Monday morning was always official briefing time. New technological developments, equipment upgrades, intel, all got discussed in the hour or so of total tedium, or so the rest of the team saw it. Mark had repeatedly railed at how nebulous it all was; developments still at the "we think that", "we're going to try" stage, intel ranging from wild rumour to detailed descriptions of next month's attack plans, and no way to know what would become reality. Keyop found it boring and made a point of showing it. He and Tiny had an ongoing competition to separate dross from truth. When the technology you already have includes the ability to turn your warship into a flaming plasma weapon, and your enemy sees nothing strange in an attack ship designed as a giant bug with commander dressed to match, that's not as easy as you might think. Then again, I occasionally wonder what the Spectran leadership thought when they first received reports that their invasion plans were being stalled by a team of five dressed as birds. That one even I'd have discounted.
That particular Monday didn't start any differently. Sheridan from Stats had presented a new proposal for a technique to computer-solve the jump-equations using numerical methods, and Jason had shown interest for just long enough to poke a huge hole in it. He was now sitting slouched, eyes closed, to any casual observer appearing to be asleep in his chair. Everyone here knew better; some had called him on it before and been rewarded with a verbatim replay of the previous five minutes' discussion and a diamond-bright smile to make them want to crawl under the table and die. Jason might consider it a waste of time, but that didn't mean he wasn't listening.
Anderson stood up, leafing through pages of intel reports, and I sighed inwardly. This looked as if it would take a while.
The first report was on a multipart snake mech apparently deployed in the Spectran swamplands to guard a major installation. It sounded plausible enough, but there wasn't enough detail differentiating it from things we'd faced before to be much use to us.
The second was desperately vague. A long-term chemical weapons program was nearing completion. Our informant had heard it was based on an Earth-developed formula. Anderson gave a reference; journal, three-year-old date, title and author. I blinked stupidly - it was familiar. I turned to ask flypaper-brain Jason where we'd encountered it before, just in time to hear a sharp 'snap' and see him sit up, eyes wide in shock, brushing away shards of splintered plastic from his fractured pen. Then I remembered.
Don's pseudonym. Don's paper. Don's formula, out of all the hundreds published every year just on this planet, the one being worked on by Spectra. Maybe just a coincidence. The alternative was too horrible to contemplate.
Jason clearly was contemplating it, though. All trace of relaxation was gone as he sat rigid in the chair through the remaining items, his vacant expression indicating his mind was far away. Had Anderson called him on it now, I doubted he could have even named the topic under discussion. He'd spent nearly two years refusing to admit that he'd ever heard of universal solvents, much less discussed them on a regular basis. I could only imagine how bad he must be feeling to look that awful.
Rather to my surprise, Anderson didn't seem to notice. He made no comment about Jason's reaction, and gave us all the rest of the day off.
Jason bolted for the door the moment Anderson dismissed us. Heading for the track, no doubt. Out there, away from ISO and the pressures of G-Force, he was a person we'd lost two years ago. From comments they'd made, his colleagues at ISO Racing saw him as dedicated and ruthless in his pursuit of victory. Just as he was with us. But out of the car, they found him sympathetic and helpful, and with a wicked sense of humour. None of them had ever mentioned his temper to me. I missed that Jason desperately. Always being careful, wondering what might make his temper flare, was hard.
"What's eating him?" Mark asked once we were out of Anderson's earshot.
I glanced at Tiny. Just the opening we needed to give Mark the explanation he'd deserved from the very beginning. Just say it. 'The man who developed that formula was Jason's second-in-command. Jason made a mistake on our very first interplanetary flight. Don walked into a Spectran trap, and we left him for dead.'
Tiny leant back out of Mark's line of sight and shook his head. His reaction confirmed my own feelings. It was Jason's story. Jason who should be the one to tell his commander what had happened on what was officially called Mission Zero. The one with the records hidden away so far, Mark didn't even know of their existence. No, I couldn't tell that story, not two years after the fact. Tell it now, and they'd both think I'd betrayed them. Keep quiet, and the hole I was digging for myself just kept getting deeper.
I shrugged, attempting to appear casual. "He's stressed. It's just Jason." That didn't sound much like something I'd say, even to me, but Mark didn't seem to notice.
At the door, Keyop jiggled impatiently. "So, are we still going for pizza? You said when we got the day off."
I nearly shook my head, but we had to break so many promises, shelve so many plans. I couldn't do it to him just because an intel report which could be complete rubbish had got to me. "Sure."
"I'll come," Tiny said. "Mark?"
"Too much to do at the airfield." He grimaced ruefully. "I never knew there'd be so much paperwork when I said I'd help out with the flying lessons."
"Taxes?" Tiny asked.
"No such luck. One of Daddy's little darlings decided I'm discriminating against her because I'm prejudiced against women. I've got to go back through the flight records, demonstrating she's had the same chances as everyone else."
"And has she?"
"Hell, yes. More, if anything, since I could see she was struggling. She's got less natural feel for flying than Jason has, and a whole lot less application. I have no idea how she got a pilot's license in the first place. No way is she fit to fly a jet." He turned to me. "Tell me, Princess, have I ever treated you differently from the rest of the team?"
Well, that was easy. "No, never." Not on duty, not off duty, not even when I'd taken my courage in both hands in the wreckage of Research Centre and told him how I felt. No matter how badly I wanted him to.
"Know what I think?" Tiny asked as we headed for his car. "Daddy's little girl made a pass at him, and he didn't even notice."
I chuckled. "Could just be." At least it wasn't just me. Mark and I had discussed our relationship - the one I'd like to have - a while back. He'd made it entirely clear that as long as he was my commanding officer he was having nothing to do with any sort of liason, no matter how I phrased it. I'd thought for a while that he was rejecting me as gently as possible and would sooner or later introduce us to his new girlfriend, but where other girls were concerned he seemed oblivious to the fact that the human race had two sexes at all. I'd met some of the trainees from the airfield he'd part-inherited from his mother. Rich kids, all of them, looking for training to fly the family jet and prepared to pay through the nose for lessons from bona fide ISO pilots. Seriously desirable partners, every one looking for a soulmate from the A-list of society. Apparently an ISO test pilot fell into that category for the few female ones. And Mark showed no interest in them. I'd felt much better once I'd realised that.
'Pizza' for us meant Jill's snack bar. Good food, close to ISO, no questions asked if we disappeared in a hurry, and equally none if we sat about for hours in a cloud of despair. Close to 95% of her customers must have been ISO personnel or Academy students - civilians walking in weren't exactly glared at, but they tended not to stay for long. I liked Jill. I'd even covered for her on a few occasions. Just enough to determine that the catering trade wasn't for me. I'd also let her down at short notice a couple of times, but if she had her suspicions, she'd never voiced them.
Three pizzas later, Keyop and Tiny were tucking into their second bowls of ice-cream. I was nursing a mug of the best decaf coffee in the area - much to the team's amusement, the latest affectation among teenage ISO-ites was avoidance of drugs to the same level we were forced to maintain, and Jill had jumped cheerfully on the bandwagon to offer every decaffeinated beverage she could find. It made our lives a lot easier. Now that everyone else under the age of 30 in the place was doing their best to be mistaken for G-Force, we fitted in better than we ever had.
When the bracelet vibrated against my wrist I didn't even bother dissimulating. I pushed my chair back and walked out, knowing the other two would follow. Once outside, a quick glance round to check I was unobserved, and I called in.
"I'm on my way."
Behind me, Keyop and Tiny acknowledged, Mark's voice came over the bracelet and, after a short pause, Jason responded too. Tiny gunned the engine of his car, and we sped back the short distance to ISO.
"You'll be briefed on the Phoenix," came over the link as we pulled up. Red alert, then. So much for our day off.