Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank Productions. I've borrowed it for fun, not profit.
Thanks to my husband for beta-reading (and for not laughing when I told him what the pile of notebooks under the bed actually contained).
When he's grounded due to injury, Mark is forced into an unfamiliar role. Set during the TV series, before The Sky Is Falling.
“G-2, approach on foot. Fuel everywhere. Might explode”. Definitely Keyop’s voice.
Mark opened his eyes experimentally and instantly wished he hadn’t. Most of the visual symptoms of concussion, but even his blurry, doubled vision didn’t account for the crazy shape now adopted by the nose of the G-1. He turned his head to see what other damage he’d done to his beloved jet, and the world spun before going black again.
* * * * *
“Mark…..MARK! Talk to me. Come on, Commander, you can do better than this!”
“Jason…” he muttered.
“Full marks. Now stay with me. Where do you hurt?”
“Can you move?”
Mark just groaned. Now he’d come round a little more, it was to a wall of fire running from his right hip down to the foot. It hurt atrociously, and even the thought of moving sent a reflex ‘don’t’ message to every muscle in his body. He had no intention of opening his eyes again.
“Hang in there – we’ll get you out. Keyop?” Rapid discussion. Jason insistent that they had to immobilise him and cut him out, Keyop that they had to get him out now, so he could foam the cockpit. Slowly Mark realised what they were worried about. Fuel. Sparks. Not a good combination with him stuck in the middle.
So, was he actually trapped, or just smashed up? Mark tried to ease his right hand down into the footwell of the Eagle to assess the amount of space still there, but his body still refused to obey any instruction to move. The instrument panel sparked again. And being roasted to death in the G-1’s cockpit while his team argued about how best to free him was pretty high on his list of least favourite ways to die.
His second-in-command put a hand on his shoulder. “Right here.”
“Keyop’s right. Get me the hell out of here before it blows.”
Jason sighed. “Your call. Can you tell how badly you’re trapped down there?”
Mark concentrated desperately. He wasn’t aware of any obstructions round his legs, then again he wasn’t sure he could trust any of his neural impulses right now. “No idea.”
“Great.” Mark could feel Jason leaning past him into the cockpit. “Can’t see anything in the way. It’s going to hurt, though – no way to immobilise that leg before we pull you out. Wait a moment. G-5, how long? G-1 needs you, now.”
“Three minutes,” came over the bracelet. “How bad?”
“Leg’s a mess. Ambulance?”
“Ten. Wait for me before you move him, okay?”
Mark had just thought that three minutes wasn’t that long when he heard Keyop yell “Jason – fire!” and suddenly it became an age. He felt Jason take hold of him, too fast to be gentle, and passed out again even as he realised just how bad this was going to be.
* * * * *
“Mark, I’m going to take you out of birdstyle now. I need to check you to see where you’re hurt.” Tiny, the only member of G-Force with significant medical training. The familiar sharp snap, and a lot more pain in his leg without the birdstyle’s support. Tiny was checking him, apparently everywhere except where he actually hurt, and he finally whispered “Tiny, my right leg’s really bad.”
“I’ve given you something for the pain, but it’ll take a while to kick in.” Tiny continued to work. “I’m making sure it’s not masking any other major injuries. Where’s that ambulance?”
“Five minutes. Princess is bringing them round – they had trouble finding a route to take their weight.” Jason again, his voice fading in and out. “Did I do much damage getting him out?”
“No way to tell until they get him into surgery. I wish they’d hurry. He’s badly concussed. Can you talk to him while I set this up?”
Surgery? Until now, Mark really hadn’t appreciated how serious this was. He’d broken bones before, it had hurt like hell, been reset, a week in plaster and he’d been back on his feet. The accelerated healing provided by his cerebonic implants had dealt with everything very efficiently. This was starting to sound rather different.
He was starting to drift until Jason grabbed his hand.
“No, you don’t. If I’m to write the report on this mission, I want to know just what you thought you were doing. We have vehicles designed to fire up at a mecha hovering fifty feet from the ground, Mark – I even drive one of them. You fly a plane! I’ve never seen anything so bloody stupid!”
Try as he might, Mark couldn’t remember anything about it – nothing, in fact, since the previous evening. Or what he hoped was the previous evening. “Did I get it?”
“Man, you really are concussed! Yeah. You got it.”
Sirens wailing, an ambulance pulled up alongside. Mark listened half-heartedly to Tiny discussing with one paramedic what had been done so far, and to Jason’s spiel to the driver on just how bad an idea it would be to talk about their encounter with G-Force this morning. Then he was in the ambulance, the drugs Tiny had given him finally started to take effect, and the pain began to fade.
“So what did you do to yourself, anyway?” the ISO driver asked as he pulled up at the base of the steps leading up to the front entrance.
“Landed badly and broke it in a lot of places.” Mark had been waiting for the question ever since he’d been picked up at the hospital. The metal frame surrounding his right lower leg was very obvious and anything more than a cursory glance showed the array of pins connecting it directly to his bones – in short it looked more like a medieval torture device than current medical technology. The driver had been friendly, and these days Mark was very good at telling the truth ambiguously.
“Some fall. Here, let me help.” He opened the car door and steadied it while Mark, still unfamiliar with crutches and a sore, non-weight-bearing right leg, took his time to manoeuvre himself from car seat to standing. Ten steps had never looked so high.
The driver was waiting at the door, having taken Mark’s bag in, when he made it to the top, deeply grateful that nobody he knew was watching. Not his most dignified entrance ever. “So long, mate. Nice talking to you. Hope you mend fast.”
Mark shook the proffered hand without wobbling too much. “Thanks. I usually do.”
Reception was the same as ever, given that he was currently what Tiny called “citizen third class”: no birdstyle, no ISO uniform. He handed over the card which identified him to the world as a member of ISO’s most junior security team, keyed in his password as requested, and headed towards the secure area of the facility.
Two very long corridors later, he was starting to have had enough. Right about now, someone in the secure area noticing his access code, a friendly face, and a shoulder to lean on, would have been very welcome. It didn’t happen.
Finally, an undistinguished-looking door with a keypad and scanner alongside: the unadvertised entrance to one of the most secret facilities on the planet. Mark, balanced precariously on one leg and one crutch, typed in his ISO code – and nothing happened. Red light. High security alert, or maybe they’d just changed the codes in the last fortnight. No matter. His bracelet would get him past any scanner in the building.
Except that he didn’t have it. Jason had pocketed it, right before the ambulance had taken him away. They’d always avoided publicity, but inevitably there had been pictures, every one analyzed in the media to ridiculous lengths – and the earliest really clear closeup had been of him, turning towards the remote-control helicopter carrying the camera, left arm up to shade his eyes against the sun, They’d got a great shot of his bracelet. Anderson had been furious. No way Jason would have left that sort of identification on his semi-conscious commander.
Mark eased himself into the chair next to the door. This time, someone had better come, or he would personally see that heads rolled for not investigating why G-1’s code had been entered here.
* * * * *
The bracelet, though, he would never have said he’d miss it that badly. The first night after they’d operated, he’d felt truly dreadful. His implants were working overtime on healing his smashed leg, he’d reacted badly to the anaesthetic, and he still ached all over from the crash. All he wanted was to sleep, and it just wouldn’t come. Sometime towards dawn, they’d called the doctor in again, but even after more drugs he was still on edge, a sense of wrongness which simply wouldn’t go away for long enough for him to rest.
“Not a good night,” he’d heard the nurse on the phone. “It’s rare for a young adult to be so disoriented – if you can think what might be worrying him, please do let us know.”
Half an hour later, Jason had walked in, taken something from his pocket and snapped it onto Mark’s wrist. Had sat down beside the bed, put a hand on his shoulder, and in entirely unsympathetic tones had told him that as acting commander of G-Force he was ordering Mark to get some sleep, and he had damn well better do so. Groggy and miserable as he was, the familiar pressure on his wrist altered the situation enough for his exhausted body to relax into the sleep he so desperately needed, and from which he had barely surfaced for the next ten days. It wasn’t until he was able to stay awake for more than ten minutes at a time that he had realised just how much Jason had been able to guess from the nurse’s comments, and Mark had drawn his own conclusions as to why his second owned a cheap metal wristwatch startlingly similar in size and weight to a G-Force bracelet.
He’d have been wary of asking Jason about it in any case, but as it happened the only other time he’d been awake to see him had been on a news report of a Spectran agent captured by G-Force near Chicago, nine days ago. Details had been frustratingly lacking, but there had been a brief film clip from a reporter who’d got close enough to shout “hey Condor, where’s the Eagle?” And Jason had swung round, fixed the unfortunate man with his patent glare and snarled “it’s his day off.” Sufficiently standard grumpy Condor that there had been no follow-up on the lack of Eagle at all. And apparently no Spectran activity worthy of news coverage since then. With any luck, the team were having such a quiet time that Anderson had sprung an equipment upgrade or a civilian assignment on them.
* * * * *
He’d almost given up waiting, and was considering his options for raising hell at the front desk, when the door opened and a security officer who Mark knew only slightly came out, shut the door behind him, and came over. “ID, please.” He checked the card. “Follow me please, sir.” The door was keyed open, closed behind them, and only then did he say “apologies for the delay, Commander. Welcome back. It’s a bit hectic round here.” He opened the internal door and Mark stopped dead.
Red lights. That meant G-Force on a mission and a full security lockdown. He was lucky they’d sent anyone out to get him at all. He turned to his escort. “So where are they? How long have they been out? Any news?”
The young man didn’t meet his eyes. “I don’t really know, Commander. I was asked to take you to Medical.”
Mark considered his reputation. Jason would have had him in an armlock by now – this side of the door, he had to know something, if only how long the red lights had been on. He just sighed. “Medical it is then. Lead on.”
* * * * *
“You’re in better shape than I’d anticipated.” Chris Johnson, the team’s doctor, finished checking Mark over. “But then your implants are particularly well integrated. I’ve not seen anyone else’s knock them out so completely to heal them. Your surgeon had problems believing how fast you were mending – and that was after I’d persuaded him all he needed to do was put everything back in the right place and hold it together. Give him his due, though, he got used to the idea soon enough to suggest putting the metalwork on the outside rather than the inside. This’ll save you having another operation.”
“It’s the devil’s own job lugging it around, though,” Mark complained. “It’s heavy, it’s awkward, it aches all the time, and it hurts like hell if I knock it. And I’m useless with crutches. They hurt my hands and give me backache.”
“In other words, you’re feeling better enough to want rid of it. It still won’t be coming off for a few weeks, even the rate you heal. You’re lucky. Without the implants, you’d be looking at months. What drugs are you taking now?”
Mark produced the painkillers he’d been given, and the doctor nodded. “You’re not likely to be trying any of the contraindications for a while. Let me know if you have any problems, and we’ll re-evaluate in a few days.”
“So do I get the bracelet back?” Mark tried hard to sound nonchalant. “It’d be good to be able to open the door for myself.”
The doctor looked at him. Making a decision. “Do I have to remind you what would happen if you actually used it right now?”
Mark shook his head. The transmutation process would exchange everything he was wearing, except the bracelet itself, with his birdstyle. He had strong suspicions that were he to transmute, he would find himself minus the metal frame currently holding his right leg together. Much as he wanted rid of it, he knew it was far too soon.
“Just remember – no heroics.” Chris Johnson handed him his bracelet back, and looked slightly bemused as Mark exchanged it on his wrist with Jason’s watch.
“Are we done here?” Mark asked innocently. “I’m cleared as G-1, inactive?”
Johnson was putting his notes away in a folder. “Sure.”
At last Mark knew exactly where he stood. “Then you can start by telling me why security round here has gone to hell. My code, unaccompanied, at the front desk after two weeks and I don’t get picked up? The kid who finally does let me in brushes me off – and yes he knew exactly who I was. I know I’m never here when the red light’s on, but surely it’s not usually this chaotic! Now you can tell me what’s going on, or I’ll haul the base controller out and make him do it. Just tell me it doesn’t mean someone else is hurt.” Or missing. Or dead.
“I can tell you that they all went out on the latest mission. And I’ve not had any messages to expect a problem. Your team is fine, Mark. They’ve been out far too much recently, but they’re fine. Security – I wouldn’t know. You’ll have to…”
And the red lights abruptly switched to orange. Target destroyed. Mark shut his eyes, a weight he hadn’t known was there suddenly lifted.
“Go talk to Anderson,” the doctor suggested. “He’s base controller right now. He’ll have a few minutes spare, and I need to prep for the team’s return.”
Polite words for ‘go bug someone else, I’m busy.’ Mark could take a hint. Control it was then.
* * * * *
Control. A place he’d never seen in action. Familiar faces at last: two of the younger controllers at communications and logistics, and Anderson behind them in the senior controller’s chair on the dais, positioned to see any of the bank of screens on the front wall. Telemetry on most of them. Nothing on the jump-drive screen.
“Ordnance want to know how many reloads.” Logistics.
“Phoenix, can you confirm how many missiles you fired?” Communications, over normal radio, not the jump-comm.
Brief pause. “Confirm six bird missiles fired.” Princess’s voice over the speaker.
“Six?” Mark hadn’t meant to speak out loud, and all three of them swung round, eyes wide. “Do you know how much trouble you’d be in if I was an intruder?”
“Mark! I wasn’t expecting you today. It’s been a bit busy round here.” Anderson sounded strained, tense, shaky, not at all how he normally did after a successful mission. “I have to go back to strategy once they land, would you…”
He’d taken two steps towards Mark when the colour drained from his face and one hand went to his chest. “Oh, god,” and his legs buckled.
Hamilton jumped from his seat to try to catch him. Mark’s cerebonically enhanced reflexes were far quicker, but although they took him across the room to catch the security chief as he fell, they did nothing to prevent him coming down himself. Anderson didn’t hit the floor; Mark’s bad leg did, hard enough to make him see stars for a moment.
“Chief?” Both junior controllers had frozen and Anderson was attempting to sit up. Mark twisted round and ruthlessly pushed him flat again. “Stay down.” Not the sort of emergency first aid he was most familiar with, but all the members of G-Force were trained to help civilians as well as each other. Heart attack was a distinct possibility, though not the only one.
“Hamilton, get Medical. Arkwright, do your job. Chief, you have medication for this?”
Anderson groaned and shook his head. “Aspirin.”
“I have some,” Arkwright volunteered and thrust a foil pack at him. Mark extracted one and gave it to Anderson. “Chew it.” He remembered that, at least. “Now just lie still and try to relax.”
“Medical’s coming,” Hamilton reported, clearly trying to duplicate Mark’s best ‘I’m a competent paramedic’ impression. “You’re gonna be fine, Chief. Hang in there.”
He could hear Arkwright responding to the Phoenix, voice as calm as he could have asked. Anderson didn’t look too good though, breathing fast and shallow, pain in every line of his face. “Slow it down, Chief. Breathe steady. You can do it.” Damn, where was that medical team? He’d done everything he knew, this was where a real doctor needed to turn up and take over. And eventually, a very long thirty seconds later, a crash team did arrive.
Mark hauled himself out of the way, wincing. “He grabbed his chest and went down. He doesn’t have medication. I’ve given him aspirin.”
Chris Johnson spared him a single glance. “Good.” He turned back to Anderson, reassuring and professional, and shortly a gurney arrived and Anderson was wheeled out.
“Base, we’re on final approach, open sea doors please.” Princess again.
“Confirm opening…” Arkwright stopped. “Phoenix, hold please.” She turned to her co-controller. “Dave, I’m getting an invalid code on the doors.”
Hamilton worked at his console. “Me too. Put them on hold, I’ll get the major back.”
“Phoenix, can you go around, we have an internal problem.”
“Major Grant to control please, stat.”
“Dammit, control, open those doors now or I’ll open them for you with a bird missile!” Mark could picture Jason leaning over Princess, eyes flashing. Right about now would be where Anderson’s voice would cut in from control. Normally.
“Try the doors again.” Mark had persuaded Anderson’s console that he was G-1, authorised to take over from Anderson as base controller, and had put in an override code which should authorise anything up to and including self-destruct.
Arkwright’s shoulders dropped in relief. “Phoenix, confirm doors open, come on home.” Mark guessed she’d had an awful vision of having to placate a fuming Condor until the substitute senior controller arrived.
Grant finally did arrive just as Princess reported the Phoenix safely docked. Mark stood there, radiating ‘go ahead, tell me I’m not allowed to log in to base control’ and Anderson’s deputy merely cancelled the override, closed down the system and invited Mark to join him in debriefing.
* * * * *
Debrief managed to set an all-time record for brevity. Jason walked in, still in birdstyle. Glared at Grant. “I’m not dealing with you. Get Anderson.” Swift double-take. “Hi, Mark,” and walked out.
Grant would start with gross insubordination and work up from there, Mark reckoned. He had no idea what had provoked it – while Jason had regularly dealt with Grant, it had always been through him and Anderson, and there had never been a major problem before. Oh, they’d had the odd spat, Jason unable to resist winding Grant up, but it had never gone beyond the mild irritation stage. Something had clearly happened between them in a big way.
“Uh…Major? You mind if I go talk to him?”
Grant was putting the debrief papers away in a manner which strongly implied he’d rather have been shredding them. “You do whatever you like, Commander. And I have absolutely no idea how you tolerate that man.”
By cutting him some slack when something’s gone wrong, thought Mark. By knowing when it’s his temper speaking, not something he really means. By remembering just how good he is at his job, and how much I rely on him. If I miss something, Princess generally doesn’t, and she’s darn good at smoothing things over between us. And none of this will placate Grant in the slightest. He just nodded to him and left.
* * * * *
“G-2, come in.”
“G-2, respond please. Tell me where you are.”
“G-2, you want to talk to me, or a disciplinary committee?”
* * * * *
Everything Mark had planned on saying went out of the window the moment he saw his second out of birdstyle. He’d thought it odd that the rest of the team hadn’t come to debrief, that Jason hadn’t detransmuted. Not any more. Jason was visibly exhausted – Mark couldn’t remember ever having seen him this tired. He could barely sit up, his head propped on one hand. Mark recognised the drink in front of him as Chris Johnson’s patent high-energy restorative, but it was clearly untouched. The stage of exhaustion where even the thought of drinking made you nauseous was no fun at all, Mark knew far too well – and also that it was well past the stage where the implants started to demand back the extra energy they’d given. All of a sudden all those little comments about how busy they’d been began to add up.
Jason barely turned as Mark sat down beside him. “Tell me you can take the next mission.”
Mark stared at him. “Jason, I can’t even stand up. You didn’t notice the scaffolding? Man, you must be wiped. How often have you been out recently?”
Jason’s face blanked. “Uh – eight times since Tuesday?”
“Nine,” said Chris Johnson behind him. “With a maximum down time of five hours. Jason, I need you to drink that and get to bed. You two can catch up later.”
“And the rest of the team don’t get this because?”
“Because they don’t refuse to eat during a mission. Or after the alarm goes off.”
Mark said softly, “Jase, you know he’s right. Drink it while you tell me what’s gone down between you and Grant, before he throws the book at you.”
Jason picked up the glass and sipped at it reluctantly. “Three missions ago, I think. I won’t be micro-managed, Mark. He doesn’t do it to you. Anderson doesn’t do it to either of us. I told him to lay off, twice. Hell, Princess told him. He carried right on. So I cut off communications. I won’t fly with him as base controller, and I sure as hell won’t be debriefed by him. Anderson can court-martial me later.” He went to put the glass down, saw Mark watching it, and took another swallow instead. “So he sent you to debrief me? Where’s Anderson, anyway?”
“Hospital,” Johnson replied. “He had what we think was a minor heart attack right before you landed. It doesn’t look too bad, but he won’t be in the controller’s chair any time soon.”
“Well, I won’t have Grant.” Jason’s jaw was set. Distraction was doing its usual job, and the glass was emptying slowly. Mark had played this game before. Keep Jason talking and he’d finish it without argument.
“So what’s big enough to need six bird missiles to take it down?” Uh-oh. Wrong thing to say. Jason’s eyes blazed, and he flipped a mission tape at his commander so fast he barely caught it.
“Since you’re so perfect, G-1, why don’t you tell me? I’ve got eight more just the same. They haven’t got their payload as far as the atmosphere. We haven’t damaged the Phoenix. Nobody’s got hurt. But I guess all that counts for nothing since I used more missiles than you would have. Review that, let me know what I did wrong when I wake up.”
Well, I made a right mess of that, Mark thought as the door slammed behind his second-in-command. Hold on, though – eight more just the same? Spectra never, ever duplicated their mecha designs. Not even the most dangerous ones. Occasionally you could see where ideas had been improved on, but even highly successful weapons designs were rarely used again once G-Force had taken out the mecha. He’d never run two identical missions, let alone nine.
* * * * *
About all he could do to help was to actually review the tapes, he decided. He knew exactly where the previous eight would be: archived at the far end of yet another long corridor. Mark was starting to feel as though this base’s internal layout had been designed just to make life hard for him.
At least the chair was comfortable, he thought as he sat down to watch the mission tapes.
Several things struck him very quickly; sadly, they were so obvious that the strategy team must have seen them days ago. Firstly, the intruders were indeed identical. Secondly, they weren’t the normal Spectra pattern of animal design mechas. These looked like much larger versions of their own bird missiles, carrying some sort of gas payload. Thirdly, and most worryingly, they were unmanned. That meant that either there was a mecha out there in local space which their sensors were unable to spot, or Spectra had a new trick up their sleeves.
And then there was the most frightening thing of all: the marked degradation in the team’s performance over the past five days. Jason was suffering worst of all, doing most of Mark’s job as well as all his own. He was making a fair job of command even in the later missions, but Jason’s performance at his own speciality had tailed off dramatically. It wasn’t entirely his fault; Tiny’s piloting had also lost some of its smoothness, but the net result from the last mission had been four clean misses before the two strikes, neither of them dead centre. From Jason, this was unheard of.
First analysis of the debris of the first Spectran missile had shown the payload to be a particularly deadly neurotoxin. Let one of these detonate over a large city and a lot of people would, at the least, be very sick indeed. Jason had blown this one apart very thoroughly with a single missile of his own, but the techs had managed to reassemble the basic design. Simple one-stage chemical rocket, guidance system with a random walk element built in to make it harder to hit, explosive charge to disperse the gas. And what they described as a ‘rudimentary jump-drive’. So Spectra had figured out how to send unmanned missiles through jump-space. Just what they needed.
That was all. The team had had a whole four hours down-time after landing. They hadn’t bothered to retrieve debris from any of the other missiles. He wouldn’t have, either.
Mark rubbed tired eyes, stretched, and only then noticed the five men taking their places round the conference table the other side of the glass screen. Sadly, they’d noticed him, too – clearly the personnel for a strategy meeting, and Major Grant was waving him over. He hated these things, frequently held right after mission debriefing, and avoided as many as he could. Oh, they were necessary, and even came up with useful ideas fairly frequently. The problem was that ten minutes of usefulness generally took two hours of meeting to achieve. Thank goodness common sense seemed to have prevailed here and they hadn’t hauled Jason out of bed to join them.
He came round the end of the partition to hear the tail end of what the protestor must have thought was an inaudible comment:
“…security clearance? He’s just a kid!”
“Everyone inside these doors has a black level security clearance,” Grant replied out loud, raising his eyebrows in a question.
Oh, yes. He spent much of his life wishing he could do this, and only very rarely got the chance. Mark offered his hand. “You must be new round here. My name’s Mark Jarrald. I’m G-1, the Eagle.”
One of the better double-takes he’d seen, and no attempt at dissimulation. “Commander…I guess you heard that. I apologise. Steve Sheridan. I’ve just joined the jump research team. I’m a numerical analyst.”
“Shall we get started?” The permanently disapproving voice of Colonel Ivanov put an end to any more informality. “Dr Sheridan, do you know everyone?”
Sheridan glanced apologetically at Mark. “I do now.”
* * * * *
Ivanov had given a terse summary of the last couple of missions. Grant had delegated the report of the mission debrief to Mark, who had done his best to make it sound as though more than his review of the tape had actually happened. They’d run through the latest findings of the debris analysis, discussed the specifics of the neurotoxin and the attempts to find a counteragent, and now Ivanov had asked for suggestions.
Riley, the military strategist, had clearly been waiting to make his point for some time. “I can’t see what the problem is. They send ‘em up, we knock ‘em down. Don’t change what’s working. I know the team’s overstretched, but for what they’re doing at the moment we can rotate them. Rest one each time.”
“No!” Mark surprised everyone with his vehemence. “They’re specialists. They’re already one man short. You start rotating now, you leave them without a front-line pilot. Or a jump-pilot. If the Spectran tactics change they’d be in real trouble. How do you think they’d handle infiltrating a mecha without G-2 right now? You can’t guarantee they’d have time to come back down and get him.”
“Have him sleep on board then,” Riley retorted.
Mark just shook his head. “Not going to happen. We – they – don’t work that way. Besides, you ever try sleeping though a six g launch?”
Riley glared at him. “You have a better idea?”
Mark put both hands flat on the table. Time to be placatory, if he wanted to be listened to. “We could ask Riga for help.”
“We did that.” Grant. “Their ships are fully committed right now.”
“Committed to what? Did you tell them how much trouble we’re in?”
Ivanov cut in. “Don’t tell us how to do our jobs, Commander. We have been working at this for five days, not a couple of hours. And you’re not the only one with contacts on Riga. They can’t help us.”
Sheridan tentatively cleared his throat. “It’s not really a suggestion – I just don’t get this debris report. What’s the precise definition of a rudimentary jump-engine?”
Chief engineer Donaldson rolled his eyes. “And you want to be a jump-specialist. It’s one which can’t be adjusted. It goes along a set trajectory.”
“From one stable point to another. Yes. But there isn’t a stable point where the missiles are coming out of jump. Not in the records. And they haven’t all come in quite on the same vector. Theoretically there should be only a few possible points of origin.”
Ivanov sounded bored. “This isn’t theoretical. Everything’s within tolerances. And we know there are gaps in the records.”
“But…” Sheridan was running out of arguments, but every line of his body screamed that he still thought he was right, he just couldn’t put it into words. Mark knew Anderson would have listened, but Anderson wasn’t here.
“Show me.” He pushed himself up and manoeuvred so he could see over Sheridan’s shoulder. The young mathematician looked round, surprised, then called up a series of graphs on the screen. “These show particle density…”
“I’m a jump-pilot. I know what they show. Cut to the interesting bit.”
Sheridan gulped, then produced a hideously complex, shaded 3D surface with just about every sort of contour Mark had ever heard of superposed on it and set it rotating. “If there’s a stable point out there, it looks like this. I know it’s statistically possible, but look at it! It’s just wrong.”
“Or it’s huge.” Mark blinked at the screen, trying to make sense of it. He couldn’t. ‘Just wrong’ was about the sum of it. “That can’t be there. I know we have gaps, but we went right through that area not three months ago. No way we missed something like that.”
Encouraged, Sheridan continued. “Also there are these long, irregular time intervals between missiles. I’ve been told they have spies all over the place. They have to know G-Force is launching every time they send one. Why aren’t they sending six a day?”
“Don’t even think it,” Grant muttered.
Sheridan rounded on him. “I’m serious! It has to be because they can’t. Specific to the point of origin.”
“And now we have a reconstructed engine to get specs from.” Even Ivanov was paying full attention now. “If we assume they always launch as soon as they can, we have incoming velocity, location, and time. Can you extrapolate a point of origin from that, Doctor?”
“I can try. I may be able to narrow it down, but I don’t know if we have enough data for a solution.”
And who do I know who can pull solutions from reams of apparently meaningless numbers? Mark thought. “G-2 needs to see this.”
Sheridan looked round again. “G-2? He doesn’t have time to program this. I can do it.”
Donaldson snorted derisively. “Don’t know him too well, do you? What makes you think he’ll need a computer?”
And the alarm went off. Ivanov grabbed the phone and was quickly scanning the data on his screen while interrogating the detector staff. Shortly he looked up. “Same again. G-2’s on his way. I can leave the rest of them ten minutes longer.”
Mark looked at the clock. The team had been back for three hours and eight minutes. Ten minutes extra sleep had become more important than a mission briefing. They needed to shift the balance in the very near future, needed a location to strike back at, before the team simply fell apart from exhaustion.
* * * * *
“Colonel, do you want me to give the briefing? I think I have it memorised.”
Ivanov looked up from his computer. “Ah, G-2. No, no briefing. I have no new details. But we may have a lead on a point of origin. Can you take a look at Dr Sheridan’s statistics and see what you think? We have eight minutes before you need to be on the Phoenix.”
Eight minutes was an age compared with the time Jason normally had for jump-calculations. But this was far from the standard problem, requiring him to find the original conditions from the solution rather than the other way round. He and Sheridan were rapidly deep in mathematical discussion of which Mark understood perhaps one term in five, the screen filled with extrapolation lines and the tone grew more frustrated.
Mark spoke quietly to Ivanov. “We have any figures on the current incursion yet?”
“Coming.” He spoke into the phone again and finally the detector stats appeared on his screen. “Doctor, I have the new data for you.”
“Damn it!” Jason exploded in frustration as the information appeared on his screen. “There’s nothing different. Everything just confirms what we already know.”
Sheridan stared at the screen. “We know something?”
“Ground crews report ready. G-2’s needed on the Phoenix,” Grant cut in.
“One minute.” Mark knew his second had seen something, self-evident to him, incomprehensible to others. Presumably not a full solution, but maybe something others could work with. “You’ve got it narrowed down? What’s it confirming?” He was all too used to the look Jason gave him: ‘how can you possibly not know that?’
“Well, solutions obviously have to be coplanar.” Jason looked round the table. “None of you got that?” He sighed dramatically before scribbling something on the notepad, thrusting it at a bemused Sheridan and leaving at a run.
* * * * *
Everyone except Sheridan had left immediately afterwards, all with jobs to do for the current mission. Mark had started to leave, feeling totally lost with no role to play and no way to help, when Sheridan had stopped him.
“Uh, Commander, I have a problem with this.” He held out Jason’s notes.
Mark stiffened. “It’ll be right, have no doubt about that.”
The mathematician flushed. “Not that sort of problem. I just can’t read it.”
“Oh. Give it here.” He was used to Jason’s scrawl, and fortunately it was only the equation for a plane. He could cope with that much mathematical notation. Not that it meant anything useful to him even after he’d transcribed it into a rather more legible form.
Sheridan, however, was looking over his shoulder, adding things to his simulation as Mark wrote and muttering to himself in astonishment. As they both finished, he sat back in his chair. “I don’t believe it. He pulled that from nowhere. The computer hasn’t even confirmed it’s a valid solution yet, but I think it will be. It looks right. Commander, are you OK?”
Mark rubbed his eyes again to no avail. He’d known this would happen, known it would be like walking into a wall. He still felt a complete fool. Four o’clock in the afternoon, and he simply couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. Not to help Sheridan find the point of origin of the missiles, not to see the outcome of the mission G-Force were currently flying, nothing. He wasn’t healed yet, his implants were still working flat out, and they’d hit zero. He had to sleep.
Mark forced himself to focus. “Sorry, Doctor, I’m going to have to leave you to it for a while. Don’t worry about the confirmation. When Jason’s that sure, he’s right. Let Grant know if you get any further.” He pushed himself to his feet, swaying unsteadily, and Sheridan caught his elbow.
“You look like hell. Sit down – I’m getting a doctor.”
Mark shook him off. “I don’t have time to explain now. This is normal for me. I just need to lie down for a minute.”
“Over there, then.” Sheridan took his elbow again and helped him to the bank of padded seating at the far side of the room. “But I’m still calling Medical.”
“Call away.” Too tired to argue, Mark sagged sideways onto the bench, lifted his bad leg up and followed it with the good one. Who was he kidding – he wouldn’t even still be awake when Medical turned up. Lying flat was wonderful. He shifted slightly onto his good side, closed his eyes, and was asleep before Sheridan had even made the call.
* * * * *
“I’ll go with that. It’s the best we’re going to do with this data.”
Mark opened his eyes to a briefing room lit only by the computer screens. A single figure sat at the table, talking on the phone, decidedly more optimistic than anything else he’d seen.
“No, their stats aren’t as good as ours. Good enough for a valid solution, though.”
Mark sat up, feeling human again. “You can get a solution? A point of origin?”
Jason swung round, grinning broadly. “Back with us, are you? No. It’s the intersection of two planes. Even you know that’s a line. We can limit the number of likely candidate points though, based on distance…”
Knowing he was being wound up, Mark held up both hands. “You can explain to me how clever this is later. How many likely candidates?”
“Oh, only four…maybe five.”
“Wow. Okay, last thing I remember, we had the equation for one plane, insufficient data for anything else, and G-Force was launching to take out the tenth missile. You want to fill me in?”
“Ivanov got back to the Rigans, told them exactly what we were going through and asked them what their problem was. Turns out they’ve been facing much the same we have. He persuaded them to give us their data, Sheridan made the blithe assumption that they’ve found a single location which allows them to spit missiles through jump-space at both of us, and away he went. Meanwhile, while you were having your little nap, we nipped up and took out that last missile of theirs,” Jason drawled, a sure sign that he was pleased with himself. “I even hit it first time. Do I get a gold star now?”
Amazing what a little hope can do, Mark thought even as he flushed furiously. “You know I don’t have a lot of choice when my implants run out of juice.”
“I know Doc Johnson’s looking to chain you to a bed for not telling him it’s still happening. You do realise you were asleep for ten hours?”
Mark’s gaze flashed to the clock on the wall. Yup – 0200. That would explain how come there wasn’t a whole pack of tacticians in here, that Jason had had enough time to return and rest. Not enough rest, but he’d almost certainly hit the point where if he relaxed properly he’d be unable to get going again. This wasn’t over yet. It also explained why his leg ached quite so badly. He hobbled to the table, poured himself a glass of water and was about to shake his next dose out of the pill bottle when a hand closed round his wrist.
“Leave those a minute, Mark. Haven’t you read the contraindications?”
Mark counted to five, slowly. It didn’t really help. “Yes, I’ve read them. Since pulling six g isn’t on the list of what I’m allowed to do now or for the foreseeable future, I don’t give a damn. And don’t even start riding me about drugs and jump. It isn’t going to be an issue for weeks.” He wasn’t finished – not by a long way – but something in Jason’s manner brought him up short. The fact he was still here, for a start. He sighed and continued in the most reasonable tone he could muster. “I’m four hours overdue taking this stuff. I’d rather I didn’t need it, but it’s not an option. If there’s something I’m missing which doesn’t involve me making a miraculous return to the team, I need to know now.”
Jason was silent, impassive. The icy mask had slammed down, his face showing nothing. Except that any time he did this, it meant he needed help and couldn’t ask for it. Mark had tried everything over the years: offering to help, ordering him to talk, walking away, beating the crap out of him in the gym. The only thing which had the slightest chance of working was waiting for him to ask in his own time.
When he spoke, it was low, five days of exhaustion back in his voice. “We’re going up in two hours to run though the possible points of origin until we find the right one. Stats say we’re in a lull right now and it’s safe to leave it that long. It’s a good plan, it’ll work - I’ll show you the briefing tape - but I can’t do it with Grant running the show. Ivanov’s no experience with jump, he won’t take base control. The only other person with any relevant experience is you.”
Mark stopped in total blank disbelief. Excuse after excuse presented itself; he wasn’t fit enough, he wasn’t qualified, Grant wouldn’t have it. All perfectly valid reasons, completely overwhelmed by the knowledge that Jason didn’t make idle threats. The moment Grant signed in as base controller, communications would go off, and the team would be on their own. Two hours was nowhere near enough time to sort out their differences. He had no option but to agree.
* * * * *
All of a sudden, that base controller’s chair looked big, black and intimidating. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ part of him insisted, ‘all you have to do is make encouraging noises, forward information and not be Grant. It’s not like you or Jason pay much attention to what the base controller says anyway.’ Another part was screaming that he didn’t know the procedures or systems properly, sure Grant was backing him up but what if this was the time when speed would be crucial. And then there was the part worried that paracetamol really wasn’t strong enough at the moment, that he wasn’t going to be able to cope physically.
At least the chair had acquired a stool at the appropriate height in front of it, with what he sincerely hoped was a comfortable cushion on it. Chris Johnson had been less than impressed with the latest development. Apparently he didn’t think Mark was up to anything like this level of activity. Frankly, Mark agreed with him – he just didn’t feel he had any alternative. He’d go back to convalescence once this mission was over.
“G-2’s pushed every button you have.” Grant, seriously annoyed about being replaced, had only barely accepted the necessity of having a base controller who the acting commander of G-Force would actually talk to. “I know this isn’t the time to call him out. He’s the only one who can lead the team right now. But as soon as this mess is sorted out, we get to the bottom of it. He can’t dictate to either of us like this. Now my team’s watching from the next room. When you need us, for heaven’s sake shout.”
“Great morale-boost,” Mark heard Dave Hamilton whisper to Paula Arkwright as the door shut behind Grant’s much more senior control team. These kids definitely didn’t know enough about enhanced hearing. But Ivanov had been right to insist on his using them – he was much better off taking over Anderson’s new, young team than replacing Grant in a long-established team of three. These two knew their stuff alright or Anderson wouldn’t use them, but they hadn’t worked with him for very long. Adapting to a different senior controller would be less of a problem for them. This, then, was his team for the next few hours. They needed to know exactly where they stood with him.
“Grant’s well annoyed right now,” he stated as he eased himself into the controller’s chair. “He’d much rather it was his team in here and you two on standby.” He took a deep breath, gritted his teeth and lifted his damaged leg onto the stool. It only ached, he told himself. He’d flown missions feeling worse than this. “G-Force need you to forget Grant and just do your jobs. They’re counting on you.” Oh, great speech. He could almost see Jason rolling his eyes. “And I can hear every word you say, so lose the whispering. If you need to tell each other, I need to hear it.”
“Sorry, Commander,” Hamilton said. Arkwright looked too nervous to speak. Not good.
“One more thing. Lose the ‘Commander’ unless you need to be formal. I’ve no experience at this. I’m going to make a lot of mistakes. The last thing I need is you two thinking of me as the Eagle. Right now I’m a novice base controller taking my first mission, and my name is Mark. Paula? Dave?”
The two junior controllers glanced at each other, then both nodded. Mark guessed this wasn’t at all the way they were used to working with Anderson. Ideal – he really needed them to remember it wasn’t Anderson sitting behind them.
“Ground crews report Phoenix is ready for launch,” Paula told him.
Princess’s voice over the open radio channel. “Control, you should be getting telemetry now. Internal video on.”
In front of him, Dave was flicking switches and one by one the static on the screens resolved into streams of data. Half way through switching control’s video broadcast on, Paula suddenly turned to him. “Com…Mark, do you want to do this?”
He realised what came next, and grinned back at her. “Oh, yeah. Video on.” As the main screen came up with the image of the Phoenix’s bridge, he thumbed his mike. “Phoenix, control here, radio check.”
“Control, radio…” Princess’s voice faltered. “Mark?” He could see her glance up to the main bridge viewscreen, currently showing his own control room. “Guys, look up.”
Keyop stared, delight on his face. “You coming with us?”
“Be serious.” Tiny, also clearly startled. “Mark, it’s great to see you, but what the hell are you doing out of bed?”
“Standing in for Anderson. I’m your base controller. Actually it’s more of a sitting down job.”
Princess rounded on Jason, who was watching the team’s reaction with a degree of amused detachment. “You knew! You knew and didn’t tell us!”
Jason leaned back in his chair. “I told you I had a nice surprise planned. What do you think?”
“I think I wanted to know more than three minutes before launch.”
“So kill me later.” His tone altered in what Mark was amused to recognise as a passable imitation of himself. “Sound off.”
Mark twitched in his chair, fighting the urge to check the co-pilot’s telemetry and call in the check himself. He could see Tiny in the right seat – his seat – doing his pre-flight checks – and was ashamed to feel relief that Tiny was far less efficient at them than he knew himself to be. It seemed an age until he was satisfied. “Co-pilot.”
Pause. Tiny still completing his second set of pre-flights. Mark had taken the team up short-handed enough times to know that it really sucked. Most of the time everyone had to work a little harder, but there were times when five separate jobs needed doing and there was no way round it, somebody had to do two and everyone else had to wait.
“Control, we’re ready for launch.”
The two controllers in front of him were working smoothly; coordinating the opening of the sea doors, a clear slot though local air traffic, the uplink to the tracking system. Mark sat there and felt useless. Only one other thing he could offer, hopefully in a slightly more friendly way than had just happened to him. The bracelet would still work up to launch, he wouldn’t use radio for this.
“G-2. Be quick.”
“I meant to say this before, but I never got a chance. If you want advice, I’ll give it. But I’m not going to do a Grant on you. You’ll have to ask. Don’t wait for me to offer.” He disconnected and sat up straighter, hating the ritual he had to go through next. Base controller says something meaningful and encouraging. He couldn’t think of anything even remotely useful. He thumbed the microphone again.
“G-Force, you have a go. You know what you have to do. Good luck, and come back safe.” He clicked the mike off. Even Anderson would have thought that one was lame.
“Internal comms off,” said Paula, and the image on the main screen switched from the Phoenix bridge to the interior hanger with the sea doors completing their opening. The Phoenix itself, lifting easily, slipping out of the doors, the nose coming up and then the entire craft vanishing behind a massive cloud of turbulence as the main underwater engines fired.
“Control, all systems normal, preparing to break surface.”
“Control, main engines fired, now boosting for orbit.” Click. There would be nothing more until Phoenix hit high Earth orbit and prepared to head out to the optimal location to jump to the first suspected Spectran missile launch point.
Mark found himself struggling to breathe normally. His body knew what inevitably came after those radio messages: the huge effort required to stay alert and physically capable of taking over piloting the Phoenix should he be needed during a high-g launch. Unable to get up and pace to calm himself, Mark ruthlessly told himself that this seat was not his command chair on the Phoenix, gravity was a normal 1g, and empathising with G-Force wasn’t helping right now. He forced his breathing to slow and opened his eyes to two concerned faces.
“Mark, are you alright?”
“I’m fine. My system just knows it should be pulling six g in the Phoenix right now.”
“But you must have been grounded before – hurt, I mean.” Paula seemed to be losing some of her reticence.
Mark shook his head. “I’ve never been here, conscious, and missed a launch before.”
Hamilton suddenly switched back to full professional mode. “I have data coming in from Riga. They’ve been attacked again.”
“Pass it straight through to whoever’s in stats now. And tell comms HQ to thank Riga for their invaluable assistance.” Like they’d offered any real, practical help at all. At least Ivanov had somehow managed to get them to pass over the data on their attacks. Maybe they’d be a little more forthcoming in the future, if it turned out to have been the key which enabled them to stop the missile attacks.
* * * * *
He’d watched the tape of G-Force’s briefing before coming down here; if anything, they’d been even less charitable than him when Grant had informed them that no Rigan ships would be available to join them in attacking the point of origin due to the ongoing threat to their own planet. Statistics suggested that Riga wasn’t going to get the same twelve hour window of relief that Earth was getting, but even so the team had been decidedly unimpressed.
Tiny of all people had snapped, “They have way more firepower than we do! They think they can get us to do all the dirty work?”
Grant had opened his mouth to answer, and Jason had cut in with perfect timing. “Nah. They don’t want to be shown up when they can’t match our jump-speed.” And Princess, going out there as the sole jump-pilot on a run Mark wouldn’t have fancied at all, had smiled for the first time all briefing. In Mark’s opinion, a perfect job of encouraging his team by the G-Force acting commander. Grant didn’t appear to have even noticed.
* * * * *
As the time approached when the Phoenix should make contact again, Mark was growing decidedly impatient. “We have any results back from that Rigan data yet?”
Dave shook his head. “Nope.”
“Well, chase them! They’ve had fifteen minutes. They know it’s urgent.”
“They’ll call us as soon as…” Hamilton’s voice died away.
“Put me through to them.” Mark could hear the temper rising in his own voice, and he didn’t care. No argument from the juniors, which was just as well for them. “Stats, what are you doing down there? We need your updated predictions now, or they’ll be going down the jump-comm instead of the datalink. Do you understand what that means?”
Non-urgent dissimulation on the other end. Big mistake. “This is the Eagle, dammit! I want data in this control room in two minutes, or I come down there myself! Understood?” Click.
One minute and forty-eight seconds later, Hamilton’s console beeped. “Mark, we have the predictions through from stats. That was quick!”
“That was unacceptable.” Mark was still fuming, only slightly mollified by them having delivered within his time-limit. “I think it’s time someone explained to them exactly how hard it is to transmit raw data down the jump-comm. Tell me Anderson wouldn’t have let them get away with it.”
“He’d have waited until five minutes before the jump and then yelled at them.” Paula gave him a look that was pure gratitude – she’d have been the one reading figures down the jump-comm. “I reckon you got a quicker response, though.”
“I’m scarier than he is. At least my reputation is. Just as well it wasn’t on video.” Mark leaned back, feeling better now the information was available. He wouldn’t transmit it until the launch phase was over – there was nothing worse than getting data during launch, struggling to read the screen at high g, and discovering there was nothing which couldn’t have waited five minutes. “So what changes do you recommend to the search pattern?”
Paula’s face switched to ‘who…me?’ so quickly it was patent that Anderson didn’t ask his junior officers’ opinions too often. No surprises there.
“Well…” Dave Hamilton was more experienced and had worked with both Grant and Ivanov before. He knew how to think out loud when asked for an opinion he didn’t have. “There’s an extra point above the threshold for consideration, but it’s only just. I wouldn’t worry about it yet.”
“And the order of the targets? Paula?”
“I…it’s changed, but not by much. Not enough to be worth altering the pattern. But I’m not sure.”
“I agree. I don’t think it’s significant enough to warrant changing a plan that’s been worked out in detail. So what do we do?”
Hamilton frowned. “We tell them to go with the original plan, and update them with the extra information if it draws a blank?”
Mark winced. “I can tell you’ve worked with Major Grant. What would Anderson do, Paula?”
“He’d say all that but send the data as well.”
“Dead right. I’d still like to be on speaking terms with G-2 after this, though. We’ll send the data and a recommendation that it’s close enough to the original that they don’t need to change anything.” Subtly different wording, that was all, but being given information was so very different to being told what to do.
“Control, launch phase complete.” Right on time, confirmation from the Phoenix. Mark couldn’t believe that they routinely pulled high g for this long, that the interminable length of time since the last contact was a perfectly standard, by the book launch profile. On board, it always seemed to go so quickly, the reports to control going out one after another. This time it was taking forever.
“Send the data, and message as we discussed.” Mark waved off Paula’s attempt to offer him the comm.
“Phoenix, we have new data based on Rigan attack, uploading now.”
“Control, give us the bottom line, we’re short on time here.”
Paula swallowed hard. “One extra potential point at low probability. The weighting’s altered a bit, we’re not advising changes.”
Mark took his hand off the override switch. He couldn’t have thought of a better way to put it. Now, if only he could instil similar tact in Grant’s communications technician.
“Control, we’ll go with that. Heading to first jump-point.”
And another twenty minutes of what should have been sheer tedium, watching perfectly standard telemetry scroll past as the Phoenix streaked its way to their usual jump-point. Up there would be the usual relaxed interactions of a team totally familiar with each other and their jobs: casual conversation which would stop the instant anything even slightly non-standard happened, possibly a few minutes rest for a couple of the overstretched crew, making sure everything was ready for jump. He knew this was how they would be feeling, how he would be feeling too. So why was he sitting here in silence, eyes straining at the screens, expecting something to go wrong any moment?
Midway through it, he jumped a mile as Grant arrived, bearing of all things coffee all round. Grant took one look at his face and laughed out loud. “I take it you don’t get coffee up there?”
“What, ten minutes before jump? You have any idea what jump does to you if your blood chemistry’s wrong? Water if we’re desperate. Jump’s much better on an empty stomach.”
Grant handed him a steaming mug. “We have no such considerations. Enjoy it while you can. Backup controller makes coffee.” He lowered his voice to exclude the other two. “And you can lay off the heavy hints you’re making to my junior officers. I didn’t withhold information from G-2, and I didn’t give him orders. We clash – we always have – but I don’t know what he took particular offence at this time. Or why he’s so sensitive when he’s in command. When this is over he and I can sit down in front of the mission tapes and thrash it out. I appreciate your concerns, but don’t undermine my authority.”
Mark hid his embarrassment behind the coffee mug. So much for subtlety. “All I know is that you two are going to have to work together. If you can sort it yourselves, perfect. Just so long as I don’t end up in this chair again.”
“Well, I’m certainly not having you as backup controller for a while,” Grant’s voice was back to its normal volume. “I don’t believe even you can manage a smashed leg, two crutches and a tray of mugs.”
“Probably not.” Mark checked the telemetry again. All normal. “I do have a question though – how the hell do you stay calm? I’m climbing the walls here and there’s nothing happening.”
Grant raised his eyebrows. “You face down half the Spectran army on a regular basis and watching a standard launch has you on edge? Congratulations – you’re only human after all. We all hate it. It’s horrible watching the team go out when there’s nothing you can do to help. It’s worse when you try to help and it’s considered interference.”
Now who’s dropping heavy hints, Mark thought as he unnecessarily scanned the entirely unremarkable telemetry data yet again. Grant was proving to be rather more reasonable than he’d given him credit for, and hopefully once the current crisis was over he and Jason could indeed sort things out. He was rather more optimistic about it than he had been an hour ago, at least.
“Control, we are approaching jump coordinates. Radio to G-2 until jump.”
“Confirmed.” Paula sounded surprised, but Mark thought that it made a lot of sense. Princess was about to jump them into a potential enemy stronghold. Even at her best, this jump would be long and unpleasant. The less she had to worry about in the lead-up to it, the better.
“Control, we’re ready for jump.” Jason’s voice, sounding utterly calm. Artificially calm, in Mark’s opinion. He hoped Princess was too busy to notice. “Full data dump now. Speak to you on the other side.” Accidentally or not, Jason had left the radio channel open – Mark could hear him calling solutions to Princess, then, dimly, her “Stand by…jump!” and abruptly every telemetry screen filled with static. They were away. Until the computer finished with the jump calculations, there was no way to tell how long it would take, or even if they would emerge at the right point. Mark had once gone with the rest of G-Force to a presentation on the theoretical possible outcomes of a serious mistake by jump-pilot or calculator. They’d all come out white, shaking, and none of them had ever mentioned it again.
“G-2 really reads the values out to you?” Dave asked in surprise. “Isn’t that error-prone?”
“No, that’s our cross-check. If the numbers on the screen don’t match what he says, we abort and go round again.” The computer beeped at him to say it had its answer, several minutes after the Phoenix had jumped based on Jason’s mental solution of the same problem. He pulled up its proposed solutions on the main monitor, confirming that they corresponded with what he’d heard Jason call to Princess. “That’s not bad. That’s not bad at all. Twelve minute jump, something like that.”
“This says seven?”
“It can’t – damn.” It hadn’t even occurred to him that the personnel data would be wrong, but of course they hadn’t run a jump mission since he was hurt. He should have changed the files over before they’d even launched. “That estimate’s based on me at the controls.”
“Does…” Paula stopped, then tried again. “They told us jump really screws with you physically. If she makes the same jump but it takes her that much longer, what does that mean?”
Oh, hell. He was going to have to explain this to them. He was having enough trouble dealing with it himself, and now he had to put it into words. She was quite right. They were going through an extra five minutes of misery out there because he wasn’t at the controls. On this jump, and the next, and the next.
“A less accurate jump is worse, and it’s worse for longer.” He swallowed hard. “It hits you both ways. Bad jumps are horrible. They may have to take five of them today.”
Crackling fizz over the jump-comm. “…here…next…”
Mark jumped straight up. “Nine minutes – way to go Princess, ow…” He sat down a lot more carefully, wrapped both hands round his lower leg just above the pins, and barely managed not to groan. That had hurt a lot – he’d managed to jar his leg badly enough that every wire and pin holding it together felt red-hot.
“There’s nothing there at all,” Paula reported, having made words from the incomprehensible static. “They’re going on to the next objective.”
“Confirm we have no new data,” Mark forced himself to say evenly. The pain was receding. Thankfully he didn’t seem to have done any damage, but he really needed to remember not to do that again.
“They’re approaching jump-coordinates.”
Mark could barely recognise that there was a voice in the transmission at all, and while hardly his speciality, he did get to hear a lot of jump-comm traffic. He was impressed that Paula had made sense of that one without having to resort to the filter and enhancer programs.
“They should be taking a break first.” Mark had forgotten Grant was still there, and he wasn’t prepared to deal with it now. He signed ‘silence’ automatically, and only then wondered whether Grant would even understand it.
Another crackle which Mark just about decoded as the final message before jump. No handing over to Jason this time – only Princess could operate the jump-comm. There’d be no data, no information until they came out the other side. And without the initial telemetry, no way to tell how long that would be.
“You should have suggested they hold. Two jumps back to back…” Grant’s voice tailed off as Mark fixed him with a furious glare.
Mark hated this job. He didn’t feel he’d done anything of use for the team at all. He hated not knowing what was happening. He hated being on the other end of incomprehensible communications. And most of all he hated being in this chair, nervous about giving inappropriate advice, instead of in his command chair on the Phoenix in total control of the situation. He was sore, worried, and desperately frustrated. Grant putting into words something he was concerned about himself was the final straw.
“It’s not your call, Major! It’s not my call either. The only person qualified to even give an opinion on whether his team is up for it right now is G-2. His team’s exhausted and running on adrenaline. He’s there. You and I are not. And in the future you will keep such uninformed opinions strictly to yourself. Am I clear?”
Grant’s “Yes, Commander,” was very obviously a reflex response. The rapid footsteps across the control room and the door shutting just short of a slam betrayed his true feelings rather better.
Mark just dropped his head into his hands and cursed silently, furious with himself. He’d agreed to take Grant’s place to make things easier for Jason, and he’d started to feel there was a chance for him to reconcile the two of them. Grant had made one suggestion he didn’t agree with – not even that – he agreed, but didn’t feel it should be put to the team, and he’d completely lost his temper. In front of two junior officers. He was so not cut out for this job.
He could see the two in front of him exchanging increasingly worried glances as the minutes ticked by. Logistics continued to talk to the other departments, coordinating anything and everything which might be required at short notice. Communications remained stubbornly silent, Mark equally so, watching the empty screens, willing the comm to activate. He tried to reconstruct previous missions, jumps of this length, and persuade himself that there was no need to worry yet. It wasn’t working. Mark remembered only too well the truly awful experience that had been their longest ever jump, and they were coming up on that time fast. Very shortly, they’d be officially missing. He simply didn’t know what needed to be done in the situation where G-Force didn’t report in. He had to hand control to Grant.
Static on the comm. Mark’s hand froze over the control panel. Nothing he could make out as words or phrases, or even a voice, but static meant the channel was open from the other end. They were out of jump. Then silence.
In front of him, Paula stiffened, listening to the raw communication, then immediately went to work at her console, headphones on. She paused, listened briefly, her expression tightened and she went back to the program. Two repetitions later she turned to Mark. “Commander, I’m sorry, you need Grant’s comm-tech in here.”
Mark reached for his mike again, and stopped. In his mind’s eye was Princess six months ago, glowing about the brilliant young comm-tech she’d been working with that day.
“Patch it through to her in the other room. You stay right there.” He waited until she’d obeyed, then struggled to his feet and made his way forward. Princess had rated Arkwright highly enough to fight for her to be put on Anderson’s team straight out of ISO training, ahead of far more experienced candidates. If Princess said she was the best person to take Communications, then she was. He could encourage her and still have the senior tech in the back room work on it without losing any time.
“You can do this. Now, you’ve refined it four times. You got anything from it at all?”
She shook her head miserably.
“So there’s something wrong with the connection. Tell them. Right now they’re sitting wondering why we haven’t answered.”
Nod. “Phoenix, we have a bad connection, say again please.”
More indistinguishable crackling. Paula shook her head again and went back to the filter program.
“Hold on,” Dave put in. “Does that mean they can understand us, or are you two spitting ‘say again’ back at each other?”
Paula looked up. “That sort of problem’s a function of the message path, theirs must be just as bad as ours. Princess is way better than me, but that’s so awful I don’t think even she could understand it without filtering. And she didn’t have time to filter. So she sent the original message back again…oh, hold on, I have an idea.” She swung back to her console, opened a channel, and calmly recited, “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow.”
Click. Channel closed. A couple of seconds pause, then she opened the channel again and spoke the same line, same intonation. Just a hint more strain in her voice.
“What the hell?” Hamilton started. Paula’s hand came up sharply in a demand for silence, and he stopped dead. She repeated her mantra three more times, each time closing and reopening the connection, then sagged back in her chair, rubbing her temples.
“And now?” Mark asked.
“Now we hope I’m remembering right that Princess was at a particular lecture the interplanetary comms guys gave last year, and she thinks the same way I do.”
“They demonstrated that if you have several versions of the same content it’s easier to clean up. Normally you don’t care. But if she realises I sent the same test message five times, hopefully she’ll do the same with her real message and my filter program’ll have enough to work with.”
“And the rhyme?”
“Is what they used to demonstrate. It’s a good choice for test transmission, for lots of boring technical reasons you don’t want to know. If Princess gets a couple of words, or maybe just the phrasing, I’m hoping she’ll know what it is.”
“I think she might.” Mark patted her shoulder. “Good work.” He limped back to his chair and opened a channel to Grant’s team. “Anything?...Let me know if you do.” He closed the channel and spoke to his own team. “Grant’s team will keep going with the standard filters. They don’t have anything yet.”
“Can I ask a stupid question?” Dave put in. “Why not record it once and send exactly the same thing five times?”
“For the same reason we couldn’t have sent that Rigan data. Because it doesn’t work. I can only send my own voice, live. Solve that one and you can name your price. And put me out of a job.”
* * * * *
Ten minutes of silence later and Paula looked stricken. “It hasn’t worked. I’m sorry. I don’t have anything else.”
“Don’t give up yet.” Mark actually felt better now than he had done during the rest of the mission. Relying on Princess to do her job was something he did day in, day out. “They have to get their message exactly the same every time, right? She’ll be writing it out and practising it first.”
As if on cue, the comm came alive. A much longer burst this time, definitely more than a standard callphrase. Silence, then more static. Every eye in the room was on the chronometer, counting seconds.
Five long segments of communication, all the same length, and this time the comm stayed silent.
“Ok, Paula. What do you need?”
Paula was already working. “I’m going to superpose them in pairs, filter each pair as far as possible, then pair up the results and do it all again in all possible combinations. It’ll take me a while.”
Far more information than he needed, but she was still learning. “So, help and computer time. Get working. Dave, any spare capacity you have, get it processing Paula’s stuff.” Mark hit his comm to talk to Grant again. “We have something. Can you and your team come in here?”
“Neat,” was the senior comm-tech’s comment. “Dump everything next door including your combination algorithm and I’ll use a different one.” She left at a run.
“It’s going to be slow,” Grant commented.
“I’m aware of that. At this point all I’m hoping for is info on what they’ve found. If they’ve found nothing, I’m expecting more messages from another location before we’ve decoded this lot. Hopefully down a clearer link.” He took a deep breath. “I can use any suggestions you’ve got. I’ll listen this time.”
Grant shook his head. “I’ve got nothing right now.”
And Paula sat straight up in her chair. “It’s working!”
‘Working’ at this stage apparently meant a slightly different set of crackling. Mark could hear that the two weren’t the same, but not which was better. Paula was ecstatic, and while there were no words in the decode yet, both she and Marisa in the secondary control room had phrases tentatively laid out. They were even more or less the same. It was a minor victory, Mark supposed. He didn’t have the heart to remind them that by now either the team would have found nothing and headed on to a third location, or would be attacking the Spectran installation.
* * * * *
The clock ground on, impossibly slowly. Mark ordered that each of the juniors take a break, and they in turn insisted that he did the same.
“You need to stretch your legs,” Dave told him, and instantly realised what he’d said. “Oops – wrong choice of words.”
“Right now I’d kill to be able to stretch this one.” Mark struggled to upright and forced himself to put his right foot on the floor. God, that hurt. He’d been assured that he could put as much weight on it as he wanted, that this would encourage healing. Right now, he wanted no weight on it at all, and a full dose of strong painkillers. He settled for no weight and no painkillers, and hobbled out on two crutches and one foot.
He came back in to real words on the decrypt screen. Nowhere near all of them, but enough. ‘Correct location. Too big….missile….headed…infil….while.’
Paula finished typing ‘infiltration’ and stared at him. “I’ll keep going, but I think I know what it says.”
Mark found himself back in the chair with no clear memory of getting there. They’d found their target. They couldn’t take it out from the Phoenix. Jason would be leading a team of three to infiltrate and blow it up. They’d gone an hour ago. They could be captured or dead and he wouldn’t even know. He couldn’t handle this.
“You’ve seen the decode? Can we get Riga involved now we have definite coordinates? We have to do something.”
“Commander? That suggestion you wanted? Let G-2 do his job.”
* * * * *
After that, Mark just sat there and watched the clock. The gaps in the message continued to fill, but not in a way that provided reassurance. In any case there was nothing he could do. His entire usefulness to this mission had consisted of nursemaiding a nervous junior controller into decoding a message which was too late to be of any help.
The Spectran mecha, it turned out as more of the message was decoded, wasn’t a mecha at all. It was a huge base in the form of a two-headed snake curled round and through a natural asteroid, presumably with one head set to fire at each of Earth and Riga. They’d determined it was too big to blow up effectively with missiles, and had decided to infiltrate and sabotage the huge power source such a large installation must have.
This all sounded logical enough. And Mark knew exactly what he’d have recommended: send Princess in to locate and rig the power source to blow, have Jason and Keyop spread their separate and very obvious havoc in two entirely different locations to keep the troops busy.
Jason wouldn’t have done that. Jason never, ever sent anyone except himself out alone. The only option he would even consider was to pair Princess and Keyop to hit the power source and run distraction himself. Jason, even all alone, could be one hell of a distraction, but Mark just hoped it would be enough. From the description this mecha was huge. That suggested a lot of troops. And it would be obvious even to the dullest Spectran commander that all the mayhem was occurring at one location.
* * * * *
And the clock ticked on in silence. Four hours and more since the message to say they were infiltrating had been sent. Not normally an over-long time for a base infiltration, but an age to keep going on the ragged edge of exhaustion, a man short, and at the end of a long, long jump. Grant had some while back called to say – he hadn’t even bothered to pretend to ask – that he was arranging for coordinates and description to be sent to Riga. The Rigans were still under frequent bombardment, not just the occasional missile Earth had been getting, but the analysts thought they might get their own lull in about twelve hours. By then, Earth would have taken another two missiles, and the forces available to stop them were, in Mark’s opinion, unlikely to succeed. Why was he the only one here who felt as if he was staring down the barrel of a gun, as if they’d lost everything?
“Because we never know what’s going on.” Dave Hamilton had considered his answer for a while when, unable to bear it any longer, Mark had been forced to ask how they could continue to function normally. “We do this two, three times a month. We never know if this is the time you won’t come back. We just have faith that you will.”
Back to silence. Mark knew he, of all people, should have faith in his team. He did – that they could do their own jobs. He was having a horrendous time trying to do Anderson’s. He desperately hoped that Jason was having a better time doing his.
“Control, target destroyed.” Princess’s voice, on the radio. Real radio, not the crackle of jump-comm. Telemetry screens coming to life, on by one.
“Control, do you copy?”
front of him he could hear Paula responding, asking the standard questions, and
was vaguely aware of a report of no damage and no injuries. He just dropped his
head into his hands and shook. They’d destroyed the target. They’d completed the
jump back. Just a transit flight, a landing, and they’d be home. It was over.
For the controllers, just another day at the office.
“Doing two totally separate drops instead of one was brilliant! Totally insane, but brilliant. I mean, who’d run an infiltration with a team of one and no backup within a mile? I wouldn’t.”
Jason grinned. “They think you did.”
“Even Spectra notice patterns. Like who you pair, and it’s never the Swallow and the Swan. So when they see very obvious red and yellow…”
“and mysterious glimpses of white wings emerging from the shadows,” put in Princess, mischief in her tone.
“..they scatter, shouting ‘Eagle! Run!’” Keyop completed, looking very pleased with himself.
“In other words, they have no idea you’re hurt. And since Keyop and I were setting charges on random doors we passed, and were remote-detonating each other’s whenever we needed to draw the troops off, they probably think we had all five of us in there.”
“You were doing what? That’s nuts!”
“Yeah, we just played Russian Roulette and hoped we only detonated ones we’d already laid…Idiot. We numbered them beforehand, laid them in order and pinged each other every time a new one was set.”
Mark raised his eyebrows. “I don’t remember that being mentioned at the debriefing.”
“Like you always tell Anderson when you do something unorthodox.” Jason’s eyes flashed.
“I’ll make you a deal. I won’t tell anyone, provided I get to use it sometime.”
Jason looked at the floor without saying a word, but Mark got the distinct feeling that just for once he’d said the right thing.
Princess carried on enthusiastically. “So we fought our way out and blew the place to hell. That was one big explosion. I’ve never blown up a whole asteroid before. They won’t be putting anything else on that particular stable jump-point for a while, that’s for sure.”
“There’s so much dust round there now, no-one’s ever going to be able to calculate a jump-solution there again.”
“On an entirely different note,” Tiny put in, “you have any news on when you get to lose the metalwork?”
Mark sighed. He’d managed to forget about it for at least ten minutes. “All they’ll say is ‘not yet’. People can be in these things for months.”
“People who don’t have cerebonic implants. You are still sleeping fourteen hours a day, right? Where do you think that energy’s going?”
Mark made himself relax again. Tiny had a point. Anyone else with his injuries would be in far worse shape than he was. He could put up with the inconvenience for a while longer. A week or so. Longer than that and he’d be climbing the walls again.
“Tell you what,” Tiny added, presumably seeing the look on his face, “give it a fortnight and I’ll bring you a nice big pair of pliers myself.”
Princess’s look changed to complete horror. “Pliers – Tiny, don’t encourage him, please!”
Mark exchanged an amused look with the big pilot, clearly the only one who knew anything about this form of orthopaedic treatment. “How did you think they’ll get this stuff out of my leg?”
“I imagine they’ll put you under and operate…” Princess’s voice trailed off at the broad grin her commander was wearing, “…and you’re serious, aren’t you. They pull those wires out right through your leg? Ew.”
“There’s a reason everything’s external. Once I’m mended, they undo all the bolts, pull the wires out and basically that’s me back in training.”
Jason looked up again. “And till then, you’ll fill in for Anderson, right?”
Mark took a deep breath, locked eyes with his second-in-command and shook his head. He’d learnt a lot about base control – mostly that he wasn’t cut out for it. “Grant’s a good base controller. He knows what he’s doing. His wording sucks, but that’s something you have to deal with. Now he’s ready to talk through the problems you two have had. I’ll help, but I won’t take his job. I was a joke, Jason. I couldn’t cope. Grant rescued me from making a complete fool of myself. He deserves better.”
Jason looked unconvinced, but Mark did at least seem to have persuaded him he was serious. “No promises. But I guess I can talk to him. Hopefully we won’t have to test it anyway.”
It was just possible, Mark supposed. He might conceivably be back on the team inside a month. They’d taken out a serious assault on both themselves and Riga – they might get that long before the next Spectran attack. In the same sort of timescale, Anderson should be back. There was only one certainty: he was never taking that base controller’s chair again.
Story © Catherine Rees Lay, September 2004.