Anderson had barely had time to drink a quick cup of coffee before G-Force arrived for their briefing. He felt that a stiff drink would have been more appropriate for the occasion, but was still trying to cultivate his image with the team, as a clean-living scientist. He kept the whiskey bottle in this desk drawer, to betaken out once the team had left.
"What's up, Chief?" asked Mark as his team-mates floated to their usual places around the office.
"We're having an exchange with the European members of the Federation -- we can send one of our officers to serve in the European regional Headquarters, and they get to send one of their officers to work with us. With you, to be precise."
Mark and Jason looked at each other uneasily, but Princess and Keyop seemed enthusiastic about the idea. Tiny just shrugged.
"Maybe they can cook some of their national dishes?" he suggested.
"Chief, are you sure?" asked Mark politely. "We are an elite team, they will need to learn our procedures before they can integrate in our operations."
"Precisely," said Anderson. "Which is why you and Jason will provide a quick training to whoever will be joining you."
As they were leaving Anderson's office, Jason grabbed Mark's arm urgently.
"Commander, this is not a good idea."
"Oh stuff it Jason," said Princess, walking by him. "Be hospitable for once. These are well-trained operatives, who have supported our work. They deserve the opportunity to work with us at Centre Neptune."
Jason was not convinced, but refrained from commenting again. He was just wondering who the Federation would send on exchange to Europe.
A couple of days later, he saw who the Europeans were sending -- and suddenly started revising his view as to the wisdom of having exchange agents working with them. The agent who stepped off the launch connecting Centre Neptune to the mainland was small, dark, with black hair that sported a bright blue stripe down her forehead. The blue stripe matched her eyes, and she was carrying only a small carry-on bag. If she had a uniform with her, it must have been a tiny one, thought Jason. Unless if she meant to accompany G-Force in jeans and a sweatshirt?
He had been detailed to welcome the exchange agent, and had been under strict instructions to be on his best behaviour -- and Anderson had made it clear that shore leave was on the line. So he smoothed down his hair and gallantly offered to take her bag.
"Welcome to Centre Neptune. I am Jason, the second-in-command in G-Force. Glad to have you with us."
"Thank you," she said in what Jason realised was what could be called a clipped British accent. "I have heard about you, Condor. It's an honour to be here. I am lieutenant Catherine Nicholls, code name Blue Tit."
Jason tried his best to keep a straight face while updating Mark on their new colleague, but he couldn't. They were sitting in the Centre Neptune cafeteria, after Jason had safely delivered Catherine to her quarters, reminding her that she had a dinner booked with Anderson the same evening -- he also added, discreetly, that Anderson would probably prefer it if she was in uniform.
"Oh I know, don't worry. It's all been taken care of. Zark contacted one of our protocol droids with info on Centre Neptune, and I send my gear in advance. I was cycling around South America when I heard I had been chosen for this mission, and did not want to fly all the way home to pack. My colleagues took care of everything, they sent my stuff to Centre Neptune."
She flopped happily on the bed, kicked off a pair of trainers that had seen better days.
"You have protocol droids?" was the one thing Jason could think of asking.
She raised her head.
Jason just shook his head in amazement and left her to rest before dinner.
"So Blue Tit is also into sports, if she was cycling around South America," mused Mark. "Is she, you know, fit?" he whispered the last word as he saw Princess entering the cafeteria.
"Oh yes," nodded Jason sagely. "Very fit."
"Hey Princess," called Mark, "did you know that our exchange agent is code-named Blue Tit?"
"Yes, it's a good name for her. I've actually chatted a couple of times online with her. Blue tits are very famous in Britain, and as Kate is British and she's got a blue stripe in her hair, it's very appropriate."
Mark and Jason exchanged looks.
"You spoke to her?"
"Why yes Mark," replied Princess, in surprise. "As soon as Anderson told us we would have a new team member for a while, I looked up who it would be, and got in contact with her."
She went to get a coffee, leaving Mark and Jason speechless.
"I guess you didn’t think of that, eh?"; asked Jason.
Mark shook his head.
"I guess you did not either?"
Princess walked back to their table.
"She's actually very nice once you get to know her," she assured them, "She will be coming to our training tomorrow, and, from what Anderson told me, she's also a very good race driver, Jason."
With those comforting words, Princess sailed off back to her quarters, leaving Mark and Jason looking at each other.
"She's a race driver?"
G-Force had heard that Kate's dinner with Anderson had lasted until well after midnight. But if this rumor was true, Kate was certainly no worse for wear next morning, when she showed up for her first briefing with G-Force. She saluted Mark, who flustered and said "at ease".
She hugged Princess, winked at Jason and gave Tiny and Keyop friendly smiles as she took her seat at the briefing room. Anderson, bleary-eyed and with his hair distinctly dishevelled. joined them, carrying a big cup of coffee. Industrial size, thought Jason with interest. He had to find the source. Definitely not brewed in Centre Neptune, where the coffee could legitimately be regarded as a secret weapon brewed by Spectra.
"Team, this is Catherine Nicholls, or Kate, from the UK, call sign Blue Tit," said Anderson in a tired voice. Jason snorted -- he couldn't help it, and Mark almost did the same. "To recap what I told you yesterday, she will be training and working with you for the next six months."
He turned to Kate, hoping perhaps to hear a serious voice in the room, for a change.
"Blue Tit, would you like to give us an overview of the security protocols in place in the UK?"
Kate's training and experience were on par with the team's, so Mark had nothing to complain about. But although she became firm friends with Princess --who was finally able to chat with a girl her own age without worrying about security rules -- the other members of G-Force did not really accept Kate as one of their own until their first mission together. While trying to escape Zoltar's mecha after planting his explosive devices, Mark got stuck when he was surrounded by armed goons, and it took Kate's expertise in escape and extraction to save him from their clutches. Princess' friendship quickly turned to gratitude, Jason gained a newfound sense of respect for the small Blue Tit, and Mark actually apologised to her for his earlier surliness. As for Keyop and Tiny, they swore to go on exchange to the UK as soon as possible, and get some of the same training.
A cozy atmosphere reigned in Centre Neptune during the next few months, and then it was time for Kate to go back to the UK. However, as they were getting ready to board the shuttle, Anderson came running down the corridor, clutching a cable in his hand.
"Mark, after you take Kate to the spaceport, don't leave immediately. You have to collect someone."
Five pairs of eyes looked at him suspiciously, and even Kate was mildly curious.
"This programme was so successful that our colleagues in Europe decided to continue it for another semester. As it is rather impractical for one of you to go to Europe right now, with the new updates being prepared for your uniforms, it was agreed that another colleague from Europe will join us here in Centre Neptune."
He glanced down at the piece of pacer he was holding.
"He is Irish and his call sign is the Willow Warbler."