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Deprecated: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/jgatchfa/public_html/forum/Sources/Load.php(225) : runtime-created function on line 3 Irreplaceable -- An Anderson fic by Daniella T
Summary: What if, in “The Galaxy Girls”, Mala didn't want to blow up the Solar Express but to kidnap Anderson? The story begins when Anderson, drugged and knocked-out, wakes up on the transport that is taking him to Spectra. Categories:Battle of the PlanetsCharacters: Chief Anderson Genre: Action/Adventure Story Warnings: None Timeframe: Mid-Series Universe: Mostly Canon Challenges: None Series: None Chapters: 12 Completed: Yes
Word count: 17203 Read: 9195
Published: 08/19/2012 Updated: 05/20/2018
Usual disclaimers apply. Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank.
Daniella says: What if, in “The Galaxy Girls”, Mala didn't want to blow up the Solar Express but to kidnap Anderson? The story begins when Anderson, drugged and knocked-out, wakes up on the transport that is taking him to Spectra. If you care about continuity, this takes place before “Strike at Spectra” and half-way through the Anderson-Sarah arc I am writing for Gatchamania, i.e. after they start spending time together but before they express their feelings openly.
Anderson could've done without the face looking down on him. A cruel, smiling face. He groaned, taking stock of his surroundings. Then he shook his head to clear it from the buzz that was ringing in his ears.
“Mala. To what do I owe the pleasure? And, to be more precise, where am I?”
“Anderson. Kudos for taking it so calmly. You're on a transport barge, on your way to Spectra. Have you been there before?” she asked conversationally.
“No, I'm afraid it wasn't part of my training,” he said sarcastically.
“Good, good, I see you haven't lost your spirit.”
“What I'm rapidly losing is my patience. Why am I here?”
Anderson realised the foolishness of this statement as soon as he had made it. Losing his patience? So what? He wasn't going to go anywhere, seeing how he was manacled to the bench. But he looked at Mala unblinkingly.
“Why you are here? Why do you think? They say you're a clever man. In fact, my brother thinks you are our most dangerous foe. More dangerous than those annoying teenagers you send to fight your Federation's wars.”
“Those teenagers are actually winning the wars for the Federation,” replied Anderson icily. “And, in any case, they are better than the cannon-fodder your brother sends to fight his wars!”
“They are proud and honoured to fight and die for Spectra!” snapped Mala.
“As if they had any choice!” snorted Anderson.
“I will not debate battle tactics with you, Anderson! For your information, you are being taken to Spectra. What will happen to you there will be decided by my brother!”
Anderson's face closed.
“You mean he will imprison and torture me.”
“I mean exactly what I said. It's up to him. My job was to get you to Spectra.”
“Don't you feel humiliated?” asked Anderson, looking at her. “Your brother doesn't trust you with plans?”
“If you are trying to annoy me, you will fail,” Mala snapped again.
“Not at all. I'm just making an observation,” Anderson said mildly.
Mala sat back in her chair, across the transport floor from where Anderson was sitting bolt uprights, but with his hands and legs cuffed to the bench.
“We still have some way to go. I suggest you try to enjoy the ride,” she said.
“At your command, ma'am,” said Anderson, relaxing his head on the wall behind him. It wouldn't hurt to indeed rest a bit before his kidnapping turned into a prisoner-of-war situation.
He must've dozed off, even without the help of the drug he had been administered before, for he woke up just as the barge was beginning its descent towards Spectra. He made to stretch his arms, then remembered in time that he was shackled. He limited his movements to twisting his stiff neck left and right.
“Welcome to Spectra!” said Mala triumphantly.
A welcoming committee had been set up. Green-clad foot soldiers, some officers in ceremonial garb with distinctive markings on their uniforms. Anderson counted a few colonels – if he translated their rank to its Earth equivalent – and a general. From the latter's uniform piping, he was in intelligence.
“So!” he thought. “My own counterpart!”
It was totally unwarranted, but he felt a surge of pride that the Spectrans valued him enough to send their big guns to meet him.
Anderson looked around as he was led to the waiting Spectran contingent. Despite all his readings, all his intelligence work, he had never imagined Spectra to be so desolate, so desert-like...so...condemned. No wonder they wanted the Earth's resources...but too bad they didn't want to reach a peaceful arrangement. In the distance, he saw a tall, grey, tower-like building. It was the only building visible from where he was.
Mala saluted, and received a salute in return from the general of the Spectran intelligence services.
“I hand over the prisoner to you, General. He is now your responsibility. My brother expects him in his chambers as soon as the formalities are over.”
“Aren't you going to introduce us, Mala?” asked Anderson. He couldn't stop himself. He knew he shouldn't be engaging with the enemy – Lord, he had written the manual on how to behave as a prisoner-of-war himself – but the temptation to be sarcastic was too strong.
As strong as the punch that landed in his middle. He gasped, doubled-over for a second, then pulled himself upright.
“General,” started Mala, as if the punch had never happened, “this smart-ass is, as you know, Chief Anderson, ISO scientist and intelligence officer, and a major thorn in Spectra's side and in the side of our glorious leader, my brother. Prisoner Anderson, this is General Xirol, your, let's say, counterpart. Now that this pleasant interlude is over, take him!”
He was put in a vehicle and taken to the tower-like structure. Then, he and his captors marched through never-ending corridors, steel gleaming in the light of the overhead lamps, boots squeaking on the spotless floor. Anderson had read thousands of reports on the military headquarters of Zoltar and, in spite of himself, he was thrilled to be there, to see for himself, finally, how the Spectran military machine worked. Carefully, he filed away information in his head, to be used in his debriefing, in the unlikely event that he was rescued.
They stopped outside a featureless steel door. A small panel was attached to the wall next to it, and one of the goons removed his glove and pressed his open palm against it. The door opened.
Seated in a gilded chair, but with surprisingly little decoration around him – just a table that could've passed for a conference table on Earth, and a few straight-backed chairs – Zoltar looked up from the report he was reading.
From what he had seen in reports sent out by ISO agents on Spectra, and from his own experience with the various mecha commanders the ISO had, occasionally, captured – and the descriptions supplied by G-Force in their debriefings – Anderson had expected Zoltar to be a lightweight political leader, with a loose attitude, and a lack of seriousness. What he had seen until now, in the inner chambers of the Spectran leader, had shaken this opinion. It was shaken even more when Zoltar jumped up from his seat and rushed to greet the party – the ridiculous costume was there, but so was a serious, even sombre expression that had nothing to do with the frivolous image the ISO, the Federation and practically everyone had about Zoltar. Anderson silently congratulated him. A failed military commander, perhaps, but Zoltar was by no means the failed political leader everyone had assumed him to be.
Anderson pulled himself a bit straighter as Zoltar approached them, saluting the intelligence officer that was escorting Anderson. The Spectran leader was as tall as he was – Anderson could look him straight in the eye.
“Chief Anderson...finally in our hands. This is a great day for Spectra.”
“If you wanted to speak to me, you could've sent a delegation. You know we don't harm diplomatic representatives,” Anderson said woodenly.
“All in good time, Chief Anderson, all in good time. Certainly there will be a diplomatic representation visiting Earth. To conclude your surrender.”
“You know this will never happened,” said Anderson through clenched teeth.
“Ah yes, with you in charge, no. But how long do you think it will be until they replace you?”
The guards, at a gesture from Zoltar, pushed Anderson even closer to the Spectran leader.
Their faces inched apart, Anderson looked straight at Zoltar.
“You do know that you won't get anything out of me, no matter what methods you use,” he whispered.
Zoltar looked at him in genuine surprise.
“Methods? You mean torture? My dear Chief Anderson, you are an ISO officer and a top agent. I know you'd never speak. I wouldn't dream of torturing you. And I won't need to, trust me.”
And with those chilling words, Zoltar nodded to the goons, who marched Anderson out of the room.
The cell they took him to wasn't too bad. At least, it was better than those that had held captured ISO personnel in the past, personnel that had escaped to tell the tale. Spartan, but clean, it had a steel bench with a plain mattress, a sink, a toilet – Anderson gave silent thanks for that, at least he wouldn't have to ask the guards to be let to the loo –a chair. But Anderson could feel there was something wrong. He just couldn't put his finger on it. Then, suddenly, it dawned on him. There was nothing to read, and nothing to write with. He sighed. Perhaps Zoltar wanted to bore him into submission.
“I want G-Force to appear in my office – NOW!” President Kane shouted to his secretary.
“They are on their way, sir. They are finishing debriefing the ISO on the monorail incident.”
“Great, maybe now they can debrief me also,” he said, sotte voce. “Thank you,” he added, more loudly, into his intercom. A few moments later, a very subdued G-Force entered his office.
Mark saluted formally, and stood in front of Kane's desk, while the others stood behind him. Almost like a bodyguard, Kane thought wryly. They are ready to protect their Commander if I try to put the blame on him for this sorry débâcle.
"Mr. President, the train carrying Chief Anderson was ambushed. Details are still sketchy, but we think that the operation was led by Mala, Zoltar's sister. Despite our efforts, and those of the ISO personnel who arrived on the scene, the Spectran attackers managed to escape, taking the Chief with them. According to existing intelligence, they are heading towards Spectra. You will have all this in writing as soon as possible We are ready to head out to Spectra as soon as you give the word."
Kane nodded thoughtfully.
"Thank you, Commander. It is unfortunate that Chief Anderson was captured, but we all know that this is always a possibility, where Spectra is concerned."
"Then we will be off immediately, sir," said Mark and he and his team turned to leave.
"Just a moment, Commander. Not so fast. Things are not as simple as they seem."
The team turned slowly, suspicion in their eyes. Was this going to be one of those cases where they would have to go off without permission?
"What do you mean, sir?"
"It seems pretty simple to us," added Jason. "Anderson is captured, we go rescue him."
"Did I give you permission to speak, Jason?" asked Kane, matching Jason's tone.
"No disrespect, sir," Mark cut in, before Jason could reply. "But we are concerned, as you understand."
Kane nodded towards a big mahogany conference table at the other side of the room.
"Take a seat, team."
He sat at the head of the table, with G-Force on his left and right.
"This is a confidential meeting. I don't have to tell you this, but I will anywat. No other ISO staff is to know of its contents -- for the time being. Now, Chief Anderson is missing. That's the only hard piece of information we have. He may be kidnapped and currently a prisoner of war, or killed. We don't know. We haven't received a ransom demand. We haven't received a demand from Zoltar that we surrender, in exchange for Anderson's life."
"The Chief would never..." began Princess.
"I know that, Princess," said Kane tiredly. "I'm not saying Anderson would agree to this -- or that he would even know about such a demand. But, still, this wouldn't stop Zoltar from making it. So where do we stand now?"
He looked at the team before continuing.
"Our security is seriously hampered by the fact that Anderson is missing. You are now that main line of our defence, operationally as well as strategically. So I'm ordering you -- yes, it IS an order -- to stay here, at least Anderson's replacement is appointed. Then it will be up to him or her to decide whether a rescue mission should be launched.
Five very upset teenagers looked around at each other. Then Mark, as if taking his cue from his team-mates, stood up.
"Excuse me, sir. What do you mean, Chief Anderson's replacement?"
"Just what I said, Commander," said Kane woodenly. "Surely you realise that Chief Anderson is not irreplaceable? We need to appoint his replacement as quickly as possible, someone who will take over temporarily the responsibility for our defence, until Anderson is back...or until the appointment becomes a permanent one. This is something that shouldn't concern G-Force. Your job is to follow orders and to implement the plans devised by the ISO defence department."
Jason opened his mouth to speak, but Tiny beat him to it.
"Yes, we know," he said softly. "We are the implementing instruments. Or, as they used to say, the pawns."
Mark kicked him under the table. Kane looked at them icily.
"Anyone got a problem with that? I know Chief Anderson let you some leeway where discipline is concerned -- Jason snorted at that --but this doesn't mean that I -- or Anderson's replacement -- are willing to do the same."
"Understood, sir," said Mark, sending warning looks around the table. "What do you want us to do now?"
"Report back to Centre Neptune and maintain stand-by status. As soon as Anderson's replacement is appointed, you will be called for a briefing."
The team saluted and left. Kane caught Keyop whispering "poor Chief!" as he was leaving. Poor Chief indeed, he mused. And poor replacement, who would have to deal with Spectra, on the one hand, and a rebellious G-Force on the other. Still, there was nothing else to do. Sighing, he picked up the phone again, and instructed his secretary to call a session of the Federation Counci.
“So what do we do?” asked Princess as soon as they reached the common room and, subdued, detransmuted and flopped on the couch and chairs. Keyop sat cross-legged on the floor, close to Princess, who tousled his hair.
“Cheer up, Keyop. We'll get the Chief back.”
“Yeah, as soon as those bastards in the Federation see reason,” snarled Jason.
“Take it easy, Jason. They are right. We need to be here in case Spectra attacks again,” said Tiny.
“Tiny's right,” said Mark gloomily. “But, on the other hand, the longer it takes for us to to go after Anderson, the more difficult it will be to find him and free him.”
“What...we wait for?” sputtered Keyop.
“Well, I guess the ISO needs confirmation that Anderson is, indeed, on Spectra and also needs to prepare our defence systems to deal with a possible attack while we're off to Spectra to rescue him,” said Mark.
“Great, and while we're at it, Anderson is a prisoner and the Earth is a hostage to Zoltar's every whim!” said Jason angrily. “What do you bet we will soon get a message ordering the Earth to surrender?”
“No, you're wrong,” said Princess. “That's exactly what Kane meant. We need to stay here so as not to let the Earth become a hostage to Zoltar.”
“Yeah? And what about Anderson? We are abandoning him, guys! In enemy hands! You know what this means? Now, I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to let a team member – yes, I consider the Chief to be a part of the team, much as he's a pain most of the time – in enemy hands!”
Jason's cheeks were flushed as he spoke and he clenched his fists. Mark patted him on the shoulder.
“Let's wait a bit to see what intel we get, and what the Chief's temporary replacement will say.”
Feeling none too reassured, they went back to training, waiting for the Federation Council to decide.
After inconclusive discussions – punctuated by a passionate plea by the young Rigan delegate, Andrea, in favour of an immediate strike at Spectra to rescue Anderson – Kane called for a vote on the Chief's replacement. Five candidates, three women and two men, were put forward, all of them top ISO scientists with experience in defence matters. The vote settled on Dr. Miroslav Markic, who had worked with Anderson on devising enhancements for G-Force's uniforms that would prevent incidents such as that which had occurred when Zoltar managed to create a double of Princess by using her shoe.
Markic was a slight young man with long hair, and a prematurely lined face. He stumbled to the front of the room when the results of the vote became known. President Kane presented the new – temporary, as he stressed – Chief and Miroslav found himself under the scrutiny of the Federation delegates. After a few words by Kane on the importance of the mission he was undertaking, it was time for him to meet G-Force.
They were in the ready room, resting after a morning of training, when Zark's voice came over the intercom.
“Ears on, Zark!” replied Mark, jumping up from the couch.
“The meeting of the Federation Council is over. A replacement to Chief Anderson has been appointed.”
They became instantly more alert at that. Jason put his feet off the table. Princess and Keyop exchanged worried looks. Only Tiny looked still calm and unperturbed.
“It was decided that Dr. Miroslav Markic will be acting Chief until Chief Anderson returns,” continued Zark, his impassive robotic voice grating on the nerves of the members of G-Force. “You are to meet with him now.”
“Understood, Zark. We're on our way.”
As Zark disappeared from the intercom, Mark turned to his team-mates.
“Well, it could be worse. At least, Miroslav is a good scientist.”
“Let's wait a bit until we jump to conclusions about how good he is,” said Jason.
“Give the man a break, Jason,” sighed Princess as they headed down the corridor.
“I will. As soon as he gives us the word to go after Anderson.”
Daniella says: It took me a long time to update this fic, but finally I got down to it. Hope you're still with me!
When Miroslav Markic had been recruited to Centre Neptune as a scientist, he had had no inkling, no desire, and no expectation that one day he'd be called to serve as its Chief of Security. Even temporarily, as he kept reminding himself. “No one's irreplaceable,” President Kane had reminded the delegates on the Federation Council, who were not thrilled with the idea of having Anderson replaced. True enough, but Anderson was near enough irreplaceable, Miroslav kept thinking. And if the Federation Council knew it, so would Spectra. And if the Chief was, indeed, in Zoltar's hands, this meant trouble.
Miroslav stood to attention as the heard the knock on the door. Then he thought better about it, and sat back down again to receive Mark and the team.
“G-Force reporting for duty, sir!” Mark saluted, and the rest of the team trooped in behind him. Miroslav, torn between a sudden urge to laugh – G-Force, saluting him? – and a nagging fear that he was close to making a fool of himself, saluted back.
“At ease, Mark. Team.”
“May we congratulate you on your appointment, sir?”
“Take a seat, team. That couch is there to be used.”
They sprawled on the Chief's familiar couch, Keyop instinctively moving closer to Princess and Jason perching on the sofa's arm.
“And let's not stick to form, eh?” continued Miroslav. “At least when we're alone. If you want, you can call me Chief, or Acting Chief, when we're in public. But please just call me Miroslav, or idiot” – he tried to laugh – “when we're alone. Because I was an idiot to accept this post, wasn't I?”
Mark cracked a grin, and even Jason looked mollified. But it was Tiny who jumped up from the couch and ran to shake Miroslav's hand.
“Hey, you're no more an idiot than the rest of us. Now can we please, please stop this nonsense and work on a rescue plan for the – for Chief Anderson?”
“What are your thoughts, team?”
“You know what our thoughts are,” said Mark, before any of the others could jump in. “We want to take off and go after the Chief.”
Miroslav looked at them, steeling him for what he would have to say.
“Thank you for your honesty, Commander, but permission is denied. I know that you can, technically, take off without my permission but I'm asking you to think: what if Spectra attacks while you're away? What is Anderson is not on Spectra, but this is a trap to lure you there?”
“What if it is?” Jason shot back.
“All I'm asking from you is that, for now, you put your concern for the Federation above your concern for your Chief. Until we get better intel.”
He had them cornered.
“Are we working on this, at least?” asked Princess.
“The Federation Council just decided” – he tapped his screen – “that Colonel Cronus will lead a fact-finding mission.
“Umm... a fact-finding mission where, sir?” asked Tiny hesitantly.
“Where else?” Miroslav allowed himself a small smile. “To Spectra!”.
“Now we'll never hear the end of it,” grumbled Jason as they saluted and trooped outside the – temporary – Chief's office. “Cronus is mocking us anyway for sitting here like blushing debutantes, AND he gets to go to Spectra.”
Princess nudged Mark, winked at him.
“Blushing debutantes?” she breathed.
Mark snorted. Jason turned around suspiciously, but both his team-mates were poker-faced.
“Maybe we should go talk to him before he takes off,” suggested Tiny.
“And have him laugh at us?”
“G-Force stand up comedy,” added Keyop.
“Hey, we're just following orders!”
“As if Cronus ever cared about this!”
Mark turned around mid-stride.
“Considering the fact that he was ordered to go to Spectra, I'd say he does care! Now, quit bickering and let's go see him!”.
Less than forty-eight hours into his incarceration, Anderson was feeling the first serious effects of boredom: with nothing to read or write on, or any other stimulation, he had ended up spending the day on his back, gazing at the ceiling, trying to spot any patterns in the cracks. There weren't any. Cracks.
He knew he should be grateful – until now, he hadn't been mistreated. He was fed regularly, and the food wasn't bad, if a bit bland for someone coming from Earth. But apart from his boredom, the chilling words Zoltar had spoken bit uninvited into his heart. Zoltar was planning something big. And he wouldn't be there, in Centre Neptune, to stop it.
When the door to his cell opened, hours later, he welcomed the sound, even if it meant he would be led to an execution chamber.
He wasn't. The courteous goon took him back to Zoltar's office. Mala was there as well.
“Welcome, Chief Anderson. How good to see you again,” gushed Zoltar.
“I regret to say that the feeling is most definitely not mutual, Zoltar,” Anderson again couldn't resist mouthing off.
“Is bitchiness a trait of your sister's only? Or does it run in the family?” he continued, pointing at Mala.
Mala's eyes flashed, but she said nothing. She moved to the table and sat down.
“I would suggest you follow her example,” said Zoltar. “We have things to discuss.”
“I told you I'm not going to answer any questions,” intoned Anderson through clenched teeth, remaining on his feet.
“But I'm not asking you anything,” said Zoltar, surprised. “On the contrary, I want to tell you something. Don't you want to know my plans for Earth?”
Reluctantly, Anderson sat.
The wall facing them changed into a giant display. A map appeared, showing a number of cities on Earth. Zoltar pointed at one.
“This will be our first target.”
Another screen showed a battery of missiles.
“And there our new inter-galactic stealth missiles.”
Despite his best intentions, Anderson let a small gasp escape his lips. Mala continued from where Zoltar had left off.
“Ah yes, Chief Anderson. I see that you caught that little word. Stealth. Untraceable. Undetectable by your early warning system. And quite deadly.”
She paused for effect.
“You may have time to evacuate the city, as past Mars you will probably pick up the missiles visually on your screens. But you'll have a huge, huge number of refugees on your hands.”
Zoltar picked up the thread.
“And that means political hassle. As more cities on Earth and Riga are destroyed, the political pressure to surrender will grown. And, unlike the unfortunate X-3 episode, you will not be there to prevent a panicked Federation Council from surrendering.”
Anderson was very much afraid that, to a large extent, Zoltar was right. A repetition of the situation that had emerged during the X-3 attack would, very likely, lead to demands for surrender. But he had faith in G-Force. And he hoped that whoever had been chosen as his replacement would have enough backbone to resist not only Zoltar's demands but also the pressure coming from within the Federation.
“Never. We will never surrender to Spectra.”
“Yes. I know. You told me,” said Zoltar, a trifle impatiently. “And I told you, that's what you say."
“Anyone else in my position would say the same. I'm not irreplaceable.”
“Let's wait to find out, shall we?” retorted Zoltar.
No-one spoke for a couple of moments.
“However,” continued Zoltar, “there is a way to prevent the destruction of your cities.”
Anderson looked up warily.
“Just give me the location of Centre Neptune, and I will reprogramme the target finders on the missiles.”
“You really expect me to give you the location?” asked Anderson incredulously.
“For me, it's very much the same. I will destroy your major cities and infrastructure, or I will destroy Centre Neptune. Either way, you will surrender. It's just a question of whether you want to help save some lives in the meantime.”
Anderson slumped in his seat.
“Never,” he said again. “You will pay for the destruction you sow, Zoltar!”
“Whatever. I leave it up to you to choose. However, there's one more thing...”
As both Anderson and Zoltar stood up, Zoltar turned around and, with surprising strength, slapped the Chief on both cheeks. Anderson staggered, fought to stay upright, although his ears were ringing.
“That, my dear Chief Anderson, is for calling my sister a bitch.”
Cronus was busy packing a sheaf of documents – maps, instructions? – into a briefcase, when the team arrived at his Centre Neptune quarters.
“So you sleeping beauties have woken up, I see,” he said sarcastically.
“Give us a break, Cronus,” said Mark, just as Jason was muttering “stuff it” under his breath.
“We're just following orders, as you are,” said Tiny in his quiet way.
“Anything we can do to help with your mission?” asked Princess.
“Anything you know about the monorail incident. Anything you can add to the official reports I have.”
And G-Force filled him in to the best of their abilities. They pulled all available records, calculated trajectories, and discussed the odds of Anderson being on Spectra – the unspoken corollary being that if Anderson wasn't on Spectra, they had no clue whatsoever as to his whereabouts. At the end of the briefing, Cronus packed away the material and, in a rare moment of emotion, stood to attention and saluted the team.
“If he's there, I'll find him!”
“God speed, Cronus,” said Mark, saluting back.
As the door closed behind Cronus, Jason nudged Princess.
“Blushing debutantes, sleeping beauties...Who said life in G-Force wasn't a fairy tale?”
Daniella says: Again, I know it's been a long time since I updated this fic. What can I say, better late than never. I hope you're still with me, and with Anderson!
Anderson's cheeks kept stinging, as he lay on his bunk in the sterile, empty cell. Idly, he wondered if he would have a scar, where his teeth had gashed his lips. Still, he found it a small price to pay for yet another interesting glimpse into what made Zoltar tick. He was beginning to see the whole adventure as one big field trip – an educational experience. If it wasn't for the concern – now risen to anxiety – about what would happen back on Earth. And the boredom.
Anderson often complained that that he had no time for himself. To sleep, to exercise, to read. He wryly thought that now, a prisoner of war on Spectra, he had the chance to do two of the three and, with a determined grunt, he sat on the floor and started adopting the yoga positions he had been taught years ago. Limbs unused to stretching were tested to their limits. His breath was ragged and to his initial dismay – as he had no other clothes – he discovered that he was sweating heavily. Then he decided that sweaty, stinking clothes would be just one more minor inconvenience to put up with. At the end of his series of asanas he felt tired, but much more relaxed, and indulged in the second item on his list – a long nap. But when he woke up, there was still nothing to read...
The first warning of an imminent Spectran attack came from the Mars station. Miroslav was in front of his computer, a cup of coffee in his hand. When the alarm started beeping he abruptly left the cup on his desk, didn't notice that it fell off the edge of the desk and shattered on the floor. He didn't notice the coffee seeping on the carpet and on his shoes and socks. Eyes locked on the screen, he gazed as the information started scrolling down his screen: a bunch of Spectran missiles heading towards the Earth. Stealth-technology, apparently, as they hadn't been picked up before they crossed Mars. A bunch of big, ugly, missiles. Heading towards his planet. He picked up the phone to put in a call to G-Force, then lowered it again. What could G-Force do against that?
*** The Riga air defences picked up the signal about the missiles at the same time as Centre Neptune did. The air defence officer on duty picked up the phone.
“Get me colonel Cronus. And get me Acting Chief Markic at Centre Neptune.”
A uniformed guard opened the door to Anderson's cell. The smirk on his face was all it took to make Anderson's stomach drop to his feet.
“Zoltar would see you now, Anderson.”
Anderson swung his feet off the bunk, a nonchalant expression on his face.
Daniella says: Back by popular demand! No, seriously, back because I finally sat myself down to write!.Thanks for keeping up with this, guys!
The goon, ever so polite, guided Anderson back to Zoltar's office. The Spectran leader was there, fingers tapping impatiently on the desk. Mala was standing next to him, a tight smile on her face. Next to her was General Xirol, the Spectran intelligence officer considered by Zoltar to be Anderson's counterpart. And next to them was a wall-to-wall screen. Which was now showing some familiar Earth landmarks – with big red target signs beeping on them. Anderson felt weak. But he still stood straight, giving a slight bow to Mala.
“So, the bitch is back.”
It was childish. He knew it. But he didn't want Zoltar to have even the slightest satisfaction, that he could silence him with two slaps. He avoided thinking with what, exactly, Zoltar could succeed in silencing him.
A trifle impatiently, showing no sign of being offended, Mala pointed at a chair.
“Sit. And shut up.”
“And watch carefully, Anderson. It is perhaps the last time you will see these cities.” Zoltar pointed at the screen, no inflection in his voice, no emotion. As if he was pointing at an interesting museum exhibit. Anderson felt, again, that Earth's intelligence apparatus had somewhat underestimated the Spectran leader. He almost kicked himself as he realised that a large part of Earth's intelligence apparatus was himself, and his team. He sat down, back ramrod straight.
Zoltar turned to the guard who had escorted Anderson.
“Leave us,” he ordered.
“But, Sire,” stammered the goon. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“He's not going anywhere,” said Zoltar dismissively, looking at Anderson. Anderson pulled himself up a bit straighter.
“But he might attack you,” continued the goon.
“So you monitor the situation. On your monitors,” Zoltar replied, voice thick with irony.
The guard saluted and left.
“Idiots,” murmured Zoltar, before turning to Anderson.
“Anything I can get you, Chief Anderson?” he asked politely.
Pen and paper, Anderson wanted to scream. A book. A magazine. “Spectra illustrated”, if nothing else was available.
“Thank you, I'm fine,” he replied woodenly.
“You know,” said Zoltar thoughtfully, “I have often wondered about you. What kind of person you are. What drives you.”
“I am a scientist.”
“But you are also the Chief of Defence. So I am going to ask again – where is Centre Neptune?”
Zoltar turned his chair to look straight at Anderson, who laughed, although he felt anything but amused.
“This again? I told you I am not going to disclose the location of Centre Neptune.”
Zoltar nodded at General Xirol.
“General, you may proceed.”
Xirol picked up a pointer and turned to the screen.
“Our missiles will reach this, this and this city in approximately ten hours. Evacuation has started, and so have the first demands on the Federation Council to discuss terms with us. Oh, we haven't asked for terms, as you understand. We actually haven't asked for anything. It's gratifying to see the Earthlings coming to their senses so quickly.”
Anderson said nothing, staring at the screen as if hypnotised. Zoltar stood up.
“As I told you before, though, you can stop this. Just one word. One set of coordinates. Centre Neptune. Otherwise, the whole of the Federation is going to learn that, offered the chance to save these cities, the Chief of Galactic Security chose to save his own friends.” Anderson could hardly breathe. How many times had he advised his teams how to behave when in enemy hands? Don't engage in conversation unless you think you may learn something useful. Don't give out any information if you can help it. If you can't, wait for at least 48 hours. But he had never counted on anyone finding himself in a situation as the one he faced. The enemy wasn't being hard on him. He was fine, sitting at a conference table, staring at a screen. And facing the dilemma of seeing half his planet destroyed – or destroying the infrastructure for saving the whole planet, and the Federation. He coughed, suddenly fighting for air.
“Come on, Chief Anderson,” said Zoltar. “You are a scientist, as you just said yourself. Surely, surely you cannot let your citizens die like this!”
The missiles' trajectory was bringing them closer, closer, closer...
The alarm sounded as the team was heading back to their quarters after meeting with Cronus. Five wrist communicators beeped and the team ran back to the Chief's office.
Miroslav was keeping his eyes glued to the screen. Mark had knocked on the door, had opened it without waiting for reply. The next time Miroslav looked up, the team was standing to attention in front of him.
“G-Force, reporting for duty, sir!” said Mark formally.
Miroslav didn't know what the protocol was for cases like this.
“At ease,” he said at last, and the team drifted back to their usual positions around the room.
“We received confirmation that a number of missiles launched from Spectra have just passed Mars and are now heading towards Earth. The reason we caught it so late is because it appears that they are of a new kind of stealth technology.”
He looked at the stricken faces of the team.
“This means that we will not know of the next attack either, until the missiles cross Mars.”
A controlled panic was reigning at Centre Neptune. Rather to his surprise, Miroslav saw that the procedures put in place by Anderson, in case of a Spectran attack, functioned to a tee even in the Chief's absence. He was almost tempted to think that Anderson was not irreplaceable. But deep down he knew this was not the case.
The Federation Council was scrambled, and he found himself in front of them, giving the first briefing.
“We have determined that the attacked was launched within the last twenty-four hours. The missiles – we don't know yet what ammunition they are carrying – are now on their way towards the Earth. G-Force is on its way to intercept them. However, we don't know whether the Phoenix will be a match for them. To be honest, there's not much we do know.”
“Chief, do we know whether Spectra has made any demands?” asked Andrea, the Rigan representative.
It took Miroslav a moment to realise that “Chief” meant him.
“No. Not yet. But we all know what they want, don't we?”
The Leukadia representative got up.
“Chief, has there been any consideration about giving it to at least some of their demands?”
Andrea shot up.
“Chief, this is outrageous! It is not even his planet which is attacked!”
“But it will be!” said the Leukadian.
Miroslav tried to salvage the situation.
“For the time being, we are waiting for Spectra's demands to be made explicit. We reconvene again in the evening.”
He turned on his heel and left, not looking back.
*** All available teams of rescuers, from Earth and from all her allied planets, were evacuating the target sites. Huge refugee camps were being set up, and, amidst all the chaos, some journalists were already asking where was G-Force and why didn't they do anything to stop the oncoming massacre. A Federation Council spokesperson was hard at work pointing out that the missiles had stealth technology and had been picked up too late to be effectively stopped, at least not all of them. G-Force was going to try to deflect some of them, but the chances of success were minimal.
That led journalists to clamour for interviews with Acting Chief Markic. President Kane himself appeared on television and advised everyone to stop asking for Markic because they were not going to get him. Acting Chief Markic, he said, was busy trying to save the planet. The journalists asked whose fault it was that the planet was in danger in the first place. Kane pointed at Spectra, but this didn't make for good television: now reporters wanted to know why no effort was made to rescue Anderson, from wherever he was. Kane pointed out, patiently, that as they didn't know where he was, it would be foolish to try to save him. Then his patience ran out and send them back to the Federation spokesperson.
Miroslav had just finished giving the Phoenix the coordinates for their first attempt at diverting the missiles when his internal phone rang.
“Chief Markic? This is the President's office. He needs an update on the evacuation and on G-Force's mission. He also asked me to tell you that the Federation Council is meeting at eight, and could you please be there?”
Miroslav sighed audibly into the phone.
On his monitor, he could see the crowds had already started to gather outside the Federation building...
*** “Jason, there it is,” said Mark, pointing at the blinking signal. “Full payload, take it out.”
“Great, that will be...what? One out of twenty?” Finger over the red button, Jason waited for the signal to stabilise.
“Every one we can shoot up or divert is a victory!” snapped Mark, feeling the enormous pressure sapping at his patience.
“Yeah, it's like a bandage on a head wound,” said Jason sarcastically.
He aimed again, fired, and the Spectran missile blew up. One city was saved. Tiny turned the Phoenix around and they went to hunt another missile. It was not as easy as the media made it sound: Spectra had foreseen this, and had armed the missiles with technology to help them evade the Phoenix every time it came near. Getting close enough to get a missile to target, G-Force had to run rings around it for hours at a time, and with the number of missiles approaching, the benefit was minimal. But, as Mark said, it was better than nothing. But it wasn't better, thought Jason, hitting the target button savagely, than going after Anderson.
“Come on, Chief. One set of coordinates. That's all we ask.”
Anderson could have laughed – was that Zoltar actually pleading for the coordinates?
“All right. It's your choice.” Zoltar's voice had hardened and Mala looked triumphantly at Anderson.
She pushed an intercom button.
“Missile trajectory unchanged,” she said. “Hit the cities.”
Zoltar crossed his hands and sat back in his chair.
“And now, Chief, we wait. You can say the word whenever you want. Otherwise, you can enjoy the show with us. And let me remind you, this is only the first round. We can do this again and again, until I find out where Centre Neptune is...or until the Earth surrenders.”
Anderson wanted more than anything else at that moment to look away from the screen. But he didn't. He kept his eyes resolutely on it, tracking the missiles, his heart breaking into a thousand pieces.
“It's not...” he whispered.
“What was that? Speak up!”
Anderson's voice rang out stronger now. He looked Zoltar in the eye.
“It's not those who inflict the most but those that endure the most, that shall prevail.”
He then turned his eyes back to the screen, and the missiles, still approaching the Earth.
To be continued. Note: the last quote is from Irish hunger striker Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, who died in 1920.
Daniella says: Just a bit of background – in some of my fanfics, I have used the name “Angus” as Colonel Cronus' real name, with Cronus being a nom-de-guerre. Just saying, so you're not surprised when you see it used here.
The security control centre at Centre Neptune had just informed Acting Chief Markic that G-Force were on their way back, having deflected a handful of missiles. The others were now so close to the Earth that deflecting them would only cause damage to other cities, which had not been evacuated yet. So now the only thing they could do was wait, for the missiles to strike. The evacuation had gone, more or less, well. Citizens were now stacked in the hastily-built refugee camps. Their representatives were gathering outside the Federation Council building – clamouring for a quick resolution that would not cost any more lives, or damage. Miroslav was determined that any such resolution would not be to the detriment of the Federation's defence. As long as he was in charge, the Earth – and the Federation -- would not surrender.
G-Force had just started their report to Miroslav, when his intercom beeped.
“Hold on a sec,” he said as he looked at his incoming message. His brow furrowed.
“A demand for surrender?” ventured Mark.
“Well we've had these before,” started Jason, but Miroslav raised his hand.
“There's more. There's...”
He turned to the intercom, a new urgency in his voice.
“Order Colonel Cronus back! Now!”
The team watched in bewilderment. A tense silence followed. Then the apologetic voice of the Rigan Signals operator came on.
“I am sorry, sir,” she said. “It seems that his system has broken down, or is jammed. We can't reach him.”
“Great,” sighed Miroslav, switching off. The situation was deteriorating with every passing second. He suddenly remembered the team standing there.
“There's no reason for Cronus to go on this mission. We know where Anderson is. Zoltar kindly informed us that he has the Chief and DON'T INTERRUPT ME PLEASE!”
He slammed his hand on his desk.
“No you are NOT going to Spectra! I am even trying to get Cronus back! They will be expecting him! Then Zoltar will have two hostages instead of one – and I am not going to give him another five! You are needed here, and here is where you will stay!”
Princess broke the silence that followed Miroslav's outburst.
“What do you mean, Zoltar has told us that Anderson is on Spectra?”
“Look at this,” said Miroslav, turning his computer. Zoltar's face filled the screen.
“Greetings, Earthlings! It is my profound pleasure to announce that, thanks to the efforts of my sister Mala, your illustrious Chief Anderson is in my hands. It will be your profound displeasure to learn that, unfortunately for your citizens, he has refused to cooperate in picking a target for my missiles which, if my military commanders are not mistaken, are now rapidly approaching the Earth. I asked him for the location of Centre Neptune. That's all I wanted. Instead, you can kiss goodbye to your lovely city of Amerisco, for a start. By all means, evacuate. I take it you have done so already. But take this as an early warning.”
Zoltar paused for a second. Miroslav looked around. The team's eyes were locked on the screen. He noticed, however, that Jason kept clenching and unclenching his fists.
“As long as Anderson doesn't give me the location of Centre Neptune, I will continue to attack your cities. Until, of course, you surrender. Oh, don't worry. I will not keep Anderson for long. Just a few more days, then I will execute him publicly. It will be good for the morale of my people to see their arch-enemy shot in front of my government building. Unless, of course, once again, you surrender.”
The transmission ended.
“I've got to take this to the Federation,” said Miroslav, getting up. “Let's see what's behind Zoltar's message, before we get a new one saying that Cronus is also in their hands.”
“It's obvious why Zoltar is doing this,” said Jason quietly. He had gone uncharacteristically pale.
“Divide and rule,” he continued. “That's what Zoltar is doing. That's what we should have done on Spectra, already from the beginning of the war. We should have gone to Spectra, made overtures to the other side, pushed them to rebel against Zoltar. Now he's doing it to us. Want to bet that at least half the Federation delegates will blame Anderson instead of Zoltar for the destruction of the cities, for not giving up the location of Centre Neptune? Want to bet that they will demand a vote for surrender? And what happens if it's more than half of them?”
Miroslav nodded, putting on his jacket and getting his briefcase ready.
“You are right. I am very worried that this is what will happen when the Council gets a look at this. But how do you know that there is another side on Spectra? I admit our info on the Spectran political scene is sketchy, but I don't think there's much of an opposition to Zoltar.”
“Well, now is our chance, with the Chief there, to get more intel,” said Tiny seriously.
“If he gets out alive,” pointed out Princess softly. “That message doesn't leave much room for optimism.”
Keyop looked up at Miroslav, pure misery on his face.
“Should let us...go after Chief...”
Miroslav shook his head.
“No. We cannot risk you too. The Federation Council will not authorise it.”
“So the Federation Council will let Anderson die,” said Tiny.
Jason pulled himself up from the couch.
“The Federation Council has absolutely no choice,” he said bitterly. “They have to show Zoltar that the Chief is not irreplaceable. They have to let him be executed.”
Just then, the intercom beeped again. Miroslav turned back, picked up and put it on loudspeaker.
“It's Andrea, from the Riga Delegation,” he said. “Lieutenant MacGregor,” he said into the intercom, “I have G-Force with me here too. You are on loudspeaker.”
“Sir, we got through to Colonel Cronus.”
Relief spread across Miroslav's face, which quickly faded as Andrea went on.
“He insists on completing his mission and going to Spectra.” “Lieutenant MacGregor, does Colonel Cronus realise this is an order from the Rigan High Command?” asked Miroslav woodenly.
Andrea's voice was hesitant.
“Sir...on Riga, Colonel Cronus is, practically, the Rigan High Command. I don't think he's likely to follow any orders he doesn't want to.”
“Great. Do me a favour, Andrea,” he continue, sighing into his intercom, “please make sure this system of command does not spread to Earth, ok? It's enough having to deal with G-Force as they are.”
He could almost see Andrea smiling.
“Yes, sir. We will be in touch if we hear from the Colonel.”
Miroslav headed for the door.
“Time to face the music.”
The rescue Cronus had planned could not have gone any worse than it did. He expected opposition, but not the numbers of Spectran aircraft that met him as he broke atmosphere. He knew it was a trap. The message from Centre Neptune had left no doubt about it. But he had still been determined to help his friend, and he still felt confident that he could manage it. Confidence which disappeared as he was forced to make a landing and come out of his plane – with his hands high.
“Really, Mala, I think the war is turning for us,” mused Zoltar, looking at the screen, where he could see Cronus being arrested.
Mala was thoughtful.
Anderson was back in his cell, after having watched the destruction of Amerisco on the screen. He had said nothing else. When they escorted his back, he just sat on the bed, back against the wall, staring into nothing. He didn't want to think. He knew he had to, but he didn't want to. So he kept his mind blank. Just for a few moments more.
When the door opened and Cronus was unceremoniously pushed in, he blinked as if he had been catapulted back into reality.
“Angus?” he murmured. “Or have I been drugged?”
Cronus pulled himself up from where he had landed on the floor as Anderson got up from the bed, suddenly feeling more alive than he had since he was first taken to Spectra.
“It's me, Jack. I was planning to rescue you, but...you know...best laid plans and all that.”
“You planned to rescue me all by yourself? Really?”
Cronus looked at him, annoyed.
“It would not be the first time, would it?” he said reasonably.
“Anyway, now that you're here, we could escape. The two of us could do it. I've got...”
Cronus kicked him in the shin, so hard that Anderson's eyes watered.
“What the heck? What's wrong with you?” he gasped, gingerly sitting down again.
“You've been too long out of the field, Jack. Talking about an escape? When you know the enemy has cameras everywhere?”
Cronus shook his head.
“Makes me wonder how you're still Chief of Security.”
Anderson looked up.
“But I'm not, am I? Surely they have replaced me? At least, that's what I understood from Zoltar.”
“Yes, by Markic. He's been doing a good job until now, keeping his head while the Federation Council is slowly crumbling. You did it once, Jack, by locking the doors and keeping them inside. But somehow I don't think Markic has this option.”
“Because now the doors can be opened from the outside.”
Cronus sat next to him.
“Jack, don't get me wrong, but you stink. What have you been doing, push-ups?”
Anderson went beetroot red.
“Yoga,” he mumbled.
“And I'm guessing...no showers?” said Cronus.
“None that have come to my attention.”
“Well, I'll just have to deal with that,” sighed Cronus. He leaned back against the wall as well, but, at the same time, he started signalling with his hands. It was a crude code, devised a long time by Centre Neptune, for situations in which two people were in danger of being overheard. Anderson just looked at him, at first having not the slightest inkling of what was going on, then trying to remember if this was something he should know. Then a long-forgotten part of his training as a young cadet kicked in – Cronus started making sense. Anderson watched his hands intensely.
“Federation read to surrender. Zoltar sent a message. You are to be publicly executed. We have to get you out.”
Daniella says: Slowly but surely, the story moves on.
As soon as Anderson realised what Cronus was saying, he shook his head violently, put a hand on Cronus's palms to stop him, and started signalling awkwardly too, brow creased in concentration.
'It does not natter. Dalf Earth bestroyed. Set them kill me.'Âť
It took Cronus a second or two to get the gist of Anderson's clumsy code. Then he pulled his hands away and started signalling again.
'Don't be stupid. We need to save the other half and all other federation planets. We need you. So what about that escape?'
Before Anderson could signal a reply, the door flew open. A goon appeared, gun pointing directly at them.
It was not a question. Cronus jumped off the bed, flipping the goon a little salute.
'At your service.'
Realising what was happening, Anderson quickly put himself between the goon and Cronus.
'What do you want with him? He doesn't know anything!'
Cronus managed to look offended.
'What do you mean, I don't know anything?'
'Shut up. You.â€ť Anderson jabbed a finger at the goon 'go back and tell Zoltar that Colonel Cronus does not know the coordinates for Centre Neptune. When he comes there, his ship is tethered to our system and pulled in. He doesn't input the coordinates himself'.
'Too much info, Jack,' whispered Cronus.
Zoltar materialised behind the goon, having entered from a hidden side door.
'My dear Chief Anderson, Colonel Cronus is going to become, unfortunately, just another pawn in this game. I told you I have no interest in torturing you. But knowing it's your friend who will pay the price -- well, maybe this will move you more than the millions of people who lost their homes due to your stubborn position.'
'Jack, you know you're not to tell them anything, right?' asked Cronus pleasantly.
Anderson, whiter than ever, just nodded.
'Good,' said Cronus.
'And, in any case,'Âť continued Zoltar, 'Colonel Cronus certainly knows the coordinates of Riga's High Command, no?'
As the door closed, the last thing Anderson saw was Cronus being led away between Zoltar and the goon. Then, he kicked at the wall, so hard that even in his rubber-soled, heavy-duty work boots, he twisted a toe.
The ISO HQ boasted an underground entrance, that could be accessed directly from Centre Neptune -- a fact for which Miroslav was immensely grateful. With G-Force out again against a possible new battery of Spectran missiles, he was alone in facing the representatives of the Federated planets. Technically, President Kane would be at his side. At his side, but would he also be on his side as well?
Making his way across the corridors, escorted by a bevy of bodyguards, Miroslav could just make out the faint echo of the crowds shouting outside the building, clamouring for the Federation's surrender.
'Lose our assets, not our planets!' was the slogan that came loudest to his ears.
'Fools!' he thought. As if Spectra would leave the planets alone after stripping them of their assets.
Signalling to his bodyguard that he wanted to stop for a second, he approached an ISO NCO standing guard outside the Federation Council. The NCO snapped to attention as soon as he realised who the long-haired, haggard-looking man approaching him was.
'At ease, Sergeant,' said Miroslav.
He nodded towards the heavy doors.
'Is it true that they canâ€™t be locked from the inside?'
The guard gave a small, sad smile.
'I'm afraid so, sir. But I could try to delay them opening the doors from the outside, if you think it would help.'
'Thank you, Sergeant. But I hope it won't come to this.'
He placed his hand on the keypad, and entered the Federation Council chamber.
The door to Anderson's cell opened and Cronus was thrown in again, for the second time in one day. He landed in a corner and, dazed, stayed there, trying to get his bearings. Anderson, placing his weight on one foot, limped to him.
'Are you okay?'
He leaned over his friend, looking for obvious signs of injury, finding none. Cronus, his eyes closed, nodded.
'I'll be fine. Just give me a second.'
'What did they do to you?'
Cronus shook his head.
'Let's not discuss it now,' he whispered. 'And why are you limping?' he added, glancing at the way Anderson was gingerly moving one foot.
Anderson nodded towards the wall, where a very slight dent could be seen.
'Boot connected with the wall, and the wall won,' he said, keeping his voice light, although his friend's dishevelled look was making him feel more guilty by the second.
'Is it not enough that I have all these destroyed cities on my conscience? Should I have you, too?' he whispered, helping Cronus make himself more comfortable.
Cronus grabbed Anderson's arms.
'Stop it, Jack. You're playing Zoltar's game if you continue to feel sorry for yourself. This is war. You didn't destroy those cities, Spectra did. So stop thinking only of your own feelings, ok?'
Miserably, Anderson nodded. Cronus pushed himself up to a sitting position, and started tapping out a code again.
'So, let's look at some escape plans.'
Half an hour later, and after a lot of effort in deciphering Anderson's hastily-tapped code, Cronus was certain of two things: Anderson's plans, ingenious as they were, would not work, and the ISO had better organised remedial classes in coding and other tradecraft methods for its desk-bound officers. Just in case they ever needed any of these skills.
'Sorry, it won't work, Jack. It's a good idea, all of them are good ideas, but they won't work.'
Anderson was visibly disappointed, but just shrugged.
'Oh well, we tried.'
He settled back against the wall. Then, the door opened again and a goon appeared once more.
'Chief Anderson? Zoltar would like a word.'
Anderson almost groaned -- he knew what this next meeting would be all about. Zoltan would announce another wave of attacks, and demand the coordinates of Centre Neptune again. Cronus sat up a bit straighter, and gave his friend a small smile.
'Chin up, Jack,' he whispered.
Anderson nodded, then followed the courteous goon outside.
Zoltar was seated at the table in his meeting room again, the wall behind him one giant video screen projecting images from Earth. He was tapping his fingers impatiently on the tabletop. Mala, sitting next to him with Xirol, looked unperturbed. She was studying a report. Zoltar stood up as Anderson was escorted in.
'Ah! My dear Chief Anderson! Let's see if we will make more progress this time.'
Anderson had no idea how much time had passed since his last meeting with Zoltar. There was only one thing he remembered clearly: the video wall, the red target dots, the explosions that followed.
'I protest in the strongest possible terms the violation of the Intergalactic Treaty on the treatment of prisoners of war and the mistreatement of Colonel Cronus. This will be added to the list of crimes you have committed, Zoltar.'
'Protest noted. Now, let's try again. The coordinates for Centre Neptune -- or you lose another batch of your cities.'
Anderson said nothing. Zoltar sighed.
'Fine. General Xizor, give battle command their targeting coordinates.'
Xirol looked up.
'Sire, I think we should go after other planets too. Earth is only one of the Federation's planets, after all. Let's hit Riga at least, give Cronus something to think about.'
'You have a point, General,' acknowledged Zoltar, to Anderson's surprise: he had expected that the Spectran leader would not tolerate any talking back.
'But Centre Neptune is on Earth,' continued Zoltar. 'So, Earth will be the planet to suffer the brunt of our attacks -- until Chief Anderson here gives us an alternative, military target.'
Standing rigidly to attention, Anderson once again kept his eyes on the screen.
'No,' he whispered. 'The Federation will fight back,' he added defiantly.
But the words of Cronus's message came unbidden to his mind.
'Federation ready to surrender.'
As the doors to the Federation Council chamber opened and Miroslav walked in, a cacophony of voices -- loud and agitated -- reached his ears. Ignoring them, he walked to the lectern. President Kane, sitting at the front row, nodded at him to start. Miroslav gave a succint overview of what had happened -- the number of missiles that had struck Earth, the damage inflicted, the victims, the refugees. He then played the recording they had received from Zoltar. When the recording was over, a deathly silence fell -- which was broken by the Rigan representative.
'Chief, any news of Colonel Cronus's mission?'
Miroslav hesitated, not sure how much he should tell the delegates.
'We have to assume that Colonel Cronus is now a prisoner on Spectra as well. If he's still alive.'
Andrea nodded. But before she could speak, the Leukadian representative had taken the floor.
'Chief, are we putting together a negotiating team to work on the terms of our surrender? Zoltar's message leaves no room for optimism. Other planets will be attacked after Earth. How long before my planet, or Lieutenant MacGregor's planet, is attacked?'
Andrea was on her feet before the Council Speaker could acknowledge her.
'Be that as it may, I have no mandate to agree to authorise the Federation to negotiate a surrender!'
'By the time you get it, not much of Riga will be left!' shot back the Leukadian representative.
'Plus, we can't let Chief Anderson be executed! Nor Colonel Cronus,' continued Andrea, as if there had been no interruption.
The debate in the Federation Council was deteriorating into a barrage of accusations and counter-accusations flung left and right, between the delegates in favour of holding out until the ISO would find a way to deal with the latest threat from Spectra, and those arguing in favour of a hasty surrender. Proponents of the view that a negotiating team should, at least, be established, carried the vote. Miroslav was trying to think what would Anderson do in his shoes -- apart from locking the doors.
'G-Force is doing whatever's possible to deflect and destroy as many missiles as it can. The evacuation procedures are working. The refugees are safe. I ask you to have some faith in the ISO! We will find a way to deal with this threat. We have done so in the past. We cannot let Spectra overrun our planets!'
'Better overrun and alive than foolishly holding out and losing our lives and our planets too!'
Miroslav grabbed the lectern tightly.
'My friends, please give us some time. The ISO will come through!'
Miroslav paused in his speech, to check the monitor. He thought for a moment to keep for himself the info he saw -- then decided that it would be better to get it over with, the sooner the better.
"Honourable representatives,"ť he started, "we've just received word from our defence forces that another wave of missiles has just crossed Mars. G-Force are on their way to deflect them and I can assure you that the evacuation of the intended targets is proceeding as planned."ť
He had barely stopped speaking when the Leukadian representative was on his feet.
"There! I told you so! Colleagues, how long will we have to put up with this?"ť
Miroslav could see that the Leukadian representative's outrage was clearly shared by many other delegates. The question was, were they enough to form a critical mass, to swing a vote in favour of a surrender?
"Negotiate with Spectra!"ť shouted the Venus representative.
"Take a vote, Kane!"ť yelled another delegate.
Andrea was asking for the floor, Miroslav noted tiredly. He pointed at her.
"The Council recognises the delegate from Riga. Lieutenant McGregor, you have the floor."ť
Andrea got up.
"Colleagues, once again I plead with you to give G-Force a chance!"
"A chance to do what?" yelled another delegate. "Kane, if you don't call for a vote, the destruction of our planets will be on your head!"
"McGregor, have you checked with your government, before you got on your high horse?" yelled another.
"Order! Order!"ť shouted Kane, getting up. "Lieutenant McGregor still has the floor."
"Let me remind you that Riga had been occupied by Spectra in the past! And Spectra showed no mercy, even after we had surrendered. And it took years, and loss of life, and loss of a great part of our infrastructure, to rid our planet from Spectra! We will never surrender again!"ť
"If the vote goes against Riga, there's nothing else you can do!"ť
"Even if the rest of the Federation surrenders, Riga will continue to fight against Spectra! Alone, if need be!"ť
Miroslav smiled at her.
"You will not be alone! Earth will stand with you!"ť
"Markic, you represent the whole of the Federation, not only Earth! You are bound by our decisions!"ť
"Then I will resign and join Lieutenant McGregor and G-Force on the front line!"ť
"G-Force is also an instrument of the Federation! If they are ordered to surrender, they will surrender!"ť
The Leukadian representative had a point, admitted Miroslav to himself. He just couldn't see how this point could ever be enforced. He turned his gaze to the video wall behind him. Scenes of angry, panicked citizens demanding the Federation's surrender -- unconditional surrender, if need be -- were being beamed from various Federation planets. Even from Riga, he noticed, although the crowds were decidedly smaller there. Still, maybe Andrea should indeed check her instructions again.
President Kane got up.
"Colleagues, I suggest we give G-Force and the ISO twelve hours to come up with a viable alternative. Otherwise, we take a vote and start putting together a team to negotiate our surrender."
He walked out of the room, to avoid meeting Miroslav's stricken gaze.
Anderson had sat through Zoltar's viewing of the second wave of attacks against Earth silent, rigid, unmoving. When it was over, however, he turned tiredly to the Spectran leader.
"You will pay for your crimes against the Federation planets, Zoltar. Make no mistake."ť
"What, no grand 'we will never surrender' speech this time?"ť mocked Mala. "Maybe you are right, brother, and the war is, indeed, turning for us."
"So you HAVE been paying attention to what I say," said Anderson, matching her mocking tone.
"You ARE boringly repetitive, my dear Chief Anderson, are you not?"
"That doesn't mean I'm not right."
"We'll see, we'll see. In the meantime, let's up the ante. Mala, Colonel Tirol, you can send out the terms for the Federation's surrender now. And make sure that all planets know what they are: the location of Centre Neptune. In exchange for saving all their citizens."
As soon as President Kane had left the room, Miroslav packed his papers and laptop and got ready to head back to Centre Neptune.
"I will call all the department heads to a meeting now. We will try our best to meet President Kane's deadline,"ť he said glumly. "I trust you will allocate all resources necessary to this end," he added, trying to crack a smile. Then he turned on his heel and left.
The meeting with the department heads was brief. Miroslav gave them the latest state of play, and asked for bright ideas on how to overcome the situation. How to protect Earth and her friendly planets. How to stop Zoltar. And how, if possible, rescue Anderson -- and Cronus. G-Force had been dispatched to deflect as many of the latest wave of missiles as possible, so Miroslav was alone when Zoltar's terms of surrender came through.
He spent a brief time going through them -- and rejected them out of hand. Then he transmitted the terms to the defence authorities of the other Federation planets. For their information, he added in a cover note. Not for action.
He was reviewing a report sent by G-Force on their latest success rate in deflecting the missiles, when his door opened and an ISO scientist, Dr. Sarah Petrifies, entered.
"Miroslav... I mean, Chief,"ť she corrected herself, "I think we got it!"ť
"Miroslav will do just fine, Sarah."
He took the documents she was holding, her enthusiasm slowly getting to him also.
"Tell me about your plan!"
He showed her to a seat by his desk, noting, at the same time, that Sarah looked as if she had slept even less than him. A distant memory came to the fore suddenly -- Sarah was dating Anderson... was it ever possible? wondered Miroslav, then wondered why he was wondering about something so trivial. Then, a look at Sarah's face made him realise abruptly that there was nothing trivial about her relationship with the Chief.
"We found it, Miroslav! At least, I think we did. We found a way to stop the missiles from destroying our cities. And a way to rescue Jack!"
When Anderson was led back to his cell, he was so white that Cronus was worried that the Federation had already surrendered.
"Well?"ť he raised an eyebrow as soon as the guard had closed the door.
Anderson shook his head in despair.
"I'm starting to think that Markic had better surrender, and soon."
He sat on the floor, next to his friend, their backs against the wall.
"Don't say that, Jack,"ť said Cronus softly. "They will find a way. G-Force, the Federation will find a way."
Anderson only shook his head again.
They sat in companionable silence for some time. Guiltily, Anderson felt immensely grateful that Cronus was there with him.
"I'm seeing someone,"ť he said suddenly.
"What? Here, in this cell? Are you hallucinating? Have we been drugged?" asked Cronus, only half-jokingly. You never knew.
"No, you idiot. I"m dating someone. At Centre Neptune. A scientist. Sarah Petrides. You met her once, remember? At a conference?"
Cronus nodded, smiling.
"Good for you, mate! Good-looking chick like her, you should consider yourself lucky."
"I do,"ť replied Anderson somberly.
They both tensed suddenly, as they heard footsteps approaching the cell. When the Spectran goons took Cronus away again, Anderson didn't kick the wall. But he punched it, hard, repeatedly, until his knuckles were bloody and bruised. Then he sunk to the floor, and cried his heart out.
Sarah explained to Miroslav that the scientists at Centre Neptune had managed to develop a shield that would, if not stop, then significantly delay the onslaught by the Spectran missiles. This would give the ISO more time to organise the evacuation of the targeted cities and, more importantly, free G-Force to plan and mount a rescue attempt. Centre Neptune had even developed a plan that envisaged the Phoenix swooping into Spectran atmosphere low enough to remain undetected, keeping all weapons systems off, to stay off Spectra's target locks, and then picking up Anderson and Cronus.
"As you can see, Chief,"ť concluded Sarah, pointing at the plans drafted by Centre Neptune, "the only snag is that Chief Anderson and Colonel Cronus have to be out in the open if we're to snatch them without activating our weapons systems."
Their eyes met, comprehension dawning at the same time. The best way to do this would be when Zoltar would be preparing to execute Anderson. They could only hope that Cronus would be executed with him. And there would be no way to communicate their plans to the two men before they were led to their execution.
Anderson had slumped by the wall when the door opened and Cronus was flung inside. He moved aside, to make space for his friend to crawl over. They didn't speak for a while, as Anderson tenderly dabbed the blood that was flowing down Cronus's chin with his sleeve.
"Are you going to injure yourself every time they come for me?"ť Cronus tried to joke, noticing Anderson's bloody knuckles.
Anderson shook his head sadly.
"This the last time. Next time they come, I'm giving them the coordinates of Centre Neptune, of my summer house, and of my mother's apartment, if they want."
Cronus grabbed Anderson's hand, ignoring the fact that Anderson was grimacing in pain.
"Jack. Tell me you're joking,"ť he said slowly.
Anderson let the tears he had been holding back roll down his cheeks.
"I can't, Angus. I can't do this any more. I wish Markic would see the light quickly and surrender. Zoltar is very, very clever. He knows he hurts me more by hurting you. He knows I'd gladly trade places with you, in a heartbeat. And he knows he kills me a little every time he makes me watch the destruction of our cities."
"Exactly!"ť said Cronus, grabbing Anderson's hand even harder. "Exactly! Zoltar is very clever, so we must be even cleverer. And stronger. And braver. Right now, I admit there's not much to be clever about. But hey, I'm sure our time will come."
They fell silent for a while. Anderson realised again, guiltily, how grateful he was to have Cronus's company. Even if he had to deal with the added guilt of seeing Cronus being hurt in his stead.
"You don't really have a summer house, do you?"ť asked Cronus after a while.
Anderson managed a small smile.
"But I always wanted one. Not on Earth. On Riga, actually."
"I can make some suggestions, once we're out of here,"ť said Cronus.
"We're not getting out of here, Angus. At least, not alive."
"Jack, have you ever heard of G-Force abandoning anyone in enemy hands? We're getting out all right,"ť he added, softly easing his bruised back against the wall.
The plan devised by the ISO scientists had re-energised Centre Neptune. The controlled chaos was still there, but people were going about their duties with a newfound vitality. Miroslav had informed the Federation Council about the plan, and had received a grudging reprieve of another 48 hours before terms of surrender would be discussed. He then informed president Kane privately about the idea to send G-Force over to Spectra to rescue Anderson and Cronus. Out of respect for Cronus and Riga, he also privately informed Andrea. It may have been his imagination, but the Rigan delegate stopped herself only with difficulty from jumping up and kissing the acting Chief of Security on the cheek.
As soon as Andrea had left Miroslav's office, the door opened again and a tired, dishevelled-looking G-Forice entered.
"What's the deal, Chief?"ť asked Jason, without preamble. "We were called back, but no explanation was given."
"We could still help deflect the missiles, even with the shield up,"ť added Mark, as they gravitated towards their usual positions around Miroslav's office.
"Team, I didn't want to risk anyone overhearing my new instructions. In this... delicate political climate, any whiff of a plan to rescue the Chief -- and draw resources away from Earth -- would not go down very well in the Federation Council."
The team looked around at each other, startled.
"Chief, does this mean..."ť started Princess.
"Yes, Princess," smiled Miroslav. "You are going to Spectra."
"It seems that you were right, Zoltar,"ť said Mala, as they studied the latest data. "Getting rid of Anderson did not result in the Earthlings surrendering."ť
"Yes, it seems he wasn't as irreplaceable as we thought,"ť said Zoltar thoughtfully. "How long can we keep up the attacks?"ť he asked Xirol.
"At this point, sire, I'd say it's not worth continuing. It's costing us more and more of our limited resources, and the results are increasingly doubtful."
"So... it seems we were beaten again. Still, since we do have Anderson, and Colonel Cronus, in our hands, it may not be a bad idea to dispose of them. Permanently."
The door to the cell opened again and, instinctively, Cronus smoothed his features to a nonchalant look, while at the same time he grabbed Anderson's arm tightly.
"Remember, Jack,"ť he whispered fiercely. "Not a word."ť
But it was no goon this time. It was Zoltar, flanked by two high-level security guards. Anderson and Cronus stood up, straight and tall.
"Chief Anderson, Colonel Cronus," started Zoltar.
"Yeah. That's us -- all present and accounted for,"ť said Cronus smartly.
Anderson shot him an annoyed look.
"Stop horsing around, will you?"ť
"What? The man got our names right, I thought I'd tell him so."
"Behave like an officer, won't you? For a change?"
"Look who's talking!"ť snorted Cronus.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen!"ť said Zoltar hurriedly. He wasn't entirely sure whether the two ISO officers were having a laugh at his expense, but he had the suspicion that they were.
They stood to attention, but Zoltar could see that they could barely suppress their giggles. Like schoolboys, he thought. Well, what he was going to tell them would put an end to their giggles.
"You have outlived your usefulness to Spectra."
"So sorry,"ť mocked Cronus.
"But I can still make the most of your presence here to instil some hope in the hearts of the Spectran population, that the war is not lost to us yet."
"Good luck with that," snorted Anderson.
Zoltar ploughed on.
"You will both be publicly executed, and I will make sure Earth, and her allied planets, get a good look of the event."
He stopped, waiting for a reaction. Anderson and Cronus were looking at him with what could only be described as mild interest.
"Well?"ť prompted Zoltar.
"Well what?"ť replied Anderson politely.
"Don't you two have anything to say?"ť asked Zoltar impatiently.
"Zoltar, Zoltar,"ť said Anderson in a bored tone, while Cronus shook his head. "Haven't we been through this before? Do you want to be told again how the Federation will not surrender, no matter what? I thought you had realised it by now."ť
Furious, Zoltar ordered the guard to lock them back inside the cell.
"See you at your execution," were his parting words.
Back in the cell, they on the floor again, backs to the wall. It was more comfortable than sitting on the bed.
"Well, that is one good thing,"ť said Anderson after a short silence.
Cronus lifted himself up one elbow.
"Drop the act, Jack. It's just the two of us now. And I can't see any good thing in this situation," he said, all trace of frivolity gone.
"You're wrong, Angus,"ť said Anderson, grabbing his friend's hand."There is one good thing. We're together!"
Angus gave a small smile, hugged his friend by the shoulders.
"Yes. We're together."ť
They fell silent again, until Cronus spoke, his voice soft.
"But I still think G-Force will come for us. The question is when."
Daniella says: It took a long time. But it's done. Thank you for sticking with me and with Anderson.
While the Centre Neptune scientists were working furiously to put into action the plan thought up by Sarah and her team, Miroslav called G-Force to his office for a final briefing before they took off.
â€śYou will have a very narrow window to swoop down on Spectra and grab them, team,â€ť he said soberly. â€śTiny, it will be mainly up to you - keep the Phoenix low enough to evade the radars, but high enough to avoid surface-to-air missiles, all right?â€ť
â€śNo sweat, Chief,â€ť replied Tiny nonchalantly.
â€śIf you canâ€™t get them on your first scoop, you get out. I mean it!â€ť he added, as he saw Mark, and Jason, getting ready to open their mouths.
They did so anyway.
â€śBut Miroslav - Chief - give us at least another try. Second swoop, we donâ€™t get them, weâ€™re out,â€ť said Mark, trying to sound reasonable and convincing.
Acting totally out of character, maybe for the first time ever, Miroslav banged his fist on the desk.
â€śOne swoop, team! Iâ€™m not going to risk you getting captured as well! And if you think Anderson, or Cronus, would want you to risk capture to rescue them, you donâ€™t know them at all!â€ť
â€śWe know them better than you do!â€ť retorted Jason, ignoring Markâ€™s warning squeeze on his shoulder.
â€śSay whatever you want, Jason, I donâ€™t care!â€ť shouted back Miroslav. â€śBut you will obey me! Commander, I will hold you personally responsible if my orders are not obeyed! One swoop, and youâ€™re out!â€ť
â€śBut, Chief,â€ť Princess tried to intervene, â€śthe Chief and Cronus donâ€™t know weâ€™re coming. They might not be ready, or they might not manage to come to the Phoenix on our first scoop!â€ť
â€śGive themâ€¦another chance!â€ť added Keyop.
â€śSorry, Keyop. One swoop is what they get. Are we clear?â€ť
â€śYes, sir!â€ť saluted Mark.
As the team trooped out, Miroslav wasnâ€™t sure if he was hoping for his orders to be heeded - or not.
Anderson and Cronus managed to nap for a few hours, spread out against the wall. Zoltar didnâ€™t bother them again, neither did any of his goons. When they woke up, Cronus brought up again the possibility of a rescue.
â€śWe have to be ready, Jack,â€ť he yawned. â€śG-Force may still make it.â€ť
Anderson shook his head resignedly.
â€śNo, Angus. Itâ€™s over. Zoltar won this hand.â€ť
â€śAre you always so pessimistic?â€ť growled Cronus. â€śAnd, by the way, the reason Zoltar wants to shoot us is precisely because he lost this hand.â€ť
â€śYeah, well,â€ť conceded Anderson, â€śthatâ€™s one good thing that came out of this whole sorry affair.â€ť
They were silent for a while.
â€śShould I try to leave a message for Sarah?â€ť whispered Andersons after a while.
â€śHey, man, you find a way to leave a message, youâ€™d better leave the intel you gathered here!â€ť
â€śYouâ€™re right. Pity I canâ€™t think of a way to do this.â€ť
â€śDesk-jockeys,â€ť mocked Cronus. â€śNo sense of tradecraft.â€ť
â€śYou got any bright ideas, hotshot?â€ť retorted Anderson.
â€śNot at the moment, noâ€¦ although, you know, if our execution is going to be broadcast all over the Federation, Iâ€™m sure weâ€™ll find a way to send a message.â€ť
â€śHey, thatâ€™s a good idea.â€ť
â€śThank you Jack. Thatâ€™s why you need active field officers around.â€ť
They laughed at that.
â€śIâ€™m glad weâ€™re together,â€ť whispered Anderson softly.
â€śMe too, mate. Iâ€™m glad weâ€™re together. Although, come on, now the Federation will have to replace me as well.â€ť
He grimaced mockingly. Anderson gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder.
â€śYeah, good luck to Markic with that! And letâ€™s make sure we donâ€™t embarrass ourselves - or the Federation - out thereâ€¦â€ť he added, his voice little more than a whisper.
â€śWhat? Us? Never!â€ť laughed Cronus. â€śDonâ€™t worry, Jack,â€ť he added soberly. â€śWe wonâ€™t. But in case G-Force shows up, you will be on your toes, right?â€ť
â€śIf you say soâ€¦â€ť sighed Anderson. â€śBut I wouldnâ€™t pin any big hopes on them. They will be needed on Earth to repel the attacks, not come after us.â€ť
â€śAnd Markic must be doing a good job until now, if the Federation hasnâ€™t surrendered,â€ť added Cronus. â€śYouâ€™re not that irreplaceable after all, are you?â€ť
â€śThe way things are turning out, I hope not!â€ť
As the Phoenix approached Spectra, the team kept a close eye on developments around Earth and the solar system. The mechanism devised by Sarah and her colleagues seemed to be holding up - for the moment. The Federation was managing to repel a significant number of missiles, enough to give the exhausted evacuation crews time to get people out of the targeted cities.
â€śKeep your eyes peeled, team,â€ť cautioned Mark as they were approaching. â€śGo in low, Tiny. Thereâ€™s a good chance they will still see us, so, Jason, finger on the trigger, please.â€ť
Jason broke out in a huge grin.
â€śThough youâ€™d never ask, Commander!â€ť
â€śPrincess, Keyop, keep your eyes on the defensive shields. And all of you - keep your eyes open for the Chief and Cronus. Theyâ€™re down there - and theyâ€™ve no idea weâ€™re coming.â€ť
An exhausted Acting Chief Markic briefed again the Federation Council, ending on the upbeat note that Earthâ€™s defences were holding for the time being, and that a rescue mission was underway for Chief Anderson and Colonel Cronus. He refused to take any questions and left before the frustrated delegates could vent their irritation at having G-Force galloping off to save two officers - instead of staying to defend the Federation.
Anderson and Cronus spent the night talking away, in between of taking short, fitful naps. They had no way of knowing, in their cell, when the dawn would be breaking, but they were steeling themselves for the contingent of goons that would take them to their place of execution. There were sure Zoltar would act quickly, not risking a delay in case a rescue was mounted, and publicly.
â€śYou wouldâ€™ve thought theyâ€™d give us at least a trial,â€ť mused Anderson at some point.
â€śIf you really expected that, Jack, youâ€™re a worse intelligence officer than I thought!â€ť
â€śWell, see it this wayâ€ť - Anderson turned to Cronus, warming to his subject - â€śZoltar obviously still needs to continue projecting his power to his people. He needs to maintain a semblance of legitimacy. And heâ€™s definitely more clever than the Federation gives him credit for. Heâ€™s lost the latest round. Markic hasnâ€™t surrendered. Heâ€™s also grooming Mala - perhaps to take over from him one day. What better way to do this than to hold a trial, and use it to extol Malaâ€™s role in my capture? In our capture.â€ť
Cronus considered that.
â€śYou know, he may still do that. But it will be a very fast trial.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m worried about G-Force,â€ť ventured Anderson after a while.
â€śIâ€™m worried about us,â€ť quipped Cronus. â€śWeâ€™re the ones about to shot. Or hanged. Or something.â€ť
â€śBe serious for a moment, will you?â€ť said Anderson, annoyed. â€śThese young people will be the ones who will have to pick up the pieces after weâ€™re gone. Pick up the pieces, get their act together, and get back to defending the Federation. Markâ€¦â€ť
Cronus sensed his friend choking on his words.
â€śMark managed just fine when he thought Iâ€™d been killed, Jack,â€ť he said softly. â€śHe did his duty when he thought he was killing Princess in the process. He will definitely get over losing his grumpy Chief.â€ť
â€śBut he will lose his father tooâ€¦ againâ€¦â€ť whispered Anderson.
â€śHeâ€™s got good friends with him,â€ť said Cronus fiercely. â€śThey will help him see it through. And donâ€™t forget - theyâ€™ve also got Sarah. She will be there for them.â€ť
Andersonâ€™s face softened.
â€śSarahâ€¦yesâ€¦Iâ€™m grateful for that.â€ť
â€śSo, as you can see,â€ť continued the indomitable Colonel Cronus, â€śthereâ€™s nothing to worry about.â€ť
Approaching Spectraâ€™s system, the team had a whole host of problems of their own to worry about. Their approach has been momentarily captured by the Spectran anti-spacecraft radars - but their low altitude meant that they were now indistinguishable - at least on radar screens - from the normal commercial traffic on Spectra. On the radar screens. Because the red and blue silhouette of the Phoenix was definitely visible to the naked eye. But by flying close to the surface, they were guaranteed the unwitting protection of their Spectran enemies. Even Zoltar would not fire so close to commercial traffic. They hoped.
Tiny was sweating freely, his hands gripping the controls tightly.
â€śComing up to the coordinates Zark came up with, Commander. Letâ€™s just hope now we get the timing right.â€ť
Mark jumped off his seat.
â€śTeam, with me! Tiny, get her lower. We should be coming up to parade ground. Thatâ€™s our stop.â€ť
The door opened and Zoltar barged into the cell, accompanied by a platoon of Spectran soldiers. He was standing in front of Anderson and Cronus before the two Federation officers had had the time to rise to their feet. As they slowly rose from their spot by the wall, they noticed Xirol and Mala entering behind the platoon. Anderson, without even realising he was doing so, placed a protective arm in front of Cronus. They looked haughtily at Zoltar and his entourage.
â€śI will say this only once,â€ť snapped Zoltar.
â€śGood,â€ť muttered Anderson pleasantly.
â€śGive us the coordinates of Centre Neptuneâ€¦â€ť
Cronus raised his eyes to the ceiling.
â€śOh, Lord, not this again.â€ť
â€śâ€¦or you will be taken out and shot.â€ť
â€śGreat. So we can stop listening to your constant, idiotic harping about the Centre Neptune coordinates,â€ť said Anderson, his face an inch from Zoltarâ€™s.
Mala elbowed her way in front of her brother.
â€śYou donâ€™t seem to be taking this very seriously, do you?â€ť
â€śIâ€™ve pledged my life to the Federation,â€ť said Anderson simply.
Cronus grabbed his friendâ€™s hand surreptitiously. Anderson couldnâ€™t resist one last jibe at the Spectrans.
â€śSo as you can see, neither you, Zoltar, nor your sister, nor the whole apparatus of Spectra can break a single Federation officer - or two,â€ť he added, looking at Cronus tenderly, â€śwho donâ€™t wish to be broken.â€ť
â€śYou say that, but half your planetâ€™s destroyed thanks to your stubbornness,â€ť hissed Zoltar.
â€śYes,â€ť admitted Anderson woodenly. â€śAnd still they didnâ€™t surrender.â€ť
â€śNo point in arguing any more, Zoltar,â€ť said Mala icily. She nodded at the goons.
Aboard the Phoenix, Mark was running a thousand scenaria in his mind. They only had one chance to get it right. They didnâ€™t even know for sure if the execution would take place today, or whether it would indeed be public. The only thing they had to go on with was the recording Centre Neptune had received earlier. They were working on the increasingly shaky assumption that Zoltar hadnâ€™t seen fit to change his plans. There was also the unvoiced concern that Anderson had already been executed. Mark had said nothing to his fellow team-mates about this, but he was certain they were all thinking about it. As for Cronus, they had no way of being certain he would be with Anderson. The orders were clear - one swoop, if you donâ€™t get Anderson, get out. What if they got Anderson, but not Cronus?
Mark felt Jason come sit on the Phoenix floor next to him.
â€śHey, Commander. Everything ok?â€ť
â€śSure,â€ť nodded Mark.
â€śWeâ€™ll get them, Mark,â€ť said Jason confidently. â€śWeâ€™ll get the Chief. And your dad.â€ť
â€śSure,â€ť said Mark again, but his voice was breaking.
â€śThe others have agreed. No matter what Markic said, weâ€™re not leaving without them. Without both of them.â€ť
â€śYeah? And who will defend the Earth and the Federation if we get caught or killed?â€ť
Jason gave him a hand up.
â€śWeâ€™ll get them,â€ť he repeated.
The bright sunlight hurt Andersonâ€™s eyes as they were marched out of the building were he had been held all this time. The sunâ€™s glare was stronger on Spectra, less filtered than on Earth. Which was one of the reasons why the planet was dying. They were flanked by goons left, right and centre. They were handcuffed, their hands behind their backs, which made walking all the more difficult. Anderson felt Cronus next to him stumble and grabbed him clumsily by the elbow.
â€śWhere do you think they are taking us?â€ť whispered Cronus.
â€śSomewhere with a big crowd, probably.â€ť
Zoltar, Mala and Xirol were nowhere to be seen. Probably they were already at the execution place. Anderson saw the goons looking at him and without even realising it, drew himself a bit taller.
They were approaching an open area surrounded by tall buildings. A modest crowd was waiting there, all in uniform. So it was going to be an intimate event, invitation-only, thought Anderson. Maybe Zoltar was not so sure about this peopleâ€™s support these days and wanted to avoid being in direct contact with them. If he could only send this information back to Centre Neptune.
They marched on. Arriving at the open space, Anderson felt Cronus tense.
â€śThis is it, mate,â€ť he whispered to his friend.
Cronus nodded, his face grey with the effort of keeping his features calm and collected.
â€śThe Federation will never surrender, Jack,â€ť whispered Cronus back.
â€śSpectra will not win.â€ť
They saw Zoltar and his entourage sitting at a raised platform. A platoon of Spectran goons were readying their weapons. Zoltar got up as the prisoners were taken directly in front of him.
â€śMy esteemed officers,â€ť he began, â€śthrough the hard work of my sister Mala, we have had the unique opportunity to capture, not only the Federationâ€™s Chief of Security, but also the pest known as Colonel Cronus. You have the honour of being invited to their execution, when we rid Spectra of these two formidable enemies.â€ť
No word of his failed attempt to make the Federation surrender, noted Anderson. Nor of the fact that his careful and brutal attack on Earth had failed. The Spectrans would soon find out, he thought. But Zoltar would have had his moment of triumph. And he shouldnâ€™t, thought Anderson fiercely. He stood to attention, and felt Cronus doing the same.
â€śLong live the Federation!â€ť he shouted.
â€śLong live Riga!â€ť shouted Cronus next to him.
Their cries had the desired effect. Zoltar looked flustered, and so did Mala. Annoyed, they ordered the goons to tie the prisoners to two stakes that had been set up in front of the platform, facing the armed soldiers.
As their handcuffs were attached to the stakes, a loud roar was heard. The roar of the engines of a big craft approaching. Cronus turned excitedly to Anderson.
The Spectran anti-spacecraft units had realised that a craft - quickly identified as the Phoenix - had entered their atmosphere. Asking for instructions, they were told to stop the craft from approaching the command centres, but without causing any damage to commercial traffic. When Zoltar heard that the Phoenix had, against the odds, launched a rescue mission, he could scarcely believe it â€” he would now capture the whole top of the Federation defences, not only its intelligence chief but also its main operation force. Mala had been in favour of shooting the Phoenix down. But her advice had been rejected.
â€śWe desperately need a victory, Mala,â€ť said Zoltar, as they were making their way to the open ground. â€śGetting our hands on G-Force, right after executing Anderson and Cronus, will give morale a boost.â€ť
â€śIf they donâ€™t succeed in rescuing the prisoners,â€ť said Mala darkly. But she knew better than try to change Zoltarâ€™s mind once it was made up.
So anti-spacecraft defence was treading a thin line, trying to incapacitate the Phoenix without destroying it. And Tiny was treading a thin line trying to dodge enemy fire without missing their target.
â€śCommander, I see them!â€ť he cried out as he caught the first glimpse of two figures standing upright in front of a raised platform.
Mark was next to him in a second.
â€śJason, shoot overhead! Princess, with me! Weâ€™re getting off here!â€ť
Anderson felt something more than relief flood him. Pride, and something more than pride. G-Force and the Federation had launched a rescue mission. He could scarcely believe it.
â€śYou were right, mate,â€ť he whispered to Cronus, shaking his head in disbelief. â€śThey came for us.â€ť
Cronus broke out in a huge grin. Whatever happened now, G-Force had come for them.
â€śI shouldâ€™ve placed a wager,â€ť he laughed, feeling that now he could face anything.
As Zoltarâ€™s guards took positions to try to shoot down the Phoenix, Zoltar jumped up, red in the face, fuming.
â€śShoot them! Shoot them now!â€ť
The anti-spacecraft guns were now creating a shield around the parade ground. Tiny could hardly see where he was going. He took the Phoenix as low as he dared, but could not reach the point from where it would be safe for Mark and Princess and jump out. Next to him, Jason was firing furiously, with Keyop deflecting incoming fire. Mark and Princess were in the bubble, waiting for the command to jump out. But enemy fire was thickening, and Tiny could not see an opening.
â€śCommander, I have to take her up!â€ť
â€śNo!â€ť shouted Mark in his intercom.
â€śCommander, weâ€™re sitting ducks here!â€ť
â€śDo it,â€ť he said finally, turning away as to not see Princessâ€™ shocked face.
Then he turned and ran back to the cockpit.
â€śWhat the hell?â€ť Jason was murmuring, trying to shoot at all directions at once. â€śTiny, why did you do that?â€ť
â€śBecause if weâ€™re going to rescue them, we need to have the Phoenix in one piece!â€ť shouted Tiny.
Mark sat next to Tiny.
â€śWe try again. Take her back down.â€ť
Now Tiny was the one who hesitated.
â€śBut Chief Markic said one swoopâ€¦â€ť he started.
â€śWho cares what he said,â€ť said Jason, furiously firing his missiles.
â€śHe said he would hold me personally responsible,â€ť said Mark through his teeth. â€śSo let him. Weâ€™re going down again.â€ť
â€śI knew you had it in you, Commander,â€ť smiled Jason.
Mark ran back to the bubble, where Princess was still waiting.
â€śGet ready, weâ€™re going down.â€ť
She looked at him.
â€śWeâ€™re trying a second swoop?â€ť she said, her eyes gleaming.
On the parade ground, the platoon took aim. Anderson grabbed Cronusâ€™ hand again, tightly, and looked straight ahead.
Just then, he saw a sonic boomerang render the platoon incapacitated, and heard a voice he didnâ€™t dare hope he would hear again.
â€śChief, Colonel, grab this!â€ť
Mark was throwing them a rope.
â€śWeâ€™re tied up, Mark!â€ť he shouted back.
Mark nodded, aimed his sonic boomerang. In a flash, Andersonâ€™s binds were cut. A second pass of the boomerang and Cronusâ€™ binds were cut as well. They grabbed the rope. In the melee that followed, with Princess firing over their heads, Jason shooting missiles at the Spectran defence forces, hastily scrambled, and Keyop deflecting incoming fire, Anderson and Cronus found themselves swinging up to the Phoenix. Tiny had the bubble open. They tumbled in, followed, more elegantly, by Mark and Princess.
â€śHold on tight,â€ť shouted Mark to Anderson and Cronus, as he and Princess ran back to the cockpit. They followed, trying to hold on to anything they could as the Phoenix was making evading manoeuvres. They made it to the cockpit and were greeted by the happy grins of Tiny, Jason and Keyop, who turned to wave â€śhiâ€ť before getting back to their work.
â€śStrap in,â€ť ordered Mark, getting into his seat. â€śTiny, get us out of here. Any way you can.â€ť
Tiny didnâ€™t need to be told twice. Juking this way and that, with Keyop still doing a great job at deflecting enemy fire, he soared into Spectraâ€™s atmosphere. Mark grabbed the comm.
â€śCome in, Centre Neptune. This is the Phoenix. Come in Centre Neptune.â€ť
Miroslavâ€™s voice came garbled over the loudspeaker.
â€śCome in Phoenix.â€ť
â€śWe got them. I repeat, we got them. Weâ€™re heading home.â€ť
Miroslav felt his legs give way. He sat down, just in case.
â€śOne more thing, Chief,â€ť said Mark hesitantly. â€śWe had to do a second swoop. It was impossible on the first one.â€ť
The others were looking at Mark in disbelief.
â€śYou idiot, why did you tell him?â€ť whispered Jason.
â€śI canâ€™t hide it. The Phoenixâ€™s records will show it anyway. Better get it over with now.â€ť
Markicâ€™s face came back on the intercom. He was smiling broadly. He had only needed a few seconds to decide not to pursue this matter further.
â€śG-Force, message received. Donâ€™t worry. You got them, and you are safe. Thank you. Centre Neptune over.â€ť
Taking a deep, deep breath he switched to the Federationâ€™s comm frequency.
â€śThis is Acting Chief Markic with an update. G-Force has succeeded in rescuing Chief Anderson and Colonel Cronus. I repeat, G-Force has succeeded in rescuing Chief Anderson and Colonel. Hold on a minute -â€ś he checked an incoming message. â€śI have also received information that the attacks are winding down. It seems we weathered this out, colleagues!â€ť he finished, hardly daring to believe it himself.
He immediately got a call from Andrea, the young Rigan delegate on the Federation Council.
â€śYou did it, Chief! You did it!â€ť
â€śI didnâ€™t do anythingâ€¦â€ť he started saying, but then got another call on his other line. It was Sarah.
â€śMiroslav, you did it!â€ť
He smiled and clicked his intercom to address the whole Federation Council with some more information, as the Phoenix was now outside Spectraâ€™s system and well on its way home.
Aboard the Phoenix
On the way back, the first thing Anderson and Cronus did was give a detailed account of their capture and detention, any information they had gathered on Spectra, and, especially on Zoltar and how he and Mala were running the planet. After the report was safely sent to Centre Neptune, they allowed themselves to relax and enjoy the attention of G-Force.
â€śHow did Markic manage?â€ť asked Anderson, sitting comfortably in one of the extra Phoenix seats beside Princess and Keyop.
â€śHe did well, Chief,â€ť said Mark seriously. He held out when everyone - except the Rigan delegate - wanted to surrender.â€ť
â€śIt seems you were not irreplaceable in the end,â€ť smiled Cronus.
Anderson could think of one person to whom he was probably irreplaceable. He called Centre Neptune on the intercom and asked for Dr. Sarah Petrides.
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