"Finally, a heads-up. Rumours are circulating that Spectra have captured the Condor."
Jason snorted delightedly. "Another miss for the green guys."
"It does mean that some poor bastard is in a cell being treated the way they'd like to treat you, though."
Jason looked slightly embarrassed at that, and Mark tucked the information away. Not that there was much he could do - but if they did end up on a mission, he could make sure the Condor was used somewhere highly visible. And, should it be possible, they could check the cells before they blew any Spectran bases sky-high. It wasn't something they normally spent time on. Unless somebody significant was missing, their time was better spent elsewhere. As Grant had pointed out to an unhappy Princess when their default mission parameters were being laid down, if Spectra thought that they could slow G-Force down by filling their cells with random civilians, they'd do it.
"And that's it for today. Stay sharp. It's been a while since we had an attack."
You can be sure there'll be one soon. Nobody said it, but they all knew what Anderson meant.
"What are you doing this afternoon?" Princess asked him as they walked back to the ready room.
"I don't know." He cast a disgusted glance through the window at the low grey clouds. They had become thick enough during their meeting to be dropping a steady fine drizzle which didn't look as if it would stop any time soon. "Not flying weather, and that was what I had planned."
"Not driving weather either," Jason said. "Want to come spar for a while?"
"Only if you promise to practice those left-footed kicks Sensei was on your back about."
Jason groaned. "Yeah, yeah. Would you believe that was why I suggested it?"
Actually, Mark would - but if Jason wanted to play the rebel, it was fine by him. He wasn't sure whether his second realised that Mark knew exactly how hard he practiced, but Mark had long since stopped worrying about it. Jason seemed more comfortable pretending that his skill owed nothing to practice, and since he blatantly had the skill, that was good enough.
He could hear the phone in the ready room ringing even through the soundproof door as they came round the corner - soundproof not being proof against cerebonically enhanced hearing - and Princess glanced at him and took off down the corridor. It was rare that anyone used it, since almost everyone who knew what the number was would also know that at this time on a Monday morning the entire team would be in a briefing. Mark didn't hurry. Most likely it was a double glazing salesman. Of course, that was why Princess was hurrying. If Keyop or Tiny answered it, they'd spend a happy ten minutes leading the unfortunate caller further and further on. Tiny's record was thirteen minutes - and, while the two of them enjoyed it, Princess had said she hated it, that the poor salesman was only doing his job, and that they should simply say they weren't interested and put the phone down.
He was therefore somewhat surprised to see her still on the phone as he got to the door. She glanced up, concern clear on her face, and held the phone out to him.
"Mark? It's Scott."
"You can come after all?" he asked, and only then processed the tone of Scott's voice.
"Not exactly. How secure is this line?"
Mark frowned at Princess. She might be politely pretending not to listen, but he knew she could hear every word. She gave him a thumbs-up.
"Secure. Go on."
"Alan's disappeared, in San Francisco. We have CCTV footage of him apparently being coerced into a car. The guy he's talking to is wearing a Spectran ring."
Mark stared across the room, processing. "Are you sure?"
"He's sure." Jason grabbed the phone, and Mark was so shocked he didn't even try to snatch it back. "Scott? Remember those media rumours about Alan being the Condor? Well, we just heard that Spectra think they've captured me." He handed the phone back to Mark, unapologetic, and Mark simply took it. He hadn't remembered the rumours, but that surely couldn't be a coincidence.
"Jason?" Scott asked.
"It's Mark. I think you should come here as fast as you can and bring all the data you have. I'll meet you at the gate."
There was a long pause. Long enough for Mark to hope that Scott was thinking along the same lines he was. Finally, he answered, "I'll do that. I'll be with you in two hours, tops. I'll call you when I land and give you a time."
The phoneline went dead without any further pleasantries, and Mark looked round to frowns of confusion.
"Why didn't you ask him to send the data?" Princess asked.
"I don't want Anderson sending us out on a standard base-busting mission if there's a location in it. I doubt Scott's that naive in the first place, but we owe them."
Tiny frowned. "I still don't get it."
"Scott can make it a condition of handing over the data that we make it a rescue mission, not a base bust." Jason leaned against the table, it being, Mark suspected, as close as he could get to standing shoulder-to-shoulder to give support without walking all the way round it. "As it should be. They broke their operational rules to get us the Phoenix back. Like Mark said. We owe them."
"'Another miss for the green guys'?" Tiny asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Bad call on my part, okay? As far as I'm concerned, if someone knows my real name, they're on the 'gets rescued' list."
"I hadn't considered that," Mark said slowly.
"We'd best get him back quickly, then, hadn't we?"
At times like these, Mark was more than glad to have the commander of Team Seven fully aware of exactly who he was. No need to concoct some complicated cover story; he'd gone to Nykinnen's office and told him he needed a pass for a visitor to be ready in two hours, and Nykinnen had nodded calmly. There was something reassuringly unflappable about the big blond Swede, despite the unmitigated chaos which was his office.
"I've torn strips off you for leaving the arrangements so late, of course," Nykinnen said with a wry smile. "I'll need his name."
"Scott Tracy. As in Tracy Industries."
This time Nykinnen's eyes widened. "Ah. Consider it done. Anything else I need to know?"
Mark shook his head. "Except that you may not see me or Jason for a few days."
"I see. Good luck, and I'll see you when you're back." He moved several files onto a different pile on his desk, picked up the phone which had been under them, and pressed a couple of buttons. "Nykinnen here, CO of Team Seven. One of my underlings screwed up. I have a visitor arriving in an hour or so, and no badge for him. Can I owe you a favour?"
He gave Mark a thumbs-up as he leant back in the big black chair, and Mark slipped quietly out of the office.
Ninety minutes later found him waiting in the gatehouse, playing possibly his least favourite role: Team Seven idiot. He might outrank the gatehouse staff, but he strongly suspected they had put two and two together and made at least seven. After all, who else would Commander Nykinnen send to wait around for his visitor than the incompetent junior who had failed to arrange his visit properly? Mark could practically see the thought bubbles over their heads, no matter how professional they were. They'd be asking themselves questions about his age, being surprised that his standard grey ISO security officer's uniform appeared to be more than a few weeks old, so he couldn't be one of this year's Academy graduates despite his youth, and wondering what other joyful tasks Nykinnen would have lined up for him. He leaned against the wall in a posture intended to be read as 'slightly embarrassed' and considered how to take things from here. Anderson would, he was pretty sure, go completely ballistic.
He almost didn't recognise the immaculately dressed man who pulled up at the barrier and got out of the car before the gate staff could go over to him. He was used to seeing Scott in a flight suit. He'd seen him casually dressed, and also seen him in the powder blue of International Rescue. Now he was wearing an immaculately tailored charcoal grey suit, and a cream shirt with toning slightly darker tie...he looked like a high-powered businessman. Of course, Mark corrected himself, he is a high-powered businessman. He's the heir to Tracy Industries. He spends half his life in meetings. He worries about share prices and stock options and takeovers.
But it still looked wrong.
"Lieutenant?" the guard called to him. "You're here to meet Captain Tracy?"
"That's right." Mark snapped to upright and walked swiftly across to the door. "Captain Tracy? I'm Lieutenant Jarrald. Commander Nykinnen sent me to escort you."
There was the barest hint of a frown - Scott probably had no idea who Nykinnen was, after all - and then he held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant. And it's Mr. Captain was a long time ago, back when Sergeant Richards and I were in the Air Force together."
Richards still snapped off a salute, a broad grin on his face. "Good to see you again, sir. I'll put in a good word for you, if you're coming to work for ISO."
"Not just yet, I'm afraid." Scott shook Mark's hand, keeping up the pretence that they didn't know one another, and handed him a car key. "It would be simpler if you drove."
"Of course, sir." Mark got in to the driver's seat and promptly wished he was taller. There was no way he could even reach the pedals in a car which was set up for Scott - the man had an embarrassing six inches of height on him, maybe a little more. He applied himself to moving the seat forwards and up until he could actually see over the steering wheel, and by that time Scott had climbed in the other side.
Neither of them said anything until the car was a hundred yards down the drive and out of range of curious guards thinking it looked a whole lot like they knew one another already. At that point Scott shifted slightly in his seat. "Want to fill me in on what's happening?"
"Nothing? Mark, I surely don't have to explain to you that time's of the essence here."
"No, you don't." Mark glanced sideways. He could see the tension in Scott's posture, and hated what he was going to say. "But I have something to explain to you. IR don't rescue property. Well, G-Force don't rescue hostages. You broke your rules for us and we plan to do the same for you. But Anderson has no reason to go with that. Especially not if he already had the information from you."
"You don't rescue hostages? You're kidding."
"There are five of us. We don't have time. It also pretty much stops Spectra bothering to take them."
Scott nodded slowly, his face set. "I can see that. Except when it's my kid brother."
"It's your kid brother, he was involved in digging us out of a huge hole, and he's almost certainly been snatched because Spectra think he's Jason."
"About that." The tension was clear on Scott's face. "Were you going to tell me?"
Mark just snorted - they didn't have time for this, and if that meant he had to be completely candid then so be it. "We'd just come out of a meeting where there was a throwaway comment about Spectra thinking they'd captured the Condor. I hadn't made the connection. Jason's the brains of the outfit when it comes to lateral thinking."
"So Anderson doesn't know I'm here?"
"Anderson knows nothing about this at all. Do you have the footage?"
Scott nodded, holding up a data stick.
"I recommend you give it to me."
"After what you just said?"
"Technically, Anderson could have you searched and confiscate it. Grant would do it without a moment's hesitation."
"And if they order you to give it up?"
"You saved our lives. I'd refuse." At least, he was pretty sure he'd refuse. He was more sure that Anderson would be too worried about him refusing to let it get that far.
In any case, he appeared to be convincing enough. Scott held out the data stick, and Mark pocketed it, slowing down to leave plenty of space for a truck going the other way. And then they came round the corner and out of the trees, and Scott gasped.
"I guess it has." They'd already been expanding ISO when Mark arrived here, but he did remember when the original building had still been visible. These days it was completely hidden behind impersonal modern concrete, haste and utility being far more important than architectural excellence during a war. Some of the buildings were nine or ten storeys, and went down as far below ground. It looked like a city block transplanted into the countryside, and about as many people lived and worked in it too.
"So if Anderson doesn't know, how did you get me in?"
Mark grinned. "I told my commander to sort it. You know I said I'm officially a lieutenant? Well, Nykinnen is the commander of Team Seven, the training team everyone else thinks I'm on."
"But he does what you say?"
"Oh, he knows who I am."
Scott nodded, but showed no real interest in continuing the conversation, and Mark mentally kicked himself. The man's brother was a Spectran captive - and, military though he had been, that was a while ago and not, he suspected, as part of the sort of close-knit team that both International Rescue and G-Force were. G-Force coped with the threat of torture and death at the hands of the enemy by the use of casual banter at all times, including the most inappropriate. Scott almost certainly had never needed to.
"I'm taking you into black section via the back door," he said. "I don't have a black section pass for you. I don't think anyone will challenge you, not with me - but don't wander off, not even two steps, and if they do, you put your hands over your head and you leave the talking to me."
Mark headed for the building's underground parking lot without trying to explain further. He didn't know how this was going to pan out, and at that point no explanation was better than a wrong one. Scott didn't ask, either. Mark doubted that Scott Tracy ever showed astonishment, but he was certainly looking around and taking everything in before they reached the ramp into the first level of the parking lot and the views of ISO Headquarters were gone.
He seemed to pay less attention to the parking lot. It wasn't at all interesting, after all. The only non-standard part was the car elevators along one wall, all going down to different levels. High security parking more inaccessible than a ramp and a barrier would have made it, not that unusual in the military. Elevator one looked exactly like all the rest. Concrete floor, similar ceiling, grey steel walls with the odd dent where people had driven in less accurately than they should have. On either side, situated so they were accessible from an open car window, was a standard ISO access terminal. Mark pulled into the bay, leant out and typed in his access code - and then, once the access door had dropped and nobody could see in, fished his bracelet from his pocket and applied it to the handprint scanner over the centre of the palm area.
"Someone could steal that and get in," Scott said as the elevator began to drop.
"Only if they knew about it. If someone managed to force me this far, to put my code in, it's a handprint scanner. They're going to make me put my hand on it, not my bracelet. And my hand with that code will trigger an instant lockdown and emergency alarm. Silent in here. They'd be taken down the moment they got out of the car."
"I just hope it's never needed."
"What if they tried it with Alan?"
"They're hardly likely to find out where the entrances to ISO black section are from him."
Scott flinched visibly. "Do you think they'll torture him?"
"I don't know. I'm hoping not. They know it's never worked on Jason, when they've held him in birdstyle. Maybe they'll try something else."
"If they go for a week of solitary, it'll be a week before they question him. They don't understand human psychology. It's saved us before." He tried to sound reassuring, but he was aware that it was flimsy at best. No, their attempts at torturing Jason had never worked, but then they'd never got their hands on Jason out of birdstyle. He planned not to mention that particular fact to Scott.
The elevator grated to a halt, and Mark pulled forward almost before the front door had fully retracted into the ceiling. "Sergeant," he said casually through the still open window, as a middle-aged man in ISO grey with the badges of black section security levelled his weapon.
The gun dropped. "Commander," he responded. "I don't have a security badge for your passenger?"
"No, you won't have. I'll take him up and get one. Come, Scott." He got out of the car, making sure that it was obvious he'd had plenty of opportunities to raise the alarm should he be under duress.
Even so, the guard clearly wasn't happy about it. Not happy at all - and he was right not to be, since, commander of G-Force or not, Mark shouldn't be bringing visitors in this way. But Mark continued to stare him down, all the time smiling in a friendly, casual manner, and eventually he nodded. "Of course, Commander." He turned and waved to the glass window behind him, and a second guard came out, saluted Mark smartly, and got into the driver's seat.
"They'll park it on the level that elevator normally goes to," Mark said. "You'd have to be paying remarkably close attention, and have multiple people comparing notes, to realise that it took far too long to get there and that the driver's changed."
Scott nodded, looking around. This had to be black section, given the security in the elevator. It didn't look anything special. Underground concrete box with guardpost. He'd seen a hundred just like it, in multiple Air Force bases over the years. He'd also seen the guards defer to high-ranking officers, allowing them to do things which even as a captain he'd never have got away with. These two, in their late thirties and with all the appearance of long-serving, trusted soldiers, had reacted in exactly that way to an eighteen year old with scruffy hair and a junior lieutenant's uniform. That, more than anything, brought it home to him that Mark was the commander of G-Force. The senior field commander of ISO's forces - possibly of the whole of Galaxy Security.
He'd been down here before. No guardpost then, of course. No underground parking lot; no back entrances; and one concrete tunnel looked very like another. The time he'd come down had been early on, a few days after he'd been implanted. They'd been shown the giant hangar which would eventually hold the Phoenix. It had been in the last stages of construction, still rough, still missing the sea doors which they'd been told would open to flood the chamber with seawater and allow its revolutionary underwater launch. He'd stood there, his mind full of interstellar flight, dreaming of his future, and the hangar had been a tangible sign of what it would be. There were doors here which might have been the one they'd gone through to reach it. He really couldn't tell. They were all the same. He'd been so sure that he would be back. He'd never dreamt that it would be half a decade later, as a civilian.
"Coming?" Mark had headed down the corridor while he was dreaming, and now stood by the door at the end. That one, Scott belatedly realised, was slightly different in that it had a digital readout over the top. An elevator, not just a door. Mark held his bracelet to it, followed it up with a palmprint, and then typed in a code, before gesturing Scott inside.
It was just an elevator, large enough for maybe ten people. Grey carpet, mirror on the back wall, a numerical keypad with no hint of what you should press to get it to work, generic enough that he couldn't remember whether it was the one he'd used before. And it was fast - Mark pressed something, and it took off upwards with enough acceleration to make him stagger.
"Sorry," Mark said.
"No worries." He leant against the wall, concentrating on keeping his breathing even and his shoulders relaxed. The worst of it was that he was having trouble worrying about Alan right now. Dealing with Anderson was far higher on his list of concerns.
The elevator slowed, just as abruptly as it had accelerated. This time Scott was ready for it and steadied himself without problem.
"Stay close," Mark said, and the door opened. Scott steeled himself and followed as the other headed off at a brisk walk, trying to look inconspicuous. It wasn't easy, not for someone of his height.
He didn't recognise anything up here either. When he'd been here ISO headquarters had been a single, if sprawling, building, the only security a man on the gate and a few others who wandered round the grounds occasionally. Now he could see an armed guard in every direction he looked - and that was after all the codes and palm readers and checks to get this far.
Mark didn't slow down until he turned sharply off the big corridor and into a much narrower one. Then, he raised his bracelet to his mouth. "G-2?"
"We're in briefing room one," Jason's voice sounded tinnily from the bracelet.
"Good." He accelerated again, and as the passage opened out into another wider corridor, Scott suddenly did recognise it. Lower ceilings, and an old-fashioned window looking out over the grounds towards the ocean. He'd lived a couple of floors above here, trained in a gym somewhere off to the left. There had been a room full of flight simulators opposite that window, possibly where the passage now was. He was quite certain that the passage was new.
"Here," Mark said, stopping so suddenly that Scott almost fell over him, and pushing the door open.
He recognised this room, too. It even had the same furniture: a huge oval table, pale wood round the edges and a raised black insert in the middle, and upwards of twenty black leather chairs around it. The walls were panelled in the same wood, though the black stripe, matching that on every wall he'd seen so far, was new. The rest of G-Force were seated towards the head end of the table, though both the chair at the head and the one to its right were empty.
"Morning," Jason said. "Have a seat."
"We're so sorry about Alan," Princess added. "We want to help."
And so you should. Scott hesitated for a moment, eyeing the seats. He'd always sat in the same one - fourth one down, on the right hand side. It was empty. Anderson would notice if he took it - he was quite certain of it. Then again, Anderson would notice if he didn't take it, and assume he couldn't bear to. Scott nodded to Tiny, in the seat next along, and sat down in his old place.
"Chief?" Mark said, and Scott belatedly realised he was talking into the bracelet again. "I'm calling a code zero meeting. Now, in briefing room one. We're waiting for you."
He couldn't hear more than the startled tone coming from the bracelet. Mark simply said, "I'll explain when you get here, Chief." He lowered his left arm. "Scott, anything you want to say before he gets here?"
He nodded, as a realisation swept over him. He'd been military once. He'd never have dared do what these kids were doing now - it would have been court-martial, or worse. And yet, here was Mark, incriminating information in his pocket, preparing to defy his standing orders - and his team was here too, behind him to a man. Or girl. Or kid.
"I appreciate this."
"We'll find him," Tiny said, and the door opened.