It was happening again.
He saw a beach, with gentle waves lapping against golden sand and sunshine dancing on the sea and casting dazzling motes of light into his eyes…
But for Jason, stirring in his sleep and grimacing, this was far from a happy dream. Lying on his trailer's small bed, one hand clutched the sheet as his wordless sounds of distress escaped into the waking world.
Waves, frothy with white, were breaking and spilling and he was running, desperately running as fast as he possibly could on the shifting and soggy sand of the strand. But he was smaller, his legs were shorter, yet he was driven by fear…
Always, it was a dream terror with no apparent origin or rationale, but it wracked his mind and body.
That woman and that man were seated at the table on the beach, slumped forward onto it, their faces hidden in their hair -hers golden like the sand, his dark.
Wake up! Wake up!
He was pleading but they were limp and unmoving.
And there was always that laughter, that low, smug laughter flowing from the shadows of a nearby cabana. And he was suffused with anger too, an anger as mindless as his fear.
Who were this woman and man?
And who was she? That horrible laughing woman with the mask, with the stars on her chest, holding a rose…
She was the cause of all his pain –somehow he knew that. As ever, he took the gun from the man's loose grasp and trained it on her. Could he protect them? Could he save them from her!
"Don't you know children should never play with guns?"
Too late. She threw the rose, pale pink and soaring towards him…
"Wake up!" Jason snapped upright in his bed, heart pounding, and awash with nausea.
But there was nothing now but his trailer in the darkness before dawn and a blurry-looking moon glowing behind the trees. He stared, willing his eyes to focus, his visceral terror to give way to reason and reality.
"Why do I keep having this dream?" he muttered, "Ever since that masked Spectran woman attacked me and the Chief…"
Breathing a little easier, Jason rubbed his head wearily with one hand in a vain effort to soothe the ache in his temples and continued to stare out his trailer's open door where the real world lay and another day was about to begin.
He couldn't know that at that moment, many miles away, 7-Zark-7 was talking about him, even as he pulled his clothes on and stepped out of his trailer into the soothing cool of the silent, predawn air…
"I care about every member of G-Force, but lately it's Jason who I'm most worried about…"
At Center Neptune, Zark was pacing back and forth.
"Yes, 1-Rover-1," he said, "It seems it always Jason I'm most worried about. I know he's been having some problems with his vision and his balance, and his attitude is suffering too –skipping missions and briefings, acting resentful towards Mark, disobeying orders from Chief Anderson…"
1-Rover-1 yapped helpfully.
"That's possible," continued Zark, "I think he's just been suffering from stress and too much work lately –goodness knows, foiling Zoltar's evil schemes is a never-ending job. I'm almost positive he's not sleeping well at all these days. I've monitored him, when he's been staying here at Center Neptune, and it looks likes he's been having some very bad dreams. I've told Chief Anderson."
1-Rover-1 yapped again.
"Yes, I wouldn't be surprised if he's dreaming about scary things that have happened. In his time with G-Force, he's faced so many frightening situations –every member of G-Force has. But I've been wondering… All I know is that Chief Anderson adopted him when he was six, and just orphaned. I tried to access the complete records on Jason's childhood, but they are so thoroughly buried, there's apparently only one hard copy and no one has clearance to read it except Chief Anderson. Not even me! "
Not for the first time, Zark wished that his many sensors, probes and monitors could enable him to read minds.
And yet another yap from 1-Rover-1.
"No," said Zark, with an inflection of regret, "The G-Force members' cerebonic implants give them their extraordinary abilities, but they don't let me know what they're thinking... or dreaming."
But before the robot canine could emit another yapping query intelligible only to Zark, a flurry of flashing and blinking lights from his console caused the distinctly unaerodynamic robot to flap his cape and awkwardly fly the short distance across the room to his panel of monitors.
"Oh dear! A fleet of ships has left the Crab Nebulae and it's headed for the nearby planet of Tolak -this can only mean that evil Zoltar has come up with some new, dastardly plan!"
Zark was a microsecond from contacting Mark, to initiate the process of dispatching G-Force to foil Spectra's latest act of aggression but his central processing unit reminded him that the planet Tolak, while a "friendly" planet of late to the Federation, was not in fact a member of the Federation of Planets. Their close proximity to the Crab Nebulae, he recalled, put Tolak's leaders in the tenuous position of maintaining neutrality towards the Federation and being a reluctant friend to their neighbor, Spectra.
He liked to speak as if addressing an audience, even if 1-Rover-1 were the only one to hear him -it made him feel more sentient and less like an automaton. After explaining the situation aloud, Zark felt he could rightfully declare that if Spectra did attack Tolak, it could be just the thing to persuade its leaders that they needed to belong to the Federation, and that their planet needed the protection from Spectra that only G-Force could provide.
But sending G-Force to Tolak's aid now was a decision for Chief Anderson to make. But, as Zark remarked hopefully, even if he couldn't immediately send G-Force himself, he could certainly send messages to Tolak to warn them of the incoming Spectran fleet so that they could choose to evacuate their major cities before its arrival. He eagerly began pressing buttons...
A massive explosion erupted, completely obliterating the top of the tallest skyscraper in the city of Metropia on Tolak's southern continent, sending flames shooting high into the air and hurling chunks of rubble in all directions. In the wake of this initial blast, a fleet of dozens of Spectran ships swooped in over the city like a plague of insects, which indeed they resembled. Some destroyed more buildings with lasers fired from their eyes while others used brute force to crush more buildings or to smash clean through them. Soon, Metropia was awash in flames as the victorious Spectran ships perched on the tops and sides of burning buildings, spectators of their own attack's calamitous results.
But fortunately no Metropian citizens were present to suffer from this treachery. Zark's warning messages had been heeded and the city had been evacuated in the nick of time.
Business was slow at Jill's restaurant as prospective customers, no doubt, were reluctant to venture forth in the heavy rain that had been falling all morning. But Princess had felt compelled to use the time in some productive manner. Keyop was content to just listen to music on the radio, along with Mark and Tiny, as she dried and put away dishes. Hanging around Jill's was an unofficial G-Force ritual and Jason's absence today was unusual. Although, Princess thought to herself, he has seemed more distant and even… troubled lately.
"And now, a Galaxy News Bulletin," cut in a radio announcer's voice, "Spectran forces have attacked the city of Metropia on planet Tolak."
"What?" gasped Princess.
Mark turned towards the radio, frowning. "They're at it again."
"They just don't know when to quit, do they?" muttered Tiny as he moved closer to the radio.
"Initial reports from Tolak authorities," continued the announcer, "state that prompt evacuation measures have prevented casualties and that a counter-attack is imminent. Stay tuned for updates!"
"Why haven't we been alerted?" said Princess, looking to Mark, "Shouldn't we have heard from Chief Anderson or Zark?"
"Chief Anderson, come in," said Mark urgently into his wrist communicator as Tiny held his to his ear. But there was no response. The radio had reverted back to music now and Keyop turned it off.
"Not like… Chief or Zark," he said worriedly, with his characteristic verbal tics, "But Tolak... not member of Federation."
"That shouldn't matter," declared Mark, standing up, "If Spectra's attacking them then we can't just sit here. Tiny, go get the Phoenix and then come pick us all up!"
As Tiny and Keyop now ran for the door, heedless of the rain outside, Mark added, "Princess, tell Jason what's going on before you head out."
"Right," said Princess. Jill would understand if she closed up the place early –it wasn't as if she'd be losing business. Not with this lousy weather.
Remote controlled tanks rolled slowly through the rubble-strewn streets of Metropia, past the rows of ruined, still-smoking buildings.
Sighting their targets up ahead –Spectran ships perched upon other buildings- they fired volleys of missiles.
Far away on Earth, all this was being observed by Zark on his monitors.
"Oh my," he noted, "The missiles are damaging the buildings more than the Spectran ships. I hope that Tolak's robot fighter jets can do better."
But it was not to be. The Spectran ships, undamaged by the tanks' missiles, now turned their wrath on both the tanks and the incoming fighter jets. The jets fired an intense barrage of missiles at the insect-like ships stalking through the streets but the laser beams fired from the ships' eyes destroyed both the tanks and the jets.
"Tolak's best efforts to defend itself aren't going to be enough," concluded Zark sadly, "I simply have to contact G-Force."
Princess and Keyop had just been picked up, but there was no sign of Jason anywhere. Tiny had quickly taken the Phoenix up above the rain clouds, and now the new arrivals both entered the bridge. Princess quickly approached Mark.
"I heard from Zark," she said, "The Chief's at Camp Parker, and Jason's supposedly there too."
"I knew he couldn't be racing," said Tiny, frowning, "Not in the rain."
Their last mission, in which they'd thwarted Spectra's anti-transmutation ray gun, had begun with Jason refusing to pull out of a race in order to respond to an emergency summons to Center Neptune. Chief Anderson hadn't been at all pleased by his disobedience –could their unexplained retreat to Camp Parker today have something to do with that?
"Jason? Chief?" called Mark into his bracelet, but there was no answer.
Rain poured from the skies over Jason's trailer, so heavily the clearing in the woods where it was parked almost resembled a lake.
Jason was not there, and neither was his car. But very strangely, his wrist communicator was, lying abandoned on the edge of the bed.
As water streamed against the trailer's windows, Chief Anderson's voice came over the communicator.
"Jason, you were supposed to meet me at Camp Parker –where are you? Jason, respond!"
Chief Anderson might have been able to hear the sound of rain beating against the trailer's roof, and that was only response he would get.
On the bridge of the Phoenix, Mark lowered his communicator and bowed his head resignedly as he ended with "I understand, Zark."
"The Chief's busy with a research project," said Princess, touching her chin in puzzlement, "And orders are coming from President Kane…"
"Tiny," said Mark, seating himself, "We can't leave Earth yet –keep us here."
But just as Tiny cut the thrusters back, President Kane himself appeared on-screen.
"Ah, G-Force. I'm glad to see that you've got the Phoenix launched and ready."
"Please tell me that we're going to Tolak, Sir!" replied Mark.
"I can certainly do that," the president replied, "This is the Federation's chance to show Tolak just how much it needs us, by sending G-Force to save them."
"But you should know, Sir," added Princess, "that there are currently only four of us."
"Chief Anderson requested leave to research an important intelligence matter –one that he said requires G-2's participation. I have to trust that it's as important as he says, and I'm sure that the four of you are still more than a match for the Spectrans on Tolak."
"It looks like we're going to have to be," concluded Mark, "We'll depart immediately for Tolak, and show its people what G-Force and the Federation can do for them. Take us up, Tiny!"
"If we need to fire missiles," said Princess to Mark, "Will you fill in for Jason?"
"Of course he will," declared Tiny, "And he'll do a great job at it."
With that, Tiny closed up the Phoenix's nose bay and took them into space.
Inside a small office building, Jason pulled his t-shirt back over his head. He'd been up before the crack of dawn that day, so it hadn't been as hard as he'd expected to doze off for a bit here at this sleep clinic. The doctor, who'd just finished his examination of him, was seated now at a desk and studying readouts from his diagnostic equipment.
"So, can you tell why I'm sleeping so badly these days? It's really been messing me up."
"Your test results are most unusual," replied the doctor, "Have you any known genetic irregularities?"
"No, of course not!" declared Jason.
"Well, if that's so," replied the Doctor, frowning as he turned to face him, "then it narrows down the possibilities considerably, but you could very well have a serious illness."
Jason could only stare blankly, before turning away towards the window and the rain that continued to fall outside.
No, that can't be it…
"Look," continued the Doctor, standing up now, "We shouldn't jump to any hasty conclusions, not before I've done more thorough tests on you."
"I'll need to draw some blood samples from you," said the Doctor, gesturing to his own forearm, "After that, you won't have to wait around here; you can leave and come back in, say, two hours."
Jason wasn't at all happy about this –he hated needles. But did he have a choice?
"Fine. Whatever it takes."
"I'll see you in two hours, Mr… Smith." These were the last words Jason heard as the office door closed behind him.
The dizziness, the blind spells…
Jason was lost in brooding thought as he walked towards the elevator to leave.
It's just fatigue. I can't be sick…
The elevator was heading for the lowest level. He couldn't be bothered waiting for it to come back up –he walked towards the stairs.
Had he waited, he would have seen the woman who was now exiting the elevator. He had only seen her once before, briefly, a few weeks earlier when he dropped off the hitchhiking girl, Lana. Chief Anderson and Mark had seen a lot more of her, though, and they'd since made sure everyone on the team knew how to recognize Mala, Zoltar's sister.
"My lady, is that you?" asked the Doctor.
"Yes, Dr. Ratold," she replied as she entered his office.
"I must tell you about my latest patient," he said, "But first…" He escorted her to a room Jason had not seen, shoving aside the heavy curtain that covered its entrance. Once they were both inside, he lowered a barrier that blocked the entrance securely.
"As always, you were correct," he continued, "That house is used as a retreat by top personnel in Galaxy Security. The man who is staying there right now is definitely Chief Anderson."
"I had a feeling that if the place were kept under surveillance long enough, we'd find him there," said Mala with a smug smile. She walked over to the massive surveillance scope and seated herself before its viewer, taking a look for herself at the distant, seaside house. "When I was on that train with him, he made some small talk –before he knew who I really was- and mentioned he'd been staying at a place with an ocean view."
Mala took in the sight of her hated enemy, Anderson, seated at a desk in an upper level room.
"He arrived there a couple days ago," said Dr. Ratold, "But I wanted to confirm his identity before notifying you. He's spent most of his time, as far as I can tell, at that very desk, studying a bunch of documents –research of some kind, I'd guess."
"Yes, that's definitely him," said Mala, standing up now, "And the fool has no clue that we know exactly where he is. Initiate the plan!"
Dr. Ratold hastily began pressing buttons on a large control panel behind her.
You may have escaped from me once, Anderson, thought Mala, but not this time. And this time, I have some questions for you.