Just a driver
"You have a problem," Anderson said bluntly at the start of the daily meeting. "With the formation of the Academy here, and ISO expanding at its current rate, people are going to start wondering who you are, and drawing conclusions. And at that point, you'll be vulnerable. I don't want to keep you permanently locked up inside ISO. So you all need plausible reasons to be here."
"I always tell people I work in communications," Princess said.
"That would be a plausible reason. You're only a little younger than several of our comm-techs. And Keyop's young and small enough that we can get away with saying he's a special student at the Academy who doesn't have a normal timetable. You three, though..." He glanced to his right; at Mark, sitting attentively, then at Tiny at the end of the table with his arms folded upon it, and finally to Jason slouching in the chair at his left.
Jason noted the twitch in Anderson's mouth, and deliberately didn't sit up any straighter. He'd stopped bothering to make a good impression at these things the day after G-Force had been reformed, when he'd come into this room to find Mark already in the seat he considered his own, at Anderson's right hand. Not his, he'd promptly realised. The seat of the G-Force Commander. Which wasn't him, not any more. Now, he sat in the second's chair, but he refused to pretend that he liked it. "I work at ISO Racing, remember?"
"And how does that explain that you spend half your time at HQ? Frankly, you're even more of a problem that the others. Sooner or later there will be an alert at a time when it's impossible for you to make your excuses and leave. Mark's test-piloting is similar, but involves fewer people since he only flies the top-secret craft. No, you need some sort of official reason to be called away on no notice. You need to be security operatives."
"On one of the new ISO teams?" Mark frowned. "They'll notice us getting called away too. Can we be sure that they won't be infiltrated sooner or later? I'm not sure I like the idea of telling twenty new ISO Security operatives who I am."
"We're not going to. I'm putting you on Team Seven."
"Seven?" Jason searched his memory, curiosity getting the better of his desire to be uncooperative. "There isn't a Team Seven."
"There's about to be. We need something to assign new recruits and graduates to while they find their feet. No matter how skilled they are, we can't expect anyone to go straight into an already active security team. Team Seven will be for people who are getting up to speed in a wide variety of areas."
Tiny cleared his throat self-consciously. "No offence to this team, Chief...but I think my time would be better spent getting some medical experience now we seem to be in a lull, Spectra-wise. I hope we won't need it, but..."
"That's a good point." Anderson adjusted his glasses with one hand and made notes with the other. "I'll speak to Dr Johnson. You two, though - you'll be getting your assignments in the very near future. As Tiny pointed out, it's been a little quieter recently, so I think it's a good time. I'll tell Commander Challoner that you've recently arrived from ISO Russia, Mark. Jason we'll present as just a driver."
"ISO Racing's latest hotshot and Colonel Ivanov's ward. Not exactly ideal credentials for a security team." Challoner looked them up and down, disapproval on every line of his face. If Jason hadn't been warned beforehand what the man was like, he'd have been seriously tempted to walk out there and then.
Challoner, a military officer from the old school, was a physically imposing figure at close to six and a half feet, and he clearly knew it. His shoes shone, every crease in his uniform was ruler-straight and sharp. From all accounts, he much preferred to interview people standing up, as he was now. Jason disliked him on sight. A big bully, he'd have thought - except that he'd seen the man's military record. A bully with half a brain, at least.
"I think you two are too young for this assignment. Security Chief Anderson feels differently. I expect you to repay his faith in you."
From the corner of his eye he could see Mark looking affronted. Jason instead threw the sharpest salute he could manage.
"Sir, we won't let you down. Sir!"
Challoner didn't exactly look impressed, but the frown did recede somewhat. "See that you don't. Dismissed."
"This is the worst idea ever," Mark grumbled the moment the door of Challoner's immaculately tidy office closed behind them. "Anderson should at least assign us to someone who knows who we are."
"If we're going to do this plausibly, we need to fool people like Challoner."
"And what about when we have to walk out on Challoner?"
Jason tried not to look smug - he'd had this very discussion yesterday with Colonel Ivanov. "Challoner's a hands-off guy. We'll barely see him except by appointment, and black section will fix it if we can't make one. He doesn't talk to his junior officers more than he can help. Provided we're by-the-book when we're there, he won't even notice when we're not."
Mark stopped walking and stared at him. "And you know this how?"
"I have my sources." Jason stopped too, rather than carry on and leave his commander standing in the corridor while he talked to himself. "Plus, Anderson's right. You want to spend your whole life sealed up inside black section except when you're wearing birdstyle? Because I sure as hell don't."
Mark sighed. "No, I guess not. Come on, then. Time to go play the spoiled kid."
It wasn't until they had introduced themselves to the small group of young officers in a common room clearly designed for far more, that Jason fully appreciated what Mark had meant. He himself had commented on ISO Racing when asked where his skills lay, and there had been a murmur of recognition and acknowledgement, if not exactly respect. In answer to the same question, Mark appeared entirely uncharacteristically flustered. Not a mention that he was ISO's lead test pilot on the more esoteric experimental aircraft. No mention of the years of combat and tactics training which he'd had at ISO Russia, and on which G-Force had depended more than once in the past three months. Nothing except a stammer about how his foster-father worked at the Academy. Even knowing the truth - and, much as he might resent having his command taken away, Jason had to admit that Mark was darn good at his job - Jason barely kept himself from rolling his eyes. Several of the others, thankfully out of Mark's line of sight, didn't.
"What the hell?" he asked as they left later that afternoon, with instructions to go get a standard grey ISO Security uniform and not to come near Team Seven again unless wearing it.
Mark snorted, his lips set in a tight line and eyes fixed down the corridor. "Anderson wants me to play idiot. He thinks if I admit to the piloting someone might put two and two together."
"But I can tell them I'm the best driver ISO Racing has?"
The other shrugged. "Everyone drives. Piloting's different."
"More special?" Too angry to be hurt, Jason grabbed the other's shoulder, swinging him round to face him and abruptly aware that, though he hadn't been when they'd met months earlier, since his recent growth spurt he was now significantly taller than Mark. "Get this straight, Commander. I'm not 'just' anything. You think that having a license means that you could do what I do? You're flat wrong. And so's Anderson."
Mark shook himself loose. "You're a driver. You get to say you're a driver. I'm a pilot, and I get to play idiot. Sulk all you like, Jason. I don't see how you're the one with the rough deal here."
Jason replied by lengthening his stride, forcing the other to hurry to keep up. Part of him knew he was making something out of nothing, that Mark had the harder job, that this had nothing to do with his superiors' opinion of his skills and everything to do with Mark's need to hone his acting talents for the infiltration they would surely end up needing to do sooner rather than later. It still hurt.
He put up with it in silence for the better part of a week. All of a sudden, it seemed to be everywhere. Extra kudos for pilots. Casual assumption that driving was easy. People leaving him out of conversations, or making special efforts to explain things to him. On several occasions, Jason had to resist the urge to snap that yes, he knew perfectly well how an airfoil worked, how did they think that race cars stayed on the road?
Had it always been like this? The casual condescension? Everywhere he looked, it seemed like flying mattered above all else to everyone except him. Three days of concentrated training in the Phoenix did nothing to change his opinion. The first Spectran attack on Earth had been three months ago, there had been a dozen or so since, and none of them had involved him going anywhere near a pilot's seat. Who cared how well he flew the wretched thing?
Anderson did, apparently. After Jason had crashed the simulator for the fifth time in quick succession (he didn't do well in tailwinds) Anderson favoured him with one of the worst chewings-out he'd had at ISO. He hadn't expected support from Grant, hovering disapprovingly in the corner, but he normally had some from Ivanov. This time the Russian was silent and wearing a forbidding frown. Being a crack driver wasn't good enough any more, apparently. Even though Anderson tried to dress it up, Jason could read between the lines perfectly well. Learn to pilot or be out. By tomorrow would be good.
Too furious to think straight, he ignored Tiny's offer of help and Princess's sympathy, and headed for ISO Racing. He needed an afternoon in a car, not more hours in some stupid flight simulator.
And, once there, an idea started to form. Anderson's reason for all this piloting was the need for them to cross-train so they'd be competent in one another's vehicles. Well, if he needed to learn to fly, then the rest of the team obviously needed to learn to drive.
He knew just the opportunity.
"It's a mini rally," he told Anderson at the end of their next team meeting, ignoring the evident surprise from round the table that he'd not mentioned it to any of them before. "Just a single stage, but with a variety of conditions all inside a few miles. It'll only take a few hours, not even a whole day. The ISO Racing people think I should do it."
Anderson frowned, steepling his fingers with his elbows on the table in a way that Jason had come to associate with disapproval. "This is exactly why you need a better cover. You may need to pull out at short notice."
"I know that." Jason resisted the urge to have his frown match the other's, and instead kept his expression open. "But it would be good practice - rallying's very different to track racing, and more like what I have to do for real. I just can't figure out how I'd explain pulling out to my navigator. Or how I'd even answer a call on my bracelet."
"Who's your navigator?" Mark asked.
Jason tried to hide his smile. He couldn't have asked for a better question. "I don't have one yet... hey, Mark! You could navigate for me. Solve all those problems, and get some good cross-training at the same time!"
Mark's eyes widened. "You want me? What's involved?"
"Only map reading." Jason didn't comment that said map reading was to be done while being tossed around in all three dimensions. "What do you think, Chief?"
Anderson gave him a long, hard look, which Jason tried to return in as guileless a way as possible. Finally, the Chief sighed, but the corner of his mouth twitched upwards.
"I think I know when I'm being manipulated. But I can't deny that it would be good experience for both of you. When is this race?"
Jason resisted the urge to whoop with glee. "Next weekend."
They genuinely intended to practice - or, at least, Jason did. First he'd hoped it would be for real, out on the waste ground behind ISO Racing where Jason had first been taught to handle a rally car. When time got tight, he thought they'd use the driving simulators. Fate, and Spectra, conspired against them. After a month of quiet, he'd thought it was reasonable to hope for just a few more days. But no - though he wasn't at all clear that the sudden rash of reports was due to anything other than people getting more and more jumpy and seeing things that simply weren't there. Friday evening found Jason pulling out the details of the racecourse for the first time, and explaining the basics of rally navigation. Mark didn't appear remotely interested, although that might have been mostly due to the eight hours of tedium G-Force had spent investigating rumours of Spectran activity near the Mexican border. Frequent flights of strange-looking ships, they'd been told. Several an hour. The strangest thing they'd encountered all day had been a crop-dusting plane.
"It'll be fine," Mark said finally and dismissively. "I can read a map and tell you where to go next."
"While being bounced around a rally course?" Jason instinctively straightened the race instructions that Mark had abandoned. "I'm not sure..."
"Look, Jase," and Mark's tone held more than a hint of condescension, "I'm a test pilot. I've flown a few obstacle courses, too. We don't get navigators or maps, we just remember where to go next. If you need a navigator, that's fine, I can do that for you. I think I can handle sitting in the passenger seat giving directions."
"Okay then. Fine." Jason glared, but held his temper; just about, and said no more about it. "Meet you here at eight?"
"Eight it is," Mark agreed with a yawn. "Night." He left without a backward glance.
So you can sit in the passenger seat and navigate by the seat of your pants, can you? Jason rolled his eyes to his imaginary audience - all drivers who understood, of course. You don't need a navigator yourself, because Real Men, a.k.a. pilots, memorise courses? Well, two can play at that game. He pulled the pile of notes towards him and settled down for a long evening. Photographic memory or no, memorising this lot would take him a while - Mark didn't seem to have appreciated that, unlike the air, ground-based courses had such subtleties as trees and rocks, and it was a little more complicated than just drawing a straight line between successive points. He sure didn't plan to rely on Mark's idea of navigation.
He had to remind himself several times the following morning that changing Mark's attitude was the main reason he was doing this, and that it couldn't happen until after they'd raced. He had, after all, been looking forward to it, despite knowing his navigator was far from optimal. He'd even been managing to enjoy it, at least until Mark started making a fuss about every little thing in existence. It was all wrong. From Jason's spare racing suit not fitting him properly (Mark was only half an inch bigger in the chest, for heaven's sake) to having to wear a specific type of helmet.
"Pilots get to choose --"
"Pilots get it wrong, a helmet won't make a whole lot of difference. If a car rolls, it will."
"You plan on crashing today?"
At that, his carefully controlled temper did flare. "You plan on spending it practicing your Team Seven persona?"
That was a low blow and they both knew it, but Mark flushed and turned away, putting the helmet on and allowing Jason to check it fitted properly without another complaint.
Mark insisted on driving them to the race location. Carefully and deliberately and in a manner which, to Jason, simply screamed 'amateur'. He could hardly complain, though. Mark did own the car they were in, since Anderson had insisted the G-2 be parked safely in the nose of the Phoenix for the duration. So Mark drove and Jason twitched; invisibly, he hoped.
The race location was some forty miles from ISO; inland, set in the rolling hills of someone's vast estate. Nothing massively steep, but plenty of blind bends and summits, places where if you stopped you'd never get started again, and an abundance of ditches in close proximity to the tracks just waiting for an unwary driver. He'd thought that a whole lot of people weren't going to get round today just from reading the notes. The first thing they saw on pulling into the grassy area which held the start was an assortment of tow trucks standing by to keep the tracks clear.
"That's encouraging," Mark said. "Where do we go?"
Jason had been glancing round the field, and finally spotted the ISO Racing flat-bed he was looking for over to the right, near the fence. He pointed. "Alongside that. Not too tight."
Mark spotted it, and the fact that it had ramps out the back and was starting to winch the car it held slowly down them, and gave it a very wide berth indeed. He pulled up ten feet or so away from it and slightly in front. He'd gone onto the downslope rather than stay on the flat, but Jason decided against saying anything. The day looked to be set fair; he'd have no problems getting off again.
Any unfamiliar car would have received attention. Mark's pride and joy, a bright red Alfa Romeo Spider which Jason wouldn't have touched with a bargepole, got rolled eyes and indulgent smiles from the ISO Racing crew, which turned to jaw-dropping astonishment when Jason got out of the passenger side.
"Tell me that's not yours," was Ed's opening gambit. Subtlety had never been the pit boss's middle name, and Jason sensed rather than saw Mark bridling at the implication. Taking Mark down a peg or two was his aim for today; not a stand-up fight between his boss at ISO Racing and his commander on G-Force.
"It's not mine. Ed, a word in private?"
"Sure thing, son." He jerked a thumb towards the nearest, and empty, corner of the field, away from all the vehicles and tents and the start area itself, and set off without another glance at either of them.
"Wait here," Jason instructed his quietly simmering partner, and headed off after Ed in a hurry. Wasting other people's time on race day was Not Done, and he was no longer a rookie who could get away with it.
"That's your navigator?" was Ed's opening comment as Jason drew level with him. "Tell me he's better than that car says."
Jason sighed, and it was only half faked. "Probably not. Ed, do me a favour, please? Just this once? Don't sit on him too hard. I kinda got landed with him."
"I can sort that. Carl's here. He can navigate for you. Who do you need for me to get off your back?"
Jason knew he wasn't half the actor Mark was, but he didn't need to be to look horrified. "Don't, Ed. Really don't. Have you heard of Colonel Ivanov? Mark's his son, or adopted son, or something. He's no fool either. But he's just a pilot." Saying that last line felt ridiculously sweet.
Ed stopped walking, giving him a long, searching glance. "He's a pilot? How much experience...?" He stopped. "I don't think I want to ask. Are you safe to run this one solo?"
"Yes." It had taken him the best part of three hours, but he had the course memorised as much as he thought was possible for a location he'd never seen. He'd gone through it corner by corner, deciding what a competent navigator would say and memorising that instead of the descriptions. There were times when a photographic memory came in extremely handy.
Ed shook his head disapprovingly. "I don't like it, Jason. I know this is a novice race, but it's not simple and it's designed to need a navigator. At least partly for track drivers who think they don't need one. Will humouring this guy really make a difference to you at ISO? Because it'll cost you any chance you have here."
Jason stared into the distance, row after row of rolling hills fading into midsummer haze. It hadn't occurred to him that he had any chance here in the first place - it wasn't like he'd ever put much thought into rallying. Ed's comment was more interesting than that, though. As far as Jason knew, the ISO Racing people believed him to be just a student at ISO proper. Certainly that was what Ed had been told when he'd been given a sixteen-year-old rookie to teach, back before G-Force became public knowledge or the Academy began, with its more formal courses and large numbers of students. But he could do precisely nothing about it. Either Ed had figured out who he was or he hadn't. He'd certainly never speculated or commented, and that was good enough for Jason. Still - he was thought to have a chance here? For a moment he was seriously tempted to get the older man to tell Mark he wasn't up to the navigator's job. But only for a moment.
"Mark needs the experience. And I need the brownie points for giving it to him. It'll make a difference." I hope.
"That's good enough for me." Ed didn't look convinced. "You take care, though. I want the car back here in one piece. I'd advise against breaking Ivanov's kid, too. I've heard things about that man."
Actually, his bark's worse than his bite. Jason just allowed himself to look relieved. "Thanks, Ed. I owe you one. And Mark's okay, I guess. For a pilot."
"I'll take your word for it." Ed turned and gestured expansively at the start line: two tall poles with a banner stretched between them indicating a gap between token 'walls' of hay bales. Beyond it, a dusty track twisted up the hillside and disappeared over the ridge. Beyond that, Jason knew it continued over the next ridge, but that one was heavily wooded with no sign of the track. The only other place it was visible was the last couple of hundred yards before the finish line, which was similar to the start but the other side of the official tent. Of the twenty-five miles in between - this was only a baby mini-rally, after all - he could see precisely nothing. He knew, though, that there were watersplashes down in the valleys between the ridges, and a nasty-looking falling traverse on the far side of this first one.
"It'll be in good condition, at least," Ed went on. "Good and dry - there's been no rain here for the best part of a month. There's water in the fords, though. Remember to dry your brakes out after."
Jason just nodded. Twenty-five miles, and he was totally reliant on his own memory of the course layout.
Ed must have sensed something, because suddenly there was a large hand on his shoulder. "Say the word, and Carl'll navigate for you. I'll figure something to tell the Colonel. Paperwork snafu, or something like that."
He was still tempted - but not enough. In fact, he probably should have done something like this a couple of months ago, back when Mark had bought that toy sports car of his. Now it had gone far enough that it was going to be awkward no matter what. Not that Mark didn't deserve it. 'Only a driver' indeed.
"Thanks, Ed - but I'll take Mark." He headed back towards the cars, suspecting that the other would carry on trying to find ways to help for as long as he stayed here. In any case, the rally car was now on the grass behind the truck, and he should start getting his brain in gear for the race.
Back at the car, Mark was leaning against the driver's door of the rally car with Carl alongside him, listening intently as the other alternately pointed out things in the notes and gestured at the short length of visible track. Jason wondered briefly just what level of ignorance Mark had confessed to, and then pushed it to the back of his mind. He was driving solo, and Mark, if he opened his mouth at all, would be talking to himself.
"Jason --" Carl began as he and Ed approached, his voice containing a familiar warning note. This one Carl normally reserved for 'I know this guy has a great reference, but he's not ready'.
Jason cut him off. "Come on, Mark. We need to register."
Carl glanced at him in surprise, then at Ed. Jason couldn't see Ed's expression, but Carl's became a look of resignation. "Car's ready when you are. Go book yourself a slot."
"Normally this wouldn't happen," he said in response to Mark's question as the two of them walked through the sun-bleached grass to the registration tent. It was situated fifty yards or so behind the start and surrounded by a small gaggle of stalls selling refreshments, T-shirts, and handing out adverts for various racing-related products from brake fluid to tyres to entire vehicles. Jason ignored the people attempting to give him flyers - and noted with amusement that none of the manufacturers of serious kit even tried to hand any to Mark. He just kept going and kept talking. "But this isn't a real race in that sense. I mean, they have a winner and a trophy, but the normal rules are relaxed so people can try things out. They can go round twice if they want. They can pick their own start times. Some of these guys" - he indicated the commercial stands - "will have cars here that they'll encourage the better drivers to take round, in the hopes of getting them on board full time in the future. It doesn't count for anything, points-wise. So the timeslots are first come first served instead of being allocated."
He turned and gestured broadly at the field, a vast expanse of thin grass with only a scattering of cars parked here and there. "This will be full this afternoon, but we'll be done by then. Unless you fancy having a go?" That was a calculated risk, because he was pretty sure Ed would veto it - but he did wonder whether realisation had struck Mark yet.
"I might take a crack at it," Mark said.
That'll be a no, then. Jason said no more, ducking his head to enter the marquee and heading straight for the sign-up board. As he'd suspected, there was plenty of space - though he did note that some of the people already here had already signed up for the last slots of the day. Nobody ever wanted to go early. He, though, just wanted it over and done with now. He wished he'd suggested Mark come watch a Saturday racemeet at the track. He wanted to be respected, not hated. And the longer he dragged this out now, the more likely someone was to say something that would make Mark realise he'd been played. Then Mark would simply walk away. His commander not trusting him would, he was quite sure, be the end of his G-Force career.
"How much preparation time do you need?" Mark was viewing the signup board with more trepidation than Jason had seen yet from his commander.
"Not much." He knew the car, and right now Carl would be warming the engine up. Half an hour was plenty. He scrawled his entry number and signature next to an empty slot, noting that the two ahead of it were also empty. Well, that was one advantage of going early. No chance of getting slowed down by some novice ahead of him, or someone losing it and blocking the track.
"So why am I here?" Mark asked suddenly. "Carl offered to navigate for you if I wasn't happy about it. And he's here anyway, and will notice what you do. So all that 'I can't pull out when I have a navigator' stuff was nonsense, wasn't it?"
"Anderson may think I'm the only one who needs to cross-train. I don't."
"I can drive already."
Jason forced himself not to snap back with a short and devastatingly accurate description of how that was so not true, not in any way that mattered. Instead he grinned. "Exactly. What you need now is to learn some tricks of the trade. Some of the things you can't do on the road."
The trick to persuading Mark, he was fast discovering, was not to say too much. Mark reacted extremely badly to being told what to think - an admirable characteristic, in Jason's opinion. He was, though, vulnerable to being pointed in the right direction and allowed to draw the obvious conclusion. True to form, Mark smiled back. "You're right. I guess I could use a few tips."
You could use a beginner's course - and if you'd accept that, you'd probably be quite good. Eventually. Instead, Jason clapped him on the back. "Let's go make some dust."
It really was that dry, too. Had the grass been wet the field would have been downright unpleasant to walk through. As it was it was so dry that the grass was breaking off and lying flat every time someone brushed past it. The vehicle tracks at the gateway were rapidly turning to loose rutted dry sand, and Jason knew the course would be doing exactly the same. He preferred sand to mud just from a visibility point of view, but it was possibly even more slippery, as the surface rolled away rather than gripping. That was an excellent reason to race early on in the day; currently there would still be at least some grass left in places, and grass would provide more traction than sand. A decent, experienced navigator would be able to spot which corners would be a problem and which were still in reasonably good condition, and tell him. He wasn't even going to ask Mark to try.
Carl was just climbing out of the car as they arrived back at it. "She's running great," he said to Ed, who was leaning against the back of the truck, impassive.
"Good. What time you racing?"
"Eleven," Jason said. In answer to Ed's raised eyebrows, he elaborated. "Ground's turning to dust fast where it's worn. It'll be ball-bearings by this afternoon."
Ed just nodded, which Jason took to mean that he'd passed a test, and gestured towards the car. Already it had a hint of dust dulling the paintwork; ISO grey background with a rainbow of diagonal coloured stripes from driver's side front wheel arch across the roof to the rear wheel arch on the passenger's side. Black magnetic number 17s adorned each front door and the roof. It wasn't the G-2, it wasn't even his track car which also wore number 2. But it was a tuned rally car, raw power his to command, and he could already feel himself relaxing into the required mode of calm focus with every breath he took. Internal ISO politics could take a back seat now. He was here to drive.
The car roared back to life at the first touch, and Jason went into his usual routine of checking that everything was set exactly as he liked it. He'd been lazy about it a few weeks back at the track, and had raging cramp in his right foot by the time the race ended, bad enough that he'd climbed out of the car and promptly fallen over. He'd forgotten that he'd been growing. So, he checked extra carefully.
Beside him, Mark tightened the straps on his padded five-point harness with a decidedly nervous air. Jason couldn't see his expression inside the helmet from this angle, but he felt certain that his commander was far from confident no matter how arrogant he'd sounded. He guessed that was Mark's job too. The commander of G-Force could never show weakness. Not to the enemy, or the public. But Mark needed to realise that his second-in-command fell into neither category.
"Five minutes," Ed said. "You good to go?"
In reply, Jason revved the engine and grinned, and Ed slapped his hand on the roof of the car in his customary good luck sendoff. Jason pulled away, heading for the start line. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Mark's hands clenched white-knuckle tight on his papers. Well, if all went to plan, ISO's top test pilot was about to have the white-knuckle ride of his life.
"New navigator, Jason?" the starter asked him as he stopped at the start line and wound the window down for any last official instructions.
He searched his memory, and did vaguely remember the older man, clipboard and timer switch in hand. He'd been at the finish, the last time Jason had competed in one of these. Then it had been Carl sitting beside him; calm, cool, eyes never wandering from the notes and tone never changing no matter how poorly Jason had followed his instructions.
"Yeah. Brand new."
"Good luck, then. On the green light."
There was just a single light stand here, red over green on a wobbly-looking stand newly painted bright yellow, and with one cable trailing to the switch in the starter's hand and another one disappearing into the official tent.
"The red one will blink five times," he said to Mark, never taking his eyes off the track as he wound the window back up. "Count." All his concentration was fixed on the route ahead: gentle swing left out of the start, then a harder turn right, and a gradually increasing slope until he hit the crest of the hill. That was quite far enough ahead to think.
"One," Mark said, with that deep, controlled note of certainty that he used to such effect on Spectran troops, and which Jason could cheerfully have killed him for. "Two. Three."
The world narrowed to the first corner ahead of him, his foot on the accelerator, clutch ready to engage.
If Mark said anything on the green light, Jason never heard it. He was away, flashing through the gears, piling on all the acceleration he thought he could possibly get away with on this loose surface. Running through his head; the notes he'd painstakingly memorised last night, in Carl's voice. He was vaguely aware that Mark wasn't screaming in panic, but that was all. Whether the other was shocked silent, on the wrong page entirely, or doing a darn good job, was irrelevant. Jason was driving solo today.
He noticed very little of the surrounds of the course, focused completely on the track. Previously he'd felt differently about rally driving; with no other cars to worry about, he normally saw the trees and the slopes, even glanced occasionally at longer distance views. Not today. It was just the track. Two sandy ruts in a much deeper main channel, and the scenery was mostly a blur that whipped past before he could even notice the colour. He might as well have been driving a simulator; an old-fashioned one with just a screen ahead of him and no peripheral vision. Only the physical sensation was there - g-forces slamming him against the harness on every corner, and pushing him back into the seat as he accelerated out of them.
He missed Carl. Several times he hesitated, unsure how much power he could put on going into blind bends. Once he blanked completely, and only a vague impression that Mark had said 'left' rather than anything remotely detailed triggered his memory of the steepness of the corner and the sharp downhill following it. He almost lost it completely coming out of the second watersplash; the backend shuddered and slid right, and he only barely held it and hauled round to make the next corner. He was briefly aware that his mouth was dry and his throat full of dust. Then he was back to complete focus and raw determination to keep the car on the track at all costs.
He flew over the finish line with all four wheels off the ground and skidded to a halt as soon as he'd left the controlled area, his senses alive with the sensation of glorious speed. For a solo drive, he felt that one had been not bad at all.
Only as Mark climbed unsteadily out of the car without a word did he realise that the other had in fact been silent for some while. Completely silent. Ever since the last traverse, he thought. The high speed, slippery one, where he'd thrown the car into it more sideways than forwards and let momentum take him to the point where he could apply the power to fire back up the hill. Maybe he had been a bit close to the tree on Mark's side of the car.
By the time he got round to the other side of the car, Mark wasn't silent any more. Instead he leaned against the side of the car and swore. Jason didn't recognise any of the words, but raw profanity was unmistakable in any language. Mark straightened up as he approached, yanked his helmet off and slammed it on the roof. His face was white, his hands shaking, and his hair damp with sweat.
"Jesus Christ, Jason! You know how many times I thought we were going to die?"
Jason did a quick mental tally. "Five?"
"Nearer fifty." He wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist. "Dear God, how did you keep it on the track? And I know you didn't listen to a word I said. You never planned to."
"I did plan to," he protested.
"For what, a whole five seconds? Not impressed, Jason. I'll ask you again; why am I here? So your friends could have a good laugh?"
"Go tell them they can laugh. I'll sit here and try not to throw up."
There wasn't much he could say to that. Jason walked away uncertainly for ten yards or so, then turned and looked back. Mark sat alongside the car, folded arms on his knees and his head on his arms. He was facing in the opposite direction.
"He couldn't handle it and now it's your fault?" Ed shrugged, handing Jason a polystyrene cup of hot brown liquid which implant-enhanced senses at least told him didn't contain caffeine. He'd not have gone as far as to call it coffee. "Forget him. He won't ask again, so you won't need to deal with it."
If only. Jason shook his head. "He did handle it. Not much use as a navigator, but he sat it in silence, and I didn't hang about."
"He'd make a navigator, then?" Carl asked, sitting on the grass opposite Jason with his back against the wheel of the flat-bed.
"If he wanted to, and put the time in." Jason took a careful sip of the scalding liquid, tried not to pull a face at the artificial taste, and found a flat spot in the dried grass to balance the cup to cool. "He didn't yell and he didn't throw up."
"But you'd have done a damn sight better with someone actually navigating," a familiar voice said. Mark came round the back of the truck wearing a rueful expression; still pale, but no longer furious. "Jase, I'm sorry. You're not just a driver. You're one hell of a good driver."
Mark dropped to the ground beside him. "I was such a waste of space. And my head's still spinning. Any time you want to say 'I told you so', feel free."
Jason decided to push. "So, you want to drive this afternoon?"
"What the--" Ed started to say, but Jason saw Carl kick him, and he fell silent.
Mark simply rolled his eyes. "Are you kidding me? I wouldn't get up the first hill. You said you can enter twice, though? Get a proper navigator and do it. They're setting up a bunch of screens in the big tent, and apparently there are going to be cameras out on the course this afternoon. I'll go watch there. Shame you don't have a camera in the car. I found it...kinda hard to watch what you were doing out there."
Jason glanced at his commander, but Mark certainly appeared to be sincere. "Carl? Are you up for a ride?"
There was a broad grin on the older man's face. "I sure am. I can even rig that camera, if you want. Not live, but I can give you a tape. If Jason... if Ed..."
Jason nodded, as Ed snorted. "Good for learning. You never were going to learn anything on a full speed run. You needed to do more prep, son."
Mark nodded. "I know that, now."
"This was your free shot. Next time - if there is a next time - I expect you to know what you're doing, no matter whose son you are." He heaved himself to his feet, stared pointedly at Carl until he did the same, and the two of them set off in the direction of the rally car, still parked over just outside the finish area.
Mark said something extremely rude in Russian, pitched so that only Jason could hear it. "I hate this cover story!"
"I'll bet." Jason could see him eyeing the coffee. "Go on, it's all yours. If I'm going around again, I don't need a full bladder."
Mark picked it up, took a large mouthful, and practically spat it across the scenery. "That is the worst coffee ever."
"Or maybe I just thought it was too disgusting to drink," Jason agreed with a straight face.
"Bastard." Mark sipped at it more circumspectly, the colour starting to return to his face. "I'm going to tell Anderson I'm not prepared to do it. Spend my life pretending I'm some talentless spoiled brat who's only here because Daddy pulled strings? It's not fair. Not on Ivanov either. He'd never do that."
That's exactly what he did. Demanded a place on G-Force for you in return for giving us the Rigan technology. Maybe even command. Three months ago Jason would have said it. Now, though, he knew that it had been the right decision. Their last mission, for a start - he'd been pounding the mecha with missiles to no effect whatsoever, and never even considered that the electrical discharge apparatus it was using would be vulnerable to water, such as the giant rainstorm just a few miles to the north. Once they stopped shooting (much to Jason's fury), and played bait right through the cloud, the mecha had fried itself most satisfyingly. But Jason knew he wouldn't have thought of it.
Mark was still looking at him, and Jason shrugged. "I dunno - can't you do the 'I know you think I'm only here because of Daddy, maybe that's how I got the job, but actually I'm no idiot' act? Do you have to be incompetent as well as spoiled?"
Mark grimaced. "It sounds even worse put like that, but that's about what Anderson wants." He carefully replaced the cup, still half full, in its grassy nest. "I thought maybe I could say I was just another driver. I guess not."
Not. Jason considered the other's closed expression, and imagined how he'd feel. "You could be there to learn, though. Start off incompetent and work up to useful. Isn't that what Team Seven's supposed to be for?"
"Learn a bunch of things I'm no good at while pretending I don't know one end of a plane from the other."
Jason shrugged. "I get yelled at on a daily basis for not being the world's greatest pilot while everyone says I'm just a driver. What's the difference?"
"Not much. And I'm sorry. I promise not to use 'just' and 'driver' in the same sentence again." He glanced around. "This place is filling up. If you want a slot for this afternoon, don't you need to sign up again?"
"Probably. And...Mark, you don't need to stick around if you don't want to. I can catch a ride back with Carl."
Mark snorted. "You won't get rid of me that easily. And you have a point. I'm much rather play eager learner than spoiled brat. I plan to pick the brains of, Ed, is it? Remember cross-training? We need someone who can handle the G-2 in a pinch. Now, sign in, and just talk shop so I can listen. I may not be much of a driver, but one of these days I might need to sound like one. I know I'll never fool an expert, but most people aren't experts."
Jason said nothing, just folded his legs under him and got to his feet. Mark was right; the empty spaces in the field were now few and far between, and the noise of engines was much louder than it had been. He was going to race again this afternoon with a real navigator, and, even better, he'd succeeded in the day's real objectives. Respect, not just for him, but for what he did.
It was astonishing how much difference having a navigator made. Suddenly the car was glued to the track, every corner obvious. Real speed seemed so much more relaxed than desperate rushing. The physical strains of cornering were so much less when every entry point was correct. He even briefly appreciated the view of rolling hills disappearing into the distance from the high point of the course. Golden fields of ripening crops, hillsides fading into haze, perfect cloudless blue sky, the dark green of trees in the valley ahead. And then Carl's calm voice, pitched to be clearly audible over the roar of the engine, gave him the next set of instructions. The image was gone as his focus narrowed again and he concentrated on doing exactly what his navigator said and nothing else. He was only vaguely aware that he was looking much further ahead this time, at the next corner rather than the track. He heard the instructions and the car followed them, almost as if he was watching it on a screen and it had already happened. He didn't feel as if he was driving at all. Everything was instinctive.
Jason accelerated over the last rise, this time keeping the wheels on the ground, and shot over the finish line still accelerating. Only as he pulled to a halt well out of the way did he become aware of Mark, leaping up and down like a mad thing and grinning from ear to ear as he ran out of the tent. Behind him, even Ed had cracked a smile.
"That felt pretty darn quick," Carl said.
"It did." Now, though, he felt more than a little tired. Shattered, even. He allowed Mark to haul him out of the car, talking excitedly and so fast his accent showed more than normal. Only gradually did he become aware of what the other was saying.
"You're going to win this, Jason! That was so fast. The other drivers, watching on the screens, they were impressed. Very impressed."
"Who's still to go?" he asked when he could get a word in edgeways.
"Nobody that'll touch you," Ed said.
"Jim Smith must still be out there --"
"Rolled it on the first traverse."
"And Evans was right ahead of me --"
"You didn't see him in that ditch?" Carl said.
Jason shook his head, not bothering to ask which ditch. He'd been so completely focused that every spectator on the course could have stripped naked and he'd not have noticed. Now, though, he'd had enough. He sat down abruptly in the grass, and when even that wasn't enough, simply sprawled flat on his back.
"Jason?" That was Mark, as concerned for him as he'd heard.
"Just give me a minute." Just to let his head stop spinning, his brain slow to normal speed. To start thinking like a human again, instead of a car. And to start digesting that he might actually have won this race. He'd never won before.
Even after they'd been presented with the trophy it didn't seem real. Not even after photos, and an actual journalist asking stupid questions about him, which he did his best to answer plausibly. Not even after Jim Smith, the defending champion who spent most of his time competing in real multistage rallies, came over to congratulate him and ask when he planned to turn pro.
No, what mattered was afterwards, when Ed had pointedly told them to go home while he and Carl saw to the car, and Mark's reaction was to head to the passenger's side and toss him the keys. Jason was tempted, but shook his head tiredly.
"You drive. I'm dead."
"I'm pretty sure I could learn from you, even if you are dead."
Jason grinned, feeling better with every exchange. "I can sit and make rude comments about your gear changing technique if you like."
Mark displayed a videotape, and held the passenger door open with a flourish. "How about you save it until I've watched how you do it and done some practice on the simulator. I think I'm doing everything wrong at the moment."
"For racing, yeah." Jason sagged into the passenger seat, tucking the trophy up carefully in his jacket on the floor at his feet. "But you're not going to be racing, not any time soon."
"Thank heavens." Mark started the car and pulled away - rather better, Jason thought, than he had done this morning. Pointers from Ed? Quite possibly. But he could certainly understand his commander's reluctance to having his technique analysed all the way home.
They were about half-way back, onto the bigger roads, and Jason was near to dozing, when Mark broke the silence.
"Jason? You awake?"
He dragged his eyes open. "Just about."
"I think you should know why Anderson's more on your back than anyone else's about this cross-training."
"Apart from because driving doesn't count?"
Mark sighed, pulled over, and stopped the engine. "Because after Tiny you're the best Phoenix pilot of all of us."
That woke him up in a hurry. "You're kidding me."
"I wish I was." There was definite embarrassment, both in Mark's tone and in his expression. "Princess is too nervy, Keyop's too inconsistent, and when it comes down to it my instincts are all wrong. I'm tuned for fast jets. The Phoenix is about as far from that as you can get."
"Anderson wants me to copilot the Phoenix?"
"No. That I can do just fine. What we need is someone to take Tiny's seat in an emergency. And...even if I got the flying up to scratch, I'm not the world's greatest at doing two things at once. If I'm flying something I have to concentrate on, tactics go out the window."
And we need your tactical knowledge, because mine sucks. Jason gulped. "I'm gonna need a lot of work. I'm just a driver."
"Now you're the one saying it." Mark locked eyes with him. "I'm not expecting miracles, and I'll help any way I can. So will Tiny." He laughed, a little self-consciously. "I just had a first-hand lesson that none of us can just step into someone else's role."
"Anderson expects miracles." Jason clenched his jaw, remembering his humiliation from earlier that week.
"Anderson knows our lives might depend on it. Don't be too hard on him, Jason."
"Me? Hard on him?"
"True." There was a long pause, while Mark looked straight ahead of him down the long, straight road. A single car approached, doing considerably more than the legal limit, and whipped past them. It had retreated into the distance before he spoke again. "I haven't always stood up for you, and I'm sorry. He does get on your back more than the rest of us. I'll try to keep him fair."
"I can fight my own battles."
"We all can. But when you're in a team, you shouldn't have to." Mark indicated the trophy at Jason's feet. "You're one hell of a good driver on your own. But give you a decent navigator and you're unbeatable. G-Force needs to work that way. You and me especially. We have to act as one. And then we really will be invincible."
Jason snorted. "And now you really are getting corny."
"Corny or not, it's true. We have to start backing each other up, not finding ways to score points off each other. It's Spectra we need to fight. So I'll do you a deal. You spend this evening in the Phoenix simulator, and I'll spend it in the driving simulator. Deal?"
Jason groaned and rolled his eyes. "Deal."
"And one more thing. If you ever set me up like that again, I will personally beat the crap out of you."
At that, Jason grinned. No pushover, Mark. No idiot. No daddy's boy, only there because of who he was. Just his commander, who had the job because he was the best man for it. The head of their team. And his friend, now, one of five with a job to do if they were to save the planet.
The five of them, acting as one. Not just five skilled individuals, but five people who compensated for one another's weaknesses, who could take over for one another if necessary. No more competition. No more one-upmanship. Just the team. Mark was right; it was what they needed, and it was worth any amount of personal sacrifice. If, for him, that meant more flying and less driving, then that was the way it had to be.
But, as the car's engine started again and they pulled away, he couldn't help just a twinge of envy that it was Mark who'd get to spend all his time in the driving simulator, and not him.