Actually, this story's not too alternative. You just need to imagine that ISO headquarters is the Camp Parker site, which is by the sea, and the snack bar is nearby, rather than both being in the centre of the city. For those less familiar with the BotP variant, "Jill" is Battle's explanation for why the snack bar has a big J outside. This is set between Strike at Spectra and Conway Tape Tap (and if you're familiar with the rest of my fanfic, it happens right in the middle of Consequences).
Thanks to my husband for beta-reading.
Any and all comments are welcome, here or via email, especially suggestions for improvement.
Anything and anyone you recognise doesn't belong to me, but to Sandy Frank. I just write about them for fun.
Just barely squeaks into having any warnings at all - one mild four letter word.
A lot of people come through here these days. That's the idea, after all. It's a snack bar. If they didn't come in, I'd be broke. When I first started out, I very nearly was.
My snack bar's located somewhat out of the way. A couple of miles from the coast, on a road which was important once, before they built the new four lane interstate. The largest nearby establishment was the ISO headquarters down the road, which wasn't as large as you might think until, three years back, they started up the Academy on the same site. At the time, life was rather too quiet, and I was starting to think I'd made a mistake opening up this far from the city. A few passing businessmen, the odd family holidaying near the coast, some local workers. Not enough trade to keep a business running for long. Too far from the major employers, not on a big enough road, not near enough to the beaches. I'd got as far as checking the terms of my lease to see how much it was going to cost me to get out of it.
There were a few ISO customers even before the Academy. The younger ones - four in particular - were regular, if not frequent, visitors. I asked them what they did and they said they were on some sort of scholarship to do with the space program. They used to come in for lunch every so often, make ecstatic comments about getting away from canteen food, and argue enthusiastically over terms I didn't even recognise.
Then the Mars disaster happened, and they stopped coming for a long time. Months. When I finally saw them again, one had gone, replaced by two more. A lot more tension in this group of five than there had been in the group of four. Something had happened. Something bad. Something that haunted the eyes of three of them. I asked the girl once what had happened to the young man who used to come here with her. She flinched.
"Oh, I'm sorry."
She didn't volunteer what had happened, and I didn't ask. It wasn't until later that I made the connection between a brown-haired youth called Don in my cafe and Donald Wade, a junior ISO scientist who'd been killed when the Mars dome exploded. It's never come up in conversation again, and I don't want to open old wounds.
I'm not sure when I learnt their names. I'm not sure I was ever told, but they came often enough that I recognised them, said "hi" and chatted with them on a more personal level than I would with a first-time customer. I came to recognise them by what they teased one another about: Mark and Tiny the pilots, Jason the race driver, Princess the peacemaker, Keyop the excitable one. They in turn talked to me; found out that I was everything from boss to dishwasher, ran the place myself, hoped to bring in more staff to help if I could make it work. I tried to be positive, but I was drowning in bills with almost no money coming in.
The lease terms were a disaster - no way out there. I had to do something else to bring in more money, and the only thing I could think of was the two tiny apartments in the attic. At some point the previous owner had converted it into accommodation for his staff so they didn't have to get home late at night. He'd tried opening evenings, but he'd told me 'lunchtimes were more profitable'. I could read between the lines now. That had been his last-ditch attempt to make this place work, and had failed. The only thing which had saved him was that some sucker fresh out of catering school had come along, believed his banter about what a great business opportunity it was and taken the snack bar off his hands. That would have been me. I still wonder who all the people were in the cafe the day I spent with him watching it in operation. He must have set it up with military precision - families, single guys, teens, older couples, arriving and leaving throughout the two hours he was open for lunch. Well, they never came back.
I decided initially I'd try to rent out the attic apartments and keep the larger one, out the back, for myself. It was one of the things that had attracted me initially - reasonably large and even with a garden. If that didn't work, I'd move upstairs and let the more desirable garden apartment instead.
In the event, the advertisement didn't even make it into the paper. I was finishing it off one quiet lunchtime with three of the five as my only customers, and knew them well enough by this time to ask them to check if I'd spelled everything right.
Princess read it though twice, and asked to see one of the apartments.
"Oh, that's okay, I'm happy I've got the description accurate."
"No - I mean I'm interested."
I frowned at her. "Don't you have accommodation at ISO? Is there a problem? Do you need someone to talk to?"
She smiled, trying not to catch the eye of the two lads who were grinning at her with definite 'I told you so' expressions.
"It's fine. But they're bringing in a whole lot more people, and I'm tired of being institutionalised. I want a space of my own to escape to. If you'd have me."
In the event all three of them came upstairs. Princess stood in the middle of the room, eyes shining, while the other two made disparaging comments about how small it was. I left them to it and went back downstairs to clean up.
Five minutes later they were back, still arguing.
"Look, Mark, nobody left me a share in an airfield. And I don't want a trailer - if Anderson would even clear it, which I suspect he wouldn't. He's old-fashioned like that. What am I going to find that's better and affordable?"
I cleared my throat, and they all looked at me. "Before you get too keen - I need to know how old you are."
"Sixteen, and legally independent." Princess's chin came up. "The rules are different for orphans. I'll make sure it's all legal, don't worry."
She was as good as her word - the paperwork was clear and unambiguous, and she moved in a fortnight later. Two weeks after that, the first students arrived for the new ISO Academy. Suddenly my location was ideal - I owned the only place serving lunchtime food within walking distance, and business improved dramatically, at least when the weather was good enough to tempt them away from the ISO canteen.
Conditions were filthy the first time she covered for me. Since it was pelting with rain, cold and blustery, I was unsurprised when I had only two customers, who ordered a minimal lunch, ate quickly, and left. Princess came downstairs to find me trying to clear the table with one hand while holding my head with the other. Telling her nothing was wrong didn't work, and before long I found myself admitting to the crippling migraine, and leaving her to clear up and stay around in case of any late customers, while I went to collapse on my bed to try to sleep it off. After that she covered for me a few times when I felt truly dreadful, or if I had to go somewhere unavoidably. I tried not to ask her too often, because I'd started to develop a suspicion about precisely what she and her friends did at ISO.
It must have been about six months after the Academy started up that I began to notice things, shortly after Keyop moved into the second apartment. His paperwork had been a lot less simple - he was barely fifteen, and all his documentation was in Russian. If I hadn't known him, and been told by several people quite what a high-up official the man signing his lease was, I'd simply have refused. As it was, I now had two lodgers plus a thriving snack bar, and I could finally afford to hire some extra help. Princess still came and helped occasionally - she said she liked the change from her work at ISO, but never did tell me what it was she did there.
We'd been discussing the strange habits of ISO Academy students - nine out of ten wouldn't touch caffeine and I'd often overheard them discussing how they wouldn't take drugs. Not just drugs in the recreational or illegal sense, but standard headache medication, that sort of thing. I asked Princess what was going on.
She laughed. "It's become known that one of the requirements for jump-crew is to have nothing weird in the bloodstream. They're all hoping someone mistakes them for G-Force. Look at the groupings."
Now she mentioned it, I could see what she meant. Many if not most of the tables had some subset of two tall young men, a young woman, a shorter man and one more heavily built. The table with her friends, I realised belatedly, was no different.
"And you do it too?"
"If someone thinks I'm G-Force, maybe the real team gets to relax in peace. Lord knows they deserve it."
I nodded in agreement, but my mind was whirring. I'd never seen any of the five of them touch caffeine, and they'd been coming in here a lot longer than the trend had been apparent. And goodness knows they fit the physical profile perfectly. I balked at the idea that they could actually be G-Force - they had to be too young, surely? They must be a dummy crew set up to draw attention away. But why set up a dummy crew before the war even started, before anyone had ever heard of the real thing? And why use anyone so young? I'd assumed the team would be mid-twenties, young enough to take the extreme physical demands, but old enough to - well, to be responsible for saving the world. I knew even the oldest of these kids was younger than that. Plus, they were ordinary, at least as far as anyone who worked on the front line at ISO could be ordinary. They didn't talk about politics, or tactics, or the war. They talked about aerobatics, racing. Baseball. Girlfriends - the ones Tiny and Keyop would like to have, that Jason seemed to have in abundance, and that Mark apparently turned away by the dozen. Surely the real team would be different? More serious, somehow, only concerned with their job? Less frivolous? Or did I have it all wrong? Would they use their time away from ISO to get away from the knowledge of just how much rested on their shoulders?
I started to take note of when Princess and Keyop were here, to correlate their absences with news reports of Spectran attacks. It lined up totally - but that was hardly proof. When ISO was on high alert, I scarcely had any customers.
I took full advantage of the extreme anti-drug trend, though. I did my research, and soon offered, not just nameless dishwater decaffeinated coffee, but several different blends, and several varieties of decaf tea. ISO was expanding all the time as the war ramped up, and business was booming. I fought back my conscience on a few occasions, telling myself that I was providing a service for these people who were defending our planet, not taking advantage of them. Provided I kept my prices low and didn't take advantage of my effective monopoly, I didn't feel too guilty.
Life went on - for most people. Some of the original trainees had become fully fledged ISO security officers. Every so often, business would drop off completely for a couple of days, and then pick back up slowly, often with one group or another smaller than usual and particularly subdued. Eventually I'd hear who'd been hurt or worse. Once, it was Mark. Princess was initially fragile and unhappy, then both she and Keyop vanished for the best part of a fortnight along with most of my custom. When the rumours started to trickle out about a huge Spectran base being destroyed, the customers returned, and a few days later my gang was in, extra solicitous about the one of their number coping with a metal contraption supporting his lower right leg and a pair of crutches.
Once the rest of them went home, I asked Princess what had happened, and how long he was going to be incapacitated.
"The jet he was in made an emergency landing and he smashed both bones in his lower leg into about a million pieces," she said. "It's mending fast. He's only got to wear the frame for another couple of weeks, hopefully."
"Wow. He was lucky." I'd looked at that and thought six months, minimum.
"He could have been killed," Princess agreed, and her voice wavered.
I considered her, an orphan in what appeared to be an all-male environment, and put my arm round her shoulders. "You really care about him, don't you?"
She sniffed, and nodded.
"Does he know?"
"He knows - but there's a war on, and he's dedicated to his job. Nothing's going to happen between us."
"Maybe not yet." I tried to be encouraging. "The war won't last forever. He obviously likes you."
She smiled ruefully. "As a friend. Isn't that supposed to be the kiss of death for any relationship? But most people get to have the relationship before the 'let's just be friends' speech."
"At least you're not watching him go out with someone else."
"There is that," she agreed, and headed off upstairs looking a little happier.
I stood for some time, thinking about a young man healing way faster than anyone humanly should, who took time away from his work to fly extensively, watch his friend race, come here for lunch on a regular basis - but refused to go out with a beautiful girl with whom he enjoyed spending time, and who he knew adored him.
The next time something went wrong for them, it was Jason who was missing. The other four remained frequent visitors, and initially I thought nothing of it. When I hadn't seen him for nearly a month, though, I asked Princess where he was.
"Oh - nothing too serious, I hope? I've not seen him in a while."
This time the lip trembled. "They don't know what's wrong with him. It's not dangerous, he's just not up to doing anything."
"Not much fun. Give him my best wishes, when you see him."
That same evening, a news report commented on a G-Force action, and how the G-2 hadn't been seen in several weeks. Apparently there are people out there, G-Force spotters, who keep tabs on this sort of thing and notice when the normal pattern of who's seen doing what changes suddenly. I picked at my dinner, suddenly not hungry. G-2 not in action. Jason 'not up to doing anything'. And now the fact that G-Force were short-handed was being broadcast on the national news.
A week later, I was relieved beyond measure when all five of them came through the door. If they'd been solicitous when Mark was on crutches, that was nothing to how they were behaving now, even though Jason was apparently fit and well, if a little pale. All four acted as though he was expected to collapse at any moment, and he had to be aware of it. There was tension in every movement, and the conversation was awkward at best. Princess came over to get a menu, which surprised me - they'd been eating here for so long they had to know it off by heart - and since they appeared to be playing it formal today I went over to the table five minutes later and asked if they were ready to order.
Four did - ordering what they always did anyway, so no need for the menu there. I turned to Jason, pencil poised.
"I'm not hungry."
"Jason, you have to eat." Tiny's voice was full of concern and sympathy, and looking at the other's face even I could tell that wasn't the right line to take just now.
"I said I'm not hungry! Will you all quit treating me like an invalid! I'm not sick, and I don't need wrapping in cotton-wool! I'm going out for some air."
He left with sufficient speed to disturb a single sheet of paper lying on the table in his place. I failed to catch it on the way down, and recovered it from the floor, instinctively turning it face up. Now I'm not in the habit of reading customers' letters should I happen to pick them up, but I didn't need to read this one to recognise instantly what it was. I had the exact same list pinned up in my own kitchen out of habit, although I knew it off by heart, knew which items on it applied to me and which didn't. This one was very new and completely free of annotation.
The movement to replace it on the table stopped. I folded it, said "I'll just return this to Jason" and walked away before any of them could suggest otherwise, handing their order over as I passed the counter.
He'd said he was going for some air, and hadn't gone far, leaning against the wall just outside the door to the customers' garden. A grey autumn day, drizzle in the air, and nobody else in sight. He looked round as I closed the door behind me.
"No, I'm not about to collapse and die. Regardless of what they've told you. Last I heard, not being hungry wasn't a crime."
"It might help if you talked about it," I tried.
"No offence, Jill - but not a chance. And what the hell did they think they were doing, talking to you about me anyway?"
Here was my opening, and I dived for it. "They didn't tell me anything. You dropped this."
Jason took the proffered list. "And you've drawn what conclusion from it?"
"I can only tell you why I have that same list on my fridge. It's the list of common food triggers for migraine. Sometimes everything I feel like eating is on it, and I'm miserable as hell."
His eyebrows went up. "You get migraines?"
"Princess never told you why I sometimes need cover at short notice?"
"No." His stomach growled audibly.
I handed him the menu again. "That's why. Tell me what you hate, and I'll get you something you can have. If you don't eat when you're this hungry you'll trigger an attack anyway."
"Can't stand seafood." He shuddered. "And no salad. I'm sick of the sight of it."
"Okay." I took the menu back. "I'll be about ten minutes. Do you want to eat out here?"
The corners of his mouth finally twitched upward. "In the rain? I'll go make it up with them."
As he turned to go inside, I decided to chance his temper. "Jason - what I said before? If you ever want to talk to someone who's been there, you know where to find me."
He nodded briefly, and the door closed behind him.
Someone must have sat on Keyop while we were outside, because he didn't say a single word about Jason's change of heart, or the speed at which he absorbed the heaped plateful I put in front of him ten minutes later. He'd been frantically hungry - no wonder, if all he'd been eating had been salad. The change in atmosphere was almost tangible, and by the time they got up to leave Keyop was his normal exuberant self and Tiny was asking Jason when he planned to start racing again. As far as I could tell, they were back to normal, and that had to be good. If the others could just realise Jason wasn't a different person now, just keep treating him the way they always had despite his problem, they had a future - I hoped.
I watched them go out of the door, wondering how long I'd known what was now so clear. Mark the Eagle, commander of his team. Jason the Condor, his second-in-command. Princess the Swan, desperately wanting a forbidden relationship with her commanding officer. Tiny the Owl, big, strong, quiet and competent. Keyop the Swallow - I had no idea where his skills lay, but he was very much part of the team.
Newspapers would pay me a small fortune for the information. I could retire, change my identity, move somewhere with a decent climate. I'd never need to work again. I toyed with the idea for a whole ten seconds, then went back to the washing up. Some things are beyond price.