“So, how did it go?” Mark asked. A half-finished detective novel lay open on a wheeled table by his bedside, along with an unappetizing array of leftover breakfast items. Two days post implant surgery and Mark was already sitting upright in his hospital bed, a light blue flannel robe draped over his shoulders, drinking a cup of tea. Looking at Jason, Mark felt a pang of guilt. At this stage in his second’s recovery, Jason had barely been able to raise his head.
Jason leaned back as far as he could in the visitor’s chair, threaded his hands behind his head, and put his feet up on Mark's hospital bed before answering. He appeared to be giving the question considerable thought.
“Fine,” he finally answered with a shrug. At Mark’s raised eyebrows, Jason quickly added, “But we missed you out there.”
“Liar,” Mark replied with smirk. “I heard about your fancy flying. Show off.”
Jason rewarded him with a slight smile before responding. “No, I mean it,” he said. “It’s not the same without you.” Jason paused before continuing, more softly, “But then, nothing’s the same.”
When Jason didn’t add anything more, Mark looked at his friend’s posture for clarification. But, as often was the case with the Condor, Jason was difficult to read. His eyes were somber and thoughtful behind his newly issued, ISO-approved glasses.
Jason’s glasses – a recently added, permanent addition to his second’s required uniform. Mark cast a glance at his latest mystery novel. And I haven’t needed reading glasses since surgery. Another reminder that things are different, Mark thought.
Something about Jason’s posture reminded Mark of how Jason had looked right after his recent fitness exam - before the Chief had trounced him for keeping secrets - proud but embarrassed. Proud that he had completed all of the maneuvers and would be eligible to retain his place on the team, yet painfully embarrassed at his fall from grace. Jason had been reduced to barely completing the simplest aerials that would allow for G clearance. Jason, who had often scoffed at the simplicity of the yearly fitness requirements, had nearly been derailed by them.
Mark tried to imagine what it would be like to lose such a vital part of himself. What if I have to go through that, too? What if I can’t fly? The thought literally made him nauseous. I’m not up for this, Mark realized. Pushing his troubled thoughts as deeply as possible, he closed his eyes and slipped into sleep.
When he awoke, his breakfast tray had been removed and replaced by tepid chicken noodle soup, saltine crackers, and a fresh cup of tea. Mark opened the cellophane wrapped plastic dinnerware and extracted the spork. He tasted the soup. It was better than average for hospital food.
Jason was snoring in the lumpy side chair, long limbs sprawled in every direction, his feet still resting on Mark’s bed frame. He was still wearing his glasses.
He must be exhausted. He hasn’t moved a muscle.
Someone - Mark suspected Jessie, one of Center Neptune’s nursing interns - had covered his second with a blanket.
Well, not my second for now. But hopefully soon.
Mark’s surgery had gone surprisingly well. Mark knew, even before the Chief had told him, his surgery had been a success. When his consciousness emerged from the dregs of anesthesia, Mark had realized with delight that he could hear again – clearly and distinctly – from both ears. It was as if an auditory rainbow had returned. Mark found that he was now mesmerized by sounds. Unlike his fellow patients, Mark enjoyed listening to the noises of the hospital at night: the thrum of the heating system, the click-clack of the medicine carts, the nurses’ chatter. He hadn’t realized how much he had lost. He was so grateful for its return.
His joy at having his hearing restored almost made up for the wrenching fatigue and headaches. Mark wasn’t surprised by the fatigue, but it was still annoying. He had watched Jason work through the same exhaustion during his first post-surgical days. And he’d always had headaches. Just not this bad.
But Mark knew that he had one advantage that Jason didn’t: Mark’s implant surgery had been second. And that made all the difference. Mark’s surgeons not only had access to detailed records and micrographs of Jason’s failed implant, they had dutifully charted Jason’s recovery with exacting precision. Jason’s recent fitness exam, complete with his near failure at aerials, had proven highly useful.
Mark’s surgery may have taken longer, but his recovery would be much smoother, according to the Chief. “We now think we know what has affected Jason’s sense of balance,” the Chief had said. “We were able to avoid that section of your neural bridge when we repaired your implant. When the surgeons worked on Jason, they disturbed a portion of that area. No one suspected the extent to which the brain would adapt to using that sector of the implant. Design-wise, it should have simply been an access point for repair. However, we now know that there are specific physiological adaptations that occur after an implant has been in place for a number of years.”
Thinking of this, Mark winced in sympathy. And how do we know this? he wanted to shout. Because you cut into my second’s brain and used him as a guinea pig! That was unfair, Mark knew. His own problems hadn’t even been detected until after Jason’s surgery and it wasn’t like there were any other patients. The rest of the team had been issued a slightly different model. New trainees were given a redesigned implant, which hopefully would be resistant to Spectra’s attempts to damage the circuitry.
Now that the ethics board of Galaxy Security had finally relented on their earlier objections to the implant program – seeing Zoltar’s wrath thwarted by G-Force could be quite convincing, Mark thought – the Red Rangers were first in line to get a new squadron modeled after G-Force. Darien's fellow R-Command recruits were the first to have been issued the newly redesigned implant.
Thinking of Darien temporarily taking his place, Mark felt his stomach clench. The Chief had tried to reassure Mark that both he and Jason would – should – recover fully over time, but there were no guarantees. Jason's sense of balance, previously his greatest strength, was now his greatest weakness. Mark could feel the bile rise in his throat.
What if the Chief is wrong?
Princess could hear the cadence of the punching bag rocking on its metal hook long before she walked to the end of the hall and knocked on the door to the training room. The rhythm was fast, deadly, and accurate. Since Mark was still recuperating in the Center Neptune infirmary, there was only one other person that could be administering blows like that. She was amazed that he still had energy after their last mission. Zoltar’s minions had infiltrated Rigan headquarters. The near assassination of the Rigan president, the bomb scare, mass panic, explosions … it tired her all over again just to think about it.
“Jason?” Princess knocked at the door.
No answer. The cadence of pummeling continued unabated, a fast staccato rhythm. If he’s got his headphones on, he won’t even hear me, thought Princess. She pushed the door open.
Jason stood before the punching bag, fighting stance, wearing an intense expression. His fists were a blur. To Princess’ surprise, he wasn’t wearing headphones. He acknowledged her presence with a slight nod of the head, never breaking cadence or faltering with his punches. His face and arms glistened with sweat.
When she didn’t speak, he cocked an eyebrow. “You … need … something?” he asked, between each series of blows.
How long has he been down here? Princess wondered. “I need to talk to you, Jason.”
“Can’t … it … wait?” he asked, his fists continuing to beat in a perfect rhythm, using perfect form.
“No,” she said simply. Not when you’re like this.
He raised the other eyebrow, gave the bag a final whack, and walked over to her, panting and sweating. “What’s up?” he asked. His blue-grey eyes looked at her expectantly. He stripped off the boxing gloves.
She paused before speaking, as if she were carefully weighing each word. “I think you’re training too hard.”
He took a drink from his water bottle and stared at her. “You came down here to tell me that?” he said with a snort.
She folded her arms. “Yes, I did. You haven’t taken any time off since we got back from Riga.”
He shrugged, turned his back to her, and grabbed his towel from a waiting chair. Slowly, he dried the sweat from his face and removed the tape from his left wrist. When it became clear that he didn’t intend to respond, Princess pressed on.
“Jason, I’m serious,” she said.
“So am I,” he replied, turning to face her. His voice was calm and deadly.
She returned his glare. “You’re down here whenever you’re not with Mark. What are you trying to prove? You need to get some rest.”
“I’m fine,” Jason replied, throwing a punch into the air.
“You’re not fine, Jason. You’re training all the time. When did you eat last? Or sleep?” She repeated her earlier question. “What are you trying to prove?”
He walked toward the door and flicked off the lights. “I’m going up to bed,” he said, and headed into the hall.
She stormed out of the training room and ran down the hallway after him. Grabbing him by the left arm, she said, “No, you’re not! I want to know what’s going on.”
He flicked his wrist to dislodge her grip, swore, and turned to face her, fury written in every muscle of his body. “Nothing is going on! What the hell? First, you worry that I’m not fit to be back on the team and now you think I’m too fit?” He swore again.
She ignored his outburst. “You’re working too hard,” she said, in a gentle but firm voice. “What if we get called out right now? You’re exhausted.”
“I’m fine,” Jason spat out. “I appreciate your concern, Princess,” he said, in a voice that made it obvious that he neither appreciated nor wanted her concern, “but I’m fine.” He gave her an exaggerated fake smile. “Really.” And then he stalked down the hall.
“Jason, please don’t do this,” Princess called to his retreating back. He rounded the corner and left her standing alone.
“Please,” she pleaded. Her voice echoed in the empty hall.