"As you can see, with this new technology we no longer need huge individual simulators to accurately simulate each type of craft. All we need is a control panel, a neural interface helmet, and the correct programming. The technicians have been working on your simulators this morning, and you will now find you have access to a much wider range of aircraft than before..."
Jason shifted uncomfortably in the lecture hall chair and tried not to yawn. 'New technology' to ISO's most junior security team was far from new to the second-in-command of G-Force. He'd been working with these simulators for months now. Not that he could let on to his colleagues on Team 7. Outside the black zone, acting out his cover reason for being at ISO headquarters, he was officially a lowly lieutenant hoping for a more senior posting, and he prized the brief moments of normality it gave him.
Usually. Time spent with Team 7 was usually a respite. At the moment it was a sop, a scrap thrown to him while he was grounded from G-Force, and he was hating every minute of it.
"So I expect to see all of you with considerably improved flight ratings in the near future." Nykinnen, commander of Team 7, scanned the room. "Yes, Lieutenants Alouita and O'Leary, this means you. As well as anyone else who believes that if it doesn't have four wheels it doesn't count."
There were sniggers from all round the hall, and a couple of people turned and grinned at Jason. He returned the favour. Being seen as a truly incompetent pilot was just one of the things which made his continuing lack of promotion from Team 7 believable by those who were using it as a springboard to more senior posts.
"So - decaf?" Alongside him, Rick unfolded himself from the chair in a manner which suggested he wasn't any more comfortable than Jason was. "I'd like to see what we've been given to play with."
Jason frowned. The one trace of silver lining to being grounded had been the tiny voice in his head saying 'now you don't need to be drug free, you can have some decent coffee.' No such luck. Diuretics were bad news for migraines, apparently. He wasn't even allowed the decaf that the rest of the team - and Rick, as an implanted trainee - normally existed on. Something to do with estrogen. Life just wasn't fair.
"No thanks. I'll come take a look at the simulator, though."
Rick looked sideways and appeared to decide against a question, which suited Jason just fine. The details of his medical problem were his own. Well, his and the rest of G-Force's. And the medical staff and senior officers in the black zone, the only place on the planet where Jason Alouita and the Condor were the same person. But even in there, the Force Two candidates like Rick didn't know why he was grounded, and out here Team 7 weren't even aware he had a problem. Jason meant to keep it that way for as long as possible. Forever, preferably.
Rick, though, Jason knew Rick was wondering what precisely was going on. Rick wouldn't ask, though. He was in a permanent state of inferiority - had been pretty much ever since he'd been implanted - and it was getting annoying.
"I don't believe it!"
"It's a windup. They'd never give us access to that!"
"Why not? It's not like they put weapons on anything we get to fly, simulated or not. And it's done all in hardware. Nothing to hack into." Rick shrugged. "And it'd be hell to steal without anyone noticing."
"Is there anything about computers you don't know?"
"Come on, Scott! Let's see it."
The young man at the only currently working console half-turned. "Which one?"
"You have to ask?"
Scott grinned. "No." He slid the visor on the helmet down, the appropriate menu item flashed, and moments later the image on the screen shifted to show the view from the cockpit of a sleek white fighter.
"Is that the G-1?"
"I think so." Scott's voice was muffled by the full-face helmet.
"What - you've not flown the real thing?" Rick teased. "What an admission."
"Like you have."
"Hey!" One of the other would-be pilots swung round in annoyance. "Just let him fly the darn thing."
Rick held his hand up in apology, and settled to watching Scott's attempts with a slight smile on his face. Jason would have liked to join him, but his wristwatch was vibrating insistently, and he knew only too well what the price for ignoring it would be.
"Jason?" someone queried as he walked away, the only person not crowding round Team 7's new toy.
"Later." Jason kept the frustration out of his voice somehow, and only slammed one fist into the other once the door closed.
"Lieutenant? A word, please."
Jason swore inwardly and weighed his options, before using the only one which would be quick enough. "Later, Commander."
He could almost feel Nykinnen's double-take. Junior officers didn't speak to their seniors like that. Nykinnen knew perfectly well who this particular junior officer really was, but even so Jason never normally pulled rank except when in birdstyle. It held far too many possibilities of being overheard.
"Later," Nykinnen agreed. "Jason?"
Oh, why can't anyone just leave me alone? He swung round, not bothering to hide his annoyance.
"Is there a problem I can help with?"
"No!" Jason snapped, and immediately realised that only made it sound worse. "It's under control."
"Very good." Nykinnen turned into the Team 7 common room, and Jason headed for the black security zone and yet another appointment with the medics.
"Tell me you have something?"
The all too familiar look of sympathy in the doctor's eyes gave him all the answers he needed. "Jason, I'm sorry. I'm waiting for a couple of specialists to get back to me, but until then..."
He rolled his sleeve up resignedly. "I know. Drugs or flat on my back. Great choice."
Chris Johnson, who had been G-Force's doctor since Jason had been a raw 15-year-old recruit, knew better than to discuss it. Jason much preferred it that way. He'd never been fond of injections, but lately there had been far too many.
If Chris registered his flinch, he didn't comment on it. "See you in eight hours."
Chris just looked at him, and Jason knew he had been seen through. "Stick it out to the end of the week. If nothing else has come up by then, we'll try tapering the drugs off again."
Jason just nodded, dreading it. So far they'd tried this a number of times. The first time, it hadn't occurred to him that there would be a problem. He'd presumed he was recovered and ready to go back to the team. Five minutes after the migraine hit again, he'd known with a sinking certainty that he wasn't even close. He'd gone back on the drugs, and later they'd tried again. And again. Varying the method - tapering off the drugs gradually, replacing them with something milder, going cold turkey. All had had the same effect. A day or so with no problems, but well before his system was clear of the drug he'd be back in Medical, his vision a mess of coloured haloes, knowing he couldn't cope with what was coming next and hating himself for it. Eventually they'd given up. Johnson had put him back on sufficient drugs to keep the migraines away, and released him for light training with G-Force and active duty with Team 7, while he looked into alternative treatments. Jason had been certain they would come up with something quickly. That had been nearly a fortnight ago, and every eight hours since he'd shown up for another injection with his optimism gradually draining away. Another shot at tapering the drugs off was not the answer he'd been hoping for.
"So how's Team 7?"
Jason glared. "Don't even ask."
"You know you don't have to do it if you don't want to."
He sighed in exasperation. "No. I could just sit round here and watch the team treat me like china. Team 7 may be dull, but at least they don't think I'm finished."
"You're not finished." Chris disposed of the needle, and came round to face his patient. "Not by a long way. Just give me a little more time."
"Yeah." Jason clamped his mouth shut before he said something the doctor didn't deserve. He might have spent the past two months miserable and frustrated, but he'd still noticed what Chris hadn't done. Hadn't snapped back when his temper had frayed, hadn't carped when he'd pushed too hard and relapsed. Hadn't given up on getting him back on G-Force. But still - how much longer could he be expected to wait?
"So I'll see you in eight hours? I could give you the drugs - you're perfectly competent to self-inject."
Jason shuddered. "No thanks." And promptly realised just how much of himself that revealed. "You doctors need to earn your keep somehow."
Chris no longer even bothered to warn him of the consequences of not showing, Jason noted as his spirits sagged. Two months, one boring, common, incurable condition, and he'd gone from being the tough guy of the team to someone living his life around his next injection and hanging on the doctors' every pronouncement. Maybe he should take Chris up on his offer. Get a supply of the drugs, force himself past his phobia of self-injecting, and just take off. Go and do one of the million other jobs he could surely get, and stop angsting over the only one on the planet that required his bloodstream to be completely drug-free.
He knew he'd never do it voluntarily. What was starting to concern him was that he might not have a choice.
The new simulator - now with two consoles running - was still the centre of attention when he got back to the Team 7 common room. Someone had put up a ranking list. Predictably, Dave O'Leary's name was at the bottom of it. Less predictably, Rick's wasn't at the top. Jason hoped this was an indication of discretion, not of Rick's lack of piloting skill. Rick was, after all, one of precisely two black section pilots who flew the G-1 for real.
"Fancy a try, Jason?"
He snapped the mask of relaxed indifference into place. "Nah. It's too much fun watching Scott. What is he trying to do?"
"The neural interface is supposed to make it feel like the real thing, right?" Dave's expression indicated a lack of understanding of planes in general, and this one in particular. "Bragging rights to the first one who can land it with the instrument display turned off. My money's on Scott."
Jason shook his head. "Rick." Mark would be the obvious candidate - but Mark was such a good pilot that the moment he touched the thing it would be evident that he was no trainee. Mark wouldn't go near a Team 7 simulator, never had.
"Nobody," said a familiar voice from behind him.
"Nobody?" Every wannabe pilot in Team 7 had reacted to that.
Mark was unabashed. "One of the Team 3 pilots told me that the only person who can land the G-1 without instruments is the Eagle."
"Did he now? Did you hear that, Scott?"
The simulator pilot responsible for the latest scene of immolation flipped his visor up. "Hear what?"
"Mark here says nobody can land without instruments bar the Eagle."
Scott surveyed the overview on the screen, runway strewn with bits of G-1. "He may be right. I'd sure like to prove him wrong, though."
"No instruments?" Jason queried, the germ of an idea starting to form. "What do you mean, no instruments? All the readings are on the screen."
"Not in the helmet they're not," Scott said. "You can see them. I can't."
"Yes, I meant the helmet display. Simulating a dead instrument panel." Mark frowned at his second. "Why do you want to know?"
"I might just try it." Jason gritted his teeth and managed not to snap.
There was an ironic cheer from those watching the second screen, and Rick pushed himself away from the console with barely concealed annoyance. "Damn, that's hard - hi, Mark."
"Mark was just saying that nobody bar the Eagle can land the G-1 without the instrument display on," Dave repeated with a glint in his eye.
Jason saw the barest hint of anger before Rick controlled himself. "Well, someone else'll have to try it - I have to go. Later, guys."
"Mine!" Jason slid into the seat as Rick vacated it, and was on the verge of putting the helmet on when it was removed from his hands.
"Hold it - I need to talk to you about Tuesday."
Tuesday - keyword for 'G-Force business - come and don't argue.' Jason abandoned the seat to another eager would-be pilot, and followed Mark out into the corridor.
"I don't think you should be doing that."
Jason frowned. "I've always flown the Team 7 simulators. They'd think it was odd if I stopped now. Don't worry, I won't go near the Phoenix simulator. Nobody's going to figure anything out from how I fly the G-1."
"Not that." Mark wore the look of protective concern that Jason so hated. "That's a neural interface. It might make you...you know."
I don't believe it. Jason was too astonished to be angry. It didn't last. He continued to stare at his commander in silence. The alternative was a loss of temper so total it would blow both their covers wide open. He still had more control than that. Just about.
Mark had taken his silence as incomprehension. "It might...don't you think you should play it safe?"
Jason hissed in fury. "It's called migraine, Mark. Get used to saying it. It isn't going away. And in case you hadn't noticed, I'm drugged to the eyeballs. I'm not going to react to anything, let alone something I already checked that Medical consider safe."
"Are you sure?"
Jason jerked back so hard he cracked the back of his head against the wall. He didn't care. "Yeah." He spun on his heel and walked away from the common room.
"Where are you going?"
He didn't even turn. "Oh, to do something nice and safe, Mark. Don't you worry."
He broke into a run once he'd gone out of Mark's sight round the corner. Rick couldn't be that far ahead of him, and he was going to need help with an idea which was just begging to be worked on. Mark wasn't going to like it. Right now, that made it even more attractive.