There was something different about the cell the next time he woke. The same harsh lighting, the same grey blankets, the same featureless wall beyond the bars, the same covered tray which he was sure would contain the same bland food he'd been given for the past five days. Or was it six? He couldn't remember any more. His head ached with a heavy tiredness even now, and he was sure he was sleeping far more than normal. There was no day or night down here. No sounds. The food was put in, and the tray removed, while he slept. He'd have welcomed another interrogation. Anything for some human contact.
It took him several seconds to realise that there was a pad of paper lying next to the tray with a propelling pencil on the top. They'd never given him anything like that before. He looked miserably up at the unblinking eye of the security camera, and unbidden fury welled up in his throat. "What do you want from me?" he yelled at it. "I've told you everything! I've answered all your questions! I don't have anything more!"
No response. There never was. There never would be. He couldn't even be sure anyone was watching. The pad, though - they hadn't given it to him out of kindness. They wanted to see what he would do with it. Lined paper. They wanted him to write.
To tell his story his own way, maybe. Without questioning. That was what he'd wanted all along. Ten minutes for someone to listen in silence while he told them what had happened to him. It didn't matter whether they forgave him - he didn't expect that anyone would, ever. He just wanted ISO to know that he, Don, had never changed sides. No matter what he'd done, how badly he'd betrayed his friends and his planet, only his courage had failed. Not his loyalty.
He picked up the pencil. Plastic, thin and fragile. So ISO thought he was a suicide risk. Not yet, not until he knew his story had been heard.
Where to start? How to start? Now presented with the means of telling his story, Don stared blankly at the paper for a while. 'I was born on -' No. That was irrelevant. What would they have considered the beginning, where it all began to go wrong for him? Indubitably it would be that July evening, almost four years ago now, when Anderson had handed them each an envelope.
"We've assigned your positions within G-Force. This should be self-explanatory."
He could see himself now, confident smile all across his face, not the slightest concern about what he would find inside the envelope. Don the science expert. Don the pilot of the Hawk jet. Don the jump-pilot. Don the commander of G-Force. Boldly going where no man had gone before, leading his team out to explore the galaxy. What he'd actually found in there had turned his world upside-down.
Science expert - yes. Jet pilot - yes. Jump-pilot - backup. Rank - G-2.
Don had never been second at anything, ever. He'd been too surprised to be angry. Even after the initial shock, he'd considered it to be a mistake on their part. Jason was a good kid - but an unsophisticated sixteen-year-old orphan as commander of G-Force? Don had been sure that ISO would come to their senses once the pressure started to tell. Even Anderson would realise that his protege wasn't cut out for it.
It hadn't happened. Jason had simply ignored his attempts to demonstrate his superiority. He listened to his suggestions and took notice of the sensible ones, presented his orders such that Don had to obey them or be seen to mutiny by every observer. Don knew he would become a good commander but, dammit, Jason already was, and he'd come to realise that they'd made the right choice. Not that he'd ever told Jason that.
Jason had been a good friend, too. They'd got on well. Now that was something Anderson had never understood. That was the place to start.
I know you think I resented being second-in-command. It wasn't like that. Not once Jason found his stride, and we learnt to work together. More than just work. We were sparring partners, both in the gym and verbally, and we both enjoyed it. I made him think. I kept him sharp. I played devil's advocate to make his decisions better. I picked up the slack. We were a command team. I'd never have betrayed him. You were right when you said I was a good second-in-command. You were wrong when you said I didn't know it. It took me a while, but I was comfortable as Jason's second long before we went to Mars.
He considered his next paragraph, and then decided to go with it anyway. This might well be his only chance to tell his story. He was determined to tell all of it, even the parts he wanted to forget.
And Jason was a good commander. The Mars disaster wasn't his fault. If he'd been with me, if we'd gone down the same tunnel instead of splitting up to search quicker, we'd both have been caught. Hell, even if all four of G-Force had burst into that room it would have made no difference. Not then, not unarmed.
It was ironic that these days Jason probably took down a squad of Spectrans that size without breaking sweat. Don's resistance had lasted about three seconds.
Now he was getting to information they'd never had and that he'd never been asked for. He hoped someone would realise this, that he was volunteering information solely because he wanted them to know everything. A defector wouldn't do this - surely?
There was a big pile of human bodies in there - enough to be all the rest of the base personnel. Adam Tring was the only one I could identify, in the few moments I had. He wasn't transmuted - he was wearing the same standard jumpsuit as all the rest. If they'd had the slightest idea who he was, they'd probably have kept him alive, and now it would be him in this cell and not me.
I still don't know why they didn't kill me. I guess it was the birdstyle - technology they didn't have. Instead of a bullet, I got a taser under the chin, and when I woke up I was in a cell on the Spectran Mars base.
They were very, very interested in the birdstyle. They were even more interested in the attack ship which had shown up. Their story went that after I'd been knocked unconscious due to a 'misunderstanding', it had destroyed the ship the Spectrans had sent to help when the dome was attacked. Nothing I remembered pointed to a misunderstanding. The soldiers who had captured me had been far from gentle, and I was unarmed. It was barely a day since Princess had told me I was too quick to believe whatever I was told. I was pretty sure the Spectran soldiers I'd seen were responsible for the bodies at their feet. And, indeed, the shattered dome. They seemed to think I'd forgotten about that, that somehow I'd think the Phoenix had been responsible.
Don stopped writing again, waves of memory flooding in. They'd showed him a video of the Phoenix, a bad, blurred shot of it in a headlong suicide dive. And then the outline seemed to shift, to shimmer somehow. Red flames flickered along the outside, making it appear much bigger, much more organic. He'd been impressed, and more than a little afraid. This was what jump looked like? He'd been in a ship doing that? No wonder Anderson had never shown them pictures.
And they told me that after destroying their ship, the Phoenix just left. They never came back to look for me. I didn't understand then, although now I do. Then I felt abandoned. I was angry. I'll admit to that. But I didn't betray you. Not then.
The Spectrans started to get insistent. They demanded to know about the birdstyle, the ship, the technology. I told them I was just a chemist, and I didn't know anything about the technology. I just used it. Chemistry, ask me about chemistry. I design solvents for recycling the metals in obsolete electronic components.
Don had to stop right there and put the precious pencil down before he broke it. The worst mistake of his life. One he should never have made. What on earth had he been thinking, to try to be so clever? They'd never have thought to ask. Instead, he'd volunteered information he'd thought was useless and given them exactly what they wanted. It was some minutes before he could see past the wall of self-loathing, and he had to change the subject in order to write further.
They wanted the birdstyle, badly. They wanted me to take it off. They'd realised that it was connected with the bracelet somehow, but they couldn't figure out how to get the bracelet off me.
Now this was something he ought to be proud of. This time he'd done the right thing.
I couldn't, of course. Not without detransmuting first - and that would have shown them exactly how it worked. But I was really, really worried that maybe they would figure out a way to get it off in one piece. I told them that the bracelet was the key. And then I opened it up and took out the disk. That would work just as well as the keyword to trigger the detransmutation cycle. And as the light flared, when they couldn't see anything, I flexed it hard enough to break the microcircuitry . I objected loudly when they took it and the bracelet away. I played innocent when they came to me and demanded to know how it worked. I put the disk in and out a few times, and acted surprised that nothing happened. I told them it was still experimental, and that once it stopped working the whole lot needed to be replaced. They weren't impressed, but I persuaded them eventually. It was, after all, the truth.
He'd dreamed throughout his time in captivity of triggering the transmutation cycle, of being the Hawk again. Of flying free. And then he would wake up and be Don, someone else's pawn, locked behind bars. Just a few floors above him was the high-roofed gym where he and Jason had gone from their first careful glides to mastery of their wings. It had never been so far away. The pencil rolled across the floor and out of reach beyond the bars as Don dropped everything, curled helplessly on his side and cried into the pillow.
"What's he doing, sir? Should I call a doctor?" the guard asked.
Grant frowned at the screen. "No, Corporal, that won't be necessary. The drugs are starting to work. That's more emotion than he's shown so far. Once he's asleep, put the pencil back - and I want to see everything he's written."
"You want me to take it away?"
Grant considered. "No - he might not write any more if he thinks it'll be removed. Copy it and put it back."
He woke again, his head a little clearer this time. The pad and pencil were back as if he'd never touched them.
Don was almost afraid to open the cover. Afraid that the pages would be empty, and he wouldn't know whether he'd really started to write his story, or whether he'd dreamed the whole thing. He thought it was real. Recently his sleep had been deep, dreamless and frequent, and he suspected that his food was drugged. He was afraid to eat it, and afraid worse of the dreams coming back.
The pages weren't empty. At least his memory could still be trusted. He hoped his longer term memory was as reliable. He knew he remembered having resisted, having done the right thing - but had he really? Was it worth anything, weighed against the wealth of truly dreadful things which he most certainly had done? One thing at least he was certain of: despite the superficial resemblance between G-Force and the Blackbirds, Spectra did not use transmutation technology. Maybe sabotaging his bracelet had made some difference. He hoped so. He'd paid dearly for it in the long run.
A week went by. And another. I started to believe that G-Force had died on Mars, taking out the Spectran ship. They were dead, killed trying to protect Earth from the enemy who had attacked the dome. I was utterly determined not to let them down.
That, more than anything else, had kept him going. G-Force hadn't abandoned him. He'd persuaded himself that ISO would send someone after him just as soon as they had another jump-crew capable of making the trip. He'd even believed it.
Months went by. I was still locked up, still had nobody to talk to except my interrogators. We talked chemistry, and they were interested in my universal solvent. The major applications I had in mind were all in recycling obsolete electronics and reducing pollution. I had no problems talking to them about that side of my work. I thought maybe it would help them see Earth as a sister planet, ready to welcome them. I didn't understand why they couldn't contact you, find a way to get me home. They had to have jump-technology to be here on Mars at all. They wouldn't discuss it, and I wondered whether they were marooned here after some sort of accident themselves. I still thought you were going to come for me any day. I wasn't going to tell them anything, but I really did believe there had been some sort of terrible misunderstanding. It never occurred to me that they wouldn't consider any alternative to war.
They had been very plausible. Friendly, even. Chemistry had seemed a nice, safe topic. So much less contentious than ideology or military theory. So much less likely to give away important information than talking about the birdstyle or the Phoenix. Don cursed his naivety now, but then he hadn't known. He'd thought it was safe.
He shouldn't have told them anything about any topic. He knew that now.
They must have had people on Earth, because one day a pile of every scientific paper I'd ever been involved in, and a load of additional work done since by other people, appeared. How about I joined one of their research teams? I said I'd think about it. I didn't want to work for them, but they were offering me the chance to interact with Spectrans and find out more about them. I thought it might be useful.
Once he'd had a chance to sit down and think it through, the presence of those papers had forced him to face a ghastly reality. The Spectrans were in contact with people on Earth. Their people. They could have told ISO where he was at any time. Either they hadn't - or they had, and ISO didn't care enough to come for him.
Three days later, the world turned upside-down. Everyone and everything was loaded into the biggest ship I'd ever seen. Including me.
That ship would have dwarfed the Phoenix, and it was armed. Ironically, that had saved him from giving up altogether. That had been the moment he'd realised ISO hadn't abandoned him willingly. They were fighting an interstellar war they were hopelessly unprepared for and had no way to come back for him. And he was on his way to the Spectrans' home planet - a place ISO were doubtless desperate to find out about.
I planned to do some intelligence work from within. Give up as little information as I could. Find out whatever I could about their culture, their military capabilities, maybe even their language. That last one would be hard. The few senior officers who had interacted with me so far had done so exclusively in English. Very good English, that they couldn't have learnt overnight. I only occasionally got to overhear the odd interchange in Spectran, which I tried to make sense of as best I could. It was rough even figuring out which were names and which parts of the language. I wasn't going to be talking my way out dressed as a trooper any time soon.
No room for a separate cell for the likes of me; I was parked in the centre of a space filled with several hundred soldiers who had been told to keep an eye on me. They had a couple of enterprising officers who saw this as a perfect chance for their men to practise the English they'd been learning. I was helpful. We progressed rapidly through "what is your name" to "where are we going" to "why are we leaving", and one of them mentioned G-Force. That was the first time I knew they had survived Mars.
He could still feel the mixture of relief and horror which had poured through him on hearing the name. G-Force fighting? They'd been a civilian crew training to specialise in deep space exploration. Thinking about it, though, he'd seen the logic behind it. Earth needed a rapid reaction force on an interplanetary scale, and G-Force was all they had. He'd wanted to be with them. Now that the Spectrans were in full retreat from Mars, he'd been certain they were coming. Certain enough to refuse to cooperate any more, on any subject.
The Spectrans finally got hold of some pictures of G-Force in action - some enterprising Spectran captain had managed to get security camera footage from his ship's corridors onto the escape craft before fleeing his ship's destruction. Now I'd never mentioned G-Force by name. Ever. But these pictures were quite clearly of people wearing the same type of birdstyle I'd had.
Jason, and two others in astonishingly gaudy birdstyle. Not a sign of Tiny's brown and green, or the purple that Princess had worn, but he hadn't been surprised. He'd hoped both were safe back on the Phoenix. Only much later had he discovered that both Owl and Swan were active members of the team, and he'd simply assumed that the new white Swan was a different person.
Don had thought he was doing really quite well. Leading the conversations the way he wanted them to go, talking freely about chemistry and baseball while telling them nothing about ISO or G-Force. He'd only later come to realise just how skilled his interrogators were. He had no idea how they'd figured out what would work on him, but it had been about the most effective thing they could have done.
He'd been woken up in the middle of the night by a major disturbance outside. Shouts, screams, gunshots - and English. English. They were here. They'd finally come for him. He'd pulled his clothes on and sat in the dark, hoping and waiting. Ten minutes later the door had opened and a figure stood silhouetted against the light of the corridor. Tall, helmeted, beaked visor, winged cape. The flood of relief had been overwhelming. There had been tears, incoherent babbling, and an overwhelming thankfulness that he was finally going home.
And the light had gone on, as the Spectran leader had flung his cloak back and revealed his identity. Zoltar had taken one long, close look at Don's horrified disbelief, and burst into hysterical laughter - and then left him without a word to worry about how much of what he'd said had been classified, and whether any of it had been comprehensible. He'd known then that they were out to break him. He didn't dare admit, even to himself, how close they'd come.
He pulled his mind back to the story he had to tell. The next part had been the source of his worst nightmares ever since. Don had to get up, pace backwards and forwards in his tiny cell, trying to get his thoughts in order. He'd thought the discipline of pencil and paper would help, but writing was no better than remembering.
They'd scanned me minutely soon after my capture, and realised that I had two chips surgically implanted in the back of my neck. Fortunately, they'd also wanted me alive, and obviously realised that removing them would kill me. They'd done nothing except to ask me about them, and I'd shrugged and said it had something to do with humans being susceptible to jump. It had been enough for them at the time. Now, however, they wanted to know a whole lot more about those chips. They hauled me into a medical lab, strapped me face down and inserted a probe into the upper implant, the one which controls chemical production in the brain by neural stimulation.
Don stopped writing. His left hand crept to the back of his neck and massaged the tiny scar just above the hairline, his face set. Even thinking about it sent prickles of discomfort up into the back of his skull and down into his shoulders. He had to tell them. If they didn't know about the next part, they'd believe forever that he'd defected, succumbed to mental pressure or brainwashing. It hadn't been like that. He was sure he'd have been able to fight that. Their oh-so-friendly but insistent questions on technology, retreating back to chemistry whenever he started to feel uneasy. Even their tricks. Even another fake rescue, now he knew what to expect. Spectra had never tried anything of the sort again. They hadn't needed to.
It hurt beyond belief. I can't describe how it felt. Can't even begin to explain. "Intolerable" ought to be the right word, but it gets used to mean something else, something you have been tolerating but you can't continue to do so. This was unbearable from the instant they began. I have no idea what I said - screamed - to get them to stop, but I do remember the calculating glint in the senior researcher's eye. That afternoon, I was taken into Zoltar's presence. He looked me up and down, and said that I was now going to work on my solvent for them . I knew I should refuse, hold out. I did say no a few times, especially when I realised what they wanted to use my work for. Every time, they took me back into the lab and probed the implant again.
Don's other hand went to join his first one. It didn't help much. Nothing did any more. Simulated pain impulses in the implant in the back of his neck, and he'd worked for the enemy. If they'd broken bones, pulled his fingernails out, at least he'd have known he'd hit his limit of physical tolerance. This had all been in his mind. Just a tiny chip, a minute electric current - and he'd been left whimpering on the floor, unable to stand, unable to speak. At first, the pain had stopped instantly when they removed the probe. As time went on, however, the effects lingered: weakness, aching tension in his upper body, the misery in and around the implant itself. Then they'd begun to appear spontaneously: when he was stressed, overworked. Particularly when he was working himself up to something he knew might trigger another session with the probe in the medical lab.
He'd thought that now he was out of Spectran hands it would get better. If anything, it was worse. He didn't know whether it was psychological, damage to the implant, or physical damage to him, and he wasn't sure which would be worst. He guessed he could talk to the camera, tell them just how uncomfortable his neck and shoulders were - but he had the horrible suspicion that they would just add to the cocktail of drugs in his food. It wasn't that bad - not quite.
Oh, if only he could carry on with details of how he'd continued to resist his Spectran captors. How he'd heroically defied Zoltar and everything he could do to him, until one day Jason walked into his cell and set him free. If it had been Jason who'd walked into the ambush on Mars, would that have been the outcome? Was it just that he, Don, was a miserable physical coward unable to do what he knew to be right in the face of pain?
It didn't matter what someone else would have done. He'd been the one in the cell, and he'd failed.
I couldn't face it any more. It would go on forever. G-Force weren't coming, not unless a miracle happened. I needed to make my own miracle, to tell them somehow that I was here. I decided to work on the formula just enough that Zoltar would use it, G-Force would realise it was my formula, and they'd come to my rescue.
I did try to put the brakes on the research. Unfortunately, the Spectrans weren't stupid - especially not their top scientists. If I didn't make progress I was hauled in front of Zoltar, thence to the medical lab - and progress went quicker thereafter.
I did manage one variation which I want you to know about. Zoltar wanted a byproduct of the reaction to be an invisible, rapidly diffusing nerve agent. What I gave him was thick, slow-diffusing, just about enough of an irritant to kill you if you were locked in a roomful for ten minutes, and sickly yellow. Not only that, but I did it in such a way that the scientists assigned to monitor my progress - my watchdogs - confirmed that this was indeed the best that could be done. They didn't have the ability to see the potential in the alpha-helix at the other end of the molecule.
They'd have needed to be geniuses to see the possibilities of starting in an entirely different part of the molecule. They were good, but not that good. If they'd been that good, Zoltar wouldn't have needed him in the first place.
If he'd held out, Zoltar wouldn't have had a scientist capable of refining the solvent.
Don swallowed hard. This next part was the only bargaining tool he had left, and the only way he could think of to use it was to give it away freely. Would it count for anything at all, this one little bit of sabotage weighed against all the awful things he'd done? He didn't know and didn't dare to hope.
Zoltar doesn't know anything different is possible. I could have done exactly what he asked for. It's in my head now, the adjustments needed. If it will be any use to you, I'll explain it to someone.
He flicked through the scant number of pages he'd written. He had no idea of the passage of time, but this didn't look like enough work for the waves of black exhaustion to be sweeping through him already. They had to be drugging him. It didn't matter. There was nothing he could do about it, and at least it kept the dreams away. More reassured this time that the pages would still be there when he woke, Don left the pad and pencil where he'd found them, tried to find a comfortable position and gave in to the insistent demands of his mind for sleep.
"I think he knows we're reading it. The way he looked at the camera, it was like - he knows. Is that a problem, sir?"
Grant sighed. "Of course he knows. This man was the brightest and best, Corporal. He was the G-Force science officer, back when they were going to be out on their own doing deep space exploration. I'm not expecting to learn anything new from this, but the psych boys may be able to determine something from what he decides to write and how he phrases it."
"Do you think he really does have something he withheld from Zoltar?"
Grant raised his eyebrows. "No, I don't. That's the oldest trick in the book to get attention. Really, Corporal, you should know better than that. I do hope the next time I'm called down here isn't because he was 'taken ill' and you went in to him. Stick to the protocols absolutely, because Donald Wade is clever enough to play your sympathies without ever speaking to you."
He considered the young man more closely. Sanderson was a recent acquisition - highly recommended, but nonetheless, new to black level security and the ethical grey areas it could involve. "Corporal, if you're not comfortable with this assignment, I can have you assigned elsewhere."
The young man shook his head. "No, sir. I'm sorry - they all said I ask too many questions. I just want to learn how it works. They said you were the best to learn from. Sir."
This time Grant smiled, flattered. "So you're pumping me for information while you have the chance? Smart move, Corporal. Keep it up."
Don awoke, confused for a moment. He'd managed to find a fragment of hope from somewhere: that he'd be woken by someone he knew, saying that they'd checked the formula, it was obvious that the gas wasn't as good as it could have been, that the possibility for a neurotoxin was there. That they believed him. That he could help. It vanished with the first glare of fluorescent light. There was nobody here. All he could do was continue to write.
I don't know exactly how long it went on. It would have taken months even had I been co-operating fully. This was the weapon which would win the war for Spectra, and Zoltar wanted it to be perfect.
Finally he decided it was time to use his new toy. He took it to Earth, and this time fate stopped the mecha before G-Force got anywhere near it. It seems the designers of the deployment system hadn't taken into account the different composition of Earth's atmosphere. They took it out to test in some deserted airspace, and it didn't work. At all.
Zoltar had the leader of the research team at the command base shot, and only then realised he no longer had anyone on the ground capable of fixing the problem. He went himself, and took me to redesign the deployment system for him. I could figure this sort of problem faster than anyone else he had. We took one of Spectra's evader ships to Earth.
Zoltar had taken him solely because he'd been cooperative and hard-working. Nothing calculated, no deep resistance intended to get him into Zoltar's inner circle, or back to Earth. His little variations had gone undetected, and the work on the solvent and the gas was completed. He had no further outlet for covert resistance, and anything overt would mean the probe again. He couldn't do it. It would hurt too much.
Amazing things, those ships. Not very big, not very fast, no armament to speak of, useless for combat or invasion, but invisible to scanners, even Spectran ones. I didn't get to see anything of any significance. I only know they're lightly armed because I heard one of the crew complaining to another about it. They won't have known I understood them. My Spectran has improved considerably over the years. I also know, because Zoltar boasted about it to me, that they're trying to widen the parameters of the invisibility shield. The trilobite mecha had a prototype version of it.
Earth might as well have still been Spectra for all I saw of it. It was a pretty basic mistake in the deployment system; ironically, any one of a dozen Spectran engineers could have fixed it just as well as me. I fixed it. Zoltar had brought a watchdog along, and I didn't even try to delay. I was watched all the time. I never found the camera in the lab, but I knew it was there.
Don sat and fought silently for self-control, the self-loathing back in full force. He had no reason to think they'd had a camera on him. It had been convenient for him to believe it was there. It gave him an excuse not to resist, to take the easy, pain-free option.
'I had to do it. They hurt me until I did it.' That had been true in the beginning, and for a long time afterwards. That had been the basis under which he'd worked on the solvent. Two years and more of neverending hell, of doing as little as possible, of facing the torture when it inevitably came, and then dragging himself to his feet when they dumped him back in the lab and going back to do as little as possible until it happened all over again. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. That he could live with - just barely.
'I did it because I was afraid they'd hurt me if I didn't.' That was inexcusable, the cry of the coward through the ages. He'd been determined that he would never, ever let himself go there. He had - and when it happened, he hadn't even noticed.
The mecha went out again, and on its return there was much celebration, tinged with frustration. They'd attacked G-Force and come within a hair of destroying the Phoenix. Given more powerful engines, they might well have done so. Then again, the Phoenix is spaceworthy and the trilobite wasn't, not any more. It had been built and tested on Spectra, and sneaked in past Earth's early warning system weeks earlier. My new deployment system needed more room than the old one, though, and they'd had to remove something. They weren't planning on taking it back to Spectra in any case, and the high orbit boosters had seemed the logical thing to remove. Another engineer died for that decision. I was just grateful it hadn't been mine.
Zoltar called me back in for my opinion, and I told him if the mecha had more power, it would have them.
The self-control slipped beyond all recall, as Don whimpered into his hands, remembering. Zoltar had smiled slowly at him. "It's refreshing to find someone else who hates G-Force as much as I do." That had been the moment when Don died inside.
He never had hated G-Force. Didn't hate them now. It hurt beyond all reason, saying 'them' instead of 'us', but now he couldn't say anything else, couldn't even think it. He didn't deserve to. He'd realised at that moment that he'd fixed the deployment system without protest, without even being threatened. He'd worked for Spectra, freely and without coercion. He'd lost everything.
Zoltar decided to send the trilobite out again, even without extra power, and this time I guess G-Force managed to track it back to base. The very next day, Jason walked through the door of my lab.
This was getting harder to write, hard even to think about. Hopeless realisation had struck as Jason had called him defector and Don realised G-Force had come, not to rescue him, but to take him back to be judged. He'd developed a weapon for Spectra. Nothing could excuse that, ever.
Regardless of that, Don stopped writing to consider. How on earth should he explain the next part? Was it even possible that they didn't know what had been instantly obvious to him: that there was something desperately wrong with Jason? And yet - the arrogant peacock they'd given command to had made no mention of the fact he'd found his second collapsed on the floor. Understandable, maybe, not wanting to admit to a problem in front of a defector. But Jason hadn't come back onto the flight deck for the entire trip home, and the Peacock hadn't so much as gone to find out what was wrong. Could Jason's decline really have been so slow that his team-mates hadn't noticed?
He needed to set it all out for them - one thing in particular.
I'm sure Jason told you about the gun. That gun I had in the lab, filled with dummy rounds. How do you think I found out they didn't work? Not even blanks - you can do yourself serious damage with the propellant in a blank round. Zoltar must have laughed himself sick, watching me put it in my mouth - aim up, make sure I got the brain - and listen in sick numbness to the firing pin go 'click'. He left me with the gun, a permanent reminder that I couldn't even control my own death. They'd even presented me with the gun again when we arrived on Earth, after I thought I'd managed to leave it on Spectra. It was a great joke among those of Zoltar's aides in the know.
It was still on the shelf behind me. I could see the gun at Jason's hip, and no way would that one be loaded with blanks. He'd always been a crack shot, and the contempt in his face was obvious. I knew with just a little push he'd finish it for me. I reached for the revolver and turned to see him aiming, rock-steady, between my eyes. I pulled my useless gun from its holster and brought it up to aim.
I found myself looking at a blank wall. The Condor had staggered, put his hand to his head, and fired two wild shots as he collapsed to the floor. There's something horribly wrong with him, something he may be hiding from his team. I didn't lay a finger on him. He went down like he'd been poleaxed. If you ignore everything else I've written, take notice of this one, please. The Condor has a major problem, one that you have to investigate right now.
It was funny how years-old reflexes could take over at a moment's notice. Don might have been trying to provoke Jason to shoot him seconds earlier, but he'd still taken an instinctive step to help as the door slammed open. One glimpse of red and white; the next thing he knew, he was flattened against the wall, arm twisted painfully behind his back and his jaw throbbing agony. Eating still hurt, even now, even the mush he was given. The man had a punch like a sledgehammer.
Jason got to his feet as my captor, the G-Force commander himself, told me exactly what he thought of me. Then the gas poured into the room as Zoltar told me he was leaving me there. The Condor and the Eagle extracted me from the base rather than abandon me to die, and the Phoenix picked us up.
He'd been let go for just long enough to let Don believe he might breathe enough gas in to finish it. The nerve agent would have done the trick. Don's patent yellow version wasn't nearly toxic enough. Commander Arrogant Bastard hauled him to his feet again - he had the feeling the Peacock could and would carry him out one-handed if he didn't cooperate - and five minutes later he got his greatest wish. Rescue from his Spectran captors by G-Force.
Some rescue. He'd been frogmarched back onto the ship he'd loved, and dumped unceremoniously on the floor. Don had no idea why that man was in command. He didn't have an ounce of Jason's style, and as for empathy... Don hadn't seen Jason in over two years and even he could tell that something was horribly wrong with him. His commanding officer never once asked if he was OK. Didn't go to see why he hadn't come back onto the flight deck. At the time, Don had barely thought about it. In the intervening days, he'd had plenty of time to consider. He simply couldn't believe that any team could function like that - and yet, this was G-Force, scourge of Spectra and her allies throughout the galaxy.
The Phoenix - well, it hadn't changed that much. One extra chair. A way more sophisticated radar system than anything Don had seen before, even on a Spectran ship. He guessed that was how they'd managed to track the trilobite back to base. A load of extra screens and controls at Jason's console - so the Spectran rumours that he was the gunner were right. Everything else looked just as he remembered, except that the man giving the orders wasn't Jason, and the fifth chair was occupied by a child in birdstyle even more garish than the Peacock's, who looked at him like he was dirt. The Peacock had snarled at him to stay put, and then walked calmly to the co-pilot's chair and sat down like he owned it. Nobody else had even twitched. That front right chair wasn't Don's any more, hadn't been for a long time in anyone's mind except his own.
The Swan had turned towards him as they'd come in - that different, startlingly white Swan - and his mind had gone blank as he'd recognised the face behind the visor. She should have been dead. She'd been on the list he'd been shown, all those who'd been killed on Mars, two years earlier - and he'd given her name to Spectra then as his team-mate. He'd betrayed her too. Only later had he realised that she had to be using a different name. If she was still Kate Harmon, Spectra would have found her by now. He wondered what she was called now. He'd probably never know.
And then there had been the viewscreen. Don hadn't seen the sky in over two years. He'd welcomed it in pure optimism, knowing he'd see the clear blue sky of freedom which he'd fantasised about throughout his captivity. It had been clear and blue alright. Holding the potential menace of a possible Spectran ship just beyond the field of vision, or just behind a cloud. No shelter. No protection. Nowhere to hide. Don had gasped in raw, disbelieving misery and then stared desperately at the floor, fighting not to panic. That treacherous screen was just a wall, just a moving picture. He was still inside, safe from the terrifying openness of the outside world.
He hadn't dared look up for the whole flight home. He hadn't seen a viewscreen or a window since. The worst of it was that he still craved it, desperately. Every reflex, every memory he had screamed for open air, space, freedom - and then he remembered that awful sick feeling of exposure and wanted nothing more than to stay within four safe walls deep underground, where he'd been ever since they'd landed back at ISO.
I would have talked there and then; told G-Force everything I thought might be useful, answered any questions they cared to ask. They made it perfectly clear they had no interest in me, and that I'd regret any attempt to speak. I stayed silent.
Don had wanted to talk, so badly. Wanted to tell them how sorry he was. To explain what had happened. To ask what had happened to them, how they'd destroyed that first Spectran ship in an unarmed Phoenix. To ask why Jason wasn't in command any more. Just to talk to another human. Even one who reviled him for what he'd done. He'd waited patiently, trusting that he'd be brought before Anderson when they landed.
Anderson wouldn't have understood, but he would have listened. That was all Don had wanted, all he wanted now. Just an ear. Someone who would know to put on his record that he'd been unable to resist Spectran torture, rather than that he'd defected willingly. He'd never seen Anderson. Only Grant.
Major Grant. The icy English bastard in charge down here. He'd made it perfectly clear he had no interest in why Don had acted as he did. With Grant, there were no excuses; no extenuating circumstances. Black or white. Right or wrong. Good or bad. Loyal or defector. There was no question of which side of Grant's line he fell. No chance of redemption or forgiveness. Grant couldn't care less whether or how Don had been tortured, only what he'd told the Spectrans and what he'd done for them. Motivation was irrelevant. Pain and despair were irrelevant. Don had cooperated, therefore he was a traitor. For the first time, Don had thought to himself, 'this isn't fair,' and then he'd hated himself even more. It was entirely fair. It was all he deserved, now and forever.
And Grant had made it entirely clear why he deserved it. What the consequences had been of his failure to resist. Five men dead, four of them fathers, all of them civilians. Pilots like him, out enjoying a perfect day's flying.
I'm so sorry. I'm told that five pilots died when the trilobite mecha bombed their planes in the final test of my fix to the delivery system. I never considered that might happen. I thought Zoltar would go right out after the Phoenix, maybe take out a few of those ISO robot planes to get their attention first. Instead, he went after a bunch of unarmed single-seaters.
Don had killed those people. He'd created the solvent under duress, but he'd fixed the delivery system without Zoltar having to raise a finger against him, or even threaten to do so. Nothing could excuse that. Nothing could bring those men back to their families. How could he even consider hoping that he might one day go back to his?
I take full responsibility for their deaths. I have no excuse.
He meant it. Full responsibility. He'd give everything he owned or ever would to their dependents, go and apologise in person to the families, tell them exactly what he had done and why. Just - please let him talk to someone, let him have some interaction. He was starting to doubt his own senses. He kept glancing up, sure he'd heard footsteps or seen the shadow of someone outside the bars. There never was anyone there.
I never saw much when I was on Spectra. I was locked up the whole time, and they were wary of talking in my presence, even when speaking Spectran. But I know the location of Zoltar's headquarters. It's a castle on the coast of the western continent, just north of the fifth parallel. I've shown Grant where it is on the maps.
Grant hadn't reacted, but the others weren't as emotionless as he was, and they seemed interested. Very interested. They'd pushed for every detail he had, kept pushing long after he'd told them everything. Don had almost dared to hope that this would make a difference to his treatment. That they'd realise that his loyalties still lay with ISO and Earth, regardless of what he'd been forced to do. Regardless of the awful thing he'd done without being forced.
I've only been there once and I didn't get to see the exterior, but its location was marked on the map in Zoltar's office. He doesn't know I read Spectran, to a certain extent, anyway. I made certain to memorise the location without showing any overt interest. He won't be expecting an attack there. He thinks it's a secret.
His treatment had indeed changed. Grant had gathered his notes together, informed Don icily that he'd better be telling the truth, and returned him to his cell. He hadn't seen a soul in the days since. He was so very lonely now. Only the replenished food tray told him that he hadn't been abandoned down here. He dreaded waking up and finding it untouched.
He had nothing left to give them, nothing else to write. Don felt the heaviness creeping in behind his eyes, and fought it back. They'd read everything he'd written and know it was all he had, and then they'd take the writing materials away and leave him utterly alone again, forever. The illusion of interaction was all he had left. He had to stay awake, to preserve it just a little longer.
Todd Sanderson waited five minutes after he was sure that the prisoner was deep in his drugged sleep before entering the cell. The pad was relatively easy to extricate from the protectively encircling arm. The pencil was another matter, clutched in a desperate grip. Todd considered a moment, then decided it didn't matter. He took the pad to photocopy the new pages in a now familiar routine, returned it to the cell and put it down next to the new food tray.
Behind him, the prisoner whimpered.
Todd froze. He had been sure that Wade was deep asleep, and the protocols called for him to be in strict isolation - no contact, no sight of security personnel. He dared a glance over his shoulder, without moving enough to make any noise. Wade was sitting bolt upright, eyes wide and unseeing, face haunted. Looking right at him, but seeing someone else.
"Jason - I'm sorry. I never wanted to help them."
Todd resisted the urge to bolt. He'd seen the Condor out of birdstyle, and there was no way anyone could confuse the two of them - much to Todd's regret. He could have used the extra four inches in height. Wade had to be dreaming, and the worst thing he could do now was to move suddenly and wake him up while he, Todd, was still in the cell.
"Zoltar hurt me so bad I couldn't fight any longer. I didn't choose to be a traitor. Unless you've had someone hurt you like that, day in, day out, with no hope of it stopping, you can't understand." There was a desperate sob from the bed. "You don't understand, do you? Please, Jason, just take it and read it. I don't know what you're doing down here, but you have to get out before someone finds you. Just go."
Todd fought with his conscience. This man was so great a traitor he didn't merit due process, didn't get a lawyer or a trial or any rights at all, and the help he dreamed about came in the person of the Condor? Something was wrong.
This man wasn't a defector. He was a torture victim. He needed Todd's help.
It wasn't his concern. This man was a traitor. He had to stick to the protocols, and report this to Grant in the morning.
The writing materials were still there when Don woke, which was a relief since he'd remembered that there was something else he should say. Something which he desperately hoped might help him.
Zoltar doesn't know G-Force's real names - not from me, at any rate. He did ask, of course. He figured since I'd told them my real name right at the start that there was no way I didn't know theirs. I didn't tell him early on, but that was relatively easy, I just refused. After they started with the probe I knew I had to figure something out. They have good lie detectors, and I knew once they thought to ask for names again that I would tell them, no matter how much I wanted not to.
I prepared my story in advance. There had been just two of us on the Phoenix: myself and my commander. Earth's star jump-pilot, someone I knew was dead, who my lies couldn't hurt. Adam Tring. I hoped it was enough of the truth that I could get past their lie detectors - Tring was my commanding officer briefly, and looking at the media hype you'd certainly have expected him to be commander of G-Force. They believed me.
Jason would have hated it. If he'd found out that the reason Spectra didn't have his identity was because they thought he was Tring - arrogant, self-centred jerk - he'd have gone spare. Don smiled ruefully. That would have earned him the thrashing of his life round the gym.
Right now he'd give anything for a sparring match with Jason. Even one which would hurt that much.
The only problem was that they had radio comms with a female voice on. I hadn't been prepared for that. They had. They had the list of those killed on Mars, and their logic went that if both I and Adam Tring were on it reported as dead, the third voice would be too. They hooked me back up to the lie detectors, gave me the list, and asked me which of them was my teammate. I knew I couldn't fake it. Fortunately I didn't need to. Her name was there. I told them who she was.
Princess's name. Not Tiny's, not Jason's. Just Princess's real name: Kate Harmon. And his. This wasn't an ISO coverup, or all four of them would have been on it. She was really dead, and they believed that he was, too. He hadn't needed to fake anything. He'd simply told them that Kate Harmon had been the third crew member, turned his head aside, and wept.
Don stopped and wiped his eyes. That really was all of it. Two years and more of hell, detailed on a few sheets of paper.
He started to read what he'd written, carried on, got to the end. It left him cold. A clinical, scientific description. Nobody who read it was going to see it as anything other than an attempt to retrofit excuses for what he had done.
He had no idea how to write in any other way. In any case, it was too late to start over. He was sure they'd been reading it each time he slept. He'd told himself it should be a factual record of what had happened, but now all he wanted was to wail for help. He wanted someone to talk to. He wanted a comfortable bed, something to read, something to work on. He wanted something to eat which had some taste and texture and which wasn't full of drugs. He wanted someone to ease the tension in his neck and shoulders, and relief from the continuous low-level misery emanating from the implant.
He wanted someone to understand. He wanted a second chance.
He drew a line under the end of his confession, closed the pad, and laid it carefully on the floor with the pencil on top.
Ten minutes later even this much courage failed him. He couldn't bear it. It couldn't be over. He had to ask, even though he knew it was useless. Hating himself for being unable to accept the fate he deserved, he picked the pad and pencil up again and turned to a blank page. Trembling so much he could hardly write, he scribbled three words before replacing the pad. The pencil he kept.
Please help me.
Todd watched as the prisoner's miserable shaking finally relaxed into drugged sleep. He didn't know what to do. He'd sent his report off to Grant at the end of his previous shift, and got back a terse email reply. 'Good.'
Good what? Good report? Good progress for a new recruit? Or good that Wade was falling apart so badly that he was hallucinating?
He'd read the last installment himself and been horrified. The man in the cell had been responsible for the dreadful scenes which had been shown over and over again on the news. Only a couple of days ago there had been a joint funeral for three of the pilots killed - friends since high school. There had been five little children there, dressed in black and clinging to their mothers' hands. He'd thought at the time that the bastard who did that deserved anything he got. And yet - here he was, locked away for good, and all Todd could think was that he deserved to at least have his side of the story heard. A lawyer, and a doctor who did more than just glance at him while he was asleep and authorise more drugs.
Why would someone who was working for Spectra be concerned for the Condor's health? There were wild rumours flying around the high security section of ISO that there was something wrong with G-2, and indeed the last time Todd had seen him out of birdstyle he'd looked very white. Wade, though, hadn't seen him in weeks. The Condor had gone on at least one mission since then. What had Wade seen back then that everyone else had missed?
Todd collected the new food tray and regarded it unenthusiastically. He wouldn't have fed it to a dog. He was sure it was perfectly nutritious, but he'd never seen anything less appetising described as food.
There was a pack of sandwiches in his pocket which he wasn't going to eat. Ham and mustard. They were only going in the bin.
He couldn't. It would be on the monitor recording, and Grant would see. He'd lose his job.
He'd been watching Wade on the monitors ever since his imprisonment. Wade hadn't mentioned Spectra once. Hadn't begged for release, hadn't shouted that his masters would save him. He'd hallucinated help, and all he'd done was to apologise and send his vision away lest he get into trouble. And ask him to read his account.
Todd forced himself to stop thinking, and took the new food tray into the cell. Wade's face was tear-streaked, and his hand was again tight round the pencil, though the pad was on the floor. Todd returned with it to the guardroom to copy as usual.
Only half a page this time, and a line under it. He'd finished.
Todd turned to the start of the pad, and read everything that was in there. Then he read it again. The second time through, he noticed the three words after the final page of text.
He couldn't do this any longer. He'd worked so hard to get this posting, but Grant had been right. He wasn't comfortable with this assignment, and Grant should have reassigned him days ago. Now his conscience was telling him to do something which would land him in a cell just like this one. He had to get out of here.
He picked up the phone and dialled the first digit of the number to call for relief, then stopped and put it down again. How would running away make things any better? If he was going to help this man, he had to do something before he quit. Resign now, and all that happened would be that a different guard would be watching over the disintegration of a human being. He couldn't live with that any more than he could live with doing it himself.
Todd made his decision. A second copy of the entire document was soon in his inside coat pocket. He considered who it should go to - a human rights lawyer? A senator? The media? No - there was confidential information in there which Wade had fought for two years to keep out of Spectran hands, which could identify several members of G-Force. Making it public would be inexcusable. He'd give it to the person who Wade had wanted to read it.
He put the pad back, just as he had done every other time, locked the cell and returned to the guardroom. Half an hour remaining of his shift. He'd carry on as usual, hand over to his relief, and on his way out he'd take the elevator up one extra floor. He wasn't really supposed to go that far, but it was by convention rather than an official rule. Nobody would notice or care. An envelope under the door of the Condor's quarters, a request for transfer to his superiors, and his high security career would be over.