The view was of Earth's day side, and this time Zoltar had leisure to watch the clouds, the oceans, the land. Here, a storm building up over a continent; there, those people would be enjoying a sunny day. One day, people of Earth...one day, and that day is coming...
He remembered the gardens surrounding the Palace on Spectra, their colour and beauty. Bloody Dagger, with its narrow, red-tipped leaves. Starflower, that bloomed by night. The flowers he'd given to Earth were not so attractive, perhaps, but if beauty was in the eye of the beholder...
Then they are beautiful indeed.
The sky was one of the few peaceful places he had available to him, and Mark took to it whenever he could. He could still be contacted, but everyone knew not to do so unless it was truly urgent.
In the days since Princess' disappearance, he'd found himself needing the blue more and more. He was grateful for the clear weather that made flying easy, since he was having a hell of a time keeping his mind on piloting.
He and the team had surveyed the scene of her abduction the morning after, looking for any clues. Tiny had been stunned, Jason furious. Keyop was the worst affected - no surprise there. He'd called in pre-dawn, saying he'd followed Princess out into the rain, staying far enough behind her, leaving her to ride a few streets by herself so she didn't get suspicious of headlights behind her all the time. Then he'd turned into the park and seen her caught by the monstrous plants, before his buggy had been rolled by one of them coming up under him. He'd been stunned, not waking until the rain had begun to ease.
"You're saying that some flower just swallowed Princess up?" Tiny had asked.
Keyop had nodded. "Yeah. Saw it."
"Wouldn't have happened if we'd been along," Jason, angry.
Mark had tried to stay mild. It had been hard work then, and it was only getting harder. "Princess wanted to go it alone, Jason. For some reason, that protective synthetic skin seems to work best on women."
Keyop had explained why he hadn't called for help. "Came up under me. No time."
Jason: "Keyop did all he could."
"We've got to find her." Mark himself had said that, and immediately given himself a mental kick for making the most obvious statement of the day.
"Where?" Keyop's question had been practical.
Tiny: "Just say the word, Commander."
He'd plucked one of the miniature, buds, the safe version of the flower, harmless without the rain. "We wait. We make Zoltar tip his hand."
Then the abortive fight with the goons; Keyop had been driving his buggy, Tiny and Jason with him. Mark had ridden Princess' motorbike. The fight had been short and ugly, and had helped relieve his feelings for a while.
Since then, he'd been in a peculiar balance. On one hand, worry and - admit it to yourself, even if you can't tell anyone else - fear; on the other, the knowledge that Princess was strong, smart. Hell, she was armed. She had her yoyo and her bracelet... So why hasn't she signalled?
When his communicator finally beeped, it wasn't the summons from Chief Anderson that he'd hoped for, the call saying they'd found some way to track Princess, or even some weakness in the flowers. Instead it was Zark.
"Emergency. The Chief wants you to meet him at Cypress Cove."
Mark acknowledged and banked the plane. It was only a short flight, but he hadn't gone in that direction before; it was too near the area where Princess had been taken.
He looked down when he neared the cove, trying to spot Chief Anderson and a good landing site. But first he saw...
"The whole hillside's covered with flowers," he said in amazement. He knew they'd spread, but this was incredible; the land was red with them. He overflew the field until he saw not just Chief Anderson, but the Phoenix and the rest of G Force waiting for him at the edge of the flowers' spread.
He brought the plane around for landing - not the best place, but it was a good plane and it handled the bad terrain well - and walked, with some misgivings, to join them. Jason looked murderous, Tiny stunned and Keyop wide-eyed. Chief Anderson had no expression on his face and, in this situation, that was possibly the worst of all. "Chief?"
"I need your help, Commander, on a very delicate decision."
Mark waited to hear more. He had the feeling Anderson had already made the decision. It wasn't the first time the Chief had taken this path, to present a difficult plan as an option and then shepherd them into doing it by making them feel it was their choice.
"Tough spot, Commander," Tiny ventured.
Mark's mind immediately supplied scenarios; Anderson had located Princess but it was too dangerous for them to get to her, there was something that would stop the flowers but they'd have to give up something significant to get it...
Keyop leaned in close to Tiny. "Have to firebomb," and he made a descriptive noise; sometimes language deserted him. "Flowerbeds."
"Forget it Chief. We're not bombing those flowers until we get Princess out of there," Mark snapped.
"Hear me out first. We must destroy those flowers, or Earth is doomed."
"No way. I want no part of it, not until we find Princess." Jason had stepped forward, one hand curled into a fist.
"By then it will be too late. I know how you all feel, but our duty comes first. We must destroy these flowerbeds." Chief Anderson was emphatic.
"No! Princess may still be trapped in one of those flowers!" Jason's voice was hot.
"Looks like we don't have much choice, Jason." Mark spoke reluctantly, but Anderson had invoked the one word that had a chance at making him do this; duty. He looked at Anderson. The man's stone face gave no clue as to how he was feeling, how coming to this decision affected him. Mark turned away, looking over the water to the hillside where the flowers bloomed...where Princess might be trapped.
When Chief Anderson spoke again, his words came quick and harsh. "It must be done quickly before the next rain scatters more spores. You will fly your plane over those flowerbeds, Commander. Empty your fuel tanks over them. The Phoenix will be waiting. When you finish the flowerbeds will be ignited."
Movement; Tiny sitting down. "Find someone else to fly the Phoenix."
"That goes for me too," Jason said. "There has to be some other way. There just has to be!"
The silence of waiting. Chief Anderson wouldn't try and persuade him, Mark knew; he'd shot his best arrow with that one word. Neither would he make it a direct order; they were balanced on the edge of open defiance as they'd rarely ever been, and he wouldn't give them the chance to refuse orders. The red flowers across the water offered no counsel. Decision point, and four people waited for him to make up his mind.
"We have no choice," Mark said, putting all the authority he could into his voice. "The flowers must be destroyed." When he turned, he saw his teammates, open-mouthed; they'd hoped - expected - he'd stand with them. "We swore an oath to defend Earth against all invaders," he said, forestalling them. "That is what we've trained for; that is what we must do."
Then he walked to his plane, head bowed; behind him, rebellion died a-borning. He caught a glimpse of their faces as he climbed into the cockpit; disbelieving, angry.
The plane bumped along the makeshift runway, and he was grateful for the difficult task of keeping it on course, but when he was airborne, he no longer had that distraction. "Princess," he said, blinking his eyes against the tears that wanted to come. So many times since beginning training, he'd considered this situation; that one day he'd have to give an order, take an action that would result in the death of one of them. None of those thoughts had ever been close to this.
He brought the plane around to begin his run over the plants, and his hand shook before he could steel himself to trigger the fuel release.
Fine spray drifted from the trailing edge of the plane's wings, falling onto the alien plants below.
I had to do it, Princess. I know you understand. We swore an oath. We're G Force.
He'd talked to her about it, Jason and Tiny too, the chance that one day it would come to this. The answer had been phrased differently from each of them, but the essence had been the same. Do it. We're soldiers. One life against millions.
The engine coughed, stopped; the single prop stuttered to a halt. "Fuel tanks empty," he said. "I'm going down. Impact will ignite." The decision he'd come to; if he did something that killed her...
"Come in Mark. We're waiting." Jason, speaking over the wrist com. Mark banked, saw the Phoenix in the air.
The plane didn't handle well as a glider, but Tiny was an exceptional pilot and gave him every chance of docking with the big blue bird. He managed it, the plane coming to rest.
He didn't get out of his seat. He'd wear the guilt forever; it had been his decision that had dragged them up here. He'd made up his mind to do it and, even if Princess were by some miracle found alive, he'd still have to live with the knowledge that he'd been willing to sacrifice her to win the battle.
Mark waited until he felt the Phoenix give the slight judder that meant someone - Jason? - had fired one of the Super Sniper missiles to ignite the fuel-drenched flowers. He tried not to picture the burning.
There was only one message once the missile was fired, a call from Tiny to let him know they were about to land. He didn't respond.
When the Phoenix was back on the ground, they watched the flowers burn.
Mark stood with the others, feeling the heat on his face. He wanted to scream, to tear something apart. All he could do was say her name.
He watched the inferno, and saw something else; not all of the flowers burned. Some exploded, releasing more spores; these were carried up by fierce drafts, then away from the fire, into the clear blue sky.
Beside him, Keyop dropped to his knees.
They'd done it for nothing. The spores would become more flowers - thousands, millions - with the next rains.
They'd accomplished nothing.
Mark watched Keyop through the door of the J; he sat at the main bar, looking down. He'd been almost silent since the bombing run.
"Princess," Mark heard him say. "Don't care...brr-rrip...what happens any more. Doot-toot...miss you, Princess." He buried his face in his folded arm and Mark heard him sobbing.
Princess would usually be the one cheering him up...
Mark closed the door, and saw Tiny and Jason leaning against the wall.
"How's Keyop taking it, Mark?" Tiny asked cautiously.
That was one thing; the way they treated him, as though he was suddenly in danger of breaking. Or snapping.
Jason spoke before Mark could. "How do you think the kid's feeling? Terrible."
Tiny withdrew a step. "Heck, Jason, no need to lose your cool. I was just asking." Tiny didn't usually show much of a temper, but he was ready to round on Jason.
"Then quit asking stupid questions. Princess is gone. Leave Keyop alone." The gunner turned and sloped off, hands in pockets, head bowed. "Sorry, Tiny." But he didn't look back.
"Hey, team, I feel bad too--" Tiny began to protest.
"Forget it, Tiny," Mark said. He just didn't have the energy to mediate disputes. And Princess used to handle things like this...
"But I can't forget about Princess," Tiny said.
"I never thought I could get so angry at a bunch of flowers." A non sequitur, but the truth.
"What do we do now? What's going to happen to G Force?"
"I don't know. Until Zark or the Chief come up with something, there's nothing much we can do."
"We can't quit now, Commander. We've got to keep trying to find Princess."
"She's gone, Tiny. And I take full responsibility. It's all my fault."
And Princess would be the one telling me not to take it so hard, that I did everything I could...but it's all my fault.
The lab was silent; the air carried a faint, unpleasant tang, the scent of burnt cinnamon. It was generated by the huge flower in its tank of water behind Chief Anderson. The four tentacles waved slowly in the water.
"There you are," Chief Anderson said.
Four G Force members watched him from the doorway. Demoralisation showed in their slouched stances and closed faces, and he realised his words had been somewhat sharp. "I'm sorry. I know why you're here, and there's little I can tell you. We've identified the origin of the flowers. We suspect Spectra has a base here on Earth and is using them."
"Princess?" Keyop asked.
"Zark is doing everything he can to locate her." Change the subject; he didn't want to think about Princess. As much guilt as Mark was carrying for dropping the fuel and burning the flowers, Anderson was the one who'd fixed her into the skin and sent her off hunting them. "In the meantime, I've been studying this flower. We have to find some chemical ingredient that will permanently destroy it." He turned to look at the flower in its tank, tentacles shifting in the water.
"They seem to be able to thrive anywhere on Earth. They appear to be indestructible. They thrive on slopes of active volcanoes, they proliferate in our swamplands. They even grow in our hottest deserts. They are capable of hibernating inside those pods until the first rains hit them, then something is triggered inside them, causing them to grow overnight into voracious creatures."
"It seems harmless enough inside that tank," Mark said.
"I've noticed. In here it seems to lack direction, almost as though it needed someone to command it." Whatever else it is, Anderson thought, you have to admire it. It's the perfect weapon.
"You mean someone's deliberately siccin' those flowers on us?" Tiny said.
"They didn't drop out of the sky just by accident, Tiny," Jason said. He didn't look at Tiny, just kept his face forward.
"I believe Spectra is behind it. But I'm afraid all I've been able to come up with is pure speculation." That surprised them, he could tell. He was usually the one with the answers.
"Then there's nothing much we can do, Chief," Mark said. "We can't destroy the flowers, and we don't know what's happened to Princess."
Anderson winced; Mark had taken the subject right back to the most painful subject possible. "I wish I had better news for you. I’m sorry I haven't."
Mark was the first to go, then Keyop. Jason wasn't far behind, but Tiny lingered for a moment.
"Stand by in the Phoenix, Tiny. I may need you," Anderson said. He had no great hopes, but science could turn up miracles; maybe there was a way to destroy the flowers at least.
"Don't be too hard on Mark, Chief. He's in deep shock right now, over Princess."
"I know we'll hear from her, Tiny. I'm betting on it. That synthetic second skin she was wearing was designed to protect her from those fearful flowers. But she could have been trapped inside one of them and taken somewhere."
The flowers spread inland through the city and beyond, carried on the wind from the main concentration at Cypress Cove. Samples had been captured for study and the studies all proved fruitless. Working on the theory that, if you bomb something often enough and hard enough, it must be destroyed, defence forces sent in everything from tanks to flame-throwers.
The flowers spread, waited for rain, spread some more.