Riding back to the base on his motorcycle, with Princess right behind him, Mark could not stop mulling over the problem of the disappearances. G-Force had been investigating for a week, but no clues had turned up. All they knew was that teenagers and young adults from American population centers, people between the ages of 14 and 24, were vanishing tracelessly. There were only three patterns to the disappearances: the victims' ages, the fact that they were disappearing from large cities, and the fact that victims were never in the company of someone outside the target group when they disappeared. The disappearances cut across boundaries of race, sex, and social class, leaving everyone of the proper age vulnerable.
Spectra had to be involved, Mark was certain. But what were they doing? The scale was too big to be hostages, and at any rate, a large percent of the victims were drifters or runaways or orphans, people without anyone to ransom them. No, it had to be some more sinister plot at work-- but what?
"Penny for your thoughts!" Princess shouted over the roar of the wind and their engines.
"I'd be overcharging you!" Mark shouted back.
"The disappearances again?"
I should never have asked, Princess thought. She'd been trying to temporarily put the problem to the side, to relax on the ride home. It was a beautiful autumn day, on a peaceful rural route outside Stargate's outskirts-- there was nothing but acres of ripe farmland on one side and gloriously colored trees on the other, no other people around for miles. But the beauty had just turned sour as Princess was forced back to thinking about the problem.
Statistically, more people had been disappearing from the city of Stargate, on the East Coast of the United States, than anywhere else-- which was why G-Force had come here. But that didn't mean Bayside was safe. It hadn't escaped Princess' notice that her friends back home-- Jill, Aimee, Teddy-- were all members of the target group. If she could go home to California right now, what would she find? Would her friends at home still be safe, or...
"Princess! Over there!"
A shaded lane angled off through the forest, and parked by the edge was a white sedan. Standing next to the sedan was a pretty blonde girl, a member of the target group, waving her arms frantically. Both Princess and Mark crossed lanes and slewed to a stop.
"Oh, I'm so glad you're here!" The girl said. "My car broke down just a mile from home, and I've got groceries to get home and everything! I've been out here for half an hour, and my ice cream's getting all melted..."
"Calm down, miss," Mark said. "We'll fix your car."
"I would have walked back-- you know, it's just a mile down the lane-- but, you know, the woods can be dangerous! A girl was knifed just around here." She shuddered prettily. "Anything could happen, you know!"
Mark had little patience with airheads. "Where exactly do you live?"
"Oh, it's just down the road." She pointed down the shady lane. "You can't miss it-- it's the only house around. There's like a driveway up a hill, and there it is! Will you drive me home?"
"Well, somebody's got to fix your car--"
"Oh, but it could take hours! And my milk will go all bad, and the ice cream-- and my poor old dad, there'll be nothing in the house for him to eat--"
"If it's so easy to find her house, Mark," Princess said, "I can drive the groceries to her home. It is a warm day."
Mark nodded. "Right." He turned to the young woman. "I might need your help in fixing your car, miss. Would you mind terribly if my friend took your groceries home, and--"
"Oh, that's fine! That's fine!"
Immediately Mark had second thoughts-- it wasn't that he didn't like women, but he was acutely uncomfortable around women who sized him up like he was a slab of meat, and this one looked as if she was doing just that. On the other hand, he was no automobile prodigy like Jason, and if he ran into problems he wanted to be able to question her, and the groceries would go bad, so... "Okay, you may as well, Princess."
Princess smiled. "Don't sound so mournful, Mark. I'll only be gone a few minutes."
She loaded the groceries on and drove off, waving. Mark was slightly irritated. He hadn't sounded mournful-- Princess had said that to stake her "claim" To him in front of the other girl, and she didn't really have the right to. But women would be women. Mark walked over to the airhead's car and lifted the hood. He leaned inside, studying it, as the girl came over to stand next to him.
Odd. Nothing seems to be wrong with this car. "You know, miss--" He began--
And then the girl slammed the hood down on his back, trapping him. A quick pull of the stylized wolf's head that served as a hood ornament released a gas inside, and Mark's struggles ceased. The girl smiled.
Princess found the place without much difficulty-- a large white house, set back from the road on a twisty driveway, brooding over a ragged lawn. It looked forboding and unkempt, hardly the sort of house a bubblehead like the girl out there would live in. Princess carried the groceries up to the door and knocked. A quavering old voice called, "Come in."
The door swung open on a dark, dusty hallway. Princess started down the hall, clutching the groceries, spooked for no reason she could name. She could make out a staircase ahead in the light that came through the open door, but the walls of the hall were lost in shadow-- and then the door slammed shut...
Princess spun, and hands gripped her. She caught a whiff of sickly sweetness-- chloroform!-- and felt abruptly dizzy. Her elbows smashed backwards as her knees caught a man in front of her, and she was free. More dim shapes came for her-- she leapt, crying, "Transmute!"
Energy surged through her suddenly, a familiar switch thrown in her mind flooding her body with strength as brilliant light masked her transformation. The light illuminated five or six men beneath her, who were already crying out, "It's G- Force!"
Damn! They'd seen her in her ordinary form-- now she had to kill them, and she didn't have time! Her yo-yo garroted one as her leg tripped another, adn swift white fists and feet ensured that no one would be getting up again. Throwing her arms in front of her face and tilting her visored head down, she charged through the door, which was wooden and splintered nicely. No time, no time... She had to get to Mark!
Why, why had they taken the bait? It was so damned obvious! Neither of them had stopped to think that they were members of the target group as well. No, they were G-Force, tough and unstoppable-- and one girl had just nearly gotten them captured. Oh, when she got her hands on that Spectran vixen she would strangle her! Mark had to be all right. He had to be! He was Mark, nothing could happen to him... Her cycle went from 0 to 90 in ten seconds, leaving livid burn marks on the driveway, and she screeched out onto the lane and toward the road with no concern for safety. He had to be all right...
But when she reached the road, the scene exploded in her mind, crystallizing and dragging her spirit into despair. No girl, no sedan, no Mark. His motorcycle still sat by the side of the road, but he was gone.
"This is G-3 calling G-1! Mark, respond! Please!" But there was no answer-- and, in truth, she hadn't expected one. If Mark was capable of answering, then he was capable of calling-- and, since she hadn't even received a Bird Scramble signal, obviously he couldn't call. His bracelet had been removed, or he was unconscious, or paralyzed, or... no! She wouldn't think about that. There was no reason to believe anything permanent had happened to him.
Keeping a tight rein on her emotions, she called the others. Perhaps this was for the best. From the way the Spectrans she'd killed had behaved, they had no idea they'd gotten a member of G-Force. They wouldn't try to neutralize Mark's abilities, and so he'd escape, and report to them what he'd learned. They'd done it exactly that way so many times...
She had to believe that. She had to keep her mind on the positive, or she would break down at the thought that she might never see the man she loved again...
The first thing that Jason suggested was that they inspect the house. The only problem was that the house was gone.
Princess stared at the burned-out shell. "It didn't used to look like that," She said.
"Shit," Jason muttered. "Either one of those Spectrans you said you killed survived, or they had relief coming, or a monitor... doesn't mean a damn thing now. They must have figured we were onto them and blown it up."
"Then this can't be their base," Keyl said. "They must have another one someplace, right?" He looked at Princess for confirmation.
"What the hell does it matter if there's another base when we don't know where it is?" Jason exploded.
"Will you calm down?" Tiny laid a friendly hand on Jason's shoulder. "Mark'll be all right. He always is."
"That's what I love about you people, you believe in magic formulas," Jason said bitterly. "There's no guarantee Mark'll be all right. There's no guarantee he's even alive! They might be harvesting for body parts or something and we'd never know!"
"Jason, we can't think that," Princess said sharply. "We have to go on the assumption that Mark's all right, or--"
"Or what? We might get hit square in the face with reality? I keep telling you people, this isn't a game. This is real life. People get hurt." He took a deep breath and turned away from them, trying to control his rage and pain.
Jason knew better than any of them how easy it was to get hurt in this business. He'd once been the cockiest member of the team, ready to fly in where angels feared to tread on the slightest provocation. And then the accident had happened... As if six months in hell, regrowing his broken body, hadn't been enough, there were the aftereffects. There were still aftereffects. Jason had never told anyone about his dizzy spells, or his paralysis reaction to blinding light. Mark had figured some of it out-- they were best friends, after all, and this stuff got noticed-- but not all. Jason had made one screw-up back then, and it affected everything he would ever do for the rest of his life.
And these guys were living in a Peter Pan dreamworld. It was partially Mark's fault-- Mark was always telling them to go easy on the Spectrans, maybe they thought the Spectrans would go easy on them. It didn't work that way. Zoltar and the rest of the Spectran military weren't out for fun and games, they were intent on conquering or destroying Earth. All of them knew that. All of them had lost friends to Spectra, all of them had heard the horror stories about Black Friday, or Zeta Prime... Yet they still had this attitude that it "couldn't happen to them." Why not? They'd been good at beating the odds so far, but that didn't mean squat to the wheel of fate...
"Or we might turn ourselves into emotional wrecks, like you're doing, and be useless," Princess answered, a sharp angry tone in her voice. "Jason, what earthly good does it do to assume that Mark's dead? We have to assume he's alive and work from there--"
"I didn't say I was assuming he was dead. But we don't need these 'oh, Mark's okay, he's just peachy, he gets captured by Spectra all the time' platitudes. This is a serious situation. We can't relax for a second, got it? We can't leave a single stone unturned, until we find Mark!"
"Oh, and I was thinking I could go to the amusement park now that Mark's been captured," Keyl said.
"And we don't need your smart mouth."
"Well, someone needs to be smart around here..."
Princess whacked him. "This is no time for jokes, Keyl!"
"Okay," Tiny said, trying to make peace. "Why don't we try to track down that girl?"
"She'll have changed her description," Jason said. "How about the car? What exactly did the car look like?"
"Uh--" Princess thought back. She hadn't looked carefully enough at the car at the time to remember it very well now. "It was a white sedan--"
"You said that already."
"I know, I know... I think the interior was... blue. It had four doors-- it was just a groundcar.... a kind of silvery roof."
"What make was it?"
"I didn't look."
"You didn't look? Couldn't you just tell?"
Tiny put his hand back on Jason's shoulder. "This may sound strange to you, Jase, but there are people who don't know anything about cars. Some people wouldn't even know a Chrysota from a Touran." He addressed the sky. "What's the world coming to?"
"Shut up, Tiny. Did you get a good look at the license plate, even?"
"No, I didn't. Jason, I had no reason to suspect--"
"Of course you had reason to suspect! We're all members of the goddamn target group! We should suspect everything!"
"So I'm a gullible fool and Mark's going to die for it?" Princess cried, her eyes bright with tears. "Go ahead and blame me, it's all my fault anyway!" She started toward her motorcycle.
"Where do you think you're going?" Jason shouted.
"Anywhere that's not around you! I'll find him myself if I have to--"
"What kind of an idiot are you? You'll get captured, just like Mark!"
"Maybe that's the best idea! I can at least relay where I am before they cut me up for body parts!"
"Ho boy," Tiny said. "Jason, if anyone ever told you you had tact, they were lying through their teeth. Princess, ignore this idiot! He doesn't mean it."
Princess came back, fighting not to show her grief and hurt and guilt to Jason. "So what's the plan, Commander G-2?" She asked bitterly.
Jason took a deep breath. "I'm sorry," He said, forcing the words out. "I... didn't mean to act like it's your fault or something, Princess. It's just..." He didn't want to say what came next, so he changed the subject. "We can have forensics go over the tire treads, at least. Also, if you can remember any more about the car, or what the girl looked like-- though she's probably in a disguise by now. And we can try long-distance ranging on his cyn."
"Long-distance ranging never works," Keyl commented.
"Well, we can try it, idiot."
"We can try calling him again, too," Princess said. "If he was unconscious, then maybe when he wakes up..."
"Yeah. Do that."
For menial tasks like this, Spectra usually hired local help, planetbound submorons who had nothing better to do than try Supply Lieutenant Dakar's patience, or at least so it seemed to him. The people who frisked the incoming prisoners were damn good at their job, but they never paid much attention to the stuff they removed, and the people who took the stuff and put in on shelves or sorted it into boxes-- many of whom actually were submorons-- didn't know what they were dealing with. A laser gun, a belt with a grapple, a sharp-edged boomerang, a set of feather shuriken, and a bunch of mini-explosives had all been stashed away without comment. Danny, who qualified for submoron by any definition, was playing with the pretty-light bracelet when Dakar stalked over.
"What you think you do?" He asked, in heavily accented English. "You here to play with toys or for money?"
"Look," Danny said eagerly, displaying the piece of blue plastic. "This little light's flashing."
"Isn't flash no more."
"Oh," Danny said disappointedly, as it saw that it was so. "But look!" He pressed on it, and a faint, tinny "beep" Sounded as the light flashed again. "Isn't it nice?"
"You idiot," Dakar snarled, slipping back into his native tongue, "that's a communications device!" He snatched it away from Danny, who pouted.
Dakar studied the device. There had been a memo circulated about devices like this-- why couldn't he remember? "I'd better bring this to Zoltar," He muttered. "Teenage kids don't carry miniaturized communicators..."
Zoltar dropped the device back onto the desk and smiled coldly up at Dakar. "Did you inspect the rest of the supply area, Lieutenant?"
"For what, sir?"
"I see I'm dealing with a moron. Don't you recognize this bracelet?"
"I'm afraid not, sir."
"Why are memos sent out, when fools like you don't read them? Ah well, at least you had the sense to bring it to me. Come, Lieutenant Dakar-- let's inspect your demenses."
The two of them headed down to the supply area. "Where is the weaponry kept?"
"Over here, sir." Dakar motioned his leader to a set of shelves. Virtually everything on them were guns, some pocket knives... and one boomerang. Zoltar lifted it, smiling.
"So. Not only a member of G-Force, but their commander, if I don't mistake this. Dakar!"
"I want holos of all the young men we've brought in transmitted to my office computer."
"Sir, I'm not in charge of that department."
"You are now. Get me Nydak and Varsok!"
The two scientists arrived with little delay. "Yes, Kanos?" Nydak asked obsequiously.
"Step up the timetable. We have the commander of G-Force on the premises. As soon as I locate him, the Converter must be ready to run. Do your test runs and such now."
"Should we have the department stop procuring more teenagers?"
"No. The more we have, the better. But the Converter must be ready by the time I find the Eagle. It won't take me longer than three days, so be prepared."
Nydak bowed. "We'll be ready, Kanos." His wife Kayla Varsok looked at him confusedly, then remembered to bow also. Zoltar smiled, and dismissed them both.
The commander of G-Force... It was almost too good to be true. Zoltar returned to the office and began the arduous task of scanning through the young men's faces, searching for one in particular...
"What do you think they're keeping us here for?" The boy next to Mark asked a companion on another cot. Mark wished he knew.
He was bitterly angry about having been taken in so easily. Keyl would have had more sense than to split up like that. No doubt the "house" The girl had sent Princess to had been a trap, too-- Mark hoped desperately she'd done better with hers than he had with his. His back was still killing him, and shards of light and pain drove into the back of his head every so often when he tried to move the wrong way. Damn, I hope that thing didn't stress my old injury, or I could be in serious trouble... serious trouble, right, what do I call this?
He had no idea how long, precisely, he'd been captured, but since he'd slept twice since then, he reckoned it at 2 or 3 days. Since then, he'd learned practically nothing of value about this operation. He'd been brought to a large concrete dorm with 20 or so other young men and boys from the target group. The humidity and water stains on the wall made Mark think they were underground, but there was no sure way to tell. Other doors they'd passed on the way in indicated the presence of numerous other dorm cells. None of the young men knew what was going on. They'd all been brought in here, stripped of belts, shoes and valuables--
--and that really bothered Mark. While he had been unconscious, someone had taken his bracelet, his shoes, his belt, and all his weaponry. The shoes and the belt contained all his transmutation circuitry-- theoretically, someone could study them and the bracelet and figure out how the uniform worked. He had to get them back-- not only were they irreplaceable, unless he was willing to have his entire CIN replaced, but they were far too potentially dangerous in Spectra's hands. Without his weaponry and cyn equipment, he was practically as helpless as these normal youths-- and if Spectra realized that they had his boomerang, they could easily figure out that he was a captive here, and then they could find him and single him out for "special" Treatment...
Then the door opened. The young men surged forward, thinking it was dinner, and were waved back by guns. "Get back, get back," An English-speaking thug in a green outfit said-- he was probably one of Spectra's local help, from a prison or the slums, as they rarely wasted money transporting goons from their homeworld. "Get back, you sons of bitches, you don't get fed yet. 572!"
It took Mark several seconds to remember that that was the number they'd pinned to him. Coming so soon after his morose speculations, this singling out of him struck him with sheer terror for moments-- They know who I am! They're going to.... But whatever fate was in store for him, it was useless to resist them right here, and he wasn't going to show these traitorous bastards his fear. "You want me?" He asked as he stepped forward.
One of the men backhanded him. "Don't you mouth off to me!"
They hustled him out into a dimly lit concrete corridor with a low ceiling. Several goons were guarding a pack of young men, maybe 8 or 9 of them. As they proceeded to an area with better lighting, Mark realized for the first time what was special about this group of young men, and his heart nearly stopped.
All of them looked amazingly like him.
The resemblance was a bit stronger with some than others, and of course none of them looked exactly like him-- but if a Spectran who knew basically what Mark looked like went sorting through the pictures of all the men captured, he might come up with this group. This confirmed it. They knew they had Mark-- it was only a matter of time before they picked him out.
He determined to fake it as long as he possibly could, to keep his eyes down and pretend to be just another innocent victim, while watching for a chance at escape. If no chance presented itself, then his path was painfully clear-- he had to get himself killed. Shouldn't be too difficult-- the Spectrans were trigger-happy-- and he would be spared whatever tortures Zoltar had reserved for the G-Force commander. The only problem was that he desperately did not want to die...
The dim corridor opened out onto a huge room, tiled with blue plastic. Forming a grid across the room were a lot of coffin-sized dull black metal booths, standing on their ends and just tall and wide enough to admit a person. Electrical wires crisscrossed the floor and the air at about the 12-foot level, and a balcony at the 15-foot level ran around the circular room. Perfect, if he were transmuted, or even had his boomerang... But the servomotors in his legs that would permit him to leap 15 feet were quiet, dormant without his bracelet to activate the system. Without the network, he was nothing but an ordinary human with excellent fighting skills-- he could take out the guards, but there'd be no place for him to escape to. On the far end of the room, a bubble-like structure of one-way reflective plastic bulged out of the wall at the balcony level. There was an elevator door set into the wall underneath it. That was where they were being herded.
"Move it, move it," Their captors shouted, shoving them in through the elevator doors. They crowded in, and the elevator rose a flight, dumping them into the control center dome.
It was a rather small, circular room with a view of the entire chamber outside, through the walls of the bubble. The floor was carpeted in blue, and men in Spectran uniforms worked at consoles set alongside the stone wall. Dominating the bubble area, to the side, was one of the black booths. Zoltar stood in the center of the room, smiling maliciously.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen. One of you, I trust, has guessed why I have brought you here." Zoltar's voice was a silken tenor, polite but full of menace. There was a strong hint of the sharp consonants and clipped vowels of a Spectran accent, but the English was flawless, if very formal. "I shall enlighten the rest of you, in order to speed matters-- among you is a man who is my particular enemy. He knows who he is-- and if he does not choose to reveal himself, all of you will suffer. All of you look at me!"
Mark forced himself to glance up. The Spectran leader's eyes were raking across the line, and all of Mark's choices became suddenly untenable. Zoltar's comment indicated that if Mark wasn't found, all of them would be hurt, and if Zoltar did find Mark... No. While Zoltar was still scrutinizing a man near Mark, Mark suddenly and savagely elbowed the gunman behind him. The man "oofed" And went down. Guns converged on Mark, and he threw himself backwards, so the gunfire would spray toward the Spectran computers and not the other men--
"Don't fire! I want him alive at all costs! Cover the other men!"
Shit! Why did Zoltar have to think of that? Mark stood still and put his hands up, responding to the guns waved toward his fellow captives. He couldn't let them be killed for him...
"How wonderfully altruistic, Commander. Your soft heart may be the death of you yet." Zoltar smiled.
"No doubt that's exactly what you have in mind," Mark said tightly.
"Actually, no." Zoltar waved at two men, both large, burly types. "Hold him. What I have to say isn't for their ears," Motioning at the other captives. They were herded out. With a mixture of terror and dawning hope, Mark realized that he still might be able to get himself killed. If he could break free and get to one of those men's guns... But he had to keep Zoltar distracted.
"Kidnapping is low even for you, Zoltar," He said, painfully conscious of his arms being twisted up behind his back by his captors. "What do you hope to gain with this? Earth isn't going to surrender for a bunch of teenagers' sakes..."
"Oh, I intend to release every one of you."
"That's funny, Zoltar. You're a very funny man. What do you plan to release us in, little pieces?"
"No. You have not grasped the scope of my true plan, Eagle. Everything hinges on this." Zoltar rested a hand on the black machine. "You still think you face torture, don't you... Mark?" The familiarity carried with it insolence, and hints of something darker, more sinister. "Did you think we had planned some special fate for you? I regret to disappoint you, but the fate in store for you is just the same as for all those other captives. You look confused. You truly cannot imagine what it could be, can you?"
"Why should I bother? You'll tell me anyway."
"That's true. I will. What you see before you is a triumph of Spectran science, undreamed of by you or any on your petty little planet. I will use this device to make you and the others into weapons. Armies of murderous children, intent on chaos and destruction, serving Spectra any way they can. Earth will be helpless to stop them, their own children-- your world's softness will be Spectra's victory. And you-- you will be at the forefront, bringing the chaos down on Earth. You see... this device has the power to transform the mind. To rewrite a person's loyalties, so that they fall where I wish them..."
"No. Nothing can do that. You're lying!"
"Oh, no. It has been tested extensively, you know." Zoltar dangled a piece of blue plastic. "Does this pretty little bauble look familiar? I will send you back to your teammates, Eagle, but matters will be a trifle different..."
Mark had been silently gathering strength as Zoltar spoke. Now he lunged forward, slipping out of his captors' grasps, and had the Spectran commander by the neck before the other could dodge. He pulled Zoltar around and stood with his back to the bubble wall, holding Zoltar in a head lock in front of him. "Nobody move!" The Spectrans froze, and Mark tightened his grip. "The bracelet, Zoltar, I haven't got all day."
Zoltar tossed the bracelet at one of the Spectrans, while desperately trying to yank Mark's arm down. "Do you think-- I-- aaah!"
Mark was now holding Zoltar's head at an angle, dangerously close to the snapping point. "Yes, I do think. Shapechanger or no, I could break your neck in a second, and then where would you be? Tell them to give me the bracelet, or else?"
"All-- all right," Zoltar gasped. "His bracelet-- give it-- now!"
One of the men came forward. Mark very cautiously took it, careful not to release the pressure on Zoltar's neck. He brought it to his lips. "This is G-1--"
A pair of hands suddenly locked around his hips and lifted, sending him flying forward. Reflexively, Mark pulled his arm up. Zoltar's scream was cut short by an audible snap, but by that time Mark was already flying at the Converter. He twisted in midair, and managed not to hit too hard. The goons converged on him. There were a lot of them, and he was slightly dazed, but he took heart from the fact that, even if they did manage to take him down, his murder of Zoltar would probably cripple Spectra for months.
He dropped the last goon, barely bruised himself, and hope swelled within him. Maybe he wouldn't have to die. Maybe he could actually escape! For the first time in what seemed like forever, but was more like fifteen minutes, he allowed himself to think he could beat this. He scooped up his bracelet-- from the static in his aborted call, it was obvious to him that there was something jamming it here, but maybe it would work elsewhere-- and ran for the elevator, carrying one of the goons' guns. As the door closed behind him, he sighed in relief. It wouldn't be too hard to escape, when everyone who knew he was fleeing was unconscious or dead...
At that point he realized the elevator wasn't moving, and the air was beginning to smell sickly sweet. His head spun, as he heard Zoltar's laughter over a loudspeaker.
"Yes, Eagle, you could break my neck, and this is where I'd be-- alive and well at the control center, arranging your recapture. Did you really think I could be killed so easily?" More laughter. "You have much to learn, Eagle!"
Mark could not allow himself to be taken alive. He could not. The cyn network had a built-in self-destruct mode, activated by the bracelet. He tried to snap it on, but his fingers wouldn't operate right. Dammit! I won't let... Instead of trying to snap it to his wrist, he lifted it to his temple. Through the drug-induced haze in his head, he tried desperately to think how to operate it. Team, I'm sorry... Princess.... Jason...
"Code... 8... destruct sequence... act... "
The light on the bracelet was still blinking when Zoltar had the door opened and Mark removed. As soon as Zoltar moved it to a sufficent distance from Mark's head, however, it went out. Zoltar was relieved.
There was nothing, absolutely nothing.
They had never received a signal of any sort from Mark. The white sedan was never found. Neither was the girl. And no hints had been uncovered as to exactly what was going on.
Most of the team had sunk into apathy. Tiny had stopped his daily weight-training and spent his time in front of the TV, with vast quantities of food. Keyl joined him, and took his food, or curled up in his beanbag chair with fantasy novels. And Princess had stopped eating, and spent all her time staring into space, or going through old photo albums of Mark. Everyone secretly believed Mark was dead, and no one wanted to admit to it, so they did nothing at all.
But Jason couldn't just sit. Apathy was alien to his nature-- he had to do something, but there was nothing he could do, and the tension and frustration were about ready to make him explode. As he stalked into the Ready Room for the fortieth time that day, he heard Tiny saying, "...got to be some clue. Some little thing we missed..."
"There's nothing!" Jason screamed. Everyone spun to look at him. "No clues, no leads, no Mark! Dammit, Tiny, if there were any little thing, don't you think we'd have noticed it by now?" He slumped against the wall, took a deep breath. The red haze across his vision was making him dizzy. "He's just gone, Tin. And we're not going to find him. Not now, not ever. Not unless Zoltar wants us to."
Keyl stared at him. "You don't even care! Doesn't have to matter to you that Mark's gone, does it, Jason? Now you can be commander!"
"Why, you--" Jason lunged across the room at Keyl, to be held back by Tiny. "I'm gonna kill him! I'm gonna kill--"
"Jason. Calm it, before I have to break an arm or two. Keyl's just upset, he didn't mean it. And you--" He glared pure daggeres at Keyl-- "knock off this shit! Jason doesn't need to hear it, and you damn well know it's not true, so what are you saying things like that for?"
"I'm going to kill him..." But the words had less force. Keyl had begun to cry.
"I'm sorry," Keyl said, sobbing. "I'm sorry, Jason. I just miss Mark!"
Princess said sternly, "We all do, but that was a very uncalled-for remark. It would have served you right if we let Jason kill you." But she let him hold onto her and cry into her comforting embrace, as she spoke to Jason. "We can't be fighting among ourselves because of this! We have to act like a team, now more than ever. You know that's what Mark would want..."
Jason leaned his head and arm against the wall, facing away from them. "I can't command," He said brokenly. "I can't ever fill his place."
"You... really think he's dead, don't you?"
"You've got to be more optimistic, Jase," Tiny said. "Why would Spectra be going around kidnapping people just to kill them?"
"You don't understand." Jason's voice was bleak. "Mark could escape from anything in four days, if he had his G-Force equipment. If he didn't... then Spectra has it. And if they figured out who he is..."
"We can't think like that!" Princess said.
"What the hell else am I supposed to think? I can't throw logic out the window so I can just believe what I want to!"
Beep... beep... beep...
Keyl tore free from Princess' embrace. "Bird Scramble!" He said excitedly. "It's Mark! It's gotta be!"
"Mark..." Princess breathed.
"Let's go!" Jason shouted. "Transmute!"
The shimmering light caught the four of them, the rush of energy lifting them as the cybernetic networks in their bodies flared to life. Energy sheaths rearranged their clothing, moved weaponry to more useful locations, and when it was done the G-Force team stood there, in the resplendent alternate identities they fought Spectra with. They didn't stand there for long, though-- the floor sank under them, and four colorful blurs zipped down a corridor, heading for the Phoenix.
The signal came from Tanner's Point, on the coast. It was rather far from Stargate, which was surprising-- they'd all been assuming that Spectra's latest headquarters was somewhere near Stargate. Right now, though, it didn't matter much, as they disembarked and saw a familiar white form lying against a rock, cradling one arm against his chest.
"G-Force," He said, and smiled weakly. "I knew... you'd come..."
"Mark! What have they done to you?" Princess ran to him and inspected the arm. It didn't look broken.
"It's just wrenched... so dizzy..."
"What's wrong with him, Princess?" Jason asked.
"I don't know. You and Tiny can carry him in to the sickbay, so I can do a medical inspection."
"Poor Mark," Keyl muttered. "When he wakes up, he can tell us where the Spectrans are, and then we can go kill them."
For a second, a smile flickered on Mark's face, but faded.
Princess felt miserably depressed.
They'd gotten Mark home to Center Neptune, where Dr. Pandora examined him more thoroughly. There was a drug in his system that seemed to be causing his dizziness-- and it had also, apparently, caused traumatic amnesia. Mark remembered nothing of his captivity-- his memory jumped from the girl slamming the hood down on him to wandering around Tanner's Point, transmuted. He was banged-up some, but the drug appeared to be causing most of his vagueness and dizziness-- when it wore off, presumably he would be all right. That wasn't the problem.
What was the problem was that Mark's captivity had been pointless. All the anguish they'd gone through, all the hard work-- the only good thing that could possibly have come of it all was that Mark could tell them where the base was, or what was really going on. Now there wasn't even that.
Princess felt she ought to be happy-- Mark was alive, he was safe, he was all right, and they did have some bit of a lead, albeit small-- the base had to be somewhere near Tanner's Point-- but she couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. Something was horribly, subliminally wrong...
After they had assured themselves that Mark knew nothing more, the team went back to Tanner's Point, to investigate. Perhaps they could learn something there...
Anderson stood at the window, watching the crowds go past. Significantly, there were far fewer teenagers out now, and those that were out were traveling in large groups, or with adults. Stargate had been hit harder by the disappearances than anywhere else, and it showed.
He didn't like operating here. Stargate had been DSA's headquarters until Black Friday, and held too many memories for him. But an investigation of this nature required Anderson's presence, and so he had come with G-Force and set up temporary headquarters here. Anderson did what he had to do, no matter what the circumstances.
Back at his desk, he pored over the reports. It made no sense that the Spectran base was near Tanner's Point, a good 200 miles from here-- Stargate was the major focus of the disappearances. Unless the Spectrans had more than one base, or children were being funneled through Stargate toward the Point... Perhaps they'd made their base so far away in order to throw everyone off? It was also possible that they'd been transporting Mark to another location when he escaped, and the Point was of no more significance than anywhere else...
There was a knock at the door. "Come in." Without looking up, Anderson caught a flash of white and blue. "Mark, you're not well enough to be up, much less in transmute."
"Oh, I'm as well as I want to be," Mark said. There was a truly nasty undercurrent in his voice. Anderson looked up in surprise, and saw with shock that Mark was holding a gun.
"What are you doing with that thing?"
"Threatening you. Get up. I haven't got all day."
"Mark. Explain yourself, and what you're 'threatening' me for, right now."
Mark sighed. "You don't get it, do you, Chief? You still think I'm your good little slave, and that I'm on your side and everything is peachy-keen. Here are the facts of life: This is a gun. It's not my customary weapon, but you know how to handle my boomerang. So instead I am threatening you with a gun. I could kill you or cause bodily harm to you with it. If you don't want to get hurt, you'll do as I say."
Spectra! The realization exploded into Anderson's mind-- what Spectra had to be doing. He stalled for time. "Mark, I don't understand," He said, even though he suspected he did, all too well. "Why are you doing this?"
"You've been had. I work for Zoltar now. And in a day or two, you will, too-- that's what I'm here for."
Anderson ducked swiftly as he lifted his desk chair and hurled it at Mark. Mark dodged, but was forced to move the gun as he did so-- and Anderson grabbed his own boomerang from the desk and hurled it at Mark. Mark didn't expect it; the thing knocked the gun from his hand. For a split second, Anderson considered using his gun, but decided against it; the uniforms the G-Force team wore were practically bulletproof, and although Anderson knew where all the weak points were, he didn't want to actually hurt Mark. So he pulled a latch on the desk, releasing the wheels underneath it, and kicked it over at Mark. He shoved his filing cabinets aside with speed born of desperation as Mark attempted to extricate himself from the desk. Anderson threw himself into the secret elevator, stabbed the button for the next floor and took a deep breath. A staricase would have made a much better escape route, and as a matter of fact there were staircases fom his offices in Center Neptune and Bayside, but this was a different base-- and, to be frank, very few Spectrans were capable of breaking and entering an elevator.
G-Force, of course, was an entirely different matter...
The elevator ground to a halt between floors, and the blue flame of a laser cutter began to etch its way through the ceiling. Anderson didn't plan on staying around for it; there had to be an emergency route out...
There was. He hit the switch and grabbed wildly for the cables as the bottom dropped out of the elevator. If Mark wanted him dead, it would be a simple matter, now, to kill him-- but if Mark had wanted him dead, he would already be so. Anderson had no illusions as to how long he could hold off his brainwashed foster son. He himself had had Mark trained to be unstoppable. But Anderson knew also of Mark's tremendous strength of will. If he had been turned against his homeworld so easily, then Anderson did not dare get captured, under any circumstances. His own hatred of Spectra was both personal and on principle, a deep current governing his life as it had for 30 years. He could probably hold out against any sort of ordinary coercion for as long as it took. But Mark would never have been swayed by anything that permitted personal choice, never so quickly. It would not be a matter of strength of will, then-- it would be something that gave no choice at all.
Anderson did not dare be taken alive. If he could not escape, then...
He reached the next floor and leapt, pulling himself onto the narrow ledge that formed the door sill. With one hand clutching onto the corner awkwardly, he tried to force the door open with one hand. It wasn't working...
There was a brush of wind behind him, a tug-- and he found himself pitching backwards into emptiness. Then strong arms closed around him, and there was a jarring thud as they landed at the bottom of the elevator shaft. Anderson struggled, in vain; Mark jabbed at a nerve in his back, and fire shot through his limbs, followed by numbness. Try as he might he could not get them to move.
"That was good, Chief," Mark said approvingly. "I didn't know you had it in you. But you must have known you couldn't stop me."
I did know. But I couldn't give up...
Mark slung him over his shoulder and carried him out the bottom of the elevator shaft. As sensation slowly came back, Anderson lay quietly-- it was obvious what his route had to be. He could not possibly escape Mark, and he could not permit himself to be taken alive. There was far too much damage he could do, if he were brainwashed the way Mark had been. That left only one alternative. He had to commit suicide, and he would likely only get one chance. His only hope was the fact that Mark perceived him as an intellectual, not a fighter. Mark would not realize that Anderson "had it in him", that he could possibly escape Mark's grasp. What Mark was forgetting was that Anderson helped devise the G-Force fighting style, oversaw their training-- Anderson knew what Mark was capable of, and what he would overlook.
So if he stayed still, and waited for his chance, he was likely to be able to do it. All he had to do was grab Mark's boomerang and slit his own throat with it. Such a simple thing.
Such a terrifying thing... but Anderson always did what he had to do...
As they approached Mark's car, Anderson carefully gauged his angle. Mark reached to open the door--
There could be no hesitation, no time for regrets or fears. Anderson slid down, yanked the boomerang out of its holster, and brought it swiftly toward his throat.
A backhanded fist caught him across the face, and he sprawled to the pavement, the boomerang flying from his hands. Mark caught it and hauled him up, pressing the nerves to paralyze him again.
"Chief Anderson, how stupid do you think I am? I tried to commit suicide before I got Converted, too-- don't you think I knew you'd try something like this?" Mark yanked open the door behind him and threw Anderson into the car. He slammed the door, went around and climbed in on the driver's side.
"Mark," Anderson whispered weakly. "What has that monster done to you?"
Another fist caught him across the face, and he crashed against the passenger door. "Don't you dare talk about Zoltar like that. He hasn't done anything to me!"
"You work for him out of free choice, then?" Anderson asked bitterly.
"I had to get Converted first. But all Zoltar's done is opened my eyes to reality. Yes, I'm doing this out of free choice-- and soon enough, you will, too." Mark started the car.
Anderson turned his head toward the window, as a hideous dark despair welled out of his soul and began to wrap his mind in fog.
The car stopped, and Mark pulled Anderson out. They were on an abandoned, potholed street, with a manhole cover in the center. Mark half-dragged Anderson to the manhole, flipped it off with his foot, and forced him to climb down.
"Where is this?" Anderson asked.
"The old aqueduct system."
Mark switched on his beltlamp, illuminating the dark tunnel. The stone walls were damp and covered with moss, and water dripped out of cracks, forming puddles. There was a stone ring welded to the wall near the floor. Mark pulled Anderson over, bound his hands behind his back, and forced him to sit down near the ring. Knowing it was useless to resist, Anderson didn't struggle as Mark bound his hands to the ring.
Mark smiled again-- a malicious, nasty smile. "We sent G-Force out to Tanner's Point to keep them out of our hair," He said. "The real base is just outside Stargate, so it won't be any trouble for a car to come pick you up here. But if something goes wrong-- and Zoltar tells me that stuff usually does go wrong-- well, it wouldn't do to have you going someplace, would it?" The bright light of the beltlamp, level with Anderson's eyes, blinded him and prevented him from seeing Mark's expression, but he could hear the nasty smile without having to look. "The city's water system goes under construction at 10 AM tomorrow, and they'll be shunting Stargate's water supply through here. If our men haven't picked you up by tomorrow morning.. well, you won't be going anywhere." He turned, the lamp's brilliance shaded by his body, and headed up the ladder. In the light haloed around him, he looked like an angel, pure and white, and when he left he carried all the brilliance away with him, leaving Anderson to darkness within and without.
Pandora was studying a dossier on Spectra when Mark came in. "Mark! You feel better now?"
"Yeah." He grinned weakly. "I was going stir-crazy in that bed. The Chief said to tell you he found a lead-- he wants you to mind the store until he gets back, which shouldn't be until 10 tomorrow."
Pandora frowned. "That's not like him-- not to tell me more. Did he say anything else about it?"
Mark shrugged. "He said it was an old friend, but the Chief has lots of old friends." He sat down on the arm of one of her chairs. "I feel awful about this. G-Force is out investigating my disappearance without me-- I actually got captured by the Spectrans, and I don't remember a thing about it-- do you know how galling that is?"
"I can easily imagine."
"The thing of it is I feel fine, Dr. Pandora. I don't feel dizzy anymore, or anything. So why can't I remember?"
Pandora stood. "You want me to examine you again? See if there's some physical cause for the amnesia?"
"Yeah. At least, if you can't find anything wrong with me, I can return to active duty and help my team."
"Okay. Take off your shirt and shoes and come in here." She pulled aside the curtain separating the office from the examination room. "Let's get a blood sample."
Mark put out his arm. Pandora topped off the test tube and placed it in the machine that dominated the room. "Maryann, I want you to run a battery of tests on this."
"Duracell or Everlasting?" The computer asked.
Pandora scowled. Jennifer Maxwell's computer programs might have sophisticated judgment circuitry that enabled them to make "guesses" And devise their own correlations, making them helpful and valuable, but the nuisance value of their personalities almost made it no longer worth it. "Don't get funny, Maryann. This is important."
The computer made an electronic sigh. "Fine, fine. Work, work, work, all I ever do is work and what thanks do I get?" But it began running the tests even as it complained.
"She do that often?" Mark asked.
Pandora sighed. "Too often. Sometimes I could just strangle Jenny. It's convenient to be able to program a computer by telling it what to do in real language, but I'm not convinced the benefits are worth it."
"A cybernetics expert who doesn't like talking computers? Shame."
"I prefer people with circuitry in them, not circuitry that thinks it's a person."
"I am a person," Maryann said.
"Did you ever hear the Chief's secretary program, Susan?"
"Oh, please," Pandora said. "Don't remind me."
"I'm done now," Maryann said. "No applause, please. Just throw money."
Pandora ignored that, as she watched the results scrolling across the screen. "No trace of foreign drugs... good, good... high epinephrine, neurotransmitter-- you've been transmuted!"
"I was working out in the training room," Mark said, somewhat defensively. "I told you I was going stir-crazy in that bed..."
"Odd... some minor neurotransmitter imbalances. Mark, are you having emotional problems?"
"Other than being stuck here, unable to help my team find the base I must have been held at and can't remember? Oh, no, nothing at all."
"It doesn't look like frustration, but... Well, it doesn't really matter-- we don't know enough about neurotransmitters and emotions for me to guess. Maybe it is frustration." She turned back to Mark. "Okay, step up here."
He stood on something that looked like a scale, and in the mirrored glass in front of him, a semi-holographic image in multicolored lights appeared, in his shape. Pandora sucked in her breath. "That's bad. That's very bad."
She examined the multicolored image. "There's a nasty strain on your back. Someone must have kicked you there, or something-- no, not even a kick. It looks like--"
"Like someone slammed the hood of a car on my back? I remember that much-- that was how the girl caught me."
"That's exactly it. And it's put a strain on your old injury. Remember when the Nagoruk woman broke your neck, and you had to have it reknit?"
"Of course I remember-- that's not the kind of thing I'd forget."
"Right. Well, this latest injury's pulled on the nerves. If someone kicks you in the back or you put too much torque on it, it could snap."
Mark slumped. "I have to stay in bed, then?"
"You really should have it regrown."
"No, I have too much to do! I can't take time out for a month or two now--"
"Then staying in bed isn't going to help you any." She sighed. "Let me look at the rest of these injuries. It doesn't look like there's anything bad there, but best to be sure. Turn." Mark turned, slowly, and Pandora examined the pattern of injuries. "Well, it looks like most of your bruises have healed. Funny, though..."
"That pattern of bruises. I noticed it before, and it's even more obvious now. You didn't get them in a fight-- they were deliberate."
"So? We all know about Spectrans and torture..."
"But they aren't bad enough to have been torture. They don't even look like a thug beating up on the prisoner. It looks like they were going easy on you-- but why? Why beat you at all, if they were going to go easy? It doesn't make sense."
Her back was turned, so she missed the look of anger and fear that flitted across Mark's face for a moment. When he spoke, the anger wasn't kept fully out of his voice. "Who knows? Maybe I did it to myself, to avoid something worse. I told you, I don't remember!"
"Wait, wait!" Pandora turned back to him. "I didn't accuse you of holding out on me, Mark. But if you're that upset about not being able to remember, why don't you let me hypnotize you? Under hypnotic recall--"
The color drained from Mark's face. "I don't-- no. No."
"What's wrong?" She walked over, put an arm around his shoulders and looked into his eyes. "Mark, you were never afraid of hypnotism before..."
"I--I don't know why-- No. I can't-- I can't..."
She drew away. "Now I know what those odd neurotransmitters were." Pandora glanced back at the screen, where the blood test results were still displayed, then back to Mark. "I recognize them now-- they indicate, in a word, that someone's been playing with your mind. The amnesia must be a hypnotic block-- and after being hypnotized by Spectra, your mind subconsciously rebels against the idea of having it done again. Either that, or they planted a suggestion that you would fear hypnotism."
Mark had begun to look normal again. He smiled weakly. "That must be it. I'm sorry, but... I just can't face it. Maybe if I try meditating..."
"Try that," Pandora said, nodding. "I really do have to authorize your return to active duty-- you're not hurt that badly. Just no Whirlwind Pyramids, and as soon as this crisis is over I want you in Regrowth. If you let this go too long, it could seriously affect your performance in G-Force."
"I won't let it," Mark said seriously. "Thanks, Dr. Pandora." He went out the door, then swung his head back in. "Since I have to wait 'til the team comes back, anyway, I'll go in the computer room and see if I can dredge up any clues."
"Okay," Pandora said. "Go ahead and do that. When the Chief comes in, I'll notify him that you're well."
As Mark departed, he murmured under his breath, "Oh, I think he already knows that, doctor..."
They had searched Tanner's Point. They had searched a 10-mile radius around Tanner's Point. They had left no stone unturned anywhere near Tanner's Point. And they had found absolutely nothing, nothing at all.
The other three members of the team were beat. Frustration, a long day, and the usual lowering of spirits and energy after detransmutation caused them all to head directly for bed. But not Jason. Frustration didn't tire Jason; it angered him, brought all his stubbornness out in full force and kept him going when another man might have given up. So as his teammates headed for bed, he headed for the computer room.
Mark was in there, working. Jason's first impulse was to talk to him, ask him if he felt better, bitch about the long day spent getting nowhere-- but before he even stepped in, something stopped him. Perhapos it was a subliminal look at the programs Mark was accessing; perhaps it was the expression on Mark's face. Jason didn't analyze his hunches, he merely acted on them. He slipped in, with the catlike quiet that was his specialty, and stood a few feet behind Mark, watching.
Mark was methodically dumping all the files on Stargate Base's Net onto cassette tapes, then neatly stacking the tapes in his satchel. Jason was puzzled, and angry. Mark knew perfectly well you weren't supposed to copy Net files. "Mark, what the hell are you doing?"
Mark spun in his chair, guilt and anger written all over his face. "None of your business, Jason," He said coldly.
What the hell--? "Mark, as far as I know there's no possible legitimate reason for you to be copying confidential files. So it is my business, and you've got no right to tell me it's not. What're they for?"
The last thing Jason expected Mark to do was to slug him in the stomach. He dropped, fighting for breath, and rolled, automatically trying to avoid another punch. More quickly than he probably should have, he got up, and looked around him. Where'd Mark gotten to?
One of the benefits the activated cyn network bestowed was superhuman reflexes. Jason detransmuted, however, was so inhumanly fast that the cyn network had never given him any appreciable increase there. Now, as a blue boot came sailing at his head, Jason's speed saved his life. He ducked, and a transmuted Mark came flying over his head, landed, and threw himself at Jason.
He's transmuted! What the hell is going on here?
Jason leapt out of the way, not quite fast enough-- Mark's blow caught him on the side, sent him slightly off-balance so that he fell into a desktable. Mark leapt, feet coming down at Jason's chest, and Jason rolled, dodging behind some boxes.
He's trying to kill me. He's really trying to kill me! Why??
The solution became obvious to Jason quite swiftly. That can't be Mark!
They had dealt with Zoltar's daughters in their various guises before, but neither of the shapechangers had had the gall to come after them disguised as a team member. Jason felt sick, at what that implied had happened to Mark. The impostor was probably Lyla, the less intelligent but better fighter of the two. Swiftly Jason transmuted and leapt from his hiding place as the Mark impostor's boomerang sliced the area where he'd been. He landed on a desktable, kicking the terminal off it.
"The jig's up, Lyla," He said. "Or Amalai, or whoever the hell you are. Take off Mark's face and fight me in your true form!"
His opponent laughed. "Jason, you moron. You think Lyla fights as well as me? No, I'm Mark."
"Yeah? Then what're you attacking me for?" It probably was Lyla. Lyla never broke character.
"Because I feel like it, Jason!" Mark leapt, his boomerang slicing through the air at Jason, who hurled himself directly at him. Jason slammed into Mark mid-air and carried them both into the wall, where Jason slugged him twice, convinced it wasn't Mark he was hitting. Mark pulled up his knees and kicked, sending Jason flying backwards-- and as Jason corrected his flightpath and landed on another desk, it occurred to him that neither of the shapechangers were that strong. That kick almost had to come from leg servos--
No! He refused to believe it. It couldn't be Mark. He drew his gun and pointed it at the impostor. "Make one move, and I'll drill a hole in your head."
"Oh, would you really do that?" Mark smiled. "Remember the day we stole the plane, Jason, and we landed in France, and we couldn't speak the language and we got picked up by the police? Or the day we declared war on the observers from DSA, and we pushed the fat man in the ocean? Do you remember the beer blast you dragged me to when we were 13, and Tiny and I had to drag you home? Or the times you used to smear jelly all over my bed, so I put peanut butter in your shoes?"
Jason stared. "How-- you bastard! What did you people do to Mark?"
"Read my lips. I-- Am-- Mark. Just--" He grinned-- "a trifle different than the man you're used to..."
Mark flung the boomerang again. Jason leapt, and flung feather shuriken with one hand as he fired his gun with the other. MArk threw himself out of the path of the gunfire. Two of the shuriken caught his arms, but he was moving too quickly for them to penetrate the polymer fabric of the uniform, and so they were ripped out by the centrifugal force of his motion. Jason dove at him, and Mark rolled out of the way, bringing a chop arm up into Jason's stomach. Jason grabbed the arm as he collapsed, pulling Mark down and yanking so that Mark fell under him. He pressed the gun against his oppponent's exposed cheeks. "What have you done to Mark?"
"Still don't believe me, Jason? Try this-- Spectra's developed a device that rewrites people's loyalties. That's what we're kidnapping those kids for-- Zoltar's going to make an army of teenagers, all loyal to Spectra, who'll go out and start raising hell. He got lucky-- I can raise a lot more hell than most."
"Rewrite loyalties?" Jason's tongue felt numb.
"Three guesses as to what that means, Jason."
Jason could guess, all too easily. They've brainwashed him! Horrified, he said, "Mark! Can't you fight it?"
"You don't understand." Mark's grin was smugly nasty. "I don't want to fight it. I'm completely loyal to Spectra now."
Suddenly, his hand-- which had been slowly creeping toward Jason's wrist as they spoke-- grabbed Jason's bracelet and yanked it off. The sudden shocking detransmutation went like a stunwave through Jason's body, paralyzing him, and Mark threw him off swiftly before his own transmute stage was triggered by Jason's energies. Jason fell hard, but scrambled to the side quickly, dodging Mark's kick. Shit! I've got to get his bracelet off him, or he'll cremate me! He rolled forward as Mark leapt, coming down where he'd been, and he dodged backwards as Mark spun and launched a kick at him. Then he charged forward, aiming a fist into Mark's stomach. Mark oofed, but grabbed his arm and hurled him. Jason twisted in midair, trying to fall properly-- and then Mark's boomerang caught him in the back, paralyzing him. He collapsed forward and fell directly on his head.
Brilliant pain, like the bright light of the explosion that had nearly killed him, shot through his head. Jason cried out, forced himself to get to his knees, open his eyes. The world was too bright, and it swirled around him, blurred and double, triple, quadruple. He shrank away, tried to force himself to strike out as Mark approached him, but his blows didn't come anywhere near to connecting. Mark kicked him in the groin, unprotected now that he was out of transmute, and he screamed and curled into a fetal ball, trying to protect himself. I can't... I have to fight back, have to...
Jason tried. But he was disoriented, dizzy and in agony, and Mark was transmuted. He never had a chance.
After Jason was unconscious, Mark looked down at him, confused emotions warring in his broken mind. I should kill him. He's an enemy of Zoltar's, I don't have time to get him to Conversion, and if he wakes up before tomorrow he'll wreck my plans for the rest of G-Force. I really should kill him.
He aimed the laser, and hesitated. The memories he'd used to prove to Jason who he was were still there...
...Jason, dragging him home after the snake bit him...
...Jason and him, wandering through France without the foggiest notion of where they were going...
...leaping out of his plane as Jason went flying, his body broken by the explosion, and hoping desperately against hope that he could reach Jason before it was too late...
No. He couldn't do it. Instead, he removed Jason's shoes, gagged him with his socks, found a length of cable in the back and bound his arms and legs with it, and then hid him in the closet. Jason would escape eventually-- the only way to stop Jason was to kill him-- but that "eventually" Shouldn't be before noon tomorrow, and that was plenty of time. As long as Mark kept Jason's bracelet and shoes, he couldn't contct the team, and then after Anderson and the rest of G-Force were all Converted, Jason would be as helpless as Pandora would be. There was no need to kill him.
Mark detransmuted and left, shutting the computer room door behind him. The rest of G-Force were sleeping, and Mark decided he ought to be, too. He had another long day ahead of him tomorrow.
Mark met the team at the cafeteria table in the corner where they usually sat. "Mark!" Princess exclaimed. "You're all right!"
"In more ways than one," Mark said, and smiled. "I woke up this morning and I thought I remembered something. So I went to the computer room--"
"You have a lead?" Keyl shouted. "Great! Where's Jason! Let's go!"
"Can't it wait until after breakfast?" Tiny asked. "You can't fight too well on an empty stomach."
"It's not that urgent," Mark said. "It can wait until after we eat. I tried calling Jason, but I couldn't reach him, and his car's not in the garage. He probably went out for one of his drives-- we'll have to leave him here."
"He won't like that," Princess said.
"It's his own fault. He should be here." Mark sat down. "I dimly recall being brought to a large warehouse, and-- I think the kids were being put into transport boxes. It's a slaving operation."
"But then why's it only teenagers?" Keyl asked.
"I don't know. Anyway, I remembered some other things, about locations and the directions we took, so I triangulated on the computer, and found it. The Gold Key candy warehouse."
Tiny nearly choked on his strudel. "Gold Key candy is Spectran?"
"No, stupid, just the warehouse," Keyl said.
Princess smacked him on his head. "Keyl! That was uncalled-for!"
"I heard it called for distinctly.."
"It's possible," Mark said. "Gold Key's a subsidiary of FrankIndustries, who we've suspected have some kind of connection with Spectra-- but I wouldn't speculate on it until we get a chance to talk to the Chief."
"Where is the Chief?" Tiny asked. "He wasn't in last night."
"He said he had a lead, and he wouldn't be back until late today," Mark said. "Personally, I don't feel like waiting for him."
"Neither do I. Let's go!" Keyl said, and was squashed down in his chair by Princess. "Princess, will you knock it off? I'm not a little kid anymore!"
"You act like a little kid," Princess informed him sternly. "We should at least let Dr. Pandora know we're going, Mark."
"Oh, of course." Mark finished his coffee. "As soon as Tiny gets done, we'll go." Tiny shoved the remains of his food aside. "Don't wait up on my account. I'm ready."
"Then let's go!"
Mark had reported about the pickup, of course. All night long, Zoltar had been mulling over the decision of whether to have Anderson picked up or not.
On the surface of it, it was easy. A Converted Anderson could drop Earth into their hands like a ripe fruit-- of course he should be Converted. If it was only a question of what was good for Spectra, there would be no question in Zoltar's mind. But there was what was best for Zoltar to consider as well... Mark had been carefully questioned, and it was obvious that one of his first and primary loyalties had always been to Anderson. The Conversion process had necessarily negated that, putting Mark and Anderson on opposite sides-- but if Mark and Anderson were on the same side, what then? Wasn't it possible that Mark would still look to Anderson for leadership? He was supposed to be completely loyal to Zoltar, but Anderson's Conversion could upset that...
Zoltar had particular reasons for wanting a thoroughly loyal Mark. In part, it was to pay Mark and G-Force back for past humiliations. It gave Zoltar pleasure to know that Mark was completely trusting, and to have the option at any time of betraying that trust. But there were other pleasures, and Zoltar had only begun... Mark needed to be kept wholly dependent on Zoltar, to have no other loyalties, for Zoltar's revenge to be realized to the fullest. It would be sweet, Mark cooperating in whatever Zoltar asked... and then, perhaps, when the sport grew boring, release the hold Conversion had and let Mark understand, remember how he had been used, before Zoltar killed him.
There was also the fact that Dr. Nydak was not to be fully trusted. Nydak might very well arrange matters so a prize jewel like Anderson was loyal only to him, and Zoltar couldn't stop him. Or, if the Luminous One intervened... it had not escaped Zoltar's attention that a Converted person might very well appeal to the Luminous One as a more loyal servant than a terrified shapechanger... No. Converted or not, Anderson was too bright to let live. He was a threat. He should die.
Perhaps, when Earth was conquered and the luxury could be afforded, Zoltar would release Mark, and let him realize how he'd engineered his own foster father's destruction.
Anderson had no way of telling time precisely, but his internal clock informed him that a long time had gone by. An afternoon, and an evening, and a night-- perhaps a whole night. Perhaps out in the world, the sun was shining again. But Anderson would not see it, ever again...
He had stopped bothering to try to work free of his bonds. After six, seven hours of futility, why bother? He had also stopped expecting the Spectrans to come. He'd spent the whole long night in fear of every footstep nearing the manhole, fear and also hope. Spectrans would be easier to escape than Mark; he would have a chance, if they came, to flee or to commit swift suicide... But there was no chance now. His death was out of his hands-- it would come all too soon, slowly and hideously by drowning.
If he could only see his daughter one last time. Sharon and her team might have to end their training and go out to fight G-Force, if Mark's plan was successful. And they would fail. A-Force was trained to fight Spectra, not G-Force, and they were still so young, too young to beat G-Force-- Sharon was barely 14. He loved her so much. She would be so grief-stricken when he died.. It was not that Anderson particularly feared death. If what waited was oblivion, he would never know, and if there was some kind of afterlife, he would be rejoined with his wife Roberta, and his son, and his father and sister and all the friends that died on Zeta Prime. But he didn't want to rejoin them yet. There was still so much he had to do, so many plans he had to oversee. Pandora was a strong woman, but could she handle the full responsibilities of being DSA R&D sector chief by herself? If anyone could do it, she could, and yet he feared... And he had to warn G-Force about Mark. Jason might manage to be suspicious in time, but the other three would never imagine that Mark could be a threat. And if G-Force was Converted, Earth would fall. There was no way A-Force could stand up to them yet. Perhaps Pandora would take them underground with her, implementing Project Last Chance, but he would never know.. So many things he needed to say, so many things that he never would, now. He did not truly fear his oncoming death, but he felt a terrible grief about it.
Far away, he seemed to hear the sounds of childish laughter, and closed his eyes in bitter sorrow. He would never hear his daughter or any of his foster children laugh, ever again...
And then he heard other voices.
"Tommy! Tommy, my feet hurt!"
"Ho boy. Some explorer you are!"
"Tom, put a lid on your little sister!"
"You're the one that wanted to come, Andree. So shut up, okay?"
"But my feet hurt!"
"Which direction do we take, Captain?"
"Uh-- left. Pirates always put their treasure on the left.."
Children, playing in the aqueduct! They must not know about the deadline-- Anderson had to warn them! And they were his only hope, as well.. He took a deep breath and shouted, "Help! Help me!"
"Did you hear that?" One of the children said, far away and faint.
"Help!" He called again.
"It's coming from that way!"
"Somebody needs help. We better go see!"
By the time they finally reached him, Anderson's voice was hoarse from the sudden overuse after a day and a night of silence. "It's a man!" One of the children said.
"Mister--" Anderson recognized the voice as Tom's-- "what's wrong? Why'd you yell for help?"
"What time is it?"
"What time is it?" Tom asked incredulously.
"I got a watch!" A blond boy scrutinized his wrist with a flashlight. "It's 9:25."
"9:25.. How are you at untying knots?"
"I'm a Cub Scout!" The third boy said proudly.
"Are you tied up? Did somebody mug you?" Tom asked.
"Yes. Listen, kids. At 10:00 the main aqueduct systems are going offline, and the water will be shunted through here. If all of us aren't out of here by then, we'll drown."
"Who tied you up?" The little girl-- Andree-- asked.
"Does it matter? Hurry, please!"
Tom walked over to Anderson, who leaned forward to give the children access to the knot, and shone his flashlight at it. "Dark, can you untie this?"
The Cub Scout inspected it fearfully. "That's a really nasty one-- I don't think so..."
"I got a pocket knife." Tom took it out and began sawing at Anderson's bonds.
"Be careful, you'll cut him!" Andree yelled.
"He won't cut him," The boy with a wristwatch said in a superior voice.
Anderson leaned forward as far as he could. His legs felt like they were on fire, he'd been unmoving so long.
"Uhh! This is a tough rope!" Tom gasped.
"I can help," Dark volunteered.
"Berke, what time is it?"
The boy with the wristwatch said, "It's 9:33. But I'm not altogether sure my watch's right..."
"Hurry!" Andree cried.
Tom finished sawing through the thick, slimy rope. "A-all done, mister.." He gasped, as Anderson staggered uncertainly to his feet. His legs screamed agony after being still so long, but the pain abated somewhat as he flexed them.
"There's a manhole cover in the ceiling around here," He said. "There should be a ladder..."
Flashlights covered the ceiling in a golden glow. There was a ladder, all right, folded against the ceiling-- which was several feet over Anderson's head. There was nothing to stand on, and it was far too high for his hands to reach, or even for him to jump to-- he hadn't quite G-Force's skill. "You can't reach that, can you, mister?" Dark said uncertainly.
"Here. Tom, I'll lift you, and you see if you can reach that ladder."
"How do you know my name?" Tom asked, a little frightened.
"I heard the others calling you that. Come on!"
Anderson's arms were not really up to lifting a 90-lb. boy over his head, much less hold him there as the boy grasped for the ladder. He forced himself to do it anyway, and nearly dropped Tom when the boy said, "I can't reach it!"
"I'm taller..." Berke said, looking nervously at his watch.
"I'll try... you... a second.. to catch my breath.." Anderson panted.
"What if you hold me and I hold Andree?" Tom asked. "I was close-- she ought to be able to reach it..."
"She hasn't got the strength to pull it down. Let's try it, Berke."
The second boy was taller, but thinner, so he was not really heavier than Tom had been. "Got it!" Berke shouted. "But.. it won't.."
"Pull hard!" Andree yelled.
Try as he might, Berke couldn't pull it down more than a foot. The children could reach it if Anderson lifted them, but Anderson couldn't.
"All right," Anderson said, when he recovered his breath again. "I'll lift each of you onto the ladder, and you climb up and get out, all right? And then get help, immediately."
"We can't leave you--" Tom objected.
"You won't be. Do it!"
He lifted each of them onto the ladder-- fortunately, he didn't have to lift them quite as high this time, and they climbed out. "There's only ten minutes left," He heard Berke saying. "We gotta hurry!"
"Can you jump?" Dark asked.
Anderson tried jumping. It didn't work. "Listen," He called up to them. "I have a very important message I want you to carry--"
"No!" Tom shouted. "We said we'd save you, and we will!"
"It's too late!" Anderson shouted. "This is important!"
But Tom was yelling, "Hey! Hey, mister! There's a man trapped in a hole, can you help?"
"Hurry!" Berke was yelling. "There's only eight minutes left!"
A man's face hove into feet, numerous feet above. "Is there anyone down there?"
"Yes!" Anderson shouted. "The main aqueduct system's going to be shut off at 10, and the water shunted through here. If you could help me get out of here..." He heard a roaring in the distance. Had someone started early?
"Sure. I'll just lower the ladder." The man pushed the ladder down until Anderson could easily reach it. He began to climb. But his arms ached terribly from lifting the children. The roaring grew louder and louder, and though he climbed as fast as he could, the water hit before he could reach the top.
Tons of cold water buffeted his body. It was all he could do to stay on the ladder. Holding his breath, he forced his way up one rung, another rung, fighting the pull of the water all the way. The light from the hole wavered above him, so close. If only he could reach it...
But he was too weak. With two rungs to go, he felt his grip slipping inexorably. No! He tried to hang on, but it was useless. His lungs were on fire, and his hands and legs simply did not have the strength left to hang on...
Then the man's hands grabbed his arms and hauled him bodily out of the water.
Anderson gasped as he was placed on the pavement in a heap. He looked up at the sun. My God... I'm alive, I'm alive...
He got to his feet, ignoring the agony in overused muscles. "You saved my life, sir. I can't possibly thank you enough."
"No problem. I couldn't just let you die in there. Anyway, I had nothing else to do-- can't get to work anyway, the roads are closed."
"You been in that hole all morning?"
"It's a long story. Yes. Why?"
"About an hour ago, a riot started in the center of the city. Kids breaking things down, burning things... All the roads to Center City have been blockaded, they're shunting the starport people to Bayside and Houston, it's just chaos."
"Damn," Anderson whispered. "It's started already. Damn Zoltar..."
"Zoltar? Spectra's behind this, you mean? How do you know?"
"Yes. I'm with DSA." Anderson looked around. "Where's the nearest pay phone? I have to call my secretary."
"If you're trying to call Center City, you're out of luck. The phone lines are all down."
Anderson swore under his breath. There was no time for this-- he had to warn Pandora and G-Force! "Then I'm going to have to head into the city on foot."
"That's suicide! Those kids are trashing everything that moves!"
Anderson closed his eyes. "I have a message that must get through. The future of the Earth depends on it. Whether it's suicide or not, I have to make it through the city, because it's our only hope." He started off.
Jason staggered out of the closet and fell dizzily to the floor, his eyes fixed frozenly to the clock. 9:00.
That must mean AM, since they'd gotten in around 10 last night. Mark had had at least eleven hours to carry out his plan. Damn! Jason's head spun dizzily, his vision doubled and redoubled, every breath was like fire, and his hands and feet felt numb-- but he got up, ignoring the sudden worsening of his symptoms, and, using the wall for support, stumbled to Anderson's office.
Anderson wasn't in.
There wasn't any sense in getting upset about it-- the Chief didn't spend every waking minute in his office, after all-- but Jason's thought processes weren't making much sense right now, and he wasted seconds and precious breath swearing before he thought to call Anderson's secretary. "Susan" Was not actually a secretary-- it was actually a very complex answering machine program capable of making some independent decisions on its own-- but even Jason found himself thinking of it as "she" And a secretary.
"Susan, where's the Chief?"
"I'm not sure, Jason," She replied in the annoying breathy voice Maxwell had programmed her with. "He said he'd found a lead, and wouldn't be back until today."
"The Chief told you that?"
"Well, no... He told Mark, and Mark told me."
"SHIT!" The world spun again, the adrenalin surge worsening Jason's dizziness, and he had to hang onto Anderson's chair to keep from falling. "Get Dr. Pandora in here. Hurry!"
Pandora came in at a run. "Jason! My God, what happened?"
"Where's the team?"
"They left on a lead of Mark's, half an hour ago."
Jason released a stream of expletives in English and Spectran, which he cursed in as well as a native. "Mark's been brainwashed," He said, falling into the chair exhaustedly. "It's Spectra's plan, they've been brainwashing all those kids. Mark's on Spectra's side now."
"Oh my god." The ramifications were not lost on Pandora. She leaned forward and toggled a switch. "This is Pandora, calling G-Force! G-Force, please respond!"
Static was the only reply.
"Shit, he must be jamming the signal! They can't have gotten out of range in half an hour..."
"Dr. Anderson's been missing since yesterday," Pandora muttered. "Damn! Susan, I want you to keep broadcasting to G-Force. Try every frequency, try anything you can think of. If you get them, tell them-- tell them what, precisely, Jason?"
"Spectra's invented a device that reverses people's loyalties and they used it on Mark. He's not to be trusted."
"Tell them that, and that Chief Anderson may be brainwashed as well. They're not to accept his orders unless I verify it."
"What if they get you, too?" Jason asked. "Mark could've had it done to me, if he'd wanted to..."
"They won't get me." Pandora spoke grimly. She quickly ran her eyes over Jason's injuries. "I'm sorry I don't have time to attend to your injuries personally, Jason-- I'll have Dr. Takahara do it. You go on down to the infirmary-- wait. Can you walk?" Jason got to his feet unsteadily. "I can walk."
"No, you can't. Susan, get me Dr. Takahara!"
"I'm sending the Condor down to you for treatment. Send up a pair of orderlies with a stretcher, I don't want him walking. He's been severely beaten."
"By who?" Takahara asked incredulously.
"Never mind who. Just fix him up as best you can-- if the cyn network's involved, I'll help you when I get time." She flicked off the screen. "Okay, Jason, it'll be a few minutes-- Jason?"
She ran into the corridor, looking both ways and shouting. "Jason! Jason, where are you? Come back!"
Jason had no intention of lying in a hospital bed while his teammates got brainwashed.
The Lynmal derivatives were among the most addictive drugs known to humanity. They had been used by G-Force's predecessors, before the cyns were invented, to increase reaction speed, agility, and mental alertness. They also sped metabolism, helping to heal injuries more quickly, and were powerful painkillers. They also had resulted in the terrible addiction and eventual death of virtually everyone in E-Force, but Jason couldn't afford to think about that now. Two pills-- one now, one later if he needed it-- wouldn't addict him. There would be a price to be paid, pain later for being spared now, but Jason couldn't afford to worry about that, either. Without his bracelet or his shoes, he couldn't transmute, and he certainly couldn't function in this beaten-up state. He grabbed a spare pair of sneakers as he headed for his car.
G-Force hadn't taken the Phoenix, largely because the target was here in Stargate and using the Phoenix for such a short trip was rather like swatting a fly with a bazooka. Jason got in his car and roared off, as Pandora watched from the window. Save them, and come home safe yourself, she pleaded to him in her mind. For all our sakes...
The warehouse was like all other warehouses-- big and grey, with dozens of boxes stacked inside. Mark looked around. "This way, I think."
They navigated the winding path of boxes, to reach a freight elevator. The bottom of the elevator opened at a nudge from one of Princess' modules, and they slid down the cables to the very bottom. Tiny pulled open the elevator doors, and they slipped out into a vast, dark chamber.
"Spectran all right," Tiny murmured.
"This way." Mark walked toward the center of the darkness, and they followed. In the center of the room he paused, peered around. "Stay here." He leapt--
--and a dome suddenly rose in halves from the ground and closed over the team.
"Aah!" Keyl yelled.
Princess flung her yo-yo at the wall, Tiny threw his full weight against it, Keyl attempted to laser through-- to no avail. Blazing lights glared, and they heard too-familiar laughter.
"Zoltar!" Keyl snarled.
With typical sense of the dramatic, Zoltar had chosen to stand on a balcony, overlooking them. "That was much easier than I'd dreamed. Surely you G-Force can do better than this-- or was it only your commander that made you such miracle workers?"
Mark landed on the balcony next to Zoltar, but made no move to attack. "Mark, what are you doing?" Princess cried.
"Obeying my orders, what else?" Zoltar said, laughing. "It's time you learned how matters really stand, G-Force. My plan here has been to take youths, people your age, and rewrite their loyalties, transforming them into an unstoppable army loyal only to me. Just now, I have released the first wave. You, G-Force, will be part of the second."
"NO!" Tiny shouted.
"Yes. How can you stop me? I have already Converted your commander..."
The world spun, tipped wildly around Princess. "Gas masks!" She cried, but it was already too late...
The city had gone insane.
Anderson waited inside the dressing room of a men's clothing store for the rioting, looting teenagers to leave. He heard one of them, laughing-- "Let's torch it!"
No rest for the weary. As soon as he heard the door slam, Anderson left, running up the stairs to the left, climbing out the window and jumping down. He had abandoned his soiled clothing and taken incongruous-looking jeans and a sweatshirt, in order to better blend in. Though he didn't show his 40-odd years, Anderson would certainly not be mistaken for a member of the target group-- but he'd seen them shooting at men in suits, and known that the garb of the young people would provide a little protection, at least. Gunfire sprayed near him, and he quickly rolled behind some garbage cans. A young man of about 20 in combat fatigues with a gun came over, and Anderson threw the garbage can lid, striking his would-be assailant in the head. The man dropped, and Anderson took his gun.
He was tired. But he had to keep fighting his way into the city, had to reach Pandora and G-Force...
Zoltar and five goons were present as the goons loaded Princess, Keyl and Tiny into three black booths. Jason pulled six shuriken, all of them poisoned, and flung three from his place in the shadows. The three goons dropped. Their two companions soon followed. Zoltar dodged the final shuriken, but it did no good-- Jason was across the room in seconds, and had the alien commander by the throat.
"What are you-- you-- aaah!" Jason wasted no time; he landed a punch that should have separated the shapechanger's head and shoulders, then another one, then a third. Zoltar was notoriously hard to knock out and swift to recover, though, and Jason didn't have much time. He would have liked to forcibly obliterate Zoltar's face, but there wasn't the time, and he hadn't the strength. So he took a poisoned shuriken and plunged it into Zoltar's throat.
Tossing Zoltar aside, he ran over to his teammates and one by one pulled them into the lee of one of the booths. Keyl, always the first to go down from drugs, was also usually the quickest to recover, and was already stirring. Jason shook Princess. "Wake up, Princess! Wake up!"
"Wha-- what? Jason?" Groggily she opened her eyes.
"It's okay. I saved you guys. Tiny's still out like a light, but Keyl's waking up."
"'n wishin' 'e wuzzn't," Keyl slurred sleepily. "Head."
"I've got some aspirin," Princess said, and gave it to him. She took some herself, and looked at Jason critically. "You don't look too good, Jason. Where'd you get that black eye?"
"Mark. Did Zoltar tell you--"
"Oh, Jason! Do you know what they've done? How could such a thing happen?"
"Yeah, I know. Mark told me. I don't understand how they managed it, myself, but it's crippled us-- the Chief might be Converted too, in which case we're in really deep shit. If Zoltar survives, we'll get the reversal out of him."
"If Zoltar survives?"
"Yeah. I figure he's probably de-- oh, shit." Zoltar's body was nowhere to be seen.
"Swearing again? With impressionable kids like me around? Shame, shame, Jason." Keyl was fully recovered, the aspirin and his half-alien metabolism driving away the remnants of the drug rapidly.
"Shut up, wise guy."
Keyl sobered. "Is it true? What Zoltar said about Mark?"
Jason took a deep breath. "Yeah. It's true."
"What's true?" Tiny mumbled, coming free of the drug, and Jason had to explain matters to him as well.
"Well, it's obvious what we have to do," Princess said. "Somehow we've got to find Mark and take him captive. Also, if we can get Zoltar or one of the people who designed this thing, we can force them to tell us how to undo it. And if we see the Chief, take him captive-- we'll have no way to know whether he's Converted or not, so we'll have to bring him back to Dr. Pandora and let her examine him."
"Pretty tall order, considering that there's only four of us and Mark's done a number on Jason," Tiny said. He turned to Jason, who was rather conspicuously not transmuted. "He's got your bracelet, doesn't he?"
"Jason." Princess was suddenly alarmed, seeing for the first time the extent of Jason's injuries. "You didn't take a mikey, did you?"
"No," Jason said truthfully. The Lynmal derivative he'd taken had been LMS, not Michelaine. He stood up. "I'm fine, Princess. Let's worry about getting our jobs done here. Like Tiny said, it is a tall order and if we're gonna do it, the sooner the better."
Tiny was seriously worried about Jason. Maybe Princess hadn't noticed it-- well, she'd noticed, since she'd asked Jason about the mikey, but maybe she'd accepted his word at face value-- but Jason was practically a walking corpse. He had to have been lying about the mikey-- there was no way Jason could be functioning, as beat up as he was, without a drug to help.
It was not, however, something Tiny could afford to worry about right now-- he had a job to do. Stealth operations were not Tiny Harper's favorite pastime. He preferred stuff that either involved his technical knowledge, or piloting skill, or knock-down drag-out fights where he could use all of his not-inconsiderable strength to his advantage. Sneaking around in the secret passages that webbed Spectran bases always made him itch. Part of it was the fact that most of the tunnels were too narrow for him, having been built for Zoltar primarily. And part of it was that, for all his ability with things like computers and engineering stuff, he was singularly bad at making decisions in a crisis. If he did find out anything important, he was never sure what to do with it.
Like now. He had been sliding along the wall of the corridor, when he'd come to a dark pane of glass-- and froze, peering through it. That was Zoltar!
The Kanos of Spectra was lying on a cushioned divan-- a highly uncharacteristic pose-- and looked pretty sick. Tiny smiled slightly, remembering that Jason had stabbed the alien with a poisoned shuriken. So even Zoltar's famed self-healing abilities had limits, he thought. The problem was, should he break through the glass to grab Zoltar, and risk causing a ruckus, or look for another way out, and maybe not find one before Zoltar took off?
Then Mark entered the room outside.
Tiny pressed himself against the glass. If he listened carefully, he could make out what they were saying-- they were speaking English, which was a plus, as Tiny's Spectran was not so good.
"My lord? You wanted to see me?"
"Yes." Zoltar's voice was unusually hoarse and harsh. "You informed me that you'd neutralized your former teammate, the Condor."
"I did, sir."
"Indeed. Then kindly explain to me, who was it who freed G-Force, killed my men, and stabbed me in the throat with this?" Zoltar held up the shuriken.
Mark stared, then took it. "This-- this is an alpha poisoned one. He stabbed you with it?"
"All but killed me." Zoltar leaned back against the cushions, voice growing weak. "You are instructed to destroy him."
"I-- I understand, sir. I'm sorry I failed you before..."
"Oh, I will think of a suitable... repayment." Zoltar turned on one side, cushioning head with hand, and looked up at Mark. "You believe you can recapture the G-Force team for me?"
"If you can capture the Condor, do so. He would be valuable, and you should not have to perform the painful task of killing a former friend." No doubt, Tiny thought, Zoltar would want to finish Jason off personally.
"Thank you, sir."
"As to the matter of repayment..." A gloved hand reached out and ran down the side of Mark's leg.
"You have a very beautiful face, dear Mark. Did you know that?"
Mark sounded embarrassed. "Uh... well, I'd been told it..."
"You do. A very intriguing face... and more." Tiny shuddered as Zoltar smiled. "You are loyal to me, are you not, dear Mark?"
"Of course I am, sir."
"You would do anything I asked? You love me, and want to please me?"
"Anything at all?"
"I'm afraid I don't understand..."
Tiny didn't see how that was possible-- he understood, and he was much thicker than Mark when it came to things like this. Revulsion and nameless horror nauseated him. It wasn't that he had anything against homosexuals as people, but for Zoltar to... That-- that bastard! I mean, we all kind of knew he was like that, but this... oh, that's disgusting!
"That's fine. You don't need to understand, yet. Just... when the time comes, all will be made clear to you. You would be happy to serve me, no?"
"Yes..." Mark sounded uneasy.
"Good. Finish this matter as quickly as possible, then come to me here. Then all will be made plain." Zoltar's hand reached up and caressed Mark's cheek. "Go on. Find your teammates. But don't forget..."
"I won't, sir." Mark bowed, then left.
Tiny smashed the glass window and threw himself at Zoltar, knocking the Spectran off the couch and onto the floor. "Filthy alien bastard!" He cried, crushing the shapechanger's neck in his hands. "Don't even think that way about Mark!"
Zoltar gurgled unintelligibly and clawed for Tiny's hands, uselessly. The sight of his opponent's obvious agony only drove Tiny to lift the head and smash it down, again and again, all the while tightening his hands around Zoltar's neck. He didn't even hear Mark come in behind him, or know about it until a hand chopped down sharply on his shoulder nerves, driving him into unconsciousness.
Mark ran to Zoltar, lifting the shapechanger's limp form. "Zoltar! Sir! Are you all right?"
Distantly Zoltar managed to focus on Mark. As if being poisoned wasn't bad enough... I may not talk for a week. Zoltar concentrated on the healing process, shifting throat muscles. The voice that finally spoke was higher-pitched, and quite evidently feminine. "I will... talk strangely for a while... haven't the strength for... normal voice..." Or rather, for anything but normal voice, but Zoltar was not about to admit that the male voice was a sham and this was normal. Not in public, anyway. In private it might be entirely different.
"You should have called for help, sir. I could have stopped Tiny from ever reaching you."
"Did you ever try calling for help when someone is crushing your throat?"
"Never mind." Zoltar struggled to sit up. "Obviously not even this room is safe. I am going to my office as soon as I recover my voice. I want you to take the Owl down and Convert him, and then, when he's in the machine, hunt down the rest of your team. And don't fail me."
"I won't, sir."
Jason was once more beginning to get dizzy.
Dressed in a stolen Spectran uniform, he had planned on heading downstairs, to see if there were any unConverted teenagers left and freeing them. But he hadn't gotten farther than the stairs when the double vision and vertigo suddenly returned, and he had to go back. It wasn't his choice to patrol the area of the Converter, but he knew the area reasonably well, and if anyone came along to put a captive in, he could stop them.
Now he leaned against the wall, looking thoroughly like a Spectran but feeling very sick and dizzy and hoping desperately no one would challenge him-- at least, not until the fit passed. His hand went to the compartment with his pills in it. With an effort, he pulled it away. It was so tempting... But that was the road to addiction. It had only been two hours since he'd last taken one-- he was supposed to wait five hours at least, since the risk of addiction was so unbelievably high. And the last thing Jason needed was an addiction dragging him down, especially one as difficult to get rid of as wings.
But it would clear his head so well... he felt so foggy...
But how could just one more pill addict him...
No!! He'd heard the horror stories-- the diluted, "cut" Form of the stuff sold on the streets, commonly known as wings, had been known to addict people after only one use. Of course, they used more in their first sitting than he did... NO!!
At that point, all thoughts of the drug fled, as Mark entered lugging Tiny. Mark's back was to him, and he had barely spared Jason a glance as he entered-- but Jason's disguise could never stand up to Mark's scrutiny. He had to take him before he turned. So he pulled his gun, flicked the cable-setting trigger, and fired the cable around Mark's legs, pulling Mark down.
Mark twisted and looked up at him. "Jason!"
Oh shit. It suddenly occured to Jason that if Mark could have beaten him so badly back when he was relatively okay, right now he would be dog meat. And he didn't have a communicator to call the others with, either. Quickly he hit the toggle to send an electric shock through the cord, a deliberately mild one-- he didn't want to hurt Mark. Mark was already pulling himself free of the cable, but was still touching it when the shock came through-- he cried out and jerked, his whole body stiffening, then collapsing. Carefully Jason pulled the cable back and walked over. Mark appared to be unconscious. He bent and took Mark's wrist in his hand-- he wanted to remove Mark's bracelet, and he also wanted to take his pulse, to make sure he hadn't hurt Mark.
Before he could do either, however, Mark's other hand grasped his and yanked him down. Jason struck the ground hard and rolled desperately as Mark's foot connected with his rear, sending shards of pain shooting up his spine. He tried to get to his feet, but overwhelming dizziness swept over him, and he collapsed.
Mark got up, shakily. "Jason, you are a royal idiot," He said. "Zoltar's very angry with you-- he nearly gave me orders to kill you, you know that? I would have had to kill you. But now all I need to do's Convert you."
No! Jason called on reserves he didn't know he had, flung himself backward and came up from a handspring into a run, weaving wildly but running, zigzagging to avoid Mark's boomerang--
A brush of wind warned him, and he threw himself to the side-- too late. Mark crashed into him, and they both fell, Jason pinned helplessly beneath Mark.
"Lights out, Jason."
No! I can't get Converted, I can't! Princess, Keyl, help!!
The lobby receptionist stared at the bedraggled, bruised figure in blue jeans as if he could not believe his eyes. "Just call Pandora," Anderson gasped, and collapsed into a chair.
Pandora arrived with two orderlies and a stretcher. "Dr. Anderson?"
"Had to warn you," Anderson said weakly, his exhaustion taking its toll. "Mark's been brainwashed by Spectra..."
"I know. What happened to you?"
There was a strange coldness in her voice. Anderson opened his eyes and stared at her. "What's wrong, Sharon?" He rarely used her first name-- since he'd named his daughter the same thing, Sharon always sounded as if it should mean his daughter-- but he used it now, sensing that she feared him, somehow.
"Nothing's wrong. Do you mind if we put you under hypnosis?"
"No... but whatever for?"
"Mark was Converted," Pandora said tightly.
Recognition dawned in Anderson's eyes. So that was it! She was afraid he'd been Converted! "Go ahead," He said. "While you're at it, see if you can convince me I'm not tired, or something-- once you've cleared me, we've got a lot of work to do. There're two young men tied up in the station wagon outside, both Converted. We can study them and try to reverse the process... " His voice trailed off, half-asleep already.
Princess was perched on top of a light fixture in something that looked like an engineering lab, when she was struck by an overwhelming sense of danger. Jason, Tiny!
She tried contacting Tiny. No response. Keyl answered, though, "Princess! I found out who built these things-- a pair of scientists named Nydak and Varsok!"
Nydak and Varsok? The ones who'd been responsible for the Yaru and Aletha affair? It figured-- but Princess couldn't spare time to worry about it now. "Keyl, meet me at the room where they tried to Convert us, fast! I think Jason and Tiny are in trouble!"
She didn't know why she thought Jason was in trouble. Tiny not responding to her calls was one thing, but Jason didn't have a bracelet to respond to her with-- why was she so sure he was in danger? Princess had learned not to question such hunches, though-- she ran, full throttle, for the Conversion room.
The sight exploded in her mind, much as the original disappearance of Mark had-- Mark stood in front of two booths with "active" Lights flashing. No! Oh, no!
"Princess!" Keyl whispered, melting into the shadows with her. "What's going on?"
"Look. In those booths--"
"You mean he's Converting Jason and Tiny?"
"Shh! He'll hear. Listen. I'm going to try to lure him away. You figure out how to stop the process, okay?"
"I'm not as good as you are at machines. Why don't I lure him away and you stop the process?"
Princess sighed. There was no time to be gentle about this. "Because he'd catch you too quickly, Keyl." She leapt out and cracked the aurora whip toward Mark's neck. He ducked it, grabbed, and pulled her down toward him, and she let go, flinging her yo-yo out toward him. Mark flung the boomerang, and she had to dodge backwards as it sliced past her shoulder, barely missing nerves where its touch would have knocked her out.
"Mark, why are you doing this?" She cried, scooping up her whip.
"Don't be dense, Princess. You know why!" He threw himself into the air, spinning toward her. Princess leapt, spun around a rafter, and threw herself toward the door.
"Don't you realize you've been brainwashed? Spectra's playing with your mind!" She snapped the whip at him again.
"I don't care!" He dodged, flung the boomerang at her whip hand. She dodged it and ran, and he followed.
Keyl came out of the shadows as soon as they were gone, and ran over to the black boxes. They were immensely simple-- on each was a switch labeled in Spectran hieroglyphs, Emergency Power Off. He hit them and cut the boxes' internal latches with his laser.
Tiny staggered out, eyes wide and staring. "Huh-- whuh-- Keyl?"
"No, the Tooth Fairy. You okay?"
"Ah-- I don't know. I think-- well. Uh. Did-- did I just try to get Converted? No, I don't mean that-- did someone try to get me Converted? I feel..."
"You sound royally confused," Keyl said. "Help me with Jason."
Jason's limp body had slumped to the foor when they opened the box. Keyl and a still befuddled Tiny bent next to him, pulling him out of the box. "Jason, you all right?" Tiny asked.
Jason suddenly convulsed, shrieking, "No!!" Fists came up toward Keyl's face, and Keyl threw himself desperately backwards as Tiny pinned Jason to the floor.
"Let go, let go-- I won't let you take me, I won't let you take my mind--"
"No one's trying to take your mind, will you just calm down?"
Jason shuddered and seemed to focus on the real world. "T-Tiny?"
"And me," Keyl said. "After you nearly knocked my head off, you'd better not forget about me."
"I-- I thought-- I dreamed--"
"I had some pretty bad nightmares, too," Tiny said. "But I don't remember them anymore."
"What'd you dream?" Keyl asked Jason.
"You were-- they were-- trying to take my mind away. They had all these wires, binding up my brain..." He shuddered again, then looked away from them. "Forget it. Let's go. Where's Princess?"
"Decoying Mark. Are you going to be able to travel?"
"Sure," Jason said, convincing no one, and got up. And promptly fell down again, into Tiny's arms.
"He's fainted," Was Tiny's expert opinion.
"Have not," Jason said weakly, struggling to get up. Tiny held him with ease.
"Jase, obviusly you're not going to be able to make it. Keyl and I'll carry you somewhere safe. All right?"
"No-- I have the other pill.."
"Another pill? Shit, Jason! How many have you taken?"
"Jus' one... not gonna get addicted..."
"No way. What is it, a mikey? Wings?"
"Shit," Tiny said again, with feeling. "No go, Jason. Killing yourself to save our lives is one thing, but you don't need to keep doing it. Keyl, you hide and watch the Converter, is that okay?"
"Sure. Sounds fine. You get Jason someplace safe, and I'll wait for Mark and Princess to come back."
Under hypnosis, truth drugs, everything Pandora could think of to throw at him, Anderson tested as normal, and the bizarre neurotransmitters she'd noticed in Mark were absent. She had to assume he was normal. While he slept, she had his two captives brought in, and began running tests on them.
He had only been asleep for two hours when he came in to help her. "What have we learned?"
"Dr. Anderson! You should be in bed--"
"You're not my doctor, Sharon. Don't worry about me. We've too much work to do to afford my naptime."
"But you were exhausted--"
"I don't need much sleep." He certainly didn't look tired-- once more dressed in his usual attire, properly showered and shaved, he hardly bore the marks of his ordeal at all. Only when Dr. Pandora looked closely could she see that the healthy-looking color of the skin around his eyes was due to cosmetics rather than a good night's sleep. "Let's get to work. What have you found?"
What she had found promised hope for reConversions-- under truth drugs or hypnosis, the subjects' Conversion seemed to break down, and they reverted to normal. A few more subjects were brought in by the security guards, who were practically fighting a war out there-- huge numbers of the kids had converged on the Department's headquarters. On the new test subjects, they learned that alcohol or any other drug that lowered inhibitions would tend to break down Conversion. When the drug wore off, though, the Conversion returned. Pandora tried to call G-Force with the news, but the signal was still jammed.
After they had been working six or seven hours, Anderson excused himself, claiming he was going to get a snack. He went to his office, locked the door, and took a deep breath-- the dizziness and exhaustion had returned, and with them the leaden burning in his veins, the hunger he lived with that only one source could alleviate.
We have to keep working. I can't take time to crash now, he told himself, rationalizing. Pure Lynmal powder, mixed with certain chemicals to decrease the side effects, was just as addictive but less debilitating than Michelaine or the "wings" That were sold on the street. The white packets in his desk drawer, that anyone would have guessed to be sugar for his coffee, were all that kept Anderson alive sometimes. He recognized his addiction as a terrible, destructive weakness, one that Spectra could use to destroy him if they ever found out, and he kept resolving to take time off to quit-- but the withdrawal would put him out of action for months, and he couldn't spare the time. He poured the powder into a glass of water, swirled it a bit, and drank it down. After a few minutes the dizziness and encroaching exhaustion receded, locked behind doors in his mind.
He returned to work full of energy. Pandora might suspect, he thought, but she would never betray him-- and by now, his life depended on the drug. It wasn't as if he had a choice.
Defeating Princess had almost been pathetically easy.
Once he'd caught up to her, Princess had barely fought Mark. That was good, of course, because he didn't want to hurt her any more than he had to, and he was eager to see her Converted. She wasn't even unconscious when he bound her wrists together, pulled her up by one arm and marched her in front of him. "Don't worry," He told her. "Once you're Converted, you'll be so happy you were."
He ignored the sarcasm in her tone. At least she wasn't attempting to flee anymore. Maybe she even wanted to join him, deep down, because she loved him. Mark smiled warmly at her, and wished he hadn't had to hurt her at all.
Then she stumbled, crying out as she folded on one side. "Princess!" Mark shouted, and went to help her. "Are you all right?"
She swung her bound arms full force into the small of Mark's back. He screamed and stiffened, and she followed it up with a kick that sent him sprawling. As soon as he was down, she yanked his boomerang from his holster, and used it to slice through her own bonds. Then she looked back at Mark, and realized, horrified, that he was not unconscious. He was trying to get up, and failing.
Her plan had been to play at getting captured, then take Mark out-- Mark would fear violence from her less than from anyone but Keyl, and unlike Keyl, she did have a prayer of succeeding. But she hadn't wanted to really hurt him. She bent swiftly next to him. "Mark? Mark, are you all right?"
"Damn you," He strangled out. "Princess..." There was a terrible confusion of emotions, anger and betrayal and grief, in his voice. "Happy now?"
"What do you mean?"
"My old injury... from Nagoruk..."
Horrified, Princess realized suddenly why he had been favoring his back, why it had been a weak point for her to exploit. I might have broken his back, she thought, suddenly terrified, and ran anxious medical hands across his back. "It's not broken."
That was where the assassin had struck him-- but his neck wasn't broken, either. Princess forced aside the fears-- she needed information, and Mark's helplessness could only help her right now. She pulled him over into the shadows and turned him over carefully, avoiding any stress on the injured back. He stared up at her hatefully.
"Where is Zoltar located?"
"You think I'll tell you? You wouldn't have the stomach even to try to force it out of me."
"Then I'll find out another way." She withdrew an ampule and inserted it into a needle.
"Don't be stupid, Princess. We're all allergic to truth drugs, remember?" There was fear in his voice.
"Relax, Mark. I'm not going to hurt you. Just relax..." She injected him, and murmured over and over that he should relax, that there was no more pain. It was a test. Members of G-Force had deep-set blocks implanted against being hypnotized by people they didn't trust. If Mark, deep inside his heart, still trusted Princess, the drug would put him in a hypnotic trance, and she could get her information. But if he didn't trust her, even subconsciously... then Conversion was irreversible, and Mark was lost forever. At first Mark resisted her, shaking his head wildly at the soothing words. She pinned his head with her knees and stroked his cheeks, ran a gentle finger around his eye ridges and across his lips, as she had in better times so many times before. Gradually Mark relaxed into her soft murmuring, her gentle caresses, and fell into a trance.
"There's no more pain, your back doesn't hurt, but you don't want to move. You just want to lie there and relax, just relax..."
Mark's breath caught in a sudden sob.
"Princess!" He tried to turn his head to look up at her, his eyes bright with tears. "I-- I--"
"Mark, what's wrong?"
"Help me!" The floodgate opened, and he began to sob, his entire body wracked. "Like poison in my brain, they've twisted everything around, they took me apart like a broken mirror and put back shattered, my mind isn't my own, isn't mine... everything I've felt is wrong! I didn't want to be different-- after they broke me-- I didn't want to break free--" His voice took on a hystTinyal note. "I killed Chief Anderson! I tried to kill Jason, I-- Tiny and Jason are in the Converter now-- I can't bear it, Princess, please, please, kill me..."
"No!" Princess cried, shocked and horrified. Chief Anderson, dead? Mark suicidal? "No, Mark, it wasn't your fault! Now that you've returned to us--"
"I killed Chief Anderson!" Mark shrieked. "I-- I meant for them to Convert him, and they never picked him up... I wanted Spectra to win, I wanted.. oh, God! Don't you understand, Princess? Can't you see what I've done, what I deserve?"
"All I see is that you're tormenting yourself over things you had no control over--"
"But I did have control! I wanted to do it, Princess! Don't youn understand? That was me, me-- they changed what I am! They changed me!" He was almost unintelligible with sobs.
"Don't. Mark, please, don't. It's all right now. You'll be all right."
"It'll never be all right! They changed me! It's still there, Princess, it's still there... I'm dreaming. This is a dream, and when I wake up I'll be loyal to Spectra! Nothing but a short dream..."
This had stopped looking like a hypnotic trance a long time ago to Princess. "But Mark, I must have brought you out of it. I hypnotized you. Don't you remember?"
"No... I don't know why I'm normal now, but they changed me, it's inside me, Princess... please, please let me die..."
Hysteria was not like Mark-- he had been moody and changeable in the past, but never like this. Abruptly Princess realized what had to be going on-- the hypnotic trance she'd placed Mark in had broken the barriers, the inhibitions, of his conscious mind. What she was touching now was the raw core of his emotion, unfiltered. "Listen to me, Mark. I am not going to let you die!" A plea to his reason would do no good-- Mark wasn't filtering his feelings through rationality right now. So she aimed at his emotions. "I love you, Mark! If you died, it-- it would be like someone ripped out half my soul. None of the things you've done are your fault, I won't let you die for them. Don't you understand that?"
"I'm not worthy of your love, Princess..." He was still crying, but his sobs were less wracking.
"Oh, yes, you are. Now sleep, Mark. Sleep peacefully, and wake happy." Gradually she got him back into the trance and put him to sleep. Then she got up. She and a pair of scientists were going to have words...
The Yaru and Aletha affair had been horrifying for all concerned. Princess and Jason had been captured in their civilian identities, and used as experimental subjects for a mind-transferring process. Aletha was a kidnapped warrior princess of a faraway world, and Yaru her telepathic brother; their minds had been removed from their powerful, inhumanly strong bodies and placed in Princess and Jason's brains, the idea being that Princess and Jason's own identities would be wiped out. It hadn't worked that way-- Aletha and Yaru had worked with Princess and Jason to destroy the experiment. One of the scientists, Terani Tomar, had given them the key to returning to their own bodies, in exchange for her life-- but the scientist Nydak killed Yaru and Aletha's own bodies before Princess and Jason could reach them. The brother and sister had decided to discorporate together, to give Jason and Princess' bodies back to them. And the scientists responsible for that project-- besides Tomar, who claimed she had joined long after the project had begun, and wasn't responsible for most of the work-- had been Maité Nydak and Kayla Varsok.
Now, it seemed, they had proceeded from mind transfer to mind rewriting. Princess wished that Aletha had managed to kill those two back then, and save this trouble now. But she didn't plan to kill Nydak and Varsok now-- at least, not until she got the information she needed out of them...
Maité Nydak was a thin, wiry man, somewhat reminiscent of a rodent, with pinched little features and a nervous tic jerking one cheek when he spoke. He was pacing nervously, speaking in rapid Spectran and ellipsizing his words. "...utterly simple," He was saying. "There's enough of ours to shove him in. Convert Zoltar, and the whole army--"
"No!" Kayla Varsok was taller than her husband, lithe and slim like most Spectran women. Her face was round, with more meat on it than most Spectran faces, but the immediate youthful impression this gave was belied by the crow's feet and wrinkles of middle age. She moved swiftly, gracefully, with an economy of movement. "Commander Mala wouldn't--"
"Damn your Mala! This is our future we're talking about."
"We are scientists, Maité!"
"We could be more!"
Princess leapt down from her hiding place. "Excuse me for interrupting your little domestic squabble," She said in flawless polite Spectran, "but which of you is the whelp of a worm that designed the Converter? I have to know who knows how to reverse it, so I know who to torture and who simply to kill."
The two of them stared at her for a second. Then Varsok grabbed a heavy bookend and threw it at her, and both bolted for the exit. Princess's whip snaked around Nydak's waist. She yanked him backwards, pulled the whip free, and coiled it again around his neck, tightening.
"Maité!" Varsok ran to her husband's side, and Princess flung her yo-yo out with her free hand, trying to keep Varsok back. Instead, it smacked the woman in the face. She stumbled, crying out, and fell forward.
"I want to know how to reverse the Converter," She said, tightening her grip on Nydak's neck. He writhed, gasping, as he tried to pull the whip off. "Now."
"I'd be perfectly happy to tell you, you don't have to do this, let him go!" Varsok cried.
"You misunderstand. The man I love is lying unconscious out there, possibly paralyzed for life, struck down by me. He's suicidal because our teacher's dead at his hands. His best friend was beaten within an inch of his life by him. All because of you two. I want to hurt you--" She cut off as she felt herself losing control of her voice.
Varsok stared at her husband, horrified. "You're killing him!"
"You're not talking."
"Demon's whore!" Varsok pulled a knife and charged Princess. Princess uncoiled the whip from around Nydak's neck, flung it around Varsok, and used it first to pull the woman off balance, to skid on the floor, and next to drag her to Princess. Holding the woman in a headlock, she said to Nydak, who was kneeling, gasping for breath, "Is one of you going to tell me what I want to know, or..."
"Ha!" Nydak shouted suddenly, and threw himself backwards through a revolving panel before Princess could stop him. She jabbed her fingers under the junction of Varsok's jawline and neck. Varsok laughed harshly.
"No need to do that. I'll tell you what you want to know. Reverse the Converter?" She laughed again.
"You'd better start talking."
"It couldn't be easier. Conversion wears off by itself in a month or two. If you can't wait that long, put the victim back into the Converter and run the 'erase' program."
"It wears off?"
"If no more Conversion treatments are given, yes."
"And it can be erased by the machine itself, with no harm to the person's mind?"
There was something Varsok wasn't telling her. Princess tightened her grip. "What about hypnosis, drugs? Don't they break it down?"
Varsok laughed again. "You really want an easy answer, don't you? Spray the city with some chemical, like you did with those flowers, and everything goes back to normal. Do you think we'd design something that easy to defeat? Hypnosis, alcohol, depressants, psychedelics, truth drugs-- anything that lowers the influence of the conscious mind-- will suppress the Conversion overlay and allow the true personality to resurface-- but it only lasts as long as the drug itself does. It doesn't reverse anything."
Mark! When he recovered-- she wasn't watching him-- damn! Princess threw Varsok from her, knocking her out, and ran. She had to get back to Mark!
Her communicator beeped. "Princess?"
"Keyl! What is it?"
"I need to ask you what I should do. There's a Spectran guy here, and it looks like he's unhooking the power supply to the Converter. Should I let him?"
"No! Stop him, top priority! We can use the Converter to bring Mark back to normal!"
She raced around the corner to where she'd left Mark, and leapt the moment she didn't see him, fearing an ambush. The ceiling was low, smooth and made of stone, so she could neither cling nor magnetize herself to it. But from the top of her arc, as she quickly glanced around, she saw no sign of him. She landed--
--and a sharp, stunning pain lanced through her back, as the boomerang struck her and she fell.
Mark came out of the shadows, and plucked off her bracelet, detransmuting her. His back still hurt horribly, and he dimly remembered her kicking him-- what had she done after that? Drugged him? He couldn't recall. He wanted to detransmute, in order to splint his back with surgical tape, but it was entirely possible that his cyn network was carrying out the nervous functions that his spinal cord should be, and he feared accidentally paralyzing himself. He could detransmute after he'd gotten to medical attention. Perhaps Princess could splint his back after he Converted her.
He bent at the knees, keeping his injured back straight, and took Princess's arms. Maybe he should go get help-- it certainly wouldn't do his back any good to drag somebody--
--And then a sharp, ringing blow caught him on the side of the head, strong enough to affect him even through the helmet, and he cried out and dropped, into Tiny's arms.
Tiny laid Mark's limp form gingerly down, took Princess' bracelet from him, and snapped it back around her wrist. She was already coming to. "Wha-- Tiny? Where's Jason?"
"In hiding. I bandaged him up, and, you know, just kind of accidentally taped him to the rafter I put him on. If he doesn't want to fall off, it'll take him a long time to get loose, and Spectrans don't look up."
Princess giggled. She sounded punchy. "Oh, he's going to be so mad at you..."
"Yeah." Tiny sighed theatrically. "I've been thinking of willing my fluffy bedpillows to Keyl, what do you think?"
"I think we should take care of Mark." She transmuted and stood up. "I found out that we can erase the Conversion if we put him back in the machine and run the erase program."
"You know how to do that?"
"No, but I know who does. Come on."
Maité Nydak was lying in a bundle of rope, tape and shredded socks when they got to the Conversion room, Tiny carrying an unconscious Mark and Princess carrying an equally unconscious Varsok. Keyl was applying the finishing touches, wrapping surgical tape around the man's mouth.
"I stopped him," He said, grinning up at Princess.
"I guess you did!" She and Tiny manuevered Mark into one of the booths. "Now let's find out how to run that erase program."
"Why don't you ask him?" Keyl toed Nydak, who moaned under the gag.
"I don't trust him to tell the truth. I think his wife will be a lot more trustworthy." She shook Varsok awake. "Hello, it's me again," She addressed the woman in Spectran. "I have a few more questions to ask-- and you will answer them truthfully, or the Owl will see just how many times he can twist your husband's arm before it breaks off."
"I told you, you don't need to do that, I'll tell you," Varsok said groggily. She tried to sit up, but Princess pushed her down again. "What do you want to know?"
"How do you run the erase program?"
"Let me up and I'll do it." At Princess's expression, she said, "Listen. If I hurt your friend, you'll torture my husband and me to death. I know, I know. I saw what you can do already, remember? Spectra isn't worth getting killed for."
"Refreshing attitude," Tiny commented.
"All right." Princess let her up. "Keyl, Tiny, keep all your attention on Nydak. I'll watch her."
Varsok's fingers flew over the controls, and Princess had time for second thoughts. What if, despite everything, Varsok was willing to sacrifice herself and her husband to destroy Mark?... She tried to put it out of her head-- she didn't know how to work the Converter, so she had no choice but to trust Varsok...
It was almost anticlimax; the only thing that happened when Varsok initiated the program was that a green light started flashing at the top of the booth. All three breathed a deep sigh of relief-- the nightmare was almost over.
"Okay. Get Jason and bring him here," Princess said. "We should all be together now."
"He's up there." Tiny gestured at the rafters honeycombing the ceiling. Princess laughed.
"Right up there? I'll get him. Watch Varsok." She leapt, catching one of the catwalks and pulling herself onto it. From this vantage point she could see Jason, lying two or three catwalks across from her, apparently peacefully asleep. Maybe he didn't even know what Tiny had done. She swung over there and began cutting the tape, and his eyes opened.
"Hi, Princess," He said. "I hope Tiny isn't thinking anything stupid, like that he's not going to die for this."
Princess grinned. "Jason. Tiny was only looking out for your best interests..." She finished cutting him free. "Here, I'll help you down."
"I can do it."
"No, you can't. You're hurt, you're not transmuted, and it's at least 20 feet to the bottom." She got him into her arms as best she could, and leapt, coming down a bit more jarringly than she was used to, with Jason's weight throwing her off. Tiny scooped Jason out of her arms and put him on the floor.
"I'm probably going to be recovering from this for a week, at least," Jason told Tiny. "So you've got that long to make out your will."
"A whole week? Your generosity amazes me, Jason."
"Okay, enough of the fun and games." Jason still looked like something the cat dragged in, but his voice was firm. "I need a briefing here. What's going on?" Princess filled him in on what she'd learned. He glanced quickly at the booth, and Varsok. "Any particular reason why you trusted Varsok's word?"
"Yes. If we didn't reConvert Mark... well, we had nothing to lose."
"Damn. This isn't good." He leaned his head back against the booth he was propped against, and closed his eyes.
"Why? If it works--"
"I'm not talking about Mark. Somehow we've got to deal with a riot out there. I had to drive through it. All the teenagers Zoltar brainwashed are doing their level best to destroy the city, and somehow I don't think it's going to be logically possible to run them all through reConversion."
"But it wears off in a month..."
"So Varsok says. Anyway, do you have any idea how crowded the jails would get if we put everybody who got brainwashed in them for a month?" He sighed. "Maybe Mark'll see something I'm missing."
There was a roaring in Mark's ears as Tiny's hands pulled him into the light, and his teammates were crowding around him, asking, "Mark, are you okay?" Why wouldn't he be okay, he wondered confusedly-- was there something wrong?
Then he remembered.
A kaleidoscope of images, tainted with emotions that were twisted and wrong, overwhelmed him, and his face took on a look of horror. Chief Anderson, abandoned in the aqueduct to die... bending to grovel at Zoltar's feet, at the Spectran's order... his hand on the trigger, only seconds away from killing Jason...
He could have crumpled with horror and despair. I killed Chief Anderson! But hard on the heels of his memories came the realization that his team needed him. They had to stop Spectra, right away-- there was no time for his pain.
He took a deep, slow breath. "I... will be," He said, his voice shaking. He tried to control it better, but couldn't quite succeed. "How... how did you get me back?"
Tears glittered in Princess' eyes, but she was a professional. "Varsok said that there was an erase program in the Converter, so we had her set it up. Oh, Mark! Are you really back with us?"
"We don't have time for emotional reunions," He said tightly, and then whispered, "I'm sorry," The words carrying more than one meaning. "What's happened while I was... out?"
"How much do you remember?" Princess asked, the tautness in her voice betraying hurt feelings. Mark felt like a monster. Everything I do is wrong. Oh, Princess, I'm sorry I'm so sorry...
"Everything I saw or did, I remember," He replied, and had to hang onto his control as the words opened a floodgate of memories. Deliberately he walled them away-- he could not afford to probe them now, maybe not ever... "But what wasn't I there for?"
The four of them explained the events of the past six hours or so, taking turns as they'd been trained to do. Some things got omitted-- Tiny gave no explanation of why he'd attacked Zoltar, figured that it wasn't necessary to the current emergency and if Mark didn't remember, so much the better. Mark did remember, as a matter of fact, and felt filthy and violated about it, and he was rather grateful to Tiny for not bringing it up in front of everybody. When they were done, he nodded.
"That's it. Okay, this is the plan--" If you trust me to lead you after what I've done, he thought, but forced himself not to say. They needed him to look strong, they needed him to act as if none of it ever happened. "Downstairs there are more prisoners. The rioters out there only comprise about one-third of the total captives-- Zoltar wanted to see how well this worked before doing everybody. That's also where the few Spectrans left manning the base are-- most of the actual aliens, and probably a good percentage of the Terran traitors, got sent to other bases. Converted prisoners are guarding the unConverted ones. So what I want Princess and Tiny to do is go down there, free the prisoners, and with their help get the Converted ones into erasure. Keyl, I want you to guard Varsok. And Jason--" I'm sorry, my friend, I'm sorry I'm so sorry! "Here's your bracelet--" He laid the bit of plastic in Jason's hands-- "and your shoes are in my plane, on the roof. If you can navigate, I suggest you go get them-- and then stay with the plane. Even transmuted, you're too badly hurt to go around fighting--" --should I say it? Yes, I'll say it-- "--and... if-- if something happened to you, because you were hurt too badly to defend yourself... I couldn't live with myself. You know that." He forced himself to look directly into Jason's eyes.
Jason smiled. "Mark, when are you going to learn I'm not fragile? Or stupid, either? I'll stay with your damned plane to keep you happy, if you insist-- but Princess said she practically broke your back, and I don't see you hiding in a plane." The abrasiveness of his words was at odds with the expression on his face and the happiness in his voice. Mark was back in command.
"I've got too much to do."
"And you're always complaining about me killing myself. Well, if you want to kill yourself, do it in style at least." He handed a blue pill to Mark.
"You did take a mikey!" Princess said accusingly.
"Nope, lims. If you want it, Mark."
Mark did not particularly approve of using drugs to push one's body, on principle-- but his back was killing him, and he couldn't afford to let it go out on him, yet. Besides, Pandora had said he'd need to spend a month or so in regrowth anyway, so it didn't really matter what he did to himself now. "All right. Thanks. Don't you go taking any more."
"I only had the one with me." Jason closed his eyes and something seemed to leak out of him, perhaps the imaginary strength he'd been tapping all this time. Suddenly he looked very small and vulnerable.
"Tiny, you take him, okay?" Mark said. "As soon as he's safe, go down and help Princess."
"Mark, what are you going to do?" Princess asked.
Mark walked over to Nydak's bound form and turned him over with his toe. "I'm going to have this bastard lead me to Zoltar," He said. "And then Zoltar's going to give orders to all the Converted people, to come back here for reConversion. Either that, or Zoltar's going to die painfully. One or the other." He whipped out his boomerang and began cutting Nydak's bonds. "Go!"
Nydak had understood none of the conversation-- neither he nor Varsok spoke any English. When Mark made it clear to him in Spectran what he was to do, he still gibbered in terror, but did as Mark ordered, and the two of them arrived at Zoltar's office. "Who is it?" The shapechanger's voice called, in its normal tenor form.
"It's me. Nydak."
"Oh, really? Come in, Doctor." The door swung open.
Mark pushed Nydak in first, then stepped in himself. "Hello, Zoltar."
"Mark!" Zoltar's face, what little of it could be seen, tightened. "I suspected Nydak was going to try something, but..."
"Nydak had nothing to do with it. You and I are going to have words, 'my lord'." He leapt suddenly onto Zoltar's desk and grabbed Zoltar's collar, pushing the alien against the wall.
"So," Zoltar gasped. "They did find the way!"
"You mean G-Force, to reConvert me? Yes. And we're going to reConvert everyone in the city, because you're going to call them all back in here, or else you're going to die. Is that clear?" Mark was speaking in English, so Nydak wouldn't understand, and Zoltar was automatically responding in the same language.
"You-- you never-- I thought you people were to take me alive, did your orders change? Three times in the past few days you G-Force have tried to kill me..."
"I don't know about the others, and back at the Converter I broke your neck by reflex. But I will kill you, with great relish, great care, and great pain for you, unless you do exactly as I say. I'd prefer to be able to just kill you anyway, but unfortunately I need something from you." He tightened his grip. "I feel fouled inside, Zoltar, like you've poured dirty dishwater into my soul, and I want very much to hurt you for it. Give me an excuse, any excuse."
Zoltar struggled in Mark's grip, but time and many battles had taught Mark the shapechanger's weak points-- he swung a leg down and pressed his foot firmly into Zoltar's stomach, while at the same time maintaining his grip on the neck, to prevent Zoltar from doubling over. "Come on, Zoltar! Will you do it, or will you die?"
"I-- stop, please, I'l do what you-- aah-- what you want, just-- please-- stop..." Mark relaxed the pressure of his foot somewhat, and almost released Zoltar's neck, permitting the alien to breathe again. "You-- you want me to call the Converted ones in?"
"I can't-- reach the radiophone..."
Mark turned his head, and saw what Zoltar was reaching for. He leaned back to pull it over--
--and hands gripped his leg, dumping him over backwards as the cloth of the collar came away in Mark's hand. He had a confused, upside-down impression of Zoltar diving through a rotating door, and then he landed on his back. Agony howled through his nervous system, and he lay motionless, afraid that any movement might tear strained nerves.
"Get up." Nydak's whiny voice. "I've got a gun on you. Get up or I'll use it." Mark's whole body hurt, the drug he'd taken no longer doing him any good as a painkiller. Go ahead, kill me, Nydak. Right now I don't care.
"Or can you get up?" A calculating note entered the scientist's voice. "Could it be that the mighty Eagle's fallen harder than expected? Heh. I can think of a lot of ways to use this..."
Mark looked up at the Spectran, who resembled an insect in his gloating now more than ever. "We've been working on personality transfer even more lately," Nydak said. "The Converter was part of it-- to write over the mind with a constructed personality. Immortality, that's the thing! To transfer the mind into a new body, live for another whole lifetime..." He laughed, a scratchy giggling. "Young, strong, untainted by Spectran poisons, in superb physical condition-- you'd make an excellent host body for somebody. Kayla'd appreciate it, I'm sure, if I..." He laughed again.
You, Mark thought. You twisted little man, you're the source of everything that's happened! He closed his eyes and concentrated on blotting the pain. Then he reached down, grasped his boomerang, and flung it.
Nydak's face showed stunned surprise as he fell backwards, his throat gaping and the lifeblood pumping out of it in swift streams. Mark got to his feet, slwoly, recovering the boomerang. He contacted his team. "How's it going?"
"The prisoners have been released," Princess reported. "We've still got Varsok here, and all the Converted kids are in the Converter. She's setting it up now."
"She's our only hope," Mark said dully. "I've failed. Zoltar got away, and Nydak's dead."
On the other side of the communication, Princess repeated, "Nydak's dead?"
Kayla Varsok did not speak English. But all the Spectran military and scientists had to know certain key words. Among them were the English words for death. She heard Princess's words, and a sudden swift hollowness opened inside her. Maité, you fool! See what you and your plans have brought you to! she thought, tears stinging her eyes. She had never wanted to get involved in Spectran politics, had never wanted to go to Earth, damn Maité anyway... Mala's right. This is what you get when you trust a man with your heart!
The Swan instructed Varsok to set up the Converter booths for mass reConversions-- "and I'll know if you try any tricks," She threatened. What do I care? What can you do, kill me? Her mother and her daughter, both assassins in Mala's organization, would grieve for her if this got her killed, but it was only what they deserved, they who risked their lives and her heart as a profession. You murdered Maité, she thought at the Swan; did you think I would let you use his work?
She programmed the Converter booths with an overload sequence set in. The unConverted, no longer needed to guard anyone, left, escorted by the Sparrow and the Owl. Only the Swan was left. Varsok measured the distance to the nearest escape hatch with her eyes, and edged slightly toward it. And when the booths exploded, she rolled to the side, separated from the Swan by the wreckage.
Oh, my God...
The explosion had Princess's head ringing. All those Converted kids, dead... She struggled to her feet, against the dizziness she felt from being too close to the blast, and saw Varsok. "Why?" She shouted. "Why did you do it? Don't you realize we'll just get you to build more?"
"No, you won't." Varsok smiled hatefully. She was standing out of range of the whip, across the pile of wreckage. "I designed the software-- Maité was the one who built the thing, and since it was out of my area of expertise, I never bothered to memorize exactly how he did it. We didn't want Zoltar getting the plans and disposing of us, so the plans were kept in the computer net there, protected with passwords-- and when I overloaded the system, the whole thing was destroyed. There will never be a Converter again."
The whole base rumbled. "Shit!" Varsok said suddenly, paling. "That sounds like Zoltar leaving-- Swan, I suggest you depart as fast as possible, because Zoltar is notorious for destroying the evidence. And don't try chasing me, because I'll only slow you down and get you killed when the base goes up." She turned and ran.
Princess was too shaky to try to follow her, anyway. She called frantically on her bracelet. "Mark, Jason, we've got to get out of here! Varsok says the whole place is going to go up!"
It was something of a mad scramble, but eventually the five of them were several blocks away when the base exploded. Since the area around the base had been the first attacked by the Converted ones, there were probably no innocent people in range of the blast-- but Mark found that to be terribly small consolation.
"This is G-1, calling base," He said, dully, as the magnitude of what he'd wrought hit home again.
Chief Anderson's voice replied. "Can you have someone else confirm that you're all right?"
Mark stared incredulously at his communicator. "Chief Anderson? Is that you? You're alive?" Oh, thank you, God, thank you-- I didn't kill him! He must have escaped!
"I knew it couldn't be true," Princess said joyfully. "I knew it! Yes, Chief, this is Princess. Mark's all right-- we ran him through a reConversion program. Oh, I'm so happy to hear you're alive! Mark thought he'd killed you!"
"But Spectra blew up the Converter, so we can't reConvert anyone else," Mark said. As the first joyful shock of discovering that Anderson lived wore off, the guilt returned full blast-- he had tried to have him killed, or Converted, which would have been a fate worse than death for Anderson. The Chief knew what he'd done, and knowing that he knew, Mark wasn't sure he could face Chief Anderson again. Maybe it would be different if they'd fixed everything, so that the Converter affair could be erased as if it had never been-- but he'd failed...
"Is there any way to permanently reverse the process?"
"Other than reConversion?" Mark asked.
"The scientists said that it wears off in one or two months," Princess said. "But there isn't any other way to speed up the process..."
"That's all right. Return to base at once. The city's riot department has come up with a workable solution."
Jason was promptly packed off to bed, and Mark had to be hypnotized to verify reConversion, so it was a while before Anderson explained to them what that solution was. He held the mission debriefing in the hospital, since both Mark and Jason had been put there and told to stay there on pain of team suspension.
"It's a drastic solution, but apparently the only one we have," He said. "We've initiated the release of dicydrenaline-- in layman's language, 'silly gas'-- from fighter planes and helicopters, city-wide. Dicydrenaline's major function has been to act as a relaxant-- it breaks down the adrenals of anger and fear, lowers inhibitions, and in general causes people to act-- well, silly. Since it does function to break down inhibitions, Dr. Pandora and I suspected that it would act to temporarily reuturn Converted citizens to their natural state, and we've tested it-- it does, in fact. As soon as they are all under the influence of the gas, the riot police will 'persuade' them to go to medical facilities. The dicydrenaline will make sure they stay nonviolent for some time. I've mobilized the Crisis Medical Force to handle matters from there-- if they can't reverse Conversion, they certainly have the resources to keep them from harming anything for a month or two."
Tiny spoke in relief. "So that's settled, then."
"That, perhaps. But there's certain matters that need settling here." He turned to Jason. "Do you realize how badly you're injured? How easily you could have gotten yourself killed?"
"If I didn't, you'd tell me," Jason muttered.
"Chief, please," Princess said. "I know Jason disobeyed medical orders, but we'd all have been Converted without him!"
"I realize that," Anderson said. "I just want to make sure Jason understands the price. You and Mark are both going to have to spend time in regrowth."
Jason moaned theatrically, and Anderson almost smiled. "Actually, Jason, not even I can find fault with your actions this time. If not for you, matters might now be considerably more serious, perhaps impossible. But don't get in the habit of doing things like this."
"Chief, I'm really not planning on making a habit of getting on medical report at all."
"No, I mean it. Especially don't begin relying on the Lynmal derivatives. They're more dangerous than you can imagine." He stared into space for a second, then recollected himself. "At any rate. I'll need detailed mission reports from all of you-- especially you, Mark, anything you can recollect about Spectran operations that you saw could be useful-- and I'll need to conduct a debriefing of all of you-- later. Right now, I believe, Dr. Pandora has two patients she wants to take care of?"
Jason moaned again and attempted to hide under the blankets. Keyl poked him. "Uh-uh, Jason, no hiding," He said. "Be an example to me. Take your medicine like a man."
"Will you just get out of here?"
They all laughed, and Pandora dragged the scanner over to Jason's bed as they all filed out.