This one's been a long time coming - many thanks to my husband for beta-reading, and the denizens of Bird Scramble for their comments.

As is probably obvious from the numbering, this is a long way down an AU story arc. If you haven't read any of my other stories, the setup probably won't make much sense and at the very least I'd suggest you read 15a: Grounded first (it's only short).

As always, any comments are very welcome.


It felt wrong walking into his old office. His muscle memory was tuned to sitting in the wheelchair in here. He'd misjudged the doorhandle height by over a foot.

Wrong. But oh, so much better.

"Commander!" Todd shot out of the chair as if he'd been caught doing something wrong, and Mark had to suppress a grin.

"As you were, Corp... no, that's Sergeant now, I believe."

Todd didn't suppress the grin. "Yes, sir. I wasn't expecting to see you here. You don't need to..."

"Jason's doing enough worrying for the two of us."

Todd frowned.

"You haven't been watching the news reports? Force Two's out for the first time. I'm showing my support by not playing mother hen."

Saying it out loud, to someone who knew who he was but didn't need him to pretend confidence, was a surprising relief. He'd worked closely with Todd for several months. Todd would doubtless guess that what he meant was "I can't bear to sit and watch." And, thankfully, be far too professional to comment on it. He was glancing wistfully at the blank screen on the wall, though, and Mark took pity on him.

"Turn it on. It's all over the news channels on repeating loop."

Ever since the war started, there had been a little gaggle of... plane-spotters? Spaceship-spotters? They apparently spent their free time camped out on the next headland along in the hopes of seeing the Phoenix launch. A couple of them had wobbly digital footage of a ship which was most definitely not the Phoenix breaking the surface and blasting for orbit, and seemed to be enjoying their newfound celebrity status as international news networks scrambled to interview them. They hadn't had much to say beyond "it was red" and "no, we've not seen it before." Not that it hadn't flown before, of course. Just only at night.

Todd watched the grainy footage with interest, the interviews with a smirk, and muted the volume when the reporter handed back to the studio 'experts'.

"Force Two? When are you going to tell the media?"

"When they get back, I expect." He wasn't looking forward to it. He was - just about - capable of walking onto a stage without anyone realising he had a problem. No, what he didn't fancy was the inevitable questions about being replaced. Even the dimmest reporter would be wondering why Force Two had gone out instead of G-Force, not as well as them.

"Oh, I have some news," Todd said, breaking the awkward silence. "Not as exciting as that. Lieutenant O'Leary passed basic flight."

"Good grief." Dave had been failing that test for what, a year? More? Yes, more. "So he'll be -" He stopped, frowning at the screen. On the Phoenix, that distortion flicker was nearly always the prelude to a Spectran hack into their systems.

Nothing happened. No purple-clad irritants.

"Something wrong?" asked Todd.

"Your screen's fritzing. Might want to get that looked at. What's Dave planning to do next?"

"In confidence, he's working up the courage to ask Lieutenant Alouita for a recommendation to one of the top level evasive manoeuvres courses."

Mark snorted. "He hasn't thought that one through. Lieutenant Alouita doesn't make those recommendations, not formally, and he can't have the Condor's. I know Dave's a darn good driver, but any time someone seems to get special treatment, we risk being noticed."

"So you think he should...?"

"Pick something lower level that he can get recommended for by me, or Nykinnen, or whoever does it at ISO Racing - which probably still isn't Jason, not officially. It's plausible for me to sign off on 'ISO Racing's top driver who's also on Team Seven suggested I do this one' provided it's the next logical step for him and the top ISO Racing guys have agreed. Dave'll need to impress the tutors there enough to get the high level rec from them, just like everyone else. If they want Jason's opinion they'll ask for it directly." They probably would, too. Jason was very much ISO Racing's top driver these days. It was time to start thinking of a way to make it plausible that he wasn't a high-ranked driver within ISO itself.

Todd nodded. "I'll tell Dave."

"Tell him I said it, too, and explain to him why it has to work that way and that I'm not a bastard who enjoys red tape? Now -"

All the lights went out. No flash, no dimming. Instant thick blackness in the tiny windowless room.

"That's weird," said Todd's voice. "No emergency lights."

"Is there one in here?" He'd never considered it before.

"One over each door. Tested last week."

That did take it into the weird category. Mark picked up the phone, muscle memory telling him exactly where it was on the desk. No dial tone - and ISO had an old-fashioned, work-no-matter-what system.

"I'll open -"

"Wait." That was pure premonition. Something was beyond weird, it was wrong... and had been since that screen had flickered.

Todd knew who he was already, and had done for years. Grant would have to live with him being added to the very, very short list of people who also knew what the transmutation trigger was. Mark slipped his bracelet on and went into the transmutation cycle.

Aborted it before he'd even started. Sheer, silent terror hit in a wave. My implant's failed again.

His heart rate was up around 200 and he wanted to throw up. It was several seconds of numb panic before he thought and so has my bracelet.

And all the power.

And all the emergency, battery-powered lighting.

"I think we've been hit by an EMP," he said.

"A what?"

"Electromagnetic pulse. They take out electronics. Can you open the door? Let's get some daylight in here."

He could hear Todd's uncertain steps towards the door into the Team Seven common room, imagine him feeling for the wall and then the doorhandle.

The door opened to his worst nightmare. Spectrans on their feet. ISO personnel on their knees. And at least one silenced gunshot.

"Shut it!" he snapped. "Now!"

No choice, even though heads turned towards them.

Todd seemed to take forever to respond, but finally the door slammed shut and there was the sound of fumbling with the internal bolts in the blackness. And what Mark suspected was the sound of bullets hitting the reinforced steel. Thank goodness for an office which had originally been planned as an armoury.

"Are you armed?" he asked.

"In my locker next door. Sorry, sir."

Mark fingered his boomerang, sheathed in his pocket. "We're going to lockdown - stay here. I have to go."

And, only half fit and with no implant enhancements, try to stop Team Seven being massacred. If it wasn't already too late.

He'd been hit by bullets before, in birdstyle. They bruised like hell. He tried not to think about them tearing through him in a Team Seven uniform. They won't be outside the other door, he told himself. They have no reason to suspect that this office has two doors.

But they might figure it out. They'd stopped shooting at the door to the common room. He needed to move.

The corridor was dim, lit only by the daylight from the small window at the end, twenty metres away. His implant should have been compensating. Nothing.

Even so, the two Spectrans in front of the main door to the Team Seven common room were silhouetted and clearly visible, looking in through the open door. He could hear raised voices. Again he should have been able to hear what they were saying, and again he couldn't. He reached for the boomerang again, and stopped. It was a horrible throw, even when he was in practice. In the narrow hallway, it would be near-impossible to hit both of them, and the sonic capability was electronic. Vulnerable to an EMP? He simply didn't know, and the only way to find out would be to make the throw. Reluctantly, he took his hand out of his pocket, still empty.

You're coming out of the dark, he told himself. They won't see you coming. Head kick to the first, straight fight with the second. Might even create a distraction for those inside.

Seven metres, give or take. Six strides, launch, spin, kick. The first Spectran fell like a rag doll. The second swung round, gun coming up. Mark let his momentum carry him through, knocking the other flying. The gun went off, bullets spraying the ceiling, but he had hold of the Spectran now. Grappling wasn't his speciality but he was far better at it than some Spectran goon. Even without implant strength, necks were fragile.

He stood up to find the common room door shut. From inside, gunshots and shouts - human this time, he thought. If he opened the door, he'd most likely get his head blown off by his own people. They'd have to look after themselves for now, while he figured out what the heck was going on. The quickest way to black section was back past his office door, but that way was all internal. Pitch dark and a maze of corridors. If he couldn't see what was going on, he couldn't strategise. The long way round was his only real option. Picking up a machinegun he hoped he wouldn't need to use, he headed for the lighter end of the corridor. Just round the corner to the left was a big window, looking out across the lawns to the woods which lay between the ISO buildings and the main runway. Maybe he'd be able to see something useful from there. He tried not to consider that it might be three mecha, dozens of squads of goons, and a couple of Blackbird patrols.

The expanse of grass was deserted, which was something. But beyond it, half a mile away in the belt of trees which separated the main ISO complex from the runway, his view was blocked by what looked like a solid, creamy-white wall, stretching left and right as far as he could see from the window. It stretched up, too, completely blocking the sky. It was flat and featureless, but unless it was hundreds of metres high it had to be curving back and over the buildings. Some sort of dome, with them inside it. It couldn't possibly be solid, and that meant it was a forcefield. Mark stared at it, trying to imprint the image on his memory so he'd know if it changed. Oh, to have Jason at his shoulder right now, remembering every last detail. Even without him, it didn't take much imagination to realise that it must surround the whole complex, and that it was responsible for the failure in all their electronics, and that there would be more Spectrans inside it than the few who had attacked Team Seven.

What he needed was a prisoner. Someone he could get some sort of operational details from. And, as he peered round the next corner, he was in luck. A single Spectran goon, apparently unarmed, and nervous as hell.

He hadn't expected the man to choke out "Mark!" as he was caught and pinned. Or for him to be no taller than Mark himself was. Or to recognise the voice.

He released the chokehold. Just slightly. "So, Don. Off to rejoin your Spectran friends? You've got ten seconds to persuade me otherwise."

"My... friends?" The sound was suspiciously close to a sob. "I speak better Spectran than anyone else in black section. I volunteered to come try to figure out what's going on."

"And how did you get down here?"

Don pulled a handful of gel capsules from his pocket. "Out through the window and back in on the ground floor. You've seen this before. It dissolves stuff."

"I thought you couldn't go outside."

The other snorted. "Turns out if I really need to, and if Chris sticks me full of God-knows-what, and if I don't mind puking my guts out right afterwards, I can. For about a minute and a half. You want to tie me up and leave me for dead? I really don't care. But try to give me back to the Spectrans and yeah, I'll be on my knees begging you not to, because that's where my line is right now. That what you want?"

Mark considered him. Definite smell of vomit. Pupils more dilated than they should be. And yes, Wade was terrified - and not of him.

"How good's your Spectran?"

"As good as their human recruits. Probably better. I've had more practice."

"There's a bunch of goons back round that corner - they were attacking Team Seven. At least some of them are dead. Probably not all. Go find out what you can. I advise you not to try to go into the commonroom dressed like that."

He let the other man go. No need for threats. Don must know what betraying his planet again would mean for him. And Don nodded, straightening green mask and uniform.

"Yes, Commander." He left in what wasn't a bad impression of a Spectran marching style, and Mark slipped inside the nearest door to wait and see what happened.

He took the opportunity to stretch out and try to warm up. He'd never had Jason's ability to go straight from inactivity to explosive action, at least not without consequences later. These days he could barely do it at all.

Thank God they weren't Blackbirds. But the bullets they'd fired hadn't been any less dangerous for that. There must have been casualties, every one someone he worked with.

Don't think about that. Move on. Strategise.

No power; no comms signals. If this was an inside job - which seemed all too likely - then their attackers would know that ISO was on high alert, the sort of alert which involved G-Force being out.

Except that it was Force Two who'd gone out. If they'd been infiltrated at a high enough level for Spectra to know that...

Mark glanced out of the window. The milky white of the force shield was unchanged. He could still see the same half of the same tree. That was something, at least. But as timing went, this was dreadful. Force Two, out there on their first interstellar assignment, and base control with no power. Rick had wanted a chance to prove he had what it took. He'd got it now, in spades.

So, whoever was in charge here for Spectra thought ISO was relatively undefended. Which it was. But he almost certainly didn't know G-Force were here.

Tiny was still in bed and ill enough that he might as well not be here. Princess wasn't here - she was at the hospital having her wisdom teeth removed. General anaesthetic. As per standard operating procedure, she'd have left her bracelet with Anderson. She'd know nothing about any of this. Keyop should be in black section. Jason should be in black section - why hadn't he come down here instead of Don? His Spectran was certainly adequate.

He was starting to wonder if he'd been had when he heard approaching voices and footsteps. Two people, one limping heavily. One native Spectran speaker and one not. Don's accent wasn't bad, and he had the cringing honorifics down to a fine art.

"... of course, sir. If I cannot help by delivering your crucial information, I will of course assist you to the command centre. Then I will return and destroy the low-life ISO scum myself, sir. Once you and your knowledge are safe. Sir."

A pause. Then, "Tell me. Who is your commanding officer?"

Don didn't hesitate. "Commander Breznak, sir. I'm honoured to -"

"There isn't a -"

There was a crack of bone and the thump of something heavy hitting the floor. Mark opened the door cautiously. Don was on his feet in a passable imitation of a combat stance. A blue-uniformed Spectran lay in a heap, neck at an unnatural angle, hand on a half-drawn weapon.

Don saw him, and the competent mask slipped. "I..."

You proved yourself. "Did he tell you anything?"

"That he needed to get to what I think is parking lot C to report. He was too damn bright. He knew nobody in this uniform should be walking around alone, or asking to be told operational details, and I wasn't doing what he expected, whatever that might be. All his men were dead, as far as I could see. Pile of bodies outside the Team Seven commonroom door. Someone in Team Seven didn't notice one of them was faking it."

Mark didn't care about dead Spectrans, given what they'd done to Team Seven. He still didn't plan to discuss it with Don Wade. They dragged the body into the room where he'd waited, searched it for anything useful (entirely lacking), and he continued to think desperately. Oh for a working comms system, or just a bracelet radio. As it was, he could wander around trying to find people, he could go build himself an assault squad based on whoever was still standing in Team Seven, or he could get to black section and some high level strategic advice.

"Show me how to get into black section."

Don gulped. "I can't. Major Grant said he'd shoot anyone who tried."

"You think Grant would shoot me?"

A half-grin. "I think the Spectrans would do that."

Dammit, he's right. Mark thought again. There were no stairwells into black section. There was one direct, level entrance - and if he was Grant, he'd have it locked down tight and a minigun on it manned by the two people he was most sure would shoot first and ask questions afterwards. At night he'd have considered sending Jason up the outside of the building to a window - but himself, at two in the afternoon, in street clothes? That left one option.

"How are you at vertical leaps?"