Chapter 4

It wasn't. I scanned the schedule the following morning to find myself with only a normal amount of gym work, and a session with weapons expert Major Grant. Just what I wanted. Grant was chief of the 'far too young for the responsibility' crowd. I'd have to spend the entire morning in full professional mode.

"Anderson's asked me to teach you to set explosive charges." The disdain in his voice was evident. Great - I hadn't even opened my mouth yet, and Grant was already finding me wanting. So, no point trying to win him over with my friendly nature.

"Fine. Where do we start?"

Grant smiled in a superior manner. "Do you know anything about electronics?"

Oh, yes. I'd had my suspicions that Grant, like most of the military specialists ISO had brought in recently, thought I was just a radio operator. Time for me to show him just how wrong he was.

"Quite a lot, actually. What would you like me to explain to you?"

Once Grant had realised I not only knew what I was talking about, but wanted to know what he had to teach, we got along a whole lot better. I still had the distinct feeling that he'd intended to be teaching this stuff to someone older and male, but Mark had more than enough in his schedule already.

He wasn't getting anywhere with the Phoenix simulator. Standard flight was fine, but put him in a combat situation and it all fell apart. His reflexes were tuned for small, manoeuvrable craft, and the Phoenix simply didn't work that way.

So I'd had a week learning to blow things up. I'd enjoyed it immensely. Taken as a scientific problem, you needed to make a few basic decisions; the type of explosion you needed, how much damage you wanted to do, whether there was anything you needed to leave intact. Pick the right type of explosive, location, detonation method, make sure you had all the safety protocols right, and away you went. It was fun, and I was good at it.

Keyop had been working with the new sensor and scanner systems. He'd said little about it - we were all back to being frantically overworked - but from what comments he had made, I was looking forward to learning with them. Certainly they sounded far more advanced than anything we'd had before.

And they'd finally given up trying to turn Mark into the front-line Phoenix pilot. He was a more than adequate co-pilot, superb in the jet docked in the Phoenix's rear compartment. We didn't need him in the pilot's seat, we did need a co-pilot, and he and Tiny looked likely to make an excellent pairing.

The final week before they planned to put us back together as a team of five, we spent mostly in a wide range of 'work together' exercises in every possible combination. Pairs, threes, all four of us. We could all do our own jobs by now, but could we do each other's? Could we do our own, blindfolded and talked through it by someone else? Could we talk someone else through our own job? How about in combat? Could four of us even fly the Phoenix in a combat situation? Yes. Three of us? Maybe - but only if one of the three was Tiny. I could see the list of training we still needed growing by the hour, and although I kept it to myself, I was greatly relieved that we obviously needed a fifth member in case anything went wrong. A team of four was viable, but a team of four with one person sick or hurt wasn't.

And then there were the bizarre solo exercises. One of us at a time put in a strategic situation, usually unwinnable. Sometimes just giving orders, sometimes responding to them, sometimes a bit of both, obeying general orders but delegating specific responsibilities. No physical action required at all, just assimilating the data on one computer screen and responding vocally. I hated those where I had to give orders, and while I never admitted it to the others, I got through them largely by thinking 'what would Jason do here' every time I wasn't sure. Make a swift decision and push it to the limit, that's what he'd always done, and I imitated it to the best of my ability. I only came unstuck where the general orders coming through were such that what I thought Jason would have done was ignore them and do something else entirely. I couldn't bring myself to do that, but my alternatives never worked, either.

On only our second day off in a month, I didn't even consider suggesting any activity. If I'd been tired before, now I was shattered. They'd given me nothing to do, and by eleven o'clock I'd just about managed to eat breakfast, and was considering whether I could be bothered to move far enough to turn the TV on.

"Hey, sleepyhead." Tiny came in with Keyop, both looking far too lively. "Did you know Jason's back?"

"What, already? Where?"

"Last I saw, heading to get checked out on the simulator for that super-car he was drooling about. What's with the 'already', anyway? It's nearly lunchtime!"

"I'm hungry," piped up Keyop. "Tiny's been teaching me baseball!"

"And to think I missed it." I stretched out on the sofa. "Anderson obviously hasn't been working you two hard enough. I'm not sure I even want to ask what Mark's doing, since it'll doubtless make me feel inadequate."


I stared at him. "You're not serious. He's had pretty much a solid month in one flight simulator or another, and he's spending his day off in a plane?"

"Now I know you weren't born to be a pilot. I darn nearly went with him."

"But then he found out there was no food!" Keyop spluttered.

"Just let me get my hands on you…"

The two proceeded to chase wildly round the room, culminating in a pile of thrashing limbs taking the sofa over backwards.

"You know, I'm sure we used to keep that the other way up," a familiar voice commented from the doorway.

I spun round to see Jason leaning against the wall as if he'd never been away. "Hi, Princess. Need me to keep these two in order?"

"No. I'll just hide their chocolate if they don't behave." I was so glad he was back and acting relaxed I couldn't think of anything sensible to say to him. "Come on, guys. Don't trash the place."

Keyop wriggled out from under the pile of Tiny. "He started it!"

"I don't care. Just put it back straight, okay?"

Tiny emerged, looking sheepish, and pushed the furniture back upright. "So how's the car, Jason?"

"Haven't seen it yet. If it's anything like the simulator, though - seriously hot. Have you two decided what you're going to drive yet?"

He couldn't be referring to Tiny - the Phoenix was enough for anybody. That left me and Keyop. I gaped at him. "Drive?"

"What, you think me and Mark are going to do all the work? Pod in each wingtip. Pick a vehicle."

"I think so. I want a jet!" Keyop bounced enthusiastically.

"Only if it's the world's smallest. That pod's twenty feet long." He crossed to the counter, and regarded its contents with surprise. "What's going on here, the definitive collection of fizzy drinks?"

"Tiny's on a mission to introduce Keyop to all the important icons of American culture. He's starting with the edible ones."

"Hey!" Tiny objected. "Kid's had a deprived childhood. Imagine - no Pepsi! It's my duty to educate him."

"So I see." Jason raised his eyebrows and went in search of something more to his taste.

"Did you win a race yet?" Keyop asked suddenly.

"Hardly. I'm driving test laps full speed now, though. Next time they're short a driver on race day, I've been promised a shot."

Keyop beamed. "Going to be famous!"

"Now that would be ironic." He stood there, staring into the distance rather than looking at either of us, and I knew just what he was thinking.

After ISO had released their altered details of the Mars base disaster, the networks had fallen over trying to outdo one another in their tributes to Adam Tring. One had described him as the fastest jump-pilot ever. It was unfortunate that this came the day after we'd been told that officially G-Force's flight to Mars had never happened. Jason had stormed out of the room before anyone could say a word, but I was fairly sure there had been tears in his eyes. Adam Tring remained the media darling even after his death. Jason Alouita, the commander of G-Force, remained unknown.

ISO had recognised that eventually they'd have to make G-Force's existence public knowledge - when we were attacked, it would be essential to reassure the public that we had a defensive force - but the identities of its members were to remain secret indefinitely. Jason would never, ever have the recognition Tring had. Those of us involved knew that he had smashed Tring's record time on his first and only jump, but it would never be announced. With Jason now unable to operate the jump-drive, Mark would be the one to take Tring's record. It was ironic that Mark was nowhere near the jump-pilot Jason had been.

I was deep into a report on the Spectran language when Mark finally returned. 'Deep' didn't really cover it - our information on all things Spectran had been provided to ISO Russia by the Rigans. Very little of it had made it into English so far, and most of what had tended to suffer from having been translated three times. I generally ended up working with the Russian version, only using the English translation as a last resort. There wasn't anyone who could translate directly between Spectran and English - yet. I was working on changing that.

"Princess, leave it a moment." Mark pushed an envelope under my nose. "Anderson wanted us to open these together."

I looked up to see everyone else holding a similar envelope. We'd done this before, when G-Force had been formed for the first time. Then the only question had been which way round they'd put me and Tiny. Once Anderson had explained that they didn't want the lead pilot having to command in an emergency, it didn't take a genius to figure out the order. Don had seethed at not getting command, but he'd been the only one surprised.

Now, as then, I was pretty sure I knew what to expect. Jason in command, Mark his second, me at G-3. Then it was just a question of how Anderson weighed 'pilot doesn't command' against Keyop's youth. As we were now a combat team, I strongly suspected Tiny would be G-5.

I opened my envelope as everyone else did the same, pulled out the single sheet of paper it contained, and froze in disbelief. It didn't say G-3. It said G-2.

I couldn't do it. Mark would be a much better second-in-command than I would - he was cool under pressure, considered all the options, and wasn't afraid to stand up to authority when he had to. It wasn't a hard decision for me to make.

I turned to Jason. "Anderson's made me your second-in-command. I can't do it, Jason. I don't want it." Only then did I notice his hands, gripping the paper with white-knuckled tension.

"You're not my second-in-command, Princess." He indicated across the table to where Mark was standing, pride written all over his face. "You're his."

Tiny, looking almost as sick as I felt, grabbed Keyop's paper, scanned it briefly, and beat Jason to the door.

"Out of my way," Jason hissed furiously.

"No way." Tiny locked eyes with him. "We're a team. We sort this out together."

I caught Mark's eye. "You want to command? Now would be a good time."

The look he gave me would have reduced me to gibbering four months earlier. Then he simply stood up straighter and all trace of the laid-back teenager vanished. This man was the obvious choice as G-1. Four months ago Jason would have given him a run for his money. Not any more.

"Jason? Tiny? We put this right. Now."

Tiny stared Jason down, until with a curse he turned and came back to the table.

"Is this what you wanted?" He threw his paper, face up, on the table. G-5, there for us all to see. "I have no command ability at all, apparently. All this time Anderson telling me he wasn't ditching me and I don't even get to run a training mission before he takes my command away. I'm just a glorified computer. Solve the equations, Jason. Drive the car, Jason. Fight the bad guys, Jason. Think? Have opinions? Make decisions? Not required."

"Have I ever said that to you?" Mark's voice was quiet, but with an edge of absolute authority to it. "I need your insight, your opinions, and all your abilities." He looked at each face in turn round the table. "Does anyone here not think Jason should be G-2?"

"Yeah," said Jason. "Me."

"I'm not giving up command to you. I've worked for this all my life, not just a couple of years. I know way more about military tactics than you. I've earned it, and I intend to show you all that this is one decision Anderson got right. But I want you as my second-in-command, and I'm prepared to fight to get you." He looked at me apologetically. "Sorry, Princess."

"No apology necessary." I smiled at him in pure relief. "I'm better suited as G-3. We all know that."

Mark continued to look round the table. "Tiny?"

"I want G-5. I can't pilot and give orders."


"Me give orders? Not yet. When I'm older."


He was leaning with both hands on the table, breathing unsteadily and looking down, but lifted his gaze at Mark's question. "I can't believe Anderson would do this. Would take it away like this after leading me on all these weeks. But it's not your fault, Mark. And since someone has to be G-2 - maybe it should be me."

"Then we're settled." Mark took a second piece of paper from his envelope and proceeded to cross out most of its contents. "We're supposed to sign to accept our commissions." He scrawled the Cyrillic signature which always seemed so at odds with the almost American accent, and handed pen and paper on.

Jason inserted his name on the second line in place of mine and signed it. I followed, then Keyop, then Tiny.

Mark retrieved the paper, and for the first time there was apprehension in his voice. "I guess we'd all better go see Anderson."

Anderson looked from the paper in his hands to the order we'd lined up in. "What is the meaning of this?"

"You made a mistake." Mark was implacable. "I need a second-in-command who complements me. Princess and I think far too much alike. I don't need someone else careful and analytical. I need someone fast and decisive. We are all agreed on what our team structure should be, what will work best for us. You will at least let us try it out in training."

"I'll speak to you alone, Commander. The rest of you can leave." Anderson saved a glare of particular displeasure for Jason, who met his eyes with a look close to insolence but didn't say a word as we turned and left.

Three hours later, Mark came back into the rec room, tossed yet another piece of paper onto the table, and collapsed into the sofa with a sigh. "That wasn't how I planned to spend my first afternoon in command. You owe me, Jason - big time."

"For what - taking my command? Forgive me if I'm not that grateful right now."

"You were only on that list at all because Ivanov insisted on it, that the Rigan jump calculation techniques aren't quick enough. Everyone else was ready to go with a team of four until they could find another fifth. It seems they weren't too happy with the psych evaluation you had yesterday. I don't know too much about this stuff, but from what they said, I'm not surprised. They were never going to give you command after that.

"Now I have persuaded them that they don't lose anything by letting us train with you at G-2. You'll do better once you're back in the team. And I told them you'll cooperate with the psych guys and let them re-evaluate in another month."

"And who gave you the right to tell them that?"

"If you want to tell them you won't, go right ahead. They're in briefing room 1, you can catch them now. Or you can spend the next month as G-2 showing them they were wrong. It's up to you. Look, Jason, I just spent all afternoon arguing with them and that's the best offer I can get you. Tell the psychs what they want to hear and be done with it. Frankly I don't give a damn how they evaluate you, as long as you can do your job. You want to give it a try, or not?"

Jason didn't lift his eyes from the floor. "I guess I've got nothing left to lose. Commander."

"My name's still Mark. And you still owe me a demonstration of your allegedly superior technique."

Jason finally looked up, something in his eyes besides total despair. "I owe you a good thrashing. If you're ready, now that we're evenly matched, how about right now?"

"Is it going to be okay?" Keyop asked once they'd left for the gym.

I'd been asking myself much the same question. It wasn't great. Jason still wasn't happy, but maybe he would learn to accept it just as Don had before him. It was certainly much better than the alternative we'd been offered. It was a starting point, something to work with.

"It's going to be okay." I tried to sound more confident than I felt. "We're going to be a team. You'll see."

Anderson caught me as I was heading back from a swim later that evening. "Princess, hand this out, would you?"

Another envelope. I raised horrified eyes to him. "You haven't changed your mind? Please?"

He smiled. "No. I thought maybe you could all use a little light relief. Just for your information - we won't be releasing anything until you go into action."

He'd been right to make five copies - this one we'd have been fighting over. Someone had been having far too much fun writing it. Serious subject matter, but oh dear, the hype. I guessed if they ever needed to release it, the situation would be so bad that morale-boosting would be a priority. Or possibly reducing the general population to hysterics was supposed to help them feel better about being under attack from an alien galaxy. Whoever had written it badly needed a lesson in basic cosmology.

"Orphans?" queried Tiny. "Not exactly."

"It's close enough. You want Spectra after your family?" Mark continued to read, a smile playing on his lips. "Not sure about the super-powers, though."

" 'Cerebonic implants' doesn't exactly trip off the tongue." Jason had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard. "Oh, boy, I needed that. You really think they'd release it? They have to change some of it - it's too silly for words. I can't help thinking up images to go with the voice-over."

"Well, Princess can do 'dedicated'," Tiny suggested. "Surrounded by books and manuals in four different languages."

"Great idea, Mr inseparable-from-his-lunch," I retorted.

"Invincible?" asked Keyop.

The room fell silent. None of us could even joke about that one.

"Let's hope so," Mark said softly.