Battle of the Planets belongs to Sandy Frank Productions. I've borrowed it for fun, not profit.
One of Jason's friends may have stumbled onto an anti-ISO organisation, and Jason wants to run the investigation himself.
Set during the TV series sometime between The Sky Is Falling and G-Force Defector.
Some mild swearing, and by my standards, there's one particularly gory moment.
Many thanks to Sandy Schoen and Jonah In The Whale for beta-ing.
"And again," Jason shouted above the noise of the engine. As his mechanic floored the accelerator, he shifted another six inches under the car, hunting for the source of the vibration. "Damn, I was sure it would be there. Back off. Where next?"
"Uh - fuel pump?"
"We tried that already." Jason hauled himself out from under the car. "Look, Sam, keep your mind on the job, will you? I can't race with it like this." He paused, expecting another suggestion. "Sam?"
He sat up to see her sitting in the driver's seat, jaw set in a forlorn attempt to stay in control. Something was very wrong, then - Sam Mitchell was a woman in a man's world, and almost never showed her true feelings in public. Jason sat down in the passenger seat, casting his mind back to what Princess had said the last time he'd stormed off and she'd come to try to calm him down. "Do you want to talk about it?" He wasn't sure how he'd react if Sam responded the way he normally did.
He needn't have worried. Sam turned tear-filled eyes to him. "Jason, I'm in so much trouble. I don't know what to do."
Oh, great. Girl stuff. "Is it a guy?" he ventured.
"Yes, lots of them. I..."
Jason recoiled in shock. "I think you'd better talk to a doctor."
Sam flushed scarlet. "It's not like that! Honestly, Jason, what do you think I am? It's this group I've been hanging out with. We meet under overpasses and swap engine tips. Anyway, it used to be all good fun, bunch of car nuts, you know how it is. Then these two older guys started showing up. At first they were great. They really know what they're talking about when it comes to engine mods. But they've started talking about other stuff. The war, and how it ought to be stopped, and maybe ISO aren't doing all they could to stop it. They want car people, drivers, engineers, mechanics, and they're real interested in me since they found out I work for ISO Racing." She gulped and looked at him desperately. "This probably sounds really stupid, but I think they may work for Spectra. I know you're ISO Security - who do I tell, and can you get them to listen to me?"
Jason sat in silence, his mind whirring. A Spectran recruiting unit? Here? Interested in drivers and mechanics, and already aware of her? ISO couldn't get that lucky, surely. This was worth investigating, by him personally, to find out if Sam was right. And Sam wasn't at all fanciful - if she thought there was Spectran involvement, she'd seen something genuinely worrying.
"I'm sorry." Sam was really crying now. "I knew it was stupid. I'll just stay away - maybe they're headhunting for the new Honda factory."
Jason realised she'd completely misinterpreted his lack of response, and tried to make up for it. "It's not stupid. If you're right, it could be very important. I need to see them for myself."
"You don't believe me."
"Did I say that? My superiors wouldn't, but they should believe me. When are you meeting again, and can you get me in?" He smiled in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. "I'm fairly sure I can fit in with a bunch of car nuts."
Sam's breath caught, and she finally managed a smile. "I can do that. It's tonight. Seven until we get bored."
* * * * *
They pulled up under an overpass a little past seven. Sam had offered to drive, but Jason had pointed out that any serious driver would show up in his own car. Sam had already proved herself to them, and saying her car was off the road was as good an excuse as any for him to be driving her.
Five cars were already parked there in a rough circle, noses in. Two had their hoods up, and several heads emerged at the sound of an unfamiliar - and seriously well-tuned - engine.
"Are they there?" Jason asked.
"No. Often they don't show until later. And they don't come every time."
"Might be for the best if I get to know the others first, anyway." He noticed Sam was sitting rigid in the passenger seat. "No need to be nervous. You thought I was just a chauffeur for months, remember. Forget I work for ISO Security, and everything else is the truth." He pulled into a gap in the circle, switched the engine off and met five wary pairs of eyes.
"Who's your ride, Sam? And where's the Ford?"
"Some idiot backended me and took out the offside lights." Sam had managed to make her nerves sound like annoyance. "This is Jason. He works with me at ISO Racing."
"Name's John." The oldest of the young men stepped forward, sizing Jason up. "I fix exhausts for a living. You?"
Jason snorted. "Drive ISO bigwigs to meetings. Weekends I race."
"For ISO Racing?" John's eyebrows went up. "They're a good team. So what are you doing driving that heap of junk?"
Jason seriously considered blowing the assignment off there and then - and promptly realised it wasn't an assignment yet. He could storm off now with complete impunity. Somehow that made it less inviting. He settled for a glare.
"That's what the car thieves think. You never seen a car with something non-standard under the hood before?"
John clearly fancied himself the leader of this little band. "Show us."
Jason reached back inside his car and pulled the lever. "Now this is a real engine."
It wasn't often he was glad for Anderson's insistence that there was precisely no restricted technology under the hood of his car. Everything here was available to the general public. True, most of it was more commonly found in high-end sports cars, but it was perfectly conventional, and Jason made a point of spending no more on it than he won racing.
There were whistles of appreciation as he propped the hood open, and as he'd hoped, he was rapidly replaced as the centre of attention by his car.
He was wondering how to bring the topic of conversation round to the absent mystery men when he heard one of the younger men, a kid barely old enough to drive, ribbing Sam about how nervous she looked.
"You sure you got backended? Or are you just afraid your boyfriend'll find out what you drive?"
"He's not my boyfriend. And he already knows what I drive. Actually I was hoping to see Mick or Adam - are they coming? I've been thinking about what they were offering and I wanted to talk to them about it."
John straightened up. "They're not coming tonight. Mick called me to say they'd be here Tuesday, and anyone wanting to consider their offer should come then. I'd have let you know, but I didn't think you'd be interested, being ISO and all."
"ISO Racing doesn't have a whole lot to do with the rest of ISO. Doesn't pay too good either. I could use the cash."
Oh, good girl , thought Jason as he took the chance to show his interest. "Someone's offering good money? I could sure use some."
"With that engine? You're not short." The young black man hadn't spoken before, hadn't given his name and was eyeing Jason suspiciously.
"His trailer's older than mine," Sam put in, "and that's saying something. Just because you're too mean to spend any money on your engine doesn't mean the rest of us are."
"He's ISO, though." There was scorn in the young man's voice. "Sitting pretty driving the fat cats while the ordinary folk get blown up in their stupid war. Longer it goes on, richer they get. About time somebody did something about it."
Jason clenched his fists and forced himself to breathe evenly while imagining what he'd have liked to say.
"Yeah," John joined in. "I mean - I know G-Force think they're the good guys, but when's the last time you even heard about a peace initiative? There has to be another way."
Keep your temper , Jason told himself. It's a valid opinion. Most people don't know what their fate will be if Spectra get their way, and we deliberately keep it like that to avoid mass panic. You go out there so people like this can live in a world where they're allowed to have opinions. Where people like this can exist at all.
It was desperately hard, though. Jason fell back on the old trick of imagining these kids' faces when the war was won and he finally got to tell people who he was. He was going to spend a week just driving the G-2 around his old haunts in birdstyle minus the helmet.
"So these guys think they can end the war?" he asked, hoping to keep the conversation going.
"Who knows?" John turned to him. "They want the war over, at least. How can that be wrong? I'd like to be a part of that."
"I can understand that." Jason forced himself to smile. "Mostly I'd like to be better paid than I am now."
The conversation returned to optimum clutch travel, and half an hour later John looked at his watch. "Anyone coming for a drink?"
He got four takers. Much to Jason's relief, Sam pleaded tiredness and he said he'd take her home.
* * * * *
"So am I totally paranoid?" Sam asked as they headed back.
"I don't think so." Jason's instincts told him something was going on, but he had to admit the evidence was slim. "They're pretty anti-ISO. More than usual. I'll talk to my commander and see what he thinks. In any case I still want to meet your two friends for myself."
"So come on Tuesday. You didn't want to go back to John's, did you? I've never seen you drink and I really am tired."
"Alcohol makes me throw up." Jason had long since adopted Mark's tactic of telling the strict truth whenever possible. Alcohol - any drug - in the bloodstream would make anyone ill in jump. Most people just didn't have to consider it as an occupational hazard.
* * * * *
"Bunch of discontented idealists." Mark ejected the tape when the recording from Jason's surveillance camera finished. "But that's all."
"Sam said the two major players weren't there." Jason considered his commander's expression. "You're not buying this, are you?"
"To be honest, no. I think you've got a case of industrial espionage here. Should ISO investigate - yes. But I'm not recommending putting G-Force on it."
As his second-in-command continued to glare at him, he relented somewhat. "Why don't you take it to Nykinnen? It sounds ideal for Team 7. Perfect surveillance training opportunity for his young officers. They could use that sort of experience before they get permanent assignments. And Nykinnen's always complaining he only gets the missions the other teams don't want."
"So now he gets one you don't want? Fine. I guess I'll go do my other job for a while, unless you have any more objections. Commander."
"Jason, I didn't mean..."
"Sure you did. Go do something important. I won't keep you any longer." Jason grabbed tape and notes, regarded his commander with complete disdain, and stalked out.
* * * * *
Matti Nykinnen, Commander of ISO Security Team 7, put his fingers together and looked across his desk at Lieutenant Alouita. "Did you run this by anyone else?"
Jason nodded. "I asked Mark Jarrald's opinion. He suggested I bring it straight to you."
Oh, wonderful , Nykinnen thought. He had found out precisely who his two most promising lieutenants were three weeks previously. All he needed was to end up as a pawn in the middle of an argument between the Condor and the Eagle.
"Team 7 will look into it, Lieutenant. Thank you."
"Uh...Commander? Can I make a request?"
You could order me to jump out the window, and you know it , Nykinnen thought. Oh, to be having this conversation in the black security zone, where Jason officially outranked him and would actually say what he meant.
"Assign me to this. I've met them. I'm a driver - they already know that. I'm the right age. I fit the profile. Authorise me to go in."
Nykinnen considered it. On the face of it, it was the logical thing to do. Everything Jason had said was true, and by Team 7 seniority he was due a minor operation of his own to lead. Junior lieutenant in change of a few even more junior officers doing some basic surveillance on a group who weren't an active threat. Perfect - for anyone else. For the Condor, though? What if G-Force were called out mid-operation? Not a major problem, he decided. One of the others would get a chance to show what they could do. The Condor himself was asking for the assignment. And until a particular afternoon three weeks ago, he'd have assigned Alouita to it without a second thought.
He came to a decision. He was supposed to treat these two as though they were the junior lieutenants they masqueraded as - fine. He was going to do exactly that.
"I'll do more than that. I'm putting you in charge of the operation. I'll assign you four operatives, all officially junior to you. I don't know how much experience you have running this sort of job, but you know where to find me if you need me."
Alouita's face lit up. "Who do I get?"
"Let me see." Nykinnen pulled up the details of his current officers' availability. Running a training team was far more complicated than he would ever have believed. Of the younger candidates, four were on pilot training this week, two on a Spectran language immersion course and another five variously seconded around ISO for training associated with their specialities. That left him with - "Lao, Jenkins, O'Leary and...do you want Jarrald as your second? Logically it should be him, but..."
He could tell Jason was tempted, but the young man shook his head. "Maybe next time."
"Shayler, then. Go look up their personnel files, build yourself a sting operation, then come back and run it past me before you brief them."
Nykinnen had seen any number of young officers given a chance at command. The expression associated with a mind already working on all the problems to be solved was universal. Nykinnen smiled indulgently at him as Jason scooped up files, tape and notes and headed off.
* * * * *
"I've never seen you do so much paperwork." Mark sat on the edge of the desk, flicking through the pile of requisitions Jason was filling out. "I'll remember this, next time you claim you can't write a ten line report."
"Like you ever have to sign for anything." Jason put down his pen and rubbed his eyes. "The Eagle turns up, pulls rank, and you get anything you want. Bet you don't even know what half these forms are for."
"No, I only get to see the red ones. The forms I have to fill in after the missions to explain why I pulled rank to get what we needed, and why I didn't know to requisition it beforehand. Quit whinging, Jason - I deal with this crap on a weekly basis."
"Hooray for you." Jason picked his pen up again and stared blearily at what he'd just written, wishing aspirin was an option. "That'll have to do. God, I so don't feel like doing this."
Mark hooted with laughter. "The Condor getting nervous about a Team 7 sting op? Get a grip."
Jason gave Mark his patent sideways glare as he picked up his paperwork. His first command in his own right in over two years. He didn't think he was nervous, but he couldn't summon any enthusiasm, not even for a couple of hours of engine talk. Certainly not for briefing his team of new security operatives.
"Or did you finally realise what a wild goose chase this is? Don't fancy spending your first Team 7 command getting headhunted for the new car factory? You could still give it up, you know."
Jason swung round in fury. "Nykinnen's taking it seriously, even if you won't. You'll feel real stupid in a couple of days, just you wait and see. No way am I giving up on it."
Brilliant, Jason , he chided himself as he headed out for his Team 7 briefing. Talk about backing yourself into a corner. Pull out now and Mark will never let you hear the last of it.
* * * * *
"Okay. Confirm your assignments for me," he finished.
"Hell, Jason, we know what we're doing," grumbled Dave O'Leary. "Credit us with some intelligence."
Jason simply looked at him, narrowed his eyes, and the young man backed down. "Okay, okay. Parked alongside the access track down to the meeting-place with Jenkins. Watching for surveillance, ready to tail someone but only if you call for it."
"I still think they'll be too obvious," Kim Lao said. "Parked there just watching."
Jason sighed. His head ached, and he was fed up with explaining the obvious. "Anyone want to tell Kim why I assigned this particular pair? There'll be ten other cars with couples in within a hundred yards. Probably doing much the same."
Carol Jenkins flushed scarlet, and looked anywhere but at the other people in the room.
"Make the most of it," Jason told her. "You'll probably never get assigned to sit in a car with your boyfriend and play lovebirds again. Just make sure you both remember why you're really there."
"Some people get all the luck," grumbled Rick Shayler. "While I get to sit in a burned-out apartment with Kim and watch Jason show off his car."
"Watch, listen, and tell me if you see anything odd. I don't need a running commentary, though. I can't concentrate on two conversations at the same time." He looked around. "Any questions? No? Then let's head out."
* * * * *
Jason pulled onto the patch of waste ground just as the rain began in earnest. The circle of cars was larger than on the previous occasion despite the weather, and located under the overpass, presumably in the hopes of getting some shelter. Given the gusting wind, any protection would be minimal, though. Jason looked at the figures clustered round one of the cars and swore inwardly. Real men didn't wear waterproofs, apparently.
Beside him, Sam eyed the weather with about as much enthusiasm as he felt. "I think I might stay in here until Mick and Adam show up."
"You do that." Jason opened the car door resignedly and stepped out into weather more suited to February than September. The wind cut straight through his denim jacket, and he'd be soaked inside five minutes. Right now being teased by Mark for the rest of his life didn't seem so unattractive.
"Hey - Jason!" That was John. "Want to come and tell Kevin what he needs to do to get his car race-worthy?"
Jason forced himself to show interest in an engine which in his opinion was fit only for the scrapheap. "You have any cash available?"
The spotty sixteen-year-old looked embarrassed. "Not much."
"Go-karts!" sniggered someone, and Kevin looked like he wanted the earth to swallow him up.
Jason considered how to put his next comment tactfully. "My advice, if that's what you're good at, stick with it until you've got the cash for a better engine. You're wasting your time trying to upgrade that."
"Jason - company," said Rick's voice in his ear. "Ferrari, two men, coming down the ramp. Checking the plates now."
Jason's jaw dropped as the newcomers pulled into the circle alongside him. They had to be Spectran, surely. Nobody else would drive a Ferrari that colour. It was practically a crime. A gorgeous car like that - in sludge green?
The two men who got out looked ordinary enough, though somewhat older than rest of the gang gathered here, but to Jason's practised eye something in the way they carried themselves said 'fighter'. The one nearest him scanned the group and stopped at him. "You're new."
Jason forced a smile. "Name's Jason. I'm a friend of Sam's."
Steel-grey eyes bored into his. "Mechanic?"
"Huh." His gaze moved on. "What's going on here, John?"
"Kevin wants to fix up his car to race, we were just taking a look at it."
"Let me see." The second man stuck his head in. "Doesn't look too bad. It'll need a lot of new parts, but come work for us and you'll have the cash for them."
"So much for your diagnosis," Kevin snarled at Jason. "What experience have you got, anyway? Won much recently? Ever?"
"He drives for ISO Racing." Sam had got out of the car and put herself in front of Jason. "He wins a lot. I'd shut up if I were you, Kevin."
The youth backed off as John hastily intervened. "No need for this, guys. We're all friends here. Mick, I told everybody like you asked, we're all interested in hearing what you have to offer."
"Him?" The first man - Mick - indicated Jason.
"He seems okay. He works for ISO proper, too."
Mick's eyebrows rose. "Don't they pay you enough?"
Jason was having trouble thinking clearly - it was so cold out here, even though the rain had stopped temporarily. Why wasn't anyone else feeling it? "Not really." He looked around for inspiration, and found it. "Not if I want a car like yours."
Mick glanced at Jason's pride and joy, and dismissed it. "I get your point. Not about to be promoted by ISO, I take it."
Fortunately Jason had pre-prepared his next line. "Mate, I'll never be anything at ISO. Their bloody Academy brats get all the real jobs. Unless you're a bloody child prodigy you've got no hope."
There was a brief strangled splutter from the receiver in his ear, then silence. He'd be having words later. No matter how funny Rick found what he'd said, reacting like that was unprofessional.
He hastily pulled his mind back to the job at hand. The other man - Adam - had started talking, and Jason hadn't heard a word he'd said. He was making a real mess of this. Time to focus.
"...pick you up right here two at a time and take you to see the boss," Adam was saying. He pointed to them two at a time, allocating slots. Jason found himself allocated to five-thirty the following day, paired with Sam. That was fine, she could be 'taken ill' and he'd go alone.
Damn, he'd missed another chunk of Adam's spiel. What was wrong with him? He couldn't concentrate for thirty seconds at a time. Adam was going on about peace on Earth being more important than national pride, and he couldn't even remember how the man had started his sentence. He sincerely hoped Lao had that shotgun mike focused, because his report wasn't going to be worth the paper it was written on if he had to rely on his memory.
As Adam finished, the rain returned in force. Unbelievably, the others went back to talking race tuning. Jason couldn't face any more. He turned to Sam. "Ready to go?"
She looked surprised. "I guess so. You don't want to help sort out Kevin's engine?"
"It's beyond sorting out. If you want a lift, get in the car."
His hands were almost too cold to turn the key, he was completely soaked, and his head ached terribly. Jason had had enough. He ignored Sam's attempts to talk and headed back towards the track rather faster than he should.
Half way there, Rick spoke in his ear. "Jason, the two targets are getting back in their car. What do you want me to tell Dave?"
Damn. He should have stayed another five minutes. He was three miles away now and headed away from them. It would have to be Dave. "Tell him to follow them to the second turn they make, no further, then carry straight on. He should know the drill."
Or at least he'd better know it , Jason hoped silently. His own brain was full of cotton-wool, he couldn't think clearly at all, and it was probably a good thing that Dave O'Leary, not Jason Alouita, was tailing the green Ferrari right now.
"What about us?" Rick again.
Jason resisted the urge to snap back that they should show some initiative. "Keep watching until the party breaks up, then head back. Debrief tomorrow morning at ten. Out."
"Jason, are you feeling alright?" Sam's eyes were concerned as he pulled up in front of their trailers.
"I'm fine. Just cold and wet."
"Do you want coffee?"
"No. I want to go and get dry." Sam flinched - that had come out rather sharper than he'd intended. "Another time."
As she disappeared inside her own trailer with a wave, he considered his options. He had planned to stay at the trailer tonight, but it would be cold in there. He contemplated the fight he always had with the gas heater, the half an hour it would take to warm up even after he'd got it lit, and he couldn't face it. He could curl up in an armchair in the rec room back at ISO, turn the thermostat up, and get properly warm with no effort. There'd be milk in the fridge and hot food in the canteen, though right now he didn't feel at all like eating. No contest. He swung the car round and headed back to ISO.
* * * * *
"There's never anything worth watching on a Tuesday night anyway," grumbled Tiny as they reached the door. "I still say we should have rented a movie."
"If I were planning to stay up that long, I'd have gone home. I just need to be tired enough to get to sleep. Why we need a training flight at four a.m. is..." Mark opened the door, and they both took a step backwards as a wall of heat hit them. "What on earth? Jason, it's far too hot in here."
His second-in-command was curled in the corner of the sofa. "You haven't been outside getting soaked all evening. Leave it, Tiny - I'm frozen."
Tiny stopped with his hand on the thermostat, looked at where it was set, raised his eyebrows, and turned it down anyway. "Let me take a look at you."
"I'm cold, that's all. I got soaked through and I can't seem to get warm again." He flinched away from Tiny's hand on his forehead. "Man, you're colder than I am."
"You're burning up." Tiny's other hand moved to Jason's wrist, his concern growing. "And your pulse is way too quick. How long have you been feeling rough?"
"Since this afternoon? It's getting better, though."
"Like hell it is. I want you in Medical, right now."
Jason groaned. "I just need a good night's sleep."
"You need to be checked out by a real doctor. On your feet, Condor."
Jason glared at the pilot - a medical student in civilian life - and pushed himself to his feet. Tiny caught Mark's eye, and by unspoken consent they moved to either side of Jason, who was swaying unsteadily.
"Come on, Jase." Tiny put on his best bedside manner. "You'll feel better once Chris gives you something to get that temperature down. You can do it. It's not far."
Jason had shut his eyes. "I'm just so tired..."
"When you get to Medical, G-2. Walk." Mark had a hand under his second's elbow, and he and Tiny together propelled Jason forward out of the rec room and down the corridor.
* * * * *
Chris Johnson took one look at the three as they entered Medical, and led them straight into a side bay. Tiny left Mark to help Jason onto the bed, and turned to the doctor. "He's got a real high temperature, fast pulse, and no energy. Since this afternoon."
"He was okay at three," Mark put in. "Not like this, at any rate."
The doctor repeated Tiny's quick tests, and frowned. "I'll take it from here. He's off active status until I clear it."
"You have to be kidding," Jason muttered, but it was so clearly a token protest that Mark said nothing. If even Jason thought he wasn't mission-fit, there was no question about it.
Mark put a hand on his second's shoulder. "Just take it easy. Chris'll fix you up in no time."
"I hope so," Tiny said to Mark as the two left so Jason could get examined in private. "If the implant could do anything, it'd have kicked in by now and he'd be deep asleep. That basically means it's viral."
"But we're immunised against everything under the sun." Mark stopped as he realised what that could imply. "It can't be. We haven't been to another planet in, what, three weeks?"
"Arcturus. Well, at least there's plenty of data from them. Their medical technology's better than ours, if anything. I'll stay here and search the databanks to see what they have that fits the symptoms. We need to know as soon as possible if we're going to need one of their doctors."
Mark looked horrified. "You think it's that bad?"
"No. But I won't assume it isn't." Tiny sat down at the nearest terminal and started typing.
* * * * *
"Now, I know how tough you are already." Chris Johnson pulled his chair up alongside the bed. "I need a list of all your symptoms, not just the ones you can't hide."
"Okay." Jason looked miserably at him. The short walk from the rec room had taken his last remaining energy, and any will to argue had gone with it. "Headache, my throat hurts, I can't think straight, can't get warm, and I ache like I've been beaten. Oh, and walking twenty yards just wiped me out."
Chris considered him. "Tell me you somehow managed to skip out on your last flu shot."
"No. I don't think so. I can't remember. Didn't Mark and I have it together?"
The doctor flicked the screen to show Mark's records. "Yes. Damn. He'd have noticed if you'd avoided it."
"So it's not the flu?" Jason tried and failed to find a more comfortable position to lie in. "It sure feels like flu."
"I think it is. I'm going to treat you as if it is. My guess is you've managed to pick up a strain that isn't in this year's vaccine."
"Wonderful. So what does that mean?"
"It means I'm going to do a blood test to see what to immunise everyone else against. And I'm going to make you up a cocktail of antivirals and drugs to reduce your symptoms." He looked sympathetically at the young man; flushed, curled up and shivering despite a temperature of over 103. "It'll bring your temperature down, help with the aches and let you get some sleep."
As he'd hoped, Jason relaxed even at the suggestion and was nearly asleep when Chris returned a couple of minutes later. He roused somewhat at the prick of the needle, and Chris managed to get him to sit up for long enough to drink his medicine, but he was drowsing again before Chris had turned the light out.
* * * * *
Early autumn at first light. Little or no wind, a few high clouds. Perfect conditions for the first non-simulated test of the new docking procedure, supposed to take twenty percent off the time needed to get Mark's jet safely from free flight into the rear docking bay of the Phoenix.
Unfortunately, the weather hadn't read the script. It was pouring with rain, gusting violently, and pitch dark. Mark and Tiny had practised doing this instruments-only in the simulator, but that was poor preparation for doing it for real while being tossed about by variable winds averaging sixty miles an hour and gusting to considerably more. They'd waited in vain for several hours for conditions to improve - he could have gone home last night after all - but eventually had decided to give it a go anyway. It hadn't been the right call. Under current conditions, Mark thought he'd be lucky to see the Phoenix's rear engines before he ran into them.
Far from speeding things up, it took ten minutes of white-knuckle flying for Mark to get safely docked, and once there he wasn't going back out again, test or no. Tiny obviously felt the same way, as he was remonstrating with the technicians over the radio when Mark came onto the command deck.
"No, I'm not making a fuss. It's plain unsafe. No. No... Well, since G-1 is no longer in his cockpit, I think it's real unlikely." He waved a hand at his commander as Mark sat down alongside. "You tell them."
"This is G-1. We're not doing it again. Out." Mark relaxed back into his co-pilot's chair. "Good flying, Tiny. That was truly horrible. Let's go home."
"Just waiting to hear that."
Mark settled down to enjoy someone else's flying, in a ship much less prone to the vagaries of the wind than his little jet. "Any news on Jason?"
"Chris Johnson's spent all night making himself extremely unpopular with the local blood analysis lab. Last I heard, they were pretty sure it's terrestrial. Not often I'm glad to be wrong. Can you man the radio for me? She's a handful in this weather."
* * * * *
As they left the Phoenix's hangar to face what Mark suspected would be some rather frustrated technicians, his bracelet beeped. "G-1, go."
"Report straight to Medical, please, both of you," and the link went off.
Tiny shrugged. "I guess we'll be late for debriefing."
"Big loss. 'New protocol? Sorry about that, Chief, I was too busy trying to stay cockpit side up to follow it.'"
"If the Weather Channel hadn't been so convincing about how come they missed this, I'd be starting to think Zoltar's behind it. Now they tell us it's going to clear up by this afternoon." Tiny stopped at the door to Medical. "Fingers crossed."
Chris Johnson met them just inside, shadowed eyes making it apparent he'd had no sleep the previous night. "You both need a shot, now - and I want you on a course of antivirals."
"Slow down. Chris!" Tiny's eyes widened. "We're not sick, and antivirals are a no-no for jump. What's going on?"
"Lab's confirmed it's a flu virus. A five-year-old strain, not in this year's vaccine. They don't think Jason had ever been immunised against it - it's more than likely, since he wasn't in the country five years ago. Goodness knows where he caught it from. Anyway, I have twenty shots and you're each getting one of them. You also need antivirals for four days, until we're sure you haven't contracted it."
Mark dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "Forget that. Vaccines don't affect you for jump, right? I'll take the shot. If I get the flu, so be it. I can't be unavailable for four days on the offchance."
"Mark..." Tiny began.
"Jason's going to be completely out for a fortnight, absolute minimum. I doubt he'll be back to full speed inside a month."
Mark's jaw dropped. "No way. We've broken bones and been back quicker than that."
"Flu's nasty, Mark. Flu kills."
"Not fit young men."
"Not this strain, no, fortunately. They mostly don't get it, and if they do, it's usually mild. But Jason already flunked on those two, and now he's on the same recovery curve as everyone else." The doctor sighed. "Idiotic to go out yesterday in this weather when he was already feeling bad. It can't have helped."
"Is he up to visitors?" Tiny asked.
"I was coming to that. He's frantic to see Mark. Something to do with a Team 7 operation he's in charge of? He's not really fit to even brief someone on it right now, but since he won't relax until he has, I'd be grateful if you'd talk to him, Commander."
* * * * *
His second-in-command just about managed to turn his head. "Took your time, didn't you?"
Mark sat on the edge of the bed - Jason had barely enough voice to reach that far. "You sound truly awful."
"Glad to hear I'm improving. Mark - listen. I'm supposed to be meeting a recruiter at five-thirty. I'm pretty sure they're Spectran, or connected with them at least."
"You're not going anywhere. I'll do it."
"No use." Jason's voice gave out entirely, and he reached for the glass on the table. From his expression, it tasted vile, but his voice returned somewhat. "They're suspicious as hell. They won't take a new face. Especially not one who doesn't know one end of a car from the other."
"So we abandon. Or we put a trace on one of the others."
"We've tried that before. It's never worked. And we can't abandon. Sam's supposed to be going there with me. They know who she is, where she works. If neither of us shows, she's not safe."
Mark stared in disbelief. "You were planning to take Sam in?"
"Of course not." Jason almost managed a rueful smile. "She was going to stay home with the flu."
"The best laid plans..."
"And I'm supposed to be debriefing my team at ten."
Mark looked at the clock. "You mean I have twelve minutes to sort this mess out. Fantastic."
"I knew you'd like it." Jason shut his eyes and shifted uncomfortably. "God, I feel awful. Don't risk catching this, Mark. Just go take the drugs."
Mark swallowed hard. Nothing stopped Jason; not broken ribs, concussion, blood loss, nothing. This virus had flattened him. Time to listen to medical advice.
"I will. Now you are going to get some rest and stop worrying. I'll deal with your sting op. But I'm not going to report back to you. You're out of the loop as of now."
The fact that Jason didn't even argue, just rolled over and shifted further under the covers, was more telling than anything he could have said. Mark left the room and crossed to where Chris Johnson had just finished inoculating Tiny.
"Okay, doc, I'm convinced. What do you want me to take? And I need to use your phone."
* * * * *
Mark made it to the briefing room only five minutes late, having told Commander Nykinnen the sorry tale, dropped a large hint, and as he'd hoped, been told to take over from Jason.
"...is he?" Dave O'Leary was pacing impatiently. "We're all here on time, he's supposed to be the one in charge. Jarrald, you can't come in here, we've got a debrief."
"I'm giving it." Mark dumped the pile of paperwork he'd had no time to even glance at, and scanned four disbelieving faces. "Jason's flat on his back with the flu. Commander Nykinnen's asked me to take over."
It rapidly became apparent that it was even more of a mess than Mark had thought. None of the other four had met any of Sam's group. Lao and Shayler had done a reasonable job of remote surveillance, but they'd relied heavily on Jason to interpret what was going on, and none of them had even considered taking over his role. They simply couldn't answer Mark's questions at anything more than a basic level.
"Sam might know," Rick Shayler said suddenly.
"She's not ISO. We can't use her."
"She knows them, though. She could answer your questions better than we can. And we have to do something with her, or she'll be under that bridge at five-thirty on her own. We can't be sure that Jason told her not to go."
"Good point." Mark was frantically playing catch-up; as yet he had no idea what they were actually going to do, but looking at the surveillance tapes he was forced to admit that Jason might be right. If not full-blown Spectran recruiters, these men were at the very least actively anti-ISO. If neither Jason nor Sam showed, they'd be suspicious and Sam was far too easy a target.
"Do any of you know her?"
Four heads shook.
"I do, a bit. I'll go get her. In the meantime, I want you working to find any way we can salvage something useful from this fiasco."
"Yes, sir." O'Leary's sarcastic tone was unwelcome, inappropriate and for just a second Mark forgot where he was.
"You watch your mouth, mister. I'm in command now."
Shayler's wide eyes told him instantly how out of character that was for laid-back Lieutenant Jarrald, but it was too late. Mark simply walked out, leaving them to gape at one another.
* * * * *
Sam was not having a good morning. She badly wanted to talk to Jason to find out what she was supposed to be doing that afternoon, and he hadn't shown. Another mechanic had called in sick, putting her boss in a bad mood. And to top it all off, she'd been sent to do stocktaking.
Six months earlier she'd have sat among the racks of near-identical boxes distinguished only by part codes and wept. These days she knew she was dyslexic, not stupid. She'd swallowed her pride and gone to the special classes, and they were helping. Reading was getting easier, writing was no longer something she dreaded above all else. And at least in here, on her own, she could put the coloured glasses on and peer at the labels close up in private.
She was making slow but steady progress when the intercom beeped at her. "Sam, come to the office at once, please."
Sam looked in horror at the list in her hand, the old panic returning in a wave. She wasn't close to finished - heck, she wasn't close to half way finished. She was going to get humiliated again, and she'd tried so hard! Already flushing with anticipated embarrassment, she rammed the glasses into her pocket and headed for the office, her tension increasing with every step.
As she walked through the door to her boss's office, her last shred of composure vanished. This had nothing to do with her literacy skills. The other man in the room was dressed in an ISO Security uniform, and it wasn't Jason. Something had gone horribly wrong.
"Would you come with me, please," she heard dimly. There was a hand on her shoulder guiding her out, and she numbly obeyed and walked out with him towards...
...a red convertible? Alfa Romeo Spider, last year's model. She knew that car. It belonged to one of Jason's friends, who'd come several times to watch him race. Tall, dark-haired and with a slight unplaceable accent Jason had later told her was Polish. His name, she only now remembered, was Mark. She glanced sideways at the man accompanying her. She had no chance of reading his name patch at that angle, but the red and white striped flag on his shoulder didn't belong to any English-speaking nation she knew of. Now she had calmed down enough to look beyond the uniform, she could see that he was not so very much older than she was, could see in him the casually dressed teenager who'd teased Jason about having the only girl mechanic on the track, realised Sam had heard him, and apologised to her. Him she wasn't afraid of.
"Where's Jason?" she ventured as he started the engine.
"Flat on his back in the ISO medical centre. He's got a real nasty strain of the flu."
Panic welled up again. "But we're supposed to meet these guys this afternoon!"
"I know." Mark pulled out to overtake, but without the finesse Jason would have displayed, and stopped talking to do so. Not a driver, then, despite the car. "I need you to answer some questions, because right now you're the only person we have who knows your group. I'm taking you to a meeting with the rest of Jason's team. His notes on your friends are in the folder down by your feet - can you take a look now and tell me what you think and what he's missing?"
Sam automatically reached for the file and pulled the papers out. Letters danced before her eyes; tiny black print on white paper. It would take her forever to decipher this in peace and quiet. In a moving car she had no chance. With anyone else she'd have brazened it out, made excuses, and she probably could now - but Jason had figured her out inside ten minutes the first time they'd met. She had to assume his colleagues would be equally astute, and she could admit her problem now to someone she vaguely knew, or wait until later and a room full of strangers.
"I can't read it." Her voice wavered.
"Oh, come on." Not much sympathy there. "My driving's not that erratic. You won't get sick inside fifteen minutes."
Sam's voice rose to a wail of frustration. "I can't. It's too small. I'm dyslexic. I...just...can't."
The car juddered to a halt. "Get out."
Sam did as she was told, close to tears. Why hadn't she just walked away, weeks ago, when she'd first decided she didn't like the sound of the recruiters? But no, she'd thought she could find out something useful and be a hero. What an idiot. She turned, defeated, to walk back to the track.
A pair of strong hands caught her by the shoulders and turned her round. "Don't you quit on me! Can you drive this?"
Sam looked up - it felt like a long way from her dizzy height of five feet two inches - and met a pair of determined blue eyes. She was a racetrack mechanic. She could drive anything. "I guess so."
"Do it." He waited impatiently until she had adjusted everything far enough to be able to reach the pedals and pulled away before continuing. "I'm sorry, Sam. I did know, and I'd forgotten. I'll read it to you."
"Jason tells people I can't read?"
"As I recall, it was an argument about whether an adult can acquire a skill most people learn as children. Jason held you up as an example that it's possible." He flicked rapidly through the pages. "This guy John is pretty much the leader of your group? Tell me about him."
He asked a few questions about Sam's friends, and then started on Mick and Adam. This time, the questions started out general, and then as he realised Sam was answering them easily, got more detailed and specific. She couldn't answer everything by any means, but after the third time she'd given Mark a direct quote from one of them, she realised he was staring at her.
"That's some memory you've got there. You remember everything you hear?"
"Not everything, but those guys scared me. I didn't want to say the wrong thing next time." She forced a smile. "I'm used to remembering important stuff. It saves having to write it down."
"Lucky for us." Mark finished his notes and indicated an entrance on the right. "Turn in here. Stop at the gate."
Sam wound the window down and kept her mouth shut while Mark leaned across her and presented an ISO card. The guard opened the gate and waved them through, and a couple of minutes later she pulled up as instructed alongside a sprawling modern building centred around a large, older house.
"Welcome to ISO." Mark accepted the keys, and pointed her towards the front of the house. "This is where you get to be glad ISO signs your paychecks. They've already done basic checks on you. Without that, getting you through this door would be a two hour process. We don't have that sort of time."
Without Mark, it would still have been a two hour process. Sam's ISO Racing ID got her a raised eyebrow and a five page small print purpose-of-visit form to fill in. She'd barely dug in her pocket for the glasses when Mark took it away from her and started ticking boxes at a hundred miles an hour. Sam was so glad she didn't have to deal with it herself that she forgot to be offended and simply scrawled her name at the bottom when he put it back on the desk.
"It must be a nightmare," he offered as he guided her across the entrance hall and into a more modern corridor.
Sam stiffened. "I can cope. I'm a mechanic, not a professor." Help, she'd accept. Pity, she wouldn't.
* * * * *
"This is Sam Mitchell. You all know who she is." Mark surveyed his inherited team. He'd been impressed - he'd walked in to find them working hard and cooperatively. "What do we have?"
"Three possibilities, and they're all horrible." Carol sounded apologetic. "We're scraping the barrel."
"There's nothing wrong with considering everything." Mark sat down and motioned Sam to a chair. "First?"
"Pump Jason full of drugs and get him back on his feet somehow. Just for a couple of hours."
Mark shook his head. "That's a non-starter. He's too ill for that."
"Two. Pull out completely. Sam, do they have your address? Could they find it?"
"Five minutes on the internet would find them the track where ISO Racing is based. Everyone at the track knows who I am. I'm the only female mechanic there."
"In that case, we'd have to relocate her. Personally I think it's the best of a bad bunch."
"You said three options?"
"The third's pretty wild." Rick visibly steeled himself. "We send Sam in. She just keeps going with the same line, accepts the job if she gets offered it, whatever she has to. She tells the truth about Jason and plays along until he's back on his feet."
Mark shook his head. "No way. She's not trained for this. Jason could be out for weeks. I'm not sending a mechanic undercover. Is that it?"
"Jason's pretty clear that we can't get anyone new in at this stage. We can't use any of the others. It's Sam or abort. We've been through the records and they suggest that if it's Spectra behind it, they'll go after anyone pulling out at the last minute. That would be both Sam and Jason. ISO can move Jason no problem, but Sam's a civilian and it's more complicated."
Mark shut his eyes and cursed fate. A casual suggestion from him, a minor Team 7 operation, the wrong strain of flu virus and it could cost Jason his racing career. Worse, could lead to his identity being revealed. ISO couldn't simply reassign G-2, but if they didn't move a junior lieutenant in these circumstances, a lot of questions would be asked.
"I don't want to be relocated." That was Sam.
Mark looked her full in the face. "Listen to me. If Jason was right, these guys are serious. They don't have to suspect you of anything. You can identify their recruiters. They'll take you out without hesitation."
Sam's voice was shaking. "You don't know how hard it is. Girls aren't mechanics, let alone on racing teams. Even without...the other problem, I'll never get another job like this. Let me go do their job interview. Please."
"It's too dangerous. You don't know how ruthless these men can be."
"But Mark," Kim began, "they have no reason to doubt her if she shows. They want her to join them. She'll be out two hours later."
"And if they move all their recruits right after interviewing them? She might never come back out at all."
"So why would they care about the ISO connection?" Rick joined in. "They have no reason to believe either Sam or Jason has any useful information at the moment. As informants, though, they'd be highly desirable, if only to pass along info on unusual activity levels."
"They wanted to know what sort of hours I worked at ISO Racing," Sam said suddenly. "They were keen to point out they didn't want me to give it up."
"She wouldn't have to do anything. Go in, do what she'd do anyway, come out a few hours later. We can re-evaluate tomorrow. If she tells them Jason's still interested, so much the better. He'd be the bigger catch for them, and going out ill yesterday in the pouring rain was a real good sign that he's genuinely interested. They might well think it was odd he left early, and this explains everything. She won't even have to lie." Rick leaned forward, hope in his expression. "It'll work, Mark. Let her do it."
Mark hated it. It was far too reliant on everything going right, but he could almost hear Jason's voice. 'Whose life is it, Mark - yours or hers?' The pointers were all to this being a long-term operation. If they wanted Jason in, they'd have to let Sam out still trusting in them. Using an untrained civilian went against every instinct he had, but all her friends from the group were going in anyway. If she hadn't known Jason, she'd just be another one of them. She only had to be herself. They'd give it a try.
"If you're sure, Sam, we'll run with it." He turned to his team. "But I want a lot more safeguards than 'we believe they'll just let her out.' I'll see about a micro-receiver. Carol, I want Sam to have a transmitter she can activate in an emergency, that they won't detect when it's passive even if she's searched. Kim - same, but a locator. Dave, Rick - narrow down where that car went last night. Dave, you know the roads. Rick, hack into every satellite that was looking at New York last night."
"I know you're in charge here - but you so don't have the authority for that."
Well, actually, I do, thought Mark. Just not in this uniform. "I'll get you Nykinnen's authority. We've got five hours, guys. Sam, you're with me."
* * * * *
Rather to Sam's surprise, the impressive-looking fair-haired man who Mark called 'Commander' barely questioned what they were planning to do. His eyebrows went up when Mark said he was sending Sam to the rendezvous, but that was it. He authorised everything Mark asked for without comment. There was an exchange she didn't understand, where Mark said that on the offchance he needed the big guns he'd have to go through Nykinnen, then the interview was over and she was being hurried to yet another part of the vast complex. This place was huge, and Sam was hopelessly lost. If Mark left her, she'd never find her way back.
* * * * *
"We found the car," Rick reported. "It's in a multi-level underground parking lot under the apartment blocks just here. Unfortunately there was a lot of traffic coming out at the time and we've no idea if that was their final destination or if they switched cars. The only working surveillance camera was the one at the entrance, and that one just confirms what we got from the satellite."
"Good work." Mark considered the map they were poring over. "I think we should put the surveillance van in here, don't you? It's not exactly going to be inconspicuous parked anywhere outside. We'll park Dave near the exit and he can follow if they switch cars. But, to be honest, they've probably got an apartment in one of the buildings that they've rented to talk to likely candidates."
Dave laughed. "This is going to be a piece of cake."
Mark glared at him. "Let's hope so. We won't count on it, though."
O'Leary kept his mouth shut this time, much to Mark's relief. Dave was a good driver, but his lack of respect for authority was going to get him in a lot of trouble one of these days - and Mark didn't want to be the one to come down on him. Logistics and personnel management really wasn't his style. He desperately wanted to abandon their current plan, send someone properly trained in in Sam's place and have them make the call as to whether to call in a strike. Of course, this had been Jason's plan in the first place, with himself as the operative. Now, they had neither Jason nor an experienced backup to replace him.
The door opened, and Carol came in with Sam. "All sorted. Though she was getting a bit nervous about being abandoned."
Mark bit back a sharp retort, and promised himself never to work with a civilian again. Everything just took endless supervision and far too much time. He was going to have words with Jason about not taking another security operative along yesterday evening. If he'd just taken Dave with him, they wouldn't be in this mess now.
The phone rang, and Rick picked it up. "Team 7, go. Right. Hold on." He turned to Mark. "Kim. The surveillance van's all set."
Mark put his hand out for the handset. "Kim? Park it out front and get in here. We're running out of time."
* * * * *
Sam sat in the corner of the briefing room and wished she'd never heard of ISO, or racing, or Spectra. Right now she wanted nothing more than to go home and apply for a nice safe job like all her school friends had gone into. Stacking shelves, or waiting tables. Something where the only security issue was whether she'd remembered to lock the door of her trailer. She jumped a mile when the door opened and Carol came back in with the tea she'd gone to make.
"Mark's radioed in, they're all set," she announced as she put a mug in front of Sam. "You couldn't look more nervous if you really wanted to work for them."
Sam wrapped her hands around the mug in an attempt to hide their shaking. Carol had made it entirely clear how she felt when Mark had assigned her to 'babysit', as she'd put it, and Sam wasn't expecting any sympathy. "Sorry."
"Not your fault. You've been dropped in it." Carol seemed to relent a little. "They'll expect you to be nervous anyway. Run through it again."
"Okay." Sam took a deep breath. "I need some extra cash. ISO don't pay too good. I like the racing, but I've got time to do something else. And the war being over would be good."
"Your friend Jason - where's he?"
"He phoned me this morning - he's got the flu. He wanted me to ask if you could keep him a place open."
"So where's your car? How long does it take you to fix a light cluster?"
Sam grinned - she'd thought of this earlier. "You wouldn't believe how much the local place tried to charge me for the parts! I've got one coming in the mail."
"Nice one." Carol looked at her watch. "Nearly time to go. Just run me through what you do if it goes wrong."
If it goes wrong. Every time Sam thought about it, room temperature dropped ten degrees. Mark had explained to her - slowly and carefully - how everything worked, as if she didn't deal with two way car radio systems on a weekly basis. She had a receiver the size of a grain of rice nestled against her right eardrum, and a technician had made excited noises about the amount of metallic stitching in her denim jacket, taken it away, and brought it back an hour later looking exactly the same, unless you remembered the precise pattern on the buttons. The spare one, attached inside the left pocket, contained the switch. Fingernail in the slit and twist, and the transmitter went on. Then, and only then, Mark would start talking to her.
Mark had been very clear about the transmitter. Dire emergencies only. Preferably in the vicinity of other electronics, which made it less likely to be detected. If she was merely unhappy about what she was being offered, by far the safest option was to play along. Even if she did discover they were Spectran. Since they wanted her to maintain her job with ISO as a cover, they'd let her out within a few hours at most. Far safer to discuss what had happened later than to try to transmit it live.
"Nothing," she said. "And then nothing some more. Last resort, stand next to something electronic and activate the transmitter. Don't try to talk to Mark myself, let him listen to the transmission. Then follow instructions."
"You got it. Just try to remember it when it matters. Now let's go."
* * * * *
Sam stood alone under the overpass, shivering with more than cold. Carol had dropped her off, wished her luck somewhat perfunctorily, and driven off, waving cheerfully for the benefit of any watchers. The receiver in her ear had crackled into life long enough for Mark to encourage her and remind her to just be herself, and then gone dead again. As if she was capable of being anyone else.
At the sight of the green Ferrari coming down the ramp, she very nearly turned the transmitter on and wailed for Mark to get her out of there. Only the thought of losing her entire life, everything that mattered to her, kept her hand from her pocket as she walked forward with a smile that felt terribly forced.
Mick was alone in the car, and gestured her into the front passenger seat. "So where's Jason?"
"He's not coming." Bad choice of words. Mick's head came round and he fixed her with a look she was desperately glad she didn't have to lie to. "He's got the flu. Real flu. He can't get out of bed. He wanted me to ask you - to tell you he's still interested. If you're still recruiting when he's better."
"Huh." Mick just started the engine and pulled away.
"Where are we going?" she ventured a few minutes later. That was a mistake. She heard her own voice wobble. Staying quiet would have been much more sensible.
"To ask the boss about you working for us. Remember?" Mick glanced sideways - he had to have seen how badly her hands were shaking. "You're real nervous, Sam. Something you haven't told us?"
Five minutes. She'd lasted five minutes and Mick was onto her. There was something she hadn't told them, though. Just tell the truth. Maybe it would work.
"Is there going to be a test?"
Sam didn't have to fake the catch in her voice. "I...I don't read and write so good. My friend said they do tests when you go for some jobs. Will your boss test me?"
Mick snorted derisively. "I really don't think he'll care about your literacy skills." He pulled off the road, down a ramp and Sam stiffened. This was the entrance to the underground parking lot where the surveillance van was parked.
* * * * *
"Lieutenant, we have a Ferrari entering," Kim reported. "Driver is Mick, only passenger is Sam. Heading down to the lower levels."
"Ideal. Tell Dave."
Kim sent the somewhat bawdy text message they'd set up to mean 'watch out for Sam leaving in another car' and sat back. "This is so annoying. All this surveillance gear and the only things we dare use are one dodgy camera at the entrance and a mobile phone."
"We have to consider that it might be a sophisticated outfit. It could even be an attempted reverse sting. Everything's here if we need it." Mark tried to make himself believe it. What a waste of an afternoon. The weather had cleared; he and Tiny could have been up there working on the new docking procedure in bright sunshine and a light northerly breeze. Instead, he was stuck underground in a white van watching a bank of blank screens. He had a pile of paperwork waiting for him back at ISO, all marked 'eyes only G-1'. In the company of Kim and Rick, he couldn't even use the time to read up on the other procedural 'improvements' that were being foisted on them, couldn't write up the scathing comments he planned to make on a couple of the more ridiculous. He shut his eyes, leaned back and tried to work out the precise wording which would get the technicians to back down without further argument.
* * * * *
Mick pulled up in the far corner of the lowest level and turned off the engine. There were few vehicles this end of the parking lot, and no people. Dark and forbidding, Sam would never have parked here by choice.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" she quavered as Mick shepherded her into an elevator. "It doesn't look too well maintained. If it breaks down, no-one'll hear us shouting."
"It won't break down." Mick had his back to her and appeared to be doing more to the control panel than just pressing a floor number.
And the elevator dropped like a stone. Caught completely by surprise, Sam squeaked and grabbed at Mick for support. Only as their descent slowed did she wonder whether she should have counted seconds. Someone would have known how to convert it to distance. Too late now.
"You got any electronics?" Mick asked suddenly.
Sam jumped. "What?"
"Anything. Phone, calculator, whatever. Hand it over."
Sam pulled out her phone obediently. "Why?"
"We've had reporters try to get in and take pictures. Don't worry, you'll get it back." He smiled in a manner probably designed to be reassuring. "No signal down here in any case. That all you've got? Watch?"
Sam displayed her wrist. "Analogue."
"Let's hope so." He stepped out of the elevator and picked up a long, thin device from a table. "Stand still. Arms out."
Hoping desperately that ISO passive technology was as undetectable as Mark had assured her, Sam did exactly as she was told. Mick seemed satisfied, and shortly she was ushered into an office with a suited man sitting behind a desk.
"This the last? Where's the other one?"
"Sick. It sounds genuine, Commander." There was real respect in Mick's tone.
"I'll be the judge of that." He smiled at Sam, but it never reached his eyes. "Tell me about Jason."
"He's got the flu. He really wanted to be here." She quivered - that wasn't what she'd been asked at all. "He's a great driver."
"With no great love for ISO, I understand. Sit down."
Sam complied in some confusion. They were going to ask her about Jason's loyalties? Or was this just to throw her off-balance? Just tell the truth, Mark had drilled into her. Just tell the truth.
"I don't know, really. I do know he'd like a better car than he can afford. He said they won't promote him because he doesn't have qualifications. But we never talked about it until yesterday. It's not the sort of thing you say at ISO Racing."
"And you? You don't work for ISO, do you?"
"Sort of. They sign my paycheck. But I only work at the racing team."
"And you're happy there?"
Sam shrugged. "I like racing. Not many people would take a girl mechanic. I don't think I'll go much higher, though."
He sat forward. "Would you like to? To be involved in the organisation who'll end the war? Mick and Adam tell me you've got real talent, Sam. I can't understand why ISO wouldn't recognise it."
It had worked on Mick. It was a darn good reason. Sam told her deepest secret to a stranger for the third time that day, and pulled her best wide-eyed blonde expression.
It worked again, of course. She'd been assumed to be stupid because of her problem for years. His eyes lit up and he switched to much simpler language. How would she like to work for him? His organisation was going to make peace. ISO just wanted not to lose the money they were getting from the war effort. They could end the war any time they liked, and chose not to.
She could see how people fell for this. If she didn't know and trust Jason, Mark, the ISO engineers she worked with, she'd find it believable too. Up to a point.
"I hate this stupid war. But we have to fight, or Spectra will take everything over."
He smiled condescendingly at her. "You've been told what ISO want you to hear. The Spectrans are desperate. Their planet is dying. They don't want to use their resources fighting us. If we sue for peace, and agree to help them, the war will end instantly. That's all they want, Sam - our help and our friendship."
Sam gulped. She'd been right. All the time, she'd been right. "Spectra have killed a lot of people."
He was smooth and very plausible. "They're really not that bad, Sam. They're just like us. They don't want anyone else to get hurt any more than you or I do. My people have been trying to make ISO see that Earth needs to talk to Spectra, not fight them. But ISO's not reasonable about it. We have to be able to defend ourselves when they react violently. That's all. We're doing this for the good of all people everywhere. ISO just look after their own interests."
Sam took a deep breath. This was where telling the truth stopped being an option. "I want in. I don't know much. But I do know a couple of people in ISO proper."
"You're going to be very useful. Thank you, Sam." He pressed a button on his desk, and Mick reappeared.
"Take Sam and get her kitted out quickly. We have two hours until the train leaves."
Mick grinned. "Shame about Jason - he'd have been useful. Maybe when we start recruiting again. Come on, Sam."
Sam hesitated, her hand in her pocket. "Leave? I can't come with you now. I have to be at work tomorrow, or they'll know something's happened."
"You can tell them you caught the flu from your friend Jason," her interviewer said. "It'll save any awkward explanations. People can be so blind to the truth. Now, tomorrow you'll call in sick. We can give you a cover story for where you are, and a medical note if you need one. We have a training camp starting tomorrow for a couple of weeks, where you'll be told the whole truth about the war. Everything's provided, of course - accommodation, food, clothing. All our trainees enjoy it - everyone feels the same way you do, and you'll learn how you can make a difference. Now let's get you into uniform so you can meet up with your friends. You've got a train to catch."
Sam suspected that her new uniform wouldn't involve a denim jacket with metallic stitching and some rather unusual buttons. Hoping desperately that the computer on the desk would be enough electronics to act as a mask, she felt for the button in her pocket, inserted a fingernail, and twisted.
* * * * *
In the van, Rick jerked upright. "What the hell? Mark, we're live."
Mark was already flicking on his microphone. "Here, Sam. Stay calm."
The transmission was faint, but comprehensible. "So where are we going?" Sam's voice.
"Training facility." Male voice.
"In two hours?" Sam's voice was high and too fast. "I nearly missed it. How many of us are there, anyway?"
"Oh, quite a lot. Most people agree with us when it comes down to it. We're getting more supporters every day. We train several hundred at a time."
"That's Mick," Rick whispered, and Mark gave him the thumbs-up.
Sam sounded subdued. "I thought it would just be a few of us."
Sounds of laughter. "You don't know how big this place is! We've been recruiting scientists, engineers, programmers, and they've been working in here for a while. They've developed all sorts of cool stuff. The sort of technology we need to defend ourselves against the worst ISO can throw at us. There's a whole train ready to go out down the subway with you, with wagonloads of new toys."
A research facility, and a train full of new, completed technology designed for use against them. He owed Jason a huge apology - right after they'd captured it. Temporarily leaving the transmission to the speech recognition software, he turned to Rick.
"Take over talking to Sam. I have to call Nykinnen." Ignoring Rick's 'but' he turned his back and activated the radio link to ISO.
"Jarrald. I need the big guns here, now."
"You got them. Can I help?"
"I'll call you. Out."
Mark turned back to find Rick staring at him. "You can't talk to Commander Nykinnen like that! He'll take you apart."
"He asked me to run this op. I'm running it." He scanned the brief exchange he'd missed on the screen. Nothing significant. "Sam, slow him down. Tell him you need the bathroom."
As Sam dutifully asked where the bathroom was, Mark turned his attention to his other colleagues. "Locator?"
"She's directly below us." Kim fiddled with his equipment. "Fifty metres down? That can't be right."
"It could be. Dave, find that Ferrari."
"I'm standing next to it. Bottom floor, north west corner."
"Any doors round there?"
"Elevator and stairwell. Stairs only go up."
"Take a walk up as far as they go and see if you spot anything out of place."
Mark went back to his link with Sam. "Sam, cough if you came down in the elevator next to where Mick's car's parked." Sounds of spluttering in his headset. "Okay. We're coming. Now I want you to stay away from the other recruits for as long as possible. I don't want you with them when G-Force go in."
Kim swung round. "Nykinnen's sending G-Force?"
"A whole facility of Spectran recruits, scientists, and I bet there's a load of regular goons down there as well, a train full of technology, and an elevator shaft for access? Who else do you think can handle it? Us?"
"No, but..." Kim subsided, muttering to himself in disbelief.
The conversation in his ear shortly went silent, to be replaced by sounds Mark pretended not to hear, followed by silence. He hoped Sam could live up to the normal female reputation and take at least five minutes more in the bathroom.
Nothing else had come over the link except the sounds of running water, when there was a screech of tyres outside the van, shortly followed by a bang on the door.
"It's..." Rick stared at the white-winged figure through the one-way glass of the rear window.
"Keep talking to Sam if she needs it. Rick, you're in charge. I'll give G-Force your frequency." Mark opened the door to an amused-looking Swan.
"Yes...Sir," he belatedly added.
Princess's eyes danced behind the visor. "With me, Lieutenant." She slammed the door shut almost before Mark had jumped out. "Where?"
"Three floors down, northwest corner." He seated himself behind her somewhat uncomfortably - the G-3 wasn't designed to carry passengers - and clung on as she roared down the ramps into the lowest level of the parking lot.
Two minutes later, Tiny and Keyop had both arrived. Transmuted, Mark gave his team the scant details he had.
"Some of them are very new recruits," he finished. "We yell at them to hit the floor and I reckon most of them will. Keyop, Tiny, I want you to stop the train leaving. Intact, if possible. If one of you can deal with the labs afterwards, even better. The contents would be nice, but most important of all there's housing above here. No big explosions. Princess, you and I will take out anyone who fights back. Are we set?"
Princess had been busy dismantling the floor of the elevator while listening to him. "Set." She shone a light down. "I can drop a charge down and blow the doors from up here. It'll be faster than opening the doors manually without being detected."
Mark nodded. "I'll go with that. Do it."
* * * * *
Sam was only half pretending to fumble with the uniform she'd been given when there was suddenly a dull 'crump' from the direction of the entrance and a whole series of alarms went off.
"Stay here," snapped Mick from outside the curtain, and she was alone in the storeroom.
"Sam, talk to me if you're alone," a different voice said in her ear a couple of minutes later.
"Yes - who is it?" she whispered.
"Rick. G-Force are on their way in. Now, can you hear what's going on outside? Our transmitter's not so good on background noise."
"Never mind. Stay put for now," and the link went silent again.
Sam sat still for maybe thirty seconds before her curiosity started to compete with fear. G-Force were here! She might never get this chance again.
She'd reached this room through an outer one which looked like a secretary's office; desk, computer and a glass window to allow the occupant to see out into the huge open space beyond. There had been fork-lifts milling about, piles of crates, a group including several of her friends being addressed in one corner and what she was reasonably sure was a squad of Spectran soldiers drilling in another. It looked like the centre of the facility - G-Force would be bound to come through there. She could peep through the glass and watch, maybe even tell Rick what was happening and be useful. She knew that she should obey instructions and stay put, but she'd regret it forever if she stayed in here, just feet away from watching G-Force in action.
Curiosity won; Sam listened at the door for a moment and, once she was sure there was nobody in the office, pushed it open and crept across to the desk. From here the sounds were much clearer. Gunshots, screams, and a couple of raised voices ordering their men to stand and fight. Then, suddenly, a man's voice, raised effortlessly above the din.
"Throw down your weapons and lie face down on the floor. Nobody who surrenders now will be hurt."
She'd heard that voice before, in the rare press conferences the Eagle had given. Clearly an assumed accent, very precise, comprehensible even in these conditions. Unable to resist, Sam raised her head and peered through the window.
She'd seen the CCTV footage, too. She'd always thought it staged. No, he really was standing on the catwalk directly opposite her, one arm raised, shoulders back, wings flared, the very picture of heroic command. Many of the figures at ground level did as he said including, Sam was glad to see, the group of today's recruits. Those in full Spectran uniform didn't, gun barrels swung up towards him and he leapt down through the hail of bullets straight into their midst.
Sam had never seen a high class martial artist at work before. Certainly she'd never seen anyone in hand-to-hand combat who wasn't pulling their blows. The demonstrations in her self-defence class were nothing like this. Within fifteen seconds the Eagle was the only one standing, and from the way several of the Spectrans were lying Sam was fairly sure they were dead. She moaned slightly, and turned away from the view.
"Sam? Are you okay?" came Rick's voice in her ear.
She jumped a mile, having temporarily forgotten his existence. "Uh...yes. Fine. I just never saw anyone killed before. They were shooting at him, and he...he just..."
"Calm down, Sam." She'd heard that tone of voice before, in experienced pit crew talking to rookie race drivers. "Do we have a man down?"
"Us? No. The Eagle...he's fine, but he killed so many of them, so fast..."
"Thought so," a voice snarled from behind her as a steel grip tightened around her throat. "I knew the wannabe ISO mole was too good to be true. ISO - you listening? Pull G-Force out, or I'll break her neck."
Sam believed him. She also knew that civilian casualties happened in war. G-Force wouldn't even hesitate if she were held for ransom, of that she was sure. In fact they might even make a point of ignoring him, to ensure no other Spectran goon thought taking a hostage might work in the future. If Rick even passed on the message to them, which she doubted. Sam did the only thing she could remember from her self-defence classes. She twisted in his grip, attempted to stamp her heel into his foot, and screamed at the top of her voice.
She couldn't be about to die, Sam thought detachedly. Your life was supposed to flash before your eyes, and everything here seemed to be moving like molasses.
As if in slow motion, she watched two white-winged figures swinging round towards the sound of her voice. The Eagle, a few yards away and at ground level, holding something silver. Up on the catwalk with a Spectran rifle in her hands, that had to be the Swan, shouting something to her commander as she brought the rifle up to aim. Sam saw the Eagle's arm go back, then the glass in front of her shattered into a million pieces, something whistled past millimetres from her left ear and the pressure on her throat was abruptly gone, followed by a heavy thud on the floor behind her.
Sam turned to look despite herself. Adam lay twisted on the floor, one sightless eye rolled up towards the top of his head. The other was a bloody pit. From the back of his head, a ghastly red puddle spread slowly across the tiles. Sam stood, horrified, for what seemed like forever, before she finally managed to turn away. Only then was she as violently sick as she'd ever been in her life.
* * * * *
Mark put his hand up and the boomerang smacked back into it as Princess vaulted down to join him. "Nice shooting, G-3!"
"Easy enough once you'd taken the glass out." Princess glanced into the office. "I don't think Sam's enjoying this."
"She should have stayed out of sight like she was told." Mark surveyed the floor. No-one in a full Spectran uniform was left alive - sadly, their captains had been sufficiently forceful that the real soldiers had stood and fought. Briefly. The new recruits had indeed surrendered to a man, however, and none had moved from the floor. Most remained face down, and there were sounds of whimpering. He brought his bracelet up. "Report. Are we secure?"
"Train secured," came Keyop's voice.
"Same for the labs," from Tiny.
"Okay. Stay sharp. Shoot anyone who moves." He knew they wouldn't hesitate to do so, but hopefully the miserable would-be anti-ISO recruits on the floor had heard him and would be less inclined to try anything. That settled, Mark pulled his Team 7 communicator out to call in some extra pairs of hands.
"Team 7, go." Rick's voice.
"This is G-1. Can you get your team down here?"
"Sure." Brief hesitation. "Uh...Commander, you do know we're not a combat team?"
"Lieutenant Jarrald has made me fully aware of your capabilities." Mark didn't try to hide the amusement in his voice. "I do hope you can handle unarmed civilians."
"Yes, sir." Mark could hear deep respect in the young man's voice, coupled with concern. "Commander, we have an informant down there?"
"Sam Mitchell." Mark looked over to the shaking figure in the office. "We've identified her."
"And we've not heard from Lieutenant Jarrald."
Good kid , thought Mark, blithely ignoring the fact that Rick was scarcely younger than him; was in fact older than Jason. Rick had checked that the Eagle wasn't anticipating something Team 7 couldn't provide, that Sam was safe, and that his commanding officer was accounted for. Not bad.
"He's doing something for me. Now move, Lieutenant. I could use some backup. Out."
"How are you expecting him to get down a hundred foot lift shaft?" Princess asked, keeping her gun covering the floor.
Mark grinned. "Consider it a test of his initiative. Can you deal with him when he gets here? He's sharp enough to recognise me if he gets close."
"Sure. And Sam?"
"Get Rick to handle her. If she figures one of us out, it's a real mess. Now I'm going to see what we caught ourselves today."
* * * * *
Rick clicked his mike off and took a moment to compose himself before turning to Kim. "Shut everything down. The Eagle's called us in."
Kim's eyes widened, he opened his mouth and then simply shut it again and did as he was told. Dave was less diplomatic when Rick called him.
"Us? He's gone mad."
Rick sighed. "You can tell him yourself, then. I want you at that elevator ready to go in." He didn't wait for the inevitable snide comment, just contacted Carol, parked next to the entrance to the parking lot, and told her exactly the same without getting the backchat.
Dave was surveying the scene when the other three arrived at the elevator. "You think the Eagle ever considered that the rest of us can't just jump down a hundred foot hole?"
"You can jump if you like. I don't plan on it." Rick had hesitated over whether to bring the backpack containing his laptop, but now he was very glad he had. He'd yet to meet the numeric code he couldn't crack using it. A large part of the elevator floor was missing, stacked neatly to one side, but there was plenty left. He was going down the way the designers of this place had intended. In the elevator.
"Do we know what's going on down there?" Carol asked, hovering as he wired his computer into the elevator's control panel. She sounded decidedly nervous.
"No. But they know we're not set up for combat. Don't worry."
Carol swallowed. "No offense, Rick - but I wish Mark was here."
"Me too." He finished hooking up the laptop, and set his program running. "The Eagle's going to have a fit when he realises Mark left someone with my lack of experience in charge."
Five seconds later his computer beeped at him. "Come on, folks. I'd rather not be late."
Dave stared. "You cracked it already?"
Kim laughed at his expression. "Anything embarrassing you have, keep it on paper. If it's on a computer, Rick will be able to access it. In the Academy..."
"Later." Rick motioned the others into the elevator, and they arrayed themselves round the hole in the floor. He took a deep breath, drew his sidearm, and told his computer to proceed.
The elevator dropped fast, slowed and stopped perfectly. Even better than he'd hoped - it hadn't been entirely clear from the top how much damage G-Force had done to the shaft. The internal doors opened; the external doors simply no longer existed. Rick locked the elevator controls so nobody else could call it, retrieved his laptop, and as calmly as he could manage led his inherited team into the facility.
"Shayler?" Rather to Rick's relief, that was the Swan rather than the Eagle. "We've got a bunch of wannabe Spectran recruits to frisk, cuff and get back to ISO. Can you coordinate that?"
Rick nodded. "Yes, sir. Can we extract Sam now?"
"Take her out when you go. We're already short-handed - I'm not losing one of you right now. They're through that way in the main hall. I'll be getting the lift working if you need me." She headed the way they'd come from.
The Swan turned, startlement on her face.
"Sir. I cracked the elevator control system so we could come down in it. I can show you..."
Her eyebrows went up. "Do it. The rest of you, carry on."
Rick fumbled the laptop back out of his backpack, reattached it, unlocked the controls and demonstrated how to run his bypass system.
"Neat. Can you leave this with me?" She smiled at his horrified expression. "I'll make sure you get it back. I can guess how non-standard it is."
"Okay. I mean, yes sir."
"Good. Now go do your job."
Rick hurried back to join his team. He found them in a huge open area, methodically searching the captives for weapons. Someone had had the bright idea of getting them to tie one another's hands - since the Swallow was overlooking them, high on the catwalk with a Spectran rifle almost as large as himself, it was probably safe enough.
The only problem was their sheer number. Get this lot back to ISO? Rick had no idea how to do it. He had a vague idea that ISO had secure transport for large numbers of people, but how to summon it? Either it had never come up, or he'd slept through the lecture where it was discussed. Hopefully the first. Mark hadn't been too proud to ask his commander for help when he'd needed it. Time to do the same.
* * * * *
"Commander, it's Rick Shayler. Lieutenant Jarrald's off somewhere working with the Eagle. I've been asked to coordinate getting 150 Spectra recruits back to ISO. Sir, I'm sorry, I'm out of my depth."
"No, you're asking for help. There's a difference. I'll get you transport and escorts. Just tell me where and when."
Rick felt his knees go weak with relief as he gave the location of the parking lot entrance and described exactly how to find the top of the relevant elevator. "As soon as possible. We'll have to bring them up ten at a time, it'll take a while."
"I'll see to it. They'll call you when they're in position. Rick - keep going. You can do this."
"I'll do my best, sir. Thanks." He left the other three to deal with the captives, and went in search of Sam.
* * * * *
A couple of hours later, and apart from ISO personnel, the Spectran recruiting centre was empty. Bomb disposal were busy completing their dismantling of the base's self-destruct mechanism, Computing were chuckling with glee at having inherited an entire undamaged Spectran system and Engineering didn't know where to start on the trainful of technology they'd just acquired. Mark, on the other hand, was ready to call it a day. The sight of Tiny yawning reminded him that they'd both been up since three a.m., and he hadn't stopped since. Ground crews could handle it on their own from here - he knew he'd get reports in infinite detail to read regardless of whether he stayed or not. Time to get out of here. Yet again he'd be staying in his ISO quarters, simply too tired to return to the airfield.
As ever, no matter how little they needed it, the first stop on returning was Medical for a checkup. Chris Johnson could never be hurried over these, and Mark's patience was wearing thin by the time the doctor dismissed Princess and turned to him. Given Jason's symptoms, 'tired' hadn't been the wisest answer to give when asked how he was feeling, and he had to endure a whole battery of tests which at least proved that he didn't have the flu; not yet, at least.
"So how's Jason?" he asked as Chris finally professed himself satisfied. He knew from long experience that anything the doctor perceived as an attempt to distract him would only provoke yet more tests.
"Miserable. Don't be tempted to avoid the antivirals. He's still feeling as bad as he was this morning, and developing an awful cough to go with it."
"Is he asleep?"
"More or less. In any case, you're not seeing him again until I'm sure he's not infectious. Four days, minimum."
"Are we going to have an epidemic?"
"I hope not. I never thought I'd be glad he lives off-site. Everyone who's been in contact with Jason is on antivirals now." He looked pointedly at Mark. "Provided they all take them for the full four days, we should be alright."
Mark sighed. "I take the hint. If he asks, tell him it all went off fine. Sam's OK, he was right, we got them."
"Sure." The doctor paused. "Who's Sam?"
"Jason's mechanic at ISO Racing."
"You took his mechanic on an operation?"
Mark groaned. "Don't you start. It's a long story of one thing leading to another. Jason's lucky his cover wasn't blown apart today, though don't tell him that until he's better. And I'm going to bed."
* * * * *
The four Team 7 members sitting round the table in their common room drinking coffee were more than a little concerned by Mark's non-reappearance. No matter how they tried to rationalise it, it was starting to worry Rick sufficiently that he was seriously considering contacting Nykinnen when the door opened and the man himself walked in.
"Sir!" Rick jumped to his feet, followed by the other three.
"Sit down." Nykinnen pulled up a chair for himself, and looked around at the four most junior officers in ISO. Mark had chosen to use them in the cleanup, and he could easily have called in a much more senior team. He'd be intrigued to see how Mark wrote the report on this one. "You did good work today. I've been asked by the Swan to convey G-Force's thanks to you all. Seems she was particularly impressed by your computer skills, Rick."
Rick looked hopeful. "I don't suppose she gave you my laptop?"
"No. She'll be contacting you tomorrow. Apparently she'd like you to demonstrate how some of your other tricks work." As Rick's jaw dropped, he continued in a decidedly amused tone of voice, "I do hope they're not too illegal."
Kim frowned. "Did she not say anything about Mark?"
Nykinnen appeared momentarily nonplussed. "Oh - he's fine. I think he's still helping with the aftermath. I don't expect we'll see him tonight."
* * * * *
"Polish that any harder, you'll be down to bare metal."
Sam turned round to snap at the critic, and half way round put together male, tenor and Australian. "Jason! Are you better? It's been weeks!"
"Two weeks, five days." Jason leant casually against the wall looking pale, even thinner than before, but thoroughly happy. "I've been let out on the understanding I don't do anything too energetic for the next few days. Racing isn't energetic, is it?"
Sam's mind went blank as she struggled for a way to say 'actually, yes' diplomatically, but he took pity on her.
"Just kidding. They gave me a choice of paperwork or mechanic for a week. No contest. I'm supposed to be giving you a hand."
Sam grinned delightedly. "Great! There's a reason this car's so shiny. Next on my list is stocktaking."
* * * * *
Standing in the storeroom, Jason stared at the date on the top of the list. "You were supposed to do this weeks ago!"
"Two weeks, five days." Sam's smile was shaky. "I did start. Your best buddy Mark hauled me out in the middle last time, and now every time I come back in here, I can't stop thinking about what happened." She considered the shelves and appeared to come to a decision. "Can I talk to you?"
Jason took a breath to answer, caught it awkwardly, and coughed hard. God, but he was glad he hadn't done that during his appraisal that morning. Chris Johnson would have refused to clear him to go back to work, and he might just have gone insane with boredom.
"Just as long as it's not 'I think my new friends are from Sigma Minor.'"
"Never mind. Go on."
"Did they tell you what happened?"
"More or less." Desperately frustrated, Jason had harassed the medical staff until they'd found out for him that 'his' operation had been a success. He'd assumed for several days that it had been a wild goose chase, and had been horrified to find out that he'd been right all along. Mark had pulled no punches in telling him what he thought of a plan which relied on one particular person not being incapacitated, and Jason was forced to agree - to himself - that his commander was right. 'I told you they were Spectran', 'Thank you for taking over from me', all had remained unsaid.
In fact, when Mark had finally been allowed in to see him, he'd used language Jason had considered his own to describe exactly what he thought of Sam for not doing what she'd been told and staying safely hidden. He'd finished off with 'no matter how well Sam was doing up till then, if Princess wasn't a crack shot with a rifle, we'd have one dead mechanic. Next time you see me even considering using a civilian, you can shoot me.'
Sam stared into the distance. "It was Adam. He grabbed me from behind. The Eagle took the window out, and the Swan just shot him. Through the eye. It was horrible. The bullet went so close I heard it. And it didn't worry them! They just turned round and carried right on. I saw the Eagle kill seven, eight Spectrans in a few seconds, and he didn't even flinch. Like a day at the office." She ran out of breath, struggled to regain some composure and carried on. "I thought they were just the top ISO security team, like your Team 7, but better. But you're not like that. Mark isn't, Rick isn't. They were terrifying. I was more afraid of them than of the Spectrans."
Jason looked at her, discarding the wholly inappropriate responses which insisted on coming to mind. 'Actually, that was Mark.' 'No, I'm not like that. I'm even more ruthless.' 'It was all your own fault, you should never have come out - and by the way, Mark thinks you're an idiot.' If she'd been a security officer, he'd have used the last. She wasn't, and she never would be.
"And that's the way it has to be." He put a hand over her shaking one. "Some huge proportion of their opposition either surrenders or runs away. That only happens because G-Force are utterly ruthless with anyone who stands and fights. You see them kill anyone who wasn't resisting?"
Sam shook her head, mute.
"If they'd stopped to think about the risks in shooting Adam, they might be dead. You certainly would be. Mark, or Rick, or I, or any other ISO operative, would have done exactly the same. Lucky for you the Swan's one of the best shots in ISO."
Sam turned, but didn't meet his eyes. "I know it had to be done. I just don't understand how anyone could do it. Even watching was awful. I never, ever want to see anything like it again."
Jason decided she'd calmed enough to risk a joke. "And there was me all ready to write your reference for ISO Security."
Sam's giggle was nervous, but present. "What, 'can be relied on to throw up under pressure'?"
"Something like that." He coughed again. "I'm obviously working too hard already. How about that coffee you promised me?"
"Well, if you still need taking care of..."
"Don't even think it. I've had enough of being taken care of for the next ever." Mischief lit up his face. "I'm sure a walk would do me good. We're going to the café for a real cup of coffee, and you can fill me in on just how badly my replacement did on Saturday."
"Stupid idiot should have had it won, if he'd only seen the gap..."
Jason listened with relief. Sam's mind was back on racing, where it belonged. She still had a life here, he still had a racing career, they'd smashed the local Spectran recruiting program, and a fair proportion of the dissatisfied local youth, having been scared out of their wits, were thanking Providence for their narrow escape and behaving in an unusually law-abiding manner. The weather had improved and he'd be back training properly in just a few more days. In the meantime, he might finally have time to get his race car tuned to his satisfaction, and out of reach of the ISO doctors he could do some unofficial fitness training in his old spot on the waste ground behind the track. It had all turned out for the best.
This time, they'd been lucky.
Story © Catherine Rees Lay, January 2005.
1) Flu. Flu is not just a bad cold, it can be this severe and worse, easily. Even for someone as young and fit as Jason. The flu epidemic at the end of the First World War killed far more people worldwide than the fighting did, and was particularly notable for targeting fit young adults - the section of the population normally least affected. If Spectra wanted a way to incapacitate Earth's armed forces, they could do a lot worse than a new and vicious strain of flu.
Do antivirals stop you being infectious? Depends which website you read. For story purposes, I've presumed ISO have something similar which, like current antivirals, doesn't do that much for the patient, but does make them noninfectious. Otherwise Chris Johnson wouldn't have allowed Mark anywhere near Jason, and probably would have slapped both him and Tiny in quarantine. And I'd have been writing a story solely about Team 7 which nobody wanted to read.
Vaccines do work, though only against the specific strains in any particular year's vaccine. I'm guessing Jason stood next to someone recently back from Darkest Peru where the flu virus going round in the States five years ago is still active.
2) Dyslexia. Let me first say I have the utmost respect for anyone who has to cope with this problem. I hope I've presented it realistically and avoided the standard cliches of a) the person is stupid and b) the person is illiterate. a) is just rubbish. b) can and does happen, especially if dyslexia goes undiagnosed, but is far from a foregone conclusion.
The coloured glasses do exist, but how they work (or if they work at all) depends on which website you believe. I do know several children who use them, and one adult who, besides being a primary school literacy teacher, is a published children's author.
Ironically, given how most writing is presented, black writing on white paper is considered the hardest of all colour combinations for a dyslexic to read!