Buzzing. Where is that buzzing coming from? Jason turned over in bed and stared at his wrist, uncomprehending. Why is my wrist moving?
“Commander, acknowledge.” Zark’s tinny voice came through the wrist com. The sprinkles of color emanating from his wrist were no longer the small flashes of light associated with early warning. The Bird Scramble was on its final sequence. Strobe lights flashed across the trailer. Jason punched the face plate of his bracelet and his wrist finally stopped vibrating.
Damn. How long has that thing been going off? He squinted at the alarm clock across the room. 10:16 a.m. Did I oversleep that alarm too? Or did I just forget to set it?
“Commander?” 7-Zark-7’s overly worried voice grated against his every nerve. Jason fought hard to not to snap back.
“Acknowledged,” Jason said. “Be right there.” He put on his glasses, rolled out of bed, and ran through a quick series of stretches, slowing briefly to thoroughly flex his right ankle. When he got to his left wrist, he winced.
What the hell? Why is my wrist still sore?
“No need, Commander,” Zark replied in his usual chirpy tone. “Your team is already airborne. They’re coming to pick you up.”
Jason rolled his eyes and sighed. Damn. How would Mark handle this?
Jason thought and failed to recall any missions where Mark had missed the Scramble for anything short of a galactic emergency. In those rare cases where Mark had chosen to ignore a call from the Chief, he had done so deliberately.
And, Jason thought, Mark wouldn’t still be in bed at 10 a.m. He swore under his breath. Great, just great.
“Commander?” Zark was starting to sound worried again.
“Understood. Over and out, Zark.”
“G-2, report to my office immediately.” The announcement came in as soon as the ship had docked at Center Neptune, even before the sea water had finished draining from the large holding bay.
Jason swore under his breath before he responded. “Acknowledged.”
He turned to Princess and Darien. “Finish debrief without me. I’ve got nothing to report, anyway,” he added.
Twenty hours in the air with nothing to do but shadow another ship. Jason had set the team up in shifts, but no one really slept well aboard the Phoenix, so he wasn’t sure why he had bothered. The bunks in the sleeping chamber were hard, narrow, and musty. Jason made a mental note to tell housekeeping to air out the room.
Darien nodded. “Apart from that one Spectran fighter, there was no activity in the entire quadrant. I guess they didn’t need us to guard that freighter after all.” He bowed slightly, which Jason suddenly remembered was the traditional Rigan way of saying thanks.
During the long, tedious flight, Jason had decided to change things up. He had asked Princess to show Tiny how to work communications. Tiny had taught Darien how to fly the Phoenix. And Jason had let Keyop blow up a few asteroids. Unofficially, of course. On the record, they were suspected Spectran bases.
“Finally,” Keyop piped in. He unstrapped himself and came to stand by Darien. “Maybe Spectra took a … rrt … doot … vacation.”
The Red Ranger smiled at Keyop. Jason, despite his foul mood, couldn’t help but smile too. Keyop hadn’t exactly warmed to the newcomer, but seeing Jason back in action and Mark on his way to recovery finally seemed to have relaxed the boy.
About damn time, Jason thought. I don’t think I could handle reading another complaint form without losing my mind. He stretched and yawned.
“I wonder what the Chief wants to see you about.” Princess’ voice held a slight pensive note.
Jason was wondering the same thing, but he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of admitting it. He couldn’t possibly have learned about the asteroids already, could he? Jason wondered exactly how he would justify those extra missiles.
Darien gave him a curious look. He’s probably wondering the same thing, Jason thought. But at least he’s keeping his mouth shut.
Jason glared at Princess. “G-3, I’d like a word with you. In private.” His words were steel.
Tiny glanced at Darien and Keyop, using his finger to make a quick slash across his neck. He gestured at his two teammates to leave, and quickly. The three young men filed out, leaving Jason and Princess alone on the bridge.
Jason stood up and glared at the Swan. “Don’t - ever - do that again!” he spat out, as soon as the others were out of earshot.
“Jason, what are you talking about?” Princess asked. She genuinely did look confused, which frustrated him even more.
“Exactly,” he fumed. “Look, would you have asked Mark why the Chief needed to see him?”
Princess shrugged. “I don’t know. I might.” She didn’t sound convincing.
“Would you ask Mark if he was feeling all right? Training too hard? If he needed to take some time off?” Jason was finding it hard not to yell. “How do you think that looks? I’ve finally got Darien and Keyop in line and now you’re undermining my authority. You’re my second in command. You’re supposed to back me up.”
Princess looked at the ground. “Yes, Commander,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“Good,” he responded curtly. “Don’t let it happen again.” He turned away from her and went back to shutting down his station.
Princess didn’t move. She stood uneasily alongside him, staring at the back of his head. When it became apparent that she wasn’t going to leave, Jason turned and spoke more forcefully.
“Princess,” he snapped. “You are dismissed. Go to debrief.” There was no mistaking his command tone, and yet she still didn’t leave. What the hell?
“Jason, we need to talk …”
At that moment, Jason’s wrist com began to vibrate. “Jason, report. Where are you?” The Chief sounded angry.
Jason looked up and met Princess’ eyes without emotion. “I’m on my way,” he said.
The Chief made sure that the door to his office was closed and locked before he gestured at Jason to sit down. That wasn’t a good sign. Jason sat rigidly in one of the hard-backed guest chairs.
“We need to talk,” the Chief said.
Jason flinched involuntarily. That was the last thing Princess said to me. Was she trying to warn me about something? Maybe I should have listened to her. He nodded intently, imagining the reprimand for the extra munitions and trying to think of a good justification for using them.
“I’ve been reviewing your medical and field records. Your implant isn’t working to full capacity.”
The words hit like a blow. Jason tried not to hyperventilate. This is not good. He forced his voice to remain calm. “What exactly does that mean?”
The Chief cleared his throat. “Is your wrist still sore?”
Jason flexed his left arm before he thought about it, then blushed when he realized that the Chief was watching him. “Yes,” he admitted. “But how did you know?”
“We’ve been maintaining close tabs on you since your reinstatement. I know that you took a blow to the wrist last week on Riga.”
“But how did you know that it still hurts?” Jason pressed.
“You’re registering a fever and inflammation in that area,” the Chief said. “And you shouldn’t be. You’ve had a full week to recover. For a minor injury like that, your wrist should have been back to normal a few days ago.”
Jason nodded. “That’s what I thought, too.” He sighed and looked away. “I guess I should have reported it.”
The Chief held up two fingers. “You’ve got two strikes against you,” he said. “One, you’re not getting enough rest. And two, your implant is taking longer to recharge than it used to because you’re not getting enough sleep.” He gave Jason a hard look. “I don’t want to see you lose your place on this team, Jason. You’ve got to pace yourself.”
At his stunned expression, the Chief continued. “I know that you’re used to pushing yourself as hard as you need to in any situation. You’ve always been able to keep going longer than the rest of the team.”
Jason nodded again. Of course.
Anderson shook his head. “But you’ve got to recognize your limits, Jason. You have to rely more on the others. Princess is very concerned about you. She came in to talk to me yesterday. You need to take better care of yourself.”
Princess. No wonder she wanted to talk to me. Jason swore. “She should have kept her mouth shut. It’s none of her damn business.” Jason spat out the words before he realized what he was saying and who he was saying it to.
“Yes, Jason, it is her business,” the Chief said, in a calm but firm voice. “Your physical condition is your team’s business, like it or not. She’s your second in command. You can’t just boss her around. You have to listen to her, too.”
“Yes, sir.” Jason fought the urge to roll his eyes. But then his mind replayed what the Chief had just said. My implant isn’t working to full capacity. The implications of that statement began to sink in. Jason felt the weight on his shoulders and closed his eyes.
The Chief cleared his throat. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Jason,” he said. “Your implant works. In fact, it’s functioning fairly well. I’m not saying that you aren’t fit, or that you aren’t fully capable of taking down a squad of Spectran soldiers single-handedly. You are, by far, the best field operative under my command next to Mark. None of that has changed.”
Jason tried to accept the compliment, but it was hard. He felt physically ill at the suggestion that something else could be wrong with his implant.
The older man stood up from his plush office chair and walked around to where Jason was seated. Anderson patted Jason on the shoulder, then folded his arms and leaned one hip against his desk next to him. “But you have to work with me here. Training harder isn’t going to fix this. You have to get out of the way and let your implant do its job. Take it easy between missions. Get more sleep.”
Jason opened his eyes and swallowed. “How far out of range?”
“What?” The Chief frowned slightly. “Oh, your implant. I never said it was out of range, Jason. It’s within specs for functionality. But your recharge phases aren’t working as efficiently as they should. That’s making your recovery times longer, especially when you’re not taking care of yourself. If you change your behavior, I don’t think it will affect your performance.” He pointed a finger at Jason. “But you’re going to run into a problem if you don’t start taking some time off in between missions. You’ve been treating your body as if you’re invincible.” The Chief took off his glasses and rubbed the lenses methodically with a handkerchief before putting them back on. He fixed Jason with a hard stare. “You’re not.”
The Chief went on. “I wanted to catch you before you left Center Neptune today. You should stay here and get some rest as soon as possible. Intel expects another strike from Spectra in the next day or two.”
Jason set his face like flint. “What about my balance?”
The Chief shook his head. “I don’t know, Jason,” he admitted. “But your equilibrium has steadily improved since we’ve started tracking your progress. Your last scans support that – we’re seeing more activity in that region of your brain. That’s a good sign. I suspect that your neural bridge will fully regenerate over time.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
The Chief gave him a hard look. “You’ll have to learn to live with what you can do.”
Jason put a hand to his forehead. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Yes, sir.” His words were a whisper.
The Chief gestured at his left arm. Reluctantly, Jason held out his wrist for the Chief to inspect. After turning Jason’s arm over, poking and prodding until he invoked a wince, the Chief nodded at Jason and reached across his desk.
“Here. Take this to Medical and have them X-ray that wrist. You don’t appear to have a serious injury, but I’m not taking any chances. And when they’re done with you, get some sleep.”
Jason took the form in silence.
Anderson walked back to his desk chair. When he sat down, chair squeaking in protest, Jason knew that the meeting was over. He put his glasses back on and tried to calm his thoughts, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave.
Once I walk out that door, I have to live with everything the Chief just told me.
Jason sat in front of Chief Anderson’s desk and tried to cobble his thoughts back together. After a few minutes, he stood to go. His hand was on the door when he heard the Chief’s voice.
Jason turned around. Please, no more bad news.
“Go talk to Princess.”