A while back, someone issued a challenge on the Yahoo Groups list. Rewrite an episode from any version of Gatchaman - but not one of the climactic, important ones, one of the silly ones - to make more sense. Magnetic Attraction sort of fits the bill - the science in it is horrible, and the Zark bits are among the most annoying from the whole series. More than that, though - I've always had the feeling there's more going on than meets the eye. This is the one and only time Jason ever tries to take command (he does also say he's sick of being the number 2 in the very last episode), and from the very first scene Mark's obviously not himself.
I don't do Zark - but if you're unlucky enough to remember the awful segments at the start and end of this ep, you'll recognise bits of them, err, 're-imagined'.
(Actually, the someone was me - looking forward to everyone else's episodes!)
Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank. I'm just playing in this universe for fun.
All comments and crits welcome, here or by email. If you'd like to say something about my fic, I'd like to hear it. Honest.
"So where are you going this time?"
"Scotland." The man leaned back and put his hands behind his head. "My wife's family came from there, generations back. We're going to take a look."
"I hear it's real nice - wait, what's that?"
"Meteor." He dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "Tenth one this week."
The other subsided. "I guess so. I've been on this lousy hunk of rock too long. Wish I had a month's leave."
"Wish it was a month. Three days back to Earth and three to get back here. That's a week of my vacation they've taken, for a flight G-Force do in ten minutes."
"What do you expect, a lift in the Phoenix?" His colleague laughed tolerantly. "Unless there's something you haven't told me, you'd be very dead." His eyes widened. "There it is again."
"You're imagining it. There's nothing on this one. It's a hunk of rock..." His voice faded, and he sat forward, his eyes wide. "A perfectly spherical hunk of rock. And it's changing course - get everything on it quick!"
"Dish one coming round."
"Nothing on radar. How about visual?"
"Visual's running, but it's out of the sunlight now. Nothing on infra-red. Nothing on radio."
"Dish one's in position. Hell's teeth - where'd it go? And how come it only showed up on visual?"
"Composition? Extrapolating from last known course and speed, bringing dish two round to scan. I'm getting nothing here either. Widening search parameters. "
"Still nothing. We lost it." He sat back wearily. "I'd better call ISO."
"Commander, I am prepared to make this an order, but I'd much rather you volunteered."
Mark set his teeth. "I don't need to see a shrink."
Anderson just looked at him. "I don't know what the problem is, but you are not functioning as well as you should be. Your command efficiency is way down, you're making rash decisions. You're going to talk to someone about it."
"I don't -" was cut off by an alarm.
Anderson held up his hand for silence, but Mark was already alongside him listening to the voice on the intercom.
"I see," Anderson said at the end, in a voice which could have cut glass. "I want the data on my system as soon as we receive it, and please inform Pluto Tracking Station that I am most unimpressed. Anderson out." He turned back to Mark. "Go and consider what I've said. We can't afford to have a minor problem turn into a major one. Dismissed."
Mark forced a relaxed expression onto his face and left without comment, seething.
The home movie started off innocently enough. Typical tourist views of a city square, shattered by the mechanical horror forcing its way up through the tarmac, sprouting appendages and leaving a trail of destruction as it crashed through buildings heading north.
The following film was more official, with the watermark of an ISO guard unit in the corner. The same monstrous black sphere, this time poised on crooked legs like some gigantic spider, waiting for its prey in a clearing high up on the hillside.
And then there was the all too familiar gun camera footage. Ground assault vehicles and ISO robot planes, all unable to do as much as scratch it.
"Casualties?" Mark asked as the screen went blank.
Anderson evaded the question. "The city was evacuated at the first warning, as were the villages to the north as soon as we realised where it was headed."
"Where is it now?" Tiny asked.
"We don't know."
"Weapons? Composition?" Jason frowned at the Chief. "Come on - we've got to have something more than this. What were the early warning guys doing, washing their hair?"
"We believe it to be formed from some non-magnetic compound. It's been observed to fire missiles, but mostly it just uses its bulk to crush its targets. As you've seen, it has multiple configurations."
"Those new ISO rocket launchers," Mark asked quietly, "those were Mark Fives, weren't they?"
"Yes," said Anderson shortly.
"So?" Keyop frowned.
"So they were using the same missile technology we have. It's useless." Mark stalked away from the table and stood glaring at the wall in helpless fury. Why did this have to happen now, just when the Chief was after him for being reckless? Any other time he could have taken the team up and had Jason blow the mecha to bits from a safe distance, to hell with how many missiles it took. Going now, when they already knew their main weapons were worthless, would just get Anderson even further onto his case.
"Never mind that!" Tiny sounded as enthusiastic as ever. "Let's go!"
"Yeah. It's been a while since Spectra showed up." Jason, equally ready.
Only Princess seemed to have any idea that there was something more going on. "So, do we take a crack at it?"
"It's Mark's call," Anderson said.
Bastard. Just when he didn't want to have to make that decision. He turned the little information they had over and over in his mind, trying to be objective, trying to ignore how much what Anderson had said earlier still stung. They could just go out there anyway. Do the best they could, hope to find something the ISO forces hadn't. As a last resort, they could always go to Fiery Phoenix. But it was a last resort, risky for both ship and crew, and the frequency with which he'd used it was precisely what had precipitated Anderson's comments in the first place. 'Too many risks. Evaluate your fitness for command. Gung-ho attitude not befitting a commander.' This had to be a test. Anderson wanted to see whether he was prepared to take the Phoenix out, not to defend against an attack, but to draw out a mecha which had gone to ground, in a situation where he knew they had no useful weapons. Where they could sensibly wait until the scientists had come up with something useful. Waiting had to be the right answer. Anderson just wanted to see if Mark could reproduce his reasoning.
"No." He added, "I'm sorry," in the vain hope of mollifying Jason.
Anderson's eyes going wide in shock was not the reaction he'd expected. What - that was wrong? He'd just made a decision based on logic, against his every instinct, which would alienate his second-in-command, and all Anderson could say was "I understand" in a tone of voice which patently implied that he didn't? What did the man want? And why was he testing him now? Could he have realised how confused Mark was? Was this all a prelude to reconsidering his position as commander?
The man who would be the obvious choice to replace him didn't understand either. "It's not like you to chicken out."
No, it damn well isn't. Why oh why had he insisted on having as his second-in-command the one member of his team who did nothing but argue? Princess wasn't whining her disapproval at his decision, even though she surely didn't like it. He shouldn't have to explain himself to Jason, and he would have said so in no uncertain terms if he hadn't felt the need to demonstrate his competence to Anderson. "I want to know what we're up against first."
Jason stared at him as if he'd sprouted horns. "What do we do in the meantime? Let it destroy our cities? Let's go."
Oh, to be able to say yes. To agree with a decision made by someone else. "No. As long as I'm in command, we keep the Phoenix grounded and ready."
As long as I'm in command. What had possessed him to say such a thing? Never, ever, show uncertainty, he'd been taught. You can be right or you can be wrong, but never suggest that you're not entirely in control. No way would Jason not have picked up on it. Jason, with his confidence growing by the day and his own ambitions for command back in evidence.
"Sorry, Jason, I vote with Mark." Princess, who should have been his second-in-command, on his side at least - but now he needed people to vote for him?
At least they were voting for him, and not for Jason. Tiny and Keyop too, and he knew he had to push the advantage while he still had some.
This is it, Mark thought. I've lost control.
And Anderson simply took over, in a way Mark knew he himself should have been able to. "Hold it. This is an extreme emergency. The Federation Council will decide."
Jason was out of the door the moment Anderson dismissed them with instructions to stay on base, fury in every line of his face. Frankly, Mark sympathised, at least with his anger at having to sit here. He had no sympathy for Jason's insubordination and near mutiny, and right now he had no idea how he was going to follow Anderson's demands for caution without completely losing any authority he still had.
"Mark, I said we're going to the ready room, are you coming?"
The ready room, where Keyop would demand to know where Jason was, Princess would hover in a cloud of concern, and Tiny would clown around in a futile attempt to lighten the atmosphere. Right now, it sounded like a definition of his own personal hell.
"No, I'm going to meditate." That had come out almost without thinking about it. Maybe his subconscious was trying to tell him something. It was as good an idea as any. Twenty minutes of calm solitude next to the ocean might just help him work out what on earth he was doing wrong.
The sound of the waves always helped. If he hadn't had the airfield, he'd have given serious consideration to a water's edge apartment like Tiny's. Mark lay back, folded his hands behind his head and slowed his breathing to match the rhythm of the waves breaking on the rocks below.
He'd just started to relax properly when his bracelet pinged.
"The mecha's been sighted just off the coast. We're going to destroy it."
Mark sat bolt upright, outraged. "I didn't order that yet!"
"We'll pick you up in ten minutes." Tiny's voice, completely relaxed. And the connection went dead.
Mark sat and seethed. Jason had been itching to take over, and if he'd persuaded the rest of the team to go along with him - not a happy thought. The last thing he wanted was for Jason to have a valid excuse to go without him. The G-1 wasn't docked; the engineers had been replacing a fuel line that morning. He had seven minutes to sprint back to ISO and get her in the air.
Mark paused briefly outside the flight deck to compose himself. He'd never felt like this before, and he hated it. He shouldn't be giving a second thought to whether or not the team would follow his orders. Except that they'd already disobeyed him by being here at all.
As he strode deliberately onto the flight deck, all four turned towards him. Including the man sitting in his command chair. Every time he thought the day couldn't get get any worse, it did.
"Who countermanded my orders?"
"The Chief and the Federation." Jason wasn't in the least fazed. "It's our job."
"We're not spectators," Keyop chimed in.
Mark barely heard him. The Chief had ordered them out, after the lecture he'd received on recklessness? What did the man want?
"What are we going to use - our bare hands? Even our neutron missiles won't put a dent in it."
"I plan to give it a couple of good tries."
"He's right," Princess put in. Great. He'd lost her too. And Keyop. The team was falling apart, and he had no idea what to do about it.
"There it is!" exclaimed Tiny.
Mark had half seen the mostly submerged curved black surface himself, but had looked past it, subconsciously taking it for something natural. Now, however, it was rearing up out of the water, and the sheer scale of the thing became apparent. Up, up - and then, as it had done on the videos, the skin seemed to swell, split and appendages were extruded. Wings, floats, and to top it all, some sort of propeller. Having thus turned itself into the largest small plane Mark had ever seen, it turned its back on the Phoenix and headed out to sea.
"Ship out there!" Keyop exclaimed. "Headed right for it!"
Jason reached for the missile controls. "That ship's in danger. Let's knock that ball out of the sky."
Mark knew Jason was wrong, knew it with an instinct he'd come to trust. This was a trap. The sphere had no interest in some cargo ship, or it could have destroyed it long before the Phoenix had even arrived. It was trying to get them to follow it, to decoy them under the water where the Phoenix's weapons were considerably less effective.
"Mark?" That was Princess.
"We're turning back. There's nothing we can do here."
And Jason's temper boiled over. "No go, Mark. I'm in command here."
Mark wanted to scream in frustration; to take his second by the shoulders and shake him until his teeth rattled, until he was too dizzy to argue and had to listen. He needed to tear something apart, to get in there and rip the sphere to shreds. To do something reckless. Something that would cost him his command. He was within seconds of doing just that when the screen fizzed to grey.
Normally he'd have responded in some way to the hated purple-clad figure on the communications screen. Today he barely heard the taunting, except to register that it was another attempt to goad him into a Spectran trap. How could Jason not see it for what it was? Destroy it - yes, he certainly planned to do that. But on his own terms, not here and now and without any suitable weaponry.
The mecha sank between the waves without firing a single shot at the ship, which only confirmed his suspicions. It had all been a trap. This time, Spectra had failed. Feeling relief wash over him, Mark turned to Tiny to order them home, only to be trumped by Jason's voice.
"Let's go, Tiny. Take her down."
To his utter horror, the pilot acknowledged and had reached for the controls by the time Mark found his voice.
"Huh?" Tiny stopped, hands hovering, looking from one man to the other in confusion.
Mark put every ounce of authority and certainty that he could find into his voice. "We're not taking the bait."
He'd never been so aware that Jason was taller than him, had the poise and charisma of a born commander. Raw confidence in his posture, and the rest of the team behind him. Not a flicker of uncertainty in his voice.
"I'm giving the orders now."
Amid the waves of uncertainty, something nagged at Mark's mind. The rest of the team? Princess and Keyop had made it plain that they wanted to attack, but Tiny's face was still a mass of confusion and indecision. Mark jumped for the last hope of holding his command together. He'd never thought it would come down to trying to justify his orders in order to persuade his pilot not to join the mutiny. Mark could only bring himself to do it at all by promising himself he'd never do it again - but the only alternative he could see was to stop Jason physically, and the way he felt right now he wasn't at all sure he'd win. No, he needed to keep this at a higher level.
"Turn back. That's exactly what Zoltar wants us to do, Jason. We play his game and we lose."
The expression on Jason's face never so much as flickered, but he didn't respond, and Mark saw his opportunity.
"It's up to you, Tiny."
"Thanks!" There was heavy irony in the pilot's tone, and Mark held his breath until Tiny swung the Phoenix round and headed back for base.
Mark just stood there, his mind in turmoil. Where had he got it wrong? Anderson thought he was too reckless, the team thought he was too cautious. His attempt to walk the middle line had brought near-mutiny. And why did everyone feel the need to analyse his decisions in the first place? Didn't his record speak for itself?
Debrief was a complete disaster.
"So, what were you able to discover?"
"Nothing," Jason muttered.
Mark ignored him. "It was a trap. All they wanted to do was destroy us underwater."
Anderson frowned. "Why? Do they have superior underwater weapons?"
"Did you at least determine where it was headed? What its capabilities are?" There was a distinct edge in Anderson's tone. "Anything at all?"
"It wasn't possible! We had Zoltar trying to wind us up, to get us to follow them. They wanted us down there."
"Let me get this straight." Anderson's voice was, if anything, even quieter than before. "You were sent out to investigate the sphere. You had evidence that Zoltar was on board. And you turned round and came home, with no additional information at all."
"Yeah, that's about it," Jason put in, wearing an expression of disgust.
Anderson sighed. "I know you didn't want to go out, but really, G-1, this isn't acceptable. I suggest you consider your actions. Dismissed."
"But what's wrong with him?" Keyop jigged impatiently. "It's not like Mark. Why isn't he here helping us?"
"I don't know." Princess stared unseeing at the data in front of her. "I don't know what's wrong. I don't know why he's gone off alone." I don't even know if he's coming back. "I hate it that he doesn't want to be with us. But we still have to find the answer. Do you have anything?"
Keyop looked miserable. "Nothing. Our missiles won't work. And that skin - who knows what it is? A metal which isn't a metal. Non-magnetic and non-conductive. What can we do?"
"Something, I hope." Tiny put his head in his hands. "I should have listened to Jason. We should have followed them."
"You shouldn't have been put in that position." Princess tried to project sympathy. "You did the right thing by obeying our commander."
"Even if he was wrong?" Tiny glowered at the screens of data. "This is a waste of time. What's the point in us figuring out tactics without Mark? We have no idea what he'll even consider using. We need him here."
Princess sighed. "I suppose I'd better go talk to him."
"I'll come," piped up Keyop. "Give him a visual aid. Cheer him up."
"Keyop, I swear if I fall over another magnetic marble I'll make you eat them!" Tiny picked up the errant orange sphere and attached it to its friends on the table. "Anyway, it's a lousy model. About the only thing we know about this mech is that it's not magnetic."
Keyop snorted derisively and pocketed the marbles. "Shape's right. Helps me think."
"Well, think of something then," Tiny retorted. "I'm out of ideas. We need Mark."
Mark lay flat on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He'd tried and failed to meditate, despite - or possibly because of - how badly he needed to. He had to obey Anderson, and that meant not putting the team or the ship at risk. He had to do his job, and that meant not backing off when something had to be done. And he had to keep his team together, and that meant making decisions they could understand, at least after the event. Right now he was having trouble reconciling any two of the three, let alone adding his own intuition to the mix. Maybe he did need to go and talk to the psych guys. Maybe he simply wasn't cut out for command after all -
At the sound of his door opening he rolled over in irritation. "I asked everybody to leave me alone."
Princess was obviously trying to be encouraging. "You're taking this too hard. After all, it's not your fault."
Not his fault? How could it not be his fault? He was commander of G-Force - it was his job for things to be his fault! Mark twisted away, barely managing not to groan in despair. The only way he could see to get out of this mess was to find a way to destroy the mecha. Something that Anderson couldn't argue with, that didn't put the team in danger, that they would understand and approve of. But he knew so little - it was spherical, covered in some flexible coating, and non-magnetic. Non-conductive, too. As far as you could trust 'well, if it was magnetic or conductive we'd have been able to detect it.'
Wait a minute, though - non-conductive? The thing was a machine. Circuits. Electronic circuits. Without a good conductive framework around it, it didn't matter what super not-affected-by-magnetism material the surface was made from. Magnetic fields would affect the electronics inside. Just the same way Keyop's plastic coated marbles affected one another.
And the kid had them here. Mark sat bolt upright to see the young engineer fiddling with one of them and an oversized horseshoe magnet. Princess had turned to go, and from the look on her face was about to reprimand Keyop for playing around instead of taking it seriously.
Sometimes playing around is exactly what you need.
"Wait - maybe Keyop has something there!"
Keyop frowned. "Simple science?"
That was it - he knew it. All they needed was a big enough magnet. A huge electromagnet. Something big enough to scramble every control circuit on that sphere and knock it out of the sky. Big enough to affect every plane in the vicinity. To be a hazard to flight. And there was something like it, he was sure, not so very far away. He'd seen it somewhere, on the charts...
Mark hurtled off the bed, uncertainties pushed aside, and dived for the chart drawer. It was somewhere on one of these. He had a deep memory, just out of focus, of poring over one of these huge charts spread out on the desk together with a group of pilots, looking for somewhere new to practise low altitude flying in interesting terrain. Of himself suggesting an area he'd seen from a distance, and one of the older pilots making a joke he hadn't understood. They'd explained about the experimental science station, miles from anywhere because of the colossal magnetic fields it generated, and one of them had pulled out the relevant chart and shown him the size of the area involved. He'd been astonished - missile ranges had far smaller no-fly zones.
Where the hell was it? It couldn't have been that long ago, and it had been one of his own charts, he was sure of it. The visual image was of his chart table, with the discoloured rings on the edge where he could never be bothered to find a mat. When had his collection of charts got this large? And this out of order?
"Get them all out. It'll be easier."
Mark had forgotten Princess was still there, but he allowed her to help him lift the whole pile of charts from the drawer and lay them on the table. Not the first one. Not the second one -
"What are you looking for?"
Mark glanced sideways at Keyop. "I'll know it when I see it - ah. There."
"Restricted airspace?" Princess frowned. "How will that help?"
Mark grinned. "They have a huge magnet."
"Uh, commander, the one thing we know about that mech is that it's not magnetic."
Mark felt the smile grow. "No, it's not, not on the surface at least. No Faraday cage. Have you ever seen a mecha forensics report mention gallium arsenide?"
"Gallium..." Princess paused, and her smile matched his own. "That's brilliant! Normally a magnetic field wouldn't get anywhere near their control systems, but now the skin doesn't protect them - it'll work."
"Let's hope so." Mark noted the co-ordinates of the facility, returned the charts to their drawer and, as he stood up, noticed his engineer still tossing the marble from hand to hand.
"Hey!" Keyop objected as Mark swiped it from under his nose.
"You've got plenty." Mark pocketed the sphere, grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair and headed at a run for his plane.
"Princess?" Keyop said in a small voice. "Why gallium arsenide?"
She frowned at him. "And you were the one talking about simple science. Gallium arsenide circuitry is much less vulnerable to magnetic fields than ordinary silicon. That's why we use it in the Phoenix."
"But they don't have it. Probably."
"Keyop, you do remember what a Faraday cage is?"
"'A metallic enclosure that prevents the entry or escape of an electromagnetic field'," he parrotted. "Oh. Oh - I see! Their mecha's not metallic! We can fry their computers with Mark's giant magnet!"
"Confuse them a little, maybe. Just enough to crash them into the nearest mountain would do." Princess smiled. "I know where he keeps the spare key. We'd best lock up."
"It's part ISO funded," Grant told the hastily assembled group. "Part national military, part private. But we have enough financial interest to commandeer it. I've spoken to the lead researcher. He's not happy about it, but he was persuaded to send me through the full specifications of their equipment."
"And access to the facility?" one of the engineers asked.
"He has assured me of their full co-operation. The on-site staff have been instructed to offer us every assistance." Grant smiled. "I'm sure they will."
"But are we sure it's going to work?"
"Sure? No." Anderson looked across to where Mark was sitting quietly, his part in the planning done. "We're never sure. There's a good chance, though. Provided G-Force can lure it close enough to the facility. We have no real idea how large a field will be required to disrupt their electronics."
"So, Commander, what are you going to do?" Grant asked.
Mark had had enough of this. He leant forward, narrowed his eyes and did his best impression of Jason. "Whatever I have to."
It worked better than he'd anticipated. Grant's eyebrows went up, and he broke eye contact. Now that was a trick worth remembering. He wondered whether it would work on Jason.
"He's doing nothing until we're in position at the facility and the magnet is ready to be brought on line." Anderson's stare was turned on Grant, and Mark was glad not to be the focus of attention for once.
Anderson continued, "I will be co-ordinating from the facility. As usual, Major Grant will be in charge here while I am off-site. Mr Donaldson, you're with me. Does anyone have any further questions?"
Mark shook his head, and everyone around him did the same.
"Very well. Dismissed. Commander, a moment please."
Mark had stood up to leave the moment the meeting closed, but now he took a deep breath before turning back to Anderson, his expression carefully neutral and hands clenched below tabletop level.
"I'm not going to tell you to be careful, since last time you interpreted it as 'do nothing'. Do your job, Commander."
"Of course, sir." Mark put all his frustration into an immaculate salute, turned on his heel, and stalked out. He was going to dock the G-1 in the Phoenix, right now.
When the signal came to assemble on the Phoenix, Mark moved faster than he ever had. This mission was at least going to start off right - with him in his own chair.
If the others were surprised to see him already on the flight deck when they arrived a couple of minutes after him, none of them said anything. Not then, and not while they were in flight, even though they must have noticed that he was glued in his seat rather than wandering the flight deck as usual.
"Research station reports they're ready," Princess told him, just as Jason barked, "Contact!"
Mark took a deep breath. This was it. Time to salvage his command. "Remember, keep all weapons systems closed. Tiny, keep buzzing that thing until I give the word to disengage."
His pilot grinned in delight. Tiny was never one to pass up a challenge. "Watch me fly rings round it, Commander."
"Company!" squeaked Keyop, and once again they were faced with Zoltar's face on their comms screen.
Mark didn't even listen to what the Spectran commander was saying. Zoltar did this solely because he could, of that he was sure. The body language screamed 'trap'. Everything else was irrelevant.
He no longer needed to tell his communications technician to block the transmission. Princess was working flat out to regain control of her systems, and she was getting better at it. Only a few seconds, and the image was gone.
"We'll see who gets the surprise," Jason snorted. Ah - it had been the usual "you're walking into a trap" speech then. Mark was with Jason all the way this time.
"You're on, Tiny. Time to do your thing."
Was it his imagination, or was Tiny being just a little too obvious in playing the good subordinate? No matter. Tiny was certainly giving it his all. Mark leaned back in his seat and enjoyed the wild flying, not quite managing to suppress the tiny voice which reminded him that his second wouldn't be feeling the same appreciation.
Mark, on the other hand, was well impressed. Tiny was evading the latest set of appendages - sledgehammers, for goodness sake - with ease, all the while gently shepherding the giant sphere in the direction of the mountains and their hidden weapon. Mark just hoped the Spectran commander hadn't seen the same set of charts he had.
He was just starting to believe it might work when Jason swore from behind him, and Keyop reported that their target had peeled off.
"It's turned back!" Princess added unnecessarily.
"Smelled a rat," Keyop sighed.
Mark glared at the viewscreen, thinking furiously, and coming up with only one plan. Don't put the ship at risk - but don't back down. Only one possibility. Do it - or admit he wasn't up to command. Trivial decision. He got to his feet, unconsciously flicking the wings back and, if he had but known it, finally looking more like himself.
"We have to get that thing turned around somehow, and there's only one way to do it."
Jason's eyes went wide with a mixture of alarm and anticipation. "You mean - get inside that thing?"
"Do you know any other way, Jason?"
"It's suicide!" Princess gasped.
"Far out!" Keyop grinned delightedly.
"It's our only chance." He looked around the flight deck. Good. No dissention this time.
"Me." Princess tried to stand taller. He could see her trying to frame her arguments, she was the explosives expert, she should be the one to go. Even given her first horrified reaction, she was still ready to follow his orders.
"Thanks, Princess," he said with feeling. "But I'm still in charge here."
He almost jumped at Jason's approach. Was this going to be another challenge? But the other was smiling, and held out his hand.
"You always have been, Mark."
He had to swallow hard to be sure his voice would behave. "Thanks" seemed somehow inadequate.
He felt infinitely better as he headed up to the bubble. Jason was in command on the Phoenix and would play his role perfectly, of that he was sure. All he had to do was turn the Spectran craft back towards the research facility, get it within a couple of miles and there would be no escape. Possibly not for him either. Right now that didn't seem particularly relevant.
"Commander - hold on," Tiny's voice said, and he grabbed for a handhold on the floor of the lift as the Phoenix went back into wild evasive circling. "Tell me when you're ready."
He reached out and opened the bubble, getting his feet under him. "Ready."
Mark counted them down, and true to Tiny's word the acceleration settled for long enough for him to stand up, make a last recalculation of the line he needed to take to the nearest appendage, and leap.
Just barely in time. The Spectran commander had presumably realised something was going on, and Mark only just caught the trailing edge as the limb began to retract. He instantly became aware of a problem he hadn't even considered - the limb was retracting, not through a hole as such, but seeming to be sucked through a tightly fitting gap which was barely stretching to the diameter of the limb. He had no idea whether it would expand to let him though, or whether he would simply be crushed, and there was no time to do anything but make himself as streamlined as possible and hope.
A moment of pressure, and the gap sealed itself behind him soundlessly, leaving him standing in a deserted room. Mark looked around, almost with a sense of anticlimax. No goons to fight, no control panel to hack into, no Spectran signs to decipher. Just a bunch of oversized machinery associated with the limb extrusion. Time to call in.
"I'm in. Heading for the control centre. Tell our friends to stand by."
"Yes, Commander," and the line went dead.
Out in the corridors, it was surprisingly quiet. Mark did hear a couple of goons once, slipped into the nearest door until they went past, and then continued on his way. Front and top was invariably the location of the control room on every Spectran mecha they'd dealt with so far - then again, all the others had had a clearly definable front and top. This one was much less clear-cut. Mark decided to designate "top" in accordance with gravity, and "front" as the direction of travel, and only worry about spherical symmetry if it didn't work.
It didn't work - but what he found was infinitely better. He was beginning to think that this area of the mech was unused when he came across a door with a label other than "storeroom" on it. "Emergency control room". Bingo. And deserted too. Mark was starting to suspect that his counterpart had realised something was going on and pulled all his forces in to defend the main control room. Which suited him just fine. Nobody in here either meant plenty of time to decipher the controls. A quick bit of jamming of the door controls meant they weren't going to be coming in to disturb him any time soon.
Oh, boring. Standard, just like every other mecha control panel he'd seen. Not that he'd seen many, but still, he wasn't going to complain. Mark cast his mind back to the briefing he'd tried not to sleep through on how these things worked, did some rapid mental arithmetic to convert Spectran units to degrees and kilometres, and nudged the sphere back onto its previous course for the mountains. Now he just needed to hope that the other control room, and all the troops guarding it, were a long way away on the other side of the sphere, and that it would take them a while to get here.
Perhaps he could do something about that too. This was the control room which the Spectrans should have been holed up in, not the other one. This one would have the controls intended to slow down any intruders. Grinning broadly, Mark went back to a different area of the control panel. "Emergency overrides". Oh yes. Exactly what he needed. Things were indeed starting to happen at the opposite side of the mech - two troop-carrying size elevators were heading his way. Not for long. Mark stopped both, relatively near to one another, locked down a judicious selection of doors, and then enjoyed a brief moment imagining the potential for misunderstanding as two squads of nervous Spectran goons, anticipating being jumped by G-Force any moment and understandably trigger-happy, came upon one another round a corner. It might well not happen - but it was a nice dream.
"Mark did it!" Keyop exclaimed as the sphere's course curved back towards the mountains.
Princess was already on the radio. "Get ready, Chief. Mark's bringing the ball in. It should be in range soon."
"Thanks," Anderson's voice came clearly, and then became more muffled as he spoke to someone else. "Power."
He should have expected that the secondary control room wouldn't be completely abandoned. Should have searched it properly before starting to work. As it was, it didn't matter. One goon, no matter how carefully he crept up, was no match for the commander of G-Force. Mark caught his wrist easily as he dived for the controls and swung him round, the smile of superiority back on his face.
"Sorry, but I'm in charge here." Finally, he felt it to be true. He was in charge, had always been in charge, and wanted it to remain that way. Going up in flames with some nameless Spectran bowling ball of a mech would be the end of all that - and he wasn't ready for it. If he needed to lay down his life for his team or his planet, some day, he would do it. Now, today, it was unnecessary and meaningless. Time to get out of here. Just borrow the machinegun from the unfortunate goon at his feet, one long burst of fire to make sure nobody could change the controls, and leave. It couldn't be that hard to find a way out - could it?
As the giant sphere approached the mountains more closely, Princess grew more and more worried. She couldn't contact Mark - not particularly surprising given the strength of the magnetic field - but she'd expected to see an escape pod by now. He was cutting it too fine.
She knew she wasn't the only one worried when Jason got out of his seat to stand behind Tiny, as if being closer to the viewscreen would make it more likely to show what they all wanted to see. Keyop followed close behind, and she couldn't stay in her seat any longer either.
Wordlessly, the pilot increased the magnification on the viewscreen. The sphere was real close to the installation now, trying to slow down and escape the pull from the giant magnet. It wasn't going to work. Obviously there had been something magnetic in there after all - its behaviour was no longer only that of scrambled control circuits, but of magnetic attraction. It was going to go in hard, and Princess doubted there would be much left of either magnet or sphere afterwards.
"Mark's going down with it," she breathed, only realising as she heard herself that she'd said it out loud.
Jason said nothing, only put a hand on her shoulder as all four watched in horrified silence. The sphere was still trying to pull away, but was beginning to disintegrate - metallic fragments raining down out of its shredding coating and hammering into the magnet. It was down to the level of the trees now, crashing through the top of the canopy, full-grown pine trees snapping under the force. Fifty yards away - twenty - and then it rammed into the giant electromagnet, crumbling its concrete footings as if they were polystyrene and burying itself deep into the ground.
For a few seconds it seemed as if it was all over, and then the whole area shuddered as a huge explosion ripped everything apart. The viewscreen whited out briefly, and when it cleared all that was left was a sea of flame surrounding unrecognisable twisted metal.
"Set us down," Jason said shortly. "Princess, check on Anderson."
She did so automatically, too concerned for her commander to realise until much later that Jason hadn't known that the control centre was some distance away up on the mountainside.
"We're fine here, G-3. Your status?"
"The sphere is destroyed. The magnet too." She gulped, and managed to choke out, "G-1 is missing."
"We're going to find him." Jason was at the rear door. "Come on, Princess. He'll have glided out and landed in the forest somewhere."
"Wouldn't we have seen him?" Tiny queried. "I was watching pretty close."
Jason glared. "You can see through mecha now? I'm impressed."
"Maybe not." Tiny subsided, but there was misery in his tone, and tears in Keyop's eyes. Princess hurried to put an arm round their youngest member.
"Come on. Let's go find him."
Fifteen minutes searching later, it wasn't looking hopeful. There was far too much heat from the blazing wreckage to use the thermal scanners, and Mark wasn't answering his bracelet. They'd met back at the crash site, and, unable to face one another, were staring at the flames. Nobody wanted to be the first to speak, that was obvious. Keyop was on his knees, shoulders shaking.
Finally, Jason cleared his throat. "I can't believe Mark's gone."
Princess didn't dare answer. She knew she'd break down completely, and if it was true, then Keyop would -
She squinted up where Tiny was pointing. An eagle, silhouetted against the sun. No, not an eagle. Too large. It had to be Mark - but however high had he jumped from, to still be descending now?
Keyop struggled to his feet, wiping his eyes, and yelled and jumped like a mad thing. This time not even Jason objected, and all four cheered when they distinctly saw a responding wave.
He hit the ground with none of his usual grace, and only Jason's lightning reflexes kept him from total collapse.
"Man - it's cold up there," was all he managed before curling into a shuddering ball.
"That we can fix." Tiny simply picked his commander up bodily and carried him closer to the flames. "Nice and toasty over here."
It was a while before Mark felt better enough to move. He'd been desperately cold. Moving enough to wave had almost caused disaster, and landing had just plain hurt. Now, though, he was starting to cook. He stretched out and cleared his throat. "Thanks, guys."
"Better?" Tiny frowned worriedly at him. "Can you feel everything?"
"How high were you?" Jason asked.
"I don't know. High enough that it was real, real cold, and not too much oxygen. Did you try to call me on the bracelet? I thought I heard something, but I didn't dare bring my arm in to answer. We need to practise gliding in thinner air."
"We need not to jump out of mecha five miles up," Jason suggested.
Mark managed a weak smile. "Well, I could have stayed in it a while longer, I suppose."
Princess's breath caught. "No, you couldn't. I was so worried you weren't coming back! We couldn't see you, and we thought you were trapped in that awful thing, and the magnetic attraction was so strong..."
"I'll always come back." Mark smiled up at her, and accepted Jason's arm to help him to his feet. "Your magnetic attraction is a lot stronger."
There, I said it. Just don't expect me to act on it.
"And one more thing - G-2?"
His second met his eyes. "Yes, Commander?"
"You know I'll listen to suggestions, but don't ever question my orders again. That was unacceptable."
Jason nodded, and held his hand out for the second time. "Understood. It won't happen again."
"I know." Mark reached for the hand, and grabbed for it unceremoniously as his balance wavered.
"Yeah, yeah," Tiny intervened. "Everything's great, we're all happy to have you back in charge - but how about you leave it to Jason for a little longer? We need to get you to a doctor."
"I'm fine!" he protested, but they all knew he was just playing the game. It was time to go home. He'd sit quiet in his seat on the Phoenix and listen to Jason giving the orders, in complete confidence that his second would step aside the moment Mark told him to. Later, he'd stand up to Anderson and justify his actions, and if he had to, he'd explain in words of one syllable precisely why it was sometimes necessary to take risks which might look foolhardy. That was his job, what he had trained for for so many years, and it was time he grasped it with both hands and stopped expecting - or allowing - desk-based personnel to dictate field decisions. From now on, the Eagle would be in charge - and he had a deep suspicion that Anderson would consider this mission a success for that reason alone.
Catherine Rees Lay, November 2005