Tough to Swallow by TransmuteJun
Summary:

What is Keyop really thinking, behind all of his burbles?

Excerpt

“Don’t worry, Keyop.” he said, ruffling my hair, “You’ll fit right in. You’ll see.”

I offered a woeful smile. My father, while a brilliant, and well-intentioned, man, really didn’t know me very well. He wasn’t my real father. I wasn’t even sure who my real father was. I was conceived in a Petri dish, in my father’s laboratory: some kind of experiment to create a ‘genetically perfect’ human.

What they got was far from perfect. But my father didn’t realize that. He had things to do, jobs to perform, and demands on his time because of his position as Chief of Galaxy Security for the Federation of Planets.

Even though I hadn’t seen him much, I loved my father. But he had no idea who I really was. He thought I was some kind of sweet, innocent boy, who looked at life through rose-colored glasses.

He couldn’t have been further from the truth.

 


Categories: Battle of the Planets Characters: Jason, Keyop, Mark, Princess, Tiny Harper
Genre: Character Study, Humor/Comedy
Story Warnings: Crude Humor, Mild Language, Mild Sexual References, Mild Violence, Strong Language
Timeframe: Prequel
Universe: Canon
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 16 Completed: Yes Word count: 20077 Read: 58962 Published: 05/15/2007 Updated: 05/15/2007
Story Notes:

This story follows on from the fic The Replacements by Springie. You may wish to read that fic before reading this one, but you should still be able to enjoy this fic, even if you haven't done so.

Thanks to Springie for the great promotional poster!

Keyoppostersmall.jpg

1. Chapter 1 by TransmuteJun

2. Chapter 2 by TransmuteJun

3. Chapter 3 by TransmuteJun

4. Chapter 4 by TransmuteJun

5. Chapter 5 by TransmuteJun

6. Chapter 6 by TransmuteJun

7. Chapter 7 by TransmuteJun

8. Chapter 8 by TransmuteJun

9. Chapter 9 by TransmuteJun

10. Chapter 10 by TransmuteJun

11. Chapter 11 by TransmuteJun

12. Chapter 12 by TransmuteJun

13. Chapter 13 by TransmuteJun

14. Chapter 14 by TransmuteJun

15. Chapter 15 by TransmuteJun

16. Epilogue by TransmuteJun

Chapter 1 by TransmuteJun

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No profit is being made. No copyright infringement is intended.

*****

 

I stood nervously in the laboratory, wishing desperately to be anywhere else but where I found myself. What I wouldn’t have given to be back in my room, playing video games, at this moment. Hell, even studying would be better than this! I shuddered at the thought of the doom that was about to befall me.

I looked up at my father, who smiled reassuringly at me.

“Don’t worry, Keyop.” he said, ruffling my hair, “It’ll be fine. You’ll fit right in. You’ll see.”

I offered a woeful smile. My father, while a brilliant, and well intentioned, man, really didn’t know me very well. He wasn’t my real father. In fact, I wasn’t sure at all who my real father was. I was conceived in a Petri dish, in my father’s laboratory: some kind of risky experiment to create a ‘genetically perfect’ human.

What they got was far from perfect. But my father didn’t realize that. He had things to do, jobs to perform, and demands on his time, because of his position as Chief of Galaxy Security for the United Federation of Planets.

Which left me to be raised by a bunch of scientists. Did I mention that they were a dried-up, boring bunch of old farts who wouldn’t know fun if it came over and kicked them in the ass?

Most kids’ earliest memories begin at about age three or so, but I remember things from about the time I was six months old (when I first started walking) onward. As a lab experiment, my growth was accelerated, so in fact, I was actually only about four years old, in chronological terms, but my body was that of an eight-year old. My brain was probably close to a million years old. At least, that’s how I felt. Probably all of those wrinkled old geezers who passed on all of their rhetoric to me had prematurely aged my brain.

Even though I hadn’t seen him much, I loved my father. But he had no idea who I really was. He thought I was some kind of sweet, innocent boy, who looked at life through rose-colored glasses.

He couldn’t have been further from the truth.

I remembered my first words. I had been nine months old, and had decided to try walking down a set of stairs that had no railing or handholds; at least, none that I could reach. Everything had been going well for the first few steps, but then my foot had slipped and I had gone flying, head over heels, spinning through the air, only to land ungracefully at the bottom of the staircase.

As I had felt myself falling, I had screamed at the top of my lungs.

“Oh… chit!”

The old farts had been horrified, wondering where I had ever learned such a word. I chuckled to myself, just remembering it. They had been scared: frightened that if my father ever heard me utter such words, they would lose their vaunted positions. They had desperately pleaded with me not to say anything like that again.

It didn’t work.

I had been so pleased with their reaction that I had gone out of my way to learn exactly what would set their hearts palpitating and turn their faces into those sour grimaces I had come to love. I had made sure never to let my father learn how I tormented those so-called ‘scientists’, because then my leverage would have been gone.

But those fucking losers had managed to pull one over on me. And it was nearly the killing blow. I was still struggling with how to deal with this particular hurdle.

A couple of months ago, they had installed an implant into my brain. I had expected that. I had been told practically since birth how I was being prepared for a Special Forces Team that my father was setting up. The implant was part of that, as it would enhance my fighting abilities, and allow me to resist illness and poisons, as well as heal more quickly from physical damage.

What I hadn’t known, was that at the last minute, my ‘guardians’ had made an alteration to the implant. One that my father was completely unaware of.

They had made behavioral modifications.

The idea was that they wanted to make me into some meek and mild little twerp, who never said a naughty word and was always kind and polite to everyone. Basically, they wanted to turn me into the person they had led my father into believing I was.

Only, it didn’t quite work out the way they had planned. The behavioral modifications had been designed by their pussy robot, 7-Zark-7, and that tin can wasn’t worth much more than the circuit board he had been built with. My father, the real expert on the implant technology, had had nothing to do with them, because he wasn’t supposed to know they had been made.

So, needless to say, they were malfunctioning.

I hadn’t changed as a person, but the implant was essentially censoring my speech. Every time I felt like swearing my head off at one of those bastards, it would re-program my words, choosing a less offensive way of saying things. The problem was, the re-phrased words were often shorter than what I really wanted to say, which had me constantly spouting meaningless beeps and burbles like some pathetic censored prime-time television special.

I don’t know who had explained that one to my father, but I do know that he had taken weeks away from his regular duties trying to fix the ‘problem’. Of course, he had been utterly unsuccessful, seeing as he didn’t know what the real problem was. I almost felt like writing it down for him, but I couldn’t give in and let those old farts have the satisfaction. I was going to overcome this, and when I did, I was going to go back and spew every obscenity I had ever learned into their faces, until they all fell over dead with heart attacks from the shock.

I grinned at the image.

A few days ago, my father had made his last attempt to ‘fix’ my speech. When it hadn’t worked, he had been disappointed, but he had decided that I was going to join his G-Force Team anyhow. Speech aside, I was apparently still eminently qualified.

My father went into his office, indicating that I should wait until he summoned me. I kicked nervously at the wall. I knew that the other members of this team were much older than I was. I wasn’t looking forward to having them treat me like some kind of retarded kid, especially with those inane noises pouring forth from my mouth all of the time. I hoped that they would be able to accept me, but the cynic in me knew better.

All too soon, the moment I had been dreading was upon me. The door opened, and my father waved me into the room.

“G- Force,” he said to the four teenagers assembled in his office, “I’d like you to meet your final member. His name is Keyop.”

I checked out my teammates. The first one I saw was a good-looking guy with intense blue eyes that jumped right out of his face when he saw me. I could tell that he wasn’t thrilled, but he tried to hide it. Next to him was a fat dude, who looked as if he didn’t have a care in the world. I couldn’t tell what his reaction was.

The third guy sneered, tossing a disgusted look my way. Oh, how I wished that I could speak properly. I would have told that loser what I fucking thought of him and his attitude. He had a large bruise on the side of his face. It looked fresh. I guessed that someone else didn’t like his attitude either.

Last was a girl. I was pretty surprised. A girl, on this team? But then, who was I to comment? For all intents and purposes I was an eight-year old kid with a heavily censored dirty mouth. She certainly looked nice enough.

As I stared at her, she spoke to me.

“Hello, Keyop.” she smiled, holding out her hand. “My name is Princess. It’s good to have you with us.”

I smiled and reached out to shake her hand. She was actually pretty hot.

“Hiya, you sexy Princess!” I said. Only it came out as “Hello…droot…Princess…”

I could tell that she was surprised, but she did a good job trying to hide it. I couldn’t say the same for the others. But to his credit, Mister Blue Eyes stood up and shook my hand too.

“Hi, Keyop.” he introduced himself, “I’m Mark, the Commander of G-Force.”

I could see Mister Attitude roll his eyes at that one. Ah, sore loser, was he? I filed that one away for future ammunition. You never knew when it could come in handy, especially with a jerk like that.

“Hi, Mark.” I said. The implant didn’t feel the need to alter that one. But even as I spoke, I could see him looking questioningly at my father. Well, at least I was going to have a Commander who thought for himself. Although, I didn’t appreciate that he felt the need to question my father’s judgment about me.

The fat dude came up and messed up my hair. Damn, that was annoying!

“Welcome little buddy.” he said. “My name’s Tiny. I’m the pilot of the Phoenix.”

Well, at least he sounded okay. And he certainly didn’t seem taken aback by my presence, the way everyone else did. I decided that I liked this guy. At least he was honest and non-judgmental.

But something he had said intrigued me.

“Phoenix?” I asked. I hadn’t heard of this Phoenix before.

“Yeah, that’s the big airship you’ll get to ride on with us.” Tiny grinned.

Airship? What kind of retard did this guy think I was? Who uses words like airship? The Phoenix had to be some kind of super-sonic jet, at least. The word airship conjured up images of the fucking Hindenburg disaster.

I was just about to comment on this (if the implant would let me) when Mister Attitude finally spoke.

“So you want to be a member of G-Force, huh?” he sneered, staring at me disapprovingly. “Well, we want to see what you can do, squirt.”

Squirt? I’d show him who was qualified to be on this damned team.

“Who the hell do you think you are, dickhead?” I screamed, waving my bolos in the air. “I oughta shove these up your lily-white ass!”

Of course, what actually came out was, “Broot…I’ll show you! Wrap these…brrt…around your neck!”

Okay, that wasn’t too bad. At least my intention had come through.

“That’s enough, everyone.” my father interrupted, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Keyop, you must be hungry. Why don’t you get something to eat in the Cafeteria downstairs? The rest of the team will catch up to you in a minute.”

I glared at Mister Attitude. If he was going to catch up, I’d rather be gone from this place. But still, the other three seemed okay, and Mister Blue Eyes was in charge. Maybe it would all work out.

“Okay.” I agreed, resigned to having to deal with these losers. I knew I would have to prove myself to them, and damn quickly too.

Chapter 2 by TransmuteJun

I could hardly believe that I had been shuffled off to the cafeteria while the rest of them talked about me. So much for being a part of a team. Were they always going to have their stupid meetings without me?

I wandered over to the food line, half-heartedly picking up a box of Fruit Loops and some milk. The old geezers usually didn’t let me have sugar, fearing what it would do to my personality. As far as I was concerned, they could stick my personality where the sun didn’t shine, as long as they gave me some damn cereal from time to time. The best thing about being on this team would definitely be the increased freedom.

That is, as long as Mister Attitude didn’t make things difficult. I realized that I didn’t even know his name yet. He hadn’t even bothered to introduce himself. No matter. I had some plans for Mister Attitude, and I didn’t need to know his name to make them a reality.

The rest of them seemed okay. Princess had been gracious enough, and Tiny had been friendly, without any hint of shock. Even Mark seemed willing to accept me on my father’s say-so. I guessed I could live with being a part this team. I knew that would entail spending a lot of time with this cast of characters. Hopefully they had a sense of humor, or things were going to get pretty dull.

I was enjoying my illicit sugar when all four of them entered the cafeteria. I pretended not to notice them and hunched over my bowl, hoping they’d leave me alone long enough to let me finish.

No such luck. At least Princess sat down next to me. It’s not every day I get to sit beside a girl with her… attributes.

“Whatcha eatin’, short stuff?” Tiny asked.

Well, duh! Obviously the fat dude wasn’t too bright. It would take a blind man not to see the neon-colored circles floating in my bowl. By the look of him, I imagined that Tiny had more than a passing familiarity with many kinds of sugar cereal.

I didn’t even look at them, but continued eating.

“What do you think, Shit-for-Brains?” I commented. Unfortunately, what came out was “Broot… Fruit Loops… doot…”

“Keyop, we’re looking forward to training with you. The Chief told us how talented you are.” Princess said.

Damn, didn’t she have the sexy voice? I wondered quickly if the other guys jacked off to the sound of that.

“I’d show you how talented I am,” I smirked, “but somehow, I don’t think I’m your type.”

That’s what they…broot…tell me…” is what actually came out of my mouth.

“How’d you like to fight in the simulator with us, this afternoon?” Mark asked.

“How’d you like to have your ass pasted all over the simulator?” I asked smugly. That got translated as, “Sounds…swell…” What the hell? Swell? They must really think I was some kind of dork.

“Yeah, we’ll see what the little bird can do against a legion of Spectran goons.” Mister Attitude rolled his eyes.

Spectrans be damned. I was going to paste his fucking ass all over that simulator. He’d never see it coming.

Princess kicked Mister Attitude under the table.

“Ignore Jason.” she said to me. “He doesn’t play well with others.”

Damn! Fine, and funny! I was really taking a shine to Princess. I gave her a big grin.

So… Mister Attitude’s name was Jason. He must have been named after that psycho in the Friday the Thirteenth movies. I could see a similarity around the eyes.

“Screw Jason.” I smirked. “He’ll get what’s coming to him.”

Of course, Princess heard, “Jason… broop… not problem!”

“That’s the attitude, Keyop!” she smiled, ruffling my hair.

Somehow, I didn’t mind so much when she did that.

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Chapter 3 by TransmuteJun

I spent the rest of the morning getting to know my new teammates. Other than Psycho Jason, they actually weren’t too bad. Princess was warm and friendly, and Mark was too, once he got past the fact that I looked like I was half his age. Tiny was another story altogether. He was just a good-natured kind of guy, and nothing seemed to phase him. Best of all, he was much cooler than he looked. The moment I discovered that he was into video games, I knew that I had found someone to hang out with on this team.

“Have you found the secret level on Army Fighter?” I asked him, “It rocks!” For some reason, my implant felt the need to translate that as, ”Brrrt… doop… doot… secret level… breet… Army Fighter?” I could feel my damn IQ dropping every time I listened to my own fucking speech.

“There’s a secret level?” Tiny asked, awed. I was liking this guy more and more every second.

“Yeah, the entrance is on Level 42, right after the Improbability Drive. It’s kind of an homage to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” ”Breep… Level 42… doot… after… Improbability Drive… beep… Hitchhiker’s…”

“You got to level 42?” Tiny’s jaw dropped. “Man, it’s an honor just to meet you!” he grinned, clapping me on the shoulder.

“Well, there’s not much else to do in this place.” I shrugged. “Those old fart scientists won’t let me out of my quarters most of the time!” ”Broop… not much else… drrrrt… to do…beep… can’t go…doot… anywhere.”

“”You mean, you don’t ever leave Center Neptune?” Princess asked, aghast.

“Sounds like the Chief knows what he’s doing, after all.” Psycho Jason smirked.

“He knows that if I were let out, I’d be kicking your ass!” I growled. Unfortunately, that came out as, “Beep… broop… doot doot doot… no.” Talk about something being lost in the fucking translation!

“Oh, you poor thing!” Princess cried. “I’m going to talk to the Chief about that. He can’t keep you locked up in here.” A sly look crossed her face. “You know, Jill has a spare room. I wonder if you could come live with me.”

“Are you sure you want to do that, Princess?” asked Mark, concerned. I saw him reach for her hand. Ah, Mister Blue Eyes was also Mister Loverboy, was he? I wondered if he and Princess were screwing each other on the side. No wonder he was concerned about the idea of me coming to live with her!

I thought it was a great idea. Anything to get out of this damn place! Princess was definitely my new hero.

“Yeah, you don’t want to be looking after this Rugrat in your spare time.” Jason replied dryly.

“He is not a Rugrat!” Princess exclaimed, before I could even open my mouth. Damn! She was good! “He’s a sweet kid, which you’d know if you gave him half a chance.”

“I’ve been giving him half a chance!” Jason retorted. “But all I’m hearing is some stuff about idiotic video games! Like I don’t hear Tiny going on about that enough already!”

“Hey, just because all you’re interested in is car racing…” Tiny began in an offended tone.

“”What I’m interested in is leaving.” Jason replied. “I’ve had enough of this snoozefest.”

“What the hell do I care?” I shouted, “It’ll be a lot more fun without your ass stinking up the place!” ”Brrrt… doot… see ya…” Damn, that was incredibly lame, even for my implant.

Jason stalked off, shaking his head in disgust.

“I think I should go talk with him.” Mark said, jumping up to follow him. I could tell by the look on his face that this was going to be a Commander/subordinate sort of talk. Jason was in for it. I could barely contain my glee. Mark rushed after the psycho.

“I’m sorry about that, Keyop.” Princess sighed. “If it helps, he wasn’t exactly very welcoming to me either, at first.”

“Yeah, Jason’s not very good with change.” Tiny snickered.

“Well, like it or not, he’s going to have to fucking deal with me!” I cried defiantly. “I’m not quitting this team because of a psycho like him!” ”Beep… not quitting… doot…”

“I’m glad.” Princess smiled at me.

“Me too!” Tiny exclaimed happily. I grinned back at them.

“I think I’ll take this opportunity to ask the Chief about your living arrangements.” Princess winked at me. “I’ll see you guys this afternoon.”

“Sure. Thanks, Princess!” I waved at her. She waved back, then walked out of the cafeteria. I was momentarily mesmerized by the sight of her fine ass swaying back and forth as she moved.

“So, Keyop, do you want to come see the Ready Room?” Tiny asked me, bringing me back to reality.

“Ready Room?”

“Yeah. It’s the place where we hang out when we’re not on duty.” Tiny explained. “Why don’t you come check it out with me?”

“Okay.” I shrugged. At least it would provide a change of scenery from this cafeteria. I swear, it looked just like a mental hospital, except for the windows looking out at marine life.

But boy, did my jaw drop when I saw the Ready Room! This place was decked out with everything a teenager could want. There was a top-of-the-line sound system, two giant wide screen televisions, three different video game systems and walls of games and books. A ping pong table occupied one corner. I even saw a small area that looked like it was a stage rigged up for bands. A guitar and a drum kit sat next to the wall.

“Wow… who plays this?” I asked, touching the guitar.

“That belongs to Princess.” Tiny replied. “I haven’t had a chance to hear her play yet, but Mark says that she’s pretty good.”

So Mark had heard Princess play, and Tiny hadn’t? Hmmm… another piece of interesting information. Those two had to be getting hot and heavy under the sheets.

“What about those?” I asked, pointing at the drums.

“Well, Don used to play those.” Tiny scratched his head. “But they didn’t belong to him, so he didn’t take them when he left. No one’s used them since.”

“Don?”

“Oh… the Chief didn’t mention Don to you.” Tiny looked embarrassed. “He, uh… he’s not on the team anymore.”

“Why not?” I was curious. How could someone sign up for this team and then just quit?

“Well… he didn’t really get along with Jason, and the two of them always blew up at each other.” Tiny admitted. “I guess the Chief had had enough of it, and he sent him away.”

Wait a minute… this guy hadn’t gotten along with Psycho Jason, so my father had sent the other guy packing? What was wrong with this picture? It was pretty obvious to me already that Jason was the one with the attitude problem.

It suddenly occurred to me that Jason wasn’t too fond of me either. What would happen if we blew up at each other? Which one of us would my father keep on the team?

I had only been a member of G-Force for a couple of hours, but I had been training for it my entire life. If I wasn’t on the team, what would become of me? I would just be a failed experiment: something to get rid of.

That wasn’t going to happen to me. Somehow, I had to show Psycho Jason who was boss. The sooner, the better.

But in the meantime, I was having a hard time tearing my eyes off of those drums. I had always wanted to play the drums. Whenever I listened to music, I beat my pointer fingers on my knees, wishing that they could be real drumsticks. And here was an incredible set just sitting here, for the asking. Tiny had said that they weren’t being used by anyone.

Slowly, I walked over to the drum set, reverently touching the shiny crash cymbals. Carefully, I picked up the drumsticks, and sat down on the stool.

“Can you play the drums, Keyop?” Tiny asked.

I grinned at him.

“Let’s… see!” I winked.

I twirled a drumstick in my right hand, then began to play.

Damn, this was fucking awesome! The sound was crisp and clean, with just the right amount of reverb. I played the drum solo from one of my favorite Van Halen songs. This rocked!

“Hey, Keyop, you’re pretty good!” Tiny exclaimed, after I had finished. “I think I recognized that song. Hot For Teacher, right? Van Halen?”

I knew I had been right to like this guy. I jumped up and gave Tiny a high five.

“Fucking A, Tiny!” I grinned. “It… breep… rocks!”

“Hey, maybe you and Princess can play together sometime.” Tiny suggested.

That sounded like it could be fun. I just hoped that Princess was into rock, and not some dumbass folksy stuff.

“Sounds good.” I replied, reluctantly getting up. I moved on with my exploration of the Ready Room.

“What’s this?” I asked, coming across a shelf filled with magazines.

“That’s Jason’s stuff.” Tiny replied. “He keeps his racing magazines there.”

“Oh?” I began to flip through the pile. Car and Driver, Road and Track, Autosport, Motorsport, a few issues of Popular Mechanics… ah, what was this?

“Uh, I don’t think you should be doing that…” Tiny said nervously. “Jason gets really mad when we go touch his stuff…”

“I can see why.” I smirked, holding up my find. Tiny’s jaw dropped.

I didn’t blame him. Penthouse centerfolds are wet dream material.

That’s Jason’s?” Tiny sputtered, his face turning red.

“Yep!” I laughed.

Tiny reached slowly for the magazine, then pulled his hand away.

“No… we can’t touch that!” he cried. “Jason will kill us!”

I barely heard what he said. I had just gotten a terrific idea.

Chapter 4 by TransmuteJun

About an hour later, Tiny and I were playing Command & Conquer when Jason entered the Ready Room. It took all of my skill to keep playing, instead of concentrating on what he was doing. I knew that if my plan were successful, I’d find out soon enough.

“Yuck!” Jason muttered under his breath.

Hot damn!

I snuck a sidelong glance at Tiny. It was enough to see that he had also heard Jason’s comment. I caught him sniggering, and elbowed him sharply, to make sure that he didn’t give us away. He gave a laughing grunt, and let his breath out in a whoosh.

“What the hell?” Jason asked in an irritated tone. I could hear the sound of paper fluttering behind me.

“Something wrong, Jason?” Tiny asked, keeping his eyes on the game. His face wore a huge grin, but fortunately Jason couldn’t see it.

“Uh… no.” Jason muttered. “Nothing.” I could hear that paper fluttering noise again.

“Are you sure about that, shit-face?” I asked, not looking at him either. “Brrrt… doot… you sure?”

“Yeah…” I could hear him trying to scurry out of the room, but then the door opened again. It was Mark and Princess, accompanied by my father. This couldn’t have worked out more perfectly!

I nodded at Tiny, and we put down our game controllers, looking up. It was just as I had hoped.

Jason had a well-thumbed copy of Penthouse glued to his hand… centerfold side up. He took one look at Princess coming in the door and quickly stuck his hand behind his back.

“Hi, Jason…” Princess said, sounding suspicious.

“Hi, Princess! I’ve got to go.” Jason said quickly, attempting to sidle past them, toward the door.

“No, Jason.” my father stopped him with a hand on his chest. “It’s time for you all to observe Keyop in the simulator.”

Jason began to take on the look of a trapped animal. Damn, how I loved watching him squirm!

“What is that behind your back, Jason?” Mark asked curiously.

“Uh…” Jason’s face turned bright red.

Tiny and I looked at each other, grinning with excitement. Our plan had worked!

Princess walked slowly around Jason, who backed against the wall.

“Do you have something in your hand, Jason?” she asked him directly.

Jason looked as if he were about to deny that he had anything, then thought better of it, and sheepishly showed his hand to Mark, Princess, and my father.

Princess’ eyes just about jumped out of her head. I don’t think she had ever seen a Penthouse Centerfold before. Mark quickly stuffed his hands in his jeans. I nearly pissed my pants watching him try to hide his pocket pool!

My father turned red, an angry look coming over his face.

“I suppose that belongs to you?” he asked Jason pointedly.

“Really, Jason,” Princess said, raising an eyebrow, “I guess I over-estimated you. If that’s the closest you can get to a real girl…”

Jason had already looked like he wanted to fall through the floor with embarrassment, and Princess’ remark didn’t make matters any better.

Mark’s face instantly deflated, not to mention what was in his pants.

Tiny couldn’t hold it in anymore. He emitted a sound that was a cross between a donkey’s breathless wheeze and a hyena’s cackle. It turned into a series of guffaws that shook the room.

I couldn’t help myself. I began to laugh too. The look on Jason’s face was priceless!

My father looked as if he wanted to say something further, but then even Mark started to laugh. Princess had a bemused expression on her face. Jason paled, making the bruise on his jaw stand out even more. He ran out of the room, our laughter following him down the hallway.

“What was he thinking, having that kind of stuff in the Ready Room?” Mark chuckled. “He should have known that sooner or later, someone else would see it.”

“Kind of makes you wonder what else he’s got, stashed away under his mattress, for a lonely night.” I offered. “Breep… doot… wonder… brrrrt… what else?”

“That’s enough, Keyop.” my father replied angrily. “It looks like I’m going to be having a long talk with Jason.”

“I thought we were going to see Keyop try out the simulator?” Princess asked.

“You’re right, Princess.” my father replied, checking the time. “Keyop, are you ready to go?”

“Damn straight!” I replied, “I’m ready to beat the shit out of a few soldiers!” “Beep… ready… drrrt…”

“Okay, short stuff, let’s go see what you can do!” Mark grinned.

Short stuff, huh? I was going to whip his behind in that simulator, and then we’d see what Mister Blue Eyes called me.

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Chapter 5 by TransmuteJun

Of course, what I hadn’t mentioned to anyone was that I had practiced in the simulator before. My father had seen to it that I had all of the access I needed to train. There was no way he would have let me join G-Force if I hadn’t been fully prepared.

Still, having an audience did add an additional element of nervousness to the whole thing. I could see everyone’s eyes on me as I looked up at the Observation Gallery. Even though I knew that my father, Tiny and Princess, and even Mark, were rooting for me. I could also feel Jason’s mocking gaze. He was expecting me to fail, and I had to rub his nose in it.

Slowly, I entered the simulator, but I was so distracted watching the onlookers that I tripped on the mat and went sprawling on my face. Damn it! I could hear Jason’s laughter, even from behind the glass. My face burned, and I scrambled to my feet, trying to recapture what little dignity I had left. Carefully, I walked to the center of the room, and swung my left arm in front of my face.

“Trans…. mute!”

I was surrounded by a flash of white light, and the black and yellow of my uniform materialized over my body.

“Level One.” came the voice of 7-Zark-7. That pussy robot was taking charge of the simulator for this demonstration.

Despite myself, I rolled my eyes. This was so far beneath my fucking level of ability, it wasn’t funny. Still, I was grateful for the chance to show what I was capable of, without too much of a challenge.

Three green-suited soldiers appeared, and they all rushed at me simultaneously. I lightly leapt out of the way, while drawing my bolos. I twirled them casually around my finger, sending them at the first goon to approach. They twisted around his neck, bashing him in the exact center of his temples, causing him to collapse, unmoving, to the floor. The second goon suffered a swift neck chop, while the third received a high roundhouse kick to the jaw. I stood among their fallen bodies, turned to the Observation Gallery, and executed a flourishing bow.

“Excellent, Keyop.” came Zark’s wimpy voice. “Now, let’s go to…”

“Level Twelve.” I said loudly. I usually trained on Level Fifteen, but Level Twelve was the highest setting I felt completely confident about.

“Keyop, I’m not certain that this is an appropriate progression…” Zark began.

“Fucking set it to Level Twelve already, you pussy robot!” I screamed. “I don’t have the patience for this level by level shit!” “Breeet… broop… Level Twelve… doot… beep… now.” I desperately hoped that as the architect of my behavioral modifications, Zark could understand what I had actually said.

“Uh… sure…” Zark muttered. Hey, maybe he could decipher my burbling garbage. That was satisfying. I grinned to myself.

“Level Twelve.” Zark’s voice sounded apprehensive. I planned on giving him a damn heart attack, if a sissy robot could even fall victim to such a thing.

Instantly, I was surrounded by a dozen goons, all pointing rifles at my position. I dropped to the floor, shooting my right leg out for a full sweep as I rotated on the ground. Simulated gunfire rang out over my head, as the soldiers shot each other across the circle they had formed around me. I stood, carefully listening for any more opponents. That had been too easy for Level Twelve.

I was not disappointed. From behind me, I heard the sound of approaching footsteps, and I whirled to see another squadron of green adversaries. Their leader was wearing some sort of ridiculous costume. It kind of looked like a slug with horns. I found it hard to believe that anyone could be fucking stupid enough to believe that an outfit like that was intimidating, but my father had sworn up and down that this program was an accurate reflection of Spectran forces.

The goons stood there for a moment, aiming their rifles at me. I smiled, and held my left hand out flat, palm up. Then, in my best Morpheus imitation, I slowly inclined my four fingers in a ‘come hither’ motion.

“Who… wants some?” I grinned.

Predictably, slug-man stayed back, while the rest charged at me. I spun my bolos as fast as I could, sending them in a whirling circle of death at the first six, knocking them all out cold as the spheres connected with their cheeks and noses. I caught the weapon on its return to me, and immediately sent it flying back out, typing up the arms of a seventh goon, preventing him from properly aiming his weapon. I easily dodged his random fire as he spewed bullets around the room. Four of my other opponents weren’t so lucky.

The remaining attackers were easy as shit after that. A few punches and kicks, and they all lay at my feet.

That left me and Slug-man. He pulled out some bizarre kind of Japanese sickle. The weapon was so damned ridiculous, I could hardly keep from laughing. I guessed I was supposed to be intimidated, but all I saw was this idiotic slug with a bent knife.

Sighing, I spun and kicked his hand, sending the weapon skittering off into the corner. He tried to bull-rush me, but I lightly stepped aside and let him run head-first into the wall. He collapsed to the ground, moaning. I walked over and kicked his head a few times for good measure, just to make sure he was completely out.

I turned, and bowed respectfully to my father.

“Thank you, Keyop.” came his voice. “Please, wait there a moment.”

I stood, perplexed. Why did he want me to wait? Were they going to run another simulation? Hadn’t I just demonstrated that I could handle whatever they threw at me?

It suddenly occurred to me that there were only four people watching me now from the Observation deck. And I had just realized who was missing, when I heard the door open behind me.

I turned to see a blue and brown G-Force uniform walking toward me. Jason!

“This wasn’t my idea.” he growled at me.

“No shit, Sherlock.” I responded, “I don’t think you’re bright enough to come up with any fucking ideas on your own.” “Drrrrt… didn’t… think… boop…so…”

That actually got a slight smile out of him. I wondered what his reaction would have been if he had known what I had really wanted to say.

“Level Twenty.” Jason announced.

Level Twenty? Was he shitting me? No one could handle Level Twenty on their own.

But I wasn’t on my own. Jason was here. It suddenly occurred to me that this was an entirely different type of test that my father was subjecting me to.

Instead of the usual assortment of goons, a number of small motorcycles surrounded us. Each of them had two machine guns mounted on the front. A goon was seated on each bike.

I nodded at Jason and turned around, pressing my back to his. Whatever our differences, we were in this one together, and I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt; he didn’t want to fail at this any more than I did.

Quickly, I unscrewed the top of my bolos, dropping a few explosives into each, before replacing the caps. I felt Jason’s arms moving, but didn’t have time to concentrate on what he was doing.

I threw my bolos at the nearest motorcycle, where they wrapped around the driver’s neck, causing him to spin out of control, and into the next vehicle. The bolos exploded, and the resulting flames reached the gas tanks of the two bikes, creating another fiery blast. I used the distraction to leap into the air, landing feet first on another driver’s head. I knocked him off the bike, then took his position, running him over as I turned the motorcycle around. I activated the vehicle’s weapons, scanning the area to see that Jason had taken out six of the other bikes. Their former drivers appeared to have some kind of white feathers sticking out of their necks. Even as I watched, Jason shot some kind of cable from a gun, smacking another goon in the head, causing him to fall back onto the ground while his bike crashed into the wall.

Only, Jason didn’t notice the goon aiming weapons at his winged back.

Without thinking, I pointed my guns in the goon’s direction and opened fire. He fell over, dead before he even hit the ground. Jason whirled around, aiming his gun straight at me.

“Duck.” he shouted.

Uncomprehending, I bent down just as his cable whizzed over my head, smacking into another attacker behind me. I heard a soft grunt as our last opponent was defeated.

I looked around, grinning. Holy shit! We had just beaten Level Twenty! I whooped, hopping off the bike and dancing over to Jason.

“Fucking awesome!” I crowed. “Brrrt… beep… cool!”

“You can say that again.” Jason replied dryly. Wait, was he actually smiling?

“Thank you, gentlemen.” my father said. I could hear the smile in his voice too. “It’s good to know that we have our G-Force team.”

Chapter 6 by TransmuteJun

I looked nervously around the gym. Mark had said something about a pyramid maneuver that I had to learn. By the sound of his voice, I guessed this wasn’t going to be easy.

He had already explained it to me, but it sounded damn confusing. How the hell were we going to spin when Jason and Tiny had to keep their legs straight? As far as I could tell, they weren’t even going to move their fucking feet! And how was I supposed to stay on without a damn thing to hold on to?

Still, everyone else could do it, so I knew that I had to as well. I deserved to be on this team, and I would show them that I could damn well do anything that they could do!

Tiny and Jason got into position first, and then Mark and Princess jumped onto their shoulders. I was supposed to go on top. I leapt into the air, and placed one foot on Mark’s shoulder, and the other on Princess’.

“Um… Keyop, I think you should turn around.” Mark suggested.

Oh. It occurred to me that everyone else was facing the opposite direction. But I couldn’t let them know that I’d made a mistake already.

“What does it fucking matter which way I’m facing?” I asked. “If we’re spinning, aren’t we going to be facing all directions anyhow?” “Brrrrt… why… dooot… breep… does it… drrrt… matter?”

“I don’t really know, ” Mark replied, “It just seems to work better that way.”

“Okay.” I shrugged.

“Now remember, everyone look straight ahead.” Mark instructed.

“Just keep your eyes where they belong, and everything will work out fine.” Princess smirked, tapping Jason’s jaw with her foot. She hit his bruise exactly, and he winced slightly.

Wait a minute… was that how Jason had gotten his bruise? Had he been trying to check out what was under Princess’ miniskirt?

Shit, that girl was good! I knew there was a reason I liked her. I also realized that I had better damn well make sure not to get on her bad side. Princess was obviously not someone you wanted to cross.

I spread my arms and wings wide, and Jason and Tiny began to spin. I wasn’t really sure how they were doing it, but that wasn’t really my primary concern at the moment. I was desperately trying to keep my balance, my arms wind-milling around me, as we spun faster and faster. For a brief second, I almost felt myself floating in the air, but then I fell forward and slammed into the mat.

Crap, that hurt like hell! I realized that I was moaning in pain.

“Not bad, Squirt.” grinned Jason, coming over and offering his hand to me. “For a first try.”

I took his proffered hand, and pulled myself up.

“Let’s go… again!” I cried.

“Attaboy, Squirt!” Jason smirked, slapping me on the back. Ow!

I had to wonder if he’d known exactly where to hit me.

The second time I lasted longer, before falling out of formation. The third and the fourth times were better too. By the fifth time I was actually able to stay in the whirlwind until everyone else broke out of it. I still went crashing to the floor though. It took another two attempts for me to land on my feet in a kind of half-crouch. I looked like some kind of idiot gorilla, but at least I wasn’t flat on my ass.

“I think we’ve got it.” Mark announced, smiling. “I’m going to let the Chief know.” He turned and activated his communicator.

“About time!” Tiny moaned. “I don’t know how much longer my back can hold out. You guys are heavy! Even my stomach aches!”

“Maybe it was the twelve Spaceburgers you had for lunch, fatso!” I kidded him. “Broop…. breep… twelve Spaceburgers… doot…”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that…” Tiny turned red as Princess began to laugh.

“Guys, the Chief wants to see us in his office.” Mark reported.

“Now?” asked Jason in an irritated voice.

Now.” confirmed Mark. “We’d better get going.”

My heart sank. What did my father want now?

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Chapter 7 by TransmuteJun

It turned out that my father had wanted to tell us about some kind of new weapon on the Phoenix. We all had to spend the night at Center Neptune, so that we could test it out first thing in the morning. To top it all off, my father had given me a stack of training manuals about a foot thick, so that I could learn how to operate my station onboard.

Crap.

Fortunately, Tiny had taken pity on me and had helped me out, showing me what was important and what was just useless nonsense. I’ll give him credit, that fat boy knew his ship inside and out. No one was ever going to pull one over on him, when it came to the Phoenix.

So thanks to Tiny, I felt like I was prepared when I was led to the hangar doors the following morning. Since Center Neptune was under water, the Phoenix docked in a submerged hangar, which was drained of water after the outer doors were closed. Tiny had taken a quick flight early this morning, and he had just returned. Mark, Jason, Princess and I were waiting, in uniform, for the hangar to drain.

“Are you ready for this, Keyop?” Mark asked me.

“I’d damn well better be, after studying that shitload of manuals!” I grumbled. “Drrrrrt… broop…. think so…”

“How about you, Princess?” Mark turned to her. I looked up, surprised.

“It’s my first time on the Phoenix as well.” Princess explained to me. “Although, I think I had a little longer to study the training manuals, than you did, Keyop.”

“It’s not like he had that much to read.” Jason drawled, “You should have seen the monstrous pile of papers I had to go through to figure out the weapons system. And do you know what it all came down to? ‘Press the red button to fire.’ Seriously! One thousand damn pages just to tell me something I could have figured out in five seconds.”

I couldn’t help snickering. After the manuals I had just read, I could believe it. If Tiny hadn’t been there to help me sort out the useful information from the garbage, I’d still be reading it!

Our conversation was interrupted by the opening of the hangar doors. And then, I caught my first glimpse of the Phoenix.

I had thought I was ready, but nothing could have prepared me for this. The Phoenix was a thing of beauty, its blue hull shining with water droplets from the ocean waters. Its lines were elegant, yet functional. I could see that this was a warship, as well as one damn fast supersonic jet. The sight was so entrancing that I forgot for a moment just how big it was, and so I was overwhelmed again as I approached it, feeling insignificant beside its mighty power.

I heard Princess gasp beside me, and I knew that it had had the same effect on her as well. Mark and Jason grinned next to us, excited to be flying again.

“Just wait until they see the individual mechas.” Jason smirked.

The individual mechas. I had almost forgotten about those. My father had said that I was to have some kind of all-purpose vehicle that could drive on land like an ATV, fly like a helicopter, and pilot underwater like a mini-sub. I felt my mouth going dry at the prospect of that.

But today, we weren’t going to test the individual mechas. Today we were going to test the Phoenix herself. Although, I knew my individual mecha had to be onboard right then. One thing the training materials had pointed out over and over again was that if all four weren’t onboard, all the Phoenix could do was fly.

Mark and Jason leapt up to the top of the Phoenix, and Princess and I quickly followed. There was some kind of circular depression on top, and as soon as we stepped on it, a glass dome rose up and surrounded us, while we descended onto the Bridge.

“So, what do you think?” Tiny asked us, a beaming smile on his face.

“Sweet!” I cried. At this moment, it was the only word I could think of that would do this incredible warship justice.

“It’s incredible.” Princess whispered, her eyes huge. “I had no idea it would be like this.”

“You’re reminding me of the day I first saw her, Princess.” Mark smiled. “I’ve become so used to her; it’s good to be reminded how amazing she really is.”

“Just wait until you see her in action!” Jason boasted. “One TBX missile and anything that even tries to get close to us is toast!”

Cautiously, I approached my station. It was right next to Princess’, and we shared the same control station. Although technically we both had the same duties, realistically, I was supposed to be her backup, and to help her perform multiple tasks at once.

No sooner was I seated, than a monitor toward the front of the Bridge activated, and I saw my father looking at us.

“I cannot express to you all the full range of emotions I am feeling at this moment,” he said, “seeing you all on the Phoenix… together… for the first time. I am incredibly proud of you all, and I know that together you will all accomplish great things.”

Man, this was some emotional shit. I turned away so that no one would see me wiping my eye. Princess softly squeezed my other hand, but when I swiveled to look at her, she was staring straight at the monitor.

“Today, you are testing the most powerful weapon you possess.” my father continued. “In order to use it, all five of you must be onboard, and it will tax you to your physical limits. You are all being closely monitored, to ensure that no harm comes to you.”

We all nodded. My father had mentioned this last night as well. Apparently this maneuver was pretty dangerous, and was only supposed to be used in emergency situations.

“Tiny, take the Phoenix out and up to 30,000 feet, then engage the Fiery Phoenix.” my father ordered. Tiny nodded, and began the launch sequence. The hangar began to fill with water.

I scanned my control station, panicking slightly as I saw the myriad of buttons, levers and controls that were laid out in front of me. I closed my eyes, and let out a long breath, then carefully examined them again. The layout began to look a little familiar, and I silently thanked Tiny for all of his help the evening before.

Slowly, the Phoenix moved forward and out into the ocean water. But the moment we had cleared the hangar doors, we took off like a rocket.

This was fucking incredible! I had never dreamed that I would go this fast. I nearly peed my pants in excitement. Princess was grinning from ear to ear. She obviously had a love of speed as well.

“Okay, Team,” Mark turned to us, “we’re going to initiate the Fiery Phoenix, and it will be engaged for sixty seconds. We’ll be approaching outer hull temperatures of three thousand degrees, but we are shielded with a special heat-resistant super-structure to protect us. Hold on tight, and remember to breathe.”

Our Commander nodded to Tiny, and we all braced ourselves.

I had thought that Mark was joking about breathing, but I quickly realized that he had been deadly serious. The incredible pressure I felt on my body made it difficult to raise and lower my chest, in order to fill my lungs. I gasped for air, and after a few seconds managed to find a rhythm that worked with the massive forces being exerted on my body. I couldn’t open my eyes, but I felt Princess’ hand squeezing mine again. I squeezed back slightly; glad to know that she was there next to me. I fell forward onto my control panel, burying my face in my free arm.

I don’t know how long we had been Fiery, but I was finally beginning to feel like the invisible hand that had clamped itself around my chest was loosening. I was just starting to open my eyes, when I felt a scorching wall of heat pass over my body. Suddenly, it seemed like I was being baked alive; every breath searing the inside of my lungs. I couldn’t see, I could barely gasp for air, and I was unable to move.

I heard Princess cry out, and she weakly grabbed my hand, as I succumbed to the cool darkness within my mind.

Chapter 8 by TransmuteJun

“The poor kid’s really been through a lot in the last twenty-four hours.” I heard someone say. “First he was introduced to the team, then he had to go through the simulator trials, and then he learned the Whirlwind Pyramid maneuver. Tiny says he was up all night studying technical manuals, and now this…”

This? What the hell was this? It felt like I had some kind of cloth covering my eyes. My arms hurt like hell. I tried not to move. Everything was black, but I concentrated on what I was hearing.

“He definitely got the worst of it.” a female voice replied. “The fire breached the Bridge right in front of him. I saw the cracks appearing on the radar screen, but before I could warn him, he was covered in flames.”

You didn’t exactly emerge unscathed, either.” the first voice pointed out. I was starting to focus again. I was pretty sure it was Mark speaking.

“I only suffered a few first degree burns.” the other voice protested. I could now tell that it was Princess. “I just feel terrible that I wasn’t able to get him out of there.”

“It’s pretty hard to concentrate when you’re on fire.” Mark replied. “I’ve never seen Jason move so fast. He just reached right into those flames and pulled you two out.”

“I’ll have to thank him, when I see him again.” Princess said gratefully. “Is he okay?”

“Yes.” Mark answered. “I think his gloves saved him. I gather he was only in the Medical Offices for about thirty seconds before he lost it and ran out of there. He hates it when they fuss over him.”

I grinned to myself. I could definitely tell that Jason and I had the same opinion of the Medical Staff.

Wait a minute… had I just admitted to having something in common with Psycho Jason?

I guessed I had. So Hell had finally frozen over. Damn.

Although… Jason hadn’t really been that psycho since yesterday afternoon. In fact, he had been almost… nice. Ever since we were in the simulator together.

I guessed I couldn’t blame him for his initial reaction to me. What would I think if my father wanted to put a four-year-old on the G-Force team? But once I had shown him what I could do, Jason had accepted me. And apparently, he had saved my life as well.

I supposed I owed him an apology for that Penthouse stunt.

Shit.

“Speaking of Jason, he’s outside, waiting to see you.” Mark’s voice came again.

“He is?” I could hear from Princess’ tone that she was pleased. “It’s nice to know he cares.”

“I think you two really scared him.” Mark replied. “Whatever doubts he had about letting you two on the team, I think they’re gone now.”

“Well, let him in here, then!” Princess laughed.

“They’re only letting you have one visitor at a time.” Mark said. “If Jason comes in, I have to go.”

“Now that would be a shame.” Princess giggled. “But I suppose I could live with it… for a little while.”

They were silent for a few moments. Wait a minute… were they kissing? Damn, I wished I could see. I wondered what kind of horny shit was taking place next to me.

“Okay.” Mark said finally. “I’ll go and get him.”

A couple of moments later, I heard Jason enter the room.

“How are you doing, Princess?” he asked her in a concerned voice. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Jason.” she replied, “Just a few burns on my upper arms. If the uniform designers had been smart enough to cover my entire body, I probably wouldn’t have been hurt at all.”

“Hey, don’t knock those uniform designers.” Jason smirked. “I think they did a fantastic job with the Swan outfit.”

“You would!” Princess laughed. “But thank you for being concerned. Honestly though, poor Keyop got the worst of it.”

“I know…” Jason said quietly. “He didn’t even flinch when the flames came in; just buried his head in his arm and stayed right there. I don’t know how he did it.”

“He’s going to be fine, Jason.” Princess said, “The doctors said that he just has to stay here for a couple of days, so that they can do their skin regeneration treatments. His implant should take care of the rest.”

“If I’d just gotten to him a second sooner…” Jason sounded upset. Wow. I didn’t realize that he had been so concerned about me! Now I felt like a real heel.

“If you’d gotten to him a second later, he’d be much worse off.” Princess pointed out. “You should be proud of yourself, Jason. I know that I’m very grateful that you were there for us.”

Before Jason could answer, I heard someone else enter the room.

“Princess, the doctors would like to see you, now.” came a strange woman’s voice.

“I guess I’ve got to go.” Princess sighed. “I’ll see you later, Jason. And don’t worry; Keyop’s going to be just fine.”

I heard her leave, and then felt Jason sit down next to me.

“Hey, Squirt,” he said quietly, “I just wanted to apologize for some of the stuff I said yesterday. You’re a good kid, and you deserve to be a member of G-Force. Oh, yeah… and thanks for saving my ass yesterday in the simulator.”

“No problem! You saved my fucking ass too!” I grinned. “Breet… you saved… doot… me too…”

“Hey, you’re awake!” Jason exclaimed. “How long have you been listening, Squirt?”

“Long enough to hear everything that fucking went on during that piece-of-shit maneuver they call the Fiery Phoenix!” I replied. “Brrrrt…. long enough… doot… beep…”

“So you know what happened?” Jason asked.

“Not… exactly…” I said.

“Well, it turned out that there was a defect in the Phoenix’s protective shielding.” Jason explained. “We had a breach right in front of your control station. The hull cracked open and you said ‘hello’ to the Fiery Phoenix in person.”

“Sounds serious…” I whispered. No wonder Jason had been so worried.

“It was.” Jason replied. “But Tiny got us out of it right away, and we went straight back to Center Neptune. You got burned pretty badly on your arms and face.”

“That explains why I can’t fucking see.” I grumbled. “Dreet… can’t see… broot…”

“Yeah, you’ve got some heavy duty bandages over your eyes.” Jason answered. “But apparently once they come off you’ll be able to see just fine.”

I breathed a big sigh of relief. I had been a little worried about that.

“I’m still… on the team?” I asked shakily.

“As long as I damn well have a say-so.” Jason chuckled. “You’ve done more than enough to prove yourself to me, Squirt!”

“Thanks…” I replied. But there was something more I had to say.

“Uh, Jason, there’s something I should tell you…” I began, “I want to apologize for gluing your hand to your magazine. And I hope the picture wasn’t ruined. Penthouse centerfolds are fucking awesome.” “Breet… broot…sorry… for glue… doot… on magazine… broop… hope it wasn’t… drrrt…. ruined…”

You did that?” asked Jason, in a surprised voice. “I thought it was Tiny!”

“Tiny?” I exclaimed, “It was my fucking idea! All he did was find the glue!” “Brrrrt… Tiny helped… dreeet… but… my idea…”

To my surprise, Jason laughed.

“Way to go, Squirt!” he patted me on the shoulder. “You’re full of surprises! I guess having you on the team will be a lot more fun than I initially thought.”

“You’d better damn well believe it!” I cried.

Wait a minute. Had I actually just said that? Where was all of the fucking nonsense that usually spouted forth from my mouth? Had my implant been on a momentary coffee break?

What did you say?” Jason asked, surprised.

“I said, ‘You’d better damn well believe it!’” I repeated. But this time, the line got translated. “Drrrrt… better… beep… believe it...” I guessed my implant had returned from that coffee break in a hurry!

“What’s going on there, in that head of yours?” Jason questioned me. “You don’t really think in those breeps and broops, do you?”

I grinned, and spoke as slowly as possible.

“No… shhhhhhhhh… ooot… Sherlock!” Crap! The fucking implant had snuck in a low blow at the last minute.

“Damn!” Jason laughed loudly. “Now I’m wondering what you’ve really been thinking all along!”

“Take… a guess!” I laughed.

“Somehow, Keyop,” Jason replied, “I think you’re going to keep all of us guessing.”

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Chapter 9 by TransmuteJun

That afternoon everyone on the team visited me, and my father too. They had all been really concerned, and it made me feel good to know that they cared.

Tiny spent an especially long time with me, telling me about the new videogames he was ordering, and about his childhood growing up in a fishing village. He promised to take me fishing soon, and it actually kind of sounded like fun.

But the biggest surprise had been Princess. After visiting hours were officially over, she had entered my room, explaining that she had asked to remain a ‘patient’, so that she could spend the night with me.

“You… don’t have to…” I said.

“I know that, silly!” Princess replied, “I want to!”

“You do?” I was surprised. Did Princess have some kind of strange desire to be a nurse? Or maybe she just wanted the uniform… hey, maybe Mark had a thing for nurse costumes…

“When I was sick, at the orphanage, sometimes I would spend the night in the infirmary.” Princess said quietly. “It was always so dark, and lonely. It almost made the sickness worse, when everything was so solitary…” Her voice trailed off, lost in the memory.

Wow. I hadn’t thought about what Princess had been doing before she joined G-Force. She had been in an orphanage. She didn’t have any idea of who her real parents were. All she had was G-Force, and an intense desire to prove herself.

It sounded pretty familiar.

“Thanks, Princess.” I said, groping for her hand. She took my fingers in hers, and squeezed them. It felt good, actually. Like someone really cared for me.

We spent a couple of hours talking about random stuff. She told me about her childhood at the orphanage, and I talked about living in the lab with those boring old scientists. I told her that I liked the drums in the Ready Room, and she suggested that she could join me on her guitar. She’d even play some decent shit, and not any of that folksy crap. She also told me that she had convinced my father to let me stay with her at Jill’s. Jill’s turned out to be a snack bar that Princess worked at part-time, when she wasn’t on duty for G-Force. It actually sounded fantastic for a kid like me, who had spent almost his entire life underwater in Center Neptune.

“I can’t believe you stuck your damn neck out for me like that!” I said, “Why’d you go to so much fucking trouble?” “Broop… breep… why… did you…doot… do that?”

“I just thought…” Princess seemed to be choosing her words carefully, “I thought that you might want a little more freedom. Everyone needs a place to go… a home.”

“You… want … a home… with me?” I was blown away.

“Only if you do.” she said quickly.

“Damn straight!” I laughed. “Brrrrt… you bet!”

Princess found a microwave somewhere, and she made popcorn for us. We ate it as we talked. After a little while, she got out her guitar and started playing and singing for me. Damn, she was pretty good. Her voice was decent… very clean and sweet. I found myself drifting away, just listening to the sound of her music.

Before I realized it, I had fallen asleep.

88888

A man in an ugly green uniform approached me, pointing a rifle at my head. I reached for my bolos, but they were gone. As I moved to kick him, my foot slipped, and I found myself falling to the ground. Only I didn’t stop there. I kept on falling, through the floor and into a giant wall of flames. I couldn’t breathe, and the heat was intense as my uniform smoldered and burned. I tried to cry out for help, but my throat was parched and the only sound I was able to make was a hoarse croak.

“Help…” came a dry, scratchy whisper from my mouth.

I felt a soft hand on my forehead, and a straw pushed between my lips. Icy cold water came forth, and I gulped it gratefully.

“Did you have a bad dream?” Princess asked quietly.

“Yeah…” I muttered. “Thanks…”

“No problem.” she replied. I felt her kiss my cheek, and she pulled the covers up around me. “Just go back to sleep. Everything will be fine in the morning.”

“Okay…” I yawned. I wondered what time it was. With these bandages over my eyes, I had no idea.

“It’s 3 am.” Princess said, reading my mind. “Don’t worry. You’ll know it’s morning when I’m harassing the doctors to take those bandages off of your face.”

I laughed softly, before snuggling back under the covers.

As I drifted off to sleep again, a sudden thought entered my mind.

This was what it felt like, to have a mother.

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Chapter 10 by TransmuteJun

As Princess had promised, she nagged the doctors the next morning, until they finally agreed to take off my bandages. It turned out that my implant had been working overtime (perhaps that’s why it had taken that momentary coffee break the day before) and I was mostly healed. After another day of observation, I was released, and my father reluctantly agreed to let me go to Jill’s.

Living with Princess was a dream come true. She kept an eye on me, but didn’t suffocate me with annoying demands to clean my room and know what I was doing every second of the day. And she was always there when I needed her. She was turning out to be more like a sister, rather than a mother. And that was just fine with me!

Tiny often came to visit. He took me on that promised fishing trip, and it was a lot more fun than I had expected. Despite his dumb-as-shit appearance, Tiny had a sharp mind, and he could really make me laugh. We had a lot of fun playing video games and pulling pranks on Princess. I was almost beginning to feel sorry for her, when she got us good by sneaking downstairs one night and playing all of our video games, topping all of our high scores with one blow. I was still trying to recapture the top spot on Halo. Damn her!

Mark and Jason came over a lot too, keeping Princess company while she worked her shifts at Jill’s. I took on a few shifts myself, trying to help out. I was really grateful for this chance at a semi-normal life, and it seemed like a good way to pay back Princess and Jill for taking me in. Of course, Mark sometimes hung around even after Princess’ shift was over. Jason, Tiny and I would smirk at each other when they slipped off together, certain we knew what they were up to. But Princess was happy, and that was what really mattered.

The defect in the Phoenix’s outer shielding had been located, and fixed. Our uniforms had also been upgraded to be even more resistant to heat and cold. The Fiery Phoenix had been tested again, both with and without a crew onboard, and it appeared to be working. After my first experience, my second turned out to be a piece of cake.

My father had introduced me to my individual mecha. It was officially called the ‘Helico Buggy’, but had been nicknamed the ‘Space Buggy’ by everyone on the team. Occasionally Jason referred to it as the ‘Widget’, but that was usually when he was wishing his car were more versatile. I have to admit, my buggy was the ugliest damn thing, but it could do things none of the other individual mechas could do, including carry up to three passengers! I chalked it up to my father understanding that Mark and Jason had to feel like their mechas were cooler than mine. I knew my buggy didn’t look cool, (in fact, it looked like a big yellow ball of crap) but it did what I needed it to do.

Princess had a motorcycle in the same colors as my mecha, and she and I had fun whizzing around town on it, in de-transmuted form. I’d never ridden a motorcycle before, and it was exhilarating. Princess was a fucking awesome driver too. I couldn’t believe some of the shit she’d pull! But she’d never do anything like that where my father could see. Tiny told me that that she had beaten Jason in a drag race shortly before I’d joined the team, and I could believe it. I wished I’d been there to see the look on Jason’s face. He must have pissed his pants when she’d left him in the dust!

Jason did take me out to the track once, and I nearly wet myself. Crap, he was fast! He showed me his racing trophies, and I began to appreciate how great a driver he really was. He had a couple of official races, and Princess, Mark, Tiny and I were there in the crowds to cheer him on. After one race, we all ran up to congratulate him, but a crowd was gathering, and somehow only Princess reached him. Jason pulled her up to stand with him on the winner’s platform, and planted a big wet one on her. The look on Mark’s face was priceless, and so was Prin’s. Still, I didn’t like the game Jason was playing. That night at Jill’s, I took him aside and let him have it.

“What were you fucking thinking of, this afternoon?” I yelled at him. “You know Princess is hot and heavy with Mark! Are you trying to mess things up for her?” “Drrrrt… why did you… doot… do that… broop… Princess… and Mark… beep…”

“Hey, Squirt, it was just a joke.” Jason smirked. “Did you see the look on Skip’s face? Damn, that was sweet!”

He had a point. It had been pretty funny. But still, he didn’t have any right to mess with Princess like that.

“Next time, just leave Princess the hell out of your fucking rivalry with Mark!” I warned him. “If you mess with her, you’ll have to damn well answer to me, and I’ll fucking wipe the floor with your ass!” “Breeet… leave Princess… doot… alone… beep… or else…”

Jason laughed. Somehow, ever since he had realized that my inane noises weren’t intentional, he seemed to understand the true meaning behind my words. He slapped me on the back, and smiled.

“Since when did you become her little protector, Squirt?” he asked me. “She means a lot to you, doesn’t she?”

“Yeah…” I replied thoughtfully. Jason was right. I hadn’t realized it before, but I really was coming to regard Princess like the family I’d never had.

“So, you’ll damn well respect her!” I added. “Broop… treat her… beep… right!”

“You got it, Squirt.” Jason winked at me.

That actually wasn’t the last time Jason tried to pull Princess into his little game of one-upmanship with Mark. I could tell that he was a little irritated that she liked Mark better than she liked him. But I would glare at Jason, and usually that was enough to make him remember his promise to me, and back off.

Despite this little bump with Jason, I was having the most fun I’d ever had. We had to attend training sessions, but they weren’t a major part of our lives.

And then, one day, about two weeks after the most recent Fiery Phoenix test, my father summoned us all to his office, using our communicators. We knew that it had to be important if he was contacting us that way.

Nervously, Princess and I raced toward Center Neptune on her motorcycle. This time, I wasn’t thinking so much about the ride, as I was about the fact that we had been summoned. Why would my father call us all to his office, out of the blue?

Could we be going on a real mission?

Shit, I was scared. We had been training, we had gone through simulations, all of the tests, and we had all known that there was a reason for all of this work. But it wasn’t until just then that I realized how unprepared I was for the idea of going out there, and dealing with real Spectran soldiers.

When we entered my father’s office, I could tell that everyone else was nervous too. We all sat quietly on the couch and chairs, even Jason. Somehow, seeing him sit, instead of leaning arrogantly against the wall as he usually did, brought home the deadly seriousness of this meeting to me.

“Thanks you all for coming.” said my father, as he entered the office. “As you all know, we have been training you to fight Spectran forces. Ever since the Federation’s first encounter with Spectra over a decade ago, it has been obvious that their planet is lacking in resources. At first they tried to buy our resources from us, and when we wouldn’t sell, they attempted to bribe our officials. When that didn’t work, they began their current campaign of subterfuge. In the past few months, Spectran agents have been stealing resources from Earth.”

“Stealing?” asked Mark, shocked, “How?”

“Their agents are able to locate untapped resources. Uranium deposits seem to be one of their favorite targets.” my father explained. “Then they quickly remove the resources, taking them to Spectra before we can discover that they are gone.”

“Bastards!” I shouted. “Get your own fucking resources! They’d better not touch any of our damn uranium!” “Brrrrrt…. breeeet…. don’t touch… doot… our uranium…”

“Unfortunately, Keyop,” my father smiled weakly, “that’s exactly what they are doing right now. We have discovered that information about new uranium deposits, below the ocean floor, near the Archipielago de los Canarreos Islands, has been stolen.”

“So, we have to recover that information?” Mark asked. Duh. I wondered if it had been those astounding powers of deduction that had gotten him his Commander’s title.

“Yes.” my father confirmed the obvious. “I want you to launch the Phoenix and investigate these islands for signs of unauthorized mining activity. You must recover the stolen data, and prevent Spectra from stealing any more uranium.”

Mark stood up, and saluted.

“G-Force!” he cried.

The rest of us quickly stood up, and followed his example.

We were official, now. It would have felt fantastic, if I hadn’t been so fucking scared.

Chapter 11 by TransmuteJun

It took the entire flight to the Archipielago de los Canarreos to calm myself down. I took a number of deep breaths, and worked on helping Princess find any sign of Spectra activity.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at an anomalous reading on my sensors.

“I think that’s what we’re looking for!” Princess smiled at me. She turned to Mark. “Commander, Keyop’s found something interesting.”

“What is it?” Mark asked coming over to our station. I pointed out the strange readings I had found. They appeared to be similar to standard Spectran patterns, although these were a little different.

“That looks like it’s worth investigating.” Mark said, “Good work, Keyop!” he clapped me on the shoulder. It was a simple thing, but it made me feel like I was doing something right, and that was just what I needed right then.

“Can you bring up a visual of that location, Tiny?” Mark asked.

“Sure thing, Commander!” Tiny replied eagerly. He adjusted the viewscreen, and we all gasped.

It was definitely an illegal mining operation. If the alien configuration of the buildings and equipment hadn’t tipped us off, the scarred landscape around the area would have.

“Okay, this is it.” Mark said. “Tiny, set us down, and we’ll all sneak into the main building. Then we can start looking for that stolen data. Once we do that…”

“Uh… Commander…” Tiny reluctantly interrupted, “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”

“Why not?” Mark asked, turning to look at Tiny.

“Well,” Tiny was turning red under his visor. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave the Phoenix out in the open, unguarded. What if some Spectran soldiers come along and find her?”

“You’ve made a good point, Tiny.” Mark said thoughtfully. “It would be pretty bad if we blew up the base, but lost the Phoenix.”

Our Commander looked at all of us carefully, then spoke again.

“Okay, Tiny, you will stay with the Phoenix, just this once. The rest of us will infiltrate the main building.” Mark ordered.

I thought I saw a sudden flash of regret cross Tiny’s face, as if he’d made a big mistake. I slapped him on the back, as we left.

“See you soon!” I smirked.

“Yeah, yeah… “ he grumbled. He looked like he was sorry he’d opened his mouth.

The elevation platform rose up to the top of the Phoenix, and the glass dome retracted. We leapt off of the ship and onto the ground. Tiny had landed us in a clearing surrounded by some kind of jungle, Quietly we made our way through the trees, until we saw the mining base from behind some palm trees. Mark signaled to us silently, and we dashed from the cover of the trees to the building.

In a way, it was fucking ludicrous. Here we were, dressed like birds, trying to be inconspicuous, as we ran across the sand, toward a uranium mining facility operated by aliens.

But in another way, it scared the crap out of me. What the hell were we doing? We were a bunch of kids, going up against possibly hundreds of veteran soldiers. It was suicide! And we didn’t even know if the data we were looking for was even in this damn place. I was beginning to envy Tiny, sitting back on the Phoenix.

The only hope I had, the only thing I could hold onto, was the thought that Mark had an idea of what the fuck we were doing. So I blindly followed along, hoping that I was the only one who was ready to shit in my pants. As I looked at my teammates, I could tell nothing from the expressions on their faces. Jason and Princess seemed as intent on following Mark as I was. And Mark exuded a quiet confidence. I don’t know where it came from, but I was damn glad for it, because it was the only thing keeping me calm at that moment.

We reached the door to the building, and Mark tried to open it. Then he tried again. It was locked.

Well duh! I felt like smacking myself in the forehead. What had we expected? Had Mark actually thought that Spectra would just leave all of their doors to their illicit mining operation open, in case G-Force dropped by?

Actually, it seemed that maybe Mark had been expecting that. He appeared stymied by this particular development. That is, until Jason stepped forward.

“Allow me.” he smirked, pulling out the blowtorch attachment on his cable gun. Mark looked relieved, and Jason cut the door open within a matter of seconds.

We slipped inside, and found ourselves in an empty corridor.

“Where now?” I whispered to Princess. She started to shrug, but then a thoughtful look crept across her face. She put a hand on Mark’s arm, stopping him momentarily, and then she turned to a small control panel set into the wall.

The display readout was in the Spectran language, but that didn’t phase Princess at all. I stood watching in awe as she calmly and quickly accessed the system, and somehow managed to pull up blueprints of the entire mining operation.

“It looks like they just began mining a couple of days ago.” she whispered. “They haven’t actually extracted much uranium yet.” She examined the display a little longer. “I think I found the control center.” she said.

“Lead on, Princess!” said Mark. He looked just as impressed with her as I was.

Quietly, we crept through the base until we reached the room that Princess had identified on the computer system. Surprisingly, we didn’t encounter any Spectrans enroute. It made me a bit nervous, not seeing anyone. It was almost as if we were walking into a trap. But I knew my best bet was to stick with my team. Together, we were a damn good fighting force. On my own, who knew what could happen? I still hadn’t been able to advance beyond Level 15 in the simulator without help.

The door to the control room was locked, and Jason had to use his blowtorch again. Quietly we opened the door, surprising five soldiers stationed in the room. Mark used his sonic boomerang to take out two of them, while Jason’s feather shuriken felled another. Instinctively I threw my bolos at a fourth, knocking him out, while Princess used her yo-yo to deal with the last one.

We all stared at each other for a moment, in shock and giddiness. We had done it! We had worked as a team, and reached our goal.

“Princess, Keyop, you two search for the data in the computer system.” Mark ordered. “Jason and I will keep an eye out and make sure that you’re not disturbed.”

“You’ve got it, Commander!” Princess grinned.

We began our task. I never knew that I could work so fast! I guess the added pressure of Spectran soldiers potentially pouring into the room at any moment was sufficient motivation. I tried hard not to look at the bodies lying on the ground close to us.

“Princess… look here…” I nudged her.

She looked over at my screen, and saw what I had found. It was a security program, set to trigger an alarm if certain data files were accessed.

“Good work, Keyop.” she whispered. “Now that I know it’s there, I can circumvent it.”

I saw her fingers fly over the keyboard. She was typing in Spectran as easily as if it were her first language. Damn, I was glad she was on our side!

I turned back to my own monitor, checking out more of the security systems. I found that I was able to hack into their camera feeds.

“Shit!” I cried. “Breep!”

“What is it, Keyop?” Mark asked, worried.

“Soldiers!” I answered, “Almost here!”

“How many?” Jason asked, just as Princess smiled and turned to us.

“I’ve got the data!” she reported, holding up a small canister of microfilm. “Now, I just have to erase it from their systems…”

At that moment, the door burst open, and at least two dozen green-suited solders ran into the room, rifles pointed at us. A man in a blue uniform pushed toward the front. He was wearing a strange hat in the shape of a shark’s head. It was so fucking ridiculous I would have peed my pants laughing at him, if I hadn’t been so scared.

“Surrender, intruders!” Sharkman cried.

“Whirlwind Pyramid!” shouted Mark, ignoring him. Quickly the four of us got into position. It was a little strange standing next to Princess, instead of on top, but it felt more stable than usual. Just before the maneuver began, Mark whispered quickly to us.

“Princess, give the data to Keyop! Keyop, as soon as you fall out of the pyramid, run as fast as you can for the Phoenix! We’ll take care of the rest of the guards, then follow you out.”

“Got it!” I nodded, just as we began to spin. I felt Princess thrust the canister in my hand, before I had to stop concentrating on everything but the maneuver.

We whirled faster and faster, until the room became a blur. I saw some flashes of green approaching and flying away from us, and then we began to slow down. I took a deep breath, and broke out of formation.

I was a little too early. I flew, head over heels, turning and rolling in the air, landing smack on my ass. I was momentarily startled, but fortunately the guards around me were as well. I leapt to my feet and ran like hell.

A couple of soldiers tried to block my path, but I aimed a quick side kick at one, knocking him to the ground. The other tried to grab me, but I ducked under his arms, sending him sprawling. I dashed around the corner, not even sure if they were still after me.

I kept on running, until I came to the door through which we had entered. Fortunately, it was still open, so I burst through and raced toward the jungle. I didn’t hear anyone pursuing me, but I still ran like the Devil himself was after me.

A few seconds later, I saw the Phoenix. Using every last bit of strength I had, I leapt up to the top of the ship, and onto the elevation platform. Immediately the glass dome enclosed me, and I began to sink down to the Bridge. A quick glance showed that I was alone.

I looked at the canister, still held tightly in my fist. I gasped for air, my heart pounding in my chest.

Our mission had been accomplished.

Chapter 12 by TransmuteJun

“What happened?” asked Tiny anxiously, the moment I appeared on the Bridge.

Proudly, I held up the canister, and grinned.

“Got it!” I cried.

“You recovered the data?” Tiny asked.

“No, we recovered the secret recipe for Spectran Fried Chicken, dumbass!” I laughed. “Brrrt… breeep…. dooot… yes… drrrrt….” It was probably just as well. If Tiny thought I had information about fried chicken, he might wet himself.

“That’s fantastic!” Tiny screeched, jumping up and pulling me into a big bear hug. It was kind of like being attacked by a sumo wrestler, only bouncier. “I can’t believe you guys did it!”

“What do you mean, you ‘can’t believe’ that we did it? Didn’t you have any fucking faith in us?” I asked indignantly. “Drrreeeet… brooot… didn’t think… doot… we could do it?”

“Uh… that’s not what I meant…” Tiny mumbled, turning red. I could tell by the look on his face that it had been exactly what he had meant, but that he hadn’t intended to let it slip.

“Shit, man! If you don’t think we can do it, what does that say about our fucking team?” I asked him. “Brrrrt… beep… our…doot… team…” I shook my head in frustration. That translation was actually painful.

“You’re right, Keyop!” Tiny replied quickly. “I should have had more faith. You guys did it!” Suddenly, he looked around. “Uh, where are the others?”

I had forgotten about the others.

Crap.

“I left them fighting a bunch of Spectran soldiers.” I mumbled. “Brrrriiip… drroooot… fighting Spectra…”

“You left them to fight the Spectrans, while you ran out of there?” Tiny’s face was aghast.

“Don’t make it sound like that!” I retorted. “Mark ordered me to leave with the data!” “Breeeet… beep… orders… to save… doot… data!”

“I guess that makes sense.” Tiny shrugged. He tried to scratch his head, but didn’t have much success, since he was still wearing his helmet. “The primary mission was to recover the data.”

“Do you think we should go in there, and help them out?” he asked me.

Shit, why was he asking me? I was just a fucking kid! But here he was, staring at me like I had all of the damn answers. As if!

Still… no one had ever looked at me like that before. It was almost as if… he was asking me to tell him what to do. Almost unconsciously, my chest puffed out with pride, and I had to stop myself from doing a strut.

I was just about to tell him what I thought we should do, when I was interrupted by an enormous rumbling sound.

“What the hell?” I cried. “Brrrt… what’s that?”

We both turned to look at the viewscreen, just as a violent explosion tore through the Spectran mining base.

Shit.

88888

We gaped, open-mouthed, at the yellow-orange flames devouring the remainder of the base. Black smoke billowed toward the sky, as if the flames were trying to reach the Planet Spectra itself.

We stood in silence for a moment, taking in the awesome sight, until Tiny spoke.

“Where are they?” he whispered.

Crap! I had momentarily forgotten about Mark, Jason and Princess.

“They should have been back by now.” I muttered. “What the hell are they doing?” “Brrrt… should be… doot… back…”

“I don’t see them!” cried Tiny, growing more frantic by the second. “What should we do?”

“Shit! How the hell should I know?” I yelled, on the verge of freaking out entirely. “Breeeet…. broooop… doot… beep… beep… beep…”

And then, I suddenly had a flash of inspiration.

I sat down at my station, scanning for any sign of our teammates.

“No sign… of life…” I reported. Tiny’s face blanched.

“No life signs at all?” he asked nervously, “No one?””

I shook my head.

“We’ve got to keep out shit together, Tiny!” I told him, “Get us up in the damn sky, so we can perform a visual search!” “Drrrrt… broot… fly… beep… visual… search… doot…”

Tiny’s face took on an expression of intense relief.

“Got it!” he cried. “Great idea, Keyop!” He busied himself launching the Phoenix into the air, while I returned to my station. I began a more thorough scan, inputing a grid-like search pattern into the Phoenix’s computers. Once I had initiated my procedure, I moved up to Mark’s seat at the front of the Bridge to help Tiny.

“Do you see anything?” Tiny asked me. I shook my head slowly.

“Keep looking!” I ordered.

But after about an hour of flying around the area and searching, we still hadn’t found them. My search program had finished, and it could find no sign of life anywhere in the vicinity of the explosion.

I was trying to hold it together for Tiny’s sake. The guy looked like he was about to have a fucking heart attack! But it was getting more and more difficult with every passing second. I looked at my hands lying in my lap, taking deep breaths to calm myself down.

A sudden flash of light caught my eye. My communicator had momentarily reflected the image of the fire from the viewscreen.

My communicator! Shit! I couldn’t believe that we hadn’t thought about that already!

“Princess! Where the hell are you?” I shouted into my wrist. “Fucking answer me! Princess!” “Brrrrt… calling… Princess…. come in… doot… Princess…”

There was no answer.

I tried contacting Mark and Jason, but there was only silence.

I looked at Tiny. Tears were falling down his face. He looked like he was scared shitless.

I knew exactly how he felt.

“What do we do, now?” Tiny asked me.

I thought for a moment, then answered him.

“We have to contact my father.” I said. “He’ll know what to do.” “Broop… doot… contact… Chief… breep… help us…”

Tiny nodded, and activated the Phoenix’s communication system. A few seconds later, my father’s image appeared in front of us.

My mouth felt dry. I had no idea how to explain what had just happened.

“Tiny, Keyop!” my father exclaimed, “I’m glad you contacted us. I need you to return to base, immediately!”

“We can’t…” Tiny sobbed.

“Mark… Princess… Jason…” I sniffled, “Lost…”

“They’re not exactly lost.” my father said firmly. “At least… we think they’re alive. We’re just not entirely sure where they are.”

“What?” I looked up at my father. “What’s going on?”

“I have some explaining to do.” my father sighed. “But in order to locate Mark, Jason and Princess, I need to have access to the scans you performed on the Phoenix. That data will help us narrow down our potential search area.”

“What are you talking about, Chief?” Tiny asked suspiciously. “How did you know that we performed scans?”

“I’ll explain everything when you return to Center Neptune.” my father repeated. “Just get yourselves back here, immediately!”

“G-Force!” I saluted. I nodded at Tiny, who ended the transmission, and turned away from the remnants of the base.

But as we left, I couldn’t help feeling that we were deserting our teammates, in their time of need.

Chapter 13 by TransmuteJun

Tiny and I barely spoke two words to each other the whole way back to Center Neptune. I kept running over what had happened in my mind. I began second-guessing myself. Was I right to run out of the base? Should I have ignored Mark’s orders and stayed there to help my teammates? If I had, would my presence have made a difference? Had we done the right thing when the base exploded? Could I have searched more efficiently, perhaps finding them quickly, instead of having to leave them behind as we returned to Base?

Other questions whirled through my mind. How had my father known that we had performed scans? What made him so certain that Mark, Jason and Princess were alive? What kind of search did he have in mind?

As we docked at Center Neptune, I found that I was even more nervous and upset than I had been before we left. I exited the Phoenix with Tiny, wringing my hands until they were numb with pain.

We trooped into my father’s office, still in uniform, hanging our heads. Almost as an afterthought, I held out the microfilm to my father. Somehow, recovering the stolen data didn’t seem that important anymore.

My father ignored my proffered hand, and invited us to sit down. Suddenly I was filled with anger.

“Aren’t you even going to take it?” I yelled at him. “Mark, Jason and Princess could be dead for all we know, and all because you wanted this fucking data! So you’d better damn well take it!” “Breet… broop… doot… aren’t you… drrrrt… going to… beep… take it?” I was about ready to reach into my brain and tear out that damn implant with my bare hands!

“First, let me say that I was very impressed with your performance on this mission.” my father said calmly, ignoring my outburst. “You all worked well together, and the only area I think needs significant improvement is communications. If you had kept each other informed of what you were doing, things would have gone much more smoothly.”

I looked at Tiny in confusion. Was my father critiquing our mission, when Mark, Jason and Princess’ lives could be at stake?

“I know this, because you were being observed, throughout the mission.” my father went on, oblivious to our shock. “This was actually an elaborate training exercise: the last step, before you were ready for a real mission.”

Wait a fucking minute! Did he say, a training exercise?

“You mean, none of this was real?” Tiny asked indignantly.

“That’s right.” my father answered. “We set up a large simulator, designed to resemble a Spectran outpost. We wanted to see how you would perform as a team, and how you would react under the pressure of a real mission.”

I guessed it kind of made sense. Still, I was somewhat angry at being duped like that. I was even angrier with myself for falling for this elaborate ruse.

“So, you’re saying that we passed your damn test?” I asked bitterly. “It’s okay to lose more than half the team, as long as we recover the fucking data?” “Breet… broot… we… doot…passed?” That was it! I ripped off my helmet and threw it to the ground, prepared to physically beat some sense into my implant.

“I understand your frustration, Keyop.” my father said quietly, coming around from behind his desk and placing his hand on my shoulder. “I had intended on giving all of you this news, together, when we could celebrate a job well done.”

“But we’re not all here.” Tiny said accusingly.

“No.” my father agreed.

“So, where are Mark, Jason and Princess?” Tiny asked.

“We’re not entirely certain.” my father acknowledged. “We lost track of them when they entered the submarine.”

“Submarine?” I shouted, jumping out of my chair.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked angrily. “There wasn’t any submarine!” “Drrrrt… broop… no submarine… dreet…”

“Actually, there was a submarine.” my father replied calmly. “Jason, Mark and Princess chased the Spectran captain, and followed him onto his submarine. They were almost a mile away from the base when it exploded.”

“So that’s how they survived!” Tiny sighed, relieved. “But wait, how do you know all of this?”

“The base and the Phoenix are equipped with cameras.” my father explained, “We have been monitoring your progress ever since you left Center Neptune. Unfortunately, we failed to install a camera on the submarine. We did not anticipate how… motivated… they would be, to capture the Spectran captain.”

“So… you know that Mark, Jason and Princess got onto this submarine, but you don’t know what happened after that?” I asked. “Breet… broot… team on submarine… doot… but where?”

“We’re not entirely sure.” my father sighed heavily, sitting down on the edge of his desk. “The submarine’s locater suddenly stopped transmitting, when they were a few miles from the base. They could be almost anywhere by now.”

“This is why we need the data from the Phoenix’s scanners.” he continued. “We are hoping that they somehow picked up what happened to the submarine.”

“Did they?” Tiny asked.

“We think so.” my father replied. “If we can determine what happened, or at least which direction it was heading, then we should be able to locate it.”

“Why can’t we contact Mark, Jason and Princess on our communicators?” I asked. “Broop,.. breep… communicators… doot… not working…?”

“We don’t really know why Mark, Jason and Princess’ communicators aren’t working.” my father said. “Your communicators are prototypes, and haven’t yet been fully subjected to the rigorous conditions we would expect them to undergo on missions. It’s quite possible that there is something we didn’t foresee, and that they are simply malfunctioning.”

“So then, we just have to wait and see what the Phoenix’s scanners were able to pick up?” Tiny asked.

My father nodded quietly.

I sighed heavily. It was going to be a long wait.

Chapter 14 by TransmuteJun

As it turned out, it wasn’t that long. After fifteen minutes, I couldn’t fucking stand it anymore, and decided to check out the information from the Phoenix myself. My father agreed that it couldn’t hurt, so Tiny and I went back to the Docking Bay.

I couldn’t believe how many people were swarming around the Bridge. I could barely move over to my station! When I arrived, I heard two people arguing.

“I’m telling you Charla, you have to re-calibrate the sensors before you do the analysis!” said one man. It was the most idiotic thing I’d ever fucking heard. Why would the sensors need to be re-calibrated to analyze data that had already been collected?

“No, James, that can’t be right!” replied Charla. Thank goodness someone had some sense around here!

“I think we need to wipe the memory banks and re-boot the computer systems.” Charla declared.

“No!” I screamed, pushing my way through the milling Federation personnel. Charla had just become the person I wanted most to strangle at that moment. Wiping the memory banks would destroy all of the information I had managed to obtain through my scans!

Everyone turned to stare at me. I suppose I appeared rather bizarre: a kid in a bird costume shoving his way through a bunch of white-coated ‘scientists’ (and I use that term very loosely).

“You can’t!” I screamed, desperately hoping that my implant would let me make myself clear.

“Who do you think you are?” declared Charla huffily. “We work for Galaxy Security!” It was obvious that the uniform hadn’t clued her in. I wasn’t surprised. Every aspect of our team and our training had been classified as ‘top secret’.

“So do I, bitch!” I cried. “Breeeet… broot…. beep… me too…” But I could tell that I had lost their attention as soon as that gibberish began to spout forth from my mouth.

“What’s his problem?” asked James nastily. “Can we get him out of here?”

“No!” I protested, but the other personnel were beginning to push me back out of the way.

“Let him in there!” bellowed Tiny. I looked up at him gratefully. He certainly knew how to draw attention to himself!

“This is Keyop’s station!” Tiny declared. “He took those readings, and he is best qualified to analyze them!”

“This kid?” sniffed Charla, “He doesn’t seem like he could analyze a paper bag, much less data from a complex piece of machinery like the Phoenix.”

I started seeing red. I was about to haul off and belt her one, when Tiny put his hand on my shoulder.

“He and I know more about the Phoenix than you ever will.” Tiny growled menacingly. Charla backed away involuntarily, suddenly looking frightened. She glanced to James for help.

“Are you going to let them talk to me like that?” she asked him.

“What are you two doing here, anyhow?” James asked indignantly, standing toe to toe with Tiny. “On whose authority are you allowed on this ship?”

“Mine.” said a quiet voice. Despite its low volume, it had a ring of authority that caused everyone to turn and stare at its owner. My father stood on the elevation platform, waiting until everyone was paying strict attention to his words.

“Keyop is to be allowed full access to his station, and the data he collected.” my father declared firmly. “He is in charge of this operation.” I looked at my father gratefully, and he smiled at me.

“I know you won’t let your team down, Keyop.” he said.

Immediately, I jumped into my hastily vacated seat. I gave a deep sigh of relief when I discovered that my sensor data was still intact. These idiots hadn’t managed to erase any of it yet.

I opened the files, and began displaying the data across my workstation, and Princess’ as well. The ‘scientists’ crowded around, curious to see what I was doing. Thanks to my father’s little speech, I had their full attention.

“Watch… and learn.” I growled.

Tiny stood directly behind me, smiling proudly. I just hoped that I could fulfill everyone’s expectations.

For an hour I pored through the information. My initial search didn’t have any useful results, but the search program I had run while we were flying around and performing our visual inspection was more useful. Because the Phoenix had been moving, the area the search had covered was greater, and the peripheral data that had been recorded was significant.

Finally, bleary-eyed from reading the computer monitors for so long, I noticed something.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at a small discrepancy in the readouts.

“That’s nothing.” scoffed James. “Is that all you’ve found?” But Tiny pushed him away and bent down to examine my finding.

“That looks like a ghost image.” he said. “A reflection of something else.”

“Reflection?” I asked. I hadn’t heard about anything like this before. “Of what?”

“Sometimes, if things are moving fast on the periphery of our sensor sweeps,” Tiny explained, “the Phoenix will pick it up, but display it in the wrong location. It has something to do with our shielding for the Fiery Phoenix and the corner reflectors…”

“Can you figure out where this image was originally located?” I asked. “Drrrt… where… breep… started?”

“Let me see…” Tiny muttered. He sat down in Princess’ chair and pressed a number of buttons at the control station. His fingers were moving so fast, I could barely tell what he was doing. One thing was for sure, no one knew the Phoenix and its systems better than Tiny did.

“Okay,” he mumbled. “I think this signal originated from these co-ordinates. The object was moving with this vector.” Tiny pointed out his results to me. It looked like a lead.

“Submarine?” I asked my father. He had been standing and watching us silently the entire time.

Slowly, he leaned over my chair and looked at the results.

“I think you’ve got it, boys!” he grinned, clapping us both on the shoulder. “This looks like the positioning, direction and speed of the submarine!”

Smiling, I entered the data into the computer, and calculated the likely path of the submarine, as well as its current estimated location.

“Start search?” I asked my father, eager to begin.

“There’s no time like the present!” he smiled back at me.

“Let’s go!” I crowed. Tiny jumped up and practically flew the few steps to his pilot’s seat.

“Everybody off my Bridge!” he bellowed. The ‘scientists’ scrambled like mad for the exit.

“Wait a minute, Tiny.” my father said. “Are you sure you want to go running off yourself? You and Keyop have been awake for nearly twenty-four hours. You can let Galaxy Security robot planes begin the search while you get some rest.”

I thought of that pussy 7-Zark-7 who fucked up my implant so badly, and knew that I would never rely on robot planes for anything really important.

“No way!” I cried indignantly. “Want to help!” Tiny nodded emphatically.

“The kid’s right!” he declared. “These are our teammates who are missing. We should be part of the search effort!”

“All right.” my father nodded. “You can launch the Phoenix to begin the search.”

I was overwhelmed by the faith my father had in me.

“Thank you.” I said. Those simple words didn’t really express what I was feeling at that moment, but given my damn implant, it was the best I could do.

“You’ve earned it, Keyop.” he replied, as he departed the Bridge.

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Chapter 15 by TransmuteJun

As we left Center Neptune, I was surprised to see that it was pitch black outside. I hadn’t actually realized how late it was. I found myself catching a quick nap while we flew to the co-ordinates Tiny and I had discovered.

“Are you sure you aren’t too tired?” I asked Tiny, as we neared the co-ordinates. “Drrrt… not tired? Broop…”

“Nah.” Tiny grinned good-naturedly. “I want to find Mark, Jason and Princess as much as you do! Besides, I have a feeling there will be plenty of time to catch up on my sleep later.”

“Okay!” I shrugged. I wanted to find our teammates too.

But when we reached the location we had identified, nothing was there. No submarine, no people, barely a ripple in the water!

“What now?” Tiny asked.

“Don’t know…” I muttered.

“I guess, if the submarine isn’t here, it might mean that it never got this far?” Tiny asked.

“Or… went further…” I added.

“Yeah.” Tiny agreed. “So, maybe we should head out in two different directions?”

Just then we received a signal from the robot planes that had followed us, asking for instructions on how to proceed with the search.

“Tell them… to circle!” I exclaimed.

“Circle?” Tiny asked, confused.

“Yeah. For all we know, the submarine changed direction. You could go forward in the Phoenix, and I could go back in the Space Buggy, and we could send the robot planes out in ever-expanding circles, around this point.” I suggested. Of course, my damned implant wouldn’t let me explain it like that. “Breep… droot… you go… forward… brrrrt… I go… backward… beep... doot… robots… circle… broop… bigger… and bigger…”

“I like that idea, Keyop!” Tiny said approvingly. He contacted the planes, and told them to search in an expanding circular pattern, from this point. I ran for my Space Buggy.

“See you… soon!” I promised Tiny.

“And keep in touch! Tiny reminded me, tapping his communicator.

“Won’t forget!” I grinned.

88888

I had started off with high hopes, but after three hours of searching, I was getting discouraged as hell. I had been checking in with Tiny every fifteen minutes, and if I heard him tell me that something was ‘bound to show up soon’ one more time, I was going to scream my fucking head off.

The sun had risen hours ago, and now my view was awash in bright sunlight. But there was still no sign of Mark, Jason, or Princess.

My communicator emitted a soft beep. It was that time again.

“Nothing yet.” I said, activating the device.

“Awww, that’s okay, little buddy!” Tiny replied in an overly optimistic voice. “Something’s bound to turn up soon!”

I turned off my communicator, and screamed at the top of my lungs, the frustrated sound echoing nicely off of the roof of my Space Buggy. Actually, it helped a lot.

I took a couple of deep breaths to calm myself down. As I did so, I looked out at the horizon. Everything was so beautiful here: the crystal blue-green waters, the azure sky dotted with a sprinkling of puffy white clouds, a few pristine islands that seemed to float on the ocean’s surface…

Wait a minute… the islands!

Specifically: one particular island. The last island at the edge of my view seemed to have a thin line of grey rising up from it and into the sky.

Could it be?

I flew as fast as my buggy could travel, and even coaxed a little more out of her. She was damn ugly, but at that moment she was more beautiful to me than a Ferrari.

Sure enough, as I got closer, the thin grey line turned out to be a plume of smoke. Eagerly, I flew around the island, to find the source of the fire.

As I approached, a stretch of beach came into view. On the beach was a small bonfire, and next to it…

Three sets of wings. Two white, one blue.

Jackpot!

I moved my Space Buggy in for a landing, settling it gently on the sand, close to the fire. I popped my head out of the mouth of the buggy, and looked upon the faces of my friends.

“Need a ride?” I grinned.

“Keyop! Princess cried, running up to me and giving me a big hug. “I’m so glad to see you!”

I knew I was blushing to the roots of my hair, and was grateful that my visor hid it from Mark and Jason.

“I’m glad you found us, Squirt!” Jason said, clapping me on the shoulder. “I was starting to get awfully hungry!”

“You mean, you weren’t out in the ocean fishing with your bare hands, Mister Macho?” I joked. “Brrrt… no… doot… fishing?”

“Nah,” Jason replied, grinning. “See, Mark refused to clean them, and Princess was kind of squeamish at the mere mention of fish guts.”

“Squeamish?” Princess exclaimed hotly, “I’ll show you how well I can handle a steaming pile of entrails!” She thrust her leg out in a perfectly executed roundhouse kick, which Jason only narrowly managed to avoid.

“So, I can see that you’ve all been having a damn good time, then?” I smirked at Mark, while watching Jason and Princess sparring on the sand. “Droot… breep… everything… okay?”

“Everything’s just fine, Keyop.” Mark smiled at me.

Just then, my communicator beeped softly. Grinning, I activated it and raised it to my mouth, preparing to give Tiny the good news. Unfortunately, my implant went into overdrive and all that came out was gibberish.

Brrrt… breep… doot…” I stuttered.

“Don’t worry, Keyop!” came Tiny’s cheerful voice, “Something’s bound to turn up soon!”

“Already has!” I shouted.

“What?” Tiny sounded confused.

“You’re taking an awfully long time to get here.” Mark spoke into my communicator. “What kind of pilot are you, anyway?”

“Mark?” Tiny howled joyfully, “Is it really you?”

“Yes, you idiot!” I shouted, “Mark is here, and so are Jason and Princess, and we’re all just waiting for you to fucking make your way over here! So kick that blue bird in the ass and get the hell over to my co-ordinates!” “Broop… breep… droot… beep… yes… all here… doot… waiting… breep… for you!”

“I’ve got your co-ordinates locked in, and I’ll be there in a few minutes!” Tiny replied happily.

“I hope you brought some food!” Jason shouted in the direction of my wrist.

Unfortunately, his momentary distraction was just what Princess needed. She landed a beautiful side kick on Jason’s jaw.

“Damn!” he cried, dropping into the sand. “That hurt!”

I fell down to the ground myself, laughing so hard my sides hurt.

“And what, exactly, is so funny?” Jason growled at me.

“Matching… set!” I cried, dissolving into another fit of giggles.

“He’s right, Jason.” Mark smirked. “I would think that, by now, you would know better than to mess with Princess.”

Jason touched his face cautiously, slowly coming to the realization that the bruise that was already beginning to form on the left side of his face perfectly matched the one on his right.

By the time Tiny had arrived, we were all laughing, even Jason. But it was more than just his bruises.

We had all survived our first mission. And that was something to celebrate.

Epilogue by TransmuteJun

The Ready Room reverberated with the sounds of Guns and Roses. Or rather, with Princess’ and my rendition of Welcome to the Jungle. We had tried to convince Tiny to come up and sing the lyrics, but he had pleaded off on the excuse that he was hungry, so we were playing an instrumental while Tiny stuffed his face full of Spaceburgers.

So far, our set had included The Clash, Loverboy, the Police, Survivor, and of course, Van Halen. I had been happily surprised with Princess’ musical tastes.

As we finished the song, she gave me a sly smile.

“Hmmm…. how about some Zepplin?” she asked coyly.

“Sure…” I replied, “just not…”

The opening bars of Stairway to Heaven came from her guitar, and I dropped my head into my hands. Why did she have to go and ruin it all?

Tiny began laughing helplessly as soon as he saw my face, scattering bits of masticated Spaceburger around the room.

“Ewww… gross!” I protested, picking a piece of bun off of my arm.

“Sorry, Keyop.” Tiny giggled. “But you should have seen the look on your face…”

“I guess I’ll keep that song in reserve, in case you ever give me any trouble, Keyop.” Princess winked.

Damn, that girl really knew how to keep us all in line! I grinned back at her.

“Now Princess, there’s no reason to get nasty.” I smirked. “Did I ever mention that I like to collect bugs? They love to snuggle into nice warm beds.” “Breet…. broop… did you… know… doot… beep… I collect… brrrt… bugs?”

Now Tiny practically fell off of his chair, laughing. I have to admit, Princess seemed pretty taken aback by my comment. That was saying something for a girl who had given Psycho Jason two spectacular bruises without any trouble at all. I filed that one away for future reference.

“Will you guys keep it down?” Jason grumbled. “I’m trying to show our Commander who rules at ping pong!”

“You’re just mad because you’re down a point.” Mark smirked, hitting the ball back across the table.

“Nah.” replied Jason slyly, “I’m just mad that from this angle, I don’t get to watch Princess dancing in those tight jeans of hers.”

Mark shifted his head in Princess’ direction, his face turning red, just as the white ball whizzed past his ear.

“I think we’re tied now, Skip.” Jason drawled.

This time, Tiny actually did fall off of his chair.

Princess looked both annoyed with Jason, and pleased with Mark’s reaction to his comment. She seemed like she wanted to say something, but then thought better of it.

“Only because you cheated!” Mark huffed.

“I didn’t cheat.” Jason replied smoothly. “I just pointed out the obvious.”

Mark threw Jason a dirty look, and they began to play again. I sidled over to Tiny and whispered in his ear.

“Ten bucks on Jason.”

“You’re on!” Tiny grinned, slapping his hand into mine to seal the deal.

I turned around, checking out the relative positions of everyone in the room.

“Princess!” I called.

“What is it, Keyop?” she asked, strumming her guitar.

“Dropped… guitar pick!” I pointed out.

“Thanks, Keyop!” she smiled, bending over to pick it up, giving Mark a fine view of her ass.

“Point and game!” Jason crowed, sending another ball flying past our distracted Commander.

This time, I was the one laughing, as Tiny paid up.

I looked at the faces of my teammates… my friends. It was amazing how in such a short period of time, I felt like I was one of them, and like we were almost a family, of sorts. I recalled how nervous I had been, the first day we had all met, and laughed now at how pointless those fears had been. As soon as I had shown them who I was, and what I could do, I had belonged.

And when it came down to it; that had been all I had ever wanted.

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