"Commander, I need to apologise," Tiny said as soon as they were at cruising altitude and speed - or what passed for it today, with a ship still full of holes and next to no redundancies left in the systems.
"Apologise?" Mark frowned at him. "What did you do?"
"I didn't think. I came in dead straight on that mecha and gave them a perfect shot. It's my fault we went down."
"Mine," Keyop said. "Didn't scan carefully enough. Should have seen the new weapon mounting."
"I should have suspected something when --"
"Enough!" Mark cut Princess off mid-apology. "Jason, were you about to be next?"
His second nodded ruefully.
"We were all complacent. We thought we already knew how to handle it, and we didn't consider that Spectra can adapt just the same as we can. Now, Anderson's going to tear strips off us in the debrief - and we deserve it. We were very lucky. Let's not rely on luck again."
He looked around the cockpit, dim in the emergency lighting what was all they dared use, and saw four heads nod. That was all he could ask for. They'd screwed up, and they knew it. It wouldn't happen again.
"Kids," Virgil said disgustedly. "Kids. No wonder ISO's so darn secretive about their identities. There would be mass panic if anyone found out."
"Nobody's going to find out." Scott leaned back, savouring the last drops of his after-dinner brandy. "Who's going to suspect that the commander of G-Force is too young to drink?"
"Or the Swallow's too young to drive?" Virgil sighed.
"Or that the Swan's too young to lust over?" Alan grinned, prodding Gordon with his foot.
"You watch it. I'm pretty damn sure the Condor's not too young to lust over Tin-Tin."
"She'd tell him where to get off." Alan's eyes defocused, a sure sign that he was plotting something. "It's pretty minor league, that series he races in. I wonder if they allow guest drivers?"
"Have you ever even driven a stock car?" Virgil asked him.
"Not for a few years...but hell, racing against the Condor would be something else. You think Brains would be up for designing me something?"
Scott laughed. "You're incorrigible. Probably."
"Did I hear you say you're seeing Mark in three weeks?" Virgil asked.
Scott felt the butterflies rise in his stomach, but it wasn't anything like as bad as he'd expected. And if he could talk about it, doing it should be no problem. "Mark's promised me a flight in the G-1, and a look round the Phoenix when the lights are on."
Virgil gave him a long sideways look. "And a nice chat with your old boss Anderson?"
"Probably. Long overdue, though, Virg. It's old history. Time I put it behind me for good. And hey, if it had never happened, if I'd stayed with ISO - I wouldn't be here."
"And that would be a damn shame," Gordon said softly, and then cleared his throat, almost as if he'd embarrassed himself. "Okay, I'm off for a swim. Anyone want to join me?"
"Aren't you supposed to be taking it easy?" Virgil demanded.
Gordon smiled ruefully. "Yes, and I will be for a while. A nice gentle, relaxing swim. Nobody?"
"Have fun," Scott said. "Though if I were you, I'd never want to see water again."
"Just as well you're not me, then, isn't it?"
"Actually, maybe I will come. At least to make sure you don't drown." Scott put his glass down and followed Gordon to the pool in the twilight. The sun had gone now, but the sky was still red and orange away in the west. Another perfect evening.
They'd reached the pool deck before Gordon turned so suddenly that Scott almost ran into it. "So, what gives? You want to chew me out for taking risks - again?"
"The opposite." Scott looked into the distance, trying to word what he wanted to say. "You're the underwater expert, Gordon. I know I haven't always acknowledged that, and...I'm sorry. I still think you need to ask for a second opinion occasionally, though, and right now there's nobody who can give you one worth having. So I wanted to ask, in private - who do you want to train up properly on Four? Really properly. Not just knowing how the controls work and doing the odd simulator session. So you can have someone whose opinion you trust."
Gordon's face cracked into its trademark grin. "That'll teach me to make assumptions. You're right. And I'll think about it. Not you, you've got too much else to worry about - though I wouldn't mind you being a bit more familiar with what I do. I'm thinking maybe Tin-Tin. I've been thinking about it for a while."
"Tin-Tin? She's a --"
"Girl? Like the Swan is? She's a damn good engineer, a fair swimmer, and she's got as much diving experience as any of you."
"So, can I ask her?"
"I don't see why not." Scott squashed his automatic 'no' reflex way down. Gordon was right - Tin-Tin was the obvious candidate, and her sex shouldn't really be a barrier.
"Tomorrow, then. For now, I need that swim." He stripped off his shirt, revealing still-livid bruises that made Scott wince in sympathy, and eased himself into the pool rather than going for his usual dive. That in itself told Scott just how much his little brother still hurt.
Scott sat in one of the poolside seats and watched Gordon's idea of a gentle and relaxing swim, remembering the events of the past few days. Yes, they were lucky - but they made their own luck. They were careful, and skilled, and well-equipped, and watched each others' backs. And because they were, G-Force had flown off into a clear blue sky, to live and fight another day.
"I hear you have something you consider interesting enough for me to care." The Spectran leader's voice dripped sarcasm, and the young Spectran sensor operator looked almost ready to drop his printouts and run.
"Yes...yes, my lord Zoltar. If you observe..." He spread the papers out on the desk, pointing to what to Zoltar were merely undefined blobs in a sea of noise.
"Explain." He didn't bother to sound patient, and the man's voice rose a good octave.
"Sir...this shows a ship of the correct size and shape to be the Phoenix, launching from an island several hundred miles from where it was shot down, and some three days later."
"And which island would this be?"
The young man laid a standard map over the printouts, his finger shaking as he pointed to one of the tropical islands which peppered that particular part of the map. "This one, sir. I took the liberty of investigating it myself...in the records, I mean. It's the home of an aerospace tycoon. He has five sons."
"And your point, mister?"
The young man gulped audibly, laying a page from a glossy Earth magazine on the table. "This man is one of them, sir. The press believe him to be the Condor."
"And so, apparently, do you." Zoltar's voice took on a tone of disgust. "Guard? Punishment detail for this young fool. No, no, leave the papers. I will burn them myself."
As the man was dragged out, begging for forgiveness for his lack of judgement, Zoltar sat back, considering. The Phoenix, beached on an inhabited island when there was a whole wealth of uninhabited ones to choose from. The owner of that island, one of the wealthiest men on the planet, with a vast industrial empire at his beck and call. And his youngest son, who might or might not have direct connections to G-Force, but who most certainly spent time in public. A party-goer, it seemed. A socialite. Someone whose appearances might be predicted. A perfect target.
The end...for now. Though if you've developed an interest in the "other" guys and are wondering how my AU got to be this way, please take a look at my Battle fanfic, now being posted on this site (end shameless self-plug).
Thanks for all the comments, and more are, as always, very welcome.