I've never been this scared. Not ever. Not when I was implanted. Not when I first flew solo. Not when I first spacewalked. Not when I first jumped a Rigan fighter.
Not even when I was told my father was dead in a plane crash, or when I knew that my mother was dying too.
This is worse. This time I'm finally learning just how real all those clichés can be. 'Sick with fear' - yup, I'm there. 'Shaking with terror', 'knees knocking', and so on - I'm getting round those by staying in my seat and making sure no-one can see my hands. Thankfully, I can sweat all I like in birdstyle without anyone knowing.
Alongside me, Tiny appears calm, but I know him better than that. All those little adjustments of our orbit, over and over again. They're not necessary. It's make-work, giving himself something to do while we wait for more instructions. If this goes on much longer I'll have to stop him - he's using fuel, after all, even if not very much - but for the moment I'll let him have his distraction. I wish I had one.
Keyop's too young to be worried. He thinks he's mature, and ready for this. Truth be told, he's too immature to even realise his own immaturity. He still thinks he's immortal, and he trusts me completely to keep him safe. That makes it even worse, because I know that I might not be able to. If I fail him, he probably won't live long enough to regret trusting me.
Princess is more than nervous. I'd describe her as terrified. She's trying to cry silently, but when I'm this nervous my implanted senses go to full alert. I can hear every sniffle, every uneven breath. She's turned herself into a fighter, but she shouldn't have had to, and I know she hates it. I wish I trusted my knees and my voice enough to go over there and comfort her.
And then there's Jason. I can't see him or hear him. I don't need to. I suspect I could feel these waves of cold hostility even if I'd left him back at ISO. Right now, I'm wishing that's exactly what I had done. I can't be sure he'll follow any order I give, and that's a horrible position for any commander to be in.
Worse still, will any of them follow me if Jason mutinies? Keyop will. I'm not so sure about Princess and Tiny. They still think of him as their leader - still call him G-1 or Commander, sometimes. I'm very much the intruder; the upstart. The kid who came in and took their friend's rightful place at the head of G-Force. If I give an order and Jason gives a different one, who will they follow?
Don't even think about that, I tell myself. I can't alter it, and I sure can't show any uncertainty to them now. Think about the mission. Our first mission.
We've been up here before. Sitting in orbit waiting for orders. It was a bust every time. Bad intelligence. A sensor glitch somewhere. And somehow I already knew it was never for real. I wasn't this nervous for any of them.
Or maybe it's just that this time I know for sure that it's for real. There's no way that footage Anderson showed us was a sensor glitch. Madrid city centre lies in ruins now, the high-rise buildings melted and crumbled by an unseen, unphotographable force from the sky. Something too bright to see at all. It arrived without warning, fired randomly for ten minutes, left for no apparent reason as quickly as it had come. It'll attack again. It has no reason not to. ISO's conventional forces couldn't touch it. That's why we're up here in orbit, instead of down there searching for it. Who knows where it will strike again? Nobody. We can respond fastest from orbit. And, just possibly, having the height advantage will help us. We already know it can fire downwards. Maybe it can't fire up.
Anderson looked sick as he briefed us, a briefing full of 'maybe's and 'we hope's and 'the analysts think that's. He knew this was it. Finally, the real thing. We all knew. I think I knew even before that, though I've kept it to myself. Call it premonition, call it a sixth sense, call it what you will. Jason would probably call it indigestion. I knew, from the moment I woke up sweating and trembling at six this morning, that today was the day.
"What if they don't attack again?" Tiny asks, glancing sideways at me. "How long do we stay up here?"
"As long as it takes," I answer automatically. It's a poor answer. A stock answer, not one I'd put any thought into, and Jason's snort of derision is well-deserved, if insubordinate. I choose to pretend I didn't hear it. I don't want a shouting match with him, not here and now. Not when any moment we could be desperately speeding to save some other city.
It doesn't seem real. I've spent my whole life training for this, and finally it's happening. And I'm not ready for it. People are depending on me to make the right decisions. If I don't, they're going to die.
I don't think I can do this. Maybe Jason was right. Maybe he should be in command here. I'm sure he doesn't feel this way right now. I hope his implant isn't cranked up to maximum. If it is, I'm pretty sure he'll be able to hear my heartbeat. It's something over 120 right now, pounding so hard it almost hurts. The relaxation techniques we were taught for situations like these? They don't work.
Another five minutes of silence is broken by Princess. "How...how long do you think they'll leave us waiting?"
This time I think about the answer. It doesn't help.
"I don't know."
"So you'd sit up here for a month?" That is, inevitably, Jason.
"How long, then? A week?"
Like I know that right now. A week? Probably not. We couldn't stay alert for that long, so it would be pointless. But a day or two? Certainly. And abruptly I'm mad.
"As long as it takes, Jason. You wanted nine to five? You're in the wrong job."
There's an affronted choke, and then silence. Jason's not much of one for one-liners, and one of the things I've been trained in is to silence objections as fast as possible. A quick put-down. Not a humiliation, no need for a slanging match, no need to call him out. This isn't over, but he'll think twice before he makes the next snide comment.
The training worked there, at least. Now if only it would do its job and stop me wanting to throw up. Come on, Spectra, get on with it!
The clock grinds on. I never expected this. I thought we'd be fighting. Using my training to do good, instead of glowering at my control panel, persuading myself that yes, I can remember how everything works. Maybe it's just as well I am in command. I keep remembering a suggestion from a bunch of lectures I had way back in ISO Russia on how to wait and stay alert: the commander should run a pop quiz on operational procedure. At the time I thought it was not a bad idea. Of course, that was before I knew I'd be getting a second-in-command with a photographic memory. Or that I'd be scared so witless by the whole thing that I can barely remember my own name. One of the technicians suggested a variant on the dead man's handle at one point: a button we had to press every five minutes, or some other form of make-work, to ensure we stayed alert. He was shouted down in short order - Keyop and Jason discussing, apparently quite seriously, the contraption they would build to do the job for them. I just pointed out that it was entirely possible that there would be times when one or more of us would need to get some rest during a long mission. Princess was silent. I suspect she was considering the non-zero chance that sooner or later one of us would in fact be dead. And Tiny was vociferous that no, he would not co-operate in any pointless make-work activity. It's ironic that, now up here, he's busy with one of his own devising.
I jump almost out of my skin before I process the sudden sound - a normally inoffensive low-pitched double beep. Incoming communications alert, on Princess's console. It's deliberately set to not be loud, in case we are doing something important and delicate. I really must talk to the implant people about a little more control. I can't be distracted by every little sound like this.
"Sighting, Commander," Princess says, almost calmly. "Approaching Rio." My screen lights up with the information, as I suspect does everyone else's, and Tiny's suddenly on the edge of his seat.
"On my -"
"Wait!" That's me, premonition flaring again as I scan the information we've been sent.
Tiny freezes, his hands halfway to the controls, and he half relaxes back. "Commander?"
I try to put into words what I'm seeing, aware that four sets of eyes are on me and that everyone else thinks we should be on our way. "It's wrong. It's not a sighting, not of the thing that destroyed Madrid. It's another one of those false alarms."
"What if it isn't?" Tiny asks. His hands are back on the controls, and he glances round away from me. He's looking for Jason's opinion, and I have only seconds to stay in control. I can't give them time to think about not following me.
"Keyop, I want radar info for that sighting," I say. "There must be a satellite looking at it - pull the data. Jason, is Madrid to Rio likely in that short a time?"
"Only if they went orbital or supersonic," Jason says. "We'd have seen them if they went orbital."
"We can't just sit here," says Tiny, astonishment in his voice. "People may die."
"They'll die for sure if we commit to Rio and Spectra attacks somewhere else. Keyop, get me that data."
"Satellite S-14 is over Rio," Keyop says. "No sign of enemy."
"No unexpected sonic boom reports either," says Princess. I could hug her - I didn't even think of asking for that. "Oh..." She flicks a switch, and the main intercom screen, the one directly over my head above the navigational screen, fizzes grey and clears. "It's Anderson," she adds unnecessarily.
"G-Force, what's your ETA for Rio?" he asks. Perfect connection. Why are questions never unintelligible when you need them to be?
I clear my throat desperately, standing up to get a better line of sight to the screen. I don't think that 'because it feels wrong' is going to go down at all well, and all the evidence not to go is circumstantial at best. "We have..."
Anderson's not listening. His head's turned away. "What?" he snaps at someone off-screen, and then he comes back. "It's fifty miles from Rome, coming in from the west. Abort Rio, I repeat, abort Rio!" And his face is replaced by a picture; grainy and low-resolution, but unmistakably of the same dazzling sun-bright glare point coming in over water. There's no water near Madrid. Lots to the west of Rome.
"Tiny, break orbit, head for Rome," I say, sitting back down in a hurry. "Maximum re-entry speed. Keyop, scan for any friends it may have. Jason -"
"Weapons armed and ready," he says. I'll take him up on pre-empting my order later. For now, I have other things to worry about as Tiny throws the ship into a steep re-entry dive.
"They're evacuating the city," Princess says, " but the roads will be jammed in no time. It's never going to work."
"Scanners show one craft," Keyop says. "Big."
"Three minutes to intercept." That's Tiny, voice strained as he fights with the Phoenix's controls, and I'm grateful that, for now, my job only involves thinking and giving orders. I can sit back instead of fighting g-forces. Thank goodness we didn't get the message as we were doing this on a heading down to Rio.
"Put it on the main screen," I order Keyop, and what we get initially is an aerial photo of coastline, grey gridded city next to the sea, green around it, grey topped with white of a long spine of mountains further east. And, over the blue of the sea to the west, a tiny black dot. Whoever guessed their attack went downwards deserves a pay rise. It's a dark blot, not a miniature blinding sun, and as I watch it begins to take on shape and colour.
"It's a butterfly!" Princess exclaims.
It is indeed. From here it looks like a child's drawing, all iridescent glowing colours shining through the wings. I've seen pictures of the mecha they've used to attack Riga. I know that they invariably have an animal theme. I hadn't expected to be attacked by something pretty.
"Let me take a shot," Jason says.
"Wait." That's not instinct. That's training. We're coming at them from out of the sun, so they almost certainly don't know we're here. The moment we fire, hit or miss, that won't be true any more. I want our first shot to count. "Tiny, time to intercept. Jason, time until they can shoot up Rome."
That's not fair on Jason - he doesn't have any data on their firing range, and little or none on their speed either, but he knows I'm asking for a guess. "Forty seconds," he says, right as Tiny says, "ninety seconds."
Crap. So much for that bright idea. We're going to have to distract it. Or he's going to have to hit it from an implausible distance.
"Jason? Can you hit it? Miss and you fry the Vatican."
"I can take it from here," he says. But he hasn't fired yet. He's waiting for my decision. He has faith in me to make the right one.
Well, let's hope it's justified. Because he's the best shot I've ever seen, and my instincts tell me to have faith in his marksmanship. Even firing at a moving target from the Phoenix going at Mach Five. I nod.
"G-2, take your shot when ready."
He waits for twenty of those forty seconds, and then his hand comes down on the button, twice in rapid succession. Two missiles, streaking away ahead of us. Two impacts, one on each gaudy wing. And one tangled mass of wreckage, plummeting towards the Mediterranean to land safely in the water, miles offshore. They'll never shoot at Rome. They never shot at us. I doubt they ever even knew what hit them.
Our first mission is over, and we've won. There's cheering, and delighted stammering from Keyop, and a pat on the back from Tiny that nearly dislocates half my vertebrae...but there's no more fear. We faced the unknown. Nobody disobeyed me, nobody forgot what to do, nobody made a mistake. The training worked. The fear? It'll be back, but I suspect it won't be so bad next time. The unknown is always the most frightening thing there is - and leading G-Force against Spectra is no longer the unknown.
Chapter End Notes:
One of the things that has always intrigued me about BotP is that the start of the series explicitly isn't G-Force's first mission. It's their third. I've spent ages trying to concoct something suitably dramatic and earth-shattering for their very first mission...and then I thought, but why does it have to be dramatic at all? Isn't it more likely that the first fight would have been over very quickly, as Spectra had no idea what to expect? Either that, or that an untried rookie crew would have been destroyed first time out...and that's not an AU I want to write.