"We need to ground G-Force."

That wasn't the report Anderson had expected from Chris Johnson. From the other shocked faces round the table, he wasn't alone.

"Go on," he said.

"They're verging on clinical exhaustion. They're making bad calls because they feel they have no alternative to taking risks."

"Sometimes they don't have an alternative," said Ivanov.

"As long as they're the one active team, no. But I'm telling you this officially, as G-Force's team doctor. As a team, they are on a downward spiral. Sooner rather than later, one of them will make a call which is fatal to one or more of them. It'll be quite deliberate, and it will save lives. And it will be something which a fully fit team wouldn't have needed to do."

"Putting Mark back in was a mistake," said Grant. 'I told you so' was unsaid, but obvious.

Johnson shook his head, looking round the briefing room. He was concerned enough not to rise to Grant's needling, which in itself was a sign of how serious he thought this was. "G-1's the least of my worries," he said. "He's fresh and sharp. His spiral's upwards. But he trusts his team to make their own calls, and it's a disaster waiting to happen. We've had our wakeup call. I don't think you fully appreciate just how close we came to losing Tiny. I'm sorry to be blunt, but I have one question I'd like a clear answer to. Are you ever going to activate Force Two as a second team, or is the plan to wait until G-Force doesn't come back?"

"Absolutely not," Anderson found himself saying. He didn't remember standing up, either. "If I thought they weren't coming back..."

He stopped. There were circumstances under which he'd send them out anyway. He couldn't deny it. Not to these people, who might well be in the position of having to make that call themselves.

He sat down again. Heavily. "Let's discuss options," he said. "Major?"

Grant actually looked nervous. "I don't think Force Two will get any more ready without actual combat experience. We can't get them up to G-Force's level in the simulators. Not going to happen."

"I won't use them as cannon fodder," Anderson said, hoping that was obvious.

"We can pick a simple mission -" Ivanov started.

Grant got in there before Anderson could. "No, we can't. One: we never know beforehand. Two: it'll never be simple enough that sending G-Force wouldn't be safer. Unless we consider sending them out for things we wouldn't send G-Force for. I think that would be a dreadful idea. When we do use them, they need to have the advantage of surprise."

Anderson nodded. He and Grant had discussed this extensively, and had reluctantly come to the conclusion that any extra experience their novice team could gain from supporting ISO's conventional forces would be more than outweighed by the additional risk of Spectra knowing in advance that they existed.

"Three," said Johnson, "there are a number of medical reasons to ground G-Force completely for a while. The obvious one is to let Tiny heal properly. The more pressing one is Keyop."

"Keyop?" Ivanov sounded genuinely shocked. He had, Anderson supposed, known the kid from infancy.

"Keyop. He's not growing. There are no signs of him starting puberty. I don't think it's going to happen without drugs. I'm concerned it's already been left too long."

Oh, man. 'The kid.' Small, excitable, sometimes annoying, looked about twelve. Had done so ever since he'd come here. Anderson did the math. He couldn't be far off eighteen.

For once, even Grant had nothing sarcastic to say. And Anderson's mind was made up.

"Let's do this. Chris, you give them the treatment they need. We all know what's needed to make Force Two our primary team. Let's do it, effective immediately."

"G-Force are not going to like it," Ivanov said.

"No, they're not." He activated the desktop communicator. "G-1, report to briefing room one immediately."

"On my way," said Mark's voice, and the connection clicked closed.

Anderson looked around at a table full of worried faces. "Leave this to me. You go get the changeover started."

Mark would, he was fairly sure, take it personally. Maybe a one-to-one meeting wouldn't look like a permanent grounding. He hoped.

"They're grounding us."

There wasn't a good way to say it, and Mark hadn't tried. Jason was still on his feet faster than thought, his face furious.

"And you let them?"

"It's not my call. Force Two have five fully fit members. We now have three. Sorry, guys."

Jason's expression changed just slightly. "Don't apologise for being human."

Behind him, from the computer terminal, there was a sound suspiciously like a sob.

"Keyop?" said Princess.

"My fault," the kid said. "Not... human."

"Don't be daft." Normal Jason sympathy there.

"Not human," Keyop repeated, louder and more desperate. "Hormones don't work. Chris says, now we're grounded he can treat it with drugs. You think it was that way round? Emailed me three minutes ago. Good timing. Too good."

He buried his head in his hands as Princess, face white, hurried across to put her arm round him.

"Keyop," said Mark carefully, "do you want to discuss it?"

"Probably should." It was muffled and very unhappy.


It felt wrong to be holding this sort of discussion without Tiny. He'd always been there; when they'd lost Princess, when Jason had been so ill. Mark suspected he'd been there when it was Mark himself in trouble and missing. Now he was propped up in Medical, too sore to lie flat. Every time Mark had seen him, he'd been barely awake. Which at least meant that his implant was doing its job. He hoped.

Jason brought two mugs of coffee to the table, and Princess followed with whatever her preferred concoction was for herself and Keyop. Impossible to tell, with that much cream and marshmallow. When Keyop finally raised his head, there were tears in his eyes.

"Okay, Keyop," Mark said as reassuringly as he could. "From the top."

He recognised the 'hold your mug tight enough and your hands won't shake' trick. And the 'drink slowly to put off the moment' one. He'd been there. It had been awful, and it had been unexpected. But Keyop? He'd thought he would have noticed that the kid was having medical problems.

It was rapidly becoming an awkward silence when Keyop finally put the mug down and cleared his throat nervously. "I... I'm not human. Should have started puberty years ago. Chris thinks he can kickstart it artificially. Lots of drugs. Not compatible with jump."

"Did he just tell you this?" Princess asked. She had an arm round his shoulders.

"No. Known for a while."

"Then why didn't you tell us?" Mark asked before he could stop himself. "You can have medical leave, Keyop. As much as you need. Any time." A sudden unpleasant thought struck him. "Keyop, were you afraid I'd say no?"

The kid - no, Mark reminded himself, he's pushing eighteen, he's not a kid - stared at him desperately, lip trembling.

"No," said Jason, not a hint of sarcasm in his tone. "He was afraid you'd say yes."

Oh, crap. Of course he was. Awful, awful choice. Especially for Keyop, physically small and without any of the critically rare skills a jump-team couldn't operate without. He must have been terrified that 'we can manage without you for a while' would turn into 'actually, we can do better.'

Except that Keyop was good at his job. Quite apart from his abilities as an engineer, he was useful physically. His small size often made him the best choice for infiltration...

... and would stop being an advantage for him if he grew to anywhere near the size of an average eighteen year old.

"Crap." He didn't realise he'd said it out loud until he heard it, and saw Jason and Princess staring at him.

"Keyop," he said simply, "go get the treatment you need. You know I can't promise anything, But there isn't anyone else I'd trust in your seat right now, let alone choose over you."

"Didn't want this," Keyop said unhappily.

"I know. But we're grounded anyway. Go talk to Chris about what you need. You want me to come with you?"

That got half a smile. "No."

The Swallow stopped at the door and looked back, just for a moment. "Thanks." The door closed behind him, and Mark looked round at what was left of his team. Three of them. Two and a half, if he was honest with himself.

"It's not over," Jason said simply, and pointed at Mark's forgotten mug of coffee. "Drink that. Then I'm going to kick you all round the dojo. When Keyop and Tiny are back, your fitness is not going to be an excuse for them to keep us grounded."

He downed it in three gulps and stood up. "No. It isn't."

"They've grounded G-Force."

The reaction in the Force Two ready room was utter disbelieving silence. Long, awkward, frozen.

"What does this mean for us?" Dimitri asked finally, carefully and quietly.

Rick looked around. They'd waited for this moment. Dimitri in particular had waited for a very long time. It didn't seem real that it was happening. From the expression on Grant's face as Anderson had told him the news, he wasn't the only one who struggled to believe it.

"It means we're the primary team as of now. If the alarm goes off, assume that we will be responding."

He saw Jenny gulp.

"Is anyone not happy with this? If so, say so."

"We're ready," said Dylan. "Past ready."

Jenny swallowed again, and then burst into tears.

Rick stamped hard on the part of himself which wanted to make a sarcastic comment about assigning a fifteen year old girl to a combat team, even if she was the only jump-calculator in ISO who wasn't already on G-Force. "What's the problem?" he asked.

"I thought they'd give us something easy." She stared at him, eyes wide and horrified. "If the alarm goes off, it's us? No matter what?"

"G-Force is down to three fit members. What else are we here for? But you think I'll get you killed? I'm hurt."

He'd intended it to be reassuring in a slightly joky way, but Jenny swallowed again.

"No, I think I'll get you killed. We all know I'm not as ready as the rest of you. Nowhere close."

"We all know," said Paula. "We're good at different things. We compensate for one another. G-Force do the same. Rick's not going to throw you into combat."

"No. I know that. I'm going to practice." She got up and walked out, looking at nobody, spine rigid.

"Should I go after her?" Rick asked nobody in particular.

"No," said Paula decisively. "Let her be alone for a bit. I'll check on her later."