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Learning Curves by Grumpy Ghost Owl
Learning Curves by Grumpy Ghost Owl
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DISCLAIMER AND WARNINGS
This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets are the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Thanks to Kat Ross and Shayron Alvarado for beta reading.

NOTES
The events recounted in this story take place in 2161, about a month before Attack of the Space Terrapin.




Battle of the Planets: 2163
LEARNING CURVES

a Battle of the Planets fan fiction


David Anderson stared at the date on his desk calendar: March 5th, 2161. He'd been Chief of Galaxy Security for exactly five months and was now past the point where he considered it a good day if he managed to keep his head above water. Possibly, just possibly, he might be lucky enough to start achieving things if he kept working at it. The calendar's motto for the day was a quote from Miles Franklin: It's a sign of your own worth sometimes if you are hated by the right people. Anderson pondered the sentiment for a moment and decided he felt a little better about life in general. He checked his schedule. His first meeting of the day was with Theodore O'Hara, Galaxy Security’s Director of Internal Security.

Anderson finished reading his paper mail and got out of the big leather chair. He'd had to cut his morning run short thanks to a phone call from the Vice President's office about a question on notice for an upcoming Federation Council Session, and he was feeling restless. He crossed the big office and stopped a foot or so short of the picture window that overlooked Center City. A hundred floors above street level in the ISO Tower, the office of the Chief of Galaxy Security was an eagle's eyrie from which a far seeing predator might oversee his domain with all due arrogance.

Anderson was still working on the 'due arrogance' part. His predecessor hadn't left any notes on how one might cultivate the galactic hubris that had come to be synonymous with the job in previous years. He wondered if people could tell that he was still mostly bluffing.

His reflection looked back at him through the tinted armoured glass: a tall man of forty seven, Anderson didn't really look the part of the senior intelligence executive. Part of him, he knew, would always be the science geek more at home in a lab coat than a suit. A gossamer thread of recalcitrance in the weft of Anderson's psyche led him to eschew the designer suits favoured by his colleagues in preference for a waistcoat that didn't quite match his jacket and a tendency to get little ink stains in his shirt pockets. Since his early teens, Anderson had been obliged to make use of corrective lenses. He wore lightweight pince nez style spectacles with fine titanium-alloy rims. The high-tech polymer lenses caught the sunlight filtering in through the window and reflected it back on itself, making his expression unreadable. Sometimes it bothered Anderson to think of being less than three years away from fifty. He didn't think of himself as being middle-aged and had difficulty imagining what it was supposed to be like. Despite the pressures of his job, the years had been easy on him. He still had a thick mane of dark red-brown hair with only a few strands of grey sneaking in near his temples and one or two silvery hairs were starting to infiltrate his moustache. He was careful to exercise regularly and ate, well... more or less sensibly, if one believed the veracity of the claims to nutritional balance on the boxes of 'healthy' microwaveable frozen meals and pouches of soup. He drank too much coffee and (in his own estimation) not enough Scotch.

March fifth. Exactly five months in the big chair. Was it really a year since Lillian had left? Just over, truth be told. It occurred to him that he couldn't remember when he'd stopped counting the weeks, but it had been some time ago. That had to be a good thing, didn't it?

"I can't marry you," she'd said, and handed him back the ring.

They'd been engaged for almost six months.

Anderson could remember feeling that his world ought to be crashing down around his ears, and a sense of being somewhat short-changed when it unaccountably failed to do so. This was followed by an odd, detached numbness. "I see," he'd said, even though he didn't, not really. Something in his mind switched to automatic pilot. "If you were happy, you wouldn't be doing this," he reasoned, mostly to himself -- her presence was extraneous to that process. "So it follows that I haven't made you happy." QED. There had been signs, of course. He simply hadn't been paying attention. The realisation was too little, too late.

"It isn't you," she said. "It's me."

"Ah." Familiar words. He just hadn't expected them from Lily. They'd got past most of the points where he usually heard that line. When she'd agreed to marry him, he'd thought himself safe. He'd been wrong, that much was plain.

"Actually, it is you," she corrected herself in the face of his silence. "As well as me. You. And me."

"I see," he said again (which didn't make it any more true than the last time but it filled the space.) "I respect your decision. I'll have your mail redirected and --"

"Do you have to be so damned reasonable?" she said, blinking back tears and folding her arms across her midriff. He watched her pace back and forth, her shining dark gold hair moving in a bright drift down her back. He'd probably never feel his fingers catching in those silky tresses again, he realised with a jolt.

"It hasn't sunk in, yet," he admitted.

"Can't you get angry or something?" she demanded, her ivory skin colouring as it always did when her emotions took over. "Shout at me? Scream? Throw something? React to this!"

"I can't, right now," he said. "Your need for recrimination's just going to have to wait." It hurt, surely. It was supposed to hurt, yet all he could feel was this odd numbness.

"I seem to have spent most of our relationship waiting," she said, bitterly.

"I'm never there for you," he said, anticipating what would come next.

"That's right," she said. "Even when you're here, you're not here," she accused him. "Galaxy Security comes first, second and third with you. How can I possibly marry you when you're already married to your job?"

There wasn't much he could say to counter what he knew to be true. At least she hadn't brought the children into it. "I don't think I can change that, Lily," he told her.

"Even if you were willing to change, it's too late," she said. "You don't love me the way I need to be loved."

A question came to mind. "Is there someone else?"

She blanched at that and he couldn't tell whether it was with indignation or guilt. "Would you react if there was?" she asked him.

"I don't know. Maybe we could talk later," he said. "I need some time to think."

"You do too much of that, already," she flung at him, and walked out.

She was right, he realised, once he'd had time to absorb the import of her decision. Lillian wanted someone for whom she could be the bright centre of the universe rather than a pleasant incidental, wanted an all-consuming passion, wanted -- needed -- to be told, and more importantly, to believe that he couldn't live without her.

The trouble was that he could.

David Anderson had taken refuge in his work (which was to say his schedule didn't change very much at all.) He missed Lillian, but there was so much work to do, as there always was, and one day blended in to the next. At some point -- he couldn't remember the day or the date, but it was bound to be in his diary somewhere -- he'd donated the diamond solitaire to the Interplanetary Red Cross for a charity auction. That had hurt, he recalled. Not because of the money, but because it represented what was possibly one of the biggest failures of his life. He'd loved Lily and he hadn't been able - no, if he was going to be honest, he hadn't been willing to make the effort - to make her happy enough to stay.

Trouble came in cycles, as usual: Lillian's departure was followed by the abrupt resignation of Dr Benjamin Strecker, head of the Tronic Beam Project. A bare two weeks after that, intelligence confirmed that Spectra was winding up to begin overt hostilities. The ISO Council had barely managed to convene to discuss the possibility of open war when Security Chief Conway was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. Rather than face a slow death, Conway kept the news to himself, spent a pleasant family weekend at Camp Parker, took his service revolver to the shore of Lake Conway and ended his life on his own terms, catapulting Anderson to the role of Acting Chief of Galaxy Security. The appointment was quickly ratified by the Federation Council on the personal recommendation of President Alexander Kane, and there was even more work to do.

Now, like a man testing a sore tooth, Anderson dared to look at the empty place in his heart. It was still there, but like an old wound, it was closing over to form a scar. The engagement had lasted six months, the relationship itself three years. Was healing supposed to happen this fast after you lost the love of your life? Or had he been wrong about that, too? Lillian had seemed to think so. "I wasn't the one for you," she'd said when she came to collect her things.

"How do you know?" he'd wondered aloud. He'd been fairly sure -- at least he'd hoped, which surely amounted to much the same thing -- that she was.

"Maybe you just aren't the 'in love' type," she'd said. It had been a relatively amicable break up, but it had its moments. She never had answered his question about whether or not there was somebody else, he realised. In one sense, it didn't matter, not if he compartmentalised the relationship -- after all, happy people don't stray as a general rule -- but then it didn't matter at all, in the scheme of things. She was still just as gone, either way.

A falcon flashed by the window, clutching something in its talons. A couple of small blue-grey feathers floated and danced on the updraught from the Tower. Pigeon, Anderson noted idly.

Through the open doorway of his office, Anderson heard his administrative officer's voice: "Go on in, sir. He's expecting you."

Anderson didn't turn away from the window. He watched Director O'Hara's reflected image enter the room. "Morning, Ted," Anderson said, addressing the glass.

"David," O'Hara said. “I won’t take up too much of your time. I’m due at the Academy.” Theodore O'Hara sat down without being asked and began shuffling manila folders. The Internal Security Director was a slightly built, dapper man with a penchant for Italian silk suits. O'Hara was losing the last of his hair but not his insistence on working by the book. Anderson left off his perusal of the cityscape and resumed occupancy of the chair behind his desk.

O’Hara rested his hands on a pile of manila folders on the desk in front of him. "You’ll be pleased to know that a significant percentage of new recruits at all our Academies are expressing a desire to pursue careers in Protective Services,” he announced. “We won’t be facing any personnel shortages in the foreseeable future.”

“That’s good news,” Anderson said.

“Indeed it is,” O’Hara said. “In fact I’m about to head over to Brewer to talk to the latest intake about Galaxy Security career paths. The response to our advertising campaign has been most gratifying.”

“Glad to hear it. So they don’t all want to be Plain Clothes?”

“I wish you wouldn’t use those terms,” O’Hara said.

“Ted,” Anderson said, “everybody uses those terms: Uniforms, Lab Coats, Plain Clothes and Suits. It’s part of the culture. It doesn’t hurt anyone.”

“It suggests a lack of respect. Don’t you find it belittling to be referred to as a Suit?”

“It doesn’t really bother me,” Anderson said. “Colonel Hawking always used to call me a Lab Coat, even after we’d been on half a dozen missions together.”

“I really don’t think we should encourage it,” O’Hara insisted.

“What else did you want to discuss?” Anderson asked, letting the issue slide.

“In light of our complete lack of a staff shortage,” O’Hara began, and held up a finger when Anderson made to interrupt, “I’m here specifically to talk to you about upgrading your personal security. Every other ISO Chief of Staff has a full twelve-man detail, while you persist in keeping only one officer and a driver.”

"Look, Ted,” Anderson argued, "I have bigger issues to deal with at the moment. Lieutenant Maxwell's reliable and he does a good job."

"Of course he does," O'Hara agreed. "For peace time. We're about to go on to a war footing, all the other squads are in place and you’re the only Chief of Staff resisting the upgrade. Conway tabled the draft policy eighteen months ago and you signed off on it."

"Naturally, I support it in principle, but I don't need extra security," Anderson insisted.

O'Hara took a deep breath. "According to an ISO motion with your name on it, you do," he said. One hand tapped the pile of folders as he placed them neatly and precisely next to Anderson's blotter. "I've selected some candidates for you to review and short list."

"For what?"

"For the new position of Personal Security Coordinator to the Chief of Galaxy Security," O'Hara said. "David," he warned, "if you don't short list some candidates, I will." He got up and left before Anderson could argue further.

Peeved, Anderson turned his attention to the latest intelligence reports from Riga. He had plenty of other things to worry about before he'd get around to Ted O'Hara's personnel files: his next meeting, for instance, with the President and his fellow Chiefs of Staff who made up the Interplanetary Security Organisation Council.

 


 

Even lower on Security Chief Anderson's list of worry priorities than the number of bodyguards he was to be assigned was a little planet called Vega. Planet Vega was neither a mover nor a shaker when it came to interplanetary politics, even within the Federation, of which it was a Charter Member, but Veganians (who hated being referred to as Vegans) took a particular pride in the fact that they had always made a positive contribution to the Federation in the areas of art, science and primary production, and Federation Day, the anniversary (by the Arcturan calendar) of the inception of the Intergalactic Federation of Peaceful Planets, was invariably celebrated in style across the galaxy. Vega could hardly let the holiday pass without a party and even Galaxy Security got in on the act.

Wilson Greenaway was a career bureaucrat. He had always been ambitious but had a tendency toward self-indulgence that slowed his progress somewhat. If Wil Greenaway wanted something, Wil Greenaway went out and got it. It had given David Anderson a certain amount of vindictive satisfaction several years earlier when, in his capacity as Deputy Chief of Galaxy Security, he had approved Greenaway's promotion to the position of Director Planetary Operations for Galaxy Security's Veganian Division. Greenaway had only applied for the posting because his wife Jemima had begged him to do so. Jemima Greenaway had family on Vega and Wilson had asked for the job on the basis that he wouldn't get it. It turned out, however, that he was the best applicant. Anderson had enjoyed watching his colleague go pale as he congratulated him on his success. The rumour mill went wild with stories (some of them even approaching accuracy) about the extent of the tantrum thrown by Greenaway's mistress when she heard about the transfer.

On Federation Day, it was traditional for Vega's DPO to hold a reception at the official residence which was a highlight of the social calendar. In the morning, the Director attended the traditional service of thanksgiving celebrated by His Grace the Right Reverend Jeremy Harrington, Episcopalian Archbishop of Planet Vega's capital, Carsarum. Wilson Greenaway was not a particularly pious man. His interest in the church was of a far more secular nature, to wit the person of one Aurelia Bowles-Harrington, His Grace's other half. Mrs Greenaway wasn't in town, having gone to stay with her sister in the rural Sherwood region to recuperate from a 'recent illness.' Rumour among the security staff had it that Jemima Greenaway was afflicted with marital thrombosis, which was to say she had a clot for a husband.

Archbishop Harrington's sermon lasted a full fifteen minutes, during which he waxed eloquent about something to which Major Alberta Jones paid scant attention. Jones was on duty and was more concerned with monitoring her surroundings than with the day's lesson in righteousness and the associated salvation of her immortal soul. Director Greenaway was paying attention, but not to the Archbishop. Jones steadfastly pretended not to notice. "If you start making moral judgements about a Protection Assignment," Commander O'Brien had warned back at the Academy all those years ago, "you might come to the conclusion that he or she isn't worth taking a bullet for." The hardest thing, Sean O'Brien had always said, wasn't standing fast in the line of fire for someone you believed in. The hardest thing was standing fast for someone on whom you wouldn't wipe your boots. It was a matter of professionalism.

 

 

"That's it?" Jason asked. The newly-commissioned -- and as yet unblooded -- G-Force team were assembled in their ready room at the Center Neptune undersea facility. The room was without windows and had been decorated in contemporary style with the intention of encouraging young warriors to relax and unwind after stressful and potentially traumatic engagements. Princess, the team's only female member, described it as, 'funky.' Chief Anderson for his part described it as, 'yours,' and declined to spend any time there. The better part of one wall was devoted to an enormous video screen which interfaced with both the communications and entertainment systems. One corner was set up with musical equipment, another played host to a tiny kitchenette and the rest of the room was devoted to a mix of easy chairs and indoor sporting gear, most notably the ping-pong table that played host to the young commanding officer's friendly rivalry with his second.

"I'm afraid so, Jason," Mark said. "All this training... our cerebonic implants, the vehicles, the command ship..." The sentence unfinished, Mark walked over to the sink and leaned on it. He closed his eyes, trying not to let his frustration spill over into anger. He was supposed to set an example, he reminded himself. It would be unbecoming for the shiny new G-Force Commander to lose his temper in front of his team.

"All this, and they still don't want to use us?" Princess asked, shaking her head. She had unplugged her guitar from its amplifier. "Did the Chief say why?" Princess had a pleasant, soft voice, not low enough to be classed as contralto. She sounded older than her years but didn't look it. Large green eyes peered out of a fine-boned heart shaped face surrounded by raven dark hair. Despite the boyish numbered t-shirt and jeans she wore, Mark found it impossible to think of her as anything other than extremely feminine.

"The Chief said that influential elements on the Federation Council didn't want the ISO tipping our hand too soon," Mark recounted. His right hand curled into a fist.

"We're a multi-million dollar investment," Tiny, the designated pilot of the command ship Phoenix argued from the comfort of his chair, "why leave us sitting on the shelf?"

"Two attacks, right here on Earth," Jason growled, "and they don't want to send us up against Planet Spectra's weird ships. I thought we were supposed to be the silver bullet!"

"Politicians," Mark muttered, his tone leaving the rest of his team in no doubt about the depths of his opinion of politicians.

"So what does Planet Spectra have to do before the Council calls on G-Force?" Princess asked.

"March down... main street," Keyop stammered. The youngest member of the team, he constantly fought to overcome both his lack of stature and a severe speech impediment.

"Chief Anderson said he was negotiating," Mark said.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Tiny asked.

"It means politics," Jason snarled. "It stinks!"

Princess had put her guitar back on its stand and took a seat on the sofa. "Mark, did the Chief say anything about when we're likely to get a green light?"

"No, Princess," Mark said. "He confirmed that G-Force wouldn't be taking any official part in the Federation Day celebrations, then when I asked him about our status, he muttered something about hell and a handbasket, but he didn't elaborate."

"He was mad, huh?"

"Like a bee in a bottle. He'd just come from an ISO Council meeting and he was ticked."

"Yeah?" Jason said. "Well that makes six of us."

 

 

"A most... impressive demonstration, Commander," Mala said. "What is it going to be?"

Commander Herg looked uncomfortable. He shot a pleading glance at Zoltar, who appeared to be ignoring him. "Erm..." he said. Mala raised her eyebrows, and the commander, resplendent in a silvery grey uniform with a headpiece featuring a pair of antennae and compound eyes muttered, "Dr'g'nfl', m'm."

"Speak up," Mala ordered.

"It's going to be a dragonfly, ma'am," Herg said, grimacing. "Insect, ma'am. Similar to pharbugs, only bigger."

"I have never seen a pharbug with a... a..."

"Proboscis, ma'am," Herg ground out through clenched teeth. The men had called it something else. Quite a few somethings else, actually, none of them repeatable in polite company.

"Ah," Mala said.

Herg was aware of Zoltar giving him a steady look. "The designers have assured me it will be a most effective weapon against the Earth defences once we have the ship spaceworthy, ma'am."

"Of course," Mala said.

Commander Herg remained at attention. He felt a trickle of sweat making its way down the back of his neck. If he'd known there was going to be a lady present he wouldn't have allowed the lads to demonstrate quite as many of the new weapon's prehensile properties. "We'll be conducting the final flight tests in two weeks, ma'am," he added on the basis that forewarned was, after all, forearmed. "Er... will you, um... be along to, er... watch?"

"I assure you, Commander," Mala said, "I wouldn't miss it for worlds."

 

 

The Veganian security staff were on edge. Leave and days off had been cancelled for the long weekend. The rumours and the classified intel reports (of which mere protective services officers only ever saw aggressively edited snippets) had been substantiated: almost two weeks earlier, Earth had been the subject of a second attack by a terror ship from Planet Spectra. The news reports were calling it a "giant iguana." The footage in the media seemed bizarre, like an old monster movie with a badly built mechanical model monster made of wire and plasticine, but the casualty reports were chillingly real.

The Veganian DPO's party was always a huge affair, with the flower of Carsarum's upper social echelons invited. Very few declined to attend, and as always, there would be those who tried to get in without an invitation. The security staff would be doing their best to deny the gate crashers access. The reports from Earth and Riga had them seeing enemy agents under every bush and monster ships with every meteorite.

It seemed that nowhere was safe any more. By striking at Earth, Spectra had dealt a blow to the Federation's very soul. The reassurances being issued by the ISO Council comforted many, but rang hollow for others.

Alberta Jones was one of those for whom the reassurances were only so much hot air. She had been Security Coordinator for the Federation’s Ambassador to Planet Riga when Spectra had attacked the capital and had seen first-hand just how terrifying the enemy's seemingly indestructible ships could be. She and her team had managed to evacuate the embassy staff but the complex had been abandoned and the Federation was yet to decide whether or not to re-establish an embassy on Riga. Jones was now the newly appointed Second in Charge of a team with overall responsibility for security, liaison and protocol within the Office of the Veganian DPO. As the most senior officer on staff with liaison and protocol accreditation, she had been assigned to ensuring that the members of visiting trade delegation from Lucavia were both safe and happy. The Lucavians had brought their own security detail and Jones had been kept busy for several days ensuring everybody got along and nobody got shot without the correct forms having been filled in. Now, with the Federation Day party in full swing, she'd just managed to defuse a potential argument between the senior Lucavian delegate and the head of the Veganian Chamber of Commerce when her earpiece hissed with the familiar sound of a comm channel opening.

"Al, you got ears on?" The call was from Colonel Bowman, the Officer in Charge of Security.

Jones excused herself and stepped away from the trade delegation to answer the call. "Affirm," she said. "Go ahead, Mitch."

"I just had a call from Lieutenant Elliott," Mitchell Bowman said. "Seems the DPO's ducked out again. I don't want to call a Code Nineteen unless I have to."

Jones cast her eyes heavenward in a mute invocation. It went unanswered. "Do you want me to take the house or the grounds?" Jones sighed.

"I'm checking the house. You take the grounds. Ten minute sked calls. I don't need to tell you that this one calls for a high level of discretion, Al."

"As always, Colonel," Jones said. “I’ll call again in ten.” She set her comm to monitor all channels and made her way outside.

The security staff on patrol paid little attention to Jones as she moved quietly across the immaculately kept lawns of the Director's residence. The gardener's shed was the most obvious place to look, but it contained only tools and sacks of fertiliser. Jones locked the shed, checked her watch, made her scheduled report to Colonel Bowman and headed toward the summer house.

"Site, this is O'Malley," a young male voice sounded in Jones' comm. "I'm in sector five, the Hollow. The lights are out and I'm sure they were on the last time I passed by here."

"Copy, Tom," came the response from Major Bates, the coordinator site security. "Anyone in the area?"

"Jones, here," Jones said. "I've got your back, Tom. Stay where you are and wait for me." Jones changed direction and lengthened her stride.

"Elliott," another voice responded. "On my way."

About two hundred yards from the main residence, the Hollow was a magical little grove where Mrs Greenaway grew orchids, ferns and other plants that shrank from bright sunlight. It was populated with little clay faeries, elves, frogs on toadstools, pixies and brownies that Mrs Greenaway made in her pottery studio.

By night, it was often illuminated with a myriad of tiny solar electric bud lights, which created an enchanting effect.

Now, however, it was dark.

"Major," Captain O'Malley whispered, and beckoned Jones over to where he was standing in the shadows provided by the buttresses of a large Moreton Bay fig tree that had been imported decades ago all the way from Earth. "There's someone down there."

Jones peered into the gloom and waited for her vision to adjust in the darkness.

Jones considered the possibilities. One of the oldest tricks in the book for infiltrators of social occasions was to pretend to be engaged in some kind of sexual activity to confuse and embarrass security patrols into leaving said infiltrators alone. Despite its status as a complete and utter cliché, security officers were taught at the Academy to watch out for it, because the oldies were still the goodies.

There was someone -- or something -- up against Mrs Greenaway's prized hundred-year-old English willow. If it was the oldest trick in the book, they were putting on a convincing version. At the very least, the participants in the activity were in a restricted area where they shouldn't have been.

"Look, Tom," Jones murmured, "I think perhaps you'd better let me handle this." She drew her sidearm from underneath her jacket and checked the safety.

"Al, we're at condition blue," O'Malley argued. "We're supposed to treat anything like this as suspicious! What if it's an infiltration? You could get yourself killed."

"So I'll rely on you to cover me," Jones reasoned. "Just stay here, will you? And when Elliott gets here-"

A powerful flashlight beam burst into life from the other side of the Hollow, illuminating the shadowy shape against the willow. "Security!" Lieutenant Elliott bellowed.

There was a strangled gasp, a muffled scream and Jones recognised the horrified face that turned to her in the blue-white glare of the torch: Wilson Greenaway, Director Planetary Operations, Galaxy Security, en flagrante delicto with his trousers around his ankles, and Mrs Aurelia Bowles-Harrington, nearest -- and presumably dearest -- of the Archbishop, her gown in disarray, skirts hitched up under her arms, her coiffure definitely the worse for wear.

"Holy cow!" Tom O'Malley exclaimed, stepping out from his hiding place just in time to complete the director's humiliation.

"Elliott! Turn that blasted thing off!" Jones snapped. She holstered her weapon and attempted eye contact with Director Greenaway, thankful for the gloom. "So sorry to have disturbed you, sir." She activated her comm. "Site, this is Jones. All clear, the Hollow. Nothing to report. Please let Colonel Bowman know that I'll be joining him very shortly."

There was a good deal of rustling and fumbling as the couple disengaged and made an attempt at regaining a semblance of decency.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Greenaway demanded of his security staff once he had his trousers back in order.

"Securing the area, sir," Jones said. "When you're ready, I'll escort you back to the house." She glared at her companions. "Not a word, either of you!"

 

 


 

"Observation?" Mark echoed. A mixture of incredulity and irritation sparked in his wide blue eyes. "They're kidding, right?"

"I'm afraid not, Commander," Chief Anderson said. "You're authorised to take the Phoenix up and observe the next Spectra attack -- assuming," he couldn't resist adding, "that there is one."

"What?" Jason asked.

"You heard me," Anderson sighed. "It seems certain elements within the Federation Council aren't entirely convinced that Spectra means to invade." It'd be nice if they were right, Anderson mused, but they're in for a shock.

"So, what," Jason reasoned, "the last two attacks with giant terror machines were, like... I don't know, they wanted to sell us encyclopaedias or something?"

Or something, Anderson agreed silently. He'd directed a similar comment of his own at Admiral Sasaki, Chairman of the ISO Council, only he'd used insurance as an example. "Jason," he said aloud, forcing himself to relax, "I know it's frustrating for you, but the President's right when he says that we've invested a lot in G-Force, and one thing we don't want to do is drop you in over your heads. Easing you into this kind of conflict may well be for the best. Spectra's methods are extremely unconventional and analyses are thin on the ground. I know you want to see some action, and I'm certain that you will before too much longer. Let's all try to be patient."

"Right," Mark said, unconvinced.

"It's no good being angry," Anderson told the young man.

 

 

It was no good being angry, Jones told herself. Her orders were in her hand, signed and sealed by Sris Numanoglou, the Deputy Director Planetary Operations. Numanoglou had called her in to his office that morning and advised her that it was in everyone's best interests that she be transferred out. There were reputations to consider, and despite Jones' record for discretion, it was clear that Wilson Greenaway wanted her gone. As a consolation, Jones was being sent to Earth, that most sought after of destinations. Captain O'Malley was being sent home to the backwater colony of Demeter and Lieutenant Elliott had been transferred to an asteroid mining operation.

Jones refused to lose her temper, particularly where anyone might notice. She completed her shift, then went home in a state of quiet fury. She called her brother Richard, a professor at Carsarum University, told him she'd been transferred and couldn't go into the details, and got through rather too much of a bottle of a very drinkable local Syrah/Merlot blend while packing.

Alberta didn't do a very good job on the packing, but Richard Jones knew better than to argue or to try and solve his little sister's problems for her, particularly after rather too much wine. He maintained the English stiff upper lip they'd both been brought up with, politely expressed his disappointment in the circumstances, and drove her to Carsarum Spaceport.

Four subjective days, two calendar days and a hangover later, Alberta Jones made planetfall on the Auld Rock: Mother Earth. She was booked in to transitory crew quarters at the Seahorse Base complex, just outside Center City, so she stowed her gear and reported to HQ. Stone cold sober and still grumpy, (the wine hadn't helped) she now had a case of the warps -- the 'space lag' disorientation caused by time warp travel -- into the bargain.

On the thirty ninth floor of the windswept edifice of the ISO Tower, Jones was interviewed by a civilian Human Resource Officer who looked at her clean service record and frowned over the abruptness of her transfer from Planet Vega after such a short time in her post.

"Is there anything you'd like to tell me about the reason for your sudden move back to Earth, Major?" the HRO asked.

"What does it say on the form, ma'am?" Jones countered.

"It says, 'career enrichment'," the HRO read. This was generally accepted parlance for the act of being moved sideways with no clear destination in mind. It had connotations.

Jones' pale brows created a furrow as she frowned. "I'm not at liberty to enlarge on Mr Numanoglu's comment, ma'am," she said primly.

To add insult to injury, the HRO referred Jones for a voluntary psych assessment. Jones tore the referral paper up and threw it in a trash can in the lobby.

Jones was put into a relief pool pending her next long term assignment, which meant there was no point in transferring bank accounts, finding a car or renting a house: she had no idea where she would be sent next. Effectively, she was in Galaxy Security's very own version of career limbo.

In her darker moments, she fervently hoped that Wilson Greenaway would contract a hideously embarrassing venereal disease.

 

 

Jason flexed his gloved fingers against the steering wheel. His lean features were composed in an expression of concentration, violet eyes narrowed slightly in anticipation. 7-Zark-7 had programmed the simulator with all the latest data provided by Rigan Intelligence and every ISO agency that had encountered anything to do with Planet Spectra's new terror machines. Jason's focus was on a rock formation, just ahead. He could hear the sound of engines getting louder.

Each ship was unique and animistic in design, the briefing note had said, largely invulnerable to conventional assault for reasons still unknown. Possibly vulnerable to penetration by a strike team and potentially susceptible to analysis for weaknesses. There were, Jason noted silently, an awful lot of qualifiers in the briefing note. There was no telling what the real thing would be like. All he could do was hope that the Intelligence and Counter Intelligence Divisions got it right.

A white jet streaked out from behind the rock formation at low level, its pilot executing a snap roll to cut the corner and scream overhead the G-2. Jason smiled and thumbed the firing controls. A large, insectoid machine lumbered out in pursuit of the jet and the targeting display turned amber as the computer calculated a lock vector. Jason didn't wait for lock and fired. To his left, there was a puff of smoke and a dull roar as Princess fired a surface-to-air missile from her own vehicle.

Both the G2 and G3 made direct hits and the giant insect belched smoke before collapsing on itself with a muffled Whump!

"Simulation terminating," the computer said in its breathy feminine voice, "in five... four... three... two... one... Terminate.

Jason leaned back and pushed open the canopy of the simulator capsule. In four other identical capsules on independent suspension frames around the room, his team-mates were doing likewise. "Nice aerobatic display," Jason said, smirking at Mark.

"Aerobatics were originally developed as combat manoeuvres, Jason," Mark said, grinning back at his second. "I thought everyone knew that."

"And this early in the morning, too. Think we'll have time for fancy moves once we're up against the real thing?" Jason wondered aloud as he climbed out of the capsule.

"I think we'll do whatever it takes to stay alive," Mark replied. He eschewed the steps and dropped the three metres to floor level, landing as lightly as a cat while Jason clattered down the metal gantry.

"All we can do is what we've been trained for," Princess said, making the three metre drop look as elegant as a dance movement. "They say every attack ship's different, so everything's going to be challenging."

"Including not bothering to wait for weapons lock in Jason's case," Mark said. "Survival tactic, Jason, or were you just showing off?"

"I had the shot," Jason said. "I took it."

"And just think," Tiny said drily from the gantry of his own simulator pod, "next time, we get to observe."

Keyop's bracelet chimed. "Gotta go," the boy announced. "Testing... cerebonic implants."

"Sooner you than me," Jason said. “Remember all the recalibrations we had to undergo when we were kids?”

“I’m not about to forget any time soon,” Mark said. “Are they recalibrating you today, Keyop?”

Keyop stammered for a moment, “Depends… on results.”

“I’ll walk you to the lab,” Princess offered. She and Keyop triggered their transmutation sequences and their uniforms seemed to dissolve into a blaze of light before restabilising in their civilian configuration.

Cerebonic implants required regular monitoring and recalibration. Since he was at an age where boys grow like weeds, Keyop was subject to more frequent testing than the older members of G-Force and he was booked to spend the rest of the morning connected to the equipment in the Center Neptune’s cerebonic laboratory.

 

 

Seahorse Base occupied over a hundred acres of reclaimed land including some prime waterfront and a fair sized chunk of San Francisco Bay besides. It was a hive of activity with undersea shuttles plying the waters from any number of submarine installations as well as traffic on the landing strips and launch pads. Rumour had it that Galaxy Security was preparing a secret weapon against Planet Spectra at a base somewhere in the Pacific. The rumours were wrong, of course: Galaxy Security had its secret weapon ready and chafing at the bit. It was testament to the security of the new secret hangar being built on site for the Phoenix that no mention of it was made in scuttlebutt.

Some of the shuttles which had their termini at Seahorse had an undisclosed point of origin. Bioquarantine scanners were in place to prevent anyone from introducing non-indigenous biomass to any of the ecosystems where the ISO had its undersea bases, and to keep any particularly interesting compounds from the research labs from making landfall -- either intentionally or accidentally. The people getting off the shuttle were mostly technicians and scientists, coming off an undersea rotation and eager to get their feet back on terra firma. Security staff watched the readouts on the bio scanners, which were calibrated to detect the unique signatures of certain protein compounds.

Security Chief Anderson had observed Keyop’s cerebonic testing. To Keyop’s relief, Dr Halloran had decided that no cerebonic recalibration was required, so Anderson had accompanied his youngest staff member on the shuttle back to the mainland, where they would part company: Keyop to go home to the apartment he shared with Princess, whilst Anderson would return to ISO Headquarters in the city.

The shuttle docked at Seahorse Base and disgorged its passengers to pass through the security and bioquarantine checkpoints. Anderson's mind was already on his next three meetings, which was why it came as a surprise when the bioquarantine alarm started ringing as he walked through.

His first incongruous thought was that he must have spilled something on his lab coat, then he remembered that it had been years since he'd worn a lab coat to work and realised that the security officers were all looking straight at Keyop.

Anderson noted that there seemed to be a lot of security staff on duty before realising that the majority of them were wearing green ID badges that designated them as graduate trainees. Their training officer stepped forward to take charge.

Keyop looked up at the uniformed major, wide eyed. "Problem... officer?" he asked, and gave her his most engaging, goofy innocent kid grin. This usually brought out the maternal instinct in women.

In this case, the tactic appeared to be ineffective.

Anderson formed the impression that the major was made up of hard edges, as straight as the precisely ironed creases in her uniform. Ash blonde hair was pulled back from a face with even but unremarkable features set in a disapproving expression. She wasn't overtly pretty, but was possessed of an icy kind of elegance.

"Quite possibly," she said, in the kind of voice that would move junior officers and new recruits to salute in self defence so quickly they risked knocking their own caps off. It took Anderson a second to place the accent: English. She gave him a frankly appraising look and at the end of it, Anderson got the impression he'd come up short against whatever yardstick he was being measured against. He took a breath, squared his shoulders and assumed the 'Whoever You Are, I Outrank You' demeanour he'd been working on.

"What's the problem, Major?" Anderson asked.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask this young man to empty his pockets, sir," she said.

No surprises, there. Keyop had an unhealthy fascination for fauna of all kinds and didn't limit his interest to phylum Chordata. It wasn't that unusual to find the boy harbouring all manner of creatures in shoe boxes, match boxes and an assortment of peanut butter jars. The toxin alert was a little out of the ordinary, however. "Keyop," Anderson said, "what is it this time?"

The boy squirmed, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of small, pointed shells.

Anderson paled. "Those are cone shells!" he exclaimed, staring at the tiny, deadly creatures cradled in Keyop's palm.

"Pretty!" Keyop protested.

The security officer gestured to one of her students to bring a containment unit, which resembled nothing so much as an expensive lunch box with a vacuum lid. "Just put them in here, please," she suggested. "Sir, would you like me to call the base medical officer?"

"That won't be necessary," Anderson said.

"But, sir --" the major began.

"It won't be necessary," Anderson said again, in a tone that brooked no argument. He stepped past her and walked away, aware that she was watching him, until the second scanner array shrilled another alarm.

"Sir," the officer said.

"Keyop," Anderson said, his voice acquiring an edge, "I'm not going to tell you again."

Keyop pulled a sealed zip lock bag containing water and a somewhat the worse for wear sea anemone out of his other pocket. One of the recruits brought over another containment unit and a second ran the hand held scanner over the boy. "All clear, ma'am," she reported.

"If you're quite certain you don't require medical assistance," the major said, her tone making it quite clear that she considered Anderson a raving lunatic for declining the offer, "you're free to go." She deliberately turned away to address her students. "Right," she said. "What triggered the decon alarms?"

The new graduates glanced at each other before one of them raised a hand and ventured, "The broadband spectrophotometric sensors picked up a neurotoxin signature?"

David Anderson hustled Keyop away from the checkpoint. "How many times do I have to tell you not to collect pets off the reef?" Anderson started a familiar tirade. "Those animals belong in their own environment, not in your pockets!"

Keyop put on his penitent face. "Wouldn't... want other pets... if... had a... puppy," he reasoned in his halting, chirping speech.

"Puppies notwithstanding --" Anderson began, and the rest of his sentence was swallowed up by the base alarm system transmitting an emergency tone over all loudspeakers.

"ALERT," said an automated voice. "ALERT. CODE ORANGE IS IN EFFECT. CODE ORANGE IS IN EFFECT. ALL PERSONNEL, PROCEED TO YOUR ASSIGNED SHELTERS. SECTION AND AREA WARDENS, INITIATE EVACUATION PROCEDURES. EMERGENCY COORDINATORS, PROCEED TO YOUR POSITIONS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. ALERT. ALERT..."

Belatedly, Anderson's palm unit beeped and he consulted the screen. The security bulletin that had arrived told of an enemy ship detected on a course for Center City via Seahorse. The ship was expected over the top in less than fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes. That was no warning at all. What the ISO needed, Anderson mused bitterly, was to get some kind of early detection system in place. He and Keyop stood motionless while people streamed around them, heading for the bunkers. Anderson drew Keyop into a corner and keyed Nerve Center on the palm unit. 7-Zark-7 answered immediately.

"Why, hello, Chief Anderson," he said as though the Chief of Staff had just called in to ask him about the weather. "My sensors indicate that an alien vessel --"

"I got the bulletin," Anderson interrupted the robot. "Keyop's with me. Have the rest of G-Force rendezvous with him just outside Seahorse base!"

"Yes, sir," the robot said, sounding slightly wounded.

Anderson brushed the thought aside as he closed the channel. "Come on," he told Keyop. "You're going to have to get out of here so you can hook up with the Phoenix."

 


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