Masquerades by Grumpy Ghost Owl
Summary:

A re-write of The Sky is Falling parts I and II from three different points of view.


Categories: Battle of the Planets Characters: Chief Anderson, Colonel Cronus, Goon, Great Spirit, Other Canon Character, Zoltar
Genre: Action/Adventure
Story Warnings: Death, Mild Language, Violence
Timeframe: Episode Rewrite
Universe: Mostly Canon
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 3 Completed: Yes Word count: 15167 Read: 3975 Published: 06/07/2007 Updated: 06/13/2007
Story Notes:
My thanks to Terri-Anne and WyldKat for beta reading and helping to knock the rough edges off this thing. Thanks also to Sal for input which had quite an influence on the finished product. The episode transcripts for The Sky is Falling parts I and II were provided courtesy of Naa-Dei Nikoi, to whom goes much kudos for sitting through Zark's scenes without hitting the "fast forward" button. Additional material provided by WyldKat.

The challenge (from March 2000): rewrite the landmark BotP episodes, "The Sky is Falling" parts I and II in the first person from the point of view of one or more of the characters appearing in the show.

1. Call me Ishmael by Grumpy Ghost Owl

2. A Friend in Need by Grumpy Ghost Owl

3. Quo Vadis? by Grumpy Ghost Owl

Call me Ishmael by Grumpy Ghost Owl


DISCLAIMER
Battle of the Planets is the property of Sandy Frank Productions and Tatsunoko. No profit, commercial gain, monetary or otherwise, hire or reward is generated by the author of this work.




MASQUERADES
Part I of a Battle of the Planets fan fiction

Zoltar

It was a deliciously ironic concept: transform Earth into Spectra's shadow-sister. Give the arrogant Terrans a taste of what it is to inhabit a doomed planet. Oh, some of our scientists protested, the weaklings, going on about destruction of unique ecosystems that could be of potential use to us after the war, alternative strategies, and so on.

I had a couple of them shot and the rest went rather quiet, after that.

Crude, I grant you, but effective, nonetheless.

I can't abide division in the ranks, you know. And one can't let subversion -- no matter how innocuous or altruistic or purely scientific it may claim to be -- go unpunished. It's bad for morale.

Riga is supposedly a civilised planet, these days: a full member of the Inter-Galactic Federation of Peaceful Planets. (Inter-Galactic -- the arrogance of these people!)

Riga is not so civilised that certain members of its government aren't susceptible to being bribed, or, if that fails, blackmailed. Oh, no. Not so civilised as all that. Not by any means.

So we were able to build the X-3, right on Earth's doorstep. The Luminous One was actually pleased! As was I, of course.

To top it all off, one of our moles on Riga got wind of a rumour concerning that detestable urchin, the Commander of G-Force: it seems that the Rigan campus of the illustrious Space Academy lays claim to having trained the unpleasant creature.

One of our espionage cells is working on trying to find him through the Academy's records. I'd handle it myself, but I have a planet to conquer, so I've entrusted the job to my Chief of Secret Forces on Riga. I have no doubt at all that very soon, my people will be coming back with some very pleasing results.

Oh, this is all going so well. This time, I have them!



Tom

It wasn't my fault. It was a combination of circumstance and coercion. In my own defence, the first thing I asked was what were they going to do with Mark once I brought him to them.

And the guy just smiled and patted me on the shoulder and said it was none of my concern.

And he showed me the money again and I figured that Mark could take care of himself, he'd always been able to take care of himself and he could probably take this guy in two seconds flat and by the time he did I'd be out of there and on my way off world. Mark wouldn't even have to know if I played my cards right. It wasn't my fault, I needed the money.

I'd had a trick shoulder ever since the car accident that led to me dropping out of the Academy. The accident wasn't my fault, I was tired and I didn't see the other car. If the sun hadn't been in my eyes and if Sam had maintained the car properly I would never have lost control and crashed. And then Sam had the gall to say I never had permission to take the car! How was I supposed to ask? He'd gone out to some stupid movie with Mark and the others, so I borrowed his car. I couldn't ask him, because he wasn't there! The faculty staff at Space Academy made it clear that I wasn't welcome there, any more: they went on and on about "conduct unbecoming and officer and a gentleman," and sent me to counsellors and psychologists and kept trying to get me to take the blame for all the crap that life dealt up to me. Like I'd asked for it or something.

So I left and tried to find work. Nobody wanted to employ an Academy dropout, though. Somebody must have put the word out and spread some kind of lies about me because I went to interview after interview and no-one would take me on, so I wound up in a series of dead-end jobs that took me nowhere, kept me in the daily grind of no money, no future, no life. I got passed over for promotion, passed over for raises, passed over for just about everything there was. What did I ever do to deserve it? It shouldn't have been that way, but it wasn't my fault. Someone must have had it in for me from the day I set foot on campus.

Mark used to say he was my friend, but he only ever hung around with me to make himself look good, like he was looking out for me and people would say how kind he was to "take young Tom under his wing." Oh, he never said anything overt, but he was always there, being Mister Hero, Mister Cool, Mister I-Kick-Ass. Girls never wanted to talk to me when he was around. Colonel Cronus used to look straight through me, even the library staff went out of their way to assist Mark when he flashed those baby blues and smiled, and I'd just stand there, ignored.

And I figure that maybe Mark kind of has it coming, after all those years of being Mister Perfect.

So that night in the bar, I wasn't really drunk, not all that much. It wasn't my fault, the weather was hot and I hadn't eaten. I was tired, and the guy sat next to me and we got to talking. He must have known who I was, because he kept asking me questions, and pretty soon I'd told him about how unfair it was, me having been at the Space Academy with my so-called friend who abandoned me as soon as times got tough and went off to be a big shot test pilot with the ISO.

And so the guy talked me into going along with his plan. He was a professional, and he knew how to manipulate me, knew I was desperate for money, so he made the most of it. I didn't even realise he was a Spook until after I'd agreed to the plan.

I was left with no choice. I needed the money. They sent me to Earth, on a lousy tramp freighter, and the operative who met me actually assaulted me and put my trick shoulder out and left me bruised and bleeding in the street.

From there, all I had to do was follow my orders. I told the police officers who picked me up that I had no next of kin on Earth but that Mark was a close friend and would vouch for me. Mark must be doing okay, because someone sent an ISO car for me. I was taken to a medical centre for treatment and then shipped out to a shack on an airfield just out of town: Mark's place, apparently.



Keyop

Call me Ishmael.

It's not my name, so I'll probably ignore you, but it's a great opening line and we're studying Moby Dick in English Literature class, so I thought I'd throw it in.

I've been called a lot of things, but Ishmael isn't one of them. Call me Keyop if you're a friend, call me G-4, call me Sir, but don't ever call me "kid."

I'm grown up enough to fight Spectra, and I could whip your sorry ass, so don't call me a kid unless you'd like to take it outside.

I'm nine years old and I'm a warrior. I'm no kid.

I'm legally classified as an orphan, with the Chief as my guardian. I don't know about that first bit because to be an orphan, you have to lose your parents, and I never had any to begin with, so I like to think of myself as more of a "free agent."

I was about five when they told me that the reason I couldn't remember my Mom and Dad was that I never had any. I was created by scientists in a laboratory, especially for the G-Force project. That's pretty much out there but I don't remember any of that stuff.

The weirdest thing is when people ask if I'm some kind of robot, or a clone, or a cyborg. That's so off! I'm a human being. So, I was gestated a little differently to other people. I think, I feel, I am. And with an IQ that's off the scale and a body designed to perform at optimum levels, maybe Princess is right, and that people who know about my background are just a little jealous.

Yeah, I'm smart. I'm just not very good at letting people know it. It's like the real me is hiding behind a mask that my stutter creates.

Chief Anderson also says that I'll grow out of my stutter once I hit puberty. To be precise, he says I should grow out of my stutter once I hit puberty, and that if I don't, there are "other options." Since he won't tell me much more than that, I assume that the "other options" involve something risky like neurosurgery or a few months in a tank having my engrams re-written. Maybe I could get the gene techs to make sure I'll never go bald or gain weight while they're at it.!

I live with my foster-sister, Princess. She's way cool, except that she makes me do my homework and she has this really dumb crush on Mark. She goes all gooey at the very mention of his name. I tease her a little about it, but not much, because she gets upset. I want to grow up and be tall and lose my stutter, but sometimes, watching the two of them, I wonder if it's worth it. Princess is G-3, the Swan. She kicks ass. She's pretty, too, with long black hair and green eyes. If the falling in love and getting married when you grow up thing turns out to be mandatory, then I'd like to find someone just like Princess, only not quite so... you know, romantic and gooey, and so uptight about bugs. Maybe she'll be a marine biologist. That would be cool. We could raise seals.

Mark is my big brother, commander, Our Glorious Leader, the Eagle. Mark is also extremely cool (especially as far as Princess is concerned -- 'scuse me while I gag) and he has a great car. (Jason disagrees about that because as far as he's concerned, nothing measures up to the G-2.) Mark gets uptight about being the leader, some times. I can never figure him out. He's smart, he's good looking (the girls all swoon over him) and he's a great fighter and a pilot. Mark is also legally an orphan, except he still thinks maybe his Dad is alive somewhere. I don't know what's worse: never having had a parent, or having one who might or might not come back some day. Maybe I'm better off than Mark.

Jason. What can I say about Jason? Princess says that if I can't say something nice, I shouldn't say anything at all. Oh, screw it. Jason is second in command of G-Force, the Condor, G-2. Where the young girls go for Mark, the older ones sigh and drool when Jason goes by. Women! I'm not even going to waste my energy wondering why. Jason is an excellent fighter, and I'd love to find his car under the Christmas Tree one year with my name on it. Jason and Mark are really good friends most of the time, except sometimes Jason says something that seems okay to me, but it sends Mark off the deep end and they start fighting. Jason teases me about being short and about being a kid... as soon as I'm big enough to whip his ass, he'll be sorry.

Tiny is my best friend in the whole world. He's our pilot, G-5, the Owl. He's a big guy, and I guess you could call him fat if you were in a real crappy mood, but that would be mean. He's the strongest guy I've ever seen, and also one of the gentlest. Tiny doesn't squash bugs or go "Ugh!" when I find really neat cockroaches or big snails or anything, he just looks and asks about them and he always reminds me that I ought to put the bugs back because they have lives just like ours, only with more legs. Tiny is a most excellent way cool dude. We do stuff together, like going to movies, and the zoo, and getting ice-cream and soda and just hanging out. Tiny's only drawback is that he likes girls because he's older than me, so sometimes he wants to hang out with Alice instead of doing guy stuff. I guess that's okay. There's always PlayStation.

Chief Anderson is the closest thing I have to a Dad. He's real strict with all of us, like some old-time patriarch ruling with the proverbial rod of iron. He certainly isn't like the Dads on TV, sitting and hanging out and watching TV or drinking beer or taking us to baseball games. Princess says it's because he has a lot of responsibility.

So, I'm independent. Except for when Princess is chasing me to wash behind my ears or brush my teeth or do my homework or go to bed... well, mostly independent.

The down side is that being independent sometimes gets me into trouble.

Like now. I'm washing dishes at the Snack J, and I'm in the dog house with Princess.

The day started off okay. I woke up and had breakfast, then we headed to Center Neptune to hang out in the Ready Room when Zark called and told us we'd been placed on stand-by alert, so we weren't allowed far from home or from Headquarters. The Snack J isn't too far from the high-speed shuttle terminus, so I thought I'd treat Princess to lunch there. I was hoping to butter her up so she'd let me have one of Skippy Harrison's puppies -- Skippy has this really cool dog and she'd just had pups. He's offered me one and all I have to do is convince Princess that I can take care of it. Well, it's sure backfired. I forgot that I already spent the twenty I had in my wallet on a downpayment for a new game cartridge for the PlayStation, and Princess is flat broke because she'd just lent Jason a hundred bucks to help him out with a nitro job on a car he wanted to race that weekend.

Jill's being pretty good about it, she said we could have the lunch if we washed up. Princess is really embarrassed and kinda mad at me. I can't blame her. I feel really bad -- and there's no way in the world she's going to agree to let me have that puppy, now!

Princesss still in full voice, addressing her comments mostly to the sink, and me still apologising when I see Mark outside the diner through the corner of my eye. He pushes the door open slightly and gives me a hand signal that means "approach silently," so I check that Princess has her back to me (she's still grumbling into the dish rack) and sneak across. He's looking a little pale, and has another guy with him, a shifty-looking character. Furtive is the word that springs to mind, though I'm never going to be able to pronounce it clearly in time for it to matter.

"Why hush-hush?" I whisper, and he drops the bombshell.

"I'm going to Planet Riga," he announces.

Riga! Is my Commanding Officer out of his ever-lovin' mind? We're on alert for Chrissake and he wants to go to Riga! Whatever it is that's going through his mind, I suspect it doesn't have a whole lot to do with rational thought. For a second, I wonder if he's met some girl, and I figure if that's what it is, and he's going to break Princesss heart, then Commander or no, I'll wrap my bolas around his throat and then I'll geld him with his own Sonic Boomerang.

"Tom saw my father there," Mark explains, keeping his voice low. (Okay, so I was off base about the girl thing.) "I'm going to find him."

Man, that's heavy stuff. His father! But there's something about Tom... I remember Tom, now. He's the guy Zark was talking about this morning. Surely he's okay, if he was at Space Academy with Mark, so why do I get the feeling that if I turn my back on this dude, he might put a knife between my shoulder blades?

"Can he be trusted?" I ask, and get smacked lightly upside the head for my trouble. Maybe I'll wrap my bolas around his throat anyways.

"Easy, Keyop," Mark chides me. "That's no way to talk about my friend!"

A hundred thousand thoughts race through my head and I'm cursing my messed-up speech centre for making me so damned inarticulate. Things like, "insubordination," and "breach of trust," and "you're our Commander, how about setting an example?" hover on the tip of my tongue, but, as usual, by the time they leave my mouth, they come out only as a bunch of trills and burbles, and all I can spit out is, "Got to tell big Chief!"

Great, great. I'm engineered to be the perfect warrior and I can't even complete a sentence! Gaaaaack!

"No way," he says. "I'll be up and back before anyone knows."

I take a deep breath in order to point out that we happen to be on an alert and under orders to remain available, (only not in so many words) but he's out of here already, doing that vanishing act that always gets right up the Spectrans' noses, and Princess is calling to me, no doubt thinking that I'm goofing off.

But it's worse than that. My wristband is flashing an alert signal!

It's Zark, with orders from the Chief for us to report in to Base.

Shit. Wish I could say that out loud, but even if I could, Princess would box my ears, so maybe it's just as well. Shit, all the same, though.

I'm real mad at Mark: he's gone and put me right on the spot. On the one hand, he's my friend and my big brother and he trusts me -- ME -- enough to tell me where he's going. Me and nobody else. I can't betray that trust.

On the other hand, I'm G-Force, and my responsibility is to obey orders and always put The Greater Good before all else. Now Mark -- my commanding officer -- is in breach of those orders, putting us all at risk, and I can't betray that trust, either.

On the one hand, Mark has chosen me as his confidant. He trusts me. Not Jason, not Princess, not Tiny, but me.

On the other hand, why the hell does he have to lay this on me? Why not Jason, or Princess, or Tiny? Why me?

I've made up my mind.

When Mark gets back, I'm gonna wrap my bolas around his neck.



Tom

The long flight from Earth to Riga is never easy -- and this time it isn't in a tramp freighter, either, but something that looks just like the G-1 Sonic Jet, right down to the decals! It must be some new prototype that Mark's testing. Man, he must be doing okay -- it beats the hell out of your usual company car!

The surroundings don't smell as bad as the freighter, but I would gladly go back to my cramped little shelf on that dreadful hulk because this kite is a single-pilot fighter aircraft, and its normal passenger payload is none.

So Mark -- Mister Resourceful -- has me jammed in behind the seat, up against the goddamned armour plating.

And there we are, him crunched up with the seat in its full forward position and me squashed up behind. At least he has some leg room, unlike me: I'm curled in the foetal position trying not to think about the cramps tying knots in my calves and back.

I just bet he knows exactly how uncomfortable I am, and he's enjoying every minute of it.

We're preparing for warp: Mark by going through his checklist, and me by cringing and trying to brace myself for the jump. I hate warp jumps. I can't remember all the crud they tried to teach us at the Academy about the effects of jumping to warp on the human body. I only know I hate it.

And right now, I hate Mark for bringing me here.



Keyop

Everyone's looking at me.

And I can't help it: I squirm.

I glance up at the Chief and I see his expression change: at first he looks like a stunned mullet, then a rare flicker of pain crosses his face, quickly replaced by familiar and righteous anger.

"What?" he demands, recovering himself, and I wonder if anyone else noticed that fraction of a second's grief, but I don't have time for any more speculation than that. "Mark went to Planet Riga alone?"

"Yes," I stutter, "looking for father."

"He should have checked with me before going off," Anderson says, and there's something in his voice that bothers me.

I notice things like timbre and pitch and odd little wavers and catches. I suppose it's because my own voice is such a mess, and I'm so aware of what I sound like, that I unconsciously listen to what others sound like, too. Right now, the Chief wants to sound angry, but there's something else, there. Something's really bothering him, but I have no idea what it could be.

Did I do the right thing by ratting on Mark? Hell, I'd have to say yes. I did. The Chief's reaction makes that pretty clear. I just hope Mark understands. I hope he can forgive me. Only time will tell, but right now, I'm sure I did the right thing. I hope I'm not mistaken.

"A space shot alone could be dangerous," Princess says, directing her comments at me.

As though I could have stopped Mark. But her voice is full of concern, not anger.

"Can't we reach him by radio?" Jason wants to know.

"Tried," I manage to get out, "but signal jammed."

Yes, I tried. For the entire trip to Center Neptune, I tried. Called and called until Zark came on line and wanted to know was I having a problem? It's probably what tipped the Chief off.

The Chief is really pissed. "Jason's usually the impulsive one," he says, ignoring the fact that Jason's right here in the room, but Jason ignores him right back, "this time it's Mark. Well, I don't like it, but I have to send you on this mission without him."

I look past him to the viewscreen, where images of Riga are projected.

"And it happens," the Chief continues, "that Planet Riga is your objective."

"That's a mighty mean bird sticking its ugly beak outa there," Tiny comments on the shot of a missile warhead jutting out of a mountainside. I couldn't have put it better, myself.

"That," the Chief enlarges, "is the X-3 missile launching site that Spectra built on Riga without our knowledge or consent. Your mission: demolish it!"

Can do, I figure. It looks pretty much accessible, but then it hits me again, like a slap in the face: we're without Mark. Something cold and heavy materialises in the pit of my stomach.

"Exactly what is the X-3 plan?" Jason asks.

The Chief goes on to explain that the X-3 is designed to lower the Van Allen radiation belt and bring Earth to its knees.

I make some smart remark -- I can't remember exactly what I said. I can't get past the thought of what would happen if Spectra is successful. Our environment would be utterly devastated in ways I can only begin to imagine. Entire ecosystems would disappear: animals, plants -- things that have no part in this war. Innocent people, children, even Jill's potted flowers out the back of the 'J' would wither and die.

And there would be no place to hide, not on the whole planet.

A global eviction notice, courtesy of Zoltar. How do you like them apples?

"This is a tough mission," Jason says. "We'll just have to make it without Mark, which won't be easy."

"That's right," Princess agrees, "Without our commander, our team effort will be weakened."

Like, state the obvious, sis.

"This calls for action, not alibis," the Chief says. "Good luck, team."

We salute as one. Minus one.


I feel numb as we go through our pre-flights. It's an oddly disjointed process, without Mark. Jason and Princess are taking turns at Mark's checks and it feels really weird. I don't like this.

Finally, Tiny initiates the launch sequence and I stare ahead at the command seat where I ought to be able to see the top of Mark's helmet above the headrest, but all I can see is the console and the main viewscreen.

The water fills the docking bay and there's that odd little "descending elevator" tummy flutter as the grapples release and the Phoenix floats free for a split second before the thrusters kick in and we glide out into open water.


The jump to Time Warp is the thing most people hate about space travel.

Most people don't have a clue.

The discomfort experienced by travellers on most commercial liners and military transport vessels is nothing compared to what we go through aboard the Phoenix. We're the fastest ship in the Federation's fleet, and we hold the record for the fastest, longest Time Warps undertaken by ships with live -- let alone conscious -- crew.

It's something Tiny is proud of, since he has to retain enough presence of mind and focus while the rest of us just hang on and endure.

"Discomfort" they call it.

It's like being burned alive.

Oh, it's not as bad as the Fiery Phoenix effect, not by half, but it has its own particular charm.

The theory is simple enough -- they teach it in all basic six-dimensional physics classes.

They teach us in Biology that all humanoid races evolved planetside, where Newtonian Laws reign supreme and the equations are pretty much grade school stuff. We can be pretty much certain that when our species adapted to planetary conditions, our DNA wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to such egg-heads as Einstein, Rosen or Hawking, and as such, didn't make allowances for what we would encounter when we traversed the boundaries of normal space and hit things like Einstein-Rosen bridges, otherwise known colloquially as "Time Warp." So when we push through those boundaries and make the transition from one set of Laws to another, space, matter and time are twisted and warped and more than a little confused, and for that subjective eternity between normal space and hyperspace, reality gets turned on its ear.

We human beings are not neurophysiologically equipped to cope with this.

And as such, we interpret the incomprehensible input between realities as pain.

The Fiery Phoenix burns from the outside in.

Time Warp burns from the inside out.

The longer and faster the hop, the longer the subjective translation time, and the greater the algetic perception. Which means that when G-Force makes a high-speed long-distance run, it hurts like hell.

Once you're through and in hyperspace proper, you perceive the hyperspatial continuum the same way you perceive normal space, and the only pain involved is the headache you get from trying to work out the time skip. In theory, despite the fact that time appears to run normally in hyperspace, the temporal anomaly which gives "Time Warp" its name can result in your getting to your destination before you leave.

In theory.

Nobody, not even us, has ever managed it, and there's a school of thought that says if you did manage, it, the fact of your coexistence in two places in the one objective time in normal space would lead to total annihilation.

I don't know whether or not that's true, and I don't particularly care to find out.

The hop to Riga is long, but not a marathon, and the translation takes about forty five seconds.

I grit my teeth, despite the fact that I know it won't help, if anything, it'll make my jaw ache, so it's pointless, but I do it anyway.

Then Tiny firewalls the levers, the warp drive kicks in and the stars dissolve to liquid fire.



Tom

It took a good half hour for the aches and pains to subside, but I hide my anger and I lead Mark to our destination. He follows, like a lamb to the slaughter.

I pause, falter a moment.

Does that make me the Judas goat? Making him trust me and leading him to his doom?

What nonsense! All those warp jumps are affecting my brain. Mark isn't going to be hurt, he's a GalSec operative -- he has to be. I mean, how else did he get away with taking that prototype jet? Hell, if he's doing test work for G-Force, he must be close to them. That's probably why the Spooks want him so bad. He can handle himself, he always could. I'll get my payoff, and he'll make mincemeat out of these Spectrans. I'll make a quick getaway, so he'll never know I double-crossed him.

I collect myself, and continue. Mark, the great test pilot and class valedictorian, doesn't even notice my lapse. He's so focussed on himself and his own precious little issues. He doesn't even see me.

You know something? I don't think he ever really did.

I wouldn't mind if the Spooks got in a few punches before he took them out.


A Friend in Need by Grumpy Ghost Owl


DISCLAIMER
Battle of the Planets is the property of Sandy Frank Productions and Tatsunoko. No profit, commercial gain, monetary or otherwise, hire or reward is generated by the author of this work.




MASQUERADES
Part II of a Battle of the Planets fan fiction

Keyop

Riga looks a lot like Earth. Some folks think of it as our sister planet. They say it used to be a pretty wild place in the old days (before the Chief got to be an old fogey, which must have been a lo-o-o-ong time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...) but now it's pretty much settled into the kind of place where it's safe to walk the streets.

It ain't so safe to cruise in the upper atmosphere, though, because out of the cumulonimbus tops, there's a pretty ugly customer emerging, and it doesn't look like it's one of the locals.

Jason says we can do without Mark. (Jason is way pissed off over Mark pulling that vanishing act on us, and for once, I don't blame him. I'm pretty much pissed off, too.) I dunno, though. Mark did a pretty dumb thing, but it was about his father, and he goes all to pieces over his father. Whether it was a dumb thing or not, Mark is one of us, and we're always five, not four: five.

And he's not here.

I hear Tiny's sharp intake of breath as the Spectran mecha fills our viewscreen.

"That's gotta be Spectra's newest killer ship," he says.

And here's me thinking it's the Easter Bunny.

Maybe it's just as well that I have this stutter. I'd annoy the hell out of a lot more people than I do, now, if I could say half the stuff that popped into my head. I'd probably get my ears boxed, too.

Tiny takes the Phoenix around in an arc to avoid the huge rotating blades that threaten to turn us into Government-issue cold cuts, which pisses Jason off even more.

"Let's bring it to them!" he snarls.

Yeah, right. I'll bring the bread and we can get that sliced for free. Is he kidding?

Tiny turns around and tells Jason that it's up the pilot (namely Tiny) to decide. He'd never mouth off to Mark that way, but then, Mark doesn't usually try to tell Tiny how to fly this big bird, either.

Princess is being real helpful: she's wishing Mark were here.

I wish Mark were here, too. If only to stop the others arguing and get on with the job. If we can't get our act together, this mecha's going to nail us. We can't use our Bird Missiles because the G-1 isn't plugged in to complete the circuit. We're going to have to stand our ground and fight, but this mech is fast, so fast, we're barely holding our own If Tiny slips up even once, we could take a fatal blow and I'll never get a chance to strangle Mark for abandoning us this way.

Prin and I are scanning the mecha for weak spots, and Tiny's playing dodge ball with knives while Jason snarls and glares. This one time, Mark isn't here to stop him pressing The Big Red Button and the Big Red Button is out to lunch.

And the only prayer I can think of right now is, Now I lay me down to sleep...

Man, this sucks.



Tom

We stop outside the appointed address.

Mark seems nervous, which isn't like him at all. I quash the urge to confess everything, to stop it before it goes too far, but then I see a stranger up the street make eye contact with me and I daren't waver. They'll kill me if I give the game away.

Mark seems suddenly vulnerable, and fear runs icy fingers down my spine and clenches into a fist in my gut. What if he can't take them out? What if there are too many of them? What if...?

He's speaking, and I must focus.

"Is this where you saw my..." he takes a breath, tastes the word as he makes the unfamiliar sounds, "my father?"

We go inside. This is where I disappear and leave Mark to deal with the Spooks as best he can. He'll be okay. Heck, he's always been able to handle himself.

Will I say anything, or just walk away? Or should I run?

I step back, and the door slices closed, barely missing me. It's done. Mark is trapped. This is where I get off.

"You," growls a voice. "Come with me."

I turn and find myself staring down the barrel of a Spook assault rifle. The soldier holding it jerks his head in the direction he wants me to move, and, seeing I have little choice, I obey.

We walk down a flight of steps and I'm shown into a room. There's a monitor there, and the guard bids me sit, which I do.

The monitor is receiving feed from a closed circuit camera mounted at what looks to be ceiling level, providing a fly-on-the-wall view of a large room, and there, all smug and gloating, at stage centre, is the guy from the bar.

"Welcome, Earthling!" he sneers. "I'm Chief of the Secret Spectra Forces on Riga."

Enter stage left: Mark. Oh, lord, what now? Are they going to make me watch them kill him? They can't! This can't happen, it's not supposed to work out this way!

"Thanks," Mark says, "I could have guessed that, myself."

The Spook is smirking. I want Mark to wipe the smile right off his face. Then I remember that if he does, I won't get my money.

"I couldn't believe that one of our agents could capture the G-Force Commander so easily," the Spook chuckles.

My stomach feels like it's sinking through the floor. Mark is the G-Force Commander?

Of course! The plane... it wasn't a prototype, it was the real McCoy!

"You mean, Tom is a Spectra agent?"

I want to tell Mark it's not true, but even if he could hear me, what good would it do? The Spooks would kill me. I was only a tool, and now Mark thinks I've betrayed him. I'm no agent. I'm just a cat's paw. I'm a victim in all this! It's not my fault! But he'll get out of this! If Mark's really the Commander of G-Force, then he can do anything! I hear the goddamned Spook say something -- he's gloating, from the sounds of it, but all I can hear is Mark and the accusation he spits out, as though he knows I can hear, like a slap in the face:

"Tom, you traitor!"

But, I'm not a traitor. I haven't done anything. I haven't given them any secrets, handed over any plans. I haven't killed anyone, or hurt anyone. If anything, I've handed these Spectrans over to Mark. Why doesn't he just call G-Force in and wipe the floor with these guys? Why does he just stand there, looking so lost?

It's not my fault.



Keyop

The deck shudders as one of those awful blades barely touches one of the wing pods. It's a split-second's contact, a butterfly kiss, and the Phoenix bucks like a stung horse. From my console, I can see the tension in Tiny's neck and shoulders. Next to me, Princess mutters something under her breath and glares at the back of Jason's helmet as though she's willing him to turn into Mark or something.

"They're wiping us out!" I hear Jason say angrily.

"That salami slicer's got too much speed," Tiny grunts, putting us into another steep descending turn.

Princess gets to her feet, holding on to the console, and announces she's going to activate the bird missiles. I gape at her. She must have figured out some way of creating a controlled short in the system to bypass the input of Mark's Sonic Jet.

Jason remarks that she might have done it sooner and I brace myself in case she decides to brain him with her yo-yo, but she only snaps back at him, "I thought one of you geniuses would think of it and save us this embarrassment!"

That's genii, Sis, but nice parry.

I hang on to my console as her white wings brush by me and she disappears through the aft hatch. We roll, and my stomach lurches, a stab of fear for my sister like a cold knife in my solar plexus. I taste bile at the back of my throat, knowing that Princess is trying to negotiate the companionway and, eventually, the G-1's docking bay in this. I hope she isn't hurt.

The anger I feel at Mark is building. If Princess is injured trying to activate those missiles, I'll never forgive him. Not ever. Even if she forgives him, I won't.

Tiny takes us out of range again in a wide arc. He's trying to stay as straight and as level as he can to allow Princess time to make it aft. I crane my neck to peer at the weapons console, where Jason is fuming and fidgeting, like a vulture over a dead antelope. If I go near that red button, will he hiss and rattle his pinions and click his beak at me?

The panel I'm eyeing off suddenly flickers green. I hear Jason's exhalation of breath and I can imagine the feral grin on his face as he takes aim and lets fly the missile.

Jason's aim is true. The mecha takes a direct hit. I don't think I've ever been so glad to see a machine explode as I am to see that thing go up in smoke and flames. I know I'm supposed to feel bad about the crew, but all I can feel right now is relief.

The moment passes, and I worry about Princess again until she returns to the bridge, looking pleased with herself. Now that I don't have to worry about Princess, I can be angry at Mark again.



Zoltar

No-one is ever quite what they seem on the surface.

Everyone wears a mask to fool someone.

Not all masks are quite as easy to spot as the one I wear, but they are masks, nonetheless.

The Commander of G-Force wears a mask of invincibility under that blue-visored helmet, but even now, my Secret Forces on Riga are working on stripping that mask away. I would have liked to have been there on Planet Riga to welcome him, personally, unmask him and hurl that mask into the flames of my deception (such an elegantly wrought weapon, even if I do say so, myself) to see my enemy made small and weak; to wrest his power from him and make it my own. The press of duties, however, necessitated my presence elsewhere, so I was denied that particular pleasure.

Anderson wears a mask of arrogant defiance. He has sent G-Force to destroy my mecha, and refuses to discuss the terms of Earth's surrender, even when he knows -- and how could he not? -- that the X-3 plan will decimate his homeworld. I have studied this man, my true enemy, and I know that he must be afraid. He is desperate, so he will be dangerous, like a cornered animal. Animals, however, can be tamed. He fights me, now, but I will bring him to heel. It would have been better sooner than later, but he will feel the sting of the Spectran lash, and he will surrender. I think I will enjoy that most of all.

Cronus' mask is most like my own. The man is an enigma, even as I am. He's a crusader, that one, flying his banner and riding his white charger into battle, with me cast as The Black Knight. I feel a certain camaraderie with Cronus. He's a cold bastard, and the only time I ever got close to denting his armour was when I had his young son kidnapped. G-Force thwarted me again, that time, but Cronus never wavered, not once. I think I could have strangled the boy in front of him and he wouldn't have blinked. He has to have a wound, somewhere. He's a man, after all, and all men carry wounds. I suspect I'll open the scar when I launch the X-3. He's worked so many years to stop me, put in so much of himself... yes... that must be it. His work. I see it now in the way he distances himself from his family, the way he throws himself with such zeal into everything he does. Oh, yes, this will be a coup. It will be a fatal blow to you, Cronus, to see your life's work all gone for naught. But it won't be a coup de grace, I'll make sure you get to see it. I've issued instructions to make sure that you aren't killed trying to stop me. No, you'll get to savour your failure in full. I want you to feel every nuance, hear every note of the song of pain I'm going to play on your soul as the X-3 roars into the sky and takes your last chance with it. I want you to see hope die, and know in your bones that your whole life was nothing but a waste.

The X-3 is into its final launch sequence. G-Force, crippled and undermanned, is too far away -- my mecha served that much of a purpose at least -- to reach the launch site, even making best speed, and I have their Commander. They are crippled, weak... human. G-Force wear the masks of the bird spirits, swift and invincible, but they are a whole made up of component parts, each of which is required for the gestalt that makes them so dangerous. Without G-1, they cannot hope to defeat me. They are not yet unmasked, but the mask is slipping, and soon -- in two minutes, eighteen seconds, to be exact -- it won't matter any more.

Because the X-3 is counting down, and the Phoenix is two minutes and fifteen seconds away.

This time, they can't stop me.



Tom

The Spooks are as good as their word when it comes to the money, at least. The Chief Spook saunters into the room, hands over the amount we'd agreed on, and throws in another hundred for good measure. With this cash as my stake, I'll be able to get myself a ticket off-world on a half-way comfortable passenger ship. I could go to one of the newer colonies, maybe, and make a fresh start where nobody knew my name or my face, or most especially, my past.

My thoughts of a pleasant future are interrupted by the sound of gunfire. The Chief Spook draws his weapon and rushes back into the room where we left Mark. I can hear screaming, an explosion, a grenade, maybe, and I'm not hanging around to take notes! There's a dumbwaiter in this room, and I scramble into it and reach around and hit the button to take me up to street level. If I can get out of here, I'll be okay.

The little motor that drives the dumbwaiter is straining. These things were never designed to take the weight of a human adult. Just hang on. Don't burn out. Don't -- damn.

The motor stops and I can smell hot metal. The freakin' thing's fused on me. Just my luck.

It's claustrophobic in here, but there's a hatch in front of me that must lead into the ceiling cavity. This is obviously a commercial building, and that means there must be false ceilings, ducts and risers! If I can find the riser, I can get out using the service ladder!

I tug and pound at the hatch. Damned thing bruises my hands before it comes away. Stupid engineers, jamming it in so tight. I bark my knuckles on the concrete as I haul myself into the duct, and I struggle through the darkness, hearing voices in the office I left behind. Are they looking for me? Or are they conducting a general search? There's light filtering in through a service door that doesn't close properly. It's dim, but it's enough. I can see the service ladder ahead of me in the riser, and I latch on to it with hands and feet and climb to safety. The door opens out into an empty corridor. I can no longer hear the sounds of distant gunfire. The riser wasn't soundproof, so the battle must be over. For an instant, I hope Mark is okay, but I have other things to worry about, right now. Like getting the hell out of here and off this godforsaken planet.

I brush the dust off my clothes and stroll easily to the fire exit. Just a few more steps, and I'll be safely away.

Fire escape. Endless steps going up to the roof. Half a flight down to the door with the big EXIT sign on it. I turn the handle, and the latch clicks free. I push the door open, and peer out.

The coast is clear.

I'm safe.

I step through the doorway and into the alley. Safe. I reach into my jacket and check that I didn't lose any of the cash while I was scrambling around in the ducting. Better count it. Oh, yeah. Enough for a ticket to freedom.

A hand blocks my path and I freeze.

Oh, no, not a mugging. Not after all this.

The hand is attached to an arm.

The arm is covered in a sleeve. A white sleeve, part of a white suit, worn by a man wearing dark glasses. He doesn't look like a mugger. He looks far more dangerous than that... he looks like... No, he can't be...

"Going somewhere, Tom?" the man asks me. He speaks softly, as if he were asking directions to the nearest bus stop, and that very geniality freezes my blood. It's as if he expected to find me here. Oh, dear God.

I open my mouth to speak, and he grabs my jacket, swinging me around and lifting me clear off my feet.

"I think you have some unfinished business inside," he snarls, and I'm sunk.

Maybe if I can explain, he'll let me off, but he doesn't give me a chance to speak, just frogmarches me back inside the building. We take the stairs down to basement level. I still have the money clutched in one hand, too scared to do anything other than obey my captor. I stumble, nearly falling on top of a dead soldier in bloodied green drab. With an angry gesture, the stranger snatches the notes out of my grasp even as he hauls me back to my feet and continues to propels me down the stairs.

"Was this your thirty pieces of silver, scum?" he growls at me, and hurls the money from him as though it were contaminated with something vile beyond belief.

I watch as my one chance at a future flutters down onto the bloodied concrete steps like so many dying green butterflies.

We reach the basement door, which he flings open, nearly hitting me with it in the process, and he shoves me roughly ahead of him.

And I'm looking at Mark, who stands there, his face flushed with... anger? Fear? Pain?

"Here is the man who betrayed you," Cronus says. "Do as you like with him."

It's like a death sentence. Mark is the Commander of G-Force. He could kill me as easily as thinking about it, but he's also Mark. He's my friend. Surely, he won't hurt me.

He speaks, and his words rain down on me like blows:

"I trusted you because you were my friend. But you lied to me about my father and that's the lowest! And when you pretended to be injured, that was just another cheap trick. I was suspicious, but I made myself believe you for old times' sake. You betrayed that faith!"

I flinch and try to retreat, coming up against the wall. He'll tear me limb from limb. As I cringe, he stands perfectly still, his head down, his hands thrust deep into his pockets.

"Mark," I plead, "you've got to understand: I was trapped and I was scared. They threatened to kill me unless I followed their orders. Mark, please, try to understand. Please forgive me! I know I did the wrong thing but I was scared! Go easy on me. Please. I'll do anything!"

"You haven't changed a bit," Mark says, and his voice drips contempt. Now his true feelings come through. "When we were at the Space Academy, you always came crying to me for help. Well, I'm through helping you!"

He walks away. Could it be he feels sorry for me? If he does, maybe he'll help me get home, away from here.

"Wait!" I call.

"Traitor!" he spits back at me. "You played the role, now live with it!"

He leaves me, shivering and alone, besmirched with the blood of the dead Spectrans, in an empty room that reeks of death. He's gone, now, the one person who was always there for me. But what else was I to have done? Something, says a nagging little voice in my head. Anything. Anything but this.

Tears rise in my eyes, hot and stinging. There's an empty, heavy place in my stomach. What am I to do, now? I have no money, no friends. the Spooks are dead and while Mark may have let me go, I don't think the Red Rangers are inclined to be forgiving. They'll have me arrested and thrown into prison.

I have nowhere to go and no-one to turn to.

They'll be coming for me.

I have to get out of here. I have to get away.

I stagger to my feet and walk through the door, half expecting to see G-Force or more of the Red Rangers, but the building is deserted.

Something moves in the corner of my eye, and I jump: it's my shadow, and it's following me. I start to run, my footsteps echoing loudly on the asphalt, my breath rasping in my throat, blood roaring in my ears. Here is the man who betrayed you.

I run, not caring where I'm going. Traitor!

I run, fleeing something I can't see. You lied to me.

I run.

Now I'm in the main street, and people jostle me and shove at me as I bump into them, unseeing. Traitor.

I run. I get turned around and knocked as I run without knowing where I'm headed. You haven't changed.

I have to get away. I'm through helping you!

My vision blurs, my eyes burning. You betrayed that faith!

My foot catches on something and I stumble. I get up and stagger into an alleyway. It's a dead end.

There's a sound behind me.

I turn.

"Mark?"

It's not Mark, but a woman, wearing a mask and holding a red rose. The flower is the colour of fresh blood.

"Catch!" she says, and laughing, she tosses the rose at me.



Keyop

Tiny guides the Phoenix to splash down in the bay and we all crowd onto the lift, which carried us up to the dome. The missile is still on its gantry, but I can hear the external dynamos winding up -- they've started the ignition sequence!

We leap as one from the dome, and sprint towards the missile, knowing only that we have to stop the thing.

I feel my cerebonics kicking in, making it suddenly easier to breathe, my legs pumping effortlessly as the augmentation feeds my muscles within the armoured birdstyle.

A great roar fills the air and I realise that we're too late.

In horror, I stare as the X-3 engines erupt with dragon's fire and I turn, instinctively ducking away from the great wave of heat and power that rolls over us. Sweat breaks out on my skin beneath the birdstyle. Thank heaven the uniform is heat-resistant or we could have been toast. Choking fumes fill the air and the missile streaks into the sky, heading for Earth. Rigan defence won't be able to stop it. Earth fighter squadrons won't be able to stop it. Our planetary defence array won't be able to stop it.

We failed.

All we can do sprint back to the Phoenix and let the Chief know we blew it.

Princess has the unenviable task of raising Zark and getting patched through.

"If only we'd arrived a minute earlier," Jason says.

Amen to that.

"Sorry, Chief," Princess says miserably, "we got here just a little late to stop the launching."

"We spent too much time fighting the killer ship," Jason explains.

"And we missed Mark," Tiny adds.

This is enough to spark Jason's anger.

"Forget Mark!" he snaps. "He sure did his best to forget us!"

The Chief takes a breath and his voice is heavy with sadness.

"Don't blame Mark," he says. "I'm to blame for everything that happened here." I look up in surprise. The Chief is blaming himself for Mark running off and leaving us? "This began many years ago. We knew then about the X-3 plan, and I needed someone to steal or destroy it. It was a dangerous assignment and I chose one of our best test-pilots to sneak into Riga. It was perilous espionage against a vicious organisation and he worried about the safety of his family. He left his four-year-old son to me. He also pretended to be missing in a plane accident, changed his name and went to Riga with two other Red Rangers. That man is Colonel Cronus: Mark's father."

Cronus!

Cronus is Mark's father!?

Aw, man. Of all the people to pick. Cronus!

And he'd been right under our noses for just about always (well, as far back as I can remember, anyway.) All that time, and he never said a word to Mark. What a complete and utter bastard! I hear Princess voicing my thoughts:

"All this time," she says softly, "Mark never knew that Colonel Cronus was his father."

"It was wrong of me," the Chief says. "I should have told him years ago, but Cronus didn't want me to."

"Mark," Princess whimpers, and I don't know whether to hug her or slap her.



Zoltar

From the monitors I watched as G-Force -- minus their Commander, who was unavoidably, shall we say, detained -- rushed towards the X-3 missile in a futile attempt at stopping it. Such a pity they didn't get there a few seconds sooner: they might have been close enough to the exhaust ports for the missile to barbecue them to a nice turn.

As it is, the looks on their faces as they watched the missile ascend was priceless. Such helpless, unchannelled rage. I'm going to have the videotape saved for my personal library.

It almost made up for what happened in the City.

The accursed Red Rangers broke into our base and killed allbut one of my men. A good part of my intelligence network is in disarray and is having to re-group. We've lost a lot in the way of personnel and resources, but if this is the price I must pay for the success of the X-3 plan, then so be it. The losses are affordable. Regrettable, but affordable.

My other regret is that the G-Force Commander was freed by Cronus and his men. Not that it did them a lot of good. I still managed to get the X-3 away, despite their efforts.

The Red Rangers allowed our pet traitor to live. He must have betrayed us to them. This being the case, I couldn't allow him to survive. Unfortunately, the Galaxy Girl assigned to watch over the project was unable to retrieve the files from the intelligence cell's computers, but my Chief of Secret Forces survived the carnage. All is not lost. I'd like to know the G-Force Commander's identity, just to satisfy my own curiosity, but there's no hurry, now, not with my X-3 missile safely away. Once Earth surrenders, G-Force simply won't be an issue.

The X-3 is unstoppable: its defences include a laser array which will prevent counter-strikes, and it is programmed to make its jump to warp as soon as it pulls clear of Riga's gravity, which should play merry hell with the Rigan space-traffic-control systems. The X-3 will re-enter normal space just inside the lunar orbital trajectory but well away from the actual Moon, eclipsing the Sun and powering into Earth's atmosphere before exploding and lowering the Van Allen radiation belt.

Security Chief Anderson will be political mincemeat, and President Kane will have no choice but to capitulate.

It's so terribly gratifying, when a plan comes together.



Quo Vadis? by Grumpy Ghost Owl


DISCLAIMER
Battle of the Planets is the property of Sandy Frank Productions and Tatsunoko. No profit, commercial gain, monetary or otherwise, hire or reward is generated by the author of this work.




MASQUERADES
Part III of a Battle of the Planets fan fiction


Zoltar

The Luminous One is most pleased with my work. And rightly. It is, after all, a brilliant plan.

It has been almost a full day since the X-3 burst in a flower of destruction in Earth's upper atmosphere. The Van Allen radiation belt has lowered as predicted by my scientists (woe to them had they been wrong!) and the Terrans are already seeing the effects.

The Earth's weather was the first to be disrupted: electrical storms, tornadoes, freak tides, even the first signs of polar ice melt! The skies are aflame and the people are panicking -- weaklings! This is but a small taste of what Spectra endured when the supernova hit us six hundred years ago. We survived. We are strong, and we had the Luminous One to show us the way.

You, on the other hand, poor, weak, soft Earthlings. You have only Me to turn to.

And soon it will be time to make it official.



Keyop

I hardly noticed the jump back to Earth. I couldn't feel anything much, just a slow, creeping numbness, really. I'm not mad at Mark, any more. I just want him to come back and find Colonel Cronus and then we can all go after Zoltar together and try to put things right again. I have absolutely no idea how we'll manage it, but the Chief will think of something. He always does.

Princess is a mess. She wants Mark home even more than I do. I know I tease her about having a crush on him, but I've never seen her like this, before. We've been to hell and back, Princess and me, but this time I'm really worried about her. Is this what love is supposed to be like, when you grow up? If it is, I hope I never fall in love with anyone. Ever.

We're in the briefing room, and I look out at the sea. It's calm, down here, but the colour is all wrong. The sky looks funny, topside and the fish are all agitated. They can't see the sky, but they must be able to feel something.

Was this what it was like when Noah had to build the Ark? When his whole world was going to go down the toilet and he had to gather all the animals, two by two and hope like crazy they'd all survive for forty days and forty nights?

Only, there's going to be no dove returning with an olive branch, this time. This time, there's no going back. Zoltar has condemned our world to die.

All because we were half a minute too late.

The Chief isn't even blaming us.

Somehow, that makes it even worse.

"Looks... awful," I hear myself warble.

"We'll think of something," Princess assures me, but she doesn't sound all that convinced.

That's my big sister. She's all wound up over Mark and she still finds the time to try and comfort me.

I turn at the sound of the door opening and see the Chief enter the room, wielding a tape, which turns out to be a message from Spectra. The Chief says we'll recognise the voice.

And we do:

"Good morning, Chief Anderson, and my friends in G-Force."

"The Purple Party-Pooper," Tiny observes.

"Some friend," I spit, seething.

"By now," the tape continues, "you are aware of the power we have unleashed. Within six months, the Earth will become completely contaminated. You have one choice: surrender, or be destroyed!" That's two choices, shit head. I can see Jason's thinking much the same thing as he clenches one fist and glares at the tape player. If looks could kill, that machine would be molten, by now. "We can still stop the X-3 Plan here," the Purple Peril continues, "and replace the Van Allen belt, but I warn you: you must act in twenty four hours, or be destroyed."

At this, Jason slams the balled-up fist into the palm of his (other) open hand.

"He's so cocky!" he snarls.

"There must be something we can do to stop him," Princess says, almost pleading.

"There might be," the Chief says, "if we only had time."

"He said he could replace the Van Allen belt," Tiny chimes in, suddenly hopeful, "but how?"

"He would use a missile," the Chief explained, fiddling with the projector. "This is a map of the Earth, showing the Van Allen radiation belt. Theoretically, it is possible to blow up the band by causing a huge explosive wind. To perform this feat, you would need a missile of awesome strength."

Of course! The lightbulb snaps on in my head. If Zoltar can replace the Van Allen belt, then so can we! It would take a missile even bigger than the X-3, because the X-3 worked from the outside in, from what was, to all intents and purposes, pretty close to being a vacuum, but any counter-measure would have to factor in the Earth's atmosphere in its present, fiery and turbulent state. I take a deep breath to try and speak.

"And we," Tiny concludes, slumping, "don't have one."

Technically, no, but I know someone who has!

"Spectra!" I chirp, inwardly cursing my stutter yet again, "does have one!"

Jason grins, and it's not a nice smile.

"In that case, why don't we use theirs?" he postulates. Exactly.

"Good thinking!" Princess declares, with a snap of her fingers. "We'll infiltrate the Spectra base at Riga!"

"Snitch... their missile!" I add, and it's as though the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders.

We can save the day -- all we have to do is give Zoltar a bloody nose (nothing we haven't done before) and swipe his pet birdie.

Without Mark. Again. I sure hope the others can keep it together. The last thing we need is for the team to fall apart under pressure.

"A manoeuvre like that will call for all your skill and daring," the Chief says. "I wish you good luck."

We salute and race for the door. Back to it!

Halfway to the elevator, I skid to halt as I hear the Chief call to Princess. She pauses -- I can just see her in the doorway.

"Yes?" I hear her say.

"With Mark still missing," the Chief's voice is low and I have to strain to pick up what he's saying -- I know, eavesdroppers never hear anything nice about themselves, but knowledge is power, so there -- "Jason is technically in command of G-Force. Help him out."

"Sure, Chief," Princess says, and she turns to head back down the corridor, so I skedaddle.

Man, we have to do what Jason tells us to! He's gonna love that! Still, Jason tries to act like a tough guy, but he always does the right thing by the team. It's the team that has to come first, so I'll do what he says.

Until Mark gets back.

How are we ever going to face Mark, knowing what we do about Cronus being his father?

But there's no time to worry about that, now. It's time to board the Phoenix and make the run to Riga. And this time, we won't be late.



Zoltar

I arrived on Riga slightly frayed around the edges thanks to the high-displacement factor of the time warp required to meet my schedule, which left me with a pounding headache, as it always does. It will pass, shortly, and in the meantime, the Base Commander would do well to have a glowing progress report ready for me. I hold out little hope, however, that this may be the case. For all that he's a highly qualified engineer and well skilled at the covert management of large installations, his deadline-meeting abilities leave much to be desired.

I take comfort in the sure knowledge that my headache isn't nearly as bad as the one I have bestowed upon my counterpart, Security Chief Anderson, back on Earth. As is to be expected, I haven't yet heard from Earth's government, or any representative of the Federation, as yet, oh, apart from the Catholic Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury urging me to reconsider and promising that they'll pray for me.

How touching.

Not that their prayers will be of any help to them, now.

No, the Terrans will be arguing amongst themselves as they always do, and my nemesis, Anderson, will be right there in the middle of it all. I must see if the Communications people have managed to intercept any of the video feed from the Federation Council Chamber. It pays to keep an eye on one's foes, after all.

My Chief of Rigan Intelligence meets me, looking none the worse for his narrow escape from the Red Rangers. Somehow, this manages to irritate me. The man has just lost over seventy percent of our central city intelligence cell -- including all the files, in toto -- and he hasn't even torn his clothing! This one may well bear watching.

"I'm concerned," he says, "that Anderson hasn't given us any indication of surrendering."

"Don't worry," I tell him. "When the pressure gets strong enough, he will submit. They all will."

We enter the elevator and descend through to the missile launching area, and I stride out onto the gantry. My headache eases off as I breathe in the sharp smell of the sea. The hangar, built into the side of a cliff and making economical use of natural limestone caves, opens out onto a calm and deserted bay. A perfect location, and one which we managed to conceal very well, right under the noses of Cronus and his impertinent Red Rangers.

There is a danger, now, that my Intelligence Chief's flight from our central city cell to the main bayside installation may have been tracked, leading the Rigans to us, but even so, it's a calculated risk, and with the X-3 plan already succeeding, it is a risk I am prepared to countenance.

If he was tracked, then as soon as I get the information on the G-Force Commander's identity out of him, he is a dead man.

The acrid taint of hot metal mingles with the ocean air, the odour rising up from the missile's skin, which appears far too incomplete for my liking.

I turn away from the glare of the welding torches, my gaze sweeping the gantry and coming to rest upon the dark-clad form of the Base Commander, who stands overlooking the missile, consulting a set of plans with the air of a man who wishes to be seen consulting plans. Knowing what the answer is likely to be, I ask him for a progress report.

"We need more time, Sire," he says, saluting.

"We are already behind schedule!" I point out. "Have it ready tonight!"

"Impossible, Sire," he cavils. "It will take at least two days for scientists to install the computer brain. Without the computer brain, the missile is useless."

My headache is back. With a vengeance.

"Do not tell me what is useless!" I snap. "Just do what I ask without any more delay!"

"For you, Sire, we shall achieve the impossible!" he declares.

"I want the Doomsday missile ready for launching and I want it now!" I tell him. "Do it!" I step on to the transport platform and allow it to carry me away from the capering fool who dares call himself a Spectran Commander.

The missile below me is in the final stages of construction. That imbecile of a Base Commander was supposed to have it ready at the same time as the X-3. Even so, we have some leeway. I have twenty hours or so in which I can launch the inappropriately named Doomsday missile and replace Earth's Van Allen radiation belt.

After all, I would like to be able to take a useable, viable Earth for Spectra, rather than a ruined husk of a planet.

And if it has to be a ruined husk, then so be it. There is a certain poetic elegance to the idea.

The inspection tour over, I retire to the Communications Centre. Our intelligence people have regrouped here for the time being, and they are a refreshingly competent lot, unlike that idiot Commander. The Communications Officer is patching us into the feed from the Federation Council room and other screens are picking up news stations from Earth and Riga as well as our own spy installations.

It appears that Earth is not doing terribly well at all.

The technician displays the feed from the Council Chamber on the main screen. President Kane is rather upset over the violent electrical storms that are setting Earth's skies on fire. Have you ever had to deal with a supernova, Mr President? Ah, look at these journalists, such co-operative people, urging peace at any price. Someone give that man a Pulitzer prize. I like him! What? He's one of ours? Put him down for a medal.

It is perfect. Such lovely, lovely chaos. These soft, whimpering Earthlings don't even seem to realise that they are playing right into my hands! They are so easily led. Look at them clamouring and mewling and demanding that their Government surrender to me. Do listen, Mr President. Honourable Members of the Council, listen. Oh, listen, do.

And now we have audio as well as video input from the Council. I call for silence. Let us hear what the President has to say.

"The photos behind me tell the story," Kane is saying. "As you can see, the flames are spreading. The time has come to stop talking. We must reach a decision: shall we let the Earth die or surrender to Spectra?"

Surrender to Spectra! Surrender to Spectra! Come now, Mr President, just three little words. You can say them. Surr-en-der to Spe--

"Sir, we are not yet compelled to make a final decision. We still have a few hours."

Anderson! An involuntary hiss escapes me as the rage uncoils in my belly. It would have to be Anderson! Oh, you thorn in my side, you albatross around my neck, you ever present bane. He stands there, seemingly towering over the other Council Members, commanding their attention... just the way I would do. I hate that man.

But wait, they're not agreeing with him.

"What difference does that make?" one of the delegates asks. "What can we do with a few hours?"

Ah. Sensible, sensible man.br>
"I agree," says another. "To wait is to invite a disaster that is even worse than this one."

"We must save the Earth at any cost, even if it means surrendering to Spectra!"

So, Anderson, you do not have them under your control, do you? They will shout you down and Earth will be mine! What? What are you doing? He-- he's locking the doors! What manner of performance is this?

"Sire, we're losing the feed," says the Communications Officer.

"Why?" I demand.

"Anderson's people are locking down the chamber, Sire" he explains. "That must include a media blackout. The feed we're tapping in to is being shut down."

I express my displeasure in a snarl of dismay.

"Let me know as soon as you can get anything," I charge him, and he bows his head in assent.

Anderson! You and your litter of verminous little birds. Still. What can you do but buy me time? I am the one with all the options. You can argue and plead and shout and make all the grand gestures you like. I am Earth's only hope, now. The other Council Members can see that. It is only a matter of time.

And time is an issue, right now.

I shall tour the rest of the base and see if I can inspire the soldiers to work harder. I am going to need that missile when the surrender comes through.



Keyop

The atmosphere aboard the Phoenix is different, this time out. We're not quite so lost, not quite so... uncertain. We have a mission, and we know we can handle it. Mark's still not here, so it still feels kind of weird, without him, but Jason's more confident, and he and Tiny have quit sniping at each other.

Princess is still tense, though. I'm still worried about her.

And about Mark.

Spectra must only have had one mecha to throw at us, because this time, they're sending remote controlled jet fighters. Jason sees them coming in at eleven o'clock and grins. The boffins back at Center Neptune rigged the Phoenix so we can fire our missiles without the G-1, and Jason now has all our firepower, right there at his fingertips.

Wish he'd let me take a turn at the gunnery station.

"Hold on to your hat," Tiny smirks, "I'll just give those pilotless jets a flying lesson!"

The Spectrans are firing at us, but Tiny's taking evasive action and this time, Jason isn't telling him what to do.

"It's our turn," Jason declares, savouring the moment. Now he gets to shoot stuff. He's loving it, and I'm jealous.

And our wristbands start to flash.

Jason abandons the Big Red Button and glances back towards me and Princess.

The look on Princess' face speaks volumes.

"It's Mark," she says. "He's close by."

"If we don't lose those bogies," Jason points out with a touch of acerbity, "we'll be down there with him."

In response, Tiny puts us into a vertical climb that brings us straight upstairs and sends those drones scattering -- My scope shows two of them having a mid-air collision, and the operators must have lost the plot, because the others can't avoid the flying debris quickly enough to avoid destruction.

Jason must be peed off. He didn't get to shoot anything, this time.

I'm very careful not to smile.

"Mark has transmitted his location," Princess announces, locking on to his signal. "Let's just hope that we can find our Commander before Spectra launches another attack."

"Tiny, keep tracking the signal that Mark is sending out," Jason orders.

"Big ten, Jason," Tiny agrees.

We ride Mark's beam towards the city, homing in on a large building near the bay. Princess voices all our thoughts:

"I hope Mark is okay. We sure need his leadership now."



Zoltar

The men are exhausted, but they have done well. The missile is all but ready to launch. It waits only on those foolish technicians who managed to damage the computer guidance module to finish up the repairs on the "brain" of the missile and install it.

I walk among the men, offering words of encouragement and congratulations. I will have to deal with their Commander, of course, but the troops have put in a sterling effort.

One of them, however, doesn't seem quite as exhausted as the rest.

Indeed, he seems to be either playing some kind of computer game, or sending some kind of signal. A spy! One of Cronus' people, no doubt. Oh, I will rend you limb from limb, little man.

"What have we here?" I ask him. He glances up at me, and if he has any intelligence at all, he realises that his life expectancy is now measured in hours, if not minutes. "Do you have a permit for that radio?" I enquire, enjoying myself, "or is it your hobby?" The upper part of his face is concealed by a standard-issue mask, and my memory sparks, but doesn't connect, and my fingers twitch, instinctively heading for my sidearm. "There's something strangely familiar about you. Something I do not like."

I start to draw the gun and he -- vanishes!

The uniform crumples, settling in soft folds on the floor.

It is a trick that I do well, and there is only one other person I know of who can carry it off.

I look up, and my breath catches.

It is the G-Force Commander! He stands perched on a girder, laughing, defiant, arrogant -- and soon to be the late G-Force Commander!

"G-Force!" I roar at him. "How did you get in here?"

"This time you've gone too far, Zoltar," he crows. "In your hunger for power you launched the X-3 plan. The Earth is facing extinction. You believe we'll give up, but you're wrong. We will never surrender to Spectra!"

I release the safety catch. At this range, he's dead meat.



Keyop

It looks like we might not have to worry about finding the Spectra base after we find Mark -- it seems he's gone and found it for us! Either that, or he's vacationing at the same resort as the Happiness Boys.

"Mark is directly beneath us!" Princess announces, and my scope agrees with her.

"Okay, Tiny," Jason says, "make like a teddy bear and squeeze us through that opening between the buildings."

I hold on to my seat. The display from my console shows incoming fire from the tanks below, and we all hang on as Tiny rolls us neatly around the Phoenix's longitudinal axis, keeping us straight and level with rudder and power as we slide in between the structures. There's a muffled rumble and the cabin vibrates as something explodes beneath us, then we're rolling back to port and back on target. I wish I could fly like that.

"Steady..." Princess says.

"Dead ahead," I affirm.

"Go down about 5 degrees," Jason tells Tiny, who complies

I don't believe it. Mark's in some kind of palace! It's like some fancy country estate, complete with lawns and columns and the whole nine yards! Well, I hope they're insured.

"Let's crash the party, " I suggest.

Jason agrees, "Kick in the electron blast turbos."

We take out the gate and then --



Zoltar

-- The wall explodes and the floor leaps up and tosses me aside like an insect! Flying through the air, I abandon my gun and clutch at a ledge, my fingers scrabbling at the stone wall. My fingers find a pipe -- oh, the irony, it's a sewage pipe (thankfully not in active use) -- but my grip holds, and I see the depressingly predictable cause of the interruption: an all too familiar red and blue prow attached to an all too familiar red and blue ship.

G-Force!

Curse them!

They are an immediate threat to me, now, but all is not lost. If they destroy this missile and its base, they're signing Earth's death-warrant, and Spectra's propaganda machine will make sure everyone knows exactly what happened! My hold on the pipe secure, I take my bearings.

Yes, there they are, those despicable whelps, atop their accursed warship.

"So!" I shout, "you think you have me! You will soon find out differently!" The transport platform is still intact, and I make the leap across to safety. "I will be free, but you will not be! And the X-3 Plan will go forward as decreed! Farewell!"

The transport platform, still operational (thanks be to the Great Spirit and to the Engineering Staff!) whisks me away, leaving G-Force looking stunned and furious.

They hate it when I do that.



Keyop

Yes! He's here! Mark's here!

And so are the Red Rangers. Does that mean Mark knows the truth?

It could do. He's with Cronus, over by the steps that lead up to the missile's access hatch.

"There is still work to do," Cronus declares.

"Wait," Mark tells him. "We have much to talk about."

I guess that's a maybe.

"In this crisis," Cronus points out, "there is no time to talk."

"I'm grateful to you for saving my life," Mark says, his voice sharpening, "but I am in command, here."

Nope. That's a definite nope.

"Is that so?" Cronus says, as cocky and sarcastic as ever.

Man, if I found out that dude was my father, I'd ask Zoltar to adopt me.

"Yes!" Mark snarls, losing his cool. He grabs Cronus by the lapels of his jacket and almost hauls him off his shiny black-booted feet. "I am the Commander of rank and you will follow my orders!"

Then he becomes aware of the rest of us as we draw near. He looks like he's about to strike Cronus, and Princess can't bear it a moment longer:

"Mark, don't do it!" she cries out. "That man is your father!"

I can see the bottom falling out of Mark's world at this moment. His face has gone as pale as death, and I see him struggling to find words.

"Cronus?" he rasps. "My father?"

And Cronus finally takes off that mirrored visor he always wears, that mask that hides him from the rest of the world, and he's just a guy behind it. Just an ordinary, middle-aged guy.

Princess has tears in her eyes and she speaks again, addressing herself to Mark:

"Chief Anderson told us everything -- how he was sent on a special mission when you were only a child."

The two men stand there, one in red, one in white. Strangers. Father and son. It tugs at something inside me, something I don't recognise or understand. This is what it is to be family. Even if your family is a card carrying member of the Bastard Society.

"I thought... " Mark says, voice cracking, "you were only a good friend."

And Cronus says the words that make my own throat come up in a lump:

"My son."

Damn. I go from feeling a little rocky to having tears well up in my eyes. Maybe it's as well that the others are used to me not being able to express myself because right now I don't even know what I'm feeling, let alone how to articulate it.

Mark isn't an orphan any more.

He has a father.

And it doesn't really matter that the guy's an asshole, not right now, anyway. Mark has his father back.

"We... worked together," Mark almost whispers, "so many times. Why?"

"I wanted to tell you so often," Cronus replies, "but my work kept me silent and away from you. How I hoped for this reunion. " He touches his son's face, as he must have done all those years ago, then he collects himself. "But it's going to be brief," he says.

I can scarcely believe what I'm seeing when Cronus picks Mark up bodily, spins him, and hurls him bodily across the chamber. The others are frozen with horror, even Jason, who I half expect to explode into action and beat the living shit out of Cronus.

"Fourteen years ago," Cronus announces, "I was given this task, and neither you nor anyone else can stop me. I have to destroy the X-3 plan."

The he sprints up the short flight of steps to the missile access hatch, and I realise what he must be going to do. This missile, according to the Intel reports, was under construction at least until yesterday. That must mean that it isn't complete to the point that it can run on automatic pilot.

It means someone has to fly it to Earth... and blow it up.

Cronus is on a suicide mission.

And I don't know what to do. All I can do is stand here helplessly and watch. My mind races for answers. It doesn't come up with any.

"Father!" Mark calls.

Cronus pauses at the hatch.

"Don't go!" Mark begs. "Take me with you!"

God, no. Dear Lord, don't let him do it.

"Goodbye!" Cronus calls, and climbs into the missile. He's going to pilot the damned thing back to Earth and set it off. That was what he meant.

"Don't go!"

Mark is reduced to tears, now, and his father, oblivious -- maybe it does matter after all, if your old man is an asshole -- is guiding the missile out of the bay and into open water.

I don't know what to say to Mark. I feel... strange. Mark is always the one in control, always the one who knows what to do. He's my big brother, and suddenly he seems so small and weak. I'm only a kid. I'm not supposed to be able to deal with this stuff, I'm not supposed to have an IQ of 200 and I'm not supposed to understand what's happening, here.

My family is all around me, all the family I have, and yet I feel small and alone and abandoned.

Why is that?

Mark's back with us. He's here, and yet he's not here, and I'm not alone.

But I am alone.

And so is he. We're all clustered around him, but he's more alone now than I've ever been in my life.

And right now, I'm glad I got to choose my family, and that they chose me, because I never want to feel the pain I see written on my big brother's face.

Not ever.

The missile bursts out of the water and heads skywards.

There's an explosion of light as the first stage separates, then it goes ex-atmospheric and we can't see it any more. It will make the jump to warp and be in Earth's atmosphere in minutes, using a time-warp factor that Cronus will be lucky to survive, assuming he can programme the missile to do its job correctly and assuming the cabin is spaceworthy and he isn't dead already from oxygen deprivation.

We take Mark back aboard the Phoenix. His eyes are glazed, his face pale and drawn as though he were ill, and Tiny fires up the engines and takes us upstairs.

Apart from the obligatory checks, we're silent, wrapped about in solitary blankets of grief until Jason struggles to find words.

"I couldn't feel worse," he stammers, "if I'd lost... my own father, Mark."

And Mark raises his head, a glimmer of fire sparking behind his eyes.

"He sacrificed himself to stop a madman on the loose," he says through clenched teeth. "I will not rest until that madman is apprehended and brought to justice."



Zoltar

So, it seems I was closer to the mark than even I had thought possible. Cronus. Cronus was the G-Force Commander's father! No wonder he was so quick to pounce as soon as he got wind of my plan to capture his son! There must have been a certain element of what the Earthlings call deja vu.

I would laugh, but my head is aching from the Great Spirit's latest performance appraisal.

I was so close, so tantalisingly close to finally achieving my goal.

The Luminous One is right, as always: I did fail, but I also dealt Galaxy Security a blow it will not shake off easily. According to intelligence reports gleaned from a stray transmission we intercepted between Earth and the Early Warning Station (some nonsensical drivel between a couple of strange individuals named "Zark" and "Susan") it would appear Cronus survived the perilous journey to Earth and managed to bail out minutes before detonation, and for all that, I now know his weakness. It is not his family, as I had previously suspected, it is his one true love: the Federation.

Cronus is a hero, and all heroes come to their downfall eventually. Oh, yes, Cronus, I will have you. I know you, now. I have unmasked you, and I will have your life.

Even though the information on the identity of the G-Force Commander died with my Intelligence Chief, I have wounded the G-Force Commander, and I have unmasked him for what he is: a child in need.

Anderson's situation is not nearly so satisfactory. It may well wound him once I have killed Cronus (third time's the charm, you know!) but for now, his political position is stronger than ever. The Council pays him heed as though wisdom dripped from every utterance the man makes!

I will have to do something about Security Chief Anderson.

Oh, yes, indeed.


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