Chief Anderson was not a happy man. He studied the reports before him about Jason's recent activities. First there had been the woman at the racetrack and within a week Jason was in the hospital recovering from a near fatal knife wound, out of uniform no less. Then there was the missing twelve hours after the mission in the Rockies, true, Jason's explanation of passing out from near hypothermia was possible, but Anderson felt the boy was holding something back from him. The untraceable comm call in the middle of the night, hidden security tapes showed Jason and Mark both there. Finally this last incident, Mark's blood test showed decreasing levels of a sedative and Jason claimed he didn't remember reaching the doctor's residence.
Anderson turned to stare blindly out his office window. There had been five doctors, scientists, discussing how to deal with the possibility of a member of the Gatchaman team going rogue. There had been talk of a destruct trigger in the cerebonic implants. He himself argued that as long as the children were trained never to question the authority figure over them there would be no need for such a device.
At the height of the debate, Dr. Seymour had stood and said. "These are children who will grow up. And as they grow, they will rebel against their elders. It is the nature of children. Do not try to brainwash them, for robots are no good. Do not try to cow them into submission or they will fall to the strongest figure near them. Teach them. Teach them the sanctity of life. Teach them the necessity of sacrifice. Teach them what is right. Love them. Cherish them. Protect them. Trust them." She had drawn herself up straight, saying. "To even be discussing this is to put ourselves on the same level as the Spectrans. I will not return until you have given up this folly." She had strode from the conference room -- never to return, not because they had included destruct capabilities in the implants, but because she had been killed in an automobile accident the next day. He had been tempted to follow her but he had feared what the others would do in their united absence and had stayed to be a voice for the children in question.
Anderson sighed, admitting that Seymour would have never returned anyway. The others had prevailed in their cry for a way to destroy any or all of the team. He had prevailed eventually in getting the others removed from the project, but that still did not take the knowledge from him that a signal sent through the comm-bracelet each team member wore would end the life of one or all of them depending upon the codes used.
Jason had always been a strong-willed child, but was that will being turned to something destructive or was it simply the latest in a long line of clashes between the two of them. It bothered Anderson most that Mark had not told him of the incident in the comm-room. Was Jason becoming a bad influence on the normally loyal Mark?
Finally Anderson gathered the information and locked it in a desk drawer. Wishing he could lock the niggling worries about Jason away as easily, he turned to latest report on Spectran activities.
A breeze set the leaves to nodding on their branches as a low, grumbling sound neared the couples enjoying a mild summer afternoon by dining at the small outdoor cafe. The black and chrome creation rounded the corner at a gentle speed. The helmeted rider expertly maneuvered the large bike into a parking space and turned the motor off.
Putting the kickstand down, Aaron climbed off the bike and stowed the helmet on the back seat of the bike. She headed for the cafe as she took her sunglasses and gloves off. She headed for the white-haired woman staring at her from an isolated table. Shrugging off the fringed black leather jacket, she draped it over the empty chair and settled into it with a faint creak of leather from her pants.
"Try to be more conspicuous next time, Aaron," the white-haired woman growled.
Aaron ignored the other woman until she ordered coffee, then said. "Barlow, you look like a disapproving mother with an errant daughter. There's no way anyone will suspect anything." She thanked the waiter and sipped the coffee.
Barlow finally shook her head and said. "You look well, Aaron."
"As do you."
Barlow studied the steel-blue eyes of the other woman before saying. "Anderson is worried about Jason. Over the past couple months there has been some unexplained incidents involving him. Jason won't talk to Anderson, which is only making the situation worse."
Aaron sighed. "You've guessed they involve me."
"I've guessed they also have a lot to do with your request to bring your branch of the Red Raiders into the "legal" branch of ISO and the Terran Protectivate." Barlow watched her closely.
"I have many Spectrans among my pilots, you know that, I want them to have the protection their work has earned them." Her throaty voice was firm.
Barlow briefly wondered at the forces that had formed this personality, then said. "I need to know what is going on. Commodore." She knew the story she told was bare of bone, but of all her advisors, this one she trusted implicitly. "So Jason knows about you and that's why he won't talk to Anderson."
"Loyalty is not his problem," Aaron snorted.
"There is a destruct mechanism in the implants."
Aaron's head snapped around. "What the hell? Tell me, you aren't threatening what I think you are?"
Barlow shook her head. "I am not, but I cannot say what Security Chief Anderson might do if pushed. Though he was one of the two who opposed the destruct mechanism."
"Who else knows about this?"
From an inner jacket pocket, she pulled a small computer disc and gave it to the younger woman. "It's all here." As she slipped it into the top of her boot, she added. "The codes to get into the ISO mainframe are there as well. If you are going to come out, I want you and your officers to have access to the ISO installations. Have your people to upload the information."
"Not if, when, General. I am tired of skulking about in shadows."
"There's an old air force base next to the primary Gatchaman base. I am going to have it inspected and repaired." Barlow continued. "I want that to be your base, Aaron."
"Don't trust me?" Aaron's steel-blue eyes never wavered.
"You, yes. But there is going to be resistance within ISO and the military with this move. You will report directly to me. You will take orders from no one but myself or the president." Barlow's academy ring winked in the sun as she reached for her coffee. "That alone is enough to cause trouble, add your renegade pilots and it's an explosive situation."
"Then why help?"
"Because your mother was one hell of an agent and you are better than she ever dreamed of being." Barlow indicated her academy ring. "By rights, you should be wearing one of these too."
"Hell, I was fifteen with a twin sister and a huge chunk of rage. The academy wouldn't have taken me." Aaron snorted.
"That's the academy's loss," Barlow sighed, "and the military's. You would make a fine general."
"I'd make a lousy general. I don't like the paperwork and the politics would have me killing people within days."
Barlow shook her head, but said. "I like the Harley."
"You should. It's the one you gave me from your folks barn." Aaron grinned.
"That old wreck of my uncle's?" Barlow gaped, remembering the dented, rusting bike.
"That wreck was a ninety-fifth anniversary edition Springer. It's barely legal on the emissions, more modifications and I'd lose the original Harley sound." Aaron glanced fondly at the bike. "It's not a rare bike, but it's been ridden rather than packed away for investment value." She snorted. "Unlike most of the hundredth anniversary editions, which you can find in mint condition at hugely overrated values."
"All the things you could have done if not for this war..."
"I wouldn't have been born if not for this war."
Barlow stared and thought. Maybe that's what makes her different. She never rages at what she can't change, or rather she hasn't since she reached the rank of commander. She accepts things and deals with life from there.
After Aaron finished her coffee, she stood and turned to pull her jacket off the back of her chair. She glanced over her shoulder at Barlow's snort.
Gesturing to the slender braid from the back of her head to her butt, Barlow asked. "They still won't let you cut that?"
Aaron sighed and pulled on her jacket hiding the braid under it. "You'll never find anyone more superstitious than my pilots. I'm just grateful I managed to talk them into letting me cut the front and top, it was getting so thick I couldn't get it under my helmet."
Barlow laughed and shook her head. "Only you would humor them Aaron."
"They think it brings them luck. Anything that make them more calm in the air is fine by me." She leaned over and bussed a dry kiss on the older woman's cheek. She winked and muttered "to keep up the illusion" as she straightened.
Barlow watched as Aaron, the Commodore, went back to her bike and pulled on the black helmet. As the younger woman pulled away from the curb, she whispered. "You're wrong, Aaron. You would have made a great general. More like you and this war would be over by now."
As the information finished flashing across the screen, Gypsy swore under her breath. She stopped when Aaron caught her in a sharp glare. Some days she was furious that Aaron could stuff her emotions under cover so tightly. She watched as the plans were drafted for Operation Sweet Sixteen. When the meeting was over and the others gone, Gypsy asked. "What about those damn destruct mechs?"
Aaron leaned back and said. "I've already got a couple of my agents. They will tell me who on the panel are still living and where they are."
"What if it's Anderson?"
Steel eyes blinked as Aaron said coldly. "He's mine."
Several nights later, the room was black and silent as Aaron came awake. She held still as she listened for the disturbance that had slipped into her dreams. A shift of air brushed her cheek and she kicked out from under the sheet, catching the intruder in the stomach. Following the sound of the thud, she leapt onto the downed intruder one of her knives in her hand. With a knee in the stomach of the gasping individual, Aaron pulled the black mask off the other person. Seeing who it was, Aaron stood snarling. "You're go to get yourself killed with these juvenile stunts, Nika."
"Just wanted to make sure you weren't getting soft, what with going legal and all." Nika rolled to her soft-soled boots and dusted non-existent dust off her grey clothes.
Aaron simply glared. "What are you doing here?"
"I've got news," Nika leaned against the wall and briefed Aaron on what she had discovered. When she finished she was very glad that Aaron's look was not directed at her, because that look meant someone was going to die.
"You're positive Anderson knows nothing about this?"
Nodding, Nika said. "Positive. He's upset about Jason's apparent disobedience, but everything I can find points up the fact he is extremely fond of and protective of Gatchaman." She accepted the distracted "thanks" and slipped into the pale dawn light.
Aaron paged Varn out of his bed, saying. "I want Kali, Gypsy, and Gillian here immediately. Also get the duty officer to find the unconscious sentries, replace them, and assign them four weeks garbage detail."
"Jason, I insist that you tell me what you have been doing." Anderson held onto his temper as Jason glared at him. He cued the security tape, saying. "Perhaps I should ask Mark to explain this then."
"Leave him out of this!" Jason stood up.
"You should have thought of that before you brought him into this, Jason." Anderson leaned his elbows on his desk. "I am not your enemy, Jason. Talk to me."
"You've already made up your mind," Jason muttered sullenly.
The other members of Gatchaman watched as the clash between the Condor and the Chief continued. It had began with a briefing on added security measures with the air force base next door being reactivated and had ended with Anderson bringing up the latest security infractions they had committed.
It seemed to Mark as if Anderson were pushing Jason, especially bringing this up in front of the entire team. Surely Anderson knew by now that was not the best course with the stubborn gunner of the team. Still the Chief persisted in questioning Jason to the point of ignoring Mark when he had started to explain about the security tape.
"Do you want me to resign?" Jason snarled, he reached for his comm-bracelet.
The room filled with red uniforms as several Red Raiders slipped through the door. In heartbeats, Mark, Princess, Tiny, and Keyop had lost their comm- bracelets to the invaders.
From the other side of the room, Jason transmuted into the Condor before anyone could reach him. Knowing that Gillian could be one of the Raiders, he reached for his feather darts rather than his cable gun.
"Jason, get that comm-bracelet off. Now!" Gillian rushed across the room ignoring everyone except the blue-winged figure. She tossed her helmet aside to show him her face hoping it would reach him quicker than her words.
Gillian's fear touched him and Jason dropped the darts to grab at the comm- bracelet. A blinding headache burst inside his head and he dropped to his knees moaning.
Dropping to her knees, Gillian wretched the bracelet off his wrist. She held his hand as he transmuted back to Jason. When he continued to moan, she grabbed his chin and forced it up, saying. "Jason, look at me. I want to see your eyes." Blood was visibly filling the vessels of his eyes. "Doctor," Gillian never looked away from the pain in his eyes. "It's going to be okay, Jason."
A new wave of pain curled him onto his side. He gasped, "It feels like my head's going to explode."
Another Raider knelt by him and snapped, "What painkillers are he allergic to Anderson?"
"That is not---" Anderson choked off as another pilot grabbed him around the throat.
"Damn you, Anderson!" The one who had asked the question bounced up and crossed to his desk. Slamming Jason's comm-bracelet down until everyone could clearly see the dead black face, the Raider stripped off her helmet and continued. "I don't give a rat's ass about your security! All I am concerned with is getting Jason some relief from the pain, then saving his life."
"Dr. Seymour?" Anderson sank into his chair when the pilot let go of his throat. He swallowed hard when his eyes looked again at the black faced bracelet.
"Snap out of it!" Seymour's hand striking his face was loud in the silence.
Visibly pulling himself together, Anderson listed off the painkillers safe for her to use. He watched as she knelt beside Jason and administered one of them.
The relief for Jason was immediate. He slowly uncurled and reached blindly for Gillian's hand. "What's going on?"
"There is a destruct mechanism in your implants." Gillian held his hand. "It's activated by a frequency through your comm-bracelet. The Commodore found out someone was going to use it."
"I shouldn't have hesitated," Jason muttered.
Smoothing his hair, Gillian said, "Stubborn."
"What's going to happen now?"
Dr. Seymour gestured for one of the large pilots to pick Jason up, saying. "I'm getting you to the hospital. I have to find out what damage has been done."
"To me or the implant?" He whispered from the cradle of the Gillian's arms.
"You. I don't care about the implants." Seymour assured him, shooting a furious glare at Anderson as she headed out the door.
Mark held his hand out to the Raider holding his comm-bracelet. He flinched as the black face laid across his palm. He looked at Anderson, saying. "Someone tried to kill us. Did you know about this?"
"It is not your concern, Mark."
"Answer him." The pilot who had held him by the throat peeled off her helmet, revealing a short cap of straight black hair and knifing black eyes.
Anderson flinched, "Who are you?"
"Gypsy Washio." At Mark's gasp, she said, "Yes, Mark. I am your sister." She leaned closer to Anderson, "Aren't you going to answer him?"
Whatever lie he might have contemplated, Anderson discarded in the face of the fire in Gypsy's eyes. "I fought against the mechanism. But there were others on the committee, they won the battle."
"There are bombs inside us and you didn't bother to mention it, Chief?" Princess hugged Keyop to her.
"It was in case one of you went rogue." Anderson couldn't meet the betrayed looks, so stared at Jason's comm-bracelet. "If one of you had turned traitor and had gone to the other side..." He fell silent knowing he couldn't justify his silence.
"You were going to kill us," Mark said softly. He glanced at his comm-link again. "If it hadn't been for the Raiders, someone would have killed us. Here, in your office. We would have died without a chance to fight." He crossed to carefully lay his bracelet along side Jason's. "Thanks for trusting us, Chief." He turned to leave.
Anderson roused himself to ask, "Where are you going?"
"To see if you managed to kill Jason," Mark never looked back to see Anderson flinch as if struck.
Gypsy stared as Anderson slowly sank into himself as the other members of Gatchaman followed Mark from the office. Finally she said, "Love and trust are things you should never abuse."
The Commodore strode through the corridors of the ISO base. Instinctively people moved out of her way, whether they did this because of the sense of barely leashed fury about her or the huge form following at her heels didn't matter to her. She nodded to the pilots flanking the door into the hospital and headed down the corridor to find Seymour. The news wasn't good, Aaron went to Jason's room and paused in the doorway to take in the scene of Jason laying in the bed talking with the other members of Gatchaman with Gillian holding his hand. When Mark looked up, she noticed the haunted look around his eyes.
Handing her helmet to Varn, Aaron crossed to Jason's bed. She could almost taste the consternation as everyone looked from Jason to her and back again. When Gillian moved to get up, Aaron rested her hand on the lieutenant's should. Looking at Jason, she said. "Let me guess, you bulled up."
Jason blushed a bit at the look from Aaron. "I thought it was an attack."
"We are going to work on that temper of yours." Aaron dropped a small computer disc in his lap.
"Watch it and see," Aaron challenged.
Giving Mark the disc, Jason and the others turned to watch the monitor. A man he didn't recognize sat behind a desk working on a computer. Then a Raider pilot stepped through the door.
The man looked up, "What's going on here?" He reached for an alarm button.
"It's disconnected," the Commodore said. "I want your undivided attention."
"Gatchaman. Destruct codes. Little things like that."
"I don't know what you are talking about."
"You were the one who designed it."
"Now see here," the man stood, then sat down heavily when the gun that appeared in her hand fired. He clutched his shattered knee cap. "What the hell do you want?"
"I want to know who else you told about this."
"No one." He screamed as his other knee shattered. "I swear I told no one!"
The gun was holstered. "Very well. I want all the records."
Soon his desk was littered with the contents of his safe. "It won't do you any good, you know."
"Because they are already dead. I sent the codes before you got here." A knife pinned his shoulder to the back of his chair. Gasping, he snarled, "Don't you get it? Gatchaman is dead. I killed them." He watched as the figure took a flash from inside her jacket. "What you are you going to do with that? Poison me?"
"No." Pouring the contents over the desk, the Commodore paused to light a match and toss it on the desk.
Trying to push back from the blaze with his useless knees, he snarled. "Why the hell are you doing this?"
"It's family." A trail of liquid splashed from the flash onto his lap.
"Who are you?" He screamed as the fire moved to him.
The Commodore watched until the fire died out and the man was well and truly dead. Looking at his body over the ashes of his desk, she answered him, "I'm a vengeful bitch."
The monitor went to static and everyone stared at Aaron sitting calmly at the foot of Jason's bed. From his corner, Anderson bestirred himself to say, "I could have you arrested for murder."
Aaron tossed another disc to him, saying. "I executed a traitor. Everything you need is there." Then she turned steel eyes on him. "If I had found that it was you, Anderson, what you just saw would have been nothing to what I would have done to you."
Anderson held up his hand for silence. "You didn't let me finish, Aaron. Commodore," he corrected at the glare from both Gypsy and Gillian. "I said 'could' have had you arrested, but I'd prefer to take you out to dinner with the Gatchaman team as thanks and an apology."
Aaron paused, slightly confused. From what she knew of the Security Chief, she had expected anger, threats. This was a face she had never expected and it added a new twist to things. She noticed Anderson still holding one of the comm-links, the black face still flashing. By the speckling of red upon it and the bandage on Jason's cheek, she figured whose it had been. He clenched it in a fist and thrust the hand into his pocket. In a soft voice, Anderson spoke, looking at the floor. "Someone once told me... cherish them... trust them... I think the trust has got to begin anew now..."
He met Aaron's eyes, and let her probe the depths of his own soul in one long searching look. Finally she nodded.
Tiny muttered "food" from his side of the room. Jason started to get out of bed, but Aaron shook her head stilling everyone.
"I talked to Dr. Seymour before I came in." Aaron began. "The destruct mechanism in your implant was stopped when your comm-link was removed, but it had already started a hemorrhage in your brain." She met Jason's gaze steadily. "Even now the pressure on your brain is building, Jason. You would be in agony if not for the painkillers. You have to have surgery as soon as possible."
"How long?" Jason asked, softly.
"Your time?" When he nodded stiffly, she said. "Hours." She continued. "Dr. Seymour has called a neurosurgeon in. She wants to start prepping you for surgery when you are ready until they can begin as soon as the other doctor arrives."
"What are the dangers?" Anderson asked, crossing to stand nearer to Aaron.
Aaron sighed. "Permanent brain damage. Memory loss. Death."
Jason's laugh had no humor. "Either way, I'm screwed."
"Without surgery, you will die, Jason." Gillian murmured. "You have a chance with surgery."
"What if I forget you?" He caught the back of her head and pulled her closer.
"You will be alive. That's what matters." Gillian touched his cheek.
Jason swallowed hard, tears filling his eyes. He bowed his head and the tears fell to the sheet across his lap. "I'm afraid," he confessed in a choked voice.
Mark sat beside Jason and hugged him awkwardly, saying. "I'm here, Jason...my brother."
Aaron moved off the bed to allow the rest of Gatchaman to gather around Jason. She nodded with approval as they kept Gillian in the cluster.
"How bad is it?" Anderson asked softly.
"Very," Aaron replied under her breath. She nodded to Dr. Seymour entering the room and said. "I will be back before surgery begins, there are somethings I must do."
"Aaron?" Jason's eyes were dark as he looked at her.
"You must make this decision yourself with your family. We share genetics, but they share your blood. I will stand by whatever you decide, Jason."
Jason stared at her bewildered and looked at Chief Anderson, "Chief?"
When Gillian started to leave the group, Aaron shook her head. With a nod, she and Gypsy went into the hall. "You are welcome to stay with him, if you wish, Gypsy."
"No, you're right. We would just muddle the waters." Gypsy glanced back into the room and pulled the door shut. "What now?"
Taking her helmet from Varn, Aaron said. "We make that base ours."
Jason clung to Gillian and Mark's hands as the doctor explained what would occur during surgery. He had planned on dying in battle not in bed or beneath the knife, since meeting Gillian he had dreamt of growing old with her. Now he faced the fact that the very implant that he had grown up with would kill him. In the corner, he could hear Keyop trying to stifle his sobs.
When Dr. Seymour mentioned that he would be conscious during the operation and that he could have someone with him, Jason looked at Gillian. Can I ask her? He thought, no, it's not fair. Mark? No, the others need him. Aaron, I don't know her well enough. The only one he could think he'd want by him was "Chief?"
Anderson bit his lip as he reached out to pat Jason's leg. "I would be honored."
Jason gathered his wits and looked up at Seymour, saying, "I suppose the next thing is a haircut."
Seymour nodded. "I've already spoken with the neurosurgeon, he would wants the entire area clear."
"All of it?" Jason sighed. "It's taken me years to get it looking like I want it." He cast a sorrowful look at Seymour.
Gillian tapped the tip of his nose with a finger. "Careful arguing with her," she leaned closer and whispered in his ear.
When she straightened, he said, "Really?"
"Fine, Doctor." Jason agreed very promptly.
Seymour glanced at Gillian, who grinned at her unrepentantly, then said. "How about we let the nurses prep Jason for surgery?"
As everyone started to leave, Jason asked. "Couldn't the Chief stay?"
Leaning close to Anderson's ear, Seymour said. "Trust them." She urged him toward Jason.