If you've not encountered my first incarnation of the team before, I confess it's far from canon. Tiny's the oldest of the lot. No Mark or Keyop, and a chemist called Don Wade is still very much with them. And we're not at war yet. More than that, we haven't even discovered alien life or travelled outside our own solar system - not that ISO USA knows about, anyway...
Thanks to my husband for beta-reading. As always, nothing from either Battle of the Planets or Gatchaman belongs to me. Please feel free to dissect.
You're eighteen years old. You're a wannabe space pilot and medic. You're far from the perfect physical specimen everyone around you is. And they outfit you in a skin-tight birdsuit. How would you feel?
'I've made the biggest mistake of my life.'
Tony Harper stared at the single sentence he'd written, shook his head, crumpled the paper into a ball and hurled it at the bin. Six inches across, fifteen feet away, half-hidden behind the end of his bed, it was a tough target. There was a dull metallic 'thud' as the paper dropped perfectly inside to join his five previous attempts at a resignation letter.
His hand-eye co-ordination had always been good. But even so, the implants, hidden behind a still-fresh scar on the back of his neck and hair longer than he'd ever worn it before, had improved it beyond all recognition. He'd be one hell of a baseball pitcher now. A demon at the fair, on the coconut shy. That wasn't the problem.
What he was supposed to be, what he'd signed up for, was to be a doctor. He'd applied to ISO thinking that they would want medics for their program, in the hopes of a scholarship through college and medical school. It hadn't occurred to him that his knack with computer flight simulators would translate into a stunning talent with the plane everyone else hated. Under his hands, the Phoenix simulator swooped and glided like a live thing. He adored her, and would have loved to get his hands on the real thing. That wasn't the problem either.
What they were going to be, the whole reason for this program, was an exploration team. An interstellar one. His Phoenix was supposed to take them far, far beyond the reaches of the solar system. Maybe even to another galaxy. Beyond known space. They were going to explore the universe. Just the four of them; Don the scientist and pilot of the reconnaissance plane, Jason, the stunning mathematician whose ability to plot a path through space faster than thought made the whole venture possible, Kate, their communications technician, Don's 'Princess', the only one who could punch a message back across the galaxy faster than light. And him, the one who would fly the ship through launch and landing on unknown worlds. Him. Don's 'Tiny'. Now that was the problem.
He didn't know what, exactly, he'd expected them to be wearing. Not a traditional spacesuit, certainly. Way too bulky for use on a planet, too easily damaged. If he'd thought about it, he should have realised that the alternative would have to be tight-fitting, providing physical pressure itself rather than containing pressurised air. 'Mars suits', they were called, the theory decades-old, developed for use on that low-atmospheric pressure planet long before men had set foot on it for the first time.
It was indeed tight-fitting. Figure-hugging. Entirely revealing of everything he had far too much of, and equally of everything he visibly lacked. Bulk and muscle, in that order.
They'd trained in the suits for the first time last week, and it had taken every ounce of his determination, reminding himself just how hard he'd worked to get this far, how this was his one and only chance at college level education, for him to push open the door and join the others in the gym. He'd gritted his teeth and strolled across, knowing his face was scarlet, just waiting for Don to start with the 'Tiny' jokes. It had been worse than that. Don had glanced, his eyes had widened, jaw muscles clenched, and Tony had been sure their self-appointed leader was fighting laughter. The other two had so carefully not commented that it was almost painful.
And then there had been the training itself. Besides the awful hide-nothing suit, they each wore a helmet with, while they were in a breathable atmosphere, an open visor. And the crucial part, the one which required the training in the first place. Batman had nothing on these capes. They were, quite unmistakably, wings. Transmitters in the implants, receivers in the neck of the suits, a high-tech material which stiffened at the application of an electric current, and what you had was a surface whose configuration was controlled by thought.
Kate, short, slight and graceful, had demonstrated her coordination, rapidly mastering the art of snapping the wings open in an effortless six foot leap, turning what could be a disastrous fall on a planet parsecs from home into an elegant glide to the ground. Jason and Don, martial artists both, hadn't been content with that. Within minutes the session had turned into an impromptu distance contest, with Kate awarding additional marks for style.
He'd taken the opportunity to go practise quietly at the other side of the gym, since even the instructor was smiling and clapping, all his attention on the members of the team with actual talent. The wings had flared for him, but with his greater mass, he'd still fallen rather than glided. There was no lift, not for him. Just an inferior parachute designed for someone built like the two youths over by the door, now leaping effortlessly feet into the air and somersaulting.
It hadn't improved - well, no, it had, but not relatively. He could glide now, jump down twelve feet without crash landing or causing himself damage. Jason, meanwhile, could swing himself from bar to bar up to the ceiling forty feet above and circle down, arms outstretched, like some giant bird of prey.
And then at the end of today's session had come the final straw. Don had actually made the 'bird of prey' comment as Jason landed, and Kate had smiled. "Eagle?"
"Bigger." Jason stood up to his full height - at sixteen, he was close to six foot, still growing fast. "Condor."
Don, with no chances of winning the height contest, and surely no intention of going for a name Jason had rejected, had cut his losses. "Hawk."
Kate, dark-haired, serious, and with the grace that told of dance lessons somewhere in her past, had nominated, "Swan."
All three of them had turned and looked at him expectantly. He'd remained silent, unable to get beyond 'dodo'. And they knew. No question they knew, or there would have been jokes and laughter and appropriate suggestions. There simply wasn't anything appropriate to suggest.
He wasn't cut out for this. They needed someone athletic. Someone who could run around for hours, keep up with Don and Jason without getting winded and scarlet in the face. Someone with speed and dexterity. Someone who didn't look a complete fat idiot in that damned suit.
'Please consider this my resignation,' went on the next sheet of paper.
Would they even let him resign? He had goodness knew how many millions of dollars-worth of cutting-edge nanotechnology in his spine. They'd want to take it out before he left, and the thought of being without the coordination he'd come to take for granted made him feel more than slightly sick. But not as bad as the thought of ISO going public with their G-Force team, showing them off to press and public alike. It wouldn't be any better than going out there stark naked.
The tap at his door was so quiet he almost missed it. Not Don, then. Tony got up, padded across, and opened it suspiciously. It was nearly midnight, and curfew had been over an hour ago. "Yeah?"
Kate stood there - in uniform. Tony forced himself not to think about how well it suited her. She was barely fifteen, after all.
"Can I come in?"
"Sure." He held the door open for her, closed it behind them. Why couldn't he have been female? The skirted version of the suit wasn't nearly so revealing.
"We're going to jump off the roof - do you want to come?"
He couldn't get beyond "what?"
"There's a real good updraft, Don says. He and Jason have been outside, messing around, and they're sure we can fly."
"I don't know --" Tony began, and became aware that the other's eyes were fixed on a certain piece of paper on his desk.
"You can't resign! Tony - why?"
"I'm a spare part." He looked down, finding words for the excuse he'd planned to use for his resignation. "I thought I'd leave before Anderson cut me."
"That's not true."
"You go ask Don how long it'll take him to learn to pilot the Phoenix better than me. That's how long I have left."
Her face twisted. "He'd say a couple of weeks. He'd say the same if I asked him how long to get his maths up to Jason's level. Don's got no sense of his own limits."
"But he's one hell of a pilot, Kate. He'll get the hang of the bigger ship, and that'll be it for me."
Kate sighed, and glanced around as though she was afraid of being overheard. "Don's been spending hours on the Phoenix simulator. Please don't tell him I said this - but he vents at me, sometimes. He can't understand how you do the things you can with it. He calls it 'that flying brick'."
"So, are you coming?"
Tony shook his head.
"It's the birdstyle, isn't it?"
"No!" he exclaimed, far too loud, and the look in her eyes told him denial was useless.
"I don't know why you'd hate it so bad. You look fine in it."
"Oh, pull the other one!" Tony's control finally cracked completely. "Don looks like Bruce Lee, Jason looks like Clint Eastwood, and I...I look like the Marshmallow Man!"
Kate looked at him. Looked away, biting her lip hard. Her shoulders shook, and she spluttered helplessly.
"See? It's bad enough being a laughing-stock to you three. To the world's media? No thanks."
Kate struggled her way back to composure. "Oh, Tony, I'm not laughing at you - just, that image..." She trailed off, sympathy replacing hysteria in her eyes. "Is that really what you think you look like?"
"You don't. Really you don't. Just big and strong."
"That'd be why Don calls me 'Tiny', would it?"
"No...well, I don't think so. Tony, Don's jealous of you. You're the one who can fly the fancy ship. You're tall - you must have seen him standing straight, trying to get near Jason's height. I've heard him describe you in birdstyle. It wasn't 'marshmallow man'. It was 'linebacker'. I'm pretty sure that's a compliment."
Tony shook his head unhappily. "I hate people seeing me in it."
"Then come now! Just us, and it's dark."
"I don't know..."
"We're going to see if we can fly. Please don't miss it."
He took a deep breath, considering. Gliding indoors, there was always something missing. Don had said there was an updraft outside, and Don might be an arrogant jerk of the first order, but he wasn't malicious. Now that updraft might just make the difference. Not for sustained flight, but for a controlled slow spiral down, like the lighter team members could achieve indoors? She was right. He'd kick himself if he missed it.
Five minutes later saw him joining the other three, in birdstyle, outside. Round the back of the building was a point where four storeys of tower fell straight to the ground, a grassy slope leading up from the sea cliffs. Don was right. There was a strong, warm onshore breeze blowing, and as Tony flared the winged cape he could feel the lift it would provide. Not enough to get airborne from the ground, but from up there...
"What do you think?" Jason was doing the same thing with his wings, leaning experimentally into the wind.
"How do we get up there?" Tony asked.
Jason grinned. "I did some scouting the other day. There's a staircase in the north corner of the tower which gives access to the storerooms above the gym - and an exit hatch at the top going out onto the roof. Look closely - you can see there's a walkway round the edge."
The flat area was there, but it looked to be about six inches wide and entirely unprotected. Not what he'd have described as a walkway. Of course, since they were planning on jumping off anyway, that wasn't such an issue.
"Are we really going to do this?" Kate's voice wavered.
"You don't have to, Princess," Don told her, already making for the back door to the gym.
Tony considered her frightened face, Don's disappearing back, the fact that Jason was already unlocking the door, and made up his mind. "Come on, kid. You'll be fine. It's not much higher than the top level in the gym, and I saw you jump from there today. If it's safe for me, it's safe for you." He profoundly wished Jason had noticed what was going on - Jason was far better at this sort of thing than he was - but Jason was now inside and out of sight. No help there.
"Are you sure about this updraft?"
"I'm sure." So that's why she came to fetch me, he thought. She doesn't trust Don's judgement. Interesting. And not good, not for our putative leader.
He was sure, too. He wasn't just saying it. Inside it had always seemed such a sterile exercise. Out here in the wind, he was as excited as he'd ever been at the funfair as a little kid. This was going to be great.
He stepped aside to let Kate go first up the narrow concrete stairway set in the wall behind the gym, not least so she'd have trouble panicking and running away. Ahead he could hear the echoing footfalls of the others, the occasional comment. Jason hadn't switched any lights on, and while the implant enhanced his vision just enough to show the steps at his feet, he could barely see Kate in front of him, let alone the other two.
At the top of the stairs it opened out into a large loftspace, and Jason was crouching to the right fiddling with a doorhandle. As Tony arrived, he swung the hatch open and started to make his way out. After the pitch dark of the stairwell, full moonlight seemed as bright as day.
"Uh-oh," Don said suddenly.
"What's wrong?" Jason turned back, silhouetted against the sky.
"Anyone remember that red light on our way up?"
Tony turned to see a single LED glowing on a board at the top of the stairs. "No way I missed that."
"Damn." Jason stifled a nervous laugh. "I think I just set off an alarm. You'd better all run - I may as well stay, they need to catch somebody."
"You don't get rid of me that easily." That was Don.
"We chose to do this together. We'll all take the blame," Kate added.
Tony wavered. The last thing he needed now was to be involved in trouble. But then again, would being seen as not a team player be any better? His only real hope of getting out of this was if Anderson was unassailably certain that any secrets he knew would remain secret. That his loyalty was to his team-mates.
"If you say so." Jason turned back out of the hatch and vanished out of sight to his right, closely followed by Don.
Kate hesitated in the opening, but moved off slowly after them, and then Tony got his first real look at what he was about to do.
The ledge was exceedingly narrow, slightly outward-sloping, and covered in a delightful mixture of algae and bird droppings. Inviting, it wasn't. And the opening was on the wrong, building-side of the tower, so that they'd have to traverse two sides of the ledge to get to a point where they overlooked the ground rather than another roof.
"Jason?" he stage-whispered.
"Is it okay? I don't want to shut the hatch if it isn't."
"It's fine. Shut it."
Tony manoeuvred himself carefully through the opening, reached back in, and pulled the hatch closed with a bang that seemed loud enough to wake the entire complex - if indeed they hadn't done so already with whatever reaction that glowing red light had provoked. And then he stood, pulled together every ounce of technique he'd learnt in their balance and coordination classes, and followed the others along the ledge.
He'd not got more than three feet before he was very, very grateful for his new-found fitness and balance. The old Tony, the one who brute-strengthed everything, would have been sprawling on the rooftop twenty feet below already. Now he at least knew how to try to be more subtle. And he'd spent several months learning to balance a plane with all the natural aerodynamic characteristics of a brick. He might not have added physical dexterity to his strength, but he had added care and patience.
Half the perimeter of the tower later, Kate stopped dead in front of him. "I saw something move."
"Where?" Tony peered out towards the silver moonlit sea, unable to pick out anything on the much darker ground in front of it. "Don, hold it."
"I think there's someone watching us," she insisted.
"I don't see anything," Jason put in.
"Who's going to be there? It's a cat, or a seagull." Don raised his hands in frustration. "Or a plastic bag. It's windy, remember?"
"Or a reporter?" Jason didn't move.
"Out here, at night? We're against the roof. No silhouettes. And - reporters? Dammit, Jason, I didn't think you'd get cold feet."
"Not likely." Jason moved along another few feet. "Here will do, I think. Don?"
"I like the wind direction." Don turned outward, flared his wings as if testing, then without any warning, crouched and sprang up and out.
Kate squeaked, just once, and then clamped both hands to her mouth as Don began to tumble. Then his arms went forward, his legs straightened, and all of a sudden it wasn't a fall, but a soaring glide.
"Wow," she breathed.
There was a grunt of effort, and Jason joined his friend in the air. Wings out, arms out, and the two of them were circling down in a pattern which cried out to be followed.
Kate obviously saw it too. With a noise that sounded suspiciously like a sob, she was in the air, circling into place. Three sets of wings in the air, and the gap in the pattern coming up fast.
The wind was perfect. If he was ever going to do this, the time was now. Tony turned, stepped forward a fraction, felt for the edge beneath his feet, and leapt for the stars.
It was glorious. Wind under his wings, the uplift he'd been subconsciously missing indoors. This was what he needed. And all of a sudden the suit made sense. Any trace of drag would have thrown his balance beyond recovery. Dressed like this, he was in absolute control. Tony shifted his weight slightly to bank left and dropped into position as the fourth man in their descending spiral formation. This was exhilarating. This was worth wearing birdstyle for. Out here, in the dark and the wind, gliding silently to the ground, Tony knew that he wanted to stay with the G-Force program after all. And what his callsign was going to be.
He could happily have stayed in the air forever. Gravity didn't work that way, and the ground was coming up fast. It was too late now to wish for the gym's padded floor. Tony mentally crossed his fingers and concentrated on trying to learn from his team-mates' landings in the scant seconds before he had to do the same himself.
Don ending up on one knee wasn't as comforting as it might have been. Normally Tony took a certain vicarious pleasure in seeing their self-appointed leader taken down a peg or two. Now he couldn't get past 'if Don can't land it...'
Jason could land it. Not only that, but move to catch Kate, who missed the timing horribly and left herself with no airspace to go vertical.
And then it was his turn, and what had seemed a slow, lazy circle higher up suddenly felt like a flat-out dive relative to the ground. Tony did his best not to panic, not to leave it too late, pulled up hard and discovered that in fact he'd done so too early, and the drop to the ground was non-trivial. One of the others might have kept their footing. He landed in an undignified heap at Don's feet.
"So?" the self-proclaimed Hawk asked him.
"That was great!" Tiny brushed himself down, already figuring out ways to improve on his landing. "I wanna do that again! Anyone else?"
"Not tonight, thank you," a crisp voice cut in from behind him.
All four whirled to see a tall figure approaching from the now open and lit door to the gym.
"Oh, crap," Jason muttered. "Guess that was an alarm after all."
"Indeed it was, Mr Alouita." Anderson's voice held an edge that made Tony cringe. "You may count yourselves fortunate that the night patrol don't shoot first and ask questions later. Mr Wade should note that night vision goggles and shotgun mikes don't depend on their target being silhouetted."
He felt rather than saw Don stiffen beside him.
"Now, you will all return to your quarters, and tomorrow morning we will discuss what are and are not appropriate methods of training. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Chief," Don answered for all of them. He sounded contrite.
Tony wasn't. That had been amazing. Unforgettable. Something worth getting past his embarrassment for. Something worth even the chewing out they would surely get tomorrow morning.
Because he was past the embarrassment. Even if Tony Harper still felt like he was wearing an overtight Halloween costume, the Owl loved the power of flight too much to care.
Catherine Rees Lay, February 2007