1. Tinder by Terri
2. Flame by Terri
3. Rain by Terri
The Devil Star craft had a beautiful view over the night side of Earth. Continents were hardly distinguishable from oceans, save for a scatter of jewels; city lights seen from two thousand kilometres above Earth made a spectacular display.
Although he had, now and then, spent time gloating over the show and imagining the day when it would be his, this wasn't the moment for such time-wasting. Zoltar's entire attention was focused on the small ship which had been released from the Devil Star. The one containing Captain Morlock - and the seeds.
"Greetings, earth people. I am sending you flowers...from Spectra..."
The seed-blooms floated down, cottonball-white and light as dandelion clocks. All over Earth they drifted, only a little breeze enough to carry them. "Pretty little things," some said.
They fell for a few hours, garnering a couple of mentions on a couple of news services as the oddity of the day, and then were forgotten. They rooted themselves in whatever patch of earth they could find; nobody paid them any particular heed. They waited for rain.
Grey, rainy misery was the order of the night, and the few stores that were open were all but deserted.
That went for the J as well. There were only four people there beside Princess and, she reflected, none of her teammates counted as customers. Nor were they providing much in the way of conversation; Tiny's complaints about the lack of his favourite snack food on the menu weren't exactly fascinating, and Keyop's grumbling about the washing-up were even less so. Jason was deeply occupied in a newspaper at his own table, and Mark had settled himself at the end of the bar nearest the door. Boring, boring, boring night.
And the rainy weather was making her hair frizz.
"Giant flowers attacking people," Jason said from behind the tabloid he was reading. "Says so right here." A customer had left the paper behind early in the afternoon, and Jason had been amusing himself repeating some of the wilder stories in it.
"Some reporter's wild imagination," Princess said. Her elbows were resting on the counter, her chin resting on her hands. "Everyone knows flowers are harmless."
"Arr-rroot...washing dishes...really harmful," Keyop said. He was up to his elbows in suds, and it wasn't his first complaint of the night. Not that there was a huge amount to do; besides her teammates, the dinner rush had consisted of exactly no people.
"Keyop! You promised to take your turn," Princess said.
"By a whole apple pie!"
The dispute evidently roused Mark from whatever he was contemplating. "I'm going out for a little walk."
"Think I'll join you, Mark," Tiny said. "They don't serve spaceburgers here, and it's really dead." He didn't show any inclination to getting up from his chair however.
"I agree. Let's go." Mark headed for the door. "Bye."
Oh no, no way. If Mark left, they'd all go. Princess jumped the counter in one fluid motion. "Mark! Wait!"
"Ar-root toot...I'm going too." Keyop took the more expedient route of ducking under the counter. He didn't quite dare make a run for it, although he did start picking up glasses and coffee cups from Jason and Tiny's tables. A small act to buy him forgiveness for his imminent escape act, Princess guessed.
"You can't leave," she said to Mark.
"Watch," he said, and opened the door. He hesitated once outside, looking up at the sky, and then down. "Flowers are popping up everywhere." Then he made a run for it, dodging raindrops on his way to the nearest shop awning.
"Come back, Mark!" Princess called.
"Great bunch of friends," Princess said, swinging around to face the remaining trio. "You promised to keep me company."
"You coming, Tiny?" Jason asked, folding his newspaper and laying it down on the nearest table.
"Yeah. Come on, Keyop."
Safety in number, Princess presumed, because this time Keyop did head for the door, along with Jason and Tiny. "Right with you," he chirped.
"Don't wait for me," Princess huffed, folding her arms.
Keyop was the last one out. "Good night, Princess," he said, and pulled the door closed behind him.
"The only customers all night, and they're leaving." She sighed. If this were her own business, she'd close up for the night, but that wasn't an option. Coffee, she thought. And some music. That might liven things up a little.
But when her finger hovered over the selection keys of the jukebox, she couldn't find anything she really wanted to hear. She wasn't in the mood for anything lively; the rain did that to her sometimes. She picked a Massive Attack album and made herself a latte, sitting on the customers' side of the bar. Nobody would object to the staff sitting down on the job.
"I didn't mind taking Jill's job for a night," she said aloud. Talking to herself was a habit she'd taken some razzing about, but she still did it without realising. "But I didn't know I'd have to supply the customers too..."
A draft? Had the door opened?
Then she saw the reflection in her glass and spun around, back to the bar. She froze; partly in surprise, partly to take in what she saw before her. A huge - massive - flower; easily half again her own height. Round, with 'petals' opening and closing, revealing and then hiding a pulsing red centre; four tentacles, banded in green and white, nearly as thick as her own torso.
She and the obscene flower regarded one another for a moment, then the plant struck, whipping out a massive tentacle.
Her glass flew and shattered on the ground, but that was the only damage done; Princess had reacted as fast as the plant had moved, and had leapt for the ceiling. She kept herself there a moment, gripping the exposed metal rafters of the ceiling. What on earth - or off it - is that thing? I've never seen anything like it...
The flower displayed a new talent, using its four tentacles to push itself into the air. Princess catapulted herself towards the door with a quick backflip from the ceiling, evading the flower. But only just, she thought. It's fast.
She ran for the door, slamming it behind her, and pulled up short at the sight of six of the awful things waiting outside.
A frozen tableau for a long moment, she and the flowers regarding each other. The rain plastered her clothes and hair to her skin.
The nearest flower struck at her, and she leapt for the roof of the J, then the building next door. She could dodge all night and not accomplish a thing, but she should be out of range here. Time enough to get herself some firepower. If it'll do any good against plants, she thought, and stopped the thought cold.
Princess raised her arm, brought it down. "G Force - transmute!"
The familiar rush of light and power, and she knew that she was now better equipped to tolerate these latter-day triffids. She spread her wings and leapt back down to the ground, landing solidly and plucking her yoyo out of its holster. Moving fast, she ducked in close, casting the yoyo hard; as it planted itself firmly in the green flesh of the nearest plant, she jumped back out of range of its tentacles and touched the detonator ring around her finger. The charge travelled along the wire and the plant blew.
That's a start. The destruction gave her more confidence; they could be taken down. "Which one wants to be the next tossed salad?"
The projected image was a mass of pinkish cells. Probably efficient, Princess thought, but she wished they were a little less so, given the circumstances. The image was taken from a sample of one of the flowers she'd destroyed the previous night. Chief Anderson operated the projector; forward of the projector, Mark and Jason observed from one couch, Princess, Tiny and Keyop occupied the other.
"Magnified flower cells. Remarkable powers of regeneration," Chief Anderson said.
"Are you telling us those alien plants are indestructible, Chief?" Mark asked.
Not that indestructible, Princess thought.
Anderson changed the display from the cellular level to a diagram of a whole plant. "The secret of the plants' regeneration is locked inside those tiny nodules."
"They look like spores," Tiny said, leaning forward a little.
"They may be. So far we've been unable to determine just how they function. The plants thrive in water, and they are carnivorous in this environment."
"If our conventional weapons won't stop them, what will?" Mark hooked one arm around the back of the couch, half-turned to face Anderson.
"We don't know yet, but Zark is working on it, and he's come up with something to help us." Anderson walked to the rear of the room and touched a button; a metal wall slid upwards to reveal a dummy.
Princess stood and walked to Anderson's side to examine the dummy more closely. It was definitely female, of normal human proportions. Steel, perhaps?
"A protective shield. It seems to work particularly well on females. We tested it on this model."
Princess studied the metal figure; as she moved, the room lights - or the shield - lent the steel a pearlescent look. Apart from that slight sheen, nothing seemed unusual about the model. "Maybe on a steel dummy," she said. Not that I doubt Zark's skill, but.... She could guess where this conversation was leading.
"We believe it will work," Anderson said. He didn't look at her. "We need someone to get inside those flowers and stay alive."
She tilted her head to one side, watching how the light moved over the dummy's surface. Whatever the shield was made of, it was gossamer-thin; how much protection could something so fine offer?
"We'll fix you into a synthetic second skin," Anderson said.
The second worst thing is the way he assumes I'll do it, Princess thought.
The worst thing, of course, was that he was right.
The rains came again that night, drumming on rooftops and raising that ozone smell. Deaf and blind, she would still know when it was raining.
Princess raised the garage door and went back to her motorbike.
"Brr-arrip...always raining," Keyop said.
"That's when the flowers come out," Princess said. She got on the bike, kicked the starter and a muted growl filled the garage. A new smell to add to that of rain; motorbike exhaust.
"Arr-rrip-doot...coming with you."
She sighed. I already went through this with Mark. "Thanks, Keyop. But I'm a big girl, and I'm really capable of taking care of myself." Apart from which, she'd be better able to concentrate on her mission if she didn't have to watch out for Keyop as well.
"Yeah..." Keyop toed the dust on the garage floor.
"This," and Princess plucked the synthetic skin away from her own skin, "will protect me." I hope, she added silently. She'd been wearing the second skin for a few hours, getting used to the feel of it. It wasn't elastic, not exactly, but it didn't impede her movement. Something like wearing ultra-sheer stockings... Intellectually, she knew it would protect her, but it was difficult to really believe that; it seemed so fragile.
Thanks. I needed that. Irritating for two reasons; first, she was working hard to have any faith in the synthetic skin. Second, whether or not it worked, she had her own skills to rely on, and she'd already taken care of half a dozen of the flowers, the only person to take one on and win. Didn't that count for something? But it wouldn't do to say that to Keyop; his words had been well intended, if not particularly tactful. "Wait here for me," she said, and gunned the bike. "There's no sense in you coming along to risk being caught."
Princess released the clutch, revved the throttle and let the bike roll forward into the rain. She didn't look back.
Between the vile weather and stories of the giant flowers that came out with the rain, the streets were deserted. She patrolled randomly, with only one constant; she stayed near earth. The borders of parks, streets with gardens; anywhere the alien flowers could take root and grow. In a way, even with the rain, it was a good ride; conditions meant she had to ride carefully. Even though the bike was beautifully balanced, customised for her, it was still more than twice her own body weight. It demanded respect in good conditions, and riding on a night like this meant she was almost floating the big machine around corners, a careful balance of weight, brakes and momentum.
It was in the park that it finally happened. She'd already been through the park once and seen no sign, so when she used it as a shortcut to get to the garden district on the other side, she felt safe; she relaxed her guard somewhat. Maybe it's not the right sort of rain, she thought facetiously.
Then she saw the flowers ahead of her and started to counterswerve, shifting her weight to dodge around them. It would have worked but for the flower she didn't see until too late, the one lurking up a tree. A tentacle whipsawed out and grabbed her, lifting her carelessly off the bike. She had only a moment for kaleidoscopic impressions of the bike spraying water as it skidded on its side, rain-slick alien leaves and - headlights? She screamed; the flower dropped to the ground, holding her above its body. Its petals opened and closed and she wished, briefly, that the inside wasn't red, that it didn't look so much like a giant mutant mouth. Fight, goddamn it! You beat these things before!
No good. Suspended by her waist, bent backwards by gravity, she could get no leverage, no purchase.
Headlights. She screamed again. Maybe whoever it was would hear, see, get help.
The tentacle released her and she fell, landing squarely in the centre of the flower's petals. Up close they had scent - burnt cinnamon, and she coughed at the odour - and the texture was unpleasantly fleshy. Venus flytrap, she thought randomly and kicked out; the wall of the flower gave way but didn't tear. Like elastic, it forced her foot back. As the petals closed, she made one final attempt to escape; all she managed to do was get her left hand free. That was her only physical liberty; with the petals closed, she was packed into the foetal position. Her only awareness was sight - dim red - and the stink of burnt spice.
The view was of Earth's day side, and this time Zoltar had leisure to watch the clouds, the oceans, the land. Here, a storm building up over a continent; there, those people would be enjoying a sunny day. One day, people of Earth...one day, and that day is coming...
He remembered the gardens surrounding the Palace on Spectra, their colour and beauty. Bloody Dagger, with its narrow, red-tipped leaves. Starflower, that bloomed by night. The flowers he'd given to Earth were not so attractive, perhaps, but if beauty was in the eye of the beholder...
Then they are beautiful indeed.
The sky was one of the few peaceful places he had available to him, and Mark took to it whenever he could. He could still be contacted, but everyone knew not to do so unless it was truly urgent.
In the days since Princess' disappearance, he'd found himself needing the blue more and more. He was grateful for the clear weather that made flying easy, since he was having a hell of a time keeping his mind on piloting.
He and the team had surveyed the scene of her abduction the morning after, looking for any clues. Tiny had been stunned, Jason furious. Keyop was the worst affected - no surprise there. He'd called in pre-dawn, saying he'd followed Princess out into the rain, staying far enough behind her, leaving her to ride a few streets by herself so she didn't get suspicious of headlights behind her all the time. Then he'd turned into the park and seen her caught by the monstrous plants, before his buggy had been rolled by one of them coming up under him. He'd been stunned, not waking until the rain had begun to ease.
"You're saying that some flower just swallowed Princess up?" Tiny had asked.
Keyop had nodded. "Yeah. Saw it."
"Wouldn't have happened if we'd been along," Jason, angry.
Mark had tried to stay mild. It had been hard work then, and it was only getting harder. "Princess wanted to go it alone, Jason. For some reason, that protective synthetic skin seems to work best on women."
Keyop had explained why he hadn't called for help. "Came up under me. No time."
Jason: "Keyop did all he could."
"We've got to find her." Mark himself had said that, and immediately given himself a mental kick for making the most obvious statement of the day.
"Where?" Keyop's question had been practical.
Tiny: "Just say the word, Commander."
He'd plucked one of the miniature, buds, the safe version of the flower, harmless without the rain. "We wait. We make Zoltar tip his hand."
Then the abortive fight with the goons; Keyop had been driving his buggy, Tiny and Jason with him. Mark had ridden Princess' motorbike. The fight had been short and ugly, and had helped relieve his feelings for a while.
Since then, he'd been in a peculiar balance. On one hand, worry and - admit it to yourself, even if you can't tell anyone else - fear; on the other, the knowledge that Princess was strong, smart. Hell, she was armed. She had her yoyo and her bracelet... So why hasn't she signalled?
When his communicator finally beeped, it wasn't the summons from Chief Anderson that he'd hoped for, the call saying they'd found some way to track Princess, or even some weakness in the flowers. Instead it was Zark.
"Emergency. The Chief wants you to meet him at Cypress Cove."
Mark acknowledged and banked the plane. It was only a short flight, but he hadn't gone in that direction before; it was too near the area where Princess had been taken.
He looked down when he neared the cove, trying to spot Chief Anderson and a good landing site. But first he saw...
"The whole hillside's covered with flowers," he said in amazement. He knew they'd spread, but this was incredible; the land was red with them. He overflew the field until he saw not just Chief Anderson, but the Phoenix and the rest of G Force waiting for him at the edge of the flowers' spread.
He brought the plane around for landing - not the best place, but it was a good plane and it handled the bad terrain well - and walked, with some misgivings, to join them. Jason looked murderous, Tiny stunned and Keyop wide-eyed. Chief Anderson had no expression on his face and, in this situation, that was possibly the worst of all. "Chief?"
"I need your help, Commander, on a very delicate decision."
Mark waited to hear more. He had the feeling Anderson had already made the decision. It wasn't the first time the Chief had taken this path, to present a difficult plan as an option and then shepherd them into doing it by making them feel it was their choice.
"Tough spot, Commander," Tiny ventured.
Mark's mind immediately supplied scenarios; Anderson had located Princess but it was too dangerous for them to get to her, there was something that would stop the flowers but they'd have to give up something significant to get it...
Keyop leaned in close to Tiny. "Have to firebomb," and he made a descriptive noise; sometimes language deserted him. "Flowerbeds."
"Forget it Chief. We're not bombing those flowers until we get Princess out of there," Mark snapped.
"Hear me out first. We must destroy those flowers, or Earth is doomed."
"No way. I want no part of it, not until we find Princess." Jason had stepped forward, one hand curled into a fist.
"By then it will be too late. I know how you all feel, but our duty comes first. We must destroy these flowerbeds." Chief Anderson was emphatic.
"No! Princess may still be trapped in one of those flowers!" Jason's voice was hot.
"Looks like we don't have much choice, Jason." Mark spoke reluctantly, but Anderson had invoked the one word that had a chance at making him do this; duty. He looked at Anderson. The man's stone face gave no clue as to how he was feeling, how coming to this decision affected him. Mark turned away, looking over the water to the hillside where the flowers bloomed...where Princess might be trapped.
When Chief Anderson spoke again, his words came quick and harsh. "It must be done quickly before the next rain scatters more spores. You will fly your plane over those flowerbeds, Commander. Empty your fuel tanks over them. The Phoenix will be waiting. When you finish the flowerbeds will be ignited."
Movement; Tiny sitting down. "Find someone else to fly the Phoenix."
"That goes for me too," Jason said. "There has to be some other way. There just has to be!"
The silence of waiting. Chief Anderson wouldn't try and persuade him, Mark knew; he'd shot his best arrow with that one word. Neither would he make it a direct order; they were balanced on the edge of open defiance as they'd rarely ever been, and he wouldn't give them the chance to refuse orders. The red flowers across the water offered no counsel. Decision point, and four people waited for him to make up his mind.
"We have no choice," Mark said, putting all the authority he could into his voice. "The flowers must be destroyed." When he turned, he saw his teammates, open-mouthed; they'd hoped - expected - he'd stand with them. "We swore an oath to defend Earth against all invaders," he said, forestalling them. "That is what we've trained for; that is what we must do."
Then he walked to his plane, head bowed; behind him, rebellion died a-borning. He caught a glimpse of their faces as he climbed into the cockpit; disbelieving, angry.
The plane bumped along the makeshift runway, and he was grateful for the difficult task of keeping it on course, but when he was airborne, he no longer had that distraction. "Princess," he said, blinking his eyes against the tears that wanted to come. So many times since beginning training, he'd considered this situation; that one day he'd have to give an order, take an action that would result in the death of one of them. None of those thoughts had ever been close to this.
He brought the plane around to begin his run over the plants, and his hand shook before he could steel himself to trigger the fuel release.
Fine spray drifted from the trailing edge of the plane's wings, falling onto the alien plants below.
I had to do it, Princess. I know you understand. We swore an oath. We're G Force.
He'd talked to her about it, Jason and Tiny too, the chance that one day it would come to this. The answer had been phrased differently from each of them, but the essence had been the same. Do it. We're soldiers. One life against millions.
The engine coughed, stopped; the single prop stuttered to a halt. "Fuel tanks empty," he said. "I'm going down. Impact will ignite." The decision he'd come to; if he did something that killed her...
"Come in Mark. We're waiting." Jason, speaking over the wrist com. Mark banked, saw the Phoenix in the air.
The plane didn't handle well as a glider, but Tiny was an exceptional pilot and gave him every chance of docking with the big blue bird. He managed it, the plane coming to rest.
He didn't get out of his seat. He'd wear the guilt forever; it had been his decision that had dragged them up here. He'd made up his mind to do it and, even if Princess were by some miracle found alive, he'd still have to live with the knowledge that he'd been willing to sacrifice her to win the battle.
Mark waited until he felt the Phoenix give the slight judder that meant someone - Jason? - had fired one of the Super Sniper missiles to ignite the fuel-drenched flowers. He tried not to picture the burning.
There was only one message once the missile was fired, a call from Tiny to let him know they were about to land. He didn't respond.
When the Phoenix was back on the ground, they watched the flowers burn.
Mark stood with the others, feeling the heat on his face. He wanted to scream, to tear something apart. All he could do was say her name.
He watched the inferno, and saw something else; not all of the flowers burned. Some exploded, releasing more spores; these were carried up by fierce drafts, then away from the fire, into the clear blue sky.
Beside him, Keyop dropped to his knees.
They'd done it for nothing. The spores would become more flowers - thousands, millions - with the next rains.
They'd accomplished nothing.
Mark watched Keyop through the door of the J; he sat at the main bar, looking down. He'd been almost silent since the bombing run.
"Princess," Mark heard him say. "Don't care...brr-rrip...what happens any more. Doot-toot...miss you, Princess." He buried his face in his folded arm and Mark heard him sobbing.
Princess would usually be the one cheering him up...
Mark closed the door, and saw Tiny and Jason leaning against the wall.
"How's Keyop taking it, Mark?" Tiny asked cautiously.
That was one thing; the way they treated him, as though he was suddenly in danger of breaking. Or snapping.
Jason spoke before Mark could. "How do you think the kid's feeling? Terrible."
Tiny withdrew a step. "Heck, Jason, no need to lose your cool. I was just asking." Tiny didn't usually show much of a temper, but he was ready to round on Jason.
"Then quit asking stupid questions. Princess is gone. Leave Keyop alone." The gunner turned and sloped off, hands in pockets, head bowed. "Sorry, Tiny." But he didn't look back.
"Hey, team, I feel bad too--" Tiny began to protest.
"Forget it, Tiny," Mark said. He just didn't have the energy to mediate disputes. And Princess used to handle things like this...
"But I can't forget about Princess," Tiny said.
"I never thought I could get so angry at a bunch of flowers." A non sequitur, but the truth.
"What do we do now? What's going to happen to G Force?"
"I don't know. Until Zark or the Chief come up with something, there's nothing much we can do."
"We can't quit now, Commander. We've got to keep trying to find Princess."
"She's gone, Tiny. And I take full responsibility. It's all my fault."
And Princess would be the one telling me not to take it so hard, that I did everything I could...but it's all my fault.
The lab was silent; the air carried a faint, unpleasant tang, the scent of burnt cinnamon. It was generated by the huge flower in its tank of water behind Chief Anderson. The four tentacles waved slowly in the water.
"There you are," Chief Anderson said.
Four G Force members watched him from the doorway. Demoralisation showed in their slouched stances and closed faces, and he realised his words had been somewhat sharp. "I'm sorry. I know why you're here, and there's little I can tell you. We've identified the origin of the flowers. We suspect Spectra has a base here on Earth and is using them."
"Princess?" Keyop asked.
"Zark is doing everything he can to locate her." Change the subject; he didn't want to think about Princess. As much guilt as Mark was carrying for dropping the fuel and burning the flowers, Anderson was the one who'd fixed her into the skin and sent her off hunting them. "In the meantime, I've been studying this flower. We have to find some chemical ingredient that will permanently destroy it." He turned to look at the flower in its tank, tentacles shifting in the water.
"They seem to be able to thrive anywhere on Earth. They appear to be indestructible. They thrive on slopes of active volcanoes, they proliferate in our swamplands. They even grow in our hottest deserts. They are capable of hibernating inside those pods until the first rains hit them, then something is triggered inside them, causing them to grow overnight into voracious creatures."
"It seems harmless enough inside that tank," Mark said.
"I've noticed. In here it seems to lack direction, almost as though it needed someone to command it." Whatever else it is, Anderson thought, you have to admire it. It's the perfect weapon.
"You mean someone's deliberately siccin' those flowers on us?" Tiny said.
"They didn't drop out of the sky just by accident, Tiny," Jason said. He didn't look at Tiny, just kept his face forward.
"I believe Spectra is behind it. But I'm afraid all I've been able to come up with is pure speculation." That surprised them, he could tell. He was usually the one with the answers.
"Then there's nothing much we can do, Chief," Mark said. "We can't destroy the flowers, and we don't know what's happened to Princess."
Anderson winced; Mark had taken the subject right back to the most painful subject possible. "I wish I had better news for you. I’m sorry I haven't."
Mark was the first to go, then Keyop. Jason wasn't far behind, but Tiny lingered for a moment.
"Stand by in the Phoenix, Tiny. I may need you," Anderson said. He had no great hopes, but science could turn up miracles; maybe there was a way to destroy the flowers at least.
"Don't be too hard on Mark, Chief. He's in deep shock right now, over Princess."
"I know we'll hear from her, Tiny. I'm betting on it. That synthetic second skin she was wearing was designed to protect her from those fearful flowers. But she could have been trapped inside one of them and taken somewhere."
The flowers spread inland through the city and beyond, carried on the wind from the main concentration at Cypress Cove. Samples had been captured for study and the studies all proved fruitless. Working on the theory that, if you bomb something often enough and hard enough, it must be destroyed, defence forces sent in everything from tanks to flame-throwers.
The flowers spread, waited for rain, spread some more.
"The invasion is going well, I see," Zoltar said. Captain Morlock's image was insubstantial on the screen, but it would evade detection by any of Earth's forces. "Our starships are standing by." A great day; he knew too well to count victory before it was truly his, but surely he was close this time.
"Earth forces are in a panic," Captain Morlock reported, satisfaction evident in his voice. "The flowers are spreading everywhere."
"We have captured one of the G Force team, Sire," Morlock said. "The girl they call Princess. Your orders?"
Zoltar considered. The safest thing would be to order Morlock to kill her now. As prisoners, G Force had proved models of intransigence in the past. But this was the girl; Morlock should be able to hold her. "Use her to attract the others. I want all of G Force captured."
"A marvellous suggestion, Sire."
Morlock's unctuous tone irritated Zoltar. "We are close to final victory. Do not fail me, Captain!" he said, and broke off the link. Then he turned to stare over Earth, the planet that would so soon be his.
Mark's eyes flickered open when his wrist communicator began to chirp. Princess...
It wasn't. Anderson's voice.
"Code 33 oh four; this is an emergency."
Translation: no news.
"Calling Mark. Come in, Mark."
No chance. Not until you've got something more to tell me.
"Come in Mark. Emergency, Mark."
Chief Anderson's voice was becoming more and more strained. Good. You put her in that situation. You put me in that situation. His eyes closed again, the better to replay the vision of the burning flowers, and the rising, spiralling seeds. It would have been bearable - maybe - if they'd won the battle.
"Come in commander. I know you're listening, Mark. Come in. This is an emergency!"
Mark released the catch of his bracelet and let it fall to the desk.
"Earth is depending on you."
Right now, Earth can go to hell.
There was more, but Mark didn't stay around to hear it. He left his shack and headed for the Snack.
Precious little comfort there. Keyop, Tiny and Jason were all there, but offered no help or hope, caught in a despondent mood. We're broken, Mark thought. It's my job to fix it, and I don't know where to begin. Before he could help the others - each an island of silence - he had to help himself, and that wasn't possible.
Mark had suffered qualms of guilt on his way into town, wondering if Anderson had really had something to pass on it, but the gloom at the Snack killed that idea. If Anderson had had news and failed to reach Mark, he would have called the others.
The television news didn't help.
"All persons have been evacuated and accounted for, but the giant flowers are wreaking havoc upon the city. We have thrown in all available defence units in an attempt to stop them, but it looks as though the city is doomed..."
"Shut it off!" Mark snapped. That was the final straw, to hear not only that had he failed in keeping his team safe, but that he had - they all had - failed in their job. "I'm going back to my pad."
He slouched out the door, hearing Tiny's voice behind him.
"Commander's real down himself."
If anyone else offered pointless observations about his state of mind, he didn't hear it, for the door closed behind him.
He closed the door to his shack behind him and leaned back on the doorframe. Where do we go now?
If Princess had been there, Mark knew, she would have been the first person telling him to think positive, to keep trying; that something would present itself.
His wrist communicator began to chirp again. Goddamn, Anderson, leave me alone...
But there was no voice, no Security Chief trying to get a reaction from him, and automatically his brain began to translate the signal from seeming-random chirps and flashes into something meaningful. "Princess!" It had to be; his heart caught.
She's transmitting in secret code. "Princess, give me the coordinates of your location." He said it aloud, but didn't transmit: if she was using code rather than voice there was a reason.
One more flash of light and chirp, then the communicator fell silent. Despair rose, but Mark strangled it; even partial coordinates were a lead, a clue.
And better than that, it meant she was alive. Capable of transmitting. "We'll find you."
It meant hope. For the first time in days, hope.
"I think I know why you're here." Chief Anderson's face was neutral.
"We want you to clear us for a mission into the city." Mark knew he had his teammates behind him; he'd told them of Princess' transmission, and they'd immediately agreed.
"It's impossible. The city is devastated, the flowers are everywhere. I can't risk losing you."
"We're going." That was the absolute truth. Mark had knuckled under when Anderson had directed him to fire the flowerbeds, broken the rebellion threatened by his comrades.
Not this time.
"Sorry, commander, but security is my responsibility. It's my job to clear the city, see no-one is hurt."
"Princess contacted me," Mark said, and saw brief emotion flicker across Anderson's face. A chink in the armour? Work it. "I think she's somewhere in that city. We have to find her."
"How do you know it was Princess?"
"She used the G Force secret code." Triumph; doubt over the sender's identity was Anderson's last card, and there was no way Princess would have given that code up to anyone. This was right, dammit; this was the time for action, and he knew Jason, Tiny and Keyop were with him.
Anderson considered, taking his time, then gave in. "In that case, get going. I'll clear it with the defence department."
Mark held his eyes for a moment, wanting to be sure Anderson got the message, Just as well.
The city was a war zone, and defence forces were working on levelling anything still upright in a vain attempt at destroying the flowers. Tiny picked a part of town with little military activity; the tanks and flame-throwers had been and gone. The flowers remained.
"Arr-root... No sign...root-oot...of Princess."
Princess' message, short as it had been, had given Mark new hope. He wasn't losing it, not by any means, but the logistics of searching a city were daunting. "We'll keep looking. Maybe Zark will come up with something soon."
The four settled on the pavement outside a shattered department store.
"Brr-rip.... Gives me...reep...the creeps." Keyop was sitting next to one of the flowers; it made no move, but Keyop wrapped his arms around his knees.
"They're quiet now, those flowers. Like they've been told to lay low for a while, await further orders," Jason said.
Not possible, Mark knew. But still, he knew what Jason and Keyop meant. The city was eerie; the flowers only added to the atmosphere. Mark pulled his cape closer around himself and leaned back against the storefront. "I've got an uneasy feeling they're waiting for us to make a move," Mark said. "Keeping tabs on us."
Anderson watched the flower in its tank of water, looking down on the monstrosity from a railed walkway. It was quiet, the tentacles hardly moving. This close to it, the smell of burnt spice was almost overpowering.
"You seem to be watching me," he said. "I wish you could tell me your next move."
Then he shook his head. Talking to flowers...this is getting to me. He turned to go, and gasped; he'd cut his hand on a rough join on the metal railing. Blood welled, and he held his hand out to prevent any getting on his suit. Par for the course. It was right in the palm of his hand, where any movement would cause it to ache until it healed properly. He whipped out his handkerchief to use as a rough bandage, and turned away, intending to find a first aid kit, but sudden splashing and an increase in that burnt cinnamon stink brought him back around.
The flower was thrashing wildly. What....
The convulsions only lasted a few minutes, and then the flower contracted and sank to the bottom of the tank. Anderson watched it disintegrate - turning to brown sludge over the course of ten minutes.
"I don't understand it...it just suddenly up and died...." Why? In the wild, they didn't seem to have a short lifespan, so it wasn't a natural death. And it was so fast. What triggered it? "Started right after I cut my hand. A drop or two of blood dripped down...must have fallen on the flower...
"That's it! Something in the blood destroyed it!"
He couldn't help but laugh. Right in the palm of his hand, indeed.
Princess didn't need to open her eyes to know her situation. She'd had a chance to get a look around when she'd been brought in here and secured into this...this coffin-like thing. She'd barely had time to stretch muscles aching from confinement in the flower. The room was round and high-ceilinged, something like a silo. Walkways ringed the wall, and she'd taken a headcount of the armed goons watching her. They obviously weren't taking chances.
She'd also taken note of the Spectran who was evidently Zoltar's delegate in this little venture.
"Your friends will join you soon, Princess," he said. She opened her eyes and looked up at him; bat-winged, white-haired and evidently fond of the sound of his own voice.
Whatever. Just keep talking. It's your own time you're wasting.
"The invasion of Earth will begin soon and, this time, G Force will be unable to stop it!"
She started tapping her wrist - and thus her wrist communicator - against the side of her prison. Just keep talking, you arrogant little man. Enjoy it while you can.
They were still waiting, sitting on the pavement outside the shattered store. Tiny seemed half-asleep, and Mark almost envied his ability to relax like that. Keyop was fidgeting, Jason was coiled watchfulness.
The air was humid; another storm was coming, Mark guessed. The slight breeze offered no relief from the heat. If it's going to rain, I wish it would just get it over with. Maybe it was ions in the air or something, but he felt pent up.
He was sitting a little apart, wings still wrapped around himself despite the sticky heat. Likely places for a Spectran base in a city this size...there must be thousands of places where they could hide from--
Then his wrist communicator began to flash. Silent code, the angular pattern lighting and fading, lighting and fading.
"It's Princess, signalling!" Mark leaned forward, looked questioningly at Jason.
"Right on the beam, Mark" he agreed.
Tiny stretched and yawned, and Mark realised their pilot hadn't been 'almost' asleep.
"She's in trouble," Mark said. "We'll have to move fast."
They ran for the Phoenix, each straight to their station. Tiny launched, and Jason started feeding Princess' signal through the computer. "Due north, sectors C and B, can't miss it," he reported.
Mark sat, flipping his wings out of the way. "Full speed ahead, Tiny."
"Full jets." No sign of sleep about him now. The engines roared as Tiny guided the Phoenix low over the city.
Behind him, Jason had called up a map of the city, to get a more accurate fix on Princess' location. "Signal's coming from the city's old water plant."
And that's all we need to know, Mark thought.
Tiny sent the Phoenix arrowing through the plant, utterly destroying everything in its path, without being told to, bringing the ship to rest with its nose jutting from the wall. That kind of entrance was standard procedure, allowing them fast egress to the scene. There was shock value too; most people were considerably surprised to find a large warship in their laps, and lost initiative. It also sent a message: don't mess with us. There is no fortress that can keep us out.
They ran to the nose of the ship, and Mark passed the one order he needed to: "Tiny, go after Princess! We'll hold them off."
Even as he was flying from the Phoenix's nose he was assessing the situation, mind speeding to record everything. Spectrans already on the ground, toppled by the impact of G Force's entry; the Spectran captain was shouting orders nobody was heeding. Only a few of the Spectrans were really in a position to take action against them. Peripheral vision showed Jason firing his cable gun, Keyop running lightly along the wire to punch the Spectran Jason had entangled, and then Mark had to deal with one himself. He flipped the goon easily and left him lying stunned on the ground.
Distantly he heard Princess cry, "Transmute - G Force!" and saw the flash of light echo off the walls; the flare moved, meaning she was in action and thus unhurt. He turned and advanced on the Spectran captain.
The man was crabbing backwards, pressing himself against the wall. "Spare me, Commander!"
Two things saved the Spectran's life; Princess was safe and he wasn't Zoltar. "I shouldn't. But go ahead, get your men out of here." Apart from anything else, when Tiny pulled the Phoenix out of the plant, the place would probably collapse.
The Spectran didn't care about the reasons. "Thank you, Commander!" He fled, and Mark noted with disdain that the rest of his men were left to run or fall where they stood. He turned and saw Princess in uniform, Jason, Tiny and Keyop ranged behind her.
"Hi, Mark," Princess said.
If she's trying to sound calm, it isn't working, he thought, and then had to wait a moment before he could be sure of his own voice. "Good to have you back, Princess." It was all he could say here, with the others watching.
"Let's go," Tiny said.
They didn't go straight back to the Phoenix. Instead they followed one of the tunnels - twenty-foot wide outflow pipes - leading out from the chamber where Princess had been held. It had been the path the fleeing Spectrans had taken, and Mark wanted to make sure they were all gone.
There was no sign of anything Spectran, and Mark finally allowed himself to relax a little.
They followed the outflow pipe to the end, and looked out over the city. That's what we still have to do - get rid of the flowers, Mark thought. The original problem hadn't gone away just because they'd rescued Princess, and Mark estimated he could see at least fifty of the monstrosities from their position. Maybe Chief Anderson--
Mark remembered guiltily he had yet to notify Anderson of how things have turned out, and tapped his communicator to signal him.
"Come in, Mark." Anderson must have been waiting by the comm to hear from them.
"All clear. Princess is safe."
"We've found a way to totally destroy the flowers by using chemical bombs," Anderson said, and Mark felt a momentary flare of anger that Anderson hadn't acknowledged Princess' safety.
"Stay clear of the city," Anderson continued. "New crops of the terrible flowers have sprung up. Do not touch any of the flowers; it can be dangerous.
"The solution to the fierce flowers turned out to be quite simple. An iron molecule in the haemoglobin, combined with carbon dioxide, when infused in water create a toxic reaction inside the plant's botanical makeup causing it to convulse and finally wither away.
"Zark designed the chemical bombs and our planes are ready to drop them now."
They'd stay where they were until the bombing run was over, Mark decided. The way Anderson was talking, the strike would be on its way already, and he didn't know that they'd be able to get the Phoenix extricated from the plant and out of range by the time the bombs were flying.
He'd made the right decision because, bare minutes later, Keyop pointed to three planes coming in over the city, flying in close formation; red, clearly visible against the building clouds. Motion in the air beneath the jets; bombs falling.
The blast. Mark felt his capewings flutter slightly as the airburst seemed to inhale, taking the oxygen it needed. He watched the mushroom cloud form, spread out, dissipate, taking the bomb chemicals with it...
Then the thunderstorm broke, supplying the needed water.
The flowers didn't react for almost a minute, making Mark wonder if the formula hadn't been quite right. Then, he spotted one of them, another and another, beginning to convulse, tentacles whipping fiercely but with no coordination, no aim.
A peculiar scent - part rain, part something metallic, part cinnamon-stink - was borne up to them on the breeze. Flowers were beginning to brown around the edges, tentacles to wither under the chemical downpour. "Be a while before I buy flowers again," Mark said.
"They looked so pretty and harmless," Princess said from behind him. "They should never have been taken from their home planet.
Mark continued to watch the vegetative destruction; flowers were decaying at an amazing rate, shreds and scraps being washed away by the pounding rain. In ten minutes there was barely any evidence of their existence, except for the general destruction.
"I'm glad they're gone," Tiny said.
"Trr-it...good job." Keyop looked up at the three red jets circling around for another run over the city, perhaps to see if another dose of chemical was in order. The clouds were started to look tattered around the edges; the storm would be over soon.
"What now, Commander?" Jason asked.
"Wait until the rain stops," Mark said, and tilted his head back to feel the thin and precious sunlight that was beginning to appear.