Learning Curves by Grumpy Ghost Owl
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"ALERT. ALERT. CODE ORANGE IS IN EFFECT. CODE ORANGE IS IN EFFECT. ALL PERSONNEL, PROCEED TO YOUR ASSIGNED SHELTERS. SECTION AND AREA WARDENS, INITIATE EVACUATION PROCEDURES. EMERGENCY COORDINATORS, PROCEED TO YOUR POSITIONS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. ALERT. ALERT..."

Due the nature of Seahorse Base it was expected that not everyone would know their way around. The grey vinyl flooring was bordered with coloured stripes leading to important locations such as the medical centre, the transit centre, the residential complex and the emergency shelters. A lot of people were currently following the orange stripes on the floor to take them to the shelters. Among them were Alberta Jones and her small squad of trainees.

Career limbo, a temporary assignment teaching graduate officers and now some kind of large scale evacuation exercise. It was one of those moments where Jones wished a very specific kind of ill toward her former protection assignment. The corridors were crowded and were getting busier as smaller corridors fed into the arterial ones and the crowd moved like migrating wildebeest on some kind of sterile, climate controlled Serengeti.

It wasn't so much the movement therefore, but its direction that caught Jones' eye.

It was the boy from the shuttle, the one with the toxic pets and the dishy parent, scampering in the wrong direction down an intersecting hallway. Jones tapped one of her trainees on the shoulder. "You're in charge until I get back, Lieutenant," she said. She sidestepped, shoved and ducked her way out of the flow of people and into the mostly-empty corridor. "Hey!" she called. The boy stopped, glanced over his shoulder, then sprang away at speed, heading further away from her. "Oh, bother," Jones sighed and ran after him.

This really wasn't turning out to be a particularly good day.

Jones lost sight of the boy at another intersection of corridors. She stopped and listened. The sound of light, rapid footfalls came from her right. She followed it, slowing so that she could take out her palm unit and call the control centre to report the stray civilian. As she turned a corner, she could see the slight figure moving ahead of her at an easy jog. She tucked the palm unit back into its belt pouch and broke into a run. The boy spun at the sound, saw her and dashed away. Jones was sprinting now, but the boy was gaining ground. This shouldn't have been possible, Jones reasoned. She'd been training as hard as ever since her transfer, only having taken a break on the starship from Vega. A fit security officer should have been able to run down a skinny little boy without even breaking a sweat, but the child was outrunning her like a gazelle.

The boy darted down another corridor and Jones followed. There was an emergency exit ahead. With a Code Orange in effect, the base was at Condition Two Lock Down and even emergency exits required a code to open the doors at Condition Two. She'd have him now, and regardless of what his father's rank turned out to be, she was going to give the rotten little menace a stern talking-to.

The boy slapped his wrist against the security panel, and incredibly, the locking indicator lights turned from orange to green. He wrested the heavy door open with apparent ease and slipped through. Jones flung herself against the door as the latches engaged again. Biting back a curse, she stabbed at the access panel, entering a security egress code. The indicators turned green and Jones pushed the door open. Bright sunlight assailed her eyes and she squinted to see the boy racing across one of the staff car parks.

Jones lost more ground dodging between cars as she chased after her quarry. The boy seemed as slippery as an eel. Her last glimpse before she lost him came as he ducked behind a parked utility, seemingly chattering into his wristwatch.

A shadow fell across the base and Jones' gaze was drawn irresistibly upward. Automatically, she reached for her sidearm then stopped herself, realising what a futile gesture it was.

A monster loomed overhead, hovering at about a hundred feet and descending as it moved forward: It looked like some kind of dragonfly, with enormous outstretched wings and a long, narrow, obscenely flexible empennage. Jones couldn't recall real dragonflies behaving in quite the same manner. As Jones watched in abject horror, the thing dropped lower and lower. She cast about frantically, looking for the boy she'd been chasing, but couldn't see him. She jogged away, looking under cars, scanning the grounds for any sign of him.

At a strange hissing, whirring sound behind her, Jones glanced fearfully over her shoulder to see what looked like a tentacle protruding from the dragonfly's mouth. She started running in earnest, heart pounding against her ribs. Where the devil was the boy?

Someone small, fast and stripy tackled her from the left, bowling her over with enough momentum to carry her clear across about eight feet of carpark to fetch up -- painfully -- against a parked Range Rover as the dragonfly's metal tongue smashed into the ground where she'd been.

Bits of tarmac, rocks, sand and dust filled the air, stinging when they hit. Winded, Jones held on to her rescuer's small and bony form, trying to protect him from the flying debris. She could feel a dull pain in her right side where she'd hit the side step of the Range Rover, suggestive of a nasty bruise, but she was fairly certain nothing was broken.

When the worst of it was over, the boy twittered something unintelligible, scowling as though she'd been the one to put them both at risk. "Dangerous!" he reproved.

"You don't say?" Jones gasped, grabbing his wrist. "Come on, we've got to get back to the shelters!"

"No!" the boy pulled free of her grip with astounding strength for someone his size. "You go!"

"Not without you, young man!" Jones told him sternly, then the child took hold of her arm and impossibly, hauled her bodily to her feet. All conversation was suspended as they ran for their lives from another blow from the dragonfly's weird appendage.

They dodged and sprinted to the dubious cover of a small building signposted, 'Danger: Electrical Plant. Do not enter!'

The boy made another odd chirping sound. "You don't... understand!" He screwed his face up in dismay.

Jones saw a figure race toward them from behind a row of cars: the boy's father. He sprinted across the tarmac and skidded to a stop against the wall that protected them.

"What do you think you're doing?" Jones demanded, not caring whether the newcomer outranked her or not.

Instead of answering, the suited man glanced upward. "Get down!" he snapped, and dropped to the asphalt. Jones did likewise as the scream of engines heralded the arrival of a squadron of remote controlled fighter jets. The jets opened fire, strafing the alien ship. Bullets tore into parked cars and hot shell casings bounced and tinkled over the paving.

"Why do all the cute ones have to be idiots?" Jones muttered under her breath. She glanced around, searching for a safe escape route. "All right," she raised her voice as the jets arced away for another attack run, "if I can open the door to this plant room, we might be able to access a service tunnel and possibly even survive until teatime, but we'll have to move fast. Sir, I have no idea who you are, but I'd appreciate it if you could keep the young gentleman under control." She pulled her palm unit from her pocket and held it against the covered lock panel of the plant room before entering a sequence of codes.

Above, the alien ship was on an intercept course with the remote controlled fighter jets. Its proboscis lashed out like a whip and tore through one of the planes, which exploded in a ball of flame and debris.

Jones looked up into a sky about to rain death upon her. "Oh, bugger," she said. Even as she spoke, Jones was aware that, "Oh, bugger," were probably going to be her last words, but since nobody was listening, it probably didn't really matter. The boy leaped up, batted Jones' hand and palm unit aside from the control panel and pressed his wrist against the lock. The lights turned green and the panel slid open. The boy shoved the adults in ahead of him, chirping and stuttering musically. "Inside!" he managed to say.

The tiny building rattled as burning metal hit the ground around them. A heavy thud made the roof shake and warp as something relatively small but also relatively burning bounced off it.

"Flashlight!" the suited man barked, and Jones, who was in the process of extracting her penlight from her jacket pocket, turned to him in irritation.

"Flashlight, please!" she snapped, and switched on the small, bright light.

The man stared at her while the boy gaped. "I stand corrected," the man said, recovering himself. He crouched beside the sealed cover to the service pit and keyed an override code. "After you," he said as he pulled the hatch open.

Jones descended the ladder with the flashlight between her teeth and fumbled for a light switch. It was close to the bottom of the ladder where she expected to find it, and a lonely fluorescent tube struggled and flickered into life. The boy slid down the ladder and the man followed at a more sensible pace, pausing to close the overhead hatch after himself. Jones hunted for an emergency access hatch and tried not to think about the way the boy had opened the door to the plant building only moments earlier. The hatch was behind a roll of disused fibre optic cable. Jones kicked it aside and dodged the cockroaches which scuttled out from underneath it. "And there's another reason I never wanted to become an engineer," she grumbled quietly. She entered her access code on the keypad and worked the manual hatch release, which clunked and groaned in protest as she did so.

The tunnel beyond the service hatch was illuminated with dim emergency lighting which managed to turn pitch blackness into not-quite pitch blackness.

The pit shook and the overhead hatch buckled as something heavy fell on it. A large crack began to open in the ceiling.

"I think 'away' would be a good direction to consider at this point," Jones said, and shone her flashlight into the murky depths of the access tunnel. She ventured inside and beckoned for the others to join her. Jones shut the hatch behind them. If the service pit caved in, it could send a cloud of choking dust down the access tunnel and Jones wanted something solid between her and anything that might be described as 'choking.' The man had managed to activate the assistive light on his palm unit, which did little to penetrate the gloom and was waiting impatiently with the boy for Jones to return with her brighter, more focussed light source. Jones took the lead and walked further into the tunnel, thoughts racing in frantic circles.

The boy... The boy with his preternatural strength and that wristband that over-rode access codes! Best not to think about that. It had 'classified' written all over it in large red letters. The man, though... Jones' mind struggled to find a category into which he fitted.

He definitely wasn't a Uniform. Jones knew Uniforms. She'd been one since she'd signed up for Federal Service with Galaxy Security out of high school. When her twelve months were up, she'd remained in the Reserves through university, then gone to the Academy and graduated with bright gold bars on her collar. No, not a Uniform. He wasn't a Civvy, either. A civilian wouldn't move the way he moved or have dealt with the situation the way he did. That left Plain Clothes, Lab Coat, or Suit.

He moved like a Plain Clothes, except that they usually started out as Uniforms, and tended to dress more snappily once given wardrobe choices. There were the administrative staff, however, who wore civilian clothing to work. He could be some kind of senior accountant. Still, she mused, it was as though he knew exactly where he was in relation to his surroundings, even in the darkness of the tunnel, and that suggested more training and experience than the average bean-counter or pen-pusher.

Jones' first impression back at the decontamination station -- it felt like a lifetime ago, now -- had been that he looked like a Lab Coat. He dressed the part, with his not-quite matching waistcoat and last year's tie, but then there was the way he spoke with the ring and snap of command in his voice. He had the Look, too, the one that summed the recipient up in one sweep, right down to service number and shoe size. The Look and the Voice were pure Suit.

An electronic chirp sounded, and the boy raised his arm to speak into his wristband. "G-4," he said.

"Keyop, where are you?" a soft female voice asked. "We're approaching Seahorse Base but your signal's faint. Are you okay?"

The boy stuttered. "In hole," he warbled, "in the ground!"

"We need to find the fastest way back to the surface," the Suit/Lab Coat declared, taking the lead and heading down the access tunnel with a determined stride.

Jones scrambled to catch up and gave him a horrified look. "Are you harbouring some sort of ambition to have the snot beaten out of you by a giant alien... thingy?" she snapped, the compunction to sarcasm finally getting the better of her (and if nothing else, his response would tell her once and for all where he belonged on the Galaxy Security Organisational Chart.) "I mean, I'm no psychologist, but I'm fairly certain you ought to be able to get pills for it or something."

"Pills..." the man echoed, raising an eyebrow.

"Probably the ones that are only allowed to be dispensed in really small quantities," Jones added nastily.

"Major... Jones," the man said, making a very Suit-like point of reading Jones' name tag, "You are now part of a highly classified operation. I require compliance with my orders. I do not require speculation on my mental state - regardless of how crazy I may seem right now," he added.

Jones had been a Galaxy Security officer long enough to tell when someone was metaphorically peeing on a tree, and she could also tell when the mark was well up the trunk. Suit. Definitely. "As you wish, sir," she said.

"Good," the Suit acknowledged. "Now, let's find a way out of here."

 

 

"Do you think Keyop's okay?" Princess asked, her voice wavering.

"Zark's keeping an eye on him," Tiny said. "And the little guy can hold his own. You'll see."

"In the meantime," Jason said, glowering at the main view screen, "that thing's still a threat. It's made mince meat out of the car park!"

Mark made an effort to stop grinding his teeth. "We're observing," he said, reiterating his instructions. "We don't engage unless it's to save lives."

"You think stopping it cold might save a few?" Jason muttered.

Mark heard him, but didn't reply. Instead he opened a tele-comm channel. "Zark," he said, "what's the word on personnel at Seahorse Base? Any casualty reports in, yet?"

"Only minor injuries reported so far, Commander," the robot replied. "However, there's some structural damage to one of the shelters on level two. If the shelter has to be evacuated, we could see an increase in casualty numbers."

"And the city?" Mark asked. "Have they managed to evacuate the civilians?"

"Emergency Services report that approximately sixty percent of the civilian population have either been evacuated or have taken shelter in the civil defence facilities."

"Thanks, Zark. Keep us posted, Okay? G-Force out."

"Thinking of making our observation a little more interactive?" Jason asked.

"You read my mind, Jason," Mark said. "All the same, we'll wait a little longer to let the civilians get out of the hot zone and I want Keyop on board if we decide to go in."

 

Anderson wiped grimy hands on his jacket. Service tunnels were never meant to be spotlessly clean, and that included the hand rails on the ladders. The thick layer of dirt seemed to be composed of dust, grease and fossilised cobwebs with a sprinkling of dead bugs thrown in for good measure. It was uncomfortably -- Anderson's mind cast around for a descriptive -- organic.

The sounds of battle had been getting louder, and now the percussion and roar of surface to air missiles being fired were clearly audible. Ahead of him, Major Jones had found a door and was unlocking it. She pushed it outward by a few inches and a narrow band of daylight streamed in to the tunnel along with the stench of rocket exhaust.

Anderson peered outside and blinked.

The car park was going to be the subject of a lot of declined insurance claims (Act of War being a standard exclusion) and part of the hardstand was now occupied by three mobile batteries, all firing at the dragonfly ship, which remained in a hover at about a hundred and fifty feet above Seahorse Base.

The rockets seemed to be having little effect on the enemy, from what Anderson could make out through the smoke.

The dragonfly wasn't paying much attention to either the missiles or the base, however, as it was being kept fully occupied by a large blue and red aircraft which circled around it, forcing it to move in a tight circle in its attempts to obtain a firing solution.

"Looks like they're waiting for you," Anderson told Keyop.

Keyop activated his wrist comm. "G-Force... come in," he said.

"Where are you?" Mark asked

"On ground," Keyop reported. "Need... pickup."

There was a brief silence, presumably while the rest of G-Force decided what they were going to do.

"Princess is on her way," Mark said. "Head for the south gate."

"Aye-aye!" Keyop chirped. He struck a pose, arced his hand over his head and spoke a single word: "Transmute!"

His gangly form seemed to dissolve in iridescent rainbow light before solidifying again, resplendent in his yellow and red G-Force battle uniform.

The Phoenix banked steeply and withdrew, heading out over the bay.

The dragonfly ship stopped turning and hung motionless over Seahorse Base for a moment.

Keyop pushed the emergency exit door open and grinned back at the adults. "See ya!" he said, and ran.

Out of sight of the Base, the Phoenix lost altitude and went in to a stationary hover over a freeway interchange.

Mark opened a channel on his comm unit. "Ready, Princess?"

"Say the word, Commander," Princess replied.

"Go pick him up," Mark said.

The Phoenix descended over the deserted interchange and her port wing pod opened. The internal ramp lowered Princess and her G-3 Galacticycle into open air some six feet above the road surface. Princess released the clamps holding her Galacticycle in place, revved the engine, and activated the catapult that pushed her vehicle off the ramp, making the drop look easy.

The cycle landed with a thump on the road and Princess turned it toward Seahorse Base.

 

Keyop ran. He ducked and dodged between buildings and behind vehicles, doing his best to stay out of the dragonfly's line of sight. From the sounds of it, the dragonfly was being kept busy.

He stopped in the lea of the main entrance to the shuttle terminal and risked a glance around the corner. The dragonfly was still there, still intact, and three plumes of thick, oily smoke suggested that the mobile rocket batteries were probably neither.

"Not... good," he decided. He turned and ran again.

 

As Keyop dashed across the ruin of the carpark for his rendezvous with the rest of G-Force, Anderson turned to his incidental companion. "Major Jones," he said, "what you've witnessed today is classified at the highest possible level. You never saw the boy."

"Yes, sir," Jones answered.

"Dismissed," Anderson growled. "Get to the shelter."

"Sir." Jones started to obey, then caught herself. "Sir?"

"What?" Anderson snapped.

"What about you, sir?"

Anderson regarded Jones with an incredulous glower. "What about me?"

Jones swallowed, seemingly trying not to wilt under the glare of Anderson's indignation. "Sir, as an officer, I have an obligation to protect all personnel, and... and you in turn have an obligation to take all reasonable measures to preserve your own life and limb as an asset of the agency."

Anderson regarded the security officer with some bemusement, then he smiled, one corner of his mouth twitching upward, a lion indulging the mouse who dared to challenge him. "I do, do I?"

"According to the Officers' Handbook, sir, yes, you do," Jones said. She met his gaze, and to Anderson's surprise, didn't blink or look away. "They tell me the editor's decision is final."

Anderson stifled a chuckle. "So I've heard," he said. "Lead the way, Major." His palm unit sounded with an emergency tone, and he answered it. "Yes, Zark, what is it?"

"My sensors indicate that Shelter H-Two-North is in serious danger of structural failure," 7-Zark-7 recounted. "The Base Commander gave the order to evacuate, but the blast doors have taken some damage and the locking mechanism has malfunctioned. The doors won't open from the inside, but if someone were to work the manual release from the outside --"

"Understood," Anderson said. "Who's closest?"

"You are, sir."

"I see," Anderson said.

 

 


 

The G-3 Galacticycle came to a halt just outside Gate 14, which was colloquially known as the south gate. A small figure darted out from the shadow of the sentry post and cleared the fence in an impossible leap. Keyop climbed up onto the pillion seat and wrapped his arms around Princess' waist.

"Glad to see you made it out in one piece," Princess said, and turned the Galacticycle back toward the highway. As the machine picked up speed, both communicators chirped.

"G-Force, this is Anderson." The Security Chief's voice sounded small through the bracelet speakers. "You are authorised to engage the enemy. I repeat, you are authorised to engage."

"Pick us up, Tiny!" Princess said, "we're coming in fast!"

 

 

Jones stopped and turned, looking for the Suit. He'd told her to run, told her where and why she had to run, then he'd stayed behind for reasons he'd chosen not to share. Well, maybe it was for the best, she decided. She was running in to danger, after all, and Suits belonged out of the way when it came to that sort of thing. She turned back toward the main body of the base and ran again.

Vibrations became shudders, and Jones realised she was heading into an area where the surface was being bombarded. There were almost a hundred and fifty people in Shelter H2-North and if she didn't get the door open, they'd die when the roof caved in. It was a good thing, she mused as she turned a corner, that she was one of those people who exercised by running a lot. It wasn't the first time in her career that she'd needed to run. She hoped the base structure would hold up for long enough that it wouldn't turn out to be the last.

 

 

"It's moving pretty fast," Princess said. "Think we can catch it, Tiny?"

"We could," Tiny said, glancing at Mark, "but are we supposed to?"

Keyop made a chirping, stuttering sound as he tried to find words. "Changing... course!" he reported.

"Looks like it's turning toward the city," Princess said.

"That's not good," Jason surmised.

"Anderson authorised us to engage," Mark reminded his team. "Stay on its tail."

 

 

"Contact," the tactical officer reported. "Unknown vessel, unknown configuration. Presumed hostile."

Herg uttered a soft snort of contempt. "More of their pathetic remote controlled defences?"

"It's that same ship from before, sir," the tactical officer said. "It didn't engage last time, but it's coming in fast now."

Herg didn't have time to respond as a series of explosions knocked him off his feet. "Damage report!" he gasped from the floor. He struggled to his feet.

"Minor damage fore and aft along the port side, sir," the tactical officer said.

"Why was there no warning that they had missile lock?" Herg demanded.

"I don't know sir. It... it looks like they didn't. They just fired."

"They targeted us manually?" Herg stared at the screen, seeing for the second time the blue and red aircraft circling their position. It was easily twice the size of the dragonfly, and while it might not have engaged the first time he'd seen it, whoever was flying it seemed to have changed their mind now. "Get me a firing solution!"

 

 

"Nice shooting, Jason," Mark said.

"I think we got their attention," Tiny said, as the dragonfly left off its attack on Seahorse Base and turned toward the Phoenix.

"Evasive action," Mark ordered.

 

 

Alberta Jones wrestled with the heavy steel locking wheel. She'd wrenched, hauled and even kicked at it to try and get it loose, while it resisted her every attempt to move it. Overriding the faulty electronic release hadn't been a problem, but the actual physical opening of the door was proving to be more of an obstacle. She clenched her teeth and tried again to twist the wheel.

The door moved by an inch.

"It's moving!" a man's voice called from inside the shelter.

"Can you push from your side?" Jones gasped back to him.

"We're trying!" came the reply.

"It's jammed," said another voice, and Jones spun around to see the newly-arrived Suit standing behind her.

"Is that your professional opinion?" she asked, somewhat more sharply than she'd intended.

"As a matter of fact, it is," he said. He was studying the door itself. "See that metal bar?" He pointed at something just above the top of the door. "It's slipped off the tracks. You'll never get that door open using the release wheel. Stand back." The Suit raised his voice. "Everybody back from the door!"

"What are you going to do?" Jones asked. "And what are you doing here, anyway? Why aren't you taking cover in Section A?"

"Because you need me here," the Suit said, taking off his wristwatch. He removed the back plate.

"That's going to turn out to be some sort of petard, isn't it?" Jones sighed.

"A small one. Go to the head of the class, Major. Borrow your palm unit?"

Jones handed the device over without a word. The Suit slid the back cover off, pulled something off the back of the speaker, attached it to the watch, and gave the pillaged palm unit back to its nominal owner. He took aim, and threw.

"Duck," he said, and did so.

The wristwatch, attached to the magnet from Jones' palm unit, stuck to the damaged rod. Jones stared at it in disbelief.

"You did hear me say, 'duck,' didn't you, Major?" the Suit reminded her, and she obeyed as the watch exploded.

Dust and debris swirled and clattered around them.

"Let's get that door open," the Suit declared.

For a brief, wistful moment, Jones wondered if she could get away with hitting him.

 

 

Tiny angled the Phoenix so that she presented the smallest possible target and hit the thrusters. The ship accelerated. A flashing amber icon appeared on the main display and an alarm sounded. "They're trying for missile lock," Tiny said. "Hang on. I'm gonna hit the brakes."

"The brakes?" Jason echoed, then grabbed at his console as inertia threw him forward. The question he'd been about to utter, "Brakes, when they're trying to lock on to us?" came out as, "Barghfl?" as the floor seemed to reach for him and gravity suddenly wanted to be his best friend ever.

“Of course,” Tiny explained nonchalantly, braced against the pilot’s console, “when I say brakes I actually mean a combination of slats, slots, flaps and variable thrust application – “ The Phoenix's vertical thrusters roared white hot as the command ship climbed. “But the effect is similar.”

“Thanks for the aerodynamics lecture,” Jason grumbled.

In the co-pilot's seat, Mark watched the screens while Tiny balanced the gauges on the edge of the red. "Lock," Mark said as the warning icon turned red and the alarm shrilled.

"On it," Tiny said. "Hold tight, everyone."

"Holy -!" Jason gasped as the nose came up and the left wing dropped. "Stalled turn with missile lock? Seriously?"

"You wanna drive?" Tiny snarled. "'Cause if you don't then shut the -"

"We get it!" Princess said, forestalling Tiny's curse. "Jason, hang on and let the man fly."

"Or better yet," Mark said, "you could be getting me a countermeasure."

"How about a seat belt?" Jason muttered, even as he complied. Two missiles streaked past the main viewscreen and Jason fired two smaller rockets.

The explosion filled the viewscreen with light and the concussion shook the ship. Tiny brought the thrusters up and swung the Phoenix around in a tight turn. "Y'know I always figured this aerobatic stuff was for you fighter types," he said with a quick flash of a grin.

"And if we had time to fly straight and level for long enough to launch the G1," Mark said, "I'd be out there. Next time, maybe." The Phoenix's nose dropped and the viewscreen filled with Dragonfly. Mark turned in his seat. "Okay, Jason, one big target, on a plate for the next second or so. Show 'em what you got."

"My pleasure," Jason said.

"Bird missiles are good for go," Princess reported. "Circuit closed, all in the green."

A buzzer sounded and Jason smiled the smile of a predator. "Locked," he said, and depressed the firing control.

A large missile dropped from the Phoenix's belly hatch and roared away as the burners fired.

 

 

"They have lock!" the tactical officer said, his voice high with worry.

"Evasive action!" Herg snapped. "Countermeasures! Now!"

The helmsman brought the Dragonfly around in a barely-controlled flat spin while countermeasures zipped away. The bird missile missed by a few metres and impacted in the ground in a dark orange ball of flame.

"That was too close," Herg said. "Helm bring us-"

"Lock!" the tactical officer said again.

"Countermeasures!" Herg cried.

The second bird missile hit the Dragonfly ship in the bow and rocked it, halting its forward momentum and blasting its main weapons array to shrapnel. Herg grunted as he was slammed against a console, the air knocked out of his lungs. "Report!" he managed to gasp.

The ship rocked again as smaller rockets struck home and alarms shrieked.

"Report!" Herg roared, and winced as a broken rib made itself known.

"We've taken damage, sir," the tactical officer said. "The helmsman's injured. I'm trying to bring us back under control -"

"Enemy vessel, this is the Federation ship Phoenix. You are ordered to stand down and surrender. Respond or be destroyed."

Herg got to his feet and surveyed the damaged bridge. Several of his officers were lying on the floor unconscious or worse. There was smoke and the smell of burning coming in through the ventilation system and every console was showing a mix of red or orange. Here and there a lonely green light flickered, but it was an unhappy picture that presented itself. He sagged against the console which had so recently injured him and glared up at the comm screens. About half of them were not functioning but the remainder showed an image of a young man wearing a birdlike helmet. His blue visor had the vicious curve of a predatory bird and the eyes behind it were hard with anger. "I repeat, enemy vessel -"

"We surrender," Herg said. "State your terms."

 

 


 

David Anderson stood with his back to the setting sun. It was an old Conway trick - and an old Marshall Hawking trick, for that matter: stand in front of a light source so that anyone engaging with you has to squint and make it difficult for them to read your expression. Showmanship, really. Smoke and mirrors. The Spectran Commander - he'd given his name as Herg, Warrior of the Great Eruk Desert or some such overdramatic claptrap - had surrendered unconditionally and was cooperating. Anderson stood with his hands behind his back, watching as the crew of the Dragonfly were disarmed and led away by uniformed Galaxy Security personnel. He caught a glimpse of the blonde officer - Jones - herding a group of graduate trainees on the periphery of things, but was more concerned with the Spectrans. His next concern, Anderson mused, would be what he was going to tell the President. He let his breath out in a very small huff of exasperation. People, mostly politicians who were only technically human in Anderson's book, were going to be asking questions, and they'd be getting some very wordy answers which could all be distilled down into one very short sentence: "I told you so." Anderson would have liked to make it, "I told you so, you stupid tight-fisted bastards," but that would probably go down like the proverbial lead balloon. As it was, "I told you so," was not going to be Number One With a Bullet on the political popularity charts even without an epithet, pejorative or otherwise. Yes, it was going to be, "I told you so," but put in such a way that the President could be seen to be blameless. Someone might have to very well fall on their sword over this... this... balls up, and David Anderson was going to make it damned clear that it wasn't going to be him.

 

 

Mark wasn't exactly certain what he'd expected after Tiny landed the Phoenix at Seahorse Base.

He was fairly certain that this wasn't it.

The G-Force team sat in silence as the armoured limousine drew slowly up to the steps of the Presidential Palace. With five adults and Keyop, there wasn't a lot of elbow room. The initial analyses of the attack had come in at about the same time as G-Force finished securing the Phoenix in her hangar at Seahorse Base. Anderson had conducted a very cursory debrief on the way in the short time allowed and exhorted them to, "Just tell the truth and let the facts speak for themselves." He'd finished by promising to handle the politicians. Mark hadn't missed the quick warning glance at Jason, and neither had Jason. "What?" the gunner had demanded, to which Anderson had replied, "Even if you shoot them, they'll just keep breeding, so save us all the trouble and keep it holstered. With the safety on."

The car stopped and Lieutenant Maxwell got out to open the door. When everyone was out, Maxwell closed the door and signalled to Corporal Mendelawitz to drive on. The bodyguard then escorted G-Force and their Chief of Staff to their first ever Presidential debriefing.

Inside the Palace, every other person seemed to be wearing the dark blue of Galaxy Security. Anderson remarked on this to Field Marshall Al-Farouk of the Army who fell into step with him on the way to the Presidential office. Yusef Al-Farouk had the least enviable job: that of explaining why the civilian casualty list was so extensive. The Army's Chief of Staff raised an eyebrow. "My guard's been tripled," he said. "I expected to see you with more security, David."

"I can understand your security being upgraded, Joe," Anderson said, "but I'm not exactly a prime target."

Air Marshall Lynch was waiting - presumably on the basis that there was safety in numbers. "I've had increased security for the past month!" he said. "Is G-Sec's budget so tight you can't afford a security detail?"

"I'm getting to it," Anderson said, frowning.

"If your new team keeps getting results like today's," Lynch said, "you'll be a prime target soon enough."

 

 

Jason had seen President Kane on the 3V of course. He'd seen his Commander-in-Chief on the news, in the papers, in public service announcements, 'State of the Galaxy' addresses and political advertisements.

He'd never shaken the man's hand before.

Alexander Kane was a big man - he wasn't exactly fat, although there was a fair bit of middle-aged spread present. The man seemed to be built on a different scale to lesser mortals. Kane's shoulders were broad enough that Jason was fairly certain he and Mark could fit side-by-side in one of Kane's jackets. The President's voice boomed and the handshake... Jason had braced himself, ready to have his hand crushed, but the handshake was merely direct and firm.

This made Jason suspicious: any politician with an honest handshake bore watching. Kane must have practised that handshake for months, if not years. Jason's distrust must have shown on his face because Princess nudged him with one foot as she took up position beside him. "Quit scowling," she murmured.

Jason deliberately arranged his features in as neutral an expression as he could. Standing at ease, he centred his weight and relaxed as much as he was able. At the long conference table, the brass provided the President with wordy accounts garnished with lashings of hindsight. The phrase, "Opportunities for improvement," kept coming up. It was all Jason could do to keep from snorting his derision.

When it was Anderson's turn to speak, the Security Chief took a deep breath. "I have some recordings here from the G-Force command ship Phoenix," he said. "I've also been advised that our technical staff have managed to extract information from the flight recording equipment on the Spectran ship. If you'll turn your attention to the screens in front of you?"

Zark had spliced together footage from the Phoenix and the Dragonfly ship. G-Force didn't have the luxury of personal 3V screens and were obliged to watch their mission video on the wall screens. Jason tried not to cringe when he heard his own voice being played back complaining about the lack of seat belts. Jason's eyes widened as he watched the external footage of the Phoenix performing the kinds of manoeuvres he normally expected to see carried out by much smaller craft. No wonder they'd been tossed around in the cabin. "We have one heck of a bus driver, there," he murmured as quietly as he could.

"You got that right," Mark muttered back.

The video presentation ended with the surrender of the Dragonfly ship and the lights came back up. There were generalised congratulations from the Chiefs of Staff who seemed eager to find something positive to talk about.

"It seems our new strike team performed admirably," President Kane declared. "Not bad for a first time out. Not bad at all!"

"With respect, Mister President, this shouldn't have been their first time out," Anderson said. "We held back when we should have sent them in." Anderson gestured at the frozen footage of the downed enemy ship. "Had we sent this message to Spectra the first time they made an incursion, they might not have been so bold this time. Ladies and gentlemen, we screwed up," Anderson said. "We were caught flat-footed. We had insufficient warning. We didn't evacuate fast enough or thoroughly enough. There were civilian casualties and that's unacceptable. We can talk about evaluating our contingency plans and focussing on areas for improvement but what it comes down to is that Spectra's playing hard-ball and we thought it was a friendly game of tennis. From now on, we need to allocate resources with two very clear aims in mind: firstly we keep our population safe, second we repel Spectra's attacks. The two go hand in hand. I'd like to move that we reconsider the plans Chief Conway submitted back in August of last year. At the time, the recommendations were considered too extreme and militaristic. Things have changed. Walter Conway saw this coming. I wish he'd been wrong. We need to act."

"But you said yourself," Admiral Sasaki objected, "we've sent Spectra a message. Maybe they'll leave us alone, now."

"Did you read the G-Sec analysis from last year, Jim?" Anderson demanded. "They're gearing up for invasion. You've seen what's happening on Riga. Your own forces took heavy casualties -"

"I think we get the point," Aida Nagarajan, head of the Space Patrol, said. "We need to go on to a war footing. We're well behind Spectra in this regard and we can't afford to be."

"They haven't declared war," Toby Lynch pointed out. "While I get that they don't make declarations of war in their culture, will we get away with it, politically speaking?"

"I'll make sure we do," Alexander Kane said. "The Spectran culture deems the act of war to be the declaration in and of itself. I'll talk the Council around."

"So we're at war," Admiral Nagarajan said softly. "Conway was right." She turned dark eyes on the Gr09;Force team. "I wish you good luck, Commander. You're going to be very busy from now on."

 

 

As the day wore on, Alberta Jones and her graduate officers were issued with weapons (as well as a new palm unit to replace the one Anderson had dismembered) then given orders to join other squads being sent to the city to patrol and guard against looters while clean up and rescue squads worked to make sense and find hope amidst the chaos. Jones' mind had gone quietly numb and she was operating on mental automatic pilot, doing her job on the strength of training and ingrained habit.

As Jones was not normally an emotive individual, no-one really noticed a lot of difference.

As sunset approached, Jones' squad secured what they hoped was one of the last areas and watched as workmen scrambled to erect lights around a damaged building to allow rescuers to go on working into the night. A missile had hit in part of the business district, leaving the street littered with glass, rubble and plastic. Ambulances had evacuated the accessible victims, and coloured light from waiting emergency vehicles danced over the debris. The engineering crew estimated there were three survivors still trapped, and worked carefully to shore up the damaged structure to allow the paramedics in.

A childish voice warbled a greeting. "Hi!"

Jones turned to see the boy from the shuttle terminal, looking as cheerfully messy as the first time she'd seen him. Four teens were also in the area, seemingly without authorisation. They were all wearing the same sort of numbered shirts as the child. Jones saw one of her group heading toward them and waved him away.

"Sir," she managed to say to the boy.

He giggled and puffed out his tiny chest. "Socked it..." he stammered, "to 'em!"

"I'm sorry, sir, I don't know what you mean," Jones said quietly. The boy's face fell.

"But..." he started to say.

"Keyop," one of the youngsters, a pretty girl with long dark hair, joined the boy and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Come on. There's nothing for us here. Let's go."

"We should all be taking a good long look," a rangy, red headed youth insisted in a light, slightly nasal tenor. "One of our bird missiles did this."

"Maybe we should try to help," the girl said.

Jones turned away, not wanting to hear any more. Whoever these people were, they operated at a clearance level far beyond hers and their business wasn't for the likes of security staff. She herded her charges away from the newcomers.

"Is it true, ma'am?" one of the female graduates asked, wide-eyed. "This was friendly fire?"

Jones fixed the young officer with an icy look. "Leave it for the investigators," she ordered. "And stay away from the visitors," she added, nodding toward the group in their casual civilian dress. "You never saw them. They were never here, and you certainly never overheard anything about a friendly fire incident. Clear?"

"Yes, ma'am," the new lieutenant whispered.

"Our orders are to secure the perimeter. Spread out and patrol."

 

 


 

Anderson returned to his office after the meeting and attended to the paperwork. It was well after sunset when he finally picked up the first of the dozen or so personnel files that had been sent over from Human Resources. The files had been sitting on his desk for just over four weeks, untouched. He should have read them before now, he knew. He also knew that part of the reason why he hadn't was that it would make Director O'Hara happy. O'Hara was a sound administrator who worked by the book. Born to be a Suit, Anderson mused grimly. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he read through the first few, then stretched and pushed them aside. Increased security meant that one of these people, duly selected and recommended by Ted Born-to-be-a-Suit O'Hara, would be obliged to oversee almost every detail of Anderson's life. The successful applicant would have to learn the Security Chief's routine, and if not follow him everywhere in person, make sure that somebody did.

Anderson got up and fetched himself a cup of coffee from the executive kitchen. To further delay having to go back and read the personnel files, he didn't sit behind his desk once he'd returned to his office, but walked to the window and stared at the Center City skyline.

So this was what happened when the balloon went up. He'd always wondered.

He wished he didn't know.

The incident at Seahorse base was nagging at him, and he had Zark call up the personnel file for the officer who'd seen Keyop transmute.

The screen showed Jones' official photograph: a humourless expression gave the impression she was less than comfortable in front of the camera. She had a clean, if workmanlike record. There seemed to be little that was outstanding about her, one way or the other. She'd been born and educated in Britain to an academic family, had done her twelve months' Federal Service with G-Sec after graduating high school, then been recruited out of university. She held a degree in information management and library studies. She was the kind of officer who followed orders, worked by the book and did the job she was trained to do. She was trained as a protective services officer, liaison and protocol officer, and preceptor. She'd been stationed on Riga when the Federation Embassy had been attacked and acquitted herself well under fire, getting the embassy staff out safely and evacuating Federation citizens from the emergency zone. Her performance evaluations all noted that she was 'trustworthy,' 'discreet' 'competent,' and 'reliable.' The word, 'droll,' came up a few times and caught Anderson's attention. The other thing that caught Anderson's attention was her sudden departure from Planet Vega. She had been doing her usual reliable, efficient job there for a relatively short time when she had suddenly been transferred Earthside without an assignment to go to. 'Career enrichment,' said the file. Anderson interpreted this as meaning Jones had annoyed someone important. Given that she'd been working for the Veganian DPO, and given what Anderson knew of Wilson Greenaway, it wasn't difficult to join the dots. It was unlikely that Jones would be a security risk. At least that was one thing he didn't have to worry about. Anderson made to close the file and set it aside.

Anderson paused, his hand on the file cover. He let it fall open again and reached for the tele comm controls, his curiosity getting the better of him. "Zark," he said, opening a channel to Nerve Center. "What time is it in Carsarum City on Planet Vega?"

"Zero eight hundred, sir," Zark said. "They're just starting their day. It's a nice day, too. It's spring there, you know. The ambient temperature is forecast to reach --"

Anderson decided to ignore this. "Patch me through to..." he consulted the file in front of him. "Sris Numanoglou." The Deputy Director Planetary Operations himself. What was the DDPO doing arranging a transfer for a mere major?

"Deputy Director Numanoglou here, sir," the Veganian DDPO answered the call with a smile. "What can I do for you?"

"Tell me about Major Alberta Jones," Anderson said.

"Jones?" Numanoglou's dusky complexion paled slightly. "Um... Reliable," he said. "Discreet. Competent."

"Why'd you transfer her out?" Anderson prompted.

"Has there been some kind of problem, Chief?" Numanoglou asked.

"There won't be unless I don't get the answers I'm looking for," Anderson said mildly.

Numanoglou squirmed visibly. "Jones was in the wrong place at the wrong time, sir. It was felt that it would be wise to remove her from the situation."

"What situation was that?"

"A group of three officers, um... interrupted Director Greenaway, sir, during a... a... private meeting with a citizen... a socially... prominent citizen, and it was felt that certain... " Numanoglou had begun to perspire, "certain... inferences could be drawn from the er... encounter."

"Inferences?" Anderson grimaced. "You mean she caught Wilson with his pants down?"

Numanolglou swallowed, his face twisting into an expression of agony. "I'm afraid so, sir."

"With whom?" Anderson asked.

"I really couldn't say --"

"I think you could," Anderson pointed out.

"The wife of the Archbishop of Carsarum, sir."

"I see. So to avoid a scandal, you shipped a competent officer out and cited 'career enrichment' on her file?"

Numanoglou hung his head. "All three, actually, sir."

"Tell Wil I said hello," Anderson said, "and feel free to tell him about our conversation. I'll make sure I drop by the next time I'm on Vega. In the meantime, I'm sure you'll follow up on the other transfers and take a personal interest in ensuring those officers' careers don't suffer, won't you, Deputy Director?"

Anderson cut the connection and settled in to read Jones' file in detail.

 

Jason burst into the G-Force office area of the ISO Tower brandishing a piece of paper in one hand. "Hey! Guess what?"

The other four members of the team looked up from their workstations. "What?" Tiny asked.

"I'm sane!" Jason declared, grinning manically. "And I have a piece of paper that says so!"

Mark crossed the room in a few long strides and took possession of the paper. "Jason, this is a recipe sheet from the supermarket. For vegetarian lasagne."

"I didn't say that was the actual piece of paper in question," Jason pointed out, drawing himself up haughtily.

"So you had your debrief with Dr McCall," Tiny inferred. "Big deal. We're all sane. Even Keyop."

Keyop pitched a drumstick at Tiny. It pinwheeled through the air and the big pilot caught it in one hand. "What… you mean, 'even Keyop'?" the boy stuttered angrily.

"Just windin' ya up," Tiny said with a chuckle.

"Quit it," Mark said. "Jason, if you need to blow off steam, hit the gym or something."

Jason walked over to the vacant chair at his workstation and fell into it, making it roll backward and hit the desk. "Am I the only one here who sees the absurdity in having us see a psychologist after one engagement?"

"Yes," Mark said. "It was our first time tangling with the enemy and we blew up an office block!"

"There was nobody in said office block at the time," Jason pointed out.

"What if there had been?"

Jason sobered. "Then I guess we might have needed to talk to someone."

Mark read the paper he'd taken from Jason. "Why do you have a recipe for vegetarian lasagne?"

Jason's hand moved in a swift arc and he reclaimed the paper. "The real question is why don't you have a recipe for vegetarian lasagne? It's healthy."

"Will you two quit it?" Princess asked wearily. "Yeah, we saw action. Yeah, we knocked that ship out of the sky. Hopefully we saved a few lives and if we learned from the experience we'll save more. We're all safe and we're all sane, and to celebrate, Jason is making lasagne. Right, Jason?"

"Uh..." Jason glanced around nervously. "Have you seen the kitchen in my trailer?"

"Keyop and I live over a restaurant."

"Oh. Right."

 

 

Exhausted into mental numbness, Major Jones stepped out of the elevator and made her way to the office of the Internal Security Director. It looked as though her latest misadventure had landed her back in hot water. The executive floor was quiet. All the administrative staff had gone home and a lone security officer stood guard in the elevator lobby. Jones exchanged salutes with the lieutenant and was given directions to Director O'Hara's office.

The office door was ajar and Jones knocked. A voice responded with the word, "Enter!" and Jones complied..

Inside, Director O'Hara sat at his desk, and in one of two visitors' chairs lounged the Suit from the Seahorse Base incident, one elbow draped negligently over the backrest.

Jones felt her stomach clench. This could only mean serious trouble. Phrases like 'disciplinary action,' 'demotion,' and 'transfer to an asteroid mining operation' jostled for precedence in her mind.

"Sit down, Major Jones," O'Hara said, gesturing toward one of the empty chairs.

"Thank you, sir," Jones said, "I'd rather stand."

"Sit down, Major!" Anderson snapped. Jones considered making a show of defiance, then capitulated and took a seat in the nearest chair. Anderson looked Jones up and down.

"Tell me about Riga," he ordered.

"Riga?" Jones echoed. Whatever she'd expected, being asked about Riga wasn't it.

"Yes, Riga," Anderson said. "Earthlike planet, got invaded by Spectra?"

"Sorry sir. I was stationed at the Federation Embassy for almost four years. I was Personal Security Coordinator for the Ambassador. When Spectra invaded, the Embassy came under attack. We engaged the enemy and held them off long enough to evacuate all personnel with no serious injuries."

"And your last permanent assignment?" Anderson prompted.

Jones took a breath. "After the Embassy was abandoned I was redeployed as 2IC Security, Liaison and Protocol with the office of the DPO on Planet Vega, sir," she said. "My personal responsibility was the provision of protective and liaison services to visiting dignitaries and other VIPs, sir."

"And the circumstances under which you left?" Anderson prompted.

"Can't really comment, sir."

"Would you care to go into more detail, Major?" he probed.

Jones was certain she could hear the sound of her career gurgling as it went down the toilet. "No sir, I wouldn't."

"That doesn't sound very favourable," Anderson surmised.

"No, sir," Jones agreed.

"Tell me something," he said, "are you concealing the truth out of personal loyalty to Wilson Greenaway?"

Jones felt the blood drain from her face. "Sir?"

Anderson uttered a short and disdainful snort. "Deputy Director Numanoglu," he said, "had a crisis of conscience. With a little help."

Jones resumed breathing. "I see, sir." Anderson studied her for a long moment and she fought the impulse to back down and break eye contact.

"So," he prompted, "are you going to answer my question? You have permission to speak freely."

Jones gathered her thoughts and decided she might as well be blunt. "Unlike professional loyalty, sir, personal loyalty has to be earned," she said. "Since I'm speaking freely, sir, the only individual I've encountered who does anything out of personal loyalty to Director Greenaway is his dog. It's a particularly stupid Afghan Hound, sir."

Anderson suppressed a smile. "It appears," he said, "that you have a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Major Jones."

"I noticed that, too, sir," Jones said stiffly.

"And I suspect," Anderson continued, "that when someone like you forms a habit, you don't change it easily."

Jones stared straight ahead, focussing on the middle distance. "Just as you say, sir."

"I see only one solution," Anderson said. "If you're going to keep seeing things you're not cleared to see, then we'll just have to amend your clearance."

"Sir?" Jones stared at him.

Anderson turned to O'Hara. "She'll do," he said, and got up to leave.

"Excuse me, sir," Jones said, and got to her feet.

Anderson paused in mid stride and fixed Jones with a look not unlike a laser targeting system, "Do you have a question, Major?"

"Yes, sir: 'do' for what, sir?"

O'Hara cleared his throat. It was the pointed throat-clearing sound of someone who feels that they are long overdue to be heard. "If you'd care to allow me to speak," he said, "it appears--" the Internal Security Director gave Anderson a look of his own, but it didn't really measure up -- "that despite my personal recommendations and a comprehensive short list of highly qualified applicants --"

"Against whom Major Jones' resumé compares favourably or better," Anderson put in.

"You've just been selected," O'Hara continued, "to serve as security coordinator for our Chief of Staff."

Jones stared at Anderson. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again.

"I never did introduce myself properly, did I?" Anderson said. A thought appeared to occur to him. "There's a question I forgot to ask you," he said. "Do you know how to make a good cup of coffee?"

Jones bristled: Coffee? She took a careful, measured breath and met the Anderson stare head on before answering in as icy a tone as she could muster. "No, sir. I make tea."

This time, Anderson did smile. "I see," he said. "Thank you, Major." He turned and walked out of the room.

Jones remained standing, unnerved, as the door closed behind the man she now knew to be David Anderson. "Sir," she asked O'Hara, "what just happened?"

"He did," O'Hara said flatly. "Get used to it. Report to HR first thing tomorrow morning for your orders and fill out the paperwork. You'll be in charge of bringing the Chief's security detail up to strength and up to standard, starting tomorrow. And I'd learn to make coffee, if I were you."

"We shall see," Jones said darkly.

 

 

Security Chief Anderson flattened himself against the wall as the five members of G-Force ran for the elevators.

"Where's the fire?" he asked.

"Watch this space," Mark advised. "Jason's going to show us how not to cook lasagne."

"And you're going to eat your words!" Jason declared.

"Don't mind me," Anderson told them, and headed toward his office. "Just remember: keep it low-key out there."

Mark pressed the call button for the elevator and waited for the doors to open.

"So, Commander," Princess said, "is this going to be the new normal?"

"That depends, Princess," Mark said.

"What's it... depend on?" Keyop asked.

"On whether Jason's any good at making lasagne, I guess."

 

fin

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