After a disastrous attack on Spectra, it becomes obvious that several things may not be quite as they seemed.
Thanks to my husband for beta-reading.
Warnings - some mild swearing, that's all.
Nine days after we recovered Don, we sat in debrief after the closest we had come to disaster in three years, and listened to Anderson tell us precisely where the intel had come from which had sent us into a Spectran trap. The entire place had been designed to lure us into a spinning ground-torpedo heading for Spectra's molten core. Only the chance that Jason had been on the Phoenix, concussed and barely able to function, had saved us.
The information had come from Don. The location of Zoltar's secret headquarters, he'd said. He was sure. He was on our side, had been all along.
"That bastard!" spat Mark. "There was nothing there except goons waiting for us. There never had been. He set us up."
"There were a lot of explosives. And maybe he was set up himself," I pointed out, shifting uncomfortably in my chair. I'd never liked centrifuges, and this one had been decidedly short on padded seats.
"So they built their trap in an explosives warehouse. We wouldn't have, but hey! These guys are just nuts." Jason sounded desperately weary, was resting his head on his hand and barely able to keep his eyes open.
Anderson shot him a glance. "You should be lying down."
"What for - so Chris can keep waking me up again? I know the concussion drill. Believe it or not, I'd rather be here."
"Need that in writing," suggested Keyop.
Mark, the veteran of a number of concussions of his own, said nothing. Jason looked only marginally better now than he had right after the second time he'd lost it in the whirlwind pyramid. Struggling even to stand, he'd been a danger to himself and a liability to the team, and Mark had sent him back to the Phoenix.
I hadn't thought twice about any further consequences. Jason hit his head and got concussed, we'd have an irritable Condor with a sore head for a few days, then he'd be back to normal. And then I'd overheard Mark and Tiny talking quietly as they waited for their medical checks.
"How hard did he go down?" Tiny.
"Not hard enough to cause that. And he should never have fallen in the first place." Mark.
Now I was sitting in debrief, empathising with Jason who obviously had the monster headache of all time, and desperately wanting Anderson to dismiss us so I could go and ask Tiny what on earth was really going on.
"Dual use," said Tiny, bringing me back to the matter at hand. "They needed a lot of troops there for a trap to have any chance, but they had no idea when it would be sprung. So they did real stuff there as well."
Anderson considered it. "It's a possibility. Even if Don was primed to tell us at the first opportunity, they had no way of telling when we'd attack. Certainly they don't seem to have been on high alert."
Jason rubbed his temples and winced. "So what other pieces of information has Don let slip?"
"None of any use." Anderson's expression displayed his frustration. "He seems to have been locked up for most of the time, except when he was in a lab. He's confessed to everything we believe he did, and a lot we're fairly sure he didn't, but the only new information he's provided was the whereabouts of your target."
"If you call that information." Mark shifted position again. Evidently I wasn't the only one aching after today's performance.
"Is he sorry?" Keyop asked suddenly.
Anderson looked nonplussed. "Sorry?"
"Wade. Don. Is he making excuses? Has he apologised?"
Anderson sighed. "He's apologised. He's accepted responsibility. But no, no excuses. No protestations of innocence - or, for that matter, declarations of loyalty to Spectra. He seems to have accepted that he is responsible for his actions, at least."
"What will be done with him?" I asked, suspecting I already knew the answer.
"Nothing," Anderson replied. "He'll remain in top security detention indefinitely. He doesn't get a day in court." He regarded us with as close to an air of sympathy as he ever wore. We must have looked a complete mess. Four of us were too uncomfortable to sit still. The fifth looked considerably worse.
"Dismissed. Go take it easy." His eyes fell on Jason. "G-2, even I can tell you should be in Medical. Get some rest, team."
Jason headed off to Medical without so much as a complaint, which was worrying in itself, and once outside the door, Tiny turned to the rest of us and signed 'we need to talk.' I couldn't have agreed more.
We followed him to the ready room, and as Keyop shut the door on the outside world Tiny lost his usual look and displayed some of the tension I was feeling myself. "I'm worried about Jason," he said simply.
Mark's eyebrows went up. "You think I'm not?"
Tiny didn't rise to him, concern written all across his face. "He's not well. I want to believe it's just a concussion, but he should be feeling better by now. The implant should be helping. Something's very wrong. It has been for a while."
"Are you sure? Maybe the implant will kick in once he stops trying to keep going?" I frowned at him in some confusion. "Didn't you have that problem once, Mark?"
"Sort of. Not any more." Mark blinked, and I could see the sudden effort to concentrate. "I'm going to have to leave you to it," he said unexpectedly. Three sets of eyes widened in concern - he did look very white all of a sudden.
"Should you be going to Medical yourself?" Tiny went pale himself. "Mark, we already have one major problem. Don't make it two."
Mark glared, then relented. "I'm fine, or will be. I just need to sleep. Damn this inefficient Russian implant." He yawned, and took himself off, Tiny surreptitiously checking he'd made it to his room a couple of minutes later.
It was nonsense that his implant wasn't as efficient as ours, of course. It was the recharge phase which was less than optimal. The rest of us found ourselves tired, sleeping more than usual, and seriously disinclined to much physical activity for a couple of days. Even Keyop, with a later variant of the Russian implant, reacted that way. Mark was different. He'd likened his reaction to 'running into a brick wall' and all attempts to tune the implant differently had failed. If they set the recharge phase to something like ours, he had an unacceptable decrease in combat efficiency, and eventually he'd been told the crash at the end of mission was something he'd have to live with.
Today was unusual, though. I'd called on the implant extensively in our escape from the ground torpedo and he had to have done the same. It was rare for the recharge phase to hit him this late on. If there was one thing Mark disliked more than having to admit weakness, it was embarrassment. If he'd had any idea this was going to happen, he'd have arranged it so we had our discussion after he'd rested.
My implant might be recharging in a more friendly manner, but I was still starting to feel the effects. I caught myself yawning, thought longingly of bed, and weighed it up against a hot drink and a bath. I'd ache worse if I went straight to sleep now. It was no use, though. I needed the rest too badly for the bath to even be safe.
I'd often wondered whether Chris Johnson ever slept. Barely six a.m. and he was sitting at his computer when I came in.
"Problem?" he asked, looking round.
"Not really. I just can't sleep more than twelve hours at a stretch. How's Jason?"
"Well - is Commander Jarrald around?" the doctor asked.
I shook my head, not liking that he'd used Mark's official title. "Implant recharge flattened him last night, and I've not seen him since."
"In that case, I'm telling you as senior active G-Force member. Jason's not to train until I clear it. He's not to leave the premises, or be alone today. I hope it's obvious that he's inactive until further notice. I have his bracelet, if it's needed for anything. Now Jason says he'd rather be with the team than here - I'm happy with that provided it's quiet and that there's someone around. You, or Tiny, or Mark." He paused as the man himself appeared from a side room, slipping a bottle of pills into his pocket. "Did you hear that, Jason?"
"I did. Not Keyop?" Jason queried.
"I don't trust Keyop not to be intimidated when you decide you've recovered."
Jason raised his eyebrows and grinned, apparently feeling better already.
"Don't even think it," the doctor admonished him. "Princess, if he tries to do anything other than sit quiet, you're to call me at once."
The moment we got to the ready room, Jason's energy seemed to evaporate. He slumped back into the chair and closed his eyes, all colour gone from his face. I was unsurprised that he'd put on a show for the medical staff, but this collapse had me unnerved.
"You okay?" I asked him.
"Yeah, great. Just let me sleep," he snapped, and I bit back my retort. He wasn't well, and was hurting. The only things which could help him were quiet, rest, and time.
I badly needed some more of that rest myself, but I told myself I could keep my eyes open until the others woke up. This stage of implant recharge was just plain tedious - I didn't have the energy to read, work or concentrate, but sitting doing nothing came hard. I envied the others, still sleeping it off in their beds. Jason seemed to have dropped off and all was quiet. Just for once, I could at least indulge myself with a properly made cup of tea without the teasing I usually got.
I was sitting by the window sipping it and watching the birds when I heard Jason sit up. "Is there any more of that?"
"Thirsty? Sure. How are you feeling?"
"A bit better." He watched me deal with the tea. "Where's Mark?"
"Asleep. Implant recharge flattened him." I struggled not to react. Jason remembered everything, always - and he had to have heard me tell Chris Johnson that. I'd never been so relieved to see Keyop walk through the door.
Our youngest team member had never been one for protocol. He might be fifteen going on sixteen now, but that didn't prevent the joyful cry of "Jason!" and the attempted bear hug.
"Easy there, shorty." Jason had, fortunately, anticipated his reaction and had put his mug down in time to avoid disaster.
"Are you feeling better now?"
We both flinched, and each knew the other had seen it. "He's getting better," I said firmly, "but it won't be instant. Jason needs to take it easy for a while."
"Yes. I'll be nice." He grinned broadly. "No more drums. Hey, Jason, can I drive the G-2 until you're back?"
"Not a chance. Touch it and die." There was real venom in his voice, and Keyop held up both hands and moved away fast.
"Hey, man, only joking. You know I wouldn't."
"Remember it," Jason snapped, and stalked across the room to stand with his back to us.
Keyop's shoulders drooped, and he signed unhappily, 'I thought he'd laugh.'
I put an arm round him and spoke in a voice sufficiently low to escape even Jason's enhanced hearing. "He will, when he feels better. He won't be himself for a while. Watch your back."
Indeed, by midday I was starting to get desperate. Jason was fluctuating wildly between miserable depression at his condition, icy fury if reminded of it, and everything in between. Keyop had stayed around to give me moral support, but after Jason had snarled at him for the third time he'd stopped attempting to talk to him. I was running out of patience - I'd dealt with Jason's temper for years, but this totally random mood-shifting was more than I could handle alone. I wanted a break, to talk to one of the others, or Chris Johnson. I knew intellectually that his behaviour was to be expected from someone with concussion. I needed to hear it from someone else, to have someone with more medical knowledge than me say that the rapid healing associated with the implant would also cause rapid changes in symptoms and behaviour.
At an unexpected sound I glanced over to see Jason sitting at the table, three fingers pressed to his forehead between his eyes.
Keyop had noticed too and, much closer than me, was at Jason's side in three strides. "What's wrong?"
"Headache." Jason appeared to be trying to bore his fingertips into his skull, so 'headache' was presumably the understatement of the year.
I put my hand into his pocket and extracted the bottle. I didn't know much about drugs, but even I recognised these as serious painkillers. "Did Chris say how many of these you could take? Is it time?"
Keyop vaulted the sofa and returned more circumspectly with a glass of water. Jason downed the two pills I gave him in a single swallow, grimaced, folded his arms on the table and lowered his head gingerly onto them.
Ten seconds later, of course, Tiny walked in. "Oh, no. How long's he been like this?"
"About a minute." I met his accusing look full on.
Tiny gave me a long stare as he crossed quickly to Jason's side. "Talk to me, man. You okay?"
"Sledgehammer's back." Jason opened his eyes, realised Tiny was reaching for a penlight, and shut them again in a hurry. "Do me a favour, Tiny - let the painkillers kick in before you start shining lights? I swear I'm not about to collapse."
Ten minutes later he sat up and looked around. "I can recommend these drugs, by the way."
"Good." Tiny checked his pupils. "You're responding better. Light still uncomfortable?"
Jason ignored the question. "Is Mark still not up?"
"You know that implant of his is just plain weird. He'll be here when he's here."
"Speak of the devil," Keyop commented as the door opened and our commander arrived.
"Hi, guys. Did I miss anything?"
Well, G-2's perfect memory has gone, he's going through mood swings faster than a petulant toddler, G-4's afraid to speak to him and I can barely cope with being in the same room - no, Commander, you didn't miss anything important.
"Tiny, is Jason fit to make decisions?"
"Hey, right here!" protested his second.
Tiny considered it. "Legally, no. In practise, I guess so."
"Not much choice on that one. Sit down, all of you. We do this as a team."
Jason sat bolt upright, sheet-white. "If you want me to resign, you could at least get me my bracelet back and let me do it properly."
Mark took a seat directly opposite him, and the rest of us quickly filled in the spaces. "I don't want you to resign. But I'm giving you two choices. Either you come clean on precisely what's been happening, or I go to Anderson and tell him you have a major problem."
Jason was on his feet. "You bastard! How dare you! One little tap on the head and you write me off!"
Mark didn't flinch, didn't even raise his voice. "It's not just that, though, is it? The fall came before you hit your head, remember. You barely hit the side of the base with that missile. You fell out of the whirlwind pyramid twice. Need I mention that you had to be talked through the arming sequence for the missile, and the fist-sized hole in the starboard fuel temperature gauge?"
"I was concussed, dammit! You'd have done the same!"
"You weren't concussed until after you fell. Normally you're the poster boy for perfect balance. You shouldn't have fallen at all, and even then a tap like that shouldn't have concussed you. There's something more going on, and you know it."
"Medical expert now, are you?"
"No," Tiny said, "but I am. Sit down and stay quiet, or I'm calling Medical. We're a team, Jason. Let us help."
"Teammates don't blackmail their colleagues into discussing their private lives."
Mark refused to be sidetracked into taking offence. "No. They report their concerns to higher authority. Your choice. Us or Anderson."
Jason hesitated briefly, then sat down heavily, as though he'd simply run out of the will to fight.
"When did you start having problems?" Tiny leant forwards, and I could almost feel his attempts to project sympathetic understanding.
"In the power station." At the frowns round the table, he expanded. "Nuclear power station. Anderson kidnapped, rocket off course and headed for a crash landing - you remember?"
We all nodded. Of course we remembered. It wasn't every day we were ordered to fire on one of our own civilian craft. But that was weeks ago and we'd flown several missions since - he'd been struggling for that long?
"I crosswired the door to blow, and boy did I feel shaky after the explosion. It wore off, and I forgot about it. Then Anderson told us about Don, and it all started again. I swear, I thought it was stress. I'm still not sure it wasn't."
"Thought what was stress?" Tiny pushed.
Jason looked at the table. "My eyes wouldn't work properly. I couldn't focus. Double vision. Headaches. And it all kept going black in bright light."
"So you stayed away from the mission?" Keyop asked, and I hushed him. Jason was responding well to Tiny, and I didn't want to break the spell.
Fortunately he didn't seem to have noticed that his questioner had changed. "I - it happened again as I was coming in. I got dazzled, my vision went out and... I drove into something. Cracked my head on the steering wheel. I wasn't any use to you. I couldn't see straight, couldn't feel my right hand. I only came back the next day to resign, but then Anderson needed someone to fly the manned missile and I figured, what the hell, it's my fault Don ended up the way he did, why not go out with a bang? But you came back for me."
"That's what we do." Mark wore an expression of horrified sympathy. "Go on."
"It's been worse since. I've been dizzy as hell all week, and the headache just won't let up." Jason was breathing hard. Now he'd started talking, everything he'd bottled up, all the miserable secrets, were pouring out of him. "My balance was nonexistent when we came out of jump over Spectra. I had no chance when we were hit. I cracked my head again, and my vision went so bad I'm surprised I hit the base at all. Whirlwind pyramid..."
His voice shook, and from opposite sides of the table Tiny and I reached out automatically for him.
"You sent me back to the Phoenix, and for five minutes I thought I might just die where I sat. Then you needed me, and I couldn't even remember how to arm the damn missile. It was the worst moment of my life." He made a visible effort to regain some composure, and managed a weak smile. "The temperature gauge didn't stand a chance."
Mark took a deep breath. "Thank you. Tiny, is he in danger?"
Tiny had gone very white. "Not sitting here, no. I think the implant may have saved his life on Spectra, though. Jason, you should have told someone. You really should. Multiple concussions can kill you."
"Oh, wonderful." Jason put his head in his heads. "I am so screwed. Off to tell Johnson now, are you?"
Tiny jerked as if he'd been shot. I locked eyes with him, and tried to make it better. "Did he mention the mood swings from hell?"
Tiny's face relaxed somewhat. "To be expected." He regarded Jason with a resigned expression. "I think you're healing, and I think the implant's helping. But even so it will take time, and you have to take it easy. The only way to be sure would be a brain scan."
"I don't understand." I frowned at him. "Why not take this lot to Medical, make it official, and get the brain scan?"
"A set of repeated concussions and symptoms like that? They'll ground him. Maybe permanently."
"Then - shouldn't they?"
"Like hell," Jason spat out.
Tiny looked around desperately for support. "Probably. But we need him on the Phoenix. We can't pull fast jumps without him. He can swap places with me for a while, until the symptoms are gone. If he stays on the ship it won't be too risky." He winced. "I think I know why they've not exactly pushed for me to qualify. If I were a real doctor, I'd be struck off for suggesting this."
"You're real enough for me. Thank you, Tiny." Mark shifted his attention to Jason and his expression hardened. "Now, G-2, there are conditions to this, and you will comply with them absolutely or you'll be in Medical before you can swear at me. Tiny?"
"Chris knows you're concussed already. He doesn't know it's an ongoing problem, but the treatment's the same anyway. Rest and quiet. You follow his instructions to the letter. When he clears you to do something, you check with me first and expect me to hold you right back. Fight me on anything and, like Mark says, I'll take it all to Chris."
Jason looked disgusted. "Like I have a choice."
"And one more thing. I need to know if your symptoms change - new ones, or things which had gone coming back. Especially when you start back training. If anything I consider dangerous happens, we come clean."
"And I get retired."
"The alternative's dead. And I'll be in the worst trouble of my life, for hiding this."
"All of us." Mark looked round the table. "I have to write a report on yesterday's mission, and it's going to have to gloss over a lot. Enough that it's effectively lying to Anderson. I don't like doing that, and if he finds out, Anderson will never trust me again."
"What - because you put your team above his need for total control? Consider it a compliment." Jason's expression said it all. A drowning man offered a lifebelt would look much the same.
"So what now?" Keyop asked, having kept commendably silent.
Mark thought a moment. "We need to reinvent as much as we can with Tiny taking Jason's place. This isn't going to be easy for any of us."
"Need to lose some weight!" Keyop quipped, finally finding something lighter-hearted to comment on. "Or maybe you could be two of him."
The rest of the team ignored him. "Tell me I don't have to just sit here?" Jason asked. "I'm going to go nuts."
"Go sleep the clock round," Tiny told him. "You don't need to be woken up any more. You'll feel better after the implant's had a chance to do its job."
Jason turned to go, exhausted relief all across his face, and abruptly turned back. "Guys - thanks. You won't regret this."
"I hope not," Tiny said once Jason had left. "If I'm wrong that the implant's mending the concussion damage just like it does for other injuries - well, let's just say we all need to watch him like a hawk. Right now he's scared. Give it a week and he'll start thinking he's fine. That's when it'll be really dangerous."
Mark nodded. "I understand. You call the shots, Tiny, the rest of us will back you. That includes if you have to go to Chris." His eyes widened. "I don't believe it. I'm going to crash again. Sorry, team, I have to lie down."
"Now?" Tiny crossed rapidly to his swaying commander's side, and helped him to the sofa. Mark barely managed "thanks", curled in a ball, and was immediately dead to the world.
"Is he okay?" Keyop asked.
Tiny shrugged. "Maybe his implant needs retuning. Yesterday was tough. I don't think it's anything to worry about. Can you two talk me through some of your four-man moves? I've got so much to learn it's not true."
Over the next few days we discovered that it was true for all of us. It was fortunate that for the most part we ran our own training sessions these days. Anyone else would surely have wondered why we were making such strenuous efforts to replace a team member who was only expected to be out for a week or so with a concussion which didn't even class as severe.
The problem was very simple. Tiny was not Jason. He wasn't as fast or as agile, and didn't have his perfect balance. On the other hand, he was much stronger, and sometimes his unstoppable momentum was more appropriate than Jason's blazing speed. Unfortunately, all our team-of-four manoeuvres were designed around speed and agility. It took hours of discussion, argument, failed adjustments and practise until we felt confident in the new arrangements.
Anderson hadn't overseen our basic training in months, but someone must have commented, because one morning he was at his old place in the observation area overlooking the gym.
"Uh-oh," Tiny muttered.
Mark looked up to the window. "Chief? Do you have something new for us?"
"I came to see the new moves I hear you four have." The 'four' was ever so slightly pointed.
"Sure thing, Chief." Mark turned his back to the window and mouthed, 'I'll do the talking.'
He put us through the whole lot; every variation we'd worked on, finishing up with our new four man whirlwind pyramid. He was taking no risks that Anderson would compare notes with whoever had tipped him off and think we were withholding something. It was a perfect demonstration. There were advantages in spending half our lives in situations where you couldn't afford to have a bad day.
Mark looked pleased as we spiralled down from near the ceiling to land in a neat circle.
"Very impressive." Anderson had come into the gym itself, and I stiffened even as I saw the rest of the team react similarly. He didn't waste time with pleasantries. "So why are you doing this type of training without Jason? Is there something you're not telling me?"
"Jason's not back in training yet," Mark told him. As if Anderson didn't know that. "I realised we had a gap. We have team-of-five moves, and all sorts of other personnel combinations, but all our team-of-four moves are based on Tiny being on the Phoenix. We have nothing for a situation like last week, where someone else is hurt and has to pull out."
Oh, neat. Mark had to have thought that one up in advance. He hadn't even mentioned leaving someone other than Tiny on the Phoenix.
Anderson's eyebrows went up. "If you say so, Commander. Be sure to practise them in all combinations once G-2's back in action."
"Of course, Chief."
"I noticed your timing was a little off on move three. It needs more work." He turned and left - by the main entrance rather than back into the observation area.
Keyop scowled. "Wasn't off."
"No, it wasn't." Mark looked at the ceiling. "I hate keeping him in the dark. Would it be so bad to tell him?"
Tiny had trouble keeping the exasperation out of his voice. "You've forgotten how long he kept you inactive after you smashed your leg? You could have commanded from the Phoenix easy for the last couple of weeks you were out. You even told Anderson so, as I recall. He wouldn't have it. If we want Jason on the Phoenix in the foreseeable future we have to keep Anderson in the dark."
"True, I suppose. Okay, guys, that'll do for this morning." He followed Anderson out, clearly still ill at ease.
Tiny groaned in frustration. "Please tell me he isn't off to confess to Anderson. Not after all this."
"I don't think so," I reassured him, hoping to convince myself, and hurriedly changed the subject to something safer. "How's Jason doing?"
Not such a good subject. Tiny looked bleak. "Symptoms won't go away. The only reason I haven't gone to Chris about it is that Jason already told him."
I stared. "What - everything?"
"I doubt it. Just that the concussion symptoms won't let up." He sighed. "Poor old Jase - headaches bad enough to make him throw up, and his vision all over the place. Right now all he wants is dark and quiet."
I frowned. "I thought he was still on the painkillers."
"He is. They're not working any more, apparently. Not enough."
"I know I'm the layman in this, but are you sure there's not something else going on? Something worse than a mending concussion?"
Tiny sighed again, and sat down on the bench. "Okay. Headache diagnosis 101. It's a big problem, since you have zero measurable symptoms, and most of the reported symptoms have multiple possible causes. And even then, two patients with very similar problems can report very different symptoms. You get people who think they've got migraine who actually have brain tumours, people who think they've got minor concussion and it's a fractured skull." He smiled. "Or more often, people who think they've got a brain tumour and it's sinus problems. All you can do is eliminate the physical causes one at a time, and what's left is the problem. No discernable physical cause and it's something like migraine or tension headache. But we know what the physical cause is for Jason, which makes it easier to diagnose, if not to --"
He stopped, and blanched. "I know Chris has checked for worse things - when the symptoms hadn't settled within a couple of days they scanned Jason for everything from brain tumour to aneurysm to fractured skull. There's nothing physical there. But the other conditions..."
"He's always got headaches," Keyop said. "PTSD does that. It's common."
"And it's way too easy to blame everything on a known problem, especially when you have two perfect candidates." Tiny stared into space. "I had a complete list of his symptoms, and I just assumed post concussion syndrome mixed up with PTSD. I knew they'd eliminated major physical damage, and I never even considered anything else, even when the painkillers stopped working. He's light-sensitive, for crying out loud! How could I have been so stupid?" The swearing started in English, and then went through every curse I'd ever heard Jason, Keyop or Mark use in a variety of languages, as Tiny hurtled out of the gym.
Keyop's eyes widened. "What was that all about?"
I suspected my expression was much the same. "I have no idea."
"Migraine?" Mark's eyebrows approached his hairline. "You have to be kidding."
"Not kidding." Tiny looked subtly different. The lines of strain had gone, and the laid-back expression which suited him so much better was back. "Chris had tried every painkiller there is and nothing was touching it. Two hours of the anti-migraine drugs and the symptoms were gone. Chris wants him until tomorrow morning to make quite sure it isn't going to come straight back the moment he takes the IV out, but Jason should be on his feet and ready for training then. Give or take how shaky he's going to be after ten days flat on his back and barely eating."
"Wow. So - we're sorted? How soon can he come back to the team?"
"Not quite that easy, I'm afraid. The drugs he's on are about as incompatible with jump as you can get. And right now we have absolutely no idea what might trigger it again. We're pretty sure it's happened a number of times before. He's even reported some of them, but it's always been put down to the PTSD. Chris is going through his records now, hoping to spot a common factor, but you know Jason. He hates talking about anything personal. The problem is that most of what we do classes high up the list of triggers."
"Such as?" I asked. "A friend of mine has migraines. I thought the problems were all things like caffeine and alcohol."
"Tiredness, stress, jet-lag, pressure changes, just to name a few. I'm trying not to think about transmutation and fiery Phoenix. He can't take the preventative drugs and stay on G-Force, and it could be anything that sets it off. He's still in for a rough time."
"So it was never concussion?" I asked.
"Oh, he was concussed alright. I did the reaction test myself. I'm even fairly sure what happened on Spectra was the result of a second concussion, and the implant saved him. We mustn't lose sight of that. But the rest may well have been migraine. The last few days certainly have been. The fact that the anti-migraine drugs have fixed everything so quickly suggests that the implant's doing its job on the concussion damage."
Midday the following day we were sitting around in the ready room, taking it easy after Mark had put us through another punishing training session. It was working - all the repetitions, all the planning, and we now had something that I wouldn't have been afraid to try against a squad of goons.
It was still tough, though, and would be for the foreseeable future. We refined our techniques all the time - we couldn't guarantee that no-one would get away with footage of our fights, and when there are only five of you, you have to rely heavily on surprise. However, the basic premises had been unchanged since Mark and Keyop had first joined the team. They were a part of me, something I did as naturally as breathing. Even something as minor as replacing Jason with Tiny threw everything out. I had to wait just that fraction longer, adjust for the height difference, and even though Tiny's height and skill were closer to mine than Jason's were, making the change was hard.
We all knew it. Tiny was struggling physically, the rest of us mentally, and all we could do was to keep up the repetitions and wait for it to become second nature.
Or until it was no longer needed. Jason walked in so unobtrusively that it was several seconds until any of us reacted.
"Jason! How's things?"
He looked sideways at Keyop. "Better than they were, at least."
"You look a lot better," Tiny offered.
All I could think was that 'better' must be a relative term. His colour was wrong, and the way he leant against the wall somehow suggested that it was more for support than relaxation.
Mark opened his mouth to comment, stopped, and shut it again. I could see the confusion on his face. What was he supposed to say? None of the normal things fitted. Jason wasn't involved in training at the moment, hadn't been with Team 7, hadn't been allowed to drive, by all accounts hadn't even been fit to watch TV. What he'd been through recently didn't make for light conversation.
"So Johnson let you out then?"
The corner of Jason's mouth twitched. "Evidently."
Mark hesitated, and kept trying. "Are you coming back to training?"
The face hardened. "Not yet."
Mark gave a desperate glance sideways, and I wanted to crawl into a hole. This was awful. This was Jason, he'd been to hell and back over the past few days, and none of us could even think of anything to say to him.
"Have you eaten? We were just about to go to Jill's." That was Tiny, predictable as usual, if not exactly truthful, and Mark's sigh of relief was almost audible.
"Did Chris give you a list of what to avoid?"
I frowned in confusion, but Jason pulled out a sheet of paper. "Yeah. Food."
Tiny's face twisted in sympathy, as he squinted at the page. "It's not so bad. There'll be something on Jill's menu you can eat. Come on, you've gotta want something better than canteen glop after this long."
"I'll drive!" Keyop piped up cheerfully.
"Yeah, and I'll sit on the roof." Tiny dismissed the suggestion. "I'll drive, and Jason can tell me if my transmission's about to fail."
Judging from Jason's expression, his attempt at diversion hadn't worked too well. Jason always drove when we went out. He looked as if he was about to say so when Mark cut in.
"Good idea, Tiny! Get the van, we'll meet you round the front. If..."
Jason glared. He hadn't lost that, at least. "Yes, Mark, I'm capable of walking to the door."
I caught Keyop's eye, and found his expression mirroring my own. As fun mealtimes went, this was going to be well down the list.
We got back into Tiny's van feeling more like a team than we had done for a while. Much of the awkwardness was gone, and we could talk without effort again. Without having to think of every word first. The sign of being comfortable with someone isn't being able to say the right thing to them. It's being able to say the wrong thing, and it not be a disaster. We were back to that point with Jason, and I felt much better about it.
It was still awkward, though. We were due in the simulator that afternoon, and I could see Mark trying to figure out whether to mention it, and if so, how. Jason had said he wasn't coming back to training, but had he meant all training, or just the violently physical side of it? An hour's scanner and sensor drill definitely didn't class as physical.
As it happened, it wasn't necessary. Jason visibly swayed and grabbed at the door of the van on getting out, and Keyop grabbed his elbow.
"You should go back to Medical."
Jason's face clouded, but Tiny jumped in smoothly. "Nah. Go lie down for a bit. We've got training for an hour, and you already said you're not back to doing that yet. Your system's still half full of drugs."
"Maybe." He turned towards the elevators just as one arrived and opened to let a man in ISO security uniform out, and I followed him in.
As the doors slid closed, he glared at me. "I don't need a nursemaid."
"No, but I need the sensor manual to update the settings." Thankfully, it was true. I'd never have come up with something believable fast enough if it hadn't been.
"Whatever." I wasn't surprised that he didn't believe me. In his situation, I'd have thought I was being nursemaided too.
I determinedly didn't watch him too closely as the elevator ascended. I knew that hand against the wall was supporting, not casual, and I knew he'd be embarrassed as hell about it if he realised I knew. That wouldn't help either of us.
Jason and I had always had rooms with doors facing one another across the corridor. Slightly offset, in that institutional way which gives you just enough privacy that if you both open your doors simultaneously you're not looking right into one another's rooms. Not that it meant a lot to us - both of us had somewhere else we considered home these days. Jason towed his behind his car (or possibly, for him, home was the car) while the apartment above Jill's was more my home than here was now. This was just a convenient place to stay, somewhere to sleep when I was too tired to make my way home, or required early the next morning. And somewhere to leave the books with too high a security rating to take off-site.
Jason strode off down the corridor at a speed my shorter legs couldn't hope to match without running to keep up. That would have been particularly blatant. I ignored it and headed for my quarters at a more sedate pace. I was surprised to see his door still open as I passed it, and turned to look in almost despite myself. Jason was standing just inside, envelope in one hand and a set of papers in the other. Not collapsed in a heap, which was all that really mattered.
"Fan mail?" I joked. Jason had to have seen me stop and look, and saying nothing would be worse.
He jumped so far that I cursed myself. Evidently he hadn't seen me stop and look. Hadn't seen me at all.
"No," was all he said, and I replied with "see you later" and went on to my own room. There wasn't a lot else to be done. If he'd wanted to discuss it, he would have. If not, nothing would make him do so. I presumed Anderson had left him something he wanted him to read in private, and thought no more of it for the rest of the day.
I surfaced foggily, wondering why on earth Mark was putting up so many shelves. It took several seconds for my brain to clear enough to realise that the shelves had been my dream, while the knocking sound was real and at the door.
"Coming, coming." I dragged myself out of bed, kicked a slipper out of the way, stumbled sleepily to the door, and stared in bemusement at the man standing there.
"Jason - what are you doing here? You should be in bed. It's three in the morning, and you're supposed to be taking it easy!"
"I need to talk to you."
"What, now?" Jason? Talk?
"About Don. Princess - please."
The best part of three years and he hadn't so much as mentioned Don's name, and now he needed to talk about him in the middle of the night? I almost said 'what, now?' again. Only the look of vulnerability stopped me. It was so completely wrong, so unlike the Condor, that all I could think about was how to get rid of it as quickly as possible. And then forget I'd ever seen it.
"Come in." I turned the light on, blinked furiously to acclimatise to the brighter light, and then cast a critical eye over him. Pale, haggard, shadowed eyes. He'd not exactly looked fit earlier, but this was worse.
"You don't look so good. Are the symptoms back?"
"No." He sat down hard in the nearest chair, and looked up at me, eyes wide and looking far too young. "I think I made another huge mistake. I can't trust my judgement, and you're the only one who'll understand."
I gaped at him, thinking, 'what's he done with the real Jason?' I had seen him this unhappy before, right after we lost Don. I'd never seen him prepared to talk about it. Still, it had to be better for him than bottling it up. I just wished my brain would wake up.
"Tell me, if it'll help."
He sat forward and locked eyes with me. "I don't think Don betrayed us."
Well, that was the last thing I'd expected, and I knew my expression showed it. "He designed a weapon which killed five civilian pilots and darn near wrecked us. I don't see what else you can call it."
"He tried to kill himself." Jason's eyes were wide and horrified, and I wasn't sure he'd even heard me. "He ducked down into his own gas. He tried to shoot me - but all the bullets were dummy rounds. And that's what really got me thinking."
I frowned - I hadn't known that. "Go on."
"He's the world's worst with a gun. Even if he thought they were real, he must have known he couldn't outdraw me. All I can come up with is that he wanted me to shoot him."
I thought frantically, wishing again that Jason had produced his bombshell when I was actually awake. "So he realised it was over. He couldn't shoot himself, so he tried to get you to do it for him."
"Maybe. Why didn't he ever tell Zoltar who we are?"
I was suddenly wide awake. True, he could well have given Zoltar my real name. 'Kate Harmon' had died on Mars. There was no link to Princess Anderson there, and Don was unlikely to have guessed what I would use. Tiny's name was sufficiently common to be effectively unfindable. We'd tried Googling on Jason's once - plenty of hits, every one pointing straight to the winner of the Africa 9000 Rally and ISO Racing's most successful track driver. If Zoltar had Jason's name, he'd be dead.
Jason continued. "Zoltar's frantic to find our real identities. He's had someone working for him willingly who knows three of us, names, ages, nationalities - and he never asks him about us? Don hates us and walked over to the enemy and it didn't occur to him that he could win the war for Spectra with three names? Something's wrong with this picture, and I mean to find out what."
I considered it. He did have a point, one which someone who hadn't known Don might not have considered. "Grant's been leading the interrogation team --"
"Like he'd tell me anything. I need to speak to Don myself, but without my bracelet I can't access the lift down to the detention area."
My stomach sank. I might have guessed Jason was here for a reason other than just needing to talk. But when you started to look at it from the other side, suddenly all sorts of other things began to slot into place. This made more sense than the scenario we'd believed was right.
He gave me a calculating look, and continued. "That solvent wasn't nearly good enough. Don had all these ideas that he was already working on. He's stunningly bright. Genius level. He said he could get thirty percent improvement just based on what he'd already prototyped. But that solvent they bombed us with was ten percent better than his original, maximum. Ten percent in nearly three years with him working on it willingly?
"You see it?" Jason tucked his knees up and hugged his arms round them. "What possible explanation is there for a traitor to behave like that? None. Now recast him as an unwilling captive, cooperating to the absolute minimum and just wanting it to end. Can't you see Zoltar giving him a gun loaded with dummy rounds and watching him try to use it?"
"Oh, no." I caught myself mirroring Jason's position, and made a deliberate attempt to lean back and relax. "Do you think he's been resisting all this time?"
"I don't know." The look was almost pleading. "I need to talk to him."
"We can go first thing in the morning --"
"When the guard can pick up the phone and call Grant. Do you really think he'd let me in there? We need to go now. One guard, and he won't wake Grant in the middle of the night. He'll assume it's Grant's idea."
I looked Jason up and down, hating what he was asking me to do. But if he was right, if who was down there wasn't a lousy Spectran traitor but was still Don - our Don - then we did need to go now. This couldn't wait.
"What are you going to ask him?"
"What the hell he's been doing for the past three years."
The guard jumped a mile as we walked into the office, and tried with limited success to hide his reading matter under the desk.
"Leave the talking to me," Jason had 'suggested' as we came down in the lift, and I was happy to do just that.
"We need to see Wade."
"Uh - sorry. He's in full isolation. Nobody's to see or speak to him. Major Grant's orders."
Jason leant across the desk in full intimidation mode. "Do you know who I am?"
Like anyone in the black security zone wouldn't. Especially not when faced with Jason in full Condor stance. You could see the birdstyle, regardless of whether he was actually wearing it.
"Sir. You're the Condor, sir."
"It didn't occur to you that isolation is commonly used to ensure that the prisoner talks when it finishes?"
I worked hard to keep my jaw from dropping. The poor corporal behind the desk wasn't so successful, and responded only with, "Sir?"
Jason sighed dramatically. "Go on then. Call Grant. I'm sure he'll be highly delighted - it's, what, four a.m.?"
The guard gulped, looked from Jason to me, back again and I could almost see the thought process. 'It's the Condor and the Swan - how can this not be okay?' He straightened. "That won't be necessary, sir. I can't let you into his cell, but you can see him."
I stood aside and gave him my best warm smile. "Lead the way, Corporal."
One very solid, soundproof door led into a short corridor painted in institutional beige, two bar-fronted cells off each side and another door at the end. The guard stopped, holding the door open.
"Sirs, I'll leave you with him. There's full audio pickup in the security office - shout if you need anything."
"Excellent. Thank you," I told him, trying to project appreciation. Poor man - what a job to have. Graveyard shift, all alone in the sub-basement.
Jason had walked on and was standing, hands in pockets, staring into the third cell.
"You okay?" I asked softly, going to join him.
He nodded silently, continuing to observe the figure in the cell.
If I hadn't seen Don get up to leave the Phoenix, I'd almost have thought he hadn't moved since. He was sitting, back to the wall, arms hugged round his knees drawn up to his chest. He hadn't looked up, although he surely must have heard us talking to the guard. Nobody could sleep like that.
I didn't know what I'd expected Jason to say. It wasn't a conversational, "So, are you just going to sit there, or do you have something to say to me?"
Don's whole body jerked, and a desperate face appeared. I'd never seen anyone look so ill. Not even Jason after Spectra. He looked like he'd been made up for the latest killer virus movie - white face, dark-ringed, bloodshot eyes, pupils way too large for the ambient light. The tear streaks were unexpected.
"Jason? I...I'm sorry. That's all. I didn't want anyone to get hurt."
"Yeah, right." Jason leant against the wall, exuding cynicism. "You sent us into the biggest trap I've ever seen, and you didn't think anyone would get hurt? Bullshit, Don."
"Trap?" Don's eyes widened, and abruptly filled with panic. "The base? It was important. I know it was. A major Spectran military control centre. Zoltar told me about it himself."
Jason hissed with contempt. "And you swallowed every word he said. I don't know which I find more sad - that you believed him in the first place, or that you expect me to be sympathetic."
"Sympathy from Anderson's golden boy?" Don's tone was bitter, and I saw Jason's hands clench. It was a very long time since anyone had called him that. "I should know better. If you'd cared, you'd have come years ago. I tried to fight him, Commander. For a long time. You have no idea --"
"You built weapons for him." Jason's voice was cold and condemning. "Weapons designed to cripple the Phoenix. You want revenge on me for leaving you - fine. You could have told Zoltar my name at any time in the past two years. What did Princess ever do to you? What about all those people we protect from Spectran attacks? I'd have thought you'd at least care about your own mother."
Don's head went down onto his knees again, and his voice was barely more than a whisper. "He made me do it. I didn't want to. He made me."
I couldn't bear it any more. "Tell us, Don. Tell us why."
"Nah." Jason turned away. "It's a waste of time. He has to live with what he's done. Defection has consequences."
"No!" For the first time Don moved from the bed, jumping to his feet. "Don't go. Please. Don't leave me here alone. I'll do anything. Anything."
Jason snorted. "We already know that."
There was despair in Don's voice. "I tried, Jason. Really I did. He wanted a nerve agent in that gas, and I told him I couldn't do it."
"What a hero. I wonder how he knew to ask you to work on it. You told him all about it, Don. You volunteered to make that solvent."
"I didn't know!" Don's voice cracked, and he struggled to continue. "I didn't want to tell them anything. Not about G-Force, or jump, or anything secret." His voice steadied, and filled with self-loathing. "I told them I was just a chemist."
"So of course when they asked you to make chemical weapons for them, you did it. Continued to develop them. Don, you could have walked out of that base any time you wanted. There wasn't a mark on you. You chose to be there. Traitor."
Don whimpered again, a miserable, wordless sound. "They'd have come after me. And then..." He put both hands to the back of his neck and hid his face against the wall, moaning softly.
Jason turned to me and signed, 'Push him.'
"What did they do to you, Don?"
All I caught through the moans was "implant".
Jason was probably right - if we were ever going to get the truth out of him, now was the time. "What did they do to you?"
"Kept him in solitary with no TV," Jason suggested cynically. "I bet he lasted about two days."
It worked. Don looked round, just a flash of the Hawk in his eyes. "And to think I fought them for you. They stuck a probe in the implant. Every time I didn't do what they wanted. Voltage...I think..." He gave up trying to speak, buried his face in his hands, and sobbed helplessly.
I felt my hands go to my implant of their own volition. Having the implants adjusted involved something similar. It was something I dreaded above all else. Even with a medical team whom I trusted absolutely, it was nerveracking. No matter how careful they were, just occasionally they got it slightly wrong and touched something they didn't mean to. The implant was wired directly into everything that mattered. Pain there went right to the brain, no possibility of coping with it or ignoring it. I stared in horror at my former team-mate, imagining three years in captivity facing - that.
"Oh, god, Jason. That wouldn't leave marks. They did torture him after all. He didn't defect. He broke."
Jason clenched both hands, stared at the shaking figure, and turned to the microphone in the ceiling. "Open the cell door."
"Sir, I can't do that," came over the speaker.
The cablegun appeared from nowhere in his hand. "I don't believe you. Either open that door or I'll open it for you."
"Sir --" the guard pleaded.
"Now, Corporal!" Jason made a show of fiddling in his pocket, pulled out the drill attachment, and had begun to fit it when the cell door swung open.
I didn't wait to see what Jason had in mind. At this moment it didn't matter what Don had or hadn't done. All I could see was someone who had been through a hell I wasn't sure I could have handled any better. It only mattered that he had been one of us, and he needed somebody. I put an arm round his shoulders and tried to pull him to sit on the bed.
Don gasped and flinched away from me, and I wondered how long he'd been without human contact. Whether he'd had any sympathy from anyone since we'd recovered him from that Spectran base. Or, indeed, since he'd been captured on Mars.
"I'm not going to hurt you." I tried again, and this time managed to get him to sit alongside me. "Nobody's going to hurt you." That was about the limit of my reassurance techniques, and Don was, even to my inexpert eyes, a complete mess. I looked desperately at Jason for ideas.
"Give me your bracelet," he demanded, and practically ripped it from my arm as I fumbled to unfasten it."G-1?"
I could barely hear the other side of the conversation, but I could imagine it. Mark was far from a morning person, and this was about the worst time we could have called him. Jason knew his commander, though, and kept it simple.
"I need you down here right away. As the Eagle. And bring Chris Johnson."
"In the detention cells."
"She's here with me. Of course. What, you think I beat her unconscious for her bracelet and then called you on it?"
"As many favours as you like. Just get here fast." He lowered the bracelet and turned back to me. "If that guard's any good at all, Grant will be down here first. Leave him to me."
I nodded, and continued to try to reassure the quivering man in my arms. I'd never felt so helpless. This was Don's body, his voice, even some of the mannerisms remained. The person I'd known, the brilliance, arrogance, superiority, was gone. I wanted it back. I hadn't realised how much I missed Don - the easy banter, the sarcasm, and yes, even the maddening assumption that he was always right. I'd naively assumed when I came in here that being believed would help him. Instead it seemed to have triggered a total collapse. I had known from the moment I'd agreed to come down here with Jason that we would both be in serious trouble, but I'd thought it was the right thing to do. I was starting to worry that we'd been wrong, that we might have done Don more harm than good.
It was less than five minutes until the soundproof door opened, and much to my regret Jason had been right. Grant's furious berating of the unfortunate guard was extremely audible, and I felt rather than heard Don whimper in despair.
"- deal with you later. Condor, what is the meaning of this?"
Jason's reply was lost in Don's groan. "He won't listen. Grant's never listened to me."
"He'll listen to Jason," I responded automatically, knowing there was no chance of it happening.
Don's only reply was a sob, and to bury his face in my shoulder.
I put up a tentative hand and stroked his hair, some half-buried memory of comforting my little sister suggesting it was the right thing to do. Don didn't respond at all, and I willed Mark to hurry up. Don was inches from hysterical panic, and any second now the standoff between Jason and Grant was going to explode.
"- realise this is a court-martial offence?" Grant's voice rose again.
Jason's was steady - barely. "I left him on Mars to be tortured by Zoltar. I sure as hell won't leave him down here to be tortured by you."
Grant's next comment was inaudible, but Jason's answer was instant and furious. "She's down here because I ordered her to come. I'm off active duty, not deranked. Don't you dare involve her - ah, Commander."
"G-2, Major." I couldn't see Mark from the cell, but that was his professional voice, the one he used only in birdstyle, without the slightest hint of his native accent. "What's going on?"
"Your second is interfering in an internal security matter --"
"Damn straight I am!" Jason sounded close to breaking point and Don tensed still further. "I won't stand by and watch you torture him worse than Spectra did!"
The edge in Jason's voice was getting stronger. "I never over-dramatise. He was G-Force, Major. I want him treated that way. Not drugged and in solitary."
"Drugged?" That was Chris Johnson's voice, and I breathed in relief as the doctor hurried into the cell and knelt alongside me. "Don, do you remember who I am?"
Don shifted slightly, and flinched desperately away from his hand. "Don't...please...no more..."
"No more," Chris agreed. "Don, you know me. You know I'd never do anything to hurt you. Can you try to open your eyes for me?"
He must have done so, because Chris gave a sharp intake of breath before turning to the door. "I want his drug chart. Now."
The argument in the corridor stopped. I'd never heard the doctor this angry, and I suspected none of the others had either.
"Get it, Corporal." That was Mark.
Grant made one final attempt to salvage his control. "Commander, this is an internal matter. You don't have all the facts."
"I know that the chief medic of black section just gave an instruction." That tone Mark normally reserved for his Spectran counterparts. "When it comes to medical matters, he outranks both of us."
"The man's a traitor!" Grant exclaimed, and Don flinched again.
"Maybe." There was steel in Mark's voice - he hated being driven to defy authority. "But when my second asks for my help, he gets it. The explanation can come later."
The sound of running footsteps faded down the corridor, shortly to return as the corporal skidded into the cell bearing a pile of papers. He looked scared out of his wits, and I made a mental note of the name on his uniform. It really wasn't his fault that Jason had outwitted him, but Grant wouldn't see it that way.
The doctor took it with a murmur of thanks and flipped through the pages, lips set in a tight line. Finally he turned. "Major?"
"Doctor." Grant arrived, his expression a mask of anger.
"I want Wade transferred to standard black section medical immediately. Why wasn't I told about this?"
"Because Dr Aziz is the medical officer assigned to black section detention."
"I know he is. I also know that he hasn't asked me for Wade's medical records, or informed me of this drug treatment. I'm this man's doctor, and I have the appropriate clearances, and I should have been informed!"
"It's not a medical matter --"
"It's a matter of sheer stupidity! I have complete medical records upstairs for this man, and you chose not to use them. How much information could he give you dead? That's one hell of a cocktail you've been feeding him."
"He's a black section prisoner. No way are you taking him upstairs!"
"He's the Hawk." Jason had the steel back in his voice which had cowed innumerable Spectrans. "He gets medical treatment, upstairs if that's what Chris says. Nobody's suggesting he isn't guarded. I'll do it myself if you want. But he's going."
"Major," Mark added, "I'm as concerned about security as you are. But the Condor has a point. Set your guards, and let Chris treat him. If he wants to talk more, he can. If not, well, do you think anything you force out of him now is going to be any use?"
Grant huffed. "Very well, Commander. Doctor. I'll send two officers to Medical immediately. I just hope we're not making a big mistake." His eyes fell on me, and just for a moment his face showed disappointment. "I strongly suggest you not allow Wade's former teammates to be alone with him. It seems emotion has clouded their judgement." He turned on his heel and stalked out.
"Tell me Grant hasn't hurt him?" Jason was finally close enough to get a good look at his old friend, and he can't have liked what he saw. "I'll take him down if he has, I swear."
"Steady on there, or you'll be back in Medical yourself." Chris's voice was back to its calm, professional self. "I'm not discussing this with anyone right now. Don, can you stand?"
There was no reply at all.
"Don, come on, son. I've got something upstairs that'll flush the drugs out of your system, and you'll feel much better then. I need you to stand up."
Nothing, not even another whimper.
"He said on your feet, G-2!" That was Jason, no sympathy in the tone at all. I jumped, Mark stared, and Don actually did as was asked and staggered upright.
"Better." Jason moved to support him, and Mark started to do the same before Don gasped and tried to get away from him.
"Let me - he doesn't know you." I replaced Mark on Don's left side, and we started to move slowly down the corridor, as the doctor disappeared into the guardroom and got busy on the phone.
He'd caught us up by the time the lift arrived. Don was shaky and unsteady, and the twenty yard walk left Jason supporting most of his weight while I kept us moving forwards. If the entrance to Medical had been more than ten yards from the top of the lift, I'd have been thinking he needed a gurney. I could only presume that the doctor had some reason for making him walk.
We'd been down there longer than I'd realised. The lift doors opened to dawn sunlight, a pale sky tinged with red and a perfect view out over the sea to the east visible through the long window opposite. Don took one step forward, shrieked in terror and, with surprising strength, pulled himself free to cower in the corner.
"What the hell?" Mark had reacted instantly, boomerang out to cover Don, and then as it became apparent that Don wasn't a threat, out in the corridor, scanning for whatever had caused the reaction. "There's nothing."
"Nothing. You hear that, Don. It's safe." Jason tried to persuade him to his feet again, and then we both dived for the door as the lift decided we must have exited by now and tried to go elsewhere. I ended up standing against it as it beeped in annoyance and repeatedly tried to shut, while Jason tried and failed to get Don to cooperate. "Come on - this is ridiculous."
"It's OK, Don." Chris crouched alongside him. "Just shut your eyes. It's the drugs. I can help you, but I need you in Medical."
This time he did allow himself to be helped upright, and we got him to Medical without further incident.
"I meant what I said down there," Mark said pointedly as the anteroom door shut. "I want a full explanation. I backed you up because I trust you. Not because I think you're right."
"Understood. But tomorrow - please?"
I froze, and saw Mark do the same. "Jason? Are you okay?"
"Just tired," he said, but I didn't believe it for a moment.
"Tomorrow, then," Mark said, and without warning brought his left arm round and detransmuted.
Jason gasped and turned away from the brilliant flare of light, both hands to his head. "Hell, Mark, did you have to do that?"
"Just tired? Are you sure?"
I considered Jason, who was going whiter by the second. "I'll get Chris."
Both guards turned, weapons up, as I opened the anteroom door. Don was curled in a silent ball on the bed, Chris Johnson and one of his assistants setting up an assortment of IV fluids. Chris's eyebrows went up - he knew I wasn't the sort to interrupt unnecessarily.
There was a brief grimace, replaced instantly with his doctor expression. "Carry on," he said to his colleague, and followed me out.
Jason was sitting on the bed at the other side of the room, head in his hands, with Mark hovering uncertainly next to him.
"Jason? What's going on?"
His voice was a despairing whisper. "It's all back."
"Do you need the drugs?"
Mark's face fell again. He'd started to think Jason was ready to come back, at least to full-time training. Jason had looked much more himself this afternoon, had seemed confident and competent again. That Jason, the one we needed, didn't ask for painkillers within moments of feeling ill. Either he'd been faking being better at all, or the problem really had gone away and then come back. Either way, whatever it was Chris had thought would get him off the medication and back on the team had failed within thirty-six hours.
"He needs quiet." Chris turned the light next to the bed off and pulled the curtain across. "And you two need rest. I don't know what prompted all this --"
He stopped as Jason appeared round the curtain, swaying and wincing against the light, and clutching a thin sheaf of folded papers. "Mark - read this. Don't let Grant twist it."
Chris turned, the calm facade starting to crack. "I told you to lie down! You two, get out of here. Now."
"Yes, Doctor." Mark calmly took the papers from his second's outstretched hand and walked away. I hurried to catch up with him, wondering what on earth they contained, and knowing I had little or no chance of finding out if I let Mark take them away and read them alone.
Mark frowned as he opened the roll of paper. "Where the hell did he get this? He's only been out of Medical for a day."
"What is it?" I tried to resist the urge to read over his shoulder, finally making the connection with the envelope that had been left under Jason's door.
"At a guess, it's Wade's confession." He sat down in the armchair, face set, and I reconciled myself to being out of the loop and headed for the ready room kettle. I couldn't have slept even if I had taken myself off to bed, not after all this.
Mark's expression relented somewhat as I handed him the cup of coffee, and he gave me the pages in return. "I guess you should see this. You did know him, after all. Were he and Jason really that close?"
"They worked well together," I hedged, and sat down to see what had triggered the question.
Don wasn't quite the last person I'd have expected to bare his soul on paper, but he was a long way down the list. He'd always been scientific, precise, neat. The unsteady scrawl, getting worse as the document went on, was horrifying. And the last, desperate plea brought a lump to my throat. I'd started to feel angry with Jason for dropping me in this mess, when it seemed that all we'd needed to do was talk to Chris Johnson in the morning. If I'd known about this document, I'd have gone without discussion. I did appreciate why Jason hadn't mentioned it, though. He'd wanted to run the ideas past someone who didn't know where they'd come from, and that had been me.
I looked up to meet Mark's eyes on mine. "Is that true? Or is he a darn good creative writer?"
I swallowed. "I don't know. It sounds more like him than defecting does, but... well, three years is a long time. I still can't believe he's not dead."
"Let me put it differently. Do you trust him?"
"No." I looked again at the paper in my hands, trying to put my feelings into words. "Zoltar already used him to lead us into one trap. There could be more. I think he's been too hurt to know what's real any more."
"So he should be locked up. Jason's wrong."
"No!" My voice cracked. "It's not his fault. Mark, that could have been Jason, or me, or Tiny. It was pure fluke that Don was the one who got caught on Mars. I'm not saying let him go - but shouldn't there be an alternative? Somewhere secure, where they can help him?"
Mark's face was impassive. "He can get treatment in the cells. He's safe down there. He can't hurt himself or anyone else, and Spectra can't get to him."
I gulped, and my voice came out as a whisper. "If I was tortured into giving up secrets, I'd expect better from ISO. From you."
"It would be different if it was you."
"But don't you see?" That came out full volume, and Mark jumped. "For Jason or me, it isn't different. Don was one of us. I don't know what he is now, but he was my friend."
Mark shook his head. "I don't know. I wish Jason had just left well alone. Grant knows what he's doing."
"Grant's ruthless, and he didn't know Don." I willed Mark to understand, to take in the implications of what Don had written. "Grant doesn't believe that you can do something and it not be your fault."
"I'm not sure I do, either."
"Well, I do." I handed him back Don's confession. "I'm asking you this as my friend, Mark - please just think how you'd feel if that was Jason."
"Jason would never do it. Never."
"That's my point. The Don I knew - G-2, the Hawk - he'd never have done it either." I didn't trust myself to say another word. My eyes burned and there was a lump in my throat which I couldn't swallow. I needed to be alone, to calm down and get back in control. Argument would never sway Mark once he'd made up his mind. All I could hope for was that his mind wasn't yet made up, and that he could see where I was coming from. If not, if he didn't stand up for us, Don would be back in that cell, and who knows what sort of disciplinary action I'd be facing. If Mark couldn't trust me, my days on G-Force were numbered.
I hadn't expected to sleep, but for the second time in twelve hours I was woken by someone knocking at my door. This time it was Mark.
"Can I come in?"
"I'm not here officially." He parked himself in the chair, and came straight to the point. "You were right. If Don had been one of my team, I'd have done what you and Jason did. I've spoken to Anderson, and he'll talk to Grant. And Chris Johnson's after the head of the doctor involved."
"That's a bit roundabout - is Anderson going to agree with us?"
"To a certain extent, he does. It's better than Jason talking to Grant, and I have no excuse to get involved directly." He shuddered. "It seems ISO has a fair bit of experience with its operatives needing long term secure care. Wade's going to get some heavy duty psychiatric testing to make sure he's not a Spectran plant, but Anderson seems to think that Jason's right. He mentioned that there's a facility only a couple of miles away, and I think Don will end up there."
I smiled at him, shoulders dropping in pure relief, and hoped my "thank you" sounded as heartfelt as it was.
"This is an end to it, though. He did some horrendous things, and I will see that he doesn't get released."
"You'll get no argument from me. Or Jason, I don't think - how is Jason?"
"Drugged and asleep." Mark sighed. "Chris wouldn't talk to me, which means he doesn't expect Jason to be fine when he wakes up. And to think that yesterday we were talking about him going back to racing. It's going to take longer than we thought. Maybe a lot longer."
He didn't say 'maybe it won't happen at all' but the thought was there in both our minds.
And if it didn't happen, if Chris Johnson couldn't find a way to get Jason off the drugs, what then? We would drift on and on as a team of four until finally Anderson made it official, and appointed a new G-2. The position seemed doomed. First Don, now Jason. Next who? There was only one real candidate - and I'd never wanted a job so little in my life.
I refused to consider it further. This was only a setback. Jason would be back on his feet later today, and the medical team would find a solution. We would be a team of five again.
Anything else was unthinkable.
© Catherine Rees Lay, Jan 2006