They docked as uneventfully as he would have expected. The engines cycled down to silence, and it was over.
"Commander?" Dimitri queried, and he couldn't even look up.
"You four to Medical," Jason said. "The Eagle's with us."
That bought him the time that G-Force took to shut their consoles down, and then Jason was back alongside him.
And that was all it took. Frustration and embarrassment exploded inside him, and his head snapped up with a jolt that vibrated all down the back of his neck.
"Yeah, sure, I'll just dance all the way to debrief, shall I? Because we all know I've been faking everything all this time. I can't walk! Ignore it all you like. I can't."
Jason opened his mouth, shut it again, shook his head, and simply walked past him off the flight deck. Mark returned to staring at the floor. He didn't care. They could send some orderly in to carry him out.
There was some whispering and muttering, which he could have listened to if he'd wanted to. More people left, booted feet passing through the edge of his peripheral vision. And then someone large and heavy sat down alongside him, the whole row of seats flexing in response.
"Jase didn't deserve that, Mark."
Tiny. And he was right, of course. Not that it helped.
"Do you want me to fetch your chair?"
"No," he spat out before he'd even thought about it.
Tiny sighed and shifted position. "You make it damn hard to help you, you know that?"
"Acting like there's nothing wrong with me doesn't help."
"I guess not." Tiny was utterly calm without being condescending, clearly listening to what was being said, and Mark's fury subsided, replaced by a fresh wave of hammering exhaustion.
"Let me call someone back. Two shoulders, and we'll have you out of here in no time."
Mark shook his head, still staring at a piece of floor which by now he could have reproduced in every detail from memory. This was it. Over. No more birdstyle. No more Phoenix. All gone, forever.
"Mark, please talk to me! I can't just leave you here."
"No? 'Always five' - remember that? Go be one of the five, Tiny. I'm not any more. I'll get myself out. Not paralyzed any more, remember?"
Tiny snorted. "What I'm remembering right now is you yelling at Jason that you can't walk. And 'always five'? God, Mark, do you have to rub it in?"
The crack in his voice was such a surprise that Mark's head came up despite himself. "Rub what in?"
"You can't have missed it." Tiny was staring at him, raw disbelief all across his face. "You...I mean, we've tried to hide it, we figured we've got most people fooled...but you? I guess you've not seen enough of us to pick it up. Rick's not working out. We're four plus one, and sooner or later it'll all come crashing down. I thought it might this afternoon, but Rick behaved himself in front of an audience. He does that, at least."
Mark's depression was forgotten. "What the hell does he do normally?"
"Bitches about being left on the Phoenix...pushes, questions, insinuates...general pain in the backside stuff."
"And Jason puts up with it?"
"Hell, no. Today was the first mission in months where he hasn't blown up at him. Keyop winds and winds, Rick retaliates, Jason goes ballistic, Princess wrings her hands and begs everyone to play nice, and I fly the ship and pretend it isn't happening."
"Oh." Words were inadequate. Now he could see it, of course, going right back. Way back. Rick announcing on TV what an integral part of G-Force he was now. And he'd never even considered that it might only be a public facade. He'd swallowed the hype, and he'd kept himself away. He'd not wanted to push into a newly cohesive team. He'd slammed a wall up between himself and his friends because he'd been so sure it would happen from the other side if he waited. He'd assumed that Rick had stepped into his shoes both professionally and socially. From the sounds of it, he'd been wrong on all counts.
"Oh," he said again, uselessly.
Tiny just kept looking at him, horrified sympathetic understanding creeping across his face. "I should have -"
"I'm a big boy, Tiny. My mistakes are my own fault." And now, if it wasn't way too late already, he could put some of them right. Take the walls down on his side, at least. Only then would he know if he was facing blank concrete on the other side.
And if he had any chance at all, he needed to start right now.
"Is my chair out there?"
"At the bottom of the ramp."
"Then..." Mark swallowed, looking around at the scene of so many of his triumphs. Screens dark now, seats empty - but still the nerve centre of ISO's flagship. "I won't sit in a wheelchair in birdstyle. Or in here."
Tiny nodded. "Can you stand?"
"I'm not sure." In fact he was completely sure that he couldn't, not unassisted. And Tiny had to know it, because the hand he offered provided a lot more than just a boost to vertical, and before Mark had time to object, he had an arm round the other's shoulders, and Tiny was taking most of his weight as they moved slowly out of the flight deck.
The ramp almost defeated him. Even with a handrail he'd have struggled. That had never been a requirement for the Phoenix, and he hesitated at the top, contemplating twenty feet of steel gridwork at a downward sloping angle of twenty degrees with a dread which he'd once reserved for Spectra's toughest mecha.
Tiny said nothing, just tightened his grip to provide more support, and Mark inched his way uncomfortably downwards, having to concentrate on every movement. The first eight feet was pure hell. After that, he was at least low enough that he could use the edge of the Phoenix's hull for support, and his arm strength wasn't an issue. He made it another eight feet with much less difficulty, and then Tiny said, "I'll get the chair," and helped him over the side of the ramp and to sit on it.
His initial impression was confusion - the chair was sitting at the bottom of the ramp, and he hated the part of himself which found it inviting - but as Tiny sauntered slowly down the rest of the ramp, he put everything together. Tiny knew full well he couldn't detransmute by normal means. He needed both hands free to remove his bracelet. The only way he could have that now was to sit down, and he'd made it entirely clear that the Eagle was not sitting in a wheelchair in birdstyle. So, the edge of the ramp it was. An awkward, sloping seat, the edge digging into his right thigh and falling away under his left. Tiny, though, was returning with the chair, and he he had only seconds before it became entirely obvious that he really, desperately didn't want to do this at all. He'd humiliated himself enough in front of the Owl already today.
Mark shut his eyes and worked the fingers of his right hand round the fastening of the bracelet on his supporting left. Steadying himself mentally wasn't going to happen, and he was fully aware that if he waited, he'd be unable to make himself take it off. This, he was quite sure, really would be the last time.
The sharp twist, flexing the strap in a way no enemy would ever reproduce, and as the bracelet came off in his hand the transmutation field flared, scarlet through his closed eyelids. The sensation of birdstyle was gone, and with it the last vestige of strength in his legs. Mark barely kept himself from toppling sideways down the ramp, and then, overwhelmed by hopeless frustration, he flung the useless bracelet away from him. He heard Tiny exclaim, then the bracelet strike something, drop, and skitter across the floor. He still didn't look. Just sat and fought with himself, telling himself that it would get better, just like the psychiatrist had recommended. He was no longer paralyzed. All he needed now was time and work to get back on his feet.
And I don't care, his subconscious answered back. If I can't have this back, I simply don't care.
No? You'd sit and watch G-Force fall apart? another part of him asked. You'd leave Jason to handle a disintegrating team with nobody to turn to?
At least he could spot the self-pity now, and pick the part of his personality that he actually liked to side with. Mark opened his eyes again to see Tiny pushing the chair reachably close, a question in his eyes. To which the answer was no, with full Earth gravity crushing him into the ramp, there was no way he could get into it by himself. And Tiny knew it, this time taking all his weight and lowering him into the chair. Mark just sat there and gasped, tired beyond exhaustion.
"Are you even up to a debrief?" Tiny asked him, concern in his voice.
"Yes." That came out surprisingly steady.
"Okay, Commander." He didn't sound convinced, but, thank goodness, that didn't translate into expressions of pity or attempts to help. Mark had been quite particular in his choice of wheelchair, when he'd eventually been persuaded that he needed to buy one. No handles. He couldn't have cared less about canted wheels, the height of the back, or the choice of trendy colours and wheel infills. He'd gone for stark institutional silver - this is a tool, not a part of me. But he was not going to be pushed around. He headed for the elevator without looking to see whether Tiny would follow.
He'd been concerned that his medical checks would take forever - or that someone would have reported his distress on the Phoenix and he'd be subjected to a barrage of 'I told you so'. In fact, Chris took one look at him and presented him with a lidded cup of the green slime he remembered so vividly. Possibly the vilest concoction known to man - but as restoratives went, this one worked.
"I take it you're exhausted?" he asked, handing it over. "I need to run a full set of tests, but there's no point while you're so tired you can barely twitch. And Mike Bennett should take a look at your implant, see what effect that forced transmute young Dylan was telling me about has had. Tomorrow morning?"
Mark felt his eyes widen. "Effect? Bad effect?"
"I doubt it, but I'd like to be sure. How do you feel in yourself? Any after-effects from pushing yourself that hard?"
"Does wanting to curl up and die count?"
Chris smiled. "To be expected. You'll be stiff tomorrow. Call me if you're too uncomfortable. For now, I'm happy if you are. If you're up to it, I believe debrief is in room one."
After what Tiny had said about the state of the team, he was utterly determined to be up to it. One thing which did carry over, crippled or not, was his ability to keep going, to push through grinding exhaustion until he hit the point of total collapse.
He had the knack of doors now, though it had taken a while. That was something which the new chair had made a whole lot simpler. Enough that he'd learned to make it look casual, and to close the door quietly behind him while looking around the room where he'd reported on so many missions, so many successes, a few disasters. It hadn't changed. There were no windows in here, no overt electronics. Just pale wooden panelling all the way round from floor to ceiling, the standard grey carpet, and the ubiquitous two inch black stripe running round the walls, painted on four feet from the floor. A table in wood to match the walls, nearly twenty black leather chairs, and a simple slide projector hanging from the ceiling. In his experience, only the top end of the table was generally used, but today there were far more people present than just a single team of five. G-Force were in the chairs they'd always used. The trainees were seated two either side of the foot of the table, near the door. From the shifts in posture when they noticed his entry, they'd been waiting for him.
Up at the head of the giant oval table, some thirty feet from him, Anderson's seat was empty. The man himself was standing facing the extended projector screen on the far wall and talking on his communicator. Jason was in the seat which Mark instinctively thought of as his own, a ring binder filled to bursting point lying on the table in front of him. As Mark rolled his chair to the nearest space at the foot of the table, Jason opened the file, flicked through a few pages, closed it. Opened it again, apparently at random.
He's stressed as hell. Now that Tiny had pointed it out, it all seemed so obvious. There was Jason, doing anything to avoid having to look at anyone. Rick, leaning back in his chair, the expression almost a sneer...
No, Mark chided himself, it's nothing like that bad. Stop casting him as the villain. But there was no question, the body language was there. Rick was most dissatisfied with his commanding officer. Where had it all gone wrong? Rick had worshipped the ground Jason walked on, once. And Jason had trusted Rick to the point to taking him out, half-trained, on a deep space rescue mission. It should have worked. So why was it such a mess?
As Anderson returned to his chair and glanced around in that way he had of checking whether everyone was ready, Mark sat up in his chair as much as he could, aware he was several inches lower than everyone else at the table, but unable to face the physical effort required to transfer to a standard chair. He listened absently as Anderson ran through the standard opening phrases for a debrief; the whole lot would go on tape, and ISO required that people were reminded of it. He could have given the spiel himself without even thinking about it. Down to the last word, the last adjustment of the glasses and glance round the table, finishing up with his gaze focused on the commander of G-Force lounging in the black leather chair to his right. That was the cue for Jason to stand up and give his report.
"I think Mark should start this one," Jason said.
He was right, of course. Jason knew nothing about what had happened on the station until Paula had got the message out. Even so, couldn't he at least have warned him?
Yes, and he probably would have done if you hadn't snarled him into leaving. Mark sat hard on the self-pitying side of his psyche and took five seconds to settle himself, forcing down his brain's reflex insistence that reports were given standing up. He couldn't, and it didn't matter. He'd done everything he could up on the station. More than he'd expected to be able to do. More, he was pretty sure, than anyone at this table had thought him capable of. Nothing to hide, no agenda, just tell it how it was. The kids had done well, and G-Force had done better.
"Thank you, Commander," Anderson said formally as he reached the point where Jason had joined him. "Comments?"
He was looking round the trainees, at Dylan in particular, asking the standard question to see whether the team members felt anything had been missed or misrepresented in their acting commander's report. When nobody did, it was Rick who spoke up first.
"You sent out three trainees, alone? Including her?" He indicated Jenny, with more astonishment than disdain.
"Everyone starts somewhere." Mark met his eyes squarely. There were people to whom he'd admit just how nervous that had made him, most of them in this room. Rick Shayler was not one of them, and he sure as hell wasn't going to explain his command decisions to his replacement.
To his surprise, though, he read no hint of superiority in the other's reaction. No judgement, no condemnation. Rick simply said, "I couldn't agree more," and cast a glance in Jason's direction. Jason wasn't even looking.
Jason's own account was brief; little more than "we arrived, we blew it up, we fixed the station, we left," with a couple of before-and-after images of the saucer-dish mecha he'd described projected on the screen. Tiny and Keyop added more details about the combat on the station. It had been short and painless; apparently Blackbirds were now just a normal day's work for them. Princess explained precisely what had been done to disable the station's automatic warning systems, and how she'd put them right afterwards. Rick said nothing, merely shaking his head when Anderson asked if he had anything to add. And that was the moment when the tension went out of Jason as though someone had pulled the plug.
There's something rotten in this team. Something they're hiding even from Anderson. A lot more than just a dissatisfied crew member. And the thought made him sick to his stomach. If G-Force fell apart...what then? Force Two? They simply weren't ready.
"Thank you, team," Anderson said finally. "And thank you, Force Two. Exciting though today doubtless was, I do hope you haven't forgotten everything you learnt in the preceding week, and you will be debriefed more fully tomorrow. Commander Jarrald, I'd like to thank you for stepping in, and I'm sure Major Grant will be contacting you in the near future to ask for your feedback. Dismissed."
Don't call us, we'll call you. Mark didn't know whether to smart at the casualness with which Anderson had said he was now surplus to requirements, or be relieved that he hadn't made a big thing of it. For the moment, he sat and smarted, finishing the remainder of his drink in the hopes that it would give him the energy to get back to his quarters. And, without another word to him, Anderson left. The Force Two trainees left, a couple of uncertain glances thrown his way but nothing said. G-Force left, all except Jason who had paused to add the pile of paperwork required post-mission to his folder. And Mark had the sudden image of a steel door slamming shut in that concrete wall he'd built between them.
Already most of the way to the door, Jason turned back. "Yeah?"
"I'm sorry." He resisted the temptation to look down. "You hit a raw spot. But I shouldn't have yelled at you."
Jason shrugged. "It's nothing."
No, not to you, not any more... Mark abandoned his empty glass on the polished wood of the table, swinging his chair round to fully face the other. "Tiny told me about Rick."
Jason went from casual slouch to full Condor faster than a blink. "Told you what?"
"Things I should have seen for myself. Look, Jase, it's none of my business. I won't try to make it my business. But if you want to talk about it off the record, you know where I am."
Jason hesitated fractionally, then spun on his heel and left at a near-run.
He didn't even try to deny there's a problem. Is that good or bad? Mark shook his head, then dropped his hands to the wheelrims and pushed slowly for the door, regretting the gloves he'd not needed in freefall. He'd made the offer, and there was nothing more he could do to help. He was done physically - and Chris was right, he'd suffer tomorrow. But for now, he'd keep going steadily. Out of black section, back to that specially adapted room in Heron block, and sleep for eighteen hours. And after that, back to rehab. First things first. He'd get back on his feet, and he'd take it from there.