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It Ain't Over Till It's Over by JaneLebak
It Ain't Over Till It's Over by JaneLebak
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WARNING: this story contains an infant death on the second page.
by Jane Lebak
(First appeared in the August, 1998 issue of Bird Scramble)

For its third mission, G-Force responded to a midnight attack on a small city in Oregon. Called only after the terrorists struck and departed, the six members were dispatched to the scene at first to prevent a repeat assault. When it became obvious that the aggressors had vanished and would do no more harm there, Anderson instructed the team to get a sample of the gas that wafted over the structurally undamaged town while they helped local rescue teams look for survivors. Most had died in their beds.

"Rescue isn't our training specialty," Mark said, and Anderson replied, "You can't just leave because Zoltar isn't still in the area. Work with the locals, but be cautious."

It turned out that not only were the local areas not equipped to deal with a crisis of this magnitude, but also that very few people remained in Winterhaven who would need help in the first place. Mark and Princess ventured into the darkness first, gas masks firmly in place. They couldn't see the stars for the low-lying clouds. Mark ordered Jason, Tiny, Keyop and Don to stay in the Phoenix, ready to help if necessary.

Don had a tight look in his eyes as he watched the others in the cockpit. "What took the two of you so long to respond to the summons?"

"Ten whole minutes?" Jason snapped.

Ignoring the bait, Tiny shrugged. "Jason and I were out at a party on the Island. Hey, you know, we found a magical store!"

Jason rolled his eyes. "Quit thinking with your stomach, Tiny."

Keyop bounced on his toes. "What did you find?"

Tiny turned to the littlest one. "Early, before we got to the party, Jason stopped at this auto parts place so he could get my van running again, and on the way back to the car I noticed the place next door--a Pepperidge Farms thrift store! All their cookies were amazingly cheap, and when I got to the counter, I found they were two for one, so I went back and got some more--"

"Team?"

Jason snapped his communicator up to his mouth. "I read you, Skipper."

"Jason, take Tiny and Don with you and come outside. You don't need gas masks--Princess says it's completely dispersed by now."

"What about me?" Keyop's eyes widened. "Don't I get to go?"

"Keyop, this is an order--don't you dare come out here. Stay in the Phoenix. I'm serious."

Jason caught the tension in Mark's voice. "He'll stay. Do you need any extra equipment?"

"Not at the moment."

Keyop never did find out exactly why Mark wouldn't let him go outside. Even years later, they never discussed that mission. Once in a while someone would mention Winterhaven as a comparison, and always the others would say nothing. Mark met them outside and instructed them to look for survivors, keeping Don with himself and sending Tiny with Jason. And relentlessly, the brightness faded from their eyes. They walked from street to street, from building to building, finding what survivors they might and giving whatever medical help they could.

Two hours into the mission, Tiny and Jason met a woman carrying a baby as she navigated Winterhaven's deadened Main Street. Glazed over, reflective of the clouds overhead, her eyes stared through them as she stood swaying. Jason reached out a hand to steady her and realized as he did so that the baby lay dead on her shoulder. She saw him looking at the little body and said, "War is so hard on the little ones, isn't it?"

Tiny looked at the baby and realized too. Glancing at Jason and not meeting his eyes, he stammered something about bringing her to the doctors at the triage center in the town square. She had blood on her dress and hands.

"War is hard on the little ones," she said again, then smiled at Tiny. "But I know what makes her feel better." She began to rock in place. "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine--"

Jason walked away.

"You make me happy, when skies are grey--"

She looked toward Tiny, and she nodded to him. "You sing too." His voice cracked as he tried. "You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away."

Tiny stopped singing. She continued. He got her to walk with him toward where the doctors would be waiting. She rocked the baby as she walked. "See?" she said. "War is so hard on the little ones."

At the center of town, Jason did all but throttle Mark and demand they stop searching. "This isn't our job! We shouldn't be here."

Mark had come face to face with his own ghosts. "I'm not going to force you. You can join Princess searching for shrapnel from the device they used. Maybe we can reconstruct it sooner."

Jason turned to Tiny, who had hung back a short distance and blended almost into invisibility with the moonless night. "Go join Princess--I'm staying with Mark." After a moment he turned back to his commander and stared at the ground. "I'll keep going with you. Let Tiny stay with Princess."

Early in the search for survivors, Don had quit that in order to work on isolating the chemical that had caused the carnage. He had a makeshift lab near the triage center. The compound broke down quickly after its release, leaving very little for him to analyze in order to identify it and figure out how to combat it.

Leaping to his feet, Don asked the head doctor, "Is that a baby?"

The woman trembled as she set down the body, and Don rushed forward, wings flaring. "It's dead? Quick--don't touch it--" and he ran to get a tangle of tubes and a small suction machine. He turned to the nurse. "You've got to run this tube down into its lungs and extract all the air."

The doctor stared at him. "I can't do that--we haven't gotten permission from the mother--"

"We haven't got the time to get the permission." Don thrust the tubes at her again. "Do it! An infant's lungs might not have broken down the gas as well as an adult's. This may be our best chance at a sample of the original material. Do it!"

He squared his shoulders and stepped toward the doctor, using his birdstyle for best effect. The woman took the equipment and intubated the baby.

"Thank you," Don said, packing up his makeshift field lab. "And I'll need a blood sample, too."

Don rushed the samples to his tiny lab in the rear of the Phoenix, and while Mark and Jason combed the moonlight and carried the victims from their beds or their hallways, Don stayed awake in the fluorescent overhead lighting. Drinking Jolt by the six-pack, he kept the test tubes moving; Mark and Jason kept their tired limbs moving along the streets; Princess and Tiny in the galley kept their trembling hands fitting together shattered pieces of the explosive device. Shortly before dawn, Don found that they could develop an antidote fairly rapidly once they mobilized their resources.

"Bingo," Don called over the bracelets.

"I'll be right there." Mark looked at Jason and took a deep breath. Jason closed his eyes.

The monitor lit up in the cockpit before Mark arrived. Winterhaven's success had thrilled Zoltar enough that he had issued demands to the ISO five minutes ago. If ISO didn't comply within an hour, he had another bomb ready for New York.

"We don't have the time we need to prepare enough of the antidote chemical," Anderson said. "Go to New York and stop that bomb!"

Tiny piloted with a grimness and a recklessness Mark had never seen before. Princess sat pale at her seat while Jason lay slack in his, head thrown back, eyes closed, legs spread beneath his console. Don paced the empty space in the cockpit. Though young, Keyop knew better than to ask questions now. For once, the strain in Mark's voice had convinced even him to obey orders; he had slept inside the Phoenix the entire time.

"I have it on radar," Princess said. "It's got to be Zoltar's--it's too big to be anything else."

"Where will we catch it?"

Jason and Don came alive, standing behind Princess and looking over her shoulders as she read off the details, but after a moment's squinting Jason turned away. Finally Princess said, "I'm not sure, Mark--I don't think we can. It's going to be close if at all."

Tiny said, "We're already at maximum velocity."

"What about fiery phoenix?" Jason said.

"We can't cover half the continent that way." Mark shook his head. "And we'd never have enough fuel."

Jason's eyes went wild. "Isn't there anything we can do?"

Don said, "Don't you think Mark would have done it by now?"

"Shut up, you." Jason glared at him. "If I wanted to hear an asshole, I'd fart."

"That's enough!" Princess marched between the two and shoved them apart. "We don't have time for this idiocy! The mech must have picked us up on its radar--it's increasing speed. We've still got a chance, but only if we're really lucky."

"We need a tailwind," Don said.

Jason went over to his screen and squinted at it for a while. "We're out of range for bird missiles, right? Maybe if we fire them off, we'll be light enough to pick up some speed."

Don said, "Oops, sorry about your house down there. We'll come get that later."

"Don!" Mark crossed his arms. "I think Jason's right. We can't get rid of the vehicles, but we can lose the bird missiles. Don, Princess, Keyop--go remove the warheads from all but two of them. Jason, see if you can find any unpopulated locations to fire them once we're set."

Ten minutes later, a quarter of a continent later, Princess reanalyzed the data and said it was still a coin toss whether they'd get there simultaneously. "We certainly can't reach them beforehand."

"Anyone got a catcher's mitt?" Keyop asked.

Racing East, the team rode catching up to the sunrise. They had spent the entire night in Winterhaven, sleeping an hour or two in shifts. Princess stared bleary-eyed out the front screens at the piercing rays of early sunlight. Tiny started to whistle "You Are My Sunshine" in a slow, off-key fashion. In his own chair, Jason sat with his eyes closed and tried not to look at much of anything. Even Keyop stopped jittering in his seat as if trying to urge the Phoenix faster by his movements.

Princess had been calling out the distance between themselves and the mech until finally they had an image on their forward screens. As they advanced, Tiny kept decreasing magnification, but it grew steadily. Steadily. Princess began calling out time until they intercepted it.

"We're not going to make it," Mark said.

Even after the previous two missions, they hadn't gotten accustomed to seeing a Spectran mech in person. The tremendous shape scorched through the atmosphere, its engines jetting out flame and hot air as it propelled through the sky, dwarfing them. All six caught their breath, standing before the screens. Numbers made no sense of this behemoth, this leviathan set on devouring their lives, their world. Each one trembled. No one spoke.

The mech, shaped like a tremendous flying snake, undulated as it flew, and it soared at an altitude far higher than the Phoenix. "They need to make use of the thinner atmosphere in order to reduce resistance," Anderson had said in debriefing after the attack by the Turtle King, and they understood intellectually all the data they had gleaned from the first two. They knew probably how many soldiers served as crew, where the likely locations for control rooms were, how to try their first strikes against it...they knew all this, and with their first glimpse once again all six felt their hearts pounding. None could turn away from the monitor.

Finally, Mark whispered, "Well, that's our target."

"Still several minutes ahead of us."

Mark's head dropped. "We'll only barely make it. Tiny, do we have enough fuel left to try the fiery phoenix?"

Tiny checked. "Not and make it all the way there. We're burning an awful lot right now."

Jason smacked his fist into his palm. "So there's nothing we can do? Nothing at all?"

"Keep trying," Mark said. "Something may happen."

"That's not good enough!"

Mark wheeled to face Jason. "What the hell do you want me to do? I can't make fuel! Princess--" and he shook his head as he said it, "tell the Chief we can't catch them. Tell him to buy us time."

"Not with us on Zoltar's tail, he's not going to buy us anything." Don kept his voice low. "Zoltar's got to know we're still following. He knows we'd have caught up by now if we could have."

"Then it's over," Mark said. "The Chief has to surrender."

In the cockpit of the snake mech, Zoltar had flatly refused Chief Anderson's request for additional time to comply with his demands.

"I have nothing to lose," he had said. "You, everything. Your telecommunications center, your financial center--even ISO headquarters itself resides in New York City. Nothing of importance to me, but everything to you."

"There are eight million people in Manhattan--"

Zoltar leaned toward the screen. "Eight million more reasons for you to rethink your position, Chief Anderson."

Anderson's face had whitened.

"I suppose you've spoken to your G-Force," he added, "and learned the futility of their pursuit by now. I would send them away if I were you. Order them back. There's nothing they can do."

They no longer had enough fuel to initiate fiery phoenix at all, even if they had wanted to. Chief Anderson hadn't ordered them to halt their pursuit, but he hadn't asked them to continue the chase either. The UN war planes dispatched to halt the mech had failed even to slow it. The mech had just passed the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.

"Everyone we know lives in New York," Princess whispered.

"My Mom and Dad aren't there," Don said. "They'll be okay."

"The Chief's got access to the underground bunker," Mark said. "He'll be all right."

Jason had his arms crossed over his stomach, and he closed his eyes.

Princess walked back to her seat and looked at her screen again. "They're still leading us by about eight minutes." She hesitated. "And they've just dropped their bomb."

Total silence in the cockpit.

Mark looked up. "Princess, you analyzed the canister they used on Winterhaven--how was it detonated?"

"Altitude sensor on the canister."

"Why?"

She looked flustered. "I don't know--they could have just let it break open on impact with the ground--"

Don said, "I think they wanted maximal dispersal of the gas, so it had to be released at a high enough altitude to wash over the town but not so high that it dissipated before the residents breathed it. So about half a mile up, I'd guess, depending on the wind speed."

Mark turned to Jason. "Do you think you can shoot the altimeter off the canister?"

"Not even a chance, Mark--can't we just blast it out of the air?"

"If we break open the canister, the gas will still spread, and even if it's higher up than Zoltar wants, it'll probably do significant damage." Mark leaned forward. "Jason, you have to try. You've got the best aim of all of us."

Jason had backed away a step. "But--a target that small--"

Don rolled his eyes.

Mark said, "You've got to at least try."

According to Princess' estimate, the canister would reach a terminal velocity of a hundred eighty feet per second. It had been dropped from twenty miles up, and it was probably set to detonate a mile at most above the city. If they added an extra quarter of a mile as a safety cushion, that gave them nearly nine minutes to reach it and disarm it in mid-air.

"It'll still bust open when it hits the ground," Jason said.

"We'll call the Chief," Mark said. "He should be able to figure out roughly where it's going to land and maybe get crews that can contain it relatively quickly."

"So only a few thousand people will die?" Jason said. "These are acceptable losses?"

"We don't have a better option." Mark kept his eyes downcast. "There isn't anything else."

That's how Jason ended up in the bubble with his gun held in trembling hands.

"You're going to get one chance at this," he whispered to himself. "Jason, you have to get this right. We can't go around again."

Tiny decelerated a little in order to meet the canister as it dropped, and he descended to a low altitude so he'd have more time to get set up. Mark knew the odds as well as Jason, and Tiny had already figured out how close he needed to get for Jason to make the shot. No one commented, but Tiny did an excellent job piloting the Phoenix. None of the rest of them, including Mark, could have juggled their speed and altitude and attitude to bring them close enough to a falling object they only partially knew the location of. No one disturbed Tiny as he worked, and Tiny didn't notice them as he became one with his craft. His vehicle. If any one of them ever would have questioned his abilities, that single feat would always remind them of his skills.

Despite that, if they needed a second try, they couldn't have it--the Phoenix already flew as low as it conceivably could. This first attempt had to be their last.

Jason squinted and blinked as they neared the target.

"Get ready," Mark said over the bracelet.

The bubble opened into a wind like a wall. Jason felt the birdstyle take the force of the blow, but still the intensity of the gusts ripped his breath from his lungs. They shouldn't be on the roof at these speeds--Anderson had told them that, and still they had already done it twice in three missions. Squatting, squaring his arms on his knees in order to have a steadier platform for aiming, Jason looked for the canister.

"Shit, Mark--it's tumbling end over end."

"Can you fire at it?"

"I can't guarantee I'll hit the altimeter."

Mark didn't reply.

"I think I can do it," Jason suddenly said.

As they got close enough for him to take the shot, Jason leaped directly upward off the top of the Phoenix, arms wrapped tight around his legs as he cannonballed high enough to evade the Phoenix's tail fin when it passed directly beneath him. The heat from the jetwash singed the tips of his cape as he rifled through the air. He didn't hear Princess's shriek through the bracelet.

The canister plummeted past, and Jason came out of his spin to dive for it, gathering speed, folding his wings enough to angle himself and reach that canister in mid-air. One mile up--he had time. He had to keep reminding himself--he had time. He reversed the cable gun and fired the suction end at the tumbling canister, and when he reeled it in, he found himself the proud, rapidly falling owner of a canister of lethal Spectran gas. Opening his wings broke the descent. For now, he flew almost level.

"Got it, Mark," he radioed.

"Terrific," Mark said. "That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen work."

"Thanks." Jason kept his wings spread. "We've bought New York a few extra minutes, at least, while I glide down."

In the distance, the Phoenix scorched upward toward the snake mech. Zoltar wouldn't know they had only two missiles left. Zoltar might not have seen one member of G-Force abandon ship to elope with the canister. Maybe he'd make his way to some secret base awash with laughter, not realizing for at least a while what exactly had happened.

With his wings still unfurled, Jason began making slow circles as he tried to keep hold of the gun and the canister. About three feet long and weighing at least fifty pounds, the canister proved unwieldy at best, and the altimeter didn't have a Hollywood-style digital display to show where Zoltar had set it to detonate.

"Oh well," Jason thought. In one motion, he brought up his knees and hugged the canister to his chest like a teddy bear. With his arms in, the wings closed, and back first he dropped like a rock.

A mile above Manhattan, blinking wind-stung tears away enough to see, Jason managed to fight the wind to bring his gun to bear, and he shot off the altitude sensor as well as some of the end of the canister. He knew it instantly when he got a whiff of it--some of the gas was escaping.

"Altitude sensor is off," Jason radioed as he plummeted, shouting against the air. "I think the containment device is ruptured. Don, do I have any choices?"

"Find an airtight container."

"And if I can't?"

"Make your peace with God."

Jason didn't open his wings again, wanting to reach street level faster. In the fear of the moment, he couldn't think of where would be best to land with the little payload--in the rivers, in Central Park, in one of the burned-out areas of the Bronx...his whole sense of geography had faded and one decision seemed just as bad as the next, and all the while he fell holding a canister full of gas that was escaping and which if the wind weren't carrying it away would have killed or incapacitated him.

With a few hundred feet to the ground, Jason opened his wings to break his fall, and he'd almost slowed to a decent rate when he slammed into the middle of a lower Manhattan intersection. Police had stopped all traffic- Jason guessed Mark had radioed the Chief, who had determined his likely landing sites and summoned help--and as soon as Jason's head cleared from the landing, he dashed toward a low building and leaped to the roof with the canister. He'd misjudged the height and gotten trapped scrambling momentarily with only his chest at the top, but then his feet found purchase and he was over the side.

By this time he could see the gas leaking out, and the only thing he could remember from his chemistry lessons was that if you could see a gas, you shouldn't breathe it.

Jason's hands fumbled as he unfastened his cape and wrapped it around the canister as completely as possible. His lungs ached, and his vision swam, and then he hesitated. Find an airtight container, Don had said. He figured that was more practical and probably more possible than making peace with his God--but where to find an airtight container on the lower west side?

Ten minutes later, when the ISO Containment team arrived with the rest of G-Force, they found Jason seated, capeless, on top of a freezer in a corner grocery store, eating a pint of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey with a plastic spoon. The store owner was pacing a distance away and hurried them in once they arrived. Between bites, Jason had his eyes closed.

"I saved you a Cherry Garcia," Jason said, tossing one to Tiny, although it landed closer to Don. "Spoons are on the counter."

Mark said, "It's in the freezer?"

"The only airtight thing I could think of." Jason shrugged. "Will you please tell this guy the ISO will pay for a new freezer for him? He's kind of upset about all this."

Keyop said, "You didn't happen to have any Rainforest Crunch, did you?"

Princess smacked him in the helmet. "As if!" She looked back at Jason. "Why didn't you let us circle around and come get you?"

"You'd already said you were too low, and unless I'm mistaken, you were busy driving off a serpentine mech."

"We'd have tried!"

Mark laid a hand on her shoulder. "Later. Later. It's over for now, that's all."

Chief Anderson met them at the little grocery store, giving only perfunctory assurance to the shop owner before speaking briefly to Mark. Together they headed to the team gathered in the corner where the freezer used to be.

"The hazardous substances unit took the freezer out of here entirely," Mark was saying as they neared the others. He had his eyes cast down.

"They wouldn't even let us get the rest of the ice cream," Tiny mumbled around a mouthful of Cherry Garcia.

Keyop shrugged--he had taken the rest of Jason's. "Probably all spoiled anyhow, with the chemical leaking and everything."

The Chief said to Jason, "Let me examine you."

Jason retreated a step. "I'm all right." He glared at Mark, who turned aside.

"I'll determine that." He made Jason take off his helmet and began looking him over, examining his pupils with a penlight, then probing him and listening to his breathing. "Mark, you're going to have to take the team back up. I'm sure Zoltar had more than the two canisters of this gas, and he may be ready to strike again."

Don winced. "It's been a long mission already."

"I'm sorry." The Chief probed Jason's shoulders, and Jason gasped. "I'm sorry about that, too. It's necessary--Zoltar probably has his eye on other major urban centers. I need you up there on alert." He nodded to Jason. "You can replace your helmet."

"I need my cape back."

"You don't. You're not going out again."

"What?" Jason folded his arms. "You can't be serious--I'm fine!"

"You aren't fine, and you know it. Mark, you'd better get started."

Mark hesitated as his second fixed the darkest look of his life in his general direction. Jason pushed past Chief Anderson and took his place at Mark's side. "You're out of your mind. I'm not going to let Zoltar turn Chicago or Cleveland or Washington into another Winterhaven!"

"Then answer me one question," Chief Anderson said. "And I'll let you go if you get it right." He held up two fingers and made slow circles with his hand, saying, "How many fingers am I holding up?"

Jason looked at him defiantly for a moment before his eyes closed and he lowered his head. Princess, Mark, Tiny, Keyop and Don stared at him, and then he said, "Fine. I'll go back with you. But this isn't over yet."

By the time the team reached the helipad alongside the West Side Highway, an ISO team had nearly finished refueling the Phoenix. "So with full tanks and two missiles, we get to drive off Zoltar," Mark said. "This isn't going to be easy."

Chief Anderson had reached them on the monitor as soon as he'd gotten back to his office. "We're tracking the mech with satellite photos now. It looks like they're just orbiting for a while, waiting for the impact of what they've done to New York to settle."

"They know their plan failed," Don said. "None of the TV stations are showing pictures of mass destruction, are they? Or the radios?"

Chief Anderson said, "The ISO imposed a communications blackout on New York just after the bomb landed."

Princess' mouth opened. "How did you get the authority to make them comply?"

"We didn't. We're jamming all communications signals."

Jason had appeared beside the Chief on the monitor. "I didn't think he had it in him, guys, but apparently we're supposed to let the world think Zoltar's responsible for the black-out. I imagine there'll be hell to pay later."

Mark winced.

"It buys us time," Chief Anderson said.

"What if they take a look down there?" Don said. "You didn't put a big lid over the city to stop satellite photography, did you?"

"They may be finding out now," the Chief said, "but they were in orbit, and it will take them about an hour to get back to a line-of-site position. So you'd better take off."

Tiny had already performed the pre-flight checks and warmed up the engines. As soon as everyone took a seat, the monitor blanked and Tiny initiated liftoff.

Mark looked over his control panel. "Princess, have you got their position on your screen?"

"Roger that."

"Tiny, chart us a course toward them--bring us low but beneath their current position. I'm not having them outrace us anywhere else. Princess, you report their movements as applicable."

Keyop said, "Should we attack them now?"

"I'm thinking," Mark said. "Give me a minute."

"Mighty Zoltar?" The officer reporting to the helm of Zoltar's craft had a pallor beneath his green mask. "We've finished the analysis of the first test strike. Ninety percent of the town's population killed outright, the majority of the remainder in hospitals or undetermined status. Most of the buildings remain intact, as you said. The relief effort is still under way."

The officer handed him a tape, which Zoltar slid into a small television unit.

"Interesting," he said momentarily. "Why are the rescue crews moving about without gas masks?"

"My lord, sir, apparently the gas disperses rapidly on contact with the atmosphere."

Zoltar looked up, plainly startled.

"That's what CNN said, my lord."

"How odd. Have our scientists come up with a reason why? It should have been active for hours--for days." Zoltar drummed his fingers on the table top and looked again at the television screen. "What a revolting development. If it's not active very long, it's not very useful as a disinfectant, is it now?" His voice had lowered until he spoke almost to himself. "Not on large populations, at the very least... What's the status of New York City?"

The officer jumped, startled. "Sir--no communications from the city since detonation. We're out of visual range for five more minutes."

"Let me know as soon as we're in range." Zoltar began to pace, his cape fluttering behind him as he took long strides through the bridge. "And tell our chemists I want an answer in ten minutes."

In the galley behind the Phoenix's cockpit, Mark locked the door and raised his communicator to his mouth. "G-2?"

After a moment, Jason responded with something between a "Yeah" and a grunt.

"Have you got a minute? Alone?"

"I've got several thousand, thank you. Squealer."

That answered his first question. Mark sighed. "I'm not going to apologize for keeping you from harming yourself. If you're not fit, you'll be a liability to us and to yourself. That's it."

"So why the hell are you calling?"

Mark rested against the door and folded his arms. "Just in case I don't come back, I wanted you to understand."

"Cut the melodrama, please. I'm not going to issue some smarmy forgiveness so you can feel content to die if it comes to that." Jason's voice had an edge to it, and Mark half-smiled. "You're not putting that responsibility on my shoulders, got it?"

"Got it." That was the second answer he wanted. "G-1 out."

Alone in the galley, Mark took a few deep breaths before stepping into the corridor to return to the cockpit.

"So we got about a dozen bags of cookies in the trunk of the G-2, if anyone wants to go get them."

"But you still didn't tell me, which ones are the Sausalitos?"

"They're the ones with the macadamias."

"Those are the Tahoes."

"I thought the Sausolitos had nuts as well."

"Macadamias are nuts, you snood."

"What are Chesapeakes?"

"I think those are the ones with pecans in them."

"Well, the Nantuckets are just the plain chocolate chunks..."

Back in the cockpit, Mark's presence imposed silence on the team. Everyone worked at his station without distraction the moment he stepped through the door. Tiny issued a report as to their position relative to the mech, ending with, "Zoltar's nearly in line of sight of New York City."

"So we're nearly out of time." Mark hesitated. "Have they spotted us yet?"

"It'd be hard for them not to have," Don said.

"But they haven't changed their course or their speed in response," Princess added.

Mark said nothing for a moment.

"What are you thinking?" Princess asked.

"We're going in."

Tiny accelerated without instructions. "Any idea how we're getting inside?"

"We'll figure it out as we get closer." Mark looked at Keyop. "You're going to get a chance to play pilot for a while."

"But Mark!"

"It's going to be too dangerous inside. I'm sorry." He looked at Tiny, who hadn't turned around yet. "You okay with that, Tiny?"

"I'm fine with it--Keyop only needs to get out of that thing's way after he drops us off."

"And come back to pick you guys up. I know the drill." Keyop sighed. "It's not fair. I'm not going to leave the Phoenix all mission."

Don shrugged. "You got outside long enough to chow down on Jason's ice cream."

Keyop gave him a dirty look.

"Whatever." Mark looked to Princess and Don. "I want to find the remaining canisters of this gas. Either they have a factory someplace on Earth making this stuff or they shipped it in from Spectra or else this mech itself is a flying manufacturing plant. We can't do anything if they're shipping it in, but the other two scenarios we can handle. When we get inside, we'll need to find their containment facility, find out where they're producing it, and then take steps to disable that location. If it's the mech, well, we'll fight it. If not, Princess, you'll be radioing the location of the site to Chief Anderson so he can mobilize a strike force." He folded his arms. "Don, how much space would they need to produce the canisters, create the gas, and get them ready for launch?"

"Not much--I'd figure anyone could make it in a college class type laboratory. It wouldn't have to be much larger than this cockpit if they're not making much of it. If they've made enough to blanket the whole Earth, then it'd have to be several thousand square feet."

"The canister I pieced together looked hand-made," Princess said. "I didn't get a glimpse of the one Jason caught, but if you ask the Chief, I suspect they'll find that one was put together by hand as well."

"So it's small," Mark said. "Radio back home and find out if that's true. Don, get me a picture of that mech. We're going to have to find an entry point."

After a few minutes, Don had videotape of their chase up on one of the monitors. "Unfortunately, the best shots we have are rear-views of the mech."

Princess pored over the images, rolling through the footage until they reached the head-shots they had gotten after Jason had ejected and they'd chased it away. "The bomb was dropped from a hatch on the belly, about a third of the way back."

"That's good--they probably didn't carry it through the whole ship in order to get it to that doorway, so that's where I'd like to start." Mark looked at the blurred image a little closer. "Any suggestions on getting inside?"

"It's going to be difficult getting the Phoenix right underneath it," Tiny said, "and I'm not sure how you'd hold on while opening the door."

Princess called out their distance to the snake mech, and Mark frowned. "Think," he whispered.

Zoltar studied the images on his monitors. "New Yorkers truly are unflappable," he said lowly.

One of his officers, standing at his side, said, "I guess so. They've managed to get cleared up and back to work already."

Zoltar slapped the officer so hard his head snapped backward and he stumbled into the wall. "You idiot--obviously the bomb didn't go off. Something went wrong. Who was in charge of setting the altimeter?"

Within moments, the very man was produced and brought to stand before Zoltar, hands shaking.

"I double checked everything," he stammered. "I adjusted for the lower altitude of the city and set the altimeter for four thousand feet above that. You can check the log books, sire."

"Oh, I intend to." Zoltar made a casual gesture that resulted in the technician's being dragged from his sight, most likely to be chained somewhere else in the mech until the whole mess got sorted through. "Where are my chemists?"

A woman stepped forward. "I've discovered the reason why the gas dissolved so rapidly at the first location."

"Elucidate me."

The woman had her red hair back in a thick coil wound in a bun at the base of her neck. She wore a Spectran green t-shirt and pants, and she carried several folders jammed with papers. "May I show you the results of our analysis?"

His voice getting tense, Zoltar said, "Summarize it. Quickly."

The woman took a deep breath. "We had chosen this gas because of its propensity to break down--its instability makes it particularly lethal to humans, but in addition, after the humans found their numbers significantly reduced, the chemical would reach the end of its effectiveness and we could use the planet without having to deal with the poison ourselves."

"I remember that." Zoltar's eyes had gotten dangerous. "I made that decision."

"If you'll bear with me," and the woman somehow managed to whip out a chart from her stack of papers without disturbing the rest of them, "you'll learn that in our laboratory, we hadn't adequately considered the differences in the Earthly atmosphere while running our tests. The different composition of the air here caused the chemical to break down a hundred times more rapidly, therefore limiting its effectiveness as a means of sterilizing the planet."

Zoltar ignored the chart she offered him, instead walking a distance away to look into one of the monitors with a view of New York City. Thousands of automobiles still chugged through midtown. Traffic lights still blinked red and green in patterns, and the sun still shone on eight million frenzied yet decidedly alive human beings.

"Is there a way to correct this flaw in the gas?"

"Not that we've determined, but my staff is working on it."

Zoltar folded his arms. "It still kills on contact, though."

"For the five to ten minutes it remains active, yes."

Again for a few minutes he paced.

"Sire," the officer of the watch called out, "we've spotted the Phoenix. It's coming in closer."

"Very well." Zoltar turned to the chemist. "Stop production of the gas. It's no good to us now, but we've still got plenty of it on hand." She left the bridge with her stack of paper. Zoltar moved toward the officers at the helm. "Set a course for Washington, DC. We might as well use up what we have left."

"We're on an intercept course with the mech," Tiny said. "We'll reach it in the next two minutes. After that, it's roughly half an hour until it reaches Washington." He looked up. "Mark, I know you want Keyop to stay here, but the fact is, he can't maneuver the Phoenix close enough to the mech to drop us off."

Mark nodded. "I understand--Tiny, you're going to have to stay instead."

Keyop whooped, then looked guiltily at Tiny.

"You're not going in, either, squirt. I want you to bring me, Princess, and Don in your helicobuggy and get us close to that door so we can open it ourselves."

"It's going to be crowded in there," Don said.

"Life's tough all over." Mark fixed a look on Keyop. "You are not to come inside, do you understand?"

Keyop rolled his eyes. "Yes, Mark."

"Fine." He looked at the last two. "Don, again--find that chemical storage center. Princess, you and I are going to have to find out where they're manufacturing it." He turned back to Keyop. "Tiny's going to need your vehicle back here to fire the weapons, so you can't go inside. You'll need to hook back up with Tiny. But when Don and Princess and I are ready to return, you're going to have to come get us. Understood?"

Keyop saluted.

"One minute," Tiny said.

Mark looked at the team. "Let's go."

Tiny had practiced in the simulators and on their video game version until the Phoenix and he had become like one body. None of the others had ever attained that measure of grace or finesse at the controls. He knew this but didn't let himself think about it as he attended to the job at hand.

Get beneath the ship? Get beneath and stay there long enough to discharge Keyop and the rest of the team? No doubt the snake mech would be writhing and twisting about in an attempt to snap at the Phoenix or wrap around it and subdue it. And somehow, while the mech whipped above him, he had to find a safe place to discharge Keyop and the others so they could catch hold of the ship and get near that door.

To add another variable, Keyop's buggy couldn't travel at mach 5, their current speed. If Keyop didn't hook up to the mech immediately, Tiny would have to double back to get them and try again, an unlikely proposition at best, since they'd be falling. Their current altitude also far exceeded the buggy's specs.

All these factors had whistled through his head as rapidly as the wind outside whistled past the Phoenix's blue metal form, and all the while he approached the snake as it sliced through the sky toward the capital.

"Do you think I should just zip right underneath it?" No one listened in the cockpit. No one could have answered anyhow. "Maybe I should fire one of the missiles at it?" He'd listened to Mark's instructions to Keyop without commenting, but he knew he wouldn't be retrieving Keyop after this. Keyop's departure would render him unable to fire the missiles, but Tiny had no intention of firing on a ship with his team inside. Keyop would stay put: he'd radio that instruction to him after he'd gotten safely attached to the belly of the snake.

Mark radioed that they were all in position. Don radioed that he was unhappy with it, so could Tiny hurry it up?

Tiny grinned. Jason would have loved to hear that.

The course Tiny had set put him a little before the snake. As it grew closer and closer, Tiny angled the wings and banked so he was heading directly for the snake. As they faced off, the snake raised its head. The eyes glowed. At first Tiny thought this only for effect, but then it fired lasers at the Phoenix, which rocked with the impact.

Tiny didn't hear if Mark called him for a report. He initiated evasive maneuvers and brought the Phoenix up over the snake's head. For all its aerodynamic shape, this monster couldn't actually whip around in the air as he'd imagined. It snapped at the Phoenix too late. Tiny found himself above the snake's back and in relative safety for the moment.

And he'd learned something important--while it fought him, and apparently it intended to fight, the mech had to slow.

Keyop no doubt had his monitor in the buggy linked to the Phoenix's main monitors, so probably Mark watched as his pilot twisted and dodged in midair, and if so he was looking for the ideal place to drop off as well.

Tiny's piloting had brought the snake to a standstill as it snapped at him and fired its lasers. The tail, while it couldn't whip spectacularly fast, could still jab, and whenever it contacted it sent a shock through the ship. Tiny had managed to discharge the energy a few times, but each time he found the ship less able to do so. The sooner he dropped off the team, the better.

Tiny gunned the engines and skimmed the length of the belly of the snake, shooting out beneath its mouth. The snake turned on its afterburners and blazed after him.

"Get ready," he radioed.

As they reached open sky, Tiny had the snake chasing him, and he let it get almost within snapping distance before he abruptly cut engines and let the snake overtake him.

"Now!"

Keyop ejected, and Tiny twisted out of the way, skirting to the left of the snake and drawing it to follow him.

"We made it," Mark radioed after a moment.

Tiny gunned the engines and got the snake to pursue him again. "It's up to you guys now. The difficult part's done, but it's not over yet."

Keyop had two hooks in the underbelly of the snake, and the buggy's treads were currently magnetized. He'd managed to get his buggy upside-down so the treads were against the mech, but that meant the others were perched on the ceiling. Don kept grumbling about the conditions, but Keyop knew it was actually roomier that way: he was strapped upside-down into his command chair with the blood rushing to his head as he cast out a third hook ahead of the other two, drove slowly forward, and then pulled in the closest hook to cast it out again.

"Can't you go any faster?" Don said.

"Look down," Keyop said. "That's twenty miles."

"It won't be too long," Mark said. "Keyop knows what he's doing."

Keyop used the hooks in a hand-over-hand that lingered in agonizing slowness. Agonizing for him, at any rate. The others needed him to succeed; they needed him not to get caught. He'd been scanning for cameras on the underbelly, and up ahead was something that looked like a camera. He had to decide what to do with it when they got closer.

Don made another remark. Before Keyop could reply, Princess said, "So go outside."

"Enough," Mark said. "We have a job to do. Keep your minds on it."

Keyop cast a hook at the camera, but it missed. He could ask Mark to boomerang it for him...but at twenty miles up, with the wind coming at them so ferociously, he'd most likely lose the boomerang and leave himself without a weapon inside the mech. Besides, and Keyop glanced at Don, it would be better to handle it himself if at all possible. Studying the control panel, Keyop ran his mind through every one of the gadgets he'd asked for in outfitting his buggy. Don and Jason might laugh and call it the Powerless Gadgeteer, but the fact was, he loved having lots of gadgets, and it was only because he'd asked for so many different gadgets that they could be here now, clinging upside-down because of his magnetized treads and three hooks. He thought the gadgets made him more versatile. He kind of had to be versatile--Keyop didn't have the strength or the skill or the area knowledge of the older ones.

"Okay," he said, and aimed one of the gadgets out the mouth of the buggy. A moment later, green goo fired out of the front and blew back in the wind to splatter across his windshield. "Oops," he said as Don muttered, "Brilliant," and the windshield wipers swished across the windows.

"What's the trouble?" Mark said.

"There's a camera ahead. I was trying to disable it." Keyop kept his mouth closed tightly. Fine--let them laugh. He had a couple more gadgets he could still use. Hopefully.

Princess said, "Do you want me to yo-yo it?"

Keyop hesitated. With the yo-yo's string, Princess would be able to retrieve it after getting to the camera, true. She wouldn't be defenseless inside the mech. But Don's eyes bored into him, and Keyop said, "No. I can do it."

He inched the buggy closer hoping desperately he could figure out what it was he could do.

When he neared the camera, which he saw was busy taking shots directly downward, Keyop suddenly realized--anything he threw at the camera would get blown backward. But he had a short-range laser torch in the buggy, and light shouldn't get thrown backward in this wind. At least, he hoped not. He thought light didn't have air resistance.

"So if you're driving along at the speed of light," he said, quoting a bumper sticker he'd seen recently, "and turn on your headlights, what happens?"

He adjusted the laser torch, and with the nozzle practically touching the camera lens, opened fire.

Keyop imagined a pleasant crackle; he could see the glass blacken and crack through his monitors. "All right!" He whistled a cat-call at his own work. "I'm a stealth god!"

The last twenty feet passed more quickly, and Keyop smiled hugely, his chest puffed up and his eyes riveted on the monitor as he sat like what he hoped was a professional, albeit upside-down, executing the job he'd been trained to do.

"Good work," Mark said. "Extend the net."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah--I was gonna." Keyop had the net out the hatch, and Mark climbed outside carefully, a tether around his waist as he maneuvered toward the hatch that would let them inside the mech. After Mark fiddled with the door for a moment or two, Keyop brought the laser torch outside again, and Mark gave him a signal, then backed out of the way. That probably meant he'd had another good idea, Keyop figured. He focused the beam as tightly as it would go and then aimed for the seam between the hatch doors.

"Please work," he whispered.

It took another few minutes, but finally the hatch doors opened. Mark climbed inside, and a little later he radioed in that he'd secured the tether and Princess and Don could join him. "Keyop, you return to the Phoenix."

"Gotcha, Mark." Keyop watched Don leave, then turned to Princess. "Please, please be careful. Make sure you come back when it's over."

Don and Princess found themselves within the darkness of the hatch entrance. Mark stood at the far end by a door leading to a lighted hallway, and his shadow fell behind him, bumpy across the form of a prone green suited man. "There's a lot of motion in the hallways," Mark said. "This is going to be complex."

Princess drew closer to Mark, carefully avoiding two open crates packed with foam. "Any idea what they're doing?"

Don followed her. "Eventually they're bound to come in here to drop more canisters. Why don't we just wait until they come to us?"

Mark shook his head. He kept his voice low. "Too many things can go wrong with that. Maybe one of us should stay behind, just in case we miss them, but I think it's necessary to find their production site and disable that permanently. And their storehouse. This obviously isn't it."

"But it's got to be nearby," Princess murmured. "Don can stay here while you and I go looking for the other two locations."

Don closed his black cape around the white bodysuit of his birdstyle and blended backward into the shadows. "I think I can handle that."

Mark considered a moment, then agreed.

His communicator chirped. "It's G-4," Keyop said shortly. "I'm to stay put. Too difficult to make a pick-up."

"Acknowledged." Mark looked at the others. "Well, at least our ticket home is right here if we need it. Princess, come with me."

Princess and Mark streaked through the hallway, meeting their first contingent of Spectrans right around the first corner. The yo-yo and the boomerang flashed again and again, disabling any cameras the pair came across, disabling many individuals, and helping them make good time through the corridors. Princess followed Mark, hoping he had a hunch where the storage or production facilities lay. Spectran mecha always had similar layouts, and the Chief had taught them the normal patterns before their first encounter, but Princess had found it difficult to transform the layouts on paper into rooms and hallways and staircases. Jason and Mark had shown how well they could turn objects around and over in their heads, and while she herself didn't need to turn a map in order to figure out which direction she was headed, she couldn't manipulate objects in three dimensions like they could. Given time, she could find the control room as well as Mark could, but right now they weren't given time, so she followed.

On the other hand, Princess could spot the hidden cameras with much more accuracy than Mark, and her yo-yo flashed again and again as she broke the cameras along their route.

Mark pulled her into a small, hot room while they caught their breath. "If we get lost," Princess said, "follow the trail of broken cameras."

"There'll be more of a trail to follow than that." Mark had a hard time whispering while gasping for air. "Have you seen anything you wanted to return to check over?" "Not especially."

"We're too far away. They wouldn't store a volatile chemical that far from the hatch." He looked behind them at the ductwork. "We're in the mechanical parts of the mech--the ventilation system, the heater, all that. They wouldn't keep it here."

"You're right." Princess closed her eyes and willed her rapid breathing to slow. "We ought to double back. Maybe we can interrogate someone."

"There's so little time." Mark sought out Princess' eyes in the semi-darkness. "We'll head back again to the airlock and regroup with Don. Maybe something's happened there. From that position, at least, we'll be able to launch little sorties until we find what we need."

Princess nodded. Together they flashed again into the hallway.

The way back had been fortified with still more soldiers. Alarms blared continuously, and Zoltar's voice thundered instructions over the public address system. Princess hardly noticed the noise. From person to person, she fought her way through a seemingly limitless supply of Spectrans. The low corridors offered little room for flight, but at least she could fully extend the wings of her cape; Mark couldn't. They protected each other as they retraced their steps, Princess taking care to guard their back and flanks as much as possible.

Every now and again Mark would kick open a doorway similar to all the rest of the doors in this hall, but none yielded the prize they sought. She could read Mark's frustration in the fury he unleashed on the Spectrans. His savagery frightened even her--she wondered if he'd lost control and would suddenly turn against her in the fight to subdue every living creature in this mech. She had no time for the luxury of fear, though. Every time Mark opened a door, they lost a moment they could have been running, and it gave their pursuers a chance to gain ground on them.

If Princess had let herself have the time, she'd have wished madly for Jason and Tiny's presence behind her. Jason could have held back the onslaught. Tiny could have helped Mark bust through as many doors as he wanted. But alone, she and Mark did their best to seek out a lab, a storage facility, a clue as to where they needed to go to stop Zoltar from dropping more bombs on more cities and killing more and more people.

After they rounded one last corner, Mark grabbed Princess by the arm and jerked her forward toward a door: the airlock for the hatch where Don awaited them. As Princess moved to follow, black pain sparkled in her eyes, and her throat constricted. Mark flung his boomerang behind them and slashed the throat of the Spectran who'd followed too closely, but already Princess was on her knees, grasping her side. Mark had her over his shoulder easily, and then they were back inside the hatch entrance.

"She's hurt," Mark said before Don had a chance to ask any questions.

Princess struggled to her feet, and Mark let her stand. "It's not too bad." She tried to hide the tension in her voice. "I don't think it was more than a glancing blow."

Don, who'd had more training in emergency first aid, probed the site of the injury for a moment. "I think she's okay," he said. "But I wouldn't bank on it."

Mark swallowed. "Can you make it back into Keyop's buggy?"

Princess' eyes flashed.

"Please," he said. "I need you alive. You can't go back out there if you're hurt -it was hard enough surviving out there five minutes ago."

Finally she nodded. "I can get back to the buggy, at least."

"Good--and make sure Keyop stays inside. Don's going to have to come with me now."

"I know." She kept her eyes down. "Be careful. This is so far from over."

Princess slipped back down the hatch and used the tether line to climb back into Keyop's buggy. As soon as she had made the transfer safely, Don took a deep breath to steady himself and met Mark's eyes. "It's just the two of us, then."

Don kept the black wings of his cape closed over the white body of his birdstyle. His black gloves and boots blended with the darkness of the hatch entryway, the only glimmering the white detailing of his black helmet. Mark walked slowly to the doorway and said, "I think they're fortifying out there."

"Maybe we need a different tactic." Don shut the hatch doors and jumped to the ceiling. "I was wondering if we had another exit from this room."

Mark jumped up with him and found the network of pipes Don clung to. "I think there may be an entrance up here--when I was alone in the room, I thought I found a place where the light seeped in."

"An elevator?" Mark said. "You may be right--Princess and I certainly didn't find any storage facilities on this level, and I wouldn't want to trust a chemical like that to people climbing stairs."

"The ceiling is just so much higher here than in the hallway, it made sense. Especially when I found this." Don crept along the pipes and showed Mark where the pipes and ductwork abruptly turned aside to leave a small clearing before the wall where a razor's edge of light slipped in from another room--a horizontal line perhaps ten feet long. "There's a raised bit of floor directly beneath this."

"So where are the control mechanisms?"

"I haven't found any so far."

"Well," and Mark pulled out his boomerang, "I guess the door's as good a place as any to start." He jumped toward the wall and managed to cling to a small lip of a ledge just beneath the line of light.

The doors hadn't been locked against vandals, but the normal safety mechanisms proved difficult to circumvent. Mark had no real leverage standing on that shelf. "This isn't any good," Mark said. "They know we're in here. By the time we finesse this door open, we'll have them flooding in beneath and the whole hallway fortified up here. Stand clear." Don covered his face with his cape as Mark set an explosive and blasted the door.

Before the smoke had cleared, Don and Mark had leaped into the exposed area and run past the initial confusion. True to Mark's word, Spectran soldiers had taken positions in this room, but the surprise of the sudden explosion and the resulting shrapnel and smoke had left them less than ready for the attack. Mark's boomerang sailed before him; Don's sword flashed in the misty light. Don struck at one flank, Mark at the other, and they worked until no one remained to fire on them. The last remaining Spectrans, wearing lab coats and not soldier uniforms, fled the room dropping clip boards and folders full of paper.

"After them!"

"Mark, wait!" Don ran to two open crates in the corner of the room. "Two canisters here--we're close." Mark spared him a glance, then rushed for the discarded paperwork. "I think there's a lot more--if I'm reading this right, there are about twenty five more canisters somewhere nearby."

"What do you want to do with these?" Don already had his sword sheathed and worked on disabling the altimeters.

Mark hesitated. Don looked at him and realized, if they carried these back to the buggy, they'd have a hard time getting to the rest of the supply. If they left these, anyone could bring them to the hatchway and toss them out. There couldn't be a good answer, but they needed to reach a decision quickly. They could already hear approaching footsteps.

Don glanced toward the elevator door, then said, "Let me try something. Have you got your gas mask?"

Mark's eyes popped, but he snapped his over his mouth while Don carried one of the canisters to the elevator doors. The chief officer of the soldiers below had already begun raising his troops to the second level (Don saw where the controls had been hidden,) and now he shouted at his men to open fire on the black-suited figure in the doorway. Don dropped to his knees, laid the canister on its side near the edge, set an explosive on the canister, and dove for cover while grappling to get that gas mask over his own mouth.

The canister detonated, fogging everyone with the gas. Mark and Don looked at each other, and trying to block out both sound and sight as best as possible, they ran for the second canister. This time Don sliced it open with his sword, and Mark chucked it down the elevator shaft at the rest of the Spectran soldiers.

Don knew it had been a good idea, so it didn't sting when Mark said nothing about it. The room below had quieted, every form still after the first thirty seconds. Don bit his lower lip, almost subconsciously counting the bodies lying in the two rooms.

"Now we find the storage room," Mark said. "It's got to be the one right across the hallway--"

Spectrans with gas masks burst into the room, and Don and Mark defended themselves without a second thought--a dozen men, replaced by a half dozen more, replaced by still others. Both young men found themselves gasping for breath by the time they'd gotten a quiet moment, and by then Don looked down the elevator shaft to see Spectrans forcing open the hatch to the outside. The hatch that led to Princess and Keyop.

"Mark!"

"I see them--go stop them. I'm heading for the storage room."

Don jumped down the shaft, black and white wings spread like Azrael's, and he raised his sword over his head and cried out just before landing in the fray. The Spectrans hadn't expected his return--the surprise gave him a momentary advantage, but it lasted only that long. Zoltar must have figured out that this had been the team's base of operations, and he had dispatched the bulk of his men here.

I can't keep doing this! Don realized. He was only one--one person couldn't fight the entire Spectran army! His heart hurt, his lungs hurt, his shoulder hurt where he hadn't realized he'd been injured at some point in the attack. How long had he fought: ten minutes? Twenty? An hour? His hands slipped on the handle of his sword, and that scared him enough to keep him moving, keep him fighting until every one of his opponents lay dead, injured, unconscious, or too frightened to fight any longer. A few of the soldiers had fled. But not enough. Don could hardly walk for all the dead bodies crammed into the entrance.

Again, almost subconsciously, he started to count.

No! Shaking his head, Don radioed Mark. "Have you found it?"

After a moment, there was a whispered, "Affirmative. About thirty or forty. We're going to need to detonate. Can you get up here?"

About to comply, Don saw shadows in the hallway just beyond the entrance.

"There are more coming. I'm needed here."

Don's hands shook. His throat tightened as he swallowed. He couldn't even try to breathe deeply to relax the tension in his arms, his neck, his chest, his stomach. More. There were more out there. There were more upstairs.

One of the Spectran soldiers had a machine gun he didn't need any longer, and Don worked at setting it up to cover the door and the elevator shaft. He had very little shelter in this room, and the idea of stacking the dead bodies into a makeshift fort positively nauseated him. Blood stuck to the soles of his shoes as he dashed from place to place gathering the weapons and ammo the Spectrans had left behind. This small arsenal he gathered about himself at his position near the hatchway.

The Spectrans burst into the room from both entrances just as Don had set out for another round of searching the bodies. He made it back to his station in time to start spraying the room with bullets, but he found it difficult to stem a tide already in full flow. In the back, he could see Spectrans with crow bars. They assumed he'd sealed the hatch to protect the others. They were going down the hatch after they killed him. They wanted to capture Keyop and Princess.

The closer they got, the more frenzied and less accurate Don grew with his weapons, until he knew he had no choice any longer. "Mark," he called into his radio, "I've got to get out of here!"

"Go," Mark said. "Go! Now!"

Don tossed whatever explosives he had in his pouch into the pile of ammunition, and then he made a dash for the hatchway. He'd only just slipped outside into the rush of air when a blast of flame shot out the hatch. Losing his hold on the tether, he tumbled forward in a frightened freefall until suddenly he landed in a net: Keyop's buggy. Clutching desperately at the nylon mesh, Don huddled against it and felt the world still tumbling, the drag of air changing as the buggy dropped like a stone. He kept his eyes closed, his shoulders hunched. The cape whipped out behind him, dragging at his neck. Then, abruptly, the wind died. Keyop had retracted the net.

"My God..."

"We're falling," Princess said tersely. "That explosion knocked us loose."

"I can do it." Keyop worked madly at the controls. "I can do it--I'm sure--we're just too high right now--"

The mech was streaking away at a blinding speed, and Don shook his head. "Mark's still in there--"

"I know, but you didn't have a choice."

Don lifted his radio and said, "Commander, I'm out, but the buggy isn't attached any longer."

"Don't worry about me," Mark said. "I've got a plan."

"Okay." Don sighed. "Okay. Soon it'll be over."

I've got a plan? Mark huddled in the darkness and lowered his wrist communicator slowly as if not to attract attention. Who the heck am I trying to fool?

Zoltar must have seen the buggy fall away from the snake mech, and although he'd announced that G-Force had retreated, he had also just gotten onto the PA system to order a complete sweep of all areas of the mech. And full reports. Zoltar wanted a body count, probably. He wanted to know what of their resources had been damaged, stolen, or detonated.

Mark had heard that explosion and hoped Don hadn't gotten caught in it. The mech had rocked wildly in the aftermath, and as a pilot he sensed that their aerodynamics had been compromised: Don had blown a hole in the hull. If he hadn't planned carefully, he might have blown a hole in Keyop's buggy as well, but he assured himself that as a scientist and as a martial artist, Don wouldn't have acted otherwise. Still, Mark hadn't dared breathe until Don had finally radioed again.

The storage facility was a tiny room, perhaps twelve by twelve, with each of the canisters settled in a crate packed with foam. These were the same types of crates they'd found in the hatchway and in the upstairs room. Mark felt certain he'd found the only storage unit for this kind of weapon, since they didn't completely fill the room.

A brief dash down the hall earlier had shown him the laboratories: the chemical got manufactured here, en route to the cities Zoltar meant to attack. Mark had set a bomb in each station, but with a sense of futility. Don had been right about the size and ordinariness of the lab. This chemical anyone could manufacture. Destroying the production facilities could be only a gesture of defiance or a waste of ammo.

The snake mech had stabilized its flight patterns by now, and Mark tried to calm his swirling thoughts enough to consider his options. He couldn't leave right now because he had no escape craft, and although they'd practiced flying down long distances, that hadn't really been very long in comparison to his current altitude. Jason's mile and a quarter jump had more than quadrupled their previous record. Most likely Zoltar had installed escape craft and shuttles of some sort in the ship, but could Mark figure out their controls in time to fly one to safety? Assuming he could even liberate one? Once Zoltar figured out not all of G-Force had evacuated, he'd probably slap guards and guards and guards on every possible means of escape.

Mark knew what he, personally, would do in Zoltar's situation: take the mech out into space. Keep the dangerous intruder isolated so he wouldn't get away, and if he would destroy the mech the intruder would have to destroy his own safety. Spectrans were notoriously unwilling to die, though, and Mark wondered if maybe they thought human beings too willing to toss their lives aside to take a chance with their own.

Princess? He wrung his hands together in the dark corner of the storage room. Jason? Chief? Tiny? Keyop? One little Indian left. And then there were none.

Mark's communicator chirped. Tiny. "Commander--they've resumed course toward Washington."

"Have you picked up the buggy?"

"Got it--but we've lost a lot of ground. They'll arrive in twenty minutes."

A crushing tension gripped Mark's stomach. "Acknowledged. Over."

First Mark sealed the door from the inside. It took a few moments from his precious supply of time, but he needed to be able to pay undivided attention to the canisters. After slipping on his mask and checking his oxygen supply, Mark grabbed his boomerang and began cutting open the tops of the canisters. Someone pulled on the door handle, but it held. Yellow gas continued flooding the room, and the more he moved among the crates the yellower it got. He couldn't see any longer as he groped his way from one canister to the next. Thankfully, the mask sealed tight against his mouth and nose. He'd released enough of the gas into the room by now that he didn't have a prayer if he got even a whiff of the fouled air.

He left the last canister unopened. A quick listen at the door revealed no one on the other side, but he took no chances. Mark bombed the door open and leaped into the hallway prepared to fight only to discover he'd only have to fight dead men.

The gas had seeped under the door. Coming to retrieve the canisters to drop on the American capitol, they had unintentionally gassed themselves.

Mark refused to think further than that and stepped back inside to grab the last remaining canister. The gas rolled along the floor now, oozing out of the storage room, but dissipating as it moved. He couldn't count on it to reach every part of the ship. Not at once. He retraced his steps down the elevator shaft, out the incinerated hatch entryway where the wind whipped until it one by one pulled the dead Spectrans free of the craft and out into the air. He inched close to the wall until he returned to the hallway where he and Princess had gone searching the first time.

The heavy canister weighed on his arms and shoulders, but Mark did his best to dash through the corridors. He'd managed to evade Spectrans so far, but the further he got into the workings of the mech, the more he encountered. He kept running--they couldn't stop him. The birdstyle kept him moving until his legs blurred and the canister in his arms seemed light as a baby. He remembered where he was even now. Shortly he'd reach what he wanted.

And now, in the small hot room where he and Princess had taken refuge before turning back, Mark groped in the blackness until he found his goal: the forced-air compressor that most likely fed the entire ship. And like most forced-air compressors, this one had a humidifier installed to keep the air from drying out completely.

Mark hesitated.

But Washington DC would arrive shortly, and even if the Spectrans couldn't gas the city, the mech still had lasers. It still had conventional weaponry. It still could do terrible damage. Four million people in Washington DC, or a few hundred Spectrans operating this flying fortress: whose lives counted more? But Zoltar remained aboard. Zoltar, the mastermind of these schemes, the man intent on grabbing the Earth as his replacement planet. For no other reason, Mark told himself, he had to do this.

He concentrated on stopping his hands from trembling as he pried off the screen of the humidifier. He let out the tanks and stood ankle-deep in water while he set the canister in the tanks' place. He set a small bomb, designed only to puncture the metal, on the side of the canister, then sealed up the humidifier again. And after a deep breath, Mark replaced his mask and dashed back into the corridor.

Angry and frightened Spectran shouts followed him, and maybe one of the officers who'd seen him carrying the canister realized in time what he had done. Mark had planned on their realizing, even though he didn't want them to. But now, once the shouts went up and the first officers went into the boiler room to see if they could stop the chain of events, the common soldiers fled with shrieks and screams, the officers radioed the helm where Zoltar was, and Mark had the corridors almost to himself as he ran at their heels.

Running where? he asked himself.

The bomb went off in the boiler room.

Instantly the forced-air system sprayed the virulent gas throughout the snake mech from end to end. Mark saw the sudden fogginess of the air coming out of the vents.

There were small craft ejecting all over the mech: a computerized message played over the PA system every time one of them launched. But Mark didn't know where to find one, or if he'd be able to commandeer one for himself. His lungs heaved. His ribs stabbed with strain every time he breathed. And still Spectrans shoved past him as they ran, and they cried out in fury and in despair, but now they were dropping, dying as the citizens of Winterhaven had died. Dying as they would have had every resident of New York City and Washington, DC die. Mark closed his eyes as one woman fell at his feet. With his gas mask on, he alone could survive in this fog. He noticed now how he carried a yellowish soot on his uniform, stained from his time in the storage facility.

And only now did he notice he had a dwindling supply of air.

"Mark?" Princes was calling over the radio. "Are you all right? They're ejecting!"

Mark shouted through the mask, "Where is this thing going to land?"

After a moment, Tiny replied, "At its current trajectory, it should reach the Atlantic."

Mark ran for the hatchway Don had blown out. He didn't need to redirect the craft. He didn't need to suddenly become captain going down with the ship. He could go down on his own.

At the ragged edge of the room, Mark braved the wind and jumped.

Later, Mark would say that true faith was jumping out of an aircraft twenty miles above the Earth and knowing someone would come pick him up before he fell too far. The unreal height made him dizzy as he dropped, wings spread, fingers spread, arms and legs spread. He couldn't focus; perspective meant nothing to his brain, more accustomed to trees and houses and other people. And still he dropped, and the rushing air had almost made him silly and dizzy when he saw the Phoenix approaching. He pulled himself into a better position to land on the roof.

The bubble lowered him down to the cockpit, and there he found Tiny piloting, Princess bandaged, Don and Keyop looking relieved, and the Chief and Jason on the monitor. Detransmuting to keep the yellow dust from the others, Mark issued a brief report before collapsing into one of the chairs.

"The mech is landing two to three hundred miles into the Atlantic," Chief Anderson said. "We've already got a team on the way to secure it. We've also begun mass-producing the chemical agent to counteract the gas so that if any is still active when they get there, we'll be able to destroy it. The major urban centers have also been told how to produce it, just in case there will be other attacks. Well done, team," the Chief said, looking over all five on the monitor and then looking at Jason beside him. "I'm proud of all you've accomplished today."

"Then that's it," Mark said. "Finally, it's over."

Chapter End Notes:
This story was inspired by a dream. I "saw" in the dream the scene where Jason caught the canister on the way down, landed in the street, and then jumped up on a wall. It stayed with me all morning, so naturally I had to figure out where the canister came from and what happened afterward.
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