Episode Rewrite: Rockets Out of Control

Wednesday, 5 August - Camp Parker

Security Chief Anderson typed the last words of the final draft of his official report on the Lorelei III incident (resisting the desire to replace 'incident' with 'fiasco'), considered briefly, and hit 'print.' As the machine burred, he went to the window and looked at the solitary figure sitting on the hill.

Mark (as usual) felt he should have been able to save the lives of the ship's crew and passengers; that, if he'd had more time, he could have figured out a way to do it while also rescuing Anderson. His report emphasized that.

You couldn't have done anything. Nobody could have. Not once the Lorelei III was off-course and in Earth's gravity. Certainly not after it hit atmosphere.

So simple, in the beginning: a survey expedition to the solar system containing the planetoid Zora. Lorelei III was to take the survey team to their starship. This happened every day: passengers and freight boarded a shuttle, the shuttle went to the appropriate starship or space station, passengers and freight transferred to the next leg of the journey.

If Secretary Claybourn had not wanted to watch the launch, would the men and women of the survey team and shuttle crew be alive now? Or would Zoltar have settled for destroying the Coast Harbor nuclear plant, contaminating both Washington, DC and the Interstellar Federation complex?

"Hmph," he commented. G-Force had an unofficial scale for the craziness of Zoltar's schemes (not the intended outcomes, but the means to attain them), with 1 as 'not crazy' and 10 as 'just this side of batshit insane.' Crashing the shuttle into the nuclear plant was around a '3.'

Kidnapping him by impersonating Claybourn helped jack the scheme to around '8' on the scale: G-Force would come to the rescue, then the Lorelei III would crash into the power plant, killing him and them; afterwards, radiation poisoning would slowly kill tens of thousands of people.

The Monday morning quarterbacks would have problems understanding why he hadn't been suspicious of Claybourn's desire to watch a routine shuttle launch. In his experience, there was nothing peculiar about such a desire. Some people never got over childhood fascinations. A few grew up and turned their interests into careers. Others, perhaps lacking the aptitude or resources, got their 'fix' through reading, joining clubs, developing related hobbies, or other means.

Hell, you could see the spectators outside the fence or in the terminal at every shuttle launch, their inner children thrilling as the craft took to the sky. Secretary Claybourn had been no different. He simply had the power to be inside the control room when it happened.

Of course, when a government official wants to do something, the resulting vortex of official BS sucks in everyone with even the most tangential connection to the official or the activity in question. Besides the necessary entourage of staff and bodyguards, there were those who came along to be seen and photographed with Claybourn, and those who wanted to demonstrate their own authority by ordering others to attend. Along with those who had been 'invited'.

Monday, 3 August -Canaveral Spaceport; Coast Harbor

Security Chief Anderson stood with the other guests and tried not to resent the wording of the invitation. He doubted that Claybourn had written it himself: the Secretary was not the sort to issue orders disguised as invitations, yet he dared not refuse it. Nor had the others in attendance.

Not all invitations can be refused. Not if you wanted to keep your position, or at least stay in the good graces of your colleagues and superiors. Or avoid becoming the center of the latest faux scandal whipped up by bored or annoyed reporters trying to justify following a government official to a routine shuttle launch.

So he smiled for the cameras and wondered what G-Force was doing at that moment. At least they hadn't been invited. Claybourn's PR man didn't want anything to distract from his boss, and G-Force would certainly do that just being present. Give people a hint of an annoyed Eagle, an aggravated Condor, a Swan trying to keep a Swallow out of trouble, and a laid-back Owl, and the Secretary could slip out for a three-course meal and a movie for all anyone would notice.

At least Claybourn seemed apologetic about the circus he'd unwittingly started.

The Lorelei III launched without incident, to the dismay of the reporters. Anderson wondered how many would find a way to blame Claybourn for their disappointment. You didn't have to come here. I'm sure there was a washed-up celebrity to follow around. The obsessive need of news reporters to cover every little thing was one reason he took his vacations at Camp Parker: privacy.

Claybourn's two bodyguards took position as he stood and smiled at Anderson. "We don't see enough of each other, Chief."

"Spectra keeps us busy, sir." True, it had been too long since they'd simply talked. Reports had their place, but nothing beat a conversation between colleagues. All the little (yet important) things that don't fit into official reports can be brought up and discussed.

"Not too busy to come here, though."

"We've been waiting for the other shoe to drop." It was about time for another attack. Zoltar seemed incapable of going more than two weeks without launching a mecha.

"I hope not today. I have a twenty-year-old Bordeaux that demands I share it with a friend."

A nonsense-free conversation. While he could count on G-Force to give him that, Anderson knew that Claybourn had almost no-one in his inner circle willing to even try. They were too busy agreeing with everything he said to realize he needed honest opinions and advice. "I can spare a couple of hours."

"Good, good. Don't worry: there's room for you."

Anderson tried not to show his amusement. Claybourn, as usual, had arrived in a tiny tilt-rotor just large enough for him, the pilot, and the bodyguards, while his staff followed in a larger vehicle. 'There's no need for me to have a small army around every second of every day,' he'd explained once.

They ran the gauntlet of reporters jockeying for a last photograph or quote. Spaceport regulations prevented anyone except the passengers and crew of the tilt-rotor emerging onto the landing pad, so they were spared that.

The bodyguards for both men relaxed once they were airborne. Any threats now would come from other aircraft. Not much they could do under those circumstances.

Small talk and scenery-watching for the next few minutes.

Anderson's phone rang, startling them. He'd put it on 'vibrate' for the launch. Zark could override it, but only for emergencies. The other shoe has dropped.

The message on the screen was simple: Secretary Claybourn had been attacked and left severely injured in his office.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the bodyguards cock their heads and stiffen.

Blam-blam! Deafening in the small space.

The bodyguards slumped over, dead.

"Don't say anything. Set that down." Zoltar's voice and smile, incongruous on the semblance of Claybourn's face. His pistol was steady on Anderson's chest as he drew a device from his coat and pressed a button. "So much for 'my' staff.

"Now, open the doors and dump this garbage." Indicating the dead guards as he put away the detonator.

Anderson obeyed, as his mind raced. Below, trees and roads, shells of abandoned subdivisions and office parks. Very few buildings. Too far away now to make out any wreckage from the following aircraft.

Damn, Zoltar was good. Not so much as a wrong mannerism or word choice the entire morning.

With a casual gesture, Zoltar tossed the phone out before ordering the doors shut. "I know that we'll be tracked, Anderson." A thin laugh. "I'm simply making it difficult. Shut the door, and please keep your hands on either side of you, where I can see them."

I'd be dead right now if all he wanted was to kill me.

What, now? Jump the ruler of Spectra? Or take on the helicopter pilot? He'd die, but if he took Zoltar with him –

No. Whatever the plan, the Spectrans would either carry on with it, or go to Plan B. The war wouldn't grind to a halt because Zoltar was dead.

Better to find out where they were going, and what this scheme entailed. He might be able to do something about it himself.

The tilt-rotor banked. Course change.

Aircraft have registration numbers and transponders. This looked like Claybourn's. Even if it wasn't, Zoltar wanted G-Force to track them down. So they weren't going to disguise it (too much).

"Let me guess what you're thinking, and answer you," Zoltar said. "This is the Secretary's plane. We took a considerable chance, but it paid off handsomely."

"You haven't succeeded."

"Yet. This plan is nowhere near finished.

"We altered the transponder signal, so your team will have to find us another way."

Delay. Whatever the plan, they needed time for it.

Military, intelligence, and commercial/civilian satellites regularly scanned the Earth's surface for a variety of purposes. Galaxy Security could request the data from those scans, once they knew he was in trouble. Which would eat up more time, even with Zark going through the data.

His failure to acknowledge Zark's text message, or send any follow-up, would start the AI looking for him. The fussy 'bot would find him, and then G-Force would come.

Which was what Zoltar wanted. Why? Am I bait for a trap?

Or was he a distraction? Was his rescue intended to delay the team's arrival elsewhere?

He knew the members of G-Force. They'd want to find him first, unless the real threat was right on the doorstep.

A glance at Zoltar. There'd be no needling him into revealing the plan. For all that the man liked to gloat, he only did so when victory seemed inevitable, or to emphasize his victims' helplessness. I could still decide to jump him, or the pilot. That's why he's grinning like a hyena. He knows I'll hold off until I have reason to act.

And, if this kidnapping was merely the distraction, that would not help G-Force find the real threat.

Of course, the plan could be for G-Force to rescue him – except that it would be Zoltar they took back to Center Neptune, while he was prisoner on Spectra.

Well, he'd keep his eyes open and wait for his chance.

The ruler of Spectra had another device in his free hand. A chuff and a sharp pain. "I'm not a fool, Anderson," as darkness took over.

Consciousness returned, under protest.

His mind was slow, his thinking fuzzy. Thoughts kept wandering as he tried to organize them.

Couldn't move.

Could move. Just not his arms.

Something around his chest, digging into upper arms and wrists. He concentrated on the sensation to keep his mind from wandering.

Wait. Chair back digging into upper arms. Rope, or something similar, around his chest and wrists.

He opened his eyes.

Saw his knees, and what looked like turbine or fan blades.

But - he was upright. Couldn't be a turbine or fan, could it? Weren't those usually mounted – He forced his mind back on topic.

Slowly, he straightened in the chair, feeling his muscles ache.

As his mind caught up, he put his disconnected observations together.

He was tied to a chair, on top of the axis of a giant fan (or something very like one) at least ten feet across, with no protective grillework. A walkway ringed the fan, then grey walls. A door or access hatch to his right.

"Hello, Chief Anderson."

Not Zoltar. He looked up, to see a captain (dressed like a demented, insect-themed supervillain) looking through an observation port. At least this one wasn't wearing an ant's head mask.

"Welcome to the Coast Harbor nuclear plant." The voice had the tinny sound that comes from using cheap speakers. "I do hope that American Nuclear has kept up with its insurance premiums.

"You are bait for a trap. You know that already." The captain smiled. "In less than an hour, the Lorelei-III will crash into this facility. According to our calculations, that should cause enough fallout to contaminate at least Washington, D.C. If the damage is great enough, and the winds are right, the Interstellar Federation complex will also suffer." An actual laugh. "We expect G-Force to be here. How does it feel to know you and your pet project will die today?"

"Where is Zoltar?" As if he didn't know.

"He has already left. I, and a few remaining soldiers, shall leave now. We have a safe haven." The captain left the port.

Selected curse words ran through Anderson's mind as he worked his wrists around. There was a simple transmitter in his watch. If there weren't too many cubic feet of metal and concrete in the way, he could warn the team off.

By now, Zark would have tracked him, extrapolated the shuttle's course, and briefed G-Force on both situations. As he worked the tiny contacts, sending a Morse code, he briefed himself.

They'd sabotaged the Lorelei-III, just for this. Removed Claybourn for Zoltar's impersonation, but made no great effort to hide the crime. There was nothing to be done about that. What about now?

Given the Spectran captain's claim, it was already too late to save the shuttle's passengers and crew. They would have already tried everything they knew to get the craft back on course. By the time they conceded defeat, they could not eject and expect to survive, nor did shuttles have self-destruct mechanisms (which Zoltar's saboteurs would have disabled, anyway).

This wasn't a movie. Movies were full of rescues. There was always the right sort of spacecraft nearby, able to divert to the scene and then match course and speed easily. The rescue itself was always successful, the only suspense being which cast members (aside from the male and female leads) would make it to the end credits. Theatrical nonsense. Real life was messier.

Interceptors were no doubt on the way, but would they arrive in time to destroy the shuttle? Or had G-Force been called in, out of hope they could pull a miracle?

Mark would want to save the astronauts and him, and insist on trying. Jason (who often seemed to have the clearest mind about these things) would push for destroying the Lorelei-III, since that would save the most lives. Princess would see both men's points, and possibly back Mark because she couldn't live with herself if they didn't make the effort. Tiny would be waiting for the necessary orders – and if Mark dithered too long, would probably make the decision for him. Keyop? There were times he couldn't figure the boy out.

The door flew open, and G-Force (save Tiny) rushed in. "We don't have a lot of time," Mark said, using the blades of his boomerang to cut Anderson loose.

"Then what are you doing here?" he demanded. "You should be concentrating on the shuttle."

Mark had been in mid-sentence about that very thing. "How do you know?" He held the boomerang a little too close.

"I was filled in, but not by Zoltar. One of his goons." Come on, Mark, Zoltar won't risk his life this way. He loves it too much.

Apparently, Mark had the same thought: he put away the boomerang.

The door slammed shut, and Zoltar's voice came over the rigged speakers: "Welcome to your deaths, G-Force. May we never meet again." Followed by his laugh.

They looked down at the fan, and as one, bolted to the walkway. With a whine, it started, forcing them to cling to each other as the wind whipped up. Anderson heard the chair smash to pieces, saw the sick expression on Princess as she looked at him, no doubt imagining what would have happened if he'd still been bound. I think Zoltar had it set to start when we were together.

By the sound of the motor, the Spectrans sabotaged the fan. It ran too fast for too long, and something inside broke loose. With a blast of smoke and sparks, it stopped.

"If that's a maintenance hatch, we should be able to open it manually," he said, pointing to the door. Manual operation was a failsafe on many automatic doors these days. Unless Zoltar's technicians had seen to that, also. "Where is the Phoenix?"

"Tracking the Lorelei-III," Mark replied.

"You haven't shot it down, yet?"

Shock and desperate hope: "Chief, they might be alive!"

"They're as good as dead already. I hope you gave him orders to destroy it."

Mark was silent.

Jason tried the door. "Jammed."

Princess selected a charge. "Everybody down." She slung it and spread her own wings before triggering.

When they looked, Keyop said a few words unfit for polite company. There was a ragged hole in the door, revealing the mechanism, but it was still shut tight.

"Commander, contact Tiny and order him to shoot down the Lorelei-III."

"Chief -"

"I know how you feel. Even if they are alive, and found a way to eject now, they'd never survive it. You know that."

Jason and Princess examined the door. "Cut there … and there," she said, pointing. "That should release the bolts." Using another explosive might warp the door so it couldn't be opened.

"Looks like it." He attached the cutting bit to his gun and started work.

"Too much interference." Mark waved at the metal-clad walls. "We're under the containment dome."

"Could (droot) they really (burble) crack it?" Keyop asked.

"I don't think the designers anticipated a space shuttle crashing into it," Anderson said. "Aircraft, yes; shuttles, no."

"All they need to do is blow up the stored fuel and waste," Princess said. "Even if this place doesn't explode, that would still kill thousands of people."

An eternity as Jason worked, changing bits a couple of times.

"One," he finally grunted, then, "two." He worked his hands around inside, and the door opened.

"Mark, go! Now!" Anderson emphasized the order with a scowl. There was no time for the usual arguments. Nor for waiting for the rest of the team.

He tried to urge the others on, but they weren't about to leave him behind. "We'll make it or we won't," Jason said, as they passed dead civilians.

They found Mark staring out the exit at a scattering of debris. It wasn't as much as most would expect.

"Tiny fired the missiles, Chief. On his own decision. He just told me."

The Phoenix approached, circled the reactor complex a couple of times, landed outside the chain-link fence.

Wednesday, 5 August - Camp Parker

The Spectrans had killed almost everyone at Coast Harbor. They had kept a few alive to answer phones and make sure that no unexpected problems would crop up to alert others to trouble. When they fled, they shot their prisoners, but didn't make certain of the kills.

Claybourn had been attacked, beaten to within an inch of his life, and propped behind the draperies in his office. When found, he was close to death, and died during emergency surgery.

Stuffed behind curtains wasn't much of an effort. The executive assistant who'd found him was delivering the day's correspondence and reports. She'd been in and out all morning. If she hadn't looked up when she had, if the sunlight hadn't shown the blood, no-one would have suspected trouble until word came of the disaster. But then, Zoltar hadn't needed anything except time.

Preliminary reports from investigations at Coast Harbor and Canaveral Spaceport were giving hints as to how Spectra agents got in. Anderson suspected that security at all nuclear and shuttle maintenance facilities would be modified and tightened.

When debriefed by Galaxy Security, some of the reporters tried to claim they'd noticed something 'off' about Claybourn. Too bad none of them thought to mention their suspicions at the time, either to him, or in a text message to colleagues or in the snide little articles and opinion pieces they'd posted before the shuttle's exhaust had faded away: it was obvious they'd been as fooled as everyone else. Others found better mileage in ranting about Zoltar's capacity for disguise, and what could have happened if it weren't for G-Force.

Anderson had been questioned until he had nothing new to say, and then some. It would take at least a week to finish the preliminaries. How long for the main investigation?

The members of G-Force had written their reports and turned them in.

Anderson shook his head, again damning this war and what it had made of the world. Then he went outside to talk to Mark.