Mark met the team at the cafeteria table in the corner where they usually sat. "Mark!" Princess exclaimed. "You're all right!"
"In more ways than one," Mark said, and smiled. "I woke up this morning and I thought I remembered something. So I went to the computer room--"
"You have a lead?" Keyl shouted. "Great! Where's Jason! Let's go!"
"Can't it wait until after breakfast?" Tiny asked. "You can't fight too well on an empty stomach."
"It's not that urgent," Mark said. "It can wait until after we eat. I tried calling Jason, but I couldn't reach him, and his car's not in the garage. He probably went out for one of his drives-- we'll have to leave him here."
"He won't like that," Princess said.
"It's his own fault. He should be here." Mark sat down. "I dimly recall being brought to a large warehouse, and-- I think the kids were being put into transport boxes. It's a slaving operation."
"But then why's it only teenagers?" Keyl asked.
"I don't know. Anyway, I remembered some other things, about locations and the directions we took, so I triangulated on the computer, and found it. The Gold Key candy warehouse."
Tiny nearly choked on his strudel. "Gold Key candy is Spectran?"
"No, stupid, just the warehouse," Keyl said.
Princess smacked him on his head. "Keyl! That was uncalled-for!"
"I heard it called for distinctly.."
"It's possible," Mark said. "Gold Key's a subsidiary of FrankIndustries, who we've suspected have some kind of connection with Spectra-- but I wouldn't speculate on it until we get a chance to talk to the Chief."
"Where is the Chief?" Tiny asked. "He wasn't in last night."
"He said he had a lead, and he wouldn't be back until late today," Mark said. "Personally, I don't feel like waiting for him."
"Neither do I. Let's go!" Keyl said, and was squashed down in his chair by Princess. "Princess, will you knock it off? I'm not a little kid anymore!"
"You act like a little kid," Princess informed him sternly. "We should at least let Dr. Pandora know we're going, Mark."
"Oh, of course." Mark finished his coffee. "As soon as Tiny gets done, we'll go." Tiny shoved the remains of his food aside. "Don't wait up on my account. I'm ready."
"Then let's go!"
Mark had reported about the pickup, of course. All night long, Zoltar had been mulling over the decision of whether to have Anderson picked up or not.
On the surface of it, it was easy. A Converted Anderson could drop Earth into their hands like a ripe fruit-- of course he should be Converted. If it was only a question of what was good for Spectra, there would be no question in Zoltar's mind. But there was what was best for Zoltar to consider as well... Mark had been carefully questioned, and it was obvious that one of his first and primary loyalties had always been to Anderson. The Conversion process had necessarily negated that, putting Mark and Anderson on opposite sides-- but if Mark and Anderson were on the same side, what then? Wasn't it possible that Mark would still look to Anderson for leadership? He was supposed to be completely loyal to Zoltar, but Anderson's Conversion could upset that...
Zoltar had particular reasons for wanting a thoroughly loyal Mark. In part, it was to pay Mark and G-Force back for past humiliations. It gave Zoltar pleasure to know that Mark was completely trusting, and to have the option at any time of betraying that trust. But there were other pleasures, and Zoltar had only begun... Mark needed to be kept wholly dependent on Zoltar, to have no other loyalties, for Zoltar's revenge to be realized to the fullest. It would be sweet, Mark cooperating in whatever Zoltar asked... and then, perhaps, when the sport grew boring, release the hold Conversion had and let Mark understand, remember how he had been used, before Zoltar killed him.
There was also the fact that Dr. Nydak was not to be fully trusted. Nydak might very well arrange matters so a prize jewel like Anderson was loyal only to him, and Zoltar couldn't stop him. Or, if the Luminous One intervened... it had not escaped Zoltar's attention that a Converted person might very well appeal to the Luminous One as a more loyal servant than a terrified shapechanger... No. Converted or not, Anderson was too bright to let live. He was a threat. He should die.
Perhaps, when Earth was conquered and the luxury could be afforded, Zoltar would release Mark, and let him realize how he'd engineered his own foster father's destruction.
Anderson had no way of telling time precisely, but his internal clock informed him that a long time had gone by. An afternoon, and an evening, and a night-- perhaps a whole night. Perhaps out in the world, the sun was shining again. But Anderson would not see it, ever again...
He had stopped bothering to try to work free of his bonds. After six, seven hours of futility, why bother? He had also stopped expecting the Spectrans to come. He'd spent the whole long night in fear of every footstep nearing the manhole, fear and also hope. Spectrans would be easier to escape than Mark; he would have a chance, if they came, to flee or to commit swift suicide... But there was no chance now. His death was out of his hands-- it would come all too soon, slowly and hideously by drowning.
If he could only see his daughter one last time. Sharon and her team might have to end their training and go out to fight G-Force, if Mark's plan was successful. And they would fail. A-Force was trained to fight Spectra, not G-Force, and they were still so young, too young to beat G-Force-- Sharon was barely 14. He loved her so much. She would be so grief-stricken when he died.. It was not that Anderson particularly feared death. If what waited was oblivion, he would never know, and if there was some kind of afterlife, he would be rejoined with his wife Roberta, and his son, and his father and sister and all the friends that died on Zeta Prime. But he didn't want to rejoin them yet. There was still so much he had to do, so many plans he had to oversee. Pandora was a strong woman, but could she handle the full responsibilities of being DSA R&D sector chief by herself? If anyone could do it, she could, and yet he feared... And he had to warn G-Force about Mark. Jason might manage to be suspicious in time, but the other three would never imagine that Mark could be a threat. And if G-Force was Converted, Earth would fall. There was no way A-Force could stand up to them yet. Perhaps Pandora would take them underground with her, implementing Project Last Chance, but he would never know.. So many things he needed to say, so many things that he never would, now. He did not truly fear his oncoming death, but he felt a terrible grief about it.
Far away, he seemed to hear the sounds of childish laughter, and closed his eyes in bitter sorrow. He would never hear his daughter or any of his foster children laugh, ever again...
And then he heard other voices.
"Tommy! Tommy, my feet hurt!"
"Ho boy. Some explorer you are!"
"Tom, put a lid on your little sister!"
"You're the one that wanted to come, Andree. So shut up, okay?"
"But my feet hurt!"
"Which direction do we take, Captain?"
"Uh-- left. Pirates always put their treasure on the left.."
Children, playing in the aqueduct! They must not know about the deadline-- Anderson had to warn them! And they were his only hope, as well.. He took a deep breath and shouted, "Help! Help me!"
"Did you hear that?" One of the children said, far away and faint.
"Help!" He called again.
"It's coming from that way!"
"Somebody needs help. We better go see!"
By the time they finally reached him, Anderson's voice was hoarse from the sudden overuse after a day and a night of silence. "It's a man!" One of the children said.
"Mister--" Anderson recognized the voice as Tom's-- "what's wrong? Why'd you yell for help?"
"What time is it?"
"What time is it?" Tom asked incredulously.
"I got a watch!" A blond boy scrutinized his wrist with a flashlight. "It's 9:25."
"9:25.. How are you at untying knots?"
"I'm a Cub Scout!" The third boy said proudly.
"Are you tied up? Did somebody mug you?" Tom asked.
"Yes. Listen, kids. At 10:00 the main aqueduct systems are going offline, and the water will be shunted through here. If all of us aren't out of here by then, we'll drown."
"Who tied you up?" The little girl-- Andree-- asked.
"Does it matter? Hurry, please!"
Tom walked over to Anderson, who leaned forward to give the children access to the knot, and shone his flashlight at it. "Dark, can you untie this?"
The Cub Scout inspected it fearfully. "That's a really nasty one-- I don't think so..."
"I got a pocket knife." Tom took it out and began sawing at Anderson's bonds.
"Be careful, you'll cut him!" Andree yelled.
"He won't cut him," The boy with a wristwatch said in a superior voice.
Anderson leaned forward as far as he could. His legs felt like they were on fire, he'd been unmoving so long.
"Uhh! This is a tough rope!" Tom gasped.
"I can help," Dark volunteered.
"Berke, what time is it?"
The boy with the wristwatch said, "It's 9:33. But I'm not altogether sure my watch's right..."
"Hurry!" Andree cried.
Tom finished sawing through the thick, slimy rope. "A-all done, mister.." He gasped, as Anderson staggered uncertainly to his feet. His legs screamed agony after being still so long, but the pain abated somewhat as he flexed them.
"There's a manhole cover in the ceiling around here," He said. "There should be a ladder..."
Flashlights covered the ceiling in a golden glow. There was a ladder, all right, folded against the ceiling-- which was several feet over Anderson's head. There was nothing to stand on, and it was far too high for his hands to reach, or even for him to jump to-- he hadn't quite G-Force's skill. "You can't reach that, can you, mister?" Dark said uncertainly.
"Here. Tom, I'll lift you, and you see if you can reach that ladder."
"How do you know my name?" Tom asked, a little frightened.
"I heard the others calling you that. Come on!"
Anderson's arms were not really up to lifting a 90-lb. boy over his head, much less hold him there as the boy grasped for the ladder. He forced himself to do it anyway, and nearly dropped Tom when the boy said, "I can't reach it!"
"I'm taller..." Berke said, looking nervously at his watch.
"I'll try... you... a second.. to catch my breath.." Anderson panted.
"What if you hold me and I hold Andree?" Tom asked. "I was close-- she ought to be able to reach it..."
"She hasn't got the strength to pull it down. Let's try it, Berke."
The second boy was taller, but thinner, so he was not really heavier than Tom had been. "Got it!" Berke shouted. "But.. it won't.."
"Pull hard!" Andree yelled.
Try as he might, Berke couldn't pull it down more than a foot. The children could reach it if Anderson lifted them, but Anderson couldn't.
"All right," Anderson said, when he recovered his breath again. "I'll lift each of you onto the ladder, and you climb up and get out, all right? And then get help, immediately."
"We can't leave you--" Tom objected.
"You won't be. Do it!"
He lifted each of them onto the ladder-- fortunately, he didn't have to lift them quite as high this time, and they climbed out. "There's only ten minutes left," He heard Berke saying. "We gotta hurry!"
"Can you jump?" Dark asked.
Anderson tried jumping. It didn't work. "Listen," He called up to them. "I have a very important message I want you to carry--"
"No!" Tom shouted. "We said we'd save you, and we will!"
"It's too late!" Anderson shouted. "This is important!"
But Tom was yelling, "Hey! Hey, mister! There's a man trapped in a hole, can you help?"
"Hurry!" Berke was yelling. "There's only eight minutes left!"
A man's face hove into feet, numerous feet above. "Is there anyone down there?"
"Yes!" Anderson shouted. "The main aqueduct system's going to be shut off at 10, and the water shunted through here. If you could help me get out of here..." He heard a roaring in the distance. Had someone started early?
"Sure. I'll just lower the ladder." The man pushed the ladder down until Anderson could easily reach it. He began to climb. But his arms ached terribly from lifting the children. The roaring grew louder and louder, and though he climbed as fast as he could, the water hit before he could reach the top.
Tons of cold water buffeted his body. It was all he could do to stay on the ladder. Holding his breath, he forced his way up one rung, another rung, fighting the pull of the water all the way. The light from the hole wavered above him, so close. If only he could reach it...
But he was too weak. With two rungs to go, he felt his grip slipping inexorably. No! He tried to hang on, but it was useless. His lungs were on fire, and his hands and legs simply did not have the strength left to hang on...
Then the man's hands grabbed his arms and hauled him bodily out of the water.
Anderson gasped as he was placed on the pavement in a heap. He looked up at the sun. My God... I'm alive, I'm alive...
He got to his feet, ignoring the agony in overused muscles. "You saved my life, sir. I can't possibly thank you enough."
"No problem. I couldn't just let you die in there. Anyway, I had nothing else to do-- can't get to work anyway, the roads are closed."
"You been in that hole all morning?"
"It's a long story. Yes. Why?"
"About an hour ago, a riot started in the center of the city. Kids breaking things down, burning things... All the roads to Center City have been blockaded, they're shunting the starport people to Bayside and Houston, it's just chaos."
"Damn," Anderson whispered. "It's started already. Damn Zoltar..."
"Zoltar? Spectra's behind this, you mean? How do you know?"
"Yes. I'm with DSA." Anderson looked around. "Where's the nearest pay phone? I have to call my secretary."
"If you're trying to call Center City, you're out of luck. The phone lines are all down."
Anderson swore under his breath. There was no time for this-- he had to warn Pandora and G-Force! "Then I'm going to have to head into the city on foot."
"That's suicide! Those kids are trashing everything that moves!"
Anderson closed his eyes. "I have a message that must get through. The future of the Earth depends on it. Whether it's suicide or not, I have to make it through the city, because it's our only hope." He started off.
Jason staggered out of the closet and fell dizzily to the floor, his eyes fixed frozenly to the clock. 9:00.
That must mean AM, since they'd gotten in around 10 last night. Mark had had at least eleven hours to carry out his plan. Damn! Jason's head spun dizzily, his vision doubled and redoubled, every breath was like fire, and his hands and feet felt numb-- but he got up, ignoring the sudden worsening of his symptoms, and, using the wall for support, stumbled to Anderson's office.
Anderson wasn't in.
There wasn't any sense in getting upset about it-- the Chief didn't spend every waking minute in his office, after all-- but Jason's thought processes weren't making much sense right now, and he wasted seconds and precious breath swearing before he thought to call Anderson's secretary. "Susan" Was not actually a secretary-- it was actually a very complex answering machine program capable of making some independent decisions on its own-- but even Jason found himself thinking of it as "she" And a secretary.
"Susan, where's the Chief?"
"I'm not sure, Jason," She replied in the annoying breathy voice Maxwell had programmed her with. "He said he'd found a lead, and wouldn't be back until today."
"The Chief told you that?"
"Well, no... He told Mark, and Mark told me."
"SHIT!" The world spun again, the adrenalin surge worsening Jason's dizziness, and he had to hang onto Anderson's chair to keep from falling. "Get Dr. Pandora in here. Hurry!"
Pandora came in at a run. "Jason! My God, what happened?"
"Where's the team?"
"They left on a lead of Mark's, half an hour ago."
Jason released a stream of expletives in English and Spectran, which he cursed in as well as a native. "Mark's been brainwashed," He said, falling into the chair exhaustedly. "It's Spectra's plan, they've been brainwashing all those kids. Mark's on Spectra's side now."
"Oh my god." The ramifications were not lost on Pandora. She leaned forward and toggled a switch. "This is Pandora, calling G-Force! G-Force, please respond!"
Static was the only reply.
"Shit, he must be jamming the signal! They can't have gotten out of range in half an hour..."
"Dr. Anderson's been missing since yesterday," Pandora muttered. "Damn! Susan, I want you to keep broadcasting to G-Force. Try every frequency, try anything you can think of. If you get them, tell them-- tell them what, precisely, Jason?"
"Spectra's invented a device that reverses people's loyalties and they used it on Mark. He's not to be trusted."
"Tell them that, and that Chief Anderson may be brainwashed as well. They're not to accept his orders unless I verify it."
"What if they get you, too?" Jason asked. "Mark could've had it done to me, if he'd wanted to..."
"They won't get me." Pandora spoke grimly. She quickly ran her eyes over Jason's injuries. "I'm sorry I don't have time to attend to your injuries personally, Jason-- I'll have Dr. Takahara do it. You go on down to the infirmary-- wait. Can you walk?" Jason got to his feet unsteadily. "I can walk."
"No, you can't. Susan, get me Dr. Takahara!"
"I'm sending the Condor down to you for treatment. Send up a pair of orderlies with a stretcher, I don't want him walking. He's been severely beaten."
"By who?" Takahara asked incredulously.
"Never mind who. Just fix him up as best you can-- if the cyn network's involved, I'll help you when I get time." She flicked off the screen. "Okay, Jason, it'll be a few minutes-- Jason?"
She ran into the corridor, looking both ways and shouting. "Jason! Jason, where are you? Come back!"
Jason had no intention of lying in a hospital bed while his teammates got brainwashed.
The Lynmal derivatives were among the most addictive drugs known to humanity. They had been used by G-Force's predecessors, before the cyns were invented, to increase reaction speed, agility, and mental alertness. They also sped metabolism, helping to heal injuries more quickly, and were powerful painkillers. They also had resulted in the terrible addiction and eventual death of virtually everyone in E-Force, but Jason couldn't afford to think about that now. Two pills-- one now, one later if he needed it-- wouldn't addict him. There would be a price to be paid, pain later for being spared now, but Jason couldn't afford to worry about that, either. Without his bracelet or his shoes, he couldn't transmute, and he certainly couldn't function in this beaten-up state. He grabbed a spare pair of sneakers as he headed for his car.
G-Force hadn't taken the Phoenix, largely because the target was here in Stargate and using the Phoenix for such a short trip was rather like swatting a fly with a bazooka. Jason got in his car and roared off, as Pandora watched from the window. Save them, and come home safe yourself, she pleaded to him in her mind. For all our sakes...
The warehouse was like all other warehouses-- big and grey, with dozens of boxes stacked inside. Mark looked around. "This way, I think."
They navigated the winding path of boxes, to reach a freight elevator. The bottom of the elevator opened at a nudge from one of Princess' modules, and they slid down the cables to the very bottom. Tiny pulled open the elevator doors, and they slipped out into a vast, dark chamber.
"Spectran all right," Tiny murmured.
"This way." Mark walked toward the center of the darkness, and they followed. In the center of the room he paused, peered around. "Stay here." He leapt--
--and a dome suddenly rose in halves from the ground and closed over the team.
"Aah!" Keyl yelled.
Princess flung her yo-yo at the wall, Tiny threw his full weight against it, Keyl attempted to laser through-- to no avail. Blazing lights glared, and they heard too-familiar laughter.
"Zoltar!" Keyl snarled.
With typical sense of the dramatic, Zoltar had chosen to stand on a balcony, overlooking them. "That was much easier than I'd dreamed. Surely you G-Force can do better than this-- or was it only your commander that made you such miracle workers?"
Mark landed on the balcony next to Zoltar, but made no move to attack. "Mark, what are you doing?" Princess cried.
"Obeying my orders, what else?" Zoltar said, laughing. "It's time you learned how matters really stand, G-Force. My plan here has been to take youths, people your age, and rewrite their loyalties, transforming them into an unstoppable army loyal only to me. Just now, I have released the first wave. You, G-Force, will be part of the second."
"NO!" Tiny shouted.
"Yes. How can you stop me? I have already Converted your commander..."
The world spun, tipped wildly around Princess. "Gas masks!" She cried, but it was already too late...
The city had gone insane.
Anderson waited inside the dressing room of a men's clothing store for the rioting, looting teenagers to leave. He heard one of them, laughing-- "Let's torch it!"
No rest for the weary. As soon as he heard the door slam, Anderson left, running up the stairs to the left, climbing out the window and jumping down. He had abandoned his soiled clothing and taken incongruous-looking jeans and a sweatshirt, in order to better blend in. Though he didn't show his 40-odd years, Anderson would certainly not be mistaken for a member of the target group-- but he'd seen them shooting at men in suits, and known that the garb of the young people would provide a little protection, at least. Gunfire sprayed near him, and he quickly rolled behind some garbage cans. A young man of about 20 in combat fatigues with a gun came over, and Anderson threw the garbage can lid, striking his would-be assailant in the head. The man dropped, and Anderson took his gun.
He was tired. But he had to keep fighting his way into the city, had to reach Pandora and G-Force...
Zoltar and five goons were present as the goons loaded Princess, Keyl and Tiny into three black booths. Jason pulled six shuriken, all of them poisoned, and flung three from his place in the shadows. The three goons dropped. Their two companions soon followed. Zoltar dodged the final shuriken, but it did no good-- Jason was across the room in seconds, and had the alien commander by the throat.
"What are you-- you-- aaah!" Jason wasted no time; he landed a punch that should have separated the shapechanger's head and shoulders, then another one, then a third. Zoltar was notoriously hard to knock out and swift to recover, though, and Jason didn't have much time. He would have liked to forcibly obliterate Zoltar's face, but there wasn't the time, and he hadn't the strength. So he took a poisoned shuriken and plunged it into Zoltar's throat.
Tossing Zoltar aside, he ran over to his teammates and one by one pulled them into the lee of one of the booths. Keyl, always the first to go down from drugs, was also usually the quickest to recover, and was already stirring. Jason shook Princess. "Wake up, Princess! Wake up!"
"Wha-- what? Jason?" Groggily she opened her eyes.
"It's okay. I saved you guys. Tiny's still out like a light, but Keyl's waking up."
"'n wishin' 'e wuzzn't," Keyl slurred sleepily. "Head."
"I've got some aspirin," Princess said, and gave it to him. She took some herself, and looked at Jason critically. "You don't look too good, Jason. Where'd you get that black eye?"
"Mark. Did Zoltar tell you--"
"Oh, Jason! Do you know what they've done? How could such a thing happen?"
"Yeah, I know. Mark told me. I don't understand how they managed it, myself, but it's crippled us-- the Chief might be Converted too, in which case we're in really deep shit. If Zoltar survives, we'll get the reversal out of him."
"If Zoltar survives?"
"Yeah. I figure he's probably de-- oh, shit." Zoltar's body was nowhere to be seen.
"Swearing again? With impressionable kids like me around? Shame, shame, Jason." Keyl was fully recovered, the aspirin and his half-alien metabolism driving away the remnants of the drug rapidly.
"Shut up, wise guy."
Keyl sobered. "Is it true? What Zoltar said about Mark?"
Jason took a deep breath. "Yeah. It's true."
"What's true?" Tiny mumbled, coming free of the drug, and Jason had to explain matters to him as well.
"Well, it's obvious what we have to do," Princess said. "Somehow we've got to find Mark and take him captive. Also, if we can get Zoltar or one of the people who designed this thing, we can force them to tell us how to undo it. And if we see the Chief, take him captive-- we'll have no way to know whether he's Converted or not, so we'll have to bring him back to Dr. Pandora and let her examine him."
"Pretty tall order, considering that there's only four of us and Mark's done a number on Jason," Tiny said. He turned to Jason, who was rather conspicuously not transmuted. "He's got your bracelet, doesn't he?"
"Jason." Princess was suddenly alarmed, seeing for the first time the extent of Jason's injuries. "You didn't take a mikey, did you?"
"No," Jason said truthfully. The Lynmal derivative he'd taken had been LMS, not Michelaine. He stood up. "I'm fine, Princess. Let's worry about getting our jobs done here. Like Tiny said, it is a tall order and if we're gonna do it, the sooner the better."
Tiny was seriously worried about Jason. Maybe Princess hadn't noticed it-- well, she'd noticed, since she'd asked Jason about the mikey, but maybe she'd accepted his word at face value-- but Jason was practically a walking corpse. He had to have been lying about the mikey-- there was no way Jason could be functioning, as beat up as he was, without a drug to help.
It was not, however, something Tiny could afford to worry about right now-- he had a job to do. Stealth operations were not Tiny Harper's favorite pastime. He preferred stuff that either involved his technical knowledge, or piloting skill, or knock-down drag-out fights where he could use all of his not-inconsiderable strength to his advantage. Sneaking around in the secret passages that webbed Spectran bases always made him itch. Part of it was the fact that most of the tunnels were too narrow for him, having been built for Zoltar primarily. And part of it was that, for all his ability with things like computers and engineering stuff, he was singularly bad at making decisions in a crisis. If he did find out anything important, he was never sure what to do with it.
Like now. He had been sliding along the wall of the corridor, when he'd come to a dark pane of glass-- and froze, peering through it. That was Zoltar!
The Kanos of Spectra was lying on a cushioned divan-- a highly uncharacteristic pose-- and looked pretty sick. Tiny smiled slightly, remembering that Jason had stabbed the alien with a poisoned shuriken. So even Zoltar's famed self-healing abilities had limits, he thought. The problem was, should he break through the glass to grab Zoltar, and risk causing a ruckus, or look for another way out, and maybe not find one before Zoltar took off?
Then Mark entered the room outside.
Tiny pressed himself against the glass. If he listened carefully, he could make out what they were saying-- they were speaking English, which was a plus, as Tiny's Spectran was not so good.
"My lord? You wanted to see me?"
"Yes." Zoltar's voice was unusually hoarse and harsh. "You informed me that you'd neutralized your former teammate, the Condor."
"I did, sir."
"Indeed. Then kindly explain to me, who was it who freed G-Force, killed my men, and stabbed me in the throat with this?" Zoltar held up the shuriken.
Mark stared, then took it. "This-- this is an alpha poisoned one. He stabbed you with it?"
"All but killed me." Zoltar leaned back against the cushions, voice growing weak. "You are instructed to destroy him."
"I-- I understand, sir. I'm sorry I failed you before..."
"Oh, I will think of a suitable... repayment." Zoltar turned on one side, cushioning head with hand, and looked up at Mark. "You believe you can recapture the G-Force team for me?"
"If you can capture the Condor, do so. He would be valuable, and you should not have to perform the painful task of killing a former friend." No doubt, Tiny thought, Zoltar would want to finish Jason off personally.
"Thank you, sir."
"As to the matter of repayment..." A gloved hand reached out and ran down the side of Mark's leg.
"You have a very beautiful face, dear Mark. Did you know that?"
Mark sounded embarrassed. "Uh... well, I'd been told it..."
"You do. A very intriguing face... and more." Tiny shuddered as Zoltar smiled. "You are loyal to me, are you not, dear Mark?"
"Of course I am, sir."
"You would do anything I asked? You love me, and want to please me?"
"Anything at all?"
"I'm afraid I don't understand..."
Tiny didn't see how that was possible-- he understood, and he was much thicker than Mark when it came to things like this. Revulsion and nameless horror nauseated him. It wasn't that he had anything against homosexuals as people, but for Zoltar to... That-- that bastard! I mean, we all kind of knew he was like that, but this... oh, that's disgusting!
"That's fine. You don't need to understand, yet. Just... when the time comes, all will be made clear to you. You would be happy to serve me, no?"
"Yes..." Mark sounded uneasy.
"Good. Finish this matter as quickly as possible, then come to me here. Then all will be made plain." Zoltar's hand reached up and caressed Mark's cheek. "Go on. Find your teammates. But don't forget..."
"I won't, sir." Mark bowed, then left.
Tiny smashed the glass window and threw himself at Zoltar, knocking the Spectran off the couch and onto the floor. "Filthy alien bastard!" He cried, crushing the shapechanger's neck in his hands. "Don't even think that way about Mark!"
Zoltar gurgled unintelligibly and clawed for Tiny's hands, uselessly. The sight of his opponent's obvious agony only drove Tiny to lift the head and smash it down, again and again, all the while tightening his hands around Zoltar's neck. He didn't even hear Mark come in behind him, or know about it until a hand chopped down sharply on his shoulder nerves, driving him into unconsciousness.
Mark ran to Zoltar, lifting the shapechanger's limp form. "Zoltar! Sir! Are you all right?"
Distantly Zoltar managed to focus on Mark. As if being poisoned wasn't bad enough... I may not talk for a week. Zoltar concentrated on the healing process, shifting throat muscles. The voice that finally spoke was higher-pitched, and quite evidently feminine. "I will... talk strangely for a while... haven't the strength for... normal voice..." Or rather, for anything but normal voice, but Zoltar was not about to admit that the male voice was a sham and this was normal. Not in public, anyway. In private it might be entirely different.
"You should have called for help, sir. I could have stopped Tiny from ever reaching you."
"Did you ever try calling for help when someone is crushing your throat?"
"Never mind." Zoltar struggled to sit up. "Obviously not even this room is safe. I am going to my office as soon as I recover my voice. I want you to take the Owl down and Convert him, and then, when he's in the machine, hunt down the rest of your team. And don't fail me."
"I won't, sir."
Jason was once more beginning to get dizzy.
Dressed in a stolen Spectran uniform, he had planned on heading downstairs, to see if there were any unConverted teenagers left and freeing them. But he hadn't gotten farther than the stairs when the double vision and vertigo suddenly returned, and he had to go back. It wasn't his choice to patrol the area of the Converter, but he knew the area reasonably well, and if anyone came along to put a captive in, he could stop them.
Now he leaned against the wall, looking thoroughly like a Spectran but feeling very sick and dizzy and hoping desperately no one would challenge him-- at least, not until the fit passed. His hand went to the compartment with his pills in it. With an effort, he pulled it away. It was so tempting... But that was the road to addiction. It had only been two hours since he'd last taken one-- he was supposed to wait five hours at least, since the risk of addiction was so unbelievably high. And the last thing Jason needed was an addiction dragging him down, especially one as difficult to get rid of as wings.
But it would clear his head so well... he felt so foggy...
But how could just one more pill addict him...
No!! He'd heard the horror stories-- the diluted, "cut" Form of the stuff sold on the streets, commonly known as wings, had been known to addict people after only one use. Of course, they used more in their first sitting than he did... NO!!
At that point, all thoughts of the drug fled, as Mark entered lugging Tiny. Mark's back was to him, and he had barely spared Jason a glance as he entered-- but Jason's disguise could never stand up to Mark's scrutiny. He had to take him before he turned. So he pulled his gun, flicked the cable-setting trigger, and fired the cable around Mark's legs, pulling Mark down.
Mark twisted and looked up at him. "Jason!"
Oh shit. It suddenly occured to Jason that if Mark could have beaten him so badly back when he was relatively okay, right now he would be dog meat. And he didn't have a communicator to call the others with, either. Quickly he hit the toggle to send an electric shock through the cord, a deliberately mild one-- he didn't want to hurt Mark. Mark was already pulling himself free of the cable, but was still touching it when the shock came through-- he cried out and jerked, his whole body stiffening, then collapsing. Carefully Jason pulled the cable back and walked over. Mark appared to be unconscious. He bent and took Mark's wrist in his hand-- he wanted to remove Mark's bracelet, and he also wanted to take his pulse, to make sure he hadn't hurt Mark.
Before he could do either, however, Mark's other hand grasped his and yanked him down. Jason struck the ground hard and rolled desperately as Mark's foot connected with his rear, sending shards of pain shooting up his spine. He tried to get to his feet, but overwhelming dizziness swept over him, and he collapsed.
Mark got up, shakily. "Jason, you are a royal idiot," He said. "Zoltar's very angry with you-- he nearly gave me orders to kill you, you know that? I would have had to kill you. But now all I need to do's Convert you."
No! Jason called on reserves he didn't know he had, flung himself backward and came up from a handspring into a run, weaving wildly but running, zigzagging to avoid Mark's boomerang--
A brush of wind warned him, and he threw himself to the side-- too late. Mark crashed into him, and they both fell, Jason pinned helplessly beneath Mark.
"Lights out, Jason."
No! I can't get Converted, I can't! Princess, Keyl, help!!
The lobby receptionist stared at the bedraggled, bruised figure in blue jeans as if he could not believe his eyes. "Just call Pandora," Anderson gasped, and collapsed into a chair.
Pandora arrived with two orderlies and a stretcher. "Dr. Anderson?"
"Had to warn you," Anderson said weakly, his exhaustion taking its toll. "Mark's been brainwashed by Spectra..."
"I know. What happened to you?"
There was a strange coldness in her voice. Anderson opened his eyes and stared at her. "What's wrong, Sharon?" He rarely used her first name-- since he'd named his daughter the same thing, Sharon always sounded as if it should mean his daughter-- but he used it now, sensing that she feared him, somehow.
"Nothing's wrong. Do you mind if we put you under hypnosis?"
"No... but whatever for?"
"Mark was Converted," Pandora said tightly.
Recognition dawned in Anderson's eyes. So that was it! She was afraid he'd been Converted! "Go ahead," He said. "While you're at it, see if you can convince me I'm not tired, or something-- once you've cleared me, we've got a lot of work to do. There're two young men tied up in the station wagon outside, both Converted. We can study them and try to reverse the process... " His voice trailed off, half-asleep already.
Princess was perched on top of a light fixture in something that looked like an engineering lab, when she was struck by an overwhelming sense of danger. Jason, Tiny!
She tried contacting Tiny. No response. Keyl answered, though, "Princess! I found out who built these things-- a pair of scientists named Nydak and Varsok!"
Nydak and Varsok? The ones who'd been responsible for the Yaru and Aletha affair? It figured-- but Princess couldn't spare time to worry about it now. "Keyl, meet me at the room where they tried to Convert us, fast! I think Jason and Tiny are in trouble!"
She didn't know why she thought Jason was in trouble. Tiny not responding to her calls was one thing, but Jason didn't have a bracelet to respond to her with-- why was she so sure he was in danger? Princess had learned not to question such hunches, though-- she ran, full throttle, for the Conversion room.
The sight exploded in her mind, much as the original disappearance of Mark had-- Mark stood in front of two booths with "active" Lights flashing. No! Oh, no!
"Princess!" Keyl whispered, melting into the shadows with her. "What's going on?"
"Look. In those booths--"
"You mean he's Converting Jason and Tiny?"
"Shh! He'll hear. Listen. I'm going to try to lure him away. You figure out how to stop the process, okay?"
"I'm not as good as you are at machines. Why don't I lure him away and you stop the process?"
Princess sighed. There was no time to be gentle about this. "Because he'd catch you too quickly, Keyl." She leapt out and cracked the aurora whip toward Mark's neck. He ducked it, grabbed, and pulled her down toward him, and she let go, flinging her yo-yo out toward him. Mark flung the boomerang, and she had to dodge backwards as it sliced past her shoulder, barely missing nerves where its touch would have knocked her out.
"Mark, why are you doing this?" She cried, scooping up her whip.
"Don't be dense, Princess. You know why!" He threw himself into the air, spinning toward her. Princess leapt, spun around a rafter, and threw herself toward the door.
"Don't you realize you've been brainwashed? Spectra's playing with your mind!" She snapped the whip at him again.
"I don't care!" He dodged, flung the boomerang at her whip hand. She dodged it and ran, and he followed.
Keyl came out of the shadows as soon as they were gone, and ran over to the black boxes. They were immensely simple-- on each was a switch labeled in Spectran hieroglyphs, Emergency Power Off. He hit them and cut the boxes' internal latches with his laser.
Tiny staggered out, eyes wide and staring. "Huh-- whuh-- Keyl?"
"No, the Tooth Fairy. You okay?"
"Ah-- I don't know. I think-- well. Uh. Did-- did I just try to get Converted? No, I don't mean that-- did someone try to get me Converted? I feel..."
"You sound royally confused," Keyl said. "Help me with Jason."
Jason's limp body had slumped to the foor when they opened the box. Keyl and a still befuddled Tiny bent next to him, pulling him out of the box. "Jason, you all right?" Tiny asked.
Jason suddenly convulsed, shrieking, "No!!" Fists came up toward Keyl's face, and Keyl threw himself desperately backwards as Tiny pinned Jason to the floor.
"Let go, let go-- I won't let you take me, I won't let you take my mind--"
"No one's trying to take your mind, will you just calm down?"
Jason shuddered and seemed to focus on the real world. "T-Tiny?"
"And me," Keyl said. "After you nearly knocked my head off, you'd better not forget about me."
"I-- I thought-- I dreamed--"
"I had some pretty bad nightmares, too," Tiny said. "But I don't remember them anymore."
"What'd you dream?" Keyl asked Jason.
"You were-- they were-- trying to take my mind away. They had all these wires, binding up my brain..." He shuddered again, then looked away from them. "Forget it. Let's go. Where's Princess?"
"Decoying Mark. Are you going to be able to travel?"
"Sure," Jason said, convincing no one, and got up. And promptly fell down again, into Tiny's arms.
"He's fainted," Was Tiny's expert opinion.
"Have not," Jason said weakly, struggling to get up. Tiny held him with ease.
"Jase, obviusly you're not going to be able to make it. Keyl and I'll carry you somewhere safe. All right?"
"No-- I have the other pill.."
"Another pill? Shit, Jason! How many have you taken?"
"Jus' one... not gonna get addicted..."
"No way. What is it, a mikey? Wings?"
"Shit," Tiny said again, with feeling. "No go, Jason. Killing yourself to save our lives is one thing, but you don't need to keep doing it. Keyl, you hide and watch the Converter, is that okay?"
"Sure. Sounds fine. You get Jason someplace safe, and I'll wait for Mark and Princess to come back."
Under hypnosis, truth drugs, everything Pandora could think of to throw at him, Anderson tested as normal, and the bizarre neurotransmitters she'd noticed in Mark were absent. She had to assume he was normal. While he slept, she had his two captives brought in, and began running tests on them.
He had only been asleep for two hours when he came in to help her. "What have we learned?"
"Dr. Anderson! You should be in bed--"
"You're not my doctor, Sharon. Don't worry about me. We've too much work to do to afford my naptime."
"But you were exhausted--"
"I don't need much sleep." He certainly didn't look tired-- once more dressed in his usual attire, properly showered and shaved, he hardly bore the marks of his ordeal at all. Only when Dr. Pandora looked closely could she see that the healthy-looking color of the skin around his eyes was due to cosmetics rather than a good night's sleep. "Let's get to work. What have you found?"
What she had found promised hope for reConversions-- under truth drugs or hypnosis, the subjects' Conversion seemed to break down, and they reverted to normal. A few more subjects were brought in by the security guards, who were practically fighting a war out there-- huge numbers of the kids had converged on the Department's headquarters. On the new test subjects, they learned that alcohol or any other drug that lowered inhibitions would tend to break down Conversion. When the drug wore off, though, the Conversion returned. Pandora tried to call G-Force with the news, but the signal was still jammed.
After they had been working six or seven hours, Anderson excused himself, claiming he was going to get a snack. He went to his office, locked the door, and took a deep breath-- the dizziness and exhaustion had returned, and with them the leaden burning in his veins, the hunger he lived with that only one source could alleviate.
We have to keep working. I can't take time to crash now, he told himself, rationalizing. Pure Lynmal powder, mixed with certain chemicals to decrease the side effects, was just as addictive but less debilitating than Michelaine or the "wings" That were sold on the street. The white packets in his desk drawer, that anyone would have guessed to be sugar for his coffee, were all that kept Anderson alive sometimes. He recognized his addiction as a terrible, destructive weakness, one that Spectra could use to destroy him if they ever found out, and he kept resolving to take time off to quit-- but the withdrawal would put him out of action for months, and he couldn't spare the time. He poured the powder into a glass of water, swirled it a bit, and drank it down. After a few minutes the dizziness and encroaching exhaustion receded, locked behind doors in his mind.
He returned to work full of energy. Pandora might suspect, he thought, but she would never betray him-- and by now, his life depended on the drug. It wasn't as if he had a choice.
Defeating Princess had almost been pathetically easy.
Once he'd caught up to her, Princess had barely fought Mark. That was good, of course, because he didn't want to hurt her any more than he had to, and he was eager to see her Converted. She wasn't even unconscious when he bound her wrists together, pulled her up by one arm and marched her in front of him. "Don't worry," He told her. "Once you're Converted, you'll be so happy you were."
He ignored the sarcasm in her tone. At least she wasn't attempting to flee anymore. Maybe she even wanted to join him, deep down, because she loved him. Mark smiled warmly at her, and wished he hadn't had to hurt her at all.
Then she stumbled, crying out as she folded on one side. "Princess!" Mark shouted, and went to help her. "Are you all right?"
She swung her bound arms full force into the small of Mark's back. He screamed and stiffened, and she followed it up with a kick that sent him sprawling. As soon as he was down, she yanked his boomerang from his holster, and used it to slice through her own bonds. Then she looked back at Mark, and realized, horrified, that he was not unconscious. He was trying to get up, and failing.
Her plan had been to play at getting captured, then take Mark out-- Mark would fear violence from her less than from anyone but Keyl, and unlike Keyl, she did have a prayer of succeeding. But she hadn't wanted to really hurt him. She bent swiftly next to him. "Mark? Mark, are you all right?"
"Damn you," He strangled out. "Princess..." There was a terrible confusion of emotions, anger and betrayal and grief, in his voice. "Happy now?"
"What do you mean?"
"My old injury... from Nagoruk..."
Horrified, Princess realized suddenly why he had been favoring his back, why it had been a weak point for her to exploit. I might have broken his back, she thought, suddenly terrified, and ran anxious medical hands across his back. "It's not broken."
That was where the assassin had struck him-- but his neck wasn't broken, either. Princess forced aside the fears-- she needed information, and Mark's helplessness could only help her right now. She pulled him over into the shadows and turned him over carefully, avoiding any stress on the injured back. He stared up at her hatefully.
"Where is Zoltar located?"
"You think I'll tell you? You wouldn't have the stomach even to try to force it out of me."
"Then I'll find out another way." She withdrew an ampule and inserted it into a needle.
"Don't be stupid, Princess. We're all allergic to truth drugs, remember?" There was fear in his voice.
"Relax, Mark. I'm not going to hurt you. Just relax..." She injected him, and murmured over and over that he should relax, that there was no more pain. It was a test. Members of G-Force had deep-set blocks implanted against being hypnotized by people they didn't trust. If Mark, deep inside his heart, still trusted Princess, the drug would put him in a hypnotic trance, and she could get her information. But if he didn't trust her, even subconsciously... then Conversion was irreversible, and Mark was lost forever. At first Mark resisted her, shaking his head wildly at the soothing words. She pinned his head with her knees and stroked his cheeks, ran a gentle finger around his eye ridges and across his lips, as she had in better times so many times before. Gradually Mark relaxed into her soft murmuring, her gentle caresses, and fell into a trance.
"There's no more pain, your back doesn't hurt, but you don't want to move. You just want to lie there and relax, just relax..."
Mark's breath caught in a sudden sob.
"Princess!" He tried to turn his head to look up at her, his eyes bright with tears. "I-- I--"
"Mark, what's wrong?"
"Help me!" The floodgate opened, and he began to sob, his entire body wracked. "Like poison in my brain, they've twisted everything around, they took me apart like a broken mirror and put back shattered, my mind isn't my own, isn't mine... everything I've felt is wrong! I didn't want to be different-- after they broke me-- I didn't want to break free--" His voice took on a hystTinyal note. "I killed Chief Anderson! I tried to kill Jason, I-- Tiny and Jason are in the Converter now-- I can't bear it, Princess, please, please, kill me..."
"No!" Princess cried, shocked and horrified. Chief Anderson, dead? Mark suicidal? "No, Mark, it wasn't your fault! Now that you've returned to us--"
"I killed Chief Anderson!" Mark shrieked. "I-- I meant for them to Convert him, and they never picked him up... I wanted Spectra to win, I wanted.. oh, God! Don't you understand, Princess? Can't you see what I've done, what I deserve?"
"All I see is that you're tormenting yourself over things you had no control over--"
"But I did have control! I wanted to do it, Princess! Don't youn understand? That was me, me-- they changed what I am! They changed me!" He was almost unintelligible with sobs.
"Don't. Mark, please, don't. It's all right now. You'll be all right."
"It'll never be all right! They changed me! It's still there, Princess, it's still there... I'm dreaming. This is a dream, and when I wake up I'll be loyal to Spectra! Nothing but a short dream..."
This had stopped looking like a hypnotic trance a long time ago to Princess. "But Mark, I must have brought you out of it. I hypnotized you. Don't you remember?"
"No... I don't know why I'm normal now, but they changed me, it's inside me, Princess... please, please let me die..."
Hysteria was not like Mark-- he had been moody and changeable in the past, but never like this. Abruptly Princess realized what had to be going on-- the hypnotic trance she'd placed Mark in had broken the barriers, the inhibitions, of his conscious mind. What she was touching now was the raw core of his emotion, unfiltered. "Listen to me, Mark. I am not going to let you die!" A plea to his reason would do no good-- Mark wasn't filtering his feelings through rationality right now. So she aimed at his emotions. "I love you, Mark! If you died, it-- it would be like someone ripped out half my soul. None of the things you've done are your fault, I won't let you die for them. Don't you understand that?"
"I'm not worthy of your love, Princess..." He was still crying, but his sobs were less wracking.
"Oh, yes, you are. Now sleep, Mark. Sleep peacefully, and wake happy." Gradually she got him back into the trance and put him to sleep. Then she got up. She and a pair of scientists were going to have words...
The Yaru and Aletha affair had been horrifying for all concerned. Princess and Jason had been captured in their civilian identities, and used as experimental subjects for a mind-transferring process. Aletha was a kidnapped warrior princess of a faraway world, and Yaru her telepathic brother; their minds had been removed from their powerful, inhumanly strong bodies and placed in Princess and Jason's brains, the idea being that Princess and Jason's own identities would be wiped out. It hadn't worked that way-- Aletha and Yaru had worked with Princess and Jason to destroy the experiment. One of the scientists, Terani Tomar, had given them the key to returning to their own bodies, in exchange for her life-- but the scientist Nydak killed Yaru and Aletha's own bodies before Princess and Jason could reach them. The brother and sister had decided to discorporate together, to give Jason and Princess' bodies back to them. And the scientists responsible for that project-- besides Tomar, who claimed she had joined long after the project had begun, and wasn't responsible for most of the work-- had been Maité Nydak and Kayla Varsok.
Now, it seemed, they had proceeded from mind transfer to mind rewriting. Princess wished that Aletha had managed to kill those two back then, and save this trouble now. But she didn't plan to kill Nydak and Varsok now-- at least, not until she got the information she needed out of them...
Maité Nydak was a thin, wiry man, somewhat reminiscent of a rodent, with pinched little features and a nervous tic jerking one cheek when he spoke. He was pacing nervously, speaking in rapid Spectran and ellipsizing his words. "...utterly simple," He was saying. "There's enough of ours to shove him in. Convert Zoltar, and the whole army--"
"No!" Kayla Varsok was taller than her husband, lithe and slim like most Spectran women. Her face was round, with more meat on it than most Spectran faces, but the immediate youthful impression this gave was belied by the crow's feet and wrinkles of middle age. She moved swiftly, gracefully, with an economy of movement. "Commander Mala wouldn't--"
"Damn your Mala! This is our future we're talking about."
"We are scientists, Maité!"
"We could be more!"
Princess leapt down from her hiding place. "Excuse me for interrupting your little domestic squabble," She said in flawless polite Spectran, "but which of you is the whelp of a worm that designed the Converter? I have to know who knows how to reverse it, so I know who to torture and who simply to kill."
The two of them stared at her for a second. Then Varsok grabbed a heavy bookend and threw it at her, and both bolted for the exit. Princess's whip snaked around Nydak's waist. She yanked him backwards, pulled the whip free, and coiled it again around his neck, tightening.
"Maité!" Varsok ran to her husband's side, and Princess flung her yo-yo out with her free hand, trying to keep Varsok back. Instead, it smacked the woman in the face. She stumbled, crying out, and fell forward.
"I want to know how to reverse the Converter," She said, tightening her grip on Nydak's neck. He writhed, gasping, as he tried to pull the whip off. "Now."
"I'd be perfectly happy to tell you, you don't have to do this, let him go!" Varsok cried.
"You misunderstand. The man I love is lying unconscious out there, possibly paralyzed for life, struck down by me. He's suicidal because our teacher's dead at his hands. His best friend was beaten within an inch of his life by him. All because of you two. I want to hurt you--" She cut off as she felt herself losing control of her voice.
Varsok stared at her husband, horrified. "You're killing him!"
"You're not talking."
"Demon's whore!" Varsok pulled a knife and charged Princess. Princess uncoiled the whip from around Nydak's neck, flung it around Varsok, and used it first to pull the woman off balance, to skid on the floor, and next to drag her to Princess. Holding the woman in a headlock, she said to Nydak, who was kneeling, gasping for breath, "Is one of you going to tell me what I want to know, or..."
"Ha!" Nydak shouted suddenly, and threw himself backwards through a revolving panel before Princess could stop him. She jabbed her fingers under the junction of Varsok's jawline and neck. Varsok laughed harshly.
"No need to do that. I'll tell you what you want to know. Reverse the Converter?" She laughed again.
"You'd better start talking."
"It couldn't be easier. Conversion wears off by itself in a month or two. If you can't wait that long, put the victim back into the Converter and run the 'erase' program."
"It wears off?"
"If no more Conversion treatments are given, yes."
"And it can be erased by the machine itself, with no harm to the person's mind?"
There was something Varsok wasn't telling her. Princess tightened her grip. "What about hypnosis, drugs? Don't they break it down?"
Varsok laughed again. "You really want an easy answer, don't you? Spray the city with some chemical, like you did with those flowers, and everything goes back to normal. Do you think we'd design something that easy to defeat? Hypnosis, alcohol, depressants, psychedelics, truth drugs-- anything that lowers the influence of the conscious mind-- will suppress the Conversion overlay and allow the true personality to resurface-- but it only lasts as long as the drug itself does. It doesn't reverse anything."
Mark! When he recovered-- she wasn't watching him-- damn! Princess threw Varsok from her, knocking her out, and ran. She had to get back to Mark!
Her communicator beeped. "Princess?"
"Keyl! What is it?"
"I need to ask you what I should do. There's a Spectran guy here, and it looks like he's unhooking the power supply to the Converter. Should I let him?"
"No! Stop him, top priority! We can use the Converter to bring Mark back to normal!"
She raced around the corner to where she'd left Mark, and leapt the moment she didn't see him, fearing an ambush. The ceiling was low, smooth and made of stone, so she could neither cling nor magnetize herself to it. But from the top of her arc, as she quickly glanced around, she saw no sign of him. She landed--
--and a sharp, stunning pain lanced through her back, as the boomerang struck her and she fell.
Mark came out of the shadows, and plucked off her bracelet, detransmuting her. His back still hurt horribly, and he dimly remembered her kicking him-- what had she done after that? Drugged him? He couldn't recall. He wanted to detransmute, in order to splint his back with surgical tape, but it was entirely possible that his cyn network was carrying out the nervous functions that his spinal cord should be, and he feared accidentally paralyzing himself. He could detransmute after he'd gotten to medical attention. Perhaps Princess could splint his back after he Converted her.
He bent at the knees, keeping his injured back straight, and took Princess's arms. Maybe he should go get help-- it certainly wouldn't do his back any good to drag somebody--
--And then a sharp, ringing blow caught him on the side of the head, strong enough to affect him even through the helmet, and he cried out and dropped, into Tiny's arms.
Tiny laid Mark's limp form gingerly down, took Princess' bracelet from him, and snapped it back around her wrist. She was already coming to. "Wha-- Tiny? Where's Jason?"
"In hiding. I bandaged him up, and, you know, just kind of accidentally taped him to the rafter I put him on. If he doesn't want to fall off, it'll take him a long time to get loose, and Spectrans don't look up."
Princess giggled. She sounded punchy. "Oh, he's going to be so mad at you..."
"Yeah." Tiny sighed theatrically. "I've been thinking of willing my fluffy bedpillows to Keyl, what do you think?"
"I think we should take care of Mark." She transmuted and stood up. "I found out that we can erase the Conversion if we put him back in the machine and run the erase program."
"You know how to do that?"
"No, but I know who does. Come on."
Maité Nydak was lying in a bundle of rope, tape and shredded socks when they got to the Conversion room, Tiny carrying an unconscious Mark and Princess carrying an equally unconscious Varsok. Keyl was applying the finishing touches, wrapping surgical tape around the man's mouth.
"I stopped him," He said, grinning up at Princess.
"I guess you did!" She and Tiny manuevered Mark into one of the booths. "Now let's find out how to run that erase program."
"Why don't you ask him?" Keyl toed Nydak, who moaned under the gag.
"I don't trust him to tell the truth. I think his wife will be a lot more trustworthy." She shook Varsok awake. "Hello, it's me again," She addressed the woman in Spectran. "I have a few more questions to ask-- and you will answer them truthfully, or the Owl will see just how many times he can twist your husband's arm before it breaks off."
"I told you, you don't need to do that, I'll tell you," Varsok said groggily. She tried to sit up, but Princess pushed her down again. "What do you want to know?"
"How do you run the erase program?"
"Let me up and I'll do it." At Princess's expression, she said, "Listen. If I hurt your friend, you'll torture my husband and me to death. I know, I know. I saw what you can do already, remember? Spectra isn't worth getting killed for."
"Refreshing attitude," Tiny commented.
"All right." Princess let her up. "Keyl, Tiny, keep all your attention on Nydak. I'll watch her."
Varsok's fingers flew over the controls, and Princess had time for second thoughts. What if, despite everything, Varsok was willing to sacrifice herself and her husband to destroy Mark?... She tried to put it out of her head-- she didn't know how to work the Converter, so she had no choice but to trust Varsok...
It was almost anticlimax; the only thing that happened when Varsok initiated the program was that a green light started flashing at the top of the booth. All three breathed a deep sigh of relief-- the nightmare was almost over.
"Okay. Get Jason and bring him here," Princess said. "We should all be together now."
"He's up there." Tiny gestured at the rafters honeycombing the ceiling. Princess laughed.
"Right up there? I'll get him. Watch Varsok." She leapt, catching one of the catwalks and pulling herself onto it. From this vantage point she could see Jason, lying two or three catwalks across from her, apparently peacefully asleep. Maybe he didn't even know what Tiny had done. She swung over there and began cutting the tape, and his eyes opened.
"Hi, Princess," He said. "I hope Tiny isn't thinking anything stupid, like that he's not going to die for this."
Princess grinned. "Jason. Tiny was only looking out for your best interests..." She finished cutting him free. "Here, I'll help you down."
"I can do it."
"No, you can't. You're hurt, you're not transmuted, and it's at least 20 feet to the bottom." She got him into her arms as best she could, and leapt, coming down a bit more jarringly than she was used to, with Jason's weight throwing her off. Tiny scooped Jason out of her arms and put him on the floor.
"I'm probably going to be recovering from this for a week, at least," Jason told Tiny. "So you've got that long to make out your will."
"A whole week? Your generosity amazes me, Jason."
"Okay, enough of the fun and games." Jason still looked like something the cat dragged in, but his voice was firm. "I need a briefing here. What's going on?" Princess filled him in on what she'd learned. He glanced quickly at the booth, and Varsok. "Any particular reason why you trusted Varsok's word?"
"Yes. If we didn't reConvert Mark... well, we had nothing to lose."
"Damn. This isn't good." He leaned his head back against the booth he was propped against, and closed his eyes.
"Why? If it works--"
"I'm not talking about Mark. Somehow we've got to deal with a riot out there. I had to drive through it. All the teenagers Zoltar brainwashed are doing their level best to destroy the city, and somehow I don't think it's going to be logically possible to run them all through reConversion."
"But it wears off in a month..."
"So Varsok says. Anyway, do you have any idea how crowded the jails would get if we put everybody who got brainwashed in them for a month?" He sighed. "Maybe Mark'll see something I'm missing."
There was a roaring in Mark's ears as Tiny's hands pulled him into the light, and his teammates were crowding around him, asking, "Mark, are you okay?" Why wouldn't he be okay, he wondered confusedly-- was there something wrong?
Then he remembered.
A kaleidoscope of images, tainted with emotions that were twisted and wrong, overwhelmed him, and his face took on a look of horror. Chief Anderson, abandoned in the aqueduct to die... bending to grovel at Zoltar's feet, at the Spectran's order... his hand on the trigger, only seconds away from killing Jason...
He could have crumpled with horror and despair. I killed Chief Anderson! But hard on the heels of his memories came the realization that his team needed him. They had to stop Spectra, right away-- there was no time for his pain.
He took a deep, slow breath. "I... will be," He said, his voice shaking. He tried to control it better, but couldn't quite succeed. "How... how did you get me back?"
Tears glittered in Princess' eyes, but she was a professional. "Varsok said that there was an erase program in the Converter, so we had her set it up. Oh, Mark! Are you really back with us?"
"We don't have time for emotional reunions," He said tightly, and then whispered, "I'm sorry," The words carrying more than one meaning. "What's happened while I was... out?"
"How much do you remember?" Princess asked, the tautness in her voice betraying hurt feelings. Mark felt like a monster. Everything I do is wrong. Oh, Princess, I'm sorry I'm so sorry...
"Everything I saw or did, I remember," He replied, and had to hang onto his control as the words opened a floodgate of memories. Deliberately he walled them away-- he could not afford to probe them now, maybe not ever... "But what wasn't I there for?"
The four of them explained the events of the past six hours or so, taking turns as they'd been trained to do. Some things got omitted-- Tiny gave no explanation of why he'd attacked Zoltar, figured that it wasn't necessary to the current emergency and if Mark didn't remember, so much the better. Mark did remember, as a matter of fact, and felt filthy and violated about it, and he was rather grateful to Tiny for not bringing it up in front of everybody. When they were done, he nodded.
"That's it. Okay, this is the plan--" If you trust me to lead you after what I've done, he thought, but forced himself not to say. They needed him to look strong, they needed him to act as if none of it ever happened. "Downstairs there are more prisoners. The rioters out there only comprise about one-third of the total captives-- Zoltar wanted to see how well this worked before doing everybody. That's also where the few Spectrans left manning the base are-- most of the actual aliens, and probably a good percentage of the Terran traitors, got sent to other bases. Converted prisoners are guarding the unConverted ones. So what I want Princess and Tiny to do is go down there, free the prisoners, and with their help get the Converted ones into erasure. Keyl, I want you to guard Varsok. And Jason--" I'm sorry, my friend, I'm sorry I'm so sorry! "Here's your bracelet--" He laid the bit of plastic in Jason's hands-- "and your shoes are in my plane, on the roof. If you can navigate, I suggest you go get them-- and then stay with the plane. Even transmuted, you're too badly hurt to go around fighting--" --should I say it? Yes, I'll say it-- "--and... if-- if something happened to you, because you were hurt too badly to defend yourself... I couldn't live with myself. You know that." He forced himself to look directly into Jason's eyes.
Jason smiled. "Mark, when are you going to learn I'm not fragile? Or stupid, either? I'll stay with your damned plane to keep you happy, if you insist-- but Princess said she practically broke your back, and I don't see you hiding in a plane." The abrasiveness of his words was at odds with the expression on his face and the happiness in his voice. Mark was back in command.
"I've got too much to do."
"And you're always complaining about me killing myself. Well, if you want to kill yourself, do it in style at least." He handed a blue pill to Mark.
"You did take a mikey!" Princess said accusingly.
"Nope, lims. If you want it, Mark."
Mark did not particularly approve of using drugs to push one's body, on principle-- but his back was killing him, and he couldn't afford to let it go out on him, yet. Besides, Pandora had said he'd need to spend a month or so in regrowth anyway, so it didn't really matter what he did to himself now. "All right. Thanks. Don't you go taking any more."
"I only had the one with me." Jason closed his eyes and something seemed to leak out of him, perhaps the imaginary strength he'd been tapping all this time. Suddenly he looked very small and vulnerable.
"Tiny, you take him, okay?" Mark said. "As soon as he's safe, go down and help Princess."
"Mark, what are you going to do?" Princess asked.
Mark walked over to Nydak's bound form and turned him over with his toe. "I'm going to have this bastard lead me to Zoltar," He said. "And then Zoltar's going to give orders to all the Converted people, to come back here for reConversion. Either that, or Zoltar's going to die painfully. One or the other." He whipped out his boomerang and began cutting Nydak's bonds. "Go!"
Nydak had understood none of the conversation-- neither he nor Varsok spoke any English. When Mark made it clear to him in Spectran what he was to do, he still gibbered in terror, but did as Mark ordered, and the two of them arrived at Zoltar's office. "Who is it?" The shapechanger's voice called, in its normal tenor form.
"It's me. Nydak."
"Oh, really? Come in, Doctor." The door swung open.
Mark pushed Nydak in first, then stepped in himself. "Hello, Zoltar."
"Mark!" Zoltar's face, what little of it could be seen, tightened. "I suspected Nydak was going to try something, but..."
"Nydak had nothing to do with it. You and I are going to have words, 'my lord'." He leapt suddenly onto Zoltar's desk and grabbed Zoltar's collar, pushing the alien against the wall.
"So," Zoltar gasped. "They did find the way!"
"You mean G-Force, to reConvert me? Yes. And we're going to reConvert everyone in the city, because you're going to call them all back in here, or else you're going to die. Is that clear?" Mark was speaking in English, so Nydak wouldn't understand, and Zoltar was automatically responding in the same language.
"You-- you never-- I thought you people were to take me alive, did your orders change? Three times in the past few days you G-Force have tried to kill me..."
"I don't know about the others, and back at the Converter I broke your neck by reflex. But I will kill you, with great relish, great care, and great pain for you, unless you do exactly as I say. I'd prefer to be able to just kill you anyway, but unfortunately I need something from you." He tightened his grip. "I feel fouled inside, Zoltar, like you've poured dirty dishwater into my soul, and I want very much to hurt you for it. Give me an excuse, any excuse."
Zoltar struggled in Mark's grip, but time and many battles had taught Mark the shapechanger's weak points-- he swung a leg down and pressed his foot firmly into Zoltar's stomach, while at the same time maintaining his grip on the neck, to prevent Zoltar from doubling over. "Come on, Zoltar! Will you do it, or will you die?"
"I-- stop, please, I'l do what you-- aah-- what you want, just-- please-- stop..." Mark relaxed the pressure of his foot somewhat, and almost released Zoltar's neck, permitting the alien to breathe again. "You-- you want me to call the Converted ones in?"
"I can't-- reach the radiophone..."
Mark turned his head, and saw what Zoltar was reaching for. He leaned back to pull it over--
--and hands gripped his leg, dumping him over backwards as the cloth of the collar came away in Mark's hand. He had a confused, upside-down impression of Zoltar diving through a rotating door, and then he landed on his back. Agony howled through his nervous system, and he lay motionless, afraid that any movement might tear strained nerves.
"Get up." Nydak's whiny voice. "I've got a gun on you. Get up or I'll use it." Mark's whole body hurt, the drug he'd taken no longer doing him any good as a painkiller. Go ahead, kill me, Nydak. Right now I don't care.
"Or can you get up?" A calculating note entered the scientist's voice. "Could it be that the mighty Eagle's fallen harder than expected? Heh. I can think of a lot of ways to use this..."
Mark looked up at the Spectran, who resembled an insect in his gloating now more than ever. "We've been working on personality transfer even more lately," Nydak said. "The Converter was part of it-- to write over the mind with a constructed personality. Immortality, that's the thing! To transfer the mind into a new body, live for another whole lifetime..." He laughed, a scratchy giggling. "Young, strong, untainted by Spectran poisons, in superb physical condition-- you'd make an excellent host body for somebody. Kayla'd appreciate it, I'm sure, if I..." He laughed again.
You, Mark thought. You twisted little man, you're the source of everything that's happened! He closed his eyes and concentrated on blotting the pain. Then he reached down, grasped his boomerang, and flung it.
Nydak's face showed stunned surprise as he fell backwards, his throat gaping and the lifeblood pumping out of it in swift streams. Mark got to his feet, slwoly, recovering the boomerang. He contacted his team. "How's it going?"
"The prisoners have been released," Princess reported. "We've still got Varsok here, and all the Converted kids are in the Converter. She's setting it up now."
"She's our only hope," Mark said dully. "I've failed. Zoltar got away, and Nydak's dead."
On the other side of the communication, Princess repeated, "Nydak's dead?"
Kayla Varsok did not speak English. But all the Spectran military and scientists had to know certain key words. Among them were the English words for death. She heard Princess's words, and a sudden swift hollowness opened inside her. Maité, you fool! See what you and your plans have brought you to! she thought, tears stinging her eyes. She had never wanted to get involved in Spectran politics, had never wanted to go to Earth, damn Maité anyway... Mala's right. This is what you get when you trust a man with your heart!
The Swan instructed Varsok to set up the Converter booths for mass reConversions-- "and I'll know if you try any tricks," She threatened. What do I care? What can you do, kill me? Her mother and her daughter, both assassins in Mala's organization, would grieve for her if this got her killed, but it was only what they deserved, they who risked their lives and her heart as a profession. You murdered Maité, she thought at the Swan; did you think I would let you use his work?
She programmed the Converter booths with an overload sequence set in. The unConverted, no longer needed to guard anyone, left, escorted by the Sparrow and the Owl. Only the Swan was left. Varsok measured the distance to the nearest escape hatch with her eyes, and edged slightly toward it. And when the booths exploded, she rolled to the side, separated from the Swan by the wreckage.
Oh, my God...
The explosion had Princess's head ringing. All those Converted kids, dead... She struggled to her feet, against the dizziness she felt from being too close to the blast, and saw Varsok. "Why?" She shouted. "Why did you do it? Don't you realize we'll just get you to build more?"
"No, you won't." Varsok smiled hatefully. She was standing out of range of the whip, across the pile of wreckage. "I designed the software-- Maité was the one who built the thing, and since it was out of my area of expertise, I never bothered to memorize exactly how he did it. We didn't want Zoltar getting the plans and disposing of us, so the plans were kept in the computer net there, protected with passwords-- and when I overloaded the system, the whole thing was destroyed. There will never be a Converter again."
The whole base rumbled. "Shit!" Varsok said suddenly, paling. "That sounds like Zoltar leaving-- Swan, I suggest you depart as fast as possible, because Zoltar is notorious for destroying the evidence. And don't try chasing me, because I'll only slow you down and get you killed when the base goes up." She turned and ran.
Princess was too shaky to try to follow her, anyway. She called frantically on her bracelet. "Mark, Jason, we've got to get out of here! Varsok says the whole place is going to go up!"
It was something of a mad scramble, but eventually the five of them were several blocks away when the base exploded. Since the area around the base had been the first attacked by the Converted ones, there were probably no innocent people in range of the blast-- but Mark found that to be terribly small consolation.
"This is G-1, calling base," He said, dully, as the magnitude of what he'd wrought hit home again.
Chief Anderson's voice replied. "Can you have someone else confirm that you're all right?"
Mark stared incredulously at his communicator. "Chief Anderson? Is that you? You're alive?" Oh, thank you, God, thank you-- I didn't kill him! He must have escaped!
"I knew it couldn't be true," Princess said joyfully. "I knew it! Yes, Chief, this is Princess. Mark's all right-- we ran him through a reConversion program. Oh, I'm so happy to hear you're alive! Mark thought he'd killed you!"
"But Spectra blew up the Converter, so we can't reConvert anyone else," Mark said. As the first joyful shock of discovering that Anderson lived wore off, the guilt returned full blast-- he had tried to have him killed, or Converted, which would have been a fate worse than death for Anderson. The Chief knew what he'd done, and knowing that he knew, Mark wasn't sure he could face Chief Anderson again. Maybe it would be different if they'd fixed everything, so that the Converter affair could be erased as if it had never been-- but he'd failed...
"Is there any way to permanently reverse the process?"
"Other than reConversion?" Mark asked.
"The scientists said that it wears off in one or two months," Princess said. "But there isn't any other way to speed up the process..."
"That's all right. Return to base at once. The city's riot department has come up with a workable solution."
Jason was promptly packed off to bed, and Mark had to be hypnotized to verify reConversion, so it was a while before Anderson explained to them what that solution was. He held the mission debriefing in the hospital, since both Mark and Jason had been put there and told to stay there on pain of team suspension.
"It's a drastic solution, but apparently the only one we have," He said. "We've initiated the release of dicydrenaline-- in layman's language, 'silly gas'-- from fighter planes and helicopters, city-wide. Dicydrenaline's major function has been to act as a relaxant-- it breaks down the adrenals of anger and fear, lowers inhibitions, and in general causes people to act-- well, silly. Since it does function to break down inhibitions, Dr. Pandora and I suspected that it would act to temporarily reuturn Converted citizens to their natural state, and we've tested it-- it does, in fact. As soon as they are all under the influence of the gas, the riot police will 'persuade' them to go to medical facilities. The dicydrenaline will make sure they stay nonviolent for some time. I've mobilized the Crisis Medical Force to handle matters from there-- if they can't reverse Conversion, they certainly have the resources to keep them from harming anything for a month or two."
Tiny spoke in relief. "So that's settled, then."
"That, perhaps. But there's certain matters that need settling here." He turned to Jason. "Do you realize how badly you're injured? How easily you could have gotten yourself killed?"
"If I didn't, you'd tell me," Jason muttered.
"Chief, please," Princess said. "I know Jason disobeyed medical orders, but we'd all have been Converted without him!"
"I realize that," Anderson said. "I just want to make sure Jason understands the price. You and Mark are both going to have to spend time in regrowth."
Jason moaned theatrically, and Anderson almost smiled. "Actually, Jason, not even I can find fault with your actions this time. If not for you, matters might now be considerably more serious, perhaps impossible. But don't get in the habit of doing things like this."
"Chief, I'm really not planning on making a habit of getting on medical report at all."
"No, I mean it. Especially don't begin relying on the Lynmal derivatives. They're more dangerous than you can imagine." He stared into space for a second, then recollected himself. "At any rate. I'll need detailed mission reports from all of you-- especially you, Mark, anything you can recollect about Spectran operations that you saw could be useful-- and I'll need to conduct a debriefing of all of you-- later. Right now, I believe, Dr. Pandora has two patients she wants to take care of?"
Jason moaned again and attempted to hide under the blankets. Keyl poked him. "Uh-uh, Jason, no hiding," He said. "Be an example to me. Take your medicine like a man."
"Will you just get out of here?"
They all laughed, and Pandora dragged the scanner over to Jason's bed as they all filed out.