On the BotP List in late 2004, BobKat issued a challenge: write a story containing the following line of dialogue: "I'm the bluebird of happiness, damn it!" That leaves the writer with a lot of scope. In the year 2163, February 14th will fall on a Monday.
This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets are the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work.
Thanks to Bobbi "BobKat" Baker and Catherine Rees Lay for beta reading.
Battle of the Planets: 2163
Just Another Monday
"Friendship is love minus sex and plus reason.
Love is friendship plus sex and minus reason."
"Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra
and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath.
At night, the ice weasels come."
Matt Groening, 'Life in Hell'
Mark, G-Force Commander
Friday, 11 February 2163; 1547 hrs
"It's all very well for you," Eros grumbled. "You get to look languid and desirable. I'm... cute! They've made me cute... and safe... and sweet!"
"Positively cherubic," Aphrodite purred from her clam shell sofa, where she lounged indolently, secure in her position as the fabled summit of beauty and love.
"You always were one of the nastier deities," Eros sniped.
"Relationships are full of nastiness," Aphrodite pointed out. "I'm a long termer. I'm the Goddess of Love. You, on the other hand, are about that misty pink cloud of falling in love."
"As opposed to what I used to be," Eros growled. "Before they made me cute, I was all about sheer, unbridled lust. I used to be tall, strong and virile! I was a young man in his sexual prime! Now, look: it's Valentine's Day tomorrow and instead of being offered sacrifices and virgins, they plaster my image on candy box lids! I look like a Powerpuff Girl!"
"That's the collective consciousness for you," Aphrodite sighed.
"At least you still exist worth a damn," a pale, reedy voice said from the armchair in the corner. Eros had the grace to hang his head at the emaciated and semi-transparent form of Pan, the satyr. "Only psychology acknowledges me, these days. Satyrism's classified as a mental illness, for heaven's sake! I'm not even popular! Not like the nymphs. The nymphs got Art Nouveau. Even Cerunnos has more of a following than I do, what with the Neo-Pagan movement."
"Believers," Eros spat. "Fickle, accursed mortals! If only we didn't need them!"
"Things used to be different," Aphrodite said. "There was a time when they believed they needed us."
"Now they think they don't," Pan said, "so it's true. They have no idea how powerful their belief is, the wretches."
"Where's Bacchus when we need him?" Eros wondered. "I could use a drink."
"He went to a virtual toga party on the Galaxy Wide Web," Pan said.
"I hate the twenty second century," Eros decided.
"I hate the twenty second century," Princess complained. She sat sideways on a bench in the women's locker room, knees drawn up against her chest, waiting for her friend Fran, who had just come off shift from Chief Anderson's security detail.
"How so?" Fran asked from behind the door of the cubicle where she was changing after her shower.
"There's no romance in my life," Princess said. "Look at me! I have to wear a uniform all the time and it's about as alluring as... oh, I don't know, but it's not alluring. My combat gear's more feminine than this!" She gestured at her t-shirt and jeans.
The door of the cubicle opened and Lieutenant Fran Patrick walked out, feeling suddenly guilty about the red dress she was wearing. She had a towel slung over one shoulder and carried a backpack in one hand. "Valentine's Day blues already?" Fran inferred. "It's only the eleventh!" She tossed the towel in the linen discard and sat down next to Princess. Her long dark hair was still damp and she ran her fingers through it.
"I guess," Princess said. "Fran, sometimes I just get so tired of being one of the boys!"
"Oh, c'mon, girl friend, don't be down in the dumps," Fran said. "Look at what you've got going for you: you're smart, you're young, you're pretty, you've got great hair -- I'd kill for eyes like yours. You keep in shape, you're tall --"
"I have no life," Princess said.
"You save the galaxy on a regular basis!"
"I want a little romance!" Princess wailed. "Is that so much to ask?"
"Well..." Fran rested her chin in one hand. "Hey, I know! Why don't we have a little fun and do one of those love spells? There was something in a magazine about it..."
"A love spell?" Princess echoed.
"Oh, come on. What's the worst that could happen?"
"I suppose it can't do any harm," Princess sighed, "but I'm not going to hold my breath." She smiled and shook her head. "I guess it should be good for a laugh."
"Cool! All we need is a personal item belonging to your true love and a lock of his hair, and we can work the spell."
"That shouldn't be a problem," Princess said.
"More forms?" Mark sighed. He leaned on the table in the conference room.
"Commander," Chief Anderson said, "your team blew up an ISO robot training unit."
"It looked alien!" Mark argued.
"It was supposed to look alien," Anderson said levelly. "It was a mock up of an enemy ship."
"Well... it was convincing..."
"Just fill out the damage report," Anderson said, abandoning further argument.
"Okay." Mark fished around for something. "Uh, can I borrow a pen, Chief?"
"Here." Anderson proffered a stainless steel Cross. "Hand the paperwork in to Gunny when you're done," he said, and stood up. "I'll be in my office."
From the corridor, Princess watched as Anderson returned to his office, then she slipped into the conference room and sat down beside Mark. "Hi," she said.
"Hi," Mark said.
"Yup." The top of the pen twitched as Mark wrote neatly on the form. "I know you tried to warn me, Princess, so don't say, 'I told you so.'"
"I wasn't going to," Princess said. "I just came in to see how you were doing."
"Well, at least the Chief isn't taking the damage out of our salaries," Mark said. He turned slightly in his chair and ran his fingers through the back of his hair, as he was wont to do when nervous or discomfited. "I guess I'm kinda bummed out... embarrassed... I mean... Well... you know."
"Yeah, I know." Princess attempted a smile. "Still... It was a good shot."
Mark uttered an inarticulate groan and buried his face in his hands. "Do you have to keep reminding me?"
"It's not your fault, Princess." Mark leaned on the conference table. "I'd better finish this report. The Chief's expecting it."
"Did he yell at you?" Princess asked.
"Nah... I almost got the feeling he was trying not to laugh. It's just disturbing when he does that."
Princess sat and watched as Mark wrote out the report. He wrote neatly and deliberately, thinking carefully about what he was putting down on the form as he did so.
It took some time.
Not that Princess minded. She sat with one elbow on the conference table, chin in hand, watching Mark bent over his work. She noted how the wide blue eyes narrowed slightly in concentration, noted the slight twist of his mouth, committed to memory every detail of the way his chocolate coloured mane of hair hung around his face. Does he ever look at me the way I look at him? she wondered.
Mark scrawled his signature at the bottom of the incident report, put the pen down, and stretched in the chair. Princess took advantage of his momentary inattention to palm the pen and slip it into her pocket.
"All done?" she asked innocently.
"Yeah." Mark picked up the form and stood. "I'd better give this to Gunny. You need a ride home? I've got the car downstairs."
"That's okay," Princess demurred, with a twinge of regret. "Fran's giving me a ride back to her place. Girl stuff, y'know?"
"Okay. Well, have fun."
Fran had turned the lights down and lit incense. The sweet, smoky smell gave the air a mysterious and exotic feel. Princess clasped her hands and took a deep breath. "Wow..." she breathed. "I love what you've done with the place."
"Cool, isn't it? Okay..." Fran had cleared the coffee table and covered it with a silk sarong. She had placed candles at the four compass points and scattered rose petals in a circle. At the centre of the circle she had placed a bowl with a tea light candle in it. Both young women sat on cushions on the floor.
"Is that everything?" Princess asked.
"Not quite." Fran consulted her magazine, and Princess craned her neck to read.
"Ooooh, you can send in a coupon to get a free sample of that new Givenchy perfume," Princess breathed.
"We'll do that later," Fran said. "Here." She tapped at the relevant paragraph with one fingernail. "We need a personal item and a lock of hair from the object of your desire."
Princess pulled the pen from her pocket. "Here's the personal item," she said. Fran took it and put it next to the bowl with the candle in the centre of the table. Princess pulled a zip lock bag out of her other pocket. It contained a few strands of dark chocolate coloured hair. "I bribed Keyop to get Mark's hairbrush out of his locker."
"Cool." Fran took the bag and placed it next to the pen. "Now, we begin." Fran sprinkled incense over the tea light in the bowl. "Hear me, all you powers of love!"
"Did you feel that?" Eros asked, sitting suddenly upright.
"Yes..." Aphrodite moved more slowly, propping herself up on one elbow.
"Someone's invoking you," Pan said. He watched, the envy patent on his face, as his colleagues seemed to acquire an inner glow of power.
"Time to go to work!" Aphrodite said brightly.
"Now, visualise the object of your desire," Fran said. "By..." she consulted the magazine article. "By Aphrodite! By Eros! We call in true love! Okay, Princess, light the candles."
"This could be good," Eros said.
Princess giggled. "Fran, this is silly!" All the same, she did as she was told and lit the candles. They were pink, with little gold hearts on them.
"Don't lose focus!" Fran ordered. "Think of Mark! Think of him being drawn into your life and your heart. Think of him falling completely and utterly in love with you!"
Princess giggled again. "That's easy!"
"Interesting," said Aphrodite. "Complex."
"Quite a challenge," Eros observed.
Monday, 14 February 2163; 0754 hrs
Chief of Galaxy Security David Anderson halted in mid stride, just inside the automatic revolving doors that led into the marble, glass and brushed stainless steel lobby of ISO Headquarters. His security detail were obliged to dodge to avoid walking in to him, accustomed as they were to keeping up with Anderson's usual ground-swallowing pace.
The security officers' attention followed their protection assignment's regard around the lobby, whose normally minimalist expanses were decorated with red and pink lace edged hearts, balloons and gilt cherubs.
Anderson took a deep breath, exhaled, turned to the senior officer in his detail and spoke, keeping his voice carefully level: "Find out what's going on here."
"Sir." Lieutenant Colonel Jones crossed the lobby floor to the Site Security station and returned the salute of the duty sergeant, who bore the look of the perennially put upon. There was a brief and extremely civil exchange before Jones returned to Anderson's side. "Sir, it would appear that ISO Public Relations is attempting to present a more community friendly image to the general public... and this is it."
"Is that so?" Anderson said.
"Evidently. And, sir?"
Jones held up one hand. Between her thumb and forefinger a yet to be inflated red balloon dangled flaccidly. "The Interplanetary Security Organisation wishes you a very happy Valentine's Day, sir."
Anderson stared at the balloon for several seconds without breathing. "We'll see about that," he said finally, his tone suggestive of a premature end to this particular PR exercise. He stalked toward the elevators and his bodyguard trailed after him, with Jones trying very hard not to smile.
In the undecorated sanctum of his office, Anderson leaned back in the big executive chair, took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. He had arrived well before his administrative officer was due to start work, so Jones had brought him a cup of tea. David Anderson was a brave man, but not brave enough to drink a cup of Jones' coffee, which always seemed to undergo some kind of semi-fossilisation process during percolation. It wasn't the tea that had him pinching the bridge of his nose, however, but a series of e-mail messages, starting with the one from ISO Public Relations:
HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!
ISO PR would like to wish all personnel in the security forces
a very happy Valentine's Day. Just for today, take time out to
tell someone that you care.
As far as Anderson could tell, this missive had been sent to every mailbox on all the ISO agency networks. The next one was from General Weston, Air Marshall Lynch's 2IC, who had evidently made use of the "Reply to All" function:
Today's message from ISO PR, whilst exhibiting a commendable
sentiment, should not be seen as license to fraternise
inappropriately.Any caring or advice to that effect is to be
carried out strictly within the limitations of ISO Standing Order
109 Part (v), which applies to all services in that regard.
Then came the automated message from the mail server:
An error has occurred due to overloading of the e-mail network.
Some difficulties may be experienced when sending or receiving
mail. Please address any concerns to your Administrator.
"It could have been worse, sir," Jones said. She sat opposite him, teacup in hand.
Anderson fixed Jones with a baleful -- and slightly unfocussed -- stare. "I know the answer's probably going to give me a headache," he said, "but for some reason, I can't help myself: how could it possibly have been worse?"
"Zark could have sent you a card, sir."
"I need aspirin," Anderson sighed.
"Glass of water, sir?"
"Does it come with a sanity chaser?"
"I doubt it, sir." Jones shook her head. "It's just a few silly decorations," she reasoned. "Look, next to... oh, I don't know, a cup of my coffee, is it really all that bad?"
Anderson put his glasses back on and took a deep breath. "I don't see the point in paying lip service to some commercially generated concept of idealised romantic relationships. This is probably the most insincere holiday on the calendar. Romance!" Anderson let out the remainder of his breath in a little snort of contempt and took a sip of his orange pekoe.
"Bah," Jones said softly over the top of her teacup, "humbug, eh, sir?"
"Am I raining on your parade, Colonel?" Anderson asked.
"It's hardly my parade, sir."
Anderson shook his head, bemused. "I would never have pegged you as..."
"As what, sir?"
"As... a romantic." Anderson grimaced as though the word left a bad taste in his mouth.
Jones drew herself up, her cup and saucer positioned like a shield. "There's no need for name calling," she said. "I'm a pragmatist, but that doesn't keep me from appreciating other people's points of view."
Anderson finished his tea. "One of the benefits of a classical education, I take it?" he goaded.
"We can't all be left brained rocket scientist genii, sir," Jones parried.
"There you go again," Anderson said, heroically refraining from making any comment about it all being Greek to him.
Jones bit off a reply and composed herself. "Yes, sir," she said, her tone several degrees below freezing. She picked up Anderson's empty cup. "I'll get you that aspirin, sir."
Anderson watched his security coordinator leave, then realised that she'd left the uninflated balloon on his desk. He used one end of a pencil to pick it up and threw it in the wastepaper basket.
Princess had checked her mail box at home.
She waited for the regular surface mail delivery, which produced a phone bill, but no Valentines, then went to Headquarters and settled herself into the small office set aside for G-Force administration on the Executive level. She logged on to the computer system and asked Zark to check her mail boxes at Camp Parker and Center Neptune. She had made a nuisance of herself with the Information Technology Services Help Desk until they were able to clear the bandwidth overload and let her download her e-mail.
She fought the sinking feeling in her stomach and made herself breathe slowly and deeply.
The time readout on the computer terminal indicated that it was only half past eleven. There was plenty of time, she told herself.
"Technically," Aphrodite said, "it shouldn't work, but I feel sorry for her."
"Technically," Eros corrected, "I plan on having some fun with this one."
"What are you going to do?"
"For starters, I think I'm going to have to get some extra ammo." Eros reached into an interdimensional fractal potentiality and slung the object he retrieved over one shoulder.
"That's a grenade launcher," Aphrodite observed.
"I may need more than this before the night's over," Eros predicted.
"Oh, please," Aphrodite said. "Leave that and come with me. Let me show you how it's done."
"Do tell," Eros retorted, but he followed the goddess to a crystal pool and looked into it to see an image of Mark, dressed in a flight suit with his helmet tucked under one arm, striding along a corridor at a base of some kind.
"It's quite simple," Aphrodite said, smiling. "Love flies on angels' wings." She plucked a pure white feather out of the air, and blew on it. The feather dissolved into a myriad of silvery motes that drifted down through the waters of the pool and swirled around the young pilot.
"Is that it?" Eros asked.
"You watch," Aphrodite said smugly. "He'll be in love by the end of the day."
Mark let his gaze slide along the contours of the body in front of him. She was lean, with curves in all the right places.
"Gorgeous, isn't she?" said Captain Taylor, standing next to him.
"I think I'm in love," Mark said.
"You and every other pilot in this outfit, Commander," Nerissa Taylor quipped, pushing her golden brown fringe away from her face. "Just about everyone wanted to test fly this baby. I feel like I've won the lottery. Shall we?"
"After you," Mark said. Taylor stepped up onto the ladder and clambered into the back seat of the waiting aircraft. Mark followed and took the command seat. He settled his helmet on his head while Taylor did likewise. They went through their pre-start checks as the tender towed them out of the hangar and onto the hard stand. The external power was disengaged and the tender pulled away with a wave from the robot driver. "Seahorse Ground Control," Mark said, thumbing the press-to-talk on the comm, "this is X-ray-two-fife, requesting start clearance."
"X-ray-two-fife, Seahorse Ground Control. You're clear to start and taxi on taxiway charlie to runway zero six left."
"Roger, Ground, X-ray-two-fife."
The X-25 rocked forward on her wheels as the jets fired up with a roar and a shimmer of heat. Bristling with missiles designed to pierce the armour on Spectran attack ships and armed with a formidable nose-mounted laser array, the two-man fighter was made up mostly of weaponry and the power plant to keep it in the air. Built for limited space flight, she was intended for use as an interceptor. With her long, pointed prow, swept back wings and black stealth outer skin, she looked, to pilots, like sex on a stick.
As Mark brought the power up for the run-up checks, Taylor sighed into her helmet pickup. "I'm definitely in love," she decided.
"Let's see how she flies," Mark said, finishing the run-ups and releasing the brakes. The X-25 taxied slowly to the holding point.
Monday, 14 February 2163; 1330 hrs
"This is going to be one weird love triangle," Eros predicted.
"Don't be silly," Aphrodite said. "I couldn't make Chief Anderson fall in love with Princess. You can't make someone go against their nature, and he still sees her as a little girl. No, I have something else in mind for this one."
"Going soft in your old age?" Eros goaded.
"Consider the intent of the spell," Aphrodite said. "It's Valentine's Day. Time to share the love." The golden haired goddess smiled, and blew a kiss into the cauldron.
"Why the long face?" Gunnery Sergeant McAllister asked as Princess traipsed into his office in a last-ditch attempt at finding any stray mail items. "No Valentines?"
Princess took a breath and tried not to sigh.
"Uh oh," McAllister said. "I just put my foot in it, didn't I?" He discreetly pulled the Valentine's Day card from his wife off the top of the desk and laid it face down next to his keyboard. "Don't be sad," he said. "He'll probably surprise you this evening with a big bunch of flowers."
"You think so?" Princess asked listlessly.
"Hey. If he doesn't, you just kick him to the kerb. Any young man would have to have rocks in his head not to treat you like you deserve. A smart, pretty girl like you? You could have any guy you wanted."
"People keep telling me that," Princess said, unconvinced.
Anderson and Jones strode past, heading from the conference room toward Anderson's office.
"Is something wrong?" Anderson asked.
"No," Princess sighed.
Jones raised a doubting eyebrow.
"I'm fine --" Princess started to protest, then gave up. "Okay, I'm disappointed. The one day of the year when Mark could conceivably get away with making some kind of gesture -- even anonymously -- and what happens? Nothing!"
"The day isn't over yet," Jones said, struggling to inject a modicum of sympathy into her voice.
"The Colonel has a point," McAllister said. "There's still tonight."
"Yeah." Princess surrendered to impulse and sighed. "I guess you're right."
Anderson continued into his office and sat down in the big chair behind his desk.
"Now there," Jones said, nodding in Princess' direction, "is a romantic. You see the difference?"
"Yes," Anderson agreed. He frowned, an unfamiliar feeling struggling to fight its way up from somewhere in the vicinity of his chest to his brain. "Gunny's right about one thing," he said.
"What's that?" Jones asked.
"Mark has rocks in his head."
Jones merely raised an eyebrow. Anderson got up, paced a few steps, then turned and paced back until he was face to face with his security coordinator. "Not that I agree with any of this Valentine's Day nonsense," he said.
"Of course not, sir," Jones said staunchly, maintaining a stony expression.
"But that girl's miserable, and I'd bet just about anything that Mark's too obtuse to have a clue as to what's going on."
"You'd know better than I would, sir."
Anderson retraced his steps again, then headed back to his desk. He sank back into the upholstered depths of his chair and steepled his fingers. "Al?"
"I think I need to have a little talk with Mark."
Jones stared at Anderson for a moment, then a thought struck her, and she walked around to his side of the desk, leaned over and pressed a hand to his forehead. He gave her a puzzled look. "You're not running a fever," she decided.
"Very funny, Al." Anderson picked up a folder and began reading its contents as Jones left the office. He glanced up as she left. Jones wasn't without her charm, he reflected, it was just that it was the kind of charm usually possessed by sheer, forbidding cliff faces covered in treacherous, razor sharp primordial black ice. It was the irresistible appeal of the unconquered mountain, the one where no-one had ever returned alive from the attempt.
Anderson had never been one of nature's rock climbers. He was of the opinion that sheer, forbidding cliff faces had descriptions that included words like, 'forbidding' for a reason, and that sensible people paid attention to what was written in dictionaries next to words like, 'forbidding.'
"Sir?" Jones' voice impinged on Anderson's awareness.
"What?" Anderson looked up. Straight into a portable retina scanner. "What in the galaxy are you doing?"
The scanner showed a green light and announced, "Anderson, David Robert, Chief of Staff. Clearance Level: Executive special."
"Who am I, and what have I done with the Chief of Galaxy Security, that kind of thing?" Anderson inferred.
"Well... I wouldn't have put it quite like that..." Jones put the scanner down on one of the visitors' chairs and sat, uninvited, on the other. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"Why stop now, just when you're getting the hang of it?"
"Sir, with respect, you don't seem quite... yourself, this afternoon."
"Don't hold back, Al."
"I'm serious, sir. It's rather unnerving, to tell the truth."
"Oh, for crying out loud. What's so...?" Anderson put the file down on his desk. "Come to think of it," he said. "You're right." He leaned back in his chair and let the backrest cradle him. "This morning I was telling you what a stupid idea this whole Valentine's Day thing is, and now I'm... " He shook his head. "Next I'll be tripping down the corridors telling people I'm the Bluebird of Happiness, damn it."
"If you do, sir, could you give me time to obtain a camera?"
"I don't think so, Colonel."
"Very good, sir."
"Have you noticed anybody else... you know...?"
"Behaving strangely, sir? It is Valentine's Day."
"If I might be so bold, sir, perhaps it would be a good idea if you were to go home and have a bit of a rest."
"You think I'm sick?"
"I wouldn't say that, sir," Jones said with complete honesty.
Anderson read between the lines. "Al, I can't go home, I have meetings." Jones said nothing, but raised one eyebrow a fraction. Anderson glared back at her. "I'm aware of it, now, I'll keep a lid on it."
"Just as you say, sir. I'll get the coffee analysed by the toxicology lab."
"Right. Good thinking, Colonel." Anderson frowned as Jones left the office. When she was safely out of earshot, he made a call to the Medical Division.
"You were going to what?" Kate Halloran asked. Galaxy Security's Chief Medical Officer gaped at Galaxy Security's Chief of Staff.
"Don't make me repeat it," Anderson growled. He was sitting on the edge of the examination table in his shirt sleeves, his jacket, waistcoat and tie draped over the back of a chair.
"That's... really not like you," Kate said. "Unbutton your shirt, David, I can't get the stethoscope up your sleeve, y'know."
"Kate, I feel fine," Anderson insisted. "Physically fine, I mean. It's just this... aberration. Could it be some side effect of my heart medication?"
"There's a remote possibility," Kate said, "although most of the clinical trials documented patients feeling angry and frustrated, not suddenly trying to set other people up for a romantic liaison." She waited for Anderson to open his shirt then applied the stethoscope and listened. "Not bad for a guy who was clinically dead last November," she remarked. "I'd better take some blood to be on the safe side," she decided. "Roll up your sleeve." She crossed the room and opened a cupboard. "Mind you," she added, "the way Mark is with Princess, sometimes, I'm surprised she hasn't strangled him with her yo-yo wire before now."
"He's in an impossible position, Kate," Anderson pointed out. "You know as well as I do that regulations don't permit intimate relationships within a chain of command."
"They need to find a balance," Kate said. She returned with a handful of vacuum vials and a hypodermic.
"Just how much blood are you planning on taking?"
"I want to run a full range of tests." Kate put the vials down, strapped a tourniquet around Anderson's upper arm with practiced ease, and slid the hypodermic into a vein. "See? Didn't even hurt, did it?"
"What do you mean, a balance?"
"I mean, they need to work something out," Kate said. She released the Luer lock on the hypodermic and attached the first vial. Dark blood welled up into the chamber. "Mark and Princess need to be clear with each other that they... well... have a high regard for one another, and they need to be clear on the fact that neither one of them can even think about crossing the line."
"I hope you don't expect me to facilitate this... agreement," Anderson said. "I'm terrible at relationships."
"I know," Kate said, and changed vials. "Don't give me that look," she said. "I'm not going to lie and say, 'Oh, no, David, you just work too hard.' You are terrible at relationships."
"Don't mention it."
"Are you going to talk to Mark?" Anderson persisted
"Do you honestly think a twenty year old male is going to listen to a middle aged female doctor?" Kate argued.
"And you'll talk to Princess."
"Stop grinding the needle into my arm or you'll blow the vein."
"Oh, sorry." Kate swapped over the vials again. "That's probably going to leave a bruise," she said.
"I've been through worse," Anderson said. "Look, Kate, it's Valentine's Day, why don't you and Bob quit early, go home... " His face paled. "Did I just say that?"
"You did." Kate withdrew the needle and pressed a pad of cotton wool down on the injection site. "Hold on to that for me." She labelled the blood and set it aside. "Maybe you should lie down."
"I told you, I feel fine."
"All the same, I want to run some more tests. You're starting to scare me."
The X-25 taxied to a stop and the ground crew swarmed out of the hangar. The canopy slid back and both pilots doffed their helmets.
"That," Taylor declared, "was better than sex!"
"Don't let your boyfriend hear you say that," Mark cautioned. He shucked his harness and vaulted over the side of the cockpit, landing lightly on the top of the steps before the crew could get them up to the side.
"Take it easy, Commander," the crew chief warned as Mark bounded down the steps.
"Take good care of that plane," Mark admonished. "She's a real lady!"
"I don't believe this," Eros growled. "He's in love, all right -- with a plane! Oh, man..."
"A plane," Aphrodite echoed. "Oh, dear. I think we're going to have to up the ante for this one."
"Just as soon as we figure out how," Eros declared.
Friday, 14 February 2163; 1410 hrs
Back in his office, Anderson rummaged in the top drawer of his desk.
"Your tea, sir," Jones said, placing a cup of orange pekoe on the coaster next to the blotter.
"Right," Anderson said. He leaned back in his chair and massaged his left arm.
"Sir?" Jones' brow furrowed.
"I'm not having a heart attack," Anderson said. "Take it from me, Al, you don't ever want to get into an animated discussion with Kate Halloran while she's sticking a hypodermic in your arm." He picked up the mug of tea and took a sip. "Anything back from the lab on that coffee?"
"Nothing so far, sir." Jones handed over a data strip. "Here's your revised schedule. Gunny's reworked all your appointments and Deputy Chief Galbraith is standing in for you at the ISO."
"Galbraith's all right, isn't he?" Anderson asked.
"He's fine, sir."
Anderson shook his head. "So I'm the only person experiencing these... episodes?"
"It would appear so, sir."
Princess sat disconsolately on the sofa outside Anderson's office, her head in her hands. "I really thought things might be different this year," she said.
"Hey," Fran said from her post at the door, "it's just one day. And there's still tonight. I wish you'd try to cheer up."
Anderson's office door opened at the Security Chief strode out. "Gunny," he addressed McAllister, "I'm heading back to the house. You --" he caught himself and refrained from bidding Miles and Angela a nice evening together. "Refer my calls to Deputy Chief Galbraith."
"Yes, sir," McAllister said.
"And has anyone seen my ballpoint anywhere?"
"No, sir," McAllister said.
"You've been using your fountain pen all day, sir," Jones said.
Anderson cast his mind back. "Of course. I lent my ballpoint to Mark, yesterday. I wonder what he did with it?"
Princess and Fran exchanged horrified glances.
"Uh... sir?" Fran ventured. "Would that have been a kind of silvery thingy?"
"Like this?" Princess added, drawing a pen from her pocket. "Mark was using it yesterday afternoon to fill out a report."
"How did you get a hold of it?" Anderson asked.
"Um... I must have picked it up... Here." Princess handed it over.
"Lieutenant Patrick," Jones said, "are you all right? You've gone as white as a sheet."
"I'm fine, ma'am," Fran said, remembering to breathe.
Mark tapped away at the keyboard in a state of post-aviation bliss. In his imagination, the X-25 roared through the sky, her guidance systems responding to every movement he made, slicing through the air like vengeance on wings. He sighed.
"Almost done?" Colonel Gavin, head of the X-25 project team, stood in the doorway.
Mark stopped typing, looked up and grinned. "Almost," he said.
"So, what did you think of her?" Gavin asked.
"I want one," Mark said.
In the front seat of Anderson's limousine, Fran Patrick was having a frantic telephone conversation with Princess. The privacy shield between the front and the rear compartments was locked in place, which was fortunate for all concerned.
"Fran, it was a love spell out of a magazine," Princess said. "Everyone knows they don't really work. So it wasn't Mark's pen. So what?"
"So explain to me why he went to see Dr Halloran earlier today. You know how he hates medical exams. Al said he was saying something crazy about setting you and Mark up for the evening! Princess, we used the wrong pen! The spell must have gone in two directions at once. He's caught up in it somehow!"
"Oh, come on, Fran. According to what you've told me, he's being nice to people. What's wrong with that? He could use some niceness!"
"But he thinks he's going crazy! Al's half out of her mind with worry and Dr Halloran's trying to figure out if she needs to change his meds."
"Ockham's Razor, Fran: the simplest explanation is the one most likely to be correct. Maybe Dr Halloran really does need to change his meds. I don't believe in love spells. It was just a silly game!"
"Oh, yeah? Then give me a scientific reason why he tried to hold the car door open for Al. He's never done that before."
"A... a momentary aberration."
"Is that what you really think?" Fran challenged.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. "What do we have to do to reverse this?"
"I don't know. My shift finishes in a couple hours. We're going to have to find a way to cancel the spell."
"But don't you have a date tonight?"
"We'll just have to work fast."
"Okay. Ridiculous as this is, I'll see what I can find out about cancelling love spells. Meet me at my place after you finish work."
"Okay. I'll see you around five."
Corporal Mendelawitz, Anderson's driver, glanced at Fran as she ended her call. "It's probably safer if I don't ask, right, Lieutenant?"
"Got it in one, Pete."
Princess sat at the counter of the Snack J and drummed her fingers against the benchtop.
"Penny for your thoughts," Jill, the restaurant manager said.
"Jill, do you believe in love spells?" Princess asked.
"Love spells?" Jill opened the dishwasher and started removing clean glassware. "Well, now, I've been some places and I've seen some things, but I've never seen anything that could make a leopard change his spots."
"What I mean is, do you think there's anything to it? Can magic influence people? Is there any such thing as magic? It's just words and hand waving and candles, isn't it?"
"Maybe," Jill said. "I wouldn't say it was impossible. Improbable, maybe, but in a big universe, you just never know your luck."
"I don't believe in magic," Princess said.
"Well, now there's the thing. I can't remember where I read it, but someone once said that it doesn't matter whether or not you believe in gravity. Gravity believes in you*. Maybe magic's like gravity. Who knows?"
"Hmmmmm...." Princess got off her stool. "I'd better get to the library," she decided. "I've got some research to do."
Anderson paced up and down in front of the book case, trying not to think about making people happy. Happiness wasn't his job. Contentment, he reasoned, may well have been a side benefit of security, but happiness... He shuddered, and continued his pacing.
They were all so young, he mused. That was the trouble. They didn't know what they wanted and reached out for what they shouldn't have. Princess was such an impressionable girl, and Mark... Mark's emotional intelligence was slightly higher than that of a brick. About the same as Anderson's.
Anderson stopped and reached for a book. Ah, yes, Proceedings of the 2162 Symposium on Synthesised Ultra-Heavy Elements. That would take his mind off sentimental absurdities.
He took the heavy tome to his desk, settled into his chair, and started reading.
"Wow," Aphrodite observed from the sofa, "he's got some heavy duty defences. I've met icy personalities before, but this guy's off the scale."
"Whereas Mark's just confused," Eros said. "I should've brought the arrows."
"Anderson isn't even our primary target," Aphrodite pointed out.
"No, but he was in the contract."
"Only by mistake."
"Hey, a love spell's a love spell."
"I know, but it isn't as though the girls are trained practitioners or priestesses. I'm inclined to cut them some slack. Their focus was clearly on Mark. We should be working on him."
"You're too easy on the mortals," Eros declared. "Now me, I've made a career out of proving that love really does make fools of us all."
"Present company excepted," Aphrodite added.
"Oh, so that business with you and Adonis was --oof!" Eros was knocked against the book case as the cushion caught him in the head.
Anderson looked up to see books falling from the shelf. He frowned and stood up.
"Uh-oh," Eros said, picking himself up off the floor and shaking out his wings. "Nice move, toots."
"I've warned you before: never mention Adonis!" Aphrodite hissed, unrepentant.
Anderson walked over and surveyed the scene. The security chief bent and picked up the books, examining them for damage and replacing them on their shelves.
"Look at these titles," Eros grumbled. "Engineering, physics, medicine... He doesn't have a romantic bone in his body."
"He fights us every step of the way," Aphrodite agreed. "He isn't even aware of us and he still fights us! Why is he such a hard-ass?"
"If you think about it," Eros recalled, "he had help."
"That prim and prissy security officer," Aphrodite said. "Now, she could use a love spell or three."
"Hey," Eros said, grinning, "maybe that's the answer! There's nothing like a little sympathy... or empathy, or any of those 'pathy' things."
"She wasn't part of the contract," Aphrodite said.
"No," Eros said, "but Fran and Princess called in true love. Sure, Princess specified Mark but if you interpret the terms broadly, they did use Anderson's pen, and besides, love isn't just for the young."
"I don't know..." Aphrodite was doubtful.
"Let me think about it," Eros said. "Come on, we'd better go check on Mark."
Princess flipped through the pages of a large book. The book, entitled A Book of Shadows for the Twenty Second Century Witch, had been the heaviest volume on the shelf in the Occult section. Princess' fingers rested on the section entitled, Love spells - desire, theory and application. "Bingo," she muttered.
"See you tomorrow, Fran," Josh Maxwell said.
"Yeah," Fran said. "Have a good shift, Josh."
With hand over complete, Fran walked back through the guest house that served as the security detail's base of operations. "Not going home, ma'am?" she asked, noticing that Jones was still in the office, working at her computer.
"I've got a few things to finish. Good night, Lieutenant."
"Good night, ma'am."
Fran fled to the female locker room to change out of her uniform. Her palm unit rang with Princess' ID and she grabbed it. "Anything?"
"I think I've found what we're looking for," Princess said. "I need a personal item from each person. I'll take care of Mark. You get me something of the Chief's."
"How am I going to get my hands on a personal item belonging to the Ice Man?" Fran racked her brains for a moment, then she smiled. "I've got it!"
Princess waited while the librarian stamped the book and swiped her library card through the reader, all the while giving her dubious and disapproving looks. Princess attempted a smile as she took the book and put it in her backpack, then hurried out to where she'd parked her motorcycle.
It was time to go shopping.
The gods were sitting on the wing of the X-25, watching Mark lounge against the external power trolley while he chatted with the engineering crew.
"It's risky," Eros said, "but we're running out of options."
"I don't know about this," Aphrodite cautioned. "You've had some spectacular mess-ups with those golden arrows."
"Yes," Eros said, "but if we get the timing right, it should work."
"All the same," Aphrodite said, "it'd be a lot better if Princess were here."
"I know it, you know it, any student of mythology knows it," Eros said, "but we have to work with what we've got."
"And that's not much," Aphrodite grumbled. "Anyway, how are we going to get him alone?"
"We'll wait until he goes back to his car," Eros said. "We can get him in the parking lot. In the meantime, let's go take care of Anderson. It's time he learned how the other half love!"
"That could be wildly misinterpreted, y'know," Aphrodite said as they vanished.
Monday, 14 February 2163; 1715 hrs
"A coffee mug?" Princess said, staring at the item on the makeshift altar. It sat, solid and prosaic, on the silk scarf Princess had draped over the coffee table, next to some leftover pilfered contents of Mark's hairbrush.
"What could be more personal?" Fran asked. "He has it with him every day!"
"I guess," Princess said. "Oh, well. Let's get started." She lit some incense. "Hear us, all you powers of love!"
"Tea, sir?" Jones stood in the doorway of Anderson's study, carrying two cups and saucers.
"Wish you'd learn to make coffee." Anderson looked up from his book. "Aren't you off duty?"
"I just wanted to check on you before I went home," Jones said. She crossed the room and walked around the desk.
"Al, you worry too much," Anderson said. He took one of the cups from her.
"It's my job," Jones said.
Anderson looked up at his security coordinator. "Didn't I order you to lighten up about a month ago?" he recalled.
"I'm working on it, sir," Jones said, unconvincingly.
Floating in the air above the sofa in Anderson's study, Eros drew a golden arrow. He nocked it and lined up the shot. "This," he said, "is going to be good. Watch this," he said over his shoulder to Aphrodite. "I can get the both of 'em with one arrow. Eight ball in the corner pocket..." He took aim and loosed the arrow.
The glittering projectile hit Jones in the back, passed clean through her on its downward angled trajectory, and lodged in Anderson's chest.
"Bullseye!" Eros declared. He high-fived Aphrodite.
Jones blinked. So did Anderson.
"Where there any reports of seismic activity, today, sir?" Jones asked, steadying herself against the desk with one hand.
"I didn't check," Anderson said, "but it makes sense. A couple of books fell off the shelf, earlier. Most likely it's just a few minor shocks."
"What an odd day it's been," Jones said.
Aphrodite took one of the golden arrows from Eros' quiver. "These things haven't reached their 'best before' date or anything, have they?" she asked, examining the arrow.
"Give it time," Eros protested, grabbing at the arrow.
"It's supposed to be instantaneous, if I remember correctly," Aphrodite said, glaring at the small, winged god.
"Okay," Eros said, "no more Mister Nice God. Where's that grenade launcher?"
Fran cut a piece of ribbon with a pair of scissors. "We cut the ties that bind. We release all things bound by the spell," she intoned.
"As above, so below," Princess said.
"A cancellation?" Eros said, and lowered the grenade launcher.
Aphrodite sighed. "Mortals."
"Yeah," Eros said. "Although it could have been interesting to play this one through to the end."
Aphrodite put her hands on her hips. "That arrow worked. I felt it work. Why are they just sitting there, talking?"
Eros tapped one side of his head with one finger. "Hard cases," he said. "I guess the arrows only work if you actually have a heart."
"Maybe you should have shot them in the head," Aphrodite said.
They faded from the scene.
Jones finished her tea. "Well, I'm off," she said. "How do you feel, sir?"
"Actually," Anderson said, "I feel... normal."
"No more sudden attacks of sentiment, then?"
Anderson allowed himself a brief moment of introspection. "I don't think so."
"That's a relief."
"For both of us, believe me."
"I don't think I could get used to you being nice to people all the time, sir."
"You rather I was grouchy and bad tempered?"
"Let's just say that it's more you, sir."
Anderson raised his teacup in mock salute. "Well, I'm back to my nasty, grumpy self. Happy Valentine's Day, Al."
"Same to you, sir." Jones headed for the door. "Good night."
"See you tomorrow."
Mark ambled across the parking lot to where his red convertible was waiting for him.
"There he goes," Eros observed. "I feel like a complete failure." He folded his arms. "Hey," he said, "just because Princess and Fran chickened out on the spell doesn't mean we can't do a little freelance work."
"You mean, go on with it anyway?" Aphrodite inferred.
"Sure, just like the old days. We never used to wait to be invoked in the old days."
"True," Aphrodite said. "You were always running around firing off those darned arrows. Personally, I think it says something about your mindset."
"Save the psychoanalysis for someone who cares," Eros said. "Are you in, or are you out? All I need is for him to see Princess when I hit him with the arrow."
Aphrodite smiled. "I'm in," she said. She waved a careless hand and assumed the appearance of a slender green-eyed young woman with dark hair the colour of a raven's wing. "How do I look?"
"A perfect double," Eros said. Having rid himself of the grenade launcher, he nocked a golden arrow. "Let's do it!"
Mark unlocked the door of the car. He glanced up when he thought he heard someone call his name, but the carpark was deserted. He frowned, puzzled, then shrugged, opened the door and tossed his flight bag onto the passenger seat.
He caught his breath as something bright seemed to catch him square in the chest.
"Yes!" Eros declared, and punched the air. "Got him!"
Mark blinked. Before him, a misty vision appeared: Princess, smiling, one hand outstretched, her luminous green eyes aglow with adoration.
A squadron of robot fighter jets screamed overhead, bringing him back to the present. He was alone in the car park. Mark shrugged and climbed in to the driver's seat. He started the engine, put the car in gear and pulled out of the parking space.
"What just happened?" Eros demanded as Aphrodite reappeared next to him.
"I don't know," Aphrodite observed, putting her hands on her hips. "I'm sure he saw me, but there was no reaction!" She shifted back to her own form.
"I got him right between the ventricles!" Eros protested. "These arrows can't be duds! They come with a five aeon warranty!"
"Strange," Aphrodite said. "Maybe we'd better follow him."
On the way into town, Mark pulled in and parked outside a florist's shop. He went inside and waited for the florist to serve several customers, most of them male, all of them looking harrassed, making last minute purchases.
"Delayed effects, maybe?" Aphrodite theorised as Mark and the florist exchanged a few words.
"Maybe it's a bad batch," Eros said, shrugging. He examined an arrow. "I'm going to have to speak with Hephaestos about this."
"Here we go," the florist said. "I've got your order right here. A dozen white roses."
"Thanks," Mark said, and paid the bill.
"That's one lucky girl," the florist said. "Not everyone orders their Valentine's Day flowers two weeks in advance!"
"I'm the lucky one," Mark said, and took the flowers.
Aphrodite and Eros watched in disbelief as Mark drove to the Snack J, parked the car, and pulled a card out of a pocket in his flight bag. He walked inside. The bells on the door tinkled as it shut behind him.
"Well, what do you know?" Eros said.
"No wonder the arrow didn't have an effect," Aphrodite said. "He was already in love with her."
"So we've just wasted a whole day?" Eros threw his hands in the air. "That does it. I'm going to find Bacchus and crash that toga party. You coming, or what?"
"Count me in," Aphrodite sighed. "We're certainly not needed here, and I could use a drink."
As the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, 7-Zark-7 activated the privacy block on his surveillance of the Snack J. Some things didn't need to be on the record. He tossed a wrench for 1-Rover-1 and ran a check of his other surveillance subjects: Jason was in his trailer, engrossed in one of his favourite detective novels; Tiny and Keyop were engaged in a video game battle at Tiny's shack by the harbour; and Chief Anderson was by himself in his study, doing paperwork.
The tele-comm warbled with an incoming message alert.
"Center Neptune Control, Seven Zark Seven," Zark answered.
"Hello, Zark," a breathless female voice said.
"Oh, hello, Susan," Zark said. "How are things at the Early Warning Station?"
"Everything's quiet up here," Susan recounted, "although someone did send me a Valentine's Day circuit board and a box of wing nuts. I thought I'd call and say thanks."
"Why, Susan," Zark said, "what makes you think it was me? A girl like you could have any number of admirers."
"But only you would send me a gift with a Center Neptune return address, Zark."
"Oh... of course. The mail room labels everything as a matter of course, doesn't it?" Zark shuffled his wheels back and forth in anthropomorphic embarrassment. "Well... I thought I'd see what all this Valentine's day stuff is all about, you know. I'm not sure why humans choose one day to make special gestures of affection to one another. Tell me, Susan... I know robots aren't supposed to have emotions, but has your disposition toward me been influenced by the arrival of a gift on this particular day?"
"Well, Zark," Susan said, "you know I've always been... favourably disposed toward you, but no. There's no change in my regard for you as an autonomous cybernetic device."
"Humans are a peculiar species," Zark said. "Surely if they care about each other, they care all year round?"
"You'd think so," Susan agreed, "but then, humans aren't always rational like us."
"I suppose not," Zark concluded. "When you think about it, it's really just another Monday."
* It was Terry Pratchett who wrote that it doesn't matter if you believe in gravity. He's actually written quite a lot about the nature of belief, all of it well worth the reading.