Anderson called us in at ten, and came right to the point. "This may come as a shock to you, but it seems that a former member of the G-Force team, Donald Wade, has defected to Spectra. His knowledge of G-Force operations makes him dangerous." The picture on the screen was so familiar it hurt.
I dared a sideways glance at Mark as Anderson paused to change the slide. There was no reaction at all, not a word, none of the myriad of questions he surely had right now. He looked more horrified at the new pictures, taken yesterday on our return and showing the dreadful damage to the Phoenix.
Anderson continued in that same calm tone. He never showed emotion at a briefing. He'd sent us out to recover another defector and only subsequently had we found out just how close a friend the man had been. That time, only Anderson had known him. This time, it was Don who Anderson was talking about. We'd spent eighteen months training together. He'd been obnoxious and arrogant - but he'd been one of us. We'd trusted one another. How could he have betrayed his own planet? I could see only too well how he could have betrayed us. We'd betrayed him first. We'd left him behind. He must truly hate us now, to have sided with Spectra against humanity. Revenge against G-Force I could understand - but he could have had that at any time, simply by telling Zoltar who we were. Giving Spectra a weapon which could take down any plane in the sky was unforgivable.
"Wade is a genius in chemistry," Anderson went on, just as if half the people in the room hadn't known him intimately. "At the time he left G-Force, he was perfecting a formula for a universal solvent. Look how the exposed metal on the Phoenix is eaten away. The bombs that struck it had to have been carrying a payload of Wade's formula. It's his. I've had it tested. And now it's Zoltar's."
He sighed, and his face lost something of its formal briefing expression as he spoke directly to Mark. "He's a guy I never could get close to - a real loner. And he and Jason couldn't hit it off at all."
I felt my jaw drop. That wasn't right at all! Don had fancied himself a leader, on a pedestal above us, but a loner? No. He loved having others around, especially if they were prepared to listen to him. And Jason had been as close to Don as he'd ever been to anyone since. Certainly closer than he was to Mark. They'd trusted one another implicitly, totally. Jason had never given that sort of trust to anyone again. No, Don hadn't been a man apart, a defector in waiting. He'd been as loyal, as dedicated, as brave as any of us. That was what was so terrifying, probably too much for even Anderson to face. It could have been any of us. In a similar situation, it still could.
"Speaking of Jason," Anderson continued, "he's missed a mission and now a briefing. He'd better have a good explanation."
Keyop suddenly squeaked joyfully. "Hey, look who's here!"
We all swung round to see Jason leaning against the wall just inside the door. He looked dreadful; eyes shadowed, pale under the tan. I wondered how much of Anderson's spiel he'd heard.
"What's going on, Jason?" That was Anderson.
"That's a good question." He didn't sound any better than he looked.
"And I'd like a good answer. Your behaviour has been inexcusable. You deliberately disobeyed orders."
Well, that was a big assumption. For all any of us knew, he'd been unconscious in the local hospital for eighteen hours. I waited for Jason's blistering response, but it didn't happen.
"Maybe the best thing for me to do is resign."
"Resign?" Even Anderson sounded startled. Mark's horrified "what?" said it for the rest of us.
Jason couldn't even look at us. "Yeah. I've come to the conclusion that I'm not cut out for G-Force any more. If I ever was."
He had to have heard Anderson saying that Don was alive. That Jason had done the one truly unforgivable thing to his second-in-command. He'd left him behind. Jason deserved to be told in no uncertain terms that he'd made the only possible decision in the circumstances, that anything else would have killed all of us and done nothing to help Don. What he got was ambiguous in the extreme.
"That's not true and you know it, Jason. Be sure you're not making a decision you'll regret later. Just be sure."
Jason looked as though he wasn't sure of anything except that he didn't want to be here. I didn't know how to help him, Keyop wouldn't be any good, and Tiny rarely got involved with Jason's moods. Mark would try, but it wasn't one of his strong points. I didn't want to be left to sort this out. As Anderson left us to it I made one desperate attempt to bring him back, but my plea went unanswered.
From the door, I heard Mark's voice. "Jason, what's wrong? I'll help."
And an all too typical Jason-response. "Stay out of this." Sounds of footsteps, and a door closing.
Someone had to talk to him. I headed for the corridor, and found my way blocked by an arm across the doorway. My commander's expression was cold and furious. "Sit down, Princess. No more evasions. I want the truth about Donald Wade's involvement in G-Force. All of it. Now."
This time I had no option. We sat down, and I told him the tale of our first field-test of the jump-drive, which had ended with the total destruction of the damaged Mars base with Don still deep in the tunnels under it. We'd thought we were going to an operational, domed base. Don had had thirty minutes oxygen left at most when the Spectran mecha buried him under hundreds of tons of rock, and had stopped transmitting some time before. I'd never doubted he was dead until yesterday.
Mark never interrupted once. Even Keyop remained silent. Tiny left the tale to me, nodding occasionally.
"We destroyed their ship and came home," I finished. "Jason's never been the same. He never used our real names again. 'Princess' and 'Tiny' were what Don called us. Three months later, they diagnosed Jason with PTSD - but you were with us by then."
"I can't believe you never told me." Mark didn't look up, staring at his hands on the table. "I can't believe Anderson never told me. I never knew you'd been there for the Mars base disaster. I never knew you had another team member at all. Let alone that he was G-2."
"We should have guessed," Keyop said.
"Huh?" Mark glanced up.
"They already had the jet. Needed a pilot."
"Don was my co-pilot on the Phoenix," Tiny said. "That plane was the Hawk before it was ever the G-1."
"So why do you think he turned?" Mark asked in the ensuing silence.
I shook my head. "I don't know. The only thing - he was very gullible. He'd believe anything. Maybe given long enough of waiting in vain for us to come rescue him, he'd even believe Zoltar was the good guy. Or maybe he just wants revenge so bad, nothing else matters."
"I think it's a coincidence. Don died two years ago, and some Spectran scientist who never even heard of him came across his research and thought it looked good."
"Let's hope so." I stood up. "I have to try talking to Jason. We need him back."
Mark frowned. "You don't really think he'd resign?"
"If you thought you'd made a mistake which caused your second's death, and two years later you found out he'd been alive and in Spectran hands all that time, wouldn't you?"
Mark winced, and I left in a hurry. I'd said far too much already. The last thing our commander needed was to realise that this could all too easily happen to him. That Don hadn't been a friendless loner, a defector in waiting, but had been just like Mark's own second. Just like Tiny, or Keyop. Just like me.
Jason wasn't at the Mars memorial, much to my initial surprise. He'd always come here, back in the early days before he had the car and the trailer to run to. This had been the place where he'd tried to deal with Don's death.
Only now, I realised belatedly, it wasn't appropriate. Don wasn't dead, and my name wasn't the only lie on the memorial stone. So where had he gone to this time? He hadn't taken the car; he was still around here somewhere.
I wandered along the high point of the ridge above the cliff for a few minutes before I found him, sitting on the grass looking out to sea. He'd chosen a sunny spot, with flowers in the grass. I hoped this was a good sign.
He didn't respond to my call. Not so good. I tried again.
"Jason, if you want somebody to talk to, I'm available."
He half turned, expression inscrutable, tension in every line of his body. Please, please talk to me, I willed. He'd talked to Ivanov before, or at least Ivanov had talked and Jason had listened. Now, though, Ivanov was in Russia evaluating a potential Force Two candidate. It was up to me.
"I thought we were friends, that we told each other our troubles." It sounded weak even as it left my mouth. I felt that way about Jason, and he'd always listened when I needed him to, but he'd never reciprocated. The last person Jason had felt that way about had been Don.
"I want to be left alone, okay?"
"No!" I protested. Brooding alone never solved anything. Not even for Jason.
"Yes. Don't butt in where you're not wanted, Princess."
I paused, thinking frantically. I wasn't doing any good here. Maybe someone else could - maybe Mark, now that he knew the story, could get through to him. I needed to back off before Jason fled in the car and we lost him totally.
"I'm...I'm sorry if I've bothered you, Jason. I'll leave you alone."
I wandered back towards the buildings, half hoping that Jason would change his mind and call me back. I didn't understand the way he functioned now, never had since his breakdown. He obviously needed to talk - wanted it, even , or why had he come back to headquarters at all? Once, he'd been the one who would start the discussion. He'd got us all to talk about our fears before our first spaceflight, and it had worked. I knew his mental problems went beyond simple stress, but he must know intellectually what he needed. Why couldn't he force himself to open up to one of us? I'd made it as clear as I knew how, on numerous occasions, that I'd be there for him. If only he'd let me in.
I was barely halfway back when my bracelet beeped at me. "G-3 here."
"Come to briefing room one immediately, please." Anderson's voice, and the link went dead before I could even acknowledge.
I walked in to find Anderson behind the desk talking to Keyop and Tiny. Mark wasn't in the room. Jason couldn't have reached it before me in any case. I stood and listened for a while in silence, hoping one or both of them would arrive before Anderson realised I was there and they weren't. No such luck.
"Ah - Princess." Anderson beckoned me over. "We have a radar modification which should counter the multiple image problem you were having yesterday."
"Don't you think you should be telling me about that?" Jason strode up to the desk, interest in his eyes, shoulders back, the picture of relaxed confidence. Behind him, Mark locked eyes with Anderson, an unspoken plea for him not to comment and break the spell.
Give him his due, Anderson went with it. He switched his attention to focus on Jason, leaving me to listen alongside in case I was needed later. Just the way I liked it.
Anderson finished the technical discussion, and instinctively we all stepped back into line. "I want you to go looking for that caterpillar," he said simply. "It's too dangerous to be left out there. Nothing that flies has any defence against it. We've decided this is the ideal time to use the infiltration missile. You will proceed to sector 10, where the caterpillar's been sighted, get close enough to fire the missile, then leave. Jason, you've had the most training with the missile. Are you ready to take it on?"
"But..." Keyop started, and then yelped as I kicked him, hard. Jason was functioning at the moment, and I wasn't going to let anyone dent his fragile confidence unnecessarily.
Anderson either didn't notice, or pretended he didn't. "You will remain in the missile until the caterpillar returns to its base. Destroy the caterpillar as a first priority. The research and production capability for the solvent is a second."
"And the personnel?" Jason asked, not looking at him.
Anderson's voice was level, emotionless. "Standing orders apply."
In other words, no special treatment for Don.
"Any more questions?"
Jason shook his head. We had no information on the base. There was no point making contingency plans when we didn't know whether it was underwater, high in the mountains or in a built-up area. As usual, we'd be making it up as we went along.
"Okay." Mark turned, a smile of pure relief on his face. "Anybody for Sector 10?"
"Now entering Sector 10." Tiny looked across at his commander. "What now?"
"After yesterday's fiasco? It won't take much to bring it out."
He was right. It took barely ten minutes.
"Here it comes," Jason called from the radar station. "Our giant caterpillar."
I tensed, watching the readouts from the modifications hastily made to our radar system. They appeared to be working. The lines on the screen stayed within the limits Anderson had described, and the radar screen still showed one single dot. Mark swung round to face me, eyebrows raised in a question, and I simply nodded.
"Alright, get ready to make the transfer. Tiny, level off. It's all yours, Jason."
Silence from the radar station.
"Jason?" Worry was written all over Mark's face. It was obvious what was concerning him. Jason's relaxed manner of just a couple of minutes ago was gone. In its place, rigid anxiety, and something else - acceptance of the inevitable?
The voice which emerged was almost unrecognisable, holding a depth of unhappiness which horrified me. "Whatever you say." The briefest of glances round the flight deck, and he was gone.
"I want to know the moment anything unexpected happens." Mark sounded almost as tense as Jason had. "Tiny, keep it straight and level. They don't know we've fixed our radar. Last time, we didn't spot them until they were right on top of us. I'd like them to think nothing's changed."
My bracelet pinged with Jason's report that he was ready to go, and I reported it to Mark as we got our first visual of the caterpillar. Tiny had done a great job - we were ideally positioned to make our attack run.
Mark simply said "Let's go" and Tiny replied "Moving in" and did it. We needed to be perfect, all the time. Tiny generally was. Mark's assumption that he could do his job was as close to a compliment as he ever got.
"Get in there tight and we'll let him go." Mark's hand hovered over the launch button. I could appreciate his wanting to get to point blank range. Missing would create a real mess - Jason would face a monster gliding descent as a sitting target for the caterpillar and, even assuming the Spectrans didn't realise what we'd been trying, we didn't have a second manned missile on board.
We got closer, and closer. Up front, Tiny had started to glance sideways. I forced myself to relax, one muscle at a time. This was uncomfortably close.
Mark's hand slammed down on the button, and almost immediately the main screen flared into intolerable brightness.
Tiny winced and looked down, switching to instrument-only flight. "I kinda get the feeling they're not too glad to see us."
"Ideal." Mark put his hand up to shield against the brilliance. "Let's get out of here. Princess, did you track that missile?"
"It hit the target and the back end separated successfully."
"Good. Tiny, get us out of range."
We flew uneventfully for maybe five minutes before Mark's fist hit his console and I jumped a mile.
"Damn, this is wrong. I have to stop this." He looked around three bemused faces. "Do you really think Jason's fit to be doing this alone?"
I swallowed hard. Jason hadn't sounded at all good to me just before he'd left. Evidently it hadn't just been me.
"I think he'll blow the place sky-high while he's still in it," Tiny said simply.
Mark treated us to some of his more colourful Russian vocabulary. "Keyop, can you track that caterpillar?"
"I think so."
"Do it. Tiny, bring us round. We're going after him."
"I volunteer to go in," I said.
Mark's eyebrows went up. "You're staying here. Someone not connected with Wade should have been sent in the first place. I'm going. Where are they, Keyop?"
His fingers flew over the controls. "Sending c...coordinates now, Tiny."
"I have the course," Tiny confirmed, his voice making it a question.
"Follow it. Nice and slow. I don't want us within visual range of it." Mark left his seat and came to stand alongside me. In a voice pitched for my ears only, he asked, "What will Jason do?"
Well, I didn't know - but we both knew that. No need to tell him it was a guess. "He'll do everything he should first. Rig the caterpillar to blow, sabotage the base's generators, take out the production facility. But then he'll try to find Don. At least, that's what I'd do." I had no idea what he'd do if he found him. Bring him back for trial? Shoot him on the spot? Let his guard down for long enough for Don to take revenge in person? I didn't even know what I'd do myself.
"Ion trail ends twelve miles ahead," Keyop said. "Looks a likely area for a base."
"Good work. Fly straight over, keep going beyond the horizon, come back on the deck and wait behind that hill for my signal."
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
Mark didn't look back as he headed for the lift to the bubble. "Jump."
"I hate it when he does that," I muttered as we watched the white-winged figure spiral down towards what, once you knew it was there, was quite clearly the entrance to a Spectran base.
"Does what?" Tiny half turned, still holding the Phoenix on its constant speed and altitude no-of-course-we-haven't-seen-anything flightpath.
"Goes off and leaves me behind."
Tiny snorted. "Me too. Only I'm used to it. How far do you want me to go before we turn?"
I considered the numbers scrolling past on Mark's screen. I could figure it out - we all could - but me telling Tiny how to fly made no sense. "What do you recommend?"
Tiny frowned, nonplussed, then laughed out loud. "You meant 'goes off and leaves me in charge', didn't you?"
"Yeah. We both know you're the one to make the call on this. I'll scan for communications. Keyop, I want to know if anything moves within a thirty mile radius."
We did exactly as Mark had said. Tiny landed us a couple of miles from the base, out of line-of-sight behind some high ground. We waited, and we waited. Whatever was going on in there, it was very quiet. Not a hiccup on the airwaves, not a patrol on the surface or in the air. Just blue sky, rocky ground and us. All very peaceful. Tiny was leaning back in his seat, hands behind his head, looking as if staying awake was a struggle. Keyop had one screen - the one facing most towards me - showing everything it should, and was using the second for his latest computer game which he was attempting to play silently, apparently in the belief I hadn't noticed him. I left him to it. Keyop had the enviable knack of being able to concentrate on two things at once, and he'd be more alert like this than if he was bored.
Abruptly he sat up. "Launch from the base."
"Caterpillar?" I asked.
"No, too small. Escape ship, maybe. Going straight up."
"Do we follow it?" Tiny asked me, hands poised over the controls.
This decision I was happy to make. "No. It's too fast for us, and we could be called --"
My bracelet finally flashed. It was Mark. "We're coming out. Meet us at the main entrance. You can't miss it."
Tiny had the Phoenix in the air without waiting to be told, and within two minutes we were hovering over the main entrance, with me nervously manning the weapons station. They'd relied entirely on secrecy for their defence here, it seemed. Much to my relief, we encountered no opposition at all.
Mark called for pickup a few seconds later, we dropped down and Tiny took us out of there as the bubble lift descended. The door at the rear of the cockpit opened, and Jason entered, followed by Mark with his hand at the collar of a third, smaller man who I recognised all too well. He started at the sight of me, and abruptly I realised he'd never seen me in white.
Don sounded exactly the same. I couldn't bear it. I set my jaw and refused to even look him in the eye.
Jason, white-faced, headed straight for the compartments behind the flight deck without a word. Mark flung his captive to the floor behind the front console with a look of disdain. "Sit there. G-4, if he moves, make him regret it."
Don glanced round, saw the young Russian's impassive expression and the ultra-competent way he was swinging his bolas, and pulled himself with exaggerated slowness to sit with his back to Jason's console, arms wrapped around his knees. From the way his face was bruising, I guessed he'd tried something which either Mark or Jason had already made him regret. He didn't react when the base blew itself to rubble on the viewscreen, didn't move or speak for the entire flight back to base. I'd never seen anyone look so utterly wretched.
I sat for most of the flight in Jason's unused seat and watched the back of Don's head. There was so much I wanted to ask him. There was the huge question of why he had done what he'd done. Had he really switched sides so completely that he now thought of us solely as the enemy? If so, when? Early on, in fury at our abandoning him? Or more recently, after years of loneliness and despair? And the question I liked least of all: what had Spectra done to persuade him? Lies? Brainwashing? Torture? Had it been his decision at all? If they'd done something to him, something I couldn't bear to even think about, how bad had it been? Bad enough to push an angry young man the last little bit over the edge to defection, or bad enough to force the dedicated, loyal scientist I thought I'd known to do something completely out of character? Had it been something he'd hated doing and known was wrong? Was it still? Could there be anything left, anything at all, of the Don I'd known?
I couldn't say anything. Not to him, not to my current teammates. If telling Mark about Jason's first command had been disloyalty, showing sympathy for Don would be far worse. How could I even think of it? This was the man whose invention had come as close to destroying the Phoenix as anything else Spectra had ever thrown at us. It had been tested without warning on unarmed civilian planes. Only one of the pilots had made it, terribly burnt and still fighting for his life in intensive care. Let Grant strip Don of every piece of useful information he had. I'd find out what he claimed had happened to him later, second-hand, when I read the reports. No defector, not even this one of our own, deserved to get to tell a G-Force member his version of events. He'd worked for the enemy. That was all that mattered. There could be no way back.
We landed, and I was at a loss for what to do. This was usually the time when we relaxed, started to joke, had a break before the tiredness hit and the formality of debrief. Not today, not with a traitor sitting on the floor between us. He might know the real names of half of us, but we were still using callsigns when we spoke at all. We shut everything down in near silence, before Mark's bracelet flashed and he turned to Keyop.
"Open the side hatch."
Don made as if to get up, and Mark swung round, one hand on his boomerang. "Stay down," he snarled. Nobody argued with that tone of voice. You didn't have to know Mark to tell that he was deeply, coldly furious, and that crossing him right now would be a seriously bad idea. Don dropped his head back onto his knees, and I could see how badly he was shaking.
What a way to return to ISO - as a prisoner on the floor of the ship he'd flown in as crew, captured by the man who'd replaced him as its copilot. If we'd gone back for him, would it have been different? Could we have rescued him before the Spectrans got there? Would it be Don in that right hand chair now, the commander of G-Force? Or would it be Jason, still G-1, the best jump-pilot ISO had ever had, confident, friendly, outgoing, and Anderson's protégé? Would Mark even now be heading the second team we so badly needed, and in an entirely different chain of command to me? I sat in silence, a thousand miserable 'what if's running through my head.
Keyop returned with two somewhat awed members of the security detail. They'd doubtless seen the outside of the Phoenix a hundred times, but access to the flight deck was usually reserved for a handful of technicians.
The senior of the two stared around him, mouth open, and encountered a very unimpressed-looking Eagle. "Commander! Reporting as requested to take custody of the prisoner."
"Get him out of my sight."
The junior officer produced a set of cuffs and chains, and shortly Don was escorted from the Phoenix at gunpoint. I watched him walk out, seeing not the stumbling captive, but a younger, laughing man in black and silver birdstyle. G-2, Don the Hawk.
I forced the old image back. It was over. Our defector was back in ISO hands. He'd be debriefed with total thoroughness, and when they were sure he'd told them everything he knew they'd lock him up and throw away the key. Deep in the bowels of ISO was a set of cells for those deemed too dangerous to even be given a trial. Don, as an ex-G-Force member who'd been working for Spectra, was certainly in that category. We'd captured him and destroyed the weapons he'd designed for use against us. A successful mission.
I folded my arms on the console, dropped my head onto them, and cried as if I'd never stop.