"I can't believe he's making us do a debrief on this!" Jason was blatantly over-acting as he leant dramatically on the ready room table, glancing around to check he had everyone's full attention.
"We debrief everything," Princess said. "Even false alarms."
"But a cab ride for a twit of a fashion designer?" Every line of his body held disdain.
"Textile engineer," Tiny said, with one eye on Keyop.
Their youngest team member snorted and rolled his eyes in what was becoming a more accurate imitation of Jason by the day. He'd made it perfectly clear what he thought of the title of 'engineer' being used by someone whose idea of complex mechanics was a sewing machine.
"Textile...twerp." Unfortunately the casual pose, complete with crossed ankles as he leant against the wall, was ruined as he lost his balance and wobbled wildly.
Princess shot a despairing glance at Mark, who had deliberately stayed over in the kitchen area when he realised half his team was working up to a good whinge just in time for their debriefing. He knew exactly what she meant. Debrief would take twice as long if they went into it in an antagonistic mood. Even if Mark did feel exactly the same way that the rest of his team sounded. It had been a complete waste of everyone's time. He'd also been taken somewhat aback by the debrief on today's schedule - and more than a little worried. He hadn't exactly taken his mission report seriously, and had been feeling guilty about it ever since he'd seen the timetable for this morning.
"Arrogant little --"
"Okay, that's enough. Let's jump through the hoops for now." Mark fixed his stare firmly on Jason, knowing that Keyop would follow the other's lead. "Keep Anderson happy and we'll be out of there inside ten minutes. I'd rather not spend the whole morning discussing protocol."
He headed out of the ready room, and Jason followed with an audible, over-dramatic sigh.
In the briefing room was not only Anderson, but also a middle-aged man in a grey suit sitting alongside him at the head of the table. At that point Mark knew full well why they'd been called to a debrief, though he was a little surprised they'd not been told to show up in birdstyle. Not just a paper-pusher, not just a high-ranking one, but one who was trusted enough to see G-Force in civilian mode. One who made decisions that mattered. Such people occasionally got invited to G-Force meetings - Mark presumed it was Anderson's way of making them feel important. Never significant meetings, but he was pretty sure the people involved didn't know that.
In any case, no matter how trusted this man was, no names would be used in front of him.
"Team, this is Colonel James," Anderson said before any questions could be asked. "He's with Intelligence."
"Colonel," Mark said politely, taking his seat on the right-hand side of the long table, opposite the stranger. He just hoped Jason kept his mouth shut. He'd heard his second's opinions on Intelligence - mostly their lack of it - on more than one occasion before.
Nobody else spoke until they'd all taken their places - Jason next to him, Keyop next along, and Princess and Tiny on the other side of the table. At that point, Anderson stood up and slowly scanned round the table. Mark's heart sank. He knew this body language far too well. This wasn't a formality; a meeting set up purely so some Intelligence officer could see them have one. This was Anderson not happy at all - and Mark found himself wondering which of the two senior officers here had even called the meeting.
Anderson's gaze fell on Keyop, whose face fell instantly. Tiny, faintly bemused. Princess, who flushed desperately - Anderson generally reserved his slow stare for people with whom he was specifically annoyed. Jason, whose expression never wavered. And, inevitably last, on him.
"Commander, do you really consider this an adequate report?" Mark's single sheet of paper was laid on the table with disdainful care. "Slapdash and casual. This won't do at all."
Mark felt himself blush. "No, Chief. I'm sorry, sir. I let playing taxi get to me. But even if there was nothing to report, I should have been more professional in my comments."
"You were the first people since Zoltar to speak face-to-face with Danquana! Nothing to report?"
Mark could feel his temper rising, even if he had told Jason to jump through the hoops and keep this short. There were limits. He'd apologised...and Anderson was still going to dress him down in from of some colourless Intelligence lackey?
"Permission to speak freely, Chief?"
"I expect you to be candid at all times during a debriefing."
Fine. You asked for it. "Chief, the man was an annoying twerp. We humoured him, we played nice, we didn't get his back up. But you can't expect us to take this sort of thing seriously. We did it; we handed him over. Twenty pages of forms? I have better things to spend my time on. So does my team."
"Have you finished?"
Anderson's calm was unexpected, and a lot more disconcerting than rage would have been. Mark swallowed nervously. "Yes, I believe I have."
"Then I think you should listen to what Colonel James has to say."
Ah, one of those dressing-downs. Mark deliberately didn't glare, smile, or let his face show any other expression (he was quite sure Jason would be glaring for both of them), and then turned, slowly and deliberately, to face the colonel. Wretched penpusher must have friends in high places, to get to make his fuss about forms in person.
So he was more than a little surprised to get a wry smile from the man in question, as James cleared his throat.
"You probably wonder why I'm here. It's not to discuss your box-ticking, believe it or not. It's to report on your operational procedure."
"What the hell do you --" Jason began hotly, and stopped short. Mark guessed someone had kicked him. Probably Princess.
"It's acceptable. You only made one big procedural error, and it was with an area you'd already observed. So --"
"No," Jason said firmly, getting to his feet. "Not playing the game any more. I won't be lectured by a desk jockey based on what G-1 did or didn't write in some report he dashed off in five minutes."
"But you're not being lectured on that basis, G-2." And the voice was different, as the mannerisms completely changed. Suddenly the suit was out of place, and Mark shut his eyes in horrified embarrassment, remembering a bizarre purple and orange fake fur coat. No, this man wasn't a desk jockey at all, and he was indeed fully qualified to debrief them on their extraction of Danquana. He'd been there.
Jason's jaw dropped visibly. He took his seat again, staring in silence.
"No way!" squeaked Keyop.
"What?" asked Tiny, the only one of the team who hadn't met Danquana face-to-face. "What?"
"You can't be," Princess said. "Danquana's a real fashion designer."
"Indeed he is," Colonel James said cheerfully. "An extremely shy one. He was only too delighted for ISO to pay him to design clothes and have to do none of the promotion. We'd intended to do just enough to make him seem real before his 'defection'. Having him become a huge star here on Earth, and for Zoltar to approach him directly, was a bonus we hadn't anticipated."
"You played us," Jason said to Anderson. "You could have told us who he was and saved all the play-acting."
"Hardly." Anderson looked pointedly at Mark, who did some rapid thinking.
"Danquana could have been turned. Or an imposter - I mean a Spectran one. We needed to be sure he didn't compromise us. And, as far as I'm aware, we did just that. I suspect the Colonel is here to tell us where we slipped up."
James nodded. "Indeed. G-2, I had no issues with you at all. And a very nice piece of manipulation with the charges, I must say."
Jason's expression promptly changed to a satisfied smirk, and he leaned back in his chair and crossed his ankles.
"G-5 I didn't interact with. G-4," James raised his eyebrows and Keyop blushed, "not all threats come clearly labelled, and I'm not the only person out there who can act. Don't let people rile you."
Keyop nodded, his eyes firmly fixed on the tabletop.
"G-3." He paused, and it was Princess's turn to flush scarlet.
"I shouldn't have let him - you - go back into the bedroom alone. I know. I'm sorry."
"No, you shouldn't," James agreed. "You also shouldn't have left me alone on the Phoenix. Though, I have to hand it to you, you did secure the sickbay door most securely. I'd planned to arrive on the flight deck and give you all the pleasure of some more of my company. But I would say that your commander very much left you to do all the dirty work."
Mark felt his own cheeks grow hot as he nodded in silent agreement.
"You'd never have left her to handle someone you considered dangerous alone. Like I said to G-4 - they don't always come labelled. But, with that one brief exception in the bedroom, you never left me unattended on the planet, and you made sure I didn't go anywhere interesting on the Phoenix. You did your job despite thinking Danquana was irrelevant as a military threat. That's more than Zoltar did."
Mark nodded again, feeling better, and very glad that no references had been made to some of the comments in his written report. He'd been...quite alliterative in parts of it.
"So what mechas can we expect?" Keyop asked.
"I think that's for a later time, when we've correlated the, ah, costume data with our other intelligence," Anderson said.
"Aw, Chief? Just one?"
"Well, I can tell you for sure that you won't be seeing a mole," James said. "Zoltar decided at a late stage that a mole which was vulnerable to sunlight was a little too ridiculous. A pity - I had the cutest outfit all designed."
"But didn't the real Danquana do the designing?" Princess asked.
"For Zoltar's mecha captains? No. The communication was too risky. We persuaded him to give me some generic designs, and I added detail."
"I've got to ask," Jason said, "how did you come up with them?"
The colonel smiled again, and Mark had the distinct impression that he was enjoying talking to people he could be honest with. "Dice. Three random colours and a random animal."
Jason choked. Keyop spluttered, and even Anderson cracked a smile.
It wasn't until they had been dismissed and were walking back to the ready room that Mark appreciated the significance of what he'd seen. James had gone from colourless clerk to foppish fashion designer in a heartbeat. No makeup, no props, no costume - nothing. One moment he'd been James, the next Danquana.
Ignoring Jason's stunned "what?" Mark turned and ran back along the corridor towards the briefing room at top speed. He was just in time - as he passed the main entrance lobby he noticed two familiar figures just leaving the security post. The colonel would have been signing out just before he left.
"Colonel," he said as he caught up with James and Anderson at the elevator, trying not to pant, "would you teach me?"
"Teach you what, Commander?"
"To be someone else." Mark glanced at Anderson for confirmation. but the Chief's face was expressionless. He carried on. "I'm not a bad actor - but it's hard work, and most of what I've learnt has been to do with changing my appearance physically. You didn't do any of that today. You were just suddenly him. I'd like to be able to do that. I think it would come in useful."
James also looked to Anderson for approval. He got a nod.
"Certainly, Commander. We'll have to arrange time and place, and given the nature of both our jobs the lessons may be...irregular, but yes, I can do that. In the meantime, I suggest you think about being someone else pretending to be you."
Someone else, in black section, in his civilian clothes, relying on people noticing the bracelet and not asking questions... Mark looked down, considering, as the elevator arrived with a ding and James and Anderson stepped into it. How would they feel, indeed? Self-conscious? Most everyone else in here wore uniforms. Would they presume he strutted around with his nose in the air? Would they hide, assuming it was wrong and they should be wearing a uniform, or at the very least a nametag? How would that affect the way they stood and moved?
"Commander?" a voice asked. Mark jumped. The nearest black section security guard had taken a few steps towards him, frowning and with a hand on his weapon. "Are you feeling well?
"I'm fine," he said. Lessons were definitely needed, if even thinking about it had drawn that much attention to him. He headed back to the ready room, smiling to himself. Just for once, a training course that he was looking forward to.