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Blackmail Fodder by JaneLebak
Blackmail Fodder by JaneLebak
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Story Notes:
I really was going for the BotP series flavor with this one. If you can't "hear" the closing music at the end, then I didn't do my job.
Blackmail Fodder
by Jane Lebak


Jason looked at Mark across the holding cell from him, squinting to make out his form in the darkness. Tiny snored on the third bench, but Keyop's little fidgets were audible in between the deep breaths. Princess, beside him, sat on high alert. Their civilian gear left them shivering a little in the damp chill.

Outside the cell, a Spectran said, "They aren't giving us any trouble."

"How could they?" said another guard. "They're just kids. Blackmail fodder."

Mark met Jason's eyes, and Jason said, "Oh, yeah. This ought to be good."

#

Chief Anderson had trouble keeping a poker face as he spoke to Zoltar. Part of that was his sheer inability to predict what would happen if he showed the slightest emotion: which would it be? Worry for the five kids, or outright laughter?

Zoltar's face on the monitor blurred with periodic static. "You will hand over the access codes for the Mantle Project, or else your children will be sent home one at a time in pieces."

He should have expected this. How many of his other scientists had already had their daughters, sons, wives, lovers, grandparents or favorite third grade teacher kidnapped for use in blackmail negotiations?

The Chief tried his best to look impassive. "The lives of millions are at stake, Zoltar. I could never in good conscience sacrifice the Earth in order to save my children."

Zoltar laughed at him. "You say that now. You will change your attitude when your daughter returns home in a box."

The Chief said, "What good would it be to have them return healthy to an Earth you've plundered?"

It gave him a momentary warm feeling that Zoltar paused to consider this wrinkle. It was only a second or two, sadly. Zoltar said, "They will suffer excruciatingly."

"They are willing to make this sacrifice," the Chief said.

It sounded good enough. And they were. But-- There was theory, and there was practice. Sitting around his desk discussing noble martyrdom was a far cry from saying, "Sure, go ahead and kill all five."

It wasn't really that way. They were more than equipped to extract themselves from whatever holding cell Zoltar had them in for the time being -- assuming they weren't already on their way home in a mecha shaped like a flying bedbug.

"Don't bother sending G-Force," said Zoltar. "If any of your little birdies shows up, I kill all five without question. I'd rather torture them to give you a chance to change your mind, but I'll make that concession in the name of self-discipline."

Thank heaven he'd never been overly harsh on the scientists who had caved to this kind of dilemma. Zoltar knew how to apply the pressure, and he was doing it relentlessly. Of course, all those men had been reassigned to inventorying light-bulbs rather than handling ISO secret data, but none had been court-martialled.

The Chief folded his arms and said, "I believe our conversation is ended, Zoltar."

Zoltar said, "I'm transmitting a file with information regarding how to transfer the data I want. You will change your mind, I trust. The directions make it easy for you, and between you and me, you're clever enough to pull it off without anyone knowing. You'd even be able to relocate to another planet afterward to enjoy your four remaining children."

The message ended. Behind him, Anderson's computer let him know a suspect file had arrived.

What a bother. He copied the file onto a CD and overwrote the address on his hard drive, then carried the CD to a five year old iMac that hadn't touched the internet in two years and wouldn't ever again. He inserted it, checked the file for viruses and keystroke loggers (eight of them -- either Zoltar had hired better geeks or else ISO's detection software had improved) and then looked over the file.

Nice list of demands, there. Ten minutes after Zoltar received this kind of information, he'd have clearance to enter (unquestioned) any ISO facility in the galaxy accompanied by fourteen heavily-armed soldiers and a hundred slave laborers carrying shovels, wheel barrows, suitcases and nuclear bombs.

"Well, Mark," the Chief said to himself as the iMac started frustrating itself by trying to transmit to Spectra, "I'm counting on you to get everyone out of this."

#

"The Chief is counting on me to get you guys out of this," Mark said in a low voice.

Tiny had finally awakened, and they all huddled in the back of the cell. Princess covered for them by faking tears periodically, punctuated by wails, but Mark had to admit he wasn't sure all of them were faked.

The effect, real or pretend, was that the Spectran guards had distanced themselves from the cell entrance in order to spare their ears.

Mark said, "How much have we still got in terms of weapons?"

Jason murmured, "I've got a couple of explosives and four feather shuriken."

Keyop said, "Three or four bombs."

Princess murmured, "Yo-yo in my back pocket."

Jason choked. "How did you manage to keep that?"

"I told them it was my makeup compact, and I started to cry when they tried to take it from me." Princess started. "Oh, I forgot --- *I want to go home!*"

"Shut up in there!" barked one of the guards while they all huddled close again.

"The point is," Mark whispered, "we don't have enough weapons to break out on our own right now."

"They do," Jason said. "Get me out of this cell and I'll liberate a couple of guns from some greens who don't need them anymore."

Princess let out another sobbing cry. "I want my father!"

"I'd like to preserve our identities," Mark intoned at barely louder than a breath. "If we do that, they'll know for sure we're G-Force."

They were quiet for a moment, until Keyop poked Princess, who looked startled and then let out a thin wail. "I want to go home!"

Tiny whispered, "So we need to get out, but we need to make it look like we didn't do anything special to do it."

"Sure," Jason said. "And while we're at it, I'd like a pizza delivered too."

#

As Mark sat thinking, Princess hugged him, burying her face in his shoulder for verisimilitude. He glanced at Keyop, who had his head on Tiny's lap, and Jason, who stood scowling at the tiny porthole of a window in the cell. Of them all, only Tiny didn't look the part: he was asleep.

They needed a better plan than Jason's, which was "Let's start something and see what happens." To begin with, Mark had set out the following goals:

1) they must escape the Spectra headquarters
2) they must not do it in such a way that they revealed they were G-Force
3) they must insure that Spectra didn't try catching them again to blackmail the Chief

Number three seemed the most difficult of all of them. Any of them could have easily escaped by now. There had been several opportunities the times they'd been transferred. Any time a prisoner changed scenery was always the most vulnerable: initial capture, transfer to initial holding cell, transfer to vehicle, transfer to destination holding cell, and so on.

By now, Zoltar would have made initial contact with the Chief to tell him of their capture. The Chief would be waiting for the team to show back up at headquarters, possibly with a window open on his browser to scan the worldwide newswires for major unexplained explosions.

Back in the days of Red Impulse, RI might have come and delivered them a lecture in the holding cell before opening the gate. For a moment, Mark wasn't sure if that made him sad or glad. But it was probably for the best if he didn't end up with a ridiculous lecture while Red Impulse stood with his hand on the locked cell door. His blood pressure was high enough.

The next transfer point would be, arguably, when Zoltar brought one of them out of the cell in order to talk to the Chief over video. It would most likely be Keyop or Princess, the one Zoltar would figure had the most heart-tugging ability of the five. Mark had already played that up a bit by having Princess and Keyop standing at the cell door screaming at the tops of their lungs while he, Tiny and Jason planned at the back of the cell, with the occasional shouted "Shut up already!" from Jason. Again, for verisimilitude.

It was really, truly unlikely that all five of them would be paraded to the camera at the same time. There was a possibility that a camera might be brought to them, but Zoltar didn't tend to do things that way: pictures of the actual cell might be useful for determining its location. Therefore, they'd be moved to the secure camera feed, in a completely blank room.

Jason said, looking out the window, "I think we're in South America."

Mark said, "How can you tell?"

"Star positions." The sun had just set. "We're facing south, and I recognized the constellations. It shouldn't be too hard to get home from here."

As Tiny stretched, Mark said, "Just head north and walk for two years?"

Jason turned away from the window, smirking. "Only about eight months, I think. We can call home from Texas."

Tiny mumbled, "I'm hungry."

Before Mark could answer, Tiny went to the bars and bellowed, "I said, I'm hungry! I'm hungry, damn it!"

If Jason's expression didn't make Mark burst into laughter, nothing would ever again, so he gave himself five points for self-control and just watched. Tiny shoved Keyop aside and shouted, "I said, I'm hungry!" He shook the bars, and the door rattled. "You Spectran jerks! Where's my dinner!"

The Spectran guard came right to the gate and said, "What's your problem, fat boy?"

"I want dinner!" His arms thrust through the bars, and Tiny actually caught the Spectran's lapel before the soldier tore himself away. "You can't do this! I've got rights! I demand you call my father right now because I'm going to tell him you're violating my rights!"

Mark was about to lose composure, so he rushed up to Tiny and said, "Don't do it, man! The Chief will get us out!"

"We're going to starve to death first! I'm a sentient being, and I've got sentience rights!"

Dimly, Mark realized this was all coming from that afternoon when Tiny had volunteered with Amnesty Intergallactic last Fall.

Tiny bellowed, "I demand to see my attorney! And he'd better bring me a sandwich when he comes!"

Keyop collapsed on the floor in sobs that Mark realized momentarily were actually disguised guffaws.

Zoltar swept into the hallway. "Silence, you insolent child! You will give me silence!"

"Not without a Philly cheesesteak!"

"Open the gates," Zoltar demanded of the guard, who swiped his key card through the lock. With five soldiers' guns pointed at the entrance, Zoltar grabbed Tiny by the throat and hauled him out. "Congratulations -- you have become my guinea pig."

Mark's heart hammered. Tiny wasn't supposed to be the one they hauled out of the cell! Princess and Keyop were the ones he'd prepared, not Tiny.

As Zoltar hauled Tiny away, Tiny winked at Mark.

Oh, terrific. Just what they needed.

The outer gate clanged, and in the resulting silence, Jason whispered, "Do you think he can bring back a pizza?"

#

Knowing his horrified expression would at least look genuine, Chief Anderson tried not to disguise his reaction when Tiny begged him -- begged him -- to do anything Zoltar wanted so he could go home and get a good meal.

Tiny was held by guards on either side, both of them armed but not holding their weapons. Each one had him by an elbow, and Tiny was leaning forward to get closer to the screen so the Chief could see every trace of famine on his face.

"Son," he said in his most reasonable tone, "the security of the galaxy--"

"I don't care about the security of the galaxy! I want a cheeseburger!"

Zoltar must have taken it for grief when the Chief pressed his hand over his eyes, because Zoltar said, "Your son will not be fed until I receive the data I requested."

"Oh, the horror!" Tiny cried out.

It was a good thing Chief Anderson was recording the conversation, because he couldn't reconstruct the next few seconds of material until he'd replayed it four or five times.

Tiny, still held between two guards, collapsed to his knees in such a way that both guards toppled forward. Letting out an "oof!" (instead of a ki-ai) Tiny shoved back up onto hands and knees, slamming his head into one guard's jaw with a horrifying crack. He let out an, "Oh, are you okay?" while swinging his head around in the other direction, clocking the second guard in the side of his temple. That guard just fell over sideways, and Tiny collapsed on top of him. As he went down, his legs got tangled up in Zoltar's cloak, dragging the leader of Spectra off-balance so he staggered backward three paces.

Tiny then shoved forward, and at that point the camera rocked crazily and the transmission was cut, first the visual. The audio lasted just long enough for the Chief to hear Tiny saying, "Are you okay -- oh, sorry about that -- geez, sorry about that too!"

For the first time that day, Chief Anderson cracked a smile.

#

Back in the stone cell, the four Anderson kids paced. Keyop was fiddling with the television set. He kept changing channels and hitting it, then going to the back and messing with the cables. All this was punctuated by frequent use of words that would have gotten him detention back in middle school.

"This stupid thing doesn't get any reception at all," Keyop was shouting. "Why don't you damned Spectrans have even a decent TV! You know what I'd give for a DVD player down here!"

Princess reached out through the bars to touch a guard's sleeve when he inadvertently got too near. "Excuse me, but my soaps are on. Can you please fix the TV for us?"

Keyop popped up his head. "Are you saying I'm not good enough to fix a stupid television?"

"You're not good enough to fix a jack-in-the-box," Jason snapped, "and if you get that thing fixed and she turns on Days Of Our Turning World or whatever the hell she watches, I'm going to hit you over the head with it."

"Oh, and what would his majesty have us watch?" Princess snapped. "Big guys hitting each other over a little brown ball?"

"It's better than two catty women sniping at each other over some guy who's cheating on both of them with someone he doesn't know yet is actually his half-sister!"

Mark exclaimed from the back bench, "Will all of you just shut up--" even as the guard said, "Silence in there!" and Princess said, "Julie is not Keith's half-sister!"

Jason said, "Who the hell cares?"

The guard said, "Wait a minute -- you think she's his cousin?"

"She must be," Princess said with an idle wave. "I mean, Evelyn said there was some kind of mixup in the parentage but I think because the twins were born in the same hospital at the same time as Margo's baby was born with a birth defect, and then Margo's baby lived but one of Kailee's twins died, that means Julie is probably a twin to Hannalai."

The guard shook his head. "Wow. I'd never, ever have guessed that."

"It's really all common sense." Princess reached through the bars to touch the guard's arm. "Pretty please? I really have to see if Julie's mother reveals who her parents are!"

The guard said, "Well--"

Jason sat in the front corner, his shoulder against the bars of the cell. "Oh, good lord. *I'd* sell out galaxy security rather than have to watch that crap."

The guard said, "Let's see if he can fix it first."

While Jason fiddled with the edge of the bars, the guard watched Keyop checking all the connections in the back. Then Keyop turned it on, but only static. He turned it off, checked another cable, turned it back on again. This time, nothing at all. A curse word. Another swapping of cables. The switch turned on, static, the switch turned off.

"It's never going to wor-ork," Jason sing-songed.

"Shut uh-up," Keyop shot back.

Jason hummed to himself while tapping against the bars. Keyop dove back behind the TV while Princess clasped her hands and bounced on her toes. "Please make it work! Please make it work!"

"Please don't make it work," Jason squeaked back in imitation.

"Jason, shut *up,*" Mark muttered, his arm cast over his eyes.

"Make me."

"I'd love to, but I'm not sure whether I should beat your head against the bars or against the stone walls."

The guard slammed his hand against the bars, jarring Jason's head. "Shut up!"

Rubbing his temple, Jason smirked.

"This just isn't working!" Keyop exclaimed.

"Please," Princess said again, this time with her face pressed to the bars. And then, in a move which ought to have won several medals of honor but never got recognized for the perfidy it was, Princess shed tears.

"Please," she whispered. "I may never see my father again. Can't you -- Can't you at least turn on the TV?"

The guard sighed. "Everyone, back away from the bars."

They all did so. Keyop gave one last attempt at the TV, then joined the others in the corner.

The guard slipped his key card into the locking mechanism, then stepped inside and locked it behind him. He drew his gun and kept it trained on all four while he moved toward the TV. "I'll give it a shot. Sometimes you just need to understand Spectran technology."

Princess didn't get a chance to thank him before he pushed the button.

And the TV exploded.

The guard got blown back away from the set, right into Jason's arms. Jason exclaimed, "Oh my God! Are you okay?" and while he was trying to lift up the guard, the gun went off.

Bullets sprayed around the room, somehow hitting the locking mechanism for the door, and also the plexiglass window overlooking the sea. Glass shattered. Jason staggered backward with the guard on top of him, and the gun went off again, hitting the security camera mounted to the ceiling.

Mark ran to the bars and screamed, "Fire! Fire! Man down! Somebody help!"

While the TV made a nice little conflagration in the corner, Princess sat with the guard's head on her lap and Jason liberated the key card thing.

"He's dying! He needs air!" Jason shouted. "Quick, take off his watch! Get that wallet out of his back pocket before it cuts off circulation!"

Keyop ripped open the Green's shirt. "I bet this chain is strangling him! Take off his dogtags and ID card!"

The first of several guards responded. "What the hell's going on in here?"

"The TV!" Keyop shouted, pointing at the flaming wreck even though it was quite obviously on fire. "He came in here to turn it on for us, and the TV blew up!"

"I'm going to have to report you to the ISO for unsafe prisoner conditions," Mark said as the cell door clanked open. Two guards kept their guns trained on the kids while a third guard came in to look at the TV.

Mark slipped his hand into his pocket, and the TV exploded for the second time.

The fire alarm started blaring.

"Run away!" Keyop screamed.

Princess leaped to her feet, dropping the guard's head against the floor, and the four kids ran out of the cell, the three guards right in their midst.

"The place is burning down!" Keyop was screaming, while Princess ran in a different direction yelling, "Fire! Fire! We're all going to die!"

Jason smashed a glass panel and pulled out a fire extinguisher. He shouted, "I'll save us!"

And immediately aimed the stream at the fuse box.

A minute after that, all the lights went out.

#

Chief Anderson had a very, very stern look on his face. "You said I had until five PM."

"Ah, yes." Zoltar looked rather pale beneath his mask. "But, you see, I am not an unlimited calling plan. You will speak to your wards when and only when I see fit to allow them."

The Chief said, "Before I send anything, I require proof that they're alive."

It wasn't his imagination: he really could hear fire alarms in the background. Zoltar was in an uneasy sweat.

"That means all five, on camera, live. Not pictures, and not recordings. I'll have to be able to speak to them and get answers in real time."

Zoltar's voice had a pitch just a little too high to be just outrage: had to be nerves. "You are in no position to demand anything!"

Knowing it vital not to laugh, the Chief said, "You sent me your terms. These are mine. You could have anything you wanted, if I can speak to the kids first."

Zoltar opened his mouth to respond, and then the transmission cut out.

The Chief ended the transmission on his end, then walked into another room and laughed until he cried.

#

Mark met Tiny in the dark hallway. "What are you doing?"

"They took me to the cafeteria -- man, the food here stinks!" Tiny garbled around a mouthful of something. "I think this is food, at least. The guards were eating it. They wanted to bring me back to the cell, but I figured it would be better if I was free, so I had three spaceburgers, two orders of fries, a vanilla milkshake, three --"

"Enough, enough." Tiny would never hear Mark's sigh over the sound of the alarms. "Find us a vehicle so we can get out of here."

"They're not stupid enough to think five kids are just able to pirate one of their vehicles!"

"We'll just have to kidnap a pilot and make him take us, that's all." Mark looked up the corridor. "Okay, you head that way, and I'll--"

A low rumbling shook the hallway, and both Mark and Tiny dropped to the floor while the vibrations ran up their legs and hands. When his teeth started chattering too, Mark began to wonder if they were having an earthquake.

"Move out," he shouted to Tiny. "Just get out of the building. We'll figure out a way home once we're outside."

Tiny ran in the direction of an outside corridor while Mark headed for the interior, trying to find Princess, Keyop and Jason.

#

The PA system blared continuous instructions in Spectran, words Princess could barely comprehend due to the alarms and the speed at which they were issued.

Jason ran past her in another hallway, spraying almost at random with the fire extinguisher. Most of the floor surfaces were covered with slippery foam, and most of the Spectran guards she saw had foamy skid marks on their knees, buttocks and arms, along with trails in the foam like a ski slope.

Keyop's voice also came over the PA system every so often. "Help!" he was screaming. "Help! There's a fire! A fire! Oh my goodness -- we're all going to die! Help!"

Princess rounded a corner and ran smack into Zoltar's chest. He gripped her by the shoulder and whipped her around so he had her at his front. "Come with me!"

"Oh, save me!" she cried, turning to claw at his shoulders, as if trying to climb into his cape. "Save me! There's a fire!"

Behind her, she heard Jason run by spraying more foam. How much did one fire extinguisher hold? Or was he just using all of them in turn?

Zoltar marched her through the dark hallway, up the stairs, and into what had to be the command center for the base. There was power here: banks of computer screens and fluorescent lighting.

He threw her into a corner chair and ordered two guards to secure her. They said something in Spectran, and she obediently held out her wrists so they could bind her.

"You will talk to your father," Zoltar said, voice high with tension. "You will tell him you want to go home and that all of you are fine."

"But--" Princess blinked rapidly. "You want me to lie to my father?"

"Yes." Zoltar towered over her. "Yes, I do."

She sniffed. "But -- He's my daddy!"

She bawled again into her bound hands.

"For pity's sake!" Zoltar shook her by the shoulders. "If you want any of you to get out of here alive, you had better talk to him and tell him you're fine, otherwise, you will not be fine! You will be dead! Do you understand?"

Princess nodded. "Okay! Whatever you want! Okay!"

He flipped on the camera and said, "Chief Anderson, I have your daughter here."

A moment later, the Chief's image appeared on the screen. "Princess, honey, are you okay?"

Just off-camera, Zoltar had a gun pointed at her head. Princess sniffed and said, "Oh, Daddy, it's so scary here! Are you going to get us out?"

"There, there," the Chief said with an unaccustomed gentleness. "Are you all well?"

She looked at Zoltar, who still had the weapon pointed at her head. "We're fine, Daddy. I miss you."

"You'll be home soon. Daddy's going to send Zoltar the information he wants."

"And then we'll come home?" she sniveled, hating herself.

The Chief sighed. "Yes, sweetie, then you'll come home."

Zoltar pushed her out of the camera view, slamming her against a nearby console. He stood in front of the camera and said, "That's all I'm giving you. Send the data," then switched it off.

He strode toward Princess and grabbed her arm. "You come with me!"

She stumbled to her feet, then staggered forward off-balance and crashed against the console again. "Hey," she said, "is there a way to turn the power back on? I mean, it's all dark downstairs. And it's so loud! Can we turn off the alarms?"

With her hands still bound together, she started flipping switches on the control panels. Zoltar grabbed at her, but she twisted and slipped beneath his arms, then got to her feet again, and there it was.

She knew it had to be here: Zoltar always had one.

"Oh," she chirped brightly, "this one says Emergency!"

The Spectran word for "Self Destruct" did, actually, begin with a symbol that looked a lot like an E, and it was a rather long word. So she broke the glass over the button and pressed it.

A moment later, Zoltar had vanished from the control room, and Princess wore a wicked grin.

#

Mark made it outside the compound and sprinted to a sheltered spot where he could scan for the others.

He had to admit, Spectra had hidden this base well: only a few scattered shacks dotted the terrain, all looking ramshackled and impoverished, but every one of them an entrance to the massive underground bunker. The porthole for their cell turned out to have been cleverly hidden beneath an outcropping of rock; many rocks dotted the mountainside, and Mark realized the entire mountain might have been hollowed out to create a base.

From above, there was no obvious entrance for mecha or other aircraft. Mark had all along half-planned that they'd kidnap a pilot and force him to fly them back to civilization, but he had to scratch that now.

Their best bet, assuming he could find the others as they exited the base, would be simply to hike to the closest city (which might be two hundred miles away for all he knew -- and he didn't) and then get the ISO to send a transport. Rather non-ideal, all told.

A rumbling of the ground set Mark into a low crouch, and he waited, watching as a flood of Spectran greens emerged from the different shacks and a cave concealed behind some trees.

The ground rumbled again, and this time, Mark spotted a geyser of dirt spouting from the hillside, followed by pebbles and grit and plant matter raining down on the ground. He dove beneath a cluster of trees, shielding his head, while a dozen Spectrans did the same. Momentarily, a needle-nosed mecha emerged from the earth, its engines roaring low and loud enough that Mark had to hold his hands over his ears.

Zoltar's escape mecha? Or was it just the nose of something large enough to take down an entire city?

The silt whirling through the air became so thick that Mark couldn't have looked even if he'd tried. The noise and the darkness increased to hellish proportions while dirt granules pelted his exposed skin.

When the noise died down, Mark looked up to find Zoltar standing atop a rather small mecha, the type that would hold ten at most and could not, at best, flatten a city. Maybe a small city. It had some armaments, but his first blush analysis said "defensive" rather than "offensive."

Zoltar called to his men, "Fall in, you fools! Comb the mountainside! They have to be here somewhere!"

Then he added, "Shoot them on sight! I'll deliver the five bodies back to Anderson myself!"

Mark pressed closer to the nearest rock. He had nowhere to hide: that much he knew. And unless the other four had phenomenal good luck, which he'd never liked to rely on, they too would be exposed.

The commanding officers began rounding up groups of greens and laying out a search pattern across the mountain side. Mark did a couple of mental calculations and decided the search pattern would flush out two of them, with himself possibly being one, assuming all five had escaped the underground base.

Something he ardently hoped for, considering the black smoke pouring from the huts.

_Okay,_ he thought out to the universe in general, _if you've got one to spare, I could use a miracle right about now._

That's when Mark discovered that God does take-out.

#

Wedged between two large rocks, Keyop studied the search pattern of the Spectran greens, trying to calculate whether they'd encounter him in this very-concealed place. Rubbing his bracelet, he hoped not to have to transmute, but it would be better to transmute than to get a bullet in the head.

His heart thrummed, and he held a couple of feather shuriken in his fingertips for the one closest to him. There wasn't enough shelter for him even to slip into a guard's uniform without being seen, which would have been his first tactic should he be discovered underground.

As he waited, a green guardsman drawing closer, Keyop thought he heard a whining. As he turned his head, it developed into another roar.


Everyone on the mountainside pivoted at the same moment, staring, and in the next moment, Zoltar vanished into his mecha and added its own whining engines to the sound of the approaching Phoenix.

Keyop wanted to cheer, but in the debris cast up by the Phoenix's engines, he didn't dare open his mouth. Instead he ducked his head and covered his neck with his arms, and he waited.

Greens were running downhill as quickly as they could manage.

The _Phoenix_ thumped to an ungraceful landing, and the engines whined down.

Before Keyop could decide what to do, he heard Mark's voice over the general uproar: "Spectrans! Drop your weapons!"

Standing atop the _Phoenix's_ nose was Mark in full birdstyle, his cape waving in the wind, his birdrang in his raised hand and the sun at his back.

Zoltar's mecha took off at that moment, even as the greens continued to scatter.

Within three minutes, the entire area was clear, and the other four stood up to look at Mark, who turned toward the bubble dome atop the ship. A moment later, the bubble parted, and out stepped Chief Anderson.

#

"The designers know how to fly the ship just fine," the Chief said, "but they're no good in a combat situation. I was hoping that if I brought you the ship, you could use it to come home."

They reclined in the back room while the Chief treated their assortment of minor cuts and bruises. Two of ISO's technicians were piloting from the command center.

"I think we did all right," Mark said. "I don't believe we blew our identity, and once the _Phoenix_ showed up, Zoltar must have figured G-Force was aboard."

"Because you made it look that way," Jason said. "Chief, how did you know where Mark was?"

The Chief looked blank for a moment, then said, "I trained you guys. I figured he'd be up closer to the top of the mountain than the rest of you."

Princess grinned. "Well, at least that's it for now."

"You'll have to tell me what happened after I left," said Tiny.

"Ditto that from me," Mark said.

"They won't try to take us all again," said Keyop.

"Well, not all at once," Princess added.

"And not without three cases of philly cheesesteaks on hand!" exclaimed Tiny.

They all laughed as the _Phoenix_ flew home shadowed by the sunset.
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