Cupid's Cable Gun by Grumpy Ghost Owl
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DISCLAIMER
This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets are the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work.




Battle of the Planets: 2163
CUPID'S CABLE GUN



Part II "No need to teach the eagle to fly." - old Greek proverb.

Jason spent Sunday afternoon reading intel reports. Zoltar had been lying low, presumably licking his wounds from his last encounter with G-Force, and the reports were full of rumour and speculation, but little in the way of hard intelligence. The news media were, as usual, trying to sell stories, alternately speculating that Zoltar was about to surrender or that he was about to launch a new 'doomsday assault' on the Federation. Galaxy Security's analysts took a less dramatic view, citing the difficulties Spectra had been experiencing in her efforts to consolidate a hold on Riga, partially thanks to Galaxy Security and some spurious information Zoltar had been 'allowed' to obtain.

If the Federation could have launched a counter attack, this might have been an ideal time to do so, but the Crab Nebula was a defence in and of itself. It was impossible to use time warp to sneak up on the planet. Rematerialising into space that was already occupied by anything more substantial that what a ship's displacement field could deal with -- including large quantities of interstellar dust -- made for an ugly way to die. It was possible to sneak into the Nebula in a single, well shielded ship. Jason knew this from first hand experience. He'd taken the Phoenix on a solo space shot the previous year to extract Mark and Princess from Spectra after they'd managed to get themselves into a fine mess. Getting a fleet in to the Nebula undetected and unharmed, though, would be out of the question. As far as Jason was aware, the Federation didn't yet possess (which was to say that Anderson hadn't yet managed to get anyone to either develop or steal) the kind of cloaking technology needed for stealth on that scale.

Jason was starting to appreciate what appeared to be the ISO's long term strategy: that of allowing Zoltar to overextend himself to the point where he had to commit all his resources to simply holding his stolen territory together. The Spectran Empire was showing the first signs that it might be getting just a tiny bit too big. Like a migrating herd, the sick and the weak were stumbling around the edges, and lurking just under the surface of the next river crossing was the Master Crocodile himself, Security Chief Anderson, biding his time. Unlike a crocodile, David Anderson neither grinned nor shed tears readily. Jason considered him cold blooded enough to qualify for honorary species membership, though.

The down side of all this strategising was that while Zoltar wasn't attacking, and since the ISO weren't in a position to take the fight to him, all G-Force had to keep themselves busy was training, drills, training, patrols, training, PR exercises, training and more training.

Which was how the prank war had come about.

Which was what got the entire team grounded.

Grounded! At our ages! Jason's thought was coloured with the disgust and contempt of a young man for his stodgy and derelict elders. With the notable exception of Keyop, the team were legally and effectively adult. It chafed that they were being treated like children. Jason was prepared to concede that perhaps the banana concentrate in the shower had been a little over the top, but it had been right there on the counter of the Snack J when Jill was having a clean-up and how could Jason resist when she said he could have it since it was coming up for its 'best before' date? No sense of humour, that was Anderson's trouble. That, and no life.



Monday morning, G-Force's punishment was almost complete. 'Almost,' because Anderson and his detail hitched a ride back to Headquarters aboard the same Multi-Modal Transport rather than booking one of the bigger executive transports. Jason needed flight time so Mark put him in the transport's right hand seat while he took command.

"Engaging sublight inverter transdeucers at reverse polarity," Jason announced, keeping his face rigid.

"Acknowledged," Mark said, glancing at his co-pilot, then he picked up the verbal ball and ran with it. "Octet bonds at maximum orbital velocity."

"How's about we just get outta here?" Tiny suggested, in back seat driver mode. Mark shrugged and Jason lifted off, not quite as smoothly as if Tiny had been flying. Jason stole a glance over his shoulder at Anderson, who was glaring at him. He sighed. He could almost see the words, 'Note to self: have Zark schedule checklist drills for G-Force,' running through Anderson's head. No sense of humour. Jason sighed and settled in to navigate back to headquarters.

When they reached Center City, Mark had Jason land the MMT. It was only seven thirty, so there was little in the way of air traffic around. Jason made a standard instrument approach, but came in hot and had to hit the retro-thrusters before the transport entered the hangar at the ISO Tower. They set down with four distinct bumps and Jason flexed his hands, aware that he'd been gripping the controls so hard his fingers had stiffened up. He heard Shay Alban mutter something about Sunday pilots under her breath as she passed the cockpit. It didn't bother him. He'd seen the way she drove.

"Report for a briefing in thirty minutes," Anderson said, directing his order at Mark, and disembarked with his security staff, leaving G-Force to shut down and secure the MMT.

When they were done, the team caught the elevator to the hundredth floor. They were a little early, so Jason suggested they head for the executive kitchen for some hot chocolate.

"I'll make it," Princess volunteered, giving Jason a look. Jason knew he deserved it, and said nothing. The novelty of guilt was wearing off rapidly, however. He and the others moved aside to allow Anderson to pass by in the corridor with a cup of coffee. The elevator chimed and Lieutenant Colonel Jones emerged, briefcase in one hand, palm unit in the other.

"So, Ally," Anderson said. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine," Jones said. "I won't even have any battle scars to show for my trouble once the scratches heal," she added. Jason, who had slowed his pace, hung back to eavesdrop.

"Are we still on for lunch?" Anderson asked.

"Have you seen your schedule, lately?" Jones countered. The two of them headed toward Anderson's office and paused by Gunnery Sergeant McAllister's as-yet unoccupied desk so that Jones could juggle her briefcase, hat and palm unit.

"My schedule's a live document," Anderson pointed out.

Jones consulted her palm unit. "Your appointment with the Secretary of Defence has been moved up," she said. "Gunny's going to have to reschedule your meetings with the delegates from the Chamber of Mines around the press conference at the Presidential Palace, and you've got an invitation to a charity preview of the Dolfius exhibition at the Center City Guggenheim."

"Am I going?" Anderson asked with the air of a man who had just been told he'd won a lifetime's supply of root canal work. He put his coffee down on the countertop.

"It depends," Jones said, "on whether your hatred for contemporary art outweighs the importance you place on Vice President D'Castro being a staunch supporter of the Starlight Foundation."

"Accept with thanks," Anderson sighed. "Maybe I can come down with dysentery or something between now and then."

"There's always the staff cafeteria, sir."

"Is that a suggestion or a threat?" Anderson shot back. "You have a twisted mind, Colonel."

Jones actually smiled at that, "How do I resist y--?" she caught herself and glanced at Jason, her expression turning frosty.

Anderson followed her gaze with his own and gave Jason a look that crossed polite inquiry with knives. "Is there something I can help you with, Jason?" he asked. It wasn't an offer of assistance.

"Uh... it can wait," Jason said, and began backing away.

"Briefing in ten minutes," Anderson reminded him. Jason nodded and hurried to catch up with the rest of the team.

Once Jason had grabbed a cup of hot chocolate, he sauntered down the corridor to the security section. Shay Alban was going off shift, having handed over to Lieutenant Francine Patrick, a petite brunette with cornflower blue eyes and a soft spot for a certain second in command of G-Force. It was a source of no small surprise to Jason that Anderson actually approved of Jason seeing Fran. Anderson maintained that Lieutenant Patrick, who came from a well-to-do upper middle class family in Seattle, was 'a stable and positive influence' in Jason's life. For his part, Jason tried not to let that get in the way of things. "Miss me?" he asked as Fran headed toward Anderson's office to take up her station.

"Maybe," she said, smiling and feigning indifference. "Saw your butt on the news, Friday night. The camera really does add five pounds, doesn't it?"

"Fran!"

She laughed and tossed her head. "You have a real talent for getting into trouble, Jason."

"It's a gift," Jason said. "Anyway, it's one of the things you like about me."

"That and your cute photogenic butt," she quipped.

"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" Jason predicted.

"Nope," she said.

"What if I tried bribing you?"

"I'm a Galaxy Security officer," she said. "We don't take bribes."

"How about dinner tomorrow night?"

"You call that a bribe?" Fran was smiling and Jason got the feeling she wasn't about to shoot him down, but she was going to make him work for a 'yes.' Not that he minded.

"I'll cook."

"In your trailer?"

"Your apartment. I'll cook, and I'll do the dishes."

"Sounds too good to refuse," she said. "Throw in shopping for the ingredients and you've got yourself a date."

"Deal," Jason said. He glanced up at the sound of someone calling his name. "Gotta go," he said, and hurried toward where Mark was waiting for him.

"You want to be late for your first briefing after being grounded?" Mark griped.

"Hey," Jason said, "I've got you to keep me in line."

"Move it," Mark ordered.

"Aye aye, sir." Jason tossed off a flippant salute and made his way to Anderson's office.



Anderson was standing in front of his desk, leaning against it while looking pointedly at his watch. Jason took a seat, followed by Mark.

The Security Chief cast a disapproving look at Jason then walked to the front of the room. "As you know," he said, "we've had very little to deal with lately in the way of hostile action from Spectra's forces or its allies'. Our intelligence suggests that Zoltar is concentrating his efforts in an attempt to secure his hold on Riga. We have people on the ground, there, working with the Rigan resistance forces to make that job as difficult as possible for Zoltar.
"This lull in activity gives us a perfect opportunity to test ourselves and ensure that our own forces are kept sharp and ready to repel the next invasion attempt. Admiral Sasaki of the Navy has invited G-Force to participate in exercises next week, and I've accepted his invitation on your behalf.
"Zark is conducting an analysis of the Admiral's proposal and he'll be sending it over as soon as it's complete. Mark and Jason, you'll be working together to come up with strategies and tactics. The Navy will be defending a target on an island in the Pacific, and your job will be to capture the target."

"Sounds like an interesting challenge," Mark said.

"Are we going in wet or dry?" Jason asked.

"Dry," Anderson said. "We don't want any mishaps with live ordnance."

"Especially if it's pointed at us!" Keyop said.

"I can hardly wait," Jason drawled.

"You'll just have to use your imagination," Anderson said. "In the meantime, the President's called a press conference tomorrow morning to offer some public reassurance about our current situation. There's too much rumour and speculation flying around about Zoltar launching some kind of doomsday attack. President Kane intends to brief the media and he wants you there."

"To do what?" Mark wondered aloud.

"Look like you're protecting the rest of us," Anderson said. "We had some negative press after last Friday's little fiasco. Tomorrow, you're all going to be at your responsible, morally irreproachable best. You'll report here for a briefing at zero nine hundred, then at ten, we'll head for the Presidential Palace. I expect everyone here by eight in the morning. Mark, here's the information from Admiral Sasaki's office." Anderson handed Mark a manila folder. "Read it, then get in touch with Zark about that analysis and have a preliminary draft on my desk by tomorrow afternoon. Dismissed."

The five members of G-Force rose and left the office. As they were passing through Gunnery Sergeant McAllister's reception area, Mark caught Jason's arm. "Not so fast, Jason. If I have to wade through this, then you can lend a hand."

"Okay." Jason shrugged. "I have to read it sooner or later, and it might as well be sooner."

"We should all catch up on our bulletins, anyhow," Princess reasoned. "Come on, Keyop, Tiny. Office time."

"Slave driver!" Keyop complained. "I read bulletins yesterday, and I've got a heap of homework!"

"Hey," Tiny reasoned, "the pilot who doesn't read his bulletins is a pilot who flies into trouble, and since you're qualified to fly the Phoenix, you get to read your bulletins the same as the rest of us. Besides, there are always fresh bulletins on a Monday morning."

"Work on your speed reading," Princess suggested, "then you'll be done faster."

"I'm oppressed," Keyop grumbled. "You see that, Gunny?" Keyop attempted an appeal to higher authority, now that Gunnery Sergeant McAllister had arrived. "They're oppressing me!"

"Sorry, sir," McAllister said from behind his desk, a sheaf of envelopes in one hand. "didn't see a thing."

"Adults," Keyop muttered. "It's a conspiracy."

Jason spent about half an hour reading through the general and special intel and operational bulletins, then dragged his chair over next to Mark's to review the information on the proposed war games.

"I'm done!" Keyop announced a short time later.

"So now we can go home and you can finish your homework," Princess said, and Keyop's triumphant grin faded.

"I hate my life," the boy complained. "Hey, you guys coming over to the Snack J for lunch, later?" he asked.

Mark glanced at Princess and looked away. "We could get caught up with this," he said.

"Nobody gets that caught up," Tiny said. "You bet we'll be by for lunch," he declared, with a significant look at Mark. "All of us, right Commander?"

"Sure," Mark said, managing to look somehow relieved and tormented at the same time. "All of us."

Jason made an heroic effort not to roll his eyes. "See you at lunch, then," he said. He scowled at the papers in front of him. So now Mark was trying to avoid Princess. Anderson, he mused, was a galaxy-class jerk.



It was almost midday when Mark declared it was time for lunch. "I'll catch up with you," Jason promised. "I've got an errand to run."

"See you at the Snack J," Mark said. "Coming, Tiny?"

"Sure," Tiny said.

Once the others had left, Jason took himself for a walk across Tornado Terrace. Once he was out onto the street proper, the wind was almost nonexistent, and he strolled past a couple of cafés, past Amano's Bar (home away from home for most of the Galaxy Security staff based at the ISO Tower) and around the corner.

The sign on the window was written in flowing gilt script: 'Maurice the Floriste.' Jason had bought a posy of flowers for Fran's birthday there, once, having been referred there by Director Kelly. Whenever anyone in G-Sec wanted to say it with flowers, they usually said it through Maurice the Floriste. Apparently, the company was about as safe as it could be. So far, in any event, none of their products had ever turned into giant mechanical attack-begonias.

There was a bored-looking girl behind the counter. She had her hair cut in layers, and each layer was a different shade of purple. Silently, Jason vowed never to comment on Princess' green highlights ever again. The girl's pink plastic name badge read, 'Doreen.' It was shaped like a daisy. Jason suppressed a shudder. There ought to be a law.

"Hi," Jason said.

"Hello," Doreen said. "Can I help you?"

"Yeah," Jason said. "I need to send flowers to my aunt. It's a surprise for her birthday."

"That's nice," Doreen said, brightening. "What did you have in mind?"

"I was thinking roses," Jason said. "Red roses."

"How sweet," Doreen said, smiling. "A single stem in cell's twenty five dollars. A holder and presentation cylinder is another five on top of that, or you can get a half dozen in cellophane for forty five, but if you go for a dozen, it's only seventy five dollars."

Only Seventy five dollars. Jason swallowed. "Really?" he managed to say.

"That's for standard quality blooms. It's another ten dollars if you want the presentation vase. Premium quality is an extra fifteen dollars per item. We have some lovely arrangements starting at around a hundred dollars and upward. Delivery is free if your order's more than fifty dollars, otherwise it's five dollars."

"What's the difference between standard and premium?" Jason asked.

Doreen picked up a vase of a dozen blood red blooms and put it on the counter. Then she pulled a sheaf of roses out of a bucket and held it beside the vase for comparison. "The premium blooms are guaranteed to be all the same size, no blemishes, straight from the hot house."

Jason couldn't see a whole lot of difference. They were flowers, for crying out loud. "Let's go for understatement," he said. "A single rose. Wrapped and delivered."

"Sure," Doreen agreed. She put the premium hot house roses back in their premium plastic bucket, replaced the vase, then positioned a little order form booklet on the counter, pen poised. "What would you like to put on the card?"

"Leave it blank," Jason said. "She'll, uh... guess who it's from."

"This is a nice gift for an aunt," Doreen said, frankly speculative.

"It's really from my uncle," Jason lied, thinking on his feet. "He's out of town at the moment, so I'm doing him a favour."

"I see," Doreen said, not entirely convinced. "Where would you like them delivered?"

"Send them to Lieutenant Colonel Alberta Jones, Galaxy Security Executive Suite, One Hundredth Floor, ISO Tower."

Doreen's pen -- pink plastic with a yellow daisy on a spring at the top -- There really ought to be a law! -- scritched the address out on the envelope. "That'll be twenty five dollars for the rose and cellophane wrapping plus five dollars delivery."

Jason put the cash on the counter, managing not to wince.

Doreen took the money and secured it in the cash register. "Would you like it delivered this afternoon or tomorrow morning?"

"Tomorrow," Jason said.

"It'll be there first thing," she assured me.



When Jason walked in to the Snack J, Tiny and Keyop were sharing a booth, both of them demolishing spaceburgers. Mark and Princess were seated at opposite ends of the counter. Mark was picking listlessly at a salad while Princess stared into her coffee cup as though seeking omens.

Jill, the café manager, smiled in greeting. "What'll it be, Jason?"

"Chicken salad on whole wheat and a large glass of freshly squeezed optimism," Jason quipped.

"Gee, I'm sorry, kid, we're all out of optimism," Jill indicated the two glum customers at the counter. "I could probably fix you up with a struggling smile."

"Better make it orange juice, then," Jason decided, and took a seat next to Mark.

"What's got you so cheerful?" Mark muttered into his sprouts.

"Apart from the fact that I have a date tonight with an extremely attractive member of Internal Security's elite, I guess I just don't give up easily," Jason suggested.

Mark half turned in his seat, scowling. "That's easy for you to say," he said.

Jason's lunch arrived and he paid for it, took a sip of juice and considered his commanding officer's grim visage. "Man, will you lighten up?" he suggested. "Have you tried talking to the Chief?"

"I..." Mark started fiddling with his paper napkin. "What would I say to him?" He twisted the napkin and started tying a knot in it. "If I go in there and ask him not to issue the 'no fraternisation' order, I'm admitting that I know something I'm not supposed to know. How's he supposed to respond to that?"

"If it were me," Jason said, "I simply wouldn't have issued such a stupid order in the first place."

"Well, it isn't you, Jason," Mark pointed out.

It was hard to argue with that.

"Don't give up, Skipper," Jason urged.

"Why, do you have some grand master plan to solve all our problems?" Mark huffed.

"All in good time," Jason said slyly.



The ground floor lobby of the ISO Tower was one of those airport-lounge type places where the only really enduring quality was a sense of transience. With the exception of the G-Sec personnel manning the security station and the occasional infrastructure services employee, nobody ever stopped for long in the ISO lobby. Everyone was invariably on their way somewhere else.

Jason pondered the depths of transience as he lounged on the big vinyl sofa, keeping company with a collection of potted plants.

The lobby normally echoed with the sounds of people passing through, shoes tapping on the polished marble floor tiles, voices bouncing and distorting off the granite and stainless steel walls to create an unintelligible babbling murmur. For now, though, it was mostly quiet, with only the occasional little group, pair or individual worker stepping out of the elevators to head home. The sharp ping of ascending elevator cars resonated, interspersed with the lower pong of those descending to the basement and car park levels. It was seventeen fifty, local time.

A pong heralded the arrival of a car that disgorged three staff members including one who caught Jason's undivided attention as she bade her colleagues good night. Fran had changed out of her uniform into civilian clothing, but still walked like a security officer, striding across the polished floor with the assurance of someone who knew she was right where she belonged. Jason let his gaze take a leisurely tour from her high heeled boots, up the close fitting leather trousers to the lace edged velvet shirt with the ID tag clipped incongruously to the neckline. Fran's long dark hair cascaded over her shoulders in waves, framing her oval face with its wide set cornflower blue eyes and generous mouth.

She slowed her pace and came to a stop in front of Jason, one hand on her hip.

"Do I pass inspection?" she asked.

"No complaints, here," Jason told her, grinning.

"If you're done checking me out, how about cooking me dinner?"

"That," Jason affirmed, standing, "was the plan."

"Are you parked downstairs?" Fran asked.

"My car is," Jason said.

"You know, that's the kind of thing the Chief would say," Fran pointed out, heading for the stairs.

"Remind me never to do it again," Jason said, following. He took a series of long, quick steps to reach the stairwell door ahead of her and opened it. "After you, Lieutenant."

"Thank you."

They walked briskly down the stairs toward the basement level carpark, footfalls echoing in the hollow concrete stairwell.

"So," Jason said, "you're on swing shift Saturday and I've got time trials this weekend, why don't we cruise out to the track Saturday morning? My ego's so fragile, I need encouragement, y'know."

"You poor ego-driven male," Fran chuckled. "So you only want me along to satisfy your craving for approval?"

"You know, I do get other cravings," Jason pointed out, slipping an arm around her waist. "We could explore them in detail."

"I'll just bet," Fran said, laughing.

Jason glanced toward the sound of an engine starting: it wasn't a particularly good engine. Al Jones' geriatric yellow Toyota Comet pulled out of its space and headed for the exit. "That thing lowers the tone of the entire car park," Jason joked.

"I know," Fran agreed. "The Chief rags her about it all the time."

"Really?" Jason thought for a moment before deciding to ask her a question. "Do you think the Chief and Al have something going?"

Fran raised her eyebrows. "Like what, for instance? A report writing orgy? A frenzied session of unbridled administration?"

"No, really," Jason said. "I noticed he was checking her out the other night."

"You mean you've found evidence of red blood cells in his body?" Fran gave Jason a sideways look. "What are you up to, anyway?"

"Me? Nothing!" Jason had never been very good at playing innocent. "I was just... wondering," he said again.

"Yeah, well if they had anything going, it wouldn't get past wondering," Fran said.

"What makes you say that?" Jason asked.

"You of all people know how tight security is these days. If he had so much as a dinner date, the whole world would know about it by the next shift change. Now are we going, or were you planning to stand around and talk about old people all night?"

"Believe me," Jason said, "I have definite plans for what we could be doing all night, and talking about the Chief isn't part of it."



Tuesday morning brought the media relations briefing, after which G-Force had about half an hour to kill before they were due to leave for the Presidential Palace for the press conference. As Jason made his way toward the executive kitchen, he noticed Anderson was ahead of him, evidently with the same destination in mind. The Chief got to the percolator first and poured himself a cup of coffee. Princess and Keyop followed Jason into the kitchen. Tiny came in after them and Mark trailed in last of all. Jason got a cup out of the cupboard. That was when he noticed the red rose in the trash.

Uh-oh.

Anderson slipped out into the lobby and Jason started to pour coffee into his cup. There was his thirty dollar rose, lying there among the tea bags, used coffee filters and plastic spoons, still nestled in its cellophane wrap with a card from Maurice the Floriste. Jason guessed this meant Al wasn't impressed. If she was high maintenance, it could make his job a lot more difficult.

He could just make out a conversation taking place outside the kitchen door.

"I hear you have a secret admirer, Colonel," the Chief said. Jason's ears immediately focussed on the voices outside. There was a long pause, measured in heartbeats.

Jason nearly spilled coffee as he overfilled his cup. Gingerly, he put the carafe back down and very carefully slurped coffee from the rim of the cup to try and get the level down.

"So I'm led to believe, sir," Al Jones said icily on the other side of the door.

Jason thought she sounded about as warm as the dark side of the moon. That wasn't good. He sidled away from the percolator to make room for Tiny.

"You're led to believe?" the Chief echoed.

"I don't much care for mysteries," Jones said, a definite waspish note in her voice.

"You prefer the direct approach?" the Chief inferred, seemingly trying to draw her out. Jason peeked around the door at Anderson's back and about a fifth of Jones' front.

"I'm afraid I'm really rather dull, sir," Jones said. "If you'll excuse me." She turned and began to walk away, then paused after a couple of steps and glanced back over her shoulder. "As it happens," she added, "I prefer white roses."

Ouch. Jason stepped out into the corridor. The Chief was standing there drinking his coffee, pretending he wasn't making a point of not watching Jones retreat down the corridor.

Jason's mind raced. This was not going well. Al wasn't supposed to start giving Anderson the cold shoulder, she was supposed to think that he'd sent the flower, he was supposed to get jealous of whoever it was who might have sent it, and one thing was supposed to lead to another. They weren't going along with it! Jason scowled. You couldn't trust anyone these days.

The Chief's expression was unreadable.

Think, Jason! "I heard someone sent Al a rose," Jason ventured, and got glanced at sharply for his trouble. "I wonder who it was?"

This earned him a somewhat calculating look. "That's none of our business," Anderson said, then, to Jason's chagrin, launched into lecture mode. "You see how you read her wrong, Jason? What you mistook for some kind of interest in me is a budding relationship with someone else." He headed back for his office.

Rats!

"I can't believe how addicted you are to that stuff," Mark said, lounging in the doorway and indicating Jason's coffee mug. He held a glass of water.

"It helps me think," Jason said.

"Are you coming up to the roof garden?" Mark asked. "I thought we might brainstorm some stuff for the war games before we have to leave for the press conference."

"Shortly," Jason said. "I have to fill out some paperwork for my next few races. It shouldn't take long."

As his team mates caught the elevator, Jason prowled back to the G-Force office. What to do? He wracked his brains for ideas, and drew a blank. In the end, he decided he'd better put some work in on what he was supposed to be working on.

Jason was required to fill out a form for every race he entered. Part of it was for security and part for the bean counters, since G-Sec picked up all the cancellation fees for those times Jason was working his real job. He had about half a dozen forms to complete and submit. It was mind-numbingly boring, and Jason found himself zoning out.

Which was how he almost missed seeing the Chief walk past the glass door of the office, heading for the admin section.

Jason sat up straight in his chair. Now, that was unusual. People went to see the Chief -- the Chief generally didn't go to see people unless they were higher up the food chain than he was. There weren't a whole lot of people that much higher up the food chain than the Chief of Galaxy Security, and to the best of Jason's knowledge, none of them had their offices in the admin section of the 100th floor G-Sec Executive Suite of the ISO Tower.

Jason got up and went to the door. He waited a moment, then eased the door open and stuck his head out into the corridor to see what he could see. The coast was almost clear. Jason spied Anderson leaning in the doorway of Jones' office, then saw him step inside.

Jason sauntered as nonchalantly as he could down the passageway until he was almost level with Jones' office. He could make out two distinct voices and eavesdropped shamelessly.

"...That I owe you an apology," Anderson's voice said. "It was inappropriate of me to pass comment on your private life."

"Not at all, sir," Al said. "I'm the one who should apologise. I shouldn't have taken my irritation out on you. It was stupid of me to let myself get so annoyed by something as silly as a flower, and a cheap one at that."

Cheap? That thing cost me thirty bucks! Jason fumed with fiscal outrage.

"I doubt it was sent with the express intention of annoying you," Anderson speculated.

"You're right, of course," Al said, and Jason could hear a smile in her voice. "I'm afraid I'm a bit past it when it comes to all this 'secret admirer' nonsense. In any event, it'll probably turn out to be one of Jason's blasted practical jokes."

Yikes! Jason experienced a moment's panic. Was she on to him?

"What makes you say that?" The Chief's voice was edged with suspicion.

Uh-oh. This sounded like trouble.

"Who else around here exhibits such a puerile brand of humour?"

Jason frowned. That was the third time in days someone had used that word in direct relation to him.

"You have a point there." Jason's scowl deepened. Puerile? Geezers! A short, contemptuous snort escaped him. "Um, Al?" Anderson said, his voice lowered. Jason leaned toward the sound, straining to hear. "Is Jason playing the same mind games with both of us?"

"That depends," Al hedged, her voice barely audible. "What did he say to you?"

"I asked first," Anderson parried.

There was a long moment's silence. A piece of paper rustled. "Do you think," Al asked eventually, "that we could possibly pretend we're not having this conversation?"

"What I think," Anderson said, "is that we need to deal with this."

There was that rustling sound again, like someone shuffling papers. "If you want my opinion," Al said, "I think we should ignore him."

Jason stood thinking uncomplimentary thoughts about smug middle-aged people who think they know everything, until he realised he hadn't heard anybody speak for a few seconds. What was going on? Where they having a Moment? Or had they heard him move?

"You're probably right," Anderson said. "I just..."

Jason held his breath.

"You just what?" Al murmured.

"The other night, at the conference dinner... Um... I'm not sure how to put this." Anderson sounded uncomfortable.

"What is it?"

"Do you think Jason could be developing a crush on you?"

Oh, man! Jason made a face.

"I'm old enough to be his mother!" Al protested, her voice rising with alarm. "Besides, Jason's been going out regularly with Lieutenant Patrick. They seem quite taken with each other."

"I guess so," Anderson said. "That still leaves you with someone who likes you enough to send you a rose."

"Well, whoever he is, I'm sure it'll all sort itself out," Al said.

Jason forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply. A chair creaked and he made ready to flee.

"Assuming it's a 'he,'" Jason heard Anderson say. "That might explain the secrecy."

Jason heard something he hadn't heard before: Al actually laughed. "There's something that hadn't occurred to me," she said. "Thank you," she said, "I needed cheering up. I'm still going to check with the florist, though. We can't be too careful, these days."

"Don't worry about it, Al. I'll ask Director Lewindowsky to have one of his people run a check," Anderson said. It sounded like the conversation was winding up, and Jason's instincts told him to beat a hasty retreat, which he did.

Jason made it back to the G-Force office unobserved and went back to his paperwork. It was only after he'd started on the final form that he realised Anderson hadn't walked back from Jones' office. He'd heard Anderson get up to leave. Where was he?

Okay... did he go look? If he did, what would he find? Would he need to disinfect his eyeballs afterward?

Before Jason could make up his mind whether or not to resume his covert surveillance, Chief Anderson strolled back down the corridor, looking pleased with himself. Maybe the rose hadn't been a total disaster, after all. Jason let out a sigh of relief at his decision to use cash to pay for the flower. Had he used a G-Sec corporate card, Jack Lewindowsky would have caught him sooner or later. As it was, if the assistant at the florist remembered him and gave the investigating officer a good description, the jig could well be up, anyway. Still, for now, Jason's Brilliant Plan continued.

Footsteps in the corridor alerted Jason to Al Jones making her way from her office, briefcase in hand. As she passed the G-Force office, she glanced in at him. Jason met her gaze and saw a look of panic flash into her eyes before she turned away. He ducked his head and grinned to himself.

Jason finished filling out his forms, scanned them in and transmitted them with a copy to the Chief. Then he logged off, shut down and packed up. Gross-out factor aside, things were looking up.

"Hey, hotshot... sir," Shay Alban said, sticking her head around the office door. "Shake a leg. Your public awaits, but the Chief won't."

"Yes, ma'am, Major Alban, ma'am," Jason parroted, tossing off a mock salute. Alban glared at him. Technically, Jason outranked Alban into the middle of next week and it always annoyed her when he played the part of impertinent subordinate (mostly because that was the role she preferred to take for herself.) He headed for the briefing room, where Mark and the rest of the team were waiting for him. G-Force transmuted and headed downstairs for their next instalment of fame.

The party travelled to the Presidential Palace in two limousines: one for Anderson and his staff, the second for G-Force. As expected, the team was paraded before the media following President Kane's press release about their glorious and successful lack of activity. Jason was proud of his performance: he hadn't yawned once.

The team was lined up behind the President, who was giving a speech as boring as anything Anderson could come up with. After Kane had finished regaling the media, some of them woke up and the President's Press Secretary motioned for Mark to take the podium. He answered a few questions, turning on the charisma and generally making Jason extremely happy to be second in command, as it meant he didn't have to play front man at press conferences.

While Mark responded with the official line to a reporter's question, Jason let his attention wander. That was when he saw Anderson and Jones, out of sight of the press in the wings of the media room, standing close with their heads together like conspirators... or maybe something more intimate. Jones glanced up, saw Jason looking, and stepped away from Anderson, turning away as she did so. Is that a guilty conscience you have there, Lieutenant Colonel? It had occurred to Jason that maybe he wasn't being entirely fair on Al by including her in his plan, but she was the one who always cited the regulations, always told junior officers that if they couldn't live by the rules they could apply for a discharge and generally went around like Ms Prim and Proper School Marm From Hell. If she had feelings for Anderson, maybe she needed to re-evaluate her own career choices, and if she chose to break regulations, then she could choose to live with the consequences like anyone else.

Jason's Brilliant Plan appeared to be enjoying a modicum of success.



That afternoon, the Plan appeared to develop some momentum of its own.

Jason was keeping up his surveillance behind the pretence of continuing to work on the draft strategy for the upcoming war games. Frequent coffee breaks allowed him to sneak around the executive suite to see what he could see or hear.

"Well, whoever it is," Jason heard Shay Alban say, "you have to give him points for persistence." She chuckled. "Sounds like he's upped the ante, though." Intrigued, Jason peered into the executive kitchen. Alban was leaning against the counter by the sink, talking to Jones, who was clutching her portfolio to her chest like a life preserver. Jason eased his way in and made a pretence of washing a cup. "You know the meaning of white roses, girl friend," Alban said, grinning.

"Rubbish!" Jones drew herself up. "I'm not buying into it. It's probably," she added with a poisonous look at Jason, "some prank."

Jason poured himself a cup of coffee and tried desperately to think of some excuse for staying and eavesdropping some more.

"Well if it's a prank," Alban reasoned, "it's an expensive one. I mean, think about it. Nobody spends that kind of money on a practical joke!" The two women left, glaring back over their shoulders at Jason as they did so.

Jason's curiosity was piqued. He drank his coffee, wondering what had happened to earn him those venomous glowers -- and without any effort on his part, either! Once he was done, he cleaned up, taking his time to give Anderson and his staff time to get themselves organised, then made his way to Gunny McAllister's desk.

"Busy?" Jason asked.

"This place is always busy, sir," McAllister said. "You just missed the Chief," he said. "He's on his way to the Gaian High Commission for a meeting."

"Oh." Jason tried to look disappointed. "He, uh, took Al with him?"

"And his security detail, as usual," McAllister said.

"I guess I'll catch up with him later," Jason said. He strolled back out into the corridor. There was nobody else around, so he snuck down to Al's tiny office. The door was locked, but Jason peeked in through the glass panel. There was just enough room for a desk, credenza, filing cabinet and chairs. On top of the filing cabinet there was one of those cutesy little folk-art pots with some kind of flower growing in it, but on the desk was a porcelain vase containing two dozen perfect long stemmed pure white roses with associated greenery! Jason's mouth fell open. Judging from what he'd recently learned about rose prices, Jason figured he was staring at over a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty or more dollars' worth of vegetation.

When a man spent that much on flowers, he was making an investment. That very morning, Al had told Anderson that she preferred white roses, and here they were on her desk. It was the kind of gesture someone on a Chief of Staff's salary could afford.

Shay had mentioned the meaning of white roses. There was supposed to be some list or other of flower meanings, wasn't there? Jason decided a little research was in order.

He went back to the G-Force office and used Mark's log in to access the Galaxy Wide Web, where he did a quick Snarksearch on 'language of flowers.' A number of sites were returned, mostly belonging to florists (Maurice the Floriste was in there) and horticultural suppliers. Jason checked a couple out. 'White roses,' Maurice the Floriste's page proclaimed, 'can stand for spiritual love or secrecy. The gift of white roses is ideal for anyone wishing to express love from afar.'

Yes! Jason punched the air. Phase One was a success! Now for Phase Two...

Footsteps sounded in the corridor and Jason hastened to log off.

"Jason." Mark sauntered in to the office. "Where have you been?"

"Oh, had to take some paperwork to Accounting," Jason lied. "You know... receipts and stuff... " he trailed off with a vague wave of one hand. "I'm all done, now."

"Good," Mark said. "Now that you're here, we can get back to work on our attack plan for the war games."

"Sure thing, Skipper," Jason said. It was all he could do to keep from rubbing his hands together and cackling with glee. Soon, his two best friends could go from their state of Anderson-imposed abject misery to... well, whatever they chose for themselves, which had to be better than this.



It was getting late by the time Mark and Jason had finished drafting their preliminary plans. Rear Admiral Sasaki, Chief of the Navy and Chairman of the ISO, was going to be involved in the games aboard his flagship, the state of the art aircraft carrier Nelson. Sasaki did a good job, but no-one involved with the G-Force Project had forgotten how the Admiral had doubted Anderson's projections about Spectra just before the war began, and how he'd delayed G-Force's involvement as well, on the grounds that the team was too young and unprepared for combat. Both Mark and Jason badly wanted to win this one, and win it decisively.

Mark shut the computer down and stretched in his chair. "That's enough for today, Jason," he announced. "Come on. Tiny's probably got the barbecue hot by now."

"Yeah," Jason agreed. "Beach barbecue sounds good. As long he doesn't try to serve me squid again."

"Nothing wrong with barbecued squid," Mark said.

"Sure, as long as you're not asking me to eat it," Jason qualified. "Give me cow. Dead cow. Charred on the outside and bleeding on the inside. I refuse to eat anything with more than four legs." He shuddered.

"Tentacles don't count as legs," Mark just had to point out.



Tiny had a permanent fire pit outside his shack. He'd taken an old concrete soakwell and sunk it into the sand, then installed a spit and an arm for a pot or kettle. He could lay a grill over it or just let it burn as a bonfire. The G-Force team had spent summer evenings sitting around it for as long as Tiny had been in possession of the shack. Tonight, he was grilling steaks and some lobsters he'd caught that afternoon.

Princess sat on a canvas chair, nursing a bottle of cola with a straw and staring at the flames. The chair next to her was empty, so Jason sat down in it and nudged her ankle with his foot. "Hey."

"Hey," she said, without looking at him. Jason recalled that misery was supposed to love company, but Princess didn't look like she was enjoying it much.

He decided to paraphrase another Bogart line. "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, you had to walk into mine."

"I don't drink gin," Princess said, but her lips were curving upward into a smile.

"Me, neither," Jason said in his normal voice. "Y'know, there's nothing in the regulations that says you can't be friends with Mark. Don't think I haven't noticed that you and Mark have been avoiding each other. What's the point of going too far in the other direction?"

"I don't know, Jase." Princess sipped at her Diet Pepsi and smothered a genteel little burp behind one hand. "I know we should find some kind of middle ground, but I don't know where that is, right now."

"You were doing pretty well, before," Jason said.

"We couldn't have been," Princess argued, "or Dr McCall wouldn't have said anything. Even you referred to 'rumours' when you sent that joke e-mail around."

"Aw heck." Jason winced. "I never thought anyone'd take it seriously... What did Anderson say?"

Princess blinked back tears. "He still hasn't raised it. Maybe he's waiting for the right time or something... I don't know." Jason muttered some extremely unflattering epithets under his breath. "You shouldn't use that kind of language," Princess chided. "There's a lady present, if you don't mind."

"Sorry," Jason said, and meant it. He was going to get Anderson good for this.



Over the next few days, Mark and Jason continued to work on their brief and their tactical plan for the Navy war games. Jason kept up his surveillance and caught Anderson and Jones gazing at each other a few times. Once, he inadvertently interrupted what looked like an awkward moment in the executive kitchen. Stationery store room, children, Jason admonished silently. It's customary to use the stationery store in corridor five for that kind of thing. All he needed now was to obtain some evidence, and Mark and Princess would be home and dry.

The first thing Jason did was install a tiny camera in the stationery store in corridor five. This captured some interesting footage of Director Winters' secretary and the new lieutenant from Site Security, but the only time he saw Jones in the room, she was alone, signing out a box of paperclips with all the appropriate paperwork. Anderson never set foot in the stationery area.

Then it happened early Friday morning: Jason's targets were headed in opposite directions down the hall, and Jason saw Anderson slip Jones a note. It was professionally done, with all the skill of a seasoned field agent. If Jason hadn't been looking for something, he was certain he would have missed it. Mark was yet to arrive, so Jason had the G-Force office to himself. He activated the computer, then used an IT maintenance login to access Zark's surveillance system. He called up the feed from the executive suite and located Jones' office. There she was, at her desk, unfolding the note. Jason zoomed in and froze the picture. In his usual near-illegible style, Anderson had scribbled a series of numbers on the paper, organised into groups.

It was some kind of code, and it wasn't one that Jason recognised. Rats!

He saved the image, then returned to real-time surveillance, but Al was now closing her desk drawer. She turned on her computer, plugged her palm unit in and appeared to log in to the G-Sec network. There was no sign of the slip of paper Anderson had given her.

Jason drummed his fingers against the desktop in a cadence of irritation. He needed to obtain evidence. It was a risk, but he'd been trained by the best Galaxy Security had to offer, so he spun Zark a line about being given a top-secret task to test security and hacked into the inter-office e-mail system.

There wasn't a lot of correspondence between the Chief and his liaison officer. They spent so much time in meetings together, Jason realised they must have said most of what they had to say face to face. What to do? He logged out of the system and thought. Anderson's field work pretty much constituted ancient history, as far as Jason was concerned, so if he was going to use a code, it would probably be an old one. Jason got up out of his chair and paced back and forth, trying to recall what he'd been taught about the historical use of codes.

It was feasible that Anderson might have used an old field code, but Jones wasn't a field agent. It would have to be something simple, Jason reasoned. He thought back on what he knew about Jones: she was a career security and liaison officer, so she would have gone through the Academy, but probably hadn't been trained in cryptography. She had a classical education, if he remembered rightly... Of course!

It was one of the oldest tricks in the book, and the pun was altogether unintentional. Now he only had to wait for his chance.

Jason's chance came at morning coffee. Gunny was in the kitchen brewing a fresh pot of Kenyan Arabica. Anderson was with the rest of Galaxy Security's executive team in their regular meeting in the conference room. Jones had gone to one of the obligatory officer training sessions at Seahorse Base. Jason made an excuse to Mark, slipped into Anderson's office and began looking around.

The book stood out from everything else in the office, purely by virtue of its existence. It wasn't that Anderson had left it anywhere obvious -- it was concealed in the second drawer of his desk -- but Jason knew in his bones that Chief of Galaxy Security David Anderson PhD didn't read romantic fiction, and Far From the Madding Crowd was to romantic fiction what The Lord of the Rings was to fantasy.

There was a bookmark neatly inserted inside the book, but the spine and the pages were so crisp, it didn't look as though it had been read, merely leafed through here and there.

Jason took careful note of the position of the book mark and wrote the book's details -- publisher, date of printing and ISBN -- on a scrap of paper, then returned the book to its hiding place. He made his exit and hurried across the executive suite toward Jones' office.

Jones' literary tastes were a mystery to Jason but he wasn't in the least surprised to discover an identical copy of Far From the Madding Crowd resting atop the filing cabinet, just behind the little potted plant she kept there. "Gotcha!" he chuckled. Sure enough, there was a bookmark on the same page as the copy in Anderson's office. Jason swiped the book, and headed back to the G-Force office.

The saved surveillance image showed sequences of four numbers scribbled in five groups. Jason picked up pencil and paper and set to work. The simplest code would utilise the book as a key, with the numbers representing pages, paragraphs, sentences and words from the point where the bookmark was set. He began decoding the note.

"Whoa," he said after a few minutes. He stared at the sentence on the paper in front of him.

ROOF GARDEN EIGHT O'CLOCK TO-NIGHT

Perfect! Now all Jason had to do was return the book, then arrange to record the clandestine meeting for posterity... and a victory for Mark and Princess over the forces of small-mindedness.

At nineteen forty five, rugged up in his warmest leather jacket and armed with a tiny video camera he'd signed out of the quartermaster's store, Jason lurked in the shadows of the roof garden. There was a stiff breeze blowing in from the sea and he tried to find a spot in the lea of the wall. The garden was largely unprotected from the elements.

The sun went down and some of the soft bluish solar lights came on. Quite a few of them weren't working, and Jason realised he was going to have more of a challenge than he'd originally anticipated capturing detail on the camera in the darkness. The invertebrate population of the roof garden came out and it was all Jason could do not to let out a yelp when a spider dropped down on its web from a branch, just in front of his face.

He re-positioned himself clear of the spider and waited, watching the garden through the viewfinder of the camera.

At nineteen fifty eight, the access door opened, and a woman in a G-Sec uniform overcoat, blonde hair glimmering in the moonlight under her cap, paced slowly along the brick paved path, moving between the planters. Jason could hear the click of her heels against the pavement. The image in the camera's viewfinder was dark and grainy, but it was timestamped, and it would be enough for the people in the picture to recognise themselves once it was shown to them. Jason's subject didn't turn toward him, moving instead to the guard rail and staring out over the Center City skyline, seemingly lost in thought.

Twenty hundred hours on the dot.

Jason heard the access door open and close again, then a man, the collar of his coat turned up against the chill night breeze, walked into the frame. Jason could hear the sounds of the wind in the leaves, but nobody spoke.

Jason steadied the camera and zoomed in as the new arrival closed the distance between himself and the waiting woman. They stood in silence, their features hidden in shadow, close, but not touching.

In the viewfinder, the man lifted a hand and gently pushed a strand of pale hair away from his companion's face. For a long moment, they merely stood without moving or speaking, their only point of contact his fingertips on her cheek.

Jason squirmed slightly. This wasn't nearly as funny as he'd thought it would be. The couple's wordless intimacy had him feeling like some kind of voyeur.

They stood with their heads almost touching, and held hands. Slowly, gradually, they moved closer together until the woman's head rested against the man's shoulder, and they simply stood there, sharing the silence.

Aw, shucks...

Jason switched the camera off. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. They seemed so... so real. Whatever it was between them, it was as important to them as the feelings Mark and Princess had for each other. Using it against them would have cheapened it, putting Jason firmly in the category to which he'd consigned Anderson: someone mean and petty, who denied others what little warmth there was to be found in this crazy, meaningless mess of a world. Whatever else might have happened, Jason vowed that he wouldn't sink to Anderson's level.

So much for Jason's Brilliant Plan. Maybe Anderson did have a grain of empathy somewhere and would cut Mark and Princess some slack out of some modicum of basic human decency. It was a slim hope, but a hope, nonetheless.

Jason crept back to the door without making a sound. The couple by the railing had their heads together and were murmuring softly to one another. Jason slipped through the doors, hoping they wouldn't notice him.

Safely inside, and acutely aware of how much warmer it was in the lobby than out in the night air, Jason erased the camera's memory chip and put the device in his jacket pocket. "So much for that," he muttered. "I hope it works out for you two."

He turned to leave.

And just about hit the ceiling when Security Chief Anderson said, "Nice sentiment. Maybe you can send them a card for their next anniversary."

Jason glanced around wildly. The couple were still out in the garden. Anderson and Jones, however, were standing in the lobby, arms folded, glaring at Jason like grim death. Jason felt a sense of impending doom settling in the pit of his stomach. "Uh... " he said. "Hi, Chief... Al... Um... Nice evening... for... for a stroll?"

"I'm more inclined to think of it as educational," Anderson remarked. He opened a channel on his palm unit. "Come on in, you two. He's busted."

The garden access door opened to admit the man and the woman from the garden. Kate Halloran, G-Sec's Chief Medical Officer, grinned at Jason from under a long blonde wig. "Gotcha," she said. Her husband Bob, Director Special Projects, pulled a wig off his short salt and pepper thatch and chuckled in evident amusement.

"Jason," he said, "you should see your face." He took off a fake pair of pince-nez spectacles and dropped them, together with the wig, into the plastic bag Jones held open for him.

"Thanks for your help this evening," Anderson said.

Bob Halloran chuckled again. "It isn't as good as the time we convinced Professor Garrett you'd accidentally created a black hole in the transdimensional physics lab at Harvard," he recalled, "but it's up there in your top ten."

"I have my moments," Anderson said.

"I guess you do," Kate said, then turned back to Bob. "Come on, honey, or we're going to be late."

"I'll ride downstairs with you," Jones said, and followed the Hallorans to the elevators, leaving Jason alone with Anderson.

"I'm really looking forward to hearing your explanation for all of this," Anderson said. "I could use a laugh."

Jason ground his teeth. To think he'd almost gone soft and cut the miserable old fart some slack! "I guess I was hoping you might try walking a mile in the other guy's shoes," he said sullenly.

Anderson blinked once. "What?"

"You're so self-righteous," Jason couldn't help saying. "You think that just because you choose to be completely up tight, nobody should have any joy out of life! Why can't you give Mark and Princess a break?"

Anderson drew himself up to deliver a verbal riposte, then subsided, seemingly confused. "What?" he asked again.

"Don't pretend you don't know!" Jason warned.

"I assure you, I'm not pretending," Anderson said.

"You issued new orders, over and above one oh nine part five: that Mark and Princess aren't to fraternise."

"I haven't cut any orders," Anderson said. Jason could almost see mental gears meshing and turning, then realisation dawned. "You've accessed the psych reports. Jason, you know those are supposed to be confidential!"

"I haven't seen them," Jason snapped back. "I just know about the recommendation. Don't ask me how."

"Clearly, you don't know as much as you think you do," Anderson replied. "I rejected Dr McCall's suggestion as counter-productive. Despite your behaviour recently, I consider all of G-Force responsible enough to obey ISO Standing Orders without my having to issue specific directives. I have every confidence in Mark and Princess' self discipline and their commitment to G-Force, and I can see I'm going to have to order a review of the security surrounding the filing system in the psych department. Now, do you have any other accusations, baseless or otherwise?"

Jason stood with his mouth open, the wind knocked out of his sails. "Uh... no, sir. That was... that was it."

Anderson cast his eyes heavenward. "Do I really appear that stupid," he wondered aloud, "or is it some generational thing?"

Jason closed his mouth. Sometimes, it was safest not to volunteer information. That Anderson had played him like a fish didn't surprise him. That he'd actually done the decent thing from the outset did. "You set me up," Jason inferred.

"I did," Anderson said. He didn't smile when he said it.

He'd probably never get another chance to ask, and Jason had to know: "Did you really convince a physics professor that you'd created a black hole?"

"It was a long time ago," Anderson said, deadpan.

Jason was silent for a moment, awed. "You never intended to give Mark and Princess that order?" he asked.

"Never. I'm afraid you've been wasting all our time. Now, I suggest you go home, and if this ridiculous escapade of yours is the reason Princess has been so unhappy for the last few days, you should probably stop by on your way and make a full apology. You owe her one. Maybe you should go so far as to say it with flowers."

Jason winced. He deserved that, and he knew it. He also knew that Anderson was letting him off lightly. Maybe it was because there was nothing governing mischievous matchmaking in the ISO Standing Orders, the ISO Officers' Handbook or the Galaxy Security Policy and Procedures Manual. Whatever the reason, Jason fled the scene, resolving to keep his head down and his nose clean for quite some time.



Epilogue - Jason

I never did tell Mark or Princess the whole sorry tale of my attempt at playing Cupid with a twist. It was just too ignominious. I did tell them that Anderson had rejected the psychologist's recommendation, though, and they both cheered up a lot. They haven't embarked on the Romance of the Century, yet, and let's face it, Mark isn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to women, so it's anybody's guess as to how it'll all turn out, eventually. Time will tell.

As for the Chief and Al, now that they're not trying to make a monkey out of me, they're as Arctic as ever, but sometimes, I'll catch one or both of them smirking in my direction, and it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Every now and then, there's a white rose in a vase on Al's desk. She isn't volunteering any information and I'm not asking. It's tempting to speculate... but not that tempting. Not yet, anyway.

Fran thinks I'm crazy, but in a nice way. She's decided I must have a romantic soul, and who am I to complain? This could be getting serious. Maybe it's time to stop worrying about other people's happiness and focus on my own. After all, somebody has to be lucky in love sooner or later. Maybe it'll be me.




Chapter End Notes:
For those who like to pay attention to detail, Thomas Hardy's classic novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, does contain all the component words in the sentence, "Roof garden eight o'clock to-night," but not in that order, of course.
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