Chief Anderson dragged a hand over his face as he propped himself up, reaching for the insistently buzzing phone. "Anderson here." The sky outside was as dark as it ever got in Manhattan, faintly pink and unmarked by stars.
There was silence for a moment. "It's Kane. I'm sorry to disturb you."
He was awake instantly, cold with more than the air conditioning. "What's happened?"
"An unidentified craft was spotted surfacing off the coast of Japan fifteen minutes ago. The Zark-7 system just issued an alert--it's a potential Spectran configuration."
"None so far. A Japanese aircraft carrier is in the area and approaching, but no response to our hails."
They spoke of details for a few minutes more--trivialities, really, but he needed the time, and Kane gave it without having to be asked. And then he set the phone back on the hook and picked up the small cell phone on his nightstand.
Mark's eyes were bright, and Jason was leaning against the wall as casually as ever, but Keyop looked sleepy and far too young with his hair tousled and flying in every direction. Anderson almost ordered them to change into the birdstyles, then checked himself--he'd never done that before. Stick to the routine, he silently reminded himself. Let them decide when to transmute. He'd run a half-dozen surprise drills over the summer, as Spectran preparations picked up speed and intelligence reports poured in, each one tumbling another grain of sand down through the hourglass of his remaining time. Nothing needed to change now.
"This isn't a drill," he said, then barely managed to control an involuntary flinch as he saw the words hit them, bringing all five into a parade-worthy line in front of his desk and chasing the traces of sleep from their faces. He went through the briefing as he always did, trying not to notice how differently they all watched him, the intensity shining out of liquid eyes.
One of the thousand policy documents he'd had to prepare on G-Force had covered emergency briefings. Five minutes or less, he'd written. Only the bare minimum of information: the team can cover details while en-route to the situation. He'd never had trouble sticking to the limit before, yet suddenly five minutes seemed five seconds.
But the clock on the his desk was unperturbed by his altered perception of time, blocky red numbers glowing and implacable. He stared at it for a moment, and forced himself to conclude. "Further details on the situation have been uploaded to the Phoenix," he said. "You can go over them during the trip."
He stopped speaking, the final words caught in his throat--good luck, be careful, I'm proud of you. Before he could get them out, Mark's shoulders went back, and the five of them moved together, arms fluid as a ballet, a chorus of five voices speaking, and the flash of transmutation left shining afterimages on his retina, outlines of his children superimposed on the five sleek-limbed warriors in front of him. He blinked, and the glowing shapes faded.
"We're on our way," Mark said, and he only nodded, then forced himself to sit down behind his desk instead of going to the door to watch them race down the hallway to the elevator. They made no sound running, vanishing from his senses as they went through the doorway, and when they were gone he closed his eyes and promised himself it would only get easier from now on.
It would take the Phoenix twenty-five minutes to make the trip, skating over the atmosphere in a great swinging arc. He monitored ISO channels on one screen and Japanese military communications on another to keep track of the situation: the Phoenix was maintaining radio silence, per another of his policies.
The Spectran mech continued its progress along the coastline, heading for Tokyo, unresponsive to the hails that became steadily more threatening. Fifteen minutes after the Phoenix had taken off, the commander of the Japanese aircraft carrier ordered his fighters into the air. Five minutes later, the carrier was sinking and the channels were full of frantic voices: guns have no effect; lasers only cause superficial damage; missile targeting systems failing--we can't hit them.
The last alarmed him; it wasn't a problem they'd expected. The bird missiles had an unconventional payload, but the targeting systems were fairly standard. He sent an alert over ISO channels, suggesting manual targeting as an alternative. The team was supposed to monitor communications; they'd see it, he told himself, but his hand was trembling slightly as he set down the direct comlink to the Phoenix without turning it on.
A report crackled over the ISO channels--the Spectran mech was broadcasting, finally, and he brought up the signal on another screen, staring at the masked face he'd seen on so many intelligence reports, in a hundred propaganda bulletins from Spectran television. Zoltar's voice was familiar, the demands unsurprising and the threats equally so: surrender, or we make an example of Tokyo, then maybe your city--you have an hour.
The Spectran communication ended, and the last remaining Japanese fighters almost simultaneously reported another aircraft in the area. Another alert on ISO channels made him bring up Nippon News Network--some insane news crew had gotten a helicopter into the area and was filming. Looking like a toy on the screen, the Phoenix dived out of the cloud layer and angled between four of the pencil-thin Spectran missiles with a contemptuous grace that even the wobbling broadcast couldn't disguise, then swept low over the mech's curved surface before arcing back up into the air and disappearing into the clouds.
"We're in," came Mark's voice, terse over the wristband communication frequency, and he jerked in his chair, gripping the armrests involuntarily. He turned off the sound on all the other channels, even though nothing more came, listening to the silence until his ears rang with it.
"Sound off." Mark's voice, again.
"G--" Jason's voice paused abruptly--a heavy thud came over the line like punctuation, then he spoke again: "G-2."
"Go to phase 2." Impossible to know what the order might mean, what plan they were following. Did the interior plan follow the standard patterns reported by intelligence? Did they remember all the details of Spectran computer systems, the firing patterns Spectran troops were trained in, the mechanics of the engines? His hands rested on the desk in front of him, clasped tight, fingertips and knuckles a bloodless white, and he stared at them and saw nothing.
The Phoenix still swooped around the mech tauntingly, occasionally firing lasers that did little more than rake dark scratches down the dull metal hull. The ocean was churning around the mech--it had resumed its course towards Tokyo, evidently deciding to treat the Phoenix as a distraction.
"We found the computer room!" Jason's voice was unsteady, almost vibrating, and Anderson found himself gripping the arms of his chair.
"Ready when you are," Princess responded.
Perhaps ten minutes passed, then Keyop came on: "All set!"
"Let's go!" Mark said.
He leaned forward, eyes straining to follow the wavering transmission from the news camera, looking for motion on the surface of the mech. And then a sudden eruption of flame made the screen go white--when the image cleared, the mech was trailing smoke, a series of blackened holes perforating one side of its hull along the waterline, and the Phoenix was lifting away. As he watched, the mech rotated, raising the damaged section up out of the water--but then the Phoenix split the clouds, arrowing down directly towards the mech. Just before it pulled up, two bird missiles detached, smashing into the exposed line of holes with a precision that showed him his worries about the targeting system had been misplaced. Another explosion painted itself across the screen, and the mech split apart like a cracked oyster, doll-sized figures of Spectran soldiers spilling into the water amid flames and ruin.
It was over. He flicked a switch and the screens went dark, the red numbers of the clock the only light remaining. Only three hours since Kane's call had woken him.
Four lines on his phone started flashing almost at once; he could distantly hear his secretary's telephone ringing outside. Kane would be expecting a report. The technical staff had to be called in and the bay prepared for the Phoenix's return. He'd need to review the mission logs before he debriefed the team.
He leaned forward and covered his face with his hands, sitting still in the darkness while the telephone flickered at him.
The Phoenix glided back into the docking bay not much the worse for wear, and the staff sent up an impromptu cheer as it settled down, then another, louder one when the bubble opened and the team sailed down to the ground. It surprised Anderson for a moment; everyone here had seen the team on almost a daily basis. But he could see it work on them, the pride visible in every line of their bodies as they approached him and Kane, adjusting their strides so they moved together.
A few paces away, they stopped and saluted--not the traditional hand-to-forehead, but a raised-arm motion that swept the birdstyle wings out like pennants. He wondered briefly if they'd practiced the gesture; it seemed eerily natural. "G-Force reporting in, sir," Mark said, his voice ringing with unconcealed triumph.
"Welcome home," Kane said, beaming at them. "And congratulations. To everyone here," he added, looking around the cavernous room, including the entire staff in his glance. "I don't dare to hope that this is the last we'll see of Spectra, but every world in the Federation can rest easier, knowing that G-Force is out there, with all of you standing behind them." The words sounded as if they came straight out of a guidebook on motivation, but everyone cheered, and someone started singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." And then suddenly everyone was coming close, wanting to shake hands with the team, or even just to touch them, and Anderson ended up on the edge, watching his children recede into the crowd like a tide racing away from the shore.
The mission log was fairly dry after the excitement of the day so far, but the individual recordings weren't. He'd temporarily outfitted the belts with miniature recording units--at least for the first few missions, the risk of the devices being captured by Spectra and helping them to track down the other team members was outweighed by the need to confirm that the training was holding up under fire.
Mark and Princess had laid the explosives along the interior of the hull. Their recordings were a shifting pattern of dark and light--mostly dark, as they flitted from alcove to shadow to nook. Only a few Spectrans crossed their field of view, wholly unsuspecting, even once when the two of them had been standing less than a meter away, half-behind some large piece of machinery. They'd had to take out a few guards on their way out, but they'd stuck to less-than-deadly force for the most part. He made a mental note to have both of them speak with ISO therapists, even though the entire team had gone through preemptive counseling about killing.
Keyop and Jason had gone hunting for the main computer systems. Keyop's recorder showed a pattern--he'd range ahead in several directions, scouting out the routes, then backtrack to join Jason before the two of them moved on together to the next area. He frowned--Jason should have known better than to send Keyop off alone, particularly on the first mission. But thankfully, no kills, although he'd knocked out a half-dozen Spectrans with a capsule of sleeping gas and tied them up at one point.
He put the minidisk with Keyop's recording on top of the other two, then paused, a frown crossing his face as he tried to remember the statistics he'd read just a few minutes ago. He clicked open the mission log again. The numbers were stark on the screen: 56 Spectrans killed, 20 disabled. As far as he could tell, Mark, Princess, and Keyop had accounted for 11 and 10 out of that tally. And Tiny had been on the Phoenix for the whole mission.
His jaw muscles tensing even before he started playback, he loaded Jason's recording, conscious of a desire to avoid it. Less than halfway through, he shut it off abruptly and clenched his hands on the edge of the table, his mouth a thin, hard line. He struggled for a tenuous hold on his temper, on his fear, then turned on the intercom and called for Jason.
Jason came into the office still in birdstyle, the pride in his carriage an unnecessary spark to Anderson's anger. He barely managed to keep his voice level. "What the hell did you think you were doing in that mech?"
Jason took a step back, his eyes startled for an instant, then defiance lit them, his shoulders went back, his arms folded across his chest. "What needed to be done," he shot back. "You think Keyop and I could have just waltzed into the systems room?"
"Mark and Princess managed to lay fifteen explosives in the same amount of time without a single fight," Anderson snapped. "You fought how many? Not only was it a stupid risk, now they know that the team infiltrated! We could have kept them in the dark on your capabilities there for several more missions--"
"Oh, please." Jason didn't bother rolling his eyes, his tone equivalent. "You think they were going to decide that their mech blew up from the inside by magic?"
Anderson ignored the interruption. "And furthermore, you left Keyop on his own! At least he stuck to the mission, or you could have endangered everyone on the team."
"Keyop did what I told him to!" Jason's arms had come down, his hands clenched. "If I hadn't sent him ahead, he wouldn't have just sat around watching me fight, he'd have dived in! You were the one who was so big on keeping him out of the line of fire."
"If you hadn't gotten into the fights in the first place, it wouldn't have been an issue!"
Jason planted his hands flat on the desk, leaning forward, his eyes black and angry behind the visor. "Maybe Mark's perfect enough to make it through a heavily guarded area without even getting spotted, but I guess I'm not. I didn't go looking for a fight, I just took care of the ones that came to me."
Anderson took a deep breath and let it out slowly, parceling air out to his words. "You can't possibly go on like that," he said tightly. "No one is good enough to fight an army by himself. If you try to face them head-on, you'll get yourself killed and the others besides. I've told all of you, over and over, your job when you're on the inside is sabotage, not direct confrontation. You have to avoid fights, even if they do come to you."
"Did you bother watching the tape, or did you just assume I did everything wrong? I didn't face them head-on unless there was no choice. And most of them ran like hell a couple of minutes into the fights anyway."
Anderson paused at that. "Ran? They deserted their posts?"
Jason shrugged. "Like they were rats and the ship was already sinking."
"That's unexpected." Anderson shook his head, getting back to the issue. "That's just luck, though. The surprise may have unnerved them--and that's an advantage you won't have in future."
"It wasn't surprise," Jason said flatly. "By the end, half of them were looking for us. They still ran." He folded his arms again. "You told us to use deadly force if we had to," he said. "I had to."
"There's a difference between using force when absolutely necessary and using it indiscriminately!" Anderson said, feeling his control going, his voice escalating. "I'm certain that you could have performed this mission without committing wholesale slaughter."
Jason turned away from the desk, a dark silence settling over his face. "Forgive me for not performing up to your standards. Are you done?" His voice had gone expressionless. The Chief stared at him for a moment, feeling as though he'd seen a glowing iron quenched in water and unsure what else Jason had expected. Approval, for having gotten into dangerous fights? For having killed more than forty men on his first mission?
"You can go for the moment," he said finally. "I'll want to debrief you as a group after I talk to the others."
Without another word, Jason stalked out the door, pulling it shut behind him with a hard finality that said plainly what he really wanted to do was slam it. After he'd gone, Anderson stared at the viewer, trying to bring himself to watch the rest of the recording. The sequence that had stopped him a quarter of the way through still burned: three gun barrels pointing almost directly into the lens, then a flurry of white feathers and a rush of movement as the wearer had leaped into a cluster of soldiers who were already slack-mouthed and toppling, and a spurt of red over the lens as a blue-gloved hand drove with deadly accuracy through a Spectran guard's mask and into the man's eyes.
After a minute, he pressed eject instead of play and took the minidisk out, setting it with the others in his desk drawer. This is what he was trained for, he told himself. This is what they were all trained for.
He closed the drawer and sent for Mark.
"Overall, I'm proud of your performance," he told them. The other debriefings had taken only a few minutes. Jason was back to leaning against the wall, his face unmoving. The others were ranged around his desk, Tiny sitting and munching pretzels, Keyop almost bouncing, Mark trying to repress a grin without much success, Princess smiling. It was a familiar scene painted in deeper colors: Jason more grim, the others more excited.
"We have cryptographic experts working on the data you brought back, and we hope to have the location of the base in less than an hour." He hesitated for a moment. They all looked fine, but the adrenaline would wear off soon. I could let them rest. The base isn't time-critical--it could wait until they'd had a few hours of sleep. He shook off the temptation and went on. "As soon as we get that information, you'll need to hit it. They'll be expecting you this time, and the less time they have to prepare, the better."
"Right away?" Tiny sounded a little surprised.
"No rest for the wicked," Jason said, his voice flat.
"So none for us either," Mark said, shooting Jason a look. "Do we have time for a shower?"
He nodded. "You should all try to get something to eat as well. Plan on starting pre-flight in half an hour."
"We'll be ready," Mark said.
Jason turned and walked out of the office. Mark glanced after him, bit his lip, then followed.
Princess stretched. "Come on, let's go get some breakfast," she said, reaching out to tousle Keyop's hair as she went to the door.
"Sounds good to me," Tiny said, getting up. A burst of laughter floated down the hall a few moments after they'd left, then the door slid shut and the room was silent.
Alone in his office, Anderson sat down and closed his eyes for a moment, then sat up and pulled his keyboard forward to get back to work.
He was right. It was getting easier already.
- End Part I -