There was a brown envelope in Dylan's pigeonhole three days later. Full letter size, and with what felt like half a ream of paper in there. His name on the front, with no indication of who it was from or what it was. No postmark, so it was internal.
His heart skipped a beat. Could this be it? He'd alternated between despair and hope ever since his black section test had been halted by an alert. He knew G-Force were back. They'd been back for days - since about three hours after they'd gone out, in fact. It had been all over the news. Scenic shots of the Phoenix flying off into the sunset with bits of mecha strewn across the ground below. He'd waited for the phonecall ever since. Nothing.
"I said, are you coming for lunch?" A large hand clamped on his shoulder. "Love letter?"
Dylan forced himself to relax. "Nah. Course paperwork. I'll join you in a bit."
"Save you a seat." Tim strolled off without a backward glance, oh-so-casually displaying a white envelope which probably was a love letter or similar. Dylan headed in the opposite direction. It really was course paperwork, he told himself. Having skipped junior year at the Academy, he was forever being presented with things which the rest of his class had dealt with months earlier but nobody had noticed that he'd never done. Until it was due yesterday.
Seniors' quarters were on the second floor - his British instincts still wanted to call it the first floor - and were single rooms. Pure heaven, after two years of four-bedded dorms and non-stop short jokes. Dylan shut the door, locked it, sat down in the one chair which would fit in here, and turned the envelope over in his hands again. New, completely unmarked. Probably put there by the sender rather than having gone through the internal mail system. His name, rank and Academy serial number were computer-printed on a standard label. No clues.
It was a security envelope, which was unusual. No peeling this one carefully open and then sticking it back down. Once open it was open.
It's either from them or it isn't. Dylan took a deep breath and slit the flap.
It contained course paperwork. For a moment he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Then he began to process exactly what it was paperwork for.
Early graduation. Courses taken, marks achieved, exemption from other courses based on test scores. They'd told him it was there if he wanted it. Now they were asking him to take a bare scraped pass, without any indication of whether there was a post waiting for him if he did so? They wouldn't do that. Would they?
He flipped through it again, more slowly and thoroughly. This time he noticed the note on the last page, which had a temporary blue section pass attached, valid for today only.
Return completed paperwork to Cmdr Nykinnen in person.
Nykinnen had been there for his midterm review. The one he'd been hauled out of for a black section assessment. Nykinnen had sat there while Grant reduced him to a gibbering wreck. He'd watched while he signed black section confidentiality agreements. He'd discussed the possibility of early graduation.
He'd also asked him what he thought of Team Seven, the ISO dumping ground which Nykinnen commanded. It couldn't be that, could it? Surely not.
If it was what he hoped, they wouldn't want someone who would take wild risks with their entire future. Calculated risks, yes. Doing what was needed. But not throwing away an advantage on the basis of speculation.
Dylan clipped the additional badge on next to his student version and headed for the more restricted areas of ISO. He hadn't signed anything. He wanted the explanation first.
The green light was on over the door to Nykinnen's office. Dylan didn't let himself hesitate - he suspected the two people heading down the corridor towards him wearing security team uniforms with Team Seven insignia were coming here too. He tapped at the door, and opened it as instructed.
"Ah. Cadet North," said Commander Nykinnen. He looked over Dylan's shoulder. "We'll be a while," he said to the people outside. "Come back in an hour. Shut the door."
Dylan almost missed that the last instruction had been for him. He did as asked. The red light over the door clicked on, and he cleared his throat nervously.
"Uh... Commander, I haven't signed anything yet. I wanted to be sure."
"Sure of what, Cadet?"
"That... that there's an offer involved in this which is more than just a scraped pass for an Academy diploma while I'm still so young that I doubt any security team would look at me."
Nykinnen blinked at him, and Dylan felt himself flush. "I'm sorry, sir. Is black section offering me something? Or is it just that I could graduate if I wanted?"
"Officially?" Something in the big man's tone made Dylan listen even more closely than he had been. "Officially, you have been informed that you have sufficient credits to graduate, and I have been assigned to discuss with you which of the security teams you might be interested in applying for. Unofficially, should you decide to sign the papers, I will be starting by taking you to black section for a discussion with the medical team."
"I'm sure you have heard the rumours, Cadet."
Yes, I just didn't believe them. For a long time he'd thought them science fiction nonsense. He'd put a whole lot more weight in them after his first trip to black section. 'Unimplanted' had been a term used about him, entirely casually, by someone wearing a G-Force communicator bracelet. He assumed that meant they really did have the ability-enhancing implants everyone whispered about, in at least some form.
He forced himself not to gulp. "What if I'm not suitable?"
"Then your signed graduation papers will have a small accident." Nykinnen sat forward, looking at him intently. "However, this is extremely unlikely. If your medical records gave any indication that you were not suitable, we would not be having this conversation. I am asking you to make a commitment, here and now. You do not get to go watch black section in operation for a few days and then say 'no thanks'."
No pressure, then. "Yes," he said, rather more loudly than he'd intended, and before he could second-guess himself. "That's all I need to know. I'll sign it."
Then, of course, he couldn't find the pen which he always kept in his uniform pocket. Nothing like looking calm, collected and well-prepared as you sign your life away.
It was the same captain as before at the security station at the entrance to black section. She looked him up and down, then at Nykinnen, then back to him.
"Do you need to be reminded of the rules?"
"No, sir." Grant had impressed them on him extremely thoroughly the last time he'd been in here.
She nodded, handed him a badge with the photo on she'd taken last time, and gave Nykinnen what appeared to be a rather more permanent version.
"Come," Nykinnen said to him. "You've met Doctor Johnson, I believe?"
"Yes." The doctor had told him that he hoped to see him again. At the time, Dylan had thought it politeness. It might just be true. It needed to be.
"I like this bit," Johnson said, with an actual grin. "So, Dylan, tell me what you know about cerebonic implants."
"Let me rephrase that. I'd like to know what the current rumours say."
"Apart from that G-Force have them?" Dylan thought for a moment. "They're supposed to be in the back of the neck somewhere, hence everyone growing their hair. And they don't work if you take drugs of any sort, hence everyone not taking drugs of any sort. At least not when anyone's watching."
"And they do what?"
Dylan shrugged. "Everything G-Force can do that the rest of us can't."
"If only it was that easy." Johnson activated his computer screen and angled it towards Dylan. "I don't have a spare chip to show you at the moment, I'm afraid, but here is a picture. 'In the back of the neck somewhere' is about right - we typically implant two chips, on C3 and C4. Do you know what that means?"
The picture - bone, metal, traces of blood - was enough of a hint for him to remember his anatomy lectures. "Cervical vertebrae. Yes."
"Good. As to what they do... I'm afraid that much of what G-Force can do is based purely on skill and practice. The implants do, however, enhance various natural abilities. Reflexes, vision, hearing and so on. They increase your healing rate significantly. They also provide a power reservoir - a finite one. You get a certain amount of additional speed, or stamina, or strength. And they interface to a jump-drive, in someone who is naturally a jump-pilot. I understand that you are."
"I don't know much about it." Except those rumours again, and some of them were wild. Psionic powers? That he still didn't believe.
"No, you wouldn't, and I'm not the person to ask. I'm just mentioning it for completeness. Do you have any questions?"
Several thousand. "Um... what can go wrong?"
"If you like, I can give you a rundown on what the theoretical risks are for spinal surgery and scare you silly. In practice, we have had no issues with candidates who are still in puberty. Nobody has rejected. Nobody has had an implantation fail to work. Nobody's had as much as an infection. We are very, very careful."
"Still in puberty?"
"Adults cannot be implanted successfully. We will do a blood test to be entirely sure that you're not biologically adult yet - we believe that the issue is connected to hormone levels. You're younger than many of our implantees have been. I'm not concerned."
So that's why G-Force look so young. He'd seen the arguments that they were in fact adult soldiers, that only the visors made them look teenaged. He hadn't believed it even before he'd met three of them, who most certainly weren't far out of their teens, if they even were. That explained a lot.
He sat and thought while Johnson extracted several vials of blood from his right elbow. A lot of those several thousand questions were either downright daft or unanswerable, but some weren't.
"When would you, um, operate?"
"We've had a delay in our supply of chips, unfortunately. A couple of weeks." The doctor withdrew the needle. "Press there. Now, I believe that Chief Anderson wants to see you. I'll find someone to show you to his office."
He wondered if the 'someone' might be the Osprey, but it was a much older security officer in a standard uniform, sergeant's stripes on his shoulder and no inclination to talk. He led the way up several flights of stairs at a rapid pace. Another test? Dylan had his suspicions. He'd also taken his fitness very seriously for much longer than he'd been at the Academy. Anything a thirty-plus man who probably spent most of his time on guard duty could manage wasn't an issue for him.
The stairs ended practically in the rafters on a tiny landing with a single unlabelled door, and his escort tapped on it without giving him a moment to pause. Opened the door for him, gave him what looked almost like an encouraging grin, and headed back down the stairs. There was nothing to do except go in.
Lots of desk space, a single computer with two screens, much paperwork, box files filling almost every space under the desk, a couple of basic office chairs, and possibly the most recognisable man in the world seated in a much more sophisticated black leather version, turning at his entrance.
"Sir, I'm Dylan North."
"Indeed. Sit down, Dylan. I understand you want to be a birdstyle operative?"
So that's what they're called. Dylan did as he was told, being sure to sit up straight, hands together correctly. What was it with these do you want questions? Of course he wanted to be one. So did everyone in the Academy. Why else would anyone be here?
Anderson was watching him intently over his glasses. "Do you want to be a birdstyle operative, Dylan? Or is it that you think you should want to?"
"I..." He swallowed. Truth? Or his carefully prepared phrases?
Only people who thought they should want to would prepare phrases that they thought others wanted to hear, surely.
"Sir, I've been obsessed with spaceflight since... well, since before the war started. I applied for ISO's first selection camp. I want to go into space. Spectra's in my way. I want them out of the way, and I'll do anything I can to help make that happen."
"You don't think G-Force is capable?"
"I think they're beyond capable. But they can't be two places at once."
Anderson nodded, expressionless. "ISO's first selection camp? How old were you?"
Dylan flushed. "Eleven. They didn't accept me."
"So what did you do?"
Cried myself to sleep for a month. "I taught myself all the maths and physics I could, and everything else I thought astronauts might need. When the war started and G-Force hit the news, I added martial arts to it. And I applied for the ISO Academy every year until they took me."
"But you didn't learn to fly."
"I wanted to. But it's a lot of money for a private individual, and I wasn't old enough to join any of the organisations which offer it for free."
"I see. So your flight experience consists of what you've had at the Academy?"
"Yes, sir." He considered adding a comment about just how little that was, and decided against it. Anderson must know that Academy students trained on simulators most of the time, with the bare minimum of actual flight hours required to pass basic flight.
Anderson considered him, steely grey eyes over the top of his glasses. "And what do you think we should give you as a cover occupation?"
A what? "Sir... sorry, I don't follow you."
"None of our birdstyle operatives are listed as such on their resumes. Similarly, you will need something which makes sense to your erstwhile fellow students. You are, after all, throwing away your chances to graduate top of your class. What would make you do that - apart from a black section appointment, of course?"
"Team Three," Dylan found himself saying. It was, after all, the truth. He suspected this man would be aware of it already, or could have guessed. Team Three was what every Academy wannabe pilot wanted, not least because it was just barely accessible. The top couple of graduates had made it there last year. Of course, they'd aced every flying elective available in the last semester at the Academy. He'd just walked away from the chance to take any of those courses.
And, to his complete astonishment, Anderson nodded. "As I believe Doctor Johnson told you, there will be a delay of a couple of weeks in your implantation. You'll start at Team Three on Monday. Report to Commander Smythe at oh eight hundred."
Dylan stared, disbelieving. "But I... what do I tell people?"
Anderson cleared his throat. "Cadet North. If you are to be a black section operative, then telling people what you are doing outside black section while making no reference to what you are doing within it cannot be an issue for you. You tell them that you have chosen to graduate early in order to take up a probationary assignment to Team Three. Your paperwork will support this. Everything else is up to you. Dismissed."
Commander Smythe's office was almost completely unlike Anderson's. Huge, immaculately tidy, not a file in sight, four or five computers, those he could see showing different flight-related screensavers. The walls were almost completely covered in framed pictures of planes, everything from aged biplanes to twentieth century propjets to ISO robot planes to Riga fighters. And, of course, the streamlined beauties which Team Three flew. ISO Z-17s. Dylan had dreamed of being in this office, handing over this set of paperwork, from the moment he'd arrived at ISO and no longer needed to dream about acceptance to the Academy.
Now he'd rather have been anywhere else. It hadn't occurred to him that not even his new commanding officer would know why he was really there.
Commander Smythe - short, with a crisp traditional military haircut and a perpetual frown - seemed to take forever to read through the transfer papers. When he looked up, the frown was even heavier.
"Cadet, is this a joke?"
He couldn't figure out where to look. The picture of the G-1, just above Smythe's head, seemed safest. "No, sir."
"You have no flight experience in a Z-17 and precious little in anything else. You haven't taken any Academy flight electives. You've spent two and a half years total in the Academy and you've graduated early because you're good at academics. Do everyone a favour, kid. Go say this was a mistake and you've changed your mind. Graduate top of your class. Apply again in eighteen months when you're ready. I won't hold this against you.
In eighteen months I'll be too old to be implanted - not that black section would look at me twice. Eyes fixed on that picture - was it the Eagle piloting, or the Kite? - Dylan shook his head. "Sorry, sir, I can't do that."
Smythe's eyes were on his. He could feel them, and didn't dare look until there was a snort.
"Very well, Cadet." He raised his voice. "Lieutenant Morton? This is Cadet North. Standard simulator assessment. I want to see it before he moves on to live flight."
Morton was half a foot taller than he was, at least half a decade older, and had his left arm in a sling. His frown was almost as heavy as his commanding officer's. Dylan guessed that 'grounded for medical reasons' crossed with 'playing nursemaid' wasn't much to his taste, and decided to give the friendly chit-chat a miss unless the other started it.
"Flight log?" was the first thing he said when they reached the simulator.
Dylan handed it over, and Morton flicked through it one-handed, disbelief written all over his face.
"This is it? Kid, you're in the wrong place."
"This is the assignment I was given," he repeated stubbornly. There was nothing else he could do. Nothing.
Morton grimaced. "Fine. Have it your own way. Do you even know what the standard simulator assessment involves?"
"Didn't think so." He reached past Dylan and flicked switches on the console. "I'll give you the on-screen prompts. If you need more help than that, it's an automatic fail."
But I've only been here for ten minutes! Dylan didn't say it, but his face must have given it away, because Morton sighed.
"This isn't the Academy, kid. This isn't a training team, either. The rest of my wing is out hunting mecha, and since I'm grounded, that includes one of our probationers. He's been here for four months and he's out there hunting mecha. Nobody's got time to babysit a rookie pilot, and you'll be a raw rookie for a few hundred hours of live flight time after basic flight because everyone is. You've got what, five hours of live flight total? The last probationer we took had over three hundred, he's now got twice that, and he's not out there hunting mecha because he isn't ready yet. You don't believe me? Put that helmet on and show me what I'm missing."
Dylan put the helmet on. He did, at least, know how to activate the neural simulator controls.
Of the five planes in the assessment, he'd flown none for real, and only one simulated. The fifth, the Z-17 which was what Team Three actually used, he couldn't even get off the ground. There had to be some trick to it. Probably something to do with how there were dozens more controls in front of him than in any plane he'd been checked out on.
"Enough," said Morton finally, and Dylan stripped off the helmet wondering whether he'd have an audience. No - just Morton. The pilot didn't even look amused. Embarrassed, maybe. Bored.
This had to be hazing, surely? They couldn't really be deciding whether to take him based on this? Anderson couldn't have expected him to be able to do it. Could he?
Morton reached past him and did something to the console. "With me, Cadet," he said, and headed out.
Commander Smythe was leaning back watching one of the screens as they entered his office again. He did look amused. Dylan could only imagine what was being replayed on it.
"Lieutenant Morton? Your assessment, please."
Morton glanced at Dylan, making a decision. "Permission to speak freely, sir."
"Waste of my time, sir. And yours. He shouldn't be here."
"That's not fair!" Dylan hadn't intended to say anything at all, but... no! This wasn't right! He'd done everything he'd been asked to the best of his ability.
"Cadet, you're incompetent in a plane."
Dylan saw red. "I'm incompetent in planes I've never been checked out on. And, since I've graduated, I believe that's Lieutenant. Not Cadet."
"Thank you, Lieutenant Morton. That will be all." Smythe fixed Dylan with a decidedly unimpressed glare, and Dylan withered inwardly. He wanted this day over. Actually, he wanted the last four days over, to bin that graduation paperwork, and to be in a navigation class right now. Top of it. Being asked to do things he had some chance of success with.
As the door closed behind Morton, Smythe sighed. "Yes, Lieutenant, you would be correct about your rank. Since you're insisting on it in public, I can no longer pretend that there's been some misunderstanding and you're still an Academy student. You're unsuitable for Team Three. I'm transferring you to Team Seven, effective immediately."
"But you can't --"
"One more word, mister. Just one, and you'll be going with a disciplinary record. Now, get out before I call security to have you thrown out. Team Seven is on the ground floor, I believe. Do I need to have you escorted there?"
"No, sir," Dylan heard himself saying. He just barely managed to stop himself slamming the door.
Team Seven was at least, he considered as he drifted unhappily down the corridors, the home of Commander Nykinnen, who would be able to get him into black section to confess his abject failure to Anderson. Cover story? He'd lasted barely two hours, and they hadn't taken him seriously for two minutes. What would Anderson do? This was, surely, supposed to be the easy bit. The thing he could do as an unsupervised newbie to take up time until the black section medics were ready for him.
Black section weren't going to want him after this. Team Three? They'd never look at him ever.
A tall young man with blond curls leant against the wall next to Nykinnen's office as Dylan approached. The light over the office door was red. Just what he needed: Nykinnen busy, and a queue to see him.
"Dylan North?" the blond man asked as he hesitated.
"Yes." He wasn't sure he could manage a whole sentence.
"The commander will see you in a few minutes. Coffee?"
"No." He leant against the opposite wall, shut his eyes, and tried not to shake.
There was a hand on his shoulder. "You need it. Come on."
This had to be the Team Seven commonroom. Tables, chairs, people, conversations in a wide variety of languages. A couple of neural simulators over to one side, not currently in use. An industrial scale coffee machine at the other side, rather more in use. Nobody paid him the slightest attention. Not yet. Dylan was under no illusions as to how long it was going to take for this morning's debacle to become public knowledge. Maybe it was already getting out, based on that last comment. Selected video clips from his performance on the simulator couldn't be far behind.
The blond man waved him to go first at the coffee machine - finally, something with controls he understood - and proceeded to, well, hover. Protectively, Dylan would have said. Just making sure nobody else came close, talked to him, interacted with him at all. That suited Dylan just fine right now. He was struggling to control his breathing sufficiently to sip what was decent decaf. Talking wasn't an option.
A few minutes later there was the buzz of an intercom. "Lieutenants Shayler and North, my office, now," Nykinnen's voice said.
Dylan almost missed that this included him - why would someone else be involved? But the blond man stood up, abandoning his coffee, and Dylan hastily did the same and followed him. What else could he do?
The green light was on, and Nykinnen's office door was open. Dylan followed Shayler in, shut the door behind him, headed for the remaining chair. Just keep your mouth shut, he told himself. Don't make it worse.
And Nykinnen said, "Dylan, we owe you an apology."
This is it. This is where they say they made a mistake in offering me an implant. Dylan said nothing, focusing on breathing steadily and not breaking down.
"Team Three was never going to be your cover story. For a start, it's not practical. They're far too timetabled, especially their probationer section - they're in the air ten hours a day. Your absences would be obvious. Team Seven is the only team where we can hide black section activity."
He heard the words. He understood the words. He just couldn't quite understand that they applied to him. Not his cover story? Never going to be? "Then... why?"
"Two reasons. The first is that nobody would believe you graduated from the Academy early for Team Seven. They'd wonder what was really going on."
"I'm afraid the second is my fault," said Shayler. "See, my cover story is also Team Seven. It has been for a while - too long. I'm good at what I do, and if I was just a security officer I'd be looking to move on. So I need a reason that I haven't. Hacking the computer system to put my friend's name next on the tryout list for Team Three, and getting caught, will do nicely."
Dylan frowned. "Why wouldn't you have put your own name next?"
"My name was right after yours - poke them in at the same time and they go in alphabetically, which is fortunate. I'm a better pilot than you are, good enough that I should be there. We needed them to look into how you were on that list at all, so they'd see electronic fingerprints all over your entry and the same on mine next to it. And my cover story stops being Rick Shayler, been in Team Seven far too long, and goes to being Rick Shayler, darn lucky to still be in Team Seven at all what with the trick he pulled."
"And mine is... Dylan North, arrogant kid who thought he could waltz onto Team Three and now has to work his way up instead?" He'd been in shock before, once, when he'd broken his right forearm in five places falling off a climbing wall. He'd felt much like this then. Unreal, floating, the world a different shape from how he'd always thought it was. Tryout list? No wonder they'd reacted like that when he'd showed up and presented transfer papers, as if being accepted was a done deal.
"Yes," said Nykinnen. "Exactly. It isn't going to be easy, because the rumour mill will know all about what happened within a few hours at most. I hear you have quite a temper. Commander Smythe was most unimpressed. He felt I should know what I was taking on."
He looked at the floor. "I should apologise to him."
"Absolutely not. He doesn't know what's going on and we plan to keep it that way. Plus, would the arrogant kid do that?"
"I guess not." He gulped, as practicalities began to surface. "Does everyone here have to hate me?"
"You're sixteen years old. Everyone here is going to be wary of you anyway. You've got a lot to prove to them, but I see no reason you can't go with 'screwed up big time, major shot of reality, turned over a new leaf.'"
"I can do that." It wasn't what he'd expected. Or wanted. But... maybe he'd needed that shot of reality for real. He'd been worried about the standards for Team Three, but he hadn't thought it was implausible that Anderson could simply transfer him there; he'd keep his head down and work hard, and he'd catch up. Three hundred hours just to be a probationer, Morton had said. That was a lot of flying. And that was to be a Team Three probationer, not an active pilot at all. Goodness only knew how much experience he'd need to be a serious birdstyle operative. And he'd told the Condor he could fly. That alert which had called G-Force away might just have been the luckiest break of his life.
One thing was nagging at him, though, and it finally came into focus. All the secrecy about his connection with black section, and here was Nykinnen talking about it in front of Shayler as if it was nothing?
"Lieutenant, can I ask... why do you need a cover story?"
And the blond man grinned and held out a hand. "Good question. My callsign is Kite. And, since I'm supposed to be your partner in crime, you'd best start calling me Rick."
"Indeed," said Nykinnen. "You'd also best start looking darn contrite, both of you, since I have of course been tearing strips off you throughout this discussion. Dylan, I have your Team Seven paperwork here and your regular blue section clearance, no need to worry about that. Rick, can you show him the ropes, get uniform ordered and so on? And then you should introduce him to our simulators."
"Let me guess," said Rick, entirely relaxed and not at all contrite. "You want to learn to fly the Z-17. Followed by the G-1."
Oh, if only. After this morning? 'Want to' and 'ready to' were gulfs apart given his current flying skills. Being taught to fly ISO's frontline fighter and G-Force's attack plane by G-Force's lead fighter pilot was a dream. Or it would be when he was somewhere beyond a complete novice. He'd known that "good" in Academy terms wouldn't be good outside it. He hadn't fully appreciated just how far from good it would be. And now he was being asked about it by a superstar pilot who was, surely, just as far from good in the other direction.
"The Z-17 wasn't the only plane on that assessment I couldn't fly," he admitted. He had to force himself not to add 'sir'. He'd been responsible for keeping G-5's cover story intact? No wonder they hadn't told him what was really going on.
"No? Let's go download the records and take a look. I'm afraid they need to escape into general circulation anyway, to fuel the rumours."
"Team Three's records?"
"I did mention I was a hacker?"
"Oh. You're really a hacker?" He'd assumed that was all part of the cover story too.
"I'm really a hacker, and this time my electronic fingerprints won't be all over it. I'm also a fully qualified flight instructor, part of whose visible punishment for this little escapade is going to be to sort your flying skills out."
The Kite. A G-Force team member. Here, now, talking to him, offering to teach him to fly. Dylan wasn't sure he believed it. For now, he'd not worry about that. He still had a future after all, and that was enough.