Jason's still grounded, and seriously unhappy about it, when a chance comment from Mark gives him a chance to prove himself.
I have to credit Sandy with the inspiration for this one - Jason and Rick doing flight training together is briefly mentioned in Breakdown, and she said I ought to write it. And then I realised what else was logically going on at the same time, and it grew from there.
Thanks to my husband for beta-reading, and for the title. He was joking, but I liked it.
Warnings - the odd bit of fairly mild swearing, and a wide assortment of OCs.
Reviews, comments etc. are always welcome, here or via email. I love concrit, especially if it points out weaknesses in my writing, but I also love it when someone just says they enjoyed reading the story. Yes, really.
"As you can see, with this new technology we no longer need huge individual simulators to accurately simulate each type of craft. All we need is a control panel, a neural interface helmet, and the correct programming. The technicians have been working on your simulators this morning, and you will now find you have access to a much wider range of aircraft than before..."
Jason shifted uncomfortably in the lecture hall chair and tried not to yawn. 'New technology' to ISO's most junior security team was far from new to the second-in-command of G-Force. He'd been working with these simulators for months now. Not that he could let on to his colleagues on Team 7. Outside the black zone, acting out his cover reason for being at ISO headquarters, he was officially a lowly lieutenant hoping for a more senior posting, and he prized the brief moments of normality it gave him.
Usually. Time spent with Team 7 was usually a respite. At the moment it was a sop, a scrap thrown to him while he was grounded from G-Force, and he was hating every minute of it.
"So I expect to see all of you with considerably improved flight ratings in the near future." Nykinnen, commander of Team 7, scanned the room. "Yes, Lieutenants Alouita and O'Leary, this means you. As well as anyone else who believes that if it doesn't have four wheels it doesn't count."
There were sniggers from all round the hall, and a couple of people turned and grinned at Jason. He returned the favour. Being seen as a truly incompetent pilot was just one of the things which made his continuing lack of promotion from Team 7 believable by those who were using it as a springboard to more senior posts.
"So - decaf?" Alongside him, Rick unfolded himself from the chair in a manner which suggested he wasn't any more comfortable than Jason was. "I'd like to see what we've been given to play with."
Jason frowned. The one trace of silver lining to being grounded had been the tiny voice in his head saying 'now you don't need to be drug free, you can have some decent coffee.' No such luck. Diuretics were bad news for migraines, apparently. He wasn't even allowed the decaf that the rest of the team - and Rick, as an implanted trainee - normally existed on. Something to do with estrogen. Life just wasn't fair.
"No thanks. I'll come take a look at the simulator, though."
Rick looked sideways and appeared to decide against a question, which suited Jason just fine. The details of his medical problem were his own. Well, his and the rest of G-Force's. And the medical staff and senior officers in the black zone, the only place on the planet where Jason Alouita and the Condor were the same person. But even in there, the Force Two candidates like Rick didn't know why he was grounded, and out here Team 7 weren't even aware he had a problem. Jason meant to keep it that way for as long as possible. Forever, preferably.
Rick, though, Jason knew Rick was wondering what precisely was going on. Rick wouldn't ask, though. He was in a permanent state of inferiority - had been pretty much ever since he'd been implanted - and it was getting annoying.
"I don't believe it!"
"It's a windup. They'd never give us access to that!"
"Why not? It's not like they put weapons on anything we get to fly, simulated or not. And it's done all in hardware. Nothing to hack into." Rick shrugged. "And it'd be hell to steal without anyone noticing."
"Is there anything about computers you don't know?"
"Come on, Scott! Let's see it."
The young man at the only currently working console half-turned. "Which one?"
"You have to ask?"
Scott grinned. "No." He slid the visor on the helmet down, the appropriate menu item flashed, and moments later the image on the screen shifted to show the view from the cockpit of a sleek white fighter.
"Is that the G-1?"
"I think so." Scott's voice was muffled by the full-face helmet.
"What - you've not flown the real thing?" Rick teased. "What an admission."
"Like you have."
"Hey!" One of the other would-be pilots swung round in annoyance. "Just let him fly the darn thing."
Rick held his hand up in apology, and settled to watching Scott's attempts with a slight smile on his face. Jason would have liked to join him, but his wristwatch was vibrating insistently, and he knew only too well what the price for ignoring it would be.
"Jason?" someone queried as he walked away, the only person not crowding round Team 7's new toy.
"Later." Jason kept the frustration out of his voice somehow, and only slammed one fist into the other once the door closed.
"Lieutenant? A word, please."
Jason swore inwardly and weighed his options, before using the only one which would be quick enough. "Later, Commander."
He could almost feel Nykinnen's double-take. Junior officers didn't speak to their seniors like that. Nykinnen knew perfectly well who this particular junior officer really was, but even so Jason never normally pulled rank except when in birdstyle. It held far too many possibilities of being overheard.
"Later," Nykinnen agreed. "Jason?"
Oh, why can't anyone just leave me alone? He swung round, not bothering to hide his annoyance.
"Is there a problem I can help with?"
"No!" Jason snapped, and immediately realised that only made it sound worse. "It's under control."
"Very good." Nykinnen turned into the Team 7 common room, and Jason headed for the black security zone and yet another appointment with the medics.
"Tell me you have something?"
The all too familiar look of sympathy in the doctor's eyes gave him all the answers he needed. "Jason, I'm sorry. I'm waiting for a couple of specialists to get back to me, but until then..."
He rolled his sleeve up resignedly. "I know. Drugs or flat on my back. Great choice."
Chris Johnson, who had been G-Force's doctor since Jason had been a raw 15-year-old recruit, knew better than to discuss it. Jason much preferred it that way. He'd never been fond of injections, but lately there had been far too many.
If Chris registered his flinch, he didn't comment on it. "See you in eight hours."
Chris just looked at him, and Jason knew he had been seen through. "Stick it out to the end of the week. If nothing else has come up by then, we'll try tapering the drugs off again."
Jason just nodded, dreading it. So far they'd tried this a number of times. The first time, it hadn't occurred to him that there would be a problem. He'd presumed he was recovered and ready to go back to the team. Five minutes after the migraine hit again, he'd known with a sinking certainty that he wasn't even close. He'd gone back on the drugs, and later they'd tried again. And again. Varying the method - tapering off the drugs gradually, replacing them with something milder, going cold turkey. All had had the same effect. A day or so with no problems, but well before his system was clear of the drug he'd be back in Medical, his vision a mess of coloured haloes, knowing he couldn't cope with what was coming next and hating himself for it. Eventually they'd given up. Johnson had put him back on sufficient drugs to keep the migraines away, and released him for light training with G-Force and active duty with Team 7, while he looked into alternative treatments. Jason had been certain they would come up with something quickly. That had been nearly a fortnight ago, and every eight hours since he'd shown up for another injection with his optimism gradually draining away. Another shot at tapering the drugs off was not the answer he'd been hoping for.
"So how's Team 7?"
Jason glared. "Don't even ask."
"You know you don't have to do it if you don't want to."
He sighed in exasperation. "No. I could just sit round here and watch the team treat me like china. Team 7 may be dull, but at least they don't think I'm finished."
"You're not finished." Chris disposed of the needle, and came round to face his patient. "Not by a long way. Just give me a little more time."
"Yeah." Jason clamped his mouth shut before he said something the doctor didn't deserve. He might have spent the past two months miserable and frustrated, but he'd still noticed what Chris hadn't done. Hadn't snapped back when his temper had frayed, hadn't carped when he'd pushed too hard and relapsed. Hadn't given up on getting him back on G-Force. But still - how much longer could he be expected to wait?
"So I'll see you in eight hours? I could give you the drugs - you're perfectly competent to self-inject."
Jason shuddered. "No thanks." And promptly realised just how much of himself that revealed. "You doctors need to earn your keep somehow."
Chris no longer even bothered to warn him of the consequences of not showing, Jason noted as his spirits sagged. Two months, one boring, common, incurable condition, and he'd gone from being the tough guy of the team to someone living his life around his next injection and hanging on the doctors' every pronouncement. Maybe he should take Chris up on his offer. Get a supply of the drugs, force himself past his phobia of self-injecting, and just take off. Go and do one of the million other jobs he could surely get, and stop angsting over the only one on the planet that required his bloodstream to be completely drug-free.
He knew he'd never do it voluntarily. What was starting to concern him was that he might not have a choice.
The new simulator - now with two consoles running - was still the centre of attention when he got back to the Team 7 common room. Someone had put up a ranking list. Predictably, Dave O'Leary's name was at the bottom of it. Less predictably, Rick's wasn't at the top. Jason hoped this was an indication of discretion, not of Rick's lack of piloting skill. Rick was, after all, one of precisely two black section pilots who flew the G-1 for real.
"Fancy a try, Jason?"
He snapped the mask of relaxed indifference into place. "Nah. It's too much fun watching Scott. What is he trying to do?"
"The neural interface is supposed to make it feel like the real thing, right?" Dave's expression indicated a lack of understanding of planes in general, and this one in particular. "Bragging rights to the first one who can land it with the instrument display turned off. My money's on Scott."
Jason shook his head. "Rick." Mark would be the obvious candidate - but Mark was such a good pilot that the moment he touched the thing it would be evident that he was no trainee. Mark wouldn't go near a Team 7 simulator, never had.
"Nobody," said a familiar voice from behind him.
"Nobody?" Every wannabe pilot in Team 7 had reacted to that.
Mark was unabashed. "One of the Team 3 pilots told me that the only person who can land the G-1 without instruments is the Eagle."
"Did he now? Did you hear that, Scott?"
The simulator pilot responsible for the latest scene of immolation flipped his visor up. "Hear what?"
"Mark here says nobody can land without instruments bar the Eagle."
Scott surveyed the overview on the screen, runway strewn with bits of G-1. "He may be right. I'd sure like to prove him wrong, though."
"No instruments?" Jason queried, the germ of an idea starting to form. "What do you mean, no instruments? All the readings are on the screen."
"Not in the helmet they're not," Scott said. "You can see them. I can't."
"Yes, I meant the helmet display. Simulating a dead instrument panel." Mark frowned at his second. "Why do you want to know?"
"I might just try it." Jason gritted his teeth and managed not to snap.
There was an ironic cheer from those watching the second screen, and Rick pushed himself away from the console with barely concealed annoyance. "Damn, that's hard - hi, Mark."
"Mark was just saying that nobody bar the Eagle can land the G-1 without the instrument display on," Dave repeated with a glint in his eye.
Jason saw the barest hint of anger before Rick controlled himself. "Well, someone else'll have to try it - I have to go. Later, guys."
"Mine!" Jason slid into the seat as Rick vacated it, and was on the verge of putting the helmet on when it was removed from his hands.
"Hold it - I need to talk to you about Tuesday."
Tuesday - keyword for 'G-Force business - come and don't argue.' Jason abandoned the seat to another eager would-be pilot, and followed Mark out into the corridor.
"I don't think you should be doing that."
Jason frowned. "I've always flown the Team 7 simulators. They'd think it was odd if I stopped now. Don't worry, I won't go near the Phoenix simulator. Nobody's going to figure anything out from how I fly the G-1."
"Not that." Mark wore the look of protective concern that Jason so hated. "That's a neural interface. It might make you...you know."
I don't believe it. Jason was too astonished to be angry. It didn't last. He continued to stare at his commander in silence. The alternative was a loss of temper so total it would blow both their covers wide open. He still had more control than that. Just about.
Mark had taken his silence as incomprehension. "It might...don't you think you should play it safe?"
Jason hissed in fury. "It's called migraine, Mark. Get used to saying it. It isn't going away. And in case you hadn't noticed, I'm drugged to the eyeballs. I'm not going to react to anything, let alone something I already checked that Medical consider safe."
"Are you sure?"
Jason jerked back so hard he cracked the back of his head against the wall. He didn't care. "Yeah." He spun on his heel and walked away from the common room.
"Where are you going?"
He didn't even turn. "Oh, to do something nice and safe, Mark. Don't you worry."
He broke into a run once he'd gone out of Mark's sight round the corner. Rick couldn't be that far ahead of him, and he was going to need help with an idea which was just begging to be worked on. Mark wasn't going to like it. Right now, that made it even more attractive.
"Well, yeah, I was planning on taking a crack at it." Rick glanced at his watch. "Jason, I don't mean to be rude, but I have practice in three minutes."
"Then I'll be brief. How about we work together on it?"
Rick looked sideways. "Sure - sometime. That'd be great."
"How about today? After your practise."
Just as Jason had suspected, Rick's eyes flared in something approaching panic. "I...not today. Sorry, I've got to go."
Grounded he might be, but Jason could still move faster than an implanted trainee. Rick found his path blocked by a Condor wearing the smile that Spectrans everywhere had come to fear. "You've still got ninety seconds. Just why do you think flight training with the Phoenix's backup pilot - a position I earned in a flyoff with the Eagle, by the way - is a waste of your time?"
Rick's jaw dropped. "You're the backup pilot of the Phoenix? No way!"
"You listened to the rumours." Jason waved a hand in dismissal. "Forget it."
"Forget it. Get to your practice." Jason stalked away, his fury back full force. Mark and the rest of the team writing him off was painful. Rick treating him like an idiot - Rick, subordinate to him even on Team 7 - was the screaming end.
Twenty minutes' furiously paced workout in the gym didn't help. It did, however, serve to remind him that he was far from operational fitness. Jason sat on the floor of the shower shaking, gasping and very glad that his last injection had been only an hour ago, and the drugs were at peak effectiveness. It took way longer than he liked to get his breath back properly, and he knew he'd had to call on the implants to help, though he'd never have admitted it.
He'd been told it would take a while to get his full fitness back. A bad concussion - several, in fact, although the medics didn't know the half of it - would have taken him a while to get over. Combining the aftereffects with three weeks of constant, undiagnosed migraine had left him shaky and barely able to walk across the room. Most of his fitness had come back quickly. The last ten per cent, the edge he needed, was eluding him. After this long, it had to be the drugs. Not that the realisation had made any difference. He already knew he had to come off the drugs to be fit for jump. He also knew that at the moment he simply couldn't cope without them.
He gradually became aware of a tapping at the door of the training room. Confused as to why anyone wouldn't just walk in, Jason wrapped a towel round himself and dripped across to the door.
"Oh, great. What?"
Rick couldn't meet his eyes. "Can we talk?"
Jason sighed. "Yeah, sure. You talk. I'll dress." He stalked back to where he'd left his clothes, and proceeded to put them on, still with his back to Rick.
"I didn't mean to be rude." Rick's tone was apologetic. "I didn't know you were a pilot at all. I've only ever seen you fly the old Team 7 simulator and, well..."
Jason gritted his teeth and kept his irritation down to a minimum. "Next time, stop to think that I spend half my life hiding my abilities."
He heard Rick swallow. "Noted. Sorry, sir."
If he apologises one more time, I'm gonna throw something. "Forget it." At least Rick had apologised - which was more than Mark was likely to do.
Rick sounded hopeful. "I'm free now - did you still want to go take a crack at that simulator?"
Jason considered briefly. He was tired and frustrated, and wanted nothing more than to go scowl at the wall in the privacy of his own quarters. Even he knew that wouldn't help. He'd tried it enough times recently to be sure of it.
"Damn right I do."
Rick opened his mouth, and thought better of it.
By the time the two of them got back to the Team 7 common room it was dark and deserted. After five, and at a time like this everyone who could took it easy and worked office hours. They knew perfectly well that tomorrow the alert status could be back up and they'd be in here until they dropped. So, no surprise that they'd taken advantage today and gone home on time.
Rick flicked the switch to re-initialise the simulator, picked up the helmet, and paused. "So what did you have in mind?"
"Nobody said anything about remote telemetry."
Rick frowned. "So?"
"So you have a blank set of instruments in front of you. I have all the readings you should be seeing on this screen, and nobody said anything about the radio, either."
"Do you realise," Rick started, took a closer look at Jason's face, and hastily rephrased. "That's too many numbers to read out."
"I'll give you the ones that are changing fastest."
Rick swallowed. "I'll do my best, but I don't know if I --"
Jason favoured him with a particularly ferocious glare. "Can you fly this plane or not?"
"Then do it. To the best of your ability. Without making excuses."
Rick just nodded and frowned at the screen. "Airspeed and altitude I can get from visual - everything else I need."
"Better. Get it in the air and we'll give it a shot."
Three attempts and three spectacular crashes later, Rick stripped the helmet off and swivelled in his seat, eyes downcast. "I'm sorry, I don't think I can do this."
"Then think again." Jason continued to stare at the screen. Rick was right - there was just too much data. The G-1 was a classic example of sacrificing stability for manoeuvrability, and talking was too slow for him to get enough information to Rick in time. Rick needed all the data to interpolate, and was used to getting it visually, not aurally.
He, on the other hand, was entirely used to piloting to order. A combat situation, himself at the helm of the Phoenix, and all he ever did was ignore the dials and do exactly as Mark said.
"Swap over. We've been going at this the wrong way."
Rick's eyes widened, but he complied without question.
"You're going to talk me down. Never mind the numbers."
"You mean, as in 'left a bit, down a bit'?"
"I've never done this --"
"Oh, for crying out loud!" Jason's temper flared beyond recovery. "Rick, I know you've never done it. I know it might not work. You think we spend all our time doing things we've practised a million times? You'd be wrong. You have to learn to give it your best shot and make it work, or you'll never make the grade."
And what grade would that be? he wondered in the ensuing silence. To be part of a new Force Two? Or is the committee even now considering my replacement?
"Okay." Rick's voice finally held more certainty - whether real or faked, Jason couldn't tell and didn't care. "Do you want me to talk you up as well?"
He grinned. "Nope. Mark said nothing about taking off. I'll have the instruments until I'm in the air, thanks."
It wasn't his best takeoff ever - the edge was definitely missing from his reactions here, too - but the G-1 was undamaged and in the air, and that would do for now.
"Do you want to land with instruments first?"
Now that was a good question. Jason only had to glance at the array of oscillating dials in front of him to feel himself tense. It might be sensible, but he wasn't at all sure he could land even with the instruments right now.
"No. Let's go for it."
Every dial dropped to zero, and instantly Jason was unsure whether he was climbing, falling, accelerating... He banked left experimentally - yes, that he could feel.
"Heading three five two," Rick's voice said in his helmet. This simulator was particularly good. Rick sounded as if he was in a control tower miles away, not sitting alongside. "Three four nine."
Or maybe he couldn't feel it. Jason would have sworn he was flying straight, and the view of unbroken ocean wasn't giving him any clues. "Coming round. I need something to line up on."
"Do it. Keep banking left. Maintain altitude."
"I thought I was." Jason swung the G-1 round in a tightish circle, and was considering which point on the horizon to line up on before he realised he'd spoken out loud.
"No, you're climbing slowly."
Jason sighed. "Let's forget landing for now." What the hell am I doing here? I can't even fly the damn thing straight and level. No way would I pass any sort of flight clearance right now.
"You could at least give me a chance!" Rick's tone was outraged. "I haven't even had a chance to screw up yet!"
Jason paused, considered what Rick had meant, and cracked up.
"What? Hell, I'm funny now?"
Jason pulled the helmet off, abandoning a pilotless virtual G-1 to its fate, and attempted to tell Rick what he'd said in between bouts of hysteria. It took several attempts, but Rick's scarlet flush made it clear when he'd finally spluttered it out. When he did calm down, it was to a look of accusation.
"I did my best. I'm sorry I'm not good enough for you."
"Nothing to do with you." Jason weighed up telling Rick to get lost against showing Mark he was wrong. Getting his own back on Mark won. "I just need more practise flying this thing on my own first. How about we try again tomorrow morning? Early, on the black section simulator?"
Rick nodded. "Eight? Nobody else will want it then."
Least of all Mark. "See you at eight."
"Have fun." Rick unfolded himself from the seat, stretched, and wandered out without a backward glance.
Jason scowled at the simulator, considering. Sure, his reflexes weren't right - but they were still a mile better than an unimplanted Team 7 pilot like Scott's, and Scott could fly the simulator just fine. He needed to recalibrate himself, to learn what his dulled reactions would do in the G-1, and to get used to piloting without his perfect sense of balance. He wasn't sure whether it was the neural interface or the drugs, but it didn't matter. One thing he had to be able to do was adjust.
He flipped the switch to turn the cockpit instruments back on, reset the simulation, and settled the helmet into place. Time to practise.
Whatever else the drugs might have taken from him, his concentration was unaffected. The next conscious thought Jason had was that his wristwatch had gone mad. It couldn't possibly be midnight yet.
The ache in his neck and shoulders as he shifted position told him that indeed it was. Jason stripped the helmet off and pinched the bridge of his nose hard. The neural interface might not be a trigger for migraine, but four solid hours at the console would give anyone a headache.
Still, he was flying the G-1 very much better now. He'd finally got the feel of straight, horizontal flight, with or without the instruments on. Landing would be beyond him without them, he knew - but just maybe, if Rick could get over feeling inferior for long enough to remember that he was a decent pilot, being talked down would fix that.
Chris Johnson met him at the door to Medical. "I was considering a search party."
"You don't need to." Jason glanced at the syringe lying ready on the surface, and looked away quickly. "Just do it."
"You could do it yourself, you know."
"Or I could let you." Jason pushed his sleeve up and shut his eyes, trying not to think about it.
Chris was deft and skilful, and it was all over very quickly. Jason opened his eyes again and tried to take a deep breath without appearing to do so.
"It's getting worse, isn't it?"
Jason scowled. "I'm fine. I just hate drugs."
"Drugs? Or needles?" He barely paused for the answer Jason wasn't going to give. "There are things we can do to help --"
"Like get me off the damn drugs!" Jason snarled, and clamped down on his self-control.
"I will." Chris hesitated, then continued. "I do have one new lead. I need to get some things together, and I'll talk to you about it tomorrow afternoon. Eight a.m. for your next shot."
"Okay." Jason no longer dared to be optimistic, and was sure Chris had him figured out. He did need some hope. Something to suggest a possible end to the soul-destroying cycle of injections, underperforming in training, being treated like china by the team. "Eight o'clock it is. Don't you ever sleep?"
The doctor smiled. "Just as soon as you get out of here. Sleep well."
Just for once, he did. He'd managed to tire himself out both physically and mentally, and he didn't so much as twitch until his alarm went off at seven-thirty.
He'd forgotten when he'd arranged to meet Rick at eight that he'd be in Medical at the time. It was several minutes later that he finally got away from Chris's concern, and he walked into the simulator room to find Rick trying to land the G-1 solo.
One heap of flaming wreckage later, and Rick tore off the helmet in frustration. "I thought you weren't coming - Jason, are you alright?"
"Yeah, I'm great - I thought I'd ground myself for eight weeks for fun!" Jason's temper finally snapped. "For heaven's sake, Rick, of course I'm not alright! Do you think I'd be here if I was?"
And Rick snapped back. "No, I think you'd be ignoring me like always. So how's it feel? Being treated like a speck of dust in the corner not your style? I'd be more sympathetic if I didn't know damn well you'll drop me the second you get cleared to go back to G-Force."
"And your point?" Jason glared, belatedly realising that what Rick had reacted to was him still rubbing his arm at the injection site. "Rick, I'll give it to you straight. In here you spend your whole time mooning about like a lost puppy. You're either sucking up to someone or you're apologising. You want to be treated like you're competent - start acting it. With Team 7 you're fine. In here - just look at yourself! How do you expect to be treated?"
There was a long and unpleasant silence, before a scarlet Rick cleared his throat. "Do you want to get her in the air? I have some ideas for how we can work on this."
Jason raised his eyebrows, slipped into the seat and settled the helmet into position. "Fire away."
"I'm going to turn off the weather simulator. We'll start off with the perfect headwind. Get that working before we try harder stuff."
"I'll go with that." Jason fired up the G-1's engines and sent it screaming down the runway. Once airborne, he killed the cockpit instruments before swinging it round. "Well?"
"Straight and level," Rick said, and Jason thought he almost sounded impressed. "Now, let's try it. Nose down --"
"I'll need a heading."
Rick actually chuckled. "No, you won't. I made a slight modification to the terrain, and paved over the entire state. Pick yourself a point on the horizon and I'll draw you a centreline on the ground to aim at."
In the privacy of his helmet, Jason smiled to himself. Rick in his Team 7 persona, inside black section? Now that would be worth watching.
The first attempt was an abject failure. The second, little better - but Jason was starting to get the hang of working with Rick. The third time at least didn't end in flaming death, although Mark was hardly likely to consider the mangled right wing an indicator of a successful landing. Four and five were both best forgotten, but the sixth attempt ended with an undamaged G-1 parked in the centre of the runway.
Rick whooped with glee. "Hey, you know you're not so bad at flying that thing?"
"Gee, a compliment." Jason stripped off the helmet and rubbed his eyes. "I need a break. Want to come and get a drink?"
"No time." But this time there was regret, not excuse, in Rick's expression. "I'm free this evening? Now it's working better, we need to start putting realistic conditions back in."
"Like non-ideal headwinds?"
Rick grinned, a little nervously. "I was thinking more of some terrain other than concrete within fifty miles. I'm not sure we're ready for actual weather yet."
"Probably not. What have you got now?"
"Centrifuge." That was definitely a sigh.
"Oh, fun. See you at lunch?"
"If I can face it."
Jason stared at him in disbelief. "You have a problem pulling g?"
Rick flushed again, the amazing all-over crimson that only the very blond can achieve. "Only when it's spinning."
"Then pretend it isn't." Jason rubbed his arm followed by his eyes, caught himself doing it, and left in a hurry before Rick went back to asking pertinent questions.
"Anyone seen Jason this morning?" Tiny dumped his laden tray on the table and sat down with a sigh.
"No." Princess frowned. "Nor yesterday. Is he ill?"
"He was with Team 7 yesterday," Mark put in. "Maybe he's --"
"Over there," Keyop said quietly.
Three heads turned. Three jaws dropped. Jason, deep in discussion with Rick Shayler.
"Oh, crap," Mark said with feeling. "I think I may have annoyed him."
Jason strolled into Medical after lunch with a smile on his face for once. The look on Mark's face when he and Rick had walked out of the canteen together had been priceless.
Chris was talking on the phone and waved in welcome as he went over.
"Thanks, Keith. I'll let you know how it goes. I owe you one." He put the phone down and turned to Jason. "I hope you have an open mind."
"Open, yes. Gullible, no." Jason frowned. "Please don't tell me this is some sort of faith healing mumbo-jumbo psychic --"
"No. It's electronic." Chris reached into a drawer, pulled out a tangle of wires and electrodes, and tossed it casually at him.
Jason caught it instinctively and tried unsuccessfully to disentangle it. "What the hell?"
Chris took it back and laid it out on the desk. Now that Jason knew it was a net rather than a single strand, it made more sense. Still - a power unit, five feet of cable, then a net a little under a foot square made up of wires and electrode pads, and another cable to what looked like a control unit?
"Do I swallow it or inject it?"
Chris spluttered. "Neither. Turn it on, and touch the electrodes."
Jason did so, and frowned in even more confusion. "And this is supposed to help how?"
"Well -" Chris sat back, adopting his full doctor voice. "The first thing you should know is that it doesn't help everyone. The second is that it won't stop the migraines from happening."
Jason snorted derisively. "Doesn't sound much use."
Chris carried on as if he hadn't spoken. "I think it's worth a try. What it does, if it works at all, is to stimulate the nerves where the electrodes are applied. It's commonly used for back pain, but in your case, the nerves on the left side of your head."
This time he stared in frank disbelief. "You can't be serious. The last thing I need there is any more neural stimulation."
"It's a different kind of stimulation. Jason, I'll be brutally honest with you. I'm out of things to try other than drugs. What you're on at the moment I can play around with, stop suddenly - but you can't come in here every eight hours for ever, and you're obviously unhappy about injecting yourself. All the more friendly drugs only work properly on a long term basis. If we go to those, I would have to revoke your fitness for jump-crew."
He'd known it was coming, but he still had to pause briefly before answering. Just briefly. There were times when having your natural voice sound like Mark on helium was actually a good thing. "No need to dress it up, doc. Little fizzy electrodes it is." He sighed. "May as well try it. What do I do?"
He left Medical half an hour later in two minds as to whether there was any point continuing. He'd rarely felt such an idiot - if the rest of the team had leapt out from behind the curtain shouting "April Fool" he'd have assumed he'd got the date wrong. Half an hour of playing with something normally used by women giving birth. Fiddling with electrodes, adjusting controls, and trying to persuade his system that the irritating pulsing tickle was normal. Chris had assured him that getting used to it now would make it much more likely that it would work later. Where 'later' meant 'when the migraine comes back the moment the preventative drugs wear off'. He'd also suggested that Jason not come in that afternoon for his next shot. That meant, if previous attempts were anything to go by, that by this time tomorrow he'd be alternately flat on his back and throwing up. He and Rick needed to get their act together this evening, and show Mark just how wrong he was tomorrow morning.
Two hours into their practise he had to admit it wasn't going to happen. Rick had set up a good system, they were coping successfully with adding more and more variables back in - but the full random system of the Team 7 simulator? Not a chance. He told Rick as much.
Rick's eyebrows practically met his hairline. "Tomorrow morning? We were never going to be ready by then. Was that Mark's challenge?"
"No." Jason clammed up, cursing himself. The last thing he wanted was to discuss the significance of tomorrow morning with Rick.
"Then..." Rick tailed off. "Okay, I don't care. No, that came out wrong. I do care. But I'm not going to push. Do you still want to keep practising?"
Now, that was more like it. For the first time in a very long time, that felt like some respect.
"Tomorrow morning. I won't be around in the evening. Maybe not the next day either."
He could see the curiosity in Rick's face, see how badly he did want to push. Anyone on G-Force would have asked the question. Rick, to his credit, didn't. Or maybe it was just that he didn't dare.
"How close are we to real conditions?"
Rick leapt at the offer of a safe subject. "All the terrain. Wind in all directions, but nothing strong yet, and only gradual variation. The real thing also has much stronger winds, gusts, rain, snow, darkness. Probably more than that. And it's random. Right now I'm getting advance warning of the changes. That's my problem, though. I can work on that tomorrow night."
"Man." Jason considered the list. "Darkness shouldn't be a problem."
"Maybe Mark meant in good conditions?"
"Maybe he did at the time. When it comes to it, it'll be conditions as bad as they get. Count on it."
"Do you think Mark can land it with no instruments in foul conditions?"
Jason snorted. "Don't get big ideas, kid. He's the Eagle. I'm darn sure he can."
Rick quivered visibly. "Of course. I didn't - never mind. Darkness next?"
Jason started to say yes, then reconsidered. He'd not felt too good after four hours in the interface yesterday, and that had been with a system full of drugs. Pushing it now wasn't wise.
"I'm gonna call it a night. Tomorrow."
"Oh. Okay then."
There was one bright side to all this, he considered as he strolled back to his quarters. Finally, he got to go to bed when he wanted, and sleep as late as he wanted - well, actually, not the latter, since he was due in the simulator room. His mouth tightened as he realised that being in a flight simulator at eight a.m. was something he was considering to be a good option. The electrode net simply had to work. He had no idea how he was going to face the future if it didn't.
Sure, he had a very nice career as a racing driver waiting for him any time he wanted it. He had always planned to go that way when his G-Force days were over. It simply had never occurred to him until a few weeks ago that it might not be due to the end of the war. Race around a track while Mark and the others fought Spectra? It held no appeal at all.
He crawled into the simulator room the next morning wishing he'd never come up with the wretched idea. It was years since he'd slept that badly, and he was fairly sure it wasn't for any medical reason. He was scared, dammit, knowing there was almost no chance that the migraine would stay away longer than another few hours, and unable to get past his dread of the pain and nausea it would bring. He'd have called this session off and left Rick to speculate why if he hadn't needed distracting so badly.
Rick was already there, looking far too awake, fiddling with the programming. "What do you want to try next? I've been looking at the random parameters, and there's some vile stuff in there."
"Pick one. I don't care."
"Okay, but --"
Jason slammed the helmet on, cutting Rick off mid-waffle and wishing he'd given this one a miss. The gym would have been nearly as good a distraction, and wouldn't have involved dealing with Rick's insecurities. One look at the conditions Rick had set him up with only confirmed his desire to be elsewhere.
"Dark and rain." Rick chuckled nervously. "I figured we need to start mixing it up."
"If we're not going to be doing this forever, yeah." Jason fired up the systems, a detached part of him marvelling at how much easier this was getting. Mark might go on about how pilots were born, not trained - but intensive practice of the sort he'd been having didn't half help those who weren't naturals.
Rick had clearly continued to practise himself the previous evening. Jason simply ignored the conditions, everything except the voice in his helmet, and barring one horrible moment when he applied the brakes too hard and locked the wheels on the wet runway, it seemed almost routine.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Rick asked.
Since what Jason had been thinking was that, despite his tiredness, his reflexes were a hell of a lot better now that the drugs were out of his system, that seemed unlikely. "Nope."
Rick looked uncertain. "I'm thinking that was too easy. Maybe we should just go for it. Turn the random back on. Maybe not the real horrendous stuff. But put in the gusts and the varying light."
Jason raised his eyebrows, then shrugged. "May as well. Let's go for it." There was nothing to lose. The moment the jet had rolled to a stop, the nervous anticipation had hit so hard he'd thought for a moment that it was the migraine itself. The harder the flying was, the more he had to concentrate on it, the better.
Random conditions turned out to be strong, steady winds not quite head on, patchy cloud, a slightly damp runway, but nothing worse than that. Jason couldn't believe that this had been so completely impossible just two days earlier. Then again, after the first realisation of the conditions, all he did was follow Rick's instructions. All that would stop him now was either something Rick couldn't handle, or something that happened so fast he had to deal with it himself.
With these conditions, neither was going to happen. Rick whooped with glee as the G-1 rolled gently to a stop, and Jason permitted himself a grin in the privacy of his helmet.
The grin lasted exactly long enough for him to re-activate the instruments for the next takeoff, and wonder why all the gauges had two needles. An instant's blank confusion, and then the total clarity of the knowledge that this was it. The double vision was back, the wild blurred distortion was starting to creep in from the edges, and the blinding headache would be next. He needed to go - now.
By the time he reached Medical, he knew he hadn't come a moment too soon. Every time the migraine had hit he couldn't believe how bad it was, and this was no exception. He barely made it through the door, and would have got no further if someone hadn't caught his arm and steered him to a side room, yelling for Chris Johnson in a voice which sliced agonisingly deep into his skull.
The bed was very welcome. Jason crawled wretchedly onto the side that didn't hurt, one arm across his eyes, the other trying to block all sounds, and just coped from one moment to the next. Chris would be here any minute. He'd got the right drug dosage down to a fine art now. The pain would level off a couple of minutes after the injection, and die away to manageable within fifteen --
Realisation hit so hard he gasped. This time there weren't going to be any drugs. Just that stupid electrode net, and it was going to do nothing except add its own brand of prickling discomfort to his misery.
"Jason, I need you to move your hand." That was Chris, voice pitched low and much less painful than his colleague's. He'd turned the light off, too, Jason realised belatedly.
"I need --" he started to say, and then clamped down with his last shred of self-control. No. If this didn't work, it didn't work. But he was going to make himself try it. One last attempt, before he admitted to himself that it was over.
Chris's hands were deft, and it wasn't long before he felt the controller put in his hand. "Do you remember how to do this?"
In theory, yes. In practise, he wasn't sure he could remember how to fire the cablegun right now, and he knew any attempt to concentrate on something other than throwing up would be disastrous.
The controller was removed again. "Don't worry. I'm turning it on at minimum. Feel that?"
For a moment there was nothing, and then the vague pulsing prickles from that morning. It should have made it hurt worse. It should have added to the hell in the left side of his skull - except that it didn't. Jason had the strangest sensation that something had taken hold of the pain receptors in his brain and was shouting 'look at me! The migraine doesn't matter! Listen to these weird electrical impulses instead!' And, unbelievably, they had done just that. The pain wasn't unbearable any more and, wonder of wonders, he wasn't going to throw up. What was left he could ignore. It would be easier if the pulses were slightly more intense, though, and a bit more frequent - and now he could remember how to do it.
Jason put his hand out for the controller, and when it appeared, fumbled it round and felt for the dials. Finally, something that helped. He'd adjust it to best effect, lie here and concentrate on the bizarre prickling sensation, and sooner or later the migraine would let up. He hoped. In any case, he was short on sleep, and right now lying here with his eyes shut wasn't the worst thing he'd ever had to do.
He didn't notice when Chris quietly got up and left, nor when five minutes later he came back in and quickly checked him over. He would have been surprised to see him sit down, fingers crossed, staring at the wall, and even more so a couple of hours later when the doctor finally dared to believe that it had worked, and simply buried his face in his hands and shook.
Jason woke, totally disorientated, and for a horrible few seconds he had no idea where he was or how he'd got here. Only the fact that he wasn't tied down made him certain that he wasn't in Spectran hands.
That thought led him to remember that he was medically inactive, and from there it wasn't far to the truth. He'd come in here crippled with migraine, and it was gone.
He sat up experimentally. Still no headache, and although it was nearly dark in here, he didn't think his vision was blurred. The next move was a mistake, though, tugging the wire to the forgotten electrode net. He spat out a curse. The thing might have worked, but did it have to be taped to his hair? Getting it off was going to be hell.
He'd managed to free two of the many electrodes when the doctor came in. "I suggest you leave it on."
Cold fear trickled up his spine. "What? Why?"
Chris's voice was back in reassuring mode, which was never a good sign. "You were on the preventative drugs for a long time. It's going to take a while for your system to get used to being without them."
Jason let his hands drop. "How long's a while?"
"I don't know. Maybe a couple of weeks."
"Oh, man." He hadn't meant to say it out loud, but there it was, all the emotion of weeks of frustration and despair behind it, displaying his true feelings for all to see. He'd have given almost anything to be able to recall it and say something sarcastic instead. Chris was looking at him with sympathetic understanding, and that was the last thing he wanted. Disbelieving exasperation, that was what the Condor should trigger in medical staff. Not pity.
If it had gone beyond a look, he'd have stormed out there and then, yards of sticky tape still attached to his head notwithstanding. Chris had known him too long to do that.
"Give it twelve hours in here. If you're still fine then, I'll release you. We'll see how it goes, and you can call the shots."
Twelve hours was a much more attractive proposition. Jason smiled, considering it. "Release me to active duty?"
"It'll take longer than that to get your bloodstream completely drug free. To training. You can decide how much training."
It would have been great if it had worked out that way. In the event, it was three long days of recurring migraine before he made it past six hours. But every time the net worked, made life bearable until sleep did its job.
On the third day, the migraine went away and stayed away. 'For good' had to be too optimistic. Jason had known that even before Chris's carefully phrased exposition. But for twelve hours, at least - almost thirteen, by the time he'd managed to detach himself from the electrode net. Now that was something which could use a little refinement, if he wasn't to end up prematurely bald on the left side of his head.
It felt unbelievably good to be back on his feet. It seemed like forever that he'd either been waiting for the next injection, or on tenterhooks expecting his vision to blur out. Grinning like an idiot, Jason almost waltzed out of Medical and headed in search of Rick. He still had a point to prove, and demonstrating his competence to Mark was an even higher priority now he was this close to being back on the active list.
He caught up with Rick in the lunch queue at the canteen. "Ready for another try?"
Rick jumped gratifyingly high. "Jason! Where - yeah, sure. This evening?"
"This evening." Jason glanced across the hall, found the man he was looking for, and looked away quickly. Not quickly enough. Mark had a seventh sense for being watched, and was straight on his feet and over to them.
"How's things, Jason?"
"Fine. I'll join you this afternoon."
He'd phrased it as flatly as he could, but Mark still managed to take it as a question. "Oh, you should leave it for a couple more days yet." He wandered back to his meal, leaving Jason standing there fuming silently. Only a shove between the shoulderblades brought him back to reality.
"Hey, friend - are you in the line or not?"
"Yes," Jason hissed, and turned his attention to yet another menu where everything he fancied was full of something he wasn't supposed to eat. Without the drugs to help, he was going to have to be considerably more careful than he had been. Jason ignored the lure of ISO's best lasagne, and resigned himself to potato and the limited selection of fillings that were neither seafood nor on his blacklist. In the company of Rick and Team 7. He needed to get Mark's respect back as soon as possible, and earn back his place as a full member of G-Force. This afternoon, if possible.
In the event, his better judgement won out. Mark casually sure of himself was almost impossible to sway. This battle wasn't worth fighting. Jason turned his back on a black section showdown with his commander, rescued his lonely, under-used car keys from his quarters, and took himself off for an afternoon at ISO Racing.
He came back early that evening, relaxed, confident and ready for whatever the random condition generator of the simulator could throw at him.
The Team 7 common room was dark when he entered, but the simulator screen was glowing in the corner. Someone was flying the G-1, and Jason froze in horror as he realised that the instruments were off, even on the screen, and they were landing it successfully. Someone had upstaged him. Damn.
"Good one," he forced himself to call out cheerfully as the plane rolled to a halt, and the pilot removed his helmet to reveal a mass of blond curls and the innocent, wide-eyed look which both kept its owner out of a good deal of trouble and made it hard for him to be taken seriously. Jason started on his mental list of every curse he knew, while keeping his expression friendly. "Planning to swap seats?"
Rick shook his head. "Not unless I can guarantee a perfect headwind, and I somehow think Mark would notice if I messed with the programming. Maybe if I could duplicate myself and talk myself down. The only other person who could do it is Mark, and he's not about to offer."
Jason kept his sag of relief internal. "You could ask Mark for advice." Rick might need to do it for real one day, after all. Just as long as he kept it until after Jason had made his point.
Rick's voice was expressionless. "I did."
He could imagine it. Wait a moment, though --
"You told Mark we were doing this?"
"No, I asked him for some specific tips on flying the G-1 without instruments."
"And?" Jason pushed.
"And he told me not to waste my time trying something too difficult for me." Rick's voice rose in an offended squeak. "How can..." He took a deep breath and continued more calmly. "Never mind. Let's do this. Tomorrow morning, if we can."
Let's stop talking and start doing. Jason simply put his hand out for the helmet, and Rick took the hint and silently gave up the seat.
He'd been concerned that the familiarity would have gone during his enforced three day vacation. He needn't have worried. The G-1 didn't exactly feel like an old friend - he didn't think he'd ever feel that way about anything with airfoils designed to provide uplift - but it was definitely an acquaintance. One which kept quiet and did what it was told.
Somehow he didn't think that was quite the relationship Mark had with the real thing.
It did work, though. Three test runs in random conditions - one of them vilely wet - three perfectly acceptable landings, no sign of the migraine returning, and Jason pulled the helmet off, grinning broadly.
"So how are we going to make sure Mark comes to Team 7 tomorrow morning?"
Rick frowned. "Good point. I'll think of something. You be there at ten a.m. and I'll provide a Mark."
Rick had done more than just arrange for Mark to show, Jason realised as he opened the Team 7 common room door at nine-thirty the next morning. There was a buzz of excitement, and a definite murmur of anticipation. Scott, at the simulator, gave up his seat and gestured expansively.
"She's all yours. Though you'd darn well better tell me how you two fixed it afterwards. I'd never have picked you for this in a million years."
"I think it's one of Rick's jokes," Dave O'Leary suggested.
Jason didn't rise to him, sitting down with a sudden cold chill. He could all too easily have been in a miserable heap in Medical right now. He'd been mildly surprised to wake up still feeling fine, and the fact that Tiny had come to check on him before breakfast suggested medical opinion felt similarly. He'd never have hidden anything with all this fanfare going on. What had Rick been thinking?
He simply hadn't known, Jason realised immediately. Rick had no idea what was wrong with him, and hadn't guessed. Well, that was something, at least.
True to his word, Rick came in ten minutes later, accompanied by Mark, and earned a round of applause.
"So," said Scott, who'd apparently been primed to act as arbiter. "'Nobody bar the Eagle can land the G-1 if their instrument panel isn't working.' Was that it?"
Mark was unabashed. "That's what I said. You go ahead and prove me wrong, Scott."
The pilot wore a broad grin. "Oh, it's not me. Rick, Jason - do your thing."
Mark shook his head. "Oh, no. It's not that easy. If Rick's been at the programming, all bets are off."
"I knew you'd say that." Rick picked up a second helmet. "This is slaved to the same neural interface. You're hooked in to what Jason feels. You know I wouldn't mess with that."
Mark took the helmet, his expression still indicating raw disbelief. "No, you wouldn't. Not a neural link." All the same, he checked the connections into the slave helmet himself, and had a good look at the slave port on the back of the main helmet too, before finally seeming to realise who was holding it. "What Jason feels?"
"That's right." Jason took his helmet back, eyes locked with his commander's, daring him to try to veto it. "Do you want to specify conditions, or go with random ones?"
Mark's eyebrows couldn't have got any higher. "Three random, one specified. Once doesn't prove anything."
Mark held the end of the slave cable out for Jason to plug into his own helmet. His 'be careful' cost him any last grain of sympathy Jason might have had for the way he'd been set up.
Helmet on. A quick check of all the neural interface settings, and Jason initialised the simulation.
It was a sign of how much better he'd got at this that his reaction to perfect, clear, almost windless conditions was 'Damn, Mark will never think this one wasn't a fluke.' And, indeed, that it wasn't until he'd taken off, circled, and was waiting for Rick to kill his instrument panel that he'd so much as thought about Mark hooked into his systems, experiencing every manoeuvre, every non-perfect adjustment and re-adjustment, every wobble as he corrected for the G-1's foibles. He'd always avoided being assessed by his commander. Nothing personal, just a desire not to be judged at something he considered a necessary evil by someone truly gifted at it. He suspected Mark felt much the same way about driving. Certainly he'd never ridden shotgun like this for Mark on the driving simulator.
"Instruments off," Rick said. "Left a fraction. Drop your nose - no, cancel that. Circle, hold her level."
The radio link went dead, and Jason could just barely hear an argument going on in the real world outside his helmet. It might have been anticipated. He knew darn well this wasn't what Mark had meant. It did, however, comply with what he'd said.
Rick came back on the radio just as Jason finished the circuit. "Sorted. Drop your nose, and let's go for it."
Jason wondered briefly what precisely had been said, and then he was too busy concentrating on the instructions coming over the radio to worry about it any more.
"That was too easy," Rick said casually as he rolled to a halt. "Ready to go again?"
"Sure." Jason would have loved to see Mark's face right now - but he also knew that he'd never have resisted saying something he'd regret later. Rick's casual acceptance, showing that it had been no fluke, was just right.
As it happened, the other two random scenarios were relatively easy. Fog might be a nightmare for landing manually, but Rick was more than competent to land with instruments only, and Jason wasn't paying any attention to what he could see anyway. The other scenario was night-time, light rain, a slightly slick runway, and no problems other than being extra careful on the brakes after landing.
There was a long pause after the third random scenario, and Jason was considering taking the helmet off when Rick switched him into his side of a discussion on setting the conditions Mark wanted to hit him with. Rick was volunteering his help in setting the simulator, Mark wanting a third party. Jason just sat there, trying to keep his silent laughter non-physical. Mark was indubitably the most experienced person at setting up the simulator in the room - but in his Team 7 persona he never used it. Enough was enough, though. Jason wanted this over and done with. He suspected this was going to be one of Mark's special scenarios, and he wanted to get on with it right now, while he still had the feel of the G-1 at the front of his mind.
"Okay - done," Rick said finally. "Mark, are you happy? Jason - ready?"
"And about time," he answered.
"Then let's see what we have."
It was pitch dark, and so clear he could have counted every star in the sky. At least for that part of the sky he could see. That was one hell of a stormcloud coming in, and it was moving fast.
"Get her in the air," Rick said unnecessarily. Jason was already accelerating down the runway.
The minute he was airborne, Rick started talking. "Jason, it's cold out there. You're going to ice up the minute you're in the cloud. Recommend you circle clockwise this time, stay out of it as long as possible."
"Fine." Jason swung round the wrong way, grimacing as the plane lurched uncomfortably. The thick blackness left behind, he stole a glance at the sensors. Temperature well below zero, and pressure falling like a stone. There was a lot of moisture in that cloud, and Rick was right. Cold airplane in wet clouds was a bad combination.
He settled himself as he approached the final turn. "Instruments off."
"Done," Rick said, calm and competent. "Start swinging left. You'll hit the weather very soon."
And how, Jason didn't say as the view shifted round to the mass of black, roiling cloud. It was so thick he had to remind himself that it wasn't solid. Even so, he couldn't prevent himself from taking a deep breath as the G-1 plunged into the storm.
Instantly the handling changed. He could hear rain lashing against the canopy, see it freezing on contact. Within seconds the plexiglass was opaque under a layer of ice, and the control surfaces couldn't be any better. Jason's personal goalposts shifted instantly. Keep the G-1 in the air and at least get as far as making the landing approach.
"Keep coming round - good. Nose down." Rick, if he was concerned by the way the G-1 was oscillating, wasn't showing it. "Landing gear down."
Jason didn't even have time to tell Rick how wrong that had felt before the other carried on. "Up again, straight back down. That's better."
'Better' was a decidedly relative term. At least there hadn't been the protesting shriek of frozen-up mechanics the second time. The first attempt must have jarred the ice loose. He now had something to land on - but the extra drag was hell to handle in the vicious gusting wind. It was probably just as well he was having to adjust continuously. Having the flaps freeze up wasn't something he could have handled. Rick was having him correct over and over, and Jason was trying frantically to keep up and knowing that he was fighting a losing battle. He couldn't see anything outside the cockpit, had no idea whether he was on line or how high he was, and no time to ask.
There was only the vaguest realisation that the last sequence of instructions had been for landing, not staying right side up, before he hit the runway hard and bounced twice. Only when it was far too late to compensate did he realise quite how badly the runway was iced up. The G-2 would have answered to his attempt to control the skid. The G-1 spun round completely, careered off the runway into inches of frozen slush, clipped a tree and catapulted, exploding in flames as it hit the ground fully inverted.
Jason didn't hear himself shriek, or realise that both hands were up to protect his face. The next thing he knew was hopeless disorientation as the helmet was removed to reveal, not a dark, icy crash site, but a bright room filled with his Team 7 colleagues. The only sound was Rick, apparently running through his entire profane vocabulary.
Mark stood in front of him with the helmet. "Are you okay?" There was concern in his eyes, but somehow this time it was different.
"Yeah. Do I pass?"
"I take it back. Not quite what I had in mind, but you did land her without instruments. And that last one - nice flying."
Jason finally managed a smile, and accepted the hand up. "So, are you ready to talk about Tuesday again?"
His commander grinned back, and now there was no misplaced protection there. "I am, any time you like."
Rick watched the pair go with his jaw set. He'd known this would happen. He ought to be glad. He told himself that all that mattered was that the Condor was back where he should be: at the Eagle's side, not plotting behind his back.
It still hurt. He'd done at least as much work as Jason to make this happen. He was the one with the knowledge of the G-1. Any halfway decent pilot could have been the one at the controls, but only he could have talked them down. And after all that, Jason hadn't so much as thanked him at the end, and Mark hadn't acknowledged his contribution at all.
"Rick - RICK!" Scott's voice brought him back to reality. "Can you give me a crack at it? I can't believe I've been outflown by a racedriver."
Rick firmly blocked his mind to the image of the two men heading off down the corridor together and forced a smile. "Sure." It had been good while it lasted.
© Catherine Rees Lay, January 2006
Notes: TENS really is listed as a possible treatment for migraine, although I've yet to come across anyone who's used it for that purpose. And it is as bizarre a sensation as suggested. Jason's description of what it feels like is taken directly from personal experience. I didn't think it would work either :-)
As Nancy's pointed out (thanks!), with migraine in his medical history Jason is never going to pass a pilot's medical again, working treatment or no working treatment. I'm presuming that in civilian life he doesn't care about not having a pilot's license, and G-Force ignore such things.