“Anything the matter, Jason?” asked Anderson icily.
He blinked, shuffled in his seat.
“Eh, no, Chief.”
“Good. Now let’s get back the map.”
He droned on. Princess shot Jason a sympathetic look. He grinned back. Anderson wrapped up his briefing, giving them some last instructions for the mission.
“You go to Venus, and you look for signs of an enemy base. You do not stop. You do not go planetside. You do not engage, unless you cannot avoid it. You hear me, Jason?”
“Sure, Chief. Do not stop, go planetside, or engage. Fine.”
Anderson’s eyes narrowed.
“I will be watching very closely, Jason.”
He shrugged. Mark made to speak, but Princess placed a hand on his arm.
“Let him be,” she whispered.
“Which of the two?” he shot back, annoyed.
“Both of them,” she said firmly.
Behind them, Keyop and Tiny exchanged a look.
Making their way to the Phoenix, Princess caught up with Jason.
“You should watch it with the Chief, Jason. He can only take so much.”
“Ah, never mind the Chief,” said Jason nonchalantly. “He’s used to me by now, and he needs someone to keep him on his toes.”
“Is that what you were doing? I thought you were just being bored in there.”
They took their seats, buckled in.
“Well, yes, there’s that too…”
“Everyone clear on our objectives?” asked Mark, turning around to look at them.
“Sure, Commander,” nodded Tiny.
“Beep…toot…go and take photos,” added Keyop.
“Well, I’m glad at least some of you understand that,” he said, looking pointedly at Jason, who smirked. Princess slapped him on the shoulder.
“Eyes on the controls, gunner!” she said.
The flight over to Venus took less time than expected, and soon they were going round the planet, looking for indications that Spectra had established, or was planning to establish, a base there. It was on their third run around the planet that they saw it.
“Commander, that gap in the mountain over there…” pointed Tiny.
“It wasn’t there last time we were round…” added Mark thoughtfully. “Take her down, Tiny. Let’s take a closer look. Keyop, camera on standby.”
The Phoenix made a closer pass, and they saw that the mountainside had opened, and in the gaping cave that appeared they could see the glint of enemy craft.
“So here’s where they were hiding…” said Jason softly. “Commander, shall we go round again?”
“Tiny, get her closer.”
Then he turned on the comm channel to Centre Neptune.
“Chief, this is the Phoenix. Can you read me?”
“Go ahead, Mark.”
“We found the base. Request permission to send recon team.”
“Mark, your instructions were to take photos and come back.”
“And what then, Chief? Will another team come to investigate? We are here. We are in position.”
Anderson remained silent for a moment.
“Are you sure your presence is not detected yet?”
“Positive, Chief. No enemy activity.”
“Very well. Send two to investigate, and remain on standby. Centre Neptune out.”
Jason was already out of his seat, looking at Mark expectantly. He knew that the Commander had the absolute authority to decide who would go on the recon, and he hoped he would be picked.
“Okay Jason,” smiled Mark. “Since you can’t wait to go. Princess, you too.”
She got her equipment ready.
“Not…fair…” beeped Keyop, downcast. “Princess and Jason…all the fun!”
“Yeah, well, that’s life, shorty,” said Jason heading towards the Phoenix bubble.
“Let me clear once again,” said Mark, raising his voice. “You will not engage with the enemy. You will avoid being seen. You will take photos of the site and then you will come back.”
“You got it, Chief,” said Princess, following Jason up to the bubble.
“Tiny, keep her steady. Okay, out you go!”
They saluted, and headed up in the air. With a graceful turn, they landed safely on the mountainside and ducked down immediately. They were now in enemy territory.
Slowly, stealthily, they made their way up the mountainside.
“I didn’t think it would be such a hike,” panted Jason.
“It’s always further than it looks, eh?”
“It’s a pity we can’t fly there, instead of hiking.”
“Yes, well, they are less likely to see us this way.”
They marched on, through the thick shrub. Suddenly Princess, who was in the front, pulled up. She raised a hand, then pointed it towards the gap in the mountain.
“Guards. One platoon, I think.”
They lay down on the ground, expertly sliding to better positions, well-hidden still by the lush vegetation. They knew that their birdstyles would keep them hidden from infra-red or thermal scopes, so they only had to worry about visual contact.
“We need a diversion,” whispered Jason.
Princess nodded, readied her yo-yo.
“One diversion, coming up.”
Jason shook his head.
“This will not be enough. We need something more…diverting.”
He raised his communicator.
“Come in, Phoenix.”
“Hear you loud and clear, Jason. What’s up?”
“Mark, we got company. They haven’t seen us yet. We need a diversion. Can you draw them away from the base?”
“Give us half an hour,” said Mark. “We need to see how to do this without endangering you and Princess.”
Jason signed off, and slid over closer to Princess. She was expertly checking her weapons. Seeing her there, pink uniform already muddy from the soil, eyes keenly looking over the equipment, small beads of sweat on her face, Jason suddenly felt a pang of…he would call it, a desire to protect her. He shook his head in frustration. This was rubbish. She was his team-mate, more than able to take care of herself. She did not need, or want, or indeed accept, protection. But he couldn’t help his feelings.
Princess finished her checks, turned to face him.
“There. Ready to go.”
A loose strand of hair has fallen on her eyes, as she was lying belly-down on the mud, and she pushed it away.
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” said Jason softly.
“What?” she replied, not knowing if she should laugh or be concerned about his mental condition.
“Here’s looking at you, kid. It’s from a film.”
“Okay…so why are you quoting it now?”
“We got half an hour with nothing to do.”
She laughed softly again.
“Jason, are you all right?”
“I am absolutely fine, thank you, Princess,” he said seriously, suddenly noticing how red her cheeks had become. They gave her an inner glow which had nothing to do with the excitement of the mission.
“Princess, can I ask you a question?” he said after a few moments.
“As long as it’s not about another film, sure!”
“What will you do when all this is over?”
She turned her face sideways – not very easy when you were flat on the ground – to look at him. She was ready to tease him, but then saw he was dead serious.
“I… don’t know. I never thought of it. I only think about getting through the next mission.”
He nodded, almost to himself.
She smiled tenderly.
“You have your racing. You can go back to that, full-time.”
“You can only race for so many years. It’s not a lifelong occupation.”
She moved in closer to him.
He shook his head.
“I have no idea.”
“I guess I could take up the job at the Snack J full time, make some money, expand the bar…” said Princess thoughtfully.
“You know what?” said Jason suddenly. “I think Anderson will want to keep us around Centre Neptune, you know, as trainers or something.”
Princess got a determined look on her face.
“That’s maybe what he wants. It’s definitely not what I want.”
“So you will go against his wishes?”
“I can very fierce when I want to,” she laughed, keeping her voice as low as possible. To Jason, her laugh was throaty, and sexy.
“I know you can be fierce…” he said softly. “And tender as well,” he added, in such a low voice that she wasn’t sure she had even heard him.
She tentatively moved a finger closer to his arm, touched him.
“Tender comes in many forms, Jason,” she whispered. “You are the most tender man I know.”
He almost jumped up at that.
“Me? Tender? Are you sure you’re not confusing me with someone else?”
She shook her head – as much as the ground would allow her.
“You are sensitive, more sensitive than any of us. You put up this façade of being tough – don’t get me wrong, you are tough. But you are also very, very tender.”
He moved a couple of fingers closer to hers. Their gloves touched, and they grabbed each other’s hand firmly. They said nothing more, but there was no need to say anything.
They nearly jumped out of their skins when their communicators crackled to life.
“Jason, Princess, this is the Phoenix. We are in position. Are you ready.”
Jason had to swallow a couple of times before answering.
“Go ahead, Commander.”
“We are going to try to draw the guards out to the west side of the mountain. I don’t know for how long they will fall for it, so be quick.”
They readied their cameras.
“We are good to go, Commander.”
A mighty roar was heard as the Phoenix approached. The guards, startled, flew out of the base, heading to where the Phoenix was hovering just above the ground. Jason and Princess lurched forward, covering the remaining distance flying over the trees in a few jumps. They reached the opening gap in the mountainside, and quickly snapped at the assembled enemy craft. Personnel seemed to be minimal – and most of them were after the Phoenix. It was also obvious that the base did not have anti-aircraft weapons, as the only shots against the Phoenix came from ground-based guns. The few guards left at the base tried to chase the two members of G-Force, but they were no match for them. In less than five minutes, Jason and Princess were out of the base and started running, chased by the guards.
“Phoenix, come in, we need a pickup NOW!” panted Jason in his communicator.
“Coming up your way now, Jason.”
They had taken refuge behind a couple of boulders. Princess peeped carefully around the side.
“They are closing in on us,” she said, readying her weapon.
“It would be too much to ask that for once G-Force would not be late.”
He took out his pistol, peered around the boulder and took aim. Just then, the Phoenix flew into view.
“Someone out here wanted a ride?” came Tiny’s voice over their communicators.
“Smartass,” growled Jason, as he and Princess flew up towards the Phoenix bubble.
She laughed. He leaned in closer to her, as they stood on the bubble, waiting for the hatch to open.
“Have I told you how beautiful your eyes are?” he said gently.
“No,” she replied. “But you can tell me now.”