Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank, I'm just playing with it for fun.
This is a rewrite of the episode "G-Force Defector" set in my universe. There's one huge non-canon moment (a mis-assigned line of dialogue) in order to to make it work.
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.
Many thanks to Nancy for beta-reading.
To anyone who, like me, didn't know, "Galactic Traitor" was the original title of the episode. Thanks to Jason for the info.
Some very minor swearing, and I've always thought the entire premise of the episode is particularly chilling.
Any and all comments are welcome, here or via email, especially suggestions for improvement.
Oh, and thanks to Jane for encouraging me to post this even though she already rewrote this episode so brilliantly. If you haven't read "Black Birds" yet, I thoroughly recommend it. But read mine first :-)
Monday morning was always official briefing time. New technological developments, equipment upgrades, intel, all got discussed in the hour or so of total tedium, or so the rest of the team saw it. Mark had repeatedly railed at how nebulous it all was; developments still at the "we think that", "we're going to try" stage, intel ranging from wild rumour to detailed descriptions of next month's attack plans, and no way to know what would become reality. Keyop found it boring and made a point of showing it. He and Tiny had an ongoing competition to separate dross from truth. When the technology you already have includes the ability to turn your warship into a flaming plasma weapon, and your enemy sees nothing strange in an attack ship designed as a giant bug with commander dressed to match, that's not as easy as you might think. Then again, I occasionally wonder what the Spectran leadership thought when they first received reports that their invasion plans were being stalled by a team of five dressed as birds. That one even I'd have discounted.
That particular Monday didn't start any differently. Sheridan from Stats had presented a new proposal for a technique to computer-solve the jump-equations using numerical methods, and Jason had shown interest for just long enough to poke a huge hole in it. He was now sitting slouched, eyes closed, to any casual observer appearing to be asleep in his chair. Everyone here knew better; some had called him on it before and been rewarded with a verbatim replay of the previous five minutes' discussion and a diamond-bright smile to make them want to crawl under the table and die. Jason might consider it a waste of time, but that didn't mean he wasn't listening.
Anderson stood up, leafing through pages of intel reports, and I sighed inwardly. This looked as if it would take a while.
The first report was on a multipart snake mech apparently deployed in the Spectran swamplands to guard a major installation. It sounded plausible enough, but there wasn't enough detail differentiating it from things we'd faced before to be much use to us.
The second was desperately vague. A long-term chemical weapons program was nearing completion. Our informant had heard it was based on an Earth-developed formula. Anderson gave a reference; journal, three-year-old date, title and author. I blinked stupidly - it was familiar. I turned to ask flypaper-brain Jason where we'd encountered it before, just in time to hear a sharp 'snap' and see him sit up, eyes wide in shock, brushing away shards of splintered plastic from his fractured pen. Then I remembered.
Don's pseudonym. Don's paper. Don's formula, out of all the hundreds published every year just on this planet, the one being worked on by Spectra. Maybe just a coincidence. The alternative was too horrible to contemplate.
Jason clearly was contemplating it, though. All trace of relaxation was gone as he sat rigid in the chair through the remaining items, his vacant expression indicating his mind was far away. Had Anderson called him on it now, I doubted he could have even named the topic under discussion. He'd spent nearly two years refusing to admit that he'd ever heard of universal solvents, much less discussed them on a regular basis. I could only imagine how bad he must be feeling to look that awful.
Rather to my surprise, Anderson didn't seem to notice. He made no comment about Jason's reaction, and gave us all the rest of the day off.
Jason bolted for the door the moment Anderson dismissed us. Heading for the track, no doubt. Out there, away from ISO and the pressures of G-Force, he was a person we'd lost two years ago. From comments they'd made, his colleagues at ISO Racing saw him as dedicated and ruthless in his pursuit of victory. Just as he was with us. But out of the car, they found him sympathetic and helpful, and with a wicked sense of humour. None of them had ever mentioned his temper to me. I missed that Jason desperately. Always being careful, wondering what might make his temper flare, was hard.
"What's eating him?" Mark asked once we were out of Anderson's earshot.
I glanced at Tiny. Just the opening we needed to give Mark the explanation he'd deserved from the very beginning. Just say it. 'The man who developed that formula was Jason's second-in-command. Jason made a mistake on our very first interplanetary flight. Don walked into a Spectran trap, and we left him for dead.'
Tiny leant back out of Mark's line of sight and shook his head. His reaction confirmed my own feelings. It was Jason's story. Jason who should be the one to tell his commander what had happened on what was officially called Mission Zero. The one with the records hidden away so far, Mark didn't even know of their existence. No, I couldn't tell that story, not two years after the fact. Tell it now, and they'd both think I'd betrayed them. Keep quiet, and the hole I was digging for myself just kept getting deeper.
I shrugged, attempting to appear casual. "He's stressed. It's just Jason." That didn't sound much like something I'd say, even to me, but Mark didn't seem to notice.
At the door, Keyop jiggled impatiently. "So, are we still going for pizza? You said when we got the day off."
I nearly shook my head, but we had to break so many promises, shelve so many plans. I couldn't do it to him just because an intel report which could be complete rubbish had got to me. "Sure."
"I'll come," Tiny said. "Mark?"
"Too much to do at the airfield." He grimaced ruefully. "I never knew there'd be so much paperwork when I said I'd help out with the flying lessons."
"Taxes?" Tiny asked.
"No such luck. One of Daddy's little darlings decided I'm discriminating against her because I'm prejudiced against women. I've got to go back through the flight records, demonstrating she's had the same chances as everyone else."
"And has she?"
"Hell, yes. More, if anything, since I could see she was struggling. She's got less natural feel for flying than Jason has, and a whole lot less application. I have no idea how she got a pilot's license in the first place. No way is she fit to fly a jet." He turned to me. "Tell me, Princess, have I ever treated you differently from the rest of the team?"
Well, that was easy. "No, never." Not on duty, not off duty, not even when I'd taken my courage in both hands in the wreckage of Research Centre and told him how I felt. No matter how badly I wanted him to.
"Know what I think?" Tiny asked as we headed for his car. "Daddy's little girl made a pass at him, and he didn't even notice."
I chuckled. "Could just be." At least it wasn't just me. Mark and I had discussed our relationship - the one I'd like to have - a while back. He'd made it entirely clear that as long as he was my commanding officer he was having nothing to do with any sort of liason, no matter how I phrased it. I'd thought for a while that he was rejecting me as gently as possible and would sooner or later introduce us to his new girlfriend, but where other girls were concerned he seemed oblivious to the fact that the human race had two sexes at all. I'd met some of the trainees from the airfield he'd part-inherited from his mother. Rich kids, all of them, looking for training to fly the family jet and prepared to pay through the nose for lessons from bona fide ISO pilots. Seriously desirable partners, every one looking for a soulmate from the A-list of society. Apparently an ISO test pilot fell into that category for the few female ones. And Mark showed no interest in them. I'd felt much better once I'd realised that.
'Pizza' for us meant Jill's snack bar. Good food, close to ISO, no questions asked if we disappeared in a hurry, and equally none if we sat about for hours in a cloud of despair. Close to 95% of her customers must have been ISO personnel or Academy students - civilians walking in weren't exactly glared at, but they tended not to stay for long. I liked Jill. I'd even covered for her on a few occasions. Just enough to determine that the catering trade wasn't for me. I'd also let her down at short notice a couple of times, but if she had her suspicions, she'd never voiced them.
Three pizzas later, Keyop and Tiny were tucking into their second bowls of ice-cream. I was nursing a mug of the best decaf coffee in the area - much to the team's amusement, the latest affectation among teenage ISO-ites was avoidance of drugs to the same level we were forced to maintain, and Jill had jumped cheerfully on the bandwagon to offer every decaffeinated beverage she could find. It made our lives a lot easier. Now that everyone else under the age of 30 in the place was doing their best to be mistaken for G-Force, we fitted in better than we ever had.
When the bracelet vibrated against my wrist I didn't even bother dissimulating. I pushed my chair back and walked out, knowing the other two would follow. Once outside, a quick glance round to check I was unobserved, and I called in.
"I'm on my way."
Behind me, Keyop and Tiny acknowledged, Mark's voice came over the bracelet and, after a short pause, Jason responded too. Tiny gunned the engine of his car, and we sped back the short distance to ISO.
"You'll be briefed on the Phoenix," came over the link as we pulled up. Red alert, then. So much for our day off.
I dropped into my seat on the Phoenix to see a whole sequence of lights flashing on the communications screen. I called up the first message from Mark, just to confirm that it was his usual request to dock after launch. In both Mark and Jason's absence, Keyop had taken the co-pilot's seat and was running the pre-flight checks with Tiny. Temporarily, I was in command. I pushed that particular unwelcome thought to the back of my mind and started working through the messages; details on the attacking mecha (very scanty), location (vague) and suggestions for countering it (none worth mentioning). There really was only one piece of hard information in there.
"Sector A-15," I called to Tiny.
"That's too close for comfort. We're ready to go here. What's keeping Jason?"
I reached out to contact him, but ended up answering Mark's flashing light. Even over the bracelet, his impatience was apparent. "Come on, guys. What's keeping you?"
"We're waiting for G-2."
"Any word from him?"
"Not since he acknowledged the scramble."
The characteristic hiss told me Mark had switched his bracelet to a private channel. In a surprisingly short time he was back on the general one. "Launch without him."
"But - Commander! We need him!"
"Don't argue, G-3. Out."
I looked up at the main viewscreen, currently showing Anderson in the controller's chair, to seek confirmation. He appeared to be about as impressed as Mark had sounded.
"G-Force, you have a go. Good luck. We'll keep passing you new information as we get it."
That was as close to 'we know what we've given you so far is useless' as we were going to get. Mark could decide how to proceed when he docked. Right now we just needed to launch and get our commander on board.
"What have we got?" Mark strode onto the command deck, and Keyop cleared his seat in a hurry.
"There's a mecha of some sort in Sector A-15," I told him. "No further details."
I gulped at the irritation in his tone. This was Jason's job, not mine.
"It's attacked planes. Nobody seems to have got a good look at it."
"Attacked them how?"
"We don't know!" I almost wailed. "They've come down in the mountains, we have nothing bar their Mayday calls. We don't even know if the pilots survived yet. I can't find anything useful in the data Anderson sent me."
"Damn. Send it all over to me."
I did so, numbly. If Jason had been here, Mark wouldn't have checked his findings. Jason would probably have found something useful in there in the first place.
Mark looked up only once in the next ten minutes, to tell Tiny to increase speed. Finally he slammed his fist down on the console and spat out, "There's nothing here. Get me the Chief."
I opened a channel, resisting an unprofessional urge to say 'I told you so.' A somewhat irritable discussion ensued. Anderson had no new information. Jason hadn't arrived - hadn't even contacted them. We could really have used his analysis, even though it was too late for him to join us. The mecha hadn't been seen again. Finally Mark agreed that we should attempt to find it, at least get a good look and try to determine its weaknesses. We switched our scanners to maximum sensitivity and settled to a long afternoon. Standard search pattern B, flying at the same altitude as the downed fighters, hoping the mecha had stayed in the area and hadn't simply flown off to terrorise more populated airspace.
From nowhere, the cockpit was filled with blinding light. I heard Tiny exclaim that he couldn't see, then suddenly a radar contact appeared on my screen. Not off to one side, as if we were closing horizontally, or fading in as if approaching vertically. It was just - there. Then another, and another. Close on a hundred identical contacts, weaving randomly in and out of one another. Beside me, Keyop was cursing under his breath while adjusting and re-adjusting a screen showing visual sensor input which I could only describe as a fly's-eye view.
Mark had come to stand at my shoulder. "It's an optical illusion."
Well, it better had be. If it wasn't, we were up against a whole fleet of identical mechas which could confuse every sensor we had. The contacts on my screen bore no resemblance to those on Keyop's.
"I think we should get out of here," I told him.
"Go in the bubble," suggested Keyop. "Believe my own eyes."
Mark shook his head. "Too much radiation. Something's overloading the viewscreen. Tiny, take us up."
The pilot nodded and applied himself to the controls. We rose about fifty feet and abruptly stopped as we hit something. Not in the sense of a collision between two ships - we'd experienced enough of those - but as if we'd flown into a solid ceiling. I was very glad to be sitting down and strapped in, as Mark grabbed at the back of my chair and barely kept his footing.
At times like these, you don't wait for orders. Tiny let the Phoenix drop, accelerated hard forwards, and tried to climb again. Same effect. This thing had to be huge, or as fast as we were. Or both.
As Tiny dropped us again, desperately trying to find a way through to clear airspace, something slammed into us. The Phoenix lurched, steadied, and lurched again. Quite apart from the stomach-churning qualities, something didn't feel right.
"Can you hold it level, Tiny!" Mark yelled. "We're losing speed and altitude."
This time the pilot didn't even acknowledge, far too busy fighting with controls which, even to me, obviously weren't responding correctly. Gradually I became aware of the strange sounds, as though something was striking the upper surface of the hull. Like giant, random raindrops splashing onto the the Phoenix's skin. In front, Tiny swore furiously. "Mark, I'm losing systems."
Keyop and I looked at each other in horrified realisation. Without a word, Keyop switched to internal sensors. These weren't affected by whatever the enemy mecha was using to jam our radar. Frankly, I almost wished they had been. Every camera showed similar scenes. Thick, syrupy liquid dripping from melted holes in the outer skin, eating away at everything it touched, dissolving its way further into our ship.
I turned to Mark. He was staring at an image of the G-4, already riddled with holes and disintegrating before our eyes. "We're in a lot of trouble," he said simply.
Wonderful. Right now what we needed was Mark in brilliant, intuitive command mode, and instead what we had was his alter ego where he'd stand around and state the bleeding obvious. Jason could generally kick him out of it, say just the right thing to get Mark's mind working the way we needed it to. Even if that was something totally unsubtle like 'I'm going to blow them out of the sky.'
Jason wasn't here.
Tiny was probably thinking the same thing. From the pilot's station came a cry of "I'm flying blind as a bat!"
Mark still stood there, staring intently at the radar screen. Jason would have been up front by now, giving Tiny instructions of his own, forcing Mark to take action. I couldn't do that. All I could do was fight to extract some useful information from my systems and hope to find the edge we so desperately needed.
Keyop's gasp distracted me, and I looked up to see cracks appearing in the ceiling of the flight deck. My ears popped - a sure sign that we were losing cabin pressure - but despite the outward flow of air, a thick yellow gas began to creep into the cabin, sinking rapidly to the floor. Even so, billowing clouds of it were beginning to swirl close to head height within a few seconds.
"We can't take much more of this!" Tiny's voice was becoming increasingly desperate. The front of the cockpit was still pretty much gas-free, but it wouldn't stay that way for long. Unless, of course, we decompressed first. Either way, we were going to need full helmets or pressure masks, and there was no way to put either on while piloting in combat.
"There won't be anything left of the Phoenix!" I exclaimed in a desperate attempt to goad Mark into action. All we got from him was an absent-minded "try to hang in there." Oh, we'd hang in there to the bitter end, no doubt about it. The Phoenix, however, was disintegrating around us.
"Need a gas mask!" Keyop spluttered, abandoning his analysis and reaching for the nearest emergency equipment locker. I started to follow suit, and finally - finally - Mark reacted, his eyes still glued to the dancing pattern of radar echoes on my screen.
"Take us straight up. Full power."
Tiny didn't hesitate, slamming us into a vertical climb which flattened me back into my seat. Somehow, this time we found a clear route up. I spent most of our fight to outclimb the enemy mecha trying not to think about how many pieces we'd have broken into if Mark had been wrong and ordered us into a full power ascent directly into it. At some point Tiny asked nobody in particular what we were going to do if the mecha followed us up. I didn't like to tell him that, as far as I could tell from my half-melted rear sensors, it was doing just that. At least the blinding light had stopped, and the craft was now appearing on radar as a single, huge, contact.
"How high are we going?" Tiny asked finally, as the sky started to change from blue to black and the curvature of the earth became clearly visible.
"As high as we have to. I suspect they can't use their weapons at altitude." Mark had at last made it back to his own seat.
It did seem a reasonable guess. They'd tried hard to prevent us from climbing, and the near-vacuum of the upper atmosphere had stripped away the vast majority of the corrosive chemical from their bombs. We weren't suffering further damage, but we were leaking atmosphere from twenty places, and if Mark took us much higher I'd have to recommend we went for full helmets and depressurised the interior of the Phoenix. Our birdstyles could protect us, but the outer shell of the Phoenix was in tatters and the flight deck bulkheads weren't up to the pressure differential of hard vacuum. Even if the air recycling could continue to keep the pressure in here at a survivable level, given the leaks we had already.
Thank goodness it didn't come to that. There was a low whistle of appreciation from Tiny as we finally got a clear view of the enemy mecha levelling out and heading back to lower altitudes. It was huge - easily five times our length and width, and the usual Spectran bio-imitative design.
"What's that? Caterpillar?" asked Mark.
I'd have said trilobite, but ISO Russia had trained their students strictly in what they thought might be useful for the fight against Spectra. I remained startled that Keyop had ever encountered a drumkit, let alone learned to play one, however badly. I wasn't sure Mark even knew what a fossil was, and I wasn't about to try to explain. Caterpillar would do.
We watched it undulate gently down out of sight, then Mark sighed. "I guess we'll just have to limp home empty-handed." There was a lot more anger in his expression than the mild words suggested. He hadn't mentioned Jason's absence once, but I knew what those glances towards the empty chair signified. His second better have one hell of a good excuse.
Jason still hadn't made contact when we finally made it back to headquarters. He wasn't there to see us suffer the ignomony of landing on the airfield in full view of the latest crop of ISO Academy trainee pilots, too badly damaged to submerge and make our normal underwater approach. The only remotely bright point of that horrible day was the discovery of an unexploded bomb which had fallen through one of the many holes dissolved in the Phoenix's hull. Anderson immediately ordered a full analysis of its payload, and I went to help. I was pretty sure I knew where they should start. That formula of Don's.
Mark, by now too frantic with worry for his second to stay angry, disappeared altogether. I found out later that he'd enlisted the help of his and Jason's Team 7 colleagues to search for any trace of him or his car. They'd all returned empty-handed. Oddly, I was comforted. If Jason had been hurt or attacked, I was sure there would have been some sign to be found. The debris resulting from a small war, for instance.
Tiny, as usual, spent most of the rest of the day overseeing the repairs to the Phoenix, running from one technician to the next, hanging over shoulders and telling them how to do their jobs until they were all heartily sick of him. Keyop would have done the same, but what the technicians would grudgingly accept from the pilot of the ship they were repairing, they wouldn't tolerate from G-Force's youngest, smallest and most volatile member, and Anderson reassigned him before we ended up with a major incident.
The ISO ground personnel settled down for an all-nighter. We'd have joined them without a second thought, and Anderson knew it. At nine he contacted us over the bracelets with orders to get some food followed by some sleep. Half an hour later, he dropped casually into the canteen for just long enough to be sure we'd seen him checking on us, then disappeared again. Argument was futile, we all knew that. We were the combat team, we'd probably be out again tomorrow, and would need to be awake and alert. We had to leave repairs and research to others, and go to bed.
To say I slept badly would be an understatement. I tossed and turned for ages, worrying about Jason, but when I finally slept I dreamt of Don as he had been. Don's last communications, and myself knowing something was wrong but unable to speak to warn him. Don, not dying under tons of rock as we'd always believed, but pulled out by Spectrans and taken in chains to Zoltar's Martian base. Don, waiting for a rescue operation which never came, and finally deciding he'd been abandoned and offering his services to his hosts. Don, now, this evening, sitting wherever the caterpillar mecha had gone to ground, reviewing our disastrous interaction with his gas bombs over and over again and laughing manically with Zoltar's voice.
The second time I jerked awake, soaked with sweat and still hearing that cackling laughter echo in my head, I abandoned sleep. Instead I sat at the desk with my two-year-old diaries, duvet round my shoulders in the pre-dawn chill, trying to reconstruct everything Don had ever told me about his solvent. He'd told me what he was going to try next, what he thought would make it still more efficient, what he'd considered but decided wouldn't work, in some detail. He'd loved to talk, and then as now I'd considered myself the member of the team responsible for general knowledge which might come in useful some day. If only I could remember what he'd told me well enough to be of use.
It was no good. I couldn't concentrate well enough on Don the calculating traitor's deadly invention. Try as I might, what came to mind were other images. Don the arrogant brat I'd met for the first time at the ISO summer school. I'd loathed him on sight, and he'd clearly considered me not worth talking to. Until they'd insisted on all their candidates taking a trip to the shooting range. Don had been a truly dreadful shot, and the look on his face when he'd realised I was the person assigned to help him had been priceless. Give him his due, though, he'd not been afraid to admit - albeit tacitly - that he'd been wrong about me, and to start treating me as an equal. It had been Don who'd spent over an hour getting me off the ground on what we'd later discovered was the prototype Phoenix flight simulator. Without that, I might never have made it into G-Force in the first place. I'd forgiven him no end of arrogant, superior comments over the next eighteen months, because I knew that if I asked for his help, he'd be there. He'd rarely, if ever, asked for mine. In the end, when he'd needed it most, he'd had no time to do more than scream. Just once.
Anderson called us in at ten, and came right to the point. "This may come as a shock to you, but it seems that a former member of the G-Force team, Donald Wade, has defected to Spectra. His knowledge of G-Force operations makes him dangerous." The picture on the screen was so familiar it hurt.
I dared a sideways glance at Mark as Anderson paused to change the slide. There was no reaction at all, not a word, none of the myriad of questions he surely had right now. He looked more horrified at the new pictures, taken yesterday on our return and showing the dreadful damage to the Phoenix.
Anderson continued in that same calm tone. He never showed emotion at a briefing. He'd sent us out to recover another defector and only subsequently had we found out just how close a friend the man had been. That time, only Anderson had known him. This time, it was Don who Anderson was talking about. We'd spent eighteen months training together. He'd been obnoxious and arrogant - but he'd been one of us. We'd trusted one another. How could he have betrayed his own planet? I could see only too well how he could have betrayed us. We'd betrayed him first. We'd left him behind. He must truly hate us now, to have sided with Spectra against humanity. Revenge against G-Force I could understand - but he could have had that at any time, simply by telling Zoltar who we were. Giving Spectra a weapon which could take down any plane in the sky was unforgivable.
"Wade is a genius in chemistry," Anderson went on, just as if half the people in the room hadn't known him intimately. "At the time he left G-Force, he was perfecting a formula for a universal solvent. Look how the exposed metal on the Phoenix is eaten away. The bombs that struck it had to have been carrying a payload of Wade's formula. It's his. I've had it tested. And now it's Zoltar's."
He sighed, and his face lost something of its formal briefing expression as he spoke directly to Mark. "He's a guy I never could get close to - a real loner. And he and Jason couldn't hit it off at all."
I felt my jaw drop. That wasn't right at all! Don had fancied himself a leader, on a pedestal above us, but a loner? No. He loved having others around, especially if they were prepared to listen to him. And Jason had been as close to Don as he'd ever been to anyone since. Certainly closer than he was to Mark. They'd trusted one another implicitly, totally. Jason had never given that sort of trust to anyone again. No, Don hadn't been a man apart, a defector in waiting. He'd been as loyal, as dedicated, as brave as any of us. That was what was so terrifying, probably too much for even Anderson to face. It could have been any of us. In a similar situation, it still could.
"Speaking of Jason," Anderson continued, "he's missed a mission and now a briefing. He'd better have a good explanation."
Keyop suddenly squeaked joyfully. "Hey, look who's here!"
We all swung round to see Jason leaning against the wall just inside the door. He looked dreadful; eyes shadowed, pale under the tan. I wondered how much of Anderson's spiel he'd heard.
"What's going on, Jason?" That was Anderson.
"That's a good question." He didn't sound any better than he looked.
"And I'd like a good answer. Your behaviour has been inexcusable. You deliberately disobeyed orders."
Well, that was a big assumption. For all any of us knew, he'd been unconscious in the local hospital for eighteen hours. I waited for Jason's blistering response, but it didn't happen.
"Maybe the best thing for me to do is resign."
"Resign?" Even Anderson sounded startled. Mark's horrified "what?" said it for the rest of us.
Jason couldn't even look at us. "Yeah. I've come to the conclusion that I'm not cut out for G-Force any more. If I ever was."
He had to have heard Anderson saying that Don was alive. That Jason had done the one truly unforgivable thing to his second-in-command. He'd left him behind. Jason deserved to be told in no uncertain terms that he'd made the only possible decision in the circumstances, that anything else would have killed all of us and done nothing to help Don. What he got was ambiguous in the extreme.
"That's not true and you know it, Jason. Be sure you're not making a decision you'll regret later. Just be sure."
Jason looked as though he wasn't sure of anything except that he didn't want to be here. I didn't know how to help him, Keyop wouldn't be any good, and Tiny rarely got involved with Jason's moods. Mark would try, but it wasn't one of his strong points. I didn't want to be left to sort this out. As Anderson left us to it I made one desperate attempt to bring him back, but my plea went unanswered.
From the door, I heard Mark's voice. "Jason, what's wrong? I'll help."
And an all too typical Jason-response. "Stay out of this." Sounds of footsteps, and a door closing.
Someone had to talk to him. I headed for the corridor, and found my way blocked by an arm across the doorway. My commander's expression was cold and furious. "Sit down, Princess. No more evasions. I want the truth about Donald Wade's involvement in G-Force. All of it. Now."
This time I had no option. We sat down, and I told him the tale of our first field-test of the jump-drive, which had ended with the total destruction of the damaged Mars base with Don still deep in the tunnels under it. We'd thought we were going to an operational, domed base. Don had had thirty minutes oxygen left at most when the Spectran mecha buried him under hundreds of tons of rock, and had stopped transmitting some time before. I'd never doubted he was dead until yesterday.
Mark never interrupted once. Even Keyop remained silent. Tiny left the tale to me, nodding occasionally.
"We destroyed their ship and came home," I finished. "Jason's never been the same. He never used our real names again. 'Princess' and 'Tiny' were what Don called us. Three months later, they diagnosed Jason with PTSD - but you were with us by then."
"I can't believe you never told me." Mark didn't look up, staring at his hands on the table. "I can't believe Anderson never told me. I never knew you'd been there for the Mars base disaster. I never knew you had another team member at all. Let alone that he was G-2."
"We should have guessed," Keyop said.
"Huh?" Mark glanced up.
"They already had the jet. Needed a pilot."
"Don was my co-pilot on the Phoenix," Tiny said. "That plane was the Hawk before it was ever the G-1."
"So why do you think he turned?" Mark asked in the ensuing silence.
I shook my head. "I don't know. The only thing - he was very gullible. He'd believe anything. Maybe given long enough of waiting in vain for us to come rescue him, he'd even believe Zoltar was the good guy. Or maybe he just wants revenge so bad, nothing else matters."
"I think it's a coincidence. Don died two years ago, and some Spectran scientist who never even heard of him came across his research and thought it looked good."
"Let's hope so." I stood up. "I have to try talking to Jason. We need him back."
Mark frowned. "You don't really think he'd resign?"
"If you thought you'd made a mistake which caused your second's death, and two years later you found out he'd been alive and in Spectran hands all that time, wouldn't you?"
Mark winced, and I left in a hurry. I'd said far too much already. The last thing our commander needed was to realise that this could all too easily happen to him. That Don hadn't been a friendless loner, a defector in waiting, but had been just like Mark's own second. Just like Tiny, or Keyop. Just like me.
Jason wasn't at the Mars memorial, much to my initial surprise. He'd always come here, back in the early days before he had the car and the trailer to run to. This had been the place where he'd tried to deal with Don's death.
Only now, I realised belatedly, it wasn't appropriate. Don wasn't dead, and my name wasn't the only lie on the memorial stone. So where had he gone to this time? He hadn't taken the car; he was still around here somewhere.
I wandered along the high point of the ridge above the cliff for a few minutes before I found him, sitting on the grass looking out to sea. He'd chosen a sunny spot, with flowers in the grass. I hoped this was a good sign.
He didn't respond to my call. Not so good. I tried again.
"Jason, if you want somebody to talk to, I'm available."
He half turned, expression inscrutable, tension in every line of his body. Please, please talk to me, I willed. He'd talked to Ivanov before, or at least Ivanov had talked and Jason had listened. Now, though, Ivanov was in Russia evaluating a potential Force Two candidate. It was up to me.
"I thought we were friends, that we told each other our troubles." It sounded weak even as it left my mouth. I felt that way about Jason, and he'd always listened when I needed him to, but he'd never reciprocated. The last person Jason had felt that way about had been Don.
"I want to be left alone, okay?"
"No!" I protested. Brooding alone never solved anything. Not even for Jason.
"Yes. Don't butt in where you're not wanted, Princess."
I paused, thinking frantically. I wasn't doing any good here. Maybe someone else could - maybe Mark, now that he knew the story, could get through to him. I needed to back off before Jason fled in the car and we lost him totally.
"I'm...I'm sorry if I've bothered you, Jason. I'll leave you alone."
I wandered back towards the buildings, half hoping that Jason would change his mind and call me back. I didn't understand the way he functioned now, never had since his breakdown. He obviously needed to talk - wanted it, even , or why had he come back to headquarters at all? Once, he'd been the one who would start the discussion. He'd got us all to talk about our fears before our first spaceflight, and it had worked. I knew his mental problems went beyond simple stress, but he must know intellectually what he needed. Why couldn't he force himself to open up to one of us? I'd made it as clear as I knew how, on numerous occasions, that I'd be there for him. If only he'd let me in.
I was barely halfway back when my bracelet beeped at me. "G-3 here."
"Come to briefing room one immediately, please." Anderson's voice, and the link went dead before I could even acknowledge.
I walked in to find Anderson behind the desk talking to Keyop and Tiny. Mark wasn't in the room. Jason couldn't have reached it before me in any case. I stood and listened for a while in silence, hoping one or both of them would arrive before Anderson realised I was there and they weren't. No such luck.
"Ah - Princess." Anderson beckoned me over. "We have a radar modification which should counter the multiple image problem you were having yesterday."
"Don't you think you should be telling me about that?" Jason strode up to the desk, interest in his eyes, shoulders back, the picture of relaxed confidence. Behind him, Mark locked eyes with Anderson, an unspoken plea for him not to comment and break the spell.
Give him his due, Anderson went with it. He switched his attention to focus on Jason, leaving me to listen alongside in case I was needed later. Just the way I liked it.
Anderson finished the technical discussion, and instinctively we all stepped back into line. "I want you to go looking for that caterpillar," he said simply. "It's too dangerous to be left out there. Nothing that flies has any defence against it. We've decided this is the ideal time to use the infiltration missile. You will proceed to sector 10, where the caterpillar's been sighted, get close enough to fire the missile, then leave. Jason, you've had the most training with the missile. Are you ready to take it on?"
"But..." Keyop started, and then yelped as I kicked him, hard. Jason was functioning at the moment, and I wasn't going to let anyone dent his fragile confidence unnecessarily.
Anderson either didn't notice, or pretended he didn't. "You will remain in the missile until the caterpillar returns to its base. Destroy the caterpillar as a first priority. The research and production capability for the solvent is a second."
"And the personnel?" Jason asked, not looking at him.
Anderson's voice was level, emotionless. "Standing orders apply."
In other words, no special treatment for Don.
"Any more questions?"
Jason shook his head. We had no information on the base. There was no point making contingency plans when we didn't know whether it was underwater, high in the mountains or in a built-up area. As usual, we'd be making it up as we went along.
"Okay." Mark turned, a smile of pure relief on his face. "Anybody for Sector 10?"
"Now entering Sector 10." Tiny looked across at his commander. "What now?"
"After yesterday's fiasco? It won't take much to bring it out."
He was right. It took barely ten minutes.
"Here it comes," Jason called from the radar station. "Our giant caterpillar."
I tensed, watching the readouts from the modifications hastily made to our radar system. They appeared to be working. The lines on the screen stayed within the limits Anderson had described, and the radar screen still showed one single dot. Mark swung round to face me, eyebrows raised in a question, and I simply nodded.
"Alright, get ready to make the transfer. Tiny, level off. It's all yours, Jason."
Silence from the radar station.
"Jason?" Worry was written all over Mark's face. It was obvious what was concerning him. Jason's relaxed manner of just a couple of minutes ago was gone. In its place, rigid anxiety, and something else - acceptance of the inevitable?
The voice which emerged was almost unrecognisable, holding a depth of unhappiness which horrified me. "Whatever you say." The briefest of glances round the flight deck, and he was gone.
"I want to know the moment anything unexpected happens." Mark sounded almost as tense as Jason had. "Tiny, keep it straight and level. They don't know we've fixed our radar. Last time, we didn't spot them until they were right on top of us. I'd like them to think nothing's changed."
My bracelet pinged with Jason's report that he was ready to go, and I reported it to Mark as we got our first visual of the caterpillar. Tiny had done a great job - we were ideally positioned to make our attack run.
Mark simply said "Let's go" and Tiny replied "Moving in" and did it. We needed to be perfect, all the time. Tiny generally was. Mark's assumption that he could do his job was as close to a compliment as he ever got.
"Get in there tight and we'll let him go." Mark's hand hovered over the launch button. I could appreciate his wanting to get to point blank range. Missing would create a real mess - Jason would face a monster gliding descent as a sitting target for the caterpillar and, even assuming the Spectrans didn't realise what we'd been trying, we didn't have a second manned missile on board.
We got closer, and closer. Up front, Tiny had started to glance sideways. I forced myself to relax, one muscle at a time. This was uncomfortably close.
Mark's hand slammed down on the button, and almost immediately the main screen flared into intolerable brightness.
Tiny winced and looked down, switching to instrument-only flight. "I kinda get the feeling they're not too glad to see us."
"Ideal." Mark put his hand up to shield against the brilliance. "Let's get out of here. Princess, did you track that missile?"
"It hit the target and the back end separated successfully."
"Good. Tiny, get us out of range."
We flew uneventfully for maybe five minutes before Mark's fist hit his console and I jumped a mile.
"Damn, this is wrong. I have to stop this." He looked around three bemused faces. "Do you really think Jason's fit to be doing this alone?"
I swallowed hard. Jason hadn't sounded at all good to me just before he'd left. Evidently it hadn't just been me.
"I think he'll blow the place sky-high while he's still in it," Tiny said simply.
Mark treated us to some of his more colourful Russian vocabulary. "Keyop, can you track that caterpillar?"
"I think so."
"Do it. Tiny, bring us round. We're going after him."
"I volunteer to go in," I said.
Mark's eyebrows went up. "You're staying here. Someone not connected with Wade should have been sent in the first place. I'm going. Where are they, Keyop?"
His fingers flew over the controls. "Sending c...coordinates now, Tiny."
"I have the course," Tiny confirmed, his voice making it a question.
"Follow it. Nice and slow. I don't want us within visual range of it." Mark left his seat and came to stand alongside me. In a voice pitched for my ears only, he asked, "What will Jason do?"
Well, I didn't know - but we both knew that. No need to tell him it was a guess. "He'll do everything he should first. Rig the caterpillar to blow, sabotage the base's generators, take out the production facility. But then he'll try to find Don. At least, that's what I'd do." I had no idea what he'd do if he found him. Bring him back for trial? Shoot him on the spot? Let his guard down for long enough for Don to take revenge in person? I didn't even know what I'd do myself.
"Ion trail ends twelve miles ahead," Keyop said. "Looks a likely area for a base."
"Good work. Fly straight over, keep going beyond the horizon, come back on the deck and wait behind that hill for my signal."
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
Mark didn't look back as he headed for the lift to the bubble. "Jump."
"I hate it when he does that," I muttered as we watched the white-winged figure spiral down towards what, once you knew it was there, was quite clearly the entrance to a Spectran base.
"Does what?" Tiny half turned, still holding the Phoenix on its constant speed and altitude no-of-course-we-haven't-seen-anything flightpath.
"Goes off and leaves me behind."
Tiny snorted. "Me too. Only I'm used to it. How far do you want me to go before we turn?"
I considered the numbers scrolling past on Mark's screen. I could figure it out - we all could - but me telling Tiny how to fly made no sense. "What do you recommend?"
Tiny frowned, nonplussed, then laughed out loud. "You meant 'goes off and leaves me in charge', didn't you?"
"Yeah. We both know you're the one to make the call on this. I'll scan for communications. Keyop, I want to know if anything moves within a thirty mile radius."
We did exactly as Mark had said. Tiny landed us a couple of miles from the base, out of line-of-sight behind some high ground. We waited, and we waited. Whatever was going on in there, it was very quiet. Not a hiccup on the airwaves, not a patrol on the surface or in the air. Just blue sky, rocky ground and us. All very peaceful. Tiny was leaning back in his seat, hands behind his head, looking as if staying awake was a struggle. Keyop had one screen - the one facing most towards me - showing everything it should, and was using the second for his latest computer game which he was attempting to play silently, apparently in the belief I hadn't noticed him. I left him to it. Keyop had the enviable knack of being able to concentrate on two things at once, and he'd be more alert like this than if he was bored.
Abruptly he sat up. "Launch from the base."
"Caterpillar?" I asked.
"No, too small. Escape ship, maybe. Going straight up."
"Do we follow it?" Tiny asked me, hands poised over the controls.
This decision I was happy to make. "No. It's too fast for us, and we could be called --"
My bracelet finally flashed. It was Mark. "We're coming out. Meet us at the main entrance. You can't miss it."
Tiny had the Phoenix in the air without waiting to be told, and within two minutes we were hovering over the main entrance, with me nervously manning the weapons station. They'd relied entirely on secrecy for their defence here, it seemed. Much to my relief, we encountered no opposition at all.
Mark called for pickup a few seconds later, we dropped down and Tiny took us out of there as the bubble lift descended. The door at the rear of the cockpit opened, and Jason entered, followed by Mark with his hand at the collar of a third, smaller man who I recognised all too well. He started at the sight of me, and abruptly I realised he'd never seen me in white.
Don sounded exactly the same. I couldn't bear it. I set my jaw and refused to even look him in the eye.
Jason, white-faced, headed straight for the compartments behind the flight deck without a word. Mark flung his captive to the floor behind the front console with a look of disdain. "Sit there. G-4, if he moves, make him regret it."
Don glanced round, saw the young Russian's impassive expression and the ultra-competent way he was swinging his bolas, and pulled himself with exaggerated slowness to sit with his back to Jason's console, arms wrapped around his knees. From the way his face was bruising, I guessed he'd tried something which either Mark or Jason had already made him regret. He didn't react when the base blew itself to rubble on the viewscreen, didn't move or speak for the entire flight back to base. I'd never seen anyone look so utterly wretched.
I sat for most of the flight in Jason's unused seat and watched the back of Don's head. There was so much I wanted to ask him. There was the huge question of why he had done what he'd done. Had he really switched sides so completely that he now thought of us solely as the enemy? If so, when? Early on, in fury at our abandoning him? Or more recently, after years of loneliness and despair? And the question I liked least of all: what had Spectra done to persuade him? Lies? Brainwashing? Torture? Had it been his decision at all? If they'd done something to him, something I couldn't bear to even think about, how bad had it been? Bad enough to push an angry young man the last little bit over the edge to defection, or bad enough to force the dedicated, loyal scientist I thought I'd known to do something completely out of character? Had it been something he'd hated doing and known was wrong? Was it still? Could there be anything left, anything at all, of the Don I'd known?
I couldn't say anything. Not to him, not to my current teammates. If telling Mark about Jason's first command had been disloyalty, showing sympathy for Don would be far worse. How could I even think of it? This was the man whose invention had come as close to destroying the Phoenix as anything else Spectra had ever thrown at us. It had been tested without warning on unarmed civilian planes. Only one of the pilots had made it, terribly burnt and still fighting for his life in intensive care. Let Grant strip Don of every piece of useful information he had. I'd find out what he claimed had happened to him later, second-hand, when I read the reports. No defector, not even this one of our own, deserved to get to tell a G-Force member his version of events. He'd worked for the enemy. That was all that mattered. There could be no way back.
We landed, and I was at a loss for what to do. This was usually the time when we relaxed, started to joke, had a break before the tiredness hit and the formality of debrief. Not today, not with a traitor sitting on the floor between us. He might know the real names of half of us, but we were still using callsigns when we spoke at all. We shut everything down in near silence, before Mark's bracelet flashed and he turned to Keyop.
"Open the side hatch."
Don made as if to get up, and Mark swung round, one hand on his boomerang. "Stay down," he snarled. Nobody argued with that tone of voice. You didn't have to know Mark to tell that he was deeply, coldly furious, and that crossing him right now would be a seriously bad idea. Don dropped his head back onto his knees, and I could see how badly he was shaking.
What a way to return to ISO - as a prisoner on the floor of the ship he'd flown in as crew, captured by the man who'd replaced him as its copilot. If we'd gone back for him, would it have been different? Could we have rescued him before the Spectrans got there? Would it be Don in that right hand chair now, the commander of G-Force? Or would it be Jason, still G-1, the best jump-pilot ISO had ever had, confident, friendly, outgoing, and Anderson's protégé? Would Mark even now be heading the second team we so badly needed, and in an entirely different chain of command to me? I sat in silence, a thousand miserable 'what if's running through my head.
Keyop returned with two somewhat awed members of the security detail. They'd doubtless seen the outside of the Phoenix a hundred times, but access to the flight deck was usually reserved for a handful of technicians.
The senior of the two stared around him, mouth open, and encountered a very unimpressed-looking Eagle. "Commander! Reporting as requested to take custody of the prisoner."
"Get him out of my sight."
The junior officer produced a set of cuffs and chains, and shortly Don was escorted from the Phoenix at gunpoint. I watched him walk out, seeing not the stumbling captive, but a younger, laughing man in black and silver birdstyle. G-2, Don the Hawk.
I forced the old image back. It was over. Our defector was back in ISO hands. He'd be debriefed with total thoroughness, and when they were sure he'd told them everything he knew they'd lock him up and throw away the key. Deep in the bowels of ISO was a set of cells for those deemed too dangerous to even be given a trial. Don, as an ex-G-Force member who'd been working for Spectra, was certainly in that category. We'd captured him and destroyed the weapons he'd designed for use against us. A successful mission.
I folded my arms on the console, dropped my head onto them, and cried as if I'd never stop.
The End. For the moment.
Catherine Rees Lay, March 2005.