Masquerades by Grumpy Ghost Owl
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DISCLAIMER
Battle of the Planets is the property of Sandy Frank Productions and Tatsunoko. No profit, commercial gain, monetary or otherwise, hire or reward is generated by the author of this work.




MASQUERADES
Part III of a Battle of the Planets fan fiction


Zoltar

The Luminous One is most pleased with my work. And rightly. It is, after all, a brilliant plan.

It has been almost a full day since the X-3 burst in a flower of destruction in Earth's upper atmosphere. The Van Allen radiation belt has lowered as predicted by my scientists (woe to them had they been wrong!) and the Terrans are already seeing the effects.

The Earth's weather was the first to be disrupted: electrical storms, tornadoes, freak tides, even the first signs of polar ice melt! The skies are aflame and the people are panicking -- weaklings! This is but a small taste of what Spectra endured when the supernova hit us six hundred years ago. We survived. We are strong, and we had the Luminous One to show us the way.

You, on the other hand, poor, weak, soft Earthlings. You have only Me to turn to.

And soon it will be time to make it official.



Keyop

I hardly noticed the jump back to Earth. I couldn't feel anything much, just a slow, creeping numbness, really. I'm not mad at Mark, any more. I just want him to come back and find Colonel Cronus and then we can all go after Zoltar together and try to put things right again. I have absolutely no idea how we'll manage it, but the Chief will think of something. He always does.

Princess is a mess. She wants Mark home even more than I do. I know I tease her about having a crush on him, but I've never seen her like this, before. We've been to hell and back, Princess and me, but this time I'm really worried about her. Is this what love is supposed to be like, when you grow up? If it is, I hope I never fall in love with anyone. Ever.

We're in the briefing room, and I look out at the sea. It's calm, down here, but the colour is all wrong. The sky looks funny, topside and the fish are all agitated. They can't see the sky, but they must be able to feel something.

Was this what it was like when Noah had to build the Ark? When his whole world was going to go down the toilet and he had to gather all the animals, two by two and hope like crazy they'd all survive for forty days and forty nights?

Only, there's going to be no dove returning with an olive branch, this time. This time, there's no going back. Zoltar has condemned our world to die.

All because we were half a minute too late.

The Chief isn't even blaming us.

Somehow, that makes it even worse.

"Looks... awful," I hear myself warble.

"We'll think of something," Princess assures me, but she doesn't sound all that convinced.

That's my big sister. She's all wound up over Mark and she still finds the time to try and comfort me.

I turn at the sound of the door opening and see the Chief enter the room, wielding a tape, which turns out to be a message from Spectra. The Chief says we'll recognise the voice.

And we do:

"Good morning, Chief Anderson, and my friends in G-Force."

"The Purple Party-Pooper," Tiny observes.

"Some friend," I spit, seething.

"By now," the tape continues, "you are aware of the power we have unleashed. Within six months, the Earth will become completely contaminated. You have one choice: surrender, or be destroyed!" That's two choices, shit head. I can see Jason's thinking much the same thing as he clenches one fist and glares at the tape player. If looks could kill, that machine would be molten, by now. "We can still stop the X-3 Plan here," the Purple Peril continues, "and replace the Van Allen belt, but I warn you: you must act in twenty four hours, or be destroyed."

At this, Jason slams the balled-up fist into the palm of his (other) open hand.

"He's so cocky!" he snarls.

"There must be something we can do to stop him," Princess says, almost pleading.

"There might be," the Chief says, "if we only had time."

"He said he could replace the Van Allen belt," Tiny chimes in, suddenly hopeful, "but how?"

"He would use a missile," the Chief explained, fiddling with the projector. "This is a map of the Earth, showing the Van Allen radiation belt. Theoretically, it is possible to blow up the band by causing a huge explosive wind. To perform this feat, you would need a missile of awesome strength."

Of course! The lightbulb snaps on in my head. If Zoltar can replace the Van Allen belt, then so can we! It would take a missile even bigger than the X-3, because the X-3 worked from the outside in, from what was, to all intents and purposes, pretty close to being a vacuum, but any counter-measure would have to factor in the Earth's atmosphere in its present, fiery and turbulent state. I take a deep breath to try and speak.

"And we," Tiny concludes, slumping, "don't have one."

Technically, no, but I know someone who has!

"Spectra!" I chirp, inwardly cursing my stutter yet again, "does have one!"

Jason grins, and it's not a nice smile.

"In that case, why don't we use theirs?" he postulates. Exactly.

"Good thinking!" Princess declares, with a snap of her fingers. "We'll infiltrate the Spectra base at Riga!"

"Snitch... their missile!" I add, and it's as though the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders.

We can save the day -- all we have to do is give Zoltar a bloody nose (nothing we haven't done before) and swipe his pet birdie.

Without Mark. Again. I sure hope the others can keep it together. The last thing we need is for the team to fall apart under pressure.

"A manoeuvre like that will call for all your skill and daring," the Chief says. "I wish you good luck."

We salute and race for the door. Back to it!

Halfway to the elevator, I skid to halt as I hear the Chief call to Princess. She pauses -- I can just see her in the doorway.

"Yes?" I hear her say.

"With Mark still missing," the Chief's voice is low and I have to strain to pick up what he's saying -- I know, eavesdroppers never hear anything nice about themselves, but knowledge is power, so there -- "Jason is technically in command of G-Force. Help him out."

"Sure, Chief," Princess says, and she turns to head back down the corridor, so I skedaddle.

Man, we have to do what Jason tells us to! He's gonna love that! Still, Jason tries to act like a tough guy, but he always does the right thing by the team. It's the team that has to come first, so I'll do what he says.

Until Mark gets back.

How are we ever going to face Mark, knowing what we do about Cronus being his father?

But there's no time to worry about that, now. It's time to board the Phoenix and make the run to Riga. And this time, we won't be late.



Zoltar

I arrived on Riga slightly frayed around the edges thanks to the high-displacement factor of the time warp required to meet my schedule, which left me with a pounding headache, as it always does. It will pass, shortly, and in the meantime, the Base Commander would do well to have a glowing progress report ready for me. I hold out little hope, however, that this may be the case. For all that he's a highly qualified engineer and well skilled at the covert management of large installations, his deadline-meeting abilities leave much to be desired.

I take comfort in the sure knowledge that my headache isn't nearly as bad as the one I have bestowed upon my counterpart, Security Chief Anderson, back on Earth. As is to be expected, I haven't yet heard from Earth's government, or any representative of the Federation, as yet, oh, apart from the Catholic Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury urging me to reconsider and promising that they'll pray for me.

How touching.

Not that their prayers will be of any help to them, now.

No, the Terrans will be arguing amongst themselves as they always do, and my nemesis, Anderson, will be right there in the middle of it all. I must see if the Communications people have managed to intercept any of the video feed from the Federation Council Chamber. It pays to keep an eye on one's foes, after all.

My Chief of Rigan Intelligence meets me, looking none the worse for his narrow escape from the Red Rangers. Somehow, this manages to irritate me. The man has just lost over seventy percent of our central city intelligence cell -- including all the files, in toto -- and he hasn't even torn his clothing! This one may well bear watching.

"I'm concerned," he says, "that Anderson hasn't given us any indication of surrendering."

"Don't worry," I tell him. "When the pressure gets strong enough, he will submit. They all will."

We enter the elevator and descend through to the missile launching area, and I stride out onto the gantry. My headache eases off as I breathe in the sharp smell of the sea. The hangar, built into the side of a cliff and making economical use of natural limestone caves, opens out onto a calm and deserted bay. A perfect location, and one which we managed to conceal very well, right under the noses of Cronus and his impertinent Red Rangers.

There is a danger, now, that my Intelligence Chief's flight from our central city cell to the main bayside installation may have been tracked, leading the Rigans to us, but even so, it's a calculated risk, and with the X-3 plan already succeeding, it is a risk I am prepared to countenance.

If he was tracked, then as soon as I get the information on the G-Force Commander's identity out of him, he is a dead man.

The acrid taint of hot metal mingles with the ocean air, the odour rising up from the missile's skin, which appears far too incomplete for my liking.

I turn away from the glare of the welding torches, my gaze sweeping the gantry and coming to rest upon the dark-clad form of the Base Commander, who stands overlooking the missile, consulting a set of plans with the air of a man who wishes to be seen consulting plans. Knowing what the answer is likely to be, I ask him for a progress report.

"We need more time, Sire," he says, saluting.

"We are already behind schedule!" I point out. "Have it ready tonight!"

"Impossible, Sire," he cavils. "It will take at least two days for scientists to install the computer brain. Without the computer brain, the missile is useless."

My headache is back. With a vengeance.

"Do not tell me what is useless!" I snap. "Just do what I ask without any more delay!"

"For you, Sire, we shall achieve the impossible!" he declares.

"I want the Doomsday missile ready for launching and I want it now!" I tell him. "Do it!" I step on to the transport platform and allow it to carry me away from the capering fool who dares call himself a Spectran Commander.

The missile below me is in the final stages of construction. That imbecile of a Base Commander was supposed to have it ready at the same time as the X-3. Even so, we have some leeway. I have twenty hours or so in which I can launch the inappropriately named Doomsday missile and replace Earth's Van Allen radiation belt.

After all, I would like to be able to take a useable, viable Earth for Spectra, rather than a ruined husk of a planet.

And if it has to be a ruined husk, then so be it. There is a certain poetic elegance to the idea.

The inspection tour over, I retire to the Communications Centre. Our intelligence people have regrouped here for the time being, and they are a refreshingly competent lot, unlike that idiot Commander. The Communications Officer is patching us into the feed from the Federation Council room and other screens are picking up news stations from Earth and Riga as well as our own spy installations.

It appears that Earth is not doing terribly well at all.

The technician displays the feed from the Council Chamber on the main screen. President Kane is rather upset over the violent electrical storms that are setting Earth's skies on fire. Have you ever had to deal with a supernova, Mr President? Ah, look at these journalists, such co-operative people, urging peace at any price. Someone give that man a Pulitzer prize. I like him! What? He's one of ours? Put him down for a medal.

It is perfect. Such lovely, lovely chaos. These soft, whimpering Earthlings don't even seem to realise that they are playing right into my hands! They are so easily led. Look at them clamouring and mewling and demanding that their Government surrender to me. Do listen, Mr President. Honourable Members of the Council, listen. Oh, listen, do.

And now we have audio as well as video input from the Council. I call for silence. Let us hear what the President has to say.

"The photos behind me tell the story," Kane is saying. "As you can see, the flames are spreading. The time has come to stop talking. We must reach a decision: shall we let the Earth die or surrender to Spectra?"

Surrender to Spectra! Surrender to Spectra! Come now, Mr President, just three little words. You can say them. Surr-en-der to Spe--

"Sir, we are not yet compelled to make a final decision. We still have a few hours."

Anderson! An involuntary hiss escapes me as the rage uncoils in my belly. It would have to be Anderson! Oh, you thorn in my side, you albatross around my neck, you ever present bane. He stands there, seemingly towering over the other Council Members, commanding their attention... just the way I would do. I hate that man.

But wait, they're not agreeing with him.

"What difference does that make?" one of the delegates asks. "What can we do with a few hours?"

Ah. Sensible, sensible man.br>
"I agree," says another. "To wait is to invite a disaster that is even worse than this one."

"We must save the Earth at any cost, even if it means surrendering to Spectra!"

So, Anderson, you do not have them under your control, do you? They will shout you down and Earth will be mine! What? What are you doing? He-- he's locking the doors! What manner of performance is this?

"Sire, we're losing the feed," says the Communications Officer.

"Why?" I demand.

"Anderson's people are locking down the chamber, Sire" he explains. "That must include a media blackout. The feed we're tapping in to is being shut down."

I express my displeasure in a snarl of dismay.

"Let me know as soon as you can get anything," I charge him, and he bows his head in assent.

Anderson! You and your litter of verminous little birds. Still. What can you do but buy me time? I am the one with all the options. You can argue and plead and shout and make all the grand gestures you like. I am Earth's only hope, now. The other Council Members can see that. It is only a matter of time.

And time is an issue, right now.

I shall tour the rest of the base and see if I can inspire the soldiers to work harder. I am going to need that missile when the surrender comes through.



Keyop

The atmosphere aboard the Phoenix is different, this time out. We're not quite so lost, not quite so... uncertain. We have a mission, and we know we can handle it. Mark's still not here, so it still feels kind of weird, without him, but Jason's more confident, and he and Tiny have quit sniping at each other.

Princess is still tense, though. I'm still worried about her.

And about Mark.

Spectra must only have had one mecha to throw at us, because this time, they're sending remote controlled jet fighters. Jason sees them coming in at eleven o'clock and grins. The boffins back at Center Neptune rigged the Phoenix so we can fire our missiles without the G-1, and Jason now has all our firepower, right there at his fingertips.

Wish he'd let me take a turn at the gunnery station.

"Hold on to your hat," Tiny smirks, "I'll just give those pilotless jets a flying lesson!"

The Spectrans are firing at us, but Tiny's taking evasive action and this time, Jason isn't telling him what to do.

"It's our turn," Jason declares, savouring the moment. Now he gets to shoot stuff. He's loving it, and I'm jealous.

And our wristbands start to flash.

Jason abandons the Big Red Button and glances back towards me and Princess.

The look on Princess' face speaks volumes.

"It's Mark," she says. "He's close by."

"If we don't lose those bogies," Jason points out with a touch of acerbity, "we'll be down there with him."

In response, Tiny puts us into a vertical climb that brings us straight upstairs and sends those drones scattering -- My scope shows two of them having a mid-air collision, and the operators must have lost the plot, because the others can't avoid the flying debris quickly enough to avoid destruction.

Jason must be peed off. He didn't get to shoot anything, this time.

I'm very careful not to smile.

"Mark has transmitted his location," Princess announces, locking on to his signal. "Let's just hope that we can find our Commander before Spectra launches another attack."

"Tiny, keep tracking the signal that Mark is sending out," Jason orders.

"Big ten, Jason," Tiny agrees.

We ride Mark's beam towards the city, homing in on a large building near the bay. Princess voices all our thoughts:

"I hope Mark is okay. We sure need his leadership now."



Zoltar

The men are exhausted, but they have done well. The missile is all but ready to launch. It waits only on those foolish technicians who managed to damage the computer guidance module to finish up the repairs on the "brain" of the missile and install it.

I walk among the men, offering words of encouragement and congratulations. I will have to deal with their Commander, of course, but the troops have put in a sterling effort.

One of them, however, doesn't seem quite as exhausted as the rest.

Indeed, he seems to be either playing some kind of computer game, or sending some kind of signal. A spy! One of Cronus' people, no doubt. Oh, I will rend you limb from limb, little man.

"What have we here?" I ask him. He glances up at me, and if he has any intelligence at all, he realises that his life expectancy is now measured in hours, if not minutes. "Do you have a permit for that radio?" I enquire, enjoying myself, "or is it your hobby?" The upper part of his face is concealed by a standard-issue mask, and my memory sparks, but doesn't connect, and my fingers twitch, instinctively heading for my sidearm. "There's something strangely familiar about you. Something I do not like."

I start to draw the gun and he -- vanishes!

The uniform crumples, settling in soft folds on the floor.

It is a trick that I do well, and there is only one other person I know of who can carry it off.

I look up, and my breath catches.

It is the G-Force Commander! He stands perched on a girder, laughing, defiant, arrogant -- and soon to be the late G-Force Commander!

"G-Force!" I roar at him. "How did you get in here?"

"This time you've gone too far, Zoltar," he crows. "In your hunger for power you launched the X-3 plan. The Earth is facing extinction. You believe we'll give up, but you're wrong. We will never surrender to Spectra!"

I release the safety catch. At this range, he's dead meat.



Keyop

It looks like we might not have to worry about finding the Spectra base after we find Mark -- it seems he's gone and found it for us! Either that, or he's vacationing at the same resort as the Happiness Boys.

"Mark is directly beneath us!" Princess announces, and my scope agrees with her.

"Okay, Tiny," Jason says, "make like a teddy bear and squeeze us through that opening between the buildings."

I hold on to my seat. The display from my console shows incoming fire from the tanks below, and we all hang on as Tiny rolls us neatly around the Phoenix's longitudinal axis, keeping us straight and level with rudder and power as we slide in between the structures. There's a muffled rumble and the cabin vibrates as something explodes beneath us, then we're rolling back to port and back on target. I wish I could fly like that.

"Steady..." Princess says.

"Dead ahead," I affirm.

"Go down about 5 degrees," Jason tells Tiny, who complies

I don't believe it. Mark's in some kind of palace! It's like some fancy country estate, complete with lawns and columns and the whole nine yards! Well, I hope they're insured.

"Let's crash the party, " I suggest.

Jason agrees, "Kick in the electron blast turbos."

We take out the gate and then --



Zoltar

-- The wall explodes and the floor leaps up and tosses me aside like an insect! Flying through the air, I abandon my gun and clutch at a ledge, my fingers scrabbling at the stone wall. My fingers find a pipe -- oh, the irony, it's a sewage pipe (thankfully not in active use) -- but my grip holds, and I see the depressingly predictable cause of the interruption: an all too familiar red and blue prow attached to an all too familiar red and blue ship.

G-Force!

Curse them!

They are an immediate threat to me, now, but all is not lost. If they destroy this missile and its base, they're signing Earth's death-warrant, and Spectra's propaganda machine will make sure everyone knows exactly what happened! My hold on the pipe secure, I take my bearings.

Yes, there they are, those despicable whelps, atop their accursed warship.

"So!" I shout, "you think you have me! You will soon find out differently!" The transport platform is still intact, and I make the leap across to safety. "I will be free, but you will not be! And the X-3 Plan will go forward as decreed! Farewell!"

The transport platform, still operational (thanks be to the Great Spirit and to the Engineering Staff!) whisks me away, leaving G-Force looking stunned and furious.

They hate it when I do that.



Keyop

Yes! He's here! Mark's here!

And so are the Red Rangers. Does that mean Mark knows the truth?

It could do. He's with Cronus, over by the steps that lead up to the missile's access hatch.

"There is still work to do," Cronus declares.

"Wait," Mark tells him. "We have much to talk about."

I guess that's a maybe.

"In this crisis," Cronus points out, "there is no time to talk."

"I'm grateful to you for saving my life," Mark says, his voice sharpening, "but I am in command, here."

Nope. That's a definite nope.

"Is that so?" Cronus says, as cocky and sarcastic as ever.

Man, if I found out that dude was my father, I'd ask Zoltar to adopt me.

"Yes!" Mark snarls, losing his cool. He grabs Cronus by the lapels of his jacket and almost hauls him off his shiny black-booted feet. "I am the Commander of rank and you will follow my orders!"

Then he becomes aware of the rest of us as we draw near. He looks like he's about to strike Cronus, and Princess can't bear it a moment longer:

"Mark, don't do it!" she cries out. "That man is your father!"

I can see the bottom falling out of Mark's world at this moment. His face has gone as pale as death, and I see him struggling to find words.

"Cronus?" he rasps. "My father?"

And Cronus finally takes off that mirrored visor he always wears, that mask that hides him from the rest of the world, and he's just a guy behind it. Just an ordinary, middle-aged guy.

Princess has tears in her eyes and she speaks again, addressing herself to Mark:

"Chief Anderson told us everything -- how he was sent on a special mission when you were only a child."

The two men stand there, one in red, one in white. Strangers. Father and son. It tugs at something inside me, something I don't recognise or understand. This is what it is to be family. Even if your family is a card carrying member of the Bastard Society.

"I thought... " Mark says, voice cracking, "you were only a good friend."

And Cronus says the words that make my own throat come up in a lump:

"My son."

Damn. I go from feeling a little rocky to having tears well up in my eyes. Maybe it's as well that the others are used to me not being able to express myself because right now I don't even know what I'm feeling, let alone how to articulate it.

Mark isn't an orphan any more.

He has a father.

And it doesn't really matter that the guy's an asshole, not right now, anyway. Mark has his father back.

"We... worked together," Mark almost whispers, "so many times. Why?"

"I wanted to tell you so often," Cronus replies, "but my work kept me silent and away from you. How I hoped for this reunion. " He touches his son's face, as he must have done all those years ago, then he collects himself. "But it's going to be brief," he says.

I can scarcely believe what I'm seeing when Cronus picks Mark up bodily, spins him, and hurls him bodily across the chamber. The others are frozen with horror, even Jason, who I half expect to explode into action and beat the living shit out of Cronus.

"Fourteen years ago," Cronus announces, "I was given this task, and neither you nor anyone else can stop me. I have to destroy the X-3 plan."

The he sprints up the short flight of steps to the missile access hatch, and I realise what he must be going to do. This missile, according to the Intel reports, was under construction at least until yesterday. That must mean that it isn't complete to the point that it can run on automatic pilot.

It means someone has to fly it to Earth... and blow it up.

Cronus is on a suicide mission.

And I don't know what to do. All I can do is stand here helplessly and watch. My mind races for answers. It doesn't come up with any.

"Father!" Mark calls.

Cronus pauses at the hatch.

"Don't go!" Mark begs. "Take me with you!"

God, no. Dear Lord, don't let him do it.

"Goodbye!" Cronus calls, and climbs into the missile. He's going to pilot the damned thing back to Earth and set it off. That was what he meant.

"Don't go!"

Mark is reduced to tears, now, and his father, oblivious -- maybe it does matter after all, if your old man is an asshole -- is guiding the missile out of the bay and into open water.

I don't know what to say to Mark. I feel... strange. Mark is always the one in control, always the one who knows what to do. He's my big brother, and suddenly he seems so small and weak. I'm only a kid. I'm not supposed to be able to deal with this stuff, I'm not supposed to have an IQ of 200 and I'm not supposed to understand what's happening, here.

My family is all around me, all the family I have, and yet I feel small and alone and abandoned.

Why is that?

Mark's back with us. He's here, and yet he's not here, and I'm not alone.

But I am alone.

And so is he. We're all clustered around him, but he's more alone now than I've ever been in my life.

And right now, I'm glad I got to choose my family, and that they chose me, because I never want to feel the pain I see written on my big brother's face.

Not ever.

The missile bursts out of the water and heads skywards.

There's an explosion of light as the first stage separates, then it goes ex-atmospheric and we can't see it any more. It will make the jump to warp and be in Earth's atmosphere in minutes, using a time-warp factor that Cronus will be lucky to survive, assuming he can programme the missile to do its job correctly and assuming the cabin is spaceworthy and he isn't dead already from oxygen deprivation.

We take Mark back aboard the Phoenix. His eyes are glazed, his face pale and drawn as though he were ill, and Tiny fires up the engines and takes us upstairs.

Apart from the obligatory checks, we're silent, wrapped about in solitary blankets of grief until Jason struggles to find words.

"I couldn't feel worse," he stammers, "if I'd lost... my own father, Mark."

And Mark raises his head, a glimmer of fire sparking behind his eyes.

"He sacrificed himself to stop a madman on the loose," he says through clenched teeth. "I will not rest until that madman is apprehended and brought to justice."



Zoltar

So, it seems I was closer to the mark than even I had thought possible. Cronus. Cronus was the G-Force Commander's father! No wonder he was so quick to pounce as soon as he got wind of my plan to capture his son! There must have been a certain element of what the Earthlings call deja vu.

I would laugh, but my head is aching from the Great Spirit's latest performance appraisal.

I was so close, so tantalisingly close to finally achieving my goal.

The Luminous One is right, as always: I did fail, but I also dealt Galaxy Security a blow it will not shake off easily. According to intelligence reports gleaned from a stray transmission we intercepted between Earth and the Early Warning Station (some nonsensical drivel between a couple of strange individuals named "Zark" and "Susan") it would appear Cronus survived the perilous journey to Earth and managed to bail out minutes before detonation, and for all that, I now know his weakness. It is not his family, as I had previously suspected, it is his one true love: the Federation.

Cronus is a hero, and all heroes come to their downfall eventually. Oh, yes, Cronus, I will have you. I know you, now. I have unmasked you, and I will have your life.

Even though the information on the identity of the G-Force Commander died with my Intelligence Chief, I have wounded the G-Force Commander, and I have unmasked him for what he is: a child in need.

Anderson's situation is not nearly so satisfactory. It may well wound him once I have killed Cronus (third time's the charm, you know!) but for now, his political position is stronger than ever. The Council pays him heed as though wisdom dripped from every utterance the man makes!

I will have to do something about Security Chief Anderson.

Oh, yes, indeed.


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