"And again," Jason shouted above the noise of the engine. As his mechanic floored the accelerator, he shifted another six inches under the car, hunting for the source of the vibration. "Damn, I was sure it would be there. Back off. Where next?"
"Uh - fuel pump?"
"We tried that already." Jason hauled himself out from under the car. "Look, Sam, keep your mind on the job, will you? I can't race with it like this." He paused, expecting another suggestion. "Sam?"
He sat up to see her sitting in the driver's seat, jaw set in a forlorn attempt to stay in control. Something was very wrong, then - Sam Mitchell was a woman in a man's world, and almost never showed her true feelings in public. Jason sat down in the passenger seat, casting his mind back to what Princess had said the last time he'd stormed off and she'd come to try to calm him down. "Do you want to talk about it?" He wasn't sure how he'd react if Sam responded the way he normally did.
He needn't have worried. Sam turned tear-filled eyes to him. "Jason, I'm in so much trouble. I don't know what to do."
Oh, great. Girl stuff. "Is it a guy?" he ventured.
"Yes, lots of them. I..."
Jason recoiled in shock. "I think you'd better talk to a doctor."
Sam flushed scarlet. "It's not like that! Honestly, Jason, what do you think I am? It's this group I've been hanging out with. We meet under overpasses and swap engine tips. Anyway, it used to be all good fun, bunch of car nuts, you know how it is. Then these two older guys started showing up. At first they were great. They really know what they're talking about when it comes to engine mods. But they've started talking about other stuff. The war, and how it ought to be stopped, and maybe ISO aren't doing all they could to stop it. They want car people, drivers, engineers, mechanics, and they're real interested in me since they found out I work for ISO Racing." She gulped and looked at him desperately. "This probably sounds really stupid, but I think they may work for Spectra. I know you're ISO Security - who do I tell, and can you get them to listen to me?"
Jason sat in silence, his mind whirring. A Spectran recruiting unit? Here? Interested in drivers and mechanics, and already aware of her? ISO couldn't get that lucky, surely. This was worth investigating, by him personally, to find out if Sam was right. And Sam wasn't at all fanciful - if she thought there was Spectran involvement, she'd seen something genuinely worrying.
"I'm sorry." Sam was really crying now. "I knew it was stupid. I'll just stay away - maybe they're headhunting for the new Honda factory."
Jason realised she'd completely misinterpreted his lack of response, and tried to make up for it. "It's not stupid. If you're right, it could be very important. I need to see them for myself."
"You don't believe me."
"Did I say that? My superiors wouldn't, but they should believe me. When are you meeting again, and can you get me in?" He smiled in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere. "I'm fairly sure I can fit in with a bunch of car nuts."
Sam's breath caught, and she finally managed a smile. "I can do that. It's tonight. Seven until we get bored."
* * * * *
They pulled up under an overpass a little past seven. Sam had offered to drive, but Jason had pointed out that any serious driver would show up in his own car. Sam had already proved herself to them, and saying her car was off the road was as good an excuse as any for him to be driving her.
Five cars were already parked there in a rough circle, noses in. Two had their hoods up, and several heads emerged at the sound of an unfamiliar - and seriously well-tuned - engine.
"Are they there?" Jason asked.
"No. Often they don't show until later. And they don't come every time."
"Might be for the best if I get to know the others first, anyway." He noticed Sam was sitting rigid in the passenger seat. "No need to be nervous. You thought I was just a chauffeur for months, remember. Forget I work for ISO Security, and everything else is the truth." He pulled into a gap in the circle, switched the engine off and met five wary pairs of eyes.
"Who's your ride, Sam? And where's the Ford?"
"Some idiot backended me and took out the offside lights." Sam had managed to make her nerves sound like annoyance. "This is Jason. He works with me at ISO Racing."
"Name's John." The oldest of the young men stepped forward, sizing Jason up. "I fix exhausts for a living. You?"
Jason snorted. "Drive ISO bigwigs to meetings. Weekends I race."
"For ISO Racing?" John's eyebrows went up. "They're a good team. So what are you doing driving that heap of junk?"
Jason seriously considered blowing the assignment off there and then - and promptly realised it wasn't an assignment yet. He could storm off now with complete impunity. Somehow that made it less inviting. He settled for a glare.
"That's what the car thieves think. You never seen a car with something non-standard under the hood before?"
John clearly fancied himself the leader of this little band. "Show us."
Jason reached back inside his car and pulled the lever. "Now this is a real engine."
It wasn't often he was glad for Anderson's insistence that there was precisely no restricted technology under the hood of his car. Everything here was available to the general public. True, most of it was more commonly found in high-end sports cars, but it was perfectly conventional, and Jason made a point of spending no more on it than he won racing.
There were whistles of appreciation as he propped the hood open, and as he'd hoped, he was rapidly replaced as the centre of attention by his car.
He was wondering how to bring the topic of conversation round to the absent mystery men when he heard one of the younger men, a kid barely old enough to drive, ribbing Sam about how nervous she looked.
"You sure you got backended? Or are you just afraid your boyfriend'll find out what you drive?"
"He's not my boyfriend. And he already knows what I drive. Actually I was hoping to see Mick or Adam - are they coming? I've been thinking about what they were offering and I wanted to talk to them about it."
John straightened up. "They're not coming tonight. Mick called me to say they'd be here Tuesday, and anyone wanting to consider their offer should come then. I'd have let you know, but I didn't think you'd be interested, being ISO and all."
"ISO Racing doesn't have a whole lot to do with the rest of ISO. Doesn't pay too good either. I could use the cash."
Oh, good girl , thought Jason as he took the chance to show his interest. "Someone's offering good money? I could sure use some."
"With that engine? You're not short." The young black man hadn't spoken before, hadn't given his name and was eyeing Jason suspiciously.
"His trailer's older than mine," Sam put in, "and that's saying something. Just because you're too mean to spend any money on your engine doesn't mean the rest of us are."
"He's ISO, though." There was scorn in the young man's voice. "Sitting pretty driving the fat cats while the ordinary folk get blown up in their stupid war. Longer it goes on, richer they get. About time somebody did something about it."
Jason clenched his fists and forced himself to breathe evenly while imagining what he'd have liked to say.
"Yeah," John joined in. "I mean - I know G-Force think they're the good guys, but when's the last time you even heard about a peace initiative? There has to be another way."
Keep your temper , Jason told himself. It's a valid opinion. Most people don't know what their fate will be if Spectra get their way, and we deliberately keep it like that to avoid mass panic. You go out there so people like this can live in a world where they're allowed to have opinions. Where people like this can exist at all.
It was desperately hard, though. Jason fell back on the old trick of imagining these kids' faces when the war was won and he finally got to tell people who he was. He was going to spend a week just driving the G-2 around his old haunts in birdstyle minus the helmet.
"So these guys think they can end the war?" he asked, hoping to keep the conversation going.
"Who knows?" John turned to him. "They want the war over, at least. How can that be wrong? I'd like to be a part of that."
"I can understand that." Jason forced himself to smile. "Mostly I'd like to be better paid than I am now."
The conversation returned to optimum clutch travel, and half an hour later John looked at his watch. "Anyone coming for a drink?"
He got four takers. Much to Jason's relief, Sam pleaded tiredness and he said he'd take her home.
* * * * *
"So am I totally paranoid?" Sam asked as they headed back.
"I don't think so." Jason's instincts told him something was going on, but he had to admit the evidence was slim. "They're pretty anti-ISO. More than usual. I'll talk to my commander and see what he thinks. In any case I still want to meet your two friends for myself."
"So come on Tuesday. You didn't want to go back to John's, did you? I've never seen you drink and I really am tired."
"Alcohol makes me throw up." Jason had long since adopted Mark's tactic of telling the strict truth whenever possible. Alcohol - any drug - in the bloodstream would make anyone ill in jump. Most people just didn't have to consider it as an occupational hazard.
* * * * *
"Bunch of discontented idealists." Mark ejected the tape when the recording from Jason's surveillance camera finished. "But that's all."
"Sam said the two major players weren't there." Jason considered his commander's expression. "You're not buying this, are you?"
"To be honest, no. I think you've got a case of industrial espionage here. Should ISO investigate - yes. But I'm not recommending putting G-Force on it."
As his second-in-command continued to glare at him, he relented somewhat. "Why don't you take it to Nykinnen? It sounds ideal for Team 7. Perfect surveillance training opportunity for his young officers. They could use that sort of experience before they get permanent assignments. And Nykinnen's always complaining he only gets the missions the other teams don't want."
"So now he gets one you don't want? Fine. I guess I'll go do my other job for a while, unless you have any more objections. Commander."
"Jason, I didn't mean..."
"Sure you did. Go do something important. I won't keep you any longer." Jason grabbed tape and notes, regarded his commander with complete disdain, and stalked out.
* * * * *
Matti Nykinnen, Commander of ISO Security Team 7, put his fingers together and looked across his desk at Lieutenant Alouita. "Did you run this by anyone else?"
Jason nodded. "I asked Mark Jarrald's opinion. He suggested I bring it straight to you."
Oh, wonderful , Nykinnen thought. He had found out precisely who his two most promising lieutenants were three weeks previously. All he needed was to end up as a pawn in the middle of an argument between the Condor and the Eagle.
"Team 7 will look into it, Lieutenant. Thank you."
"Uh...Commander? Can I make a request?"
You could order me to jump out the window, and you know it , Nykinnen thought. Oh, to be having this conversation in the black security zone, where Jason officially outranked him and would actually say what he meant.
"Assign me to this. I've met them. I'm a driver - they already know that. I'm the right age. I fit the profile. Authorise me to go in."
Nykinnen considered it. On the face of it, it was the logical thing to do. Everything Jason had said was true, and by Team 7 seniority he was due a minor operation of his own to lead. Junior lieutenant in change of a few even more junior officers doing some basic surveillance on a group who weren't an active threat. Perfect - for anyone else. For the Condor, though? What if G-Force were called out mid-operation? Not a major problem, he decided. One of the others would get a chance to show what they could do. The Condor himself was asking for the assignment. And until a particular afternoon three weeks ago, he'd have assigned Alouita to it without a second thought.
He came to a decision. He was supposed to treat these two as though they were the junior lieutenants they masqueraded as - fine. He was going to do exactly that.
"I'll do more than that. I'm putting you in charge of the operation. I'll assign you four operatives, all officially junior to you. I don't know how much experience you have running this sort of job, but you know where to find me if you need me."
Alouita's face lit up. "Who do I get?"
"Let me see." Nykinnen pulled up the details of his current officers' availability. Running a training team was far more complicated than he would ever have believed. Of the younger candidates, four were on pilot training this week, two on a Spectran language immersion course and another five variously seconded around ISO for training associated with their specialities. That left him with - "Lao, Jenkins, O'Leary and...do you want Jarrald as your second? Logically it should be him, but..."
He could tell Jason was tempted, but the young man shook his head. "Maybe next time."
"Shayler, then. Go look up their personnel files, build yourself a sting operation, then come back and run it past me before you brief them."
Nykinnen had seen any number of young officers given a chance at command. The expression associated with a mind already working on all the problems to be solved was universal. Nykinnen smiled indulgently at him as Jason scooped up files, tape and notes and headed off.