DISCLAIMER AND WARNINGS
This is an original work of fan fiction. Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets are the property of Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank Productions. No profit, gain, hire or reward is received by the author for this work.
ALL THE THINGS I NEVER SAID
Only the fact that he was in a kind of shock allowed Mark to sit through debriefing once the word came through from Nerve Centre that his father had survived the explosion of the V-2 rocket.
A small, logical voice safely ensconced in some remote point within the confines of his numbed and shattered brain told him it would be pointless to rush out -- even if he knew exactly where to rush -- and try to talk with the man. It would be some hours before Cronus could be returned, checked out, debriefed and be in a fit condition to talk with anyone at all.
So Mark stayed, sitting obediently on the sofa, staring into the middle distance and seeing not the ordered interior of Chief Anderson's office but the slow-blooming flower of fire unfurling in an angry sky.
In the silence of his mind, he heard the sound of Anderson's words, but his mind refused to make sense of them, cycling instead through all the time he'd spent with Cronus and his family -- Cronus' second family -- over the years. He had a step-mother, Rachel, and a half-brother, Timmy, now a sturdy six year old. The concept that they were all related -- albeit by way of his father's second marriage -- took some getting used to. During Mark's days at Space Academy on Riga, Cronus had become a mentor to the young pilot. Mark had assumed it was because Cronus knew of his position within the G-Force Project, and Cronus' claim that he was, 'an old friend of your father.'
It had all been a lie: the uneasy friendship, the oddly guarded camaraderie of the man, all a lie so that Cronus -- no, not Cronus, Marshall Hawking -- so that Marshall Hawking might watch his son unobserved, like a biologist watching a specimen from his hide in the woods.
Mark's anger percolated through his thoughts, quietly building up steam.
Of course Cronus knew of Mark's position with G-Force. They had spoken of it often enough, and later, when the younger Hawking assumed the mantle of command, and with it, the rank of Commander, why had Cronus never revealed himself? Why had Anderson never said anything, never mentioned Cronus' true identity? Did they think he couldn't handle the truth? Obviously, Mark was considered old enough to risk his life fighting Spectra, but not old enough to be entrusted with his own father's identity, not mature enough to handle the idea that Marshall Hawking had abandoned his wife and son to become Colonel Cronus.
And how, argued the small, logical voice, when the hint had been dangled that his father might well be alive, had he handled it?
Not terribly well, admittedly.
Mark had gone rushing off to Riga as soon as his former class mate Tom had dealt his treacherous hand, walking straight into the trap Zoltar had laid for him, rising to the well-placed bait, telling only Keyop of his destination, losing the plot at the very mention of his long-lost father. Impulsive. Irresponsible.
And yet, he wouldn't have felt the need, would he, had he known who Cronus really was?
Would, could, should, what-if? If, if, if, if, if...
It had almost been too late.
For a while, a horrible, empty, gut-wrenching while, he'd thought it was.
Mark closed his eyes and saw once again the terrible slow bloom of flame in the sky, heard again in his mind's ear his own voice shrieking for his father. Saw again the hurt, the horrified confusion in Princess' eyes as she stared, uncomprehending and appalled at what had come to pass.
He didn't hear the end of the debriefing, didn't sense his team-mates rising from their seats, didn't see Princess start towards him, or see Jason touch her arm and shake his head as Anderson nodded and gently waved them out of the room.
"Mark." Anderson's voice seemed to come from somewhere far away.
"Why?" Mark's question, the one that screamed in his head, came out as a cracked whisper.
The sound tore at the older man's heart.
"There were several reasons why I didn't tell you the truth, and you may not find any of them acceptable," Anderson warned, taking the seat next to Mark on the sofa.
"Try me," Mark suggested, without opening his eyes.
Anderson reached to rest a hand on Mark's shoulder, then thought better of it and returned the solicitous arm to his lap. He had been a part of the charade from its very beginning, a planner, conspirator, aiding and abetting the lie that was the source of the pain this young man was going through. The young man he loved like a son.
No, Mark didn't want paternal comfort from Anderson, right now. What he wanted -- needed -- was answers.
"Your father's mission was so secret that only a handful of people knew about it. Your mother never knew, although I believe she suspected. Your father..." Anderson paused, searching for the words to tell the tale he had kept secret for so long.
"Your father knew that to risk exposure would most likely mean his death, possibly the deaths of his men, his informants, the destruction of the entire intelligence network he'd created on Riga. Just as importantly, it also had the potential to place you and your mother at even greater risk than you had been already. You understand, Mark, that in those days, the situation on Riga was extremely marginal. Your father was needed, and the security on this was higher even than your clearance as Commander of G-Force."
Mark considered, opened his eyes.
"Why him?" he demanded. "Why my father?"
"Originally," Anderson said, "it was thought that someone else would go. At first, I thought that selecting your father was out of the question, even though his particular skill-set was best suited to our needs. He had you and your mother to think of."
"Did he choose to go, or was he forced?" Mark's voice was low and strained.
"He wasn't coerced, Mark, but he wasn't exactly given a choice, either."
"Sir, either he made a choice, or he didn't." Mark's teeth clenched so hard his jaw ached. "Please tell me the truth."
"The truth isn't always black and white," Anderson said. "It's true that we all have choices, and Marsh could have chosen to give up his career and stay here with you and your mother. Security Chief Conway made it clear that if your father didn't go, the whole mission would be scrapped. I'm ashamed to admit that I made only token opposition to the plan, and I was the one who fine tuned the operation. It was a choice that was really no choice at all."
"It was still a choice," Mark concluded, swallowing to try and control the tremor in his voice, "and he chose to go."
"It wasn't as clear-cut as that," Anderson said.
"It's true, though," Mark said.
"Mark, you weren't there. Don't judge your father --"
"Don't judge him?" Mark sprang to his feet, the threads of his self-control snapping, his fury lashing out at the nearest target. "He's my father, and he left us behind! Don't tell me not to judge! Who else has a right to judge if not me?"
Anderson's shoulders slumped.
"You have every right to be angry," the Chief of Galaxy Security admitted.
"And you," Mark's voice shook as he fought to regain some semblance of equilibrium. "You perpetuated the lie. I could understand President Kane not giving a damn, or Chief Conway, but you... You were like... You raised me. You were my other father. How could you do it?"
Anderson blinked back tears, the guilt rising hot and shameful and threatening to spill over from eyes trained to see lies, and to use lies.
"I'd sworn an oath, Mark, when I joined G-Sec, the same oath you took. Furthermore, I was bound, not only by the strictures of the high security classification on your father's mission, I was honour bound, as an officer, as your father's colleague, and his friend, to abide by his decision not to tell you until he felt the time was right. I broke those oaths, today. My oath to Galaxy Security, and to the man who was like a brother to me."
The tele-comm unit emitted a tone, and a red LED flashed on Anderson's desk.
"Go ahead, Zark," Anderson prompted.
The communications screen lit up with the image of 7-Zark-7, Centre Neptune's AI computer interface unit.
"Chief Anderson, Commander," the robot burbled, "you'll be pleased to know that Colonel Cronus is confirmed headed for Centre Neptune. His shuttle should arrive in approximately forty nine minutes. Oh, and Commander, may I say how pleased I am that your father is alive? I would never have guessed his identity, and me with the ability to access almost any file in the Federation. I --"
"Thank you, Zark," Anderson interjected mid-waffle. "We'll make the necessary preparations."
"Big ten, Chief!" The robot saluted and cut the transmission. Anderson took a deep breath.
"Mark, why don't you hit the showers, and grab something to eat, and some tea, perhaps? Try and get your thoughts in order. Your father will be here in less than an hour."
"That sounds... sensible." Mark sighed deeply. "Chief?"
"Thanks for letting me let off steam. I, um... I haven't been acting very reasonably, lately."
"Mark, even if you are the Commander of G-Force, you're still an eighteen-year-old going through an emotional trauma. You have your team behind you, and for what it's worth, you have me, and now you'll have your father. At the risk of sounding like Zark, we really can work through this."
Mark exhaled slowly, not having been aware of his pent up breath.
"I'd better go take that shower," he decided.
The shower was hot, almost too hot for comfort, but Mark welcomed the bite of the heated water at high pressure. After a good ten minute soak, he noticed that his fingertips were starting to wrinkle up, so he reluctantly shut off the faucets and towelled off. The indicator on the unit used to clean the team's "civilian" uniforms had turned green, and Mark retrieved his gear. The clothes were warm, and smelling pleasantly of the fabric conditioner the unit used to keep the special material soft. He hugged the bundle of clothing to his chest as he emerged from the cubicle with a towel around him.
"So," Jason said, from a typically-Jason kind of position, namely leaning against the wall with his arms folded across his chest, "how are you doing, Skipper?"
"Once I know the answer to that question, Jason, you'll be the second to know," Mark replied, managing a half-hearted smile as he sat down on the bench near his locker and put his clothes down beside him.
"Kinda thrown you, hasn't it?" Jason said. "Does that qualify as 'Understatement of the Year'?"
"If it doesn't, it's pretty close," Mark said. He retrieved a sock and stared at it. "I always felt in my bones that my father was alive, somewhere, that one day, he'd turn up, with a perfectly good reason as to why he'd disappeared, and everything would be okay."
"Hmmmmm." Jason sat down on the other side of the pile of clothes. "What kinds of reasons did you think he might have?"
Mark chuckled, an ironic sound.
"The usual childhood fantasies -- he'd been kidnapped, imprisoned, or amnesiac, that kind of thing... I never entertained the idea that he would have been gone all this time, without so much as a message, of his own volition."
"That bites," Jason concluded sagely.
"It bites," Mark agreed quietly.
"Okay, you tell me if I'm outa line here, but do you think that maybe there's an outside chance that your father did what he did out of some cockeyed idea that he was making the galaxy safer for you and your mom? You know, some kinda misplaced idealistic kinda thing?"
"Misplaced is the word for it," Mark growled. "If that's his excuse, then that's all it is: an excuse."
"Perhaps," Jason conceded. "Maybe even he doesn't know the real reasons why he did what he did. I don't know. What I do know is that nobody's perfect. Y'know, I read somewhere how perfect people are either fictional or absent. You can't deny that you had an image of your father on a pedestal from the time you were four years old, and now it turns out that he isn't quite what you expected."
"You should have been a psychologist," Mark said.
"Do you think so?" Jason asked solemnly. He fixed Mark with an earnest violet gaze. "How do you feel about that?"
The corners of Mark's mouth twitched, then he gave in to the impulse and laughed aloud.
"On second thoughts, Jason, don't give up your day job," he chuckled.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Jason assured him. "C'mon, get dressed. You got things to do, people to see."
Jason stood up, headed for the door.
"Meet you in the ready room in five, okay?"
"Okay. And, Jason?"
"Yeah," Jason said with a one-sided smile as he left. "You're welcome."
In the ready room, Tiny was making tea, Keyop was playing a video game, and Princess was tuning her guitar while Jason lounged on the sofa with a copy of Street Machine Weekly. As Mark entered the room, he was acutely aware of the effort his team were making to try and make it look as though everything were normal. The very air buzzed with tension.
A moment's uncertainty made him pause as the door hissed softly shut behind him.
Keyop's shoulders were hunched over the video controller, the boy looking for all the world like any child engrossed in what he was doing, but Mark caught the quick dart of nervous brown eyes and attempted a reassuring smile.
Guiltily, Princess glanced up from her guitar, then hastily looked away from the brief flash of contact.
Tiny gently pressed a cup of tea into Mark's hands, the big pilot's gesture expressing more than his words might do.
"Thanks, Tiny," Mark said.
"You're welcome," Tiny replied automatically, started to open his mouth to say something, then changed his mind, offered a small, helpless smile and retreated back to the counter to pour more tea.
Mark cradled the cup in his hands a moment, letting the heat soak into his palms before taking a sip. He wandered over to where Princess was sitting and took the seat beside her.
"It's okay, you know," he said.
She lifted her eyes to meet his: fearful, hopeful.
"I didn't... I mean, I don't know whether or not I did the wrong thing," she stammered. "I just, I mean... I couldn't just let you... Mark, I'm sorry."
"If you hadn't said anything," Mark argued gently, "and I'd found out later, I would have been demanding to know why you hadn't told me. You did the only thing you could do under the circumstances. I'm not angry with you, Princess."
"You mean it?" her smile was brilliant with relief, then it faded as suddenly as it had appeared. "You're angry with someone, though," she observed.
"With my father, mostly, I think," Mark said, trying out the words for size. "At the moment, I'm just pretty much confused."
"We're all here for you," she said, her green eyes solemn.
"I know. As soon as I figure out how I'm feeling about all this, I'm going to need all the support you can muster."
"And in the meantime, I guess you need space, huh?"
"I'll let you know. I promise."
"Okay." Princess nodded, and went back to tuning the guitar.
Mark drank his tea, trying to steady himself. His emotional turmoil, however, refused to be stilled, and his fingers clenched around the cup, the knuckles showing white. His father was alive, had been, all this time, watching him from his secret vantage point, biding his time. Had he ever been going to tell him?
Cronus had a life. He had re-married, fathered another son, left Marshall Hawking far behind, as though the man who had been Mark's father, really was dead and buried. And was there any place left in Cronus' heart for the son Hawking had abandoned?
Was there anything left of Marshall Hawking other than a hazy memory of a life that ended fourteen years ago?
The communicator chimed, and 7-Zark-7 appeared on the screen.
"Commander," the AI unit said, "Colonel Cronus' ETA is now five minutes."
Mark lifted his head and nodded.
He got slowly to his feet, put his cup back on the small sink.
"Hey, Mark," Jason said, setting his magazine aside, "I'll walk with you a ways."
Mark was grateful for Jason's presence as he stepped into the elevator. The tall, rangy gunner remained silent as the lift ascended to Centre Neptune's docking level. They walked slowly through the corridors, Mark taking his time, breathing slowly, deeply.
"How are you doing?" Jason asked.
"So far, so good." Mark rested his palm against the scanning plate to access the docking bay, and watched as his 2IC did likewise.
The two young men entered the large docking area, watching as the controllers went about their duties behind the big claristeel windows, watching the indicator lamps change colour from red to flashing amber, a klaxon sounding to warn of the movement of the massive sea doors, watched as a shadow darkened the sea-water, troubling the surface, then breaking it in a wash of foam to reveal itself as a standard UN transport vessel.
"I can hang around, or take off," Jason gave his Commander and friend a choice.
"Stay a while," Mark said.
A marine corporal was first off the transport, extending the ramp, snapping to attention and saluting as Colonel Cronus, still resplendent in slightly battered Red Ranger uniform, walked briskly over the boarding ramp.
Cronus didn't break stride as he walked towards what looked like a dubious welcoming party. G-1 -- Mark -- looked shell-shocked; G-2 looked faintly homicidal... but this last was par for the course.
"You have a lot of explaining to do," Mark said quietly, by way of greeting.
Cronus stopped, folded his arms, regarded his son impassively.
"I can see how you might be of that opinion, Mark," he said smoothly.
"I have a lot of questions," Mark added, his intense blue glare searing into the mirror-finished visor. "I'll be wanting answers."
"We'll see about that," Cronus predicted coolly.
It was all too much for Jason.
"Excuse me," he said to his commanding officer, and stepped forward. "Sir," he addressed Cronus, "when Princess told Mark who you were, she did it partly to keep him from hitting you. For a son to hit his father just isn't right." Jason's steady gaze locked on to Cronus' pupils. "As far as I know, however, Colonel, you and I aren't related in any way."
Mark retained enough presence of mind to react as Jason threw the punch, intercepting the gunner's arm with his own hand as Cronus, off guard through fatigue and drained by the events of the day, took a startled step backwards, stumbled, and overbalanced, sitting down abruptly and unexpectedly on the smooth, hard floor with an utter lack of dignity.
"Jason, no," the younger Hawking cautioned. "Even if we both think he deserves to have his head knocked off, he's still a superior officer, and it's my problem. I understand what you're trying to do, and I really appreciate it, but he's not worth going up on charges for."
G-1 and G-2 stood eyeball to eyeball for a moment, then Jason nodded, and disengaged his fist from Mark's gently restraining arm.
"You're the boss." Jason considered a moment, and a grin lit his features. "But don't tell me you wouldn't have liked to see me knock him clear to the sea doors."
"Okay," Mark replied, "I won't."
Jason chuckled, then administered a comradely slap to Mark's shoulder.
"I guess I should let you take it from here," he said.
"Yeah. Thanks, Jason."
"Don't mention it."
As Jason strode from the hangar, Mark turned his attention back to his erstwhile mentor and sometime parent.
"You were lucky," he told Cronus. "When Jason hits something, it usually stays hit."
Cronus let his breath out in a sigh. It occurred to him that it really had been a long and difficult day. He felt suddenly very old, and very weary, weary of the deception, weary of the burden he had accepted, weary of the image he felt obliged to maintain.
"You're right, Mark," he conceded. "I do owe you an explanation."
Father and son found themselves in one of the briefing rooms, sharing an uncomfortable space. Three feet and fourteen years yawned in a great black abyss between the two men, and Mark studied his long-absent parent, searching for familiarity in the careworn features that bore so little resemblance to his own.
"You look like your mother," Cronus remarked, his thoughts running parallel to his son's.
"I'm surprised you even remember," Mark said, his own vehemence surprising him.
"Mark..." Cronus began.
"You left her to rot in a nursing home," Mark recalled bitterly, anger welling up from somewhere deep in his gut, the anger of a child abandoned. "You left me to be raised by the Special Projects Division of Galaxy Security! Do you have any idea what that was like?" Mark demanded, his voice rising, hands clenching and unclenching, white-knuckled, pressed hard against his thighs. "Can you imagine what it was like to listen to Mom insist that you were too good a pilot to die in that crash? All those years, she never lost faith in you! Where was her husband? Where was my father? Did you even care about us at all?"
"Of course I cared," Cronus said quietly. "I loved your mother. I loved you."
"You had a creative way of showing it," Mark said.
"I still love you, son," Cronus declared softly.
"You'll forgive me if I seem somewhat under-whelmed by that less than believable statement," Mark shot back.
"I know it must have looked as though I didn't care," Cronus recalled. "My behaviour may well have given you that impression."
"It has," Mark agreed. "How perceptive of you to have noticed."
"Perhaps," Cronus suggested, "you could listen to my side of the story."
"That," Mark pointed out, "is why we're here. Go ahead. I'm listening."
"Very well. I decided a long time ago -- I think I may have been about eight -- that I was going to be a pilot. Later in life, I decided that I was going to be the best pilot in the Galaxy. It was a childish conceit, but one I worked at from the moment I was tall enough to reach the rudder pedals on your grandmother's antique Cessna.
"When I was accepted into Space Academy, I was tested and profiled, just as you and all the students are, even today. It was found that I had exceptional aptitude not only for piloting, but for other military work. I was recruited by G-Sec in my final year at the Academy.
"It was in the Intelligence Division that I began to make my mark, not only as a top pilot, but as a field operative. I had, it seems, the ability to become invisible. I rose through the ranks, and was soon being assigned missions with the elite of the intelligence division.
"And then I met your mother.
"I never believed in love at first sight, but it can happen, Mark. It happened to me. It's true what they say, that it's like being hit by lightning. She was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen in my life. Six months after we met, we were married."
A hint of a smile played at the corners of Cronus' mouth as he remembered the way his bride had looked on their wedding day: the way she had smiled at him from behind a cloud of white tulle and flowers, then his countenance became grim once more as he forced himself to continue:
"They called it a cold war, but things were pretty hot in those days. Riga was still fairly lawless in places, and the Federation wasn't nearly as stable then as it is now. Even Earth still had a secessionist party active, back then. It wasn't only Spectra and its allies, there were factions from all over competing for political power, and being an G-Sec operative was just as high-risk then as it is now, if not more so. We had several top officers and their families attacked, one agent who worked with us had her husband murdered in their own front yard, and her children had to go into hiding. I don't know if you remember the day our house was bombed: I can't forget it. I realised then just how much danger we were in. When I accepted the mission to Riga, faking my death was the only way to protect you."
"You married Rachel on Riga," Mark said pointedly. "You had Timmy."
"True," Cronus agreed, "and if you recall, Spectra were able to use them against me." The tall pilot got to his feet and stretched, one hand going to his lumbar, which ached with a dull, steady throb in time with his heart beat. I must be getting old, he thought to himself. Aloud, he added, "You know, Mark, I could use a cup of coffee -- or preferably a stiff drink. Quite apart from everything else, since I got up this morning I've been blown up, ejected, dragged out of an extremely inhospitable ocean, and narrowly missed being decked by your second in command."
Mark rose and walked across to a wall panel, accessed a control and stood back as a miniature bar slid out.
Cronus arched an eyebrow.
"I see rank hath its privileges," the elder Hawking observed, impressed.
"Not often invoked," Mark explained. "Purely medicinal. What's your poison?"
"Scotch, if you don't mind. I hope Anderson's taste in liquor is still better than his taste in women."
"Matter of opinion," Mark parried. "Ice?"
Mark poured a double of Anderson's treasured Caol Ila and handed it to his father, who sampled it appreciatively while his son opened a can of soda water and filled his own glass with it.
"This is good," Cronus remarked, "do you have any idea what this stuff is worth on Riga?"
"About a seven hundred dollars a bottle," Mark recalled.
"A thousand, since the war started," Cronus updated. "I could have had a brilliant career as a smuggler." He glanced at the drink in Mark's hand. "Not indulging?"
"I don't," Mark said.
"Sensible," Cronus said. "You were always a sensible young man. You didn't get that from your old man. Must be nurture, rather than nature."
"Chief Anderson always tried to steer me right," Mark said, with a slight emphasis on his mentor's name.
"Unlike me," Cronus inferred, brow furrowing.
Mark simply resumed his seat and sipped at his water, waiting for his father to continue.
Cronus regarded the young man sitting in the leather armchair with an unfathomable gaze. Rhia Zarel's burning blue eyes accused him out of their son's tight and angry face. He turned away, towards the armoured claristeel window, but there was no escape to be had, even in the ocean. Mark's reflection, and the ghostly after-image of a woman whose passionate blueprint was echoed in her only child, continued to bore smoking holes in Cronus' battered conscience.
"I loved your mother," Cronus said again, addressing the image mirrored against the ocean. "I admit -- and you may find this hard to take -- that at first, I didn't even think about children. I'd only just left for a six-week mission when she started getting sick in the mornings. She didn't tell me about it until I got back, that she was nearly three months' pregnant.
"She was radiant, utterly overjoyed with the thought of having you. If you could have seen her, Mark."
"I was surprised, confused, happy, and scared out of my mind," Cronus recalled, with a rueful smile. "Fatherhood had never been part of my plan. To tell you the truth, I was mostly terrified at the prospect. I had no idea how to handle what was happening, or my own reaction to it. Rhia was happy, and I was glad, for her sake."
Cronus trailed off in his narrative, recalling his first sight of the small, squirming blanket full of life that was his son. Broken sleep, three-hourly feeding, the ubiquitous sour-milk smell that comes with babies, and worst of all: diapers.
"But," Mark prompted.
Cronus took another sip of the whisky, felt it crawl down his throat in a peaty curl of fire.
"I had no idea how to be a real father. I thought it was supposed to come naturally! I didn't know how to hold you, how to change diapers, how to rock you to sleep... I couldn't reason with you, for God's sake! I was out of my depth and I knew it." Riga's premier hero hung his head. "So I avoided being home. I worked long hours, accepted every mission that came up, even if there were others who could have done the job just as well, if not better. I took on extra duties, and Conway praised me for my dedication, promoted me, and gave me an excuse to try and justify the way I was neglecting you and your mother.
"Rhia, bless her, never criticised me. She may have seen what was happening, and maybe she didn't. She had a way of simply blinding herself to things she didn't want to see. She was a loving, attentive wife, and as you grew older, you were a well-behaved child. Don't think I didn't love you both, because I did, and I was as proud as any parent could be when you took your first steps, said your first words -- did you know your first word was 'plane'? Not 'mama' or 'papa' but 'plane'."
"Mother told me," Mark said coolly.
"Do you remember those weekends, we'd drive out to the country for picnics? And the time we went to Eden?"
"I was three," Mark recalled. "The memories are hazy. I remember Mom was happy."
"We did have happy times," Cronus insisted, a spark of desperation in his eyes. "We were a family, for a while."
"We weren't a family for a lot longer," Mark pointed out, his words cutting like the jagged edges of torn steel.
Cronus stared into the thin pool of liquor at the bottom of his glass. There were no answers to be found in it. He looked up again, and his own reflection stared back from the claristeel of the viewport: a man in early middle age, his face haggard, eyes haunted by what he had seen and what he had done.
"The truth is, I've been a coward," he confessed. "I didn't have the guts to face up to being a father and a husband. I didn't have the spine to stick it out and make a go of it. All I could do was run away, and the irony of it is, they call me a hero." He swallowed the last of the whisky in one quick, angry motion. "It eats away inside of me, and I cover it up and I justify it with my mission! The truth -- the ugly truth, Mark, is that your father is a coward who ran away from responsibility."
Mark sat silent, taking it in, feeling the words sinking into him, sinking and settling, leaden, in the pit of his stomach.
"A part of me has always wanted to tell you the truth," Cronus continued, "but that part of me was never strong enough to get past my fear. I could have died today, and never had the chance..." His voice trailed off into what might have been a sob.
Mark watched, outwardly impassive. So this was the man who had sired him. This was the man who had disappeared that day, the subject of the yellow telegram his invalid mother had refused to accept. This was the man who ran away, and stayed away four fourteen years. This was the hero, the perfect father, the man he'd set on a small boy's mental and emotional pedestal for the greatest part of his life.
This was Colonel Cronus, his mentor, his teacher, his sometime-nemesis. This was the man who had pushed him to be all he could be, the one who goaded him toward perfection, the arrogant, cocky, hero of Riga who had taken a young pilot under his grand red wing.
This was Marshall Hawking.
This is my father.
Human. Afraid. Flawed.
Mark wished his mother were with him, so he could talk to her, ask her why? Ask her what was he like, and how did you feel when he went away?
"Mark?" Cronus voice sounded small in the room.
The younger man stood up, towering over the shrunken form of his father.
"Yes?" he prompted.
"Do you think you can ever forgive me?"
Mark stared down at his fallen hero, struggling to find a spark of the unconditional love he had held on to for so long, searching through the pain, the sense of betrayal and the shame.
He bent down, took Cronus' tear-dampened hands, looked into the ravaged face.
And found his father looking back at him.
"I don't know," Mark confessed, "but I can try."
The hero -- torn, battered, and toppled from his perch -- had come home.
This time, it was real.
The news had come, and this time, it was real.
Cronus -- he who had once been Marshall Hawking -- was dead, murdered by a Spectran assassin.
This time, it was real.
The great man's widow -- his second wife, mother of his third son, Timmy -- sent Cronus' diaries and other items to his first-born via diplomatic pouch, and Mark retreated to a place of quiet solitude to read them.
He went where he went when there was nowhere else to go: to the hillside cemetery where the bodies of his family lay interred, where the stone monument for Marshall Hawking stood over an empty grave, all part of the old charade that lay hidden under red tape and big rubber stamp imprints that said, "CLASSIFIED." Here, alone with his dead, the living came to find silence.
He read of the assignment to Riga in the early volumes, the diaries clearly part of the sham, designed to flesh out a man who didn't exist. Later, as Hawking had settled into the role, his own personality had begun to show through, Cronus becoming an amalgam of the real and the false, achieving life like a story unfolding.
Visited the Academy campus, today, an entry ran, suitably guarded, and met some of the new cadets. Mark Hawking, Marshall's boy, is among them. He seems a bright lad, intelligent, a good pilot. I think I'm going to keep an eye on him.
After the diary, Mark read through printouts of heavily encrypted, coded material that had been written in recent weeks, letters to Mark that had never been sent, notes about the real Marshall Hawking, about his family, about his true feelings. There were small items -- a silver-plated cigarette lighter, a pen, a pair of wings, and a much battered scrap of paper that gave an insight into Cronus/Marshall's heart:
It was the Confiteor from the old Latin Mass.
- Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper virgini,
beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Joanni Baptistae,
sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis,
et vobis, fratres,
quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere,
mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem,
beatum Michaelem Archangelum,
beatum Joannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum,
omnes Sanctos, et vos, fratres,
orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum.
Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus, dimissis peccatis tuis,
perducat te ad vitam aeternam.
Mark sat staring at the words, almost hearing them echo through halls and years and long sleepless nights. Somewhere deep inside of him, something resonated, something deep, primal and utterly inarticulate. He rose to his feet, the thin, fragile paper between his fingers, walked to the edge of the hillside, and held his hand up high, releasing the ancient verse to the wind, which carried it fluttering out to sea.
"Ego te absolvo, Papa. I forgive you."