Commander Smythe's office was almost completely unlike Anderson's. Huge, immaculately tidy, not a file in sight, four or five computers, those he could see showing different flight-related screensavers. The walls were almost completely covered in framed pictures of planes, everything from aged biplanes to twentieth century propjets to ISO robot planes to Riga fighters. And, of course, the streamlined beauties which Team Three flew. ISO Z-17s. Dylan had dreamed of being in this office, handing over this set of paperwork, from the moment he'd arrived at ISO and no longer needed to dream about acceptance to the Academy.

Now he'd rather have been anywhere else. It hadn't occurred to him that not even his new commanding officer would know why he was really there.

Commander Smythe - short, with a crisp traditional military haircut and a perpetual frown - seemed to take forever to read through the transfer papers. When he looked up, the frown was even heavier.

"Cadet, is this a joke?"

He couldn't figure out where to look. The picture of the G-1, just above Smythe's head, seemed safest. "No, sir."

"You have no flight experience in a Z-17 and precious little in anything else. You haven't taken any Academy flight electives. You've spent two and a half years total in the Academy and you've graduated early because you're good at academics. Do everyone a favour, kid. Go say this was a mistake and you've changed your mind. Graduate top of your class. Apply again in eighteen months when you're ready. I won't hold this against you.

In eighteen months I'll be too old to be implanted - not that black section would look at me twice. Eyes fixed on that picture - was it the Eagle piloting, or the Kite? - Dylan shook his head. "Sorry, sir, I can't do that."

Smythe's eyes were on his. He could feel them, and didn't dare look until there was a snort.

"Very well, Cadet." He raised his voice. "Lieutenant Morton? This is Cadet North. Standard simulator assessment. I want to see it before he moves on to live flight."


Morton was half a foot taller than he was, at least half a decade older, and had his left arm in a sling. His frown was almost as heavy as his commanding officer's. Dylan guessed that 'grounded for medical reasons' crossed with 'playing nursemaid' wasn't much to his taste, and decided to give the friendly chit-chat a miss unless the other started it.

He didn't.

"Flight log?" was the first thing he said when they reached the simulator.

Dylan handed it over, and Morton flicked through it one-handed, disbelief written all over his face.

"This is it? Kid, you're in the wrong place."

"This is the assignment I was given," he repeated stubbornly. There was nothing else he could do. Nothing.

Morton grimaced. "Fine. Have it your own way. Do you even know what the standard simulator assessment involves?"

"No, sir."

"Didn't think so." He reached past Dylan and flicked switches on the console. "I'll give you the on-screen prompts. If you need more help than that, it's an automatic fail."

But I've only been here for ten minutes! Dylan didn't say it, but his face must have given it away, because Morton sighed.

"This isn't the Academy, kid. This isn't a training team, either. The rest of my wing is out hunting mecha, and since I'm grounded, that includes one of our probationers. He's been here for four months and he's out there hunting mecha. Nobody's got time to babysit a rookie pilot, and you'll be a raw rookie for a few hundred hours of live flight time after basic flight because everyone is. You've got what, five hours of live flight total? The last probationer we took had over three hundred, he's now got twice that, and he's not out there hunting mecha because he isn't ready yet. You don't believe me? Put that helmet on and show me what I'm missing."

Dylan put the helmet on. He did, at least, know how to activate the neural simulator controls.

Of the five planes in the assessment, he'd flown none for real, and only one simulated. The fifth, the Z-17 which was what Team Three actually used, he couldn't even get off the ground. There had to be some trick to it. Probably something to do with how there were dozens more controls in front of him than in any plane he'd been checked out on.

"Enough," said Morton finally, and Dylan stripped off the helmet wondering whether he'd have an audience. No - just Morton. The pilot didn't even look amused. Embarrassed, maybe. Bored.

This had to be hazing, surely? They couldn't really be deciding whether to take him based on this? Anderson couldn't have expected him to be able to do it. Could he?

Morton reached past him and did something to the console. "With me, Cadet," he said, and headed out.


Commander Smythe was leaning back watching one of the screens as they entered his office again. He did look amused. Dylan could only imagine what was being replayed on it.

"Lieutenant Morton? Your assessment, please."

Morton glanced at Dylan, making a decision. "Permission to speak freely, sir."

"Of course."

"Waste of my time, sir. And yours. He shouldn't be here."

"That's not fair!" Dylan hadn't intended to say anything at all, but... no! This wasn't right! He'd done everything he'd been asked to the best of his ability.

"Cadet, you're incompetent in a plane."

Dylan saw red. "I'm incompetent in planes I've never been checked out on. And, since I've graduated, I believe that's Lieutenant. Not Cadet."

"Thank you, Lieutenant Morton. That will be all." Smythe fixed Dylan with a decidedly unimpressed glare, and Dylan withered inwardly. He wanted this day over. Actually, he wanted the last four days over, to bin that graduation paperwork, and to be in a navigation class right now. Top of it. Being asked to do things he had some chance of success with.

As the door closed behind Morton, Smythe sighed. "Yes, Lieutenant, you would be correct about your rank. Since you're insisting on it in public, I can no longer pretend that there's been some misunderstanding and you're still an Academy student. You're unsuitable for Team Three. I'm transferring you to Team Seven, effective immediately."

"But you can't -"

"One more word, mister. Just one, and you'll be going with a disciplinary record. Now, get out before I call security to have you thrown out. Team Seven is on the ground floor, I believe. Do I need to have you escorted there?"

"No, sir," Dylan heard himself saying. He just barely managed to stop himself slamming the door.


Team Seven was at least, he considered as he drifted unhappily down the corridors, the home of Commander Nykinnen, who would be able to get him into black section to confess his abject failure to Anderson. Cover story? He'd lasted barely two hours, and they hadn't taken him seriously for two minutes. What would Anderson do? This was, surely, supposed to be the easy bit. The thing he could do as an unsupervised newbie to take up time until the black section medics were ready for him.

Black section weren't going to want him after this. Team Three? They'd never look at him ever.

A tall young man with blond curls leant against the wall next to Nykinnen's office as Dylan approached. The light over the office door was red. Just what he needed: Nykinnen busy, and a queue to see him.

"Dylan North?" the blond man asked as he hesitated.

"Yes." He wasn't sure he could manage a whole sentence.

"The commander will see you in a few minutes. Coffee?"

"No." He leant against the opposite wall, shut his eyes, and tried not to shake.

There was a hand on his shoulder. "You need it. Come on."

This had to be the Team Seven commonroom. Tables, chairs, people, conversations in a wide variety of languages. A couple of neural simulators over to one side, not currently in use. An industrial scale coffee machine at the other side, rather more in use. Nobody paid him the slightest attention. Not yet. Dylan was under no illusions as to how long it was going to take for this morning's debacle to become public knowledge. Maybe it was already getting out, based on that last comment. Selected video clips from his performance on the simulator couldn't be far behind.

The blond man waved him to go first at the coffee machine - finally, something with controls he understood - and proceeded to, well, hover. Protectively, Dylan would have said. Just making sure nobody else came close, talked to him, interacted with him at all. That suited Dylan just fine right now. He was struggling to control his breathing sufficiently to sip what was decent decaf. Talking wasn't an option.

A few minutes later there was the buzz of an intercom. "Lieutenants Shayler and North, my office, now," Nykinnen's voice said.

Dylan almost missed that this included him - why would someone else be involved? But the blond man stood up, abandoning his coffee, and Dylan hastily did the same and followed him. What else could he do?

The green light was on, and Nykinnen's office door was open. Dylan followed Shayler in, shut the door behind him, headed for the remaining chair. Just keep your mouth shut, he told himself. Don't make it worse.

And Nykinnen said, "Dylan, we owe you an apology."

This is it. This is where they say they made a mistake in offering me an implant. Dylan said nothing, focusing on breathing steadily and not breaking down.

"Team Three was never going to be your cover story. For a start, it's not practical. They're far too timetabled, especially their probationer section - they're in the air ten hours a day. Your absences would be obvious. Team Seven is the only team where we can hide black section activity."

He heard the words. He understood the words. He just couldn't quite understand that they applied to him. Not his cover story? Never going to be? "Then... why?"

"Two reasons. The first is that nobody would believe you graduated from the Academy early for Team Seven. They'd wonder what was really going on."

"I'm afraid the second is my fault," said Shayler. "See, my cover story is also Team Seven. It has been for a while - too long. I'm good at what I do, and if I was just a security officer I'd be looking to move on. So I need a reason that I haven't. Hacking the computer system to put my friend's name next on the tryout list for Team Three, and getting caught, will do nicely."

Dylan frowned. "Why wouldn't you have put your own name next?"

"My name was right after yours - poke them in at the same time and they go in alphabetically, which is fortunate. I'm a better pilot than you are, good enough that I should be there. We needed them to look into how you were on that list at all, so they'd see electronic fingerprints all over your entry and the same on mine next to it. And my cover story stops being Rick Shayler, been in Team Seven far too long, and goes to being Rick Shayler, darn lucky to still be in Team Seven at all what with the trick he pulled."

"And mine is... Dylan North, arrogant kid who thought he could waltz onto Team Three and now has to work his way up instead?" He'd been in shock before, once, when he'd broken his right forearm in five places falling off a climbing wall. He'd felt much like this then. Unreal, floating, the world a different shape from how he'd always thought it was. Tryout list? No wonder they'd reacted like that when he'd showed up and presented transfer papers, as if being accepted was a done deal.

"Yes," said Nykinnen. "Exactly. It isn't going to be easy, because the rumour mill will know all about what happened within a few hours at most. I hear you have quite a temper. Commander Smythe was most unimpressed. He felt I should know what I was taking on."

He looked at the floor. "I should apologise to him."

"Absolutely not. He doesn't know what's going on and we plan to keep it that way. Plus, would the arrogant kid do that?"

"I guess not." He gulped, as practicalities began to surface. "Does everyone here have to hate me?"

"You're sixteen years old. Everyone here is going to be wary of you anyway. You've got a lot to prove to them, but I see no reason you can't go with 'screwed up big time, major shot of reality, turned over a new leaf.'"

"I can do that." It wasn't what he'd expected. Or wanted. But... maybe he'd needed that shot of reality for real. He'd been worried about the standards for Team Three, but he hadn't thought it was implausible that Anderson could simply transfer him there; he'd keep his head down and work hard, and he'd catch up. Three hundred hours just to be a probationer, Morton had said. That was a lot of flying. And that was to be a Team Three probationer, not an active pilot at all. Goodness only knew how much experience he'd need to be a serious birdstyle operative. And he'd told the Condor he could fly. That alert which had called G-Force away might just have been the luckiest break of his life.

One thing was nagging at him, though, and it finally came into focus. All the secrecy about his connection with black section, and here was Nykinnen talking about it in front of Shayler as if it was nothing?

"Lieutenant, can I ask... why do you need a cover story?"

And the blond man grinned and held out a hand. "Good question. My callsign is Kite. And, since I'm supposed to be your partner in crime, you'd best start calling me Rick."

"Indeed," said Nykinnen. "You'd also best start looking darn contrite, both of you, since I have of course been tearing strips off you throughout this discussion. Dylan, I have your Team Seven paperwork here and your regular blue section clearance, no need to worry about that. Rick, can you show him the ropes, get uniform ordered and so on? And then you should introduce him to our simulators."

"Let me guess," said Rick, entirely relaxed and not at all contrite. "You want to learn to fly the Z-17. Followed by the G-1."

Oh, if only. After this morning? 'Want to' and 'ready to' were gulfs apart given his current flying skills. Being taught to fly ISO's frontline fighter and G-Force's attack plane by G-Force's lead fighter pilot was a dream. Or it would be when he was somewhere beyond a complete novice. He'd known that "good" in Academy terms wouldn't be good outside it. He hadn't fully appreciated just how far from good it would be. And now he was being asked about it by a superstar pilot who was, surely, just as far from good in the other direction.

"The Z-17 wasn't the only plane on that assessment I couldn't fly," he admitted. He had to force himself not to add 'sir'. He'd been responsible for keeping G-5's cover story intact? No wonder they hadn't told him what was really going on.

"No? Let's go download the records and take a look. I'm afraid they need to escape into general circulation anyway, to fuel the rumours."

"Team Three's records?"

"I did mention I was a hacker?"

"Oh. You're really a hacker?" He'd assumed that was all part of the cover story too.

"I'm really a hacker, and this time my electronic fingerprints won't be all over it. I'm also a fully qualified flight instructor, part of whose visible punishment for this little escapade is going to be to sort your flying skills out."

The Kite. A G-Force team member. Here, now, talking to him, offering to teach him to fly. Dylan wasn't sure he believed it. For now, he'd not worry about that. He still had a future after all, and that was enough.