"Team," Anderson said as soon as we were all assembled. "One of our field agents has been in contact with a person who has information on Spectra that she is willing to give us."
"In exchange for?" Mark asked. People rarely give up such information unless there's something in it for them. And even if you promised them what they asked for, you still had to protect yourself in the event they were lying.
"Protection," Anderson said. "Provided the information she gives us is valid." Offering protection is how you weed out the true informants from the mercenaries. Money might come later.
Then Chief Anderson went to the computer. I heard the furious clicking of his mouse. When he turned on the overhead projector, he brought up a photograph of a girl wearing a sullen expression.
My blood ran cold.
I remembered that girl.
Lucy. Her name was Lucy. I used to race with her and I dated her for a bit. Her dad runs my racing team. Lucy and I drifted apart. It's hard to carry on a romantic relationship with a civilian in my line of work. No. It's damned near impossible.
"Jason," Chief Anderson said sharply, startling me from my thoughts. I looked up at him quizzically. I heard Keyop and Tiny snicker.
"I've entered you in the Africa 9000 rally race," Chief Anderson told me. "I pulled some strings to make sure that Lucy is your racing partner. Your job is to get her to disclose the information she has."
"How will Jason do this without arousing suspicion?" Princess asked. I was wondering the same thing myself.
"I know Lucy from the racing circuit," I said.
"Exactly," Chief Anderson added. "Jason is familiar and trustworthy in her eyes. She may be more willing to open up to him."
Then he turned to me. "It won't be easy. You must try and get this information without blowing your cover. Lucy must not know that you are G2 from G-Force or that you work for the Galaxy Security branch of the International Science Organization."
Great. I had my work cut out for me. One thing I had going in my favor was that Lucy didn't know back then what I did or who I worked for.
Then Anderson turned to address the rest of the team. "I suspect that Spectra isn't going to take this lightly and that they may try to prevent her from talking. The rest of you will keep watch from a distance and intervene, when needed. It's not important that Jason wins this race. It's more important that he and Lucy finish the race and she discloses what she knows."
"Got it," Mark said.
"Jason, there will be a recording device in the car. People on the ground will be monitoring the transmission, in case Lucy divulges any important information. All you need to do is to get her to talk."
"When is this race?" asked Princess.
"In five days," Chief Anderson replied. "It doesn't give much time for Jason to prepare for the race itself. The race itself lasts for five days. You'll have five days to get the information from Lucy. "
"I'll be fine," I dismissed the concern with a wave of my hand. I really wasn't worried and I wasn't just pretending to not be in order to reassure the others. Anderson didn't know Lucy.
When we were dismissed, I headed straight for my trailer. Old feelings surfaced. Memories came flooding back-of the good times and the bad times. We grew apart. She'd disappeared. Nobody, not even her family, had any idea where she went.
There was unfinished business. Wounds that hadn't healed properly. It was my way to just go about and pretend they didn't exist. Except you can't. Unresolved issues have a way of reminding you to resolve them until you actually do it. Except I needed Lucy's presence to heal mine.
Maybe I'd finally get the resolution I hadn't realized I needed.
Pre-race was always chaos. Drivers stood in front of their cars, posing, and some even preening for the camera. I ignored most of this as I made my way through the throngs of people. I wished that I could drive my own car, but it was important to maintain my cover. Lucy did not know that I was a member of G-Force.
That was one of the things that came between us actually. Once the team was activated, I spent less time with her. I suppose it was easier to just not see her than have to face a barrage of questions about where I was and who I was with. She'd always asked that. I don't know why she was so suspicious or insecure. It's not that I ever gave her a reason to be suspicious.
I finally spied the car. It was a sleek, yellow and orange car. I walked up to the driver's side door.
Lucy looked...different. Older. Cynical. She wore her caramel colored hair in a bob. She used to always wear it long, usually pulled back into a pony tail. I'd see her moving around in the pits during practice and that pony tail always bobbed as she moved.
Lucy was in the driver's seat and she quickly stowed the large gun she'd been holding in her hands behind the seat. The gun was military grade and I knew how hard that particular model recoiled when the person holding it pulled the trigger. I'd seen new recruits at Camp Parker learn to shoot those guns. It took a good amount of physical strength to be knocked over by the recoil. Some of those recruits couldn't handle it.
She didn't want me to see the gun, but it was too late. I saw it. Lucy was still suspicious. She hadn't changed in that regard.
"Sorry I'm late," I said after I greeted her. "It's been awhile, hasn't it?"
She merely nodded. We hadn't seen each other in a few years.
"Nice gun," I remarked. "What's it for?"
"You never can tell," she said smoothly. She said something about protection and wild animals. I hardly heard that part.
"We're driving a race," I pointed out. I tried to keep my tone light. "Not going on a safari."
Lucy guided the car up the ramp and as soon as the flag dropped, she hit the pedal hard and the car shot ahead. Lucy held the steering wheel tightly in her hands and the look on her face was, I can only describe it as intense. But intense isn't an adequate word to describe it. Maybe ruthless is a better word?
Her intensity, to be honest, bothered me and I wasn't sure, at that moment, why it bothered me. It hadn't bothered me in the past. Why now?
Maybe it's because of what I know now about her and her ties to Spectra. There's a nagging thought in my mind that this whole set-up, the race, the divulging of secrets, is a trap. Now I know why the gun makes me uneasy. Lucy may very well use it on me.
I'm not a diplomat. I admit it. I am impatient, but not for the reasons everyone else likes to think. It's not because I want to be in charge or lead G-Force. It's not because I'm "hot-headed".
It's because I can't stand feeling helpless. I really can't stand being put into a position where I'm nothing but helpless. I can admit this to myself, but I can't admit it to anyone else. Not the Chief and not Mark. It's pride. I'd rather let them think I'm impatient and wanting to take command of G-Force than admit that I can't stand feeling helpless.
Animals ran around the car. Their thundering hooves startled me from my thoughts. Lucy's jaw tightened as she hit the gas pedal. Either the car shot ahead or the animals dropped back. The timing of both was so exquisitely close, it was difficult to tell.
Lucy stopped the car and looked back.
What was she doing? We have a race! We can't waste time.
Suddenly, the giraffes...whirled? I don't know how else to describe it. When they stopped spinning, they were robots. One of the robot giraffes shot lasers from its...head? It was aiming for the car, but hit the grass next to the rear passenger side tire.
Spectra. They knew that Lucy was here.
"Drive!" Lucy barked at me. I responded more to the tone than the word.
When I got into the driver's seat, I hit the gas. At the same time, Lucy reached behind the seat for the gun. The back window lowered and then she stuck the muzzle out, firing at those robot giraffes. Their heads were hinged to the front of their necks. The heads dropped, turning their long, metal necks into large guns. They were shooting missiles at us.
They knew. I think Lucy knew, too.
I had no doubt in my mind that this was Spectra's doing. This put a wrinkle in the plan. They knew. They knew, at least, that Lucy was going to divulge information on them. It was no coincidence that a bunch of robotic giraffes suddenly showed up and began chasing us. I had no way of contacting Mark or the others to let them know about this complication that wouldn't involve me blowing my cover.
Lucy picked off the robot giraffes with relative ease. "You're a real dead shot," I remarked.
"Stick to your driving," Lucy said tersely.
There was one left. The angle was bad and Lucy couldn't shoot at it. I gunned the car through a thick grove of trees. The robot followed us. I turned the wheel hard and hit the brakes, putting the car into the position where Lucy could get off a shot.
She did. The last giraffe was destroyed.
I was tempted to ask her if this was why she brought the gun. I didn't because she suddenly pointed the gun at something else. My eyes followed the invisible path from the end of the gun's muzzle to the intended target.
It was the Phoenix.
Although her gun was powerful, I don't think it had enough firepower to take down the Phoenix. At most, it might ding the hull.
"What are you doing?" I asked as I grabbed the muzzle and pushed it down and away.
"Don't you see it?" she said. "It's an enemy plane."
"It's not an enemy plane," I said. "That's G-Force. You're just being paranoid."
"Why should I believe that G-Force is trying to protect us?" Lucy shot back.
I had no answer for her.
We drove into a rain storm. I was still at the wheel. We didn't meet up with anymore robotic animals. I drove while Lucy played navigator.
I thought that this might be a good time to see what kind of information I could get from Lucy. Her behavior from earlier told me that getting her to talk without making her suspicious was not going to be easy.
I decided to try small talk instead.
"How are your folks doing? The rest of the family?" I asked.
"I can take over driving," Lucy said. "If you're ready for a break."
So much for small talk. I tried another tactic.
"Since Spectra is after us, maybe we should quit the rally," I suggested.
That was the wrong thing to say.
"I'm not quitting," Lucy said ruthlessly. "Shut up and drive, Jason."
I said nothing more. I honestly didn't want to quit the rally. Racing is so deep in my blood. Plus I'm not a quitter. I only suggested it because I wanted to gauge Lucy's mood and intention. I glanced at the side mirror and I saw the Phoenix was still following us.
The rain continued through the night and it made traveling off-road difficult. We stopped for the night. You can do this in a rally race, because your time is based upon when you hit the checkpoints and the amount of time between all the time stamps in your log book.
By the time we were ready to resume the race, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. Our car was mired in the mud.
Lucy took the wheel while I pushed. Mud, rocks and water sprayed up from the back wheels. Some of it hit me. The car would not budge. The harder she pushed down on the gas, the faster the back wheels spun making the ruts deeper. If only we had a tow rope or something.
"It's no use," I said, shouting to be heard above the roaring engine. "It won't move."
Lucy poked her head out the driver's side window. "Are you sure you're using all your muscles?"
She seemed to be in a better mood today than yesterday. She almost sounded like she was trying to flirt with me. If we were in a different time and a different place, I might have flirted back. I had a race to win and a mission to carry out.
"Okay," I said. "You try, Super Girl."
I turned around and leaned against the back bumper with my arms in front of me. Lucy kept hitting the gas and spinning the back wheels. The ruts became even deeper. At this rate, we'll need a crane to pull us out.
Then I saw it. At first, it was just a flash of light. Then I heard the thundering sound as a giant, robotic rhinoceros came charging towards me. I jumped up and narrowly missed being gored. I landed in the passenger's seat at the same time the force from the rhino's momentum pushed the car out of the mud. Lucy hit the gas and we were off. But we weren't out of the woods, yet. The rhino kept chasing us.
I glanced out of the side mirror and I could see only part of the beast chasing us. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I saw the Phoenix swoop down and scoop up the rhino on its port side wing pod. The ship then flew off. Lucy stopped the car. She looked up at the departing ship.
"G-Force," she said with a bit of contempt.
I'd grown impatient with her caginess and mood swings at this point. I was getting nowhere and time was not on my side.
"Look," I said. "You know and I know that Spectra is behind those robot animals. I'm not blind, Lucy, nor am I stupid. You knew they were going to come after you, didn't you?"
Lucy said nothing.
"Answer me, Lucy. You knew."
There was a lengthy silence. Lucy wouldn't look at me. I knew I was getting to her.
"Yes," she said finally. "I knew." Then she swallowed nervously.
I've never seen Lucy nervous. Ever. She was always good at covering up any feelings she thought signaled weakness.
"What I'm about to say, Jason, goes no further than this car," she said in a tight voice. I waited for her to speak.
"Spectra is after me, Jason."
"Why?" Of course, I already knew why. I wanted her to say it out loud. I wanted Gal-Sec to get this recorded.
"It's a long story."
"I've got the time," I said tersely. We switched places and I took the wheel.
She waited until we were moving before continuing. "Don't be mad at me, Jason," she said.
"Why would I be mad at you?" Truthfully, I had been angry when I first heard about Lucy's involvement with the enemy. I've had enough time to process the information and put it in its proper compartment so I could carry out this mission.
"Because I did something stupid," she said. "You asked about my family before. They don't know where I am."
"What did you do?" I asked. Come on. Say it, Lucy. Just say it.
"I joined Spectra."
Knowing this already and hearing Lucy say this are two completely different things. I had to bite back the angry remark that was on the tip of my tongue. It was stupid. It was extremely stupid.
I knew Lucy's family. They would be devastated.
I also knew Spectra. Things aren't looking good for Lucy at all.
"Look," she said, her voice catching. "I know it was stupid. But I couldn't help it. They're smart. They know exactly where your weaknesses are and then they go in for the kill."
"And what were yours?" I asked.
"It doesn't matter now," Lucy said.
Actually, it does. I didn't say this out loud. "How did they get to you?" I asked instead.
Lucy told the story of how she ended up being recruited by Spectra. They used the tried and true psychological methods that cult leaders use to recruit members. At the time that Lucy joined up, she and I had just split.
"By the time I realized what I'd gotten myself into, it was too late," she said. "If they catch me, I'm dead."
That was true. The only way out of Spectra is death. If you're lucky, you might even get to have a body bag.
Then the ruthlessness and the intensity returned to her face. "If I'm going down, they're going down with me," she said. "I know things about them."
"What things?" I asked.
She would say no more after that.
As it was getting dark, we switched places and she drove. I was getting tired anyway. I settled back into the seat.
"I'm going to have to gun it to make up for lost time," Lucy said.
So much for sleeping.
"We should be getting to the next checkpoint soon," I said.
Lucy kept her eyes on the road. "Even with all of our problems, I think we're still making good time."
The time didn't matter to me at this point. After Lucy's earlier confession, she wouldn't say anymore on the topic. I tried to coax more information out of her, but she wouldn't bite. I decided to drop it and wait for a moment when she was in an unguarded mood.
"You know what?" She didn't wait for me to answer. "I want to win this, Jason." She glanced at me. The ruthless, intense look was back.
Lucy had always been a competitor. Everything was a competition to her and she would not quit unless she came out on top. She had to be the best. It didn't matter what "it" was. She had to be the best at it. I couldn't see it at the time, but I now know that Lucy's competitive nature comes from a place of insecurity. It was odd to me, because from what I saw, her family loved and supported her and didn't put any pressure on her to be "the best" at something. I've crossed paths with people like that in my life. They always felt they had to please someone else or live up to some standard. I think Mark is like that in a way. Except I'm not sure exactly who he's trying to please.
Lucy weaved around a few other drivers. "Checkpoint's ahead."
When she stopped the car, I jumped out, taking the log book with me. I paused before running into the tent because I thought I saw something in my peripheral vision. There was no time to stop and have a good look. I had to trust that the rest of G-Force was still watching over us.
I impatiently waited for our log book to get stamped. I thought I heard a commotion outside.
Or maybe it was just the wind?
I ran from the tent, tossed the log book into the car and then Lucy took off. As we drove off, I saw a couple flashes of white near where we'd parked. It was Mark and Princess. They came out of the trees. Something did happen when I was in that tent. I met both of their eyes. That was the only way I could acknowledge them without blowing my cover.
I wanted to ask Lucy if she'd seen anything while I was inside the tent, but I never got the chance.
"Those two people back there," she said. "Are they racing fans of yours?"
Either she did not get a good look at Mark and Princess or she did and didn't want me to know. I decided to play it cool. "Yeah," I said. "They follow me everywhere."
"The girl back there was very pretty," she went on. I knew where this was going. Insecure Lucy was back. "I have a feeling that she's...more than a fan?"
Yep. Insecure Lucy was back. I briefly recalled the time when Lucy got jealous when she found me talking to Dave Leonard's girlfriend. It did not end well.
"I've been wanting to race with you for a long time," Lucy went on. "That's why I was thrilled when I learned I finally got to race with you." She was trying to flirt with me again. I put my guard back up. She might mean it. She might not. She might just be saying this to get me to drop my guard and to make me forget about my mission.
"You're a racing freak," I said, hoping I sounded light. "You get thrilled over souped-up engines. It's my car you want, Lucy."
"It's not your car," she said, turning to look at me with a level of intensity that honestly, unnerved me.
Well, if that wasn't awkward, I don't know what was.
I needed to get Lucy talking about Spectra again. Except I didn't know how to broach it. What am I supposed to say? "Oh, hey, it's nice that you think you want me, but I'd rather talk about Spectra. Could you tell me more about them?"
We, or rather, our G-Force versions, have personas that are separate from who we actually are. ISO and Gal-Sec actively go out of their way to feed the myth machine. According to the tabloids and gossip sites (and depending on what day of the week it is), Mark and Princess are either dating or she has it bad for him and he won't return her feelings. If it's not that, I've gotten sucked in and I'm one leg of a love triangle I never asked to be in. Out of all the various personas and rumors I've heard about myself, I think my favorite one has to be that I'm nothing more than a psychotic man-whore with no regard for authority. Every other month, according to the same gossip sites and tabloids, I'm usually the defendant in a paternity suit.
If the public only knew the truth about me, well, they'd be sorely disappointed.
The truth is, it's nearly impossible for any of us to have "normal" lives or date anyone. Believe me, I tried. It doesn't work because I can only make excuses for why I get called away for so long. Then I reach this line that I don't dare cross for so many reasons. I don't care what happens to me, but it's the idea of putting someone else in danger just from letting them know my secret that bothers me.
It's just best to keep my distance.
I felt the car jerk suddenly. Lucy was fighting with the wheel. I glanced in the side mirror to find that we were being followed by a flock of robotic vultures. The birds were shooting missiles from their open beaks. Lucy was able to dodge the explosions.
Sure enough, the Phoenix was there. Someone was picking off the vultures with missiles. If I had to hazard a guess, my money is on Keyop being the person pushing the button. I'm going to have to give it to him about where he's aiming those missiles.
The rest of the night was uneventful. Lucy didn't open up about Spectra like I'd hoped she would. I wasn't sure how to get her to talk or even if I should try to get her to talk tonight. I wasn't sure which Lucy would decide to answer me. Would it be the Lucy who seemed to be filled with regret? Or would Insecure Lucy show up and try to deflect by coming on to me?
After a while, we switched places and then Lucy dozed for a bit. We were heading into the home stretch, the last day of the rally. I knew time was running out for me to get Lucy to talk. Maybe after the race was done, I could get her to talk. Or maybe someone else could get her to talk. She'd admitted that she'd joined Spectra. But that wasn't the information the Chief was expecting.
Suddenly, I saw more movement in the side mirror. More robots. Hyenas this time. There looked to be an entire pack of them chasing after the car. The damned things were fast.
Then I saw more of them coming at us. I jerked the wheel to the right when I saw the intersection with a side road
"This road ends up ahead!" Lucy said.
I kept my eyes on the road. By this time, some of the mechanical hyenas had jumped onto the moving car and started clawing at the windows. Their claws were so sharp, they actually cut into the glass.
I hit the gas hard and the muscles in my arms locked as I held the wheel tightly. We were going up a hill. The next part was all about timing. I could only hope that mine was dead on.
The hill was a natural ramp and as soon as the car was airborne, the robot hyenas fell off the car and down into the gorge below. We landed on the other side, hitting the ground hard enough to jar teeth.
"That was beautiful driving, partner," Lucy said.
I kept my eyes on the road ahead, ready to merge with the other racers. We weren't too far from the finish line.
We won the race. It seemed anti-climactic in a way because I still hadn't gotten Lucy to tell me what she knew about Spectra. We were handed a trophy and the prize money and sat on top of the car and waved while the press took our picture. I had one more chance to get Lucy to talk. We were going out to dinner later.
I had to be careful how I approached the topic of Spectra because Lucy hadn't actually promised to tell me what she knew. Hindsight is 20/20 and it may have been a better idea to have told her up front that I was the contact for ISO and Galaxy Security. I don't make the plans, though. I just follow orders.
A different Lucy showed up this time. By different, I mean, her attitude was different. The intense, competitive Lucy was gone. In her place was the Lucy I'd always remembered, the fun, carefree Lucy I'd first met when she started hanging out at her dad's race track. This was the bold Lucy who liked to steal kisses when nobody else was looking.
This Lucy was the one I nearly fell in love with (or whatever you call love when you're 18 and just barely out of high school).
"I have something to tell you," she said. Was it just me or did she sound a bit coy?
I waited for her to say what was on her mind. The moment she opened her mouth, she seemed to wince in pain.
She began shaking and then it looked like she was trying to close into a protective ball. I didn't like this.
"What's the matter? Are you ill?"
Lucy was trying to say something. But I couldn't hear her because my eyes were locked on her. Her skin seemed to be...melting?
Underneath the flesh was metal.
Her eyes were red.
Just like those robot animals we encountered during the race.
I usually try not to think about what fear feels like. I'm talking honest-to-God fear that shacks up in the pit of your stomach and messes with your nerves.
I was terrified. For Lucy.
"Remember..." she managed to choke out before she took off running.
I don't remember taking off after her. I think it was just something that was so automatic. She ran and then crashed through the exterior wall of the hotel. I ran down the stairs. I hoped that I would be fast enough to make it down to ground level in order to catch her.
"Lucy!" I shouted.
I was too late.
What was left of Lucy lie in pieces scattered all over the ground.
I wanted to go to Lucy's funeral to pay my respects to her family, especially her father. Spectra had other ideas. Chief Anderson said he would go in my place. I suspected he was going to let Lucy's family know what their daughter was doing over the past few years. I sent flowers instead.
Lucy had been turned into a cyborg by Spectra. She was one of many people, humans, turned into machines with the primary mission of killing people. Lucy was the bait in a trap that Spectra set in order to get someone on the inside of ISO and Galaxy Security so they could bring us down from within. The one thing they didn't count on was how strong-willed Lucy was. When she said she wanted out of Spectra, when she vowed that she was going to take them down with her, she meant it.
Chief Anderson validated Lucy's story about how Spectra recruited people. She wasn't the first disillusioned young person recruited by a cult. As long as there are manipulative people in the world who are willing to exploit the misery of others to gain power, there will be more kids sucked into more Spectras with no way out.
I half-expected to be chewed out for not getting more information out of Lucy. I was surprised when Anderson admitted that he should have had me be up front about being the ISO contact Lucy was supposed to meet. "I screwed up," was all he said. He told me this in a private meeting with me, a debriefing of sorts.
"Oh," he'd said as he was leaving. "Dr. LaBeau is here if you feel you need to talk. I know that you and Lucy were close." He left the rest unspoken. I should go see a psychiatrist and talk about the emotional trauma of watching the girl you remember die a violent and horrible death.
I might do just that. Lucy deserved that much.