"MS?" Chris repeated, buying himself a few seconds. "Mark, that's extremely unlikely."
"I've done my research." The young man flushed, miserably embarrassed. "It fits everything."
"I appreciate that." Chris gave him a reassuring smile. "I know of at least ten other conditions which can produce similar symptoms. Most are much less serious - and treatable."
Mark's eyes went wide in disbelief. "You think I'm imagining this? You think --"
It was time for his deepest, calmest voice. "I think you have possibly the most stressful job on the planet. I think you've worked yourself to the bone, keeping everything going while Jason was out of action. I think you may have pushed yourself too hard, and your body's telling you it needs a break." He looked to Mark for confirmation. When none came, he added, "But, specifically, what symptoms do you have?"
"I..." Mark's voice cracked, and he hid his expression temporarily in another mouthful of water. He was, Chris realised, close to tears. Coming in here and admitting to a problem he thought was of this magnitude must have been hard for him. More than hard. Soul-destroying. Jason was the team member with the reputation for hiding his problems. Mark just never seemed to have any.
The Eagle was tough, though. The facade might have slipped briefly, but the command mask was back within moments. This, Chris imagined, would be how he listed problems with his plane.
"I'm much tireder than I should be. If I use the implants, I'm crashing like you wouldn't believe. Twice in succession, sometimes. And a couple of times, it's like I've gone to move and nothing's happened."
Chris frowned. "Ordinary move or implant-move?"
"Ordinary. Stupid things. Nearly landing on my face walking down the hall. I missed a dodge sparring Friday and damn near had my jaw broken." He looked down, flushing scarlet. "I missed a catch this morning."
The hand he extended had a swollen red line all the way across the palm, black and yellow bruising extending for more than an inch either side of it. It looked sore enough that Chris felt his own hand twitch in sympathy.
"Did you ice that?"
"Oh, yes. And slept for a couple of hours to let the implant do its thing."
"You should have brought an injury that bad to me."
Mark's jaw set. "I'm bringing it to you now. But the injury's not the problem. It's trivial. It should never have happened."
His eyes levelled with Chris's, saying everything that the commander of G-Force never would. 'Tell me what's wrong'. 'Make it go away'. 'Please help me'.
Chris knew the most likely cause of the problem. He also knew he couldn't, under any circumstances, say it out loud. Now, how to achieve the necessary next step?
"The first thing I want is you fully rested." He saw the alarm start in the other's eyes, and carried on reassuringly. "I need to run a bunch of tests, and I'm sure Mike Bennett will too --"
"I've been to him five, six times thinking it was the implant. Retuning it doesn't help. It's not that."
"I still want it ruled out by him. And I'd like you to see Dr Samuels."
Mark snorted. "I already did that, too. He told me to try positive visualisation, but it doesn't make a bit of difference. It's not that I think I can't do it. My body just doesn’t do what I tell it to."
"Okay." Chris thought a moment. "In your opinion, are you fit for active duty?"
Mark took a shuddering breath. "After what happened on this mission? No."
"I see." That said it all, really. No definite symptoms, and the commander of G-Force was grounding himself. Oh, it was serious all right, but it was a job for the team psychiatrist, not for him. The best part of three years' unrelenting stress had inevitably taken its toll. He'd do the tests, do them thoroughly and conscientiously, call in every expert in obscure physical problems to be quite, quite sure nothing had been missed. Chances were, though, there was nothing to miss. The tests would come in negative. Chris only hoped that taking the pressure off, having the tests done, having admitted to the problem, would help to put the Eagle on the road to recovery. The first thing, then, was to take the pressure off a little more.
"In that case, I'm grounding you pending test results. No training, either, given the state of that hand. I'd like you to rest - on site - and come in tomorrow morning expecting to be tested on anything and everything. All I want you to do today is rest. When you feel up to it, write me a list of everything that's happened."
"What tests?" Mark asked, almost shakily.
"To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure. I'm going to call some people and see what they recommend. At the moment I couldn't tell you if it's going to be a couple of blood tests or exploratory brain surgery." At Mark's look of horror, he retracted. "Okay, I'm pretty sure it's not going to be brain surgery. But right now, I don't know. Leave it with me. But seriously, I want you fully rested. There's no point doing anything from a baseline of a half discharged implant. I'd keep you in Medical if I didn't know you'd spend the whole night climbing the walls."
That just barely got a smile, but it was enough for Chris to know he'd cleared the first hurdle. Sometimes 'they're taking me seriously' was all that was needed to start a patient on the road to recovery.
Nevertheless, the commander of G-Force declaring himself unfit for duty was not something you ignored in the hope that it would go away. Thirty minutes later saw Chris sitting in the sort of meeting which, as a medical doctor, he tried not to think too hard about. Six people, only three of them even remotely concerned with Mark's medical care, being told every confidential detail. It was at times like this that he had to remind himself repeatedly of the potential consequences of the senior military staff not having this information. When measured against planetary security, Mark's right to privacy counted for precisely nothing.
"I've never known him claim a problem which wasn't real," Ivanov told them. "Not even when he was very small. Mark does not make excuses."
"He's been back and forward to me several times over the past few weeks," Mike Bennett, the implant specialist, told them. "Convinced the implants needed retuning. The last three times, there's been nothing to adjust." He sighed. "I'm sorry - I thought it was just an artifact of his Russian implant. It's always been weird."
"There is a difference between 'weird' and 'well-integrated'," Ivanov said calmly. "Mark's interface with his implant is superior to any of the others. Consider his more rapid healing speed."
"And the fact that he can't access it deliberately?" Grant snorted. "When the Condor can make a conscious decision whether to use his or not, not to mention being able to access a team-mate's implant? Are we sure this isn't just malfunctioning Russian technology?"
"You're overplaying the usefulness of what Jason can do," Chris put in. "If he's very focused, and gets close enough to give people the wrong idea, he can get physical feedback from the other person. He can't make their implants do anything. It's a party trick, nothing more."
"Gentlemen, this is irrelevant," Anderson said. "Doctor Bennett, is it possible that the implant is malfunctioning? It is, what, sixteen years old now?"
"A little less, but yes, it's much older than any we've put in here at ISO USA, and several years older even than Keyop's." He shrugged. "I'll test it again, of course, and there are more sensitive tests I can do if I knock him out first. Maybe I should have thought about doing it sooner, given how often he's come to me recently. I just figured with Jason back, Mark wanted to be at top speed."
"Could that be it?" Grant leaned forwards, glancing round the table. "Jason's back, Jason's at full speed again and Jason's finally remembered how a jump-drive works. If he's been sitting there pushing for his old job back - that's mutiny."
"I do not think he would," Ivanov said calmly. "Jason's not that - what would you say? - sneaky."
"I agree," Samuels, the psychiatrist, added. "If Jason was pushing for his old job back we'd all know about it. Not that I get to talk to him that often, but that just demonstrates the point. He thinks I'm a waste of his time, so he doesn't come. Even though he'd get much less grief from the rest of you if he showed up and talked about baseball for fifteen minutes like Tiny does."
"It would be cricket," said Chris, "and I take your point. Plus, he has to know we're looking at a second team, and that he would be by far the strongest candidate for its commander. He and Mark are darned close. I can't believe he'd kick his best friend aside to get command, when it's most likely coming his way in any case."
"I think Jason Alouita would do almost anything for command of G-Force," Grant muttered.
"I think you're wrong." Chris just barely kept his tone civil. Jason really could do no right where Grant was concerned. "And even if he was, I think Mark would have spotted it a mile off, and the very last thing he'd be doing is declaring himself unfit for active duty."
Grant nodded reluctantly. "You have a point."
"So," said Anderson, who had listened in silence for a while, "what do we do now?"
"I've grounded him," Chris said. "Having said that, if they're called out and Mark wants to go, I'd have no problems with it."
"I would, after the debrief Jason gave me," Anderson said gravely. "At least until I've seen a psychiatric report I like. Mark didn't tell you about their mission?"
Chris shook his head. "Not in any detail."
"I think you should read the debrief report. It's not pretty."
"I'll do that. As to what happens next, I'll run the basic neurological tests here tomorrow morning and schedule more specialised ones based on that. Mike?"
"Given just how hard it is to knock him cold, I'll let you do your stuff first."
"I scanned the debrief report before I came over," Samuels said. "I don't like the look of it. Off the record, I'm seeing classic stress and, I hesitate to say it given the patient, but if he's claiming MS, the most likely cause is hypochondriasis."
"I don't believe that. Not of Mark. Not Cronus' son." Ivanov's voice remained calm, but anger smouldered in his eyes.
"I thought that too, from talking to him." Chris sighed, looking around the table, seeing the sheer disbelief in the eyes of the non-medical personnel. "You wouldn't believe how badly I want to be wrong. Anything but that. If it's physical, we can find a way to fix it, somehow. Psychological - well, just look at Jason. It's a much bigger problem."
"I do my best," the psychiatrist said, mildly enough for it to be pointed.
"And we have five fairly normal, functioning kids as proof," Anderson said. "Nobody's to blame here. With what they do, the surprise is that we haven't had far more problems. Now, I want to hear every report, gentlemen. Without Mark, G-Force will be operating far below optimum. We need him back as soon as possible."