This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets are the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work.
Thanks to Catherine Rees-Lay for beta reading and for coming up with a fantastic way to resolve that stupid, stupid business with Mark appearing to throw the whip into the sea. Thanks to Sharon Alvarado for technical advice on the properties of metals and the Modified Moh's Scale.
Battle of the Planets: 2163
The Phoenix dropped out of time warp and Princess fought down a wave of nausea. She took a deep breath to settle herself and squared her shoulders. Urgos loomed large on the viewscreen. A continent whose coastline reminded her of the joining of the North and South American land masses on Earth peeked out from under cloud cover.
Princess studied her console. There were no energy signatures or solid targets suggestive of a response to their arrival, as yet. An indicator flashed on Keyop's console and the boy transferred the scan data to the printer at the command console.
"Contact, Mark," Tiny reported as he took note of the data. "We got something."
Mark grabbed the hard copy and studied the results before showing the sheet to Tiny. "If this laser print out is right," Mark said, "our detectors have spotted something right here." He pointed to a landmark in the centre of the map. "Let's duck down for a closer look around."
Tiny took note of the coordinates, his expression turning grim. "Goin' down," he said, and put the Phoenix into a vertical descent, heading straight for the target shown on the map: a mountain range whose largest peak was crowned with a jagged crater.
Below them, the mountain seemed to move as an enormous iris opened in the crater. Princess leaned forward, as did the others, their attention riveted to the view screens, which revealed a missile battery.
"Jackpot," Mark said, satisfaction evident in his voice. "The enemy neighbours are home." The tactical console began to flash red: the Urgosians were attempting to establish weapons lock. "Evasive action, Tiny!"
The Phoenix rose like a bird breaking cover in response to Tiny's control input and Princess stifled a gasp as the cabin lurched. Tiny Harper made the Phoenix dance to avoid four missiles, then put the command ship back into a dive.
The opening to the missile battery loomed large on the view screen. "Let's take 'em out," Tiny growled.
Mark rested a gently restraining hand on the big pilot's arm. "I doubt if our missiles can get through their force field," he cautioned. "We'll fake 'em out," he decided. "Go in to your 'wounded bird' act, Tiny."
"Bummer," Tiny sighed. "I get to play chauffeur again while you guys live it up big."
Two missiles exploded off the port wing and Princess held on to her seat. The view screen filled with orange and black for a moment.
"Near miss," Tiny said. "I'll start the smoke." He activated a sequence and initiated a rapid descent. Princess called up the readout and watched video feed from the rear of the ship as oil was fed into a combustion chamber near the ship's exhaust to produce thick, black smoke.
"--Be joining us?" Mark's voice reached her and Princess jumped. Mark was already standing by the belly hatch as Jason and Keyop took up their positions.
"Just monitoring our smoke output, Commander," Princess said, and joined the rest of the team at the hatch.
"On three," Mark told them. "One... two... three -- Everybody out!"
Princess followed Mark out of the hatch, slicing into the slipstream, arms extended like a diver to offer as little resistance as possible. She felt the familiar lift and drag of her cape wings and controlled her descent toward the looming mountainside for maximum speed, tilting her body to brake at the last possible moment and landing easily on the steep rocky incline.
She felt and heard Keyop touch down beside her, then they were all on their feet, following Mark in a mad dash for the peak. The missile battery had withdrawn back into the crater and the huge metal iris was closing. Princess flung herself forward, through the dwindling space available, and clung to rock, taking deep breaths of warm, metallic-tasting air.
As Princess turned her head to seek out Mark, she met Jason's gaze. The second in command was watching her with a coolly appraising stare.
Jason's mouth moved silently, forming soundless words. "You okay?"
Princess nodded and fought to keep her irriation from showing. "Fine," she mouthed back. She risked looking down and took in the view of an enormous cavern, partially lined with what looked like stainless steel. Below them, the missile battery hissed softly as it bled pressure from its systems. Tunnels branched off from the main cavern with some kind of rail tracking system mounted at ceiling height. They probably move the missiles in on those, Princess mused. The stench of rocket exhaust was slowly dissipating and Princess fought the urge to cough. On a wall down at floor level, a telltale panel of indicator lights cycled red, then amber. When it changed colour to green, Princess realised, there was a good chance they'd have company.
At Mark's signal, Princess relinquished her hold on the cavern wall and let her cape wings control her fall to the floor. She landed next to Jason, and got to her feet.
Mark was standing and taking in their surroundings. "Okay," he said, "now that we've found the way in, what?"
Keyop stuttered and punched the air. "Sock it to em!" he suggested, a belligerent gleam in his eyes.
"Down, boy!" Jason said, and Keyop cringed. "Mark, don't you think we ought to send Princess and Keyop back to the Phoenix? This one is dangerous."
Princess didn't turn to look at him. "Maybe we should send you back, Jason," she retorted. She watched Mark's face as a flicker of annoyance crossed his features.
"Knock it off, both of you," Mark told them. "We've got a job to do." He studied the panel of flickering amber lights for a moment. "So, let's get to it," he told them.
"Ready or not," Keyop chirped, "here we come!"
Princess followed Mark along a wide corridor. Mark kept his voice down to a low murmur, but Princess could hear him easily. "So, what was that all about, back there?" he asked.
"Maybe you should be asking Jason that question," Princess said.
"I'm planning on it," Mark said. "I just thought you might give me some insight, Princess."
"Mark, If I'm a little edgy, maybe it's because Jason's trying to play mother hen and I don't need him to. Do you really think I'd put the rest of the team at risk?"
Mark opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again as he caught sight of a side tunnel that branched off from the main corridor. "Let's check it out," he said. Cautiously, they edged forward, keeping close to the wall. Mark peered around a curve in the wall. "There's only one guard," he told Princess. "We'll put him out for an hour."
Mark broke into a sprint, and Princess followed. By the time she'd caught him, the guard was slumped over the safety railing, unconscious. Mark and Princess stopped on a narrow catwalk, and gazed over the rails down into a deep, metal-lined shaft. A ladder descended into the unlit depths. Below them, red and yellow light flickered, casting weird, sickly shadows in the darkness. Princess ran through the possibilities in her mind. Anything that generated that much of a light show had to have a lot of indicators, and anything that had a lot of indicators was probably going to be important.
"I want to take a closer look at that thing," Mark decided, leaning forward over the rail.
"Be careful, Mark," Princess warned. "They're bound to have this equipment well protected."
"Cover me," Mark told her, and vaulted over the safety railing to land on the ladder. Princess tensed, half expecting a motion sensor alarm to activate, but no warnings sounded, and Mark glanced around, pleased with the lack of noise. "So far, so good," he decided. "Keep your eyes open."
"Right," Princess said, and watched as Mark continued his descent, rung by careful rung.
Tierna entered the operations centre at a run. "The refinery has been locked down," she reported, catching her breath. "What is it?"
"G-Force," said Kersh. The communications officer's expression was mostly hidden by his Spectran army-issue half-mask, but the downward turn and tension of his mouth spoke volumes.
"The Captain has everything under control," Demmish declared, staunch as ever. "He's gone to sector seven to deal with a couple of our visitsors personally. Don't you worry about Elenie. She's nowhere near the infiltrators. She'll be fine. It's like the Captain said just now, it is Urgos that will conquer Earth, not Spectra." The senior officer's mask lay on the console beside his tea mug, enabling him to cast an effective glower in Kersh's direction. "Isn't that right, Midshipman Kersh?"
"Yes, Mister Demmish," Kersh said, grimacing under the mask.
But this is G-Force! Tierna's mind screamed into the silence of her own head. They have destroyed so many bases, so many ships, and we are defending now, not attacking. This what G-Force does best. Aloud, she forced herself to speak calmly. "Thank you, Kersh. Of course Subcommander Demmish is correct. The Captain will not allow any of us to come to harm." She forced herself to look at the screen, where a white cloaked figure was making its way down a ladder in one of the cooling shafts. "Is that the G-Force Commander?"
"It is," Demmish said. "And with no idea that we're monitoring him, from the looks of things. Kersh, activate the laser cannons. We will see how the mighty G-Force enjoy their welcome."
Princess felt a surge of adrenaline as panels slid aside in the shaft walls, revealing the ugly muzzles of automatic laser weapons. She called out a warning. "Mark! Behind you!" Her hands went to her face and she leaned forward, her blood running cold. Mark's uniform would offer some protection from edged weapons and small-calibre projectiles, but a laser could fry a G-Forcer in less than a second.
Mark glanced over his shoulder and let go of the ladder. He let himself fall backward, catching his feet behind the rungs as he did so. His movement was fast enough to confuse the tracking system -- a beam melted the lining of the shaft bare centimetres to his right. His boomering was in his hand ever before he'd completed the swing and he cast it from an inverted position, giving himself just enough time to aim.
The boomerang scythed through the air in a deadly arc. It sliced through the muzzles of both the laser cannons. Mark kicked free of the ladder and fell, following the mangled metal to the floor, his cape wings snapping out to slow him down. He landed and thrust one hand upward, head bowed as he listened for the sound of the boomerang, which hit his palm with a solid, familiar smack.
He rose to his feet, hand closing around the boomerang. Automatically, he spun it around his fingers, checking the balance before sheathing it again. Above him, Princess breathed a sigh of relief as he glanced up at her and tossed off a jaunty salute.
Princess stood in the gap in the safety railing where the ladder access was and launched herself into empty air. She extended her cape fully so that she could fall as slowly as possible. She couldn't help but stare at the smoking ruin of the laser cannons as she passed them. Someone knew they were here. Below her, Mark was talking into his communicator, alerting Jason and Keyop, no doubt.
Mark watched carefully as Princess landed. "What kept you?" he quipped.
"Just checking out the scenery," Princess replied in kind. "What's the word?"
"Jason and Keyop are about to hit some kind of generator," Mark told her. "In the meantime, let's see what we've got in here."
"Earthling fools!" Captain Doom's voice rang out in ultimatum. "Did you think you could invade the planet of Urgos without being observed by our forces? Your presence was detected the moment you arrived! And now, fools, you shall pay for your invasion! Throw down your weapons!"
The smaller of the two invaders grimaced and stuttered something incoherent, then both of the G-Forcers tossed their strange weapons to the floor.
Doom gazed down at the cloaked and helmeted figures standing below him. The rangy young man gazed back through his hawk-billed visor with the kind of stare that suggested he was taking careful note of everything and listing questions for later. They would be pointed questions, too, if the look in those eyes was anything to go by. Next to him, the boy stared in an honest mix of fear and fury. Doom's eyes kept returning to the youth's face. There was something familiar about him, but Doom's memory refused to relinquish the information.
The young man muttered something to the boy, who folded his arms across his chest, hugging himself as if to keep out the cold.
Subcommander Ramala took up position at Doom's elbow. "That wasn't so hard," she said.
Doom didn't turn around to look at her. "Nevertheless," he murmured, "be on your guard. A great many people have learned the hard way not to underestimate G-Force. If I am not mistaken," he continued, "the elder of our two miscreants has just advised the younger to prepare for some kind of action."
"Men!" Ramala called her troop to attention. "Apprehend the Earthlings! Search them for concealed weapons and then straight to the brig with them!"
The pirates, in their green and brown uniforms, shouldered arms and hurried down the steps from the catwalk while Doom remained in position, watching his soon-to-be prisoners. Ramala, who, like most of Doom's senior officers, eschewed the Spectran mask, tossed her red hair and smiled. "Your name will be spoken with awe for this, Captain," she predicted.
"That, Subcommander, will depend on who is doing the speaking," Doom pointed out.
Ramala started down the steps, following her men.
The movement was so fast, Doom could never afterward remember exactly how it had happened. The boy had leaped so fast he was a yellow blur, and before Ramala's pirates could bring their weapons to bear, the G-Forcers had spun somehow, forming a miniature tornado.
Men were knocked flying before they could fire their guns. Ramala herself clung to the steps, long hair whipping in the wind, her rifle bouncing, rattling uselessly down to the floor below.
Doom clung to the railing, his coat flapping like a sail as the whirlwind rose and flew past him.
It took less than a heartbeat for Doom to recover himself. "After them!" he ordered. "Find them! Find them and shoot to kill!"
The open doorway led into a vaulted chamber full of computer equipment. Enormous cooling ducts loomed over the banks of what looked like compacted server arrays, and below these, high density tape backups were running in cabinets taller than Princess was. A panel took up a good chunk of the far wall, displaying coloured indicators that accounted for the colourful light display they'd seen from the top of the shaft.
"This looks like an important unit, Princess," Mark said, voicing Princess' own thoughts. "D'you think you could figure out what it does? In a hurry?" he added.
"I can try," Princess said, and darted forward. Okay, discount the cooling ducts -- any system this large could account for those -- look at the server arrays... and the tapes. Banks and banks of tapes... A low thoughtful hum escaped her. Tapes, rather than chips. That meant someone needed to compact a lot of archival information. Could it be that these tapes held the research on that seemingly indestructible alloy Captain Doom had used in his laser whips?
"I hate to push, Princess," Mark's voice intruded on her thoughts, "but... Uh-oh."
Princess straightened and whirled around in alarm as Mark landed next to her. Her heart gave a thump as she took in the sight of two large mantis-like robots, armed with killing blades on their forelegs. She shrank back against the computer unit as one blade smashed into the floor between her and Mark. She reeled, dizzy, a wave of nausea threatening to overwhelm her.
Mark was airborne, drawing the robots away from Princess. She watched in horror as he goaded one of the units into slicing away at a cable duct, behind which he'd darted. Again and again the massive blade tore through metal and optic fibre as though it were nothing.
The second unit swivelled, its optics seeking out another target. Princess lunged to her left, but the machine followed. With a rush of air, Mark landed in front of her and backed up, one arm thrust out protectively. The mantis robots closed in.
Princess took Mark's outstretched hands in her own and sprang upward. He guided her on to his shoulders and she straightened, finding her balance.
"Here we go, Princess," Mark said, "whirlwind pyramid!"
Princess stretched arms and cape wings. She felt the rush of energy from her cerebonic implants boost her confidence even as it boosted her body. She was spinning, flying, arcing over the top of the attacking robots like a lightning bolt. Nothing could stop her, now!
The energy rush peaked and kept going. Princess tried to gasp and couldn't. This was wrong. There was too much power surging through her, setting off neural fireworks as she landed. There was no time to stop and take stock, however. She could hear the machines behind her impacting and exploding as their own momentum carried them into the computer unit. For a fraction of a second, she felt a twinge of regret that she'd never know what had been on those tapes, but she was running, now, letting the enhanced strength of her cerebonics carry her back to the ladder in the tall shaft.
Alarms sounded and Kersh swore under his breath.
"What is that?" Tierna wondered.
"The audio pickup was not entirely clear, ma'am," Demmish said, "but it sounded like whirlwind pyramid."
"I can translate the words easily enough," Tierna said, "but what does a weather phenomenon have to do with an ancient tomb?"
"Who knows?" Demmish said bitterly. "We have lost the main archive and G-Force seems to be running amok in our base!"
"Sir!" Kersh said. "Message from the Captain. He says he's proceeding to the main cooling shaft to take care of the G-Force Commander personally!" Kersh turned to Tierna. "Ma'am, he says to tell you he has the whip, and he's planning on using it."
"I see." Tierna felt cold fingers trailing an icy path down her spine. "I have no doubt that the Captain will be victorious," she said.
Kersh listened to another message and acknowledged it. "Ma'am," another message. "Power surges are causing problems with the refinery systems. The message cut out and I can't raise them, but I think they were saying that there's a fire. It looks as though the damage control team is already there."
"I'd better go back and make sure they're all right," Tierna declared. "If you will excuse me, Subcommander?"
"Of course," Demmish said, and bowed. "Take Germo and Henn with you. Just to be on the safe side."
Tierna ran. Her guards kept pace with her, rifles at the ready. She ignored them, wrapped in her own worry. Defence of their home base was something Doom's pirate force had never had to contend with, before. They were raiders, always striking into enemy territory and coming home to sanctuary. They had never had to fight off invaders of their own.
Henn opened the first of the heavy blast doors that led to the refinery and motioned for Tierna to proceed.
"Thank you --" she started to say, and then Germo made a short, strangled noise before falling like a sack of meal, bright blood blossoming on the front of his uniform.
"Get back!" Henn shouted. He shoved Tierna through the doors and hit the control to shut the door. Tierna saw something wrap itself around his throat, saw him clutch vainly at it, and then the doors slammed shut, leaving her alone.
She turned on her heel and ran for the next set of doors. They opened and she was met by a sea of worried faces. She frowned as she recognised the smell of smoke.
"What's happening, Tierna?" asked Niarra, one of the senior technicians. "We're on emergency power and we had surges in the production room! Half of section four is on fire!"
Tierna sealed the blast doors behind her. "The Earthlings have sent a small force against us," she said, truthfully, leaving out the worst of it. "Only a few operatives, but it's safer for us to stay here, for now." She forced away the vision of Germo slumping to the floor with a bullet to the heart.
"We have crews down in section four," Shoren, another technician reported, "but it doesn't look good."
"Ma?" Tierna turned toward the sound of Elenie's voice. "Ma, they made us leave our quarters and come here! There are fires!"
"With enemy agents in the complex, the refinery section is safer than crew quarters, dear heart," Tierna said. "Even with the fire in section four. Everything is going to be fine. Your father is taking care of it." Tierna smiled at her staff. "Everything is going to be fine," she said again, and icy claws of foreboding seemed to close around her heart.
When Mark stopped at the foot of the ladder, Princess slid into the wall and tried not to fall. The surfeit of power fell away from her like a mother's arms and she stifled a sob.
Mark's face showed his concern. "Princess?"
She met his eyes, started to tell him she was fine, and realised she wasn't. "Cerebonic overboost," she whispered. "Something's not right."
"Okay," Mark said. "It's okay. We'll deal with it. Can you make the climb?"
Princess let her gaze travel up the length of the ladder. It hadn't seemed nearly so long when all she'd had to do was glide down. "I have to," she reasoned.
"I've got your back, you know that," Mark said. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
"Do you think Jason and Keyop managed to kill that generator?" Princess asked.
"Hard to say," Mark said, beginning the ascent. "I was kinda busy in there."
"I noticed," Princess quipped, and set her hands and feet to the ladder.
She hadn't expected it to be shaking. The explosions behind them were sending out shock waves as they cascaded through power connections and conduits.
Princess climbed. Above her, Mark was moving quickly. She struggled to match his pace.
"Here," Mark said, turning and reaching out. "Let me give you a hand."
Princess accepted the proferred hand and continued climbing. Chagrin burned at her. Jason had been right. He must have been picking up on something she'd missed. Her judgement must have been off, somehow. Mentally, she replayed her memories of the last two days. She'd felt fine after the recalibration, but with the clarity of hindsight, she could see that her irritability and sleeplessness hadn't just been caused by stress. Or maybe it had, reasoned another part of her mind. Maybe there was some other problem entirely. There was only one way to know for sure: survive this mission and report to the cerebonic lab.
Step One: survive this mission.
At least, Princess told herself, she hadn't been partnered with Jason.
But then, Jason wouldn't have given her any grief about it, either. At least not until they got back aboard the Phoenix. Even then, it was impossible to tell what Jason might or might not say. He might simply give her a look and say nothing, and that, quite possibly, would be just as bad as anything he could say out loud.
Above them, something moved. A flicker of pale fabric, the soft gleam of a whip uncoiling, then the tips of boots visible over the edge of the catwalk, followed by a ghastly horned Death's head with its mocking rictus of a smile as a tall figure moved to stand over the ladder.
"Captain Doom!" Princess cried.
Mark's attention was suddenly focussed upward.
"Now I've got you!" Doom crowed, triumphant. "And for the damage you have caused, you shall pay dearly! Prepare yourselves!"
Doom raised his right arm and cracked the whip in one smooth, vicious motion. Mark flinched away from the tip as it tore through the side of the ladder and left a deep scar in the lining of the shaft. Metal gave way and the ladder swung precariously. Princess hung on to Mark and the remaining side of the ladder. The whip lashed down toward them again, at the limit of its extension, and again, cutting the ladder free from its moorings just below Mark's grip.
Princess transferred her other hand to Mark's to steady herself. Doom could easily cut the ladder above them, and they would be obliged to glide down again, fight off whatever Doom had mustered to meet them, and somehow find another way out. Would she be able to make it? If she overboosted again, she might well win any fight, but would she survive the aftermath? Did she have enough energy left to keep going? Would another overboost put her cerebonics into life support mode and render her unconscious and useless to Mark, a burden he didn't need?
On the catwalk, Doom strutted, the light glinting off his mask. "I am bored with this game!" he gloated. "It is time to end it! Farewell, Earthlings!"
"Need your pitching arm, Princess," Mark said.
Princess' right hand went to her belt. She scooped the yoyo out of its holster and cast it upward, the line paying out with a hiss. Her aim was true: the yoyo wrapped itself around the safety railing above even as Doom sent the whip snaking toward them again to cut the ladder loose.
Regardless of the risk of her implants malfunctioning, there was no choice, now. Heart pounding, Princess hauled on the yoyo line as Mark pushed off with his feet. Again she felt the surge of cerebonically enhanced energy lending her strength as she leapt upward, but this time there was no deadly overboost, only the normal peak and trough of adrenaline. Her feet cleared the safety railing, then hit the catwalk and her momentum carried her forward to relative safety with Mark close behind.
There was no time for Princess to indulge in her sense of relief as Doom whirled to face them. "You made it interesting," he sneered, "but now, my Earthling friends, we must put an end to it!"
Princess tensed as Mark shifted his weight forward. There was no defence against a weapon that could slice through ceramalloy, no tactic other than evasion that could possibly save them.
A distant detonation shook the base, and a claxon began to sound.
Doom, poised to attack, twisted and stared at the flashing warning light. "The main electron generator is about to blow!" he exclaimed, voice pitching upward in alarm.
Seeing an opening, Mark sprang forward. His hand struck Doom's outstretched wrist in a precise chop. Princess was sure she heard the crack of bone just before the deadly whip fell from Doom's grip. Mark landed and steadied himself, his cape flicking up to obscure his vision for less than a second. He lunged at Doom's coat --
Only to find himself grasping an empty garment.
"He vanished into thin air!" Mark breathed. Unthinking, he dropped the garish costume and ran, searching for his unseen enemy.
"Mark!" Princess called. "Let him go! Let's get out before this place blows up!"
Mark stopped. For a moment, his rage snarled at him to keep going, to make Doom pay for what he'd done and what he'd tried to do, but the more rational part of his mind insisted that Princess was right. He nodded, and activated his communicator. "Jason! Keyop! Rendezvous! Rendezvous and move it!" He bent and snatched up the Urgosium whip, grabbed Princess' hand, and broke into a run.
The word was worse than the alarms, Tierna realised. The word promised death where the alarms only warned of danger. Fuelled by the chemicals in the refinery, the fire had overwhelmed the damage control crews and was spreading toward the control centre. Worse still, there were alarming readings coming from the geothermic fistula.
"The blast doors are jammed," Niarra reported. "We can't override the lockdown, and I can't get through to anyone in the main operations room."
"We'll die like animals in here!" one of the men cried out.
"If we do die," Tierna snarled, "then we will die fighting! Get the hoses! Find extinguishers -- not the carbon dioxide, the dry chemical type. Hurry! Are you pirates or cowards? Fight!"
"We are technicians," Niarra mumbled too quietly for the others to hear, her face white. "But we will fight."
For all her fine words, Tierna realised that they were indeed fighting, but it was a losing battle. She felt her heart contract in fear when Elenie staggered in with a coughing toddler in her arms. The girl's face was blackened with soot and streaked with tears.
"The children!" Elenie choked out, and burst into wild keens of grief.
"Vargeth was supposed to be getting the children out of section five!" Shoren exclaimed.
"He's dead," Elenie moaned. "The ceiling collapsed. Liria and I were the only ones to get out."
Niarra took the wheezing child from Elenie's arms. "She's having trouble breathing," she reported. "It must be all the smoke. Where is the medical kit?"
"Try the control centre," Shoren suggested, and Niarra trudged away with the child.
"Have we got everyone?" Tierna asked.
"There were seven people trapped on the other side of the milling section," Shoren said sadly. "Jaria tried to get to them, but..." his voice trailed off miserably. "We heard an explosion," he said.
"Shut the doors," Tierna ordered. "We have to try and make a safe capsule for ourselves until we can be rescued."
Tierna looked around her at the tiny group of filthy, smoke stained people -- three technicians, herself, Elenie and the child Liria. Without power to the hydraulics, Shoren and Porven were struggling to seal the heavy doors by hand.
The explosions in the archive had sent power surges running rampant throughout the base. Several units in the refinery had caught fire, others had exploded. Then the main electron generator had gone, taking out most of the power, leaving them with emergency lighting and no air conditioning. The remaining equipment in the refinery had overheated and the fire had gone out of control.
Now the six of them were cowering in the control room, frightened and desperate. Niarra, who had been tending the smoke-affected child, began to weep. When Tierna glanced toward her, Niarra had covered Liria's face with her jacket and lay the body on a desk in the corner. Elenie put her hands to her face and sobbed.
Tierna turned her attention to the main console. Most of the room was dark, but this one unit was on emergency battery and still retained some functionality. She attempted to contact the operations room, but the main computer had been too badly damaged to make a connection. "Elenie," she called softly, "I need your help. Can you re-route the communications to reconnect us with any of the base systems?"
"I'll try," Elenie sniffed in a small voice.
"Then please, my dear," Tierna said, "do so."
Elenie sat down at the console while Tierna tried to look brave.
"The door's warming up," Shoren observed. "It's too hot to touch, and these things are supposed to be rated for eight hours against fire."
Tierna's breath caught in her throat. "You think... "
"The magma fistula's ruptured," Porvan said. "We're in a volcano, after all," he reminded them.
"The volcano can't be erupting," Tierna reasoned.
"It doesn't have to be erupting," Porvan muttered, keeping his voice down. "If it were erupting, we'd already be dead. "No, this is just a minor rupture, probably caused by the cascade when the main generator blew. We were using geothermic power to run the refinery and the crews hit that pocket of molten rock last month. We knew it was dangerous. And now..."
"And now it is only a matter of time," Tierna concluded.
"I am afraid so," Porvan said. "Even the Captain won't be able to get a rescue crew through to us in time. I'm sorry."
"I've accessed the infrastructure server!" Elenie announced. Tierna forced herself to smile and walk over to the console.
"Well done," she said. "Now, let me see what may be done."
"But I haven't finished!" Elenie protested. "Don't you want to get through to the operations centre?"
"Later, perhaps," Tierna lied. "For now, I am going to make G-Force pay." She called up a system status report. There was one self-heating crucible of alloying components awaiting delivery. It would do nicely. She entered the command that would turn the solid metal into a molten cauldron of death as it made its way along the delivery track toward the missile and delivery chamber.
Princess sprinted, as fearful of another surge of cerebonic energy as she was of ambush by the Urgosians. She forced herself to focus on maintaining the pace as they skidded around the curve of the wall and raced back into the missile chamber. As they entered the chamber, she could just make out the shadowy figures of Jason and Keyop leaping from the missile array up the the welcoming sanctuary of the Phoenix.
As they reached the base of the missile launcher, Princess heard movement and glanced upward. The ceiling tracks she'd noticed before now carried what appeared to be an enormous crucible. Above its gaping mouth, the air shimmered and the stench of hot metal reached her nose and mouth. The crucible began to tilt, spilling its molten contents on to the floor in a rush of heat and flame.
Mark sprang upward and Princess did likewise, but this time, her cerebonic implants denied her the extra boost she expected. She faltered and clutched at the missile launcher, a bare three feet above the floor.
Mark's hand closed about her wrist and he hauled her up by his main strength. "Hold tight!" he urged.
"I'm slipping!" she cried, terror gripping at her vitals.
"I won't let you fall!" he told her. "Come on!"
Princess struggled to find a purchase as the deadly tide of molten metal rose higher. If they didn't make their escape quickly, the launcher itself would begin to collapse and melt. She found a foothold and pushed as Mark dragged them both up to the top. The fumes from the alloy threatened to overwhelm her and her vision began to swim and fade.
The blast door was heating up to the point where the air was difficult to breathe.
"Elenie," Tierna said. "Come here, dearest."
"Ma," Elenie whispered as her mother enfolded her in her arms, "isn't Fa coming to save us?"
"Of course he is," Tierna said, her eyes filling with tears. "You'll see. He'll be here."
"I'm frightened, Ma," Elenie said.
"Don't be," Tierna said. "I'm going to get you something out of the medical kit to help you relax," she promised.
Tierna prayed that it would be there, and it was: phials of barbiturate, kept close at hand for use in the event of an industrial accident in the refinery, enough to make it easy for Elenie, at least, and for the rest of them, she had her sidearm. Hands shaking, she began to prepare a syringe.
Princess felt Mark's arm tighten around her and pull her upward, then relax again as he deposited her atop the missile launcher where she lay struggling to remain conscious. She was aware of movement, and summoned the last of her strength to stand and hold on to Mark's arm. He had used Doom's whip to give them a lifeline up to the Phoenix and she could see Jason and Keyop hauling on it, hand over hand, bringing them home.
Inside, Princess staggered slightly as Keyop flung his arms around her in relief. Mark turned his attention to the ship.
"Let's go, Tiny!" he ordered. "Right now!"
"Big ten," Tiny responded automatically, working the controls. Princess held on to Keyop as the engines powered up. Tiny was working frantically at the console, but there was no familiar sensation of ascent. "The heat must've jammed the lift system," the big pilot reported.
The ship began to vibrate as the engines struggled. Tiny's console was a mass of amber and red lights, his fingers flying over the controls. The outside temperature gauges were showing red and the cabin was growing warm. "It's now or never, Tiny," Mark called. "Lift her!"
Tiny paused for a moment, then began diverting power from other systems. He shut down the vertical take off engines and channelled all the ship's power to the aft thrusters.
There was a lurch as the Phoenix came to life and surged forward, scraping her belly on the rocks below. For an awful moment, she was falling, hanging in the air without enough lift over her wings, but the brute force of the engines propelled her onward, and the stall warning horns fell silent as the air speed rose. The Phoenix grabbed fists full of sky and climbed.
David Anderson stared at the metallic object in his hands. It reminded him of the barb of a bee sting, but unlike a bee sting, it was made of almost pure Urgosium.
"As per my report," Mark said, "the tip was the only part of that particular weapon made of the indestructible Urgosium. The rest of it was normal alloy, so we ditched it. I guess they only had so much of that stuff to go around."
"This should prove invaluable, Commander," Anderson said. "Well done." He took note of the pensive expressions and relaxed. "Go on," he told them. "Princess won't be out of the cerebonic lab for another few hours, and Dr Halloran says she'll be fine, but I doubt anybody's going to be able to keep the four of you away. Dismissed."
"Thanks, Chief!" Mark was already running, with Jason, Tiny and Keyop in his wake.
Anderson put the tip of Captain Doom's whip to one side and opened the folder on his desk again. He'd read it and re-read it while G-Force had been on their way home. Anderson stared at the page again, then took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He looked up at the sound of the door opening.
"You got the weapon?" Deirdre Kelly asked, leaning in the doorway. Galaxy Security's Director Intelligence walked in uninvited and picked up the articulated spike of Urgosium. "Wow," she commented. "This thing goes straight through armoured ceramalloy, huh?"
"I read your report on Captain Doom," Anderson said. "I want everything on file -- everything you have on this individual -- verified and reverified."
Deirdre Kelly frowned and put the metal spike back on Anderson's desk. "I know a lot of the intel's sketchy, David, but most of it's old news."
"Verified," Anderson repeated, putting his glasses back on, "and reverified, Dee."
"Surely you don't give any credence to those rumours that Doom is a rogue ISO operative with a grudge?" Kelly said. "Want to tell me what's going on?"
Anderson met Kelly's inquiring gaze with a look that didn't invite further questioning. "I want you to tell me that you're on it," Anderson said.
Kelly straightened. "Yes, sir. I'll put a team on it right away."
"Thank you, Director. Don't let me detain you any longer."
The door hissed shut behind Kelly's retreating back.
Anderson stared at the photograph of Captain Doom for a long moment. "You can't be him," he told it. "He's dead. I was there when we buried him." He closed the file, hand resting on the cover as though to keep the past locked in behind it. "You can't be."
"The gall," Zoltar hissed.
"It didn't pay off," Mala reminded her brother. "Captain Doom and the Urgosians suffered a resounding defeat."
"And now, what?" Zoltar demanded. "After everything we have done for them! With his base destroyed, how is Doom supposed to carry on supplying us with the matèriel we need?"
"It was his planetside base," Mala said, reading from the screen of her palm computer. "His fleet of corsairs remains intact. If anything, brother dear, he has more motivation than ever to plunder Federation interests."
"You are probably right," Zoltar said, subsiding. "Nonetheless, I think we should keep a close eye on this Urgosian upstart."
"Don't worry," Mala said, smiling. "We will."
"Don't say, 'I told you so,' Jason," Princess warned, her chagrin written plainly on her face. She was sitting in a recliner in the cerebonic lab, feeling vulnerable in a hospital gown and cotton bathrobe.
"Wasn't going to," Jason said.
The intravenous drip line leading to Princess' right elbow was almost lost amidst the monitor leads snaking out of the gown's neckline up to the computer unit on the IV stand. Her team-mates were gathered around her, their expressions a mix of relief and concern. Jason thought she looked small in the big chair with the equipment looming over her.
"You were right, though," Princess said. "You saw it coming, and I didn't."
"Miscalibration throws your judgement off," Jason pointed out.
"How do you know that?" Princess asked.
"Yeah?" Keyop chimed in. He folded his arms across his narrow chest and scowled up at Jason.
"I read the manual," Jason said. "They stick these things in our central nervous systems," he reasoned. "I for one want to know how they work."
"The main thing," Mark said, "is that we're all back home in one piece, and if Captain Doom wants any more of that indestructible metal, he's going to have to spend a long time digging."
"All of them?" Governor Arish stared, appalled, at his visitor.
"Nobody escaped the refinery," Doom said. His voice was thick with grief behind the mask. "Tierna, Elenie... Many of my people had their families living at the base... None of the children survived. There was a magma leak caused by the loss of the main electron generator. The power surges set off explosions throughout the complex, and a fistula in the geothermic power unit ruptured. We cannot even retrieve the bodies."
"My boy..." Arish shook his head, his eyes bright with moisture.
"Most of my pirates survived," Doom said. "The fighters, the crews... It was only the civilians who were trapped and killed." Doom's fists clenched at his side. "G-Force," he snarled, "killers of innocent children! I swear to you, Arish, they have not seen the last of me. It may take me a lifetime, but I will see Tierna and Elenie avenged. Even if it kills me!"
"Aye," Arish whispered. "Vengeance!"