“Oh Jason.” she sighed. She began tangling her fingers in his hair.
And then an electronic chirp sounded from Jason’s bracelet.
A second chirp sounded.
“You didn’t tell me you’re on probation.” All warmth was gone from her voice. A moment of confusion flashed across his face. He released her nipple and raised himself up just enough to look into her clear green eyes. Even though her face grew redder with each breath and her frown lengthened each moment, he only saw her strawberry blond hair falling across his pillow, inviting him to kiss her most intimately.
The bracelet chirped again.
“Look,” she said as she pulled herself out from under him, “I know how those GPS bracelets work.” She pulled on her blouse and stuffed her bra into her purse. “Your probation officer wants to talk to you now.”
“But I’m not – “
She reached the trailer door. “Maybe we’ll talk later.” With that, she was gone.
There was a fourth chirp.
“The whole damn Spectran armada had better be landing!” Jason growled before he raised the bracelet close to his mouth. . . .
“I hope you would each understand.” 7-Zark-7's image filled the enormous screen at one end of the Ready Room. “It is my duty to ensure the safety of G-Force at all times.”
Mark, Jason, and Princess stood before the screen. Tiny was with Keyop, playing video games in the boy’s quarters at Center Neptune; G-Force needed to confront the robot with some issues that might end up being too personal and embarrassing for the smallest member to hear.
“It’s getting out of hand, Zark.” Mark replied in an unusually blunt tone.
“I assure you,” the robot replied, “you have each been partaking in increasingly dangerous activities. It’s vital that I monitor your activities and, when possible, prevent any harm.”
“I don’t feel safe going to the doctor any more, Zark!” Princess cried.
“I’m sorry.” The bulbous bot’s apologetic tone sounded especially artificial. “But, you see, since the doctor was examining an especially delicate part of the female anatomy, I believed it was imperative I observe in case something unfortunate happened.”
Both Mark’s and Jason’s jaws dropped and they gave each other a shocked glance when they realized what Princess was complaining about.
“She’s a DOCTOR, not some back alley pervert!” the Swan shrieked.
“None the less –“ Zark started to say.
“At any rate,” Mark jumped in before Zark could upset Princess any more, “you need to observe some boundaries, Zark. Every aspect of living has some danger to it, and it’s impossible for you to shield us from everything.”
“True. But protecting each of you from what I can benefits you all.”
“And how does making me look like a criminal to anybody I date benefit me?” Jason’s voice strained as he tried to keep a seemingly calm composure. Both Mark and Princess shot him a “You really needed to ask THAT?” look.
“Jason, surely I don’t need to remind you of your tendency to be attracted to Spectran agents.” Zark replied in a cheerfully matter-of-fact tone, “And those women who aren’t enemy agents could still be carrying some sort of contagion. Even Chief Anderson has told you that not everything can be cured with a shot.”
Jason grit his teeth and clenched his fists.
“Jason, I sympathize with you.” The digitally projected chirpiness undercut any hint of sympathy in Zark’s voice. “I understand you, like many other young human males, experience certain stresses, and you are simply trying to – how shall I say? – RELEASE the pressure.”
“Well that’s awfully big of you.” the Condor muttered under his breath.
“I’ve been doing some research, and I think I’ve found a safe alternative to the tactics you usually choose.”
“Why, yes!” Zark seemed to perk up at this wrongly perceived encouragement from Jason. “I’ve found there are numerous manual exercises that seem to do an equally good job of relieving that kind of stress. If you like, you can come to my control room, and I’ll teach you the proper methods –“
“No thanks.” Icicles hung from each word that came through Jason’s clenched teeth.
“Zark,” Mark jumped in before matters could get even nastier, “would you at least consider our concerns?”
“Very well, Commander.” Zark replied, “I’ll give this the consideration it’s due.”
With that, the large viewscreen went dark.
“In other words,” Jason growled, “none.”
Mark and Princess were too busy being doubled over with laughter to answer him.
“Oh, you’d just love it if I let that bucket of bolts give me a hand job, wouldn’t you?!” Jason snapped.
His teammates had dropped to their knees, tears flowing freely from their eyes. Jason let out a frustrated roar and stormed out of the room.
Meanwhile, 7-Zark-7 turned to his robotic dog.
“That went very well, don’t you think, 1-Rover-1?”
Rover tipped his head to one side and let out a couple of electronic yips. Zark tossed him a small, gold-plated crescent wrench. The dog caught it in mid-air and settled down to gnaw on it before the humanoid robot continued. “I’m sure Jason won’t be so hotheaded now that he knows there are better solutions to his issues. And who knows? Maybe we can have a relationship as close – if not closer – as the one I have with Mark and Princess!”
Rover paused for a nanosecond, but then decided to continue gnawing on his wrench instead of responding to Zark’s comments.
“Well, I’m off for a 10-second oil break!” Zark chirped. “Susan sent me a video recording of ‘Zarkana’, and I can’t wait to see it! I’m so flattered that Cirque du Soleil has produced a show to honor ME!”
When Zark was well on his way out of the control room, Rover stopped gnawing to shake his head sadly.
“Oh,” Zark called behind him, “let me know the INSTANT Jason arrives!”
Rover sadly shook his head again.
Mark and Jason sat on bar stools while Princess wiped down the counter again. It was the usual dead time of the afternoon at Jill’s, so the threesome didn’t hesitate to openly complain about the robotic watchman of Center Neptune.
“I’m surprised the chief hasn’t done anything after the latest incident with the control tower at Central City Airport.” Princess said as she finished the counter and started wiping down the tables again.
“You’d think he would’ve at least SAID something to Zark.” Mark replied, “It’s hard to keep a low profile because Zark keeps disrupting my radio communications to the tower so he could ‘check up’ on me. I mean, they’ve scrambled F18's three times this month!”
“I’m just surprised Anderson hasn’t found a way to blame it all on me.” muttered Jason.
“Oh, Jase –“ Princess sighed.
“We need to focus, gang.” Mark interrupted, “We need some ideas on how to deal with Zark before Tiny and Keyop get back from their fishing trip!” While Tiny was of one mind with his teammates, he didn’t want to know the details of any plan they might concoct. However, he was willing to keep Keyop distracted while the plot was hatched – even though the youngster was just as annoyed at the robot, he might accidentally blab between blurbs and bleeps.
There was a sullen silence. “It’s a pity we can’t get somebody to alter his programming.” Princess finally said, “But the IT people at Quanto-Tobor would simply fix it.”
“And each time they make an ‘adjustment’,” Jason quipped, “Zark’s more neurotic.”
“We can’t simply take a sledge hammer to him, either.” Mark added, “They’d just rebuild him.”
“Unless we blew him to smithereens...”
“You know, Jason, that gives me an idea!” the G-Force commander fixed his second with a hard look, “But it hinges on our acting abilities....”
“Are you absolutely sure about this?” Jason tried not to sound nervous as he and Mark, in Bird Style, made their way to Zark’s control room at Center Neptune.
“Yes!” the commander replied, “The chief banned Zark from knowing about weapons tests ever since that time when the missiles were disarmed because they were ‘too dangerous’. Now, pull yourself together, or this won’t work!”
A short time later, Mark was standing in his impossible-to-maintain heroic pose while Jason leaned against a control panel.
“Are you sure, Jason,” Zark said, fixing his unblinking eyes on the Condor, “that you truly want this? Your teammates haven’t been pressuring you?”
“No, Zark,” Jason replied, shifting his weight a bit as he avoided looking at the robot, “I thought it would be good for you to get out of this control room once in a while....feel the wind in your hair – I mean, antennae.”
“I’m sorry, but I have a hard time believing you. You don’t sound like you mean it.”
“Oh, come on, Zark!” Mark chimed in, “Just coming here to see you is a big step for him! You can’t expect him to be perfectly comfortable right away.”
The robot paused. “You’re right, Commander.” he said. He took Jason’s hand in his own. “Jason, I will gladly join you on the recon mission.”
The Condor relaxed a little. “You don’t know how glad I am to hear that, Zark.”
“Oh, I’m so terribly nervous!” 7-Zark-7 had become especially fussy ever since the Phoenix left sight of Center Neptune. “What if something happens and I’m needed in the control room? What if 1-Rover-1 develops separation anxiety? What if –“
“Relax, Zark!” the commander said in his most soothing tone, “I made sure Rover has plenty of chew toys to keep him busy, and Susan will let us know if we need to abort the mission or take any other action. We won’t let Spectra do anything bad to you.”
“I know, Mark.” the robot sighed, “I guess it’s just my nature to worry.”
“There’s something up ahead, Commander.” Princess was all business. On the main viewscreen, a figure could barely be seen on the distant horizon. She tapped a button a few times, and the image was magnified until the image of a giant, metallic opossum filled the screen.
“It doesn’t seem to be moving.” Tiny said as he squinted at the image.
“Playing dead?” asked Keyop.
“I kind of like the sound of that –“ Jason replied, “Spectra’s monsters getting ready for me to kill ‘em!”
Zark started saying “Oh my oh my oh my –“ quietly. It was the closest thing to a panic attack G-Force had ever seen from the bot.
“Relax, Zark!” Jason said as soothingly as he could while he peered at the screens in front of him. “Uh, Mark,” he then said with more concern in his voice, “this one looks like a Type 2.”
“What does that mean?” Zark’s words came faster than normal, “I’m not familiar with that designation!”
“Well,” Jason shifted in his seat a little. “you see, we, um, really didn’t want to worry you...”
“What the –?” Keyop burbled in confusion.
Princess tapped his arm. “Shh!”
“But I don’t –“
“Later!” she hissed with just enough ferocity that he got the point and fell silent.
“It’s kinda complicated.” was Tiny’s contribution to the conversation.
“You’re familiar with our practice of sometimes sneaking onto Spectra’s machines to help destroy it from the inside?” Mark’s face had the most earnest expression that could be seen through his visor.
“Well, yes,” Zark answered, “though I’m not always sure it’s a good idea.”
“Spectra has developed a sensor that detects whenever organic lifeforms have boarded whenever they’ve engaged.” the commander replied.
“Why don’t I know about this?”
“It’s like Jason said,” Princess jumped in, “we didn’t want to worry you.”
“Really?” The robot sounded genuinely touched. He moved over to the Condor and placed a hand on his arm. “I had no idea you cared so much, Jason.”
Keyop let loose a barrage of vocal tics as he witnessed this bizarre display. Princess promptly slapped his helmet, and he again fell silent.
“This presents us with a dilemma.” Mark announced, “Usually, a Type 2 has vital information that we can use to our advantage, saving countless thousands of lives. However, the new sensor makes this kind of mission far more dangerous than before...”
There was a heavy moment of silence.
“I have an idea!” 7-Zark-7 chirped, “Since I’m not an organic form of life, I could board the mecha and retrieve any information.”
“Are you sure?”
“Why, yes! I may not have the extensive training as the rest of G-Force,” The robot made several martial arts motions that looked more like kung foolery than kung fu. “but I can certainly hold my own in a pinch.”
“It’s awfully dangerous!” Princess cried.
“I simply couldn’t ask you to do this –“ Mark said.
“I volunteer.” was Zark’s reply, “In fact, I insist you let me go!”
A short time later, Tiny had positioned the Phoenix under the opossum’s snout. Zark’s cape fluttered furiously as he launched himself from the dome and flew into the mecha’s open mouth. The Phoenix banked away from the mecha and took a position at a short, safe distance.
Jason strode up to the control panel between Mark and Tiny. His index finger hovered over the red button.
“Fire when ready.” Mark said. All of Jason’s teeth looked like fangs as the most viciously feral grin spread across his face. He pressed the button.
Four members of G-Force let out a cheer as the opossum turned into a fine, glittery cloud of dust. Keyop, however, let out a few confused sounds before he finally asked, “You planned this?”
“Yes, Keyop.” Princess gently replied, in case her smile wasn’t enough of an answer.
“Nobody,” the Swallow complained, “told me.”
“You’ll understand when you’re older, kid.” Jason said over his shoulder, “Right now, just enjoy –“
Every pair of eyes shot upward. Somebody was entering the dome.
Every set of shoulders drooped as the platform bearing 7-Zark-7 lowered to the bridge of the Phoenix. Aside from a couple of singe marks along the edges of his cape, the robot was completely unharmed.
“It was a trap!” Zark cried, “There was nobody on board – the machine was remotely controlled! I barely got away before it exploded!”
“That figures.” Jason grumbled as he stormed back to his seat.
The bot moved over to him and placed a metallic hand on the young man’s arm. “I know you loathe Spectra,” Zark said, “but you shouldn’t let them upset you so. I have faith in your ability to defeat them.”
Jason glared at Zark’s hand. “Why do you keep touching me?” His voice had a sharp edge.
“I thought it was appropriate.” Zark calmly answered, “After all, we have grown closer ever since you accepted my offer to teach you to manually manipulate your –“
“Tiny, get us back to Center Neptune right away!” Mark almost shouted, interrupting Zark before the conversation could go any further down THAT path.
“That’s one sick machine.” the Phoenix pilot muttered.
7-Zark-7 was oblivious to the sullen mood that had begun to crush G-Force’s spirit. The robot busied himself analyzing recent events – how was Spectra able to so easily set a trap on Earth?
Soon the sandy crescent that concealed Center Neptune came into view. For a brief moment, the team was transfixed by the sight of the shimmering water surrounding that pristine patch of sand.
Except Zark. Nobody else noticed the robot as his antennae twitched and his cape fluttered for just a second. Then, as the Phoenix submerged and began docking within Center Neptune, Zark crept away from the group.
Nothing could draw G-Force’s attention from the task at hand...until they saw a Zark-like object on the main viewer, sinking to the floor below.
“What the –?” Tiny nearly bit his tongue at the sight.
“Somehow he managed to go out the airlock without setting off any alarms, Mark!” Princess cried. She quickly changed views to show 7-Zark-7 on his back, struggling to roll over.
And then one of the Phoenix’s landing gear wheels rolled over him.
G-Force sat in stunned silence. Did that really happen? They looked at each other, eyes wide and mouths slightly open. Did that really, truly happen?
Meanwhile, in Center Neptune’s control room, a cable detached from a computer panel and retracted into a little, metal dog. 1-Rover-1 waddled over to a small pile of crescent wrenches Mark had left for him, plopped down, and started gnawing away.