The mission was going perfectly. They'd made it to the nerve centre of the Spectran base almost unchallenged. Now he was guarding one entrance, Jason the other, while Princess attempted to figure out how the controls worked. This time the Spectrans had given them crossword clues as hints. Princess was good at crosswords. If it had been Sudoku, he'd have used Jason.
He always checked the ceiling before considering an area clear, but somehow this time he hadn't. It was much higher than he'd thought, and was suddenly filled with green-clad goons descending on what looked like red ribbons. He had no idea how they'd got there, but goons were easy. Mark delivered a well-placed scissor kick to the head of the nearest, sent his sonic boomerang sweeping its unique form of carnage along the rear rank, and turned to take on the attacker behind him.
It didn't happen. His mind screamed that he'd whirled, ducked and prepared to strike. His eyes told him that he was still standing, wide open to attack from all sides. And it wasn't just a goon in front of him any more. It was a Blackbird. No, it was Zoltar himself. A vicious blow from behind forced him to his knees, helpless. And the Spectran leader was coming in for the kill, knife upraised, the rest of G-Force turning in slow motion to watch as Mark's life was ripped away --
Mark threw himself to one side, and collided painfully with something hard and metallic which toppled over with a resounding crash. It took several seconds of frozen confusion before he managed to persuade his body that it was safe to move. Just a bad dream. Not a nightmare. Nightmares had to be reported to the psychiatrist. This hadn't been that bad.
Mark righted the lamp, lost his battle with himself, and turned it on. Who was he kidding? This was the fifth time he'd been woken by that dream, or a variant on it. Every dream started out different, but the end result was the same. His body's complete failure to move when required, followed swiftly by a horrible death. Oh, he'd had the standard dreams of being somehow stuck before. These were different. In these, there was no struggle, no effort, no sense of resistance. No sense of wrongness, and no warning. Just a sudden failure of his body to respond to instruction. It was starting to scare the hell out of him.
The alarm clock read four twenty-six. Mark groaned out loud. Nobody should be awake voluntarily at this time. Especially not him. It was still dark outside, for goodness sake. He wanted nothing more than to curl up under the covers and go back to sleep - but he dreaded the dreams coming back. It had come to this, then. The Commander of G-Force, sitting on the end of his bed, afraid to sleep. Mark drew his knees up to his chest in the pre-dawn chill and considered his options.
He could do nothing. Well, he'd been trying that for the past couple of weeks, and as solutions went, it sucked.
He could go to the shrinks and tell them he had a problem. It was unappealing. Jason might well believe that the Mars base disaster had been the cause of his demotion. Mark knew he was wrong. Failing a series of psychiatric evaluations was what had cost Jason his command, and Mark was quite sure that if he was felt to have more problems than his second, there would be a rapid reversal in ranks.
Or he could do it unofficially. Reword his description slightly such that in his dreams he was just a security operative, and find himself a civilian psychiatrist. He dismissed that one immediately. Not only would changing things around make any diagnosis inaccurate at best, but he suspected there would be drugs involved. What ordinary ISO officer would refuse to even try his doctor's recommended solution? Mark had no idea whether there really was a drug which could control nightmares, but it didn't matter. It wasn't an option for him.
So, take the best option and run with it. Dr Samuels, tomorrow morning. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He wouldn't get angry, or defensive, and since his performance was unaffected they'd have no reason to consider his position.
Feeling a whole lot better just for having made the decision, Mark turned the light off, crawled back under the covers, and fell into a deep and mercifully dreamless sleep.
He felt so very much better after talking to Dr Samuels. Jason might rail about 'old man', 'out of touch', 'no idea what it's like'. Mark had always been comforted by the kindly, grey-haired gentleman, who listened sympathetically, didn't judge, and always had a helpful suggestion.
This time, he'd reassured Mark that nightmares were a common problem for combat personnel, that they often happened in clusters. That worrying about a particular aspect often made it recur. And that it would stop all by itself. Sitting in Samuels' warm, brightly lit office, it all seemed so much less terrifying than it had at four in the morning.
Mark had asked if there was anything he should do, and Dr Samuels had smiled at him again. "Imagery rehearsal therapy might help."
He knew he'd blanched, and the psychiatrist had quickly elaborated. "Picture yourself doing it properly. Even better, go out there and do it. Physical training of whatever it was you were dreaming about having problems with would be ideal."
As Mark stood to go, Dr Samuels chuckled. "I think that's the first time I've ever told a patient to go out and fly, when he was dreaming about falling. Joking aside, Commander, if it doesn't help within a few days, come back. Or sooner, if you want to talk."
Mark didn't think that was going to be necessary. Positive visualisation - why hadn't he thought of that for himself? He could go to the gym, run through the moves from his dream, and remind himself that he knew full well how to do it for real.
Tiny was already in the gym when Mark arrived, working on what Mark instantly recognised as a set of flexibility exercises. Relatively advanced ones, too - having lost twenty pounds in their effort to cover for a sick, grounded Jason, Tiny had sworn he wasn't going to put the weight back on, or lose the conditioning he'd worked so hard for. He'd been less than happy to return to his role as 'stay behind guy'. But Mark didn't have a whole lot of choice. Tiny still wasn't as fast or as versatile as anyone else, although watching his performance now, that might not be true indefinitely.
He came to the end of his routine, breathing hard, and only then noticed his commander standing watching. It was hard to tell what his reaction was - he was already flushed and sweating - but Mark thought he saw embarrassment in there somewhere.
"You're getting good at that."
"Everything's relative." The big pilot picked his towel off the bench and wiped his face. "If you need me, I'll be ready. More ready than I was last time, anyhow."
He paused, and now there was definite embarrassment. "Mark, would you - oh hell, never mind."
Tiny nervous about asking him something? Mark snapped back into full commander mode. "If you're worried about something, I need to know. If not, tell me anyway."
Tiny looked at the floor. "It's not like that. There's no problem - heck, embarrassment won't kill me. I've been working on my martial arts. I mean the speed-based stuff, not strength. Sensei says it's time I tried it out on one of you lot."
"As in, using the implants for speed?" Mark stared at him in incredulous delight. "You want a sparring partner for, what, speed-and-a-half?"
"Well, my speed-and-a-half's nowhere near yours, but I need faster than standard. Sorry, Commander, I know you're busy. I'll ask Rick."
"Like hell you will." Mark dropped his own towel on the bench, and thought of something else. "Birdstyle?"
"No. My visor doesn't give me enough peripheral vision."
Realisation finally dawned as to exactly what was causing Tiny's reticence. His visor was optimised for his role on the Phoenix, with no distorting change in angle to the front. Asking to have that optimisation taken away was tantamount to pushing for an active role. Since they'd had a fairly vocal showdown over this very subject, culminating in Mark telling his pilot that the decision was made and the discussion over, he could see why Tiny was wary of going anywhere near it. But my goodness, he could use an Owl who didn't struggle to keep up, who added speed and dexterity to his colossal strength - and heaven help the goons who came up against anyone that strong with skill and timing behind his moves.
"If Jason can fly the Phoenix in a full raptor visor, I'm not ruling out some sort of hybrid. Show me what you've got, and I'll reconsider."
Tiny licked his lips nervously, dropped into what was a decidedly more professional fighting stance than anything Mark had seen from him before, and with no more ado came straight at him.
He had certainly improved. Mark had to give him that. No match yet even for Princess or Keyop, unless he also brought his strength to bear. But there was style here, and precision, and a decent range of moves. One thing, though, simply had to go. Mark waited his moment, danced in, grabbed a fold of sweatpant leg and deposited his opponent in an ungraceful heap on the floor.
Tiny sighed as he sat up. "You're going to tell me I have to wear skin-tight leggings, aren't you?"
Mark's eyes widened. "Hardly. Not unless you think you'll never have to fight in street clothes."
"But you're --"
"I'm wearing what I find comfortable to train in on my own. If I'd have known I was going to be sparring, I'd have worn something loose too. No, I took you out because your weight distribution was wrong."
Tiny frowned. "Step forward, then shift back? Isn't that what I was doing?"
"Yes, it's what you were doing. You'd get away with it if I wasn't implanted. Or a goon. A Blackbird, you'd be in trouble. You've got to keep your weight balanced much more. All the time. All the time. You have to be balanced all the way through the step." He saw Tiny's face start to fall, and realised he could easily put him off for good, if he wasn't careful.
"But your main problem's only with a couple of moves, and I can show you what to work on. Apart from that, not bad. I'd like to see how fast you can take it - has Sensei taught you the speed drill?"
Tiny nodded again, looking less than convinced, and called the cadence for the speed drill.
Compared to how he and Jason took it, this was a crawl. Mark reminded himself that half an hour ago he'd have said Tiny couldn't even string this set of moves together, much less repeat them precisely and at an ever-increasing speed, and settled to making sure his counters were as immaculate as possible.
They'd reached close to what he would have considered a respectable starting speed when it happened. The fact that he wasn't quite sure what 'it' was did, if he was honest with himself, suggest that perhaps his concentration hadn't been all it might be. All he remembered was a flash of Tiny's foot in his peripheral vision, much lower than he was expecting to see it, followed by realising that he was flat on his back, hand to the right side of his face, feeling like his jaw had lost an argument with half a brick.
Tiny was kneeling beside him, demonstrating between apologies that his vocabulary was nearly as varied as Jason's, if not so well exercised.
"Let me see," he demanded, and Mark gingerly removed his hand. "Man, that's gonna bruise. Can you open your mouth?"
Mark did so, with care, and added "yes" for good measure. He guessed that since the mechanics seemed to be working, it probably wasn't broken. Tiny's probing fingers hurt like hell, though, and Mark was glad when he sat back, face stricken.
"Mark, I'm so sorry. I don't even know what I did wrong. I...I'll take it back to Sensei. Or I'll give it up, if you think I should."
Mark shook his head, instantly regretting it as fire exploded up the side of his jaw. "I asked you to do that drill. I should have been watching more carefully. But you're not ready to take that to the enemy yet."
He'd have said more, but his face was feeling worse by the minute, and all he wanted to do was lie down with an icepack on it and let the implant reduce it from agony to merely visually spectacular. The only saving grace was that he'd already announced his plans to spend the rest of today and tomorrow at the airfield. Scrambles notwithstanding, nobody would expect to see him until Monday, by which time it would be mostly faded. As would Tiny's embarrassment at having screwed up. He could present it as a minor training incident, and nobody would be any the wiser.