Jason awoke to dazzling sunlight pouring through the thin curtains of his trailer, and the sensation that it was very much past time to get up. He rolled over and squinted at the clock. Ten a.m., and his birthday.
He was half way through his first mug of decaf of the day when two nasty memories surfaced. First, that if it was his birthday it must be Monday, and therefore he should have been in a meeting a little over an hour ago. Second, that he had in fact set his alarm, and had casually rolled over and switched it off when it went off at eight.
It had only been his clock alarm, though. If Mark had wanted him in the meeting that bad, he could have sent a scramble when he didn't show. A quick check reassured him there hadn't been one. He never had slept through a scramble. He didn't think it was physically possible.
He didn't normally sleep through his clock alarm either, but this week had been especially tough. Three missions in five days, the last of them yesterday when they'd finally managed to nail the mecha which had been picking off specialist fuel transports. They'd been back in time for him to take part in, and win, the final race in the final meet of the season, and then the entire racing team had stayed on for the end-of-season party. As ISO Racing's top points-scorer, he really couldn't have cried off without it being very suspicious. Suspicious was bad. Suspicious might lead to people doing more than roll their eyes and comment how unsociable that Jason kid was. They might wonder where he'd been, all the times he'd failed to show or declined to do so. They might start checking against other things. Known dates of G-Force missions, for instance.
So he'd gone to the party, even if all he really wanted to do was sleep. He'd enjoyed it to the extent that he'd been startled when he'd walked out of the commandeered ISO Racing workshop to a glorious dawn and discovered it was nearly five in the morning.
Decaf wouldn't make him any more awake - nothing apart from multiple significant amounts of sleep not punctuated by running his implant flat would do that at this point - but it did make him feel better. No point going to the meeting now. He'd show his face at ISO later on, pretend he cared about what had been discussed, get some lunch cooked by someone else, and then go nap in his quarters there for a while.
He wandered into the ready room at nearly midday to find the rest of the team all there, variously sprawled in chairs and sofas. The conversation stopped instantly, making it entirely clear who its subject had been.
"Sleep well?" asked Tiny with a grin.
"Yeah. For a whole five hours."
Their pilot took a theatrical look at his watch, miming counting back the hours. "And you were doing what at that time of the morning?"
Jason rolled his eyes. "Dissecting my last race victory and trying to persuade a young twit called Luis that no, I really wasn't going to try his favourite cocktail."
"I'm so sorry, Jase," Princess said from her seat at the table. "I haven't been near a shop. I don't even have a card for you. Happy birthday."
Keyop sniggered. "Special celebration."
And Keyop looked at him and cracked up.
Jason folded his arms and glared, not at Keyop, but at his commander, who was looking far too innocent. "Okay, Mark, what's going on?"
Mark abandoned his flight magazine and grimaced. "Spectra's at it again. Do you remember Colonel James?"
"James? Mr Annoying Fashion Designer who turned out to be an ISO plant?"
"That's him. He thinks there may be a Spectran hit planned for Danquana's next fashion show. It's tomorrow."
Jason shrugged. "So we have to go sit through a bunch of stick insects wiggling their hips down the catwalk. I'll live."
Mark looked at the floor, in a way which was never good. "Um...no, that isn't exactly what we've been asked to do..."
"No. No." Jason felt himself recoil physically, and did nothing to hide it. "There is no way in hell."
"We don't get to pick and choose our missions. You know that."
"That's all very well for you to say. You're the actor - why don't you do it?"
"It wouldn't work," Princess put in. "Body shape. James said it right up front, when he was being Danquana. Mark's got too much obvious muscle. Nobody would ever believe he was a model. Jason's the right build."
Jason redirected his glare, but he knew she was right. He'd played on it for years, letting people see 'slight' rather than 'lean'. A baggy sweatshirt, jeans which weren't quite skin-tight, and the fact he had almost no body fat was so much more obvious than the fact he had muscle definition to die for. If he did say so himself.
He considered what little he knew about fashion modelling. It didn't help.
"I can't do it," he said. "I can't. I've no experience. It will show."
"I said that." Tiny had retreated to the kitchen area, and now handed him a cup of coffee. It was probably intended as a peace offering. "There's a practice tonight."
"A practice? You mean I have to go mince up and down the catwalk on my birthday - is that what Keyop was getting at? Wonderful. Any more revelations?"
"Just that one. I really am sorry, Jase. I'd do it if I could. I'll take you to the practice, in any case."
Jason snorted. "I can complete my new image by saying you're the love of my life. Oh, man. Can we really not send a couple of ISO security teams instead?"
"We really can't." Mark waved a datastick at him. "Do you want to read the entire report? Seems only fair, after you missed sitting through it this morning."
Jason didn't reach for it. Instead he sat down and took a long, deliberate swallow of his coffee. "I think I'll give it a miss. Tell me the important points. Consider it your birthday present to me."
"Jase, I'm sorry," Mark said again.
He shrugged. "Forget it. I'll do my job. It isn't the first crappy birthday I've had and I doubt it'll be the last."
He paid perfunctory attention as Mark ran through what he suspected had taken Anderson far longer to deliver. There wasn't a great deal to it other than one man's suspicion. However, that one man was Colonel James. He'd spent over a year on Spectra masquerading as Danquana, fashion designer extraordinaire, trusted with designing uniforms for Zoltar's mecha captains. He'd lived among the enemy and, as far as they were aware, had defected twice, once in each direction. If he said his life was in danger, it probably was. James was no fool, and what he did was something Jason would have liked even less than prancing down a catwalk. He could put up with making a fool of himself for a couple of evenings.
Much to his relief, nobody else in black section mentioned it, though he did overhear a couple of discussions of James and heightened security arrangements. A few slightly nervous 'happy birthday' comments were the most anyone said directly to him. Not a mention of his own role in these 'security arrangements'. His reputation tended to do that to people.
No cracks at lunch either, though Keyop was still dissolving every time he looked at him. Jason just sighed. There were times when the Swallow's immaturity could be deeply annoying. Then again, had the tables been turned, he'd probably have been the one making the jokes. He'd live. In twelve hours this practice would be over and at least he'd know what was involved for the following day. And the canteen was serving lasagne, which improved his mood no end. He could do this.
"Hey, Jason! You still with us?"
He blinked hard. "Yeah. What?"
Mark grinned at him. "Makes my point for me. You're half asleep still. I'm cancelling this afternoon's training, since we may need our wits about us tonight. Go crash."
"I can cope."
"Sure you can. I'd rather we were all back to full capability than coping. Anyone here think they're back to a hundred percent?"
Even Keyop didn't respond.
"Sorted, then. Afternoon naps all round. Jase, I'll come get you at seven."
"You said eight. How far away is it?"
"James wants to talk to you first. It's what Danquana does for all his new models, apparently."
Keyop dissolved again, and Jason glared. "Just you wait, kid."
Mark was using him as an excuse, Jason decided as he kicked off his shoes and sagged to lie full-length on the rarely-used bed in his quarters. They were all bone-weary, after three closely spaced missions. The implant people might claim a recharge period of less than a day, but Jason certainly found that there was a buildup of fatigue if he had to use it extensively and repeatedly instead of having several days between missions. Or maybe it was his body complaining and not the implant at all. Either way, he badly needed the rest, and was pretty sure he wasn't the only one.
He woke to a hammering on the door, and for a moment he had no idea where he was or why. Then reality reasserted itself and he groaned. The half-formed dreams of purple and orange minimal outfits probably were reality.
"What?" he called, not bothering to even try to sound awake.
"Seven o'clock, Jase. Rise and shine." Mark sounded amused.
"Coming," he grumbled, not least because he'd just given Mark another piece of ammunition in his ongoing 'I need less rest than you' campaign. Quick strip and change, shoes on, and he joined his commander in the corridor.
"Tell me I didn't need to dress up for this."
Mark, wearing white jeans and a shirt with an actual collar and pale blue office stripes, shrugged. "You get clothes provided. I get to sit in the back and be eyed up. I felt the need not to look underage. Hungry?"
"I'm fine." Food was not high on the agenda.
"You're nervous as hell," Mark said. "I'll drive. I need a reason to be there. Other than being the love of your life, of course."
"No way the love of my life would wear that shirt."
Mark grinned. "You'll be fine. Come on."
He'd never have admitted it, but he was glad not to be driving. Driving would have left him with nothing else to think about but what he was heading into. Not driving meant he could think about Mark's driving technique. Which had certainly improved, he had to admit. But it was still...careful. Jason had the strong impression that his commander was concentrating on coordinating every movement, and that if asked to navigate, or shoot, or do anything else at all, it would suddenly have become a lot less impressive.
"Why the hell is James still Danquana?" he asked.
Mark jumped and, as Jason had suspected, his hands tensed on the wheel and his line on the road became just a little bit less perfect. "What?"
"Why is he still undercover? Danquana defected back to us months ago."
"But Zoltar doesn't know he was a plant. If he discovered ISO got a man that close to him, he might pay more attention to the other humans who work for him."
"There are others?"
"Where did you think our intelligence comes from?"
Jason considered making his usual crack about military intelligence, but in the context of people who were working directly in Zoltar's employ and passing information back to ISO it didn't seem quite so funny. He hadn't considered that.
And then Mark indicated to turn left before they'd got anywhere near town, and all thoughts of strategy and espionage were gone.
"We're going to Jill's?"
"Didn't I say? Jill was over the moon about getting to meet Danquana, and it means Princess and Keyop are just upstairs in case we need them."
They pulled into the car park, and Jason swallowed hard. How many people did a rehearsal for a fashion show take? He'd expected it to consist of him, James, and maybe four or five others. There were twenty, maybe thirty vehicles here.
Somehow there was a space just next to the front door. Mark pulled into it, stopped dead, handbrake on, all in ISO approved style. "Ready?"
Oh, for a bird scramble right now.
He followed Mark to the door, wishing he'd taken their acting lessons more seriously. It had never seemed important. Mark was so darn good at it, why would it need two of them?
He did, however, practice not looking terrified on a regular basis. Jason squared his shoulders, answered Mark's questioning look with a sardonic grin of his own, opened the door and strode in.
The babble fell silent. The room looked nothing like the catwalk he'd been expecting. He recognised everyone he could see. And then there was a cheer in what was unmistakably Tiny's voice, and a cry of "Happy Birthday!"
He turned to Mark, who had slipped quietly in behind him and closed the door, and was now wearing a particularly satisfied smirk.
"I am going to kill you."
"So he didn't suspect anything, then?" Dave O'Leary, one of their Team Seven colleagues, extricated himself from the crowd and presented the pair of them with glasses. Dave, Jason noted, had the sense not to try to give him alcohol. Of course, Dave was just as underage as he was, and their Team Seven commanding officer was barely five yards away, in cheerful conversation with Carl from ISO Racing.
Was everyone who he knew here?
"Not a thing," said Mark cheerfully.
"How did you get him here?"
"Oh, I told him he was coming to an audition for the next male supermodel." Mark delivered it completely deadpan, and Dave sniggered.
"No, really. What did you tell him?"
Mark smiled and took a swallow of his juice, and abruptly there were arms around Jason's neck.
"Happy birthday," whispered Princess in his ear. "Do you like your party?"
He wondered what she'd say if he told her it was the first birthday party he'd ever had, surprise or otherwise.
It wasn't a wild, long-lasting party by any means. The ISO Racing contingent had been up until all hours the night before, of course, and most of them would have got up and gone to work as normal. They'd all made their apologies by nine thirty. Most of Team Seven might have been ready to party into the early hours given half a chance, but they weren't. Shortly after ten, Commander Nykinnen glanced at the clock, commented to nobody in particular that he'd heard the ISO gate guards were being particularly strict on out-of-hours access back to the base, and left.
Ten minutes later, G-Force were the only people still in the room.
"Thank you," he said, for what felt like the millionth time. "I think."
"Don't get too used to the whole party idea," Mark said. "I only realised too late just how badly this could go wrong. If we'd been called out..."
"We weren't," Tiny said, mouth full of various snackfood which he doubtless felt shouldn't be wasted.
Jason looked around the room, strewn with dropped peanuts, bits of cake, streamers and wrapping paper. He'd acquired a startlingly large collection of slightly risqué T shirts, books associated with racing, and joke mugs. "We should tidy up," he said reluctantly.
"Jill said we could leave it. Actually, the word she used was 'should'. Keyop and I will help her with it in the morning." Princess gave their youngest member a pointed glance, and Keyop grumbled inaudibly.
"Sounds fine to me." Mark headed for the door. "You coming, Jason, or do you plan to walk?"
"I'm surprised you're prepared to share a car with me, after setting me up like that."
Mark grinned cheerfully and unrepentantly. "You wanted to be sure your cover story was secure. Now your ISO Racing friends have met the people you work with in your other job and spent an evening listening to them grumbling about cancelled leave and having to work stupid hours when the alarms go off. Sorted."
You could have done that without winding me up about prancing down a catwalk. But the sensation of relief that he hadn't actually had to do it was so intense that he didn't have the will to be angry. No purple and orange catsuits. No hip-wiggling. His heartrate was finally back to somewhere near normal, and that was enough for now. All he wanted was a good night's sleep.
He felt almost human when he woke up the next morning. In bed before midnight, alarm going off at eight. He'd slept like a log, too. He didn't think he was quite back to full speed, but another relaxed day would do it.
Which inevitably meant that the scramble came twenty minutes later, just as he was finishing his coffee and considering a late cooked breakfast in the canteen. He glared at his flashing bracelet before checking the details. Priority one, briefing room two, in fifteen minutes. Not an emergency. No birdstyle required.
"What's this all about?" he asked Mark as they waited for the elevator.
His commander shrugged. "Not a clue."
"So tell me," Jason said, "what was on that memory stick you offered me yesterday?"
He got a broad grin. "My mission reports from this week."
"You mean, if I'd..."
"Like that was ever going to happen."
Jason glared. "Remind me to be less predictable."
"You could start by getting your own reports in on time? Nobody would expect that." He ducked out of the way of Jason's telegraphed punch and frowned at the elevator lights, showing it still on the ground floor. "What are they doing, rebuilding it? I'll take the stairs."
Jason eyed the distance to the top of the stairwell. "Race you."
They reached the briefing room door together, even if that was largely because Mark had gone round one of the security guards instead of through him. Paused for ten seconds by unspoken mutual agreement - they'd both been on the receiving end of Anderson's maturity lectures more than once. Calm expression, straightened shirt, and Jason followed his commander into the room.
Anderson was there already. So were the rest of G-Force. And so, rather to his surprise, was Colonel James. More acting lessons? Maybe Mark's plan hadn't been entirely based on fiction, as he'd assumed? But he still couldn't see why this was an alert rather than a scheduled meeting.
"Now that you're all here," Anderson said as they sat down, "Colonel, if you'd like to start?"
"I have a problem," said James. "As I think you were told yesterday, I believe there's a Spectran mole in my - Danquana's - organisation. Things have come to a head and there's now a direct threat, which I'll go into later. But I've come to you today because I now urgently need someone to go in and see if they can flush him out. Someone the right age and build to be one of the models." He looked straight at Jason.
Jason couldn't say anything. Couldn't breathe. He'd done all his reacting yesterday. His first thought was 'it's all part of the setup' but it couldn't be. Not given the colours the rest of the team were going. Even Mark had lost his normal ice-cool - there was disbelief written all across his face, and his jaw hung open.
"G-2?" said Anderson.
He wouldn't have a choice, no matter how much of a fuss he kicked up. He'd already done the stomach-churning adrenaline rush. And there had to be something in this for him, now that he wasn't being played. So Mark thought he'd cracked Jason's reactions, did he? Knew exactly what he'd do in every situation? Like hell.
He put on his best helpful smile, and said in as relaxed a manner as he could manage, "Sure thing, Colonel. What would you like me to do?"