Disarming by Grumpy Ghost Owl
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Story Notes:
Thanks to Transmute Jun for beta reading.

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

There are times when I look back over the years and realise that I missed out on being there a lot of the time while Mark, Jason, Princess, Tiny and Keyop grew up.

There are times when I am profoundly grateful that this is the case.

There are times when I'm sure they'd drive me crazy if I wasn't already close enough to walk.

The Great G-Force Prank War of '63 was one of those times.

It wasn't the first prank war and it probably won't be the last, but it was one that generated waves which washed over me, and as Sir Isaac Newton observed in his Laws of Motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

It was quiet. It was the kind of quiet that a lot of people can't resist qualifying with the phrase, "Too quiet." It was the kind of suspenseful quiet that has ominous background music slowly building up to a crescendo just before the slavering special effects monster attacks from behind.

This suspenseful state of "too quiet" had lasted three weeks.

According to Galaxy Security's Intelligence Division, it was likely to last a few more.

It was a blessed respite, thanks in no small part to my own efforts in securing a treaty and trade agreement with the Gaian Commonwealth and a non-aggression pact with the hitherto hostile Planet Urgos. Spectra was struggling to maintain a hold on its occupation of Riga, we were trading technology and resources with the Gaians, the Urgosians had ceased their depredations on our interstellar shipping (thus reducing the amount of contraband making its way to Spectra) and we were supplying the Rigan resistance with the bounty of our fortuity.

Zoltar was said to be furious. President Kane was pleased. The ISO Council was pleased. I was pleased.

G-Force, however, were bored.

I moved the team's psychological evaluations up. I sent them on training exercises, routine patrols and advanced simulations. I did everything I could think of to keep them sharp. I even gave them some down time and paid for a week in the New Zealand snow fields, with the proviso that the Phoenix be kept nearby at combat readiness. They returned looking happy, refreshed and more relaxed than I'd seen them in months.

Then they got bored again. I sent them to Center Neptune with orders to strip down their personal vehicles, one by one, make sure every last component was in A-one condition.

Zoltar would eventually launch another attack on Earth, of this we were as certain as we were of the sun rising. It just wouldn't be today, it wouldn't be tomorrow, and it probably wouldn't be all week. I even thought about taking some time off, myself, once I'd caught up on my paperwork.

I did have an important task to hand: one of contributing to the consolidation of our happy circumstances in regard to the matter of trade. Space piracy had been a problem since humankind gained the stars on a large scale. Where there's commerce, there's crime. It's unavoidable. It wasn't, however, entirely uncontrollable. Earth was hosting a conference of law enforcement and military organisations with delegates from all over the Milky Way having gathered together to discuss the problem of space piracy and how it might be reduced. I'd been invited to give an address at the official conference dinner and was looking forward to attending. Space piracy was a significant source of income and materièl for Spectra, and it was in my interests to help facilitate further reductions in that area.

Impeding the progress of my speech writing efforts was the G-Force prank war.

A new member of the engineering team at Center Neptune had made a minor adjustment to the G-2 without consulting Jason. He'd since learned that this was not a good idea, but he'd refused to back down. This was also not a good idea. Jason had planted a smoke bomb in the engineering section's male toilets to make his point. I'd left it to Mark to discipline Jason over the incident, and Jason, bored with the lack of activity, had decided Mark's dressing down went too far. He'd played a practical joke on Mark. Mark had retaliated in kind. From there, they'd been exchanging salvos, to the amusement, bemusement, and occasional abject terror of Galaxy Security personnel.

I'd assumed that like most storms, this one would blow itself out. Mark was the commander of G-Force, and he'd chosen to escalate the situation. I'd felt it appropriate to wait for him to ask for help before stepping in, but it had been several days, now, without any sign of hostilities abating, and I was starting to think that maybe I'd have to take matters in hand.

On another front, I'd had news that Zoltar's bounty on my head was about to go up again. It put me in a remarkably good mood, and not even the mortification of Lieutenant Colonel Jones and Major Alban could shake me out of it.

We were arranged on the sofas in my office where I was accustomed to giving G-Force their mission briefings. My staffers had taken up position on the couch directly opposite me, presenting a unified front. Any upbraiding I was about to receive would be a joint and several effort.

"Chief," Shay Alban said, scowling at me, "you're smiling."

I was pretty much immune to my security coordinator's accusatory glare, having spent the last three years dealing with her predecessor and colleague, Alberta Jones, who now held the position of staff liaison officer to the Chief of Staff. Al could make the potted greenery wilt with some of her looks. "I am?" I asked, feigning innocence.

Al, on Shay's left, crossed one knee over the other and folded her arms. "I concur with Major Alban, sir. You're quite definitely smiling," she said, and arched an eyebrow at me to express her overall disapproval of gratuitous happiness in general.

"You know what they say, Colonel," I said, ignoring the eyebrow. "It's a measure of your own worth, being hated by the right people."

"The measure being twenty million dragei, to be precise," Al said. "Even with the drage only buying thirty nine cents, that's still almost eight million dollars in gold or the currency of choice."

"Assassins are going to be lining up once it's announced," Shay predicted darkly.

"With a few notable exceptions," Al muttered. Our counter-intelligence people had recently neutralised three high-profile freelance contract killers in a well-orchestrated sting on Arcturus. Galaxy Security, it seemed, was on a roll.

Shay rounded on her colleague. "Don't encourage him!" she hissed. "You're supposed to be on my side in this argument!"

"Sir," Al said, dutifully directing her attention back to me. "It's vital that this threat be regarded with the utmost gravity."

"Of course it is," I agreed. "You're absolutely right. Major Alban, you do as you see fit." I nodded to her to indicate that the discussion was concluded. Both women stood, looking slightly bemused. No doubt they'd been expecting me to put up more of a fight.

"I don't suppose there's any chance you'll reconsider giving this speech tonight," Shay said.

"None," I said. "This is an important event. It has wider implications for the war effort and I need to be there."

"I'm going to see about organising some extra manpower," she grumbled. "Sir," she said, and left.

Al, however, remained in place, giving me one of her calculating looks. Over the years, she'd become remarkably adept at figuring me out. "You agreed with me," she said.

"Stranger things have happened," I said.

"Yes, but they usually require verification by the Vatican," Al said, bone dry as always.

"I've learned the hard way to take assassins seriously," I said. "Don't worry, Ally, I'm in no hurry to meet my maker."

"But I do worry," she said, her stern expression softening. Lowering her guard wasn't something Al did often, which was fortunate. Al's Ice Queen facade was so glacial, it bordered on geological. I could deal with the Ice Queen. Every now and then, though, the frozen armour slipped and I caught glimpses of someone warm, intelligent and funny, who was genuinely concerned about me. I was still trying to figure out how to deal with that.

There was a strangled cry from somewhere outside my office, followed by the sound of laughter. I recognised Tiny's deep-chested guffaw, Keyop's childish giggle, and Jason's slightly nasal light tenor tones. "I think I have a slightly more immediate problem on my hands," I sighed.

"Just as you say, sir," Al said, and prudently made herself scarce. I got up out of my chair and stalked out of my office, following the sounds of youthful mirth. Hardened Galaxy Security personnel peered timidly around door frames. It was one thing to walk into a war zone, quite another to deal with a G-Force prank war.

I was their leader. I had a job to do. I squared my shoulders and stepped forward. Into the Valley of the Shadow of Death rode David Anderson... I flung open the door of the executive kitchen.

There was something that looked and smelled like hot chocolate spilled all over the sink and the countertop, dripping onto the floor, with a spray of it up the wall. Something had gone very wrong here, as evidenced by Mark's coughing, spluttering indignation while Princess tried to attend to him with paper towels. Tiny, Keyop and Jason were falling over one another laughing. I could, I mused, walk away and let Mark lie in the bed he'd made, but this was a shared facility and I was one of the people who shared it. It was time to put my foot down.

I folded my arms, composed an expression of stern disapproval and said, "What?" Jason gulped air, and collapsed again in fits. "I can wait," I said, and tapped one foot against the chocolate-besmirched vinyl floor.

Mark made an heroic effort to regain some semblance of composure. "There was something in my hot chocolate," he mumbled, abashed.

I cast an eye over the wreckage of what had, up until now, been a perfectly good kitchen. "Something apart from chocolate," I inferred with deadpan logic. Jason howled with laughter and folded into a heap. I hadn't thought it was that funny. "My office," I told them. "Now."

They'd gone too far, this time, so I read them the riot act and ordered Jason to clean up the kitchen. Mark looked everywhere but at his team or at me, well aware, I was certain, that he should have put a stop to things at least a day earlier. Just one more prank, I warned them (reasoning that if they were going to behave like children, I'd treat them like children) and they'd all be grounded for the weekend.

After they left, Shay Alban stuck her head around my door. "I'm doubling your guard, Chief," she informed me cheerfully.

"Wouldn't it make more sense to hunt down and kill the assassins?" I wondered aloud.

"Could I do that?" Shay asked me, a wistful smile blossoming on her face. There was a gleam in her eyes that made me glad I wasn't Spectran.

"If you see one, Major," I said, choosing my words with care, "please feel free to act with extreme prejudice."

"I was hoping you might let me be a little more proactive, sir, but I can work with that," Shay said, and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.

It was Gunny's turn to appear in the doorway. He brought me a cup of fresh coffee and I accepted it gratefully.

Six seconds later, after I'd uttered a stream of blasphemous invective, I drew breath and shouted: "JASON!"

The coffee was acidic. So sour I hadn't been able to swallow, it was obviously tainted with something. Knowing Jason, it would be something harmless, but this time, he'd gone too far.

"He'll only be a minute, Chief!" I heard Alban call.

"What in the world?" I muttered, and walked to the doorway.

Al was standing in the corridor, looking somewhat bemused. "It seems we've had a bit of a collision," she explained. My puzzled expression prompted her to elaborate. "Jason came barrelling out of the kitchen and knocked Shay ar-- er, bum over teakettle. She wasn't terribly impressed, I'm afraid."

When Jason slunk back to my office a moment later, I made good on my threat. I had to. Once made, it had to be carried out. I grounded the team, then, in a flash of inspiration, I meted out a punishment that would have them smarting: I assigned them to Shay to act as my bodyguards for the anti-piracy conference dinner.

"Don't you think that's a bit cruel?" Al asked me, solicitously bringing me a cup of tea afterward.

"They need to be taught a firm lesson," I insisted.

"I was referring to Shay," Al said reproachfully.

So I found myself the biggest blip on Jason's personal radar.

I had an arrangement with Al. She accompanied me to official functions, thus saving me the bother of finding a date whom I'd be obliged to keep amused, or the possibility of being assigned a companion from Center City's social whirl by my hosts. The last time this had happened, the lady in question had turned out to be a peace activist who thought my continuing existence was a blight on the entire Milky Way Galaxy. It had been an interesting evening, but hardly stress-free. Al had rescued me, citing a bogus emergency call. Since Al was regularly having to rescue me (for reasons unknown, some women seemed to think that because I was single and straight, I must automatically be in sore and urgent need of heavy-duty female companionship) we agreed that she might as well just be there to act as my social shield and buckler from the get-go. It was a long reach as far as her liaison and protocol job description went, but she took pity on me, and it was all duly documented as being appropriate and above board.

Official functions weren't nearly as stressful as they had been. I'd stopped getting those annoying tension headaches that felt like someone was tightening a steel band around my skull. Al understood when she should step in to defuse a situation and when she should simply stand back and let me verbally nail some idiot to the wall. She knew the names and alleged purpose of every item of cutlery ever made, could explain why each glass was used for which type of wine and researched guest lists so thoroughly (something I simply didn't have time to do) she could be introduced to minor diplomats from places I'd never heard of and know which school their kids went to. She was unfailingly, relentlessly courteous to people I could barely tolerate. All I had to do was point Al at my chosen target and nod at appropriate intervals. My consumption of aspirin plummeted.

The Anti-Piracy Conference was being held at the Center City Hilton. I was the dinner speaker, and I'd be addressing an audience of delegates from law enforcement, the military and industry. The obligatory contingent of politicians would be there, too, waving the flag and demonstrating their commitment to security for the public. I had my speech worked out and I'd managed to clear a lot of paperwork off my desk (I was slowly learning to delegate.) I decided to leave the office early (wonder of wonders!) and went in search of my deputy, Dr Roland Galbraith. I found him in his office and spent about ten minutes handing over the reins for the weekend. It felt strange to be taking time off.

Gunny had kept Shay informed of my plans and she was waiting for me in the lift lobby, talking with Al. Jason was lurking a short distance away, looking as though he was on his way to his own execution. Shay, it seemed, had been taking her responsibilities seriously and was leaving no stone unturned in her quest to turn G-Force into temporary protection officers.

"... know what they're saying," Shay said. "Cleavage is the new black this season."

"Not when I'm on duty it isn't," Al replied.

"Oh, come on," Shay teased. "You've got it, you oughta flaunt it. Why don't you give that blue silk number an airing? A few more years, gravity's going to take over and you'll regret having missed the boat."

At this point, my mind boggled and I tried to think about something innocuous, like paperclips.

"I'll stick with the old black when I'm at work, if you don't mind," Al said primly. "Anyway, I was planning on wearing my grey suit."

"That old thing?" Shay grimaced.

"Yes," Al said. "That old thing." She turned to me. "Got your speech, sir?"

I patted my jacket pocket, where the paper on which I'd written my notes made a reassuring rustle. "All present and accounted for, Colonel." The elevator arrived. We filed inside and that was when I made my first mistake: "Your grey suit's just fine," I said in an attempt to be supportive. Al always looked professional and sophisticated at official functions. I couldn't fault her taste in anything.

For someone who's supposed to be so intelligent, I can be a real idiot.

"Fine," she echoed, and there was a faint rising inflection in her tone suggestive of a not-quite-question. She was giving me a peculiar look that told me I'd somehow managed to put my foot in it.

Whatever 'it' was. Probably my mouth. A wise man would have shut up and changed the subject at this point. "There's nothing wrong with your grey suit," I said, adroitly digging myself further into the hole I was excavating. "It's, um... " Mentally, I scrabbled for a word. "Nice," I attempted. "You always look nice."

"Nice," she said, and there was ice in the word. I knew I was in trouble, but I had no idea exactly how I was going to extricate myself. A few feet away, I could hear Shay doing a poor job of trying to stifle a snigger.

Jason got out at Level 12, leaving me with two security officers desperately pretending they hadn't heard a thing, one Security Coordinator smirking, and one Liaison and Protocol Officer looking quietly furious.

The remainder of the ride to the car park was spent in stony silence. Like I said, I can be a real idiot.

My old field partner Marshall Hawking used to say that it was possible to control the impressions other people got of you. Where intelligence work was concerned, it was often vitally important they got the wrong one. Al had a similar philosophy, though she expressed it in her own unique and convoluted way: there were people, she maintained, and the ideas of people. She explained that we hold ideas of people in our heads and those ideas aren't always congruent with the reality of the people concerned.

I never saw it coming.

I had an idea of Al. It involved edges, the kind described as 'crisp,' or 'starched.' It involved adjectives like, 'cool,' 'frosty,' 'elegant,' and 'genteel.' My idea of Al most definitely didn't include adjectives such as, 'clinging,' 'slinky,' or 'curving.'

She was wearing a long pale blue satin dress which bore absolutely no relation to anything crisp and had never come within a parsec of being starched. It clung. It shimmered. It didn't reveal so much as suggest that revelation was only a few microns of fabric away. It left enough to the imagination that the imagination needed not only to be called to heel but to have a bucket of water thrown over it as well.

It's common knowledge that men mentally undress women. I desperately worked on the reverse, trying to visualise Al in her day uniform with those knife edge creases that were about as far away from the concept of 'flaunting' as it was possible to get.

It didn't work. I conceded Al points for this round. My ego wouldn't allow any acknowledgement to go further than the confines of my own thoughts, however, so I steadfastly pretended not to notice the way she looked.

Another thing I noticed was that she was being a sport about it: she pretended not to notice that I was pretending not to notice.

While Al intercepted Councillor Veren of the Appropriations Committee (a man who made my knuckles itch) I allowed myself a sigh of relief. Behind me, Shay sniggered. I glanced at my security coordinator, then followed her gaze to note that Councillor Veren wasn't making eye contact with Al. He was looking slightly lower than that.

"Does a gal good to go fishin' every now and then," Shay confided. Her native South Carolina drawl coloured her words, as it did when she was nervous, angry, upset or in the process of dispensing good ol' down home pearls of southern wisdom. "Only trouble is," she added, "you have to throw so many back."

"Really?" was all I could think of to say. When Shay was being sage, it was best not to commit to any point of view.

"And if you ain't careful," Shay said, "you end up hookin' the occasional shark."

"Oh, right," I murmured vaguely.

Shay chuckled again. "Al sure was riled when you said she looked 'nice.'"

"How can you tell?" I retorted, throwing caution to the wind.

Shay waved a hand in front of my face. "When was the last time you had the prescription checked on those eye glasses?"

"Very funny," I grumbled, batting her hand away. I reached into my pocket for my speech and rearranged the papers.

When I got as far as the podium to give my address, I found that I'd rearranged my notes into the wrong order and was obliged to ad-lib and fumble with sheets of paper for a few awkward moments. It didn't go as well as I'd hoped. All the same, there was enthusiastic applause when I was done (probably due to sheer relief that I'd stopped talking.)

That was when I noticed Jason standing with Al just off stage. She was giving him a standard disapproving look, and he put an arm around her. She pulled free and glared at him. He said something glib, smiled, then bowed and kissed her hand. She, clearly unimpressed, said something tart, which only made his grin widen the more. At that point, I was obliged to acknowledge the master of ceremonies, who arrived to shake my hand and wave me off stage.

By the time I'd caught up to Al, Jason was gone. "What was all that about?" I asked.

"It was nothing," Al said.

As we were leaving the hotel we realised we were going to have to run a gauntlet of protesters from the ironically named 'Galactic Peace Army.' I instructed Mark to take G-Force out by a separate exit. My staff and I would make our way to the waiting limousine out front to draw the fire of both the protesters and the media.

At least, that was the plan.

The Galactic Peace Army liked to argue their case for an end to hostilities in the Milky Way with projectiles, an argument that held my attention but didn't really stand up to rational analysis. The Center City Police Department had sent uniformed officers to contain the protest and with G-Force sneaking out the back way, I had an extremely ticked-off Shay as the only really visible security presence. The police formed a corridor for us and we made a run for the limousine.

Predictably, the noise level spiked at my appearance and we hurried for the car. I saw a flash of movement and Al darted between me and it, knocking away a raw egg with her right hand. Another one, however, impacted with her face, dangerously close to her right eye and she staggered. I grabbed her to keep her from falling. "You okay?" I asked her.

"Keep going!" she gasped, and tried to push me onward, toward the car. "You're not supposed to stop for me!"

I opened my mouth to say something along the lines of, 'To hell with that,' but the words never formed. There was a crash from above as the screen on one of the hotel windows blew out and a figure ablaze with light shot into empty air, wings unfurling and streaming sparks of energy. There were screams and the crowd surged away from us as Jason landed on the roof of the limousine like an avenging angel. "Come on," I said to Al, and bundled her toward the car.

"Stop the war!" someone screamed.

"I'd love to!" Jason retorted. "Any suggestions? How about we just surrender and let Zoltar walk all over us? That'd stop the war in a big hurry!"

Shay shoved Al and me inside the limousine, leapt in after us and pulled the door shut behind us. I heard the crowd react and peered out of the window to catch a glimpse of Jason leaping back toward a balcony on the hotel building, then the car moved away. As the protesters recovered from the shock of Jason's precipitous arrival and abrupt departure, a bag of flour hit the rear window and scattered fine particles all over the bullet proof glass.

"Idiots!" Shay spat. "You okay, Al?"

"What a mess," Al grumbled.

"There should be some bottled water in here, somewhere," I said, casting around the limo for the cabin storage unit, and Shay obliged by finding it and handing the water to me, along with a box of tissues.

"Hold still and let me see," I told Al, and began to apply the water and tissues. There was blood, but it all seemed to be coming from a pattern of fine cuts just above her cheekbone. "I don't think you've done any permanent damage," I said, frowning. "How does it feel?"

"It stings a bit," Al muttered. "I'm fine, really." She accepted some more tissues from Shay. Her eye was bloodshot, but appeared to have come into contact with nothing worse than egg yolk.

"All the same," I said, "you're going to report to the Duty Medical Officer at Seahorse Base and get that eye looked at properly."

"There's no need --" she began to protest.

"Regulations, Colonel," I said. She gave me a look. Quoting regulations was a favourite tactic of hers when dealing with me. I savoured the moment.

I put in a call to Jason to meet me back at the office, then ordered Corporal Mendelawitz to drop Al off at Seahorse Base Medical Centre before returning to the ISO Tower. I spent most of the trip on the line with Evan Ikari, head of Galaxy Security's PR and Media Liaison Department. Jason had scared the living daylights out of the Galactic Peace Army, and that meant media flack, heavy, and aimed squarely in my direction.

Predictably, Shay was less than impressed at the absence of G-Force and Al's egg-related incapacity. "Three security staffers left out of nine!" she grumbled as we rode the elevator up to the executive suite. "It's a good thing I had Bairstow and Thorne along as backup."

"Look on the bright side, Major," I twitted her. "At least you weren't hit with breakfast ingredients."

I cleaned up in the executive washroom while Shay took herself to her office, presumably to find security staff for the evening, then I retreated to my office to change my egg-spattered suit. I always kept a change of clothes and an overnight bag in my office closet, and the evening wasn't over, yet, if my discussions with Ikari were anything to go by.

I was knotting my tie when my palm unit rang with Ikari's caller ID. Under normal circumstances, Ikari avoided dealing with me one on one wherever he could, a tactic for which he had my gratitude. I couldn't stand the man and I was certain he returned the sentiment in full. Since he was unlucky enough to be rostered as Duty Officer tonight, we were obliged to work together.

Suppressing a sigh of resignation, I plugged the palm unit into my desktop tele-comm unit. "Anderson," I said.

"The media are having a field day with this!" Ikari declared. "They're quoting your statement, but we really need some reassurance on a more personal level. I'm setting up a live interview with George Kostakidis. Can you be ready in five minutes?"

"You don't leave me much choice," I said. "The usual precautions, Ikari: everything gets routed through Nerve Center, whether GNN likes it or not."

"Of course," he said as though I were insulting his intelligence, which, to be fair, was exactly what I was doing. Ikari knew the drill better than just about anyone in the organisation, including me.

"Good work," I told him. "I'll be in my office."

I did the GNN interview via tele-comm link, then poured myself a shot of Scotch while watching the remainder of the GNN programme. George Kostakidis, one of the few journalists I didn't want to shoot on sight, had set up a live discussion of the war issue. The Galactic Peace Army representative was none other than Karen Inglewood, the not-so-lovely lady I'd been partnered with at a Presidential dinner a few months back. The 'intellectual voice of reason' was Igor Kubiansky, Professor of Political Science from CCU. So much for peace and quiet. It seemed that if Spectra wasn't gunning for us, our own citizens stepped into the breach! Galactic Peace Army, indeed.

Paperwork was next on the agenda: I began filling out a standard incident report form. It didn't matter how high up you got on the Galaxy Security food chain: everyone had to fill out the standard incident report form.

My tele-comm unit chimed and a text message scrolled across the screen from Zark, informing me that Jason was on his way up.

A few moments later, Jason stalked in to my office, then slouched in a chair and glowered at me while I tried to make him understand that using G-Force, even without any actual violence, against our own civilian populace was a really bad idea.

At the end of our 'discussion,' I felt I'd wasted my breath. Jason continued to sulk and glower as he stalked out the way he'd stalked in. I listened for the sound of the elevator, and when I was sure he was gone, buried my face in my hands and groaned.

I finished my paperwork, finished my coffee, and told Shay it was time to go home. While I packed my briefcase, she did the invisible things a security coordinator does: organised the car, secured the office and told Zark to turn out the lights once we were gone. Being a Friday night, most of the traffic was heading in to the city rather than out of it, so the journey was quick and uneventful.

Once I got home, I checked in with Zark, who informed me that G-Force had arrived safely at Camp Parker. I told Zark to hold my calls and dialled Al's personal code. "I'm never going to play the violin again," she said by way of greeting. Hers was one of the few units cleared to pick up my caller ID. The tele-comm picture showed that she had her hair down and was wearing a shapeless knitted sweater. Without makeup, she looked wan to the point of appearing almost ghostly.

"Glad to hear it," I said. Al never learned to play the violin. "What did the DMO say?"

"That I should learn to duck faster," Al said. "He's put me on medical leave for twenty four hours. I'm not rostered for duty, anyway, so it makes no difference. I'm to see a counsellor next week to help me cope with the gut wrenching trauma of my experience."

"You know Galbraith always says you're in denial when you do that stiff upper lip thing, Ally."

"He can't help it," she said. "He's a psychologist. Anyway, who's in denial?" She shrugged. "If the mark doesn't come out of my dress, I'm going to have fifty fits and there's no denying that. It's silk, you know."

"I hadn't noticed," I lied. "Take it easy, Al."

"I will if you will," she countered.

"Don't force me to make it an order, Colonel," I warned, and closed the channel.

I left G-Force to their own (albeit questionable) devices for Saturday, but had Zark report to me on their activities. All seemed quiet on the adolescent front. On Sunday, I decided I'd remind them of my existence, and took a transport out to Camp Parker along with the results of their psychological evaluations. Adrienne McCall had been appointed senior psychologist to the G-Force team on Deputy Chief Galbraith's recommendation. Knowing very little about psychology, I took Galbraith's word for it that McCall was good at her job. I'd read her reports and discussed the contents with her. She'd suggested that I counsel Mark and Princess about their relationship with a view to pressing home the point that fraternisation was prohibited, and I'd disagreed. What Mark and Princess had, I reasoned, kept them balanced. They knew perfectly well that they couldn't cross the line, so for me to drag the issue into the open would have mortified them and, to my mind, had an adverse effect on both their relationship and the team dynamic. McCall had been unimpressed, but agreed to 'review the situation on an on-going basis.'

Mark sat in front of me, now, refusing to meet my eyes, and I scribbled a little asterisk next to Dr McCall's note about his excessive sense of personal responsibility.

"You understand," I said, "why it was necessary to discipline the entire team this weekend."

"Yessir," Mark mumbled. "I'm the commanding officer. I should have brought things under control."

"At least this gives you a common enemy," I said, referring to myself as Bad Cop. "Mark, it isn't easy having to shoulder the burden of command at your age, but overall you've done a fine job. Try to go a little easier on yourself."

"Big ten, Chief," Mark said. He took a breath and gave me a slightly worried look. "Um... Will that be all?"

"Yes, Commander," I said. "Send Jason in, please."

Whenever Jason wanted to annoy me, he would slouch in his chair and adopt a mien of textbook teenage sullenness. Invariably, it worked. Jason was an extremely capable and competent young man, but he cultivated a 'rebel without a clue' image that didn't quite fit his professionalism at work. It was a problem, but not as big a one as he wanted me to believe.

Still, there were the mind games: "What purpose," I asked him, glancing at his file, "could possibly be served by convincing Dr McCall that you think you're 'a teapot every other Tuesday'?"

"I was trying to establish an atmosphere of good natured camaraderie," Jason said.

Clever. I awarded him half a point, but couldn't let it go at that. "With whom, exactly?"

At this, he became exasperated. "Chief, you know I hate having my head shrunk!" he said. "They always ask about my childhood. What's to know? Most of my childhood was spent in the G-Force Project surrounded by G-Sec staff. Everything's already on file. How many more times can we analyse how I felt about my mother, for crying out loud?"

I could see where he was coming from. My own lack of enthusiasm for dealing with the staff psychologists wasn't exactly a secret. All the same, I was obliged to tout the official line. "The purpose of the psych evaluations is to ensure that we're doing everything we can to support you through the stresses of your job," I said.

"Oh, right," he said.

"And if you feel we could be doing better," I continued, "here's a novel suggestion: maybe it would help if you cooperated with the counselling staff."

"I don't need counselling," he said, his mouth dropping into a sulky downward curve, the way it used to when he was ten.

"What do you need, Jason?"

"The same thing everyone needs: a life, and I'll get it when we defeat Spectra. In the meantime, I'll get on with my job."

"Then perhaps at your next psych evaluation, you'll remember that, and allow the psychologists to get on with theirs. As it happens," I said, "Dr McCall feels that you have a relatively normal mindset, given the rigours of your position, and that your -- ahem -- quirky sense of humour is a healthy outlet, if somewhat counter productive in an evaluation environment."

"So I'm sane, then," he concluded.

"Yes. And you have a piece of paper that says so."

"I feel so special," he said sourly.

"And because you're so special, I have a special job for you. It seems Admiral Sasaki would like to put his flagship and top battle group through their paces and they need a challenge. As of Monday morning, you'll be assisting Mark in preparing plans for G-Force participation in the upcoming war games with the Navy."

"War games?" He actually rolled his eyes.

"It appears you need something to occupy your time and I think this could be just what you need to keep boredom at bay."

Jason shrugged. "Right," he said. He gave me a speculative look, and I could almost see the gears meshing in his head. "Uh, Chief, can I ask you something... personal?"

I frowned. "What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothing. I was just wondering something... about women."

"You're asking me?" I was probably the worst person in the galaxy to ask about women.

"Do women... well... you know... when they get older... Are older women still interested in men the way younger women are? Like, you know how girls are always getting crushes on boys and stuff... ?"

"Jason," I said, "I'm no authority on women, but human beings don't lose interest in the opposite sex just because they're out of their twenties. Assuming nobody kills you first, you have plenty of time to find Ms Right. Anyway, aren't you seeing Lieutenant Patrick?"

"Oh, uh... yeah... That wasn't quite what I was wondering... I guess older women just aren't as obvious about it. I mean, when Princess likes a guy she goes all hearts and flowers and stuff, whereas Al, on the other hand --"

Al? "What does Colonel Jones have to do with this?" I interrupted.

Jason immediately shot me a guilty look. "Um..." he stalled, "I was, uh... just noticing something, that's all."

Oh, no, I thought, my mind flashing back to the memory of Friday night: Jason, putting an arm around Al, then making a mock courtier's bow and kissing her hand. Don't tell me I have to deal with a teenage crush on top of everything else... And how does someone like Jason develop a crush on someone like Al? "Jason, how about you cut to the chase and tell me where we're going on this mental mystery tour of yours?" I said.

"Well..." he mumbled. "I don't know if I should say anything."

"Then don't," I suggested, sensing a way out. This was not what I needed, right now.


"Jason," I began. I was going to have to confront this, after all. I drew breath to point out that Al was twice his age, that she wasn't his type, that he wasn't her type --

"I think she likes you," he blurted.

I almost choked on my lecture and stared at him, appalled on so many levels. Questions raced through my mind: what had Jason seen to make him think that Al 'liked' me? What had he heard? Had Al said anything to anyone? To Jason? Why would she say anything to Jason? Surely she wouldn't confide in Jason, of all people? Al likes me? "You don't know what you're talking about," I said.

"Don't you want to know why I think she likes you?" Jason asked me, clearly hoping I'd ask.

Nonsense. Complete and utter nonsense. "I'm not interested in your puerile adolescent fantasies!" I growled. "If you have nothing intelligent to say, get out of my office!"

He got up and fled, but he was trying very hard not to smile. Damn.

Al liked me?

Jason was imagining things. Alberta Jones was a professional and so was I. When it came to compartmentalisation, Al left everyone in the shade, including me. There was no way she'd ever make the mistake of letting herself develop inappropriate emotional attachments.

Which wasn't to say we weren't close as colleagues. Al had been my personal security coordinator, and when you spend a chunk of your life with someone whose job it is to die if necessary to protect you, it tends to build trust. I'd come to trust Al, and to rely on her. Since I'd moved her into the position of staff liaison officer, I'd even started delegating some of my diplomatic and liaison tasks to her.

I was comfortable with Al. Since I'd started behaving myself and complying with security recommendations, she'd seemed to grow comfortable with me. Okay, maybe there was some basic chemistry, but there was also a healthy chunk of professional respect, and neither one of us was about to commit career suicide by crossing any lines.

Jason had it completely wrong.

All the same, I wondered how he'd got the idea in his head.

G-Force were obviously still bored the next morning. Jason, as usual, started it during pre-takeoff checks in the Multi-Modal Transport we were taking back to the city. Mark had put his second in the command seat for some flight time. "Engaging sublight inverter transdeucers at reverse polarity," Jason announced.

"Acknowledged," Mark said. "Octet bonds at maximum orbital velocity."

Great. We were going to have a 'my nonsensical jargon can beat up your nonsensical jargon' contest.

"How's about we just get outta here?" Tiny suggested, to my relief. Mark and Jason shrugged, obtained their clearance and we lifted off. Jason was a little rusty and Mark made suggestions like an instructor, relaxed in the right hand seat while Jason nodded and joked with his commander. At least the boys seemed to have buried the hatchet. Touch down in the hangar of the ISO Tower was a little rough, but not overly so.

I told Mark to assemble his team for a briefing in thirty minutes' time, and made my way to the office. I'd had an easy weekend, but today my schedule was full. I recognised a lot of the names from the anti-piracy conference. I was early, with Gunny not due to arrive for another half hour. I had my usual talk with Shay, who summarised the security assessments for my activities and gave me the news that the President wanted to see me about a question on notice in today's Council session.

"His master's voice," I said. "Leave a message for Gunny to reschedule my appointments when he gets in." I decided I needed coffee.

The brew was just finishing as I got there, so I poured myself a cup and sipped at it, relishing the temporary quiet. I headed back down the corridor, past G-Force, and the elevator door opened. Al emerged, chastely elegant in a charcoal trouser suit with a high necked white blouse. There was a fading tracery of almost-healed scratches on her cheek from where the egg had hit her.

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

"Fine," she said. "I won't even have any battle scars to show for my trouble once the scratches heal," she added with a wry smile, and reached for the tea bags.

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

"Have you seen your schedule, lately?" she countered, with a look that implied that whilst I might still be scheduled for a working lunch, it would be a far more scratchy affair than I'd originally planned. She filled her cup with boiling water and jiggled the tea bag up and down on its string.

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

Al put her tea bag in the garbage bin and led the way back toward my office. "The last time I saw it, it was quite definitely 'live,'" she said as we steered around G-Force who were heading to the kitchen for what I presumed to be their usual hot chocolate fix. "Your appointment with the Secretary of Defence has been moved up. 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, Admiral Sasaki left a message saying he wants to see you and you've got an invitation to a charity preview of the Dolfius exhibition at the Center City Guggenheim."

I refrained from groaning aloud. "Am I going?" I asked. We stopped next to Gunny's desk. He'd be in any minute and I figured I might as well let him know what he was up against in person.

"It depends," Al 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."

Oh. Joy. Contemporary art and politicians. "Accept with thanks," I said. "Maybe I can come down with dysentery or something between now and then."

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

Our civilisation has achieved technological marvels and still we have the ISO staff cafeteria with all its attendant culinary horrors, including an item referred to by members of staff as 'fly cemetery' (raisin slice.) The names they give to what passes for custard aren't up for discussion in polite circles. "Is that a suggestion or a threat?" I parried. "You have a twisted mind, Colonel."

Al smiled and shook her head, almost, but not quite laughing. "How do I resist y--?" she broke off mid-sentence and I followed her suddenly icy gaze down the hall...

To Jason, who was standing outside the office area, staring at us.

And, no doubt, speculating. "Is there something I can help you with, Jason?" I asked as pointedly as I could.

"Uh... it can wait," he said.

"Briefing in ten minutes," I reminded him. He nodded and hurried away down the corridor. "What is it with that kid?" I muttered.

"Couldn't say, sir," Al said, seemingly flustered, and strode away. I might have followed if Gunny hadn't stepped out of the elevator.

"Morning, Chief," he said.

"Morning, Gunny," I replied. "My schedule needs rearranging around the President. Make it a priority, please."

"Yes, sir," he said.

I briefed G-Force on their next mission: Admiral Sasaki's war games, and a press conference at the Presidential Palace the next morning. I sent them to review the information to hand while I answered the Presidential summons.

Al had been right about my schedule. By the time I managed to eat the sandwich Gunny organised for me, it was almost three in the afternoon, and the work was building up on my desk. Again.

I managed to palm three meetings off on Roly Galbraith in his capacity as my deputy, (for which Mrs Galbraith would most likely be decidedly unappreciative) and delegated some paperwork to various other members of the Executive group. At six, Al gave me another lecture about my tendency to overwork. I made vague, noncomittal noises at her until she called me my own worst enemy (again) and left in disgust.

At six thirty, Al dragged me (and my security detail) to Curtin's Bar and Grill, where we had a pleasant meal, followed by an argument over who was paying. We ended up splitting the bill before she sent me on my way.

She could be such a mother hen, at times.

I reminded myself that I didn't like it. Really. I mean, one heart attack and all of a sudden your friends are convinced you're going to drop dead if you don't get all your vitamins.

Tuesday has always had a tendency to follow Monday. I've always felt that this makes reading the calendar a lot easier than it might otherwise have been, if, say, Tuesday suddenly decided it was going to hang out with Thursday instead.

Whenever I started to think like this, it meant I was getting stressed out again. I made sure I went for a good long run before breakfast. I had a feeling it was going to be one of those days, and the blocked-out area on my scheduled marked, 'Press Conference with G-Force - Presidential Palace,' had a lot to do with it.

The press conference was a necessary evil. The lack of Spectra activity aimed at Earth seemed to be making half the population complacent and the other half twitchy. I got in to the office around eight, determined to make a start on some of my backlog. As usual, one of the security staff brought me my first cup of coffee, and I settled in to work. Around eight forty, with G-Force due in at nine, I decided I'd need additional caffeine, so I headed for the executive kitchen to grab a refill. When I got there, I found Shay talking with one of her security team.

"-- Giving seven to two that it's the Chief," I heard Lieutenant Bairstow say as I opened the door.

A look of horror crossed Shay's face as she saw me. "Hi, Chief," she said. Bairstow hurriedly stashed a notebook in his jacket pocket as he spun around to face me.

"Making book again, lieutenant?" I inferred.

"Um..." Bairstow rasped, reddening. He did the only thing he could under the circumstances: he excused himself and fled while I poured a cup of coffee.

"Major Alban, a moment of your time?" I asked, and made my way back to my office. Shay followed me. "Shut the door," I said, once we were inside, and she did so. I put my coffee cup down on my desk and waited.

Standing just in front of the closed door, Shay pretended innocence. "What's going on, Chief?" she asked.

"You tell me," I suggested and leaned against my desk, folding my arms as I did so.

"You mean Ray..." Shay shrugged. "You know, sir, you could take him to the cleaners if you can answer one very simple question."

"I doubt that," I said. "Spill it."

"Ray's taking bets -- was taking bets," Shay corrected herself, "in fact, will shortly be forbidden to take any more bets and will be told -- by me -- to return all the money, on who it was."

I'd understood each and every individual word Shay had said to me but I was having trouble comprehending the sentence as a whole. "Explain," I ordered.

"Well, um... you know, it was anonymous and everything... you can't expect people not to speculate!"

"Major --" I began.

"Not that there's anything wrong with sending flowers," Shay said, starting to get nervous. "I mean, flowers have hundreds o' meanings. Friendship, for instance. Platonic friendship... and... and professional regard. Nothin' says professional regard like flowers!"

I stared at her. "What in the galaxy are you babbling about?"

Shay frowned, eyes narrowing. "It wasn't you?"

"Do me a favour," I said. "Assume -- correctly -- that I have absolutely no idea what's going on, here. Start from the very beginning and take it slowly."

Shay shifted uncomfortably and explained how a courier had arrived with a single long stemmed red rose with a card addressed to Al. The card bore no information other than the delivery address and the fact that it had come from Maurice the Floriste, who had premises on the other side of the plaza. Al, it seemed, had been somewhat bemused by the rose, then appalled at the attention it generated, and threw said rose in the garbage, on the grounds that she wasn't interested in any paramour aspirant who lacked the, er... fortitude (Shay used a different word) to make himself known from the outset.

I hastily concealed a bark of amusement behind a cough. "You're telling me that Ray Bairstow is making book on the identity of Al's secret admirer, and he's giving seven to two that it's me? Sorry, Major. House wins on that one -- and don't tell Lieutenant Bairstow to return the money. Anyone foolish enough to bet money on something like that deserves to lose it. Of course," I added, "you can also tell him how very generous it is of him to donate his ill-gotten gains to the Galaxy Security Legacy Fund. It's a very worthy cause, don't you agree?"

I allowed myself a chuckle after Shay was safely out of the office, then I wondered what Al thought about it all.

Then I wondered who'd sent the rose.

A few uncharitable thoughts wandered through my head before I dismissed them and got back to work.

After my heart attack, I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to cut down on coffee. Strictly speaking, I've done that: I switch to tea after eight in the evening. During the day, however, coffee keeps me going. It's a standing joke that I've worn a path in the floor between my office and the coffee pot.

Al is almost as bad, but for her, it's tea. Al and I have always tended to see a lot of each other in the immediate vicinity of the executive kitchen.

"I hear you have a secret admirer, Colonel," I quipped, in an attempt at small talk.

Al gave me an Arctic look. "So I'm led to believe, sir," she said. Her words had edges like rime ice.

At the risk of frost bite, I persisted. Lighten up, Al. "You're led to believe?"

"I don't much care for mysteries," she said, clearly in a state of profound annoyance.

Okay, complete lightening up failure, there. "You prefer the direct approach?" I tried again.

"I'm afraid I'm really rather dull, sir," she said. "If you'll excuse me." She turned on her heel and stalked a few steps before glancing back over her shoulder at me. "As it happens," she added, "I prefer white roses."

Okay, she wasn't happy about the whole thing. I always thought women liked getting flowers, but Al was acting as though someone had just handed her a cockroach on a stick.

"I heard someone sent Al a rose," Jason's voice sounded behind me. "I wonder who it was?"

Indeed. I wonder... "That's none of our business," I said. Was this whole Al likes you thing some kind of transference behaviour? "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." I walked away from him, heading for the sanctuary of my office.

What you mistook for some kind of interest in me is a budding relationship with someone else. That sounded really weird when I actually said it out loud. The idea of Al being courted by some anonymous suitor seemed... off key, somehow. Clearly, it bothered her, and I'd somehow made it worse. The gentlemanly thing to do would be to apologise, and so I left my desk to venture down the corridor to Al's office. She was behind her desk, reading her mail. "Sir?" she greeted me coolly.

"I come in peace," I quipped, raising my hands in a universally acknowledged gesture of surrender.

"Oh?" She took her hands from the computer keyboard and clasped them loosely in front of her, wrists resting on the edge of the desk.

"It occurs to me," I said, "that I owe you an apology. 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."

I sat down in one of the visitors' chairs. "I doubt it was sent with the express intention of annoying you," I said.

Al smiled and relaxed. "You're right, of course. 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."

Jason again! "What makes you say that?" I probed.

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

"You have a point there." There was a very faint sound, like someone shifting their weight and drawing a breath. I frowned. An eavesdropper, perhaps? In the privacy of my head, the other shoe made a resounding clatter as it dropped and I remembered the conversation I'd had with Jason after going over his psych evaluation. I leaned forward, signalled for quiet with one hand and lowered my voice. "Is Jason playing the same mind games with both of us, Ally?" I murmured.

"That depends," she hedged, leaning close so that her breath tickled my ear. "What did he say to you?"

"I asked first," I said. She didn't answer but drew away, giving me a look that combined anxiety with embarrassment and told me all I needed to know. I reached for a piece of notepaper and scribbled on it, 'Turn about is fair play. Yes or No?'

She stared at me, wide-eyed, then let out her breath and reached for the paper with one hand while she picked up her pen with the other. She drew an emphatic circle around the word 'Yes.'

I took another piece of paper and wrote, 'He's listening. Say something.'

"Do you think," Al asked me, "that we could possibly pretend we're not having this conversation?"

"What I think," I said, "is that we need to deal with this." 'We need a code,' I wrote. 'Name a book.'

"If you want my opinion," Al said, "I think we should ignore him." 'Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy,' she scrawled.

"You're probably right," I said. "I just..." 'Groups of four numbers: page, paragraph, line, word. OK?'

"You just what?" Al murmured. 'Understood. I'll source two copies of the book.'

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

"What is it?" she asked.

I hadn't been certain as to whether or not I should raise it, but I decided to plunge on ahead regardless. "Do you think Jason could be developing a crush on you?"

Al went several shades of pale. "I'm old enough to be his mother!" she squeaked. "Besides, Jason's been going out regularly with Lieutenant Patrick. They seem quite taken with each other."

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

She was smiling as she picked up a piece of paper and wrote, 'You are an evil, twisted machinator.' Her frankly admiring gaze made me wonder if I should find Jason and shake his hand.

I returned her smile and put pen to paper. 'I do my best,' I wrote.

Alberta leaned back in her chair. "Well, whoever he is, I'm sure it'll all sort itself out," she said, for the benefit of our hidden listener.

I pushed my chair back. "Assuming it's a 'he,'" I quipped. "That might explain the secrecy."

Al laughed. It was a nice laugh. "There's something that hadn't occurred to me!" she said. "Thank you. 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 said. "I'll ask Director Lewindowsky to have one of his people run a check." I heard the sound again, someone moving in the corridor. I stood and leaned close to Al so as not to be overheard. "This is going to be fun," I promised in a whisper.

Jason found the press conference boring. I knew he would. While Mark was taking questions from the press, I stood close to Al in the wings, out of public view.

"Any minute, now," I predicted, as I saw Jason's eyes glaze over. Sure as the sun rises in the east, Jason's head began to turn. I took a half step into Al's personal space and inclined my head to whisper, "Let me know when he's looking this way." I was close enough to feel the warmth she gave off, and I could smell her perfume, a light, old fashioned scent that spoke of starched linen and the kind of lace that has its own sense of propriety.

"Now," she breathed.

"Notice that he's there and move away like you've been caught out," I murmured. She did so, and I risked a glance in Jason's direction. One corner of his mouth had lifted into a tiny little smirk. Don't think you can take me on and win, junior, I thought.

To be on the safe side, I enlisted Bob and Kate Halloran as accomplices.

"What do you need us for?" Bob asked. "You're the one who used to mastermind all the best practical jokes in college. This kid's an amateur."

"Maybe," Kate said, "but if anyone else notices our esteemed Chief of Staff getting a little close with his liaison officer, he'll need us to vouch for him, right?"

"There's that," I agreed, "but I may also need some slightly more... tangible assistance."

Al, it turned out, had briefed Shay, who agreed to play along, but voiced reservations.

"Just so long as nothing gets out of hand, here," she warned.

"We're adults," I assured her. "And we're going to teach this kid a lesson." I opened a comm channel and had Zark connect me through to Maurice the Floriste, where I placed an order.

Shay stared at me, open mouthed, as the florist confirmed the details. "You're spending how much?" she breathed. "On a practical joke?"

"High stakes require an investment," I said. I caught Al's gaze. "Besides, you said you liked white roses."

"I can grow them a lot cheaper, sir," Al said.

"All's fair in love and war," I told her. "It'll be worth every cent to see the look on Jason's face."

Zark had been sworn to secrecy. The robot professed to be greatly amused by the plan, and promised not to snitch. The fact that he'd used the word 'snitch' in an actual sentence was vaguely disturbing. Zark's job was to warn me whenever Jason was in the vicinity.

Al purchased two identical copies of Far From the Madding Crowd and gave one to me so that I could use it to write coded instructions. Jason was bright enough to hack into the G-Sec network and intercept electronic communication, (I'd overseen his training, after all, and had an inkling as to what he was capable of) so we fell back on old fashioned intelligence methodologies to thwart his snooping. I was determined that old age and treachery would overcome youth and enthusiasm.

When venturing to deceive, less is sometimes more, so we avoided the obvious tactic of disappearing into the stationery store in corridor five. It was just too tacky. We settled instead for subtlety: when Jason was around, we acted as though we'd just been gazing into each other's eyes, which seemed to intrigue him far more than anything blatant. He almost caught us discussing the finger points of cryptography in the kitchen, but that worked in our favour as well: he interpreted our whispers as being about another kind of secret altogether.

When I felt we'd engaged sufficient interest, we initiated endgame.

I let Jason spot me passing a note to Al. Despite his best efforts to convince me otherwise, I knew Jason to be a highly trained and intelligent young professional, and he didn't let me down. Zark was only able to track Jason's hack-job into the surveillance system because I'd ordered him to monitor Jason's activities. Later in the day, Zark showed me the security footage of Jason sneaking into my office and finding my copy of Thomas Hardy's classic, then locating the corresponding copy in Al's office.

I called Al into my office, brought her up to speed, then placed a scrambled call to Bob Halloran.

Evil, twisted machinator that I am, I ascribe to one of my predecessor's favourite maxims: Security Chief Conway always told me I should set myself up to succeed. This was why I had Zark isolate and shut down about fifty percent of the lighting up in the roof garden area, making it dim and difficult to discern detail.

Zark called me at nineteen forty five to report that Jason had arrived at the roof garden and was taking up position in a sheltered spot. In turn, I summoned my little team of four conspirators and we swung into action.

We rode the elevator to the hangar level. Bob, Al and I got out, leaving Kate to travel the remaining floor up to the roof garden. Bob waited for another elevator car so that he could be seen to arrive separately while Al and I took the stairs.

Zark routed video feed through to my palm unit. Jason, hunkered down amongst the shrubbery, had a tiny hand-held video camera which he was using to record Kate's arrival. In the shadowy darkness, with the long blonde wig and the dark blue overcoat and hat, a casual observer could have mistaken her for Al.

"Do you really think this is going to work?" Al asked. Even with Al's uniform cap and a pair of platform shoes, Kate was a good half a head shorter than Alberta.

"People see what they expect to see," I said, trying to hide my own uncertainty. "Anyway, Bob's shorter than me, so it all evens out."

Zark deactivated the lock on the stairwell door and I held it open for Al to precede me. We made our way into the dimly lit lobby and found a lurking spot in the shadows well away from the glass doors that opened on to the roof garden.

A moment later, the elevator chimed, the doors slid open and Bob, wearing my overcoat, a pair of fake spectacles that looked like mine, a wig and his own moustache, made his entrance.

My instructions to the Hallorans were simple: proceed to the unlit area of the safety railing, get up close and personal, and after a minute or two, start making out. Bob and Kate had been married for nearly twenty five years and had four children. By now, I figured they had to be at least half way decent at it.

Al stood close enough that she could see the screen on my palm unit. "This is bizarre," she muttered. "How are we going to explain this if anyone asks?"

"With the truth, I guess," I murmured back.

"You expect people in this organisation to believe that either one of us has a sense of humour?" Al challenged.

She had a point, there. "We have Bob and Kate to corroborate our story," I said. "Besides, this is an exercise in vindictiveness, and it's easy to believe that I'm vindictive, isn't it?"

"I don't think I should answer that," Al said.

"Shhh!" I hissed. "He's moving." Al and I watched as Jason lowered the camera, fiddled with it and crept away from his hiding place. He was coming in, without, it seemed, his incriminating footage. Puzzled, we moved well away from his line of sight and waited.

The doors opened and my palm unit showed Jason turning to stare out through the glass at the couple by the railing. As I quietly moved up behind him, I heard him mutter, "So much for that. I hope it works out for you two."

Surprise, surprise! Still, he'd started this. Now it was time for me to finish it. "Nice sentiment," I said, and he jumped. "Maybe you can send them a card for their next anniversary."

Jason's glance flew from me to Bob and Kate and back again. Al had walked up to stand beside me and we stood with arms folded, enjoying Jason's expression of panicked confusion. "Uh... " he said. "Hi, Chief... Al... Um... Nice evening... for... for a stroll?""

"I'm more inclined to think of it as educational," I corrected. I opened a channel on my palm unit to call the Hallorans. "Come on in, you two. He's busted."

Bob and Kate sauntered in to the lobby, arm in arm, looking smug. Bob took off the spectacles he'd been wearing. "Jason," he said, "you should see your face." Al held out a plastic bag and he dropped them into it, then pulled off the wig and tossed that in as well.

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

Bob uttered a soft laugh. "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 said, "but it's up there in your top ten."

"I have my moments," I conceded.

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

"I'll ride downstairs with you," Al said, and went with the Hallorans to the elevators, which left Jason and me eyeing each other off.

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

Jason's glower was a study in youthful resentment. "I guess I was hoping you might try walking a mile in the other guy's shoes," he grumbled.

I had no idea what he meant by that. "What?" I asked.

"You're so self-righteous," Jason accused me. "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?"

I drew breath to defend myself and realised that I still hadn't made it as far as Planet Jason. "What?" I asked again.

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

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

"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," I said, then I realised what he was talking about: Dr McCall and her recommendation that I reinforce the no-frat rules with Mark and Princess. "You've accessed the psych reports," I said. "Jason, you know those are supposed to be confidential!"

"I haven't seen them," he retorted. "I just know about the recommendation. Don't ask me how."

"Clearly, you don't know as much as you think you do," I shot back at him. "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 was silent for a moment, open mouthed, then he said, "Uh... no, sir. That was... that was it."

"Do I really appear that stupid," I asked whichever deity of foster-parents which may have been listening, "or is it some generational thing?"

Wisely, Jason elected not to respond. He considered me for a moment before folding his arms. "You set me up," he said.

"I did," I confirmed.

Jason stared at me, and I could almost see the mental gears grinding before he spoke again: "Did you really convince a physics professor that you'd created a black hole?"

"It was a long time ago," I said.

Jason took a moment to breathe, then spoke: "You never intended to issue that order?"

"Never," I said. "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."

He had the grace to wince at that, and hurried away, apparently chastened.

Game, set and match to the Old Farts.

Al was waiting for me in my office. "How did it go?" she asked.

I rubbed my hands together. "I think I could have had a fulfilling career as an evil genius," I quipped.

"You'll enjoy it more if you just keep it on as a hobby," she parried.

"I guess so," I agreed.

"So, what was it all about?" she asked.

"A misunderstanding," I said. "The details are classified, I'm afraid, but we've cleared the air and I don't think he'll be giving us any more trouble."

"You know," Al said, "once the Official Secrets Act expires on all of this, I'm really going to enjoy hearing the full story."

"That should be in about thirty years," I said. "I guess you'll just have to hang around."

"So it would seem," she said, and smiled.

"Buy you a drink?" I offered.

"I could use one," she said.

That evening, we devised one final little torment for Jason: I placed a standing order with Maurice the Floriste for a single white rose to be delivered to Al's office once a month on random days. Every now and then, I see Jason watching and wondering if he dares ask the question, but he never does. Maybe he's learned his lesson.

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