Anderson Must Die by Alara Rogers
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Anderson Must Die

A BOTP story by Alara Rogers

As the round spaceship set down in the back of the Hanna Library, two women waited to greet its occupants-- a short, chubby, middle-aged one with waistlength greying brown hair and glasses that made her eyes ludicrously huge, and a lithe, slim woman in her early 20's with straight gold hair, wearing the gray uniform of a DSA technician. The spaceship's gangplank set down, and two bizarrely costumed girls, who moved with the speed and gangliness of teenagers, stepped out. Nothing of their true bodies was visible. One wore a long blonde wig, the other a blue one. Their faces were hidden by oval, idealized face masks, like molds of the same beautiful woman's face-- the blonde-wig's mask was red, and had jagged dark lines painted on it, while the blue-wig's was pale green and covered with intricate black scrollery. The uniforms-- silver bodysuits with black fur at the collar and cuffs-- did nothing to hide their femaleness but swallowed up the individuality of their shapes, making them-- aside from a slight difference in height-- differently colored identical twins. With laser rifles slung over shoulders, they stood at the foot of the gangplank, to the sides, and formed an honor guard for the one they were all waiting for.

The last of the ship's occupants stepped out, and all eyes were on her, even the guards that had spent the trip with her. Mala Andelo was tall, thin to the point of boniness, and pushing middle age-- but she had an instantly mesmerizing presence, a charisma that drew the eye irresistably toward her. Red-gold hair was piled in a bun on her head, catching fire with the light of Earth's setting sun, and intense blue eyes pinned the scene to some mental wall. She smiled, and her face softened slightly. "Mira. It's good to see you." Her voice was a low alto, accented faintly with the rhythms of her native tongue.

The chubby woman bowed. "It's good to see you too, Commander Mala," she replied, also in English. "How was your trip?"

"Quick-- which was all that could be said for it. Introduce me, Mira. Is this Tinya, who I've heard so much about?"

The technician smiled embarrassedly. "I am, yea-- yes," she said, trying to imitate Mala's almost European formality. She bowed her head, and placed her hands out in the Spectran gesture of respect she'd been taught. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Commander."

Mala's eyes drew Tinya and held them with a sensual intensity. "The pleasure is all mine," Mala said softly, imbuing the cliche with darkly thrilling hidden meanings. Then her manner shifted, became businesslike again. "It was reported to me that you were taking steps to...?"

Tinya nodded eagerly. "Yes, Commander Mala. Anderson and one of his drivers are en route to Aerie Base in the Sierra Mountains. I have Aerie wired for v-a, transmitted along the complines as noise packets--"

"Please. I speak English, but not technese."

"Sorry." Tinya looked a trifle embarrassed. "Aerie is bugged for sight and sound, and the information transmitted directly along the computer lines, so there's no radio signal for Anderson's people to intercept. I've also obtained a map of his likely route, although what you want that for, I don't know..."

"Excellent, Tinya. Why don't you go in and activate the transmission. Either Zina or Yana will want to ask you more about Anderson's route, I think." She switched to Spectran and addressed the teenage assassins. "Zina, Yana, which of you--"

"Let me do it, Commander Mala!" the blue-wigged one blurted. "I've bagged about 50 more roadside kills than she has--"

"Like hell you have, Zina! Besides, who's got more experience on Earth?"

"Who nearly got her tail shot off on that geezer job?"

"Zina, Yana," Mala said sharply. "Both of you be silent! Yana, you speak English well, don't you?"

"Yes, Commander."

"Then you shall handle Anderson's death. Vinderglis will tell you whatever you need to know." In English she said. "This is Yana Varsok, Tinya. Yana, unmask." The blonde-wigged one took off her mask, revealing brown hair and a pale, pocked face without beauty. "Tinya, give Yana whatever information she asks for. All right?"

"Fine." Tinya seemed unnerved by the obvious military nature of the two Spectran girls. Mala turned to Zina and spoke in Spectran again.

"Zina, go report to Janinya, then come attend me. Mira and I have matters to discuss." Zina saluted and left, which Tinya and Yana took as their excuse to depart as well.

Dr. Mira Kazgon spoke quietly. "Even after all these years, it still amazes me, Mala. That girl was Anderson's completely. How did you do it?"

Mala laughed. "I didn't do it, Mira. Janinya did."

"Oh, but you know what I mean. You trained Janinya. You trained them all, and they all love you." Mira shook her head. "Even me, Mala. If I weren't so old and fat..."

"Old? You're my age, Mira, and I hardly feel old. And as for fat, occasionally slimness grows wearying... I'm sure we could arrange something." Her smile was definitely sensual.

"You mean that, Mala?"

"I mean everything I say, Mira, you know that. But not tonight. I have too much work to do, and I want nothing to distract me from the important consideration." Her eyes were like lasers, piercing. "Tonight Charles Anderson dies."

Jason hated driving in the city-- the traffic didn't permit the fast driving he preferred. At least it was late at night, and there were fewer cars around than usual-- and they'd nearly reached the end. Once they got out of Bayside, the rest of it would be open road, through the mountains to Aerie Base...

He turned a corner, headed toward Tammylin Bridge, and frowned. That was a really odd-looking car coming up in back of him.

"Chief," he called toward the back seat. "Chief, wake up."

"Mmm," Anderson mumbled, and blinked his eyes open. "What is it?"

"Look back there. That's a really strange-looking car." Jason turned down a side street, sped past houses and garbage cans. It followed. Jason pulled back onto the thoroughfare. "What do you think?"

"I think you're right. It's following us. Has it made any threatening moves?"

"I call following me threatening enough. Let's see if I can lose it."

Jason hit the gas, weaving in and out of the lanes of traffic. The car pursued-- and now Jason could see that it was constructed more like a plane than a car at all. That was not a Terran design. Shit! I should have taken my damned aircar! An open stretch of thoroughfare, leading to the bridge, lay ahead of them-- and now the thing was gaining on them effortlessly. Damn this car! It wasn't his own, it was a subtransformable, the only kind you could use in leaving Center Neptune-- if they were in his car there'd be no problem outrunning the damn thing-- was that a buzzsaw coming out the enemy car's side? "Shit!"

It kept pressing at them, trying to drive them over the side of the road. Jason floored it, skidding out onto the bridge, and the other driver pursued. He could see now that it was a woman, with a beautiful if expressionless face-- no, idiot, that was a mask-- Nagoruk? he thought, remembering the only other female assassin they'd met. Hadn't she wore a mask like that? He didn't really think this was Nagoruk, but whoever she was, she was good. Damn her. The buzzsaw closed in. Jason hit the brake, causing the assassin's vehicle to shoot past them, then slewed around into a U-turn, trying to head off the bridge.

The alien car shed parts, turning into a mini-plane, and fired a missile at them. Dammit! Jason spun the wheel, dodged, but exploding pavement shattered his tire, and they were going out of control. The bridge is not a good place for this!

The second missile sent them spinning completely out of control. The shockwave knocked them sideways, over the side of the bridge, down toward the water--

"Jason!" Anderson shouted, terror in his voice.

"Hang on--" They struck the water, the impact jerking Anderson into the side of the car again and slamming Jason against the wheel. Good thing we were both wearing seat belts, Jason thought somewhat irrelevantly, his head shaken up by the crash. For a second of disorientation, he floated there, not knowing what to do. Then reality sank in. You idiot, this is a subtransformable! He transformed the car to an underwater configuration, shedding the camouflage shell, and stared up into the water. A rose was floating lazily down towards them.

A rose? What the hell-- "SHIT!!" Jason dove the submarine to the bottom of the river as the rose exploded, demolishing the shell. The shockwave rocked them, but the subtransformable was built to take much worse.

He looked into the back seat. "Chief. You all right?"

"I... think so." Anderson rubbed the back of his head. "Did you get a good look at that assassin?"

"Good enough," Jason said. "She wasn't Nagoruk."

"I didn't think she was. But we've heard of an organization of masked female assassins, the Akton Malai. I think we may just have run into one, and I don't like it at all."

"Why? Akton Malai supposed to be something special?"

"Thalia Nagoruk's a member. Perhaps their leader. And from what I've learned, they're the most feared elite corps on Spectra. If I'm their target..." Anderson did not often sound frightened. He did now.

"Don't worry about it, Chief. I'll get you home, and then I'll hunt the bitch down and find out what she knows."

It was almost morning. Almost morning, for god's sakes, and Jason and the Chief were supposed to have been home hours ago. Horrific images filled Mark's mind, of Jason and the Chief lying mangled in a traffic accident somewhere-- and then the door opened. Mark spun. "About time!" he said, relieved and somewhat irritated. "Where've you been?"

"I'm sorry for making you worry," Anderson said. He sounded punchy. "But we had a... slight interruption on the way up."

"Nothing to speak of," Jason said. He sounded angry and shaken. "Just a masked woman, in a transformable rocket aircar, possibly one of the members of the most feared elite corps on Spectra, who tried to kill us with a magnetic exploding rose that she had tucked behind her ear! Now don't you wish you'd gone with us?"

"Elite corps?" Mark frowned. "The only female Spectran I ever heard of was Thalia Nagoruk."

"Don't forget Zoltar's daughters," Princess said.

"They're shapechangers. They don't count."

"Akton Malai," Anderson said, sitting down. "The Sharp Agents. Colonel Nagoruk is a high-ranking member, perhaps their leader. Together with the Shadows, their male counterparts, they are the most feared agents on Spectra. The only things we've been able to learn about them is that they train young girls from early childhood to be killers, and that they don't accept men. It doesn't strike me as a coincidence that such a group would attack me the night before my conference in Ontario."

Jason leaned against the wall. "If I hadn't had the Chief in the car, I could have transmuted and taken the bitch," he said. "I could still go get her. In a getup like that, her trail's likely to be fresh."

"Maybe," Mark said. "But in the first place, Jason, if those people are trying to kill the Chief before the conference, they might strike again tonight or tomorrow, on the train. We all need to be together to protect him."

"That's right," Princess said earnestly. "Jason, we don't dare take off to look for the assassin. What if she tracked you to this base? We've got to stay together, and--"

"--twiddle our thumbs, while the assassins come up with some new way to harass us tomorrow," Jason interrupted. "You people are unreal. Maybe you don't dare, but--"

"What're you trying to do? Get yourself killed? Get the Chief killed?" Tiny asked. "Suppose you go out there and look for that asssassin, how do you know she's not going to get you first?"

"I told you, Tiny. I can take her."

"Assuming you find her," Mark said sharply. "How likely is that? Jason, in the second place that assassin's probably gone. It's the middle of the night-- later than the middle of the night-- if you take off now, searching for this woman, you'll just exhaust yourself and make yourself useless to us tomorrow."

"I don't need as much sleep as you do, Mr. Beauty Rest," Jason retorted.

"Chief!" Princess looked at Anderson, hoping he'd put a stop to this, but Anderson only looked weary.

"Listen," Jason said, feeling as if he were spelling it out to morons. Were they so unconfident of their own ability to protect Anderson that they thought they needed him around, like a good luck charm? That didn't sound normal at all. "There are elite Spectran assassins out there who are trying to kill the Chief. This is a Bad Thing. If we sit here and wait for them to attack, maybe we'll be able to stop them. And maybe we won't. But if we can go out and get them before they attack, they can't hurt Chief Anderson. Got it? So we can have a two-pronged assault. You stay here and play tiddlywinks, and I'll go out and catch the bastards. Good-bye." He slammed the door as he left.

"That idiot's really going to get himself killed one of these days," Mark muttered angrily. Couldn't Jason see Mark wanted the team to stay together, so the Spectrans couldn't pull a "divide and conquer"?

"Chief, aren't you going to stop him?" Princess asked.

Tiny looked at her. "Has anyone ever been able to stop Jason from acting like an idiot?" he pointed out.

Anderson looked up. "If Jason thinks he can capture the agent, he has my blessings," he said. "I want to know as much as I can about those people. Have the rest of you thought about sleeping? It's 2 in the morning, and we have to be on the train at 9. I suggest you all relax and go to bed."

"Especially Mark," Keyl needled. "Mark's such a morning person, after all."

"Keyl. Shut up." Mark's inability to stay on his feet without 8 hours of sleep a night was legendary, if somewhat exaggerated.

Mala awakened from a hazy nightmare, automatically reaching to where Thalia should be and finding only a pillow and empty space. The shock awakened her fully, and she remembered that she was on Earth, not being pursued by Cardok's men. And she was alone. Damn. She pulled the blankets around herself more tightly, trying to gain comfort from them. I wish Thalia were here.

But she wasn't, and Mala had a mission to complete. She flicked on the light, and padded over to the terminal, checking the sign-in log. Good-- Yana was back. By now, Charles Anderson should be no more than-- she sought the proper English metaphor, and got it-- water under the bridge. Mala laughed to herself, softly-- she loved puns. She flicked on the viewscreen, and set it to look in on Aerie Base, to watch as G-Force waited tensely for Anderson to return, and to gloat.

Anderson was doing paperwork at his terminal.

Damn! Mala had had such high hopes, too. Anger curdled through her system-- Yana had better have a good explanation. The Sharps were women, and women trained in the finest Spectra had to offer-- Mala did not accept incompetence from them.

She watched Anderson a while longer, then leafed through the information Tinya had given her. Anderson's whole itinerary, all the way to the Claude-Simmons International Science Symposium, was listed. Mala studied it, smiling. She was a strategist, born and trained all her life to devise plans. Yana's failure need not set them back much.

Dressing, she went to the audience chamber and summoned the Sharps. The sign-in log indicated Lani hadn't come in yet-- damn. Lani was Pipeline, a Terran who'd been sheltered from the nastier side of the business so far, but she was the best sabotage artist Mala had. She was supposed to be in tonight. That's another one who'd better have a good excuse.

As the Akton Malai assembled, Mala brushed her hair, until she sensed that all of her Hanna operatives were in. Then she opened the meeting explosively, with the tightly controlled anger that was her trademark. "You have failed in your mission, Yana. Anderson has not been eliminated!"

Many of the Sharps shrank back from Mala's anger, but Yana herself held her ground. "No, Commander Mala, there must be some mistake!" she argued. "I saw the explosion myself. He couldn't possibly have survived..."

"Do not dispute me, Yana, I am never mistaken. If a mistake was made, it was yours."

Yana bowed her masked head. "Then I ask forgiveness," she whispered.

Mala melted in the face of her contrition. "It was not your fault," she said. "An unexpected factor must have entered the equation. I will handle the matter personally. --Zina! Lani has not come in yet?"

"No, Commander."

"Then it is likely that you will command tomorrow. Pick three Terran girls, all blooded, and if Lani doesn't come in, take Jennifer as your interpreter. You will act as Sky Commandoes."

"But Commander, didn't you just say you would handle matters personally?"

"And I will. Listen carefully, Zina. This is tomorrow's plan..."

Lani Hill trudged through the early morning, thumb out at every occasional passing car, growing more and more upset. She was late. She was really late. Commander Mala was going to absolutely kill her. She'd been walking for the past three hours or so, relying on her fighting skills to take care of any weirdos that attacked her. None did. Now she'd even settle for a weirdo, as long as he had a car. She had been supposed to report in two hours ago, and it would be another two or three hours before she made it to the Hanna Library on foot...

Then a car pulled up, and an attractive young man was asking, "You need a lift?" Lani forgot in an instant all of Mala's admonitions against strange men, especially young, attractive ones, and said, "Oh, yes!" She ran around the side of the car and got in.

"Thank you, thank you! I've been walking and walking..."

"I saw." Jason grinned. "I don't usually pick up hitchhikers, but I figured if you were on the road this late at night, you had to be desperate. Or this early in the morning. What time is it?"

"Uh--" she checked her watch. "6:30."

"6:30, huh?" He shook his head, looking annoyed. "Mark was right. Damn." Then he shrugged. "Nothing I can do about it now."

"About what?"

"Nothing." He looked at her. "So what's your name?"

"Lani. Lani Hill. I don't usually thumb, but my car broke down I-don't-know how many miles back..."

"I'm Jason. How long were you out there?"

"Oh--" She checked her watch again. "Since 3, I think."

"That's dangerous. It's a good thing I came by, then-- you could ahve been mugged. Especially nearer the city like this."

"Do you have a last name, Jason?" Lani said tentatively. "I don't mean to pry, but--"

"I'm from Australia Complex." He said it tersely-- his life in the Australia Complex was a part of his childhood he wanted very much to forget.

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it." He turned, heading into the city. "So, where do you want me to take you?"

"Uh... do you know where the Hanna Library is?"

Jason thought for a second. "Yeah, I think so... That's the way I'm going anyway. You're a librarian?"

Perfect explanation. "Yes, and I start work early in the morning... I'm supposed to be there already. My employer's going to kill me! She hates it when we're late."

"I can see how that would be a problem. My boss practically has an epileptic fit when I'm late."

"What do you do?"

"Drive cars and save damsels in distress."

"For a living, I mean?"

Jason thought of a plausible lie. "Not much. I'm in college now, so I work on the weekends in a law office. General errand boy, you know, look up briefs, get the boss a cup of coffee, that sort of thing."

"Sounds pretty boring."

"About as much as being a librarian, I'd guess."

She giggled. "Probably."

As they passed a strand of restaurants, Lani stared out the window hungrily. Jason offered, "There's muffins under the back seat if you want."

"Oh, thank you!" Lani retrieved a box of foil-wrapped muffins and opened one, consuming it hungrily. She was starving, and there was no guarantee Commander Mala would let her take time for breakfast.

"Pass me one." Jason ate the muffin one-handed as he drove. "Want to stop for coffee?"

"Oh, but I'm late--"

"We'll get take-out. It'll only take a few seconds." And Jason was thoroughly exhausted and could use some, but he wasn't going to mention that. He pulled into a fast-food place and ordered coffee. The vending machine dispensed it, he put his money in, and the bar across the way lifted, enabling him to drive off. "Here. It's hot."

"Where do you go to school?" Lani asked.

Jason smiled inwardly. She was really a very pretty girl. In another minute or two, he gauged, they'd be exchanging phone numbers. "Navigational Academy."

"The Academy!" she gasped. "Wow! That's like the toughest school on Earth, isn't it?"

"It's up there," Jason said casually. He loved impressing girls. And it was sort of true-- he had in fact gone to the Academy once, for a year.

"It must have been really hard to get in. Were you from Alpha Wing in Australia?"

"No," he said shortly. "I don't want to discuss Australia."

"Oh, I'm sorry..."

"You didn't know. It's just... I didn't get out of there a moment too soon." He had been recruited into G-Force when he was 7 years old. From 5 to 7, he had lived in the nightmare called Australia Complex's Epsilon Wing, and in many respects it had scarred him for life. "Anyway. Where do you live?"

"Oh!" she said, startled. "Oh, I... I'm not supposed to say." It was lame, she knew it, and her mind raced as she searched for an explanation.

"Why not?" Jason asked, puzzled.

"It's... well... my parents don't like it. Anyway, I live up near Nuevos Angeles, not near here at all."

Jason looked at her. What spooked her like that?

"Oh! Here it is!" They pulled up in front of the Hanna Library. A tall blonde woman stood at the top of the steps, staring down at them. Jason glanced at her. That's one mean-looking woman.

"She your boss?" he asked.

"Oh, damn. I've got to go!" Lani scrambled out of the car. "Thanks for everything, Jason!"

"My pleasure."

"Maybe we'll meet again sometime..." she said, then turned and half-ran up the stairs. Jason watched to be sure she was okay. The tall woman looked too well-dressed to be a librarian. I'd hate to have an overdue book when she's on duty. He started to pull out.

Upstairs, out of Jason's earshot, Lani bowed her head. "I'm sorry I'm late. My car broke down."

Mala lifted her hand and deliberately snapped it across Lani's face, slapping her and sending her reeling. Jason, who'd seen the scene in his rear-view mirror, turned and craned his head out to look. What the hell--?

Mala said, quietly but with controlled fury in the tone, "I could forgive you your lateness easily-- it's riding with a man that angers me. You know better, Lani! Go inside and report to Zina. I haven't time to deal with you."

"Yes, Commander," Lani whispered, and went inside.

Mala stared at Jason until he pulled onto the road, a chill going down his spine. Librarians don't hit their employees, he thought. There is something definitely not kosher about that woman. He planned to check it out-- but later. Right now, he was very tired and wanted to go home.

The phone rang, early in the morning. Anderson hadn't been asleep-- he hadn't slept at all, or even attempted to, all night-- but it jolted him, after so long in the profound silence of the sleeping house. He lifted it. "Anderson."

"This is Tania Morris from Pantrak. I'm just calling to confirm that your reservation time has been changed to the 7:15 train out of the Bayside Hub Station. Does that sound good to you?"

"That's fine. Excellent, in fact. Thank you very much."

He pressed the button to wake and summon the team, poured himself a cup of coffee liberally laced with something that looked like sugar but wasn't, and went back to his private chambers to shave and change clothes. When he came back out, Mark was walking into the office, looking like death only slightly warmed over. "What's up?" Mark asked blearily.

"Here." Anderson handed him a cup of coffee, black. "I've gotten my reservation time changed to 45 minutes from now. The Akton Malai will be expecting me to leave at 9-- so we'll leave earlier, and bypass them."

Mark grinned in a faded sort of fashion, as the other three came in, Keyl cradling a Coca-Cola and the other two heading for the coffee. Anderson continued, "Mark, I want you on the train with me. The rest of you, cover us in your vehicles, as G-Force."

"If we're going to be riding all the way to Ontario with you, Chief, why don't we just fly you there in the Phoenix?" Princess asked.

"It's more complicated than that. The Claude-Simmons Symposium will be sending a 'guide' to meet me, and it's a matter of politeness that I show up to meet them."

"A guide?" Tiny asked.

"A goodwill agent. Someone who's supposed to make sure I get on the right train, get a good hotel room, find my way to the Symposium, et cetera."

Princess said, "But then, your changing your reservation time--"

"I notified them last night, through sealed security channels." At their looks of surprise, he sighed. "I know, it's not secure. But I'm walking a very thin line. DSA's R&D Division is a grey area between the military and scientific worlds, you know that. I have to be constantly watching to be sure I don't appear as an 'egghead' to the military or as an arrogant, security-obsessed military man to the scientific community. Accepting the services of a guide instead of having G-Force fly me to where I'm going is one method of demonstrating that I'm on the same level as they are." He sighed. "It's a complicated world you're protecting, team, and I'm afraid there are a lot of short-sighted people in it. Image is terribly important. If I want to maintain my influence with both communities, an influence I need to implement programs for Earth's safety, I need to compromise-- even my own safety."

Anderson rarely talked like this. Tiny said quietly, "I guess we're kind of sheltered, aren't we."

"You don't really need to deal in such complicated matters," Anderson said, shaking his head slightly to clear the mood. "At any rate, I don't think it will present a problem. The four of you should be quite adequate protection." He smiled."What about Jason?" Keyl asked.

"He's not here," Mark said flatly. "I did warn him. And he's probably in some godforsaken corner of the city, sleeping off last night's adventures. We'll leave him a note, but we haven't got time to try and find him."

"We could just call," Princess pointed out.

"We could, but I'm not going to. It isn't an emergency, and he needs the sleep."

"He's not going to like being left behind," she warned.

"He should have thought of that last night. Let's get ready and go."

"So where is this guide person?" Tiny asked, looking around the train station. "Right here," a purring feminine voice told them.

They turned-- and stared. A tall, fine-featured woman, elegant in a very European fashion, stepped over to them. Golden hair curled down over one shoulder, framing an intense face with piercing blue eyes. "I'm sorry I'm late, but Dr. Anderson's schedule change was a trifle... inconvenient," she said. "How do you do. I'm Mala Tzarlo, your guide."

"Pleased to meet you," Anderson said, shaking her hand, even though he wasn't, very. "This is Mark Dylan, one of DSA's test pilots. He'll be coming with me to listen to the conference."

Mark did not at all like the way Tzarlo's eyes raked him, Princess, Keyl, and Tiny-- even though the other three were standing off to the side-- as if she were checking them off against some mental list? Tzarlo asked politely, "DSA's test pilots have scientific backgrounds as well?"

"Mark does." An announcer stated that the train would depart in five minutes. "I think that's our cue."

"Yes, certainly. Your reservations are in First Class, no? Step this way, please."

As they entered the train, the door slid shut behind them-- a harmless sound, but with the sound of an unpleasant finality to it...

Jason pulled into Aerie Base at 8:00, entered, and stared. Where'd everybody go? They weren't supposed to leave until 9.

He fairly collapsed on the lounge sofa. I'm tired. I could take a nap, and meet'em in Ontario... Drifting to sleep, he wondered why they'd left early. Maybe something came up...

What if something had happened?

He jerked to his feet, adrenalin waking him up, and moved over to Anderson's desk. There was a note on it-- "Jason. We took the 7:15 train. Go to sleep. Mark."

Just lovely. A huge map of North America dominated the back wall. With his finger, Jason traced the train route. There were at least 17 places he could think of offhand that Spectra could blow up.

He was tired. He wanted to sleep. They don't need me, he tried to convince himself. They can handle it. But he didn't really believe it.

Jason poured himself a cup of coffee and studied the map. The first really vulnerable spot was the bridge span near Sheld Lacque. He decided to meet them there.

Mark appeared to be half-asleep. Anderson sincerely hoped it was some kind of act-- when Mark went to sleep, it was rather difficult to get him up again. Anderson himself was too tense to feel tired. He was at the moment attempting to find out as much as he could about the Tzarlo woman. Something about her disturbed him somehow. If she were an agent... "What do you do when you're not acting as a guide, Ms. Tzarlo?" he asked.

"Please. Why don't you call me Mala."

"Mala," Anderson repeated. "What an unusual name." It was also the feminine form of "evil" in Spanish and "sharp" in Spectran, two facts that could have been coincidental but made him rather uneasy.

"It's Hungarian," she said.

It could be, at that-- she had a faint, untraceable accent, and fairly radiated European elegance. "Indeed. Is that your native country?"

She smiled. "I'm afraid only my father's," she said. "We used to visit every summer, but I consider myself a native of North America." Leaning forward slightly, she asked, "You are also a North American?"

"By choice. I was born on Zeta Prime." He watched her reactions carefully. Spectra had destroyed Zeta Prime.

"Oh. I'm sorry-- I didn't realize." She seemed a tad startled, but then, it was a startling thing to say, after all. Kids nowadays learned about Zeta Prime from schoolbooks. There were documentaries on the subject, films made, books written-- but in reality, there had been very very few survivors, and one rarely met them.

Mark thought, irritated, What's he doing, flirting with her? There was something about Mala Tzarlo that bothered him, but how could he put his finger on it if the two of them didn't quit yammering? He got up and left, seeking solitude to think.

Mala looked at him, startled. Does he know? He can't know, he's a man, how could he outguess me? But if he is who I think he is... "I don't think your young friend likes me."

I don't think I like you either. "I'm sure you're mistaken, Mala."

He's sure she's mistaken, Mark thought, heading for the back of the car. I'm not so sure. Maybe I'm jumping at shadows, but that woman gives me the creeps. In the tiny crossing-room between trains, he leaned his head against the window. She reminds me of someone, but I can't think who. If I could be sure she's a Spectran... but I can't attack an innocent woman if she's not...

Back in the train, Mala stood, making an imperceptible signal to the throwaways in the car. Better than I could have hoped. Now it's time. "If you'll excuse me," she said, and headed for the women's room.

Inside she activated her communicator, hidden in her collar. "This is Mala to Sharp Agents. It's time."

"Zina to Commander Mala. We read."

"Is Lani there?"

"Here, Commander."

"You've been briefed, I take it?"


"Then you are in command of today's mission, Lani."

Disbelieving, whispering joy in the agent's voice. "Thank you..."

"I have forgiven you for allowing that young man to bring you to our headquarters. Be sure that you merit my forgiveness. The train is nearing the bridge span at Sheld Lacque. Carry out the plan. Kiera!"

"Yes, Commander?"

"As pilot of the Aikar ta Madris, you will run pickup. Stay out of harm's way, and collect me and the returning Sharps on receiving the signal. Lani, as commander this mission is your responsibility. I do not expect you to fail me."

"I won't, Commander."

"Good. I have work of my own to do, so I shall sign off now."

Zina looked at Lani. "Must be great, being Commander Mala's favorite. You fall in shit and come up out of it like it's cream."

Blushing at the crudity and stung by the words, Lani retorted, "I'm not Commader Mala's favorite! She has her own reasons, that we shouldn't question."

"What's going on?" Joanne asked in English.

"We're going out," Lani said in the same language. Joanne and the others were not too good at Spectran yet. "Follow me!"

The Aikar't Madris-- Demon Star, a figure of Spectran mythology-- disgorged five rocket planes, and the Akton Malai headed for the trestle. Each was dressed as Zina and Yana had been, their only differences the color of their wigs and the design and colors on their masks. They flew out and landed on the trestle.

"All right!" Lani said into her communicator. She was perfectly capable of calling to the others, but masks tended to muffle voices-- hers was a pale, cerulean blue with stylized floral scrolls, setting off a pink wig. "Points 5, 9, 13, 17 and 21! Down and lace cord!"

She was speaking in verbal shorthand, but they all knew what she meant-- at particular spots, each of five Malai climbed down the trestle, carrying moldable plastique and linkage cords. They twisted the plastique around pylons, and passed the cords back and forth to each other, creating an intricate cat's cradle of destruction.This activity had not gone unnoticed. From the hills on the other side of the Sheld Lacque bridge, Princess roared down like one of Spectra's legendary White Demons. Zina saw her first. "Shit! Move it, people!"

"Get up to the needles!" Lani ordered the women. She fastened the timer box to the pylon, set it for ten minutes, and, per her training, left a bit of misdirection-- the fire fuse she left burning had nothing to do with whether there would be an explosion or not, but it would make the enemy waste time.

Keyl saw her, and sent his buggy rocketing in toward her. "No, you don't!" he shouted, swinging to hit her. She was too fast, leaping back onto the trestle and reaching her plane, so he braked, hovered, and lowered the hopper. Kneeling on the lower "beak" of his rounded buggy, he flung his bolos, twisting them around the burning fuse and cutting it off. For good measure, he squirted a stream of acid at it from his water gun. The cord dissolved. "Yeah!"

Up on the trestle, Princess drove like a maniac. The rocket planes didn't have VTOL-- they had to taxi to get into the air, and Princess was screwing them up. She drove in circles around a woman with a loud vermilion mask and bright green wig, until the girl, confused, smashed into a fellow Sharp with blue hair and a green mask. The other Sharp cursed in Spectran, leapt free of her vehicle, and landed on the trestle, aiming her rifle at Princess, as the two rocket planes exploded, and the confused girl died.

Princess swung in and out of the Sharp's fire, dodging as she came closer to the woman, until a rocket plane buzzed by her head, knocking her off her motorcycle. The Spectran girl leapt onto her compatriot's plane, and they dove for anther pass, the green-mask firing steadily and far more accurately than was typical of Spectrans at Princess.

Keyl saw the problem and zoomed, on a collision course, straight for the two Sharps. The pilot-- an orange-haired girl with a yellow mask-- shot into the air, avoiding Keyl's assault, so Keyl flew instead at the two other women, one of whom had set the charges. They split off, and he pursued the one who hadn't set the charges, a girl with a purple wig and aquamarine mask.

Lani glanced back fearfully as the Swallow sheared away from her tail. Now they had less than five minutes before the bomb went off-- but Diane was already dead! Could Lani manage to bring the other three and herself back to the Aikar't Madris? Take over, Zina, take over! You have more experience-- I don't want to command!

Mark stared out the window in sudden shock. In the distance-- rocket planes?

He was a member of G-Force, one of the most highly trained human beings in existence. If he hadn't been distracted, it was entirely possible that he would have sensed the noiseless approach of the woman behind him. But he was distracted, and he didn't notice-- not until a slim white hand chopped down on a nerve junction, driving him into the darkness...

Mala smiled down at him, elated. Had it been as easy as that? Could this really be the feared G-Force commander? Her information indicated that it was so-- but she'd expected to have difficulty killing him, then. This wasn't going to be difficult at all.

She began pushing the limp form with her toe, until the door between cars slid open and his head dangled out. She had pushed him halfway out when he jerked to consciousness, grabbing desperately for the other car and hanging there. "Yaah!" He held tightly to the crosspieces. "Who are you, really?"

Mala smiled cruelly. "Commander Mala Andelo, Oligarch of House Nagoruk, father-linked to House Andelo and sister of Oligarch Kanos Zoltar, and head of the Organization of Women that Spans Galaxies," she said in Spectran. "But for you, Commander-- I'm just your own personal demon."

She brought her foot down hard on his crotch. He screamed, and involuntarily let go, enabling her to with one swift kick shove him under the train. The scream cut off quickly, and Mala turned, smiling.

Inside the car, Anderson's tension was growing.

Where had Mark gone, and why? Didn't he realize he was leaving Anderson undefended? And Tzarlo had been gone for an unconscionably long time. Had she been taken by the Akton Malai?

It hit him then like an ice-cold wave-- the word Malai, in Spectran, was the plural of Mala. Akton Malai meant Sharp Agents, but could just as easily be translated Mala Agents.. At the same time, he realized that Tzarlo was an anagram of the English spelling of the name Zoltar. Whose hands was he in?

Then he heard Mark scream, and got to his feet. In one fluid motion, three men and two women on the train with him got to their feet and pointed guns at him. "Don't go anywhere, Anderson," one of them said.

A woman who was apparently not in Spectra's pay screamed, and the Spectrans cut her down. Then they sprayed their guns across the train, killing everyone but Anderson and themselves.

"You--" Anderson could not find words to describe his horror at the act. Normally he did not swear, because he thought it vulgar; this time he did not, because no words could be strong enough. With barely controlled fury in his voice, he said, "Why was that necessary?! I'm your target-- they were innocent--!"

"They were in the way," one of the Spectrans said offhandedly.

He heard a woman laugh, and Mala strode back into the car. Nothing had changed about her, and yet everything had-- her refined elegance had turned into full-blown arrogance, and the faintly European-seeming nature of her mannerisms had shifted, becoming most definitely Spectran nobility. She laughed, then smiled. "Dr. Anderson, allow me to introduce myself," she said. "I am Commander Mala Andelo, head of the Kaiden Hakair Ezhan'm Asa and commander of the Akton Malai. And in this case, your death."

"What have you done to Mark?" Anderson demanded.

"I have sent him... elsewhere. But don't worry. You'll join him soon. In fact--" she glanced at her watch-- "I calculate your ETA to your final destination to be ten minutes." She motioned at his former seat. "Please, sit down. I'm your guide, after all-- I'd appreciate it if your last moments were comfortable ones."

Anderson sat. "You're the head of the Organization of Women that Spans Galaxies?" he asked, controlling his fear. "Your name for yourselves is a trifle pompous, considering that Spectra's never left this galaxy."

"No more than G-Force standing for Galaxy Force-- as I assume it does, since their predecessors were E for Earth," Mala said. "You see, I've done my research on your organizations-- which is more than you've done. You'd never heard of the Ezhan'm Asa, had you?"

"We had heard of the Akton Malai."

"The Malai are simply the-- how do you say it?-- the tip of the iceberg. My Women's Division is the most powerful subdivision of the Spectran army-- and the most valuable and competent. We have tentacles extending throughout the scientific world, the espionage network, the Assassins' Division-- every important facet of the Spectran military is connected to me."

"Then why aren't you ruler of Spectra instead of Zoltar?"

Mala smiled thinly. "That would require killing him, and I made a promise to my mother that I wouldn't do that. Zoltar and I are brother and sister."

Zoltar's sister? "So that's how a woman like you got into power," Anderson said, deliberately goading her. He sensed a current of fanaticism under the woman's speech, and if he could just get her talking about it, get her distracted-- Mark couldn't be dead, he couldn't be, he couldn't--

"I suppose, with the limitations of your male mind, you cannot imagine any other way for a woman to hold power," she said coldly, taking the bait. "In fact, my relation to Zoltar did help, as did the fact that I am the daughter of the great Andris Andelo and a member of his House-- but the fact that I kept such power, parleyed it into so many tentacles and made it as great as it is, is all due to my own ability. Even taking into account that women have more native intelligence than men, I am a genius. Why do you suppose I chose to take on this mission?"

"Because of your great warmth, gentleness and love of humanity," Anderson replied.

"Amusing." She was obviously not amused. "When you are dead, your G-Force team will fall swiftly-- especially if that was in fact the commander I killed back there. And when the G-Force team falls, all of Spectra will be forced to recognize my power. They already respect and fear Thalia's ability--"

"Thalia? You are connected to Thalia Nagoruk?"

"She is my wife," Mala said, and smiled at the startled expression on Anderson's face. "Not legally, of course. Someday, Spectra will legalize marriages between women, but not yet. However, we share a house-- I am Oligarch Nagoruk, since the name Andelo belongs to my sisters' house-- a daughter, and love. Can any married couple say more? In any case, they already respect and fear Thalia's ability. When Earth falls at my hands, they will be forced to recognize mine as well. And it all hinges on your death."

Anderson was very good at concealing fear. With his face an expressionless mask, his voice even and without the slightest tremor, he knew that he would appear calm and controlled to his captors-- a tactic he'd learned on Zeta Prime, where a display of fear often threw the sadistic guards into a feeding frenzy, attempting to generate more and more fear to consume. He was, however, very much afraid. This woman who sat across from him was a fanatic, and an intelligent one at that, perhaps even the genius she called herself. To get herself and her men aboard this train, in all-reserved First Class, given as little time as his schedule change had given them-- to take out Mark, the best-trained member of G-Force.. whether or not she was as good as she said she was, she was certainly skilled enough to do what she claimed she would do. He could only hope that she had underestimated Mark-- or he and the G-Force team would all die... Sweat trickled down the back of his neck, icy in the air-conditioned cold of the train, and his heart beat terribly fast-- but he sounded perfectly calm as he said, "I think you're overestimating my importance. There are people who can take over for me if I die."

"I know about her," Mala said. "Dr. Sharon Pandora, your second-in-command. A brilliant woman-- but Earth sexism will never allow her to succeed. She will be broken on the wheels of your own male-dminated system--"

"You're mixing up Earth and Spectra. Earth isn't as male-dominated as your world."

"All men are sexist," Mala said. "No matter what world they come from. They know they're not as necessary to the perpetuation of the race as women, so they invent myths of their own superiority to justify their existence. The only exception were the Pathrosian thenes, and that was because males were so rare that they became just as necessary as women."

Mala felt exhilarated and a little bit frightened by this operation herself. She was not used to handling things personally-- normally, the victims of her operations were simply faceless pieces of paer, and to actually talk to one, be face-fo-face with one, was exciting and a trifle scary-- she was, after all, potentially at personal risk. Anderson had always been a particular bugaboo to her, one of the few men whose abilities she respected and feared. She considered him something of a male counterpart of herself, and as such an incredibly dangerous rival-- and the thought of causing his death, of actually being here and talking to him and then ending his life, made her own heart beat with exhilaration and recognition of danger. This must be living on the edge, as Thalia had described it.

"Your Dr. Pandora will never be permitted to succeed," she continued. "And if she is strong enough to fight back--"

At that point the lights went out. Panicky, Mala looked up. "What's wrong with those lights?"

"We're just entering a tunnel, Commander," one of the Spectrans-- throwaways, men and women she'd culled from other bases, mostly Terran criminals-- said. "It's one of those things with the electricity."

"You would think that Terran technology would be advanced enough to avoid power fluctuations such as this," Mala complained. "Even Spectran technology avoids such things." She stared up into the sunlight for a few seconds, then shrugged. "Ah well, it's not important." She turned back to Anderson--

--who wasn't there. "Aah!" Mala gasped, staring at the white-suited form of the G-Force commander. "G-Force!" She flung herself backwards, flipping over the chair to put it between her and him.

"You could call me that," Mark agreed. "Or you could just call me... your own personal demon, Mala Andelo."

"But you're dead! I killed you!"

"No, you didn't. You pushed me under the train and assumed I was dead. What you Spectrans don't seem to realize is that we of G-Force are immortal, like phoenixes. We don't die." Actually, Mark had broken the coupling between the two cars and hung onto the underside of the first, the one Anderson was in, long enough that the rest of the train, with no more engine in the front to pull it, fell behind and no longer endangered him. It was also no longer endangered by the Spectrans, which was the idea.

"Everything dies!" Mala started forward. Mark blocked her, and one of the Spectrans went for him. He grabbed the man's arm and flung him over one of the seats, snapping his arm, as he kicked a woman who was going after him, in the face. Then he leapt, caught his feet in the stand-up rungs on the train ceiling, and knocked two Spectran heads together. Then he kicked them, and they went sailing out the doors-- which opened as the electric eye sensed their approach-- and down into the ravines of the Rocky Mountains. A woman Spectran went for Anderson, who was still croched behind the seat-- Mark dove at her, snapping her neck with a kick, and Mala skidded past him and ran for the exit. Mark chopped the other two Spectrans into unconscious- ness, and ran for the front of the train-- sure enough, there was an access hatch to the roof. He'd heard the screams of the train's innocent riders as the Spectrans cut them down. Mala was not getting away.

Joanne's voice crackled on the intercom. "Lani, he's on my tail, you're commander, what do I do?"

I don't know! I don't know! Lani thought, panicking.

"Shit!" Zina yelled. She took control of Mary's needle and flew at Keyl, handing her shrapnel gun to Mary. "Load this!" she said, hoping Mary spoke that much Spectran. Mary did.

Keyl herded the Sharp he was pursuing toward Princess, who uncoiled her ribbon whip and snaked it around one of the rocket plane's ailerons. Zina saw it, saw the Swan swinging herself up toward Joanne's craft, and snatched back her shrapnel gun. "Die!" To the side, Keyl flung bolos at Zina. They hit Mary instead, wrapping around her neck and knocking off her mask. Strangling, she fell, and the needle dove, forcing Zina to turn her attention to getting it back up. Joanne fired her gun desperately at Princess, but it did no good-- Princess kicked her, sending her falling off her craft and down to the lake below. She jumped back down to her motorcycle and started pursuing the last, the one who had set the charges.

It's time! It's going to blow! Overwhelmed by panic, Lani sent her craft zooming into the air and fled. Princess started to pursue-- and behind her, there was a massive explosion.

The bridge was out.

Keyl stared in horror. But I stopped the fuse! I stopped it! How-- His distraction enabled Zina to get control of Mary's craft and head for the Aikar't Madris, which had apparently received the signal and was moving now to pick her up.

Princess, on the other side of the bridge's broken region, watched stunned as the train approached. Oh my God, the bridge is out, it's out and there's no way I can stop the train-- Mark, do something!

As the train came closer, however, she could see that Mark had other concerns.

Mark came out and saw Mala standing on top of the train, looking toward the sky. She shifted her attention rapidly as he dove at her, and she dodged past him, almost slipping. He turned and leapt at her, and she slid under him again, got to her feet panting and shaky. She couldn't keep dodging, obviously-- she'd fall off the train. "This is the end of the line, Mala," he said tightly. "There's nowhere you can go, and you can't dodge forever."

At that point there was the sound of an explosion behind him, and he spun, to see the bridge out. Mala laughed. "You're quite right. This is the end of the line, for you and your Dr. Anderson. Fortunately for me, I planned ahead."

A spinning, circular ship approached and lowered, a hatch at the bottom opening. Mark dove at Mala again, but she peeled off her cloak and threw it in his face, leaping for the safety of her ship.

And then the train was upon the hole in the bridge, and it plunged down into the water, hurling Mark off and throwing Anderson, inside, into a wall, as the car began to fill with water...

Above, watching, Tiny saw the explosion, and the train. Damn! He dove the Phoenix, plunging underwater toward the fallen train.

Inside, water poured in through the car's open doors. Anderson clung to one of the seats, unable to swim against such a powerful current. The water battered him back, crushed him against the back of the seats and closed over his head...

Tiny swam out of the Phoenix, full speed toward the fallen train. Mark was already there, diving toward the water-filled opening. The two of them swam down, grabbed the half-unconscious Anderson, and with all their strength swam against the push of the water.

On the trestle, Princess looked down into the bubbling lake with horror. Keyl landed beside her. "Are they... gone?" he whispered.

"They can't be..." Princess murmured.

The lake heaved suddenly, and the Phoenix came out. Both of them breathed a sigh of relief to see Tiny, Mark and Anderson waving at them.

"Yeah!" Keyl shouted, applauding.

Jason waited, just beyond the mountains around Sheld Lacque. He'd heard Princess and Keyl's conversations on the bracelets, and knew the situation. Two of the Sharps had died, two had fled for the safety of the mothership-- and one had bolted.

Mala climbed up into her ship. "Zina! Report!"

Zina, carrying a half-unconscious Mary, looked grim. Her mask and wig had fallen off, revealing her true face in all its sharp angularity. "It was a rout. Joanne and Diane are dead-- the Swan killed them both, and blew up my plane. Nearly killed me. The Swallow got Mary here, nearly killed her--"

"And Lani?"

"Lani bolted. No guts, Commander-- she panicked and ran."

Mala shook her head. "I don't like that. When we return to base, we'll institute a search for her. Kiera! Take us home!"

"Yes, Commander," Kiera said. The Aikar ta Madris spun toward the Hanna Library once more.

Lani's heart pounded. Stupid, stupid, running like this, Zina and Mary might be dead, Joanne and Diane died for my incompetence, how can I ever face Commander Mala again? She skimmed along the trestle, fleeing the specter of her own failures.

And then she saw, sitting on the trestle in front of her, with a feather shuriken in his mouth, the Condor of G-Force.

She thought for a wild second of going for her grenades-- but no, she didn't want to kill anybody, she didn't, she just wanted to run-- Lani angled her needle toward the sky, fleeing.

Jason wasn't having any. He leapt at the Sharp's craft, caught on and climbed forward. She panicked, flipping the top up into his face and grabbing a handful of things that looked like Grape-Nuts, but he slashed his hand down, chopping her wrist, and she dropped them-- then looked down at them with an indrawn breath of terror. Jason grabbed her, and the two of them landed on the trestle as the dropped grenades-- already activated by a hand squeeze-- went off, destroying the rocket plane.

Jason and the Sharp were pressed against the trestle by the shockwave, and the girl's mask and wig fell off, revealing golden-brown hair and.. "Lani!" Jason gasped, recognizing the sweet face of the hitchhiker he'd picked up.

She stared, half-recognizing the voice. "You-- you know me?"

"I don't believe it! Lani, you're not a Spectran..." But he remembered the girl's unwillingness to tell him where she lived, the woman on the stairs hitting her... "How did you get to be one of the Akton Malai?"

"I'm not telling you! Either let me go or kill me, already! How do you know my name?"

He knocked her out and called the others. "G-2 to Phoenix. Come in."

"We read you, Jason." It was Mark's voice.

"I'm about 2 miles past the bridge in the other direction. Come pick me up. I have a guest."

A hysterical Lani Hill refused to give them any information, but the things she said while denying their questions told them a lot. Lani was a Terran, and she loved Mala Andelo completely and wholeheartedly. That was on the surface a contradiction."It's sick," Mark said disgustedly. "Andelo's taking Terran girls and perverting them, twisting them to her own ends so they love her and want to do anything for her." He shook his head. "How does she do it? Can't these girls see she's a Spectran?"

"They know she's a Spectran," Anderson said quietly. "But I believe they misunderstand her motives. Lani Hill appears to believe Mala can do no wrong. Eventually, using truth drugs, we ought to be able to get the whole story."

"I've got a faster way," Jason said. "I know where their base is."

"You do?" All eyes turned to Jason.

"Yeah. The Hanna Library, down in the city. Lani got me to drive her there, claiming she was a librarian. I saw a woman hit her, and I planned to check it out later. Now I figure the woman had to be Andelo."

"So we could go there and get her!" Keyl said eagerly.

"I don't want you jumping the gun," Anderson warned. "Rest for a night. I'll see if I can get any more information from Lani. Then you can do a quiet reconnaissance at the library. We don't want to tip our hand to Andelo, or she may run."

"Right," Mark said. "Quiet reconnaissance. Rest. I especially like the notion of rest."

Tiny put a friendly arm around his shoulder, unobtrustively supporting him. "If you're tired, go on to bed, Mark! No point in killing yourself."

"Everybody to bed," Princess said firmly. "That means you too, Keyl."

"Bossy, bossy, bossy..."

Jason was tired as well, but stopped in at Lani's cell before he went to bed. Asleep, she looked very peaceful and sweet. A normal girl. How had Mala perverted her into a killer, a traitor to her own world? I hope they can find whatever shreds of innocence you have left, Lani, and put you back together as a normal girl, before it's too late, he thought. Tomorrow Mala Andelo would pay for this.

He turned away from the cell and headed for his own bedroom. Tomorrow...

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