Zoltar has finally figured it out. All the clues, all the skills, all the mysterious not-being-availables at short notice, the abandonment of a promising racing career...yup, he knows exactly who the Condor is.
Categories: Battle of the Planets Characters:
Jason, Keyop, Mark, Other Crossover Character, Princess, Tiny Harper
Mild Adult Situations, Mild Language, Mild ViolenceTimeframe:
Cross-Over, Mostly Canon
Cath's Battle AU
This is a crossover with Thunderbirds (the original series, not the modern movie), and is the sequel to Disaster in the South Pacific. I hope it doesn't matter if you're not familiar with Thunderbirds, but if you haven't read Disaster, I'd really recommend you read that one first.
1. Chapter 1 by cathrl
2. Chapter 2 by cathrl
3. Chapter 3 by cathrl
4. Chapter 4 by cathrl
5. Chapter 5 by cathrl
6. Chapter 6 by cathrl
7. Chapter 7 by cathrl
8. Chapter 8 by cathrl
9. Chapter 9 by cathrl
10. Chapter 10 by cathrl
11. Chapter 11 by cathrl
12. Chapter 12 by cathrl
13. Chapter 13 by cathrl
14. Chapter 14 by cathrl
Any chance you'll be around next Wednesday? I have to be in the area all week, but I can keep it clear if there's any chance of that flight you promised me. Give or take the possibility of short notice cancellations on either side, of course.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, sure.
Easiest if it goes through the books at some level. Come to the gate and have the guard buzz me at Team Seven. You know I'm a lieutenant, right?
I'll see you around ten. Looking forward to it. A lot.
"So what's this all about?" Scott hadn't bothered to hurry when his father had called a meeting in the villa's living room, since no alarm had been involved. At the look on Jeff's face, though, he wished he'd been here sooner.
Virgil's expression was equally worried, and Scott sat down beside him on the sofa, rapidly rethinking his planned quip about urgency. Gordon, too, was sitting forward in his favourite chair instead of lounging back as he usually did. And John's portrait was in communications mode, with the space monitor wearing the same expression of horrified concern as all the rest.
"Since you've deigned to join us, Scott, I'll start over," Jeff said. "Alan was due at a meeting at our San Francisco office at nine this morning. He never showed up."
Three years earlier, Scott would have cracked a joke about how his little brother was probably in bed with some hot chick, or had simply overslept, or decided his vacation was more important. Now, he just listened. They'd have already checked the obvious.
"The hotel staff are almost certain they saw him leave this morning - just with a briefcase. He didn't check out and wasn't expected to."
"Cab?" asked Virgil.
"It's only a hundred yards from the hotel. He'd have walked."
The phone chose that moment to ring, and Jeff picked it up. "Yes?"
"Are you sure?"
"No, nothing's come to me."
"Send it on over here. Any extra resources you need, let me know. And I'd appreciate it being kept quiet for the moment."
The phone went down, and Jeff looked round a room full of worried faces.
"That was Agent Sixteen. CCTV footage shows a man who may well be Alan talking to someone who pulled up in a car, and then getting in."
"Why would he do that?" Virgil asked, and then snorted. "Because they had a gun on him, of course. They're sending the footage over?"
Jeff nodded. "We'll analyse it here. If any of you were planning on going anywhere in the next few days, cancel it."
Sorry, rain check. Maybe some other time?
Damn. Mark shut down his email reader with a a physical vehemence which drew surprised glances from the other people sitting in the ready room. Just what he needed before their weekly Monday morning snooze-fest, more formally known as an overview briefing. A rundown of anything going on anywhere in the Federation of Peaceful Planets which Intelligence thought that G-Force should know about. It generally didn't run to a paperclip count, but some of the items in it were about as useful. He'd planned to spend the less useful parts of it figuring out how he could get Scott into the G-1 flight he'd been promised, and, indeed, how to bring him face to face with Anderson for a long-overdue discussion. A cancellation, while hardly unexpected given the nature of Scott Tracy's occupation, was most unwelcome.
"Problem?" Jason asked, putting down a magazine with a theatrical sigh. "Please tell me it's a problem."
"Something taking us far, far away from here," Tiny added. "Right away. Can't be delayed."
He shook his head reluctantly, trying not to smile. "Nothing like that. And I believe we have a meeting to go to?"
Keyop groaned out loud. "Stupid briefing. Boring and useless, every time."
"Until the time it isn't." Princess got to her feet, graceful as always. "Come, Keyop. Make Anderson's day, and be early for once." She put her guitar away in its case and headed for the door, casually certain that she would not be alone - and as usual, the male members of the team glanced at one another and followed her. Mark might command G-Force, Jason back him up, but in the ready room, and when it came to matters of civilian behaviour, Princess was their unquestioned leader.
"So what made you beat hell out of the keyboard?" Tiny asked as they trailed unenthusiastically down the corridor towards the briefing room.
Mark grimaced. "Scott was due to come over Wednesday. He just cried off."
"Did he say why? Nothing rescue-related on the news this morning."
"Even if there was, he'd not be sending emails about three days from now." Mark fiddled with his bracelet, caught himself doing it, and forced himself to relax. "It's odd. I hope he's not hurt."
"He probably had to fit in another business meeting," Princess added.
"Yeah. Must suck, being the heir of the richest man on the planet."
"Jason!" Princess turned half round, but continued to walk. "That's mean. He can't help who his father is. You shouldn't joke about it."
"What makes you think I'm joking?" Jason's shrug held a world of meaning which Mark could interpret only somewhat. They'd discussed this before, though. Jason had been unequivocal that he'd rather be the penniless orphan that he was, than spend half his life wearing a suit and worrying about contracts and stock prices.
And then they turned into the briefing room, and everything shifted to their own version of business mode. Princess took herself to the right hand side of the table, where the projector controls were located, while Mark and Jason went left. Commander's chair, at Anderson's right hand, and the second in command next to him. Keyop varied on which seat he took, depending on whether he felt Princess or Jason was more annoyed with him, and Tiny evened up the numbers as required. Today, with no awkwardness in the air, Keyop followed Princess and Tiny sat down alongside him, the chair creaking under the big man's weight as he leant back and put his hands behind his head.
"Why can't we have chairs this comfortable in the ready room?"
"Because you'd never come to briefing?" Keyop grinned and ducked simultaneously as Tiny aimed a mock swat at his head.
"Quiet, squirt. I haven't missed a briefing this year. And I've only been late twice."
"That's twice too many," came from Jason.
Mark considered the affronted expression on his pilot's face, the relaxed innocence on the face of the man who was late more often than the rest of them put together, and joined his team in a burst of laughter.
"I'm glad to see you all in such a good mood this morning!" Anderson commented, coming into the room just in time to catch the tail end. "I have good news for you. Today's briefing should take only a little over an hour."
Just like last week's, which came in at nearly three. Mark sat forward, glared at Keyop until he was at least pretending to pay attention, and waited for Anderson to take his seat and start.
Scott didn't know what Agent Sixteen did in real life, but he suspected law enforcement, and at a high level. Certainly sending a copy of the CCTV footage wasn't an issue for him. It showed up barely half an hour later, complete with notes as to the relevant time period, and a superposed arrow pointing to the person in question. Scott wouldn't have needed it. Even poor quality (did nobody ever clean the lenses of their security cameras?), low resolution, and even lower frame rate, there was no question that it was Alan. He'd have recognised the long casual stride and confident posture anywhere. The camera was located high up, and on the same side of the street that Alan was walking on. He came into shot from the left, already moving across towards a car pulled over with a passenger leaning out of an open rear door and apparently asking him something. Over he went, pointing down the road - and then simply got in, the door shut, and the car pulled out into the morning traffic.
Gordon used an expression that would have shocked Grandma, a sure sign of how serious he considered this. "He was snatched. Off the street in broad daylight. What's that car?"
Scott shrugged. "Big, black and generic. And we never get a view of the plates. Maybe we can clean up the face of the man in the back enough to do a photofit?"
"I...I...I...I don't think that w...w...w..."
Brains had to be particularly upset, to be stammering like that, and all three of the Tracy brothers bent over the computer screen turned towards him as he came through the door.
"What do you have?" Virgil asked.
In reply, Brains wordlessly held out a single sheet of glossy paper. It was an enhanced enlargement of part of the photo they'd all been looking at. Not the man's face, though - his left hand, on the doorframe. And on his third finger, a signet ring. Probably gold, with a large blood-red insert, and on it the black stylised face of a snarling cat in profile. Even heavily pixellated there was no mistaking the emblem of Spectra.
"Oh crap," Gordon said dully. "What do we do now?"
"We --" Scott started to say, but was interrupted by a flow of furious profanity from Virgil.
"We should never have gotten involved! Never, never, never. Next time you see me agreeing to rescue property, you can shoot me."
"I think we did the right thing," Gordon said. "And so did Alan."
"Not buying it. We don't rescue property for a reason. And the one time we break it, the one time I agree to anything so stupid, this happens. I should have known better."
Scott said nothing, barely recognising this furious man as his utterly calm and composed brother. Virgil never lost it, no matter how bad the situation. The worst of it was that Virgil almost certainly felt guilty because he'd been the most senior member of International Rescue without personal interest in the situation. Scott himself was sure that he'd have made the same decisions even had he not considered the commander of G-Force a friend - and his father had shown time and time again that he put International Rescue above friendship - but still, they had been personally involved, and Virgil hadn't been. He understood his brother's guilt, even if he considered it misplaced. He also knew that discussing it would be a waste of time.
"So what do we do now?" Gordon asked again.
This one he did manage to answer. "We call G-Force. I think we did the right thing too, floating the Phoenix for them - but it does seem likely that's where all this stems from. They owe us."
"Finally, a heads-up. Rumours are circulating that Spectra have captured the Condor."
Jason snorted delightedly. "Another miss for the green guys."
"It does mean that some poor bastard is in a cell being treated the way they'd like to treat you, though."
Jason looked slightly embarrassed at that, and Mark tucked the information away. Not that there was much he could do - but if they did end up on a mission, he could make sure the Condor was used somewhere highly visible. And, should it be possible, they could check the cells before they blew any Spectran bases sky-high. It wasn't something they normally spent time on. Unless somebody significant was missing, their time was better spent elsewhere. As Grant had pointed out to an unhappy Princess when their default mission parameters were being laid down, if Spectra thought that they could slow G-Force down by filling their cells with random civilians, they'd do it.
"And that's it for today. Stay sharp. It's been a while since we had an attack."
You can be sure there'll be one soon. Nobody said it, but they all knew what Anderson meant.
"What are you doing this afternoon?" Princess asked him as they walked back to the ready room.
"I don't know." He cast a disgusted glance through the window at the low grey clouds. They had become thick enough during their meeting to be dropping a steady fine drizzle which didn't look as if it would stop any time soon. "Not flying weather, and that was what I had planned."
"Not driving weather either," Jason said. "Want to come spar for a while?"
"Only if you promise to practice those left-footed kicks Sensei was on your back about."
Jason groaned. "Yeah, yeah. Would you believe that was why I suggested it?"
Actually, Mark would - but if Jason wanted to play the rebel, it was fine by him. He wasn't sure whether his second realised that Mark knew exactly how hard he practiced, but Mark had long since stopped worrying about it. Jason seemed more comfortable pretending that his skill owed nothing to practice, and since he blatantly had the skill, that was good enough.
He could hear the phone in the ready room ringing even through the soundproof door as they came round the corner - soundproof not being proof against cerebonically enhanced hearing - and Princess glanced at him and took off down the corridor. It was rare that anyone used it, since almost everyone who knew what the number was would also know that at this time on a Monday morning the entire team would be in a briefing. Mark didn't hurry. Most likely it was a double glazing salesman. Of course, that was why Princess was hurrying. If Keyop or Tiny answered it, they'd spend a happy ten minutes leading the unfortunate caller further and further on. Tiny's record was thirteen minutes - and, while the two of them enjoyed it, Princess had said she hated it, that the poor salesman was only doing his job, and that they should simply say they weren't interested and put the phone down.
He was therefore somewhat surprised to see her still on the phone as he got to the door. She glanced up, concern clear on her face, and held the phone out to him.
"Mark? It's Scott."
"You can come after all?" he asked, and only then processed the tone of Scott's voice.
"Not exactly. How secure is this line?"
Mark frowned at Princess. She might be politely pretending not to listen, but he knew she could hear every word. She gave him a thumbs-up.
"Secure. Go on."
"Alan's disappeared, in San Francisco. We have CCTV footage of him apparently being coerced into a car. The guy he's talking to is wearing a Spectran ring."
Mark stared across the room, processing. "Are you sure?"
"He's sure." Jason grabbed the phone, and Mark was so shocked he didn't even try to snatch it back. "Scott? Remember those media rumours about Alan being the Condor? Well, we just heard that Spectra think they've captured me." He handed the phone back to Mark, unapologetic, and Mark simply took it. He hadn't remembered the rumours, but that surely couldn't be a coincidence.
"Jason?" Scott asked.
"It's Mark. I think you should come here as fast as you can and bring all the data you have. I'll meet you at the gate."
There was a long pause. Long enough for Mark to hope that Scott was thinking along the same lines he was. Finally, he answered, "I'll do that. I'll be with you in two hours, tops. I'll call you when I land and give you a time."
The phoneline went dead without any further pleasantries, and Mark looked round to frowns of confusion.
"Why didn't you ask him to send the data?" Princess asked.
"I don't want Anderson sending us out on a standard base-busting mission if there's a location in it. I doubt Scott's that naive in the first place, but we owe them."
Tiny frowned. "I still don't get it."
"Scott can make it a condition of handing over the data that we make it a rescue mission, not a base bust." Jason leaned against the table, it being, Mark suspected, as close as he could get to standing shoulder-to-shoulder to give support without walking all the way round it. "As it should be. They broke their operational rules to get us the Phoenix back. Like Mark said. We owe them."
"'Another miss for the green guys'?" Tiny asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Bad call on my part, okay? As far as I'm concerned, if someone knows my real name, they're on the 'gets rescued' list."
"I hadn't considered that," Mark said slowly.
"We'd best get him back quickly, then, hadn't we?"
At times like these, Mark was more than glad to have the commander of Team Seven fully aware of exactly who he was. No need to concoct some complicated cover story; he'd gone to Nykinnen's office and told him he needed a pass for a visitor to be ready in two hours, and Nykinnen had nodded calmly. There was something reassuringly unflappable about the big blond Swede, despite the unmitigated chaos which was his office.
"I've torn strips off you for leaving the arrangements so late, of course," Nykinnen said with a wry smile. "I'll need his name."
"Scott Tracy. As in Tracy Industries."
This time Nykinnen's eyes widened. "Ah. Consider it done. Anything else I need to know?"
Mark shook his head. "Except that you may not see me or Jason for a few days."
"I see. Good luck, and I'll see you when you're back." He moved several files onto a different pile on his desk, picked up the phone which had been under them, and pressed a couple of buttons. "Nykinnen here, CO of Team Seven. One of my underlings screwed up. I have a visitor arriving in an hour or so, and no badge for him. Can I owe you a favour?"
He gave Mark a thumbs-up as he leant back in the big black chair, and Mark slipped quietly out of the office.
Ninety minutes later found him waiting in the gatehouse, playing possibly his least favourite role: Team Seven idiot. He might outrank the gatehouse staff, but he strongly suspected they had put two and two together and made at least seven. After all, who else would Commander Nykinnen send to wait around for his visitor than the incompetent junior who had failed to arrange his visit properly? Mark could practically see the thought bubbles over their heads, no matter how professional they were. They'd be asking themselves questions about his age, being surprised that his standard grey ISO security officer's uniform appeared to be more than a few weeks old, so he couldn't be one of this year's Academy graduates despite his youth, and wondering what other joyful tasks Nykinnen would have lined up for him. He leaned against the wall in a posture intended to be read as 'slightly embarrassed' and considered how to take things from here. Anderson would, he was pretty sure, go completely ballistic.
He almost didn't recognise the immaculately dressed man who pulled up at the barrier and got out of the car before the gate staff could go over to him. He was used to seeing Scott in a flight suit. He'd seen him casually dressed, and also seen him in the powder blue of International Rescue. Now he was wearing an immaculately tailored charcoal grey suit, and a cream shirt with toning slightly darker tie...he looked like a high-powered businessman. Of course, Mark corrected himself, he is a high-powered businessman. He's the heir to Tracy Industries. He spends half his life in meetings. He worries about share prices and stock options and takeovers.
But it still looked wrong.
"Lieutenant?" the guard called to him. "You're here to meet Captain Tracy?"
"That's right." Mark snapped to upright and walked swiftly across to the door. "Captain Tracy? I'm Lieutenant Jarrald. Commander Nykinnen sent me to escort you."
There was the barest hint of a frown - Scott probably had no idea who Nykinnen was, after all - and then he held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant. And it's Mr. Captain was a long time ago, back when Sergeant Richards and I were in the Air Force together."
Richards still snapped off a salute, a broad grin on his face. "Good to see you again, sir. I'll put in a good word for you, if you're coming to work for ISO."
"Not just yet, I'm afraid." Scott shook Mark's hand, keeping up the pretence that they didn't know one another, and handed him a car key. "It would be simpler if you drove."
"Of course, sir." Mark got in to the driver's seat and promptly wished he was taller. There was no way he could even reach the pedals in a car which was set up for Scott - the man had an embarrassing six inches of height on him, maybe a little more. He applied himself to moving the seat forwards and up until he could actually see over the steering wheel, and by that time Scott had climbed in the other side.
Neither of them said anything until the car was a hundred yards down the drive and out of range of curious guards thinking it looked a whole lot like they knew one another already. At that point Scott shifted slightly in his seat. "Want to fill me in on what's happening?"
"Nothing? Mark, I surely don't have to explain to you that time's of the essence here."
"No, you don't." Mark glanced sideways. He could see the tension in Scott's posture, and hated what he was going to say. "But I have something to explain to you. IR don't rescue property. Well, G-Force don't rescue hostages. You broke your rules for us and we plan to do the same for you. But Anderson has no reason to go with that. Especially not if he already had the information from you."
"You don't rescue hostages? You're kidding."
"There are five of us. We don't have time. It also pretty much stops Spectra bothering to take them."
Scott nodded slowly, his face set. "I can see that. Except when it's my kid brother."
"It's your kid brother, he was involved in digging us out of a huge hole, and he's almost certainly been snatched because Spectra think he's Jason."
"About that." The tension was clear on Scott's face. "Were you going to tell me?"
Mark just snorted - they didn't have time for this, and if that meant he had to be completely candid then so be it. "We'd just come out of a meeting where there was a throwaway comment about Spectra thinking they'd captured the Condor. I hadn't made the connection. Jason's the brains of the outfit when it comes to lateral thinking."
"So Anderson doesn't know I'm here?"
"Anderson knows nothing about this at all. Do you have the footage?"
Scott nodded, holding up a data stick.
"I recommend you give it to me."
"After what you just said?"
"Technically, Anderson could have you searched and confiscate it. Grant would do it without a moment's hesitation."
"And if they order you to give it up?"
"You saved our lives. I'd refuse." At least, he was pretty sure he'd refuse. He was more sure that Anderson would be too worried about him refusing to let it get that far.
In any case, he appeared to be convincing enough. Scott held out the data stick, and Mark pocketed it, slowing down to leave plenty of space for a truck going the other way. And then they came round the corner and out of the trees, and Scott gasped.
"I guess it has." They'd already been expanding ISO when Mark arrived here, but he did remember when the original building had still been visible. These days it was completely hidden behind impersonal modern concrete, haste and utility being far more important than architectural excellence during a war. Some of the buildings were nine or ten storeys, and went down as far below ground. It looked like a city block transplanted into the countryside, and about as many people lived and worked in it too.
"So if Anderson doesn't know, how did you get me in?"
Mark grinned. "I told my commander to sort it. You know I said I'm officially a lieutenant? Well, Nykinnen is the commander of Team Seven, the training team everyone else thinks I'm on."
"But he does what you say?"
"Oh, he knows who I am."
Scott nodded, but showed no real interest in continuing the conversation, and Mark mentally kicked himself. The man's brother was a Spectran captive - and, military though he had been, that was a while ago and not, he suspected, as part of the sort of close-knit team that both International Rescue and G-Force were. G-Force coped with the threat of torture and death at the hands of the enemy by the use of casual banter at all times, including the most inappropriate. Scott almost certainly had never needed to.
"I'm taking you into black section via the back door," he said. "I don't have a black section pass for you. I don't think anyone will challenge you, not with me - but don't wander off, not even two steps, and if they do, you put your hands over your head and you leave the talking to me."
Mark headed for the building's underground parking lot without trying to explain further. He didn't know how this was going to pan out, and at that point no explanation was better than a wrong one. Scott didn't ask, either. Mark doubted that Scott Tracy ever showed astonishment, but he was certainly looking around and taking everything in before they reached the ramp into the first level of the parking lot and the views of ISO Headquarters were gone.
He seemed to pay less attention to the parking lot. It wasn't at all interesting, after all. The only non-standard part was the car elevators along one wall, all going down to different levels. High security parking more inaccessible than a ramp and a barrier would have made it, not that unusual in the military. Elevator one looked exactly like all the rest. Concrete floor, similar ceiling, grey steel walls with the odd dent where people had driven in less accurately than they should have. On either side, situated so they were accessible from an open car window, was a standard ISO access terminal. Mark pulled into the bay, leant out and typed in his access code - and then, once the access door had dropped and nobody could see in, fished his bracelet from his pocket and applied it to the handprint scanner over the centre of the palm area.
"Someone could steal that and get in," Scott said as the elevator began to drop.
"Only if they knew about it. If someone managed to force me this far, to put my code in, it's a handprint scanner. They're going to make me put my hand on it, not my bracelet. And my hand with that code will trigger an instant lockdown and emergency alarm. Silent in here. They'd be taken down the moment they got out of the car."
"I just hope it's never needed."
"What if they tried it with Alan?"
"They're hardly likely to find out where the entrances to ISO black section are from him."
Scott flinched visibly. "Do you think they'll torture him?"
"I don't know. I'm hoping not. They know it's never worked on Jason, when they've held him in birdstyle. Maybe they'll try something else."
"If they go for a week of solitary, it'll be a week before they question him. They don't understand human psychology. It's saved us before." He tried to sound reassuring, but he was aware that it was flimsy at best. No, their attempts at torturing Jason had never worked, but then they'd never got their hands on Jason out of birdstyle. He planned not to mention that particular fact to Scott.
The elevator grated to a halt, and Mark pulled forward almost before the front door had fully retracted into the ceiling. "Sergeant," he said casually through the still open window, as a middle-aged man in ISO grey with the badges of black section security levelled his weapon.
The gun dropped. "Commander," he responded. "I don't have a security badge for your passenger?"
"No, you won't have. I'll take him up and get one. Come, Scott." He got out of the car, making sure that it was obvious he'd had plenty of opportunities to raise the alarm should he be under duress.
Even so, the guard clearly wasn't happy about it. Not happy at all - and he was right not to be, since, commander of G-Force or not, Mark shouldn't be bringing visitors in this way. But Mark continued to stare him down, all the time smiling in a friendly, casual manner, and eventually he nodded. "Of course, Commander." He turned and waved to the glass window behind him, and a second guard came out, saluted Mark smartly, and got into the driver's seat.
"They'll park it on the level that elevator normally goes to," Mark said. "You'd have to be paying remarkably close attention, and have multiple people comparing notes, to realise that it took far too long to get there and that the driver's changed."
Scott nodded, looking around. This had to be black section, given the security in the elevator. It didn't look anything special. Underground concrete box with guardpost. He'd seen a hundred just like it, in multiple Air Force bases over the years. He'd also seen the guards defer to high-ranking officers, allowing them to do things which even as a captain he'd never have got away with. These two, in their late thirties and with all the appearance of long-serving, trusted soldiers, had reacted in exactly that way to an eighteen year old with scruffy hair and a junior lieutenant's uniform. That, more than anything, brought it home to him that Mark was the commander of G-Force. The senior field commander of ISO's forces - possibly of the whole of Galaxy Security.
He'd been down here before. No guardpost then, of course. No underground parking lot; no back entrances; and one concrete tunnel looked very like another. The time he'd come down had been early on, a few days after he'd been implanted. They'd been shown the giant hangar which would eventually hold the Phoenix. It had been in the last stages of construction, still rough, still missing the sea doors which they'd been told would open to flood the chamber with seawater and allow its revolutionary underwater launch. He'd stood there, his mind full of interstellar flight, dreaming of his future, and the hangar had been a tangible sign of what it would be. There were doors here which might have been the one they'd gone through to reach it. He really couldn't tell. They were all the same. He'd been so sure that he would be back. He'd never dreamt that it would be half a decade later, as a civilian.
"Coming?" Mark had headed down the corridor while he was dreaming, and now stood by the door at the end. That one, Scott belatedly realised, was slightly different in that it had a digital readout over the top. An elevator, not just a door. Mark held his bracelet to it, followed it up with a palmprint, and then typed in a code, before gesturing Scott inside.
It was just an elevator, large enough for maybe ten people. Grey carpet, mirror on the back wall, a numerical keypad with no hint of what you should press to get it to work, generic enough that he couldn't remember whether it was the one he'd used before. And it was fast - Mark pressed something, and it took off upwards with enough acceleration to make him stagger.
"Sorry," Mark said.
"No worries." He leant against the wall, concentrating on keeping his breathing even and his shoulders relaxed. The worst of it was that he was having trouble worrying about Alan right now. Dealing with Anderson was far higher on his list of concerns.
The elevator slowed, just as abruptly as it had accelerated. This time Scott was ready for it and steadied himself without problem.
"Stay close," Mark said, and the door opened. Scott steeled himself and followed as the other headed off at a brisk walk, trying to look inconspicuous. It wasn't easy, not for someone of his height.
He didn't recognise anything up here either. When he'd been here ISO headquarters had been a single, if sprawling, building, the only security a man on the gate and a few others who wandered round the grounds occasionally. Now he could see an armed guard in every direction he looked - and that was after all the codes and palm readers and checks to get this far.
Mark didn't slow down until he turned sharply off the big corridor and into a much narrower one. Then, he raised his bracelet to his mouth. "G-2?"
"We're in briefing room one," Jason's voice sounded tinnily from the bracelet.
"Good." He accelerated again, and as the passage opened out into another wider corridor, Scott suddenly did recognise it. Lower ceilings, and an old-fashioned window looking out over the grounds towards the ocean. He'd lived a couple of floors above here, trained in a gym somewhere off to the left. There had been a room full of flight simulators opposite that window, possibly where the passage now was. He was quite certain that the passage was new.
"Here," Mark said, stopping so suddenly that Scott almost fell over him, and pushing the door open.
He recognised this room, too. It even had the same furniture: a huge oval table, pale wood round the edges and a raised black insert in the middle, and upwards of twenty black leather chairs around it. The walls were panelled in the same wood, though the black stripe, matching that on every wall he'd seen so far, was new. The rest of G-Force were seated towards the head end of the table, though both the chair at the head and the one to its right were empty.
"Morning," Jason said. "Have a seat."
"We're so sorry about Alan," Princess added. "We want to help."
And so you should. Scott hesitated for a moment, eyeing the seats. He'd always sat in the same one - fourth one down, on the right hand side. It was empty. Anderson would notice if he took it - he was quite certain of it. Then again, Anderson would notice if he didn't take it, and assume he couldn't bear to. Scott nodded to Tiny, in the seat next along, and sat down in his old place.
"Chief?" Mark said, and Scott belatedly realised he was talking into the bracelet again. "I'm calling a code zero meeting. Now, in briefing room one. We're waiting for you."
He couldn't hear more than the startled tone coming from the bracelet. Mark simply said, "I'll explain when you get here, Chief." He lowered his left arm. "Scott, anything you want to say before he gets here?"
He nodded, as a realisation swept over him. He'd been military once. He'd never have dared do what these kids were doing now - it would have been court-martial, or worse. And yet, here was Mark, incriminating information in his pocket, preparing to defy his standing orders - and his team was here too, behind him to a man. Or girl. Or kid.
"I appreciate this."
"We'll find him," Tiny said, and the door opened.
Anderson hadn't apparently changed at all in the five years since Scott had last seen him. Even back then it had been a standing joke among Scott's fellow recruits that every shirt in his wardrobe was identical.
He'd been completely unflappable back then, too. There was no visible reaction to Scott's presence at all. Not a flicker. Just a calm, "Good morning, Mr Tracy," and then a single raised eyebrow at the young man standing on the other side of the table. "Mark, I believe you owe me an explanation."
"That report about Spectra capturing the Condor? We think they have Scott's brother Alan."
"Alan..." Anderson walked to the head of the table, pulled out the chair and sat down. Mark took the place to his right. "Alan's your youngest brother, am I right?"
"He's an astronaut and a race driver, and the media think he's the Condor," Jason said. "And we're going after him."
Scott would not have liked to be on the receiving end of the look which Mark shot his second. Jason raised an unrepentant eyebrow and leaned back in his chair, his arms folded. Scott had worked with people like Jason before. Utterly reliable, utterly dependable - and about as subtle as a wrecking ball.
"Thank you for that, Jason," Anderson said with a wry smile. "Shall we cut to the chase here, Mark? Is this your plan?"
"Aim," said Mark. "My plans are generally a little more thorough."
"Generally? But not in this case?"
"I don't have enough intel to make a plan yet."
Anderson took a long look at the young man. Another one at Scott himself, sufficiently piercing that he felt almost uncomfortable enough to drop his gaze. The rest of the team, with the exception of Jason, were carefully looking at the table. And Jason had, of course, already played his hand.
"Now is someone going to tell me why Scott Tracy is here?"
"Because you don't rescue hostages," Scott said. "I'm here to tell you that I have information which will help you. If you make an exception for Alan, you can have it."
Scott met his eyes. He wasn't subordinate here, and he wasn't going to play Anderson's games. "That's it. You can have the information on the condition that when G-Force use it, recovering Alan is one of the mission parameters."
"I could just say that to get rid of you."
Jason snorted. "You could. You seriously think we'd forget you made the deal?"
Mark glared again.
"Because I --"
"Jason, shut up." Mark was on his feet. "Chief, this is us making a stand. You know we don't do this often. International Rescue put themselves at serious risk for us. They got us back the Phoenix, at a time when we didn't have a spare. We owe them. I told them that. They are cashing the favour in. Now, I could just have taken the team out. I'd prefer for this to be an authorised mission."
"Once is too often for mutiny, Mark."
The young man's eyes never wavered. "I know that. Don't make me do it, Chief."
Anderson looked at Scott, back to Mark. Sighed, and looked back to Scott. "I give you my word that Alan's recovery will be one of the mission parameters should a relevant mission take place." There was a sideways look at Jason. "I strongly suspect that G-Force will consider it as such regardless of the orders I give. But I won't promise to send them out into a deathtrap, and I won't send them out at all without a realistic target. You're a military man, Scott. You know that."
He did know that. And, much as he'd have liked to push for a promise of a rescue mission at all costs, he knew Anderson would never promise it. Or, knowing Anderson, he'd promise it and then find perfectly good reasons why it was impossible. No, this was all he was going to get. He glanced at Mark.
"Give it to him."
And Mark just nodded, dug a hand in his jacket pocket, and handed Anderson the memory stick.
Anderson favoured the G-Force commander with another long and particularly pointed stare, before turning his attention to the memory stick.
"So, what do we have here?"
Princess held her hand out for it, a question in her eyes, and Anderson handed it over. Scott took a deep breath - while conclusive that Spectra had Alan, he doubted the footage would be a great deal of use - and made his decision. He needed to come absolutely clean.
"It's security camera footage of Alan being taken. One of the men is wearing a Spectran signet ring."
Princess had inserted the memory stick into the tabletop viewer as he spoke, and the relevant pictures appeared on the screen behind Anderson. The security chief turned round and considered them as Princess paged through them slowly - the car appearing from traffic, pulling over, Alan appearing from the bottom of the screen and speaking to the man, Alan getting into the car, it driving off. The last one was the closeup of the ring, and Scott held his breath. He knew it wasn't much.
"Is that all?" Anderson asked, and he nodded.
" There may be license plates on earlier shots, or maybe different cameras. We're looking now. And our people are doing face recognition."
"They won't get anything." Anderson shook his head. "I'm sorry, Scott. I really am. I'll get our people to look at it, but I think your brother has gone. I don't see anything there which gives us even a hint of where to start looking --"
"Go back two frames," Jason said quietly.
Scott turned to look at him in surprise. The bluster and attitude were gone, replaced with an intense, calm focus which was at odds with everything he'd ever heard about the Condor or seen from Jason. The young man was sitting forward, eyes half closed, arms folded on the table, apparently oblivious to everyone else in the room.
Nobody said anything. Princess took the image back the requested two frames, and they sat and waited.
"I've seen that man before," Jason said finally. "The guy in the back seat."
"Is he a goon?" Mark asked.
"No. No, I don't think so. He was wearing a mask, but not a standard one..." He groaned in frustration. "Great. Now I'm gonna have to go through mission tapes."
"He's left-handed," Princess said.
"What makes you think that?" Anderson asked her.
"Well, it's a bad picture, but..." She zoomed in, not on his left hand with the ring, but on his right hand, down in the shadows behind the seat. "That looks like a wristwatch strap to me."
There was indeed the hint of something paler there: a few pixels which were pale grey rather than dark grey shading to black.
"Some people choose to wear their watches on the wrong hand," Tiny said. "My stepdad always does. He's not left-handed."
"Drivers..." Jason tailed off, staring at the screen. "Not a mask, a helmet. He's a rally driver. He drives something right hand drive so he wears his watch not on his gearstick hand. And he's an arrogant little sod. Lucy --"
He cut off as if someone had slapped him, as all his teammates twitched. Whoever Lucy was, it clearly wasn't a happy memory for any of them.
"Africa 9000," said Mark quietly. "Princess --"
"I'm on it."
"If he's a driver, maybe Alan knew him," Scott said. "That could explain why he went over to the car in the first place. He's had the same anti-kidnap precautions drilled into him as the rest of us; he should never have gone near that car. But someone who he recognised calling over to him and asking for directions..."
"Why would Alan recognise a rally driver?" Jason asked.
"Maybe he does track too," Mark said. "You do."
"I don't race single seaters. Though some people..." He closed his eyes and opened them again. "I know who he is."
It was cold, and somebody seemed to have stolen all the blankets. The mattress, too. And why was his head full of cotton wool? Alan opened his eyes a crack, and closed them again hastily as his stomach turned over. Food poisoning? Father was always telling him he shouldn't eat at kebab vans. But...he'd woken up fine the next morning, hadn't he? Eaten breakfast and everything? His memory told him he shouldn't be in bed right now. Actually, his body was telling him the same thing - it felt as if he was lying on a wooden floor.
He opened his eyes again, just a crack. It wasn't pitch dark, at least. There was a curved clear wall in front of him, water on the far side, and he could see fish. Had he gone to an aquarium? He didn't remember doing so, and in any case why would they have left him alone and passed out?
Memory returned, slowly and fuzzily. He'd been walking to the conference centre and someone in a car had called him over. That Aussie guy who raced for the new team. Jason...no, not Jason. Jason was a different Aussie driver. He couldn't remember what this one was called right now, but it would come back. In any case, Alan had followed protocol and done what the man holding a gun on him had asked. He'd got in the car. It had pulled away. He'd been analyzing the situation, planning when to make his move, when the guy had stuck him with a needle of some sort in his other hand. After that, he remembered nothing.
He took his time, steadying himself, making sure he wasn't about to throw up, and slowly opened his eyes properly. The floor was grey plastic, not wood, and not at all warm. The lighting in here was dim and green. It wasn't even large enough for him to stand up in here - apart from the flat section of floor, the walls and ceiling were one continuous clear spherical bubble, barely five feet in diameter, with a single narrow hose coming in through one wall and a couple of bars supporting it about ten feet away from a much larger structure. There was no question; this was a prison cell, and not one he'd be escaping from any time soon. And, he realised belatedly, they'd taken his clothes, leaving him with only his underwear, and it was cold in here. Not cold enough to be fatal - he didn't think - but certainly cold enough to make him shivery and uncomfortable, and for his muscles to be deeply unhappy.
This was the point where he should take stock. Consider what he had available to help him escape, or get a message out. The answer was a big fat nothing. His wrist communicator had been removed, the edible transmitter had been in the pocket of his jacket, also gone. No furniture in here. No electronics. No removable fittings. Nothing at all.
He'd not moved yet - hiding that you were awake was another item on the list of things he'd been told to do if he was ever captured - but he wasn't going to learn anything more by pretending to to be asleep. Alan pushed himself to a sitting position, barely controlling a warning lurch from his stomach, wrapped his arms round his knees to keep himself as warm as possible, and waited.
The light level outside didn't seem to be changing at all. Did that mean they were so deep that daylight couldn't filter down this far, or just that he hadn't sat through a dawn or dusk period yet? Even his body wasn't doing him any favours. He'd expected to need to pee by now, and had been trying not to think about it, given the total lack of facilities in his bubble cell. Either the drug they'd used had had some strange side-effects, or he was already significantly dehydrated. That wasn't good. They'd have to give him water soon, wouldn't they? Hot food would be good, too. His hunger made him aware that the nausea had subsided. If only he wasn't so cold. He stayed wrapped up, and waited.
He'd thought it wasn't cold enough to be fatal, but long term, was that true? And how long had he been unconscious? Three days without water, you could survive. Alan considered his surroundings, and a nasty suspicion crept into his awareness and refused to go away. It took humans three days to die without water. Did Spectrans know that? The fact he was still alive meant they didn't want him dead, he knew that...but if they killed him by mistake, it wouldn't be much of a comfort that they hadn't intended to.
He couldn't tell how long he'd sat there. It felt like six hours or more, but he was aware that meant it was probably closer to two. Plenty of time for them to realise he was awake. It was time to try something else, before he stopped being able to function at all. He'd started to feel warmer. He knew that wasn't good.
"Hey!" he yelled towards the airhose, after an initial failed croak. "What's going on? I want to talk to whoever's in charge!"
For a long moment there was no response, then he heard a low chuckle. "And I thought it would take so much longer. Very well. You can come and talk."
The wall in front of his cell split vertically, bright light spilling out, and his bubble began to move towards the opening.
"Big Cat Racing," said Mark in disgust. "How did someone not see that as a Spectran front?"
"Someone being me? Half the teams out there have names you could draw conclusions from," Jason said. "I'm pretty sure Jaguar aren't Spectran, despite the cat name and the green cars."
"I guess so. Chief, what now?"
"Now we ask our intelligence teams what they know about Big Cat Racing."
Keyop groaned. "Just go splat them?"
"If they know we're onto them, they could kill Alan," Princess said calmly.
"I think we should at least go look," Mark said. "Their headquarters is in Australia, I presume? What if Alan's there, waiting for pickup?"
"We have no reason to believe he is," said Anderson, typing.
"Or there might be info there. What time of day is it in Australia right now, Jason?"
His second rolled his eyes. "In which of the three timezones?"
"It's very early morning in all of them," said Anderson. "No, I am not sending you out to raid their headquarters - it would be midmorning by the time you got there. Now I want you to back off and let the intelligence guys do their jobs. I know this is personal for you. Are you going to stay professional, or do I need to ask for your bracelets?"
Scott worked to keep his jaw from dropping. If someone had treated him like that, insulted his ability to do his job, he'd have been beyond livid. G-Force appeared to consider it normal. He hadn't appreciated that the "field" part of Mark's title meant he had almost no authority away from the field. If he had done, maybe he'd have suggested that his father should try talking to Anderson instead.
Their silence seemed to be enough for Anderson. "Make sure Mr Tracy is signed in correctly, please," he said calmly, gathered his papers, and walked out.
No, approaching Anderson directly probably wouldn't have been a better idea.
"I hate this part," Mark sighed. "Waiting for intel is horrible. Scott, you'd best come with me to jump through the hoops at the front desk. I'm afraid you're going to have to live with being photographed today."
Twenty minutes later he had been presented with a visitor's photocard on a lanyard, and told in carefully simple English terms that he was not to take it off or stray away from his guide. He decided not to mention to the security officer that he'd been a US Air Force captain and was entirely familiar with the concept of high level security. She was only doing her job. It must be galling being outranked by a pack of teenagers, and knowing that you could never, ever be promoted to their level.
"So, are you my guide for today?" he asked Mark as they walked away.
"For now. We'll not worry about the guided tour, though." His face was set hard. Scott guessed Mark liked the sitting around and waiting for confirmation every bit as much as he did.
"Is there anything we can do?" he asked.
His instinct was starting to remember this place, at least the parts of it in the older building down the winding corridor. His instinct told him Mark was leading him to the common room he'd shared with his fellow implantees. His feet knew how many steps it was from the door to the meeting room, and which side of the corridor it was on, and his hands knew that it was a bar handle, on the right of the door, and at what height. And that on the far side of the room would be two windows looking out towards the ocean.
The rest of the room was changed...or at least not familiar. He certainly didn't remember the big bank of screens on the wall to the left of the windows. At the moment, they were showing slow motion footage of a rally, head-on shots of a driver in a full helmet being bounced around in his seat.
"Morning," Jason said as they came in, pausing the tape. "We found some footage of our guy."
"Is it going to tell us anything?" Mark asked.
Jason jerked his chin towards the screens. "Blue eyes, blond hair. He's not Spectran."
Scott frowned. "Does that matter?"
"It means I'm not a complete moron, at least."
"It's better than that," Princess said, from where she was sitting on the sofa. "It means he didn't start out working for Spectra. He was recruited here on Earth. If we can figure out when and where, it might give us some insight into what's going on. Do you have his school records yet, Keyop?"
The Swallow - Scott had real trouble thinking about him as anything other than 'the kid' - glared at the screen of his laptop. "Yes. Ordinary schools. Left five years ago. Didn't go to college."
"Was he expected to?"
Keyop shrugged. "Don't speak Australian."
"Let me see." Jason vaulted casually over the back of the sofa and squinted at the screen. "No, he wasn't. Not with those results. So, when did he start working for Big Cat?"
There was a scowl, and Keyop began scrolling through what looked like tax records at a speed which made Scott's eyes ache. "Three years ago. Bit more. Wasn't doing anything before that."
"We've seen that before," Princess said. "Left school, not many qualifications, couldn't find work, and they offered him plenty of money and told him how wonderful and unappreciated he was. Probably didn't even tell him they were Spectra for a while. He may not even know now."
"He knows," Jason said. "He's wearing their damn ring. He just kidnapped someone at gunpoint. I know you'd like everyone to be innocent pawns, Princess, but no. He's working for Spectra. They were right about him being unappreciated, though. He's one hell of a good driver."
Tiny glanced up from his own computer screen and caught Scott's eye. "In case you hadn't guessed, that means 'likely to be the next world champion'."
"I'd guessed." Not going to be now, though. Not if I can help it. Let's just hope it's not a murder charge I land him with. Instead Scott said, "What can I do?"
"I'm wondering if Big Cat buy anything beyond what you'd expect for a racing team," Tiny said. "Aircraft parts, for instance."
Jason glanced up from where he was leaning over Keyop's shoulder. "Serious racing cars use a lot of aircraft components."
"And Spectran mecha use a lot of aircraft parts which wouldn't fit in a racing car. Since we've got someone here who's from the world's largest supplier of aircraft parts..."
"You want me to see if Big Cat buy from Tracy Aerospace, and if so, what?" Scott nodded. "I'll see what I can do. Can I have a computer? And I'll need to use my communicator."
"Yes, Big Cat Racing," Scott's voice said over the phone. "Australian company. Anything and everything they've bought from Tracy Aerospace. Call me back on this number."
Virgil frowned. "Why aren't you using your communicator?"
"It would have set off every alarm this place has, apparently. Wasn't worth the effort of getting it cleared."
Gordon shifted. "But nobody's out looking?"
"We have to find where to look first. It's frustrating as hell, but this is a good lead. Has John come up with anything yet?"
"Except that there are far too many flights taking off near San Francisco for the good of the environment, no." Virgil had just had this conversation. John had come as close to yelling at him as he had in a long time, and he was right. A huge urban area like that had non-scheduled flights leaving all the time in every possible direction. There was no way to even guess which might have contained Alan. Or even if any of them had. He could be locked in a warehouse five miles from where he'd been captured and they wouldn't know.
"Nothing from Alan's edible transmitter?"
Virgil raised his eyebrows, secure in the knowledge that this was a voice-only phone line. Oh, didn't I mention that we know exactly where he is? Instead he said, "No, nothing. Big Cat Racing. We'll get onto it."
Miranda at their Australian office was more than a little startled to get a phonecall from a real live Tracy brother, but it did make her extremely efficient and eager to help. Yes, she'd heard of Big Cat Racing - who hadn't? They were Australia's only Formula One team. Yes, they had an account and bought regularly. Yes, she'd be only too happy to send all the details over, and of course she'd be sitting right here only too delighted to answer any extra questions Virgil might have. It was such a pleasure talking to him...
Virgil carried on being polite until the information appeared on his screen, and then rapidly excused himself and put the phone down before she could carry on any more.
"Practically arranging the wedding," Gordon said. "What do we have?"
"Give me a moment."
Whatever her amorous fantasies, Miranda had certainly been thorough. She'd sent a whole swathe of information through - every order for the past four years, the initial credit checks Tracy Aerospace had done when deciding how to deal with a brand new startup company, and all the emails discussing their requirements. Not that there were many. Everything Big Cat had ordered was small. The same sorts of things other motor racing companies bought from them: mostly nuts and bolts with higher heat and stress tolerances than you normally found, but which were common in aircraft construction.
"Hold on," said Gordon as Virgil was about to flick past yet another. "What's that comment about compatibility? VF73-97 - that doesn't look like one of our part numbers."
Virgil glanced curiously at him, and Gordon grimaced. "Your cover's 'artist and designer'. Mine's 'crippled son given a high level desk job out of sympathy', remember? I try not to sound completely incompetent if someone from the company asks me a question I might be expected to be able to answer. We don't have VF codes, and all our components have three digits after the hyphen. Plus my spider sense is tingling. I've seen that code somewhere."
Virgil was prepared to run with a hunch for a little while, at least. He fired up John's custom search engine, and typed it in. And they both sat and stared.
"Told you I'd seen it before," Gordon said after a while. "The only question is: why does a racing team care about its shock absorber mounts being compatible with a deepwater sub's airlock system?"
"I don't know." Virgil frowned at the screen. It made no sense at all. The part in question was a big, heavy system capable of dealing with being regularly flooded with high pressure seawater. You wouldn't use it anywhere but underwater. Which meant...
"I'm taking Four for a little trip," Gordon said. "Test the sensors."
"You've said that before." Virgil shook his head, trying to put the authority he knew Scott would have had behind his voice. "What are you planning?"
"Just a little trip. I'm probably wrong. I'll be back in a couple of hours."
"Oh, no you don't." Virgil stood up, borrowing another one of Scott's tricks to get Gordon to listen. "Not until you've told me exactly what you're planning. Or I'll bring Father in on this."
They both glanced towards the closed office door. Jeff had been on the phone pretty much continuously for the past six hours. Virgil didn't know who he was talking to, or what favours he was calling in. He also knew that, when he could help, Jeff would come tell him what needed doing. So, right now, Jeff had nothing that needed doing.
"Big Cat has Alan," Gordon said. "Big Cat is buying components in order to be compatible with submarine parts. Big Cat appears to be Spectran. And there was a Spectran sub nosing around those rocks when we went down to recover the Phoenix."
Virgil frowned again. "And?"
"Maybe it has a base round there somewhere. I'll go out, sensors at maximum, and see what I can find."
"And when they spot you?"
"They think they've got the Condor, not an IR operative. They won't be looking for Thunderbird Four creeping along the sea bed. They'll be looking for the Phoenix coming in from above."
"I don't know..."
"Come on, Virgil. Do you really want to hand this over to Anderson, so G-Force can take over and do all the work while we sit around and look grateful?"
He flinched, and knew he had. He'd never even met the man; not even spoken to him. All he really knew of Anderson was just how badly he'd hurt Scott. That, and the strong impression from things he'd overheard, that Anderson thought his team of kids were the only ones capable of doing anything that mattered. He was under no illusions that they were far better equipped to smash a Spectran base than International Rescue were...but finding it? It would be so much more impressive to be able to present Anderson with the location of the underwater base where Alan was in all probability being held, than just to give him the information that Big Cat were buying submarine parts.
Especially when they already had some indication of where to start looking.
"So, I finally see you unmasked!" The voice was high-pitched, almost a cackle, and Alan felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up. "G-Force's Condor, in his underwear. Oh, I do so hope you have something good to tell me."
The lighting was carefully designed in here, with bright spotlights silhouetting him. Alan could see nothing but a vague outline, but he could tell the man was massively tall and apparently wearing some sort of headdress. He'd watched the news. He'd seen Spectran mecha captains. Alan Tracy, playboy dilettante, probably wouldn't have made the connection, though.
"I'm afraid you have the wrong person," he said. "My name's Alan Tracy. I'm Jeff Tracy's son. He's the head of Tracy Industries. If it's money you're after --"
"Money is of no interest to me, young G-Forcer." He waved his hand, and a spotlight focused on a table to Alan's left. "You will tell me which of these items is involved in your transformation process."
"My what?" Alan didn't even have to fake that, though the moment he'd said it he realised what the man meant. He wanted to know how G-Force got in and out of those astonishing suits they wore. Alan had no idea - they'd entirely failed to change anywhere they could be seen when they'd been on Tracy Island.
The man stepped forward, indicating the table. Purple and red flashed on the edge of his cloak, and Alan gulped. Not just a mecha captain, maybe.
"Do you take me for a fool? Now, I do not see your bracelet here. I do not, however, believe you would come out without the means to transform. So which of these items is it?"
Alan shook his head wearily. "Look, I assumed you grabbed me because my dad's the richest man on the planet. Transform? Look at what you took off me. Suit, tie, shirt, shoes, cellphone, watch, handkerchief. Oh, and a promotional jellybean from some company who wants to do deals with Dad. You want me to eat it to prove it's not a magic transformy-thingie?"
He forced himself not to hold his breath. Was there any chance that Zoltar - this was the Spectran leader himself, he was sure of it - would fall for it and let him have the edible transmitter?
He got a dismissive snort. "Oh, I think not. I have no plans to give you any sustenance at present. Now, do you have anything useful to tell me at all, or shall I simply put you back in your cell for another day? Two degrees colder, I think, for wasting my time."
Alan said nothing. All his kidnap training had assumed that what the kidnappers would want would be his father's money, and he'd done what he'd been taught. Play friendly and co-operative, suggest that money would certainly be forthcoming. Zoltar didn't care about money and wanted something which Alan was now very, very grateful he couldn't give up no matter what they did to him. No need to worry about his acting skills there. Alan was just as intrigued by how the Condor got into his skintight birdsuit as Zoltar was.
Just don't think about all the information I have which I could give up, he told himself, as two Spectran soldiers appeared from the shadows behind Zoltar, took his arms, and marched him back to the waiting bubble.
"His gear? Burn it all." Zoltar's voice was very obviously pitched for Alan to hear. "I'm quite sure that the, shall we say, special items will survive the heat."
As he was pushed into his prison, he saw the Spectran leader leaving through a broad double door with a sweep of his cloak. Another Spectran soldier bent over the table, piling Alan's belongings into a bag. But, as the bubble sealed around him, Alan was almost sure he saw the man pocket the shrinkwrapped plastic package containing his edible transmitter.
Someone with a sweet tooth who couldn't bear to destroy a treat? Alan certainly hoped so. Now, if the man was about to go off duty...and if his tastes extended to raspberry...and if he was someone who swallowed sweets rather than chewing them to destruction...
Thinking about how this might be his lucky break kept his mind off just how desperately cold he was starting to feel. For at least ten minutes.
John stared at the bank of screens in front of him. It wasn't supposed to be like this. People were supposed to call him and tell him what was happening and where. He always started from a request for help. He hated not knowing where to even start looking. His sensors weren't designed for that.
Still, he could point them at something or he could sit here and twiddle his thumbs.
Big Cat Racing's headquarters were large and new, and on the outskirts of a medium size coastal town. In fact, as much on the outskirts as it was possible to be, since the building was right next to the sea, with its own dock and what looked from his satellite photos like a reasonably good natural harbour. Not very deep water, though. It was worth a look.
John crossed to the bank of controls which were associated with Five's secondary satellites, and pulled up the orbit information. None of them were geostationary, of course - that would have been far too distant to get any sort of useful resolution on images. Which meant that, although there would be at least one with line-of-sight of the western coast of Australia at all times, it could be any one of about five, and even he couldn't remember orbital paths with that much accuracy.
It was number eight, one of the polar orbit satellites. Shifting to number twelve fifteen minutes after that. He sighed. The polar orbit satellites were low and fast, and a pain in the rear end to work with.
Big Cat Racing looked exactly how he'd have expected a high-tech industrial unit to look. A slow trickle of cars into the parking lot, since it was still well before nine local time. Thermal sensors showed vague impressions of machinery running inside, but nothing specific. He'd been right about the shallow water harbour - the tide was further out now than it had been in the photo, and most of it was bare sand and mud. As he changed satellite, a big articulated vehicle pulled into the parking lot, waited for a minute or so, and then slowly edged inside the building itself. John groaned with frustration - there must be a huge door open, right now, but he had no way of seeing into it from above.
He snorted. And so what if he could? There were several dozen cars down there, and a relatively major road running past. It wasn't as if they'd have Alan locked up in full view.
Still, there might be CCTV on the industrial unit opposite, and it might be monitored over the internet...
"Well, this is boring," said Tiny eventually.
Scott had to agree. They'd looked through the photos again. They'd watched every scrap of footage of their driver - James Alexander Wilson, age twenty-five - that they could find. Jason had hauled every anecdote he could out of what appeared to be a photographic memory at an astonishing level. And nothing had got them any closer to figuring out where Alan might be.
"We need to get into Big Cat's records," Princess said. "They probably aren't online at all, since I asked Rick to find them and he hasn't."
"Then we go find the hardcopies," said Jason. "Three a.m. local time tomorrow morning in their headquarters. We'll need to leave in fifteen hours." It was an utterly matter-of-fact statement, and nobody disagreed with him.
Nobody commented how long fifteen hours was for a captive, either. Scott was used to much smaller timescales, most of the time at least. He continually had to remind himself that Alan wasn't under a collapsed building, or in a fire, or in the sort of immediate danger which he was used to dealing with. He was a prisoner, and that was a relatively long-term, stable condition. At least, that was what he had to assume. The alternative was that Alan had been dead since before they'd even realised he was missing.
"Fifteen hours," said Mark. "It's not the best of circumstances...but do you want to come see a plane?"
Scott felt guilty all the way along the corridor and down in the elevator. He did want to go see a plane. He didn't want to sit and watch the clock, and there wasn't any point in doing so. He might as well take the opportunity offered. And, certainly, nobody here would think ill of him for doing so. He'd all but forgotten what it was like to be in a military establishment like this, taking your opportunities for rest and recreation no matter what you knew was coming next, or was happening elsewhere. The rescue business was different. Either you were handling a rescue or you weren't. You never knew when one was going to happen.
He'd been military once. It wasn't completely alien to him. If anything, the guilt was caused by how natural it felt.
"You won't get to fly her," Mark said, casually waving to the guards who had let them in earlier as they exited the elevator. "She's docked in the tail of the Phoenix. I'd planned to take her out to the airfield this morning after our regular briefing, but the weather was crappy, and then all this blew up. At least I can turn the lights on this time."
"It's not like you got to fly One." Scott followed the smaller man through the door and down a rather barer corridor. Raw concrete here, floor, walls and ceiling, just as he remembered it. They'd even given up on painting the black stripe. Presumably they'd decided nobody could ever get this far by accident. But it was a fair distance. There must be a complete rabbit warren of tunnels down here.
"Do you walk down here?" he asked. "When you get called out, I mean?"
Mark paused, frowning, one hand on the swing door at the end of the corridor. "Run."
"What were you expecting? Teleporters?"
Scott grinned, contemplating explaining Virgil's self-designed and built access to Two's flight deck and deciding against it. "No, but maybe a direct elevator?"
"There was some complex geological reason it couldn't go any closer than it does. We're quick. It doesn't take long at a sprint." He pushed the door open and gestured for Scott to go through.
The cavern he found himself in was vast. Two's hangar on Tracy Island might have been wider, but it was nowhere near this high. The Phoenix was supported on some sort of metal cradle, presumably so it could be be turned round after flying in forwards through the sea doors on the opposite side of the cavern.
It looked in rather better shape than the last time he'd seen it, pouring seawater from a billion hairline cracks and with half its landing gear rusted to immobility. Then, every time Mark had looked at his ship he'd flinched. Now, the young man strode confidently past him, wearing a proud smile.
Scott told himself firmly that he was here as a consultant, an expert in super-high-speed flight, and followed Mark into the ship which should have been his.
He'd heard Gordon raving about the Phoenix's radar screen multiple times, but he was still unprepared for just how large it was. Yes, he could see why Gordon wanted one of those. It would have made very little difference to his own efficiency - there really was no room for anything to be any larger in One, and Mobile Control could have done with being lighter, not heavier. But Gordon frequently operated at depths where there was very little light and radar was all he had.
It wasn't the only big screen in there, either. In front of the two pilot's seats was one almost as large, which must be their viewscreen - no windows in here. And the consoles were, as Mark had suggested, surprisingly low-tech. More physical buttons and levers than he'd expected, on all the walls as well as the five consoles.
Mark didn't pause. He'd headed for the door at the rear of the cockpit and now stood waiting, not exactly impatiently, but with a definite air of it being time to leave. Scott took one last regretful glance around, and followed him out along a corridor he'd last seen dimly, filled with water, and through the little lo-res camera mounted on the remote control swimming robot which Gordon had christened "Froggy". Froggy had come in down the corridor to the left, from the airlock at the end. Mark went straight on towards the rear of the Phoenix, ignoring unlabelled doors to left and right. No point making things easy for anyone who managed to get aboard, Scott supposed.
"Step back a bit," Mark said, typing something on the numeric keypad to his right.
Scott did as he was told, and then jumped as there was movement from above where he'd been standing. Trapdoors swung down from the ceiling, and then a pilot's seat lowered through them, ending up at floor level.
"Be my guest," Mark said. "Um...don't sit too far forward. There's not much legroom."
"Understood." Scott glanced up at the hatch in the ceiling above as he sat down, making sure he was right back in the chair. It didn't look any smaller than a standard canopy opening on a fighter jet.
Mark reached out and did something to the keypad on the arm of the chair, and the whole contraption began to rise, as lights came on above him.
The G-1, Mark called it, but when Scott had flown it, it had been the X-1, standard designation for an experimental, unnamed craft. He'd forgotten just how tiny it was. Almost no elbow room in the cockpit, the canopy only a couple of inches above his head, pedals and yoke much closer than he'd have chosen. The seat presumably did adjust somewhat, but playing with it seemed unfriendly.
There was a tap on the canopy, and he popped it before he'd even thought to wonder whether he could remember where the controls were.
"Changed much?" Mark asked.
"I don't think so." Truth be told, he was struggling to remember intellectually what the control layout had been. His hands would know, if he was in the air, but here and now, with the controls dead?
Mark reached in and rested his hand on the control yoke. "Go ahead and preflight her."
Set up to respond only if his bracelet's in the cockpit. Now that's a good idea. Scott briefly had no idea where anything was, but his hands did know. He flicked switches, one at a time, and most of the lights came on more or less where he was expecting to see them. Not all.
"I'd say green across the board," he said, "except for that lot." The little set of lights up in the top right hadn't lit up at all, and he had no feeling for what they might be associated with.
"I guess she wasn't armed back then," Mark said, reaching in with his other hand and flicking a bunch of switches under the console. The bank of lights came on, and, almost immediately, so did the face of his bracelet.
"Maybe I shouldn't have done that in here," he said, flicking them off in a hurry. The rest of the panel died as he brought his left wrist to his mouth. "G-1, go."
"Commander, we're getting activation alerts from the G-1, including weapons."
"That's me. No need to worry, Sergeant - but I'm glad to see you're awake."
"Very good, sir."
Mark put his hand back on the control yoke with a rueful look, and the control panel lit up again. "Maybe we'd best stay away from the weapons systems. I don't want to push my luck too far. So, I'm intrigued - apart from that, what's different?"
"Where do you think you are going?" The voice was quite unmistakable, even echoing across the cavernous space of Thunderbird Two's hangar.
Gordon jumped far too high to be able to pretend nothing was happening, but, being Gordon he tried anyway. "We're just going to check something out in Four."
"Of course you are. Both of you. Even though Alan is missing, and Scott is away, and Mr Tracy is busy. Virgil, you cannot go. What if someone needs International Rescue?"
Then we're in a real mess. Instead, he said, "But, Tin-Tin, I can't let him go out alone. Alan needs International Rescue."
"Of course Gordon should not go alone. I will go with him."
"It might be dangerous," Gordon said, and Tin-Tin actually rolled her eyes.
"Of course it will be dangerous. I do not think that Spectra captured Alan to chat about his racing successes while drinking tea. Now, I presume that you plan to search the area where the Phoenix was shot down before? I did not bring the charts of the area, since you had already downloaded them. I did, however, find some older underwater surveys of the area a little beyond. And I suggested that John could perhaps keep his scanners tuned on the area." She indicated the duffel bag slung over her shoulder. "And I have brought my diving equipment, in case it should be required."
"Tin-Tin," said Gordon, "you're a genius. Virg..."
"I know. She's right. I have to stay here in case I'm needed, though quite how we'd cope with a rescue I don't know. I guess I can come get you if necessary."
"Keep your fingers crossed it won't be."
Oh, all of them. And all my toes. But he really didn't like being in the situation of having to hope things went well.
There was indeed CCTV on the building opposite. It was connected to the internet. Rather better quality than the San Francisco tape had been, which was fortunate, since it was looking from bright daylight into a much dimmer indoor area. John could make out nothing at all inside the building just by looking at it, but basic digital enhancement of this sort was really very easy. Screenshot the relevant image, load it into a standard graphics manipulation package, and wind the contrast up.
There was no caged prisoner hanging from the ceiling, but then he'd hardly expected there would be. Instead there was a huge cargo trailer taking up the entire left hand side of the interior, "Big Cat Racing" emblazoned down the side. Their logo was on the back - a stylised cat face which looked really nothing at all like the symbol he associated with Spectra. The rest of the floor was clear close to the doors, but further back there was something John couldn't identify. Some sort of framework? He wound the contrast up as far as it would go, zoomed right in, but still couldn't make out anything except grey fuzz. Time to get out his serious software.
He was watching grey fuzz morph into slightly different grey fuzz when the communication light flashed on his console. Four. Tin-Tin had been right, then.
"Hey, Gordon - how's things down there?"
"Annoyingly tedious. So I thought I'd go do some sightseeing."
"I hear there might be a Spectran base. Fascinating architecture. Send me a postcard."
"I take it there's nothing on the scanners?"
"No." He'd checked the moment Tin-Tin had contacted him, but his systems really weren't designed for scanning underwater. The entire area was deserted south Pacific to his sensors, just as it always had been, even when he'd known there was a crashed Phoenix down there.
"Keep watch, though? You saw the Spectran craft right back when all this started. You might get lucky again."
John considered explaining to Gordon in careful words of one syllable what all the differences were between scanning for things in the air and for things underwater, and decided not to bother. Not least because Gordon already knew and was, he suspected, somewhat nervous about this whole expedition.
"I'm watching," he said. "Take care."
"Will do. Diving now - I'll stay silent unless I need you, apart from the beacon."
He watched on the sensor screen as the sharp, strong signal which was Thunderbird Four's locator beacon blurred and weakened as it moved off towards the northwest. The signal strength was a reasonably good indicator of depth, though it did depend on enough other factors that they'd never bothered calibrating it accurately. Given seawater at South Pacific temperature, he guessed that Gordon was travelling at about three hundred feet. Deep enough to be impossible to spot from above, not deep enough to stress the hull significantly.
Keeping one eye on the moving yellow splotch, John turned his attention to the enhancement program while taking a drink, and almost spat water all across his console. Radio silence would have to wait.
"Thunderbird Five to Thunderbird Four, respond please."
"Is there a problem?" This time the voice was Tin-Tin's.
"That warehouse I was looking at, the Big Cat Racing one? There's what looks like a sub cradle in the back. Lousy quality on the image, but I'd guess it would hold something about three, four times the length of Four."
"That is a large submarine for a motor racing team to own as a toy," Tin-Tin said, voice distorted by distance and water. "Or an individual, however rich."
"I agree. Looks like we were right about Big Cat, and that you may be right about an underwater factor. Stay sharp. Five out."
Then he sat back and thought. Hard. He'd have dearly liked to ask Scott's opinion as to the amount of information-sharing he should be doing here, but Scott was in ISO, on the end of an ISO phone line, probably in the same room as five people with cerebonically enhanced hearing. No, International Rescue didn't need to ask permission from G-Force to do their own investigating, he decided. He'd watch Four like a hawk, and contact ISO when he had more information. Or if anything untoward happened.
Normally he relied on Five's computers and alarm systems to alert him to anything he needed to know about. He wasn't prepared to do that with Gordon possibly in the vicinity of a Spectran base. So, no astronomy today. None of the basic maintenance on the schedule, either. He'd be pushed to get everything done in the ten days until his shift ended. He refused to consider that it was entirely possible that he wouldn't be relieved by Alan then...or ever.
No. We'll find him. John checked that the beacon was still moving steadily and took a quick trip to the bathroom and kitchen, in that order. Experience had taught him to set himself up for the long haul early on, while nothing was likely to happen, instead of waiting until there were two Thunderbirds on site, possibly multiple pod vehicles in action, and Scott, Virgil and Jeff all needing updates every thirty seconds.
He came back armed with bottles of water, enough snacks for several hours, and an instant hot meal for now. Quick pasta and tomato - not his favourite, but perfectly edible. He sat eating it, watching the beacon creep across the screen. Definitely in for the long haul.
"Nearly there," Gordon said, watching the sonar screen. "I'll take her."
Tin-Tin nodded and stood up, making way for him to take the pilot's seat. She'd done a good job, though to be honest anyone could have done it, given that all she'd had to do was point the nose in the right direction. She could probably have done the next stage perfectly competently too, but Gordon wasn't about to take any chances, given the situation.
"Diving," he said, manipulating the controls to drop towards the seabed. They were almost over the Phoenix's crash site now. His plan was to drop in amongst the rock spires, come out of them low down, and then creep along the floor in the direction that Spectran sub had disappeared off in, the last time he'd been down here.
"That's where they hit," he said to Tin-Tin, dropping down the side of what was by now a familiar pillar and pointing out the scar on the rockface. "The wreck was under that big pile of rubble."
Tin-Tin came forward cautiously, squinting through the screen. She took a look at the depth gauge and gulped. "I confess I am glad I was not with you then."
"So am I. We need to make time for some pressurisation training when I get my medical clearance back, because if you ever were in here with me and we needed to pressurise fast..."
He didn't bother spelling it out. Tin-Tin wasn't stupid. However, since Brains had made it quite clear what his own chance of survival was if he tried that trick again even remotely soon, it wasn't going to be an issue for a while.
A little over a thousand feet of inky water and almost no time to prepare. He must have been stark raving nuts. Nobody in their right mind would dive here. Ghastly place.
Tin-Tin glanced at his face and blanched before smiling reassuringly. "Which way do we go now?"
The image of that giant sonar shadow on his screen, nosing around just the other side of the rock, was indelibly engraved on his memory. Gordon rather thought he could have drawn every change in direction of its path. Instead, he pointed at the top left of the sonar screen. "That way. And I may be being completely paranoid, but stay quiet and keep the lights off. I'm going to go on sonar only."
He flicked switches, and the cabin was lit only by the faint green glow of the instruments. Outside was completely black. He practiced this in the simulators on a regular basis, though. He'd even started Tin-Tin on it. Instruments-only piloting was a basic test of skill. He directed the sonar forward and down, identified a clear way through the closest rocks, and eased Four gently forwards into the unknown.
Five more vertical-sided pillars, and the next thing he had to avoid was at a much gentler angle, and no cliff loomed out of the murk as he steered away from it. Round and back onto his desired course, and sonar showed him a clear route ahead.
"Sand underneath now," murmured Tin-Tin.
He nodded, but resisted the urge to speed up just yet. If one rock formation had missed the ocean bed survey, another one could.
Several more, in fact, though these later ones were somewhat more rounded and not quite so vicious. He really must figure out a way to get WASP to resurvey the area. How on earth could this have been missed in the first place?
And then the bottom dropped away, Tin-Tin gasped, and Gordon slammed Four into reverse before he'd even processed what he'd seen. Only once they were safely back behind an outcrop, engines cut, sitting on the ocean floor, did he turn to his co-pilot.
"There were lights," she said even more softly than before. "Down below us. I don't think it was a sub, though. It was too big."
"I agree." What it had reminded him of most was the picture of the moonbase which John had had on his wall for years, back when they'd been growing up in Kansas: a sprawling structure of domes connected by tubes. He'd have heard if WASP had built something like this, and if it had been civilian, there would have been news articles, and job adverts, and probably a whole bunch of well-meaning ex-colleagues suggesting he apply for them.
Not the only significant underwater military organisation, not civilian. That didn't leave too many other candidates.
"What do we do now?" Tin-Tin looked genuinely scared, though it was hard to tell how much of that was due to the faint green lighting.
"We sit tight for a while. Let everything settle before we move again." He mentally replayed the sequence of events. Probably should have reversed course a little more gently, even if it would have taken longer to get back out of sight. He had no idea what sort of sensors Spectra had, and what the chances were that even now an attack sub was closing in on them. He decided not to share that particular happy thought with Tin-Tin.
"The dropoff is not on the charts either," Tin-Tin said a few minutes later.
"No?" Now that was interesting. He'd had the distinct impression that it was big, a crater vanishing into the distance. He also had the impression that he'd been able to see far better than he'd expected to be able to. There wasn't any sort of incompetent scanning which got the average depth over a large area wrong. So the crater was new. At that point, chances were that the oh so convenient rock spire surround was, too.
He'd heard, of course, that Spectran technology was more advanced than human. He'd accepted that this meant they had bigger and better planes and spacecraft than ISO or International Rescue had. Something capable of scooping out millions of cubic feet of rock and piling it up around the hole, a thousand feet underwater, a few tens of miles from Tracy Island, completely undetected? He couldn't even to begin to imagine how that would work. And someone had done something about the inconvenient way that water scattered light and kept visibility down to a few tens of metres, tops. He was sure he'd seen much further than that. Which wasn't just impressive, it was impossible.
He squinted out of the front window. Sonar told him he was twelve feet from the rock in front of him. He could see every crevice, almost as clearly as if he'd been in air.
'Sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic.' Yup. It was that advanced.
Beside him, Tin-Tin leaned forward, copying what he'd done to see out into the dark. There was a long pause, during which she gave careful attention to every gauge on the console. Then she said, "I believe we are inside a forcefield of some kind. If the water molecules were aligned, it could reduce the scattering of light and increase the visibility."
"I didn't know you could do that."
"Nor did I. But it is theoretically possible. And maybe such a forcefield could explain why the charts are wrong."
"I think it's more likely that the charts are older than this. But yeah, it would explain why nobody's noticed they're wrong since. So --" He cut himself off. Sonar couldn't see through the rock in front of him, but way over to the left, out of visual range even in this unnaturally clear water, he'd seen a flash of movement on the screen.
"I'm going to deploy the camouflage sheet," he said with a calmness he didn't feel. "Keep watch."
Tin-Tin took his place in the pilot's seat, and Gordon moved across to controls he'd last used only a few weeks earlier, when hiding the Phoenix just off the beach on Tracy Island. The leading corners of the sheet were attached to what were effectively tiny mini-subs with remote controls, so all he needed to do was drive two at once, using the sonar screen to guide him, and stretch it out over Thunderbird Four. A speckled sand-coloured lump would be so much less visible than bright yellow.
All the while expecting a Spectran mecha to appear round the rocks, he hit the control to open the exterior equipment hatch, fired up the deployment drones, and spent an irritating five minutes trying to steer both of them at once to pull the camouflage sheet over the top of Four. It wasn't perfect - the sheet was far from smooth - but that wasn't such a bad thing, as it would break up the shape. It was smooth enough to remain transparent from inside, at least. He badly wanted to be able to see out.
"I have seen nothing," Tin-Tin said once he'd sent the signal to turn the motors off.
"Good." Gordon leaned against the wall, trying to figure out his next move. Contacting John probably wasn't a good idea - if he even could, through the forcefield. It was far too likely that the base down there would notice the signal, even if they couldn't decipher it. Go up? That might be the quickest way out of the forcefield, but it would also make them very visible. Go back? But then they'd have no information beyond the glimpse the two of them had caught of the base, or whatever it was. And they had no idea whether Alan was there. Or sit here for a while, and then creep out just far enough to get a decent view. Unfortunately they were far too deep to swim out there. A few weeks back he'd have seriously considered it. Experience was a good teacher.
"I have an idea," Tin-Tin said, rather uncertainly.
He nodded encouragingly. After all, she had an engineering degree and he'd just about passed high school math.
"Could we not deploy the Frog? It has a camera, and --"
Gordon just managed to stop himself either yelling with glee or beating his head against the wall in frustration at his own stupidity. "Tin-Tin, you're a genius, you know that? Yes, of course."
Together they hauled the awkward robot out of its locker and into the airlock. No need to attach anything to it this time. All he needed was the camera, and that was built in.
Froggy swam perfectly out of the airlock, pushed up against the camouflage sheet, and scrabbled its way underneath with very little difficulty. Gordon grinned as he manipulated the controls. He liked this new toy. He was starting to see all sorts of uses for it, especially if he had a second person in Four. They could send it into tight spaces where a diver might get stuck. Send it deeper than he could safely go, where even an extra fifty feet might make all the difference to somebody.
For now, he sent it up to the rock in front of Four, and then turned it on its site so it swam belly towards the rock. That turned the camera image annoyingly on its side, until Tin-Tin silently moved alongside him and rotated it back to horizontal.
Froggy swam slowly along the rockface, Gordon adjusting the angle of its paddle feet so that it continued to curve round, staying tight in to the side. He didn't need to send it far. Twelve feet to the rock, another twenty or so along the rockface until it was out of sight, and then thirty more on a gentle curve heading towards the edge of the dropoff. He didn't want to go too far. He had no idea what sort of resolution Spectran scanners had, so how far Froggy could safely venture from the rock before it showed up as a separate blob. He really should have asked John. Heck, he could have asked Jason. The Condor had said he was a sensor expert.
He snorted derisively, forgetting Tin-Tin was alongside him. Gordon Tracy, champion of making perfect decisions with hindsight.
Froggy approached a bulge in the rock, and Gordon slowed it right down to a gentle froggypaddle, before creeping it around and over and, as he'd suspected, to a point where it could see out beyond the rock formations.
His initial impression hadn't been too far wrong. Just beyond the rock, the ocean floor fell away, in a profile which looked as if someone had pressed a giant saucer into the sea bed. He thought the additional depth was about a hundred feet, but it was hard to tell. He wasn't used to estimating distances this far underwater. He wasn't used to being able to see distances this far underwater.
"Eight hundred metres across?" Tin-Tin murmured.
"Something like that." Froggy didn't have the advanced sensors Four had. Didn't have any, in fact, beyond temperature. Sixteen degrees Celsius, pretty much exactly what he was getting from Four. Not unusual, for water that deep. He'd let Tin-Tin and Brains worry about whether it was unusual for water with ten times the visibility it should have had. Later. For now, what mattered was the undersea base in the centre of the crater.
"I'm recording the images," Tin-Tin said softly, and Gordon nodded. Froggy's images were black and white only, so he had to imagine the colours. Would the light glowing from every dome and passage be white, yellow maybe? He squinted at the screen, wishing it was larger. Those black specks moving along the passages had to be people, which provided a scale. Two hundred metres across, and yes, filling about a quarter of the width of the crater. Dozens of domes, dozens of passages. Vertical tubes supporting spheres above the main ground level structure, some of them with their own little spheres in a third layer. He could see people moving inside many of them. It was an outstanding engineering achievement.
And the machines creeping around outside it said as plainly as could be that it wasn't their achievement. Spectran crab tanks. Dozens of the things. They were orange, or the ones he'd seen in the news report had been. Footage shot from the Phoenix, released to celebrate another G-Force victory. Come to think of it, the water had been far too clear there, too.
"Gordon?" The fear was back in Tin-Tin's voice, as she pointed to the right of the base, where the crater floor curved steeply upwards to rejoin the layer of the surrounding seabed. A crab tank moved steadily upwards. Twenty years beyond it, another one. And another twenty yards after that, and after that, and so on as far as he could see clearly. The same on the opposite side of the crater.
Froggy couldn't see the slope just below him, but it didn't take too much imagination to guess what was going on. Gordon adjusted the camera to look as steeply down as possible, and he and Tin-Tin watched as the alien mecha clawed its way over the rim of the saucer and headed straight towards the camera. It was bigger than he'd thought, and those claws looked sharp, and very heavy.
One swipe filled the screen, and the picture turned to grey fizz.
Tin-Tin's hand found his, and he squeezed it in a way he hoped was reassuring. He turned to her and mouthed 'silence'. She nodded. And they both waited, still and barely breathing, for the crab tank to come round the rock and find them.
It emerged, the remnants of Froggy still caught in one claw, shuffling along, upper body, head, whatever you'd call it turning from side to side as if it was looking for something. And it kept going right on past them, barely ten feet away, and disappeared into the jungle of rock spires beyond.
He owed Brains a very large drink. The camouflage sheet was even better than he'd claimed.
"What do we do now?" Tin-Tin mouthed.
Oh, for someone else to make the decision. "We go up," he said. "All those tanks must be breaking though the edge of the forcefield right about now. They won't notice one more. We get to the surface and we radio John to call in G-Force."
They've been stationary for a long time. John glared at the screen, willing the flickering, unsteady signal to clear up, move, or do anything. It was really very shaky. Had been since almost exactly the same time that it had stopped.
He'd told himself he'd wait, though - there were any number of innocent reasons why Four might stop for a short time, and a number of less innocent ones where trying to contact them directly might be downright dangerous.
If he'd wanted to be military, he'd have joined ISO, for goodness sake.
He'd give Gordon three more minutes, then he'd call Scott.
As if giving it a deadline had triggered it into action, Four's beacon brightened and sharpened, and the depth reading began to reduce. And, just as it did, there was a ghost of a second signal, a few hundred metres to the northwest and...below the sea bed? John blinked hard and it was gone, no matter how he adjusted the controls.
But he was sure he'd seen it. And there weren't too many possible sources of IR transmitters out there.
Thirty seconds and Four would be at the surface. Gordon better call the moment his comms array was in air.
"Four to Five," came in on the standard channel, and John breathed again. Even Gordon surely couldn't sound that relaxed if something had gone badly wrong?
"Five here - what's been going on, Gordon?"
"I was right. Massive Spectran undersea base just below me."
"But I can't see --"
"There's some sort of forcefield over it. That's where he is, John. I can feel it. Can you get me a link with Scott?"
"Assuming G-Force are answering their phone, sure. Sit tight."
"You're nuts, you know that?" Jason sighed, phone held to his right ear by his shoulder, and reached for the pen and pad Princess passed him. "How sure are you?"
"I'm sure." Gordon's voice was unmistakeable, even coming through multiple relays. "Big base. Multiple domes, multiple layers. Lots of those little orange crab robots."
"And I think I caught something from Alan's edible transmitter," John said, his voice clearer. "It must have been as Gordon cleared the forcefield. I wonder if Four disrupted it, just a bit."
"Difficult to take off someone."
"Don't go anywhere." Jason put them on hold and went to the bracelet. "G-2 to G-1."
"IR found something. Underwater Spectran base. Sounds like Alan's transmitter's there, at least. We need to go."
Mark didn't hesitate. Jason's bracelet lit up instantly with a Bird Scramble and a message to go immediately to briefing in room one. He was almost out of the room before a nasty thought struck him. As it stood, the person most qualified to give the briefing was him.
"Princess, can you pipe that phonecall through to briefing room one?"
At least John could give them some coordinates to head for.
Anderson arrived, his face fixed in a frown, just as Princess was tweaking the communication link with Thunderbird Five.
"What do we have?"
"Visual on an underwater Spectran base." Jason glanced at the data John was sending them. "We were within five miles of crashing on top of it last time."
"Downloading images now," John said over the link. "Sorry about the resolution. They're intended for a small screen."
Jason squinted at the pixellated grey mess on the far-from-small screen which their briefing room boasted. "Can't you do any better than that?"
"Shrink it," Keyop said, reaching for the controls.
At about a tenth the scale, it was small, but it was a recognisable image.
"Looks like a Spectran base to me," said Tiny, and Mark came through the door, accompanied by Scott.
"Finally, Commander," Anderson said, irritation in his tone. "What is going on here?"
Mark calmly indicated the speakers in the centre of the table as he took his seat. "International Rescue have some crucial information for us. I thought you should hear it first hand." Not the slightest indication that he'd yet to hear it himself. He really was a very good actor.
"John? Run through that again," Jason said. "We're watching your video now."
"I've sent you video footage from our remote control robot," John's voice said. "And location data. The video's a few minutes old."
"John? How did you get Froggy that close?" Scott asked, leaning forward towards the microphones.
"I already told Gordon he was nuts," Jason said. That earned him a raised eyebrow from Mark
"Lots of crab tanks." Keyop glared at the screen. "How will we land?"
"Dock on the top," Tiny said. "Transfer tube, cut a hole in one of those bubbles. Not an issue. Chief, let's go."
"Just a minute, G-5." Anderson was watching the screen intently himself. "G-Force, this is clearly a large and active base on which we have almost no intelligence. Your first objective is to neutralise it." He gave Jason a long and pointed look. "Secondary objectives are the retrieval of Alan Tracy, and any information you can gather. Go."
Jason was on his feet and heading for the door, when Scott spoke from his seat.
"Wait a minute," he said. "I'm coming."
"Absolutely not," Mark said without even glancing round. "You have any idea what Fiery Phoenix does to someone who isn't implanted?"
"How do you plan to find Alan? Look at the size of that thing!"
Mark stopped, a look of pure horror on his face. "I'm sorry, Scott. There's no way I'm taking you out on a mission."
Scott actually laughed. "I'm not a complete idiot. Mobile Control's sitting in One, twenty miles away. Take it, and me to operate it, and once we're inside the forcefield I'll be able to locate Alan to within a couple of metres."
"Or you can give us your transmitter frequency," Anderson said.
"It's not that simple. We don't want them to be picked up by accident. Can your communications equipment pick up braided varying oscillations?"
Jason racked his brains - he'd heard the term only as a theoretical proposition for how you might be able to do undetectable transmissions.
Princess, though, said, "No." Flatly and unequivocally. She stopped, and went back to the table. "Chief, that's...it's more of a security algorithm than an actual transmission type. It needs a hardware detector, customised to the transmitter." There was a glance at Scott. "Unless International Rescue have given us a detector, we can't pick up their transmissions."
In other words, Scott had asked the question knowing full well what the answer was. No idiot, that man.
"So you're saying we need Mr Tracy's detector?"
"Fine," said Jason, before they could get into yet another pointless, endless discussion. "We'll go get it. He can explain to Princess how to operate it on the way there. What are we waiting for?"
Rather to his surprise, Anderson said, "I agree. Scott, you understand that this is at your own risk, of course?"
Oh, for crying out loud, are you going to make him sign a health and safety disclaimer? "We're going twenty miles," Jason said. "Really not that dangerous. Can we get on with it?"
"I'll catch you up," Mark said. "Go. Scott, go with them."
That came in the set of tones where Jason did what he was told without arguing. He assumed that Mark wanted a private word with Anderson. It wasn't until he joined them barely thirty seconds later as they waited for the elevator that he put together 'birdstyle' and 'transmutation' and 'Scott doesn't know how it works.'
And shouldn't know. And, since the other four had gone to the meeting already in birdstyle, and Mark hadn't transmuted until Scott had left the briefing room, still didn't know. Jason smiled to himself behind his visor, and led the way down to the Phoenix at a rather more sedate pace than they normally used. Scott couldn't have kept up with them no matter what, let alone in a designer suit and smart shoes.
G-Force didn't appear to do pleasantries when in uniform, so Scott did exactly as Mark said without discussion. There was a whole row of jump seats along the back wall of the flight deck, and he took the one next to the door. It had a heavily padded five point harness, which he put on and adjusted to tight. You didn't fit your occasional passenger seats out like that unless there was a strong risk you'd be throwing their occupants round the sky, whatever Jason had said.
Nobody looked round at him. Nobody paid him any attention at all. What was going on in front of him was extremely rapid, extremely professional preflight checking, screens flicking past far faster than he could have read them, even if he'd been close enough to do so.
"Sound off," Mark said, got up, and walked to the back of the flight deck. The moment Tiny had responded with "G-5" he reached down and flicked the release catch on Scott's harness.
"Come show us where we're going."
There was a standard chart on the screen on Mark's console, showing a radius of thirty miles or so around ISO, and Scott pointed out the little private airstrip owned by Agent Twenty-Three, where he'd left One and changed to the hire car which the agent had provided.
"Never knew that was there," Tiny said, looking across.
"Grass strip, barely long enough for a microlight. The owner has a helicopter."
"And how many trees are there around it?" Jason asked.
"West end only. You might flatten some wheat, but there's nothing big enough to be a problem except the hangar - that barn there, just to the north. I'd prefer it if you didn't flatten that. Thunderbird One's in it."
"I won't," Tiny said. "Twenty seconds to launch. You'd best strap in."
Scott decided not to say that he'd already done that once. He headed back to his seat at some speed and refastened the harness, looking up to see water swirling up the huge viewscreen at the front of the flight deck.
"Five," said Tiny. "Four." He was silent after that, but Scott suspected they were all doing the same mental count he was.
At the unspoken 'zero', a deep rumble, a vibration he felt in teeth and bones... and almost no acceleration. Water launch, he realised belatedly. Lots of friction, lots of resistance. Only a slow build in speed. For now, the Phoenix was a submarine, not a plane. Heading for the surface, though, the nose coming up sharply, the light level on the viewscreen increasing rapidly.
They broke surface, and then there was all the acceleration he'd anticipated. He, Brains and Virgil had spent an evening with a few beers and a simulated model of the Phoenix based on their memories and news footage, and had come to the conclusion that acceleration was about all she did. There was no way anything that shape could glide. So it would be acceleration and then deceleration, and it was only twenty miles to the airstrip.
"Commander, I have a confession to make," he said.
Mark glanced over his shoulder, expression unreadable behind the hooked blue visor. "Go on."
"I can't teach Princess to operate Mobile Control in anything much under a day."
That got their full attention. Everyone except Tiny, who was piloting, swung round to face him.
"You can show me," Jason said. "Photographic memory. You'll only need to demonstrate once."
"It'll still take an hour. And I can't do it at the same time as plumbing Mobile Control into your sensor feed, which is the only way it'll get any decent range from inside your hull." Come on, Mark. Join the dots. There isn't any other way this can work. There never has been.
"Give me one good reason not to throw him out the hatch at this airfield, forget about the scanner, and go do our jobs?" That was Jason again. "Mark, he's playing you. One step at a time. Ten minutes ago you said no way you'd take him on a mission, and he agreed. Now he's saying you have to."
Mark snorted. "Thank you, G-2. I can do my own analysis. G-3, G-4, is he right about the sensor feed?"
Princess glanced to her right. Keyop said, "Yes," managing to get a surprising amount of disgust into that one syllable.
"If we take it, can we wire it up and figure it out in two hours?"
"We'll have one forty-five, if we go orbital," Tiny said, never looking round. The Phoenix was decelerating hard now, and losing altitude. Scott recognised the scenery - they were on final approach to the airstrip.
"Someone else's encrypted secure beacon transmissions, for a system we don't use?" Princess looked stricken. "I'm sorry, Commander. I don't think I can."
"Can try," said Keyop.
Scott stayed silent. Had he misjudged them? He didn't think so.
The barn came into sight on the viewscreen, and there was the lightest of bumps as the Phoenix touched down. He stayed where he was, forcing a decision.
And Mark sighed. "Tell me you have some more sensible clothes on Thunderbird One."
"You can come. At your own risk - if we have to go fiery, you will be throwing up for a week minimum since you don't have an implant. Jason, Tiny, go with him and get Mobile Control."
Scott hurried after them along the corridor and down the ramp to the cropped grass of the airstrip. Birds sang from the trees, and the breeze brought the scent of wildflowers. The giant warship seemed entirely out of place here.
"In there," he said, waving towards the barn when Tiny turned with a questioning expression. The barn certainly didn't look much like a hangar, but that was the way its owner liked it. The intention was that nobody thought there'd be a high-tech modern helicopter in there, which made it a particularly suitable place to stash One whenever he had to come to this part of the country in a hurry.
Jason waited for him to arrive with the padlock key, slightly to his surprise, and let him lead the way through the person-sized door set into the much larger one which had been left open for him on arrival. The first time he'd come here he'd struggled with the pinpoint accuracy required to hold One on her side jets and drift her inside. He'd practiced it extensively on the simulator since. He didn't leave telltail scorchmarks any more. Not trails of them, anyway. There were a couple of small burned patches, but they looked like nothing more than a kid letting a firework off.
He suspected the Phoenix taking off would leave a rather larger scar. But then nobody expected G-Force to explain their actions, or second-guessed their presence. It would be assumed they'd been after a Spectran spy and had cornered him here. Since the barn was still standing, clearly it hadn't been involved.
One stood facing the door - he always came in backwards if possible, just in case he needed to make a swift exit - with the airstrip owner's navy and chrome helicopter gleaming alongside her. It was towed in and out, and the little tractor was still attached to the nosewheel exactly as it had been when he'd arrived.
"Give me a minute," he said. He'd left One sealed up, of course. Now he deployed the ladder, hurried up it into the cockpit, released the catch on Mobile Control's storage compartment, and did a rapid exchange of Armani grey for International Rescue blue, including the lightweight helmet he rarely wore. He wouldn't need it - he really did have no intention of pushing this any further, since being seen in his IR uniform would reveal who Alan really was to anyone with half a brain. But it would show G-Force that he was taking this seriously. Plus, Mobile Control wasn't exactly designed to be used in flight, and its seat was basic, lightweight and didn't come with a harness. If things went badly, there was a chance that he might end up getting thrown around.
If things went really badly, like Mark had said, he'd be spending the next while puking his guts up, where "while" was certainly measured in days and possibly in weeks. There was a reason all candidates for ISO's program had to be implanted. At least he knew it wouldn't kill him outright. Plenty of people were incompatible to that level.
He tried not to think that Alan might be. Mark would have considered that...wouldn't he?
Not your command, he told himself firmly, cramming the helmet on his head and stamping his feet into his boots. Not your decision. Let the Eagle do his job. It was easier when he thought of Mark that way.
Tiny and Jason had the cargo compartment hatch open and were considering the technology inside like two kids in a sweetie shop. Jumped back like two kids who shouldn't have been in the sweetie shop, too, at his approach. He contained the grin.
"Stand back. I'll activate the antigrav, then all we need to do is steer it."
Should he have reminded them of the antigrav? He could just have had them carry it - he'd had to do that with local help, the first few rescues, until Brains had perfected his portable version of the technology.
No, he told himself. You trust these people. They wouldn't steal from you.
But he was acutely aware that he could have confirmed his actions with his father...and he'd chosen not to.
Once de-weighted, Mobile Control slid easily out of the cargo compartment. Scott locked One up tight again, while the other two walked one each side of Mobile Control, pushing it towards the ramp up into the Phoenix. International Rescue equipment on a military operation. Actually, Scott couldn't decide whether he thought his father would have a fit or not. Pinpointing Alan's location within an already located base wasn't exactly going to give ISO a military advantage.
He wondered for the first time what Jeff knew about Gordon's little expedition in Thunderbird Four. It was interesting that the call had come through from John alone. He probably wasn't the only one who had been bending the rules. Debrief might well be very loud after this.
"It won't fit," he heard as he came round the corner towards the flight deck.
"Sure it will. Just tilt it a bit."
"Easy for you to say that. It doesn't tilt."
"Don't be ridiculous."
Tiny stepped back with a sigh of exasperation. "Come on then, Superman. You try."
Jason stepped past him, took hold of the console with both hands and heaved, to absolutely no effect. Stopped, rubbed his hands together, and looked at Tiny. "It doesn't tilt."
Not with the attitude stabilisers engaged, no. Scott held up the remote control. "I can fix that, but you'll have to steady it, or it'll turn straight over. It's top-heavy."
"Understood." Jason gave it a tug and slipped through the narrow gap he'd made to the other side of the doorway, while Tiny took a firm hold of the console again.
"Ready?" Scott asked. Tiny nodded, and he disengaged the attitude controls.
At that point, all it took was some careful manoeuvring, and the sacrifice of a couple of layers of paint. It was just as well the door wasn't an inch narrower, or they probably wouldn't have got it through. Scott had a vision of an alternate reality with himself sitting in the corridor, shouting instructions through the door. He felt out of place enough as it was.
Inside the flight deck, Keyop had removed a roughly Mobile Control-sized area of flooring over to the left, and held up an assortment of fastening devices. "Here," he said unnecessarily, since it was already heading that way.
Tiny and Jason steadied it and lowered it as Scott disengaged the antigrav field, and the Swallow stood back and considered it, head on one side, in an unconscious mirror of Brains, Virgil, and just about every engineer Scott had ever known, before dropping to his knees and starting to methodically fasten every strongpoint down to the metal I-beams he'd exposed below the flooring.
"Three minutes," he said.
Mark had been in his seat, ignoring the furniture removal going on behind him, but now he stood up and turned round.
"We're going orbital. That gives us a little over an hour of level flight. Can you plumb it into our sensors in that time?"
Keyop turned his head. "Instruction manual?"
"Virgil's on Tracy Island," Scott said. "He built most of it. If we can get a radio link, he can talk you through it. I can help, but he'll be quicker."
"Get him on the radio now," Mark said to Princess. To Scott he said, "I want him standing by. We can't start until we hit level flight, but we won't have time to wait about once we get there."
A perfectly good call, and you don't need to justify your decisions to me. "I'll tell him, Commander," he said, crossing to Princess's console. She was already speaking to John, and Virgil's voice came from the speaker as he got there.
"What can I do for you, G-3?"
"We're going to need to plug Mobile Control into the Phoenix's sensor system in about twenty minutes time," Scott said, leaning across to speak into the microphone. "Can you stand by to talk the Swallow through making the connections?"
"I guess so. I was going to take Two out and pick up Gordon..."
"Hell no," said Mark from the front. "I don't want cargo planes anywhere near that airspace when we go in. Not even yours."
"Did you hear that? He's right. Tell Gordon to make his own way back, slowly and carefully and without drawing attention to himself. You grab the circuit diagrams and sit by the radio."
"I'll be right here." There was a pause, filled only with the hiss of a slightly dodgy radio connection. "Scott? Everything okay?"
"It's under control," he said. The only problem is, it's someone else's control. Maybe I really am a control freak.
"Done," said Keyop, and Scott headed back to his own seat in a hurry. He was pretty sure that G-Force carried passengers even less frequently than he did. They weren't going to make allowances for him.
This time there was a roar of engines and some very definite acceleration. Three, four g to start, and then the nose came up, the sound became deafening, and Scott leaned back and relaxed as much as was possible. Definitely more than the six g they limited Three to except in emergencies. Probably close to the eight he'd pulled on tight turns as a fighter jet pilot. He'd worn a g suit then. He didn't have one now - of course, he didn't have to pilot, either. He could shut his eyes and concentrate on taking one breath at a time. One advantage of acceleration this fierce - it couldn't go on for long.
By the time he had his breathing back under normal control and his vision was working again, Keyop was flat on his back half under Mobile Control and Princess was holding out a slimline combination earpiece and microphone to him.
"Plug that in over there - the port's marked C5. I'll pipe Virgil directly through to you."
You really don't do wireless, do you? Scott just nodded, taking it over to the other side of the flight deck. Keyop didn't seem to want the seat, so he took it, plugged one end of the wire where he'd been instructed, removed his helmet, and settled the earpiece in his ear.
"Anyone there? Swan?" said Virgil's voice.
"You'll have to make do with me. Where do we start?"
"You need help getting the inspection panels off?"
Scott stood up and peered over the top edge. A pair of red boots were visible, and, above them, loose wiring flopping out of the back of Mobile Control. 'Better too loose than too tight,' he remembered Virgil saying. 'Much easier to reconnect, if it comes loose, when you've got some slack.'
"We've done that," he said. "What's next?"
"Do you remember how to turn it on in maintenance mode? Hold down switches two and seven."
"One moment." He stood up again. "Keyop? Come out of there a moment - I need to power up. I don't want to fry you if it goes wrong."
"Insulated," the Swallow's voice grumbled, but he still extracted himself. "Power up now? Why?"
"Maintenance mode. It puts different small voltages on all the connections."
"Clever. Very clever." Keyop crouched back down, a small tool which Scott presumed was a voltmeter in one hand and the end of a fat extension cable snaking from the wall in the other. Shortly, he glanced back up. "Main sensor feed, left and right polarity. Connections?"
"Virgil?" said Scott into the headset. "Main sensor feed, left and right polarity?"
"Top panel, pins five and six. One point two and one point four volts."
Scott relayed it to the Swallow, who promptly dived back most of the way inside Mobile Control, and glanced at the front viewscreen. They were high enough for the sky to be black and the stars to be visible. There might be little or no sensation of speed except for the minor vibration you'd get in any craft with the engines running, but he had no doubt that they were travelling seriously fast. He left his seat and went to crouch on the floor alongside Keyop. Time was of the essence here, and two pairs of eyes might be better than one. At the very least, he wanted to give the impression of doing everything he could, and of that being more than message relayer.
The next time he glanced round, Jason was up front, leaning over Mark's shoulder, the two of them engaged in extremely quiet conversation. Princess was still at her seat, and was, Scott suspected, listening in on everything he and Virgil said over the radio. Tiny was flying the ship, although given that both his hands were behind his head, it was presumably on autopilot of some sort. 'Maintain course and speed' didn't need a computer interface.
"How's it coming along?" Mark said at normal volume without turning around.
"All the main connections are made. Keyop's just doing some tests."
"Tests good," the young engineer said. "Ready to to turn on?"
"If you are." Scott stood up with rather less smoothness than he'd have liked, wincing as his back and legs protested. It wasn't a soft floor, and the connections Keyop had been making were considerably lower than Scott's natural eye height even when he was sitting down. He returned to Mobile Control's seat and, mentally crossing his fingers, brought the systems to life.
"Everything seems to be working," he said a few minutes later.
"Seems?" This time Mark at least bothered to turn his head.
"I don't know what I'd expect the sensors to be picking up."
"Jason?" Mark said.
The man in question went over to the empty console where Keyop had been sitting earlier, made some adjustments, and pointed to the row of little screens above the main viewscreen, now showing graphs in various formats.
"That's what they're picking up."
Well, he recognised the second one from the left, and even had something like it on his own screens. The calibration was all over the place, but that he could fix.
"Eight minutes," said Tiny.
Change offset, change magnitude, change sensitivity, juggle the controls because every time he changed one it messed up the other two...and finally what he was seeing made sense. Radio, sonar, radar, in that order. What the Phoenix's other two graphs showed he had no idea, but it didn't matter. Alan's edible transmitter would be peeping away on the radio waves, and Mobile Control would see it as soon as it was there. Which, right now, it wasn't. But he knew that anyway, since John wasn't picking it up either. He'd have to wait until they were inside the forcefield.
For the first time he wondered just how many hours long his day had been so far.
"Two minutes," Tiny said, and Mark ran through his usual mental checklist. He knew, more or less, what they were expecting to see. He knew what the mission parameters were. He didn't know what sort of firepower there might be down there...but they'd splatted a big mecha here just a few weeks ago. He wouldn't assume it was just crab tanks, but it might well be.
"Listen up," he said, turning to his team. "Tiny, your aim is to put us down on the top bubble and deploy the universal airlock. You're staying here. Jason, cut your way through, assuming there isn't a convenient hatch. You find Alan and get him back to the Phoenix - if someone sees you together, that's a bonus. The rest of us will run distraction as necessary. Scott, I'm hoping you can get Jason some sort of location once we're inside the forcefield. Tiny can pipe you through to his bracelet to guide him."
Scott nodded. He'd gone back to the jump seat and strapped himself in. Mark couldn't blame him. The chair attached to that Mobile Control of his was little more than a stool. Not something designed to take the stresses of re-entry with an adult sitting in it.
"That's it. In and out fast, take off, blow it to bits. I want to know as soon as Alan's on board."
"Understood," said Jason.
"Universal airlock?" Scott said.
"It's new, after our last disaster." Let's hope it works. Not that he had any real qualms about it. He knew ISO's design testing team was simply enormous, meticulous, and very highly qualified. Their inventions worked out of the box. Most of the time.
"Commit. Straight down, no subterfuge. Scott, once we go underwater we should be more stable, but no guarantees. Don't unstrap until I say you can."
"Understood," came from behind him in a calm, professional tone. Mark hoped it really was understood. Scott was a fast jet pilot used to a cockpit just barely big enough to sit in. Then again, Scott was a pro rescuer. He could look after himself. He'd have to.
Tiny said no more. The change in engine note was enough warning that they were about to leave level, high-altitude flight and head at speed for the ocean floor. The Phoenix's nose dropped steeply and they plunged toward the ocean.
Now this he would not have enjoyed as a passenger. Not at all. No other plane could do this - accelerate down from high orbit, knife into the waves, and continue on underwater. Even the Phoenix couldn't with anyone but Tiny at her controls, not at this speed. Both he and Jason practiced it on a regular basis on the simulator. The results were generally messy. You had to hit the water, not just at a certain speed and angle, but also with a certain acceleration. Anything else left the surrounding area papered with hull plates.
And none of them even thought to question Tiny's ability to get it right every time no matter what the situation.
Down in a hard dive until every wavecrest was visible on the viewscreen. Then that heartstopping moment where the angle changed, the engines roared, shock shuddered through the frame of the ship...and then the jet engines died altogether as Tiny changed their propulsion system to the underwater variant.
"Nothing on sonar," Jason said.
"There wasn't on ours either," came from Scott.
On the screen, green-grey water, getting darker by the second as they continued to dive. "Head for the coordinates John gave us," Mark said. "Jason, run every scan you can think of. I'm not expecting anything to work, but if the tech guys can find any anomalies..."
Jason knew exactly why he was asking, and had probably started running the scans even before Mark told him to. They were all long past the stage where they thought taking another base out might win the war. What mattered, strategy-wise, was what they could discover for the future.
"Two thousand metres to coordinates," Tiny said.
Decision time. Creep in or go in hard and fast? It wasn't like their approach had been subtle, and he hadn't seen anything to make him change his initial plan.
"Go with Plan A. Team, we'll be be heading for the airlock as soon as we have visual on the base."
"We must be --" Jason cut his own comment off. From nothing, the base was laid out below them. "Crab tanks all over the floor. I can't see any mechas."
"Big doors there." The voice was Keyop's, as was the superposed marker which appeared on the main screen, pointing in a somewhat wobbly fashion at an area towards the west of the base. He was right - a bubble that size with giant sliding doors in the roof had to be a mecha hangar.
Go in there instead? His instincts said no, that this belonged to the mecha they'd destroyed a few weeks earlier. "Plan A. G-5, your ship."
He headed for the Phoenix's exit ramp at a run.
Jason knelt on the curved transparent surface which formed the outside of the Spectran base's highest bubble and tried not to think about the consequences of the airlock seal failing a thousand feet underwater. The new flexible airlock was formed from a similar material to their birdstyle wings and they'd never failed, he told himself as he melted gradually around himself. He'd completed one not-quite-semicircle and was most of the way round the other one.
"Jase..." said Mark warningly.
"I know what I'm doing." But he still stood up and stepped back onto solid Phoenix deckplates to consider his handiwork. Better to have not quite cut enough than to go too far and fall through with the cutting torch on his cablegun still activated.
Enough, he decided. Full force axe kick, and the circle detached itself and fell into the bubble.
"Your entry hatch, sir," he said.
Mark's amused snort was all the thanks he got, as his commander stepped past him and dropped neatly to the floor below. Keyop and Princess followed as he removed the cutting attachment and holstered his cablegun.
"Going in," he said into the Phoenix's intercom. "Any directions for me?"
"Alan's fifty metres from you, on a bearing of two two seven. I'm piping it through to your bracelet, but I'm doing it by hand, so it's not realtime. He's not moving, though."
"Good." He hit the button to close the Phoenix's hatch - no point leaving it vulnerable to infiltration, by Spectrans or water - and jumped neatly into the hole as it clanged shut over his head. He flipped the face of his bracelet open to reveal the sensor screen. As promised, a green blob glowed, somewhat off-centre. Not in the same direction as any of the available exits, of course. Typical.
It took three minutes, and he'd yet to see a live Spectran (Mark was in front of him, after all), until a Spectran intruder alert started blaring. Ten seconds after that, and the blob began to move towards him. Judging by the layout he could see, Alan was in the next dome and heading for the tunnel he was in. This was going to be easy. He stepped into the nearest alcove. No point giving Alan's guards a clear shot. He'd let them go past and take them from behind.
Five Spectran guards passed his hiding-place at a jog. On his tiny screen, delayed only fractionally, the green blob crossed the centre and kept going. Jason stuck his head out, checking what he was sure he'd seen first time. Five sets of brown hair under the standard uniform hoods. They pushed through the next set of double doors and kept going.
He couldn't help but look up. No, there was no airduct above him. No higher level passage, either. Just transparent ceiling and water above. Ocean floor below. What the hell?
He flipped the face of the bracelet closed. "G-5," he said as calmly as he could manage, "where's the signal?"
"Just went right past you," Tiny's voice said. "Five metres and increasing. Have you lost it?"
"No." A nasty suspicion struck. "Crap. Ask our passenger what happens if someone else eats that transmitter of theirs."
A few seconds silence. "He says it would work just fine."
Jason resisted the urge to exercise his more colourful vocabulary. That complicated things. He needed to split those Spectrans up. Take out the unimportant four, and hopefully the fifth, the one with the unorthodox stomach contents, could be persuaded to show him where he'd found his snack.
He strode to the double doors and flung them open. Just barely in time. They'd reached the junction beyond and were about to disappear off into some other part of the base, where the rest of G-Force were doubtless merrily wreaking havoc.
"Hey, morons," he said cheerfully, "looking for me?"
Every one of them turned and sprinted towards him. Jason ducked back through the doors and headed for the other end of the corridor. If he was right, and having transparent passage walls made it a whole lot easier to be right, then beyond it was a dome. Not a huge one, but one with a considerably higher ceiling than the passages had.
The doors swung open and five panting goons rushed into an apparently empty room, glanced around in confusion, and then looked to their leader for instructions. Who, good little Spectran that he was, indicated for each of them to check a different exit while he took the centre of the room to back all of them up.
And the indicator on his bracelet went north.
Jason dropped silently from his perch on the ceiling fan mount. Almost too silently - the leader fell without as much as a groan, and for a fraction of a second he thought the goons were going to head down their corridors without even noticing. But one glanced back, yelled a warning, and they all piled back into the centre of the room.
Ten seconds later Jason had four bodies at his feet and the fifth whimpering in a headlock.
"Take me to the prisoner," he said casually.
"Do I look like I'm a prisoner? Moron. Now take me to him. Run and I'll break your neck. Understood?"
There was some frantic nodding, and Jason relaxed his hold. "Go on," he said - Mark might do impressive oratory, but with his voice he'd always found quiet menace to be more effective - "nice and steady. Don't make me nervous."
The Spectran headed carefully for the door on the east side and proceeded down the corridor beyond like a little lamb. He was whimpering with fear, just barely audible to Jason's enhanced hearing. Bit unfortunate, that. He might need to make sure that more than just this one goon saw him and Alan together. One complete coward could have lied, after all.
Someone had been in the next dome before him. Mark, at a guess. Four goons, all taken out before they'd had a chance to draw weapons. And his guide stopped, gulping.
"I said, take me to the prisoner."
"Yes, sir. He's here, sir."
Jason dropped his right hand deliberately onto the butt of his cablegun, and the Spectran dived for a bank of controls with a desperate sob. "Wait, sir, wait. I'm telling the truth, really I am. Look!"
What had apparently been a solid wall cleared to transparent, and out there was the smallest bubble Jason had seen yet, connected via a couple of beams and a hose to the dome he was in. There was a near-naked body curled on the floor.
"Get him in here," he said with an icy calmness he didn't feel.
Alan didn't react at all as the bubble moved towards the dome and then into it, as if the wall hadn't even existed. The front split vertically and opened up, and there was still no movement from him.
They've killed him. But the wave of cold air gave Jason hope. Right glove off, two fingers to the carotid artery, and there was a pulse there. Pretty much the textbook definition of thready, but there.
"G-1, you there?" he said into the bracelet.
Nothing. Crappy underwater reception. Just what he needed.
"G-5," said Tiny. He, of course, had a Phoenix-sized antenna, not a wristwatch-sized one.
"I need..." He paused, contemplating the man at his feet and reconsidering his request. His paramedic's training had gone as far as 'if they're cold enough to be unresponsive, get a real doctor.' "G-5, I need you here now. Severe hypothermia."
"On my way."
The connection went dead, and Jason turned his attention back to the quivering Spectran. "You. Strip."
Thirty seconds later he had a not entirely clean but fairly warm set of clothing, and was just contemplating how to get it onto a completely limp Alan when the man groaned and shifted.
"Stay down," he said, reinforcing it with a hand to the chest.
Alan tried again to sit up. His eyes were open, but there was raw confusion behind them.
"You're hypothermic as hell," Jason told him. "You know what that means, right? Don't move. Warm clothes coming. You," he added to the Spectran, "help me here and I might even let you live."
Alan was dressed in most of a Spectran uniform by the time Tiny burst into the dome, gun out and breathing hard. "What's the problem?"
"Hey, it's Ti --"
Jason turned and backhanded his Spectran guide, and the man toppled backwards. Not dead, but plenty unconscious enough not to remember a confused Alan using real names.
"See what I mean?"
Tiny knelt beside him, yanking a glove off. He whistled as soon as he touched Alan's skin. "Yup. We need to get him back to the Phoenix, right now. Good call. You want to play porter or guard?"
Jason grinned. "Guess."
"Where's the headdress for this thing?"
"Doesn't matter." Jason pulled his glove back on and drew his gun. "We need a few goons to see him and me together, remember? Right now we've got a whole one goon, who'll be found in his underwear. Think anyone will believe his story?"
Tiny grimaced. "I guess five more minutes won't make that much difference, but it best hadn't be more than that. Let's move."
Alan didn't resist being lifted at all, which meant he either felt truly dreadful or knew how dangerous it was to exert yourself when hypothermic. Possibly both. Either way, he ended up in Tiny's arms, blond head very visible against his dark shoulder and helmet.
"Do you remember the way back?" Tiny asked.
Well, duh, photographic memory here. Jason just held the relevant door open - he'd already checked the corridor for goons - and ushered Tiny through.
Of course, when he needed one, there wasn't a goon in sight. Had Mark and the others taken them all out? Surely not. Maybe they'd already headed for the escape pods. That would be just his luck. Empty dome followed empty corridor, and then a flash of movement. Jason whirled, gun ready, but it was small and yellow, not tall and green
"You got him!"
"Yup. Now what we need is an audience."
"I can do that. Head for the Phoenix. Not too fast." Keyop turned and retraced his steps at a run.
Two more corridors to the stairwell where he'd come down from the Phoenix. Three flights of stairs up. Even 'not too fast', that didn't leave a lot of time. Standing around and waiting for company would be beyond odd. Even the dumbest goon would realise something more was going on.
"Not too fast," grumbled Tiny, shifting Alan's weight. "He needs medical treatment."
"Won't be long." Jason held the door open for Tiny and slipped into the next dome after him, just in time to see Keyop stumble and squeak.
He was just thinking how utterly out of character that was when the four goons who'd been chasing him burst into view, glanced around, saw the Condor, and skidded to a halt, midway between the sprawling Swallow and the door they'd come in by..
"They've got the prisoner!" one of them yelped.
That'll do. Jason advanced menacingly, shuriken between his fingers. They fled before he'd taken three steps.
Keyop picked himself up, grinning ear to ear. "Eagle's not the only one who can act."
Not sure I'd put it that strongly. Jason said nothing. Keyop had used his head for once. No need to put a dampener on it.
"Get the door," he said instead. "That one. Owl, you coping?"
Tiny just grunted, shifting Alan's unresponsive weight slightly, and headed for the vertical tube containing the stairwell, jaw set.
Keyop led, racing up the steel treads. Tiny plodded on behind him. Steady, and keeping going, but the ring of his bootheels had slowed noticeably by the time they reached the next level.
"I'll take a turn," Jason said.
Tiny shook his head. "I'd rather you watched my back. One more floor?"
The other groaned and kept going, step by step.
They reached the top bubble eventually and, though Jason would never have admitted it, there was a tinge of relief to see the blue hull of the Phoenix above them, just where he'd left it. Ten feet above them, though.
Keyop leapt up, caught the hatch handle with one hand, typed the emergency access code into the keypad with the other, and dropped neatly out of the way as the hatch swung open. One bounce and he was inside.
"Now I could use some help," Tiny said. "I thought single seater race drivers were supposed to be lightweight?"
"Most are." Alan, though, was well over six feet, and while not heavily built, nobody would have described him as scrawny. Jason was surprised he'd fit in a cockpit, to be honest...though with his father's money behind him, he guessed if Alan didn't fit in the cockpit they'd build another cockpit.
"Can you pass him up to me?"
Tiny eyed the distance. "Probably. Or we could wait a couple of minutes and get some extra help." He jerked a shoulder in a direction Jason interpreted as 'right and down.' Definite movement visible in the passages down there, even through layers of curved transparent plastic and water. White with flashes of red.
He'd wait. He saw no reason Mark shouldn't help with the heavy lifting.
Scott jumped to his feet as Mark strode onto the flight deck. Even if the Owl had told him to sit in the pilot's seat and mind the radio, he still felt like an imposter.
"We've got him," Mark said. "He's in sickbay. Second door to the left."
He just managed not to flatten the Swallow on his way out.
The open door and sounds of plastic packaging been ripped open would have been all the directions he needed. Scott stopped in the doorway, since the Phoenix's sickbay was about a quarter the size of Thunderbird Two's. Alan lay on the narrow bed against the right hand wall, covered in a blanket. There was already one heated drip set up, using an IV pump which would have no dependence on gravity, and Tiny was in the process of inserting a second one into Alan's other arm. At the foot of the bed, Jason was doing something with leads and patches, and a screen over the head of the bed flickered into life.
Heartbeat slow and weak but steady. Body temperature below ninety. Not good. It did explain the waxy blue-white colour of Alan's face and lips, though. Without the monitor, Scott would have thought he was dead. He had to be breathing, but it was so shallow as to be invisible.
The monitor bleeped, and Alan's body temperature read ninety.
"Too fast?" Jason asked.
Tiny shook his head, priming the second line and setting the pump running. "Optimal. Best guess, at least. In a hospital they'd have him wired to an EEG, but we can't wait for that to start warming." He glanced round and caught Scott's eye. "You're the rescue expert. Do you agree?"
"I'm not a medic," Scott said. "I'll take your professional opinion."
Tiny grimaced. Scott could sympathise. He knew only too well what it was like to find yourself the expert on something because you were the only one with any even remotely relevant knowledge. Tiny the diver probably knew something about hypothermia, but G-5 the G-Force medic's training? Scott strongly suspected his expertise was in splints, bleeding control and concussion treatment.
Another bleep, another tenth of a degree, and Princess pushed past him with a muttered "'scuse me."
"Mark wants a pilot and a gunner, if Alan's stable. I'll stay with him."
"I can do that," Scott said.
"There's only room for one of us and you don't know where anything is." Princess only looked up at the end of her statement, apparently at least somewhat nervous of his reaction. "I'll take good care of him, Scott. Is he stable yet?"
"Yes." Tiny finished taping the IV tube to Alan's arm. "You done, Jase? We need to strap him down."
In case we end up in combat, of course. This sickbay was very clearly set up for that - nothing was loose, nothing swinging, they'd been meticulous in tucking away every piece of packaging, and the net of elastic straps the two of them stretched over Alan was permanently attached on the far side of the bed.
Alan still lay like a corpse, even when Tiny pulled a sheet with a face-shaped hole in it over his head and adjusted it around his eyes. His temperature had hit the heady heights of 90.2 by the time they'd finished. Scott wanted to scream with frustration, to turn the dial on that electric blanket way up, to increase the flow of the warmed saline dripping into Alan's veins. He knew the first would be useless and the other two actively dangerous.
"What did they do to him?" he asked.
"Stripped him to his underwear and shut him in a cold bubble. They didn't hurt him physically, from what I could see." Jason pointed down the corridor, a clear 'walk' instruction, and Scott did just that.
"Maybe cold makes Spectrans more talkative," Tiny said, following them.
"Humans too. Did you not notice how close he came to using your name? Pretty sure he's not that stupid normally."
"He was talking?" That was better news.
"Yeah. More or less coherently, when I pulled him out. Sit down, strap in. What's the plan, Mark?"
"Pull out, loop round, blow this place to bits. They're abandoning already. We'll give them a little longer."
"Won't they think it's odd that you let them get away?" Scott asked..
Mark swung round, a look of incredulous disbelief on his face. "You expect me to shoot up escape pods?"
"They'll come back and attack you again."
"You've flown in combat. You shot pilots out of the air as they parachuted down, did you? It's no different."
Except that they're not human. But Scott took his point. He'd never have shot a helpless enemy. It was an unwritten rule, universal among pilots. Might even be against the Geneva Convention, not that Spectra had signed it.
"Sorry," he said.
"Nah. Normally we'd be less generous. But the longer we wait, the more likely someone is to get out who saw you and Alan together. Then they'll tell all their friends that Alan Tracy isn't the Condor after all. Combined with a joint press conference..."
"Oh, you're kidding me," said Jason. "What's the point? They'll just say it's a lookalike in my birdstyle."
Keyop snorted. "Like you'd let them."
"I just might, if it meant not doing a press conference."
"No," said Mark. "No doubles."
"Not to mention we'd never find anyone else built like you," Tiny said, hands flying over his board. "Ready to launch."
There was the slightest jolt, and then the sensation of gentle underwater movement swinging round to the left. Scott found it odd enough when he was in Four. In the Phoenix, something he had mentally filed under 'plane', it was downright bizarre.
The jolt, of course, would have been the airlock unsealing. They'd cut a hole in the bubble, Tiny had said. A thousand feet down, and now the water would be pouring unstoppably into the base, flooding dome after dome. There would be plenty of people who didn't get away.
Spectrans, he reminded himself, not people. They were invading soldiers, down here setting up to destroy another city, blow up another power station, shoot down another jumbo, sink another passenger liner. They were a legitimate military target, and they'd come darn close to killing Alan.
There were crosshairs on the main screen, lined up on the central dome of the base.
"Fire," Mark said.
Ten seconds later there was a brief burst of flame followed by an eruption of bubbles, a whole underwater base's worth of air headed for the surface in a hurry. When they'd cleared, nothing much remained. A few shapeless fragments, some upturned crab tanks. He didn't look too closely at the details, and in any case the screen seemed to fog as he watched, the details blurring out.
"Forcefield generator's down," Keyop said.
"You don't say." Jason waved a hand at the screen, now showing nothing but black water. "It's not the only thing that's down. No more base."
"Focus," Mark said without even looking round.
This time Mark did turn round, leaning past the high back of his seat to glare at his young teammate. "Focus, Swallow. Scan for enemy activity. Owl, get us out of here. Condor, keep the weapons hot."
They all reacted with surprise. Still, nobody did anything except focus, as instructed. Even Keyop appeared to be concentrating, after that one complaint.
A genuine alert? No, not with no alarms and nothing on those radar screens Jason had shown him how to interpret. Commander throwing his rank about and insisting on make-work? That didn't sound much like Mark. Putting up with it didn't sound much like Jason. And yet, Jason's screen showed targeting crosshairs, and the border flashed red, a slow warning pulse that the Phoenix's weapons were active. The Condor himself sat alert, eyes glued to his enemy-free screen, right hand over his firing controls. The Phoenix came round in a smooth curve, rising away from the destroyed Spectran base.
And then they broke the surface, and there were flashing red warning lights on every console in sight.
Tiny yanked the Phoenix into a hard right turn the moment her engines cleared the water. Standing orders for a situation like this: take evasive action while Jason and Keyop figured out what the hell was causing the alarms and Mark decided what their strategy should be. He hated doing this to her. Horrible stress on the systems, with the extra weight of water still draining out of the underwater engines and the atmospheric drives nowhere near warmed up. She responded, though. She always did.
"Contact!" barked Keyop, and he almost laughed. Come on, kid, I figured that one out already. Why did you think we're in a five g turn?
Jason swearing - Chinese, probably - was less expected. Tiny forced himself to focus on the flying. Keep their path unpredictable, while gaining as much altitude as he could. No matter where the enemy craft was, it had to be above them. Height mattered in aerial combat, almost more than speed and manoeuvrability. Without height, Mark had no tactical options. Without height, they could only dodge in two dimensions.
"Another one," Keyop said unhappily.
Another what? Tiny glanced at the radar screen. Nothing he could interpret without taking more time than he had. On his visual screen, just a little black dot, way above them, which had to be the enemy. He swung the Phoenix past head on and checked the readouts. The engines were up to temperature now. More than. They'd be replacing manifolds tonight. He pulled the nose up another ten degrees and piled on the power.
"He's right." That was Jason again. "G-1, it's another photonic beam mecha."
There was silence - and no instructions - for long enough that Tiny glanced sideways. "What's the range on that weapon?"
"Tech guys guessed five thou," said Jason.
Then I'll assume ten. How far off is it now? What's it doing? "I need some help here!" he snapped.
"Stick with the climbing evasion pattern, G-5," Mark said, his voice deep, clear and calm. "Mecha's at thirty."
Tiny had long since given up on trying to figure out when his commander was utterly confident and when he was just pretending to be. Provided Mark was telling him what he needed to know, that would do. Five more seconds at this angle, then flatten it off a bit, then switch to pattern C. They were at fourteen thousand feet and climbing. Another couple of minutes and they'd have the airspace needed.
"Mecha at twenty-eight," said Keyop. "Twenty-seven." The alarm in his tone was all too obvious. "Twenty-six."
Coming in like a bat out of hell, all the height advantage, and a weapon which we know knocks us cold. Tiny mentally ran through his options. They had to get behind it, not directly behind (he'd made that mistake last time) and above it would be so much better than below.
"Condor, take any shot you get," Mark said.
No orders for Tiny. What orders could there be? Don't let it hit us? And he knew, and Jason knew, that there could be no shot until after this attack run. Shooting the darn thing at any sort of angle had proven to be a complete waste of time - they needed a direct shot at its back. Though at least the tech guys had figured out how to filter out the dazzling glare of the thing's photon shield. The sky on the main screen was a bizarre shade of purplish pink, but the mecha was a bright blob rather than blinding. He hadn't seen the photon shield come up. He hadn't seen Mark activate the filters.
They were still barely above fifteen, and much closer to the mecha than the ten he'd hoped to leave himself. Out of options.
"Hang on," he said, and pulled the Phoenix out of her climb into a shallow dive, right across the line of the enemy ship's descent.
"Firing!" Keyop yelped, but Tiny knew they were already out of danger. He backed the engines off as much as he dared, saving her power, and dived for the ocean.
And we're at fourteen. He'd never been so grateful that an enemy mecha had more speed than they did. Now, if only its pilot was as dim as most of his counterparts and never stopped to wonder whether the Phoenix was doing more than trying to run for it...
"G-5?" said Mark. Not worried, exactly, just making sure that Tiny was doing more than painting himself into a corner.
"Under control." In the sense that he had a Plan A, at least. Plan B had gone out of the window with their nonexistent height advantage. If Mark had one, he'd be giving orders right now. Instead, Tiny was vaguely aware that he was talking to Princess on the intercom, warning her that they were about to be thrown around.
He'd flat out forgotten they had passengers, and that Princess was back in sickbay, on a jumpseat rather than a proper launch chair. Oh, and that Tracy Aerospace's lead testpilot was sitting behind him. He wondered briefly what Scott was making of the craft which every other pilot Tiny knew called "the flying brick."
"It's within five," Jason said.
"Understood. Hang on."
Two and a half thousand feet of airspace left. Not a lot, but it would have to do.
The targeting alarms went off, and Tiny pulled the Phoenix under, past vertical, onto her back, and redlined the engines. Not the recommended way to start an inverted loop. Not one he'd have tried in any other plane. But the Phoenix, lousy aerodynamics and stability and all, didn't really care which way she was up provided you applied enough power.
The engines screamed, and she pulled round, past horizontal, and into a shuddering climb. And finally they had the height advantage they needed.
"Jase!" he shouted.
"Ready." Jason sounded as if he was about to throw up. Or possibly already had. Maybe he should have warned him. Too late now.
Out of the inverted loop, a hard twist to the right, yank the nose down, and there was the mecha, three hundred feet below them and at that thirty degree angle he should have used last time, with the perpendicular shot needed to get through their shield perfectly set up. Yes!
The Super launcher coughed twice, two missiles screamed away and straight through the mecha's shield and the back of the craft exploded in flame in two separate places. Then a third and a fourth. Black smoke billowed, and Tiny pulled out of the dive in a more normal direction this time.
"It's going down," said Keyop.
Yes, and this time there's no underwater base to rebuild it in short order. That must be what had happened. They should have thought of it, really.
"Nice flying, Tiny," said Mark. "I didn't know she could do that."
Nor did I, outside the simulator. Tiny just grinned. "She can do anything."
"That she --" Mark turned back to the newly flashing red light on his console. "Oops. Sorry, Princess. Keyop?"
"Screens are clear," Keyop said. Tiny rather suspected that the professionalism in his tone was due to the man sitting in the jumpseat against the back wall. Normally the Swallow would have been whooping and leaping round the flight deck by now.
"Sorry, Scott," he said, standing up and stretching the kinks out of his shoulders. He'd check what the g-forces involved had been later.
"For what? That was one hell of a manoeuvre. I've never seen it done in a plane this size."
"Let's hope you never do again." Jason had undone his seatbelt and stood up, and was now leaning against the back of his seat in a posture Tiny had seen before. "Aren't you supposed to loop the other way up? My stomach's used to that. Just about."
"So are the Spectrans. Tiny went the way they'd never have expected." Mark's tone was less harsh than the words were. "You okay, Jase?"
"I will be."
"No hurry. Tiny, take Scott and go check on our patient. I'll mind the store."
He was cold. So very, very cold. And dizzy, and...had he just been the wrong way up? The floor wasn't as hard as it had been, and he wasn't curled up any more. He did, however, appear to be tied down.
Alan cracked an eyelid to see where he was, and an English girl's voice said, "Alan? Are you awake?"
Not as plummy as Penny's accent, and rather younger, and familiar. Alan opened his eyes. "Princess?"
All he could see was a ceiling, plain white with an inset light fitting, rather blurrier than he was used to. Then a helmet moved into his field of view, white with a yellow visor, dark hair peeping out, and a pair of remarkably green eyes.
"It's okay," she said. "You're safe on the Phoenix."
"I'm cold." He clamped his jaw shut, as a monster bout of shivering struck.
"I know. We have to warm you up slowly, or it's dangerous. Try to relax."
That's easy for you to say. Alan couldn't stop shaking for long enough to get the words out, and Princess put a hand on his forehead. It felt unbelievably hot.
"Tiny's finished throwing the Phoenix round the sky, so I'll unfasten the net. Don't try to get up."
The weight on his body vanished, followed by the pressure on his forehead and chin. Alan grimaced and brought his right hand up to rub the back of his stiff neck. Quite apart from the shivering, he felt as if he'd run a marathon and then been beaten with sticks. Or maybe iron bars. He closed his eyes again and willed his body to ache less.
"He's awake," he vaguely heard Princess say some indeterminate time later. "At least, he was just now."
"Thank goodness," Scott said.
Hold on. Scott...on the Phoenix? Alan opened his eyes again. The blurriness was better, maybe, but the ceiling wasn't any more interesting. He turned his head experimentally. A white figure, a kinda mud-coloured one, and one which couldn't possibly be anything except International Rescue blue.
"Scott?" he croaked.
"That's me. How are you feeling?"
"We're ninety minutes from home," the mud-coloured figure said, and Alan belatedly identified him as Tiny. "Let me just check you're fit to make an orbital boost."
Alan did his best to snort derisively. "Astronaut here."
"Astronaut with a core temperature of 95 and Lord-knows-what cocktail of Spectran drugs in his system."
Spectran...wait... Alan struggled to sit up. "Zoltar was there. Down...wherever I was. He might still be. You need to..." The world spun around him, and he was only vaguely aware that someone had made sure he was lying down again. He kept his eyes shut this time.
"Are you sure, Alan?" Princess asked.
"Yes, I'm damn well sure! Wears purple and a stupid headdress, right? And I've heard that laugh on the news enough times. He was there."
"We believe you," Tiny said. "There still isn't anything we can do about it. Either we got him or we didn't. Chances are we didn't." He didn't sound shocked, or regretful.
They blew it to bits, Al," said Scott. "No more undersea base. Don't worry about anything. Is he fit, Tiny? Because Tracy Island's about five minutes away."
"He's fit enough, and where we go's not my call. Princess?"
"I can stay with him. You go get us home."
Footsteps receded, and Alan sagged into the mattress, cushions, whatever it was he was lying on. Home sounded wonderful, just as long as it held a soft bed and some heated blankets. Until then, he had no interest in being anything other than asleep.
It wasn't until the Phoenix had settled into its cradle below ISO and the water level was dropping down the sea doors on the viewscreen that Scott glanced to his left and bit off a curse. Mobile Control, still strapped down to the Phoenix's flight deck, thirty miles from One. Though even had he remembered earlier, he didn't think asking G-Force to detour to drop it off would have gone down too well. Maybe they could lend him a van to take it back.
Tiny was calling a medical team in to extract Alan, who wouldn't be walking anywhere just yet. Jason and Keyop were doing some sort of post-flight systems check. And Mark came over to him.
"I've been thinking. About that flight in the G-1 I promised you..."
"I'm prepared to swap it for getting Al back," he said. He'd been thinking too. The G-1 was a single-seater. It wasn't like he could go up in it with Mark, and he had deep suspicions about what would happen should it be discovered that the pilot was anyone other than the Eagle. Suspicions involving a large quantity of ordnance and fiery death.
"That's not what I meant. I want your opinion. Formally. I'm going to tell Anderson we need your expertise."
He paused, and there was uncertainty behind the blue visor.
"If you want to do it, of course."
He'd forgotten just how tiny that little jet was. Just how fragile. In his mind, he'd replaced it with something more like the planes he'd flown in combat. Big, durable, heavily armed, formidable. The G-1 surely couldn't carry missiles of any size - where would they go, on a swing-wing? It couldn't take a shot from anything much past a peashooter. All Mark had on his side was manoeuvrability and speed...and not as much speed as he wanted. And he went out there, alone, against craft like that monster they'd barely destroyed today.
"It won't be up to me," Scott said. "But, for what it's worth, I'll support you."
It wasn't until the second or third curious glance that he realised what the ISO black section staff were reacting to. International Rescue uniform, in their territory. Father really was going to have his ears, because at least half of them had seen him walking around earlier, wearing suit and tie and photo namebadge. Too late now. At least these were people who failed to tell the world what G-Force's real names were on a regular basis.
He remembered the doctor who Mark handed him over to for a medical check. It had been Chris Johnson who'd put his implant in, and Chris Johnson who'd told him that it was gone just a few weeks later and turned his world to ashes.
"You haven't done anything that would worry me, as far as I'm aware," the doctor said as he closed the office door behind them. "You know what the red flags would be after pulling g. Vision issues, dizziness, shortness of breath? Mark forgot to mention that he went to Fiery Phoenix?"
He felt his lips twitch into a smile. He'd liked this man. He'd been the one person who seemed genuinely distressed that there had been nothing he could do to bring Scott's dream back.
"I'm fine," he said. "How's Al?"
"Lucky. He's fit and strong, and he had the sense not to exert himself. Another half an hour, though... he was very close to the limit."
"There aren't long term effects of hypothermia, though - are there?"
"He'll get cold easily for a while. Need to take it easy. Though from what I've read about him, he does that a lot."
Scott smiled again. "That's right."
And Chris grinned in return. "Did he win the draw for most desirable cover occupation? Seriously, he needs to spend the night here, and then the next couple of weeks on his cover occupation. No heavy lifting. No getting chilled. No rescuing people. Do you have a doctor on that island of yours?"
"Good. He needs to take this seriously."
Scott contemplated Alan's reaction to two weeks of Brains fussing over him and insisting he took it easy. He was either going to be deeply annoyed and climbing the walls, or completely relaxed about it and taking the opportunity to have Tin-Tin at his beck and call. With Alan, you never knew which extreme you'd get.
But he'd be there.
Chris peered into his eyes, listened to his heart, took his blood pressure, and pronounced him fit, and Scott found Mark waiting for him outside the door.
"We've a debriefing starting, well, as soon as Chris has seen everyone. You don't have to come, but I thought you might want to."
Scott raised his eyebrows. The last thing he'd have wanted was an audience for one of the IR debriefs: Jeff picking apart every decision he'd made with the benefit of hindsight. It had taken him a while to reconcile himself to the necessity of it. There was no manual for what he did, no precedent for the orders he gave. The only way to improve was to run through it afterwards, figure out what had been right, what could have been better, and, sometimes, where it had all gone wrong.
Given that G-Force didn't generally rescue hostages, he assumed Mark was in much the same situation.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "Anderson may not want --"
"As far as I'm concerned, you were there, you come to debrief. We've got that mecha configuration figured now. Anderson's got no cause for complaint." He glanced towards the closed door. "Jase always takes ages. Chris cannot figure out what causes the motion sickness. Come on. If Anderson's going to throw you out, let's get it over and done with."
Anderson was seated at the head of the table as Scott followed Mark in, talking on the phone.
"I agree. I'll confirm it with him," he said. "Speak to you again soon." The phone went down, and Anderson gave him an honest-to-god smile. Scott worked at not letting his jaw drop.
"That was your father," Anderson said. "We've been discussing the possibility of bringing Tracy Aerospace in as a contractor to ISO."
If he'd said he was hiring Jeff to sweep the floors, Scott couldn't have been more shocked.
"I thought they didn't do military," Mark said.
"Unfortunately not. However, we're not asking them to work on the military capabilities of our craft." He stood up and walked towards Scott, hand held out. "Scott, we didn't part in the best of circumstances. I'm sorry for that. I really am. I understand you're a darn good test pilot these days. I'm not going to insult you by trying to tempt you away from the family business, but I would very much like your input on the G-1. I believe Mark may have mentioned that it doesn't have all the speed he'd like."
"You've cleared this with my father?" Scott asked. He wouldn't have put it beyond Anderson to have set him up, even now.
"Absolutely. It will take a while to formalise, of course, contract details and so on, but it will be happening. The only question is whether you want to be a part of it."
Hell yes. Scott shook the other man's hand, feeling years of frustrated fury not vanish, but at least recede somewhat. "I'm looking forward to it," he said, and meant it.
"Good. Now, if you'd take a seat, there's one other matter I'd like to clear up before we get to the full debrief. Big Cat Racing."
"I sincerely hope you're going to blow them to bits," Scott said. He took his old chair again.
"Not just yet."
Mark snorted. "I can see why you wanted to say that before Jason got here."
Scott said nothing, just sat and waited. If Anderson thought he'd blow up every time he didn't get his way...well, he'd soon discover how wrong he was.
"There's no reason to believe Big Cat knows we're onto them. This gives us an unusual infiltration opportunity."
"Except that their whole plan was based on Alan knowing their man."
Anderson grimaced. "True. Which should demonstrate to you that we need to keep this quiet for the moment, while we work on it. I'd appreciate your co-operation."
Scott glanced at Mark. He was still wearing his helmet, expression-masking blue visor and all, but there was definite tension in that jawline.
One of these days the Eagle really would have to learn to trust in other people's discretion and ability to keep their tempers. Maybe having Jason as his team-mate was an issue there.
"I've been military," he said. "I know what that means. I'm prepared to sit tight for now - and I doubt Alan's fit to fly just yet in any case. But if International Rescue needs me..."
"Then you go," said Mark, watching Anderson. "No question."
Anderson nodded. "What I don't want is any press releases. Or your brother out in public shooting his mouth off and tipping our hand."
And you've bought into Alan's public persona too. Scott just nodded. "Not an issue."
There was a tap on the door, and the rest of G-Force came in without waiting for a response and took the same seats as before. This time, the tension was gone. Success did that for you, he remembered. Complete, total success. That was something he missed. In the rescue business, even if nobody died, even if nobody was hurt, nothing was ever quite the same afterwards. Something had gone horribly wrong for somebody. Lives had changed.
Rescues were always negative in some way. This was a straight military victory. Scott leaned back in his chair and listened to Mark give an overview of what had happened, Jason describe finding Alan, Princess present a handful of memory sticks she'd found somewhere on the base, Tiny discuss his inverted loop with one of the biggest grins on his face Scott had ever seen, and Keyop try to sound casual about setting up a bunch of Spectrans to see Jason and Alan together. Over the phone, Chris Johnson told them that Alan was going to be fine. Nobody at any point suggested that taking Scott along had been a dubious decision. Nobody seemed surprised that he'd coped with the stresses of aerial combat. Nobody did anything other than treat him as a competent part of their team for today.
But that part of his life was gone. His own rocket ship stood waiting for him in a shed thirty miles away, and soon he'd be flying her again, on the way to help people who needed him and his specific expertise. No regrets.
He was looking forward to coming back and test-piloting the G-1, though.
"I hate this," Jason muttered, twiddling with something at the edge of his mirrored visor. "Journalists. I'd rather face Spectrans."
Alan laughed. "Journalists are easy. Just tell them what they want to hear."
"What they want to hear is what my real name is."
"Maybe not, then." Alan smoothed his own suit down and checked the immaculately folded silk handkerchief in the pocket. He had his own appearance to keep up, after all.
"We're ready for you now." The young woman in ISO uniform was very professional, very polished...and still clearly afraid of the Condor. "Sirs, if you'd follow me..."
She held the door for them, and Alan followed Jason up onto the raised area and behind a white-clothed table to named seats. Behind it, a screen with the ISO logo repeated, where he was more used to seeing commercial sponsors and team names. Anderson sat there already - he'd given the first half of the press conference alone - but now the flashbulbs went off in their dozens. Alan flashed his trademark smile and waved. Jason didn't react in any way.
"Is it true that you were captured by Spectra?" a female voice asked. One of the celebrity magazines, if he remembered rightly.
"Did your father pay a ransom?"
"They weren't interested in money." Alan squinted into the sea of reporters. "Remind me, guys. Who wrote that article linking me with a certain other person in this room?"
There was laughter, and fingers were pointed.
"Yeah. Next time you want to fantasise about someone being the Condor, leave me out of it, okay? Though I do have some suggestions..."
More laughter, and someone called out, "Condor? Do you have any suggestions for who we should use?"
Jason stood up, swiveled his glare slowly around the room, and the laughter died.
"Do you really think I have time for a secret identity that you'd have heard of?" American accent nothing like Alan's, voice nothing like his either, and a tone of disdain which they surely couldn't imagine laid-back Alan Tracy using. All just like the Condor's rare other press conference appearances, though, as well as the few news footage clips of him speaking. That one sentence really should shatter any remaining myths that Alan Tracy was the Condor in his spare time.
Alan still held his breath. The Condor might avoid the press, but Jason Alouita the racing driver talked to reporters on a regular basis. He'd given interviews to a couple of the men sitting in the front row within the past month.
They didn't even twitch.
"Tell us what happened, Alan?" a voice called from the back. That was the planted question, and Alan let himself believe what he'd rehearsed.
"I wish I could. They say I walked out of the hotel by myself and never arrived at the conference centre. I don't remember waking up that morning, or any time until I was imprisoned. Then some Spectran dude started yelling at me about being the Condor. When I couldn't answer his questions, they stuck me back in a cell, and it was damn cold in there. Next thing I knew, I was back at ISO headquarters. Apparently the Condor found me and got me out. For which I thank you, friend."
He got a full-face view of that intimidating mirrored visor, and a brief nod.
"So, about you and Miranda Ecclestone?" That was from a gossip columnist, and Alan favoured her with another dazzling smile.
"Darling Miranda? I'm so much looking forward to seeing her again. Whose party is it next weekend? I forget."
Jason snorted. "Oh, please."
And Alan turned to him with an innocent grin. "Would you like to come? I'm sure I can arrange it. Any friend of mine..."
Jason was on his feet and swept past and out of the door in a way which simply screamed derision. And Alan let himself look wide-eyed and confused. "Oh dear. Chief, I'm so sorry. Do you think I've offended him? Perhaps I should go apologise."
"Perhaps not," said Anderson, deadpan, and the press conference ended on a tone of hilarity which Alan rather suspected wasn't normal for ISO.
"Oh, man," said Jason once they were safely away from even the most sensitive shotgun mike. "Remind me not to do a press conference with you again. Ever. I damn nearly lost it there."
"I should have warned you."
"I should have guessed. Your reputation had to come from somewhere. You feeling okay?"
Alan grimaced. "I'm still cold all the time. Dr Johnson says it'll pass. I confess I'm looking forward to getting back home."
"Plenty warm there." Jason hesitated. "Big Cat."
"I'm hardly likely to run into them on Tracy Island. Anderson says leaving them alone is a short term thing, so I look forward to a pile of smoking rubble on the news."
"You and me both. I'll pay particular attention to our friend Mr Wilson, don't you worry. I really don't like traitors."
They'd reached the main entrance to black section, where Scott and Mark stood waiting. Scott shook his head.
"And you wonder why people don't take you seriously. Nice one, Alan. Though you won't be going to any parties for a while."
"I know that." He shivered again, despite knowing it was a perfectly good temperature in here.
"Sure you're fit to fly home?" Scott asked him.
"Doc says I'm fine."
"Then let's do it." Scott's look said he knew full well Alan had avoided the previous question, but was prepared to let Alan make the call. Which was something. Whether it would last beyond having an audience was another matter. He'd seen that expression on the IR field commander's face before, normally when he'd done something Scott didn't approve of in front of someone they were rescuing. Scott always waited until they were alone to chew him out.
Even so, Alan wanted out of there. Of that he was sure. He wanted his own bed, a doctor who knew him. Warm sunshine. A pool to lounge by. To be able to wander in and out freely, not worry about passes and security guards. Wanted them badly enough to be prepared to shiver on TB1's jumpseat for a few hours. Scott could always turn the cockpit heating up.
They pulled up at the old barn to find a beat-up van waiting for them, three young men lounging against the side in the mid-afternoon sunshine.
"I see our delivery's arrived," Scott said, deadpan.
Alan hadn't a clue what he was talking about, but wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of saying so. Since Tiny promptly went round to the back of the van and threw the doors open, revealing Mobile Control sitting inside, he got away with it.
"You can move the darn thing this time," Jason was saying to Mark as the Tracys got out of the car and headed for them. "I'm telling you, it doesn't tilt. At all. It's uncanny."
It's also ours. Alan didn't say it. Instead, he climbed into the van and turned the antigrav on. "See for yourself."
Damn, those G-Forcers were young. Anyone would think it was a new toy for them to play with, from the way they were arguing and testing its lateral stability. Alan watched indulgently as they manoeuvred Mobile Control out of the van and over to the big barn, where Scott was busy throwing the main doors open. Thunderbird One sat just inside, red nosecone pointed to the sky, and Alan felt a little less cold. He was going home. Even if Scott did lecture him on anti-kidnap protocol all the way there.
Just thought I'd let you know, the paperwork's all signed. I'm planning to come up Monday, if you're around.
Monday's fine. I'll meet you at the gate again.
Attn: Scott Tracy
Dear Mr Tracy,
We regret that the aircraft in question will not be available at ISO USA tomorrow after all. Our apologies for the short notice and we will reschedule for a mutually convenient time.
Scott deleted the email with a sigh. He wondered where G-Force were this time. Riga, maybe? The Crab Nebula?
Just as long as they all came back safe, he could wait.
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