"We're running out of time." Jason muttered angrily. "It won't be long before Zoltar makes a copy of the Tapes."
"We won't let that happen." Mark promised grimly. The Conway Tapes were the source of all Federation defense codes. If the Spectrans managed to decrypt the information on the Tapes...
But they wouldn't. I knew that no matter what the cost, our Commander would ensure that the Conway Tapes were recovered.
The word 'tapes' was actually something of a misnomer: a throwback to a century ago, when such technology was in common use. The actual data was compressed onto one chip: a tiny device that was easy to hide. Yet 7-Zark-7 was certain that it was somewhere on this base. Unfortunately, this was a Spectran installation of massive proportions, and the G-Force Team didn't have time to search it entirely. At least, not as a group…
"We're splitting up." Mark announced, as if he were reading my thoughts. "Tiny and Keyop will go that way, and Jason will go that way." The Commander gestured to the passageways as he spoke.
"Princess and I will head this way." he finished. Despite the dire nature of our mission, my heart took a moment to skip a beat, as it always did when Mark chose me to be his partner. It happened more often than not; it was his secret way of letting me know that I was important to him. We complemented each other's skills better than any other pairing on the Team. Yet there was something more as well: something I pondered in the darkness of night, alone in my bed. Something to which we could never give voice, yet its existence was silently acknowledged, as it grew in strength and power every day.
I nodded quickly, my outward demeanor professional, as if these thoughts had never crossed my mind. Seconds later I was running after my Commander, following him down a long, metallic corridor as we made our way toward the center of the base. Mark moved purposefully, as if he knew exactly where he was going, however slim his lead. No one more than I understood the tremendous stress he was under, having the safety of the entire Federation resting on his shoulders, not to mention the responsibility for literally billions of civilian lives.
I had faith in Mark. He would recover the Tapes, no matter the cost. And I would be ready to assist him in whatever way he needed.
His face turned ahead, Mark held up his right hand, flashing two fingers back at me. I readied my yo-yo, pulling back to the wall to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. When the two guards came around the corner, the Spectran on the right had my weapon's cord wrapped around his neck, strangling him before he could make a sound. The man on the left had already fallen from an encounter with Mark's sonic boomerang.
We were about to move further down the passageway when Mark stopped suddenly, pushing me back against the wall once more. Voices drifted down the corridor toward us; I easily recognized the first.
"How long until we can copy the Conway Tapes? The Luminous One is impatient for results!"
"We are closing in on the appropriate decryption algorithm, Lord Zoltar. It will be within an hour."
"We don't have an hour! G-Force is here! We need to copy the Tapes now! This is our last chance. It will be your head if we lose this advantage!"
"Yes, my Lord!"
The sound of nervous footsteps came toward us, and a small man in a white lab coat came scurrying around the corner. In his haste, he didn't notice the G-Force Commander until a sonic boomerang had already slit his throat.
"This is it!" Mark whispered, his eyes blazing with an eager excitement. I smiled in response, relieved that our goal was so close. Sure enough, another impatient, steady footfall was approaching.
"Impudent fool!" Zoltar snarled. "Doesn't he realize what's at stake?"
"I realize what's at stake." Mark moved out from behind the wall, confronting the Spectran Leader. "And I'm not going to allow you to decrypt those Tapes."
"Allow me?" Zoltar sneered. "You have no choice in the matter, Commander. I have the Conway Tapes, and you do not. Our scientists will decrypt your inferior Federation codes, and then you will bow before me, begging for mercy so that I will spare your worthless lives."
"Dream on, Zoltar." Mark smirked. "You may have a fancy way with words, but that's not going to get you what you want." He raised his boomerang in a threatening manner.
"We'll see about that!" Zoltar cried, spinning quickly on his feet before running away. Mark threw his weapon, but at the last second the Spectran Leader turned a corner, evading the boomerang's flight path. Yet Mark and I were already on the move, and the Commander caught his weapon even as he was pursuing his prey.
There was no stealth now, merely a desperate chase as we followed Zoltar through twisting passageways and narrow corridors. Strangely, there were no guards in sight, as if they had run in fear at the Commander's approach.
Finally, Zoltar passed through a large set of double doors bearing the Spectran devil logo in their center.
"Now we've got him!" Mark gloated, his elation adding a burst of speed to his movement. I was now a step behind, and by the time I entered the room, the Commander was already approaching a tall pedestal in the center of the room. The top of the pedestal held a data reader, of the type that could access the chip holding the Conway Tapes.
"The Conway Tapes were never yours, Zoltar!" Mark lectured the Spectran Leader. Zoltar stood in front of the pedestal, holding a control pad. "Surrender, and return with me to face trial for your war crimes!"
"If you want the Tapes, you can have them back." Zoltar gestured to the data reader. "Yet you will give up your chance to follow me." He pressed something on his control pad and a wall panel slid aside, revealing a small passageway. The Spectran Leader wasted no time in racing for the newly-created exit, before Mark even had a chance to respond.
"I hate to let him get away, but our primary mission is to recover the Conway Tapes." Mark sighed in frustration, moving toward the pedestal. His hand reached out…
Something wasn't right. The lack of guards as we had chased Zoltar, the way the Spectran Leader had just abandoned the Conway Tapes, after going to such trouble to obtain them… it was all just too convenient.
It had to be a trap.
"Mark, no!" I cried, leaping forward, pushing him aside as I flew toward the pedestal. Yet it was too late: the Commander already had the tiny chip in his hand. Mark tumbled to the floor as I fell over the data reader.
"Princess!" he shouted angrily. "What do you think you're…?"
He never got a chance to finish his question. A large, clear tube descended from the ceiling, enclosing the area around the pedestal, including the spot where Mark had been standing only a moment before. I scrambled to my feet, pounding on the glass, yet was unable to break it.
"Mark!" I called, staring at his anguished face. I could see him moving away from me… No, I was the one who was moving. The floor was rising; apparently this was some kind of elevator.
I saw the Commander's sonic boomerang flying toward me and instinctively ducked, yet it merely bounced off of the clear wall, unable to damage the alien material.
Mark's words were cut off as I passed through the ceiling and into some kind of dark room. The floor stopped moving, yet the tube continued to rise, releasing me into this small space. The entire chamber began to vibrate, and I became aware of a low rumbling sound. The ground jerked and I stumbled, catching myself before I fell to the floor. A portion of the wall rose, revealing a small window, beyond which I could see the Spectran Base dropping away.
I was in some kind of ship! Already the sky was giving way to the atmosphere. A sudden burst of speed flattened my body against the glass, as I helplessly viewed the Earth growing smaller behind me. Familiar stars and planets passed by my face.
Pluto! The sight of the small planet brought me back to my senses. I reached for my bracelet, attempting to contact Susan, Zark, anyone… yet there was no response. Something was blocking my communication signal.
I turned around, startled, as I heard Zoltar's voice. But it quickly became clear that the Spectran Leader was not in the small room. The sound was coming from a communications system.
"You should be settling in." Zoltar smirked. "It's a long way back to Spectra. I hope you'll be comfortable."
I bit my lip, refusing to answer. If Zoltar thought I was Mark, then I didn't want to disabuse him of that notion. It was clear that the trap at the base had been set to catch the Commander. Who knew what would happen when Zoltar discovered that instead of the G-Force Commander, he only had me? Yet I didn't want to alert the Spectran Leader to his mistake. I had to give Mark a chance to return to the Phoenix with the Conway Tapes.
"So," Zoltar chuckled after a pause, "none of your false bravado then, Commander? Perhaps you're attempting to lure me into thinking that you're not there. This may be a small escape pod, but it has been equipped with heat sensors. Normally, such devices are used to ensure that uninvited guests have not stowed themselves onboard when I make a rapid departure. But in this case I can use the system to monitor your presence. So you see, there's no way you can possibly hide from me."
I sat in silence, refusing to answer, knowing that each minute Zoltar thought the G-Force Commander his prisoner only gave Mark longer to get away. The reality of my own situation was not lost on me, but for the moment I chose to push it aside to think of Mark. He was safe. That was all that mattered. What happened to me was inconsequential.
Of course, that didn't mean that I had to surrender to Zoltar's whims. My eyes began to dart around the room. I had become accustomed to the dim light, and my cerebonically-enhanced vision was able to make out the features of my prison.
The chamber was completely bare, the walls, ceiling and floor without any distinguishing features, save for the window I had previously noted. I could not see any outline on the floor where the elevating platform had brought me into the room, nor could I feel any kind of crack or crevice in the area. Even the corners where the walls met the floor and ceiling were softly rounded, creating an interior space with no discernable edges. The pieces from which the chamber had been fashioned had been cunningly fitted together into what appeared to be a seamless piece of metallic alloy. Yet at the same time, the metal felt charged: as if it were bursting with power that was capable of being released at any moment. Needless to say, this didn't fill me with confidence, yet I forced my mind to examine the facts, while doing my best to keep my fears at bay.
Mark would save me. He would gather the others, and they would follow Zoltar's ship in the Phoenix. If we truly were going to Spectra (I didn't put it past Zoltar to lie to me regarding our destination) then that shouldn't be difficult for the G-Force Team to determine.
Yet it was clear that a trap had been set for Mark. Zoltar had wanted to capture the G-Force Commander, and had undertaken the trouble of obtaining the Conway Tapes to be used as bait. Surely, given the amount of effort to which Zoltar had gone, he would have expected some kind of pursuit, and made the appropriate preparations?
Rescue was a hope… but that was all it was. Eventually, Mark would find me. I had faith in him. But there was no telling how long that might take. In the meantime, I had to act as if I was on my own. The only person I could count on was myself. These thoughts swirled around and around in my head, constantly intruding as I spent the following few hours attempting to concoct a plan of escape.
My fingers drummed impatiently on the floor, momentarily forgetting the implicit threat in its charged nature. I began to realize that my fingertips were bouncing lightly on the metallic surface, as if it were made of a slightly flexible material.
Flexible… charged… I was sitting on a force field!
I mentally berated myself for not realizing this earlier. Perhaps I would have deduced this information sooner if I had been able to see properly, yet the reason hardly mattered. What mattered was that I had this information now. I had to focus on how to use this data, rather than worrying about how long it had been taken to obtain it.
A force field had to have a generator: something to power it. If I could disrupt that power source, then the field would go down, and perhaps I would be able to use the communications function of my bracelet, or even escape. My heart pounded with excitement as I went over the possibilities.
The power source was likely outside of the force field. But if I could determine where, I might be able to create some kind of feedback, in order to disrupt its functioning. My eyes scanned the small chamber again, searching for an indication of the source of the force field's generation.
"You've been awfully quiet, Commander." Zoltar's voice smirked again, breaking into my thoughts. "Are you resting, perhaps? That's not a bad idea, you know. You'll need all of your strength for what's coming. I have plans for you, Commander, and they don't involve the kind of pampering you've come to expect from the Federation."
I bent my head, staring at the floor as if that were all that prevented Zoltar from discovering the true identity of his prisoner.
"I see you're not much of a conversationalist." Zoltar sighed. "Strange, how you always have plenty to say when you think you're in control. But now that I am the one in control…" the Spectran Leader laughed nastily, and I had to force myself not to shiver in disgust.
"Keep up the silent act, Commander!" Zoltar snarled, his mood suddenly one of righteous anger. "It will only serve my purpose once we reach Spectra. You have no idea what's in store for you. You will pay for every humiliation you have ever made me suffer! You think the destruction of your precious Center Neptune was terrible? That was nothing in comparison to what is about to happen."
I closed my mind to the sound of Zoltar's voice, unwilling to listen to the alternating vituperation and gloating swirling through the air around me. But as my thoughts cleared, so did my awareness of my surroundings. If I could hear Zoltar's voice, then there was a 'tunnel' through the force field being opened to patch the audio through. True, such a distortion would be invisible to the human eye, yet to my enhanced cerebonic vision…
I moved my head around slightly, blocking off one ear and then the other to determine the direction from which the sound was originating. It appeared to be coming from my upper left. My eyes darted over the area, focusing intently on the smooth structure of my prison wall. I saw nothing until…
There! Zoltar had screeched loudly, and the high pitch of his voice had created a small distortion in my vision. The surface smoothed again, yet I had to hope that I would catch sight of it once more. Underneath my wings, I reached for my yo-yo, pulling it from its holster and readying for a strike.
"You will rue the day you ever thought you could defeat Spectra!" Zoltar cried, causing the distortion to appear again for a fraction of a second. Yet it was all I needed. I threw my weapon up to the ceiling, targeting the location of the force field's aberration, letting loose the electric charge at the exact moment I anticipated my yo-yo's contact with the field.
The resulting reaction was even more than I had hoped. The electric charge from my yo-yo hit the energy field at a destructive angle, taking advantage of the weakness introduced by the audio tunnel and creating a feedback surge that flashed momentarily around the entire chamber. Pain flared around my body where it made contact with the wall and the floor, yet the momentary burn was insignificant compared to the elation I was experiencing. The entire chamber shimmered for an instant, before going dark once more.
Eagerly I ran my fingertips along the wall behind me. When I concentrated on my task, I could feel tiny imperfections in the metal and the joint where the wall met the floor. And on that floor, I could even perceive a faint line where the elevation platform had brought me into this place.
I let out a sigh of relief. The force field had been disabled. Yet even as I was mentally celebrating my minor victory, my eyes moved across the window and my spirits fell.
There was no mistaking the distinctive patterns of lights and gases. We were passing through the Crab Nebula. That meant that we were nearly to Spectra. I had to act before then. If I could escape this cell and access the control room of this vessel, I might be able to disable Zoltar and whatever guards were present, and take command of the ship in order to reach the nearest Federation planet. Unfortunately, what I really needed to break through these walls was Jason's blowtorch, and all I had was my yo-yo…
But that wasn't all! I reached into my belt pouch and drew forth a handful of Astro Bombs. I didn't know how many of these I would need to break through the wall. However I was aware that in such a confined space, I risked injuring or even killing myself in the resulting explosion. It was a fine line to walk, especially given that I would likely only have one shot at this. After a brief moment, I decided to use two.
Of course, there was also the question of where to strike. If I blew out a wall that was on the side of the ship (such as next to the window) I would lose oxygen and be sucked out into the vacuum of space in short order. Since I knew that I had entered this vessel below the floor, I reasoned that it also was an outer wall of the ship. Mentally crossing my fingers, I chose to target the wall opposite from the window, deeming that most likely to be an appropriate exit.
I crouched down on the floor near the window, wrapping my wings around me, then quickly tossed out the two Astro Bombs toward my designated target. I ducked my head down just as the bombs exploded, feeling a searing heat pass across the back of my wings. My skin, already tingling from its brief contact with the electrical discharge from the force field's feedback loop, screamed in protest, yet the pain was but a momentary distraction. Smoke filled the small chamber, obscuring my vision in the already dark room.
Had it worked? Had I created an exit from my prison cell?
Before I could move to determine the success or failure of my escape attempt, the spacecraft jerked, sending my body crashing up against the ceiling before falling back to the floor.
"What are you doing, Commander?" Zoltar screeched through the communications system. "You've taken out most of my navigation controls! You're going to kill us both!"
I grimaced wryly. If I had to die, taking out Zoltar was the way to go. Yet if I could make it to the control room, perhaps I could manage to bypass the damaged systems. Zoltar's comment had unwittingly passed on information I had needed: we were alone on this ship, for better or for worse.
The smoke still impeded my vision and I did my best to remain close to the ground, where the air was still passably breathable. I crawled toward the opposite wall, desperate to find a way out. But the room jerked again, sending me flying about its small confines. I hurtled across the chamber and smacked into the window. What I saw beyond the glass made my blood run cold.
We were entering the Spectran atmosphere. It was too late.
Refusing to admit defeat, I forced my body across the room, smashing my arms and legs against its confines as the ship bounced and shook from passing through the gaseous outer layers of the planet Spectra. Desperately I ran my hands across the wall where my Astro Bombs had hit. The metal had caved in… I could feel the place of impact…
There was no hole. My attempt to break out of my prison had been unsuccessful.
The thick haze of smoke suddenly made sense. There was nowhere for it to go, and so it remained in the room, obscuring my vision further and clogging the air. Yet this was the least of my problems. I could hear Zoltar cursing and yelling as the ship jolted and jerked, plummeting toward the ground. It was evident that a crash landing was imminent.
There was nothing to hold onto, nothing with which to strap myself down, and so I bounced around the small chamber like a rag doll, unable to do anything but grit my teeth as I waited for impact.
My last thought was of Mark.