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Restarts by JaneLebak
Restarts by JaneLebak
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Restarts
by Jane Lebak, August, 1999

 

Jason had the windows open and the radio cranked as he pulled onto I-90 leaving Boston. Riding shotgun, Mark watched the traffic with half a smile. "Should be four hours to New York," Jason said. "Maybe four and a half, depending on how bad I-95 is. I-95 doesn't have accidents. It has disasters."

Mark shrugged. "Whenever we get there, we get there. No one's waiting for us."

The two had spent the weekend at ISO-Boston, trouble-shooting the security procedures. Jason and Mark had found five separate breaks in the security protocol before finally declaring ISO-Boston to be safe, at least for the time being.

Mark's glance at Jason revealed more than Jason realized. While still not yet back to active duty, he definitely looked healthier than he had since mid-May. He'd spent the last two months by turns sleeping, convalescing, or having surgery. Six weeks without driving his own car, six weeks without a decent workout or any racing. Six weeks living back at ISO and keeping the trailer mothballed. Only in the last three weeks had he begun returning to a more normal life.

In his current position as ISO security agent grade three, Jason didn't wear the wristband, and his general duties were far more prosaic than the team's. Frankly, it bored him. This detail had seemed short, fun, and a good opportunity for Jason, and so it proved. Jason's high spirits practically shimmered around him as he drove. In an unguarded moment yesterday, he'd said to Mark, "It's almost like being alive again."

A couple of miles beyond the toll plazas at the junction of route 128, Sweetheart's engine made a sudden grinding noise, then stalled. Jason's eyes flared as he simultaneously punched the hazards, worked his way toward the right shoulder even as the car decelerated, and popped the stickshift into neutral to try restarting the engine.

Mark clutched the door handle. "What's wrong?"

Jason struggled the car onto the shoulder before it completely lost momentum. It shuddered to a stop, and Jason stared wide-eyed at the hood of the car.

After a moment's silence, he clicked off the ignition and withdrew the key. "Well."

"Well." Mark unbuckled and edged forward. "You think the car's okay here?"

"Had better be." Jason checked the traffic and headed around front.

The highway traffic whipped by with enough clearance that Mark decided not to suggest pushing the car. Jason had actually jumped the car onto the grass, keeping the entire breakdown lane between them and the healthy cars. He was already looking into the engine, and Mark stepped back to watch him working. Jason bit his lower lip and frowned, nearly scowled, as he studied the morass of belts, hoses, valves, and other gadgets. In all the time Mark had spent with Jason at the track, he'd never made sense of all the terminology. Plane engines were so much simpler, so much more understandable.

Mark said, "So--?"

"When I know, I'll tell you." Jason had an edge to his voice that chilled Mark, who walked to the back of the car and radioed the Chief.

The Chief said, "Do you want me to send an ISO road crew up to you?"

"He sounds like he'll get it fixed." Mark glanced dubiously at his brother up by the engine. "I'll call if it gets to that point."

By now it was a little past one. In the August heat, the shoulder of the highway afforded little by way of shade. Mark found himself sweating uncomfortably, and he pulled the bottle of water out from between the front seats. It didn't taste like New York water, and it was already lukewarm. He handed the bottle to Jason, who took three long swallows before handing it back.

"Well?"

"Well," and Jason folded his arms, "it's a good thing you don't have anyplace to go tonight."

"That bad?"

"What do you think, Sherlock?" Jason put his head back into the engine and kept prodding things Mark could barely name. When no further answer came, Mark opened the trunk and took the duffel bag with all Jason's tools. He deposited it near Jason's feet, but even when Jason started withdrawing various implements and tinkering, he said nothing.

Half an hour later, Jason had stripped to the waist as he clambered all over the car, under the car, under the dashboard, and back over the engine again. Nothing he did coaxed the engine to restart. Mark leaned against the rear quarter-panel and watched drivers pass at unbelievable speeds. Every so often, the car would rock with their passage. "I don't suppose it's reasonable to hope a cop would show up." He dropped his gaze to study the ground. Momentarily he radioed home again.

"Where are you?" asked the Chief.

"Still where we were. It's not looking good."

"I'll have Boston send a tow truck."

"Not yet." Mark looked again at Jason, who was fixing a malignant glare on him. "I'll be in touch."

He went back to Jason's side and drank some of the water. "The Chief wants to call a tow truck."

"I'm not conceding yet." Jason raked his hair back from his eyes, then lifted it off his neck. "Damn, it's hot. Why don't these things happen when it's seventy degrees and cloudy?" He returned his attention to the engine and kept working. It seemed to Mark that the entire day passed right in that spot, the sun burning down at them, the exhaust thickening as it grew later in the day. In reality, Jason only worked another half hour. He talked to himself and the car as he tried various avenues. He'd already fixed two smaller problems he'd come across, but neither fix had enabled a restart no matter how often Mark tried the ignition. "All right, get out again. It's no use wearing out the starter and flooding the engine." As Jason was speaking, he grimaced. "Uh-oh."

Two men in a green Mustang pulled onto the shoulder alongside them. Jason called, "We're fine. Thanks!"

Mark frowned. The passenger leaned out and said, "Rough place for a breakdown. Can we give you a hand? Maybe you can use our car phone."

Jason said, "No need. Really."

The passenger flashed a smile at Mark. "Maybe you want to come sit with us? It's hot out there, and all you're doing is standing around adding to the scenery."

Mark shook his head. "It's not a problem."

The driver said, "Are you sure? Really, if there's anything we can do for you."

The passenger added, "Or we could stay here with you to admire the scenery, blue-eyes."

Mark started when Jason laid an arm over his shoulder and drew him close. In his other hand, he gripped his wrench tightly, and he flashed a nasty smile at the passenger who still leaned out the window. "You'd better be leaving," Jason said in a sweet, dangerous voice. "He's with me."

The driver said, "Suit yourselves," and the passenger said, "Pity."

As they pulled away, Mark shrugged off Jason's arm. "What was that all about?"

"You mean you didn't know? I saw that car pass us twice." Jason rolled his eyes. "Hopeless."

Mark followed Jason back to the engine. "So--"

"Give me half a chance, okay?" Jason's eyes blazed. "You want miracles, go to the Pope."

Mark didn't bother walking away this time. It didn't take ninety more seconds until Jason threw a wrench into the bag with a clank, banged down the hood, and stomped back to the driver's seat. He slammed the door and sat, arms folded.

Mark's heart hammered. Momentarily, he went around to the passenger window. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Be my fucking guest." Jason swallowed hard. "If you can spot something I couldn't, go ahead. Save the day."

Mark hesitated a long time before returning to the front of the car. After a deep breath, he raised the radio with a shaking hand.

"Chief?"

"Go ahead."

"Send the tow truck. We're at mile marker 36 on I-90 between exits 7 and 8. We're on the right shoulder."

"I'll do that right away." The voice paused. "Are you both all right?"

"I've never seen him so upset without falling apart." Mark let the hum of the traffic swallow his voice. Then, louder, he said, "We're fine. I'll call in next from ISO-Boston."

"As long as you're all right. Let them put you up for the night. John Bartlett owes me a favor anyhow. The mechanics can take a look at the car in the morning."

Presently the Chief radioed that the tow truck would arrive in twenty minutes.

Mark slipped into the car. "The Chief sent a truck."

"Yeah." Jason kept his voice a whisper. "It makes sense." He took a sip from the water bottle, then handed it to Mark, who also took some.

When the tow truck arrived, the burly driver greeted them with a half-professional smile and a flat Boston accent. Jason said, "Just hook her up. It's hopeless."

"I can take a look," the driver said, and Jason planted his feet and folded his arms. The man was wiping a grease-stained hand on jeans even more stained. "You may be able to head on your way soon. Sometimes it looks hopeless and it really isn't."

"You don't think I tried?" Jason's face whitened, and he clenched his fists. Mark put a hand on his shoulder, but Jason wrenched free.

The driver didn't reply. But he did hook up Sweetheart without further question. The hydraulics hitched the car up the back of the truck, and only when it was safely riding piggyback did Jason consent to get into the cab.

As they drove back to Boston, Jason stared stonily ahead. The driver said, "So Director Bartlett ordered a driver special for you guys. Who are you?"

"Security agents from New York," Mark said. "We did a weekend detail up here."

"Yeah?" The driver didn't look at all interested. "And what's wrong with the car?"

"If I knew," Jason said darkly, "I would fix it."

The driver snorted.

Mark said, "He does know what he's doing." When the driver still looked disbelieving, Mark added, "He moonlights with NASCAR."

The driver perked up. "Whose team?"

"Jason Anderson."

It took a minute. Mark felt the grin creeping in at the corners of his mouth as a light came into the driver's eyes. "Wait a minute--you're Jason Anderson? That's why Bartlett said this was important! You're Chief Anderson's son!"

"For what it's worth." Jason didn't look any happier.

The rest of the ride passed mostly in uncomfortable silence. When they arrived at ISO-Boston, Jason supervised Sweetheart's unloading and made sure the car was locked securely. Director Bartlett met them again with a warm handshake, and he escorted them personally across the street to the hotel where they had stayed the last two nights. He departed when they received their rooms, and Mark thanked him for his attention. Jason said nothing.

They had adjacent quarters. Mark settled into his with little ceremony, then debated heading next door. First he called home. The Chief sounded concerned, but Mark knew Jason would have said it was only for the car itself. They had to get the G-2 back to the Phoenix. Jason had all but begged to be allowed to take her at all.

Mark said, "We could try transmuting the car. There's no reason to suspect the actual G-2 wouldn't work."

"You'd have to drive all the way home in transmute, though." Chief Anderson sounded grim. "There are other issues, too, like the fact that Jason doesn't have his bracelet, and yours might not actually trigger the G-2's mechanism. He'd have to drive in civilian clothes, and don't try to tell me he'd let you drive." When Mark chuckled wryly, the Chief added sounding grim, "At any rate, that's a very predictable route, and a very noticeable car. You'd be inviting attacks."

"What option does that leave us?" Mark paused. "If it can't be fixed, that is."

"Tow it home. I'll authorize an armed undercover escort. In an emergency, we could send the Phoenix to pick you up, but that might draw more attention than driving."

Reluctantly, Mark agreed.

The Chief also said, "You may want to raise the subject of what he'll do if the car isn't fixable.

Mark swallowed. "He'll be able to do it."

"Of course he can. It may just not be worth the effort. Or the cost. Or his time." The Chief sighed. "It'll sound better coming from you."

Mark shook his head. "Thanks. I'll talk to you again when we know more."

By now it was a quarter past four. Mark turned on the television, but nothing held his attention. He showered away the sweat from standing on the roadside in the sun, then read another chapter in his Tom Clancy novel. Finally he decided it was time to face the devil.

He knocked on Jason's door, and after a minute Jason let him in only to go back to lying on the bed, hands crossed behind his neck. It looked as if he'd dropped his bag onto the floor and then dropped himself onto the mattress. Nothing more. Mark said, "Do you want to hunt up some dinner?"

Jason's mouth twitched, and that was all the assent Mark got from him. He climbed up from the bed like a reanimated dead man, and they walked in stilted silence to the elevator.

Mark tried to solicit Jason's opinion on dinner spots, and although Jason insisted he didn't care, that at least got conversation restarted. They settled on the Ground Round at the Prudential Center and talked sports, news, and movies. Mark never brushed by the reason for their having dinner in Boston rather than at the kitchen table, not even when conversation flagged and he felt very keenly was Jason was not saying. There burned a light in Jason's eyes, and it read "This is a nontopic." But the talk itself continued enough that Mark could read Jason's mind.

After dinner, they toured downtown for a while, looked at the river, looked at the people, and browsed a bookstore with a huge music section. It hadn't yet started getting dark when they returned to the hotel.

Mark followed Jason into his room, and then stood saying nothing. Jason sat in the corner chair and raised his eyes.

Mark stared at the floor. "About the car--"

After a long moment, after Jason still hadn't said anything at all, Mark lifted his gaze and saw Jason sitting with a hollow expression. The words wouldn't come to Mark's mind, wouldn't leave his mouth. He stood with a dry and clumsy tongue, watching as Jason stared at him, only at him.

Jason whispered, "I don't know."

Mark edged over to the bed and sat. "Do you think it's really that bad?"

"I don't know." He said it this time with the hopelessness of a yes. "Damn it, Mark, I couldn't even diagnose the problem!"

Mark's eyebrows raised. "Maybe Sanders? Someone at the track?"

"I don't want to think about it now." Jason leaned back. "We'll think about it tomorrow. Hopefully the motor pool will see something I totally missed."

Mark could tell Jason thought that as likely as the Love Boat coming right through the hotel window. He ventured, "What kind of new car would you get?"

"New." Jason chuckled painfully. "I don't want a new car." He forced a smile in Mark's general direction. "I want to watch a movie with lots of explosions and then turn in."

Something in Jason's eyes--or rather, something missing from Jason's eyes--burned into the pit of Mark's stomach long after they had found a movie and taken their separate courses for the night.

 

By next afternoon, the motor pool reached the same conclusion Jason had, so they hoisted Sweetheart onto the back of a flatbed truck and issued Mark and Jason each an unmarked armed car. They would drive separately, undercover, to make sure Sweetheart made it unassaulted. This was an unnecessary precaution for a car that regularly got parked on the streets in Flushing and lower Manhattan, but Mark didn't want to risk that the vehicle could be captured simply because of the curiosity factor. If Spectra knew ISO was having a car towed, they might ask themselves why.

The cars would get returned by the same route: one on the flatbed truck, one driven by a Boston agent riding in the cab of the truck. That left Mark and Jason to drive alone, a move Mark urgently welcomed. No more of the bitter silence that loomed like a funnel cloud over lunch. A pleasant reprieve from the sarcastic retorts to the most innocent statements.

Susan had called them this morning. Jason was still supposed to be overseeing her training, and obviously he couldn't if they were in different cities. During breakfast, Mark's bracelet had chirped. "You got a minute, G-2?" Jason had taken Mark's wristband and said, "A minute," as though in the middle of important work rather than a scrambled egg, and she said, "I just wanted to say I'm sorry about the car. Good luck." Jason said, "Yeah, whatever. Thanks," and Mark resisted the urge to tell Jason that wasn't called for. He'd have gotten far worse himself.

No, so driving five hours alone more than rewarded the effort of making the drive in the first place. Sometimes Mark wondered if five hours alone in the car with a moody Jason weren't torture even for Jason.

But it made no sense, Mark reflected. Not that Jason would get upset about Sweetheart, but that he'd get so upset, that he would sit consumed in silence rather than swear and threaten. Through his whole recovery, of course, Jason had tended toward quietness and falling asleep for long stretches during the daytime. But that was in the grip of painkillers and total exhaustion. This weekend, Jason had come alive. Until the car had died, that was. Even as the life had drained out of Sweetheart, it had poured from Jason.

It's totally out of proportion, Mark thought. He needs to get a grip. I don't care how sick he's been. He's not getting away with mooning around every time the slightest thing goes wrong. It's only a car. Get over it.

The trip fulfilled Mark's expectations. He and Jason traded places near the truck every now and again to avert any suspicion, but no one hassled any of the three. A traffic jam kept them bottled up in Bridgeport for twenty minutes, but eventually they arrived. Sweetheart got dropped off in the motor pool, where it was then transferred to the deep sub-basement, Jason alongside. Mark signed both cars back over to the Boston agents, then headed upstairs to make his report.

None of the team went out of their way to speak to Jason when they gathered for dinner, and he obliged everyone by not talking. Keyop asked about the breakdown during clean-up, and Jason only snorted, "Mark was there." So it was Mark who told them about the hideous noise, the smell from the engine, and the frenzied effort to get to the shoulder. About to mention the tow truck driver recognizing Jason, Mark stopped when Jason said, "Oh--" and tossed the dish towel aside and hurried from the kitchen.

Mark picked it up and tossed it into the air with a laugh. "Come back someday when you don't have so much time."

After clean-up, Mark found Jason in the TV room talking motor parts in gusts of two hundred words per minute. Mark pretended it was a foreign language, and he leaned against the door with an amused grin as he wondered when the subtitles would appear. He could tell Jason had every one of his mental gears engaged, and although looking in Mark's direction, he probably hadn't seen him yet. He most likely saw the actual engine in front of his eyes, the way Mark could recreate the dashboard of his Cessna. He kept nodding in time to the conversation on the other end of the phone, his free hand gesturing with "hurry it up" circles. Finally he said, "Right, right, that's it!" He turned and started taking notes on a yellow legal pad. "Okay. Got it. I'll tell them. Thanks. You're a goddess. Yeah, I know. Shut up." Jason laughed. "See you Thursday." He clicked the receiver, then turned back to the pad and kept writing. Without setting down the phone, Jason dialed an extension Mark thought might be the motor pool, and he left a message Mark still didn't understand. He sounded almost happy. Mark chuckled as Jason turned around.

Jason smiled the instant he found Mark in the doorway. "I did it! As soon as you mentioned that smell when the car died, I realized what I'd been missing." He laughed out loud, a rippling relief that carried away twenty-four hours of tension. "Between me and Cassie, it took five minutes to figure out exactly what they need to do to get her running again.

Mark tilted his head. "Good job."

"Yeah. You have no idea." Jason shook his head. "I kept thinking all the way home about what you said, what kind of car I'd get. I couldn't decide. It's just not her time to go. Not so suddenly."

Mark said, "I guess there really wasn't any."

"None." Jason sighed. "Other than the fact that I always know the car's old, so in a sense it's always in danger. But this was something that just popped without warning." His eyes dropped. "I guess you never know. I always figured she'd go out in a blaze of glory, not towed dead from the roadside. One minute everything's okay, and then like that," he snapped, "it goes, and that fast, you're dead."

Mark said before he could stop himself, "Now that sounds familiar."

Abruptly Jason's eyes flared, and then as what he'd said sunk home, Jason backed into the wall and leaned, shoulders hunched, one leg tucked up against the wall for balance. Eyes closed, he wrapped his arms around themselves even as his brow furrowed and his mouth tightened into a fine bloodless line. He swallowed. Bowing his head, he shuddered.

Mark stood at the opposite wall, hands in his pockets, fiddling with the two nickels he found there. He kept his eyes locked on the floor by Jason's feet, jaw clenched. He seemed to be staring at something only he could see, and whatever it was, it held his attention with the fantastic nausea of a nightmare.

Neither spoke. Jason swallowed again, squeezed his eyes, and finally sank even further against the wall. Whatever energy had buoyed him fully deflated. "Yeah." Jason's voice dropped down to nearly silence. "So, I'll get it fixed right up." He shrugged and walked to the door.

Mark's hand snapped to grab Jason's arm. "Wait."

"Look, forget it." Jason shivered. "Thanks for putting up with everything. It was a good weekend."

"Jason--" Mark looked aside. "I'm glad everything's all right."

Jason's cheek twitched. "Me too."

Mark let go. "I didn't mean it the way it sounded."

"But you're right. It's going to keep popping up for a while, isn't it? Maybe a few more weeks." Jason folded his arms and shifted his feet. "It's stupid. I shouldn't let it get to me."

"Not stupid." Mark tried to shrug. "But no matter what happens to the car, you're safe now."

As soon as Mark said the words, he saw the change in Jason. Now there was no color in his face at all, and when he looked away from Mark, Mark still caught the abrupt shudder. Jason said, "She can't die now. It's not-- It wouldn't be fair. And I--"

"You're not going to die either." Mark sighed. "Because that really wouldn't be fair."

Jason said lowly, "In other words, 'Get over yourself, Jason.'"

Mark brushed back the hair from his eyes. "You just went through something really big. It's going to be part of who you are."

"I didn't have a choice." Jason's fingers flexed at his sides. "Another four weeks and you'll have me back on the team. Hell, in that time you may even have my car."

Mark laughed. "So no new car yet?"

This time the silence surprised Mark. Jason's eyes drifted toward the dormant television, then back to Mark, then toward the windows. "That's what this is all about, isn't it? But getting rid of Sweetheart doesn't mean I'm going to die. I guess." He looked at the carpet, then took a seat on the couch. "It-- It may be the right time to do it. There's four weeks they can go ahead and rig up a new one. You know, soup up the engine and get all the transducers in just the right spots."

Mark said, "But...you just figured out how to fix Sweetheart."

Jason shook his head. "It's not really going to get any better. I'll have a little reprieve before the next major blow-out. This was the kind of thing that, yeah, it happens once, and then everything else starts to go wrong. A little bit here, a little bit there. Nothing I can't handle, but if the car's not dependable in a crisis, I can't take chances on it, can I?" He put his face in his hands. "Damn."

After a minute, Mark went to sit on the arm of the couch. "You can still keep the car."

"And never drive it again? Like a souvenir on the shelf? Something to be dusted off every now and again when I just need to drive a real car?" Jason hesitated, then looked up. "Thanks for not saying I may love the next one just as much."

"Hey, I'm not a total asshole." Mark opened his hands. "You could drive it again after the war ends. It's just something to think about. You don't need to decide tonight."

Jason looked drawn. "Maybe I should start everything over at the same time. Be rational and ignore all this sentimental crap."

Mark put a hand on his shoulder, then stood. "I honestly don't know."

"You don't know as my brother," Jason said, "or you don't know as my commanding officer?"

Mark paused. "Do you want me to give the order?"

"Might make it easier."

As Jason rubbed his eyes again, Mark said, "You know, you really should be in bed.Yesterday was a long day, today you had that huge drive, and you're still not well. I'm probably going to get my head handed to me because you were helping dry the dishes." He folded his arms. "The only reason the Chief let you drive was he figured I'd be in the car to spell you. You haven't gotten a break at all."

Jason waved it off. "I got some sleep yesterday before dinner. You're evading the question."

"I'm allowed to when I don't have an answer." Mark frowned momentarily. "I'm going to throw the decision back at you because you know that car and its problems much better than I do."

Jason said, "Cowardice."

Mark returned the volley. "Delegation."

"Darn." Jason laughed. "What else did they teach you in Boy Scouts?"

Mark said, "Just let me know when you make up your mind."

Jason said softly, "I think I already have." His head lowered. "You'd better talk to the Chief and work out the details, how much ISO is willing to spend, how far in advance they need the car, all that."

Mark swallowed. "I'm sorry."

"Me too." Jason made an effort and drew himself up straighter. "But that's the way life goes, isn't it? You play the hand you're dealt."

Mark followed him into the hallway. "That doesn't mean it feels good. You can still change your mind."
"Sentiment's risky," Jason said with a fraudulent grin. He looked straight ahead as though he had no eyes at all. "I knew better from the start. Don't worry about me."

Mark watched him head down the hallway without another word. At his room, Jason ducked inside and shut the door. Almost immediately, Mark heard the radio. Shoulders hunched, he pivoted and headed down the other hallway, toward the Chief's office. He had to fight the urge to let his own steps fall into the rhythm coming from Jason's stereo, and the passage loomed long before him.

 

By the next Thursday, Jason summoned Mark and asked him to take the short elevator ride to the sub-basements. Because Mark suspected the reason, he didn't ask any questions. Jason talked a diversion as they went: sports, world news.

Deep underground, Mark carded them through to the garage where the G-2 stayed. They entered the brightly-lit bunker to find Sweetheart and the G-2 parked alongside one another.

Mark shook his head. Jason said, "Yeah, it's a surprise every time I see it. They uncoupled them on Tuesday." He approached the G-2 without giving a furtive, guilty glance to the old midnight-blue Nissan. "I asked the Chief to install stealth technology on the new civilian model G-2, since they're overhauling it anyhow."

"And he had five kinds of fits?"

"He pretended he didn't hear me." Jason smirked. "Anyhow, apparently I have a new car."

Jason's bracelet had been locked up with the car, and Mark unlocked it with his ID card and gave it to Jason, who hesitantly slipped into the driver's seat and detransmuted the G-2.

A moment later, he stepped out of a black Monte Carlo. His face stayed totally impassive, but Mark could see how hard he was fighting not to smile. The car had impressive styling and was a little bit longer and shorter than Sweetheart, far less boxy-looking. It gleamed in the fluorescent lighting. Mark walked around the car, noting the red stripes, the grey interior, the distinct scent of a new car.

"Is there any way you could afford this?"

"The Chief made me go over my finances with a forensic accountant, if you can believe it." Jason shook his head. "The answer is yes, barely. I'm not paying much for rent, after all, and I don't have any dependants. A couple of good races and I'd have scored the down-payment, and it would be easy to believe an idiot could think a good-luck streak would continue to infinity."

"I think that's how the United States plans its budgets." Mark ran a hand over the car. "Have you named it yet?"

Jason shrugged. "The Monte Carlo."

"Why this model?"

"Everyone has a Grand Prix nowadays. I wanted something distinct, but I didn't want anything that would really attract attention. As it is, this looks close enough to a family car."

"Makes sense." Mark shrugged. "You could have gotten a Thunderbird."

Jason patted him condescendingly on the shoulder. "You keep thinking that." Mark shook his head. Jason continued, "They're retooling the engine. This car gets about 300 hp off the showroom floor, but we're going to get it up to about 400 without too much effort. It'll go zero to sixty-five in about three seconds by the time they're done with it. Since they're doing all this work anyhow, I'm making them change the shift from a standard to a manual."

Mark said, "You're an addict."

"Half the car-thieves in New York can't work a standard transmission. It's just common sense." Jason put his hands in his pockets. "They're putting a less annoying alarm system on it, and doing something funny to the windows so they don't register as illegal on a tint-meter--but they'll still be very dark. As you can see, they managed to get the transducers on it for the transmutation without too much hassle. They still need to fine-tune them, but for the most part the car is functional."

Mark nodded. Jason still hadn't turned his head to look at Sweetheart.

"What are you going to do with the other car?"

Jason took a deep breath. "I can't keep two."

"Why not?"

"I need to be driving this one. This is the car that needs to be with me all the time."

"You can keep Sweetheart garaged at the track. Kind of like a hobby car."

Jason said, "Oh, that makes sense. She's not exactly a trophy."

"Are you going to find some dumb sixteen year old and sell it to him?"

Jason snickered. "No one's going to get that lucky ever again. But it's better just to make a clean break and get rid of her."

Mark said, "You realize that if you don't keep the car, we have to melt it down."

Jason turned. "Why?"

"The car was fitted for the transmutation cycle. If Spectra somehow managed to get ahold of it, they might conceivably be able to figure out--"

"They couldn't! There are just empty spaces where the transducers used to be, and--"

"--and given everything that's at stake, this car is a security hazard in anyone else's hands but yours. Period. If you don't keep the car as a car, you can keep it as a paperweight."

Jason's breath caught. "But--"

Momentarily, Mark said, "So keep it. Rent out a garage at the track and lock her inside tight and take her around the track on weekends. It'd be a shame to waste all those metric tools you have, right? Keep her until after the war's over and you don't need the Monte Carlo any longer. It's not a gallon of milk--it's not going to spoil. You'll know how to store a car so it doesn't rot to pieces in the interim. And even if it does," Mark added, "who'd be able to tell?"

Jason folded his arms. "I can't wait until that damned Thunderbird of yours hits three years old. You'll have no idea what to do with it." He walked over to Sweetheart and looked her over from hood to trunk, almost with an appraising eye. Mark waited. Jason said, "I don't know."

"These aren't wives. You can have two of them."

"They're more expensive than a wife." Jason laughed lowly. "I'll think about it. I won't get rid of her right away."

And that, Mark knew, meant he was already figuring out where he could garage Sweetheart and if he could possibly get her in condition for short-track races out in Queens or north Jersey. On the way out of the garage, Jason turned back and glanced at the Monte Carlo again. Although he did try, he couldn't quite hide all of the timid, glad-to-meet-you smile.

 

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