Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank, I'm just playing with it for fun.
This is a rewrite of the episode "G-Force Defector" set in my universe. There's one huge non-canon moment (a mis-assigned line of dialogue) in order to to make it work.
My universe is non-canon in several respects, and if you haven't read "Rumours of Death" and "Reconstruction" you may be confused by some of the references to the team's early history.
Many thanks to Nancy for beta-reading.
To anyone who, like me, didn't know, "Galactic Traitor" was the original title of the episode. Thanks to Jason for the info.
Some very minor swearing, and I've always thought the entire premise of the episode is particularly chilling.
Any and all comments are always welcome.
Oh, and thanks to Jane for encouraging me to post this even though she already rewrote this episode so brilliantly. If you haven't read "Black Birds" yet, I thoroughly recommend it. But read mine first :-)
Monday morning was always official briefing time. New technological developments, equipment upgrades, intel, all got discussed in the hour or so of total tedium, or so the rest of the team saw it. Mark had repeatedly railed at how nebulous it all was; developments still at the "we think that", "we're going to try" stage, intel ranging from wild rumour to detailed descriptions of next month's attack plans, and no way to know what would become reality. Keyop found it boring and made a point of showing it. He and Tiny had an ongoing competition to separate dross from truth. When the technology you already have includes the ability to turn your warship into a flaming plasma weapon, and your enemy sees nothing strange in an attack ship designed as a giant bug with commander dressed to match, that's not as easy as you might think. Then again, I occasionally wonder what the Spectran leadership thought when they first received reports that their invasion plans were being stalled by a team of five dressed as birds. That one even I'd have discounted.
That particular Monday didn't start any differently. Sheridan from Stats had presented a new proposal for a technique to computer-solve the jump-equations using numerical methods, and Jason had shown interest for just long enough to poke a huge hole in it. He was now sitting slouched, eyes closed, to any casual observer appearing to be asleep in his chair. Everyone here knew better; some had called him on it before and been rewarded with a verbatim replay of the previous five minutes' discussion and a diamond-bright smile to make them want to crawl under the table and die. Jason might consider it a waste of time, but that didn't mean he wasn't listening.
Anderson stood up, leafing through pages of intel reports, and I sighed inwardly. This looked as if it would take a while.
The first report was on a multipart snake mech apparently deployed in the Spectran swamplands to guard a major installation. It sounded plausible enough, but there wasn't enough detail differentiating it from things we'd faced before to be much use to us.
The second was desperately vague. A long-term chemical weapons program was nearing completion. Our informant had heard it was based on an Earth-developed formula. Anderson gave a reference; journal, three-year-old date, title and author. I blinked stupidly - it was familiar. I turned to ask flypaper-brain Jason where we'd encountered it before, just in time to hear a sharp 'snap' and see him sit up, eyes wide in shock, brushing away shards of splintered plastic from his fractured pen. Then I remembered.
Don's pseudonym. Don's paper. Don's formula, out of all the hundreds published every year just on this planet, the one being worked on by Spectra. Maybe just a coincidence. The alternative was too horrible to contemplate.
Jason clearly was contemplating it, though. All trace of relaxation was gone as he sat rigid in the chair through the remaining items, his vacant expression indicating his mind was far away. Had Anderson called him on it now, I doubted he could have even named the topic under discussion. He'd spent nearly two years refusing to admit that he'd ever heard of universal solvents, much less discussed them on a regular basis. I could only imagine how bad he must be feeling to look that awful.
Rather to my surprise, Anderson didn't seem to notice. He made no comment about Jason's reaction, and gave us all the rest of the day off.
Jason bolted for the door the moment Anderson dismissed us. Heading for the track, no doubt. Out there, away from ISO and the pressures of G-Force, he was a person we'd lost two years ago. From comments they'd made, his colleagues at ISO Racing saw him as dedicated and ruthless in his pursuit of victory. Just as he was with us. But out of the car, they found him sympathetic and helpful, and with a wicked sense of humour. None of them had ever mentioned his temper to me. I missed that Jason desperately. Always being careful, wondering what might make his temper flare, was hard.
"What's eating him?" Mark asked once we were out of Anderson's earshot.
I glanced at Tiny. Just the opening we needed to give Mark the explanation he'd deserved from the very beginning. Just say it. 'The man who developed that formula was Jason's second-in-command. Jason made a mistake on our very first interplanetary flight. Don walked into a Spectran trap, and we left him for dead.'
Tiny leant back out of Mark's line of sight and shook his head. His reaction confirmed my own feelings. It was Jason's story. Jason who should be the one to tell his commander what had happened on what was officially called Mission Zero. The one with the records hidden away so far, Mark didn't even know of their existence. No, I couldn't tell that story, not two years after the fact. Tell it now, and they'd both think I'd betrayed them. Keep quiet, and the hole I was digging for myself just kept getting deeper.
I shrugged, attempting to appear casual. "He's stressed. It's just Jason." That didn't sound much like something I'd say, even to me, but Mark didn't seem to notice.
At the door, Keyop jiggled impatiently. "So, are we still going for pizza? You said when we got the day off."
I nearly shook my head, but we had to break so many promises, shelve so many plans. I couldn't do it to him just because an intel report which could be complete rubbish had got to me. "Sure."
"I'll come," Tiny said. "Mark?"
"Too much to do at the airfield." He grimaced ruefully. "I never knew there'd be so much paperwork when I said I'd help out with the flying lessons."
"Taxes?" Tiny asked.
"No such luck. One of Daddy's little darlings decided I'm discriminating against her because I'm prejudiced against women. I've got to go back through the flight records, demonstrating she's had the same chances as everyone else."
"And has she?"
"Hell, yes. More, if anything, since I could see she was struggling. She's got less natural feel for flying than Jason has, and a whole lot less application. I have no idea how she got a pilot's license in the first place. No way is she fit to fly a jet." He turned to me. "Tell me, Princess, have I ever treated you differently from the rest of the team?"
Well, that was easy. "No, never." Not on duty, not off duty, not even when I'd taken my courage in both hands in the wreckage of Research Centre and told him how I felt. No matter how badly I wanted him to.
"Know what I think?" Tiny asked as we headed for his car. "Daddy's little girl made a pass at him, and he didn't even notice."
I chuckled. "Could just be." At least it wasn't just me. Mark and I had discussed our relationship - the one I'd like to have - a while back. He'd made it entirely clear that as long as he was my commanding officer he was having nothing to do with any sort of liason, no matter how I phrased it. I'd thought for a while that he was rejecting me as gently as possible and would sooner or later introduce us to his new girlfriend, but where other girls were concerned he seemed oblivious to the fact that the human race had two sexes at all. I'd met some of the trainees from the airfield he'd part-inherited from his mother. Rich kids, all of them, looking for training to fly the family jet and prepared to pay through the nose for lessons from bona fide ISO pilots. Seriously desirable partners, every one looking for a soulmate from the A-list of society. Apparently an ISO test pilot fell into that category for the few female ones. And Mark showed no interest in them. I'd felt much better once I'd realised that.
'Pizza' for us meant Jill's snack bar. Good food, close to ISO, no questions asked if we disappeared in a hurry, and equally none if we sat about for hours in a cloud of despair. Close to 95 of her customers must have been ISO personnel or Academy students - civilians walking in weren't exactly glared at, but they tended not to stay for long. I liked Jill. I'd even covered for her on a few occasions. Just enough to determine that the catering trade wasn't for me. I'd also let her down at short notice a couple of times, but if she had her suspicions, she'd never voiced them.
Three pizzas later, Keyop and Tiny were tucking into their second bowls of ice-cream. I was nursing a mug of the best decaf coffee in the area - much to the team's amusement, the latest affectation among teenage ISO-ites was avoidance of drugs to the same level we were forced to maintain, and Jill had jumped cheerfully on the bandwagon to offer every decaffeinated beverage she could find. It made our lives a lot easier. Now that everyone else under the age of 30 in the place was doing their best to be mistaken for G-Force, we fitted in better than we ever had.
When the bracelet vibrated against my wrist I didn't even bother dissimulating. I pushed my chair back and walked out, knowing the other two would follow. Once outside, a quick glance round to check I was unobserved, and I called in.
"I'm on my way."
Behind me, Keyop and Tiny acknowledged, Mark's voice came over the bracelet and, after a short pause, Jason responded too. Tiny gunned the engine of his car, and we sped back the short distance to ISO.
"You'll be briefed on the Phoenix," came over the link as we pulled up. Red alert, then. So much for our day off.
I dropped into my seat on the Phoenix to see a whole sequence of lights flashing on the communications screen. I called up the first message from Mark, just to confirm that it was his usual request to dock after launch. In both Mark and Jason's absence, Keyop had taken the co-pilot's seat and was running the pre-flight checks with Tiny. Temporarily, I was in command. I pushed that particular unwelcome thought to the back of my mind and started working through the messages; details on the attacking mecha (very scanty), location (vague) and suggestions for countering it (none worth mentioning). There really was only one piece of hard information in there.
"Sector A-15," I called to Tiny.
"That's too close for comfort. We're ready to go here. What's keeping Jason?"
I reached out to contact him, but ended up answering Mark's flashing light. Even over the bracelet, his impatience was apparent. "Come on, guys. What's keeping you?"
"We're waiting for G-2."
"Any word from him?"
"Not since he acknowledged the scramble."
The characteristic hiss told me Mark had switched his bracelet to a private channel. In a surprisingly short time he was back on the general one. "Launch without him."
"But - Commander! We need him!"
"Don't argue, G-3. Out."
I looked up at the main viewscreen, currently showing Anderson in the controller's chair, to seek confirmation. He appeared to be about as impressed as Mark had sounded.
"G-Force, you have a go. Good luck. We'll keep passing you new information as we get it."
That was as close to 'we know what we've given you so far is useless' as we were going to get. Mark could decide how to proceed when he docked. Right now we just needed to launch and get our commander on board.
"What have we got?" Mark strode onto the command deck, and Keyop cleared his seat in a hurry.
"There's a mecha of some sort in Sector A-15," I told him. "No further details."
I gulped at the irritation in his tone. This was Jason's job, not mine.
"It's attacked planes. Nobody seems to have got a good look at it."
"Attacked them how?"
"We don't know!" I almost wailed. "They've come down in the mountains, we have nothing bar their Mayday calls. We don't even know if the pilots survived yet. I can't find anything useful in the data Anderson sent me."
"Damn. Send it all over to me."
I did so, numbly. If Jason had been here, Mark wouldn't have checked his findings. Jason would probably have found something useful in there in the first place.
Mark looked up only once in the next ten minutes, to tell Tiny to increase speed. Finally he slammed his fist down on the console and spat out, "There's nothing here. Get me the Chief."
I opened a channel, resisting an unprofessional urge to say 'I told you so.' A somewhat irritable discussion ensued. Anderson had no new information. Jason hadn't arrived - hadn't even contacted them. We could really have used his analysis, even though it was too late for him to join us. The mecha hadn't been seen again. Finally Mark agreed that we should attempt to find it, at least get a good look and try to determine its weaknesses. We switched our scanners to maximum sensitivity and settled to a long afternoon. Standard search pattern B, flying at the same altitude as the downed fighters, hoping the mecha had stayed in the area and hadn't simply flown off to terrorise more populated airspace.
From nowhere, the cockpit was filled with blinding light. I heard Tiny exclaim that he couldn't see, then suddenly a radar contact appeared on my screen. Not off to one side, as if we were closing horizontally, or fading in as if approaching vertically. It was just - there. Then another, and another. Close on a hundred identical contacts, weaving randomly in and out of one another. Beside me, Keyop was cursing under his breath while adjusting and re-adjusting a screen showing visual sensor input which I could only describe as a fly's-eye view.
Mark had come to stand at my shoulder. "It's an optical illusion."
Well, it better had be. If it wasn't, we were up against a whole fleet of identical mechas which could confuse every sensor we had. The contacts on my screen bore no resemblance to those on Keyop's.
"I think we should get out of here," I told him.
"Go in the bubble," suggested Keyop. "Believe my own eyes."
Mark shook his head. "Too much radiation. Something's overloading the viewscreen. Tiny, take us up."
The pilot nodded and applied himself to the controls. We rose about fifty feet and abruptly stopped as we hit something. Not in the sense of a collision between two ships - we'd experienced enough of those - but as if we'd flown into a solid ceiling. I was very glad to be sitting down and strapped in, as Mark grabbed at the back of my chair and barely kept his footing.
At times like these, you don't wait for orders. Tiny let the Phoenix drop, accelerated hard forwards, and tried to climb again. Same effect. This thing had to be huge, or as fast as we were. Or both.
As Tiny dropped us again, desperately trying to find a way through to clear airspace, something slammed into us. The Phoenix lurched, steadied, and lurched again. Quite apart from the stomach-churning qualities, something didn't feel right.
"Can you hold it level, Tiny!" Mark yelled. "We're losing speed and altitude."
This time the pilot didn't even acknowledge, far too busy fighting with controls which, even to me, obviously weren't responding correctly. Gradually I became aware of the strange sounds, as though something was striking the upper surface of the hull. Like giant, random raindrops splashing onto the the Phoenix's skin. In front, Tiny swore furiously. "Mark, I'm losing systems."
Keyop and I looked at each other in horrified realisation. Without a word, Keyop switched to internal sensors. These weren't affected by whatever the enemy mecha was using to jam our radar. Frankly, I almost wished they had been. Every camera showed similar scenes. Thick, syrupy liquid dripping from melted holes in the outer skin, eating away at everything it touched, dissolving its way further into our ship.
I turned to Mark. He was staring at an image of the G-4, already riddled with holes and disintegrating before our eyes. "We're in a lot of trouble," he said simply.
Wonderful. Right now what we needed was Mark in brilliant, intuitive command mode, and instead what we had was his alter ego where he'd stand around and state the bleeding obvious. Jason could generally kick him out of it, say just the right thing to get Mark's mind working the way we needed it to. Even if that was something totally unsubtle like 'I'm going to blow them out of the sky.'
Jason wasn't here.
Tiny was probably thinking the same thing. From the pilot's station came a cry of "I'm flying blind as a bat!"
Mark still stood there, staring intently at the radar screen. Jason would have been up front by now, giving Tiny instructions of his own, forcing Mark to take action. I couldn't do that. All I could do was fight to extract some useful information from my systems and hope to find the edge we so desperately needed.
Keyop's gasp distracted me, and I looked up to see cracks appearing in the ceiling of the flight deck. My ears popped - a sure sign that we were losing cabin pressure - but despite the outward flow of air, a thick yellow gas began to creep into the cabin, sinking rapidly to the floor. Even so, billowing clouds of it were beginning to swirl close to head height within a few seconds.
"We can't take much more of this!" Tiny's voice was becoming increasingly desperate. The front of the cockpit was still pretty much gas-free, but it wouldn't stay that way for long. Unless, of course, we decompressed first. Either way, we were going to need full helmets or pressure masks, and there was no way to put either on while piloting in combat.
"There won't be anything left of the Phoenix!" I exclaimed in a desperate attempt to goad Mark into action. All we got from him was an absent-minded "try to hang in there." Oh, we'd hang in there to the bitter end, no doubt about it. The Phoenix, however, was disintegrating around us.
"Need a gas mask!" Keyop spluttered, abandoning his analysis and reaching for the nearest emergency equipment locker. I started to follow suit, and finally - finally - Mark reacted, his eyes still glued to the dancing pattern of radar echoes on my screen.
"Take us straight up. Full power."
Tiny didn't hesitate, slamming us into a vertical climb which flattened me back into my seat. Somehow, this time we found a clear route up. I spent most of our fight to outclimb the enemy mecha trying not to think about how many pieces we'd have broken into if Mark had been wrong and ordered us into a full power ascent directly into it. At some point Tiny asked nobody in particular what we were going to do if the mecha followed us up. I didn't like to tell him that, as far as I could tell from my half-melted rear sensors, it was doing just that. At least the blinding light had stopped, and the craft was now appearing on radar as a single, huge, contact.
"How high are we going?" Tiny asked finally, as the sky started to change from blue to black and the curvature of the earth became clearly visible.
"As high as we have to. I suspect they can't use their weapons at altitude." Mark had at last made it back to his own seat.
It did seem a reasonable guess. They'd tried hard to prevent us from climbing, and the near-vacuum of the upper atmosphere had stripped away the vast majority of the corrosive chemical from their bombs. We weren't suffering further damage, but we were leaking atmosphere from twenty places, and if Mark took us much higher I'd have to recommend we went for full helmets and depressurised the interior of the Phoenix. Our birdstyles could protect us, but the outer shell of the Phoenix was in tatters and the flight deck bulkheads weren't up to the pressure differential of hard vacuum. Even if the air recycling could continue to keep the pressure in here at a survivable level, given the leaks we had already.
Thank goodness it didn't come to that. There was a low whistle of appreciation from Tiny as we finally got a clear view of the enemy mecha levelling out and heading back to lower altitudes. It was huge - easily five times our length and width, and the usual Spectran bio-imitative design.
"What's that? Caterpillar?" asked Mark.
I'd have said trilobite, but ISO Russia had trained their students strictly in what they thought might be useful for the fight against Spectra. I remained startled that Keyop had ever encountered a drumkit, let alone learned to play one, however badly. I wasn't sure Mark even knew what a fossil was, and I wasn't about to try to explain. Caterpillar would do.
We watched it undulate gently down out of sight, then Mark sighed. "I guess we'll just have to limp home empty-handed." There was a lot more anger in his expression than the mild words suggested. He hadn't mentioned Jason's absence once, but I knew what those glances towards the empty chair signified. His second better have one hell of a good excuse.
Jason still hadn't made contact when we finally made it back to headquarters. He wasn't there to see us suffer the ignomony of landing on the airfield in full view of the latest crop of ISO Academy trainee pilots, too badly damaged to submerge and make our normal underwater approach. The only remotely bright point of that horrible day was the discovery of an unexploded bomb which had fallen through one of the many holes dissolved in the Phoenix's hull. Anderson immediately ordered a full analysis of its payload, and I went to help. I was pretty sure I knew where they should start. That formula of Don's.
Mark, by now too frantic with worry for his second to stay angry, disappeared altogether. I found out later that he'd enlisted the help of his and Jason's Team 7 colleagues to search for any trace of him or his car. They'd all returned empty-handed. Oddly, I was comforted. If Jason had been hurt or attacked, I was sure there would have been some sign to be found. The debris resulting from a small war, for instance.
Tiny, as usual, spent most of the rest of the day overseeing the repairs to the Phoenix, running from one technician to the next, hanging over shoulders and telling them how to do their jobs until they were all heartily sick of him. Keyop would have done the same, but what the technicians would grudgingly accept from the pilot of the ship they were repairing, they wouldn't tolerate from G-Force's youngest, smallest and most volatile member, and Anderson reassigned him before we ended up with a major incident.
The ISO ground personnel settled down for an all-nighter. We'd have joined them without a second thought, and Anderson knew it. At nine he contacted us over the bracelets with orders to get some food followed by some sleep. Half an hour later, he dropped casually into the canteen for just long enough to be sure we'd seen him checking on us, then disappeared again. Argument was futile, we all knew that. We were the combat team, we'd probably be out again tomorrow, and would need to be awake and alert. We had to leave repairs and research to others, and go to bed.
To say I slept badly would be an understatement. I tossed and turned for ages, worrying about Jason, but when I finally slept I dreamt of Don as he had been. Don's last communications, and myself knowing something was wrong but unable to speak to warn him. Don, not dying under tons of rock as we'd always believed, but pulled out by Spectrans and taken in chains to Zoltar's Martian base. Don, waiting for a rescue operation which never came, and finally deciding he'd been abandoned and offering his services to his hosts. Don, now, this evening, sitting wherever the caterpillar mecha had gone to ground, reviewing our disastrous interaction with his gas bombs over and over again and laughing manically with Zoltar's voice.
The second time I jerked awake, soaked with sweat and still hearing that cackling laughter echo in my head, I abandoned sleep. Instead I sat at the desk with my two-year-old diaries, duvet round my shoulders in the pre-dawn chill, trying to reconstruct everything Don had ever told me about his solvent. He'd told me what he was going to try next, what he thought would make it still more efficient, what he'd considered but decided wouldn't work, in some detail. He'd loved to talk, and then as now I'd considered myself the member of the team responsible for general knowledge which might come in useful some day. If only I could remember what he'd told me well enough to be of use.
It was no good. I couldn't concentrate well enough on Don the calculating traitor's deadly invention. Try as I might, what came to mind were other images. Don the arrogant brat I'd met for the first time at the ISO summer school. I'd loathed him on sight, and he'd clearly considered me not worth talking to. Until they'd insisted on all their candidates taking a trip to the shooting range. Don had been a truly dreadful shot, and the look on his face when he'd realised I was the person assigned to help him had been priceless. Give him his due, though, he'd not been afraid to admit - albeit tacitly - that he'd been wrong about me, and to start treating me as an equal. It had been Don who'd spent over an hour getting me off the ground on what we'd later discovered was the prototype Phoenix flight simulator. Without that, I might never have made it into G-Force in the first place. I'd forgiven him no end of arrogant, superior comments over the next eighteen months, because I knew that if I asked for his help, he'd be there. He'd rarely, if ever, asked for mine. In the end, when he'd needed it most, he'd had no time to do more than scream. Just once.