It wasn't until the Phoenix had settled into its cradle below ISO and the water level was dropping down the sea doors on the viewscreen that Scott glanced to his left and bit off a curse. Mobile Control, still strapped down to the Phoenix's flight deck, thirty miles from One. Though even had he remembered earlier, he didn't think asking G-Force to detour to drop it off would have gone down too well. Maybe they could lend him a van to take it back.
Tiny was calling a medical team in to extract Alan, who wouldn't be walking anywhere just yet. Jason and Keyop were doing some sort of post-flight systems check. And Mark came over to him.
"I've been thinking. About that flight in the G-1 I promised you..."
"I'm prepared to swap it for getting Al back," he said. He'd been thinking too. The G-1 was a single-seater. It wasn't like he could go up in it with Mark, and he had deep suspicions about what would happen should it be discovered that the pilot was anyone other than the Eagle. Suspicions involving a large quantity of ordnance and fiery death.
"That's not what I meant. I want your opinion. Formally. I'm going to tell Anderson we need your expertise."
He paused, and there was uncertainty behind the blue visor.
"If you want to do it, of course."
He'd forgotten just how tiny that little jet was. Just how fragile. In his mind, he'd replaced it with something more like the planes he'd flown in combat. Big, durable, heavily armed, formidable. The G-1 surely couldn't carry missiles of any size - where would they go, on a swing-wing? It couldn't take a shot from anything much past a peashooter. All Mark had on his side was manoeuvrability and speed...and not as much speed as he wanted. And he went out there, alone, against craft like that monster they'd barely destroyed today.
"It won't be up to me," Scott said. "But, for what it's worth, I'll support you."
It wasn't until the second or third curious glance that he realised what the ISO black section staff were reacting to. International Rescue uniform, in their territory. Father really was going to have his ears, because at least half of them had seen him walking around earlier, wearing suit and tie and photo namebadge. Too late now. At least these were people who failed to tell the world what G-Force's real names were on a regular basis.
He remembered the doctor who Mark handed him over to for a medical check. It had been Chris Johnson who'd put his implant in, and Chris Johnson who'd told him that it was gone just a few weeks later and turned his world to ashes.
"You haven't done anything that would worry me, as far as I'm aware," the doctor said as he closed the office door behind them. "You know what the red flags would be after pulling g. Vision issues, dizziness, shortness of breath? Mark forgot to mention that he went to Fiery Phoenix?"
He felt his lips twitch into a smile. He'd liked this man. He'd been the one person who seemed genuinely distressed that there had been nothing he could do to bring Scott's dream back.
"I'm fine," he said. "How's Al?"
"Lucky. He's fit and strong, and he had the sense not to exert himself. Another half an hour, though... he was very close to the limit."
"There aren't long term effects of hypothermia, though - are there?"
"He'll get cold easily for a while. Need to take it easy. Though from what I've read about him, he does that a lot."
Scott smiled again. "That's right."
And Chris grinned in return. "Did he win the draw for most desirable cover occupation? Seriously, he needs to spend the night here, and then the next couple of weeks on his cover occupation. No heavy lifting. No getting chilled. No rescuing people. Do you have a doctor on that island of yours?"
"Good. He needs to take this seriously."
Scott contemplated Alan's reaction to two weeks of Brains fussing over him and insisting he took it easy. He was either going to be deeply annoyed and climbing the walls, or completely relaxed about it and taking the opportunity to have Tin-Tin at his beck and call. With Alan, you never knew which extreme you'd get.
But he'd be there.
Chris peered into his eyes, listened to his heart, took his blood pressure, and pronounced him fit, and Scott found Mark waiting for him outside the door.
"We've a debriefing starting, well, as soon as Chris has seen everyone. You don't have to come, but I thought you might want to."
Scott raised his eyebrows. The last thing he'd have wanted was an audience for one of the IR debriefs: Jeff picking apart every decision he'd made with the benefit of hindsight. It had taken him a while to reconcile himself to the necessity of it. There was no manual for what he did, no precedent for the orders he gave. The only way to improve was to run through it afterwards, figure out what had been right, what could have been better, and, sometimes, where it had all gone wrong.
Given that G-Force didn't generally rescue hostages, he assumed Mark was in much the same situation.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "Anderson may not want -"
"As far as I'm concerned, you were there, you come to debrief. We've got that mecha configuration figured now. Anderson's got no cause for complaint." He glanced towards the closed door. "Jase always takes ages. Chris cannot figure out what causes the motion sickness. Come on. If Anderson's going to throw you out, let's get it over and done with."
Anderson was seated at the head of the table as Scott followed Mark in, talking on the phone.
"I agree. I'll confirm it with him," he said. "Speak to you again soon." The phone went down, and Anderson gave him an honest-to-god smile. Scott worked at not letting his jaw drop.
"That was your father," Anderson said. "We've been discussing the possibility of bringing Tracy Aerospace in as a contractor to ISO."
If he'd said he was hiring Jeff to sweep the floors, Scott couldn't have been more shocked.
"I thought they didn't do military," Mark said.
"Unfortunately not. However, we're not asking them to work on the military capabilities of our craft." He stood up and walked towards Scott, hand held out. "Scott, we didn't part in the best of circumstances. I'm sorry for that. I really am. I understand you're a darn good test pilot these days. I'm not going to insult you by trying to tempt you away from the family business, but I would very much like your input on the G-1. I believe Mark may have mentioned that it doesn't have all the speed he'd like."
"You've cleared this with my father?" Scott asked. He wouldn't have put it beyond Anderson to have set him up, even now.
"Absolutely. It will take a while to formalise, of course, contract details and so on, but it will be happening. The only question is whether you want to be a part of it."
Hell yes. Scott shook the other man's hand, feeling years of frustrated fury not vanish, but at least recede somewhat. "I'm looking forward to it," he said, and meant it.
"Good. Now, if you'd take a seat, there's one other matter I'd like to clear up before we get to the full debrief. Big Cat Racing."
"I sincerely hope you're going to blow them to bits," Scott said. He took his old chair again.
"Not just yet."
Mark snorted. "I can see why you wanted to say that before Jason got here."
Scott said nothing, just sat and waited. If Anderson thought he'd blow up every time he didn't get his way...well, he'd soon discover how wrong he was.
"There's no reason to believe Big Cat knows we're onto them. This gives us an unusual infiltration opportunity."
"Except that their whole plan was based on Alan knowing their man."
Anderson grimaced. "True. Which should demonstrate to you that we need to keep this quiet for the moment, while we work on it. I'd appreciate your co-operation."
Scott glanced at Mark. He was still wearing his helmet, expression-masking blue visor and all, but there was definite tension in that jawline.
One of these days the Eagle really would have to learn to trust in other people's discretion and ability to keep their tempers. Maybe having Jason as his team-mate was an issue there.
"I've been military," he said. "I know what that means. I'm prepared to sit tight for now - and I doubt Alan's fit to fly just yet in any case. But if International Rescue needs me..."
"Then you go," said Mark, watching Anderson. "No question."
Anderson nodded. "What I don't want is any press releases. Or your brother out in public shooting his mouth off and tipping our hand."
And you've bought into Alan's public persona too. Scott just nodded. "Not an issue."
There was a tap on the door, and the rest of G-Force came in without waiting for a response and took the same seats as before. This time, the tension was gone. Success did that for you, he remembered. Complete, total success. That was something he missed. In the rescue business, even if nobody died, even if nobody was hurt, nothing was ever quite the same afterwards. Something had gone horribly wrong for somebody. Lives had changed.
Rescues were always negative in some way. This was a straight military victory. Scott leaned back in his chair and listened to Mark give an overview of what had happened, Jason describe finding Alan, Princess present a handful of memory sticks she'd found somewhere on the base, Tiny discuss his inverted loop with one of the biggest grins on his face Scott had ever seen, and Keyop try to sound casual about setting up a bunch of Spectrans to see Jason and Alan together. Over the phone, Chris Johnson told them that Alan was going to be fine. Nobody at any point suggested that taking Scott along had been a dubious decision. Nobody seemed surprised that he'd coped with the stresses of aerial combat. Nobody did anything other than treat him as a competent part of their team for today.
But that part of his life was gone. His own rocket ship stood waiting for him in a shed thirty miles away, and soon he'd be flying her again, on the way to help people who needed him and his specific expertise. No regrets.
He was looking forward to coming back and test-piloting the G-1, though.
"I hate this," Jason muttered, twiddling with something at the edge of his mirrored visor. "Journalists. I'd rather face Spectrans."
Alan laughed. "Journalists are easy. Just tell them what they want to hear."
"What they want to hear is what my real name is."
"Maybe not, then." Alan smoothed his own suit down and checked the immaculately folded silk handkerchief in the pocket. He had his own appearance to keep up, after all.
"We're ready for you now." The young woman in ISO uniform was very professional, very polished...and still clearly afraid of the Condor. "Sirs, if you'd follow me..."
She held the door for them, and Alan followed Jason up onto the raised area and behind a white-clothed table to named seats. Behind it, a screen with the ISO logo repeated, where he was more used to seeing commercial sponsors and team names. Anderson sat there already - he'd given the first half of the press conference alone - but now the flashbulbs went off in their dozens. Alan flashed his trademark smile and waved. Jason didn't react in any way.
"Is it true that you were captured by Spectra?" a female voice asked. One of the celebrity magazines, if he remembered rightly.
"Did your father pay a ransom?"
"They weren't interested in money." Alan squinted into the sea of reporters. "Remind me, guys. Who wrote that article linking me with a certain other person in this room?"
There was laughter, and fingers were pointed.
"Yeah. Next time you want to fantasise about someone being the Condor, leave me out of it, okay? Though I do have some suggestions..."
More laughter, and someone called out, "Condor? Do you have any suggestions for who we should use?"
Jason stood up, swiveled his glare slowly around the room, and the laughter died.
"Do you really think I have time for a secret identity that you'd have heard of?" American accent nothing like Alan's, voice nothing like his either, and a tone of disdain which they surely couldn't imagine laid-back Alan Tracy using. All just like the Condor's rare other press conference appearances, though, as well as the few news footage clips of him speaking. That one sentence really should shatter any remaining myths that Alan Tracy was the Condor in his spare time.
Alan still held his breath. The Condor might avoid the press, but Jason Alouita the racing driver talked to reporters on a regular basis. He'd given interviews to a couple of the men sitting in the front row within the past month.
They didn't even twitch.
"Tell us what happened, Alan?" a voice called from the back. That was the planted question, and Alan let himself believe what he'd rehearsed.
"I wish I could. They say I walked out of the hotel by myself and never arrived at the conference centre. I don't remember waking up that morning, or any time until I was imprisoned. Then some Spectran dude started yelling at me about being the Condor. When I couldn't answer his questions, they stuck me back in a cell, and it was damn cold in there. Next thing I knew, I was back at ISO headquarters. Apparently the Condor found me and got me out. For which I thank you, friend."
He got a full-face view of that intimidating mirrored visor, and a brief nod.
"So, about you and Miranda Ecclestone?" That was from a gossip columnist, and Alan favoured her with another dazzling smile.
"Darling Miranda? I'm so much looking forward to seeing her again. Whose party is it next weekend? I forget."
Jason snorted. "Oh, please."
And Alan turned to him with an innocent grin. "Would you like to come? I'm sure I can arrange it. Any friend of mine..."
Jason was on his feet and swept past and out of the door in a way which simply screamed derision. And Alan let himself look wide-eyed and confused. "Oh dear. Chief, I'm so sorry. Do you think I've offended him? Perhaps I should go apologise."
"Perhaps not," said Anderson, deadpan, and the press conference ended on a tone of hilarity which Alan rather suspected wasn't normal for ISO.
"Oh, man," said Jason once they were safely away from even the most sensitive shotgun mike. "Remind me not to do a press conference with you again. Ever. I damn nearly lost it there."
"I should have warned you."
"I should have guessed. Your reputation had to come from somewhere. You feeling okay?"
Alan grimaced. "I'm still cold all the time. Dr Johnson says it'll pass. I confess I'm looking forward to getting back home."
"Plenty warm there." Jason hesitated. "Big Cat."
"I'm hardly likely to run into them on Tracy Island. Anderson says leaving them alone is a short term thing, so I look forward to a pile of smoking rubble on the news."
"You and me both. I'll pay particular attention to our friend Mr Wilson, don't you worry. I really don't like traitors."
They'd reached the main entrance to black section, where Scott and Mark stood waiting. Scott shook his head.
"And you wonder why people don't take you seriously. Nice one, Alan. Though you won't be going to any parties for a while."
"I know that." He shivered again, despite knowing it was a perfectly good temperature in here.
"Sure you're fit to fly home?" Scott asked him.
"Doc says I'm fine."
"Then let's do it." Scott's look said he knew full well Alan had avoided the previous question, but was prepared to let Alan make the call. Which was something. Whether it would last beyond having an audience was another matter. He'd seen that expression on the IR field commander's face before, normally when he'd done something Scott didn't approve of in front of someone they were rescuing. Scott always waited until they were alone to chew him out.
Even so, Alan wanted out of there. Of that he was sure. He wanted his own bed, a doctor who knew him. Warm sunshine. A pool to lounge by. To be able to wander in and out freely, not worry about passes and security guards. Wanted them badly enough to be prepared to shiver on TB1's jumpseat for a few hours. Scott could always turn the cockpit heating up.
They pulled up at the old barn to find a beat-up van waiting for them, three young men lounging against the side in the mid-afternoon sunshine.
"I see our delivery's arrived," Scott said, deadpan.
Alan hadn't a clue what he was talking about, but wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of saying so. Since Tiny promptly went round to the back of the van and threw the doors open, revealing Mobile Control sitting inside, he got away with it.
"You can move the darn thing this time," Jason was saying to Mark as the Tracys got out of the car and headed for them. "I'm telling you, it doesn't tilt. At all. It's uncanny."
It's also ours. Alan didn't say it. Instead, he climbed into the van and turned the antigrav on. "See for yourself."
Damn, those G-Forcers were young. Anyone would think it was a new toy for them to play with, from the way they were arguing and testing its lateral stability. Alan watched indulgently as they manoeuvred Mobile Control out of the van and over to the big barn, where Scott was busy throwing the main doors open. Thunderbird One sat just inside, red nosecone pointed to the sky, and Alan felt a little less cold. He was going home. Even if Scott did lecture him on anti-kidnap protocol all the way there.
Just thought I'd let you know, the paperwork's all signed. I'm planning to come up Monday, if you're around.
Monday's fine. I'll meet you at the gate again.
Attn: Scott Tracy
Dear Mr Tracy,
We regret that the aircraft in question will not be available at ISO USA tomorrow after all. Our apologies for the short notice and we will reschedule for a mutually convenient time.
Scott deleted the email with a sigh. He wondered where G-Force were this time. Riga, maybe? The Crab Nebula?
Just as long as they all came back safe, he could wait.
And then the alarm sounded, and his father's voice came over the intercom. "Scott, get in the air. John will brief you after launch. Virgil, Gordon, my office. We're needed. "
For some definitions of 'wait', at least.
And...that's all, folks. Many thanks for sticking with it and for all the kind and helpful comments. I'm truly flattered to have been getting a steady trickle of hits and reviews, chapter after chapter, for a crossover this obscure posted somewhere you'd have to go looking for it.
Still some loose ends? You might be right there :)