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.
Battle of the Planets: 2163
A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
It was a dark and stormy night. The worst of the first cold front appeared to have passed over the city now, leaving distant lightning dancing to the east and petulant grumbles of thunder rather than the mighty booming shouts that had shaken the rooftops less than an hour before. According to the newscasts, there was more bad weather in store.
In the streets of Center City, the rain fell in shimmering billows, a radiant, golden curtain of water and light caught in the yellow glare of the sodium freeway lights. The wind gusted, and the meagre trees that lined the embankment hissed and sighed with a constant shivering sibilance that underscored the sound of the rain.
Princess flinched as a gust of wind blew a great wave of droplets under the traffic bridge, drenching her despite the overcoat she'd worn against the weather. She bit back a curse and wished she'd brought better rain gear. Then she thought better of it and wished she'd stayed at home.
It had begun that morning, in the kitchen area of the Galaxy Security Executive Suite, on the one hundredth floor of the ISO Tower. It had seemed so straightforward, then.
"I don't know..." Princess smiled ruefully over the rim of her coffee cup. "The last time I tagged along on one of your girls' nights, I ended up seriously hung over."
"That's called 'life experience,' kiddo," Shay Alban reminded her, "and it was your own fault. Tequila isn't without its consequences, y'know." Chief Anderson's personal security coordinator grinned in a manner that suggested she was no stranger to life, experience or tequila.
"Yeah, so I found out," Princess said, giving Shay a dubious look. The female officers on Chief Anderson's staff had previously attempted to enrich Princess' life by including her in a girls' night out. It had turned out to be a memorable experience, but Galaxy Security officers didn't scare easily.
"Oh, come on," Fran Patrick said. "It'll be fun!" The young protection officer's grin turned wicked. "Just imagine what'll go through Mark's mind when you tell him where we're going."
Princess blushed and put a hand to her face. "Fran, I couldn't!"
"Of course you could," Fran insisted. "It's all part of the age-old battle of the sexes."
"Really?" Princess took a thoughtful sip of her coffee.
"Sure," Shay said. "A guy knows you're looking at the menu, he's more likely to ask y'all home for dinner."
Princess wavered for a moment, uncertain in the face of down home southern wisdom. "But... it's a strip show!"
"It's a male dance revue," Shay corrected.
"Yeah," Fran agreed. "Dance is...um... whaddayacallit..."
"An art form! That's it! Art... It's a cultural presentation." Shay's attempt at an innocent look was entirely unsuccessful.
"You're not fooling anyone, Shay," Princess said.
"Look," Shay reasoned, "you'll never know unless you try."
"And Mark might get jealous," Fran wheedled.
Princess considered. "Are you driving?" she asked Shay.
"It's my turn," Fran said, with a sharp look at Shay. Major Alban had a tendency to drive at two speeds: stop, and 'Aaaargh!' Thanks largely to inertia, she had been known, on occasion, to achieve both at the same time.
"In that case," Princess said, "count me in."
Jason gave Princess a sidelong look. "I thought you said you weren't going to let Keyop hang out with me after the last time."
Princess folded her arms. "Well... I figure maybe I was a little harsh. I mean, I got addressed as 'shweetheart,' for a week after you filled Keyop's head with old detective stories, but I guess it could've been worse."
"In other words," Jason surmised, "you're desperate for a sitter."
"Jason!" Princess sighed. "All right, so I'm desperate."
Despite himself, Jason felt the stirrings of sympathy. "Where are you going?"
Princess fidgeted slightly and looked at her shoes before mumbling, "The Stellar Studs Exotic Dance Revue."
Jason sat very still, eyes wide as he weighed the import of Princess' revelation. "You and Fran are going to see male strippers?"
"We're legal." Princess pointed out. "Besides, Shay's coming with us."
"Oh, like that's supposed to make me feel better! Look," Jason said, "if I agree to sit with Keyop, you promise to keep an eye on Fran."
"Okay," Princess said. "You sit with Keyop, I keep an eye on your girlfriend."
"Deal." Jason put his hands in his pockets. "You asked everyone else, huh?"
"Even Chief Anderson," Princess confessed.
"Lucky for Keyop he said no," Jason opined. "An evening with the Chief'd be like death by boredom! Tonight's entertainment: see a man do paperwork until two in the morning!"
"Yeah, well," Princess said, "he reminded me about the Skittles incident, actually."
"Oh, yeah," Jason recalled. "Didn't the security staff threaten to mutiny after that one? When do you want me to come over?"
Princess shrugged. "Thanks, Jase. Around seven?"
"I'm working late, tonight," Alberta Jones said, without looking up from her work.
"You work too hard," Shay said. She perched on her former CO's desk and picked up the letter opener. It was shaped like a bearded iris with the stem flattened into a blade.
"Sorry," Alberta said, and closed the file she had been reading. Chief Anderson's staff liaison officer got up from her chair and walked over to the window. The view of the bay was probably the biggest thing in Lieutenant Colonel Jones' modest office accommodations. Heavy rain was sweeping in toward the coast in a grey wall of cloud and falling water.
"Oh, come on," Shay said. "It's the Stellar Studs, direct from Stellar City. You don't see those guys every day."
"I know, and if I wasn't busy, I'd go with you, but I'll have to take a rain check, this time." Alberta glanced out at the incoming storm front again. "It might be literal, from the looks of the weather."
"So what all are you doing, instead? An unbridled orgy of minute-reviewing?"
"The bloody Urgosian Embassy's put in a request for G-Sec to take over their security arrangements. Chief Anderson thinks they're up to something."
"Well, of course they're up to something: they're Urgosians. But why the urgency? Surely you can take an evening off to spend time with your girl friends!"
"Not when there's a meeting with the Chargé d'affairs scheduled for Monday, I can't. I'm snowed under with paperwork and I'm not going to be any fun at all until I get this lot sorted out."
"Don't ask me to sympathise," Shay said. "You're the one who kept nagging Anderson to delegate, and now he's delegated!"
"Yes. Well, I didn't expect him to delegate to me!"
"Serves you right."
"Thanks for the show of support," Alberta said. "Go out, have a drink for me and enjoy yourself."
"Okay." Shay gave up. "But next time, no excuses."
Princess and Shay were drinking coffee in a booth at the Snack J, waiting for Fran. Jason was upstairs with Keyop, loading a 3VC into the entertainment unit. Princess had decided to wear her regular t-shirt and jeans for the outing. She had a weatherproof overcoat folded neatly on the seat beside her.
"How did Mark react when you told him what we were doing, tonight?" Shay wanted to know.
Princess smiled uncertainly. "He was... well, I think he was horrified."
"I guess so." Princess wrung her hands, then a look of panic crossed her face. "But, Shay, what if he thinks I'm looking around and takes it as a signal that he should start looking around? I mean, what if he thinks it means I don't care?"
"Take it easy!" Shay held up both hands. "Okay, the thought might cross his mind --"
"Then I'm not going!"
"-- But he isn't going to go rushing out and start dating other girls. He'll agonise over it for ages! This is Mark we're talking about!"
"I can't do it!" Princess wailed.
"Oh, for crying out loud!" Shay held her head in her hands. "It's just a show!"
The tinkling of the bell at the door heralded Fran's arrival. "Car's out front!" she announced, walking over to the booth.
"I'm not going," Princess declared.
"What, now?" Fran sighed and slid into a seat.
Shay cast her eyes heavenward. "Princess thinks that if she goes to this revue, Mark'll take it as a signal that all bets are off and he can play the field."
"Mark?" Fran exclaimed. "As in, Mark? The guy you yourself describe as brooding, introspective and obsessively overanalytical? That Mark?"
"That Mark," Shay affirmed.
"You're kidding, right?" Fran asked.
"You can laugh," Princess said, "but I'm not going."
"Oh, come on, Princess," Shay said, "the world won't end if you look at a little scenery, and if Mark's so shallow that he only needs one excuse to fool around, then he wasn't worth it in the first place. You need to get out. You don't want to end up like Al, staying in and working every night, do you?"
"I guess not," Princess said, resting her chin in one hand.
"So, let's go," Shay concluded.
"You know, I meant what I said, before," Chief Anderson said, showing his visitor in to his private study. "You could have gone to that... thing, with the others."
"I know." Alberta took a seat and flipped open her computer before plugging her palm unit in to the slot. "To tell you the truth," she said as she waited for the computer to boot up, "I'm a bit over that sort of thing, these days."
Anderson, who had been making an effort to avoid anything approaching a mental image of 'that sort of thing,' picked up a folder off his desk. "You are?"
"Well, I mean, if it had been a book launch or a gallery opening, I might have been tempted, but the novelty of male strippers wore off for me about twenty years ago."
There was really nothing constructive Anderson could say to that without getting personal, so he turned his attention to the folder in his hand. "I read your analysis of the situation at the Urgosian Embassy," he said, instead. "For us to provide a security service presents us with certain political risks, as you've pointed out, but I agree that the benefits are likely to outweigh them."
"The devil's going to be in the detail," Alberta predicted.
"Exactly. Now, where's the original correspondence on this?"
The Stellar Studs Exotic Male Dance Revue forgotten, Anderson and his liaison officer settled in to work.
Fran Patrick's sleek blue Mazda hatchback sped up as it left the on-ramp and powered on to the freeway proper.
"I hope you brought plenty of small bills," Shay said, twisting in her seat to address Princess, who was in the back.
"Small bills?" Princess echoed, bewildered.
"For tipping," Fran explained, with a suggestive leer at Princess via the rear view mirror.
Princess put her hands to her face as the flush spread through her. "I couldn't!" she squeaked.
"Having seen you after a few margaritas, hon'," Shay said, grinning, "I think you might change your mind."
Princess sank back in to her seat. "I thought we agreed not to mention that ever again."
Shay only smirked.
Jason had the 3VC loaded and ready to go. He paused the playback as the programme started. "How's that popcorn coming along?" he called.
"Uh... I've got a little problem, here," Keyop called back.
Uh-oh, Jason thought, Keyop + Popcorn + 'Problem' = Trouble. He hurried down the stairs, dreading what he might find.
The Mazda's engine sputtered, faded, and died.
Fran pumped the accelerator pedal and worked the ignition switch, to no avail. She put on the emergency brake and switched on the hazard lights. "Well, damn," she said.
"We should get in to the emergency lane," Princess said.
"Yeah." Shay contemplated the rain. "Right."
Princess released the catch on her seat belt. "I guess we should get it over with," she decided.
"You stay there," Shay said, unfastening her own seat belt.
"Don't be ridiculous --" Princess started to say, and recoiled as the security officer turned and pointed an emphatic finger at her.
"You," Shay repeated, "stay there. I'm not going to be the one to tell Anderson why a member of G-Force got hit by a car on the freeway in the middle of a rainstorm. Stay put. That's an order."
"You can't give me orders," Princess pointed out coldly. "I outrank you."
"I have no respect for authority," Shay growled. "It's one of my worst failings. Stay put. Ma'am."
Jason burst in to the kitchen of the Snack J, braced to deal with the disaster that surely awaited him.
Instead, he found Keyop putting a pot away in the dishwasher. There was a large, steaming bowl of popcorn on the counter, along with an ice bucket crammed with soda cans.
"What...?" Jason started to say, then realised he'd been had. "Very funny, squirt."
"Hey," Keyop said, grinning. "I said I had a problem, and I do: I can't carry the soda and the popcorn up the stairs, so I need your help. It's not my fault you chose to assume that I'd screwed up."
"Huh!" Jason had to admit: the kid had him, there. "You think you're so smart." He picked up the ice bucket, since it was the heavier of the two items.
"I've always been smart," Keyop said, and grabbed the popcorn. He followed Jason up the stairs. "It's just that since my surgery, I'm articulate as well."
"Don't forget modest," Jason said.
In the little sitting room Keyop shared with Princess, the young man and the boy settled themselves on the sofa, and Jason thumbed the remote for the entertainment unit.
"Which leg of the Galactic Rally Car Championship is this again?" Keyop asked.
"Veganian," Jason said.
"Cool," Keyop said. "They've got some of the best gravel stages in the Milky Way."
There was an overpass some forty yards or so up the freeway. With Shay and Fran pushing while Princess steered, the women managed to get the hatchback underneath and out of the rain.
"There's hardly any traffic," Princess grumbled. "I could have made this a lot easier."
"And it's more than my life's worth for you to be put in unnecessary danger," Shay pointed out.
"Mother hen," Princess muttered under her breath, as Shay lifted the bonnet of the car. Princess got out and walked around to the front of the car. She was the only one of the three who was dry. "This really isn't all that dangerous," Princess pointed out.
"She's right, you know," Fran said, pushing her dripping fringe out of her eyes.
"Whatever," Shay mumbled into the engine bay. "Everything looks okay." She fiddled with a few connections. "Nothing seems loose."
"I don't smell ethanol," Princess said.
"You're right," Shay said, "and the way the engine died..."
"Fuel gauge was reading three quarters," Fran said, "and I used the same Puritol Premium as always."
"Fuel pump?" Princess theorised.
"Immobiliser?" Shay suggested.
"Roadside assistance?" Fran put in, getting her palm unit out of her purse. Princess shrugged and Shay leaned over the engine bay, hands extended in an attempt to capture some of the remaining warmth coming off the engine.
Princess stood back from the lane as a truck sped by, raising a fine oily mist that drifted over the car. Fran was making the call to roadside assistance and Shay was calling down sundry curses on the truck driver.
"Forty five minutes, maybe an hour," Fran announced as she closed the channel on her palm unit.
"Oh, great," Shay said.
Which brought Princess to the point where she found herself wondering just how she'd managed to wind up underneath a traffic bridge on the freeway, going nowhere on a dark and stormy night, instead of going out and having fun (for a given value of 'fun') or curling up at home with a good book, an idea which was gaining more and more appeal by the second.
Jason's wrist communicator sounded with Mark's alert tone, and Keyop gave his babysitter a look.
"You planning on answering that?" Keyop asked when the alert sounded a second time.
"Maybe," Jason said, and got up off the sofa. "What's up?" he asked the bracelet.
"Jason, it's me," Mark said.
"Yeah, I figured telemarketers wouldn't call me on my bracelet using the G-Force Commander's personal alert tone," Jason said.
"Right." There was a pause. "Jason, you know that... girls' night out Princess was going on?"
"I didn't ask for details," Jason admitted. "I already got more information than I needed."
"Like what?" Mark sounded as though he didn't really want to know, but couldn't help himself.
"Princess said it was called the Stellar Studs Exotic Dance Revue or some such dreck. Look, it's just one of those things, okay?"
"You think? I mean... you let Fran go along."
"No, I didn't 'let' Fran go along. I'm not the controlling type. Fran makes her own decisions."
"I just... Why would Princess want to go to something like that?"
"What in the galaxy makes you think I know the answer to that?" Jason asked.
"I don't know." Mark's misery was evident in his voice.
"Man," Jason muttered under his breath. "Look," he said, "Princess probably went along because she was invited. She probably just needs some girl time."
"Watching male strippers?"
Keyop's eyes grew wide at this. "She's what?" he demanded. He realised his mind was boggling.
"Stay out of this," Jason warned. "It's a girl thing," he protested, turning his attention back to his bracelet. "I'm sure she'll be fine. Fran and Shay are with her."
"Yeah, right! Remember what happened the last time Princess went anywhere with Shay?"
Jason chuckled. Fran had told him about that particular girls' night out. Apparently, margaritas had a way of loosening Princess' tongue when it came to discussing relationships. "She came back in one piece," Jason pointed out. "Look, it's just some cheap show. She'll be fine."
The silence at the other end of the comm channel spoke volumes. Jason listened very carefully to what wasn't being said and understanding dawned.
"Are you still at Seahorse Base?" Jason asked.
"Yeah, but the drills are all done, now," Mark said.
"Okay. Why don't you come on over and join Keyop and me?" Jason suggested. "We're watching the Veganian leg of the Galactic Rally Championships. There's plenty of popcorn and soda."
"I can't," Mark demurred.
"Why not?" Jason asked.
"Think about it," Mark argued. "If Princess comes home and finds me waiting for her, she's going to think I don't trust her!"
"Come over anyway," Jason said. "I have an idea."
"A guys' night out."
"Feels like old times," Anderson said. He was sitting at the kitchen table, cradling a steaming cup of coffee in both hands. Alberta sat opposite him, mirroring his posture with a cup of tea. Outside, the rain beat a steady drumroll on the roof and splashed in the puddles on the paving. It hammered on the hats and overcoats of Lieutenants Thorne and Falcone, and dribbled in through the window of Alberta's car, where she'd inadvertently left it a bare centimetre from being completely closed.
"Except I'm not upbraiding you about your security arrangements," Alberta said. "Even though I probably could."
"I don't doubt that for a second," Anderson said. "Shay isn't quite as withering as you, but she's a lot more blunt. You used to give me a look that implied I was a suicidal maniac, but she comes straight out and says it."
"At least you know where you stand," Alberta reasoned.
"I won't die wondering, that's for sure," Anderson agreed.
Alberta finished her tea. "I should go." She stood up and took her cup to the sink to rinse it. Anderson did likewise with his own coffee mug.
"You could always stay for dinner," Anderson offered. "Or at least wait for the weather to ease off. That car of yours isn't exactly the safest thing on the road."
"There's nothing wrong with my car," Alberta said, drawing herself up in defence of the indefensible.
"You mean, nothing apart from the fact that the only thing holding it together is rust?"
"I think you're unnecessarily cruel about my car. Zark's even worse, always rattling on about how the software gives him an ache in his sublinear whatnot... and then he starts on about his fosdic! Quite frankly, I'm afraid to ask what a fosdic is."
"Film Optical Sensing Device for Interfacing with Computers," Anderson said. "He uses it when he's interfacing with external systems. I think they employ someone at QTL whose sole purpose is to think up disturbing acronyms." He filled the kettle and set it to boil. "Refill?" he offered.
"Why not?" Alberta said. "I'm afraid Zark's just going to have to put up with the Comet for a while longer. I can think of better reasons for buying a new car than a... a film optical thingy."
Anderson took a tea bag out of the caddy. "You're a hard woman, Ally."
"I bet you say that to all the girls," Alberta quipped.
Anderson turned around and leaned against the kitchen counter. "I'd say they don't make them like they used to but your car is clearly a case of how they used to make them."
Princess looked up at the sound of retrojets to see a Galactic Automotive Assocation hover car on descent, its silver, orange and dayglo yellow livery gleaming wet in the glare of the sodium lights. The vehicle set down and the robot attendant stepped out of the cabin. "Good evening," the robot said. "I am responding to a request for assistance."
Fran stepped forward and handed over a data strip. The robot inserted the strip in the peak of its cap then handed it back. "Thank you, ma'am. Is this the vehicle?"
The robot was clearly not programmed for irony. One corner of Princess' mouth twitched, as Fran said, "Yes. The engine lost power and stopped. The keys are in the ignition."
"Please stand clear of the vehicle and allow me to run a diagnostic," the robot said. It leaned in under the hood, connected itself to the control box and emitted a soft mechanical hum. "Your fuel pump appears to be non-functional," the robot said. It disconnected and addressed Fran with a passable simulacrum of a salute. "Ms Patrick, your platinum class membership entitles you to free towing to the destination of your choice within a one hundred kilometre radius, a taxicab to the destination of your choice within a one hundred kilometre radius and a twenty five percent discount on the use of a GAA Hire Car until your vehicle has been repaired by an accredited service agent."
"Great," Fran sighed.
"Please clarify," the robot said. "Do you wish to have the vehicle towed?"
"Yes," Fran said. "Frank's Autos, on the corner of Hart and Levy Streets, Central East."
The robot processed this. "Affirm," it said.
"And call us a cab, please," Shay said.
"Affirm," the robot said. "Destination?"
The women glanced at each other before Shay spoke up. "My place is closest. Sunset Mews Apartments, Curtin Street, Central North." She turned to her companions. "We can freshen up and try to salvage something from the evening."
The brakes on Tiny's van squeaked as he parked the vehicle outside the Snack J. Mark's convertible was just in front of him with the top up, but the G-2 was nowhere to be seen. Tiny secured the van and hurried through the rain to the front door. The sign in the window read 'CLOSED,' but there was a light showing inside.
Mark answered the door and let Tiny in. "Hey, Tiny."
"Hey, Mark. Where are Jason and Keyop?"
"Jason went to drop Keyop off with our backup sitter. He'll be back soon."
"Right. So, what are our plans?"
"Jason seems to think we should go in to the City and have some fun."
"Sounds good to me," Tiny said.
Fran had borrowed one of Shay's dresses and made use of the spare hairdryer. Princess had taken herself to the the bathroom and transmuted in to, and then out of her G-Force gear, which had dried her and her civilian clothing completely and virtually instantaneously. She was still cold, but at least she was dry. She rejoined the others in the living room, where Shay had the air conditioning set to pumping warm air in to the room.
"What do we do now?" Princess asked.
"I need a drink," Shay said. "Let's find a bar."
"Any place as long as it isn't Amano's," Princess qualified, as they headed downstairs to find Shay's car.
"What's wrong with Amano's?" Shay challenged.
"What's right with it?"
"How about the Impulse Club?" Fran suggested.
"That could work," Princess said.
"Whatever," Shay said. "Let's go." She released the security system on the red Nissan.
Princess took a breath, thinking of the way Shay took corners and the amount of water currently on the roads. "Um, Shay," she ventured, "how 'bout I drive?"
Anderson's freezer contained a variety of cardboard boxes. The boxes were labelled with claims such as '99% fat free!' 'Approved by the Galactic Heart Foundation' and 'No cholesterol!' It was a fairly accurate indicator of his level of domesticity. The adaptive software in his robot domestic cleaner had prioritised checking the microwave every morning for congealed, overlooked Lean Cuisines. Second priority was collecting cups containing slowly solidifying and forgotten instant soup from the study. Anderson's culinary skills extended about as far as coffee, tea and 'Microwave on HIGH for three minutes.' Anything more complicated than a grilled cheese sandwich remained an Undiscovered Country. Or possibly an explosion.
"I could send out for something," Anderson offered.
"On a night like tonight, you'd get blacklisted," Alberta said. She shut the freezer door and opened the refrigerator section. There were a few vegetables in the crisper, some cheese in the dairy compartment, a quart of skim milk and a carton of eggs in the door. "You do know that it's customary to keep food in refrigerators, don't you?"
"I'm defying stereotypes," Anderson retorted.
Alberta arched an eyebrow at him. "Omelette," she decided, and grabbed the egg carton.
"Sounds like a plan," Anderson agreed, and opened a drawer to get out the cheese grater.
The front doorbell rang.
Anderson paused in his utensil search. "Now what?" he wondered aloud.
He opened the front door to Jason and Keyop. The younger boy was clutching a backpack.
"Hey, Chief," Jason said, already retreating, "I need you to take care of Keyop for a while. Gotta go. Catch you later! 'Bye!"
By the time he'd finished speaking, Jason was back in his car and turning the engine over.
Anderson stood on the doorstep, looking from Keyop to the now-departing G-2 and back again before stepping back and ushering Keyop indoors. "Have you had supper?" Anderson asked.
"Nope," Keyop said, about to suggest calling for a pizza delivery.
"I hope you like omelette," Anderson had said, and Keyop's stomach had clenched into a cold little knot of terror at the thought of the Security Chief being allowed to happen to a kitchen. He followed Anderson down the hall and as they passed the kitchen, Anderson opened the door. "Better break some more eggs, Ally," he said. "We've got company."
For the second time that evening, Keyop's mind boggled.
"... And nothing would stop this fool but he was going on back in to the line of fire to retrieve that darned briefcase... So I hit him." Shay took another swallow of her bloody Mary. "Knocked him out cold."
"You sucker punched your Protection Assignment?" Fran's mouth hung open.
"Turns out he had some incriminating evidence in the 'case: some, ah... prophylactics, a box of a certain brand of performance enhancing pills and his mistress' phone number. His wife was furious. Took him for all he had in divorce court. I got busted. You know the rest."
"Wow," Princess said. "Would you really do it again if you had to?"
"Of course." Shay put her glass down. "You can get over being disciplined, but once your Assignment's dead, he's dead."
"I'll drink to that," Fran decided, and they saluted one another with their glasses.
"Hey, Princess!" a familiar voice called. All three women turned in their seats as Tiny Harper approached. "Zark said you'd be here," he explained. "Hi, Shay, Fran. Uh..." Tiny turned pleading eyes on his team-mate. "Can we talk for a second?"
Princess got off her stool. "Back soon," she promised her companions. She followed Tiny to an unoccupied section of the bar. The Impulse Club was uncharacteristically quiet, the storm having kept many of its usual patrons at home. "What's up?"
"Uh..." Tiny said again, and tried to lean casually against the bar, succeeding only in looking awkward. "Well, you see, Princess, it's like this... er... us guys were talking, and..."
Princess folded her arms. "And you guys figured you'd better haul me out of some den of iniquity and put me back on my leash?"
"No!" Tiny could see things going very wrong, very fast. "Nothing like that! Mark was kinda... worried -- I mean, what with the weather and all -- Jason thought maybe we should all go out and take his mind off it."
"Jason," Princess pointed out, "is babysitting Keyop tonight."
"He dropped Keyop off at the Chief's place," Tiny said. "Then we were headed here, so we called Zark to ask him to scan the parking lot for spaces -- you know how it can be on a Friday night -- and he said you were here, too."
"So why did they send you?" Princess asked.
"I volunteered," Tiny said. "I was afraid that if Mark was the first person you saw, you'd think he was... you know... being all... uh... controlling and stuff."
"Jury's still out on that one," Princess warned.
"Aw, c'mon, Princess, Mark had no idea." Tiny scratched his head. "So, um... we'll leave if you want us to."
Princess' stern expression softened. "Really?"
"Well, yeah. You know we wouldn't want to cramp your style."
Princess smiled at that. "Tiny," she said, "Mark isn't the only one with no idea. Where are they hiding?"
"Over on the other side of the dance floor."
"Bring 'em over," Princess sighed. "We might as well try to have some fun tonight!"
"You waited for the Baron to laugh?" Keyop asked.
Alberta nodded toward Keyop's plate. "Finish your spinach." To Keyop's chagrin, there had been a box of chopped spinach in the freezer, which had been turned into a side dish as soon as it became apparent that there was a need for Vitamins For Growing Children on tonight's menu.
Anderson shrugged. "He was gloating. He'd become arrogant and careless, and more to the point, he didn't realise I'd followed Cronus in to the base. It was only a matter of time. I saw my chance, and I took it."
"You shot him?" Keyop guessed.
"No," Anderson explained. "I shot the guy guarding Cronus. Then I missed the Baron, but that gave Cronus the opportunity to take him down."
"Wow," Keyop said.
"It was all in the timing. You just can't pull off a maniacal laugh and focus on your enemy at the same time."
Keyop poked at the spinach on his plate and pondered Anderson's words. "Uh, Chief?"
"Finish your spinach," Anderson prompted.
Keyop scooped up a forkful of greens. "How do you know? I mean, about the maniacal laugh and maintaining focus?"
Anderson blinked once. "I took a short course in comparative megalomania," he said. "It's compulsory," he added, "once you get to management level."
"Comparative megalomania?" Jones murmured, arching an eyebrow.
"Something you wanted to share, Al?"
"Probably not, I should think," Jones said carefully.
Keyop chewed on his mouthful of spinach and swallowed. It was turning out to be an interesting evening.
"I feel kinda... stupid," Mark confessed.
"To tell you the truth," Princess said, "I'm glad we didn't get to go to the dance revue. I just wasn't comfortable with the idea."
"Really?" Mark brightened considerably.
"And I was even less comfortable knowing that you weren't comfortable, either."
"So, um... Did you enjoy your girls' night out?" Mark asked.
Princess gave him a look that spoke volumes. The volumes in question were entitled, Don't Ask, and Never Speak of This Again.
"Uh... Then... would you like to dance?"
Princess smiled, her face turning radiant. Mark's heart turned somersaults in his chest. "I'd love to," she said.
"So..." Tiny ventured carefully. "Do you come here often?"
Shay Alban turned on her bar stool and fixed the G-Force pilot with a calculating look. "What did you just say?"
"Oh... ah... er... I, uh..." Tiny was fairly certain he could feel his ear wax melting under the pressure of Alban's stare. "I guess that sounded like a line, didn't it?"
"Work that out all by yourself, fly boy?"
"Well, uh... do you?"
"No," Shay said.
"Me, neither," Tiny said.
"I'm so glad we cleared that up," Shay drawled.
"Oh. So, um, where do you gals usually hang out?"
"Amano's," Shay said. "The owner's ex-ISO, the booze is good and nobody hits on me unless I want to be hit on."
Tiny shifted in his seat. "Oh."
"You do realise," Shay continued, "that I'm old enough to be your... much older sister?" After all, she hadn't quite reached that 'certain age.' Not for another year or so, anyway.
"I hadn't thought about it," Tiny said. "You seem younger than Al."
"Sugar, when Al goes old-fashioned on your ass, there are glaciers that seem younger than she does."
The omelette had been surprisingly good, the spinach less so. Keyop's mind had boggled again when the Chief and Colonel Jones had traded jokes while loading the dishwasher. He got the feeling that they'd changed some of the words, though, because he couldn't for the life of him figure out why a conversation between an actress and an archbishop should be funny.
Dessert was sponge pudding with lemon sauce, a topic on which Keyop's tastebuds reported mixed feelings. It was better than spinach, but Keyop felt that butterscotch would have been a vast improvement all around.
Everyone jumped at the brilliant flash of light which was accompanied by a great concussion of electricity and air.
The lights went out, then flickered back in to life as the emergency backup systems kicked in.
A lightning strike, Keyop realised, and put down his dessert spoon. Unless it was something more sinister!
He was out of his chair before his hearing registered the second lot of noises: the creaking, rustling sound, and he was at the front door in time to see the outline of the old oak in the final few degrees of its arc as it fell with a resounding crash across the driveway.
Security staff in their weatherproof coats and hats were running, their flashlights jerking and waving.
Keyop brought his left arm up and then down again in an arc. "Transmute!" he commanded, and felt the familiar rush of energy enveloping him in rainbow light.
He activated the night vision function on his visor and broke in to a sprint.
The rain hit him as he left the shelter of the eaves, and a gust of wind buffetted him, but he gritted his teeth and raced across the sodden lawn. Keyop slithered to a stop near the fallen tree and called out to the security officers.
"Sir," Lieutenant Bairstow saluted. Anderson's security detail made a point of always treating Keyop like a senior officer. "Looks like a lightning strike."
"Zark's running a scan of the immediate area, sir," Lieutenant Maxwell added.
"Looking for Spectra activity?" Keyop inferred, hands on his narrow hips.
"Yes, sir," Lieutenant Maxwell said.
Keyop squinted at the fallen tree. "What's that?" He pointed at an oddly regular shape that was partially obscured by a mass of branches, twigs and leaves.
Lieutenant Maxwell smothered a grin. "It looks like --" he began.
"My car!" Alberta Jones stood on the garden path without her coat, fighting the tug of the wind on her umbrella, which appeared to be affording little or no protection from the rain. "That's my car under there!"
"Yes, ma'am," Lieutenant Maxwell said.
Ignoring the rain that rolled off his visor, Keyop began to stalk around the tree.
"Well." Jones' voice had acquired that brisk, brittle quality that it did when she was upset about something and didn't want to let anyone know. "I suppose I shall just have to call a cab."
"How's it going to get in?" Keyop called back to her. "The gate looks like a pretzel!"
Jones' wet shoes made splashing sounds on the paving as she made her way around the fallen canopy to join Keyop in his perusal of the gate. A heavy branch had hit it about a third of the way along and buckled it. There was no way it was going to slide along its track in that shape. "B-bother," Jones said, her usual crispness thwarted by the way her teeth had started to chatter.
"You'll just have to stay here until morning," Keyop reasoned.
The look of abject horror on Jones' face surprised him. "I c-can't do that!" she said, and her voice came out as a sort of strangled squeak. The wind blew her umbrella sideways and sent wet strands of hair across her face.
"Why not?" Keyop asked, puzzled. "There are, like, six bedrooms in this house. Mine even has its own bathroom."
"I shall call a c-cab," Jones said again. "I can get out using the s-side gate and wait on the street."
"Nonsense," Chief Anderson said, making Jones jump. Keyop had seen Anderson arrive, but it was clear Jones hadn't. Anderson had thrown on an overcoat and was holding a large umbrella with somewhat more success than Jones was. "You're half frozen already, and you can't wait for a cab out here in the rain."
Jones had turned around and was glaring at her Chief of Staff, still struggling with her umbrella. "You're not supposed to be out here!" she scolded. "That was a Condition Blue alert!" She gave a hiss of dismay as the umbrella flapped, twisted, and turned itself inside out with a damp thwap!
"Zark gave the all clear," Anderson said, unfazed. He reached out and took the ruined umbrella from Jones' unresisting hands. "Quit waving that thing around," he told her. "I'm in more danger from you and your umbrella right now than anything Zoltar could throw at me."
"There's just one thing that bothers me," Princess said. They'd left the dance floor to get a drink, and found some space at a table for two.
"What's that, Princess?" Mark asked.
"Tomorrow," she said. "Is it going to be like none of this ever happened?"
"None of what?" Mark asked without thinking.
"I figured as much," Princess sighed, and took a swallow of wine cooler. When Mark continued to stare at her without comprehension, she mustered her sense of reason for an explanation. "Mark, I need to know how you feel. I know you've told me that you care, but I need to be reminded. I need to know that you haven't changed your mind... or changed your heart. I need to know that I'm important to you, and that you don't take my feelings for granted. I need... I need constant reassurance."
Mark pushed a coaster around on the table. A little pool of condensation was forming under his glass of Diet Coke. "You know how I feel about you," he mumbled, staring at the moisture smeared on the laminated table top.
"Beyond the times you've said, 'I care for you,'" Princess said. "I actually don't know how you feel about me. I 'care' for Keyop. I 'care' for Jason and Tiny. I 'care' for coffee and cake--"
"You knew what I meant when I said that," Mark said, still staring at the puddle on the table. "I can't... Princess, if I were to tell you all the things I really want to tell you, I'd be compromising our professional relationship and compromising the team."
"So the team is more important," Princess said.
Mark's palm hit the table and he looked Princess in the eye for the first time. "Okay," he said. "If the team isn't more important, hand in your resignation and marry me in the morning."
Princess' mouth fell open. "That's not fair!" she protested.
"You're right," Mark agreed. "It's so not fair. And that's how I feel about you."
It was Princess' turn to stare at her drink. "You'd really marry me if I quit tomorrow?"
"In a heartbeat," Mark said. "We're probably too young and we'd make a lot of mistakes, but since when has that ever stopped anybody?"
Princess fought to keep from smiling. "I haven't got anything to wear," she said, and giggled, feeling slightly hysterical.
"Me, neither," Mark said, and grinned at her.
Princess sobered. "You know I won't quit the team. You've always known it."
"I know, and the thing is, if I let myself, I'd be the galaxy's biggest sap over you. I could bring you flowers every day, worship the ground you walk on, write the most pathetic poetry and learn to play the guitar really badly under your window, but I can't let myself do those things. Especially the last two," he added. "Because it's not just about us, Princess, and if there's one thing I've learned from Anderson, it's that life isn't fair."
"So what do we do?" Princess asked.
"Same as we've always done, I guess," Mark said. "We let ourselves feel what's safe, and never lose sight of two very important things."
"The job we have to do now, and the life we can have once it's done."
"So... basically, you're asking me to wait."
"You won't have to wait one second longer than I do," Mark reminded her.
Princess took a sip of her drink. "That's a heck of a lot to ask, Commander."
"I know, but I'm asking anyway."
"Mark?" Princess said, "will you promise me one thing?"
"Name it," he said.
"Don't take up the guitar. The poetry I could probably handle, but the guitar... I can remember when you took piano lessons and it was just... Promise you won't take up the guitar."
"For you," Mark said, "I'll make the sacrifice." He considered for a moment. "Do you really care for coffee and cake?"
"If it's the right kind of cake," Princess said, lifting her chin in a gesture of mock hauteur.
"You want to go find a café or something?"
"Just you and me?"
"Just you and me."
"Can I have ice-cream with my cake?"
Keyop had de-transmuted, which had the effect of drying him out, but it hadn't warmed him up. He'd still felt chilled, and as such, was occupying prime real estate on the rug in front of the fireplace in the study. He sat cross-legged with his shoes off, wiggling his toes in the heat. Okay, so the logs were made of resin and the flames had that tell-tale blue tinge to them, but it was better than a radiator. He'd been there for some time and was starting to feel quite deliciously warm. He yawned and stretched like a cat, then lay down, supporting his head in the crook of one arm. He could still hear the rain pattering down outside. Anderson had managed to make him a cup of cocoa without incident (which, one one hand, was a relief, but a disappointment on the other, given that Anderson's kitchen detonations could be quite entertaining in their way) and the drowsiness was beginning to take over.
Anderson himself was ensconced in an armchair, reading reports.
The door opened and Colonel Jones edged in as though she was trying not to be noticed. Her hair was damp and she was wrapped up in a dark blue towelling bathrobe that was several sizes too large for her. The hem trailed on the floor and she'd had to roll the sleeves up. One of them was coming unrolled and her left hand was in the process of disappearing into the depths. Keyop sniffed. She smelled like soap and shampoo.
"Um," she said.
"Because I hid your shoes," Anderson said without looking up from the file he was reading.
Keyop was suddenly awake.
Jones put her hands -- or rather, one hand and one sleeve -- on her hips. "What?"
"I'm saving time," Anderson said. "You were about to say that as soon as your clothes dry out, you're going to call a cab. I would then have said that it made far more sense for you to stay here because it's almost twenty three hundred. Zark's already sent the claim details to your insurance company, by the way. You would then have come up with a number of lame -- and yes, I did say lame -- arguments relating to propriety, to which I would have replied with some flippant -- and probably very witty -- remarks about people needing to get lives. You'd keep arguing, I'd keep arguing, and in the end, I'd point out that you can't leave because I hid your shoes, so I figured, why waste time? You can't leave. I hid your shoes."
"Zark could tell me where they are," Jones said in a quiet voice.
"I don't think so," Anderson said.
"What did you threaten him with?" Jones asked.
"Angle grinder," Anderson said absently. He turned a page and continued reading. Jones let her hands fall to her sides, defeated.
Keyop grinned. "Are you going to buy a new car, Al?" he asked. "Have you seen the new Maserati?"
"I think that might be just a tad out of my price range," Jones hedged.
"You aren't the Maserati type," Anderson muttered.
"Jason says the new Skyline's over-engineered," Keyop said. "The Honda Accolade got some good reviews, and Matsu's bringing out a new sports hovercar!"
Jones sank into a chair and checked that the robe remained all-encompassing. "Let's not get carried away," she said.
"Saab 833 coupé?" Keyop suggested.
"I could take the Saab 833 under consideration," Jones said.
"You should take me with you when you go car shopping," Keyop said. "Jason lets me borrow his motoring magazines when he's done reading them, and I keep up with all the reviews!"
"You're just a wealth of information," Jones said weakly.
"Face it, Ally," Anderson said, finally putting his report file down, "you're outnumbered and outgunned."
Keyop yawned hugely. "And there's the Chief, as well," he quipped. He yawned again.
"Keyop," Anderson said, "if you're getting sleepy, go to bed, and show Al to her room while you're at it. She's across the hall from you."
The storm blew itself out overnight, and the morning dawned clear and cold, watery sunlight turning wet surfaces brilliant with reflected glory.
David Anderson stood on the porch with a sweater on over his shirt and without his tie, watching the way the droplets of water on the leaves glittered like temporary diamonds. It was perfect. There weren't that many things that were perfect in life, but sometimes, things just went right. Like now. Later, life would kick in and excrement would happen, as it always did, but for now, it was perfect.
Delicate prisms of light didn't improve the appearance of the yellow Toyota Comet whose wreckage was lying underneath the fallen oak. The trunk of the old tree had crushed the cabin almost beyond recognition.
Anderson went back inside and closed the front door behind him. The coffee was almost percolated, and the kettle had boiled. He made a cup of tea, poured a cup of coffee, and made his way upstairs with both cups on a tray.
Keyop's room was still quiet when Anderson went past. Anderson paused at another door and knocked. "You decent, Al?" he asked.
"Define decent," came the reply.
"I have tea," Anderson said, dangling the bait.
"Then you'd better come in," Alberta said.
Anderson opened the door and carried the tray in. "Black, not too strong, with a slice of lemon," he said, and held out a cup.
Alberta was sitting primly on the edge of the bed. She'd obviously been awake for a while, since she was dressed in her trousers and blouse, and had tidied the bed. Her jacket was neatly folded on the dresser. "Thanks," she said, and took the cup.
"Did you sleep all right?" Anderson asked.
"Fine, thank you," she said.
Anderson sat down in the arm chair by the window, put the tray down and took a swallow of his coffee. "Zark says there should be a cleanup crew here in the next couple of hours. The Comet's a write-off. You may as well use the Beemer until you can organise a replacement."
Alberta swallowed a mouthful of tea. "Me? Borrow your car?"
"Nobody's going to be driving yours in the foreseeable future."
"But, nothing. You need a car. More specifically, you need one set up to G-Sec specs -- security, telemetry, network interface -- and mine's just sitting in the garage, gathering dust."
"But, it'd look... um... it could be construed... People might think it was inappropriate."
"What, more inappropriate than me hiding your shoes so you'd have to stay here instead of drowning yourself on the kerb?"
Alberta flushed and drew herself up. "You know perfectly well what I mean," she said. "And, while we're on the subject, I'd like them back, if you don't mind."
"They're in the study. I put them in front of the fire to dry out after you turned in." Anderson sipped at his coffee. "Take the car. You'd be doing me a favour. It could use a run every now and then, and how often have I driven it since the war started?"
"Thank you," Alberta capitulated, as Anderson had known she would.
"There's one condition," Anderson said over the rim of his coffee mug.
"I think I can guess," Alberta said.
"Listen to Keyop's advice about cars. He really does know a lot."
Alberta drank some more of her tea. "You know, I bought the Comet when I was first transferred back to Earth. It was only meant to be a temporary thing, until I received my orders and settled in to a permanent assignment."
"But?" Anderson prompted.
"You seemed to get so much enjoyment out of making snide comments about it, I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it."
"You mean you decided to be stubborn over it," Anderson inferred. "Although," he added, "I have to admit, I liked the way it bugged Zark."
Alberta smiled, cradling her tea cup in both hands. "Which goes to show, you're just as bad as I am."
Anderson returned the smile. "Worse," he corrected sagely. "Much, much worse."
"You make good tea, though," Alberta said, "so you can be forgiven." She finished the tea.
Anderson got up and took the empty cup. "I'll see you downstairs," he said, and headed for the door.
"Thank you for the tea," Alberta said. "I must say, after the storm, the tree and the squashed car, you certainly know how to get a girl's attention," Alberta said.
Anderson paused in the act of pulling the door closed behind him. "I can do a lot better than that," he said.
Alberta considered this for a moment. "You could go out on a limb and try for toast."
"Sounds perfect," Anderson said, and closed the door. He was still smiling as he carried the cups back to the kitchen. It had been a dark and stormy night, but it hadn't turned out too badly.
"Sleep okay?" Princess asked, glancing up as Mark made his way into the tiny kitchen area of Princess' apartment.
"Like a log," Mark replied. "Keyop's mattress has a lot less lumps in it than mine does."
"So, buy a new mattress," Princess reasoned. "Want some hot chocolate?"
"You bet." Mark sat down at the kitchen table. "Looks like a nice morning."
Princess smiled. "Sure does."
"Yeah." Mark smiled. "When does Keyop get back?"
"Once they clear the Chief's driveway," Princess said. "Seems that old oak tree blew over in the storm last night and no-one can get in or out."
"Well," Mark reasoned, "if it's just us, why don't you tag along while I check that everything's okay at the airstrip, then I'll take you to breakfast?"
"Perfect," Princess said. It wasn't every day a girl got kind-of, sort-of, almost proposed to. Maybe there was something to be said for dark and stormy nights.
Jason had made breakfast while Fran was in the shower. It was a nice change to cook in a full sized kitchen rather his trailer's tiny alcove with its single burner and limited bench space. When Fran emerged from the bedroom in her uniform, sans jacket, he'd presented her with a cup of coffee and held her chair for her.
"Thanks," she said, and kissed him.
"So you never got to see that... thing, last night," Jason said, unable to bring himself to use the term 'male strippers' two days in a row. He sat down at the table and made a start on his bowl of cereal.
"Nope," Fran said. "After the car broke down, we had to wait almost an hour for roadside assistance, so we decided to cut our losses."
"There's probably a moral in there, somewhere," Jason said.
"Like, never go out when it's raining cats and dogs?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of... what was that phrase Princess used?"
"Dens of iniquity?" Fran suggested.
"I don't know," Fran said. "The evening ended up okay."
"No arguments, there," Jason agreed.
They finished breakfast and did the dishes.
"I have to go to work," Fran said.
"And I'd better go see if my trailer survived the storm," Jason said. "I have a feeling the roof may be leaking."
They walked out together to the apartment block's car park. The sun was rising on a gleaming wet city. "Beautiful day," Fran said.
"Perfect," Jason said. Dark and stormy nights, he reflected, had their advantages.
Keyop awoke to the sound of a chainsaw and bounced out of bed. He peered out the window to see a crew taking the fallen oak tree apart. Another couple of workmen were wrestling with the remains of the gate to clear the driveway. The sun was climbing into a clear blue sky. Saturday, and he'd slept in! He got dressed, washed his face and headed downstairs.
There was cereal in the kitchen cupboard. It was bran flakes. Plain bran flakes. Keyop put some in a bowl, added milk, tried the result and made a face. He poured the contents of the sugar bowl over it and tried again. He shrugged, sat down at the kitchen table, and ate breakfast.
"Don't think of it as losing a car, Ally," he could hear Anderson saying. "Think of it as an opportunity to buy something that doesn't require nearly as many calls to roadside assistance."
The kitchen door opened to admit Anderson and Colonel Jones. "Morning," Keyop said. He finished the last of his cereal and took the bowl to the sink. "How about that storm?" he remarked. "My window rattled all night!" He rinsed the bowl and put it in the dishwasher.
"Princess called," Anderson said. "She's going out and won't be back until after lunch. Looks like you're stuck with us for the morning."
"Oh." Keyop wracked his brains for something tactful to say. "Any plans?"
"We could always take Al car shopping once the driveway's clear," Anderson said. Jones opened her mouth to protest but Keyop wasn't about to let it slide.
"Car shopping?" he grinned. "Can we go for test drives?"
"That's part of car shopping," Anderson said before Jones could register an objection.
"And later," Keyop said, sensing that he might be on a roll, "can we go for ice cream?"
Anderson took a breath and from the look on his face, Keyop could tell he was going to refuse, but then Colonel Jones took a modicum of revenge. "Sounds like a wonderful idea," she said.
"Perfect!" Keyop declared. Dark and stormy nights, it seemed, came with their own form of entertainment.
By the time the sun was fully up, Tiny was already out in the boat and had enough fish for dinner. He grinned as he cast the line out again. After a frosty start, Shay had thawed out and they'd spent several hours talking about flying before discovering that both their rides had taken off. They were headed in opposite directions, so he'd ordered two cabs and arranged to take Shay up on one of the ISO heavies on Sunday, since it turned out that they both needed to get some hours in for type currency. She'd said she liked fish, so he figured he might catch some extra.
What the hey? Sure, she was old enough to be his... much older sister, but there was nothing wrong with having another flying buddy around, and Shay could talk planes with the best of them.
The line twitched as a fish took the hook, and Tiny worked rod and reel to bring it in. Perfect. He grinned into the morning light. Dark and stormy nights weren't so bad.