"Sixty-three," the instructor intoned, handing out the first scoresheet. "Thirty-seven - see me for an extra practise schedule. Fifty-two - that's an improvement, keep it up. Seventy-eight. Seventy-six. Eighty-one. Ninety-four - congratulations, Mr North. Forty-two..."
"Gee, Dylan, you missed six," a voice muttered from behind him.
"Aw, leave the kid alone."
Dylan recognised both the voices, and the friendly humour behind it. Even if he did suspect there was more than a hint of jealousy deep down."
"...Sixty-three. That's all, folks. Mid-year interviews are tomorrow. Times are posted in the usual place. I'll see you again in the new year."
Whatever else he might have had to say was lost in the upwelling of slightly nervous, pretending to be excited, student babble. Dylan didn't join in. Ninety-four percent on this term's weapons course was, he was fairly sure, a high enough mark to pass the whole year. He could always improve, though. Tim might have teased him about missing six, but he was fully aware of where those six points had gone, and what he thought he'd done wrong each time.
"Interviews? Brrr. Who'll they give us this time?" said a voice behind him.
Dylan started to pay attention. "Won't they tell us beforehand?"
"Hell, no, not in senior year. Not even in junior. Last time it was Anderson himself, can you believe it? I nearly died!"
"You nearly died? I walked in there, and Phillips turned to him and said 'Mr Zimmerman has a fairly good grasp of the basic principles.' Man, I wanted the floor to open up."
"Made you work though, hasn't it?" Callen teased him
"Yeah." Tim thumped Dylan cheerfully between the shoulderblades. "Much good it's done me, though, since Wonder Boy joined us."
"All he needs to do now is grow!" another cadet chimed in.
"He's too busy achieving to grow!"
"Enough, already!" Callen James, general class peacemaker and organiser, raised her voice, and as usual everyone fell into line. "He said interview times are up. Doesn't anyone else want to know how long they have to be nervous for tomorrow?"
Tim groaned. "No."
"I do." Dylan followed the crowd of older students which was drifting really quite determinedly towards the door. He'd been double-promoted at the start of the year, right from sophomore to senior. He'd been more than ready for it - but this put him in his final year at the ISO Academy at barely sixteen, still with no real idea what he was going to do when he graduated. Even if one of the active security teams would have taken a sixteen-year-old, he didn't fulfil the height requirements for an active security officer - not a male one, anyway. Barely five foot six, Dylan hadn't been considered particularly short for a child growing up in rural North Wales. Here in the USA, most of his male classmates overtopped him by six inches or more. Tim, eighteen and six foot three, was well into the 'more' end of the spectrum.
"Dunno why I bother checking," Tim grumbled as they finally made their way to the front of the group. "I'm always the last interview of the day regardless."
"Deed-poll?" joked Dylan, scanning the central sheet for 'North'. "You could change your name. I recommend Aardvark."
"Yech. 'Tim Aardvark'. I think I'll stick with Zimmerman. Say, Dylan, they seem to have redefined the alphabet. You're down this end."
Dylan grinned. "Someone forgot to add the new kid to the class list?" It didn't matter to him. He noted the time, the room, and a complete lack of any information as to who the interview was actually with, and headed back to abandon his class notes in his room.
He felt very differently by the end of the following afternoon. Nobody would tell him who the interviewer was - apparently this was a final-year tradition, giving the late-alphabet folks the same shock as the As. It was all too clear that none of them had considered it a fun experience, though. Callen had still been a bizarre mixture of pale and flushed when he'd seen her earlier, and there wasn't much - he'd have said nothing - that flustered her. That was the point at which he'd gone back and polished his shoes again. The clock had crawled ever since. He'd shown five minutes earlier than the advised 'ten minutes in advance' for his interview time, and those fifteen minutes had lasted about a week.
Tim came out, as white as Dylan had ever seen him, and with barely enough composure to give him an encouraging thumbs-up, and the time for waiting was over. Dylan steeled himself, tugged the jacket of his uniform down to remove imaginary wrinkles, put his shoulders back, made a valiant effort to grow two inches, and marched into the interview room. He stopped at the desk and threw his most immaculate salute.
"Cadet North reporting as instructed."
"Very good, Cadet," the large, exceptionally blond man in the commander's uniform sitting on the left said. "Now, if you wouldn't mind closing the door..."
Dylan tried and failed to remember the parade ground version of how to do it correctly. The penultimate year at the Academy, the one they'd promoted him straight past, was the one where such things were learnt and drilled until they were second nature. He knew them, but those months of practice just weren't there. The correct form deserted him. So much for making a good impression. If they'd had 'ceremonial guard' on the list of things he might be suited for - most unlikely, given his lack of inches - he could see it fading by the second as he returned to the door, shut it with more of a bang than he'd intended, came back to the desk and returned to standing at attention, hoping it wasn't visible that his knees were trembling.
The other man behind the desk was Major Grant. Dylan had never met him, but his reputation preceded him. 'Only' a major, but this man was Anderson's deputy, was rumoured to run the security within black section itself. Even G-Force had to jump when he told them to. Grant was doing mid-year interviews? And who was the blond man? He didn't command any of the leading security teams, Dylan was sure of it.
"Sit down, please," the blond man said after what seemed like a ridiculously long wait. "I am Commander Nykinnen, and this is Major Grant."
"Thank you, sir." Dylan determinedly didn't glance at either of them as he pulled the chair out from where Tim must have left it, millimetre-perfect against the desk. He sat, back ramrod-straight, eyes forward, and waited.
"At ease, cadet." There was humour in Nykinnen's tone, and Dylan finally relaxed somewhat and allowed himself to make eye contact with his interviewers. What now? Was he supposed to say something? If he was, he had no idea what. He had introduced himself, hadn't he? Yes, he was sure of it.
"Have you ever seen a black section clearance form?" Grant asked him.
"Do you want to?"
Dylan tried and failed to parse the question. Did he want to see a form? Would he sign a form? Did he think he was black section material? He didn't know what answer they expected - but they clearly did expect one. No rhetorical questions here. He settled on something non-specific.
"Sir. Everyone wants to work in black section, sir."
"You didn't answer the question."
Damn. "I hope to be good enough some day to be offered the chance." No, idiot. 'To some day be offered the chance'. Even his grammar was deserting him.
Nykinnen smiled. "And what do you think of Team Seven?"
Team Seven? Nykinnen was Team Seven? Well, that explained why he'd never heard of him. Team Seven was the dumping-ground, the place people went who couldn't get a real posting. Not somewhere you looked to be going if you hoped to graduate top of your class, or at the very least in the top five. Dylan contemplated flattery, and decided that with Grant there honesty was his only option.
"I'd not considered it, sir. I'm hoping for a more active posting." Team Three was what he wanted, the ISO fighter pilot wing - but that was still a far-off dream and was based on him having time to put in hours of simulator practise next semester to turn talent into skill. He wasn't ready to tell anyone about that one yet.
Grant simply recovered a document from his briefcase, reached across the desk, and slapped it down in front of him. Dylan was two sentences in before realisation hit.
"Sir - I thought all official ISO USA documents were in English."
"This one is required to be in your native tongue," Grant said in a tone which could have cut glass. "Your declaration of Welsh as your first language was really rather inconvenient."
Dylan gulped, and applied himself to reading it. Truth be told, and as Grant had doubtless guessed, he was bilingual - but stubbornness, and loyalty to the wild North Wales coastline where he had grown up (English great-grandfather and surname notwithstanding) kept the Welsh first. He'd have said as much to Nykinnen. Grant's English accent guaranteed that Dylan didn't explain it to him, even without his reputation.
He had to presume this was the real thing. Certainly the penalty clauses were impressive. Violating this was not something you'd do lightly. Or, indeed, ever. So was this what had so unnerved his fellow students? Clause seventeen said he couldn't even ask. You didn't even have to sign this document to be subject to some of its provisions, apparently. You might not discuss having been asked to sign it, regardless of whether you actually did. Dylan wondered briefly whether such a condition was even legal, then decided he simply didn't want to know. Or, that there were other things he wanted to know more.
"Sirs - can I ask a question?"
"Of course," Nykinnen told him.
"Why are you asking me to sign this?"
Grant's eyebrows went up to the point where they were in danger of merging with his somewhat receding hairline. "Do you always ask your superior officers to explain their decisions?"
"Then why are you asking now?"
Dylan took a deep breath and hoped his grammar would behave better this time. "Sir - because the only consequence would appear to be to me personally."
"Good answer, Cadet." Grant sat forward, piercing pale eyes threatening to bore right through Dylan's skull. "This discussion would be covered by Clause Seventeen."
"I understand, sir."
"Your initial test results, on entry to the Academy, were interesting in a number of respects. This is not unusual. They have stayed interesting. This is more unusual. In such cases, we take candidates who have successfully graduated and carry out some additional tests inside black section."
Dylan stared. "I haven't graduated yet, sir."
"Yes, you have," Nykinnen told him. "Barely. If you choose to take your credits now, rather than stay on for your final half-year. I believe you would be the youngest person to do so, by some way."
"Now, my time is short," Grant put in. "You can sign the document and come with me now, or you can make a decision later."
"If I sign now, is that it? I'm graduated?"
Nykinnen's smile was reassuring - Dylan was starting to wonder if he was here solely to keep Grant from reducing the entire class to gibbering wrecks. "No, Cadet. You have a very good chance of graduating head of your class in June, if you stay on. We won't ask you to make that decision in five minutes."
That said, there was no option. If he wasn't capable of keeping his mouth shut about security matters, he'd make a lousy security officer of any type. And - asking him what he thought of Team Seven? That wasn't what he had in mind at all. No, if they were prepared to give him black section clearance, what harm could it do? And maybe it would open some doors for him. Dylan turned back to the first page of the document and scrawled his signature and the date before handing it back to Grant.
"Sir, I'm very flattered. I have been hoping to graduate top of the class. But if there's something more important I can do, then I would do it."
"Very good, Cadet." Grant put the document back into his briefcase, clicked the locks shut one after the other, and stood up. "Follow me."
Grant didn't so much as speak to him on the way through the maze of corridors that was ISO. Eventually, he stopped at an elevator, motioned Dylan inside, and only after the doors were shut he inserted a card into a slot, rapidly typed in a four or five digit code, and placed his palm flat on the communicator screen. Biometrics, codes and hardware. This wasn't somewhere you walked into by accident.
The elevator went up maybe two floors, stopped and the doors opened. Dylan took a deep breath and followed Grant out.
Black section was just like everywhere else. Same white walls. Same grey carpet. Same light fittings, even. The guardpost in front of him was exactly the same as those at every entrance into the building, except that the woman behind the screen was a captain doing what would normally be a job assigned to a much lower ranking officer. And the coloured stripe which every wall in every restricted area in the building carried, two inches wide and four feet from the floor was, unsurprisingly, black. Dylan wasn't normally allowed anywhere other than the white of the Academy and student recreational and accommodation areas. The warning on the completely unmissable sign right in front of the elevator doors left him in no doubt whatsoever that black section did not encourage casual visitors.
"Major," the captain greeted Grant as he handed across the paperwork Dylan had signed. "What type of pass do you want for him?"
"Indeterminate term, accompanied, no re-entry."
"Of course. Look this way please, Cadet."
Dylan did as instructed, and shortly found himself the owner of a photo-badge on which he looked very nearly as shell-shocked as he felt.
"Don't try to go anywhere on your own," Grant told him, as if the notice hadn't been entirely explicit on that point. "My security team will not hesitate to take down someone acting beyond their clearance."
"No, sir." Dylan followed him out of the entrance lobby, past a tall, powerfully built and visibly armed security officer who very deliberately cast an eye over his badge, and down another corridor. At the end, a set of swing doors, and then yet another corridor. This place was far from small.
It was only half way down this last corridor that Dylan realised that the doors had labels. Cursing himself, he promptly started to read every one. 'Briefing room two' was followed by a nice prosaic bathroom, followed by "Security one." The next door was marked "Simulator room", and here Grant stopped.
"Simulators, sir?" he ventured.
"Indeed." Grant opened the door, and Dylan followed him in, stopped in the centre of the room, and stared.
He'd never seen a room so completely full of electronics. Not, admittedly, a very large room, but still, it was more than impressive. Every wall was side-by-side consoles, helmets lying on the surfaces. Dylan recognised a couple of them as neural interface flight simulators similar to those that he'd used. One of them was in use, a young woman in the pilot's seat, a tall, heavily built young man perched on the observer's stool behind her. Both wore neural interface helmets linked by a slave cable, and the screen showed steep, rocky terrain through which they were flying at impressive speed.
That wasn't Grant's objective, though. He'd headed over to the opposite wall, to a much older machine reminiscent of something from a games arcade. "Do you remember this?"
"No, sir," Dylan was forced to admit. "At least - I've had a lot of console-based tests. I don't know which one this would have been."
Grant made a sound very close to a snort of derision and flicked a switch on the side of the machine. "And now?"
A black screen, and nine coloured dots wandering randomly about. Oh yes, he remembered this one, and its friends, from the tests he'd had on entrance to the Academy, and at the end of each year since. They were advertised as coordination tests. He'd thought them entirely pointless. This was the reason he was here? Surely not.
"I remember it now, sir."
Grant gestured him into the seat. "Please."
Nothing like being well-prepared... Dylan put on the helmet - he was remembering it all too well now, a horrible torture device with spring-loaded pressure points at temples and nape of neck - and tried to remember what, precisely, this test had involved. Circles, that was it. Circles. And never any instructions beyond that. He sat down and eased his hands into the equally uncomfortable control gloves. Now, what had been the trick to getting the wretched things to circle? As far as he could remember, he'd never found anything that worked reliably. Nothing better than thinking nice circular thoughts and hoping.
He had four of the spots all circling the centre point when he became aware of a conversation going on behind him.
"So who's this then, Major?"
"Academy student." That was Grant's voice. "As you can see, the potential's there. Would you like to put him through his paces, Commander?"
Commander? There couldn't be that many people inside black section with that rank - Grant was a major, Ivanov a colonel, and Anderson, the section head, had the slightly strange designation of Security Chief. Nykinnen was a commander, but Team Seven weren't based in black section, and besides, that wasn't his voice. Dylan balked at even thinking through who the obvious candidates were, lost his concentration entirely, and all four spots promptly wandered off to do their own thing.
"Take a break, Cadet," Grant ordered, and Dylan wasted no time in stripping off helmet and gloves and rubbing his hands uncomfortably together.
The second man snorted. "Our next great hope? Sure, I'll see what I can do."
Dylan swung round, curiosity getting the better of him, and found himself faced with a man not so very much older than he was, certainly no more than early twenties. Shoulder-length chestnut hair, grey-blue eyes, one of the most piercing gazes Dylan had ever encountered. Tall, too. Dylan was very glad to be sitting down. This man had the best part of a head in height over him. And his build - he wasn't particularly broad-shouldered, or extravagantly muscled, but Dylan knew a fighter when he saw one.
The accent was broad Australian. G-Force gave interviews on TV - just occasionally - and all of them were bland middle-American as far as he could tell. But - assumed accents? What were the chances of all five of ISO's crack team having the same accent, really? Nil. Dylan had done his research on the early days of the war, and ISO had recruited from all over. He even remembered the advertisements for one of their early selection camps, before the war had become public, when ISO had been all about space exploration. He'd been utterly devastated to be too young to be considered. So he'd never thought that they were all necessarily American - though it was was a theory that he kept to himself on this side of the Atlantic.
Voice pitch was harder to change than accent. Physical build, harder still, and height near impossible. Looking closely, the jawline matched one person in particular, and the communicator bracelet on the left wrist was more than recognisable. Unless he was very much mistaken, this was the man who'd taken over as G-1 when the Eagle was assigned elsewhere. Dylan was on his feet, very glad to be in formal uniform, throwing his second immaculate salute of the day, before he'd fully processed the fact that he was to be assessed by the new commander of G-Force.
"Lose the salute," the Condor told him. "What's your name?"
"Cadet North, D. Sir."
"Let's try this again. I'm Jason. What's your name?"
"Dylan," he managed, eyes still on the other's left wrist. God, the questions he'd like to ask. Starting with the one on everyone's mind - just where was the Eagle these days? What could he be doing that was more important than commanding G-Force?
"And how many of those lights can you make circle?"
"Four," he admitted. "Maybe more, with practice. I still haven't really figured out how the controls work."
"Forget the controls." Jason reached out a long arm and prodded the helmet. "It's all coming from in there."
Dylan stared. "Mental control?"
"EEG sensors in the helmet." Jason pushed it towards him. "This is all you need. The controls do nothing. Just think about making circles."
The helmet wasn't any more comfortable the second time round. And while Grant had, thankfully, made himself scarce, being watched by the Condor was far worse. Just think about making circles. He could think about them all he wanted. It wasn't happening. The gloves might be irrelevant, the controls do nothing, but he still needed them to focus.
"Did you listen to a word I said?"
"Leave him, Jason," a female voice put in, this one with an English accent. "It's not easy. Let him do it his way."
Thanking goodness for her intervention, Dylan eased his hands back into the gloves and focused on the spots. Just make circles. Anticlockwise. Round...and round...and round... The white one was easy, the yellow following quickly behind. Then orange, red, purple, blue and on through the spectrum, until all nine dots were tracing the same three inch diameter circle in the centre of the screen.
"Make it bigger," a voice said in his ear.
Dylan jumped and nearly lost it, but managed to regain his concentration just in time to prevent the green dot from wandering out of its orbit. Bigger. Would that mean speeding up or slowing down? A tentative attempt to slow down saw the dots waver and begin to lose coherence. That wasn't right. Speed up, then. Like a slingshot, letting the strings lengthen while at the same time spinning faster and faster...
It started to work. And then everything got out of sync, the spinning wasn't even, the green spot moved out of the circle much faster than he'd intended, and in trying to get it back he lost three of the others beyond recovery. His head whirled, and suddenly all he could see was dancing lights.
"Easy, there." That was a third, male, American voice, and a steadying hand, as Dylan stripped the helmet off and hoped for the world to stop spinning. Only when it had settled did he turn to see how many watchers he had now.
"Not bad," G-1 said.
"Not bad? Jase, he's not implanted - that's downright amazing!" the young woman exclaimed.
Dylan let his gaze drop to her wrist. Yup - the same communicator bracelet was on the left wrist of each of the newcomers, who were the people he'd seen earlier on the flight simulator.
"Like I said, Not bad." G-1 - Jason - looked him up and down. "What else can you do? Fly? Drive? Fight?"
"Um - in your terms, sir, none of them. In Academy terms, I can fly and I can fight."
"You're in here now. Flight simulator first, or sparring match?"
Dylan gulped, quite sure that he was reacting exactly as the Condor expected, but unsure what else to do. Overconfidence had to be wrong - and who, precisely, did they plan on having him spar with? - but was false modesty any better? What he had said was true. He might be an easy six inches shorter than many of his fellow students, but there wasn't one of them that could get the better of him physically.
"Sir, I can't spar dressed like this."
"You need time to get changed before someone attacks you?"
"No, sir." Dylan flushed - he was being manipulated, he was sure of it. "Just - I'd rather not trash my one formal uniform. Major Grant brought me here right out of what I was expecting to be a mid-year interview."
"Did he now? Maybe he has a sense of humour after all. We can --" and all three of them froze, as the lights dimmed and a siren went off. "Damn."
They were out of the door before Dylan even thought that this meant that he was on his own in black section. From what Grant had implied, liable to be shot if he set foot outside the door. Not that he'd have dared call any of them back, even if he had realised before they'd gone.
Fortunately it was the same captain on the reception desk when he used the intercom to explain his problem. She assured him that someone would come for him - he could almost hear her 'so leave me alone, I'm doing something important here' - and broke the connection.
Dylan sat back down in the simulator chair and considered the screen. What now? Practice? He'd have liked to - but he was in here alone. He wasn't at all sure where firing up the machine without supervision would come, compared with going anywhere on his own. Not worth the risk, in his opinion. If this was considered to be lack of initiative, well, that was too bad.
Twenty minutes later, the door swung open. Dylan was on his feet instantly, hands out in his best non-threatening posture.
"Dylan North?" This voice had a distinct Russian accent.
The other laughed. "Nobody calls me 'sir'! I am Dimitri Andianov. I understand you are our latest trainee candidate."
"You understand more than I do, then," Dylan told him, letting his hands drop and relieved beyond measure to see someone who wasn't here to tear strips off him for doing the wrong thing. "Major Grant brought me in here to clear up some anomalous test results."
"Test results? For that machine?" He pointed to the one that Dylan had been sitting at.
"If you can work that one, you're a jump-pilot. That's very rare. They didn't tell you?"
"They didn't tell me anything." Dylan fought hard to keep his voice level and not show his exasperation.
"I had heard that there was an Academy student with potential." Dimitri frowned. "I have been asked to collect you, but Major Grant was called to the control room before he could be more specific. We will not disturb him there, I think."
"Maybe I should just go."
"I think not. You are in here now. I think you should stay until a decision is made."
"But...where? I've nowhere to go, and you must have better things to do than mind me..." Dylan's voice trailed off as he saw the bracelet on the other's wrist. "Dimitri - I'm sorry - are you the Eagle?"
The other froze, just briefly, and his laugh seemed forced. "Me? No. I am, or I will be if Force Two ever is formed, the Osprey, and I have very little to do at the moment. For now I think that I will take you to Medical. Dr Johnson may know what Major Grant's intentions were."
Dylan followed Dimitri, who was a similar height to the Condor but considerably broader, back through the corridors, now looking subtly different in the reddish glow of the alert lights. This time he took more note of the doors. Nothing amazing, though. Training rooms, briefing rooms, storerooms, offices. Nothing marked 'this way to the Phoenix,' or 'G-Force ready room'. He guessed that even black section had some areas that were more public than others.
The door at the far end of the corridor beyond the entrance lobby was marked 'Medical'.
Dimitri held it open for him, then followed him inside. "Doctor?"
"Is there a problem?" The older, bespectacled man gave Dylan a glance which went from face to badge and back to his face. "Ah. You'd be Dylan, then. I'm Chris Johnson, head of black section medical. How far did the major get with you before the alarm went off?"
"Not very," Dylan admitted. "He had me try a simulator, left the Condor to put me through my paces and then the alarm went off."
Left the Condor to put me through my paces. Saying it was unreal. And brought home only too well that he might have missed his chance. Damn. Why would they remember him? Regardless of what Dimitri had said, G-1 hadn't seemed much impressed. G-2 had been encouraging and polite, but he'd had the strong impression she'd have been that no matter how hopeless he'd been.
The doctor considered him. "There's nothing I can do until Major Grant has finished his assessment - and I'll be honest, that's not going to happen while G-Force are on mission, and they could be gone a while. I'm going to recommend you go back to wherever you are normally, and wait for Grant to contact you again."
Dylan swallowed unhappily. "Don't call us, we'll call you?"
"It was the jump-simulator," Dimitri said. "Grant will call you."
"I'm sure he will," the doctor added. "I presume I don't need to remind you what you signed to get in here?"
"In that case, Dimitri, if you'd escort Cadet North out of black section? I hope to be seeing you again in the near future, young man."
"So do I, sir." Dylan wasn't sure whether to salute or not. He did so anyway, earning what he hoped was an indulgent smile from the doctor, and then followed Dimitri back to the desk where he handed over his pass.
"I am quite sure I will be seeing you again," Dimitri said as Dylan stepped into the elevator.
I wish I could believe it. Dylan simply said, "I hope so too," and as the elevator doors closed he finally let his shoulders sag, following it up by slamming one fist into the other palm. He didn't think he'd ever been so frustrated. He'd been right there with them as the sirens went off and the alert lights came on. What had he expected? 'Hey, come with us and see how it's done?' No, not if he was even remotely honest with himself - but there went another teenage fantasy.
This was the real world. This was ISO. G-Force were out on mission, and Dylan North was going back to the Academy seniors' common room to discuss just how scary an interviewer Major Grant was, and what classes they all needed to take next semester. And somewhere, deep inside, to keep alive the hope that Dimitri was right. That what he could do was special and unusual enough that the next time he was called inside black section he'd be staying. Force Two? He liked the sound of that.