The Chief didn’t say anything as Mark summarized the high points of Jason’s memo, a detailed summary of the status of the Condor’s health post-implant surgery. Although Jason had recently passed a Level G fitness test required of all high security personnel, he had obviously struggled through the acrobatics portion of the exam, a previous strength of the Condor. The Chief had been beyond furious that Jason, once again, was withholding critical information about his health from the team. After a lengthy conversation the previous night, Mark no longer had reservations about Jason’s ability to rejoin G-Force. But the Chief might need some convincing, thought Mark.
As Mark recited the litany of Jason’s previously undisclosed medical problems, he studied the older man’s face. At first, the Chief had seemed surprised by the depth of Jason’s honesty. But now, as the meeting stretched far longer than anticipated, Chief Anderson simply sat back in his chair, regarding Jason with a stern expression. Jason, sitting backwards in one of the Chief’s hard-backed wooden desk chairs, hadn’t moved. His arms were laced through the back lattice, crossed and knotted. His downcast eyes could have bored a hole through the floor.
When Mark came to Jason’s grueling experience with Dr. Glock’s detransmutation ray – and the Chief’s apparent lack of empathy – the older man closed his eyes and rested his chin on steepled fingers. He stayed that way until Mark recounted the time when Jason had tricked an intern into giving him codeine for his headaches. Then the Chief’s expression hardened from one of sympathy into smoldering anger. Mark noticed that he was pressing his lips into an ever thinner line. Still, Mark thought, to his credit, he hasn’t said anything.
Finally, after covering Jason’s surgery, ankle injury, and recently successful Level G fitness exam, Mark drew to a close. “It is my professional opinion that Jason is fit to return to active duty as the G-2. He is fully capable of commanding the team in my absence and providing back-up support to Tiny on the Phoenix. While his field skills are admittedly rusty and his acrobatic ability is limited at this time …”
Mark glanced at Jason, who was still staring at the floor, before continuing. “… I fully believe that his contribution to the team will more than compensate for any weaknesses he may have. Jason has been honest and forthcoming about his limitations. I no longer have any reservations that he’s holding something back. I believe that our team will be able to work around any field situations that may arise. I have recommended, and Jason has agreed, to continue his acrobatic field training under Keyop’s guidance.”
Mark cast a surreptitious glance at Jason. This time, his second rewarded him with a smile.
“Jason has requested that the medical trainer redesign his fitness program to focus mainly on improving his sense of balance rather than on strengthening his ankle, given that his injury has healed. I concur with this decision.”
Mark gave Jason a long look until his second shrugged at him to continue.
"In addition, Jason has requested – and will require prior to reinstatement – a Level E Type One diagnostic before returning to active duty.” Then Mark sat back in the hard wooden chair and awaited the fallout.
The Chief leaned forward so suddenly that his plush office chair squeaked in protest. The older man swallowed and blinked several times in rapid succession, as if to process the information more quickly.
“Jason? What’s going on?” The Chief’s voice, Mark noticed, was carefully neutral.
Jason’s body resembled a knot, with both arms and legs crossed. He cleared his throat before answering. “What Mark said. I need an eye exam. A thorough one.”
The Chief didn’t comment. He stood up and paced around the small room, finally coming to rest before a large picture window. He appeared to be studying a school of fish swimming outside. “Your implant should be fully calibrated by now.”
Mark and Jason traded glances.
“Are you sure, Chief?” Mark ventured. “Jason’s only been back in birdstyle a few times since surgery. Maybe …”
“Of course I’m sure, Mark!” the Chief thundered. He turned on his heel. “What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?”
As if suddenly recognizing his lack of composure, the Chief threw up a hand in apology. Then he stalked across the room and sank back into his chair, defeated.
His frustration’s easy to read, Mark thought. But the fear … he’s trying to hide the fear.
Mark’s stomach churned as he thought about Jason’s unresolved visual and balance problems. This isn’t how it’s supposed to turn out. I don’t want to hear this. I have to go in for the same surgery, and soon. A surgery that may not even be successful. As his vision began to swim, Mark put his palm to his head and shut his eyes.
Feeling a hand on his shoulder, Mark looked up to meet Jason’s eyes. Jason’s expression, simultaneously strong and sympathetic, surprised him. His second had pushed his chair closer to Mark’s, as if to soften the blow.
“Jason,” the Chief began. Jason turned away from Mark to meet the man’s eyes. “I want you to know that I realize how hard this was for you. I recognize that you went above what was required to ensure the success of Mark’s surgery. I appreciate your candor.” Although Jason’s jaw was clenched, he managed a nod.
“I only wish that I had realized the full extent of your problems prior to your own surgery. But now is not the time.” The Chief cleared his throat. “We’ve both made mistakes here. Jason, I’m sorry.”
Jason nodded. “Me, too,” he said softly.
The Chief stood and started to pace again. “I thought that we had completed a thorough surgical repair of your implant. I’ve been concerned about your ongoing balance problems, although I suspect that you will adapt over time. But if you’re still having vision loss, I’m more than worried. We have to accept that you may require follow-up surgery.”
Jason swallowed. Mark looked at him and gestured toward the Chief with a tip of his head, encouraging his second to talk.
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” Jason spoke slowly. “I’m not having vision loss or problems like before. My visual field is consistent.” He looked toward the window at the Chief. “It’s just consistently blurry.”
The Chief stopped pacing and regarded him. “And with the implant?”
“Better. Not that I’ve had much opportunity to use it.” Jason gave the Chief a hard look. Mark caught Jason’s underlying message: I’m not abusing the implant, if that’s what you’re asking.
The Chief also seemed to understand Jason’s meaning. He nodded.
Jason shrugged. “But …” He shook his head and looked away again. “I can’t quite bring things into focus.”
“Sounds like refraction error.” The Chief sighed in obvious relief. “Thank God. You’ve got a known history of myopia, but it’s always been slight. In the past, your implant more than compensated for it. I didn’t realize that you’d started having problems. Ideally, your implant would fully correct for any visual defects you might have. But addressing visual acuity using the implant alone can be difficult. It’s a known weakness in the design.”
Mark thought of the many hours that he had spent with the implant technicians, trying to tweak away his occasional need for reading glasses. He nodded at Jason.
The Chief continued. “I’ll schedule your diagnostic, Jason. Unless we find something unexpected, I’ll be able to clear you for active duty after the exam. But I need you to know, at this time available surgical corrections for vision aren’t compatible with transmutation and space travel. Contact lenses are also out. There’s a risk – although slight – of a lens fusing to your eye during fiery Phoenix mode. We should be able to build your prescription into your visor. But if you need glasses, you’ll be required to wear them as part of your standard uniform.”
“I can handle that.” Jason cast a sly smile at Mark, who could feel his cheeks turning pink. Jason was well aware of Mark’s desire to avoid a similar requirement.
“Good. Then I concur with your reinstatement as G-2. Jason, I suggest that you meet with your team as soon as possible to brief them on Mark’s status.” He gave Jason a stern look. “I trust that you will brief them on your own status as well.”
Jason nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“In addition, Mark has informed me that some of your teammates have had difficulty working with Darien, particularly Keyop.” The Chief cleared his throat. “Apparently, Darien is having trouble accepting that Keyop outranks him. No one as young as Keyop would be allowed in the Red Ranger chain of command. Keyop has been reprimanded twice for his hostile treatment of Darien. I recognize that your relationship with our friend from Riga may also be strained, given that he took your place on the team in your absence. However, I trust that you will do whatever is necessary to pull your team together.”
Jason nodded again.
The Chief took a deep breath and looked over the tops of his lenses at Jason. “That said, I want you to take it easy out there for the first few missions. We nearly lost you once …” He swallowed, hard, before continuing. “And I don’t care to go through that again. Let Tiny and Darien pull their weight during close combat. Both are more than qualified and they could use the field experience.” Chief Anderson gave Jason a hard look. “Understood?”
Jason met the Chief’s gaze. “Yes.”
"Good. Because I am counting on you to command G-Force during Mark’s recovery.” He smiled at Jason. “You are dismissed.”
Jason returned the smile and stood up to stretch.
“Mark,” the Chief continued, “You are hereby on medical leave. I want you to confined to the station. Please return to your quarters and try to get some rest. You look exhausted. I’ve got your medical team on standby. We’ll start the prep for your surgery tomorrow morning.”
“All right.” It came out more weakly than he expected, and Mark let Jason help him to his feet.
They were nearly out the door, Jason with a gentle hand on Mark’s shoulder, when the Chief called out Jason’s name. Both men turned.
“Thank you,” the Chief said simply.