Daniella says: This fic is based on a ficlet I wrote for the weekly "Bradbury's Jar Prompt" on Gatchamania. The ficlet itself was based on a story written by TransmuteJun for the same prompt, although she had set it in the Gatch universe and I moved it, with her permission, to BoTP. I wanted to expand this ficlet, so, here goes:
If I had ever seen Anderson so stressed, I didn't remember it. But when he called us to his office for the usual pre-mission briefing, his face was grey. Well, okay, more grey than it usually is. He looked as if he hadn't slept all night. Don't get me wrong, it would not have been the first time he hadn't slept all night, but it would be the first time it showed so much. So, all in all, things were not looking very good. And this was confirmed when the first images of the new mecha Zoltar had unleashed upon the Earth showed up on the screen.
"What is this thing, anyway?" I asked the room in general. It was obvious that Anderson didn't know.
Mark and Princess approached the screen, looking for any signs that would place the mecha firmly into one category or another. Tiny and Keyop did the same from the couch.
"It's a caterpillar…" began Princess tentatively, and Mark nodded his assent. But she was cut short by an excited Keyop.
"I know what it is! It's a nightcrawler!"
The kid was jumping up and down as if he'd won the lottery. He looked around, his eyes shining. Can you believe it? He was actually excited about a mecha. I shook my head in exasperation. Well, knowing what it was could help us find a way to defeat it. Maybe.
"What's the matter with you, Keyop?" said Tiny accusingly. "This is not a toy! This is threatening our cities!"
Keyop lowered his eyes.
"Yes, but...at least it's not a giant crab, or cuttlefish or octopus or a giant wheel or anything like that!"
I snorted. Yeah, as if it would make any difference to the residents of these cities if it was an octopus or a ten-legged cat or a trampoline. Whatever.
Anderson was still standing in front of the screen, but he looked ready to collapse in his chair. In despair, maybe, from having a team bickering about the shape of the mecha that was attacking us. Instead of collapsing, however, he looked at us sternly.
"It doesn't matter what it is! This...nightcrawler...as you call it, attacked one city this morning! If we don't act now, it will attack many more! And here I have the message Zoltar sent us – sent me, actually, asking for our surrender. It makes me sick just to think about it! But unless we find a way to protect our cities, the Federation will start pressuring us to negotiate for terms. Remember? It has happened before and we barely held them off when they wanted to surrender. So we have to beat this thing before it comes to that! Keyop, please remember that nightcrawlers are actually what birds feed off, right? And you know what you are, right?"
Ooops. He's got a point there, Keyop. This mecha should be our dinner. Instead, it looked as if the Federation would soon be served on a plate to Zoltar, if we couldn't stop it. And, for the time being, this didn't seem very likely, seeing how we couldn't identify any weaknesses. Oh, I longed to get my hands on the rocket launcher. But I could already see, from the data we had, that it wouldn't make so much as a dent in its shielding. Still, no harm in trying, right? Thankfully, Anderson was willing this time to let us have a go at that thing.
"Now go out there and do something!" he barked, suddenly looking 100% the Chief he was. Right, sir!
We ran down to the Phoenix, and were soon airborne, receiving information on our screens about the location of the mecha. When we approached it, however, we discovered that our problems were just beginning. As we had already assessed, the nightcrawler was probably the best-armoured mecha Zoltar had ever launched. As far as insects go, it had a lot going for it. Its shell was impenetrable - as we confirmed when we tried to penetrate it with a couple of Bird Missiles. Its antennae were housing laser cannons. Its long, winding tail was carrying a "sting" that would send volleys of shots against the Phoenix, and it did. And it was big. Bigger than anything we'd gone up against. The Phoenix was a tiny fly next to it. Instead of the prey, it seemed that the mecha was now the hunter.
After a few unsuccessful runs against the nightcrawler, Mark decided it was time to get back and reassess the situation.
"Tiny, that's enough. We've taken all the battering we can today. Back to Centre Neptune!"
It was an indication of how serious things were, that even I did not object...
It was a dejected team that reassembled in their briefing room in Centre Neptune.
"No going, Chief. Not much we can do about it like this, the Phoenix is no match to it."
"Yeah, and once again we're sitting on our hands, and letting Spectra destroy our cities!" I was tired and frustrated, and our inability to defeat the nightcrawler was getting to me.
"Well, I don't remember you coming up with any better ideas!" retorted Mark angrily.
"Bugs...spray!" said Keyop brightly.
"And how are you going to spray it, squirt?" I asked him. "You got your special
anti-Spectra aerosol cans somewhere?"
Okay, so maybe I didn't have to be so ironic with the kid. But, for heaven's sake, spray?
Anderson was looking in the distance, a bit lost. He did not reply to this banter. Then he slammed his hand on the table.
"That's it! Keyop's right!"
We looked at him not believing our ears...at least four of us did. Keyop just looked smug. Had the Chief lost it?
"Keyop's right? What do you mean, Chief? We're going to get some aerosol spray for this thing?" asked Mark, trying, and failing, to keep sarcasm from his voice.
"No, I don't mean we're going to spray it with aerosol. But we're going to do the next best thing you do when faced with bugs: catch it in a net."
Anderson was so excited, he overlooked the fact that Mark was being sarcastic to a superior officer. Who knew, maybe Keyop and the Chief were on to something. I couldn't figure out what, but that was Anderson's job. Mine was just to shoot at things. As long as he gave me the appropriate weapons, I'd shoot the mecha down.
The scientists of Centre Neptune were working overtime - once again. Anderson had come up with blueprints for a giant net to be constructed, that would be strong enough to catch the annoying nightcrawler. However, there was one minor detail that had to be worked out before we could launch... All of us were silently thinking of this detail, but none of us dared to voice it…
''So this is the situation, team," said Anderson, as we gathered in his office once more for a briefing.
"Obviously, the nightcrawler is not going to aim for our net. So we have to bring the net to it.''
He looked around.
"Right. Someone has to get inside and guide it towards the net," said Mark, matter-of-factly.
"Right. That's our problem".
Well, if he put it like that…
"I don't see a problem," I said. "I get in, overpower the guards, guide it towards the net, fly out, job done."
"I'm afraid this will not work this time, Jason. We need you aboard the Phoenix ready to fire Bird Missiles, if this plan doesn't work and we have to defend another city," said Anderson.
"Princess can handle the weapons!" I replied quickly. I could do this job. Anderson had to let me do it. If I couldn't destroy it with Bird Missiles, I should have the chance to destroy it some other way.
Anderson looked at Mark, then at Princess.
"Actually, I think Princess should be the one to enter the mecha."
I couldn't believe my ears. Princess? Mark suddenly looked aghast. Princess looked excited. Keyop and Tiny looked on open-mouthed.
"What?" Mark managed to say.
"This is how I see things: Jason is needed to man the weapons. You, Commander, must be there coordinating the Rigan forces that will be helping the Phoenix deploy the net. Tiny is needed because he's the only one who can do the manoeuvres necessary for keeping the net steady. And Princess is the best one with explosives, in case she needs to destroy the mecha in a hurry."
Princess nodded in understanding. Mark refused to be so accommodating,
"When you say in a hurry, you mean after she jumps out or before?"
"Mark, don't be so worried. I know what to do. It won't be first time!" said Princess, her face flushed with anticipation. The difference between her and Mark, who had gone white, was striking.
"Yeah? Like that time when we had to rescue you from the flowers?" he shot back.
So that was it. Mark was still sore over that. Sore? Maybe I'm not doing him justice. When we thought Princess had been killed, he was devastated. Okay, we all were. But for him it was, I don't know, different. As if a piece of him had died with Princess. On the other hand, taking into account how many times he had been the one missing in action, he shouldn't be the one complaining now. Princess was part of the team. He had to deal with it.
Who was I kidding? I couldn't deal with it myself.
"Mark, there's no time to argue over this," said Anderson. "The net is ready, and the Rigans will be here any minute. Get aboard the Phoenix and get ready to take the net to the mecha!"
We saluted and ran down the corridor to the Phoenix, Mark, as I could tell, in a foul mood, and Princess excited to be given this mission to accomplish. Keyop was obviously worried for Princess, but Tiny was taking it all in his stride. I guess after being left on the Phoenix so many times, he was used to the stress of waiting for comrades who'd gone off on dangerous missions. Now I could understand how much easier it had been for Mark and me to go off, than for Tiny to stay onboard the Phoenix waiting for us.
The ride to the area where the mecha had last been spotted was uneventful. Aboard the Phoenix, the atmosphere was tense, but we were working efficiently with the Rigan team to deploy the huge net. When it was spread out, it looked as if it was really able to catch the nightcrawler. Except that the nightcrawler did not look as if it was going to head towards the net...
Mark drew a deep breath.
"Princess, get ready. Tiny, hold her as steady as you can under the mecha until Princess gets in. Jason, get ready with the missiles, we don't know when we'll need them. Good luck, everyone!"
He avoided looking at Princess as she ran down the shaft leading to the bubble on top of the Phoenix. But before she left, she flashed him a smile.
We saw Princess disappearing inside the mecha, and then concentrated on holding the net steady, which was more difficult that it sounded, as it involved flying in formation with the Rigans and all the time keeping in front of the mecha. I was poised over his weapons controls, hoping that I would not have to use them until Princess was out of the nightcrawler. No, that was not right. I was NOT going to use them until Princess was out.
Mark was coordinating the whole force, hiding his tension behind white knuckles clutching the controls. Keyop was uncharacteristically silent, and we knew better than to say anything smart while his sister was inside the nightcrawler. Tiny was probably the calmest of us all, totally in his element manoeuvring the Phoenix to hold the net steady.
For what seemed like hours, but was no more than half an hour at most, the nightcrawler changed direction and headed towards the net. We sat up, alert and ready.
"Tiny, this is it! Hold her steady! Keyop, feed data to the Rigans! Jason, get ready!"
"Get ready for what, Commander? I'm not getting ready for anything until Princess is out!" I snarled at him. I would NOT be the one firing at the mecha while Princess was still there.
Mark decided not to reply, as he didn't want to voice the same feelings. He looked straight at his screen.
"There is goes...there it goes...Tiny, approach a bit...Form a loop around the mecha! Keep the net all around it! That's it! We've caught it!"
We laughed and hi-fived each other. Mission accomplished! The Rigan planes and the Phoenix drew the net around the mecha, forming a tight loop around the nightcrawler. But the mission was not over yet...We had to drag the mecha to a safe location and destroy it, but first, Princess had to get out...
Anderson had ordered us to maintain radio silence while Princess was inside the mecha, worried that a sudden sound from her communicator would alert the Spectrans to her position. The fact that the mecha had been caught in the net did not mean that the Spectran personnel on board could not capture Princess. Nor did it mean that they could not find a way to cut through the net. Which meant we had to move fast and destroy it before this happened.
Drawn by the Phoenix and the Rigan team, the nightcrawler was taken over a desolate part of the ocean, where we could safely destroy it. Oh, we had no illusions that Zoltar would find a way to escape again. What was important was the fact that, once again, we had protected the citizens of the Federation.
The minutes passed. Anderson's voice crackled over the intercom.
"Commander, get ready to destroy the mecha. Jason, take over the weapons' system and wait for Mark's signal."
Keyop gasped. From what I could see beneath his helmet, Mark turned even paler. I sat down, crossed my arms.
Mark looked at me, open-mouthed. I ignored him.
"Jason, this is an order! Mark, get ready to provide coordinates. Inform the Rigan team and get them away from the mecha."
"Let's get this straight, Chief. I'm not firing on that thing while Princess might still be inside. Okay?"
Anderson went ballistic. I guess it was his way of coping with the enormous stress he was feeling. We tend to forget it, but Princess was like a daughter to him. She was also under his command. And no officer can take it lightly when he has to order something that may harm a team member. Still, at the moment, I guess we were so caught up with our own feelings, we didn't see what Anderson was going through.
"Jason, you're suspended! Mark, take over the weapons! Keyop, you take over the data provision and verification. Tiny, coordinate with the Rigan team!"
Mark was in a daze. He nudged me to get out of my seat, and, after a moment's hesitation, I did.
"Yes, Chief. Order acknowledged. G-Force Commander, over and out."
His fingers flew over the controls. He did not look at me. He did not look at anyone. We had the net in our sights. Tiny was holding a steady course. From behind me, I could hear someone sobbing. Keyop. Keyop was crying. Without saying anything to any of us, without complaining, he passed data over to Mark, verified the targets, set out the parameters for our missile shots. And all the time he cried softly, to himself. Something snapped inside me.
"Get off, Mark."
I pushed him savagely, nearly throwing him off my chair, strapped myself in, and started preparing the controls. If the kid could take it, so could I. So should I.
Without waiting for Mark to confirm his orders, I fired the shots that destroyed the mecha. Then I stood up and embraced Keyop, whose quiet sobbing had turned to wailing. Mark was staring speechlessly ahead. Tiny was still busy at the controls of the Phoenix, but tears were flowing freely down his cheeks. We headed home.
It was a long trip back to Centre Neptune, but as we were all rather dazed, it passed without us realizing it. Mark was sitting with his head in his hands. He hadn't said a word since we destroyed the nightcrawler. But when we were near the base, he looked up.
"I shouldn't have let her go…I should've been the one to go…"
I grabbed his shoulders.
"Look at me, Mark! Princess was doing her job! There's nothing that says that only you or me or Tiny or Keyop can go on these missions. She's one of us, and took the same risks as all of us!"
"But don't you see?" he whispered. "I…I love…"
He didn't continue, only turned his face away. The last word had been even less than a whisper. But I knew.
Tiny and Keyop were silent as we prepared to go underwater. Just then, a faint bird scramble was detected by out communicators. Mark jumped up from his seat.
"Princess?" he yelled.
Her voice, faint and crackly but still her voice, was heard over the communicator.
"Yes, I'm coming in. I'll explain when I see you. I had a narrow escape."
"Narrow? You call that narrow?" Mark said weakly, then collapsed in his seat, closing his eyes and giving silent thanks. He sighed deeply.
"Tiny, get her coordinates! Princess, we're coming to get you!"
With Princess safely back on board, we flew back to Centre Neptune. She briefly explained what happened – after Keyop had let go of her. Mark acted nonchalantly, patting her shoulder and saying "well done", but I'm sure Princess knew how he felt. She's a girl, no? She knows these things. Or so I'm told.
She told us that just as she was slipping out of the mecha, with the intention of being picked up by us before we destroyed it, she was seen. She had successfully guided the mecha to net undetected, but a goon saw her on her way out. She had to fight her way out, and, as she knew we were going to destroy the mecha, was looking for a vehicle that would let her get away to a safe distance, in case we couldn't pick her up. She found a vehicle and flew out just as we were firing our missiles. She wanted to raise us on the intercom, of course, but discovered that the destruction of the mecha was interfering with the frequency. So she started her way towards Centre Neptune, and called us as soon as it was possible.
Sometimes I wonder whether I should tell her how affected we were when we thought she didn't make it out on time. But I'm also proud that my team-mate is ready to kick ass whenever it's needed. And, trust me, she does.