Cupid's Cable Gun by Grumpy Ghost Owl
Summary: Jason is outraged when he hears of a move to put paid to Mark and Princess' romantic aspirations. But why get mad, when you can get even?
Categories: Battle of the Planets Characters: Original Character
Genre: Humor/Comedy
Story Warnings: Mild Adult Situations
Timeframe: Sequel
Universe: Alternate Universe
Challenges: None
Series: Battle of the Planets: 2163
Chapters: 2 Completed: Yes Word count: 22031 Read: 5033 Published: 06/06/2007 Updated: 06/06/2007
Story Notes:
Thanks to Transmute Jun for beta reading.

1. Chapter 1 by Grumpy Ghost Owl

2. Chapter 2 by Grumpy Ghost Owl

Chapter 1 by Grumpy Ghost Owl

This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets are the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work.

Battle of the Planets: 2163

Part I "Even the war was ridiculous, though it did kill rather a lot of people." - DH Lawrence (Lady Chatterley's Lover)

It wasn't as though Mark didn't deserve it, at least as far as Jason was concerned. Mark deserved it several times over, and it was priceless. Jason was laughing so hard he couldn't stand up straight and had to hang on to the kitchen counter for support. He had gone beyond mere chuckling, incapable of any sound other than a helpless gasping wheeze, while Mark gulped water out of a large glass and Princess, wide-eyed with sympathetic distress, hovered helplessly at his elbow. By far, most of the noise was coming from Tiny and Keyop, who were clinging to each other in an effort to remain upright, howling with delight. There was a spray and a puddle of dark brown beverage spilled on the sink and wall tiles, and Mark's discarded cup lay on its side in the sink itself.

Security Chief Anderson walked in to the executive kitchen and folded his arms. "What?" he demanded of no-one in particular.

Jason started to try and say something, but lost control and leaned on the kitchen bench, barely able to breathe.

"I can wait," Anderson informed the room in general, one foot starting to tap ominously on the floor.

Jason took a deep, shuddering breath, struggled, and collapsed again, wheezing.

Mark glared at Jason, wiped his face on the paper towel handed to him by Princess, and turned to face Anderson. "There was something in my hot chocolate," he explained sheepishly.

"Something," Anderson deduced dryly, "apart from chocolate?"

It wasn't funny (Jason was convinced that his Chief of Staff had no sense of humour) but it was one of those moments, when the laughter wouldn't stop, when anything could set it off again, which meant that Anderson's remark renewed Jason's contortions out of all proportion.

"My office," Anderson sighed. "Now."

Tiny and Keyop went quiet. Still cackling, Jason hauled himself upright. Anderson stood aside from the door and waited for the G-Force team to file out.

In Anderson's office, with the team settling into their accustomed places -- Tiny, Keyop and Jason still sniggering, Princess subdued and pensive, and Mark in a state of quiet fury -- the Chief of Galaxy Security stood in front of his desk and glared at the five youngsters with the air of a man at the end of his rope.

Jason got the distinct impression that it was a frayed and tattered rope, which someone -- most likely Jason -- had set fire to.

"Last Monday," Anderson recalled, "a smoke bomb was detonated in the Engineering Department toilets at Center Neptune, triggering a high level security alert."

This had an instant sobering effect on Jason. "Hey, that jerk Harmer messed up the timing on my car!" he pointed out.

"Also on Monday, after Mark was required to speak to Jason about the smoke bomb incident," Anderson continued, "The ventilation unit in the G-1 was somehow contaminated with..." he glanced at something on his desk, "concentrated banana essence, as was, it turns out, the soap dispenser in Mark's shower unit."

Jason bit his lip and Mark glared at him.

"Tuesday," Anderson continued, "photocopied pictures of Jason as a three year old with his teddy bear appeared in all the lobbies on every floor of the ISO Tower. Jason, you'll be pleased to know, Director Kelly thinks you were cute. I consider this proof positive that she didn't know you as a child."

Mark smirked at Jason, and Jason scowled back.

"Wednesday," Anderson said, "an e-mail was circulated claiming to refute rumours of fraternisation between certain members of the G-Force team on account of the Commander lacking certain... anatomical requirements for the activities being alluded to."

Jason folded his arms, ducked his head and cackled. Mark glowered.

"Then, yesterday morning, a survey was circulated to staff asking them to answer multiple choice questions relating to the mental abilities of G-2, with options limited to, 'moron,' 'idiot,' and 'cretin' in each case. The team psych evaluation sessions had to be interrupted so that Mark and Jason could go and retrieve the questionnaires."

Mark and Jason snarled at each other.

"And now," Anderson concluded, "we have a mess in the kitchen, which Jason will clean up." Anderson leaned back against the edge of his desk. "I realise that you're all bored with training exercises and routine patrols, but as of this moment, you will cease and desist with this campaign of practical jokes. I've had it up to here --" he waved a hand in the vicinity of his larynx -- "with this puerile nonsense, and it stops as of now." Anderson's baleful eye swept over the five youngsters. "If there's one more -- just one more -- prank, you're all grounded for the weekend."

"Grounded?" Tiny echoed. "Aren't we a little old for that?"

"Try me," Anderson growled. He pinned Jason with a look. "Kitchen." Jason could see that the Security Chief meant business, so he scrambled to his feet. "I mean it," Anderson said. "No more pranks."

As Jason left, he noticed that Princess remained silent, staring at her hands, which were clasped in her lap. She looked to be on the verge of tears. Maybe, he reflected, he'd gone a little too far. He told himself he'd try to make it up to her somehow.

Jason had cleaned up most of the mess in the Executive Kitchen and was washing the cups when Princess came in. "You okay?" she asked him.

"I was going to ask you the same thing," Jason said.

Chief Anderson's administrative officer, Gunnery Sergeant Miles McAllister, came in to the kitchen to check on the coffee he'd started brewing while Jason was still cleaning the sink. Princess picked up a tea towel and started drying the cups Jason had washed. "I'm fine," she said, refusing to meet Jason's gaze.

"Hey," Jason said, "that stuff with Mark... It doesn't mean anything. It's just fooling, y'know?"

"I know," she said listlessly.

Gunny McAllister poured two cups of coffee: one for himself and one for the Chief.

"What'd you put in Mark's hot chocolate, anyway?" Princess asked.

"Bread improver," Jason said. "You know, the kind made from straight ascorbic acid. It's harmless -- just vitamin C, really -- but it tastes terrible."

McAllister gathered up the cups of coffee he'd made in his powerful hands and made his way out of the kitchen.

"I think you're mean," Princess said.

"What's eating you anyway? You've been moping around for --" Jason's stomach made a dive for the sub-basement parking lot as he remembered that Mark's cup wasn't the only place he'd put the bread improver. "Oh, no. I forgot --" he made a frantic lunge for the door. "Gunny!"

Jason threw himself through the doorway.

Straight into a security officer.

Worse still: the officer in question was Shay Alban, Chief Anderson's personal security coordinator.

Jason's momentum carried him forward and he twisted to avoid the knee that shot upward as he and Major Alban both lost their balance and fell. Alban uttered a short snarl as she hit the carpet and her knee impacted with his hip instead of its intended target. Jason extended a hand to bounce himself off the floor and rolled.

That was when he heard the distinctive and unmistakable sound of the safety catch being released on a standard issue Galaxy Security service pistol.

"Hold it right there," Alban growled. Jason got up, hands raised, as Alban rose up from the carpet like a cat, weapon trained on his chest.

"Shay," Jason said, "I'm sorry. It was an accident --"

"Save it for after I confirm your ID... sir," Alban told him.

"I don't have time for this." Jason turned his head as far as he could in the direction McAllister had taken. "Gunny, don't --"

"It's procedure whenever there's an incident in a restricted area, and my friend Mister Handgun here says you have all the time I need," Alban corrected.

Jason cast one final anguished glance in the direction of Anderson's office. He was in a no-win situation. His uniform, even in civilian mode, would provide him with some protection, but at this range, with the calibre used in G-Sec sidearms, a bullet would make a mess of his chest, break ribs and puncture a lung, crack his sternum and rupture his liver in any number of places. Jason realised that as far as the Chief was concerned, his name was going to be mud, any way he looked at it. "Lead the way, ma'am," he sighed.

"JASON!" Anderson's furious bellow made Jason wince.

"He'll only be a minute, Chief!" Alban sang back cheerfully.

"Let's get it over with, then," Jason declared. He suffered himself to be led to the retina scanner in the lobby and peered into the eyepiece.

"Anderson, Jason Robert," said the computer. "Special Projects. Designation: classified."

"Happy?" Jason demanded.

"Blissful," Alban drawled. Jason turned and headed back down the hall to face the music. On entering McAllister's work area he found himself face to face with a khaki wall of Gunnery Sergeant, whose face was ashen under his dark skin. Anderson was standing in his office doorway, gripping the handle on his coffee mug so tightly, his knuckles had turned white.

"You put bread improver in the coffee filter, didn't you, sir?" McAllister rumbled ominously.

"I tried to warn you," Jason began to explain. "I forgot --"

"This," Anderson said quietly, stalking toward him, "is the last straw. You physically assault a member of my staff and you contaminate the coffee, after I specifically told you --"

"But, Chief --"

"No buts, Jason. You're grounded. The entire team is confined to quarters at Camp Parker until next Monday at oh eight hundred. But not," he added maliciously, pacing in a circle around Jason while the younger man sweated, "until you've all accompanied me to the Center City Hilton, where I'm due to deliver an address this evening at the anti-piracy conference. Since the entire team clearly needs a break from routine, you're on guard duty, under Major Alban's direct supervision. And by the way," Anderson concluded with bloody-minded satisfaction, "it's black tie."

Anderson thrust his cup of tainted coffee into Jason's hands and folded his arms. No sense of humour, Jason decided grimly.

"I hope you're planning on cleaning the coffee maker," McAllister growled, "sir."

"Yes, Gunny." Jason took his coffee cup.

"And you're also planning on making a fresh pot," McAllister added.

"Yes, Gunny." Jason trudged toward the kitchen. As he passed Alban in the corridor he attempted a shadow of his usual cocky smile. "Look on the bright side," he said, "it isn't every day you get swept off your feet by a younger man."

Alban cast a look of unadulterated umbrage in Jason's direction, then turned to Anderson. "Let me shoot him, Chief?"

"Stand in line, Major," Anderson told her.

The rest of the team found Jason in the kitchen, rinsing the last of the bread improver out of the coffee machine.

"Jason! Zark says we've been grounded!" Mark exclaimed, bursting into the kitchen with the rest of the team in his wake. "What did you do?"

"How long have you got?" Jason asked.

"From what I understand," Mark said through clenched teeth, "all weekend."

Jason took a deep breath and began his litany of woe.

Major Alban may not have been permitted to shoot Jason, but it seemed she was bound and determined to exact vengeance by whatever means available to her. At present, the available means was briefing notes. She had Jason preparing a set from the security bulletins and assessments on the G-Sec intranet.

To add insult to injury, the security coordinator had Mark's full support. "You got us in to this," Mark grumbled at Jason. "You get to do the paperwork."

Jason wasn't entirely alone with his misery, however. The rest of the team had to read his notes.

The afternoon wore on and G-Force were starting to think they could see a light at the end of the paperwork tunnel.

The light turned out to be an oncoming truck, driven by Shay Alban. All security staff, she announced smugly, were to wear suits.

"We can't wear suits," Mark told Shay. "Ask Anderson if you want confirmation, but we don't lose these threads." He indicated his civilian uniform.

Alban gave him a dubious look, and folded her arms, regarding the youngsters from underneath her honey-coloured fringe. "Can you wear anything over the t-shirts?" she asked.

Mark shuffled his feet. "Uh... no reason why not... Although there could be some wear and tear."

"We can be tough on clothing," Princess said apologetically. "Sorry. We can't really explain more than that."

Tough on clothing, Jason mused. That was one way of putting it. If any of the team had to transmute to battle mode, anything other than their special G-Force civilian uniform would be destroyed in the surge of transformational energy.

"Whatever," Shay was saying. "I guess we can't do much about the jeans, but you can wear turtlenecks and jackets over those tees of yours. Princess, I think you can get away with a regulation black dress if you roll your trouser cuffs up, some. Report to the Quartermaster to get fitted out, sirs."

Jason trailed after the rest of the team as they headed disconsolately for the door. "Not you, hotshot," Shay said. "Sorry," she added. "Hotshot, sir," she corrected herself.

"You're enjoying this way too much for your own good, Shay," Jason warned.

"Hey," Shay reasoned, shrugging, "how many chances does a girl get?"

"If I have any say in it," Jason said, "the future's looking pretty bleak in that regard for you. What is it?"

"I need you to brief my people on working with G-Force," Shay explained. "They'll be waiting for you in Conference Room Three."

"You really are milking this for all it's worth, aren't you?" Jason observed.

"Got it in one, sir," Shay said cheerfully.

"When this is over..." Jason began.

"I'll go back to being a subordinate officer," Shay finished for him, "outside of your chain of command, reporting directly to your Chief of Staff."

"Y'know," Jason said, "I used to think you were relatively cool for a mature lady, but now I'm really not so sure."

"You're not the first young guy whose illusions I've shattered, sir," Shay said.

"I'm so not going there," Jason decided.

Lieutenants Bairstow and Thorne had been rostered on for the evening, and given G-Force's 'on-call' status, they were still going to be on duty, but in a back-up capacity. There wasn't a lot to tell them except for the need to be prepared to step in to the breach in the event that G-Force received a call to scramble. Bairstow and Thorne ended up doing more briefing than Jason did, explaining some of the tricks of their trade and letting Jason know what to expect.

When they were done, Jason made his way to the elevator lobby to go to the Quartermaster's Department. The wall clock read 16:45. Chief Anderson was already there, accompanied by Shay, who was chatting with Lieutenant Colonel Jones, Anderson's Liaison and Protocol Officer. Jason was of the opinion that Alberta Jones could make glaciers feel they weren't living up to their own press. The two women chatted while they waited for the elevator.

"You should try a different look," Shay was saying. "You're too conservative, Al."

"There's no such thing as too conservative in my job," Jones parried as Anderson arrived, briefcase in hand.

"You know what they're saying," Shay said. "Cleavage is the new black this season."

"Not when I'm on duty it isn't," Al replied.

"Oh, come on," Shay teased. "You've got it, you oughta flaunt it. Why don't you give that blue silk number an airing? A few more years, gravity's going to take over and you'll regret having missed the boat."

At this point, Jason's mind boggled and he glanced at Anderson, who appeared to find the potted plant in the corner utterly fascinating.

"I'll stick with the old black when I'm at work, if you don't mind," Jones said primly. "Anyway, I was planning on wearing my grey suit."

"That old thing?" Shay made a face that conveyed her low opinion of the level of sex appeal inherent in Jones' grey suit.

"Yes," Al said. "That old thing." She turned to Anderson. "Got your speech, sir?"

Anderson patted his jacket pocket, which made a rustling paper noise. "All present and accounted for, Colonel."

The elevator arrived, and Jason followed the others inside. Shay pushed the selector button for the basement car park, and Jason pressed the button for the Quartermaster's Uniform Store on Level 12.

Anderson glanced at Jones, who was standing next to him. "You know, your grey suit's just fine," he said.

Jason tried not to wince. Bad move, Chief! Never tell a woman she looks 'fine,' and never volunteer information unless you're using words like 'stunning.'

"Fine," Jones echoed, and there was a faint rising inflection in her tone that told Jason he'd been right in his assessment.

Anderson seemed oblivious to the fact that he was navigating blind in a minefield. "There's nothing wrong with your grey suit," he said. "It's, um... " He struggled for a moment. "Nice," he attempted. "You always look nice."

Jason made an heroic effort not to groan out loud.

"Nice," Jones said. Anderson was in trouble, and from the look on his face, the other shoe had dropped. Jason didn't get to find out whether or not Anderson managed to talk his way out of it, however. The elevator arrived at Level 12, and Jason made his escape, grinning to himself. Apparently, dealing with the female of the species didn't get any easier with age.

There were few things more mind numbing than one of Chief Anderson's speeches, but Jason quickly discovered that of those that were, most of them appeared to be present at the anti-piracy conference.

The male members of G-Force -- including Keyop -- had been duly fitted out in turtlenecks and jackets. They had endured an overview of the impact of space piracy on the galactic economy, and now the Chief was giving his address on how important it was to have sound intelligence when trying to stamp out piracy networks. It was becoming clear to Jason why Anderson was in Security and not writing the Great Galactic Novel.

Standing next to Jason in a corner of the function room, Mark was working a really black mood. Every time Jason tried to strike up a conversation, his Commander would brush him off with monosyllabic answers. The shutters were well and truly up, and Jason was getting tired of it.

"For Pete's sake," Jason finally growled, "can you not get over this?"

"Just drop it, Jason," Mark snarled.

"Man, you're too much," Jason decided, and stalked away. Princess was up near the stage, ostensibly engaged in listening to the speech. As a concession to her being a member of the fairer sex, she was wearing one of the chaste long black evening dresses that female security officers wore to evening functions. Jason thought it made his team mate look as though she was about to take up a position as an Edwardian governess. "Hey," Jason said to her.

"Hey," Princess' response was another flat monosyllable.

Great, Jason decided. I'm collecting the set. "I'm sorry about this morning," he said for what felt like the hundredth time. "Really. It was stupid. I messed up."

"I know," Princess said dully.

"I understand: you're mad. That's okay. You have every right to be mad."

"I'm not mad at you."

"Come on, this is me, here." At the entreaty, Princess looked away. "Okay, if you're not mad at me, what's wrong?" Jason asked.


"You've been moping all day. Don't think I haven't noticed. I thought you were mad at Mark and me for the prank war. I guess I was kind of a jerk."

"It isn't that. Thanks, Jason, but you can't help. Nobody can help," Princess declared miserably, and Jason almost thought she was going to burst into tears then and there. "Not unless you can win the war single handedly."

Jason sifted this cryptic statement through mental filters a couple of times and came up with a blank. "Uh... you wouldn't like to backtrack a little for me, would you?" he suggested.

With an effort, Princess regained her composure. Silently, Jason vowed that if anyone had done anything to hurt her, he'd introduce that individual to a whole new and interesting world of pain. "You know those psych evaluations we had?" Princess asked.

"Sure," Jason recalled. He'd made a half-hearted attempt at kidding Adrienne McCall, the staff psychologist, into believing that he had delusions of being a teapot every other Tuesday, but McCall had told him to quit fooling around and accused him of being a relatively normal young adult.

"Well..." Princess swallowed. "I know I shouldn't have, but when Dr McCall got up during my session to get a drink of water, I sneaked a look at her notes, and she'd written that it was extremely unwise for me to get -- and I quote -- 'intimately involved' with my commanding officer. She's made a recommendation to the Chief that Mark and I be given specific orders not to fraternise."

"Aw, man," Jason said, "that's stupid. Have you spoken to the Chief, yet?"

"Not yet. I just..." Tears welled in Princess' eyes and Jason stood there helplessly, not knowing what to do. Any place else, he might have given her a hug, but they were standing in the middle of a huge function room and there was a media presence. He fumbled for a handkerchief.

"Hey, keep your chin up," was all he could think of to say, and gave her his hanky. "We'll find a way around this."

"How?" she sniffed, dabbling at her eyes, trying to keep her mascara from running.

"I don't know yet," Jason said, "but between us all, we'll think of something."

"That's sweet, Jason," Princess said, "but you know there really isn't anything anyone can do."

"Don't count on it," Jason insisted, albeit cluelessly. "Where there's a will, there's a way."

Jason left Princess twisting his handkerchief into mascara-blotched oblivion, and eventually found himself wandering around backstage. He sidled up to where Lieutenant Colonel Jones was lurking in the wings, watching the Chief give his speech. It looked as though Jones hadn't gone for the 'nice' grey suit, after all. She was wearing a clinging blue satin evening gown and even though the dress should have raised the local ambient temperature by several degrees, her demeanour ensured that she still managed to come across like the prime suspect for the sinking of the Titanic. Jones kept a politely interested expression on her face at the same time as she continually scanned the area. Jason made it his business to sneak up on her. Jones was good at picking up movement, but Jason was better at avoiding detection.

"How do you do it?" Jason whispered in Jones' ear, making her jump.

"How do I do what?" she asked, pretending he hadn't startled her.

"Manage to look like you're paying attention," Jason said.

"By paying attention," Jones lied.

Jason tried paying attention for a moment. It was almost too much for him to bear. It occurred to him that this was probably a highlight of the Chief's social calendar. The guy was so up tight, Jason mused, it was scary. Bored, Jason decided to see if he could make Colonel Jones jump again.

"He so needs to get laid," he muttered, expecting to be told by an outraged Jones to wash his mouth out with soap.

Instead, without batting an eyelid, she said, "Why? Are you going to make him an offer?"

A strangled squawk fought its way clear of Jason's larynx. "Al!"

"Don't try to scandalise me, young man," she warned.

Jason chuckled. She'd seen through him, but he couldn't resist asking, "Is that a challenge?"

"Aren't you in enough trouble as it is?" she reminded him.

Movement in the wings across from him caught Jason's eye: it was Mark, who prowled in the shadows to regard the room below the stage like an eagle seeking prey. He moved with a sinuous ease that no bird could match. It was something innate, the way he maintained that predatory grace regardless of where he was. Where Jason stalked, Mark flowed.

From his vantage point, Mark looked down and focussed on Princess, who, with uncanny timing, lifted her face and looked back at him, her gaze bridging the space between them. The two of them stood frozen in place, the tension between them almost, but not quite spilling over like liquid from a cup. Jason felt a tiny twinge of envy at the magic he was seeing. If ever two people belonged together, it was them. You killjoy, Anderson, Jason thought to himself.

He was aware of Jones' scrutiny and covered himself by grinning at her. "So," he teased, "the sixty four thousand dollar question is: do blondes really have more fun? I mean, you are a natural blonde, right, Al?"

"Jason," Jones sighed, "please go away and annoy someone else."

"Aw, don't you love me any more?" He put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a playful squeeze, which did little to alter either her demeanour or her posture. If anything, she went even more rigid than usual. He felt someone watching him and looked up to see that the Chief had finished his speech and was glaring at him from the lectern while the conference chairman walked out to shake his hand and invite questions from the floor.

"You shouldn't do that," Jones warned without diverting her gaze from the stage. "You'll break countless hearts and ruin my reputation as a joyless ice queen."

Jason grinned. "Your reputation could use a little thawing out," he chided.

Jones' eyes narrowed and the temperature dropped still further. Jason caught her hand, bent over it, and kissed it with mock gallantry. "Sod off, Jason," Jones grumbled.

Jason did as he was told, but not before he noticed the Chief glaring at him again. No doubt he was in for a lecture.

Several minutes later, he found Tiny and Keyop at the buffet table. Keyop was stuffing himself with chocolate mud cake.

"Y'know, squirt," Jason said, "they say you are what you eat."

Keyop said something muffled around a mouthful of cake that was undoubtedly his own equivalent of, 'Sod off, Jason.'

Jason was obliged to endure another hour and a half of boredom, lurking around the edges of the function room, watching little groups of officials and their partners mingling, making deals and fomenting plots. There was quite a crowd around Anderson's table, talking animatedly about 'risk factors,' 'economic impact,' 'strategic defence' and 'the benefits of decisive strike action.'

Finally, Anderson got up and announced that he was leaving. Hallelujah! Jason met up with the rest of the team, and the group made its way to the lift lobby. The hotel elevator was too small for everyone, so Major Alban took Chief Anderson, Colonel Jones, Mark and Princess down to the ground floor while Tiny, Keyop and Jason waited for another car.

When Jason emerged from the elevator, he found that the Chief and his staff had formed a loose cluster in a corridor back from the main lobby. Anderson was standing with his arms folded, looking annoyed. Alban was talking to someone on her palm unit and Jones, a couple of yards away, was doing likewise. Jones paced a few steps, listening to whoever was on the other end, and Jason watched her for a second, wondering what was going on to get everyone all stressed out. He glanced over at the Chief. Anderson was watching his liaison officer as well. Only he was taking his sweet time and doing a thorough job of it, with a couple of leisurely scenic detours on the way.

Eeew! There were, Jason decided, some places the mind simply shouldn't go in regard to those who stood in loco parentis.

"Chief," Alban said. Anderson turned to her with a polite level of eye contact. "Zark's confirmed that there's no vehicular access to this building via the basement, and that both the front and rear exits are covered by the protesters. They've got us hemmed in. There's no pad on the roof and Zark doesn't think we could get anything bigger than the G-4 into the available space without causing structural damage."

"Protesters?" Princess echoed.

"There's a group of protesters waiting for us outside the building," Jones explained, having finished her phone conversation. "They assembled while we were upstairs."

"Oh," Jason said brightly. "Target practice?"

"Jason..." the Chief said, about to launch into a tirade.

"I'm kidding," Jason told him.

"It isn't a joking matter," Anderson said sternly.

"According to the Center City Police Department," Jones recounted, "it's the Galactic Peace Army. They promote goodwill, tolerance and an end to interplanetary conflict by waving placards, shouting at people and throwing things."

"What kinds of things?" Alban's question had edges.

"Eggs and flour, mostly," Jones said. "They aren't generally considered dangerous, unless you're a chicken, or possibly a pastry chef."

"I don't like it," Alban declared. "Still, I don't see that we have a lot of options. Did the CCPD say how long they'd be? The car should be out front around about now."

"They've been in position for some time, along with a crew from GNN," Jones said. "They've already had several dozen eggs pitched at them. The police lieutenant I spoke to says there's the possibility of an escalation to custard."

"And there are people starving on Lucavia," Alban grumbled, folding her arms.

"Mark," Anderson said, "wait for us to leave, then take your team out another way. Do whatever you have to do to avoid any trouble. We're going out front. I don't want you involved in any kind of confrontation, especially with the media around."

"Big ten, Chief," Mark said. His gaze was directed past Anderson, at the crowd visible through the glass frontage of the lobby. Jason paced a few steps, doubt niggling at his mind.

"Sir," Jones said to Anderson, "we should wait for extra backup."

"You said yourself they aren't considered dangerous," Anderson said.

"All the same," Alban concurred. "It's wiser to wait."

"And possibly make things worse?" Anderson argued. "No. Bad press is the last thing we need. It's a peaceful protest, and we're going to leave as quietly as possible."

The security officers flanked the Chief and they headed for the lobby. Jason followed at a distance and as they approached the exit he could hear people chanting slogans and yelling and generally making a lot of noise. Through the big glass doors he could see placards being waved: 'Peace NOW!' 'NO WAR' 'Stop the Killing' and a banner reading, 'War is the Problem, Not the Answer.' The concierge gave him a helpless look.

With friends like these, who needed enemies?

"Jason?" Princess called.

"I don't like this," Jason said. "Come on, let's see if we can get a better view!" There was an ornate Gone with the Wind-type staircase to his right. He bounded up the stairs to the mezzanine level and sprinted to the window that overlooked the main entrance.

It took a few seconds for the rest of the team to catch up. "What's the word?" Mark asked.

"I didn't like it before, and I like it even less now," Jason told his Commander. "All you'd need would be one enemy agent with a weapon in a crowd like this." He worked the catch and slid the window open, his nose almost brushing the fly screen. Below, two lines of police officers were trying -- and failing -- to keep the crowd back from Anderson and his staff.

"WARMONGER!" a woman screamed. The cry was taken up. "Stop the war!" someone else shrieked. "End the killing!" shouted a man. "Death merchant!" someone yelled.

"Not good," Jason growled.

Something beige and ovoid flew through the air.

The egg shattered against Jones' head, making her stagger into the Chief as it spattered over them both. More missiles began to fly. A police officer lost his footing and went down. The crowd surged forward. Jason reacted without thinking. Jason's hand came up and he leapt clean through the fly screen, taking it out with him in a coruscating wave of sparks as he transmuted.

There were screams from below.

Jason somersaulted downward, fending about three more eggs with his hands and taking a bag of flour on the left wing of his cape.

He landed with an appreciable thud on the roof of Anderson's limo and crouched there, dripping improvised pancake batter while trying to look as menacing as he could. The crowd stilled for a second, and the police officers pushed and shoved their way to the car door, clearing a path for Anderson's group to get to safety.

"You people ought to be ashamed!" Jason told them. "Why don't you go protest outside Zoltar's palace?" Below him, the limousine doors were slamming.

"Stop the war!" a young girl screamed.

"I'd love to!" Jason yelled back. "Any suggestions? How about we just surrender and let Zoltar walk all over us? That'd stop the war in a big hurry!"

Jason sprang skyward, and the limousine moved away, the police having regained control. He landed on a first floor balcony, then leapt again and kept going until he was over the roof and going too fast for anyone to even try to follow.

Jason's communicator activated.

"Jason," said the Chief, his voice dark with displeasure, "meet me back at Headquarters ASAP."

Jason was in for a lecture, all right.

The team was obliged to wait for Jason to find a quiet spot to revert to civvies and hike back to where he'd left the car, since he'd provided the transport. It took him a good twenty minutes to meet up with them again. He was shivering by the time everyone got in to the car -- the jacket and shirt he'd been wearing over his t-shirt had been vapourised when he went to G-Force mode.

"You're in big trouble!" Keyop announced gravely.

"The Chief is royally ticked at you, Jason," Tiny elaborated.

"No kidding," Jason said.

By this time, the protest had broken up and there were only a couple of police vans left outside the Hilton, that and a lone fundamentalist who stood in a puddle of yellow sodium light on the street corner declaring that the Day of Judgement was Nigh, that the ISO was The Beast and G-Force were the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Two thoughts crossed Jason's mind: first that there were only supposed to be four Horsemen; second, who got to be Pestilence?

They made decent time through the traffic and Jason parked the car in its allotted space, a little piece of real estate worth about as much as the G-2 with all its attendant technology. Good parking was almost impossible to get in the City except for those well off enough to lease a private space or high enough up on a corporate or government food chain to warrant room in a car park like the Galaxy Security's.

"Do you want us to come with you, Jason?" Princess offered. There were very few things in life Jason would ever describe as being genuinely sweet, but Princess' nature was one of them. It rankled that what little joy she might salvage out of this whole sorry mess of a war was being snatched away.

"Nah," Jason put on a show of bravado. "It was my call. I'm not going to drag you guys into it. Besides, it's not like I committed a hanging offence or anything." Heck, he'd just saved the Chief from being turned into walking muffin mix and now he was going to get chewed out! Why did he even bother?

"Are you sure?" Princess asked.

Jason attempted a smile, noting that Mark already had his car keys out. "Sure, I'm sure," he said. "You go on."

"Come on, Princess," Mark said.

Jason headed for the elevators. There was no-one else around save for the duty security guard. He caught an express car and rode all the way to the top without stopping. He stepped out into the executive lobby and headed towards the Chief's office, where he walked in to face his doom.

Jason took up his customary spot in front of the Chief's desk, feeling like an errant schoolboy. Anderson occupied the big chair behind the desk in his usual business attire. He'd obviously showered and changed, but it didn't seem to have helped his mood.

"We've all been quite busy since you decided to venture into street theatre," he said.

Okay, Jason decided, he's unhappy. I can tell. Whenever the sarcasm knife came out freshly sharpened up like that, Jason knew Anderson was annoyed.

The Chief stabbed a control on his desk with one finger and the big viewscreen slid down from the ceiling. It lit up with a Galaxy News Network bulletin. "This is a recording Zark made of a news story that went to air a short time ago."

A GNN team had been filming the protest outside the Hilton. It was, Jason supposed, to have been expected. The footage showed the protesters waving their signs and yelling, while the female reporter stood across the street, talking into a headset.

"Thank you, George," she said. "It's peacemongering turned violent down here at the Center City Hilton, where demonstrators protesting against the Spectran war have already engaged in several heated clashes with law enforcement officers. They're waiting for Chief of Galaxy Security Dr David Anderson, who's been attending the Galactic Anti-Piracy Commission's annual conference. We've heard that Chief Anderson will be attempting to leave the building any minute now." The reporter turned towards the crowd, and the camera obediently zoomed in. Right on cue, the doors opened and the protesters surged forward. The police line bowed, broke and re-formed, the Galaxy Security contingent struggling to reach the safety of the limousine.

The egg whistled through the air and smacked into Jones' head. Jason saw her stumble, saw the Chief catch her and keep her from falling, then she recovered and they both kept moving. The noise rose in pitch and volume and the camera pulled back and up to reveal none other than Jason himself, sailing down on dark wings to snarl at the crowd.

Given that the GNN crew was filming from across the street, they actually zoomed in on Jason's cape, in the vicinity of his backside, rather than his face, but their microphones picked up his words.

"You people ought to be ashamed! Why don't you go protest outside Zoltar's palace?"

"No argument, there," the Chief muttered darkly.

"Stop the war!" screamed a female voice.

And then came the pithy response from what Jason now privately dubbed the talking butt: "I'd love to! Any suggestions? How about we just surrender and let Zoltar walk all over us? That'd stop the war in a big hurry!"

The camera followed Jason's ascent up and over the building, then the vision cut back to the studio. "That report," the GNN anchor George Kostakidis said, "from Amy Perot, who was on the scene at this evening's protest. We have a live tele-comm link to ISO Headquarters and are now speaking with Chief of Galaxy Security David Anderson. Chief Anderson, thank you for speaking with us."

The screen split to show a video hookup of the Chief at his desk, looking calm and urbane. "My pleasure, George," he said. Jason found it difficult to believe, knowing Anderson's opinion of the media in general.

"Chief Anderson, protesters from today's demonstration say they were intimidated and threatened by the unheralded arrival of G-2 in full battle gear. What's your response?"

"My response is that in the first instance, G-2 was responding to an attack on a fellow officer, and second, that his actions in no way constituted either threat or intimidation. He didn't exactly enter into a full and enlightened debate on the issues, but you saw and heard for yourself, he didn't issue any actual directives, nor did he utter any threats. He merely provided a tactical distraction to allow me and my staff to go about our lawful business."

"So, you wouldn't find a fully armed warrior dropping out of the sky on you intimidating or threatening in any way?"

"Not in this case. G-Force is well known for their defence of civilians. Any perceived threat was in the imaginations of the protesters -- and I might add, George, that certain factions do seem to be playing the angle up. A member of my staff was assaulted. No-one from Galaxy Security laid a finger on any of those demonstrators, today. I consider it extremely irresponsible of the demonstrators to have acted in this way. There's a certain irony in that their violent and belligerent actions were allegedly carried out in the name of peace."

"Thank you, Chief Anderson." Kostakidis reclaimed the full screen. "And now to discuss the issues behind today's protest -- it might even constitute that 'full and enlightened debate' that Dr Anderson referred to -- are political commentator Professor Igor Kubiansky and activist Karen Inglewood, from the Galactic Peace Army. Welcome, Igor and Karen --"

The Chief switched the video off and turned to address his young charge. "Jason," he said, "you really need to think about the implications of your actions before you go diving into a situation like that."

"Chief," Jason said, "you were up to your neck in it."

"I was hardly in mortal danger and now the media has a hold of this idea that you were threatening civilians. That's the last thing we need."

"Hey, those idiots could have hurt someone!" Jason argued. "Al got hit in the head with an egg!"

"Even so, we don't need to create a perception that you or any other member of G-Force is some private vigilante squad. Certain sections of the media are painting you as some kind of thug. We can't afford that kind of negative publicity."

Jason sighed, deflated. There were no arguments against media stupidity. "What do you want me to do?" he asked.

"The same thing I always tell you to do," Anderson said wearily. "Think!"

"Yes, Chief." Jason started to think that maybe he'd gotten off lightly, after all.

"And don't patronise me," Anderson growled.

"No, Chief."

Man, Jason mused, he's so uptight. He definitely needs to get --

An evil little thought flickered through Jason's mind.

"What are you smiling at?" Anderson demanded.

"Nothing, Chief. I, um... I was thinking."

"Really?" Anderson sounded dubious. He glowered at Jason for a moment, then shook his head. "Dismissed," he said. "And don't forget to fill out a damage report so we can reimburse the hotel for the damage you did to their window."

"Yes, Chief." Jason fled, glad to get out of the office, then he remembered that the only place he had to go was Camp Parker.

He'd been grounded for the weekend, hadn't he?

Oh, joy.

The Phoenix was to be deadheaded by the engineering team to Center Neptune for some work to be done on her time warp engines. Tiny, fretting about his baby, had a multi-modal transport ship preflighted and ready by the time Jason arrived at Seahorse Base. Jason docked the G-2 aboard the command ship, then boarded the MMT, which made the short flight into the Little San Bernadino Mountains. Tiny mumbled acknowledgements to Zark's cheerful 'look on the bright side' exhortations, then the transport landed and G-Force slunk away to their quarters.

Jason dumped his bag in his room and made his way to the common area. Mark arrived at around the same time. Glowering at his second, the G-Force Commander sat down in an easy chair and picked up a dog-eared copy of an aviation magazine. Princess switched on the television and took herself to the kitchen to heat milk for hot chocolate. Jason flung himself down onto the sofa and stared at the ceiling, refusing to be driven away by Mark's mood. Keyop dragged Tiny over to where Jason was sitting and tried to create a three-man huddle. "I heard the Chief's going to cut new orders," he whispered. "Mark and Princess are being told not to fraternise!"

"That's a blanket rule," Tiny replied. "Everyone knows that. Regulation one-nine-somethin'-or-other."

Jason nodded: everyone knew ISO Standing Order 109(v). It was the rule that forbade fraternisation within any given chain of command. It was said to be legally watertight. No-one had ever managed to set a precedent by beating it, anyway.

"It's not just about one oh nine part five!" Keyop argued. "This is on the record. It's specific to Mark and Princess."

"Huh?" Tiny scratched his head. "That's kinda harsh. They haven't done anything... uh... have they?"

"Of course not!" Keyop declared indignantly, pummelling at Tiny with his small fists.

"Hey," Jason said, "take it easy, tiger. I know --"

"Somebody turn on GNN!" Princess called from the kitchen door. "Zark says we made the news. At least, one of us did."

Four heads turned as Mark grabbed the remote and switched the GNN feed from the computer monitor to the big screen. There was that talking butt footage again. Jason cringed and looked away.

"That should win you some female fans, Jason," Princess observed, handing out cups of hot chocolate. "Come on, everyone, drink up and let's hit the hay."

Princess finished her chocolate, washed her cup, and left to go to her room. Mark drifted away shortly thereafter.

Keyop stretched and yawned hugely. "I'm gonna sleep in tomorrow," he predicted.

Tiny drained his mug of. "G'night, Keyop," he said.

Keyop stood up, but instead of heading out the doorway, the boy paused. "It's not fair," he said, giving Jason a look, "for Jason to get us all in trouble."

"I know," Jason said. "I'm sorry, Keyop. This must be part of that all for one and one for all gig."

"Chill out, Keyop." Tiny got up and brushed crumbs off his shirt. He looked at Jason. "I guess any of us could have tried to get you to quit it with the prank war," he said thoughtfully. "I don't blame you, Jason, but it's gonna take me a little while to stop being kinda mad, y'know?"

"I hear you," Jason told him.

Keyop uttered a small snort of contempt. "Chief Anderson needs to get a life."

"You're telling me," Jason said. "When you find one for him, let me know and I'll make a contribution."

Somewhere, a brain cell was trying to get Jason's attention, but he was tired, so he went to bed.

G-Force had spent weeks at a time at Camp Parker before: on standby, between missions, on training programmes and sometimes just hanging out. In terms of comfort, it beat Center Neptune hands down as far as the team was concerned -- the rooms were bigger, there was fresh air, and the food was better. Two days of being grounded, however, felt like an eternity. Especially since they were confined to quarters.

It was Saturday morning: Keyop had finished reading the comics and was bouncing a ping pong ball off the wall and catching it. Jason was tempted to shoot it, just to stop the noise.

"Any movies on the 3V Net?" Tiny wondered. Jason leaned into the sofa and let his magazine fall over his face. Princess would want to watch a chick flick or a romantic comedy. Mark would want to watch a documentary or a drama. Tiny would want to watch an action movie. Let the games begin...

"How about the Hallmark Movie of the Week?" Princess sighed.

"Laser Blade Revenge," Keyop suggested.

"How 'bout that vampire movie?" Tiny said. "The one with that guy in it and that other guy, and that girl... what's her name?"

Jason heard Mark speak: "Why not let Princess pick the movie, this time?" he suggested. "I picked the last one. And Tiny and Keyop picked the one before that. It must be your turn," he reasoned. Jason lifted the magazine off his face just in time to see Mark toss the 3V remote to Princess, who caught it easily in one hand.

There was a subtle, collective indrawing of male breath.

Princess didn't seem to realise the significance of the gesture. "Thanks," she said, and turned on the 3V.

Tiny stared at Mark for a moment, then had to go to the kitchen and find himself a space burger to cope with it. Keyop went with him, seeking cookies.

Jason realised his mouth was open, and closed it. When a man handed over the remote like that, he had to be in love.

It was an excruciatingly sentimental movie, so Jason surrendered the sofa to Princess and sat in an armchair to read his magazine. By the time he'd finished reading the articles that interested him, Princess was curled up, blowing her nose into a tissue. She had the tissue box on the cushion next to her and there were used tissues crumpled up in her lap.

"Why would you want to watch a movie if it makes you sad?" Jason asked her.

"Only a man would ask a question like that," Princess sniffled.

"Guilty as charged," Jason said. "So, why would you?"

"It's not like that," Princess said. "It's just such a sweet movie. See that guy, Roy Bosworth, right? He's dead, and he's come back as a ghost."

"To avenge his murder?" Jason guessed.

"No, silly! He's back to help his widow find happiness."

"By killing a guy who's bothering her?" Jason tried again.

"By getting her together with his best friend."

"Er...?" This was definitely outside the square.

"Okay, you see her? Elizabeth McIntyre. Her character was married to Roy, only he died in a tragic accident two years ago. She hasn't dated or anything, but Roy's best friend -- that's Gary Perkins -- he's been looking out for Elizabeth since Roy died, and he's fallen in love with her but he doesn't dare make a move. So Roy's ghost is setting them up to get them together. It's so sweet..." Princess blew her nose again.

"And people paid to go see this in theatres?"

"You're such a male, Jason."

Jason cast a helpless glance at Mark, who shrugged and made a face.

"I saw that," Princess muttered.

Mark made himself small in his seat.

Jason's head spun: not only had his leader handed over the remote, he was sitting through a ridiculous, sappy, saccharine romantic movie. Of his own free will. It had to be love.

It must have been some kind of morbid fascination that kept Jason in his seat for a few moments longer. Tiny and Keyop had progressed from the kitchen to Keyop's room to play computer games, which left the three senior members of G-Force in the living room.

Jason stared at the 3V screen: the dead guy was walking around in some misty otherworldly landscape with this other guy who was all got up in a robe and wings, and the pair of them were trying to figure out how to get the two not-dead-yet people to get together.

It was all too much. "Uh, I think I'll go and... uh... do... something," Jason mumbled, and fled.

Saturday morning. Jason had the whole weekend ahead of him and he was grounded, stuck indoors, with the living room no longer a workable option. He made his way back to his room. He could hear the sounds of electronic destruction drifting down the corridor from Keyop's entertainment unit.

There was still that damage report Anderson wanted. Jason sat down at the small workstation opposite his bed and activated the computer.

Life at the moment, Jason decided, was like a vacuum cleaner. All because Anderson was such an up-tight, strait-laced old geezer who sorely needed to get --

One of Jason's brain cells grabbed him by the throat and yelled, 'Excuse me!' Now that he paid it a modicum of attention, he recognised it as his evil little thought from the previous night.

Jason logged on to the computer network and called up the GNN 'talking butt' footage from Zark's archive. He cued through the start of it and slowed the vision down when the egg flew through the air. The egg hit Lieutenant Colonel Jones on the side of her face, just below her right eye. Jason winced in sympathy. A little higher and it could have done some real damage. He slowed the replay down a little more.

Jones' head jerked and she lost her balance. Jason could see the reflexive movement of her right arm as she automatically started to reach for her gun, then stopped herself. Anderson half turned toward her, reaching out to keep her from falling.


Jason froze the image.

Anderson had caught his liaison officer even as she was shifting her weight to compensate and right herself. His expression was one of alarm and concern. Jones was giving him a slightly bewildered look, which could possibly be attributed to the fact that she was wearing an egg.

But the overall effect was... open to interpretation.

Particularly when Jason took into account the way the Chief had been checking out Al's attributes only a few minutes prior to the incident.

The brain cell with the evil thought began rounding up allies.

Jason wrote the damage report and submitted it. Afterward, he went to the gym, worked out for a while, then showered, changed and placed a tele-comm call.

Alberta Jones was at home, nursing a cup of tea. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and there was a pink blotchy patch on one side of her face. She had a multitude of fine red scratches along her cheekbone from the eggshell. She appeared to be somewhat bemused by Jason's call.

"Hey, Al," Jason said. "Recovering from all the egg-citement of your latest egg-scapade?"

She gave him the same, 'Oh, sorry, was that funny, sir?' look that she gave the Chief, sometimes. "Droll," she said, giving each consonant a thorough workout.

"I just wanted to see if you were okay," Jason said. Well, he mused, it was half true... well, maybe a quarter true... okay, maybe... Never mind.

"Thank you," Jones said, and relaxed slightly. "And thank you for what you did last night. Things might have got rather ugly if you hadn't intervened."

"At last!" Jason sighed. "Someone who appreciates my work."

"Don't let it get about," Jones cautioned.

"See?" Jason said with a grin. "I knew you loved me."

"Sod off, Jason," Jones said, but she didn't mean it.

Jason grinned at her. "Tell me something," he said.

"I already did," Jones said.

"Apart from that," Jason qualified. "I'm serious, now."

"All right, then, ask away."

"Do you think the Chief gets lonely?"

"What, with you lot underfoot? I doubt he can fit it into his schedule."

"I'm not talking about that. I mean... you know... companionship," Jason said.

"Are you thinking of buying him a puppy?" Jones asked, deliberately misunderstanding. "You know what the GSPCA says about pets as gifts."

"Not that kind of companionship. You know... female companionship."

Jones' expression was one of prim disapproval. "Oh, this what you so crudely brought up last night."

"Yeah... Only, well, not so much in that way, as such..."

"I have one piece of advice for you," she said. "Stay out of it."

"I'm just curious, that's all," Jason insisted. "I mean..." Time to dangle the bait. "I couldn't help but notice the way he looks at you."

Jones actually blushed. "Don't be silly," she said. "He doesn't look at me."

"He was checking you out last night," Jason confided.

A look of pure horror crossed Jones' face. "That's absurd," she said, a note of panic creeping into her voice. "He doesn't... He wouldn't... Look, even if he did, it..." She glared at him via the tele-comm screen. "Just what are you playing at?" she demanded.

"Nothing," Jason said. "Just asking a question."

"Well you can stop asking!" Jones snapped, and cut the connection.

How did it go? Oh, yeah: Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

Jason could always rely on Anderson to behave predictably. One of the many things he could rely on was the Security Chief's workaholism. One of the other things Jason could rely on was Anderson's mean streak. Nobody was surprised when the Chief of Staff turned up at Camp Parker on Sunday to go over the G-Force psychological appraisals with each individual team member.

When Jason's turn came, he slunk into Anderson's study and adopted his usual performance evaluation posture: deliberately slouched in the chair with his arms folded across his chest. It was murder on the spine, but the irritation value was worth it. Anderson always acquired that little quirk of the left eyebrow and clenched his teeth slightly when he was sweating the small stuff. Like now, for instance.

"What purpose," Anderson began, "could possibly be served by convincing Dr McCall that you think you're --" he consulted his notes and quoted -- "a teapot every other Tuesday?"

"I was trying to establish an atmosphere of good natured camaraderie," Jason lied.

Anderson took a breath and Jason could see him mentally counting to a number on the logarithmic scale. (Being Anderson, this didn't take him long.) After a couple of seconds, he gave in to his impulse to get sarcastic. "With whom, exactly?"

"Chief, you know I hate having my head shrunk! They always ask about my childhood. What's to know? Most of my childhood was spent in the G-Force Project surrounded by G-Sec staff. Everything's already on file. How many more times can we analyse how I felt about my mother, for crying out loud?"

"The purpose of the psych evaluations is to ensure that we're doing everything we can to support you through the stresses of your job," Anderson said, making an effort.

"Oh, right," Jason said.

"And if you feel we could be doing better, here's a novel suggestion: maybe it would help if you cooperated with the counselling staff."

"I don't need counselling."

"What do you need, Jason?"

"The same thing everyone needs: a life, and I'll get it when we defeat Spectra. In the meantime, I'll get on with my job."

"Then perhaps at your next psych evaluation, you'll remember that, and allow the psychologists to get on with theirs. As it happens," Anderson said, and Jason wasn't sure whether he was pleased or disappointed, "Dr McCall feels that you have a relatively normal mindset, given the rigours of your position, and that your -- ahem -- quirky sense of humour is a healthy outlet, if somewhat counter productive in an evaluation environment."

"So I'm sane, then," Jason concluded.

"Yes. And you have a piece of paper that says so."

"I feel so special," Jason said sourly.

"And because you're so special, I have a special job for you. It seems Admiral Sasaki would like to put his flagship and top battle group through their paces and they need a challenge. As of Monday morning, you'll be assisting Mark in preparing plans for G-Force participation in the upcoming war games with the Navy."

"War games?" Great, Jason told himself. An exercise in how to defeat your own side.

"It appears you need something to occupy your time and I think this could be just what you need to keep boredom at bay."

There was nothing for it but compliance. "Right," Jason said. He waited a moment before changing tack. "Uh, Chief, can I ask you something... personal?"

Anderson frowned at him. "What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothing. I was just wondering something... about women."

"You're asking me?" Anderson snorted.

Anderson had a point, but Jason ploughed on anyway. "Do women... well... you know... when they get older... Are older women still interested in men the way younger women are? Like, you know how girls are always getting crushes on boys and stuff... ?"

"Jason," Anderson said, "I'm no authority on women, but human beings don't lose interest in the opposite sex just because they're out of their twenties. Assuming nobody kills you first, you have plenty of time to find Ms Right. Anyway, aren't you seeing Lieutenant Patrick?"

"Oh, uh... yeah... That wasn't quite what I was wondering... I guess older women just aren't as obvious about it. I mean, when Princess likes a guy she goes all hearts and flowers and stuff, whereas Al, on the other hand --"

"What does Colonel Jones have to do with this?" Anderson snapped.

Ah ha! A bite! "Um..." Jason feigned uncertainty, "I was, uh... just noticing something, that's all."

"Jason, how about you cut to the chase and tell me where we're going on this mental mystery tour of yours?" Anderson suggested, starting to run out of patience.

"Well..." Jason was enjoying himself. "I don't know if I should say anything."

"Then don't," Anderson said pointedly.


"Jason," Anderson began, and took a deep breath.

"I think she likes you," Jason blurted, forestalling further comment.

The blood drained from Anderson's face. Yes! Jason kept his features rigid. He had him.

"You don't know what you're talking about," Anderson said flatly.

"Don't you want to know why I think she likes you?" Jason tempted.

"I'm not interested in your puerile adolescent fantasies!" Anderson said, his voice rising. "If you have nothing intelligent to say, get out of my office!"

Jason left, doing his best not to burst out laughing.

Only when the study door closed behind him did Jason stretch and arch his back to work out the kinks. Princess was waiting to go in and see Anderson about her own evaluation. She looked pale and nervous. Jason offered what he hoped was an encouraging smile, then made his way back to the G-Force living quarters and got himself a cup of coffee.

Someone had delivered a newspaper. Jason settled back on the sofa with it. He read the sports and motoring sections and was thinking about flipping the paper over to the news when Princess sat down beside him.

"Hi," she said. There was an odd mixture of relief and strain in her voice.

"Hey," Jason said. "That didn't take long. How'd it go?"

"It was okay." Princess sipped at a cup of coffee. "He never mentioned the fraternisation thing."

"Probably leaving it until later," Jason muttered.

"I asked if there was anything else, and he said there wasn't."

"Huh." Jason shrugged. "You know Anderson's problem?" he said. "He has no life, so he can't understand why anyone else would want one."

"It isn't his fault --" Princess began.

"Now you're defending him!" Jason said. Women! For some unfathomable reason, they seemed to be able to forgive almost anything.

"The rules exist for a reason," Princess was saying, and to Jason, she sounded like she was trying to convince herself of the argument. "I've always known we can't break them. When it comes down to it, what's the difference?"

"The difference," Jason said, "is that it's going on your file and that Anderson thinks you're going to break the rules unless he puts a stop to it. That's the difference." Princess' eyes welled up and Jason mentally kicked himself. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"It's not your fault," Princess said, sniffing.

"There you go again," Jason told her. "You always think the best of people, and it is my fault. I was being an insensitive jerk. Just... kick me or something, will you?"

"I could never do that." Princess smiled through her tears. Jason felt about an inch tall. "You're the sweetest guy I know." Make that half an inch. "Next to Mark, of course," she had to say.

"How's Mark taking all this, anyway?" Jason asked. "I'm not exactly his favourite person, right now."

"Mark's mad at himself, more than anything," Princess confided. "He didn't have to escalate the prank war, and he feels responsible for... you know... the other issue."

"Guess I should go talk to him, huh?"

"I don't know, Jase..."

"It's a guy thing," Jason assured her. "If he doesn't want to talk, he'll just punch me in the head." He shrugged.

"That's a guy thing?"

"Oh, yeah."

"You're making that up," she accused him.

Jason put on his best Bogart voice: "Would I lie to you, kid?"

"Yes," she said. "If you thought it'd make me feel better, you would."

"Guess I'm sprung, then," Jason said, and went to find Mark.

Mark was in the rarely-used study in the G-Force quarters, seated at his workstation, practicing martyrdom by working on some of his admin backlog. As Jason walked in, Mark glanced up, irritation sparking in his eyes. "What is it, Jason?"

"Nothing," Jason said, and pulled up his spare chair, turning it around and straddling it so he could lean his elbows on the backrest. "Look," he said, "I know you're mad at me over the whole prank thing, but do you think you could see your way clear to get over it?"

Mark sagged in his seat. "It isn't about you," he said. "Well, not entirely. Mostly you, maybe," he added.


"It does take two to have a fight, I guess."


Mark gave Jason another look. "Psych evaluations were last week, Sigmund."

"So," Jason expanded, "tell me about your childhood..." He ducked as he tossed an eraser at him. The eraser bounced off the door frame and hit him in the back of the head as he straightened up. "Ow!"

"Gotcha!" Mark grinned.

"You get that one for free, since I'm still in the doghouse over the coffee machine," Jason told him, "but that's it." He bent down, picked up the eraser and tossed it onto the desk. "Princess is pretty down over that no-fraternisation order. She says it doesn't make any difference, but it does."

"I know." Mark leaned back in his chair. "I should never have... encouraged things. I'm the commanding officer, I should have been more professional."

"You mean you should have had your heart removed, dried out and stored in a filing cabinet some place, like Anderson."

"It'd make things easier if I could," Mark said.

"Don't," Jason warned. "Don't even think about it. You think it's a good idea to go through life like that? Not caring, not feeling... It isn't worth it. Nothing's worth that."

"I hear where you're coming from, Jason, but... " Mark shook his head. "It isn't that simple for us. We have a job to do, and it's a job nobody else can do. There are no replacements, no reinforcements, there's just us!"

"That isn't the issue," Jason argued. "The issue is that we're human and we make choices. Anderson trusts us to do that job you're talking about. He trusts us to defend Earth from our enemies. He ought to be able to trust you and Princess to keep doing that job the way you always have. You're right, it's just us. There's no respite, no let up. You'd think he could cut the two of you a little slack!"

"I know." Mark let out his breath in a small puff of air. "No point in getting angry over it, anyhow," he said.

No, not when you could get even. "I guess," Jason said. "Keep your chin up. You never know, he might change his mind."

"Right, and then sun's going to rise in the west, tomorrow."

"Miracles happen," Jason said.

"Oh, yeah?" Mark challenged. "Name one."

"I'll have to get back to you on that," Jason said.

Chapter 2 by Grumpy Ghost Owl

This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets are the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work.

Battle of the Planets: 2163

Part II "No need to teach the eagle to fly." - old Greek proverb.

Jason spent Sunday afternoon reading intel reports. Zoltar had been lying low, presumably licking his wounds from his last encounter with G-Force, and the reports were full of rumour and speculation, but little in the way of hard intelligence. The news media were, as usual, trying to sell stories, alternately speculating that Zoltar was about to surrender or that he was about to launch a new 'doomsday assault' on the Federation. Galaxy Security's analysts took a less dramatic view, citing the difficulties Spectra had been experiencing in her efforts to consolidate a hold on Riga, partially thanks to Galaxy Security and some spurious information Zoltar had been 'allowed' to obtain.

If the Federation could have launched a counter attack, this might have been an ideal time to do so, but the Crab Nebula was a defence in and of itself. It was impossible to use time warp to sneak up on the planet. Rematerialising into space that was already occupied by anything more substantial that what a ship's displacement field could deal with -- including large quantities of interstellar dust -- made for an ugly way to die. It was possible to sneak into the Nebula in a single, well shielded ship. Jason knew this from first hand experience. He'd taken the Phoenix on a solo space shot the previous year to extract Mark and Princess from Spectra after they'd managed to get themselves into a fine mess. Getting a fleet in to the Nebula undetected and unharmed, though, would be out of the question. As far as Jason was aware, the Federation didn't yet possess (which was to say that Anderson hadn't yet managed to get anyone to either develop or steal) the kind of cloaking technology needed for stealth on that scale.

Jason was starting to appreciate what appeared to be the ISO's long term strategy: that of allowing Zoltar to overextend himself to the point where he had to commit all his resources to simply holding his stolen territory together. The Spectran Empire was showing the first signs that it might be getting just a tiny bit too big. Like a migrating herd, the sick and the weak were stumbling around the edges, and lurking just under the surface of the next river crossing was the Master Crocodile himself, Security Chief Anderson, biding his time. Unlike a crocodile, David Anderson neither grinned nor shed tears readily. Jason considered him cold blooded enough to qualify for honorary species membership, though.

The down side of all this strategising was that while Zoltar wasn't attacking, and since the ISO weren't in a position to take the fight to him, all G-Force had to keep themselves busy was training, drills, training, patrols, training, PR exercises, training and more training.

Which was how the prank war had come about.

Which was what got the entire team grounded.

Grounded! At our ages! Jason's thought was coloured with the disgust and contempt of a young man for his stodgy and derelict elders. With the notable exception of Keyop, the team were legally and effectively adult. It chafed that they were being treated like children. Jason was prepared to concede that perhaps the banana concentrate in the shower had been a little over the top, but it had been right there on the counter of the Snack J when Jill was having a clean-up and how could Jason resist when she said he could have it since it was coming up for its 'best before' date? No sense of humour, that was Anderson's trouble. That, and no life.

Monday morning, G-Force's punishment was almost complete. 'Almost,' because Anderson and his detail hitched a ride back to Headquarters aboard the same Multi-Modal Transport rather than booking one of the bigger executive transports. Jason needed flight time so Mark put him in the transport's right hand seat while he took command.

"Engaging sublight inverter transdeucers at reverse polarity," Jason announced, keeping his face rigid.

"Acknowledged," Mark said, glancing at his co-pilot, then he picked up the verbal ball and ran with it. "Octet bonds at maximum orbital velocity."

"How's about we just get outta here?" Tiny suggested, in back seat driver mode. Mark shrugged and Jason lifted off, not quite as smoothly as if Tiny had been flying. Jason stole a glance over his shoulder at Anderson, who was glaring at him. He sighed. He could almost see the words, 'Note to self: have Zark schedule checklist drills for G-Force,' running through Anderson's head. No sense of humour. Jason sighed and settled in to navigate back to headquarters.

When they reached Center City, Mark had Jason land the MMT. It was only seven thirty, so there was little in the way of air traffic around. Jason made a standard instrument approach, but came in hot and had to hit the retro-thrusters before the transport entered the hangar at the ISO Tower. They set down with four distinct bumps and Jason flexed his hands, aware that he'd been gripping the controls so hard his fingers had stiffened up. He heard Shay Alban mutter something about Sunday pilots under her breath as she passed the cockpit. It didn't bother him. He'd seen the way she drove.

"Report for a briefing in thirty minutes," Anderson said, directing his order at Mark, and disembarked with his security staff, leaving G-Force to shut down and secure the MMT.

When they were done, the team caught the elevator to the hundredth floor. They were a little early, so Jason suggested they head for the executive kitchen for some hot chocolate.

"I'll make it," Princess volunteered, giving Jason a look. Jason knew he deserved it, and said nothing. The novelty of guilt was wearing off rapidly, however. He and the others moved aside to allow Anderson to pass by in the corridor with a cup of coffee. The elevator chimed and Lieutenant Colonel Jones emerged, briefcase in one hand, palm unit in the other.

"So, Ally," Anderson said. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine," Jones said. "I won't even have any battle scars to show for my trouble once the scratches heal," she added. Jason, who had slowed his pace, hung back to eavesdrop.

"Are we still on for lunch?" Anderson asked.

"Have you seen your schedule, lately?" Jones countered. The two of them headed toward Anderson's office and paused by Gunnery Sergeant McAllister's as-yet unoccupied desk so that Jones could juggle her briefcase, hat and palm unit.

"My schedule's a live document," Anderson pointed out.

Jones consulted her palm unit. "Your appointment with the Secretary of Defence has been moved up," she said. "Gunny's going to have to reschedule your meetings with the delegates from the Chamber of Mines around the press conference at the Presidential Palace, and you've got an invitation to a charity preview of the Dolfius exhibition at the Center City Guggenheim."

"Am I going?" Anderson asked with the air of a man who had just been told he'd won a lifetime's supply of root canal work. He put his coffee down on the countertop.

"It depends," Jones said, "on whether your hatred for contemporary art outweighs the importance you place on Vice President D'Castro being a staunch supporter of the Starlight Foundation."

"Accept with thanks," Anderson sighed. "Maybe I can come down with dysentery or something between now and then."

"There's always the staff cafeteria, sir."

"Is that a suggestion or a threat?" Anderson shot back. "You have a twisted mind, Colonel."

Jones actually smiled at that, "How do I resist y--?" she caught herself and glanced at Jason, her expression turning frosty.

Anderson followed her gaze with his own and gave Jason a look that crossed polite inquiry with knives. "Is there something I can help you with, Jason?" he asked. It wasn't an offer of assistance.

"Uh... it can wait," Jason said, and began backing away.

"Briefing in ten minutes," Anderson reminded him. Jason nodded and hurried to catch up with the rest of the team.

Once Jason had grabbed a cup of hot chocolate, he sauntered down the corridor to the security section. Shay Alban was going off shift, having handed over to Lieutenant Francine Patrick, a petite brunette with cornflower blue eyes and a soft spot for a certain second in command of G-Force. It was a source of no small surprise to Jason that Anderson actually approved of Jason seeing Fran. Anderson maintained that Lieutenant Patrick, who came from a well-to-do upper middle class family in Seattle, was 'a stable and positive influence' in Jason's life. For his part, Jason tried not to let that get in the way of things. "Miss me?" he asked as Fran headed toward Anderson's office to take up her station.

"Maybe," she said, smiling and feigning indifference. "Saw your butt on the news, Friday night. The camera really does add five pounds, doesn't it?"


She laughed and tossed her head. "You have a real talent for getting into trouble, Jason."

"It's a gift," Jason said. "Anyway, it's one of the things you like about me."

"That and your cute photogenic butt," she quipped.

"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" Jason predicted.

"Nope," she said.

"What if I tried bribing you?"

"I'm a Galaxy Security officer," she said. "We don't take bribes."

"How about dinner tomorrow night?"

"You call that a bribe?" Fran was smiling and Jason got the feeling she wasn't about to shoot him down, but she was going to make him work for a 'yes.' Not that he minded.

"I'll cook."

"In your trailer?"

"Your apartment. I'll cook, and I'll do the dishes."

"Sounds too good to refuse," she said. "Throw in shopping for the ingredients and you've got yourself a date."

"Deal," Jason said. He glanced up at the sound of someone calling his name. "Gotta go," he said, and hurried toward where Mark was waiting for him.

"You want to be late for your first briefing after being grounded?" Mark griped.

"Hey," Jason said, "I've got you to keep me in line."

"Move it," Mark ordered.

"Aye aye, sir." Jason tossed off a flippant salute and made his way to Anderson's office.

Anderson was standing in front of his desk, leaning against it while looking pointedly at his watch. Jason took a seat, followed by Mark.

The Security Chief cast a disapproving look at Jason then walked to the front of the room. "As you know," he said, "we've had very little to deal with lately in the way of hostile action from Spectra's forces or its allies'. Our intelligence suggests that Zoltar is concentrating his efforts in an attempt to secure his hold on Riga. We have people on the ground, there, working with the Rigan resistance forces to make that job as difficult as possible for Zoltar.
"This lull in activity gives us a perfect opportunity to test ourselves and ensure that our own forces are kept sharp and ready to repel the next invasion attempt. Admiral Sasaki of the Navy has invited G-Force to participate in exercises next week, and I've accepted his invitation on your behalf.
"Zark is conducting an analysis of the Admiral's proposal and he'll be sending it over as soon as it's complete. Mark and Jason, you'll be working together to come up with strategies and tactics. The Navy will be defending a target on an island in the Pacific, and your job will be to capture the target."

"Sounds like an interesting challenge," Mark said.

"Are we going in wet or dry?" Jason asked.

"Dry," Anderson said. "We don't want any mishaps with live ordnance."

"Especially if it's pointed at us!" Keyop said.

"I can hardly wait," Jason drawled.

"You'll just have to use your imagination," Anderson said. "In the meantime, the President's called a press conference tomorrow morning to offer some public reassurance about our current situation. There's too much rumour and speculation flying around about Zoltar launching some kind of doomsday attack. President Kane intends to brief the media and he wants you there."

"To do what?" Mark wondered aloud.

"Look like you're protecting the rest of us," Anderson said. "We had some negative press after last Friday's little fiasco. Tomorrow, you're all going to be at your responsible, morally irreproachable best. You'll report here for a briefing at zero nine hundred, then at ten, we'll head for the Presidential Palace. I expect everyone here by eight in the morning. Mark, here's the information from Admiral Sasaki's office." Anderson handed Mark a manila folder. "Read it, then get in touch with Zark about that analysis and have a preliminary draft on my desk by tomorrow afternoon. Dismissed."

The five members of G-Force rose and left the office. As they were passing through Gunnery Sergeant McAllister's reception area, Mark caught Jason's arm. "Not so fast, Jason. If I have to wade through this, then you can lend a hand."

"Okay." Jason shrugged. "I have to read it sooner or later, and it might as well be sooner."

"We should all catch up on our bulletins, anyhow," Princess reasoned. "Come on, Keyop, Tiny. Office time."

"Slave driver!" Keyop complained. "I read bulletins yesterday, and I've got a heap of homework!"

"Hey," Tiny reasoned, "the pilot who doesn't read his bulletins is a pilot who flies into trouble, and since you're qualified to fly the Phoenix, you get to read your bulletins the same as the rest of us. Besides, there are always fresh bulletins on a Monday morning."

"Work on your speed reading," Princess suggested, "then you'll be done faster."

"I'm oppressed," Keyop grumbled. "You see that, Gunny?" Keyop attempted an appeal to higher authority, now that Gunnery Sergeant McAllister had arrived. "They're oppressing me!"

"Sorry, sir," McAllister said from behind his desk, a sheaf of envelopes in one hand. "didn't see a thing."

"Adults," Keyop muttered. "It's a conspiracy."

Jason spent about half an hour reading through the general and special intel and operational bulletins, then dragged his chair over next to Mark's to review the information on the proposed war games.

"I'm done!" Keyop announced a short time later.

"So now we can go home and you can finish your homework," Princess said, and Keyop's triumphant grin faded.

"I hate my life," the boy complained. "Hey, you guys coming over to the Snack J for lunch, later?" he asked.

Mark glanced at Princess and looked away. "We could get caught up with this," he said.

"Nobody gets that caught up," Tiny said. "You bet we'll be by for lunch," he declared, with a significant look at Mark. "All of us, right Commander?"

"Sure," Mark said, managing to look somehow relieved and tormented at the same time. "All of us."

Jason made an heroic effort not to roll his eyes. "See you at lunch, then," he said. He scowled at the papers in front of him. So now Mark was trying to avoid Princess. Anderson, he mused, was a galaxy-class jerk.

It was almost midday when Mark declared it was time for lunch. "I'll catch up with you," Jason promised. "I've got an errand to run."

"See you at the Snack J," Mark said. "Coming, Tiny?"

"Sure," Tiny said.

Once the others had left, Jason took himself for a walk across Tornado Terrace. Once he was out onto the street proper, the wind was almost nonexistent, and he strolled past a couple of cafés, past Amano's Bar (home away from home for most of the Galaxy Security staff based at the ISO Tower) and around the corner.

The sign on the window was written in flowing gilt script: 'Maurice the Floriste.' Jason had bought a posy of flowers for Fran's birthday there, once, having been referred there by Director Kelly. Whenever anyone in G-Sec wanted to say it with flowers, they usually said it through Maurice the Floriste. Apparently, the company was about as safe as it could be. So far, in any event, none of their products had ever turned into giant mechanical attack-begonias.

There was a bored-looking girl behind the counter. She had her hair cut in layers, and each layer was a different shade of purple. Silently, Jason vowed never to comment on Princess' green highlights ever again. The girl's pink plastic name badge read, 'Doreen.' It was shaped like a daisy. Jason suppressed a shudder. There ought to be a law.

"Hi," Jason said.

"Hello," Doreen said. "Can I help you?"

"Yeah," Jason said. "I need to send flowers to my aunt. It's a surprise for her birthday."

"That's nice," Doreen said, brightening. "What did you have in mind?"

"I was thinking roses," Jason said. "Red roses."

"How sweet," Doreen said, smiling. "A single stem in cell's twenty five dollars. A holder and presentation cylinder is another five on top of that, or you can get a half dozen in cellophane for forty five, but if you go for a dozen, it's only seventy five dollars."

Only Seventy five dollars. Jason swallowed. "Really?" he managed to say.

"That's for standard quality blooms. It's another ten dollars if you want the presentation vase. Premium quality is an extra fifteen dollars per item. We have some lovely arrangements starting at around a hundred dollars and upward. Delivery is free if your order's more than fifty dollars, otherwise it's five dollars."

"What's the difference between standard and premium?" Jason asked.

Doreen picked up a vase of a dozen blood red blooms and put it on the counter. Then she pulled a sheaf of roses out of a bucket and held it beside the vase for comparison. "The premium blooms are guaranteed to be all the same size, no blemishes, straight from the hot house."

Jason couldn't see a whole lot of difference. They were flowers, for crying out loud. "Let's go for understatement," he said. "A single rose. Wrapped and delivered."

"Sure," Doreen agreed. She put the premium hot house roses back in their premium plastic bucket, replaced the vase, then positioned a little order form booklet on the counter, pen poised. "What would you like to put on the card?"

"Leave it blank," Jason said. "She'll, uh... guess who it's from."

"This is a nice gift for an aunt," Doreen said, frankly speculative.

"It's really from my uncle," Jason lied, thinking on his feet. "He's out of town at the moment, so I'm doing him a favour."

"I see," Doreen said, not entirely convinced. "Where would you like them delivered?"

"Send them to Lieutenant Colonel Alberta Jones, Galaxy Security Executive Suite, One Hundredth Floor, ISO Tower."

Doreen's pen -- pink plastic with a yellow daisy on a spring at the top -- There really ought to be a law! -- scritched the address out on the envelope. "That'll be twenty five dollars for the rose and cellophane wrapping plus five dollars delivery."

Jason put the cash on the counter, managing not to wince.

Doreen took the money and secured it in the cash register. "Would you like it delivered this afternoon or tomorrow morning?"

"Tomorrow," Jason said.

"It'll be there first thing," she assured me.

When Jason walked in to the Snack J, Tiny and Keyop were sharing a booth, both of them demolishing spaceburgers. Mark and Princess were seated at opposite ends of the counter. Mark was picking listlessly at a salad while Princess stared into her coffee cup as though seeking omens.

Jill, the café manager, smiled in greeting. "What'll it be, Jason?"

"Chicken salad on whole wheat and a large glass of freshly squeezed optimism," Jason quipped.

"Gee, I'm sorry, kid, we're all out of optimism," Jill indicated the two glum customers at the counter. "I could probably fix you up with a struggling smile."

"Better make it orange juice, then," Jason decided, and took a seat next to Mark.

"What's got you so cheerful?" Mark muttered into his sprouts.

"Apart from the fact that I have a date tonight with an extremely attractive member of Internal Security's elite, I guess I just don't give up easily," Jason suggested.

Mark half turned in his seat, scowling. "That's easy for you to say," he said.

Jason's lunch arrived and he paid for it, took a sip of juice and considered his commanding officer's grim visage. "Man, will you lighten up?" he suggested. "Have you tried talking to the Chief?"

"I..." Mark started fiddling with his paper napkin. "What would I say to him?" He twisted the napkin and started tying a knot in it. "If I go in there and ask him not to issue the 'no fraternisation' order, I'm admitting that I know something I'm not supposed to know. How's he supposed to respond to that?"

"If it were me," Jason said, "I simply wouldn't have issued such a stupid order in the first place."

"Well, it isn't you, Jason," Mark pointed out.

It was hard to argue with that.

"Don't give up, Skipper," Jason urged.

"Why, do you have some grand master plan to solve all our problems?" Mark huffed.

"All in good time," Jason said slyly.

The ground floor lobby of the ISO Tower was one of those airport-lounge type places where the only really enduring quality was a sense of transience. With the exception of the G-Sec personnel manning the security station and the occasional infrastructure services employee, nobody ever stopped for long in the ISO lobby. Everyone was invariably on their way somewhere else.

Jason pondered the depths of transience as he lounged on the big vinyl sofa, keeping company with a collection of potted plants.

The lobby normally echoed with the sounds of people passing through, shoes tapping on the polished marble floor tiles, voices bouncing and distorting off the granite and stainless steel walls to create an unintelligible babbling murmur. For now, though, it was mostly quiet, with only the occasional little group, pair or individual worker stepping out of the elevators to head home. The sharp ping of ascending elevator cars resonated, interspersed with the lower pong of those descending to the basement and car park levels. It was seventeen fifty, local time.

A pong heralded the arrival of a car that disgorged three staff members including one who caught Jason's undivided attention as she bade her colleagues good night. Fran had changed out of her uniform into civilian clothing, but still walked like a security officer, striding across the polished floor with the assurance of someone who knew she was right where she belonged. Jason let his gaze take a leisurely tour from her high heeled boots, up the close fitting leather trousers to the lace edged velvet shirt with the ID tag clipped incongruously to the neckline. Fran's long dark hair cascaded over her shoulders in waves, framing her oval face with its wide set cornflower blue eyes and generous mouth.

She slowed her pace and came to a stop in front of Jason, one hand on her hip.

"Do I pass inspection?" she asked.

"No complaints, here," Jason told her, grinning.

"If you're done checking me out, how about cooking me dinner?"

"That," Jason affirmed, standing, "was the plan."

"Are you parked downstairs?" Fran asked.

"My car is," Jason said.

"You know, that's the kind of thing the Chief would say," Fran pointed out, heading for the stairs.

"Remind me never to do it again," Jason said, following. He took a series of long, quick steps to reach the stairwell door ahead of her and opened it. "After you, Lieutenant."

"Thank you."

They walked briskly down the stairs toward the basement level carpark, footfalls echoing in the hollow concrete stairwell.

"So," Jason said, "you're on swing shift Saturday and I've got time trials this weekend, why don't we cruise out to the track Saturday morning? My ego's so fragile, I need encouragement, y'know."

"You poor ego-driven male," Fran chuckled. "So you only want me along to satisfy your craving for approval?"

"You know, I do get other cravings," Jason pointed out, slipping an arm around her waist. "We could explore them in detail."

"I'll just bet," Fran said, laughing.

Jason glanced toward the sound of an engine starting: it wasn't a particularly good engine. Al Jones' geriatric yellow Toyota Comet pulled out of its space and headed for the exit. "That thing lowers the tone of the entire car park," Jason joked.

"I know," Fran agreed. "The Chief rags her about it all the time."

"Really?" Jason thought for a moment before deciding to ask her a question. "Do you think the Chief and Al have something going?"

Fran raised her eyebrows. "Like what, for instance? A report writing orgy? A frenzied session of unbridled administration?"

"No, really," Jason said. "I noticed he was checking her out the other night."

"You mean you've found evidence of red blood cells in his body?" Fran gave Jason a sideways look. "What are you up to, anyway?"

"Me? Nothing!" Jason had never been very good at playing innocent. "I was just... wondering," he said again.

"Yeah, well if they had anything going, it wouldn't get past wondering," Fran said.

"What makes you say that?" Jason asked.

"You of all people know how tight security is these days. If he had so much as a dinner date, the whole world would know about it by the next shift change. Now are we going, or were you planning to stand around and talk about old people all night?"

"Believe me," Jason said, "I have definite plans for what we could be doing all night, and talking about the Chief isn't part of it."

Tuesday morning brought the media relations briefing, after which G-Force had about half an hour to kill before they were due to leave for the Presidential Palace for the press conference. As Jason made his way toward the executive kitchen, he noticed Anderson was ahead of him, evidently with the same destination in mind. The Chief got to the percolator first and poured himself a cup of coffee. Princess and Keyop followed Jason into the kitchen. Tiny came in after them and Mark trailed in last of all. Jason got a cup out of the cupboard. That was when he noticed the red rose in the trash.


Anderson slipped out into the lobby and Jason started to pour coffee into his cup. There was his thirty dollar rose, lying there among the tea bags, used coffee filters and plastic spoons, still nestled in its cellophane wrap with a card from Maurice the Floriste. Jason guessed this meant Al wasn't impressed. If she was high maintenance, it could make his job a lot more difficult.

He could just make out a conversation taking place outside the kitchen door.

"I hear you have a secret admirer, Colonel," the Chief said. Jason's ears immediately focussed on the voices outside. There was a long pause, measured in heartbeats.

Jason nearly spilled coffee as he overfilled his cup. Gingerly, he put the carafe back down and very carefully slurped coffee from the rim of the cup to try and get the level down.

"So I'm led to believe, sir," Al Jones said icily on the other side of the door.

Jason thought she sounded about as warm as the dark side of the moon. That wasn't good. He sidled away from the percolator to make room for Tiny.

"You're led to believe?" the Chief echoed.

"I don't much care for mysteries," Jones said, a definite waspish note in her voice.

"You prefer the direct approach?" the Chief inferred, seemingly trying to draw her out. Jason peeked around the door at Anderson's back and about a fifth of Jones' front.

"I'm afraid I'm really rather dull, sir," Jones said. "If you'll excuse me." She turned and began to walk away, then paused after a couple of steps and glanced back over her shoulder. "As it happens," she added, "I prefer white roses."

Ouch. Jason stepped out into the corridor. The Chief was standing there drinking his coffee, pretending he wasn't making a point of not watching Jones retreat down the corridor.

Jason's mind raced. This was not going well. Al wasn't supposed to start giving Anderson the cold shoulder, she was supposed to think that he'd sent the flower, he was supposed to get jealous of whoever it was who might have sent it, and one thing was supposed to lead to another. They weren't going along with it! Jason scowled. You couldn't trust anyone these days.

The Chief's expression was unreadable.

Think, Jason! "I heard someone sent Al a rose," Jason ventured, and got glanced at sharply for his trouble. "I wonder who it was?"

This earned him a somewhat calculating look. "That's none of our business," Anderson said, then, to Jason's chagrin, launched into lecture mode. "You see how you read her wrong, Jason? What you mistook for some kind of interest in me is a budding relationship with someone else." He headed back for his office.


"I can't believe how addicted you are to that stuff," Mark said, lounging in the doorway and indicating Jason's coffee mug. He held a glass of water.

"It helps me think," Jason said.

"Are you coming up to the roof garden?" Mark asked. "I thought we might brainstorm some stuff for the war games before we have to leave for the press conference."

"Shortly," Jason said. "I have to fill out some paperwork for my next few races. It shouldn't take long."

As his team mates caught the elevator, Jason prowled back to the G-Force office. What to do? He wracked his brains for ideas, and drew a blank. In the end, he decided he'd better put some work in on what he was supposed to be working on.

Jason was required to fill out a form for every race he entered. Part of it was for security and part for the bean counters, since G-Sec picked up all the cancellation fees for those times Jason was working his real job. He had about half a dozen forms to complete and submit. It was mind-numbingly boring, and Jason found himself zoning out.

Which was how he almost missed seeing the Chief walk past the glass door of the office, heading for the admin section.

Jason sat up straight in his chair. Now, that was unusual. People went to see the Chief -- the Chief generally didn't go to see people unless they were higher up the food chain than he was. There weren't a whole lot of people that much higher up the food chain than the Chief of Galaxy Security, and to the best of Jason's knowledge, none of them had their offices in the admin section of the 100th floor G-Sec Executive Suite of the ISO Tower.

Jason got up and went to the door. He waited a moment, then eased the door open and stuck his head out into the corridor to see what he could see. The coast was almost clear. Jason spied Anderson leaning in the doorway of Jones' office, then saw him step inside.

Jason sauntered as nonchalantly as he could down the passageway until he was almost level with Jones' office. He could make out two distinct voices and eavesdropped shamelessly.

"...That I owe you an apology," Anderson's voice said. "It was inappropriate of me to pass comment on your private life."

"Not at all, sir," Al said. "I'm the one who should apologise. I shouldn't have taken my irritation out on you. It was stupid of me to let myself get so annoyed by something as silly as a flower, and a cheap one at that."

Cheap? That thing cost me thirty bucks! Jason fumed with fiscal outrage.

"I doubt it was sent with the express intention of annoying you," Anderson speculated.

"You're right, of course," Al said, and Jason could hear a smile in her voice. "I'm afraid I'm a bit past it when it comes to all this 'secret admirer' nonsense. In any event, it'll probably turn out to be one of Jason's blasted practical jokes."

Yikes! Jason experienced a moment's panic. Was she on to him?

"What makes you say that?" The Chief's voice was edged with suspicion.

Uh-oh. This sounded like trouble.

"Who else around here exhibits such a puerile brand of humour?"

Jason frowned. That was the third time in days someone had used that word in direct relation to him.

"You have a point there." Jason's scowl deepened. Puerile? Geezers! A short, contemptuous snort escaped him. "Um, Al?" Anderson said, his voice lowered. Jason leaned toward the sound, straining to hear. "Is Jason playing the same mind games with both of us?"

"That depends," Al hedged, her voice barely audible. "What did he say to you?"

"I asked first," Anderson parried.

There was a long moment's silence. A piece of paper rustled. "Do you think," Al asked eventually, "that we could possibly pretend we're not having this conversation?"

"What I think," Anderson said, "is that we need to deal with this."

There was that rustling sound again, like someone shuffling papers. "If you want my opinion," Al said, "I think we should ignore him."

Jason stood thinking uncomplimentary thoughts about smug middle-aged people who think they know everything, until he realised he hadn't heard anybody speak for a few seconds. What was going on? Where they having a Moment? Or had they heard him move?

"You're probably right," Anderson said. "I just..."

Jason held his breath.

"You just what?" Al murmured.

"The other night, at the conference dinner... Um... I'm not sure how to put this." Anderson sounded uncomfortable.

"What is it?"

"Do you think Jason could be developing a crush on you?"

Oh, man! Jason made a face.

"I'm old enough to be his mother!" Al protested, her voice rising with alarm. "Besides, Jason's been going out regularly with Lieutenant Patrick. They seem quite taken with each other."

"I guess so," Anderson said. "That still leaves you with someone who likes you enough to send you a rose."

"Well, whoever he is, I'm sure it'll all sort itself out," Al said.

Jason forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply. A chair creaked and he made ready to flee.

"Assuming it's a 'he,'" Jason heard Anderson say. "That might explain the secrecy."

Jason heard something he hadn't heard before: Al actually laughed. "There's something that hadn't occurred to me," she said. "Thank you," she said, "I needed cheering up. I'm still going to check with the florist, though. We can't be too careful, these days."

"Don't worry about it, Al. I'll ask Director Lewindowsky to have one of his people run a check," Anderson said. It sounded like the conversation was winding up, and Jason's instincts told him to beat a hasty retreat, which he did.

Jason made it back to the G-Force office unobserved and went back to his paperwork. It was only after he'd started on the final form that he realised Anderson hadn't walked back from Jones' office. He'd heard Anderson get up to leave. Where was he?

Okay... did he go look? If he did, what would he find? Would he need to disinfect his eyeballs afterward?

Before Jason could make up his mind whether or not to resume his covert surveillance, Chief Anderson strolled back down the corridor, looking pleased with himself. Maybe the rose hadn't been a total disaster, after all. Jason let out a sigh of relief at his decision to use cash to pay for the flower. Had he used a G-Sec corporate card, Jack Lewindowsky would have caught him sooner or later. As it was, if the assistant at the florist remembered him and gave the investigating officer a good description, the jig could well be up, anyway. Still, for now, Jason's Brilliant Plan continued.

Footsteps in the corridor alerted Jason to Al Jones making her way from her office, briefcase in hand. As she passed the G-Force office, she glanced in at him. Jason met her gaze and saw a look of panic flash into her eyes before she turned away. He ducked his head and grinned to himself.

Jason finished filling out his forms, scanned them in and transmitted them with a copy to the Chief. Then he logged off, shut down and packed up. Gross-out factor aside, things were looking up.

"Hey, hotshot... sir," Shay Alban said, sticking her head around the office door. "Shake a leg. Your public awaits, but the Chief won't."

"Yes, ma'am, Major Alban, ma'am," Jason parroted, tossing off a mock salute. Alban glared at him. Technically, Jason outranked Alban into the middle of next week and it always annoyed her when he played the part of impertinent subordinate (mostly because that was the role she preferred to take for herself.) He headed for the briefing room, where Mark and the rest of the team were waiting for him. G-Force transmuted and headed downstairs for their next instalment of fame.

The party travelled to the Presidential Palace in two limousines: one for Anderson and his staff, the second for G-Force. As expected, the team was paraded before the media following President Kane's press release about their glorious and successful lack of activity. Jason was proud of his performance: he hadn't yawned once.

The team was lined up behind the President, who was giving a speech as boring as anything Anderson could come up with. After Kane had finished regaling the media, some of them woke up and the President's Press Secretary motioned for Mark to take the podium. He answered a few questions, turning on the charisma and generally making Jason extremely happy to be second in command, as it meant he didn't have to play front man at press conferences.

While Mark responded with the official line to a reporter's question, Jason let his attention wander. That was when he saw Anderson and Jones, out of sight of the press in the wings of the media room, standing close with their heads together like conspirators... or maybe something more intimate. Jones glanced up, saw Jason looking, and stepped away from Anderson, turning away as she did so. Is that a guilty conscience you have there, Lieutenant Colonel? It had occurred to Jason that maybe he wasn't being entirely fair on Al by including her in his plan, but she was the one who always cited the regulations, always told junior officers that if they couldn't live by the rules they could apply for a discharge and generally went around like Ms Prim and Proper School Marm From Hell. If she had feelings for Anderson, maybe she needed to re-evaluate her own career choices, and if she chose to break regulations, then she could choose to live with the consequences like anyone else.

Jason's Brilliant Plan appeared to be enjoying a modicum of success.

That afternoon, the Plan appeared to develop some momentum of its own.

Jason was keeping up his surveillance behind the pretence of continuing to work on the draft strategy for the upcoming war games. Frequent coffee breaks allowed him to sneak around the executive suite to see what he could see or hear.

"Well, whoever it is," Jason heard Shay Alban say, "you have to give him points for persistence." She chuckled. "Sounds like he's upped the ante, though." Intrigued, Jason peered into the executive kitchen. Alban was leaning against the counter by the sink, talking to Jones, who was clutching her portfolio to her chest like a life preserver. Jason eased his way in and made a pretence of washing a cup. "You know the meaning of white roses, girl friend," Alban said, grinning.

"Rubbish!" Jones drew herself up. "I'm not buying into it. It's probably," she added with a poisonous look at Jason, "some prank."

Jason poured himself a cup of coffee and tried desperately to think of some excuse for staying and eavesdropping some more.

"Well if it's a prank," Alban reasoned, "it's an expensive one. I mean, think about it. Nobody spends that kind of money on a practical joke!" The two women left, glaring back over their shoulders at Jason as they did so.

Jason's curiosity was piqued. He drank his coffee, wondering what had happened to earn him those venomous glowers -- and without any effort on his part, either! Once he was done, he cleaned up, taking his time to give Anderson and his staff time to get themselves organised, then made his way to Gunny McAllister's desk.

"Busy?" Jason asked.

"This place is always busy, sir," McAllister said. "You just missed the Chief," he said. "He's on his way to the Gaian High Commission for a meeting."

"Oh." Jason tried to look disappointed. "He, uh, took Al with him?"

"And his security detail, as usual," McAllister said.

"I guess I'll catch up with him later," Jason said. He strolled back out into the corridor. There was nobody else around, so he snuck down to Al's tiny office. The door was locked, but Jason peeked in through the glass panel. There was just enough room for a desk, credenza, filing cabinet and chairs. On top of the filing cabinet there was one of those cutesy little folk-art pots with some kind of flower growing in it, but on the desk was a porcelain vase containing two dozen perfect long stemmed pure white roses with associated greenery! Jason's mouth fell open. Judging from what he'd recently learned about rose prices, Jason figured he was staring at over a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty or more dollars' worth of vegetation.

When a man spent that much on flowers, he was making an investment. That very morning, Al had told Anderson that she preferred white roses, and here they were on her desk. It was the kind of gesture someone on a Chief of Staff's salary could afford.

Shay had mentioned the meaning of white roses. There was supposed to be some list or other of flower meanings, wasn't there? Jason decided a little research was in order.

He went back to the G-Force office and used Mark's log in to access the Galaxy Wide Web, where he did a quick Snarksearch on 'language of flowers.' A number of sites were returned, mostly belonging to florists (Maurice the Floriste was in there) and horticultural suppliers. Jason checked a couple out. 'White roses,' Maurice the Floriste's page proclaimed, 'can stand for spiritual love or secrecy. The gift of white roses is ideal for anyone wishing to express love from afar.'

Yes! Jason punched the air. Phase One was a success! Now for Phase Two...

Footsteps sounded in the corridor and Jason hastened to log off.

"Jason." Mark sauntered in to the office. "Where have you been?"

"Oh, had to take some paperwork to Accounting," Jason lied. "You know... receipts and stuff... " he trailed off with a vague wave of one hand. "I'm all done, now."

"Good," Mark said. "Now that you're here, we can get back to work on our attack plan for the war games."

"Sure thing, Skipper," Jason said. It was all he could do to keep from rubbing his hands together and cackling with glee. Soon, his two best friends could go from their state of Anderson-imposed abject misery to... well, whatever they chose for themselves, which had to be better than this.

It was getting late by the time Mark and Jason had finished drafting their preliminary plans. Rear Admiral Sasaki, Chief of the Navy and Chairman of the ISO, was going to be involved in the games aboard his flagship, the state of the art aircraft carrier Nelson. Sasaki did a good job, but no-one involved with the G-Force Project had forgotten how the Admiral had doubted Anderson's projections about Spectra just before the war began, and how he'd delayed G-Force's involvement as well, on the grounds that the team was too young and unprepared for combat. Both Mark and Jason badly wanted to win this one, and win it decisively.

Mark shut the computer down and stretched in his chair. "That's enough for today, Jason," he announced. "Come on. Tiny's probably got the barbecue hot by now."

"Yeah," Jason agreed. "Beach barbecue sounds good. As long he doesn't try to serve me squid again."

"Nothing wrong with barbecued squid," Mark said.

"Sure, as long as you're not asking me to eat it," Jason qualified. "Give me cow. Dead cow. Charred on the outside and bleeding on the inside. I refuse to eat anything with more than four legs." He shuddered.

"Tentacles don't count as legs," Mark just had to point out.

Tiny had a permanent fire pit outside his shack. He'd taken an old concrete soakwell and sunk it into the sand, then installed a spit and an arm for a pot or kettle. He could lay a grill over it or just let it burn as a bonfire. The G-Force team had spent summer evenings sitting around it for as long as Tiny had been in possession of the shack. Tonight, he was grilling steaks and some lobsters he'd caught that afternoon.

Princess sat on a canvas chair, nursing a bottle of cola with a straw and staring at the flames. The chair next to her was empty, so Jason sat down in it and nudged her ankle with his foot. "Hey."

"Hey," she said, without looking at him. Jason recalled that misery was supposed to love company, but Princess didn't look like she was enjoying it much.

He decided to paraphrase another Bogart line. "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, you had to walk into mine."

"I don't drink gin," Princess said, but her lips were curving upward into a smile.

"Me, neither," Jason said in his normal voice. "Y'know, there's nothing in the regulations that says you can't be friends with Mark. Don't think I haven't noticed that you and Mark have been avoiding each other. What's the point of going too far in the other direction?"

"I don't know, Jase." Princess sipped at her Diet Pepsi and smothered a genteel little burp behind one hand. "I know we should find some kind of middle ground, but I don't know where that is, right now."

"You were doing pretty well, before," Jason said.

"We couldn't have been," Princess argued, "or Dr McCall wouldn't have said anything. Even you referred to 'rumours' when you sent that joke e-mail around."

"Aw heck." Jason winced. "I never thought anyone'd take it seriously... What did Anderson say?"

Princess blinked back tears. "He still hasn't raised it. Maybe he's waiting for the right time or something... I don't know." Jason muttered some extremely unflattering epithets under his breath. "You shouldn't use that kind of language," Princess chided. "There's a lady present, if you don't mind."

"Sorry," Jason said, and meant it. He was going to get Anderson good for this.

Over the next few days, Mark and Jason continued to work on their brief and their tactical plan for the Navy war games. Jason kept up his surveillance and caught Anderson and Jones gazing at each other a few times. Once, he inadvertently interrupted what looked like an awkward moment in the executive kitchen. Stationery store room, children, Jason admonished silently. It's customary to use the stationery store in corridor five for that kind of thing. All he needed now was to obtain some evidence, and Mark and Princess would be home and dry.

The first thing Jason did was install a tiny camera in the stationery store in corridor five. This captured some interesting footage of Director Winters' secretary and the new lieutenant from Site Security, but the only time he saw Jones in the room, she was alone, signing out a box of paperclips with all the appropriate paperwork. Anderson never set foot in the stationery area.

Then it happened early Friday morning: Jason's targets were headed in opposite directions down the hall, and Jason saw Anderson slip Jones a note. It was professionally done, with all the skill of a seasoned field agent. If Jason hadn't been looking for something, he was certain he would have missed it. Mark was yet to arrive, so Jason had the G-Force office to himself. He activated the computer, then used an IT maintenance login to access Zark's surveillance system. He called up the feed from the executive suite and located Jones' office. There she was, at her desk, unfolding the note. Jason zoomed in and froze the picture. In his usual near-illegible style, Anderson had scribbled a series of numbers on the paper, organised into groups.

It was some kind of code, and it wasn't one that Jason recognised. Rats!

He saved the image, then returned to real-time surveillance, but Al was now closing her desk drawer. She turned on her computer, plugged her palm unit in and appeared to log in to the G-Sec network. There was no sign of the slip of paper Anderson had given her.

Jason drummed his fingers against the desktop in a cadence of irritation. He needed to obtain evidence. It was a risk, but he'd been trained by the best Galaxy Security had to offer, so he spun Zark a line about being given a top-secret task to test security and hacked into the inter-office e-mail system.

There wasn't a lot of correspondence between the Chief and his liaison officer. They spent so much time in meetings together, Jason realised they must have said most of what they had to say face to face. What to do? He logged out of the system and thought. Anderson's field work pretty much constituted ancient history, as far as Jason was concerned, so if he was going to use a code, it would probably be an old one. Jason got up out of his chair and paced back and forth, trying to recall what he'd been taught about the historical use of codes.

It was feasible that Anderson might have used an old field code, but Jones wasn't a field agent. It would have to be something simple, Jason reasoned. He thought back on what he knew about Jones: she was a career security and liaison officer, so she would have gone through the Academy, but probably hadn't been trained in cryptography. She had a classical education, if he remembered rightly... Of course!

It was one of the oldest tricks in the book, and the pun was altogether unintentional. Now he only had to wait for his chance.

Jason's chance came at morning coffee. Gunny was in the kitchen brewing a fresh pot of Kenyan Arabica. Anderson was with the rest of Galaxy Security's executive team in their regular meeting in the conference room. Jones had gone to one of the obligatory officer training sessions at Seahorse Base. Jason made an excuse to Mark, slipped into Anderson's office and began looking around.

The book stood out from everything else in the office, purely by virtue of its existence. It wasn't that Anderson had left it anywhere obvious -- it was concealed in the second drawer of his desk -- but Jason knew in his bones that Chief of Galaxy Security David Anderson PhD didn't read romantic fiction, and Far From the Madding Crowd was to romantic fiction what The Lord of the Rings was to fantasy.

There was a bookmark neatly inserted inside the book, but the spine and the pages were so crisp, it didn't look as though it had been read, merely leafed through here and there.

Jason took careful note of the position of the book mark and wrote the book's details -- publisher, date of printing and ISBN -- on a scrap of paper, then returned the book to its hiding place. He made his exit and hurried across the executive suite toward Jones' office.

Jones' literary tastes were a mystery to Jason but he wasn't in the least surprised to discover an identical copy of Far From the Madding Crowd resting atop the filing cabinet, just behind the little potted plant she kept there. "Gotcha!" he chuckled. Sure enough, there was a bookmark on the same page as the copy in Anderson's office. Jason swiped the book, and headed back to the G-Force office.

The saved surveillance image showed sequences of four numbers scribbled in five groups. Jason picked up pencil and paper and set to work. The simplest code would utilise the book as a key, with the numbers representing pages, paragraphs, sentences and words from the point where the bookmark was set. He began decoding the note.

"Whoa," he said after a few minutes. He stared at the sentence on the paper in front of him.


Perfect! Now all Jason had to do was return the book, then arrange to record the clandestine meeting for posterity... and a victory for Mark and Princess over the forces of small-mindedness.

At nineteen forty five, rugged up in his warmest leather jacket and armed with a tiny video camera he'd signed out of the quartermaster's store, Jason lurked in the shadows of the roof garden. There was a stiff breeze blowing in from the sea and he tried to find a spot in the lea of the wall. The garden was largely unprotected from the elements.

The sun went down and some of the soft bluish solar lights came on. Quite a few of them weren't working, and Jason realised he was going to have more of a challenge than he'd originally anticipated capturing detail on the camera in the darkness. The invertebrate population of the roof garden came out and it was all Jason could do not to let out a yelp when a spider dropped down on its web from a branch, just in front of his face.

He re-positioned himself clear of the spider and waited, watching the garden through the viewfinder of the camera.

At nineteen fifty eight, the access door opened, and a woman in a G-Sec uniform overcoat, blonde hair glimmering in the moonlight under her cap, paced slowly along the brick paved path, moving between the planters. Jason could hear the click of her heels against the pavement. The image in the camera's viewfinder was dark and grainy, but it was timestamped, and it would be enough for the people in the picture to recognise themselves once it was shown to them. Jason's subject didn't turn toward him, moving instead to the guard rail and staring out over the Center City skyline, seemingly lost in thought.

Twenty hundred hours on the dot.

Jason heard the access door open and close again, then a man, the collar of his coat turned up against the chill night breeze, walked into the frame. Jason could hear the sounds of the wind in the leaves, but nobody spoke.

Jason steadied the camera and zoomed in as the new arrival closed the distance between himself and the waiting woman. They stood in silence, their features hidden in shadow, close, but not touching.

In the viewfinder, the man lifted a hand and gently pushed a strand of pale hair away from his companion's face. For a long moment, they merely stood without moving or speaking, their only point of contact his fingertips on her cheek.

Jason squirmed slightly. This wasn't nearly as funny as he'd thought it would be. The couple's wordless intimacy had him feeling like some kind of voyeur.

They stood with their heads almost touching, and held hands. Slowly, gradually, they moved closer together until the woman's head rested against the man's shoulder, and they simply stood there, sharing the silence.

Aw, shucks...

Jason switched the camera off. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. They seemed so... so real. Whatever it was between them, it was as important to them as the feelings Mark and Princess had for each other. Using it against them would have cheapened it, putting Jason firmly in the category to which he'd consigned Anderson: someone mean and petty, who denied others what little warmth there was to be found in this crazy, meaningless mess of a world. Whatever else might have happened, Jason vowed that he wouldn't sink to Anderson's level.

So much for Jason's Brilliant Plan. Maybe Anderson did have a grain of empathy somewhere and would cut Mark and Princess some slack out of some modicum of basic human decency. It was a slim hope, but a hope, nonetheless.

Jason crept back to the door without making a sound. The couple by the railing had their heads together and were murmuring softly to one another. Jason slipped through the doors, hoping they wouldn't notice him.

Safely inside, and acutely aware of how much warmer it was in the lobby than out in the night air, Jason erased the camera's memory chip and put the device in his jacket pocket. "So much for that," he muttered. "I hope it works out for you two."

He turned to leave.

And just about hit the ceiling when Security Chief Anderson said, "Nice sentiment. Maybe you can send them a card for their next anniversary."

Jason glanced around wildly. The couple were still out in the garden. Anderson and Jones, however, were standing in the lobby, arms folded, glaring at Jason like grim death. Jason felt a sense of impending doom settling in the pit of his stomach. "Uh... " he said. "Hi, Chief... Al... Um... Nice evening... for... for a stroll?"

"I'm more inclined to think of it as educational," Anderson remarked. He opened a channel on his palm unit. "Come on in, you two. He's busted."

The garden access door opened to admit the man and the woman from the garden. Kate Halloran, G-Sec's Chief Medical Officer, grinned at Jason from under a long blonde wig. "Gotcha," she said. Her husband Bob, Director Special Projects, pulled a wig off his short salt and pepper thatch and chuckled in evident amusement.

"Jason," he said, "you should see your face." He took off a fake pair of pince-nez spectacles and dropped them, together with the wig, into the plastic bag Jones held open for him.

"Thanks for your help this evening," Anderson said.

Bob Halloran chuckled again. "It isn't as good as the time we convinced Professor Garrett you'd accidentally created a black hole in the transdimensional physics lab at Harvard," he recalled, "but it's up there in your top ten."

"I have my moments," Anderson said.

"I guess you do," Kate said, then turned back to Bob. "Come on, honey, or we're going to be late."

"I'll ride downstairs with you," Jones said, and followed the Hallorans to the elevators, leaving Jason alone with Anderson.

"I'm really looking forward to hearing your explanation for all of this," Anderson said. "I could use a laugh."

Jason ground his teeth. To think he'd almost gone soft and cut the miserable old fart some slack! "I guess I was hoping you might try walking a mile in the other guy's shoes," he said sullenly.

Anderson blinked once. "What?"

"You're so self-righteous," Jason couldn't help saying. "You think that just because you choose to be completely up tight, nobody should have any joy out of life! Why can't you give Mark and Princess a break?"

Anderson drew himself up to deliver a verbal riposte, then subsided, seemingly confused. "What?" he asked again.

"Don't pretend you don't know!" Jason warned.

"I assure you, I'm not pretending," Anderson said.

"You issued new orders, over and above one oh nine part five: that Mark and Princess aren't to fraternise."

"I haven't cut any orders," Anderson said. Jason could almost see mental gears meshing and turning, then realisation dawned. "You've accessed the psych reports. Jason, you know those are supposed to be confidential!"

"I haven't seen them," Jason snapped back. "I just know about the recommendation. Don't ask me how."

"Clearly, you don't know as much as you think you do," Anderson replied. "I rejected Dr McCall's suggestion as counter-productive. Despite your behaviour recently, I consider all of G-Force responsible enough to obey ISO Standing Orders without my having to issue specific directives. I have every confidence in Mark and Princess' self discipline and their commitment to G-Force, and I can see I'm going to have to order a review of the security surrounding the filing system in the psych department. Now, do you have any other accusations, baseless or otherwise?"

Jason stood with his mouth open, the wind knocked out of his sails. "Uh... no, sir. That was... that was it."

Anderson cast his eyes heavenward. "Do I really appear that stupid," he wondered aloud, "or is it some generational thing?"

Jason closed his mouth. Sometimes, it was safest not to volunteer information. That Anderson had played him like a fish didn't surprise him. That he'd actually done the decent thing from the outset did. "You set me up," Jason inferred.

"I did," Anderson said. He didn't smile when he said it.

He'd probably never get another chance to ask, and Jason had to know: "Did you really convince a physics professor that you'd created a black hole?"

"It was a long time ago," Anderson said, deadpan.

Jason was silent for a moment, awed. "You never intended to give Mark and Princess that order?" he asked.

"Never. I'm afraid you've been wasting all our time. Now, I suggest you go home, and if this ridiculous escapade of yours is the reason Princess has been so unhappy for the last few days, you should probably stop by on your way and make a full apology. You owe her one. Maybe you should go so far as to say it with flowers."

Jason winced. He deserved that, and he knew it. He also knew that Anderson was letting him off lightly. Maybe it was because there was nothing governing mischievous matchmaking in the ISO Standing Orders, the ISO Officers' Handbook or the Galaxy Security Policy and Procedures Manual. Whatever the reason, Jason fled the scene, resolving to keep his head down and his nose clean for quite some time.

Epilogue - Jason

I never did tell Mark or Princess the whole sorry tale of my attempt at playing Cupid with a twist. It was just too ignominious. I did tell them that Anderson had rejected the psychologist's recommendation, though, and they both cheered up a lot. They haven't embarked on the Romance of the Century, yet, and let's face it, Mark isn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to women, so it's anybody's guess as to how it'll all turn out, eventually. Time will tell.

As for the Chief and Al, now that they're not trying to make a monkey out of me, they're as Arctic as ever, but sometimes, I'll catch one or both of them smirking in my direction, and it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Every now and then, there's a white rose in a vase on Al's desk. She isn't volunteering any information and I'm not asking. It's tempting to speculate... but not that tempting. Not yet, anyway.

Fran thinks I'm crazy, but in a nice way. She's decided I must have a romantic soul, and who am I to complain? This could be getting serious. Maybe it's time to stop worrying about other people's happiness and focus on my own. After all, somebody has to be lucky in love sooner or later. Maybe it'll be me.

End Notes:
For those who like to pay attention to detail, Thomas Hardy's classic novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, does contain all the component words in the sentence, "Roof garden eight o'clock to-night," but not in that order, of course.
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