Deprecated: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/jgatchfa/public_html/forum/Sources/Load.php(225) : runtime-created function on line 3

Deprecated: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/jgatchfa/public_html/forum/Sources/Load.php(225) : runtime-created function on line 3
Black Birds by JaneLebak
Black Birds by JaneLebak
[Reviews - 2] - Table of Contents - [Report This]

Printer
- Text Size +
Black Birds
Companion to Battle of the Planets 98, "G-Force Defector"
by Jane Lebak
(Note: The original version of this story appeared on the GML in December, 1997.)

 

G-Force's most total defeat took place about four months after we began the war with Spectra. I was eighteen. Mark still blames himself, and Princess and Tiny would look glum if we ever talked about it, but we don't. Keyop's mixed--he'd never have gotten on the team if we'd succeeded. And me? I have no idea what I think of that mission, except that no matter what the name of the mech that nearly destroyed the world or the island we detonated, I always call it "the time we lost Don."

Mark will never pair himself with me again. It's probably the smartest thing. If we're working together, it's because the others are safe someplace else and don't need one of us to play backup. The time we lost Don, he'd paired me and Don, himself and Tiny, and sent Princess out on her own. We were new still. While Mark explained our assignments, Don in his black and white birdstyle tried to deliver a sidelong glare with eyes a shade too small and liquid to pull it off. Just before going, he said something unforgivable--I don't remember what it was. Everything we'd said to each other had always been something unforgivable. Maybe Mark would have left the pairing as-is if we'd been civil. Whatever--I could see our commander change his mind at the last second--pretty Don, the chemistry genius, would go with Tiny instead of me. I'd accompany Mark. This base, an underground labyrinth, held a storehouse of biological weapons that made agent orange look like orange juice, and Don would know best how to neutralize them without exterminating all life on Earth.

Mark and I headed for the hangar area to knock out their smaller aircraft while Princess searched for their control room and computers. Tiny and Don headed for the deep caves. In the hangar, Mark and I got attacked. I got separated from him and beaten ruthlessly, and when I came to it was in the infirmary at Center Neptune, and Don was missing.

To the rest of the team, it went differently. Mark recalled Princess, and together they escorted me back to the Phoenix--apparently I wasn't unconscious, just senseless. They put me in the med bay and found a dislocated right shoulder, some blood loss, and all the signs of shock you could have asked for. Apparently our EMT teacher, Gregory, would have been proud of them: they checked my level of consciousness (LOC, Gregory called it) and got scared. They tell me I kept saying my name was Jason Assacura, and I couldn't repeat my social security number or my address. I couldn't move or feel my right arm. More than a little panicked, Mark called in Tiny and Don, and Tiny appeared minus his partner. After they'd neutralized the chemical weapons, there'd been a rockslide underground, and Don had gotten caught in the tunnels--on the opposite side of the debris. With the Spectrans. Don hadn't answered if he was hurt, just did the last thing I'd have expected and urged Tiny to leave without him. Tiny started excavating, but the rocks were huge and unwieldy; he feared another cave-in if he used explosives. And then he got attacked. Battered, he returned.

Leaving Princess to keep me alive, Mark and Tiny went to search. She told me later that at one point, I sat up and grabbed her arm and said, "You've got to tell Mark! You've got to tell him!" "Tell him what?" "Tell him Picasso had an eye disorder that made him paint the way he did, but if you put on glasses, the paintings look normal." Princess, bless her, nodded seriously and went into the cockpit. Tapes of the mission recorded her saying into the bracelet, "G-1, G-2's brain is scrambled." Intriguing how the human mind works--I just wish it didn't have to involve my mouth.

No attempt to find Don succeeded. They couldn't raise him on the radio, couldn't locate his body in the tunnel, couldn't find him in the holding cells. They'd have stayed longer, but I'd worsened, and the Chief gave the order he must still dwell on sometimes. Come home. You've done all you can.

For a long time, I didn't know what the Chief had told Don's mother, how Aunt Mary had responded. Afraid in case Galactor wanted to use Aunt Mary as leverage against Don, Uncle Scott mothballed the Poughkeepsie house and moved his wife to an apartment in Park Slope, got her a job in the city, and went undercover into Galactor to track his son. He vanished too. It was only the first four months of the war.

Don's legacy is Keyop--despite his age, Keyop took Don's place because no one else had his skills. For that, I'm grateful. Keyop's legacy is the reserve-member, the person who may be sent on tame missions and who trains to replace whoever falls next, and who in the meantime fills in any gaps in the current team. We'd slated Jim, a downed astronaut, for the job, but that didn't work out. Our next choice: G Force had always lacked a telepath and a blond--that was Susan, and thankfully, she wasn't the stuck-up bastard Don was.

My grandmother said it's bad to speak ill of the dead, but we had never proven Don was dead.

We'd endured nearly eighty missions since the time we lost Don. Spectra soon afterward turned up with the Blackbirds, so we assumed they apprehended Don's birdstyle, even if they didn't quite get it right. Don never attempted to contact us, so a coffin or a cell, whatever it was, hadn't released him. And Spectra seemed not to know our names, so either they never asked the question or Don never answered.

It was early May, and I had almost turned twenty. Legal age to save the Earth, not legal to pop the cork on a bottle of champagne after we succeeded--that was the world I lived in.

I don't remember why I ended up near Prospect Park that afternoon. Might have been an errand Cassie sent me on, something for the track, a part for my trailer- there are all these little decrepit shops in Park Slope, the non-brownstone buildings on Third, Fourth and Fifth Avenues a block away from the half million dollar houses on Sixth, Seventh and Eighth. They sell parts for ancient cars and ancient trailers, one of each I owned at the time. I was driving up Flatbush Avenue toward Grand Army Plaza alongside Prospect Park when the summons came to join the team, and I responded without thinking. Of course I'd be there. Just like the previous four missions in the previous week. My heart had tightened, and I'd gotten the stab from the familiar stress pain midway up the left side of my chest. No time for it then--endure it is what I've always done, and I did it then too.

A gleam from a streetlight caught my eyes, and I gasped. I can't explain what happened next--not really. Another light dazzled me like a thousand-watt spotlight, and my heart stabbed at me, and suddenly I was blind. I couldn't feel the accelerator under my foot, and my hands went numb on the wheel. I couldn't feel the steering wheel, couldn't see if the wheel turned under my hands or if I was still on the road. The car jolted as I jumped the curb, and I pulled back my right foot, stomped on the brake and the clutch to at least get the car slowed down before I hit a tree or a kid. Something thumped the side of the car, and my head cracked into the steering wheel.

Some people hold with fixing electronics by smacking them really hard. It may be the case: when I raised my head from the steering wheel (and incidentally stopped the horn's blaring--I hadn't noticed it until then) I could see again. I could feel nothing at all with my right hand. My right foot might as well have been plastic. I staggered from the car.

Either no one saw or no one cared--in New York, it's possible. I walked around the car and startled when I saw I'd hit a woman.

I ran for her, checked her over. She sat up, as addled as I was, and I examined her with my eyes--no blood on her, more than I could say for myself. My forehead bled like mad and I had nothing to stop it. As her eyes cleared, the woman stared at my forehead and pulled a handkerchief from her purse. I was too busy asking if she was all right to realize what she was doing until she pressed it against the cut. We both talked at once, I apologizing and she saying she'd walked into the side of my car. She told the truth, I realized later--if I'd hit her instead of she me, she'd be dead. So slight and fragile, she'd have snapped like a sparrow's hollow bones, and I'd have killed someone for the first time by accident.

She looked and sounded naggingly familiar, but I couldn't think clearly enough to wonder why. My head hurt from the shot to the steering wheel, and I had the urge to run, like I couldn't stand still. My team-mates needed me. Something was attacking somewhere. They'd want to know where I was.

The woman told me to leave her, and since she was standing and looked all right, I turned away. My bracelet buzzed, and as I stepped back toward the car, she tottered and nearly fell. I turned off the bracelet. "I have to take you home," I said, and I lifted her in my arms. She was lighter than Princess. I looked her in the face again and got burned by the familiarity. Of course I knew her. Aunt Mary.

I found out later that in my absence, the Chief had dispatched Susan to the team. You can hear on the flight recorder that he sounds pissed, and the anger shows even in the written reports. Susan could have blown the game for me right there if she'd checked on me the way a telepath can, but she apparently had a moral code against privacy invasion burned into her by her mother; it's even stronger than the average Spectran's self-presevation instinct. She wouldn't use it to get anyone in trouble, and given the general outrage, I understand why she kept her talent to herself. The team had tracked the destruction and found at the head what they called a giant mechanical caterpillar; only when they saw it from above did they realize it should be called a trilobite, but their first ID had stuck.

The trilobite dazzled them with a brilliant flash and then bounced back their radar. It's a pretty simple trick, one the American military used since the Gulf War. Take a moment to determine the frequency and pulse the enemy radar uses, then produce it yourself and scatter it back so the enemy picks up fifty blips instead of one.

Our radar is a little more sophisticated than the Iraqis', but Princess still had a bit of a shock. "There's fifty of them!" Susan scanned and insisted there was only one. Mark got worried, ordered the Phoenix up, and then got his own scare as the Phoenix banged into the mech hovering over them.

The trilobite was massive--thirty times the size of the Phoenix. They tried to rise and kept slamming into its hull until the trilobite lifted a little above them; then it dropped gas bombs onto the Phoenix, and each carried a payload of the most corrosive chemical I've ever seen. Pictures of the Phoenix after its return horrified me more than I cared to admit--bombs landed on the main hull and the wing pods, and each released the chemicals that munched through the metal the way a flame crinkles polystyrene. The by-product of dissolving Phoenix is a noxious yellow gas, and that poured into the cockpit.

Without the G-2, Mark made the only decision he could and sent the Phoenix into a low-altitude orbit. Only when the thin air couldn't provide enough lift for the trilobite would they be safe, and it worked out for them. The ventilation system screamed into high gear, airlocks slammed into place where the chemical breached the hull--leaving parts of the ship effectively dead--and in the chilling near-vacuum the remaining chemical couldn't react to completion with the metal on the hull. They worked on repressurizing the ship and making internal repairs as best they could. Mark spent the time, and he can't deny this since it's on the flight recorders, alternately telling himself and the others that if I'd been there they'd have won and it wasn't the Jason he knew, or else that when he found out what happened to me, it had better have been that I was dead.

Back at Aunt Mary's apartment, on Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street near the elevated tracks of the F line, I tried to verify that I hadn't done more damage to her than a few bruises. She called it "jangled nerves," and I said I was using "relaxation techniques" on her, but in reality she ached and knew I checked her over for broken bones and watched for signs of shock or internal injury. Pleasant mutual lies among friends come very close to telling the truth. She made me bundle some ice in a washcloth to bring down the swelling on my forehead, but the cut was small and I'd clotted like a trooper. If I kept my hair combed right, no one would have to see it.

I put on the kettle for tea and then persuaded her I could make some dinner. She wanted only some soup, which I found in cans in the cabinet. Campbell's chicken noodle, I joked, cures everything, and when she laughed, I added dryly that twenty-five tablespoons of salt dissolved in boiling water with half a bullion cube does the same. She laughed again, and I smiled easily. While the soup heated, I returned to rubbing her neck and shoulders. I give world-class back rubs.

"You know why you look familiar?" I don't know why I always try to sound clever whenever I say something--it's gotten me more trouble than laughs--but I was nervous, I guess. It's not every day you run over a relative. "I used to work with your son--Aunt Mary."

She blinked at me, then dropped her head and turned aside. A few seconds later I noticed tears tracing the wrinkled skin around her eyes.

I said, "What's wrong?"

At first I thought she was mad at me. All the others had visited her since the time we lost Don--even Susan had stayed with her in Poughkeepsie for two weeks, but I'd always found excuses not to go. Cleverly timed meetings at the track, homework, cramming for exams, weekend races. She knew Don hadn't liked me and vice versa. The first time I'd directly addressed him, I'd called him Mister Totally Perfect, and he'd never pardoned that. An apt start.

Aunt Mary said, "Forgive me, please. I don't know where he is. I haven't seen him in a long time."

My heart bottomed out.

"You mean--?" My chest stabbed with another stress pain. "The Chief--"

"He and Don came to speak to Scott and me," she said, "about Don resigning from the team. Don said he wasn't cut out for it any longer, if he'd ever been, and that he'd rather help the ISO in other ways, go back to college."

I tried to rub Aunt Mary's shoulders as she spoke, but my right hand was numb, not telling my brain what it was doing, let alone my left hand. I couldn't tell if I was helping or hurting her, so I slowed and stopped.

Don had spoken to them about resigning? And the Chief hadn't told us?

"He went on a secret mission for the government," she added. "I don't know what it is or where. I watch the news every night afraid of what I'll find."

My right arm was totally dead. "How long has it been?" Don was dead, and the Chief hadn't told Don's mother. But if Don was alive and the Chief knew--

"He disappeared right after he resigned from the G-Force team. That's almost two years now, and not one word."

I was sick to my stomach. I could smell the soup boiling, and I dashed to the stove to turn it off, then leaned against the window. I shook, staring at Aunt Mary as if she would shout "April Fools!" any minute now, six weeks too late. I'd rather have been dead than hear what I'd just heard. The Chief had kept the truth from just about everyone--or at the very least, some of the people who deserved to know. Was Don still alive?

My eyes chose that moment to give out, and my left hand squeezed my temples to stop the pain. My chest stabbed again and again.

Aunt Mary had gotten to her feet. "What's wrong? Is it your head?"

"It's nothing." It's so easy to lie to Aunt Mary--I guess that was why the Chief did it. "I need some air."

After staggering onto the fire escape, I leaned on the rusting metal and gasped with my eyes closed. Every breath came deep, as if it could burst out my lungs and fill the rest of a body dying all around me. My head pounded, and I couldn't even focus on Sweetheart, stashed in the most illegal space in Brooklyn, there at the bottom of the fire escape in the alley behind Aunt Mary's building. Was the light orange because of the sunset or was it my vision stopping, like a car running out of gas? Maybe you can just run out of nerve impulses. Maybe I had just run out of nerve. I couldn't drive in that condition. I couldn't even stand. I raised my right hand in my left and startled at the sensation--no double-touch. When your hands touch each other, they're supposed to feel back. It might have been someone else's hand in my own; I might as well have been anesthetized.

It's starting again. All I could think. What good am I this way?

Starting again--it had happened a year or so ago, and I'd made the mistake of telling Mark, who'd dutifully informed the Chief. And they'd made the decision that if it happened again, I'd get retired. Consequently, I'd made the decision that if I relapsed, I'd get sneaky.

At first they called it post traumatic stress disorder, shell shock. Then the Chief and three other doctors all decided it was a delayed stress reaction, that I could withstand periods of high stress so far and no further until I snapped. The Chief already calls me the weather-vane for the team, the first to show signs of high stress. Right. Anyway, they modified this diagnosis to a generalized situational anxiety disorder, which I suspected at the time meant they'd run out of impressive sounding words and thought me crazy or having panic attacks. I hated the whole process--everyone wanted to look into my psyche, and no one believed it could possibly be a real problem. I wasn't making it up. The symptoms were just too vague. Blurry vision, lightheadedness and random numbness sounded conveniently psychosomatic. If it had been Mark saying the same thing, they'd have scanned him until he glowed. In fact, when Mark did come down with persistent headaches, he got studied nonstop until they realized he was clenching his jaw constantly from stress. With me, they never looked any further. Do one stupid thing with a gun and everyone treats you like you're nuts the rest of your life. Initially they wanted to prescribe epinephrine blockers, but the Chief pointed out that in a lot of situations I was in, fight-or-flight was a normal reaction.

That was the problem with the entire medical industry, the Chief said to me at one point. All the treatment of anxiety disorders and prolonged stress disorders was geared toward people who worked in offices fifty hours a week, people whose fight-or-flight responses had no use at all in their daily lives. I and the entire team found ourselves in legitimate stress day after day, faced not with free floating anxieties but with concrete threats, and the doctors wanted to prescribe tricyclic antidepressants as if the worst to be feared were papercuts or missed deadlines.

Of all the doctors, only the Chief helped, but even he played the brain-game like I was just another lunatic. He sat down with me and opened a dozen books, explained things I didn't understand. He diagnosed me with "bad marriage syndrome": when married couples have a screaming fight, they get flooded with anger and stress hormones (like epinephrine, like cortisol) that send their endocrine system into overdrive. The pituitary gland rules the world for a few minutes, at least until the fight ends. If this happens often enough, the body gears up for a fight every time there's interaction with the spouse, until eventually both live as though Armageddon could begin at any moment. I'd gotten so used to the fight-or-flight response that my body anticipated it, seized any opportunity to chug out epinephrine, sending my pulse skyrocketing and increasing my blood pressure abruptly. I was also having the other effects of the fight-or-flight reaction: the pupils dilate, the facial muscles tense (the Chief chuckled and said I didn't need to look any more menacing than I already did) and perspiration and respiration both increase. And there you had it: from time to time, when I got stressed, I'd get muscle tremors from the increased blood pressure, get chilled because I'd started to sweat, get light-headed because I hyperventillated, and couldn't tolerate light because my pupils dilated. That didn't explain the numbness, but I didn't press my luck or he probably would have said I was crazy too.

The other doctors yielded to his diagnosis and told me to do whatever I had to so I could relax; I promptly said racing and tinkering under the hood relaxed me. The Chief never bothered me about cars again. I said target practice relaxed me. The Chief refused to issue me my own revolver and assigned me something called "progressive muscle relaxation exercises" instead, then politely threatened me with a dietary regimen. It figures. I still get surprised he relented enough to give me the cable-gun.

Standing on Aunt Mary's fire escape, I didn't want to go home. I couldn't have even if I'd wanted. I went back in to Aunt Mary and said I'd stick around for a while, and she agreed. She liked to have company and wanted to hear about the Chief and my brothers and sister. I told her anything I thought of.

By dark, I'd cleared up enough to drive, and I returned to my car. All told, the affair hadn't devastated everyone as much as it could have. Aunt Mary seemed unhurt, wouldn't sue, probably wouldn't tell the Chief. I didn't need to confront him with my having hit a pedestrian, didn't have to file a police report or call the insurance company.

My right hand still felt numb to the fingers; the palm had sensation again, so I kept that pressed on the wheel, thumb locked around the grip. I fumbled at the radio to get it on, then didn't trust myself even to change the station.

How long until I start dropping things again?

What I wanted to listen to was the news, hear what had attacked where, find out if the team had won after all. I couldn't bring myself to change to News Radio 88. I couldn't join the team as I was, couldn't do any good there or not. Better to stay away. So I let the radio play.

And it was then I decided, the way most people decide if they should take the car through the car wash, that if the rest of the team had died, I'd be dead soon after. It wasn't a decision made from depression or confusion. It wasn't a determination to kill myself. I've been there, and this wasn't that. Far from it--this was a practical, pragmatic, stoic, detached realization made with the logic of a computer: yes or no, either you are or you aren't. It felt like watching my own confusion from a distance, reading an old diary entry or using a dead right hand and wondering why it didn't have the same sensations as the left. But the certitude held: I should have been there. There wouldn't be any reason not to die, if they had. Let the Chief grieve all of us at once. I'd take the next mission alone, and it would most likely kill me.

Where to go tonight? If I go to ISO, they'll be there. Maybe. If they're alive. If I go to my trailer, they'll be upset in the morning. If they're alive. But I'll be better by then because I'll have to be--I'll work hard to relax and make the stress go away--I'll do all the relaxation exercises the Chief taught me--I can fight it back.

Back inside myself, my mind blazed with ideas and questions and more guilt than I'd felt in a long time. I couldn't concentrate on where I was driving, where I wanted to end up, where I had gone this afternoon. What if's--what if Aunt Mary was hurt worse than I'd realized? What if the team had done badly without me? What if the team had done better? What if Aunt Mary called the Chief looking for me? But I couldn't go home--if they found out what had happened, the numbness, the headaches, I'd end up missing more than just this one mission. There'd be an involuntary medical leave of absence: possibly until I passed enough tests to occupy a dozen doctors, more likely forever. But if I quit, if I left on my own, I could reinstate myself whenever I wanted. I'd know if I was ready to go back, know it better than any doctor with any number of electronic measuring devices and blood tests.

At the entrance of the BQE, I pulled over and sat in the darkened car for a long time, trying to decide where I had left to go.

Turned out it didn't matter--they'd regrouped at the ISO mansion in New Jersey, on the shore. It's a pretty big place with sprawling grounds and a rocky coastline. Some hidden sea-doors admit the Phoenix. Initially, it had been one of three repair bays where extensive reconstruction could be done; it became one of two after of the devastation of Center Neptune.

The first thing I did was walk in and antagonize everyone, particularly the Chief. I stalked off furious and holed up in one of the rooms, staring at the TV. My vision had cleared up overnight and my hands felt fine; there was no more stabbing pain in the chest. After a half hour, Mark came to me and without a word tossed me the tape of their briefing.

I listened on my walkman, lying on the bed in the room I usually snag when we're here overnight. The first part of the tape was Mark's report to the Chief about what happened when the trilobite attacked. That dazzling light would have finished me off, if I wasn't able to handle even street lights. My chest tensed just thinking about it. Mark's usually very concise, so I took note that he chose to mention my absence two times. It is inexcusable, I told him in my mind, but dangerous without me would have been dangerous with me even so.

Next on the tape came a break. When it resumed, the Chief said, "This may come as a shock, but it seems a former member of G-Force, Donald Wade, has defected to Spectra. His knowledge of G-Force operations makes him dangerous."

I'd gone cold by then, and the stab over my heart returned worse than before. Don? Don really was alive? The Chief's voice continued evenly: "Wade is a genius in chemistry. At the time he left G-Force, he was perfecting the formula for a universal solvent. Look at how the exposed metal on the Phoenix is eaten away." I imagined, and I winced. "The bombs that struck it had to have been carrying a payload of Don's formula. I've analyzed it, and it's his. And now it's Zoltar's."

I was too shaken to think clearly. Defecting? And not even telling his Mom he was alive, all right, and living on another planet? I could have killed him for that alone. Those tears on the worn skin around her eyes--better if Aunt Mary had cried for herself, for her husband. What a bastard.

Susan's voice came on the tape for the first time: "I never met Don. What's he like?"

Mark answered. "He's a guy I never could get close to. A real loner. And he and Jason--" I had to chuckle. "--just couldn't hit it off at all."

Putting it mildly, Mark? Susan later said the mix of emotions in the room impressed her--anger and loss and grief and disappointment she couldn't even have begun to trace to their sources.

"Speaking of Jason," the Chief said, "he's missed a mission and now a briefing. He'd better have a good explanation."

No one answered him, and then Susan asked another question. She was still trying to pick up the nuances we could leave unsaid among each other. Telepathy didn't replace knowing each other ten or more years, living together, working together, relying on each other. Her question even I could have answered, but everyone was patient.

Following Susan's question, Princess, Mark and the Chief discussed Don's compound and tried to determine how it reacted--the Chief said it was a salt, not an acid, and it required oxygen to interact with metal. The chemical was likely stored in two parts, an acid and a base, and mixed when the bombs detonated, the heat from the bomb starting the chemical reaction that led to the creation of the solvent. I think this is what they said--I'm not a chemist, but I'm familiar with the concept of the two-part poison. They decided on a special coating for the Phoenix, but it would take a while to develop and apply, and only the maker of the chemical would know for certain what could resist it. Then the real bomb dropped into the room.

Keyop: "Hey--look who's here."

The Chief said lowly, "Jason, what's going on?"

I heard my own voice, deep for me even though it sounded strange on tape, growl at him, "That's a good question."

I knew what was coming next, and I shivered. If I'd realized what the Chief had just told everyone--if I'd been there earlier--if I'd just made it to the Phoenix--

The Chief said, "And I'd like a good answer. Your behavior has been inexcusable. You deliberately disobeyed orders."

And there, on the tape, I was forever recorded quoting Don Wade back to a man who'd just finished dealing with his return. "Maybe the best thing for me to do is resign."

Everyone had stared at me when I'd said that. I went on, "I've come to the conclusion that I'm not cut out for G-Force anymore. If I ever was."

I couldn't believe how much an asshole I sounded, there on the tape. There's no arguing with a recording. There I was, being a jerk, saying what I'd have done anyway but quoting Don for dramatic effect. The Chief should have slapped me.

Instead, he said, "That's not true, and you know it, Jason. Just be sure you're not making a decision you'll regret later. Just be sure." And here the tape ended as the Chief snapped off the recorder and left the room. But I knew what followed. Princess's taking a few steps toward him, saying, "Chief--please!" and getting rebuffed; Mark's sidling up beside me. Maybe Mark saw me gripping a dead right arm to my side.

"Jason, what's wrong? I'll help."

And me--

"Stay out of this."

I hadn't changed since I was fifteen. Only now I know when I'm being a jerk, at least after the fact.

After I ejected the tape, I changed into shorts and a t-shirt and sneakers, and I grabbed the walkman and a towel. I headed outside. As I've said, the grounds at the ISO New Jersey mansion are huge, and it's easy to find a spot out of sight of the house or the road. I worked out with the walkman playing. I felt better and even had less of a bump than I thought I would have, but I needed to know which had been the aberration--sickness or health? So I pushed. Not too hot, the day proved perfect for exercise. I let the sun soak over me, and I sweat cleanly in the late spring half-chill.

After a half hour, Susan "pinged" me. I don't pretend to understand telepathy, but I know a bit about the internet. If you finger a machine, you can tell who's using it; if you type -w, sometimes you can see who's doing what. If you ping a machine, you find out only if the machine's active and responsive. Susan had pinged me, and I felt it, and I knew what it meant--they'd ordered her to probe me to find out what was going on, and in her code against privacy invasion, she'd warned me first.

I cranked up the walkman. Susan had taught us how to evade enemy telepaths, after all, and the techniques work. Concentrate on headphones and only an exquisite telepath can find you. That doesn't work with just a radio, and I'm not sure why, but I didn't need to know. If you think really hard about your bodily senses, the telepath won't be able to touch you at all.

If she reached me a second time, there was no accompanying static. Mark might have ordered her into ultra-quiet mode. I stayed on the defensive long enough that it didn't work. She probably raised her eyes and said I had my radio on, and Mark most likely stalked from the room saying a jerk like me wasn't worth the effort.

I kept the volume high and worked out in time to the music. Of course, it's true sometimes--I acted like a jerk to the Chief and to Mark. I'm such an idiot. I deserved whatever punishment they felt like handing out. Even if it meant throwing me off the team permanently. Even if it meant allowing me to resign despite their earlier words to the contrary.

I wanted to get away, get far away from everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours, escape and leave the painful thing behind, the shameful thing that was me. I wanted to resign so totally I couldn't rejoin.

I lay back on the ground. I'd soaked the workout clothing. My breath came unsteadily, and my fingertips felt only numbness. My chest stabbed me. My eyes hurt.

Resign. Be in peace.

Just be quiet, lie here quietly, and let the quiet horror of an entire war rush past you. You're one alone right now, and what can one alone do? But Don had been one alone, and faced with a choice, Don had shown what one man could do rather than show that there are some things one man would not.

Die. Feel no more.

I always had known what it would come to in the end, that if someone had to die, it would be me, probably out of uniform since all the important things happen to me when I'm not wearing it.

Be quiet. Quietus.

I left the field, bolted for a hill where I could see the mansion. Careful to keep my back to the sun, I sat wherever I'd stopped running on the soft grass dotted with dandilions and little white and blue flowers I couldn't name. My right hand twitched, and I rubbed it with the other.

I just couldn't figure out why it was happening then, why the stress kept manifesting in that way.

"Jason?"

I froze in place. Princess's voice. She was less likely acting on Mark's orders than just acting to keep the peace. The Chief had walked away from her. She must have seen me from the house. I dropped my hand and huddled over myself. I kept my gaze riveted away.

"Jason, if you want someone to talk to, I'm available."

So I'd noticed. But I didn't want someone to talk to, and I waited pulling up single tiny flowers until she said, "I thought we were friends, that we told each other our troubles."

"I want to be left alone." I turned to face her. "Okay?"

"No."

"Yes." I averted my face again. "Don't butt in where you're not wanted, Princess."

For a moment I held my ground until I wondered how I'd feel if Mark arrived in another half hour and tossed me another cassette.

Princess sounded subdued. "I-- I'm sorry if I've bothered you. I'll leave you alone."

If I'd been more mature, I could have said to myself that I loved her for her concern, but she couldn't have done anything--that if my body were giving out on me--

The wind gusted over me, over the grass, over the tiny white flowers on their slender stems. It scattered the little flower heads I'd plucked.

Princess, there are some times you can't do anything. I was surrounded by flowers. There'd probably been May flowers in a cut glass vase when I was born, and there'd be overly sweet-smelling flowers at my funeral. There was one flower I could still see when I closed my eyes, flickering in the fingers of a devilstar with her face totally masked to hide the laughter that rolled like a wicked tide over my dead father, my dead mother, my dead puppy, and my own half-dead body. Grandma had said I would never see thirty. And I didn't see what the woman did with her rose because then I passed out from blood loss and awakened only hours and hours later, being patched up in the back of an ISO cargo plane by a man with glasses and a mustache who spoke even less Italian than I spoke English.

My hands shook. As I opened my eyes to a dark and blurry world, all I saw clearly were flowers.

Flowers.

Slashing through them with my hand, I leaped backward to my feet. I couldn't breathe. I fled. The coast. The water.

The intention hadn't formed more than halfway as I went. There's a cove hidden from nearly everything--the adjoining shoreline, the woods, the house. Mark knew about it, but after the reception Princess got, I doubted anyone would come. I doubted I deserved a fourth chance. But just in case. I was at the shore and stripping without thinking, then wading into the chilling salt of the Atlantic. Campbell's soup. I wondered why one hand had hit the water before the other and saw it hadn't--the right hand dangled in the wet and couldn't feel the cold.

I've always been a strong swimmer, but suddenly I felt enervated. I walked out as far as my chin. Staring straight ahead, I thrust forward and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. I swam on and on.

My senior year English lit teacher had assigned us The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and it ended this way, with me growing numb, with a lone swimmer heading directly out from shore. I was in the Atlantic, not the Gulf of Mexico. I was swimming much faster by now, too, not the graceful strokes of Chopin's heroine. The AP English teacher hadn't known my history and probably would have assigned it anyhow. I'd had an argument with Mark about the book. He'd seen all kinds of symbolism and the theme of a woman awakening to her own sensuality; I'd seen someone dying to everyone, deadening all she felt step by step, one at a time alienating the rest of her family, and finally dying to herself. Don had walked in on the conversation. He'd read the book at Vassar, naturally. He backed up Mark. I didn't have the language to say anything, and I'd tossed the book on the couch and left it there forever. The AP English teacher let me have an alternative topic for that paper. And now I found myself reenacting the ending.

Stop, stop, stop! Resign. Die. It was in my head: I'd always denied my guilt in losing Don, but if I'd been well, if I hadn't gotten hurt, there'd have been two more searching the base; there'd have been no cause to leave until we found him. If I hadn't acted like such a jerk to him, Mark could have paired one strong member with each weak one.

I'd stopped swimming out to sea. I treaded water for a while, then raised my eyes and studied the cove. A little further and I'd have passed beyond the protective rocks into the tug of the Atlantic's currents. Behind me, scattered rock formations jutted from the sandy bottom of the cove. Fish and crabs lived in the shelter of the cove, and seaweed and barnacles clung to the rocks. Avoiding the silver glare of the sun on the water, I tried to experience every part of the inlet, the biting scent of ocean-water, the cold currents that spiralled like vipers past my treading legs, the lap of waves and whistles of birds and hum of motors, the salt on my own lips. I'd gotten so tired lately. Disturbed sleep, disturbed meals, disturbed family and friends. All the good things were being dashed in pieces.

With a deep breath, I plunged under the surface. I can hold my breath for a long time, and pressure never bothered me, so the twenty feet to the still sand felt as easy as the bottom of the kiddie pool. I had my eyes open as I ran spread fingers through the loose white sand. That was when I came upon a conch shell, huge, spiralled, mother-of-pearled, the kind you imagine Indian tribes turning into trumpets. I lifted it and found the repulsive, tacky foot of the univalve protruding, still covered with sand. About to take it to the surface, I paused.

If I took the conch, the conch would die. That's the only way I can summarize what went through me that instant--that something beautiful would die because of something ugly, that something peaceful would succumb to the soldier, that this thing had to be killed just so I could feel better temporarily.

Underwater, I gasped, then choked as my lungs realized faster than my brain did that I couldn't breathe ocean. I shot to the surface and thrashed for a rock, coughing and spitting up salt water, the conch forgotten, my cheeks flushed. You're an idiot, Jason! I breathed as forcefully as I could, then coughed again. Sure, think about the romance of death, but when it comes to it, your body wants to live as much as any other body.

My throat ached, my lungs felt raw, and my eyes stung with two kinds of salt. I clung to a barnacled rock with two hands, one recently dead and the other alive. One of the razor-sharp barnacles had sliced my right index finger, and it hurt. I stared at it as it bled, and the finger throbbed. The cut stung. I had sensation again.

Sometime that day, Mark approached the Chief in his attic office; I'm uncertain if the Chief summoned him to report to the dormer-windowed room or if Mark's conscience did it instead. When Mark told me about it a few days afterward, I couldn't exactly have pumped him for details, could I? And "Misplaced neurotic guilt's a bitch, isn't it, Mark?" wouldn't have opened lines of communication, so I'm left with a few questions after all is said and done.

The Chief made Mark close the door. Mark's standard line: "About Jason, I don't know what's going on. He's keeping to himself."

The Chief responded, "I don't like that at all."

Mark told me about it as if to defend himself against any accusation of subterfuge. He's always keenly aware of any time people feel he's let them down, and later he must have thought I felt betrayed in the whole affair. I'd never feel betrayed by Mark, though. Not by Mark. Mark's always been and always will be straightforward enough to trust. Even when I've hated him, I've handed over my life to his judgment.

Mark said, "Maybe if we're given a mission?"

The Chief said, "That's why you're here." The trilobite had returned. "I want it stopped before it does the terrible damage it can, and that means somebody has to get aboard it. I've made my decision, Mark. I want that somebody to be Jason."

Mark took great pains later to tell me he protested, tried to keep me sheltered until I came to him on my own--he trusted I'd approach on my own the instant I felt I could, when I felt safe or felt I had no other place to turn. Mark knew I'd gone to him for help before, but never the times he's asked to help--he hadn't then and maybe hasn't still put it together. If I were backed into a corner, if I had no other route of escape, I'd ask for his help and no one else's. He always feels useful when he helps, and he gets a demented high from utility. He's always effective, so I've always tolerated it. But I've fought more of my battles than he has, regardless of what he thinks.

"I don't know," Mark said to the Chief. "Under the circumstances--"

The Chief flung him the American catchphrase: "I think Jason needs to prove something to himself. Let's give him that chance."

Mark promised to start right away. Downstairs, I'd just gotten out of the shower, and we had to head out.

There were things I didn't know about Don at the time we lost him. Don and I had one feature in common other than mutual antagonism: no sense of money. Money goes in and out, and I never notice. My parents had more than enough, and the Chief seems to have the same. I deposit paychecks in a bank account and at the end of the year collect W-2 forms and fill out a tax return. I've never figured out which boxes to fill in on the withholding forms, so sometime in February I mail a check to the government and they feel better about everything. Once they mailed a check to me instead. One year I made a mistake and they threatened to take my life savings if I didn't mail them $63.27. I mailed them another check, and they left me alone. It's a good relationship: I don't pay attention to money, and it's always around.

Don always had a good supply of money too, only Uncle Scott didn't earn the salary the Chief did. Uncle Scott went into the army while the Chief tackled medical school. That 70% increase in lifetime earnings per degree bit hard and fast, and the Chief had a huge salary to support a single man living like a Spartan while Uncle Scott left the army and did his best to support a wife, a son, and a mortgage.

Don got whatever he needed while Uncle Scott and Aunt Mary did without. The Chief didn't have to pay much for housing, living at ISO (something like a dollar a square yard per month) but Uncle Scott had to make house payments and maintain the place. For a while, they weren't on speaking terms at all, but Uncle Scott could have used the money he never approached the Chief to borrow. The Chief would have given it, and Uncle Scott would have been good for the repayment, but regardless, Uncle Scott kept to himself and struggled through on his own.

Don insisted on going to Vassar instead of SUNY Binghamton, insisted on buying a new car instead of getting a used one, insisted on dorming instead of commuting. Uncle Scott gave it all the first year, but the tuition crippled the family. Before the Chief asked Don to join the team, Uncle Scott had already broken him the news that he'd better put in a transfer application to one of the state universities or else prepare to work for a couple of years.

G-Force qualifies as hazardous duty. During training, Don would get a small salary; during actual missions, he'd make enough to cover his own tuition. He could transfer to Columbia, live at ISO for free (he asked for and got his own studio apartment on the 33rd floor) and train for G-Force at the same time. It worked well for him in every respect but one--he didn't have the drive we had. We weren't his friends, although the other four treated him politely. He was the Outsider, and he didn't attempt to insinuate himself in our social gatherings outside training. In that respect, Susan was much better off: she was our age, easygoing, and didn't have people to leave behind. She could drop the training and not desert any particular dream of hers, like college.

What did I know about Don? Not much at the time. Apparently we met at the Chief's mother's wake twelve years ago, and they say Mark, Tiny and I played with him in the lobby, telling whispered jokes and running around the furniture with hushed giggles. I hate thinking about myself as a kid; I positively can't imagine Don as anything other than the person I met eight years later, at Aunt Mary's on Thanksgiving morning. Is there anyone in the world who manages to begin every sentence with "I"? Now I can say, yes. Every time Don opened his mouth, he started by saying "I'm doing" or "I was thinking" or "I'm sure," and it irritated the hell out of me. At sixteen, I had no self-control, and I delighted in embarrassing him in front of the rest of the family. It's never resolved itself in my mind, why that instant need to humiliate him blossomed in me. Honestly, it choked me, an actual pressure in my throat. Every time I spoke, the words got deliberately crafted to omit myself as the subject of the sentence--only around him. Maybe no one noticed. I noticed.

Is there someone in the world more isolated? Perhaps. Don had set himself up with friends more neurotic than Mark, people devoted so much to schoolwork and grades that they'd never learned about the real work we have to do in our lives--the interaction with other people. That's hard. Any moron can memorize an equation. It's more an achievment to have an A in Works Well With Others than straight As every place else. Don had them every place else. Don came to breakfast that first morning intending to hold court, to tout a list of accomplishments as long as his arm, and win us over because we could hardly stand in his presence without being awed. I'd felt the need to expose him, and I'd done so. That was the first unforgiveable thing we'd ever done.

Once he joined G-Force, every day we had to interact closely. Training required us to work as a team, and the Chief pushed us to work together continuously. We ate together; we studied in the same room; we had workouts together, and afterward we waited together in the same room to get various unnecessary injuries checked over. I'm not proud of that--but Don helped me develop self control I might never have had if someone hadn't been jeering me during workouts, if I hadn't found the new lethality in my hands a tempting solution to the nasty voice which seemed to be inciting me to murder. It terrified and fascinated me. It took a long time, and Don limped out of practice sessions more often than I care to remember, but it did happen eventually. At first I learned to limit the unfair shots to the places the birdstyle protected him best. Still later when Don made rude remarks, I limited my retaliation to a sidelong glare that peeled the paint off the wall at his back, and he got the message. He lived solely by my solicitude. Since then I've left a lot of Spectrans with the same feeling.

But it never occurred to me at the time to ask why--why was he deliberately trying to antagonize me and none of the others? I certainly wasn't any kind of competition for him academically. And why the dedication to schoolwork? Why was his entire energy geared into finishing one college and heading straight into another? What in the rest of his life had been so miserable that he hoped to subdue it simply by waving a diploma at the world?

Once the war started, though, college went by the wayside. Mark had gotten into Columbia, I was in NYU, and even the beginning courses took too much effort--we had no time between missions and training to study. Even Mark was failing. I had no hope at all, but my racing sponsorship depended on my staying in college. Professor Sanders felt content to let me carry an incomplete for four years if necessary, but the other classes would kill me; plus, Mark and I were helping Princess and Tiny just to graduate high school. They helped Keyop. Don helped Mark, but he had no one to help him.

The war had started in June. Classes started in September. By November, Don couldn't handle it any longer. He had enough money in his name now that he could finish school on his own, and after that he was sure to get a full tuition break plus a stipend to the grad school of his choice. He had no reason not to leave.

I didn't know this. He approached the Chief and said G-Force was too dangerous, he wasn't cut out for the work, he wanted to go back to school, and a chemist didn't belong on a fighting team. The Chief took a day with Don to go speak to Aunt Mary and Uncle Scott, and they decided he'd resign soon.

The next mission, he was lost.

What happened after that, we never learned in full. All we've managed to reconstruct is that he got into Spectra's possession. Questioned, he probably admitted he was the chemist who'd undone the biological weapons. He was escorted before Zoltar and interrogated. We figure Zoltar gave Don to understand that his teammates had abandoned him, then locked him up to be brought to Spectra. Given enough time, the Spectrans must have figured out how to part Don and his birdstyle, and I imagine they studied it in a lab for months. They must have done a pretty thorough job with Don's in order to have developed the mechaziner when they found Princess' shoe--once they had parts of two birdstyles, finding the common denominators got tremendously easier.

I've wondered how much of Don's capture was coincidence, or if Zoltar hadn't targeted him in advance. No one listens to me seriously when I ask, but what if Don conspired with them to stay behind and collect his thirty pieces of silver in exchange for a kiss with academia?

This much is obvious: Don cooperated in developing the Blackbirds. We tend not to think he was trusted at first with training the squad to use their new uniforms (which had a close resemblence to Don's birdstyle, other than the wings, which more closely resembled Zoltar's cape.) After explaining how a birdstyle is put together, and after helping them synthesize their own, Don's participation was solely explaining what maneuvers he knew. At least for a while. He wasn't as competent as Mark or myself from the start, so of course they never became quite the threat I could have forged if I'd been in charge, but I know their existence alone dismayed the Chief. A couple of times, one of the Blackbirds addressed Mark directly, and the voice (he decided later, so he might be wrong) sounded familiar. Had Don actually run missions with them? Had he turned against us as early as that musical-giant escapade? That's in doubt--I don't think Spectra ever trusted him enough to let him out into the field wearing his means of escape.

At some point, before or after the Blackbirds were developed we're not sure, Zoltar acquired from the Columbia University microfilm library copies of the papers Don's research group had published.

This is what Don tells us, so I don't know what to believe. The convenient appearance of a digitized recording of an exchange between Mark, the Chief, and Zoltar, whereby Spectra magnanimously offered to return Don and got rebuffed with "Keep him," led Don to an anger he'd never known. We figure it's this time at the very latest that Zoltar made Don an offer: defect or be bored. Zoltar wasn't stupid--he'd learned after years of contact with humans that unlike in Spectrans, in us the prospect of a clean death inspires loyalty. Why trigger that? If he hadn't defected already, Don had spent an interminable period in cinderblocked cells by now, his only respite brief trips to the labs to explain parts of his old uniform. Defect, and he could have all the education, equipment, and chemical play-time he wanted.

We've seen what choice Don made.

For his amusement, Don got a lab and access to textbooks and video conferenced classes and seminars, and by this time he was allowed to participate in Blackbird training; he maintains he didn't do that often, and he's continuously denied participating in any missions. Regardless, he must have been out of shape by then, and not an awesome fighter even at his best, slowly his squad must have let him stay away from the gym in favor of the lab.

For the most part, Zoltar left him alone for a month. In chemistry, he got to entertain himself during evenings and during times when the Blackbirds trained without him. Don's first self-assigned project involved coffee--whether it cools faster with milk or without. He determined there's a sharper initial drop in temperature if you add milk, but the increased viscosity keeps it warm longer. What a waste of brain power. You can extrapolate from that not to blow on cream-based soups to cool them, I suppose. He would have tested coffee with sugar and other additives as well, but something else came up.

Zoltar assigned him a question--Alkahest, the universal solvent--and for the next fifteen months, Don occupied himself by answering it. The further implications of his work must have gotten lost in the size of the problem. This was bigger than the birdstyle replication attempts, and it was all his to solve. We'd seen how well Don's alkahest worked--damned well, but not enough to dissolve everything it contacted. Don had even tinkered with the chemical enough that it released the pretty yellow gas that slowly choked everyone who inhaled it. We can't say that given time, Don wouldn't have cracked the answer open in full; Zoltar went with what he had, gave Don freedom he hadn't enjoyed in two years, and let him watch the battle with the Phoenix. He found it refreshing to find in Don someone who hated G-Force with a venom comparable to his own.

Onboard the Phoenix, I reported when radar picked up the trilobite mech. The light on the radar pulsed at me, and I turned off my screen. If it flared us, I didn't want to get paralyzed.

"All right." Mark checked over his instrument panel. "Get ready to make the transfer." He had the same authority in his voice he'd have used for "Keyop, go to the store and pick up a gallon of milk." The transfer, such an easy way of saying, "Get ready to fire Jason out in a rocket."

"Tiny, level off." Tiny did. Mark said, "It's all yours, Jason."

All mine? I won't deny that what Mark said, the subtext, sent a tight fear through my body, stabbed into my chest in a refreshed stress pain. I'd put it all together.

Resign. Die. It's all the same. In an instant, in a flash more powerful than any light but just as paralyzing, I knew it: This is my last mission. I'd said I'd take the next mission alone, and it would kill me.

Mark turned around. "Jason?"

My pulse had to have risen to a hundred fifty beats a minute--either way, this was my last mission. Either I'd die or the Chief would be rid of me on my return. They hadn't made very detailed plans for getting me out again. This was why. It was all I could do to get out the words, "Whatever you say." I saw Princess' head turn. And I left.

Down in the belly of the Phoenix, I ran for the bird missile that would shoot me across to the trilobite. I didn't have any time to stop and throw up. My chest burned in a line I could have traced, from my collarbone to the upper right corner of my heart. There's a vein there, close to the surface, and I'm sure that's the thing that hurt every time the stress built and the blood pressure escalated. Inside the missile pod, I strapped myself into a crash-couch in a steel womb and radioed upstairs. "Ready to go."

Mark acknowledged. Don't miss, I told them with as much brainpower as I had. My last mission. I could feel it more certainly every time I breathed, every time my hand tingled with half-sensation.

Susan pinged me just before the launch, and the force knocked me back in the seat. Any desperate thoughts vanished. Blind, I flew just long enough to be convinced they'd missed and I'd have to leap out and drift to the ground, when I hit. The impact knocked the breath from me. Behind my pod, the back end of the missile disengaged, and I heard it drop. The Phoenix would leave.

Alone. For the last time.

Relaxation techniques don't work when you most need them to, I've discovered, and that hour stayed true to the rule. I felt the undulations of the trilobite as it flew to its base, amused myself by remembering the things we called "pill bugs" when Mark and I were eight, wood lice, how if you touched their underbellies they balled tightly and rolled around your hands with only the hard shell exposed. If I tickled this thing beneath, would it fold up, cocooning all those salt bombs and myself within the outer shell?

Some people say facing death makes them calm. I'd never felt as rattled. But I had to atone; I deserved it. This was my mission alone. If it killed me, it killed me.

After a long time, my ears popped. Descent. There was pressure as the trilobite settled on its unknown runway at an unknown base, and I waited. I let the hangar quiet. I wanted to be moving, but I needed time. I let all the troops clear the area except maintenance staff.

As it turned out, maintenance found me. After ejecting from the pod and finishing off one, I turned to his partner, a man who looked like he wanted nothing better than to be anywhere else, and it's lucky he did because I'd have killed him outright if he'd put up a struggle. "You want to live until payday? Bring me to Don Wade."

The man backed up and started babbling directions. "Take me," I said, levelling my gun on him. He nodded dumbly and brought me through the halls; I dragged us into closets and alternate hallways as I heard people approaching, but all told, the escort did his job. "It's this room," he stammered.

"If you lied," I said, "I'll kill you," and I knocked him out. It's served us well to have it known throughout the ranks that we don't kill those who cooperate. This wasn't the first guided tour I'd had.

So Don was behind door number one. My hands tingled.

In the pod, I'd had enough time to dwell on my orders. The trouble was, the wording hadn't inspired me with much confidence. Take Don out with you.

So: "Bring Don out of the base when you leave."

Or did it mean, "When you die, make sure Don dies too"?

Just one word more would have done it--Take Don out alive with you. One word less: Take Don with you. But the unfortunate semantics of the order left me uncertain. I'd fulfill it either way. Aunt Mary would cry forever, but I wouldn't care. Resigned.

I opened the door with a slowness crafted to get Don's attention. Wearing a white jacket, he worked at a lab table, his graph-papered notebook open, and he had a computer and half a dozen textbooks and journals scattered. "I don't like interruptions," he said in a voice that struck me as more nasal and punctuated than I remembered. When I didn't answer, Don turned, then stared. "Jason? Is that you?"

I was surprised, seeing him after so long, to notice he had Aunt Mary's high cheekbones and sharp features. "They don't sell birdstyles as halloween costumes. You're coming home."

Don huffed. "Always the diplomat. Haven't you grown up even a bit?"

I walked up close to him. He wasn't in shape any longer--even at his best I had easily overpowered him. I would carry him off bodily if I could. "You should be ashamed to look me in the face, traitor."

Don shrugged and turned back to his books. "Call me what you like, but I'm important here. Unlike you, the Spectrans appreciate my work."

I spun in place and kicked him into the wall. It happened so quickly I didn't realize--Don doubled over, and I hit him again. I was screaming, frustration at everyone pouring out all at once, but most of it frustration at him. "How dare you talk about being appreciated? Did you even see what your miracle chemical is doing? Haven't you seen the pictures? You're important to them, all right--you're giving them death, Don!"

Don drew back, tried to get the desk between me and him. "I have nothing to do with how they use it--I just solved a problem they gave me--"

"Oh, cut the bullshit!" So much for my famed self-control. I swept a pile of books off the desk, and Don darted away. "Don't play Robert Oppenheimer to me--'I gave them the weapon and told them not to use it'! What the hell did you think you were doing?"

I caught Don by one shoulder and cracked him into the far wall near some bookshelves. As he went, I saw a revolver in its holster on a shelf near him, and then Don saw it too. He stared at me, terrified, convinced he'd fallen into the hands of the only former teammate who wouldn't scruple to kill him. I let him keep thinking it.

"I'm going to take you back with me." I didn't even try to keep my voice level. "If you're as smart as you think you are, you'll come without any more fuss."

Don bled around his mouth and nose, and one eye was bruised. He glanced again at the revolver.

"Grab the gun if you like." My eyes narrowed. "You're not going to shoot me- the ultra-genius who never could stand the thought of death. Killing people from a safe, faceless distance is more your style."

"That's not true!"

"Explain the gas attacks! Tell me how they're any different from Hitler's gas chamber--or how you're any different from the average Nazi." Bad judgment call: I turned to the door, and he lunged for the gun. He faced about to find me aiming at his heart.

The Chief said once no one can stare down a shotgun. No one could stare down a gun-wielding Condor, either. Don hadn't pulled the gun from its holster, but he clearly wanted to try, and since we'd had the same gun training, we both knew he wouldn't draw unless he intended to kill me. Levelly, I told Don, "Don't push me. I don't want to kill you, if only because of your mother." He winced when I mentioned Aunt Mary. "But that's your choice. Put down the gun, Don." He didn't. My heartbeat increased. I couldn't see the renegade scientific genius in him any longer, couldn't see the cousin or even Aunt Mary's son--for the moment, I only saw the former teammate whose toy had bombed three cities in the past twenty-four hours, a whining brat who denied all the blame that ought rightfully to have been his. Don had always cared only about himself, never about his family or his team or even his species. And I'd had enough of it. Guilt was the only leverage I had left. "You're breaking your mother's heart, you know that, don't you? That poor woman thinks you're on a secret assignment for our government. She doesn't know that you're a defector."

I hurled the last word like a shuriken. Don still hadn't removed the gun from its holster, but if I lunged toward him, he would certainly try.

Don's pale eyes had gotten watery. "Didn't the Chief--"

I said, "I don't care what the Chief told her." My right hand was numb--I couldn't tell how hard my finger rested on the trigger, didn't know if the gun would discharge by accident. I had to choose: either lower the gun or risk killing Don unintentionally. I'd spared his mother--would I be able to spare him? I'd never know, never know if I'd done it on purpose--and I'd always know it had been my fault, that even after so long I hadn't learned enough to handle myself so I didn't lose control. Just like the sixteen year old at the breakfast table; just like the eighteen year old refusing to pull his punch during practice.

With my eyes as wild as I could get them, I said, "If you shoot me, kill me. If you don't kill me, Don, you're going to spend every day of the rest of your life wishing you had."

Take him out with you.

Don trembled. Push him a little harder, push him once more and the fear might overcome the anger. He might give up; he might get himself out of danger.

I smiled wolfishly. "I'm going to enjoy watching every minute of you explaining to the Chief and your mother just what it was you did with that education they financed." I lowered my gun.

Don whipped up his revolver, and in the surge of adrenaline, my eyes gave out- the last thing I saw was him aiming at my head. In the same instant I fired on him, I got slammed backward into the wall, my right arm so numb I couldn't feel if he'd shot me, and I shuddered face-down a moment before turning and aiming again at where Don had been standing. But I knew if I'd hit him, he'd most likely be dead.

"Hold it!"

My vision cleared at the voice. "Mark?"

Mark had Don rammed face-first into the wall, one arm twisted up behind his back, the gun arm up and away from his body.

I'd never been so confused during an assignment. Mark shouldn't have been there--Mark had fired me off in a missile to go on my last mission, the one where I took out Don with myself. I looked at my shoulder, but there was no blood, no entry wound. The door to the office swung closed slowly, a hole in the reinforced steel.

I couldn't have asked it all, couldn't have explained the fear that had convicted me. Mark turned his head to me. "I thought you might need a little help."

"--but how--?"

"Tracking device on the pod. We turned back and landed the Phoenix close to the base. Susan needed practice setting bombs, anyhow." Mark twisted the gun from Don's hand with ungentle force.

"If you hadn't come back, I'd be dead." I tapped the hole in the door.

Mark snapped the clip out of Don's gun. "You weren't in any danger--not from this gun."

I stared at the hole in the door, rubbed my shoulder. Mark flipped the bullets from the clip one at a time. All unfired.

I put that hole in the door? Mark must have slammed the door into me, must have acted when he did to keep me from blowing my orders for the second time in two days.

Mark saw me eyeing the door. "I'm sorry if I hurt you."

"I'm all right."

Mark watched as I rubbed my shoulder, then pulled Don away from the wall. "Let's get out of here, Jason."

I nodded, stepped towards him.

Just then, a second door slid down over the first, and I slammed against it with my shoulder. Laughter filled the intercom.

Don brightened. "It's Zoltar!"

I could have smacked him for how happy he looked--his savior's voice, and he responded. Then the yellow gas, thicker than Los Angeles fog, churned out the vents, flooding the room. I didn't listen to what Zoltar said, although Don clearly drank in every word. But I took my cue from Don, who'd invented the gas--he stood as tall as he could, meaning this gas settled. Don didn't run for a mask, so I figured the danger wasn't immediate.

Don spun to face Mark, who'd just finished radioing Princess.

"How does it feel?" Mark said. "You're about to be done in by your own invention. It would serve you right if we left you here to die."

"You can't leave me! You can't!"

Mark shoved Don into the mist, and it surprised me how he didn't get to his feet again--looking for a clean death? I hauled his face out of the miasma, yanked him to his feet.

Mark looked me in the eyes. I glared at him.

"But all human life deserves some respect, even yours." Mark stepped closer. "What do you say, Jason?"

What could I have said? Take Don out with you. And apparently, I was going out in the sense of exiting a room, not exiting this life. "Okay." I put the muzzle of my gun to the back of Don's head. "We won't just leave him."

Mark pulled my arm away, exercising better judgment than I was. "Try the door. Princess should have deactivated the locking system by now."

I tugged, and the outer shield slid up. Mark pushed Don into the hallway. He couldn't have walked quickly, but neither could I have at the moment. Mark took it at an easy pace for us, and we escaped to the Phoenix.

For the entire flight home, Don stayed huddled over himself, gaze riveted to the floor, knees to his chest, at the center console. He was beaten emotionally more than physically. I wondered at the advisability of leaving unbound someone who knew how the controls operated, but Susan buzzed me briefly and left me with the certitude that Don wouldn't resist. She'd been the object of a long stare of his when he'd first come onboard--he'd never seen her before, and the short girl in the green and yellow birdstyle stood out for her newness.

Back at ISO, a team of guards took Don, and I didn't see him anymore. It was just as well.

After we got debriefed (I'd always wondered if in the distant past men really had their underwear removed at these things) the Chief said, "Is there anything else anyone wants to add?"

I could almost hear my pulse, had felt queasy for the past ten minutes as I'd realized we were getting closer to the "anything else" line. I said, "I know I acted like a jerk, but I'd like to remain on the team."

I'd worked up about a hundred speeches in my head which involved brilliant turns of phrase and Daniel Webster eloquence, and when it came right down to it, that was the only backhanded apology I could produce. The Chief nodded and said, "Of course." He turned to everyone again. "Anything else?"

When we got dismissed, I followed the Chief upstairs and fumbled around actually speaking for a while. Finally the Chief asked outright what was the matter, and I asked for four days off--if there was a major emergency, I'd come handle it, but until then, could I leave the G-2 docked in the nose of the Phoenix? Mark had reported Zoltar as saying he was returning to Spectra, so we might have a few days' quiet, and I said lowly that I thought I needed the time.

The Chief probably knew what I was asking, but I didn't get instantly retired right there in his office; I did get an indefinite leave of absence.

Just before I left, the Chief said to me, "Jason, you had the first view of Don of anyone, and I know you felt it necessary to use force, but do you think there's any hope for him?"

"I can't say." I shrugged. "He hasn't changed a bit."

Two days later, I drove back to Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street in one of the ISO cars, dared the NYPD to have it towed, and hiked up the fire escape to Aunt Mary's. Noticing the bolts pulling free from the old brick, I wondered briefly at the advisability of using the rear entrance the next visit and hoped desperately there never would be an actual fire that might require more than one person's using the steps at once. Heck, hanging laundry on it might have proven too great a stress to sustain.

Aunt Mary smiled as she told me how nice it was to see me again, and I handed her a bunch of flowers. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, Aunt Mary."

She didn't get up from her chair, and that worried me--she was probably still stiff after the collision. "What lovely flowers--the kind Donald would bring if he were here."

I shifted my weight. While I had my own full complement of things to say and think about her son, it was, after all, her son. Of course she'd always think of him first. Even when I was around, and she knew how much I disliked Don, she looked at me and was reminded of the Chief, and the Chief reminded her of his half brother, her husband, who brought back her son.

"You know," I said, half-smiling, "it's incredible you should mention that. You'll see what I mean when you read the card."

Aunt Mary read the card, and her eyes got huge, and suddenly there were tears. There are flowers all over my life, and I hate them, but I know everyone else thinks they're wonderful. I'd stopped by the holding cell in the morning, thrust a florist's card at Don, and told the jerk to write a few lines to his aging mother or so help me, I'd shoot him dead where he sat. He'd done it without a word, sealing the envelope as if I'd care what he'd written.

"You see?" Aunt Mary said. "He's on some kind of secret mission. Someday it'll be finished, and he'll come back." Aunt Mary looked at me. "You got word to him just because of me?"

I nodded. It was so easy to lie to Aunt Mary. Everyone did it.

She fixed trembling eyes on me. "Thank you, Jason. I'm the happiest mother in the world." She dried her eyes. "In the universe."

I backed toward the door. "I should probably go--it's getting late."

Aunt Mary looked at me. "Stay for dinner. You can't leave so soon."

So I stayed. I prevailed on her and made her order in, and she chose a corner pizzeria that made wicked stuffed mushrooms and a passable lasagna-to-go. The second fight was when I paid for everything, but money goes in and out and who ever notices? As we ate, I told her about the others, and she was happy. I told her about racing and she tsked me--so dangerous. She wanted to know if Susan was adjusting nicely. But we never talked about Don before I left.

Outside, on the fire escape, in the slanting rays of whatever sunset made its way into the alley between two old buildings, I paused a minute. My right hand felt better--felt, I guess. The stabbing stress pains had vanished, and my vision was clear. No more headaches. A few days off and I'd already begun to recover. I smiled to myself and trotted down the fire escape steps to my car, then headed home.

~ Table of Contents ~
[Report This]
You must login (register) to review.