Rick Shayler sat in his quarters and swore to himself that he was going to kill whoever had set him up this time. And then he was going to beat out of them precisely how they'd done it. To every check he could devise, the email was genuine, if terse.

'Be in your quarters at 3pm. Anderson.'

Well, he'd been here since 2, it was now 3:15, and nobody had shown. No phonecalls, no emails. Doubtless there was a whole gang in the Team 7 common room, laughing hysterically at his expense while anticipating him walking in. Well, he wasn't going to give them that pleasure. He had plenty to do right here.

He was deep in the intricacies of the new network security protocol Nykinnen had asked him to try to break when there was a bang on the door. Jolted out of his train of thought, Rick opened the door prepared to give whoever stood there the benefit of his annoyance, and finding a fellow Team 7 member only fuelled the fire.

"What? Did you all give up on waiting for me to show up and get laughed at? I'm not playing any more, Jason, and if you don't tell me how you faked that email, I will report it to Nykinnen. I'm sick of getting the blame for every juvenile hack attempt in the building."

Jason's eyebrows went up. "I've come to take you to Anderson. Are you coming or not?"

Rick's temper flared - so Jason still thought he could get away with this pathetic game? Fine. He'd go along with it for now, and tomorrow Jason would find every computer in ISO mysteriously refusing to talk to him.

"Oh, I'm coming. I guess Anderson's in the Team 7 common room, then?"

Jason shot him a strange look, which Rick was too angry to interpret. "No..."

It wasn't until Jason led the way straight past the common room - door open, a couple of people waving at them in an entirely natural manner - that Rick started to wonder what was going on. As they entered a corridor he'd never been in before, he felt the first twinge of worry.

"Where are we going?"

"To see Anderson. Don't you read your email?"

Yeah, right. Anderson. Down a deserted corridor in an unused section of ISO. Not likely. For the first time Rick wondered if Team 7 had a hazing tradition he'd somehow managed to miss out on so far, and if so what it involved. He should have stayed in his room, or the common room. This was getting creepy.

Jason stopped abruptly at a door with a keypad and a chair alongside. "This does not get discussed. Ever. With anyone outside this door. Am I clear?"

"Oh, crystal." Hazing it was, then. Some sort of initiation. Frankly, he was surprised at Jason, who'd always seemed too straightforward to be involved in anything like that.

"Fine. Remember it." Jason keyed in a long, long code and the door opened to reveal a featureless room with another door at the other end. They stepped through, Jason ensured the door had clicked shut behind them, and as the other door opened all Rick's suppositions fell apart and he simply stood and gaped.

In front of him, a brightly lit hallway blocked by a guardpost manned by an ISO officer in captain's uniform. As Rick stared in disbelief, three people, none of them Team 7, walked across beyond the guardpost and out of sight.

"Sir!" The guard jumped a mile as Jason casually leant against the screen.

"Anderson should have authorised Shayler's pass. Rick, give him your ID."

Rick fumbled the card from his pocket and handed it over, his mind a complete blank.

The guard checked it, and then handed over a pass already with Rick's photo on it. "Wear that at all times. Be sure to hand it in when you leave."

Rick took it wordlessly and attached it, as the officer saluted Jason and let them through.

Hold on, though. A captain saluting a junior lieutenant?

"Jason, how come you're not wearing one of these badges?"

His guide shrugged casually. "Oh, everyone in here knows me."

Rick stopped in his tracks. "Come on, Jason. This is black level. Even I can figure that much out. I guess Anderson wants me to fix the computers, but I have no idea where you fit in. You'd have to be so high up that - oh no. No." He put a hand out to the wall, feeling himself flush scarlet to the roots of his hair. "How much of an idiot have I made of myself - sir?"

"Not enough to matter."

Rick still didn't move. "You're G-Force, right? I can't believe I'm saying this, but it fits."

"Yeah. Now will you come along, before Anderson sends out a search party?"

Mute, Rick followed him, rerunning incident after incident in his mind. Times when Team 7 had been running cleanup for G-Force, and Jason hadn't been there. The time when Jason had been running a sting op, with Rick as one of his subordinates, and he'd been suddenly taken ill. Lo and behold, G-Force had shown up.

Jason led the way to a door marked 'Briefing Room 1', rapped sharply twice, and opened it at the call of 'come in' from inside. Rick by this point would have given anything to be in the Team 7 common room being the butt of every joke. He couldn't imagine what could be serious enough to demand his physical presence in the black zone, rather than Anderson going through Nykinnen as he always had before.

Rick took three steps into the room and stopped again. Five men sat across the table from the single empty chair intended for him. One he didn't know at all. Three he recognised as the top officials in ISO security.

"Hi, Rick," said the fifth. The youngest, the one wearing the communicator bracelet.

No! That was impossible! Mark had been there, had taken over from Jason for the sting op in question. He'd been called away, true, gone off to work with the Eagle, but - Rick cast his mind back desperately, coming irrevocably to the conclusion that no, he'd never seen the two together, never spoken to one on the radio in the presence of the other. Wow. How had he missed that?

"Take a seat, Lieutenant," Anderson's voice cut through his confusion. "Thank you, Jason."

Rick did as he was told, as the young man who could only be the Condor left the room. Anderson continued:

"I am Security Chief Anderson, in charge of black zone operations. Major Grant and Colonel Ivanov are my deputies, Dr Johnson is the chief medical officer, and you already know Commander Jarrald."

Rick found his voice. "What did I do?"

Everyone except Grant smiled. "Nothing, Lieutenant, "Anderson replied. "I hope. What do you know about the requirements for jump crew?"

"That every Academy student's tested, and almost nobody meets them." Rick frowned. "Do you want me to do a data search for candidates?"

"You meet them," the doctor said.

"I - what? Me?"

"Your tests show you to be physiologically capable of withstanding jump, and a good candidate for cerebonic augmentation."

"Cerebonic augmentation?" Rick repeated stupidly. "Implants? They're real?"

"They're real," Mark assured him. "The question we're asking is whether you want them."

Rick wanted to curl up and whimper or, failing that, to bury himself deep in computer protocols and pretend this wasn't happening to him.

"What do you know about Force Two?" the deep, heavily accented voice of Ivanov asked him.

"Uh - G-Force's sister team? I've heard rumours. I thought it was a myth. It exists?"

"Not yet. We would like it to."

Rick gaped. "And you want me?"

"You're not implanted yet," Grant stated flatly. "You may choose not to undergo the procedure. It may not work. You -"

"He needs to be told the medical implications of what he's considering," Johnson said with a distinct edge to his voice. "I suggest you let me have a talk to Rick for a few minutes."

Anderson stood up, followed instantly by Mark and Ivanov, and Grant abandoned whatever he might have said and followed them out. Rick sagged inwardly with relief - the forty minutes he'd spent on the receiving end of Grant's wrath as an Academy student had been enough for several lifetimes.

As Mark shut the door behind them, the doctor smiled reassuringly, something Rick found almost as unnerving as Grant's disapproval. "Now, tell me what you've heard about cerebonic implants, so I know how many myths I have to debunk before we start on the truth."

He felt completely overwhelmed when the doctor finally left him alone to make his mind up. There was so much to consider. Starting with the fact that the decision would be his, and his alone, and made now. He couldn't discuss it with friends, family, anyone without a black level security clearance. He couldn't leave until he'd made it, and regardless of what he decided, he could never admit to having even been in here. So much for the supposed glory of being G-Force. He'd worked alongside two of them for nearly a year now, and hadn't had the slightest suspicion. They were treated exactly the same way he was. He'd just been paid the biggest compliment any ISO officer could be, been offered something teenagers in their millions fantasised about - and nobody could ever know. Now that the perceived glamour of high rank had fallen away, all Rick could see was appalling responsibility. He wasn't ready for this. He'd been told there would be no recriminations, nothing on his record, nothing ever said again, if he said no. He'd have given anything at all to feel able to say yes.

He only half heard the door open and the guard spring to attention, but he did notice the steaming mug pushed under his nose.

"I figured you could use some coffee," a familiar voice said.

Rick didn't look up. "I never guessed, Commander. Not you and not Jason. Not even when I talked with the Eagle ten minutes after you left me in charge of the surveillance team. You must think I'm a complete moron."

The other laughed. "No, I think Jason and I are very good at what we do. There are tricks to it. You'll learn them soon enough. One of them is to call me Mark."

"I can't do it." Rick looked up desperately into the eyes of his Team 7 colleague. "I'm not ready. I don't know enough. And never talking about it to anyone, ever, horrifies me."

Mark sighed and took a long swallow of his own drink. "You can talk about it to anyone in here. You already know me, and Jason. I've read your profile, and you only seem to have one major flaw." He paused and smiled at Rick's affronted expression. "You don't trust in your own abilities. Unless it's computers, where you're damn good and know it. I don't get it. I know you wanted this, and you are ready for it, or we wouldn't have asked you. What went wrong? Is it the medical stuff?"

"No, not that. I realised what was involved. I'm a good pilot - or they seem to think I will be with practise. I can shoot, more or less. I can get into any computer. I'm reasonably competent at self-defence. But I can't go on a hand-to-hand combat team!"

Mark choked on a mouthful. "Do you have any idea how long I trained for before I was put on a combat team? Well over a decade. Even Jason took two and a half years from being implanted, and he was a hot martial artist before that. You want my advice? Go get implanted, and see how it goes. No-one's going to throw you into any sort of combat until you're ready."

Rick still didn't reach for the papers. "How sure can you be?"

And Mark snorted. "I am the ranking ISO field commander. If I say you don't get a combat rating, you don't get one."

The ranking field commander, a nineteen-year-old. Senior to anyone on Team 7, including Commander Nykinnen. In a combat situation, in fact, senior to anyone on the planet. The young man who'd been cheerfully joining in with Team 7's attempts to enhance the programming of the flight simulator with flying pigs as aerial hazards.

Rick pulled the papers towards him, picked up the pen, and hesitated again. He could say no now and regret it forever, or he could assume that the man who half the world idolised was right.

"What's it like?"


"I've seen the footage. You can do everything bar fly - and you're damn close to doing that. Is it good? Is it worth it?"

"It's amazing." Mark stared into the distance. "The feeling that your body can do anything you ask of it. Anything you can imagine. All the training, the secrecy, means nothing beside it. I wouldn't give it up for anything. I can't imagine being without it." He grinned, and was all teenager again. "You won't regret it, Rick. Trust me."

He had total faith in the Eagle - you had to, really, or live in permanent fear of a Spectran labour camp. He'd worked with Lieutenant Jarrald for over a year now, and knew him to be thoroughly competent. All that really mattered now, though, was whether he trusted Mark. When put like that, there was no question. He did.

Rick signed his name at the bottom of the page with a flourish, handed it over, and sat back with the beginning of a smile on his face.

"So, what happens now?"