It was a shame that they hadn't thought to take any female scientists really, the magazines did seem to imply that the gender difference was important....
Cybercon's holographic projection wobbled and pulsated angrily. "Mallanox, I can't believe your stupidity! Those scientists are supposed to be working on technological advancements for us, not beating the pulp out of each other!"
"But Cybercon, I was only trying to give them a little excitement in their lives and play along with the human cultural experience. Valentines cards are supposed to make humans happier, and it says in this human booklet that happy humans are more productive. How was I to know that this would happen? Besides, not all of them are upset about it."
"Do you think those few are making up for all their colleagues' lost work time while they're gazing deeply into each others' eyes? Mallanox, I really don't know why I gave you the job of leading the Vorak. A cardboard cutout would make a better job of it."
"Please don't say that, Cybercon. Besides, this has given me such a wonderful idea for how to beat those pesky Eagle Riders."
"Ooh yes, I know you'll just love this plan."
"I suppose there's a first time for everything."
"Well, you see how most of the human scientists are at each others throats? What if we could create that sort of conflict between the Eagle Riders? We can't use cards, of course, because we don't have the means to deliver them in a way that would be convincing. But we can do better - build our own robot lookalikes for the team, and program them with the kind of romantic mush that these books say humans enjoy so much. And it won't matter whether the Eagle Riders fight each other or do all that icky cuddling and stuff, either way they'll be much too preoccupied with each other to pay attention to what we're doing."
Cybercon thought quietly about this. Mallanox had never known him to go for so long without shouting at her, so she quickly pressed on with her explanation.
"We've got that base in the Idrian Ocean that we can't use because it turned out to be on an inconvenient fault line. We could install the robot doubles in there and lure the Eagle Riders to attack it, and have the whole place set up so that they have to separate to search it properly, and that's when their robot doubles move in. As long as they think the robots are really their teammates, they won't attack them. We sacrifice the useless base with a small fight so the Eagle Riders don't suspect they were set up, making sure we rescue the robot doubles so we can use them again and again."
"This may have a small chance of working. Build your robots, Mallanox, we'll see just how foolish those Eagle Riders are."
After a little discussion with the few humans who claimed psychological expertise and weren't too bandaged or stitched up or medicated or just plain distracted to be coherent, the Vorak built three robot doubles programmed to target three selected members of the team. They avoided targeting the one who seemed rather stronger than the others, since that would be too much of a risk to the robot, and the child, since Mallanox felt that he would find romance no more appealing than she did. They equipped them with the same basic artificial intelligence as all standard Vorak androids, and gave them the texts of Barbara Cartland, Mills & Boon and the more extreme articles that Mallanox had originally found so amusing - the robots would work through these and program themselves to be irresistably romantic to any human.
Mallanox herself interviewed each of the doubles, having carefully made notes on how it appeared to her that they should behave. She'd read in several different articles that it was important in a relationship for one person to make the other person laugh, and since she was cackling incessantly through each ridiculous interview it surely meant all three robots would be very successful indeed. And they were certainly persuasive about what incredibly wonderful people their romantic targets were. It didn't occur to Mallanox that they might genuinely mean every word they said.
The Vorak set up the base with false energy signals and a few local shipping accidents for good measure, installed the robot doubles, several escape ships and a small staff of slightly soiled amdroids, and waited.
Sure enough, it didn't take long for the sunken ships to reach Dr Keane's attention, and he sent the Eagle Riders out to investigate.
They circled the undersea base, dodging particularly badly aimed missiles and breaking through a very weak force field, and parked the Ultra Eagle halfway through the lower hull. They'd picked up some interesting transmissions while circling, suggesting some important material had been stored in the base, so Hunter decided it would be for the global good if they all split up to search for it. Each took their own direction through the labyrinth of corridors and tunnels that lined the hull, and headed upwards and inwards.
Kelly was wriggling through a particularly narrow and bendy section when she heard a noise behind her. As she was positioning herself for a lethal kick, she heard Hunter's voice. "Hey, it's just me. My tunnel was a dead end, so I figured it would be best if I teamed up with someone, and who could be nicer to climb through these tubes with than you?"
"Ah, OK Hunter. It gets pretty tight up here though."
"I'm sure we can get through together, the two of us will be just fine. Here, let me give you a leg up."
"OK. Just a little higher." She frowned in a rather surprised way and whispered angrily, "I meant lift me higher, not put your hand higher."
"I'm so sorry Kelly, my hand slipped. I would never have done that intentionally, however much I may have wanted to all these years."
"Um... What did you say?"
"Kelly, I could never say this in front of the others, and it's been so long since we had any time when we were truly alone together. Have I ever told you that your eyes are like limpid pools with every star in heaven reflected in their wondrous depths, dearest love of mine?"
".......?", said Kelly.
Ollie had found a curving corridor with doors on the inner wall at regular intervals. Some of the doors were locked, but they weren't designed to stand up to the beating he was capable of giving them. There wasn't much of interest behind them, although he did wonder after a while why androids would need such a large supply of toilet tissue, and what they were going to do with all those frozen pizzas. Then he came to a door with a tapping noise coming from behind it. He hurled himself at the door, crushing it inwards and landing on top of it. Looking up, he saw Kelly backed against the wall.
"Wow, Ollie, it's a good job I got out of the way. My tunnel led straight to the back of this room and when I climbed through, a trapdoor came down behind me so I couldn't get out again. I'm glad you were around, I don't know how long I would have been stuck here otherwise."
"All you had to do was call, you know."
"But we're on radio silence."
Ollie didn't recall being told there was to be no communication. "Uh, are we?"
"Oh yes, had you given up listening to Hunter at that point in the briefing? Can't blame you, he does go on doesn't he?"
"Well, yeah, but it gives the rest of us less lines to learn so I'm not complaining."
They both laughed, and continued along the corridor together, checking doors in turn.
"You know Ollie, whenever I'm in trouble there's no-one I trust to get me out of it better than you."
"Gee, thanks Kelly."
"You're a big strong guy with a big warm heart. You know, that sort of generosity of soul is irresistable to a woman."
"Yeah, I wish."
"Oh it is, believe me." Kelly threw her arms around him and continued in a passionate whisper. "Ollie, it's been so long since we had any time when we were truly alone together, I could never say this in front of the others and I've wanted to tell you for so long. Ollie, I love you, ya big lug."
"........", said Ollie.
Hunter shinned and elbowed his way up a vertical tube. When he was nearly at the top, a pair of dark blue gloved hands reached down and helped him out. "Thanks Joe, what are you doing here?"
"Looks like my tunnel has joined up with yours. Did you find anything yet?"
"Nothing but bruises. What about you?"
"Nothing but you."
"Are you OK Joe? You sound a little short of breath."
"You have that effect on me sometimes, Hunter."
"What do you mean? Hey, looks like it's going to be a tight squeeze up ahead."
"I'm looking forward to it already", grinned Joe. Hunter gave him a very puzzled stare. "I only meant, if ever I'm stuck in a tight spot, there's no-one I trust better than you to get me out of it, old friend."
"Oh, well, the same to you too, old friend."
"You don't know how much it means to me to hear you say that."
"Have you been taking those tranquilizers again Joe? You should make sure you're alert for missions."
"I have never been more alert in my entire life, Hunter. I could never say this in front of the others and it's been so long since the two of us were alone together. You are the universe to me, everything I have ever wanted or needed. My oldest friend, and my greatest love. Please, say you feel the same?"
"..............!", said Hunter, quite loudly.
In the control room of the gaudy spinning-top shaped craft hidden some distance from the throwaway base, Mallanox hooted with laughter as she watched the Eagle Riders' reactions through the eyes of the robot doubles. It really did look as if her plan was going to work. Cybercon would be very pleased, for once. As if a cardboard cutout could have thought of a cracker of an idea like this. She decided that she should ask for a reward. Perhaps he'd finally let her have a puppy of her very own.
The labyrinth she'd had built inside the base was only long enough to allow for a small amount of conversation between the robots and the Eagle Riders, partly because of the limitations of the existing base, and partly because the shorter the contact between them the smaller the chance of the robots giving themselves away. She was pretty sure from the surprised expressions of the Eagle Riders that the robots had done their jobs well. It was time to get them out of there and leave the seeds of confusion they had planted to grow into great lumbering tumbleweeds of conflict. Or, failing that, into pretty dinky pink flowers of love, as long as they kept the Eagle Riders away from her.
She pressed a yellow button on the console in front of her. Gunfire sounded from the upper part of the base, reverberating down into the labyrinth. Each of the robot doubles took off at inhuman speed towards it, vanishing into convenient side-openings in the tunnels as soon as they got out of sight of their romantic victims, and from there straight to the escape craft and back to Mallanox.
The Eagle Riders also raced up the tunnels, coming out into separate rooms in the higher part of the base. There, they met token resistance from expendable Vorak and a captain whose costume looked to be thrown together from several different clown outfits with accessories by Jean Paul Gaultier, who they quickly despatched before taking some components out of the base computer, setting the base to self destruct and taking the remaining escape sub back to the Ultra Eagle to avoid going through the labyrinth again.
Mickey skipped around the cabin as they watched the base explode. "Hey, that was a great mission. Those Vorak get worse, don't they? You should have seen me take on three of them, wham, pow, right between the eyes with my rebound ball. If all our missions were like that, we'd wipe them out in no time. Mallanox must be losing his touch. Hey, what's wrong with you guys? Did Mallanox get you with some kind of misery ray?"
The rest of the team sat in awkward silence, avoiding looking at each other, except for Joe who was quietly cleaning his gun, which was actually a sign that he was quite happy with the way the mission had gone (he hadn't met with anyone behaving strangely, after all), and also meant that he was oblivious to the tension around him. But by the time they got back to the base, even he was aware that something was awry.
Once they'd finished debriefing - during which there was a lot of fidgeting and a few awkward silences and no-one mentioned anything about anyone behaving in an unusual manner - Joe tried to talk to Hunter. "You giving me the silent treatment?", he smiled.
"Joe, how can you expect me to behave as if nothing happened? You dropped a real bombshell on me, you know."
Joe frowned as he tried to work out what on earth Hunter was talking about. He recalled that the last thing they'd been doing before being briefed for the mission was some maintenance work on the Ultra Eagle's missile system, and Joe had accidentally dropped a wrench which would have hit Hunter, except Hunter's amazing reflexes meant he'd caught it easily and thrown it back up to him. At the time, they'd both laughed it off, so why would Hunter be taking it so personally now? "Well, it was more like a spanner, Hunter, I doubt you'd be standing up now if it had really been a bombshell", smiled Joe. "You know I'd never intentionally hurt you, unless it was in the line of duty."
Hunter stared at him. "This isn't a small thing! Joe, you're my oldest friend, and my comrade. You know how I feel about you. I mean, you do know, really, don't you? But this hits at the very future of our friendship. I don't know what to say or do. I'm so sorry. I need time to think about this. I really don't want to hurt you either." Hunter turned and ran out of the room.
Joe's frown deepened in puzzlement. It *had* only been a wrench, hadn't it?
"Hunter? Wait for me! I need to talk to you", called Kelly as she saw him rush past the vending area where she was getting a coffee. He'd been very quiet since making those protestations of love to her back in the Vorak base. But then, she'd been very quiet too, thinking hard about what he'd said, and what she wanted from life, and whether she could teach him to be less cliched and to generally have an occasional clue about how to relate to other people. And to just bloody well shut up occasionally. She followed him down to the maintenance area where she found him leaning on one wing of his plane, doing relaxation breathing exercises.
'Wow', she thought, 'it must have been really difficult for him to tell me how he felt. He really was serious.'
She realised that she needed to make the next move. "I have to talk to you about what happened back on that base." Hunter gasped guiltily, and looked rather worried. Kelly walked slowly over to him and laid her hand on his arm, and continued speaking in a quiet but breathy tone. "Hunter, we're not truly alone anywhere here and I know you want this to be private, so I'm not going to say the things I really want to. But I think that all of us should feel free to follow our hearts, we deserve love and happiness just as much as everyone else. And there's a heart right here on this team that would be happy with a little more of your company." Kelly misinterpreted his wide eyed stare as an expression of very surprised happiness as she kissed his cheek, winked and walked away.
Hunter whimpered and put his head in his hands. He'd hoped no-one else had overheard what Joe had said to him in the base. Had Kelly really just told him that she wanted him to have a relationship with Joe? Had the whole world gone mad?
When Kelly got back to her coffee, Ollie was at the snack machine getting some Fishy Snaps and an apple. Kelly looked up at him with the dizzy dazzling smile of one who has just seen love racing across the horizon towards her. Ollie grinned the grimace of the politely uncomfortable and sat down next to her.
"Hey Kelly, would you like a Fishy Snap?"
"Thanks. What are they?" She took one and crunched into it.
"Mackerel, cod liver oil and herring flavour corn chips. They remind me of home."
Kelly wondered how she could possibly not have guessed that from the name, resisted the urge to gag and forced herself to swallow it quickly. "They're certainly... different." She took several large gulps of coffee to get rid of the taste. "The fishiest corn chips I've ever tasted. Thanks, but I won't have any more."
"Yeah, well, maybe they're an acquired taste." He twisted his fingers against each other as he tried to work out what to say next. "Kelly, you know back on that base..."
Kelly remembered how all the corridors and tunnels had been so tightly wound together, of course it was possible that Ollie had overheard what Hunter had said to her. "Oh, Ollie, please, you mustn't tell anyone. Not yet." She grasped his hand in both of hers and clutched it tightly. "Please, just wait a while. My mind's still in a whirl, I never expected this to happen. I have to rush for an appointment right now but I'll talk to you later, I promise." She finished the last bit of her coffee and left with a cheery wave and another dazzling smile.
Ollie rested his head on his hand. Kelly was a nice girl and everything, but he'd never have guessed in a million years that she would turn around and declare love to him, nor would he ever have wanted her to after all the years of platonic friendship, and he could see there was going to be trouble over this...
Dr Keane called the Eagle Riders together to a meeting later that afternoon. "We have just had news of another set of shipping accidents off the coast of Grunland. The last radio reports from those ships also mentioned erratic magnetic readings. It may be another Vorak base. I want you to go and investigate but be careful."
The Eagle Riders saluted and zipped through the transport tubes to the Ultra Eagle, where they did their standard flight checks before zooming off to Grunland, in order to perform their continuing mission of protecting the global good. Hunter didn't do his usual security checks with the rest of the team, and they missed out on their motivational chorous of "To protect the global good". Most of them just weren't in the mood.
It turned out that this Vorak base was protected with an electromagnetic field. Joe collapsed over his console in agony as they juddered through it. When they got to the base, Hunter ordered a very unwilling Joe to stay in the Ultra Eagle, just in case they were to run into any more magnetic disturbances inside. And the other thing he wasn't going to mention in front of the others, of course.
While the rest of the team vanished into the base, Joe disconsolately watched the radar screens. After a few minutes, he noticed a tiny blip appearing occasionally, which he mapped to be behind a reef on the opposite side of the base, just outside the force field. He took the falcon tracker in submarine mode, set it up to go through the force field on autopilot, and set off towards the opposite end of the reef to the blip. When he'd regained consciousness after getting back through the force field, he piloted carefully along the reef until he was able to see that the blip was caused by one of Mallanox's gaudy orange escape craft, which was sitting on the sea floor. He drove over to investigate, swam into the airlock unchallenged, and crept from there into the control room.
There, Mallanox was rocking and hooting with laughter as she watched the viewscreens, each of which showed a tunnel in the base. Joe gasped as he tried to work out what he was seeing. On one viewscreen he could see Ollie, close up, looking embarrassed and awkward. On the next was Kelly viewed from about waist height, looking puzzled but happy - her white gloved hands were clutched in two bright blue ones. And the third showed a confused and defensive looking Hunter. A fourth screen showed Mickey running around looking for Vorak and several others showed empty corridors and the main rooms in the base. Ollie, Kelly and Hunter were all involved in some kind of conversation spoken to the camera, evidently each was talking to someone who was secretly filming them.
At that moment, Mallanox leaned forward and pressed a button, and the sound of gunfire echoed out of each of the screens. Joe was about to leap forward and attack her when he saw that the mobile cameras were running, then disappearing into holes in the tunnels, then getting into an escape craft. For the first time the screens showed who was carrying the cameras - Joe boggled at the amazing likenesses of Hunter, Kelly and himself as they piloted the escape ship away from the base. The other screens clearly showed the rest of the Eagle Riders in the main base, fighting Vorak, setting explosive charges, escaping back to the Ultra Eagle, then static as the base began to explode. Joe decided that the best course of action would be to hide until he was sure of what Mallanox was up to, so he concealed himself behind a console panel while she was still laughing so loudly that she wouldn't hear him. The fake Eagle Riders came through the airlock and sat down in the control room with Mallanox, and she piloted the craft away to a much better hidden and defended Vorak base.
Joe waited for Mallanox and the doubles to leave the escape craft before he crept out from his hiding place. He signalled the rest of the Eagle Riders with his location and a warning that this base looked as if it really meant business, then sneaked out through the airlock and dropped into the water of the base's indoor harbour. Feeling sure that the rest of the team would appreciate a little help in breaking in to the place, he glanced around for the control room and defensive posts, noting the presence of a large number of Vorak. Deciding on a plan, he made his way to the harbour's edge and waited for a Vorak to come along, so that he could take the uniform and blend in with the crowds. It had, after all, worked every time...
But not this time. As a lone Vorak was almost in his reach, a robot resembling a bear trap shot up out of the water behind Joe and encircled him in its constricting arms. A winch came down from the ceiling and hooked it and Joe out of the water, transferring them to a vehicle which, surrounded by jeering green-clad Vorak, took him to Mallanox's office. There he found himself face to face with the team's doubles and Mallanox, sipping from a wine glass which had to contain either a fine cabernet-sauvignon or vitamin rich blackcurrant juice.
"Well, well, Legal Hider, how nice of you to drop by and visit us. What do you think of my friends? Do they remind you of anyone?" Mallanox screeched with laughter as Joe scowled up at her helplessly from his metal straightjacket, his arms pinned so tightly to his sides and his legs so immobilised that he could barely struggle.
"I'm sure the resemblance is only superficial."
"Oh, I'd say far more than superficial. Your friends seemed to be quite taken in by them. You know, I was only planning to use them to distract you Beagle Gliders, but now that you've called the rest of your friends here, I have a much better plan. First of all, they're going to stop you from inconveniencing me any more, and then they're going to help me destroy those other nuisances who, judging by this report on my screen, will be arriving in a little over 10 minutes. I've got a few plans to make first so I'll say bye bye now. Cybercon has so many wonderfully destructive toys all primed and ready to use, I don't even know what half of them do yet. Dearest soppy lovey dovey robots, would you be so kind as to finish him off for me now please?"
"You'll find we're all harder to kill than that, Mallanox."
"Maybe, maybe not. But it's worth a try, isn't it?" Mallanox started to stroll to the door, then noticed that the robots hadn't started to kill Joe yet. "Well? I said finish him! Make it fast, and then meet me in the control room. It's so ironic that I don't have time to watch this." And she exited, leaving the fate of her enemy to her minions, in the same way that megalomaniacs always seem to when it would be so much more reliable for them to do it themselves.
Joe struggled for all he was worth as the unnerving likenesses of his teammates moved menacingly closer to him. Then the Kelly-alike paused and said "Wait a minute, does that mean we're supposed to kill Ollie when he gets here?"
"I couldn't give a damn about Ollie, but we can't kill Kelly", stated the Hunter-alike.
"Hunter is the greatest, I won't let anyone hurt him", countered the Joe-alike.
"I'm not going to do this if it means killing Ollie. He's such a dear, sweet man..."
"And I'm not going to have any part in killing Kelly. She's beautiful and brave, intelligent and sassy. And feisty too!"
"Well, I'm not going to kill Hunter, he's the most wonderful lifeform on the entire planet!"
Joe stared at them, flinching incredulously. This was all very, very wrong, and rather embarrassing too. But if they genuinely believed what they were saying they might just be of some help to him, if he could persuade them that Mallanox wouldn't let them have what they wanted. "None of the Eagle Riders is going to stand by and let their teammates be killed. If you kill even one Eagle Rider, the rest will do everything they can to destroy you."
The robots looked distraught. Kelly-alike spoke for all three of them. "So, if we kill you, the ones we love will never forgive us?"
"That's right. And since you're on the side of the Vorak, you don't have much chance with them anyway."
"If we help you against Mallanox, will they love us?"
Joe feigned a coughing fit as he worked out what to say next. He'd never had a talent for lying. "If you help me to beat Mallanox, destroy this base, and show the Eagle Riders that you're on the side of good, they'll feel a lot better about you", replied Joe, hoping that it would be good enough.
The robots conferred silently for a few moments, then gathered around and prised the robot bear trap open enough for him to wriggle out of it. "What shall we do?", they asked as he stretched some life back into his component parts.
"Do you know what Mallanox's plan is?"
"Yes", said the Joe-alike. "After we'd killed you I was to take your bracelet and transmit a message to the rest of Eagle Riders, instructing them to approach the base from the north-east instead of the main entrance. That entrance is too narrow for the Ultra Eagle and the bulkheads on that side of the base are more secure. If they got through that, I was to signal them again saying that I had been captured, then Mallanox would order them to surrender."
"They wouldn't surrender to save me, you know that."
"Oh, I'm sure Hunter would never surrender, however much the thought of you being tortured and killed hurt him. That's one of the things that's so great about him!" The Joe-alike hugged himself and giggled like a maniac. The real Joe cringed in embarrassment and wondered what kind of medication he'd end up getting prescribed for the stress caused by this mission.
"Well, neither would Ollie", countered Kelly-alike with her hands on her hips.
"Nor Kelly. She'd never give in. She'd give in even less than Hunter and Ollie", insisted Hunter-alike.
"Oh for crying out loud", Joe growled in exasperation. "None of them will give in! Now, you don't want them to have to fight the rest of the Vorak here, do you? What if they get hurt, or killed?"
The robot doubles conversed silently with each other again before replying. "That would be terrible. How can we prevent it?"
"First of all, we need to modify Mallanox's plans a little. If you don't make the call, he'll suspect that something's gone wrong. But I'll give you a message in code for them. That way the Eagle Riders will know that they're being set up."
Joe gave his lookalike instructions on what to say to the rest of the real team. The Joe-alike made the call. "This is G2 calling the Ultra Eagle. Come in Ultra Eagle."
"This is G1. What's your position?"
Joe-alike purred, "Whatever's best for you."
Joe growled at him and snatched the communicator back. "Uh, I'm in the base. Don't attack the main entrance at the south of the reef, I'll be waiting for you at the north east where there's a welcoming back entrance, but it will be a squeeze."
Hunter whined, "Please Joe, not now?"
"What? No! Jeez, I can't believe I said that. But remember, attack from the north east not the south. It's the most ATTRACTIVE plan. Gotta go." Joe cut the communication and glowered at his lookalike. "Do you want me to stick a feather stunner in you right now?"
"I'm definitely getting through to Hunter though", sang Joe-alike. "Why did you say 'attractive' so loudly?"
"That's the code. It tells them to do the opposite of what I said. And will you two stop pouting? I am not going to call them back just so you can listen to Ollie and Kelly's voices. They'll be here soon enough, you only have to wait a few more minutes. Let's get to the north entrance, and put on a show for Mallanox."