Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank Productions. I've borrowed it for fun, not profit.
Thanks to my husband for beta-reading.
After twenty minutes of waiting, it became obvious that Jason had blown off the training session yet again.
Anderson's frustration was palpable. "Does either of you know where he is?"
Tiny and I looked at each other and shook our heads.
"I want him here this afternoon. G-3, I'm making this your responsibility. If he wants this job, he comes to practise. Clear?"
* * * * *
"How the hell am I going to get him to come?" I grumbled as we abandoned the session. "Half the time he won't even speak to me. No way can I make him show up if he doesn't want to."
"Tell him it's a weapons test," Tiny suggested. "He'll come."
* * * * *
In fact I'd not been entirely honest with Anderson. I was reasonably sure I could guess where Jason was. Since our return from Mars, he'd spent increasingly long periods of time alone, on the clifftop overlooking the Phoenix launch bay. He wouldn't talk about what had happened, wouldn't use my name or Tony's. He'd only call us by Don's nicknames for us, and we'd pretty much given up using anything else. At least this way he'd talk to us occasionally.
It was three months since we'd returned from Mars without our second-in-command. We'd left Don dead under the rubble of Mars base, buried along with its twenty-five staff and jump-pilot Adam Tring. They'd been killed in an unprovoked attack by an alien ship, which we'd barely managed to destroy.
Not bad for a rookie crew in an unarmed exploration ship, you might think. That wasn't what the investigation had said. Senior ISO and military officials had torn apart our mission tapes, spent hours analysing every word, every action, and apportioned blame.
It was all Jason's fault, apparently. He'd failed to realise that the damage to the Mars base dome could only have come from an externally fired missile. He'd not put together the clues that a third party was involved. And he'd failed to prevent the alien vessel from firing again, turning the whole area into a smoking crater. Quite how he should have recognised the first, or accomplished the third, were unspecified. The second had destroyed him. He'd made a mistake, and his best friend was dead.
I was sure that if they'd let him walk out at that point, he would have done so. However, we were now facing intelligent, hostile alien life, and Jason was the man who against all odds had destroyed the attacking ship. Anderson's desk now sported a new red telephone, and I'd watched enough films to know what that meant. They expected attack at any time, and we were the only ones with any chance of defeating it. Three of us and one ship, against an enemy who spoke our language, but whose name we didn't even know.
Next time, at least we'd be armed. They'd analysed the trick Jason had pulled with the jump-drive and come up with some truly terrifying statistics. One chance in five of the jump-field failing every chance we ejected something through it. Certain annihilation if the other ship had cycled their own jump-engine. The engineers were working on a variant, less prone to instant disaster, but we wouldn't be flying straight through another jump-ship again. We were getting other, more conventional, weapons, too. The only time Jason was anything like his old self now was in weapons practice. Either simulated ship-on-ship combat, or hand-to-hand. Standard martial arts hadn't saved Don - what we were being taught now was a whole lot nastier, and Jason had taken to it with a glint in his eyes that frankly scared me. Those sessions he didn't skip, ever.
* * * * *
Before I was half way out to the top of the cliff I knew I'd been right. A solitary figure stood silhouetted against the sky, one hand on the newly erected stone pillar. ISO's memorial to those who had died on Mars: the base's staff, Adam Tring, Donald Wade. And Kate Harmon.
* * * * *
I'd known from the moment they'd told us that G-Force was now a combat unit that the two halves of my life had become incompatible. At sixteen I was too young to enter the military without parental permission. And G-Force needed me - they had nobody else capable of operating the jump-comm.
I'd slept on it. Sought desperately for an alternative, anything which would allow me to stay where I was needed without having to tell my father exactly what I was doing. The forms were unequivocal, and Dad wasn't stupid. He'd have known he was signing me to a front-line combat team, and he would never, ever have done it.
The following morning I'd gone to Anderson in tears and laid out my solution. It was a mark of how desperate they were that he'd accepted. The records were altered. Adam Tring had taken a passenger to Mars, and there Kate Harmon had died with all the rest. Officially the dome had exploded in a terrible accident. There had been a memorial service. My parents had come - so much for their long-anticipated first trip to the States - as had Don's father. His mother, already unwell, hadn't even been told the truth. Tiny had been there. Jason had refused to go. I'd shut myself in my room and howled. It had been the hardest struggle of my life not to run out to the black-clad group on the headland, throw my arms around my father and pour out the whole story. I'd stayed where I was, and once they'd all gone I'd paid my own respects at the stone. To a certain extent, Kate really had died on Mars. I was Princess now.
"Go away." Jason was in a communicative mood, then.
"I can't. Anderson sent me."
"So? Run back to him like a good little girl and tell him I was mean to you."
I gritted my teeth. Jason might not have talked to the psychiatrists, but I had. Lashing out in anger was common, apparently. Someone doing it needed help, support, and friendship. I was doing my best, no matter how hard Jason was making it for me.
"We have a weapons session this afternoon. Jason - you have to start coming to the flight training. He will cut you. Really he will. You don't want that any more than I do."
"Maybe I don't give a damn." He hadn't looked at me yet. "Maybe I'm looking for a way out."
"If you are, it's working." Arguing with him in this mood was pointless. "If you really do want out, don't show up later."
* * * * *
He showed. I hadn't had any doubts about it. I was trying not to think about what he would do if this turned out to have nothing to do with weapons. Recently Jason had shown himself the owner of a blazing temper I'd only guessed at before Mars.
It was indeed a weapons practise, for about ten minutes. Abruptly, Anderson came into the simulator, and all the screens went blank.
"Condor, with me, please. You two, to the gym."
Jason turned a single furious glare at me as he allowed Anderson to shepherd him out. And I had a horrible suspicion I knew where Anderson was taking him. There was a pattern to the sessions he'd been missing, a pattern I didn't like at all.
* * * * *
I did need the practise Anderson had reallocated me to, desperately. Whoever had assessed my physical potential had assigned me the most unlikely-looking personal weapon I'd ever seen.
It looked like a yo-yo. To all intents and purposes, it was. I wanted a gun like they'd given Jason, dammit, not a natty explosive charge on the end of a piece of garrotte wire.
They'd pulled up the statistics from my physical assessment and rapidly disabused me of my ability to handle a projectile weapon. If a sniper was required, that would be different, but in hand-to-hand a rifle would be useless and they assured me I was ideally suited to the yo-yo. Always assuming I could learn to wield it without tying the cord in a knot round one or both of my own wrists. I was improving, but I needed every minute of practise I could get.
If you practise seriously, with all your concentration, you lose track of time. Everything vanishes except you, your technique, and your goal. I was well into that stage when my bracelet pinged.
"G-3, do you know where Security Chief Anderson is?"
"He's with G-1."
"G-1's not answering either. We have someone Anderson needs to see at reception."
I sighed. "Give me five minutes. I have an idea where they are."
* * * * *
I wanted to be wrong. I wanted for Anderson to be in his office with the phone off the hook giving Jason hell for his attitude. I didn't believe it enough to even check there first. I headed straight for the simulator room. Three walls of consoles for fast jets, trainers, larger craft and the Phoenix itself. On the fourth, the jump-drive console, and the potential-tester we'd encountered at the initial training camp but hadn't touched in the eighteen months since we'd been implanted.
"Do not disturb" on the door. I thought about it, and walked in anyway. Both men jumped to their feet.
"G-3, there's a very clear sign outside. This had better be important." Anderson sounded as angry as he'd ever been with me.
"I'm sorry, Chief. Apparently there's someone you need to see at reception. They asked me to find you."
Anderson growled with annoyance and stalked to the room's communicator. "Anderson. Can't anyone else handle this? Oh…Oh, I see. On my way." He barely glanced at Jason as he headed for the door. "Take a break, Condor. We'll come back to this."
I was following Anderson out, hoping to escape Jason's fury, but what he actually said was so unexpected it stopped me in my tracks.
"When did you figure it out?"
No anger. No ice. Just raw unhappiness. The closest to an emotion other than rage I'd heard from him in three months.
"It's the training involving jump you've been skipping. I knew something was wrong when you had me jump us back from Mars, but this lunchtime was the first time I realised you haven't made even a simulated jump since. Not on an official session."
"Not at all." He sat back down in the jump-simulator chair, the picture of misery. "It's like the implant isn't there. The old potential-tester works the same it ever did. This one - nothing. They did a million tests, and the implant's fine. It's all in my head. Which in Anderson's book means I just need to try harder."
He clearly expected a response. I had no idea what to say, but I had to keep him talking. "Anderson thinks you're doing it deliberately?"
He shrugged. "Who knows? All I know is that Anderson hasn't called me G-1 in a month. I'm effectively not a jump-pilot any more. Goodness knows they don't think much of me as a commander. We came out of jump over Mars and I thought, this is it, I've got everything I wanted, we're going to the stars. Three hours later I had nothing."
"Did you talk to the psych guys?"
"I did. They were useless. The drugs they'd give me would rule me out for jump, and they're not the sort you take for a while and then stop when you get better. They're calling it post-traumatic stress disorder now it's been three months. That means it won't just go away. I'm completely screwed. Anderson wants me to just go back to how I was before. I want it - hell, I can see you do too. I can't do it, Princess. It's over. I had my miracle when we didn't blow up over Mars."
I gulped, feeling hopelessly out of my depth. "Jason - this is what you need to tell the psychs. Not the practical stuff about implants and jump. They can help you."
"They have no idea. They've never been there." He dismissed them with a sneer.
I could feel the walls coming back between us, and had no idea how to keep them at bay. I made one last attempt to get back in. "We were there - Tiny and me. You can talk to us."
I might as well not have spoken. The icy detachment was back in force. "Yeah. Whatever."
* * * * *
Things hadn't improved three days later. We hadn't so much as seen Anderson, which meant no flight training, and endless repetitions in the gym were, well, repetitive. Hour on hour of training was doubtless very good for our fitness levels, but frankly it was boring. Boring enough that by common consent we'd taken an unscheduled break and were sitting in a row on the bench throwing shuriken into the noticeboard. Tiny and I were attempting to hit one another's previous attempts, while Jason was amusing himself laying out an evenly spaced grid, each shuriken perfectly spaced and rotated ten degrees more than its predecessor. We all jumped a mile when our bracelets sounded simultaneously, and Jason's final shuriken landed a good half an inch from where it should have been.
"Condor," he said into the bracelet, and I was forced to wonder how long it had been since he'd even called himself G-1.
"I want all of you in briefing room 3 immediately," Anderson said, and the transmission cut off.
"If he chews us out for quitting on those damned strength and flexibility exercises, I'll scream," Tiny observed as we headed off.
"Didn't sound like that to me," Jason offered. "He'd have come up and yelled at us for that."
"I don't think he's even been assigning our training this week," I added. "With Anderson you never know what you'll get. The only thing you can predict is that it's unpredictable. Last three days; gym, gym, gym."
"Well, you could say that being predictable would be unpredictable for someone who's unpredictable…" Tiny stopped, then tried again. "If you're unpredictable, it's predictable that you'll be unpredictable…"
"I'd quit while you're behind, big guy," Jason told him. "We know what you mean."
Not much of a joke, but he was trying. He was involved. It wasn't all lost.
* * * * *
Rather to our surprise, Anderson wasn't alone in the briefing room. I'd never seen the greying, serious-faced man sharing the table with him, and to judge by their expressions, neither had my team-mates.
"G-Force, I'd like you to meet Colonel Ivanov, from ISO's Russian branch," Anderson said as we sat down. He didn't sound altogether happy. "ISO Russia have been carrying out some parallel research to ours, but we are now going to merge the two programs."
"Parallel research?" Tiny queried. "Paralleling what?"
Ivanov replied, in good, if accented English. "We have also been recruiting potential candidates for a jump team. We have cerebonic implant technology - more advanced than yours, I believe - and we were fortunate to acquire the birdstyle technology from our friends in your R and D department."
Tiny stared. Jason said, "You mean you stole it."
Ivanov's chin came up. "You are aware of the significance of the I in ISO, I take it? We are all part of the same organisation. Its discoveries are not for one country alone. I would have thought that you, a non-US citizen, would have appreciated that."
Jason opened his mouth to retort, but Anderson was quicker. "Colonel Ivanov has come to offer us everything ISO Russia has discovered. And they have information on the ship that attacked Mars base."
"Now hold on just a minute." Anger boiled in Jason's eyes. "They knew - and left Mars base defenceless? Let us go out unarmed? And you're talking to this guy?"
"Jason." Anderson's tone radiated 'slow down'. "There's much, much more going on here than we can explain in five minutes. For now, please accept that at the time they did not know. Now, the colonel has offered us full access to his research program. That would include personnel. Right now, your team is one, if not two men short. Colonel, perhaps you would ask your students to join us."
Ivanov spoke into a communicator uncannily like Anderson's, and as the door opened we all turned to look.
Two young men entered. The first barely deserved the description. A faintly Oriental look to his features, he was considerably shorter than me, and had to be a lot younger. The other one…
I'd spent years being 'one of the guys'. Even before I came to ISO, much of what I was interested in was male-dominated. These days I was so used to being the only girl that I only even thought about it when some new instructor tried to treat me differently from my team-mates. None of us stood for it, and they either stopped very quickly or were replaced. My team-mates were simply close friends, close enough to be family. Certainly I'd not so much as considered romantic involvement with any of them, and I was pretty sure it was mutual.
So it was rather a shock when I looked at Ivanov's second student and my brain turned to mush.
He was stunningly, astonishingly good-looking. Jason's age, give or take, a little shorter and a little broader-shouldered. That same physique, slim rather than heavily muscled but clearly super-fit. Dark hair down to his collar. And the bluest eyes I'd ever seen.
Tiny kicked me in the shin. "Quit drooling," he whispered in my ear. "He probably snores."
I didn't care if he did snore. I just wanted him to notice me. Fortunately Anderson's voice re-engaged my brain, and I glared at Tiny as I rubbed my leg.
"Perhaps you would do the introductions, Jason."
Jason stood up in one fluid movement, and for the first time in three months everything in his poise screamed 'leader'.
"This is Tiny Harper, the Owl. He's our pilot. Princess is the Swan, she's the communications technician. And I'm Jason Alouita, the Condor. I command G-Force."
The dark-haired young man met the challenge in Jason's gaze without flinching. "This is Keyop, who is a technical specialist. We call him the Swallow. My name is Mark Jarrald. I'm a pilot and jump-pilot, and my codename is Eagle."
I didn't know what I'd expected, but it wasn't fluent English with a mid-Atlantic accent and only the barest hint that this might not be his first language.
Ivanov turned to Anderson. "Marek insisted on using the Anglicised version of his name. You should know that legally he is Marek Jaruzelski." He didn't sound impressed.
Anderson frowned. "Hold on…" He turned to Marek-Mark. "You're not Sarah Jarrald's son?"
The young man nodded. "I am. You knew her?"
"I worked with her. I knew she'd married a Polish fighter pilot and moved out there, but that must have been twenty years ago. How is she?"
Mark's face hardened. "She died many years ago. My father is posted as missing. Colonel Ivanov brought me up, at ISO Russia."
"I'm sorry to hear of her death." Anderson appeared to be sizing him up. "You're a jump-pilot?"
"I am." Just a simple statement of fact, but Anderson favoured him with the sort of smile he normally reserved for Jason's most impressive performances.
"So. You wanted a demonstration of how we have used the implants?" Ivanov put in. "Jason is your best at unarmed combat, you said?"
"Keyop, would you…?"
"No way!" Jason's temper blazed. "I'm not fighting a twelve-year-old!"
The fury in the boy's face was equally intense. "Not t…t…t." He stopped, took a deep breath, and tried again. "N…n…n…"
That was a horrible stammer. My little brother stammered like that, and it was heartbreaking to listen to him, unable to help. I wanted to put an arm round Keyop's shoulders and tell him it didn't matter and I understood how bad he felt. Unfortunately Jason was less sympathetic.
"Oh, man, you have to be joking! You want to put him on G-Force? Like he's going to be any use at all!"
"Keyop's fourteen, and extremely competent." Mark's tone was cool, almost reproachful. "You shouldn't judge by first impressions."
"I don't care how damn good he is for his size, I'm still not fighting someone who doesn't reach my shoulder. I'll take you on, though. If you're up for it."
Mark raised his eyebrows and looked at Ivanov, who spoke in Russian too fast for me to follow.
"Jason's very good," Anderson said. "They're well matched physically. It will be interesting to see if the implant modifications make a noticeable difference."
* * * * *
We couldn't hear anything from the room the other side of the glass, but there was some sort of discussion going on. It looked like Jason trying the wind-up techniques which had worked so well on Don, with little success. But then he made a suggestion which Mark did react to. Both left arms went up, came down in the same precise movement and we got our first sight of the Russian version of birdstyle.
Stylistically it was exactly like ours. The colour scheme - well, if you'd been asked which of the two of them was from ISO USA you'd never, ever have picked Jason. Even Anderson's jaw dropped.
"You couldn't pay me to wear that," Tiny muttered. "I just wish Don could have seen it. He'd have had hysterics."
"You wear something that bright?" I asked Keyop, in as non-intimidating a tone of voice as I could manage.
"Red, yellow and b...b…blue," he got out, pure relief overtaking his expression.
Next door, the two combatants were stretching and warming up, exchanging the odd word. I saw Jason look sideways to make sure he was being watched, then fold himself completely flat down the length of his right leg. Keyop's eyes widened.
"He's very good," Tiny said. "And sometimes we wonder if his joints are connected at all."
"They may not be, soon." Keyop looked astonished that he'd managed a complete sentence.
"I'll believe it when I see it." Tiny turned back to the window.
In fact, they were very well matched; Jason a little faster, Mark slightly more technically proficient. They'd started out fairly slowly, speeding up once they'd gauged each other's level of skill. As far as I could tell, Jason was now going flat out.
Anderson let them go on at full speed for a couple of minutes, then called for them to take a break. As both stood breathing hard, he turned to Ivanov. "Is that all your implants can do?"
Keyop burst out laughing. Ivanov patted him on the head tolerantly. "He's not used the implant yet." He spoke into the communicator again, and this time my Russian was sufficient to understand him telling Mark to show Jason what the implants could do without hurting him.
The two resumed sparring. Three seconds later, Jason was flat on his back, Mark reaching down to offer him a hand up. I hadn't even seen him move. Anderson's eyes widened and he leant forwards to watch more closely.
Jason refused the hand, stood up by himself, and went for Mark with blazing speed. Mark simply wasn't there when the attack would have landed, and his counter put Jason straight back on the floor.
Three falls later, Jason went down hard and stayed down. It had been barely a minute since the restart, and he hadn't laid a finger on Mark once.
The white-suited figure offered his hand again, then, as Jason still didn't move, crouched, looked at him closely, and started to turn to the window.
Jason exploded off the floor, caught him perfectly from behind and both ended up in an undignified heap. Even then, Mark had flipped back onto his feet before Jason had started to rise.
"Enough," said Anderson, disbelief in his tone. "Back in here, please."
This time Jason accepted the other's offer of help. Mark might have been told not to hurt him, but you can't hit the floor at that speed that many times and not know about it. He was moving gingerly, still gasping for breath, as he sat down next to me. Mark looked as if he hadn't lifted a finger since they'd taken a break.
"I think we can say the implants give Mark the edge?" Ivanov queried, more humour in his voice than I'd have given him credit for.
Jason detransmuted and took a long swallow from the glass of water I'd pushed towards him. Finally there was some animation in his voice. "Where do I sign up? I couldn't get near him. Chief, we need this."
Anderson looked like a child in a candy shop as he addressed Mark. "But you're not even out of breath? That was unbelievably fast. I don't understand."
"I'll be tired later," Mark told him. "For now, I'm fine. Jason is good, though. I was surprised I couldn't take him without the implant."
"I was astonished you could stand up to him at all without using it," Anderson told him. "I had thought Jason would perform better than that."
"Mark's been trained for this since he was eight years old," Ivanov said. "He's had the implants since four."
"Well, I think we may be able to make this work," Anderson said. "Starting tomorrow I plan to try you out as a team of five. G-Force, are you happy with this?"
Tiny shrugged. I nodded. Jason's expression had frozen. "Whatever."
Anderson didn't react. "So, I suggest you go and get to know one another."
"Rec room?" Tiny suggested as we left the briefing room.
I nodded. "I've seen enough gyms for today."
"Well, I need to warm down first," Jason said. "Ten minutes in our gym and a shower. I'll join you later."
"I do too," Mark said. "Can I join you? I'll never find my way back to my room by myself."
Jason shrugged. "They've allocated you rooms already? So much for Anderson wanting our opinion. Yeah, come on. This way."
* * * * *
Keyop's eyes widened when he saw the rec room. "Hey, c..c..cool!" He wandered around, winced at the sight of our library shelves, grinned broadly at the widescreen TV, and stopped dead at the guitar case. "Who?"
"Mine," I said. "You play?"
He shook his head and pantomimed. "Drums."
"We'll have to get together. What do you want to drink?"
Keyop looked confused, and joined me at the fridge. "I don't know these."
"You're kidding." Tiny wore a broad grin. "Man, we have to educate you! Now, where to start?"
"Be nice," I admonished him, grabbing a glass of juice. "No revolting combinations."
"As if I would. Keyop, they have to have Pepsi in Russia, surely?"
"I don't know. Not in ISO."
We looked at each other, taking in the implications. "Keyop, how old were you when you went to ISO?" I asked finally.
"I don't remember. Very young."
"Keyop came to the Russian centre as a tiny baby," Mark said from behind me. "There are no parents on his birth certificate. There were some - dubious - experiments at that time."
Jason had followed him in. "You normally tell complete strangers stuff like that about someone else?"
Mark didn't flinch. "If I don't, the first explanation you get will be Ivanov's. It is neither sympathetic nor true. You want me to tell them the rest, Keyop?"
He nodded silently.
"Keyop was supposed to be the answer to everything. Jump-pilot, able to solve the equations, genius level. The first two didn't happen. His growth profile's way off. And they implanted him at two and completely screwed up his speech patterns."
"God," I whispered. "So much for informed consent."
"Speaking of 'informed'," Jason said, getting himself a drink, "how about you tell us what you know about these friendly aliens Ivanov's pulled out of his hat. And how come we've never heard anything from them over here?"
Mark joined him at the fridge. "Wow - I've heard of most of this stuff. I've never tried it."
Keyop hiccupped cheerfully. "It's good. I think I like fizzy."
Jason handed Mark a bottle. "Try this. It'll help. And how much use are those implants anyway, if you cramp up after using them for ninety seconds?"
Mark looked embarrassed. "They don't cause it. Except when I underestimate my opponent, and don't warm up as thoroughly as I should. With what you did, you should have pulled every muscle you have."
Jason grinned unrepentantly. "I probably would have done. If we hadn't spent the previous two hours in the gym doing flexibility exercises."
I couldn't believe it. Jason was talking, relaxed, interacting almost normally. Maybe, just maybe, bringing new faces into the team would work.
Jason sat down, indicated that everyone else should do the same, and leaned forwards. "Friendly aliens. Talk."
"Well, I don't know all of it," Mark began, "but basically the Rigans started watching us way back. Nineteen-sixty or thereabouts. They watched the early space programs, and they contacted the most advanced nation of the day."
"But…" Tiny said.
"The Soviet Union."
Jason cracked up. "I'd have given money to see Anderson's face when he heard that. I'm sorry, Mark. Go on."
"They offered all sorts of technology, provided it wasn't used against other humans, and that once we were advanced enough we helped them in their war. They've been fighting off an interstellar invasion for decades, from a planet which wants their resources and their population as slaves. It's called Spectra. The Rigans apparently think we've come to Spectra's notice recently, though I don't know how. Anyway, we've been warned to be ready for imminent attack. ISO Russia…isn't. We don't have a viable ship, and the implantation process has been…variable. Ivanov's come here pretty much without authorisation, because he knows this is bigger than national loyalty."
"You don't say," I breathed. "What technology are they offering?"
"Powerful weapons - missiles. Scanners and detectors. All sorts of sci-fi stuff, like a gravity generator to stop everything floating around in free-fall. Not that much use, but convenient."
I didn't dare look at Jason.
"The one thing they don't have is technology to solve the jump-equations fast enough for really quick jumps." He sighed. "It's so frustrating."
Tiny got a glint in his eye. "Jason, what's the cube root of eighty?"
"Four point three oh eight…why?"
Mark stared at him in disbelief. "You can't…?"
"He can solve them." Goodness knows Jason needed a shot of self-confidence. It wasn't to be.
"So are you a jump-pilot too?"
Jason was suddenly on his feet, white-faced. "Is that all anyone cares about? I can solve the jump-equations, and it isn't enough? No, I'm not a damn jump-pilot, and I never will be again. Satisfied?" He slammed out of the room.
"Oh, god," I whispered. "And it was going so well."
"What did I say?" Mark looked stricken.
"It wasn't you," Tiny assured him. "That's as much as Jason's talked in months. He lost…a close friend three months back, and it's really messed him up. He does that a lot."
"Should I go talk to him?"
"I'd just leave him. He won't talk to anyone right now."
"Fine. So before I put my foot in it again, why is he so worked up about not being a jump-pilot? Most people aren't."
I realised Mark had completely missed Jason's 'again', and decided not to attempt an explanation. "He's just touchy about it. Best if you don't ask him."
Keyop suddenly yawned hugely.
"Tired?" I asked.
"No!" he exclaimed, and failed entirely to mask another enormous yawn.
Mark stood up. "We were up pretty early, and I'm jet-lagged as hell. Come on, Keyop. Time to sleep."
"Can you find your way?" I asked.
Mark looked at me deliberately. "Once we were told we were staying, I actually paid attention to the layout of this place. I won't need a guide again. See you in the morning."
* * * * *
"What do you think?" I asked Tiny.
He shrugged. "They're OK. I thought for a few minutes there that Jason might snap right out of it, but no such luck. It's going to be the alpha-male fight from hell from here on. You'd better get back in full peacemaker mode. I'll tell you what was bizarre though - Anderson was all over Mark, but did you see the way Ivanov looked at Jason?"
"What do you mean?"
"Jason might just have lost one champion and gained another. Ivanov was well impressed."
* * * * *
As it happened, I spent the following morning in a meeting with Anderson, Jason and the weapons console designers. It wasn't fun. Jason knew exactly what he wanted, and was in no mood to compromise. Anderson seemed to be backtracking on previous decisions and was now talking interlocks, confirmations and the requirement for two people in order to fire. In the end, Anderson dismissed the external experts without making a final decision, and as the door closed behind them a furious Jason was right in his face.
"What the hell was that about? Do you not want me to be able to fire the damn missiles? Because that's what it sounds like."
Anderson stood his ground. "Sit down, Condor. I'm talking about safeguards to prevent accidents."
"You're talking about not trusting me. You're talking about having one of my team second-guess every decision I take. Who's that going to be, Chief? Let me guess - Mark? You met him what, two days ago, and already it's obvious where this is going."
"I'm not discussing this, Jason. Do I have to remind you that you are now a military officer? I suggest you leave."
"Oh, I plan to. Just remember one thing, Chief - I can do the jump-math. Mark can't. And nor can our new alien friends."
I waited until Jason was round the corner. "Chief?"
He didn't even look up. "Now is not a good time, Swan."
I swallowed nervously. "I'm going to say two things, Chief. First, Jason is right. We need a single hand on the weapons. Any delay in firing could be fatal. Second, if you're going to derank us, would you just go ahead and do it? We're not stupid. We've noticed what you're calling us." I didn't dare look at him, just turned and walked out, trying desperately not to shake.
* * * * *
"So how was it?" Tiny asked, sitting down opposite me at lunch.
I groaned. "You do not want to know. Let's just say you may be right about Anderson. What have you been up to?"
Tiny was practically bouncing in his seat. "I checked Mark out on the Phoenix simulator."
I considered his manner in some confusion. "He said he was a pilot. What's so funny?"
"His face, when he realised she isn't just a bigger jet. I was worried beforehand. I'm not now. She's still my ship." He sat forward. "But those two can fight. I mean, no offence, Princess, but I've seen you with that yo-yo. Keyop's got two, one on either end of a cord. He can make them do anything. And Mark's got this - well, it comes back like a boomerang, but the shape's wrong. It's heavy, lethally sharp, and he just hurls it out there and catches it on the return. It'd take your head off, no joking. Apparently it can produce some really nasty sonics as well. Take down a whole troop."
I shuddered. "Maybe we could just leave the hand-to-hand to them."
"What, two of them? I don't think the Spectrans will let us get away with it. The thought of it with five of us is pretty bad." He raised his voice, looking over my shoulder. "Hey, Keyop - over here!"
He trotted over. "Anderson wants us all in the b…briefing room."
* * * * *
Mark was already there when we arrived, so, rather to my surprise, was Jason. Anderson got straight to the point.
"I'm dissolving the command structure of G-Force. As of now, you will be referred to by codename only."
Jason opened his mouth, and Anderson beat him to it. "Condor, you are walking a real fine line at the moment. You'd better show you can keep your mouth shut and listen." He matched Jason's glare, and the young man folded his arms in a stance which clearly said that this wasn't over.
"We're not going to even try to put you together as a team for the next four weeks. Mark and Keyop have to get up to speed on our systems. Princess and Tiny, your hand-to-hand skills are way down on the other three and need some intensive work. Jason, you're taking a month out. Away from here."
He went white. "A month? You have to be kidding. You're ditching me."
"I'm not ditching you. This isn't optional, though. I'll see you in here at four to discuss what you'll be doing."
Jason walked out, head down, too defeated to even argue.
Anderson waited until the door had shut again, then continued. "You two will have your implants upgraded using the Russian method tomorrow. That in itself should help with the hand-to-hand, but you both still need a lot more technique."
"Hold on," said Tiny slowly. "You're not upgrading Jason?"
"That's not your concern. Jason needs a complete break. His status will be re-evaluated in a month's time."
Tiny sat there with his mouth open. I had no idea what to say. The only conceivable reason I could think of was that they didn't expect Jason to come back, and didn't want a civilian to have the upgraded implant technology.
"Chief?" To my complete astonishment, that was Mark. "You said you need hand-to-hand skills. Jason is very good. Upgraded, he will be superb. Putting him a month behind weakens the team."
"Stay out of this, Mark." Anderson was using his 'about to be annoyed' tone. "You don't have all the facts."
Mark didn't back down. "I know he can fight. I'm told he can solve the jump-equations. Nobody else can do that. If he needs a month off, give it to him. But let him get used to the upgraded implants at the same time."
"I agree," I said, wishing I could think of something compelling to say, but having to settle for adding my voice to Mark's. Keyop and Tiny were both nodding.
Anderson looked along the line, his face growing harder as he saw our determination. "Noted. Dismissed."
* * * * *
"OK, Princess," Tiny turned to face me the moment we were out of earshot of Anderson's office. "You know where to find Jason?"
"Don't you think he's best left alone right now?"
"I think if we don't do something, he's going to walk in there at four and quit. I would, if Anderson did that to me, and I'm not under half the pressure he's had."
"We should tell Ivanov," Mark said suddenly.
"And that's going to help how?" Tiny snapped.
"Look, I'm not going to ask what happened. But it's pretty clear that Jason's had some sort of … breakdown? Is that the word? Ivanov had his own problems, years ago. That's why he ended up in charge of an ISO research project instead of a front-line military unit. Or so I was told."
"And if you're wrong?" Tiny wasn't at all happy.
"Jason told me they've diagnosed him with PTSD," I told him. "He really, desperately needs to talk to someone who understands. God knows you and I have tried, but it hasn't been enough. If he's verging on quitting, what's to lose?"
Tiny shut his eyes. "He's going to kill us."
"I'll take that risk, if it means he's still on the team to do it," I told him. "Mark, get Ivanov."
He spoke into his communicator in rapid Russian, then turned to me. "Jason will be where?"
"On the clifftop, by the Mars memorial."
"I know where you mean." More Russian. He finished and switched back to English. "Ivanov will find Jason and talk to him. To Anderson too, if Jason agrees."
Keyop suddenly addressed a burst of stammering Russian at Mark, who flushed.
"It's not like that, Keyop. And it's rude to talk in a language the others can't understand."
"Oh, I understand Russian pretty well," I told him. "I got most of that. If you think we'd accept as commander anyone who played that sort of game, you're very wrong."
"Keyop, you apologise. Now." Mark was now scarlet.
The young man glared furiously. "Sorry." And marched out of the room, chin in the air.
"Huh?" from Tiny.
"Keyop suggested I should stop helping Jason, to make it more likely I'd replace him as commander. I hope you don't think…"
"I think Jason was pretty rude to Keyop yesterday, and you've been nothing but fair since we met. It's not easy for us, suddenly being presented with two new people to work with. It's got to be just as hard for you, and worse for Keyop - he's younger, his English is shaky, and that stammer's no joke. You're doing OK. He will too, once we all get used to each other." I put my hand out, desperately wanting things to be all right between us.
Mark smiled at me for the first time, and I felt myself blush as he took my hand. "We'll make this team work. All of us. All five. Agreed?"
"Agreed," I said shakily, and Tiny chimed in too.
* * * * *
Jason came in a little after five to an animated discussion on flying techniques between Mark and Tiny, Keyop flicking ecstatically through TV channels, and me sitting in the corner picking out chords. I didn't even register his presence until he flopped down on the sofa next to me, stretched his long legs out and asked conversationally what I knew about motor racing.
"Uh - what sort? I've watched Formula One on the telly, but that's about it."
"Indy," put in Tiny. "More likely than F1 over here. Why?"
"Anderson's assigning me to a stock car team for the next month. ISO sponsors one, apparently. It's run by a bunch of their engineers."
"The rover in the Phoenix's nose won't be much use in combat. They're going to replace it with something seriously quick, and armed. I'm going to drive it."
"Can you even drive?" Tiny asked.
"Sort of. I learnt for the rover, remember. At about 10 mph. But their famous aptitude tests say I should be able to." He chuckled, more relaxed than I'd seen him in forever. "When he started talking about combat and personal vehicles, I thought for one horrible moment he was sending me to flight school."
Tiny responded in kind before he could stop himself. "Nah. They wouldn't have taken you." Winced, and waited for Jason to storm out of the room. When it didn't happen, he ventured, "Did you talk to Ivanov?"
Jason tensed visibly, but stayed. "He talked. I listened. It helped a bit." His face brightened. "And then he blew up at Anderson like you wouldn't believe. I'm getting the implant upgrades tomorrow with you, and a month away from Anderson riding me about what I'm doing wrong. I do need some space right now. But I'll be back."
"You so don't have the voice for that," I told him.
Mark frowned. "For what?"
Jason's eyes widened. "You mean I get to not be the target of every US-culture joke any more? Mark, you have to have seen Terminator."
Mark shook his head. "Never even heard of it."
Tiny spluttered. "Boy, are we going to have some fun bringing you guys up to speed! Anyway, Jase, what are you going to do on this racing team?"
"My current level of knowledge? Make coffee. Pass spanners. Hopefully figure out how a car works and how to drive in a straight line. Right now, as long as it's different, I don't care."
* * * * *
I spent much of the next fortnight wishing I was making coffee and passing spanners. Instead, I was involved in endless martial arts training, trying to tie in my newly acquired speed with the few moves I had.
The instructors realised very quickly that I didn't have the level of ability to become an all-encompassing combat machine. Instead, they concentrated on making sure I could carry out a limited set of moves very, very well. Generally those dependent on speed rather than strength.
"You'll never outlast a group of opponents," I was told. "You'll never overpower them. You have to finish them quickly, before their height and weight start to wear you down. And you have to make them think you have the same range of moves that Mark and Keyop have. You do this by executing those you do have, perfectly. Take your enemy out in three moves and it doesn't matter that you don't have another twenty. There are no points for variety here."
So I spent hour after hour refining my technique, pushing myself and my new physical capabilities to the limit. Much of the rest of the time I spent sleeping. The implant tricked the body into producing chemicals to make you faster, stronger, better coordinated. It did nothing about how tired you were after that much high speed physical activity.
Tiny was in a similar condition to me. Mark and Keyop weren't as physically exhausted, but they were expected to master protocols we'd spent eighteen months working on, in just one. They clearly considered being called in to spar with me as welcome relief from the pressure they were under.
Nine days in, Anderson called me into his office, and with no preamble told me that they wanted to change my birdstyle.
I was horrified. "But I like it. I like being the Swan."
Anderson smiled reassuringly. "You'll still be the Swan. Don't I remember someone saying swans should be white?"
That had been Don. I blinked back tears and forced myself not to react as Anderson continued.
"Tiny's going to be needed on the Phoenix most of the time, he's the only one who can fly it well enough now. You, on the other hand, are going to have to go out there. You have to be able to hold your own. Right now, your colours scream 'female' and you're going to be an instant target. You're not a good enough fighter to handle a group of male opponents on your own. You may never be."
I looked up unhappily. "I'm trying, Chief. I can work harder, improve…"
"You can't make yourself six feet tall. You'll never catch up ten-plus years of training on someone of Mark's talents. We know how hard you're working already. We're going to give you a little help."
He pushed a sketch across the table to be, and I regarded it in some horror. Discreet it wasn't. This was every bit as flashy as the Russian birdstyles, not me at all, and I said so.
"That's the idea," Anderson told me. "Someone catches a glimpse of you, they'll see white and red, and think it's Mark. Hopefully they'll hesitate at the thought of taking him on. It should give you a free shot. You just have to use it."
Either changing colours was very easy, or they'd only asked me as a courtesy. The following day I was training in white.
* * * * *
The last day of the fortnight, I scrambled frantically into the rec room having overslept. "Who's got the list? Where am I supposed to be?"
Mark was lounging on the sofa. "No list. We have the day off."
"You remember holidays? Days when you do what you want, not what you're told? We got one." Tiny returned to looking in the fridge. "Keyop, did you finish the chocolate milk?"
A happy chocolatey face appeared from behind a comic. "Yes. It was great!"
Tiny growled, and made to chase him round the room. Keyop squealed, leapt straight over the back of the chair, and put Mark between himself and Tiny.
"Enough, already." I sagged into the sofa with exaggerated relaxation. "What are we going to do today? Mark, Keyop - you want to go visit something? You haven't exactly seen much since you arrived."
Keyop groaned. "Boring."
Mark didn't exactly look enthusiastic. "Princess, I'd love to, sometime when I'm not so tired. Right now I wouldn't appreciate it."
"I have a better idea," suggested Tiny. "I was talking to one of the Phoenix technicians yesterday. He's got a friend in the engineering division. I know where the ISO racing team hangs out. Let's go see Jason."
* * * * *
Tiny, as the only one of us with a valid US driver's license, was despatched to sweet-talk the ISO car pool and I ended up with an address and Autoroute. It wasn't difficult to locate, and was barely fifteen minutes drive away.
Tiny had no trouble getting a car, and shortly we were all piled in and I was reminding myself which side of the road they drove on here and trying to keep my directions legal. Turning right off a road with two carriageways still felt wrong.
A couple of miles up a smaller road and Tiny pulled off into a somewhat run-down-looking industrial park, with signs to the track further round.
"Unit 5," I told him.
Over on the left, a typical prefab light industrial building with a row of shutter doors along the front, one open with the nose of a car protruding and engine noises from within. 'ISO Racing' over the doors. Nobody visible.
I looked at Tiny for suggestions. "Should we just go in?"
"You go and ask for Jason. It's our best chance of springing him."
Mark frowned. "Just her?"
"Just her. Trust me."
* * * * *
I walked into the open bay and looked hopefully round for signs of life.
"You want the office?" said a voice from near my feet.
I looked around and spotted a pair of legs sticking out from under the car. "I guess so."
"Right-hand door in the end wall."
"Thanks," I said to the legs, and headed for the door, which opened disconcertingly in my face just as I got there.
"Can I help you, miss?" His eyes travelled appreciatively up and down me, and I tried not to flush. Why was it that total strangers always felt the urge to do this, but the one person I wanted to never did?
"I'm looking for Jason."
"Lucky guy." He pressed a button on the wall. "Hey, Jason, get yourself out here! Your girlfriend wants to talk to you."
The hole in the floor I so desired failed to appear, as Jason emerged from one of the other doors looking confused and rather oily. "I don't have…Princess! What are you doing here?"
The man who'd summoned him laughed tolerantly. "Take the day off and go and patch things up with her, kid. You're due a break. And you make a cute couple."
Jason's eyes blazed. Hating the charade, I simpered. "Thank you. Thank you so much. Jason, you want to get cleaned up?"
He disappeared back through the door, and shortly re-emerged minus the overalls and the dirt. I led the way out, trying to ignore the eyes on my back, and only when we were out of sight did he grab my hand.
"Princess - I wasn't expecting to see you! What's happened? Where's Tiny?"
I grinned at him. "We got the day off. Tiny drove us all out here. For some reason, he seemed to think I'd have a better chance of springing you on my own."
"Anyone would think he'd met them. He was right."
"So where are you staying?" I asked as we walked back to the car.
"I'll show you." He went straight to the driver's side. "Hi, guys. Miss me? Here, Tiny, let me drive."
Tiny moved over automatically, and only subsequently realised what he'd done. "Hey, Jase, you legal? I've signed for this car."
"Legal as you are. Not bad for a fortnight? Oh, vile - automatic."
"You have got picky." I opened the back door. "Move over, Keyop. There's loads of room."
For all his complaining, Jason drove us perfectly competently round behind the track into what I'd have called a caravan site but the sign described as a trailer park. He pulled up in front of a somewhat battered specimen and waited for a reaction.
Tiny was clearly struggling against a kneejerk 'trailer park' reaction. Mark and Keyop had no such cultural hang-ups.
"C…c…cool!" exclaimed Keyop. "It's yours?"
"All mine." Jason bubbled with enthusiasm. "I like it here. Come see!"
It was small, far from new, and much tidier than I'd anticipated. With five of us in there, it was desperately cramped. Tiny continued to look horrified, while Mark found himself a seat in the corner and Keyop explored the very limited selection of doors. I'd spent years of summer holidays with my entire family in a caravan little larger than this - while I wouldn't have wanted to live here myself, I could see the attraction to someone who'd never had space to call his own.
Jason succeeded in his quest to find five containers suitable for hot liquid, and boiled the kettle. "I only do coffee - take it or leave it. Just for once, I have milk. And cookies."
"So what have you been doing?" I asked as he handed mugs out.
"Getting my license. One hell of a lot of taking stuff apart, cleaning it and putting it back together again. Driving anything they'll let me loose on." All the old animation was back in his voice. "I can't wait to get my hands on that car they're putting in the nose of the Phoenix. You?"
I groaned. "Martial arts. More martial arts. And for variety…no, wait, there hasn't been any."
"Me too," said Tiny. "In between teaching Mark how a real ship handles."
"Keyop and I have a lot of procedures to learn," Mark said. "We may even have them all straight by the end of the month."
Jason raised his eyebrows. "You better. You need to be ready to go by then. We all do."
Keyop stiffened. "We'll be ready. Will you?"
"Why, you little…Someone needs to teach you some manners. You better hope it isn't me."
Tiny elbowed Keyop in the ribs, hard, and changed the subject. "So, Jason, what do you think of the upgrades? You had much of a chance to work with them?"
Jason indicated out of the window. "There's a lot of space out beyond the track where nobody ever goes. I've been practising." He looked sideways at Mark. "Next time you'll get a real fight. So, who wants to come see the track?"
There was a general draining of mugs, and we followed a bubbling Jason to the top of the bank overlooking the end curve of the track.
"We're not testing today," he replied to a question from Tiny. "I doubt they'd have let me off if we were. There's a few other teams based here, we get different times allocated. Tomorrow…" The rest of his sentence was lost in a wall of dust and noise as a car shot past below us.
"Wow - that was fast!" I spluttered.
Jason looked surprised. "You think so? I drive faster than that, and I'm not quick enough to even test our cars seriously. Yet."
"Do the implants help?" Mark asked.
Jason's expression froze. "Anderson made it very clear that if anyone so much as suspects that my reflexes aren't entirely my own, I'll be on the first plane back to Sydney. I don't use the implants when I drive."
"But that super-car they're putting in the Phoenix…" I started.
"That's different. That's business. Using the implants to race would be no better than taking drugs. I'm no cheat."
Mark looked startled. "You plan to race? Does Anderson know?"
"I do hope Anderson doesn't think he can dictate how I spend my free time." Jason rounded on him. "You'd better not try it, either."
Mark put both hands up. "I only meant…"
"You want to be Anderson's good little student, you go right ahead. Don't you dare let that involve reporting back to him about me. Is that why you're here?"
I tensed, ready to jump between them, but Mark just turned and walked away.
"I think we'd better go." Tiny took Keyop by the shoulder and turned him down the slope. "Princess, you coming?"
"Just a minute." I waited until they'd moved out of earshot.
"Jason - Anderson didn't send us. He doesn't even know we're here."
"Yeah, well, he's about to, isn't he? After the lecture I got on secrecy, you think he'll let me do something where my name might get noticed? He's quite happy for me to kill myself driving his damn super-car, but something I enjoy? Not a chance."
"Did he say that? Because I think you've wound yourself up over a problem that doesn't exist. Anderson sent you here, remember? He knows you need experience driving against other people." I stopped at his reaction. "You have to stop flinching every time someone says his name. He's head of the project, Jason. He's not going away."
"And if it wasn't him it'd be Grant instead." Jason put on his best mock English accent. " 'Every cadet I've ever known could tell the difference between interior and exterior explosion damage.' Yeah, right. Once they'd been shown the signs. So can I, now. Hindsight's just great." He sat down, arms round his knees, the anger gone. "Damn, I just screwed up, didn't I?"
I nodded. "Mark stood up to Anderson for you. He's the one who got Ivanov involved. He'd make a good second-in-command for you, if you can work together."
Jason pulled his bracelet from his pocket and sat there looking at it, and I took the hint and wandered back towards the car.
When I reached it, Mark was nowhere in sight. Tiny was sitting behind the wheel, and raised his eyebrows in a question.
"Talking to Mark - I hope."
"I don't know why Mark bothers." Keyop was flushed and still furious - I belatedly noticed that Tiny had locked the doors from the inside. Not that that would stop a determined Keyop, but he'd have to be prepared to do damage to get out.
I put my hand on the handle and stared at Tiny until he took the hint, opened the back door, sat beside Keyop, and looked him right in the eyes. "I'm going to say this once and once only, Keyop. You will stop winding Jason up. You will stop being rude - in any language. And you will stop criticising Mark for behaving like a decent human being. It's immature, and G-Force can't use children. If you want a team place, you stop acting your age and start behaving like you deserve it." I held eye contact, and thankfully his gaze dropped before I lost my nerve.
"Now what do we do?" Tiny asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence.
"With any luck, lunch." I pointed towards the track, where two figures were approaching us.
"I hope you're right." Tiny stuck his head out of the window. "Hey, Jason, anywhere round here with edible food?"
"As it happens, there is. Don't you ever think about anything else?"
"Princess wanted to know!"
Jason laughed out loud. "That's weak even for you, Tiny. Lucky for you there's enough people working round here for them to open the café weekdays as well as racedays."
I grinned at Tiny's affronted expression. "Reputations. Don't you just love them."
* * * * *
Jason was obviously a regular patron of the little track café. The owner greeted him cheerfully by name, expressed delight at seeing him with friends, and told him he was too thin and should eat more. Jason, to my astonishment, accepted this with equanimity, snagged a menu from the counter and we bagged a big table in the corner just ahead of a bunch of giggling co-workers from the beauty salon next door.
"You let her tell you that? I heard what you said to the ISO nutritionist who told you just the same!" Tiny queried, wide-eyed.
"How did you hear that?"
"I was waiting outside at the time - you were kinda loud."
"Maria's Italian. She found out I am too and now feeding me up's her pet project."
"But you're Australian." Mark frowned.
"And you're Polish going on Russian, or is it American? Heritage still matters. Even if all I have left of mine is the name. Anyway, she's a good cook, prices are low and I hate cooking for myself."
Keyop was scanning the menu ecstatically. "I want to try everything!"
"Well, it might make you grow." Tiny seemed to be considering it seriously. "And it would give me an excuse."
Keyop growled, and jumped on him.
"Hey!" Mark steadied the table, and Jason and I separated the two of them.
"I'd like to be able to come back - can we leave the place in one piece?"
* * * * *
We walked out almost an hour later more a team than we'd been yet. We'd even got to the point of having an argument without Jason blowing up. He and Mark were still in heated discussion over the benefits of various martial arts styles.
"Look, I'll show you," Jason finally suggested. "All that waste ground behind the track - there's nobody to see."
"You're not using the implants," Tiny stated flatly. "It's not safe in civilian clothes, and I don't care how secluded it is, you can't use birdstyle."
"Don't need it. Demonstration works better slow anyway. Come on, Mark - are you afraid I'm right?"
Keyop groaned and put a hand to his stomach. "Is it far? I ate too much."
"Don't say we didn't warn you." Jason looked round, mischief in his eyes. "Maybe we should have that match now."
Keyop regarded him in horror, and belatedly realised he was being wound up. "No fair."
"I didn't force you to have that second bowl of ice-cream." Jason stopped at the edge of what looked like nothing more than a bomb crater. "This is where I normally practise."
"Whatever made this?" Tiny asked.
"I don't know - collapsed cellar? There's old foundations all over here. It's out of sight, the floor's flat and not concrete. Suits me fine." He leapt easily to the lower level. "Come on, Mark. You think Spectra are going to give you time for a ten minute warmup?"
Mark stretched deliberately and jumped down to join him. "What I can do, and what I prefer to do, aren't necessarily the same. Half speed."
Keyop flopped down beside me as we watched them put theory into practise. "Sorry."
I jumped a mile. "For what?"
"Being mean. I hate it when people t…tease me. I shouldn't do it to Jason."
I considered briefly. It sounded sincere enough. "Joking's OK - at the right time. You know when you're going over the line. By the way, you're talking much better."
"Stress makes it bad. Strangers make it worse." He shrugged. "You're not strangers now, and English is getting easier. I avoid the hard words, and it's not so bad."
"And the conclusion is?" Tiny called out as the two combatants gave up.
"That we're too lazy to put it to the test properly today." Mark stretched out on the grass and closed his eyes. "Day off, remember? I'm too tired to concentrate."
He wasn't the only one. It was pleasantly warm, the grass was soft, and we were out of the wind. I followed his example, lay back and watched the few clouds scud across my field of vision. I could hear the cars on the track, and more distantly, traffic on the roads, but basically it was peaceful here. Very, very different from my hectic schedule at ISO. Calming, relaxing, and oh so soporific.
* * * * *
There was a hand on my shoulder. "Princess, wake up."
"Mmm. Not now."
"Sorry, Princess." The grip tightened. "We have to get back."
I sat up abruptly, nearly cracking heads with Mark in the process. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Couple of hours. You looked like you needed it."
I bristled. "I'm fine, thank you."
"I've seen your training schedule this past fortnight. I wouldn't have fancied it. Anyway, I'm tired too. Right now I'm for home, dinner and bed. Tomorrow we'll be back to work."
"Shame," Jason said from behind me. "Tomorrow there's races here."
Tiny laughed. "You really are hooked, aren't you?"
"Yeah. Your point?"
"Well, it would be good if you come back in a fortnight."
"With the car I've been promised? I'm coming back."
I looked at my watch. "If we're going to get that pool car back, we really must go now. Jason - take care."
"Driving fast's far more fun. I'll see you in a fortnight."
* * * * *
"Well, he's better than he was," Tiny said as we exited the park. "As long as nobody mentions the 'A' word."
I winced. "You noticed that?"
"It was kinda obvious. I hope he can get it under control, because Anderson's going to be all over him when he comes back."
"Why Anderson?" Mark asked.
Tiny and I looked at each other in some embarrassment. Finally I said, "Jason was pretty much his star student before you showed up. Anderson switched allegiances to you very publicly, and Jason resents it. That's my theory, anyway."
Mark sagged back into his seat. "Oh. No wonder he hates me."
"Jason likes you just fine," Tiny told him. "Like Princess said, it's Anderson he's got the problem with." He quickly changed the subject. "So what do you think we'll be doing next? More of the same?"
* * * * *
It wasn't. I scanned the schedule the following morning to find myself with only a normal amount of gym work, and a session with weapons expert Major Grant. Just what I wanted. Grant was chief of the 'far too young for the responsibility' crowd. I'd have to spend the entire morning in full professional mode.
"Anderson's asked me to teach you to set explosive charges." The disdain in his voice was evident. Great - I hadn't even opened my mouth yet, and Grant was already finding me wanting. So, no point trying to win him over with my friendly nature.
"Fine. Where do we start?"
Grant smiled in a superior manner. "Do you know anything about electronics?"
Oh, yes. I'd had my suspicions that Grant, like most of the military specialists ISO had brought in recently, thought I was just a radio operator. Time for me to show him just how wrong he was.
"Quite a lot, actually. What would you like me to explain to you?"
Once Grant had realised I not only knew what I was talking about, but wanted to know what he had to teach, we got along a whole lot better. I still had the distinct feeling that he'd intended to be teaching this stuff to someone older and male, but Mark had more than enough in his schedule already.
He wasn't getting anywhere with the Phoenix simulator. Standard flight was fine, but put him in a combat situation and it all fell apart. His reflexes were tuned for small, manoeuvrable craft, and the Phoenix simply didn't work that way.
* * * * *
So I'd had a week learning to blow things up. I'd enjoyed it immensely. Taken as a scientific problem, you needed to make a few basic decisions; the type of explosion you needed, how much damage you wanted to do, whether there was anything you needed to leave intact. Pick the right type of explosive, location, detonation method, make sure you had all the safety protocols right, and away you went. It was fun, and I was good at it.
Keyop had been working with the new sensor and scanner systems. He'd said little about it - we were all back to being frantically overworked - but from what comments he had made, I was looking forward to learning with them. Certainly they sounded far more advanced than anything we'd had before.
And they'd finally given up trying to turn Mark into the front-line Phoenix pilot. He was a more than adequate co-pilot, superb in the jet docked in the Phoenix's rear compartment. We didn't need him in the pilot's seat, we did need a co-pilot, and he and Tiny looked likely to make an excellent pairing.
* * * * *
The final week before they planned to put us back together as a team of five, we spent mostly in a wide range of 'work together' exercises in every possible combination. Pairs, threes, all four of us. We could all do our own jobs by now, but could we do each other's? Could we do our own, blindfolded and talked through it by someone else? Could we talk someone else through our own job? How about in combat? Could four of us even fly the Phoenix in a combat situation? Yes. Three of us? Maybe - but only if one of the three was Tiny. I could see the list of training we still needed growing by the hour, and although I kept it to myself, I was greatly relieved that we obviously needed a fifth member in case anything went wrong. A team of four was viable, but a team of four with one person sick or hurt wasn't.
And then there were the bizarre solo exercises. One of us at a time put in a strategic situation, usually unwinnable. Sometimes just giving orders, sometimes responding to them, sometimes a bit of both, obeying general orders but delegating specific responsibilities. No physical action required at all, just assimilating the data on one computer screen and responding vocally. I hated those where I had to give orders, and while I never admitted it to the others, I got through them largely by thinking 'what would Jason do here' every time I wasn't sure. Make a swift decision and push it to the limit, that's what he'd always done, and I imitated it to the best of my ability. I only came unstuck where the general orders coming through were such that what I thought Jason would have done was ignore them and do something else entirely. I couldn't bring myself to do that, but my alternatives never worked, either.
* * * * *
On only our second day off in a month, I didn't even consider suggesting any activity. If I'd been tired before, now I was shattered. They'd given me nothing to do, and by eleven o'clock I'd just about managed to eat breakfast, and was considering whether I could be bothered to move far enough to turn the TV on.
"Hey, sleepyhead." Tiny came in with Keyop, both looking far too lively. "Did you know Jason's back?"
"What, already? Where?"
"Last I saw, heading to get checked out on the simulator for that super-car he was drooling about. What's with the 'already', anyway? It's nearly lunchtime!"
"I'm hungry," piped up Keyop. "Tiny's been teaching me baseball!"
"And to think I missed it." I stretched out on the sofa. "Anderson obviously hasn't been working you two hard enough. I'm not sure I even want to ask what Mark's doing, since it'll doubtless make me feel inadequate."
I stared at him. "You're not serious. He's had pretty much a solid month in one flight simulator or another, and he's spending his day off in a plane?"
"Now I know you weren't born to be a pilot. I darn nearly went with him."
"But then he found out there was no food!" Keyop spluttered.
"Just let me get my hands on you…"
The two proceeded to chase wildly round the room, culminating in a pile of thrashing limbs taking the sofa over backwards.
"You know, I'm sure we used to keep that the other way up," a familiar voice commented from the doorway.
I spun round to see Jason leaning against the wall as if he'd never been away. "Hi, Princess. Need me to keep these two in order?"
"No. I'll just hide their chocolate if they don't behave." I was so glad he was back and acting relaxed I couldn't think of anything sensible to say to him. "Come on, guys. Don't trash the place."
Keyop wriggled out from under the pile of Tiny. "He started it!"
"I don't care. Just put it back straight, okay?"
Tiny emerged, looking sheepish, and pushed the furniture back upright. "So how's the car, Jason?"
"Haven't seen it yet. If it's anything like the simulator, though - seriously hot. Have you two decided what you're going to drive yet?"
He couldn't be referring to Tiny - the Phoenix was enough for anybody. That left me and Keyop. I gaped at him. "Drive?"
"What, you think me and Mark are going to do all the work? Pod in each wingtip. Pick a vehicle."
"I think so. I want a jet!" Keyop bounced enthusiastically.
"Only if it's the world's smallest. That pod's twenty feet long." He crossed to the counter, and regarded its contents with surprise. "What's going on here, the definitive collection of fizzy drinks?"
"Tiny's on a mission to introduce Keyop to all the important icons of American culture. He's starting with the edible ones."
"Hey!" Tiny objected. "Kid's had a deprived childhood. Imagine - no Pepsi! It's my duty to educate him."
"So I see." Jason raised his eyebrows and went in search of something more to his taste.
"Did you win a race yet?" Keyop asked suddenly.
"Hardly. I'm driving test laps full speed now, though. Next time they're short a driver on race day, I've been promised a shot."
Keyop beamed. "Going to be famous!"
"Now that would be ironic." He stood there, staring into the distance rather than looking at either of us, and I knew just what he was thinking.
After ISO had released their altered details of the Mars base disaster, the networks had fallen over trying to outdo one another in their tributes to Adam Tring. One had described him as the fastest jump-pilot ever. It was unfortunate that this came the day after we'd been told that officially G-Force's flight to Mars had never happened. Jason had stormed out of the room before anyone could say a word, but I was fairly sure there had been tears in his eyes. Adam Tring remained the media darling even after his death. Jason Alouita, the commander of G-Force, remained unknown.
ISO had recognised that eventually they'd have to make G-Force's existence public knowledge - when we were attacked, it would be essential to reassure the public that we had a defensive force - but the identities of its members were to remain secret indefinitely. Jason would never, ever have the recognition Tring had. Those of us involved knew that he had smashed Tring's record time on his first and only jump, but it would never be announced. With Jason now unable to operate the jump-drive, Mark would be the one to take Tring's record. It was ironic that Mark was nowhere near the jump-pilot Jason had been.
* * * * *
I was deep into a report on the Spectran language when Mark finally returned. 'Deep' didn't really cover it - our information on all things Spectran had been provided to ISO Russia by the Rigans. Very little of it had made it into English so far, and most of what had tended to suffer from having been translated three times. I generally ended up working with the Russian version, only using the English translation as a last resort. There wasn't anyone who could translate directly between Spectran and English - yet. I was working on changing that.
"Princess, leave it a moment." Mark pushed an envelope under my nose. "Anderson wanted us to open these together."
I looked up to see everyone else holding a similar envelope. We'd done this before, when G-Force had been formed for the first time. Then the only question had been which way round they'd put me and Tiny. Once Anderson had explained that they didn't want the lead pilot having to command in an emergency, it didn't take a genius to figure out the order. Don had seethed at not getting command, but he'd been the only one surprised.
Now, as then, I was pretty sure I knew what to expect. Jason in command, Mark his second, me at G-3. Then it was just a question of how Anderson weighed 'pilot doesn't command' against Keyop's youth. As we were now a combat team, I strongly suspected Tiny would be G-5.
I opened my envelope as everyone else did the same, pulled out the single sheet of paper it contained, and froze in disbelief. It didn't say G-3. It said G-2.
I couldn't do it. Mark would be a much better second-in-command than I would - he was cool under pressure, considered all the options, and wasn't afraid to stand up to authority when he had to. It wasn't a hard decision for me to make.
I turned to Jason. "Anderson's made me your second-in-command. I can't do it, Jason. I don't want it." Only then did I notice his hands, gripping the paper with white-knuckled tension.
"You're not my second-in-command, Princess." He indicated across the table to where Mark was standing, pride written all over his face. "You're his."
Tiny, looking almost as sick as I felt, grabbed Keyop's paper, scanned it briefly, and beat Jason to the door.
"Out of my way," Jason hissed furiously.
"No way." Tiny locked eyes with him. "We're a team. We sort this out together."
I caught Mark's eye. "You want to command? Now would be a good time."
The look he gave me would have reduced me to gibbering four months earlier. Then he simply stood up straighter and all trace of the laid-back teenager vanished. This man was the obvious choice as G-1. Four months ago Jason would have given him a run for his money. Not any more.
"Jason? Tiny? We put this right. Now."
Tiny stared Jason down, until with a curse he turned and came back to the table.
"Is this what you wanted?" Jason threw his paper, face up, on the table. G-5, there for us all to see. "I have no command ability at all, apparently. All this time Anderson telling me he wasn't ditching me and I don't even get to run a training mission before he takes my command away. I'm just a glorified computer. Solve the equations, Jason. Drive the car, Jason. Fight the bad guys, Jason. Think? Have opinions? Make decisions? Not required."
"Have I ever said that to you?" Mark's voice was quiet, but with an edge of absolute authority to it. "I need your insight, your opinions, and all your abilities." He looked at each face in turn round the table. "Does anyone here not think Jason should be G-2?"
"Yeah," said Jason. "Me."
"I'm not giving up command to you. I've worked for this all my life, not just a couple of years. I know way more about military tactics than you. I've earned it, and I intend to show you all that this is one decision Anderson got right. But I want you as my second-in-command, and I'm prepared to fight to get you." He looked at me apologetically. "Sorry, Princess."
"No apology necessary." I smiled at him in pure relief. "I'm better suited as G-3. We all know that."
Mark continued to look round the table. "Tiny?"
"I want G-5. I can't pilot and give orders."
"Me give orders? Not yet. When I'm older."
He was leaning with both hands on the table, breathing unsteadily and looking down, but lifted his gaze at Mark's question. "I can't believe Anderson would do this. Would take it away like this after leading me on all these weeks. But it's not your fault, Mark. And since someone has to be G-2 - maybe it should be me."
"Then we're settled." Mark took a second piece of paper from his envelope and proceeded to cross out most of its contents. "We're supposed to sign to accept our commissions." He scrawled the Cyrillic signature which always seemed so at odds with the almost American accent, and handed pen and paper on.
Jason inserted his name on the second line in place of mine and signed it. I followed, then Keyop, then Tiny.
Mark retrieved the paper, and for the first time there was apprehension in his voice. "I guess we'd all better go see Anderson."
* * * * *
Anderson looked from the paper in his hands to the order we'd lined up in. "What is the meaning of this?"
"You made a mistake." Mark was implacable. "I need a second-in-command who complements me. Princess and I think far too much alike. I don't need someone else careful and analytical. I need someone fast and decisive. We are all agreed on what our team structure should be, what will work best for us. You will at least let us try it out in training."
"I'll speak to you alone, Commander. The rest of you can leave." Anderson saved a glare of particular displeasure for Jason, who met his eyes with a look close to insolence but didn't say a word as we turned and left.
* * * * *
Three hours later, Mark came back into the rec room, tossed yet another piece of paper onto the table, and collapsed into the sofa with a sigh. "That wasn't how I planned to spend my first afternoon in command. You owe me, Jason - big time."
"For what - taking my command? Forgive me if I'm not that grateful right now."
"You were only on that list at all because Ivanov insisted on it, that the Rigan jump calculation techniques aren't quick enough. Everyone else was ready to go with a team of four until they could find another fifth. It seems they weren't too happy with the psych evaluation you had yesterday. I don't know too much about this stuff, but from what they said, I'm not surprised. They were never going to give you command after that.
"Now I have persuaded them that they don't lose anything by letting us train with you at G-2. You'll do better once you're back in the team. And I told them you'll cooperate with the psych guys and let them re-evaluate in another month."
"And who gave you the right to tell them that?"
"If you want to tell them you won't, go right ahead. They're in briefing room 1, you can catch them now. Or you can spend the next month as G-2 showing them they were wrong. It's up to you. Look, Jason, I just spent all afternoon arguing with them and that's the best offer I can get you. Tell the psychs what they want to hear and be done with it. Frankly I don't give a damn how they evaluate you, as long as you can do your job. You want to give it a try, or not?"
Jason didn't lift his eyes from the floor. "I guess I've got nothing left to lose. Commander."
"My name's still Mark. And you still owe me a demonstration of your allegedly superior technique."
Jason finally looked up, something in his eyes besides total despair. "I owe you a good thrashing. If you're ready, now that we're evenly matched, how about right now?"
* * * * *
"Is it going to be okay?" Keyop asked once they'd left for the gym.
I'd been asking myself much the same question. It wasn't great. Jason still wasn't happy, but maybe he would learn to accept it just as Don had before him. It was certainly much better than the alternative we'd been offered. It was a starting point, something to work with.
"It's going to be okay." I tried to sound more confident than I felt. "We're going to be a team. You'll see."
* * * * *
Anderson caught me as I was heading back from a swim later that evening. "Princess, hand this out, would you?"
Another envelope. I raised horrified eyes to him. "You haven't changed your mind? Please?"
He smiled. "No. I thought maybe you could all use a little light relief. Just for your information - we won't be releasing anything until you go into action."
He'd been right to make five copies - this one we'd have been fighting over. Someone had been having far too much fun writing it. Serious subject matter, but oh dear, the hype. I guessed if they ever needed to release it, the situation would be so bad that morale-boosting would be a priority. Or possibly reducing the general population to hysterics was supposed to help them feel better about being under attack from an alien galaxy. Whoever had written it badly needed a lesson in basic cosmology.
"Orphans?" queried Tiny. "Not exactly."
"It's close enough. You want Spectra after your family?" Mark continued to read, a smile playing on his lips. "Not sure about the super-powers, though."
" 'Cerebonic implants' doesn't exactly trip off the tongue." Jason had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard. "Oh, boy, I needed that. You really think they'd release it? They have to change some of it - it's too silly for words. I can't help thinking up images to go with the voice-over."
"Well, Princess can do 'dedicated'," Tiny suggested. "Surrounded by books and manuals in four different languages."
"Great idea, Mr inseparable-from-his-lunch," I retorted.
"Invincible?" asked Keyop.
The atmosphere instantly quietened. None of us could even joke about that one.
"Let's hope so," Mark said softly.
* * * * *
Story © Catherine Rees Lay, November 2004.