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2012 - a year of Bradbury's Jar! by Daniella T
2012 - a year of Bradbury's Jar! by Daniella T
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THE GAME


Anderson looked up from his desk to his friend Colonel Cronus, who was leaning over the desk as if trying to make sure that this time Anderson would not avoid his eye.

"I don't see why you make it so difficult," Cronus said stubbornly. "You have been trying to stop me from taking up this mission for a long time. You know as well as I do that my work on Riga as an undercover agent is important for the ISO planning. So why are you pulling the rug from under my feet once again? I just received another email from President Kane, deferring the date of the mission, and I'm sure it's your doing".

Anderson took of his glasses, rubbed his eyes.

"Cronus, your son is only four years old. You cannot do this to him -- or your wife. If you go to Riga now, you might be stranded there for a long time -- or you may be killed, and then the poor boy will have to grow up in my care -- do you really want that for your son?"

Cronus didn't know if his friend was joking or not, but decided to treat his last phrase as a joke.

"Of course not, but all the other potential foster parents were taken. Seriously, Jack, you are the one person I can trust with the lives of my wife and my son."

"But you don't have to trust anyone! Stay here! We have other assets on Riga! They can collect the information. It's not that the whole Federation spy structure depends on Colonel Cronus for its data."

Cronus took a chair and looked pleasantly at Anderson.

"Jack, do you know what 'tradecraft' means?"

"Trade what?" asked Anderson, curiousity mellowing his frustration with his friend for a moment.

"Tradecraft. In the twentieth century, this was how the game was played. It means the tricks that secret agents use to collect information, pass it on, stop enemy agents from acquiring it, eavesdropping, monitoring, dead drops, all those things our forefather spies did."

"Right," said Anderson. "And your point is?"

"My point is that I excell at tradecraft. Heck, I even know what tradecraft means. I'm the best agent you have, Jack. You can send any number of your agents to Riga, and all you'll get is weekly reports about the strength of visiting Spectran military delegation. Whereas I can offer you much more. I'm good at this game, Jack."

Anderson sighed deeply, then turned to his computer, typed in a few words, clicked 'Send'. Then he turned to Cronus.

"There. It's done. I've sent an email requesting President Kane to speed up the dates of your mission. But Cronus, if something happens to you...I'll kill you!"

Then his face got serious.

"Take care of yourself, Cronus. For the sake of your family. So that they don't have to suffer for your superiority complex."

The look of regret on Anderson's face belied the harsh words he was using. Anderson was afraid for his friend.

"And get us some good info while you're at it!"

Cronus got up, flipped a salute.

"That's the name of the game, Chief!"




POTENTIAL



The five teenagers who would go on to become G-Force had gathered in Anderson's office, wearing their new civilian uniforms and big grins, as they had been told that the briefing they would receive would go beyond the usual drivel about "potential threats" to the security of the Galaxy, but would actually identify, at long last, their enemy.

"Take a seat," said Anderson absent-mindedly, entering the office and depositing his pile of folders on his desk. His young charges sprawled themselves on the couch, except Jason, who had already found that his favourite position was the one where he slumped by the door frame, keeping a defensive posture just in case he disagreed with what he was going to hear. But this time, even he was all ears.

"Today I'm not going to go over the usual reports from our people on Earth and Riga, nor will I explain, once again, how your cerebonics work. Today, team, I will tell you what I have been afraid of for some time now...The threat we are facing is becoming more and more tangible each day...Here on this map, you can see the Crab Nebulae...If you look here, there's a planet called Spectra. This is the threat our experts have warned us about...And now I can tell you also. The leader of Spectra made an announcement recently that unless we submit to their demands, he will attack the Earth and our allied planets."

Anderson paused, and Mark took the opportunity to jump up.

"We're ready, Chief! Just give us the word!"

But Anderson shook his head.

"Negotiations are still ongoing. There is still hope we can avoid armed conflict, which is always a good thing. But I called you here today to let you know that the potential threat we were facing from Spectra has now become a real one."



DIRTY



Anderson looked again at the report he had just received from President Kane, as if hoping it would have somehow changed. As if it would not implicate his old friend...but the report was still the same: Stellar City had just been attacked by a mecha closely resembling a spider, which had been causing drought conditions for the city, threatening its population. To Anderson -- and to President Kane, if the report was anything to go by -- behind the attack was no other that Anderson's old friend and fellow scientist, Dr. Strecker. Who had been fired. And had probably defected. And now Strecker wanted to meet him.

Anderson knew very well all this, but in his heart he did not want to believe it. He did not want to believe that Strecker was dirty. But the facts were cold and cruel and could not be argued with: this was the motto he had lived by all his professional life, and he was not going to change now. Sighing, he picked up the phone and asked to be connected to President Kane.

"I read your report, sir. I think I should go meet him. No, without G-Force...It would be for the best..."

THE BIRDS AND THE BEES

"Here you are", said Anderson icily, seeing the young gunner standing in the door frame, after the rest of the team had been dispatched to deal with another threat from Spectra -- a summons that Jason had felt unable to answer as he was busy on the track, mused Anderson, feeling his blood boil once again when he considered Jason's behaviour.

"I hope you have a good excuse, for once", he added, as Jason was making no move to speak.

Jason only shrugged.

"You won't believe me anyway".

Anderson let himself fly into a rage. He didn't do it often, but when he did, he really let rip. He didn't shout. His rages were legendary precisely because he was so cold about them. Jason knew the drill. The Chief would go on about their duty to the Earth and the Federation and how his irresponsible behaviour was endangering them all.

"You are inexcusable! You think this is a game, like one of your races? Let me give you the facts of life, mister, in case you didn't know them!"

Jason smirked, trying to put a brave face on the situation.

"What, you mean the birds and the bees? Thanks, Chief, I've known about them since kindergarten".

"You know very well what I mean", snapped Anderson, banging his fist on the desk. "I mean the fact of the Earth and the Federation being under a constant threat, that YOU have been trained to fight! I mean the fact of your team-mates having to take off without you, and without the assistance you could have given them, thus endagering themselves even further! I mean the fact that, once again, you have put yourself and your self-interest above that of the team! I am disgusted with you, Jason! Even if you don't care about the Earth and the Federation, I thought you cared a bit more for your team-mates!"

Anderson stopped to draw breath. Jason felt his cheeks flaming, and his chest almost burst with indignation. He had just faced a new Spectran weapon, but Anderson did not seem to want to learn about it. However, even in the midst of his indignation, he knew, deep down, that Anderson was right. He had chosen to stay on the racetrack. The fact that he stumbled upon a Spectran group did not negate this. If it came to enumerating facts, then Anderson had gotten this one spot on. But...but...still... he had important news to give the Chief, and Anderson would not let him speak. He refused to look down and kept his gaze on the Chief.

"You are to report back to me as soon as you get back from the mission. We will discuss your punishment then. Now go join the others. I've had enough of you".

Jason turned to go, then looked back at the Chief.

"Let me give you another fact of life, Chief. I was attacked by a new Spectran weapon, a kind of ray that has the capacity to de-transmute us. My car was de-transmuted. That's why I was late. Sorry I didn't call it in. I didn't want to give my position away in case they were monitoring me."

He turned to go, leaving an ashen-faced Anderson, who suddenly realised that his day was proving to be much more challenging than a simple case of having to deal with a stubborn gunner...




EAT MY DUST



While the Phoenix was still in flight, Anderson had sent, with his congratulations on a job well done, a message requesting Jason to report to his office immediately after the Phoenix docked. The others kept glancing at Jason sympathetically, guessing what the summons would be about, but he just shrugged them off. As far as he was concerned, the mission was successful. The job was one. As long as Anderson only cared about the job, he would be fine. Maybe confined to barracks for some time, but that would not be anything new...Jason had fallen foul of Anderson's sticking to the regulations in the past. He had survived it.

He grinned cockily at his team-mates as soon as they were in Centre Neptune, de-transmuted, and made his way to the Chief's office, shrugging nonchalantly at their words of concern. He knocked, and entered without waiting for the Chief to answer, standing by the door.

"You wanted to see me, Chief." It was not a question.

Anderson looked up.

"Close the door, please."

Jason shrugged again, closed the door and approached the Chief's desk, uncertain, for a moment, whether he should sit or not. Anderson pointed at a chair.

"Sit down."

"Whatever," said Jason, flopping on the chair. But Anderson was not fooled. He knew that the gunner was putting up an act of bravado, but that, as most teenagers, would not admit to being worried in the face of authority.

"I'd like to apologise to you, Jason," said Anderson, looking straight at him. "For doubting you earlier. I was wrong. I jumped to conclusions and did not wait to hear your side of the story. I tend to do that, I admit it."

This was not was Jason had expected. Always ready with a quick and witty response when he was being attacked, he was at a loss of words now that the Chief had offered an apology.

"You could say thank you, you know," smiled Anderson. "That's what people usually do when someone apologises."

Jason snapped out of his momentary lapse.

"Sure, I mean, thanks, Chief. Good to hear it. May I go now?"

He was squirming, Anderson saw, amused. However, what he had to say to the gunner was not over.

"No, I'm afraid not. You see, Jason, I accept I misjudged you this time. I did not wait to hear what you had to say about the ray force. However, this does not negate the fact that you chose to stay on the racetrack while G-Force had been summoned to report for duty."

Jason scowled. So he wasn't going to let it go, was he? Never mind all his big words about being sorry!

"As I told you before the mission, when you deigned to show up, you often seem to think this is a game. I am sorry to hammer this home again, Jason, but you have to take a good look at yourself and decide if this is, indeed, the life you want to lead, if you are not ready to follow orders whether you feel like it on the day or not."

Jason knew that Anderson was right. He realised very well that his behaviour had been irresponsible. But he found it very, very hard to admit to it...Steeling himself, he said two of the hardest words he had ever said to Anderson.

"I'm sorry."

It was barely a whisper.

"I'm sorry, Chief. Now it's my turn to apologise, I guess. You were a man about it, now I can be too. I was wrong. Worse, I behaved dangerously. For the team. If you want to confine me to headquarters for the rest of the year, you'll have every right to do so!" he finished, inwardly wincing at the thought that maybe Anderson would indeed decide to do that, and he would be banned from the racetrack for a year...

Anderson looked relieved. He decided, just this once, to let the matter drop. Just this once.

"I'm glad we sorted this out, Jason. How about you do something useful with yourself, and represent G-Force at the annual ISO race?"

Jason grinned.

"You got it, Chief!"

"And one more thing, Jason. I hear you've been training Keyop to race also. I want you to stop. No more of this "eat my dust" with the kid. The last thing I need is to have to drag both of you back for duty



THE DAWN


It was probably the longest day of Mark's life: alone on Riga, full of doubts about himself, his father, his friend Tom...and then having to deal with the shock of finding out that Cronus was indeed his father, while at the same time trying to neutralise Spectra's worse threat ever. A threat that was, in the end, neutralised, precisely because his father was determined to finish the job that he started 14 years ago...

But back on Earth, for Anderson, it was probably the longest night. Locked in the ISO building, trying to contain the rising panic of the ISO delegates, keeping resolutely faith in G-Force and their ability to pull through one more time.

He lost track of the coffees he drank. He half-heartedly made a stab at a slice of pizza, from the stack they had ordered before he locked down the room, but left the slice to congeal on his paper plate. Slumped in his seat, he kept a wary eye on the delegates, trying to detect the first signs of a desire to capitulate...when he opened the doors in the morning...but in reality, it was a moot question: if the city was still there in the morning, there would be no need to capitulate. If not, well, they had lost anyway...

The Rigan delegate approached him, shoulders slumping, her black pants suit creased at the knees from the long time she had been sitting in the same position.

"Andrea?" he asked, looking up. God, he was tired! And if her bloodshot eyes were anything to go by, he didn't look all the fresh either.

"Just wanted to stretch my legs. Any news?"

The question was superfluous -- he would told them if he had had any news, but she wanted to say something, something to lift the silence that had descended in the vast chamber, with delegates too stunned, still, from Zoltar's message, to speak.

He shook his head.

"No, but it's still early. G-Force needs some time to get there, get the missile..." his voice trailed off.

"I wonder whether I will ever see my planet again," started Andrea, but Anderson cut her short.

"Don't. Just...don't. Please."

She nodded, climbed on a desk next to his chair.

"Coffee?" he asked, pointing at an urn at a side table. She looked disgusted at the idea of more coffee, then nodded slowly.

"Sure."

He poured two cups, came back to her. They sat in silent companionship for a while. Around them, the other delegates had started to doze off.

"Close your eyes for a bit, Andrea," suggested Anderson. "I'll tell you when G-Force calls."

***

At the end of the long, long vigil, his phone rang. To tell him that G-Force had, as he had expected, succeeded, once again, in their mission. But also to tell him that he had lost his best friend. He went to the window, looked out. The dawn was breaking



ROMANCE



Anderson was rather good at maths, but even he could not calculate how long it had been since he had last been on a date. Romance, huggles, snogging, cuddling in front of the TV, all these were things that belonged to his imagination -- even his memory could not really conjure them. So the idea that he would actually ask Sarah out was one that should not have occured to him. Should not have, but it had.

It had taken all his courage to take Sarah's hand in his as they sat listening to the ISO choir, where Jason was making a surprise appearance, on Christmas Eve. The holidays that followed, and then the brunt of work that fell on him as soon as the ISO was back to normal battle mode, gave no indications that Sarah was eager to repeat the experience. On the other hand, she was always kind and friendly to him, and, recently, Anderson had used his well-established spy network (i.e., Zark) to verify that she was, indeed, single. So with Valentine's Day coming up, he did it. He sent her an email. And asked her out. Not to the movies, or to his place, or anything like this, just to a dinner in new restaurant that had opened next to ISO headquarters. And now he was drumming his fingers on his desk, unable to concentrate, while he waited for Sarah's reply.

An assistant opened the door.

"The new Rigan delegate, sir, here to see you."

"Thank you. Show him in."

"Um, sir, it's a she."

"Okay, then show her in," he snapped in exaggeration. Did everyone have to be so bloody politically correct? Did it matter if he said "show him in?"

A young woman walked in, dressed in an austere military-style suit. She stood to attention in front of Anderson, even though the ISO was not, strictly speaking, a military organisation.

"Andrea Roberts, sir. Colonel Cronus suggested I come see you as soon as I reported for duty at the ISO."

He stood up and shook her hand.

"Welcome to the ISO, and the war, Ms. Roberts," he said tiredly. "You do know, don't you, that hostilities between Spectra and the Earth will begin any day now?"

"Sir, I've been instructed to pledge you Riga's assistance in anything you need. You will not face Spectra alone."

Anderson nodded a couple of times, trying to concentrate on her words but finding himself, suddenly, preoccupied with her startling blue eyes. He blinked.

"Thank you very much. Now, I trust you have settled down and found a place to live?"

"The Rigan delegation will provide that, sir," she replied, her back still ramrod straight. "I trust I will be briefed quickly, and will attend the next ISO meeting."

"Take a seat, won't you?" Anderson found himself saying, then shook his head angrily. Here he was, flirting with a Rigan delegate while at the same time he waited for an email from an ISO colleague about an invitation to dinner! What WAS wrong with him anyway?

"Everything all right, sir?" asked Andrea politely.

"Yes, yes, sorry, I'm a bit tired and..."

"That's understandable, sir. Look, I won't keep you long, them. I'm sure I'll see you again soon."

She shook his hand, and he barely had time to say "Of course, we'll see each other soon", before she was out of the room. Blinking, Anderson sat down. Well, he WOULD see her again, that was for sure.

Just then, his computer beeped, notifying him of an incoming email from Dr. Sarah Petrides. It was only two words: "What time?"

Anderson breathed in relief, not having realised before how much he counted on Sarah agreeing to meet him. Maybe that's why he was so taken by Andrea, as a defense against Sarah's possible rejection. Sighing deeply and realising that he was thinking nonsense again, he pressed the "reply" key.



BODIES



Anderson leaned over the table, his eyes lit up and his voice loud and cheery, just a little bit too loud and cheery.

"And then we knew of course that Spectra would one day launch an attack against the Earth, I mean, how hard would it be to guess? We had to speed up the G-Force project, you know how it is, just get them to double their training, poor kids, no, I mean, they spent the last couple of years in a continuous test mode, what with all the stuff we threw at them, but then all the various inter-galactic defence bodies were getting a bit panicky and wanted the project to be ready before an attack was launched, and, I mean, can you blame them? And President Kane twisting our arms to work 24 hours a day to do this, and can I say that your team did an excellent job also?"

He paused to draw breath, and Sarah gently took his hand in hers, making a move that he was not bold enough to make.

"Jack," she said firmly, using his first name which was, in itself, a rarity for her, "let's forget about the inter-galactic defence bodies tonight, shall we?"



CONDOR PIC



The auction had barely started, when a group of steaming hot Gatchamaniacs almost caused the e-bay site to collapse. The bidding had reached astronomical heights -- at least for a simple picture of Joe with his trademark accessories of a rose and a gun. Proceeds would go to charity, so it was okay, and this was the only reason Joe had agreed to do the shoot -- the photo shoot, not the other kind.

The organisers HAD suggested that he holds the rose and puts the gun in his mouth, for added suspense, but he drew the line at that point.

A couple of Gatchamaniacs were really fighting it out over the ethernet, he mused, looking at the bids. There were only a few moments left for the auction to be concluded but even he, who was definitely not a bidder, felt that he wanted to bite his nails with the suspense. There! E-bay had declared the auction closed! And the lucky winner was...//

There. I leave it open to your imagination which one of us would win the bid for a Condor pic.



PROMISE



Anderson had heard that in the old days, it was a tradition on Earth to celebrate what they called International Women's Day -- he understood it to mean to celebrate the achievements of women in all walks of life, although, in his own lifetime, he did not see any evidence that his female colleagues needed to celebrate this. As far as he was concerned, his female colleagues had had exactly the same chances and faced exactly the same difficulties he did. And as for children, his experience with raising five young ninjas could easily beat the experience of any woman he knew of. And yet...

And yet, there must have been something to this old-fashioned celebration. Princess was the first one to remind him in the morning -- she acutally sent circular email around Centre Neptune, daring any male colleague to forget it. Jason was particularly threatened, and Anderson privately advised him not to make any snide remarks, if he didn't want the whole female population of Centre Neptune descending on him. An advice he grudgingly accepted.

Armed with the knowledge that female Centre Neptune personnel still appreciated being congratulated on IWD, he emailed Dr. Sarah Petrides, daring to even address her as "Dear Sarah", and asking whether, following their dinner on Valentine's Day, she would consider going to a scientific conference with him. WITH him, he stressed. As in going together. And perhaps staying together in the hotel...nah, that was going too far. He deleted the last sentence, congratulated Sarah again on IWD, and sent the email.

Her reply was full of enthusiasm about the conference. In fact, if he knew any better, he would have realised she was babbling in written speech the same way he had been babbling orallly during their dinner, and this was only to hide her nervousness. But he didn't know any better. But just before she signed off, after thanking him for remembering the old IWD holiday, there was another sentence.

"And Jack, you have to promise that we will at least spend one night without talking about work or the conference, ok?"

Anderson scratched his head at that -- what WOULD they talk about then? But he remembered the way Sarah had smiled at him during their dinner, and gave the only answer he could.

"I promise."




THE DRAGON



Anderson was putting the final touches to the speech he was going to make at the conference the following week, the one where Sarah had agreed to accompany him in order to speak about the latest scientific developments in the war against Spectra, which had broken out earlier in the year. He felt a bit guilty of leaving the team for a weekend, but as soon as he mentioned it to Mark, the Commander's look of scorn was enough to make him feel guilty that he felt guilty. So he buckled up, confirmed his participation, confirmed that Sarah would indeed accompany him, and set out to prepare his speech. Only he couldn't.

He was confused. For Anderson, this was a rarity. He was confused because, while he felt that his one and only thought should be how to help G-Force face Spectra, he was instead thinking, occasionally, of Sarah. The fact that he had recently reprimanded Mark and Jason for focusing too much -- according to the Chief -- on girls and not so much on their mission, did not help. He dreaded to think what Jason would say if he found out that the strict, almost inhumanly duty-bound Chief, was pining away for a fellow scientist -- and occassionally even thinking of a young Rigan envoy to Earth.

There was only one way to deal with temptation, he thought resolutely. Give in to it. He picked up the internal phone, and called Sarah.

"Sarah? It's Ander...sorry, it's Jack, am I bothering you?"

"Jack! I'm finishing my speech! Do you want to get together to work on it?"

"Great, I was thinking the same, I want to show you mine. My speech, that is", he finished lamely.

"Great! How are you for time?"

"I'm swamped here. How about you?"

"Me too," Anderson replied, thinking that it was a rather dumb question: he was always busy, didn't she know it? But he mentally kicked himself: this kind of knee-jerk reaction was to be avoided, Princess had made it clear to him many times. Calm down. Get a grip. This is not Spectra you're dealing with, this is your FRIEND.

"Listen, I've got a meeting with President Kane this afternoon. We've got some new intel from Spectra we need to analyse. How about dinner?"

"Dinner?" she sounded dumbfounded. Anderson looked at his handset in disbelief. What? Couldn't he invite her to dinner?

"Yes, Sarah, dinner. Where we eat, you know, drink, you know, like normal people do."

She laughed.

"Sure, Jack, it's just that I thought you'd never ask me to dinner again after Valentine's Day!"

Anderson reddened. It was true, much as he had enjoyed their dinner together, it had not been repeated. But he DID see her every day in the cafeteria for lunch, didn't he? That had to count for something.

"So, you like Chinese?" he blurted out.

"Oh yes," she almost moaned. "I looooove Chinese! How did you know?"

Anderson didn't, but he wasn't letting on.

"Great then, I know this old-fashioned Chinese restaurant called The Beijing Dragon. Shall I pick you up at Centre Neptune garage at 8?"

"Okay, Jack. See you then!" she said cheerfully and hung up.

Anderson was left looking at the phone, wondering, once again, what he was getting himself into.




SUNSHINE



"So you took care of these youngsters since they were toddlers, right?" asked the journalist. Anderson shook his head.

"Mark came into my care when he was four years old. Jason and Tiny later, Princess when she was in primary school, and you know about Keyop."

The journalist nodded.

"They were still very young. What was it like for you, a single man, to raise a young family?"

"I had a lot of help. Colleagues at the ISO, both male and female, were more than eager to help with the team."

"But still, when they became teeanegers, it must've been tough. Even Princess, from what I've heard, was quiet a handful as a young girl."

A small smile played on Anderson's lips.

"She is the sunshine of my life. I love all my children, these young people I consider my children, but Princess, even at her most rebellious teenage years, has been an anchor for all of us."

The journalist jotted down a few notes.

"Ok, Chief, let's talk now about the early days of the G-Force project..."




PICTURE OF MARK AND JASON




Mark: Who are these people down there looking at us?

Jason: Gatchamaniacs...you know, our fan base.

Mark: And why are they staring?

Jason: You haven't been reading the most recents fics, have you?



SPEED-DATING



So that takes care of the paper on potential new galactic threats," said Anderson, closing his folder and setting it aside, where it balanced precariously between other folders, plates of half-eaten pizza, cups of coffee (black for him, skinny latte for her), a couple of laptops and their work-issued, latest model, scary-looking smartphones.

Sarah pulled another folder from the file.

"Shall we move on then to the issue of how far Spectra's resources have diminished? I've got the latests stats here, plus info from our assets on Spectra on what the latest shortages are."

Anderson looked at the rest of the pizza.

"Shall we take a break first? We'd better finish this before it congeals."

He broke of a bit of pizza, handed the plate to Sarah.

"Sure," she said, cutting off another piece.

A couple of seconds of silence followed, the kind of silence that was very familiar to Anderson when he was alone with Sarah and had to stop talking about work for a moment.

"So..." she started.

"So...which of the activities would you like to do in the margins of the conference? They've got a lot of team-building events planned, we can do a cookery course together, or go hiking, or do some role-playing games..."

"I don't know..." mused Sarah. "What would you prefer?"

"Well, I asked first!" he said, a note of amusement in his voice.

"Okayyyyyy...I like cooking but I'm not good at it, so maybe that...or I'd love to do role-playing again, haven't done it in ages..."

"How come you don't cook? I mean, you live alone, no? What do you eat?"

With a start, Anderson realised this was probably the most personal question he'd even asked Sarah.

"What's this, a speed-dating event?" she answered, trying to sound indignant, but failing. "I mean, I don't ask you about how you manage at home with the kids..."

"That's because you know very well how I manage with the kids, since you're there half the time to help me, or at least you were when they were younger!"

And while saying this, Anderson realised, with another start, that all these years he had gratefully accepted Sarah's help with the kids, never bothering to find out how she was managing at home. Well, this would change, he thought resolutely.

Sarah laughed.

"Yes, I was there to save your ass when the little ninjas were going to burn the place down, or blow it up, or whatever it was they did. But, to go back to your question, I didn't say I don't cook. I said I'm not good at it. Like you. You can definitely dance, but you're not good at it!"

"Hey, that not fair! You only saw me dance once, at the New Year's Party two years ago!"

"Yes, because you were never brave enough to repeat the performance," she retorted.

Anderson was silent for a moment.

"Well, let's rectify this, no? At the conference they also have dance lessons. We can do a cookery course and then join the other team building event for the dance lesson."

Sarah moved her fingers across the table, reached his.

"Sure!"




PIC OF MARK and PRINCESS



Mark: And you know of course that Cronus was my father, and how he left me, the bastard, and then he left me again to go after the X-3, and I do see the Chief as a father but sometimes, I don't know, he's a bit tough on me, as if I'm the only person causing trouble on the team, surely Jason has caused more trouble than me all these years. Remember, he was the one who actually missed a mission because he was on the racing track. And I do like the company of Tiny and Keyop, but you know, Keyop can be a bit of a pain sometimes, not that I'd ever admit it in public, and Tiny, he's a solid guy, but his mind is more on girls than on the job sometimes. Well, in any case we'll have to wait until the war is over to get to know each other better, but I would like to get to know you better, what do you say?

Princess: (snores)




TRADITION



Shuffling the last of the papers around the table, Anderson took off his glasses -- the same glasses that had been the butt of a million jokes and speculation since he first joined Centre Neptune -- and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Sarah looked at him expectantly.

"Well, that settles everything. We've got the powerpoint presentations, the speeches, the handouts, we're ready to go. Have you thought about how you'd like to get there? We could take the monorail, or drive."

"The monorail sounds fun, Jack. As long as Mala doesn't make a tradition of trying to kill you on it."

Anderson winced at the memory of his encounter with Mala Latroz on the monorail, and how close he came to being exterminated. But he shrugged.

"Nah, Zoltar never tries the same trick twice. We should be fine."

The usual silence descended.

"Jack, I...I'm glad you escaped that attempt. I never told you at the time, but I was very worried about you," Sarah said, avoiding his eyes.

"You sound like Princess," he blurted out, before he could stop himself. Then, mortified, he he tried to make amends.

"I don't mean it like that. I'm actually glad you're glad."

Shrugging uncomfortably, Sarah looked for a change of subject.

"You know what? The kids have a tradition of watching old science fiction movies every Saturday night. Shall we join them? I mean, if the thought of spending a couple more hours with G-Force is not excruciating for you."

Anderson smiled with relief, glad that a way out had been found, before either he or Sarah became all sentimental.

"Yes, let's do that."

Perhaps when they got to the conference the following week, he could introduce Sarah to his own tradition of long morning walks -- something he always tried to do when on conferences, as it was practically his only chance to be around nature that did not involve fish. And perhaps then, they could talk about those team-building activities they would have to attend. cooking classes and all...




MOTHER



Anderson caught her just she was opening the door leading to the lifts that would take her to the top of Centre Neptune...and, as far as she was concerned,freedom.

"Where are you going, Princess?"

She stopped in her tracks, and turned around, blushing, as if she had done something wrong, which, as she reminded herself, she hadn't. Not yet, anyway.

"Chief! I thought you were at a meeting!"

"It finished earlier...wait a minute, I was asking you where you were going, not talking about my work!"

Princess looked at him sullenly.

"To a party thrown by the son of one of the scientists. I met him last week here and he invited me."

"Princess, I assume the reason you didn't tell me about this party, was because I would not approve?"

Princess flopped on the floor, arms crossed, looking more mutinous with the second. Yes, that was the reason she hadn't told the Chief. It was a weeknight, during a week full of training and exams. The G-Force project was progressing rapidly, and the young recruits were shaping up to be a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately for Princess, they were still underage, still under the care of Anderson and still very much in the middle of their teens, with all the angst that brought.

"It's not fair! I'm old enough to learn how to fight and blow things up, but I'm not old enough to go to a party! And you let Mark and Jason go to that paint-balling match last week, just before our combat exam!"

"For your information, Princess, I didn't. But I'm sure you didn't want to rat on them on purpose, so I'll let it drop. Although I would be very interested to find out how they sneaked out, the little bastards", he finished, the last words spoken very quietly.

"But I'm afraid this will not change my mind about the party. You have exams tomorrow. And four hours of training. I'm sorry, the party's out of the question."

Princess looked up at him, tears of frustration welling in her eyes.

"You're not my mother! You can't tell me what to do!"

Anderson slid down to the floor and sat beside her.

"You're right. I'm not your mother. But I'm your foster father, and, more importantly as far as your training is concerned, your Chief. You signed up for this project on your accord, you'll have to make sacrifices for it."

"Don't give me this!" she said hotly. "I was a child when I started on the project!"

"But I don't see you resigning now that you're older," he replied mildly, recalling similar conversations with Mark and Jason already.

Princess had no reply to that, so she kept silent.

Anderson got to his feet, reached down to help her up. Grudgingly, she gave him her hand.

Silently, they walked back to the living quarters of Centre Neptune. Stopping outside her room, Princess turned the knob and made do go in without a word. At the last moment, however, she turned her head.

"Goodnight, Chief."

He smiled at her.

"Goodnight, Princess."

Another teen crisis averted, he thought to himself as he walked to his office. Until the next time.




NIGHTCRAWLERS



"What is this thing, anyway?" asked Jason, glancing at the screen where, during Anderson's emergency briefing, they had seen images of the new threat Specrta has launched against the Earth.

"It's a caterpillar..."began Princess, to be cut short by an excited Keyop.

"No it's not! I know what it is! It's a nightcrawler!"

He looked around, his shining eyes meeting the stricken faces of his team-mates.

"What's the matter with you, Keyop?" said Tiny accusingly. "This is not a toy! This is threatening our cities!"

Keyop lowered his eyes.

"Yes, but...at least it's not a giant crab, or cuttlefish or octopus or a giant wheel or anything like that!"

Anderson suddenly felt like slumping in his chair in despair. Could it really be that they were arguing about what the mecha looked like?

"It doesn't matter what it is! This...nightcrawler...as you call it attacked one city this morning! If we don't act now, it will attack many more! Keyope, please remember that nightcrawlers are actually what birds feed off, right? And you know what you are, right?"

He looked around at all of them.

"Now go out there and do something!"

"G-Force!"

They ran down to the Phoenix, and were soon airborne, receiving information on their screens about the location of the mecha. When they approached it, however, they discovered that their problems were just beginning. Because the nightcrawler was probably the best-armoured mecha Zoltar had ever launched. As far as insects go, it had a lot going for it. Its shell was impenetrable -- as they found out when they tried to penetrate it with a couple of Bird Missiles. Its antennae were housing laser cannons. Its long, winding tail was carrying a "sting" that would send volleys of shots against them. And it was big. Bigger than anything they'd gone up against. The Phoenix was a tiny fly next to it -- it's prey now the hunter.

After a few unsuccesful runs against the nightcrawler, Mark decided it was time to get back and reassess the situation.

"Tiny, that's enough. We've taken all the battering we can today. Back to Centre Neptune!"

It was an indication of how serious things were, that even Jason did not object...

***

It was a dejected team that reassembled in their briefing room in Centre Neptune.

"No going, Chief. Not much we can do about it like this, the Phoenix is no match to it."

"Yeah, and once again we're sitting on our hands, and letting Spectra destroy our cities!" Jason punched one fist in the palm of his other hand in frustration.

"Well, I don't remember you coming up with any better ideas!" retorted Mark angrily.

"Bugs...spray!" said Keyop brightly.

"Yeah, and how are you going to spray it, squirt?" asked Jason. "You got your special anti-Spectra aerosol cans somewhere?"

Anderson was looking in the distance, a bit lost. He did not reply to this banter. Then he slammed his hand on the table.

"That's it! Keyop's right!"

They looked at him incredously...at least four of them did. Keyop just looked smug.

"Keyop's right? What do you mean, Chief? We're going to get some aerosol spray for this thing?" asked Mark, trying, and failing, to keep sarcasm from his voice.

"No, I don't mean we're going to spray it with aerosol. But we're going to do the next best thing you do when faced with bugs: catch it in a net."

The team suddendly looked more positive.Maybe Keyop and the Chief were on to something...//

The scientists of Centre Neptune were working overtime -- once again. Anderson had come up with blueprints for a giant net to be constructed, that would be strong enough to catch they annoying nighcrawler. However, there was one minor detail that had to be worked out before they could launch...

''So this is the situation, team," said Anderson to the assembled G-Forcers.

"Obviously, the nightcrawler is not going to aim for our net. So we have to bring the net to it.''

He looked around.

"Right. Someone has to get inside and guide it towards the net," said Mark, matter-of-factly.

"Right. That's our problem/"

"I don't see a problem," said Jason -- as everyone, except perhaps him, had expected him to. "I get it, overpower the guards, guide it towards the net, fly out, job done."

"I'm afraid this will not workd this time, Jason. We need you aboard the Phoenix ready to fire Bird Missiles, if this plan doesn't work and we have to defend another city," said Anderson.

"Princess can handle the weapons!" replied Jason, starting the lose his temoer,

Anderson looked at Mark, then at Princess.

"Actually, I think Princess should be the one to enter the mecha."

Mark suddenly looked aghast. Jason looked as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing. Princess looked excited. Keyop and Tiny looked open-mouthed.

"What?"

"This is how I see things: Jason is needed to man the weapons. You, Commander, must be there coordinating the Rigan forces that will be helping the Phoenix deploy the net. Tiny is needed because he's the only one who can do the manoeuvres necessary for keeping the net steady. And Princess is the best one with explosives, in case she needs to destroy the mecha in a hurry."

Princess nodded in understanding. Mark refused to be so accomodating,

"When you mean in a hurry, you mean after she jumps out or before?"

"Mark, don't be so worried. I know what to do. It won't be first time!" said Princess.

"Yeah? Like that time when we had to rescue you from the flowers?" he shot back.

"Mark, there's no time to argue over this. The net is ready, and the Rigans will be here any minute. Get aboard the Phoenix and get ready to take the net to the mecha!"

They saluted, and sped down the corridor, Mark in a foul mood, Jason too -- he also felt let down by the Chief -- and Princess excited to be given this mission to accomplish.

***

The ride to the area where the mecha had last been spotted was uneventful. Aboard the Phoenix, the atmosphere was tense, but the team was working efficiently with the Rigan team to deploy the huge net. When it was spread out, it looked as if it was really able to catch the nightcrawler. Except that the nightcrawler did not look as if it was going to head towards the net...

"Princess, get ready. Tiny, hold her as steady as you can under the mecha until Princess gets it. Good luck!"

He avoided looking at Princess as she ran down the shaft leading to the bubble on top of the Phoenix. But before she left, she flashed him a smile.

"Thanks, Commander!"

They saw Princess disappearing inside the mecha, and then concentrated on holding the net steady, which was more difficult that it sounded, as it involved flying in formation with the Rigans and all the time keeping in front of the mecha. Jason was poised over his weapons controls, hoping that he would not have to use them until Princess was out of the nightcrawler. No, that was not right. He was NOT going to use them until Princess was out.

Mark was coordinating the whole force, hiding his tension behind white knuckles cluttching the controls. Keyop was uncharacteristically silent, and the others knew better than to say anything smart while his sister was inside the nightcrawler. Tiny was probably the calmest one of them all, totally in his element manoeuvring the Phoenix to hold the net steady.

For what seemed hours, but was no more than half an hour at most, the nightcrawler changed direction and headed towards net. The four G-Forcers sat up more straightly.

"Tiny, this is it! Hold her steady! Keyop, feed data to the Rigans! Jason, get ready!"

"Get readt for what, Commander? I'm not getting ready for anything until Princess is out!"

Mark decided not to reply, as he didn't want to voice the same feelings. He looked stratight at his screen.

"There is goes...there it goes...Tiny, approach a bit...Form a loop around the mecha! Keep the net all around it! That's it! We caught it!"

The Rigan planes and the Phoenix drew the net around the mecha, forming a tight loop around the nightcrawler. They held their breath. The mission was not over yet...They had to drag the mecha to a safe location and destroy it, but first, Princess had to get out...

Keyop saw her first, jumped up in his seat.

"There! She's...beep...coming!"

Mark gave silent thanks, sighed deeply.

"Tiny, open the top. We're going to squash the nightcrawler!

With Princess safely back on board, they destroyed the captured mecha and headed back to Centre Neptune, to celebrate another triumph against Spectra. And back on Spectra, Zoltar was discovering that nightcrawlers are indeed food for birds.



SURF AND TURF



"What's up, Jason?" asked Mark, entering the ready room and flopping on the couch, stretching muscles worked to their limit in the gym. Jason moved a bit to the side, to leave him more space, his feet still firmly on the coffee-table.

"Just browing this brochure. It's called "Surf and Turf", and I'm looking for ideas for our long weekend", said Jason, absent-mindendly flipping through the pages.

"Hey, I had forgotten about that!" Mark perked up considerably, at the thought that a glorious four-day weekend was ahead of them. If all went well, of course...

"So, shall we go somewhere, all of us together?"

"Why should I want to go somewhere with you?" enquired Jason.

"Come on, don't be like that! It's been a long time since we did something fun as a team!"

"What, spending endless hours on the Phoenix while chasing Zoltar is not fun? You could've fooled me..."

Mark realised that Jason was deep in sarcasm mode and would not be budged from it.

"Fine. Let's ask the others when they get here, ok?"

Jason shrugged.

"Ok. If they want to hang out with us on their long weekend, fine."

***

A couple of hours later Princess, Tiny and Keyop entered the ready room, after completing a short course on assault weaponry -- of the kind usually handled only by Jason and, occasionally, Mark. They flopped on easy chairs, grabbed soft drinks from the fridge, and entered a heated debate on what to do on their holiday...

"I still think we should rent a cottage on the beach," insisted Princess. "Play around in the surf, have a couple of barbecues..."

"Snuggle on the sand next to the campfire," grinned Jason, with knowing looks at Princess and Mark. Mark threw a cushion at him.

"What about renting a yacht?" asked Tiny, browsing through the brochure.

"Well, you're the only one qualified to captain a yacht alone, if you want to do it for the whole weekend..."

"Good point," conceded Tiny, looking on to other options.

"What about this hotel? We can even play some golf!"

"Wasn't last year's humiliation enough for you, Mark?" sighed Jason.

"Shut up," said Mark darkly, but did not repeat his proposal.

"What about...toot...trip to theme park?" suggested Keyop, looking at the new offerings: theme parks on space travel, on underwater travel, special ones for budding scientists...This last one caught his attention.

"Can even do...study tour on strange animals!"

"Yeah, let's skip that," said Mark, looking at the others' faces.

They pondered their options for a bit more, finally deciding on renting a cottage by the beach, but close enough to a race course so that Jason could do his thing on the turf and leave them in peace for a couple of hours, as Tiny pointed out. Jason refused to be offended.

They were getting ready to send in their online booking form, when the familiar, and very unwelcome figure of a tin can called Zark appeared on their screen.

"Attention, team. This is an emergency. Please report immediately to Chief Anderson!"

They sighed, saluted, and ran out of the room, adding the discarded brochure to the mounting pile of similar literature they had studied for hours, but not used, in the past.




BOUNDARIES




It was Sarah's first trip on the monorail, and she was loving every moment of it. The hype surrounding it was actually not doing it justice: it was more exciting than all the reports and brochures she had read. True, that was where Mala had tried to kill Anderson, but there he was, across the table from her, in their cosy little compartment, enjoying the view as they sped towards the mountain retreat where the ISO security conference would take place.

Or not. Not enjoying the view, that is. Anderson's head was buried in a book, a pile of papers, swaying gently with the motion of the train, in front of him. Okay, so she was also reading a book. That's what people did on trains. But reading a book on non-identified threats pertaining to the sustainability of vitalumis reserves? She put down her paperback.

"Jack."

He looked up.

"Uh-uh?"

"Any plans for tonight?" she asked, more boldly then she felt.

Anderson rifled through his papers for the programme of the conference.

"Um, we've got a welcoming reception at 8, then it's free time."

"Jack, I know we've got free time. That's why I'm asking you if you have any plans," she said patiently. Clearly, she was moving a bit faster than Anderson in this relationship-to-be, she mused. But, if it was to be -- and Sarah found herself wanting it to be -- someone had to make a tiny baby step, when the other person was stuck with their nose in a book.

The idea of doing something in his free time apparently had not occured to Anderson. Not like his idea to ask Sarah to maybe share a room with him: it had occured, but it had been discarded. Let's not push any boundaries here, he had told himself. While another little voice was telling him, "who are you kidding, chicken?" He chose not to hear this voice.

"I don't know", he said evasively. "What are you doing?"

Once again, he was throwing the ball right back at her. It was not the first time, thought Sarah. And not for the first time, she would not let him get away with it.

"I asked first!"

"Are you going to be so childish about it?" he said with a little smile. "I asked second."

"Okay, mister, if that's the way you want to play it! I thought I would go to the dance classes they are offering. To brush up my skills."

What skills? she thought to herself. I wouldn't know dance skills if they hit me on the head with a powerpoint projector. But she did not convey this to Anderson, only looked expectantly for his reaction. He looked back. He knew he should say something, but didn't know what.

"Want to come with me? Push some of your boundaries? You know you can dance, remember, I saw you dance at the New Year's party. Now is the time to improve yourself!"

He looked aghast. Yes, he had danced, in public, once. He regretted it. So did the public, probably.

"Sarah, the only boundaries I will push by dancing again in front of people will be those of common decency! I should be banned!"

She picked up her book, looked at it, then looked back at Anderson, who was looking, perplexed, at the pile of reports on the table.

"Well now, that wouldn't be so bad, would it?"

He relented. In truth, he had been wanting to relent for some time now, but those inner boundaries Sarah had mentioned were not easy to cross. Not by a man who had spent a lifetime dedicated to everything except himself. And who kept emotions so deeply hidden it would an archaeological team to find them.

"Only if you accompany me on a long walk tomorrow morning before the first session!" he said, picking up his heavy tome again.

Sarah spent the rest of the trip smiling and looking out of the window.//




FOOD



"Sit down, Anderson," said President Kane heavily.

" Thank you, sir. What can I do for you?"

President Kane was silent for a minute or two.

" Let me give you some food for thought," he said finally. " I know you are doing your best to raise five ninjas, with very special talents and very strong personalities. I know that their duty will be to protect Earth, and the ISO, from Spectra. I do have to warn you, however, that if they continue with their pranks invloving messing up the ISO cars, motorbikes, planes and yes, even boats, there won't be much left for Spectra to attack. Can't you find a way to keep them busy, please?"

"I will do my best, sir," said Anderson, getting up.

Food for thought, indeed. He'd give the little terrors some food for thought, preferably of the kind that would involve grounding them until they turned 18. Then he sighed. Of course, it wouldn't last long, whatever plan he came up with. The kids were well- trained. HE had trained them well. For this at least, he was proud.//



FREEDOM



"So what do you do in your free time?" Sarah asked Anderson as they were walking along a path circumnavigating the hotel complex where the ISO conference was taking place. The air was clean and fresh, a morning breeze was blowing, the trees were green, the birds were singing. The contrast with the oppressive, claustrophobic, airless rooms in Centre Neptune could not have been more pronounced. And seeing Anderson so much out of his usual surroundings was making Sarah look at him with fresh eyes. Eyes that were, just a bit, romantically inclined.

"Free time?" he laughed. "What free time? With five teens at home and being worried sick about them when they're on mission, how could I have free time?"

"We've got free time here, what would you like to do?"

"You've signed us up already for dancing and cooking classes -- that's my free time gone!"

She punched him playfully on the shoulder as they were walking side by side. Anderson was taller, but Sarah had a quicker step and could follow him easily as they made their way along the path. She had promised to keep him company on his morning walk, he had promised to go dancing with her. Sarah realised that, in all the years she knew Anderson, they'd never been to a conference together. This was the first time they had the freedom to get to know each other a bit better, away from the work environment that dominated their days and -- occasionally -- nights.

"How long do you think you'll be able to stand this rhythm?" she asked pensively. "No holidays, no free time, no time to relax..."

"Well, that goes for you too!" he objected, determined not to let her off the hook. If she was going to nag him to relax, he was ready to do the same.

"Yes, that's true. But I love being in the lab -- probably as much as you love being in your office. It's hopeless with us, isn't it?" she finished gently.

"We are dedicated to what we do. Nothing wrong with that. We've chosen this freely," Anderson admonished her, wondering at her sudden seriousness.

"A Greek writer and philosopher of the 20th century said once 'I don't fear anything, I don't expect anything, I'm free," said Sarah slowly as they rounded a corner and the valley below the mountain came into view, resplendent in a hundred different hues of green. They stopped to admire it.

"Well, I fear lots of things. I fear that Spectra might one day overpower us. I fear that my ninjas will get injured...or worse...I fear that, in the end, our defences will not hold. And I do expect lots of things. I expect us to continue fighting Spectra until the end. I expect G-Force to perform to its highest level. I expect the ISO to continue to rise to the challenge. Does this make me not free?"

Sarah turned to look at him.

"What to do you expect for yourself, Jack?"

"I expect to be able to do my duty as long as I can, corny as this may sound."

Suddenly she was angry.

"Please tell me that's not all you expect for yourself! What about happiness?"

Anderson was visibly shocked. Not used to talking about his feelings, he was even less used being asked about them. Still, he was on holiday -- sort of. This was his free time, before the meetings began. For once, he was off-duty.

"An American author said that there's only one thing more important than happiness, and that is freedom. I'm doing my best to secure our freedom, which includes my own freedom as well."

Sarah looked at the valley, then at the mountain top rising behind them. Then at Anderson, who stood humbly next to her, saying in one sentence what all ISO staff felt. She looked at him straight in the eye and, plunging ahead, reached up and kissed him.//

Daniella says: The Greek author mentioned in this fic is Nikos Kazantzakis. The American author is Tom Robbins.



THE GIFT



Anderson could not have been more suprised, nay, shocked, than if Zoltar had suddenly appeared to negotiate a ceasefire. His first reaction was to push himself away. But then he took in Sarah's scent, felt her arms around him -- when had she hugged him? -- tasted her lips...Letting himself forget, for a moment, the war, the Spectran attacks, his worries about G-Force, his continuous anxiety and stress, letting himself, for just one moment, be a man instead of only the Chief of Security, he held Sarah more tightly in his arms, and kissed her back.

***

They didn't know how many minutes passed. They just knew that, at some point, they found themselves sitting on the ground, under the shade of an oak tree. They held hands, both of them feeling suddenly like teenagers. Anderson suddenly felt that he understood perfectly how his teenage ninjas felt. He had a surge of enthusiasm and vitality. He felt invincible. He knew very well that this would not last, that both Sarah and he would be called, very soon, to go back to their everyday roles. He would have to wear again the facade of the austere, strong and unflinching Chief of Security. She would go back to being the brilliant, studious and hard-working scientist. But, for now, they were two human beings simply in love.

Anderson had stopped dreaming he would ever be in love. Apart from deeply happy, he was also confused -- for a moment. What would be expected of him? Then looked at Sarah's peaceful face, and shrugged. He would do whatever he had to do.

"I never thought you'd love me," he said awkwardly.

"I never thought you'd accept to be loved," she answered softly.

"Am I really that cold?"

"No, Jack. You' re not cold. You're an incredibly dedicated ISO officer, and you forget you are also a man."

He looked at her tenderly.

"Thank you, Sarah."

"For what?" she enquired, looking up at his prematurely lined face.

"For the gift you are giving me now. For reminding me there's something more than the war and the ISO."

They stayed silent for a while.

"I'm afraid, Sarah," he finally said. "As I told you, I'm afraid about the developments in the war, and I'm afraid for the team."

She touched his face.

"So am I. I love these kids. But, Jack, they are as well-trained as they could ever be. They are more than a match for Zoltar."

"They are five teenagers who have shouldered the duty to save the planet!"

"They are not alone, and you know it. We are there for them, the ISO is there for them."

Anderson snorted.

"Not to mention Zark!"

Sarah laughed.

"Well, I wouldn't go that far. That tin can has been fraying my nerves for a long time now."

"Want to get rid of him?"

"Would you do that, Jack?" she smiled.

"As a gift to you, I'll send Zark back to the lab that made him".

"Oh, Jack, that would be so nice! But it's ok, I understand that, unfortunately we need the tin terror. Perhaps you could get him a pet, to keep him busy?"

"What a good idea! No wonder you're such a brillian scientist!"

"Idiot! Stop flattering me!" she pretended to push him away, and they both rolled on the grass.

At that moment, both their phones started beeping. They fished them out of their pockets, checked the screen. It was a reminder. They jumped up at the same time.

"The meeting is starting! We have to get back to the hotel!"

Laughing like two people with no care in the world -- and certainly not with the care of protecting the Earth -- they ran back to the hotel. They barely had time to go back to their rooms and collect their papers before heading to the conference hall for the first meeting.



THE CHIBIS



Anderson sighed, pulled open a drawer and took a tattered enveloped from it. From the envelope, he took a photograph, dog-eared and obviously old. He looked at it tenderly. It had been a hard morning, and the fight he just had with Jason hadn't helped.

Sarah knocked perfunctorily on the door, and entered. She looked curiously
at the photo Anderson was holding.

"The kids? You still have it?"

Anderson nodded dreamily.

"The kids with their mock birdstyles, on their first day at the Academy".

He rubbed his eyes.

"Sometimes, when they give me a hard time, I look at that photo to remember that I didn't always want to punch them."

Sarah nodded, gave him a little kiss on the cheek.

"Let's meet later, maybe I can also help you relax."

Anderson gave half-smile, placed the photo carefully in its envelope."

"Sure. Now let me go back to the three million reasons Zoltar is giving me indigestion."



NEMESIS



Daniella says: This is an out-take from my fic "Irreplaceable".



When Mala called to tell me that her mission had been succesful, I almost didn't believe her. You see, I'm so used to failures. And to the Federation foiling every one of my plans. But no, this time she had succeeded. Goes to show, perhaps, that one lone woman could accomplish more than my battalions.

So after a moment or two of savouring our triumph, I told the good news to the Luminous One. Who couldn't care less, truth be told.

"And what are you going to do with a security chief, Zoltar? Ransom him?"

"My idea was that the Federation will eventually replace him," I mumbled.

"Your plans always fail, Zoltar! Make sure this doesn't happen this time!"

I bowed and left without a word, not trusting myself not to blast out against the Luminous One. Yes, I fail. It would help, however, if I had decent intelligence to work with. If I had decent military commanders. I am the one chance for our planet. And it's not going well.

Back in my office, I wondered what the Earthling would think of us, here, on our wasting planet. Surprisingly, I found myself wondering what he would think of me. Not that I care. But it will be interesting. For the Federation, I am a bit of a clown, a hopeless leader. Let's see if he feels the same after he sees me on my own pitch.

A message was relayed to me that the transport had arrived, and I got ready to meet my nemesis. Chief Anderson was on his way.//



EXPOSE



For some reason, Anderson had decided I should be the one to enter the enemy ship and try to get hold of the defector. I don't know why, and I don't care. I don't care about any of them. I don't care what will happen to me inside that ship. I don't care whether I will see the team again. But I have one chance to expose Donald Wade, and I will take it.



UNITY



The conference hall was already packed by the time they had hurried back to the hotel. Panting, and not looking at all like two serious scientists about to discuss the various possible defences of the Earth against the war they all knew was coming, they found their seats. Anderson was participating in the first panel, titled "Cooperation with friendly planets -- the first steps in intergalactic defence" and, as he sat down, he saw that an old friend of his was also at the conference. Strange, he hadn't seen his name on the programme. Frowning slightly, he approached him, but before he could say a word, the man pulled him aside, placing a finger on his lips.

"Shhhh! I *have* to speak with you -- in private!" the man whispered. They repaired to a corner of the room. Anderson caught Sarah's anxious gaze -- she had seen the man approach Anderson and then walk with him to a corner. The man looked familiar to her, but she couldn't place him. Perhaps without the glasses...or the long hair...Anderson waved at her "it's ok", and she sat back in her chair, puzzled.

"What's the matter, Angus? Why the disguise? And why the cloak-and-dagger?"

"I was looking for you before the meeting -- I just arrived and I wanted to speak to you, but they told me you had gone off for a walk with Dr. Petrides," he said, a trifle accusingly.

"Who I go for a walk with is my own business," Anderson said coolly. He was not accustomed to having his actions questions, certainly not by his friends.

"Listen, I don't care where you go and with who. But I need to warn you. I'm here under my assumed name. I am now Colonel Cronus, and I work for Rigan intelligence."

Anderson was even more puzzled.

"And why do you need an assumed name to do that? What's wrong with yours?"

The man the world would come to know as Cronus sighed deeply.

"The Rigan government is not as solid as it appears, Jack. They don't all trust Earth officials, nor do they all want to ally with the Earth in this war. As an Earthling, I would never be accepted in their circles. So I adopted a new identity. For all intents and purposes, I'm Rigan. You are the only one here who knows me well enough to need to be warned. Well, Dr. Petrides might recognise me, so you'd better let her know as well. But not the others!"

He paused for a minute, then looked at his friend again.

"It's not bad, you know. I work for the unity of the federation. I've met a good woman and married her. I'm now in the position to be posted back to Earth -- I might even come to work at Centre Neptune as part of your exchange programme with Riga. Who knows, I might get to spy for you one day!"



MOONLIGHT



Was that Angus?" said Sarah, looking uncertainly at Anderson.

"Cronus. We must call him Cronus now. I'll explain later," Anderson replied hurriedly, taking his seat on the panel.

Sarah shrugged and sat down.

The first panel on inter-planetary cooperation explored ways in which the Federation could organise its defences better, in view of the war with Spectra -- the war they all knew was coming. Sarah was more interested in the following panels, on scientific advancements that would further the Federation's defence possibilities. Her mind started to wander at the conversation they had had only that morning -- which now seemed to her ages ago -- the way Anderson had opened up to her, the way she had opened up to him. She tried to shake herself out of it, tried to focus on the panel. She knew she could not let her feelings for Anderson disorientate or blind her to the stark realities around her. But just for a moment, she dreamed of how nice it would be if they could just take the "Moonlight Train" for a ride up to the peak of the mountains during the evening...as she had heard other couples doing when they visited this conference centre.

Other couples...so they were a couple...

Sarah smiled. That was enough, for now. Now they had to focus on the Federation's defence. And if they could steal a few moments of happines along the way, that would also be enough.//

A/N: I got the inspiration for this while watching "The Mentalist", where a train called the "Moonlight Coast" was mentioned. Does anyone know it? It's on the west coast, apparently going north from Sacramento.



TREASURE



Exhausted, at the end of the first day of the Conference, Sarah met Anderson for a night cap at the hotel bar. The long mahogany bar, the velvet-covered bar stools, the colourful rows of bottle on the shelves across from her, were a pleasant distraction from the world of battle preparations that she spent most of her life in.

Suddenly, she felt awkward and...shy, yes that was it. She hadn't spoken to Anderson, really spoken to him, since their morning walk, when everything had changed. Then came the intensive work on the conference's panels -- punctuated by a sudden appearance by Anderson's old friend Angus, who apparently now wished to go by the name of Cronus -- which left no time to the two of them to talk freely again. So now, she was waiting for him. As a girlfriend would wait her boyfriend, if she remembered these things correctly...it had been so long...so long...

Sarah realised she was drifting off. She shook her head, took a sip of her kir royal. Yes, she mentally replied to a mental rebuke. Champagne cocktail, you got a problem?

And then there he was. Right beside her, still dressed in the same crumpled suit, glasses hanging askew, hair ruffled, eyes bloodshot. Sarah's heart gave a jolt. He was so...adorable, she had to take a grip of herself to stop herself from jumping up and hugging him. Instead, she smiled, and nodded at the seat next to her.

"Finished?"

"Not really, but I could use a break."

He rubbed his eyes, picked up the cocktail list.

"What on earth is a grasshopper?" he wondered alound.

Sarah laughed.

"A minty concoction. Try it, you'll like it."

Anderson appeared unconvinced, but decided to be adventurous. He called a waiter over, gave his order, and added a second kir for Sarah, despite her protestations that one was enough.

They sat in companionable silence for a while. Then Sarah, unable to take it any longer, broke the ice.

"Look, Jack, about this morning... if you're not sure..."

Anderson looked at her in alarm.

"Not sure? Sarah, I'm surer of this than I am of many other things. Don't be so insecure -- sorry, no offence meant!" he added quickly, seeing Sarah's stricken face. "Yes, I'm sure," he repeated softly.

Their drinks arrived. Anderson made a face at the green liquid, but as soon as he took a sip, a smile spread across his face.

"Aaaaah....where was this little treasure when I was a student?"

"Grasshoppers have been around for ever, Jack", laughed Sarah. "The question is, where were you when you were a student? Apart from the library?"

He nodded morosely.

"Yup, that's where I was. Now, back to our topic...Don't you ever ask me again if I'm sure! But, may I ask, are you?"

Sarah leaned over the bar, kissed him gently on the mouth.

"That's my answer."

"Oh, I just remembered," said Anderson, picking a blue-covered folder out of his briefcase. "The lastest info on Spectran defense fortifications. I just got it off President Kane, and I got a copy for you too."

Sarah laughed, took the folder.

"I will treasure this for ever," she told Anderson, placing, however, the folder next to her without reading it. "Now come here."



PARTY



What's Princess doing?" asked Jason, bewildered, looking at her sister and team-mate bopping around furiously, white earbuds in her ears, a pink ipod hanging by her side.

Mark looked up, guiltily, Jason thought.

"You know that she wanted to go to a party at Jill's with me, and I had said yes, and then a training session came up, and I had to cancel, and then she wouldn't speak to me for a week?"

Jason scratched his head.

"But, Mark, that was weeks ago! What's gotten into her now?"

"Well, recently she found a compilation of some really old pop songs, and, unfortunately, she seems to think that she's found the right one to vent her feelings. She's been listening to it for at least the past 45 minutes."

With a determined movement, Jason, his curiousity gotten the better of him, snatched the earphones from Princess, and plugged them in his ears. Oblivious to her furious gaze, he cringed when he heard

"It's my party and I'll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to..."

Hastily, he pulled off the earbuds, handed them back to Princess and ran out of the room. Nope, he was never going to understand girls. Or old pop songs.




PUMPKIN



Princess, have you seen Jason?" asked Mark, scratching his head and looking around the common room at disbelief at what he was seeing: candy bars and pumpkins strewn across the floor, Princess and Keyop up to their ears in coloured paper and glue, making decorations.

"Never mind Jason, what are you doing?" continued Mark in the same breath.

"This? Oh, we decided to hold a little Halloween celebration for the kids of the staff. I expect all of them to turn up as Zoltar. Keyop and I got the candy, and I was going to tell the others once everyting was ready. Anyway, you were looking for Jason?"

"Ah, yes, I was looking for him, we have to go over some reports. Where is he? Is he helping out with the preparations?" asked Mark, a bit put off by the idea that Jason would be helping Princess and Keyop when he, the commander, had no idea of what was going on. But Princess just snorted.

"Jason? Helping out? You gotta be joking! No, he's shut himself in the chief's study, preparing, as he said, for something called...what was it...nanosomething or other...I'm not sure. It's something people used to do a long time ago, they wrote a novel in one month. It happened every November. Jason read about it somewhere and wanted to give it a go. He's preparing his storyline as he said."

"Jason? Write a novel? Is he serious?" gasped Mark.

"Well, he seemed quite serious to me. He suggested I try it too, to get, as he said, my creativity flowing."

"Ok, I have to find him. He HAS to promise that he's not going to make me read it."

With a determined look on his face, headed off to make sure that he would not be asked to comment on Jason's creativity. One enemy, Spectra, was enough. He didn't want to make any others.



FIREWORKS



"What on earth is that noise?" shouted Anderson, coming out of his office.

The hullaballoo was loud like a series of fireworks exploding in a small room. Things were breeaking, smashing, falling, and doing a lot of other things, all of them noisy. Anderson was fuming, looking around for the culprit.

Princess smiled, a bit embarassed.

"It's Jason, chief. He's, how to put it, upset, because he can't figure out how to continue his Nano."



SERVICE



I can hear them speaking, their voices coming loud and clear through the door. Bastards. They don't even try to keep their voices down. Of course, they can't know I have infiltrated the mecha. Silly me.

Mark should have neven suggested I come here. I was too eager to agree, and he should have known something was wrong. I don't even really care about the success of the mission now. The only thing I care about is getting Donald Wade.

I can hear Zoltar's voice rising in pitch. He doesn't seem to be happy with his pet traitor anymore.

"I offered you the possibility to work for me so that I could get G-Force, Wade!" I can hear him yell.

"You know G-Force is not an easy target, Zoltar!" Wade is arguing back, but I can hear his voice breaking. If the Federation doesn't get him, Zoltar will make him pay for the failure of his formula to defeat G-Force for good. A sudden feeling of pity for him surges through me, but I keep it down.

"If I could only get my hands on the Eagle or the Condor, you would see if they are an easy target!" shouts Zoltar, and I can hear him slapping his hands on the table.

I take a deep breath to steady myself, and send a quick blast through the door's locking mechanism. I step inside, gun aiming at both of them, and I am gratified by Zoltar's look of utter surprise. Wade's look, I don't even bother with, for the moment.

"I am the Condor," I snarl. "How can I be of service?"




MIRROR


Anderson had never felt so at ease kissing a woman in public as he did with Sarah. Despite his inherent shyness, he felt somehow...right...when he was with her, even in the middle of a crowded bar and with their colleagues milling around them.

She pushed his glasses higher up his nose.

"You'd look great with contacts," she told him seriously.

"Tried it. Couldn't get the hang of it. I thought I looked great as I am," he added, a hurt tone in his voice.

She snorted.

"And they say men are not vain!"

"Who said that?" he inquired, pulling her closer.

"Do we really have to go back to Centre Neptune in a few days?" she groaned.

"Wouldn't you get bored here? Just the mountains, fresh air...nothing to do..."

"I suppose so..."

They played with their drinks for a while. Then Anderson got all serious.

"Sarah, I need your advice on something."

"New glasses?" she teased him.

He shook his head.

"Jason."

That got her attention.

"What's wrong, Jack?"

"Nothing's wrong...yet. But the team is ready to be deployed, the war could start any day now, and I am worried about Jason's ability to integrate with the rest of G-Force."

Sarah sat up in her chair.

"But, Jack, what's more to integrate? He's been with the team since the beginning of the project. He's well-trained, extremely capable, dependable, and smart. What more do you need?"

Anderson looked perplexed.

"Yes, but he's also headstrong, stubborn, single-minded and rebellious...and this makes me pause sometimes and think whether it was a good idea in the first place..."

Sarah thought for a second or two. Then she took Anderson's hands into her own.

"You know why you're probably finding it so hard to deal with him Jack? Because, although you are not able to see it, Jason is the mirror-image of yourself."



CONSEQUENCES



It had been perhaps the most enjoyable conference Sarah had ever attended. She had said so much to Anderson, who nodded in understanding. They were sitting again in the monorail, heading back to Centre Neptune, after a few days full of meetings, discussions, mind-numbing talks, long nights going over documents...and love. Sarah and Anderson had finally confessed to each other their love. Or their infatuation. Or their attraction to each other. Whatever it was, it was something that had to be dealt with before the monorail pulled into the station.

"You're thinking about the news we got about the war?" asked Sarah tentatively, as Anderson's face had been clouded over since the morning. And it was true, the news they had gotten were not good -- if their information was confirmed, the war would start sooner than expected. But Anderson shook his head.

"For a change, no. I'm thinking about what to do with us."

Sarah knew that he was blunt, but she was taken aback at the acid tone of his words.

"What do you mean, Jack? To do what?"

"You know what I mean! Actions have consequences, Sarah! We took a big step up on the mountain, both of us, and now we have to decide what to do. Do we tell the world that we are...well, a couple? I mean, if you want us to be? Do we tell the kids?"

The last question made Sarah snort.

"The kids? Jack, the kids are an elite fighting force ready to take on the galaxy! Surely they can take the news that their foster father is in love with a fellow scientist! It's not that I will take their mother's place..."

"But would it be so bad if you did?" said Anderson softly. "You've seen them grow up. You get along well with them. Princess, for one, could use another woman around, to speak with her about all the things she can't speak about with me."

"I'm around for Princess whether I date you or not, Jack. You know this. You are just getting worked up over nothing. We go back, we act normal, we date if we want to date, and, after that, it's no-one's business. Of course we tell the kids that we are...how to put it...going steady, I guess?"

She smiled at her own inability to say the words "in love." It would come. Later.

Anderson just shook his head again.

"What are you so worried about?" asked Sarah, a bit annoyed. She understood the need to be discreet, but both of them were single, unattached and available. The ISO had no rules against colleagues dating. She didn't know how their relationship would turn out, of course, but that was no reason to get all worked up about what the people at Centre Neptune would say.

"Are you worried about your image, Jack? Is that it? You don't want people to say that you are a mere mortal, a normal man dating a woman in the few spare moments he has while trying to save the galaxy?"

The words came out harsher than she had intended. But Anderson did not get angry. Instead, he pulled her hands closer.

"Sarah...I'm worried that I'll never have such a good time with you as I did up on the mountain. We have a war coming. Do I dare love you now? Do I dare let my feelings for you occupy even a single moment of my day? Or night? Do I dare risk that your association with me will make you an even more attractive target for Spectra?"

She was speechless for a moment. For a taciturn and introvert man, Anderson had been surprisingly frank with her. He deserved a frank answer.

"You want the truth? I don't know. I don't know if the magical time we had on the mountain can be recreated. But we can always try. And Jack, I don't know about you, but I will certainly go into this war much more ready if I know that you are by my side."

The monorail pulled into their station, and Anderson leaned over to kiss her.

"Thank you," he said simply.



CAKE



Despite Sarah's firm view that the "kids" -- i.e., the elite force he had been training -- couldn't care less about his budding romance with her, Anderson couldn't help wondering, as he made his way to work the next day. In his case, this meant taking the lift a few floors down, from their living quarters to his lab. To his surprise, the team was already waiting for him there. And they looked sullen and dejected. Surely they couldn't have heard the news already? He shook his head. No, that was impossible. Something else must have happened. He took a deep breath and plastered a smile on his face as he approached the collected teenage angst in front of him.

"Maybe I should have brought them a cake from the resort," he thought to himself, as Mark approached him and handed him a report.



SLIPPERY



The report Mark handed him seemed, initially, to be quite innocuous. It was a standard document from the ISO's administration, setting out the latest version of the paperwork referring to G-Force, as it had to be updated in view of the imminent hostilities. To Anderson, it did not seem like anything warranting a mutiny. But the team's faces were definitely mutinous. Why, even Keyop looked mutinous, he noticed in surprise.

"I don't see what the problem is..." he started mildly. Better not to antagonise them immediately.

"Yeah, you wouldn't, would you?" snarled Jason. "That's why we decided to bring it to your attention personally instead of letting it lie in your in-tray."

"Jason, it's been a long trip, and I'm tired. What's the big deal with this document?"

"Check you the penultimate paragraph," said Princess, sulking.

Anderson's eyes scanned the document. Aha! So that's what the team was so upset about. They were right, he wouldn't have noticed it himself. Still, he tried to dismiss the problem.

"It only says here that until you are eighteen, you will remain, legally speaking, wards of the ISO. You knew that. That's how it was until now. Why are you so angry? This update only repeats, in this particular paragraph, what the previous terms of reference said."

Mark took a step forward, his face inches from the Chief's.

"When the previous documents were drafted we were trainees. We were NOT about to go out and risk our lives in this war. So you want us to be combattants, to be the elite force in the galaxy, and still be considered underage legally? Is this your idea of making us responsible?"

He was so angry, he couldn't continue, so Tiny took the floor.

"Chief, this is not fair. It will still be some time until all of us turn eighteen -- for Keyop, it will be years! And all this time we will fight to protect the Earth from Spectra, but we will still be considered...children? Is that what you want?"

Anderson drew a hand through his hair. This was one battle he could not win. If he wanted his team to fight a war, it was only fair to treat them as adults. He would have to get the ISO lawyers to work on it, finding a way of making all of them, including Keyop, adults in the legal sense.

"You're right. I will find a solution. But you know what this means, don't you?" he snapped. "It means you are adults, not only when you're in the field but in all other circumstances! Which means I expect you to behave as adults! All the time!", he added, looking meaningfully at Jason. Jason had the good grace to look down.

"Chief, while we're at it, could we also look at our contracts again? Get some more leeway to spend the money we earn instead of keeping it in trust?" said Princess, looking at him pleadingly. In the way that he found hard to resist.

Anderson felt he was on a slippery slope. If he started giving in to all their demands, there was no knowing where it could end. He decided it was time to distract them.

"Princess, no way. We hope that one day the war will be over. And you wil need the money you are saving now. However, on a different note...and as you want to be treated as adults, I expect you to behave as adults when certain rumours concerning me reach your ears."

He paused for effect, having gotten, for once, their undivided attention.

"I assure you that the rumours are true. I am dating Dr. Sarah Petrides."
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