commander Nykinnen was in there. Mark, however, was not.
Nykinnen stood up from where he'd been talking to a couple of the newer recruits, surprise on his face. Jason made a point of conforming in his Team 7 persona - he figured being as different as possible from the Condor's reputation had to be a good thing. He'd never been in here in other than immaculate full uniform before, not even using the common trick of keeping his jacket in his locker and arriving in shirtsleeves. That was considered acceptable. Jeans, T-shirt and denim jacket absolutely were not.
"Lieutenant Alouita, with me, please."
In here, I'm not the Condor. Jason bit down the urge to tell him to get lost. It might even work out for the best. Nykinnen was the one person in the room to whom he could tell the truth, and this would get him a private discussion, no questions asked by his Team 7 colleagues.
"Lieutenant, you know the uniform rules," Nykinnen said the moment his office door shut behind them. "And you know why they apply to everyone."
"I need to find my commander."
Nykinnen blanched. That statement in itself made Jason the one in charge here. G-Force business. Uniform code violation was suddenly not at issue.
"How can I help? He's not been here in the past hour, I can tell you that much."
Jason swore furiously. "His bracelet's in there."
"His communicator? Maybe he left it in his locker."
"Maybe not having his bracelet with him is one of the worst things he could do."
"I see." Nykinnen thought. "I can arrange a fire alarm to clear the area, if you want."
"I'd still have to smash the locker. He'd have set up something neater. He'd have left --" He was out of the door and back into the common room before Nykinnen could even ask whether he'd looked to see if Mark had left him a note.
His pigeonhole here was rarely, if ever, used. This time, though, it held a single envelope, addressed to him in Mark's careful script. Inside, something small and hard. Despite his haste, he opened it carefully, but the expected note wasn't there. Only a locker key. He owned one just like it.
The Team 7 lockers were, fortunately, in an alcove away from the main area of the common room, and nobody was using them at the moment. Jason inserted the key into Mark's, glad that it opened such that the door would block any curious glances. Anyone who thought about it might well remember that his own locker was on the other side, and considerably further from the main room.
His worst nightmare didn't come true, at least. Mark's bracelet lying in full view on the locker floor would have been so out of character that he'd have been concerned for his commander's sanity. Instead, he found a pile of old lecture notes (Mark never could resist taking notes, even when he could have given the lecture himself at ten seconds' notice), a Team 7 uniform jacket hanging from the peg on the door, and, on top of a book about aviation mechanics, a briefcase which he knew didn't belong there. He hefted it experimentally. Not empty, but not full of paperwork either. Jason decided against opening it in public.
His knock at Nykinnen's door was purely for form. Jason needed somewhere private to see what Mark had left him, and this was the best option outside black section. He only vaguely heard the Team 7 commander's "Come in" - he was practically in already - and was opening the briefcase on the desk before the other could so much as move his paperwork.
A towel, and a G-Force bracelet. Jason frowned momentarily over the towel before realising that the weights didn't tally. Unfolding it revealed the heavy metal boomerang that was Mark's trademark, and a single sheet of paper in Mark's handwriting.
Matti Nykinnen had been an ISO commander for over a year now. He'd been a military officer for nearly twenty. The number of people he'd encountered with a multilingual profane vocabulary even close to the Condor's was vanishingly small.
"What can I do?" he asked when Jason paused.
There was no question now who was in control here. It was G-2, not his junior lieutenant, who looked back at him. "Find out when Mark was in here, what he said, where he was going, and report it to me in black section."
"Will do. What's your number?"
Jason snorted derisively. "Forget that." He reached into the briefcase and flipped something white across the desk. "Push the button and ask for G-2. Don't lose it, don't use it in public, don't use my name."
Matti picked it up and turned it over in his hands. This was a G-Force communicator. The Eagle's, to be precise. A gold-coloured, five-sided slim metal face with a single button on it. An off-white strap made from some unidentifiable material, rather worn. There was no fastening mechanism that he could see, and he presumed that the same technology that gave them birdstyle was involved somehow. It was much less impressive than he'd have anticipated. Without the distinctive shape of the face, if he'd seen this lying in the street he'd have left it there.
"Commander? Are you listening?"
Matti stiffened. "Yes. I'll do that."
"Be quick," the Condor snapped, and stalked out.
He was back in his office within five minutes. Nobody had seen Mark today, although that in itself did narrow the timeframe. If he'd left the briefcase today, and Jason's comments would seem to imply that he must have done this, then there was a fifteen minute slot two and a half hours ago when nobody had been in here.
He raised the bracelet to his mouth, feeling more than a little awkward, and only then realised that he had no idea what protocols they used.
"Uh - I need to speak with G-2."
"G-2, go," came back near instantly.
"Sir. Timeframe is between twelve forty-five and thirteen hundred. No witnesses."
"Damn." Jason's impotent fury came clearly over the channel. "Commander, we need him found. Urgently."
"I'll keep investigating," Nykinnen said. He had the distinct impression that, Condor or no, Jason was out of his depth with a missing persons investigation. He was, after all, barely twenty, and if rumour was to be believed, his skills lay in shooting things until they blew up a lot. Nykinnen, on the other hand, had dealt with finding AWOL recruits on a weekly basis in his last job. It was one of the reasons he'd been happy to leave the UN forces for ISO, but still, he'd been good at it.
"Do that. Condor out." There was a click, and that was it. Nykinnen examined the communicator carefully to see whether he needed to turn it off somehow. Going back to Jason and telling him the battery had run out wasn't high on his list of fun activities. It seemed not. He had a vague suspicion that the top face might lift up, but couldn't figure out how to do it. He'd just assume it had turned itself off for now, and go and talk to the front desk.
"Not that tall, straggly dark hair?" the corporal on the desk asked in response to his query about young Team 7 officers signing out just before lunchtime. "Left with his friend. I remember him, because he asked for an envelope and left a note for someone."
"He was with a friend? Did you hear anything that was said?"
"No..." The young man shifted uncomfortably, one eye on his superior at the other end of the desk dealing with a couple of visitors.
Nykinnen knew that kind of 'no'. It meant 'yes, I listened to the whole conversation, and I've been in trouble for doing this before'. He had no authority to quiz the young man, and no time to go through the proper channels.
"Not to worry. Let me know if you remember anything else," and he took himself into the nearest corridor out of sight of the desk.
"G-2? I have someone who saw him leave."
"Stay right where you are," and the communicator clicked off.
Nykinnen pocketed the bracelet again, went back round the corner so he could see if the corporal on the desk left, and leant against the wall trying to look casual. He had a suspicion that he really didn't. He might only be commander of a training team but, nonetheless, his rank was full ISO commander, and such people weren't normally found hanging around in reception areas.
The corporal on reception was still nervous of him. Definitely knew more than he'd said. There was a glance in his direction every thirty seconds or so, and after a couple of minutes Nykinnen made a point of turning away and reading the notices on the wall. Security reminders. What to do if you saw someone without a badge. Emergency evacuation procedures. Descriptions of the different audio alarms: fire, bomb threat, lockdown. Direct attack on the facility. Nykinnen had never heard that last one, and he hoped he never would.
A mere ISO commander had nothing on the Condor himself showing up in reception in full birdstyle, ignoring the stares and gasps of disbelief, and heading straight for him.
"Where is he?"
Nykinnen indicated the desk.
He smothered a smile, since in all probability anyone manning a position this public was considerably older than Jason himself. "Yes."
The queue at the desk wasn't an issue. The Condor didn't need to ask, or push. People simply parted before him. The look on the young corporal's face was pure frozen horror.
Jason leant on the desk, completely ignoring the junior officer and calling over to the senior one. "Captain!"
The man turned, displaying considerable restraint in his lack of visible surprise, and threw an immaculate salute. "Sir!"
Jason ignored it. "I need to have a word with this man."
"Of course, sir. Can I be of any assistance?"
"Were you on the desk at thirteen hundred hours?"
"Sir - no, sir."
"No, then." Jason finally turned his attention to the corporal who, while he was managing not to visibly shake, looked as if he might start at any moment. "You. With me."
It wasn't the tactic Nykinnen would have used, not to start off with, at any rate. He'd have at least tried asking first. The Jason he thought he knew would have done so, too. He'd thought that maybe the Condor's ruthless reputation was a myth. It seemed not. Jason's grip on the young man's shoulder appeared far from gentle, and Nykinnen suspected that those steel fingers would leave bruises.
Jason opened the first door he came to, pushed his captive in front of him, and slammed him into a chair. "Out," was all he needed to snap for the woman behind the desk to evacuate in a hurry.
"Now, Corporal. Tell me everything Mark Jarrald said and did."
"Start from the beginning, Corporal," Nykinnen put in. Jason might or might not have been planning a game of 'good cop, bad cop', but he had, in Nykinnen's opinion, pushed it too far. Abject terror might be the best way to make Spectran soldiers talk. This kid was on their side and had done nothing wrong.
Jason's sideways glance suggested he was far from pleased. Nykinnen ignored it. "Tell us who you are, and then let's have a description, so we're sure we're talking about the same man."
He made a visible attempt to pull himself together. "Corporal Roberts, T., assigned to the front desk from ten hundred to eighteen hundred. Um - person in question was five-nineish, athletic build, early twenties, longish dark brown hair. Jeans and a flight jacket, I think. He asked for an envelope and pen, then gave the envelope back to me sealed for internal mail."
"Addressed to?" Jason asked, now sounding more crisp than enraged.
"Someone on Team 7." There was a despairing glance at Nykinnen. "I don't remember the name, sir. Sorry. But I remember thinking it was a weird name. The internal mail was collected right after. I'm sorry."
"Don't worry," Nykinnen said, earning another laser-beam glare from the Condor. "Just tell us about his friend."
"A bit taller, about the same age, black hair. I never heard his name, but he called the first one Mark. I don't think they expected to meet. He said he was going to the station to meet someone, and Mark asked him for a lift. They left together. And that was it. Really." He gave Jason a pleading look. "Sir, I saw nothing untoward."
"Thank you, Corporal. That will be all."
"Uh - Condor? What do you want me to do if I see him again?"
"Report it to Commander Nykinnen," Jason said shortly. "Dismissed."
As the corporal shut the door behind him, Jason choked out a half-laugh. "Damn, but you were right. This is not my scene at all. What the hell did Mark have to go and walk out for?"
The Eagle's walked out? Nykinnen considered need-to-know, and decided that he did. "Jason, I'm officially Mark's CO. If there's something I'll be covering up, it'll be a darn sight easier if I start doing it now."
"He's resigned from G-Force." The tone was utterly flat and unemotional. The fact that it came out in Jason's native Australian drawl, rather than the faked American version he always used as the Condor, said rather more about his state of mind. "He says he's sick. The doctors told him there was nothing wrong and put him back on active duty. Hell, I could have told them there was more up than that. The letter in the briefcase was his resignation. And there's no way we're going to find him. He's too damn bright for that."
Nykinnen swallowed, and asked the same question he always asked when a young soldier had gone AWOL. "Do you think he'll do something stupid?"
"No, but I didn't think he'd ever quit, either. So what do I know? We have to find this friend of his."
Still numb with disbelief, Nykinnen blurted out, "Oh, that's easy." The look the Condor gave him was pure fury, and he hastily elaborated. "It's Dave O'Leary. He was off to pick his parents up from the station. He'd use Mark's first name, and he fits the description."
"I need to talk to him, right now."
Nykinnen considered what little he could see of Jason's expression below the visor, and decided to risk a contradiction.
"Do you really? Because it's over two hours since he'll have dropped Mark off. He'll be back here at six, and I can have a quiet word with him then. He's no fool. If you move heaven and earth to get hold of him now, if the Condor starts quizzing him about Mark, and in a few days the paparazzi notice the Eagle's nowhere to be seen, he will put two and two together. If Mark wants to be found, he'll call, or he'll be sitting somewhere you'll find him. Do you want me to do some quiet investigating, see if anyone's had a conversation about somewhere he'd go?"
Jason sighed. "I guess it's worth a shot. You're right. You'd best give me the bracelet back. I need to go tell Anderson we don't have a commander any more."
Aw, hell. What's the worst he can do? Nykinnen put a hand out, catching the edge of the wings as Jason swept out. "Jason..."
"Don't tell me he's going to be fine."
"I wasn't going to. I was going to remind you that he's not the only one who can command. However temporary it is, you get out there and lead them your way."
He knew he'd hit on the source of the problem from the hand Jason passed across his face, behind the visor. And he had his suspicions as to why he got only the single word 'thanks' in reply. This was not someone looking forward to a promotion.
"And if you want to talk to someone not directly involved, you know where to find me. I'll talk to O'Leary as soon as he comes in and leave you a message."
The icy composure was back. "Good. Let me know." And he was gone.
Nykinnen took a deep breath before following him out, making a mental list of all the things he needed to do. Find the rightful occupant of this office and tell her it was all hers again. Leave a message for O'Leary at the desk. Have a quiet word with that corporal's CO, tell him the kid had done nothing worse than remember a conversation the Condor needed to know about. Figure out what to put about one Lieutenant Jarrald in his weekly report. In short: clean up after everyone else, as usual, while the young man in the dark birdstyle headed for glory.
He wouldn't have changed places with Jason for the world.
"What do we have?"
Princess looked up, not quite teary-eyed but looking as if tears weren't far away. "We've called everywhere I thought he might go to - but that's hardly anyone. Jill, Scott, and the other guys at the airfield. If there's anyone else he'd talk to, I don't know who they'd be. He's mostly alone or with us. Or Team 7, but Nykinnen's covered them. Does he know anyone at the track. Jason?"
"That he'd talk to about this? No."
"Then I'm out of ideas. What else did Nykinnen have?"
"Kid on the desk saw him leave, one of Team 7 gave him a lift to the station." Jason sat down hard and dropped his head into his hands. "He's gone."
"He'll come back," Keyop responded reflexively.
"You think so? Why?"
Tiny glared at Jason. "Could he be trying to get out of the country? Keyop, he must have had a close friend at ISO Russia?"
"Tom... oh. Nobody else?"
Keyop shook his head, lip trembling, and Tiny pulled him into a hug before locking eyes with Jason over the top of his head.
"We're out of time, Jase. You have to go to Anderson."
"We could give him a few more hours --"
"No, Condor." Tiny swallowed hard, but maintained the eye contact. "You know this is different. If we could find him, we would have. We have to hand this over."
"And if he comes back tomorrow?"
"He won't." Tiny tightened his arm round Keyop, forestalling his protests. "He ran away when Chris cleared him to go back on active duty. None of us has ever done anything like that. Not even you, Jase, not when you were so sick you couldn't see straight. He deserted us. I don't know if it's physical or mental, but the Mark I know wouldn't do that no matter what. He's not fit to be on the team. Please, Jase. Put this in Anderson's hands, so we can get on with figuring how we're going to cope without him."
"We can't --" Princess started.
"We have to. Zoltar isn't going to stop attacking just because Mark's gone."
"But he hasn't gone - has he?" Princess's voice wavered. "Not for good. He'll come back. He's not fit now, but they'll fix him. He just needs time."
"You don't believe that, Princess." Tiny turned from her to fix his eyes on Jason again. "He's gone for good. Hasn't he, Jase?"
Jason shut his eyes. He'd dreamed of getting his command back. Pushed for it, loudly at times. Not for a while, though. It was ironic that he'd finally come to terms with being Mark's second, with the fact that he wasn't as good a commander. Even so, his own command was something he'd hoped to get back eventually. Not yet, though - and certainly not like this. It was a very long time since he'd wanted command at Mark's expense. Not that certain people would believe him, or that it made any difference to what he had to do. The Eagle had left him in charge. He had to live up to it - and he had to make the rest of the team accept it.
He pulled the letter from his jeans pocket and unfolded it. Laid it face down on the table. Every movement was slow and deliberate, putting off the revelation for as long as possible.
"Mark left this. And his boomerang. And his bracelet."
Three heads bowed over the table. For a few seconds there was complete, horrified silence. Then a single, high-pitched sob from Keyop, before he turned and wordlessly buried his head in the nearest comfort.
"So what do we do now?" Tiny didn't even look at Jason, choosing instead to look down at the top of their youngest member's head.
"That's up to you, isn't it?" Keyop wasn't looking anywhere, and Tiny wasn't looking at him, so Jason locked eyes with Princess. "I'm not Mark. If you need him in command, we're sunk. If you'll give me a chance, I'm up for it."
Keyop sniffed. "Need a real c...commander. Not a stand-in."
Jason froze, and Tiny stepped in. "He's a damn good commander, Keyop. No stand-in. Jason was G-1 in his own right, once. He can do it. Give him a chance. It's pretty clear that's what Mark wanted us to do."
"I g...g...guess so."
"That's not good enough." Princess's voice was unhappy, but steady. "We pull together, as a team, or not at all. I'm with Jason. Are you in or out, Swallow?"
Keyop looked up, utterly miserable. Jason couldn't find it in his heart to be offended. The kid had considered Mark to be his commander practically since birth, after all. It would take him longer than ten minutes to get used to someone else.
"Then I'd better go see Anderson." Jason pocketed Mark's letter again, struggling against the urge to stay here instead. Pretend the letter didn't exist, and hope that Mark walked through the door, telling them that he'd reconsidered his moment of madness and that something beyond his control had prevented him from coming back.
It wasn't going to happen. He knew that, deep down. And even if it did happen, Jason knew that this could not be swept under the carpet. It really didn't matter now whether Mark's problem was physical or psychological, not as far as his fitness for command went. He simply couldn't, by his own admission, function as commander of G-Force any more.
"Jason?" Tiny called after him as he headed out of the door. "No matter what Anderson says, you will come back here, right? We need to know."
"I will," he promised, steeled himself, and headed for the Chief's office.
He'd never seen Anderson so completely floored, ever. The man must have read Mark's letter through three times before even looking at him. When he did so, he wore an expression as close to disbelief as Jason had ever seen on his face.
"How long have you had this?"
Jason frowned. "An hour? Not much more - Nykinnen probably knows exactly --"
"You went to the commander of Team 7 with this?"
"He was there. Mark left me the note in the Team 7 common room. He could quiz his kids on when Mark was in there, and I couldn't. Made sense to me."
"He left around one, with a Team 7 guy called Dave O'Leary. O'Leary's due back this evening and Nykinnen will quiz him then. Mark was two hours gone before we even knew what Chris had said to him."
"Quiz him this evening? You didn't think this was important enough to go find him now?"
Jason was very, very glad he'd had this same conversation just a few minutes before. "Drag him back from an afternoon's leave to talk about Mark? He'd know what was going on the moment the press figure out the Eagle's missing."
Anderson just glared, holding a hand up for silence while activating a control on his desk. "I want a scan on G-1's bracelet, now."
Jason put it on the desk in front of him as a bemused-sounding voice said from the speaker, "Chief - it's in your office."
Anderson closed the channel without so much as acknowledging. "What else haven't you told me?"
"He left it in his Team 7 locker with his boomerang and the note."
"I see." Anderson sighed. "You are aware this puts you in command."
Oh, really? Gee, I hadn't considered it. "Yes, Chief."
"You're ready to be primary jump-pilot?"
This time he did react. "I told you that three months ago."
"You did. Very well, G-2. You're acting commander as of now. If you hear from Mark, I want to know instantly."
"You'll be the fifth to know," Jason ground out.
Anderson opened his mouth and shut it again. "That will be acceptable. And - Jason? This team needs a strong leader."
He shrugged. Some things were inevitable. "I get it. I'll do my best Mark impression, don't you worry."
Chris Johnson looked stricken as Anderson finished his explanation as to why he'd called this emergency meeting of his senior staff.
"I don't know what to say. I completely misjudged him. You can have my resignation, of course, effective immediately."
"Don't be a fool," Grant told him with his usual amount of tact.
"Chris, we all read him wrong," Samuels, the psychiatrist, put in. "He's highly trained to make people do just that."
"He asked me for help. I let him down. The rest of the team know I let him down." Johnson stared at his hands. "He didn't mislead me. He begged me for help, and I told him he was fine."
"He is fine, physically,"Ivanov said. "And he appeared to be fine, mentally. He has been trained practically from birth to face dangers that would terrify anyone. To never show weakness to the enemy. Why is it surprising that he has continued to do this with us?"
Chris didn't look any happier, but Anderson had to move on. "I think we have to consider that Mark won't be commanding G-Force any time soon. The question is - what do we do now?"
He looked round the table. Ivanov, who'd known Mark from babyhood,was still and grim-faced. Johnson clearly felt responsible. Mike Bennett wasn't involved, and was staying out of it. Samuels was responsible for the misdiagnosis if anyone was, but he clearly felt no guilt, and in Anderson's opinion he was absolutely right. Mark had been trained practically from birth to appear fine when on the verge of collapse. That they'd read him wrong was entirely unsurprising.
Grant, rather surprisingly, hadn't apportioned blame. He had, in fact, stood up for the man whose meeting with Mark had provoked the young man's resignation. Now he'd extracted a particular sheet of paper from his briefcase and was methodically shredding it into smaller and smaller pieces. Anderson had noted the title before Grant started turning it to confetti. It had been a formal proposal for the immediate formation of a second team.
"That wasn't a rhetorical question, gentlemen."
Mike Bennett frowned. "We carry on with our team of four, just like we always have when someone's sick?"
Ivanov cleared his throat gruffly. "I think not. More and more often G-Force are going out a man short - and what if this time it is permanent? Mark cannot just walk back into the team after doing this. We should give one of our trainees some experience, starting immediately."
"They need someone to fly the G-1," Grant said.
Anderson shook his head. "They won't accept anyone else. They're just too close."
"They did before," Samuels said. "Mark and Keyop were slotted into a shattered team which had lost a member very suddenly, and it served to pull them back together."
Anderson shook his head again, caught himself doing it, and stopped. "I agree that this looks like a long-term situation - but I still think we should see whether they can cope as a team of four first."
"I'm going to be blunt, Chief Anderson. That's the worst thing you could do." Having got his audience's full attention, Samuels was obviously choosing his words with particular care. "Your only chance to add a new fifth member is to do it now, before they close ranks as a team of four. Put him in now and he's filling a new role. Let them run as a four for a while, and he'll be replacing one of them who's been judged as failing to take on the extra duties. It won't work."
Johnson frowned. "I don't see how it's different from replacing Mark."
"Unless we're planning on bringingin someone external as commander - and unless I've missed something, we don't have anyone even remotely suitable - a subordinate jet pilot is significantly different from Mark's role. Today will have shaken them badly. Move fast and there's just a chance that they'll close ranks around a replacement, someone they already know. But I do mean fast. Within the next hour or so."
Anderson blanched. "Now? We don't have anyone who's ready."
"We'll never have anyone who's ready. But we have two implanted, birdstyle-experienced trainees." Samuels gave the doctor one of those 'your turn' looks.
"They're medically fit," Chris Johnson offered. "Not sure about their implant status."
"Implants are fully specced." Mike Bennett finally entered the discussion. "Not tuned for jump, but that's a three hour process. I could do it today. Which one do you want? Or both?"
"Not both," Samuels said. "It looks tempting, but you set up a 'them and us' situation, and Andianov is not a good fit with the remaining four."
"Shayler is indeed the one with the correct skill-set," Ivanov agreed. "He's worked extensively with Jason. Even flown with him in the P-X. And he is a good G-1 pilot."
"And an adequate Phoenix pilot," Anderson said slowly. "Tiny's been putting in some serious work on his hand-to-hand skills. If he were to step up to take a more active role..."
"That would be an excellent way to present it to the team," Samuels said. "Tiny stepping into Mark's shoes is something they will accept far more readily than Rick doing it. And Tiny will not object to Rick taking over the role of the one who stays behind, since he actively dislikes it."
There were nods of agreement from around the table, although Grant's was coupled with a sigh. "Shayler on G-Force. Heaven preserve us."
"He's steadied down a lot," Samuels reassured him. "The problem will be his confidence, if anything. But I don't think that's a bad thing, for someone slotting into a team at such a high level."
"Rank structure?" Ivanov asked. "Do we dissolve it?"
"Now hold on," Anderson said, raising his voice. "This is a temporary measure. We are going to give Shayler some experience. We are not counting the Eagle out, not at this point. Not before we've made a serious effort to find him and sort out whatever his problem is."
"You have people looking?" Mike Bennett asked.
"Of course." Every favour he could pull in, every local undercover operative, everyone he could spare to search camera footage, bank transactions, anything. He'd expected a call back from one of them already. That he hadn't had one made him realise just how desperate Mark was. Right now he could cheerfully have throttled the doctor sitting opposite him. Except that he himself had authorised what Johnson had told Mark.
"But we must give Shayler some authority," Ivanov argued. "If he is to be out there, in the uniform, he needs the rank to back him up. I, personally, would promote the Condor to G-1, however temporarily. And I think Shayler would make a good G-2."
The table erupted in indignant denial, and Anderson raised his voice again. "Gentlemen, please! Dr Samuels?"
"I agree that he has the temperament be a good second, but of G-Force? No. Promote the rest of them, and put him in as G-5. All acting roles, nothing permanent. Having him subordinate to the Swallow is asking for trouble, but I think a promotion will encourage Keyop to accept him."
Grant sat forward, wearing an expression which Anderson recognised all too well as preceding a contentious suggestion. "I have another idea, which I think would work much better and avoid us having to admit the Eagle is not here. The kids won't like it, though."
Anderson had a strong suspicion he wasn't going to like it, either.
"Red Kite to briefing room one, acknowledge please."
"On my way," Rick said into his bracelet with a frown. It wasn't often the full version of his codename was used. That meant either that he'd done something wrong, or that it was very formal. He didn't think he'd screwed up recently, and formal meetings were normally scheduled. Please, letme not have missed the announcement for something I should have attended…
He skidded round the corner into the corridor containing the briefing rooms and stopped dead. One of the black section internal security guards manned the door he needed. No chance of it being something minor, then, or something unofficial.
"Tim, what's going on in there? They want me."
"I don't know, sir." The guard avoided his eyes, but it wasn't clear to Rick whether this was a bad sign, or just that he was being particularly formal. He opened the door. "Please go in, sir."
Rick did so, and had to force his legs to keep moving once he saw who was inside the room. He hadn't seen this much top brass in a meeting since he'd been offered his implant. They were all here. Anderson, Grant and Ivanov, the top three men in the security side of ISO. Chris Johnson the medical doctor and Mike Bennett the implant expert. Even Samuels the psychiatrist. And the Condor, wearing a daunting scowl.
"Transmute, if you would," Grant said, ice in his tone.
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir." Rick stepped away from the table – blinding your superiors wasn't considered polite – and was halfway through the motions when it occurred to him that nobody else was formally dressed. No uniforms, except for those who wore them on a daily basis. Anderson was wearing a suit, but then he always did. And Jason was in jeans and a T-shirt. He was sufficiently rattled that he almost flubbed the coordination required. He hoped none of them had noticed, but judging by Jason's expression, that was a vain hope.
"Very similar shaped visor, as you see," Grant said to the others, completely ignoring Rick. "Reversed colour scheme – not that that particularly matters, it's easy to change. But it is close to what he's used to."
"I said no!" Jason was on his feet, blazing temper. "I will not do this! You will not do this. Mark is the Eagle forever! Dead, grounded, or walked out, that's his uniform and it does not get reused on any team that I am a part of. Am I clear?"
"You need to calm down, Jason," Anderson told him.
"Not a chance. Not until this stupid idea is dead."
"It will not work in any case," Ivanov cut in. "Rick is much too tall to ever be mistaken for Mark. How tall are you, Kite?"
"Six-four," Rick replied.
"Mark's barely five-ten, and I know he has an almighty pair of heels in those boots, but you still can't disguise a six inch difference in height. I don't think it can work. Not when Rick's obviously taller than Jason, and Mark's obviously shorter."
Chris Johnson's was the one voice of sanity in something Rick didn't understand at all, and therefore, he hoped, a safe place to address his query. "What's going on?"
"The Eagle will be unavailable for the near future," Grant told him, in a tone of utter formality. "We are considering using you as a temporary replacement for him."
"On G-Force?" Rick asked, and then bit his lip. No, stupid, on the base synchronised swimming team. Thankfully everyone had ignored his question.
"A six inch height difference?" Grant mused. "With Jason exactly in the middle? Maybe if we switch both of them? I don't think a three inch increase in height for both Eagle and Condor would be so obvious --"
"What part of 'no' are you having problems with?" Rick was very, very glad not to be the target of Jason's fury. "Nobody else is wearing the Eagle's uniform - and that includes me. Give it up, Major. Give it up now."
Grant raised his hands in defeat. "If you insist, Commander. I maintain that the appearance of an unchanged team would help you in the field, but it's your call."
Rick could almost hear the unspoken 'unfortunately' on the end of it, and so, he suspected, could Jason.But this was moving all too fast for him and, much as he'd have liked to stay quiet, he was obviously right in the middle of things he knew nothing about.
"Uh - you said the Eagle's missing? Can I help, computer-wise? Trace bank accesses?"
Jason turned to him, the anger fading. "No. Mark knows damn well you'll be put on it, and you'll find him if he uses anything. So he won't. He's got a whole load of offshore numbered accounts Cronus left him, he told me once. Nobody can track those. This is the guy who fooled an entire Spectran battalion into believing he was Zoltar, for hours. We won't find him until he wants to be found."
"Kite, we want you to work with the rest of G-Force, starting immediately," Anderson said pointedly.
"Train," Jason said.
"No, work." Anderson locked eyes with the Condor, and Rick knew with a sinking feeling that this was far from popular with Jason. "He will be an active duty member of G-Force, as soon as Dr Bennett informs me that his implant has been calibrated for jump, which will be happening later today. If the siren goes tomorrow, you will take him."
"He'll get killed."
"He will not get killed, because you will not put him in situations that are beyond his capabilities." Anderson continued to stare Jason down, and seemed to be winning. "Now, Commander, you will call the rest of your team in, and we will explain the situation to them. Or do you really think that if you are taken ill it would be better for the Swan, the Swallow and the Owl to try to fly a mission alone?"
Jason paled. "I guess. He flies as observer and co-pilot, though. He's not ready for combat."
"Of course not. That's what training is for. Now, call your team, so we don't end up discussing everything twice."
Even though she'd been half-expecting it, Princess jumped when her communicator pinged.
"G-Force to briefing room one," Jason's voice said bluntly, and the link went dead.
"Do you think they've found Mark?" Keyop asked.
"No," Tiny replied before she could.
"No?" The unhappiness in Keyop's voice was back in full force.
Tiny put his arm back round their youngest member, his face sympathetic. "Mark won't be found. If he wants to come back, he'll come back. For now, he just needs a break. This is going to be Anderson telling us officially that we have to work without him for a while. He called Jason in first because he'll be in command."
Keyop made a face. "Bleargh."
"Not bleargh. He can do it, Keyop. This is going to be tough for him, though. He needs your support. You said you were in."
Keyop nodded mutely, and headed for the door, his shoulders drooping.
Princess was the last one into the briefing room, and as the guard shut the door behind her she took stock of the people in here. The full complement of senior staff, and Jason, that she'd expected, but Rick? Could they have been wrong? Rick was one hell of a good hacker - but could he really have found Mark this quickly?
And then she processed the fact that he was in birdstyle, and her heart sank.
"G-Force," Anderson said as the three of them aligned themselves next to Jason. "As you've already realised, Mark is unlikely to be fit for active duty for some time --"
Tiny gasped audibly. "We don't need a replacement for him."
"Nobody can step into Mark's shoes," Anderson told them. "But I've said it to Jason and I'm saying it to you - what do you plan on doing if Jason is taken ill? It's not so very unusual. Princess, you'll be in command. So, who will you be taking with you on reconnaissance? The Swallow or the Owl? You can't take both. Which of you will fly the G-1 if it's required?"
Princess put a hand to her mouth. In command? Her? She'd always known it could happen, did happen on a regular basis on a minor scale when Mark and Jason were the two off the ship - but for a whole mission? A mission with only three of them?
"I don't know, Chief."
"You need someone to fly the G-1, and to take over the role that Tiny has filled up to now, of remaining on the Phoenix to bring it in as required. Tiny, this depends to a large part on you. I've reviewed your recent combat training. Are you ready to step up and take on a more active role?"
"Yes, sir!" There was excitement even with the uncertainty in the big man's tone. "I mean - I think so."
Princess hated herself for it, but she had to speak up. "But, Chief - there are times when we all have to go out and fight. I'm sorry, Rick, but you're not up to it. Nothing personal."
A clearly very nervous Kite cleared his throat. "I'm a better G-1 pilot than any of you. I think I can offer more than that, but if I'm better than nothing, isn't that worth having?"
"Dangerous," Keyop muttered. "No time to watch his back."
"Rick will have to watch his own back, if it comes to that," Anderson said. "He's not untrained. Security operatives less adept than him face Spectran agents every day. But we plan that he will be on the Phoenix all of the time at first, gradually increasing his role as he integrates better with the rest of you in training. Until further notice I want you all to stay on the base. The five of you will be going back into intensive training. Spectra won't stop attacking because we've lost the Eagle. At the very least I want a reliable five man whirlwind pyramid within three days."
"Rick as G-6?" asked Keyop.
"As G-5." Anderson looked along the line. "These are field promotions, subject to change. With added seniority comes added responsibility, G-3."
He was looking directly at Keyop as he spoke, and Princess saw the young man stiffen and stand up as straight as he possibly could. "Yes, sir!"
"Tiny, you will be seeing the birdstyle people first thing tomorrow morning. We need to do something about that visor."
Tiny's eyes dropped. "This isn't how I wanted it."
"Of course not. But it's how it is. Princess..."
"I'll do my best, sir." She tried to make it sound supportive, knowing perfectly well what was coming.
"Your acting commander will need your help."
Jason hadn't said a word so far, but now he took a deep breath, and if his voice was high-pitched, that was nothing unusual for him.
"G-Force, to the gym. We have a lot of work to do."
© Catherine Rees Lay, October 2006.