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 there are a couple of things you might like to know:
Rumours of Death is, of course, a reference to that well-used quote about
them being greatly exaggerated. What you may not know is that it's also the
title of a Blake's 7 episode. (And if you've never seen Blake's 7, I heartily
recommend it, 70s special effects and all). Suffice it to say that in the
episode in question, our "hero" discovers that his lady friend, far from being
captured and killed by the bad guys, was in fact working for them, set him up,
and is very much alive. But the rumours of death aren't just about her. They're
also about him, and as he says, they were only slightly exaggerated.
Psychologically he's never the same again.
There are two bits of BotP canon you have to tweak for this to make sense (but hey, you have to do more than that from one episode to the next!)
1) I must have misheard this one when I first saw it, but I was only about 10. Bear with me. For this to work, in "G-Force Defector" you have to reassign one line of dialog. Imagine it's not Mark who says that he couldn't get close to Don and he and Jason really didn't get along, it's Anderson. I was horrified when I finally got the DVDs and discovered this huge spanner in the workings of my backplot, but it's at least 20 years too late to fix it.
2) Cronus didn't give Mark to Anderson to bring up, but to Anderson's equivalent in my universe's ISO Russia - Colonel Ivanov. The whole "trained from birth" thing always seemed more Russian than American to me.
This is the story of G-Force's first space mission, back before they knew Spectra even existed, and is set approx. one year before the start of the TV series.
Looking back on it now, I have difficulty believing we were ever that naïve. I remember being younger, less sure of myself, less proficient. I know, intellectually, that the first flight we ever made came before we were at war. I vaguely remember the objectives of training being to prepare us for exploration, not combat. I still can't believe we were so completely blind to the possibility of a hostile force being out there. Someone who couldn't be reasoned with. Someone who would give us no alternative to all-out war.
Our jump-technology, our way to FTL travel, was in its infancy. We'd never made an interstellar jump. We didn't even know there was intelligent alien life, other inhabitable planets. We found out we were not alone in the worst possible way.
"What, again? What was wrong with the last one?"
"You can take ten seconds off that time. One day, you might need to. Re-initialise and do it again." Anderson, implacable as usual.
"Okay, guys. Can we please get it right this time? I'm sick and tired of this drill." Jason shifted in his seat in the cockpit simulator, waiting for the screens to come up with the new set of launch data.
I stared at my screens in disbelief, mentally running through my pre-flight checks. I had no idea how I was going to cut anything off the time I'd been taking. I was concentrating so hard, in fact, that I almost missed the screens lighting up for the start of the next run.
Fortunately my reflexes took over. We'd done this so many times in the past few months that my hands were initialising the requisite tests without the need for conscious thought.
Those were impossibly fast. I'd barely initialised all my tests, and they took time to run. I sat there feeling useless and slow for the apparent eternity until they completed. I knew the timing down to a fraction by now, and had taken the breath to call "G-3" when I stopped dead at the results the tests had produced. Console working normally, all interfaces to the Phoenix's systems fine, radio fine. Red lights all over the place on the jump-comm.
I swore inwardly and called the dreaded "pass" as I reinitialised the test and every additional check I could think of. Not that I really believed it would work second time round. There would be a problem in there somewhere which I was supposed to be able to fix. And as I heard "G-4" I knew they were all waiting on me.
Nothing I could do would make the last red light go away. Had it been for real, I'd have been under the console looking for shorts or failed connections. In the simulator we were explicitly banned from doing this, as under there the systems weren't the same as on the real thing. The simulator was far too expensive to really do physical damage to for training purposes, the controllers simulated it in software. I was out of options.
"Commander, I have a failure on the jump-comm transmitter."
Jason didn't even hesitate. "Abort."
"Oh, what? Come off it!" Don sounded completely disgusted - he probably didn't fancy yet another test run either. "Abort with a fault on the radio?"
"Damn straight. No point launching if we can't communicate. And she said jump-comm, not radio."
"She'd be able to fix it. Wouldn't you, Princess?"
I glared at Don. This sort of championing I could do without. "I don't know. I couldn't with the initial checks. For all I know right now, they simulated someone stealing the transmitter. It could be something I can't fix in flight."
"Precisely." Anderson had come into the simulator, signifying the end of the session. "Had G-1 called anything else, I'd be cancelling the launch slot I've arranged for tomorrow morning." He handed Jason the brown envelope we'd come to recognise as containing a flight plan - a real one, not the endless simulations - and walked out.
"Bets?" asked Don as usual, thankfully no longer on my case.
"Sub-orbital," groaned Tony. "Probably taking in that crutty weather in northern Canada."
Jason winced. "Better hadn't be. I reckon it'll be a full launch. We're due it. Orbital."
"I think it'll be separation and pickup," Don said. "We haven't had a live run at that in ages. Princess?"
"You just want an excuse to fly that Hawk jet of yours. Some sort of precision run? And my name is Kate."
Don just grinned. He had a real thing about nicknames. Right from day one of the original selection camp for ISO's jump-flight exploration program, everyone he'd dealt with had ended up with one. My English accent had earned me 'Princess' the first time I'd opened my mouth in his presence. Tony, taller and considerably wider than Don, he insisted on calling 'Tiny'. Jason, on the other hand, remained Jason. I'd never found out exactly what had happened in that particular martial arts workout, but Don came out of it moving very gingerly, and he'd never so much as contracted Jason's name again.
"Well, open it, then!" Don, impatient to see if he was right.
Jason laughed as he opened the envelope. "What is it with you pilots...?" His voice died away as he stared at the contents in disbelief. Turned the envelope over and checked it did indeed have Condor on the front. Checked the front page again, the one with the personnel list. And finally punched the air in delight. "Yes!"
"What - what?" Don was fairly dancing with frustration by now. "We get to go orbital?"
Jason couldn't contain himself any longer. Eyes shining, he held the flight plan out to his second-in-command. "We get to go to Mars."
* * * * *
We'd been together for almost eighteen months by then; ISO's new jump-crew, selected from English-speaking teenagers from all over the world after they'd tried and failed for several years to find older suitable candidates. ISO would have been a lot happier about it if we hadn't been their only jump-crew. They'd finally been forced to admit that their cerebonic implantation process, which amongst other things regulated blood chemistry sufficiently to make jump bearable, always failed once puberty was over. Existing implants continued to function without problems, but new ones were rejected. This left ISO with their original jump-pilot - the genius who'd help develop the prototype at the age of seventeen and jumped it from near Earth orbit to Mars in a little under four minutes - and us.
The plan to have us apprentice as Adam Tring's crew had lasted about a week. I should be more polite about him, the reason we have jump-flight capability at all, but honestly I can't find anything good to say about Adam Tring the man. We four had our differences, but we were already starting to work together. Tring had no idea how to interact with a team, let alone be a part of it. It shouldn't have been a problem - Tring had been a hero to every one of us, if asked, we'd have said being under his command would be the fulfilment of a dream. However, within three days even I was struggling to be civil to him.
Truth be told, his day was done and he knew it. His forte was in prototype development. He was a worse pilot than Tiny, the wrong sex to be a jump-communicator, and probably had his suspicions about how good a jump-pilot he was compared with Jason or Don's potential. He stayed as a one-man team, running flights to set up and support the new Mars base, and we went into training as a team of four intended to go out and explore the galaxy.
* * * * *
We were all still bubbling with excitement as we waited outside Anderson's office for an initial briefing. We were ready for this; had been for months, in our opinion. We'd made precisely this run in the simulator, based on real data from Tring's jumps, on multiple occasions.
Anderson let us in, smiling broadly at the sight of our faces. "I can see you're looking forward to your little trip. Have you had a chance to look over the flight plan yet?"
A chance? Jason and Don had done nothing but talk jump-points and trajectories ever since we'd got the nod. Tony had disappeared to practise on the Phoenix flight-simulator. I'd managed to acquire the back pages of the plan and acquainted myself with exactly what our manifest was, communication details, and all those little trivialities like the name of the Mars base commanding officer, their callsign, and all the alternative radio frequencies they used. Don might tease me about just being there to chat on the radio, but there were a whole bunch of details which if I didn't know, nobody would, and we might need them in a hurry. There was always a lot of talk about how young we were, me especially. I needed to sound completely professional on this one. Let Don laugh; I knew exactly how much food, fuel and oxygen we were taking to Mars base, and who to report to when we got there.
"We've looked at it." Jason couldn't stop smiling. "Hell, we've memorised it. Can't we go now?"
Anderson laughed and clapped his star student on the shoulder. "You've waited this long, you can hold on another eighteen hours. Now sit down, all of you, let's run through this from the top."
We went through every phase in nauseating detail. Launch, transit, jump, transit, landing. Tony was utterly confident in his piloting skills, Jason equally so about the jump. Don was ready to back either of them up if required. Technically I was next on the depth chart in both disciplines, but it was never going to come to that.
As we came to the end, Anderson cleared his throat, stood up, and indicated to Tony that he should do the same. In some confusion, he complied, shaking the hand that Anderson held out to him.
"G-4. This is hardly going to be a challenge for you. Keep it simple. You'll have plenty of chances to show off your piloting skills. This time, stick to basics."
He indicated me, and I jumped to my feet rather faster than was dignified.
"G-3. You're much more skilled than you think you are, and you have a talent for making up for others' weaknesses. Have faith in yourself. Believe that you're ready for this." He turned to Don.
"G-2. There's no shame in being the backup on a team like this. You may not like it, but you make a great second-in-command. You're a wonderful pilot, and a gifted jump-pilot. There's not much call for a scientist on a test flight, but once you're exploring, your other skills will be crucial. But your job tomorrow is to be there for your commander. Help him when he needs it, tell him if he makes a mistake, back him up. Your time will come."
Finally, Jason. "G-1. What can I say? You're a natural leader. The maths guys have no idea how you solve the jump-equations that fast. They closed the book on you breaking Tring's fastest time months ago. Get this one under your belt, and we can start looking to the future. Just keep it steady."
Jason glowed under Anderson's approval. "You can count on us, Chief. We're G-Force."
Tony had barely shut the door behind him before Don was mimicking Anderson's speech. "Tiny, the skills we hope you'll never need: the ability to out-eat the rest of the crew, bang their heads together effortlessly, and mend them afterwards. Princess, to charm every man between here and Mars, and…and…"
"Don, as someone whose major talent is dissolving stuff you're on seriously thin ice here," retorted Tony. "We need you to light the Bunsen up, we're in deep shit."
"Oh, there's a much worse scenario than that," Don retaliated.
"What, than 'Don, get your test-tubes out'?" queried Jason.
"Sure thing, Commander. 'Jason, fly us out of here.'"
"So I'm a crap pilot. That's old news." Jason glared at his second, but not with any anger. "You need to work off some adrenaline. Me, too. Coming?"
"Tell you what," Don lengthened his stride to fall into step with Jason. "If I can get you this time, how about you let me jump her home?"
Jason rolled his eyes. "You never give up, do you? I like it, though. Let's go for it. I'll beat Tring's record on the way out, you can have a crack at it on the way back. I like the idea of us one and two on the list after one jump apiece. And it'll annoy the hell out of Tring to be number three."
"So do I still have to out-fight you?"
Jason looked down his nose at the considerably shorter pilot. "In your dreams, G-2."
I sighed and turned to Tony. "I guess we'd best leave the testosterone brigade to go and beat hell out of one another."
Tony nodded. "Just don't damage each other. If this launch gets pulled because one of you's broken something, I might cry."
"No decent martial artist would ever…"
"You call yourself a decent martial artist?"
"If you weren't my commanding officer, I'd flatten you right now for that!"
"You can try if you like."
Tony and I left them to it, as they bickered off towards the gym.
* * * * *
I've never understood why Anderson thought that Jason and Don didn't get on. Sure they argued - non-stop. That's just the way Jason works. His favourite gambit for getting or giving information is to play devil's advocate. In truth, Jason and Don made an exceptional command team, complementing each other in skills, temperament and life experience.
Certainly Don, from his privileged background and a wealthy New York family, had rankled at being passed over for command in favour of the Sydney orphanage brat two years younger than him. Being Don, he'd bitched openly about it. Jason, being Jason, had told him to put up or shut up. Anderson left them to it. And eventually Don, a genius in his own speciality of chemistry and no slouch elsewhere, had accepted that Jason was the better commander.
Don would have made a good commander, eventually. At that time, he was far too likely to hope for the best when faced with an unpleasant possibility. Jason, even then, went in for overkill in any uncertain situation. Don was sadly prone to head-in-the-sand.
By some quirk of fate, both had come to the ISO FTL program already accomplished martial artists, and as sparring partners each had developed a healthy respect for the other's abilities. Don the chemistry genius, already published in a couple of minor journals, and a startlingly good jet pilot, at least had two areas where he outshone his commander, and had learnt to live with coming second in most of the rest. He already did everything Anderson had mentioned, did it well, and had finally become proud of his status as G-2.
Of course he still wanted a command of his own. He would have been a lousy choice as Jason's second if he hadn't. Jason knew that if Don was needed to take command, he would do so efficiently and wholeheartedly. We all considered this a strength, not a sign of weakness and division. These days they never argued over decisions, not for real. I hadn't had to get between them seriously in months. Tiny and I just split them up to play the game. The four of us knew what a deep bond of friendship G-1 and G-2 had formed, but it seemed that nobody else could see it.
* * * * *
I ended up going back to the rec room on my own, Tony having taken himself down to the Phoenix hangar to check something unspecified. That suited me fine - I had a phonecall to make, quickly, before it got too late on the other side of the Atlantic.
"Hey, Katie! How's things?"
We talked for a while, not about anything in particular, just enjoying talking. I didn't ring home half as often as I should have done, and when I did there were always things I wasn't allowed to talk about. Such as now, when all that I really wanted to say was 'hey Dad, I'm going to Mars tomorrow.' All my family knew was that my ISO scholarship was associated with the jump-program, and they'd given permission for me to be implanted as a potential jump-team member. They had no idea I was on G-Force, or even that it existed. In the very near future, they should.
Eventually he asked if I wanted to talk to Alison. No matter that I'd called her Mum for years, he never could bring himself to use it.
"Sure. Just - I may not be able to phone for a few days. There's something important happening here. Keep your eye on the news - you'll be glad you let me come."
I talked briefly to my stepmother, again we didn't have much to say. We discussed the rest of the family, people I hadn't seen in ages asking about me, and my parents' visit to the States later that year. I told her I loved her and was on the verge of hanging up.
"Katie, I can hear you're excited. Whatever it is, take care, and good luck."
"Oh, I will, Mum. Speak to you soon."
I'd barely put the phone down when it rang again.
"Hi Kate, is Don there?"
"Oh, hi Mrs Wade. He's in the gym right now - can I get him to call you back?"
"No, we're leaving right away. Can you just tell him that his father and I will be out of town for a few days? We'll be back Friday morning."
"No problem. Have a nice time."
* * * * *
It had seemed perfectly natural for Don, the only local, to introduce his fellow trainees to his elderly, doting parents. We'd been invited to lunch, and Tony and I had thought nothing of it. Sunday lunch with your friends' parents (or your parents' friends) is apparently a universal tradition both sides of the Atlantic, and we'd both grown up with the conventions. Jason, brought up in a Sydney orphanage, had never experienced it and was desperately, visibly uncomfortable.
Mrs Wade had been politely mortified. And Jason had, for the first and only time since I'd known him, swallowed his pride and explained to Don's wealthy parents that their son's fellow scholarship student was a penniless Italian-Australian orphan with no family at all. I'd expected horror, but was pleasantly surprised by their calm, sympathetic understanding. Jason gradually got more comfortable with the situation, and a few weeks later was looking forward to real cooking and a family meal just as much as the rest of us.
* * * * *
I would have liked to go to bed that night feeling calm, relaxed and secure in the knowledge that I was fully prepared for the next day's flight. No such luck. I was terrified, shaking and so nervous I felt sick. I was quite incapable of rest, let alone sleep, and after half an hour of tossing and turning I sat up, turned the light on, and attempted to read. That didn't work either. Even my guitar failed me. I couldn't relax enough to let the reflexes take over. Five minutes of fluffed chords and out-of-tune exercises and I slammed the wretched instrument back into its case in frustration. The rec room kitchen beckoned; a hot drink might help, and at this point I might as well get up properly for an hour before trying to sleep again.
My first thought on opening the door was that we were due another lecture on leaving the light on. It took some seconds of blinking in the unexpected brightness to realise that, far from me being alone in my insomnia, the rest of the team was all here. I couldn't decide whether this made me feel better or worse.
Tony looked at the clock as I shut the door behind me. "I win!"
I groaned. "Is there anything you guys won't bet on?"
"Nope," said Jason cheerfully. "We even saved some milk for you. Tony insisted you'd be here before one. Chocolate or coffee?"
"You know what I think of decaf coffee. Chocolate, please."
"I could make tea?" suggested Don.
I shuddered. "No, you couldn't. In any case, not even I could drink tea at one a.m. It may be decaf, but my brain knows tea's supposed to be a stimulant."
"Chocolate all round then," said Jason, stirring at four mugs. He suddenly smiled. "I'm commanding a jump-flight to Mars in nine hours, and what am I doing? Playing waiter."
"You volunteered." Don took two mugs, gave one to Tony, and sagged into one of the sofas. "God, I'm so tired. I'm just not sleepy."
"Does self-defence count as volunteering?" Jason sat down alongside me and stretched luxuriously. "Now I know why they didn't tell us a week ago. I never saw myself doing this on zero sleep."
"There'll be a reason for all those all-night training sessions followed by sim flights," Tony pointed out. "They know we can do it with or without sleep." He sipped at his chocolate. "Rest and relaxation's nearly as good in the short term anyway."
"For you, maybe." Jason drained his mug and put it down. "I need some real sleep. Psych 101 time. Kate, what's worrying you?"
He was right, of course. We were a team, we needed to know each other's weaknesses so we could compensate for them. Even if they were only imagined weaknesses, as at this point in our training they surely were. I just wished he hadn't asked me to go first.
"That I'm not up to this physically." I looked around at the others, all older, taller and stronger than me. "I'm only here because they couldn't find a male jump-communicator. What if I can't handle an orbital launch?"
"Then you pass out and come round ten minutes later," Tony said. "You'd be embarrassed. It wouldn't be a disaster. Anyway, you know you can pull eight g in the centrifuge. We won't be going much above six."
He smiled reassuringly at me. Nobody had looked horrified. I managed a smile in return. I was still concerned, but he was right - apart from my pride, nothing would be hurt even if I did black out.
"I guess it's my turn," Tony continued. He gulped. "I just don't want to screw up. If I do…"
"Then I take over." Don put his hand out to the big pilot. "I'm your co-pilot, Tiny. That would be my job. Which, for the record, makes me completely redundant."
Tony's turn to look relieved. "So, Don. You're the last person I'd expect to have worries - but you're here. So spill."
I saw Don swallow hard. I guessed he'd never done this before. Don didn't admit weakness. "I really don't fancy that jump. There's no details, but Tring says it's awful. And he ought to know." Like me, he met one set of eyes after another. "Even with the implants. Assuming they work right."
There wasn't an easy answer to that one. None of us knew first-hand what jump was like. I did know how gullible Don could be, though. "I trust Dr Johnson when he says the implants are tuned right," I told him. "I also trust Adam Tring to have wound you up as far as he thought he could. You're too easy a target. He's said nothing about it to me."
"No. He got you good, Don. Sorry." Not quite true - Tring had tried his 'it's so awful, I'm so heroic' act on me precisely once, I'd shown complete disinterest, and he'd given up.
"The guy's a moron." Don slammed his hand on the arm of the sofa in furious embarrassment. "I'll kill him."
"He's not worth it," Jason said dismissively. "Let's just out-jump him. This time tomorrow he'll be the third best jump-pilot in ISO. He won't like it one bit."
He was clearly reluctant to go on. "I guess you'd better hear mine. One Don knows already. Tony answered it just fine. If I embarrass myself, so be it. The other - something completely unexpected happening. Something nobody's thought of. And since Tring's already done this run twenty-odd times, that's pretty unlikely. We're going to be alright."
I trusted him. I did wonder what his first worry was, but it didn't matter. Jason said we'd be alright, and I believed him absolutely. He'd keep us safe. I knew I'd sleep now - just five minutes sitting here to finish my drink and I'd go back to bed.
* * * * *
We're used to the implants now; I couldn't imagine life without them. Back then they were the most frightening thing I'd had to face.
Two tiny chips; one controlling the body's release of chemicals into the bloodstream and used to make jump bearable, the other a minute transmitter, an interface between brain and electronics. Physical reactions were simply too slow. A direct link was a necessity both for the jump-pilot and for me, the jump-communicator. The implants worked like a dream, but it was still downright scary until you got used to it, having your thoughts transmitted directly to the equipment without your hands being involved.
And someone in Research had thought up some alternative uses, too. They'd taken the requirements for a flight suit to allow us to pull high g, cope with jump, and explore safely in a variety of environments. They'd looked at the latest materials, able to shift between flexibility and rigidity with the application of electric current. They'd realised that the transmitter implant could be used to control such a current. And then I can only presume they'd had a wild party, remembered that Adam Tring's callsign was 'Skylark' and let their imagination run wild.
We'd thought they were joking when they first brought out the designs. Don had laughed so hard the tears had run down his face and he'd been rendered completely speechless. Anderson, less than amused, had sent him out to get control of himself, and glared at the rest of us until we'd regained our composure. When Don came back, marginally calmer but still not daring to look at anyone, Anderson had the developer explain precisely how we were going to put on something that skin-tight. We'd become very serious, very quickly. For some reason it was a whole lot easier to accept that we were going to jump to Mars in a matter of minutes, than that the same principles could be used to instantly replace everything we were wearing with an amazing suit they were calling birdstyle. A winged suit, which we could control with a thought to glide effortlessly.
I'd loved my birdstyle from the first time I'd transmuted. Which was about the 25th attempt I'd made to get the voice-and-motion trigger sufficiently synchronised. Fortunately we were practising separately at the time, so only I knew how incompetent I felt. Dusky pink and purple were exactly what I'd wanted; nothing too flashy and decidedly feminine. ISO's publicity department was particularly keen that nobody should miss that there was a girl on G-Force. The skirt was entirely for show, but I was a lot happier with it than with the first design they'd considered. I didn't have the nerve for the catsuit look.
Jason and Don carried it off fine - they both had the sort of build which years of martial arts training will give you. It was quite obvious that the moment ISO released any pictures of us, those two would go straight to the top of the teen heartthrob list. I was naturally slight, and in any case society didn't have the same expectations of females. Tiny was big and super-strong, but not physically impressive the way the other two were; he was self-conscious, embarrassed and miserable. He'd come as close to quitting then as any of us ever had, and it had taken a concerted effort over several weeks by the three of us to reconcile him to the new uniform. Don's idea of jumping off the roof had got us into a lot of trouble, but it had been worth it. Gliding outdoors, on real air currents, was something else. Tiny was a convert.
* * * * *
I woke slowly to the smell of best ISO-approved 100% decaffeinated pseudo-coffee, and a feeling of total disorientation. This wasn't my bed - in fact this wasn't a bed at all. This was the sofa in the rec room, and I'd only shut my eyes for a minute, intending to head back to my room. Clearly something had gone wrong; morning light was streaming through the windows and the clock read almost eight o'clock.
Eight o'clock? We were due to launch at ten! I jumped to my feet, ready to remonstrate with whoever was around for a) letting me sleep now, and b) leaving me asleep in here last night, when I registered that Jason was fast asleep alongside me and Tony just stirring on the other sofa. Don was making coffee, apparently without a care in the world, but was still wearing the clothes he'd had on last night. We'd all dropped off where we sat, then.
Don saw me, signed <quiet> and beckoned me over. I rejected with a frown his offer of coffee and hissed, "We launch in two hours!"
"So? You have something other than wind yourself up you need to do? Let them sleep."
He did have a point there. I dug in the cupboard for decaf teabags, which I found marginally more palatable than the coffee, dropped one into a mug and was pouring boiling water onto it when I suddenly changed my mind. I didn't want breakfast. Not even tea.
Don saw me stop, put his hand over mine, and forced me to finish pouring. "Have two mouthfuls, if you can't face it. But have something."
"Like you ever get sick. If nerves did this to you, you wouldn't want any either."
Don looked into the distance. "When I was waiting to hear back from the first journal I submitted to, I couldn't eat for a fortnight. I was convinced they'd somehow figure out it was written by a fifteen-year-old and I'd never be able to publish anything ever. Mum was so worried she took me to the doctor. I couldn't tell either of them what was wrong, but I made out I was scared about tests at school. He told me the important thing was to have something, even if not much. It does work. You'll feel really lousy later if you don't have anything inside you, especially if it's a rough launch."
He'd been put through everything any flight school, civilian or military, could think of to throw at him. He'd know. I sat down and sipped at tea which tasted of dishwater, as both Tony and Jason yawned and sat up.
"Morning, sleepyheads," Don called cheerfully. "Coffee?"
"Please." Tony stretched. "I can't believe we slept here all night. I never even stirred."
"Me neither. I'm glad, though. I don't do well on no sleep." Jason pulled a face at the cup his second held out to him. "Not sure I want any breakfast."
"I told Princess, I'll tell you. Have something. Tiny, tell him I'm right."
Tony extracted head and shoulders from the cupboard where he was hunting cereal. "He's right. I can even show you the old NASA research on it if you want."
"They wrote a paper on whether you should eat before launch?"
"They sure did. And you should."
Jason sighed. "You win. Provided there's something halfway edible in there."
We all made some attempt at breakfast in the end, although Jason remained reluctant and I was having problems even swallowing. One major advantage of the exploration role ISO had planned for us was that takeoff was designed not to require huge amounts of preparation - we'd get no help with pre-flight on our return from who-knows-where. We'd set everything up the previous evening, just leaving the technicians to finish refuelling. Apart from our final pre-flight checks, there was nothing we needed to do this morning. The cumbersome suiting-up procedures of the pre-jump era were gone, for us at least, replaced by a single word. It did make life easier, but right now we would all have welcomed an hour's worth of tedious, essential activity. It seemed forever until our bracelets pinged.
"G-Force, we're ready for you in the Phoenix now," came Anderson's voice.
Jason raised his bracelet. "We're on our way." He looked around. "This is it, team. Birdstyle time."
We all jumped to our feet. There was no reason for us to transmute together, but what had started as an exercise in coordination had gone beyond habit to be somewhat of a ritual. Jason looked from face to face. "Next time we do this, we'll be on Mars." He raised his left arm and we all followed in the gesture that had become second nature to us. "Transmute!"
The usual sight-defying flash and, as far as I was concerned, time for my other persona. The one who was confident, precise, reliable and experienced. It's amazing how well just believing you have those characteristics can work. Older and taller, I was still working on.
"I still say swans should be white."
"Yeah, Don. And hawks should be what - black and silver?"
"Want to watch that, Don," grinned Tony. "The Raiders might just sue you."
Already at the door, Jason turned. "Anyone else coming to Mars, then?" As we followed him out, he asked, "What raiders, anyway?"
The two Americans looked at each other and shook their heads in mock despair. "Jason, how can you have lived in this country for eighteen months and not have heard of the Raiders?" Don managed as we made our way to the lift.
"I discriminate in what I listen to?"
"I've heard that stuff you call sports commentary. The answer is…no."
They continued to argue as the lift dropped like a stone. Tony and I simply listened in amusement. This was how we functioned best. G-Force, at full potential, totally ready for our first full test flight. Then the lift doors opened, and as one we stopped to admire the Phoenix in all its glory.
She wasn't beautiful in the traditional sense. The lines weren't what you would call classical, but were the best compromise the designers could make between something capable of atmospheric flight while still a shape compatible with a jump-field. They'd struggled. She was desperately unstable even given computer assistance, and Tony had made the team largely on the back of his ability to fly her as if she were a real plane. Even Don, who could fly rings round Tony in anything else, was only adequate at the Phoenix's controls. I could take off, fly level, and land - probably, provided the weather was playing fair, on the simulator. I hadn't had too many tries with the real thing. The less said about Jason the better.
It was ironic, given that we'd spent yesterday afternoon trying to cut a few seconds from our pre-flight checks, that they'd allocated us half an hour for them this morning. It did help to be without time pressure, though, especially given how tense I was after last time.
Jason's "sound off" was so completely relaxed it could have come from any one of yesterday's training runs. Don's "G-2" wasn't - it started several notes higher than his normal voice, but he clamped down on it with some speed.
I waited for my checks to complete with a desperate determination. I would fix anything which came up with an error this time. I had twenty minutes before the end of our launch window. I could completely rewire at least one failed circuit in that time. Maybe two…
…and I scanned the board to see a full set of green lights.
My "G-3" was, I hoped, calm and professional, but even I could hear the relief in it. Tony followed with "G-4" shortly afterwards, and we were done. Jason simply looked up at the main viewscreen and said
"Control, we're ready for launch."
Anderson looked sideways, off our screen to one of his junior controllers. "Open sea doors."
This was usually the point where we were treated to last minute words of wisdom and a diatribe on not repeating the mistakes of the previous launch. This time, however, even Anderson sounded nervous as he cleared his throat. "G-Force, you have a go. Good luck and take care. Internal comms off."
The main viewscreen fizzed briefly before settling to the forward view of water foaming in through the slowly widening gap between the sea doors. Nice, safe, non-inflammable, constant temperature seawater - a much safer medium to launch from than Earth atmosphere.
The whine of the engines increased, building to full power, as the water level rose. It was above the camera lens now, and the screen filled with bubbles until the level rose sufficiently for the deeper water to clear the image again. I sat and listened to confirmations coming in over the radio that our flight path was clear, all water craft miles away, no unforeseen weather problems, wind speeds at various altitudes and every other piece of information we might conceivably need.
I didn't need to know any of it right now, but Anderson's comm-tech had figured out long ago how nervous I got right before launch and had taken it upon herself to give me something to listen to. Karen had been my room-mate in the original selection camp. She was older than me, more competent than me - and one of the seventy-five percent of people physiologically unsuited to jump-flight. She got a safe, steady, ground-based job with ISO Communications. I got to join G-Force. To her credit, she'd stayed my friend despite her disappointment. I was glad to have her on the other end of the jump-comm today.
The engines reached the top of their pitch, a whine so intense it always made my teeth ache. In front of me, I saw Don complete the docking clamp disconnection sequence, and Tony smoothly ease the Phoenix out, dead central between the doors, still on manoeuvring thrusters only.
"G-4, launch when ready," Jason said calmly alongside me, and Tony finally allowed the huge power of the engines to do its job, accelerating us towards the surface. Gradually initially, then more and more until the Phoenix broke the surface at full throttle. Instantly the vents opened, the nose came up, and the launch engines fired with a kick that pushed me back into my seat, very glad I wasn't the one responsible for keeping us on course while fighting six g. It was hard to see, hard to breathe, near impossible to move, and it went on and on, way beyond the duration of any of our previous test flights.
Strangely, though, I began to feel better as the acceleration continued and I realised I was coping with it. It wasn't as bad as the centrifuge. I wasn't going to pass out. I just needed to carry on enduring until we hit orbit.
Finally I became aware that the shriek of the engines was diminishing, the Phoenix was gradually levelling off, and the g-forces were reducing. I could breathe more easily, move my arms, raise my head. I opened my eyes, and found the world was once more in focus. In front of me, Tony sagged back into his chair as Don took over to complete our transfer from high-g launch to weightless orbit. The acceleration continued to diminish, became negligible, and as the engines wound down to idle, fell away to nothing. Time to get to work.
"Control, we have zero g. Launch phase complete."
"Confirm that, Phoenix. Numbers look good from down here. Full systems check, please."
"You heard the man." Jason was sitting forward, running his checks on the jump-drive yet again.
Don glanced sideways at his fellow pilot. "Give Tiny a minute, Jason. That was tough. I still think we should have automated it more."
"Once we start going other places, it'll have to be manual." Tony stretched his arms and flexed his hands until they clicked audibly. "May as well start as we mean to go on. I'm OK now."
We all worked at our consoles in silence for a couple of minutes at the somewhat different set of checks recommended to make sure nothing had been affected by launch. Everything was in order, and I reported to Control that we were ready for the next phase.
"Visual check of the cargo hold first, please," came back from Anderson in Control.
"Oh, great," Jason muttered. "Hoop of the week time. Kate, humour him."
I undid the seatbelts with a grim determination not to get this wrong, kicked off from the back of my seat and met the rear door rather harder than I'd intended. Ironic applause from the front row, but Jason hadn't even turned to watch, apparently engrossed in something on his screen. The pilots got my best sickly-sweet smile before I headed down the short passage to the cargo hold. More of a large room really, but when stacked as it was now it held a surprising amount. As expected for anything packed and strapped down with that much care, it looked exactly as it had been left the previous evening. Nobody was going to take the risk of having cargo fly around loose during launch.
I turned back, hand over hand down the rail running along the passage. This weightlessness was fun. I only wished we had more time to experiment, but the jump-engine test was the important thing today. There would be other chances to practise in free-fall.
I closed the flight deck door behind me, careful not to let go, and viewed my next move with more trepidation. No large back wall to stop me this time; I could either admit defeat and work my way round the wall, or launch myself across the flight deck with sufficient accuracy to hit the back of my chair. Fail and end up in Don's lap. Oh, what the hell - it was only embarrassment. Don would never let me live it down in any case if I didn't try. Lining up with exaggerated care, I launched myself in a straight line, caught the back of my chair with both hands, flipped over the top and landed perfectly in my seat. Grinning like an idiot, I turned to see what my commander thought of my prowess, and the smile died on my face.
Jason was still staring at his screen, his face sheet-white, with a look of fixed concentration. Beads of sweat were just starting to form on his forehead. Right now, he didn't look fit to command anything.
"Call in the cargo hold check, Princess." Don must have watched my performance and noted his commander's misery. Quite what Jason had been worried about seemed obvious now.
"Control, cargo hold's secure. We're ready to go on." There was at least some acceleration involved in breaking orbit and heading to the jump-point. I didn't have any personal experience of motion-sickness, but I was pretty sure sitting here wasn't going to help Jason any. I could tell Control, but I didn't dare risk what Anderson might do if told his star jump-pilot was space-sick. More to the point, I didn't dare risk what Jason might do if Anderson aborted something which mattered to him this much.
I'd only ever seen Jason lose his temper once: during our initial two week selection camp. He'd been struggling with what we'd later discovered to be a simplified Phoenix flight simulator when one of our fellow candidates had come in, seen a chance to get one over on a rival, reached over Jason's shoulder and swiped a hand clear across his controls. Jason had exploded out of the pilot's chair and thrown him across the room. Todd had ended up with a broken arm and two fractured ribs, and Jason had escaped being sent home by the narrowest of margins. Mostly because everyone involved in the camp was heartily sick of Todd's attitude, but I suspected also because Jason had been so visibly disgusted with himself for using his skills on someone who was no match for him. Whatever the reason, Todd had gone home, Jason had stayed, and I'd never seen him so much as raise a hand in anger outside the gym again.
I reckoned there was at least a chance that Anderson would decide Jason wasn't up to making the jump, Don wasn't ready, and abort. In my opinion, that should be Jason's decision, not Control's, and I didn't want to be responsible for taking it away from him. So, when Anderson asked how the crew were feeling before clearing us to break orbit, I told him we were fine.
Don gave me the thumbs-up from his seat, took another quick look at his commander's greenish face and spoke quietly to Tony. The engine note began to rise again, Tony announced that we were breaking orbit, and a vague semblance of gravity pushed us back gently into our seats.
"So," said Don conversationally, "are you going to radio Mars base and tell them we're on our way?"
I stared at him. "Radio? Mars is at conjunction right now. There's a sun in the way, in case you hadn't noticed. I could send it down the jump-comm, but they'd be none too pleased if it took them an hour to decode. And they don't have anyone who could reply, anyway. Were you actually at that briefing yesterday?"
"Sun in the way? I thought that was opposition."
Now he really had lost it. That was the sort of schoolboy mistake Don - any of us - didn't make. Only as he turned again and I saw the calculation in his eyes did I finally realise what he was doing.
The one thing I did remember about motion-sickness was that distraction works. The best way to avoid car-sickness is to drive the car yourself. It's when you have nothing else to think about that it gets you. Conversely, distracting someone who's already symptomatic is liable to result in them throwing up all over you. Don had to be attempting to provide Jason with the first sort of distraction by talking nonsense to me instead.
It worked, too. From my left came a familiar amused chuckle. "G-2, you better be joking, or I take back that offer of letting you play jump-pilot on the way home."
"I'm joking." Don swung out of his chair and, under the low gravity of our acceleration, ended up leaning against the front of Jason's console. "Answer me honestly, are you going to be okay?"
"I think so. We only go inertial two minutes before jump, right? I was fine for longer than that after we made orbit."
I glanced across at him. There was some colour other than green in his face, but he looked far from comfortable. "You don't look fine now."
"I'm not. I'm functioning. Leave it." He paused. "Thanks for covering for me. Anderson's so up tight about everything being perfect he might have aborted."
Don snorted. "He who can do no wrong throwing up all over the flight deck? Anderson would have had kittens."
Jason shuddered. "I'm still not feeling too great - can we stay away from the imagery for now?"
"Sorry, Commander. I'll save it for later." Don got his feet under him, reached up to the back of his chair and swung himself back to his co-pilot's console. As an afterthought he looked back. "That was one neat zero-g trick you missed from Princess, by the way."
"I'll catch it on the tape later." He scanned the rest of us, working perfectly happily. "Everyone else felt just fine?"
"Sorry, Jase," Tony put in. "You drew the short straw for once."
"I should have guessed. I did guess, after zero-g training in that damn plane. I really didn't think it would be that bad, though."
"It's only short bursts in the plane. Some people don't feel really ill until they've been weightless for several minutes continuously." Tony checked his instruments. "In case anyone's interested, it's ten minutes to the jump-coordinates."
Ten minutes to jump-coordinates. Until we would vanish in a wall of flame and shortly reappear a few million miles away, just a few minutes from Mars. I was trying not to think about Mars being at conjunction at the moment. Apparently this makes the jump-equations less complicated. Mere mortals like me still can't solve them, of course - that takes an intuitive mathematician like Jason. He got some slightly simpler impossible maths, the rest of us got to face the fact that as far as we were concerned we were about to fly right through the sun. Jump-space doesn't work that way, but it's still a deeply scary thought.
"Two minutes to jump-coordinates. Going inertial."
Jason took a deep breath. "Kate, start the full data dump. Don, keep an eye on the stats, yell if you see anything weird. I'd rather a false alarm than we ignore something significant."
Don just nodded sharply, as both his screen and Jason's filled with the astonishing mass of data which had to be sorted and analyzed to determine the precise form of the jump-equations unique to this moment and place. Our computer could do that just fine. It couldn't solve the equations themselves in anything under twenty minutes.
"Zero on the weird quotient."
"Looks OK to me, too." How Jason was keeping his voice steady I'd never know. "Going for jump in five." He didn't continue the countdown out loud, far too busy refining his solutions, tuning the jump-engine, making sure everything was as perfect as it could possibly be. "Stand by…jump!"
He pulled the control all the way back, the jump-drive screamed into life, and the world dissolved into red flame. We'd been warned about the desperate, burning pain of every breath, and it had been no exaggeration. They hadn't mentioned the dragging exhaustion, the overwhelming desire to stop fighting and pass out. The pressure behind the eyes and the slow onset of tension in every muscle. I knew the implants had to be compensating for the physical reactions, and had a sudden, stark vision of what jump would be like without them.
The shrill note of the jump-drive cut out so suddenly the silence hurt. The physical symptoms receded more slowly. I'd yet to manage to sit up or open my eyes when I heard Jason's "sound off."
"G-2." That was close to a groan from Don.
I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. At my second attempt, I managed "G-3", sounding even worse than Don had.
Silence from the pilot's seat. I opened my eyes to see Tony slumped across his console.
"Don, get us oriented and moving. Kate, tell Control we did it. I'll see to Tony."
"Are we there?" I whispered.
"Look at the screen, Princess." Don was upright in his seat, activating his backups of Tony's controls at top speed.
It was big, red, and close. Mars.
As we started to accelerate gently, I fired up the jump-comm. This really was a first - while it had been tested from orbit to the occluded side of Earth, ISO had never had a jump-communicator out this far before. I set everything up with the ease born of long practise and with some relief heard the rushing which distinguished an open connection. "Control, this is Phoenix, do you copy?"
"Loud and clear. Phoenix, what's your status?" Slightly crackly, slightly wavering. Certainly nothing I'd have any problems understanding, and far better than I'd feared. Not having to use the filtering software was a huge bonus.
I read off the coordinates blinking in the bottom corner of the main viewscreen, then glanced at the statistics on Jason's console. "Duration of jump was forty-six seconds."
There was a gasp. "Say again, Phoenix."
"Nice one, Jason," said Don. "You have any idea it was going to be that quick?"
Jason looked up from where he was hanging on to Tony's console, one hand on his pilot's shoulder. Tony still had his head down, but his eyes were open and he was moving. "Numbers looked good." He grinned broadly. "Tring's going to hate me. His record was more than three times that."
"Tring already hates you. You okay, Tiny?"
Tony had eased himself back into a sitting position. "Sure. If I was a medium rare steak. Man, that was horrible."
"I'll take it over free-fall any day." Jason jumped neatly down to his seat. "Kate, call Mars base, tell them to put the kettle on."
I adjusted to the Mars base default radio frequency. "Mars, this is Phoenix, do you copy?" Pause. Too long a pause. I tried again. Still nothing but static.
"No answer," I told Jason. "Checking for problems."
Circuit checks all passed normally. I could pick up my own transmissions, and there was an automated beacon beeping away on the first alternative frequency. So, not my transmitter or receiver. I went back to the jump-comm.
"Control, Mars does know we're coming, right?"
"Confirm that, Phoenix. They've known since before conjugation. And Skylark jumped out to them yesterday, so they've had confirmation."
No chance they simply weren't manning the radio for the three weeks when they couldn't receive radio signals from Earth, then. I settled to the tedious task of trying every alternate frequency in turn. All I got for my pains was either static or automated beacons. Time to be formal.
"Commander, Mars base is not responding on any of their standard channels."
"You mean our radio's dead?"
"No, I mean they're not transmitting. I've checked everything. I'm sure. All I'm getting from them is automated stuff."
Jason thought a moment. "It could be a test. In any case we'd keep going as we are. Keep trying them. And check Skylark, too."
I added Skylark's call frequency to the list, and continued to cycle through them. No change on any of them. Ten minutes of this, and Jason had had enough. He reached for the override switch, and realising what he was about to do I hastily reset to default transmission.
"Mars base, this is Phoenix. Enough with the games. Respond now."
It didn't work. Nothing but the same useless static.
Jason returned the radio controls to me. "I bet this is Tring's idea. If he thinks this is funny, I'll throttle him."
"Didn't you just tell me he wasn't worth it?" Don half turned. "Forget it, Commander."
"He's right, Jason," Tony added.
"What is this - a democracy? Okay, focus, guys. They want to play emergency, let's oblige them. You need a full orbit, or can we go straight down?"
Tony looked at Don for confirmation, then nodded. "We can do it. If we adjust the entry angle by…"
"Don't give me details. Just do it. Kate, tell Control."
Control were none too impressed, but joke or no joke we had to take a lack of radio contact seriously and get down there as fast as possible. There simply was no point sitting in orbit, too distant to see anything of the base at all even if we were directly over it. The sweeping emergency descent path in Martian gravity was nothing like as tricky as the equivalent we'd practised from high altitude on Earth. Its only disadvantage was the complete lack of view of the landing area, as the final approach came in tight over the high ground to the west of the base.
Tony and Don were good at this - real good. We came in as smooth as you could have asked. Through the high pass, bank left, and our first view of the Mars base dome.
It had never looked like that in the photos. The perfect hemisphere, the largest dome ever built by man, had a jagged hole ripped in it near the top facing west. A huge hole, several feet across. Depressurisation must have been instant. This was no test, no practical joke. This was a full-scale disaster.
"I see it. Tony, set us down as close to the dome as you can."
"What?" Tony looked more closely at the screen. "Shit." His voice wobbled. "What do we do now?"
"Just land us." Jason stared at the screen in silent concentration. This was way outside the parameters of any situation we'd ever been presented with in simulation. "Kate, did you try suit radio frequencies?"
"No. Suit radios wouldn't have enough power to reach orbit." I should have tried it the moment we saw the dome, though. I rapidly corrected my mistake, but it made no difference. No response anywhere in the range of frequencies they used.
As we landed and the engines cycled down, Jason looked up, determination in his face. "Listen up. This is now a rescue mission." He brought up a plan of the base on the main screen. "It's clearly happened recently - Skylark's just sitting there, and Tring only arrived yesterday. Let's hope they made it to the emergency shelters. That's these two tunnels, entrances here and here." Coloured blobs appeared on the screen. "Don, you and I are going in. I'll take the west entrance, you take the east. They join up eventually at an airlock. Tony, I want you ready to come down if we need you. You're the closest to medical help we've got. Kate stays here and coordinates. I don't know whether bracelet-to-bracelet will work through that much rock."
"But shouldn't I come…" Tony started.
"No. You stay here until you're called. That way you can come the quickest way, bring the right supplies and have a full oxygen tank."
"Their living quarters have emergency airlocks," Don said, struggling into the pressure mask he'd need in the thin Martian atmosphere. "They could just be in there."
"I don't think so." Jason adjusted his own mask and picked up his oxygen tank. "They'd have been watching for us. They'd be out by now."
He very obviously wasn't saying what we were all starting to think: that they might not have made it to safety at all.
"Keep talking," I instructed the two as they jumped down easily to the surface. "I don't even know if bracelet-to-ship will work from underground. I've turned the sensitivity right up, but we all need to know if it starts to fade out."
"Good thinking," Jason said simply.
Don took it as an invitation. "So, you think we can jump back up that high in this gravity without the ladder?"
"Not if we've got a bunch of hurt people to get up there."
We watched on the screen as they approached the dome. "Jason - that's one hell of a big hole. What could have exploded to take it out that high up?"
"Search me. It is weird, though. I'd expect it somewhere near the generators or something, not right at the top."
"Oh, great, they have a keypad on the airlock. Who'd they think would try to get in? Martians?"
"I don't think ISO have door locks without them." Jason reached past him and typed four numbers. The door slid open. "Scientists. No idea of security."
Even at a distance we could see Don's surprise. "How'd you do that?"
"Pi. There's about five numbers that almost every scientist uses for passwords. Pi's top of the list."
"You're kidding. Avogadro's constant?"
"I think that's number four."
"And there was I thinking I was being clever." They went through the opening, out of sight of our cameras, and suddenly Don's tone changed completely. "Hell. Oh, no."
"Turn round and breathe. Now, G-2. I need you functioning." I heard Jason take a ragged breath of his own. "Phoenix, we have five fatalities. Decompression."
He read the names off their suits. I'd met two of them briefly. Marco we'd all known - he had come through the same selection camp we four had, had done his pilot training with Don and Tony. I hadn't even realised he was on Mars. It all seemed totally unreal.
They'd found a further three bodies before they reached the centre of the dome, all having clearly died instantly. It was obvious by now that Jason was right; anyone alive in the buildings inside the dome would have come out by now, or at least made themselves known. We were still missing seventeen people, who weren't answering radio calls on any recognised frequency, and who hadn't attempted to help their fallen colleagues. Our best guess had to be that they were underground. And if they'd survived for long enough to get underground, there was a fair chance they were still alive. It was surprising that they hadn't sent anyone back out, though, since the emergency shelters had full survival gear, and the living quarters were fully intact.
"Maybe we'd better go down together," Jason suggested as they approached the first of the tunnel entrances.
"You think I can't cope? You said it yourself, Commander, time matters here. Stick with your first plan. I'll go down here, see you at the junction."
He sounded fine, confident, his normal self, and Jason let him go and went on to the other entrance.
"I've got air in here, and power. Lights are on." Don's voice was slightly attenuated but the signal was still reasonable.
"Still receiving you, G-2," I told him. "G-1?"
"Same. I'm not in the tunnel yet, though."
"Environmental controls all read normal. Someone's been here, though, and not been too careful - the front panel's hanging loose. I'm taking the mask off to conserve oxygen." Don grunted as he peeled off the pressure mask. "I hate these things." He took a deep breath and shouted "Hello - anyone there? It's G-Force - we're here to help."
"It's echoing all round - don't know if you can hear that? It's really creepy down here."
"Stay focused." Jason's signal was crackly now, clearly he was inside too. "G-2, you still getting me?"
"Just about. Princess is clearer."
"Okay, G-3, stand by to relay if it gets any worse. G-2, check every room for missing survival gear, anything. They have to be here somewhere."
Fortunately the signals didn't get any worse as they worked their way down, closer together. They still had very little to report. No sign of people or recent activity at all on Jason's side.
"You wanted to know about missing stuff?" Don said. "Survival gear's all untouched. But I've got a computer terminal here, all in bits. Not taken apart too carefully. Just dumped in the middle of the floor."
I frowned. "What's missing? Could they have been scavenging for parts to repair a transmitter?"
"I don't know. Could you build a transmitter from a hard drive?"
"It's the hard drive that's gone? How about the case and wiring? That's what I'd take if I wanted to jerry-rig something."
"Case is here. Wiring - there's definitely still some. Couldn't tell you if it's all here. The processor's gone, too."
"But why would anyone take a hard drive and processor? I mean, why not just take the whole machine? I can't imagine any problem which would need both and still be worth fixing. And if you've got that serious a problem, why dump the rest?"
"Maybe they're hurt and couldn't carry the whole system?" Jason suggested. "Sounds like they're your side, Don. I'll get a move on."
"Hello?" Don said suddenly, not directly into the bracelet.
"G-2?" I asked.
"Nothing - just thought I heard something for a moment." He paused. I distinctly heard "pull yourself together, man."
I briefly shut off the general transmission and contacted Jason directly. "Are you still getting this? Don's real jumpy."
"I got it. I'm nearly through. He'll be okay."
His next comment came on the global channel. "I have six doors left - you?"
"Seven." A door opened and shut. "Six, now. I can see the airlock at the junction. Jason, I don't think they are down here. Where else can they have…"
Another door opened. "Oh, shit. I've found them. They're all…they've been shot!" His voice went up a full octave. "What the…Who are you?" And then he screamed, and his comm channel went dead.
I never want to hear anything like that again. I've heard it in my dreams ever since. I replay the minutes leading up to it, mute, unable to warn him not to open that door, to wait for Jason. Unable to tell our younger selves to react to the warning signs we all saw, all remembered when it was too late. Don heard something. Don was worried, and Don did his usual trick and presumed it would be okay. He was wrong. Jason missed it, I didn't trust my intuition, and Don paid the price.
"G-4, get to the east entrance!" I could hear sounds indicating that Jason was running, and at the same time I was desperately calling Don's name over his channel, again and again. Nothing but static in return. I'd heard far too much static today.
Before Tony could so much as fit his mask, the whole ship rocked as the ground shook and the sound of an almighty explosion came over the comm.
"Jason!" I howled down the link. We couldn't lose him too, not like this. Tony and I would never be able to rescue both of them. I had no idea where we would even start.
"I'm okay." Sounds of coughing. "Air's full of dust. The whole roof's down between here and the junction. I'll have to come back up the west tunnel. I'm back on oxygen." More coughing, but his voice started to sound better. "I'll meet you at the entrance to the east tunnel. Kate, keep talking to Don."
I went back to reassuring the unrelenting static that we were coming, that we would get him out. I didn't think his communicator was even working from the way the transmission had cut off, but it was just possible he was still receiving. I didn't give a second thought to what Don had actually said last. At least, not until the other ship appeared over the mountains beyond the dome.
It was a mark of just how shocked we were that both Tony and I stood and stared at it in silence for several seconds.
"I didn't know we had anything that big?" I said finally, stupidly. "And the shape's just weird."
"The shape's impossible. That can't be flying…" Tony's voice died away as realisation struck. "Jason, get back here now! We have an unknown incoming ship, and it's huge! First contact situation."
Jason gasped once, then took control with an icy determination I'd not heard before. "G-3, I hope you know the protocol. G-4, I want you ready to take off the moment I get aboard. Go."
I stared at Tony. "But Don…"
"Don needs you on the radio, persuading that ship we're not a threat." He grabbed me by the shoulders and sat me forcibly in my seat. "Do your job, Princess."
Don's nickname for me got me going where nothing else had. I started on the procedures I'd not expected to need for the foreseeable future, if ever. Certainly not in our own solar system, on what was supposed to be a training exercise.
It had all been thoroughly thought out. Broadcast on as wide a frequency band as possible, using preset tapes with tones demonstrating universal mathematical concepts: prime numbers, squares, cubes, Fibonacci sequence, basically anything they'd been able to think of which shouted 'we're intelligent, please listen to us.' Listen for any response, anything at all, and spit it back at them while the computer analysis ran to see whether they had the same idea and were transmitting mathematical concepts at us.
Tony ramped up the engines, having done two sets of pre-flight checks in double-quick time, just as Jason hurtled into the flight deck. "Get us in the air." There was no emotion in his voice at all; not sorrow, not anger, nothing. He sat down and began to methodically strip off mask and oxygen tank. Not a flicker on his face, either. "G-3, tell them we're friendly."
"Protocols don't have that…"
"Tell them now!"
I gulped, and hit the override on the protocol broadcast as Tony brought us up and around in a long sweep. "Unknown ship, this is the Phoenix. We mean you no harm. Please respond." It sounded so very corny, but I'd had it drummed into me that all that actually mattered at this point was tone of voice. Many animals could pick up from your tone whether you were friendly, so an intelligent alien might be able to do the same. Theoretically.
There was nothing in the theory which suggested a response of manic cackling laughter and perfect, if accented, English. "You will surrender your ship now. If not…" And it suddenly became all too clear what had happened to the base. Their missile carved a second shattered hole in the dome, but this one exploded on contact with the ground, reducing the whole area to a rubble-filled crater. Nothing recognisable remained.
"Bastards. Total bastards." Tony was close to tears. "They weren't a threat. They weren't even armed! Why?"
I put my head in my hands and sobbed, staring at Don's empty chair. We'd never get to him now, if he'd even survived initially. Both access tunnels had to have gone in an explosion that size. I vaguely heard Jason giving instructions, but it didn't matter any more. Don was dead. Adam Tring was dead, along with every man and woman on Mars. We'd met alien life, and it was merciless. Nothing mattered now.
Jason backhanded me hard across the visor. "G-3, you will pull yourself together! Tell him he has thirty seconds before we destroy his ship. Do it!" He turned his attention forward. "G-4, bring us round on a collision course. Full speed."
I found the words from somewhere, some reserve of fury fuelled by the voice on the radio responsible for the death of my friend. I put every ounce of derision and contempt that I could muster into it, as Tony brought us round in a tight turn and headed directly for the enormous craft, engines screaming in a suicide dive.
They didn't surrender, but they did move, pulling hard right at the last possible moment. The next missile they fired was at us.
"Evasive," said Jason in that same level tone. In the pilot's seat, Tony was gasping with strain - the Phoenix was no fighter jet, and we'd never practised anything like this in high Earth orbit, let alone a few hundred feet off the ground in Martian gravity. "Dive at them again."
More manic laughter on the radio. "So, the people of Earth have refined their jump-technology! Interesting. But sending out an unarmed ship was very unwise. In fact, a mistake you won't live to regret!"
"I hate that guy," Jason hissed. "Damn it, I wish we had something we could throw at him."
I was close to hysteria. "Get close enough and we have half a ton of food we can drop out the hatch."
Jason looked at me, opened his mouth, and paused. "Close enough…Close…Coincidental. G-3, you're brilliant."
I gaped at him, trying to gather my wits. "What?"
He still had most of his attention on the main screen. "G-4, keep dodging. G-3, what would happen if we fired the jump-engine and dived into them?"
"I have no idea. I guess we'd go out with a bang."
"Theory says we'd go right through them with no interaction. But anything we can get outside our jump-field would land up inside their ship. With any luck, coincidental with something solid."
"And we get a big bang, right inside." I thought about it briefly. "It's a good theory. I think it's more likely to work than ramming them. We might even survive it."
"We'll try it. Get to the cargo hold and stand by."
I fought my way to the rear of the flight deck as Tony threw the Phoenix from side to side in an attempt to evade yet another missile. My bracelet pinged before I was halfway down the passage. "G-3, you in position?"
I wasn't exactly hanging around on purpose. Going in the right direction while the world accelerated crazily around me in all three dimensions was far, far harder than the same trip had been in zero g.
I made it to the end of the corridor and into the cargo hold at a rush as the Phoenix steadied briefly, and had just enough time to attach myself to an anchor point on the wall before we slammed into yet another turn. "I'm there," I gasped into the bracelet as the acceleration eased, and started to consider my options.
The hatch was on the floor, so all I had to do was drop stuff out of it. Sadly, whoever had loaded the cargo hold hadn't done so with this in mind. Nothing was actually stacked on top of the hatch. I briefly considered doing some restacking of my own so all I had to do was open the hatch at the right moment, and discarded the idea as the Phoenix banked again. Anything loose now would be liable to crush me next time Tony had to take evasive action. I needed something I could trigger at the last possible moment.
I was as ready as I'd ever be by the time Jason contacted me again. The hold was depressurised, I'd detached as many of the safety straps from my chosen stack of supplies as I dared, and had taken up a stance as high as I could get, with the hatch control in one hand and my other hand on the last remaining anchor point.
"Stand by for attack run."
This turn was sharper than any we'd made yet, and attached to the wall by a webbing belt I thought longingly of a nice comfortable eight g centrifuge exercise. Launch had been a picnic compared to this.
"Twelve seconds to impact," said Jason. "Six till we go fiery. G-3, open the hatch." He could have been asking me to pass the sugar.
I released the remaining straps holding the stack of boxes against the wall and pressed the hatch open button, trying not to think about what could happen if we had to abort the attack run and Tony started evasive manoeuvres while I was in here with this much loose mass.
You really don't get a true feeling of speed when your only view of outside is on a screen. As the door opened, I couldn't believe there was no sound. On Earth, there would have been a tremendous rushing of air and suction so powerful everything would have been torn outside. In the thin Martian atmosphere, the red ground rushed past soundlessly, who knew how many thousand feet below.
"Firing jump-engine," Jason said and once again my vision went red. The ghostly flames of the jump-field flickered millimetres below the open hatch. I wanted desperately to close my eyes, to curl in a foetal ball and wait for it to end. I knew I couldn't.
With fingers which felt like someone else's, I swung myself up and levered the pile of boxes away from the wall. It took much longer than I'd anticipated; with the jump-engine activated, muscles didn't respond the way they should. Through the hatch the Martian surface disappeared and was replace by shadowy walls, floors, equipment: the interior of the other ship. Knowing I had only moments, I heaved at the pile with a strength born of despair. One box fell, two, three…and the fourth spun down towards the surface, too late. I never saw the flames fade.
Someone was shouting inside my helmet, insistent, refusing to go away no matter how I tried to ignore him.
"Just shut the damn hatch! The hatch, G-3! Now!"
I needed him to go away, to leave me in peace. Fumbling with the hatch control, I hit the button which would close the doors, repressurise the hold and shut my tormentor up. Then I simply tucked my head to my knees and stopped thinking.
Unsympathetic hands forced me to my feet and ripped the pressure mask off. "G-3, snap out of it. We need you on the comm. We have to warn Control."
I opened my eyes in horror. "They're gone? To Earth?"
Jason still might have been talking about the weather. "They're smears on the Martian landscape. But there could be more. Some sort of escape pod went off way too fast for us right before they came down. Whoever these bastards are, they know about us now. They know our language and where we're from. They took Mars base out, twenty-six people, like they were swatting a fly." Finally his voice cracked. "And we have to tell Control about Don."
I've never again struggled with a communication as badly as I did with that one. How do you tell someone that the twenty-five-strong crew of Mars base lie dead in their destroyed outpost? That the developer of jump-flight died with them? That our teammate had gone out looking for them, and wouldn't be coming back? That we'd encountered alien life, and it was hostile? If there's a right way to do it, I couldn't find it. I told Control the bare facts in one long rush before I broke down completely. Control kept coming back asking for confirmation, and I couldn't do it. Couldn't find the coordination to transmit coherently at all. Eventually Jason reached across me and snapped it off.
"We'll tell them on normal radio. We're only five minutes from jump."
Tony wasn't saying anything at all, but I could see him glancing repeatedly at the empty chair to his right. None of us could find words - for now, a huge part of us was missing, torn away. We were broken, only the procedures and protocols we'd rehearsed so many times keeping us going.
We approached the jump back with a strange sense of calm. No enemy ship. Just another jump, like the one a more innocent team had made a few hours ago. This time it felt almost commonplace. Sure, it was going to be horrible, we'd cope, and then we'd be nearly home.
"Two minutes to jump-coordinates."
Jason was impassive as he called up the requisite data on his screen. He didn't even bother asking either of us to check it. We weren't skilled enough to be useful.
He set up calmly enough, called "Ready" and then…nothing. The jump-engine didn't so much as cycle. I opened my eyes again to see him sitting, his hand frozen over the controls. On his face, an expression of horrified shock.
"No matter, man," Tony said easily. "I'll bring her round, we'll do it again."
Jason didn't appear to have even heard him. "G-3, take the co-pilot's seat. You're making the jump."
"What - Jason, what's wrong?"
"That was an order, G-3!"
I glanced at his face. Near unrecognisable, it was white, furious and desperate. This wasn't a logical decision, made no sense at all - but what was I to do? Relieve him of duty? I couldn't get us home from here without a set of jump-solutions from him. My only option was to do as I was being ordered, regardless of whether my commander was rational at the moment.
I sat down in Don's chair and stared at the screen in pure fear. Yes, I was a jump-pilot. A bad one. I could get us home from here, but it wouldn't be pleasant for any of us. I'd practised faithfully, but in the knowledge that no amount of work would increase my talent beyond minimal. I'd certainly never expected to be doing this for real.
All too soon we were coming round, heading back for the same point. Jason had instructed Tony to hit identical coordinates the second time around in a tone which invited no discussion. Tony was right on the money, but if Jason had thought this would give me an easy ride he was wrong - the preliminary solution he was giving me looked nothing like his setup from the aborted run. I was effectively starting from scratch.
Jason's final corrections came up on my screen, and I steadied myself. This was it. The lines were converging on the screen and I could see exactly what I needed to do. Focus everything to a single point, and engage the drive.
At that point, I'd have given anything to pull off a perfect jump to get us home. Tony was clearly exhausted, I was wretchedly miserable and Jason was unrecognisable as our confident commander. We badly needed this awful day to be over. It wasn't. My best efforts produced six minutes of hell in jump-space which left all three of us unconscious in our seats.
Jason didn't even comment, just waited for us to sit up before calling for us to sound off prior to our silent transit back to the start of our descent. I'd far rather he'd yelled at me. Anything other than the frozen statue staring at the screen. I heard the radio a couple of times - Control would have our telemetry now, they knew we were in local space. The first time, that stranger's voice said, "Stay where you are, G-3," as I made to return to my own seat and answer it. He clicked the mike. "We'll report when we land. G-1 out." The second time, he reached out and turned the receiver off without even acknowledging it.
I braved his glare and went back to my seat before we started our descent from orbit. We needed radio contact to dock, if only to get the sea doors opened for us. I hoped I could get though that much without breaking down. As long as I didn't look at the empty chair, I could stay in control.
The necessary exchanges with Control were terse and completely formal, for which I was profoundly grateful. Tony docked us expertly, immaculately. The doors closed, the water drained, and the engine note cycled down to nothing. All vibration stopped. It could have been the end of any training flight.
As we completed shutting down the systems, Jason suddenly got to his feet and walked forward to rest with one hand on the back of the co-pilot's chair. I'd seen him there so many times, leaning over his second-in-command, discussing anything and everything. Totally at ease, he and Don two halves of a well-oiled leadership machine, bouncing ideas off one another, refining them, coming up with a better solution than either would have done alone. For a moment I thought he would break down completely, but then the shoulders straightened and the bracelet came up. The voice remained icily calm. This was no longer the Jason I knew.
"Chief? G-2 is dead." He lowered the bracelet without waiting for a response, and we followed him out to debriefing.
* * * * *
Jason's never used Don's name from that day to this. Always "the Hawk" or "G-2." Once the exhaustive investigation was over, he simply never spoke about him again. Maybe it would have helped him if he had. He hurt too much to even try. At least time, and new friendships, numbed his pain. We didn't talk about Don, and gradually the memories grew less intense for all of us.
It seems that the intelligence reports we've been getting may be about to change that. Talk of a super-solvent, powerful enough to be used as a weapon, based on a formula published five years ago in a minor scientific journal under a pseudonym. I recognised the name instantly, had had the formula explained to me by its author. Don's work.
Jason's barely spoken since we first heard the rumours. I'm desperately concerned for him, off at the track, dealing with this alone, but what can I do? He won't talk about it, won't accept help. All I can do is leave him alone, and hope that the reports are wrong.
Because it seems there could be something even worse than having left our friend behind, dead under the shattered ruins of Mars base. There's the distinct possibility that Don is now working for Spectra. Which would mean that we abandoned him there, injured, alone, and still alive.
* * * * *
Story © Catherine Rees Lay, November 2004.