Princess wiped her hands on the rag, leaving black streaks on gray, and picked up the wrench again, tightening the bolts with quick, angry twists. Her head ached from gasoline fumes and a clenched jaw and the noise of the ISO garage. It was always busy right after a mission; even the techs who weren't working on critical equipment that had gotten damaged usually hung around for a few hours, basking in the glow of victory and trading war stories from previous ones.
She almost missed the clink of the soda can on the concrete next to her, but looked up as Jason settled himself on the bike seat, careful not to rock it. "You almost done?" he asked.
"Why?" The Coke was too sweet, but still cold and liquid, and the can was icy and soothing against her temples.
He gestured towards the other end of the garage--a half-dozen techs were scrambling over the G-2. "I could use a ride."
Suspicion tightened her mouth, and she turned her attention back to the bolts. "Why not just spend the night? They'll have it ready tomorrow."
"Not until afternoon. I've got a race at noon, and I'd rather not take the subway to the track." He paused, then added, "Come on, I'll even make you dinner."
The refusal was on her lips--then she thought of having to go upstairs to dinner, with the Chief frowning, and Keyop peeking at her every time he thought she wasn't looking, and her stomach churned. And if she just skipped dinner, Mark would come looking for her. "Give me a hand with the other tire, then," she said finally.
They worked together in silence, and her tension eased a little as the minutes went by and he didn't say anything more. She was just sick of being lectured. Not like Jason was really in a position to say anything, considering his own kill rate, but he'd never asked her for a ride before, and it seemed a little too coincidental. But a quick glance showed him focused on the wheel, frowning with the same intensity he turned on his own car. He was hardly likely to play peacemaker. Maybe it was just a real request.
"All set," he said, and she jumped slightly, realizing she'd been sitting there just holding the wrench. It clattered as she dropped it into the toolbox too quickly.
"Let's go," she said, avoiding Jason's eyes as she got up and jammed her helmet on. The motorcycle thrummed to life, reassuring as a tiger's purr, and she didn't flinch as Jason threw a leg over the seat and settled in close behind her, pulling his own helmet on. She heard a chime and deliberately gunned the engine, taking them out of the garage fast enough that she could pretend she didn't see Mark coming out of the elevator.
At 7 PM, the roads out of the city were still crowded, but there were enough holes for her to make good time. Jason said nothing about her driving and sat quiet behind her, his hands on his own thighs, shifting with the motion of the bike the same time she did--it was almost like riding alone, and her muscles gradually unwound with the miles and the speed.
The track was brightly lit when they went by, close enough to hear roars from the crowd, but she didn't offer to stop and Jason didn't ask. His trailer stood back in a stand of trees around the track, and she let the bike roll to a stop over the rough gravel track that his car had left in the ground. He waited for her to swing down the kickstand before climbing off and taking the cinderblock steps up to the trailer in one stride. She stayed on the bike, watching as he unlocked it and propped the door open with a rock.
"You want to come in, or hang out here while I cook?" he asked.
The night was getting colder, but she had her jacket, and the cool air felt good. "I'll stay here."
He nodded and disappeared into the trailer, and interior light came spilling out over the steps. She pulled off the helmet and set it on the handlebars, then swung a leg over and perched sideways on her bike, listening to the wind rustle overhead. Jason rattled around inside, the only other sound in the clearing, and after a few minutes, even that stopped.
He came out with two bottles and offered her one; she took it automatically. "It'll be about twenty minutes." He sprawled back onto the steps, closing his eyes as he tilted his bottle up.
She hated the taste of beer, the bitterness that lingered at the back of her throat even after she swallowed, the sour bite that made her tongue wince away. She took a drink anyway, let it glide down her throat, the alcohol heating her breath. The burn felt good, and she closed her eyes and focused on it, some part of her defiantly glad to be doing something that Mark wouldn't approve of, that the Chief would frown on.
When she opened her eyes and looked at him again, Jason was propped on his elbows, looking out into the darkening trees, a foot resting on the lowest step. His hair was shaggy and too long again, a few strands drifting over his eyes, but he didn't seem to have noticed them.
She ran a hand through her own hair. It was still hot and sweaty from the ride, sticky trailers clinging to her neck and drooping limply over her shoulders. I should cut it, she thought. I don't know why I've been bothering with it long all this time, it just gets in the way. She tucked the half-empty bottle between her knees and pulled her hair back with both hands. It felt like a heavy rope in her hands as she twisted it. One slice, and she could take the whole thing off. She could ask Jason for a knife right now.
She knotted it instead, tucking in the ends. "It's nice here," she said, breaking the silence.
"It's good to get away sometimes."
She took another drink, sat for a while. The silence pressed on her heavily, smothering, until she had to say something. "They do this to you all the time, I guess," she blurted, while part of her screamed at her to shut up, to stop giving him an opening.
But Jason only shrugged. "You learn how to tune it out after a while," he said. "I can have an hour-long conversation with the Chief and leave without having heard one word he said."
"I think he's picked up on that," she said, laughing a little, nervous with relief.
"What's he going to do about it?" Jason drained his bottle. "It's not like there are crowds of wanna-be G-Forcers waiting in the wings to replace us. He should be grateful we put up with as much bullshit as we do."
"He could demote you," she said.
"Oh yeah, that would make a big difference," Jason said. "Like my input is taken so seriously now." He got up. "You want another?"
She'd finished her beer without noticing. "Yes, thanks," she said, getting up to hand him the empty bottle. She sat down on the concrete steps and didn't move back to the bike when he returned and settled beside her.
"I got over caring what the Chief thought about my performance a long time ago," he said after they'd been sitting quietly for a few minutes. "But it wasn't exactly easy."
She pulled her knees up and leaned against them, her shoulders huddling forward. "How do you stop caring what someone thinks?"
He laughed shortly. "Bust your ass for them and get kicked for it. Repeat until you get the picture and throw in the towel."
"I don't stick with the team for his sake."
"Then why do you?" she said abruptly. "What makes it worth--everything?"
He didn't say anything for a long time, and she could feel his surprise against her skin. Slowly, he said, "If we didn't, who would?"
"So it's just because we have to?" she persisted, staring at the ground. Her stomach ached hollowly.
Jason stood up, putting his hands in his pockets, and paced away a little. "No," he said finally. "It's because we can."
He turned back to her, came back into the rectangle of light from the door. "There are so many people out there who want to fight this war, who'd give everything for a chance to make a difference. But they can't. Even if the Spectrans come knocking on their front door, blow away their families, wreck their lives--they just don't have a chance, and we do. So--I guess it is because we have to, in a way. But it's not just because if we didn't, our lives would suck along with everyone else's." He shrugged. "That's why I do it, anyway. If that makes any sense."
The pain in her stomach uncurled a little, and she nodded. He looked at her steadily, his eyes dark, and she dropped her gaze to avoid the questions in them. "Is dinner ready yet?" she asked.
Thankfully, he let her change the subject. "Probably. Come on in." He offered her a hand, and she let him pull her up.
Dinner was spaghetti and a tomato sauce that looked like Jason had tossed random things straight from his fridge into the pot. It tasted good anyway, thick and oniony, and Princess surprised herself by having seconds and mopping up the extra sauce with some bread. "I didn't know you could cook," she said, watching him wash the dishes--he'd refused her help, since the kitchenette really wasn't big enough for more than one person to stand in.
"I had to figure it out or starve," he said over his shoulder. "There isn't a single takeout place that'll deliver out here. I mostly go by the smell--if it reminds me of when I was a kid, I throw it in, and it usually comes out okay." He set the last dish into the rack and dried his hands off before getting another couple of beers from the fridge and joining her at the table.
She rolled the bottle gently between her fingers. "Maybe I should move out too."
"The luxury of my existence is that appealing, huh?" Jason said, smirking.
"At least you have somewhere to go." It came out bitter, and she took a quick swallow to cover it.
"Is he giving you that hard a time?"
She shrugged tightly. "If it's not the Chief, it's Mark--never mind that my kill rate's still nowhere near his."
"Yours just used to be a lot lower," he said.
She flinched, then anger boiled up and drove her to her feet. "Because I used to go out of my way to let them live," she snapped, slamming the bottle down on the table. Beer foamed over her hand, but she ignored it, glaring at him. "It was stupid! They die anyway when we blow up the mech or the base, and it's dangerous to leave them behind us. They're not worth the risk! They're not worth anything!" She grabbed her jacket. "I can't believe you're saying this to me--after everything you said about the Chief--"
"Hey!" Jason jumped to his feet and caught her arm. "Will you--"
"Don't touch me!" Her voice shrilled, and she knocked his arm away hard, pulling back into a defensive position. "I'm leaving!"
Jason vaulted the chair between them and planted himself in front of the door. "Not until you calm down, you're not!"
She stared, then threw her jacket off and transmuted, pulling out her yo-yo. "Get the hell out of my way," she said, shaking. "I'll use it, I swear."
Jason folded his arms and looked her squarely in the eye. "Go ahead," he said. "I'm not going to fight you, but you're going to have to hurt me to get out of here like this."
"What do you mean, 'like this'?" She glared at him. "After what you said, you think I'm not going to be angry--"
"I don't give a fuck about your kill-rate," he said, low and intense. "I'm the one who started that argument with the Chief--you think I'm going to jump on you for agreeing with me?"
Her arm lowered the yo-yo, uncertainty wavering her voice. "Then why did you say--"
"All I said was that your kill-rate used to be lower! The point being, that's why Mark and the Chief are on your case. That's all."
Princess stared at him, then turned away abruptly, wrapping her arms around herself. I can't believe I just flew off the handle like that. I'm such an idiot. "I'm sorry," she said thickly, fighting back tears. I'm not going to fall apart. I'm not! "It's--it's been a tough week. I overreacted." She managed to pull her voice together. "Maybe I should go home."
"You've had four beers, which probably didn't help any just now," Jason said behind her. "I don't think you should drive for a while yet."
She grabbed onto the excuse gratefully. "I guess my tolerance isn't exactly high," she said, forcing a small laugh. She transmuted out of the birdstyle and walked back to the little table without looking Jason in the face, and after a moment he sat down again too. "I really am sorry," she said softly.
"So am I," he said. "I'm sorry that you've been dealing with this alone."
It was too close. She trembled and looked down at her hands. He doesn't know. No one knows, she told herself. "It's not that big a deal. I'm over-sensitive--getting lectured twice a day for a month can do that to you."
"Look, why don't you spend the night?" She startled and lifted her head to find Jason watching her, his eyes hard as he added, "They can't lecture you if they can't get to you, and it'd be past midnight before you'd be safe to drive again anyway."
"And if I get home at one, the Chief will probably want to lecture me for that--and if he finds out I stayed late because I was drinking, it'll just be worse," Princess finished, rubbing her forehead. She'd always thought of Jason's trailer as cramped and impossible before, and she'd never understood how he could tolerate cramming himself into the tiny space. Now it seemed like a corner of heaven. "But where would I sleep?" She looked back towards the sleeping area, with its one narrow bunk.
"Take the bed." Jason stood up. "I've got a sleeping bag--I'll sack out."
"I'm not going to bite your head off and steal your bed all in one night," she said. "I'll take the sleeping bag."
He rolled his eyes and headed over to the closet. "Give me a break. If I'd been getting worked over by Mark and the Chief the way you've been, I'd have gone homicidal by now and they'd've had to hunt me down with a tranquilizer gun."
She giggled, relaxing a little. "I'll flip you for it?" she offered.
"Come on, just take the damn bed," he said, pulling out the bag and throwing it onto the floor by the bunk. "My t-shirts are in the bottom drawer over there if you want to grab one to sleep in."
Giving up the argument, she rummaged in the drawer until she found a shirt that looked as though it would cover her to the knees--it looked like it had never been worn. "Can I use this one?"
He glanced over. "Sure, I don't care."
She ducked into the tiny bathroom to change. She banged her elbow twice getting out of her jeans and into the huge shirt with the NASCAR logo plastered across the chest. Jason's medicine cabinet had an extra toothbrush, and she took it out quickly, pretending not to see the box of condoms on the shelf above. She didn't want to think about Jason that way. It was bad enough feeling strange around Mark now--she couldn't lose Jason too, not after tonight--not after having just found this safe place, this shelter that he'd made with his silence, his bluntness. She wanted it so badly--needed it, if she were honest with herself.
Already wearing a slightly ragged tank-top and shorts, Jason looked up from a book when she came out of the bathroom. He dog-eared a page and tossed it onto the bookshelf above the bunk before getting to his feet--she noticed with a touch of amusement that it landed unerringly on top of a pile of other books. "I'll be out in a minute," he said, going into the bathroom.
She climbed into the bunk--the sheets were soft flannel, like the ones in her own bedroom, and she pulled them up and tucked them around herself. There was a small digital clock at the far end of the bunk, and 11:00 stared back at her from the display. Reluctantly, she lifted the wristband and tapped it for Mark's channel.
"Princess? Where are you--when are you getting home?" His anxious voice grated on her nerves.
"I'm at Jason's, and I'm spending the night," she said, keeping her voice cool. "I just didn't want you or the Chief to worry."
Mark managed to sound startled without saying anything, then he slowly said, "Prin--if you don't want to drive, I could come pick you up--"
"No thanks," she said. "I'll see you tomorrow."
She cut the connection, interrupting whatever else he'd been going to say, and pulled the bracelet off so he couldn't contact her again. She tossed it onto the pile of clothing she'd left at the side of the bed, and only then saw Jason staring at her with raised eyebrows from the bathroom door. "What?"
"If you wanted to cut down on the lectures, that wasn't the way to do it," he said dryly, flipping off the bathroom light before he walked back to the sleeping bag and settled down. "They'll probably decide I'm corrupting you."
"At least it'll add some variety to the subject matter," she shot back.
"Yeah, and it'll also get me maimed in the next training session. Mark's going to be out for my blood."
"It's none of his business where I sleep," she said. "I shouldn't even have called him--I could just have taken off the bracelet."
"Then he'd probably have come knocking on the door at three in the morning. He saw us leaving, remember?"
"I didn't--think you'd noticed," she said, changing her mind in mid-sentence about pretending not to have seen Mark.
Jason slid down into the bag and lay back, putting his hands behind his head. "I figured you had a right to avoid him if you wanted to. Mark can be tough to take if he's decided you're broken and he's responsible for fixing you."
She huddled lower in the sheets, hoping Jason couldn't see her shudder. And what if I really were broken and there was no way to fix me? Then what would Mark do?
"If you're ready, hit the light switch next to your head," Jason said.
She reached up and flipped the switch. The overhead light flicked out, leaving only a small square of faint moonlight coming in from the window across from the bunk. Jason's breathing was quiet, but she could hear it if she listened for it, and when she closed her eyes there was nothing but warm, velvet darkness behind them--no leering faces, no disapproving or worried eyes that might see too much.
I wish I could just stay here forever. The thought went through her mind like a lightning flash: not true either before or after, only for one instant of longing. She pressed her face into the pillow and let it soak up her silent, hot tears.
She hadn't cried, before. She hadn't made a sound, keeping her eyes open and clear to mark every face, knowing even then that she couldn't leave any of them alive to brag, to send a gloating whisper through the Spectran ranks that might reach the ears of a G-Force member. Her eyes had stayed open, and her mouth had stayed shut, and she had waited.
They'd thought her broken, done with--nothing to fear any more. It had made things much easier. So she'd killed every man she remembered and all the others besides, doing it by hand to be sure, and then she'd walked openly through the blood-soaked hallways--there was no one left to see her--and placed the charges carefully. By the time the team arrived, they found her waiting at the edge of a smoking, glassy crater, her arms wrapped around her knees. She'd asked them what took so long, and they'd all laughed together, and Mark had said, "I shouldn't have worried." And still, she hadn't said a word.
Warm hands settled on her shoulders, so lightly she almost couldn't believe they were Jason's, and his voice was as soft, saying, "Can you tell me?"
She found that she could.
The alert came the next morning while they were having breakfast in a diner across from the track. Somehow it surprised her that Jason didn't even swear, just gulped the rest of his coffee and tossed money on the table. He jumped on the cycle behind her, and they transmuted at the same time as she peeled out of the parking lot and headed for the highway.
The Phoenix met them halfway, soaring in low over the LIE like a commercial jet heading for LaGuardia. She waited for a clear stretch to open up in front of her, then kicked the engines up, cars honking and trying to get out of their way all around. "Go get em!" a guy yelled, sticking his head out of the window as they blazed past, and the wind stole whatever Jason yelled back as they lifted into the sky and snugged neatly into the waiting clamps.
The others were all on board, and Chief Anderson was on the screen, waiting for them. "I'm sorry to have to send you all out again so soon, but we have an unexpected opportunity to gain a real advantage over Spectra."
"We're ready, Chief," Mark said, leaning forward with a hand on his chair. "What's our mission?"
"Spectra has a small base on the planet Firwel, eighteen light-years away. We've known about this base for some time, but it's never been active enough to be a danger, so we stationed a couple of operatives there for monitoring and let them think it was undiscovered. This morning, one of our agents there reported that Sorgeron Thalas, a critical member of Spectra's materials research division, just arrived in an escape pod--he evidently seems to have escaped from one of the bases that you destroyed recently."
"Define 'critical,'" Jason said.
Anderson's gaze transferred to him. "Let's just say that he's equivalent to Dr. Kapelnikov," he said, naming the ISO scientist who had been primarily responsible for developing the birdstyle material. "We have reason to believe he's been working on a revolutionary new armor that could withstand anything we've got--including the advanced bird missiles."
"Big trouble," Keyop said, grimacing.
"You got that right," Tiny said.
"Your mission is two-fold," Anderson continued, "capture Thalas and destroy the base, making it look as though he was killed in the fighting. We don't want Spectra to know that we have him. It's crucial that you bring him in alive if at all possible--his work may already be advanced enough for Spectra to complete it without him, and we'll need to know how to respond to it."
"We'll get him, Chief," Mark said. "Do you have a visual?"
"We're uploading it to your computers now," the Chief said. "Good luck, team."
"Thanks, Chief." Mark cut the connection and hit the keypad to bring up the image.
Princess stared at the pallid, narrow face with its spiky mustache on the screen. Then she turned and slipped silently out of the cockpit, down the hall to the medical supply room. Shaking so hard she had to use both hands on the doorknob, she closed the door behind her and put her back to it.
The last time she'd seen that face, it had been splattered with blood and brains, lying on the floor under a lab table. And ten minutes later, the room itself had been nothing more than a memory. Closing her eyes, she tried to remember the blow that had caved in his skull and came up blank.
He must have been playing dead, she thought numbly. Smeared his own face with another Spectran's remains to make me think he was dead and ran after I left the room. Her stomach churned. I've got to kill him. I can't let him live. I can't!
"It's crucial that you bring him in alive," the Chief had said.
She went to the little sink to splash her face with cold water. No time to think about it--she had to go back. She'd told Jason they were all dead, but he still might guess if she stayed away too long or acted strange. Looking in the mirror, she pinched her cheeks hard to make some blood come back into them, then went back to the cockpit and to her station as casually as she could manage. "ETA twenty minutes, Mark," she said as soon as she'd sat down and checked the readouts.
"Right," Mark said, swiveling his chair around to face the rest of them. "Jason, this time I want you with me--it's going to be tough to get this guy out alive. The Spectrans will probably try to kill him rather than let us get our hands on him if he's as important as the Chief says. Princess, you and Keyop will have to handle the explosives yourself."
She licked her dry lips and forced herself to speak normally. "Mark, I'm sure Keyop and I could manage it without a problem, but something worries me. Thalas just looks so typical--if he put on one of the Spectran standard uniforms, we wouldn't have a chance of picking him out of the crowd. He's managed to escape from us once before."
Mark hesitated, obviously considering it, and she pressed the advantage. "What if all we all took some explosives and split up to look for him? That way, we could stay hidden until one of us finds him and has him secure."
"It makes sense," Jason said. "As soon as one of us finds him, they radio the rest of us and we start blowing the place."
Mark nodded. "And that should be enough of a diversion to get him out. Then I'll take Keyop with me, as long as you feel comfortable working alone, Princess."
She nodded stiffly. Now that she had what she wanted, self-disgust rose thick in her throat, and she forced words out past it. "I don't want Thalas getting away." That much, at least, was true.
"Good thinking, Princess," Mark said, smiling at her, and she felt lower than dirt.
Inside the Spectran helmet, her heartbeat rattled in her ears. She held the gun carefully and marched down the halls as if she belonged--so far, so good. None of the Spectrans she'd passed had done anything more than trade quick salutes with her. It was a risk, but she had to get to the research labs before Mark or Jason did, and only the edge of being able to move openly would enable her to do that.
And then... She pushed the thought away. The sounds were different in this part of the base--the lights were brighter, didn't hum as much, and a faint vibration murmured through the metal floor. Almost there. She walked past an empty lab and found another with three scientists working on a computer.
"Yes? What is it?" one of them demanded, sounding irritable.
She pushed her voice into a lower register. "Message for Thalas," she said in Spectran, using the coarse rural dialect to cover her accent.
"He's three doors down on the left," the scientist answered, then went on with his conversation. "I'm telling you, Vorgas..." The lab door closing behind her cut off the rest, and her heart pounding was the only sound as she walked down the hall.
Thalas was alone in his office, bent over a microscope. "I'm busy," he snapped, and she felt a surge of cold, cold rage as the voice hit her ears, obscenely familiar. His head jerked up in alarm as the Spectran helmet smashed the scope out of his hands, and she felt a smile like an open wound split her face at the sudden terror in his eyes.
"Hello, Doctor Thalas," she said, shedding the Spectran uniform like a second skin, the yo-yo warm and heavy in her hands. "Sorry to interrupt you."
Thalas backed away from her, raising his hands. "Stop! Don't!" he babbled. "I surrender!"
"Do you think I care?" She advanced, unable to stop smiling.
"Wait! The plans!" Thalas grabbed a sheaf of papers off his desk, waved them at her with a shaking hand. "You must want them. You won't be able to understand them without me!"
"Do you think I care?" she repeated softly. He was close enough to smell now, licorice mixed with the bitter stench of fear. She could see the pulse in his throat. His face was contorted with a different emotion now, but it looked the same as it had above her, lips peeled back from the crooked, yellowish teeth. She took another step, and he had nowhere left to go. His irises were two black specks in a sea of white, and as she raised the yo-yo, a stream of urine leaked down his pants leg and splattered on the floor.
The pungent, sour smell made her gag in disgust, and she took a step back, her eyes watering. She blinked to clear them and stared at him, a huddled, cowering figure smelling of chemicals and filth. Her hand trembled. For a moment, she saw Mark smiling at her, trusting her. "Good thinking, Princess." Felt Jason's hands on her shoulders, warm and infinitely strong. The Chief's voice.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. And then she swung the yo-yo into the air.
Thalas's unconscious body hit the deck of the detention cell like a sack of wet sand, and she put the bag of papers and data tapes she'd collected into a storage locker before heading back to the cockpit. Mark and Keyop came out of the lift just as the screen showed Jason coasting down from the top levels of the base.
"Ready whenever you guys are," Jason's voice came over the intercom.
"Okay, Tiny, take us up. Jason, get down here, we're going to need to polish them off with a couple of missiles."
"Already here," Jason said, coming out of the lift and hurrying to the front. "Bombs away," he said, punching the trigger as Tiny brought them up, and the base dissolved into smoke and ruin beneath them.
Mark relaxed, grinning. "Nice work, team," he said. "The Chief's going to be happy with this one."
"Smooth as silk," Jason said, sprawling into his seat. "That clown give you any trouble, Princess?"
"No," she said.
"I'll go see if he's feeling talkative," Mark said.
She tensed. "Shouldn't we just leave him for Intelligence?"
"Huh?" Halfway to the lift, Mark looked back at her. "Why? You know that Spectran captives tend to cooperate more if we talk to them first."
"If we scare the hell out of them first, you mean," Jason said. "This guy's not just a foot soldier. Just standing in front of him and looking impressive isn't likely to make him crack."
Mark shrugged. "So come and help me," he said, grinning at Jason. "Unless you don't think you can scare the hell out of him."
Jason smirked and got up, tossing a feather shuriken up to his mouth with a flick of his wrist. "Lead the way, skipper."
"Me too!" Keyop jumped up.
"I don't know, shorty," Jason drawled, nibbling on the shuriken. "It might ruin the effect if he sees you."
"Will not!" Keyop poked him. "'M scarier than a guy eating feathers."
Jason smacked Keyop lightly on the back of the head as they followed Mark into the lift, still joking.
Princess stayed at her station for a little while after they'd left, biting her lip. Jason didn't seem to suspect anything, but she didn't want them talking to Thalas alone. If he said something...
"Hey, you coming?" Tiny asked, getting up. "We're in timewarp now, no need to stick around up here."
"All right," she said finally, getting up. She let Tiny precede her, steeling herself to see the man again.
The three others were looking through the bars of the small cell. Jason turned at their entrance, raising an eyebrow. "Princess, what did you do to this guy? Drop him down a sewer?"
She didn't answer at first, trying to get control of her voice. Thalas was awake now, and he glared at her with shame and hatred, his thin lips twisting into a snarl as he held the lab coat closed to cover his stained clothing. The whole cell stank. "He just had an accident while I was bringing him in," she said with forced bravado, folding her arms.
"Federation whore," Thalas hissed, and Jason whipped around with a shuriken rising in his hand. Thalas cringed back for a moment, then pulled himself up, smirking, when Mark caught Jason's arm and hauled Keyop back from the bars with his other hand.
Jason lowered his hand, but he stepped forward, looming against the bars. "Watch--your--mouth," he said, biting the words out with murderous intensity.
"Yeah," Keyop said, yanking himself out of Mark's grip rebelliously.
"Or what, ISO lackey? You're not going to do anything to me," Thalas sneered. "I'm the only one who knows the decryption codes on my material, even if you poor backwards fools could understand it without my help."
Jason's eyes widened. "You're making the assumption that we want your stinking material," he said through clenched teeth.
"If you didn't, you'd have killed me already," Thalas said. "Do you think you're dealing with a fool?"
"Looks to me like we are," Mark said ominously. "Do you think killing's the only thing we can do to you?"
Thalas laughed, a high-pitched mocking sound. "You do take me for a fool, how quaint. I know you Federation weaklings--you and your Geneva Convention and your Aldebaran Accords. You won't torture me any more than you'll kill me."
Princess pressed her lips tightly together, furious. They had misjudged him, and now he'd called their bluff. She knew the others were feeling the same frustration, glimpsed it in their faces.
He laughed at them again, gleefully, coming closer to the bars to taunt them. "I think perhaps you'd better start being more hospitable if your precious Federation wants me to cooperate," he said. "They won't be too happy with you if I refuse to talk, will they?"
"They'll live with it," Jason said, his eyes black with fury.
"You mean they'll die with it!" Thalas said, shrill and cackling. "Zoltar has all of my work--soon Spectran mecha will be impervious to your feeble little popguns, unless you make it worth my while to assist you." He turned and leered right at her, stroking his tongue over his lower lip. "Well, little whore? You were sweet enough the first time, but I'd expect an improvement this time around if you really want anything from me."
Staring at him, she felt herself go numb, as if someone had enveloped her, body and mind, in a blanket of ice. Through dimmed sight, she saw Mark turning to look at her, unwilling comprehension growing in his eyes, saw Keyop and Tiny staring at her in confusion, then saw Jason move, and she jerked and squeezed her eyes shut at the loud, wet smack.
She didn't move in the silence that followed. Her legs wouldn't have obeyed her anyway, but all she wanted was to stay still and hope that when she opened her eyes, the world would have changed.
Jason spoke first. "He's dead." His voice was utterly flat.
"Good," Mark said.
She felt the warmth of Keyop's small body as he crept to her side, reaching out for her hand. "Princess?" he said uncertainly.
She drew a long breath that was more than half a sob, and opened her eyes. They were all facing her, looking as though they desperately wanted to come closer, and her vision dissolved into tears as she held out her arms and they all crowded close around her, wrapping her in a shelter of wings.
"I'm sorry we couldn't fulfill the mission," Mark said. His voice was quieter than usual, drained of emotion, and there was no real regret in his apology. Princess listened to him finish the report, standing behind him between Jason and Keyop, Tiny's comforting bulk like a wall at her back.
Chief Anderson didn't seem to have noticed anything wrong. "Don't beat yourselves up over it. We knew that getting him out of there alive would be difficult, and we're certainly better off than we were before. The Spectrans won't find him easy to replace, and the files that you brought back may actually be more valuable than he would have been, once we decrypt them."
"Will we be able to, Chief?" she asked tiredly.
"I think so. The Spectrans may have more sophisticated technology in most areas, but their encryption schemes haven't posed too much of a problem for us so far." He smiled at her. "It was good work to bring the data back."
She dropped her eyes and murmured something noncommittal.
Anderson picked up a folder from his desk. "I can also tell you that the damage to the Phoenix from that magnetic surge you ran into during re-entry is minimal. It wiped the mission logs and the unshielded data disks you had on-board, but fortunately the data you got from Thalas' lab was in the shielded storage locker, and there was no crucial information lost. She'll be ready to go again by tomorrow."
Mark cleared his throat. "Chief, about that," he said. Anderson looked at him. "We'd like to request a leave."
Anderson blinked. "Oh?" He sounded surprised, which wasn't a surprise itself, since they'd never asked for a vacation themselves before. He'd always arranged time off for them. "I trust this isn't related to the mission? If you're feeling any lack of confidence--"
"We just think we need some time off," Mark said. He left it at that.
The Chief looked them all over, then sat down all of a sudden, his face going slightly grey. He didn't speak for a long minute. "Take a week," he finally said. "Check with me before heading back and I'll see if we can give you a second."
Princess stared at him, startled out of her emotional fatigue. He suspects something. Why is he letting us go?
As if to answer her question, he raised his eyes. "Get the rest you need," he said. "If there's anything I can do..."
"All we need is some time," Princess said quietly, and met Mark's eyes with a little bit of a smile when he turned back to look at her. "We'll all be fine."
Mark's eyes brightened, and she felt Jason's hand tighten on her shoulder, and she knew that she was telling the truth.
- The End -
Tell me what you thought!